Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Month That Was - November 2009

The Month That Was - November 2009: Boy, am I late this month. That's because of all the travel. I cruised through warmer climes then did my annual Turkey-day pilgrimage to Vegas. Both trips are described below, sans photos. Travel went up the very end of the month and it will still be some time before I have prepped all the photos I took. If I get them done before the end of the month I'll update the posts, otherwise next month for sure. This leaves me with one last trip left this year, something as yet unplanned for the Christmas/New Year timeframe. Funny, earlier in the year I fretted that I would not get anywhere.

The past couple of months have been short on Book Looks and long on Detroit slams. I'm afraid that continues this month. I've been reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and I'm not quite done (it's really six novellas in one, which is to say: it's long). I'll have quite a bit to say about it next month, but for now it gets a qualified recommendation. Qualified, because a) I haven't finished it, and b) I don't like to give Boolean thumbs up or down. I would rather try to identify what type of person might like to read the books I discuss. This one will take some significant nuance, but I feel safe expressing a broadly positive judgment.

And yes, I will slam Detroit one more time, mostly because a couple of articles worthy of note came up this month. I vow, barring extreme events, that I will not slam Detroit for December -- Christmas spirit, and so forth.

[Travel] Sailing to Mexico, Sort of
[Travel] Home for Thanksgiving
[Travel] See the U.S.A.
[Detroit] Worse? How Could it be Worse? Jehovah!
[TV] Men, Slightly Less Mad

[Travel] Sailing to Mexico, Sort Of

Sailing to Mexico, Sort Of: [[update: Tulum photos and Delray Beach photos now available]]

Well, not actually sailing. More like staying at a floating resort hotel in the Caribbean. And Mexico in name only and for but a few hours. Still: my first cruise. I have always been marginally negative regarding cruises. My reasons were three fold: 1) I usually travel alone. Cruises, like most packaged travel, are designed for couples. There is a premium for the solo traveler and that makes me feel as though I am being punished. 2) They are more expensive than they advertise. I find the strategic nickel-and-diming in the travel industry to be tawdry, and cruises with their captive audience are prime examples. Not that they are rapacious, but the whole giving you a fixed price then nailing you for extras offends my hopelessly middle-class frugality. 3) You only get a few hours in port. Typically you dock in the early AM and embark in the early PM. If you pull into an interesting place, you have little chance to get a feel for it. You have no chance to look around and figure out what's good, what's bad, what works, what doesn't. So you end up taking a packaged excursion, or shopping in the chinchy portside shop and drinking in the tacky portside bars.

Having now been on a cruise I see other limitations. Obviously you won't be residing in any sort of luxury dwellings. The staterooms are nicely done but cramped (it's a boat after all) -- this ain't a suite at the Mandarin Oriental. The pools are small, and crowded. The spa facilities are small and limited. The all-inclusive eating is decent and the specialty restaurants (extra cost, of course) can be very good, but availability is a question. The bars are plentiful, but rather pedestrian in quality; I ordered an Old Fashioned and got bourbon awash in maraschino cherry juice. The larger point is that while they certainly have everything and some of it is good -- none of it is truly great. You will not get pampered like you would at Canyon Ranch. You will not eat like the Vegas Strip. You will not have Manhattan-level night-life. And you will not get any sort of genuine appreciation of a destination, unless you count the boat as a foreign country.

But then, that's kind of the point. You don't get anything great, but you do get everything. You don't have to worry losing your wallet, dealing with potentially surly natives, arranging safe transportation, Montezuma's revenge. The risk is basically eliminated. That's nice. Very nice. It's especially nice if you get two weeks vacation a year and, though you may miss out on the chance of truly great experience, it's more important to be assured not wasting your limited time off on a bad trip. It means it works well for frenetic families who aren't going to have a chance to fall into the local rhythms anyway and would prefer not to worry about constantly keeping the kids on a leash. It also works for older travelers who are less mobile and, not to put a fine point on it, more easily flustered. (On this cruise, folks in their 40s qualified as youthful.)

So, I am now OK with cruising as a concept. I would do it again. I would not, I think, do it alone. It's geared for groups of two or more, there is no denying that. And since I am not immobile or easily flustered, I think I could do better on my own. But in the company of others, as I was for this cruise, I would do it in a heartbeat.

Kicking off from Ft. Lauderdale (I will get to Ft. L shortly), this was, in cruise lingo, a four-day Western Caribbean cruise: Set sail from Ft. L Thursday night, Friday at sea, Saturday in port at Cozumel, Sunday at sea, disembark Monday AM back in Ft. L.

The days at sea were about what you'd expect. Roll out of bed. Snag some breakfast of the buffet, then down to the pool to read or swim or work on one's tan. A light lunch. An afternoon nap or, in my case, an extended session at the bar, the group I was with being essentially a pack of high functioning alcoholics. Dinner. Night caps. Back to bed with the balcony door open to sleep to the real life wave machine. One night was a formal night, and I was looking all James Bond in my formalwear. Good times. No pressure.

You are provided with a menu of what must be 50 options for planned shore excursions on port days. Based on internet research and my desire for photography opportunities I chose to take a trip to the Mayan Ruins at Tulum, which also included some swimming time at a nearby private beach club. Much of this excursion was taken up with ancillary transportation. From the dock in Cozumel, take the ferry to Playa Del Carmen on the mainland (30 mins), then a bus ride to the ruins (40 mins). Along the way goods are hawked, naturally. Not hard sell in your face; polite, but pretty much constant. Folks will be pushing hats, sunglasses and trinkets pretty much everywhere. (In my case that was good because I needed a hat and sunglasses.) On the bus we were offered an opportunity to buy an official Mayan birth certificate for $20. At the entrance to the ruins the bathrooms are strategically located inside a jewelry shop where your group will be given a warm welcome and a pitch for a genuine Mayan pendant of some sort before being directed to the facilities. None of this is a bad experience because from what I could see, the folks doing the hawking were uniformly polite and friendly.

The ruins themselves, despite being accessed through the tourista infrastructure, still give one the impression of an ancient oasis in the feral tropics. Just before the entrance a group of folks were staring into the trees. I joined them to see that a good-sized snake had managed to snag and half swallow a bird although the bird was still flapping a wing in a vain attempt at escape. Don't be fooled by the happy cerveza huts, my friend, you are in the jungle; burning sun, dripping sweat.

The ruins themselves are grand stone structures spread out over what I would guess to be about ten acres. They are the exactly the sorts of buildings you picture Mayan ruins to be. Pyramidal and ornately squared off in an almost art deco-ish manner. Inlay some colorful tiles and Frank Lloyd Wright would be proud. We only had about an hour in the ruins area proper and I was really not interested in the detailed history our guide was providing so I broke off or some independent photography. And man, did I get some great shots. Unlike other Mayan ruins in Mexico, Tulum is right on the seaside, perched on a cliff. This makes for some dramatic images of the ruins with the sea in back drop. An hour my not seem long, but that's all you really need; it's just not a large area to cover and in that span I think I took close to a hundred pictures.

Back on the bus for about 15 minutes south, passing all sorts of little beachside resorts, to a pretty decent private beach club where there is a thatched roof dining area, changing rooms, and lounge chairs in the sand. We all ate fresh but nondescript Mexican buffet food, chatted briefly, then hit the beach for a little over an hour.

The beach in Tulum is as beautiful as they come. The sand is the same soft powdery variety that you get on the Florida gulf coast. The water is exquisite Caribbean turquoise; not too warm, not too cool. I wasted no time in getting in the water and swam and bobbed about, completely losing track of time. Fortuitously I finally trudged back to shore about five minutes before we were scheduled to leave, or I might still be there to this day. I was in the water for well over an hour.

Now we reversed the journey through Playa Del Carmen, a place I wish I had had more time to explore as a potential future destination, back to Cozumel and onto the ship to set sail. Thus completing my first trip to Mexico. I could handle some time in Tulum, it seems fully chilled out. Still, as I mentioned above, I have no sense for anything beyond the beach.

The reversal continued aboard, setting sail in the early evening, then another day at sea, where I availed myself of the ship's spa. It was...meh. Then back in port at Ft. L for an early morning disembarkation.

We all bee-lined for the airport, but my flight wasn't until 7 PM, so I snagged a rental car with a plan to explore Ft. L. It seemed there is a decent sized art museum currently running a Norman Rockwell exhibition so I shot over to it and dropped some cash to park only to find the museum was closed on Mondays. Great. I hoofed it along the riverwalk for a while but, while parts of the city seem quite lovely, and they have a loud and ritzy beach area, I just didn't see anything the made me feel comfortable with the place. Maybe it was the busy city streets, or the awkward shadows cast by the tall downtown buildings, or the fact that you have to cross a busy four lane thoroughfare (A1A at its ugliest) to get to the beach. It's a disharmonius juxapositon of city development and beach resort town. After about an hour I decided Ft L wasn't for me.

So I headed north on A1A; a fascinating drive through the social strata. Beyond the big hotels, Ft. L is characterized by what I would guess are '70s era apartment/condos, and they are getting long in the tooth. But pretty much the instant you cross into Deerfield Beach and Boynton, things start to steadily and obviously move upscale. By the time you hit Boca Raton, you know you have arrived. Keep going far enough and you'll go over the top in Palm Beach.

North of Boca and south of Lake Worth and Palm Beach is the town of Delray Beach. It is about perfect. It's an upscale beach town that doesn't take itself too seriously. There is clearly an emphasis on the active life. Apart from a handful of open air cafes along A1A, the action centers along Atlantic Avenue for four or five blocks perpendicular to the shore. The usual shops and cafes and some interesting restaurants. Nice and laid back. And the Florida oceanside beach is the same as the one I still idealize from age 11. Delray Beach was the discovery of the trip and it goes on the list for my habitual Florida travels.

I could have spent a couple of days here, but I had to hightail it back to FLL and wing it home because I had for a quick turnaround before my next journey...

[Travel] Home for Thanksgiving

Home for Thanksgiving: [[update: Valley of Fire State Park photos, Zion National Park photos, and Bryce Canyon National Park photos now available]]

I am sitting on a chaise lounge in a "GO room" at the Flamingo looking out at the dancing fountains of Bellagio. It's not a particularly nice room; better than the Motel 6 level standard rooms, but far short of anything luxurious. A burnt out bulb, a slow as molasses LCD TV -- it's as if they decided to upgrade these room but didn't budget enough to make them wonderful. That's fine -- they're cheap (about $70/night). But there's that wonderful view: the Bally's sign is most prominent, with gyrating scantily clad women appearing at regular intervals. Beyond that the Bellagio fountain. Beyond that the Strip southward. Plus there is a little mini-fridge in which I have socked away some Diet Coke that I bought at Walgreens rather than pay $3 from the gift shop. I have never seen a mini-fridge before in Vegas. I'm starting to like these "GO rooms".

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, as of the time I am writing this. Actually in the Eastern Time Zone it's already Thanksgiving, technically. I arrived this afternoon (upgraded to first class), pillaged the various sports books for the best lines, and then hit Palazzo where I dined at one of my favorites, Mario Batali's Carnevino. Despite the name, which means "beef and wine" more or less, they create the very best pasta dishes in the known universe. I had a half order of a special turkey pasta they had prepared (merely excellent) followed by a half order of the Ravioli Di Stracocco which, to my mind, is probably the most remarkable taste sensation I have ever experienced.

I then did a brief Strip-walk, explored Encore, the new-ish addition to Wynn which is equally as lovely it's mother property, and equally overpriced. Returning to Wynn to place my NFL bets and grab a nightcap at Parasol Down. Fully lubricated I walked back to the Flamingo, pausing to listen to an exceptionally talented band at Carnival Court outside Harrah's then a quick pass through Imperial Palace, the site of some epic blackjack throw-downs in my past, but I forwent repeating the experience -- now older and wiser and with no desire to recklessly tempt fate.

Chances are, dear reader, you spend Thanksgiving rehashing familiar and eternal neuroses in the bosom of family then fall asleep turkey-satiated in front of the football games. I go to Vegas. You probably have mixed feelings about the whole holiday charade, but despite the emotional turmoil, you find comfort in the tradition and all the known quantities. I do to. Whatever the course of the world from year to year, Vegas is still Vegas. The Forum Shops at Caesar's Palace are still packed with window shoppers. Cheesy shows are still advertised from gigantic, garish displays. The restaurants are still serving amazing food that is dreadfully overpriced. People are still drinking and carousing and cranking away at the slots. Couples with strange foreign accents are still asking for you to take their picture. Sex is still for sale everywhere you look. The cabbies are still queued up. The fountains are still dancing. And though the odds are dire, I may still win every bet I place. Just like you, I am home the holiday.

Actually the odds are less dire now. It is now Thanksgiving evening and I have won every bet on today's games including my three team parlay. Sweet payoffs. Even if I lose all of Sunday's action, I'll break about even.

Vegas still being Vegas, things are always changing. This morning I took a walk down towards an enormous new development project called City Center. It is masterminded by MGM and is, in theory, an attempt to recreate an entire city writ small between Monte Carlo and Bellagio. Of course, this "city" consists of a new monster hotel/casino called Aria and a new high end hotel, the Mandarin Oriental. There will be courtyards and pathway and parks and its own little monorail. And a mall; gotta have another mall. It's tagline is "A new Capitol of the World", I'm sure it will be priced as such. Parts of the complex are slated to open sometime next week, but I can't see it being fully functional before the New Year, judging from the state of construction. Then, it might be something worth visiting.

Another new discovery (although it's actually be around over a year) is the sportsbook at the Palazzo. Most sportsbooks are sullen affairs -- rows of chairs in a darkened space, gigantic odds boards, dozens of big screens, half showing games while the other half plays the horse races. Guys sitting around angling for comped Bud Lights. It's like being inside a movie theatre with a very unsettling film on display that, if it ends badly, costs you money. It's a very cold and uninviting effect. At Palazzo, the sportsbooks is like a big freindly man cave. There are beds and big comfy chairs and couches. Part of it is open air. Reservable cabanas. There's even a pool table. Emeril Lagasse's Del Toro restaurant is on site. I would love to go back for the Super Bowl. Far and away the best sportsbook in town. It goes on the list for next year.

But for the most part I know what I want from Vegas. And now, on Friday morning, I have it. I still have to stop by on Monday to cash out and of my Sunday winners, but the next three days are dedicated to Zion National Park just across the border in lovely Utah.

First though, a quick stop at Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada as a warm up. It's odd to consider how much good hiking is within close range of Vegas. Red Rock Canyon is literally about seven minutes outside of town (in the other direction). A little over a half-hour north on I-15 is Valley of Fire. It's basically a drive through park with some striking red rock formations, kind of like the parks in Utah, only significantly scaled down. There is really only one hiking trail of any significance, the rest are parking areas by the rock formations, one of these, called the Beehives is apparently open for climbing since folks were swarming all around them like, well, bees.

A bit more than two hours north from there you get to Springdale, Utah. Springdale is situated right at the entrance to Zion and is quite a sweet little place in itself. Outdoorsy and upscale, basically one main street filled with inns, boutiques and homey restaurants with tasty food. My flop house is the Desert Pearl Inn which is absolutely beautiful. The room is as nice as anything I've seen -- in Vegas you would call this a luxury suite, in New York City you wouldn't bother calling it anything because you couldn't afford it. Here in Utah, it's reasonably priced. It would work well for long-termers because it has a kitchenette. The balcony looks out over the pool and the nicely maintained grounds. The aforementioned shops and restaurants are a few steps away. There is also a bidet, which I don't think I am coordinated enough to use. Before turning in I strolled down the street for a bite to eat and a pale ale, taking in lungfuls of the bracingly crisp clear air.

This morning, Saturday, I tried for Angel's Landing, knowing full well I may not make it. The hike to Angel's Landing in Zion National Park is not trivial. It's only about five-miles round trip, but the elevation gain is nearly 1500 feet. The National Park Service labels it as "strenuous". It is I suppose; it took me about 40 minutes to get up. It's a magnificent trail, steep switchbacks cut into massive red rock overhangs including a section called Walter's Wiggles which I can only describe as a hiker's version of Lombard Street in San Francisco.

I made it through all that, which put me at a place called Scotty's Landing, but the final half-mile from there to Angel's Landing is basically a scramble up the rock and across a narrow pathway, with sheer drops on either side of thousands of feet. Chains have been pounded in place to assist hikers through this section, but the Park Service warns: Do Not Attempt This if you are Remotely Afraid of Heights.

That, apparently, describes me. It's clear that I struggle with heights in some circumstances. The trail up featured many sheer drop-offs but they were no problem. I still am not sure exactly the situational requirements that trigger my acrophobia. I have in the past jumped out of an airplane, but I will struggle looking over the ledge of a skyscraper.

I made two abortive efforts to start the rock scramble upwards and in both cases I felt vertigo coming on. I knew there were points further on in the climb that would be even more scary and I could just see myself freezing up at the worst possible moment. I had to step off. Meanwhile, all sorts of people, from kids to soccer moms to beer belly dads to retirees, were slowly but surely making their way along to the summit. I took some photos and turned back, knowing this failure was going to bother me deeply.

Back at the trailhead I sat at a picnic table and forlornly munched on a granola bar. I felt shamefully pathetic. I looked with bitterness at the folks wandering to and fro who probably hadn't given a second thought to the climb. There are times when I loathe myself and my fears and my limitations, and curse all the failures and self-doubt they have brought on me in my life. This was one of those times. I am what I am, though, even if I hate facing it. I will never climb a mountain.

Despite my foul mood, I made another brief hike to a section called the Emerald Pools. Pleasant enough, although at this time of year, the "pools" were little more than puddles and the color was more Mudpie than Emerald. I'm sure they are quite lovely in the spring and summer. Now late afternoon, I turned back to Springdale for a shower and dinner and the hope that tomorrow would bring something more uplifting.

Don't want to leave the impression that Zion is some kind of depressing place. It is certainly one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Just standing in the Court of the Patriarchs, under the ancient gaze but towering mountains on every side is utterly gobsmacking. In fact most of the beauty is on such a grand scale that I am not a skilled enough photographer to create adequate perspective. It is, simply not to be missed.

The next day, I found myself in a better frame of mind. In the morning I did a short but stunning hike accurately called Canyon Overlook. It had a lot of "heighty" stuff -- sheer cliff drop-offs, narrow ledges, even a wooden platform to cross the angled around a cliff face. Many of the hikers were fretting some of this, but in a complete reversal of the day before I had no problem being a ruddy mountain goat. Again, I have no clue as to what the specific visuals are that trigger my vertigo. I guess Nature giveth and Nature taketh away. The view at the end of this hike is magnificent, taking in the entirety of Zion Canyon.

From there I again took to the road for my last outdoors destination, Bryce Canyon, about two hours northeast. I know I have spoken ecstatically about Bryce before and this, my second visit, didn't alter my opinion. It is simply otherworldly. Not of this Earth. Physics defying rock spires everywhere you look. Wandering the canyon I suspect it was something created by the art department for a sci-fi epic. The tagline would be Bryce Canyon: Total Landscape Outrage.

Sunset comes early in the canyons so I only had time for the three mile Queen's Garden/Navaho Loop trail, described in the brochure as the most amazing three mile hike in the world. This is an absolute fact. And unlike Zion, the hoodoos (the freaky rock formations) are not so overwhelming in scale that they can't be easily captured in photos. I took more pictures here than everywhere else put together.

Back for my last night at the Desert Pearl Inn I checked on my Sunday NFL bets. Of five wagers I lost four and tied one. Unbelievable. Still up about 50 bucks overall because I swept my Thursday bets, but geez. Like Nature, Vegas giveth and Vegas taketh away.

One final run back to Vegas. With a 6 PM flight I have time for a massage and a bit of R&R at the (relatively) new Encore Spa. It is quite a place. It may replace Qua at Caesars as my preferred spa for future visits. They have all the requisites: whirlpools, cold plunge, sauna, steam, they even have these things called "experience showers" which have about eight nozzles at various positions and can be programmed via LCD display with different temperatures and settings, but I found them way too complicated to deal with. I was happy just doing the hot/cold/hot/cold thing. Got a deep, deep, deep tissue massage and otherwise availed myself of all the amenities. The place is truly quite beautiful with a kind of oriental motif. You don't have to get a service to get in; should you find yourself gambled into oblivion and/or hungover and/or overly laden with rich food I strongly recommend you pay for day pass and just hang out for a two or three hours either at Encore or Qua. It's a perfect way to resist the temptation to go beyond overindulgence. It's especially good if you have a late flight and have had to check out and need to kill a few hours.

From there off to the airport to wing it back to the newly frigid Michigan winter. Already I have thoughts of next year. City Center will be open and I should certainly investigate. There is also the Country Club, a restaurant at Wynn that I thought was a very exclusive reservations only place, but looks like I could walk in and snag a bite at the bar if I got there early. The post-Thanksgiving weekend is an open issue. I'm tempted to hit San Diego/Del Mar again, since I enjoyed that one so much. I could do L.A. I doubt I'll hit the trails again, but maybe. I'm lucky. When I'm home for Thanksgiving there is always some new reason to give thanks.

[Travel] See the U.S.A.

See the U.S.A.: Sophia Dembling at World Hum explains why you should visit flyover country by picking ten must-sees, and nails it. Best of all she doesn't short change the commercial sites (Vegas, Disney World). These places are popular for a reason, specifically: they are awesome. But for the folks who claim to be unable to stomach such commerce oriented places she explains re: Vegas:
[T]his is a basic philosophical question: Do we travel to see what we want, or to see what is? I subscribe to the latter philosophy. Vegas IS, like it or not, in a very big way. It's more quintessential America-it's big, loud, razzle-dazzle, and unapologetic and, by the way, it's full of Europeans, who wouldn't dream of skipping it.

There is little to quibble with in her list of all-American places. I could do a similar list but it wouldn't be better. I'll try anyway:
  • Manhattan -- Center of the universe. Arts. Food. People. Energy.
  • Utah -- Spend some time in the big four parks -- Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands -- you will have the same awe at the world that you had as a kid.
  • Vegas -- What Sophia said.
  • Disney -- What Sophia said.
  • French Quarter -- After two hours on Bourbon Street and you will be drunk, deaf, and broke. If you're lucky.
  • Carlsbad Caverns -- The only place I've seen that is as striking as the Utah parks. It's just unimaginable that such a place exists.
  • South Dakota -- I'll extend Sophia's Mt. Rushmore recommendation to include the swath of western South Dakota that covers the Badlands, the Crazy Horse memorial, Custer State Park, and the rest of the Black Hills.
  • Charleston/Savannah -- Two cities wholly devoted to the preservation of their past. Savannah's antebellum homes were made for touring. The heart of Charleston is more modern, but the surrounding plantations are verdant beauties.
  • Hana, Maui -- This is a tough one. You need Hawaii in this list and I could easily have gone with Kauai. But the road to Hana, the town itself, Hamoa beach, and the Seven Pools hike are as sweet a set of experiences as you can have. Forego the bus tours and day trips and arrange to stay a couple of nights in Hana. Only then will you relax enough to glimpse the spirit.
  • Northern Michigan -- I could have easily picked the upstate New York (Adirondacks or Finger Lakes), but this is a sentimental favorite. Follow the Lake Michigan shore from Saugatuck up around the glove to Leelanau Peninsula and on to Mackinac Island. You will then know Lake Culture.

The more I think about it, I bet I could do another set of ten alternatives. Maybe next month.

(If you are looking for a single massive road trip, check out the Nation Park Service's site devoted to Route 66.)

[Detroit] Worse? How Could it be Worse? Jehovah!

Worse? How Could it be Worse? Jehovah!: Sorry for the obscure Life of Brian quote, but it's what comes to mind when I read the work of deluded apologists who seem to think things in Detroit aren't all that bad. First, a refresher on the situation from the WSJ:
The fiscal mess puts [Mayor Dave] Bing in a Catch-22. He can't cut the city's taxes because the short-term hit to cash flow would leave the city unable to pay its bills. But without tax reform the city can't lure businesses back.

Detroit may simply not be viable in its current form. Political and economic leaders need to rethink the notion that the city can regain its former status as a major American metropolis capable of luring large companies with tax breaks--which was [disgraced and felonious former Mayor Kwame] Kilpatrick's failed strategy.

Detroit now more closely resembles a frontier town that needs not flashy stadiums and art institutes but basic services: police, firemen and good schools.
Short term, Detroit's best hope may be to go bankrupt.

Dave Bing (of whom I was a fan during his playing days with the Pistons) is by all accounts a solid, moral, well-intentioned man, but his cause is truly hopeless. I have half-jokingly suggested that the end of Detroit will come when the Unions and the Drug Dealers are fighting tribal battles with rocks and sticks until there are no longer enough people for a viable gene pool. More seriously, I suspect the end will play out like this:
  1. City checks (including paychecks) start to bounce and creditors start eyeing assets to divvy up.
  2. The State government will step in and literally take over the city. Of course, they will realize in short order that the rest of the State has no willingness or ability to prop up such a charity case and that if they try to fob off the financial shortfall on Michiganders in general, they will get their asses handed to them at the ballot box.
  3. So the Feds will get called in to sort things out. Obama (or his successor) will lead a bailout effort, and why not, since the city's main industry is already in their hands? As a result, taxpayers across the country will get to have Detroit hanging on their wallets for decades to come.

That's just the financial trash heap. It doesn't even touch on the stratospheric drop-out and illiteracy rates or the blatant, even prideful, corruption and crime. I have hammered on the entire abysmal situation before so I won't rehash in detail. What's amazing to me is not the situation itself but the reaction to it and the outright denial that exists in many quarters. Are you listening Mitch Albom? (He would be, if he could hear me under that pile of six-figure royalty checks.)

The latest one to catch my eye comes from Ben Wojdyla of Jalopnik, an absolutely ace car blog. In it, he addresses the recently fashionable notion that Detroit can be reborn as a farming community: total nonsense, as Ben correctly points out. Sadly, he then goes on to try to defend the city itself, and since he is too ethical to lie, he is doomed.
We could go on about how this "Idea of the Day" is embarrassing from the farming angle, but almost as sad is the base assumption of Detroit as a "failed city," a "nightmare town" as the Times puts it. Saturday I went to Eastern Market, the city's hundred fifty year old farmer's market and picked up groceries, had breakfast and read the news.

I bet you could do that in Port Au Prince too. There's a real paradise. Lucky you live in the suburbs or you'd be buying a week's worth of food at Eastern Market on Sunday because there aren't any grocery stores left in the city.
Sunday, my girlfriend and I put our bicycles in the car, put the dog on a leash and drove from the nearby suburbs into the city to go riding. We drove up and down the Dequindre Cut, in the past a major rail line running to the water, abandoned during the population and business exodus, formerly the home of gangs and drugs but recently opened as an urban bike and walk path.

Well, yes. When there are no businesses or people left to prey on, gangs tend to leave the area. In Detroit that counts as a victory.
We drove around downtown to check out a new Cuban themed martini and cigar bar, and drove through Hart plaza, where kids were skateboarding and doing bike tricks.

Hart Plaza is OK. It's part of the one square mile around the waterfront that the Detroit powers keep viable while the remainder of the city crumbles. This area supports thousands of apologists.

And then, as in all honest Detroit apologies, we get to the qualifications.
Is Detroit the nicest city in the world? By no means. The city government is in a continual state of paralysis and corruption, taxes on decent property is painfully high and insurance rates are seriously eye-watering. Crime is certainly still around, but it's below the surface now, nowhere near historic levels. There are certainly many places those unfamiliar with the city should not go. South Detroit is a scary place at night. The neighborhood around City Airport would probably make most softened Americans pee their pants. There are a lot of abandoned and broken-down, burnt-out places. I go to these places because I'm curious. I've lived in the metropolitan area for over a decade, and in that time I've gone from a naive farm boy to a naive auto journalist, but I've watched Detroit get better. Much better.

I'll leave the comment about crime being below historic levels and "under the surface" (huh?) to be chuckled at by anyone who can appreciate good solid dissembling. The point is that an outright Detroit booster has to describe his city in such a way, just in the interest of basic honesty. As for Detroit getting "much better" in the ten years he's been around, well I don't see it. Neither do any of the tens of thousands who fled the city in those years. I can tell you that after hearing the same apologies and claims of renaissance recited for over forty years, it's not getting better, it's getting worse. It's not failing, it's already failed.

What is most astounding about the apologists is their utter lack of any sense of irony. Look at the list of sins in that last quote. Then read Ben's closing:
I spend as much time as I can in Detroit not because of a morbid curiosity but because it isn't the varnished over, pretend perfect suburbs. It's honest and interesting.

But whatever. Since it's apparently okay to destroy things that might not be running at full tilt, maybe a little frayed around the edges, perhaps for want of better times, we're assuming it'll be cool to make the argument the NYTimes offices would look great as a PetSmart.

All that stuff he said about the burnt-out buildings and scary neighborhoods gets dismissed a paragraph later as merely a place that's a "not running at full tilt." The level of denial is truly astounding. Referring to a neighborhood that would make most people "pee their pants" as a place that's "a little frayed around the edges" does not make it a place that's a little frayed around the edges. Might as well put lipstick on a pig and call it Megan Fox. Or, more accurately in this case, lipstick on a dead pig's rotting corpse.

Then, after nicely varnishing the city which such delicate language he claims to love Detroit because it's unvarnished, as opposed to the "pretend perfect" suburbs (where he chooses to live). Ben, you owe me a new irony meter because you just exploded mine.

[TV] Men, Slightly Less Mad

Men, Slightly Less Mad: I'm still not sure how to characterize the just recently closed season of Mad Men. The most troubling aspect of it was how often they went to well of sneering at the backwards culture while reinforcing the '60s mythology. Really, how trite.

The second most troubling aspect was the hookups. Don taking up with the schoolteacher after having crossed paths with her only twice. Peggy behaving whorishly with Duck, out of the blue. Betsy lining up to leave Don to marry a man she barely knows. All these relationships were intriguing but superficial, then instantly became intimate.

On the other hand, the development of Don's character was excellent. He essentially became Conrad Hilton's bitch for a while. He got an ice water enema from Betsy's discovery of his past. And he finally had enough of getting jerked around by with Sterling Cooper. All this led to his coming to terms with the fact that he needed other people, and to keep the valuable relationships he required he had to be, if not weak, then at least somewhat sympathetic to the needs of others. This was all done in the very skilled, coherent dramatic fashion that we know the Mad Men writers are capable of.

However this may lead to a bigger problem for future seasons. (Let's assume they can restrain the Progressive chest-beating.) They are left with Don Draper as a more mature, wise and presumably happier man in many ways. But that could also make him a good deal less interesting as a character. If Don Draper has been solved by the end of season 3, then what's left for the show? I suppose we'll see.

Mad Med continues to hover in the doorway of my TV pantheon (Deadwood, Sopranos, The Wire) but never quite makes it across threshold. Too bad. I need four for a Mt. Rushmore. There's still a chance.