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December 21, 2002

Switch to Canada

For those of you for whom Apple's Switch campaign was not enough, now there's John's Switch to Canada. It's pretty flawless.

I'll admit it. Every time I visit Vancouver, I wonder about it. Every time I hear George Bush (or Trent Lott) speak I think about it. Every time I think about John Ashcroft shredding the Bill of Rights, it dawns on me that someday I might not have much of a choice. I love the ideal of America, but the country I love is being eroded-- nay, stolen out from under us-- and there are times when my frustration reaches the point of despair.

All this reminds me of a favorite Pedro the Lion lyric, from the song "Of Up and Coming Monarchs" from the amazing EP Progress:

There once was a time
One could flee to the north
But canada's not what she used to be
Boycott the war
Well she could not afford to
Thanks to the new American queen

Obscure, to be sure, and basically innacurate. According to Immigration Canada's online test, I qualify to immigrate based on my status as a skilled (and moderately Francophone) worker. I would need to pay CDN$525 to apply and have $9,186 to support myself for 6 months upon arrival (that sounds a bit low), but these do not seem to be huge barriers.

So I'm not packing my bags, but as Pedro the Lion sings, "It's good to have options."

December 19, 2002

Trading Spaces auction!

If you haven't yet gotten me a Christmas present, there's still hope. eBay is hosting a Trading Spaces charity auction. Options include an ornament handmade by Frank (no thank you, especially at the current bid of $510.00) and a two-hour consult with Vern (better, but just give me $3,050 instead).

The bad news is all you can get from Ty is a candle holder or a pair of work goggles. I can think of SO many more things of Ty's I'd gladly pay for. Of course eBay has that pesky rule about "freshly laundered clothing only." Buzzkills.

(I need to credit the excellent blog Backup Brain for this one.)

December 18, 2002

Me and Bud, We Go Way Back

I am a fan of Calvin Trillin. Now, there are those who might go so far as to say that I’m obsessed with the man, but they would be people who neither know me nor my ability to obsess all that well. I would guess that they would also be people who have never read any of his work (or were just sadly incapable of appreciating it), especially The Tummy Trilogy, one of my favorite books. Well, technically, it’s three books, each as brilliant and funny as the next, all together in one convenient binding, but you get the idea.

No, it’s not an obsession at all, which would be sick and wrong. It’s just that I think Calvin and I could be buds. I mean, we’ve got a lot in common, after all. For example, we’re both really into food and would consider it not the least bit strange to, say, drive for an hour to some parking lot if the cart operating out of it sold truly remarkable carnitas tacos. Also, we’ve both got great senses of humor. I know Calvin has a great sense of humor because I’ve read all of his books and also several dozens of articles he’s penned for magazines like The New Yorker, Gourmet, and Time and they are always laugh-out-loud funny. You can’t write material that funny and not have a great sense of humor.

I know I’ve got a great sense of humor because in my nearly thirty years of existence, I’ve always been funny. Oh yeah, I can make them laugh. Like this joke I came up with I was seven after my brother broke his foot while dancing with the girl who lived next door (and who, strangely, seemed to be present just prior to most of Jeff’s emergency room visits in those early years). Anyway, at the time ABC used to have a show called something like “Wide World of Sports”, and they would start out the show by showing all these moments in athletic history with a voiceover that promised they would show us “The thrill of victory; the agony of defeat.” The last part, if I remember correctly, was accompanied by a visual of some skier wiping out in what seemed to my untrained eye, a particularly agonizing way. So my brother was laid up with his foot in a cast, and I think he was complaining about his foot itching or something, so I said “Oh, it’s the agony of da feet!” Which had everyone in stitches, and I was only seven. So you can imagine that years of practice have sharpened my wit into a fine and remarkable art. See, Calvin and I are both funny.

Calvin likes to write, and obviously, I do too. Calvin meets colorful people and writes about what they eat. I think that’s really cool. We both went to Yale (and just to prove that I’m not obsessed, I didn’t crash his 40th reunion to try to meet him, even though I could have, because that would have been obsessive, and therefore sick and wrong). Calvin thinks that Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City makes the best barbeque around, and I have no reason to doubt him. We’ve both written about turduckens, though he more thoroughly than I. And we both have these fantasies about some public figure coming to town and giving them a whirlwind tour of the best chow to be found. For Calvin it was, at least at one time, Mao Tse Tung. He referred to this imagined scenario as a Mao Run, and would describe how he would take Mao eating throughout New York’s boroughs, sampling the best of each item available in the city.

For me, surprisingly enough, it’s Calvin. I know exactly where I would take him the first morning after meeting him at his hotel and trying to act really casual that I was going to spend the next few days taking him on a tour of Seattle taste treats. So we’d start out for coffee and breakfast in Ballard and a place called Café Besalu, and I would gently suggest that although all of their baked goods are well above average, the ham and cheese pastry is truly outstanding. When we had eaten, we would head back to the car, which, for whatever reason, we had parked on Ballard Avenue, and I would point out Madame K’s Pizza and inform him that she did a very good rendition of New Haven style pizza (which he would appreciate, having spent some very culinarily formative years in the Elm City), though sadly she sold no clam pie, and that we would be heading back here for dinner later in the weekend. Then we’d head downtown, and I would show him around Pike Place Market (which I’m sure he’s been to on many occasions, but not with such a chowhoundish guide) and I would point out Sosio’s, my favorite vegetable stand, where they would cut a sample of a particularly juicy peach or an amazingly crisp apple for him to try. Then we would continue down to Pure Foods fish market where we would sample some of their hard smoked salmon and buy a good piece for snacking on later. At that point, Calvin would turn to me and say, “Hey, Paulette,” and I would reply, “What’s up, Calvin?” He would then tell me that I should call him Bud, like his other friends do, and I would be really flattered and try to record the moment in its every detail for later storytelling purposes because, I mean, how momentous, that Calvin, I mean Bud, considered me a friend. And it happened at that very moment, standing next to the obscenely large Australian lobster tails with tourists bumping into us, mistakenly thinking that they were at the fish-throwing place further down the market (which Bud and I would have walked by earlier, and where he would have stopped a moment to watch the whole fish-tossing shebang, but then after a moment I would have explained to him that this other place we were headed did a much better smoke with their fish, and he would have broken away from the crowd and followed me because he would implicitly have understood that it was time to get our priorities straight). My lifelong dream had just come true and was magically transformed from a fan to a friend. Bud’s friend. I liked the ring of it. Somehow, everything would just sort of make sense, and the moment would just feel really huge.

Then Bud would kind of tap me on the shoulder to bring me out of my reverie and repeat what he had been saying for at least the last five minutes. “Hey, is there a good place to get lunch around here? I’m starving.” And I would steer my new friend Bud to the Market Grill, just across the way, and tell him that he should get the halibut sandwich, but not the chowder, because while it quite good, the soup at Jack’s Fish Spot is truly exceptional and not to be missed. Then I would say, “You know, the salmon sandwich here is fantastic, too. You might want to get both.” Bud would smile and nod, and maybe give me a little punch in the arm, because now we’re buds and that’s what buds do when they have a moment of understanding, and then, just to avoid being corny and drawing the moment out too long, I’d tell him that later we could stop by to get a bag of these really good mini-donuts that they make fresh throughout the day.

Out-Bushing the Bushes

Just when you thought no politician could make wring less sense out of the English language than George H.W. and son Shrub have managed to do, Trent Lott comes along and stammers his way through an interview on BET. Slate has this deservedly merciless critique of the whole painful episode.

All of this makes me long for an Orwell among the punditry, someone who could write an essay like "Politics and the English Language" for today. To quote that masterwork:

I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don't know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase -- some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse -- into the dustbin, where it belongs.

December 17, 2002

Damn Lies

Warning: rant about graphing data to follow!
Check out today's entry in rightwingnuts.org about Bush's plan to reduce that oh-so-odious tax burden on the rich, as reported in the Washington Post. The Seattle Times also picked up this one, and attempted to liven the debate with an illustrative graphic. Of course, they screwed it up totally. The 1% bar is already represented by the 5% bar, and they missed out the entire middle class (60-95% quantile of income)! (Hint to graphic artists: if you're going to draw a bar chart of percentages, make them add to 100%.) I re-did the chart in Excel, and you can see that a real chart tells a very different picture: actually, it's the middle classes that carry the greatest share of the tax burden, however you look at it. Poor Tufte must be rolling in his grave (I heard he was killed when one of his sculptures toppled on him.)

Analysis of A.I.'s ending

Speilberg's A.I. is one of my favourite films, but it got a bad rap for its apparently hokey ending. I've always felt it was a great film (and with one of the most innovative viral marketing campaigns ever, to boot). In particular, I always liked the ending, but I was never sure why. I recently stumbled upon this analysis of the ending of A.I. which provides a great interpretation which fits perfectly into the Kubrickean themes of the film. Now I'll have to go and watch it again.

December 16, 2002

Stand back! She's gonna blow!

CD-ROM drives are getting faster all the time; the one in my 18 month old Dell is 32x, and 128x units are on the market now. But did you know that drives over 64x are theoretically impossible to create? This article is an amusing demonstration of what can happen if you spin an ordinary CD too rapidly.

So how do manufacturers get away with it? The trick is that they only report the speed of reading at the outermost track (where the CD-ROM surface moves fastest); the drive actually slows down to read the innermost tracks to maintain a constant bitrate. The practical study above assumed a constant speed for the whole CD. Unfortunately, The Age in Melbourne missed this subtlety, and published a sensational article warning hapless PC users to stand clear of high-speed CD-ROM drives.

December 12, 2002

What about the Malibu Bushie doll?

"Welcome to TalkingPresidents.com. We are the creators of the first and ONLY talking presidential action figures. Our first release, President George W. Bush, says 17 different phrases in his own voice. Some phrases are political, some patriotic, while others show his comedic use (or misuse) of the English language.

These dolls can be enjoyed by any political aficionado and are the
perfect educational addition to any child's collection of dolls."

Clearly, I want one of these for Christmas. Then I could put it in complicated and compromising positions with my WaMu Actional Teller figure.


December 11, 2002

An Essay on Why I Stopped Dating Younger Men

Recently, the Universe reminded me: "Daniel, there is a reason you resolved not to date younger men anymore, remember?"

This summer, my Reason was named Morgan. Before that, the Reason was called Lonny, Al, Moses (yes really), Greg, Brian, Jay, etc. Different blooming young roses by different names, but ultimately, they all smelled as stinky.

Here's my problem: I'm 28-years-old, but am often taken for 25 or younger, so I tend to attract the younger set. What usually happens with these younger "men" is we'll have some really good dates -- everything seems romantic and nice, no red flags -- and then all of a sudden, the guy gets weird and goes incommunicado for no apparent reason.

Then, he has to be asked what's wrong and he comes out with "I'm confused" or "I don't think I'm ready for a relationship." He then suggests we continue to "hang out" as "friends."

In this galling situation, I always want to say this --- and I did, in an email to Morgan, which was really less an email to Morgan than an epistolary essay directed at all younger men I've ever dated:

Hello Morgan,

Hello?! Who said anything about a "relationship" anyway? I just wanted to have dinner sometimes, see some movies, maybe have some making out and steamy sex, and see what comes of it, if anything.

I am not ovulating and ready to chain myself to a husband so I can have a baby.

And trust me, I'm in no rush to shack up in an apartment with somebody -- I've already done that. I'm especially not interested in moving in with any men in their early 20s who are just getting started out in life, who have no money and no idea who they are, what sort of career they're going to have or where they'll be living long term. I'm too young to play the Daddy.

All I want is some fun right now. But for some reason, boys think that if you spend time together more than once or twice, it must be "a relationship," which is for some reason something horrid and foreboding in their minds. God forbid you should make any kind of meaningful emotional connection to another human being. I have trouble understanding the thinking there... I was just very different in my early 20s from the other guys I meet who are that age.

Anyway, this concludes my rant. It's less directed at you specifically than at all gay men I've ever dated in their early 20s. I'm just feeling very opinionated this morning. :)

And I'm glad you enjoyed hanging out with me and my friends, but I'm less and less a subscriber to the idea that if you date a man and it doesn't work out, you should therefore turn him into a "buddy" and just pretend like you've never kissed or slept together.

That shit is fucked up, yo. Straight people don't do that, so why should I? You and I should just hang out with people our own ages who we have more in common with. That said, it was very nice meeting you and I wish you well.

Best,
Daniel

December 10, 2002

Have you seen this man?

Have you recently met, or had a relationship with this man? Police are seeking assistance from the community to track down and arrest this miscreant. Investigations have been hampered by the poor quality of the artist's rendition of the suspect.

Metacritically yours

Metacritic.com has the potential to be my favorite new site on the net. So what is it? The founders speak:

Metacritic.com was founded in 1999 by three movie fans who like to read movie reviews. In fact, we like to read a good cross-section of reviews for each movie to get a better idea of the critical consensus for each release. (You know, it's a hobby.) Although at the time the web offered a wealth of reviews and other movie information, there was no easy way to track down all of the various pages without spending a lot of time and effort searching. Thus, Metacritic was born.

We envisioned Metacritic.com as a place where movie fans like us could easily find the most important reviews for each new movie at a glance. Thus, in addition to quotes from reviews from major critics on each movie page on our site, you will find links to each of the full reviews. We also wanted to design a system for comparing reviews between critics and between movies. To accomplish this goal, we developed our Metascore formula. Each movie is assigned a Metascore, which is a weighted average of each of the individual reviews for that film. This number, on a 0-100 scale, lets you know at a glance how each movie is reviewed.

Of course this is not groundbreaking-- rags like EW have long provided reviewer scoreboards-- but Metacritic seems to bring this approach to perfection online. I particularly appreciate the videogame reviews; I am too much of a newbie to know all the magazines and sites that could steer me towards quality.

Now all that needs to happen is a grafting of the "Just Like You" engine from Amazon onto the site. Then the need for personal opinion can be abrogated entirely.


Analyze this?

Slate has been running for several seasons a Monday-morning dissection of The Sopranos by a team of relatively articulate shrinks. This week's is especially satisfying.

Several of the commentators are "declinists," i.e., "The show used to be so much better." (Pete can be a declinist, and is, whereas I cannot as this is my first season.) Glen Gabbard, one of the participants, has this defense about this episode and the season as a whole:

We expect the characters to follow "arcs" that are programmed in our brains from years of television, film, and theater, and the writers repeatedly defy these expectations. In a New York Times interview, David Chase made the point that he attempted to create an atmosphere that resembled the way people actually interact: They talk past each other; they don't listen to one another; conflicts are not resolved; forces of inertia and entropy triumph over our desire to tie up loose plot ends. The fourth season has been stellar, for the most part, far better than anything else we have seen or probably ever will see on television. The marriage held together, like many marriages, through a concerted effort at self-deception on the part of both spouses. The final episode was about the ultimate fate of that form of self-deception.

This struck me as interesting. David and I recently disagreed about the merits of Alias Betty, the highly regarded recent French film by Claude Miller. I found the no-loose-knots perfection of its redemption/rescue narrative amazingly satisfying, while David found it hopelessly contrived. Juxtaposing this against my appreciation of Chase's approach as described above convinces me that I am actually fairly knot-neutral-- I can take my drama artificially tidy or or every bit as messily entropic as life.

But that neutrality has its limits. While our choir of shrinks seems to fear an untidy ending for the final Sopranos season, I should hope it ends up a mess. I for one don't want to know with any certainty what haphazard arcs our beloved New Jersey mobsters take after the camera cuts off. I don't know what happened to Jupiter after the fall of Rome, either, but that doesn't rob the mythology of any of its power. If I knew that he and Juno had patched things up and were living in Pompano Beach, well, that would be another story.

December 06, 2002

Revisionist History on the Web

I love reading stories on the Web. One of my favourites is the one about the guy who cashed a fake promotional direct-mail cheque for $95,000. To his surprise, the cheque cashed, and the mad dash by the bank to get the money back is a great story.

I was looking for this link in my bookmarks to post here, and I couldn't find it. Not surprising, since I first read the story in the mid-late 90's, and my bookmarks don't always survive the transition from country to country and system to system. (For side-discussion: is a person's bookmark list the the modern equivalent of a CD collection as a discriminant of personality?) So searched for it on the web, and after a while, came up with the link above.

Funny thing is, the story differs in several details from what I remember. From when I read it the first time, the broad details are the same: man banks fake cheque, much hilarity ensues. But I distinctly recall the guy did it deliberately as a joke (and for curiosity), but now claims he was going to the ATM anyway to bank some other cheques, and slipped this one in on a whim. He was a student as I read it last; now he claims he had a burgeoning speaking career at the time. The newspaper coverage detailed in the current story had no mention in the older version. I suspect that either: there's been some Soviet-style revisionism over the years to make the story more palatable (and he seem less culpable); or it's not even the same guy, and a story has been appropriated for his own use. In any case, it's a good example of how objective truth morphs subjectively over time.

gay judo

I haven't gone to this site, because now with my new office space making my computer even more highly visible than before, I have no idea what will pop up on my screen to the benefit of the entire room, but I definitely thought this might be of interest, and include my friend's entire description (she is a third-degree black belt in seido karate):

www.matbattle.com

This is a site by several gay guys on judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ),
and gay sex. Or rather, how they get off on playing judo with hot guys.

I admit, the blue gi (uniform) is really cool, and wouldn't get as dirty as
our white ones...

They even have fiction pages based on, I assume, fictional accounts of real
judo guys' lives. Takes RPS to a new level. They have personals, advice
column, Cosmo-type quizzes.

Who knew?

(and back to me: RPS stands for Real Person Slash. This is a type of fan writing wherein real people are "characters" in fan stories (fanfic), and in this case, slash fic. Slash, for the uninitiated, is hard to describe because it means many things, but mostly it's same-sex relationship stories based on characters from TV shows or movies or books, wherein fans see the subtext in things like buddy cop shows as overtly romantic, and write them that way. RP slash and RP fiction are, however, frequently violently opposed in many fan communities because of their violation of privacy and just personal issues in general.)

"Obsessing About Obsession"

Spike Jonze's new film Adaptation is getting an awful lot of attention, including this breathless review by the NYT's A.O. Scott. It goes beyond standard pomo self-referentiality to a world where author, subject, and fictional selves seem hopelessly jumbled.

This all sounds interesting, but it is hardly new territory. Few writers have explored this territory more expertly than my personal literary goddess, Joan Didion. She figures, to vertiginous effect, as a character in her 1984 novel Democracy. As I wrote in my 1995 senior essay,

Mary McCarthy reportedly spent many unsettled hours with Who's Who trying in vain to discover whom Didion was really discussing. Responses like McCarthy's were common. The American Spectator printed a scathing review, including this statement on Didion's postmodern presence:
Democracy is, by the author's admission, a failure. It got written when Didion detoured from the novel she intended to write about Inez's family in Hawaii.... This is fair enough, but why an author who was in the past written with ethical brilliance about cutting one's losses and burying one's dead chooses to advertise her failure in this awful old-hat nouveau way is mysterious and sad. Didion even decorates the failure with her own supposed presence in her character's lives.... There's a sort of desperation to the device, and as this unholy marriage of author's biography and the characters' non-lives proceeds, the reader winces, and, finally, wearies.

A central narrative refrain of Democracy is "This is a hard book to write." It is, however, an easy novel to read, as Didion's gorgeous prose, brilliant eye for detail, and elegant plotting move the reader through a book that operates as both family drama and political thriller. She covers this ground again in 1997's The Last Thing He Wanted, and appears as both narrator and friend of the protagonist. The effect is less shocking, because by the time of the novel's late '80s setting, this kind of boundary-crossing had become commonplace.

So a technique that was once groundbreaking in its mere conception can now dazzle only in scale and scope. Jonze's easy postmodern mindbending (in Being John Malkovitch and now, apparently, in Adaptation) is satisfying not because it is new but because it is (among a certain audience) expected. French literary theorist Jean-Francois Lyotard (whose theories comport amazingly with Didion's literary practice) put it this way:

If the painter and novelist do not want to be, in their turn, apologists for what exists (and minor ones at that), they must... question the rules of the art of painting and narration as learned and received from their predecessors.... An unprecedented split occurs in both painting and literature. Those who refuse to examine the rules of art will make careers in mass conformism, using "correct rules" to bring the endemic desire for reality into communication with objects and situations capable of satisfying it. Pornography is the use of photographs and film to this end. It becomes a general model for those pictoral and narrative arts that have not risen to the challenge of the mass media.
As for artists and writers who agree to question the rules of the plastic and narrative arts... they are destined to lack credibility in the eyes of devoted adherents of reality and identity, to find themselves without a guaranteed audience.

So in 1984, Didion was attacked for her active authorial presence in novel. By 2002, Jonze is lauded for making a movie about a screenwriter who can't get himself out of his screenplay. I'm interested in seeing the movie, and I'm completely open to the prospect of enjoying it as much as I enjoyed Being John Malkovitch. But I won't confuse his popularization for true pioneering, and I will wonder if his chief success is not as a pomo pornographer for the masses.

Microsoft, Java, Nancy Kerrigan and my poor little knee

Sun's rather whiny antitrust case against Microsoft got a lot more fun yesterday as Federal Judge Frederick Motz compared Microsoft's business tactics to the kneecap-busting antics of Tonya Harding's posse. This NYT article includes a rather spirited quote from Motz:

The judge likened Java to Nancy Kerrigan, who was clubbed in the knee while practicing for the United States figure skating championships in 1994. Ms. Harding's supporters "kneecapped Nancy Kerrigan's knee," the judge said. "Nancy Kerrigan is deprived of the opportunity to compete on two good knees."

I must say that this line of analogy really brings the case home to me-- an athlete who has also recently been deprived of the opportunity to compete on two good knees. But while Kerrigan was attacked by only two assailants, I was mauled by no less than five players from the San Francisco Fog RFC. Where's my media circus? Where's my antitrust case?

I mean, fine, they didn't mean to hurt me that bad, and didn't use a tire iron, but still. I'm all bitter about it again because yesterday's appointment with my surgeon revealed that my knee is still too swollen to even consider surgery. I'm due back in six weeks for reevaluation-- by which point I hope the MS-Sun case is over.


December 05, 2002

"My TiVo Thinks I'm Gay"

David mentioned seeing this on slashdot a while back, but I just got around to tracking it down-- and I'm ever so glad I did. We've all had the experience, I'd imagine, of being frustrated by the weird recommendations Amazon or Netflix sometimes turns up-- but TiVo kind of takes it to a new level by randomly displaying its perceptions of you to whomever happens to flip channels.

As the WSJ points out in this article (paid registration required, otherwise use this link), having your TV serve up "personalized" content is a different thing altogether.

Suggesting programs is just the first step for this technology. The advertising industry is beginning to understand that such profiling will allow them to segment the market far more effectively than ever, allowing them to promise clients that their ads will be seen only by certain narrowly defined demographic/psycholgraphic groups. What's more, TiVo data may reveal the existence of obscure segments that nobody would have though to target before-- for instance, high-income lesbian republicans who enjoy watching westerns.

The best part of the WSJ article is at the end, when a hairdresser tells how quickly TiVo figured out that he and his partner ARE in fact gay, despite their attempts to trick it. "Mr. Leon believes the box was giving them a message: 'You're definitely gay. And you're watching too much TV.'"

I have spent a fair amount of time cleaning up my Amazon recommendations-- for instance, removing from my list things I bought as gifts, and rating the things it recommends that I bought elsewhere. Having done that, the "Just Like You" feature has gotten both interesting and creepy. Based on my suggestions, it finds another customer with similar ratings and then tells me what that person likes that I haven't rated yet. The really creepy part is that I DO own about half of the stuff listed. So it turns out my supposedly eclectic tastes are a little less unique than I had hoped. If it ever shows me another person whose list includes Pedro the Lion, rugby books, Joan Didion, and the KitchenAid KT2651X Epicurean 475 Watt 6-Quart Stand Mixer in Cobalt Blue, the very foundation of my identity as a complicated consumer will be shaken.


December 04, 2002

As if just being New Jersey wasn't strange enough

By now, pretty much my whole world knows that I am a Jersey Girl and proud of it. If my rabid Bruce Springsteen fanaticism wasn't clue enough, perhaps my fascination with boardwalks, the Sopranos, and all-night diners clued some of you in. Jersey is a great place to be from, if not necessarily to live in, and it provokes in those of us who hail from the great Garden State all kinds of nostalgia for our misspent youths hanging out in the parking lot in front of Wawa's and kicking out of summer jobs early enough to spend a few hours at Great Adventure.

Jersey has always had its own culture, distinct from the metropolitan character of the City to the north, the political nature of DC to the south, or the gateway to the midwest that we viewed Pennsylvania as. Maybe it's because we were a penninsula, so separated geographically from our nearby neighbors, and surrounded by so much water. Maybe it's because we were so much more densely packed in than anyone else in the country. Or it might be because we are a state of people whose ancestors had fled those nearby places looking for something nearby but wholly different.

Whatever the reason, Jersey is not a state of well-known landmarks (other than the Statue of Liberty, which is technically in Jersey waters), but we love our Turnpike, our beaches, our boardwalks, our Atlantic City, our Bruce, and our Pine Barrens, all of whom have developed their own mythology over the years.

We took to the Sopranos with a zeal that Uncle Sam has never been able to drum up among the general population. It seems that everyone back home has some Sopranos-related personal encounter ("Omygod, I saw Edie Falco at Short Hills Mall the other day!" or "They filmed the scene with the dumpster behind my cousin Vince's auto body shop!"), and the local talk radio shows devote a lot of air time to discussing the show. We knowingly wink at each other when scenes in the Badda Bing come on, because we know where it is in Lodi and that there are no topless bars in NJ. And we look at the stack of meatballs Carmela puts on the table for Sunday dinner and nod approvingly. She seems like a legitimate Italian mama.

This morning a friend, also a Garden State expat, mentioned the site Weird N.J., which highlights some of the more traditional myths and landmarks in the state, some of which were familiar, but many of which were new even to this jaded Jersey historian. So, in the spirit of David's primer on Australia, I offer this as an excellent guide to my home state.

Dastardly Disney Deeds

Apparently the dismal opening weekend box office of Disney's Treasure Planet has caused the company to restate its quarterly results, amidst news of an SEC probe. Poor Mickey.

But he's not as bad off as the dead white male responsible for the beloved original whence the dreadful derivative was drained. The Guardian, in its biting roundup of US Thanksgiving releases, compares the experience of watching the film to "watching Robert Louis Stevenson being sodomised by Michael Eisner in front of a class of 10-year-olds." Luckily, the Guardian liked Solaris-- I'd hate to hear what they might have said about George Clooney's ass otherwise.

A nod to the excellent Media Unspun newsletter for relaying this pithy quote. Unfortunately, it is dying a second death next Friday-- the first came last year when parent mag Industry Standard folded. Apparently too many appreciators (myself included) failed to shell out $50 to get the newsletter daily.

Taken, but ever so slowly

In case you missed the advertising blitz, the Sci Fi Channel has taken a massive gamble with its new miniseries Taken, the full title of which is apparently "Steven Spielberg Presents Taken." It is the geek-centric network's bid to be taken more seriously by viewers, critics, and of course advertisers. IBM's sponsorship of the series bodes well for that effort-- though I must say David and I found the newest batch of ebusiness spots to be the highlight of Monday's episode. This is surprising, given my rather rabid personal interest in the subject of alien abduction.

I am led to wonder just how much Spielberg actually has to do with the series, because say what you want about the man he has always been able to move a story along. After watching the first 4 hours of this 20-hour event, I am beginning to wonder if I might not rather wait for the DVD and watch it at 2X.

Slate has a good review of the series, in which author Chris Mooney makes the excellent point that Spielberg is more responsible than anyone for popularlizing the entire visitation/abduction mythos, which is now a huge industry. Certainly several true believers like Budd Hopkins and John Mack have done more to legitimize (at least partially) contactees' stories, it is Spielberg who ushered in the Age of the Alien Visitors with Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

A few of you may know that I actually believed for several years in my early adolescence that I was a "contactee." In retrospect, I'm sure this was just an expression of my understanding that I was different-- and for the good little Reagan Youth I was, the prospect of being abducted a few times a year was certainly less thoroughly terrifying than being gay in perpetuo.

To be fair to the scared little boy I was, I did have a few odd experiences of "missing time" and other markers of abduction. When Whitley Streiber's Communion came out in 1987 (the height of my alien panic) I could not look at the cover of the book-- with its google-eyed "grey"-- without being gripped by an almost paralyzing fear. Reading accounts of abduction (which I did obsessively, with a voracity that shut out the manifold other anxieties I faced within my family and school life at the time), there was no denying that I had many times experienced a set of sensations almost universally described by contactees: waking suddenly, unable to move or speak, with an absolute sense that some malevolent presence was standing over me or even holding me down, and then feeling as though I were floating or being carried away.

As my asthma was still in full bloom at that age, the terror of these night "visitations" often provoked violent bouts wheezing, which of course only compounded my terror. Several times one of my parents would actually hear the wheezing down the hall and rush in to find me pale and sweating. I couldn't ever tell them what provoked the attacks-- they had plenty to worry about back then-- or explain why I didn't wake them up as I was always supposed to do when my asthma kicked in.

What I didn't understand was that I couldn't move or even call for help-- not because of aliens, but because I have what I think of as a faulty clutch between my autonomous and autologous nervous systems. I would not fully realize until my mid-twenties, when living with my ex Brian, that I have sleep paralysis-- the current favorite skeptical debunking of the abduction craze. Sleep paralysis has a fairly high incidence among the general population, and apparently has forever; almost every culture has a different folk explanation for it, my favorite being the popobawa of Zanzibar, a bat-winged spirit reputed to rape men (particularly skeptical men) in their sleep.

Sleep paralysis, which could be described as a "waking dream" did not that phrase so drastically understate the experience, is in many ways just another sleep disorder. But it is one that as opposed to, say, sleep apnea, creates fertile psychological ground for the growth of florid fantasies inspired by stray cultural memes. Who are we, with our greys and our anal probes, to laugh at the Zanzibarians with their bat-winged dwarf rapists?

I eventually taught Brian what to watch for, and he proved to be adept at rousing me from incidents of sleep paralysis-- which interestingly enough were most frequent after I would fall back asleep after a pleasant round of weekend morning sex. Just goes to show that nothing good in life is without its cost.

In the past few years, I've experienced fewer and fewer episodes. They are no less physically uncomfortable, and still often provoke an asthmatic response, but knowing that the cause is just a mundane misfiring synapse makes it a lot more manageable and, I think, a little quicker to move on.

Now if I could only figure out how to make Taken do the same!

December 02, 2002

Ich habe Dich nicht vergessen....

It's beginning to feel like home here. I now know how to use the washing machine and can remember to press the button to stop the water after flushing the toilet.

Last weekend Frank and I spent a few hours rearranging some things in our flat. Much of the work involved hauling furniture and other stuff we don't need down to the basement. We could have the garage sale of the century. Frank and I have made a pact not to buy anything for the flat unless we're sure the item we want isn't already somewhere in the house. The other day we went to IKEA (in Germany it also is the ultimate gay couple outing) to purchase a carpet. The next day Frank found a really nice rug rolled up in a corner downstairs. It looks like we're headed to IKEA again to return the new one. We did the same thing at another store with some dining room chairs.

I've been spending most days bicycling around Munich getting lost. Yesterday I rode my bike to meet Frank downtown at a government office, where I received a 3-year visa. After 3 years -- if I don't commit any felonies -- I can stay forever. It seemed like alot of running around to different offices and filling out various forms, but Frank says it went smoothly. Since I couldn't understand most of the dialogue between Frank and the office workers, I'll assume it did go smooth.

Next Monday I begin language lessons, which will be five days a week, five hours a day for 2 weeks. If I like the school, I'll continue there. If not, I'll switch to another school. You'll get a kick out of this: When I went to pay for the classes, I practiced my German outside and then proudly walked into the office and said, "Guten tag, mein name ist Keith Warnack. Ich möchte register für English lessons." The woman looked at me and said "Are you sure you wouldn't rather take German lessons?"

While not working, I'm trying to get up at the same time Frank does so I don't become a total slug. However, it's rare I shower before noon. I think the neighbors are wondering who the strange man in the bright red bathrobe is.

How are you celebrating Thanksgiving? Pilgrims aren't popular in Germany, but on Thursday we are going to the home of Thomas and Susan (our Hawaii companions) for "an American dinner." Susan is going to make chili con carne. I was going to bring a pumpkin pie, but the combination sounds disgusting. I think I'll bring flowers.

This will be the first Thanksgiving I've had without a turkey and all the trimmings. That's fine with me, I'm working on dropping a couple kilograms anyway. When I first weighed myself on Frank's bathroom scale, he told me that 1 kilo = 2 pounds. That would have been good news. I looked it up and 1 kilo = 2.26 pounds. Even if the label is Versace, leather pants don't look good with a gut.

Today I was planning to bicycle to Dachau, but it's raining. I'd rather visit a concentration camp on a sunny day. Instead, I think I'll walk to the Schloss Nymphenburg (the castle around the corner) and take a tour. I love the architecture here. Monday I went on a self-guided walking tour of an area called Schwabing. The main boulevard of Schwabing, Leopoldstrasse, looks like the Munich equivalent of the Champs Elysees. The sidestreets were lined with homes built in the Art Nouveau style. I also walked through a number of graveyards that had some interesting monuments. One mausoleum contained a lifesize marble statue of an elephant.

In addition touring around, I've been going to the public pool/sauna. I keep thinking how much fun it would be to take out-of-town visitors there, but then I imagine how awkward I'd feel sitting around naked with friends and family. Maybe just the pool -- where people keep their pants on -- would be enough. Germans are such a contradiction when it comes to health. After a cardio workout of swimming, going in the sauna and then jumping in cold water, you can sit poolside and have a beer and a cigarette.

Well, I think Frau Neuhaus is finished cleaning/damaging our flat, so I can go back upstairs and get ready to head out. Frank told her Friday will be her last day. She's a lousy housekeeper and possibly a thief, but I'll miss her. She's actually glad to quit working here. By the time she makes it to the 3rd floor she's breaking out in a sweat. I offered her coffee this morning and all she said was "Nein! Nein!" while patting her chest where her heart is.

I guess that's all for now. I miss you and I look forward to hearing from you.