Monday, July 31, 2006

Thought for the Day

My thought for the day is this: Let's legalize gay marijuana, but only for medical emergencies.

The Myth of a Christian Nation

My friend K responded to my post about the Minnesota mega-church and instead of just putting it in the comment box, I'll put it here:
I read The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church by Gregory Boyd in early June. I borrowed it from a friend who attends his church, Woodland Hills. He and I had some brief discussions on spirituality and he then said I might like the book.

It is a good book and I recommend it, but it is very much written for the evengelical audience and the begining can be off-putting because of its jargon. He's also pendantic. His major issue is that the Kingdom of the World is being put ahead of the Kingdom of God. For Christians, the primary focus should be God, not country, not even God through country, only God through Jesus. Boyd urges Chirstians to emulate Jesus in action. He agrees with many "conservative" postions, but his remedy is sometimes different. He promotes personal action as key and asks that Christians 'radicalize' their love. As far as homosexuality, be wants Christians to love them as people first instead of demonizing them. His abortion example is about a woman who takes a young girl into her home to persuade her agianst having an abortion. The woman actually goes way beyond the 'extra mile' by altering her own life to help the girl. I believe Boyd would say that abortion is a symptom of a greater problem, so just changing the law to prevent abortion is window dressing.

To Boyd, politics and governments are necessary, but are attractive distractions from 'God's work'. Government can be used to remove one's self from being personal, passing a law to prevent abortion instead of taking in a person, in her full humanity of good and bad, to persuade her from having one.

As far as all of our country's warring, he basically says there is not justification in the New Testament for it and that waging war is not 'walking like Jesus'.

In the end, he asks Christians to take Christianity personally, to live it out.
That's heavy shit. I'm afraid most Americans would find living this Christianity as inconvenient as, say, praying five times a day or reading only one book. I wouldn't do it, but I think a lot of us would be better off if more evangelicals did. Still, I admire Boyd's taking Jesus seriously -- not enough conservatives do.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Roger Keith Barrett: 1946-2006

Roger Keith Barrett, also known as Syd Barrett, the founder of the band Pink Floyd died recently.

Syd Barrett left the band before I was even born -- he barely lasted through Pink Floyd's debut album in the late sixties. A few years ago I had assumed, as many people did, that Barrett was actually already dead, that he had been dead since the sixties. And then I read rock critic Nick Kent's book The Dark Stuff and discovered through his article "The Cracked Ballad of Syd Barrett" (based on an article Kent wrote for New Music Express in 1974) that I was confusing him with Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. I think Jones died in a swimming pool.

I also discovered that, like the case of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, everything I liked about the band had to do with its charismatic but mentally unstable genius founder, and everything I hated had to do with -- well, the whole rest of the band.

So I learned that Barrett wasn't in fact dead, and that he'd actually put out a few solo albums. His first, "The Madcap Laughs," is brilliant. The second to the last song, "If It's In You," sums up Barrett's music for me. It's short (less than two minutes), too short -- like his musical career, and it begins with him wailing "Yes I'm thi-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-inking of this, yes I am." Only each "i" is a different note, all over the scale. It's weird. At first it sounds terribly off key, like some awful amateur yodeller, but if you keep listening, you start thinking maybe he's on to something. "The Madcap Laughs" is a spare album, and poor Barrett needed two of Pink Floyd mates to help him make it. It came out in 1972 and his music career was done by 1975.

Another song on that album, "Late Night," was a favorite of mine when it was covered by the 4AD project This Mortal Coil for the third and final album, "Blood" (1991), which I discovered a few years after its release. A woman, Caroline Crawley sang it beautifully, and I thought it was her song until someone pointed out the writing credit: S. Barrett.

Here, in honor of Mr. Barrett, I have transcribed the beginning of Nick Kent's superb article "The Cracked Ballad of Syd Barrett." It describes an infamous scene from one of the band's early shows:
The rest of the group were actually all three standing on the stage, ready to begin, when Barrett finally awoke from his numb narcissistic reverie in front of the dressing-toom mirror. First he roused himself to action by emptying a bottle of strong tranquilizers known as 'Mandrax' of its contents and breaking the pills into tiny fragments on a nearby table. He then produced a large bottle of Brylcream, an extremely greasy form of British hair gel, and emptied the whole jar on to the pills. Next, taking the main residue of this gunk in both hands, he lifted it aloft, dumping the whole filthy mess on top of his head, letting it slowly seep on to his scalp and duly down his neck. Then he turned, picked up his white Telecaster with the groovy mirrored discs reflecting out, and stepped uncertainly towards the stage.

A quarter of an hour later, as the tom-toms were thumping their way into trance-time, the bass began booking out low ominous frequencies and the organ arched off into a tentative solo full of spicy Eastern cliches. But anyone could tell that Syd, once the leader, was no longer inhabiting the same planet as the other three. Sometimes he'd twang a few desultory notes, sometimes he'd run his slide up and down the strings, but everything sounded so random and fragmented now that nothing he did really connected with the overall sound. Meanwhile the lighting had grown hot enough for Barrett's acid-casualty hair remedy to start running amok in several grotesque oily streams down his neck and forehead while the residue of the broken pills was being deposited all over his face. It was then that everyone could see how desperately things were going wrong, for he looked like some grotesque waxwork of himself on fire, a blurred effigy of melting flesh and brain tissue coming apart in front of his peers, his fans, and his followers.
Nick Kent wrote an obituary for the Guardian here. If you hadn't heard, Barrett's "meltdown" and career collapse has been blamed on his legendary LSD habit. Also interesting to note, is that Barrett named the band, as Kent writes, "taken from a blues album he owned involving two obscure musicians known as Pink Anderson and Floyd Council." Here's novelist Rick Moody on Barrett, also from the Guardian, and better still, David Bowie on Barrett in New Music Express -- he says Barrett was one of the first guys he'd ever heard singing pop with a British accent.

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God and Politics in Minnesota

At first I was embarrassed to read the words "megachurch" and "Minnesota" in the same line in today's New York Times. But reading further, I was pleased to discover the most reasonable megachurch pastor I'd ever heard of. The article, "Conservative Pastor Steers Clear of Politics, and Pays" describes the Reverend Gregory Boyd's risky move to resist Republican politics and flag-waving nationalism at his Woodland Hills Church in Maplewood:
Before the last presidential election, he preached six sermons called “The Cross and the Sword” in which he said the church should steer clear of politics, give up moralizing on sexual issues, stop claiming the United States as a “Christian nation” and stop glorifying American military campaigns.
That's refreshing. Boyd says he isn't a liberal, but his refusal to preach politics sounded suspicously liberal to a fifth of his congragation -- 1,000 members left, some during his sermons. Boyd wrote a book based on these sermons called “The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church".

Brian D. McLaren, a pastor in Maryland, is a part of the "emerging church" movement of evangelical Christianity. He's quoted saying:
“More and more people are saying this has gone too far — the dominance of the evangelical identity by the religious right. You cannot say the word ‘Jesus’ in 2006 without having an awful lot of baggage going along with it. You can’t say the word ‘Christian,’ and you certainly can’t say the word ‘evangelical’ without it now raising connotations and a certain cringe factor in people. Because people think, ‘Oh no, what is going to come next is homosexual bashing, or pro-war rhetoric, or complaining about ‘activist judges.’"
Now, I'm not a Christian, but looking at the internal logic of Christianity as we know it today, I find myself wondering whether or not it makes sense to lay off the moralizing political talk in church. If this is what you believe, don't you have a duty, a Christian duty to spread this word? It reminds me of the academic freedom issue. Obviously academia isn't the place for professors to indoctrinate students. But isn't church the place for politics? Wouldn't a Christian say that God has jurisdiction over everything? I understand why government would say the church should be separate, but I'm not sure I understand why the church would agree.

In the article, a former member of Boyd's congregation says, "You can’t be a Christian and ignore actions that you feel are wrong. A case in point is the abortion issue. If the church were awake when abortion was passed in the 70’s, it wouldn’t have happened. But the church was asleep.” That's the way a lot of the world's Muslims see it -- religion is not a weekly duty, it's a way of life, and politics is absorbed into that.

But maybe Boyd's on to something. He warns against turning politics and patriotism into idolatry.
He said he first became alarmed while visiting another megachurch’s worship service on a Fourth of July years ago. The service finished with the chorus singing “God Bless America” and a video of fighter jets flying over a hill silhouetted with crosses.

“I thought to myself, ‘What just happened? Fighter jets mixed up with the cross?’ ” he said in an interview.
Say what you want about fighting for justice and the American way, but don't confuse it with Christianity. Jesus wouldn't do that. We forget in the all talk about doing God's will, one crucial thing, a thing that is summed up in the droll motto: "What would Jesus do?" He wouldn't sing a patriotic song and cheer fighter jets for fuck's sake. Boyd again:
“America wasn’t founded as a theocracy,” he said. “America was founded by people trying to escape theocracies. Never in history have we had a Christian theocracy where it wasn’t bloody and barbaric. That’s why our Constitution wisely put in a separation of church and state.

“I am sorry to tell you,” he continued, “that America is not the light of the world and the hope of the world. The light of the world and the hope of the world is Jesus Christ.”
It isn't about convictions, it's about power and method. Jesus didn't seek control, he sought peace. Jesus didn't beat people to get his way, he persuaded. And he sacrificed. This is why the church is not the place for politics and patriotism. And as Mr. Boyd proves, you don't have to be a liberal to figure that out.

Friday, July 28, 2006

My doormat. My beautiful astroturf doormat. More on this later.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Sir John A.

The character pictured here was Canada's founding prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. I came upon him in a book about the history of several cocktails. 'Sir John A.,' as he seems to be affectionately called by Canadians, was a heavy drinker.

There's a wonderful story recalled by Will Ferguson in Maclean's Magazine on the great man's birthday in January 2002. Apparently, sometime in the 1860s, the good Sir John A. came to a debate drunk. Drunk enough to actually throw up during the debate.
"An awkward pause followed, but John, smiling, said, 'I'm sorry. I don't know what it is about my opponent, but every time I hear him speak, it turns my stomach.' The crowd roared."
Brilliant. The man he was debating, George Brown, was the brunt of more of Sir John's jokes, too.
"Rather than grapple for the high ground, Macdonald acknowledged the obvious, turning his weaknesses into a point of pride. 'The people would rather have John A. drunk than Brown sober,' he proclaimed. He was right."
No Right Honourable John George Diefenbaker, Sir John A. was even known to take swings at his political opposition. After some bribes/donations for a rail project, he became "the first -- and only -- PM in Canadian history forced out of office on charges of unethical behaviour." However, Will Ferguson tells us, "Undaunted, John was swept back to power five years later, and ended his days in triumph."

The other gentleman pictured is of course John Diefenbaker, the Progressive Conservative (huh?) Canadian prime minister from 1957 to 1963.

By the way, the cocktail book I was reading was Christine Sismondo's Mondo Cocktail. It's excellent. A "literary" history of twelve well-known drinks, including the Sazerac. It was from the Sazerac chapter that I learned about Sir John A.'s antics (and Will Ferguson's article). There's a good review of Sismondo's book by Dr. Cocktail here. More about the book later.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

What Would Bernie Do?

Michael Holroyd talks ( in the Times Literary Supplement, via Arts & Letters Daily) about George Bernard Shaw, the great (and now neglected) Irish playwright and what he might make of our modern world:
"What would Shaw be telling us today? Would he, for example, have supported suicide bombing? I hear him answer this with a resounding No! But then he would never have been so stupid, so uncomprehending, as to label suicide bombers “cowardly” – that really is the voice of terror. Early in the twentieth century, Shaw proposed giving all Irishmen guns so that they could enjoy the privilege of a civil war without the intervention of the English. Such a man would not have hesitated to advocate the elimination of suicide bombing by giving Palestine an army equal in strength to that of Israel. He would, however, have castigated a Palestinian culture that encouraged young people to throw away their lives and be applauded for doing so by their parents and grandparents. It would have been far more honourable, I hear him saying, for old people to volunteer – indeed he had recommended calling up seventy and eighty-year-olds for military service before turning to the young in time of war. In short: send Shaw out to the Middle East and he would unite all enemies in opposition to himself. Send Shaw today round the world and he would be called mad for recommending publishers in every country to put all sacred texts, from the Bible to the Koran, on their backlists and find new sacred works from contemporary writing."
Shaw is full of great ideas. Here are some choice quotes:

"A victory for anybody is a victory for war."

"You'll never have a quiet world till you knock the patriotism out of the human race."

"Hell is full of musical amateurs."

"I often quote myself. It adds spice to my conversation."

Find more quotes here. Shaw, who hated being called George, died in 1950 at the age of 94. He fell off a ladder whilst trimming a tree in his yard. [source]

Monday, July 24, 2006

As seen in Myers of Keswick, Greenwich Village's purveyor of fine traditional British meat pies. And Baked Beanz.

Academic Freedom and Truth

One of my favorite literary critics, Stanley Fish, opines in the New York Times about the definition of academic freedom. It isn't about protecting a professor's right to teach anything he or she wants to teach, argues Fish. "In fact, academic freedom has nothing to do with content. It is not a subset of the general freedom of Americans to say anything they like (so long as it is not an incitement to violence or is treasonous or libelous)."

It's not about free speech at all. Academic freedom is about protecting professors from those who would decide what they ought to study. "The freedom, that is, to subject any body of material, however unpromising it might seem, to academic interrogation and analysis."

Professors can study anything they want, they just can't advocate for anything. That would cross the line into indoctrination, Fish says.

The whole issue started with Kevin Barrett, a University of Wisconsin Madison lecturer who apparently tells his students that he thinks the American government caused those nasty 9/11 events. The problem with the debate that followed Mr. Barrett's radio interview, in which he described his curriculum was that the two opposing sides that lined up to support or castigate Barrett were arguing the wrong things. Fish summarizes the two sides:
Mr. Barrett’s critics argue that academic freedom has limits and should not be invoked to justify the dissemination of lies and fantasies. Mr. Barrett’s supporters (most of whom are not partisans of his conspiracy theory) insist that it is the very point of an academic institution to entertain all points of view, however unpopular. (This was the position taken by the university’s provost, Patrick Farrell, when he ruled on July 10 that Mr. Barrett would be retained: “We cannot allow political pressure from critics of unpopular ideas to inhibit the free exchange of ideas.”)
By Fish's logic, Barrett should be sacked for crossing that indoctrination line. He's very clear here, using the example of astrology as a classroom subject:
The distinction I am making — between studying astrology and proselytizing for it — is crucial and can be generalized; it shows us where the line between the responsible and irresponsible practice of academic freedom should always be drawn. Any idea can be brought into the classroom if the point is to inquire into its structure, history, influence and so forth. But no idea belongs in the classroom if the point of introducing it is to recruit your students for the political agenda it may be thought to imply.
But couldn't Barrett argue that he was teaching a truth, and not a political angle? Isn't that exactly what Barrett and any advocate of "Intelligent Design" would say?

When Fish describes these beliefs as viewpoints, he's letting his liberal side show through -- a conservative (or a radical leftist for that matter) would not admit the possibility of being wrong. To conservatives, there is right and there is wrong. Truth and lies. No viewpoints. Viewpoints, like opinions, show a lack or conviction, weakness.

Fish notes that Barrett is a member of the group Scholars for 9/11 Truth. He writes:
Is the fact of this group’s growing presence on the Internet a reason for studying it in a course on 9/11? Sure. Is the instructor who discusses the group’s arguments thereby endorsing them? Not at all. It is perfectly possible to teach a viewpoint without embracing it and urging it. But the moment a professor does embrace and urge it, academic study has ceased and been replaced by partisan advocacy. And that is a moment no college administration should allow to occur.
I agree with Fish, of course. I do think that's the way to teach -- talk about issues and get students to examine them from every side. Give them the tools to argue and analyze. And ultimately, I agree with Fish's unofficial tenet of postmodernism -- that truth does exist, but no one of us has the tools to prove any given truth. (This issue of truth is precisely what conservative P.J. O'Rourke says is so good about spy novelist Charles McCarry -- see my review below.)

But isn't that what faith is for? And isn't that why the Right has control of all branches of government now? Liberals have known for decades that they need the strength of their Commie predecessors' convictions, but they just can't get their papers in order. I'm betting Fish, too would endorse some liberal faith, but he'd tell us to make sure we kept it out of the classroom.

No postmodernist with half a brain is obstinate enough to spend any time arguing that up isn't really up -- we all agree on things for all sorts of conveniences. Any argument on something we don't agree on rests on a series of agreements about other things. No one can go around (although I had friends in high school pull this shit on me) denying basic realities. It gets old. Postmodernists like Fish, and anyone else with his convictions and a good education relies on faith anyway. We just won't stand up for it.

In the end, most of these controversial "viewpoints" or "truths" that try to make their way into the classroom -- be they intelligent design or 9/11 conspiracy theories -- will be dropped for lack of evidence. What smart Christians and conspiracy nuts should do instead of shouting about how they're right is to convince people that they shouldn't stop looking for evidence to support their crackpot ideas. Again it's about faith.

Charles McCarry's Old Boys

I'm reading Charles McCarry's latest spy novel Old Boys now, and I'm really enjoying it. McCarry has been writing about American spies for three or four decades but his books have been out of print for a while until just recently, when Old Boys came out in 2004. It's now available as a Penguin trade paperback.

McCarry's Horace Hubbard is a charismatic old CIA agent whose modest narration belies his outrageous past (he spent time in prison for stealing an American presidential election), a touch of unsettling Orientalism, and the ruthlessness one expects from a man who carries out assassination orders. Hubbard is young and almost naive next to his missing older cousin, the legendary spy Paul Christopher -- the protagonist of many previous novels.

The plot is this: Paul Christopher disappears. The Chinese government returns his ashes with their condolences but little explanation, only Christopher's cousin Hubbard doesn't buy it. Following the elder spy's "if anything ever happens to me" instructions, Hubbard discovers that the dastardly Ibn Awad, a man who Hubbard thought he'd had killed ten years ago is alive. Moreover, Awad is after a New Testament-era manuscript that could "be interpreted as evidence that Jesus Christ was an unwitting asset of Roman intelligence," which Awad could use to attack Christ's divinity. And, Christopher's mother, long thought dead after she went missing in WWII, may be alive (at 94), and in possession of the offending manuscript. After the funeral, Hubbard rounds up some old boys to track down Christopher, his mother, Awad, and the Jesus document.

If that sounds like a neo-con's dream, you're right, and I have the Weekly Standard review to prove it. P.J. O'Rourke likes it because unlike those damned morally ambiguous LeCarré novels "McCarry's plots turn on the search for truth. The author and his heroes aren't in doubt about what the truth is: Good is good, and bad is bad." I like it because -- neocons be damned -- it's a great spy novel.


Mail Order Brides: Over Here, You're the Piece of Meat, Mister.

Harper's has an article (which I found via Arts & Letters Daily) from about a year ago posted online about mail order brides which begins:
"These are not American women," our guide was telling us. "They do not care about your age, looks, or money. And you are not going to have to talk to them for half an hour and then have your testicles handed back to you! Let me tell you: over here, you're the commodity; you're the piece of meat. I've lived in St. Petersburg for two years, and I wouldn't date an American woman right now if you paid me!"
In a world, nay, being of a species in which the female chooses her male breeding partners, it's titillating to imagine a scenario wherein men are outnumbered five-to-one, where women dress provocatively and flirt unabashedly, all to compete for scarce men. At least for the men accustomed to having their testicles handed back to them.

The article describes one man's journey to Ukraine to follow a group of awkward farmers and doctors looking for love with pliant women. But these men weren't here for mere sex tourism. No, "what they really wanted, and what most imagined they would find in Ukraine, was a fusion of 1950s gender sensibilities with a twenty-first-century hypersexuality." They were looking for wives.

Reading about mail order brides reminds me of a time years ago when, excited to have my own apartment (no, I'm not about to tell you I ordered a woman through the mail) and my own mailing address, I ordered everything free that I could find. A book called High Weirdness by Mail was my guide -- I found it at a used book store. From this book I found out how to become an ordained minister in the same church that later welcomed the reverend John Wayne Bobbit (or so I heard). Religion by mail became a theme. Ten years later, I still get free books from the Reverend Billy Graham's Evangelistic Association. I avoided sending off to the Mormons -- they send back people, not letters. But I did send for Scientology catalogs. I learned a ton from those. Eventually I think they thought I was one of them. The catalogs I got had very detailed information about their E-Meters, Hubbard's little lie detector used by Scientology "auditors" to glean the secrets of unsuspecting "pre-clears." Or something.

But there was another category of junk I ordered through the mail: Bride Catalogs. I got lots of them. I probably got a catalog from A Foreign Affair, the organization profiled in the Harper's article. Lovely Russians, Ukrainians, Filipinas. A few Guatemalans. Assorted El Salvadoran ladies. I felt terribly lecherous just looking at these catalogs. Hundreds of hopeful women. Most would be disappointed -- they would probably never meet anyone through these catalogs. But were they any better off if they did? These women were being "sold" as compliant, old-world-style sexually submissive little cooks and house-cleaners. Worse, they were being auctioned off to men who had been rejected by their own regional dating pools.

Creepier still was the sense of déjà vu I got when I tried my hand at online dating a couple years ago: 'these ads … they look so familiar,' I thought, that lecherous feeling coming back. Was the gateway drug that led to A Foreign Affair? (It wasn't, and although two, soon to be three friends' forays into computer dating have ended in marriage, my experiment was unsuccessful. Further, it proved distressingly lechery-free.)

The description in the Harper's article of the first crop of potential brides to show up at one of A Foreign Affair's mixers -- "Heavy makeup, especially around the eyes and cheekbones, was de rigueur" -- reminded me of a bizarre scene I witnessed during a guided tour of the English Literature department of Moscow State University a couple of years ago. I was chaperoned, along with two other American students, by three young Russian students, all women (incidentally, one of them told us she recently married her boyfriend, not out love alone, but for financial reasons), who walked us around the gargantuan Stalinist-Gothic style tower that anchors the university.

When our tour was almost over, we walked back in to the decrepit building that housed the English Literature department. As we entered, our three guides bolted away, alarming us. I realized that they were running to the giant wall mirror in the building's entry hall to check their hair and make-up. It was such a common and accepted ritual that they did it unselfconsciously. At first I was astonished. Then I stood back, smiling uncomfortably, feeling like I had accidentally strolled into the ladies' restroom. The three Russian students got their looks in order, applying a new layer of remarkably natural-looking cosmetics and nothing was said about it. I'll never forget that. I could speculate about how Communism's scarcity of feminine beauty products created a fetish for them that had a new outlet after the Soviet Union collapsed, but I've never seen any other Russian women so obsessive about their appearances.

At the end of the Harper's article, the author, Kristoffer A. Garin reflects on the end of the tour: "Quite a few of the men would find what they were looking for: by the time I left the group at the end of the first week (the full tour left several days of supported dating after the end of the group events), our tally of engagements would reach three—or six, if one includes the man who was engaged to three different women."

Sunday, July 23, 2006

West Village Basketball

I saw this women's basketball game in the court outside the West Fourth Street subway station on Sixth Avenue. The canvas sign on the fence in the court said Ken Graham's West 4th Street Basketball -- Pro Classic New York City. There was a guy with a bullhorn doing play-by-play on the bleachers behind the hoop pictured.

Question for Readers

Has There Been a Pure American Product Since 1964?

In the July 24 issue of the New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl gives a tiny "Critic's Notebook" review of the Whitney Museum's current permanent collection retrospective "Full House." He says -- and I agree completely -- that the fifth floor Edward Hopper portion is the best (Hopper was championed by the museum's founder since the 20s; when the artist died, his widow left all of his work to the Whitney. More on Edward Hopper at the Whitney in a later post.).

But there was something at the bottom of the short review that I can't stop thinking about:
"The sportive Pop floor is titled with a line from William Carlos Williams, 'The pure products of America go crazy.' It's catchy, but silly. America hasn't had a pure product since the 1964 Ford Mustang."
Now, even if you don't agree with the '64 Mustang being a "pure American product," it still challenges you to come up with another. For the sake of argument, let's assume the 1964 Ford Mustang was a pure American product, and let's use that as our starting point. What American object, what American product made since then is purely American?

It's tough. So much of what we make is either derivative or old. Blue jeans. Pizza. Hot dogs. Baseball. Skyscrapers. Bud Light. Regis Philbin. I remember thinking how uniquely American the tv show "All in the Family" was until I heard that it was based on a British sitcom with a similar concept.

On the subject of cars, I think you could say that the station wagon, and later the minivan were pure American automobiles. They were created for a distinctly American market -- big middle class families living in the suburbs without public transportation, far from giant supermarkets and sports practice. But is there one iconic station wagon or minivan? I'd say no to the former and maybe -- the Dodge Caravan to the latter.

But what else is there? Here are my criteria:
  • It has to be a thing.
  • It has to be a singular product, not a broad category (no generic 'minivans' or 'station wagons' -- only specific examples ).
  • It has to be American: made here for our population by our workforce for an American firm.
  • It must be an American idea, not an Americanization of a foreign idea (no 'All in the Family').
  • It can be available elsewhere (like Coca-Cola) but it must scream Americana to foreign buyers.
So tell me what you think. Use the comment forum to submit your picks for American products post-1964. I'll think about the question and post my picks and yours in a few days.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Word of the Day

DEFENESTRATION. Merriam-Webster's defines it as "a throwing of a person or thing out of a window" and "a usually swift dismissal or expulsion (as from a political party or office)."


Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Frank Morrison Spillane: 1918-2006

Mickey Spillane, the Brooklyn-born pulp novelist died this week at age 88. Spillane was a nasty little fireplug of a man, known for his Mike Hammer detective series and his commercials for Miller Lite in the 70s and 80s. He was a devout Jehovah's Witness, a reactionary conservative, a close friend to Ayn Rand, and an outspoken anti-communist. Rumor has it there was a point when his first seven mystery novels were seven of the top ten best-selling novels of all time.

The broad on the cover of his 1972 novel The Erection Set was his second wife Sherri Malinou. The book was called his "most ambitous work," and his attempt at a "literary" novel. I have, as you can see, an immaculate paperback copy of the book, but -- surprise -- I haven't read it. Now might be a good time.

From the U.K. Guardian:
There were three Mrs Spillanes. He divorced the first and married Sherri Malinou in 1964. A model 24 years his junior, she caught Spillane's eye when she was featured on the cover of one of his books. He called the agency and asked them to send over the blonde with the beautiful butt: "they sent her over, and I never sent her back." He used her (nude) on the cover of The Erection Set. The marriage, however, broke up, and Spillane married Jane Rodgers Johnson in 1983.

New York Times

Los Angeles Times

Washington Post

The Times Online

Spillane's writing was blunt and violent, but it was clever and compelling. When his Mike Hammer novels came out in the late 40s and the 50s they were shocking, not only for how bloody they were, but for the staggering number of copies they sold. I've only read one of them. More on Spillane soon.

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Monday, July 17, 2006

The Heat

It was hot here today -- it reached 90 before 11am. I found some advice on staying cool from New York's Office of Emergency Management (via Gothamist, including this on opening fire hydrants, which I assumed was illegal:
Opening fire hydrants without spray caps is wasteful and dangerous. Illegally opened hydrants can lower water pressure, which can cause problems at hospitals and other medical facilities and hinder fire-fighting by reducing the flow of water to hoses and pumps. Children can also be at serious risk, because the powerful force of an open hydrant without a spray cap can push them into oncoming traffic. Call 311 to report an open hydrant.

Hydrants can be opened legally if equipped with a City-approved spray cap. One illegally opened hydrant wastes up to 1,000 gallons of water per minute, while a hydrant with a spray cap only puts out around 25 gallons per minute. Spray caps can be obtained by an adult 18 or over, free of charge, at local firehouses.
I remember finding a fire hydrant wrench in my neighborhood in St. Paul when I was growing up. The big red box-end wrench was shaped to fit the pentagon-shaped hydrant valves. I don't think we ever used it, but it was exciting to think that we could.

The OEM's brochure, "Ready New York: Beat the Heat Guide" can be downloaded in English, Korean, Russian, Chinese, Spanish, and Haitian Creole.

It was 94 when I left work, but it wasn't that bad. Even in the subway station, which is usually the worst. It just wasn't that humid today. Still, it felt like an oven outside. But not like it must have been in Minnesota.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Soba Shochu

I've a new kind of soba beverage -- Soba Shochu. It's a low-alcohol (25%) Japanese liquor distilled from buckwheat. Last week I found Soba Cha, or, buckwheat tea (and I blogged about it here). Back in June, I found a Korean liquor called Jinro (which I blogged about here); Soba Shochu is basically the Japanese (and buckwheat) version of Jinro. Both are tasty in the way a watered-down, mildly sweet vodka would be tasty. It's supposed to be used as a mixer or over ice.

And I thought that was it until I found this website that said this about soba shochu:
The greatest content of Urokinase enzyme that helps human body healthy.
  • Prevent blood clots.
  • Prevent heart diseases.
  • No Hangover.
So, taste the smoothness and enjoy the sensational moment. And get the health benefits of Sobashochu.
Why am I not drinking this all the time?


Yesterday by Union Square

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Cheers, Pete.

It's so easy to give in to Schadenfreude when we hear about Rush Limbaugh's addiction to hillbilly heroin, or when Ann Coulter, amid plagiarism allegations, gets her column dropped by a small, heartland newspaper because conservative readers "felt that their views were being misrepresented." Ah, yes.

So it was with guilty glee that I read about right-wing beer baron and erstwhile senate candidate Pete Coors' drunk-driving arrest in Denver. Ad Age's smug coverage (which is where I got the nice photo of Mr. Coors) of the incident includes quotes from the Coors website:
On its website, Coors says it supports "more severe consequences" for drunk drivers. "The processing of drunk drivers should be streamlined and drunk driving must result in an immediate consequence, such as implementing an 'administrative license revocation,'" the "Doing Our Part" section of Coors' site reads. "Penalties for drunk driving should be escalated for higher BAC levels and for repeat offenders."
Hmm. We'll see how they handle that. Coors was probably drunk on Coors Original, for as he told the National Review a couple years ago, "It has more flavor and more of what a beer should taste like. Besides, I'm a traditionalist." You may know Pete Coors from his beer commercial appearances, if not from his 2004 Colorado senate bid.

But who is Peter Coors? Why does he matter? The website Media Transparency, an organization that tracks "The money behind the conservative media," gives some history of the family that started the Coors Brewing Company in 1873:
In 1973, Joseph Coors backed Paul Weyrich, a champion of right-wing causes and later co-creator of the Moral Majority, when he decided to create a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., that eventually became the Heritage Foundation. Joseph Coors provided $250,000 in start-up funds.

Later, when Weyrich left Heritage, Joseph Coors worked with him to create the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, a PAC supporting conservative candidates that later developed into the Free Congress Foundation (FCF). The Adolph Coors Foundation heavily funded the Heritage Foundation from its inception through the 1980s. The Castle Rock Foundation continues to provide substantial funding to the Heritage Foundation and the Free Congress Foundation, contributing $1,948,760 and $1,050,000 respectively, between 1995 and 2002.
That's why I try not drink Coors. The National Review's John J. Miller called Pete's father Joe "one of the most important conservative philanthropists of the 20th century." Much of the neoconservative movement today owes its momentum to Coors family money.


Designer Originals

When I was in ninth grade, my friend Alyssa told me about a local biker gang called the Hell's Outcasts. We were at a downtown St. Paul headshop buying our trademark black t-shirts (Megadeth, Overkill, etc.) when we ran into the man Alyssa told me was the gang's current leader. He was a slight man of about thirty. He wore a leather jacket and jeans, and I don't remember much else about his looks. I don't know how my friend Alyssa knew this guy, but he seemed friendly enough.

Later, Alyssa told me gang's policy on clothes, which she may have just taken from Hunter Thompson's book Hell's Angels. For all I knew, the Hell's Outcasts got it from Thompson's book. The idea was this: new recruits have a pair of jeans that are called his originals. He can't take them off until they fall off, even after the rest of the gang's shit, piss, and puke are installed on said dungarees. There are variations on this, of course, but that's the gist of it.

Before you quibble with the practicalities of wearing jeans soaked in feces to work (even bikers have jobs, right?), think about how much a pair of originals would sell for in a Soho boutique. That's right, take the jeans after, say, a month of rough wear (all human fluids included, plus the inevitable motorcycle fluid stains, road rash, and cigarette burns) and wash them. Wash them again. Get the smell out. Then have the biker who wore them scrawl his name on the back with a marker and put a $1,000 price tag on them. I guarantee this will sell.

This is what I was thinking about when I read the article "Yeah, They Torture Jeans. But It’s All for the Sake of Fashion." in the business section of the Times last week. There we learn about "Italian industrialist" Giovanni Petrin and his disastrous first attempt to stone wash jeans the way the Japanese do. The stones shreded his jeans and mangled his industrial washing machines. "The stone is actually pumice," he later learned. Petrin's company Martelli is making a fortune off rich hispters who want to wear clothes that make them look as if they work for a living:
Martelli posted $140 million of revenue in 2005 not by making any of these jeans, but by providing the skills and technology to transform them from new to old-looking. It was largely thanks to those like Mr. Petrin, who helped build the new “old” look by combining fresh styling with innovative manufacturing skills (he has a small secret here), that weathered jeans became the object of desire in America’s $15 billion jeans market.
Petrin uses cheap Chinese labor ("We tried Romanians, and we tried Africans. None were as good as the Chinese.") to "stylize" jeans made in Morocco and Turkey for "Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Yves Saint Laurent, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan, but also mass-market brands like Levi Strauss, the world’s biggest jeans maker, the Lee and Wrangler brands of the VP Corporation, Gap and Zara." Their methods are actually quite fascinating:
In their main factory, with 900 workers, huge washing machines tumble jeans with pumice gravel; workers in face masks slip jeans legs over inflated balloons, which then move robotlike between sets of abrasive plastic brushes that scrub the denim to give it a worn look. Other workers brush creases into the jeans that, because they fan out from the fly, are called whiskers.

The work elsewhere is more labor-intensive. Here, workers apply discoloring chemicals with brushes; there, they use hand-held guns to blast jets of quartz sand. Assembly line workers hold the edges and cuffs of jeans to spinning abrasive pegs that wear them down or make holes in them.

Some apply embroidered designs, others rhinestones, still others stitch patches over holes they have just cut. Even though most of the jeans look thoroughly ruined by the time they leave his factory, Mr. Petrin says: “If they ruin a pair, they pay for them.”
So let me return to my original idea. Distressed jeans with a record. A little more verity. Wouldn't people pay more for clothes that were damaged by individuals instead of a factory collective? That seemed to be the idea behind these wallets I found at Takashimaya last weekend. The card in the display case says the designer is Martin Margiela, and that the wallets "are a blend of high fashion and irony." The clincher: "these 'grafitti' wallets were decorated by cub scouts in Paris." I don't know quite what to do with that. Maybe that's just the verity I'm looking for with my "originals" concept jeans. Cub scouts, bikers, the possibilities are endless.

I've got my own designer wallet: a duct tape wallet hand-made by Sarah Dawson, a thirteen year-old Brooklyn student. She's my boss's daughter, actually. I've been using this high-fashion wallet for about a month now, and I just love it. It was free, and I kind of feel guilty about that. She used to sell them for around $10 to her classmates, but she stopped when she ran out of classmates. I got one free as an example. If you want one, I can one for you. But I have to warn you, my markup is 300%.


Monday, July 10, 2006

Public Art: Sarah Sze's Corner Plot

This is a sculpture called Corner Plot by the artist Sarah Sze. It's at 60th and 5th in the southeast corner of Central Park in Doris C. Freedman Plaza. It's said to resemble a corner of an adjacent building.

It's a novel idea, one I came specifically to see. While I was disappointed that the artist didn't reconstruct a real interior inside the windows, I admit that her jumble of lamps, grids, and junk is interesting to look at. The inside of the piece is in keeping with her earlier work -- it's the outside that is a departure.

What makes it interesting is the little world inside the buried building corner. The little world on its own, I'm afraid, is the sort of art one can say almost anything about and wind up sounding spot on -- or like a lunatic -- depending on your perspective. It's that open to interpretation. At least that's my first reaction.

I found an article about an exhibit of hers by a David Cohen for the New York Sun in 2003. Maybe it isn't fair to say, but some of Cohen's descriptions of pieces at the Whitney in 2003 could apply to this new piece ("scattered household objects," "The wall label invites a somewhat literal reading of the piece in site-specific terms (life beneath the sidewalk), but this is arguably too limiting. It is much more fun to imagine "Triple Point" as a mad scientist's model of the world.").

I think what frustrates me more about Cohen's review is that it strikes me as fancy bullshit: "The way in which artifice and nature interact in her handling of materials, the relationship between the found and the manipulated, the micro and the macro, are all symbiotic. The real beauty is that ultimately even what could be construed as faults -- flimsiness, arbitrariness -- are folded back into the meaning of the work: stabilizing as a metaphor of the preciousness of life."

Contemporary art isn't easy to appreciate, and sometimes contemporary art criticism makes it even harder.

Go here to see New York magazine's slide show on how the sculpture was built and installed. The hole Con Edison dug for it was surprisingly big. Corner Plot will only be there until October 22.



My Midtown meandering brought me to the New York outpost of the Japanese department store Takashimaya on Sunday.

The store occupies five or six stories of an imposing granite building on Fifth Avenue near the south end of Central Park. For such a large space, the layout is peculiar and boutique-like -- relatively few things for sale. The store caters to a wealthy clientele but I knew I wasn't too out of place when I overheard a fat Middle-American woman demand her husband identify a piece of a table service for her.

I spoke to a nice clerk on the third floor who gave me a tutorial on Japanese lacquer. I asked her about the Takashimaya chain and she told me that the locations in Japan aren't as fancy as the New York store. They also have locations in Paris and Singapore.

Tea Box, the tea shop in the basement , has a good selection of interesting teas. Many are ridiculously expensive -- some just for the extravagant packaging -- but I found the shop's own varieties quite affordable. I bought some Soba Cha -- buckwheat tea.

Soba Cha is basically just buckwheat to which you add hot water and brew like conventional tea. Unless you get a blend (some come with green tea mixed in), there is no actual tea, and hence no caffeine. I was assured that Soba Cha is digestion aid, and that it is high in protein, vitamins, and minerals. I'm having trouble finding any information about Soba Cha (not to be confused with Soba noodles) -- just this -- so if anyone knows of anything, please tell me.

I'm not sure if anything is added to the buckwheat, but the flavor is mildly sweet. It's quite good, actually. It tastes much like it smells -- grainy, but not offensively so. There's a faint cinnamon-like tinge to the smell. Soba Cha isn't like beer, but thinking of it as a distant un-fermented cousin of beer may make it more palatable to the uninitiated. In my search for strange beverages, this is a great find.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Book Review: Our Kind of People

I’ve been reading Lawrence Otis Graham’s 1999 book Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class. It’s Graham’s account of the world he grew up in, a world that I – a white, public school-educated Midwesterner – had little knowledge of, or exposure to.

The book starts with a controversial epigraph, a distillation of the sentiments of the black elite regarding their own:
Bryant Gumbel is, but Bill Cosby isn’t. Lena Horne is, but Whitney Houston isn’t. Andrew Young is, but Jesse Jackson isn’t. And neither is Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Clarence Thomas, or Quincy Jones. And, even though both of them try extremely hard, neither Diana Ross nor Robin Givens will ever be.
Those lines, Graham says in his new introduction to the book, made some celebrities angry. He explains how he asked “old-guard blacks” in various cities which famous people they considered their peers: “In Philadelphia, Bill Cosby’s hometown, I asked wealthy black socialites if the well-credentialed and wealthy Dr. Cosby was in their crowd. They told me, ‘No he’s not our kind of people, but his wife, Camille [because of her Spelman College background and her light complexion], is.”

The business of one’s skin tone is an uncomfortable one in this book. Graham explained the infamous “Brown Paper Bag and Ruler Test” to PBS’s David Gergen back in 1999 when the book came out:
Well, that's something that goes back to slavery -- when blacks were divided into the dark skinned slaves that worked in the fields and then the light skinned slaves that worked in the house at the "prestige" jobs -- the butlers, the cooks, the family servants. And the rule was the Brown Paper Bag and Ruler Test was nothing more than you had to be lighter than a brown paper bag and your hair had to be as straight as a ruler. So it's an ugly and unfortunate way of looking at skin color and hair texture, but that was what the attitude of the black upper class has been and certainly had been.
This reminds me of a story I read for an American literature class called “The Wife of His Youth,” by Charles Waddell Chesnutt. The story, which appeared in the July 1898 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, was about a well-to-do light-skinned black man whose poor, dark-skinned wife finds him after searching for decades. At first he spurns her, but later he welcomes her back. It’s a moving and well-written story. It’s very strange to read this from a 1899 review of Chesnutt’s story collection in the Boston Evening Transcript: “Even though the stigma were removed which differentiates the black race in the estimation of the white, their own class distinctions, based on shades of color, will carry on the evils of the situation indefinitely.” How far we have come in 106 years. Or should I phrase that as a question? The reviewer actually seems more optimistic about the relations between blacks and whites than among blacks.

It was this tension and sensitivity that moved Graham to get himself a nose-job when he was 26. “Sometimes I knew where I was lacking and sometimes I didn’t. For example, I knew my complexion was a shade lighter than the brown paper bag, but that my hair – while not coarse like our ancestors – had a Negroid kink that made it the antithesis of ruler-straight.”

Graham belongs to a group of African Americans who have dispatched generations ago with the question of whether success makes you less black. It doesn’t, they reason – it makes you more black, even if your skin is lighter. These are people who know their ancestry better than most Americans. Light skin is the sign of a legacy of education and refinement. Graham recalls in his introduction telling a critical young Yale graduate, “Some black folks may be uncomfortable to learn that there are several generations of elite blacks who live in a separate world, but like white people, blacks also have to learn to accept the facts in our history. I don’t think the black upper-class crowd should be ashamed of its success any more than the WASP elite, Italian elite, or Jewish elite.”

That’s all true, but the black elite doesn’t accept new money any more than the wealthy old-guard whites do. They do, however, give a ton of money to African American causes.

In the first chapter of the book, Graham discusses the discomfiting situation he and his find themselves in:
One can find both pride and guilt among the black elite. A pride in black accomplishment that is inexorably tied to a lingering resentment about our past as poor, enslaved blacks and our past and current treatment by whites. On one level, there are those of us who understand our obligation to work toward equality for all and to use our success in order to assist those blacks who are less advantaged. But on another level, there are those of us who buy into the theories of superiority, and who feel embarrassed by our less accomplished black brethren. These self-conscious individuals are resentful of any quality or characteristic that associates them with that which seems ordinary. We’ve got some of the best-educated, most accomplished, and most talented people in the black community – but at the same time, we have some of the most hidebound and smug. And adding even further to the mix are those of us who feel we need to apologize to the rest of the black world for our success and for our being who we are. For me, the black upper class has always been a study of contrasts.
Graham's book is a fascinating read. I find the black elite just as baffling and captivating as I do the helmet-haired women in pearls and twin-sets walking pink poodles on the Upper East Side, or the squeaky-clean Mormon families in Salt Lake City, teeth gleaming through bewilderingly genuine smiles, decked out in full Gap regalia. These are uniquely American subcultures -- three groups that tend to keep to themselves and look down upon the rest of us.

As controversial as the black elite may be, reading about them forces all of us to think about race in a new way. What does skin color mean to us? Is black an ethnicity or a way of looking at the world? Whose black is more black? How much are race and class linked in this country?


Last weekend I was at my brother's house with a friend. We were just chatting, drinking some beer. My friend left at about 1AM, and I watched him walk out from the second story window. He called me about a minute later. "Come out here quick! All of you! Someone's trying to steal my car!" We all ran outside and he told us what happened.

As I had watched him leave from the window, he was oblivious to the rustling in the woods across the street -- he only recalled it later. He walks up to his car to find the driver's door is wide open. His steering column is partly dismantled and his glove box is open. So is his wallet -- no cash gone -- sitting on the dashboard. Near as we can tell, his opening the front door scared off one, probably two very professional car thieves, just minutes before they made off with the car.

The creepiest part was that we think they were still hanging around, hiding in the narrow strip of woods on the other side of the street. We kept hearing rustling, as if the bad guys were slowly making their way out of the woods to the field on the other side. We used a flashlight to try to flush them out, but got nowhere. So maybe it was raccoons.

The first question is, why this car? It's a well-worn Honda Civic hatchback. One statistic I found said the 1995 Honda Civic was the most stolen car in 2004. According to the website, the Honda Civics, Accords, and Toyota Camrys are almost always in the top three. So why steal these cars? They're so ... average. Two reasons. One, for parts. Because they're so common, their components can be sold very easily. Two, because they're cheap and common, these are the cars that kids turn into hot rods these days.

The next question is, why this neighborhood? We wondered about that. A nice quiet neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota, next to a park -- why the crime? It's an easy target. For some reason, police don't seem to patrol it much these days. The perception in the Twin Cities right now is that crime is rising, and that it's moving to nicer neighborhoods. Is this actually happening? I don't know, but that's what a lot of people are saying.

A week ago, a house down the block from my brother's got broken into while the family was sleeping. The story we heard from the neighborhood paranoid/gossip was that it was two twenty-something white males in "gang uniforms," whatever that means. The owner of the house woke up and chased them out. They took off in a white Suburban and got caught by the police. The stupidity of breaking into a house while the family sleeps leads me to think there were drugs involved.

Back to the car. The beauty of the whole thing was that nothing was damaged. They were that good at what they did. They didn't break the window; they pried it away and off its tracks. They used screwdrivers to remove the steering column components. Two screws were missing, so they must've been in the thief’s hand when my friend disrupted him.

David Lynch's Weather Reports and Ringtones

Every day, or almost every day, movie director David Lynch records about a minute of low quality video -- it's the Daily Weather Report with David Lynch. He sits in a room, maybe his kitchen, and announces the weather in Los Angeles.

"Good morning, it's July seventh, 2006, and it's a Fri-dee. Here in LA, beautiful blue skies, golden sunshine, a soothing, cooling breeze; seventy degrees Fahrenheit, twenty one Celsius. A question for the blog page: if two dog houses are on fire, and dogs die, should one automatically set fire to a third dog house and destroy it?"

He has a blog on his website that he uses to pose questions -- he calls it Interesting Questions. They're not all non sequiturs like the last one. He seems obsessed with 9/11. A dozen of the last questions have to do with the attacks. Another asks about credit card debt.

These are not the bizarre philosophical questions you'd expect from Lynch. But people respond. Since he posted his dog house question yesterday morning, fifteen people have commented. Someone calling himelf Pikeman Urge responded at about 2AM Pacific time:
You know, at first I thought it was a totally stupid and annoying question: Lynch trying to be cryptic but failing miserably. But I should have given him more credit. As I read mrfist126's comment I understood that Lynch was obviously making an analogy with 1, 2 and 7 World Trade (NYC).

So the 9/11 issue isn't going away just yet! Lynch is obviously perplexed about Silverstein's decision to "pull" WTC building 7. I mean, you can't just neatly demolish a building of that size in one day...
So maybe it is 9/11 related.

Lynch recently began selling ringtones on his website. That's right, ringtones. Until now, I've thought that people were insane to spend money on a repeating noise. No more. I can't figure out how to buy them, but what price is too much to have David Lynch yelling "What the hell? Damn! WHAT THE HELL? " Or my favorite, a falsetto voice shreiking "my teeth are bleeding! My teeth are bleeding! My teeth are bleeding!" Lynch also has wallpaper for your desktop.

Monday, July 03, 2006

I took this picture the last time I was at Coney Island. Unfortunately, I won't make it to the famous hot dog eating contest tomorrow.
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