Friday, December 28, 2007

how democratic of them!

among all the "good" and "bad" judgments offered up to the reader of this tripe in the supermarket check out, i spied one tiny note: "you decide" next to Jennifer Hewitt's butt (I leave out her middle name since the addition of the middle name is no more than a branded trademark which we "consumers" somehow feel we need to repeat. But I do not say "please pass the Campbell's Fully Loaded Hearty Soup." I say, "pass the soup."). In other words, after the august debate recently over whether her body was indeed "fat" or not, this tabloid is generously witholding judgment. We Americans Will Decide. Ah, freedom.

"fully loaded" (1)

"fully loaded" (2)

Flo and Santa Claus

92 year old Flo, a Jewish woman living in the old folks' home I work at, wore in the week before Christmas several Santa Claus earrings. On Christmas, as I shuffled feebly about the dining room, I noticed she had on a bright sweater decorated with a dozen Santas. I wish I had had my camera.

"People ask me, why do you like Santa Claus," she said to me. "Well, he's a great guy. He gives you presents, and you don't have to sleep with him!"

Oh Lordy. Her humorous, and refreshing, lack of prudery says something about a difference between Jewish and mainstream attitudes toward the body. Also, her embrace of Santa as a (secular) symbol of mainstream society, even as she proudly asserts her minority identity, is a powerful act. At the same time she is asserting membership in a particular ethnic identity and refusing to let it be defined solely in opposition to the mainstream. Part of her Judaism is the generous and hearty embrace of a good guy among the Goyim -- Santa. Flo is an example of identity that does not devolve into walls of exclusivism. Oh Flo!

zigzag rocks

beetle-headed men

Isn’t there a way you can
help us get out said the woman
in the elevator everything’s
gone dark and still
and you’re a man after all
Isn’t there something you can
something you something
a beam of light broke in
anything at all
Rescuers hammered outside echoing
Down the shaft

Aren’t you happy to be
rescued she asked their faces
came into view they had peed politely
in a corner rescued at long last she
I feel so alive aren’t you
she said happy to be
she said Who are these
men he asked I was
content to die together in our
little place content oh so
It was so dark she said recoiling
letting go the warm arm embarrassed
at the reek of piss

Perfect he said it was unscarred
by light I am so Get those beams
outta my face get those beams
Gleaming beetle-heads
dragged him out outta
my face he said
It was discovered he
had sabotaged the
elevator he had
done an excellent job in
marketing research they said the woman
makes a superb egg nog on the
holidays isn’t she just the isn’t she aren’t we all so lucky she said

Eyebrows arched earnestly
The poor man she said saying It’s a shame
she said We just love your
egg nog we’re all just so lucky to
have to have been and to just
so so wow yeah my eyes did
hurt right at first eleven hours
you know it’s a long time long she
didn’t say With him she didn’t

But now I’m oh so she didn’t
let on how close she’d felt to
the guy who’d trapped her he
well he won’t be back at his desk she
shivered and dealt the cards
shivering he Die together here he'd said and oh how
you know it all was so she cries and
Can’t explain to her husband this
ominous weight of weeks so she
just smiles she smiles she
that’s right a real
trouper a thing like that can you even
imagine! Oh if only oh
but how could I ever I mean
he’s crazy but she doesn’t
ever doesn’t ever say it she
builds a new smile she

December 27, 2007

Monday, December 24, 2007

an "internet wow"

I just had an "internet wow." I was browsing around looking for websites from which to improve my arabic, a language that has haunted me like a white whale since the early nineties. I came across the one above. It is a language learning site -- but it does this by pairing people all over the world. So, the old idea of the language exchange is suddenly going global. Berlitz is toast (in my imagination). By using Skype technology, I can potentially meet someone far away who can answer my questions about the dad-blasted Arabic article I have spent days poring over. And help them learn something as well. Or I could pay him or her. WWWWWWWWWWWOOOOOOOW.

It is almost as if the whole earth suddenly were becoming crystal, transparent below my feet. . .as if I could look through at faces peering through from the other side, just below me. Imagine everyone in the world being able to talk over the internet for very cheaply! For a myriad of aims! (yes, bad ones too). A Yemeni woman wants to know how to make pumpkin pie out of jack o lanterns? Here I am. I want to henna my nose? She is there for me. Oh, the places we can go. . . .

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Star Trek's Jews

I was surprised to hear a group referred to as "the Ferengehs" on one of the later Star Trek program. According to my younger brothers, they fit the stereotype of the wandering, greedy Jews who live by commerce and usury.

What makes this truly weird, though, is that "Ferengeh" sounds quite close to the Arabic word for "Frank" or "Frankish," the medieval name for Europeans, specifically, Crusaders. The word even now refers to Westerners in in general. Ifranj is the plural in Standard Arabic. Of course the "g" sound is typical of Egyptian Arabic.

What little impulse was spinning through who's sleep-deprived head as the series was being produced?

Spanish words from Arabic

I found this interesting, if rather bombastic, page. Most of the Spanish words listed I do not know, but some I do (alcalde=mayor, etc). I remember when I learned the word "azafata" last year (for air stewardess) I thought, this has to have come from Arabic. And it does.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Taxi to the Dark Side

This link discusses "Taxi to the Dark Side," about the corruption of the rule of law that occurred in the US military once it began to torture. I found the link on a website for the Association of Christian Veterans of New Jersey. The director decided to do the film after reading the last paragraph of a NY Times story, where an interrogator says that even after they had decided the man they were beating was innocent, they kept beating him. And he died. It was murder . . . which started out as torture. . .which started out as fear. We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

"political jokesters" (1)

"political jokesters" (2)

"political jokesters" (3)

"political jokesters" (4)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

"all options are on the table"

this phrase, whose only purpose is to threaten military attack without using the precise words, is one of many examples of the corruption of our political establishment. euphemisms such as this become useful for allowing thuggish behavior to put on a mask of civility, like an ogre lurking about a costume ball. the values of this rank establishment (who are neither left nor right but devoted solely to profit) are so pervasive that any candidate for president who dares to argue that some options should be kept off the table will be pilloried.

how dare you take away our sacred right to invade sovereign nations on the slightest pretext? thus speaks our spineless plutocracy, which lacks the guts for accepting difference in the Other -- which lacks, in short, the guts for peace. which lacks the courage to do away with the nuclear "security" blanket.

i wanted to draw the figure of a thug posing as a gentleman, but it seemed beyond my rough skills, so i drew a devil in a tux instead. i know this is to make my point with a sledgehammer, but -- oh well.

erotic manipulation: soap as food

this trend, of marketing soaps and lotions as practically good enough to eat, is not new. i guess it must be 10 or 15 years old. think of the rise of soap marketing: the obsession with erasing the natural smells and excretions of the body from social space, the paranoia over smelling "human," the expulsion of the animal from the person. in that light, selling soap of coconut creme or luscious mango is an interesting trend. the body, long since swept clean of all that is unpleasantly animal, is now a blank screen upon which a censored, fragrant version of nature can be re-implanted.

this is a good example of the way american industry makes good money off of the emotional, sensory, social, and erotic deprivation of most americans. these complex cravings are manipulated through the mouth and the nose. people grow fat through loneliness and the junk food offered them to ease the condition. it is only a small step to make non-food industrial products smell like food, and ride the same gravy train to maximum profits.

Reagan was a Nuke Abolitionist

One of the more compelling articles I have read recently is by Jonathan Schell in the December 24 edition of The Nation magazine. One reason it is so compelling is that he cites 80s history to argue that Reagan was in fact a strong proponent of total nuclear disarmament. He was not so when he first came to office, but by 1983 he had realized that nuclear deterrence was morally wrong. His announcement of the Star Wars initiative in that year was meant to make nukes strategically useless and so "pave the way for arms control measures to eliminate the weapons themselves."

Apparently his top officials were caught by surprise by this proposal, which included sharing the SDI technology with the Soviets.

At the Reykjavik summit in 1986, he and Gorbachev discussed the elimination of their entire arsenals. For a few days this dream hung in the air between the two men. In the end, disagreements over how SDI would be tested and shared scuttled the dream.

I grew up in the Reagan years, and supported him because my parents did. Since then, I have realized how he harmed the US in so many ways. But now I see there is more to the eye than what the Right chooses to emphasize: that he was a lion who conquered evil through force or the threat of force. And there is truth to that. He did rape central America because he feared, somehow, that Cubans could conquer the US from the south. But I am glad to find that this lion of the Right was in favor of nuclear disarmament, even as the current establisment, right and left, seems completely paralyzed and incognizant in the face of the danger of nuclear weapons to human survival.

The article is called, "The Old and New Shapes of Nuclear Danger."

"al-andalus without arab muslims"

just now i have been listening to a program on Public Radio International called, i think, "afro-pop." this segment deals with jewish music in africa. amazingly, the section on the restoration of christian monarchies' control over the entire iberian peninsula in 1492 makes not one mention of arabs or muslims, who were expelled and persecuted alongside the jews. likewise, the observation is made that jews lived and thrived in "al-andalus," in spain, from the 8th to the 15th century without a word to hint that "al-andalus" was an arab kingdom. and finally, no mention is made of either arab or islamic civilization in north africa, where most of these iberian jews sought refuge after the reconquest of spain. by using the name "north africa," the commentator is able to avoid the messy reality of history: that in iberia and north africa, jewish civilization intertwined with arab civilization. at the end of the segment, a moroccan jewish singer sings an algerian song. it is arab music, plain and simple. but the word is never spoken. the interconnectedness of the peoples of the middle east does not fit the mainstream media's neat and orderly narrative of "ancient hatreds" and other myths -- myths which are so profitable to the military-industrial complex.

kids' cereal scam

one of many recent examples of candy brands and companies attempting to branch out into other products. cereal aimed at kids make good money off of their brand recognition, which does a great service to the fattening of the american populace. but kids are not the only vulnerable ones. one of the most popular ice creams recently at the retirement home i work at is "butterfinger crunch."

a walk down the cereal aisle in a poor neighborhood is more egregious in this regard. i had to look around in my local stop and shop to find these highly produced, visually manipulative cereals. many cereals there were aimed at health conscious middle and upper class adults, who will have little truck with candy disguised as cereal. the packaging is sober and respectable and replete with words like bran and nutrition. but i remember in inwood in manhattan, my god, the cereal aisles there were frickin' ridiculous. even the "grey ladies" of cerealdom, the grape nut-type products whose packaging has hardly changed in 50 years, were tarted up with impish cartoon characters and multi-colored marshmallows.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

laundromat, snowy night

brother and cat

obama's fans

a few days ago i went to a meeting for people wanting to volunteer to get out the vote ("GOTV") for Obama in New Hampshire in the weeks leading up to the primary.

the place was packed; there were 50 or 60 people in a space meant for 20. the most interesting part of the meeting was when the operatives gave the volunteers a chance to voice their views. i was amazed at how many spoke of the desire to be part of history; of the sense that obama and obama alone could "restore america's place in the world"; that his election would seal the speaker's sense that america had really gone beyond the battles of the past. one 10 year old spoke as well, using the word "recession" and brandishing a copy of Time magazine with Obama on the cover. everyone clapped. what filled the room was faith and desire, often expressed in moving terms.

i think i was the only one who voiced a pragmatic view: that he was not far enough to the left for me, but that he was the only realistic alternative to clinton winning the democratic candidacy. while he is clearly acceptable to the establishment power brokers, a fact which has muted the fieriness of his speech over the last few years, all the same he takes some principled positions, such as his stance that all nuclear weapons should be removed from existence. clinton will not follow suit, "leaving all options on the table," in the cowardly euphemism of those who would threaten others with annihilation and still pretend a civilized demeanor.

what i saw was an obsession with personal charm and charisma -- with celebrity, in short. no man or woman, no matter how heroic, can change history. it is hard enough to know oneself, let alone know and master a nation. while desire is a sacred thing on its own, in politics we need reason as well, instructing desire, testing the facts, and comparing them with what we wish to be. while i admit obama's charisma, it means little to me. in many areas he falls short for me: he lacks the courage to really say anything outside the narrow mainstream regarding palestine, for example.

and i think the idea that someone charismatic can "transcend" politics is absurd and even dangerous. what is this wish but a fantasy of evasion? of giving up the hard work of thought and negotiation for the easy dream of becoming a passive specatator?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"flying horses," 1893

i love photos which break open the illusion that the past was never alive. while many old photos give us a sense of real existence, their stillness makes them seem eternal: the people gravely pose, knowing they will never die. this photo (an enlarged copy of which is hanging in new haven's union station) is so different; the movement of limbs, even the joy of the boys in that movement, is evident. we can believe that that grinning boy, and the little one straining to keep up, were flying like the horses of the fire engine. we can believe they kept right on moving and one day died in circumstances not at all like those of that moment when the shutter went "click." see the firefighter still pulling on his boot!

parallax aesthetic

the other night my brother rented "the parallax view," a conspiracy thriller starring warren beatty from 1974, whose visual creepiness was more important than the details of its plot. not only were the settings all bland and unmemorable to the point of monstrosity -- corporate buildings, convention centers, parking lots, escalators in airports, dams -- but the camera too conspired to act normal. in other words, the camera did not hype or privilege particular details. nor did music "cue" our nervous emotions. we see beatty reasoning, without him saying a word, that a bomb is on the plane on which he is travelling. we see him write a note on a napkin; he slips it into the middle of the pile from which the stewardess is drawing as she serves drinks. as he sits and drinks his coke and waits for her to discover the note, we wait too. in silence. the camera simply watches the cart inch forward, getting farther away. it is that cover of dead mundanity that cannot be broken (or he will be suspected) that oppresses. within the texture of everyday moments horrors exist, wedged into economy class, open secrets that penetrate everything. we see two people discuss assasinations in a parking lot outside a supermarket, at a kids' softball game.

sure, horror movies always start out with happy bucolic scenes like kids' ball games. but this film did not shove your face in sentimentality. its eye was cold, as cold as a surveillance camera. and that coldness of looking, and waiting, and knowing, and being trapped in that cold, mute, deaf landscape -- and welded into that way of looking -- was its own suffering.

as i got in the car at the parking garage tonight in new haven, i leaned over looking at a train opening its doors and thought that that view would have fit into the parallax view: the deadness of a modern center of finance, cleared of human imprint, where people scurry about, useless Lilliputians.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

security, taiwan style

i cannot imagine this kind of sign in the US. in this country, the concept "security" is always connected to great size and bulk. many people buy SUVs, thinking that they will be safer in accidents. this cultural notion of security is so deeply rooted that i laughed immediately upon seeing this sign in the taoyuan international airport in taiwan. of course, there is nothing illogical in the fact that small dogs can sniff out dangerous or illegal things as well as large ones. but i suppose it takes a small country, one not obsessed with safety through brute strength, to see such possibilities. and not laugh at them! security through smarts and agility? hmm, i don't know.

its pretty cute, huh? "police beagles"! what a name for a new reality show. . .

formosa girl

Monday, December 3, 2007


i wish i had a photo of this. at the anthropology conference i was walking with my mom and dad through the lobby of the hotel on the way to a job interview. we came up behind a man with rather long dreadlocks. he was holding a baby of a year or less on his shoulder. this little tot was happily munching on one of dad's dreadlocks! how adorable he was. . .

envelope, on-velope

standing in line in the post office a mother came in with a little girl. "put the on-velopes in the slot," said the mother, and the girl made her way through the people to the slot. i thought to myself: is that a new york pronunciation? i grew up saying "envelope." but was that what my classmates said? or was i copying my western-born parents?

growing up in suburbs is to lack a common origin. i don't even know if my pronunciation of this word is due to the "local" pronunciation or that of my family. i don't even know what "the local" is. or was.

the mother steadfastly avoided making any eye contact with the people in line. she kept her attention focused steadily on her daughter. many people who live here would feel bound to make a small gesture of politeness, such as a quick smile to the person nearest her, an acknowledgement of the cuteness of the girl. this habit is not because of any local custom or practice, but the lack of one. in this lack, people are super polite.

so i concluded, from two pieces of evidence, that the mother came from new york. it is amazing. even with such a blurred notion of place and origin, we can still find clues -- we still dare draw conclusions.

please pardon our progress

i saw a sign with this sentence on it in the marriott hotel where i attended an anthropology conference in washington dc. the sign was next to an escalator which was not working.

normally, such a sign would say, "please pardon our appearance." in other words, we are sorry for making you look at such a mess.

but now some corporate official has decided to apologize for progress. there is a logical problem here. if maintenance work is defined only as "progress," then why should anyone be apologizing for it, asking our pardon for it, or pardoning it?

it is a disingenuous masking of an already polite phrase. it reminds me of the story of victorians who found other names for "table legs," as if switching words could bring less offense to the delicate hearer. changing the word "mess" or "appearance" to "progress" is a kind of linguistic tarp placed over a construction site. but it makes no logical sense, as well as looking excessively fawning. in their haste to please customers, corporate people are muffling polite phrases which are covering something ugly.

or is it ugly? is maintenance work really ugly and offensive? or is it simply mundane? is the real reason for its physical and linguistic screening and muffling not about viewer's delicate constitutions, but rather a prudish corporate obsession with image?

imagine a police officer running along a subway platform shouting, "please forgive our security!" as another officer comes running along behind, in pursuit of a criminal. as a commuter is pushed onto the tracks below, the officer turns hastily and calls out, "sorry for making you safe like this!" what is asked forgiveness for is not security -- an abstraction close to meaninglessness -- but a concrete situation differing from the norm.

corporations always run from the concrete in any case, except as a sensory tease to get consumers to spend money on uniform, abstractly planned and engineered products.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

REM political?

i have always thought REM used politics as material for a sort of abstract modern dance. they filled their songs with references to the world of politics and ideology: radio free europe, guatemala (a clear political reference in the eighties), leonid brezhnev. . um, i can't think of any more, but i am sure there are more. anyway, they made a kind of culturally aware ambience which, when one listened closer, made little sense. their songs were like abstract paintings in which elements were pastiched in without clear relationships to one another. i felt stipe was hiding away from clear meaning -- and maybe the draw of his music was in part this enigmatic quality. although there have been, especially in his later music, plenty of songs which did make a clear kind of sense, like "night swimming" or "losing my religion."

finally last night i heard him sing an openly political song. or two, actually. i saw them sing on tv. and i do not think their impact suffered from clarity. clarity does not have to mean a loss of poetic eloquence. if anything, the second song he sang seemed to clearly depict a yawning abyss of uncertainty which is, in itself, a political position for peace. in other words, he has not lost the power of the ambiguity that he wields so well: he has just positioned it more obviously within this concrete historical moment.

but then again, didn't he do the same thing with "its the end of the world as we know it" -- albeit in much cheerier vein?

the song ended with him crying out "why? why? why?" i will have to find out the title of the song. thank you, michael stipe, for not being afraid to step up and connect to our common crisis.

fish and visitors. . .

a visit to faider's seafood in baltimore's old lexington market informed me of the source of one of my favorite sayings: "fish and visitors smell after three days." i was wrong. it goes, "fish and company go bad in three days." and ben franklin coined the saying.

east asian car culture

for some years i have seen on taiwan's streets this sort of tail light: silver casing studded with red lights. this look was a kind of thuggish car counter-cultural symbol: only bad boys modified their cars or scooters in this way. i suspect this style came from japan, as much of taiwan's pop culture does.

i guess that nissan drew the inspiration for this tail light's color scheme from this same street hood car culture.

baby, a work of art

this is little elliot with his grandma. elliot is sojung and hojun's baby. hojun is my korean classmate. i was lucky enough to have all of them visit my and my brother's home for a few days last week. at the entrance to their apartment in new jersey the mirror and lamp seemed a good backdrop for a photo: baby as work of art.

affordable housing: dirty word

Dear Editor, December 2, 2007

In recent years, I have noticed in Madison a swing away from the most deleterious aspects of suburban life. Perhaps due to influence from New York City, cultural life – whether it is the quality of the Shoreline Times writing or the presence of a farmer’s market or writing group -- is flourishing. The excellent article (Nov. 28) on builder and designer Chris Dowler was yet another indication of a shift in thinking about suburban life. I applaud Mr. Dowler’s attempt to remove the stigma from the term “high density.”

If “density” has been, in Dowler’s words, a “four letter word,” then the term “affordable housing” must be considered outright blasphemy. Ever since I was quite young, I was aware that this term was a code for something bigger. Indeed, I now see that the negative interpretation of “affordable housing” lies at the very heart of what a suburb is.

What is a town? A town is a place where people of different classes live. What is a suburb? A suburb is a place where people of one social class are allowed to live. Or, more accurately, it is a place where people below a certain income threshold are excluded by legal and regulatory means, such as rules on minimum lot size.

Madison is a suburb which was once a town. The physical remains of the town are carefully preserved, but the heart that made this place a town is gone. One can drive along older roads in Madison and see small houses on small lots, remnants of a time when Madison was still a town, when having a modest income was not grounds for exclusion.

I would like to challenge the post-1950s notion that the presence of working class people is a threat to quality of life or even to property values. After all, these wage workers care for us and our loved ones when sick, cook for us, and paint our nails. Are they not fit to live near us? Are their children not deserving of good education? I support the building of affordable housing in Madison. In this era when racial biases are eroding, we ought not to let class prejudice go unchallenged. Let’s make Madison a town once again.