The Tyranny of Relationships

All relationships — romantic, friend, work — entail certain demands: you will respond in certain ways at certain times.

Relationships, then, always run the risk of becoming tyrannical. Most work relationships, for instance, are violent in their dictates: Be here every morning at 8:45 am!  My god, if a friend or girlfriend demanded that of me they'd sure as shit not be my friend or girlfriend anymore.  Of course, this is just the most obvious demand of the work relationship. It also dictates what you wear, how you spend your day, the kinds of things you can say.

Now, the work relationship is premised on a financial contract: I will submit to these terms in exchange for money.  If only all relationships had such clear terms of give and take! (I am not saying that this work relationship is good or fair — only that the terms of exchange are relatively clear.)

There is a certain discourse of friendship that says, "I'll always be there for you." This is beautiful; this is love, for sure. But what are the limits of "always" and "there," not to mention "for you"? Do I have to listen to the excruciating details of your latest fight with your wife? Perhaps, if it was a particularly big fight with repercussions and such things happen rarely.  But now I've qualified the terms of "always" because if you fight with your wife a lot and refuse to change that relationship, you're insane if you think I'm listening to the inane details.

And then there's the "for you" term: does listening to such inanities actually do you good? Or does our contract imply that not only will I be there but that I will drive to make you the best person you can be? If so, then I'm going to say, "Get out of that marriage or change it but you can't harass me with these details as a way of venting just to go back to the same old shit." This is to say, sometimes a friendship may demand saying and doing things that seem cruel but that are "for you."

And what is "being there"? I am always shocked when someone says to me, "I have to go out with this friend tonight even though I'm tired and want to stay in."  That is tyranny and hence, to me, leaves the realm of friendship.  A friend is the person you can always blow off precisely because you're always there — which, no doubt, sounds like a contradiction. But friendship so thoroughly respects the other person that neither party needs relentless confirmation; friendship is not premised on need but on respect and joy. 

This drove my ex-wife crazy — she'd tell me so and so called and yet I'd not return the call.  She could not understand this. But to me, it was so clear: If I must call the person back, he's not a friend but an obligation to be shed. If he cares that I didn't call him back, he's not a friend, either. A friend, to me, is the one person you can always blow off.  But as this alters the terms of "always" that we take for granted in our friendship contracts, as my ex's sentiments expressed, I tend to look like, well, an asshole — but only to people who are not my friends, so what do I care?

A friend, to me, fuels and inspires. On the rare occasion that I need someone, I know they will be there. But if I needed them all the time to hear me kvetch, whine, or cry then, fuck, I am not living up to my end of the contract: I am draining them, not fueling them. I become a tyrannical vampire, draining vitality, not feeding it. I am taking but not giving — and giving here does not mean trading sympathetic ears.  Giving, in a friendship, means providing fuel for ideas, for vitality, for life. 

Romantic relationships are, of course, the most trying — when they should be the least.  Presumably, if there is love there, then there is also the will to let the other be, a respect for their complexity. But in our culture, romance is premised on the terms of tyranny: always be together and always think of the other first. "You complete me" is its most insidious, egregious premise.  Me, I want my lovers to be complete before I hook up with them. 

The terms of a romantic relationship are prescribed and clearly delineated: you spend your time together, hence live together, breed together, die together. But are these the only terms of romantic relationships? Must you complete me? Might we not both already be complete — and stick together to make each other better, wiser, smarter, stronger? Might we be together out of desire rather than need?

I return to the terms I demand of friendship: that a friend must fuel and inspire me, not drain me. I ask — nay, I demand — the same thing from romance. Must we be one thing rather than two things together? Must we live together — or might living together, in fact, foster habit and weakness and blind each other to the splendors of life? Might not love be best served from a slight physical remove?

I have many points, I suppose, but this is my main one: The terms of a relationship, the terms of give and take, are something to be interrogated rather than assumed. For the established terms tend to drain most parties of life when relationships, when well forged, liberate rather than constrain.


The Speeds of Change

Watching my son, now 8, grow is a fantastic lesson in the nature of change. There he'll be, all 3 feet 9 inches of him, when all of a sudden he begins eating voraciously, sleeping longer and then appears before me two weeks later standing 4 feet tall.  The same happens with his social and intellectual capacity — one day, he's struggling to make sense of the written word; the next, he's reading Hegel. 

This is all to say that change, while gradual, is not an even hum, a straight line that takes a body from one state to another. No, change is punctuated: there are periods of acceleration and longer periods of relative plateau.

And some changes are infinitely fast. Take the transition from nonsense to sense: a baby is babbling and then, one days, says, "Dada." Now, that "dada" at first is just the same old babbling, a fun sound to say. But when the enormous idiot with the big shnoz responds gleefully, "Yes, I''m Dada!" the babbling bundle of delight repeats it.

And then, one day, he says, "Dada" and means it.  That movement from nonsense to sense, from chaos to order, may involve a certain prolonged training but the change itself happens infinitely fast.

The relationship between training and transformation is complex. If I want to behave differently or understand something new and strange, I need to practice and concentrate. But the transformation itself will be sudden. And this acceleration can be disarming as old patterns, habits, and perspectives — our arms with which we take on the world — fall away very quickly.

But usually changes happen in the world around us — from the cosmic to the existential (as if the two were different) — without our awareness. After all, the world is in a relentless state of flux, everything at every level changing all the time. But this change is not even or gradual: it is punctuated, often violently.  Things turn on a dime as cosmic change accelerates, altering the infinite states of the universe at infinite speed.

For us, this means we may be cruising along when, suddenly, we are off our game — we stub our toes, lose our keys, feel disoriented.  Or we are suddenly oppressed by the conditions of the world or, hopefully, are fueled by them.  In a world that is essentially networked, the constant accelerations and plateaus of cosmic change affect us in innumerable ways.  Sudden unexplained change should come as no surprise. 

A key to survival amidst such tumult is always be prepared, poised for whatever may come because change happens fast and it happens behind your back.


Gin, or Imbibing Interpretations

I've recently discovered gin. I drink it simply, over some ice, but these can all be enjoyed neat. Before you cringe imagining the soapy medicine of Bombay or Tanqueray, let me tell you that there has been a veritable explosion of gins as micro-distillers explore the possibilities of this elusive thing we call gin. And the results are, well, as surprising and varied as they are delectable.

The defining term of gin, as the etymology of the name suggests, is juniper. But other than that the field is wide open — from what other botanicals are used to the base itself which can be rye, grain, or grape or any combination thereof.

One thing I love about gin is that its recipe is so loosely prescribed. Tequila, my true love, enjoys great complexity but making it — like making most spirits — mostly entails steering the power of the plant from picking to aging. That is, other spirit makers tweak process and the way the materials break down, an art unto itself. But with gin, it is more a what than a how as the hand of the maker pervades. It is, indeed, a recipe and hence varies chef to chef.

Gin is explicitly interpretive of a category with few limits. While at first, this was the source of my reluctance — I suppose I was some sort of purist — it is now the source of my enthusiasm. With gin, I imbibe interpretations.

Now, the transition from tequila to gin was easy for me as there is a common spiciness and, when gin is done right, a certain delicacy — not to mention an ease of consumption followed by an easy next morning. The nature of this spiciness can vary widely, from floral to pepper to anise to malt. And there is an interesting component — indeed, history — of the therapeutic with gin: juniper was thought to heal, and it does. I love this aspect: booze mixed with herbs to remedy what ails you.

Here is a quick review of my current gin collection (pictured above):

Junipero: Made in San Francisco by Anchor Steam, it is old fashioned, whatever that means. It's tasty but packs a big juniper punch without a lot of subtlety or grace. It's open and round and bold. It's quality but doesn't make me weep — too uniform and punchy for my taste. But don't get me wrong: it's a good thing.

Genevieve: Also from Anchor Steam, this is an odd bird, a genever gin, made with malts from barely, wheat, and and rye. It's not clear like other gins. It's murky, viscous, that malt lending the ether of gin body, weight, and sweetness. It's not made to be mixed at all but enjoyed over ice. And, man, it grows on you and is a great transition gin if you're coming from whiskey. Surprising and delightful.

Blade: Another Bay Area gin, this one much more complex — citrus upfront and the experts say cardamom and I see that: there's a subdued brightness there that I associate with cardamom. It's neither dry nor sweet, neither peppery nor floral. It seems wise, balanced but still vigorous, if you will, and quite inviting without being needy. It's built on a mix of wheat vodka and a little bit of grape spirit. It's interesting but without being too adamantly odd. It may very well be the perfect gin.

Leopold's: From Colorado, I believe, and enjoys a distinct anise or licorice flavor that pervades.  Which has a very nice effect of having a hint of sweetness while being, in fact, quite dry.  It's completely devoid of both the astringency and the bouquet you might associate with gin so if you're hesitant about gin, this is a goody.

The Botanist: Made by one of my favorite scotch distillers, Bruichladdich, this is an Islay gin — which only means anything to scotch drinkers. It claims to have 22 wild botanicals and I will say it has a certain unwieldiness. It's more rambunctious than the others, careening here and there as it makes its way across the tongue. And yet it tastes more like what you think a gin should taste like, a tad astringent and hot. The effect is uncanny as the familiar gives way to the unfamiliar and back, over and over. In a way, it lives up to its name and bottle — it feels like it came from an apothecary. And it will heal your ills.

St. George Terroir: This is the gin that turned me. Made in Alameda, CA — near Oakland, no less — by the folks who make Hangar One vodka not to mention St. George whiskey, single malt, absinthe, and even an agave concoction. This gin is made, as the name suggests, with botanicals from one area — in this case, Mt. Tam in Marin. And, holy guacamole, it tastes like it. Crazy vivid, bright, clean, complex — the laurel sage and douglas fir shining through like a roll in the piney woods. Incredible from the nose on. For me, I tend to want something a bit more subdued but it is astounding and will change how you feel about gin from the very first sip.  I will admit that, sometimes, I dream about it.

St. George Dry Rye: A truly odd bird and ridiculously good. It's made with rye which brings its own peculiar mode of spiciness with it. And they claim to pack it full of juniper and yet its the least floral or botanical gin I've had. It's all dry black pepper.  Closer to the genever of the Anchor Steam Genevieve but without the cloying malt. This is an astounding spirit, in every sense of the word.


The Toll of the Social

It's Wednesday night, 9:37 p.m. I'm strewn across my couch in sweat pants and a sweatshirt ripe with food stains and god knows what else watching a Dylan documentary via Netflix absentmindedly fondling my testicles a second glass of gin within arm's reach and through it all I'm occasionally doing some made up version of half-assed yoga, my stiff frame convoluted in humiliating ways. It's a very private orgy, perverse in its own way: the grotesquerie of the private quotidian. 

And I am at peace. I may not be at my best, lucid and sharp and energetic. But nor am I at my worst — distracted depressed not-even-despairing. No, this is a basic form of maintenance, both physical and mental. I am tending, self nursing, self medicating, resting the ol' noggin and gathering forces for whatever may come.

I am living.

Now, what happens when there's someone else in the room? Or perhaps not even in the room but in the same apartment —  a roommate, friend, or lover?  What becomes of my experience?

It changes dramatically. Suddenly, rather than tending I am negotiating, participating in the elaborate terms of the social contract. This can't be avoided.  Even if the two of us are not talking or looking at each other, there is an exchange — of energies, smells, and sounds, of signs and sighs. We are in dialogue, however silent. 

It's not just a matter of not being able to do certain things like pick your nose or masturbate. The social demands — that's its nature. It processes you, makes sense of you — you may think it's just you being you but in the social world, it's you acting on the world, on others. The simplest gesture is an exchange of some sort. In your silence, you speak and others reply.

Of course, even in your solitude the social is there. All sorts of eyes look at you when you're alone — virtual parents and siblings and friends and would-be friends and past friends and might-be lovers.  But, as they're virtual, it's easier to ignore them, to go about your business as if it were your own.

(The social web complicates this. It allows us to be be alone while with others and, at the same time, it disallows our solitude. We are jacked in, one way or another.  Many of my friends — mid 40s — have almost no interweb presence for precisely this reason.)

But put these bodies in the same space and everything — yes, everything — changes. There is an expenditure demanded of you, a toll; at the very least, you must recognize the other's existence. And that, however slight — and it's rarely that slight — takes its literal toll. Something is asked of you. To refuse is to participate; to respond is to participate.  The social entwines and thoroughly. For you might be as oblivious as you can be but if the other person is more sensitive to your sounds and smells, your movements and meanings, it necessarily implicates you. You get up to pee and she looks up as you pass — not to mention hears the timbre of your stream. The social is insidious. 

This is why I feel like friends can always blow each other off. Part of the friendship contract I enter is that both parties recognize that the social is demanding and that if one of us is not equipped for the exchange, he reserves the right to cancel any rendezvous. This is the most generous, friendly thing you can do: let your friends be when they need to be, no questions asked.

Needless to say, this is much more complicated when negotiating a new lover. Inevitably, this need for solitude is interpreted as rejection rather than what it is: an affirmation of oneself. 

Oh, to be in the company of another but feel alone! That demands an enormous, an unspeaksable, strength.


I Want the World to Shimmer and Gleam

There may be infinite readings of this or that text but there are still good and bad readings. A good reading is surprising, delightful, and generous. Things once familiar become refreshingly unfamiliar; habit gives way to the now and a thing experienced hundreds of times suddenly comes into focus as if for the very first time.

Few things exhilarate the way a good reading does. A fine and fresh distinction or well-placed reversal infuses the banal with vitality, the quotidian with wonder, the dead with life. A good reading is uncanny, taking the familiar and making it unfamiliar so you at once know and don’t know the thing.      

A reading can’t really be wrong — there is no code to be deciphered, no truth awaiting behind or within the words. Neither the author nor the critic nor the professor will deliver the answer from on high. All there are are different readings.

And yet we can still pass judgment, say this reading is good or bad. For instance, a reading may be out of bounds. To say that Moby Dick is a tale of Soviet oppression is just plain silly. And, I suppose, we can say it’s wrong. Such a reading exercises a certain  violence on a text, making it bend in the most uncomfortable ways. So perhaps rather than saying a reading is wrong, we can say a reading is…distasteful? Unethical? Foul — as in baseball? Yes, I like “foul” because it is at once ethical and aesthetic.

There may be no proof that a reading is right but there is evidence — a foul pole of a sort. To read something demands attention, an accounting for what’s there, for what’s happening. There is something thorough about a good reading (although not exhaustive — it can never exhaust a text as a text is infinite).

And then there are plain old bad readings of things, readings that may very well be in bounds but that are bad for any number of reasons. A bad reading makes the thing less interesting, quashing its multivalences (think: writing on museum walls or much of ideology critique). A bad reading may just be obvious, the reader not really doing anything at all but echoing that which has already declared itself.

It’s a matter of posture and health, of the terms with which you come to the world. Do you seek to recognize the world? Or (re)create it? Of course, we often seek to confirm what we know. This is not a bad thing. On the contrary, it is necessary. But when I come to a book or art or politics or sometimes just a glass of tequila, I want to see it anew, fresh, I want to spin it into new shapes and new modes of living. I want to be lead astray of myself, taken somewhere new and exciting. I want the world to shimmer and gleam.


Nothing is More Normal than the Weirdness of the World

So one day you wake up and for no apparent reason you're thinking about your friend Jamie. You haven't talked to Jamie in, I don't know, 2 years. But there she is, her virtual self staring you in the face. Never mind, whatever, you go on with your day.  And then there's that distinctive pluck of harp strings announcing a new text message: it's from Jamie!

"That's weird," you say to someone. "I was just thinking about her and, bang, there she is! I'm telling you, man, it's fucking weird!"

But, of course, nothing is less weird. It's only weird because, for some reason, the basic forces of the universe elude our science and everyday assumptions about the world.

Because, as it turns out, the world teems with forces that exceed us. Egad! The world is not just an object of our will! No, no it's not.  The world has a lot of bodies in it the least of which, in many ways, are human bodies. There are rocks and bugs, clouds and winds, not to mention all the shit we've made from Pokemon to airplanes to nuclear bombs to Borges to the bible and this here interwebs. There are planets and asteroids and black holes and suns — so many, many suns, so many more suns than there will ever be people. 

Now picture the life of all of these things. What is the life of a sun like? My god, it's intense!  Makes your latest break up look a tad, well, paltry. Not that the break up isn't important, too. But just consider life, for one moment, on a cosmic level.  This shit is complex. And to say there are forces at work — more than gravity and centrifugal — is putting it mildly.

Pay attention to all the information, all the flows of mood and energy, that run through any given day beginning with your dreams and the state they leave you in when you awake. And your day hasn't even begun! You wake with a mood, with a sense of the day that comes from all sorts of places — the weather, what you ate the day before, what you think will happen that day, and then...all the solar storms, all the moods and thoughts of all the people you'll interact with today, all the people who may be thinking about you in one form or another, all the debris that's kicking around this cosmos.

And then there's you, a node amidst this vast network. And you think it's "weird" that you were thinking about Jamie and then — and then! — she texted you.

Now carry on with your day. What's the temperament of traffic? You jump in to a coffee shop to grab an espresso. What's the vibe? You know there's a vibe. So what is it? And how are you feeling? Ask yourself why. Try to see all the forces that might have lead to this mood at this moment on this day. It's only 8:42 a.m. and you've experienced so many forces, so many moods and flows, that exceed you. Keep up this interrogation all day and then tomorrow and the next day and the next. What patterns emerge? What have you learned about the cosmos and how you go in, and with, it?

The universe is overrun with energetic forces, the human amongst them. We are not actors on a stage. The stage is alive and complex and various — it's playing us. There are so many forces at work at any given moment, driving your moods and experiences, from the solar to the digestive.

So wouldn't it be even weirder if you were thinking about Jamie and she didn't text you?



I've always loved magnets: to feel their pull is to experience the palpability of a profound truth.  Things are drawn to each other for no other reason than they just are; it's not a matter of will — they don't choose it — but a matter of constitution. But not everything is drawn to anything. No, there have to be very particular conditions, the make up of the bodies needs to be just right. But then, oh then, there is an inescapable attraction.

This kind of attraction and its counterpoint, repulsion, run through all kinds of encounters. We are attracted to certain foods, certain booze, certain drugs, certain colors, certain weather, certain speed, certain emotional intensity and, yes, certain people.

It's a great way to read the world and your place in it: which things draw your body in? At times, we call this taste. I know people — usually men and usually men with unruly beards — who really, really like beer.  They make and drink all kinds of beers. Not me. I find the yeastiness repulsive. I may enjoy a cold pilsner or, from time to time, a bitter porter or stout. But, for the most part, beer doesn't agree with me and I, in turn, am not drawn to it.  It's as if beer and I repel each other.

I love when I'm attracted to something, when there is that spark that exceeds my desire and seeks to draw me closer, to bring me into its orbit. I especially love when this happens with another person. It's a moment in which the universe speaks loudly and clearly.

It's rare — at least it is for me.  I find plenty of people attractive; that is to say, I find them capable of attracting others. I see and understand the appeal of their allure. But that doesn't mean I'm attracted to them. No, attraction is something other than being attractive. It is a force that exists between two bodies.

Now, this force may not be in equal proportion. I may be more drawn to you than you to me. I mean, when I have a little magnet near my fridge, it lurches out of my hands towards that plastic clad metal frame. But the fridge doesn't budge at all.

And yet the fridge is not indifferent.  On the contrary, it calls that little magnet to it, beckons it, seduces it with its iron siren song.  Attraction is always mutual but not necessarily in equal proportion.

And attraction need not be sexual. I am attracted to my good male friends; I want to be around them, to move in their orbit, to enjoy their sense in its many forms. No doubt, much of attraction is sensual even if not sexual. I like looking at my male friends; I think, usually, they smell nice. And sometimes I meet men who are pleasant and smart and funny and yet, for whatever reason, I am not attracted to them.

But attraction is never just physical because, well, nothing is just physical. All bodies are run through with ideas and concepts, with affect and memories, with invisible traces of images and experiences and knowledge. And all bodies enjoy a style, a mode of moving through the world, a rhythm and speed and intensity.

Attraction, of course, happens in ever differing intensity.  Sometimes, you are kinda drawn to another. And other times, it's as if the sun itself were pulling you into its fiery embrace.

Those are rare and beautiful events — you meet someone at a party or behind a counter or wherever and there is this incredible, palpable, clear energy reverberating between you. Your body and everything else quivers, even if just a bit. I believe this power deserves to be honored. After all, it's the literal pull of cosmos so it seems silly to turn away from it, even if you can.

This doesn't mean the attraction will yield only goodness. There is no assurance of that whatsoever. In fact, I might say that most intense attractions will end badly, like being proverbially pulled into the sun. It seems people often maintain miserable relationships because the power of attraction is so strong. Then again, the power of the attraction may just fizzle of its own accord.

But so it goes. The will of the universe is the very way different bodies interact with each other, attract and repel each other. To me, that pull is such a beautiful thing, is erotic in and of itself — even if the nature of the attraction is not erotic. Just sitting there feeling the magnets pull and repel makes my heart throb. 

It's All Right There

"We know, we can still see for ourselves, how ugly he was. But ugliness, in itself an objection, is among the Greeks almost a refutation. Was Socrates a Greek at all? Ugliness is often enough the expression of a development that has been crossed, thwarted by crossing. Or it appears as declining development. The anthropologists among the criminologists tell us that the typical criminal is ugly: monstrum in fronte, monstrum in animo." — Nietzsche

"Note down what you can see. Anything worthy of note going on. Do you know how to see what’s worthy of note? Is there anything that strikes you? Nothing strikes you. You don’t know how to see. You must set about it more slowly, almost stupidly." — Georges Perec

We like to believe, perhaps, that there is a surface of things that is transitory and, in the end, meaningless. Under this surface is what really matters: there lies the the truth of things.

But the world reveals itself, always and necessarily. Scratch away the surface and you scratch away life itself.  The trick is to learn to see the world.

Usually, we don't see.  Our vision is blinded by familiarity and fear — familiarity of what we know and expect; and fear of engagement with the overwhelming vitality of the now. And, of course, out of fear we rely on the familiar — we prefer to see the controlled dead rather than the sublime living.

Look around.  Everything is right there.  Not only all the information you need but all the information there is.  You might have to poke about a bit. You might have to squint. You may even need to close your eyes.  But you'll never have to sift it out because life happens in this world and nowhere else.

Now look at someone's face.  Really look at it.  See the overwhelming amount of information in the skin, the posture, the eyes, the rhythm of movements and twitches.  It's unbearable. We leak ourselves  continuously, relentlessly, necessarily. There are of course thoughts and fears and images in your head I can't see but if I look long enough and hard enough at you, I'll sense those thoughts and fears and images.

This is what psychics do: they read the wealth of information available, the information we tend to ignore out of fear. But just look and you, too, can see. It's obvious when we desire and are desired — you don't need the girl to say, "I want you," to know that she wants you and, at the same time, that she's a tad ambivalent, curious, cautious. You know all that. But still you ignore it, play dumb: "How am I supposed to know?" Because you do.  You see it on others. You can tell when that girl likes that boy. But when it comes to yourself, your engagement with the world, you turn blind.

We wear our experiences. We wear our lives on our faces and in our flesh. We wear our fears and thoughts and desires and images and histories. We are a cinema screen (and a camera at the same time).

The trick is knowing how to read it. The trick is not just listening to what people say but to how they say it. We know this most of the time — so and so protests too much, we thinks.  Which is to say, we read people's behaviors not just what they say. But we stop short of reading all the information they are giving us.

Look again at your lover's face while he or she is speaking, thinking, cooking, writing, sleeping.  Really look.  The complexity and plethora of pathos is sublime: it overwhelms.

And yet if we overcome this fear of sublimity, we'll be so much smarter. We'll understand why and how we feel the way we do, why and how we ended up here rather than there.  We'll know that our lovers speak of nonchalance but are in fact profoundly afraid of loneliness, of stillness; we'll know that even though they say they love you, they in fact love love; we'll know all the ambivalence that goes into every kiss.

Sometimes, to see means not staring at your lover's face but standing back to take in the lay of the land. You need to see the map of the territory and the trajectories that landed you here and where they'll most likely take you next. Like all things, seeing demands both touring and mapping your life. 

We live at the surface, always. This is not superficial, at least not in the sense of being false or "mere" surface. This is being empirical rather than blind. 


Complex Terms of Engagement: On Mike White and "Enlightenment"

So I began watching HBO's series, Enlightenment, and found it difficult. The main character, played by Laura Dern, is annoying. But so is everyone else in the show. But then, after a few weeks, because I found it so difficult that I returned to it thinking there must be something there. And I realized that it's, in fact, astoundingly brilliant.

Why? Because it refuses all the familiar terms of engagement and gives us, in their stead, sophisticated, respectful new ones. There is no character with whom we sympathize; there is no character who is downright bad. Rather, we get relationships and situations in which our sympathies and empathies shift, sometimes moment to moment.

Take the relationship between Laura Dern and her mother (who is also her real life mother). When she first moves in without asking, you're torn. On the one hand, Laura Dern is so assuming — doesn't her mother have a life of her own? On the other hand, isn't Ms. Dern her daughter? Shouldn't she be welcomed?  This play, this ambivalence, this shifting takes place relentlessly between all characters in all situations — in every freakin' scene.

In some sense — in a different sense than we usually use the terms — this is a situation comedy: the situation dictates the terms of our engagement, not the character or some meta-situation.  Take the main character, the character whose voice over we here: at times, we not only hate her, we fear her, we feel for those she assaults and annoys — even though we don't like them, either.  And that leaves us, as viewers, in a rather strange situation as our own emotional responses spin.

And what makes it all more difficult is the naked human emotionality — it's so realistic, so poignant,  all that passive aggression, all those micro-politics between people, between family members, loves, co-workers.  It's all so familiar.

What's unfamiliar is how the show engages us, what it asks from us, how it speaks to us.  It is not there to make us comfortable — on the contrary, it seeks to unsettle us from what it means to watch a drama, to watch television, from what it means to identify with a character or a story. This is not a show you just kick back and enjoy, gently chuckling at Ross' antics. 

This, alas, is what defines so much of Mike White's work — Chuck & Buck and the excellent Year of the Dog. These are understated, difficult movies in that they give us a familiar emotional terrain —loneliness, desire — but deliver them in unfamiliar terms.  They ask strange things of us as our sympathies and identification shift over and over again. And through it all, there is this incredible emotional poignancy that is, at time, unbearable.

All art — all people, all things —  presents us with terms of engagement. They come to us, they come at us, with a certain posture, asking for certain things — our attention, our reactions. Most pop music, most pop movies and TV, ask very little of us.  They confirm the same old hetero-bourgeois nonsense; they confirm what we know and who we are as they conform to the standard terms of engagement. Characters stay the same; we know what to expect of them.  We root for so and so and against that other so and so as we hope Ross and Rachel get together in the end.

But Mike White will have none of that.  He presents us with very different terms of engagement. He understands that life is complex and that art, too, can be complex; that identification and sympathy and empathy may shift, that who we are and what we care about may change as circumstances change.  In Mike White's world, we may like a certain character even while we cringe at his or her behavior. 

And, while perhaps unsettling, these terms of engagement are more respectful — more respectful of life and more respectful of us as viewers. These terms ask us to be grown ups, to embrace the complexity of life and the complexity of viewing. 

The Posture of Things

You're shopping for a chair. As you browse the aisles, you note the variety — from backless computer chairs to high bar stools to plush ...