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Monthly Archives: October 2007

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An apocalypse is not so much the total destruction of the world, as it is the unveiling of God’s immanence within the world, and the consequent destruction of illusion. Tadeusz Konwicki’s “A Minor Apocalypse” would have to be taken, then, to be a personal revelation, the simultaneous destruction of the little world of the narrator and the revelation of the God immanent within it. “A Minor Apocalypse” is known for being a satirical, bitter look at the degrading effects of totalitarianism on the individual and society.

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Konwicki

“I who am the statistical average in the Great Accounting.”
A disillusioned Polish novelist named Konwicki is ordered to immolate himself outside the Party Central Committee building. Two fellow graying oppositionist writers, Hubert and Rysio visit Konwicki to deliver the order. During their visit, Konwicki recalls a hilarious story about the passionate young Rysio, whom one drunken night attempted to sleep with a girl but instead accidentally made love to the pocket of Konwicki’s coat, “with a fierce and youthful fervor, perhaps even the first of his life.” He concludes, “Now Rysio wrote unpunctuated, amorphous prose, played adjunct to Hubert, and was a venerable figure in the literary world.”

When the discussion devolves into a quibble over the impact of his death, the latent tension between Rysio and Konwicki surfaces:

“Don’t make things more difficult, old man,” Rysio interjected.

“Don’t talk to me like you’re just one of the guys when you don’t use fucking commas and periods when you write.”

At a loss, Rysio began retreating toward the door. “The lack of periods bothers you?” he said uncertainly.

“If you used punctuation, then maybe we wouldn’t need show deaths in this country.”

Nonetheless, he tentatively accepts, and the reader accompanies him on his journey toward his final sacrificial act. He is also trailed by a foppish, young admirer from the country who hopes to immortalize his final hours before death, a stray dog, the lovestruck illegitimate granddaughter of Lenin, and the worn, world weary, Halina, whose role it is to acquire the Swedish matches and the can of gasoline for his “show death.”

All the while, confronted with the sins of his past, he struggles with a splitting headache, the result of drinking potato vodka, but also a semi-mystical vision of the end of the world:

“Sin has assumed the form of virtue…Amorality rules us using morality’s laws, it uses moral nomenclature, it constructs its own positive systems, it re wards saintliness and hurls the damned in to hell. Evil has tapped into our ethical code and turned itself into good. A fatal, cancerous good.”

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Mica Apocalipsa

Poland and the “Polish Complex”
Tadeusz Konwicki wrote “A Minor Apocalypse” during the post-Stalinist/pre-fall of communism era of the mid-seventies. Konwicki began his career as a card carrying Party member and an advocate of Social Realist art, but grew increasingly discontented until he was thrown out of the Party.

By the time he wrote “A Minor Apocalypse,” Konwicki was deeply familiar with the daily workings of the Polish culture industry and its collusion with the government. This shows in the novel’s bald treatment of various Polish artists and intellectuals; but you don’t need to know the details to appreciate the types of people he identifies.

A particularly cutting scene involves an art show by a retired minister of culture who had, “spent his entire professional life making artists rot in jail…now that he was retired, he had suddenly begun to envy his victims and had taken up painting himself…On every canvas there was a young naked woman with her pussy prudishly painted out.”

“His guests were also men of distinction- generals from the security police, governors, high officials from the Censorship, vice ministers. They too had become part of the artistic elite. They were writing memoirs and sensationalistic novels, carving tree roots, composing hit tunes, and sculpting busts of their colleagues who had passed away. Any of their children who did not wish a career in politics were placed in art schools. And so now the regime had its own art. The regime is self-sufficient. It creates reality and mirrors it in art.”

“But” as his translator, Richard Lourie notes, “that is local gossip, incidental. More important is Konwicki’s examination of the tensions, both tragic and comic, generated by a situation where conscience demands sacrifice and reality offers no hope that the sacrifice will be of any value or significance.”

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Uses of Allusion
Writers, filmmakers, and intellectuals, both disenfranchised and co-opted, crowd the margins of the story. He has repeated run-ins with fellow oppositionist writers and artists, and members of the government cultural apparatus, including Rysio’s twin, the Docent of Allusion.

The Docent works for the Censorship, who has formed “an independent department for allusions.”

“I have created a theory of how allusions function in a socialist society…The tension caused by the hunger for truth…those dangerous tensions are artificially eliminated by a skillfully employed allusion…after a certain amount of time, people will prefer an allusion to the truth itself.”

He concludes by noting, “Our system is an intellectual system, born of intellectuals.”

Allusion is used to veil the truth. Allusion becomes another form of oppression where the symbols are used to obscure the truth. Konwicki uses irony to demonstrate the subversive power of allusion and to point towards the underlying truths beneath the propaganda of life. Interrupting him mid-coitus with Lenin’s granddaughter, Halina calls to ask:

“What color gas can do you want? There’s a choice. Red, yellow, or blue?”

“Light blue, the color of innocence.” Because he reasons, “innocence is inconspicuous.”

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A Minor Literature
As the loose story coheres, it begins to resemble a parodic Stations of the Cross, the narrator making his way towards his own Golgotha. Whether any sincerity can be imbued in his sacrifice anymore, it is hard to say. Yet having enumerated the absurdity and decay of Polish society during this time, he feels a real utopian longing for a vital world. The messianic mission of his work feels authentic right to the end.

Warsaw, a small universe unto itself, is crumbling around them from indifference and neglect. More than once, he makes allusion, not merely to decay, but to the fin de siecle Decadence. Here, he seems to be saying, is what socialist Decadence looks like; apathy, disillusionment, self-disgust. “Decadence. The end that comes before an unknown beginning.” In one scene, a bridge collapses during a parade from sheer neglect, and the response of the people is largely boredom.

On the other hand, in an interview for the “Review of Contemporary Fiction,” he warned against looking for a singular point of view in his work:

Konwicki: It is characteristic of my style to charm, chat, contradict, leap, question, speak with self-irony, and just to make it look nice, I couch it in a literary-historical thesis. It doesn’t pay off to make much of my stories… I am very convincing even when I pull your leg.

 

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Quirk, Wonder, the Middle Mind, Generation Q; there has been an identifiable backlash against the ascendant social aesthetic in American culture as of late. In the pages of the Atlantic, the New York Times, and other places, the graying Boomers especially are asking, what is wrong with the kids today? What is going on in American society? Michael Hirschorn in the Atlantic announces like a ship steward on the Titanic, “We are drowning in quirk.”
Hirschorn’s “Quirked Around” in The Atlantic


Generational Quirks

More often than not, I found myself agreeing with Hirschorn and his self-selected allies in piecemeal, but rarely can I stand behind their awkward, fusty umbrella terms. Note my use of “fusty,” because that’s exactly how fusty some of them write, like old men with cane in hand and hair up ass about the kids and their damn quirk!

Many complaints have been, at root, generational. Some of the arguments smell of Boomer cluelessness and others stink of Boomer resentment. If I have a generational theory, it is this. Currently, Boomers top the triangle, running the government, the economy, what your Marxist teacher derided as, “the base.” Generation X is ascendant in cultural production, advertising, marketing, music, and TV, while Generation Y is the consumer generation. Each generation, obviously shares aspects of the others, but each as a whole, fulfills their own broad social role.

If this is even remotely true, it is easy to see that Boomers are reacting against the fact that Generation Xers, the cool, older brothers with kids who still smoke dope, the Jon Stewarts of the world, have so much influence on their kids, the Gen Yers. This has led various columnists to fulminate and promulgate labels, such as Friedman’s latest, Generation Q for quiet.

But does Generation Quiet have anything to do with Hirschorn’s quirk?

Quirky Alone
Many of the quirky things Hirschorn takes aim at are, I agree, annoying. Zach Braff’s crappy Garden State to Napoleon Dynamite’s almost criminal popularity; at the risk of sounding like an elitist, I agree. And I’ll go further and say, in this polluted cultural environment, it is vital to be able to sniff out poisonous pretenders. I, like many, have grown tired of cheap quirk, though I often still occasionally give it a longingly, nostalgic over the shoulder glance the way one might an old girlfriend you spot during last call.

Those are his softball targets. His real goal is a fastball special at Ira Glass and This American Life. I could care less about this show, though I think he’s fundamentally correct that it enforces its own narrative closure and meaning, rendering it insincere, artistically amoral, and just clueless.

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I am more interested in the larger cultural diagnosis, the cry for help of the drowning man adrift without a life preserver in a sea of quirk. Quirk has obscured something, which I guess is the trouble; it is hard to name. Like Surrealism or Dada, 80s/90s countercultural American quirk is no longer vital or transgressive it has been co-opted; not a harmless adoption either, but one that allows the tentacles of the mainstream Moloch to toss opposition into its slathering maw. I have what I consider a more enlightened, more nuanced view of media, but I still insist some meaningful countercultural notion persists, though it is drowning and voiceless in the current environment. Proof that culture is not synonymous with media!

 

Quirk History
Hirschorn claims quirk is traceable back to David Byrne, and that may be true, although I doubt it; nonetheless, Byrne’s quirky vision has become the norm. Watch his movie, True Stories, sometime and tell me you don’t see the germ of everything from “Arrested Development” to “Flight of the Conchords” in it.

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What is it, is it the hat?

In defense of Byrne and similar artists, his quirk began as gentle irony, or the appearance of gentle irony; a disguise meant to disarm his audience. The implicit critique of True Stories remains every bit as true and uncompromising.


The Trouble with Quirk

Quirk used to come packaged in small doses or remained festering in the underground. It typically had a point of view and an ambition, like Byrne in True Stories. Without a point of view, without something to contrast against, quirk becomes tiresome, and is too often, too easily, used to coat an utterly bland, utterly conventional story.

 

Quirks are by definition, meaningless. They are impairments, not powers, but they aren’t disabilities either. Self, once a reflexive interiority, once a historical actor, once a moral agent, is now an individual quirk. Quirks avoid meaning at all cost. Quirks occasionally rise to the level, almost, of significance, or more rightly, occasionally your quirks are validated alongside the quirks of others, in a dance of quirks.

 

The real danger in quirk, which seems by definition so declawed, so harmless, if overly cute and annoying, is that it actually drains meaning out of life, is ahistorical, and fundamentally an ideology of no ideology.

Quirk does not lay naked and bare the absurd human condition in its vanity to discover meaning in the universe ala Beckett; quirk is fuzzy, suburban, and nihilistic, in that it suggests any attempt to produce meaning is futile.

Gross Anatomy

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A precursor to Hirschorn’s takedown of Ira Glass is Curtis White’s less-read “The Middle Mind.” According to White, the right-left cultural debate in America disguises a greater consensus, that of the Middle Mind.

White sees, Terry Gross’s Fresh Air on NPR as emblematic of this Middle Mind, in all its “charm and banality.” http://www.centerforbookculture.org/context/no9/white.html

“The Middle Mind does not locate itself between high and low culture. Rather, it asserts its right to speak for high culture indifferent to both the traditionalist Right and the academic Left.” Which doesn’t sound so bad (proving it really is a cultural zeitgeist) until one absorbs the breath of its “pornographic” vapidity.

White’s point is that the Middle Mind simulates intellectual content without discrimination or taste. He points to Gross’s indecent interests in an author’s biography more than their books. He gives the example of a woman who wrote a book in which a woman wishes her husband dead and he dies, then, sometime later her own husband dies. Terry asks:

“What did it feel like to suspect you’d killed your own husband with your art?”

Fresh Air?” he retorts, “ How about Lurid Speculations? It’s like Dr. Laura for people with bachelor degrees.”

White then attacks Louise Erdrich’s The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse:

In the first thirty-five pages of this novel its heroine is in a convent, falls in love with Chopin while playing his music at the piano, moves in with a rugged but tender farmer, has torrid (and tormented) sex with same, is kidnapped by a bank robber, is shot in the hip (by the Sheriff!) and witnesses the death of her-lover-the-farmer, shot by the bank robber, but not before he gouges out the robber’s eyes with his thumbs and buries him with the sheer force of his own dying body weight in soggy prairie loam.

According to White, Gross,and her brethren in the Middle Mind cultural engine room, can’t and don’t distinguish between genre fiction disguising itself as serious fiction, and serious fiction. They can’t. Furthermore, she does not distinguish real questions about art from trivia. It is a middlebrow simulation. I should say here, I like plenty of genre fiction, and I feel that genre fiction can aspire to serious fiction, but it does so not by aping forms, but through engagement with what it means to be alive.


Wonderbar!

Shortly thereafter, novelist Melvin Jules Bukiet wrote “Wonderbread,” for The American Scholar as a diagnosis of what he calls Brooklyn Books of Wonder, or BBoW. Putting aside the clumsiness of this term, nevermind its inaccuracy, let’s look beyond his obvious artistic ressentiment, (raise your hand if you’ve heard of him or read his books before) at his argument, because several points are solid, if poorly clothed.
http://www.theamericanscholar.org/au07/wonder-bukiet.html

 

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Bukiet is NOT a Morlock.

Essentially, Bukiet takes issue with the kitsch rampant in the writing of many leading American writers. He identifies their spiritual home in Brooklyn, a place he characterizes as a Neverland for would-be Pan’s who can’t hack reality or rents in the adult world of Manhattan. This is probably Bukiet at his least sympathetic and least persuasive. He sounds ugly. And he sounds old. In Bukiet’s fantasy, Brooklyners sport goatees and ponytails! Not since, maybe 1993, though the goatee is still alive in the Midwest, it hasn’t been a signifier for hipsters in Brooklyn in a long time, if ever. Now, if only he’d said something about ironic mustaches and dancepants….

Scratch Brooklyn off, and you’re left with Books of Wonder, still hardly catchy. I assume Bukiet was inspired in part by Michael Chabon’s first novel, Wonder Boys, and I think this idea of forced, unearned, dishonest, premature, overeager, breathless Wonderment, at the heart of his argument is strong and recognizable by anyone with good sense.

So why not call them Wonderbooks! Or BoyWonderBooks! Or really anything, but Brooklyn Books of Wonder.

Bukiet is right, however, about one thing: McSweeney’s, Believer, N+1, et al. are formulating a new generation of literary culture that is fundamentally dishonest and cheap. At all levels, we are a culture of unearned optimism; one in which anything less is actually punishable.

He relies on Kundera for authority, a risky, unhip idea. Kundera is not a wonderboy, he is a curmudgeon. However, like it or not, Kundera is also a smart guy. ‘Kitsch” according to Kundera is “the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling [that] moves us to tears of compassion for ourselves, for the banality of what we think and feel.”

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Kitschen Konfidential

Let’s unpack Kundera and by extension Bukiet’s use of kitsch. It may confuse many that kitsch is even used as an insult. Isn’t kitsch, like, trashy fun, isn’t that shop full of kitsch accoutrements funny? Camp and kitsch, though tightly bound together are two different things. Camp is, as Susan Sontag defines it, “the failed attempt at seriousness.” It is also camp to recognize kitsch as kitsch, but to be kitsch is to obscure rather then reveal the contradictions and complexities of life, so it is more than a case of bad taste, it a case of immorally bad taste; and is often allied with repressive societies and cultural values for that very reason.

To tie this discussion back into that of quirk. Quirk initially began as a genuine element of legitimate artistic projects; now quirkiness has been co-opted by kitsch, much as Surrealism, or Dada, like any other process or technique. Quirk, like kitsch before it, sections off the complications and complexities of real-life beneath a gauzy haze of meaningless, trivial quirk. Bukiet’s complaint about wonder, regarding its kitschiness, apply equally to quirk. Together, quirk and wonder, the inverts of shock and awe, form two guiding lode stars in a grand constellation of 21st century kitsch.

So, we have a series of cultural diagnoses, having to do with quirk, the middle mind, and cheap wonderment, is there some common equation? Yes. These articles all suffer from an obsession with buzzworthy phrases, without quite understanding how buzzwords work. All the same, yes, we really are drowning in quirk.

I’m not punker than thou, but I’m punker than most

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Okay, not half as punk as this shit.

 

A Loose, Baggy Conclusion
Born in 1977, recently 30; I am either the lead edge of Y or the long tail of X. People my age fall into this narrow, but deep crack between the two. A netherworld of mixed allegiances.

I think much of the generational griping is a ruse. I think Boomers fail to understand the level of either: A. indifference that protest generates and B. danger serious protesters face (“Don’t Tase Me, Bro!”). The fact is, this is a far more competitive and unstable world than the Boomers grew up in. There are no guarantees and class anxiety is rampant. Increasingly, nearly everyone at all levels of society finds it appropriate even natural to judge people moral solely on their social success. And they fail to understand their complicity in the repressive society we live in, one that circulates a dizzying proliferation of kitschy, quirky, middle mind, what-have-you ideas.

You could also argue, I guess I’m putting forward the possibility, that they are a symptomatic masks used to hide our identity, not from others, but ourselves. The dishonesty of our art, our intellect, and our beliefs is powerful. If the Generation Q feels no particular call to speak out it may be because there is no meaningful references available any longer to speak for or against, no value to uphold, no archetypes to inhabit that have not been disinherited and discredited. Americans grow up essentially as naive and childlike as the upperclass race in Orwell’s Time Machine. The good are fragile and privileged beyond all good.

 

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Last night I saw Bill Callahan, also known as Smog or (Smog), at The Independent in San Francisco. Bill Callahan’s persona welds a curious discontinuity between confessional writing and reserved delivery. His face can be mask-like, a bland West Texan poker face (though he’s from Maryland) that erupts into contorted grimaces when he sings. The discontinuity helps rescue him from the sin of bathos and from accusations of Jandek-ism, i.e. an outsider artist’s naivety about his own material; two spiritual pitfalls which too many of his kin succumb to. This contradictory spirit also induces a mix of respectful distance and a sense of deep intimacy between him and his audience.

To whit, when women shout at him on stage, they still call him “gentleman,” as one did after he made a crack about his “wee Mick guitar.”

Sir Richard Bishop
Sir Richard Bishop, a nimble bluespicker in the John Fahey tradition, opened for Callahan. At times, he played dizzyingly dense chunks of notes. He did a spoken word piece about sex and assassination that was cleverly done if a bit dated topically, the most recent reference being Sirhan Sirhan, or was it an AIDS joke?

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Callahan
Bill Callahan opened with a run of songs from his new album Woke on a Whaleheart; including “Honeymoon Child,” “Sycamore,” and “Diamond Dancer.” The songs seemed both statelier and folksier than on the album, a function of the violin being an equal instrument in the touring band, as well as the absence of Neil Hagerty’s (of Royal Trux) glossy production in the live set.

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His first back catalogue song was a nice surprise, “River Guard” from Knock Knock. It is the song from the album I still listen to the most frequently, about a guard at a prison taking the prisoners out swimming for the day. It is one of those rare Smog song that doesn’t seem as deeply private as some, although the line between the two modes of songwriting is often indistinct.

He played an equal share of songs from his last Smog-monickered album, A River Ain’t Too Much To Love, including “Say Valley Maker,” “Rock Bottom Riser,” “Let me See the Colts,” and “I Feel Like the Mother of the World.” The latter, which was a more propulsive song live than on the recording, was made into a great video starring Chloe Sevigny.

“Let Me See The Colts” is one of my favorites from nay Smog album. The allegory of an optimistic gambler in the face of loss, desperate to see the horses of his future is a state of mind I can relate to, despite never having been to the track. He introduced a strange interlude during the song, whether spontaneous or scripted, it was difficult to tell:

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Don’t let them see you crying,” he intoned heavily, and then repeated the line a few times in his unhurried way, before adding:

“Don’t let them see you crying

Laughing and clowning

Laughing and clowning”

Then:

“It was the tears that blinded me.

It was the tears that blinded me.

I must face what is directly in front of me

I wiped the tears from my eyes.”


Close

He closed the show with “A Man Needs a Woman or a Man to be a Man” and his classic song from Wild Love, “Prince Alone in the Studio,” for which Bill sat at the piano. Before starting, he said, “This next one is a relic. The last relic of the night. It’s our last song actually.” The song, a celebration of crowning artistic onanism, the band captured the rich, triumphant, masturbatory bombast of the original track; a song appropriately studio-tweaked and layered, with surprising ease.

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Prince’s Studio is Lonely


Encore

Callahan returned after briefly leaving the stage to play three more songs, including Cold Blooded Old Times , ending in an extended jam that found him at his most playful duckwalking around the stage on bended knees, even cracking a full unqualified smile. After that he asked the crowd what they wanted to hear as their real last song, “In the Pines,” or “The Well.” For the next minute the hall was an inchoate flood of callouts, so he put it to a vote by raise of hands, but even that proved inconclusive.

He teased the crowd some, flipflopping in his unhurried way hemming and hawing about which fans to please and wish to disappoint before settling on the Well. Even then it wasn’t clear that was the song they’d really play until he intoned, “This ones called The Well,” and its familiar talking blues walking bassline kicked in,

He subtly acted out the tale, keeping the crowd engaged to the very end in the story of a man who discovers a well into which he can yell his feelings out. He also discovers that the blackness of his dark emotions is not an absence, but “all colors at once.” He unfurls a banner of colorful emotions from “red rage” to his “blues” before heading back home; all delivered in his peculiarly deadpan way, even when hooting, even when shouting “fuckall y’all.”

I swear, though, when he turned away from the microphone I saw him hide a satisfied smile.

Bill Callahan has a few more upcoming shows on the west coast, including one tonight at the Mission Theater in Portland, Oregon.

http://www.myspace.com/toomuchtolove

Originally, I planned to make this post about Darwinian and Freudian elements in Cronenberg’s latest movie, “Eastern Promises,” and the one before it, “A History of Violence,” but I’d like to take a moment to deal with a meta-blogging concern, namely my audience and how they come to find Wax Ekphrastic.

WordPress has a feature that tracks the search engine terms that lead people to your page. This is a useful feature because it tells you what interests your audience. For example, writing about music is always going to snag more queries than books. I can then search for my blog using the same term to see where it turns up. If I search for “Animal Collective show review Fillmore,” Wax Ekphrastic is at, or nearly at, the top.

However, since its inception the majority of Wax Ekphrastic’s search engine-driven traffic is the result of people searching for a cluster of related interests. Naturally, I speak of “street bum,” “dirty bum,” and “bum piss.”

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May you find fame and fortune, old friend.

Today alone, Wax Ekphrastic has turned up in 2 queries for “dirty bum” and 1 for “bum piss.” Yesterday there were none, but the day before was “bum,” “dirty bum,” and “bum on street.”

How I came to be one of the leading blogs on the subject of dirty street bum piss, I’ll never know; the irony of the internet is the anonymity of our audiences. Of course, the actual substance of my blog is NOT serving their interests. They come here looking for bum piss, bum shit, dirty bums, and bums on streets, and find one lone post, and it is buried in a story about St. Lawrence and a punk show. So, this particular post is dedicated to all you bum pee fetishists out there. Wax Ekphrastic loves you too:

If you haven’t had the opportunity to consume distilled bum piss spirits, let me assure you they are a fine street wine for any occasion. With the Holidays fast upon us, what better way to share in the Christmas spirit while helping the poor to help themselves in fine Libertarian fashion, than by purchasing a liter of their aged urine?

I recommend you check out www.bumpiss.com.

Bumpiss.com offers personalized bum piss from the dirty street bum of your choice.

Simply, “choose your favorite bum, click send, and we take care of the rest. Are we serious? Of course we are.”

Bumpiss.com takes all the guess work out of buying bum piss, insuring quality and craftsmanship. Their bum piss is fair-trade. Manny, Lou, Jeffery, and Ponytail are well compensated and the piss is fairly priced. A small jar is 20 dollars, American, and a larger honeybear-shaped jar is 30 dollars, also American.

To be honest, I’ve known plenty of bums in my time, and I have plenty of bum stories: Rocker, Cosmo, Doctor Shabubu, Omar, New York, Detroit, Wizard, Vietnam Steve, Charlie Manson Steve, Hateman, Avatar, Exit, Lost, Shaggy, Bigfoot, the list goes on and on. It might be worthwhile to start a series of bum posts, where I wax ekphrastic on the bum aesthetic.

Interestingly enough, if you search for bum piss, BART comes up pretty quickly too.