Friday, January 30, 2009

Just Be Glad Your Pets Don't Dress You

One of my neighbors has a Bichon. A male Bichon. This poor dog is bathed nightly, and taken once a week for hair trimming and poofing. The poor guy spends his life looking more like topiary than like a dog. It could be worse; he could be made up like one of the Pets Who Want to Kill Themselves. I did make Brody wear antlers for approximately five minutes Christmas Day, but after perusing this site, I'm rethinking my plans for next year. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Stop Calling Me Names

Sunday's Times Styles section contained yet another article about Baby Boomers, and once again I got thrown into that mix because I was born in 1963. Boomers are defined as being born between 1946 and 1964. I don't know why 1964 or how that started, but I can say this: it's wrong. I'm not a Boomer, I have little in common with Boomers. Someone born in 1946 could well have been my parent. Stop categorizing me that way.

Baby Boomers grew up on Howdy Doody and the Mickey Mouse Club. I didn't. I watched Match Game. Baby Boomers were inspired by JFK. He died a month after I was born. Remember that famous picture of Bill Clinton shaking Kennedy's hand? I wasn't alive when that was taken. How does that have anything to do with me? Boomers grew up on the Beatles. When the Beatles broke up, I was listening to Disney soundtracks. My childhood lacked Beatles. Jackson 5 yes, Beatles no.

Boomers remember Vietnam, Woodstock, Kent State. These were defining events for Boomers. I remember none of that. I do remember Watergate, but that was only because of my father's obsession. I was too young to understand it or really care about it in any personal way. The defining political event of my younger years was probably the hostage crisis and then Iran Contra. Whatever that makes me, it's not a Boomer.

I was too young to be a hippie, or even a post-hippie. People my age became yuppies, if they became anything at all. More people my age grew up into political conservatism than grew up into dissent or liberalism. The civil rights and anti-war movements were things we studied. The 1960s was a thing we studied - I'm young enough to have taken a course on the 60s in college - not something we participated in. I am neither culturally nor politically a Boomer.

Later "generations" - X, Y, Millennials, whatever you want to call them - have tended to be thrown together in 10-year chunks. Why does the Boomer "generation" span nearly 20 years? It shouldn't. It's wrong. I'm tired of it. I simply am not of the same generation as someone born in the late 40s. We grew up in different cultures, different societies. Some commentators try to acknowlege this by calling my and my peers "late Boomers." If you have to separate us from the pack like that, maybe we don't belong in the pack to begin with.

When did the baby boom end, then? Maybe it was 1964 when the number of births per year decreased, but in terms of generational groupings, I think 1961 is the cut-off for Boomers. Anyone born after Kennedy's inaugural is something else. I don't know what we are, but we're. not. Baby. Boomers.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Life Imitating Student Council

If the one thing you miss about 2008 is the whole election cycle, you should go out immediately and rent Frontrunners, a shockingly engaging documentary about a student council election at NYC's Stuyvesant High School. Yes, you read that correctly: the focus is on a competitive race for Student Union President at one of the country's premier public high schools. Where Alexander Payne's beloved Election plays the high school political process for satire, Frontrunners applies standard verite treatment to the process, in the end using this microcosm to shine a light on the American political process in general.

The film follows the race through both a primary and general election. We begin with four candidates; two will be eliminated in the primary, and the other two will face off in the general. The candidates grapple with the choices that face all politicians: the sexual and racial considerations in choosing a running mate; the selection of talking points and campaign materials; how and where to campaign. Along the way we are presented with interviews with not only the candidates but with a pundit and with members of the local press. The candidates compete for the endorsement of the high school paper, seek the approval of their peers, and prepare for and compete in a televised debate.

At my high school student council elections involved nothing more than hanging up some home-made signs and hoping that popularity or name recognition would carry you through. At my high school only dweebs were on student council anyway. Of course, I didn't attend one of the most competetive high schools in the country; the stakes are higher for these adolescents, and they know it.

Even the candidates themselves fall into recognizable political types. In the primary, we have a race among a self-annointed favorite, an outlier with perhaps more student government experience than the favorite, a hard-working and well-liked theater chick, and a popular jock who figures what the hell, popularity often carries the day. I won't spoil anything for anyone, but I will say watching their various campaign strategies and styles is interesting in part because of the way they parellel what we witnessed in 2008.

It really is true, I guess, that politics is just politics.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Retail Theory

I'm used to seeing stores erect their Christmas sections right after Labor Day. I don't like it, but I'm used to it. I'm the kind of person who takes one holiday at a time, in order, and the rush to Christmas seems to me to give, say, Columbus Day the short end of the stick. However, I didn't realize until yesterday that spring actually begins in mid-January.

My local big-box bulk discount store has already set up its spring garden section. Who cares if the yard is full of ice? It's time to buy Miracle Grow and plastic "Grecian" pots! Is there a better way to celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday than by buying some patio furniture? All of you with flower boxes better rush out this weekend and stock up on marigold seeds; they might be gone by the time you need them in mid-May.

Also, and I learned this the hard way, be very careful with your winter coats. Should a tragedy befall your winter coat in the middle of winter, you will be screwed. Winter is the time to buy shorts, not warm coats. OK, I'm off to shop for some mulch.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


What if money was worthless? What would our lives be without money?

I assume none of us would work, or at least not work as we currently understand it. Why slave away in an office if the return is useless paper? We'd only do a job that resulted in tangible returns: food, clothing, fuel. The only jobs that would result in such returns would be jobs that produced something that could in turn be bartered. In other words, we'd work only to produce commodities that could be exchanged for other commodities. Press releases and brochures are not such commodities, so if I wanted to work, I'd need to change careers fast.

Very few of us have any experience producing commodities these days, though. Those of us who now hold production or manufacturing jobs, those of us who now do the manual labor and are not the best compensated, would become those who are best equipped to survive. White collar workers, on the other hand, will be relegated to the bottom of the food chain. Us white collar workers won't have jobs to go to, anyway. If money is worthless, we won't need bankers, investment advisors, insurance agents, analysts. We won't need people to sit in chairs all day emailing and taking meetings.

I assume we'll be allowed to stay in our houses since the "banks," which won't be around anymore, won't have any use for a nation full of empty structures. All of us white collar workers will have to learn to grow our own food if we want to have something to eat, and if we want to possess a commodity that we can barter. The only way to have fuel in the winter will be to produce food in the summer. Maybe more of us will take up hunting, assuming we have something to trade for the bullets and the guns. Now that I think about it, a thinning of the deer population around my house would be one positive outcome of the total unraveling of our economy.

If we have nothing to barter with, we won't have any gas for our cars. We'll walk everywhere, or use what public transportation is available (I assume the government will try to put people to work by trading surplus grain and cheese for labor). The end of our economy would be good for the environment not only because we would of necessity produce as much of our own food as possible, thereby ending agribusiness, but also because we'd stop burning so much fossil fuel. With nothing to trade for heating oil or gas or for electricity, those of us with fireplaces would gather wood and brush to burn, ending the production of yard waste. Waste in general would be a thing of the past. Cans and bottles would also once again become commodities, things to be reused rather than discarded.

Without money, we'd end up knowing each other better, more intimately. Electricity is a commodity that will be available only to those who can generate it themselves or trade something for it. Until the day that each of us has our own solar panel and/or windmill, or some sort of hydroelectric system, we'll live with periods of darkness when we can't afford to power our computers and televisions. We'll turn to each other for entertainment and information, we'll rely on personal interactions. We'll live closer together in order to have access to information and resources, thereby ending sprawl.

Sure, life would be harder, much as it was harder hundreds or thousands of years ago. Access to medicine and education would be limited. The rule of law would be harder to enforce. In many ways, it would suck. But if money was worthless, I would never have to spend another day like this one, thinking about the fact that I need to find a job.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

My First Inaugural

No, I'm not in DC today braving the cold and the crowds. I'm here at home, where I can DVR the processions, skip ahead to the actual swearing-in and speech at my leisure, and stay warm all day. That's fine with me. I've actually attended an inauguration before, and while it was interesting, once was enough for this lifetime.

A friend in college had a father who was some sort of lawyer who did something or other for the Republican party. I don't know if he donated, fundraised, or defended them, but at any rate he had some sort of pull. She had tickets to Reagan's second inaugural, it was Winter Term and I was sitting around working on my honors project, so with nothing better to do I went up to DC to attend with her and another college friend.

Whatever her father did left us with pretty good "seats" for the swearing-in, but because it was freezing the outdoor events were moved indoors and the ceremony took place in the Capitol rotunda. Our good "seats" were in a rented space with free food and drinks and monitors to watch the proceedings. That was fine with me. It really was freezing. After about 15 minutes milling about with the others gathered in the banquet hall, it became clear that I was surrounded by....people who had voted for Reagan. In November, 1984 I cast the first ballot of my life, for Mondale/Ferraro. Yes, I was one of the five Pennsylvanians who voted Democratic that year. "If not us, who? If not now, when?" blah, blah, blah. The neatly dressed crowed went wild. I had another drink. He kept talking about freezing government spending so that everyone becomes more responsible or some other such nonsense. I kept drinking and kept my mouth shut.

After the open bar closed it was time to go back to Alexandria, take a long nap, and get ready for the ball. That's right, I even got to attend an inaugural ball. My friend's parents were attending one of the big balls, where Reagan himself would appear for a few minutes, but we had tickets to one of the lesser state balls, probably Virginia's since that's where her father lived. The ball had some name, but I don't remember it. Here's what you do at an inaugural ball when you're 21 years old and have nothing at stake: you dance to Motown and get incredibly drunk. Andrew Jackson's celebration featured a mob of his "common" supporters storming the White House for free punch. The Republican equivalent of this is young women in pearls and young men who look like they should be in the military, but are not, drinking up everything at the open bar. When the ball is over you and your friends and some random young legislative aides head down to Georgetown and drink some more. When the bars close you take a cab home and pass out in your dress.

I'll be just fine on my couch today, and attending a meeting rather than a ball tonight. I won't miss the pearls or the legislative aides. Feeling part of history is so much easier when you're sober.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Over and Done With

Of course I couldn't help myself last night and I gave another 14 minutes of my life to the Bush presidency, watching his weird smirky face say farewell to the nation. His speech was exactly as I expected. What I find off is the number of pundits and commentators who are annoyed if not downright angry that the guy has spent that last couple of weeks spinning his time in office as a success when we all know it was an abject failure. What on earth did anyone expect?

Should Bush have said, "I tricked the nation into a war it didn't need, at tremendous human and monetary cost. I was wrong"? Should he have said, "My policies let the rich prosper and wrecked the economy. Oh well"? And should he have concluded with, "I have successfully destroyed the environment as well as scientific research, or at least have removed the role of the government in the promotion of scientific and rational thought"? No way he was going to say any of that.

We got the guy we elected, and he behaved the way we should have expected him to behave. More than that, we elect presidents to lead, to be certain, to be calm, to give us direction. Bush may have led in the wrong direction, but it was his direction, and he did lead us there. When he says that he's proudest of "making the tough decisions" I think this is exactly what he means. At this point very few agree with him, but he remained who he was. He did what he set out to do, no matter how disastrous the outcome. Good riddance to him, but I don't see why we should expect an apology. He's only ever been himself.

History will judge the past eight years. I have little doubt history will not vindicate him, but the one way he's right is in leaving the judgement to the future. In the meantime, we're thankfully moving on, and it's time to get ready for Tuesday. Time to break out the Obama yo-yos, commemorative thongs, onesies, Franklin Mint coins, and plates decorated with the Electoral College vote. If nothing else, at least the kitsch-fueled sector of our economy is working again.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Scary Women

It's not hard to find disturbing content on TV. The nightly news, Bush speaking about anything, Gray's Anatomy, disturbing, all. Perhaps the most disturbing thing on TV right now, though, is a show that previously had been a guilty pleasure, a show that I used to watch because it made me laugh, a show that was once seemingly innocuous. That show is The Real Housewives of Orange County, and if you want to see how vapid, how cruel, how stupid a bunch of adult women can be, you must tune in Tuesdays at 10 on Bravo (although you can catch "marathons" of the show almost any day of the week, so don't worry if you have other plans Tuesday nights).

The five featured women are supposed to be rich, and it's supposed to be a glimpse into the Botoxed and carefree lives of people who live in a gated community in the Republican capitol of the West. Naturally they're all slaves to plastic surgery, shopping, and chardonnay. Nothing disturbing there. What's become clear this season, though, is that they're slaves to their own basest instincts. These women hate each other, and enact their hatred in front of the camera week after week. Watch this show to learn how not to be.

Last night Tamra, who believes she is the "hottest" housewife, held a formal dinner party in her backyard. Said party involved many courses, but also a lot, a lot, of alcohol. There's a new "housewife" this season, Gretchen. Gretchen is 30, well-groomed, and has a millionaire fiancee who happens to be dying of cancer. Tamra hates Gretchen. She's jealous. So, she spends the whole dinner party plying Gretchen with shots of tequila. After all, what's a formal dinner without shots of tequila? Tamra's husband and 22 year-old son help in the plot to get Gretchen drunk. Tamra tells the camera it's her intent to get Gretchen "naked drunk" so that everyone can see her "dark side."

Gretchen, meanwhile, has just spent the day in the hospital with her dying fiancee. I know what it's like to watch someone die. Sometimes getting drunk is the only way to help yourself forget that particular painful reality. Gretchen gets drunk. Tamra's son sits next to Gretchen, leers, eggs her on. Tamra makes sexual innuendo about Gretchen to the other guests. The other guests try to take alcohol away from Gretchen, but Tamra's husband and son keep slipping her more. Finally, Gretchen is so drunk she's slurring and out of control. Tamra won't let anyone give her a ride home, insisting she stay the night. The episode ends with Tamra's son following Gretchen into the bathroom, asking for a hug. Gretchen rebuffs him, saying she's engaged. Her persists nonetheless. It's all "to be continued."

Last week, the group all went to the racetrack, where Tamra and her co-conspirator Vicky shunned the other housewives, acting like eighth graders in the junior high cafeteria. Two weeks ago, the "gang" all went to Havasu, got drunk while their young children watched, and spent the episode talking trash about one another. I know I'm not making the show sound fun. It's no longer fun; it's simply the most disturbing thing on TV.

It's a trainwreck. You want to turn away, but you can't.

Monday, January 12, 2009

For Every Winner, a Loser

Well, a week and a half of sleep and more sleep has left me healthy, wealthy, and wise. OK, OK, but one out of three ain't bad, right? I finally saw Milk yesterday, a film that features some terrific performances and that is very well-made, and a film that I recommend, although I didn't learn anything new about Milk's life or his times. I did leave the theater thinking the same thing I thought after reading The Mayor of Castro Street and watching The Times of Harvey Milk, which was what the story would look like told from Dan White's point of view.

Something clearly happened that left White deeply disturbed. Although the notion that Twinkies made him do it remains laughable, whether the murders were premeditated or not they would seem to have resulted from some sort of derangement that one would think wasn't apparent during the election. White (and Milk) had been elected just a little over a year before the murders, and White was popular during the campaign. He came into office with a bright political future ahead of him. How did he go from that to depressed and homicidaly angry? Milk hints that White may have been gay himself but repressed and closeted; other treatments of the story paint him as simply homophobic and racist. I don't think either simplification explains things.

It's interesting to note that White represented a district that was mainly white and working-class, but that also included San Francisco's largest and most notorious housing project. White was the only candidate in his district who campaigned in the project, befriending many of the residents and garnering the support of the local gang. Yes, he was the candidate of the police and firemen's unions, but he was also the candidate of a large black underclass.

When he first took office, White befriended Milk. Milk was one of only three city hall colleagues invited to the christening of White's child. Before White's resignation, the San Francisco supervisers were split ideologically, with six conservative and five liberal members. White often voted with the liberals his first months in office, thereby shifting the balance of power. White was willing to vote with Milk and other liberals in exchange for getting their votes for his legislation, and the undoing of this loose coalition was a large part of White's undoing.

The city wanted to open a youth treatment center in White's neighborhood, and one of his campaign promises was to block this, claiming that the treatment center would make the streets of his district less safe. Natrually collecting the necessary votes was difficult in part because no one wants to vote against "youth" and in part because if the center wasn't in White's neighborhood, well, where would it be located? No one wanted in in their district, of course. White did find four votes besides his own. After a conversation with Milk, he believed that Milk would vote with him. On the day of the vote, he invited a number of constituents and neighborhood leaders to witness the defeat of the center. Instead, Milk voted against White, claiming that White had misunderstood him. White was humiliated before the supervisors, the press, and his constituents. He never got over this, and at this point began opposing anything Milk proposed, speaking out in the press against the gay community and liberals in general.

In the meantime, Milk's profile and legislative influence was growing, in part because of his visibility in the fight against Proposition 6, which would have barred gays not only from teaching but from holding any job in the California public school system. This story got national attention, as did Milk. While White felt more and more ineffectual, Milk seemed to be more and more powerful. Milk's defining piece of legislation was a civil rights ordinance stating that the city would not discriminate based on sexual preference. It passed with only one dissenting vote: White's. Not only did White feel betrayed by Milk, he felt betrayed by what he thought was his conservative coalition.

In the meantime, White had been required by city law to quit his position as a firefighter once elected. At that time supervisors were considered part-time employees, and White found that he could no longer support his family on the part-time salary. He opened a fast-food restaurant on the newly-constructed Pier 39, but that venture proved backbreaking and was failing. He tried to garner support for a pay raise for supervisors, but no one would introduce or second such legislation.

Feelings of failure as a husband, father, and legislator led White to resign his post at supervisor. We all know what happened next: he reconsidered, asked Moscone to appoint him to the seat he'd just resigned, was rebuffed in part because Milk and other liberals saw the opportunity to get another liberal vote out of the seat, snuck into city hall, killed Moscone and Milk.

To me, his story isn't just of latent homosexuality or of intolerance but also of failure and frustration, and of being on the wrong side of history. It's a tragedy as much as Milk's life ended in tragedy. Milk's story, and Milk the biopic, is history as told from the other, brighter end, where principles we all now believe in have triumphed (or mainly triumphed, considering the success of Proposition 8). White's story, on the other hand, is history as seen by a confused but well-meaning person trying but unable to live through change successfully. I don't defend him, but do try to understand him.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Please Kill Me

My New Year's resolution should have been "I will be sick all year," because thus far I've had two healthy days out of a possible eight. What else is there to say? No one wants to read a recap of what has turned into The Worst Cold Ever Suffered By a Human Being. I'm leaving the house today and venturing out into the world. I hope to be back tomorrow with some actual thoughts, but for now I'll sign off with this: TheraFlu rocks.

Monday, January 5, 2009

(W)ringing Out the Old

I don't often get stay in bed for 60 hours sick, but when I do it's always on or around New Year's Eve. I have no good explanation for this. It's not as if I celebrate Christmas with a week-long bender, or that I stay up all night waiting for Santa and thereby weaken my immune system. For whatever reason, illness always strikes me on December 31. I missed the whole millennium thing in bed with a wicked flu, and I missed this past New Year's sound asleep as well. Not that I really missed anything except drunk people and a sip of crappy champagne.

Two days either in bed or on the couch provided me with the time needed to devote to the Mad Men Season One DVD set. I'd seen the entire season when it aired in the summer of 2007, but it was worth seeing again. Even more worth it was the plethora of commentary tracks. If you're a fan of the show, you should buy the set for these alone. Not only is there commentary for each and every episode, most episodes have two commentary tracks, one by a writer, director, or producer, and one by several of the actors. The various "making of" documentaries are worthwhile as well, particularly if you're interested in costume or production design, and if you love this series you must be interested in costume and production design.

Revisiting this particular series during the turn of an annum made me think about the reasons why not only Mad Men but anything having to do with post-war America fascinates me. I'm interested in American history in general, but in this period in particular. I always have been. The reason why is so simple I've overlooked it all these years. To be fascinated by our culture from, say, 1945 to 1965 is to be fascinated in the world that my parents lived in before I knew them. My parents came of age in that world, were shaped by it, lived it, were part of it. I obviously only knew my parents as parents, as married people, and they married later in life. I never knew them as young adults. To understand that period is to understand some secret part of who my parents were, some part of them that was inaccessable to me because it predated me.

For me, to observe the inner workings of Sterling Cooper is to have a window, albeit a fictional window, into what the workplace was like for my mother before she married and had me. I watch the executives' attitudes toward work, and toward their coworkers, and see what it must have been like for my father to be part of that environment. To observe the Draper marriage and their assumptions about gender tells me something about the assumptions both of my parents must have had when they married.

These characters interest me as fictional characters, and the series fascinates me as a work of serialized fiction, but what is also at work is a life-long attempt to understand the unknowable: the inner lives of the adults who, in a sense, I knew so intimately, but whose pasts and motivations seemed so mysterious. The "mystery" of Don Draper is nothing more than the mystery that every father is to his child. You know him so well, but he came to you fully formed, and what made him cannot be found on the page because it exists only beyond the margins.