I'm not excited because I'm a "Democrat", and I really don't care about the partisan red/blue stuff that usually reaches a hysterical pitch every election day. I agree with many who are sick of all the finger-pointing. But I do feel deeply disgusted with our country's leaders, and in fact my dissatisfaction with our government has reached the point where I can barely stand it anymore and don't even know what to do. I feel simply relieved right now, because I see that a large majority of my fellow citizens have come to the same conclusions I have.
Our current government has betrayed our trust and performed below any reasonable standard of competence, and today we took the first steps towards solving this problem. Democracy worked today. We just elected ourselves a new government.
Yeah, the same clueless liar is still sitting in the big chair "deciding", or whatever it is George W. Bush does these days. But I am hoping for fast, aggressive moves by our new Congress against Bush administration policies and processes. The guy's a lame duck, finally, and not a minute too soon. Please, Democrats, don't let me down -- decisive action from the new Congress cannot wait.
I voted at 8:45 this morning at P.S. 139 in Rego Park. The volunteers working the tables vastly outnumbered the voters, but maybe that's because Queens, New York has always been bluer than the sky. I couldn't have voted for a Republican congressman if I wanted to; there was none on the ballot. Yeah, I guess I've got Democratic partisanship in my blood, but I really don't think today's election was about party politics. Voting for change today meant voting against the war in Iraq, against the shame of Abu Ghraib, against the botch-up that's currently taking place in Afghanistan (and the failure, after five years, to catch Osama bin Laden), against the failure to help in Darfur, against the federal government's incredible refusal to rise to the occasion when New Orleans was devastated by a flood. This is why I have been so angry, and this is why I feel so proud to be an American today.
Okay, enough blog-babbling and channel-flipping and Daily-Kos'ing -- I'm going to get some sleep.
When I was a little kid on Long Island, we would always denote the fact that somebody was stupid, or had just said something stupid, by sticking a finger into a cheek and intoning "Doy". Everybody in town had their own stamp on "Doy": some would cross their eyes, twist their finger into their cheek and elongate the syllable until somebody told them to shut up, while others would give the word a Looney-Tunes-ish metallic boing, like "Doy-eey-eey-eey ..." (repeat for several seconds).
I don't know who invented "Doy", but it seemed as natural as any other word, and we all assumed it was universally spoken. But my siblings and I had cousins from up in Boston, and one day when I was about 13 I remember my cousin Steve responding to some repartee from elsewhere in the room with a loud, percussive "DAR". He actually gave this a resounding echo: "DAR-HAR-HAR". There was no finger in a cheek. Apparently this is how they did it in Red Sox-land.
In TV comedies, Archie comics and other pop-culture outlets, I began to notice something else, simple and blunt: "Duh". This usage gained some foothold in my hometown, but was never delivered with the passion or conviction of "Doy".
You may have noticed a mild obsession with cartoons here on LitKicks, though not so much with the elaborately drawn comix and graphic novels that are the hip thing today. I'm mainly interested in a few classics, which I reference constantly: Charles Schulz's Peanuts, Mad Magazine, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman. I'm sure this is due to the influence of my father, Eli Stein, who has been a professional cartoonist since 1957.
The Chosen was published in 1969, the same magical year Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, half a million gathered at Woodstock and the New York Mets won the World Series. But it takes place in the years before and after World War II, when two kids named Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter are growing up in Brooklyn. Both are sons of famous Jewish leaders: Danny Saunders is the celebrated first-born of a revered Hasidic rabbi, and Reuven Malter is the son of a controversial and secular-minded political journalist. The two are not meant to know each other, mainly because of the separatist traditions of Hasidic Judaism (which is highly mystical but ultra-conservative, and which does not welcome outsiders to the tradition). But they meet playing baseball, discover mutual interests and become best friends despite their vastly different religious backgrounds.
But Saunders, the Rabbi's son, is fascinated with Freudian psychology, and he drifts constantly from his father's teachings. Reuven, meanwhile, becomes caught up in the Israeli war of independence in 1948 and discovers himself filled with religious yearnings. The best part of the book is the end, when the boys have become adults and finally manage to complete their own transformations. In the book's unforgettable final scene, Danny the Rabbi's son shows up at Reuven's door in a business suit, his long hair shaved and his earlocks cut off. These symbols of his culture seemed unremovable, and yet he simply removed them. Meanwhile, Reuven, who was raised to disdain religion, has become a rabbi.
Last week I talked about books by two Palestinian authors, Elias Khoury and Mahmoud Darwish. I wrote that I hoped Palestinians and Israelis would sometimes read each other's books, but the honest truth is that I have never read a novel by an Israeli writer (not even David Grossman, who lost a son this weekend). If I had to recommend any one novel to represent the Jewish experience, though, that novel would be The Chosen by Chaim Potok. I also heartily recommend the 1981 film version starring Barry Miller (of Fame) as Reuven and Robby Benson, who is surprisingly good despite being annoying in every other movie of his career, as Danny Saunders. Rod Steiger also makes a great impression as the commanding Reb Saunders.
* * * * *
Now, about the name. What intrigued me so much about The Chosen was the idea that humans can change themselves at the deepest levels. For the course of the entire novel, we cannot conceive of Danny without his heavy suit and long hair and earlocks. This is his essence, but he is somehow compelled to become something different. This is an expression of ultimate freedom, the type of freedom Jean-Paul Sartre and William James wrote about. It reminds me of the way we all transform ourselves during our lives, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.
Around the time I first read this book (ok, I'll admit it, I saw the movie first) I was thinking about the name I was born with, a name I never particularly liked. Like many American Jews, I was stuck with a name that denied my own ethnicity: my first name is of Roman and French origin, and my last name is German. I never understood why an American Jew should carry around a German last name. I don't even like my born name enough to tell it to you now, but I'll just say it's a familiar combination like one you could make by putting together one from column A and one from column B below:
I spent a lot of time thinking about names, and I decided that I wanted to honor my ethnic heritage by taking on a Hebrew name. This was not a religious decision, but it was an aesthetic one -- I simply wanted a name I'd be proud to call myself by.
I also thought, around this time, about the fact that my grandmother had come to America from an Ukranian village called Potok Zloty, which hinted at a connection with Chaim Potok. I thought about taking a name from The Chosen, but neither "Danny Saunders" nor "Reuven Malter" had the right ring to it. But then, Chaim Potok had also written this other book.
And that's how I became Levi Asher. If you've ever contemplated changing your own name, I can tell you that it's not easy. Family members and old friends aren't likely to ever get used to it. Former names also have a way of sticking to you, and sometimes you forget who you are.
Still, I firmly believe that every human being has the right to choose a name they enjoy living with, although they should try to avoid the Prince/P. Diddy syndrome of changing it too often. I'm going to be sticking with Levi.
So, I'm now too exhausted to post anything literary, but here are a couple of cellphone photos. I have no idea why Abby is eating the bag of Cracker Jacks instead of the contents. And that's the Cowbell Man, a local legend, in the last photo.
When my day job causes me great annoyance -- which is often, and which is lately -- I search for literary models to help keep my mind uncaged. Because so many human beings live office-bound lives, I wonder why there are not more great works of fiction and poetry that deal with the dilemma of the working-person's existence, or try to decode the rigid social customs, pressures and rituals of this lifestyle.
I can think of only a few examples of stories, novels, poems or plays that tackle this topic head-on. The ones that come to mind are:
For the past ten years, I've mainly earned my living as a web software developer, and I've seen a lot of technology trends come and go. One trend I really miss has to do with the naming of pizza boxes. I'm not talking about actual pizza boxes, but about rack-mounted servers, high-powered network computers -- they're usually manufactured by Sun Microsystems, or sometimes Hewlett-Packard or IBM -- that websites or technology departments run on.
You see, in the mid-90's it was the standard custom for network administrators to think up "themes" for the names of the machines in their various networks. At J. P. Morgan bank, where I worked from 1992 to 1994, our middle office trading system boxes were named after American rivers: mississippi, wabash, missouri, columbia, ohio, hudson (all lower case, the Unix standard for machine names). The back-end database servers were fish -- flounder, barracuda, swordfish, tuna -- and the IT department workgroup servers were an oddly-chosen selection of famous comedians: martin, leno, wright, murphy, piscopo.
I was recently watching a movie where, yet again, the dorkiest and most ineffectual character in the story is also the only one seen reading a book. This character is an all-too familiar type. I'm not even going to tell you what movie I'm talking about, because I can think of 20 others to take its place.
He's the kid with his nose stuck in a book, and he's usually sporting thick glasses and a red sweater with white sleeves sticking out. Or maybe they'll just go all the way and give him band-aid glasses and a bowtie. Why hold back? In fact, I'd like it to be known that in my own long life I have never once seen a guy with bandaid glasses and a bowtie walking down the street holding a book. I say this is an annoying and unfair stereotype, and I think it's time we speak up about it.
We read and write because we like to. That's all.
It doesn't mean we're meek, or goofy, or clueless. We don't read to escape from reality. Yeah, try to read Joseph Conrad to escape from reality. Good luck with that. We're trying to get reality. A lifetime will shoot by us in ten seconds if we don't halt it sometimes, and think, reflect, challenge our ideals, try out alternate angles, learn some things we didn't know.
This was a reunion of about thirty of us who'd been part of the New York City internet/new media industry in the early days, back before the stock craze of 1999, back before the stock crash of 2001. As I sat there treading through memories with my former co-workers, I kept thinking about how idealistic I'd once been about the literary possibilities of this new form of communication known as the internet, or the world wide web.
Literary? Hell, yeah. Back in 1995, I was positively starry-eyed about the creative and artistic potential of the internet. I looked at TCP-IP diagrams and CGI manuals, and all I could think about was how all of this was going to change fiction and poetry. It was looking to be a new age, a good age. Douglas Coupland, William Gibson and Neal Stephenson were on the bookshelves, and fresh voices in fiction and poetry were sprouting like dandelions all over the web. It had to be a revolution, and I was thrilled to be in the center of it all, helping to make it happen.
It would be an over-simplification to say New York City was in charge of the literary side of the internet, but we really did seem to be at the time. 'Word' was a high-profile online journal that attracted authors like Mary Gaitskill, Rick Moody and Jonathan Franzen. They were on 54th Street and Broadway, one floor up from the storied offices of Mad Magazine. 'Urban Desires' was another well-financed online literary journal, a surprisingly innovative side-project of a wildly successful online advertising firm, Agency.com. Further downtown, a crazy guy named Galinsky was running a poetry show for 'Pseudo Online Radio' out of a noisy Soho loft.
I was working at the time for Time Warner's terrible 'Pathfinder' website, which was less cool than all these other ventures but had a better benefits package. And my job was literary in its own way -- I worked in the classic Time-Life Building on 50th and 6th, and I got a chance to interact with excellent writers and journalists like Walter Isaacson, Dan Okrent and Josh Quittner.
New York City seemed to be the only place in the world where you could meet with the top technologists and the top media executives in the world ... in the same meeting. This was our claim to fame -- and this was what made Silicon Alley better than our namesake across the continent, Silicon Valley (yeah, there were a lot of East Coast/West Coast beefs).
Whatever happened to the literary web? What happened to the ideals of Silicon Alley, a place where Wall Street programmers, beatnik poets, Soho artists, Tribeca filmmakers and Chelsea advertising execs would exchange business cards and invent new dreams and schemes for the entire world?
And what happened to cyber-fiction, and hypertext? Douglas Coupland was supposed to be only the first of a new generation of brilliant writers who'd blow our minds with revolutionary new literary styles and methods. That sure as hell never happened. In the end, I guess "Microserfs" by Douglas Coupland was as good as it got. "That was the orgasm," as they say. (And, yeah, I know Douglas Coupland has a new novel out, but I'm not going to read it and neither are you. Okay, now you probably will just to spite me. Go right ahead.)
Of course, I can always take pride in the fact that LitKicks was founded before either Word or Urban Desires or Pathfinder or Pseudo Online Radio, and that LitKicks has now happily outlived them all (damn, it feels good to say that).
I don't think anybody has ever believed more than I have in the literary importance of internet community. But when I look back at the last ten years, I can't help feeling disappointed in general at the progress of internet-based and internet-oriented literature.
There have been wonderful moments, but we are still waiting for our Homer or our Shakespeare to show up. I'd like to know what you think: what is the potential of fiction and poetry on the web? And how far, or how close, are we now -- as a medium, as a society, as a world -- to realizing this potential?