Monday, March 01, 2010

The Month That Was - February 2010

The Month That Was - February 2010: It's March -- the point where I finally get to thinking, hey, maybe winter really will end. Maybe, just maybe, I'll survive another one. This one being my fiftieth, it should count for something. I am casting around for a good 50th birthday trip, not exactly sure what it should be. Half a century implies something epic, but often the most enjoyable trips I've had have been fairly casual road trips in some remote part of the U.S. So do I a) try to manufacture the journey of a lifetime, or b) go with high percentage chance of a positive experience? How about both? Can I manage both?

I'm not even going to bother to write about my sole bit of travel so far this year -- a long (very cold) weekend in upstate NY, which feature a single notable day trip to the terrific town of Ithaca, home of Robert Treman State Park and Cornell U., both of which were photo-worthy. I only had my little point and shoot, so the pics are on the noisy side, but you can see them at Smugmug. Ithaca is a sweet place. I could totally see myself living there; it's Ann Arbor + Mountains.

I kinda got that whole Super Bowl thing a bit wrong didn't I? Yeah. I allot myself one football post for the year and I couldn't have mangled it any worse. Lucky I didn't make good on my notion to drive down to Indianapolis to watch the game. That would have been a royal tragedy.

[Cars, Rambles] Toyotapocalypse
[Music] Talkin' 'Bout Pop Music
[Detroit, New Orleans] New Orleans is the New Detroit
[Books] Book Look: Hindoo Holiday
[Misspent Youth] What's it All About

[Cars, Rant] Toyotapocalypse

Toyotapocalypse: The Toyota recall theatrics have officially become full-on hysteria. What the actual facts might be are not even worth discussing, except for the sake of pedantry. Like currency in Zimbabwe, the truth no longer has value or meaning. Toyota has entered a world of pure feeling -- where impression, mood, spin, and emotional validation are all that matters.

There may or may not be a real problem with unintended acceleration. We will never know this now. But we will know that every time some jerk-off slams his Camry into a tree because he was composing a text message at 60 mph, it will be due to a diabolical accelerator pedal. We'll never know if the brake problems ever manifested in real world danger because every half-wit who dents his Prius on the way to the recycling center will have a scapegoat. It doesn't matter anymore. Facts and details and plain old perspective are as obsolete tail fins.

The loathsome sanctimony of two-bit congressional paper-pushers when they have the spotlight is deeply nauseating. The only thing I can think of that's more disgusting is that they will likely get rewarded for their pomposity at the ballot box. Then, in what would be high comedy if people in power weren't taking it seriously, one Rhonda Smith tearfully testified that her runaway Lexus kept accelerating beyond 100 mph, despite the fact that she had engaged the parking brake and shifted into reverse. It was only when God intervened that it finally slowed down. I'm surprised the radio didn't start shouting "Satan is Lord" while green puke sprayed form the vents. God may indeed have intervened, but all He did was nudge her panic-spasmed foot off the gas pedal. You know, some day in the far future, people will read these transcripts and be as astounded at our stupidity and we are at the Salem witch trials. The shameless ignorance on display at these hearings will define us as hapless tools and laughable morons for all eternity. Thanks for that, Legislative Branch.

(Oh, by the way, according to the WSJ, Ms. Smith sold the Lexus to another family for whom it has since been trouble free for 27,000 miles. One wonders whether Ms. Smith informed this family of the car's possessed soul and adjusted the price accordingly.)

The only thing that matters now is how well Toyota reads and manipulates public opinion. They have chosen to play the humility card -- apologizing, making huge public sacrifices, vowing to regain trust, blah, blah, blah. This is probably a wise move. Indignation is the coin of the realm and the best way to defuse moral self-righteousness is to be contrite and humble. The "populist" politicians and pundits can slam Toyota once, twice, maybe three times, but if you keep kicking a man when he's not fighting back, you become the bad guy.

When the news cycle rolls on and when the running shriek of consumer advocates dies down, there will be plenty of time to play hardball in actual court where actual arguments can be made and appealed and hopefully judged in some semblance of reason. But for now, play the game; weep in shame like you were facing the audience on Oprah -- because effectively, you are.

Some will mistakenly think themselves winners in this folly -- politicians scrambling for popular recognition, the UAW, folks who decry the loss of blue collar America, auto companies who had to beg for a bailout -- to these folks Toyota is symbolic of all their self-inflicted woes. They will rejoice as if it were a great comeuppance, but when their glee recedes they will still be in the toilet.

Some might actually be winners. Lawyers, checking up on Toyota's balance sheet and gearing up for class action suits all across the fruited plain, may garner good payouts, with some little percentage going to their clients. I may also be a winner if Toyota has to drop their prices to keep their sales up, because I am in the market for a new car and wouldn't hesitate to buy even a recalled Toyota on the cheap.

Story: Decades ago I owned a hand-me-down 1978 Ford Pinto. I was driving a friend to the airport on a viciously cold and snowy day when all of sudden the accelerator stuck. I tried to tap it couple of times to loosen it up but each tap just revved me higher. I started riding the brakes to keep my speed down. Things were getting dicey with a busy intersection coming up fast. So, at great risk to my engine I shifted into neutral, the engine screamed as the revs shot up quickly, but I managed to slow to where I could safely pull to the side of the road and kill the ignition. My friend, having no idea what was going on, just looked at me like I was on meth. I mumbled some sort of explanation and carefully restarted the car. The accelerator pedal worked fine. Never had that problem again. It was obviously some ice or snow or something on the cable. I saw no evidence of divine intervention, nor am I weeping from the traumatic memory as I write this. Regretfully, I didn't think to hire a lawyer.

The point: Things can go wrong when you're driving. All sorts of things. What happens if your engine seizes when you are in the middle of a crowded freeway? What happens if you are rounding a tight turn and a tire blows out? What happens if brake fluid leaks out while you're descending a steep hill? Any of those mishaps is probably more likely to happen than one of these Toyota recall issues.

Driving is not "safe," ever. In fact, it's one of the most dangerous things you do regularly. Whenever there is a plane crash or a disease outbreak or a shark attack or an underwear bomber, people often cite the number of annual auto fatalities as a comparison, so as to put the relative minor fatalities of a tragedy in perspective. And in that perspective, any problems that might have been caused by sticky accelerator pedals is tiny.

But why bother to dwell on that? It just frustrates the rational mind. It doesn't matter. We are not in the world of reason and rationality now. We have packed our bags and taken up long-term residence in the demon-haunted world of sentiment and greed. Good luck Toyota, travelling that world is sure to be a harrowing journey.

Oh, and there is at least one certain winner: Hyundai.

[Music] Talkin' Bout, Pop Music

Talkin' Bout, Pop Music: I have, since my earliest encounter with The Monkees at age 6, been a complete sucker for the tightly crafted energetic pop songs. So I was saddened to hear of the death of Doug Feiger, leader of the early eighties pop band The Knack, and my suburban Detroit homey. (For those familiar: Feiger grew up in Oak Park around Nine Mile and Coolidge, I grew up in Southfield around Eleven Mile and Greenfield. Figure a couple of miles separated as the crow flies.)

Most people think of the Knack as a one hit wonder because radio stations played "My Sharona" until ears were bleeding coast to coast. In reality, that first album they released in 1979, Get the Knack was an absolute masterpiece. "My Sharona" and it's single follow up "Good Girls Don't" were top notch FM fodder, but the album is loaded down with pop gems as catchy and as tightly woven as anything on A Hard Day's Night or Help. My personal favorite: "That's What the Little Girls Do" which could be a yard stick for any two and a half minute power pop song. (Also, The Knack were clearly the most sexually frustrated band that ever lived, which probably struck a chord with many young men my age.)

Their next two follow up albums were fine too, but fashion is fickle and there was so much backlash against the success of the first and the ungodly repetition on the radio that nobody was really listening anymore. Various comebacks in the '90s got mixed reviews. Anyway, no pop collection is complete without Get the Knack. It holds up well musically -- really, really well; not just as nostalgia.

Speaking of not-nostalgia pop, a hearty recommendation goes to Vinyl Candy's 2009 release, Land. Here's the band and album description from their website:
Vinyl Candy is a Southern California indie rock outfit with features a richly talented young quartet whose seamless sound welds a mix of influences from The Beatles to Jellyfish to Oasis to Butch Walker. July of 2009 ushered in the release of Vinyl Candy's second album "Land". A concept album which takes the listener on a whirlwind journey from one rock stars rise to demise.
I also got a strong hint of Beach Boys from Land; it brought to mind Pet Sounds and Smiley Smile, which is stratospheric company.

The album is higher in concept than most pop, and it draws a bit on the baroque tradition of Pink Floyd, but infectious melodies and soaring harmonies in strongly written three minute songs are front and center throughout. Great stuff. I get the sense that this is a band that has the potential to go ballistic and kick out an album with like eight top ten hits. That is, if albums were relevant anymore, or there were such things as top ten hits.

[Detroit, New Orleans] New Orleans is the New Detroit

New Orleans is the New Detroit: First, I swear I am not writing this because I am bitter about my Super Bowl prediction. I am writing this as a caution -- as a counterbalance to all the New Orleans feel-good wankery going on in the press (especially the sports press, in their Quixotic endeavor to be "relevant"). My case in point is an article at World Hum by Adam Karlin. After a post-Super Bowl visit, Adam came to the conclusion that New Orleans has turned a corner and was now on track for a better future. This immediately triggered my BS detector, which is finely tuned in such circumstances having been subjected to nearly 50 years of articles about Detroit turning a corner. To wit:
The city is at 80 percent pre-Katrina population levels. Those still gone very likely aren't coming back. A generation of go-getters, artists, musicians, writers, cooks, bartenders and policy pioneers, plus an influx of Central Americans (particularly Hondurans), attracted by the prospect of not just rebuilding but recreating the city, have, to a degree, filled the hole.

Then: White candidate Mitch Landrieu garners a majority vote from both white and black New Orleanians, a first in city history, and wins the February 6 mayoral election. At Landrieu's election party, there is the sense/hope politics in New Orleans have transcended old racial paradigms.
Starts off pretty well. Sadly, he makes the paradigm racial mistake of his generation, conflating the lack of multi-culturalism with vaguely defined socio-economic ills. But he properly senses that massive change is required and describes some anecdotal evidence of it, which is where it falls of a cliff. Here is the evidence of New Orleans turning a corner:
The Saints [winning the Super Bowl]...caused the Crescent City to collectively and absolutely--please excuse the technical terminology--flip its goddamn sh*t. Which then turned the remaining weeks of the carnival season--oh yeah, Mardi Gras was happening during all this--into, of course, Lombardi Gras.
Eating oysters and cheese and bread and ribs and drinking wine and listening to music in my favorite restaurant here this week, a place that mixes dishevelment, indulgence and comfort into one space that perfectly microcosms the city, and looking at a mixed race family dine next to a man in white body paint with a pink beehive wig, I realized New Orleans was practically bleeding happiness.
Everywhere, folks say: This is what we've been waiting for. They're specifically referring to the Lombardi trophy, but I think they know deep down the 2010 carnival season marks when, at long last, post-Katrina New Orleans became, again, just New Orleans.
A kid jumped onto a car under the bridge at Claiborne and Esplanade and danced with his ass in the air until the people in the car got out and joined him.
This is the formula. This is how basket cases are enabled by the press and in the popular mind. Talk about the good time you had, the happy optimism you saw everywhere, the humanistic success story, what fine and spirited people you saw everywhere you looked. Hell, you can even go over the top:
I'm not New Orleanian by birth or residence, but in my heart I claim this town. It inspires me like a lover, and does so for many others. I'll say this: I've intermittently wept my whole time here whenever life's randomness conspires to remind me how Nola is, as Bob Dylan said, One Very Long Poem. Like when at the Candlelight Lounge, the Treme Brass Band started playing and Miss Angelina served me white beans and ham hocks off a hot brick and called me baby and then everyone was dancing so fresh it was like they were transformed into light and air, like happiness and the human spark, caught in some Kabbalistic back-tide, was made manifest in every person and note they danced to. They were dancing like the rhythm was always there and they'd been given new legs.
Wow. Waiter, I'll have a small order of prose, fluorescent purple, please.

I am just too overwhelmed by the similarities between this article, and others like it, and the apologies for the city of Detroit that I have read regularly for nearly a half century, to be anything remotely optimistic about New Orleans. In fact, you can compare this to a Detroit article I deconstructed a couple of months ago. In both cases a journalist has had good times in the city in question and decided that's the proof that things are on the upswing. Sentimental fantasy.

This is going to be a bitter pill to swallow, but a Lombardi Trophy will not save a city. Neither will a lazy Saturday in the Quarter scarfing Beignets and Muffalettas; a killer jazz combo in Faubourg Marigny; an easy afternoon stroll through the Garden District; or a deliriously drunken hurricane-snarfer in a green afro wig. I know it is heartbreaking, but reality is reality: Hope Don't Feed The Bulldog.

To prosper a city needs a good climate for commerce. At a minimum that means a low crime rate, so entrepreneurs and customers and employees don't flee for their safety, and an absence of corruption, so they can make business decisions without wondering who they'll have to stroke and for how much just to stay afloat. To my knowledge, New Orleans has neither of those. In fact, the lack of them is a point of pride with some locals and virtually all visiting journalists (who don't have to hang around and deal with the consequences) as an example of the colorful native culture. New Orleans apologists, like their Detroit forefathers, are nothing more than enablers of this dysfunction.

Look, I hope New Orleans has turned a corner and maybe this Landrieu fellow can pull something off, but NOLA was crime ridden and corrupt long before Katrina and I see no reason to expect otherwise in the future. I would very much like to be proven wrong, not by another glowing restaurant review or a Drew Brees photo op, but in some objective measure of day-to-day reality.

Until then, just keep a path open for me from the airport to the French Quarter. I like the local color too, but only for a day or so.

[Books] Book Look: Hindoo Holiday, by J.R. Ackerley

Book Look: Hindoo Holiday, by J.R. Ackerley: I doubt you could find a travel memoir more loaded down in local color. Ackerley, and English writer, accepts a position as the private secretary to an Indian Maharaja in the 1920s, then under British rule. The bulk of the book consists of Ackerley's description of interactions with the people he encounters regularly and his semi-comic attempts to come to terms with the confusions of a way of life bizarre to an Englishman.

It is not clear to me that Ackerley is deeply affected by his time in India, he ends the memoir as roughly the same person he started. In that sense, Hindoo Holiday is almost ephemeral -- an amalgam of brief reminisces. It's all about the characters. And they are quite a set.

Ackerley has little use for the Anglo-Indians (English in permanent residence in India). They are uniformly described as horrible, ill-mannered racists (although they are the source of some comic moments). Perhaps true in general, but certainly not all of them. Could Ackerley find no shades of gray? The single-mindedness of this stereotype caused me, at first, to questions Ackerley's honesty. But encounters with these folks fade fast.

The primary personality he deals with is the Maharaja himself. He constantly peppers Ackerley with philosophic and spiritual questions. As with many of the Indians he encounters, there seems to be a supposition that, as a European, he is the bearer of some sort of wisdom. The Maharaja is indecisive, ineffectual, child-like, and outright silly -- but not unsympathetic. Ackerley realizes that his value as a private secretary was secondary to the status the Maharaja gained from having an Englishman in his employ. He also realizes that what the Maharaja really wanted was someone to love him. I mean that platonically and it is important to make that distinction.

At this point I should pause to mention that this memoir is intimate with respect to sexuality, to the point of being grotesquely lurid in parts. Ackerley is openly homosexual and he and the Maharaja share an appreciation for beautiful young boys. The Maharaja maintains a stable of entertainers and on at least once occasion purchases an attractive boy to join his troupe. It is not clear whether the boy has bedroom duties, but it stinks of sexual slavery to the contemporary mind. Ackerley himself makes erotic connections with a couple of young men in his personal service, again it's unclear the extent to which this is carried, but at least in Ackerley's case it appears to be consensual.

This is as off-putting as it sounds, but it is probably important to remember that in Edwardian England, homosexual attraction to young boys was viewed more as a kind of eccentricity, rather than with the level of moral approbation we assign to it today. Also, with respect to Indian customs, it is just one of many instances of culture shock.

Ackerley spends a good deal of time trying to come to an understanding of the labyrinthine ethnic, religious, and caste relationships among his acquaintances. In many interactions he has to start with an explanation of why there are complications in doing what comes most naturally to him, generally because the expected interactions are not possible because of the conflicting stature of the parties. Simple courtesies like offering food or drink to guests are awkward since only certain castes can accept certain types of food from certain other castes, a process that grows more complicated once religion and ethnic differences come into play. As a European, despite the assumption of his wisdom, he is considered unclean in some respects.

Although most Indians are quite patient with his cultural awkwardness, his main guide in this topic is Babaji Rao, a Muslim who acts as the Maharaja's chauffeur and general assistant. Calm and thoughtful, Babaji Rao seems to be the only one who appreciates how complex and contradictory are the culture and customs, often defying them himself in small ways. Ackerley comes to trust and admire him greatly. Indeed, it is through his discussions with Babaji Rao and his more intimate observations of other Indians that one gets the sense that (as in any culture) many of the sacred rules and laws are , pace Jack Sparrow, more like guidelines.

Much of the humor originates with Abdul, Ackerley's Hindi tutor. He is a shameless, manipulative toady who does little to try to hide the fact that his aim is to use Ackerley's stature as leverage for personal gain. He is also the single most passive-aggressive character I have ever read of. At first Ackerley attempts to help Abdul out of simple politeness, but again and again he finds himself put in embarrassing situations by doing so. He grows increasingly intolerant of Abdul, and finally, in defiance of civilized manners, takes to briskly ordering him to leave when he tires of him, something Abdul only does after extensive blubbering.

Should you read Hindoo Holiday? Sure. Provided the distastefully intimate portions won't bother you too much. You'll need to have the right expectations, though. This is, as I said, a series of lighthearted remembrances, not really much of a narrative in the sense of a man going on a journey with a clear beginning and end. Think of entries in a diary. No plot is built, it is just a series of events in temporal order. The writing is mostly quite taut, although on occasion Ackerley gets a little carried away with descriptions of the plants and birds and such. You may come away at the end thinking it was entertaining, but you're really not sure what it was all about. That's OK. I don't think Ackerley was either.

[Misspent Youth] What's It All About

What's It All About: The first draft of the jacket copy for Misspent Youth. Not sure it scans all that well -- words like "inscrutable" and "normalcy" may scare readers. It needs revision, but there's time for that. The key thing is that it's accurate and catches the tone and concept of the book exactly.
With his homeland turning cold and indifferent before his eyes, Billy sets off on an intrepid journey that leads him to a strange and baffling world; a world of inscrutable codes and icons; a world where honesty and maturity are turned inside out; a world that will test his reason and spirit to the limit; a world called...Suburbia.

Misspent Youth is a sharp-eyed, comic, and ultimately affectionate look at the insanity of normalcy.
Does it pique your interest? That's the primary goal.