Category Archives: Writing Expedition

Goop?

A List of Luxury Fashion Designers That Decided To Go Fur-Free

I love Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop media franchise-festival-website-train wreck-tent revival-circus because it’s so bad, so transparent, so cynical, so marketed to the sad and the gullible, that it’s good.  It fails so spectacularly that it inadvertently succeeds at being something else: not just more disingenuous commerce beneath a layer of new age double-talk, but, like Gwyneth herself, a new mutant reality, a fun house mirror that you can step into, like any magic mirror, and find yourself in some alternate world.

Whenever I witness something from Goop, I think, “Oprah did this” in the sense that Oprah’s marketing simultaneously harnessed the libidos of multiple generations of frustrated women across economic and ethnic boundaries in a way hitherto unrivaled by Madison Avenue.  Oprah was up in everybody’s grill.  Her media empire embodied the Wachowskis’ matrix concept: persistent, ubiquitous, artificial, verisimilar, and controlling.  For 25 years, the Oprah Winfrey Show (with its attendant book club, “favorite things” endorsements, travel events, health trends, mail-order spirituality, and assorted celebrity mea culpas) gave viewers a voice, essentially Oprah’s voice. 

But, for all that, one got the impression that she at least meant well.  Beneath the innumerable folds of consumerism and coercive string-pulling, Oprah maintained a pearl of optimism about human beings.  Much of her show focused on ways to realize oneself, actualize one’s unique gifts, and live a better life—not such a bad thing given the dry rot at the heart of American culture.  The weight of that simple optimism seemed to counterbalance all the product placement.

Daytime talk show tabloidia could accept Oprah as a messiah figure perhaps because she came bearing free cars, spa trips, and the occasional house.  Someone would walk on stage with a check the size of a Volvo and hand it to a weeping audience member.  Confetti would fall from the ceiling.  And everyone would bellow in orgasmic wonder.  

But nobody wants to find their spiritual apotheosis in Gwyneth.

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Christmas 7 months away, but it’s always today.

I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel. I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.

– Charlie Brown


Law School and Self-Worth

Years ago, when I was in law school, I had a curious experience, one that has recently echoed back to me from the son of a friend coming to the end of his 1L.  I would attend classes for about 5-6 hours a day, then spend 8-10 more studying in the library. I was wired pretty tightly, well on my way to developing a host of stress- and anxiety-driven illnesses, a drinking habit, anger management problems, and a degree of generalized hatred for myself and all humanity. And I was one of the relatively soulful, philosophically minded, well-adjusted ones.  You wouldn’t have wanted to spend 10 minutes in my presence.

The substance abuse in my first and second years was incredible to behold. It was comparable to the level of fear sustained in the students by the policies of the school, the economy, and their own Type-A personalities. At this time, jobs in law were just starting to become scarce. People were deeply in debt, had sacrificed everything to get there, and were obsessively, neurotically, pathologically motivated to succeed. The most popular directions were intellectual property, cyber law, and various other strains of corporate or business-oriented practice. Those interested in criminal law were viewed with a mix of wonder and contempt. The poverty law clinic people were considered idealistic rubes destined to live on ramen and hot dogs for the rest of their miserable lives.

And so it went. There was a suicide at the end of 1L, a hushed-up sexual harassment scandal involving a star professor, a few students dropped out, one to get married and become a suburban housewife, another due to undisclosed health problems, another after an in-class meltdown. The rest of us soldiered on because we had to. What else did we have? We were children who’d practiced the tuba for hours and hours and now we were in Advanced Tuba School. Take our tubas away and, we felt, we’d have to go sleep in the park.

I was no exception to any of this. The only thing that I had going for me was a tiny secret flame of creativity that I kept lit. Every Sunday morning, like a religious ritual, I took an hour out to read a short story. That was my church and my scripture. It was also another source of pain because it reminded me that somewhere someone not in law had written those words.  My fellow students fantasized about opening surf shops, being school custodians, managing bowling alleys. The escape fantasies came thick and fast, especially around exams when the law library mostly reeked of coffee and body odor. I fantasized about these things, too, about being a writer custodian or a writer surf shop cashier.

One afternoon, sitting in a fern-laden restaurant I couldn’t afford with a drug lawyer who had become a mentor of sorts, I came to a realization. She was on her third glass of wine, telling me that I needed to love law school because it was only going to get worse afterward. She said, “When I was in law school, I got to the point where I thought that I might be able to get hit by a car and live. If my legs were broken, no one could blame me for quitting.” I walked out of that lunch feeling like I’d just visited the crossroads and the devil had handed me some solid advice: you can sell your soul, but why don’t you go home and think it over first?

In the grand synchronicity of all things magical, I’d gotten an email that day from a writer I admired. I’d sent him a few old short stories and asked the most annoying question a young writer can ask: “Am I any good?” But he was kind and honest. He wrote back and said, “Yes, in my opinion, you are. But the life of a writer is not easy and you should know what you’re getting into. If you want to come study with me, you’re invited.” Warnings and dire pronouncements were nothing new. I heard them every day. So the caveat made absolutely no impression on me whatsoever. His opinion about my writing did. Shortly thereafter, I left law school to study creative writing and subsequently get a PhD in English.

Still, you don’t just walk away from that life. Law school makes a deep impression. It made me strong in certain ways, forced me to stop seeing success in law as a grand test of self-worth. Law school isn’t an IQ test; it’s not a metric for willpower, character, cleverness, or discipline; though, it draws on all of those things (like anything made artificially difficult). Law is generally taught poorly, often emotionally brutalizes students, and is unforgiving of human frailty in totally unnecessary ways. It’s also idealized when it should be analyzed. People worship law education because succeeding there is held up as an objective way to know one’s worth, which is tragic.

I want to say these things to my friend’s son. But I know I can’t because I see in him all the masochistic investment that I saw when I was back in law school. Instead, I will say it here and add: someone who seems stupid and unsuccessful in one respect will be smart and successful in another. Often these things will not be superficially evident. Until you can accept this—that there is no way to judge your worth apart from looking for it inside yourself—you will always be sad, scared, and beholden to the social power of others.

Be free. Let it go. Try to experience love. Try to discover small things that make you happy and look for ways to share those things with others. That’s when life really gets good. When you see someone who appears to be the smartest or most powerful person in the room, take a step back and widen your perspective until that feeling of being impressed and intimidated passes. Then look again.


How I’ve been feeling lately (as expressed by good old Henry Chinaski).

At the age of 25 most people were finished. A whole god-damned nation of assholes driving automobiles, eating, having babies, doing everything in the worst way possible, like voting for the presidential candidate who reminded them most of themselves. I had no interests. I had no interest in anything. I had no idea how I was going to escape. At least the others had some taste for life. They seemed to understand something that I didn’t understand. Maybe I was lacking. It was possible. I often felt inferior. I just wanted to get away from them. But there was no place to go.

– Charles Bukowski


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You Don’t Need Product Placement to be an Artist

This is what I often try to communicate on this blog. Here’s Dave Grohl saying it from a musical perspective.


A Hunger Artist

Caleb was a smart, funny, middle-aged real estate salesman who dressed well and seemed amused by the world.  He sat apart in my Shakespeare seminar, every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, shrouded in the kind of invisibility that accompanies older, returning, so-called “non-traditional” college students.  The rest of the class, early 20-something undergraduates, were only interested in each other and passing the 3 credits of Shakespeare required for their various humanities degrees.  But I paid attention to Caleb and listened to him when he occasionally spoke up.

Maybe this was because I spent my childhood and early adult years in search of male role models, my father having been emotionally absent for most of my life.  Whatever the reason, while the other students were busy trying to get together with each other and / or ridicule each other’s ideas—oblivious to everyone and everything (often including the professor and the work) that stood outside the narrow purview of their post-adolescent obsessions—I was taking it all in, especially the things Caleb said. 

I remember thinking that he seemed to have everything a man could want: intelligence, style, money, wit, and enough virtue to believe that he could better himself by getting a second bachelor’s degree.  In my own very naïve and superficial way, I thought he was teaching me something by example.  I paid attention because I believed there were life secrets in plain view that could be discovered as long as I showed up, closed my mouth, and opened my mind.  But the lesson I was destined to learn from Caleb would not be taught until I got to know him better.

Toward the end of the course, we had to find a partner and prepare a presentation on one of Shakespeare’s history plays.  I was a hard worker.  So the presentation was relatively easy.  And since, like Caleb, I was a social outsider in the class, it seemed natural that we would be partners.  In this way, I got to know him a lot better.  We met a few times at the country club, of which he was part owner, and he taught me the basics of golf—which I found interesting but which I have not played since then.

We did the work, but I also got drawn temporarily into his social sphere.  Caleb had a magnetic personality and was constantly surrounded by money, activity, assistants, and stunning women, most of whom were professionals in commercial real estate or finance.  His lifestyle was impressive and a bit overwhelming to me.  Still, working with him over the course of a month gave me an insight I hadn’t had, a vision of what life could be like after college.  But it all fell away one afternoon over lunch when Caleb gave me some frank advice.

We’d just finished eating with a woman named Eva, who was about 5 years older than me and already a heavyweight in east coast corporate real estate.  She could have easily been a girl in one of my classes, but she’d graduated a year before from Princeton.  She was also one of the most physically beautiful people I had ever looked at.  When she said her good-byes and went off towards the tennis courts, Caleb and I watched her go.  I felt like I’d been struck by a bolt of lightning—that curious blend of admiration and despair that started wars in the ancient world, made poets fill their heads with absinthe and jump off bridges, and makes everyday people like you and me weep in the dark.

Caleb noticed the look on my face and said, “Don’t be a walking wallet in your life, Michael.”

I said I didn’t understand and he just looked at me with a faint smile as if to say, yes, you damn well do.

“This is no life to fall in love with,” he said.  “Study hard.  Do what you’re good at.  This—” he frowned and waved his hand to take in the people sitting around us, Eva (now a tiny figure in a white skirt among other tiny white-skirted figures on the tennis courts), the rolling golf course, the perfect blue sky—“is artificial.”

Over the years, it has occurred to me more than once that I could have sincerely responded with: “Most things we want are.”  But I wasn’t that glib at age 21.  Instead, I must have nodded or changed the subject because I don’t remember the rest of the conversation.  I do remember how Caleb pronounced artificial, like it was covered in some kind of excrement.  And I clearly recall how my sense of Eva immediately changed from infatuation to a kind of dread. 

If Caleb, a man who seemed to have everything, could feel bitter about his choices, then what lay in store for Eva?  For me?  How long would it take for the acids of commercial real estate to etch lines of acrimony and despair into her beautiful face?  And to what lengths would she go to cover all that up and approximate her former smile?  To what lengths had Caleb gone?  And how unsophisticated and superficial was I that I couldn’t see this while he could read my deepest longings and insecurities over a Caesar salad at the club?

I suppose he’d taken his own advice in spite of his regrets.  Caleb was doing what he was good at: reading me, helping me understand how to find satisfaction.  A gifted salesman knows your likes and dislikes, knows how to help you get what you want.  At the deepest purest level, a salesman is your best friend.  No one cares more deeply about fulfilling your needs, about why and how you’re hungry and how to feed you.  It has occurred to me that a true salesman—someone following his inner gift such that a writer like Cormac McCarthy might say he carried the secret fire—is as much an artist as any painter or poet.  He merely works in a cruder medium: human desire.

Caleb was one of the few people I’ve met in my life who carried that fire alongside his pain.  The possibility that one could actually do this was the lesson he taught me in a single conversation on a beautiful California afternoon sometime in 1993.  It opened my mind, not to becoming a real estate salesman like him, but to the reality that I had the secret fire, too; that somewhere it was already burning; and that discovering it was more important than all the dreams of avarice.