Monday, March 26, 2007

Lu Mudan Tea

Lu Mudan tea is tea leaves tied together in a flower-like pattern.

It's a display tea that opens up when steeped.


Le Pétomane

As I was looking for more information on Harry Houdini, I stumbled upon some entertaining oddities in Ricky Jay's 1986 book Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women (subtitled "Unique, Eccentric and Amazing Entertainers: Stone Eaters, Mind Readers, Poison Resisters, Daredevils, Singing Mice, etc., etc., etc.").

Surely the strangest case discussed in the book is that of M. Joseph Pujol, a baker from Marseille who discovered an unholy ability to control his sphincter in such a way that his rectum could actually take in air, and then blow it out again in various tones and noises: odorless musical flatulence. He is pictured in the book leaning forward at the waist, his index finger raised as if to make a point, some musical notes jumbling happily from his backside.

The ladies and gentlemen who saw him perform at the Moulin Rouge in 1892 were aghast, as Jay explains:
Within a few moments their consternation gave way to laughter. The laughter turned to tears of joy. According to contemporary reports, women especially were beside themselves: "Many fainted and fell down and had to be resuscitated."
He was dubbed Le Pétomane, which Jay translates as "the fartomaniac."

Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope translates it "the fartiste," and points out that at one time, Le Pétomane earned much more than the most celebrated French performer of the time, Miss Sarah Bernhardt -- 20,000 francs to her 8,000.

Adams describes Pujol's show:
In a typical performance, he appeared on stage in red cape, black trousers, and white cravat, with a pair of white gloves held in the hands for a touch of elegance. Having explained that his emissions were odorless -- Le Pétomane took care to irrigate his colon daily -- he would proceed with a program of fart impressions, as it were: the timid fart of the young girl, the hearty fart of the miller, the fart of the bride on her wedding night (almost inaudible), the fart of the bride a week later (a lusty raspberry), and a majestic 10-second fart which he likened to a couturier cutting six feet of calico cloth.
He would also smoke a cigarette through a tube that he inserted into his rectum.

Though I haven't seen it, I understand Le Pétomane was immortalized by an actor named Keith Robinson in Baz Luhrmann's 2001 movie Moulin Rouge.

Harry Houdini

Saturday was the birthday of Harry Houdini. He was born Ehrich Weiss, son of a rabbi, in Budapest in 1874, but he told people he was from Appleton, Wisconsin. His family moved there when he was very young. The name Harry Houdini was both a shortening of his own name and an homage, as the PBS documentary American Experience explains:
Aspiring teenaged magician Ehrich Weiss did not conjure the name "Harry Houdini" out of thin air. Following the hallowed tradition of his craft, the name pays homage to Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, the French performer widely considered the father of modern magic. Adding the "i" followed tradition as well, as this was a common way that magicians invoked the name of the famous 18th century Italian conjurer Pinetti. "Harry," on the other hand, was merely a pleasantly American twist on "Ehrie," his boyhood nickname.
Houdini made it his mission to expose seers and fortune tellers. Unlike his close friend, Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle, Houdini was more or less certain that every famous medium was an utter phony. He even testified in front of Congress in support of a bill designed to prosecute fortune tellers for fraud.

But Houdini was most famous as an escape artist. He found his way out of innumerable handcuffs, a stage act made more sensational by asking real policemen to shackle him while the audience looked on.

As Houdini was known for his lock-picking skills, I present a photo of my own collection of lock picks:They are exceedingly difficult to use; I have never successfully picked a single lock.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Clyfford Still

Clyfford Still would disapprove of my posting an image of one of his paintings -- Untitled (PH-118) from 1947 in this case -- on my blog, but there it is.

Still hated the commercial side of art. Henry T. Hopkins, who interviewed the artist in the 60s, told the New York Times:
When you visited him, you weren’t allowed to take a tape recorder or a notebook. You were just supposed to listen. He served you one cup of coffee, no seconds. He was like an avenging Protestant minister coming out of the barren lands of the Dakotas to the wicked city. But his railing against the commercialism of the art world even back then was meant to cut a path through a lot of nonsense, and he was true to that all his life.
In a New York Times article last Sunday (from which Hopkins is quoted), Steven Henry Madoff writes:
He insulted and abandoned old friends — Mark Rothko among them — for any whiff of complicity with pure commerce or consuming neediness. He called galleries and museums “gas chambers.” He made grandiose pronouncements like “These are not paintings in the usual sense; they are life and death merging in fearful union.” He described himself as a Puritan.
His will dictated that, as Madoff describes, "His estate could be bequeathed only to an American city, one that would build a museum to serve as a temple to his art and to nothing else. No works could ever be sold. No other artist could ever show a single piece alongside his. All Clyfford Still, all the time."

That city, finally, 30 years after the artist's death, is to be Denver. It wasn't easy to fulfill that last request. The Clyfford Still Museum is planning to open in 2009.


Quote of the Day: George W.S. Trow

"The work of television is to establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no context and to chronicle it."

—From George W.S. Trow's celebrated New Yorker essay, "Within the Context of No Context".

New York Magazine's Ariel Levy wrote a compelling appraisal of Trow's life and work for this week's issue.

Slate memorialized him in December, 2006 after his death at age 63. The New Yorker's December 2006 obituary for Trow was written by friend and fellow Harvard grad / New Yorker writer, Hendrik Hertzberg.


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Quote of the Day: The Philippines War

An article in Slate today compared the Iraq War to our fight against Filipino Insurrectos after the Spanish American War in 1898. President Bush had made the comparison himself in a speech in 2003 in Manila. The Philippines was supposed to be a success story, though America occupied it for almost 50 years; Bush was full of shit.

It's still a great comparison -- just not for the reasons Bush claimed -- but you're not going to like the lessons we learned.

American troops had a song they sang during that war called "The Soldier's Song" which included the line -- and this is my quote of the day -- "civilize 'em with a Krag."

The Krag was a new rifle. The Krag-Jørgensen was designed in the 1880s by two Norwegians -- Army captain Ole Herman Johannes Krag and gunsmith Erik Jørgensen for use in the Norwegian Army. The Danish Army adopted it in 1889 and the U.S. Army in 1892. The American version was manufactured in Massachusetts.

Even today, rumor has it, the semi-secret Military Order of the Carabao, which started in 1900, still gathers to sing "The Soldier's Song". Some of the lyrics are as follows:
In the days of dopey dreams -- happy, peaceful Philippines,
When the bolomen were busy all night long.
When ladrones would steal and lie, and Americanos die,
Then you heard the soldiers sing this evening song:
Damn, damn, damn the Filipinos!
Cross-eyed kakiac ladrones!
Underneath the starry flag, civilize 'em with a Krag,
And return us to our own beloved homes.
The "damn the Filipinos" line was changed to "damn the Insurrectos" after some negative publicity.

In 2003, the Village Voice's Ian Urbina covered one of the Order's events, called Wallows after the grazing habits of the carabao water buffalo for which the group is named. Some of the events have been attended by big-wigs like Colin Powell and General Richard B. Myers (ret.), former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Urbina:
As our mole reported, the mood of the Wallow varies from year to year, depending on how much military spending is going on. The February 2002 crowd, basking in the second year of Bush's rule, was enthusiastic. "This year was totally different," one attendee said at the time. "With the current White House and all the overseas activity, military confidence is way up. I can't tell you how many excited comments there were about the new budgetary reality."
There was another gun the U.S. Army used to "civilize" the Filipinos -- the Colt .45 semi automatic pistol. American soldiers found their .38s lacking in stopping power. The U.S. Army developed this pistol, one of the most iconic American weapons in our history, to fight an insurgency. In other words, Filipino guerillas would charge and keep coming even after being shot. The bigger, heavier caliber could actually stop a charging soldier in his tracks.

There are other bright spots from the War. Slate's David Silbey mentions "'the water cure' -- in which a captive was forced to drink gallons of water and then vomit it back up." And American "concentrations" of Filipino civilians led to a cholera epidemic that killed tens of thousands.

In 1899, the English poet Rudyard Kipling (famous now for "The Jungle Book") wrote a poem called "White Man's Burden" in which he tenderly suggests America civilize the Philippines.

The poem begins:
Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.
It's very condescending: England is telling its young, inexperienced son America to be charitable, to care for the Philippines, the half-devil, half-child it stumbled upon during battle with Spain.

Things were exciting back in America, too. In 1897, the U.S. annexed Hawaii. In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders attacked Cuba. In 1899, Chinese peasants started the so-called Boxer Rebellion against foreign Christian exploiters from at least six empires, including the U.S., Austria, Britain, and France.

And then, in 1901, at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, President McKinley was shot twice by a Polish anarchist named Leon Czolgosz. Initially, the President survived -- one bullet was removed but the other couldn't be found. An x-ray machine, a new invention, was on display at the Expo, but it wasn't used on McKinley. He died of gangrene a week later, and Czolgosz was put to death by electric chair.

So. Civilize 'em with a Krag. What were those lessons from the Philippines War again? Never mind.


Monday, March 19, 2007

The Anti-Hillary Ad: Pro-Obama or Pro-Republican?

I've seen the new viral video, the so-called anti-Hillary Clinton / pro-Barack Obama ad, and I'm not buying it. I don't buy the message, the recycled content, or the idea that it was created by a pro-Obama groupie.

The ad takes an old 1980s-era Apple computer ad parodying the movie version of Orwell's 1984 and mixes some footage of Hillary Clinton saying typical campaign things. The message is that Clinton is a fascist and Obama is the antidote.

The San Francisco Chronicle says "It may be the most stunning and creative attack ad yet for a 2008 presidential candidate -- one experts say could represent a watershed moment in 21st century media and political advertising."

How is this a pro-Obama ad and not just another hyperbolic conservative attempt to paint liberals the way liberals see neo-cons? And how is it creative? It's a patchwork job that -- okay, maybe some are titillated by the Apple reference -- merely juxtaposes an old computer ad (itself a parody) and adds some Hillary Clinton face footage. Not original, not stunning.

And while many are eager to celebrate the first "post-TV" presidential campaign (i.e., one with ads online that willing dupes seek out via YouTube), I see it as just another salvo in an insufferable two-year-long campaign. Blech.

If it was made by a crazed constituent ... I'm not saying it's a bad thing to support a candidate, or even to do it publicly, but if this ad didn't come from Obama, then it's a bit more like a cat bringing its owner a gory rat carcass. Nice thought, but the offering is a little much.

Then again, maybe anything we can do to get our nation's disaffected bumblers to care and to vote is good.

Eric Jaye, a political consultant to San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom says that the Obama campaign benefits from the ad, even if they didn't make it: "They get to call Hillary Clinton a pabulum-spewing pseudo-fascist, without having to own it."

True, but doesn't anyone who could (and will) run against a Democrat benefit? Don't Republicans benefit now? And call me naïve (I after all, always thought Al Gore was charismatic), but why would you ever compare Clinton to a fascist? And while our current president has us in a losing war of attrition, is eroding our privacy, and legitimizing torture? Who's the fascist, here? It's offensively disingenuous.

Simon Rosenberg, president of the Washington-based New Democrat Network told the Chronicle, "Anybody can do powerful emotional ads ... and the campaigns are no longer in control. It will no longer be a top-down candidate message; that's a 20th century broadcast model. ... [Activists are now] partners in the fight. And they don't have to wait for permission."

Why am I so skeptical? Maybe it's because part of democracy means idiots voting their emotions. And the uninformed being swayed by --- anything. And once we've got average yahoos making their own campaign ads in a free market of ads, we get stuff like Obama supporters doing damage to the Democratic party and spreading a sort of spooky up-is-down, bondage-is-freedom message that sounds like neo-con propaganda. You get Swift Boat Veterans convincing voters that a war hero is really a selfish jerk and an AWOL daddy's boy with below-average grades is actually the hero.

But if I keep talking like that, I start to sound as if I want too much regulation. I start to sound like both political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, which refuse to let other parties play because they don't trust Americans to weigh each (and every?) party's message carefully and choose the best one. So maybe I'm most annoyed with a news media that's fawning over its young usurpers in order to prove it's still cool.

And here I am contributing, in my own tiny way, to the whole frenzy. My final word is this: Something's seriously wrong when Democrats accuse other Democrats of fascism, even if it's a satire meant to highlight a percieved insincerity. I don't think it was made by a Democrat. I think it was another effort by a zealous neo-conservative to paint the Clintons in the same way Democrats see our current administration -- as radical authoritarians.

Watch the home-made ad here.


Sunday, March 18, 2007

Art for Blood

Regular readers of The Masticator know that the skyrocketing price of art and luxury goods (pre-distressed designer jeans have me particularly worked up) is troubling to me.

Yesterday, on former Spy magazine editor Kurt Anderson's NPR radio show Studio 360, I heard about an artists' consortium doing something very different in pricing their work: they sell it for blood.

Quorum San Francisco is a troupe of about 15 artists, writers, and art dealers "dedicated to generating arts discourse, and transforming that dialogue into action."

At last Fall's Scope Art Fair in Miami, a show timed to correspond with the famous and huge Art Basel Miami Beach, Quorum offered prints by members of their collective to fair-goers in exchange for a pint of blood given by appointment at one of South Florida's blood donation centers. To be clear, Quorum members do not get the blood, the local hospital systems do.

Even I could afford that. For those who could not give blood for whatever reason, Quorum was willing to sell the prints for cash -- around $300, or the price of a pint of blood on the open market at the time.

"The process of making art and just living as an artist, I mean, we feel like we're giving blood, that's part of our soul, that's part of us, it's our blood. And so we wanted to give something to the community, to people, but ask for something equally precious from other people," one of the artists told Studio 360.

Ideally, the pint of blood, and the giving of it, is a part of the art. It's a great stunt, but I can't help thinking that the purity of the exchange gets watered down in all of Quorum's talk about Hurricane Katrina and blood shortages. That, of course, is the goal: to raise awareness about the need for blood donation. But ironically, it also makes the fact that you can give your dark red blood, something we need for survival, something as fundamentally animal as this, for a piece of art, less compelling.

Focus back on the life-giving properties, and the fact that real people will be healed or helped by the blood -- your blood -- and it gains strength again. But not as much strength as the idea of simply bleeding for art, for a commodity. I know, I know, I'm trying to make socially conscious art less social and more art. How irresponsible.

Still, I think that the whole structure of donation-for-a-good-cause should be a footnote in order to preserve the creepy, base power of the exchange.


Updike on Writing

"When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teen-aged boy finding them, and having them speak to him."

John Updike, as quoted by Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac. It's Updike's birthday today.


Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Mormons Are Coming, The Mormons Are Coming!

Evidence of Mormania in Everyday Life in American Culture

That's right, they're everywhere. They are the pious, family-loving members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints. They don't drink or smoke, but they eat more Jell-O than almost anywhere in the world. They aren't just in Utah -- there are currently five Mormon U.S. senators in office (one is a Democrat!), and two governors (Utah and Nevada).

On the other hand, the current mayor of Salt Lake City, Rocky Anderson, is no longer a Mormon. He’s also a Democrat, a big critic of the Bush administration, an advocate for gay rights (and maybe, rumor has it, a closeted homosexual himself), a big supporter of the Kyoto Protocol, and an opponent of Utah’s draconian liquor laws. Ironically, Salt Lake City, the seat of Mormon power, is a pretty liberal town.

But now we may have our first Mormon presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, a Catholic Democratic stronghold. Although some say his religion may be "his biggest hurdle," he may have a good shot at the nomination. (Or does he? Slate points out that he's fond of joking about polygamy: "I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman … and a woman … and a woman" -- a little too fond.)

Add to that the prominence of Mormons in entertainment, like HBO's surprisingly well written show Big Love, about a renegade Mormon sect of polygamists in Sandy, Utah, and it looks like Mormonism, for better and worse, is becoming mainstream. Not convinced? Look at Napoleon Dynamite. More on that later.

Mormons have been infiltrating the midsts of good Christian Americans for a long time, actually -- here's proof:

The Marriott family that started the Marriott hotel chain is Mormon. So is David Neeleman, the CEO of JetBlue. And Stephen J. Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Wilford Brimley, a Salt Lake City native, is a Mormon. Aaron Eckhart, the actor, is a Mormon; he did his mission (wherein young Mormon men put on short-sleeve dress shirts and ties, backpacks, and ride around on mountain bikes trying to convert people for two years) in France and Switzerland.

Jared Hess and his wife Jerusha, the couple that made Napoleon Dynamite are Mormons, as is the movie's star, Jon Heder. That’s why the movie didn’t have any swearing in it. And it explains the condescending attitude toward Pedro’s Catholicism. Ricky Schroder converted. Gordon Jump, an actor who played "the big guy" on WKRP in Cincinnati a child molester on Diff'rent Strokes, and the Maytag Repairman for a very long time was a Mormon.

Some of the most famous Mormons -- or should I say, famous for being Mormons -- are musicians. The entire Osmond clan, notably Donnie and Marie, for example. And The Jets, an 80s-era band from Minneapolis comprised of a Polynesian family of 17 kids. Mormon mission work has been big in Polynesia, particularly the island nation of Tonga, where the Jets are originally from. Gladys Knight (of Pips fame) converted in 1997, and now directs a Mormon choir.

There aren't a whole lot of black Mormons, maybe because the church had a policy of not allowing blacks to become ordained until God told them it was okay in 1978. Although to be fair, most Protestants used to believe blacks were descended from Cain, the evil brother of Abel, too. In a related note, there aren't many American Indian Mormons, and that may be because Mormon history says that American Indians are the descendants of the bad people who killed off the lost tribe of Israel that came to the New World long, long ago.

Some have made connections between the original Battlestar Galactica series and the Mormon faith, to which producer Glen Larsen belonged. Larsen also blessed us with Knight Rider.

There are some very strange converts to LDS. Writer-director Neil La Bute, who directed Aaron Eckhart in the very un-Mormon movie In the Company of Men converted when he went to Brigham Young University for college. Anne Perry, the British mystery writer, converted. She’s also known as a convicted murderer -- she and her childhood best friend killed the friend’s mother when they were young in New Zealand. Peter Jackson’s 1994 movie Heavenly Creatures is about the murder. Kate Winslet played Anne Perry.

Actors like Paul Walker, Eliza Dushku, Matthew Modine, and Ryan Gosling have distanced themselves from the church. The late musician and songwriter Warren Zevon was raised LDS, but didn’t practice as an adult.

And finally, we have a Mormon to thank for TV: Philo T. Farnsworth is sometimes credited as the inventor of the television, but was at the very least an important TV pioneer.

Most of my information came from the website Famous, which is also a book by Ron Johnston.


Friday, March 16, 2007

Hell in Salt

"Hell" spelled out in Redmond RealSalt, a mineral-heavy table salt mined from an ancient sea bed in Redmond, Utah, 200 miles south of Salt Lake City. Inspired by the novel The Open Curtain by disgraced Mormon novelist and Brown University Literary Arts Program director Brian Evenson.

Review to follow.

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Jeff Wall and Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man

This is a photograph by the artist Jeff Wall titled "After 'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue 1999-2000."

It's a recreation of a scene from Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel Invisible Man, as the title of the photograph suggests, a scene from the prologue:
I sat on the chair's edge in a soaking sweat, as though each of my 1,369 bulbs had every one become a klieg light in an individual setting for a third degree with Ras and Rinehart in charge.
The unnamed protagonist, invisible to the world -- or at least to white New York in the fifties -- sits bathed in the light he stole from them, so bright from 1,369 bulbs ("I doubt if there is a brighter spot in all of New York than this hole of mine, and I do not exclude Broadway. Or the Empire State Building on a photographer's dream night," he tells us), and yet still no one can see him.

On creating this scene, Wall told the Guardian, "Writers have it very easy. They have the pleasure of imagining these scenes. Working on that picture, I really learned about what Ellison's 1,369 lightbulbs means. You can only have a few on at a time. I got to know that room as well as the Invisible Man would have, had he existed."

The invisble man continues:
Perhaps you'll think it strange that an invisible man should need light, desire light, love light. But maybe it is exactly because I am invisible. Light confirms my reality, gives birth to my form. A beautiful girl once told me of a recurring nightmare in which she lay in the center of a large dark room and felt her face expand until it filled the whole room, becoming a formless mass while her eyes ran in bilious jelly up the chimney. And so it is with me. Without light I am not only invisible, but formless as well; and to be unaware of one's form is to live a death. I myself, after existing some twenty years, did not become alive until I discovered my invisibility.
He's not only basking in pure light, a sort of new truth or enlightnement made manifest, but he's also sapping a tremendous amount of physical, electrical power from a power source that literally runs the power structure behind New York City.

Why Jeff Wall, a white Canadian baby boomer, chose to illustrate this scene from this book is unclear to me, but I'm glad he did. He's tackled issues of race before -- for example in a photograph called "The Storyteller" from 1986. Here's what New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl said about it:
“The Storyteller” (1986) is an imposing picture, more than fourteen feet wide. Six negligently clothed Native Americans lounge under or, on a grassy and wooded slope, beside a highway overpass. One, a woman, transfixes two others with what she is saying across a dying campfire. The historical irony—of a tribal custom maintained on expropriated and ruined land—is painfully obvious and, coming from a mandarin white artist, borderline presumptuous.
Wall has also tackled literary themes before, as in a scene from Japanese writer Yukio Mishima's Spring Snow, a novel set in Tokyo in 1912. Mishima wrote it in the late 1960, and published it only two years before he commited seppuku, or ritual suicide.

Is staging elaborate photographs of scenes from great literature an art historical mis-step equivalent to filming and refilming great literature? Is rehashing stories that exist only in our minds a mere cheap trick that gets our approval only because we're proud of ourselves for recognizing something we've read about?

You could certainly argue that, but I'd prefer to see it as an excercise in building upon another work of art, adding to the work, and innovating. After all, Invisible Man is built on its own predecessors, not least of which is Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground (at least in the prologue). Crossing mediums as Wall does -- photographing literature -- is not often done. As Schjeldahl says, such literary tie-ins are "perhaps the single most despised genre in the lexicon of modern art." And that's a shame.

I'd prefer to judge these homages on the basis of the individual work of art: did Wall pull it off? He did, in the case of Ellison's Invisible Man -- I'm back looking at the book again, and in a new way. I'm fascinated by the practical constraints of photographing more than 1,000 lights. I'm impressed with how lived-in Wall made the scene. At first I was inclined to say that Wall's photograph ought to be on the cover of Ellison's book. I'm not sure if I think that now -- it might soften the scene in the book and take some of the impact of the photgraph -- but it's better than what they've been doing till now. (See cover, left.)

There's an amazing resource on the Tate Modern's website: more than seven hours of video lectures on Jeff Wall's work, specifically, a forty minute lecture on the Ellison photograph by the chief curator of the Louvre, and Michael Fried, a Johns Hopkins humanities professor, discusses Wall's After 'Spring Snow' by Yukio Mishima, Chapter 34. The Tate's putting these lectures online reminds us of all the possibilities the Web hold for museums, and how seldom they take advantage of them.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Shootouts, Cocktails

The Action

I was just telling a friend about the shootout last night in Greenwich Village: basically, a guy wearing a fake beard goes into a pizza place on Houston and MacDougal Street and shoots a bartender in the back fifteen times. The shooter drops a bag full of about 100 rounds of ammo and runs out the door. He's seen by two volunteer cops, police auxiliary officers that have uniforms, but no guns. They follow the gunman and he turns around and shoots them near Sullivan and Bleecker. They both die. Armed cops cornered the bad guy and shot him dead shortly after that.

So what's my connection? Very little. But I realized as I was telling this story to my friend that I was inserting myself into it expertly. I talked about how I was in a bar down the street from the initial shooting, on Houston and West Broadway. How I wondered idly why so many police cars were going by as I looked out the windows. I'd love to say that I heard the gunshots, but I was in a noisy bar. I might have heard it and thought it was clatter in the kitchen.

But who knows. As I left the bar with a former colleague, we saw more police cars trying to get through the 10PM traffic jams on Houston. One was a crime scene investigation van (ooh, CSI!). Didn't figure it all out till I got home and watched the 11 o'clock news and saw Bloomberg on the scene.

So that's the action part of the story, and my "man in the bar" commentary on it. If I was interviewed by reporters, the subheading might read: "Area man in bar near shooting says it was a tragedy, damn shame."

The Drinking

But let me tell you about the bar. It's called Pegu Club, and it's named after a British Colonial Officers' club in 19th-century Burma. It's on the second floor of a non-descript cinder block rectangle, and its modest aluminum door has the only sign. I walked by it twice before I found the damn place.

Inside, it's much nicer. It's dark, and there's a slight East Asian feel to the decor, but it's mostly just dark and tasteful.

It's famous for classic cocktails, carefully crafted and well-served by expert old-style bartenders. Ours was a young bloke. We were certain, for a moment, that he was speaking gibberish (damn Brits with their phony accents). But he made a nice drink.

My first choice was a Sazerac, which wasn't on the official menu. It didn't faze our young barkeep. I'd never had a Sazerac at a bar before -- most don't stock all the essential ingredients, like Peychaud's Bitters, an old New Orleans concoction.

The Sazerac, some say, is the world's first cocktail. According to, the Sazerac has its roots in the 1830s with a New Orleans druggist named Antoine Peychaud who mixed some herbs together and added brandy as a cure-all for customers. Drinkboy says that in the 1850s, a friend of Peychaud's opened a bar called the Sazerac Coffee House, after a brandy, Sazerac de Forge et Fils brandy, of which he was an importer. He served Peychaud's cocktail there. The drink has changed a lot over the last hundred years, but it's basically Rye whiskey, bitters, sugar, and absinthe. That latter usually has to be substituted -- Pernod is a good stand-in. Peychuad's suggests Herbsaint.

Here's the Peychaud's recipe for a Sazerac:
The Original Sazerac Cocktail
Take two heavy-bottomed 3 1/2-oz. Bar glasses; fill one with cracked ice and allow it to chill while placing a lump of sugar with just enough water to moisten it. Crush the saturated lump of sugar with a bar spoon. Add a few drops of Peychaud's Bitters, a jigger of rye whisky and several lumps of ice and stir briskly. Empty the first glass of ice, dash in several drops of Herbsaint, twirl the glass rapidly and shake out the absinthe. Enough of it will cling to the glass to impart the desired flavor. Strain into this glass the rye whisky mixture prepared in the other glass. Twist a lemon peel over the glass, but do not put it in the drink.
I didn't notice what Pegu Club put into it, but I did notice the bartender's painstaking process and rattling flourish with the shaker. He looked more like a chemist as he added ingredients.

My next drink was the bartender's suggestion, the "19th Century": bourbon, Lillet Rouge, crème de cacao and lemon juice. It came in a stemmed glass with a shallow bowl. I've heard it called a "deep saucer champagne glass," and I've no doubt there's a historical reason Pegu serves many of its drinks that way. My sidecar (my next choice) came in one too, as did our neighbors' martinis. The "19th Centruy" was peculiar. My companion thought it almost tasted like tomato juice. I didn't love it, but it was good to try.

Finally, I ordered a Sidecar, another classic cocktail. Pegu had its signature version, but I opted for a more traditional rendition. It's usually cognac (Courvoisier here), Cointreau, and lemon juice.

Drinkboy relates a story, perhaps apocryphal, of the Sidecar's origins:
the Sidecar was developed during WWI, when a certain regular cusomer arrived at the Ritz [Hotel in Paris] on his motorcycle (replete with sidecar), and asked the bartender for a cocktail that would help take off the chill. The bartender was caught in a dilemma: a drink to remove a chill would appropriately be brandy, but brandy was traditionally an after dinner drink, and his patron was wanting something before dinner. So he combined cognac, cointreau, and lemon juice to mix a cocktail whose focus was on the warming qualities of both the brandy and the cointreau, while the lemon juice added enough of a tartness to make it appropriate as a pre-dinner cocktail.
Sounds nice. Not all these stories are true -- some, like my critical role in the shootout, for instance, may be exaggerated -- but they make great bar conversation.



Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Toward a More Inclusive Kama Sutra

What is a progressive lover to do with an ancient, out-of-touch document that would "enshrine sexism, ageism, abilitism, and looksism"? What follows is an excerpt from something my friend Jon Spayde wrote for the Utne Reader back in 1996 called "The Politically Correct Kama Sutra."

As Jon writes, "the need for a Kama Sutra that is in line with a postpatriarchal, postcolonial, postgender, and perhaps even postcoital world has become painfully apparent."

I don't think anything's changed in 11 years. Here's a taste:

The Shamefaced Tiger

The man encircles the woman's left arm with his left hand and, raising his right hand in the mudra of Supplication, proposes Union. The woman clasps him around the neck and utters the formula of Acquiescence, biting his earlobe with the Bite of Brahma. The man's loins grow warm with desire, which as it mounts to his Heart chakra is transformed into an awareness of the history of female subjugation. Rising toward his Eye of Wisdom, the energy deepens into consciousness of his own role in institutionalized sexism. Subtilizing more and more, the energy leaks through the top of his head as pure Awareness of Patriarchal Thought Structures. His eyes widen in the Face of Remorse and his lingam withers. This may be repeated as often as necessary.
See also "The Howler Monkey Embrace and the Bull Elephant Embrace" and "Leave the Rabbit Alone." Read the whole thing here.

Monday, March 12, 2007

New York, Without the Liberal Dead Weight

Here's an excerpt from the New York Magazine Daily Intelligencer's "A (Conservative) People's History of New York City," a satirical entry in the spirit of the new Conservapedia:
The city's population is often reported by the mainstream media to be as high as 8 million -- but a rigorous count of actual Americans, using the methods of Adjusted Freedom Demography pioneered by Smorgensen in the Patriot Census of 2005 (i.e., excluding immigrants, Jews, ivory-tower communists, and nonrepresentational artists, and counting only three-fifths of descendants of African slaves, as originally intended by the Framers), reveals that New York City's population of legitimate Americans is actually only 312. (Smorgensen found Cheyenne, Wyo., to be the most populous city in America, with almost ten times as many pure Americans as New York.)


Sunday, March 11, 2007

New York's Strongest

From the Armory Show, a mirror-panelled garbage truck. It wasn't for sale; it was part of the Ronald Feldman Fine Arts booth (it took up most of it). Artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles created it in 1983 with the cooperation of the City sanitation department and its workers; she called it "Social Mirror." The Department of Sanitation says it still uses the truck in parades.

Ironically, the mirrors on the truck almost make it look invisible. Artnet calls it "a metaphor for the interrelationship between “us” whose images get caught in the mirror and “those” who collect our garbage." Ukeles said "I want people to see themselves in the frame of this trash truck. ... It doesn't belong to the sanitation workers. We are all in this together."

Interestingly, Ukeles seemed more concerned with the social side of garbage collecting, rather than the ecological and economic angles that usually get highlighted.

In New York City, garbage trucks do double duty as snow plows, something that makes most outsiders and new-comers laugh. It's quite pragmatic, though.

Most of us know that "New York's Finest" refers to the police, and it's easy to guess that "New York's Bravest" must be the fire fighters, but it wasn't till recently that I learned that the City's garbage collecters have their own nickname: "New York's Strongest."

According to Barry Popik, a New York City parking violations judge and contributor/consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary, the "Finest" and the "Bravest" were coined in the late nineteenth century, the former coming first. Popik says the term "New York's Strongest" probably didn't show up until the early 80s -- the first mention in the New York Times is from 1981. There's one other term: "New York's Boldest," referring to corrections officers. That's the newest, probably mid-90s.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Slate on Michael J. Fox's Conservative Icon, Alex P. Keaton

Slate's David Haglund wrote a thoughtful article last week that explores two of my favorite subjects: Conservatives and Michael J. Fox, which together make Fox's Family Ties character, the young Republican with hippie parents, Alex P. Keaton.

I watched the show in the 80s -- even liked it. But the idea of suffering through a family sitcom like Family Ties, The Cosby Show, or Who's The Boss? today sounds like hell. No, I prefer Fox's movies.

Michael J. Fox, that diminutive Canadian everyman, reassures me in times of trouble. There's nothing quite like Teen Wolf or The Secret of My Success to help a confused Midwesterner foundering in the big city understand that everything's going to be okay. And once everything is okay, I like to watch Bright Lights, Big City, in which Fox, clad in jeans and a sport jacket, does drugs in club bathrooms with Keifer Sutherland and gets to his job as a fact-checker for the New Yorker at 10:30AM. (When things get really bad I seek solace in the films of Pauly M. Shore.)

Just before last November's elections, CNN quoted Fox: "I was recently asked what my character, Alex P. Keaton would think of me campaigning for stem cell research. ... First, he would be happy I'm wearing a tie. And I think he would tell me I'm doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do."

Probably not, argues Slate's Haglund. "For Alex P. Keaton, being a Republican was not a theological proposition, but an economic one -- if he objected to federal funding for stem-cell research, it would have been the federal funding he opposed, not the research."

How did Alex P. Keaton become an inspiration to a generation of young conservatives? Haglund:
Partly, no doubt, it was the sheer absence, before Family Ties, of explicitly conservative young people on network television. And much of the credit must go to Fox himself, whose specialty as an actor was playing the smug, arrogant brat that you like in spite of yourself (see also Back to the Future, The Secret of My Success, The Hard Way, etc.). It seems unlikely that, say, Andrew McCarthy could have exuded such likable sincerity while explaining that "God wants me" to "make a lot of money ... because if he didn't, he wouldn't have made me so smart," as Alex tells that off-screen psychologist after his friend has died. (Even Matthew Broderick, the producers' original choice for the role, might not have pulled this off.)
Did you know that Family Ties was President Ronald Reagan's favorite sitcom? He even offered to appear in an episode, says the Museum of Broadcast Communications.

As Haglund notes, conservatives need a hero right now, and Tucker Carlson just won't do. The Family Ties season one box set is in stores now.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Quote of the Day/Obituary: Jean Baudrillard

"Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth."

Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007), French semiologist. “Astral America,” America (1986, trans. 1988). [via]
Baudrillard said more profound things, but I liked that quote. He died this week at the age of 77.

He was known lately as an inspiration for the Wachowski brothers' movie The Matrix, which Baudrillard said misread his ideas.

Before The Matrix, he was notorious for his essay "The Gulf War Did Not Take Place", in which he argued that the first Iraq war was so mechanized and computerized that it was unlike any war before.

The London Times summed up his legacy in the sub-head of the obituary: "Postmodernist provocateur and cultural theorist who blamed consumerism for destroying reality."

Baudrillard was fascinated with America, and fancied himself a sort of postmodern Tocqueville. In an essay called "Utopia Achieved" (1986), he wrote:
Here in the U.S., culture is not that delicious panacea which we Europeans consume in a sacramental mental space and which has its own special columns in the newspapers—and in people’s minds. Culture is space, speed, cinema, technology. This culture is authentic, if anything can be said to be authentic.
I think that to Baudrillard, America was an experimental culture so obsessed with its identity -- or lack of one -- that it made one up.

Every culture has its folklore and creation myths; what makes America different? For one, we have very self-conscious witnesses to America's birth cataloging it. For another, what other culture is so pre-occupied with recreating itself through pageantry? We have the Disney World/Land miniature idealizations, Civil War re-enacters, Colonial Williamsburg, and reality TV.

On that note, Baudrillard's most interesting ideas came from his 1981 essay collection Simulacra and Simulation. In the first essay, "The Precession of Simulacra," Baudrillard invokes Jorge Luis Borges' story in which map makers create a map so detailed that it duplicates its subject exactly. This, Baudrillard wrote, is "the most beautiful allegory of simulation."

He continues:
Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory -- precession of simulacra -- that engenders the territory, and if one must return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself.
Slavoj Zizek took that last bit as a title for a post-9/11 essay: "Welcome to the Desert of the Real," which was previously used by Larry Fishburne's character Morpheus in The Matrix. Zizek applies Baudrillard's ideas to the World Trade Center attacks, via The Matrix:
When the hero (played by Keanu Reeves) awakens into 'real reality,' he sees a desolate landscape littered with burnt-out ruins -- what remains of Chicago after global war. ... Was it not something of a similar order that took place in New York on September 11? Its citizens were introduced to 'the desert of the real' -- for us, corrupted by Hollywood, the landscape and the shots of the collapsing towers could not but be reminiscent of the most breathtaking scenes in big catastophe productions.
Which is to say that the simulation preceded the real. The towers being hit by airplanes and then tumbling into rubble were not so amazing because we couldn't believe it was happening, but because we'd seen it before in movies.

[This, incidentally, is why 9/11 movies like Oliver Stone's World Trade Center appalled me: they're effectively simulations of a reality which had already been simulated in film before the fact, and then relived (re-simulated) in endlessly cycling news reels. Why on earth would we all need to see a weak dramatization of events we all lived through, a dramatization that brought us no new insights?]

Baudrillard actually wrote his own essay on 9/11, called "The Spirit of Terrorism." It wasn't as compelling as Zizek's -- Baudrillard wrote about the West's "death drive," a self-destruction fantasy that we tried to cure ourselves of with film versions of disasters. What Baudrillard gets right is the terrorist act's symbolic power, which is many times greater than its destructive power. The attacks were the first credible barrier to globalism.

Baudrillard was a part of a loose group of French critics and theorists adored by lots of left-leaning American graduate students and intellectuals, but reviled by others on all sides of the political spectrum for being annoyingly and smugly abstruse. "Every time he sees a silo he starts going into some French theory," said the Romania-born New Orleans-based writer Andrei Codrescu.

In the introduction to 1998 book called Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science, Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont wrote:
Our goal is precisely to say that the king is naked (and the queen too). But let us be clear. We are not attacking philosophy, the humanities or the social sciences in general; on the contrary, we feel that these fields are of the utmost importance and we want to warn those who work in them (especially students) against some manifest cases of charlatanism. In particular, we want to "deconstruct" the reputation that certain texts have of being difficult because the ideas in them are so profound. In many cases we shall demonstrate that if the texts seem incomprehensible, it is for the excellent reason that they mean precisely nothing.
That was referring to Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, and other, mostly French theorists, many of whom were more popular in America than in France.


The best headline comes from The Australian: "Reality Claims Gallic Provocateur".

New York Times

New York Sun



The Guardian

London Times

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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Book Review: John D. MacDonald's The Deep Blue Good-By

Before I went to Miami last week (on business; no pleasure whatsoever), I looked for a book to read on the plane. I wanted something set in Miami, or at least South Florida. I had already read almost all of Carl Hiaasen's books, but I hadn't tried anything by John D. MacDonald.

MacDonald is considered one of the masters of the modern crime novel. One of the things that makes a series of crime novels great is a charismatic and introspective protagonist, one like MacDonald's most famous character, Travis McGee. McGee is a sort of private detective who lives on a houseboat called the Busted Flush, docked in slip F-18 Bahia Mar, Fort Lauderdale. He won it in a card game.

MacDonald had already written more than 40 books by the time he started the Travis McGee series in 1964. His 1958 novel The Executioners was filmed in 1962 as Cape Fear, and again in 1991 (dir. Martin Scorsese). Rumor has it there is a movie version of The Deep Blue Good-By due in 2008.

Back to the novels. McGee takes cases when he needs money. Otherwise he's a man of leisure. McGee's observations and his way with language, his descriptions, are a pleasure to read.

For example, listen to how he describes a modern house:
It was one of those Florida houses I find unsympathetic, all block tile, glass, terrazzo, aluminum. They have a surgical coldness. Each one seems to be merely some complex corridor arrangement, a going-through place, an entrance built to someplace of a better warmth and privacy that was never constructed. When you pause in these rooms, you have the feeling you are waiting. You feel that a door will open and you will be summoned, and horrid things will happen to you before they let you go. You can not mark these houses with any homely flavor of living. When they are emptied after occupancy, they have the look of places where the blood has recently been washed away.
That could be Tom Wolfe in his 1981 polemic From Bauhaus to Our House -- though it's more earnest and much less bitchy. It's a funny thought for a lazy houseboat-dwelling unofficial PI to make, and their are plenty more like it.

Carl Hiaasen, the Miami Herald columnist and MacDonald's South Florida crime novel heir, owes tons to the Travis McGee series. In fact, as he says in the introduction, he grew up near where McGee's houseboat was docked in the books. Writes Hiaasen, "His bittersweet view of South Florida was the same as my own. For me and many natives, some of McGee's finest moments were when he paused, mid-adventure, to inveigh against the runaway exploitation of this rare and dying paradise."

McGee is quick to violence when it's necessary -- all the better to entertain us readers -- but he's painfully aware of its consequences and its effects on himself. Here's McGee taking down a man he's been chummy with in order to get some information:
It was midnight when we left the back-street club. He had a cocky, wary friendliness. As he unlocked the door of the Lincoln and swung it open, I chopped him under the ear with the edge of my hand, caught him and tumbled him in. And felt a gagging self-disgust. He was a semi-ridiculous banty rooster of a man, vain, cocky, running as hard as he could to stay in the same place, but he had a dignity of existence which I had violated. A bird, a horse, a dog, a man, a girl, or a cat -- you knock them about and diminish yourself because all you do is prove yourself equally vulnerable. All his anxieties lay there locked in his sleeping skull, his system adjusting itself to sudden shock, keeping him alive. He had pulled at the breast, done homework, dreamed of knighthood, wrote poems to a girl. One day they would tumble him in and cash his insurance. In the meanwhile it did all human dignity a disservice for him to be used as a puppet by a stranger.
What an awkwardly sad scene. McGee's gentle humanity is always tempered by his animal urges and tendencies. In another scene, a female friend comes on to him. Instead of taking advantage of what he sees as her vulnerability -- she's on the outs with another man -- he carefully and tactfully turns her down. Only to pick up and screw a beach bimbo after she leaves.

Another woman, one he's been nursing back to health after a suicidal drinking binge following her kidnapping and rape, can't reconcile the gentle man who saved her life with the one who proclaims such indifference to violence. "Isn't it a waste?" she asks.
"Waste of what?"
"Of you! It seems degrading. Forgive me for saying that. I've seen those African movies. The lion makes a kill and then clever animals come in and grab something and run. You're so bright, Trav, and so intuitive about people. And you have ... the gift of tenderness. And sympanthy. You could be almost anything."
McGee doesn't take it well.
"Why didn't I think of that! Here I am, wasting the golden years on this lousy barge, getting all mixed up with lame-duck women when I could be out there seeking and striving. Who am I to keep from putting my shoulder to the wheel? Why am I not thinking about an estate and how to protect it? Gad, woman, I could be writing a million dollars a year in life insurance. I should be pulling a big oar in the flagship of life. Maybe it isn't too late yet! Find the little woman, and go for the whole bit. Kiwanis, P.T.A., fund drives, cookouts, a clean desk, and vote the straight ticket, yessiree bob. The when I become a senior citizen, I can look back upon ..."
He stops when he notices he made her cry.

In the end, he doesn't get the girl, or even save her. And he doesn't get rich stealing back the money and jewels from the bad guy he was chasing. Nothing really goes right, but that's the kind of crime novel I like. A perfectly imperfect character -- both masculinely agressive and femininely caring, crusading and nurturing, quick to action and prone to reverie. And a perfectly imperfect plot that delivers the sex, money, and fisticuffs, all without compromising the protagonist's moral code (unless it plays into the plot) and finishes with him back on his boat, alone, and waiting till he runs out of money again to take another case.


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