I have no well-defined ideas for this piece. I have lots of different ill-defined ideas competing for my attention like baby birds in a nest squeaking for food. Except it’s one of those creepy owl’s nests and I don’t feel much like the owl dropping a mouse onto the buffet, but rather more like the mouse who is about to get velociraptored by a swarm of starving owlets.
Here’s one idea: Figure out the phenomenon in which people who live their lives in the general vicinity of New York City see the city as just another city, not really all that different from any other except for the fact that it’s really huge and also the fact that it has lots of plays. Ask my fiance to explain her feelings related to how when she was a high school and college student in the Hudson Valley the city was only a place that sometimes she went to so that she could do something there. (Fiance text message from last night: “Were you going to do something about how people view cities?”) Contrast this phenomenon to a related but antonymous one in which people who are from places far away from New York see the city as as a symbol of any of but not limited to the following things: freedom, art, literature, Bohemia (poor kids), hipsterism, America, capitalism, socialism, liberalism; they romanticize it and allegorize it and turn its streets (Wall, Broadway, etc) into metonyms for entire swarths of American culture.
Tangential discussion likely to arise: how Middle Americans who may or may not have been to New York feel it’s their right to insert themselves into New York issues: see 9/11, the former governor from Alaska’s virulent hyping of the Muslim YMCA, etc. End with words from my New York City people who do romanticize their city in a gritty real way, who love it deeply the way I love New Orleans, for whom New York is indeed more than just a city.
Another idea was this: What is it about David Fincher’s The Social Network that made certain twenty-somethings turn into ravingly ambitious wannabe world dominators upon their initial viewing of it? When my girlfriend was driving us through the hinterlands between Queens and Long Island after we saw it I kept going on and on about how little I’d accomplished: “I’m already twenty-five,” I said. “I have to do something big.” She told me something like, “I’m twenty-seven. I haven’t accomplished as much as you. How is that supposed to make me feel?” And I said, “Like a cougar?”
The next morning between busy moments filing admissions folders for the Adelphi Univerity MFA program I was Gchatting with my bff Marika who, like me, had just seen The Social Network. “It made me want to no need to conquer the world,” I typed, and she typed back something like, “I felt the same way and I don’t even put my last name on my Facebook,” which is a very Marika kind of thing to say. But the interesting thing to me and both of us and also, perhaps particularly so, to my fiance, is that the film is about how the fictional Mark sacrifices people in the pursuit of doing something big—to attract a final club, to get back at and/or impress a girl, etc—and sacrifices people ironically because the offerings are made in the pursuit of creating a world build around heightened interpersonal interconnectivity. (I let my fiance see the bit about being a cougar. She laughed. She also said, “But that’s not the only thing we talked about. I also said the story’s tragic because he loses every real relationship and replaces them with fake ones online—” and, I’ll interject, in real life with the likes of Timberlake’s Sean Parker— “so he can make something huge of himself.” My fiance occasionally gets concerned I’ll drive myself insane in the pursuit of lofty overambition; I think I’ll be okay, partly because she’s around.) In other words, it’s a cautionary tale about the inherent dangers of ambition when said comes at the expense of real human beings, not a motivational speech as imagined by the guy who directed Fight Club. Fact though this may be, it doesn’t keep me and a select cadre of my friends from rewatching The Social Network anytime we need to feel an entrepreneurial itch.
That the film arises from a new America in which the old ticket to the Dream—find career, work hard for a few decades in career, retire—is all but extinct, replaced by a chaotically fluid mess makes it only more fascinating. Of course, it’s not like The Social Network is exactly a rags to riches story (“What part of Long Island did you come from? Wimbledon?”—”By the looks of it they want to sell me a Brooks Brothers franchise.”). After all, these are comfortable kids who range from a bottom socioeconomic rung of “I asked for a car, I got a computer; how’s that for being born under a bad star?” to a top one somewhere around “Had first helping of caviar when I was in a high chair, but I ruined my best navy blazer because I spit it up all over myself. Now I never settle for Ukrainian stuff when I can get it from Vladivostok.” It’s hard to revolutionize the way people live when you don’t dorm with kids who make three hundred thousand dollars over a summer just for the hell of it. Maybe, then, The Social Network’s effect is to further promulgate the myth of American meritocracy.
But no, I don’t think that explains it. I think the film taps into an America that, even as our states’ leaders kill education funding and even as we elect Republican governors who talk about useless liberal arts degrees (see: Florida), is reorganizing much of its economic activity around the so-called creative classes. That’s how, I think, The Social Network does its magic: it shows that unleashed creativity can change the world even when fucking Larry Summers is around to be an asshole.
One idea I had was to copy a short piece I wrote about how terrible Velveeta is, how it made me throw up all over the kitchen table when I was a little kid, and expand it. I didn’t do that.
Another idea I had was to do another comparative piece about New York and New Orleans—specifically based on something I said to the founder of PANK, M. Bartley Siegel, down in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans during PANK’s recent reading there. “I would never have discovered this part of the city if it wasn’t for the reading,” he told me, standing outside on the sidewalk, towering over me, because he is a tall man and I am not.
Already two Abitas into the evening, I said, “This is the Williamsburg of New Orleans.” Almost on cue two skinny white kids road down the street on fixed gear bikes, a guy and a girl, and I don’t remember what the girl looked like but I do remember that the guy had on a top hat and skinny jeans, a white t-shirt and, over it, a very formal jacket with tails flowing behind him in the heavy New Orleans air.
I would try to explain what I think that means, but because this is not an essay, I don’t think I can.