Friday, December 31, 2004

Penny Rides and Merry New Year!

Let’s not forget, from 8 pm until 6 am tonight and tomorrow morning, all rides on the CTA are a penny.

Have a happy new year. We’re with you. We’re surrounded by children. My sister is here. I have a cold, but fuck it, I’m gonna drink anyway! We’re pleased to know you. I have a resolution but I’m not telling. Have you been outside today? It smells like April- that moist smell of earth. Why must winter tease us so? We’re hopeful. We’re sad. We want to capture this time, put it away somewhere, pull it out later and marvel.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

It’s the $

Check out this article from today’s Post- it’s one of the first I’ve read to actually give a credible and comprehensive summary of this year’s presidential election and the tactics used by each side. Key quote:

In a $2.2 billion election, two relatively small expenditures by Bush and his allies stand out for their impact: the $546,000 ad buy by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and the Bush campaign's $3.25 million contract with the firm TargetPoint Consulting. The first portrayed Kerry in unrelentingly negative terms, permanently damaging him, while the second produced dramatic innovations in direct mail and voter technology, enabling Bush to identify and target potential voters with pinpoint precision.

“I had so many admirations: there was so much to admire.”

A decade now, back in the early 90’s, disenchanted with the various dull syllabi representative of my undergraduate degree and intuiting that there were far more exciting things to learn about if I simply stepped away from the cramped quarters of prescribed curriculum and took a look, I dropped out of college and quietly lit out for the territories. What I may have lacked in discipline (there was a gleefully haphazard quality to my intellectual pursuits during this time) I more than made up for in curiosity and appetite. If anything, my time away from school was a kind of self-inflicted therapy- a way to recharge my batteries and remind myself that learning was, in and of itself, noble and luxuriant with a sense of fun and play. Learning made life necessary.

Having the space to pursue whatever impulse or whimsy my curiosity mandated led me to many teachers. One of my favorites was Susan Sontag. Sontag died yesterday at the age of 71 after a long battle with cancer. My copy of Against Interpretation and Other Essays (which includes the immortal Notes on “Camp” and is, as Sontag warily admitted, one of the quintessential texts of the Sixties) is never far from reach and just this Christmas my sister-in-law gave me On Photography. Which is to say that Sontag has long held a very cherished place in my own, albeit far lesser, intellectual development and that, if only out of greed, I had hoped she would be around a while longer.

Back in those heady cloistered days of the early 90’s I first read many of Sontag’s earliest essays, written in the early Sixties when she was living in New York. Reflecting on these formative essays in 1996, Sontag wrote, “I was filled with evangelical zeal.” Having the opportunity to wallow in Sontag’s insights, to delight in their urgency and sense of possibility- to experience that sublime moment when her words and the ideas they gave flight to suddenly soared upwards and bumped against something consummate of my own fervency and interests gave me perhaps all the reason I needed whenever I questioned my decision to pause my undergraduate career.

And it wasn’t just Sontag’s intelligence and the succinct eloquence with which she espoused her ideas- it was the incredible, humbling range of her erudition that was stunning. She was a true renaissance mind- interested in everything and fearlessly advocating her positions in essays that I still am unable to read without being sidetracked by the sheer avalanche of new ideas they generate. In fact, reading a Sontag essay is one of the best cures for aesthetic/intellectual laziness I can think of. To read her is to be reunited to the architecture of our ideas and how we might be more alive to their cultivation.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Baby, It's Cold Outside

Baby It's Cold Outside
Originally uploaded by chrisbreitenbach.
According to the Tribune weather page it's -2 outside. That's cold, folks- damn cold! Coldest, we're told, since 1983. But we're keeping it warm today. Hope you are as well. Happy Holidays and all that good stuff. We're thinking about each and every one of you!

Friday, December 17, 2004

Jammin’ On The One!

My friends, Joe, Pieter and I have begun a MP3 blog, Akwaaba Sound System, officially launched only yesterday when Joe posted a couple fantastic tracks from Francis Bebey’s 1984 album, Akwaaba. I’m hoping to post something on Saturday while Pieter, on the other hand, is presently on the cusp of fatherhood- so it might be a bit.

Thousands of MP3 blogs have appeared on these here so-called internets over the last year- usually hosted by music enthusiasts who post various songs from their collections accompanied by prefatory blurbs. It’s the dorm room equivalent of playing a friend some tracks off your favorite albums, only now all the limitations of your collection’s relationship to time and space have gone and radically been altered- you can just go and post the track on-line and anybody with decent internet access and some speakers can check it out.

More later...

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Some Fries With Your Bypass?

From yesterday's Washington Post:

"I can't tell you how many patients found this repulsive," said cardiology chairman Eric Topol. "How can the Cleveland Clinic, which prides itself on promoting health, have the audacity to have a McDonald's in the main lobby?"

Friday, December 10, 2004

The Halo Effect

I probably stopped eating regularly at McDonalds somewhere back in 1998. Before then I ate way too much of it even though I knew I shouldn’t. At the beginning of 1999 my friend Juana and I decided to go cold turkey and not eat at McDonalds (which was, of course, conveniently located, as it still is, just a few blocks from where we were working) for 6 months. And we didn’t. Come June, we made our way over, ordered lunch, consumed, and thought, “Boy, that kinda sucked!”

If that wasn’t enough, Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation went a long way toward presenting me with a bounty of reasons I had formally been nagged and troubled by but hadn’t yet gathered into a cogent thesis with enough power to wallop me over the head in such a way as to make me appreciate, beyond a doubt, that eating at McDonalds was not only bad for my health- but that it was also part of a fast-food industry that perpetuates and sustains numerous unfortunates- particularly its treatment of workers all along the chain and its predatory youth marketing. That Ronald McDonald is one insidious evil clown mother-fucker and Schlosser’s book does a swell job telling us why.

Still, because of its global reach and iconic status, I’ll always be interested in what McDonald’s is up to. I knew they had been struggling over the last few years, especially in 2002 when they chalked up their first quarterly loss since 1954. According to a recent Economist article, however, McDonald’s has come roaring back, with sales up 13% for the first half of this year and net profits up 38% compared to this time last year.

How are they doing it? Well, first off they’re making things even more efficient. According to the article:

Every McDonald’s has a “travel path” along which a member of staff must walk- sometimes every 30 minutes- to ensure that all is well. The company is now testing small hand-held devices, which can be used like electronic clipboards by those making the rounds. Failures to check, say, the temperature inside a refrigerator (the devices are fitted with a probe) or to scan a location barcode (they have a scanner too) when checking the play area, will be recorded. If too many incomplete checks build up, the device can automatically alert the local manager by ringing his mobile phone.

At which point, I presume, the local manager will call his staff and threaten to boil all of them in a vat of McNugget cooking oil.

What’s really interesting (or depressing) is the other explanation for the big turnaround. Wary of the victories scored against Big Tobacco and the recent onslaught of obesity lawsuits McDonald’s has introduced healthier menu items. So are those hefty profit margins being driven by salads? Not quite.

McDonald’s officials insist their salads are priced to be profitable, arguing that if they were not its franchisees would not want to sell them. But then, by some measures, supermarket loss-leaders are also profitable because they bring in customers who buy other products. Nevertheless, salads are sending a message to millions of customers: that it is now acceptable to eat at McDonald’s again because the menu is “healthier”- even though the vast majority still order a burger and fries.

“There is no question that we make more money from selling hamburgers and cheeseburgers,” says Matthew Paull, McDonald’s chief financial officer. Sales growth is, he says, being driven by the “halo effect” of healthier food appearing on the menu.

Weird, huh? By being in the vicinity of salads and other lighter options, the McDonald’s customer fuelling their recent growth feels more at ease eating a Big Mac. It’s as though the very presence of salads and healthier foods creates new equivalencies- that somehow eating a Big Mac is analogous to eating some iceberg with tomatoes.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Then and Now

Then and Now
Originally uploaded by chrisbreitenbach.
An artist in Cape Cod, right? At least I think so. My mom had her (or him?) do portraits of all us kids back in the 70's and they've been hanging in the house ever since. But this Thanksgiving I couldn't help but notice that my sister's portrait seems to be the only one to have survived my mom's recent and ambitious fit of redecorating!

In any case, one of the things we've all found peculiar about these particular renderings is how the artist gave each of us little elongated O's for mouths. We all look slightly spooked.

Here Robin does her best imitation
The Lifting of Negatives

Hello. We’ve been feeling way too apathetic this past week. I’m not usually prone to heavy fits of depression but for the better part of this past week a blue funk had me coiled deep into its groove. And the worst thing about it is how nebulous it makes me feel, as though all my best laid plans were carted off in the middle of the night to some remote, unobtainable location. I awake in the morning, not quite a husk of my former self, but definitely lacking in the essentials that allow anybody to approach the day with the curiosity necessary to enable adventure, delight, satisfaction and all the other requisite ingredients that add up to what you might call, after a luxurious sip of red wine, a good day.

The word for this is blah. Blah. It’s low-grade neurosis. It’s psychodrama. It’s personality deflating or personae with a limp. And it happens and what I probably dislike most about it is that I don’t feel much like playing while it’s running its moronic course. No catching fireflies or building of forts and definitely, most definitely no after dinner puppet shows! Nope, none of that. Just moping and big thick clouds of sullen resting between the eyes. Blah.

There are solutions for a case of the blahs and they don’t include pharmaceuticals but they do include alcohol. Not immediate cure-all’s or anything- just a bunch of moments when the clouds lifted and levity was introduced. Little things, too. Eggs with bacon, for instance. Putting the blinds up. Eating a Nutrageous. Climbing 9 flights of stairs. Sharing a beer with Cathy. Hearing Baba O’Riley played live and loud. Those decorative snowmen lining Broadway (just north of Bryn Mawr) especially, all sordidly brackish from accumulated holidays spent hanging on the light polls- I especially like these- how they’re anything but white- how they resist the purity associated with the holidays- how their original snow-whiteness has gone and mutated into something vaguely sleazy from the splash of gingerbread slush and car exhaust. Maybe I saw something emblematic in them- their state and mine. Sweet context. Laughter nevertheless.

Presently there is a thaw and a lifting of negatives. I’m hoping this current sticks around.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

When I'm An Uncle

When I'm An Uncle, originally uploaded by chrisbreitenbach.

My nieces, Lucy and Mia (laying on the floor) after some post Thanksgiving meal dancing.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Heavy Weightlessness

John Huston’s The Misfits (1961) was the last film Marilyn Monroe ever made. She starred alongside Clark Gable(his last film as well- he died just weeks after its completion) and an intense Montgomery Clift in a film haunted by the turmoil and real-life demise of its stars.

The film, written by Arthur Miller, is (quite possibly) a suspended meditation on isolation - or at least people people going whacky because of it. The characters all inhabit the same geographic space but they never entirely connect either. They move around each other seeking something none of them can give to the other- though what it is they're seeking is never really all that clear. They're all drifters- either running away from something or desperately trying to find something they lost long ago.

It’s hard to disengage from the strong undercurrents of cultural mythology these actors still exhibit. (Clift, it’s true, is oddly ignored when it comes to the pantheon of great actors-even though his dramatic gifts were just as good, if not better, then that of a peer like Marlon Brando.) These cultural traces (or wakes) act alongside what we know about the films own history in the trajectory of its stars lives (Monroe’s marriage to Miller falling apart, her own suicide less then two years away, Gable to die just weeks after the films completion, Clift to die just a few years later of a heart attack at 45) to create an elegiac strain it probably didn’t possess when originally released in 1961.

It’s an uneven film, burdened at times by Miller’s compulsion to shade everything with meaning (everybody has Willy Loman baggage), but Huston was a terribly competent director, and with the caveat of knowing little about him and his methods, or having seen anywhere near his entire body of work, what films I have seen reveal a director with an acute sense of realism- starker, grittier and more organic then most of the Hollywood fare being produced in his heyday throughout the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. There is nothing escapist about this film- it’s a brooding reflection on human interaction and our abilities and failings to connect or disengage, feel compassion for or contempt- and Huston keeps things from being lacquered on too thickly but, and here’s the catch- Miller’s script can’t keep up. Huston does a swell job keeping things humming along, and it’s fun watching Monroe (whose bordering chubby but still looking amazing) and wondering what drug she was on when she filmed a particular scene- and Clift is acting on another level altogether- all method acting intensity- while Gable is stately and crisp- but after a while you think- “Well, so what?"

The last half hour or so, with everybody up in the mountains hunting down wild horses for the glue factory is supposed to bring it all home for us. Monroe’s character, realizing that the freedom loving wild horses are being tied down and left to be slaughtered, freaks out. Really. She runs through the desert and screams and shouts and we see horses tied up, tipped over and left behind like useless clumps. And somehow this transforms the men. But why? Bosley Crowther, reviewing the film for the New York Times, wrote, “It has something to do with her sense of freedom. What, we wouldn’t know.” Huston’s direction is never any less then assured and frequently stunning. It’s Miller’s script that keeps grinding the gears.

It’s a paradox- so heavy it’s weightless.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

The Cartography of Smell

Yesterday afternoon when I was trying to describe the smells of the books I'm currently reading, I remembered the passage from Diane Ackerman's beautiful book, A Natural History of the Senses where she laments the fact that we have so few words to describe certain smells. Here's the passage:

If there are words for all the pastels in a hue- the lavenders, muaves, fuchsias, plums, and lilacs- who will name the tones and tints of smell? It's as if we were hypnotized en masse and told to selectively forget. If may be, too, that smells move us so profoundly, in part because we cannot utter their names. In a world sayable and lush, where marvels offer themselves up readily for verbal dissection, smells are often right on the tip of our tongues- but no closer- and it gives them a kind of magical distance, a mystery, a power without a name, a sacredness.

What is the smell of the seasons? The other day, walking to work, I caught a hint of the freshly cut pine being used to decorate the flower beds along the Magnificent Mile and found myself suddenly transported. But where's the word for it, something succinct, that descibes this? It's a smell bound to all sorts of heady associations, an accumulation of intimate memories. The smell of December, of Christmas is bound up in the smell of pine- and when I smell it I'm suddenly 5 years old and lost in the idiot glee of gift opening- or I'm in my early 20's sitting in my parents living room with no other lights on then those on the tree- or its the present and I'm standing on a street corner where all the hustle and bustle seems to suddenly ebb and I'm lost in reminiscence. Ackerman calls these "aromatic memories." I like that.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Book Drop

Absolutely American: Four Years At West Point: David Lipsky- Lipsky was the first reporter to be allowed unfettered access to the nation’s premier military academy, hanging out with plebes (freshmen), yearlings (sophomores), cows (juniors), and firsties (seniors) and soaking up the culture of huah. Huah, according to Lipsky, “is an all-purpose expression. Want to describe a cadet who’s very gung-ho, you call him huah. Understand instructions, say huah. Agree with what anther cadet just said, murmur huah. Impressed by someone else’s accomplishment, a soft, reflective huah.” Remember Al Pacino hamming it up in Scent of a Woman, whisper huah.

It reads like candy, but what I like most about it so far are the insights Lipsky offers into a culture so radically different from my own. Many of the young men and women who graduated from this academy are, no doubt, currently leading, fighting and paying the ultimate price in Iraq. What did they learn at West Point and how did they apply it? How do tradition, patriotism and nationalism interact at the academy? What do these students ultimately think they're protecting? What lessons do they learn about the fine art of diplomacy?

Lipsky offers a nice, highly readable portrait of the modern military’s indoctrination of some of the nation’s most promising youth into a culture of kill or be killed.

On the grounds of West Point there’s a statue of MacArthur inscribed with his own sage advice to its cadets: “Your mission is to win our wars. All other public purposes will find others for their accomplishments. Yours is the profession of arms, the will to win, the sure knowledge that in war there is no substitute for victory, and the obsession of your public service must be duty, honor, country.”

And how does this book smell? It’s subtle, a hint of something peppery or musty and levels off into something aseptic. Oh, it’s very clean smell, this one.

Who The Devil Made It: Conversations With Legendary Film Directors: Peter Bogdanovich- Besides playing Dr. Melfi’s psychologist over the last few seasons in The Sopranos and directing a trio of the best American films from the early 70’s (The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc? and, my favorite, Paper Moon) Bogdanovich has been one of film’s greatest archivists, befriending and interviewing dozens of directors (born in 1939, he’s been fortunate enough to have known some of the great silent directors like Charlie Chaplin and Fritz Lang, golden-age greats like John Ford, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock and current filmmakers like Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson) and acting as an elder statesmen for cinema.

So Conversations With Legendary Film Directors is exactly that- Bogdanovich sitting down at the table in the late 60’s and early 70’s with his chunky reel to reel and microphone and interviewing many of the men (the only women present manifest themselves through anecdote) responsible for some of the finest films ever made. My favorite interview so far has been with Allan Dwans. Dwan was one of the first commercial film directors in the United States, directing his first film, Rattlesnakes and Gunpowder, in 1911. What made this conversation so captivating to read was not only realizing, with even greater clarity, just how young this art form still is (as compared to say, painting or music) but how wonderfully Dwan, who was in his 80's when Bogdanovich interviewed him, spins a yarn. The interview is packed with some of the most engrossing eyewitness accounts of early film I’ve yet to read. During the making of silent films, for example, Dwan and other directors would frequently call on musicians, usually a small combo, to play from the sidelines when they were filming a scene- to play for the mood or something the actor could respond to. Like many of the great early directors, Dwan had a hand in creating some of the tools of the trade still being used today- parabolic camera movement ("Put an elevator on a railroad track. Go backward and upward at the same time.”), crane shots (“What I really wanted to do was go from the ground up to a balcony where some people were watching whatever was happening on the ground.”), and mounting a camera on the hood of a car (“Well, somebody had to start it.”)

And how does this book smell? Even more subtle then the last one! There’s a hint of something almost earthy or claylike about it. Yep, definitely shades of earthenware.

The Best Music Writing 2004: Micky Heart, Guest Editor- Wherein Micky Heart is handed roughly 100 music articles as chosen by Paul Bresnick, the series editor, and whittles them down to an inspired 33. (I’m still waiting for a truly independent guest editor, one who, on their own accord, has already read well over 100 pieces of music based writing and has opinions about them that have been stewing throughout the year.) I’ve only read the first 5, all worthy of checking out, but the one I liked most was Geoff Boucher’s Beat at Their Own Game, his too brief look at the great Los Angeles session drummers of the 60’s and early 70’s and the consequences the drum machine and the “synthesized age,” have had on their profession. One of the drummer’s profiled, Hal Blaine, played drums on California Dreamin’, Good Vibrations, Mrs. Robinson and I Got You Babe. Now he lives off his pension. Another session drummer, Jimmy Bralower, adapted and became one of the industries most in demand drum machine programmers, doing session work for Peter Gabriel’s So and Steve Winwood’s Back in the Highlife.”

(A Quick Aside On Reading Before Bed) I like to read just before bed. Some people like a little nightcap, a quick nip of something strong and warm to send them off to sleep- me? I’m fond (Cathy might say fanatically so) of giving reading the opportunity to usher me into slumber. I’ve only fallen asleep one time with a book in my hand. (And I wasn’t asleep for long- the book I had been holding collapsed and bounced off my chin.). Usually I read until the paragraph or sentence I’ve just completed looses all meaning, its content eroded by the swift approach of something heavy and non-linear. I might try and rally, shuffle about gently in bed and check to see how many pages until the chapter ends- but usually I sluggishly bookmark the page, lay the book down on my night table (oh, magic table of the night!) and give myself over to the sweet inexorableness and imperatives of sleep.

And how does this book smell? Heartier! Of woodchip and glue. There’s a suggestion of hamster cage.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: J.K. Rowling- This one, the 5th in the series (Rowling has said she’ll write two more) doesn’t begin nearly as strongly as the last, but at 239 odd pages in I’m thankful that, as in the 4th book, we’ve avoided the yoke of Quidditch. If there is one awful strain of tedium that runs through the series, it’s Quidditch. But we don’t want to dwell on that now. Rowling has fine-tuned Harry for this outing, making him less heroic and more human complete with a teenager’s sense of entitlement, histrionics and orneriness. This new and improved Harry Potter represents the traditional teenager, with all his typical insecurities, raging hormones (Rowling isn’t Judy Blume, so don’t expect to hear about Harry’s first wet-dream) and nascent contempt for authority. Harry gets downright saucy! But it’s handled nicely. Hermione, the daring and brainy Nancy Drew like compass of common sense, knows when to step forward and gently but firmly chastise Harry when he unjustly lashes out at his friends. Rowling handles Harry’s reactions in these scenes nicely- he’s suddenly overwhelmed with shame, startled to be upbraided and ultimately disgusted after he reflects on the inappropriateness of whatever he’s just said or done.

It stands at present that the best thing to have come from this series is Alfonso Cuarón’s beautiful and darkly enchanted film adaptation of the 3rd book in the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

And how does this book smell? The best of the bunch. Heavy with pulp and nostalgia. It smells like a Book Fair, like the earliest books I ever read. There’s something innocent about it. Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing-like.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Movies Make Us Feel So Much Better

We went and saw Alexander’s Payne’s new film, Sideways, on Friday in Evanston. Packed house, too, which is always nice. It’s Payne’s 4th film (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt) and his best. It’s a rare comedy/drama that works hard to invest its characters with enough fullness and gravity that when the drama appears it packs a punch. You vicariously experience their pain. There are scenes of such heartbreak, played with such refinement and honesty that they take your breath away. Paul Giamatti’s character Miles, for example, is beaten down by a recent divorce, a failed novel, a dead end job and other lugubrious emblems of mortality- he’s adrift in the ruins of a midlife crisis that he’s only just becoming conscious of. Giamatti steps up on at least two occasions and delivers scenes of such searing heartbreak that you literally feel the bottom drop out.

And it’s funny and warm and surprisingly tender, too. There are madcap moments- silly and outrageous. There are two monologues involving wine that are some of the most sincere Payne has ever written- there’s nothing caustic or fatuous about them. In fact, they’re lovely, acting to gently reinforce the movies central themes of maturity and mortality.

One of Payne’s many talents is his attention to the minutiae of his characters lives- what their homes look like, the cars they drive or the clothes they wear and how the wear them. The attention given to these little details is just about perfect, and Payne recently attributed his film’s success in these areas to his production designer, Jane Stewart. I can’t think of another American director who works harder and has had more success in this area.

The ending is a case study in how to present uplift without saccharine additives. Recommended.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Laid Off

cary grant
Originally uploaded by chrisbreitenbach.
I found out yesterday that I'll be laid off effective as of December 31st. Happy Holidays! As is par for my employer, this and other rumored layoffs in the office have been handled with all the aplomb and dilegence of a brick to the head. We're just a tad disenchanted toward the principals of the office right now and their lack of courage, respect and the general feebleness they excel in when it comes to appropriately dealing with these things. I've been there long enough to see them time and again fumble the ball when it comes to dealing with layoffs and/or firings. Doors remain shut, rumors enter into telephone game streams of office gossip and a demoralizing atmosphere pervades everything while the principles maintain an infelicitous silence, fearful, I suppose, that by bringing a healthy transparency to the peculiarities of budgets, office politics and layoffs they might actually have to treat their many young and idealistic employees with a degree of sophistication and maturity they seem entirely incapable of presently offering them. The biggest bummer of them all is to have become a part of the office sweep-out and to have not been given the opportunity to have left on my own terms.

I also find it sadly amusing just how sharply being laid off can bring into relief all that's wrong in an office. All those simple things that could boost morale and encourage incentive. You see just how demoralized the office truly is- all the weird tensions and whispering undercurrents of boredom and apathy that run through it. You see the neglect of curiosity especially. There's too much monotony and way too much routine and you see how many of the people working there bunt up against that inertia. You think, "Wow, there are a lot of bright, inquisitive and entirely capable people here who would love to become more involved in this study and helping it to succeed- so why are they being ignored?" You see that things have become so automated, with folks so micromanaged, that there's a kind of disregard (or is it insensitivity?) to the assets of the person entering data, stuffing envelopes or answering the phones. They do what they do because it's been that way for so long now and it seems to be working nicely. Regimented. Specialized. No veering from the path. All that enthusiasm drains away and becomes listless.

It's a motherfucker no matter which way you slice it- but we're in a better place for this kind of thing then we were a little over a year ago.

Updated November 13- 5:40 PM

Monday, November 08, 2004

More On Specter

Josh Marshall has more on Specter over at Talking Points.
The First Post-Election Bitch Slap Award Goes to…Arlen Specter!

As the expected chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee it was initially consoling to hear Specter warn the White House last Wednesday when he told reporters, “When you talk about judges who would change the right of a woman to choose, overturn Roe v. Wade, I think that is unlikely," but it wasn’t surprising that he so quickly retreated the next day and offered condolences to his spine by backpedaling:

Contrary to press accounts, I did not warn the President about anything and was very respectful of his Constitutional authority on the appointment of federal judges.

As the record shows, I have supported every one of President Bush’s nominees in the Judiciary Committee and on the Senate floor. I have never and would never apply any litmus test on the abortion issue and, as the record shows, I have voted to confirm Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justice O’Connor, and Justice Kennedy and led the fight to confirm Justice Thomas.

See, he does confirm right wing judges! What happened is illustrative of what we’ll see a lot of over the next couple of years, I’m afraid. Specter won’t be the first moderate we see being bullied into siding with the far right agenda of his party. You’re either with them or against them and there’s no room for independent voices. After right wing interests groups like The Conservative Voice, Focus On Family Bill Frist and Karl Rove all more or less let Specter know he was out of line he quickly moved to renounce his old relativist ways. Some conservatives now think it imperative that Specter be refused chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee. We’ll be watching this one with great interest.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Our People Deal In Absolutes II

It’s worth reading this Post article from the other day, though I’m somewhat wary of the priority given to the “moral values and “Evangelical Christians won it for Bush" narrative being championed right now- as though this was the ultimate lynchpin in the victories the Republicans scored on November 2nd. To that vote, which I do think was highly mobilized to get out and vote against the cesspool of hot gay sex and the grotesqueries of vacuuming up brain tissue in partial birth abortion procedures you also need to add other factors like those so-called Security Moms who continue to wake up in the middle of the night, shaky from nightmares they’ve had of their children swallowing mouthfuls of dirty bomb or (worse), of their elementary schools being taken over by al-Qaeda terrorists who promise to show no mercy and have rigged every inch, from the tiny school desks filled with paste and crayons and #2 pencils to the roofs and doors and corners with fire bombs and murderous chemicals. For a great number of these Moms (and Dad’s too, mind you) the decision to vote for Bush wasn’t necessitated on the idea that he was on the side of Jesus (with everybody else is busy worshiping false idols or secular humanism) but by being persuaded through whatever media cocktail they’ve been drinking since 9/11 (the morning paper, a bit of the Today Show, the 6 O' Clock News. the latest Vanity Fair or Time Magazine and the passive consumption of the millions of dollars in campaign commercials and rhetoric pushing their primal parental buttons) that Bush was going to do a better job then Kerry in protecting their children from terrorists.

We have to add the rights further outreach and inroads into the suburbs (where those Security Moms and Dads live in gathering abundance) and rural areas, too. We have to include those fiscal conservatives and moderates who held their nose and voted Bush even though they agreed that Iraq was a mess, the deficit way too deep and that, yes, there was something a little off putting about the way Bush pandered to the evangelicals. They voted Bush anyway. There were those who voted against Kerry’s because of his vote for, then against, funding in Iraq. They voted against the flip-flopper, the Swift Boat liar and coward, and the wind sailing New Deal liberal. There were those who voted Bush because they believe Iraq was a noble and on-going experiment in democracy and we owe it, in the very least, the burden of our awesome responsibility. Some voted for Bush because they make over $200,000 a year and worship at the temple of the free market and less taxes. They voted Bush because they like having extra cash lying around for private jets and half a dozen vacation homes. Some voted for Bush because all that talk of traditional values spiked with his resounding determination to kill terrorists appealed to them.

All of which makes me wary when folks like David Finkel proclaim that the moral value/Evangelical Christian vote, like the Leslie’s as depicted in Finkel’s Post article, “are precisely the people the Bush campaign built its reelection strategy on.” It’s too soon to construct a meaningful narrative that encompasses all the contours and nuances for why the Dems lost. Finkel’s article offers a kind of quick fix. The Leslie’s are perfect specimens of Evangelical Christianity for all that want to see. Knock on enough doors and such exhibits are pretty easy to find. Do the Leslie’s oppose abortion? Check! Want a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as being between a man and a woman? Definitely! Hope we can get more Supreme Court Justices just like Scalia and Thomas? You bet! Say things like, “I think it’s so important to have a society of moral absolutes.” Of course they do! Finkel doesn’t say if they’re End-Timers or if they’ve read most of the Left Behind series but we’re going to hazard a guess that they’ve even watched the Kirk Cameron straight to video adaptation.

This isn’t to say that I don’t find the fact that large swaths of this country believe George Bush is the vehicle through which their God speaks to and for them highly disturbing. It also freaks me out that they believe separations between church (at least the Christian ones) and state to be a myth and have theocratic intentions. But Finkel’s article is manufactured pap pandering to those looking for easy answers. “It’s because they hate homos and abortions so much- that’s what got them out to vote!”

A couple months ago a group of us were having breakfast at the Lincoln Restaurant in Ravenswood when we overheard the woman (we wondered later if she wasn’t visiting from out of town) tell those sitting around her, “I just don’t see how God would bless a nation that didn’t obey His laws.” Or maybe you’re like me and believe that we reside in a secular republic and a pluralistic society, one founded by men who had only to look to England and its national religion to recall the yoke of state sponsored monotheistic religious oppression.

Gore Vidal once wrote, “It is curious just how little understood this amendment (the First Amendment) is- yes, everyone has the right to worship any god he chooses but he does not have the right to impose his beliefs on others who do not happen to share in his superstitions and taboos.”

Fundamentalist Evangelicals are a concern, but I don’t think their turn out was why Kerry ultimately lost this election and we’d no well to resist the trend over the last 5 days to accept this narrative as conventional wisdom.
Indian Summer

Saturday. Night Train To Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues 1945-1970. Yesterday afternoon, as Cathy and I were driving home from our hour-long excursion into the bowls of the Home Depot we heard the following songs from this compilation:

Shy Guy Douglas: Monkey Doin’ Woman- A nice little bit of boogie blues, with a chugging rockabilly beat, some strutting harmonica and lyrics like, “Well, run now baby and tell shy guy your name (repeat x 2)- you look good to me and I want to rock your thing.” Oh, yeah.

Etta James: What’d I Say (live)- A sonic snapshot of Etta James completely rocking a crowd (at the New Era nightclub in Nashville- recorded either September 27th or 28th, 1963) with a blistering take on Ray Charles’s classic. Etta smokes them for just ten seconds over the 3 minute mark- with all sorts dramatic breakdowns where the drums and bass jump back and Etta steps up into the gap and roars. All recorded with a single, well placed microphone.

Johnny Jones & the Imperial 7: Really (Part 1)- From 1963 again, another slice of blues boogie, though this one is smoother then Shy Guy Douglas’s Monkey Doin’ Woman- with some feathery horns accompanying Johnny Jones’s bluesy riffing and twangy hooks. But what’s really remarkable about this particular track is just how much it affected me this afternoon- how it seemed to channel so many favorable elements (the windows down, the warm air- the sweet melancholy of Indian Summer) into a perfectly sweet little dollop of Nashville R&B.

I think my favorite moment in The Empire Strikes Back (Cathy and I watched it the day after the election, a comfort movie to ease the pain) happens not long after Luke reaches Dagobah. Yoda, as we all know, is the “comical elfin creature" who greets Luke after he’s landed and makes all sorts of mischief. One of the things that’s so great about seeing this again after so many years is knowing that Yoda is really just messing with Luke- testing to see if he shows any hints of the kind of prerequisite concentration, discipline and patience that comes with Jedi training. Of course he doesn’t- Luke thinks Yoda is a little Muppet nuisance. But Frank Oz effortlessly lends all the necessary gravity Yoda needs to dramatically morph from Muppet to Jedi master, weary with years and even warier of Luke’s recklessness. Luke, realizing its Yoda (whose having that great conversation with Obi-Wan’s disembodied voice from the great beyond known as the Force) tells Yoda he’s up to the demands- that he’s “not afraid.” And Yoda’s reply is my favorite moment: You will be…(pregnant pause)…You will be. End scene. It’s some wonderfully creepy shit, that scene.

Favorite quote from assorted weekend reading: The parallels among garden design, cuisine, and sex- including the roles of creators, connoisseurs, and consumers- is a subject worth exploring, but not here.
-Robert B. Riley From Sacred Grove to Disney World: the Search for Garden Meaning

Saturday, November 06, 2004

New Digs

We gave Bomba Charger a template overhaul earlier today and we're standing by it.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Our Brothers and Sisters Up North

Take solace.
Blow The Lid Off

I seemed to vacillate wildly yesterday between heartbreak, outrage, confusion, optimism and determination to overcome and move on. This was then followed by additional bouts of heartbreak. I sat eating my Jimmy Johns Beach Club, head bowed and mouth full, as I listened to Kerry’s concession speech. I found it difficult to fully hone in on it, so surreal and numbing was the terrible reality of it- the awful intrusion and realization that this was really happening. It felt oddly historical too, a moment both present and simultaneously being swept backwards into the bygone.

The consensus, amongst everybody I was around and heard from, was that we were all a bit shell-shocked, deflated and angry. And hopeful. Of what, I’m not entirely sure yet- perhaps its those poll numbers that have so consistently shown Bush’s approval ratings hovering just south of 50% and approval of the war in Iraq, as well, just under 50%. And let us take some solace in the fact that second terms have historically been disastrous, with administrations overreaching and soon enough, marred in corruption and scandal- two attributes this administration is already up to its ears in. What we need are determined Dems (and intrepid journalists) willing and able to blow the lid off this steaming cauldron of bullshit.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

From Seneca to Cuyahoga Falls/ Said, A, O, Oh Way To Go Ohio

4 years ago I when I walked through the door after work on election day, Cathy called out, “The networks are calling Florida for Gore!” We thought it was all over, that Gore had won the election. It sure was a nice to enjoy those couple of hours, now that we know what followed, you know?

Yesterday afternoon and early evening those mysterious exit polls were looking like Kerry was going to kick some ass. When I left work I told some friends I was feeling “tentatively optimistic,” –after all, the bitter taste of 4 years ago still lingered and I was hesitent to invest too much so early. At home I camped out in front of the TV with our laptop booted up and online. Things were looking good. Ted Koppel, talking to Peter Jennings a little after 7 pm eastern time said in his 40 some years of covering elections he had never seen the Republicans looking and acting so grim. Grim was wonderful, and shit, I thought, they should feel grim given their track record over the last 4 years! I excitedly called Cathy on her cell phone and told her, “It’s looking good. And get this, Zogby is calling it for Kerry! Surely he wouldn’t stake his reputation by calling this thing so early if his polling wasn’t showing a pretty conclusive Kerry victory!” Sigh.

Those were a nice couple of hours. That’s all we got- a couple hours of the burden lifting before it all came crashing back down. Watching the real time precincts coming in from Florida and Ohio was a kind of slow motion brutality, with Bush’s small percentage advantages stubbornly refusing to budge. Pennsylvania offered about 15 minutes of respite- an injection of hope because surely- most definitely- Ohio’s population had a similar makeup- a healthy dose of good old Midwestern common sense- each resident equipped with fully charged bullshit detectors that had been going off for the past four years each time Bush opened his mouth. And yet. By 10:00 we both felt queasy with what we were seeing- while Cuyahoga and Franklin counties were going to Kerry, Hamilton was going to Bush- and barely a third of its precincts had reported yet.

I thought it was noble that Kerry and Edwards originally waited to get the absentee and provisional ballets counted even if was looking (and ultimately was) pretty grim. The Bush camp, giving us yet another spoonful of their contempt for all who would dare to stand in their way, were promising a Bush victory speech before Kerry even had the opportunity to concede. Graceful, no?

It’s a tough, tough thing to get my head around this afternoon. The Dems got their collective asses kicked. Republicans gained 3 seats in the Senate and 4 in the House. Bill Frist, speaking on the Today show this morning said, and I’m paraphrasing, “The American public has given the Republican party, if not quite a mandate, then something close to it.” Spunky Katie Couric, bless her, reminded Senator Frist, “I don’t think anybody would call it a mandate.” But one need only look over their shoulder at the past 4 years to see that Bush and his camp have always operated as though they had one- and while that may not have been true in such as highly divided country as ours, and while it’s still not true this morning- there’s no doubt that there’s been an erosion in the Democrats support. Those so-called security moms shifted in frightened droves to the protective arms of Bush’s Texas swagger. At his victory speech this afternoon Bush spoke of a "broad, nationwide victory." He's got a mandate, make no doubt about it- you can point to the fact that he's just barely eeked out a majority, but rest assured that such claims won't ever reach Bush's ears.

It’s way too early to sort out the should of and what ifs and how comes (did Pennsylvania, for example, have a better GOTV operation- more minority voters- Governor Rendell’s steadfast support? And what’s with that 5 point lead in Florida? Those early exit polls were showing the Hispanic vote moving toward Kerry- even an erosion in the Cuban-American block- what happened? And where was the youth vote? 17% voted in 2000 and 17% voted yesterday- what happened to the spike?)

There’s going to be mountains of blame and assessment over the next few months (as well there should be) but I’m taking solace in the idea that the Republicans have spent the last 30 or so years building a complex and highly effective Propaganda machine (see Lewis Lapham's article in Harpers from a few months back for a good primer) while the Democrats have, I believe, only just begun to build their own. We saw many of the 527’s bonding together over the last few months- more effective communications, sharing of responsibilities, asserting the same message, etc… obviously it was too little, too late. Maybe it wasn’t that at all. I don’t know.

I’m also not ready to suggest any antidotes to the upcoming plague of 4 years with a lame duck president easily manipulated by kooky ideologues and utterly convinced that everything he does is on the side of God and His Good. Obviously I think his first four years have been calamitous. Had the Dems managed to take back the Senate we could of at least looked forward to somebody putting the breaks on the runaway train- but now that the legislative, executive and judicial branches are so firmly entrenched I really do fear what this administration is capable of and the terrible burden we'll share when the consequences of such actions begin to roll in.

There are silver linings to be found. Obama, Salazar, Melissa Bean, etc…

Oh, yeah. In four years time- somebody kick my ass if I’m not in a swing state doing something, ok?

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Vaudeville Tyranny Ahoy

John Ford’s Mister Roberts(formally a hit Broadway play starring Henry Fonda, who returned to film for the first time after an 8 year absence to lead as its namesake)- is a comedy/drama about tedium and war. It’s one of those tiny but hugely consequential aspects of modern warfare that we don’t often see portrayed in film. In this story there’s never a bullet fired or even an enemy sighted- just the soul deadening impact of monotony and the morale sapping of diminutive commands. The film wants us to see that there were other battles taking place far removed from the traditional fronts.

From such tedium, the film posits, those in charge may become tyrants. That the Captain and reigning tyrant of the supply boat where almost all of the action takes place is James Cagney is fun enough, especially if you’ve seen him in Scarface- but there's also the nice bonus of watching James Cagney verbally spar with Henry Fonda for the wellbeing of the ship's crew. Fonda represents the good fight and is invested with the crew’s yearning for R & R (which translates into, as is par for such films, pent up sexual release and drunken adventure in exotic ports) while Cagney offers glaring contrast as the embodiment of all that is petty, selfishly singular and oppressive to the fighting spirit.

Fonda is the bulwark shielding the crew from Cagney’s authoritarianism and there’s never any doubt where your sympathies are to lie. Fonda’s Mister Roberts is all cool gravity and quiet, avuncular heroism (like Alan Alda’s Hawkeye in MASH but without the Groucho Marx shtick) while Cagney’s Captain Morion is theatrically exaggerated and cartoonishly animated. When they share a scene Cagney seems to be channeling the overemphasizing characteristics of vaudeville while Fonda exhibits a muted but heroic sagacity. Time and time again Fonda’s Mister Roberts challenges and transforms the outrageous and soul deadening commands of Cagney’s Captain Morion into something more palatable for the crew and they, of course, love him for it. He’s their true leader.

Jack Lemmon erupts around the edges of both Cagney and Fonda, showing up the two old pros in a role that won him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1955. His Ensign Pulver is transformed from a conniving boy into a man with backbone. He’s an easy-going loafer and gets the biggest laughs and the most triumphant ending. He’s hammy and clownish but also down to earth and earnest. His scenes crackle with the piquant enthusiasm of an actor ascending and demonstrating his range.

Saturday, October 30, 2004


Inside the New Life compound, workers were finishing a new church that will seat 7,500 people and people wore buttons that said, "I voted." The headquarters office features pictures of the head pastor, Ted Haggard, with President Bush and Mel Gibson.

Mr. Haggard - or Pastor Ted, as everyone in the church calls him - is president of the National Association of Evangelicals, which says it represents 30 million people. He has been to the Oval Office twice since Mr. Bush has been president.

"We've been in regular contact with Karl Rove," said Mr. Brendle, referring to the president's chief political adviser. Though the church is officially nonpartisan, opposition to gay marriage and abortion have put it strongly in the Republican camp. To win this election, Mr. Rove has said, Republicans will need to turn out roughly four million evangelicals who did not vote in 2000. Mr. Brendle predicted an enormous Christian right turnout - at least 75 percent among the 11,000 members of the New Life Church.

"Our people don't need to be bused to the polls and given a sandwich," he said.

That last quote is really something, isn't it? Us against them. Black against white. Pastor Ted certainly knows whose side Jesus is on.

Friday, October 29, 2004

A Whole Lot of Shakin' Goin' On

The Washington Post had an article a few days ago on PEAD, or Pre-Election Anxiety Disorder. I know I've got it. I read so many polls, political blogs, newspaper articles, columns and e-mails that I feel vaguely exhausted by the too muchness of it all. It's an addiction. The more information I take in, the less I know what to do with it- the less control I feel like I have over the proceedings. I'm haunted by this phrase: statistical margin of error.

I'm looking for signs, synergies, indicators- manifestations of statistical assurances in apolitical situations . The Red Sox winning the World Series, for example. I'm eating my cereal, watching Matt and Katie interview a couple of blury eyed Red Sox players and I want it to be a sign. It must be. It has to be.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Birdie Num Nums

It would be downright cruel not to love The Party, Blake Edwards’s 1968 comedy starring Peter Sellers as Hrundi V. Bakshi, a bumbling but elegant Indian actor accidentally invited to a swanky party thrown by the very mogul who had earlier vowed to have him blacklisted (“He’ll never work in this town again!”) due to his gross incompetence on the set.

It’s one of the most goofy-ass films I’ve seen in a long time and I gotta admit I went in highly skeptical, forgetful of whatever it was I must have read that convinced me I should add it to my Netflix queue. The first few minutes didn’t bode well either, a perfunctory introduction that acts as a simple, obligatory setup for the ensuing mayhem- something that, in retrospect, I can acknowledge as being perfectly suitable if not entirely inspired.

Sellers’s Hrundi is sometimes conscious of the commotion his bumbling creates but entirely incapable of comprehending it as anything but the natural order of things. Tactical obliviousness is key. He’s a bumbling innocent whose actions continuously leave a wake of mayhem that he adapts to as though nothing were amiss. He's constantly trying to cover his trail of destruction which, of course, only leads to more.

There’s a screwball element to The Party, an upsetting of uppity WASP order in the Hollywood Hills. It begins simply enough, with Hrundi arriving to the party, invitation in hand and, much to his chagrin, mud on one of his shoes. In the process of cleaning the shoe it comes off and lands in a pool. While trying to fetch the shoe from the pool it lands on a catering trey making the rounds. Eventually there will be Cornish hens flying through the air, toilets overflowing, an elephant on parade and best of all, the repeated saying of the phrase, “Birdie num nums.” A trot becomes a gallop and order becomes chaos. It’s a finely calibrated trajectory of silliness and I found myself completely swept up in its delirium.

There’s a warm sweetness at its core, too- Sellers’s Hrundi is all good will turned fantastically calamitous. He’s a buffoon both stunned and amused by his actions- so innocent and benign that you’re left with no other option but to empathize with his bumbling ways. (And Sellers was one of the big screens all-time great bumblers.) A love interest, supplied by the adorable French chanteuse Claudine Longet (whose singing of the Henry Mancini penned Nothing To Lose is one of the films highlights) supplies a perfect compliment of tenderness to the sugar rush of zaniness.

The whole thing is slight but enchanted. It’s loose (much of it was improvised) and elegant (Mancini’s score)- unhinged and refined. It’s near perfect but not for everybody. I adored it.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Yeah, But...

From today's Times.

Mr. Thompson said that more had been done to fight the flu by this administration than by any previous one. Echoing comments made in recent days by Vice President Dick Cheney, he said that tort reforms proposed by the administration were needed to help vaccine manufacturers even more.

But Congress in 1986 passed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act that largely shields vaccine manufacturers from serious legal liability. Congress voted this year to add flu vaccines to the program, a bill that only awaits President Bush's signature, according to a spokesman for the program.

The Vaccine Injury Compensation system provides "no fault" awards to those injured by vaccines by tapping into a fund created through an excise tax. Mr. Thompson acknowledged those shields, but he said that tort reforms would also help.

So why didn't George sign this? Was he relying on one of those foreign pens with a major manufacturing defect?
The Presidential Brand

This is well worth spending some time checking out.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Here Is A Strange and Bitter Crop

We went south this weekend, to a place where every other piece of luggage on the baggage carousal was a set of clubs. We were deep in Bush/Cheney territory, where their devotees plant signs in prickly crab grassed lawns and where those who desire it can fulfill what surely must be the ultimate in mammary indulgence by flying in for the weekend on Hooters Air.

The wedding we attended on Saturday took place on an old plantation and the actual ceremony was perhaps the most idyllic I’ve ever witnessed. It was held outdoors on a well- groomed lawn dotted with trees heavy with Spanish moss and a backdrop of tall grasses that rolled and sighed under the breath of a late afternoon breeze. And, shit, the sun was setting all fat and mellow and dappled by leaves and moss and casting everything in an amber hue like some visual representation of a sigh.

And I like that we all stood when the bride made her entrance. This is right. I can do without everything else- the obligatory biblical readings, the hosannas to Sky Gods, the holy ass sanctity of the marriage bond (which increasingly sounds like “Gays need not apply”) and the bowing of reverent heads. Oh, no. Fuck all that. When the bride walks in and we stand and the breeze is blowing in just such a way that the moment feels consummate of everything that wants to be harnessed and unleashed- that’s what I like.

The groom endeared himself to me by waxing about the wedding mix Cathy and I made and gave out to everybody who attended our own wedding. He tells us he listened to it on the drive down to his wedding just the other day. He turns to the person with us and says, “Now a lot of people getting married make these mixes and to tell you the truth, more often then not they fucking suck. But not this one. It’s fucking great!” And I want to hug him but I don’t. He does however shake my hand numerous times.

We wonder, Cathy and I as we walk the plantation grounds after dinner, how to reconcile the beauty of this place with its awful legacy. What magnitudes of suffering took place here? It’s an onerous anxiety, a low-grade hindrance to fully giving ourselves over to the beauty of the candles that hang from the trees and the sliver sickle of moon that rises and demands awe. I say something stupid about how I take solace in the grizzled bowing of the trees and their hermit-like beards of moss and how their beauty has nothing to do with this legacy. But Cathy wonders if they weren’t planted and kept up by those in bondage, which they probably were. Scratch the surface and there’s dreadfulness here.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Swing, Baby!

We're holding our breath over Ohio, Colrado, Florida, Iowa, Michagan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Swing low and to the left, damnit! There's so much riding on this one, it's almost too much.
Pumpkin Lights

There’s just a smattering of them this October strung up in trees and draping over bushes. Orange tinted lights, mellow and cheesy and surprisingly effective. We adore this new movement in exterior décor. It’s both rustic and spooky, an ode to this special time of year that so exquisitely merges both Norman Rockwell and Bela Lugosi Americana.

Halloween has been one of the fastest growing holidays for retail spending, but it lags others that are linked to gift-giving. Here's how they stack up in consumer spending, according to the National Retail Federation:

Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa $219.9-billion

Valentine's Day $12.8-billion

Easter $10.5-billion

Mother's Day $10.4-billion

Father's Day $8-billion

Halloween $3-billion

Will you look at that? Father’s Day dads are hardly experiencing parity with Mother’s Day moms! It’s an outrage! And the Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa tripartite is kicking some serious consuming ass. Each year we all take a little vacation through late December and spend roughly half the Pentagon’s yearly budget on trinkets, socks and holiday cheer. Me, all I need are some lights in the windows, a tree tastefully decorated, George Winston’s December and a vaporizer filled to capacity. Give me these and I guarantee I'll feel the spirit.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

The President And His Accumulated Burden of Sucking Can’t Be Put Right By The Sun And Leaves Of An Autumn Afternoon In October

Just stepping out onto our front stoop this afternoon, stopping to sit on the steps and give my shoes a heartier tying while Cathy finished up a conversation she was having with Emily on the cell-phone, was enough to astound me into a better mood.

It was around 4:15 this afternoon. I had spent a better part of the day in the studio enjoying vocal compression work for like-the-first-time-ever! I was determinedly building dense vocal beds- using sound processors to create simple digital replications of acoustic environments and greedily dropping my voice into the presets of small churches and large concert halls. And I was sucking. Really sucking.

So what happens in these suck situations is I either walk away freely, readily acknowledging that I’m not feeling it- that vocals today aren’t going to come by way of curiosity or play (the best way) but rather from a sense of obligation (the worst way)- or I fight it and this causes a heavy burden of accumulated sucking.

Eventually a bass line came along, out of nowhere, and while it wasn’t perfect it was just enough a tonic to propel my ass out of the studio and upstairs and onto the front stoop where everything was ablaze with sunlight and effulgent leaves just days away from their most rustic moments of barn reds and flaxen yellows. This was enough to lift the accumulated burden of sucking.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Streaming To Bits

There was a moment yesterday morning while riding the train to work, brief but fierce, when I was bummed to realize I had forgotten my iPod. That sleek and delicious little white block of sonic generosity has thoroughly imprinted itself on me. I was experiencing the trepidations of separation anxiety.

Thankfully my concerns were quickly cast aside not long after I arrived to work and began streaming UC Berkeley’s KALX Radio, 90.7 FM. How fantastic! In the span of 8 hours 3 different students took shifts and each played the kind of heterogeneous mix I was hoping for- Albert Ayler tracks followed by Cab Calloway or Marcos Valle mixed into Sisters of Mercy. My only complaint would be the lack of any electronic music dropped into otherwise supremely eclectic mixes- an unfortunate habit of compartmentalizing such things to late night DJ shifts, I suppose. Why not The Incredible String Band followed up by Ricardo Villalobos?

A couple tracks bonked me over the head. I loved Queen Jane’s Nduraga Ngwetereire from The Rough Guide to the Music of Kenya compilation and Keren Ann’s languorous Spanish Song Bird from her album Not Going Anywhere.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Hi there!

Now If We Could Just Have A Little Night Music

Hi there!
Originally uploaded by chrisbreitenbach.
Ah, that's better! We'll need to work on centering these pictures, but it's a start! This is from when we were out visiting Los Angeles in September of 2003. Behind my fat head was the Hollywood sign, which my father in law can be seen taking a picture of.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

The New Normal

Do yourself a favor and check out Joan Didion's wonderful article over at the New York Review of Books.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

2 Million Navel Gazers Can’t Be Wrong

This from Mathew Klam’s snarky article on political bloggers in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine:

In a recent national survey, the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that more than two million Americans have their own blog. Most of them nobody reads.

Ah, but those of us with roughly half a dozen readers (that’s if I include my wife) can take solace! Look into my navel and behold!
Shake Dog Shake

Cathy doesn’t get any vacation days her first year on the job. As a dedicated civil servant she also spent her first 6 months in an office without windows. She’d call me from time to time toward the end of the day and ask, “What’s the weather look like?”

I don’t get any vacation days for the first 6 months. Amazingly enough, that landmark is rapidly approaching. Until then I’ve accumulated a healthy amount of sick days and it’s into that pool that I’ve dipped this morning. I’m not physically ill unless you count being a little on the tired side. It’s more that I was in dire need of some free time.

In Sebastian De Grazia’s Of Time, Work and Leisure, he writes:

There are 168 hours to the week. If a man holds down a job of 40 hours a week, how much free time does he have- 128 hours? He would answer no. First of all he sleeps and eats, and these activities subtract a large sum from the total. Nor are they all he would subtract from the total before he arrived at free time. An early slogan of the shorter-hours movement in the United States proclaimed “8 hours for work, 8 hours for sleep, 8 hours for all the rest.” The eight-hour remainder is not all free time, however. Instead it covers, as the pat phrase puts it, “all the rest”- shopping, grooming, chores, transportation, voting, making love, helping children with homework, reading the newspaper, getting the roof repaired, trying to locate the doctor, going to church, visiting relatives, and so on. Do all these activities rightly belong to free time?

No way, man!

He later compiles a list, a fascinating one at that, taken from surveys that asked people what they did with their free time. (Keep in mind that the book was first published in 1962.)

We can then say that at present the American’s use of free time includes watching television; listening to the radio, listening to records; reading newspapers, magazines, books; working around yard or in garden; pleasure diving; going to meetings or organizational activities; attending lectures or adult school; visiting; going out to dinner; going to the theater, concerts, opera, movies; participating in sports (bowling riding, skating, fishing, swimming, golf); sight-seeing; singing; playing musical instruments; dancing; going to government parks and amusement parks; attending sports events; playing cards; engaging in special hobbies (photography, stamp collecting); keeping pets; and playing slot machines.

I find this book interesting, but isn’t it curious that I’ve never committed the kind of free time to reading it in its entirety? I’ve been meaning to for almost 10 years now. For now I just take little dips.

How much free time is spent in consideration?

So far today I’ve watered the lawn, ripped dozens of CD’s to feed my hungry iPod and read enough pre-debate coverage and spin to leave me convinced that tonight’s showdown will indeed play like two separate press conferences. I’d like very much to have magical powers right now, a way to cast a spell on Dubya just as he took his place behind his podium (carefully placed in relation to Kerry’s so as to not highlight his competitors 4 inch height advantage). In this sorcerous scenario Jim Lehrer would be introducing the candidates and as those Fox camera’s zoomed in on Dubya I’d wave my wand and have him stick his tongue out as the camera. It would be subtle at first, an action that that would cause the pundits to sit bolt upright in their chairs by the thousands and take amused and horrified notice. They’d wonder, “Is he doing that thing he does, that winking to folks in the audience, giving the thumbs up to a friend- didn’t Jenna do this a few months ago?” But their questions would be set aside by what would happen next. Dubya would bark. He’d undeniably bark. It would begin with something throaty- guttural- a growl suddenly eclipsed by a sharp, crisp yap. Lehrer would stumble over his introduction and pause to regain his congenial footing. At this pause, just after the bark, Dubya would offer by way of explanation, “My apologies Jim, but I’m so excited ‘bout debatin’ this squirrelly buck here that I’m goin all First Scottish Terrier on ya!”

The cogs in Kerry’s head would undeniably be churning, neuronal paths in an ember glow of action as he boldly took hold of the edges of his podium, leaned ever so slightly into his microphone and said, “Jim, should my opponent need to relieve himself at any time during the next 90 minutes I respectfully ask that he wait and use the hydrant located just outside the theater.”

But this kind of magic could backfire during post-debate debate- I’m perfectly aware. This is when the pundits and spinners (are they even distinguishable?) begin their conversations agnostically and make claims of never having seen anything quite like it in the 40 odd some years of televised debates. The Dems enjoy a couple post-debate days of unencumbered offense with Kerry and Edwards wondering aloud at numerous campaign stops if there wasn’t a certain “dog” in the White House that shouldn’t be taken to the pound come the second of November. There would be wild applause. T-shirts of Kerry taking Bush for a walk would appear.

But something happens on the third day. The Republicans would regain the advantage. It would begin with the right-wing TV and radio pundits hammering on about the profound disrespect Kerry showed to our nation’s firemen by encouraging public urination on fire hydrants. Imagine, the very firemen who lost their life on 9/11 and Kerry is desecrating their memory in a discharge of waste- why, it’s in shockingly bad taste, isn’t it? And was that really a dog bark. Please! It was a “barbaric YAWP”- a powerful sign of vigorous leadership. Certainly our men in uniform do just this sort of thing before going into battle and that’s really what this is, a battle for the very heart of this country, a safer and more secure country guarded by a President who is positively ferocious about maintaining our freedom!

Kerry would be back on the defensive, making claims that Dubya had actually made cuts to national hydrant allocations in each of his previous budgets, so that the safety of our nations cities was gravely imperiled. He’d be a President who, the first day in office, would sign a bill guaranteeing 500,000 new hydrants to those areas where our nation needs them most. Swing voters would pause to consider such bold initiatives and accusations.

And so it would go.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Whimsy As Ritual

After spending the afternoon out on one of those river boat architecture tours of the city (where a narrator turns your attention repeatedly to the left and right and to the many buildings and their histories, his comments laced with polished anecdotes generously laced with Catskills humor) Cathy, my Mom (Lou Lou visiting from the shores of Lake Erie) and I headed over to Millennium Park where we hastily made our way through chicken skewers and chips accompanied by a couple salsa’s and guacamole at the Park’s outdoor restaurant. There was music too. A large man saccharinely wafting his soprano sax along to prerecorded adult contemporary slow-jamz. When the audience applauded I imagined their clapping was really for an end to his playing then a continuation. But I was baffled, my mouth full of roasted mushroom, too turn in my seat and watch two men approach the large mans table of merchandise and contemplate his CD’s between thumb and forefinger, clearly athirst for more of his aloe soothing slow-jamz. The large man even walked over to them, taking his lips off his mouthpiece to offer a nod and, I imagined, a word of encouragement to those lured by his glassy-eyed melodies. I was baffled, but I wasn’t surprised.

We took a cab to Ping Tom Memorial Park in China Town to check out Redmoon Theater’s Sink. Sank. Sunk…


Like a lot of people I’m really fond of Redmoon Theater and what they’re about. They represent a kind of public art (and a belief in the transformative powers of such art) that always seems to cure me of wayward cynicism. I’ve yet to be anything but completely smitten by each of the productions (or as they more aptly call them, “Spectacles”) I’ve seen of theirs. The Winter Solstice shows, which I’ve been to 3 of, are especially magical- a kind of dream theater that manages to be silly, haunting, often times stunningly original and is almost always graced with endings that veer awfully close to the transcendent through the very force of their beauty. According to Redmoon’s press release, “Sink. Sank. Sunk…marks the first in a new Redmoon Theater series of annual site-specific Spectacles created to introduce audiences to undiscovered, often-overlooked Chicago locations, at no cost.” Given that kind of ambition, Sink. Sank. Sunk… was madly successful.

Sink.Sank.Sunk... is a Spectacle in the best sense of the word- an extravaganza, a pageant, a gala and a ceremony so that you’re never any less then wide eyed and captivated even if you have “no idea what’s going on.” Their Spectacle develops rhythms and motifs. Each time the El went by (and it passes very near to the park along with Amtrak and Metro trains) each performer would wave to it, their faces both inviting and quizzical as though it were something alive and sadly unable to stop and visit. A young girl who releases first one small white balloon and later, yet another, this time even larger, so that there’s actually an audible gasp of astonishment throughout the audience as we all crane our necks and marvel at the incandescence of the balloon framed against the last traces of twilight. The elegiac procession of candle lit boats along the South Branch of the Chicago River beginning with sirens (thanks to Chicago Police boats assisting on the river) and the magnificent rising of the 18th Street Bridge. It's more about atmosphere then anything explicit, conjuring moods rather then articulating anything specific.

My only criticism, and it’s a minor one, has to do with the sound system, particularly the speakers that were unequally disseminated and could have easily been distributed in a more effective way. I can only trust that a theater troop as adventurous and successful as Redmoon will quickly find a way to use and distribute sound at these outdoor events in a way more conducive to its objectives.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Slave To The Rhythm

The Mac Super Store on Michigan Avenue is like so many of the Big Brand establishments lining that mile of consuming magnificence- it wants to wow you with a kind of World Fair/Epcot Center exhibitionism and, more importantly, to cause each visitor to feel the tech-spirit coursing through the temple of its brand experience. (Parting with your money is your ritualistic offering.) And so it was that I walked through its doors this past Saturday afternoon, made my way through the crowded buzz of its showroom floors and bought myself a new iPod. I felt a great lightness upon exiting.

There’s a narrative I don’t feel like plugging in here, and it’s about how this is one of the most exciting things to happen to my music habits since the CD player and how it's redefining the way I listen to music.

There’s another one, too, where I imagine myself starring in some infomercial for Apple and where I look into the camera and say something like, “Imagine, a 10,000 song jukebox is finally at my fingertips and I find myself without arms!”

We’re slaphappy about…

Hot shuffle play action
Not having to haul CD’s to work every day
Ridiculous 10,000 songs portability
The Thelonious Monk CD we just now fed the sleek and delicious little white block of sonic generosity lying before us
Marathon Holiday Mixes (copyright pending) with a particular fondness for songs about and/or inspired by Santa Claus and Sky Gods.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The Brilliant Mesh of New Order and First Love

Wow, huge thanks to Joe for stumbling over this link and sending it my way! MP3’s of the entire New Order concert from July 5, 1989 at Blossom Music Center- a concert we both attended just weeks after graduating from high school. The sound quality is wonderful, too, quite possibly taken from the boards, and it’s both incredibly bizarre and moving to hear it again. This show meant a lot to me. How strange and astonishing it is to hear it again.

We had a friend who had gotten front row seats for this show. He and his girlfriend left about 4 or 5 songs into New Order’s set (his girlfriend had really just wanted to see Public Image Limited who had just played, and besides, they had her mom’s new car so best to get out before things got crazy in the parking lot) and they gave us their tickets. I can still remember with great clarity the giddy rush as Joe and I ran from the lawn into the pavilion, flashing various ushers our tickets until we entered the cordoned area directly in front of the stage-which had been entirely cleared of chairs so as to allow for manic dancing. And shit, I danced my ass off. I was just a few feet away from the band whose music was the soundtrack to my teenage years and I barely had time to look up on stage to see what they were up to (not that they were then, as now, revered for their stage presence, but at least Hook had at that point abandoned performing with his back to the crowd). I had to make the most of it, too, you know- ‘cause for roughly an hour, the soundtrack was live and loud and I was practically levitating.

This show also came at a time when I was breaking up with the first love of my life, something I went about with all the trademarked dumb histrionics of an 18 year old. The day before this show I was to have spent the 4th of July with her and her Dad on their boat, cruising Lake Erie and enjoying the fireworks, the very boat (Spindrift was its name) that we had spent the previous summer sailing for almost 3 weeks up North to the Georgian Bay in. I had arrived that morning of the 4th, we had gotten in an argument and I just up and left, the boat still tethered to the dock and a light rain falling. There’s still an undertow there, even now, this event, those that unfolded over the next few months, and I distinctly remember dancing to New Order that night and letting it all unravel- the joy of dancing and of feeling unbound and without burden. Hearing these songs (and I’ve been reading some of my old diaries of late) conjures up so many memories of that particular summer. If I could go back, with just a hint more sensibility, I would have let that first love down with far more tenderness and with a lot more affection. As it was, we were at odds, as most uncouplings are, with how to successfully navigate the transition from lovers to friends.

Still, I’m happy to change nothing and hearing this New Order concert again has definitely made my day!

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Hurtleberries, Huckleberries, Bilberries- It’s All Blueberry Shenanigans to Me

Alan Davidson’s big book of Food (The Penguin Companion to Food) is a dinner table favorite of ours. Just the other night we found ourselves reading aloud the entry on Cheese and this in turn led us to the entry on Rennet, a substance found in the stomach lining (the fourth stomach of a calf, for example) of numerous animals and used in the milk curdling phase of the cheese making process.

The stomach lining of human beings, like that of calves and other animals, contains rennin, which exerts its curdling effect on milk which has been ingested. Thus, although we swallow milk as liquid, we quickly turn it into a solid, like junket.


The entry on Blueberries doesn’t offer anything quite so rich and strange. One of Davidson’s strengths as an author is his liberal quoting of other food specialists. In the preface he writes: “The fact that there are many quotations in the book and that the bibliography is so long, reflects my wish to give readers as much information as possible about where I found the information which I am passing on to them- and where they might look for more.” Which is another way of saying he loves food in all its multitude way too much to not share with his readers the wisdom others have yielded from their years studying the likes of Arabic cookery or the toothsome arts of confectionary. Still, the entry on Blueberries does offer an alluring nugget on the Blue Ridge blueberry and its status “of being superior to all other blueberries.”

The book is crammed with scrumptious looking entries like Buddhism and food, Elizabeth Raffald (“author of one of the finest 18th-century cooker books, 'The Experienced English Housekeeper'"), Hallucinogenic mushrooms, Éclairs, Poppadom and Squirrel (“The slight gamy taste present in most game meats is not so pronounced in squirrel”).

Saturday, September 11, 2004

The Blue Yodeler

I like Jimmie Rodgers quite a bit, but I love him most when he yodels.

Discreet Music

There aren’t many ambient sounds more evocative of a highly particular kind of nostalgia for me then that of children playing. It excites a distinct set of associations to place. My parents, for example, have lived for over 30 years in a house that sits roughly 100 yards from an elementary school playground (separated by a thin layer of woods, itself an influential part of my early landscape) and the ambient wash of children playing on its gravel playground is intimately intertwined with my ideas of home. Along with my siblings, I also attended this school.

On John Cale’s new one, HoboSapiens, he drops some whimsy into the final track, Set Me Free. It’s just for a moment, about two thirds of the way into the song- a nice instrumental stretch where Cale’s pining cello and a complimentarily winsome guitar seem to drop by the corner of a school playground. My own particular reaction to this often-used contrivance (and in Cale’s song, it’s both discreet and sensitive rather then some gooey sentimentalized good) taps into something substantially rooted in my own experience and oh,man- how it endures and resonates!
They Say House is a Feeling

For those interested, I've posted some more pictures here.

Saturday, September 04, 2004

Our People Deal In Absolutes

Part of what makes reading Lewis H. Lapham so much fun is the way he combines his fierce intelligence with a such a rich prose style. Lapham uses two sticks of butter where lesser prose stylists stuggle with one. Here's an excerpt from his long piece in this month's Harper's on the modern history of the Repuplican propaganda machine:

During the course of the 1990's I did my best to keep up with the various lines of grievance developing within the several sects of the conservative remonstrance, but although I probably read as many as 2,000 presumably holy texts (Peggy Noonan's newpaper editorials and David Gelernter's magazine articles as well as the soliloquies of Rush Limbaugh and the sermons of Robert Bork), I never learned how to make sense of the weird and too numerous inward contradictions. How does one reconcile the demand for small government with the desire for an imperial army, apply the phrases "personal initiative" and "self-reliance" to corporation presidents utterly dependent on the federal subsidies to the banking, communicaitons, and weapons industries, square the talk of "civility" with the strong-arm methods of Kenneth Starr and Tom DeLay, match the warmhearted currencies of "conservative compassion" with the cold cruelty of the "unfettered free market," know that human life must be saved from abortionists in Boston but not from cruise missiles in Baghad? In the glut of paper I could find no unifying or fundamental principle except a certain belief that money was good for rich people and bad for poor people. It was the only point on which all authorities agreed, and no matter where the words were coming from (a report on federal housing, an essay on the payment of Social Security, articles on the sorrow of the slums or the wonder of the U.S. Navy) the authors invariably found the same abiding lesson in the tale- money enobles rich people, making them strong as well as wise; money corrupts poor people, making them stupid as well as weak.

I also like the guy 'cause he espouses a point of view fairly parallel to my own, albeit with far more rhetorical finesse.

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Don’t Hate Me Because I’m A Hyperpower

Fareed Zakaria has an interesting (and brief) article in the current issue of Foreign Policy. I used to subscribe to this magazine back in the late 90's when Zakaria was the managing editor and when it tended to lean a bit too far to the right for my tastes. I did, however, usually enjoy Zakaria’s editorials which seemed more ideologically nuanced. In this article, he asks us to consider, in this time of rampant anti-Americanism, what the world might look like if the U.S. wasn’t leading the way on issues such as trade and nuclear proliferation.

It’s a provocative question, especially for those of us feeling upset and shamed by the way our country is currently viewed throughout the world. (Is this shame I feel due to some unexplored undercurrent of nationalism I harbor, even if, in my better days, I want to claim I'm a universalist? But then, I can't create too much change in the far flung parts of the world- I do, however, have a small chance to change things here, damnit!) Certainly, my own feeling is that this countries trade policies in, for example, the area of agriculture (heavy subsidizing for U.S. agricultural interests, high tariffs on incoming goods, the charade of "free" trade when we dump our surplus on other countries), can and often do have ruinous consequences on struggling third world farmers. Or, certainly, when it comes to nuclear proliferation, the current administration has all but neglected the sensibility of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction programs and virtually turned their back on the the numerous Russian nuclear facilities that remain under funded and in need of security upgrades, which is to say nothing about the potential nuclear threats of N. Korea and Pakistan. Zakara’s article begs the question, just how effective has the U.S’s leadership been in these crucial areas and who, if anybody, is better suited to take the leading role?

Nobody, I presume- at least not unilaterally. The best bet is a collective effort- a multilateral response to these challenges. This current administration, as Zakaria points out, by crudely asserting U.S. power and disregarding international institutions and alliances... has pulled the curtain on decades of diplomacy and revealed that the United States’ constraints are self-imposed: America can, in fact, go it alone.

At what price?