Monday, August 31, 2009

Tyson on Tyson

Mike Tyson is one of those people I never think about. I'm aware that he's still alive but really don't wonder what he's up to. When I think about him, I remember the time back in the mid-80s when he was knocking out opponents one after the other, each more quickly than the other, and when he was everywhere in our culture. I remember the whole Robin Givens thing, and watching their interview with Barbara Walters. I remember marveling at the disconnect between his physique and ferocity and his little baby voice, and how the Givens mess was the beginning of a steep decline, the instance where he began the journey from kind of sexy in his own way to monstrous in every way. The rape conviction was big news so of course I remember that, and the biting of Holyfield's ear, but in general he's just not someone I've thought about for at least 15 years.

I wouldn't be thinking of him today were it not for James Toback's Tyson, a documentary shot entirely from Tyson's point of view. There he is, looking somewhat ruined, telling his side of the sordid tale: his early life on the mean streets, being rescued by Cus D'Amato and turned into a boxer, how he never recovered from D'Amato's death, how he's never trusted anyone else, how he's been the victim time and time again.

There's no doubt that our culture is quick to vilify black men, particularly physically powerful black men. Could it really be that he never touched Robin Givens, never raped anyone, only bit Holyfield's ear as a reaction to a rash of illegal head butts? I guess, although common sense implies that someone repeatedly accused of brutality must be guilty of something. What's more interesting is to put aside questions of innocence and guilt and instead to take the film for what it is: a glimpse into the mind of someone very different than you or me.

In a matter of a few years he went from being a punk sent upstate to juvie to being a contender for the heavyweight title, from being no one to being famous. He became the youngest heavyweight champion, and just a few years after that lost the title and went to prison. Everything that happened to him happened in a 10-year period, and when it was all over and he found himself sitting in a prison cell in Indiana he was 25 years old. It's a bizarre enough life that any of us would have problems making sense of it all, let alone a kid raised on the streets with no education whose only adult role model had died and left him alone to navigate the world of fame and fortune.

The film is fascinating not because he is able to rehabilitate himself in anyone's eyes but because he narrates the events of his life from inside those events. It's a private record that stands beside the pubic record. If it makes us re-evaluate anything it makes us think about the ways our culture provided only one path for Tyson, violence, and the ways the same impulses and behaviors are rewarded in the ring that are condemned outside it. It's the fates, Greek tragedy writ large on the streets of Brooklyn, the mats of Las Vegas, and the sheets of the tabloids.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Another Reason to Change Careers

If my cat ever decided to post an online profile, his "hobbies and interests" would be, in order of importance, eating, sleeping, and grooming. I'm glad cleanliness is important to him, although I wish he'd understand that it's a rare human who cares to have his anus thrust into the face, no matter how clean that anus might be. At any rate, his propensity for grooming leads to hairballs. No amount of brushing and no "hairball control" treats can stem the nighttime tide of hairballs thrown up onto my carpet.

I suppose I should be thankful that he throws up on the carpet rather than on the bed or the couch. His process is to jump down and wander around retching until he finds a perfect, unspoiled section of the carpet to spoil. He never vomits in the same place twice, and no matter what I've tried nothing will get up the stain that's left. Things sometimes creep up on you, so that I woke up last week and noticed stains all around me, in the bedroom, in the office, down the entire length of the hallway. It was time to call in the professionals.

Carpets obviously get gross and it's better not to ever think about it. Better not to think about the dander, sweat, dead skin, germs, crumbs, and god knows what else that lodges there. Better, in other words, not to look at what comes up the steam cleaner. Let me put it this way: I thought the base color of my carpeting was much more tan than it turns out to be.

The point of this post isn't to be disgusting, however, but instead to marvel at what a racket carpet cleaning can be. Before I called the guys in the truck, I tried both Resolve and a consumer steamer, neither of which did anything but leave their own bleach stains all over the place. I rented one of those larger steamers from the grocery store, which succeeded only in leaving the carpets soggy and smelling like a wet dog. Unless you want to own some unwieldy and ridiculously expensive machine you have no choice but to pay someone with the proper equipment.

Once the carpet cleaners realized pet stains were involved, I was instructed that simple steam cleaning wouldn't be enough, because moisture would only release germs and odor. My experience with the grocery store machine bore that out. The result was that I had to spend an extra $60 for an antibacterial/antimicrobial pretreatment, on top of the hundred bucks for the cleaning of the two rooms and hallway. So, OK, it's not as if I had any other options, save ripping out the carpets or tearing down the house. I had to pay whatever it was I had to pay.

But here's the thing: the whole process, pretreatment and steam cleaning, took exactly 10 minutes. I paid $160 for 10 minutes of work. Yes, they had to drive here in the truck, but my appointment was scheduled for a day when they were already in my neighborhood, and yes, the two guys were in the house more like 20 minutes and their labor was part of the cost. But come on, $960 an hour? To clean carpets? I am so in the wrong line of work.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Would You Like Some Meth with Your Canned Ham?

You live in a small town in rural Iowa, or Missouri, or Kansas, somewhere in the Midwest where the sun rises and sets over the corn and your father and grandfather somehow made a living from the land, either farming it or working at a processing or meatpacking place. Year after year nothing changes, until you wake up one day and realize that half of your town is addicted to meth. All around you friends and neighbors are either using or making it, or both. How did this happen?

For an intimate look at meth in one small rural town, read Nick Reding's Methland. Reding spent three years living among the residents of Olwein, Iowa, and his ground-floor account of the ways meth spread through and ravaged one community, and the ways that community is trying to rebuild itself, is both engrossing and eye-opening. I won't give away the entire plot, because the book really is worth a read, but I will say that the culprit is both expected and unexpected. The culprit is agribusiness.

The consolidation of smaller family farms into conglomerates displaced people from their traditional livelihoods. This isn't news. Those who didn't farm went to work in plants; while the unionized meatpacking plant operated in Olwein, people could make a living. The shifts were long and the work was repetitive, and many meatpackers relied on speed to get through the day or the week, but the wages could support a lower middle-class life. Union plants were closed, though, and what processing work remained was non-unionized, the wages less than half what they used to be. Using meth became an antidote to despair; dealing meth became an antidote to economic hopelessness.

Food still needed to be processed by cheap labor. For various reasons, Mexican cartels cornered the meth market. Illegal immigrant labor became their distribution network. Illegals can move about undetected, transporting the drug with them. In this way the labor practices of agribusiness both created and sustain the rural meth market. As Reding shows, 20 years ago meth could be a homegrown operation, with a local dealer in control of both manufacturing and distribution. These days the local dealer is just a middleman. Meth manufacture is as consolidated as the production of ground beef, utilizing the same labor force.

Do solutions exist? Read the book to see what Olwein's civic leadership has done to stem the tide. Obviously, the real solutions are economic; only the creation of decent legal jobs can effectively combat an underground economy. Can that happen in Missouri, in Iowa, when more and more of our labor needs are exported each year? I guess that remains to be seen. In the meantime, Olwein awaits.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Winner Takes It All

Because jobs in my field are hard to find these days, I've decided my financial plan is simply to win PowerBall. It's a nice jackpot this week: $122 million if you take the cash rather than the annuity. Even after taxes, that's, well, it's enough money for the rest of my life. I bought 10 tickets, so clearly I'm going to win this thing. In spare moments, I've been trying to figure out what I'm going to do with some of that money. If a check for $122 million won't burn a hole in your pocket, then nothing will.

Of course I'll buy a new car, and book a trip first-class on Emirates Air so I can experience the private sleeping compartment. That's maybe $200K, though, leaving me with an awful lot of change. I really like my current house even though it lacks a pool, so I'll re-landscape and have one put in. That still leaves me with way too much money. One advantage of spectacular wealth would be my ability to avoid winter altogether should I so choose, so I decided that I'd buy a winter house someplace warm.

Because I love mid-century modern architecture, Palm Springs seems like the most logical winter destination. Plus, I could attend the Indian Wells tennis tournament every year. So, yesterday I went onto the Palm Springs MLS to see about dropping a couple of million and helping to revive the California economy.

Can you imagine my joy when I discovered that for $3.25 million I can purchase Twin Palms, Frank Sinatra's actual house? This feels like an incredible bargain; it even comes furnished. I can't wait to have sex in Frank Sinatra's bed, or for my cat to shed in Frank Sinatra's ugly chair. My dog has a weird propensity to crap on concrete rather than grass, and Frank Sinatra's house has an amazing patio for him to defile. Twin Palm means family fun for everyone.

The drawing is tonight, so I can go pick up my check tomorrow and buy the place over the weekend. If you don't have any Labor Day plans, come fly away to Palm Springs.

Monday, August 17, 2009

How Can I Not Write about Mad Men?

...what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?
- W.B Yeats, "The Second Coming"

By 1967 Joan Didion would use Yeats' evocation of the apocalypse to anchor her reporting on the Haight during the Summer of Love, but these lines strongly came to mind when thinking about the Season 3 premier of Mad Men. Yes, the episode is literally about births, and the anxiety surrounding births: we begin with a flashback to Dick Whitman's birth, Betty and Don are awaiting the birth of their third child, the episode takes place on Dick's birthday, and the episode ends with Don and Betty telling Sally the story of her birth. Beyond the literal, though, the themes of the season hinted at in the episode are all about changes that are being born, the anxieties attendant to those changes, and how one reacts to change when one is in the middle of it.

From the first scene of the pilot episode the audience has known what the characters can't know: that the complacency and seeming hegemony of the immediate postwar years is about to explode into chaos. Everything that happens to these characters takes place on the cusp of a great cultural shift that they can't predict because they are living through it. In 2007, would any of us have predicted the events of 2008, the extent of the financial meltdown, the depth of our national anxiety, the result of the Presidential election? Although those living through a period of cultural shift might have glimmers that a change is gonna come, the nature of that change and its repercussions are fully understood only in hindsight, which is precisely what Mad Men's characters lack. They are simply adults living their lives.

It's sometime around April, 1963; the Beatles recorded their first album in March, but the British have already invaded Sterling Cooper, thanks to Duck's ambition and Roger's libido. The anxiety of the characters has a very literal cause, as we know that about a third of the staff has been let go. Beyond British control, advertising itself is changing. Harry's position as head of the TV department has clearly given him more power within the agency, since he himself points out that TV brings in 42% of their revenue. Pete and Ken are pitted against one another for a promotion; the arrival of a male British secretary who sees his role as something much more grandiose than Joan has ever imagined challenges her supremacy over the support staff; Roger and Bert seem to have a symbolic "advisory" role at the agency with no real authority.

Much of the episode focuses on Don and Sal's jaunt to Baltimore to placate London Fog. "Out of Town," as the episode title suggests, is the episode's theme. To be out of town is to have the ability to rebirth yourself, to pretend to be anything and anyone you want to be because no one knows you. Don Draper is an expert at rebirthing, at changing identities, and is quick to make up a backstory for himself and Sal for their night carousing with the stewardesses. The real birthing that takes place though is of Sal's true identity; being out of town allows him to let the bellboy kiss him and to acknowledge his true desires. It's Dick's birthday, but in this sense it's also the day Sal is birthed into a new way of conceiving of his life.

The new doesn't fully replace the old because the new is born from it. Dick Whitman lies just under the surface of Don Draper just as the Beatles lie just under the surface of Perry Como. Change isn't coming so much as it's slowly and inexorably happening all around, every minute. In the next few months of 1963 the Draper's baby will be born, TaB and ZIP codes will be introduced, JFK will call for passage of a Civil Rights Act, the SCLC's Birmingham campaign will grip the nation, MLK will be jailed and pen his famous Letter and a few months later deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech while James Meredith enrolls at Ole Miss, Kenya and Uganda will free themselves from British domination, and in a little country called Vietnam Diem will be assassinated by US-backed military coup. Joan will deal with the repercussions of her marriage, Don will try to remain committed to his family, Pete or Ken will be promoted, Peggy will try to force her secretary to respect her, all the adults living in this world will continue to live in it even as the ground underneath them keeps shifting.

How we deal with the change we live inside of is the theme of all our lives.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Cooking Project Update

A brief update on my "eat only what you cook" project:

If you're going to attempt this kind of thing, this is the time of year to do it. It's easy to stop at a farm stand, make a bunch of corn or buy some cucumbers, turn it into a salad and eat it for a few days. Plus, I prefer most vegetables raw, which means there's no work involved preparing part of my meals, so it's just been a matter of, say, grilling some chicken, eating some of it that night, and then using the rest in salads or sandwiches. I've learned there are a few things I won't be able to eat as long as I do this, though.

Pizza, for example. I can make something that resembles a pizza. I can make a flatbread dough, put toppings on it and grill it, and it tastes fine. It's not real pizza, though, not like the pizza from my favorite place. You clearly need a pizza oven to make real pizza, so I'm just going to stop experimenting and put that in the column of things I can only eat if I'm eating out.

I think I'm going to have to say that beverages are not part of this experiment. I love Diet Pepsi too much. I've been making mint tea, but really there's no replacing the chemical fizziness of Diet Pepsi. So I bought some yesterday, and I also bought some pretzels. I was having some friends over for drinks, and pretzels are time-consuming to make, and I didn't want to offer them green beans with their beer (which I also didn't make).

In fact, the healthiest thing about this is going to be the absence of snack food. I didn't think I ate a lot of such food, but I was fooling myself. The hardest thing has been wanting just a few bites of something and finding only fruit and vegetables in my kitchen - no Sun Chips, no wasabi peas, no Twizzlers. And no, I am not going to attempt to make Sun Chips. I'm certain that I lack the requisite chemicals.

In short, it hasn't been a particularly hard week and a half, but it's only been a week and a half. I'll keep going, and update as things progress.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Fern in Every Pot

Remember the Lawrences, our old friends from Pasadena? Kate is a housewife; Doug is a bushy-eyebrowed lawyer and Matthew Broderick's real-life father. They live in a nice suburban house with lots of ferns and outdoor seating and their three children. Nancy is a divorcee who is trying to finish law school while every man in California tries to sleep with her; Willie is so sensitive and artistic he dropped out of high school and is both a photographer and a writer, and even though (or perhaps because) he really should be gay he has one tragic girlfriend after another - one who is pregnant, one who dies, etc. Then there's Letticia, the baby. She's a tomboy who insists on being called "Buddy" and who, despite her penchant for wearing overalls and mesh football jerseys, manages to attract the affections of every 70s tween idol who happens by Pasadena. Willie Ames is her boyfriend until he moves down the street to his own TV show, then Leif Garrett tries to pressure her to have sex with him. She wears the football jersey through it all.

Yes, I'm talking about family, my favorite hour of television circa 1976. How I wished my family could be like this! I wished my parents would let me drop out of school and live in an apartment in our backyard decorated with faux antiques and macrame. I wished my parents would be completely understanding if I brought Willie Ames up to my room. I wished I had an older brother who would let me drive even though I was 12 years old. I wished we had a hammock in our yard and that my father drove a Maverick rather than a Buick Skylark.

family is out on DVD and, laid low with yet more poison ivy, I spent last night watching highlights from the first two seasons. I can't believe I once loved this dreck, and I also can't believe how slowly the show is paced. We had a lot more patience back in the days when we only got a handful of channels; the title credits alone last about a minute and a half. What makes this show unique is that each and every episode is a very special episode. Not a week goes by where one social problem or another is not the focus. It's a good thing Buddy didn't have sex with Leif Garrett or she undoubtedly would have gotten herpes in the next episode and pregnant in the one after that. This poor family was absolutely besieged, I tell you.

Which makes sense, because despite its liberal trappings, this is one of the most reactionary shows of the period. Yes, the elder Lawrences take a liberal approach to their single-mother eldest, their drop-out aimless artist son, and their independent tomboy daughter. But it's important to note that all three of these children live at home, even those in their early 20s. The real lesson of the show is that beyond the confines of the family lurks danger. If an old flame comes to visit, he's a speed freak. If an old neighbor visits, she's an alcoholic. If you serve on a jury and the criminal is acquitted he will seek out and attack your child. The family is surrounded by perversion, drug addicts, thieves, dissolution of every stripe. Family is the only defense.

So really, I should be glad that I lived in a home without ferns and macrame, a home where one graduated high school and got the hell out of there for good. America in the mid-70s probably did seem scary. The economy was a mess, Watergate had eroded all faith in government and authority, cities were dying, suburban kids were all smoking pot, polyester was ubiquitous. To say that the nuclear family is an anecdote to social ills in 1976 is to say pretty much the same thing Reagan had been saying all along, and in that sense was an early pop culture manifestation of the conservative revolution that had been coming for years and would be completed in 1980. In many ways family is about precisely that moment when the liberal dreams of the 1960s are transformed, when the garden of Woodstock becomes the manicured lawn of suburbia, and when the focus becomes the family.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


We have the story of two women, both adrift. One arrives in postwar Paris the wife of a mid-level embassy official, unable to bear children, with nothing to do. One works as a mid-level bureaucrat in post-9/11 Manhattan and has awakened to find her life somehow less than she had imagined, back in college, it would be. Both women aspire to control events, but both feel instead that events are controlling them. How does such a woman save her soul, save herself?

On the surface, the answer Julie and Julia serves up would appear to be cooking. Julia Child studies at Le Cordon Bleu and reinvents herself by learning to cook; Julie Powell decides to cook her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking and invents a life for herself far away from the cubicle she inhabits eight hours each day. Ephron's film is in many ways a celebration of the preparation and consumption of food, of excess. Julie and Julia are both perpetually hungry, and both set about sating that hunger. Be sure to eat before you see the movie, because it's filled with food porn. Julie and Julia's hunger is also carnal, and both enjoy sex as much as lobster thermidor. It's easy to leave the theater believing that satisfaction of one's primal, physical needs leads to spiritual fulfillment.

It wasn't cooking or eating or even sex that gave definition and direction to either life, though. Julia Child became Julia Child not because she learned how to cook but because she learned how to write about it, and Julie Powell became the subject of a movie not because she spent a year cooking her way through Child but because she wrote about it. Neither of these women became chefs; both became writers.

The act of writing is a very literal way to control events. To author something is to be its god, its originator. Think of the etymology of "author" and this becomes evident: authority, authoritarian, authoritative. Child didn't write just any text but a book of recipes, of instructions. A cookbook is, very simply, a way of controlling and shaping experience; a recipe is a set of specific instructions that tames the chaos of the kitchen, that turns alchemy into procedure. A cookbook is a structure. Deciding to cook every recipe in a book in 365 days is also a structure, and by taking on that project and writing about it Powell was, powerfully, authoring her own life. This was Child's penultimate recipe: words will set you free, wield words and you can invent yourself.

Writing is a large part of the movie, but of course it's much less visual than food, and because it's not a communal activity but is instead solitary it's not the stuff of either comedy or drama. But if you see the film look carefully and you'll see the way writing is central. Child is continually at her typewriter, composing letters and then her book; Powell is continually either at her computer or reading from Child's letters. In the end, words are more powerful than even aspic, and in the end this is not a story about some people who like to eat but instead a story of two women who hunger for so much more than a properly prepared meal.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Political Nostrodamus

I've never given much thought to Daniel Patrick Moynihan. I know that he was a US Senator from New York, and that before that he served in some capacity in four Presidential administrations. I know that Richard Nixon loved him even though he was a Democrat, and that he had some controversial things to say about race and welfare. That's where my knowledge ends.

Because I'm a presidential campaign geek, I've been reading The Making of the President 1964, not because 1964 is a compelling race, although it is a compelling race despite the landslide outcome, but because nearly all of White's books are out of print, and this is one I found in a used bookstore. So far the most interesting reading is this statement by Moynihan, made in the summer of 1964:

"What are the issues in this campaign? 'Issues' are talk about what's already happened or happening...But these aren't issues, really. Only a handful of people can see the advance issues. Can you explain that the greatest issue twenty years from now may be what's beginning in our knowledge of the human cell, and biology, and reproduction? Can you explain that we're beginning to be able to control our environment, maybe even change the weather - and discuss what we should do about it? Or can you talk about what we have to do to keep old people from growing lonely? Or can you ask them whether they think the purpose of industry should be changed from making things to making jobs?

Maybe we're entering a new phase of government. Maybe the old legislative phase is coming to an end, the time when you passed a new law which set up a new bureau with a new appropriation to run new machinery. What lies ahead may not be problems answerable by law, or by government at all. But that's nothing you can discuss now in 1964 - that's years and years ahead."

Has anybody ever gotten the future so right? Too bad Lyndon Johnson couldn't abide by him (Moynihan was a big Bobby Kennedy supporter); too bad we can't all see the future, standing there right in front of us.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Eat What You Make

Well, it's not Friday, but I'm back. I can't really be blamed for pretending my vacation lasted a bit longer than three days, can I? The most thought-provoking event of the past week was reading Michael Pollen's article in Sunday's Times Magazine on the way that, as we cook less and less, we watch cooking shows more and more. What interested me the most was not this phenomenon per se, but instead the history of how cooking turned into "cooking," to the point where microwaving something or pouring dressing on top of lettuce counts as having "made" a meal.

During WWII food scientists invented MREs and all sorts of ways to preserve food for soldiers overseas. The trick was finding ways to sell prepared and packaged food to consumers during peacetime. It took a while: a sexual revolution, the need for a two-person income, and women staying in the workforce rather than staying home with children needed to be factored into the mix, but food scientists ultimately prevailed. Pollen notes that as early as the 1940s manufacturers had the ability to produce just-add-water cake mixes, but women wouldn't buy them. They would, however, buy mixes where one needed to break and mix in an egg, the addition of that egg being some kind of line in the sand that defined what could be classified as "home-made." Today, the baking aisle is filled with just-add-water mixes; "home-made" now means anything one moves from package to bowl to pan. Actually, anything that gets heated up passes for home-made these days.

Naturally, a discussion of the lack of cooking leads to a discussion of obesity. The less we cook the fatter we get, and not just because we're sitting on the sofa watching cooking shows but because we're eating more calories, larger portions, less healthy food. Which leads to the "ah ha" moment of the piece, when Pollen gets a food scientist to admit what we all suspect: want to lose weight and be healthy? Just eat only what you cook yourself.

It makes sense. Honestly, if you could only eat potato chips if you sliced potatoes and deep fried them, how many would you eat? If you had to make mayonnaise before slathering it onto a sandwich, wouldn't you just as often skip it? So I've spent the past few days thinking about trying this as an experiment. Is it possible to eat only what one can cook? Can I do it? And what would the rules be? What would I do about, say, teryiaki, or vodka, or beer? Could I eat in a restaruant, ever?

I decided the following. For as long as I can take it, I will not purchase manufactured food, with the exception of condiments and alcohol. I know I can make my own ketchup and beer, but that feels insane. The point here is to try to be healthy, not insane. I don't tend to eat out a lot anyway, so if I find myself wanting or needing to eat in a restaurant I will, but only socially, not as an alternative to grilling my own burger or frying my own eggs. How hard can this be? I have no idea. I'll post an update once enough time has gone by for me to have an idea, and in the meantime I'll be thankful that it's August, when so much is in season it will be easy to fill up on fruit and vegetables and throw things on the grill. If anyone else wants to give it a try, let me know and we can commiserate. And if anyone knows how to make their own Doritos, let me know that as well. I do love Doritos.