Thursday, February 28, 2008

Games Celebrities Play

Remember when Thursday night television featured the best comedies the networks had to offer? If you've been watching The Celebrity Apprentice, then you know that Thursday is still the best night for comedy, even without 30 Rock. The first thing to consider here is the Trump notion of "celebrity." I'm fairly certain the casting director was told to ensure that the Donald would be the biggest "celebrity" on the show, so what we're left with are a couple of people I've heard of (Carol Alt, Lennox Lewis, the ubiquitous Marilu Henner), a bunch of "Oh, it's that guy" types (the guy who played Big Pussy, the ugliest Baldwin, a tall country singer), and of course Gene Simmons and Omarosa, who is obviously now so famous she needs only one name. Then there are the people I've never heard of - some ultimate fighter named Tito or Tino or something, some pasty tabloid editor from England, some Olympic softball player.

Most of these "celebrities" have been fired. In fact, we're down to six contestants: Carol Alt, country dude, ugly Baldwin, tabloid jerk, Lennox Lewis, and Omarosa. The Baldwin thinks he's Billy, but he's not that good looking, and he dresses like Alec as his Glenngary Glenn Ross character. The tabloid jerk thinks he's smarter than everybody and proves the stereotype of the drunken Englishman. Country dude has a deep voice and often seems confused about the whole affair. Carol Alt is surprisingly serious and, well, Carol Alt, so at least there's something nice to look at each week. Lennox Lewis spends a lot of time trying to look as cuddly as possible, which is not that cuddly. And Omarosa argues with everyone, has had some work done, uses too much make-up, and seems convinced that she is in fact a celebrity. In other words, the whole thing should be a train wreck but somehow it's not.

Some of the fun is that the ridiculous pretext that this is a "job" interview has been removed. The winning "celebrity" will not have to spend a year pretending to work in the Trump organization, and instead wins a large check for his or her designated charity. Each week the winning PM also gets a check for his or her charity. So, for these people there's really little at stake. With the exception of Omarosa they have lives to which to return, and they aren't on the show because they're famewhores but because they already have some measure of fame. Not one of these people have really cared about being fired, and they all know it's a game (again, with the exception of Omarosa, for whom being on reality shows is a career). This makes the show refreshing.

Most reality shows center around "bartenders" in their early 20s getting drunk, fighting, hooking up. Here we have instead the middle-aged, bickering. And they do bicker. Tabloid jerk drove Big Pussy right off the show and has a small ongoing feud with the Baldwin and a huge hatred of Omarosa. In fact, it's the enmity between the Brit and the bitch that creates the comedy. He manages to silence her with his barbs; she pours champagne on his head and tries to look superior. Who needs the travails of Jim and Pam when we can have this?

The biggest improvement over previous incarnations of the show is that it's really not about Donald Trump. It's not about impressing him, not about pretending to want to work for him, not about "emulating" his success in "business." It's about semi-famous people playing a game for charity and being good sports about it while they bicker with each other. I don't know how many episodes are left - I'm thinking it will be gone by April in order to make room for new episodes of the regular Thursday programs - but do try to catch it before the show is itself fired.

Spring and All

You wouldn't know it from the snow on the ground or my heating bill, but spring is on its way. When I take the dog out first thing in the morning, I'm now greeted by the chirping of various birds rather than just geese, a sure sign that things are about to change. Thank god. I get tired of coats and sweaters and dark arriving before I've made dinner. I definitely get tired of the price of oil. By March, I'm generally tired of everything and in need of rejuvenation.

Last night I spent some time taking this notion of rejuvenation literally, which is to say that for no good reason I pulled out a book that I loved as a child and reread it for the first time in probably 30 years: Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury. I loved this book when I was a preteen (or a tween, to use the 21st century term). What was that 11 year-old thinking?

This book is so sappy the pages morph into maple syrup as you turn them. For those of you who haven't read it, it's a memoir disguised as fiction, and tells the story of one young boy's summer in a mid-western small town at around the turn of the century. It features an entire chapter on the joys of new sneakers. Another chapter describes wet grass at night and running across lawns. Nothing much happens: summer begins, summer ends. Ultimately the text is about time's passage, not only the passing of this one summer, but the nostalgia of the author for the time of his childhood that is lost forever and can't be recaptured, not even in the purplest of prose.

I'm old enough now to well understand nostalgia, the yearning for the simple world of the past, and in particular for the safe world of childhood. But I was a child myself when I loved this book, and I recall loving it because it was elegiac (and no, I probably didn't know what "elegiac" meant at that age nor how to spell it, so don't get any ideas). What past did I feel was lost at such a young age?

It could be that Freud's right and we're born missing the womb, which is to say that we're born into a state of nostalgia. It's as likely that I was somewhat miserable during those early adolescent years, as we all are, and I longed for someone else's past, longed for a childhood that wasn't mine. I probably longed for any childhood other than my own, now that I think about it, because at that age we think no one knows or understands or shares our misery. Time tells us that it wasn't misery and that all we were feeling was the solipsism of the very young. Time tells us all the ways we were wrong about our selves and the world.

Which is why we so often want to be children again, and why we can't be. What we really want is to go back to a time before knowledge, a time before the fall. You can't be nostalgic for what you have, only for what is irretrievable. Grass can rejuvenate. So can tulips. Us? Not so much.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Women Destroyed

Sasha Frere-Jones considers the appeal of Amy Winehouse in this week's New Yorker, an article notable for the fact that Winehouse's actual music receives more attention than does her substance abuse and personal life. Americans just love self-destructive women, don't we? Sure, David Hasselhoff gets drunk and makes out with a cheeseburger on a bathroom floor and we all laugh, but we don't send the tabloid press out to stalk him. Meanwhile Brittney Spears shaves her head and it's a clear sign that she's come completely undone (not that she isn't undone) and something that deserves 24-hour coverage. In other words, men get drunk and make mistakes, while women become deranged and need to be institutionalized.

There's really nothing new here; Western culture has always provided correctives to any power women have acquired or wielded. Male Medieval mystics became saints, while the female mystics were burned for heresy. Some have said the Salem witch trials were in part caused by a demographic imbalance that favored the women. "Hysteria" was invented as a disease that only affects women (it used to be called "female hysteria," and the term is derived from the Greek word for "uterus") in the late 19th century. Women who were considered "sexually dis-functional" were so diagnosed. The rise of frigid women conveniently coincided with increases in female education and literacy, the beginnings of the women's suffrage movement, and an increase in the numbers of working women who came from immigrant backgrounds. Whenever women appear too powerful, it seems to be important to remind ourselves that women are also crazy.

In Hollywood as in porn, it's the starlet who drives the machine. The female star appeals to both genders, while the man appeals mainly to women. Sure, the men get paid more to "carry" a movie, but it's the star power of the women that dives all ancillary marketing. They sell clothes, cosmetics, magazines. They sell sex. And that's why they must be taken down, and why nothing sells more magazines than their "hysteria." Women themselves participate in this. The tabloids that weekly expound upon the travails of Brittney and Lindsay are aimed at and purchased by a female audience. We don't want them to have what we can't, I suppose.

In short, Amy Winehouse smoking crack belongs to a continuum where women are raised up so that their downfall can be an example to us all. Perhaps Hillary's implosion has something to do with this. Her campaign got a burst of energy once she cried in public, but in general we don't believe that she'll fall apart, don't believe that she'll self-destruct, don't believe that she will suffer from a malady of the uterus. And so in the end she can't win.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

On Boredom

I read somewhere once that the average American changes careers four times, the average American woman seven times. I'm assuming the higher number for women has to do with time off to have kids, although I haven't had any children and right now I'm contemplating career number four. I can only speak for myself and will say that the reason for the career changes is incredibly easy to pinpoint. I get bored. What's odd is that I've managed to make several careers out of doing things I love to do, things I willingly do in my spare time. Why then do I get bored once those activities become tied to my income?

Here's another way of looking at it. When I'm at home, I never get bored. I can amuse myself endlessly reading, writing, watching a movie, talking to the dog, whatever - a day goes by before I know it. Move my butt to an office, though, and the very same activities - surfing the web, or writing copy, or even making phone calls - become torture. I spent the last couple of months at my last corporate job staring at the wall most of the day, dreaming of quitting. And now I spend some time every day staring at the wall, dreaming of what I'll do with my life next.

Boredom is undoubtedly a large component of all lives, and one that gets little attention. No one wants to admit to getting or being bored; it feels like a failure of will, or of imagination. And it feels selfish, given the quality of contemporary lives and the variety of amusements available to us. Slaving 12 hours a day in a sweatshop wouldn't leave much leisure time for boredom, after all. In that sense boredom is a commodity available only to those who can afford it. I should be thankful that I have the luxury of my ennui.

Or is that not it at all? By that theory, a homesteader would have never been bored because of the continuous labor involved in building and keeping the home, and in growing and harvesting crops. The single mother who works three jobs in order to pay the bills would never be bored. The manual laborer would never be bored. Yet accounts of homesteading include discussions of the relentless loneliness and boredom associated with life lived in that kind of isolation. I have a diary kept by a Pennsylvania farm wife at the turn of the last century and reading it makes evident the fact that she was incredibly bored even though her days were filled with labor. Perhaps boredom is simply part of the human condition.

Perhaps the problem is that we are meant to live in packs, traveling together and subsisting communally. Once we decided to break off into smaller family units and stay in one place to raise crops it was all over for us. Maybe we're meant to be constantly on the move. Hunting and gathering doesn't make much sense these days, so I may as well just keep changing careers.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Oscar Post-Mortem

All in all, my guesses weren't as off as Friday's post would indicate, mainly because I guessed correctly in the minor categories. Tilda Swinton was fine with me, and I truly thought Julie Christie was deserving, but my life will go on even though she didn't win. I did think, however, that the evening contained one travesty, and that travesty had nothing to do with anyone's dress.

I knew the Coen brothers would take picture and director, and that was fine with me in that No Country for Old Men is truly a good film. I didn't think it was the best film of the year, though, and the travesty is that Paul Thomas Anderson got absolutely nothing for There Will Be Blood, which was the best film of the year, maybe even of the decade. Yes, it was three hours long, yes, it was depressing, yes, the score was weird. But Anderson adapted the hell out of Sinclair's novel, greatly improving upon it, and he made one of the best meditations on capitalism and moral decay that I've ever seen. Maybe his film was too topical; maybe Academy members just have short attention spans; maybe they just don't like him. Whatever. Life goes on. But if you haven't seen it, go see There Will Be Blood, so you can tell people that you've been to the actual best picture of the year.

Addendum: The night's true lesson is this: if you're going to wear a feather boa, make sure that it's a good one, or that your neck is protected. The cheap one that I had on was so itchy it felt like I was wearing my cat around my neck. And like Gretel, if Gretel were a 'ho, I left behind a trail of pink feathers.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Oscar Pick-A-Mix

Because it's snowing and I'm bored, here are the Synthetic Culture Oscar predictions (or at least my predictions as of this morning):

- The writer's strike will be the butt of a joke in the first 5 seconds of Jon Stewart's monologue

- Heath Ledger will be featured prominently in the Montage of the Dead

- The performances of the original songs and accompanying dance numbers will be the best time to go refill your drink

- 99% of the country hasn't seen four of the five best picture nominees, so the evening's focus will be on couture and the end of the writer's strike

- The writer's strike will be mentioned approximately 18 times during the broadcast

- The nominees are all depressing; let's talk about the writer's strike

Enough of that. Who will walk away with a statue? Take my advice and you'll win your Oscar pool:

Daniel Day-Lewis (Leading Actor) will be rewarded for his ability to chew up both scenes and scenery and spit while doing so.

Javier Bardem (Supporting Actor) will be rewarded for reminding America of the perils of a Price Valiant haircut.

Julie Christie (Leading Actress) will be rewarded for providing Hollywood a chance to pretend that good acting is appreciated in actresses over the age of 30.

Ruby Dee (Supporting Actress) will be rewarded for still being alive, and for being the best thing about a surprisingly boring film.

Ratatouille (Animated Feature) will be rewarded for being a Pixar product.

No End in Sight (Documentary Feature) will be rewarded because at this point everyone hates the war.

Juno (Original Screenplay) will be rewarded because everyone loves a literate stripper. See, they aren't all working their way through community college.

There Will Be Blood (Adapted Screenplay) will be rewarded for tremendous and sincere effort, plus a lot of spitting.

No Country For Old Men (Best Picture) will be rewarded for having a shorter running time than There Will Be Blood.

Best Director is a toss-up - will the Academy do a split in order to give PT Anderson another nod, or will voters line up behind the Coen brothers? My guess is the Coens sweep, but we'll have to wait until Sunday to see. Happy Oscar party to everyone!

Update! What will Atonement win, you ask? Costume design and Original Score and that's it. Give Film Editing to No Country. The Diving Bell and Butterfly needs to be recognized even though it was made in France by an artist wearing a sarong, so it will take Cinematography. I think that's it for the major categories, except all the shorts and Foreign Language Film. For those categories, you're all on your own.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Distort Yourself

This week, I've got The Magnetic Fields' Distortion in heavy rotation. I've been a Stephin Merritt fan since 69 Love Songs, and I thought I was one of the best releases of 2004, but it has taken me a while to get into this latest offering. Merritt hasn't been at all idle the past four years. He writes and records with four different "bands" (most of which consist of him playing all instruments, with an occasional guest in the studio), but this is the Merritt incarnation I enjoy the most.

What makes this album a departure for Merritt, and makes the title apt, is the presence of distortion. Merritt's usual pop melodies are here in abundance, but they are layered with ambient sound, feedback, overdubs, etc. The net effect is a sound that might have been recorded underwater, or in a paper bag, a palimpsest of noise accompanying Merritt's jaunty tunes. Which is not to say it's loud, or discordant, or atonal. The layering and the use of varying musical styles instead produces a sound that's contemporary yet timeless and impossible to place. Distortion contains within its melodies the past 45 years of pop history. The best way to describe it is if the Shangri-Las merged with the circa-Pet Sounds Beach Boys, became a punk band, spent a decade listening to Garbage, added a cellist and accordionist, and then recorded this album.

This connection to pop history is made overt in Merritt's twisted "California Girls," not a cover but a complete re-imagining. The song begins, "See them on their big bright screen/tan and blonde and seventeen/Eating nonfood keeps them mean/but they're young forever/If they must grow up/they marry dukes and earls/I hate California girls." And it goes on from there, hysterically. Sense of humor and of play is central to Merrit's lyrics. Who wouldn't like an album that features songs titled "Please Stop Dancing", "Too Drunk to Dream", or "Three-Way" (which contains only one lyric, the word "three-way" exclaimed at intervals)? And who wouldn't like an album where Daniel Handler, author of the Lemony Snicket novels and of The Basic Eight, plays the accordion?

If you aren't familiar with The Magnetic Fields, give them a try. If you are, then you're probably catching one of their shows this weekend at Town Hall, and maybe I'll see you there.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

How Big's Your Foot?

Become a locavore. Put a carbon rating on food labels. Sell carbon emissions futures. These are some of the solutions to our ever-increasing carbon footprint discussed by Michael Specter in an article in this week's New Yorker. However, as Specter points out, the more feel-good a solution might be, the less quantifiable it probably is.

Let's start with consuming only food grown locally, or only food grown or produced within a certain radius of your home. This sounds incredibly good - no bananas flown up from South America, no beef from New Zealand, no green beans from Africa. It sounds so good I've spent the past year going more and more local myself. As it turns out, even when factoring in the environmental impact of shipping goods by air, local foods might have the greater carbon footprint.

Factors other than air shipping that need to be considered include water use, type of fertilizer, harvesting methods, packaging, growing seasons, land use, and storage and transportation method. Something boat shipped, for example, uses far less fossil fuel than a product produced domestically but shipped by refrigerated truck. And New Zealand has more sunny days than the United States, and more renewable sources for electricity, making the New Zealand beef a viable option against beef from cattle raised here in the Northeast.

In the UK, Tesco supermarkets are attempting to have all of their products come with a "carbon label" letting consumers know the environmental impact of their choices. Walkers crisps was the first product on the shelves to carry this label. How do you figure out the carbon dioxide emissions associated with potato chips? According to Specter, the company had to take into account the energy required to plant seeds for the ingredients and make the fertilizers and pesticides needed for growing; the energy required to harvest the potatoes (diesel tractors); the carbon effects of cleaning, chopping, storing, and bagging the potatoes; the energy needed for the production and printing of the chip bags; the petroleum needed to deliver the chips to stores; and finally the impact of disposing of the packaging once the chips have been consumed. In other words, a carbon footprint is never an easy calculation, and the results might not be as expected.

On Friday I told everyone to go out and buy a print publication, so let's think about publishing in print versus publishing online. You'd think online would easily leave the smaller footprint, since print involves growing and harvesting trees, manufacturing ink, content production, the printing process, distribution by truck, and finally recycling of the printed product after consumption. On the other hand, each of us right now is on a computer that is not easily recyclable, looking at a monitor that contains arsenic and mercury, running on electricity. This blog is stored on the equivalent of a monster computer somewhere, in a climate-controlled room. You are accessing the blog utilizing not only electrical power but also phone or cable lines which had to be manufactured and installed and which also need to be powered. There's this to consider as well: the print publication has centralized distribution, and can be shared among readers. In the next issue of my magazine (printed on recycled paper), content by six contributors will be consumed by 25,000 readers, with a press run of only half that. Each of you is reading this blog individually, so to really think about this we'd need to take into account each and every factor and look at energy required not only to produce each post but for each of you to read it. It's not at all as simple as it would at first appear.

Specter's article does make clear one easy way for us to reduce our carbon footprint: stop deforestation. Trees absorb carbon dioxide, maintain our ecosystem, absorb groundwater, cool the planet. It might be more important to plant a tree than to drive to the farmers' market for some local winter potatoes.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

All Hail Barnabas Collins

Between the ages of four and six, my absolute favorite TV show was Dark Shadows. What child didn't love Dark Shadows? It had it all: werewolves, ghosts, time travel, trippy music, even a character (David Collins) who was himself a child. Of course, the real reason I loved the show was because I loved Barnabas Collins so much I wanted to be him. My prized possession was a plastic ring that came out of a cereal box, worn always on my index finger, just like Barnabas. I wanted to be a vampire, pining to be human again. I wanted to live in a gloomy mansion full of secrets.

I have General Hospital to thank for my discovery of Dark Shadows. My mother was hooked on GH, and every day at 3 PM I'd sit with her and watch it. In those days the entire soap took place on the 7th Floor Nurses' Station of a hospital in an unnamed city, the drama revolving around the sexual tension between doctors and nurses. In 1967, Dark Shadows came on immediately after, at 3:30. Although I sat through all the trials and tribulations of Jessie Brewer and Dr. Steve Hardy, my mother had no interest in Collinswood, and abandoned the TV to me.

I was extremely upset at the prospect of going off to kindergarten, not because I wanted to be at home with my mother all day, but because I was afraid I'd get home too late to see Dark Shadows. I remember my mother joyfully telling me that the schedule had been changed, and my show would be running at 4 PM. In fact, this late-day scheduling was the key to the show's success. By 4 PM mothers all over the country had left their seats in front of the TV to begin preparing dinner; during its entire run (1966-1971), Dark Shadows was the most popular daytime program with people under the age of 25.

I eventually matured, as will happen. The Brady Bunch became my favorite show, and I began wearing rings on my ring finger. Looking back, my childhood love for Barnabas is easy to understand. The human world, filled with drama and tears and the sexual tension of the 7th Floor Nurses' Station, was impossible for me to fully comprehend and was a world I observed from the outside. I also pined to be human, and didn't know how I would ever accomplish that goal.

Until the day she died, my mother's favorite entertainments involved doctors having affairs with nurses. I now realize that my love of Interview With the Vampire is just an extension of my love for Barnabas. The story is the same: a scorned lover makes someone a vampire, and then that person spends eternity wishing for nothing more than the human touch. My favorite entertainments haven't changed because every time I think I've accomplished my goal, every time I think I've entered the adult world, I suddenly notice a ring on my index finger and know that I still haven't unlocked all the secrets hidden in this gloomy mansion.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Truth. Justice. American Way. Part II.

Where were we? Right - your mother dies, you move her out of her apartment, then the landlord takes you to court, claiming that you must pay the rent due on the remainder of her lease. Subpoenas ensue. The hearing is held. You sit in the chair marked "Defendant" and listen to attorneys argue over the definition of "termination" and the vague wording of the "acceleration clause." And then it's over and you go home and wait to receive a copy of the judgment in the mail.

Yes, Virginia, sometimes there is justice: we won. Of course, Lafayette Towers Apartments has the right to appeal, and my lawyer tells me to expect that to happen, but in the short term we have defeated Goliath. Let me take a moment away from basking in the glow of victory to explain why I did this, why this is important.

Lafayette Towers is the only apartment building in this town that has an elevator and a front desk, and it's therefore an extremely popular place to live for women whose husbands have died and who have sold their suburban homes and who are getting older and who don't want to have to climb stairs. A good percentage of the population of the building is elderly women. When my mother's illness entered its last stage and we were going over things, she told me that the owners would go after the estate for rent, and that I should fight it if I could. So that's one reason I fought.

But I also did it for all the other women who live in that building, many of whom were my mother's friends. They all know about this practice of holding estates responsible for the duration of the lease, and none of them like it. Many of their children live out of town, though, and for years people have just been paying whatever they are told they owe and letting it go. If I could win, I'd be helping all those other tenants. My particular case was fought over principle more than money, because my mother only had three months left on the lease after she died. A victory for me means that every lease in that building can now be challenged, which explains why the building's owners spent more on their attorney than they could ever recover from me.

In honor of Presidents' Day, I'll close with the words of Abraham Lincoln, the greatest speech writer to ever be President:

It is better only sometimes to be right, than at all times to be wrong.

Friday, February 15, 2008

What's New in Old Media

It's been a busy week, what with the work and the two inches of water in my basement, so I haven't had much time to read, but I did catch up on some magazines last night, and if you're not a subscriber, I want to highly recommend this week's issue of New York magazine. This publication went through a recent period of crapulousness, but in the past year it's gotten better and better. This particular issue is just great.

First, the magazine is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and doing so by every few months taking one section and writing and designing it as if it were 1968. This week features the 1968 Strategist - dining, nightlife, real estate, beauty, and shopping columns pulled from the archives and (here's the best part) laid out and designed just as they would have been 40 years ago. It's fascinating not only in that way-back machine kind of vibe (CorningWare is new! the Kodak Instamatic is both expensive and revolutionary!) but also in the use of graphics and fonts. Laid out in the middle of a contemporary publication design, you can really see the aesthetic differences between the two periods. Note that I didn't include a link, because this simply does not come through online. Go ahead, give some props to print and buy the issue.

In fact, to try to get you to buy the issue, I won't provide links for these other articles, not that you can't find them online if you desire. If you're interested in quitting smoking, voluntarily going insane, or want to know what suicidal ideation really feels like, then read Derek De Koff's "This Is My Brain on Chantix." All he wanted to do was stop smoking. Instead, he ultimately found himself in a bar chatting with and trying to pick up not a potted plant but the plant's shadow. Yes, you read that correctly.

Can anyone resist the story of a coke-addled hedge fund manager, his drunken wife, an internet psychic, and a male stripper named Tiger? I didn't think so. This week's issue also features a look into the death of Seth Tobias, the fight over his estate, and the wild, strange trip that was his marriage. Did Phyllis Tobias kill him? Did he secretly carry on an affair in Vegas with Tiger? Is it fun to lose $250 million in a year's time? Read all about it.

I'll be spending part of the weekend proofing the layout of my own print publication. I know this sounds very old media, but please help keep print alive. Here are just a few of the things new media can't provide: the smell of ink, the beauty of feature design uninterrupted by advertising, the pleasures of a story researched and written to last longer than a very short news cycle, and the paychecks given to press and delivery people. Buy something this weekend. Then read it.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Singles' Awareness Day

Back in the day, Rome was surrounded by wolves, so Romans needed a god to protect them from these lupine creatures. Each February 15 they celebrated Lupercalia, a rite associated with the god of wolves connected not to romantic love but to fertility. Here's what Plutarch says:

"At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy."

When an early Pope named February 14 St. Valentine's Day, he could have been referring to any of three St. Valentines. To understand how the day became associated with love, well, just blame it on Chaucer. In fact, as you go through life, blame anything you don't understand on Chaucer; it works for me.

The practice of sending cards originated, of course, in the United States, when in 1847 a woman whose father owned a stationery company began printing up embossed love cards. Heart-shaped boxes came about a century later, as did the practice of schoolchildren bringing in a card for every kid in the room.

I'm a traditionalist, which means I'll be spending my day with the magistrates, running around naked with a shaggy thong. Please join me in this anti-capitalistic celebration of the day.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Political Animals

I'm somewhat unreasonably excited that the beagle won Westminster. I currently have a Brittany, but back in the day I had two beagles, so I'm a fan. The fact that this guy beat out not one but two (count them, two) poodles makes the triumph even sweeter, because it's essentially a victory of the sweet and sloppy over the frou-frou and precious. All of this makes me think of my petless childhood, and a story about it.

I spent ten years of my life begging for a pet. I was permitted a goldfish once, which of course died within two days, having been won at a carnival and therefore having been bred for early death. Then I had a hamster who escaped from his cage and...that's actually another story that I'll tell another time. Finally, when I was 14, something or someone gave, and I was allowed to get a cat.

We went to a barn and I chose a kitten. I named him Martini, after my father's favorite drink (I didn't know it, but at the same time I also gave myself a porn name that rocks: Martini Marwood). Things proceeded apace, until my father's heart problems were discovered. In those days, one had to sit at home for a couple of months and rest before a triple bypass, so my father found himself alone all day with the cat.

My father had never had a pet, and he was a fairly anal guy. He found himself following Martini around all day, trying to prevent shedding on the furniture and other suburban disasters. He decided that the cat was bad for his heart, and had to go. In these situations, we always had a family vote. There were four of us, two parents and two kids, so in the event of a tie vote the decision always went to the kids. I didn't make them up, but those were the rules.

The question on the floor was, "Should Martini go?" I entered the caucus believing we were headed for a tie that would be decided in my favor; I knew I was a "no" and my father a "yes," and I knew that my mother didn't like pets and that my sister did. What I didn't know was that, behind closed doors, my father gave my sister $20 to vote his way. In a crushing 3-1 defeat, Martini was shipped off to my aunt's house.

When I complained of vote-fixing, my father said, "It's good you learn this now. This is the way democracy works. Never forget it."

As I watch another Presidential election unfold, I spend more and more time remembering this lesson.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Good Teeth, Healthy Coat

It's hard to beat looking at beautiful women, but I would never watch a beauty pageant. This isn't just because they're sexist (although they are sexist), but also because they're dehumanizing, reducing women to body parts and shiny hair. And yet every year I spend two nights watching Westminster, which, let's be honest, is a beauty pageant full of body parts and shiny hair. I understand that which is not human can't be dehumanizing, but there's still something disturbing about the dog show, even if it's hard to beat looking at beautiful dogs.

I know that breeders and participants think of showing as a sport, and I'll admit that a certain amount of fitness is required of both dog and handler in order to look good running around the ring, but it's hard for me to see this as a sport. This isn't field trials or agility; the winner of the dog show isn't the fastest, the strongest, the one with the most stamina. The winner is the prettiest.

The dogs are judged based on their breed standards, and the dog that comes closest to achieving "perfection," meaning the dog that most closely meets the standard, becomes "best." The judging criteria go beyond breed standards, though; each breed also has a grooming standard for the show, and markings are taken into account, not only in that roaning may or may not be acceptable for the breed, but also in that the dog simply needs to have nice markings. Go to a dog show and watch the ring preparations, the amount of time spent on clipping and brushing and covering blemishes and creaming and powdering white coats to make them look their whitest.

Ten years ago, I had a friend who owned probably the worst show dog in the world. By that I mean the dog hated the ring, had acne, and clearly wasn't cut out for the life. Her purchase contract for the dog stated that he had to be shown for two years, though, so she showed him for two years. The average cost per year, in 1997 dollars, was $10,000. Why spend all that money? Well, if the dog becomes a champion you get it all back by breeding.

The dog show is then ultimately about the economics of sex. Winners breed with winners, their offspring sold off at a premium. Male champions spend their retirement having their sperm harvested and frozen, producing an income stream for their owners for years to come. The dog show is a study of eugenics in action.

How would we feel if this was the ultimate result of the Miss America pageant?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

WordWatch 2008

Mountaineer. Navigator. Trail Blazer. Escape. Excursion. Aviator. Tundra. Santa Fe. Wrangler. Expedition. Bronco. Outback. Forrester: Vehicles that can never be driven off-road.

Countryside. Glenndale. Fernwood. Brookside. Fieldcrest. Meadowlawn. Mountainview. RiverRun. Forestgate. Parkland: Streets that are named for that which was destroyed during their construction.

Younger boxer-like mix. Adult mixed breed. Spuds McKenzie look-alike. Feisty bull-terrier mix. Nice disposition mixed breed. Not good with cats. Large terrier mix. Sweet pit-a-poo. Gentle giant: Ways the shelter describes pit bulls.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Cashstick Junglia

It's official: every writer and producer ever associated with Sex and the City gets his or her chance to write/produce a knock-off. I used to watch SATC; if I ask, will Jeff Zucker give me an hour of prime time? I'm not going to comment on Cashmere Mafia or Lipstick Jungle because I haven't watched them (not that this would normally stop me). It's the phenomena that interest me.

Can a woman have it all? That seems to be the premise of these shows. Can a woman be attractive, hold down a high-powered job, wear ridiculously "fashionable" clothes, and still get the guy? From the network's point of view, the answer to this rhetorical question would have to be "no" in order for narrative plotting to continue. SATC's finale, after all, found our heroines happily coupled-up. However, I don't know of a single woman who watched SATC because she was interested in finding out if women could have it all. Everyone I know who liked the show liked it because it was funny, because it depicted women in their true raunchiness, because it depicted characters who were realistically flawed and realistically human.

The knock-offs reduce SATC to a premise and a wardrobe. Women know they can "have it all." Women have been marrying and reproducing while working for two generations now. Network executives, nearly all male, are the only ones interested in pursuing this uninteresting question. We're left with a couple of silly television shows where a group of friends run around in, essentially, costume, grab a few drinks together, and then venture forth into romantic disaster. We'll see if the writer's strike causes an audience to care by necessity.

We'll get more of this in March, when Bravo premiers the reality version of this concept in The Real Housewives of New York City. In the meantime, I'm going to sign off and go back to my incredibly high-powered job. I'm wearing Jimmy Choos and a tu-tu, hoping to meet a special someone later, over dirty martinis.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

I Don't Have to Say I Love It

I won't say I've been waiting for this my entire life, but I have been waiting for months for Shelby Lynne's cover album of Dusty Springfield songs to be released. I've been enamored with Dusty for years, and I think Lynne has one of the best voices out there today. So why don't I love it?

In Just A Little Lovin, Lynne pares down the originals to their bare essentials, leaving us with beautiful songs rendered by a beautiful voice, with minimal accompaniment. Springfield's versions, on the other hand, contrast bouncy, bright arrangements with her vocal desperation. I can't listen to "Am I the Same Girl," for example, without thinking of a Gary Winogrand image: the painful brightness of an LA afternoon, the aspirations of the shopgirls out for lunch coexisting with the realized dreams of the stars immortalized on Hollywood Boulevard as well as with the realities of the broken men who line the street. Lynne doesn't give us this combination of optimism and despair that I find central to my love of Dusty Springfield.

But, it's a beautiful piece of work, and maybe soon I'll be able to stop hearing the originals in the covers and appreciate it for what it is. You should buy it; Shelby Lynne is a great singer. Meantime, though, I've spent two weeks listening to this.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Truth. Justice. American Way.

Let's say your mother dies. And let's say, just, you know, hypothetically, that she has four months left on her lease. Let's now say that you pay her up to date and then move her stuff out of the apartment. Do you still have to pay the landlord the remainder of the lease? If you answered, "Heck, no, clearly death terminates a lease," I'd think you are absolutely correct.

If instead you answered, "Yes, you have to pay. Death doesn't cancel a lease. And if you don't pay I will hire a lawyer and take you to court," you must be the management of Lafayette Towers Apartments, who took me to court this afternoon. What the judge has to say we won't know for five days.

In the meantime, if your elderly mother wants to move into an apartment, make sure she has a plain language lease written by a landlord who understands that the deceased no longer need their apartments.

Friendly Neighbors Meet

I recently decided to watch the pilot episode of Sesame Street. I know I'm supposed to give you a link here so you can order it from Amazon or put it in your Netflix queue but I'm a little slow and haven't figured out how to do that yet, so if you're interested just go to Amazon or Netflix and find it yourself. Anyway, the pilot was definitely groovy and far-out; it premiered in the fall of 1969, and felt like it. The disc contained an interesting bonus feature: the reel sent to PBS affiliates explaining the rational for the show and encouraging them to pick it up. The concept of children (and puppets) teaching children was new at the time, as was the concept of structuring the lessons as you would a commercial. All well and good, but I mainly spent my viewing time trying to figure something out. You see, the disc began with a disclaimer that the material contained in the pilot episode is not appropriate for preschool viewers and is meant for adult audiences.


What could possibly have been considered preschool-age appropriate 40 years ago that is now inappropriate? After watching the pilot twice I still lack a clue; if any of you can figure this out, please let me know.

The show begins with a young girl, new to Sesame Street, being led around by the hand by nice neighbor Gordon. The girl's parents are nowhere to be seen. Gordon is black and the girl is white. Is this what's inappropriate?

Gordon introduces the girl to Ernie and Bert, who live in the basement of his building. Ernie and Bert are interracial and probably gay. Is this what's inappropriate (and aren't they still interracial and probably gay, and still on the show)?

Gordon's wife invites the girl in for milk and cookies, then realizes she's out of milk and so sends them to Mr. Hooper's store to buy some. Is the corner ghetto store run by a white man undoubtedly charging double what a suburban store would charge for milk the inappropriate thing?

We next see a ridiculously long film where inner-city children go to a farm to find out where milk comes from. The film features close-ups of udders being pulled, milk splashing all over the place, more udders. This part, I found inappropriate for adult viewing and downright gross, and had to fast-forward through it. Kids probably don't mind udders and milk, though. Or is the inappropriate part the fact that milk no longer comes from a small farm where cows are milked by hand, but instead from some huge agri-business milk lot where the cow is fed hormones and hooked to a machine all day?

The girl and a little boy have milk and cookies in Gordon's apartment while Gordon and a friend hang a picture using a hammer and nail. Is this an example of pernicious hidden sexual content?

Ernie takes a bath in what appears to be a tub in his living room and sings the rubber duckie song. We see upper-body puppet nudity. Is this inappropriate?

Sesame Street was brought to you by the numbers 2 and 3, and the letters S and W. All those curves - inappropriate?

All in all, it's a good thing I don't have kids. Clearly, I'd let them wander down a ghetto street, cavort with puppets, and have unsupervised milk and cookies with people of all races.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Ingesting with Tunsie

Because our friend Tunsie has a lot to say about food, I've created this spot for his mini-blogs. Read the comments below for all things gastronomically Tunsie.

Loss Leader For a Day

It's a foggy morning and I'm stuck at home waiting for delivery of my new washer and dryer. Seems like as good a time as any to talk about Gang Leader for a Day, which I just finished last night. While I applaud Venkatesh's bravery in entering the Robert Taylor Homes to begin with, and his dedication to his fieldwork, and the openness that allowed him to befriend residents of the housing project, the whole book mainly felt self-serving and self-aggrandizing. Here he is, posing on the cover, in a leather coat, standing in the ghetto. Isn't he a cool dude? He's no academic. He's rogue, yo!

Open the cover and then you have the text itself. Why was this published? The fieldwork he describes took place nearly 20 years ago, in a community that has been disbursed (or erradicated, depending on how you look at it). It's not about the actual fieldwork, anyway. This isnt a monograph, it's a memoir, about what a badass grad student he was. The text doesn't satisfy as memoir or autobiography, though, because even though it's ultimately about Venkatesh and not the gang member, it lacks the generic structure of memoir: I begin, I ascend, I lose my way and mess up, I am redeemed. He does realize at some point that he's using these subjects for his own ends, true, but whatever redemption he looked for was certainly lost by trotting these same people out these years later to use as fodder for popular non-fiction.

I understand that this gets at the heart of the dilemna faced not only by anthropologists and sociologists but also documentarians of all stripes: how does my observing change the observed, and how do I ultimately create a document that's not somehow about me? This text ultimately feels confused on this issue. It's about JT and the Black Kings, sort of, it's about being a grad student at U of C, sort of, it's about the lessons of ghetto life and about Ivy life, sort of. Mainly, it's about voyeurism - his fascination with a life unlike the suburban Southern California world of his childhood, and the fascination with the lives of the other that this book's publisher knows that the educated, white, upper middle-class buyer of the text shares with the author.

In other words, I'm implicated too. Gang Leader for a Day isn't the subject; we are.