the lawyer writer

sometimes legal                     sometimes literary                     sometimes not

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Why Television Is Good For You

I was out in the Lower East Side Saturday night to meet friends for the tail-end of their all-day drinkfest. How some of my friends can start drinking in the afternoon and still outlast me is a complete mystery. I mean, I used to be one of them. At any rate, I drank very quickly to catch up to the buzz, and ended up overhearing an animated conversation between two very intellectual, carefully scruffy, rather cute young men. They were talking about books in that really excited animated way that you do when you're only a few years out of college. You know, where you still collect them, and don't yet know how much you're going to hate their combined lead weight when it's time to move. Since I have never grown out of this phase, I was really enjoying hearing them talk with such passion for reading, until one of them said "Yeah, I won't even get television. Television kills your mind."

I suppose we all go through this phase, but since I graduated, I am never without a television, full cable, in my bedroom. I can finally justify it as a business expense, sort of, because it's all part of my cable modem package, but I always feel like I should be a little embarassed to have two televisions in a storage cube of an apartment. But now--no more.

You know that NRA saying: "Guns don't kill people; people kill people?" My beloved Eddie Izzard had this immortal comment: "Yes, well. I think that the guns bloody well help." Same with television. TV doesn't make you stupid; people make themselves stupid. And yes, if you are stupid, then watching television can make you much, much stupider. However--if you're an intelligent person, interested in the world and people around you, then television can also make you much, much smarter.

The best channel on television in New York (Time Warner, at least) is the Ovation Channel. Bar none. The network calls itself "The Arts Network" and that's all it is: artists, musicians, actors. Sounds like a PBS knock off, doesn't it? (And what would be wrong with that anyway?) But there are two very cool things about this channel.

One, the programming is extremely unique. It does some things like A&E does--mini-documentaries about history, biographies of John Cleese, that sort of stuff. But Ovation does it in a very eclectic, hipster, sexy way. Last night, I watched an incredible documentary about Botticelli's drawings for Dante's Divine Comedy, and it was like MTV had taken over the Renaissance Wing at the Louvre. Yes, there were dry professors talking about what the Divine Comedy meant, and artists talking about brush strokes and they were all talking about what, in a museum, is just something to look at. But it was also cut in the MTV style, with contemporary shots of lovers and lots of sound effects and fast cutting and rather cool music. Allusions were made to cartoons, sexual depravity, demonology and Renaissance physics; to the artist's enjoyment of violence; to why we should care about any of this. By the time I was done, I realized I'd learned something, almost by accident, while being immensely entertained.

Second, Ovation is not just boring videos of some ballet or dance performance, or museum tours. Frankly, I don't like watching music on television (it's only good live), so I skip all the ballet or dance or even the opera. But the little documentaries about visual artists are addictive. The show "The Private Life of a Masterpiece" tracks the history of major works of art (Below, mostly to break up the acres of text)

Michelangelo's David, which many Victorians felt was just a big naked man, not art. (Hey, can't they be both)

Rodin's The Kiss. Did you know it's sculpted so that she's actually jumping him?

Eduard Munch's The Scream: The image obsessed Munch so much that he actually painted dozens of Screams.

In short, the stories behind those boring hunks in the museum are full of murder and sex and madness and weird interpretations of art and artist intent that you never though of. The best documentary was the first one I saw: "Matisse & Picasso," a French documentary about the friendship/rivalry between the two artists (they riffed off each other's work like jazz musicians). I've been hooked on the Ovation Channel ever since.

And yes, dammit, I am quite aware that I sound like some boring chick who'll drag you to some six hour Russian opera or an exhibit on Medieval wolf-whistles in some gallery in Queens. (I wouldn't, but I'd be excited if you would). Sometimes I just get that way, It makes me nervous. Where when I was a kid, I wanted to impress everyone with how much I knew, I now want to impress everyone with normal and un-snobby I am. aid in that, and further my argument that television is good for you, I will confess this: Tonight, I watched, for the second time, the Jerry Hall show on VH1 called Kept. This is the show where Jerry Hall, living happily and Mick-free in England, has decided to hold a contest to find a boy toy. She has picked 12 underwear model-looking guys to torture, tease and train into "the perfect kept man." I was appalled and abhorred when I heard about the show, and yet already rather bored by it. It was inevitable, wasn't it? Besides, I hate, hate, hate reality television. In fact, I hate most television, which is as it should be. And I should be hating this show, but I'm not.

For one thing, I like the idea. Now, don't get me wrong, I think Jerry Hall is one scary looking broad. Over the years, she's gone a little Morticia Addams--if Morticia were blond and Texan. But what else is she supposed to do with herself? She has money. She used to be famous. She would like to be famous again. (After all, it used to be Mick and Jerry on the cover of People and Rolling Stone; now it's Nick and Jessica). Most importantly, she would also like to humiliate a bunch of men on television, thereby announcing to the world that she's a dominatrix looking for action.

I mean, lets give the lady some credit. She greets them in a red, shoulder-padded power suit and elbow length black leather gloves. She makes them swim across the Thames--not the cleanest place in the world--in speedos withe Union Jack emblazoned on the behind. She parades them in front of her girlfriends at a local pub (and, amusingly it's sort of a Rock Dinosaur Wives Reunion; everbody's boyfriend is Bob Geldof or Bill Wyman or Charlie Watts or Pete Townsend). And, best of all, she has a tightly wound, icy blond, British schoolmistress-type Secretary named Katy to order them around and be very, very mean to them.

And, essentially that's what these dating reality shows are about: humiliation. The train-wreck fascination about a whole gender misbehaving and being punished for it. So it's rather nice for a show to be so overt about it, whith Dame Jerry in the middle acting like she's not a day over 20 and yet really seeming to enjoy herself in all her drag queen glory. Hell, when she tosses the first Mr. Wrong off the show, two armed security guards escort him off the premises. Very Duran Duran-meets-Third Reich.

There are many of you who will be appalled that I watched and liked this show--without irony, with genuine interest. There will be many more of you who are appalled that I think it means something. I can do nothing about that. I can only offer the following arguments to your possible criticisms:

1) Isn't it horrifying to see talentless people make millions of dollars and the cover of magazines for absolutely no fucking reason while people are dying in Africa?
Yes. Next question.

2) Well, shouldn't you be doing something about the people in Africa?
Yes. Next question. This one about the show, please.

3) Why do you support or find interest in these talentless celebrity hangers-on who are famous just because they fucked the right people?
I have no idea. That is why it is so fascinating. That is why the human brain is fascinating. That I--or anyone--can switch back and forth between a documentary about Vermeer and The Fab Life of Nelly is fascinating. And yet cannot sit through a single episode of Sex & the City or some godawful Civil War documentary without feeling ill. I just don't know why.

4) Isn't it just junk food for the brain?
Well, duh. But you can find meaning in anything if you choose to think about it, to be aware. For example, I find it a little tacky to advertise for a boy toy on television, and yet I understand it just the tiniest bit. After all, this blog entry began with thoughts of Saturday night, where I was hanging around with some adorable, just-post-college boys and having the time of my life. There's a little Jerry in all of us.

5) Don't you realize that the show has no meaning, it's just marketing and publicity? Something can be overtly about marketing and publicity and still be good. For example, the Botticelli/Dante documentary I saw last night was prepared by various museums who, incidentally, are preparing to exhibit those very illustrations. They are willing to put in rock music and sexy comments and contemporary movie clips to do it. Good marketing? Well, now I really want to see those illustrations, so...yes. And yet it makes you think critically. Kept also makes me think critically. For example, which idiot contestant is going to make a move on Jerry's ice-bitch hot assistant first?

6) Don't you know that it's all planned in advance?
Yes. I don't quite believe that any of these people are real people. I think they're all publicity hounds desperate for their 14:59 of fame, it does sicken me. But I'm enthralled by the obviously fake emotions and plot manipulations that keep intelligent, aware, critically thinking people hooked. Especially when it's in a "wow, I didn't see that coming" way.

7) Does this mean that you like Jerry Hall?

No, I think she's a publicity hound, and probably has an exaggerated faith of her looks and, well, kind of a high-maintenance dominatrix who's two steps away from Sunset Boulevard. But even if her line readings are robotic, at least she sounds like she's a littls self-aware of the ridiculousness. And she's still more interesting than J.Lo.

8) Does this mean you agree with her approach to men or sex?

No. I like men. I think the men on the show are gross, but that's another story. I still believe in chemistry rather than the purchasing power of the British pound. And I don't get off on humiliating people. (Unless it's their birthday and they ask for it nicely, of course.)

9) Are you addicted to this show?
For the next couple episodes, maybe. I'm faithless to television. I certainly won't set the VCR for it. Mostly because they'll play it enough so that I'll catch it again eventually.

10. Will you watch America's Top Model with me?

No. I draw the line at Janice Dickinson. Actually, I'd like to draw a line through her.

Anyway, you get the picture. Some television is good for you. It is good for you in obvious ways, and good for you when you stop and think about what you're watching.

The internet, on the other hand, is evil. Especially when your blog entry is about younger men, Jerry Hall, Bottticelli and television, and you have a tendency not to edit.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Love Lessons

As I explore my Indian-ness for the Indian chick lit--er, social satire--I realize that I will definitely have to cover one very important bit of Indianicia (which means "of things related to being Indian" and which, incidentally, is also not a real word). I am speaking of the Kama Sutra.

Now, growing up, I knew that Kama was the god of love, and Sutra is a type of mantra or form of learning. I'm not saying these are the actual definitions, but this is what I thought they were. However, I did not encounter the Kama Sutra until my pre-teens, when I was flipping idly through TV Guide and saw that Playboy was playing something called "Kama Sutra Stories III." Normally I would have gone to the Indianica expert in our family, but thank God I didn't, because that was my father. The last thing I needed in my adolescence was any Playboy-related discussions with my father. I'd already once asked him if our new car was a Vulva or a Volvo, and he'd looked at me sternly and said "Never, ever say that word again."

But this only delayed my realization of what exactly the Kama Sutra was. And when someone tried to tell me that it was an Indian sex manual--a how-to guide--with all sorts of dirty pictures, I thought they were joking. First of all, everybody knew that only Westerners had pre-marital sex. Second of all, if there was an Indian sex manual, wouldn't I have seen it by now?

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with Indian sex. Everything in my environment--parents, relatives, Indian books, newspapers--told me that only Westerners were obsessed with sex and made dirty movies. After all, Indians didn't even kiss. According to Bollywood, they expressed romantic feelings by jiggling around their eyes a lot. (Don't laugh. I knew Eskimos had that nose thing, so maybe Indians just didn't kiss). Anyway, when I was confronted with the Kama Sutra again, I was shocked. What kind of Indians were these anyway? And were all these instructions important?

I rather formally studied the Kama Sutra in college in my Hinduism course. It is actually a rather complex book, but there are a few things of importance. Firstly, the Kama Sutra is a guide of Indian etiquette, and only the second chapter is the dirty how-to guide. The rest is on seduction, romance, etiquette when dealing with other people's wives, courtesans, and nice wholesome stuff like that. But it really is like reading Miss Manners, with a Dr. Ruth chapter thrown in. Secondly, it is remarkably gender-equal for its time. It believes that the men and the women feel sexual pleasure--an idea that wasn't present in the West until the 20th century--and part of a man's pleasure came from the pleasure he was giving. My favorite line is from the biting chapter: "Thus if men and women act according to each other's liking, their love for each other will not be lessened even in one hundred years."

So, immediately, one would assume that India was a very liberated country when it came to gender equality. This is far from the case. In fact, the Kama Sutra--a book valued in Western culture but not in the East--is both pro-sexual and pro-gressive, My relatives and every Indian book or magazine I read were either closemouthed or utterly chauvanistic about things like child marriage and spousal abuse, let alone adultery or sex. And gender equality? Please. Men drank; women didn't. Men could have multiple spouses, women couldn't. Male babies were preferred to female babies. The dowry system was alive and well. And, oh yes, that whole burning-the-widow-at-the pyre thing (really only present in rural areas, but still).

This, in reality, was what studying the Kama Sutra in college did for me; it was kind of a philosophical crossroads. This is not, however, what I tell people. I simply look coy and say "Well, I am Indian. We learn these things in private lessons at a VERY early age." A sense of manners prevents me from telling you if I can back this up or not--it would be very un-Kama Sutra like to brag. But that is the best thing about the Kama Sutra; it is the ultimate trump card in the culture wars. The Irishman boasts he invented Guinness, the Italian says he invented pizza, the Frenchmen invented both champagne and cheese. Hell, the Brit even claims he invented civilization. But I just smile, wait my turn and say "Kama Sutra," which means "we invented good sex." Game over.

Conclusory Note: To write this blog entry, I thought I'd do some research and call up my family to ask their opinion of why the Kama Sutra is so revered in Western culture, and so ignored in Indian culture. These are their responses:

Mother: God, why don't you please get married already?
Brother: You asked who about what?
Father: Never, ever say that word again.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Word Artist

I want to be a great writer. I don't know if I'm allowed to say that. I don't claim to be a great writer now, but I have a goal, and that is to one day read my own writing and say "That's really good. No one else could have thought of that." Like many people, I have moments of this, but they are few and far in between.

I've been in a stranglehold with money lately, thanks to the IRS, and I started looking back at my legal career a little fondly. It was so nice to know where to go each day, know that the work would come in, know that if I put my time in, my bank account would magically plump right up every two weeks, thanks to the miracle of direct deposit. Once in a while, I used to have fantasies of being a really great court attorney, but all those fantasies just centered around striding up and down the courtroom in a Yves St. Laurent power suit and dismantling a hostile witness question by question. Then, of course, there's the press conference. I didn't, however, imagine the painstaking details that every trial attorney must go through--prepping witnesses, going through files, discovery motions, demanding clients, choosing a jury (only to have it turn against you), making up the exhibits...who cared about that stuff? I just wanted to win in court. It didn't take long for me to realize that this had nothing to do with being a great trial attorney. It was just theatrics; I wanted to pull out the stops and give a great performance.

So I'm a ham. But when I think of being a great writer, I think of different things. Don't get me wrong--I think of nice juicy advances and magazine profiles and all those literary prizes that everyone feuds over. I too want to be the Next Big Thing and have all my books adapted into highly inventive independent movies. But mostly, when I think of being a great writer, I think of getting more and more accustomed to sitting in front the computer, pulling things out of my head and molding them with words until they make good sentences and not suffering through the process like it's some kind of torture--which happens more than I like right now--but actually enjoying it, relishing it, feeling artist. A word artist.

Because while it was all the outward trappings of being a lawyer that attracted me--the money, the prestige, the trapped audience of a jury--the only reason I do what I do for a living is because of those few, rare moments when I can re-read a sentence and think "wow." As if someone else had written it.

So I want to be a great writer. I don't just want to sell books. I want to last. I want to evolve. I want to Say Something and manage to Entertain at the same time. It feels insufferably grandiose to say all this. I should just say that I'm happy I ever got published. But it isn't enough. Maybe it's not meant to be enough. Maybe that's what keeps you going.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Snakes and Earrings

You can tell a lot about a person by the books she reads. Or, I used to think so back in college. The best way to understand anyone in college was to ask them who their favorite authors were. The list was unbearably generic. Sophomore girls were discovering their feminism, and their books invariably included Women Who Run With the Wolves and Wiccan Love Spells. Anyone who was one-tenth Irish ended up pontificating about how he'd retraced Dublin exactly as it was done in Ulysses. Ditto for anyone one-tenth Native American. Even if they were as white and preppie as the Ivy League snow, they'd corner you at some party and start raving the Oppression of Their People and how Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony was suppressed by white American literary hegemony. Indians--well, there weren't many Indian-Americans at Claremont McKenna College. And Bollywood wasn't hip then. So we continued to plaster our walls with Monet prints (I personally preferred Maxfield Parrish) and stuck to the old British canon: Donne, Tennyson, a little Eliot for flavor.

But post-college, it's different. You can never predict anyone. You don't even know if your friends read anything beyond the New York Post sports page. And when they tell you what they're reading, it can surprise you. Witness, for example, my friend Julie. She is a Southern belle, minus the accent (though she can go Scarlett O'Hara at moment's notice). She likes opera and works as an editor for Dutton. She secretly reads romances--the period piece ones with pirates and breast-heaving women--under the covers. I've known her for a while now, so when she told me she'd purchased an erotic Japanese novel, I pictured something kind of Madame Butterfly-ish. Memoirs of a Geisha with the dirty parts written up more.

What she sent me was Snakes and Earrings. Written by the obscenely accomplished Hitomi Kanehara (he was 20 when he got Japan's most prestigious literary award), it is erotic, but not in the way you think. The story centers around Lui, a vaguely nomadic Japanese girl who's part of the disillusioned punk subculture in Japan. When her lover Ama--who, thanks to the miracle of piercing, is literally fork-tongued--goes missing, she realizes that she knows little about identity, let alone sex or love. The novel is filled with filmable visuals--Barbie Girls in camisoles and blond wigs, dragon tattoos that remain eyeless so they don't come to life, punk girls working as psuedo-geishas for drink money (the only use they seem to have for traditional Japanese culture). The common thread through all this is the complicated relationship that Lui has to pleasure and pain--not just in her S&M sexual activities, but in her obsession with body modification, in tattoos and piercing. Each moment of artistry results in bodily pain, and it's hard to guess what Lui enjoys more. It's a dark, terse, unrelenting little book, and, to put it mildly, not what I expected from Miss Julie at all. But then again, this book was a smart business decision. Is it really what she reads under the covers, along with her Harlequin romances? What kind of girl is she? Then again, what kind of girl am I to recommend the book? But I do. It pushes against your boundaries, and you should always push as hard as you can on those.

So people surprise you. And this book surprised me. It's been so long that a book has managed to be both genuinely engrossing and turn my stomach at the same time. You'll read it in one sitting and feel dirty.

Just light a cigarette and enjoy it.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

The Social Satire

Well, my loyal blog readers, I have a confession. I have been putting this off for some time because I don't actually know how to say it. I feel that I might be letting many of you down. However, the reality is that I have no choice, and sometimes you just have to do things for money. In short, what I have to say is this: I am writing a chick lit novel.

And it's even worse than that. It's going to be an Indian chick-lit novel.

You may hurl your samosas at me in disgust.

Look, you knew it was inevitable. I've been pondering it for much too long, and I'm much too broke. The problem is, my irritation with the genre makes it impossible for me to just whip one out. I have to think. I have to ponder. I have to like the heroine, like her Mr. Right, like her Best Friend and even like the Gimmick. And as for trading on the Indian part, well, what can I say. It'll probably sell.

Actually, I make some promises about the Indian-American chick-lit book. They are listed below, and I will count on you, my anonymous public, to make sure that I don't break any of them.

1. Despite the fact that this is in fact a chick-lit novel, I will do everything in my power to move it away from the "chick lit" category and into the "social satire" category. (Category title courtesy of my cousin Siva).

2. There will be mention of some Indian things that I like. However, the phrase "As the scent of curry wafted through the air..." will never be found in this book.

3. References to a) arranged marriage and b) Bollywood will be kept to a minimum.

4. You will, hopefully, like the heroine. Really. Because I have to first.

5. I will NOT give the book a stupid pun for a name: "Exes and Ohs," "Original Cyn," "Better Homes and Husbands" "Bride and Prejudice."

5. This promise is very, very important. I promise you, all of You Who Read My Writing, that if this book is published in any way shape or form, it will absolutely not have a quirky, girly cartoon of a woman with a shopping bag and high heels on the cover. I swear to you. I will make them put a dead fish on the cover before I add another badly designed, obnoxiously colorful cartoon woman frolicking gaily on a cheap mass market paperback to bookstore shelves.

Other than that....Mea Culpa. I'm writing chick lit. What can I say? Curry sells.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Sole Feud

At last night's party, there were many writers, and, as is customary, we fell into various discussions of writing and publishing. No, they are not the same thing. There is good news and bad news about this. The good news is that writing is grueling, emotionally draining, exacting work. The bad news is that publishing is worse.

Any writer will say "I'm just happy to be published." Forgive me, but this is snobby bullshit. Seeing your book on the same shelf as Lolita will, I admit, give you great joy. However, if you don't realize that writing is only half your job, and if you ignore the various aspects of publishing (including production, cover design, special markets, publicity and publicity and publicity) then your lovely book will sit next to Nabokov for about a year before it disappears forever. Do you want to see the Mona Lisa in a dark room? Does Maria Callas sing in a soundproof room? No? Then wise up. Learn to market.

Now, as you go about learning about publishing, a strange thing will happen. You will become obsessed with publicity and the time you spend writing will start to dwindle. This is normal. In fact, this is the case for 80% of the publishing industry thinks like anyway. Writing is just another commodity. Anyone can do it, right?

Well, don't get too cynical. Lots of people think that way, but you just have to have faith. Despite the monstrous publicity machines out there, good writing still counts.

Allow me to demonstrate with the following examples, which have happend to a young author that you may have heard of.

EXAMPLE 1: An investment banking firm decides to go into publishing--the smart way. They conduct extensive research into the "best" topics for books--the bestselling topics that is. Unsurprisingly, they include sex, diet, business and pets. (Fido is big business). Their plan is to be a "unique, marketing oriented, entrepreneurial publishing firm" that will "quickly turn" out "exciting, highly visible, headline grabbing subjects into mainstream best-sellers." Writers? Of course, writers--we're going to need those. So an ad is placed in order to turn "bright and personable authors into “stars” of the publishing world and their books into ever-growing 'brands.'" Ability to write is not nearly as important as attractiveness and willing to market the hell out of yourself. Some celebrity friends willing to write introductions would be helpful. Our writer signs up, only to be informed that there will be no advance. This is unacceptable to her and her intrepid agent, and she manages to get a small advance, on the condition that she churns out 40,000 words in six weeks. The writer develops tendonitis, but complies. She is promised The Today Show, MTV, a reality show, and major news and media publicity.

Result? The first book produced by the publishing company is an incredibly embarassing book merging as many of the above topics as possible. The publishing world responds with deafening silence. Our writer's book languishes until author and agent decide to track down publishing company--who, perhaps realizing that publishing isn't as easy as it seems, decides to give the author rights back to her yet-to-be published book. She will not be giving back the advance until she resells the book.

EXAMPLE 2: A man from a prominent New York family loses a lot of weight, mostly by joining Overeaters Anonymous. He ends up on Oprah, and with a spread in People magazine. And, incidentally, a book deal for a homestyle cookbook, the advance of which is equivalent to our writer friend's first book. This happens all the time, but what is worse is that the "author" is, well, illiterate. Perhaps he knows this, as he sits on the book for two years before hooking up with a very shady book packager. Named after a famous women's television network (but no relation to it), this book packager decides to squeeze every last dime out of the author and the freelancers hired to complete the book. It would take me a Lifetime to catalog the sins of the book packager, but that is not the point of this post. Suffice it to say that our writer friend is hired to ghostwrite the extended introduction of the cookbook--in a hurry, 10,000 words in one week. Tendonitis again, but she complies. The book, because of recipes and authorial incompetence, is not delivered in one week. It is delivered eight months later to compile a saleable cookbook. During this time, the writer is, of course, paid zilch. When the delivery payment is finally paid, the book packager takes--well, all of it, leaving the "author" to pay the many freelancers. So, there's another six months of emails from "author," book packager's VP (who is a WONDERFUL and COMPETENT person and the only thing holding them together) and our writer friend. The "author" writes emails like the following (reprinted verbatim):

"and i got a bad deal on how the payments was do be done. so i am trying to give you money when every i can it's not like i have a lot of money hanging around or lot of money i'am makeing.This was the toughest time i had in a long time because i had to pay this payments out. So i'am sorry about what happen but their's nothing i can do i can't give you what i don't have.S o please don't call me i give you what i can. we are almost done again i can't give you what i don't have!!!"

It takes a nation of millions and a Rosetta stone to translate the above. Please don't strain yourself. It is included to show simply that "authors" cannot, in fact, always write. Here's another example.

"i am know to that busy and did not know how it works.but i know one please just don't treating me again. you are owe just a little bit of money now and it's almost over.but treating me is not going to work it will just make me very very very angry!!!"

"Treating" in this context, is actually to mean "threatening." In a sense, it could be very clever wordplay in the e.e.cummings style. Unfortunately, "author" has never read e.e.cummings. Perhaps you feel this is cruel, but allow me to state that "author's" family has always had plenty of money and plenty of opportunity to educate "author." Another excerpt:

"I never had so many people calling me for money and stressing me out. And yes it's very very depressing.I truly had to hold my tough with [redacted] with all her threats. I am the kind of guy who don't take that stuff lithely. Please have her understand do not and i mean don't every call me again."

Again, some translation. "Lithely" could actually mean "lightly." This is an unfortunate faux pas, as, having seen this "author" I can assure you that with or without weight loss, he has never taken anything "lithely."

RESULT: A year and two months after the "emergency," one-week project was assigned, our writer friend is paid in no less than 11 individual, unpredictable payments spanning 6 months. The book is barely listed on Amazon.

MORAL? Writing still counts, dammit.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Che Elvis

Recipe for a Hoppin' Fundraiser

You are two theater types who have decided to do a documentary on Elvis. Yet, like many theater and documentary types, you are short of funds. You decide to:

a) get drunk and complain to anyone who will listen how art is dead
b) scrap the project and focus on your t.v. commercial career
c) throw a party.

If you picked (c) then you may keep reading. The rest of you need to have more faith and persistence in your art.

Tiffany and Jayce Bartok are an extremely engaging couple who are also both actors, directors, documentarians, and kick-ass fundraisers. Together they comprise Vinyl Foote Productions, which does all of the above and can be located at the following website: Among their many current projects is the documentary Altered by Elvis, which "follows lives imprinted, fathered, fulfilled and destroyed by our greatest 20th century icon."

Now, not surprisingly to those of you who read this blog (and thank you, btw), I am an Elvis fan. I am an Elvis fan for the same reason I am a Springsteen or Steve McQueen fan: because he is a guy. Sure, he got into those rhinestones and scarves and all that stuff, but Elvis was, at heart, a denim-wearing, smooth-talking, drink-downing guy. With a hot voice. (This is called a Bonus). So I always perk up when someone talks about him with respect.

Vinyl Foote decided to throw a fundraiser to help the documentary along. Most artists have no sense of publicity, marketing, or party throwing. I, too, have been guilty of lazy party-throwing, (i.e. "I picked the bar, they serve liquor, what more do you want from me?") However, the enterprising duo at Vinyl Foote apparently never do things by half. Tonight's fundraiser included the following:

1. LOCATION: A hip, Eurasian themed lounge called Mission in Nolita, featuring a raised stage area behind beaded curtains. Cover charge at the door was merely suggested donation; I cried poverty but still paid up a percentage.

2. ENTERTAINMENT, PART 1: Chanteuse Vanessa Morel, who sang classics like "Time after Time" (Cyndi Lauper), "Love is a Battlefield (Pat Benatar, you heathens) in true diva fashion.

3. ENTERTAINMENT PART 2: Swingin' Elvis impersonator, complete with pelvis swiveling and black velvet/rhinestone jumpsuit.

4. NIBBLES: olives, crudites, grape leaves (mmmm. grape leaves), hummus, etc.

5. SURPRISE DESSERT: Bosco-inspired chocolate cake (actually someone's birthday cake, but we stole some).

6. RAFFLE: of champagne, scarves, gourmet peanut butter, and, my favorite, the Che Elvis t-shirt (Elvis in a Che Guevera pose and hat). ATTENTION: to the person who won the pink Che Elvis t-shirt. If you have changed your mind about it, please contact me as am dying for it.

7. SILENT AUCTION: of Audrey Style and Elvis Presley by Pamela Clarke Keough, The Bombshell Manual of Style, Elvis stamps, giant Andy Warhol banana (get your mind out of the gutter, folks), stints with personal trainer and make-up artists.

8. BACKGROUND VISUALS: Breakfast at Tiffany's on the big screen, also, sneak peak at Altered by Elvis.

9. GIFT BAG. Oh yes, the holy grail of NYC parties. Includes: Saponeria Honey Bubble Bath, Three Custom Color Lip Gloss, Tony & Tina Vibrational Remedy Fragrance, etc. For disappointed boys: stop complaining, explore your metrosexual side and live a little. Bubble bath is good for everyone!

I'm sure I missed something, but it was all such a dizzying feast for the senses. And if I spent too much money, then it was for a good cause.

To Elvis. And Vinyl Foote.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Common Sense?

So, like many bloggers, I do have many hangover posts. However, I would like to say that, in my defense, I have many drunken posts as well. Like this one. I will describe my night in the following free-form poem:

Friends in town
off to Tortilla Flats,

Free Tequila shots;
tinsel and Mexicano decor.
Black velvet Elvis looks
much better after
strawberry margarita(s).

Hula hoop
Unused, alas.
Free pitcher for 3 minutes.

Good Mexican food
in the West Village?
No way, dude!
(good cheese counts for a lot)

Bachelorettes meet sailors,
So why am I watching
America's Top Model?

In other words, an excellent night.

I received a letter from an inmate today who saw the article about me in India in New York. One never knows how to respond to a letter from the penitentary, but it seems that this inmate actually has good intentions, and is contacting me for professional reasons regarding The Street Law Handbook. He and another inmate have written a book entitled Police Encounters: The Black Man's Guide to Handling Encounters with the Police & Protecting Your Constitutional Rights. The book was apparently written from personal experiences and experiences of "people on the wrong side of the law," which I assume are his fellow prisonmates. Now they seem to want me to be involved in the marketing of this book in some way, but I haven't actually read it and therefore can't recommend it one way or another. But, according to my penpal, the book was "written to assist people of color who are most often the target of unwanted police attention and the unfair practices of law enforcement" Can't argue with that.

So while I can't do too much to help another book--too many balls in the air, as it were--I can do the following a) order it myself to see if I can recommend it and b) tell you about it, and link the website:

Now, having done my civil service fo the night, it's time for Pedialyte.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Simpsons

The above is:
a) the answer to yesterday's quiz question (a)
b) the answer to most of my pop culture references

Sigh. Is high culture really dead that nobody knew that? bonus points for answer (b)

Adapt This

I am pleased to report that I did indeed see The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy this weekend, and that I thought it was quite good. Now, before all my fellow Hitchhikers beat me with things the movie missed or got wrong--and there were quite a few--allow me to say this: the movie got the spirit of the book right. This standard is in accordance with the principle thesis of my, er, thesis in graduate school, entitled "Fancy Dress: A Comparison of Period Piece Adaptations in Modern American Film." Before I be accused of trying to encourage readership of the aforementioned paper, let me reassure you that only one copy of the thesis exists, and it is resting comfortably in a dusty file cabinet waaaaay in the depths of the NYU Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. I would, of course, be happy to offer anyone a digital copy of the thesis, but, alas, it does not exist. Or rather, it does exist, on floppy, only I typed it on an outdated Mac computer using a program known as Clarisworks (a/k/a "Too Cheap For Windows"). This has encrypted it in computer hieroglyphics, and no known Rosetta Stone exists.

Back to the thesis's thesis. An adaptation cannot work if it intends to mimic everything in the book, down to the letter. Witness, for example, Sin City, which was adapted quite slavishly, and with the involvement of the comic book's author. Even the visuals were preordained. Now, I liked Sin City, but this was mostly because My Beloved Clive was in it. (Take a moment now to ponder Clive's rugged masculinity. Mmmmm. Clive). And the visuals. The story had its moments, but the narrative was bogged down by the filmmakers refusal to take chances.

The Hitchhiker movie is doubly cursed, as I realize through conversation with my friend--oh, let's call him "O"--who could not help but compare it to the v. successful British television series made of the book. I did point out to him that, in a television series, there is simply more time to fill in all the details and the blanks. In a film, things have to be sketched quickly. Think of an artist painting a brick wall. The amateur draws and shapes every brick in the wall, while the artist can paint the same wall with a few, well-placed brushstrokes. V. Zen, no? This is the goal of a film adaptation--not to mimic the book, which is impossible given the differences in the mediums (media? Discuss.) But instead, the goal should be to capture the spirit that the book itself was trying to convey.

I think the Hitchhiker movie does that quite well. This is 45% due to the casting of Martin Freeman as Arthur Dent. "O" noted that they had been working on the movie for decades, and it only got made through a convergence of bizarre fates: 1) Douglas Adams' death (a notorious perfectionist, he held the script up for years) and 2)Men in Black (proving that yes, people do want to see funny sci-fi movies with loads of special effects). To that list of chancey fates meeting, I would add 3) the birth and acting career arc of Martin Freeman, especially after The Office. (Question: why do I now find him sexy? Discuss).

So that's that. Now I have a quiz. A man in Japan claims to have invented a device which can translate the gurgling, babbling and general yapping of babies. (read here)Perhaps he thought of this gadget out of thin air, but I'm betting that the idea came to him while watching a) this television show as b) this character invented the same device.


Wednesday, May 04, 2005


I have always had a love-hate relationship with Anthony Lane, and today I found out why. Many do say that his cocktail-breezy, faux Noel Coward ramblings are mostly an exercise in style over substance. And, as a person who takes film seriously, it's hard to read him sometimes, because he doesn't--not like a true fan does, anyway. He's too busy doing his little linguisitic gymnastics to really dig into why a film works or doesn't. But, despite all this, I absolutely love reading his film reviews, and I found the reason here in his review of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

"There will be two completely separate and, I might add, mutually hostile audiences for the resulting fim. One will be composed of 'Hitchhiker' fans, millions strong, who will interpret every minute discrepancy between what they are watching onscreen and what they once read on the page as heresy punishable by law, or when possible, stoning. These people are lunatics, and I am one of them."

Simple. To the point, and it summarizes exactly why I like Anthony Lane: He may have gotten P.G. Wodehouse all wrong on occasion, and he just doesn't get Tarantino or Rodriguez, but underneath the ironic dandy hauteur is a Hitchhiker fan. And, as other Hitchhiker fans will agree, that is enough. If you don't know that the answer is, or that white lab mice are actually the smartest creatures on the planet (with dolphins running a close second, and humans the third), or if the gray Sundays don't, at least once, think of the long dark tea time of the soul then, alas, you are not one of us. Even if you see the movie, you won't get it. Actually, we don't get it anymore either--nobody gets it like a junior high schooler, because 1) that is when science fiction means the absolute most to you in your life and 2) you, er, haven't actually read the books since then, so you're not sure you remember why the misnamed Hitchhiker trilogy (there are four books) made such utter, cosmically and karmically sound sense. But it just did.

The movie? I'm curious. But Anthony Lane thinks it wasn't the same, and I think he knows what he's talking about.

(quiz: explain the title of this post)

Sunday, May 01, 2005


Sivram is here. Sivram is my grandfather's youngest brother, about 73, and an unstoppable talker. He's currently telling stories about how his father's father was murdered and then his father was so disgusted by the behavior of his father's uncles, that he just...well, I'm not sure who we're talking about. The geneology is somewhat dizzying back there. But it's nice to hear him talk.

When my grandfather turned 81, we had an enormous religious ceremony in Madras to signify him seeing his 1000th moon. That meant lots and lots of family--and you can't call them "uncle" and "auntie" either. Chittapa means mother's younger brother; Chitti means mother's younger brother; Periamma means mother's older sister, Periappa means mother's older brother, and it just goes on and on and on. The effort it took to keep all the names and titles straight was staggering, because my grandfather had eight brothers and my grandmother had six sisters and a brother and they all had plenty of kids.

I soon realized that when it came to my grandfather's generation, I spent all my time with the grandfathers but not the grandmothers. The grandmothers gossiped and ran the ceremony and were concerned about my impending marriage and ancestry. All fun, but the grandfathers got to hang out on the porch and get into heated arguments about philosophy and science and lectured me silly when I asked smart-mouth questions. Up until then, I always thought that there was this big thick line between my relatives in India and my relatives from elsewhere, but talking to my grandfathers, I realized there was a lot I didn't know.

Sivram--firebrand, inventor, hellraiser--got into fights and married an American in the 1950's. Along the way he got his PhD in chemistry (on scholarship) and became a Professor Emeritus at some university in Nebraska. Now retired, he lives in a mobile home and conducts scientific experiments in his den and goes on safari. Khanna didn't live long enough to get married, but if he had, he would have married Meenaskshi in an arranged marriage. Since he died, she married Vichu, the youngest, instead. He got a PhD in chemistry and moved his family to Germany, where he still lives. Cheenu was philosophical, stubborn and independent. He married a German woman--also in the 1950's--and went to live in Louisiana, where he became a professor of microbiology. Cheenu liked to get his brothers all stirred up and fighting, and then would sit back like some kind of satisfied, troublemaking Buddha. Jairam refused to go through with his arranged marriage and married a girl he loved instead--a girl who, incidentally, was one of his students at the university he taught at. He got kicked out of the family for a while for that.

And Doray? Doray, my grandfather, had no higher degrees. He worked in the railroad and put all of his younger brothers through college and their PhD's, watching them get sophisticated and adventuresome and settle all over the world. My grandfather was the head of the family--not just his own, with my grandmother, but of the families of his brothers. He was strict and hardy and funny as hell, the kind of guy who, when he got knocked down by a scooter while walking to the store, dusted himself off and kept walking. (He was 78 at the time). He believed in simplicity and duty; he was the one who taught me to do right by your family, no matter what.

As he talks, it seems clear that Sivram Chittappa still likes to think of himself as a devilish young man. Though not all my grandfathers are around anymore, listening to his stories makes me really realize the hubris of youth. We think we invented adventure and and rebellion and idealism, but it's actually been in our blood for a long time...