When you hear a saxophone playing Sonny Rollins on the F train, and you look up from the chapter you’re reading on 20th Century music about Glass, Reich, and the cut-and-paste roots of hip-hip and mashup culture, and you see a woman with earbuds on looking down at the iPhone she has cradled in both hands—above her is an ad for an insurance brokerage thinly disguised as an MTA Poetry in Motion sign proclaiming, “We aren’t experts in cheese./Or poetry./We just make it easy/to compare life insurance online.” And you think to yourself that this is what it is to be an American in the shade of the industrial century. But then the saxophonist, a black man in tweed with a newsie cap in his hand, walks by you and you frantically search your pocket for dollar bills to pay him for this moment, and you drop one, pick it up, and put it in his outstretched cap. “Thank you, he says. “No,” you say, conjoined to him in this moment as it closes between you, “Thank you.”

 from  The Rest Is Noise , Alex Ross, p556

from The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross, p556

AuthorJohn Proctor

I wrote this little vignette last summer in Iceland, and promptly forgot about it. It seems too simple to submit for publication now, eight months later, but I'm kind of fond of it. And makes some perverse sense to share it now, in January - To misquote Mark Twain, I've never met a colder winter than summer in Ísafjörður.

Le Medecin.jpg

So much of our lives exists in the margins outside the frames of our Instagram feeds. Take, for example, a strange little piece of French ephemera tagged to a bakery in Ísafjörður, Iceland on someone’s—for example my own—feed. The framed piece, or rather its digitized presentation, evokes perhaps the Alps in the background and a strange, vaguely disturbing scene in the foreground. Two women seem to have been in some sort of skiing accident. A man is either attending to them or accosting them (the only words of the piece, “Le Médecin,” imply the latter, but the subtleties of their mannerisms hint, to my wife and me at least, at the former, but this could simply be due to the overblown, grotesque representations of mid-Twentieth Century kitsch). And, most notably, a boy in the background in skis, hangs from a tree over either a fence or a ledge and seems to be spying on the other three. They are all smiling—that posed, fakey smile we give when we know our picture is being taken, when we’re conscious of our surveillance.

At least that’s the way my wife and I see it as it looks over both of us eating crepes at a small table in this Icelandic bakery and talking about Brooklyn in the margins of the shot she takes on her iPhone.

“It reminds me,” she says, “of that new coffee shop in North Slope, the one that took over Gorilla Coffee. Did you hear about the sign they posted over their bathroom? This piece just reminded me of it. Apparently the new owners put it up as a joke, but it depicts someone peeping in on the women’s bathroom. I heard about it on the Park Slope Parents listserv.”

“Ah,” I sigh. “I can already guess how that conversation went.”

“Yeah, and the Comments sections on the blogs posting about it. I think the last thing I heard was a dad accusing them of promoting rape culture, and the owners saying people should stop being so sensitive.”

“The ever-present Brooklyn hipster-vs.-parent debate.”

“There aren’t any hipsters left in Park Slope,” my wife says. “I think they might want to at least try to appeal to their customer base.”

“I think some of our fellow Park Slope parents might try easing up on the hypersensitivity.”

“Better to be hypersensitive than insensitive,” she says.

“I disagree,” I say.

“We come from a generation that told us not to take these things—the male gaze, imposition on women’s bodies—seriously,” she replies. “We have two girls I don’t want to subject to that. Or at least I want them to stand up against it when they see it.”

“I want our girls to be able to identify oppression when they see it, and laugh at it,” I say, then add, “That’s power.”

“I just want you to be aware,” my wife says, “that you are speaking from a white male perspective, with the privilege that entails.”

I stop looking at her, fixating on Le Médecin. “I guess I should just stop talking then.” I continue talking. “I wasn’t speaking from privilege. The opposite, actually: I was speaking as someone who has overcome plenty of class-based, systemic adversity, mostly because I learned to laugh at it. That’s what satire is—undermining oppression by laughing at it.”

My wife has stopped talking, but I can’t.

 “You just took my position, which I’ve thought about at length, and made it into a stereotype. You say I’m speaking from a position of privilege, but I think it’s a position of maturity.”

My wife has stopped looking at me. She’s looking out the window, whatever argument she might make tucked away for another time. It’s probably right at this moment that I realize I’m mansplaining. I want to continue with this argument, to see it through to its conclusion, but I see in her icy gaze that I’ve already proven her right.

“Right now,” she says, “I don’t feel safe in your company.”

We sit, both of us looking out the window at the hotel across the street, or the fjord this hamlet is situated within, or the cloud-capped cliffs looming over both sides that block out the sun for two entire months of the winter—both of us shrouded from each other. Her hands are in her lap, one of my legs is crossed over the other, and the French doctor, the women, and the peeping-tom skier gaze over us into the online ether, smiling.

AuthorJohn Proctor

When you’re getting a coffee on a Monday morning and the barista, on handing it to you, says, “Enjoy,” to which you reply, “You too,” and it’s only while you’re adding cream and sugar that you realize one doesn’t say “You too” when a barista tells one to enjoy one’s coffee. And you wonder, while picking out a wooden stirrer (the broken one—you always go for the broken one), how many people remember you as the guy who said the wrong thing in what was supposed to be a perfectly normal, meaningless conversation. And you wonder how many normal, meaningless conversations are made abnormal but replete with meaning because somebody said the wrong thing at the wrong time.

What are the Sneaky Feels?

AuthorJohn Proctor

For the past 12 days, I've essayed various aspects of this strange and wonderful season. Here they are, collected in their entirety for your yuletide bewilderment.

Pee Wee Herman asking you not to drink and drive, the Bullet Boys threatening violence on Rudolph, Lou Reed and George Harrison being Lou Reed and George Harrison...

Everyone's got one of these stories. Hopefully.

With special guest appearance by Andrew Carlsen, Todd Schartung, and a gang of skinhead toughs.

What was it with the Fifties and eskimos?

For my friend Liz Blood, in absence of 12 full days of the sacred...

<insert black heart emojis>

On the road again.

You want none of this Santa.

That Santa gets all the girls.

Christy Merrmas and Holly Happy Days!

It's alright. I love you.

AuthorJohn Proctor

Having taken everyone's suggestions to heart, I've decided to do something no one suggested. Get ready for 12 Strange Days of Christmas, people!


Taking into account my friend Meagan's recommendation to just do seasonal winter music, I'm now brewing up a seasonal playlist of its own. But that's for January. And as for my friend Liz's thumbs up on going with sacred music for the holiday - despite my agnostic love for churchy Christmas music, I just couldn't invoke the sacred this season. Not this year. And barring a certain mangy old fox being smoked out of the henhouse, probably not next year or the year after.

It is in fact with the old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times," in mind that I give my strange, interesting, wonderful friends a break from the more depressing aspects of our strange and interesting times. Starting Thursday, 12/7 and running through Friday, 12/22 (minus weekends) I give you my advent calendar of strange and interesting Christmas cheer. And to warm you up, here's a great list of 10 weird Christmas albums, none of which shall be drawn from here.

AuthorJohn Proctor

And now, dear friends and readers, for the dreaded reader-response request. For the past three years I've indulged in some Christmas fun through perhaps my favorite part of Christmas: the music. The first two years I focused on my favorite variety, miserable. Last year, at my mother-in-law's request to lighten up, I dropped 12 days of unrepentantly happy Christmas songs. Ironically, doing that list only made me more depressed. (In the songs' defense, it turned out I was actually clinically depressed.) 

Anyway, feel free to catch up on the past three years, but I also need your help deciding what to do this year. The 12-day thing works, but I'm trying to find a unifier that's less polarized. I was thinking maybe my favorite novelty songs, or anti-Christmas songs, or even sacred Christmas music (which is a guilty pleasure).

What do you think? One of these? Something else entirely? Help a brother out, here in the comments or on my social media. 

And as thanks, here's a nice photo of me with Santa outside his trailer in the Eighties. Those were good times.

John with Santa.jpg
AuthorJohn Proctor

Dinner conversation with my 8-year-old:

8YO: What if Voldemort and Donald Trump joined forces?

ME: They actually did. Voldemort now goes by the name of Vladimir Putin.


AuthorJohn Proctor

When you’re teaching Baudrillard to freshmen, and you decide to take them outside and explain the precession of simulacra at the side of a pond dug by earthmovers decades ago with a fountain bubbling loudly from the middle of it while your class is gathered on a set of stones arranged in colosseum seating, and you ask them if they can think of any examples of representations that have denatured reality until they exist outside the reality they once reflected. “You mean, like a cliché?” one asks. “Example,” you say. “Being a cat on Halloween,” one says. “You mean if you’re a girl?” you ask. “Unless you’re a girl named Kat,” she says, looking over at the girl in your class named Kat, who apparently just dressed up as a cat for Halloween. And when one student starts texting and you ask what he just texted, and he says, “lol,” and you ask if that is his example of a simulacrum. “Maybe,” he replies, and you ask, “What if someone does something just for the lulz?” “You mean like if I’m playing an online RPG and go in and just kill someone?” “Exactly,” you say. “You were obviously just doing that for the lulz.” “Don’t say lulz, Professor,” another student says, then you ask if you all are in a simulacrum right now, a denatured symbol of the real, but before anyone can answer, another student or maybe two jump up from the stone they were sharing and speechlessly point under it. And you get down on hands and knees, thinking that you haven’t yet even explained how you brought them out into a simulacrum of nature to illustrate Baudrillard’s precession, and find yourself looking into the shiny eyes of a rat. “Class dismissed,” you say, and two students stay, wanting to talk to you about Black Mirror, but all you want to do is keep looking at the rat, this Barthesian punctum of the simulated narrative you’d been cultivating for these eighteen-year-olds, this small, frightened, feral little packet of the real, silently judging you.

What are the Sneaky Feels?

AuthorJohn Proctor