Category Archives: self-portraits

in this world of masturbating do-gooders

Oh, you people who fault John D’Agata for being a liar, a fact-molester, and a manipulative meany.
Oh, you “sharers” of videos, “thumb-uppers” of call to actions.
Lets get a few things straight.

– It took the US decades to improve working conditions for ourselves (and it’s still ongoing), even with a democratic system at the top.

– John D’Agata has never claimed any more territory than that of the essay, and has never tried to massage facts in order to “underline a cause” or “raise consciousness” (in the Kony/Foxconn sense). His stakes are intellectual and insular, as he is playing with representation similar to the way certain photographers (Dorothea Lange, Jeff Wall etc.) have been doing forever. (Well, maybe not forever, but—*yawn*—the literary world can be so conservative. If they’re so banked on nonfiction telling the truth, then why are they insistent that fiction writers have experience, or better yet, an identity, in what they’re writing about?)

– The hubbub around Mike Daisey and his monologue “The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”* and the fact (!) that This American Life aired part of it, stood behind it, reaped a shitload of PR from it, and then retracted it (with even more PR) as a bunch of lies is not doing the Chinese people a whit of good. I could ask: since when did TAL become a medium of truth rather than a radio show sharing personal experience, (I wouldn’t believe a word of David Sedaris for all the iPads in the world) but that would be sort of besides the point.

But so.

It’s one thing to fail to do any kind of fact checking, and quite another to be half-assed about it.

Hello Ira Glass, you can’t have it both ways (and yes, D’Agata can, as I will get to later). TAL explains in the apology broadcast that Daisey told them his translator couldn’t be reached and their response was “…because the other things Mike told us – about Apple and Foxconn – seemed to check out, we saw no reason to doubt him.” How can you, TAL, if you for one minute think you live up to journalism standards, fail to talk to the translator? Or even try to find her? Especially a story about human rights, especially since Daisey doesn’t speak Chinese at all? Plus, the statement that a working class person in China cannot be reached is a joke. The working class mainland Chinese can ALWAYS be reached. Miss a call and you miss making money. They don’t have voicemail, they don’t change their phone numbers (unless a number with a lot of “8”s in it becomes available, but then they can’t afford it – yes different phone numbers cost different prices in China), and they always always always answer their phones.

OK then, was calling China too expensive? Too hard to figure out the time difference? According to TAL’s Retraction podcast, all Rob Schmitz had to do was to google “Cathy and translator and Shenzhen” and she’s the first number that comes up.

Shoot me now, but the reason I think TAL failed to do due diligence was because they believed the story too much. They wanted it to be true so badly they willed it into truth. Yes, Mike Daisey lied to them. Yes, Mike Daisey stood on a stage and said “this happened to me,” but deep down TAL knew the show was going to be a ringer, and the listener response would (and did) shower TAL and NPR with buckets of good old-fashioned self-righteousness. Westside liberalism at its finest.

Why does this matter?
It’s the Chinese who will get screwed by this. Their very real concerns of worker safety and factory conditions have now been reduced—by the very people who wanted to help them—to a stupid battle over theatre vs. journalism. Has TAL or Mike Daisey considered that while they lounge around hogging the airwaves discussing the risks and rewards of journalistic rigor, (or not), these people with real or not so real poisoning, and quivering and/or mangled arms have to go back to work?

The factory situation is complicated, but the workers deserve respect. But respect is not a simple thing to arrive at after six days tooting around Shenzhen, much less a night at the theatre or a cozy podcast.

The workers are fucked. They live in shitholes. They have a government of corrupt maniacs which views them like an army of expendable ants. They work their asses off at the factories and with their first month’s wages they get to buy a mattress for their cot. The next paycheck gets them a pair of shoes, all of which have to be purchased at the “factory” store and this wonderful store, as you can imagine, is filled with discounts (“Only one!” “For you, special price!” “Hello, lunch!”) They—and you’ll never hear this on TAL—prefer/pray to get jobs at factories owned by westerners. Their preference of nationality as far as bosses are concerned is (from worst to best): Taiwanese, Hong Kong, mainland, western. Yes, Foxconn is Taiwanese owned, and yes, despite my better judgement, if one considers deep down that the Taiwanese, Hong Kong and mainland people are the same, then this is just another way to show that the Chinese are profoundly capable of being extremely cruel to their own people.

And now, us westerners, by trying to save them, to help them, have drowned them in an absurdist drama called the Real Housewives of NPR. Thinking about what is true, and who’s telling the truth (and it really is “tell,” since many in the peasant class are illiterate) in China is like asking a starving person (before he gets to eat) to twist the stem of an apple while reciting the roman alphabet until the stem breaks, and the letter that he was on will reveal to them the first initial of a person who has a crush on them.

Plus, TAL and Daisey have in effect pooped all over the real journalists, the ones over in China doing the legwork. Because now, if those journalists do uncover a hexane poisoning, or an under-aged worker, it will be an uphill battle getting anyone to believe them. So please, Mike Daisey, stop hamming it up and remember who you’re trying to help, and TAL, please read up on your Martha Rosler.

Social causes have their purpose, but the idea is to help. If the idea is to make workers conditions better, then do it by demanding better working conditions for Chinese factory workers. Do this with purchasing power, and do this by understanding the situation better, and do this, knowing that it takes more effort than a lot of us are willing to put in in order to really bring about social change.

Now back to John D’Agata. Why does he get to decide which facts must remain as facts and which facts can be tweaked? Because, like many visual artists, he has a system, and it’s rigorous and clear in his own head. And most importantly, he’s not asking us to help the Rwandans, or save the harpy seals. He’s simply asking us to think. His beef is with representation, not social issues. His description of the many years the nuclear waste would sit inside the mountain is neither an anti-nuke statement or an ecological one. The scale of the facts are too enormous to simply toss from one side of a political argument to another. Nobody stands in front of a Jeff Wall photo and sounds the alarm that Photoshop was involved, and nobody should pick up a John D’Agata book and fret over facts that may or may not be true. Most importantly, and this is where he is different from Mike Daisey and TAL, he doesn’t claim to be something that he’s not. He doesn’t take the (often ugly and predominately male) position that he’s the wonderful person that’s going to bestow knowledge upon you, that he’s the amazing guy that is going to teach you something. John D’Agata expects his readers to come to the table already smart and curious. And that, deserves a little respect.

Above is the taxi driver we met in China, from Guizhou, the poorest province in China, who told us firsthand (no translator needed) about the factories and the lack of mattress and the wire cots. He told us he left home to go work in a factory in Guangzhou in 1999, and couldn’t even take it for a year. He said that the worst crime to humanity, the absolute worst evil about the factories, the thing that really made him cry and come home, was that in Guangzhou the food was not spicy enough. “Not even close.” Imagine.

He did make a lot of money, however, but after refueling on Guizhou hot pot he partied like it was 1999 and blew it all in a single weekend in Nanjing, and doesn’t regret a single minute. I will bet too, that I can call him up on his cellphone and he’ll pick up and ask me what I’m having for dinner.

* Christ let’s end this post already. But wait there’s more. Foxconn doesn’t just make crap for Apple, it makes stuff for the PeeCees too. And Steve Jobs is not Apple, he’s just the founder. And all you radio people: stop pronouncing the “zhou” in Guangzhou or the “jing” in Beijing with a vibrating “g” sound. It’s Beijing, as in “Bay” “Jing” (J as in Jingle).

homecoming

We’ve finally exhausted our Santa Fe goodwill so today we headed up to White Rock for a hike down the Red Dot Trail.

White Rock might seem like a megatropolis from the size of this sign, but it’s really a tiny little suburb of Los Alamos (population: 6000), and if you’ve ever wondered what exactly is wrong with me, well here you go. Here’s where I grew up. Literally. I mean, this was my backyard.

The only things that have changed since then are the well-marked trailhead, and the spray-painted red dots on the rocks (hence the name of the trail) to keep you from getting lost seem to have tripled in number.

At the bottom of the canyon we found my old waterfall/swimming hole, along with pussy willows growing by the stream, which makes for perfect basket weaving if you have the time.

Here’s the view looking up, which is about as intense as it looks.

One of the dogs got into a fight with a cholla cactus, one of these,

and she had a piece larger than her leg stuck in her paw in about ten places. I have to say in all my years of hiking this canyon I have never seen a dog step on a cactus so badly, in fact, I would’ve taken a photo of her prickly limb, only PETA would’ve probably come after me for the delay in pulling that damn thing out. Which dog? This one…

On the very nice signage at the trailhead i was especially proud to read the most reasonable rules—well, more like FYI’s then rules—about dogs off-leash, especially this bullet: “Unleashed dogs may intimidate other hikers and their dogs, depriving them of the peace the forest provides.” Indeed. While we were huffing and puffing our way up we passed a hiker on his way down (why are they always German?) with his dog. Before we reached the top, he had somehow made it all the way down and then came all the way back up to lap our ass. To make it even worse, when he got to the flat area before the road he jogged to his car. Jogged.

We and our unleashed dogs were not in any way intimated by this performance. We took advantage of the very light traffic in this part of New Mexico to prove that what matters is not how fast you cross the road, but how you do the crossing.

After the hike we cruised Los Alamos, which included walking over a frozen Ashley Pond, which should really be called Ashley Pond Pond, since it’s named after a guy named Ashley Pond, a favorite drunken teenager thing to do.

That building in the background is called the Community Center, and there is where I danced to Ultravox and Echo and the Bunnymen and Black Sabbath. Yes, in the same night. Los Alamos is a pretty weird place. Here’s my old jazz band teacher rocking the bistro,

and here’s the best mushroom cloud with battleships I have ever seen. I have made a lot of cakes as school projects in my past, but I could never dream of anything as good as this.

Go Hilltoppers.

phantom menace in all directions

The east and west halves of New Mexico have always been divided by the Rio Grande rift, and now scientists say the fault line is expanding, making the drive across the state that much… slower.

To stretch out our trip to Santa Fe to visit mom even more, we took a drive through the lowlands of southern New Mexico, where the landscape and the affinity for southwestern-style clothing is quite different from Santa Fe, otherwise known as the Center-for-Real-Indian-Stuff.

Down there, “New Mexican” is a geographical location, not a style. The food, often labelled as “Mexican” or “local,” is truly New Mexican (flat enchiladas, non-fried fish tacos, sopapillas, etc.), but it’s not edged in silver tassels and driblets of turquoise.

Also interesting is that in the south, cactus stands in as the token vegetable, and only as you start climbing north does guacamole start making an appearance. Carne adovada *anything*, however, makes its disappearance wherever you are in the state.

At White Sands National Monument we had a rare sighting of the famous Desert Clown,

did some missile testing,

and stopped to visit some Hatch chile farmers. The roasting season is over and what’s left are the dried husks that get sent away to have their color extracted. Apparently the coloring will be used for things like Gatorade, and then the fully denuded remnants used in some other food form. (Plurine anyone?)

Rift or no rift, the idea of scale in New Mexico is always fluctuating and weird. Near and far become two drastically different states of mind.

A is for apple, or why i love saying hongo hongo hongo

on a hot afternoon after visiting the lovely city of Sintra, Portugal, after discovering a delicious drink called Amarguinha (almond liquor served with lots of fresh squeezed lemon and ice), after discovering that the dessert the Portuguese call “Byronian” was—in one word—a cracker, some pals and i took a long, winding bus ride to the Western-most point of Continental Europe.

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to pass the time we had some fun with languages, since between the four of us we had English, Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian covered. we were all a little brain dead, so mostly it consisted of trying to pronounce the Chinese and the Russian words, and noticing similarities between the Latin languages. and then someone suggested “mushroom.” now what a silly word. there’s some debate as to the origin of the word mushroom, most likely from the French word mousseron (to mean moss), but some argue it goes back to the Greek work for mucus (mykes, from where we get “mycology”). (on a side note, back in those days, a candle snuff was called a “snot”). in any case, there we were, with “Mushroom,” “Grib,” “Mógu,” “Cogumelo,” “Champignon,” and “Funghi.” the only one missing was the Spanish. no matter how we stared and blinked at each other, no one could remember. we tried ordering a pizza in Spanish, we tried imagining a can of mushrooms in Costa Rica (sadly, the label said “Champignons”) we tried thinking of all the Mexican dishes that had mushrooms featured (er… none), we tried hating mushrooms, and collectively not caring what the freaking word for mushroom was in Spanish, but still it eluded us, for hours. damn hongos.

to keep from going crazy we went back to things we knew, like the English alphabet, and played a game of “what so-and-so has up his bum tonight.” it’s a daunting task for a non-native speaker trying to remember unfamiliar words, such as Kleptomaniac’s birth control, or Suzanne Somers, and so this is very impressive.

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and this, is in honor of “a laundry.”

eggs on a deserted island

Jacques Pepin has a great show on television called Fast Food My Way, where he prepares a three course dinner in a hour, from start to finish. the details are lovely to watch, if you’re not too busy drooling: the way he slices an onion, or spreads jam on poundcake. one of my favorite things is whenever he uses eggs or chickens, he talks about how if he were on a deserted island he would be perfectly happy if there were nothing on the entire island but eggs. but then his sentence always seems to drag on, and he adds to that island a few chickens, a bottle of wine, some fresh peas…a couple of sausages… but really…just a couple of eggs…

a month ago the folks at Chamber Four started a series called Desert Isle Books, where writers were asked to discuss the one book they would bring with them to a deserted island. they didn’t make any restrictions on food, so i figured i’d get to bring my one book, plus all the eggs, chickens and bottles of wine i wanted.

here’s the piece i wrote, and happy cooking.

see yourself in coffee

every once in awhile we take a bullet and agree to work (gratis) for certain non-profits of a spiritual persuasion. we do this, despite what a friend of mine—a non-profit consultant by choice—says about dealing with those kind of non-profits: “RUN!”
this year for their fundraiser they wanted to make t-shirts, and suggested putting a yoga sutra (in Sanskrit) on the front. the one they decided on was 1.33,

which pretty much says: “By cultivating friendliness towards happiness and compassion towards misery, gladness towards virtue and indifference towards vice, the mind becomes pure.”
we suggested that it also pretty much says: “See yourself in others,” and that perhaps that snippet could be a nice English counterpart to go on the back of the t-shirt. like most philosophical texts written in old languages, there’s a lot of room for translation and interpretation, but our little idea got taken down hard by the tight-ass end (fundraising chair), who didn’t want people to think that was what it meant. i guess pretty much is pretty much only some of the time.

to compromise, i’ve decided to see myself in pretty much anything.
in turkey wraps (friendliness):

in traffic (compassion):

in coffee ice cream (gladness): (how can you not see the entire universe in this?)

and in shadows (indifference):

self portrait in caramel

joy comes in so many flavors these days, and here’s Canine Sherman’s favorite way to express it:

joy also comes in the form of salted caramel ice cream. the recipe calls for 5 egg yolks and a shitload of milk/butter/cream. turn the orphaned egg whites into pizza dough, top with salami, avocado and fall tomatoes and pretty much the day is done.

here then, is my self-portrait in caramel, and yes, that’s a really thick layer of caramel. i’m working on the technique, obviously, but the ice cream? it’s really intense and absolutely amazing. plus a little goes a long way, which goes with the current trend of “doing more with less”, or “more with the same” type of corporate-speak.

rejected author photos

the wonderful folks at Chamber Four have put my story “Eupcaccia” into their fiction anthology (download for free!) they are also putting up an interview in which i dodge all sorts of bullets, in addition to a drawing. they couldn’t put up a video as an author photo, so i’m posting it here instead.