Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Recent Acquisitions

RECEIVING, FEB. 23 - Recent Acquisitions:

1. Wiz shoes

I haven't bought a new pair of running shoes in 22 years. My last pair, a set of solid, pre-boycott, rubber & durabuck Nikes, caught me some guff from people who felt I should toss perfectly good shoes lest I give the Nike swoosh any extra publicity. I stood firm and wore the shoes into the ground. Shopping last week, I found myself secretly happy that Nike's child labor mishaps have made my choice one brand easier. I'd forgotten how unpleasant shoe shopping is.

So unpleasant, in fact, that I bought the store's gaudiest pair of nonleather running sneakers just to get out of there. These Asics gels were made in China, which, in 2010, could mean just about any range of labor conditions. The harsh metallic colors are listed as "copper" and "lightning black". When I wear them I feel like an extra in Sidney Lumet's "The Wiz". That's fine, except when I'm wheezing on a streetcorner 1/9th of a mile from my house, hoping that when my heart explodes it won't get gore all over my fancy new shoes.

2. Chuckles

Anyone who enjoys life needs to make at least one pilgrimage to Galco's Soda store in Highland Park. It's exactly what it sounds like - a store that sells almost nothing but soda. The prices are cheap and there are all sorts of weird little brands from distant pockets of America and/or distant pockets of America's past.

I have only one complaint with the place: Mission Creep. A soda store excels when it sells only soda. Why, also, offer two huge bins of gloriously outdated candy? Why then stock the bins with Chuckles, the nemesis of my youth (and teens and early 20's)? Beverages, after all, are deemed honorable by society; there's a reason why Sprite made a catchphrase of "Obey Your Thirst" while nobody cashed in on "Obey Your Hunger". I left Galco's with several dozen tinkling bottles of micro-root beers and watercress sarsaparilla, and I didn't get the feeling that anyone was judging me. I did very much feel that I was being judged as I then quickly chain-scarfed 3 sets of Chuckles - that's 15 little jelly tombstones - in the car outside.

3. The Haunting Of Hill House

Last week, I caught the first 90 seconds of Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon" at The Landmark. It wasn't the movie for me. The theater staff gave me a refund, leaving another 142 minutes to kill before my companions exited. So I walked over to Barnes & Noble and found this paperback on the shelves.

Shirley Jackson has constructed the greatest opening paragraph of any book in the English language. But it's a little sad that the setup, brilliant as it is, strips all the mystery from the tale at the outset. Will there be a disgruntled chauffer in a rubber monster mask at the end of the book? Read the first two sentences and find out. Don't most successful ghost stories require at least a little of that tension between X-Files creepiness and Scooby Doo cynicism?

4. Memories of disgusting meal

Speaking of cynical creepiness, we made the trek to Riley's Farm two weekends ago. This is the "living history" site located in Oak Glen / Yucaipa, a hillside town of gnarled, evil trees that apparently bear fruit in the summer. To get there, one has to drive far, far east, past San Bernardino, past even Riverside, up into the Mountains of Nowhere.

Riley's Farm is unique because it celebrates east coast history. Its brochure promises red coats and civil war reenactors. Except for the occasional gold rush prospector and big band WW2 blowouts, there's not much to do with California. The brochure seemed to further promise a reenactment of Patrick Henry's "Give Me Liberty" speech. Since I'd never really heard of any historical site that borrowed its history from somewhere else, this place seemed kind of mandatory.

I don't want to wound the fragile Oak Glen / Yucaipa economy by writing anything bad about the place. After quickly ascertaining that we'd missed the main tour and that no Patrick Henry speech would be forthcoming, we settled in for lunch. I ordered a plate of stilton cheese with bread, sat through 20 minutes of dreadful 18th century guitar, and was eventually brought this;


I mention this on a public blog only because I want credit for doing the right thing (eating a few polite bites, leaving a tip) and not the wrong thing (throwing the salty, dung-colored slop to the floor and doing the goddamn Patrick Henry speech my own self). Exiting through the back door, I passed an unguarded revolutionary war jacket that I also want credit for not taking, despite the fact that I badly wanted and deserved it.

Friday, February 19, 2010

New: Nuke Power piece

EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM DEPT., FEB 19 - My new article "The Hidden Threat To The Nuclear Renaissance" is now online at The American Prospect. It was nice working on a piece that required me to go down to the library, mid-90's style, and actually look something up on microfiche. And it was really nice not writing about DRI. So thanks to the Prospect - as I now believe I am entitled to call them - for both those things. Hopefully I'll be working with them again soon.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Review: Midsummer Night's Dream


REVIEWS DEPT., FEB 15 - In late 1999, having relocated to California and rebooted my life on the cusp of the millennium, I decided the time had come to start in on Shakespeare. I'd somehow made it through high school without cracking any of his plays, so I'd been unprepared for how brain-achingly punishing the whole thing was. I bought a copy of Hamlet at the local Borders, and my wife and I soon settled into a routine, she going to band practice up the street while I'd sit around this same Borders and struggle with the book over several cups of coffee. Sometimes it took an hour to cover five pages.

This might have made me oblivious about reading in public. Sometime that autumn I went to a punk show at Al's bar in downtown Los Angeles. The lag between bands is even more monotonous at shows in strange new cities, so I brought the book to kill time. From out of nowhere, some mohawked jerk straight out of central casting approached me.

"What're you reading dude?"

I kept Hamlet tilted forward, cover hidden.

"A book?" I said cautiously.

"Oh, yeah? Like what? Bukowski? Hemingway? You're so smart, guy. Reading a book at a show."

"I am pretty smart," I countered in confused sarcasm. It'd been years since I'd been belittled in public like this.

"You're such an intellectual," mohawk guy sneered

"I am known for being a very smart intellectual."

The weird sarcasm battle went on like this for a while. I was baffled. The stranger's words held a sour kernel of truth. I'd actually brought the one author more pretentious to read, at a concert, than the ones he'd mentioned. Who was I trying to impress? What was I doing, introducing my private struggle to a public show? Since then I've learned to be discreet; Shakespeare's hard enough without adding any external hurdles. Over the six subsequent plays I've trudged through in the aughties, I've never read a word outside my house.

Here's what else I've learned: trust only the Oxford's World's Classics editions. If you go to a friend's house and spy, on their bookshelf, a Shakespeare play published by Barrons, or Folger, or Penguin, or Signet, or Yale - anyone but Oxford - that means your friend is either a liar or a dangerous sociopath genius or has been forced to read Shakespeare by a teacher who does not like the English language. No sane modern reader can penetrate the text without serious help. The OWC editions offers this serious help with the toughest of tough love, forcing the reader to cross at least a hundred pages of superdense analysis before arriving at the play itself. Even then, the notes continue on, textual interpretations running like a CNN news crawl between the action above and the denser footnotes below.

The textual analysis is important in that Shakespeare's work itself is often dramatically fluid, dependent on interpretations of centuries of revisions and performances. Occasional compositorial errors can change the meanings of entire scenes. Long before the modern reader gets a crack at any of these plays, generations of editors and compositors and even performers have tweaked the text like a ball of putty.

Midsummer Night's Dream, one of Shakespeare's least fluid plays, is also, apparently one of his sexiest. Characters seek, and become, ass. Much of the performance involves free-love fairies or normals on a drug-induced sexual holiday. It seems strange that so many high school drama departments have tried to craft something presentable from a comedy based on compulsory marriage, and the brutality of unrequited love, and broad hints of bestiality. I didn't have the mental processing power to make it through any of this material until my 30's; how can adolescents - their own minds drugged by hormones - plausibly memorize and recite all the dialogue of all the varying weirdoes in the woods?

Finishing this play left an aftertaste - familiar by now - of attending a party with people much smarter than me. I'm still coming to terms with the idea that I am never going to comprehend 100% of Shakespeare's plays. Maybe it was this resignation that made me get sloppy last month. After ten years of private indulgence, I slipped up and brought the book to read while receiving an oil change at Claremont Toyota. A half hour in, a middle aged Chinese lady glanced at me and said, "Oh, are you a student?"

I looked up and told her politely that I was not. She looked away, irritated, or embarrassed. It was a polite replay of the rebuke from 1999, only now I felt stupid and pretentious. I tried to figure out some way to make a joke out of the exchange, but, again, I just wasn't sharp enough.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Monday @ The Santa Ana Zoo

SANTA ANA, FEB 8 - What better way to celebrate the birthday of America's first and/or sixteenth presidents than by driving down to a small zoo in Orange County and making fun of our genetic inferiors?

The Santa Ana Zoo is a wee, primate-heavy sanctuary that can be fully explored in about 20 minutes. There isn't a single dangerous animal in the place, unless you count the softball-sized Goliath Birdeater tarantula that could strip your face off in about four seconds, if only you'd get close enough to that glass display case to give it a chance.

There were fewer weekend fathers at Santa Ana than at the sprawling LA Zoo 40 miles straight up the I-5 (although multiple signs informed us that this is where Disney's Bad Dad opus "Old Dogs" was filmed last year). As usual, me and the missus were the only childless couple there. After a certain amount of awkward stares, I gave serious thought to running around and frantically yelling "Dylan! Dylan!! Where are you honey!?!"

Please do not eat lunch at the Pearl Of The Amazon.

There is no dearth of tamarin monkeys at the Santa Ana zoo: Golden Lions, Cottontops, comically mustachioed Emperors. They strut around like little caricature humans, seemingly oblivious to the mirth and merriment they provide their captors. Only the morose South American Titi monkey, several cages away, seemed to slightly grasp that he/she was the butt of jokes. At least the little guys, being little, had a decent amount of space to frolic in.

Still, it's a zoo; howler monkeys can't roam, lemurs stare off into space, the lama enclosure is fifty feet from the eternal roar of I-5. A mighty bald eagle sat in one enclosure, smaller than my living room, and stared at the wall. A sign told us his wing had been "damaged" in the wild. I guess it was good that he didn't stay in the wild and get eaten by other eagles, but it was still pretty demoralizing. I'm not sure why I was so surprised.

I gotta be honest; I'm getting pretty sick of our Samsung NV3 digital camera. Just because I refuse to read the instruction manual and/or learn even the basics of photography, how does that equal me taking astoundingly crappy photos??!??

Thursday, February 4, 2010