Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Plight of the Chevrolet Vega

An odd to place to read about cars, the New York Times is, yes, but I found a delightful deposit of detritus, a frightful fount of four-wheeled folly, in a section that gives brief and cruel profiles of the likes of the Cadillac Cimarron and the Chevy Vega.

In an era when mass-produced American muscle cars have increased in value to rare Italian supercar prices (as the Times reports here, a 1970 Plymouth Hemi 'Cuda convertible went for $2.2 million at auction last winter.), the Chevy Vega, which the Times quips "sent a generation of Americans rushing to Toyota and Datsun dealerships," has been a lousy investment:
"An orange '76 hatchback, sold at a Minneapolis auction last fall for $6,405, may have been the world's best-kept example. It had just 9,953 miles on the odometer.

"One Vega with enthusiast appeal was the 1975 model that had a twin-cam engine from Cosworth, the British racecar engineers. Just 2,061 Cosworth Vegas were built. Thinking "instant collectible," some buyers immediately tucked theirs away; their $6,000 investment has soared to about $7,000 today."
So sad. Cars like the Vega and the Cavalier (the compact Chevy of which the Cadillac Cimarron was a badly masked incarnation) were America's answer to affordable foreign compacts in the era of oil crisis. Nearly every one of them, whether they were from Chevrolet, Ford, Chrysler, or AMC, was a bad idea.

Europe had designed small cars for small roads and dense cities. America built its cars for long distances and big roads. When we were suddenly forced to scale back on fuel consumption, the cars we designed to cope with the oil crisis looked and performed as panic-stricken as America must have felt.

The editors of give a little history of Chevrolet's small cars from the 1960 Corvair (which Ralph Nader made his name exposing in his book Unsafe At Any Speed in the 60s) to the current Chevy Cobalt.

Of the Vega, they write:
"While it's tough to call a car that sold relatively well a commercial failure, the Vega never sold as well as did the Ford Pinto. And even though the Pinto was a legal disaster for Ford, it was never as achingly fragile as the Vega. The Vega was so notorious for engine failures and for rusting badly that junkyards in Southern California would put up signs with two words: 'No Vegas.'"
They add that so many Vegas decomposed on account of rust, that you're more likely to see a Ferrari on the road. "But," they add, "just because Vegas are rare doesn't mean they're desirable." Ouch.

Still, there are collectors. On the website for the Cosworth Vega Owner's Association, members selling their Vegas give the manufacturer numbers in their ads. David Dempsey of Muncie, Indiana is asking $1,850, firm, for Vega #1121, which he describes as "very restorable." Rodney Edwards in Cocoa, Florida wants $4,500 for Vega #454. Some enthusiasts put V-8s in them.

Forbes did an article chronicling "The Worst Cars of All Time", which, naturally, featured the Vega. Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C. clarifies the terms:
"People pick on a vehicle like the Yugo, which was just a generic lemon. The Ford Pinto was a safety lemon. The Chevrolet Vega was an engineering lemon. The Edsel was a styling lemon."
In the accompanying slide show, Forbes writers note that during GM's initial track testing, the Vega's front end kept breaking off from the rest of the car.

The cackling idiots who host NPR's Car Talk awarded the Vega second place for their "Worst Car of the Millenium" contest (the Yugo was first. The Cadillac Cimarron was eighth). Among the commentary was a note about the Vega's structural integrity: "My Chevy Vega actually broke in half going over railroad tracks. The whole rear end came around slightly to the front, sort of like a dog wagging its tail."

When the Vega came out, they actually gave them away. In the very first episode of The Price is Right (September 4, 1972), Bob Barker presented the winner with "a nee-eeww-ww car!" -- a blue Vega wagon. The creator of the television fan website Jump the Shark wondered why Let's Make a Deal never gave away Chevy Novas or Caprice Classics. "I just wonder how many winners of Chevrolet Vega cars (awarded by the truckload from 1971-1977) actually were happy with their prize," he writes.

Today, Vega fans find their pleasures fleetingly. In a website dedicated to hot-rodding GM's H-body cars (the Vega, Monza, Astre, Sunbird, Starfire, and Skyhawk), aficionados list movie sightings -- many of them only incidental:
  • Karate Kid: Vega and Monza in parking lot of arcade
  • Raising Arizona: had a scene where a nice yellow Monza was seen parked, during the nighttime car chase
  • Forrest Gump: Forrest gets up from the bus stop bench to walk to Jenny's and passes a very nice green 76 Vega
There are more. Perhaps the proudest Vega sighting in filmdom, one that I remember, was the scene in Contact, the Jody Foster movie about an astronomer who discovers intelligent signals from a star called Vega. There is a scene in the movie where, after news of Vega's messages hit the public, a Chevy Vega car club shows up in the New Mexico desert to join the curious hundreds who want to be a part of alien contact history.


Wednesday, August 30, 2006

City Bakery

This is part of one of the famous pretzel croissants from City Bakery in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. It was superb. So light, so complicated. It's covered in sesame seeds and not salt, but there is a distinct -- yet subtle -- saltiness about the crust. It is very much a croissant, but there's a very un-croissant-like flavor amidst the buttery flakiness. I must have more. It was a $3 item, and now that I think about it, that's horribly expensive.

City Bakery has created a sleekly-designed website -- which actually aggregates a number of blog postings from enraptured pretzel croissant fans. I suddenly regret my gauche display.

Maybe City Bakery is too big for its britches. It was featured in an episode of Sex and the City. And then there's the "secret" East Village storefront cookie shop (noticeable for the counter made of what looks like blue sod rolls). The name of which apparently was something the staff were instructed to be coy about. And then they opened a City Bakery in Los Angeles. Yeah, I'm done with City Bakery.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Photo from K's Flickr stream, used with permission.

Word of the Day: Mountebank

Ran across the word Mountebank in a New Yorker profile of Ricky Jay. I was chagrined by my inability to come up with a better definition than "highwayman" or "nomadic soldier." Not really. But vaguely reminiscent of the word's meaning.

The actual definition of Mountebank is, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Current English: 1) a swindler or charlatan. 2) [my favorite] "itinerant quack." The word is from the Italian for 'mount on bench.'

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Guest Book Review: Indecision

Diligent readers will remember that I purchased a copy of of Benjamin Kunkel's "lad lit" sensation Indecision a few months ago and promised a review. [note: if you search "michael kimmel lad lit" on Google, my original post is the fourth link. Wow!] I read the first twenty pages and found that I hated it. My friend Kat, however, read the whole thing. When she told me that, I said 'well why don't you review it then?' She did, and she sent me this mysterious photo of herself to go with the review. Here's her review:

When Sir Harry Masticator approached me to write a review of Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision, I was kind of, well, ambivalent. Because I couldn’t decide whether I thought it was a) the most important book in the universe or b) a book of no importance whatsoever. And as much as I tried to resolve this dialectic into a reasonable Hegelian synthesis, I could not because I tend to give up easily, in line with my new Timothy Leary-style "turn on, tune in, and drop out" approach to life. So what follows are some of my hallucinogenic impressions on this book, rather than a close textual analysis and/or feminist cultural critique.

I think I am in love Kunkel. When I first heard about the "next literary wunderkind" stuff in the Times or wherever, and my friend said that he was supposed to be "fucking hot," [editor's note: it wasn't me] I thought I had better check into this ruckus. And I thought that Kunkel would surely be enchanted by me (Kluegel) solely on account of our eerily similar surnames and the undeniable camaraderie of sharing life experiences that follow from such queer branding. Although we may not like to admit it, it is true that we tend to like people who express the good taste of liking us first. Sure, his enchantment with me was expressed in the realm of the hypothetical, but then again so is the premise of this novel/memoir written by the fictional Dwight Wilmerding who is probably based on significant aspects of Herr Kunkel’s own stream-of-consciousness/inner demons. Anyway, I had high hopes for us as a couple, and I had become certain that we would have very attractive children. Then I read the first chapter of Indecision available for free on And my dreams began to crumble.

In the first chapter, Kunkel -- I mean Dwight Wilmerding -- introduces his Chambers St. crew and his dead-end job at Pfizer’s Problem Resolution Center and his inability to commit and his covert passion for philosopher Otto Knittel (Martin Heidegger). But he begins the chapter laid out on his New York City bed with not-so-clean sheets, offhandedly comparing his sort-of girlfriend (the exotic Vaneetha) to a dog and sort-of deciding that he would be better off with a dog. I was like: What the fuck? Who does this guy think he is, Henry Miller? So it was easy to post a knee-jerk-to-the-balls posting on The Masticator in agreement with Kimmel’s mocking critique of “lad lit”: self-indulgent, nihilistic, annoyingly self-reflexive, existential angst-ridden ramblings of aging young privileged white dude hipsters. After that first chapter, I really started to resent Kunkel and was ready to call off the costume party/commitment ceremony that I had arranged at that Polish dive bar with the free jukebox in Williamsburg.

During my years in the slammer -- I mean grad school -- I (kind of) learned how to approach a text stoically, to become saturated in it, to take voluminous notes, to observe with analytic precision, to brew, and to fester and to coagulate into a final analysis only when the time was right. So I decided to cut a brother a break and actually read the entire book. I thought: Who knows -- perhaps that crafty Chuck Klosterman used his sweaty mitts to hack into and alter Kunkel’s chapter for the sake of sabotage? Still the feelings of resentment had been planted and I started to wonder if there were other women. Truckloads of exotic beauties revealed to be Kunkel’s -- I mean Dwight’s -- fancy. And, as we all know, the constant suspicion is really the worst. So I refused to buy the book and instead rented it from my friendly library.

Thankfully the rest of the book was not filled with exotic girlfriend/dog comparisons. In fact, I found his pacing to be "pleasant and relaxing" (Kunkel p. 80) and his portraiture of hipster archetypes to be downright uncanny in a funny way. As far as the plot is concerned, Dwight is a dude desperately trying to get in touch with his own Dasein, or Heideggerian being-in-the-world. His inability to commit in the realm of "romantico-sexual" relationships (HI-larious props for using this term, Kunkel p. 23), his craptastic job, his solace in material bodily pleasures such as eating or excretion -- these are all things that are easy to find humorous empathy with. (At least if one feels, like myself, to be fundamentally misaligned in the Dasein department.) There is a sweetness and self-deprecation in his portrayal of the inherently-meaningless existential condition of life that would make the pill, if poorly executed, hard to swallow. But Kunkel invites you in with an open, castor oiled, arm hair-matted embrace that allows it to comfortably slide down the gullet. And this marksmanship works to contextualize the initially scary, sociopathic game of "compare and contrast" with Vaneetha and the hypothetical dog. Plus this is a novel, for god's sakes, and Dwight is (ostensibly) fictional, so don’t blame the messenger already!

I also really appreciated the characterization of his sister, Alice, the sex-positive queer feminist Marxist anthropologist. I guess because as someone who identifies in the same way, on certain occasions, I should have found her caricature totally offensive. But instead I found it to be well-observed comic genius. And props to Kunkel for being privy to the winds of contemporary anthropological thought -- like Alice’s most recent ethnography entitled Consumer Survivalism -- on contemporary U.S. garage-accumulation culture. This is something I could have totally seen myself doing.

Suddenly, at some point in the story, a paper airplane from the sky offers Dwight’s Dasein the (welcome) opportunity of being torqued into a decisive, authentic state of being thanks to a new pharmaceutical wonder called Abulinix, meant to cure chronic indecision. This drug, in conjunction with an impromptu trip to Quito, Ecuador to visit an (attractive Dutch) high-school pal named Natasha that he may or may not have a secret longing for, offers Dwight hope for the possibility of leading a fully-engaged, committed life. Which is all that anybody can really ask for anyway, right?

So he goes to Ecuador and madcap antics ensue. He gets dissed by Natasha and ends up stuck with her friend, an attractive Belgian-Argentinian (read: exotic) girl named Brigid. They spend sexually-charged time together in the jungle, where Brigid -- a lapsed anthropologist -- recently conducted her fieldwork. This, again, leads me to believe that Kunkel has definitely, at some point, dated a grad student in anthropology. Brigid’s key informant is Edwin, a colonized tribal guy that performs "absolute indigenism" to make a (postmodern) living. Wait a minute -- did I date Kunkel?

The Abulinix seems to be working and Dwight thinks he’s making meaningful decisions, like scheming to import the super effective, all-natural depilatory discovered by Edwin in bobohuariza tree sap. I must say that I really enjoyed that Kunkel/Dwight made a point of repeatedly mentioning his full-body pelt of hair. I think it was necessary for K/D to have some kind of physical flaw because if he were just a super-attractive dude with warped Dasein it wouldn’t be as good, and readers might assume he’s a total ass-hole rather than kind-of an asshole. And the kind-of, as you may have noticed, is a key component to Dwight’s not-being-well-in-the-world.

But I don’t want to go on (and on) and spoil the myriad existential highjinks and not-so-surprise ending in store for you if you haven’t yet read the book. Instead I will tell you this: shit is complicated. And by that I mean my simultaneous love and resentment towards Kunkel will probably never be resolved. I [heart] his existential novel format (total turn-ON) and comfortably loony style and satirical rendering of the atrocities of globalization and class-privilege and postmodernism and the plight of the omnipresent hipster. I guess I resent him because he’s famous now and hot and possibly sexually fetishizes foreign girls.

From a less solipsistic perspective, Kimmel is a goddamn academic superstar on the topic of historical representations of masculinity in the U.S. and Europe. Thus his humorous typification of the emergent genre of "lad lit" is backed by some serious empirical muscle. If we are thinking about this genre, the interesting questions are: Why it this happening now? And what is its social significance? But I think these are questions best left to academic professionals. For me, within the context of Indecision, there is also an obviously self-parodying tone throughout that is seeking to resist, and comment on, this very typification. (Although one could argue that this hyper-self-reflexivity is also a characteristic of the genre.) So, at the beginning of this mess, when I offered the a) and b) interpretations, it was partly an homage to Kunkel and partly a comment on the all or nothing way in which individual texts are judged in a way that is always imbricated in the prevailing literary Zeitgeist.

As someone who was once an academic (looking for empirical truths) turned memoir writer (looking for subjective truths), this issue has been increasingly important to confront. Thus as much as I’m "turned off" by our old pal Henry Miller (R.I.P), I can now more fully respect Kate Millet’s response to his work in Sexual Politics: "Miller is a compendium of American sexual neuroses, and his value lies not in freeing us from such afflictions, but in having had the honesty to express and dramatize them."

That said, if Dwight asked me to marry him I might very well have the same response as Brigid.

The author of this review, Kathryn Kluegel, is working on a memoir/novel-disguised-as-memoir entitled All But Dead about her experience as a Ph.D. student in cultural anthropology.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Ricky Jay's Dice

Ricky Jay is an actor, con artist, sleight-of-hand artist, and a magician. He's been in a number of the playwright David Mamet's movies, as well as Boogie Nights and Magnolia. But he's also written some really weird books, including Cards as Weapons and Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women. I've had his book Dice: Deception, Fate & Rotten Luck for a couple years -- I bought it partly because of the author and partly because of the photos -- but I just today started reading the tiny essays that accompany the photos.

First, a word about the photos. photographer Rosamond Purcell documented Jay's collection of dice, some of which are decomposing. Jay explains in chapter twelve:
"These cellulose nitrate dice, the industry standard until the middle of the twentieth century (when they were replaced with less flammable cellulose acetate), typically remain stable for decades. Then, in a flash, they can dramatically decompose.The crystallization begins on the corners and then spreads to the edges. Nitric acid is released in a process called outgassing. The dice cleave, crumble, and then implode."
The whole book is illustrated with various crumbling dice, some of them loaded and weighted for cheating.

In another chapter, Jay tells the story of King Olaf Haraldsson of Norway, the eleventh-century viking who converted to Christianity. King Olaf, a gambler, was rolling against the king of Sweden for claim over the island of Hising:
"The Swede rolled the highest possible score, two sixes, and arrogantly suggested that there was no need for Olaf to take his turn. 'Although these be two sixes on the dice, it would be easy, sire, for God to let them turn up again in my favor!' Olaf insisted, basking in the self-confidence of his recent conversion. He then cast two sixes. The Swede again threw two sixes, and so, again, did Olaf -- but at the end of this roll, one of the dice split in two, and both a six and an ace landed face up, yielding an unprecedented roll of thirteen."

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Word of the Day: Fortnight

A fortnight is two weeks. The etymology is interesting, though -- it's an abbreviation. From the Middle English fourtenight, which was from the Old English feowertyne niht, or fourteen nights. [Merriam-Webster's]

Shoot The Freak

If I Could Ask the Editors

An excerpt from a hypothetical interview with Gothamist's Jen Chung:

You're the editor of one of New York City's most popular and successful blogs. You and Gothamist co-founder Jake Dobkin have managed to turn a hobby into a job. Gothamist has helped to legitimize the blog medium by proving it can attract both readers and advertisers. What do you say to people -- like NPR's Daniel Schorr -- who say that blogging is dangerous to journalism, and that everyone needs an editor, even bloggers?

Jen Chung: We think editors a re rweally importnat. Why,k I'm the editor, so you know it matters to me. Of course everything should go through and editor forst. That's journalisdm.

You don't think all your typos hurt your credibility?

Jen Chung: they enhagce it! Le tme let you in al litlte secret: giving our readers the imopression that we rush to tell our stories of the city gives us street cred. it take some of the gloss off of what could be an overly corporate image. We ran spellckehc al the time before Gothamist hiot it bbig. That was when we needed to be taken seriously. Now, we have thousndas opf hits a day; we're tkaen too seriously. Poor lack of attention to the dtails like spelling make it seem like we're paying mo9rwe attention to other things. It makes us look, like -- to borrow from US Weekly -- you know, Gothamist writers: there just like us!

But it's really only your posts that are poorly edited.

Jen Chung: I know; I'm trying to get the rest of the writers on board with this but it;s just hard! How are we going to be authentic. I ask them?

Saturday, August 12, 2006

I found this can full of live toads in Chinatown.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Movie Review: Night Watch

Night Watch (2004, "Nochnoy Dozor" in its original language) is a Russian horror thriller set in Moscow. In a review in New York Magazine earlier this year, David Edelstein said: "The director, Timur Bekmambetov, hails from music videos and commercials, and his tricks are all secondhand." That may be true, but I was positively dazzled in the first ten minutes.

This is a vampire thriller. The movie opens with a Lord of the Rings-esque battle scene after which the forces of light and dark make a truce and agree to send out a Day Watch (the dark forces) and a Night Watch (the light forces) to protect the peace. Cut to Moscow, 1992. The narrator tells us a man makes a decision that may affect the balance of power. Cut to 12 years later, when the bulk of the movie is set.

The first thing that stand out in this movie (besides the stellar special effects) is the refreshingly self-conscious use of the subtitles. I don't know if this is an artifact of the original film or if someone -- perhaps the director? -- decided to have fun with them. When a man screams "No!" a number of large Russian Constructivist-like "No" subtitles surround his face. Subtitles are often placed in the most noticeable parts of the screen, and not just the bottom. When a child gets a bloody nose in a swimming pool, a disembodied voice calls him, and the subtitles for that ghostly voice are rendered blood-red; the letters dissipate in smokey tendrils like the blood in the water.

And the movie begins its gradual descent downhill from there. There are moments, but ultimately Night Watch is as Edelstein said, derivavtive. It's Highlander with the sensibilities of Blade. The director's music video background serves him well in the effects department, and certainly with regard to cinematography and color, but fast-paced visual heritage doesn't serve him as well it did Spike Jonze with Being John Malkovich.

This movie reminds me of the French werewolf thriller Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) in that the most remarkable thing it did for its niche of the horror genre is that it brought us a film that wasn't made from an American perspective.

However, Konstantin Khabensky was superb as the moody and reluctant hero, Anton. Whenever an "Other," as the supernatural vampire beings are called, finds out his or her true nature, they must make a choice: the dark or the light. Anton chooses the light, and he discovers his special power is clairvoyance, although all of his peers seem to turn into animals. Khabensky had a very watchable presence -- he managed to be violent without seeming malicious or calculating -- but the character needed more development. The film tried, though. Anton's best friend was his evil vampire neighbor across the hall. Too bad the two-hour movie didn't have time to show us more of that relationship.

Night Watch really suffered for lack of truly creepy bad guys. What this film needed was an actor on the level of the supremely spooky Udo Kier, who played the Vampire Elder Dragonetti in Blade (1998). Viktor Verzhbitsky's Zavulon, the lead dark vampire in Night Watch, is satisfactory until the end, when his puffy white 80s-style vampire widow's peak hairdo provides a comical distraction from his menacing expression. Evil coiffures are tricky.

Still it's supposed to be part of a trilogy -- this installment ends on a cliffhanger -- and I'm looking forward to the next one, Дневной Дозор (Day Watch), which is already done and the third, Dusk Watch, is in production.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Overheard in New York

Overheard in New York, the website where people post snippets of conversations they catch in NYC, is old news, but I just ran across a post that a friend sent me a while ago -- it's brilliant:
Older woman: Excuse me, miss?
Younger woman: Yeah?
Older woman: Your veil, your burqa is very beautiful. I didn't know your people were allowed to wear it in bright colors.
Younger woman: It's not a burqa, it's a poncho. I'm Jewish. It's for the rain. I got it at TJ Maxx.

--53rd & 7th
Overheard by: Pam

As long as I'm at it, check the Current Favorites section for more gems like that. Like this:

Bag check guy: I want your bag.
Comic book chick: Pardon?
Bag check guy: You know the rules. Give me your bag.
Comic book chick: Sorry, I didn't know I had to check this.
Bag check guy: What did you think, that I'm just some crazy black man sitting up here harassing people?
Comic book chick: Could be.
Bag check guy: That's true.

--Forbidden Planet, 13th Street

And here are whole string of reasons I don't want automated trains without conductors (like on the 4/5/6 and L lines) that announce stops to replace the old subway trains:

Conductor: This is a Brooklyn bound B train. Like bitch.
--B train

Conductor: We are currently being held in the station because of some other A train fucking us all over.
--Uptown A train

Conductor: Never give up on life. Keep hope alive. This is 30th Avenue.
--N train, Astoria

Conductor: You can switch to the A train across the platform. However, I would much rather you stay on this train.
--Downtown C train, 14th St

And especially this:

Conductor: Okay, okay...all you white people get off the train here. That's right, hippies and hipsters. If you under thirty-five and white, you don't want to stay on this train no mo'. The next stop will be the ghet-to!

--Flatbush-bound 2 express train at Eastern Parkway/Brooklyn Museum
Overheard by: chagrined hipster

And speaking of the subway:

The subway doors open. A hobo enters, holding a bottle of windex in one hand and a tube of toothpaste in the other. He says: Which is the better time to read Dostyevsky? Winter?

He sprays the windex.

Hobo: Or Spring?

He squeezes toothpaste out of the tube.

Japanese girl: Spring!
Hobo: You are correct.

--F train
Overheard by: Pete Johnson

Movie Review: Mystic Pizza

Perhaps in order to punish myself, I rented the movie Mystic Pizza (1988), starring a very young Julia Roberts in her first big role and a post-Pyle (see Full Metal Jacket, 1987) but still young Vincent D'Onofrio. The movie is set in Mystic, Connecticut, a town I saw from the Amtrak window on my way to Boston a couple months ago. It's a beautiful seaside fishing village.

The plot of the movie revolves around three girls who work in a pizza restaurant. But what the movie is really about is two working-class sisters, getting romanced (read: taken advantage of) by men who disguise their sleaze with wealth and intellect.

It is refreshing, however, to hear a righteous fisherman D'Onofrio breaking up with Lili Taylor (who fainted at the alter in the beginning of the movie) -- she'll sleep with him, but she won't commit. She stands on a dock agape as D'Onofrio says from a boat, "don't you get it Jo? I'm telling you that I love you. And all you love is my dick."

Annabeth Gish plays Kat, the youngest of the trio, a pretty, preppy, pre-Yale sister to the trashier Roberts character. The movie gets better when Kat finally "makes it" (or does she?) with the architect whose daughter she's been babysitting all summer. The architect's wife comes home early from England and Kat is left alone and confused. Damn Volvo-driving New England liberals.

Julia Roberts' Daisy meets Porsche-driving Charles Gordon Windsor, Jr. when he slums it in the local watering hole. He's hanging around the townies now that he's been thrown out of law school for cheating. His class insecurities and identity crisis drive him to Daisy, but he can't give up the Porsche.

For the trivia fans, both Julia Roberts and Vincent D'Onofrio appeared in episodes of Miami Vice around the same time as Mystic Pizza was filmed, D'Onofrio in 1987 and Roberts in 1988. Matt Damon, in his first screen role, played the younger brother of Daisy's law school drop-out boyfriend.

JoJo (Lili Taylor) does get married to Bill (Vincent D'Onofrio) in the end, as we knew she would, but both the Arujo sisters, Daisy and Kat, are left in uncertain situations. This movie would be pap, except that it's done remarkably well. That and it's a rare coming-of-age drama in which the leads are all women -- in the eighties, no less.

Why did I just review Mystic Pizza? I ... I don't know ... I haven't been feeling myself lately. I, I don't know.

Trends in Airline Security

Some passengers have opted to ride in the baggage hold in order to be closer to their personal items, such as knitting needles, alcohol flasks, and cosmetics; others have chosen to ride in stowage for financial reasons. Passengers who used to complain about long, uncomfortable flights are praising flights that reduce oxygen to the cargo hold, which gives them an experience some observers are comparing to "suspended animation," a concept previously undiscussed outside of science fiction. Critics have condemned the use of the baggage hold as a third seating option calling it "the steerage of the twenty-first century."

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Sasha Frere-Jones on blogging; Daniel Schorr on why it's scary

Sasha Frere-Jones, blogger and pop music critic for the New Yorker (and brother to the great type designer Tobias Frere-Jones) was interviewed two years ago on the New York media and gossip blog Gawker. The interviewer gets Sasha confused with Tobias, which the former handles with amusing aplomb, but what I'd like to draw attention to is the blogger brother's comments about blogging -- they're expecially interesting because he's a skilled and published writer:
The point of blogs is precisely that you can write "stream-of-conscious" and no one will stop you.

I am mocking your loose grip on the idiom, but I am also totally serious. Gawker has an editor and a paymaster, but most blogs don't. No one will stop you from being extra smart or super stupid. This is good. I am happy any time there is no ax over the writer's head, save the prospect of getting tossed by your ISP administrator (a small but tangible threat if your transgression is copyright-related).

I like high intensity, bouillon-style forms: pop songs, essays, poems, photos. Blogs can link to songs and poems and photos. Right? So if the bits all line up correctly, blogs create an extra high-density poetics. Blogs are flexible and fast; with no editor, you don't have to wait for yes or brace for no. The blogger can do parodies without consulting the Legal Department; drum up instant audience participation; or shift into mayhem.

Newspaper and magazine writers work in a logical key: Start here, take a little promenade and then circle back to the beginning, careful to not knock over anything on the way. This smooth revolution feels good. I need it more than I'd like to admit. But someone's got to supply the mad love and raw justice, the garbage and the free food. I hope this is what blogs do. Lusty overstatement leads to good things, and full-on commitments are a requirement of the fully engaged life, even if the commitment is to Christina Milian.

I don't just like blogs for the pub fights. I like sentences and I think blogs are a good place to find them. I like blogs with very short sentences. I like blogs with very long sentences. I like the music of the prose on a lot of LiveJournal pages, because many of the writers haven't necessarily figured out what writing means, and won't necessarily be better off when they do.

The blog is a nice model for storage, too. The words and photos are on one private server, but millions of personal computer nodes. It's a public file cabinet. My recurrent apocalypse dreams often resolve with a G-rated coda, kind of like Threads meets Babe: Some kind stranger has my words and photos backed up on their 1985 Macintosh SE and I can get my work back without going through some institution that's blacked out all the naughty words. And it's free. Free. Free free free.
That may be an innappropriately (and possibly illegally) long quote, but I cut and paste the whole thing (another great advantage of blogging) because it's an eloquent defense of a medium that's been hard for some of us to embrace -- NPR's Daniel Schorr, for example:
"But what we have here is a medium in which there is no publisher, no editor, no anything. It's just you and a little machine and you can make history. I find that scary. Nobody should get into print or on the air without some kind of editor. I have an institutional belief that nobody can be above having a good editor."
So Schorr said to USA Today (which I found via Mediabistro's Fishbowl D.C. blog). I don't want to imply that blogs are news, or that they should ever be, but what does Mr. Schorr reckon our forefathers made of the occassional proliferation of broadsheets published by young men with small presses? Yes, computers give us a lower barrier to entry, but we all know that the printed word is no more sacred than the spoken one.

My huge brain and your tiny airfield or the Dakotas: the brain and gender

"Women have an eight-lane superhighway for processing emotion, while men have a small country road," writes UCSF neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine in a new book. Men, according to Dr. Brizendine, "have O'Hare Airport as a hub for processing thoughts about sex, where women have the airfield nearby that lands small and private planes." The good doctor's book The Female Brain is reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle this week. According to the Chronicle, one critic "downplayed the book's explanation of gender differences, saying men and women are 'more like North Dakota and South Dakota.'"

Monday, August 07, 2006

Gallery Guides at the Guggenheim

The New York Times had an article yesterday about the Guggenheim Museum's gallery guides -- people whose job it is not to guide tours, but to hang around and engage people with the art. It's a great idea, especially when the art isn't engaging.

“Some people are really angry at contemporary art,” said Alison Stephen, one of the museum's eight guides. “Modern art baffles,’ said Jim Fultz, another guide. “It alienates. It frustrates. But part of what we do is make them feel comfortable with it. A lot of people are afraid to ask questions. They don’t want to seem dumb about something they already feel is elitist.”

What the guides do is talk to people about the art and as another guide said, convince visitors to slow down and take a better look at art:
“At the [Daniel] Buren ["Eye of the Storm"] exhibition the European tourists were like, ‘Where’s the artwork?’ ” said Dan Tsai, a 24-year-old with a philosophy degree who has been a guide for a year and a half. “Some of them got angry and wanted a refund. I said: ‘Slow down here. Besides seeing your reflection in these mirrors, what else do you see?’ ”
Yeah, I still might want a refund -- taking a closer look doesn't always make the art more interesting, but it's a start. The key is that the museum has decided to work to become more “visitor-centered rather than object-centered.” That's essential if museums like the Guggenheim want to flourish, much less survive.


Sunday, August 06, 2006

Book Review: Pete Hamill's Downtown

I've been reading journalist Pete Hamill's New York memoir Downtown. Hamill was born in Brooklyn in 1935 to parents who came here from Belfast, Ireland. Hamill has worked at a good number of New York's newspapers as an editor and columnist. He was the editor-in-chief of both the New York Post and the New York Daily News.

Downtown is a nostalgic paean to New York that manages to celebrate the present and the look forward to the future as much as it gushes about the past. New York is "the capital of nostalgia" he writes, but what saves it (and this book) from living in the past is that change is relentless here:
Of the city's five boroughs, Manhattan in particular absolutely refuses to remain as it was. It is dynamic, not static. What seems permanent when you are twenty is too often a ghost when you are thirty. ... The engine of greatest change is the cramped land itself. Scarcity can create a holy belief in the possibility of great riches. That's why the religion of real estate periodically enforces its commandments, and neighborhoods are cleared and buildings hauled down and new ones rected, and all that remains is memory.
Hamill cannot get too sad about lost New York because the city moves too fast.

True, Brooklynites really do still lament the Dodgers leaving for Los Angeles some fifty years ago (incidentally, Hamill once called Walter O'Malley, the man who moved the Dodgers, one of the three most evil men of the twentieth century. Hitler and Stalin were the other two. Hamill was only half joking.). And my neighbor still has a "We will never forget" poster mourning 9/11 on his door, five years later. But as much as these New Yorkers remember the past, they can't live in it.

Some of the book is personal -- it's a memoir, after all -- but most of it is narrative history, fascinating and very readable narrative history. Hamill's curiosity about his hometown makes this book compelling. He asks simple questions like "Why was the Bronx called the Bronx?" And the city yields entertaining answers.

The Bronx came from a Swede (a Swede!) named Jonas Bronck -- what we know as the Bronx was his really big farm. Brooklyn and Harlem are two of the countless names that come from the city's Dutch past. their namesakes Haarlem and Breuckelen are still cities in the Netherlands. Wall Street is named after a wall the Dutch built on that site to keep the local Native Americans out. The island of Manna-hata was bought by the Dutch West India Company to become Nieuw Amsterdam for "twenty-four dollars' worth of beads and trinkets." The sellers, the Canarsee Indians, weren't actually the people who lived there, making the sale even more dubious.

The Bowery, that famous skid row in Greenwich Village on which the punk bar CBGB still (just barely) sits, crowded with expensive new development, was a farm, or bouwerie that belonged to Peter Stuyvesant, a director of the island's big Dutch trading post in the 1640s and 50s.

Hamill's scope is personal. "Downtown" encompasses everything below Central Park to him -- it's a device and a way of looking at the city's busiest places, and the ones he's most familiar with. It's a wonderful introduction to the city for a newcomer like myself. Learning the city's past and the sources of its names grounds me here, and contextualizes my move. People like Hamill whose families have been here for a mere hundred years have just as much claim on it as "New Yorkers" as families that have been here for centuries -- that's one of the products of the scarce land, fast pace, and large crowds. As someone who has been here a year, I've learned that I have my own claim on the city as a New Yorker: just over half of the city's denizens weren't born here.


Saturday, August 05, 2006

Canned Haggis and Other Culinary Delights

My dear mom brought me home a couple of cans of Haggis when she went to Scotland last month. I was thrilled. I hadn't had any since my aunt made some a few years ago. I don't count my visit to St. Andrews, the Scottish-themed bar and restaurant near Times Square in New York. The haggis there tasted weak, unseasoned.

What exactly is haggis? It's offal. Pardon the pun. But it is -- according to an article I found in The Scotsman (where else?)--
"Haggis is made from lamb offal, most commonly lungs, sometimes beef fat, oatmeal, onions and seasoning particular to each maker, which can include such additions as white pepper, mace, thyme, salt and coriander. They are boiled or steamed and careful measurement of the amount of filling is required to ensure that the grains swell by the right amount to fill the skin. It is possible to make haggis in a domestic kitchen but as the casing is traditionally sewn shut the method requires the cook to also be handy with a needle."
That casing is sometimes a sheep's stomach.

As Scottish as haggis is, there are apparently those who argue that its origins lie in France or Scandinavia. The word haggis may come from the Swedish word for 'chop,' which is hagga (so say Scottish haggis purveyors the MacSweens).

The English writer P.G. Wodehouse supposedly wrote that he never liked haggis on account of Shakespeare's Macbeth:
There is no doubt that Shakespeare has rather put us off the stuff.... You remember the passage to which I refer? Macbeth happens upon the three witches while they are preparing the evening meal. They are dropping things into the cauldron and chanting "Eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog," and so on, and he immediately recognises the recipe. "How now, you secret, black and midnight haggis," he cries shuddering.
I read somewhere that there are scholars that believe that it was haggis -- bad haggis -- that caused Macbeth's hallucinations. I want desperately to believe that.

For contemporary Scotland, haggis is forever linked to one of its favorite sons, the great poet Robert Burns. Rabbie Burns, as he's affectionately called, wrote "Auld Lang Syne," the song we associate with New Year's Eve. Burns (1759-1796) was a poet, a farmer, a tax collector, father of many illegitimate children, and a Freemason.

My first taste of haggis was at a Burns Night Dinner at a Masonic Lodge. Freemasons and Scots alike celebrate Burns Night every January 25th, the poet's birthday. An essential part of every Burns celebration is a recitation of his great poem, "Address to a Haggis," which is written in such a thick Scottish dialect as to be near incomprehensible to the modern American. Here it is in full:
Address to a Haggis.

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang's my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o need,
While thro your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An cut you up wi ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin, rich!

Then, horn for horn, they stretch an strive:
Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
The auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
'Bethankit' hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout,
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi perfect sconner,
Looks down wi sneering, scornfu view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as a wither'd rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit:
Thro bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He'll make it whissle;
An legs an arms, an heads will sned,
Like taps o thrissle.

Ye Pow'rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies:
But, if ye wish her gratefu prayer,
Gie her a Haggis!
The word 'sonsie' in the beginning apparently means 'cheerful.' See the link above for a more complete translation of the poem.

Haggis is traditionally served with "neeps" and "tatties," which are mashed turnips and mashed potatoes. These particular turnips are known in America as rutabagas. However, as the Scotsman's Jane Laidlaw notes,
It goes well with pheasant, chicken and steak, and makes a good stuffing for onions and baked potatoes. Haggis Cannelloni, Ravioli and Lasagne sound culturally mixed-up to someone who hasn’t tried them but there is no reason haggis and pasta shouldn’t integrate as happily as Scots and Italians.

And though it may sound like a gross oxymoron, there is, thanks to an enterprising Scot named John Macsween, a vegetarian haggis, a concoction made with kidney beans and lentils. An Edinburgh butcher recently introduced a halal haggis for Muslims after lots of requests. An Indian food company in Scotland makes haggis samosas. During my last trip to Scotland I became fond of a deep-fried and battered haggis I found at an Edinburgh chip shop. Whatever variety you choose, just make sure you serve it with a bit of scotch. And perhaps a glass of Irn Bru, Scotland's other national drink.

I enjoyed my first can of haggis with a bit of both, along with a splash of whisky over the haggis itself. I managed to mash some potatoes (or rather my dinner guest did), but I wasn't able to procure those blasted rutabagas. I'm afraid I don't know where to look. Are they out of season? Who knows. But my dinner was superb.

Haggis resources on the web:


Commentary on the Black Elite and Lawrence Otis Graham's Our Kind of People

When I posted a review of Lawrence Otis Graham’s book Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class a little while ago, a friend of mine, fellow blogger K (the K-Bomb on my links list) commented. It turns out that I do know someone involved with the groups Graham discussed in his book. K grew up in Jack and Jill, a group Graham devotes a whole chapter to.

Graham describes Jack and Jill as “one of the defining organizations for families of the black professional class” that “focuses on bringing together children aged two to nineteen and introducing them to various educational, social, and cultural experiences.” It has about 30,000 members in America and Germany.

I asked K some questions about his upbringing, Graham’s book, and race, via e-mail.

You told me most of your family has read Lawrence Otis Graham's book. What did you think of it?

K: I thought that Graham was pretentious and a big booster of elitism. Graham's first book, Member Of The Club, shows how white elites exclude blacks from their organizations, so Our Kind of People was a natural follow up. Graham is Ivy League and none of those populist schools count for him; only the places that still value legacy and favor count in his world.

It was nice to see the history of some of the organizations presented, I enjoyed the recognition he gave to The Urban League, which is an organization that my mother has worked for and I spent much time volunteering with. It was really instrumental in coordinating equality movements in the early 20th century. Since it was eclipsed in status and funding, people don't know how much it has done, but it is still going.

I volunteered at the Minneapolis branch for a year and taught a computer literacy class. It was a good experience, but most of the big supporters were elderly. Keith Ellison who is running for US House of representatives, in Martin Sabo's old seat, had his legal office there. I have not been back there in two years though.

What did your family members think of it?

K: I think my family found it amusing. We are not really elite, like some of the North Shore Chicago bunch, but we did better monetarily than most of America, and in the black subset, it puts you at toward the top.

Which organizations were (are) you and your family involved in? Are you still involved with any of those groups?

K: I was involved in Jack and Jill of America as a kid and it was a presented in a really positive light in the book. It primarily helps children, but it is managed by mothers, often times competitive mothers. Many of its children don't live around people like themselves and maybe interact with other black people at church only or not at all. Jack and Jill provides space for kids to be themselves and is very supportive of their accomplishments. It's a hard life; on one hand, society tells you that your parents are doing well for themselves and are upstanding people in the community and that same community seems distant, someone else's; it seems white. You realize that your parent's circles are not the same as your white peers. Maybe they are professionally, but I don't know many black kids whose parents had lots of white friends.

Through Jack and Jill, I met kids from all over the country, mostly at our regional teen summer conferences. We rented out all of Camp Snoopy on my first visit to Minnesota. I, a kid from Indiana, met kids from Westchester County, New York and Prince George County, Maryland, as well as Oakland County, Michigan at national conferences. They were often from groups that were a lot more exclusive than my own, but I could relate. There are many things that are implicit when you are amongst those with similar backgrounds. I could communicate without talking, and just relax. I didn't have to explain that Brown and Penn were Ivy League. Going skiing didn't make you an anomaly; it made you normal. Tennis and golf were the same.

Most kids were pretty typically suburban American youth. "You like Pearl Jam?" could be met with "I like Pearl Jam too," instead of that's white people's music (which it was). The social norms were different in Jack and Jill, it followed its own.

There were kids who were computer geeks and skateboarders as well as aspiring to be rappers and NBA stars (who would probably be more likely to become lawyers). I remember having a conversation about lacrosse, which was a new club sport where I lived. A Chicago kid had his stick and I cradled it as another kid kicked his skateboard. It was awesome and a bit sad that I couldn't find the same comfort in daily life.

Jack and Jill also sponsored my sisters' debutante balls. I was an escort. It meant a lots of white dresses, dance lessons, etiquette lessons and the rest. It took a lot of time, but it the event was always nice.

My sister and mother are in The Links. It is elitist, but they do philanthropic work. Each chapter caps at 50, so the people in them can get to know each other. It is also a nice social network for professional women, who are often one of a handful of young professional women in their environments. However, because of the cap, there are often many old people. It's nice to be around people like yourself, it takes a lot of life's stress away. You, again, can leave some things unsaid without feeling in jeopardy. If I were to get married, I would recommend the organization to my wife.

As far as churches go, I went to an AME church growing up. We had doctors, a cardiologist even, and lawyers, teachers, pharmacists and other professionals. It was Indiana, so no pressure to attend "the best church". I don't think we had an Episcopal black church in town. We didn't go to church to be seen or for networking.

As far as fraternities and sororities, neither I nor my sisters and parents were in them. My mother's mother and her sisters all were, and my grandmother's aunt too. I have uncles in several of the black fraternities. They do a lot of good philanthropic work, but still have a lot of dangerous rituals and practices. All are good networks for the sake of networking.

The alumni chapters do a lot of philanthropic activities, more so than white Greek organizations. Most of the work is done after college, not during.

How hard is it to join these organizations? What barriers did you notice?

K: Like fraternities and sororities, it's invite only. If you are in certain professions, and maintain some ties to the general black community, you will be asked. They have to have members to survive.

The exclusivity depends on the market. New York and Washington D.C. have a lot of people available to compete for the positions. You could fill them with "important people" and multi-millionaires. This is no different in the black community than in any other, white, Asian and the rest. I'm from Indiana and we were just glad to field a team for Jack and Jill. I don't know much about how The Links works as far as new members. You have to have children for Jack and Jill because it is for children. The Links is for women. Age doesn't matter much. My sister joined at 27.

Organizations like 100 Black Men are primarily philanthropic and because they are men, less quarrelsome. If you step up in the community, and you have a respected profession, you will be asked to join. Black America can only be so exclusive, there are only so many who are doing well enough and educated enough to participate.

On vacations: My parents didn't do them so much. This was largely my father's influence. We usually visited family, although all over the country. We didn't have a lake spot. We lived in Indiana and there was no pressure for that.

Never use summer or winter as a verb.

Graham's book talks about the 'brown paper bag and ruler tests.' What have your experiences been with regard to skin tone and how it relates to black identity?

K: Discriminating on skin tone is called 'being color struck'. I am a medium hue, more on the lighter side than the darker, but unmistakably African-American. I know that from peer interaction in college and middle school. We didn't talk about it in my family. Color gave no status. You were just part of the family.

The fraternities and sororities still hold to color norms implicitly. Alpha Kappa Alpha, my step-grandmother's organization, still has many women with European features, green or hazel eyes, thin lips, narrow noses, and European hair. Some of the others have sisters with dark skin. This is not as present in younger generations and has changed as well because many young people have a white parent.

You seem comfortable with the term Black. With America seeing a surge in immigration from Africa, what are we to make of the term African-American?

K: African-Americans [whose families] have been here since slavery are having a tough time dealing with African immigrants. I've also known white Africans who can also claim the term African American to great extent. Black describes anyone from the African Diaspora regardless of national origin in America. NPR has recently done some features on African/African-American tension in Washington DC. I assume it will work like other American immigration for other racial groups.

You've never struck me as an elitist. Do you think your modesty is in spite of your experience with elite black organizations or because of it?

K: I'm a product of my parents and grandparents, none of whom looked well at elitism. On both sides of my family, my grandparents were fairly humble people, with the "if you lost it all tomorrow, what would you have left" mentality. They weren't social climbers, they did things for the sake of themselves and their families, not in opposition to the system, but in support of themselves.


Volkswagen's Ego Emissions are Colorless, Odorless, and Very Dangerous

Volkswagen has an ad for its new Passat on page 11 of the current New Yorker that brags:
"How do you brag about a vehicle with low ego emissions?
You don't."
Ah, but you just did. Talking about something by saying you refuse to raise the issue is a slimy technique. Imagine a politician in a stump speech: "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm not a braggart. I won't stand here and tell you that, unlike my opponent, I served my country in the war, refused special interest money, and took a low-paying civil service job instead of exploiting my law degree for financial gain. But I won't tell you any of that here tonight, ladies and gentlemen." I swear I've heard that speech somewhere.

A television version of the Passat ad shows a hipster couple driving by a series of other drivers who announce their pop-psychology insecurities through bullhorns. One man is driving his particular car "because daddy never loved me," a statement he repeats mechanically. We're not supposed to notice how smug our hipster heroes are as they look at each other, wide-eyed and bewildered. The camera reveals the Passat: behold, the car for people who don't like cars.

The ad agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky even created a website (I can't in good conscience link to it) that "lets" people rate the "ego emissions" of everyday objects. Naturally, the Passat gives us a baseline of "1," so wouldn't you figure a school bus would rate somewhere in the -40 range? It's a 24. Maybe it's based on application. So if I'm driving a school bus but I never let anyone on board ... but that would shoot my "index" up in the hundreds. So maybe a covered wagon is lower. Nope: 26. The lowest transportation-related item I found was a bicycle, which was a 23. 25 people had voted on it. So obviously this was merely an empty exercise in branding, and I just fell for it.

However, my point stands. Beware when people talk too much about pretensions. I knew a guy who had a scene from Beckett's Waiting for Godot tattooed on his arm. He was your classic Brooklyn hipster, and he was very concerned with avoiding the appearance of pretentiousness. Let's call him Matthew, because he was the sort who preferred the long form of his given name.

Matthew and I got along at first, but then we clashed on the direction of the project on which we worked with five others. To borrow from the Crispin Porter + Bogusky agency, Matthew and I were two in the group with highest ego emissions. But Matthew was the one who proclaimed to be the one with the lowest. And I mean the lowest in the whole group. He demanded my use of the term sans be removed from a document our group produced. Too pompous.

With Matthew, all of our motives were subjected to his nervous-but-impassive pretension filter. I hadn’t been so insecure about my attitudes since a friend in high school chastised me for calling something “low class.”

In the same vein, I haven’t felt so looked down upon since fifth grade when I stood with some of my fellow boys as a sixth grader berated us as nerds in front of her eighth grader boyfriend.

Matthew forced me to reëxamine (note ostentatious umlaut) my security with my most basic attitudes and preferences. And in the end I came out much the way I was before. One's tastes and habits are worth examining, but not doubting, and they certainly aren't worth modifying to appeal to a wider audience.

My conclusion is this: those who truly avoid flamboyant rides buy Honda Accords. Better still, Toyota Camrys. Those who are insecure about their status, class, and judgments buy Volkswagen Passats and congratulate themselves publicly for avoiding that awful affectation, the BMW, even though they could afford it.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Let's Have a Chat about the Penis

I ran across something horrifying on Gawker today: a post entitled, "Master of the Zombie Boner". It's about a local plastic surgeon looking into a new specialty. He was profiled in the New York Observer (a well-regarded weekly with an intellectual bent that was recently bought by a 25 year-old law student after Robert de Niro passed on it.) Dr. Mark Warfel told the Observer, "It’s an open field for improvement ... I don’t think there’s anybody good doing it.” He's talking about penis enlargement.

There are two things that made this article, a throw-away portion of the paper's "Transom" section, compelling. First, the wit of the writer. Describing the plastic surgeon' s repertoire:
Dr. Warfel has a large storefront on 16th Street, just off Fifth Avenue, called the Warfel Institute. With designer discretion, it could pass as a dermatology clinic.

Oh, but it is not. Inside, Botox is shot and noses are Winona Ryder’d; breasts go up cup sizes and down; big calves are birthed or aborted; nipples snipped to stand at attention like little eraser-stub soldiers.
The second thing that made this article great was the method plastic surgeons have for increasing the size of the penis. Imagine, if you will:
Right now, there are two methods of adding girth to a penis: injecting fat, or wrapping the penis in layers of cadaver skin.

Both have drawbacks, in that the body would like to absorb both fat and skin. Even corpse skin.

For length, the penis is separated from its mooring—its suspensory ligaments—and, essentially, given a yank to bring more penis above-board. The problem then is that an erection, without that tether, may not be able to point itself in its former preferred direction. Picture a gravity-free Snickers bar stuffed in a deflated balloon.
I ... I, I don't know what to say. Layers of corpse skin. Girth.

Now is as good a time as any to bring up a Christopher Hitchens column from Vanity Fair a couple months ago that entertained me. I'm a big Hitchens fan -- even after his post-9/11 meltdown (a lifelong lefty, Hitchens took a freak right turn after the terrorist attack.). His nasty Reagan obit had me in stitches:
The fox, as has been pointed out by more than one philosopher, knows many small things, whereas the hedgehog knows one big thing. Ronald Reagan was neither a fox nor a hedgehog. He was as dumb as a stump. He could have had anyone in the world to dinner, any night of the week, but took most of his meals on a White House TV tray. He had no friends, only cronies. His children didn't like him all that much. He met his second wife—the one that you remember—because she needed to get off a Hollywood blacklist and he was the man to see. Year in and year out in Washington, I could not believe that such a man had even been a poor governor of California in a bad year, let alone that such a smart country would put up with such an obvious phony and loon.
This is what he said after Reagan died.

So imagine what he might have to say about fellatio. In a commentary called "As American as Apple Pie", Hitchens runs down the history of this brand of oral sex, arguing that it was popularized by our fair country this century, although it has a long history. Hitchens invokes Nabokov, Bill Clinton, Don Delillo, W.H. Auden, Gore Vidal, Kingsley Amis, Henry Miller, and R. Crumb.

Hitchens talks about the documentary movie about the pornographic movie Deep Throat, in which "the preserved figure" of Helen Gurley Brown (who became editor of Cosmopolitan in 1965) is seen "demonstrating her application technique as she tells us how she evolved from knowing nothing about oral sex to the realization that semen could be a terrific facial cream. ("It's full of babies," she squeals, unclear on the concept to the very last.)" Well, it's either that or corpse skin, right?

The rest of the column was more amusing the first time I read it.


According to Con Edison, New York City's electricity provider, the City set a record for energy consumption during Tuesday's 97 degree heat: "13,103 megawatts at 5 p.m., which topped the 13,059 megawatts the company set last year on July 27, 2005." So naturally, when I heard Wednesday was going to be even hotter, I did my part to help beat that record today -- I left my aircon on full blast all day after I went to work this morning. Come on, New York! 14,000 megawatts! We can do it!

Later: We did it! Or at least we beat yesterday. Con Ed reported today that it "set a record for peak electricity demand today, reaching 13,141 megawatts at 5 p.m., which topped the 13,103 megawatts the company set at 5 p.m. on Monday." And I helped!

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Noguchi Museum

This is from the sculpture garden at the Noguchi Museum in Queens. Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) was an American sculptor whose Queens studio is now a museum dedicated to his work. I went there a couple weeks ago for the exhibit "Best of Friends: R. Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi".

The best part of Noguchi's collaboration with Fuller was the bizarre Dymaxion car, a three wheeled bubble Fuller made in 1933. There were three Dymaxions made. Fuller's intention was to mass produce them, but investors were scarce because of the depression and a crash in which the driver died. There is a scale model of the car in the Noguchi Museum exhibit.

In the photo -- Fuller, at age 85, posing with a Dymaxion and a dome of his design.


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