Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Down the Shore

I'm at the beach and happily off-line. I'll be back Friday with a new post. See you then!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Our New Target

The resurgent Dow, the Gosselin divorce, corruption in New Jersey (yes, I know "corruption in New Jersey" is redundant), health care reform, none of the news of the day is as big, as meaningful, as life-altering, as the news that our new Target opened over the weekend. People young and old, big and small, poor and not-so-poor crammed the parking lot, jammed the aisles, and packed the check-outs. A new Target! Manna from heaven!

Oh, it's not just a run of the mill Target that I'm talking about. You see, our new Target is a Super Target, where you can purchase groceries along with your Michael Graves corkscrews and Ed Hardy knock-off T-shirts. It occupies what was recently a cornfield, just across the now traffic-congested street from the Super Wal-Mart, next door to the Super Wegman's. As you can see, we needed this Target. Seriously, it's the American way to be able to purchase prepackaged salad in a bag without ever having to make a left turn.

I'm a sucker for Grand Opening loss leaders so of course I went to check out our new mecca. And so I braved the parking lot and the crowds and strolled through the automatic doors to find myself standing inside...a Target. A Target just like all the other Targets within easy driving distance except that, if one is feeling exceptionally brave and doesn't care about the provinance of the food that one puts into one's body, one can purchase some cheap steak. All that hope, all that desire, all that anticipation, and all that results is a Target.

Life goes on, unchanged. The sun still rises and sets, my cat still vomits hairballs on a nightly basis, it still rains or doesn't rain, I still wish I could bring myself to lower my cable bill. The Super Target has accomplished nothing, save the destruction of a perfectly useful field. Six months ago a Sonic opened just up the street from this new Target, and for days cars clogged the street as hungry hoardes descended. The hoardes were rewarded at the end of their hour-long wait with a fast food burger.

Well, this is, after all, the oldest trick in marketing. Same old tired product? Change the packaging.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Meet Me at the Fair

I had never gone to a farmers' fair until my mid-20s, and even then I only attended the first time out of sheer boredom. I was writing my dissertation and would do nearly anything to avoid all those blank pages that I needed to fill with Gertrude Stein's reception history. I'd polish my shoes, rearrange my records in alphabetical order, reorder my bookshelves by subject, clean the house, wash my car, anything to avoid sitting in front of my word processor and do the work at hand. That ultimately involved deciding to go to the Albermarle County Farmers' Fair one night, and I've never looked back.

I'm just glad that we still have enough farms to fill a farmers' fair, that 4-H Clubs still exist. This wasn't surprising in Central Virginia in the late '80s, but in suburban Pennsylvania in 2009 it feels like the simple existence of cucumber-growing must be celebrated. What makes a farmers' fair is not the carnival rides, nor the funnel cake, nor the rigged games of chance. What makes such a fair is the agricultural tents, the rows and rows of testimony to our agricultural heritage and the proof that we may yet have an agricultural future.

What can top the sight of a blue-ribbon zucchini, looking just like any other zucchini but for some reason crowned for some sort of waxy excellence? That can only be topped by a tent full of baby goats, goats of every variety running up to be petted, or a tent full of piglets squealing. Is anything more interesting than a display of winning ears of corn, each looking just like an ear of corn, its excellence a secret knowledge, or at least secret to someone who has always just grabbed corn, paid for it, and eaten it? Farmers' fairs are full of such secrets: what makes a great carrot, why one chicken is better than another. And they celebrate kids who grow these carrots well, kids who know how to raise a chicken. Our schools don't do that. Our culture doesn't do that. Our economy doesn't do that. Thank god for 4-H.

It's also not every day that you can watch a tractor pull. Or a 16 year-old from the middle of nowhere crowned Corn Queen. It's not every day that you can wander into a place where people still enter tractor pulls or fair queen contests. It's not every day that you can find a place where pie baking is a death match. Or where men in suspenders recline against picnic tables, listening to a weird but pleasant hybrid of country and polka. It's not every day that you are offered a glimpse of our vanishing rural culture, so for that one week a year when that glimpse is offered it's best to take it before it's too late.

The arrival of the cicadas signifies the slowing down of summer, the beginnings of the harvest, and the opening of county fairs everywhere. Locally, the Plainfield Farmer's Fair runs this week; the Warren County Fair begins next week. Even if you don't live in eastern PA, there's surely some sort of farmers' fair near you; support them while you can.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Regularly Scheduled Programming

I must have been as excited about it as everyone else. After all, a cardboard model of the lunar module, some give-away from the gas station, hung from the light over my bed so that I could fall asleep gazing up at it. I remember helping my father put it together, by which I mean watching my father put it together while I jumped up and down. My favorite toys were space toys: Matt Mason figures, the Colorforms outer space men, one from each planet. I must have been excited the week of the moon shot, but 40 years later that's not what I remember.

What I remember is being sick of it before it happened. This was the first event of my life that featured nonstop television coverage, and the first event of my life that I experienced entirely through television, and although I wanted to watch the landing and walk on the moon, I was completely confused by the pre-emption of all my cherished programs for four straight days. They left Earth on Thursday, July 16. I didn't realize beforehand that going to the moon would mean missing two days of Dark Shadows and almost an entire Saturday of cartoons. By Sunday I just wanted them to get there already and get it over with so that my 5 year-old life could get back to normal.

I must have been alseep by the time the Eagle landed Sunday night. My father got me up to watch Neil Armstrong descend from the module. I know I saw the whole thing live, but what I remember is not Armstrong's famous words but Walter Cronkite, so excited I thought he was maybe about to cry. Walter Cronkite, taking off his glasses and saying, "Oh boy!" Forty years later the lesson I remember is not about technology and aspiration and innovation and greatness but instead that the way we know what is important is because not only our fathers but the TV tells us so. Even half-asleep I knew that if Walter Cronkite was moved, I should be moved.

Events with far-reaching implications swirled around that moon weekend. I have no memory of any of them. No memory of Vietnam, probably because my extended family contained no draft-age men. Woodstock several weeks later meant nothing. My mother was 39, my father 46. They listened to show tunes. There was no counterculture in my household. While the astronauts frolicked and planted a flag my mother was realizing that she was pregnant with my sister, another thing I knew nothing about at the time. All I knew, as my father lifted me in his arms to carry me back to bed, was that this particular event had finally transpired, and that the next day Dark Shadows would resume its regularly scheduled programming.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Bit of a Break

Obviously, I'm taking a bit of a break here. It's not that I have nothing to say, but more that the weather has been gorgeous and I've been in more of a mood to sit on my porch and read than to sit at my desk and write. I'll be back, probably next week, so don't abandon me. It's just summer.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Add Another Casualty to the List

Farewell, birch tree. You are older than me, and your time has come. When you were planted, Eisenhower was President, my house was brand new, and you were just a pretty thing, standing amid a sea of oak and hemlock. Now you're 50 feet tall, barely clinging to life. I'm sorry to euthanize you, but although you shade my porch you also threaten it. You look like you want to fall. I don't want you to fall. I'm felling you.

It's all good, birch tree, I promise. The tree people will chip you up and haul you off someplace, where you will be chemically treated and turned into mulch. By next spring, you'll be spread all over the shrubs of some suburbia, helping to keep the weeds at bay. And look on the bright side: no one will pee on you once you're mulch, or at least Brody won't pee on you anymore.

None of this is your fault. You didn't ask to be planted too close to the house, and you didn't ask for that twister to come through last summer, damaging you beyond repair. All you ever did was grow and shed leaves, year after year, and get taller and taller, as trees are wont to do. You were a good tree, maybe even a great tree, and I'll miss you and your white bark.

I know you've overheard me talking about the Japanese maple I'll be planting in September. It's no offense to you or to white birches in general; I just need to have a shorter tree so close to the house. You're not being replaced, exactly. Think of the maple as a reminder of the post-war feeling of optimism and expansion from whence you sprang, and a reminder of how our ambitions are now just a little bit smaller.

It's been a tough month for all of us, birch tree. First Farrah, then Michael, then Karl, then McNamara, and now you. There will be no memorial service at a civic center, no special issue of Time or People, no tributes from Quincy Jones, but still you will be missed, perhaps more than all of those others. RIP, overgrown birch.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Home Electronics Blues

Why is everything made of crap these days? It used to be that you could purchase, say, a cassette player, and that cassette player would last you a good 20 years. The player would hold up so long it would become technologically obsolete. True, electronics and appliances once cost about 500% more than they now do, but if you have to constantly replace your cheap electronics, it probably comes out even at the end. And isn't it easier to spend more in the first place and not have to constantly shop for and hook up DVD players?

Yes, my two-year old DVD player died the other night. Yes, it was a cheap piece of crap; I bought the entire 2.1 home theater system at Sam's Club for something like $150. I didn't think it would hold up forever, but two years? When exactly did home theater systems become disposable?

When I replaced my 30 year-old garage door opener several months ago I didn't feel badly about it. Thirty years seems like a good run. The refrigerator that died two months ago was at least 25 years old, and again I figured that was a good long life for a kitchen appliance. What's annoying is that I doubt the new opener will last ten, let alone 30, years, and the new refrigerator is about 1/4 as well made as was its predecessor. It's a lot prettier, goldenrod having been retired from the kitchen appliance palette, but it's very plastic-y. I will certainly have to replace it during my lifetime.

Browse an old Sears catelogue and you'll learn more synonyms for "polyester" than you ever knew existed and you'll also be amazed at how much certain things once cost. In 1974, a 25" color TV ran around $750 (yes, they were still selling black and whites in 1974); a clock radio $50; $1,700 for a side-by-side refrigerator/freezer. In 2008 dollars, that TV would set you back $3,239.47. Or look at it this way: in 2008 I bought a 40" LCD HDTV for less than $750, and that new fridge cost me $1,200 back in May. Things cost a whole lot less these days.

Too bad what we're buying is crap.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Real Independence Day

Independence Day is July 4 because that's when the Declaration of Independence was signed and the colonies broke off from Great Britain, right? Wrong. On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress voted to approve a resolution of independence that had been introduced in June. "The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival," John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail. "It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more." As usual, Adams was mostly correct, but a little off.

The Declaration had been written as a way of explaining the vote for independence to colonists and British alike. Congress spent the next two days debating and revising the Declaration, finally approving it on July 4. But they didn't sign it then. Most delegates didn't sign the document until August 2. More importantly, the Declaration is an explanation and an explanation only. The radical thing was the approval of the initial resolution.

In short, today is the real Independence Day. Go ahead, be pedantic about it: start eating and drinking two days early. It's the patriotic thing to do.