Saturday, February 26, 2005

The Elements of Totebaggery

Totebaggers love rules. In place of direct experience and reason — that is, the ability and inclination to think for oneself — they have authorities to appeal to. Like the authorities who warn you not to end sentences with prepositions. And not to write sentence fragments.

Leonard Lopate is again our limit case. The Elements of Style is one of his favorite books. And of course it is. Strunk and White is the totebagger's Code of Hammurabi, not something to read or even to consult, but something to submit to, or at least to claim to submit to. Worst of all, it is something to subject young students to: students who might otherwise come to hear and love the music in English are instead taught to chant the monotonic dirge of arid prose and fatuous rules.

Ever read anything by Leonard Lopate? I didn't think so. The thing about Strunk & White is that no one in their right mind would want to read anything that conformed to its prosaic strictures. One writer who knew this was, well, E.B. White. The fundamentalist evangelist of prose has been caught in the back of the limo with the hookers and cocaine of prescriptivism: adjectives and adverbs. The very non-totebaggy people at Language Log point out that White's own use of modifiers was positively Proustian in comparison to what he preached to the congregation.

Which leads me to wonder how it can be that Leonard Lopate left À la recherche du temps perdu off his list of favorite books.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Totebaggery: A Novel Idea

Check out Ben Yagoda's essay on the totebaggery of long-winded book subtitles!

His very non-TB piece recalls a verrrry totebaggy trade paperback trope: the use of the name of an actual famous person as a modifier to confer some sense of extra-arty-ness to your novel. For example:

Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Flaubert's Parrot
Foucault's Pendulum
Paris Hilton's Lemon Zester

But let's not forget an even LAMER trope: appending "-- A Novel" to, of all things, your novel. It would stand to reason that if you have to TELL me that your project is " -- A Novel," it's probably not a very good one. While you are at it Mr. Writer Man, why don't you make some choo-choo train sounds while you guide that spoonful of deep-fried earwigs to my mouth?

Here are some titles that appear when searching for "a novel" on Amazon:

Gilead: A Novel
The Christmas Thief: A Novel
Housekeeping: A Novel
Lucia Lucia: A Novel
The Ha-Ha: A Novel
Middlesex: A Novel
The Wife: A Novel
Lord of Seduction: A Novel
Fight Club: A Novel
Conviction: A Novel
The Diet: A Novel
Prep: A Novel
The Birth of Venus: A Novel
Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress: A Novel

[Thank God for that last subtitle, as up to now I had only been familiar with the "Balzac And the Little Chinese Seamstress" muffler repair franchise.]

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Gift Shop

Someone just arrived at this blog by means of Googling "Rothko classic messenger bag."

Welcome, totebagger.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Whose World Is It, Anyway?

Big Bill Broonzy was no totebagger. When asked for his definition of "folk song," he said, "I guess all songs is folk songs — I never heard no horse sing 'em." Isn't then all music "world music"? Sun Ra aside, is there more than one world that music is coming from? Shouldn't we scrunch our noses at anyone talking about their passion for "world music" in the same way we would at someone telling us about "audible music," or "sequential music"? You'd think, right? But no. "World Music" is a genre, a way of life, a badge and a tote bag. To see this we must note that not all totebaggery is yuppie totebaggery: there is also hemp-totebaggery. Side by side in Starbucks sit the latte and chai drinkers; on one iPod may be Norah Jones and on the other it is Sounds of the Peruvian Rain Forest, but each is pulled from a tote bag.

My first experience with hemp-totebaggery was in college, when I made the mistake of pronouncing the name of Daniel Ortega's country as NICK-A-ROG-WA. Turns out that I was not only mispronouncing it, but was also disrespecting the sons and daughters of revolution, not to mention Spanish-speaking peoples in general, of which there turn out to be a lot (or so I was told by my serape-clad classmate from Grosse Point or Atherton, I forget). The correct pronunciation, I learned, is NEEEEE-HA-RRRRAH-HUWA. I followed suit. In fact, I then endeavored to give authentic pronunciation to all place names. But I soon learned that referring to Germany as "Deutschland" just didn't carry the same kind of moral currency, to say the least.

There is a similar double-standard at work in the very notion of "world music." Music from other cultures? Well ... "other"? Let's not go there. Non-American? No, I don't think we're talking about Robbie Williams or Led Zepplin. Yet plenty of "British Isles" musics make the rubric. Once you disqualify popular music and elevate "folk" music, all of these very progressive people listening to "world music" shows on NPR affiliates and college radio stations suddenly resemble 19-century anthropologists in their interest in what is "native."

What makes a world music totebagger a totebagger isn't the interest in other cultures, or even the ultimately condescending interest in "folk" or "native" cultures, but the fact that the interest is not interest in music at all, but rather a kind of armchair adventure travel experience. It's the hemp version of Condé Nast Traveller in audiobook form. Someone might be interested in compound time-signatures, fast dance tempos, and major-second harmonies. In that case, it would make perfect sense for him to be drawn to the music of Ivo Papasov, a Bulgarian musician. They might also then be interested then in certain forms of jazz, progressive rock, and Bartok. But what's the common thread between this music and, say, Rai, Tuvan throat singing, and Carnatic music?

Is it lost on anyone at all that what counts as "world music" is almost always the music of cultures that guilt-ridden white suburbanites perceive as "oppressed"? This is the secret to the success of those Peruvian guys (if they really are Peruvian) who are found in all major cities in what must be some sort of franchise operation. You know the ones. You've seen people put down their tote bags and clap their hands in time to these bands for a minute before dropping some change in the hat and rushing back to the SUV, having been reminded that their undocumented Dominican nanny needs a ride to the train station.

Good times, good times.

Friday, February 11, 2005

TB or not TB?

Totebaggery is an inexact science. Remember that story about the judge who, when struggling to define pornography, said, “I know it when I see it”? It’s kind of like that with Totebaggery.

Totebaggery is often contextual. We have already established that Garrison Keillor is a ripe ol’ totebagger whereas Terry Gross is not. Enjoying NPR does not a totebagger make – but talking about NPR all the time – did you just cough up a lung? ‘cause you got yourself a case of TB!

A coffee from Starbucks is not totebaggy per se. Owning more than one CD sampler purchased from Starbucks is totebaggery. Worse is if you live in a major city and could have bought your own Nina Simone at an actual record store.

The Film Forum is not totebaggery, nor is the Sunshine Cinemas, but the Angelika was and is always totebaggy, and home to the kind of totebaggers who loudly say “I like the kinds of movies they show at the Angelika” as if it meant their great great great grandpappy was first mate on the Mayflower. In Boston, the home where the totebaggers roam like canvas-antlered caribou, the Kendall Square cinema is the acme of totebaggery, whereas the Brattle and the Coolidge Corner are not. In LA, the Arclight is kind-of totebaggy but they show really good movies and have nice screens, so they really aren’t, and it’s only when people won’t shut up about how superior the Arclight is that it gets a little TB. The Arclight is like a TB detector.

Anne Geddes
and William Wegman are just silly, but in calendar form their work becomes totebaggery. is not totebaggy in itself, but subscribing to Salon Premium is really fucking totebaggy, as was the whole “Mothers Who Think” column. Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t have Roadrunner, does that mean I’m but a mere troglodytic Passions-watching wetnurse? Fuck you, Mothers Who Think column! How patronizing.

It is the element of smugness in consumption that makes the totebagger. Sure, I bought a cute pink Marc Jacobs messenger bag on eBay: but when I carry it I feel happy because it’s pretty and pink and feel like a little girl going to school and I am also kind of paranoid I will get it dirty. It doesn’t make me feel like I’m pulling one over on the unwashed masses.

Preferring mesclun to iceberg is not totebaggy – refusing to eat a salad containing iceberg lettuce AND having to say something about it is acute totebaggery, as is sending it back, as a horrible ex-boyfriend of mine once did, who was an incorrigible totebagger and to this day I cringe to think of the time I wasted on him.

And no, Kender, you are no totebagger! You’re too idiosyncratic, with your hand made weapons, survivalist bent, fierce devotion to your family, and cockamamie fear of commies! Also, your Franco-phobia disqualifies you from totebaggery, as many a totebagger loves them some Au Bon Pain. Kender is fun, despite his McCarthy-era politics, and I’d rather do shots with you than sip some shitty merlot with someone who likes to tell me how they don’t own a television. I’d be too tempted to tell them, as Trey recently told a totebagging bar patron who said the same,

“It’s okay – you can have our old one if you want.”

Any questions?

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Oh Yeah? Caveat Totebagger!

Oh. My. Lord.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

A Match Made In Starbucks

Leonard Lopate is certain he has "met everyone of importance already."

But surely, the Emperor of Totebaggery requires a fitting consort -- Mr. Lopate, here she is! Freshly risen from the foam of a Grande Mochaccino from the Starbucks across from the 92nd Street Y -- behold, the Bride of Totebaggery!

MY FIRST PROPER DIPTYCH!: i.e. one that fully illustrates my personal interpretation of the meaning of the word diptych. Only paintings that are perfectly fine on their own, but just plain better together, and therefore sad without one another, should be considered for diptych status.

That's right! "Just plain better together."

I shall reserve my waterproof Great Lash for what I'm sure will be a very Special "Vows" section of the New York Times.