Thursday, April 14, 2011

An Evening of Gentlemanly Pursuits, Part II

Part II: Solipsism is Just a Kind of Self-Love

My ambitions at the start of the whole process of writing about Paul Kahan far outstripped my abilities as a journalist and reflect the naive belief that one can fake good intentions and yet write something that people actually want to read--something, that is (and maybe I'm assuming incorrectly about what readers want to read, but I'd like to think that I'm not too far off here), honest about the world that we inhabit that explores why and how we choose to inhabit it together.

Essentially, I was bored and broke--reading a lot of novels and living off of excess student loan money and the occasional sale of stock. I wanted to eat at fancy restaurants and pretend that I was a writer.

So I said I wanted to write something about Chicago and its relationship to food. I said I wanted to write something about the stagnation of twentysomething upward mobility in the midst of a recession. I said I wanted to write about politics. I said I wanted to write about happy hour crowds choking down organically fed pork and going nowhere very fast, but laughing very, very hard.

But not-so-secretly, I wanted to be part of those crowds. To envelop myself in the damp embrace of a soft upper-middle class enjoying its soft upper-middling privileges. I wanted to convince someone important in some minor way that I too was important and could laugh very, very hard. And I had thought for a long time that writing about something, giving narrative to something, made that something more important, but also made the writer more important. In retrospect, this is absolute nonsense. I thought that it would be easy to write something interesting about food and urban wealth and politics and nostalgia and social networks and desire, while getting a lot of free stuff at the same time.

Well it turns out that it is relatively easy to convince someone that you are an important writer. Credentials-checking is apparently not the primary role of restaurant public relations directors, and at the very least I now know that if I need a table at a popular restaurant, all one needs to do is say that one is a writer for a fancy high-brow magazine on a relatively-near-in-the-future deadline.

But at the very same time, it turns out that food and urban wealth and politics and nostalgia and social networks and desire (which in turn is further split off, obviously, into categories of sexual, financial, political, and even virtual) combine and relate in stroke-inducingly complex ways that complicate the process of conducting a thorough investigation of any single one of these sources of ordinary alienation and inadequacy--let alone all of them at once.

How, for example, do Tyler's tweeted pictures of our first two rounds of drinks, of our charcuterie plate, and of me writing in my Moleskine fit into the process of reconstructing the night? Tyler emailed the pictures to me last week with the imperative "get to work," and I scrolled back and forth through them (there will be more in Parts III and IV).

These pictures don't just serve as a diary of consumption, though the evidence is compelling that we "got to work" pretty early. I've been thinking about jealousy, desperation, loneliness, and about the changing nature of nostalgia with respect to Twitter (really I'm a sunny person most of the time), and the pictures brought something into clarity for me.

I thought for the first time about standing in The Publican watching everyone snapping iPhone pictures of their food.

"I'm here," Jeannie and Greg and Robert and whoever else tweeted insistently, almost indignantly, about their head cheese, their pork loin, their saison delivered in goblet-form on the first truly hot day of the year. "I'm here I'm here I'm here sucking the head cheese out of life and you're somewhere else." And in that instant--the instant they preserved that present moment for all 30 of their "followers"--what did they feel? Lonely? Together with someone else through the mediated space of their 100-odd characters?

What do I feel, looking at my lower torso, my hands, my pen, insisting upon--well--something in blue script? I found the page I was writing. "Pictures of pigs everywhere" it says in some kind of reverie about the decor. An instant full of promise, and a nice buzz, and totally ordinary and forgettable. Distracted from realizing everything that was actually going on around me. Snarky descriptions of the beer I was drinking ("Vigneronne tastes like an orange in a gym sock"), but totally inured to the dramas of intimacy everywhere in the room, taking place 140 words at a time. The quiet shrieks of presence, while I had my head down in a book.

All this is to say: it proved to be the case that distractions from said investigation become more numerous in direct proportion to the length of time necessary to thoroughly convince someone else of omy importance. As this kind of charade proceeds, the writer becomes less able to focus on the outside world, and develops an increasing sense that everyone around him can see he's faking it. He must dedicate more emotional, mental, and narrative energies to the maintenance of the charade--to the faking of "it"--and fewer of these same resources to considerations of the world around him.

He's left with scribbled notes about surface things. Do these considerations make up for the moment of inattention? (See Fig. 1).

Fig. 1:

This is a correction. Of intent. Of outcome. It's an attempt to make up for inattention with a surfeit of artifice. A reminder to observe the world. It's the remainder: the product of a short-circuited system of memory attempting to reassemble itself into something more than a linear series of episodes. We don't work linearly, do we? Do we forgive in lines? Do we get over?


What follows is a rough
approximation of the interview with Paul Kahan that I conducted on an unnervingly warm spring morning in 2010, modified. I can't find the original notes. They're in a box somewhere. A lot of the quotes come from my first draft, a piece so abominable to me now in rereading it that the prose feels oily, dirty.


  1. this is good, aj. part II's really bringing the melancholy. which i mean in a good way.

  2. i'm not sure who this hilary lady is, but i agree with her. this was good.

    i think your talk of wanting to be in that soft upper middle class embrace gets at the whole foodie restaurant scene very well. in fact, it's better than i've ever heard it gotten at before. what are those restaurants, for those of us with tastebuds vitiated by bad coffee, but scenes to see to be seen in? i can't taste the difference, but i can certainly feel the hipness.

    on somewhat of a tangential note, could you explain the economics behind taking out student loans while keeping money in the stock market? i mean, did your portfolio growth vastly outpace your interest rates on those pesky (read: vile) loans? just wondering.

  3. and it is, in fact, evocative of a certain stage of life and connected disconnectedness. I also like the chart it reminds me of the illustrated NYT editorials.

  4. Oh my god I just typed this ridiculously long response and then lost it. Let me try again.

    On the Hilary thing: probably just a super intelligent blog-trawler who--totally conjecture here--is a really wonderful listener, good friend, and candidate for best boss in the history of exploitive labor.

    On Foodie-ism: thanks for the compliment. I'm really interested in the idea that experience can be shared instantly. But you're right to use the word "feeling," because I think we're also trying to offload feeling into the virtual space. That the experience of the present becomes immediately packaged and exported to the virtual space. I wonder if the sharing of our feelings--of hipness, happiness, anger, in-the-knowness--makes us any better off. Most often I think that the responsibility to constantly be sharing our reading habits / food consumption / hip sensations / loves / links just makes us lonelier.

    So: is the overwhelming feeling (sigh, I'll just say it: affect) of Twitter loneliness? It's certainly not joy--not for me at least. There's nothing *actually* meaningful that can be conveyed in this medium itself. If Twitter "means" something, it's only in the interstices, or maybe our motivations for using it, which are probably related in some kind of important way to addiction (see below) and a desire to assert our defiant presence in the world (see above). The fact that this requires the virtual space gets me into a circular vortex that Tyler is really good about describing, but just makes me feel like I need to sit down for awhile.

    Stripped down, I read the Franzen piece in the New Yorker last night, and I think he really hits it:

    "The problem with making a virtual world of oneself is akin to the problem with projecting ourselves onto a cyberworld: there’s no end of virtual spaces in which to seek stimulation, but their very endlessness, the perpetual stimulation without satisfaction, becomes imprisoning."

    This is gut-punch good. I hate to think that the only person who agrees with me on this is Jonathan Franzen. I don't know what that says about my inability to engage in the world as it currently "works," but this just seems so correct.

    On stocks: Meh, I'm probably going to be broke soon. Ford and Bombardier have been very good to me. But everything else has been so bad to me that I might as well just have taken out less money and spent more time writing. At least writing makes me feel a little less empty than watching stocks. As a friend of mine in finance said to me last night on the phone:

    "All of this bullshit is totally unsustainable."

    "Your job?" I asked.

    "Finance. Period."

    Thanks for reading Chris. It means a lot to me that you and this Hilary person (whoever she is) took a look.

  5. Maren! Thank you! It's another kind of vanity (go figure) to think that one's particular kind of twenty-something moment is in any way unique. Thanks for the reminder that, ultimately, it's the same perceived disconnectedness paired with a desire for connection--just in a different language/using different terms.

    I'm going to use more charts. I think they help me express my ideas more clearly. Maybe I should have been a broker after all.

  6. In some ways it always does come back to The Philadelphia Story, doesn't it?