Saturday, January 7, 2012

Lit mags and Adam Bellow

I spent a few hours today going through my pile of literary magazines today, taking stock, purging and reorganizing. I've been collecting the magazines for a few years, since I started submitting my own stories and especially since I got the gig reading submissions for All-Story Zoetrope. I subscribe to about 4-5 magazines a year, playing the field and rotating my subscriptions each year. I also buy individual issues once in a while, like the pretty Noon Annual or the charismatic The Fabulist. I try not to get more than I can read, and end up reading about a quarter of the magazines that I get.

The task of looking at old magazines turned into a fun social activity when my friends Genine and Amber came over and sat with me on the floor and flipped through the pages. We ordered Chinese and had dinner together, after which everyone turned drowsy. When my friends left, I thought of cleaning up, but actually ended up reading some stuff. A few stories, and an essay that had only tangential relationship to literature: Adam Bellow's "On Conservative Intellectuals," published in World Affairs in the Summer of 2008. I think I'd picked up this magazine at a Slavic conference I went to a few years ago. What grabbed my attention about this essay is that it started like a story, with a funeral (William F. Buckley's); that the writer is an editor; and that the writer is Saul Bellow's son. I'm not sure I understood the point he was making in the article: he seems to be uncomfortable with the direction of the contemporary conservative movement (which he distinguishes from the Republican party here), but is unapologetic about his place in it. Anyway, I'm coming to this debate in the middle and have only a vague idea what he is to apologize for, and what I liked most about this essay was a metaphor he used about the media stream of the 90s: "Metaphorically speaking, the Berlin Wall had been replaced by the Jersey Turnpike--and eight lane superhighway filled with trucks zooming past in both directions, variously labeled "Gulf War," "Bosnia," "O.J. Simpson," "Princess Di," "Titanic," with no particular distinction made between them. For in the postmodern world, all media events are created equal." This is not a particularly fresh metaphor--the information superhighway--but he delivers it with a lot of punch and conviction.

No overarching conclusion from this flurry of activity today, but a sense of nagging sadness. I ended up mixing the stacks of magazines I've read with the ones I haven't read and packed them away again in such a way that I won't be able to remember which is which.

Monday, January 2, 2012

New Years in Sydney

As the afternoon settles in, the level of excitement rises. Couples with picnic baskets and tents are heading for the ferry. An organized market at the back of the church yard closes first. There are still plenty of customers, but the girl who sells laser-etched greeting cards needs to get across the bridge to the apartment party her friends are hosting. It makes sense to close out the year on the positive note. She sold more cards today than in any week of October. One more card with the outline of the Harbour bridge, and she's done. Jewelry and designer clothing boutiques make their best sales of the year and close swiftly, encouraging the dawdling window-shoppers to move downstream to bottle-shops and convenience stores. A flower shop has a line around the corner. A boutique shop selling outrageously priced novelty jewelry--necklaces of orange and green ostrich feathers moulded from Tupperware-quality plastic--is one of the last ones to close, and what a mob scene inside. Nobody can quite afford it and everybody is on the verge of buying. Everybody is drunk with anticipation of getting drunk later.

The bottle shops are the last to close. Wine, champagne, miniature bottles of whiskey and bourbon, everything goes on New Years night. Even if we're planning to spend the night at a pub, it doesn't hurt to plan ahead and bring extra champagne. At 5 pm, all museums, stores, and cafes are finally closed for the night. Things are getting really serious now. We were walking at a fairly leisurly pace before, but now we're suddenly aware of the clock ticking. We look for the right bus, which never comes, then we look for any bus, then we look for a taxi going the right direction, then we look for any taxi going in any direction. Everyone else is going the same way we are. We panic and feel silly for panicking. The expectations are high--we want to have a good time!--but why should our good time depend on making it to a restaurant? Yes, we've made a reservation, but surely we are not letting down the restaurant much by not showing up. It's New Years, and hoards of hungry customers are roaming the city. No, no, if we are set on making this dinner, it's because we've made these plans, and somehow our ability to have a good time for the night has gotten hinged on going through with our plans. But how sour and unhappy with ourselves must we be to not have fun in Sydney on New Years, surrounded by all of these happy people having a good time? Everywhere we look is a party already. It's a tense moment, but of course we get a cab. From here on the evening is smooth sailing, our panic itself and the relief adding to the good time. It's clear now that the stakes were higher than we consciously knew them to be; and this was hardly even about the dinner and the restaurant. Something about our ability to make and execute decisions jointly and with respect to each other's wants and expectations. But of course, it was always going to work out. Events in the future having a rippling effect on the past. And we were always already going to have a good time on New Years. We are both devoted to the idea.

We eat fish for dinner and then settle in at the pub, Lord Nelson, on Kent street, and so British in style, it'd be easy to forget we're in Australia if not for the weather. The warm breeze comes in from the open doors and windows. Bats are waking up and shrieking in the setting sun. When the 9 pm fireworks hit, the bar empties, and people start climbing up the hill for better viewing spots. Elsewhere around the harbour, groups have been picnicking since noon waiting for the fireworks. Everyone has a decision to make, old friends or new friends, private or public, on the land or on the sea, north or south, sitting or standing. No, the apocalypse isn't coming, or at least not so fast, but if we want a moment to mark the passage of time, why not choose this night? Our new friend Adam is celebrating his 30th birthday at the Lord Nelson. He ditched all of his firework-loving old friends, and he and a woman he's just starting to date, Rachel, are camped out at the pub for the night, getting trashed and making brand new friends. Our diving buddy Danny shows up to celebrate with us. Quickly this New Years becomes about building a transitory community with strangers. What attracts us to meeting other people? What brings us out into the world? Is it too little of something (dissatisfaction, loneliness) or too much of something else (curiosity, love)? Why do we write, blog? Everything is happening all at once, and the more whiskey we drink, the faster the time moves. The fireworks fire like clockwork, one round each on the hour, then half hour. Finally, we get out of the bar and start climbing the hill. It's happening.

Our champagne bottles (which we bought just in case, an attempt to over-determine our good time) get confiscated--of course. The observatory hill, our chosen viewing location, is an alcohol-free zone. "You can pick it up later," a guard tells Dave with a wink. But of course we can't. We go back to Lord Nelson. Rachel, Adam, Danny, a couple from Sweden, a couple from Germany, Lev from LA, and rounds of shots, beers, whiskey. At 2 am we close down the bar and walk back to the train. Everything in the city is super orderly. There is evidence that some streets and alleys in The Rocks, the historical downtown, had been completely packed, people standing neck to neck. The streets are still busy, but there's very little trash on the ground, and cleanup is starting already.

My friend John who drives a cab in Sydney and was working on New Years night reports picking up a Japanese couple in the center of the city three minutes before New Years. They wanted to be driven to the airport. Why? Had they seen the 9 pm fireworks and had enough? Had they become completely overwhelmed by the crowds? Hanging out downtown, they must've wanted to see the fireworks, but what made them abandon the idea at the last possible minute? Did they suddenly decide that they've had enough fun for one night, that actually seeing the fireworks wasn't that exciting? Was the experience for them all about the people, watching the crowd, being with the crowd, knowing that they're in the middle of the crowd? Perhaps they knew themselves so well that they could admit to themselves and to each other that watching the fireworks was just another excuse, another silly reason people make up as an excuse to come out and gather together and be with other people. So they got what they wanted and then they didn't actually need to see the fireworks. They made another good choice by getting into John's cab: he knew them even better than they knew themselves, and made sure to drive them past the harbour so they could get a glimpse of the fireworks anyway. It's a spectacular show, and everyone should see it especially if they're in Sydney on New Year's night, having a good time. They must've enjoyed the show immensely, and all the more for knowing they've made all the right decisions that night.

Dave blogs about our New Years here: