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Almost cut my hair

I started cutting my own hair at approximately the same time I stopped eating dead animals, in February 1981, just before my first ever on-campus interview, at Princeton University, where I didn’t get the job even though I was the only person the department interviewed. These regimes lasted for roughly thirty years, and in both cases they were overthrown by my girlfriend, in 2010.

I told the story of my fall from quasi-vegetarian grace in the Coda to Against Thrift, which some of you still haven’t read. Buy the book.

The story of the haircut is more complicated. In the late 1970s, I sported an Afro concocted by a flamboyant hairdresser in DeKalb, Illinois, who was trying, not very successfully, to fuck me. It was an elaborate construction scaffolded by large quantities of hair spray—and that is a confession that comes harder than anything I’ve ever said, except maybe admitting to my third wife that I’d been fucking the neighbor for five years.

When I realized the Afro made me look slightly, no, thoroughly ridiculous, I decided to change hairdressers. My last haircut was conducted in Chicago, on Webster Avenue between Sheffield and Halsted, across from the Lincoln Park Grocery, where you could cash checks, down the street from Glasscott’s, where next door you could eat the best fries in the city, in the Athenian Room.

Thereafter I cut my hair with an electric razor for the sides and some scissors for the top. It was always short, I didn’t know any better, so I always looked like a menacing state trooper, but especially when I was bulked up in the late 1990s.

In February 2010, my girlfriend suggested, ever so politely, that my hair was just weird. I was offended, mainly because going bald had been my deepest fear since I was a teenager—I didn’t want to look anything like my father. My little brother, who is now as bald as my father was, used to taunt me by quoting J. Edgar Hoover on Lenin: “At the age of 21, Vladimir Ilych was rapidly losing his hair.” So any talk about hair was almost political.

But she persuaded me to get a real haircut. Why not? I believe in the division of labor, and I really do hate the idea of self-sufficiency. I also don’t like being weird.

So I went to the A & R Studio on 8th Ave in Chelsea, a tiny shop with four chairs, a drying station, and two recliners for the shampoo. Mark cut my hair. I told him I’d been cutting it myself for thirty years, and he said, “Well, not so bad, but you stop now, yes? You let me do this.” English is his third language, after Russian and Hebrew.

Today I went to the A & R Studio for my regular session with Mark. He was just back from Miami, where he’d been circling in the outer rim of his family’s new American orbit.

“Hair is better here,” he said, meaning New York.

“How does hair get better?”

“You know, you got a blow dry here, it looks good. There, not so good, you sweat so much the hair just, I don’t know the word, it’s shiny, it falls down . . .”

“Greasy?” I offer.

“Yes, yes, that is what I mean!”

“But all the ‘product’ you got”—by this I mean the jars of stuff he wants to rub into my follicles when he’s done cutting—“all that shit makes it shiny, no?”

“No, no, Jeem, you don’t understand, I think maybe because you don’t have enough hair.”

“Mark,” I say, “when you’re done I’m going to kill you for saying that.”

He looks in the mirror at me–the great thing about gyms and hair salons is that you’re never face-to-face with anybody–his brow furrows, slightly, after all he’s holding the scissors, then he smiles, he says,

“But I am the one who cuts it.”

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Let’s Dance Instead

My girlfriend and I went dancing last night in Jackie Robinson Park, courtesy of the Harlem Swing Dance Society. As homage, I wore a pink tie over a polka dot shirt, a black sport coat, newly tailored white pants, and Speedo sneakers. She wore a complicated black top and a beautiful billowy skirt that moved belatedly, as if commenting on her graceful movements out there on the dance floor.

We were in my old neighborhood, Sugar Hill, the archipelago of old Harlem whose spine was Edgecombe Avenue, snaking up from 145th toward Coogan’s Bluff at 155th and beyond, always overlooking the river and the Bronx. W.E.B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, and Sonny Rollins lived in the 400 block. Joe Louis, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Lena Horne lived at 555, next door to the Morris-Jumel mansion (oldest residence in Manhattan: see “Hamilton”), which was right next door to my old building at 596, the place I fled to in 2008, hoping to escape everything, including a broken marriage and a stalled career.

Dancing is like street fighting and writing. You do it because you want to, not because you know you’re any good at it. I’ve always wanted to. When asked about the fighting in my distant past, I have said, to my girlfriend among others, “I have no skills, but I have experience.”

I’ve been dancing enthusiastically since 7th grade, when Bobby Krause and I decided it was a good way to get the girls. I’ve been writing since 2nd grade. I could say the same thing about these more benign vocations: “I have no skills, but I have experience.” Now I’m about to change things, I’m going to acquire dancing skills. My girlfriend and I have signed up for swing dance lessons. Next thing you know I’ll be taking a creative writing course.

II

I’ve been fighting all my life. Everybody has to, just to stay alive. But it is true that I’ve been more pugnacious, shall we say, than most people. I’ll tell you one story, and leave it at that.

One night in a bar in DeKalb, Illinois, home of NIU, when I was differently stalled, on the dissertation, the woman who was then my girlfriend and would later become my second wife was flattened by a biker—the motorcycle kind—who was moving through the crowd as if on a mission. I scooped her up, she was fine, and then went after the asshole.

I bang him on the shoulder and say “Listen to me you fuck, you just knocked my girlfriend down,” he turns and says “Don’t touch me, I’ll fucking kill you, you stupid fuck,” so I say “No, I’m gonna kill you, you fucking asshole,” and we start fighting, grappling actually, I’m just trying to get him on the floor where I can control the contours of this encounter, and he lands two punches, but I trip him, he’s down, and I ask myself how far I want to go, do I bite him if I have to, do I break his nose from the bottom up?

We’re separated by bouncers—I’m one of them, this is my night off!—and then expelled, by my own colleagues, who are very nice about it. It’s late, no big deal, but before they escort me out I say to the biker, “I’m waiting for you, you stupid motherfucker.”

I know his crew is there, they’re all leathered up, I don’t care, I’m going to beat the shit out of this guy, just him. My girlfriend comes outside, she says, “Please don’t do this, let’s go home,” and I shrug, I say, “Well, I’m committed now, can’t walk away.” She leaves.

The stillness of this moment is enchanting. It’s January, but it’s not cold. I take off my parka, fold it and put it close to the door, I’m standing there in jeans and a T-shirt, it feels like June, it feels like I’ve finally made a decision. I reach over, feel my pulse, like I did before football games, and it’s below 70.

The bar closes, the biker and his crew burst out of the door. I stand there, I don’t say anything, and I realize that the reason my heart isn’t racing is that I don’t care how this turns out. I’m about to be a participant, but I’m mostly an observer. Let’s see.

He steps into the street and says, “All right, asshole, what you got?” He’s hoisting a huge studded belt over his shoulder, he’s waving it, I realize, with some effort. I walk over, step off the curb, now we’re face to face, and I say, “You better know how to use that thing.”

He swings it, it’s too heavy for his strength, it’s almost slow motion, so I block it easily, almost lazily, and hit him with the right hand. I remember that my fist landed on his right cheek and that I could see his teeth move, they looked unmoored for a second, and that all these images were very satisfying.

His crew took over, they beat the shit out of me. I guess they did, I woke up hugging a parking meter, the biker was standing over me with his ridiculous belt, and a female friend of mine was shouting, “Jesus Christ, enough, leave him alone.”  They did. I walked home that night.

III

Dancing and writing are better for your health than fighting in bars or in the street. It’s been a long time since I tried the latter. Not that fighting is bad for you, or me. Like I said, I’ve been doing it all my life, and “indulging in a fair amount of self-romanticization about it” as well, to quote my girlfriend on the subject. No, it’s that dancing and writing are better because they’re sublimations of fear, of anger, of sexual anxiety, rather than mere repressions and mutilations, which always end in aggression, destruction, desolation.

We all have a death wish. Mine has been transacted more physically and stupidly than most. You might say more directly, as my friend Mike Fennell has recently suggested in explaining to the world that my fascination with excrement is pretty disgusting.

The moral of my story is more ambiguous than you think. Fighting is good for you. But you don’t have to beat the shit out of anybody. Yourself included.

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The Crabman Up My Ass, or, The World Turns to Shit

I talk about shit a lot, I like to think because we live in such an excremental time, when anal erotism—also known as saving or thrift—has become more important than ever to the assholes who run this place called capitalism.

My friends have often remarked, with great disgust, on my capacity to index my metabolism by charting my bowel movements, as if I’m already 80 and in a nursing home. Their disgust is appropriate: the fascination with excrement is the fascination with death—because shit is the dead life of the body and, from the infant’s standpoint, the first detachable part of that body. From either end of your life, beginning or end, the world looks like shit. Nobody wants to be reminded of that.

Long ago my reply to my disgusted friends was, “I’m the return of the repressed! I’m the Yahoo of your dreams.” In more scholarly moods, I’d cite Sandor Ferenczi, an early disciple of psychoanalysis, whose “Ontogenesis of the Interest in Money,” an essay from 1914, is clearly the origin of my book on the Federal Reserve System. These days, my lazy retort is: “South Park.”

II

I learned this manner, shall we call it, of de-sublimation, from Norman O. Brown, whose Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History (1958), virtually concludes with Part V, “Studies in Anality,” which contains the most brilliant readings of Luther and Swift ever published. There’s a Part VI, but it’s elegiac, kind of lame. “More eros, less strife,” that’s about it.

But I won’t bore you with an exegesis of Brown, I’ve done that before at this blog. Instead, I’ll quote these exquisite sentences, and then tell the story of how the Crabman got up my ass.

“Hence the assimilation of money with excrement does not render money valueless; on the contrary, it is the path whereby extraneous things acquire significance for the human body, and hence value. If money were not excrement, it would be valueless.

“But why particularly excrement? Possession, according to psychoanalysis, gratifies bodily Eros concentrated in the anal zone. But the concentration of libido in the anal zone reflects the attachment to the anal zone of the infantile narcissistic project of becoming father of oneself.” (p. 293)

III

All right then, as you surely know, last week I discovered Mike the Crabman on 125th, first in The Wild Olive grabbing handfuls of habaneros, then on the street selling whole crabs, shrimp, and corn on the cob, all boiled in a pot teeming with celery, onions, and those very hot peppers.

I ate all of the above on the street, it was 90 degrees, then bought ten shrimp, four crabs, and took them home, just another moment in the exploratory expedition that is my new life as a tenant of Harlem. I put the purchased items on the counter, grabbed a Natural Light to soothe my burnt palate, and sat down to write up the experience.

Later, I munched some shrimp. I never ate any of the crab. I put them in the refrigerator about an hour after coming home and composing my tribute to Mike the Crabman.

36 hours later, I couldn’t leave the house for fear of an untoward event (my girlfriend suggested that “shitting myself” was probably too extreme a designation of that impending event). Ever feel like that? Here’s the real thing, hold your nose and cover your eyes—my bowels moved every half hour or so.  Might as well have been Guatemala, 2007, when a spider bite (I found the little fucker in my underwear) plus four beers made me the permanent resident of the shared bathroom in my hostel, much to the chagrin of my roommates.

That was Friday. Today is Tuesday. Yesterday we—my bowels and I—got back together.

IV

“The lower stratum of the body’s topography.” That is the terrain Mikhail Bakhtin explores in Rabelais and His World, the place where the medieval notion of the grotesque provokes and prevails against the humorless assholes who run the world, then as now. And yeah, I’m trying to provoke you, because shit is funny in the age of anality. Much as I hate “South Park,” it may be the only way to bring us back from the dead.

But shit is funny only if you’re talking about the real thing. The sublimated version doesn’t get it. Here’s Brown again.

“Possessions are worthless to the body unless animated by the fantasy that they are excrement which is also aliment. Wealth brings so little happiness, said Freud, because money is not an infantile wish; the infantile wish which sustains the money complex is for a narcissistically self-contained and self-replenishing body. Therefore only if excrement were aliment could the infantile wish sustaining the money complex be gratified.” (p. 293)

And yet property is the “first embodiment of freedom,” isn’t it? That’s Hegel from The Philosophy of Right, par. 45.

When you know the world has turned to shit, you can come clean.

 

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Lunch Break

This morning I finished a book called Fuck Work. Add you own subtitle!  Mine is Why Full Employment is a Bad Idea.

But like you, I am surrounded by the evidence of work. How did the prior Walter put it? Every token or comfort of civilization is a product of some barbarism inflicted on somebody, somewhere.

The magnificent brownstones (and newer structures) in my neighborhood were built by masons who worked their asses off for a living wage. Now they’re maintained by people who have ten buildings or more to supervise.

My book is not meant to obliterate or obscure or otherwise repress the memory of their labor.

Yesterday I hired Eric Beeker, a local kid, he lives across the street, to scrub the balcony, because, as my girlfriend pointed out, it looked way worse for the winter weather—just plain dirty and funky.

Everybody calls him Junior, but I asked him if that was OK, and he said he preferred J.R., which is what Mel (a super), the mayor of 123rd Street calls him. “All right, then,” I said, “It’s J. R.”

Today I took my lunch out on that pristine balcony, 132 square feet of 6 X 9 inch pavers, imagine a floor made of petrified paperbacks and you’ve got the picture. And what did I see? What did I hear?

To my left was the jury-rigged scaffolding of the bricklayers who are tuck-pointing the twelve-floor apartment building on 124th Street (I face north). The poor bastard on the scaffold was trying to right the thing, hoping, I’m sure, to see better than a 45 degree angle, and hoping, I think, not to die.

To my right was the crane that delivers the corrugated metal and rebar that will undergird the concrete floors of the Whole Foods grocery store that rises on 125th and Lenox.

I know something about these procedures. On June 1, 1970, while working for a mason contractor just off the East-West Tollway in Illinois, I fell 27 feet to my death. I still dream about it as if I’m a dead man, looking and falling from the bottom up. I broke my elbow, bruised my hip—my right leg was purple for two months—and suffered a concussion, and that was the end of my life as a working man.

I died to my old self that day. Soon after I applied for admission to Northern Illinois University, having been expelled from Carthage College. The rest is history.

Right across from me, on the fifth floor of 118 West 124th Street, the music was loud, people were dancing, and somebody was snapping out instructions to the beat of her own clapping hands. The boarded-up building, where abandoned mattresses once filled every balcony, had become a rehearsal space!

I couldn’t see them, but I could hear that she and her students were working their asses off. I ate my lunch with a smile.

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Gay Pride

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I got off the 2 train at 14th Street a little before 5:00 on Sunday, and I couldn’t get out. The turnstiles were jammed with people trying to get in. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

I looked around, spotted the largest person, and followed him out, as you instinctively do in a barroom brawl when the tide turns against you.

7th Ave was clogged on and off the sidewalk, and everybody was at least boisterous, horns honking, people declaiming at decibel levels hitherto unheard, except maybe on the subway platform or on Friday nights on 16th Street. Again, WTF?

Ah, the Gay Pride Parade, but I thought it was over by now. These are stragglers, latecomers, tourists, it’s over, of course it is.

I set out with my girlfriend from her apartment near 8th Ave, on our way to Club Monaco to buy me some attire suitable for summer. We’re headed to 5th Ave and 21st Street. It’s 5:15.

As we approach 5th Ave on 17th Street, it’s pretty clear the parade is still going on. Once again, WTF? How is this possible? Turn back or swim upstream, against the current of the crowd? We decide to test the waters.

We do, and it’s delightful. Swimming upstream was never more fun. And maybe, like those salmon . . . Try to imagine a mash-up of Roman bacchanal, medieval carnival (think Bakhtin), Mardi Gras, disco inferno, and happy hour at the local bar. You’ve captured the mood, you’re there.

Everybody’s dancing, smiling, giggling, waving. The music is deafening, no, it’s penetrating, it makes my bones quiver, it makes me want to dance and sing, and so I do, I don’t care what anybody thinks, I’m carried away by the perfect delusion of this moment.

I buy some pants, some shorts, we head west across 21st Street, and then we stop and kiss on the sidewalk, both of us intoxicated by the sound of liberation. Her lipstick is smeared, my soul is unmoored, I am so in love that I’m levitating. I lose my balance, I have to yank us back into this world, this time, this place.

But it’s still warm and inviting. Like another planet.

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July 1, 2015 · 11:41 pm

Primal Scenes (Trigger Warning: Freud Ahead)

I

The Laura Kipnis Melodrama now requires psychoanalysis, terminable or interminable, of the most old-fashioned kind.

As you surely know, a graduate student in philosophy at Northwestern, hereafter known as G, filed Title IX charges against Kipnis on the grounds that the February essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education was “retaliation” against G’s earlier filing of a Title IX sexual harassment claim against a senior philosophy professor who (she claims) raped her.

G had previously acknowledged in court documents that she had been in a relationship with the professor, and that they had had consensual sex prior to and perhaps after the (alleged) rape. That acknowledgment is part of the public, legal record. G has not repudiated it.

But G now makes two different claims. On the one hand, she maintains that the long-term relationship with the senior professor, though close and warm by all accounts—-she slept in the same bed with him on many nights—-was never sexual. “We weren’t dating,” as she puts it plainly to a sympathetic interlocutor, hereafter known as Professor L, who has publicly taken up G’s cause in the most strenuous way, to the point of claiming that G’s narrative of events must be accredited as the truth, pure and simple. On the other hand, G insists that if the relationship did include sex of some kind, it was never consensual, even apart from the night of the alleged rape.

Is she lying? To herself, among others? Some of those following the controversy at Brian Leiter’s blog (leiterreports.typepad.com) have said as much.

I don’t think so. To understand why, we have to revisit Freud’s concept of a primal scene as it evolved in the cases of Dora, the Rat-Man, and the Wolf-Man. For my purposes, the last case is the most important, but if you’re interested in the others, Jean Laplanche’s Life and Death in Psychoanalysis (1970, trans. 1976) is the place to start once you’ve read Freud’s “clinical” accounts. Laplanche is always riffing on Lacan, though, so maybe the thing to do is go first to The Four Fundamental Concepts (1973, trans. 1977), “The Unconscious and Repetition.”

II

Freud never resolved the ambiguities of this notion of a primal scene, perhaps because when he wrote up the case of the Wolf-Man between 1914 and 1918, he was still competing with Carl Jung for supremacy in psychoanalytical circles, formal and informal. So he was trying to assert the significance of fantasy, as against recollection of actual events, in interpreting the irrational utterance of his patients, and of human beings more generally, without offending everyone. As Peter Brooks puts it, Freud was still in search of “another kind of referentiality,” a different, perhaps arbitrary relation between thoughts and things, symbols and objects, language and world (like Peirce, Saussure, Stein, and the other founders of what we call modernism).

A primal scene, as it appears in the case of the Wolf-Man, From the History of an Infantile Neurosis (1918), is more construction than recollection; for it is not so much an event experienced by the patient as a story told by the analyst, a story that gives new life and new meaning to irretrievable memory traces. The retelling of the story by the analyst allows the arrangement of past “events”—-these are unspoken and unspeakable absent the analyst—-in an intelligible sequence and, accordingly, the insertion of the narrative’s subjects (these now include the narrator) in a temporal and moral order long removed from the original. Or rather, the retelling of the story by the analyst creates a new temporal and moral order that revises or replaces the causative effect of the original position, which was itself a product of narrative retrospect that would always be beyond verification.

In other words, what matters when it comes to primal scenes is not whether they actually happened; what matters is the conviction of things unseen (Hebrews 11). As Freud put it: “the patients themselves gradually acquire a profound conviction of the reality of these primal scenes, a conviction which is in no respect inferior to one based on recollection.”

He didn’t spare himself from the pitfalls of this faith born of plausible, meaningful narrative. Almost done with his story of the Wolf-Man, he writes: “There remains the possibility of taking yet another view of the primal scene underlying the dream—a view, moreover, which obviates to a large extent the conclusion that has been arrived at above.” And then again in a footnote: “It is also a matter of indifference in this connection whether we choose to regard it as a primal scene or as a primal phantasy.”

III

In Freud’s terms, the efforts and utterance of Professor L on G’s behalf sound like those of a conscientious analyst seeking to retell a life story, and thus reorient the dramatis personae. By the same token, G sounds like a patient whose new convictions about what actually happened between her and the senior professor are “in no respect inferior” to those once based-—and recorded in legal filings in the public record—-on recollection.

But she’s not lying, she’s found “another kind of referentiality.” Unlike the Wolf-Man, who objected to Freud’s analysis because it bracketed the experience of seduction he thought was formative in his development, G has apparently embraced the notion that there was no sexual dimension in her relationship to the professor, or, if there was, it was forced upon her. So her experience is not the issue; her narrative is.

Professor L runs a web site, and is writing a book, about sexual harassment of students by professors. Unlike almost all other observers of sexual practices on campus, she thinks this form of harassment is more significant than sexual assault among students. No wonder she has taken up G’s cause. Here is the operative sentence in her advertisement of this project, wherein she notes that she’s willing to travel to interview victims:

“Some students may not even recognize until years after the fact that a relationship previously thought to be mutual was not, in actuality, consensual.”

In such primal perspective, G’s two new claims make perfect sense. Recall that these claims are that (1) the relationship with the senior professor was never sexual, and/or that (2) if it were sexual, this dimension of the relationship was never consensual.

These claims aren’t lies. These are the inevitable results of retelling the story with Professor L as the presiding analyst. But, unlike Freud, who tried to talk his patients out of their retrospective assignment of genital significance to infantile events that couldn’t have borne that weight, Professor L has never questioned G’s claims.

That is a difference worth noting. And as we puzzle through this thicket of sexual politics, it’s also worth pondering.

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New Strings Attached

Yesterday I realized that the strings on my beloved acoustic guitar, the Alvarez cutaway (serial number 132930) I bought for $611 in 2000—-it’s my most valuable possession, if the place caught on fire, I’d scoop up the guitar, the Freud notebooks, and run-—I realized that they were ragged, frayed, decayed, they were cutting up my fingertips. I hadn’t changed them in too long.

I knew why. I’m not a musician, so the simple, infrastructural acts of caring for the instrument-—the tool that sustains your identity and your income—-don’t come naturally. In fact, they’re difficult, they’re daunting.

My old guitar teacher, Neil Nemetz of Lou Rose Music on Route 27 in Edison, New Jersey, he’s the guy who sold me his Ibanez Roadstar II, built in 1979, for a hundred bucks in 1999—-it’s worth a fortune—-would gleefully restring the Alvarez every month or so, and make a spectacle of himself as he did it in the showroom. He’s a professional musician and he has perfect pitch, as they say, so it took him five minutes to replace the strings, tune the guitar, and make the gathered crowd applaud his virtuosity.

When I moved to New York to escape everything about New Jersey, including my marriage, I was on my own, but with strings still attached. It took me an hour at least to do what Neil did in five minutes, what with the pliers and the pitchfork, and the proper winding technique. So I let the strings stay longer than they could sustain the sound I wanted.

Yesterday I was frustrated with other compositional barriers, so I said, to myself, “Who cares except you that it takes you an hour or more to change the strings on your guitar? Do this for your own sake. See what happens to the sound of the thing.”

I rummaged around and found some Gibson Brite Wires my brother had sent me as part of a birthday gift a year ago, I put the Alvarez across my lap, and I changed those strings, tuned it up, and I cried when I heard the new sound the instrument made. It took me an hour—-why not, it’s taken me a lifetime to learn to hear what’s worthwhile—-but the sound of that guitar when I was done was heartbreaking, all I had to do was play a chord and every memory of everything I had ever wanted came rushing into my throat, choking off my voice, forcing me back in time.

But then I said, to myself, “Oh for Chrissakes, get over it.” I started singing along with the Alvarez, and we sounded good. At any rate we were in tune–good enough.

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