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.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

MTV: Cultural Calorie Counting

The other night I was talked into watching the beginning of the annual World’s Largest Televised Train-Wreck: the MTV Video Music Awards. I tuned in just in time to see a “Pre-Show” collaboration between recording artists Nicki Minaj and Will I. Am.

The performance began with Minaj in a big pink beehive wig (it worked for Lady Gaga, right?!) and a space age Barbie outfit. And yet somehow, she still looked like a man. (Which means if nothing else, she at least succeeded in emulating Lady Gaga.)

Will "Black Eyed Peas" I. Am’s rubberized, plasticized and high-top-sneaker-accessorized outfit wasn't quite a matching Ken-doll. Instead he was the human incarnation of an obscenely priced—sorry, "collectible"—toy you’d find at a Kid Robot store.

It looks like Will has picked up on the Kanye-favored trend of emulating modern-Japanese-pop-culture-emulating-80’s-NYC-graffiti-culture. Which, as trends go, is less unfortunate than, for instance, the Rihanna strain of hip-hop couture, which is to say, jumping on the goth bandwagon 15 years after its apex.

On the other hand, Will's outfit may have been just a sooty homage to one of his personal style icons:

Truth be told, before seeing this I was largely unfamiliar with Minaj. A little research reveals that her real name is Onika Maraj. The more provocative “Minaj” is her stage name, which surely is short for “Minaj ah Twah.” And while on the subject, I assume "Will. I. Am." chose his name as a nod to the actor William Shatner, a.k.a. "Captain. James. T. Kirk." I'm not sure how I missed it before, but it's clear to me now that Mr. Am's getup is an obvious tribute to Shatner.

He's referencing Star Trek episode No. 21, "Patterns of Force," duh!

The funny thing is, after the performance, Mr. Am ended up seated in the audience, still wearing his costume. Showing up to sing in a wild outfit is memorable. Sitting around in your costume afterwards just makes you look like a dork.

Getting back to the catastrophe at hand, whenever I see a few minutes of the VMA’s (or pretty much anything on the "MTV") I’m always startled to see that they’re attempting to appeal to an even younger audience than the year before. This performance had adults dressed as, and acting like, toys. It was supposed to be futuristic, but the whole thing seemed like a hip-hop version of the Teletubbies.

The infantilization of popular culture continues on schedule. Soon there will be just one program, enjoyed equally by people of every age!

Remember when sampling was used to cook up a wildly creative musical gumbo? (Take a look at a list of only some of the sources for M.A.R.R.S.'s "Pump Up The Volume.") But now there's a simple recipe used to pan-fry easily digested hits like the above Minaj/Am tune:

- Loop a couple bars from an easily recognized 10 to 20 year old radio hit by someone whose career has wound down and who is happy to have the exposure.

- Add a "boom-crack" beat and call it a "track."

- Apply a generous drizzle of monotone rapping. (Substitute "monotone" with "tone-deaf" as needed.)

- Auto-Tune to taste and top with a sprinkling of backup dancers doing a "pop 'n' lock" Pinocchio routine.

Compared to the calorically-deficient fare served by the likes of the VMAs, "Pump Up The Volume" suddenly is looking very rich in cultural nutrients. No wonder young people raised on MTV consume so much media—they're the cultural equivalent of koala bears.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Idiocy Assist

I’ve recently learned that high-end cars can do all kinds of things to protect you from your own stupidity. Take the Mercedes E class.

It was once commonly believed that people who drove cars like this possessed superhuman driving abilities, or were just, you know, somehow better than the rest of us. But a glimpse behind the scenes reveals that the cars are doing a lot of the work, and that their owners may in fact have the driving skills of, say, your run-of-the-mill crackhead (the difference between the two types of people being just a matter of how they spend their money).

Let's have a look at the car itself. One of its many exciting features is "Attention Assist," which helps you to drive when you’re not paying attention. How does it work? A light comes on the dashboard that tells you to pay attention.

If you're too tired to watch the road, you might as well be reading some text down near the odometer. Pretty ingenious, really.

Also there's the “Blind Spot Assist,” which not only does a great job of perpetuating the myth that you have a “blind spot”—because drivers should never be so inconvenienced as to turn their heads more than 15 degrees—but also prevents you from entering that spot and possibly damaging your vehicle or killing the driver of a nearby lesser vehicle.

This illustration from Car And Driver shows the Blind Spot Assist in action:

Incidentally, it also illustrates a pretty tight attack formation. If only Darth Vader's gussied-up "TIE Fighter" had features like the E Class he could have avoided the collision with his own wing-henchman that sent him spinning off into space while his brand new "Death Star" got all blowed up.



If you're not already bowled over (by either the above car features or gratuitous pyrotechnics), then take note of this: the E Class even has “Speed Limit Assist,” which scans speed limit signs on the roadway for you. Then a light appears on the dashboard to alert you to the speed limit. As we already know, you should not be expected to pay attention to anything further away than your dashboard.

Note that with this feature speed limits are displayed in kilometers for maximum pretension.

I have to admit that add-ons like these represent some serious innovation—at long last there's a car perfectly tailored to the needs of the semi-functioning alcoholic. Really, it's amazing the lengths the enablers at Mercedes-Benz will go to keep the overworked and self-important behind the wheel.

Advertising is often about appealing to the inner child. Mercedes has taken this a step further, and is creating vehicles to fully empower the perpetually immature and/or inebriated. Even a full-grown certified imbecile (think Sloth from The Goonies) might have a shot at getting home from the local Dairy Queen in one of these. Safety features are a good thing when it comes to automobiles, but still, cars are like wills, in that you should be of sound mind and body if you're going to operate one. If this automotive trend continues, pretty soon the highways are going to look like this:

I just hope one of them has their eyes on the dashboard.