30 March 2008

"Film" And The Overly Earnest 20-Something

As a general rule I think it's advisable to avoid criticizing, let alone getting into arguments about movies I haven't seen.

However, there are cases when I'm willing to make exceptions, and this argument qualifies as one of them. My prejudice against No Country For Old Men didn't emerge full-blown out of thin air; in fact, when I first heard about the movie, a month or two before it came out, it sounded like something I'd probably be inclined to see.

I'd never read the book, nor did I know much about the subject matter, but people seemed to be making a big deal of it, and the Coen Brothers not only have a decent reputation, but also have made some other movies I've enjoyed. But within a week or two of its opening, friends who'd seen it started reporting back to me that it was simply awful, the worst sort of pseudo-intellectual, quasi-artistic dreck.

Well, that's not exactly how most of them put it. To be precise, the critiques generally revolved around two points: "Makes no sense" and "Long, convoluted and boring." But when a few of my young friends, largely those of the painfully earnest ilk, the sort who speak of "film" in hushed, reverential tones and collect DVDs so they can make repeated studies comparing and contrasting the director's cut with the commercial cinema cut and the alternative ending cut released only in Bulgaria and the eastern half of the Ukraine, began raving that No Country For Old Men was a "stunning masterpiece," "hauntingly evocative," and all the rest of that cine-crit blah-blah, I felt confident that my initial instincts had been correct.

I mean most of us do this, right? We have two sets of critics who help us decide which movies, records, books, etc. we are going to take a flyer on and which we are going to give a miss. Doesn't matter whether they are professionals, amateurs, or just our friends and acquaintances; it's just that we've got enough of an idea about what they like and don't like that we can draw reasonable inferences about whether we ourselves would like the product in question.

One set, of course, consists of those people who tend to view life, love and art in much the same way we do; the other is what I would informally call the null set, i.e., you know that pretty much anything they like is going to suck on a stupendous scale.

Before too much umbrage is taken, snits gone into, and goats gotten, let me hasten to add that there is nothing remotely objective or scientific about this method; it's purely a matter of personal taste (or lack thereof). However, I've come to notice that one of the surest predictors of records I don't want to listen to, movies I don't want to see, etc., is its popularity with the beard and/or chin-stroking 20-something "artistic" crowd. You know the type, no doubt: the ones who shortly after leaving their teens begin denouncing the catchy, fun pop-punk music they used to love as "puerile" and "simplistic," replacing it with "more complex" varieties, the more obscure, atonal and unlikely to become popular, the better.

And heaven knows we can all be guilty of patronizing and condescending attitudes from time to time, but you haven't truly been patronized or condescended to until a mid to late-20s art school dropout has casually sneered something to the effect of, "Oh, I suppose that (your favorite band, movie, artist, etc.) sort of thing is all right if you're into mainstream pop culture."

If you read far enough along in the thread I linked to, you'll see that one such commentator dismisses my views out of hand because, "You have zero interest in film, you just watch movies because you're bored." However, I think he's got things backward; the only time boredom and movies (note, by the way, how I have zero interest in "film" and only watch "movies") intersect for me is when I see turgid, overblown melodramas like There Will Be Blood and, I'm guessing, No County For Old Men.

I once made a practice of seeing movies, especially those with subtitles because I thought I "should" or because they were "important," but as the Dylan song goes, I was so much older then. My critic also suggests that I go to movies to "kill time," but it's been many years since I've had too much time on my hands; time is one commodity that is perennially in short supply with me.

So when I choose a movie, I have only one criterion: will it entertain me? I don't care if its lowbrow, highbrow, or nobrow, whether it's a crassly commercial enterprise or ars gratia artis, if I'm laying out 10 bucks and a couple of hours of my time, I want to be pretty damn sure I'll have something to laugh and/or cry about, not something that forces me to ponder, "What the hell was that supposed to be and why did it have to take two and a half hours out of my life?"

That being said, I saw an excellent movie today called The Bank Job. Nonstop action, clever plot (and based on a true story, they claim; I certainly remember the phony-baloney black activist Michael X who features in it). Story aside, it always delivers a mostly realistic trip back into the gritty and gray London of the early 70s; I say "mostly" only because I caught one anachronism: one scene in the Baker Street Underground station includes the correct 1970s-style trains, but shows a wall sign reading "Hammersmith and City Line," a line which of course didn't come into being until 1988 (I'm not really that much of a trainspotter, honest; it's just that I lived on the H&C and it's predecessor, the Metropolitan, for a number of years).

Anyway, The Bank Job is my idea of a movie that does exactly what movies are supposed to do, informs, entertains and inspires (or at least one or two of the aforementioned). All you lovers of "film," feel free to have at me for my philistinism (yes, that was another charge leveled at me during the discussion, by an actual art student, as it happens). I'll only add that ever since I started picking movies on their entertainment value rather than their cultural significance, the quality of my leisure time has noticeably improved. Not to mention the added enjoyment derived from ruffling the carefully preened feathers of the art school booboisie.

28 March 2008

Five Miles Of Sheer Terror

I spent most of the afternoon and evening in Ann Arbor chatting with an old friend, one of the few remaining people I know in this town, and who has the added distinction of having grown up in the same Downriver neighborhood that I did and attending the same high school I did, albeit a couple decades later than me.

But we have quite a few people, places and things in common, definitely enough to keep us blabbing away without much regard for the passage of time or the deteriorating state of the weather. We started out in a joint called El Sabor Latino on N. Main Street, quite near the police station and jail that played a featured role in many of the escapades of my youth. The waitress was a black lady about my age, who, this being the Sabor "Latino," I reckoned to be Cuban or Puerto Rican. Until she opened her mouth, that is, at which point I said, "Jaime, that lady has an Ann Arbor accent."

And by "Ann Arbor accent" I was referring not to a sense of place but rather of time: she spoke the way a certain segment of the population did in the Ann Arbor of the early 70s, that certain segment being many if not most of the people I hung around and, in between multiple tokes from multiple joints, plotted political, cultural and social revolutions. It's a distinct manner of speaking, the likes of which I've never really heard elsewhere, that combines a flat Midwestern matter-of-factness with an edgy whine accentuated by a slightly confrontational flaring of the nostrils.

It's not entirely unpleasant if you're familiar with it, but I imagine it can be off-putting to outsiders, and I've been gone long enough that my first reaction was to wonder if she was going to start turning over the tables and demanding that we choose whether we were going to be part of the problem or part of the solution, but in fact all she wanted to know was whether we'd be having flour or corn tortillas.

By the time we'd finished, the persistent rain was in the process of changing to persistent snow, but it being too warm for it to stick to the pavement, we moseyed on down to State Street and the Espresso Royale Cafe, a topnotch place for lounging about for hours on end, which we and numerous other people of leisure proceeded to do. I couldn't get over how huge the place was (it's two large storefronts knocked into one) compared with cafes in New York or London, where finding a table and chair is often a major accomplishment, let alone being able to slide a couple tables together for just the two of you and still have acres of space and empty tables around you. This seemed like the ideal place to gossip, and so we did, ultimately finishing up on the Dee Dee Ramone story, of which a couple of the last sad chapters were played out here in Ann Arbor at the nearby home of a mutual friend of ours.

About this time we were ready to head over to Downriver, to Southgate specifically, to see my friends The Challenged, on tour from back home in Brooklyn. But much to our chagrin (well, mine in particular, as I was the one who would have to drive in it), the snow had begun piling up on the streets an hour or two earlier, and had turned them into quite a mess. We drove as far as Jaime's house, about a mile away, before realizing that a trip most of the way to Detroit would be difficult and unpleasant, and, if the snow kept up, downright dangerous by the time we drove back.

So I called Colin from the Challenged and explained the situation; he agreed that it sucked and that they were going to try and get out of there right after they played and head south toward their next gig in Columbus, Ohio on the theory that, well, it was south of here, so maybe it wouldn't be snowing as much (much later tonight I heard back from him on I-75, where the theory hadn't quite panned out, as visibility was so bad they were having trouble finding an exit. Any exit, that is.

So Jaime stayed in and continued talking till about midnight, at which point I went outside to discover that the snow had kept up and it was downright dangerous, even for the 5 miles (by surface streets) or 6.6 miles (partly via freeway) back to my motel. I haven't driven on snow for a long time, and if it were up to me, it would have been a lot longer, but I didn't have much choice, and so I set off at an average speed of 5-7 miles per hour, gradually upping it, when conditions seemed to allow, to a daring 10 mph.

You can imagine how the other drivers, most of them obviously born and bred driving in this crap, felt about that, and they tried to get around me any way they could. I would have been happy to pull over and let them pass, but I couldn't even tap lightly on the brakes without starting to go into a skid. When I got to the hilly north side of town, it got much worse, because I not only had to worry about sliding rather than rolling down the hill, I often had no idea how or if I'd be able to stop when I got to the bottom. And the entire way there was not a snowplow or salt truck in sight, nor any evidence that one had passed through the area in at least the past week or so.

I wondered if it had anything to do with the state of Michigan being so broke it couldn't afford such luxuries as snow removal, or if it had more to do with superciliously disengaged Ann Arborites not wanting to be seen making a big deal out of some silly snowstorm, preferring to let nature take its course and haul away the wreckage and the bodies in the morning when the weather had improved.

Long story short - wait, I think it's already long, sorry - I did make it back to the motel, where I'm now safely ensconced and hoping that the storm will have let up by morning when I have to head back to the airport and civilization. or at least to a place where it rarely snows and where you'll seldom if ever catch me attempting to drive a car. Or as B. Dylan memorably opined, "I'm going back to New York City, I do believe I've had enough."

27 March 2008

Michigan Seems Like A Dream To Me Now

I swear I've used that title before, but what the heck, all the leaves are brown and the sky is gray, and my mother woke me up just past noon calling from California, which is just as well, as in my dream I was having a unending argument with this very exasperating person on the beach.

How's that for a scattershot opening? No? It'll have to do, because while I've been carrying around an outstanding first sentence ever since last night, it seems to have flown away on the wings of sleep and though I still have a number of things to tell you, I can't for the life of me remember how I meant to begin telling you about them.

Never mind, then; I'm holed up in a chilly but otherwise cozy little motel room outside of my ancestral hippie home of Ann Arbor, where I came last night to see my old friends, the Weakerthans, who in addition to the usual gifts of fellowship and great music, presented me with this outstanding t-shirt seen on the right. The show was at the Blind Pig, which I remember complaining about when it opened because it was "commercializing" our hippie culture. This was in 1972, apparently, but by 1973 I was visiting it regularly because it was one of the only places in town where you could get the cappuccino I had grown used to out in California.

Anyway, I'm apparently over any issues I might have had with the Blind Pig, fortunately, and I thoroughly enjoyed the show except for the fact that, as I discovered to my chagrin, Michigan is one of the only places left in the (allegedly) civilized word that STILL allows people to smoke indoors in public places. I mean, come on, people, what century is this already? Also very much enjoyed the opening acts, Christine Fellows (who's also joining in as the fifth Weakerthan on this tour, and one A.A. Bondy, who in the past several decades is the first and only Dylanesque singer-songwriter (well, unless you count J. K. Samson in his solo persona) that I have ever been fully impressed by. I was also excited by the opportunity to introduce him to all of you, on the premise that if I had never heard of him before, nobody else had either, but I see he's playing on Conan O'Brien April 11, the same day he'll be appearing with the Weakerthans back home in Williamsburg. Back home for me, that is, not him.

So, flying to Detroit was a bit depressing. For some reason, tucked in among my keepsakes and memorabilia I used to have a flight schedule from 1966 detailing the flights between Detroit and LaGuardia (including the fare: $16). Back then, when I made my first visits to New York, there were flights pretty much on the hour, and they were in full-sized airplanes packed full of people doing (presumably) important things in both places. Now there's only a handful of flights per day, they're in those little toy airplanes where they don't even have room for overhead baggage, and even then the plane was only half full.

And landing at Detroit Metropolitan (do they still even call it that?) was like time traveling back to the 50s or 60s; at least the terminal they dumped us off at (outside of, that is; we had to walk across the tarmac just like in those old time movies) had scarcely changed at all since the first time I came through there in 1964 or so. The rent-a-car guy told me he was upgrading my compact car to a luxury convertible at no charge, which I didn't see any advantage to, since it's about 40 degrees and fitfully raining and snowing outside, but unless convertibles now have metal tops that don't open, I think he was confused. Pulling out of the airport, I impulsively turned right instead of left and headed toward my old Downriver stomping grounds, where I was strangely appalled at how small and desperate all the houses looked.

Odd, that, since I've been back many - well, at least 10 - times over the years, and I'd never particularly noticed that aspect. Well, the small part, maybe, but desperate? Maybe it was just the last-days-of-winter malaise that I remember settling over the place every year as a boy just before spring burst into sight. Drove past my childhood home and didn't approve of what the new owners had done, like cutting down all but one of the trees and shrubs, went past the school where I got drunk for the first time (and also, a couple years later, got arrested for the first time), past the spot down by the creek where in April 1961 I met up with my first gang, past the other school where we hung out through the summers of 61 and 62, and the drug store across the street, where they'd finally wised up and removed the bench that we always used to lounge around on.

Then, still not having had enough nostalgia, I headed into Detroit proper, or what's left of it, and strangely enough (maybe because the sun had come out by now), it didn't look nearly as bad as it has the last few times I've been there. Oh, also past the park where I first saw the MC5 play on a tennis court in 1965 or 66, and then out Clark Street and onto Michigan Avenue, where things did start looking a bit more like the ruined, post-apocalyptic Detroit that I've come to know over the past couple decades. But even there I saw signs of life, especially in the form of many new immigrants who were blithely strolling past the wreckage as if it never occurred to them to ask, "I left Chiapas/Baghdad/Sierra Leone for this?"

It was almost dark by the time I got to Ann Arbor, but there was still time to look around at what still strikes me, despite its many changes in recent years, as a beautiful and excellent town. Parts of it look like a living museum to small town America of a century ago, and I stopped in one shop to look at some photo books that showed me that indeed, many parts of town had changed very little in the interim. Also found a photo book full of shots of Detroit when I was a kid, when downtown was a place of wonder, a bustling, vibrant city that resembled Manhattan or Chicago rather than the squalid wasteland it's now become.

The reason I went into the bookshop was an odd one: for some reason, while strolling past, I had a sudden inexplicable impulse to buy a copy of Maximum Rocknroll, a magazine I've only seen once in the last five years, and haven't bought in longer than that. It's not so much that I've been boycotting them, it's more that at some point they made one of those ideologically motivated punker-than-thou decisions to the effect that their distributor was getting too successful, so they started doing their own distribution and subsequently disappeared from the great majority of stores that used to carry it.

But for some reason, I knew this particular Borders (did you know Ann Arbor was the home of the original Borders, and that it was once a tiny cornershop itself? Domino's Pizza had its start here as well) would be carrying MRR, and sure enough it was. Having picked up my copy, I was shocked - and, I'll admit, a little pleased - to discover that they were still talking about me. Well, one columnist, anyway, but last time I perused a copy, about two years ago, I was mentioned in two columns, which led me to wonder in a vainglorious way if this was a bit of odd serendipity or if I was a regular subject in a magazine I hadn't been a part of since 1994.

Apart from that, however, it was interesting to see how the magazine has carried on in the absence of Tim Yohannan, different in some aspects, but fundamentally the same, much as Gilman Street did after Tim moved on. Even if it's no longer a magazine I'd regularly pick up and read, it's sort of reassuring to know that it's still there and still carrying on the struggle for... well, for exactly what, I'm not quite sure, but they're struggling nonetheless. Actually, I'm kind of glad to know they're there in a world where so much of what used to be isn't.

26 March 2008

First Flowers

Back in New York, and while there's still a distinct chill in the air, today was full of the sort of dazzling sunshine that was conspicuous by its complete absence in Miami. Had to go into the city today, and while cutting through the apartments (projects? I don't know which they are) on E. 5th between 1st and Avenue A, I spied a hedgerow of forsythia in the process of bursting into full bloom.

Since it's usually one of the first spring flowers you see, unless you're in the habit of walking around with downcast eyes, in which case you might spot some crocuses, which I also saw today. It was kind of hard to believe; only a week ago, there was scarcely a sign of life except for some buds beginning to swell on the trees, and the city still looked as cold and barren and windswept as it did at midwinter; now out seemingly nowhere, flowers are emerging everywhere. I'm supposed to be out of town for a couple more days this week, and I really am reluctant to go for fear I'll miss the next exciting development.

Although yellow's not my favorite color, I'm willing to make an exception for the forsythia; I remember as a child seeing how excited and pleased my mother would get when the two big bushes flanking the side door would burst into bloom around the beginning of April and the promise of summer that they seemed to carry with them. My mother's other favorite flower was the tulip, and she had planted them all around the back yard. I loved them too, and the year I was four or five, I grew impatient waiting for the buds to open, so I went around one frosty April morning and opened them myself. Not only was I deeply chagrined to find no beautiful flowers inside, but the following night's frost turned them all to blackened stubs and turned that year into the Spring With No Tulips. I didn't even get lectured or spanked for that one; my mother in her wisdom let the unhappy results of what I had done serve as the best possible punishment.

In other news, I stopped by the library today and picked up a copy of Moby Dick. This is a book I've tried to read several times, has been recommended highly by innumerable friends, and of course is regarded as one of the great classics of American literature. I even bought a copy of it once, but never got past the first chapter or two; I found it, or so I remember saying at the time, verbose, tendentious, and tedious. But today, I took another look at that same first paragraph that had previously only annoyed or discouraged me, and I was hooked. This is absolutely brilliant, I kept remarking to myself, and have been plowing right through the first several chapters on the subway and at dinner tonight. Apparently it was just a matter of time before I was ready or able to appreciate it. Curious, that, considering that some of the book's biggest fans I've known read it in their 20s or even in their teens, which I most definitely couldn't or wouldn't have done. Ah well, all in good time, and let's just hope I don't wind up talking like a sailor before I'm finished with it.

24 March 2008

False Advertising And My Journey To South Beach

As long as I can remember, Florida license plates have borne the slogan "Sunshine State." Interestingly (well, I thought so, anyway), so do those of the Australian state Queensland, which for a while also had a design and color scheme similar to old school Florida plates.

The difference is that in Queensland there actually is a lot of sunshine. In the outback sections, there's so much of it that the earth is parched and cracked and almost nothing grows there, but when you get up to the northeastern corner, you find tropical rain forests, which would imply that, yes, quite a bit of rain falls there, although it's mostly limited to the rainy season. Okay, the rainy season takes up nearly half the year, but even during that time, you still get bursts of sunshine poking through the clouds periodically. And, of course, you get incredibly lush and exotic vegetation and all sorts of strange, creepy crawly creatures.

Meanwhile, back in Florida, I see plenty of palm trees, and they're splendid as palm trees go (though I discovered today that many of them are coconut-bearing palm trees, which had me nervously looking upward during much of my walk down to the other end of town today), but lush, verdant, exotic vegetation? Not a lot of it, frankly. No rain forests in sight. But plenty, oh yes, plenty of rain. The kind of cascading, torrential rain that you see in Midwestern thunderstorms or, possibly, hurricanes.

And here's the kicker: Florida has a rainy season, too. But it starts in May, not March. We are in the dry season, allegedly. But somehow that didn't stop yesterday from being a complete washout and today was pretty much the same story.

True, the morning dawned semi-bright and semi-sunny after a night of pretty much constant rain (following a day of pretty much constant rain), but by the time I was able to get started on my long-planned hiking trip down to South Beach (approximately 5.8 miles), the clouds were back. The drizzle started almost as soon as I was out of sight of the hotel, and at the one-mile mark I had to take refuge, first under a palm tree and then under a bus shelter for about 45 minutes before little patches of blue sky re-emerged, along with 3.5 minutes (I timed it) of actual sunshine.

The next part of my walk was the best. Although the sun remained mostly out of sight, it wasn't lurking so far behind the clouds that there wasn't considerable brightness and warmth in the air, and the couple million gallons of water that had just been precipitously dropped on the city made everything look and smell particularly charming. Incidentally, as I was watching a substantial portion of those gallons swirl down a storm drain, I wondered what provision local authorities had made for capturing the abundant rainwater and using it to supplement the city's supply instead of drawing down the Biscayne Aquifer.

Answer: none, apparently; instead, they're relying on benzene-poisoned well water because, oh, I don't know, I guess it would be too much trouble to build cisterns and reservoirs to capture all that free water from the sky. Simpler to let it all run off into the ocean and then, when Florida inevitably runs out of fresh water, spend zillions of dollars building plants to desalinate it again.

It doesn't even all run off; there were many flooded streets, today. Luckily I was wearing my brand new pair of waterproof internet shoes and I came through high and dry. Finally got to Lincoln Road, which is kind of like a shopping mall disguised as a city street, and about which my friends were raving the other night ("It's so cosmopolitan, so international!" And these people are from New York.)

Well, there were a lot of people speaking Spanish and quite a few speaking Portuguese, but apart from one Russian man, that was about it for the international factor. Perhaps I would have seen more except that this was when the heavens opened up again and I spent the next hour and a half huddled under an awning and another half hour after that in an exotic and cosmopolitan Subway sandwich shop where indeed all of the staff spoke Spanish. Gee, I've never been anywhere like that in New York.

But Miami is a different order of Spanish, in that while you hear and see Spanish everywhere in New York, there's never any doubt that it's ultimately an English-speaking city. That's not the case in Miami, and the only reason I would stop short of calling it the first fully bilingual city on the American mainland is that the balance may have already been tipped in favor of it being the first predominantly Spanish-speaking city on the American mainland. There are cities in the Southwest where Spanish is nearly as ubiquitous, but there it tends to be the language of the immigrant working classes; in Miami it permeates all socio-economic levels, and one gets the impression that it would be easy to live a very full life indeed here without ever bothering to learn English. And when a city has reached that point, well, guess what: quite a few people are not going to bother to learn English. Not a complaint, just an observation.

When the thunder stopped crashing and the rain stopped flashing, I was all but ready to give up on my expedition and head back for the hotel, but the sky had brightened up enough to make it look worthwhile chancing a bit more of a walk. So I made it down to the heart of South Beach after all, to all the pretty pastel pink and yellow and blue buildings on the quiet back streets, the stretch of Washington Avenue with its large selection of very artsy and eccentric beggars and tramps (and some extremely pitiable ones as well), and finally the stretch of Ocean Drive where the South American equivalent of Eurotrash bumps up against Spring Break and the A-gay party circuit.

And that was impressive, something I'll admit I've never seen topped by Sydney or, for that matter, anywhere else in the New World; granted, I haven't been to Rio or Buenos Aires, so I'll reserve judgment. I could almost see why my friends are talking about moving there, though I could imagine it getting old, in the sense that while the neighborhood is exciting and vibrant, it's still just one exciting, vibrant neighborhood set down in the midst of ten miles of fairly bland (if nicely colored) apartment buildings. At one point I walked four full miles past NOTHING but apartment buildings, and I mean nothing, and this is on the main drag. No stores, no restaurants, no gas stations, nothing but driveways and a bit of landscaping to break the monotony, not to mention the tedium of having to drive several miles to buy a loaf of bread.

Jane Jacobs would be turning over in her grave; she's the one, you'll remember, who insisted that the secret to a dynamic urban setting was to have people living, working and playing all in the same immediate vicinity, as, for example in her beloved New York. One might say Miami Beach has taken a rather different tack, one which would be hard, though not impossible to remedy. Although the apartment buildings tend to be massive, there's still enough open space to think about slipping in some commercial premises that people could walk to. No doubt it would go completely against current zoning regulations, but once gas hits $10 a gallon or so, people might start changing their tune.

Then the rain started up again and I gave up on walking back to the hotel and hopped the bus instead, where I seemed to be the only English speaker, the driver included. Ended up riding past the hotel (deliberately) to a North Beach (NoBe, some of them call it) shopping area where I had a late night decaf cappuccino at a raucous salsa cafe and decided that rain, horrible urban planning and being the only gringo on the street notwithstanding, I still kind of really like this town.

23 March 2008

A Tale Of Three Cities

At least two or three of the people I came down here with are talking seriously about buying apartments in Miami Beach, and I can't tell how much of it is the usual syndrome of northerners coming from their wintry homes to a subtropical location where it understandably occurs to them to wonder, "What the hell am I doing freezing my ass off when I could be living here?" and how much of it the natural reaction of New Yorkers upon learning they can have a beachfront condo for less than a permanent parking spot would cost them in most parts of Manhattan.

When I was living in Sydney I used to see the same thing: every week a new batch of Brits and Americans would turn up raving about how Australia was heaven on earth (it is, kind of) and that they were going back home to sell everything they owned and emigrate to the antipodean promised land. Some of them actually followed through with it (I very nearly did myself, and still occasionally not having done so when I had the chance), but for the great majority it's just a fantasy, more or less the real estate equivalent of a holiday romance, but nevertheless a fantasy that makes the trip all the more memorable and sweet.

I don't know how serious my friends are about buying places down here; they swear they're totally on it, and last night had dinner with a realtor who told them he expected apartment prices in South Beach to plummet by as much as 50% in the coming year because of overbuilding. At that point you'd be looking at apartments for as little as $100,000 as opposed to around $1,000,000 for anything decent in Manhattan.

But, I keep pointing out, so what if you can get an apartment for one tenth of the price if, when you walk out the front door, you're in Miami, not New York? I mean the beach is great, and who wouldn't want to be warm all year round, but beyond that, what else is there to make life here worthwhile? Lots, they tell me, but they've been out and about a lot while I've been mostly holed up at the hotel hoping the rain would stop. With any luck (i.e., some cooperation from the weather), I'll be able to do some exploring tomorrow, and maybe I'll change my tune, but as of now I'm going to have to say that despite its attractions, Miami is no Sydney.

Of course in Sydney you don't have salsa playing on the muzak channel in all-night drug stores, and you don't have a completely bilingual and bicultural city that serves as the North American capital of South America, so I guess that's another point for Miami, but at the same time, Miami is a totally flat, thoroughly paved over cul de sac at the wrong end of Hurricane Alley while Sydney is ringed by undulating hills, petite mountains and the most spectacular harbor in the world. Sydney culture may be slightly more monochromatic, but it's a city of four million people that offers nearly everything you'd expect in a metropolis of that size while leaving you far less likely to get shot.

Well, I guess when it comes down to it, I like both places; all things being equal I'd choose Sydney to live in myself, but that option's off the table, both because the immigration program under which I could have got in has expired, and also because the declining American dollar has taken what would have been a bargain for me and made it completely unaffordable. Anyway, I still happen to like New York a bit better than both places combined, so freezing winds and blowing snow, sleet and rain notwithstanding, it looks like there I'll stay.

21 March 2008

There Went The Sun

The haters among you will be pleased to learn that I arrived in Miami just in time to see the last of the bright, warm sunshine disappearing over the horizon chased by a stiff breeze and some complicated clouds that have been making themselves unwelcome around here ever since.

I've only been to Miami once before, sometime in the mid-90s, and then only for day or two. I was hanging out with Avail, who were touring Florida at the time and who played in one of the lower-rent sections of town, at least if the musculature of the bars covering every window in sight was any indicator. But I also took a day to look around South Beach, the only part of Greater Miami I've seen that appeared both welcoming and walkable. I'm sure there must be others, it's unlikely I'll see them on this trip, as I'm carless, and Miami is the kind of town that makes Los Angeles look pedestrian-friendly.

We're staying in a slightly less distinguished part of Miami Beach, about four or five miles north of the glamor and glitz, although it's still at least slightly upmarket, I'd guess, as the barred windows are usually only seen on the first floor. When this trip was being planned, I looked up the address on the map and thought, "Oh, that looks like I could walk down to South Beach in a hour or so," but when I expressed this sentiment to locals they looked at me as though it's the kind of thing you'd expect from a Northerner who'd gone, as the Australians put it, troppo.

"Well, if you don't think walking is a good idea," I said, "I can always take a bus, can't I? I mean, they do have buses here, right?"

"Um, yeah, I guess they do... I think I heard someone talk about taking a bus downtown once, but that was years ago..." With this less than ringing endorsement of the Miami-Dade County Transit system ringing in my ears, I decided to investigate the matter myself, and discovered that there was indeed a bus that went right past the hotel and could in a mere 45 minutes (to go four or five miles?) deposit me in South Beach. But it only went every half hour (or every hour, later at night), and stopped completely after 11:30. All became clear: I realized the half-dozing and despondent-looking folks camped out on the sidewalk were not in fact homeless people, but were waiting at what had once been rumored to be a bus stop.

Meanwhile a pretty much constant stream of cars blasted down the canyon of boxy high-rises, the roar of their approaching and receding rivaling that of the ocean on the other side. Robert Moses, the man who had a similar vision for New York City but only partially realized it, was said to have believed that city and landscape alike should be subservient to the needs of the motorcar, and that their principal value, once the most efficient set of highways had been bulldozed through them, was to provide a pleasing scenic backdrop for the motorists passing by (hence his enthusiasm for building freeways through parks and picturesque neighborhoods like Greenwich Village).

The part about making the city secondary to the needs of the automobile has certainly been achieved here, but if this stretch of Miami Beach ever was scenic, it's long since ceased to be. Oh, there are occasional throwbacks to more stately colonial days (or 1930s simulacra thereof), but then you can't expect much architectural history to survive in a region regularly raked by hurricanes. But for the most part, buildings hereabouts are strictly functional, with the function being to cram as many people as possible into reasonably close proximity to the beach and (hopefully) charge them astronomical rents.

Miami and Miami Beach have been hit especially hard by the housing bubble and subsequent mortgage crisis, and although property developers and managers do their best to disguise the fact, it's clear that there are quite a few more vacancies than are healthy for the neighborhood, if "neighborhood" is even an appropriate word to describe an area whose utter lack of thereness makes Gertrude Stein's Oakland look like Bloomsbury by way of Manhattan.

Nonethless, against the better judgment of those more knowledgeable than myself, I did a little exploring last night, and spotted a couple blocks of interesting bars and restaurants amid the miles of stucco, concrete and steel. Some of them even had people in them, though where they came from I do not know, the sidewalks being rudimentary, occasionally ceasing to exist altogether, and totally deserted apart from two hookers having a leisurely chat on one Hopperesque back street corner. It was not a bad stroll, but there was something slightly unnerving about it at the same time, and I was pleased to get back to the hotel even if the air conditioning was turned up to penguin-pleasing levels, which seems to be the de facto setting everywhere around here.

Nearly everyone in the hotel (apart from yours truly; I was wishing I'd packed a sweater) lounged about in shorts and sandals as though this would somehow render things more tropical; I couldn't help thinking that were they experiencing similar temperatures in New York (where half the guests seemed to be from), they'd have been wearing long trousers and light jackets, but such is the power of the human psyche when turned to collective self-delusion. Even now, well past one in the morning, I can look out my window at a dozen hardy souls manfully conducting a pool party in the teeth of a howling gale. Apparently it's fine as long as you keep all but your head underwater, or so I've been told.

Look, I don't want to sound as though I'm only complaining; I'm actually quite happy to be here, and the only reason I'm remarking on the weather as much as I have is that all week long before I got here, it was hot and sunny, and it was predicted to stay that way for the entire time of my stay. That plus the fact that I'd been looking forward to this trip all winter as the ideal way to make the transition into spring. So I'm slightly disappointed, but it's still quite a few degrees warmer than Brooklyn (can you imagine what I'd have to say if New York had had one of its not uncommon March warm spells while I was down here getting rained on?).

And life inside is good, too; I've heard a couple excellent lectures, and tonight sat at dinner with a slightly older fellow who made me realize what it must be like for young people who've grown used to me having a story or three for every occasion. After taking the appetizer course and most of the entrée to describe the size, location and contents of each of this three houses (by which time I was searching through glazed eyes for escape routes), he moved on to juicier tidbits, some of which included the Bushes ("I told Laura I don't care who's she's married to - I've known him longer than she has anyway - she's not allowed to smoke in my house"), the question of whether Old Blue Eyes was a misnomer ("I met Frank at the Burtons' place in Puerto Vallarta, and when he was standing next to Elizabeth, you could see that they both had a virtually identical violet hue to their eyes", and government service ("The week after Kennedy was shot, LBJ called me into his office...").

And those were just a smattering of the more printable/publishable tales that he regaled us with before veering off into more scandalous and salacious realms. Fascinating as it was, it could be a bit much at times; the few times that I tried to to offer up an anecdote of my own, I was reminded of the (I think) Fran Lebowitz observation that New Yorkers don't listen, they wait for a chance to interrupt. Because that's the only way I was ever going to get a word in edgewise, and eventually I thought why bother? I do enough talking the rest of the time; for once I can sit back and let the words wash over me. With any luck, by the time I get home I'll have neatly incorporated them into my own set of stories to unleash on unsuspecting coffee comrades back in Brooklyn.

19 March 2008

Does Bret Michaels Wear Hair Extensions?

I finally figured out that I shouldn't go to the gym at night. Not only is it way more crowded, but that's when the TV is always showing the Bret Michaels Rock Of Love show that I complained about a few days ago.

It's not so much that I find the show THAT offensive, apart from the frequent close-ups of fat-ass old Bret slobbering over every woman that comes near him, and come to think of it, is it part of their contract that all the contestants have to kiss him whenever he or the script require it? Because unless they're all doing it voluntarily, wouldn't that be creeping (appropriate word, no?) into the realm of prostitution?

To be honest, I just don't know the answer to that one, and therein lies the crux of my problem with Rock Of Love. Despite JoeIII aka Futon Revolution's enlightening explanation appended to my original post on this subject, I still have far too many questions about just what the hell is going on, why these women are so willing to debase themselves, and why a multi-millionaire like Bret Michaels would allow them in his house in the first place when it would presumably be far more efficient and far less time-consuming to phone an escort service.

As I noted earlier, I've only ever seen the show at the gym, with the sound turned off, so little mysteries keep presenting themselves, like, for example, Bret Michaels' hair. It's unusual but not unheard of for a man his age to have a thick luxuriant head of hair, but assuming this is the case, why is he always pictured wearing some sort of swami-ass do rag that covers the top of his head? I note that some of his henchmen or members of his posse wear similar head coverings, presumably so Bret won't look so weird, but where, I ask you, apart from prison, do you see so many grown heterosexual men with rags on their heads?

Tonight there was one brief shot of Bret in a cowboy hat, but once again we never see the top of his head, and middle-aged guy always wearing hat usually = balding. But then we see those (no doubt completely natural) blond tresses cascading down the sides and back of his head and the mystery deepens? Are they the genuine article, or were they attached to his do-rag/cowboy hat by the upscale Hollywood version of the Hair Club For Men?

This way lies madness, I know, which is why I have resolved to stay out of the gym from now on when Rock Of Love is showing. Oh, and one more thing about that swami do-rag that has an approximation of a third eye just over the top of his forehead (well, we don't actually know where the top of his forehead is for sure, but where it would be if everything is on the up-and-up). Tonight, just when I was thinking, "Is he actually trying to portray himself as some sort of sage or mystic?" an actual Indian swami came sidling into the room and squatted down at the table with Bret and his latest victim for some sort of seance. Or so it appeared from the cheesy hippie prints and 10,000 candles adorning the room.

I left the gym completely befuddled and moseyed on over to Greenpoint in vain hopes of seeing Tin Armor, who I'd meant to see the night before until Mr. Cometbus showed up at my house and we spent the evening looking at old pictures of Gilman and Spy Rock and Detroit (and why, pray tell, does everything and everybody look more fun and beautiful in the past when I can remember perfectly clearly that it and they were not nearly so fun and beautiful when they were actually happening and there?).

But of course I wasn't going to see them tonight either, and things were, as per usual, operating on drunken hipster Brooklyn bar time, meaning that Tin Armor are probably taking the "stage" right about now, whereas I've been safely tucked up at home for a couple hours now because I'm going away in the morning and have to be up early to catch my flight.

And what really outrages me is that JoeIII was there and I totally forgot to put my newest Rock Of Love questions to him. Instead I tried to get him to join me in my ire at what the opening act, a young lady calling herself Hopalong, had done to Del Shannon's "Runaway," one of the greatest songs of all time and perhaps the single most defining anthem of my pubescence.

It's not that I begrudge artists the right to rework the melodies and intonations of the classics, though certain songs - "Runaway" very likely being one of them - are so absolutely perfect that any attempt to alter them is like the proverbial mustache on the Mona Lisa. But if you're going to do it anyway, at least LEARN THE FUCKING WORDS. I mean, it's not like there are so many of them or that they are so deep and profound that a mere mortal couldn't be expected to encompass them in a normal human brain. Jim "Jersey Beat" Testa didn't help matters any by referring to "Runaway" as being by "Dion DiMuci." Hell's bells, Dion didn't even start using his surname until 1964 or something, years after "Runaway," and although Dion is also one of the greats (with a lot more hits than Del Shannon), to confuse the two singers is like mistaking Minor Threat for Fugazi. Well, no, more like the Methadones for the Copyrights, but I told Testa he was too young to have an opinion on the matter, considering that he was no more than eight years old when it was topping the charts in April of 1961.

What a great song, though. If I weren't such a considerate neighbor, I'd slip into the other room right now, 2 am or no 2 am, and bust out a version of it on the piano. It was a good year for music, 1961, almost as though the radio were providing a personalized soundtrack for my budding teenage life. "Runaway" was playing the day I wandered off and hooked up with my first gang, and we'd just changed our name from the Vandals to the Rebels when the Crystals' "He's A Rebel" hit the airwaves.

I take that back. I just did a quick check and discovered that "He's A Rebel" didn't come out till 1962 (and speaking of defiling the classics, check out this cheesy synth version of it, which try as it might still can't obscure the soul-stirring greatness of that melodic line). But the point is, I have vivid memories of trying to shuffle down the street like the hero described in the song, and in my mind they will always be fixed firmly in June of 1961. There's a whole year gone missing, and ain't it funny, as Willie Nelson might be wont to say... And with that I'm off to bed, and in the morning, off to Florida to moulder away with my fellow old folks. If they've got wi-fi on the beach, I'll be in touch.

17 March 2008

Hope Springs Eternal In The Foolish Fulham Heart

The first Premiership match I ever attended, sometime in the mid to late 90s, was a 0-0 relegation battle between Wimbledon and Everton. At the time I thought it was the dullest and most boring thing I had ever seen (my first ever football match, featuring Third Division Leyton Orient had a similar result, but a little more action).

The match took place at dismal and cavernous Selhurst Park, which was not even half full, and the weather was atrocious. "Proper football weather," the match commentators would no doubt say, and these days I'd be inclined to agree with them, but at the time I hadn't yet grown to appreciate the charm of spending 90+ minutes in a howling rain and sleet-spiked gale to watch 22 men ineptly chasing through the mud after an almost willfully capricious ball that never looked like going anywhere near the net.

I remember the Wimbledon fans being cheered by the fact that they'd earned a valuable point in their struggle to avoid the drop, and me saying - in my blithely oblivious American way - "I'm surprised they're not asking for their money back. Don't they even care that nobody even came close to scoring a goal?"

Well, how times have changed. I've since watched quite a few 0-0 draws, some of which were absolutely enthralling, and cheered wildly on occasions when Fulham managed to eke one out against one of the "big" teams like Arsenal or Chelsea. Or, as has happened a few times this season, when 0-0 was apparently the very best we could hope for.

Today I was watching Fulham v. Everton when the announcer remarked that this was "a real nil-nil," meaning that it was pretty much devoid of not only goals, but even chances or well-put-together passes. And I realized that what I was watching was almost identical to that Wimbledon-Everton match from the last century, right down to the atrocious weather.

Except that now I had my heart in my mouth and could barely stand to watch while at the same time being unable to turn my eyes away from the carnage. Fulham needed to do far more than eke out another 0-0 draw, however; they've reached the stage of the season where every match becomes increasingly a life-or-death (if death = life outside the Premier League, which many would hold to be the case) matter. They don't absolutely have to win all of their remaining games to stave off relegation, but they're not far off from that point.

And with Everton vying for Top Four status, even a draw looked like an unlikely result, but then heroic American striker Brian McBride, only recently back from what looked like a career-ending injury, miraculously darted in between two Everton players and headed the ball into the net. There were still 20 minutes to go, and if Fulham had been true to the form they've shown much of this season, Everton would have snatched two late goals and all three points.

But for once Fulham held fast, even taking the game to Everton instead of clinging to the ramparts back in their own end, and when it was over, fans once more dared to dream of a fantastic turnaround to the season that would see Fulham to safety. Unlikely? Of course. But at least a little more possible after today's result, and while it is indeed foolish to stake even a small part of one's happiness to the fortunes of a professional (or so they claim, anyway) football team, to give up on Fulham now would be like giving up on spring just because it's been a long and dreary winter. After the game I headed into Manhattan, where somewhere in the upper 30s I spotted the first green shoots poking their way up in planter boxes. In only a few weeks they'll have turned into glorious daffodils and tulips, and, if there's any justice, truth and beauty in this world, Fulham will be sitting comfortably and happily above the relegation zone.

For all you Americans and/or non-sport fans who haven't a clue what any of this was about, just take my word for it that it's a Very Good Thing if Fulham win most or all of their remaining games. And feel free to join me in rousing cry of COME ON YOU WHITES!*

*For the alarmists among you, no, this is not a racialist slogan. The nickname of the Fulham team, whose team colors are white and black, is the Whites. Their alternative nickname is the Cottagers, after their home ground of Craven Cottage, but the gay subtext of that term has rendered it less popular. Also noteworthy: there is an actual cottage at Craven Cottage, and it was once the home of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton of "It was a dark and stormy night" fame. In fact, it's in that very cottage that he's reputed to have written those deathless words. I'm sure if he were with us today he'd have something equally profound to say on the matter of Fulham's fate and its vital importance in the affairs of men.


I'm not sure why, but lately I've been terribly nostalgic for places I used to live. London most of all, but also Spy Rock and Sydney. Was it only a matter of time, I wondered, before I started missing Berkeley, too?

And then just the other day it happened. It was the briefest of flashes, true, but I momentarily found myself reminiscing about quieter, simpler days in the dingy little room on Berkeley Way, about daily strolls to the Post Office and Fred's Market, Cafes Hell and Firenze, Big and Little Chinaland, and El Sombrero, the burrito joint otherwise known as The Hat.

True, some of those places aren't there anymore, and others have cut back their hours as life in downtown Berkeley dwindled down to a trickle after dark, but it was a simple and easy life, if a bit repetitive. And, thanks to rent control, I could live there so cheaply that I might never had to worry about money again.

It's unlikely that those days or anything like them will ever come again. Where once I could wander the streets of downtown at almost any time of day or night and stand a fair chance of running into a friend or three, I now only know one couple who still live in the area, and if you stray off the main drags, it's not all that safe, either. So for better or worse, Berkeley, which was pretty central to my existence for about 30 years, looks likely to go on disappearing in the rear view mirror of my life.

But not completely. For as long the Berkeley Daily Planet remains available online, I'll always be able to tap into the sheer loopiness that is both the charm and the shame of that time capsule town. On one level, it's not a bad paper at all, in that it reflects the values and views of the community in a way that only a handful of local papers do anymore. The letters to the editor pages alone provide a treasure trove of the sublime, the ridiculous, and the sublimely ridiculous.

You might think it unlikely that everyone in Berkeley is a left wing lunatic, but you'd find scant evidence for that theory in the Daily Planet's letter pages. But nutty or not, a surprising number of the correspondents are literate and/or witty, and even the nuttiest of them seem motivated by a passionate concern for their city, something else which is increasingly rare in the anomie and alienation of post-urban America.

Berkeley being Berkeley, of course, you're as likely to find people as outraged about the plight of the Colombian guerrillas as you are about "stamping a footprint into nature" (i.e., decorating some rock in the park as a memorial to lefty hero Cesar Chavez). Another perennial topic is the fate of the "homeless," a term which in Berkeley is only tangentially connected to the question of whether someone has a place to live or not.

What it more accurately refers to is the population of beggars, alcoholics, drug addicts, drug dealers, petty criminals, and the marginally or totally insane who, with the blessing of the City Council and the good people of Berkeley, have been, if not encouraged, certainly allowed to occupy large areas of sidewalk space in the downtown and south campus areas.

Not everyone is happy about this, and debates often rage in the letters column about what can or should be done, but seen through a Berkeley prism, the "homeless" are most often viewed as helpless victims of Bush's (or Reagan's, or Nixon's, depending on the age of the viewer) economic policies and poster children for the failure of capitalism (which, somewhat anomalously, seems to be thriving in the neighborhoods of million-dollar homes in North Berkeley and the Hills). Result: any proposal aimed at restricting anti-social behavior is met with bellows of outrage and charges of "criminalizing the poor." And of course, nothing changes, except that people keep on living and dying on the streets and the downtown and south campus areas continue to deteriorate.

Having been reading the Daily Planet for quite a while, it's rare that anything in it can shock or annoy me, but I had to make an exception the other day for editor Becky O'Malley's phenomenally arrogant contention that "Downtown Berkeley is irrelevant." Her evidence for this: well, she almost never goes there, and hasn't done so for years. She goes on to list all the other neighborhoods and shopping centers where she and her husbands have lived and conducted their business over the past 50 years and concludes that "It’s been a half-century since downtown Berkeley has had any relevance as a commercial center for most of the population."

Now I'd always figured O'Malley for a befuddled but basically benign old hippie, but here she comes off sounding like a blinkered self-absorbed suburbanite who sees inner cities as little more than than drive-through territory. As someone who spent the majority of my time in Berkeley living and working downtown, and who watched my neighborhood steadily deteriorate during those years, I found her remarks truly offensive.

Offensive but not surprising: when you get down to basics, many if not most Berkeley lefties are at heart blinkered suburbanites. All the rhetoric about Darfur and Iraq and Tibet notwithstanding, closer to home their interests revolve around maintaining a comfortable status quo for themselves. As long as the "homeless" hang out out in "irrelevant" places (i.e., somewhere other than where the bien-pensants live, what's the problem? And while you might think providing new housing for the "homeless" might rank high on their agenda, of far greater importance is the stopping of any development like, say, an apartment building, that might intrude upon their leafy little enclaves of radicalism.

The idea of Berkeley as a selfish little suburb seemed all the more pertinent to me when I read this San Francisco Chronicle article on the phenomenon becoming known as "Slumburbia," the trend whereby inner cities become gentrified and expensive and the poor and desperate are forced to the outer edges of the metropolis. Although the article specifically excludes "inner suburbs" like Berkeley from its analysis, the term seemed particularly appropriate for large parts of Berkeley that feature the crime rates, failing schools, and general shabbiness that you would normally associate with incipient slums. It doesn't help, of course, that Berkeley is sandwiched in between the urban equivalent of two failed states, namely Oakland and Richmond.

Chances are, however, that the forces of gentrification will ultimately transform Berkeley (and perhaps even Oakland) in much the same way they have much of Brooklyn, though current economic trends make that appear less likely than it would have a year or two ago. Perhaps when that day comes we'll see Ms. O'Malley and her dwindling tribe retiring to the malled-over outer suburbs that appear to be their true spiritual home.

12 March 2008

Rock And Roll?

I've never watched the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions, never visited the place, and have no intention of doing so, even if it weren't in Cleveland.

So it would seem I have no vested interest here, but even still, Madonna?? Hey, nothing against her; I have a couple of her records and have danced in clubs to quite a few more. I've never been to one of her shows, but would gladly go if someone gave me a ticket. Hell, I saw Desperately Seeking Susan in a theater and liked it.

But rock and roll? Madonna? What do these two have in common? As Edwin Starr would have put it, absolutely nothing. Amirite?

Rock Of Love

Okay, I don't have time to watch all the TV I might like to; in fact, by the time I've kept up with English football and Law and Order reruns, there's not much time for anything else at all.

So I'm only vaguely familiar with most of the reality shows currently in vogue, and that mainly from reading about them or hearing friends talk about them. I've seen about half an episode of Pop Idol, the English show on which American Idol was based, and a similar amount of Big Brother, also the English version.

And that's about it. Except... Well, as it happens, the gym I go to has wide screen TVs mounted around the premises. Sometimes they show sports, which you might think of as the appropriate accompaniment for a workout, but lately they've been tuned to MTV or VH1 most of the time.

Which seems a little silly, especially on those rare occasions when they're showing actual music videos, because the sound is always turned off. But as you probably know, most of the time these stations no longer play music, they present shows, many of them at least fleetingly "reality" based.

I've caught glimpses of several of these at the gym, but only a couple of them have stuck in my mind: the one about Scott Baio and, more lately, The Rock Of Love, featuring former Poison frontman Bret Michaels.

Remember that while I have seen several 15 minute stretches of both shows, I have never heard a single word of dialog, leaving me at a bit of a loss as to what is supposed to be going on. Well, not so much with the Scott Baio thing, in which the show's premise seems to be encapsulated in its title, but definitely with the Bret Michaels one.

I also wonder why the sudden fascination with 45 year old washed-up pretty boys? Considering who does the lion's share of MTV and VH1 - 45 year old not so pretty boys, I'm guessing - that answer becomes pretty self-evident. But returning to my original question, what the HELL is going on and why?

I'm specifically referring to the Bret Michaels Rock of Love program, which seems to consist almost totally of Bret hanging around his mansion with a couple dozen skanks and slightly past-it strippers who, if body language and the occasional subtitle are to be believed, are all vying for the attentions of Mr. Michaels.

Am I far off here? But what I don't understand is how or what you're supposed to win. American Idol, Big Brother, Survivor, even without watching them I'm familiar with the basic premise. But what's supposed to happen here? Does someone "win" Bret Michaels? Or does the last girl able to stomach him get some sort of cash prize?

I should say here that while I'm aware of Bret's band Poison to the extent that I've seen lots of pictures of them and know that they were reasonably popular, I don't think I could hum or even name a Poison tune to save my life. So I don't have any realistic idea of just how big a star Bret Michaels was or is.

I do know that in real life you don't have two dozen women, even skanks and slightly past-it strippers, mewling like lovestruck kittens over a slightly paunchy middle-aged dude who dresses like those guys who used to be in bands and hang around Hollywood bars hoping to pick up impressionable young chicks from the provinces. Oh, unless he's a multi-millionaire with a mansion, I guess, but gee, that doesn't paint the young - all right, not THAT young - ladies in a very favorable light, does it? Well, depending what light you see hobags in, right?

I could have this all wrong. As I say, I have NO IDEA what is happening on this show. All I have to go on are superficial impressions, and there could be a deep Chekhovian subtext to this drama that the lack of sound has left me completely unaware of. If so, I apologize profusely to any of the participants I may have offended, and hasten to note that Bret Michaels doesn't look at all bad for a typical 45 year old dude and if nothing else, he can at least thank his lucky starts that he's not Scott Baio.

Anyway, if any of you out there are familiar with this show - and given the culturally aware, media-savvy audience this blog attracts, not doubt some of you will be - please fill me in. Preferably by Thursday, which is the next time I plan on going to the gym.

Professor Of Affirmative Action

The day I was admitted to Berkeley, I excitedly shared the news with an acquaintance who'd graduated from Harvard. His reaction: "Big deal, it's just public school."

Since then I've met a number of Harvard men and women and realized that his snobbery/jerkdom was the exception rather than the rule, but for a few years it did color my view of what I think most people would agree is America's most prestigious institution of higher learning.

I paid a visit to Harvard sometime in the early to mid-90s and hung out for a while at the campus radio station, the only jarring note being when I walked into someone's dorm room to find half a dozen of America's future best and brightest slumped over in varying states of heroin intoxication. But I guess you find that sort of thing anywhere pampered young people with large allowances are gathered together.

But apart from that episode, my admiration for Harvard remained largely unsullied until I started noticing some of the professors they were hiring in the name of "diversity," "Rappin'" Cornel West being the first to catch my eye. I'd heard West on several talk shows before he decided to turn his African-American Studies lectures into one of the most embarrassing hip hop albums ever made (those of you even vaguely familiar with the genre will know there's some stiff competition in that department). He's not a stupid man, and only a little foolish (hey, I've made embarrassing records, too), but nor is he Harvard professor material. Community college, maybe, but even there, his occasionally ponderous academic vocabulary can't obscure the fact that his main qualifications for the job were his racial ideology and his skin color.

West left for Princeton several years ago when in his view Harvard president Larry Summers failed to show sufficient respect for the affirmative action programs that were responsible for his having a job, but apparently Harvard has continued fishing in similarly shallow waters, at least if Monday's New York Times op-ed piece by Orlando Patterson is any indication. Patterson, a professor of sociology, using the tortured logic most often encountered in Rhetoric 101 undergrads, sets out to demonstrate that Hillary Clinton's silly "red phone" ad is actually a blatantly racist appeal on a par with D.W. Griffith's Birth Of A Nation.

His evidence for this: the sleeping children portrayed in the ad's opening scene are white. That's it. Clinton's operatives could have removed the racist subtext, he says, if they'd used black children or parents as models, but since they didn't, it's obviously an attack on Barack Obama as a dangerous "dark" outsider. Never mind that a virtually identical ad was used by Walter Mondale against a decidedly non-black Gary Hart, or that LBJ had pulled something similar against the even whiter Barry Goldwater.

Is it the most farfetched idea in the world? No, I suppose not; I've heard Al Sharpton come up with goofier notions, and a quick perusal of some political punk rock lyrics will turn up notions far more bizarre. But once again, we're not talking about professional race demagogues or teenage anarchists here; we're dealing with a distinguished Harvard professor churning out drivel that shouldn't get past a competent composition or logic instructor, let alone the editorial board of the New York Times. If there's racism here, it's in a system that promotes clowns to the highest echelons of our educational establishment based - it would seem clear in this case - largely on the color of a man's skin. Content of character - or at least of intellect - seems to have scarcely entered into the matter.

11 March 2008

Safely Wasting Away

There was still a chill in the air this afternoon, even in the midst of dazzling sunshine, but don't bother mentioning that to the hundreds of people, adults and children alike, who were playing, running and lolling around Tompkins Square Park as though it were July.

Something has definitely changed in only a few days: those buds that were barely beginning to peek out from some of the more precocious trees are now starting to swell everywhere you look, and some bits of yellowish green have even broken forth from the brown-gray morass of winter. And now that the sun has crept higher into the sky, it's as though we're suddenly bathed in a new, brighter but yet softer light, and the sky itself has shed the gentian hues of winter in favor of a more benign robin's egg blue.

All in all, a delightful sight, and one to lift the heart, that was in fact lifting the hearts of most people along Avenue A. Instead of plowing monomaniacally ahead with nary a glance at their surroundings, they were just sort of bouncing along as though they had all the time in the world and thoroughly intended to enjoy it.

But my own heart was considerably heavier, for I had decided, somewhere back around 14th Street, that I was wasting my life. Granted, 14th Street can do that to a fellow even under the best of circumstances, but when I got to St. Mark's Place and the feeling still hadn't lifted, I was forced to reflect on whether it might in fact be true.

I'd actually started thinking about this the night before, somewhere around midnight, when I realized that not only had I not left the house for the entire day, but that I hadn't even gotten around to getting dressed. Though I finally remedied this by getting bundled up for a 2 am trip to a couple of neighborhood stores, I couldn't help thinking that this was a fairly sad state of affairs.

If I'm just going to potter around the house all day, couldn't I just as well do that in Omaha for a fraction of the rent? But staying in all day isn't necessarily bad, I argued with myself (I do that a lot); how would novels get written, symphonies composed, pictures painted, visions conceived and plots hatched if someone didn't occasionally stay in and see that they got done?

Then it came time to take personal inventory: number of novels, symphonies, pictures, visions and plots produced as a result of my staying in = 0. Oh, sure, I might have given a passing thought or two to at least one of those enterprises, but have you ever heard someone say, "I think I'll pop down to the bookstore and see if I can pick up some passing thoughts by my favorite author"?

But where did this idea that I have to produce something come from? Perhaps you'll agree with me that many of history's novels, symphonies, pictures, etc., could have been dispensed with without impacting negatively on the cultural climate. Not to sound unduly negative, but not every artistic (or social or political) concept needs to be realized, does it?

So the answer to the question, "Am I wasting my life?" isn't necessarily going to be answered by what I do or don't produce. If I ever do get around to writing something of substance, ideally it would be of value to others besides myself, but what if it isn't? What if it's just pure entertainment or escapism? Or what if it doesn't even meet that standard and is simply disposable? Would I then have been better advised to stay in watching television all day, or, if were feeling especially ambitious, to take a walk down by the river?

If I were a fireman or a teacher or a guy who fixes the streets, it wouldn't be necessary to think about these things, because even if I weren't totally satisfied with my job, there'd be little doubt that I was performing a useful service to my community and my fellow human beings. But having failed to pursue any of these common-sense careers, I'm left with having to judge the worth of more abstract activities.

For instance, those records I used to put out: public service or public nuisance? I'm sure you could register a significant body of opinion on both sides of that issue. The ranting and raving I did in Lookout and a number of other magazines? It seemed to amuse some people and infuriate others, but did it have any real value? What about my occasionally insightful, more often inane ditherings in this very blog? Waste of time? Waste of life?

I guess I won't know for sure what was worthwhile and what was not until the story's played its way to the end, and then, of course, it will be a little late to change things. In the meantime, I might as well remind myself that when a man seems unable to exert any effect on the world at large, it's probably time to turn his attention instead to refining aspects of his own character. That's one project that's never a waste.

10 March 2008

The Darling Buds Of March

Early Saturday morning I had to go out to South Brooklyn again, and for once the G train was actually running, so I took it to the R. But that still left me quite a few blocks short of my destination, so I had a pleasant walk in between rainstorms. It had been alternately drizzling and pouring all night, but now there was just a very thick mist in the air, one that hung low enough to obscure most of the upper stories of the Williamsburg Bank tower, the one that's being turned into high-priced condos that were supposed to be available in 2006, but don't seem to be yet.

The difference between South Brooklyn and the North Side is that there's only a new apartment building going up every couple blocks instead of two or three on every block. I'm wondering - a bit hopefully, I'll admit - who's supposed to buy all these apartments now that it's supposedly almost impossible to get a mortgage. Granted, there are an awful lot of New Yorkers who seem able to peel off a couple million in ready cash to snatch up a cute little studio in either of the Villages, but are there enough monied sorts to soak up the thousands of shiny new glass and steel apartments set to come on line in Greenpoint and Williamsburg sometime in the coming year?

It seems hard to imagine there will be, and the ads trying to flog these condos for what still seem like exorbitant prices are beginning to sound a little shrill, perhaps even desperate, which is where the hopeful bit (on my part) comes in. I'm betting (apparently quite a few people are, which makes it a bit less hopeful) that many of these unsold apartments are going to end up on the rental market at knockdown prices. Maybe not right away, but unless the economy picks up, which it shows no sign of doing, probably within the next year or two.

Only trouble with this theory is that if things are indeed as bad as they're made out to be, then why are developers still breaking ground on even more and bigger buildings? Either they know something I don't, or they're in a mad scramble to get their stuff on the market before the bottom falls out. Though it may already be a bit late for that.

Also, you need to be careful what you wish for: if too many developers go broke and too many developments fail to attract buyers or decent tenants, you could see neighborhoods begin to decline again, as they're reputedly doing out in East New York and the Rockaways, where foreclosed and empty houses line some blocks like so many missing teeth. Having already been through that once in New York, when even chunks of Manhattan were in danger of being abandoned, I'm not anxious to see anything like that unfold again.

Presumably one of our brilliant Presidential candidates will sort that mess out, right? And hopefully with something more constructive than the Idiot-in-Chief's plan to send $300 to every American taxpayer. Please note: I've never been one to jump on the "Bush is stupid" bandwagon. In fact I don't generally think he's stupid at all, and if you disagree, please explain how he dumbed his way into being President for eight years while all you smart guys are confined to gnashing your teeth and making impotent "Bush is stupid" jokes.

But while Bush may not be stupid per se, this particular idea - if I can so dignify it - is beyond idiotic. I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on at least some of his tax cuts (I still don't see the reasoning behind giving the lion's share of them to people who have no need of money and probably won't even spend it), but a large part of our current economic problems can be traced back to the massive deficits Bush has run up by trying to run a war and give away money at the same time. If the war is as important as Bush has been claiming, doesn't it stand to reason that the country should be prepared to pay for it? And that the sacrifice necessary to wage war should be spread around to more than just the few hundred thousand enlisted men and women? For the other 299.9 million Americans, it's more like "War, what war? I'm going shopping, and dammit, why's my gas so expensive?"

A few weeks ago I was cautiously optimistic about this year's election, convinced that any of the three leading candidates would make at least an adequate President. Since then, however, I've soured on all three of them to some extent. Obama still seems like the smartest and most principled, but he's starting to look way too left wing, and his "solution" to the war is no solution at all, more like a kneejerk reaction to last year's problem. Clinton is still Clinton, unpleasant, annoying, apparently ready to say or do anything to get her hands on power. Ironically, she actually looks slightly better as the other candidates diminish in stature but not better enough to be acceptable. And McCain, well, I like some things about this guy, but just when I start to contemplate the unthinkable - could I actually vote for a Republican? - he comes up with yet another reaction Republican position on issues like the environment or health care and I'm reminded that even if his foreign policy should work, we'd be in such bad shape domestically that whether we'd won or lost the war would no longer make that much difference.

Anyway, I didn't want to talk about politics; I started out to comment on something more controversial, namely the weather. Specifically that on my walk the other day, I was shocked and pleased to discover that the first buds have started to appear on trees around Brooklyn. Only on certain select species, and only in rudimentary form - no bud in its right mind would try opening up in the face of today's wintry blast - but the fact remains that we're getting there.

There being the tail end, the home stretch of what's really not been that bad a winter, but is now in danger of outstaying its welcome. I must say, thought, that I'm going to appreciate this spring in a way I've seldom if ever done before, and in that sense, winter has done its job, to the point where I actually pity Californians and their lack of "real" winter.

And I'll appreciate it even more after last night's (mis)adventure. Lulled into a sense of misplaced optimism by the balmy temperatures and zephyr-like breezes that hung around for a couple hours following yesterday's monsoon-like downpours, I persuaded Aaron to accompany me on our first walk this year across the Williamsburg Bridge. A few sprinkles of rain greeted us as reached the incline, but nothing serious, and since we both had hats and umbrellas, we charged ahead.

As we neared the top, the rain got much heavier, but was still manageable until a howling, hurricane-like blast came roaring at us out of the south. The south, you say? Shouldn't that have made it a warm wind? Well, not quite; in fact the temperature dropped about 20 degrees in a few minutes, and the rain, now coming at us sideways and rendering umbrellas useless to the point of ridiculousness, was mixed with stinging pellets of ice.

I was actually concerned that we might get blown right off the bridge, though as you might surmise, we did not. But by the time we reached Manhattan, we were completely soaked, the temperature had dropped into the 30s, and the wind was battering us incessantly. "At least the wind will dry our clothes out faster," I said brightly. Or not too brightly, as it turned out; when I got home about six or eight hours later, I was still soaked in the parts of my person least pleasant to be soaked.

And this was after a long subway ride uptown, standing around at a very pleasant party at Chris A.'s well-heated Harlem apartment, and a 2 a.m. wait for the 1 train on the extremely unheated and elevated (to gain the full effect of the wind) 125th Street station. Thanks to daylight savings time, it was going on 4 a.m. when I finally pulled off my socks and wrung the water from them.

But no pneumonia so far, the winds have finally died down, and it's less than two weeks to the first day of spring! Which of course means little or nothing; I've been snowed in during April, never mind March, but we're getting there. And if the first few days of spring don't live up their promise here in New York, I can deal with that. Especially since I plan on spending them in Florida.

Watching The Mighty Fall

I've been very nostalgic for England lately; it seems whichever way I turn, whether to books or films or perusing the internet or conversations with friends, there are reminders of the life I once led across the sea. Naturally my reminiscences have been miraculously filtered of any and all unpleasant memories: in my dreams of London, it never rains, the trains are always on time, and things that used to madden me - the early-closing shops and cafes, the resolute resistance to change, no matter how sensible, the rising crime and crumbling social order - have unaccountably vanished.

Now I see only picturesque and quiet streets, perfectly preserved and harmonious remnants of a more stately architectural era, colorful but completely congenial citizens striding happily through streets and parks where never a traffic jam is seen or a horn heard to be honked in anger. In short, a London that I never saw except perhaps in fitful dreams during the entire time I lived there, but a London that has become nonetheless real in my absence.

It doesn't make any difference, either, that old friends frequently complain that London is worse than ever, that they themselves are thinking of getting out, or already have. Obviously they're mistaken, I tell them, though at the same time, all such ruminations remain confined to daydreams; apart from the occasional visit, I'm making no plans to return.

Speaking of the occasional visit, though, I'm currently arranging a trip there in late August for my 12 year old nephew and myself. He's been fascinated by England ever since I moved there and Harry Potter burst upon the world, both of which happened about the same time, and this will be his first visit. I'm busily trying to figure out just what will appeal most to the 12 year old mind (shouldn't be too much of a stretch for me, I can already hear some of you saying), and apart from the usual castles, funny accents, and double decker buses, he's been promised at least one Premiership football match.

When told about that, he responded, "Fulham, I suppose?" (He knows his uncle well.) And normally that would be a safe bet, since I'm still a member at Fulham and can pretty much always count on getting tickets there. However, the odds on Fulham still being a Premiership team come August 2008 are dismal and dwindling rapidly, which could put me in the awkward and unpleasant position of having to shell out large cash to watch one of our historical enemies like Chelsea or Spurs (I will not pay for an Arsenal match that doesn't involve Fulham, that's already a given). I'll still go watch Fulham no matter what division they're in - they were in the old Second Division - currently known in FA Newspeak as "League One" - when I got my first season ticket, and if I'm honest, I sometimes enjoyed those old Second and First Division matches more than Premiership matches (certainly more than most of Fulham's Premiership matches this year). But I'm not sure a 12 year old who wants to see famous footballers will share my undiminished loyalty.

The first Fulham match I ever saw was an FA Cup tie against Barnsley that the Cottagers won 4-0. At the time I didn't even know the difference between FA Cup matches and regular season ones; I just had read that Fulham were playing that day, so I turned up at the stadium midway through the first half, bought a ticket and went in. What I saw delighted me enough to keep me coming back, and it was only weeks later when I bought my first season ticket. Which made for some awful symmetry these past couple weeks when I watched lowly Barnsley defeat first Liverpool and now Chelsea in this years FA Cup competition, from which Fulham had already been ignominiously dispatched by even lowlier Bristol Rovers.

For Americans who don't know what the FA Cup is, a gross oversimplification would be that it's more or less England's equivalent to the Super Bowl, with a couple of significant differences, one being that all teams, not just those in the upper half of the standings, have the opportunity to enter the playoffs. And when I say "all teams," I mean that literally: it's not just for Premier League teams or even just for First, Second and Third Division teams (which would be the equivalent of minor league teams in American sports. Any semi-professional or even amateur team can theoretically enter, and though it's been a while since this happened, can even win. To understand this in American terms, imagine a sandlot team from a local baseball league working its way up through the ranks to play the New York Yankees in the World Series.

Most years you can count on the winner of the Cup coming from the same small group that usually wins the Premier League title: Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, with occasional appearances by Liverpool or a handful of other clubs. But this year, all these teams have already been eliminated, some of them rather humiliatingly so by teams far smaller. In fact the final four for this year's Cup is composed of stalwart nonentities Barnsley, Cardiff, West Bromwich Albion and Portsmouth, of whom only Portsmouth are in the Premier League at all.

But watching Barnsley, who are struggling to hang on in their own division, take apart two star-studded multi-millionaire teams has been sheer delight, and a perfect example of why the English love the FA Cup so much: the opportunity to see the high and mighty brought down a peg. There's a sympathy for the underdog in almost all cultures, I suspect, but I doubt that it's refined and cultivated anywhere else to the extent it it is in England. "He wants taking down a peg or two" is language nearly any Englishman can relate to, and apparently I lived there long enough for its spirit to have thoroughly rubbed off on me.

The downside of this is that if/when Fulham get relegated to a lower division at the end of this dismal season, I'll get scant sympathy, even from friends. They'll be too quick to remind me instead of the couple hundred million pounds owner Mohammed al-Fayed splashed out on the team back when they were riding high, and the never-realized promises that we were going to be "the Manchester United of the south." In other words, almost everyone not a dyed-in-the-wool Fulham supporter, especially fans of the lower division teams we beat up on our way to the top division, will think it absolutely hilarious to see us come sliding back down again. They'll be singing, "Going down, going down, going down" and "Premier League, you're having a laugh" to us for the rest of this season and into the next. Ah well, perhaps in that light, being 3,000 miles away isn't so bad after all.

01 March 2008

The Essay Reader

In light of the aforementioned skin condition, I wasn't too keen on honoring my commitment to read scholarship applications for the UC Berkeley Alumni Association, but I did it anyway. It was actually a rather pleasant way to spend a windy, chilly Saturday, ensconced in an easy chair overlooking Washington Square Park, and with free sandwiches and bagels thrown in as well.

I didn't even catch my fellow alumni staring at my face blotch, but there was a painful moment of another sort: at the beginning we were each asked to identify ourselves, giving the year we graduated, our major, and what we were doing now. Being a bunch of Berkeley overachievers, people gave the kind of answers you'd expect: special assistant to the mayor, own my own Fortune 500 company, international lawyer, Columbia professor, retired astronaut, that sort of thing. All except me. As my turn approached, I wondered if I should identify myself as a retired punk rock record executive, just plain retired, or possibly something a bit more interesting-sounding. I ended up just saying that I was a writer, praying all the while that nobody would ask me what I'd published lately, especially after the guy a few seats over announced he was a writer, too, but making it clear that there were actual books and movies involved, as opposed to blogs and fanzines.

It was really a lot like being back in high school, another period of my life in which I felt like (probably because I was) a massive underachiever. It's no use, either, reminding myself - as people often do - that having been successful enough in business to retire only five years after graduating from college (bear in mind that I left it rather late in life to graduate from college) was an accomplishment other people might envy me for. At one time, I myself would have been impressed with this, but I've long since ceased to be.

Frankly, retiring when I did just because I could afford to seems in retrospect one of the dumber if not dumbest things I've done. Granted, it was the logical outcome of a life in which I expended far more energy trying to avoid work than I did in actually working, and it did seem like a good idea at the time. But as my thinking and values have evolved over the past few years, I no longer see work as something to be done only when all other alternatives are exhausted, but rather as something that's a fundamental component of a life well lived.

I don't mean any old work necessarily; I have no desire, for example, to go back to the assembly line or the steel mill or slopping out toilets. And it doesn't even have to be paid work if a guy already has sufficient resources to live on. But the idea of doing nothing at all, or at least nothing at all apart from seeking out fun and entertainment, strikes me as both fanciful and stupid, and I say that as someone who's tried his best to do just that.

Of course it's worth considering that at least part of my self-consciousness about not being in regular employment might be purely the product of an ego trip: like many people, I want to be able to identify myself as "being" something, preferably something that can be encapsulated in a word or two that will immediately cause most other people to be impressed.

Obviously that's not the best motivation for seeking out a career, paid or otherwise, but then what Dr. Frank calls "The miracle of shame" is what keeps many if most of us on the straight and narrow at times when almost nothing else will. A far better motivator might be the desire to be of service to our fellow man (and/or woman), but that can always stray into dodgy territory as well, what with people having such conflicting ideas over what constitutes genuine service as opposed to just plain being a pain in the ass.

But in the absence of certitude as to what I should be doing with my life, I've been picking up some volunteer work here and there, and today's application/essay reading stint was part of that general trend. I was a bit wary going into it, fearful that reading long lists of accomplishments from a bunch of precocious 17 and 18 year-old Leaders of Tomorrow might stir up some resentments on my part, but any such trepidations turned out to be ill-founded. Most of the kids, despite striving to put the best possible face on their high school careers, still came off as kids in search of meaning and identity in their lives, and as for the relative handful who had already racked up genuinely astounding curricula vitae, well, they'd obviously put in the time and done the work, and how can you resent someone for that? People sometimes ask me if it bothers me that my old bandmate from the Lookouts went on to be a multimillionaire rock star while I went on to be, well, not one, but I can quite honestly say no, not at all. The guy was fortunate enough to be born with a God-given talent that gave him the opportunity to become one of the best drummers in the world. And he took that talent, worked long and hard with it it, and became just that. What's to resent?

In grading the applications I also had to guard against other prejudices, some dating back to my own high school days. For instance, it was almost a given that teenagers like me (indolent, insolent, and antisocial) hated "jocks" (the feeling was generally mutual), and though I long ago got over my antipathy toward sports and became a genuine fan of several, I still get a negative gut reaction when I see that a kid has listed his main extracurricular activities as "football, basketball, track, lacrosse and water polo." I also had to compensate for what some people call my grammar nazi tendencies: my first instinct would be to disqualify, not just from scholarship consideration, but from Berkeley altogether, anyone who makes a single spelling or grammatical error on his or her application.

And I think I did reasonably well in both regards, giving high marks to several athletes, and magnanimously overlooking less than immaculate prose as long as the meaning and substance was clear. In all I read about 120 applications, and in case any applicants happen to stumble across this blog and are fretting about their fates being in the hands of one such as I, rest assured that each application was read by three different individuals and the scores averaged.

I was pleasantly surprised to find fewer grammatical errors than I had anticipated. There were still more than would have been tolerated at my Catholic high school, but I'll spare you the O tempora! O mores! sermonizing and restrict myself to commenting that in my humble opinion, Berkeley students should be able to distinguish quite readily between "principal" and "principle" and yet in a number of case are not.

I was also surprised at how many Boy Scouts (Eagle Scouts, nearly all of them, needless to say) were among the applicants. I really had no idea that the Boy Scouts were still that active, or that 17-year-olds in today's world would freely admit to being one. I was a Scout myself, of course, as were the majority of boys in my day, but never an especially good one. My father and baby brother were both Eagles; there was never any question of my coming close to that exalted achievement, as after a certain point the only appeal Scouting held for me was drunken binges masquerading as campouts. Poor example as I was, however, I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Scouting - not a popular position in many of the circles I've inhabited.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed my one-day re-entry into academia, and was almost sorry to see it end. I imagine the novelty must wear off rather quickly for instructors who have to grade papers on a regular basis, but I found it rather stimulating, especially in the way it forced me to question and re-question my own assumptions. After I was done, I had a spare couple hours and meandered uptown, intending to either buy a book or go to a movie. I ended up realizing that it was silly buying books when the New York Public Library had a few hundred thousand that I hadn't read yet, so I checked out two Willa Cather novels and then walked over to Times Square to see - wait for it - Rambo. Lots of great explosions, a suitable amount of cod-philosophizing ("God didn't save your life, we did"), and Rambo looking moody and timeless as he reflects on once more saving the day and not getting the girl. Daniel Day-Lewis could learn a thing or two from Sly Stallone when it comes to emoting while leaving the scenery and fellow actors ungnawed-upon.