Friday, June 13, 2014

Kelsey "Kale" Gould and the Awesomely Awkward Audit

Awkwardness entails discomfort/ineptitude with social scripts alongside a razor-sharp awareness that this absent aptitude is visible to others. For this reason, it is fitting that I should spend most of my workday in front of a computer, which, to my knowledge, is unaware of my feverish self-consciousness.

For the better of self-growth, or for the worse of self-embarrassment, there are times when I am required to interact with people. I approach my colleagues kindly and politely, with a soft voice, good humor and bad posture.

Part of my health care-centered job entails conducting audits and ensuring that our contracted agencies are following Department of Health regulations. Put another way: I must invite myself over someone else’s office – always someone older and more experienced than I am – and evaluate their performance. More than any other of my responsibilities, during this part of my job, awkwardness weighs down like an elephant in heels.

Speaking of heels, while auditing one such health care agency, I noticed that the heel on one of my dress shoes was, figuratively speaking, on its last leg. It began flopping against my foot months ago when I was trying to catch the G-train. Back then, I crazy-glued it together when I arrived at the office; astonishingly that held it for months.

I asked the receptionist if she, or anyone else in the agency, had crazy glue.

“Why do you need that?” Her expression had been humorless; now, it had taken on a look of a hostile, defensive confusion, as though I had asked if I could take her mother out on a date.

“My shoe is falling apart,” I explained, smiling in acknowledgement of the situation’s hilarity.

Her expression relaxed but retained its stolidity. “We have packaging tape,” she offered.

The receptionist returned with a roll of clear packaging tape after my contact had returned. I fumbled clumsily with it as my contact and I debated compliance, tugging at the crinkly plastic like an apprehensive skydiver at the cord of a stubborn parachute, and trying to stick the wads between the heel and sole. Eventually, my contact, a registered nurse, could no longer stand the ridiculous sight of an auditor trying to tape his shoe together: she knelt down and began taping it herself, tape on the outside. I felt like a nine year old getting his shoe tied by a dubious adult.

At the audit's welcome conclusion, I thanked her and left the building, grinning cynically to myself as I walked back to the train station, my shoe crunching noisily along.

Sunday, December 22, 2013


As a kid, I loathed exercise; in fact, I loathed anything that distracted me from what was really important in life: Nickelodeon and potato chips. This aversion towards physical activity seems to run in the family. My dad, a non-native English speaker who alters certain words based on his opinions of them, calls it “exercide,” as if any physical activity amounts to some kind of taboo, large-scale slaughter.

Several months ago, I began waging exercide against my muscles. This is essentially an experiment to see whether or not vegans can grow muscle in the first place, and as of this writing, I’d still lose an arm-wrestling competition with the branch of a willow: a meat-eating willow, that is.

A full-body workout is what the experts recommend. Therefore - ever the diligent disciple - I spend time stretching and straining each muscle group on every exercise machine.

Sometimes I wonder if these machines are gendered. Take the "Hip Abduction" machine, for example: a machine whose name sounds like a most bootylicious alien kidnapping. On the instructional sticker, there is a stock animation of a woman with an impossible, feline musculature, in several stages of squeezing her legs together. Her butt is highlighted in a pain-colored red.

Is the Hip Abduction machine targeted towards women? If so, am I upsetting some unspoken rule by mounting it? I could swear I've caught a look of disapproval in the eyes of my male gym peers. Who knows what they mutter under their breath, between tense grunts, with sweat streaming down their breast-sized pectorals and through their short shorts.

Gauche moments further abound whenever I board that great conveyor belt of physical fitness – the treadmill. My mp3 player always seems to select the wrong song. Somehow, the synthesized, blood-pumping percussion of New Order always gets bypassed for that one Janis Joplin song about pediatric depression, shaking my will to breathe, let alone develop the perfect physique.

Once, while lunging forward on the treadmill and attempting to skip the track, the damned thing jumped out of my hand like an electronic frog. Impulsively, stupidly, I reached down towards the moving surface to grab it and lost my balance. The fellow striding next to me was frozen with alarm by the impending disaster. Yet, miracles do happen: by running to regain an upright posture and jumping onto the side-rails, disaster was averted.

What rare luck! Face and mp3 player intact, I bought a lottery ticket that day. I stuffed it in my back pocket - firm muscle underneath thanks to that Hip Abduction machine - and haven't seen it since.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I awoke at 3:30am a few nights ago and was not able to get back to sleep. My body felt as languid and tattered as an old teddy bear, but my mind was all racetracks and merry-go-rounds.

"Did you set you're alarm for tomorrow?" I asked myself, "There's no food in the apartment. I wonder when Key Food opens? You should check to see when Key Food opens," and so on.

Therefore, an hour and a half before dawn, I decided to take a walk around my northern Brooklyn neighborhood. I usually walk when I can't think of anything else to do, but I had never done so at such an early o'clock; well, in sobriety, that is. A strange excitement flushed through me as I anticipated absorbing the various, eerie sounds ricocheting the empty, early morning streets: lone cars; the loud, drunken conversations of tired revellers (inevitably littered with should've/would'ves and what-ifs); the dull, low, murmuring wind.

Suddenly, a solitary, staggering person in front of me began shouting in my direction: "DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?" I shook my head and tried to ignore him, but he cornered me and began cursing about how he doesn't like to be ignored.

"I spent seven years in jail! Just got out!' he said, in an insulted, intoxicated tone. The demanded his presence and I felt it close around me. "I'm a licensed gun-owner!" he then yelled while reaching in his jacket pocket. I startled; I took a very quick step backwards. "Licensed!" he said, trying to reassure me, again as if defending his honor against offence. In retrospect, if he was fresh out of jail, then he likely would not have a gun license, but flight-or-flight superseded rationality in my primal mind.

"Can I have a dollar?" he said, "I have a family to support." I gave him a dollar. "Can I have another dollar?" I hesitated this time. "I can give you fifty cents change." I gave him a second dollar.

"You know what," said the man, "I hate lying, and I'm sorry I lied. I don't have a family. I just need to get back to Islip. You can have your money back." He reached in his pocket and offered the money back. When I refused, he asked for a third dollar, which I also refused. It suddenly occurred to me that the man simply wanted to talk.

But I still didn't want to give him any more money. "I need that dollar to buy mouthwash." This was my excuse.

The man kept trying to converse with me. We exchanged names. He wanted to share a drink, but if I assented, clearly, I would be buying all the rounds. In my first attempt to excuse myself, I tried the old worried-well trick: "I'm just really depressed right now and I really want to be alone," I explained, with as much desperation in my eyes as I could force.

This didn't work. "I think you need a woman. Sometimes you just gotta bust a nut. I gotta find me a blow, that's what I need."

I nodded sympathetically. Having a conversation with a stranger about sex ranks at the very end of what I wanted to do in those quiet, early morning hours.

"You have a woman? Wait, you gay or something?"

How to make myself sound as uninteresting as possible to this fellow? "I'm asexual," I shrugged.

"Hey, that's cool. My son's gay."

"Asexual," I lightly corrected, "I don't want to have sex with anyone."

He furrowed his brow. "You're a freak, Kelsey," said the man.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Why You Should Know about The Virgin Dress

"Good" art affects the beholder. The English literature professor who became my thesis adviser once illustrated this relationship with a triangle, wherein the left base angle was the artist, the right base angle was the audience, and the top vertex angle was the art itself. The triangle's sides were the connection networks made between artist and audience. In his definition, art needed to convey something - be it an emotion, a concept or a technique - in order to be effective.

Several weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to catch the "Sad Girls Club" series, an exhibition by The Virgin Dress (aka, Brooklyn-based Nigerian-American illustrator Chioma Ebinama), in the hallway of a Bed-Stuy brownstone apartment. Only a short while after absorbing the first few "girls" in the series, the little typebars I have for cerebral synapses began banging-out a blog entry about why the exhibition qualifies as "good." Take the following Sad Girl:

Together we're everything

A well-coiffed white woman with large, defiant eyes tearfully clutches her Louis Vuitton purse. It is ambiguous as to whether the caption addresses the audience or the bag; however, the often satirical focus on privilege and consumerism throughout the Sad Girls Club exhibition makes me believe the latter. We rely on our possessions - and on the act of possessing possessions - for our happiness. The absoluteness of the caption dramatizes this in a hilarious manner.

Neither angry nor sassy

In the above Sad Girl, Chioma turns her attention from the privileged to the marginalized, confronting racialist stereotypes about black women with a universal expression of intense, human despair. I attribute the illustration's power to its bluntness: the image of a crying black woman paired with knee-jerk judgements black women frequently face should compel one to re-examine their latent prejudices.

The Sylvia Plath Death Scene

According to the artist, this was drawn following a conversation with a friend about the death scene in Sylvia, a biopic about Sylvia Plath. In the film, Sylvia (Gwyneth Paltrow) closes her eyes after turning on her gas oven. In actuality, Ms. Plath was found with her head in the oven. Chioma’s friend argued that there was no way to depict the suicide as it actually happened without it looking absurd. Chioma disagreed and drew the above drawing.

Regardless of the backstory, the illustration remains an effective critique of stifling, sexist, and thoroughly-American mid-century Modernism. The philosophy that kept the public and personal spheres separate was culpable for the marginalization and oppression of women. For some women of Sylvia's time, such circumscription probably did make some ruminate other uses for ovens besides tv dinners and Thanksgiving turkeys. That said, the dark humor in this illustration is boldly apparent, from the funky wallpaper to the large, baffled cat in the window.

Another member of the Sad Girls' Club fleshes-out this dark humor further:

Food diary

An almost naked Amy Winehouse sits on a scale, head buried in her arms, surrounded by dancing, anthropomorphic food - one of which gleefully advertises the amount of calories it contains. The juxtaposition between a deeply unhappy human life and consumer culture makes the latter look absurd and irrelevant. The food dances around Amy, perhaps imprisoning her, and when complimented by the scale, it is impossible not to consider the rampant body image problems plaguing women in western societies; Amy herself struggled with an eating disorder which likely contributed to her death.

The blithe, dancing food entrapping Amy suggests that she had likewise become part of consumer culture. Unfortunately for her, in this lifetime, there was no escape. Her fame/infamy kept some writers from seeing her as someone who had suffered in the spotlight, and a rash of callous, mean-spirited articles, like this one, filled the tabloids.

"That's exactly what happened," I said to the artist.

For all the Sad Girls:
For other works by The Virgin Dress:

Saturday, October 5, 2013

"The Heat This Time of Year is Ridiculous": Kale Returns to Glasgow

During a plane’s descent, there comes that splendid moment when the clouds suddenly pull apart, revealing patchwork farmlands, picturesque villages or sprawling cities underneath. I anticipated the familiar stretches of green as I was about to visit Scotland for the third time (I lived there first as an exchange student and second as a Masters student). At first, as the plane drifted lower and lower, the layers of cloud opened only to more layers of cloud. When the ground below was finally visible, we were close enough to see that it had rained recently, suddenly reminding me of the cold, wet realities of Scottish weather.

It had been thirteen months since my incredibly happy year in Glasgow ended, giving-way to the not-so-happy times between summer of last year and last spring. I now refer to this era as my “post-Glasgow bereavement period.” With the expiration of my student visa looming, and with my inability to find work in Scotland, I unwillingly left Glasgow to return to New York City, losing my student lifestyle and academic identity, a city in which I felt comfortable and stimulated, and various circles of friends in the process; I began life in Brooklyn unemployed, isolated and directionless. The transition made me feel more gutted than a wildcat in a taxidermy warehouse.

And yet, although I spent months thinking of nothing else but returning to Glasgow, finally walking down Otago Lane, Sauchiehall Street and Paisley Road West again did not make me feel as though tremendous wrongs had been righted. A lot had changed. For instance, many of my friends had left Glasgow. I had known this, but it nevertheless jarred me to experience their absence firsthand.

Remembering the cynical refrain of a few Glasgow residents, I asked Stuart – my flatmate during my wonderful postgraduate year – if the saying “Glasgow is a place that people leave” actually held water.

“Eh, you’re surprised that your uni friends who graduated aren’t here anymore?” he said, definitely smiling and probably smoking a cigarette.


Sloth Metropolis performing "Wee Fib" at The 13th Note.

Glasgow welcomes myriad music scenes, from "shambling" indie pop to hardcore punk. At a harvest festival in the north of the city, for instance, I watched members of the Glasgow-based band Sloth Metropolis stomp down distortion peddles and launch an electric fiddle freak-out while children played tag, parents sold home-made chutney, a woman gave away clay-oven baked pizza, and a few young men were asking attendees to sample treats made from their proposed, sustainable protein source: mealworms.

By happy happenstance, a Glaswegian band called Close Lobsters – one of the greatest bands to jangle-pop out of the C86 scene – were performing at Stereo during my visit. I discovered them less than a year ago and have recommended their catchy, cerebral masterpiece Foxheads Stalk this Land to just about everyone. Tickets to their gig were a bargain at £10.

Close Lobsters performing "I Kiss the Flower in Bloom" at Stereo last year.

I met a young woman from Hong Kong there. She was a fresher and happened to be staying in the dorm I lived in as an exchange student. When she mentioned that she was vegan, I told her nothing of my temporary devolution into ovo-lacto vegetarianism; egg-and-cress sandwiches, and the yokes of guilt that follow every convenient carton, are part and parcel of my life in Glasgow.

The first song that Close Lobsters played had the refrain “the heat this time of year is ridiculous.” I chanted along, clogged-up by a cold brought on by the chllly dampness this time of year.
From Foxheads, they performed “Prophecy” and “I Kiss the Flower in Bloom,” which received the greatest share of the crowd's enthusiasm. After a second encore, and after the DJ signaled the end of the set with Orange Juice’s “Rip It Up” (the Glaswegians in the room recited the lyrics as we left), I walked outside feeling as though I had just been to one of the greatest gigs I had ever seen. I'll provide two reasons in support of this claim:

  • First, local performances by local bands are always best, and Close Lobsters were playing to an audience that knew their city's musical history. Most of those in the room were old enough to have remembered Close Lobsters when C86 first hit Glasgow, and most probably had fond recollections of how the band affected them in their youth. This leant itself to an emotional intensity to the room.
  • Second, Close Lobsters play a kind of music that I find myself listening to frequently these days: a jangly, cerebral, catchy indie pop with a punk lineage. What could be better than sharing my love of this unusual genre with scores of others?

In addition to Close Lobsters, Glasgow is home to musical legends aplenty, and given the amount of times I have randomly walked past Stuart Murdoch during my previous visits, I'm inclined to write that these musicians are remarkably accessible. I had heard that a certain record shop had some sort of connection with The Pastels: another legendary Glaswegian C86 band, and during this visit, I decided to buy something there. One of the people behind the counter looked familiar. Just to confirm my suspicion, I asked a different person at the cash register about their supposed connection with the band. “That’s the lead singer,” she said, pointing to Stephen McRobbie. He rang me up when I bought his new album and we had a brief conversation about Helen Love.


On my final night in Glasgow, while briefly separating from a subcrawl (wherein revelers must order a drink from a bar at every stop along the city’s circular subway line), Stuart took me to his favorite pub: an unassuming southside joint beneath a bridge. He described it as walking through a timewarp to the city in the 1970’s. The mementoes from Glasgow’s past, nailed to margarine-colored walls, validated his assessment.

A man had randomly brought in a guitar and was belting out Radiohead’s “Creep.” Stuart and I sang along. A plump woman with short gray hair sang folk, country-western and protest songs next, including a recent song about the Bedroom Tax imposed by the current coalition government.

The anti-Bedroom Tax song covered by the woman in the pub.

Stuart got into a conversation with a middle-aged woman who, after making fun of him for hailing from Aberdeen, somehow got the entire pub to sing the Aberdonian anthem “Northern Lights.” Stuart beamed.

She then asked me where I was from. When I answered, the response I usually get from Glaswegians followed: “You’re from New York City?” she said, expressing genuine confusion, “why are ya over here for? Why would anyone from New York come to this place?”

I immediately thought of everything that's wrong with New York City today: about how suburban kids flock to New York in search of the extinct countercultures of yesteryear, pretending to recreate those countercultures by buying things; I thought about my coworker, who rode the Ramones/Patti Smith wave of punk, only to get pushed out of Bedford-Stuyvesant by hipster gentrification thirty-five years later; I thought about the nihilism that pervades New York City at the present time, and how much privilege a person must possess to have the luxury of not caring.

And then I looked around at this Glasgow pub that had not changed its décor in forty years, at people singing together and buying each other drinks, and how all were welcome to join in – even outsiders like me.

“Because this is real,” I said.

She accepted my answer. I reckon the Englishman who bade us all sing Hamish Imlach’s “Cod Liver Oil and the Orange Juice” at closing time probably felt similarly.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Indie Break-Up Songs for Kübler-Ross’s Five Stages of Loss and Grief

Kübler-Ross’s Five Stages of Loss and Grief are:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance
This sequence has been applied to the omnipresent break-up by Darci Gilbert, as referenced on Wikipedia via eHow (Gilbert, Darci. [ "How Do the Stages of Grief Apply to Breakups?"] . eHow. Retrieved 13 April 2013.). If it's alternative/indie rock that helps you through, then like an awful pun involving bananas, the following selection may have appeal.


“The person getting broken up with is unable to admit that the relationship is really over. They may try to continue to call the person when that person wants to be left alone.”

“Yeah! Oh, Yeah!” by The Magnetic Fields

“By Your Side,” by CocoRosie

"Start Again," by Teenage Fanclub

"When the reality sets in that the relationship is over, it is common to demand to know why they are being broken up with. This phase can make them feel like they are being treated unfairly and it may cause them to become angry at people close to them who want to help aid the situation."

“Waiting for the Winter,” by The Popguns

"The One I Love," by REM

“You Oughta Know," by Alanis Morrissette

"After the anger stage, one will try to plead with their former partner by promising that whatever caused the breakup will never happen again. Example: 'I can change. Please give me a chance'."

“I Apologize,” by Husker Du

“Please Do Not Go,” by Violent Femmes

“Good Woman,” by Cat Power

"Next the person might feel discouraged that their bargaining plea did not convince their former partner to change their mind. This will send the person into the depression stage and can cause a lack of sleep, eating and even disrupt daily life tasks such as bowel movements."

“I Know It’s Over,” by The Smiths

“It’s Okay,” by Land of Talk

“Katy Song,” by Red House Painters

"Moving on from the situation and person is the last stage. The person accepts that the relationship is over and begins to move forward with their life. The person might not be completely over the situation but they are done going back and forth to the point where they can accept the reality of the situation."

“Here’s Where the Story Ends,” by The Sundays

"Sheela-Na-Gig," by PJ Harvey

“This Time There's No Happy Ending," by Television Personalities

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Thoughts From a Trayvon Martin Rally

It is difficult for words to express how disgusted I feel with the jury’s decision in the Trayvon Martin case. A vigilante with a history of paranoid behavior racially-profiled and stalked a black boy who did nothing wrong whatsoever, and when the boy confronted his stalker and tried to defend himself, the stalker pulled a gun and shot the boy to death. Those are the indisputable facts of the case. People who argue in George Zimmerman’s favor claim that Trayvon, a lanky teenager, must have been in an advantageous position over his one-hundred-pound-heavier assailant. Of course, we have heard the “who really had the advantageous position?” question before – from those who defended the police following the Rodney King beating.

I read the “acquittal” headline on Sunday morning. It took several minutes for the words to cohere, and when they did, a series of dreadful thoughts began running through my head. What if, instead of Trayvon, it was one of my friends of color who were stalked and killed because they “looked suspicious” and tried to defend themselves? What does this decision confer to these friends of mine about their value in “modern” American society? I made a simple sign – “Justice for Trayvon” – and headed for the Union Square protest.

It began with several hundred people holding a speak-in. Anyone who wanted to speak was encouraged to do so. Because we lacked a PA system, speakers were instructed to use short sentences, which were then repeated (and thus amplified) by the crowd, like affirmations to a prayer. This ”Mike Check” method had a unifying effect: upon echoing modest words such as “I have two black boys,” I can immediately empathize with each speaker and begin to understand the more nuanced implications of the jury’s decision on their lives. Local politicians, university professors, community activists and concerned citizens all took their turn to speak, as facilitated by a charismatic and expertly-competent organizer, bearing the scorching weather in a tie and vest.

We then marched around Union Square Park. Our numbers were not yet large enough to take to the streets, but I nevertheless felt grateful that those around me shared my anger and cared enough to voice it. I chanted at a conversational volume, preferring to internalize the imploring words: “our children matter, our children matter...”

A teach-in followed wherein crowd members offered a diversity of perspectives on the tragedy. None were particularly radical or vengeful, and all expressed a desire for solidarity. In fact, this desire to coalesce against the broad idea of injustice led more than one speaker to declare that Trayvon’s murder was “not a race issue”: a sentiment with which I completely disagree. A series of other speakers pointed the blame at problems in the black community, including drug use, late-night liquor stores, gang membership and gangsta rap. This also irked me, not only because these had nothing to do with the murder of Trayvon Martin, but also because it speaks to an inculcated sense of inferiority within African-American culture; it suggests that Trayvon was killed because black people don’t behave themselves. Such opinions are the painful result of centuries of white supremacy in our country. Fortunately, more than one speaker voiced an opinion with which I agreed; for instance, one woman argued that, although race is a social-construct with no biological basis, racism certainly exists and exerted its deadly-self on poor Trayvon Martin. I also agreed with those who spoke against the legal system. Laws such as “Stand Your Ground” and “Stop-and-Frisk” are designed and utilized to maintain racial hierarchies in America.

The afternoon progressed and our numbers swelled into the thousands. Feeling tired, I was just about to split – I had even handed-off my sign to a fellow demonstrator – when the protesters spilled into Broadway. I joined the march with renewed energy. This time, I chanted the chants at the same angry volume as those around me, shouting “Justice for Trayvon Martin” “Hey Hey! Ho Ho! Stop-and-Frisk has got to go!” and a slew of others.

I looked around at my fellow protesters and noticed that a large proportion of them were white. Although thrilled by the number of white people showing camaraderie with the slain black child, certain fears occurred to me: do the majority of people of color feel so disenfranchised by their level of inequality that they think their voice does not matter? Does their voice, in fact, matter in America today? How at-risk do people of color feel at protests? Do they worry that a display of political dissidence could leave them suffering the same fate as Trayvon, perhaps at the hands of the NYPD – those paid to “protect” them? Let us be reminded that the name “Amadou Diallo” still holds a certain currency in New York City.

A fight almost broke out when some onlooker presumably said something calculated to incense a red-headed protester into a furious, threat-filled tirade. At first, the instigator walked away, but then, perhaps feeling the need to prove both himself and his own racialist views, he reversed towards the red-headed protester with all the foolish bravado of a rooster and the kind of smile Eichmann would smile if given a new red pen and a long list of names. Had it not been for a short, stocky black woman rushing towards the fast-escalating fight and risking her own well-being by standing between them, the instigator would have surely swallowed a few teeth. I wondered how the media would have reported the irony of two white men throwing punches, when they were so readily-expecting the “aggressive black male” stock character to explode into riot across urban America that night.

Incidentally, it was that same, culturally-ingrained stereotype that killed a teenage boy a year and a half ago.