Sunday, May 23, 2010

Night Stand: Thinking Of Growing A Beard? Already Have One?

I waste a fair amount of time scrounging used book stores, flea markets, and estate sales searching for books of absurdly specific scholarship, and have now acquired quite a library of such titles. The subjects range from histories (auto-eroticism, pawnbrokers, playing cards, diseases of cattle, urology in ancient Egypt, tumbling, torture, massage, burial customs, cemeteries, cremation, grave robbing, circumcision, scurvy, ventriloquism, the Odd Fellows, prostitution, dowsing, prosthetics, syphilis, eyeglasses, hearing aids, noses, lice, hygienic practices, etc.) to manuals (chiropractics, orchestral conducting, military survival handbooks, funeral directing, marching band formations, embalming, practipedics, Masonry, the breeding of chinchillas, etc.)

I generally stay away from anything published after 1955, and anything bearing the imprint of a university press. I like my arcane scholarship to be obsessive, digressive, and slippery, at best. Most of what I have fits that bill.

Tonight I'd like to consider Charles Nessler's The Story of Hair (subtitle: "Its Purpose and Preservation"), published by Boni and Liveright in 1928. The copy I have bears a stylish fountain pen inscription: "To Clarence Jr., from Mother. February-1942. Formerly owned by Mme. De Gaulle."

The book is filled with wonderful illustrations --including a photograph of the handsomely coiffed and mustachioed author-- that I am unable to share with you owing to the fact that I do not presently own a functioning scanner (no fault, really, of my own; blame Microsoft for refusing to allow me to install a perfectly good HP Scanjet 5470c on my new computer).

Mr. Nessler writes in his preface that during the nearly two decades he spent working on his book he "personally observed, treated, and experimented with hair from thousands of heads. Simultaneously I had the opportunity to study the mental characteristics of those whose hair came under my notice, and to observe the fundamental nature of the individual and the covering of his scalp. For years, in many countries and among many classes of people, I have sought the truth about human hair. I have been on terms of intimacy in every stratum of society. I have visited innumerable institutions --hospitals, orphanages, prisons, schools and factories, studying the relationship between the individuals I have found and the hair on their heads."

We are also told that in 1905, prior to Mr. Nessler's rigorous anthropological adventures in the wide world of hair, he invented the permanent wave.

Rest assured, then, that this man is an expert, and this is no ordinary treatise on hair. Though there is no indication that he ever earned either title, I am persistently tempted to refer to the author as Dr. Nessler or Professor Nessler, so zealous and wide-ranging and sometimes scary is his dogged approach to his area of scholarship.

Given my frequently agonizing relationship with my own facial hair, and the regular, ridiculous experiments with a razor that I have conducted during periods of boredom and frustration, I was particularly interested in Mr. Nessler's treatment of the subject. The discussion takes place in a chapter curiously titled "The Race and Its Hair (Sex Production)."

Make no mistake, my bearded and mustachioed friends, the expert is in your corner, and goes so far as to claim, "If modern civilization follows the logic of its growing intellect, rather than of its primary instincts, it will eventually bring about the dreaded consummation of race suicide. It is the bearded and mustached man, even in this country, who, retaining some degree of the primitive fires, really sustains the race....Even now, I venture to assert, if a census were taken it would be found that the clean-shaven man of the educated strata, even though married, would not keep up the population, nor are he and his spouse willing to do so because of the weakening of their instinctive inducements. Our national moral standards are reducing the individual's true value as a citizen."

In defense of this somewhat startling position, Mr. Nessler quotes Mussolini: "I am anti-whiskers. Fascism is anti-whiskers. Whiskers are a sign of decadence. Glance at the busts of the great Roman Emperors and you will find them all clean shaven --Caesar, Augustus! When the decline of Roman glory began, whiskers came into style. It is true of all periods. The Renaissance was a beardless period. Whiskers were the rule of the old decadent regime, which Fascism replaced with youth of clean-shaven faces."

Later still, in the chapter's concluding thoughts, we are given an additional bit of buttressing encouragement courtesy of an article --datelined from London-- in the New York Times: "Beards are coming back. Britons growing whiskers to combat women's masculine imitations. Whiskers and mustaches are coming back. Barbers say imitation of men's styles and habits by women is given as the direct cause by those now engaged in raising hirsute adornments. With women copying masculine fashions in hair cuts, dress and smoking, proponents of the beard say it stands out more than ever as a badge of masculinity and the vogue of the clean-shaven man is on the decline."

Read those last three paragraphs, gentlemen, and try to persuade me that Mr. Nessler --writing more than 80 years ago-- has not made an airtight case for "hirsute adornments." It's time to cast aside those razors or risk not only emasculation, but the dousing of the primitive fires and the consummation of race suicide.

If you need further encouragement to liberate yourself, read about King Camp Gillette, the Utopian flake who invented the disposable razor and enslaved (and essentially gelded) generations of American men (Excerpt: "Gillette’s particular Utopia would abolish competition, advertising, superfluous middlemen, and eventually money itself. 'If I believed in a devil, I should be convinced that competition for wealth was his most ingenious invention for filling hell,' Gillette wrote. His world would be so efficient that, as he wrote in a later work, 'an individual under the corporate system could produce enough in five years to maintain him for a lifetime of seventy years.'....In the future, as Gillette saw it, 60 million Americans would be housed in one huge city powered by the Niagara River, a city as wonderful as a 'perpetual world’s fair.' The residents of Metropolis would live in a grid of 24,000 apartment buildings, more than 100 million rooms in all, each standardized, to simplify rug cutting. The apartment buildings, grouped around large domed courtyards, resembled 25-story-tall beehives.").

Finally, as an additional bonus to tonight's entertainment, I give you an easily digestible tour of shaving throughout history, sponsored by QuikShave.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Lost Ghost In The City Of Light

And joy suddenly stirred in his soul, and he even stopped for a minute to take breath. "The past," he thought, "is linked to the present by an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of another." And it seemed to him that he had just seen both ends of that chain; that when he touched one end the other quivered.

When he crossed the river by the ferry boat and afterwards, mounting the hill, looking at his village and towards the west where the cold purple sunset was now a narrow streak of light, he thought that truth and beauty which had guided human life there in that garden and in the yard of the high priest had continued without interruption to this day, and had evidently always been the chief thing in human life and in all earthly life; and the feeling of youth, health, vigour --he was only twenty-two-- and the inexpressible sweet expectation of happiness, of unknown mysterious happiness, took possession of him little by little, and life seemed to him enchanting, marvelous, and full of lofty meaning.

--Chekhov, "The Student"

True stories from another Friday night:

Earlier --I suppose it was about 11 o'clock-- I was out wandering the empty sidewalks of my quiet neighborhood with my dog when we encountered a young man --I suppose he was in his early twenties-- coming towards us down the block. From a considerable distance I could hear him bellowing, and noticed also that he was swaying wildly on the sidewalk and tossing his arms and head around in a spastic manner. As the distance between us closed I could clearly make out the music thrumming from the earphones clamped on his head, and the words he was alternately yelling and chanting in a quieter voice that still retained hints of a good deal of frustration and perhaps, it seemed to me, resignation. As he brushed past us he appeared to be utterly oblivious to our presence. The song he was listening to and singing along with was Eminem's "Lose Yourself."
You better lose yourself in the music, the moment
You own it, you better never let it go
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime yo

This, I thought, might have broken my heart a little bit.

Later, after we had gotten home and I had settled in on the couch with a book, I had the windows open and I heard a man singing across the street. The voice was clearly stationary, and yet carried beautifully. I peeked through the blinds and saw the older fellow across the street sitting on his front porch and smoking a cigarette. This is a man who has been slowly but resolutely painting his house throughout the more than three years I have lived here. Every day, it seems, weather permitting, he is out there scraping, painting, and moving with almost comical slowness up and down ladders (I have never seen a man ascend or descend a ladder more slowly). During the winter months I never see him. He is one of the half dozen characters on my block who have introduced themselves and welcomed me to the neighborhood on multiple occasions during my residency in this house. Each time I have been both too courteous and too embarrassed to inform these people that we have met before, and that I have for quite some time now considered myself a neighbor --if not, apparently, a particularly memorable one-- of longstanding.

At any rate, it was this fellow I heard singing. It was after midnight, and he was clearly trying his damnedest to do a passable impersonation of a crooner. His voice, I thought, had character. I listened as he made his way --interrupted by occasional brief fits of hacking-- through a song I know well and own many recorded versions of, "Some Other Time":

Where has all the time gone to?
Haven't done half the things we want to
Oh well, we'll catch up some other time.

This day was just a token
Too many words are still unspoken
Oh well, we'll catch up some other time.

This also, I thought, might have broken my heart a little bit, and was what led me to dig through my collections of Chekhov stories for that quote at the top. Which these days always breaks my heart a little bit.

Friday, May 14, 2010

On Stumbling Across A Few Old Dispatches From Big Leonard Carnap

Big Leonard Carnap is one of my oldest friends. We've known each other since early childhood, and were in the same kindergarten class at Banfield Elementary school.

He was born Big Leonard, or at least that was the only name I ever heard him called. Even when the teachers would call roll in school it was never simply "Leonard" or "Big," but always "Big Leonard."

For a long time now I've believed that a character of the dimensions of Big Leonard Eastman Carnap was a more statistically improbable product of my modest hometown than a movie star, professional athlete, or President.

He was born different, and his apparent gift was that he was capable of becoming more different all the time. He grew up pushing envelopes that were mostly of his own creation. From the time we were fourteen years old, Big Leonard would walk into any store in town and find the one thing --whether a book, record, or item of clothing-- that didn't belong, that never should have been there in the first place, and immediately claim it. He called these things messages, believed they had been waiting for him, and were going to change his life.

I remember he once told me, "Every day you can discover things in even the crappiest little town that are every bit as improbable and astonishing as anything some Spaniard or Frenchman ever found while out mucking around the world in a boat."

I honestly don't believe there's a single person Big Leonard ever came in personal contact with who had any direct influence on him. He invented himself.

I could tell stories about Big Leonard all day, but I'm not going to. I will, though, mention that our first band --formed in his garage at a time when none of us had the slightest idea how to play our instruments; "We're going to learn to play by learning to play," Big Leonard had said-- was called "What Shit" and was banned three years running from the high school talent show.

Big Leonard still lives just outside our hometown, in a big, old farmhouse full of books and records. He inherited the house from his paternal grandfather, who had been a judge of some sort when we were kids. I visit him on the rare occasions that I get back down there, and he's always doing something interesting, still, as he says, "trying to come up with something suitably unusual to keep me entertained." I'm of the opinion that everything he does is art of one sort or another, but he's never shown the least interest in sharing anything he does with anyone other than the occasional visitor.

At any rate, when I first moved away, Big Leonard used to regularly send me postcards featuring generic images of our hometown, photos that almost succeeded in making the place look even more uninteresting than it was. He'd usually scrawl one or two lines on the backs of these postcards, and every once in awhile I'll stumble across a stash of them when I'm rooting around in boxes looking for something else.

Here is a sampling of some of those notes. Finding them this morning made me very happy, and made me wish Big Leonard had a phone so I could call him and hear his voice.

  • Don't go over to the other side, Zellar. There's nothing over there for you.
  • Never forget that the purpose of any decent man is to make himself unfit for citizenry.
  • You can't get people to follow unless you get ahead of them, and it's best to get far enough ahead of them that you're not even aware they're behind you.
  • There is no higher calling than resistance.
  • Take the time to sit down with something interesting and don't get up until you're somehow a different man.
  • The only happy actor needs no audience.
  • Embrace the inconvenient.
  • Surely you agree with me that leaping is a more attractive option than stepping.
  • Don't you think it's always better to get thrown out trying to stretch a double into a triple than to settle for a lousy double?
  • Only when you recognize that you don't know anything can you consider yourself truly omniscient.
  • You can lie to Jesus and get away with it but, brother, lie to the devil and you're gonna pay.
  • I'm not isolating; I'm insulating.
  • I don't need any introductions. If there's somebody or something I need to know, there'll inevitably be a collision.
  • I'm never happier than when I'm blindfolded and flailing at a cement pinata with a broomstick.
  • If I was picking teams I'd take the kid who invented the armpit fart over Andy Warhol every day of the week.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Load Sixteen Tons, What Do You Get?

Today marks the sixteenth anniversary of the debut of my legendary, if cruelly obscure, career as a blogger. That's 2489 posts for those of you scoring at home. Sixteen years ago tonight I was plugging quarters into a prototype of the short-lived CompuCoin machine (at the time one of only seven such units in the country) in the Dayton, Ohio Greyhound depot, tapping into the pioneering Open Pages webring, and attempting to describe the Pere Ubu show (Brainiac and Gaunt opened) I'd seen earlier in the evening at Gilly's.

I was a big fan of the band in those days (still am), and this was around the period of Story of My Life. Justin Hall ("The founding father of personal blogging" --New York Times) had recently started his Justin's Links From the Underground blog at Swarthmore, and we had friends in common. I really didn't know diddly about computers at the time, but I was burned out on the zine hustle, thought I was capable of something more interesting than what Hall was up to, and a geeky buddy of mine from high school was helping me cobble together my first monster machine from parts he was smuggling out of a computer lab at the University of Chicago.

Because it would be another month or so before I was up and running with Night Moves, my first of a half dozen blogs in sixteen years, I count that Ubu review (title: "I Can't Believe It") as my first official foray into this lonely twisted world. This lonely, twisted world, not the real lonely, twisted world.

And here I still am. Leech Academy, Murray's Suave Outlet, Open All Night, and Yo Ivanhoe are all toast [Addendum, 5-7: I just realized that I completely forgot about Licensed to Spew (1999-2001)], but Your Man For Fun In Rapidan lumbers along to an endlessly looped drum track from a funeral march. I guess it sometimes bothers me that you never see my name mentioned alongside those of the other trailblazing bloggers [a digression: I find it curious that even after sixteen years, a blogging program would still flag the term "bloggers" as a misspelling], but I suppose that's because I've been so slipshod and have never, in all my years of blogging, stumbled into a single moment of viral good fortune.

Meanwhile, virtually every member of my old traveling party is either dead or long unaccounted for: Lance "Golden Boy" Austin (regular, acerbic contributor to Leech Academy-- given his precocious fondness for opiates, presumed dead); Greenland and Valentine Earl (far-flung correspondents, ace roller skaters, straight-edge punks, and resident agitators in the Murray's Suave Outlet days --unheard from in eight years); Uncle Jumbo (dead to the world); Budd Rugg (purportedly a born-again Christian, and, as you'd expect, whole hog); Ruckert (Open All Night's resident cynic and depressed philosopher --living in seclusion, and mute these many years); Donald Surface (libertarian political foil and drunk --engaged, I've heard, in Tea Party shenanigans and angrier than ever); Gordie Grace (musical correspondent and master of the mixtape --succumbed to liver cancer in Rose Creek, Minnesota); the shape shifter Jergie Bergen (most devoted and personally beloved of my cohort --retired from Facebook after years of faithful service, only to become even more lonely and bored, which prompted him --as is tragically so often the case-- to take a morning counter job at McDonald's, and less than a week later fall over dead from a heart attack at a bus stop on Excelsior Boulevard, this after he'd already --reportedly-- died, or at least disappeared, on many other occasions and in many other places). Which isn't to forget such relatively minor personages as the prophet Ezro, Spud Galligan, Reverend Leon and Dorothea Teat, Deke Stapleton, Casparagus (my personal Socrates), Colonel Gil Meacham, Alice Meers, Maraini the Magician, Ustave Schlegel, or poor Hoby Rupp.

So now I'm left to soldier on alone, unless someone new comes along (not likely, I know; nobody wants to blog anymore, and for plenty of good reasons). An additional complication: I've become convinced --vividly convinced-- that I myself am also dead. I have repeated visions that I died four years ago after receiving Electroconvulsive therapy [sic] in a hospital room in Minneapolis, and that I have been given an interloper exemption from the wardens of death. Which allows me to hang around, I guess, an arrangement that hasn't worked out terribly well so far.

This country doesn't have much use for dead people, and certainly doesn't waste much time listening to them. Invisibility and insignificance, I've discovered, are pretty much insurmountable challenges. As is, of course, deterioration, which I seem to be experiencing at an alarming rate.

Still, there's consciousness, or some balky and ceaseless version of consciousness, and with that comes an unshakable desire to keep saying. Something. My brain keeps moving, if not quite along. Most of the time I can only write the way my brain works, and I'm increasingly certain that's a losing formula any way you care to cut it, particularly since my brain seems to be working like a lousy transistor radio with a dial that has a mind of its own.

"Based on all available evidence" is a phrase that is giving me a great deal of torment right now, even as --or particularly because-- I have no idea what place those words have here, or why I just typed them when there was something else I intended to type, but have forgotten.

I read this in some book last night and it at least seems relevant: "What really mattered in combat was what people were like when they were exhausted."

I'm not sure if I'm in combat (that's a lie), but this is definitely what I'm like when I'm exhausted. Does that really matter? How does it matter? I have no idea.

And now I want to type these words (or perhaps I do not want to type them, but they are already on their way down my fingers): The cameraman is never missing. He's always right fucking there. It just won't work for me if his (or her) story isn't part of the story. If you see what I mean, and I accept that you probably don't.

Anyway, just another reminder:

Here I am.

This is me.

This is my story, such as it is, and the story of my lost tribe, and I fear that if I stop trying to tell it I'll lose my exemption and get sent back to the River of Forgetfulness with all the other wailing and unintelligible dead people.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Few Notes On A Popular Brand Of Swabs

Unilever, the curiously named (it always sounds to me like the title of a lost Philip K. Dick novel) manufacturer of Q-Tips, promotes its product as "the ultimate beauty tool," which, let's be honest, is complete horseshit.

On both the front and back of the package of 170 cotton swabs that I now have on my desk there is the phrase "Variety of Uses," which is the sort of literal truth that might apply to a great many things, including sticks.

Q-Tips were invented in the 1920s by a fellow named Leo Gerstenzang, and were originally introduced as Baby Gays. In the U.K. they are known as cotton buds.

Baby Gays is certainly a curious name for a swab (and I'd be curious to know what Gerstenzang and his cohorts were thinking at the time), but if they'd stuck with it who's to say it wouldn't eventually have become as devoid of awkward speculation or real meaning as many another absurd brand name. You know what I'm talking about? There are all sorts of products whose names I would feel foolish uttering aloud --and some of them I am occasionally required to utter aloud-- if I allowed myself to stop and really think about what I was saying. Many candy names and fast food restaurant offerings certainly fall under this category. I would furnish some examples, but don't much feel like it. I will say, though, that I would welcome your own contributions to such a list.

At any rate, Q-Tips were once Baby Gays, but whatever you wish now to call them they are indisputably swabs.

I adore the word swab. Truly, I love it, and wish I had more opportunities to throw it around. I also am a devotee of Q-Tips (I go through a lot of them), but they do not, for me, have a variety of uses. They have exactly one use: I employ them to clean my ears, to scratch my ears and dig around deep inside my ears with a zeal that many have found alarming. All of those, in fact, who have seen me at it would, I feel sure, agree that they have never seen anyone swab with such concentrated ferocity.

It says right on the box: "Do not insert swab into ear canal," but I am a maverick of swabbing and will not be deterred by small print designed to protect against litigation brought by artless, swabbing morons who puncture their ear drums.

I have now, very slowly, read every word on the Q-Tip package and feel as if I have been told a dozen lies and had my intelligence insulted for ten uninterrupted minutes, and still I have not learned the one thing I hoped the Q-Tip package would tell me: what does the Q stand for?

I have already steeled myself for what I feel is the obvious (too obvious) and entirely uninspired answer to this question, so uninspired that the folks at Unilever are probably (and understandably) a bit sheepish about providing this piece of embarrassing information anywhere on their packaging.

I will not, however, google for the answer to this question. Instead, first thing Monday morning I will call the company headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, NJ (201.894.4000) and I will force someone in marketing or public relations to give me what I'm almost certain will be a hesitant answer. Given the realities of corporate communication today, I'm prepared to spend some time on hold, and to be passed along to as many as three, or possibly four, parties, hopefully working my way up the chain of Unilever command. And if --as I suspect they will-- someone finally tells me that the Q in Q-Tips stands for Quality (I have mulled ever other Q word in my dictionary, and the only other possible candidates, however outlandish, are Quell and Quotidian), I will first lodge a formal complaint, and then I will immediately begin my search for a new swab, an alternate, perhaps more creative or even edgy swab, a swab that's not such an unimaginative, lying prick of a swab, however convenient and effective I may have personally found it for excavations of my ear canal, etc.

In the meantime, I'd be eager to hear of your experiences (pleasant or not so pleasant) with alternate swabs that I might find in the swab aisle of my local drugstore.

Saturday, May 1, 2010


In those moments alone, so often in the dark,
watching Buster Keaton or L'Atalante or
The Third Man
, or paging slowly through
Robert Frank's Americans or Eggleston's
Guide or The Golden Bough, or listening on
headphones in his bedroom to the records
he bought from the cut-out bin at Osco Drug
or brought home from the Public Library,
--Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Sun Ra,
Link Wray, Howlin' Wolf, Captain Beefheart,
Dr. John, Tonight's the Night, Charley Patton,
Jimmie Rodgers, The Anthology of American
Folk Music, many of which struck him as exactly
the sort of strangeness he was desperately looking
for, and which he loved initially and purely for that
strangeness; weird was good enough, he wanted
simply different-- he couldn't have known, and
certainly didn't know, that in those moments
the world was changing forever, or that what until
then he had understood as the world was being
obliterated, and that what he was experiencing
was not simply pleasure, but a process of becoming
the person he could not not be, a person who would
never be happy unless every door he opened
revealed five more doors, behind which were ten
doors, on and on into an impossible future, until he
was finally faced with more doors than he could ever
hope to open, and this realization, and the suspicion
that if he could just keep opening these doors,
if he had enough time (which he knew, he knew,
he knew he did not), he might one day, finally,
stumble into a room that had the one missing
thing he'd been looking for his entire life, an answer
to what it had all meant, and why he had been
claimed, and hectored by such a scattershot and
ruinous obsession to follow every single river,
every creek, every trickling stream to its origin,
rather than to the sea, where he might have found
a boat, paddled until he was at peace, and let it all go.