Under Pressure

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New York City, January 28, 2015

weather review sky 012815★★★ A few elongated clouds arrayed themselves on the sharp morning blue. The light on the slushy crosswalks was blinding; the puddles were a sinister clayey gray-brown. Mostly, though, the snow was enduring, still presentably white. The wet floor of the subway made it too risky to rush and jump into the open car at the warning tone, but the down parka made it relatively easy to take the blow of the slamming doors and squirm through. The sidewalks were everything from open pavement to solid packed snow, on opposite sides or even different lengths of a single block. An oncoming stroller bore down down along a channel just wide enough for its wheels. The paint of the window frames diffused generous portions of daylight into the office. Walking at dusk, small muscles in the lower legs tensed and ached a bit from making constant minor corrections on the slippery ground. The crisp-cut half moon, barely turning gibbous, was startling.

Fred Armisen on the Evolution of 'Portlandia,' 'SNL,' and American Accents

fred_armisen_spikePortlandia’s fifth season premiered on IFC earlier this month, and for longtime fans of the show, the newest crop of episodes have been the perfect culmination of four years’ worth of exploring the many characters, small businesses, and human idiosyncracies in the magical world of Portland. But Portlandia isn’t the only thing that’s evolved and changed over the past few years—co-creator and star Fred Armisen has moved from his SNL roots to be the new Late Night band leader and has a brand new IFC show set to debut later this year, so it looks like 2015 will be another busy year for one of TV’s favorite punk rock/comedian hybrids. I recently spoke with Armisen about how he approached the new season of Portlandia, NBC’s upcoming SNL 40th anniversary special, and his hopes to one day master every American accent since 1930.

The last time we interviewed you was almost a year ago, right after you started at Late Night. How’s your year been?

Inside the Mind of the Teen Male, Approximately

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I don’t command a nerd army, or preside over a realm of the socially ill-equipped. I’m small for my age, young for my grade, uncomfortable in most situations, nearsighted, skinny, awkward, and nervous. And no good at sports. So Dork is accurate. The King part is pure sarcasm, though: there’s nothing special or ultimate about me.

— Frank Portman, King Dork (2006)

King Dork Approximately is the recently published sequel to King Dork. They are very funny and truthful YA novels, written by Frank Portman, with a quite pro- sex and drugs and rock and roll vibe to them. They are told by protagonist Tom Henderson, a disaffected, cynical, guitar-playing teenager in a band whose name changes every other minute (The Mordor Apes, with Mithril-hound on guitar, Li’l Sauron on Bass and Necrology, and Dim Todd on Percussion and Stupefaction, soon gives way to The Elephants of Style: Mot Juste on guitar, Sam Enchanted Evening on Bass and Animal Husbandry; First Album, Devil Warship). In King Dork, Henderson’s discovery of his late dad’s annotated copy of The Catcher In The Rye creates all kinds of havoc for our hero. The movie of the first book has been in production for ages at Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s production company, Gary Sanchez; Miguel Arteta (Freaks and Geeks, Youth in Revolt) is attached to direct. Portman is also the frontman of the old SF pop punk band, The Mr. T Experience. MTX, as it is known locally, was formed in Berkeley in 1985, so Tom Henderson comes honestly by his rock and roll bona fides.

These are the only YA books I know of that describe teen sexuality convincingly from the boys’ side of the equation. Here is a quote from Tom Henderson:

You can’t control “the hots.” You don’t say, like oh, I would ordinarily like this girl’s ass, but now I know she’s a Republican or likes the Doors then I suddenly don’t. It doesn’t work like that, at least not for me. And it’s true the other way too: things like accomplishments or abilities don’t much matter like people seem to think they should. “Well, Gwendolyn, now that I know you came in second in the spelling bee, I suddenly inexplicably want to ramone you.” No, not so much. An ass is an ass is an ass. You either like it or you don’t, and spelling bees don’t enter into it, so to speak. But honestly? I usually do like it.

In the travails of Henderson and his friends and foes, Portman expertly portrays the real-life horrorshow teens face in attempting to form a halfway operational understanding of—well everything, but most specifically, how gender politics will operate in the adult life they’re about to embark on. We really aren’t serving the teens too well there, it has to be said. What have they got to work with? Some ghastly farrago of Grand Theft Auto, The Fault In Our Stars, The Hunger Games and Nicki Minaj videos.

I met Portman in the sumptuous wood-paneled Tap Room at the Huntington in Pasadena, where he was staying during his book tour for King Dork, Approximately. He’s handsome, not too tall, dark hair, blue t-shirt. Strikingly, Portman’s gimlet-eyed, cherubic mien has remained unchanged for decades.

What is YA literature, even?

Well, another question is: What is an adult? and then, What is a young adult?

The Man Who Won't Let Go

“He Stopped Loving Her Today” might well be George Jones’s most famous song, but I don’t think it was his best. Eighteen years before that one, he released my favorite: “She Thinks I Still Care.”

The two songs are a little like bookends. “She Thinks I Still Care” is a first-person confession from a man who cannot stop loving a woman who has left him; “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is a second-person elegy for a man who only stopped loving a woman when he died. George Jones didn’t write either song, but he made you believe he had lived both, falling in love so foolishly that only death could release him from loving a woman who had long stopped loving him.

The Possum never said the two songs were related, but they’ve always seemed that way to me, especially since the man in “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is reading love letters from 1962, the same year that “She Thinks I Still Care” was released. Jones stretched a single love affair the way he did the songs themselves; he never met a syllable he didn’t like well enough to turn into two. Part of what’s so distinctive, so delightfully Jones is that his vowels seem to go on forever and ever: Sheeeee thinks I stiiiiiiiill caaaaaaaare, and that’s just the chorus.

A Poem by Henry Israeli

SO MANY MACHINES

The car is a machine
that spins the world beneath it.
The heart is a machine
that sits like a hunched little man.

A child is a machine
to keep balls bouncing.
Balls are machines that keep
gravity from crushing us.

All machines depend
on all the other machines.

The Sporting Contest As Metaphor For Life: A Consideration In Verse

What Time Is The Super Bowl?

The Super Bowl is always now.
It takes place every minute.
It doesn’t happen somewhere else
Just look around—you’re in it.

You start out full of faith and hope
and joy for what will be.
You end up with your brains bashed in
and fractures in your knee.

Your arms are sore, your legs are weak
Your mouth is slack and muddy.
You’ve wet yourself and crapped your pants
The rest of you is bloody.

At every turn you’re smacked around
And even if and when
You somehow reach a goal of yours
They send you back again.

A bunch of larger angry men
Keep mashing up your head
And when they finally stop the clock
It’s over and you’re dead.

The Super Bowl? Well, that’s your life.
The suffering’s what sticks.
Oh, you meant this Sunday’s game?
That starts at half past six.

The Fusion Masthead

What is Fusion? Fusion is a joint endeavor of ABC and Univision. So it is mostly a TV channel! (That’s channel 108 in New York City, if you have Verizon. It’s not a channel at all if you have any other cable provider.) But it is also a digital enterprise, embedded inside the TV-ness, to make things happen across all platforms as the future of TV changes in whatever ways it will. It is something of an experiment. Mostly what you likely know about Fusion is that they just keep hiring people! But who? And what do they do? Here is an attempt to organize those hires at the digital side of the organization into a masthead. (The TV side is even more complex.) They have so many titles!!! Some of them may or may not be at all what they sound like. And maybe there are a million more people? Or not…??? Who knows! Here’s what we have so far. Undoubtedly we should regard this as as a living document and we will receive a few dozen updates.

The Best Time I Had Bed Bugs While Housesitting For Someone Else

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I was very sure it was not bed bugs.

I was so, so sure.

In fact, I knew it was not bed bugs because I had done some extensive googling and cream buying and had gone to the doctor and decided what it really was was an obscure skin condition called Polymorphic Light Eruption.

Polymorphic Light Eruption is a skin rash caused by exposure to the sun affecting approximately 1 in 10 European women. Damn you, England, I thought to myself, damn you straight to hell. But secretly I was relieved.

My doctor was less convinced. “To be honest, it looks more like scabies or bed bugs or something,” she said. I snorted. To be fair, she had literally just googled “scabies rash” in front of me, so my smug doubt was, I felt, somewhat justified. The itchy, red bumps decorating my arms, back and chest were clearly PMLE (the abbreviation used by My Community), and all I needed to do was never go outside in the sun again, fine.

I went home from the doctor and tore the sheets off the bed. Eggs.

Earlier this week I was commiserating with a friend who expressed discomfort over an increasing feeling of futility that had made itself manifest only recently and, as something of an expert in the field of not totally being in love with life all the time, it occurred to me that the knowledge I have concerning this condition might be helpful to more than just the people in my social circle, so I will share my message with anyone else out there who is similarly situated from an emotional standpoint. You are not wrong to feel down: This is winter. Real winter. We’re in it now. The holidays are a distant memory, spring seems impossibly far away and even the lengthening of the days is something you observe solely through windows. Whatever flash of light you see in the hours before the evening is a taunting reminder that most of your life is spent indoors, in an artificially brightened environment designed to disguise a darkness that is always with you no matter how you try to convince yourself otherwise. We’re at the point in the calendar year where the pervasive hopelessness of nature sends a signal to your brain to start a steady leak from its carafe of chemicals that more than ever makes you realize just how bleak and pointless life really is and that there is no amount of alcohol or television or sex or expensive noodle dishes and the photos you post thereof that can keep you from confronting just how alone you are no matter how many people you number in your life. You are suffering from a state that can best be described as human existence, the only cure for which comes at its end, and even that eventual promise of blissful oblivion makes it no easier to cope with the shabby scrim of suffering that drapes itself over all that you see in your sad eyes. Normally this is the part where I would offer some hope but I am sorry to tell you that I cannot. It’s all dark. It doesn’t get better. There is a temporary respite come spring and summer but even that you will waste and suddenly you will find yourself back in fall, the days growing shorter and your ability to delude yourself that it will all be okay once again proving wanting. It is an endless cycle of suffering only occasionally interrupted by your brain’s begrudgingly allowing you to pretend things might work out while the weather is warm. That said, I hear flights to L.A. are not super-exorbitant these days; if you can swing it, it might make you okay for a week or two, which is really all you can ask for.#

New York City, January 27, 2015

★★★★ What the daylight revealed was a letdown, indisputably—a historic letdown, a ludicrous scene of ordinariness: walkways already shoveled clear; cars showing their flanks and hubcaps. Maybe there was still some fine snow blowing, but who cared? Looking out the window was like making eye contact with someone who had just been badly embarrassed. Yet was this snow the governor? Was this snow the things people had said about the storm or done around the storm? Or was it merely new and substantial and clean? The three-year-old went out to play with a friend and came back scarlet-cheeked, eating snow from the back of a mitten, resigned to the loss of a Batman figure somewhere in the playground drifts. Most things have a disappointment in them. The noodles in the cold-case ramen package, picked up the day before in the panic line at the store, had sprouted mold. Out in the late afternoon someone walked along the bare wet sidewalk carrying cross-country skis and poles, heading for someplace where snow would be. A plastic toboggan and saucer were coming home from the other direction. A fat-bellied two-ball snowman with cups for features stood beside the bus shelter. The statues by the fountain wore little white hats of snow. Out the window now, one had to admit the snow lay prettily enough on the far side of the Hudson. And then a brilliant little ray of orange shot under the edge of the clouds to decorate the buildings to the west, and then the three-year-old stood marveling at the colors surging out of the west, orange boiling into pink, a phenomenon beyond the scope of the record books.