Saturday, February 26, 2005

What's on your desk?

Over at The Believer, a bunch of real writers have answered the two part query, "What are you working on? What's on your desk?"

Oddly enough, The Believer did not ask me, but I am going to tell you anyway.

On my desk: one mug, printed with the names of my entire high school graduating class, filled with pens; the January sheet from my Italian calendar; Donatello among the Blackshirts: History and Modernity in the Visual Culture of Fascist Italy (Cornell 2005), edited by Claudia Lazzaro and Roger J. Crum; Politica Fascista delle Arti by Giuseppe Bottai (Roma 1940); a folder titled "Upcoming Travel," in which I am trying to keep from losing my mind; my little clipped-together pad of scrap paper; yet another box of tissues (almost empty); another cup, this one bearing a photo of many of my college friends, holding bookmarks; stamps; a Birra Moretti coaster; my cellphone, whose voice mail I have recently set up and learned to access; a reminder to set up an appointment with my dermatologist; the remote for my CD player; the floppy-disk drive for my laptop; and last but not least, my laptop (and my elbows).

All of which to try to answer, what am I working on? Well, in addition to trying to get rid of my sinus congestion, I am trying to get this darned book written, about Ezra Pound and his investment in Italian fascism. That's right, folks: rejection letter #1 arrived on Friday (happy weekend), but I persisted unabashed and wrote eleven new pages on my chapter in progress, about the revival of Vivaldi's music during the inter-war years. Take that, Yale University Press!

And you? What's on your desk? And what are you working on?

Encouraging binge drinking, one mash-up at a time.

One day, back when I lived in a town with a great used CD store, I took my purchases up to the counter, and looking at what I had, the clerk said, "Ah, Pere Ubu and the Pet Shop Boys, together at last." Who would have guessed that those two would spend the next 10 years, at least, side by side in my alpha order scheme.

The best mash-ups leave you with that same feeling: who knew?

I hear that the cool kids are past mash-ups, but screw them. If you like rx, but are getting tired of W, you might need to branch out. Here is a good one of Tony Blair (and the Iron Lady herself) Rockin' It, thanks to BudtheWeiser (props Music For Maniacs).

While you're at it, there is more fine work on FleetwoodMash.com. You do not want to miss Miss Frenchie's reunion of M and The Who. Really you do not. I like the idea of mixing Q-Tip with Huey Lewis (thank you, Mr. Shakyhands Man), but Q's voice is so sped up you almost do not recognize his fabulousness. Faz knew that Missy Eliot needed the Human League. This one is so much more than just a new look at Wings.

And Audio Shrapnel is just sick, sick sick.

The rest you can check out for yourself.

Marcel More-so

Even after my experience in the Silent Theatre in middle school, I do not usually recommend watching mime routines. This one is a notable exception.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

A man of wealth and taste

The other night I watched part of 8 Mile on VH1 (movies that ROCK!!!). Let me note that this is not a film that benefits from having the expletives silenced out; I may have to rent it.

But this must be my week of Eminem, because the real Slim Shady makes an appearance elsewhere, in rx's new track at thepartyparty, "My name is Rx."

I must confess, that even in laughing at the humorous bits of the song, I have a hard time mustering sympathy for this particular devil.

(But I cannot get enough of our president saying "go shorty." Seriously.)

Monday, February 21, 2005

Food for Thought

I have been thinking about the relationships between fascist regimes and our current administration for as long as I have been blogging--and longer, really. Since then, Burger King has written more than one good post on the topic, too.


Today I came across a series of essays on the topic on Orcinus (I am the last to find them, since they date from 11/2004 and they seem to be up for blog awards). I am just starting to read them, but based on a quick scan, there is a lot of interesting material in there. I do not agree with all those essays say about how unsystematic and unprogrammatic fascism was: my reading in documents written by the ideologues of Mussolini's regime shows otherwise. And there is a tendency toward oversimplification, even with the seven parts, but as an attempt to analyze relationships between our contemporary situation and classical fascism, it is thought-provoking.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

This totally sucks.

I should start by saying that I had heard that a good one makes all the difference. (Use an overhyped one at your peril.) It was not that I doubted that advice, but simply that I lack motivation. Sometimes it just is not easy to get your (read: my) ass to the store, and then there is the deliberation (read: dilly-dallying) over what kind to get, but finally I decided this was the weekend for action.

Eccolò:

After looking on Consumer Reports, finding a "best buy" (read: most suckage for your suckage-buying dollar), I decided on the Eureka Smart 4870DT. I am not sure what makes it smart, but I can tell you what about it makes me happy: pushing it around my carpets and listening to the detritus of my life being swept away into its little paper bag. And being able to tell at a glance which parts of my floor it has cleaned, and which remain besmeared. And seeing that it could even suck away the pressed pattern from the bottom of my hamper. And all the little claw remnants that were stuck in the upholstery of my comfortable (but rather faded) red chair.

I should note that this is not exactly a product endorsement: I imagine that any vacuum cleaner that was made as recently as the last half of the twentieth century would similarly have impressed me. I have, since I moved to South Carolina (6.5 years ago) been using an old rose-hued Hoover, inherited from my great aunt. Don't get me wrong: I am sure it was a fine piece of domestic technology in its day. But over time and after decades of use, it does seem to have lost some of its strength. And the duct tape holding the hose together probably has not helped. I have known that I needed to make a change, and not just because of the large chunks that my old vac would miss.

But at the same time, I am such a happy homeowner (read: mortgage-owner)! My carpets still do not look new, and frankly the hallcarpet is still screaming out for replacement, but the improvement is really remarkable.

How is this for proof: after I finished, and I only have carpet in three rooms and a hallway, the brand-new bag in my brand-new vac is three-quarters full.

YUCK!

Side note for those of you who care: The Italian word for "vacuum cleaner" is aspirapolvere, which means something like "dustbreather." And that, my friends, is me no more.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

One or Two Children Left Behind

Or should that be, fewer children left behind?

From the New York Times:

Less than a month after taking office, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has shown a willingness to work with state and local officials on what they consider to be some of the toughest requirements of President Bush's signature education law, No Child Left Behind.

In her first few days, the Education Department has ended simmering disputes with two states, in one case resolving an uproar in North Dakota by approving the qualifications of 4,000 teachers who believed federal officials had previously declared them insufficiently qualified.

In another case, Ms. Spellings said that school districts need not always allow students in low-performing schools to transfer to better ones if it caused overcrowding, an issue important to New York.

"They did a complete about-face," said Senator Byron L. Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, who with his state's governor had requested that the department reconsider its ruling on teacher qualifications.

Another (completely sincere) Open Question

[NOTE: This is the short version. I thought the other version was eaten by the ether, and I sure as hell was not going to reconstruct it. Probably just as well, I thought, since it was long-winded and writing-to-think instead of writing-to-communicate. So if you want to get to the point read this one.]

Dear Readers,

Will you help me with another question?

(Not-so-confidential to Burger King: this is not a joke.)

This morning, instead of doing my work, reading a book (of course in Italian) from 1940 by Giuseppe Bottai, then minister of education to Mussolini's regime, I am wrestling with this question:

How does an individualist philosophy/position/worldview deal with those individuals who do not or cannot define their own position and principles?

A more leftist view sets as its goal having the state provide for such people. I recognize that in actuality many of the programs designed to reach that goal fail. So where do such people fit in a libertarian or individualist economy?

(I hope that those of you with backgrounds in philosophy will forgive what are certain to be uncertainties in my language. Work with me: I just want to understand that position better.)

Another (completely sincere) Open Question

[NOTE: This is the long version. I thought it had disappeared into the great beyond, so after some swearing I wrote the short version, where I don't bother with the probably poorly presented examples. In the spirit of honesty and transparency, I am leaving this one up, but if you're in a hurry, you could live without it and read the short one instead.]

Dear Readers,

Can you help me out with another question?

(Not especially confidential to Burger King: this is not a joke. I am asking sincerely, but probably not using the clearest language that one could.)

This morning, instead of reading a book from 1940 by Giuseppe Bottai, then minister of Education for Mussolini's regime, written of course in Italian, I am wrestling with what I understand to the individualist notion that any person should be able to do what they determine to be best for them, regardless of state opinion, as long as it does not hurt someone else. I agree with that notion. Where I am getting tangled up is whether respecting individual freedoms means that there can be no government protections for people.

Because I am having difficulty figuring out how I want to say this, I am going to toss out a couple of concrete examples. I am finally not a fan of abstractions, because I find them baggy and confusing, so I hope that these examples will help me say what I want to say.

Those of you with formal grounding in philosophy: forgive me my inadequacies.

So on the topic, for instance, of social so-called security. The idea, as I get it (not having researched it), is that each worker pays into the system a social-security tax. From those payments, benefits are paid out to former workers over the age of retirement, to offer them some security in their later days. Only wages up to a certain amount are taxed for this program, and yet payouts are based on the pensioners' wages over the years.

The new Bush plan, as I understand it, would take that money out of the big pot and leave it instead in a bunch of little pots, and individuals would have the ability to invest it as they see fit.

(If I have missed a crucial point so far, please say so. But please also go with the situation I am laying out, so you can follow through to my question.)

That new plan assumes that people should be capable of managing their own money--something that at least on the surface should appeal to those who resist taxation and government control. I do not know just how many hidden government controls there are in this system, and yet I assume that they are there. But back to the example: I do not know much at all about investing money. I have some simple investments and such, and I assume a moderate amount of risk on my retirement savings, but I like very much the idea that social security will be there even if I royally screw up in the market. (By "be there," I mean be reasonably reliable, all things considered.)

I worry that the new plan would leave a lot of Americans, who are not capable of handling their "social security" money strategically, high and dry.

I am not in favor of leaving people high and dry. (I imagine that deep down, few people are interested in that, and that what we see instead are different imaginings of how best to achieve a good outcome for all.)

Let me give another example: I lean toward favoring a national health-care system, because I do not believe that only the wealthy should have access to health care. Yet I recognize that there are problems with that system, such as abuses, shortages, and so forth. I do not know whether the existence of a nationalized system would necessarily hinder competition, but I bet it would, which I understand is problematic. And in this country, it seems that nationalized health care would carry with it, say, laws requiring the wearing of helmets on motorcycles or prohibiting smoking, or whatever else, because how people handle their own health is now a national concern and so legitimately legislatable. But I do not think it would have to be so: we could all agree that we are willing to pay a little more for health care in exchange for not having our lifestyle choices determined by the state.

But, someone might protest, I live clean. I don't smoke or drink or play dangerous sports and I eat well all the time and I don't have any bad genes and so I should pay less.

Which seems to be the rough equivalent of a person saying that they have read lots of books and understand politics and economics and have studied the Constitution and other political documents, and they know how they want to live. They should not be forced to live as others do, just because they occupy the same nation.

I say, good for them, but how about those people who cannot or have not done that work, who maybe don't have the smarts to do so, or don't have the free time, what with their three jobs? (And before you accuse me of condescending, ask yourself: Before I declare that everyone is capable of this intellectual work, have I ever taught English 101 at even a moderate, let alone third- or fourth-tier university? Or better yet, have I taught high school in the public-school system?)

Where I am trying to get, after much meandering and no doubt plenty of errors and fallacies, is how does an individualist position approach the question of individuals who do not or cannot or have not extensively examined and crafted their own positions or worldviews?

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Sigh.

I have nothing to say today (except that I SHOULD HAVE LEFT THE TV OFF), so while I am sulking, go look at these interesting and worthwhile things that other people have written in the last day or so:

Michael Bérubé on academic freedom

Neal Whitman on difficult plurals

freeman on Bulgarian wedding music

bkmarcus on the Berlin batman

The cinetrix on catholicism in horror films

low culture on Mars and the budget

Pleasant dreams. Maybe by tomorrow it will all be better.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

The Jumping People

Lucky for all of you except Freeman, who seems to have found a perfect paczek of his own, I am moving on, ready to post about something other than Polish doughnuts.

(They really were amazing--as is my now imperial waistline.)

So tonight, as any of you who happened to go to college in North Carolina know, is a big night. The big night. UNC v. Duke. Sure, sure, this happens twice a year, but this is the first year in, well, years when UNC has been showing up to play. (For a virtual pep rally, read this at xtcian.)

I wondered a while ago whether this was a year when it would be safe to be a UNC fan again. By which I mean, how much crap would I get in the hallways from my colleagues? And how much disappointment would I face when I catch the Tarheels playing on TV?

My Patient Partner is a football fan, so I suppose I should forgive him when, say, in the middle of the first half of a UNC v. Whoever game, he would say, "Wow, it looks like UNC has it wrapped up." But instead of forgiving him, I would usually levitate across the living room, powered (Boba Fett-like) by my intense desire to roll back time and have his comment not exist.

No, no, NO, I would say. You cannot cannot say that because number one there is so much time left, and number two this is UNC which really means so much time for them to BLOW it.

He does not understand why so often I cannot even bear to watch UNC play, especially against Duke. It is just bad for my bloodpressure. I have to pace around the house and make quick little passes to look at the score and see whether it is safe for me to watch for a while.

Don't you want to watch the UNC game, he would ask. No, I would say calmly, or at least pretending to be calm. No, I just can't handle it.

I am not this way with Michigan basketball. In fact, courtesy of my dissertation director of years past, I got to watch Michigan play Illinois last night. Everyone here kept reminding me (as if it were their fault) that Michigan is really not having a great year, especially now that the point guard appears to have beaten up his girlfriend and so gotten suspended. My dissertation director said, as we sat down at the game, that the best case scenario would be that Illinois would be looking too far ahead and Michigan would only lose by 20.

But did you watch the game? The Wolverines actually managed to lead for a good bit of the game. Yes, lead.

I think it had less to do with the players than with the sheer energy exuded by the jumping yellow people, also known, I learned, as the Maize Rage, aka a vast field of yellow t-shirts (jumping) packed in behind the side of the court with the team benches. My director is on the athletic somethingorother committee, and so his season tickets are in the low section at about midcourt. In other words, we had a brilliant view of the jumping yellow people.

My favorite was the one wearing a blue bucket on his head and banging on a cowbell to lead cheers, but the guy running around carrying the sign reading NOT IN OUR HOUSE on one side and LOUD AND PROUD on the other was pretty good too. And there was a fair amount of maize 'n' blue face paint, and of course bi-color wigs. There was also someone in a bunny suit (but still wearing a yellow t-shirt) and next to Mr. Bunny was, I believe, a t-shirt-clad carrot.

(You can see the kid with the bucket on his head.)

Before this I was mostly familiar with the jumping blue people who dominate Coach K Court. They have a serious strategy of distracting free-throw shooters--and let me tell you, it usually works. Then recently I have seen jumping tie-dyed people cheering on the Demon Deacons and jumping red people somewhere else. But this was the first time I had seen jumping people in person.

They are fearsome, and they can yell.

And Michigan did not get wiped by Illinois, the top team in the country: in fact, they only lost by 6 points. Granted, there were moments where it was clear why Illinois is ranked as it is: they deserve that. But the boys from UMich put up a good fight.

Tonight UNC goes to Cameron Indoor Stadium, to face the jumping blue people. I still have not decided whether I will be able to watch.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Oopsie.

So I remembered the hard way, that really you don't want to eat more than one paczek at a time. No, let me clarify: you DO want to eat more than one--many more--but really you should not. I learned this many years ago, when my roommate and I had bought a dozen of the plum ones, but I had forgotten this wisdom until, well, about 45 minutes ago, when I went ahead and ate the cream-filled one. (SO good.) Now I need to go lie down.

Consider yourself warned.

Finally!

The days has come--and I could not be happier. All the slush and cold and air travel was worth it, if only for the little bag of goodies I just bought. And that WEMU is on, and Linda Yohn is playing New Orleans jazz.


So Happy Paczki Day!

Anyone with a paczki obsession who is not in range of a good Polish bakery, should probably stop reading now. Don't worry: I'll post about something else soon.

For anyone unfamiliar with the holiday or with my obsession with these amazing little doughnuts, here is a good description of the holiday:

Paczki Day is a Polish Holiday and was essentially unknown to the greater Detroit area until the 80’s when the media first started covering this day and, more aptly, the yummy Polish treats. Now it seems like everyone is Polish on Paczki Day! It’s become a Detroit tradition, regardless of ethnic origin.

If you want to pick up a dozen paczkis for your family or office, you can get them at any authentic Polish bakery. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the paczkis offered up at your local donut franchise or grocer is the real thing. These aren’t just any jelly-filled donuts. You can put in advance orders with most bakeries. If you wait until Paczki Day to pick up your donuts, be prepared for a possible line!

And the paczki:

It uses a richer batter than traditional donuts. These donuts are traditionally filled with raspberry or prune filling although a huge variety of other fillings are now available. Hamtramck, a small Polish city within Detroit, is where the authentic Polish bakeries are located and thousands of metro Detroiters travel to Hamtramck every year on Fat Tuesday to indulge. In Detroit, Fat Tuesday is so named for the oil and shortening found in paczkis that Christian Poles so often give up for Lent.

I have started off with a brilliant raspberry paczek--one of the traditional flavors. The dough is the perfect mix of light and heavy, so you don't forget that you are indulging, yet you believe (against your better judgment) that you should keep eating the things. The filling is sweet and tart--not oversweet and artificial like most doughnuts have, but with that perfect sharpness you associate with the real fruit and that the best jams manage to capture. I think this raspberry one has bits of actual raspberry in there, and maybe some lemon zest. The outside has that great fried texture but then is glazed ever so lightly. Really, how could anything be better?

Well, OK, how about this: I still have a cream-filled one, a lemon-filled one, and a blueberry one. What a day, what a day!

Confidential to those who have reached this site looking for the calorie-count for paczki: Get in the spirit, folks! Fat Tuesday is just that. Indulge today, enjoy what you eat, and then go back to your restraint tomorrow.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Stasis or continuity?


Remember that scene in Flirting with Disaster when, as a part of a seemingly endless quest for his birth parents, Ben Stiller et al. arrive in Michigan? They have just left sunny San Diego and they fly in to somwhere--Kalamazoo-zoo-zoo?--in the midst of a gray sky that seems to start about 10 feet above ground level, snow, darkness, cold.

That shit is real.

Granted, the temperatures here are above freezing (barely), which means that the ooze coming from the sky is liquid instead of festive flurries, but the effect is the same that I remember from years and years of flying into DTW in the wintertime: from the air, flying through the midwest, you see snow snow snow on the ground, and it is so pretty and all the streets are delineated as black lines amid the white. The sun is shining and it is altogether brilliant, if cold-looking. Then before long the ground disappears, replaced by a seemingly impermeable cloudbank. Then as you are landing, you enter that nowhereland of clouds, and then re-emerge underneath it, where everything is gray and drab and dark and usually precipitating. That is when you remember where you are.

And even though this picture was taken in NYC, it could very easily have come from outside the coffeshop where I am working:

(Photo stolen from xtcian.com: you should read his excellent post about slush.)

So maybe it is because the weather is the same, or the mural of Kafka and Woody Allen and Poe is the same, or because even where stores have changed they are pretty much the same, or because the people all look the same (only with different faces) or because tonight, I hear, I get to go drink my favorite beer, but it is hard to believe that anything changes here.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

The ladies, the ladies.

J-Walk linked today to a site where you can find out whether or not you are a freak.

That's all well and good, but right after coming across that link, I received clear confirmation from another source that I did not need to take the quiz.

Although I had not heard Mitch Myers's story on All Things Considered yesterday about the place of the cowbell in rock music of the 1970s, I caught the listener letters this afternoon, a couple of which responded to that story. One listener pointed out that this NPR bid for younger listener was alienating a large part of their base--after all, who gives two rips about cowbells in music?

But my response to hearing about the story was different: Finally! I thought, I will be able to finish my cowbell tape. Because back when I was a sophomore in college, and was all about thematic mixtapes, I thought I should make such a thing. (Dear reader: do not be fooled by this furious attempt to distance myself from this tendency. In fact, I still tend to compile such things at the most inappropriate of moments.)

It turns out that Mitch Myers's story hinged on a link to The Cowbell Project, sponsored by Geek Speak Weekly. I was all ready to click the "Submit a Cowbell Song" link, but first I looked at what they had already.

A#1 on my list was "Hey Ladies" from Paul's Boutique, so I searched on that. They've got it. And "Grazing in the Grass" by Hugh Masekela, which may be one of the alltime best cowbell songs ever. And then the B-52s. And AC/DC. And "Jive Talkin'." And Love and Rockets. And "Camel Walk." And "Groove Is in the Heart." But--I bow to you, Cowbell Project--they had all of them already, and of course more.

In fact, right there on the Cowbell Project site, is a furious wetdream, an amazing list of cowbell songs. And despite what the NPR story made it sound like, they are not all '70s big rock songs. No no no, they go all over the place: look for yourself!

My only complaint is that the link to "Songs That Should Have a Cowbell" elicits a tantalizing list of songs to which they have added a cowbell--but none of them will play! Oh cruel cruel world, that has such dead links in it!

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

It's Mordor, with a D.

For a quick laugh, check out these deleted scenes from the extended enhanced version of The Fellowship of the Ring. (via Miniver Cheevy)

Les Demoiselles d'Hollywood

Have a look at "The Vanity, the Vanity" from today's Guardian. It takes on the cover of the Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair, a photograph by Annie Liebovitz, saying, "this image betrays a hierarchy of beauty and age that is as cruel as Hollywood itself."

You can probably tell this by comparing the dimensions of the photograph to those of the magazine:
Don't be fooled by the puff that this edition of the magazine has 10 cover girls: the photograph has been divided into three smaller tableaux and folded over twice. Only Uma Thurman, Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet pout out from the cover proper; they won the Celebrity Death Match and are in poll position.

One passage:
VF considers its Hollywood issue an event - "This is a very big issue for us so close to the Oscars," a PR told me - but actually, it is a desperate sight to make all feminists tremble. This is Disempowerment as she is dressed by Versace. On the first rung of the paper podium Kate, 29, Cate, 35, and Uma, 35, mug ferociously for the camera lens, trying to ease each other out of the viewers' eye in a nightmare of expensively dressed passive aggression.

I'll let you read the article for a detailed analysis of the three sections of the photo, and how the actresses on each vie for attention.

Of course 2005 is not the first time Vanity Fair has published such an image on its Hollywood issue, but I suppose this one is especially stark. I am particularly intrigued by that boundary between the backdrop screen on the left and the barer, pipe-exposed walls on the right. (Forgive my tentative looking: I cannot seem to find a large copy of this image.) I could not help wondering, looking at this image and reading the analysis of it, to what extent Liebovitz was thinking of this:

The poses are even almost the same!

The Museum of Modern Art's website says this, about Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon:
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is one of the most important works in the genesis of modern art. The painting depicts five naked prostitutes in a brothel; two of them push aside curtains around the space where the other women strike seductive and erotic poses—but their figures are composed of flat, splintered planes rather than rounded volumes, their eyes are lopsided or staring or asymmetrical, and the two women at the right have threatening masks for heads. The space, too, which should recede, comes forward in jagged shards, like broken glass. In the still life at the bottom, a piece of melon slices the air like a scythe.

The Guardian writer concludes:
I feel soiled gazing at this photograph, and it's not just jealousy. It reminded me of Caravaggio's famous chicken in the National Gallery; it's just as pornographic. Leibovitz's cover is a simply a casting couch, a homage to the blowjob values of 1950s Hollywood. To watch 10 beautiful women (of which at least four are talented) bicker for the lens's attention like tarts in an upper class brothel is dispiriting. I'm off to buy the Socialist Worker. They don't do drama and the tits are smaller.

I can understand the writer's sense of dispiritment, but I wonder why we might be more struck by the predicament of those depicted on the VF cover, as opposed to that of the women in the Picasso, which we now happily accept as art. Is it the old difference between painting and photography, the latter of which we presume to be "real"? Is it that unknown models elicit less sympathy than do known stars? Is it a sense that this VF picture tells us something true about what we expect from stars? And does buying the Socialist Worker instead really change anything?