November 30, 2003
More Tales from the Road

While in Oklahoma, we found ourselves with a day to spare. Since it was the day after Thanksgiving, almost everyone seemed to be headed to the shopping mall. So we figured it was a good day to do something else, so we headed up from Tulsa to Claremore, OK, to learn about Will Rogers.

Hardly anyone talks about Rogers these days; he died almost 70 years ago and his work seems to be a rapidly fading bit of Americana. But in his day, he was almost a brand name, making movies and writing newspaper columns, a combination one rarely sees these days.

There are two Rogers sites in the area. One is the Will Rogers birthplace, which sits in the middle of rolling farmland, at the top of a scenic man-made lake. The house is reconstructed and furnished to look as it was when Rogers was growing up in the late 19th century in what was then "Indian Territory." There were no signs of life when we parked and got out of the car, but we started to hear a voice as we got closer; a recording of a narration by Will Rogers Jr. plays continuously, explaining the details of the house.

It's a nice house but kind of a ghostly affair, since no one actually works there to welcome visitors or explain things. Instead, we were greeted by a peacock, some goats, a burro, and a friendly dog.

Back on the road and over to the Will Rogers Museum, which offered a contrast with more interactive, multi-media, exhaustive Rogersania than you've ever seen before. Complete with statues, newspaper clippings, letters, photos, bits of clothing, and film clips, it's certainly a hagiographic exercise, although some of our questions--such as who ran the business end of this celebrity empire?--remained unanswered.

Rogers is responsible for more than his share of quotable quips, but the sentences I wrote down aren't among his funniest. They're a quote from a radio broadcast encouraging listeners to support Herbert Hoover's President's Organization on Unemployment Relief in 1931:

You know, there's not a one of us who has anything that these people that are without it now haven't contributed to what we've got. I don't suppose there’s the most unemployed or the hungriest man in America has contributed in one way to the wealth of every millionaire in America.

Twisted syntax aside, the sentiment that "the poor" actually contribute to the success of "the rich" and that "the rich" have a moral obligation to help them in return is a sentiment you rarely see in the political or business literature these days. (Interestingly, the POUR was a group that raised money from private citizens and volunteers for its relief efforts; consistent with the rest of Hoover's philosophy, it was not an "entitlement" program.)

Is this relevant today? Maybe. Here's a fun fact that got completely buried by this fall's war headlines: The US poverty rate in 2002 went up to 12 percent. Maybe those people could use another Will Rogers. I dunno, maybe we all could.

Posted at 09:50 PM
November 29, 2003
Tales from the Road

This Thanksgiving we found ourselves in Oklahoma. One of the highlights of the trip was a short drive on Route 66. Here are some of the things we learned:

1. Always stop for the giant whale.
2. Chickens are not necessarily to scale.
3. Things go better with classic rock.

To get the maximum benefit from these pictures, try singing along as you view them. You know how it goes.

Thanksgiving is a perfect time to celebrate America's love affair with the automobile. So we rented one.

I'm travelin' down the road an’ I'm flirtin' with disaster
I've got the pedal to the floor an’ my life is running faster
I'm outta money outta hope it looks like self destruction
Well how much more can we take with all of this corruption

E. told me I would get a better picture if I were to squat. I heard him say "squawk" and the rest is history. Notice disturbed peahen onlooker in background.

We’re flirtin' with disaster, ya'll know what I mean
And the way we run our lives it makes no sense to me
I don’t know about yourself or what you wanna to be, yeah
When we gamble with our time we choose our destiny

I made E. turn the car around for this one.

I'm travelin' down that lonesome road.
Feel like I'm draggin’ a heavy load.
Yet I've tried to turn my head away,
Feel about the same most every day
You know what I’m talkin’ about man

(Boy, this is a really long song.)

Guitar solo

Paradoxically, there is no swimming allowed near the giant whale.

We’re flirtin' with disaster baby ya'll know what I mean
You know the way we run our lives it makes no sense to me
I don't know about yourself or what you plan to be
When we gamble with our time we choose our destiny

You can, however, walk right into its mouth.

Yeah!! We're travelin' down this lonesome road.
Feel like I'm dragging a heavy load.
Though I try to turn my head away, Bop mm bop bop yeah
We’re flirtin' with disaster every day.

You know what I'm talkin' about, man.

Posted at 06:00 PM
November 20, 2003
Yes, It's Come to That

Will these people stop at nothing? Now they are even spamming the cat.

Subject line from today's e-mail:

Kitty, meet h%rny singles in your area

Sorry, boys, she's fixed.

Posted at 06:40 PM
November 18, 2003
La Vie Boheme

What does it mean to be a hipster? The anthology The Greenwich Village Reader: Fiction, Poetry, and Reminiscences, 1872-2002 offers a chorus of often-contradictory answers.

This hefty anthology is a not inconsiderable read. It's an anthology about place, offering not just a sampling of Village-associated writers but an extensive selection of fiction and non-fiction about the Village itself, including memoirs and recollections. It also makes an exhaustive--and exhausting--attempt to define the meaning of "Bohemian" (in a lifestyle sense) and how that meaning changed over the years.

This approach is admirably consistent, though it leads to some odd omissions--eg., James Baldwin appears as a character in a number of reminiscences, but his work isn't actually represented.

We hear from all of the usual suspects, from Henry James to Kerouac and some of the other Beats, as well as famous naysayers such as Norman Podhoretz, but the book also offers glimpses of Village anti-celebrities who are fading into distant memory, like Joe Gould and Maxwell Bodenheim. For me, the most compelling read was actually a work of fiction--Willa Cather's "Coming, Aphrodite!"

The book is certainly long on detail and atmosphere, but it's not as complete as its title implies. Don't expect to see New York as we know it, or even pre-9/11, depicted here. It glosses over more recent history--Stonewall is mentioned in passing, but we hear nothing of AIDS. In fact, except for Madison Smartt Bell's story of a 1980s drug dealer, there's really no writing set in the last two decades. True, there are pieces published in the '90s and early 21st century, but they're all nostalgic looks backward to an earlier time. (Memo to self: Have all the writers moved away? Check on this.)

Despite this weakness, this anthology is still a good read for those interested in subcultures and countercultures. The questions it raises--Has the counterculture died? Answer: Before you were even born, kid--are still worth asking. As one author puts it a few decades ago, "the mass counterculture may be a reflection of the very hyped and videotaped world it professes to despise." That's as true now as it was then.

Link fun: Willa Cather's New York

Place Matters: a New York project to "discover, interpret, celebrate, and protect places that hold memories, anchor traditions, and help tell the history of our communities and city. "

Posted at 07:14 PM
November 17, 2003
In Memory

I never would have guessed it, but with Tom's crisis we have seen a community stand up.

And, in some respects, grow up.

Here are the cranes, and some other memorabilia, left outside his shop door. We also saw myriad newspaper tributes, several hundred people at a benefit concert Saturday night in his memory, messages of condolence on signs outside of businesses. Today at the funeral they played Irish tunes and the hipsters wept.

From Tom we learned that it is not necessary to be self-aggrandizing, or drive an expensive car, or make a lot of money to make a difference. We learned that the first rule of good business is to never make fun of the customer (he was possibly the only person in town who did not laugh at me for liking the Counting Crows). We learned that it is possible to do just what you want to do, and be kind and generous, and earn the love and respect of a generation or two.

Posted at 06:17 PM
November 13, 2003
Links and Ripples

At the end of the day, the news is finally sinking in and I am developing a slow leak on the train. Instead of going to Indiana this weekend to visit our sick friend, we are going to a funeral.

When a stone lands in the water, it sinks and leaves ripples. I am coming home to forwarded e-mails and listserv-circulated details about arrangements. He knew everybody and never had an unkind word to say, although he was sometimes mischievous. I used to visit his shop on Saturday afternoons and gossip about our mutual friends. When he went into the hospital, I hear, the people hung paper cranes from the door of the shop. We have lost that link.

I knew the news was bad but I thought surely he would last a little longer, long enough for me to tell him thanks for all the music and friendship. Would it have made a difference to him? It made a difference to me.

Tears are leaking out unobtrusively (I think) and I see there is a kid in a parka watching me. Who knows what our little dramas look like from the outside?

I last saw him in July. The speed at which people can be lost is appalling. There is a hole in the fabric of our old hometown and a hole in our hearts.

At Western the parka kid gets off the train and I am still sitting there. As he goes by me he looks straight at me and gives me a solidarity gesture: thumbs up.

Posted at 07:16 PM
November 11, 2003
A Music Fan's Dirty Little Secret

I had a bad scare today when my portable cassette player took a dive to the sidewalk. It had been acting strange lately and I assumed this was its final act of desperation. (It was unconscious for a few minutes, but by this afternoon it was back to its old self.) A narrow escape, but now I am thinking about the inevitable. Frankly, in today's world I not looking forward to going into an electronics store and enduring the smirks and the upsells as I buy a cassette player.

I am loyal to my cassette player not because I am morally opposed to MP3s or Napster or music downloading, or because I am a Luddite who hates CDs. It's just that over the last 20 years I've acquired a bunch of cassettes that I hardly ever get to listen to anywhere else. For me it's still a cheap, portable, and convenient medium. But somehow in the last five years the world has moved on, and because I have not moved with it, the market has made me a dinosaur.

This is not the first time it's happened. I've only been buying CDs for about 10 years; until then, I couldn't afford them. Vinyl was a lot cheaper and didn't require me to buy new equipment. But it was only a matter of time; earlier this year experts were saying that the death of the CD was at hand . All will now be digital, and I should get on the bandwagon.

Or should I? Will this mean that I have to a) ante up for yet another gadget; b) pay for digital music that I may or may not already own (according to the ideas of the RIAA, anyway) or c) spend hours ripping and downloading all the CDs I already own? This doesn't even begin to address the problem of the other media I've invested in, like vinyl and cassette, much of which is unavailable on CD or MP3. And so it goes.

Most average people probably don't care and accept this as the price of progress. But for serious music enthusiasts, it's a constant source of irritation. And as a consumer, I'm infuriated by market-driven planned obsolescence that the public continues to feed like gerbils on a wheel.

So, to no one's surprise, the revolution has started without me. Frankly, I don't have the time or the money or the inclination to change my habits at the will of the market. I'm busy doing other stuff besides being a consumer.

But everyone has their limits. Me, I don't want to ride on the train in martyred silence. So if you see me running furtively into your local electronics store in sunglasses and a hat, take pity on me. I'm just a beleaguered music fan, trying to get by.

Of course the irony is that many of us are listening to recycled music, courtesy of hip hip samples or Moby or a variety of DJs. Here's an entertaining article about how musicians generate meaning as part of a "resurgence of interest in old and outmoded media."

Posted at 06:38 PM
November 08, 2003
Worlds Collide

Who knew there was a Sylvia Plath/Paul Westerberg connection?

Plath killed herself at age 30 due to a clinical mental breakdown, but the tragic-romantic snapshot for any sleep-deprived or penned-in young parent is the one of the ultimate freedom that came only when, as Westerberg sings, "While her babies slept, she took a long deep breath/...Now they're zipping her up in a bag/Can you hear the blacks crackle and drag?"

"Sorry Ma, forgot to take out the trash" indeed.

My favorite thing about Sylvia Plath is the Peter Laughner song about her, covered in the '80s by Death of Samantha. Can you sing along?

Posted at 09:18 AM
November 06, 2003
Lit Snit

Madame Bovary, reconsidered:

Look at the faces in the Times wedding announcements. What are they thinking about? Other than Bed, Bath and Beyond. Are they gonna die for love? No. They're gonna go to Home Depot later today and buy more crap for their apartment, then watch Law and Order. And Baudelaire: why was he always complaining? Poverty? Syphilis? He didn't realize how good he had it.

But literature is not for everyone. This author believes we should all become programmers (although there already is a sizeable supply and demand problem these days).

Isn't this too much of a burden for the average computer user? Shouldn't we try to force computers to adapt to us as much as possible by giving them user-friendly interfaces and hiding their internal workings? Shouldn't we be able to get on with our jobs without worrying about what is going inside the black box? If that is your attitude, fine. If you want to remain inside the dream world of The Matrix, that's your choice.

Woe unto me! Should I admit that I don't even understand the simplest MT CGI scripts?

Posted at 07:07 PM
November 05, 2003

Latest in the bloggers vs. journalists debate: Things are as ill-informed and nasty as ever. The latest volleys come from the professionals' side. Here's an assessment not to live up to:

The typical blog contains uninformed opinion about world events, or overlong posts about the weather or your uncle Bob. The typical blog is narcissistic and often focused on how to get other people to link their blogs to your blog, so that both blogs will rank higher in Google searches.

And here's another:

Bad prose, endless reams of bad prose! There's a lack of discipline, a feeling that anything that crosses one's mind is important or interesting to others. ...If bloggers want to break out of their ghetto, they've got to acquire a sense of drama and theater as well as a flair for language. Why else should anyone read them? And the Web in my view is a visual medium -- I don't log on to be trapped on a muddy page crammed with indigestible prose.

Clearly there are a lot of agendas at work. And there is, indeed, a lot of mediocrity out there in the blog world. But there is good writing, too. And if you can't find it, it's because you're not looking hard enough.

Posted at 06:42 PM
November 04, 2003

Mole with pencil. Why? Why not?

Now that the great mystery DSL outage is over, we can get back to business as usual.

On a whirlwind trip to New York this weekend, we checked out the daguerrotypes. The one that fascinated me most was by Jean-Pierre Alibert, who was not only a merchant and photographer but also a pencil mogul. The caption for picture in question (alas, I can't find it online) noted that the modern pencil as we know it, with names like "Mongol" and "Koh-I-Noor" and painted yellow, is packaged with inspiration from Asia. Maybe this is common knowledge in pencil circles (I am more of a Bic girl) but it fascinated me and the art hipsters behind me as well.

Hard-hitting Internet research yields even more pencil lore. This article refers to a book review that cites a "pencil expert":

He brings limitless curiosity to pencils. He wondered why, of the 14 billion pencils the world uses every year, about three-quarters are yellow. He discovered that in the 19th century, when European pencil makers began using graphite from the Far East, they painted the wood on their pencils yellow because the public associated that colour with Asia; they also gave them Oriental-sounding names such as Koh-I-Noor, Mikado and Mongol (the Mikado was hastily renamed the day after Pearl Harbor).

More on the history of the pencil can also be found here. And fascinatingly, there's even an online drafting pencil museum.

And I did not make a single pencil pun. What self-restraint!

Posted at 07:53 PM