Jimmy Chen is an Asian-Canadian expatriate living in San Francisco. He works at an office.
Jimmy Chen is an Asian-Canadian expatriate living in San Francisco. He works at an office.
I wish this were fiction, but about three months ago, having not had sexual intercourse for almost two years, I researched homemade fleshlights, found loyal demonstrations on youtube, and went out to a hardware store the next day. It’s pretty simple: wrap a latex glove in a folded hand towel, using rubber bands to negotiate and sustain tightness, insert folded towel into a large plastic cup for mounting stability, then squirt about 2.5 fl oz of lotion into the glove, whose “lip” is folded outward around the towel, creating a simplified vulva, and well you get the picture. This simulated a woman pretty well, save the cold lotion and useless banter, and I fell into consecutive relief of this contraption until my dozen latex gloves ran out. In 1998, the Department of Psychiatry at University of Pittsburgh (Nature 391, 756) reported “an illusion in which tactile sensations are referred to an alien limb,” commonly known and repeated as the Rubber Hand Illusion, whose effect revealed “a three-way interaction between vision, touch, and proprioception.” Basically, test subjects looked at a rubber hand cloaked as if it were their own, while their actual hand (laterally blocked from view) was touched in non-corresponding ways. Results showed that visual perception of a false finger (e.g. middle) being touched would override the actual finger (e.g. index). This is a fancy way of saying that instead of looking at porn from a distant omniscient third i.e. the male “third wheel” cuckolded voyeur, planted in a room like a fern, I found life-size pictures of women’s faces looking into the camera, and displayed them on my laptop situated in correspondence to where a woman’s actual face would have been. The results were stunning, thanks to a fairly malleable ape brain. And yet, despite airbrushed perfection and a sterile brazilian wax, I missed — wondered about, as if assembling buried clues like an archeologist in a life after this one — some uniquely flawed person lying on me, a sack of fear who found repose, a quiet opening, in my own. We hold sad movies closer to us because they feel more descriptive, like morning breath and eye crust, acne and eczema, pube stubble you rake your tongue across, into the sudden flowering of your lover’s void.
I’ve always loved Random House’s Everyman’s Library, cloth bound hardbacks with cream colored pages, gold leaf case stamping, decorative endpapers, a red silk ribbon bookmark, learned introductions, and extensive chronological tables for each author’s life. In this fashion, I’ve taken Leo Tolstoy, Vladimir Nabokov, Somerset Maugham, Thomas Mann, among other great men, to bed with me. A man whose life is missing a plot does well reading them. Where literal illustrations are devastating to the imaginations Walden, Moby Dick, and perhaps even Alice in Wonderland deserve; where Chip Kiddian flashy design turns a book into a poster; and where shiny paperbacks — from the glossy trash at Walmart, to flimsy new releases granted every fresh MFA — have somewhat anticipated the disembodied medium of Kindle, Everyman’s Library’s austerity marks a forgotten past. Could this be mere obsolescent snobbery? Please. And so, you can imagine my dismay at the people of Harris County in Houston, Texas, for doing what they did to my dear Evelyn Waugh (who is a man by the way, lest you think I became a feminist). Here is a troubling thought: that the most sensitive and educated demographic of Harris County may have ejaculated on my book. Also, inside it smelled like dog. Don’t mess with Texas.
“All bad poetry is sincere,” I got that from Harold Bloom, who got that from Oscar Wilde, who got that from his clever self, which hardly means that “all great poetry is insincere,” which again I’m getting from The Anxiety of Influence (1973), not the actual book but from Amazon’s virtual “look inside” feature, its animation, estimation, or interpretation of reading less affectionate than reading itself; that is, with a book, whose every page one holds the corner of, and hears going by, one by one, like shuffling a deck of cards in the slowest way possible. Bloom’s point is evident in his title, that the history of literature is ripping off others in the quest to be original; how this is both logically impossible yet always manifesting, albeit inadvertently through our “misreading” of the original. It is true when I let my subscription to The New Yorker expire, months later, at the magazine rack, I solemnly wonder about what I’m missing. I feel the same way passing bars at night, the brittle tinkering of glasses as a high-hat over the cacophonous rumble of voices. Like the red marker a teacher uses to point out what is wrong, the red squiggle of spellcheck is a kind of incision into the flesh of intention, if you were a half-blind James Joyce typing Finnegans Wake. More ominous is the green one, citing sentence fragments you didn’t know were fragmented. “Ignore all,” one may apply to grammar, dentist appointment reminders, and their social life. After watching The Road (2009), I told myself that a few weeks before the end of the world — faithful that Fox News or a crazy person would alert me — I would simply buy a can opener. As people ate each other, I’d have clam chowder and lychees. I didn’t read the book; that this is still considered blasphemy is redeeming: we still believe in the higher collaboration between sole words and imagination. Jonathan Franzen admits to buying copies of his books to give as presents to friends. At the register, he feels like he’s buying a Penthouse. “No, it’s not for my own use…” he says, or at least says he would say, I mean this is the problem with quoting a quote, to which the double quote shielding a single quote offers itself as a solution, like a large circle containing a smaller one — a bagel around a cup of coffee, inside a gurgling stomach — or a ventriloquist with his hand up someone. Everything that is wireless eventually concedes to a cord. Battery is not a crime. Nor is the stomach flu really influenza; it’s gastroenteritis, which hardly needs you to go viral. A man shot another man in Russia over an argument about Kant (the gun must have been a manual). Exactly how sour is cream cheese supposed to be? A man publishes a blog post in America and quickly walks to the bathroom. He has that not so refresh feeling all day. This was entirely made up.
About once a year I go to KFC, whose name (only a rumor, still very compelling) was changed from Kentucky Fried Chicken because the FDA refused to allow “chicken” in its name anymore; not technically, not since in vitro modification turned them into featherless big-titted avian mutants. I order the 3-piece crispy chicken, with mashed potatoes, gravy, and a biscuit so dense each bite is a choking hazard. The flesh is so tender, the bones so malleable — as if designed to fray at the gentlest human hand — I spread the breast convexly towards my mouth in the same fashion as one might eat the sliced side of a mango. The abstract expressionist-y garish pattern on the walls and/or booth cushions seem stuck in the ’80s, too depressive for nostalgia, as if we, as an entire race, had aesthetically plateaued. There’s an exuberant youthfulness to the 1:00 a.m. patrons of Taco Bell, and an underlining patriotism at Denny’s or even McDonald’s. The patrons at KFC seem involved in some collective Last Supper, each one seated alone in the center of a large table. I finish my meal in less than 20 minutes, my chin greasy like a productive cunnilingus session. Later that night, I vomit.
Before the entitled enthusiasm of Yolo, there was Memento mori, of essentially the same message, as conveyed by endless still lives centered around the human skull. “Remember that you will die,” in contrast to “you only live once,” is grim not because of death, but that — like children with brushing teeth, or a guy on his anniversary — we must constantly be reminded of it. Had the makers of Memento (2000) known about Instagram, its screenplay might have worked differently, with our more efficient protagonist streamlining his way through the narrative. Instagram supplements its photos with immediate nostalgia, as if we — in our frantic only living once — could no longer wait for an event to age naturally. We wanted quick memories of moments which seemed like they deserved to outlast time. On April 12, 2012, Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion dollars, and later that year, changed its copyright section in the Terms of Service such that any user content could be sold to third parties without notification or compensation. This would not be a problem, as users would be flattered, floored even, to find their trite moments corporately noticed. Call it inverse stock photography. Leonard Shelby (Guy Pierce) suffers from anterograde amnesia, chasing suspect signs and symbols, stuck in the purgatory of self-deception. The inability to produce new memories is far more tragic than the more common retrograde amnesia, in which one loses their past but may produce a new one starting at the point of their affliction. It is, in a way, being born again. In 1972, Polaroid introduced “instant film,” what became subsequently known by the company’s name. The immediacy of a memory, as commemoration of a transient life, may be archaic after all. The polaroid’s faded light and approximate shadows were less of an aesthetic than merely technological constraints at the time. As the inferior image slowly surfaced from the depths of that lush creamy void, the exhilarated holder would compulsively shake the photograph at every moment of its development, as if to summon more memories.
[This post's incipient idea is indebted in large part to this tweet.]
What if Macaulay Culkin’s parents never came home after Christmas and the movie just ended. What if his Munchian “scream” stayed glued that way, in some German expressionist hell. The aftershave wore off, his soft cheeks speckled with facial hair growth as testosterone came, the perceived alienation of adolescence followed by the real one—of traffic jams, grocery store lines, and distracted doctors who don’t look you in the eye—of adulthood, our walking parody of actualized nightmares. Every week or so, new burglars (subconsciously, pedophiles) would try to break in, and Kevin’s contraptions of evasion would become more and more sophisticated, personal and sadistic, until they resembled the death machines in Saw. In rare footage of Jeffrey Dahmer being filmed during Christmas by his father in the living room next to a tree, ridden with then technology’s VCR static, he leans away with such repulsion—for whom, one wonders—that you mistake him for a vanishing point, like some Renaissance man finally understanding depth perception. After the bodies and/or their parts were discovered in Dahmer’s apartment, they tore down the famous-yet-unrentable building, leaving all the residents at the whim of city housing. Jeffrey’s neighbor and former friend, a big black Baptisty woman, recalled having her “sanity pushed to the limit” having eaten sandwiches at his home. “I have probably eaten someone’s body part,” she says, addressing the camera in eerie second person, “how dare you do this to me?”
Studies have shown that the internet makes people feel bad. That these studies are almost always read online would make, you would think, one feel better. But the internet—where delusion and projection join hands in violent democracy—is also a reprieve from the horrible real world. It’s a viscous cycle. As an idle masochist, I often visit Dwell to “keep up” with all the confidently sparse modernist homes lived in by well-adjusted designer type-A people. Europeans, vegetarians, zombies of good fortune. We assume the owners are at a party, symphony, gala, or fundraising, letting light fall upon their absence in the quiet glory of their restrained taste. I also habitually visit J. Crew, at times to browse the Mens’ section for items that won’t make me taller, but mainly to check out all the beautiful women I have no chance dating. The Abercrombie & Fitch girls seem inbred, and the Prada models look anemic, ridden with some disease. J. Crew does a great job at consolidating the yuppie, bougie, slightly artsy and bohemian looks very well, with a touch of polite hipster, into the perfect interesting-but-not-crazy woman. They are dream girlfriends. I’m talking a handjob at a Philip Glass concert. I’m talking photoshop.
In the second season of Friends, Rachel—in what could be construed by the spiritual as divine intervention—is seen, between takes, suddenly wearing a necklace. The famous episode concerns Ross, whose budding relationship with another woman (they recently acquired a cat) summons dormant feelings in the waitress, whose real life actress, Jennifer Aniston, is to go on—through divorce and a kind of, in my mind, nobly unmarketed depression—to embody the developing cougar. They kiss for the first time in this episode, the laugh track giggles supplemented by oohs and awws. In this modern Romeo & Juliet, a “conceited tragedie” according to the 1597 first edition title page, the two rivaling families are replaced by the likewise quarrelsome rent vs. romance. Rachel’s spontaneous, perhaps wishful, necklace is captured by Movie Mistakes, a website featuring stills of logical inconsistencies in popular television and film. While these may all be simply attributed to overworked P.A.s occasionally letting logic slip by, each incident has spiritual gist, if by “spiritual” we mean the irrational answer to irrational quandaries: the sudden appearance of an object, or feeling.
In reaction to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev beautifully gracing the cover of Rolling Stone, with great hair the less-disheveled would pay for, a Massachusetts State Police officer released photos of “the real Boston bomber,” as a kind of ultimate #nofilter, featuring one of the boy painfully climbing out of the boat he was hiding in. A sniper’s rifle laser falls short of the Hindu third-eye, but we’ll take that red dot as a kind of more precise Western spirituality. Francisco Goya’s “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” (c. 1798) is probably the most iconic of Los Caprichos, a set of 80 satirical etchings condemning Spanish society for its superstitious pedagogy and foolish ruling class. “The author is dreaming,” he remarks of the print. “His only intention is to banish harmful superstition and to perpetuate with this work of fancy the sound testimony of Truth.” Little did he know that we, as idle linguists with something to grind, would chew on such Truth like termites over the course of a ruined home. The author ducks from his very thoughts, portrayed by flocking owls, only to be banished within the very consciousness from which such birds are cracked. It’s not great here, the mind. In 1970, Charles Manson was featured on the cover the Rolling Stone — with likewise great hair, which may also invoke Jimi Hendrix, Britney Spears, George Harrison, Kurt Cobain, Justin Bieber, Johnny Depp, Amy Winehouse, Madonna, et al., etc., ad infin. Short of reducing such talented people to their hair, we might consider whose demand the magazine is supplicating. As part of the American dream i.e. code for commerce, appalled dissenters are free to not buy a copy, and stores — in timid solidarity with its ruling class, the consumers — may boycott that issue, or the magazine in general. My guess is they’ll be fine. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but a market return. In our grand national narcolepsy, may we have a lucid dream in which we wake, one so lifelike and real — with bells and whistles, traffic jams and hail, love and murder — that it seems, with insane conviction chaperoned by invented beasts, that we are awake.
History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.
- Karl Marx
My parents are on their annual cruise, this time the Mediterranean. They disembark from Nice France, making their way to Naples Italy, then Greece. “They’ll probably have you visit Pompeii,” I said to my mom. “What’s that?” she said, stuffing $40 dollars worth of fruit into a juicer. “Where an entire city got buried in ash, thanks,” I said with a new smoothie in hand. In about two weeks, when they come back, my mom will call me on the phone (while I’m at work) with an exhausting account — she’s been known to take notes — of all of my dad’s cultural, personal, and moral transgressions. “Sure,” I’ll say, in response to accompanying her — who vowed, again, never to step on a ship with my dad, ever again — next year to the cruise. I’ll internally dread going, as I dread most things on the horizon, where I imagine burning bodies and a cable bill. This is my life.
As our eyes get sucked into the flat vortex of Olympia’s pale skin (Olympia. Manet, 1863), we miss the black cat, visually camouflaged in the same manner as the black maid. The cat holds the threatened pose of an arched back, perhaps terrified at the prospect of being immortalized in this human game of representation. In a now timeless interview at a New York Times TimesTalks event, Paula Deen — in that weird Southern defensive and ultimately counteractive way — feels compelled to express solidarity with black folk by casually calling up a black employee, one Hollis Johnson, whose skin she warned was “as black as this board,” referring to the backdrop behind her. “We can’t see you standing in front of that dark board!” she says, which made me, of all people, behind my laptop, feel humiliated. My sensibilities (privileged, protected) were simply shocked. The audience awkwardly laughs, knowing in their bones that just ain’t right, but this was before her public lynching (irony lives on). I’ve never liked Paula Deen; the affected Southern drawl, entitled casualness with everything around her, and earplugs politics all make for a kind of confederate hubris at war with liberal America, which is exactly the demographic (out-of-touch obese Republicans) Food Network was aiming at; and while it remains so predictable, and hypocritical, that they quickly snip her corrupted legacy from their corporate brand, it was invariably the only thing they could do. Instead of using this sad time to talk about racism (if it is even that, or merely glib provincialism), the academics and media have safely mollified discourse by shutting it down, branding her a “racist,” a conversation ending zinger whose ring feels attuned to McCarthy’s “communist,” Bush’s “terrorist,” and the Neo-Conservative “socialist,” words so bloated with ideological complexity they are rendered cacophonous.
On October 26, 1984, nineteen-year-old John McCollum committed suicide by shooting himself in the head while listening to “Suicide Solution” by Ozzy Osbourne. The former’s parents would later file a lawsuit against the latter, claiming there were “hidden lyrics” telling listeners to shoot themselves. At two minutes into it, between verses, Ozzy does sort of mumble away from the mic what sounds like “soot, soot…haha,” which wife/witness Sharon attributed to her husband’s “minimal” command of the English language. The opening lines wine is fine but whiskey’s quicker / suicide is slow with liquor seem to borrow both cadence and conceit from Dorothy Parker’s “Resumé¹,” in which she offers life as a disappointing alternative to rather uncomfortable death options. Likewise, Ozzy’s lyrics also end in an anti-suicide predictably pro-inebriation stance: take a bottle, drown your sorrows / then it floods away tomorrows. The court dismissed the McCollum lawsuit, ruling that their son’s suicide was just that. His parents wanted someone to blame, because they couldn’t bear blaming themselves. God is the one scapegoat who never talks back, so in the end we all hold him liable, and finally quiet down.