Three Dorketeers

Halfway through my San Francisco trip, I had the pleasure of meeting up with Johnny O of Burrito Justice and TK of 40goingon28 for a few drinks, where we formed a dorky Three Blogeteers-type roundtable of sorts. Also, KevMo from Uptown Almanac made a cameo appearance in the beginning of the evening. It was a lot of fun— Johnny I’d met before, but TK and Kevin were fresh acquaintances, and all are great guys to have a beer with.

The anatomy of a blind ‘blog date’ is a strange one. OH MY GOD, DOES MY HAIR LOOK GOOD? First, there’s the weird phenomenon of matching an unfamiliar face to a hyper-familiar writing voice, and the unsettling suspicion that the person in front of you could in fact be an obsessed stalker who’s read all of another person’s blog and is pretending to be the blogger and you wouldn’t really be able to tell the difference. Then— more pressingly— there’s the weird disjoint of having a conversation with somebody who knows all of this anecdotal nonsense that you blog about your life (‘Oh, so, you’re familiar with my attempt to match up European countries to U.S. states?’) but is unfamiliar with some of the most basic aspects of your autobiography (where you grew up, how old your child is, etc). The closest thing I can compare it to is during the days when I was taking drawing classes and would sometimes bump into the models from the class on the street— there would be an awkward sense of ‘Here we are, having a conversation, and yet I know what you look like naked and you don’t know what I look like naked.’ In the case of the blind blog date, it’s a two way street— each person has glimpsed into the other’s boudoir— but there’s the same essential feeling that the normal order of steps by which you get to know a person has somehow been flipped around. Now, it’s not like this was actually penetratingly weird— it was basically just a beery good time during a trip filled with such— but the underlying social dynamic at work is peculiar enough that I feel obligated to try to describe it a bit.

I should add that our host for the evening was the ever-enjoyable Homestead Bar. In retrospect, this was a much better choice of location than the first time I met up with Johnny O in April of 2010. In that instance, I suggested that he meet me at Hard French, the outdoor El Rio party, since I was planning on going there anyway— this resulted in the near-slapstick scenario of two straight blog guys who don’t know what the other looks like trying to pick each other out of a huge crowd of cruising gay men. Will I ever win?

Tricked-out Gypsy Tombstone Fail

We were back in Czech this past week (yep: already) for reasons that are more complex than interesting to relate: basically, I had been under the impression that my proposal for the Jewish Museum identity was due then, so we also made plans to visit my wife’s father in Karlovy Vary, hang out in Prague for a few days, go to a wedding, and for my wife to play a field hockey game in Pilsen. By the time I found out that my Jewish Museum deadline has been extended to the end of the month, we were already locked into going…

Since it wound up being an accidental working vacation of sorts, I decided to use the time available in Prague to go investigate something my wife had brought to my attention: near where we live used to live, there’s a huge cemetery where she sometimes hangs out with one of her mom allies. She’d noticed a section of gravestones belonging to gypsy families that are apparently dazzlingly tricked out. It sounded to me like Prague’s answer to the highly-accessorized cars, low-rider bicycles and – back in the day – horses of the Mission’s chicano community, so naturally I was intrigued. Unfortunately, when I got to the graveyard, I was helpless to find the section she had told me about–- I mean, this place is GIANT. After awhile, I got tired and was afraid to lie down and take a nap in an open grave, so decided to split…

So, all I have to offer you are a few shots of plain old non-gypsy Czech grave sites. I really liked this one for Leopold Batěk:


The impulse to have a statue of yourself on your tombstone is natural enough, I suppose… but I really like the restless spryness of this pose: it looks like the figure is about to impatiently hop up and go down the street to buy some cigarettes. Good stuff.

Then there’s Zděnek Šimek, who was into training bears:

This strikes me as a more upscale version of the kind of knit sweaters that you sometimes see guys wearing with Kawasaki motorcycles or some other choice hobby stitched on them.

Since this post is looking a little skimpy, here’s some totally unrelated bonus entertainment:

Trashy Czech romance novels! Be still my heart. The title of this one translates as ‘The Heartfelt Guy’. This came from the bookshelf of my cousin-in-law, who has a whole raft of these– perhaps the entire ‘Čteny Pro Dívky’ (Books For Girls) series?

Illustrated Victorian Fortune Cookies

A few weeks ago, former guest-blogger Grandjoe wrote me with the following evocative request:

I wonder if you could help me identify a print that I saw in Sarah’s classroom, on “Grandparents and Special Friends day.”  Though not knowing either the artist or the title of the picture, I don’t see how it could be tracked down.

At first glance, I didn’t pay much attention to it.  A somewhat kitschy idealization of childhood, late 19th century, probably English or American.  A brother and sister gamboling  in a meadow, being watched over by a guardian angel who is behind them.  (She’s ethereal without having wings.)  But  on second glance, a sinister subtext  suggests itself. The meadow is on the verge of a cliff .  A lovely flower grows at the edge if the cliff, the  blossom drooping over into space.  The direction of the boy’s gambol is  such that he might easily be attracted by this enticing flower.  Similarly, the girl might catch sight of a white butterfly that is fluttering towards the brink.  The viewer’s apprehension would be allayed by the presence of the angel, if she were not gazing off to the side, not directly at them, apparently lost in a a vision of celestial bliss.  It’s not at all clear that she would get to them in time.

For me, the picture documents the dread that must have constantly assailed parents at a time when medicine was helpless to save children from premature death.  No doubt parents are still anxious, but nowadays the threat is not so dreadful that it has to be hidden, as in this picture, behind kitschy denials of reality.

It turns out that this tableaux describes not one but probably hundreds of prints from the Victorian era. It seems that ‘child in close proximity to cliff while Guardian Angel observes from a short distance behind’ had a similar cultural currency in those days as Lamborghini or Che Guevara posters did in my childhood. Witness variations on a theme:

You get the idea. What’s interesting (sort of) is the sameness of pose and dramatic framing from image to image. If you imagine an urgency scale of 1 to 10 where 1 equals no problem, you’re just hanging out in a field… plus you’ve got a guardian angel behind you and 10 equals you’re toast. you’ve fallen over the edge and not even your guardian angel can save you, these images all seem to clock in at about 7 or 8. As evidence, note the general serenity of Angel’s expression but the similar outstretched reach in almost every instance.

But the best find from all of this turned out to be a fairly unrelated set of illustrated proverbs I found from the same period. It’s interesting to view mass media from a time before the all-consuming hobgoblin of irony entered the picture. Back then, you could simply place a moralistic statement under a drawing illustrating the same principle and call it a day. Nowadays, promising writers drive themselves up the wall trying to deal with the problem of what we really mean and what we don’t.

Here’s a sampling of these proverb woodcuts I came across, presented with a ranking from 1-10 regarding their relevance to modern life:

8.0. Relevant. My friend even used this phrase not too long ago when I asked him if I could crash on his sofa.

5.o. Gets points for the fact that this phrase maintains tenuous cultural currency. But nothing here seems to be trending towards a good end. I feel like I’m lacking some context.

3.5. Good point… but the unintentionally humorous illustration makes this feel like something out of the Gashlycrumb Tinies.

9.5. Timeless wisdom. Applies to both Prince William and Barack Obama.

1.5. Sounds persuasive, but what’s a shoal?

7.5. Same take-way as Bob Marley’s ‘Small Axe’. Thumbs up for continuity!

1.0. As a secularist, I say extremity sucks. At least I can spell it correctly.

3.0 Who’s preventing whom from what cure now?

6.0 I’m not sure I get the point, but that’s some damn good donnybrooking there.

(Top image: kickass William Blake illustration. Not Victorian… and nothing to do with anything else in the post… but when would I ever get a pretext to post this again?)

How We Laughed

Lately, the wife and I have been batting around the idea of spending a couple of summer months next year in Berlin, just to try it on for size. I’ve written several times in this space about my positive feelings for Berlin, so it’s not like this is a new sentiment on my part. But it does seem to consistently amaze many Germans to find that their capital city has become such a desirable destination. I’m still discussing with my German friend Patrick the idea of co-authoring a coffee table book that will explore this phenomenon under the title Germany: Finally Cool After All These Years*.

Really, the only thing that gives me pause about the whole experiment would be subjecting myself and my small child to the infamously deficient German sense of humor. The English and – particularly – Irish sense of humor seem to exist as a pointy weapon to be used against ones’ social superiors, a manner of leveling the playing field. The Jewish humor tradition that dominated American culture until the 1970s probably serves the purpose of that Freud imagined for humor: allowing us laugh at those things that are not, in fact, funny. Meanwhile, the German sense of humor, from my observation, seems to be a humor of consensus and agreement– ‘we all agree this is funny and will now laugh together.’ Which is not, in fact, very funny.

Digression: I developed my own theory about the origins and/or social function of humor from watching my infant son develop. You know how small babies spend hours upon hours waving their arms and legs around as a instinctual means of building up the muscle strength to later be able to walk? I think humor provides the same role in a social sense: it gives tiny children a means of interacting socially with their parents before they have the ability to speak or formulate many opinions or ideas. Crying is obviously the first learned social behavior– infants do this from this moment they’re born. But laughing and smiling come shortly thereafter, before a child can do much of anything else.

Here are two interactions I had with Germans that defined my impression of the national brand of humor:

1. At a hostel in Dresden, I provided the receptionist with my credit card which, having been issued by Wells Fargo, bears the romantic image of  stagecoach. ‘Oh, this is nice,’ she remarked. ‘Thanks… you can keep it,’ I replied with a facetious lilt, signaling that I was not in fact being serious. ‘YES… AND YOU GIVE ME THE CODE NUMBER… HA HA HA,’ she answered, looking up at me with the intent we-are-now-making-a-joke expression. This seems to me to be the main deficiency in the German humor gene: a desire to take all nuance and uncertainty out of the equation. HA HA HA indeed.

2. Wearing sunglasses, walking along a street in Berlin on a technically overcast but actually very bright and hazy day. A large, florid, long-haired guy passes me with a group of his friends and says mirthfully (in German): ‘Why are you wearing sunglasses when its cloudy outside?’, to an immediate volley of ho-ho-hos from his entourage. I didn’t understand this as it was being said, so I was powerless to respond… once my wife explained what had happened, I whirled around in disbelief to find my antagonists, but they had disappeared into crowded Warschauer Strasse. In any case, I would submit this a classic example of humor-to-establish-consensus-and-social-norm, with the normies ganging up on the apparent outsider.

* That’s a joke, by the way.

(Photo: David Hasselhoff single-handedly ruins one of history’s great moments with his performance atop the remains of the newly-fallen Berlin Wall in 1989.)

Tough Choices

  • It also kind of looks like a martini.
  • This question had been haunting me for years– thanks, Internet.

  • Amidst all the proposals being floated around to balance the budget and save the US from crippling long-term debt (i.e. raising the retirement age and so forth), what about simply abolishing the Postal Service? It wouldn’t solve the problem by itself, but it is poised to lose 238 billion over the next decade.  There would still need to be some kind of parcel service, but just about every piece of mail could be delivered electronically if we put our minds to it.
  • I’m sure everyone has ‘friends’ on Facebook that stretch the traditionally-understood definition of friendship– i.e. people you hardly know (or maybe don’t know at all) and have little interaction with. I was considering which of my Facebook ‘friendships’ is the most tenuous and decided it’s a tie between (a) a former student of mine who unfortunately is deceased (her profile remains active as a sort of memorial) and (b) a guy I’ve never met but whose bed I’ve slept in at least three times. It would be more appropriate if I was friends with the bed.

Personal Jesus?

My wife handed me three CDs from her teenage collection last night and asked, “Which one of these do you want our son to listen to in the car?” (She’s going nuts listening to the same album of kiddie songs over and over again, thus wants to introduce some variety). The options:

A. The Who’s Greatest Hits
B. Suzanne Vega
C. Depeche Mode

After a moment of serious reflection, I heard myself saying, “Depeche Mode. I want my one year-old son to ride around town listening to Depeche Mode.”

Jazz 78s, part two and unrelated ranting

• Looks like I spoke too soon about my back. After victoriously crowing about it feeling entirely better on Monday, I screwed it up again on Tuesday playing basketball. Not good times. Bad times.

• To follow up on an old post: my buddy Tol is blowing through Prague this week and reports having heard that Zoltan Rex is out of jail now. Might just be a false rumor, but three years in a Hungarian prison seems about right as appropriate punishment for faking your own death.

• By sheer coincidence, my father’s cousin and mother’s cousin were both visiting Prague last weekend, giving me a chance for some quality time with the ol’ cousins-once-removed.

This got me pondering my own weirdo family tree a bit: my father’s side of the family is Jewish, but my own distinct branch bears little evidence of this because my father’s mother was a social climber who found it inconvenient to be Jewish in the Manhattan of the 1940s and essentially smothered all consciousness of it in our family. What’s interesting is that members of the family who don’t descend from this dubious grandmother seem discernibly Jewish, whereas my father and I don’t (even though my father is no more or less Jewish racially than they are). It’s strange how the awareness of being something (or lack of awareness) can seemingly alter one’s very physiognomy. They should do one of those experiments where they take two identical twins and raise one with an awareness of being Jewish and the other without and see what happens (whoops, I just used ‘experiment’ and ‘Jewish’ in the same sentence– let’s just move on…)

• It’s become clear that the train ride from Budapest to Prague is Central Europe’s 9 hour version of the 14 Mission bus line in SF. If you take it at night from Prague to Budapest, they stuff you into old commie-era trains that have seats like slippery church pews, so you spend the entire night groggily sliding around as the old train SCREETCHES around curves, whinnying like a terrified horse in a lightning storm. In the daytime, meanwhile, the air conditioning inevitably breaks down, amidst other sundry horrors: when I last rode it, I personally witnessed an organized purse snatching; when one of the cousins-once-removed took it last week, the guy sitting next to her had an epileptic seizure in the middle of the air-conditionless heat. To my undying amazement, my cousin suddenly remembered her training from 5th grade home room and stuck a pencil in her hand into the guy’s mouth to keep him from biting his tongue.

• Imagine if there was a rare condition that caused your head hair to take on the wiry roughness of body hair and your body hair to take on the fluffy lustrousness of head hair. That would be disgusting.

OK, here’s another round of those vintage jazz 78s I was talking about. I love the Harold Owens Hawaii one in particular…

Auto-blather

Lately I’m getting more and more emails that contain a quick line of conciliatory auto-blather at the bottom like this:

Is this a new “thing”? (Yes, I’m squinting and making quote-mark signs in the air right now). What could possibly be the value in this? Imagine extending this same convention to spoken conversation:

“Hey, I’m ordering food– you guys want anything? Please do not hesitate to ask me if there are any questions or queries regarding the preceding question.”

“No, Dan– we’re fine.”

“Alright, back in a few minutes then. Please do not hesitate to ask me if there are–”

“NO… FINE… UNDERSTOOD.”

Anthem

This week in Boston has been full of patriotism.  April 19 is Patriots Day, a state holiday, in which hundreds, if not thousands, of adults reenact the battles between colonists and redcoats at Lexington and Concord.

Yesterday, I found myself downtown in the Cradle of Liberty– as Faneuil, Hall is called– where the likes of Sam Adams stirred up the rabble to revolt.  An event put on there by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had little connection with the fight for liberty; even so, given the location and the patriotic season, three national songs were rendered at the event by the comely, compact, yet cuddly Colleen: The Star Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful, and My Country ’tis of Thee.  She has a good voice, strong but not brassy; and sometimes during her song her smile gave off what looked like real happiness and warmth.

So, even though she threw in some dipthongs (the rawwwket s re-yeyd  gullll–luh-hair), I was moved to clap my hand over my heart and join in. However, I had only gotten to “Oh say can you see” when a woman sitting nearby  disapprovingly shook her head at me:  she wanted to hear the lovely, lyrical, lass, not my graceless (though on-pitch) voice.

If I wanted to belt out the National Anthem, and was willing to cough up an exorbitant price of admission, I could go to Fenway park. No one sings there either, but they don’t care if someone else does.

It’s tempting to end this with a rant on the passivity of the American public, who consumes the National Anthem instead of signing it themselves, just as they consume everything else.  But that wouldn’t jibe with the rest that happened at Faneuil hall. The EPA was recognizing outstanding environmental activists. One of these was the mountain manger of a ski slope in New Hampshire. He turned the Cranmore Mountain resort into a green ski slope, of all things–biodiesel fuel for the grooming equipment, snowmakers using 60 less water, biodegradable, hydraulic fluids. Or the truck driver in New Bedford who had grown up on top of a toxic waste dump and tried to keep schools from being  built on contaminated sites.

So I guess the point of the story just concerns our national songs, which aren’t that great and– like all such music– sound best when you’re playing it yourself.  So I’d rather sing along than just listen.

Them

Spending time in San Francisco always reminds me of the fact that there are people who sit to the left of me on the political spectrum. This might seem like an obvious point (I mean, there has to be someone to the left of you, no matter who you are), but it really only began to dawn on me about halfway through the 10 years I lived in SF. In high school, it always just seemed to me that anyone worth knowing had wildly left-wing opinions about everything (after all, this is the time to be unrelentingly idealistic, given that you never have to apply your ideas to anything remotely realistic). The social scene in my college, meanwhile, was just an unfettered left-facing stampede: if you could make a case that you were either oppressed or felt great sympathy for the oppressed, you were on the way to enjoying popularity and easy sex, no matter how vague and platitudinous your case was. Growing up in these environments, I never really felt any motivation to temper my instinctual leftism– even when I felt the occasional flicker of doubt, I basically just went along with the program.

Shortly after I moved to SF in ’96, I can remember meeting a sensitive, bearded soul who expressed a belief that OJ Simpson was innocent of the crimes charged against him and had been systematically framed by the LAPD. To this day, he remains the only white person I’ve ever heard voice this opinion. At that time, although I disagreed with his belief system, I struggled to find an explanation as to how we could see things so differently. In other words, I basically took his statements as a legitimate, authentic viewpoint, albeit one that diverged sharply from mine. Nowadays, I would simply write him off as a dogmatist, someone whose opinions– endearing as I may find them– are reverse-engineered to fit certain predetermined norms and conclusions. And while the fact that he was wearing Guatemalan hippie pants would seem to support my current perspective, the fact that I can’t muster my former open-mindedness is obviously something of a loss.

The real watershed, however, occured sometime in 2002, when a friend-of-a-friend became a transsexual and requested that we all start referring to him/her as them. As in, good news: they’re coming over for dinner. This was a fascinating test case, in that it basically pitted the very left-leaning people who made up this scene against the very, very left-leaning people. The normal lefties, while generally sympathetic, drew the line at subverting the basic structure of language to this point (and at giving in to a request that reeked so suspiciously of narcissism). Although we felt sympathetic to this person’s (these peoples’?) choices, we weren’t about to subject ourselves to this kind of mind-bending syntactic confusion. The über-lefties, meanwhile– who were surprisingly numerous, by the way– fell right into line, expressing a general attitude of Wherever your heads at, man. Their feeling was that the whole thing is totally elastic and subjective, and a basic token of friendship is the willingness to refer to your friend(s) by whatever pronoun he/she/they feel(s) best fit(s) he/she/them.

[Image: from the famous Great Ideas series, sponsored by Container Corporation of America. Designer might be Herbert Bayer– I’m not really sure.]