Wednesday, January 31, 2007

David Lynch's Catching the Big Fish

David Lynch's new book, Catching the Big Fish, is a series of short essays on his creative process. His ideas come to him through either transcendental meditation, which he's been practicing since 1973, or by accident.

Lynch describes how he became a painter, and how until he decided to try to make a painting move, he had little interest in film. Here, in an excerpt from the essay "Ask the Idea," Lynch talks about an accident on a set that turned into a good idea:
New ideas can come along during the process, too. And a film isn't finished until it's finished, so you're always on guard. Sometimes those happy accidents occur. They may even be the last pieces of the puzzle that allow it all to come together. And you feel so thankful: How in the world did this happen?

During Blue Velvet, we were shooting a scene in the apartment of the character Ben, who is played by Dean Stockwell. At a certain point, Dean was going to sing "In Dreams" by Roy Orbison. He was going to lip-sync to that and sing it to Dennis Hopper. In the script, he was supposed to pick up a small lamp from a table and use it as a microphone.

But right in front of him on the set -- and Patricia Norris, the production designer, said she did not put it there -- was this work lamp. It had a long cord and its bulb was hidden from the audience, but it illuminated Dean's face. And Dean just snatched this up. He thought it was placed there for him. There's so many of these things that come along.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Minnesota Barbies? It's About Time.

I was thrilled when I heard Mattel was going to market a line of Minnesota-themed Barbie Dolls. A friend forwarded me a description of a few of the models. I nodded my head in recognition when I read about the "Minnetonka Barbie":
This princess Barbie is sold only at the Galleria. She comes with an assortment of Kate Spade Handbags, a Lexus SUV, a long-haired foreign dog named Honey and a cookie-cutter house. Available with or without tummy tuck and face lift. Workaholic Ken sold only in conjunction with the augmented version.
Ok, so the write-up was a little snarky. I was still buying it. I should have been happy reading about "Bemidji Barbie," but something was just off:
This tobacco-chewing, brassy-haired Barbie has a pair of her own high-heeled sandals with one broken heel from the time she chased beer-gutted Ken out of Iron Range Barbie's house. Her ensemble includes low-rise acid-washed jeans, fake fingernails, and a see-through halter-top. Also available with a mobile home.
Ok, so it's a hoax, a cruel, cruel hoax. Anyone know where this started or who wrote it?

The Citroën SM

The New York Times is being a little unfair to the Citroën SM. Sure it's a strange car. So was the DS. "SM stood for Systeme Maserati, not sado-masochist, although that is an apt description of anyone who buys a less-than-perfect SM," said the Times. The car was a Citroën (French) with a Maserati (Italian) engine.

It was known for its extremely complex hydraulic systems, and, writes Rob Sass, "While the ride was remarkably smooth, the steering and brakes could be terrifying. The brakes, actuated by a pressure-sensitive 'magic mushroom' button on the floor, were incredibly touchy; the steering was so direct that a sneeze could send you into the next lane."

Apparently a Californian named Jerry Hathaway got a modified SM (he turned it into a pick-up, Chevy El Camino-style) to go over 200 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Looking at the so-called "SMamino," one commenter on the auto blog Jalopnik quipped: "So I was recently wondering what Serge Gainsbourg would drive if he moved to rural Nevada and opened a brothel/ostrich farm. Now I know."

Stranger still was the poetry that some inspired French/Italian marketing team created for the car back in the 70's, poetry the Times calls "unintentionally hysterical" and almost "soft-core pornography." Here it is:
Trust the SM.

You’d be surprised

What a machine can do

When it knows

You believe in it.

Easy on the steering wheel

Handle it gently

Don’t overwhelm the SM

It will do what you want it to.

The Citroën Maserati is happiest,

Will do its best for you

When it’s trusted.

A love affair with the SM

Is something that happens in the open

With everyone watching

And talking

Such pleasure;

It feels almost sinful

Relaxed by a suspension of air and oil

Caressed by the sleek interior

Seduced by the safe swiftness of the ride

You never want to go home.
Do not trifle with the SM. The SM knows what you're thinking, and it doesn't think you're funny.


More Thorough Thoughts on ough

A quick Internet search for the term "ough" -- suggested by my mother -- yielded some interesting results, including an odd posting at the venerable British Medical Journal by an Oxford clinical pharmacologist called Aronson. Here's an excerpt:
Prompted by the unusual pronunciation of cough, George Bernard Shaw suggested that ghoti spelt fish -- "gh" as in cough, "o" as in women, and "ti" as in nation. But, of course, ough is not always pronounced off, as the table shows.

An American friend has told me that there is a US town called Gough, pronounced "gaff," but I suspect that this is just "goff" spoken with a strong American accent.

Notice that slough and shough can each be pronounced in three different ways. And the correct way to pronounce the title of this piece ["Ough ough"] is "Oh oh."

The table he mentions is viewable on the BMJ site. It shows a whopping thirteen ways to pronounce ough -- though some are Scottish and Irish.

A new pronunciation from the table is for the words borough and thorough, which are apparently pronounced "bur-uh" and "thur-uh" in British English.

I noticed that he mentioned the word slough. Webster's has it pronounced "sloo," meaning swamp, or "sluff," meaning to cast off. Or "slau" (rhyming with "plow"), a medium-sized city in Berkshire, England.

The final entry in this category is a gem. Slough of despond (pronounced to rhyme again with "plow") is a "state of extreme depression." The etymology is novel:
"From the Slough of Despond, deep bog into which Christian falls on the way from the City of Destruction and from which Help saves him in the allegory Pilgrim's Progress (1678) by John Bunyan"


Sunday, January 28, 2007

Mott and Prince in SoHo

Robert Wilson's Blood is Dirt

There's a funny scene in Robert Wilson's Blood is Dirt, the third in his series of crime novels featuring an English P.I. in West Africa. The protagonist, Bruce Medway, is going to visit a Russian who sells used cars:
"He spoke fluent French but had only learnt English since being in Benin. I had confused his brain by telling him there were eight ways to pronounce the letters 'ough' and now any word with anything approximating those letters would get scrambled. 'Daughter' came out as 'dafter' and 'laughter' as 'lawter', 'ought' as ufft' and 'tough' as 'tow'."
It got me thinking -- what were the eight ways to pronounce the 'ough' combination? I can only come up with these:
1. off (cough)
2. oo (through)
3. uff (tough)
4. oh (though)
5. aw (thought)
Are there any more, or was the character exaggerating?

The book, as long as I mentioned it, was very good. Don't mind the title. There's actually a good reason for 'Blood is Dirt' -- it comes from the English WWI-era poet Wilfred Owen whose poem 'Inspection' tells of a soldier punished for having a dirty uniform during an inspection --the dirt being his own blood.

Wilson's series deals with some typically West African topics, including Nigerian 419 scams (in Blood is Dirt) and blood diamonds (in The Big Killing). The settings and plots are reminiscent of some of Graham Greene's Africa stories, but with a lighter touch in the telling, and much more graphic violence.

Bruce Medway is a "fixer," a private detective who'll take sordid and shameful cases, often from Brits too embarrassed by their predicament or inexperienced with local culture to go to the police. He drinks a lot and lives paycheck to sporadic paycheck. Still, he has his own driver.

These are post-colonial crime stories. While there's none of the blatant "exterminate all the brutes" racism of Joseph Conrad, race and the tension between the roles of blacks and whites is palpable. Where most whites either use Africa (toxic waste dumpers or diamond smugglers) or try to fix it (aid workers like Medway's German girlfriend), Medway is somewhere between.

I like to compare these books to James Lee Burke's New Iberia, Louisiana-based series of detective novels. Burke's protagonist Dave Robicheaux is a former New Orleans cop and recovering alcoholic who takes a job in New Iberia with the local sheriff's department. In each book, something from Louisiana's past resurfaces -- sunken Nazi submarines, former slaveholders' abuse, inbreeding among the gentry -- and expresses itself as the crimes of the present.

Both the Robicheaux Louisiana series and the Medway West Africa series feature a white detective mediating the unease between blacks and whites in a former French colonial culture in a hot coastal climate. Both show us a complicated relationship between the protagonist and his poor black employee -- Robicheaux in Louisiana has Batist, an old man who helps him run his bayou bait shop and Medway has Moses, his driver. These are odd employer/employee relationships, almost more akin to the relationship of butler or a nanny to their household, but both men become part of the family, in way. Through numerous gaps -- in culture, language or dialect, race, and class -- these men form friendships.

When Moses gets diagnosed with HIV, Medway is despondent. Their relationship may stand in for Britain's with Africa: an old friendship, close but unequal, the Briton watching sadly as his beloved employee fights disease on his own. Of course, that may be an optimistic over-simplification, but this is the way the educated liberal European would prefer to see it.

Compare that to the American situation. Back in Louisiana, when Batist watches Robicheaux lapse into alcoholism, he is sullen. He's impassive, a wise old uncle shaking his head in disappointment. Batist may be white America's black conscience.

Neither of these relationships represent the sole examples of black and white camaraderie. Medway, for one has his equal in Bagado, a cop who was educated in England. But these relationships, as reminders of a colonial slave-trading past, are the more interesting ones to read about. They are certainly more difficult.

Editor's note: I revised and expanded this review on Monday (1/29). Also, a reader comments that the ow sound in the British English word plough is a sixth pronunciation. Excellent. Are there others?

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A building in the meatpacking district. And a stretch Hummer.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

How We Swear

From the Toronto Star, the five ways we swear, according to Steven Pinker, the Harvard cognitive scientist:
1. Cathartic. Stub a toe, and suddenly the topic of your conversation turns to excretion or copulation.

2. Dysphemistic. A dysphemism is the opposite of a euphemism, a way of rubbing something in the face of listeners, such as telling someone to stop their dog "crapping" [or shitting, in the parlance of our time] on your lawn, rather than "defecating."

3. Reputation. Cursing someone to lower their reputation, either to make them feel bad or to get others to think worse of them.

4. Expletive. Used to fill out speech, such as "bloody fantastic" in British speech; waking up the listener's brain by using a taboo word.

5. Idiomatic. The mildest form, as in "he pissed me off." Using an idiom that has nothing to do with the actual content of the thought but simply spices up the language.
The five main subjects of our expletives, says Pinker, are disease, despised groups, excretion, infirmity, religion, and sex.


Plagiarism = Laziness

In an article about plagiarism for Slate, Meghan O'Rourke cites the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals judge and tireless essayist Richard Posner, who wrote a book called The Little Book of Plagiarism. According to Posner, it's the "cult of originality" we inherited from the Romantics that gave us this fear and hatred for plagiarism. Add the current market economy and we have both more copying and more disgust with the copying.

But think about this in terms of contemporary art. Here's O'Rourke:
"Posner may be right to connect our obsession with plagiarism to the rise of a market economy that values individualism in cultural works. But perhaps it also stems from a collision of contemporary ideas about what accomplishment really is: the result of effortless gifts, or the fruition of hard labor? Americans are fond of the myth of hard work. As preternaturally gifted distance runner Steve Prefontaine puts it in the 1998 biopic Without Limits, "Talent is a myth." And recent studies have shown that the old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall is based in quantifiable fact: The top tier of 20-year-old violinists, it turns out, practiced on average 2,500 hours more than violinists the next rank down. Yet contemporary culture pays quite a lot of lip service to the myth of innate talent, wildly overestimating, for instance, the contributions of single employees to companies."
That idea about work is important to us in this country, as important as our notion of individuality. Add to this equation huge amounts of money, the sort of sums that an artist like Urs Fischer can command for a lousy pack of cigarettes on a string ($160,000.00), and we have a recipe for extreme disgust. O'Rourke again:
"What really bothers us about plagiarism isn't the notion of influence itself, but the notion that a piece of writing has been effortless for the thief in question. Instead of worrying whether writers who borrow from other artists are fakers, perhaps we should be asking if they're slackers. It might make it easier to decide which kinds of influence to condone and which to condemn."
Yes, slackers. That's the problem. It's true -- what rankles me most about the pack of cigarettes on a string is that it's lazy. Perhaps I could be convinced to see the beauty in this quietly hovering trash, like the video of the plastic bag in the wind in the movie American Beauty, but I suddenly feel like I've been taken advantage of when I learn how much money Fischer made.


Monday, January 22, 2007

Doug Aitken at MoMA

This is part of a new exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in which eight of video artist Doug Aitken's short films are projected onto the exterior walls of the museum building.The shorts are shown in continuous loops on six different walls, four of which are in the museum's courtyard. The courtyard is open daily from 5pm to 10pm, but it's easy to see the images, some nearly three stories high, from the surrounding streets.Actors Donald Sutherland and Tilda Swinton are among those featured in the films. To see some of the exhibit online, visit


Robert Hughes Hates Conceptual Art

Mia Fineman, writing about the Australian-born art critic Robert Hughes in Slate, notes a bias in his oeuvre:
But all critics have their blind spots: particular styles or tendencies that they categorically dismiss, unable or unwilling to engage with the work on its own terms. Hughes' is conceptual art, particularly the ludic, cerebral variety that began with Duchamp and has been carried on by generations of artists, from Joseph Beuys and John Baldessari through Tracy Emin and Maurizio Cattelan. For Hughes, most conceptual art is too intellectualized, too disembodied; it lacks the substance and sensual immediacy that defines truly great art. "Art requires the long look," he wrote in the introduction to his 1990 collection of essays, Nothing If Not Critical. "It is a physical object, with its own scale and density as a thing in the world." While this is true of most art up through the 19th century, the new century ushered in a new way of thinking about art as a set of concepts, a mode of interaction, a manner of seeing and apprehending the world that may -- or may not -- be tied to a discrete physical object. To reject this approach entirely is to cut oneself off from much of what's interesting and compelling in the art of the last 100 years. And it's here, in his refusal to engage with this core tenet of contemporary art, that Hughes still exudes a faint whiff of provincialism.
This may be my weakness, too. When Fineman writes "For Hughes, most conceptual art is too intellectualized, too disembodied; it lacks the substance and sensual immediacy that defines truly great art," I find myself nodding my head. Much -- not all, but a great deal -- of that brand of conceptual art is like poorly translated instruction manuals for low-quality foreign electronics: inadequate explanations for half-baked ideas.

"To Hughes," writes Fineman, "conceptual art looks like nothing more than an insider's mind game. And while it's true that much conceptual art is trivial or banal or needlessly hermetic, the track record of traditional, object-based art is no better."

Really? Maybe it's just easier to assess art objects than it is conceptual art. Or maybe, because the idea of ideas-based art is still not much more than 100 years old, we're still figuring out how to pull it off and how to talk about it. Or maybe, because Duchamp took it so far, and Warhol took it even further, there isn't much left to go before the ideas start to look stale. And maybe because the barriers to entry in the conceptual art world have little to do with skill and craftsmanship, conceptual art attracts a lot of -- excuse the Holden Caulfield reference -- phonies.


Saturday, January 20, 2007

A Girl's Guide to Purple Prose

If a girl were to decide she might want to write chick-lit, how would she go about it? A girl might be tempted to pen some purple prose; this temptation ought to be resisted, say the authors of the new book See Jane Write: A Girl's Guide to Writing Chick Lit:
Purple is a perfectly fine colour. Purple prose, however, is not perfectly fine. Your chick-lit novel is no place to be flowery, so don't hurt yourself trying to create "fancy" sentences, because chances are an editor will see your attempt as overwrought and icky.
But what if I want to be flowery? What if I want to be fancy very badly? Where can I do that?

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It snowed last night, but it didn't stay.

Martin Amis

I got a book for Christmas called The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes. It's a wonderful 400 pages of gossip, recollections, and stories about writers and their work throughout history. One by Martin Amis particularly amused me:
On a tube train to Earls Court I saw a young man reading The Rachel Papers [Martin Amis's first novel], about a week after its publication. He was enjoying the book, and in the best possible way: a reluctant smile, an unreluctant smile, a reluctant smile, and so on. I still regret that I didn't go up to him. But I told myself: listen, this will be happening all the time -- get used to it. I need hardly addthat it didn't happen again for about fifteen years (someone in a headset, on an aeroplane, scowling at The Moronic Inferno). When my first novel won the Somerset Maugham Award I told myself the same sort of thing: get used to it. And that never happened again.
That was originally published in his memoir Experience in 2000. He was a 24-year-old Oxford student when that first novel came out. The successful son of Kingsley Amis once famously spent £20,000 on dental work for his British teeth. Even three years later when Newsweek interviewed him about his novel Yellow Dog, the first question was about his teeth.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Godless Conservatives

When I first read something by that old conservative stalwart William F. Buckley, Jr., I was impressed by how rational and erudite he was. Surely, I thought, this was a rare conservative who didn't need the vulgar displays of Christian piety I had so long associated with conservatism. Then I picked up Buckley's 1951 book God and Man at Yale. Alas, Buckley was as religious as the next conservative.

Imagine my surprise upon reading the conservative Heather McDonald's frustration with the American intertwining of Christianity and conservatism:
"I find it depressing that every organ of conservative opinion reflexively cheers on creationism and intelligent design, while delivering snide pot shots at the Enlightenment. Which of the astounding fruits of empiricism would these Enlightenment-bashers dispense with: the conquest of cholera and other infectious diseases, emergency room medicine, jet travel, or the internet, to name just a handful of the millions of human triumphs that we take for granted?"
Now that's refreshing.

McDonald, a fellow at the conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute, took a stand in the American Conservative last August, "coming out" as an atheist:
"I have heard it said in the last six years that what makes conservatives superior to liberals is their religious faith -- as if morality is impossible without religion and everything is indeed permitted, as the cliché has it. I wonder whether religious conservatives can spot the atheists among them by their deeds or, for that matter, by their political positions. I very much doubt it. Skeptical conservatives do not look into the abyss when they make ethical choices. Their moral sense is as secure as a believer's. They do not need God or the Christian Bible to discover the golden rule and see themselves in others."
Any secular humanist could stand by this statement. Bravo.

But all is not sunny in the world of conservative atheists. How would a conservative argue against gay marriage, for instance, if not with Jesus as backup?

"They view marriage between a man and a woman as the surest way to raise stable, law-abiding children," she writes. That doesn't sound so rational. And it's funny how conservatives think that "law-abiding" is a virtue. Isn't that setting the bar awfully low? At least these kids obey the law. Unlike the kids those gays have.

In a strange way, I could always forgive religious conservatives their anti-gay stance because I figured they weren't firing on all pistons, so to speak. They were handicapped by their zealotry. But what's McDonald's excuse?


Frantic Frustration about Fries

No one responded to my earlier post in which I asked how the name Liesl was pronounced. My follow-up question was going to be about the gender of the name. I can only conclude that it's a boy's name pronounced "Lyle."

Ok, another one: disgraced author (and former Minnesota treatment center patient) James Frey. Is it James Fray or James Fry? I've been saying fry, even going so far as to correct people who said fray. I based my judgment on the precedent of Glenn Frey, the Eagles guitarist, who I'd always thought pronounced his last name 'fry.' But for every ten Steev-ens, there's always a Steff-en. Or the random large intestine for every thousand Colins. So who's right? The Frays or the Fries? I could try to watch Oprah reruns to see how the man pronounces his own name, but why subject myself to such torture? I ask you, my readers, how to say "Frey"?

And speaking of fries, I'll be writing a bit about french fries later this week. To tide my readers over till then, here's a passage from Eric Schlosser's Atlantic Monthly article "Why McDonald's Fries Taste So Good," which also appeared in his book Fast Food Nation:
The taste of McDonald's french fries played a crucial role in the chain's success -- fries are much more profitable than hamburgers -- and was long praised by customers, competitors, and even food critics. James Beard loved McDonald's fries. Their distinctive taste does not stem from the kind of potatoes that McDonald's buys, the technology that processes them, or the restaurant equipment that fries them: other chains use Russet Burbanks, buy their french fries from the same large processing companies, and have similar fryers in their restaurant kitchens. The taste of a french fry is largely determined by the cooking oil. For decades McDonald's cooked its french fries in a mixture of about seven percent cottonseed oil and 93 percent beef tallow. The mixture gave the fries their unique flavor -- and more saturated beef fat per ounce than a McDonald's hamburger.
Mmmm, beef tallow.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Salt Flats with Christmas tree.

How to Sell a Pack of Smokes for $10,600

My readers are philistines. Do you mind me saying that? How else can one explain why there are no takers for my piece of art carefully constructed out of string and an old pack of cigarettes? I am positively flummoxed by the lack of response to this bargain basement offer of $10,600.

Maybe I need a good dealer. Apparently De Kooning said of Leo Castelli: "That son of a bitch, you could give him two beer cans and he could sell them." This is the man I'd like to sell my art. But De Kooning spoke too soon, as Richard B. Woodward recalls in his review of a biography of the gallerist Edith Gregor Halpert:
Sure enough, after the impish Jasper Johns responded to this taunt by making a pair of Ballantine Ale empties, Castelli sold the 1960 work to the collectors Robert and Ethel Scull. This classic of Pop art is now in a German museum.
The value of things amazes me. And infuriates me. A collection of beer cans is worth whatever people are willing to pay for it, of course, but just why are some willing to pay such ridiculous figures?

The difference between being bitter about no one buying an old pack of cigarettes with string tied to it, bitter because other people can sell refuse for thousands of dollars and I can't, and actually selling it is all attitude. Here is my twelve point plan for selling garbage as art:

1. Pick any piece of non-organic garbage and package it somehow. In my case the cigarette pack has string tied to it; this will suffice.

2. Construct a detailed story about it. The history of the specific piece of garbage, where you found it. Talk about its place in our culture. Relate it to something current like the war in Iraq or the AIDS epidemic. Put some cultural theory in there. Quote Foucault if you can, and depending on the garbage, maybe someone lighter, like Susan Sontag or Theodor Adorno. Finally, relate it to other art, both contemporary and historical.

3. Make as much art as you can. In addition to the garbage that you're trying to eventually make a small fortune on. Define art so loosely that you end up making art by accident. Decide things are art once you throw them away, then retrieve them from the wastebin. Catalog everything. Create an intimidatingly large (if not impressive) portfolio.

4. Start calling yourself an artist. Tell anyone who'll listen. This is your new identity.

5. Set up a website. This is where you should spend most of your money. Make it flashy. Don't play your hand too soon by explaining your piece of art on the website. The art/garbage's significance should remain mysterious, even frustrating.

6. Next, construct a story about yourself as an artist. Make something up. Think of yourself as a product that needs to be "branded." You need a real story to sell, because you're not just selling garbage, you're selling a name: Yours.

7. Next, publicize. Blog about art. Blog about yourself. Do things in public. Make obnoxious stands about current affairs and contemporary art. Call a well-established artist a total fraud. Quote Foucault when you do it.

8. Network. Go to every gallery event you can. Become a fixture at art openings. You must be charismatic at these, at least until you have a foundation of art world peers to defend you when you get drunk and pick a fight with a fellow artist at his or her opening. You must also get to know gallerists. Pick a few that could be candidates to represent your work.

9. Remember, if someone calls your art 'garbage,' deflect the criticism somehow. Call all art garbage, or make a comment about how materialistic our culture is. Never defend your work. Steer the conversation so that you don't have to.

10. Approach a gallery owner when you feel ready. It should be someone who knows you by now. And remember, they don't have to believe in your art, they only have to believe in their ability to sell your art. Make it easy for them. Have a marketing plan ready. Take glossy photos. Prepare video. Make business cards. Get endorsements from other artists.

11. Meet as many art critics as you can. Start with smaller people and buy them drinks if possible. Befriend them and ask them about what they think great art is today. Keep them talking. If you can flatter them with your curiosity about their opinions, they may develop a high opinion of you. Help them make the connection between how kind, sophisticated ("What thoughtful questions he asked!"), and connected ("This guy knows everybody!") you are, and your art.

12. Did all that work? If not, find where you went wrong in your marketing, but never, ever, blame the art.

[I added two important new points -- 3 and 4 -- a few hours after posting this list. It was a 10 pt. list; now it's 12.]


Sunday, January 14, 2007

Rest stop at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Photo by my brother.
There's something that's been bothering me for some time now: How does one pronounce the name Liesl? I've never seen "The Sound of Music," so if there is, as I suspect, a character with this name in that musical, I might subject myself to it and find out. But that would be torture for me. So I am left guessing:
  • LEASE-ul
  • lee-ES-ul
  • LIZE-ul
  • LEEZ-ul
  • LYLE
These are my best guesses. Can anyone help me?


How do cartoons make it (or not make it) into the New Yorker? The
Washington Post (via Arts & Letters Daily) describes the weekly process that editor David Remnick and cartoon editor Bob Mankoff go through to choose cartoons:
Remnick picks up a cartoon of a corporate boardroom with a bunch of guys in suits sitting around a conference table with one chair occupied by a brain in a jar. The caption reads, "But first let's all congratulate Ted on his return to work."
" Ewwww!" Remnick says, half groaning, half laughing. "Bob!"
"It's great!" Mankoff says.
"It's horrible!" Remnick responds, laughing.
"What? A little brain in a jar?" Mankoff replies. "No animals were hurt in the making of this cartoon."
Remnick laughs. But he doesn't change his mind. "Not here," he says. It's a No.
That's too bad. Brains in jars are as delightful as feces, flatulence, and monkeys.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Another photo from my brother, this one of a tunnel through the mountain at Snowbird, Utah. The conveyor belt in the center is to propel skiers through.

"Heart of Darkness" at the Walker Art Center

Holland Cotter, writing in the New York Times, reviewing a sculpture exhibit at the Sculpture Center in Queens, said:
The debate over object vs. content, form vs. idea, is tired. Everybody appreciates well-made things. But skill is far from being the only, or even primary, criterion for what makes art art. If substantial ideas are brewing, any package, tight or loose, that delivers them effectively is the right one.
Sure, sure, but give me a well-made sculpture devoid of any ideas over a poorly made piece overflowing with theory any day. If there's one thing wrong with contemporary art today, it's that ideas knock out form and method so completely that bad ideas are getting more attention than they deserve. Just look at the last Whitney Biennial. Or go the the Walker Art Center's exhibit "Heart of Darkness" (which ends on Sunday).

"Heart of Darkness," a trio of "large-scale environments by artists Kai Althoff, Ellen Gallagher and Edgar Cleijne, and Thomas Hirschhorn," was panned by Minneapolis Star Tribune art critic Mary Abbe:
The best thing about Walker Art Center's overblown and hugely disappointing exhibit, "Heart of Darkness," is its evocative title. Alluding to novelist Joseph Conrad's harrowing 1899 indictment of genocidal racism in the colonial Belgian Congo, the title seemed to promise a profound psychological journey into the hidden recess of contemporary culture or, at least, a transformative encounter with the creative lives of the featured artists. Instead, it delivers little more than sophomoric riffs on sexual angst, an unintelligible light show and a cave-like funhouse full of pretentious, empty-headed props and urban litter.
She's right, and it's because ideas got in the way of thoughtful art, the way the barbarians in Capital One's 'what's in your wallet' ad campaign get in the way of the ad: after a while you realize that the creators of the ad or the art installation got so enamored with their subject that they totally lost sight of their message.

I'm thinking of Kai Althoff's "Solo für eine befallen Trompete (Solo for an Afflicted Trumpet)" specifically. It's as if he recreated a giant dirty living room to distract us from his forgettable paintings, which appear on walls amid the soiled carpet and old furniture. What's the point? Anything he says could just as easily make sense or sound like gibberish. There is no apparent message and we don't even enjoy the spectacle. It's bad packaging to disguise a lack of ideas. The Walker describes it with euphemisms: "The artist envisioned an uninhibited room, a sort of sovereign land where bourgeois codes of order, tidiness, and beauty are suspended." Yeah, it's a dirty living room.

Forgive me if I gloss over Gallagher and Cleijne's 16 mm film installation, "Murmur: Watery Ecstatic, Kabuki, Blizzard of White, Super Boo, Monster" (2003). It made me feel nothing.

The last installation succeeds on the levels of skill and work -- at least in a way. Hirschhorn's "Cavemanman" (2002) is literally a cave constructed of cardboard and packing tape. It's huge and creaky and musty, and its five giant rooms are a pleasure to navigate. I have no idea what it means, and I'm inclined to agree with Abbe when she says that "in the end, taping somebody else's big ideas to the walls of a faux cave isn't the same as having big ideas of one's own. Only on the loopier fringes of the art world can Hirschhorn's metaphor seem profound."

The cave is full of empty pop cans. Taped to the walls are books about philosophy and criticism. And the artist tries to evoke France's famous prehistoric cave paintings by using a video monitor to show Lascaux II, described by the Walker as "a theme-park recreation of the prehistoric painted caves in Montignac, France." That's too many removals from the real thing; it's just lazy.

But I had great fun wandering through it. It reminded me of the forts I used to make as a child with masking tape and appliance boxes. And I swear I saw the novelist Charles Baxter walking through the cave.

So back to Holland Cotter's point. Hirschhorn's "Cavemanman" is a well-packaged interactive idea void. Compare this to a work by one of the SculptureCenter artists, Monica Bonvicini -- a few years ago she put industrial fans in a gallery at P.S.1. Nice execution, but what does it mean? Maybe it doesn't matter in the end, because like "Cavemanman," it made you feel something, even if it was just wind.

Take Amy Heckerling's 1995 movie Clueless. At first, and to the teen audience, it's a smart drama about a rich girl in Beverly Hills playing matchmaker with her highschool chums. But it's also a smartly-made update of Jane Austen's Emma. Why couldn't Hirschhorn's packing tape cave stand up like that? It was, in its own way, a remake of the Lascaux caves. What went wrong? Lack of focus for one. Trying to do too many things, and succeeding in only one (making a really amazing cave out of tape).

Art has to work on a number of levels to be successful. It has to give us something to look at, and then something to think about, and then something to remember, and then something to haunt us, to make us think again. It should reward us for examining it by showing us more layers, deeper meanings. But it has to work on the surface, too.


Thursday, January 11, 2007

Lil' Chub

My Jack Link's Snack Size Lil' Chub Hickory Smoked Sausage expires tomorrow at 9:13 PM. Question: Do I eat it now or bury it in the deserted lot next to my apartment building?


The Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah.

Oodles of Noodles

Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant ramen noodles has died at age 96.

The Momofuku Noodle Bar says momofuku means lucky peach. The noodle bar, which is excellent, was recommended restaurant number 101 in New York Magazine restaurant critic Adam Platt's list "The Platt 101." If you don't like the amazing Berkshire pork featured in a number of the soups, you may not enjoy the place. There is one vegetarian offering.

Like the Times' Lawrence Downes, I had no idea there was one guy who invented instant ramen noodles. "Lucky Peach" be damned, it's obvious now where the noodle bar got its name. Nissin Foods, the company that makes the original ramen invented by Momofuku Ando, has a wacky website with a grainy photo of the man. The site says:
Founded in 1948 Mr. Momofuku Ando began the company from a humble family operation. Faced with sparse food sources after World War II, Mr. Ando realized that a quality, convenient ramen product would help to feed the masses. His goal was to create a ramen that could be eaten anywhere, anytime. In 1958, Nissin introduced "Chicken Ramen", the first instant ramen. Ironically, it was considered a luxury item since Japanese grocery stores, sold fresh Japanese noodles (Udon) at one-sixth the cost of Mr. Ando's new food concept.

Mr. Ando was convinced that his revolutionary new method of preparation would sell. It was as follows: remove the ramen from its package and place it in a bowl. Add boiling water, cover, and wait three minutes. The conservative Japanese food industry, however, rejected the product as a novelty with no future.

They had never been so wrong. Chicken Ramen sold beyond even Mr. Ando's wildest expectations. Before you could say "instant", over ten companies were rushing to put their versions out on the market. By end of 1958, grocery shelves were crowded with this new addition for the Japanese kitchen. From this point on, Nissin Foods began its long list of successful and innovative ramen products. Today, Japanese consumers eat approximately 45 portions of ramen, bags and cups combined, each year. In addition, U.S. consumers are estimated to eat 9 portions of ramen each year.
If you're looking for a healthy new snack, try ramen noodles "raw" -- eat them as you would potato chips. "Since the noodles are already cooked, it is totally safe to eat this way," says the Nissin website.

The Detriot Free Press reports that Ando had chicken ramen the day before he died. I've had Mr. Ando's brand of instant ramen noodles two nights in a row. Fortunately, my local bodega carries Nissin Top Ramen in a variety of flavors, to match my changing moods. Who knew that (Picante Beef) ramen noodles would be the perfect accompaniment to my mother's Swedish meatballs?

I asked the guys at my favorite wine shop what to pair with ramen noodles. They didn't flinch. "Something white. Anything stronger than Sancerre would be too powerful. Try a Muscadet." So I did. Delicious!

The next night I tried the Spicy Chile Chicken noodles with some leftover Thanksgiving turkey I had in the freezer. Superb.

For more about Momofuku, read Business Week's story.

For another inspirational college student-friendly food story, read about Minnesota's own Rose Totino. Her New York Times obituary (1994) hesitates to call her the inventor of frozen pizza, but surely she was one of the first innovators. And then there's Jeno Paulucci: no one disputes that he invented the pizza roll.

The 88-year-old Jeno is still working, according to an Associated Press article from a couple weeks ago. “I should’ve kept the pizza roll. It’s something that’ll damn near live forever,” he told the AP. He sold the Jeno's Pizza Rolls business to General Mills in 1985, but he's still creating new entrees.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Little Cottonwood Canyon's Mineral Basin. Taken by my brother in Utah.

The New iPhone

I'm as excited as the next guy about the new Apple iPhone. I think it's a big deal and I think it has the potential to put the Blackberry and its clones out of business and kill Microsoft's already embarrassing entry into the mp3 player market.

But it's not all so revolutionary as we'd like to think. Why? There are issues on both ends.

First, look at functionality. The Motorola alpha-numeric pager at right is the last pager I had before I switched to my first mobile phone. The beauty of this pager, which dates back to the late 90s, is that I got weather, sports, business, news, and stock updates -- free of charge -- 24 hours a day. It was amazing. My point? I have yet to own a phone, ten years later that will give me that kind of simple information. Yes, I could pay between $5 and $20 a month to connect my phone to the internet via a slow-ass rudimentary web browser. But After getting constant updates for free last century, why would I want to?

I look at the shiny photos of the new iPhone and I see icons that look like Apple's dashboard widgets and I think 'holy shit! wouldn't it great if I could get all that on my phone?' And then I remember. Motorola was doing it for me with my pager. And then they stopped doing it. It may be better, but it ain't new.

I tried like crazy to download subway maps for my Motorola mobile phone. I have them for my ipod -- iSubway Maps has them for lots of cities, including London, Tokyo, and Moscow. Why can't I get this on my phone?

What I'm saying is this: the Apple iPhone will be great, but half its features have been available in other places for years, and I'm annoyed that we're so excited now that they've come back. They're not new, they're late.

My second issue has to do with Motorola, too. The ROKR was a phone (I write this as if it were as old as the pager) that Motorola did with Apple's cooperation. It was to be an mp3 phone, a sort of hasty farmed-out version of what someone might imagine an Apple mobile phone might be -- only without the distinct Apple styling. The problem is, it only fits 100 songs, which, as my brother (who is not an owner) complained, that isn't even as good as the ipod Shuffle.

The new Apple iPhone has a similar problem. While it does run on the same operating system that my Apple laptop does, at 4 and 8GB, it has a significantly smaller amount of storage space than my video ipod. Why should we think the iPhone will be any more successful than the ill-fated ROKR?

And then there's Apple's exclusive deal with Cingular, a wireless provider that I don't have a contract with. I'm not an early adopter, but if by the time I'm in the market for an iPhone they still have that deal with Cingular and haven't begun to offer it with other providers, I won't be paying a $200 penalty to get out of my contract to get one. It ain't worth it.

Finally, I'm also wary of any device that tried to do everything for me. I don't want a talking car that uses satellites to prevent me from getting lost. I don't even want a car that shifts gears for me. Why would I want a phone that's camera that's a stereo system that's a personal computer that's a GPS unit?

My dad gave me an old pocket watch for Christmas this year. It's fancy but it probably isn't worth Antiques Roadshow prices. I like it because it was passed down from his grandfather to him and now to me. I also like it because it reminds me of how elegant something functional can be. But then, this watch was designed to last for a while. I'm guessing I won't be passing along my first generation ipod to my son and my son's son's son. That's the beauty of a mechanical piece of equipment that runs on a winder. I don't need proprietary software, I don't need batteries, I don't even need an external power source.

Sometimes, when I leave my apartment for the bodega down the street, I forget my mobile phone. I'll panic when I realize it. But then I'll relax. I don't need all this technology for my day-to-day life. I don't care that this pocket watch doesn't tell me the weather. I can just go outside and feel it. Looking at this old pocket watch, and then at my old ipod, the watch looks almost permanent. I can use it still.

Back to the new iPhone, which comes out in June: I can forsee its obsolescence already.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A view of the tram at Snowbird in Salt lake City, Utah -- from my brother.

Seymour Martin Lipset

Seymour Martin Lipset, the sociologist famous for the idea that America was immune to Europe's brand of socialism because of its fierce individualism, has died at age 84.

He was one of a group of Cold War-era Jewish leftist intellectuals from the City College of New York to turn into what we now know as neo-conservatives. Among the other neocons to come out of CCNY were Nathan Glazer, and Irving Kristol (father of the Weekly Standard's editor Bill Kristol and the so-called "Godfather of Neoconservatism"). Another, Irving Howe -- the man who apparently coined the very term "New York Jewish Intellectual," wasn't quite a neocon, but did drift rightward. CCNY also produced Julius Rosenberg, who, with his wife Ethel, was executed for treason in the early 50s. [Former New York mayor Ed Koch and former secretary of state Colin Powell also went to CCNY. But wait, there's more: Ira Gershwin, Judd Hirsch, Zero Mostel, Mario Puzo, Walter Mosely, Upton Sinclair, Bernard Malamud, and Jonas Salk.]

What exactly is a neoconservative? Jonah Goldberg of the conservative (but not necessarily neoconservative National Review gave this short history in a two part series on the subject:
The word "neoconservative" was coined by Michael Harrington and the editors of Dissent to describe their old friends who'd moved to the right. It was an insult, along the lines of "running dog" or "fellow traveler." Or perhaps the "neo" was intended to conjure "neo-Nazi," the only other political label to sport the prefix. As Seymour Martin Lipset, one of the most-respected social scientists of the 20th century and an original neocon wrote, the term "was invented as an invidious label to undermine political opponents, most of whom have been unhappy with being so described."

But the important thing to remember is that the term described a process which the Left considered intellectual betrayal, not a distinct ideology.
Dissent, it should be noted, was started by Irving Howe in 1954.

Michael Barone assesses Lipset's legacy in the neoconservative Weekly Standard:
Lipset's life work, said historian John Patrick Diggins, was to "explain America to itself" -- he was Tocqueville's heir. And to explain our many particularities and peculiarities: why, as journalist Martin Walker put it, Americans exhibit almost Iranian levels of religiosity, and why they hate turning out to vote but enjoy joining voluntary associations. He appreciated the role of religion in shaping the national character. "The United States is the only Protestant sectarian country in the world," he told an interviewer in 2000, "and Protestant sectarians are very moralistic and believe that one should do what's right, not what other people want." But he didn't see America through rose-colored glasses. He noted that treaties with Indians were routinely broken, "not by the government but by local settlers," and--with a glance northward--that after Custer's defeat, "the Sioux, who had wiped out an American battalion, went across the border and surrendered to six Mounties! The reason they did so was that they knew the Queen's treaties were kept."
Lipset, who often relied on Alexis de Tocqueville for insight into the American character, became relied upon for his own insight: "More than any other figure, with the possible exception of John Kenneth Galbraith, he plausibly explains to us baffled aliens why you Americans are so very odd," wrote the British journalist Martin Walker in a book review (Quoted in the Washington Post).
The New York Times' obituary has an amusing anecdote from the last years of Lipset's life:
"For the last years of his life, his wife said, Mr. Lipset was thought to be unable to speak because of the effects of an earlier stroke, at least until a visitor mispronounced the name of Jacques Derrida, the influential French philosopher. Astonishingly, Mr. Lipset corrected him."


Monday, January 08, 2007

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Rupert's New Record

A friend who works for a division of Rupert Murdoch's media empire passed along the company newspaper, News Corp World, "The international newspaper for the staff of News Corporation." The big news in Corp World is that the New York Post has just surpassed the New York Daily News (its biggest competitor) and the Washington Post as the fifth largest newspaper in the U.S.

So now the Post sells more than 700,000 copies a day. What's there secret? Rupie weighs in: "We have created a newspaper with a unique voice that reflects the heart and soul of New York." That's kind of vague. The Post's editor Col Allan was more direct, but he was only paraphrased:
"This is a joyous occasion for the paper and its readers," Post Editor-in-Chief Col Allan said, adding that the Post's success is based on a simple concept: Give the people what they want.
It's too bad the people lost their appetite for news.

Rupert bought the Post, a once respected paper, on November 20, 1976. And according to Jonathan Mahler, in his book Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning, the paper was so out of touch that the Times and the Daily News reported the sale first. Mahler describes Rupert Murdoch's sordid rise to newspaper supremacy in Autralia:
The Australian newspaper world was a vicious one, and Murdoch fought his way through one circulation war after another, routing numerous opponents who were much better armed. His burlesque formula -- some sex, some crime, some news, and plenty of hysterical headlines -- proved an invaluable weapon. Murdoch had an undeniable gift for the so-called screamer (SEX OUTRAGE IN SCHOOL LUNCH BREAK topped a Sydney Daily Mirror leader in which he reprinted confessional exceprts from the diary of a teenage girl).
Maybe the Post was doomed to this sort of fate. As Mahler points out, the paper's founder, Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel (by Aaron Burr) and its first editor "was bludgeoned to death from behind by a political opponent." Still, the Post was once less vulgar. And it was once quite liberal.

Give the people what they want. Is that my smoking gun? My proof that the Post is a crappy paper? If so, it's also proof that the average Dick and Jane Sixpack are philistines. Liberals are often shouted down for calling regular folks simpletons. That's a distraction. Forget for a moment who reads the Post and why. Look at it. Today's three leading headlines, online:

LOOK MA, NO DIAPERS, in which an infant shits in a toilet instead of diapers. Part of a growing trend, says the Post.
TWO FOR THE SHOW, in which sports writer Mike Vaccaro gabs about the Jets and the Giants.
TEEN CARD TRICKS, in which local kids are using the DMV's website to get fake IDs.

It's not news, and neither is the New York Daily News (sample headline from today: "Girl sez men forced her to rob bank"); it's entertainment.

[The Rupert portrait above is a painting by the artist Jonathan Yeo]


Word of the day: Chateaubriand

"While you dine on Chateaubriand and champagne, my daughter and I clip grocery coupons and eat leftovers," said former Enron employee Dawn Powers Martin to Jeffrey Skilling during the latter's sentencing last October. Malcolm Gladwell recalled the scene in this week's New Yorker.

I liked the alliteration but I have to admit I didn't know what Chateaubriand was. For guidance, I checked in with that perennially unreliable source, Wikipedia. Here, I learned that Chateaubriand was a man. A French man. I actually knew that; François-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand (1768-1848) was the "father of French Romantic literature."

He was also one of the European explorers of the Middle East that the late scholar Edward Said focused on in his controversial book, Orientalism. The premise of that book, to summarize it hastily, is that in colonizing the East, most specifically the Middle East and North Africa in this context, Western powers like England and Napoleonic France gained such a strangle hold on its people that they ruled even the cultures' descriptions of themselves. Part of this happened through explorations and academic studies. Said wrote:
To so preciously constituted a figure as Chateaubriand, the Orient was a decrepit canvas awaiting his restorative efforts. The Oriental Arab was “civilized man fallen again into a savage state”: no wonder, then, that as he watched Arabs trying to speak French, Chateaubriand felt like Robinson Crusoe thrilled by hearing his parrot speak for the first time.
Everywhere, one encountered Orientals, Arabs whose civilization, religion, and manners were so low, barbaric, and antithetical as to merit reconquest. The Crusades, he argued, were not aggression; they were a just Christian counterpart to Omar’s arrival in Europe.
How familiar this all sounds, even as we try to free an irate Iraqi people from themselves today.

But I digress. Chateaubriand is not just a man, a Romantic novelist, explorer, politician and an ultra-royalist Bourbon supporter; Chateaubriand is a fine cut of beef.

Montmireil, the personal chef of the famous French Orientalist, created the luxurious recipe for his master. For some culinary history, let's check in with that pugnacious little food troll, Emeril Lagasse:
Julia Child says that that it corresponds to the tenderloin portion of a Choice or Prime porterhouse steak. Others describe it as the center section cut from a beef tenderloin. It is usually cut two inches thick, and should weigh a pound or more before trimming, and is always broiled or grilled.

LAROUSSE GASTRONOMIQUE says, too, that it is a slice of very tender fillet steak. It goes on to say that "This French version of English beefsteak was probably dedicated to the Vicomte de Chàteaubriand (1768-1848) by his chef, Montmireil. At the time the steak was cut from the sirloin and served with a reduced sauce made from white and shallots moistened with demi-glace and mixed with butter, tarragon, and lemon juice."

And still another reference explains "Contrary to popular belief, Chàteaubriand is actually a recipe, not a cut of beef. This method of preparation is said to be named for the 19th-century French statesman and author, François Chàteaubriand. It's a succulent, thick cut of beef, (usually taken from the center of the tenderloin) that's large enough for two people. The Chàteaubriand is usually grilled or broiled and served with Béarnaise sauce and chàteau potatoes (potatoes trimmed into olive shapes and sautéed in butter.)"
That was actually written by another chef, one Marcelle Bienvenu, posting on Emeril's Notes for the Kitchen with only a fine-print attribution.

Compare this to Beef Wellington, a recipe cut from the same part of the cow – the tenderloin – as Chateaubriand and named for Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), a man who may have also lent his name to a certain sort of rubber boots, originally designed by the Duke after a Hessian style to be "hard wearing for battle, yet comfortable for the evening"

The Duke of Wellington was a contemporary of Chateaubriand’s. While the latter was languishing in exile outside Paris (after a nasty critique of Napoleon), the Duke of Wellington was fighting, and winning, the battle of Waterloo, defeating the recently exiled and escaped Napoleon.

While the connection between the edible Chateaubriand and its namesake is clear, Beef Wellington’s origin is obscure. "Some say it was his favorite meal, and others claim it resembled the boots that he wore, " says Gourmet Magazine. The contemporary version of the dish is a filet of beef, covered with pâté de foie gras and mushrooms and wrapped in a puff pastry.

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Saturday, January 06, 2007

Chanukah Ain't Over Yet.

I spent most of the day today indoors, to avoid the 70 degree heat, but I ventured out once the sun went down. the temperature has dropped to 68 now. In search of some sign, any sign of winter, I happened upon this beautiful giant Chanukah bear. If there's anyone who can bring us some snow, it has to be him.
A view of Minneapolis from the Walker Art Center.
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