Thursday, July 29, 2010

Role Models

Role Models
John Waters

“Being rich is not about how much money you have or how many homes you own; it’s the freedom to buy any book you want without looking at the price and wondering if you can afford it.”
- John Waters

An apropos quote, considering I bought Waters’ latest book Role Models immediately upon seeing a signed copy at St. Marks Bookshop. Nope, never even looked at the price. I knew no matter what it was, it was worth it.

Role Models acts as a bookend, and in some ways an answer to, Waters’ first book Shock Value. Shock Value (published in 1981) was the work of a hilarious, bratty young man and a manifesto, a call to arms against snooty good taste. Role Models is the work of a still hilarious, yet more refined older man, who has seen bad taste become mainstream, the only taste left in America. Parts of it read like a mea culpa, most noticeably in the chapters about Leslie Van Houten, one of the convicted members of the Manson family, and Shelia Alberta Bowater, aka “Lady Zorro,” a lesbian stripper in one of Baltimore’s sleazier clubs from Waters’ youth. Whereas Shock Value featured an almost gleeful attitude towards the Manson family – a picture of John posing with Tex Watson probably lost him (John, not Tex) more than one movie deal – Role Models’ chapter on Ms. Van Houten is actually an impassioned plea for parole based on the belief that people can change and reform themselves in prison. It’s also a testament to Waters’ friendship with Van Houten, even if Waters’ mother comments when a letter from Leslie is delivered to their house, “Does the Manson Family have to have our address?”

The chapter on Lady Zorro is also heartbreaking because if focuses on the damage she inflicted upon her daughter who, against the odds, has managed to pull her life together and now has a bemused attitude towards her alcoholic and destructive mother. In his early films Waters collected people and ideas that were against the norm, as an enemy of his enemy (middle class manners and hypocrisy) being a friend. But as an older man, Waters seems to recognize the cost it takes to live outside the norms, both to yourself and those around you. He now seems horrified by Lady Zorro’s home life and instead respects her daughter’s quiet dignity.

It’s an attitude I can understand. When I was young, part of what attracted me to a particular group of friends was that they were not “normal.” They were funny, all a little crazy, but had neither a desire nor an ability to fit in. The sentimental inclination is to say that we all formed our own family, but that’s not quite true. It was more like these outcasts formed their own asylum, with each one taking turns being either inmate or social worker. I guess because I am fundamentally middle-class and bourgeois and normal, I assumed that they too would eventually calm down and we’d grown into funny wacky adults together. But that’s not what happened. Some of them died from drugs, some people’s craziness eventually make them impossible to be around, and some of them slipped into desperate lives that are as far from normal as you can get but still function. I remember when I realized “They’re never going to get better. This is who they’re going to be for the rest of their lives.” That sort of melancholy, that surveying of a devastated landscape behind you, came to mind reading Role Models. The lucky ones who live and endure get to remember and talk about those who didn’t.

This makes Roles Models sound like a dreary affair; it is anything but. Waters writes with his customary wit, and his insight into people and the arts still surprise like flash bombs. He’s equally adept at writing about singer Johnny Mathis, artist Cy Twombly, author Jane Bowles and gay pornographers. His article about avant-garde fashion designer Rei Kawakubo didn’t make me want to wear her clothes, but I understand why Waters does: “…I like to wear a blue coat that, if you look really closely, you realize, no, it doesn’t need to be cleaned; those coffee stains are part of the fabric. This way if a drunken fisherman spills a drink on you, you’ve turned him into a fashion designer and he’s none the wiser.”

One final word from Waters, and it’s not a bad one to live by: “I’ve always said true success is figuring our your life and career so you never have to be around jerks.”


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains
Nicholas Carr

Ever since I’ve lost God, or rather misplaced Him, I’ve been looking for the prime cause a little lower; within my brain, to be exact. Once I stopped thinking of “my second favorite organ” (to quote Woody Allen) as a fixed operating system but instead as an ongoing work-in-progress, one that you could effect by your actions and that, in turn, would effect you, I’ve become interested in how the cauliflower inside our heads gets anything done. Neurology has replaced psychology and, as it is still a fresh field for me to explore, I am fascinated by the ideas that grow there.

One favorite idea is that technology changes us fundamentally because technology changes our consciousness. Our ancestors of long ago, who lived their entire lives without various tools, might as well be a different species. It’s a very Marshall McLuhan idea, though I was infected with it by David Cronenberg. The way that technology changes us, that it is never a passive tool free of consequences, is the underlying thesis of The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. Carr moves from the anecdotal and personal (“I can’t seem to concentrate on reading anything for very long nowadays”) to trying to find the reasons why. It’s not just that concentration and deep reading are a bore or old fashioned in today’s infobyte culture. It’s because prolonged exposure to the internet and how we surf the web causes changes not just in habits or learned behavior but in the physical structure of the brain itself.

Like the internet, The Shallows contains multitudes. It is a history of books and reading and of the internet, including an overview of Google (the book grew out of the author’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”). It includes a demonstration on how technology changes consciousness. Clocks changed man’s perception of time (the first people to demand precise time measurement were monks in the middle ages who wanted to know exactly when to pray) and maps changed man’s perception of space. It is an accessible primer on the physiology of the human brain and how experience is transformed into memory and a demonstration of why human memory is nothing like computer memory. It is a warning of the consequences of individuals and cultures abandoning the concentration that comes with focusing on a text in favor of gorging on information in a short period of time.

In a digression, Carr himself admits the irony in the fact that he set out to write a book about the fact that he seems to be losing his ability to concentrate on anything for an extended period of time. To finish his book, he had to deliberately curtail his internet usage, but confesses that as the book neared completion, he found himself going online more and more.

I find myself with a slightly different problem. I’ve always been a fidgety reader, but once I get past the initial phase of looking around, looking at the cover of the book for the umpteenth time, flipping through its pages and re-reading paragraphs, then I am hooked. I can’t blame the internet for that. However, I now find it takes a great deal of effort to watch a movie. It is rare I watch a film in one sitting at home anymore. Inevitably I have to stop to make tea, check email, take a nap, or indulge in some other distraction. I suspect that this is internet related and that it is the similarity of the television screen to the computer monitor that makes me want to mentally “click” on to some other idea. This doesn’t happen when I watch television shows, probably due to the faster-paced storytelling.

Happily, I’ve become interested in reading in a way that I have not in years. An irony to add to Carr’s: I was completely hooked on his book about how books are losing their place as the prime purveyors of information, particularly to sections discussing how human brains work. Having finished The Shallows, I try to force myself to concentrate more, particularly while at my job, rather than get swept away in the tide of instant messages, emails, jumping online and indulging in all the other distractions. I can’t control the world around me, but I can try to exorcise some control over how it affects and if it changes me.

(And yes, I did look at the internet many times while writing this post).