Saturday, December 30, 2006

On Taste

I've been reading a book about taste called ... Taste: The Secret Meaning of Things by Stephen Bayley (1991). In it, I found this odd little table about fashion:

The Cycle of Fashion

Indecent: 10 years before its time
Shameless: 5 years before its time
Outré: 1 year before its time
Smart: —
Dowdy: 1 year after its time
Hideous: 10 years after its time
Ridiculous: 20 years after its time
Amusing: 30 years after its time
Quaint: 50 years after its time
Charming: 70 years after its time
Romantic: 100 years after its time
Beautiful: 150 years after its time

James Laver, Taste and Fashion, 1945

I expected to see the cycle change back to fashionable sooner than 150 years. If my 12-year-old self saw the subtle flare in the legs of the jeans we wear today, he'd recoil in disgust: bell-bottoms, however mild, looked like a mistake of the 70s in the 80s.

Still, I would argue that taste is something one has or one doesn't have. Good or bad are irrelevant as long as one makes choices consciously, and with at least a limited knowledge of one's other options. I can wear bell-bottoms for the next twenty years as long as I am wearing them deliberately. My personal style can comfortably fly in the face of current fashion as long as I am aware of current fashion. Think Tom Wolfe in his white suits.

Irony plays a role. I remember how guilty and snobby I felt when I realized that I was looking down on an acquaintance for liking Rupert Holmes' cheesy 1979 hit Escape (The Piña Colada Song), a song I enjoyed for its kitsch-factor. The guy seemed like a rube because he seemed to genuinely like the song. My enjoyment somehow seemed more legitimate because I was more aware of how schlocky the song was. My condescending attitude may explain some of the rift between red and blue states in America.

But the truth is, some people don't care much about the way things look. Most of the people I know who don't put pictures on their walls aren't upset about how bare they are; they don't actually notice the walls. And then there are those of us who live with a constant idealized vision of what we and our environment looks like. Just as one doesn't notice the power lines and taxis marring the travel portrait until it comes back from the developer, we pretend that there isn't a stack of newspapers and magazines in the corner of our living rooms -- that everything is in its right place.

Of course, all of this is seems rather decadent when we are forced to deal with real questions of ethics, survival, and how to treat one another. Who cares what things look like?

One Big Minnesota Menorah

Found this giant menorah in the Crystal Court of the IDS Center downtown Minneapolis.

Incidentally, the IDS Center, which was completed in 1974 and designed by the architect Philip Johnson, is the tallest building in Minnesota. It was in or in front of this building that Mary Tyler Moore threw her hat in the air in the opening credits for the Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Old Guthrie Goes Down

When I heard the old Guthrie Theater building was finally being torn down I had to go see the destruction for myself. The theater, designed by architect Ralph Rapson, opened in 1963. The version of the building that was just torn down looked a bit different from the version that opened decades ago; the facade was removed to expose more of the glass front. I'm not particularly sad about the Twin Cities losing this building. On the one hand, we always seem to regret not preserving important buildings when we destroy them. A look through Larry Millett's photo catalog of destroyed local buildings, the book Lost Twin Cities, is heartbreaking. Will we regret destroying the old Guthrie? Probably. But the people who wanted most to save it haven't been able to come up with the money and the power to preserve it. While official accounts say that no local theater group wanted it, a more accurate story may be that no local theater could come up with enough funding and political momentum to halt the Walker Art Center's plan to build another sculpture park (to continue and complement the one across the street) on the site.But is there any point in saving modern architecture anyway? What was the Guthrie besides an idea, a certain shape of stage, and a wall of glass? What's there to preserve? When architecture is stripped of ornament, it's harder to make the case to save it. It feels like we could just as easily rebuild this wall of glass with its cast concrete shell and spare steel stairways.
And isn't the idea of the building more important than the physical structure itself? What fool would cry over the destruction of one of Barnett Newman's zips? Can't any child just paint a field of color and then apply a stripe of another? The skill doesn't seem to be in the construction or the design anymore, so much as the thought, and the fact that no one had done such work so publicly before. Becoming attached to the thing itself is to miss the point of much of post-war art and architecture. It is because of this that the old Guthrie is so much more interesting to me as it is dismantled. Look inside. You can see how it was put together. You can see the way the stage related to the hill it was built into. The way the audience sat. Who ever imagined what a dump truck would look like sitting in the front row? Who ever visualized such a perfect cross-section? In the era of mass-production and post-modernity, these revelations have more weight than the building's static existence.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Target's Che Icon Misstep

Target has decided to pull its new Che Guevara-emblazoned cd cases from the shelves this season after conservatives went nucular. An editorial in Investor's Business Daily was particularly shrill about the retailer's foray into left-wing radicalism:
"The big box retailer has jumped onto the Guevara bandwagon, selling the murderous revolutionary's image as if it had just turned its stores into Marxist rally stalls.

"What next? Hitler backpacks? Pol Pot cookware? Pinochet pantyhose? Target gives this monster a pass, while using common sense on almost everything else it sells."
No, Hitler backpacks are not next. Any moron can tell you that. There are two things wrong with this reaction. First, no one in mainstream America thinks Che Guevara was a "murderous revolutionary." Whatever he did in actuality, public opinion has him pegged between two categories: freedom fighter and kitsch icon. Yes, the Cuban exile community is different, and yes, the right-wing blogosphere begs to differ, but to the rest of America: Che's that guy on t-shirts, right?

Second, any further commercialization of Che Guevara only serves to dilute his radicalism. The more we see his image, the less it means. You'd think a business daily would understand this. And maybe celebrate it.

Chinatown gets it. A few years ago, I bought a porcelain bust of Chairman Mao in San Francisco's Chinatown. For this mass-produced item, which doubtless cost pennies to make, I paid $19.99. It came complete with a gold foil sticker on the back that said "Made In China." I bought it because I was amused by the fact that I could overpay for an image of a Communist leader, made in bulk for export by the country he led. I don't know if Chinese factories churn out kitchy busts of Mao in order to subvert his message (I think they make them because they see an opportunity to sell things), but that's what it does.

The point is that virtually no one buying or selling busts of Mao -- or Che Guevara pictures -- these days feels any sort of ideological connection to what these men stood for. Nor do many of us actually care, much less understand, what they stood for. They are now the property of pop culture. They have none of the weight of a swastika or a burning cross.

"All this reflects an indifference to history," Investor's Business Daily writes. Exactly. As the icons of radical politics get sucked into the popular culture with all of its marketing, branding, materialism, and short-term memory, all the truth, all the meaning and intention are rinsed away. Think about how disgusted a man like Che Guevara would be if he could have known that a Minnesota big box retailer would make thousands of copies of his face for throw-away plastic disc holders. Think of how upset he'd be if he knew how thoroughly misunderstood his legacy was in America.

Target isn't guilty of any faux pas greater than misreading the market.


Friday, December 22, 2006

Giant Menorah Count: 7

I'm in snowy Minnesota now. On the drive through Brooklyn and Queens to JFK, we counted seven giant menorahs:

One yellow welded steel menorah nearly two stories tall in the center of the roundabout at the south end of Prospect Park, two roof rack menorahs on minivans, and four big (8-10 feet tall) menorahs in yards.

Rumor has it, the biggest menorah in Brooklyn is the one in Grand Army Plaza -- it's about 30 feet tall. The world's largest menorah, I'm sad to say, is in Manhattan, in Central Park. It's 32 feet (not much taller than Brooklyn's!) and two tons of steel.

I'll be on the lookout for over-sized diplays of Hannukah cheer here in the Twin Cities, too.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

What to Drink With Lutefisk

My mother asked me what wine I thought we ought to serve with our Lutefisk Christmas dinner. We both thought a Reisling would be reasonable, but I thought I'd do some quick checking online to see if anyone had opined about it. They have. A writer with the promsing name of Thor Iverson said in his wine column:
"if your traditional holiday meal is lamb vindaloo, borscht, and lutefisk, I'm afraid you're on your own."
Ouch! That seems like a cop-out. Guy du Vin reports that Norway is working on becoming a wine-producing nation. The midnight sun that far north will, the Norwegians say, give the grapes as much sunlight as Tuscany. We'll see. Guy du Vin's writer jokes:
"Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay will be produced, but we at Guy du Vin are eagerly awaiting the first bottling of an indigenous variety called Joerking which we assume pairs very well with the Scandinavian delicacy lutefisk -- which means, literally, 'cod soaked in plutonium'."
But as anyone who lives in Scandinavia will tell you, more lutefisk by far is consumed by nostalgic North Americans these days -- it's not likely any lutefisk pairing has actually occurred to anyone in Norway.

A website called Hymns and Carols of Christmas has a great deal of lutefisk lore, but on the subject of drink it says only that "A light white wine is recommended."

The Wine Country website just insults us:
"Of course, if your family is descended from a non-wine producing region, your food tradition is probably stunted as well. Pickled herring and lutefisk aren't exactly great wine foods, so Swedes need to improvise at their holiday tables."
My food tradition is probably stunted?

The Minneapolis Star Tribune ran a nice guide to all the church basement lutefisk dinners in the Twin Cities about a month ago. Food writer Jeremy Iggers likens Apple Valley lutefisk expert Jim Harris to a wine connoisseur, but no word on what Harris might drink with the fish:
One of the most dedicated is Jim Harris of Apple Valley, who just might qualify as the Robert Parker of lutefisk. Like the famous wine connoisseur, Harris is the expert to whom lutefisk lovers turn for guidance. His website,, is the authoritative guide to lutefisk dinners throughout the Upper Midwest. (Lutfisk, without an e, is the Swedish spelling.)

Like Parker, who evaluates dozens of wines a day, Harris has a prodigious constitution: In 2004, he visited 30 lutefisk suppers, and last year, 24. Like Parker, Harris keeps meticulous notes of his tastings. (Admittedly, Harris doesn't go into as much detail as Parker does about the delicate bouquet and subtle flavor notes.)
My ancestry is more Norwegian that Swedish, so I'm suddenly skeptical of this "Mr. Harris." Besides, Swedes use cream sauce on their fish. What sacrilege! Melted butter is the only way to eat it. (It is in fact the only way to make it edible.) My grandmother used to call it "lutfisk" instead of lutefisk, but we let her stay for dinner because she accepted the butter sauce.

Harris's website is really just a link to a PDF document listing dozens of lutefisk sources, almost all of them churches, in Minnesota and Wisonsin. Scroll down a few pages and you'll find reviews of lutefisk dinners in Washington, Texas, California, Iowa, and even a couple in Arizona and Florida.

Most of the lutefisk in this country comes from the Olsen Fish Company, which was started in 1910 by Olaf Frederick Olsen and John W. Norberg. This downtown Minneapolis (don't tell the EPA) fish factory claims to be the biggest lutefisk producer in the world, making more than 650,000 pounds of it every year. Olsen became the biggest earlier this year when it bought Mike's a Glenwood, Minnesota company run by an Irish gentleman. The acquisition happened after Mike's sudden death from cancer. The lutefisk starts out as dried cod, which they get from Norway. For those of you that are going to be alone on Christmas, Olsen Fish makes something special:
"Our newest entry into the lutefisk market in '96 was our precooked lutefisk dinner with homestyle mashed potatoes and peas. We think this microwaveable dinner will help entice new customers and introduce a special part of Scandinavian heritage to a younger generation."
That's right, a lutefisk TV dinner.

I'll give a full report on my family's Christmas dinner and include some photographic documentation of the ordeal. I mean family tradition. In the meantime, if anyone has any advice on what to drink with lye-soaked cod, please do comment.


As promised, another giant menorah. This one also uses propane lanterns, but instead of being bolted to a chain link fence on an overpass, it's set up in a full-sized Dodge pickup. It was parked outside the 7th Street/Bedford Avenue L station in the hipster paradise of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A Gruesome Dispatch From Alaskan Mike

My friend Alaskan Mike moved to North for a teaching job, but the move was easier for him after a messy breakup. In his latest dispatch he talks about Christmas and whaling, two things that look pretty different from up there. He's not delicate in the telling:
Part One: The Christmas songs have started to play at the couple of stores here in Barrow. These are the same recordings of Christmas songs that I have heard all of my life, but here they seem particularly alien. Like forcing a square peg in a round hole.

I have always thought the holidays were a funny time. Hell, most people hate their families, or have some serious problem with at least one member of their unhappy household. I have always managed to find work or I guess this time –- go to the North Pole to avoid this unpleasantness.

Baleen comes out of whales. It comes out in long strips. I have seen some more than fifteen feet long. It is what the whale uses to filter out its food in the ocean. The Natives make all kinds of things out of it. Baskets, sleds, and tools -– you name it. They also etch drawings into it. Every single shop and home has some decorative baleen in it. It is considered bad luck not to have any. I put my first piece up in my house today.

In order to leave behind the past, we much embrace the future. I am not Mike, as in the Mike who did this, that and the other. As in the Mike who fell apart when his love affair went “south.” (Very bad pun here.) The past is just a shadow that haunts us if we let it. The past is for learning, not perpetual torment and punishment. I’m not Mike from the lower forty-eight any more. I am the Mike who lives in Barrow, which even the Natives refer to as "The End of the World."
Part Two: Well, none of my students came to class this evening, so I guess that I will write a bit more about Whaling.

Barrow is the only place in the world that has two distinct whaling seasons. In the early Fall, and in the Spring. Something to do with the migrating patterns I guess. I saw my first California Grey whale up here about a month after I arrived. That would be in September I guess. It was a little, only about twenty feet long, swimming in the shallows scraping barnacles off of itself. The Natives don’t hunt them –- they taste bad I’ve heard. It was swimming just spitting distance from me, as I stood with my feet at waters edge.

Whaling is big here. To be a Whaling Captain is too hold one of the highest places in this social structure. There were at least eight Bowhead whales harvested this season. There ranged from twenty to forty feet. They average one ton of meat and blubber per foot. Bowhead whales are the ones that taste good.

In the Fall, the ocean is open and they go out in small aluminum boats and wait. They sleep in these little boats and sit in complete silence for a day sometimes. When they spot one, they pursue and shoot it with a harpoon gun, which is shoulder held. Ever shoot a double barrel shot gun, both chambers at the same time? These harpoon guns will break your shoulder if you don’t know what you are doing. They then drag it to the shore and tow it onto the old Naval Airfield, which is right by the beach. There they can completely butcher it in less than a day. That’s pretty damn good.

I went over there after the Natives had left for the night, and all that remained was huge ribcages and giant skulls. A dead quiet field of bloody slush, and giant internal organs strewn about in entrails. It reminded me of some terrible dinosaur apocalypse.

As it happened, I had rented Star Trek Four: The Voyage Home the week after the whaling season ended. It was one of the better Star Trek movies, but I laughed when I saw the main idea behind the movie: You really don’t need to slaughter whales anymore because all of their byproducts can be made artificially now. Whales are nice and we should be sweet to them.

What they did not mention is that you have to be able to purchase the artificial products. The whales harvested here will feed this entire community for the upcoming year. We live in a predatory system. I’m not terribly happy about that myself. If I were God I would have made hamburger trees, guitar trees, and pussy trees. (If you are a good guy, getting some decent pussy is a serious pain in the ass.)

The Bowhead whales are harmless, unless you are krill and the like. A cat is friendly unless you are a mouse. This world is an eat or be eaten kind of world. The thing that “civilization” has really done via the media -- is to put a rather absurd mask on the fact that this is not a friendly world. This is a hard world. This is probably Hell.

Why God Hates Amputees

The most important question we can ask about God, says a certain website, is this: Why won't God heal amputees? The website is titled, appropriately, The front page says this:
If God is real and if God inspired the Bible, then we should worship God as the Bible demands. We should certainly post the Ten Commandments in our courthouses and shopping centers, put "In God We Trust" on the money, pray in our schools and eliminate the theory of evolution from every curriculum. We should focus our society on God and his infallible Word because our everlasting souls hang in the balance.

On the other hand, if God is imaginary, then religion is a complete illusion. Christianity, Judaism and Islam are pointless. We should eliminate God from our society because God is meaningless. Belief in God is nothing but a silly superstition, and this superstition leads a significant portion of the population to be completely delusional.
What follows is a quasi-theological argument based on the notion that if God answers prayers, as some believers assure us He does, and those who have lost limbs pray to get them back, then why hasn't God ever given an apmutee his or her lost limb back? The answer is that either God's a jerk or God simply doesn't exist.

There's more to the website than that -- much more. It's quite elaborate. There's a video that begins, "by watching this short video, you will be able to prove to yourself that the Bible is repulsive." It all sounds funny till you actually look into it. The narrator points out that the Bible says we oughtn't work on the sabbath. Then we see the signs of all the national retailers that are open on Sundays, including Christian bookstores. After this, the narrator recites the Bible passage (Exodus 31:15) that says those who don't observe the sabbath should be killed.

The point of this website is to prove how absurd Christianity is. I remember wondering in high school how Catholics could justify their cannabalism -- eating the body of Christ and all. I wasn't raised a Christian, so it's always been ridiculous to me. But we make allowances for the centuries. Anyone who takes the Bible literally is a zealot, a fool, or both. But I'm not sure I buy the over-simplified arguments of, either.

The logical fallacy known as the straw man comes to mind. Here's the definition from the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy:
A made-up version of an opponent's argument that can easily be defeated. To accuse people of attacking a straw man is to suggest that they are avoiding worthier opponents and more valid criticisms of their own position: "His speech had emotional appeal, but it wasn’t really convincing because he attacked a straw man rather than addressing the real issues."
This website isn't going to tear down centuries of faith. It would have been more successful as a satire, but it just takes itself too seriously. It's a waste of a great URL.

Vacation, Soon.

I'd like to count down the days before my vacation with an office haiku that I call "My Laptop." Enjoy:

I know that if I
Hit my screen hard, it would break
And I'd be Happy.

And just so that I don't lose my perspective, some wise words from a character on the superb Fox Thursday night show The OC:
"If you make being poor too comfortable, what's the incentive to get rich?"
Yes, exactly. My drive to succeed is restored. I will not be needing that vacation after all. I think I'll take it anyway.

Monday, December 18, 2006

I can tell by the white-hot flare of propane on the overpass that it's CHANUKAH: DAY FOUR

Sunday, December 17, 2006

What's the Opposite of Warmth?

Coolth. That's right, it's a real word. Ruth Walker noted its resurgence as a scientific term in her language column in the Christian Science Monitor.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says it's been around for centuries: "Coolth, on model of warmth, is occasionally attested since 1547, and was used by Pound, Tolkien, Kipling, etc."

Beware, though -- the Columbia Guide to Standard American English calls its use "tiresomely jocular."

It makes me think of another tiresomely jocular term one might hear from the same sort of speaker: negatory. Meaning "no." I use it a lot when I gab on my citizens' band radio. Wikipedia speculates that its origin may be military.

It's Ornamental Cabbage Season in the City

To think that before I moved to New York I didn't even notice ornamental cabbage! Every fall it blooms. And it's everywhere: on boulevards, in traffic islands and the centers of roundabouts, in yards, as colorful borders -- what better way to landscape? Last year I vowed to document it in some of its glory. So here, for your viewing pleasure and edification, is a bit of Brooklyn's best ornamental cabbage.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

A Very Rupert Christmas: The News Corp Holiday Party

I had the rare honor of attending the lavish holiday party last night for Rupert Murdoch's monstrous, many-tentacled News Corp. What is News Corp, you ask? It is:
  • The New York Post and more than 170 other newspapers
  • All things Fox, including Fox News, the Fox network, and 20th Century Fox
  • TV Guide
  • DirecTV
  • HarperCollins Publishing
And much more! I attended as a guest of an employee of HarperCollins. The party was held at the Hilton Rockefeller Center Hotel on 53rd and 6th in Midtown, and it took up many, many banquet rooms.

The party had an airline theme, with catering staff decked out in stewardess and captain outfits. The ticket to get in was printed out like an airline ticket and each banquet room represented a different continent, including Rupert's home of Australia. We were greeted outside the Australia room by a fat man sitting on a platform playing the didgeridoo. The room was full of picnic tables papered with Australian tabloids. There were buckets full of Australian candy like the disgusting Violet Crumble. The food was shrimp skewers and barbecued chicken. As in every room, there was enough bar space and bartenders so that party goers didn't have to wait very long for drinks. And everything was free.

With a company as big as News Corp there are lots of every kind of people. Some types stood out though. I was positively tickeled by how many fierce comb-overs I saw on middle-aged men. There's something truly disarming about seeing a fat, dapper gent with a comb-over, grinning under his mustache as he does a little shuffle over to a table full of young women.

My group of HarperCollins workers spent a lot of time in the Americas room, which had a dj and a large dance floor. We watched as their co-workers -- Look, is that so-and-so from production? She should not be dancing like that -- made asses of themselves on the floor. I was constantly on the look-out for celebrities, and I was not disappointed. There, on the dance floor was a woman with a shaggy head of bleached yellow hair, a sheer top with a band over her breasts but no bra, a face like a bulldog and dance moves like a drunken bovine. She could be none other than Rupert Murdoch himself -- in drag. I'm sure of it. What better way to cut loose and mingle with the commoners?

There were many bright spots in the evening. Like when one of our group returned from the men's room to report a peculiar sight. Not drug paraphernalia. Not used condoms on the floor, but a tube of Fixodent, left in the bathroom stall. Yes, we all agreed, now it's a party, a News Corp party. Another highlight was watching morbidly obese women clamoring over a Häagen-Dazs cooler full of ice cream bars. When the stampede cleared I grabbed one for myself, only to find that every one of the bars had expired last August. You can't be as rich as Rupert by being too generous.

But the true highlight of the evening was when an IT guy came over to our side of the dance floor to show off a internal memo he had just received on his Blackberry. The young women gathered round to read the tiny glowing screen: HarperCollins has just terminated the employment of Judith Regan, effective immediately. The shrieks of delight were deafening. A couple women jumped up and down. Judy Regan is the head of Regan Books, the imprint of HarperCollins that came up with the idea to publish O.J. Simpson's quasi-confession "If I Did It." The Fox side of News Corp was incensed by the notion, and before anyone could make any money on the deal, Rupert Murdoch personally canceled the book and the accompanying television special. So it was very interesting that the company waited to fire her for the night of the mammoth corporation-wide holiday party. The party started at 6pm and she was fired at 7. Regan was, according to my sources at HarperCollins, notoriously difficult to work with, which explained the spontaneous celebrations over her demise.

After that it was downhill. We retired to the Asia room, where a boy in a Chinese peasant hat rang a gong at the end of each karaoke number on a big stage. Thirty-something salesmen in their dark suits weren't loosening their ties, even as they cheered for "New York, New York" and swilled from Amstel Light number eight. Is that HarperCollins HR wunderkind Greg Giangrande singing "Living La Vida Loco"? Nope. Just another dude from the marketing department at Fox.

And while I swear I saw Justin Timberlake, Flavor Flav, Joe Scarborough (wait a minute, isn't he from MSNBC?), Wesley Snipes (wait a minute, isn't he on the run for tax fraud?), and Christopher Hitchens (wait a minute, I think it is the drink-soaked popinjay!), I cannot confirm a single celebrity sighting. Except for Ruper Murdoch in drag. I'm sure about that one.


What's that giant thing on the overpass with the propane lanterns? Must be Chanukah.

Where in America can Judaism become as in-your-face as red state, ten commandments on the courthouse lawn Christianity? Why, Brooklyn, of course. And it's definitely that time of year again: giant home-made menorahs on every overpass and public square. Menorah-mobiles circulating the neighborhoods. The menorah above is about eight or nine feet tall. Each day of Hannukah (or Chanukah, if you like), another propane lantern is added, so that cars passing below on the Prospect Expressway may know: CHANUKAH IS HERE; DAY ONE. There's another, much larger menorah a few blocks away at the southern entrance to Prospect Park. It's made of welded tubular steel, if my memory serves me correctly. I'll be snapping some photos of that one and any others I see in the next few days. You're probably still wondering what a menorah-mobile is. I had the pleasure of encountering two at once. Take that, Christmas!

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Rules

To anyone -- male or female -- with a healthy self esteem and an egalitarian attitude toward gender relations and gender politics, The Rules will seem creepy, old-fashioned, even Machiavellian. It's a set of guidelines for young women to follow about dating men. A set that assumes the girl (and yes, it assumes you are a girl, not a woman, no matter your age) has made some bad decisions. That she's been taken advantage of. Maybe that she went into the dating world thinking boys were mostly kind, honest, and fair.

The Rules disabuses girls of that. Boys are manipulative. But boys are also pretty simple, so they can be manipulated by girls -- as long as girls follow The Rules.

The Rules is a book (and a movement, as Time once said). It was written in the 90s but it's still around, complete with sequels about making your boyfriend marry you, an "inspirational rap song" about the rules, and expensive personal consultations with the authors, Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider.

I came upon the The Rules in my search for strange lists of ten. We as a culture are steeped in lists of rules, starting, obviously, with the Ten Commandments. It's fascinating to look at various lists of rules alongside one another. What do rules really mean? Are they trying to help us? Control us?

Fein and Schneider include an abbreviated version of their rules in the form of a list of ten on their website. Looking at this list reveals a lot about what kind of woman The Rules is aimed at: She wears makeup. She may need to be reminded to calm down. She may be depressed. She's extremely frustrated with men. She may think that her failure with men is for lack of working hard enough to pursue them. Her goal above almost all else is to get married. Most of all, she's just desperate for a man.

Some of the rules are logical -- be confident, be social, keep work and love separate. Others reduce dating to an adversarial game. As's review said, "The idea is to return to pre-feminist mind games, exploiting the male hunting urge by playing hard to get."

Here are Fein and Schneider's ten rules:
1. Be a creature unlike any other.
Being a creature unlike any other is really an attitude, a sense of confidence and radiance that permeates your being from head to toe. It's the way you smile (you light up the room), pause in between sentences (you don't babble on out of nervousness), listen (attentively), look (demurely, never stare), breathe (slowly), stand (straight) and walk (briskly, with your shoulders back). When a relationship doesn't work out, you brush away a tear so that it doesn't smudge your makeup and you move on!

2. Show up to parties, dances and social events even if you do not feel like it.
Realize that you may not meet Mr. Right naturally and that you therefore must take social action immediately even if you don't want to.

Get a manicure and go out on another date or to that singles dance -- do something to increase your chances of meeting men.

3. It's a fantasy relationship unless a man asks you out.
Don't waste time on a fantasy relationship. You may have a good rapport with your doctor, lawyer or accountant, and you may find yourself wondering if he is interested in you romantically. How can you know for sure? If he's never asked you out, then he's not interested!

4. In an office romance, do not email him back every time he emails you unless it is business related.
On all nonbusiness e-mails, responding once for every four of his emails is a good rule of thumb. Remember, you never know who has access to your e-mail, so keep all romance off the screen and save it for Saturday nights.

5. If you are in a long-distance relationship, he must visit you at least three times before you visit him.
Remember, the first three visits are really nothing more than three dates... and on the first three dates we don't have sex with a man or have him stay at our place overnight.

6. When considering whether to use personal ads or other dating services, you should place the ad and let men respond to you.
It goes back to the basic premise of The Rules: Man pursues woman. When writing your ad, remember that every man has a type, a voice or a look he likes. There has to be a spark for him that attracts him to you, something that makes him find you unexplainably special.

7. If he does not call, he is not that interested. Period.
We know this is hard to accept, but it's not that he hasn't called because he's busy, or because you didn't smile or talk enough (or did too much). It's not that he lost your phone number. The bottom line is, if he hasn't called, he's not that interested.

8. Close the deal -- Rules women do not date men for more than two years.
If you've followed The Rules, your man probably loves you and wants to marry you. Your problem is not if he marries you, but when! If it's been more than a year, see less of him and think about dating others. You've already spent more than a year waiting for him to propose; do you have another year to wait?

9. Buyer beware -- observe his behavior so you do not end up with Mr Wrong.
Love may be blind, but Rules girls are not stupid! How does he act in the relationship? Is he cheap on dates? Is he critical of you? Remember, The Rules are not about marrying the first man you are attracted to who calls you by Wednesday for Saturday night and buys you flowers. It's about marrying your own personal Mr. Right -- a man whom you love and whose character you admire and can live with.

10. Keep the RULES even when things are slow.
Take care of yourself, take a bubble bath and build up your soul with positive slogans like "I am a beautiful woman. I am enough."
You must learn to accept that, as an adult, you can't always rely on a friend to do things with you. Even if you don't meet Mr. Right, going out -- whether it's a restaurant, lecture or party -- is a chance to meet new people and practice The Rules.
Wasn't that refreshing? It's like first, second, and third wave feminism never happened! Now go out and catch your man!
I saw this heavily-modified Cooper Mini on a side street in downtown Brooklyn today -- I'm glad I wasn't in something like this when I had my little rollover incident Thanksgiving weekend.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

My Elitist Big City Blue State Response to Virginia Postrel's "In Praise of Chain Stores" Essay

Any Twin Cities resident who has ventured into more than one of Cub Foods' warehouse style grocery stores can tell you that they are, for the most part, laid out exactly the same. From St. Paul's Midway neighborhood to three locations in Blaine, on to Lake Street in Minneapolis -- they are virtually identical. Is this such a bad thing? I can go into any location and know exactly where the bottled water is. It's convenient.

But do they do it for me? They do if you believe that by repeating a pattern they keep prices low. Isn't that good?

It's hard for liberals to argue with the immediacy of lower prices to the face of a single mother with kids to feed. The arguments about big chains and Walmarts destroying the fabric of Anytown, USA sound elitist and out of touch.

But then I still don't quite buy the argument in Virginia Postrel's essay "In Praise of Chain Stores" in this month's Atlantic Monthly. Her first point is as follows:
The first thing you notice in Chandler [, Arizona] is that, as a broad empirical claim, the cliche that "everywhere looks like everywhere else" is obvious nonsense. Chandler's land and air and foliage are peculiar to the desert Southwest. The people dress differently. Even the cookie-cutter housing developments, with their xeriscaping and washed-out desert palette, remind you where you are. Forget New England clapboard, Carolina columns, or yellow Texas brick. In the intense sun of Chandler, the red-tile roofs common in California turn a pale, pale pink.
Of course. But when you take into account the landscaping and piped water that turns arid climates into little oases and green wonderlands (even amid acres of tarmac), things start to even out. Utah and New Jersey and Washington start to look alike in the over-developed mall property. And then there's the indoors. The only Starbucks store I've ever seen that didn't look like any other was the first location ever -- the one in Seattle. And don't try to tell me that the interior design of malls noticeably varies according to climate. Nobody buys it.

But Postrel's real argument is that, sure, this stuff all looks the same, but a) people who wouldn't get the chance to buy stuff can now buy stuff, and b) ignore the fact that everything in the mall looks the same. The people and the weather are different.

Postrel's point that it wasn't any better fifty years ago does ring true though. Liberals and conservatives alike long for a past that never necessarily was. The 1950s weren't so squeaky clean as we'd like to think. And big chains have been plowing over mom and pop since the Dutch East India Company started in 1602.

Postrel's next argument:
Chains do more than bargain down prices from suppliers or divide fixed costs across a lot of units. They rapidly spread economic discovery -- the scarce and costly knowledge of what retail concepts and operational innovations actually work. That knowledge can be gained only through the expensive and time-consuming process of trial and error. Expecting each town to independently invent every new business is a prescription for real monotony, at least for the locals. Chains make a large range of choices available in more places. They increase local variety, even as they reduce the differences from place to place. People who mostly stay put get to have experiences once available only to frequent travelers, and this loss of exclusivity is one reason why frequent travelers are the ones who complain. When Borders was a unique Ann Arbor institution, people in places like Chandler -- or, for that matter, Philadelphia and Los Angeles -- didn't have much in the way of bookstores. Back in 1986, when California Pizza Kitchen was an innovative local restaurant about to open its second location, food writers at the L.A. Daily News declared it "the kind of place every neighborhood should have." So what's wrong if the country has 158 neighborhood CPKs instead of one or two?
In spreading innovation and knowledge, chains flatten everything out. Not only do they create similarity across great swaths of the country, they also tend to dumb things down in the name of efficiency, uniformity, and affordability. And they stamp out local expressions of individuality. If I sound shrill, it might be because I'm one of Postrel's "bored cosmopolites."

Reading on, I begin to wonder if I'm about to asked for my feelings about "freedom" (there's only one right answer, pinko). We're not quite to the "why do you hate God?" level (a question a friend in Milwaukee tells me he's been asked more than once), but Postrel is beginning to adopt the posture of the populist conservative bewildered by why anyone would not share her good feelings about "Anywhere, USA":
The children toddling through the Chandler mall hugging their soft Build-A-Bear animals are no less delighted because kids can also build a bear in Memphis or St. Louis. For them, this isn't tourism; it's life -- the experiences that create the memories from which the meaning of a place arises over time. Among Chandler's most charming sights are the business-casual dads joining their wives and kids for lunch in the mall food court. The food isn't the point, let alone whether it's from Subway or Dairy Queen.
As powerful as our need for a sense of belonging is, we also have a need for individuality. It's a terrible paradox for Americans who want to feel at once a unique star and a part of a great collective.

Take Ayn Rand's bizarre pamphlet "A Screen Guide for Americans". It was a rant aimed at Hollywood, an attempt to convince moviemakers to stop their cryptic glorification of Communism in film. In it, Ms. Rand sets out some rules, like "Don't Smear the Profit Motive."

Ponder this passage from "Don't Smear an Independent Man" and try not to think of those 158 neighborhood California Pizza Kitchens:
"Conformity, alikeness, servility, submission and obedience are necessary to establish a Communist slave state. Don't help the Communists to teach men to acquire these attitudes."
The emphasis on "don't" is hers. Substitute the word Communist for the word Capitalist in that passage and your average college liberal wouldn't blink. So wouldn't you think we could all agree more often?

The Americans who lament the spread of chain stores aren't merely disappointed tourists. Nor are they latte and limosine liberals longing for quaint small towns that match their fantasies. We are people from big cities who see what happens when the tiny Vietnamese take-out place loses its lease to Starbucks, which already has a shop across the street. We're also people from small towns who operate diners that looked like every other small town diner. Except that there wasn't a corporate directive on decor. And we're people skeptical of uniformity. Like Ayn Rand, only without ulterior motives.

I can't help thinking Postrel's essay is a hastily constructed booby trap designed to trick me into accidentally revealing my disdain for the average red state American. Oops! Did I just say I think Ma and Pa Cul de Sac sitting in the food court in their Dockers(tm) are phony clones with bad taste? I didn't mean that.

We don't mind chains until they become so polished that we can't see our own reflection in them anymore for all the bright and distorted gloss. We don't mind chains until they mean that counter staff are called "associates" and customers are called "guests." And when smock-wearing teens look through you and repeat a mantra -- welcometoblankmynameisTinahowcanIgiveyougreatservicetoday. It's when we start falling for the idea that the only way to stand out is to wear what everyone else is wearing. Mind the Gap.


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

A Very Awkward, Uncomfortable Word of the Day: Niggardly

No, I didn't just write a nasty word. First thing's first: the word niggardly has no etymological relation to a similar word, a racial slur with a very sordid and controversial history. No, niggardly and niggard, as John Derbyshire wrote in the National Review a few years ago, have "nothing to do with blackness."

A synonym is "stingy," according to Merriam-Webster. The dictionary defines it as: "grudgingly mean about spending or granting," and "provided in meanly limited supply." The origin of the word, like that of its cousin, niggling, is probably Scandinavian. It's an old word, used by Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer.

The issue of its meaning comes up every few years in the national news. In one of the last rounds, the Washington Post said this about the etymology:
The Barnhard Dictionary of Etymology traces the origins of "niggardly" to the 1300s and the words nig and nigon, meaning miser, in Middle English. It also notes possible earlier origins in languages including Old Icelandic, Old English and Middle High German. There is no mention of any racial connotation.
Let me emphasize this fact again: It has no relation to any racial slur.

But then why is it such a controversial word? People -- white people -- have been reprimanded and even fired for using it. In 2002, a Wilmington, North Carolina teacher got in trouble for using the word in her fourth grade classroom, making national headlines. In 1999, David Howard, an aide to Washington D.C. mayor Anthony Williams, resigned after using the word in a policy discussion with three colleagues.

So if it's not a racial slur, then what's wrong with using it? "Dr. Ink," a columnist for the journalism resource website Poynter Online says the word is "on its deathbed":
To say so is not to cave in to the so-called forces of political correctness. Semantic change happens. Sometimes it happens to a word across millennia, and sometimes it happens in what seems like a snap of the finger. (It's now almost impossible for Dr. Ink, an obsequious homophile, to sing "Don we now our gay apparel" without thinking of reindeer in drag.)
Hmm. In a discussion about the word and its usage today with coworker, I posed the idea that when we used the word, which sounds so much like a racial slur, we are as aware of that fact as our audience is. I held it up as an example of what Slavoj Zizek has called "inherent transgression." That is, we have it both ways -- whether we like it or not.

Compare it to John Malkovich's character in the (disappointing) movie Art School Confidential. The character, an art professor, says to a troubled student something to the effect of, "I'm here for you, in and out of the classroom" -- while his hand is on the student's knee. The professor means literally "I will help you in my capacity as a teacher" -- unless the student takes it to mean that the teacher is making a pass at him. In that case, the teacher means "I'm making a pass at you." Either way, the teacher has plausible deniability.

Applying this paranoid uncertainty to our word of the day, every time someone says "niggardly," they invoke (consciously, subconsciously, or unconsciously -- but most likely consciously) the word nigger, which, as you can see, I've been very reluctant to use up until this point.

My recommendation is to avoid the word. Not because anyone would think that you actually might be saying a naughty word, but because those of us with vocabularies big enough to know the word know just as well that the word is a landmine. To use it when many other words (miserly, stingy, parsimonious) would do constitutes a political act in itself. A sort of provocative double meaning, challenging your audience to either accept what sounds racist or reveal their meager vocabulary.

Or maybe that's a load of crap. It could be hogwash till you're confronted with the possibility of offending someone in person. John Derbyshire's 2002 National Review article is essentially a conservative intellectual defense of the word's innocent origins, but even he acknowledges that manners trumps the battle over political correctness:
It was in conversation with friends (all nonblack) that I saw some of the other side of the issue. One friend, who has serious credentials as a conservative thinker, said this: "John, you are a gentleman, and I know you would not knowingly give unnecessary offense. I am sure, therefore, that you would in fact avoid the word 'niggardly' in a group that included not-very-well-educated black fellow citizens." I had to admit that he was right: I would. Later that evening, watching TV, I caught a very good biographical program about the jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. Now I am a huge fan of Ella, who was of course black. At the same time, the program confirmed a thing I had suspected from similar material: she had little education, and in fact was probably not very bright. So: Here is a black person who I admire tremendously, and in whose presence (which I never was) I would be awestruck; yet for whose intellect (other than musical) I have no very high regard. Would I have used "niggardly" in conversation with Ella? No, of course I wouldn't.
Ignore the condescending elitism there. Would he actually use it in conversation with an educated black person? Where do you stop? When your defense of the word become an awkward losing battle that makes your friends uncomfortable?

Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate this week (on the subject of the infamous "Kramer Meltdown"), says he doesn't support Jesse Jackson's moratorium on the word "nigger." 'Why create a taboo when etiquette will do?' he argues. It's either etiquette or cowardice that made him think twice about the niggardly, though:
It was while giving a speech in Washington, to a very international audience, about the British theft of the Elgin marbles from the Parthenon. I described the attitude of the current British authorities as "niggardly." Nobody said anything, but I privately resolved—having felt the word hanging in the air a bit—to say "parsimonious" from then on.
We can keep creating linguistic taboos, Hitchens says, but ultimately, "Hatred will always find a way, and will certainly always be able to outpace linguistic correctness."

So now what do we do? Am I a linguistic coward for bowing to irrationally politically correct pressure when I choose not to use (and fight for) the dying word? No.

But I am if I don't fight for any poor sap who gets called out for using it in a Shakespeare class. I'll fight for the British magazine the Economist, which was scolded by American readers for using the word in 1995. And I'll fight, in the name of open discussion, for the North Carolina teacher and the D.C. mayor's aide who made national news for their provocative vocabularies.

When we look behind the words for their intention, we're not as likely to take offense. Did the fourth grade teacher really mean to use a racial epithet when she defined the word niggardly to her class? Of course not. And if you think that someone is invoking "inherent transgression" when they use the word, if you think they are taking advantage of the fact that it sounds like a more offensive word, I suggest that you take the high road: assume they mean what they say; assume the best of intentions.

The Misfortunate Coincidence of Irony

I'm no expert on irony -- who is? Kierkegaard wrote a huge book on it (The Concept of Irony, 1841), so obviously there's a lot to say. But I'm
still surprised at how many of us confuse three very different concepts:

1. IRONY: "incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result; an event or result marked by such incongruity."

2. COINCIDENCE: "the occurrence of events that happen at the same time by accident but seem to have some connection."

3. MISFORTUNE: "an event or conjunction of events that causes an unfortunate or distressing result."

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Alaskan Mike on the Weather Up There

Here's another transmission from Alaskan Mike in Barrow, Alaska, a bit north of the Arctic Circle. In our last installment, I noted that the temperature in Barrow that day was slightly warmer than it was in Minnesota. That isn't normal. Here's what Alaskan Mike said about the weather up there:
November 30

It is a beautiful warm day today here at the North Pole, seven degrees above zero -- unheard of for this time of year. The ocean still refuses to freeze completely and it should have been frozen by the second week in October. I just saw a large black raven flying gracefully against the twilight back drop -- well lit under the largest almost full moon that I've ever seem. Clearly an omen, as ravens NEVER travel this far north at this time of year. The locals are deeply concerned.

There are more scientists here than you can shake a stick at. Barrow is considered the "canary in the coalmine" as far as global warming is concerned. There are scientists from every part of the world taking readings of this and readings of that -- they don't smile much. I think that the news is bad.

There is a single FM station here in Barrow, and I remember hearing one of the scientists being interviewed. He said that the summer ice pack that has been floating about in the Arctic Ocean for thousands and thousands of years -- will be completely gone in less than twenty years. The permanent oceanic ice pack is where the polar bears live in the summer, along with a myriad of other wild life. Things are changing fast here at the top of the world. For sure, it is the end of their world in their life time -- the Natives that is. I wonder what it means for the rest of us.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Keith Ellison, the Quran, and the Bible

Ah, Keith Ellison. Is this not a Christian nation? That Minnesota heathen, er, Mohammedan ... scuse me, Muslim who was just elected the first such in the American Congress is threatening to swear on the holy Quran (or Koran, if you prefer the spelling that Moslems ... oops, Muslims don't prefer) for his oath of office.

Who would do such a thing? Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, a Democrat, is not only the first Muslim elected to a federal office in America, he's also Minnesota's first black Congressman.

There's an interesting history to oath-taking-on-books. The first thing I thought of when I heard Ellison was thinking about using the Quran was British writer John Fowles' 1969 novel The French Lieutenant's Woman. It's set in 1860s England. In one scene, a couple of the characters are having a serious discussion:
He turned and went to the bookshelves by his desk and then came back with the same volume he had shown Charles before: Darwin's great work. He sat before him across the fire; then with a small smile and a look at Charles over his glasses, he laid his hand, as if swearing on a Bible, on The Origin of the Species.

"Nothing that has been said in this room or that remains to be said shall go beyond its walls." Then he put the book aside.
To these two nineteenth century naturalists, "Darwin's great work" symbolized the height of reason and truth -- or at least the most promising effort in its pursuit. It was therefore a much weightier book than the Bible and an oath upon it was a much more meaningful gesture. This is the point of an oath. It's a ceremony in which we invoke something greater than ourselves, but something very personal, to publicly declare our honor. It's simply a way of emphasizing that we mean what we say.

In Freemasonry, which is a hundreds-years-old fraternal organization steeped in philosophy, mysticism, and ceremony, a holy book plays a large role. There are oaths taken on this book. But since Freemasonry (and this is key) is not a religion, it does not matter which holy book is used in the lodge. American Freemasonry demands its adherents share a belief in a higher power, but members need not be Christians. Most are.

Mainline Islam, like the Roman Catholic church, has tended to be against Freemasonry (the Knights of Columbus was founded to give Catholics an alternative to Masonry), but there are both Catholic and Muslim Masons. A lodge will use whatever book most of its members hold most holy. French Freemasonry, as I understand it, makes no requirement that its members believe in a supreme being. My point is that in Freemasonry, an oath is not taken to bind one to the book, but to display one's honor and connect him to the group. Because these oaths are personal, the book doesn't matter.

Nor should it matter in American politics. This is why I'm so bewildered by Dennis Prager's rant about Ellison. Here's what Prager said:
"He should not be allowed to do so -- not because of any American hostility to the Koran, but because the act undermines American civilization.

"First, it is an act of hubris that perfectly exemplifies multiculturalist activism -- my culture trumps America's culture. What Ellison and his Muslim and leftist supporters are saying is that it is of no consequence what America holds as its holiest book; all that matters is what any individual holds to be his holiest book.

"Forgive me, but America should not give a hoot what Keith Ellison's favorite book is. Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress. In your personal life, we will fight for your right to prefer any other book. We will even fight for your right to publish cartoons mocking our Bible. But, Mr. Ellison, America, not you, decides on what book its public servants take their oath."
His first mistake is to assume America's culture is Christian. His second is to make any claim that America might have a holiest book. In a nation made from and founded on the rest of the word's people settling here, it's folly to hold us all to one holy book. Aren't our holiest documents the ones our founders wrote to declare our nationhood and lay down our ideals?

Serving in one's country bonds the personal to the public. The oath of office is the ceremony to publicly declare and celebrate this. If I swear on your book, a book that has no personal spiritual value to me, why are you satisfied? Prager misses the point of the oath.

Now may be a good time to remind our American citizenry that much of our "Godliness" comes not from our founding fathers, but from our reactionary grandfathers -- those Cold War paranoids who put the "under God" in our "Pledge of Allegiance" and added "In God We Trust" to our paper money. They did it in the 1950s. David Greenberg, writing for Slate, has an excellent short history of the intrusion of God into American politics in the fifites. Here's an excerpt:
Hand in hand with the Red Scare, to which it was inextricably linked, the new religiosity overran Washington. Politicians outbid one another to prove their piety. President Eisenhower inaugurated that Washington staple: the prayer breakfast. Congress created a prayer room in the Capitol. In 1955, with Ike's support, Congress added the words "In God We Trust" on all paper money. In 1956 it made the same four words the nation's official motto, replacing "E Pluribus Unum." Legislators introduced Constitutional amendments to state that Americans obeyed "the authority and law of Jesus Christ."
Oh my. Maybe Prager's right after all. Maybe this is a Christian nation. If so, let's be clear: it became official a mere 50 years ago. Not upon its founding.

I'm kind of upset now. I need a remedy. Where can I turn for solace? How about our friends at the conservative magazine, the National Review. Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor reminds us that oaths need not be taken on books:
The Federal Rules of Evidence, dealing with the related subject of the courtroom oath, state, “Before testifying, every witness shall be required to declare that the witness will testify truthfully, by oath or affirmation administered in a form calculated to awaken the witness’ conscience and impress the witness’ mind with the duty to do so.” If you want the oath to be maximally effective, then it is indeed entirely true that “all that matters is what any individual holds to be his holiest book.” That book is the one that will most impress the oathtaker’s mind with the duty to comply with the oath.
So that means you can also just raise your hand and affirm that you will tell the truth.

To Prager's angry appeal that American decides the book, Volokh says:
Yet this would literally violate the Constitution’s provision that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” For the devout, taking an oath upon a religious book is a religious act. Requiring the performance of a religious act using the holy book of a particular religion is a religious test. If Congress were indeed to take the view that “If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book [the Bible], don’t serve in Congress,” it would be imposing an unconstitutional religious test.
Another UCLA law professor, Stephen Bainbridge, wrote on his blog that some of the anti-Ellison/Quran commentary reminded him of an earlier episode in American history:
Perhaps more seriously, however, Prager's claims remind me very much of certain arguments made by earlier Americans. We learn from the Catholic Encyclopedia, for example, that:

"John Jay, of New York, who afterwards became Chief Justice of the United States, succeeded in fastening upon the Constitution of his own state a provision which denied the privilege of citizenship to every foreign-born Catholic unless he would first abjure and renounce all allegiance to the pope in matters ecclesiastical."

When Prager says to Ellison "America, not you, decides on what book its public servants take their oath," I hear the echoes of John Jay. There's not much daylight between the arguments Prager is making and those made by generations of WASPs to keep people of my faith out of the public arena.
Back to Volokh's National Review article. I like his conclusion:
Much folly has been urged in the name of multiculturalism. But this is no reason to dismiss the core notion that a nation should both create a common culture and leave people with the freedom to retain important aspects of other cultures -- especially religious cultures. That notion is deeply American, and expressly enshrined in our Constitution. If it is "political correctness," it is so only in the sense that it's a political notion, and a correct one. It has served us well, even when dealing with religious groups that were once hated and seen as incompatible with American values, such as Catholics.
Anyone who, like me, believes in a strict division between church and state will not worry about someone making an oath on a Quran. We understand that the oath is a personal pledge to uphold a public duty to a higher purpose -- our American democracy. But if you believe that we are a Christian nation "Under God," then you might worry that what Ellison is doing is making a promise to his faith, not to his country. Ellison is a Democrat, so I don't think Christian Republicans have anything to worry about.


Friday, December 01, 2006

Barrow, Alaska

My friend Alaskan Mike (of the late blog Greetings From the Top of the World) sent me some photos of his new home, along with some words about what it's like up there. He's from Minnesota but he went up there for a teaching job at a college. Here's some of his descriptions of the northernmost settlement in America:
Barrow, Alaska is 340 miles into the Arctic Circle. It sits on the shore of the Arctic Ocean which is frozen for ten months out of the year. Barrow is as far north as anyone lives year round in the world. The population of Barrow is about 4500 souls. I remember seeing the nationalities breakdown and I seem to recall about 1500 people consider themselves to be Native. The rest are foreigners. Barrow is technically part of the United States, but when you come here you know that it really isn't.

There are no coffee houses in Barrow, nor are there any theaters. There are no bars in Barrow. Barrow is dry. You can get a permit to import alcohol if you have a clean record. I have been told that the residents of Barrow spend $350,000 a month on beer, wine, and liquor. Some of that is the cost of shipping. Still, lots of people spend many hours piss blind drunk in Barrow. There is much domestic violence here. The women have been abused for so long that they have learned to fight as well as the men in many cases. Usually, they will just beat the hell out of each other, and then neither reports it to the police -- who absolutely will put them in jail.
There are only 10 miles of unpaved roads in Barrow. Everything that comes in or leaves Barrow -- does so by air or sea. Only people leave Barrow, it is too expensive to ship out the broken down trucks, and snow machines or anything. It just sits lying around; sometimes it ends up in the dump. There is no recycling in Barrow.

Barrow is a subsistence hunting community. Everywhere that you look you will see animals hanging from peoples houses in varying states of being butchered. I remember how creepy I felt when I first saw some seal ribcages hanging from a porch, swinging in the wing. Barrow is spooky. Apparently, Barrow is named for the British Admiral who sent guys here to check it out. Barrow is haunted.

Looking at Alaskan Mike's photos of the tundra and the Arctic Ocean, you get the sense of how stripped down to its essences the Earth can be. There is little besides the sky and the subtle curve of the planet.

According to the Internet, Barrow, Alaska will have a high of 23 degrees -- that's three degrees warmer than Minneapolis today. Makes you wonder about global warming. It'll be back down to below zero by the middle of next week though. Barrow's highs and lows won't necessarily correspond directly to the night and day though. Sunrise in Barrow is at 1:52 PM. Sunset: same time. 1:52 PM.

I'll be posting more photos and dispatches from Alaskan Mike in the coming month.
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