New York City

One of the first places we visited in New York was the Bethesda fountain in Central Park.

Bethesda Fountain

I started having dreams about the city again last night, after rewatching the first episode of the Netflix documentary Hip Hop Evolution. It’s strange how actually having walked around a city changes the way you see it on screen, even things which you’ve seen before, and even parts of it which you only visited briefly, like the Bronx. More about that below.

For about three weeks after we got back, I dreamed about New York almost every night. Sometimes they were travel-anxiety dreams about the subway or getting to airports but mostly they were just about the buildings and people and the energy, which I still miss. I’ve been putting off blogging about the trip because I still feel quite overwhelmed by the experience of America and don’t feel like I’ve digested it enough to put a lot of words around it, so this post is mostly photos.

Toynbee Tile

I didn’t want to be a pain and go on some long quest to try and find a minor obsession like a Toynbee Tile, so it was great that I noticed this one on 43rd St when we were roaming around Midtown trying to buy SIMs.

Bar 65

We didn’t go up One World Trade or the Empire State: instead, we booked a table at Bar 65 in the Rockefeller Center, where you can get fancy cocktails as well as a view.

Temple of Dendur

The Temple of Dendur at the Met, which has a weird Federation of Planets vibe, as if you’re on a starship which scooped up an ancient relic to save it. (It was going to be flooded when they built the Aswan Dam, so that’s kind of what happened.)

Sandwich by the Hudson

The best meal we had was lunch at Le Bernardin, which I didn’t take photos of, because that would have wrecked the experience. The second-best lunch was this bodega reuben, halfway up the path to the Cloisters at the northern tip of Manhattan.

Hush Hip-Hip Tour

I booked my spot on the Hush Birthplace of Hip Hop tour a couple of months before the trip, and it was brilliant. This is is where Kool Herc held what’s agreed to be the first hip hop party, in the Bronx in 1973.

Hush Hip-Hip Tour

I’d like to point out that I was oldest person on the tour – there was another white dude there who was celebrating his fiftieth birthday, and I’m not fifty until the end of this month – but I was also delighted that Grandmaster Caz kicked off the tour like this:

“Most days I’m the only one on this bus who can remember a time before hip hop existed. [points at me] NOT TODAY!”

Middagh St

W H Auden, Benjamin Britten, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles and Gypsy Rose Lee shared a house in Brooklyn Heights during WWII: I knew that the building had been demolished by Robert Moses, so I didn’t try to make a pilgrimage to it. But when we were walking up from DUMBO to the subway stop I thought Middagh St sounded familiar, and I was right: this is the part of the street which wasn’t cut in two by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

Brooklyn Public Library

I didn’t know that these lines from one of my favourite Books tracks were taken from the facade of the Brooklyn Public Library, but it makes sense. It also made me a bit teary. The contrast between this building and the New more famous New York Public Library in Manhattan is interesting: one is modernist, austere, almost science-fictional, and the plaques on the inside are all about civic government: the other is ornate, beaux-arts and based on private philanthropy, with enormous lists of donors on the walls.

Sankofa Aban

For our second week we stayed at Sankofa Aban, a brownstone B&B in Bed-Stuy, which was a complete and refreshing change of pace from the hotel near Times Square we’d been staying at. (If there was one thing I’d do different about the trip, it would be staying at Times Square: I didn’t like it.)

23rd Regiment Armory

This is the 23rd Regiment Armory in Crown Heights, a spectacular and enormous structure – this is just the front third, it looks like George R R Martin’s personal zeppelin hangar – which now houses the worst homeless shelter in New York City.

Sean Price mural

Sean Price is my brother’s favourite MC, and the mural which appeared after his death in 2015 was twenty minutes’ walk from Sankofa, so we went there on our last full day in the city.

It was a big day: we then went to the Color Factory, walked the High Line, had lunch at Le Bernardin, went for another walk to Central Park, and then went to see the revival of Oklahoma! We had already seen a lot of theatre, especially once Christine worked out the best way to get cheap tickets, and I had to be talked into Oklahoma! because yes I know that it’s important in the history of musical theatre but it’s also the corniest show, there’s literally corn in the first verse of the first song, but two theatregoers had recommended it to us – New York audiences are very chatty – and I’m glad we went, because it was the most radical piece of theatre we saw, and capped off one of the most fun days I’ve ever had.

Bought the t-shirt

It also had this great t-shirt.

There are a lot more photos on my Flickr, although in putting this together I’ve realised that I forgot to upload a bunch from the Color Factory and the High Line. New York, I miss you, see you again soon.

SoHo

The Good Soldier Švejk and his Fortunes in the World War

Jaroslav Hašek

I bought a cheap second-hand copy of this a couple of years ago and only just got around to reading it, taking a break from obsessively reading books about American history and New York City in advance of our holiday, and it was a good move, because it’s one of the most entertaining novels I’ve ever read. Švejk became a byword for passive resistance and a kind of sly obstinacy in the face of militarism and bureaucracy but he’s also the patron saint of shitposters.

And then there’s this sublime moment when Hašek’s countryman, Karel Čapek, the founding father of European science fiction who coined the term robot, surfaces in one of Švejk’s limitless supply of anecdotes and gets dragged for being a big nerd:

Lieutenant Lukáš only waved his hand and said: ‘You’ve dropped so many pearls of wisdom, Švejk.’

‘Not every man can have wisdom, sir,’ said Švejk convincingly. ‘Stupid people have to exist too, because if everyone were wise then there would be so much good sense in the world that every other person would be driven crazy by it. If, for instance, humbly report, sir, everyone knew the laws of nature and could calculate the distance of the heavenly bodies, then he would only be a trouble to those around him like a man called Mr Čapek who used to come to The Chalice, and whenever he went out of the pub on to the street at night he looked at the stars in the sky and when he came back went up to everyone and said to each of them, “Today Jupiter is shining beautifully. You’ve got no idea, you bastard, of what you’ve got over your head. Talk about distances! If they were to shoot you out of a gun with the speed of a shell, you lousy brute, you’d still have to fly for millions and millions of years to get there.” When he said this he was so coarse and rude that afterwards he himself usually flew out of the pub with the usual speed of a tram, sir, at about ten kilometres an hour. Or take, for instance, sir, the ants…’

This was me at every party I attended when I was an undergraduate and it’s still a mood I’m never far away from. I haven’t felt quite as personally called out by a work of world literature since I read a passage in one of Isaac Babel’s Odessa stories where an old rabbi says to the narrator, ‘Forget for a while that you have glasses on your nose and autumn in your heart.’

How to pour piss from a boot: a Vox explainer

A reaction I’ve been having a lot to media reports lately is that they seem to be explaining psychological or emotional phenomena using elementary concepts, as if the journalists and their intended audience lacked some basic insights into how people relate to one another and were building it up with a sort of jargon which I find strangely dehumanising. The latest example was an interview on Radio National with a marketing psychologist about people boycotting George Calombaris’ restaurants, in which she very carefully broke down the process of people becoming angry at his wage theft and deciding to take their business elsewhere, as if explaining to someone to whom this was an entirely novel concept. Not wage-theft, but the idea that “moral shock” (this is the jargon the psychologist used) could influence people’s purchasing decisions at all. The presenter responded in a similar manner, bringing up the Coopers’ boycott over its involvement in an anti-marriage-equality video and asking, “do these sorts of boycotts work?” As if every question has to be reduced to its most elemental components and then slotted in to an overarching principle, which is then interrogated on a level which is so general as to be useless. Obviously, some boycotts work, and some don’t, and the question of whether a particular one will or not is not going to be answered by this sort of thing.

A lot of this is the bones of journalistic structure showing through the skin. As in the formula for academic debate which Levi-Strauss made fun of, all professions have their labour-saving devices — a “cliché” was originally a literal chunk of print, a ready-made phrase which typesetters could click into the press to save the time required to set it letter by letter. The irony here is when the stock formula is the very act of spelling things out, or taking things back to first principles, which in many fields right now seems like a waste of everyone’s time — do we really need more explainers about the far right or climate change? — and is also deathly dull.

There’s an echo here of the processes of modern corporate IT: a business analyst’s job is to break down processes and entities in which they have no particular expertise, and then build models which can be passed on to technical staff who, by temperament and training, are a body of professionals who both need things put into the most basic terms, and also already think that they know everything about everything. It’s justified, but even in the kindest light, it’s like orchestra rehearsals. Necessary if everyone’s going to work together, possibly interesting if you’re a specialist, but also mind-numbing.

But IT, by its nature, is a bit dry and disembodied. In journalism, this cultural movement has lead to a sort of soothing but frozen void, emptied of all possible forms of knowledge and expertise: the writer as a person without qualities, not just a generalist but a sort of middle-brow vacuum.

It’s the opposite of shitposting, which, like all forms of irony, depends on an unspoken awareness shared between poster and audience.

It might also be a kind of panic response. We’re going on a trip to the USA in a month and I’ve been dealing with my own anxiety by swotting up, reading as many books and websites about the US and its history that I can lay my hands on, to stop myself freaking out, so I can hardly criticise the impulse to deal with the present moment in history in the same way.

Rough Beast

SomeBODY once told me about a bird that’s turnin’
And turnin’ in a widening gyre
It was lookin’ kinda lost cause it couldn’t hear its boss
As it soared ever higher and higher

Well, things fall apart and the centre’s not holdin’,
Anarchy’s loose and there’s no controllin’,
Innocence drowned in a blood-dimmed tide,
The worst get intense while the best just hide

So much to do, so much to see
Images out of Spiritus Mundi
You’ve gotta move those slow thighs
Open up your pitiless eyes

Hey now
Lion body
With a man’s head
Go play

Hey now
You’re a rough beast
Get the show on
Get paid

Your hour’s come round once more
Slouching towards Bethlehem to be bo-orn

Milkman / Cré na Cille (The Dirty Dust)

Anna Burns / Mairtín Ó Cadhain

One of the traps I fell into through becoming a Joyce fan at a young age was to not read any Irish writers other than Joyce, or Joyce and Beckett, or Joyce and Beckett and Flann O’Brien, a state I persisted in for far too long. This year C and I bought copies of Anna Burns’ Milkman for one another for Christmas and when I came to read it a couple of weeks ago I loved it. It’s an almost unbearably tense novel whose narrator is a young girl in Northern Ireland during the Troubles: it’s moving and frightening and hilarious and the last few pages had me getting up out of my chair in the kitchen without realising it.

After that I decided to tackle The Dirty Dust, which has been on my to-read list since I first heard that it was out in an English translation in 2015. It’s got a formidable reputation as the greatest work of modern literature in the Irish language—a reputation of which I was wholly ignorant until I heard that it was being translated, for which reasons see the Joyce/Beckett/O’Brien trap described above. Cré na Cille was published in Irish in 1949 and became a critical and popular success in the Gaeltacht, where it was serialised in Irish-language newspapers. The more than fifty-year delay in getting it translated into English seems to have resulted from a combination of copyright problems, the general prickliness of the language question in Ireland and reluctance on the part of those segments of the Irish literary community to bollix up the job, which is understandable, because it’s very, very good. The entire novel is spoken by the dead in the graveyard of a village in Connemara, who carry on the gossip, backbiting and feuds they had above ground. A few reviews of it have described it as being in “dialogue” but that doesn’t quite capture the polyphonic qualities of the speech, which is sometimes conversation — new arrivals are keenly interrogated by the central character, Caitriona Paudeen, for news — but as often as not monologue or chorus. The dead are identified by their verbal mannerisms, in a way which is reminiscent of Joyce but more so of Stein: even more than in life, people are like stuck records. It’s demanding but very funny and savage, and Caitriona is a somewhat awe-inspiring figure, an over-the-top but believable monster of spite and snobbishness. I’m looking forward to reading it again, once I have a bit of a break.

The obvious points of comparison to the three-Irish-authors trap are Beckett — especially Play, with its after-life love-triangle — and Flann O’Brien’s satire of Gaeltacht autobiography, An Béal Bocht, but Ó Cadhain’s work is more generous than either, though just as unsentimental.

Alan Titley’s translation is pacy and accessible, with plenty of anachronistic slang and a deliberate avoidance of Syngean Hiberno-English. The same publishing house bought out a second, alternative translation in 2016, Graveyard Clay, by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson, in counterpoint to Titley’s, sticking more closely to the letter of the original. I’m looking forward to revisiting it in a different register.

Flying Lotus – Flamagra

(cw for psychedelic body horror)
(cw for weird kids, David Lynch)

I discovered Flying Lotus in a charity store in Marrickville sometime last year – they had the Pattern+Grid World EP playing on vinyl and it sounded amazing so I made a note of it, and have been filling out my collection of his back catalogue ever since. One of the fun things about this process is when a new album comes out and you can experience it in real-time with the rest of the fans rather than in hindsight. Flamagra is really good, though it’s maybe not as cohesive as You’re Dead! but I’m still digesting it. It spans a greater range of moods, I think, than the earlier albums.

Irritations

It’s been about five weeks since I stopped taking nortriptyline, and things are still changing. Mostly I’m OK, althought for the past two weeks I’ve been irritable, not so much with the people around me as with words and especially words on the internet. Here’s a list I wrote in my journal last week and then immediately concluded hmm there’s a lot of stuff here, I guess it’s my mood.

  • the nerd identity, people identifying as such and having online arguments about it, I feel repulsed by it, if you know what I’m like you can laugh all you want at this but lately I feel like taking a schoolyard taunt and using it to describe any kind of intellectual excitement was a really bad development in our society’s relationship to knowledge and culture;
  • Wikipedia, both my own addiction to reading random articles and its stupid style;
  • programming culture, the articles I read on lobste.rs, especially all the endless whinging about the modern web stack and about JavaScript, and all the C/C++ macho bullshit;
  • This thread about an article complaining that astrology is too fashionable among young queer people; specifically it’s the commenters who are inexplicably furious about astrology and compare it to organised religion or bigotry and homophobia;
  • The ABC’s news app and the state of political coverage in general;
  • That the backlash against the Murdoch press revolved around their anti-Labor bias and not about their bigotry, homophobic, racism, misogyny against Gillard, etc.

There’s something bracing about this, although I’m relieved that it seems to be easing off this week. I went through most of my teens and twenties in a state of high indignation at dumb stuff like the above and I don’t want to be there all the time again. I feel like being off the meds is allowing certain emotional states to resurface, the job I have now is to learn how to handle them.

I’ve had to take a break from social media again: both Facebook and Mastodon, which is where I’ve been most active lately. Partly this is because the election result fallout on FB is too depressing, but, for the most part, it’s not about the content. I was hoping that my compulsiveness about social media would ease off when I stopped the meds, but it hasn’t, and the night of the election I realised that I was going off to read FB or Masto every ten minutes or so as a way to escape my own emotions. It could be that my irritability is getting better because I’ve shut off this avenue of escape and I’m having to sit with things more. Or it is just that I’m reading less random stuff. I’m not sure when I’ll be ready to go back.

I’m not even thinking of going back to Twitter, and I still feel vaguely guilty that I’m on Facebook at all, because they’re both awful companies and I don’t think they’ll ever reform themselves, but the more I think about the ways in which social media is bad for me (let alone what it’s doing to politics) the more I realise that I’ve been relying on it for social connection for years, and I need to find alternatives. I miss everyone, well, maybe not everyone, but most of you. You know who you are.