Thursday, November 18, 2010

Don't Fence Them In: An Imbecile's Guide To Parenting

Trees are like children—you'll stunt their growth if you keep them in the cage too long.

If you're a person in possession of those funny creatures known as "offspring," you likely feel a very strong drive to protect them. But if you lack an actual family, (or a menagerie of cats to fawn over), and especially if you’re the sort of person whose screws are on the “Not So Much” end of the tightness spectrum, you can instead direct your protective impulses toward a specimen of sidewalk-dwelling flora—like a tree! This sounds far fetched, but it's really quite common; for some background you might peruse my previous posts on the subject, found here and here.

Whatever the object of your affections, parenting is a wonderful and rewarding experience, to be sure. However, even in the case of non-sentient plant life, eventually you have to let your little ones go.

On a recent perambulation I discovered this pitiable sight: a majestic hardwood still in the clutches of an overbearing caretaker—note the tiny steel fence that is barely able to contain its leafy ward any longer. Now, we've all seen, and at times experienced, overprotective parenting; but who knew it was possible to humiliate a tree? A sight like this—a plant so large that it dwarfs even a mighty sport utility vehicle, still encircled by a protective Smurf-sized fence—this is like insisting your son wear his stripey scarf and beany-hat when it's cold out—even though he's a partner at his law firm.

"Ma, please, I'm a grown tree!"

"You'll always be my little sapling."

I was tempted to fetch a pair of bolt cutters in order to liberate this penned-in perennial, but it's best to stay out of family squabbles. Plus I didn't want to embarass the poor thing even further by drawing attention to its plight (which is why I waited until it was looking the other way before snapping this photo).

Speaking of off-kilter parenting skills and holding on to your wood too tightly, there was recently an adult-sanctioned young-people's sporting match of a vaguely pornographic nature held here in New York City.

Exactly what sport is this? "Stick ball"? "Palm Piloting"? "Tugby"?

While at first glance this may appear to be a rather sordid sort of sporting event, it turns out there is an explanation beyond such prurient presumptions. What we have here is in fact the Quidditch World Cup, held at Manhattan's Dewitt Clinton Park earlier this month. (For more of those oddly disturbing images, see here.) Quidditch, of course, is a fictional athletic team sport in which the players fly around on magic-powered broomsticks, as described in the Harry Potter novels. Or at least it was fictional; now college students across the country have created a "real world" incarnation of this sport (assuming you can consider anything that goes on at college campuses to be of the real world).

I saw several local TV news stories about this Harry Potter-inspired event, and I was surprised to find that amidst all the coverage there was not one juvenile joke made about the blatantly phallic overtones of so much grabbing of crotch-rods (whether magically endowed or not). It is very commendable, the tasteful restraint and good judgment of our local news media—a group apparently operating at a lofty strata of journalistic integrity that is well beyond my capacity to reach (though maybe if I learned to fly on a broom I could have a chance of soaring so high.) Pole-handling aside, in the various news broadcasts there wasn't even a hint of derision for any aspect of the proceedings, despite the fact that this tournament consisted of post-adolescent young people wearing capes and running around, hobby-horse style, on straw brooms. And that struck me as quite odd, since local TV news teams are about as likely to pass up an opportunity to make idle banter and unamusing jokes as I am to decline a platter of Circus Peanuts.

Gratuitous marshmallow candy photo

After giving it considerable thought (which in my case required several days, and the neglect of other important tasks, like cleaning behind my fingernails with my lucky toothpick, or attempting to break my personal Circus Peanut mouth-cramming record) I've determined that the most likely explanation for that staggering degree of journalistic restraint is that adults are actually afraid of kids like this. Undoubtedly nerds like the ones who participated in this Quidditch tournament excel at all things geeky and technical, and in the post-Columbine, internet age of malcontent-hacker forums and terrorist chat rooms, people have finally learned that it's not such a good idea to further alienate kids who are a little different; if young people want to express their lingering adolescent urges by pretending to be wizards and holding dowels of empowerment between their legs, and if that makes them feel like they're part of something which doesn't happen to involve trawling the internet for instructions on making explosives out of Miracle Grow, then more power to them.

Ultimately, stifling a kid's urges towards fantasy is about as productive as caging a tree. Kids who endure that kind of overprotection (so I've heard) are more likely to develop obsessive behaviors, like watching endless hours of local TV news while stuffing their mouths full of (delicious) orange marshmallow treats. And nobody should end up like that.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Mixed Messages: Urban Clean-Up, Advertising Mash-Ups

Neighborhood beautification at its best

In my last bit of postage ("postage" being a redundantly nounified version of "post," much like "signage" for "sign," or "Carthage" for the ancient city of Carth) I looked at misguided signage placed by people who wish to keep dogs away from their curbside gardenage. Maybe I shouldn't be passing such judgments on people—I'm easily more misguided than half the slobs I cross paths with on any given day, and the quotidian trials and tribulations of modern life constantly leave me positively flummoxed. Flummoxed, by the way, means baffled or disoriented, as if having smoked some flum, or having been run over by a big odorific ox.

A flummox

So it's a matter of public record that I am no stranger to the role of Public Imbecile, but if anything I think that makes me more qualified to address the inanities going on around me. Anyway, for the time being I will refrain from further indictments of sign-posters. In the case of the above dog-related road-sign, I sympathize with people who simply wish to keep their block clean and dignified, and certainly there's no better way to improve the aesthetics of a neighborhood than by putting up an image of a defecating animal.

Now then, speaking of mixed messages, here's another bit of paradoxical advertising put forth by the Levi Strauss Denim Jeans and Pants Company, the likes of which I previously addressed.

"Enduring and essential, the cord has been reinvented for the modern worker in all of us."

Reinvented? I could be missing something, but those pants look exactly the same as all the corduroys I've ever seen. There's no doubt, however, that the names of the color swatches have been reinvented.

Again Levi's presents us with a masterful advertising mash-up: there's a bold statement meant to appeal to our would-be rugged and inudustrious side, paired with a subtler nod to the fact that "the modern worker in all of us" just wants to pick out paint colors from the Martha Stewart catalog.

Incidentally, at least a couple of those colors are named for Martha's dogs ("Sharkey Gray" and "Francesca"), which makes me wonder if one of the corduroy swatches is named for the Levi's mascot.

Here we have, let's say, Chip the jeans model, and beloved Levi's spokesdog Demitasse. You can't tell from the black and white photo, but he's really a breathtaking hue. Truly, an impressive example of doggage, Demitasse has a look that is both rugged and carefree—and he poops where he pleases, signage be damned.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Mixed Messages: Curbing Your Territorialism

I often feel that I'm in need of a little direction in this life. So it's fortunate that I live in a city in which people are more than happy to tell me what to do. Hooray, people! Even when they're not around, they leave notes for me, often in the form of signs. For instance the above sign was thoughtfully placed on a tiny fence around a tree along the sidewalk. Without such instructions who knows what kind of shenanigans I would get up to.

Now while I appreciate the effort, I think the poster of this particular bit of “signage” (“signage” is the word for “sign” in the dialects of both the business and stoner communities) does not really understand the concept that he or she is signaging about. Allow me to illustrate.

Here’s a photo of a Brooklyn sidewalk. (Don't worry, the illustration part is coming up shortly.)

A photo

Now here's that same photo transformed, thanks to a rudimentary (but highly impressive, right?) overlay effected by the use of high-powered digital editing software.

An illustration

This new illustration shows that same Brooklyn sidewalk divided into three quadrants. I’m not sure what happened to the fourth quadrant, but I’ll chalk that up to budget cuts. (Much like I plan to go back to chalk up that sidewalk to play hopscotch.) Observe, if you will, that there runs along the large central swath of sidewalk a main corridor. This is where the principal activity of the sidewalk takes place: the walking for which the sidewalk takes its appellation. Hooray walking! (And hooray appellations, without which the Appalachian Trail would be The Anonymous Path.)

There's also an inner, or "stoopside" tract of the sidewalk. This thin margin is chiefly used for giving away instructional manuals for outdated versions of Photoshop. (This is usually accomplished with the aid of small bits of signage indicating "Free!") It is not intended for use as a walking lane, except by passive aggressive individuals who disregard useful, basic social conventions such as "Keep Right." (Note that I am curtailing my "hoorays" for such people.)

Finally we have the outer section, which is abutted by the actual curb—the “curbside” portion of the sidewalk. This is the pedestrian walkway's business hub, where various transactions and non-perambulatory activities take place, such as curbside pick-up of customers by limo-drivers, and curbside garbage collection. It’s also where dogs take care of their business, including (but not limited to) scavenging for chicken bones, perusing old newspapers, and taking dumps.

Now, concerning the above signage: first of all, to curb your dog means to guide your canine compatriot to the curb to take care of his or her business transactions in a manner that is not an imposition (in particular, a messy imposition) to the users of the central walking axis of the sidewalk. Secondly, see if you can triangulate in which quadrant that sign is located.

Hint: that car is not parked by the stoop.

If I, as a responsible citizen in dutiful compliance with basic social compacts, escort my four-legged charge over to the curb for eliminatory purposes, and I find that someone has obstructed it by building a bed of tulips thereupon, there's going to be some conflict between flora and fauna.

To put it another way, if you build your cabbage patch on the curb, EXPECT A DOG TO TAKE A TINKLE ON IT. It's not all that complicated; you can't presuppose that dogs are going to take a terribly nuanced view of the little plot upon which they are "allowed" to attend to their most basic of bodily functions.

Clearly there's some confusion about "curbing." The phrase "curb your enthusiasm" is an exhortation to curtail your glee (something Fox should seriously consider). However "curb" as a verb does not mean exclusively, "curtail." Contrary to popular belief (particularly that of the indignant and horticulturally minded), “Curb your dog” does not mean “Have your canine companion refrain from peeing or taking a poop on delicately manicured tree-gardens which are themselves located on the curb.” Dog-owners can lead their domesticated beasts to the periphery, or "hinterland," of the designated walkway, but as per genetic dictates honed over millenia of evolution, dogs pee ON things. Like trees. And miniscule fences, regardless of whether or not you have decorated the micro-lots they enclose with seashells, or if a family of damn gnomes resides therein. If you want your tiny urban arboretum to remain pristine and unsullied then you shouldn’t build it on the curb, where you are telling people to take their dogs.

This bit of inter-special friction notwithstanding, it's nice to see that here in the great city of New York, in addition to being indignant, we are also very multi-cultural in our outlook. Here's another piece of signage using the international symbol for "No-dog-poopy-here-please-lest-you-endanger-this-tree-which-is-like-60-years-old-but-somehow-incredibly-delicate-all-the-same."

We may not be so tolerant of the needs of our canine brethren (and, um, sistren), but at least we are sensitive to different cultures. And levels of literacy. Hooray everybody!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

On A Roll: Parallel Parking

In my last post I expanded on my earlier examination of automobiles' "trending" toward bumperlessness, and the subsequent new crop of bumper-fixtures which are taking the place of those old fenders. (Come to think of it, I can't quite remember if I "expanded" or "expounded"—I'll have to go back and read the post again myself.)

Where the bumpers at?

Throughout the late '90s and into the aughts bumpers faded away, as if whiling away their golden years hidden in nursing homes, and in recent years a new generation of half-assed youth—"Bumper Badgers" and bolt-on battering rams—took their place. It's like the cycle of life, death and rebirth, played out in steel, chrome and fiberglass. The old crop decays and is subsumed by the earth (or chassis, in this case), and becomes the fertile soil from which new life springs forth.

Or some shit like that. I'm sorry, I've been combating recent sleepless nights with a bottle of Percocet and the DVD boxed set of the Discovery Channel's mesmerizing, epic, and brutal Planet Earth, so my thoughts are "trending" toward grim and ponderous (if a bit warm and fuzzy). In my impaired state I can't really even take credit for that previous paragraph—I was just taking dictation from the voice of Sigourney Weaver in my head.

As I was saying, I've been on a bit of a roll with topics of the automotive variety. Today, hopefully, I can get the last of that out of my system so that hereafter (not "the great hereafter," mind you, just the garden variety "hereafter," which really just means "after") I can return to other topics, like ads about cars.

Other than the metal railings that adorn both ends of that Smart car from the other day, I noticed one other remarkable thing.

In an average sized parking space that car has oodles of room all around it. There's so much room there, you could probably park another Smart car. Unfortunately this is the exception to the rule; we're still in the age of SUVs, which as ages go is proving to be quite epic. Which is to say tedious and neverending, like Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon.

Being this the age of Sport Utility Vehicles, I recently had occassion to drive a "Mercury Mariner" SUV, the occassion being that I temporarily procured it for the purpose of transporting "flat packed furniture." While parallel parking this vehicle, I was surprised to find a beeping noise that alerted me to my proximity to the car behind me. With the increasing or decreasing distance to an object, the frequency (and annoyingness) of the beeps increased or decreased. While somewhat irksome, this feature simplified the task of parking quite a bit. (It also obviated the need for my usual parallel parking routine; depending on how nice of a vehicle I'm driving, I'll either get out of the car to repeatedly gauge the margin of safety, or I'll just ram the car behind me once to break the unbearable tension and confirm exactly how far back I can go.)

And that was a Mariner from a couple years back. The newer ones now have video and sonar and a bunch of other junk:

Things certainly have changed. Parallel parking back in the good old days—the 1970s, for instance—consisted of boat-sized old Pontiacs, Cadillacs, and Chevy Novas engaging in a lot of back and forth, fender-knocking movements. (I suspect this is where the term "bumping uglies" originated.) In the current age of delicate glossy finishes, high-tech gadgetry, and overall sanitized living, parallel parking is becoming a matter of precise, computer-assisted micro-driving with cameras, lights and audio-alerts. These are designed to prevent your vehicle from ever touching another car's bumper, thus eliminating the risk of three horrific potential outcomes: setting off somebody's car alarm; your BMW contracting VD from the neighboring Hyundai; or enraging the driver of the impacted car, who has been sitting in his driver's seat for the last 20 minutes with the engine running for no discernable reason (and without even the decency to curb his own emissions by running a hose from the tailpipe back into the passenger compartment).

Speaking of car alarms, I thought that horrifying trend had died out, but lately again I'm finding myself tortured by that familiar curbside wailing. Is it possible they did go away briefly, only to return like so many other retro fads? It's not such a far-fetched notion. In fact, I'm beginning to think that were I to go out "clubbing" (something I rarely have time for, as it interferes with my usual after-dinner chores like ironing my bow ties) I would find that these days kids are dancing around in their high-top Nikes, wearing skinny jeans with leg warmers and setting off car alarms. (Y'all ready for this? Weee Oooo Weee Oooo Bwooooop! Bwooooop! Eee-rrr-eee-rrr bwip bwip bwip)

Finally, to conclude my trend of automotive riffery, I will say that now as in the past cars are irritating, but they're hands down better than Planet Earth DVDs for procuring flat-packed furniture. Also Percocet is handy—not so much for procuring furniture, but just in general.

Anyway, where was I? Right—disc 5, coming right up.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Smart Car, Smarter Bumper

Thanks to my own recent post about cars and their bumpers (or lack thereof), I can't stop staring at parked cars. I'm a bit obsessive to begin with, and now that I've appointed myself an expert in this branch of the automotive sciences, walking down the street I'm like a horticulturalist in a rainforest, or a priest at a day care center.

Just the other day I came upon this Smurf car:

This vehicle is only three apples high.

Instead of marveling at its diminutive size like an ordinary person, I thought "I bet it's got some kind of crazy bumper protection going on!" And sure enough I discovered a metal bar across the grill.

Pictured actual size

It might seem absurd to have a handicapped bathroom-stall rail bolted to the front of your toy car, but in rugged Park Slope you have to be able to hold your own.

I suspect I may have started out that neighborhood jaunt accompanied by other people, possibly on the way to brunch at one of Park Slope's many fine brunching establishments (where the omelettes are organic and the lines to get in rival those of a new Apple product launch). But memory of such details (and the chance of any companions waiting for me) were obliterated by my obsessive desire to see what sort of protective encumbrances the other end of that tiny vehicle might present me. Which brings us to the rear.

You may believe that pair of metal rods to be a bumper protector, but by this point I've seen enough automotive add-ons to rule that out. Sure, it might double as a fender-shield, but that's not its primary function. I suspected it could be a set of curtain rods for a nice tie-back and valance combination. But standing there on the sidewalk, the enlightenment of familiarity struck me—I'd seen bars like those before:

This is New York City, after all, and I'd bet this tiny car is owned by someone who lives in a studio apartment, and who is so concerned about maximizing space that she or he has outfitted their micro-mobile with a couple of Grundtal racks from Ikea in order to make additional breathing room in their kitchenette.

If that's a pot rack, you might wonder, why is it empty? Well, my literalist friend, seeing as the picture was taken at roughly brunch o'clock, I have to assume the owner was cooking. And if the brunch-date goes well, that car and its loaded racks will make for a nice "Just Married" getaway car. With all the pots and pans clanging around, no tin cans will need to be tied to the bumper as the couple of happy Smurfs drives off to their awaiting honeymoon toadstool.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Importance Of Hard Work. Or Not.

Back in the early-middle portion of the last century there was a fine group of people known as "The Greatest Generation." These were folks who worked hard, fought valiantly and sacrificed greatly both at home and abroad during World War II. You probably already knew that, because you're a smarty-pants like me. But did you also know that the term "Greatest Generation" didn't exist until a clever guy named Tom Brokaw made it up? I don't know who Tom Brokaw is, but he must be a real smarty pants too!

I became aware of that fascinating etymological factoid while reading the Wikipedia article on the subject; I also learned that The Greatest Generation was sandwiched between "The Lost Generation"—which (I presume) on account of shell-shock after fighting in World War I couldn't find their way back to the airport in Paris, and so took to sipping anise liqueurs and writing great novels—and "The Silent Generation," which came of age at the tail end of WWII but was pretty much phased out with the advent of "talkies" (I can't quite make the timeline add up for that one, but then again I was never that good at math).

Anyway, after the war The Greatest Generation also proved to be highly adept at earning a living, procreating, and buying appliances. This resulted in The Baby Boom and the 1950s. I'm also not sure what The Baby Boom was, but I fear it was some kind of gruesome mishap involving too many babies and shiny and new—but unattended—toaster ovens.

Apart from all the babies getting blown up, the 1950s were an era of progress and prosperity. But since then it's all been downhill. Materialism, industry and fossil fuels have lost their glorious sheen. Wars in the "post-war" era have not been so great—in fact they've been pretty lousy across the board. In the decades since The Greatest Generation, greatness has given way to disillusionment, frustration, and indolence. (One good thing has come from this, however—without indolence we wouldn't have indy-rock.)

Since the last reflected gleam of the setting sun of greatness faded from the chromed fenders of the 1950s, we've had generations of rebellion and indulgence; we've had beatniks, hippies, yippies, yuppies, hush-puppies, slackers, Generation X, Generation Y, and, well, basically we're at the ass-end of the alphabet here, and things are not looking up. (Actually I'm not really sure if Hush Puppies were a generation, something you wear, or something you eat.) If you've observed today's up-and-coming generation, you can see that young people need something to rally around, to spark their motivation and industriousness, to end the current slumping in employment, the economy, and if we're lucky, their posture.

Now I may be a smarty-pants, but sometimes you just need good luck to solve your problems. Answers often are found when you aren't looking, and in the most unexpected places.

Earlier this week I chanced to pick up a copy of Paper Magazine (I mean this quite literally, as I picked up said periodical from the sidewalk when by chance I came across a large stack of about a dozen copies of the October issue someone mysteriously had left out along with the recycling). What I learned upon perusing the pages of the magazine was that advertising has the power to save us every time. Or the products that advertising is hawking have such power. Or at least the ads make you feel that way about the products, which frankly is good enough for me. (Like I said, I'm not really that good at making things properly add up.)

Anyway, there's finally hope! Here's the ad that restored my faith in mankind, or the economy, or generational oversimplifications or whatever it is that makes this world tick:

Here's a guy in Levi's hanging out. As you can see in the corner of the ad, this scene takes place in a town called Braddock, PA.

What's so remarkable about all this? For one thing, these new jeans from Levi's are ready for work—"Whatever The Work May Be." But it's not just the jeans. Look at that stylish kid, wearing his jeans, loafing on his bed in his arftully unrenovated pad in Braddock PA. I can relate to this guy!

He's a studied James Dean, a Jack Kerouac ready to face the travails of the world... even if he's not actually doing anything just now. That's because he's empowered by a cultural identity that, while not based on blind adherence to the soul-crushing labor of earlier generations, is infused with all the rugged style that was distilled from those labors. Monastic in a self-romanticizing manner, he has taken independence-affirming nourishment from his book and his proximity to a six-string guitar, and now he is ready to face the world, and whatever work awaits. As long as it's not too physical, because without socks those wingtips are going to give his Achilles tendons some ugly blisters before an 8 hour workday is through. So he has an Achilles heel—so what? That only makes him all the more noble. Kinda problematic that work is his Achilles heel, but there's no need to overthink it.

Enough about unimportant details. What matters is that he's got a classic, functional look, and positive, empowering text floating above him; he's the modern day male equivalent of Rosie The Riveter!

That's right: industrious Rosie, with her "can do" attitude and very "now" blue-collar work-wear. (Or very "then," I'm not quite sure—again, with the timeline issues.) The only difference between her and Braddock Boy (who I'll call "Brad" to keep it simple), is that while Rosie was already at work, tying a bandana over her hair and rolling up her shirt sleeves, Brad was massaging Crew Forming Cream into his pompadour in preparation for sitting on his bed in a pair of jeans that somebody like Rosie had actually riveted at a place where work actually occurs.

This ad's slogan is about "Work." But it contains another buzz-word, hidden in plain sight, that Brad and his ilk can relate to: "Whatever." Put together, this whole "whatever the work" business, the nonchalant attitude and effortless confidence, evokes a sort of guy whose inflated self-assurance has convinced him he's got the talent and perspicacity to do anything that's creative or admirable—I could be a writer, or a truck driver, a musician or a construction worker—but really he lacks the experience to understand the long hours of work that go into becoming capable of doing any such things.

A trip to the Levi's website unearthed plenty more newly aged clothing and corresponding ad-copy:

"The Trucker Jacket: A hardworking classic, modernized for the rigorous demands of today."

These retro-jackets are now even tougher than the originals from which they draw their inspiration, because back when truck drivers first wore such jackets, they never had to sit on their beds for hours, facing the rigorous anxiety of deciding whether or not to get a job.

I dare say this ad campaign is an ego-stroke for the entitled and delusional generation. I can be a well-read bohemian who's got his feet firmly planted on the ground in sharp loafers and denim that's been aged to perfection like blue cheese. And yeah, that "work" thing. I could totally do that. If I felt like it.

You see, of course, it's all a fantasy. There is no work. If there was, and it was the kind of work that necessitated wearing denim pants, Brad would've been out of the house hours ago, not sitting on his bed reading a David Mitchell novel at 9:30 in the morning.

Just below the Levi's logo there's a tagline encouraging this guy to "Go Forth," which is probably exactly what his parents wish he would do.

But don’t feel bad about yourself because of your disposition toward indolence. Feel good about your potential. And if you do go out, don’t be a slave. Instead run with your dog through the fields in your skinny jeans.

Modern young people (and to be honest, also us "youngish" types, a.k.a. The Smarty-Pants Generation) feel a vague sense of shame and impotence about being an aimless, entitled, not-the-greatest kind of generation. They—okay, we want to feel that we can be noble and industrious, but we were weened on Super Mario Brothers and The Red Hot Chili Peppers and we're not quite ready to give up our indulgences in order to feel like real adults. Levi's and their advertising department have embraced this cognitive dissonance and run with it like a spindly youth with his dog.

Could they really pull off such a complex feat as synthesizing these contradictions? Well Levi's pretty much invented smarty-pants, so I think so. Here's the formula they seem to have devised: address one desire with words, and superimpose that over an image evoking the contradictory other desire. And that's all there is to it. The slogan tells you that you can be that productive worker, but the picture silently reassures you (like Dick Halloran offering Danny ice cream) that there's no need to be nervous. You can still frolic in the fields like Huck Finn in girl's pants (or if the outdoors is too daunting, you can be like Brad, and lounge about Dharma Bum-style in blissful self-aggrandizing pseudo-meditation). It's blatantly paradoxical, but while the ad is adeptly stroking the brain of your inner lizard you'll be too sated to care.

When it comes down to it, whatever. The work may be. But then again the work may not be. It's all up to you. And while you're deciding, I'll be sitting with my shoes up on the bed working on my math skills. And wearing my smarty-pants.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Ancient Etiquette, Modern Felony: It's All Greek To Me

In my last post I delved into the ancient Greek practice of an adult man taking on a young boy-lover. (Maybe I shouldn't say I delved into the practice of it so much as I cut and pasted some stuff about it from an online resource—otherwise I may set off some kind of Federal Perv-Alert, resulting in a visit from dark-suited men with sunglasses who will tell me things like "You're disgusting!", and "You have the right to remain silent.")

I mentioned former Representative Mark Foley (who in 2006 resigned after there came to light a particulalry salacious IM conversation with a Congressional page), and I suggested that the scandalous acts of contemporary elected officials often bear a striking resemblance to the societally sanctioned behavior of men deemed noble in the days of ancient Greece. To wit, this passage from an article in the aforementioned resource, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The cultural ideal of a same-sex relationship was between an older man, probably in his 20's or 30's, known as the erastes, and a boy whose beard had not yet begun to grow, the eromenos or paidika. In this relationship there was courtship ritual, involving gifts (such as a rooster), and other norms. The erastes had to show that he had nobler interests in the boy, rather than a purely sexual concern. The boy was not to submit too easily, and if pursued by more than one man, was to show discretion and pick the more noble one.

The ancient Greeks may have invented democracy and given us great works of theater and philosophy, but they were also a ribald and rooster loving bunch.

We in the modern world may seem to have more proper and prudish attitudes towards sex, but if you just scratch the surface you'll see that things aren't that different. Don't imagine that we don't have same-sex courting rituals between adults and minors anymore—it's just that now they take place using Instant Messenger (also they're sort of illegal). Here's a brief excerpt of Mark Foley's ruinous cyber-chat (which can be viewed in its entirety here, or if you prefer a conveniently color coded pdf version, here).

Maf54 (7:46:01 PM): well I better let you go do oyur thing

[redacted screenname] (7:46:07 PM): oh ok

[redacted screenname] (7:46:11 PM): have fun campaigning

[redacted screenname] (7:46:17 PM): or however you spell it

[redacted screenname] (7:46:18 PM): lol

[redacted screenname] (7:46:25 PM): ill see ya in a couple of weeks

Maf54 (7:46:33 PM): did any girl give you a haand job this weekend

[redacted screenname] (7:46:38 PM): lol no

[redacted screenname] (7:46:40 PM): im single right now

[redacted screenname] (7:46:57 PM): my last gf and i broke up a few weeks agi

Maf54 (7:47:11 PM): are you

Maf54 (7:47:11 PM): good so your getting horny

[redacted screenname] (7:47:29 PM): lol...a bit

Maf54 (7:48:00 PM): did you spank it this weekend yourself

[redacted screenname] (7:48:04 PM): no

[redacted screenname] (7:48:16 PM): been too tired and too busy

Maf54 (7:48:33 PM): wow...

Maf54 (7:48:34 PM): i am never to busy haha

[redacted screenname] (7:48:51 PM): haha

Maf54 (7:50:02 PM): or tired..helps me sleep

In the exchange, Foley was pretty clear about his sexual interest in the page, but also, in accordance with the erastes/eromenos rubrick, evidenced his "nobler" concerns for the teenager, for instance, indicating his hopes that the youngster doesn't get in trouble with his mom, and inquiring whether or not the page had gotten a "haand job" from any girl over the weekend. (I think "haand job" is a Dutch term, pronounced "hond yawb," for a toasted cheese sandwich.)

Despite these efforts, Foley was a little sloppy in his adherence to the ancient rules of seduction, providing no farm animals or other gifts. He may have been able to seal the deal if only he'd had the texting chops to proffer an emoticon-style rooster.

Maf54: cock-a-doodle-do! lol

As for the underage page, he seems to have been observing proper eromenos protocol by playing hard to get: IMing that his mom was calling, and claiming that he had to sign off in order to do "HW" for his AP English class. There's no way to know for sure of course; maybe he was being coy and made that stuff up, or possibly he was telling the earnest truth about those interruptions, or, who knows, it could be he intermittently signed off because he was simultaneously fielding advances from Congressman Eric Massa.

If this were the case, Foley would've been facing some stiff competition; Massa was apparently honing his lewd advances since back in his Navy days. Also, as a slightly younger and presumedly more tech savvy man, Massa was likely more adept at typing pictures of cocks (and other gift-worthy animals).

Furthermore, while Foley exceeded Massa in age, and in years of service as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives—and was therefore, at least on paper, the "nobler" of the suitors—I suspect that a coveted room may have opened up in Massa's home/underpaid-staffer crashpad.

Sadly this living arrangement was not in the public eye until after Massa's political demise, because it would've made for the best season of MTV's "The Real World" ever.

The lesson in all of this, of course, is that, well, first of all, sexual mores have changed in the last few millenia (by "sexual mores" I'm referring to attitudes towards sex, not eels that like to get it on); and second, that members of Congress haven't figured out that just because a message is instant, that doesn't mean it's not permanent.

For practical purposes, if you are in a position of power or esteem, and one day you find yourself tempted to titillate a teenager with textual doodles of a farm-cock, take my advice: cock-a-doodle-don't.

And if you are a teenager yourself, watch out for lusty IMs from U.S. Congressmen, and over the weekend don't have too many "haand jobs"; remember, moderation in all things.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts (In Their Pants)

Some years ago, I whiled away four perfectly serviceable years of my life at a place called "High School." Remember high school? That dismal and boring place where most of what passed for "peers" were painfully dim-witted droolers who couldn't approximate a French pronunciation to save their lives (Ecoutez, et repetez: "moi, juh, sweez, un, imbecile"), and where even the teachers who knew their material had long since checked out? I certainly do, and to be honest, it wasn't all that bad. Sure, it's easy to harp on the dreary and tedious aspects of those years, but the truth is, if you weren't half asleep with your tongue lolling around in the carved grooves of your mutilated, graffiti-covered desktop, you occasionally could've learned some pretty wild stuff.

For instance, in ancient Greece, Olympic athletes were required to compete "in the nude." This was because, we were taught, females were not allowed to participate, and the nudeness would allow all present at the games to confirm that they were watching men. By looking at the ding-dongs.

Of course, sometimes you had to take what you were being taught with a grain of salt. We learned about all the ridiculous superstitions, misapprehensions and cruelties that were perpetuated by previous generations (the Earth is flat, cats suck the breath out of babies, slavery is cool), and yet somehow we were supposed to trust that everything our un-savvy teachers were parroting from our textbooks was the unquestionable truth?

Let's return to the example of the ancient Olympics. Even back in high school I didn't quite buy the explanation for the compulsory nudity at the games. The Greeks were pretty sharp cats; did they really think that in order to verify the gender of the participants it was necessary to ban clothing entirely from the games? Was there not some other more pervy motive at hand? I mean, it would have been sufficient to have the athletes step out of the stables or whatever, "drop toga" (as they used to say in ancient Greek frat-houses), turn once around and give a quick show for everybody present in the Acropolis or the Coliseum or the parking lot at the Greek diner or wherever they played the games, then put on a loincloth (or "crotch toga"), and grab a pole. For vaulting, of course.

The Acropolis or the Parthenon or whatever.

Ever wonder why the ancient Greeks didn't set any lasting world records? (I know for a fact that they didn't, because I went down to Brooklyn's Borough Hall and checked the records, including the microfiche.) There's a simple reason, and it's not just that the ancient Hellenics lacked the performance enhancements afforded by today's gel insoles: put simply, you just can't run that fast with your big, fat, Greek dangle slapping all around. And wrestling? Forget it—either your wang is going to get squashed into the dirt by a hairy knee, or it's going to wind up as erect as a Doric column, because after all, you're a naked, sweaty, ancient (in a youthful way) Greek trying to wrangle another naked ancient Greek down onto the floor.

Wait, am I saying that everyone in Greece back then was gay? Well, no, not exactly. It's just that the ancient Greeks believed in moderation in all things. Including having sex with young boys. But more of that in a minute. Let me first state for the record: based on the absurd clothing moratorium, I think it's clear that the ancient Greeks were less concerned with spurring athletes on to their best performances than they were with watching glistening, pantsless, perfectly proportioned boys tussling with each other in the sand.

Gratuitous column pic.

Now, concerning the topics of Hellenic homosexuality, pederasty, and moderation (moderation was the equation, or "Grecian Formula," if you will, by which all aspects of life were kept in balance), the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is very enlightening. First of all, the democratically-inclined Grecos were not nearly as uptight about sex as are those of us of Judeo-Christian-Catholo-Puritan heritage: "As has been frequently noted," notes the S.E.P., "the ancient Greeks did not have terms or concepts that correspond to the contemporary dichotomy of ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’."

Moreover, for the idealistic, aesthetically-minded Greeks,

Probably the most frequent assumption of sexual orientation is that persons can respond erotically to beauty in either sex. ... Even though the gender that one was erotically attracted to (at any specific time, given the assumption that persons will likely be attracted to persons of both sexes) was not important, other issues were salient, such as whether one exercised moderation.

The old-timey Grecians, you see, were not bothered with arbitrary judgments and Puritanical mores; rather, they were dedicated to the ideals of beauty, truth, and moderation. Which brings us to the young boys.

The cultural ideal of a same-sex relationship was between an older man, probably in his 20's or 30's, known as the erastes, and a boy whose beard had not yet begun to grow, the eromenos or paidika. In this relationship there was courtship ritual, involving gifts (such as a rooster), and other norms. The erastes had to show that he had nobler interests in the boy, rather than a purely sexual concern. The boy was not to submit too easily, and if pursued by more than one man, was to show discretion and pick the more noble one.

I always thought it had to do with a big wooden horse (that's what they done learned us in school!), but apparently "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts" was really about older men plying you with farm animals in an attempt to get into your prepubescent crotch-toga.

We frown on such behavior today, especially in public, but if one were so inclined one could excuse the naughty, reprehensible acts of many of our clergy members, Scout leaders, and elected officials by viewing them in the context of this historical continuum. By way of example, one might suggest (though hopefully only for the purposes of comedy, of course), that the practice of Washington D.C. House members having inappropriate contact with Congressional pages is in fact the continuation of one of the earliest traditions of Democracy.

Mark Foley: disgraced perv-wad or champion of true democracy, ancient Greek-style? Tune in next time!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Car Bumpers: Don't Knock It 'Til You Have The Money To Pay For It

Mad Max: Beyond Union Street

I appreciate cars as much as the next doofus on the street, but I don't consider myself a "car person." Sure, I use them from time to time, and when I have the occasion to do so I find that I really enjoy the time to myself that driving affords me. I never listen to the radio anymore, except when I'm in a car by myself. And I love the exposure to the unknown that comes from listening to those weird channels down at the left end of the dial—there's nothing like the soul-tingling first strains of a 6 a.m. raga as the pre-dawn sky infiltrates the urban darkness with pale blue luminescence. Or if I'm lucky, the car that I'm borrowing has satellite radio, and I can catch up on some Howard Stern, now featuring the uncensored C-word.

(For the record I don't have a car of my own because I have nowhere to put it—my apartment is small enough as it is, and it's plenty tricky trying to justify to my "special lady" the need for space to house another bicycle, let alone a used Nissan.)

While I'm not anti-auto, I have little interest in thinking about what cars look like, or what they have under the hood, and I certainly can't be bothered with obsessing about the accumulation of either mud on the outside, or banana peels on the floor of the back seat. (I can't keep pulling over to look for a garbage can every time I have a snack, can I? I mean, let's be realistic here.)

Despite my inattentiveness to the non-utilitarian aspects of motor vehicles, I'm sensitive to the fact that my disinterest is not shared by everyone else. It doesn't take a long time living on this planet to realize that the frustrations and shortcomings of a great many of its residents are offset by the distractions of fawning over prized motor-vehicles. For example, there are absurdly colorful and over-horsepowered Asian motorcyles (favored in the NYC area by black dudes who for some reason adorn their heads with WWII German Army-style helmets, with I'm not sure what degree of historical/ironic awareness); boatloads of sport utility vehicles, which usually see only a small degree of utility, and even less sport; and of course, a myriad of Toyota Priuses (or is it Prii?), the favored car of self-important do-gooders—though with those miniscule rear windows, it's clear that greater awareness of the world around is not really that high of a priority for their drivers.

More of a sun-roof, isn't it?

While I like cars for their usefulness and convenience, unfortunatley what I see too much of is overblown attentivenes to the aesthetics of cars—a trend perpetuated by both the manufacturers and the end-users. (End-users are doofuses with driver's licences.) Car-makers build to appeal to consumers' egos and libidos, and when they successfully tap into these regions, Practicality quickly takes a back seat—where it finds a dvd player and enough Sponge Bob Square Pants to keep it occupied while the Ego—which is always at the wheel—and its copilot in the passenger seat, Libido, take a drive down Indulgence Avenue. And this is why we ended up with a ridiculous decade-long plague of SUVs.

It's also why car fenders have disappeared from the landscape.

You see, there once was a time when cars were endowed with fore- and aft-mounted protective attachments called “bumpers.” These served to protect your vehicle in the event of a slight physical encounter with another driver’s vehicle, a garbage can, or for those of us who hail from the upper, “countrified” parts of New York State, wayward farm animals.

Over the past decade or so, however, car bumpers have been enveloped by the glossy, eye-catching, and vaguely aerodynamic body-paneling that has left our roads overrun with two-ton jelly beans.

These days, unless you are in a profession that requires you to drive an outdated vehicle (farmer, old-school pimp, college professor), chances are your car is fully encased in fiberglass and plastic, making it more aesthetically pleasing than cars of yesteryear but much more susceptable to damage. Owing to this, you may find that you exist in a state of constant paranoia about the possibility of your car making even the slightest contact with any other object. And if another driver actually bumps your bumper-area with their bumper-area, you’ll both have to go (well, you'll have to wait for the fisticuffs to subside, and then go) to the body shop to have $400 or so worth of work done to restore your respective bumper-regions to their original contour and luster. (And possibly the hospital to restore the original contours of your now knuckled-up face regions.)

Any person I talk to, regardless of the income strata to which they belong, seems acutely concerned with money these days. Yet because of the irresistable appeal of a shinier, sleaker car, no one seems to mind the ridiculous automotive evolution toward bumperlessness and the accompanying increased risk of hefty and wholly unnecessary expenses. Instead, this ego-driven automotive frailty is itself cause to spend more money—on after-market protective products. In a deeply ironic twist that would leave Yakov Smirnov twitching like an overstimulated femme-bot, now you have to protect your bumper, whereas, presumably, in Soviet Russia, bumper protects you!

Civilian drivers have options like the “Bumper Badger,” which should be called the “Bumper Bumper,” because that’s what it is: a bumper you hang out of your trunk to protect your bumper. Professional drivers, also known as "hacks," drive around in yellow taxis which are outfitted with permanently-attached rubber protectors on the outer-edge of the car body. Put simply, these are miniature bumpers designed to protect the plastic body-paneling that covers the actual bumper.

Allow me to sum things up: your entire car has become a delicate and expensive trophy that you must protect with a rubber floor mat hung from out of the trunk. And this, of course, makes your pretty vehicle look like a sloppy piece of crap. It’s the equivalent of a nice sofa covered in protective plastic.

An object lesson in gaining a small benefit at the expense of a big heap of dignity. I suspect the driver wears a fanny-pack.

A brief stroll through Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood (home to Volvo-loads of college professors and their ilk) yielded an abundance of the Fenders of Yesteryear.

By the way, in the "tonier" parts of New York City, a car this old would be considered an eyesore, and traffic cops would find an excuse to ticket its owner in a New York minute. (A New York minute is like an ordinary minute, only it's preceeded by the words "New York.")

While the wheel wells of this car are slowly giving way to corrosion due to exposure to the New York elements dating back to before the Lindsay administration, the body appears to be, on the whole, remarkably intact. This impressive longevity surely has been made possible, in part, by the robust bumpers (and by the letter "H" and the number 6, since in Park Slope by law all things must be made relatable to children; "The Slope" caters to children like Times Square caters to tourists).

It may be old, but this is a bumper worthy of note. Not only does it protrude appreciably, it is held out from the car with what appear to be a couple of shock absorbers.

That thing's going to take quite a hit before the impact will do any damage to the rest of the vehicle. And anyone in Park Slope who is still driving an old car like that will have lost their patience with parallel parking long enough ago to put that fender through its paces more times than they've enjoyed a cold Kombucha.

Shortly after this find, I happened across a newer vehicle which illustrates just how fragile is the outer shell of a modern automobile.

And also how hollow.

Mind you, it's not entirely empty in there; note the layer of styrofoam under the exoskeleton. It's nice to know that in your 1500 lb. automobile you and you're family are afforded the same protection had by an 8 lb. toaster oven in it's original packaging, freshly purchased from P.C. Richard. And to be fair, maybe there wasn't always an empty compartment hidden within the faux-fender; judging from the amount of rust accumulated on the clearly non-stainless steel components in there, this accident took place some time ago, and it's entirely plausible that the foam packing peanuts all fell out after the accident.

The further I look into this (figuratively, that is—I didn't want to look any further into that car's bumper for fear of contracting tetanus), the more I'm convinced that a car's protective protuberance is basically akin to a bicycle helmet: it consists of hard foam padding encased in a plastic shell, and rather than reusing it you're supposed to throw it out after the occasion of any potentially damaging impact with the understanding that in serving its purpose its structural integrity has probably been compromised.

The Toyota owner has a choice: either pony up half a week's pay (or as it's known these days, a week's Unemployment) to take care of that gaping eyesore; or, just ignore it. Judging, again, by the block of rust peeking out from the bumper-mound, I think the owner has already made the choice.

I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that the most aesthetically-concerned of human beings are not going to be the most sensible, even when it comes to making choices that in the long run would ensure the aesthetic endurance of their own prized possessions. The little red Volkswagon, which has suffered so many decades in service of its Park Slope-dwelling owner to have developed an angst-ridden existentialist world-view of its very own, is adorned with a dorky but admirably pristine Fender of Yesteryear. The fairly new Toyota, in spite of its shimmery contours and modern safety technology, was quickly transformed (probably by a sub-5 m.p.h. impact in which only one of the vehicles was moving) into an undignified, sloppy piece of crap.

The good news is, you could probably fit a lot of banana peels in there.