29 April 2007

Relegation Blues

I could barely bring myself to watch today's match between Arsenal and Fulham, not only because Fulham had scant chance of winning, but also because so much was riding on it. For Fulham, anyway; Arsenal is going nowhere this season and have settled into what for them is mediocrity, a fourth place position from which they have no hope of rising any higher.

But for poor little Fulham, now fourth from bottom and sinking fast, defeat meant another step toward disaster. For Americans and other non-followers of football, allow me to explain the principle of relegation: each season the bottom teams in each division are demoted to the next lower league (and conversely, the top three promoted to the next higher). Imagine, for example, if the New York Yankees had a bad year and finished in the cellar. The following season they would have to play in the minor leagues, and would stay there until they won their way back up into the majors.

For an English football team, relegation is disastrous. Just for starters, it will cost the owners in the neighborhood of £30 million ($60 million) in lost revenues from TV and merchandising. They'll also lose most of their best players, who will have to be sold on to other clubs who can afford to pay their wages. That in turn causes many fans to stop coming to matches, and ticket prices have to be reduced to counteract that trend, leading to even more of a decline in revenues. Many teams relegated from the Premiership never make it back, and gradually sink to yet lower divisions.

So that's the position Fulham finds itself in. If they don't win at least one of their remaining two games (or possibly draw both of them), they're almost certain to lose their Premiership status. From my purely personal standpoint, the biggest loss would be that their games would no longer be telecast in America. I was a season ticket holder when Fulham were a Second and First Division team, and since I just plain love football, I'd be happy to watch them even if they were only playing Swindon Town or Wycombe Wanderers. Unfortunately, the only reliable way to watch lower division English football is in person, and since I'm no longer in England, I'd be out of luck.

All that's meant to give you some insight into how I felt this afternoon as I watched, like a horrible car crash unfolding in slow motion, Fulham's 3-1 loss to Arsenal. It was made even worse by Fulham, after trailing most of the match, pulling back a goal to make it 1-1 with only 10 minutes left. If they'd been able to maintain that score, they would have gained a precious point and moved a bit up from rather than down toward the relegation zone. But it was not to be.

In the dismal aftermath, I found myself wondering why it upset me so much. I mean, unlike the club's owner, Mohammed al-Fayed, I don't stand to lose millions of dollars. My own season ticket expired last year, so I don't have any investment in the club apart from emotional, and if I were that desperate to see them play on a regular basis, I suppose I could have stayed in London.

And yet, I wandered about all afternoon in a grim stupor, almost as though someone close to me had died. Then a strange thought struck me: in a sense, I had gone through personal relegation of a sort. 10 years ago, you could say I was playing in a higher league, at least when it came to my particular line of work at the time, the music business. I had over a dozen employees, was responsible for multi-million dollar budgets, and had the privilege (and occasional pain) of dealing with some of the best bands in America (even if you never heard of some of them, trust me, they were). And now? Let's just say my life is lived on a considerably lower profile.

True, I still get the occasional author, journalist or filmmaker coming around to solicit my views on 80s and 90s punk rock and the DIY explosion, but for all intents and purposes, I'm history, which of course is why they're interested in me. Yet - and here's the kicker - while I do sometimes miss the frantic and frenetic days of being a scenemaker and music magnate, it occasions far less grief in me than the prospect of Fulham Football Club, of whom I was only ever a passive spectator, going down.

I asked someone why he thought this might be, and he replied, "Oh, that's simple. You don't have any control over what happens to Fulham, and that's why it drives you crazy. Whereas with Lookout Records and your music career, you made your own choice, or at least convinced yourself that's what you were doing. Accepting what we can't control is always the hardest part. It strikes right at the heart of our ego."

I suppose that makes a certain amount of sense. Maybe quite a bit of sense. But now that I've learned that invaluable lesson, could Fulham just maybe defeat the odds, win their last two games, and stay up in the Premiership for another season? Pretty please?

A Glimmer Of Hope From Iran?

If this report has any substance to it (being that it's from the Guardian, it's never easy to tell), we'd better hope that President Bush is kept so busy by those pesky Congressional Democrats that he doesn't have time to say or do anything too rash with respect to Iran. Of course you could argue that the menacing noises emanating from Washington are what's prompted a groundswell of rational thinking aimed at peacefully toppling the religious fanatics currently steering Iran head-on toward a catastrophic collision with the West, but it's equally true that a military attack or even overly aggressive threats thereof will usually cause a people to coalesce behind their present leadership, no matter how incompetent or unpopular they are.

The grim reality is that unless Iran changes course of its own volition, war of some sort is probably inevitable. Maybe not immediately, but sooner or later, and because Iran is a more highly developed country than most US enemies of late, the collateral damage would be hideous even if nuclear weapons aren't involved. If on the other hand Iran can make a peaceful transition into modernity - and gradually outgrow its various vendettas, particularly against Israel - it could play a vital role in stabilizing the Middle East and heading off a potentially incendiary conflict between Islam and the West (the conflict at present is more between Islamism and the West, but in the ensuing polarization, all or much of Islam is likely to be dragged in).

People who've been to Iran recently say there is much sentiment for change, and little love, at least among younger and more progressive Iranians, for the Ahmadinejad government. With any luck, perhaps the USA and Iran can change governments at the same time and we can make a new start. Now if we can only find a functional candidate here in the USA...

A Man And His Pants

Yesterday's 4th Annual Pop Punk Softball was every bit as awesome as expected, actually maybe even a bit more so, thanks to the weather, which was just about right, i.e., not a lot of sun, but neither too hot or too cold, just perfect for lounging about (can't speak for those who were actually playing), and to Central Park, which was just coming in to its full springtime glory (in fact, those of you who are in or around New York might want to get up there soon, like today even, to appreciate the full effect of everything gently exploding into leaf and bloom).

I got there not just late, as was expected, but even later, which was disheartening, as I must have missed out on some of the afternoon's most dramatic happenings, at least those that took place on the playing field. By the time I arrived I think people were tiring and no longer capable of exhibiting their full athletic prowess (or not). But the quality of the hitting and fielding was mostly pretty impressive, confirming my belief that my place on the sidelines was in fact the right place for me.

And it was in fact on the sidelines that the most memorable - at least for me - event of Softball 2007 unfolded: an hour-plus discussion of Chadd Derkins' somewhat unusual Philosophy of Pants. Before I proceed, I should note that living in Britain as long as I did has left me somewhat skittish about using the word "pants." There, of course, it's mainly used to describe underpants, and it's also viewed, at least among children, as a slightly "naughty" word, the sort of thing that can make kids or slightly older but still immature teenagers giggle when it slips into polite conversation.

There was little polite about the Chadd Derkins confab, however, as a growing circle of participants and onlookers harassed, questioned and heckled the man about his policy of owning only one pair of pants (which, incidentally, he "borrowed" from his dad when his last pair split during a visit to his beleaguered parents). Chadd wears this somewhat knackered pair of brown trousers, apparently made from fibers not commonly found in nature, for work every day, for relaxing on the weekend, for playing softball (as a grass stain and rip along the side testified), for the rare "dress-up" occasions he attends, and though we neglected to inquire, possibly for sleeping in as well.

Naturally, there were questions. "What do you wear if you've got an important business meeting?" Lucas the Lawyer wanted to know. "Business meeting?" Chadd sputtered, "I've never had a 'business meeting' in my life, and if I ever did have one, I'd know it was probably time to change my 'career.'" What about weddings? "If someone doesn't want me at their wedding because of my pants, then that's all the better for me, because I hate weddings!" What about your own wedding, should that ever come about? "Hopefully Carla (Chadd's lovely consort) will want to marry me just the way I am."

Further discussion revealed that Chadd not only owns only the single pair of pants, but has never in his life bought a pair of the infernal things. They've always been gifts or hand-me-downs, and he was shocked, yes shocked, that people would voluntarily squander their earnings at Old Navy (for which Chadd seems to have a particular distaste, or perhaps it's the only pants store he's heard of; for whatever reason, he kept fulminating against it). When Colleen pointed out that if he shopped around (in the "Pants District," P Smith helpfully suggested, home of shops like Pants'R'Us, House Of Pants, and Pants Pour Vous), he could find a good quality pair for as little as $25, Chadd grew even more outraged.

"You mean none of you think it's crazy to spend that kind of money on a pair of pants? No wonder I can't communicate with you. You're all living in some kind of ivory tower! No thanks, you can go down to the yacht club and discuss your portfolios without me." When it was revealed that Lucas the Lawyer's Diesel jeans had cost $180, Chadd was reduced to sputtering apoplexy.

It was no use pointing out Chadd spends enough on video games to outfit a small African nation in pants for life. "Video games are useful!" he insisted. "What are you going to do with a closet full of pants? Stand in front of it each morning and meditate? 'Hmm, what is my mood today and which of my 97 pairs of pants will best harmonize with it?'" Anyway, what is the problem you guys have with my pants? I'm clean, I change my underwear everyday. Do I stink? Do I? Here, smell me and tell me if I stink!" There were no takers, but I'm here to testify that a distance of several feet Chadd had no detectable odor.

It should be noted at this point that Chadd has a slight physical resemblance and a far more uncanny likeness in terms of speech and manners to Seinfeld's George Costanza, especially when it comes to the ability to make preposterous claims with blithe, almost blissful self-assurance. As we learned yesterday, however, when Chadd is pressed too far, his inner Newman comes out, and at times like that, you're not too sure you want to be around.

For the curious, it was also determined that in addition to his single pair of pants, Chadd owns between 200 and 800 band t-shirts (the number kept escalating along with his agitation) and that comprises the sum total of his wardrobe. Chadd Derkins, ladies and gentlemen, one of a kind, and we love him.

When Your Eyes Are Bigger Than Your Stomach

Over at the Pop Punk Mesage Bored, Ms. Megan Pants (no relation to our earlier discussion) of Razorcake zine remarks that LA Galaxy season tickets have sold out because of David Beckham's impending arrival. This is ridiculous, she opines, because after all, "it's still the Galaxy."

I know almost nothing about American Major League Soccer, but I have seen Beckham play quite a few times, and last night I happened to catch about half of a Galaxy match on TV. My verdict: I'm not sure what exact fault Ms. Pants is finding with them. My own beloved Fulham could certainly use some of the Galaxy's panache, particularly their ability to pass the ball around with almost European élan. In fact, if sane management principles were applied, I think Beckham would be hard pressed to win a regular place on the team I saw last night.

He will, of course; having mortgaged themselves nearly into eternity to pay the English show pony's transfer fee, and having sold tens of thousands of tickets to people expecting to see him, LA will have to put Beckham on the field for nearly every game even if he only succeeds in dragging the whole side down the way he did for England in last year's World Cup. Ironically, adding the world's most famous footballer to its roster could serve as more of a death knell for the Galaxy's ambitions.

28 April 2007

Pop Punk Softball

If I weren't lagging as usual, I'd already be on my way to Central Park for the 4th annual Pop Punk Softball convocation, which each year seems to attract a bigger so crowd, so much so that there's talk that we'll have to reserve at least two diamonds for next year's event. Founded by Jonnie Whoa Oh and artfully shepherded these past two years by Rich Grech, the day's festivities attract people from up and down the East Coast and even the Midwest.

As soon as I shave and otherwise prepare myself, I'll be there myself, and if you're wondering why I'm stopping to blog about it now instead of being on the train already, well, let's put it this way: last year I made the mistake of showing up on time and ended up getting picked to play in one of the games. This is something that wouldn't have happened if anyone had known of the undistinguished, nay, shameful softballing and baseballing record I compiled as a young boy. I was the kid who, when it came time to choose sides, not only got picked last, but was often the subject of bitter arguments between the two teams, to the effect of, "Why do we have to him on our team again? We always get stuck with him. You guys should take him this time."

How did I do last year? Well, I didn't make any fielding errors; thankfully the ball never came near me. No throwing errors, either. In fact, as it turned out I never touched the ball, not with hand, glove or bat, though I did take a number of what I thought were picturesque - albeit ineffectual - swings when I was at the plate.

So today I expect just to hang out and watch and socialize, and leave the on-field heroics to those better equipped for them. I'm not saying I'd be any better at it, but I'm hoping someone will get around to organizing a Pop Punk Soccer tournament one of these years. I'd probably still suck, but at least in soccer it's a little easier to make it look as though you're doing something worthwhile by running and flailing about with the requisite degree of franticness. Even Aaron Cometbus, ever suspicious of pop punk renaissances and the like, said he'd come along for that.

"Phil Spector Has A History Of Heinous Crimes"

So says the caption on Friday's New York Post cartoon, which shows a prosecutor brandishing a Yoko Ono record and demanding, "Did you or did you not produce this album?"

27 April 2007

"We Hoped For The Best, But Things Turned Out As Usual"

Courtesy of Popbitch comes that summing up of the recently deceased Boris Yeltsin's tenure as Russian president by his prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin. Given the current state of affairs in Russia, some folks have been waxing nostalgic about the Yeltsin years, but I think they're guilty of selective amnesia.

If you'll cast your mind back a little more thoroughly (at least those of you old enough to remember), Russia under Yeltsin was falling to bits, and he was usually too drunk or clueless to do much about it. He had his moments, especially when defying old school Communist hardliners, but under his watch Russia's GDP was cut in half and its people's life expectancy by a third. Obviously it wasn't all his fault; the transformation from communism to capitalism was bound to have a greater disruptive effect than any single politician could control. But Yeltsin's approach of simply abolishing or demolishing Soviet institutions and redistributing state assets in a free-for-all that favored only the thuggish and/or well-connected left wreckage in its wake that Russia will be cleaning up for decades to come (oddly enough, this seems to have been the approach America adopted in Iraq, with similarly dismal results).

Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin, has done a pretty fair job of clearing up the mess and getting Russia back on its feet, but seems to have fallen out of favor with the West due to his autocratic ways. Few American politicians will pass up the opportunity to lecture him about democracy, free speech, Chechnya, etc., despite the fact that Russia and its people are considerably better off today than 15 years ago, when the country was plummeting into chaos.

What's curious is that China, if anything a far more repressive society, comes in for less criticism, and even the occasional protests about censorship of the internet or prison labor pale into insignificance alongside the massive redistribution of resources, money and political power masterminded by the People's Republic of Wal-Mart. For some reason, different standards seem to apply to China and Russia; we seem far more prepared to accept totalitarianism in the former than the latter.

Why? Could it be an insidious form of racism, wherein it's presumed that democracy and freedom aren't as important to Asians? Is it because our economy (as in low prices for consumer goods) is so bound up with that of China? Perhaps, but then why aren't we cozying up to the Russian regime in hopes of snagging cheaper oil and gas?

But at this point I risk going off on a tangent; what I mainly wanted to note was the difficulty we seem to have in accepting that not every country can progress toward democracy in the same way and time frame as our own, and that sometimes the best we can hope for is that people aren't actively being exterminated or systematically starved. Which, for the most part, they're not in Russia today. Putin may not be the kind of president most Americans would want (for that matter, neither is George Bush), but he may well be the best that Russia can hope for at this particular time.

And if any of you want to infer from the foregoing that perhaps we should have let Saddam Hussein, warts, genocide and all, stay in power rather the risk the nightmare we seem to have blundered into, well, don't think the thought hasn't crossed my mind as well.

26 April 2007

Send In The Clowns

Oh, the Democratic candidates' debate wasn't that bad, actually. The raving lunatic fringe was well represented by former Senator Gravel, who ranted, raved and waved his hands about like someone's kooky grandpa who'd been at the cooking sherry, but he probably won some new fans with his willingness to come out swinging at the other candidates, most of whom were frantically making nice with each other.

Dennis Kucinich did his bit for the quietly demented, with perhaps his high point coming when he held up "My pocket copy of the United States Constitution which I carry with me always." The maddening thing about Kucinich is that he's right about some things (don't ask me to be specific at the moment, but he is), but probably does those causes more harm than good because he's so clearly a space cadet. I don't remember dropping acid with him back in the 60s and plotting to remake the world by abolishing money and getting everyone to love each other, but it wouldn't surprise me at all to find out that I did.

Edwards didn't do himself any favors, but probably suffered no real damage, either. He was slightly blindsided by a question about what good hedge funds did for America, and didn't improve matters by a folksy story about how his hardworking dad couldn't afford to take his family out to a restaurant. He's still going nowhere unless Clinton and/or Obama screw up royally.

The rest of the candidates were/are insignificant minnows. Somebody needs to tell Bill Richardson to shut up and go on a diet, but he probably figures - correctly - that he hasn't got a chance, so why put himself through the trouble. Why are Chris Dodd or Joe Biden even in this thing? Beats me, unless it's part of a strategy to pad their résumés for post-Senate employment.

That leaves Hillary, who did slightly better than I expected (not well enough to win me over, but I'm no longer promising to leave the country rather than vote for her), and Obama, who didn't do quite as well, largely, I think, because he kept himself on too tight a leash for fear of goofing up. He'll need to show a bit more confidence to get his message across.

All the candidates were lacking when it came to Iraq, falling over each other in their hurry to have been more against the war than anyone else and at an earlier date, an especially difficult feat for those who actually voted for it. But as much as the American public have turned against the war, none of the candidates has offered anything in the way of a solution apart from a Vietnam-style cut-and-run. The only debate is over how fast we should retreat; not a word was offered on what might happen to Iraq and its people in the wake of our withdrawal or what longterm consequences that might have on global or national security.

It's possible that there is no alternative, especially as long as there's no national will nor presidential leadership capable of seeing things to a more successful conclusion. But the Democrats' Congressional strategy of scheduling America's defeat a year or so in advance offers the worst of both worlds. If they're certain - as many of them are arguing now - that we've already lost, why one earth leave troops there to be sitting ducks for another year? And if there's still a chance that we can accomplish something there, why announce to the enemy the date on which we plan on surrendering? George Bush has undoubtedly made a colossal mess of this war, and unless he can pull some astounding rabbits out of a presently invisible hat, will go down in history as a disastrous president. Looking bad alongside the record he's compiled is no mean feat, but the Democrats are making a pretty good run at it.

Welfare And The Underclass

I'm always reluctant to speak harshly of the welfare system, not least because Social Security helped me immeasurably at a critical time in my own life. It also risks coming across as callous, insensitive and ungrateful when someone who's relatively well off starts fulminating about the meager handouts which keep the underclass from starving but afford little opportunity beyond that.

But it's worth listening to Melanie Phillips' argument that the welfare state not only does little to alleviate real poverty - particularly the poverty of values and aspirations that can prove more poisonous than material shortages - but that it actually helps create and perpetuate an underclass. She's writing primarily about Britain, which despite long-entrenched poverty, has never had an American-style underclass. Until recently, that is, and the fact that the underclass has emerged and multiplied during precisely the same period that the British welfare state was at its strongest and most encompassing provides telling evidence for Phillips' claims.

She also makes a useful comparison with America, where the introduction of Bill Clinton's much-maligned welfare "reforms" has, contrary to predictions, reduced rather than increased poverty. But she may have overlooked the fact that many welfare recipients were simply shifted into new programs, most notably Social Security and Supplemental Security Income for the physically or mentally disabled. A similar shift has occurred in Britain; approximately a million workers formerly classed as "unemployed" are now semi-permanently on "the sick."

Keeping two million Americans locked in prison also cuts down on welfare bills, though of course prison is far more expensive. I'm guessing, too, that Phillips would argue that America's vast prison population is at least in part a result of the massive expansion of Aid To Families With Dependent Children grants in the 1970s, which despite their obviously humane trappings, subsidized a vast increase in America's underclass.

Meet The Candidates

I had plans for this evening, but wonder if I should cancel them to stay home and watch tonight's debate featuring eight Democratic presidential candidates, several of whom I have yet to see in action, and one of whom (Mike Gravel?) I'd never even heard of before. Wait, I take that back; a quick check reveals he was a US Senator from Alaska from 1969-81. Something I might be more inclined to remember if I were from Alaska, but I'm not.

Most of these candidates will function primarily as novelty acts, since the real contest is obviously between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, with John Edwards having an outside chance should one of the front-runners stumble, though I think his Ken-Doll looks will work against him, not to mention the decision to pursue his presidential ambitions despite his wife's illness.

But really, it's Clinton vs. Obama, and Clinton, despite all her money and celebrity endorsements, has the look of dead meat about her. My guess is that it's Obama's race to lose. I don't know if he's any more sincere than the perennially fawning and pandering Hillary, but if he isn't, he's certainly better than her at faking it. I haven't seen a presidential candidate so capable of rousing and inspiring an audience since John F. Kennedy. Despite his narrow victory (which, some argue, was no victory at all so much as a case of artful vote-rigging in Mayor Daley's Chicago), Kennedy had the look of destiny about him from the moment he entered the arena. Obama has at least a whiff of that aura about him.

Even without knowing many of his policies - and disagreeing with several I do know about - I'm much more favorably disposed to vote for Obama than any other Democratic candidate. The only other candidate of either party I can muster much enthusiasm for is Giuliani, which is odd on two counts: 1) I've never voted for a Republican for any major office; and 2) he and Obama are far apart on many issues.

I guess my reasoning - or maybe it's more like gut-level intuition - is that a statesmanlike mien and the ability to crystallize and communicate a sense of national purpose is at least as important as the specific political beliefs of a president, and it's in this area that we've been lacking for some time now. Even Bill Clinton, who scrubbed up well and exuded a mostly convincing air of confidence, let a little too much of the huckster and carny-man show through his studiedly folksy demeanor.

If Obama plays his cards right and doesn't say or do anything too foolish, he should have a straight shot at the White House. On issues Giuliani is probably closer to the thinking of the American people, but I have a sneaking suspicion he's going to shoot himself in the foot, if not the head, possibly through further revelations about his personal life (nothing remarkable by New York standards, but a bit beyond the pale in much of the heartland) or more dumb remarks like promising to include his most recent wife in Cabinet meetings.

Of course if the increasingly nutty Naomi Wolf is correct, we needn't worry about next year's elections at all, because according to her America has already embarked on a 10-step journey to fascism. She is not alone in these views, but the majority of those who share them seem to come more from the 16 year-old "I hate my parents" demographic. Or the "petulant Americans denouncing George Bush in the Guardian" cohort, which appears to mine similar cultural ground.

"Skateboard Is Gone! I Ain't Never Forget This Day!"

What do you say about a (literally) legless drunk who lived on the street, begged for a living, spent nearly all his panhandled earnings on booze, and was crushed to death beneath the wheels of a mail truck when he rolled himself out into traffic one too many times without looking?

"How tragic," perhaps? "What a waste of a life"? "Why didn't someone do something to help him"?

In a normal world, perhaps, but in San Francisco's Bizarro-land, you romanticize him as a "character" and give him a largely values-free send-off in the local newspaper, replete with testimonials from his fellow denizens of the Tenderloin. Valedictions ranged from "he was mellow" to "the biggest heart in the street" to "part of the furniture." But the ultimate - and saddest - epitaph came from the owner of his local liquor store: "Skateboard was drunk all the time."

New York Then And Now

A couple times a week I walk the mile or so from my place to Greenpoint, and no matter which route I take, I seldom fail to marvel at the number and size of new buildings going up. Who do they think is going to live in all these new apartments, I wonder, knowing all the while that they'll be quickly filled, and at astronomical rents no less.

It's not just my neighborhood; a similar story is unfolding over large parts of Brooklyn, not to mention Queens, the Bronx and anywhere someone can find a sliver of buildable space in Manhattan. It's predicted that a million new people will soon be living in New York; during the 1970s, when many people believed the city to have entered an irreversible decline, the population dropped by nearly that much.

Movies like Warriors and Escape From New York painted the city as a nightmarish dystopia, a viewpoint shared by many Americans and more than a few New Yorkers. People left in droves, with some neighborhoods being more or less abandoned. In 1968 some squatter friends and I had our pick of dozens of empty buildings on the Lower East Side; on the site of one we occupied there now stands a block of new condos starting in the million dollar range.

If you want a clue to what changed, here's one: I noticed on my walk yesterday that many of the new apartments are being built without bars on the windows, not even at street level, something that would have been unheard of in the New York of old. I passed one window where a young man had left his curtains open: I could see him sitting placidly in front of about 20 grand's worth of computer and musical equipment. On warm nights people sit out on their stoops with expensive laptops on streets where once only the very brave or foolish would have risked walking.

There may be be many reasons for New York's booming population and economy, but it's hard not to believe that its having become the safest big city in America isn't one of the most vital. Which begs the question: what happens if things turn bad again, if a new mayor drops the ball, if an economic downturn takes us back to the era of ruined neighborhoods and endemic crime?

Optimists like to believe that couldn't happen; that the city's turnaround is so complete that whatever it was that went wrong before is a sheer impossibility. These days you'll find more people worrying about gentrification than its opposite, for which there isn't a universally recognized word, but which I'm prone to call - only slightly flippantly - slumification.

Many people, especially those who can no longer afford New York's skyrocketing rents, or who fear being displaced from neighborhoods where they've lived for years, view gentrification as some unholy plot hatched by the mayor in collusion with property developers and the artsy-fartsy white hipsters who act as their shock troops. But gentrification is not purely a white issue; this afternoon, Mary Pattillo, author of Black On The Block: The Politics Of Race And Class In The City, was on WNYC talking about how the black middle class has had a similar effect on formerly depressed black neighborhoods.

In a perhaps unguarded aside, she said there was a general sense that the affected neighborhoods, while going upscale, should "remain black," and I couldn't help wondering what sort of outcry would result if another community leader expressed the notion that his or her neighborhood should "remain white." It also put me in mind of what might be seen as a deliberate act of "slumification," which it could be argued helped precipitate the decline of many New York neighborhoods in the 1960s and 70s: Mayor John Lindsay's policy of plunking down huge housing projects, heavily populated by African-American welfare recipients, in what had previously been stable white working or middle class areas.

The resulting friction, exacerbated by soaring crime rates, was dismissed by Lindsay and his brain trust of elitist Manhattanites, as atavistic racism which had to be confronted and rooted out by any means necessary. But as Jim Sleeper points out in his excellent The Closest Of Strangers: Liberalism And The Politics Of Race In New York, the conflict was not so much about race as about class. Lindsay's quest for social justice (or, if you prefer, his desire to pander to minorities) led him to make the classic racist mistake: seeing people only in terms of their skin color.

In the rarefied ideological realms where he dwelt, Lindsay was unable to see the difference between the gradual integration of a neighborhood by blacks whose educational, professional and social values more or less matched those already present, and effectively dropping a bomb on it by introducing thousands of new residents who had little or nothing in common with the existing residents, and were essentially being shifted about by a program of social engineering not wholly unlike South Africa's creation of little Bantustans during the apartheid era.

Is it over-simplifying to blame Lindsay not only for New York's decline, but also for the racial and political balkanization that ensued? Certainly the mayors that followed, especially the hopeless Abe Beame and the not much better Ed Koch, have to shoulder their share of the blame. The economic and energy crises of the 1970s couldn't have helped either. Similarly, those who want to credit Rudy Giuliani for New York's recovery or Mike Bloomberg for building upon it have to admit they were greatly assisted by the booming national economy beginning in the 1990s.

But New York's decline as well as its recovery were so dramatic, and so clearly linked to certain mayoral policies like Lindsay's failed liberalism and Giuliani's take-back-the-streets initiative, that it seems foolish to argue that it makes no difference who is mayor. And if that's the case, there's always the possibility, even likelihood, that some day we'll again see a mayor who's willing to tolerate high rates of crime and disorder in the belief that there's a constituency for that sort of thing.

Freddy Ferrer or Mark Green would, in my opinion, have been just that kind of mayor: like Lindsay, they see people primarily in terms of race, and because there's a certain portion of the minority community that does have a vested interest in a New York that soft on crime, politicians like these jump to what I see as the racist conclusion that minorities in general want less law enforcement and more tolerance for the intolerable.

On a more hopeful note, New York has changed so much that people now have come to expect safe streets and an honest, well-functioning city government. The politics of divisiveness and class envy that powered Lindsay and his successors into office may have trouble gaining a toehold again. In his review of Vincent Cannato's The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay And His Struggle To Save New York, Jim Sleeper points out that the ostensibly conservative Rudy Giuliani, in many ways the "anti-Lindsay," had helped bring many of Lindsay's liberal ideals to fruition while Lindsay himself left little more than ruin, despair and destruction in his wake.

25 April 2007

I Miss England

Just settling in to watch the Chelsea-Liverpool Champions League match from Stamford Bridge, and remembering all the good things about London and none of the bad.

Plus if I were in London I could be watching it at a sensible hour instead of in the middle of the afternoon, which disrupts my whole day!

24 April 2007

Close, But Then The Cigar Exploded

I'm sorry to say that my earlier reservations about Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress Of Solitude turned out to be well-founded. No, I didn't find any more factual errors, and as one correspondent points out, those I did find could be matters of perception over which reasonable people could disagree. But there was a nagging sense, especially once the story shifted from Brooklyn to Berkeley and from the third person to the first, that something was going to go terribly awry, and it did.

Perhaps I overstate the case. I still enjoyed the book enormously, and don't regret for a minute the time I spent reading, nay, devouring it. But unfortunately Lethem couldn't leave well enough alone; he took a cracking good story and, in what looks to me like a misguided attempt to turn it into Great Literature, sent it careening off the rails before it could reach its destination.

I won't get too specific, not wishing to spoil the book for those who haven't read it yet (I'd still recommend it, especially for its chronicle of Brooklyn in the 70s and 80s), but let's just say a tenuous but forgivable subplot woven throughout the book morphs near the end into a full-fledged bout of what looks like South American-style magic realism. That in turn gives way to some hippie-dippie musing on "spaces" and "moments" that runs entirely counter to the gritty authenticity maintained by the characters throughout the first four-fifths of the book.

Lethem is prodigiously talented; there's no denying that. His ear for dialog is impeccable, and his ability to establish scenes and moods nearly so. It's a pity he couldn't have continued playing to his strengths rather than stretching himself into realms where there was no need to go. On the other hand, while I haven't read any of Lethem's earlier books, I've been led to believe that they're more self-consciously arty (the blurb for one compares him with Pynchon and DeLillo) and that TFOS represents an admirable several steps back from that literary phantom zone, which could augur well for future efforts.

But as to how The Fortress Of Solitude ended, well, I should have seen it coming when Lethem rhapsodized about Remain In Light, which of course is the album when the Talking Heads started to suck as a result of David Byrne dragging in that hokey-cokey world beat stuff. If he can write a novel that's like the first two Talking Heads albums - direct, real, to the point - Lethem will have created a true masterpiece. He very nearly pulls it off with TFOS, but then at the last minute chickens out and has to go all Life In The Bush Of Ghosts on us. Oh well, maybe next time.

Rights For Robots

I was tempted to file this under "People who clearly have too much time on their hands" until I realized that one of you would be quick to point out that I'd obviously had enough time on my own hands to read and comment on it.

The issue at hand? Apparently a UK government agency has issued a report calling for a debate on whether human rights should be extended to robots. Granted, they're talking about slightly more advanced robots than the kind we have today, the sort that would be smart enough to act as police officers, jailers, carers for the elderly, and sex slaves.

Whether you'd want to turn the care of your ailing granny over to a more sensitively tweaked version of the Terminator is another question, but apparently this is something we'll have to be contending with sooner rather than later. The prospect of designing robots as sexual companions also raises some nettlesome issues, most notably with regard to the effects this would have on traditional romantic and marital relationships.

Say, for example, a woman has a boyfriend or husband who's generally good-looking, kind and considerate, but has just a few annoying faults she can't seem to break him of. Farts at the dinner table, for example, or won't shut up when she's trying to watch America's Top Model. With this coming technology, what would be the point of putting up with him when she could simply get a sample of his DNA and have it turned into a robotic version of him with all the bad habits bred out of him? And with the added attraction of never losing his teeth, hair, or sexual stamina?

Add to this the introduction of an on-off switch for those occasions when the robot's owner feels like being single for the evening, and you have to wonder why anyone would put up with a human paramour again. An entirely new era in interpersonal relationships would no doubt unfold, in which (actual) people could be best friends forever without ever having to endure the complications or exacerbations of having sex with each other. In light of this promising development, it's a mystery why these crackpot scientists want to consider granting "rights" to robots, effectively making them indistinguishable (apart from being smarter, faster, stronger, and more durable) from the original humans. Didn't anyone learn anything from the first creation cycle?

23 April 2007

Dust To Dust

"Queens is New York City's junk drawer," says my friend Dan, who's lived there for most of his life. I don't think he means it in a particularly acerbic way (though "acerbic" would be a mild way of describing his usual sense of humor; I generally refer to it as "coruscating"). I'd prefer to think he's suggesting that Queens has a little of everything, not that any or all of it is junk.

Prior to today, most of my Queens experience has been limited to Astoria, unless you want to count visiting the 1964 World's Fair at Flushing Meadows, taking in a Mets game, and driving through on the way to or from JFK. But this morning I had to get up bright and early, put on a dark suit (on the hottest day of the year, natch), and journey to the outer reaches of Queens to attend a funeral.

"Had to" is the wrong way to put it; I wanted to go, and felt it important to do so. A friend of mine's mother passed away earlier this week, and though I'd never met the woman, I felt as though I knew her from all the stories I'd heard. Getting there meant an hour-long ride on three trains, the G, the E and the F, the last of these out to the end of the line.

When I finally emerged from the subway it looked like I hadn't gone anywhere: you could see a similar street scene almost anywhere in Brooklyn or Queens. But then I climbed a small hill to the church and found myself transported to Smallville, USA: great, sprawling houses with front porches and expansive lawns on streets lined with exquisitely flowering trees and bushes. It was altogether too beautiful a day for a funeral. A wedding would have been appropriate, or a graduation, but I guess when you think about it, death is the ultimate graduation.

I and two guys who'd journeyed out from Manhattan were the only gringos there; everyone else was Puerto Rican. Oh, except for the elderly Irish priest, who celebrated Mass and gave the eulogy in what sounded like flawless Spanish, but which my friends later told me was accented with a thick Anglo-Irish brogue. The cemetery was especially heartbreaking, as by the time we got there the day had gotten even more beautiful; minus the headstones and the gravediggers lurking discreetly over the road, it would have seemed a far more appropriate location for a picnic or school outing.

Most funerals I've been to in recent years involved cremations; this was the first I remembered in ages where an actual casket was lowered into the ground, and the first ever where the mourners waited around to see the grave filled in. I thought it a bit morbid at first, but then I realized how it lent the appropriate air of finality that was missing from some of the more sanitized funerals I've attended.

I was back in Brooklyn by 1:30 or 2 in the afternoon, but the journey and the service had taken something out of me, and I ended up staying in the rest of the day instead of going out to enjoy the gorgeous weather. In the evening the local gang of aging Italian adolescents (some of them have got to be in their mid-20s by now) put in their first street corner appearance of the summer and carried on loudly and exuberantly until 1 am. Any other time, I might have felt like complaining, but tonight I just thought back to my own street corner nights, those times that seemed they'd last forever but turned out to be as fleeting and evanescent as a firefly's glow in a sulky Midwestern dusk.

Could I blame those kids for being reluctant to say good night, for none of them wanting to be the first to break the spell that bound them together in that pool of light and shadows? No, of course not, and my thoughts turned instead to my own street-corner buddies, so many of them dead already, so many others who might as well be. Those moments, when we have them, stretch interminably, to the point where we never notice them vanishing irretrievably.

Horses, Barn Doors, and Bolting

Hip hop magnate Russell Simmons has suddenly changed his tune and wants record companies to "voluntarily" remove the words "bitch," "ho," and "nigger" from rap records. Now, of course, that he's already made his mega-millions selling records replete with those words, he can in one fell swoop look civic-minded and severely handicap the competition.

Meanwhile in New York there's a mini-Imusgate inside the NYPD, with two separate incidents of police sergeants using the NHH epithet against female officers under their command. Of the four officers complaining of this abuse, three were African-American and one was Hispanic, and at least one of the offending sergeants was also Hispanic. Which lends credence to the idea that "bitches and hos" discourse is not so much about race as it is about culture. And when I say "culture," I mean specifically hip hop culture, which long ago transcended all racial and ethnic boundaries.

So when the offended police officers' attorney claims that "The Imus virus [has] spread and infected the New York City police department," she's not being quite accurate. Imus may have been a carrier of the virus, and been guilty of spreading it, but it originated in the African-American community and was transmitted worldwide by hip hop culture. All Imus did - unwittingly and stupidly, of course - was to hold up to a mirror to how that culture has helped debase and vulgarize the way we all communicate.

Weekend Update

I meant to post an account of the weekend's activities as they happened, but you know how it goes... You don't? Well, never mind, then, here's a brief summary:

Friday night, my new friend Mikki invited me out to see a band I'd vaguely heard of but otherwise knew nothing about. They're called Japanther, and are apparently "local heroes," at least according to Mikki, and she knows a lot more about such things than I do. They were playing at the old Domino Sugar Factory, a waterfront landmark since 1884 which looks set to be converted into either luxury housing, moderately priced housing, or God knows what else (a similarly contentious site about a mile north in Greenpoint mysteriously burned to the ground when the preservationists looked like getting their way).

The venue turned out to be a rather small and very smoky room (the show apparently being conducted somewhat sub rosa (the guy selling tickets seemed quite determined to make sure no one hung out on the sidewalk as if, say, there were a show going on inside, New York City's smoking laws were apparently in abeyance as well. The tobacco stink was bad enough, but about half the junior air polluters there seemed to be smoking dope as well.

I say "junior" because this crowd was young. I'm used to going to punk rock shows where I'm the oldest person there, but for some reason I don't feel as self-conscious there as I did at this gig. Actually, I don't think it was so much a matter of chronological age - Saturday night's punk show, of which more later, had kids even younger - as it was of emotional or intellectual maturity. My first reaction on walking in was to feel like I'd stumbled onto the set of a rather sanitized movie about Williamsburg hipsters. I mean, they had the right look and the right manner, but they were just a little too fresh-faced to be fully convincing. It was like the 21st century Brooklyn equivalent of Singles, which portrayed a bunch of wholesome little 20-somethings getting mildly messed up on the Seattle grunge scene.

Never mind me, though, I'm just getting grumpy and old. Japanther, a very loud and effective two-piece, were interesting, and I don't mean that to sound as damning as it often does. A little too arty for me, maybe, but I'm not as opposed to art as some people seem to think I am. It was the kind of music that could easily prompt some serious cerebral musings while still being thoroughly danceable. But a few of the more intoxicated kids thought it ideal for starting a slam pit-cum-crowd surfing derby and honestly, I just wasn't in the mood. It was very 70s/early 80s, where you're having a punk/New Wave/experimental show in a warehouse and a detachment of frat boys shows up and starts crashing into people because "Isn't that what you punk rockers like to do?" We left early, though I was glad to see at least what I did of Japanther, and a little disappointed not to have seen Harry and the Potters, who were headlining, though I've heard their music doesn't quite measure up to the name and concept, which would admittedly be hard. I see they have 88,704 Myspace friends, however, so someone must be listening. And you can hardly quibble with album titles like Voldemort Can't Stop The Rock.

On Saturday, the most beautiful day of the year so far (Sunday may or may not have topped it), I stayed indoors most of the time watching the dire doings of the English Premier League. Honestly, I'll be glad when this season is over so I can go outdoors on Saturdays and Sundays again. It's true that when I was in England football took up an inordinate amount of my time, too, but at least I was out in the (sometimes entirely too) fresh air watching instead of hunkered down in front of a TV set.

This season's doings are particularly dire, however, because my beloved Fulham have bumbled and stumbled their way into imminent peril of being relegated to the First Division (now known by people who don't know any better as the "Coca Cola Championship"). Humiliation aside, I wouldn't mind quite so much if I were still in England because there'd still be matches to attend (46 per season rather than the 38 played by Premiership sides), but it would mean I'd no longer be able to see them on television here in the States, as lower division matches are very seldom broadcast here. All will be revealed in the next three weeks, but for now it's like watching a horrible car crash in slow motion.

Saturday night was the big record release party for the Unlovables, also featuring the Steinways, Project 27, Full Of Fancy, and, in a special treat, one of the hottest young bands in the country, the Leftovers. I'd been looking forward to this show for weeks, and while it was a full-fledged success on nearly every count - except maybe for those who showed up too late and couldn't get in - it was kind of a bust for me. Not because of the bands, who as usual were on fine form (though the Steinways showed worrying signs of turning into a cover band), but because I wasn't feeling my best.

I don't think I've mentioned it here, but I've been being treated for a bit of skin cancer - nothing at all serious, just one of the afflictions that typically goes with being Anglo-Irish and spending too much time in the sun - and it's left some horribly unsightly burn-like marks - hopefully only temporary - on my arm, which I'm kind of self-conscious about. So I decided to wear a long-sleeved shirt and topped that off with a hoodie, only to find the temperature inside the Knitting Factory best suited to the cultivation of tropical house plants.

I stuck it out for a few hours, but had to flee before the Unlovables had finished much of their set. Reliable reports indicate that it was sensational, as were the Leftovers, and that I can attest to as an eyewitness. I've been lucky enough in my time to see a number of bands - among them I could cite the MC5, the Stooges, Blondie, the GoGos, the Ramones, Green Day, Screeching Weasel - when they were playing places far too small to contain them, when I'd be standing two feet away from an act that I knew could just as easily be filling an arena or a stadium. The Leftovers are headed off for a national tour starting in late May, and following that, are on their way to Europe. If you want to see them up close and personal while they're still playing small clubs, this could be your last chance.

We're All Gonna Die

On the first summer-like weekend of the year here on the East Coast, the Guardian offers us this cheerful little piece about how we'll be lucky to survive the 21st century. About the only consolation I can find, apart from the fact that most of us will have pegged out from natural causes before the full gallery of horrors detailed here unfolds, is the Guardian's long and inglorious history of being wrong about nearly everything.

That being said, it's still probably a good idea to try and minimize the negative impact we humans have on the planet, and while it might seem (because it is) like a drop in the bucket, Mayor Bloomberg's plan for a greener New York City, announced today, is still an improvement over what most American cities are doing. As predicted, he's proposing congestion pricing in an effort to reduce auto traffic in Manhattan, and promising to put any money earned into much-needed mass transport initiatives. Based on London's experience, you wouldn't want to count on this amounting to much; the London program turned out to cost a lot more to administer than anyone expected. But that's typically the case with almost any government program in London or the UK; on average, New York City seems to be more efficiently run.

I don't want to sound like I'm becoming a Mayor Mike groupie, and I can certainly find things to disagree with him about, but I couldn't help noticing the difference between him and the succession of buffoons, clowns and ineffectual frat boys who've governed San Francisco for the past couple decades. Maybe San Francisco has just been unlucky, but you have to wonder why they've been unable to come up with a reasonably honest, more or less straight-talking adult to run that town; my suspicion is that the general sentiment of the citizenry is along the lines of, "What, elect a grown-up Mayor? Nah, man, that'd be a bummer."

21 April 2007

The Importance Of Place

I had some credit left on a Barnes and Noble gift card I got for Christmas, so I picked up a handful of books there, mostly stuff related to New York or, more specifically, Brooklyn. One of them was The Fortress Of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem.

It's either an indictment of how poorly I keep up with the literary scene, or a result of having spent most of the past ten years outside the country, but I'd never heard of the book or the author. Apparently I was one of the few people in New York City, at least among my friends and acquaintances, who hadn't, because I could barely mention the title or the concept without someone offering me an opinion on it. Consensus was that it was "pretty good" to "just short of great," but nearly everyone who praised it seemed to do so with a vague sense of reservation.

"I have some issues with it," I'd hear, or "There are problematic aspects." What those might be remained unspecified, and didn't stop me from tearing through the first two thirds of the book completely enthralled. It was only when the scene suddenly shifted from Brooklyn to Berkeley that I felt my own hackles beginning to bristle ever so slightly.

I suppose if I had grown up in Gowanus, my reaction might have been reversed. We generally tend to get over-protective when someone sets out to tell the tale of a place we consider "ours," especially if the writer in question is perceived as an outsider. I was practically mesmerized by Lethem's account of growing up white in a largely black and pre-gentrified Boerum Hill, largely because it rang so true. I never spent much time in that part of Brooklyn during the time Lethem was writing about, but it dovetailed with my experiences in Flatbush and on the Lower East Side.

One of the devices Lethem uses to great effect is place names. He specifically identifies streets and neighborhoods, not just by name, but by sense and feel as well. Anyone who's at all familiar with Brooklyn has walked down some of those streets and had similar encounters. For a relative neophyte like me, that's enough to seal the deal; I have no grounds whatsoever to question the story's authenticity.

But then we're in Berkeley, and although I'm not a native there either, I've got 30+ years of history in and around that town. My first quibble came when Lethem's alter-ego - no matter how it's billed, the book doesn't stray too far from memoir territory - ponders strolling down to San Pablo Avenue in Emeryville and catching a cab back to Berkeley. That might sound perfectly plausible to a New Yorker, but not the sort of thing I'd associate with my memories of San Pablo.

That's a minor point, and I might even be wrong; it's not like I've ever been a regular cab-taker, after all. But Lethem really falls down when he mentions the "famous problem" of drive-by shootings in "the poorer suburbs of the Bay Area, Richmond and El Cerrito." Richmond, sure, but El Cerrito? Gangland violence is about as common there as Republicanism in Berkeley.

I happen to know that because I have family and friends there, but how anyone could live in or around Berkeley and not know that beggars belief. Lethem follows it up with a reference to "the suburbs surrounding Berkeley on three sides." Let's see, there's the Berkeley Hills on one side, San Francisco Bay on another, and... well, I guess viewed from a certain angle, Berkeley could be seen to have five sides.

These are the only outright clunkers I've spotted (I haven't quite finished the book yet), but I find them disturbing, because they call into question the accuracy of what went before. It's especially bewildering because Lethem gets other aspects of Berkeley so dead to rights. There's a description of KALX, the campus radio station, that portrays the old Bowditch Street studios with greater detail than I could manage, despite having (I would imagine) spent far more time there than Lethem. He even namechecks several KALX DJs, including Gilman soundman and Blatz bassist Marshall Stax, though he does miss out on fellow author Dr. Frank, who was also a KALX stalwart during the era in question.

I also wondered why, in a novel replete with real places and real people, Lethem uses "Camden College" as an utterly transparent stand-in for Bennington (which Lethem himself actually attended), and then answered my own question before I could finish typing it: the probably very accurate portrayal of officially countenanced drug use would likely have led to lawsuits. Perhaps a similar situation obtained with respect to "Shaman's Brigadoon," a club apparently meant to stand in for the Freight and Salvage or Ashkenaz. On the other hand, Lethem shows no reluctance to name, locate and identify as a drug den the notorious Bosun's Locker on Shattuck and 60th, probably because a) it's no longer operating under that name, and b) as the site of some well-publicized shootings and one particularly notorious "massacre," it's hardly susceptible to having its reputation blackened.

None of this diminishes my belief that a sense of place adds immensely to a novel, song, any work of art, really, and for the most part, Lethem nails it better than most. Provided I don't catch him in any further solecisms, I'll still be inclined to think of TFOS as a great book. But it just goes to show that novelists need to be just as assiduous in their fact-checking as journalists. Maybe more so, because who really expects what they read in the paper to be believable?

The Clean Up Woman

As a girl she may have been a Brownie, a Girl Scout, a Paul McCartney fan, and an aspiring teacher or nuclear physicist, not to mention a Wellesley graduate, First Lady, and United States Senator, but the Hillary Clinton, addressing Al Sharpton's Nationa Action Network yesterday in a mock-Southern drawl that I suspect she thought sounded "black," was all about being the clean-up lady.

"When I walk into the Oval Office in 2009," she said, "I'm afraid I'm going to lift up the rug and I'm going to see so much stuff under there. You know, what is it about us always having to clean up after people?"

Us? Who exactly does this refer to? African-Americans? Domestic servants? I know Hillary has a propensity for trying to be all things to all people, but she'll have a pretty tough time passing for either of those. The only thing that surprised me was that the audience didn't break into laughter and/or boos. Maybe Senator Hill was using Jedi mind power to hold them in her thrall.

20 April 2007

President Pander

I voted for her husband twice and might even consider voting for him again, but I've never liked Hillary Clinton. The idea of her gaining the Democratic nomination, let alone being elected president, just plain depresses me. Some of this is visceral: she has always come across as phony, dishonest, and ready to do or say anything to advance her rather murky agenda.

By "murky" I mean: why does this woman want to be president anyway? What exactly does she hope to accomplish? She seems more obsessed with the process of winning that what she might do in office. I wonder sometimes whether her campaign is not some elaborate personal growth and self-actualization strategy devised by her therapist.

And now, just when America showed some signs of finally getting over the Imus brouhaha, here comes Hillary to have a touchy-feely encounter session with the apparently scarred-for-life Rutgers basketball team and their overwrought coach C. Vivian Stringer, who managed to turn a casual insult into a personal and national tragedy on a par with Hurricane Katrina. (To her credit, Coach Stringer has also managed to turn the affair into a lucrative book deal.)

En route to Rutgers, Hillary will stop to grovel at the feet of America's Pimp Emeritus, Al Sharpton, following on the heels of her husband, who made his obeisances yesterday. I never thought I'd say such a thing, but Sharpton actually looks statesmanlike compared with Senator Hill, especially in light of his willingness to extend his criticism of Imus to similarly offensive hip hop acts. Hillary, meanwhile, is still happily raising funds from anyone who will pony up, including rappers who make their living saying things Imus wouldn't have dreamed of.

Mayor Mike Takes On The Auto Lobby

After my admittedly somewhat flippant comments about global warming, I woke up to Thomas Friedman being interviewed about his proposals for a "more muscular, geostrategic environmentalism," and have to admit that he makes a lot more sense than I did. Also heard from Mayor Mike Bloomberg (no, not personally), who, to his credit, looks ready to propose congestion pricing for vehicles entering Manhattan during business hours.

The likelihood of Hizzoner being able to sell the idea to the state legislature (which needs to approve it), let alone the fractious hordes of motorists who seemingly would need to have their cold, dead fingers pried from their steering wheels before giving up their God-given right to clog the streets and foul the air, but given his track record, I wouldn't write off Bloomberg's chances.

This is a guy, after all, who only managed to make it into office because the opposition was so dire, started his first term largely unloved and quickly made himself even less popular by the smoking ban, yet now looks set to go into the books as New York's most successful mayor since LaGuardia. If third terms were allowed, he'd win so easily that it would barely be worth the expense of holding the election.

Congestion pricing hasn't been the complete success that some advocates claim in London, the only city comparable to New York where it's been tried, but that's largely because it hasn't gone far enough: if it were in force 24/7 instead of only during business hours, then it would begin to force real change to transport patterns. But it's a good start, and I think would be even more successful in New York, which is if anything even better served by public transit (though major improvements would still be necessary if we're serious about forcing that many people out of their cars).

But Bloomberg's success with the smoking ban might augur well for his chances with congestion pricing: widely derided at first, it's now almost completely accepted, even among many smokers, as far more sensible than the bad old days. A Manhattan free of traffic snarls and pollution might seem almost unimaginable today, but a few years from now we may be looking back and marveling at what we used to put up with.

Supporting The Troops

Another hot topic on the PPMB these past few days has been how best to "support the troops," i.e., whether to back the current war policy despite its obvious failures as long as American troops are in the field, or to remove them from any further danger by bringing them home immediately.

Unsurprisingly, majority sentiment favored the "bring them home now" option. Most of my friends opposed the war from the start, and some of those who favored it have now changed their minds. I myself never had a firm view for or against, and while I think that the current state of affairs is an almost unmitigated disaster, I still don't have much to offer in the way of a solution.

Neither, it seems, do most of the war's opponents (nor, to be fair, its few remaining proponents). Well, they'll claim they do, but it seldom goes beyond "Get our troops out of there and let the Iraqis settle it themselves." Some of the more extreme self-loathers think we should complement our withdrawal by offering apologies and reparations to our enemies, but that wouldn't be likely to alter the outcome: an emboldened Al Qaeda, a new and more perilous nexus for terrorist attacks, and a power imbalance in the Middle East that almost inevitably will lead to a larger future conflict that will be difficult or impossible for us to avoid.

In retrospect, we should have stayed out of this war altogether, not necessarily because it was wrong (though it might have been), but because we had neither the leadership nor the resources to win it. Wars should never be engaged in unless a country is prepared to do whatever is necessary to win them, and if a country is serious about a war, it doesn't start by slashing taxes to fuel an orgy of consumer spending and run up record deficits. Nor does it try to scrape by with a minimal army, patched together with overworked and overstressed reserve and National Guard units. I'd like to dignify the Bush-Rumsfeld plan by calling it hubris, but that would be putting too fine a gloss on what now appears to be little more than an evil admixture of arrogance and stupidity.

But all rhetoric aside, we're still stuck with the question of how to extricate ourselves from this mess without making it infinitely worse. Writing in 2004, Niall Ferguson warned that America was likely to get itself into this situation if it couldn't overcome its ambivalence about its role as the world's sole remaining imperial power. Like it or not, Ferguson argued, America is an empire, and so it had better get good at it. Despite the near-universal opprobrium attached to the concept of "imperialism," Ferguson believe the alternative to be worse: a global version of the failed states and collapsing societies that have disfigured Africa since the end of the European empires.

Whether he's right or wrong, I can't say; I do see parallels with Roman unwillingness or inability to deal with disorder on its frontiers in the latter years of that Empire, but dragging Rome into the equation is very nearly the historical equivalent of playing the Hitler card in political debates. And as with global warming, there's not a lot I can do about it.

Not, it seems, does the author of this mess have much latitude when it comes to cleaning it up. George Bush is on the verge of becoming the lamest duck since Woodrow Wilson, deserted even by much of his own party, and short of a national disaster or major terrorist attack that would once again unify the country behind him, it's hard to imagine how he could come up with a mandate for anything beyond dragging out the present debacle for another year or two.

I have no military experience and not a lot of knowledge, but in my view, Iraq could be successfully occupied and stabilized with about 500,000 troops, provided that we're prepared to keep a large portion of them there for several years while political, fiscal, and social institutions are rebuilt. Obviously that's not going to happen; there's almost no support for expanding operations in the Middle East, let alone for bringing back the draft, which would probably be necessary to bring our army up to the necessary strength.

So we bumble along toward ever greater disaster, people keep dying, the country slowly goes bankrupt trying to pay for it, and President Bush seems to be hunkering down in the White House hoping all this unpleasantness will somehow just go away. I never thought he was anywhere near as dumb as his political enemies made him out to be (if only because he's consistently outfoxed them), and I never disliked him the way most of my liberal and radical friends did (if only because he had a knack for pissing off all the right people), but unless he can pull a rather large rabbit out of his hat, and soon, I'm afraid he's going to go down in history as one of our biggest presidential disasters ever. I'd take some consolation from the fact that elections are only a year and a half away, except that so far none of the candidates seems to show much potential for improvement.

Bijna Zomer

That's Dutch for "Almost Summer," an infectiously catchy song by Holland's Apers. Knowing their market, they of course sing it in English, but on one of their tribute albums (that's right, these guys are barely more than kids, probably 99% of the world has never heard of them, and yet there've already been not one but two collections of their songs interpreted by other bands), Skokotronic translates it back into Dutch, giving it a more dreamy sound than the Apers' Queers/Weasel-inflected version.

Either way it's a great song, and an even greater feeling, one which we got ever so slight a foretaste of today here in New York. Sometime this afternoon the sun snuck into town from wherever it's been hiding and for a few hours before a chilly evening wind sent folks scurrying back to their burrows, it was possible to believe that this never-ending winter might finally be preparing to hobble off into a well-deserved oblivion. Unfortunately I missed the best of the sunshine, hypnotized as I too often am by the many-splendored drama of the Pop Punk Message Board, sparked largely by hyperactive office employees wasting innumerable person-hours of their bosses' time on discussions, debates, and wholesale invective-flinging.

One of todays entrancing topics centered around the question of "Do you ever fantasize about having sex with your fellow workers?" (It was worded more bluntly than that, but I'm trying to keep this a family blog.) One woman - oh, all right, I'll identify here; it was the irrepressible and vivacious Jenna Alive - replied that she worked with "my mom and bunch of gross old dudes." He boss was the only "relatively attractive" man there, but he was ruled out because he "doesn't believe global warming exists." To which Chadd Derkins responded, "And I, on the other hand, don't give a shit whether or not global warming exists. Does that make me better or worse than him?"

As someone who's been turned down innumerable times for innumerably variegated reasons, I must admit I've never had my faith or lack thereof in global warming used against me. I was a passionate believer in it long before Al Gore turned it into global hysteria, thanks to a Professor Granger, who I studied with at Berkeley at the beginning of the 90s, but I must admit that the more people go on about it nowadays, the more inclined I am to take the Derkins position.

My growing apathy is partly but not wholly a reaction against the smarmy Gore-bots. It's also based on the fact that there's not a lot I can do about the planetary climate crisis. Hell, I don't even own a car, and while I suppose I could dress in animal skins and thus eliminate the need for heating my apartment in the winter, I'm not too inclined to make much greater sacrifices while Mr. Environment himself has about four houses that use more energy in a day or two than I do in a year. And there's also the cynical aspect: by the time the oceans start boiling away and the buzzards zoom in to peck at the remains of the last desiccated human beings, I'll be long gone anyway. Unless of course genetic engineering gives us a cure for old age and death, in which case global warming will be only one of many terrifying new problems.

I think it also comes from having lived for the last ten years in a country obsessed with warmth or, more accurately, the lack thereof. The British newspapers try their damndest to get the people riled up about their island's prospects for slipping into the sea or turning into the Sahara Desert North, but tell most Englishmen (let alone the even more chilblained Scots) that we're in dire danger from rising temperatures, and you're mostly going to hear, "Ooh, lovely! When?" This year, of course, Britain's been enjoying one of its earliest summers ever, with temperatures in the upper 20s (70s and 80s Fahrenheit) by early April, while the East Coast of America shivers in what could easily pass for a British winter. So even if I risk killing off whatever romantic prospects I might still have, at the moment I'm inclined to say, "Global warming? Yes, please!"

18 April 2007

Imus Did Us A Favor

One of the things I miss most about England, apart from the NHS and entrenched eccentricity , is the BBC. I listen by default to NPR here in the USA, but it almost makes me want to cry some days, it's so bad by comparison. And WNYC, the local outlet, is if anything a worse than average NPR outlet. The whole time I'm thinking, here I am in the media capital of the world and these bozos are the best they can come up with?

Still, once in a while they put together a good program, and this morning's discussion of the Imus affair, even though you'd think it had been done to death by now, was one such case. The focal point was rap mogul Russell Simmons' claim that the use of racist and sexist language in hip hop was "different" from what Imus had said, on the grounds that rappers were "poets" who were "angry, uneducated and come from tremendous struggle," thus giving them "license..to say things that offend you."

Simmons is confusing marketing hype for political or social opinion; as someone who's made his fortune selling hip hop records, he knows as well as anyone that many successful rappers are straight outta the black middle class and merely affect the whole gangsta thing because, well, it sells records. So it's particularly ironic that Simmons denies Imus the right to use the same language his own recording artists use on the grounds that Imus was "a privileged man who has a mainstream vehicle and mainstream support and is on a radio station." And that makes him different from mega-millionaire Simmons exactly how? Or from any number of mega-millionaire rap artists who have a "mainstream vehicle and mainstream support" and are on the radio?

Talking this over on the Brian Lehrer show yesterday were Ghetto Nation author Cora Daniels, DJ (formerly of Berkeley's KALX, no less) and hip hop journalist/impresario Davey D, and author and former Berkeley professor John McWhorter. Davey D did his best to sound reasoned and reasonable, but his message still came off more or less as, "It's white people/the corporations/racism/etc. that are responsible for promoting the bad hip hop and suppressing the good stuff" (not his words, but rather my attempt at a paraphrase).

Cora Daniels, who I'd heard before and who impressed me considerably, said that, "As a black woman, it doesn't make me feel any better if Snoop Dogg calls me a ho than if Don Imus calls me a ho. I'm still being disrespected." And McWhorter, who I've also heard before, pretty much cleaned Davey's clock, summing things up by saying, "
Black people will stop supporting this kind of music when we like ourselves better," and adding, "There is something disconcerting about the fact that with a war going on, a health care crisis, and rising murder rates in our city, we are so upset about an old white man calling some people some names."

Meanwhile, back fanning the flames of hyperbolic overreaction, as originally stoked by Messrs. Sharpton and Jackson, we have one Brenda Knight, founder of a "women's empowerment organization," likening the Imus remark to a "national disaster, a tsunami... a raging force that destroys who I am as an African American woman." Wow, if a few stupid words spoken by one over-the-hill shock jock can have that kind of power, I can see where she thinks she needs to get empowered.

Cooler heads have of course pointed out that while it certainly wasn't his intention, Imus has done society a favor by getting people talking about things that have long needed talking about, and by that I don't just mean entrenched racism and sexism, but about the role that the black community plays in its own oppression. Sharpton and Jackson are getting a long-overdue kicking, and not just from whites, which might be expected, but also from quite a few blacks, which is refreshing. But even more vital are the many black voices now being raised against the hateful caricatures of blackness - portraying black men as sex and violence-crazed beasts and black women as bitches, sluts and hos - perpetrated not by white racists, but by black mercenaries. Or, as Russell Simmons cynically calls them, "poets."

Do I want to see rap music banned or censored? Not at all. And if I'm honest, I sometimes enjoy the stuff, my favorite of all being NWA, which kind of laid down the benchmark for all gangsta rap to follow. I'm entirely in favor of people being free to make or listen to the kind of music they want, but when the violent racist and sexist values of hip hop start percolating throughout society, then it's long past time to have a serious conversation about whether this is the direction we as a society want to go. When hip hop apologists deny any connection between what Imus said and what hip hop artists say constantly, they ignore the fact that it's hip hop that has put those words and concepts into common usage. Imus, in his sad old white man way, was just trying to keep up with the brothers. And by doing so, he did us a double favor: getting his own pathetic, humorless self taken off the air, and simultaneously getting us talking about far more important stuff.

17 April 2007

Will Work For...?

Mentioning Ben Weasel reminded me that J Whoa Oh played his/Screeching Weasel's song "Friends Are Getting Famous" on our podcast, which in turn reminded me that while few of my friends (apart from Dr. Frank, maybe) are getting all that famous these days, lots of them are becoming incrementally successful, or at least keeping busy doing cool and productive things.

Which in turn reminded me that while I've been thinking and talking and even occasionally fretting about "getting serious," "getting busy," or just "getting down to work" for at least a year or two, I still haven't done all that much about it. I got hectored a bit about that on Jonnie's show, when I had to field questions about what had ever become of the memoir that I spent a couple years writing and a couple more years hyping and talking about.

I had to confess that it's been gathering dust under my bed - a series of beds, actually, as I've been moving around a bit - and that I hadn't done anything with it since 2005, when, after a couple of rejections from agents who'd come highly recommended, I reluctantly started out to completely rewrite the thing and gave up after slogging through a page or two of it. I don't think I've looked at it since, except when packing it into a box preparatory to moving to New York. I randomly opened it somewhere in the middle, read a few sentences, shuddered ever so slightly, and tossed it back in the box.

I don't think it's as badly written as it seems to me now, just as I don't think it's nearly as good as I thought while actually writing it, but in any event I don't think it's good enough to publish as is. And I can't help feeling that by the time I do get around to reworking it, all the events it covers will have been done to death. Some of them - the 60s, drug and alcohol abuse, teenage delinquency, etc., already have been, while others, like Green Day, Operation Ivy, the East Bay/Gilman scene are already in the pipeline. Just the other day I spent three hours being interviewed for yet another book that purports to tell the whole story of Bay Area punk rock, with special emphasis on the East Bay.

And this is being done by a guy who wasn't even there! But there or not, he knows his stuff; when he told me some of the people he was contacting, and quizzed me about events that I'd forgotten or never heard of, I had to admit he'd probably do a far better job of it than I could. Not least because of my habit of only writing about things I'm personally interested in, which doesn't make for the most balanced of overviews.

With my longterm plans to write the definitive story of the East Bay punk scene, let alone the latter half of the 20th century as lived by me seemingly now in tatters, I suppose it's time to think about other forms of useful work I might do. Unfortunately, I don't seem to have much of a résumé, and few visibly marketable skills. Writing kind of drives me up the wall, but it's becoming increasingly obvious that I don't know how to do much else.

So if any of you have any suggestions or leads as to where I might take it from here, have away with them. It doesn't have to be anything high class or epoch-making, just some opportunities to arrange words on a page with a reasonable prospect of getting paid for it. As someone who's been writing in one form or another since the 1950s, it may be a bit late in the game to try turning pro, but hey, I could use the work, and it would least give me something to say when nosy New Yorkers start every conversation with, "So, what do you do?" "Nothing" just isn't working for me anymore.

Weasel On The Radio

When plugging my Jonnie Whoa Oh podcast appearance the other day, I inadvertently used the same header ("On The Radio" as Ben Weasel had when informing the world about his debut as a sports talk broadcaster. Let's just say that if the singing, writing, t-shirt, and record businesses (Ben's been rather busy of late) should all fall through, I think he's got another promising career lined up here. He actually sounded more professional, or at least more sure of himself, than the guys who'd apparently been hosting the show for years. He also sounded like he was about 20 years old, which was amazing, since he's, well, a bit older than that. Wonder if that's what quitting smoking has given him those crystalline and upbeat tones in place of his gravelly grumble of yore and if so, how it'll sound when he takes the stage for this summer's Insubordination Fest.

Can't figure out how to give you a link to his sports talk guest spot (I'm still only semi-literate with this whole blogging business), but if you just head over to his site, you can find your way from his own post at or near the top of the page. And if that whets your appetite, make sure and check out his regular broadcasts on Waubesa Radio, which seem to be going great guns. Not bad for a guy who once famously said he'd never trust "any motherfucker with an email address."

The Last Night Of Winter

When I was a boy growing up in Michigan, winter and I didn't get along very well. In fact there were times that it literally reduced me to tears.

Not always, of course. Like any kid, I was excited by the prospect of gigantic blizzards that might shut down school for days or weeks at a time (I think that in 12 years we might have had two or three snow days, if that), and every year until I was about 15, I'd flood the back yard and turn it into an ice rink where I'd play long and energetic hockey games against myself. I'm sure that other neighborhood kids joined in at times, but for some reason I mostly remember playing alone, singlehandedly impersonating the entire lineup of the Red Wings and their mortal foes, the Maple Leafs. Not surprisingly, the Red Wings pretty much always won, though I'd keep the games pretty close, and once in a while let the Leafs win for the sake of getting the Wings more fired up, or to draw out my personal replay of the Stanley Cup to a full seven games.

But usually by February or March I'd had more than enough of winter. I became especially aware of this the year that a drenching rainstorm followed by a sudden freeze turned a foot of snow into about six inches of solid ice that stayed with us for a month or more. I can still remember the chop-chop and clank-clank of shovels up and down the block - it went on for days - as people tried to clear enough of a path to get their cars out or simply to walk up to their front steps, and the delirious excitement greeting the spring thaw that finally allowed us to push the last of the hateful ice into the gutters and watch it be carried away down the storm drains.

Somewhere along the way I first heard the first line of T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland - though I had no idea at the time where it was from, and wouldn't find out until many years later when I discovered the entire opening stanza carved by a rather pretentious vandal into a sidewalk in Berkeley, California - and figured I knew exactly what the guy was talking about when he said "April is the cruelest month."

To me it meant the way April played bitter tricks on you, how you could look out your window, see the sun shining brightly, the buds and flowers all bursting forth against a backdrop of stunning green Easter grass, only to go dashing outdoors in just a t-shirt and jeans to discover that it was absolutely freezing. And then a few days later a stupendously summerlike day would come along; kids would be in their shorts and barefoot, tearing up and down the block flying kites, playing baseball, and screaming their heads off. The buds on the trees would see no need for holding back any longer, and the only fly in the ointment was that a full two months of school lay ahead of us before we'd be set free to enjoy this splendid weather everyday. And by the next morning a cold front would have blown down from Canada and the front yard with all its beautiful flowers and fresh green grass would be buried under snow again.

I was not a patient boy. One April, frustrated with how long it was taking my mother's tulips - my favorite flowers and to me a sure sign that the false spring was over and the real thing had arrived - were taking to open, I went around the back yard and forced open the buds with my tiny fingers. I was a bit disappointed at the lack of color they showed, but assumed that once they got a bit of sun the rather sallow-looking buds would emerge into their full glory. Instead a hard frost descended overnight, killing the lot of them. The Year We Had No Tulips should have taught me a lesson about patience and allowing things to unfold in their own time, but I'm not sure I ever fully learned it, as I've made similar mistakes repeatedly, especially with regard to work and relationships.

So I've tried not to get upset about the particularly cruel April we're enduring here in New York. Yesterday's torrential rains have finally gone, replaced by sullen skies, occasional showers, and a nasty north wind. Here I was trundling down to the Post Office to mail in my tax forms (well, my request for an extension thereon) and I'm bundled up in full winter regalia, down jacket, hoodie, hell, I was even wearing long underwear! Yet I've tried to maintain a stoic silence (though not succeeding very well, especially here on the blog), reminding myself that I chose to move here, and that this is nothing compared to what awaits me come next January. And that summer will be all the sweeter when it finally does arrive.

Which it will, I know, almost beyond a doubt. I only mention the "almost" because ever since learning as a boy about 1816, "The Year Without A Summer," I've lived in fear that it might happen again. And only just now, in the course of looking it up to see if I remembered it correctly, did I discover that the effects 0f the original YWAS were most pronounced - where else? - here in the American Northeast. Could history repeat itself? I remember a couple years ago when Al Gore earned himself a fair bit of ridicule for making one of his dire speeches about global warming on what turned out to be the coldest day New York had seen in a decade or two. Perhaps the planetary ecosystem, overwhelmed by the volume of hot air arising on the subject, is about to throw us enough of a curve to get everyone back to talking about the coming ice age.

This evening I was over in the Village, where the back streets were lined with trees just days away from bursting into full bloom, and I wanted to shout at them, "No, not yet, don't come out yet, you'll freeze to death and spring will never arrive this year!" But then I had the comforting feeling that they (the blossoms and the trees, that is) probably knew a good bit more about this winter-into-spring business than I did. It seemed so unfair, for the fledgling little flowers to be shivering in the chilly gale blowing in off the Hudson, but they're made of sterner stuff than I am, apparently, because not only were they blithely shrugging off the unseasonable cold; they were positively glowing with certainty that winter is well and truly on its way out of here.

In fact I decided then and there to declare this the last night of winter, even though the temperature's not predicted to struggle out of the 40s for a few days yet, even though I'm wearing several layers of clothing and hunched over my keyboard trying to soak up any spare warmth emerging from its CPU processor. A week or two from now and I'll be running around the city in shorts and sandals. Or not, but regardless of what the weather does, it will be summer in my heart.