Stoners Sans Stigma

by Jessie Roberts

Micah Hauser appreciates that the “sly, genre-busting” web series High Maintenance depicts potheads as regular people:

[T]he protagonist, an unnamed pot dealer known only as “The Guy,” cycles around New York City delivering his wares to the people. To call him a protagonist, though, is not really accurate — he’s more like a reference point. Each episode focuses on a particular customer, and by extension, their living space, which is where all of these deals go down. …

The show is funny, but not in the ways we’re conditioned to expect from stoner-leaning media. There are no 3-foot bongs, no cross-joints, no late-night expeditions to Shake Shack, no burnouts philosophizing about space and time, man. (Full disclosure: there is some giggling.) These are ordinary people who live ordinary lives and happen to smoke weed. Some of them should probably smoke less — the husband in the newest episode, “Rachel,” bums around all day getting high instead of working on his second book — and some use it to escape particular problems or moments of stress, but most are unremarkable, functional adults. Zero judgment is passed (on the weed smoking, anyway). It’s just part of people’s lives, and the act of smoking and purchasing weed is treated no differently than getting a drink at a bar — an activity portrayed without ceremony in basically every television program in history. Welcome to the 21st century.

Previous Dish on High Maintenance here.

A Stardust Is Born

by Jessie Roberts

PBS’s excellent Blank on Blank series animates a 1988 interview with David Bowie, who describes his alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust, as “half out of sky-fi rock and half out of the Japanese theater”:

Meanwhile, Prospero’s C.G. reviews the Bowie exhibit at Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin:

Fascinated by the early-20th-century German expressionists of the Brücke movement, whose works he frequently went to see, Mr Bowie began painting in Berlin and gained inspiration and motivation for his music. … The exhibition takes visitors through the career of an artist who was constantly reinventing himself. Flickering video screens, quirky costumes, handwritten documents, soundtracks and interviews provide a kaleidoscope of impressions. Thanks to Christine Heidemann, the curator of the show’s new Berlin section, 60 items have been added to the retrospective to give a broader idea of what went on during Mr Bowie’s stint in the German city between 1976 and 1978.

Many items refer to Iggy Pop, whom Mr Bowie lived with. At first the two shared a huge, slightly run-down flat in an old building in West Berlin’s bohemian borough of Schöneberg, then and now home to a large gay community. But Mr Bowie eventually threw his friend out—Mr Pop is said to have done a bit too much fridge-raiding—and found him a flat in the back of his building. Other highlights include letters from 1978 revealing a short correspondence between Mr Bowie and Marlene Dietrich about “Just a Gigolo”, an unsuccessful film in which Mr Bowie played a gigolo who works in a brothel run by Dietrich’s Baroness (her final appearance on screen). According to Mrs Heidemann, Mr Bowie and Dietrich never actually met in person, since his scenes were shot in Berlin (pictured) and hers in Paris.

The Comedians Of Conservatism

by Jessie Roberts

Frank Rich looks beyond Dennis Miller to Greg Gutfeld, “a signature personality on two daily Fox News shows: The giggly The Five (in late afternoon) and the fiercer Red Eye (scheduled by Roger Ailes in the stunt time slot of 3 a.m.)”:

Gutfeld is more of a wisecrack artist than a comedian and, like Miller and other comics on the right, is careful to label himself a libertarian, so damaged is the conservative brand. But if you listen to Gutfeld on Fox or read his recent best-selling manifestoNot Cool, he seems much more of a standard-issue conservative and, in keeping with that, older than he actually is (49). His targets are the usual shopworn suspects, some of whom are so far removed from the main arena of 21st-century liberalism that comic complaints about them are deadly on arrival: Rachel Carson, Yoko Ono, Hurricane Carter, Howard Zinn, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Oliver Stone, and even Dan Quayle’s old fictional bête noire, Murphy Brown. In Not Cool, Sean Penn gets 18 references, and even Robert Redford merits nine. Like much of the right, Gutfeld can’t stop fighting battles from the 1960s that are increasingly baffling to post-boomer audiences. It’s as if the clock stopped with the Vietnam War. …

If there’s one universal rule of comedy, it is, as Gutfeld himself has said, that “it’s hard to be funny without being truthful.”

But when he jokes that politically correct Americans are relabeling Fort Hood terrorism “workplace violence” and that they would rather use the term “unlicensed pharmacists” than “drug dealers,” he seems to lack any firsthand knowledge of conversation as practiced on the ground in ­present-day America. His examples of p.c. speech sound instead like the typically outrageous anomalies unearthed by Fox News. He needs to get out of the studio and meet some young people.

Rich reviews Jeff Dunham – whose act with the puppet “Achmed the Dead Terrorist” can be seen above – more favorably:

The gifted ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, as commercially successful a conservative comedian as there is (and one of the most successful touring comedians in the country, period), is best known for Achmed the Dead Terrorist, a puppet given to one-liners like “Where are all the virgins that bin Laden promised me?” Achmed can be funny, not least because he is a goofy, not hectoring, comic creation. And Dunham has a worthy comic nemesis in terrorism, much as Mel Brooks found in Hitler. The trouble with this material is its inevitable shelf life as 9/11 and its ensuing wars keep receding into the rearview mirror of American memory. There’s a reason why the playwright George S. Kaufman long ago said that “satire is what closes on Saturday night.”

Translating World To Word

by Jessie Roberts

Kathryn Schulz raves about Geoff Dyer’s writing prowess, calling him “one of our greatest living critics” and “one of our most original writers—always out there beyond literary Mach 1, breaking the how-things-usually-sound barrier“:

[T]he essential fact about Dyer’s nonfiction is that it works beautifully when it shouldn’t work at all. Some of that work gets done at the level of the sentence, where Dyer excels. Listen to him on a hot day in Algiers: “Even the ants out on the balcony drag a little sidecar of shadow.” On Roman ruins in Libya: “All around were the vestiges of nouns—columns, stones, trees. No verbs remained.” On a saxophone solo by John Coltrane: “It’s pretty and then dangerous as he reaches so high the sky blues into the darkness of space before reentering, everything burning up around him.”

What’s going on in these sentences is the fundamental business of nonfiction: the translation, at once exact and surprising, of world to word. Writers weight that ratio of exactitude and surprise differently; you can stay close or reach further, out toward the risky and weird. Dyer reaches. You can see it in those precise but strange sidecars, in that startling grammar of ruin, and finally in the sax solo, where, like Coltrane, he pushes so hard on his medium that it threatens to break. Note the word blues, pulling three times its weight—noun, adjective, verb, so much pivoting around it that all the referents go briefly haywire and it seems like the solo is still rising and what’s falling is the sky. And note, too, how the sentence itself is pretty and then dangerous: dangerous because it starts out too pretty (“pretty” is a pretty word; “so high the sky” is Hallmark stuff); beautiful because it ends in so much danger.

Schulz goes on to praise Another Day at Sea, Dyer’s new travelogue of two weeks aboard the USS George H.W. Bush. John McAlley reviews the book (somewhat spoiling its ending in the last paragraph):

Dyer’s tour of the boat (that’s right: boat, not ship) is as closely monitored as an F-18 sortie, even though it’s a relatively stress-free time on the Bush: October 2011, more than a year after President Obama announced the end of America’s combat mission in Iraq. Once Dyer inures himself to the ’round-the-clock “crash and thunder” of the in-transit jets and the “aftertaste of the big meats” served in the mess, he’s at ease to report on the daily encounters prearranged for him. Each brief chapter gives us a peek into another nook and cranny of the carrier’s teeming underworld, or the above-deck “island,” “the bridge and assorted flight-ops rooms rising in a stack from one side of the deck: an island on the island of the carrier.” …

For all the snap and snark in his prose, Dyer can’t tamp down his generosity of spirit forever. This unbeliever — in faith, in wayward military action, in bad food and the snorting of bath salts, even in mourning the death of his parents — ends the breezy Another Great Day at Sea with stunning economy and emotional force, and in the most unexpected way. He says a prayer for the men and women of the USS George H.W. Bush — and for all of us at sea.

Subscribers to The New Yorker can read an excerpt of the book here.

A Cure For Aging?

by Jessie Roberts

Richard Walker, a scientist who specializes in aging research, believes the key to ending human aging lies in a rare disease known as “syndrome X.” Babies afflicted with the condition grow older but not bigger, remaining physically “marked by what seems to be a permanent state of infancy.” Here’s an excerpt from Virginia Hughes’s arresting account of Walker’s quest for immortality:

Brooke’s body seemed to be developing not as a coordinated unit, [Walker] wrote, but rather as a collection of individual, out-of-sync parts. He used her feeding problems as a primary example. To feed normally, an infant must use mouth muscles to create suction, jaw muscles to open and close the mouth, and the tongue to move the food to the back of the throat. If these systems weren’t coordinated properly in Brooke, it could explain why she had such trouble feeding. Her motor development had gone similarly awry: she didn’t learn to sit up until she was six years old and never learned to walk. “She is not simply ‘frozen in time’,” Walker wrote. “Her development is continuing, albeit in a disorganised fashion.”

The big question remained: why was Brooke developmentally disorganised? It wasn’t nutritional and it wasn’t hormonal. The answer had to be in her genes. Walker suspected that she carried a glitch in a gene (or a set of genes, or some kind of complex genetic program) that directed healthy development. There must be some mechanism, after all, that allows us to develop from a single cell to a system of trillions of cells. This genetic program, Walker reasoned, would have two main functions: it would initiate and drive dramatic changes throughout the organism, and it would also coordinate these changes into a cohesive unit.

Ageing, he thought, comes about because this developmental program, this constant change, never turns off. From birth until puberty, change is crucial:

we need it to grow and mature. After we’ve matured, however, our adult bodies don’t need change, but rather maintenance. “If you’ve built the perfect house, you would want to stop adding bricks at a certain point,” Walker says. “When you’ve built a perfect body, you’d want to stop screwing around with it. But that’s not how evolution works.” Because natural selection cannot influence traits that show up after we have passed on our genes, we never evolved a “stop switch” for development, Walker says. So we keep adding bricks to the house. At first this doesn’t cause much damage – a sagging roof here, a broken window there. But eventually the foundation can’t sustain the additions, and the house topples. This, Walker says, is ageing.

Brooke was special because she seemed to have been born with a stop switch. The media were fascinated by her case. Walker appeared with the Greenberg family on television several times and explained why he was so interested in Brooke’s genes. “This is an opportunity for us to answer the question ‘Why are we mortal?’” he said on Good Morning America. “If we’re right, we’ve got the golden ring.”

Naming Names

by Jessie Roberts

Oliver Farry considers how a writer’s name can make or break his fortune:

Geoff Dyer is finding himself being shadowed, in a manner akin to Poe’s William Wilson, by another Geoff Dyer, the Financial Times’ Beijing bureau chief, whose books on contemporary China have no doubt snared a few unsuspecting buyers on Amazon. David Cloud Atlas Mitchell has, on at least one occasion, been represented in a broadsheet newspaper by a photo of David Peep Show Mitchell. Dyer and Mitchell are sufficiently successful not to have been damaged by the confusion. Still, circumstances can change. Who now remembers the American writer Winston Churchill – three years Sir Winston’s senior – who was one of the world’s best-selling novelists of the early twentieth century?

Personally, I have to admit I am guilty of neglecting writers on account of their names being just a little too ordinary.

It took me a long time to get around to James Salter and George Saunders and I shamefully ignored the late Mavis Gallant’s work because her name, for some reason, conjured up the image of country parsonages and village fetes. It took best-selling John Green’s zany Flavorwire videos for me to pay attention to him because his name just blended into the background too much.

It’s one thing if you are getting a lot of press from the off – even then, if one is called Smith, it’s surely better to be a Zadie than a Jenny – but if you are relying, like most writers do, on word of mouth and exposure in bookshops and libraries, an ordinary name might not be the one you want. While China Miéville’s success is fully merited from a literary point of view, having a stand-out name has probably never harmed him either. A writer by the name of Peter Jones or Tom Jenkins is going to have a much harder time being remembered.