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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Check out my new Nerve essay on the oral sex/throat cancer link

Speaking in Tongues
Did oral sex just get riskier?
by Paul Festa
May 29, 2007

The other night, I was deep-throating a friend when I felt a nostalgic pang for a more innocent time — earlier that afternoon, before I'd seen this headline:

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Rhapsody on Somebody Else's Superior Vocabulary, Part 3

Technology dates us and the imprint is language. George called it an "icebox." I still refer to "records" that I own when in fact I'm referring to CDs. Some expressions endure though they make less and less sense over time (like the people who use them): "waiting by the phone." Now we cannot but wait by the phone. The only exception is the young sot, the free man, stumbling down Valencia Street, who is too drunk when he leaves the house to remember his cell. Such a nice double-entendre there, even if you refuse to sentimentalize the unwired, the state of nature, the alcoholic. Technology hasn't made us any happier, they say. The slapstick terrorists converged to destroy a data center, but nobody took them seriously. "We have TNT," they warned people who continued their cell phone conversations, their IM chats, their file transfers. But TNT is just slightly older technology, trinitrotoluene, with hard "i"s, nails in a bomb, like the erections implicit in "sodomite" and "catamite." Yesterday I alternated between "African American" and "black" when describing the suspects to the cops. These kids had thrown a stink bomb down the hill and hit an Indian guy walking with his two young daughters. His pants smoked and his skin burned. I immediately picked up my cell and called 911. The operator, a black woman, was the first to ask me the suspects' race. "African American," I told her.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Rhapsody on Somebody Else's Superior Vocabulary, Part 2

I'm thinking about all the things that rubbed off from friends and lovers: words, expressions, musical taste, broader snobberies, accents, most horrifyingly. That is one thing that had better belong to you. But I borrowed everything, everything, though Megan drew the line at her bras. Still, it wasn't so much what I borrowed as what was carved into me. I think of them all as the lathes against which I was shaped. I wear terribly fancy suits when I go out, even just to Dolores Park to walk my dog--a vintage English gabardine suit is my favorite, don't ask me where I got it. Sometimes I feel out of place among so many sweatpants + t-shirt ensembles, ballhugging bikini bottoms on these global-warming, estival May days. I have an undeserved reputation as an exhibitionist. Deep down I am excruciatingly shy.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

What's with Republicans gay-bashing Edwards?

First Ann Coulter's inner foulness got the better of her and she called Edwards a fag. Now Huckabee is calling him a pussy:
“We've had a Congress that has spent money like Edwards at a beauty shop,” Mr. Huckabee said to roars of laughter at the allusion to Mr. Edwards’s paying $400 for a haircut. (Terror Attack Scenario Exposes Deep Differences Among G.O.P. Hopefuls -- May 16, 2007 -- New York Times)
When Bill Clinton got nailed for his pricey haircuts ten years ago, nobody used the word "beauty shop," to the best of my recollection. The way the Republicans are harping on this Edwards-is-a-homo theme you'd think they were actually afraid of him.

writing breakthrough: little darling death toll spikes

For the last several years, I've been working on a novel. The first draft of this novel was about 100,000 words. The second draft was a quarter million. To motivate myself to finish it before I left my two-month residency at the MacDowell Colony this past fall, and to give myself a fresh experience of the work as a whole, I held an open studio for the last three days of my residency in order to read the entire work aloud from beginning to end. I read about a quarter of it, and my fellow colonists read the balance.

I'm now about halfway through my second re-reading of the novel since the open studio, and in the last few days I've made what feels like a major breakthrough. After years of having it pointed out to me, I've finally developed an ear for--and an aversion to--my own overwriting.

Murder is the prevailing trope of good editing. "Kill your little darlings," goes the editorial adage usually attributed to Hemingway. "If you catch an adjective, kill it," said Mark Twain. I've known these useful maxims for years, but nothing taught me ruthlessness with my own prose like the fiction of John Grisham.

I'd never read a Grisham novel before I took "The Rainmaker" on the plane with me en route to MacDowell in October. I chose the book with a positive attitude, respectful, thinking that to have sold so many millions of books this guy must have something to teach me about plot and character development. Two weeks later I managed to finish the book, and its lesson was altogether darker. The salient characteristic of Grisham's prose is the way he insults the reader's intelligence on every page, sometimes in every paragraph. He does this through the needless repetition of information. If you're a careless reader, this style is easier to read, because if you fail to pick up a cue on its first iteration, you will certainly have it bludgeoned into you by the second or third. If you read thoroughly, you just feel the bludgeon.

I put down "The Rainmaker" feeling predictably smug. But then I picked up my own novel, and the more I read the more I saw Grisham's error, and its implied insult, perpetrated throughout my own prose.

(to be continued)

Monday, May 14, 2007

Rhapsody on Somebody Else's Superior Vocabulary, Part I

My mentor of mentors praised me once. She said she approved of the way my words were articulated, one to the next. "It reminds me of what Isaac Stern once said about music, that it was the stuff between the notes." Mortar and hinges. Cartilege and tendon and fascia enlaced, one to the next. I always thought Isaac Stern was full of shit, and not just because he ground me into the New Haven asphalt with his custom-made Italian heel after I played the Bach Chaconne for him in his room at the Taft. He was full of shit because of the way he played the Beethoven concerto--yes, as though he were telling a story, but he's not telling the right story! This is an opera about the beauty and muscularity of human thought, and his is the story of a lumbering, ponderous formality. It's not without its own beauties, but honey, whatever I did to the Chaconne at least I didn't slip it a Roofie. Heifetz played the Beethoven concerto with passion and elegance so powerful his recordings leave a slipstream behind them, into which we fall, amazed and ennobled. It's funny, I've only just realized--I haven't heard anybody's recording of the Beethoven concerto in more than ten years, maybe fifteen. I can't start now, James is asleep on the sofa, and I don't have the Stern recording with which to keep him that way.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Blackberry at ACT in San Francisco

Yesterday I was picking up Raya Light at the airport (back from world tennis championships in Turkey; the U.S. team placed 8th) when I picked up a call from friends on Liberty Street offering me two tickets to "Blackbird" at ACT. I said I'd take them, rash of me since I had managed not to hear a word about the play until then and because Raya wasn't yet through Customs and curtain was in 40 minutes.

Somehow we were only fifteen minutes late. As we settled into our seats I was predictably disoriented, trying to figure out where we were and what was going on. Later I gathered from friends who saw it opening night that it doesn't help much to be on time.

I enjoyed the disoriented portion of the evening more than the rest of it. I found the play--a cross between Lolita and No Exit--intermittently compelling, the characters sympathetic enough for me to care about their predicament. But too often I felt the ickiness of the playwright's pleasure in being provocative, and the parts that were meant to be most shocking were actually the most predictable. Of course they're going to kiss! Still, someone nearby was gullible enough to be offended, and walked out, so for somebody the play will work as intended.

Still, I thought there was something good about it. In the parking garage elevator, when I recognized the actress who plays Humbert Humbert's step-daughter, I asked for her autograph. Raya pretended she didn't know me after that.

Picasso and American Art at SF MoMA

Tuesday I went to the MoMA show on the influence of Picasso on American art. It was dazzling. One room was more spectacular than the last, and because it was chronological the cumulative energy of the exhibition gave you a sense of how over a lifetime Picasso expanded not just his vision but his aura, his impact, his empire. My art history is patchy at best, so what was revelatory to me might be commonplace to someone better educated. I will risk embarrassing myself (can a writer do otherwise?) by copying here the impressions I scribbled down while floating through the galleries.

1 May 2007
I am waiting on a 20-minute line to get into MoMA's Picasso exhibition. There are worse places to blow 20 minutes than here, in the guts of the periscope. That might be a mixed metaphor, and it's also not the right body part. We're closer to the retina--does a periscope have one? We in this case counts the tourists and people without jobs who can be here for free first Tuesdays. The Canadians behind me have pointed out that Cy Twombly has mountain-climbing gear hanging in the atrium--carabiners. Imagine this place at night, with the artist and his minions (probably just the minions) dangling from the catwalk. Something in the image distills what was so gratifying about the Pelton workshop. So much fun, most of it after hours and removed from public view, and the visceral conviction that the work was dangerous despite minimal objective threat to life and limb. Art at the end, if all goes well.

Now I'm in the exhibition and crucial art appreciation neurons are not firing. I've parked myself in front of a medium-small gray Stuart Davis, "Early American Landscape" (1925) and I am going to stand here until I have an aesthetic experience. So far all I can get out of this is how good it would look in our living room, where the Yamrus portrait now hangs. The Davis is a little dismal, perhaps unintentionally. Perhaps dark grey rivers and sooty clouds didn't have the same resonance back in 1925 before people knew about things like acid rain and emaciated polar bears washing up on Alaskan beaches. But the painting is jaunty in style, and childlike without being unsophisticated (undoubtedly the use of grey pre-empts any accusation of naivete). It's buoyant enough to rise above my environmental mood swing--and my art appreciation lull, now expired. I'm having a good time.

Looking at more Stuart Davis I see how much I prefer his variation of Cubism to the Picasso/Braque theme, and I like what's stereotypically American about it: brash, fresh, sunwashed, brilliant, clean, clear, new. I know he's frequently associated with jazz but the unjazzy Aaron Copland is present in these paintings. (The Picasso-Braque paintings seem so cramped, psychotic, damp and moldy to me.) What I like most are the synthetic-Cubist paintings of Picasso and Max Weber. These marry stylistic derring-do and aesthetic sex appeal. Honey I don't want you in my living room, I want you in my bed.

In the neoclassical room I am dubious, but should remember how long it took me to love neoclassical Stravinsky, or even hear neoclassical Brahms (it sounded so Romantic!).

I could stand in front of Picasso's "The Studio" (1927-28) until they throw me out of here.

De Kooning's "Woman & Bicycle" ought to be called "Woman & Bicycle & Red-light Runner."

This Warhol quote is painted on the wall:
"When Picasso died I read in a magazine that he had made 4000 materpieces in his lifetime and I thought, 'Gee, I could do that in a day.'"

Imagine if Andy Warhol had had a blog.