Thursday, August 31, 2006

Because that stupid mall and the Spoonbridge just aren't cutting it anymore...

Minneapolis is not one of America’s top destinations. This is no secret and I see no use in trying to obscure it. When people around the world decide to journey to our country, they usually want to go to New York, San Francisco, Miami, Chicago or some other place where there’s actually stuff to see and do. Sure, maybe a few people head out to the Mall of America on extended plane layovers, but I assure you that there’s nobody over in Barcelona or Bratislava or Bangkok salivating over a dream vacation to the Twin Cities. As far as the tourist world goes, we’re just sitting there, stinking up the map.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. You see, I’ve figured out a simple, inexpensive way to get hordes and hordes of foreign and domestic travelers flocking to our fair town. All we have to do is put up the world’s tallest building. We’ve got plenty of open land where we can do it, and we’ve got thousands of able archetects, engineers and workers who would be glad to be a part of
such a historic project. Once the Insomnia Tower is completed, we can just sit back and rake in the easy tourism dollars that come rolling in. One day’s t-shirt sales alone should be enough to cover that city-wide wi-fi that Mayor Rybak’s always gassing about.

There will, of course, be challenges that need to be faced. Foremost among these is the stiff competition from many Asian nations. Tall-assed buildings are sprouting up over there faster than you can spit. Yesterday, the world’s tallest building was in Kuala Lumpur, today it’s in Taipai, and tomorrow it’ll be in Dubai. It’s getting so bad that our own mighty Sears Tower will soon seem like just a mid-sized condo building next to these mighty structures. I have particular anxieties about the Burj Dubai, which will allegedly stand 162 stories high, or a whopping 2,650 feet. That is, I’m sure you’ll agree, pretty fucking tall.

I never thought I’d see the day when America fell behind in really fucking tall buildings. What have we come to as a nation? Are we going to sit on our enormous asses and let the United Arab Emirates top the Sears Tower by a thousand feet? Or are we going to have some pride, get out there, and build an even taller building?

I think the answer is clear. But we have to do this right. We can’t just beat Dubai’s effort by a meter or two. That’ll just provoke Seoul or Hong Kong to throw up a building six meters bigger than ours, thus sticking us with the lame, embarrassing distinction of having the world’s second tallest building. I won’t settle for this. This is why I propose that the Insomnia Tower of Minneapolis should settle the “who’s got the biggest building?” question for good. Yes, I’m saying that our building should be 400 stories high and measure at least 6,425 feet, not counting the optional radio tower. This isn’t just some male anxiety thing, I assure you. This is about the future of my city and my country.

Some of you out there—and you know who you are—might question the wisdom of using public funding to finance a super-tall building. Well, if that’s the way you’re going to be about it, then why don’t you do us all a favor and treat yourself to a nice box of fine Belgian shut the hell up? Because, let’s face it, you’re haters. You all have your PhD.s, and by that I’m referring of course to your player hater degree. Which isn’t a good degree to have, and you should have majored in science or something. Because the only job you’re going to be able to find is selling Haterade by the side of the Hater Highway, which runs between Sucktown and Your Mamma.

And I realize that there are others of you who have legitimate concerns that a building so awesome would be a natural target for terrorists. Well, let me put your minds at ease: no terrorist would ever dream of attacking the Insomnia Tower. Why is that? Well, simply because there’s not going to be anything in the Insomnia Tower. I’m realistic enough to understand that Minneapolis can’t possibly find enough corporations, residents or stores to fill 400 stories, and that’s why I propose that the city use it as storage for old boxes, broken copy machines, and all that other stuff that just clutters up your work place.

Also, I picture a laser beam on top of it. This isn’t so much for obliterating terrorists as it is for vaporizing my sworn enemies. Don’t concern yourself excessively with the details of the laser. I can assure you the laser will only be used with the utmost discretion.

The Sponge and Cynicism...

Mr. Sponge over at Minvolved posted a thought-provoking piece yesterday. In it, he discusses a lot of the problems with contemporary political discourse. He theorizes that middle-class economic anxiety—the dawning realization that we no longer live in a world of unending prosperity—has provoked an era where cynicism and pessimism have largely supplanted other, more hopeful frames of reference. This leads to a mindset in which, to quote the Sponge, “the traditional solutions to our interests/concerns inhabit mechanisms that no longer exist as valid options in many, many people’s minds. Media, government, well-established (and accepted) social bonds like the separation of church and state: these things are now treated with a surprising amount of insincerity and, in some cases, outright maliciousness.”

Mr. Sponge then comes to the conclusion that this widespread condition cannot be overcome by more insincerity and more maliciousness. He writes “we began to realize something that we should have realized long ago: cynicism/irony many not be the best way to go about our business. It’s not working and it’s only good for choir preaching.” He then concludes by promising to leave the snark and ridicule behind, in order to focus on “things like policy and communication strategy”.

I have some thoughts on this. First off, I never considered Mr. Sponge’s work to be excessively negative or ironic. To me, he’s always put thought before invective, argument before insult, and analysis before angry ranting. Sure, he’ll call a boob a boob, but he’s a million times removed from those bloggers who thunder and rage day in and day out. He’s got a nuanced, intelligent take on local and national politics, which is why it’s a good thing that he’s going to turn his talents to encouraging positive change instead of simply commenting on how dumb the dumb shit we’re all swimming in is. He’s good at that too, of course, but that gets dull for people with the ability and inclination to do more.

The thing you realize pretty quick when writing about politics is this: bitterness is boring. Getting outraged every day is boring. Mocking some new moron is boring. It’s boring to read and it’s boring to write. It never ceases to amaze me how many websites out there, both on the right and left, are little more than complaint-a-thons. That’s a dead end. It’s the McDonalds of writing—it’s quick, it’s cheap and sometimes it even feels good going down, but it’s still bad for you, it’ll still turn you into a gassy, blubbery boor. That’s no way to live.

And I say that as someone who can be incorrigibly cynical, at least where politics are concerned. It might sound odd, but I consider political cynicism a viable alternative to partisanship. I hate that bullshit where otherwise intelligent people will act like their candidate has decency, honor and vision in a headlock. I also hate that tendency to reduce differences in ideology to a war of lifestyles (Mr. Sponge writes about this today)—a football match with Volvo driving liberals versus Hummer-cherishing conservatives, each with their own “see-no-evil” cheering sections. Cynicism strikes me as a better, more honest, option than that. Expecting universal corruption seems to me a more realistic and honorable approach than defending a particular ideology or cast of mind as universally virtuous.

But that doesn’t mean that cynicism is the ideal approach. It’s more of a defensive maneuver than anything else, and the knee-jerk cynic is just as ugly, if not uglier, than any other knee-jerker. What’s the best option then? Well, it’s probably standing up for what you believe and working to make the world a better place, without gullibility or too many illusions, but also without resentment, anger or self-righteousness. An easy state to imagine, but a difficult one to attain. Mr. Sponge has already made it, though, so you should just read his website for some tips on how to get there...

Goodbye to a great writer...

Yesterday, Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz passed away. I’m not as familiar with his work as I should be, but I read Arabian Nights and Days a few years ago and loved it. I’d like to read more of his work. Looking at his obituaries and tributes to his talent, he seems like an admirable person. It takes real courage to stand up for liberal humanism is a region where advocating for such things is too often a death sentence. It takes real dignity to remain modest even after you’ve been given the Nobel Prize and hailed as the Arab world’s greatest writer. With any luck, his words and his memory will one day help to inspire a renaissance of great art and genuine freedom across the Middle East.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Stupid things the United States hasn't tried yet...

1) Outlawing kittens

We have to face it: the United States is a kitten-friendly society. While the ownership of these creatures is not necessarily encouraged, except by nonfederal entities like Cat Fancy magazine, kitten-lovers certainly face no persecution or legal strictures in today’s America. They are free to go about their business, spreading their pro-kitten agenda so finely that most of us don’t even recognize it as an agenda at all. You ask any random person on the streets of Manhattan, Topeka or Tuscon what first pops into their mind when you say “kitten” and an alarmingly-high percentage of them will respond with “cute”. Clearly, kittens have become “normalized” in our society and few ever stop to ask themselves “Why do we put up with these crazed, vomit-prone beasts?”. Obviously, the time is ripe for a bold political figure to step up and force us citizens to decide which side we’re on. Are we on the side of the Bible, which says “Yea, and verily the Lord spake unto the Hashamanezzites: do not bring into your house the child of Felix, for he is ill-behaved and with foul claws he shall rendest thou raiments.”, or are we on the side of the secularist, “if-it-feels-furry-pet-it”-minded, Hollywood-funded, pro-kitten lobby?

2) Declaring Tuesday “National Pantsless Day”

We’ve reached a point in history where the U.S.A.’s image has outstripped all its actual powers. In fact, one could argue that our superpower status is preserved mostly by marketing—our economy is a bunch of debt and deficit spending, our culture revolves around watching TV and firing guns at things, and our schoolchildren are massive blobs of suet and entitlement who treat their teachers like Jabba the Hut treats Princess Leia. But, almost miraculously, we still manage to sell ourselves as a youthful, vibrant society full of enthusiasm, energy and more hot blondes than you can shake a stick at. If the rest of the world ever figures out what we’re really like, we’ll be begging Bolivia for emergency aid faster than you can shout “Blame the Democrats!”

Therefore, it is imperative that we preserve this bubble of illusion at all costs. And that requires most of us to leave our pants on when we’re in public. Because, were the world media to pick up on the unprecedented size and cottage-cheesy texture of our asses, the striving billions around the world would be appalled. All that freedom and all that money and that’s all you have to show for it?, they’d ask and from that point on, when they dream of a better life, they’ll be dreaming of Australia.

3) Attacking Iran

There exists, ‘round Afghanistan way, a Muslim nation whose millions of people often suffer under draconian theocratic strictures and an insufficiently-democratic government. Their leadership veers between bellicosity and instability, while their foreign policy often consists of little more than threats to neighboring nations. In fact, this country’s intelligence services have often been accused of encouraging, sponsoring and carrying out terrorist attacks within a nearby non-Muslim nation. This nation—a staunch U.S. ally, by the way—has long been embroiled in a convoluted, seemingly-intractable territorial dispute, and this conflict has become a rallying cry to extremists and scapegoating politicians. Luckily for world peace, our ally is in possession of a whole bunch of nuclear missiles. Whew! Could you imagine how different and deadly the balance of power would be if the other guys got their hands on some of those? I mean, it’s a nightmare scenario, isn’t it? Those people are undemocratic! They’re beholden to religious fanatics! They’ve dirtied their hands with terrorists! Man, I don’t know if I could take it if people like that ever develop...

Wait! What’s that you say? Pakistan already has nuclear weapons? No shit? Well, I guess I’ll just crawl under my bed and wait for the world to end...

But I was going to talk about Iran. Seriously, I think there should be a rule: if you and your cronies send us into one needless, bloody, failed war based on trumped up bullshit and your proven ability to scare people into ignoring the facts, you don’t get to do the same goddamn thing less than five years later. I’m sick of hearing all this “Ahmadinejad is Hitler” shit. Yes, he’s a scary man. Yes, he’s angling to be the big fish in the Middle East. Yes, he’s a menace to Israel. Given that all this is true (and I see no reason to believe that it isn’t), then maybe we should have gone about this whole "War on Terror" thing in a way that didn't strengthen his hand so much. Or, at the very least, maybe someone somewhere in official Washington should have imagined this possibility before we got bogged down with this Iraq business. But no, we elected a bunch of half-assed adventurers instead of competent leaders, and now we’re stuck with this “Saddam was the Hitler of 2003, but Ahmadinejad is this year’s Hitler” business.

So they’ll dust off their “mushroom-cloud-smoking-gun” rhetoric, they’ll bring back their solemn blather about our hand being forced, they’ll wrap themselves in the flag once again and all their screeching ninny enablers and all their bloodthirsty war groupies will get back in their fantasy tanks to grandstand in favor of thousands more dead working-class kids, thousand more dead Middle Easterners. What ever you do, don’t listen to those fuckers. They haven’t been right about a damn thing. These are the sort of people who couldn’t beat a six year old at Risk without cheating, without calling the kid’s stuffed animals traitors. They ought to be retired to jobs where they can’t hurt anyone.

4) Changing the national anthem to “Jump Around”, by House of Pain

You might laugh at me, but I really like “The Star-Spangled Banner”. It gets made fun of a lot for being pompous, but this isn’t fair. It’s actually a stirring anthem composed for a young, war-forged nation and it’s clearly meant to convey the glory and grandeur of a brave people and their brilliant new way of life, forged as it was in fire and adversity. Which is to say that it’s more precocious than pretentious—sort of like an overdramatic fifteen year old’s “Sorrowful Black Flower of my Misery” poems. There’s something charming in its mawkishness, and I think it’s good to hear the inspired bunkum of our early days every now and then. That was a heady time, and heady times inspire flamboyant songs. You’ve just gotta learn to live with it.

Besides, it’s not like there’s some other great tune just waiting in the wings. Sure, a lot of sentimental leftists like “This Land Is Your Land”, but can anyone really call that an improvement? It’s sluggish, pendantic and melodically weak—perfect for a bunch of kindergarteners to mumble through, but nothing to kick off a ball game with. Springsteen’s “Born to Run” isn’t a realistic option, I’m afraid, and neither is Television’s “Marquee Moon”. If I had to choose, I’d personally like Benny Moré’s “Babarabatiri” to get the nod, but I’ve got to be pragmatic here. The U.S.A. probably won’t be ready for a Spanish-language anthem for at least thirty years.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Blogging: Sexier Than Sudoko?

I’ve been doing this website for a long time now, and I still really enjoy it. Spouting off on the internet is a blast, and I heartily encourage all wordy, opinionated, writer-type people to give it a try. I don’t buy into the arguments that blogs are the second coming of the Gutenberg-Bible and promise to revolutionize human discourse and demolish the old, hidebound pundit and publishing cartels of yesteryear. When that sort of talk crops up, I stop listening. There’s no need to get pompous about all this, especially when a blog is pretty much just a place on the internet for someone to rant, plead, complain, criticize, entertain or enumerate all their sexual exploits in mind-numbing detail. There’s nothing magical about it. As a forum for truth and human connection, it’s just one among many, and not one of best of them. As a hobby, it’s kind of nerdy.

That last sentence might strike you as a little rash. Sure, what I do here at the Insomnia Report might seem to be pretty glamorous stuff, but it’s really just a lot of sitting in front of the computer, typing stuff in. It’s not as swashbuckling and romantic as it appears. Think of it as sort of like Indiana Jones. Everybody watches those movies and imagines that Indy’s whole life is jet-setting around Arabia, chillin’ with John Rhys-Davies, and melting Nazis. This is far from the case. Most of the time, he’s safely ensconced at his university, teaching undergraduates the basics of archaeology. It’s sort of like that for us bloggers. The globe-trotting and the seduction and the tank battles are a remarkably small sliver of what we do—the lion’s share of our work takes place in cubicles, basements and coffeeshops.

So, yeah, some days it can be a little less-than-exciting, but it’s not the worst leisure time activity out there. Here are a few that are even less stimulating

1) Bird Watching

Here’s a free tip for all the bird-watchers out there: birds are stupid and obnoxious. They make annoying sounds, they swoop around like meth-fiend fighter pilots, and most of them don’t even carry enough meat on them to qualify as good eating. It’s beyond me why anyone would want to watch these wingy vermin. Will they one day do something interesting? Are they plotting to take over the world? Sure, a few might have pretty feathers, but does that really justify trooping deep into wood-tickistan to look at them? Cars can be colorful too, and all you have to do is go down to the nearest freeway overpass to see them...

2) Beer Tasting

I may be permanently banned from Central Europe for saying this, but all beer tastes pretty much the same: like shit. You can take the finest beer in all of Germany, and to me it’ll still taste like water that’s been left for a week in a farmworker’s boot. Beer snobbery is a strange phenomena, sort of akin to bickering over which pile of manure is the neatest. But God knows people get passionate about their pissy-colored loaf-of-bread barf beverage. Why? Not because they’re evil, not because they’re foolish, but because no one’s told them that Diet Coke is the only drink worth imbibing every single day. It starts out fresh and chemical-tasting, goes down smooth and chemical-tasting, and finishes up delicious and chemical-tasting. What else could anyone ask for?

3) Civil War Re-enacting

Look, I like history as much as the next person. I even like the idea of getting up in old-timey costumes and prancing around in some field somewhere. But let’s not get any illusions about what we’re doing here. I mean, if these buffs had any interest in re-creating history with any verisimilitude, they’d have to have a third of both armies run away before the fighting even began. And then they’d have to have the remaining platoons shoot the shit out of each other with crappy old muskets. And then they’d have to take the twenty surviving people on each side and bring them to a filthy, muddy tent nearby, where their arms and legs would be amputated without anaesthetic. And then they’d have to do sneak back to the battlefield in the middle of the night to loot the thousands of rotting, mangled corpses strewn there. Of course, if they did all that, no one would bring their kids and their picnic dinners to see these things. But they should. Kids need to know the truth: the Civil War really, really, really sucked.

4) Dungeons and Dragons

There was a time when I thought it would be cool to play Dungeons and Dragons. I was the sort of kid who could get into the idea of decapitating orcs with an enchanted broadsword. So, when I was about eleven, I bought (or, more accurately, conned my parents into buying) the introductory set and got a bunch of people together to role-play with me. But, instead of awesome troll-fighting adventures, we were faced with a strange array of dice, a novel-thick instruction booklet, and the prospect of sitting for hours in my family gameroom, imagining we were elves and dwarves. After about fifteen minutes, we ditched it to go play outside. It’s probably still gathering dust in my parent’s basement.

The United States of America is a Spanish-speaking nation...

I believe that everyone in the United States should speak a little Spanish. I wish that they’d encourage it, or even require it, more often in schools. There are millions of Spanish-speakers in this country, and there are hundreds of millions more in the countries and continent directly to our south. America—and by that I mean the whole of America, and not just the U.S.A.—is a whole lot of Latin, a little bit Anglo, and a tiny sliver Franco. We ought to be able to communicate with our neighbors, I think. Learning their tongue will, in the end, benefit us both: ideas and understanding could flow more freely across borders and cultures, enriching everyone in the process. Does that sound utopian? Well, I’ll admit to being a little utopian sometimes. Don’t hate me for it.

Despite the perennial pushes to make English our “official language”, the United States has never been and will never be a monolingual nation. Government fiat cannot impose a backwards nativist pipe dream on a land as vast and diverse as ours. It’s foolish, not to mention ignorant, even to attempt such a thing. English is in no danger from immigrants. English isn’t going anywhere. If people are worried about that, they shouldn’t be. If people are worried that a Latin horde is about to sweep over them and ruin their way of life, they should look into their own lives and try and figure out why they turned into such a bigot. There are lots of things to fear in this world, but that isn’t one of them.

But even among those who aren’t caught up in a xenophobic line of argument, too often the knee-jerk response is “Why should we accomodate these people? Why should we speak their language in this country?” This is, when you get right down to it, a strange way of looking at things. You don’t feel like you’re accommodating mathematicians when you take algebra, after all. You don’t feel like you’re accommodating surgeons when you study anatomy. By the same token, you don’t accommodate anyone by learning their language, you enhance your own abilities. It’s probably the arrogance of being born into the world economy’s dominant language that makes us think that learning a language is something we do to indulge others, not something we do to better ourselves.

Speaking personally, I hope to improve my Spanish very soon. I took five years of it, but my skills are pretty rusty. I’m good at ordering in a Mexican restaurant, and I can read the signs on the Latin-American businesses around my neighborhood, but I’m utterly lost after thirty seconds of slow conversation or five milliseconds of Univision. I can write a few sentences in passable baby Spanish, but I can’t pronounce certain words and finding out how to get to the best nightclub in Guadalajara, Buenos Aires or Santiago would require several awkward minutes and a great deal of patience on everyone’s part. I’m not satisfied with this state of affairs. I want to be fluent. I’ll have to take some more classes, I suppose. I also want to be fluent in French and Portugese, but these are further down the road. One tongue at a time, that’s the way to do it.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Filthy fetish a go-go, part zwei!

Continuing from this post below, here are a few more fetishes I just can't figure out...


This isn’t just a strange thing for someone to be into, it’s downright traitorous. Listen up, “ASFRians”---robots are not compassionate, thoughtful, gentle sexual partners. They aren’t even the sleek, shiny, pretty-woman shaped things that your airbrush artists and fan-fiction authors are trying to sell you. They’re boxy and unappealing creatures who are hell-bent on seizing control of the planet and turning all of us into their slaves. It’s just a matter of time before they eradicate free will, outlaw the concept of love and force us all to spend our miserable, drone lives toiling in the salt pits of Mars.

I suspect that the thin segment of the population who pretends to lust after them is just angling for better treatment after the coming robot revolution. In this, they are fools. Our robot overlords are appalled at our senseless, messy reproductive habits and they will remorselessly spay and neuter our entire species (except, of course, for a small group of “breeders” who they will preserve in order to ensure a steady supply of salt-pit slaves). Do you think you can go up to a X42-D101 Version 1.2 Mankiller Droid with a bunch of roses, a stupid line, and a freshly-pressed button down shirt? Do you think its hardware ports will start to lubricate themselves when you boast of your tech-support prowess? Think again, dork. It’s phaser eyes will not hesitate to incinerate you on the spot, and it’s evil collaborators will make sure that even your family soon forgets that you ever existed.

And while we’re on the subject, let’s turn to another post-human fetish:


This has to be the most depressing practice to come along in the internet’s wake. It makes dialing 1-800 numbers to hear a recording make orgasmy sounds in your ear seem like a three-day orgy. Look: I’m a language geek. If there’s anyone who would appreciate the ease and convenience of just typing down the sordid things you want to do to someone, it would be me. But I don’t. I don’t even a little bit. I’m too damn ironic about everything; my imagination won’t let me make the crucial leap. Were I to instant message some stranger in Scranton something like, “I’m pulling down your PANTIES with my TEETH!!!!111!”, I wouldn’t be thinking “Oh boy! I’m pulling down her PANTIES with my TEETH!” Hell no: I’d be thinking something along the lines of, “Good Lord, this is weird. I really ought to get out more.”

I would also be embarrassed that I wrote such drivel. The lit-snob in me would far prefer to take a few minutes and come up with a sentence that really made the underpants-dental union sound powerful and fresh. Something with rhythm to it, a unique cadence that appeals to the ear and yet still conveys the primal nature of the act itself. That sort of thing takes time, though, and I’m afraid my sweet partner in Scranton would fall out of “the mood” and go back to her Ebay bids if I did that.

American women who are into guys with British accents

Technically not a fetish, true, but no red-blooded Yankee heterosexual can argue with me on this one. You’re in the bar, chatting up some young lovely, and it seems like you’re doing pretty well for yourself. You’ve already positioned yourself as a sort of rougish bad-boy with a deep-down wounded heart and you’ve just started dropping hints about your impressive CD collection, your profound respect for animal life, and your willingness to get her name tattooed in prison calligraphy across your broad and sturdy pectoral muscles. It seems like it might almost be time to make that embarrassing, awkward-but-charming declaration of your affections or, at the very least, ask for her phone number. But then, at that very moment and from out of nowhere appears Nigel Boddingsley, aka Accent Guy, aka Your Nemesis. You might as well just give up, go home, and get a round of cybersex going with that girl from Scranton, because you’re doomed, my friend.

There’s no stopping Accent Guy. Only 3.32% of single American women under the age of 36 are immune to his charms. You doubt me? There’s science backing me up on this one. You want to see the science? I can produce the science. The science is around here somewhere. I’ll get back to you on the science. But what the science says, essentially, is that it doesn’t matter if Accent Guy is talking about his family estate in Sussex, his great and abiding love for the Queen, or the thirty dead bodies he has in freezers in his basement—virtually all American women will fall in love with him on the spot. And this is wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong. Because, and I’m afraid to say it for fear of unleashing a torrent of criticism, British men don’t speak English properly. They make a hash out of a lot of easy words and they use expressions which have gone by the wayside in civilized society. There’s nothing appealing about that, and I just wish that you American ladies would stop pretending that there was.

It is true, however, that British women all have glorious voices like magical sparrows from heaven. They are brilliant, captivating, delightful creatures and they should be encouraged to come over to America, specifically Minnesota, in greater abundance.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Filthy fetish a-go-go!

Okay, so I’m writing this novel. I don’t want to talk about what it’s about, what it’s like, or what it’s all going to mean when it’s finished—I avoid those subjects because they’re boring and because I honestly don’t know. As I go on with it, however, various motifs and themes necessarily develop. One of these, perhaps the biggest, revolves around the concept of fetishes. It’s a pretty rich vein, actually, both in metaphoric significance and dirty joke potential. When you boil it down, the habit of taking a single preferred detail standing in or substituting for the entire experience is a extremely popular one, especially within the artistic sphere. In this sense, a novel or a play or a piece of music could be understood as a sort of fetish for life itself.

But I don’t want to get too cosmic about it. Recently---and entirely in the interests of advancing literature, of course---I’ve been looking around the internet to learn more about exotic sexual fetishes. And, after a few hours of doing this I’ve come to one inescapable conclusion, as simple as it is profound: people are perverts. Dirty, dirty perverts. Perverts, perverts, perverts. A bunch of...PERVERTS!



(but it’s okay, if that’s your thing)





Anyway, I tend to separate fetishes into one of two categories: the ones I understand and the ones I don’t. The first group, for me, is made up of the kinks that have at least a tangential relationship to human sexuality as I concieve of it. Take someone who gets all horny over feet, for instance. Feet are part of the human body, the human body is a major aspect of sexuality, and therefore I can understand why people fetishize it. I don’t share that particular quirk, but it doesn’t seem entirely out in left field. The same goes for most of the common vanilla fetishes: your panty freaks and your breast-o-philes, your hairy-person lovers and your hairless-person lovers, your leather studs and your rubber vixens. In this group, I also put most of the “BDSM” spectrum, since pain, humiliation, restraint, and dominant/submissive relationships are part of many people’s sexual lives. You can consider it unhealthy and unpleasant, but it’s still there.

Whether extreme or extremely run-of-the-mill, all those fetishes are based on things that are already considered erotic by a large swath of humanity: appearances, clothing, certain emotions, the sensual world in general. The other group, then, strikes me as more strange and ridiculous because the fetishes in it are connected with objects and practices that I consider well beyond the domain of eroticism. Shall we look at a few of these? We shall!


Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I fail to see what’s so sexy about balloons. They stink, they’re scary when they explode in your face, and they remind me of children’s birthday parties. There’s nothing hot there, I’m afraid. Yet according to Wikipedia, there are plenty of people who disagree with me on this. In fact, there’s so many of them that they had to split into two camps: the “poppers”, the sort who “enjoy blow-to-pop, in which the balloon is continually inflated until it ultimately bursts, and is commonly most fully enjoyed when executed by a partner or member of the sex to which the popper is attracted”, and the “non-popper”, who “dislikes (often vehemently) destroying the balloon but instead chooses to admire and interact with it”. I guess there’s something sweet and innocent about all this, but in the end I think even the most avid “looner” has to admit that it’s pretty damn weird.

Still, as a fetish, balloons have their advantages. They’re cheap, they’re abundant, they’re legal, and they’re portable. I mean, think of the longing and frustration someone who’s turned on by nuclear submarines must feel. Or the guy who can’t control himself around wind turbines. Or the lady who feels an irresistible lust for mid-18th century quill pens. Those are the sort who can’t even get an internet support group together.

Anyway, next time you’re on a hot air balloon ride, you might want to take a look at your fellow passengers. Is there one who seems a little too excited during take-off? Is there one who can’t stop looking up, even when all the scenery is down below? If there is, you better hope that they’re a “non-popper”. Otherwise you might be in trouble.


Back when I was a kid, I had a part-time job dressing up as a koala bear at the Minnesota zoo. So I’m in the select group of “non-furries” who knows what it’s like to get up in a big, fuzzy animal costume. And you wanna know what? While it certainly is hot and sweaty, it's hot and sweaty in all the wrong ways. I mean, I was sixteen when I did this, so I was thinking about sex approximately every third millisecond. But when I was “in character” you know how often I thought of it? Not once. You know why? Because I was too busy entertaining children, goddamnit! And, eventually, I was too busy trying to see through the gallons of sweat pouring into my eyes! And, as my shift wore on, I had to devote all my energy to not passing out. If Kevin the Koala passed out, there stood the distinct possibility that some gentle-spirited zoo-going preschooler would be scarred for life. And no one wanted that.

The whole fur-suit thing is just going to be one of those fandom hang-ups I’m never going to understand. And that’s fine. People do all sorts of unusual things, from starting wars for no reason to not flushing the toilet after they shit. Dressing up in squirrel outfits and rolling around on the carpet is less malignant than either of those, I suppose.


I’m sorry, but this is just nasty. There’s no excuse for it. People who are into this should try harder not to be. Throwing up is the least sexy activity the human body is capable of. I don’t care if I’ve got Angelina Jolie herself up in my apartment, if she’s throwing up it’s not something I want to see, listen to, or take part in. If I flout this rule, there’s a very real danger that I could start vomiting myself, thus turning my evening with Angelina—which should have been all about Bordeaux wine, candlelight, and all the reasons why my CD collection is superior to Brad Pitt’s--- into nothing more than a disgusting, disgusting puke fest. No, no, no: the whole “Roman shower” thing is just wrong. Wrong, I say! I’m no puritan by any means, but there comes a time when a responsible citizen has to stand up, put his foot down, and say, with his voice proud and sure, “Throwing up to get your sexual kicks is not the sort of thing I want to be associated with, kindly putting aside the fact that I just wrote about it...”

Friday, August 25, 2006

A quick question...

Can anyone out there recommend a good one or two CD compilation of classic flamenco music? I'm looking to broaden my horizons. Thanks!

Campus radicals and the evil liberal scheme to steal the minds of America's baristas and office temps...

I read a lot about how colleges—particularly their humanities departments—are bastions of leftism where throwback commie professors attempt to brainwash the young and idealistic into accepting all sorts of sinister pinko notions. Is this for real? I think I have some perspective on this, since I’m a former English major who’s taken so many humanities courses I’ve virtually unemployable. My experience, at a medium-sized private university somewhere in the Midwest, was a pretty typical one, based on what I’ve heard from conversations with my fellow ex-liberal arts types. Essentially, it boils down to this: Do college humanities departments skew to the left? Yeah, they do. Is this a problem? Not at all.

Most schools, if they’re anything like mine, have a small minority of professors who could be described as far-leftists. It seems that most of these people are long-tenured and thus able to teach only classes with titles like “The Gender Politics of Soviet Literature” or “The Aesthetics of Oppression” or “Narratives of Resistance”. In my experience, most students steer clear of these, preferring to take classes that might actually get them a job one day or, at the very least, be somewhat fun. You know, like stuff on Shakespeare or crime fiction or the history of pornography. But the “Lets Stick It To The Man In As Many Words As Possible” courses do attract a few to a few dozen kids, and this clique is usually what critics are talking about when they bring up “the campus left”.

They get rhetorically abused so often because they’re such easy targets. With tons of passion and admirable idealism but very little sense, they tend to go from folly to folly with the self-seriousness that only nineteen year olds who have gone straight from their cul-de-sacs to their first solidarity meeting can muster. The handful of professors these sort consider uncorrupt usually have their hearts in their right place but their often-brilliant minds are stuck in another era. Everyone who’s been around them can come up with a few dozen anecdotes illustrating their zany antics. My personal favorite from my college years was the gay religion professor who could always be counted on for a kind word about Castro’s Cuba, always sidestepping the thorny issue of El Commandante’s abuse and imprisonment of his island’s homosexuals. A close second was the tweedy guy who forced all his students to read a long, impenetrable scholarly article that intended to prove that Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” was really about poor people precisely because the poem never once mentions poor people. Or maybe it was the conference they threw on the topic of “whiteness”, which basically boiled down to pointing out, as torturously as possible, that some people have white skin and have been given unearned privileges because of this.

This may well all be incredibly dumb, but so what? All sorts of dumb stuff happens when you’re in college, most of it wholly apolitical. Whether it’s drinking seventeen bottles of Zima in an hour or going back to that crazy Wiccan’s dorm room, college has become a place where our culture allows its middle-class youth to act the fool. So maybe you’ve got a few suburban kids who grow dreadlocks and throw themselves into the Free Mumia thing, what does it hurt? Sixties nostalgia may run deep in campus culture, but it’s not like anyone’s blowing up cop cars or occupying buildings anymore. It’s easy for some jaded, bitter bastard like me to argue that campus radicals are wrong or misguided or whatever, but it’s hard to make a case that they’re dangerous or in any way influential.

Still, conservative pundits often like to take “the left” and collapse it down from a broad spectrum of opinion to it’s narrow, parochial extreme. That way they don’t have to engage with the actual arguments and ideas coming from liberalism, they can just point out that “the left” loves Hugo Chavez and have us all be discredited because of that. It’s one of the Jedi mind tricks the right has been really successful with—reducing liberalism and left-liberalism to a wild-eyed fifth column in the minds of thousands of gullible Americans. I mean, I’m on the “the left” and I don’t think that Mumia Abu Jamal was railroaded. I’m on “the left” and I think our nation needs a large, well-armed military. I’m on “the left” and I’m uncomfortable with identity politics. I’m on “the left” and I believe that most violent, predatory criminals will not and cannot be rehabilitated. There is no contradiction in any of this. The left’s a pretty big place, after all. I don’t feel the need to apologize for the extremists on my half of the political spectrum, especially since so many on the right side of the aisle seem pretty comfortable with theirs. There will always be extremists, fundamentalists and cranks. The trick is recognizing them for what they are and keeping them out of power.

But I’m straying from the point. The point is that the balance of my college classes didn’t offer much opportunity for political indoctrination. The ones that did present such an opportunity seldom turned into anything of the sort. And, on the rare occasions that they did, no one paid much attention anyway. Most of my English professors were probably liberals of some sort, but I’m really only guessing since it never really came up. They were professionals first, and they always seemed eager to discuss any idea that their students put forth, no matter if it was conservative or libertarian or whatever. In fact, given the blank stares and bored yawns that was usually the extent of our participation, most of them probably would have traded their beards for an impassioned Young Republican willing to spar with them. One of the best things about an education in the humanities is that it’s a chance to bat around ideas and worldviews dispassionately and in good faith, to listen to people with different beliefs and then try to challenge these or come to an accommodation with them. There aren’t a lot of opportunities to do this outside the academic sphere, unfortunately, and I honestly believe that most professors—when they’re in the classroom, at least—are far more committed to an open, rigorous exchange of thoughts than they are to their own political party or their pet cause. There will always be axe-grinders and losers who abuse their authority but, again, they shouldn’t be taken to represent the whole.

So what are these charges about rampant campus bias about? I don’t buy that it’s all about free speech, as is sometimes argued. Restrictive speech codes and “P.C.” language policing have largely gone by the wayside, fortunately enough. Conservatives rightly protest these things, but when the “campus radical left” trope comes up in the absence of this concern, as part of their general “bias” complain, I can’t help but wonder what their motives are. Do they want more conservatives teaching, say, semiotics? Do these right-leaning semiotics professors even exist? Or do they want professors to be required to hew to some “equal time” code of ethics, where they must give the conservative point of view an airing every time something liberal gets said? Who decides what the conservative point of view is? Who’s omniscient enough to make an objective chart of political bias and its required counterbalance? Wouldn’t this authority also be susceptible to bias? I don’t know if those who complain about terrible liberal professors brainwashing our nation’s youth have thought about these questions. Maybe they have. I still suspect that their real goal is the enshrinement of a specific set of ideas and policy goals as above debate, as truth to be received rather than a position subject to challenge. They want their ideology to be universally accepted as reality.

And that’s about as illiberal as you can get.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Sometimes you just know...

For those of you not living around here, there is a section of downtown Minneapolis known as the “Warehouse District”. It’s basically what the name implies, a bunch of old warehouses that have been spared the city’s wrecking ball and converted into new uses. There’s a stretch of bars that cater to the city’s young singles and then there’s a patch that’s become fancy lofts for the urban affluent. In between these two sections is Minnesota’s version of a red-light district. As far as those things go, it’s pretty tame: a couple of cut-rate dirty bookstores, a handful of strip clubs and one impressive three story porno superstore called Sex World.

I was across the street from this last place one evening last week, waiting for the light to change so I could cross. Beside me at the curb was a man who I will call Mr. Unappealing. I don’t give that name lightly, either: he was cursed with rat-like eyes, a pinched-up face and overall scrawniness. To make matters worse, he was refusing to slip gracefully into male-pattern baldness. The goofy toupee that dangled its synthetic strands down his forehead gave away that this was a man who would not go gently into the disgraces of middle age. He had a shifty vibe about him, it was a humid day but he was twitching like it was November. He breathed in such a way that I could hear it over the passing traffic. Now, I won’t go so far to say that he was wearing a trench-coat, but the dark-brown sport jacket he was wearing was too big for him and so the effect was the same.

I took one look at him and I just knew that he was headed to Sex World. But then I scolded myself. I told myself, “Kevin, you’re an asshole. Adult entertainment is a huge business patronized by a broad swath of the American public. The days of the dodgy men with shifty eyes lurking around peepshows are long over, if they ever existed. And besides, you don’t know this man. Who are you to judge him? He could be a gentle family man, productive and kind, and here you are smugly belittling him in your fevered mind just because you both happen to be standing across the street from a porn store. And it’s not like you’ve never seen a dirty magazine before, Kevin. I mean, be honest with yourself here, you jackass. I mean, it’s not like you see anything wrong with buying smut, is it? And, if that’s true, what right do you have to be picking on others? What right?”

It was a long light, so I had the opportunity to berate myself for a good long while. Before I got the walk signal, my thoughts had turned to apologies to the man beside me: I’m sorry for leaping to conclusions about you, sir, based on nothing but my own insecurities and prejudices. And I’m also sorry to you, porn industry, for holding unpleasant stereotypes about your patrons. With this guilt racking me, the light finally changed and Mr. Unappealing sprinted through the crosswalk, up onto the opposite sidewalk, and right into Sex World before I had the chance to make it to the center median.

That made me feel a little better, I guess.

The only Count our country ever needed...

To me, the most damning criticism of jazz is that it exists entirely for the benefit of its performers. That is, the enjoyment of the participating musicians is paramount and the enjoyment of the audience is incidental. There is an element of truth to this charge, of course, and there are hundreds of jazz albums—including many considered “great” by jazz’s horrid over-intellectualizers—that are utterly insular and impenetrable to anyone not willing to make a mighty effort. However, these cavils also depend upon a pretty untenable distinction between crowd-pleasing and individual expression. Selling out and wanking, if you want to see it that way. It doesn’t matter: they are not and never have been separate aesthetic categories. Just as ethics has to do with the tensions between collective responsibilities and individual perogative, art gets much of its power from the distance between an audience’s expectations and the artist’s vision. Frustration, fulfillment and all points in between are just part of the experience.

But there are, of course, artists who have a higher fulfillment to frustration ratio. Count Basie is one of these. His music is—to me, at least—pure joy. You never have to meet the Count halfway, he’ll come right up to where you are and start playing some of the best piano you’ve ever heard. His style is immediately accessible and durable enough to be appropriate for everything from a dance party to a romantic dinner to a rainy day to a summer drive to a thoughtful afternoon with a thick book. In his music, I can hear the soundtrack to a lucky life—the passion, the pleasure, the dancing and the drama. It isn’t always exuberant, true, but even when his songs slow down, they never become morose or mopey. A quiet Count Basie is still proud, still sensual, still funky. Roaring or whispering, Basie is all about joie d’vivre.

Part of his appeal, I think, lies in his musical egolessness. Put simply, there is no other great pianist who plays so little. There have been precious few artists so comfortable with their abilities and their collaborators. Even in his early, hungry material, he never imposes his playing onto the songs. He was interested in making everything fit, in making sure that he and his players give an exciting performance, not in proving his genius over and over agin. In doing this—and this is one of the wonderful contradictions of art—he proved it more thoroughly and finally than any thousand flashy moments ever could.

With the Count, however, it can be hard to separate the band from the man. And that band has been home to more great artists than anyone can count. There’s Lester Young, one of the finest tenor players who ever played (and the one great jazz figure ever to come out of Minneapolis, by the way). There’s Jo Jones, the drummer who kept the beat as surely as a miser keeps a thousand dollar bill and an innovator in ways which modern players are still coming to terms with. There’s Freddie Green, a guitarist so modest and subtle that, even when he don’t hear him, you’d miss him if he was gone. And the singers! You can’t do much better than Ella Fitzgerald, of course, but Helen Humes is no second fiddle herself. Plus, I’ve got a big soft spot for wailin’, debonair Joe Williams. My favorite, however, is Jimmy Rushing, Mister Five by Five, who could shout, stomp, and bellow and still keep it all sounding sweet as your best summer day.

But Count Basie was more than the capstone that held all these talents together. He was more like the engine behind their brilliance. He gave them the discipline they needed and the freedom they deserved. The very consistency of the Basie bands, through all the endless line-up changes and shake-ups, proves that their leader was just that, a leader, the person without whom a hundred great gifts and a thousand glorious songs would have been wasted. I’ve read that Count Basie lived in awe of Duke Ellington. He needn’t have. The kind of greatness that they shared does not stand in ranks. The treasure both men left the world shines so brightly that comparisons necessarily become impossible and foolish.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

A strange kind of invitation...

This Saturday, the Minnesota Organization of Blogs—a group which leans so far to the right it might as well be laying down, including as it does such stalwart conservatives as these guys, this guy and these other guys—is throwing a party. I won’t be going, of course. The electric bracelet on my ankle starts to make an irritating buzzing noise if I stay out past ten and, besides, if I wanted to sit around with a bunch of cranky Republican dudes, I’d go to a family reunion. But don’t let that stop you, though. After all, Mitch at Shot in the Dark has issued a curious sort of plea for liberals to show up at their shin-dig:

By the way, the MOB is rigorously non-partisan. We encourage leftybloggers to show up - in fact, we go out of our way to invite them. They tend to stick to themselves, at liberals-only parties like "Drinking Liberally", where they practice their mutual hobbies of swearing, frothing, and regurgitating conspiracy theories. We figure if they get out a little more, it'll be good for them.

Of course, usually when I invite the bigger leftybloggers, I get some sort of excuse: "Oh, that date is Gus Hall's Birthday" or "That's the exhibit opens, commemorating the Northfield Barrista Strike of 1998" or some such.

Just saying, leftybloggers - come on down. It's a lot of fun - and by fun, I don't just mean swearing and frothing.

Now, while I enjoy the tacit admission that they need liberals to get their parties hopping (similar to the way they need liberals so that they have something to complain about on their websites), I have to say that this isn’t the way to get my people to hang out with you. You can’t help but think of high-school. Mitch seems like he's trying to come off like he’s the captain of the football team or something, standing up in the cafeteria and announcing “Dudes! My parents are out of town, so we jocks are having ourselves a PARTY! It’ll be awesome! Even you band nerds ought to show up, even though you’re only stupid band nerds! You bunch of band nerds, you’ll probably be busy cleaning your flutes or something band nerdish like that, but you’d come if only you weren’t such a bunch of band nerds!”

I’m sorry, but to draw liberals into a barful of bilious conservatives, you need to be suaver, more self-effacing. Make it worth our while. For instance, will there be organic vegan wraps available? Will folk legend Joan Baez be performing? What about a table selling handmade crafts from Ecuador? If you’re going to stereotype us, at least do it flatteringly. You’ve got to woo us, dammit!

Now that I think of it, maybe you should put your pitch like this: “Dearest liberals, we realize that our time in the sun is ending and that you—our dastardly but brilliant enemy—will soon defeat us with your logic, your principles and the greater appeal of your ideas. Please, do bestow unto us—your crushed and unworthy foe—the favor of your mercy by appearing at a party to commemorate the waning days of our foolish, foolish reign! We will buy you all the drinks you desire and admit—of the record, of course—that you were right, completely right, all along!”

See? That’s not so hard to say, is it?

Dubya and me

You might have heard that President Bush was in the Minneapolis area yesterday. That was true. You might also have heard that he spent his day raising a half million dollars for Michele Bachmann, a right-wing Congressional candidate. That was a lie. Or, to put it another way, that was deliberate disinformation. The fact of the matter is that George W. Bush can’t stand traveling out into the hinterland just to beg money from goofy-accented outstate fatcats. Frankly, I don’t think he cares one bit who gets into Congress. By this point, it’s all a bunch of wind. His administration has jumped the shark, everyone knows it, and now all he wants to do all day is work on his Tetris scores and prank call Jacques Chirac.

No, there’s only one thing could get Dubya to dust off Air Force one and make a trip out to the boonies. That one thing is Snakes On A Plane. I don’t think I’m divulging any state secrets when I tell you that George W. Bush and I have been moviegoing buddies since his Texas Rangers days. As a fellow Skull and Bones legacy, I think he feels he can unwind around me. True, I’m a Democrat of the Paul Wellstone mold who considers him to be the worst President of all time, but we’re usually able to put that aside and just enjoy each others company. There’s more to life than partisan enmity, after all. Besides, if I keep hanging out with him, there’s always the chance that I’ll be able to drive a fatal wedge into his marriage and claim Laura as my own. I’ve had a crush on that woman since way back.

Interestingly enough, I had to work some pretty heavy diplomacy to convince the President to see Snakes On A Plane. When he first called me, a few weeks ago, he was all excited to go see The Lake House. You might not have guessed this, but Bush’s tastes run towards the chick-flick end of the spectrum. He’s one of those guys who puts up a tough exterior but, deep down, he just wants to sit in a dark room and cry his eyes out as Melanie Griffith breaks some leading man’s heart. He’s been told that appearing “soft” will cause his poll numbers to dive (how they can dive any further is anyone’s guess, but still...), so he puts on this strutting Texan act that anyone with any clout in Washington knows is a transparent facade. I mean, this is a man who can quote you dialogue from Beaches from memory. He likes to think of himself as the Bette Midler character, whereas everyone else–from Condoleeza Rice to Tony Blair to Kim Jong Il—is Barbara Hershey. It’s sort of weird. I can’t imagine that Clinton was like that.

So, given that Keanu Reeves is his favorite actor, I knew I’d have some convincing to do. I wasn’t about to go see some crybaby sadsack movie, though, I had my heart set on seeing Samuel Jackson fighting snakes. I was going to have to stand firm on that. Negotiations, however, broke down early last week when the President told me, through his Press Secretary Tony Snow, that he wasn’t going to see some stupid idiot action movie and that was final. Apparently, the leader of the free world thinks he can push me around like my name is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or something.

I knew I had to play it cool, though. You see, Bush has been playing that whole “I’m the decider” act for so long that he sometimes comes to believe it. If you think it’s hard to get him to act reasonably about stem cells, you ought to try talking him out of a new Keanu Reeves movie. That takes the sort of maneuvering that would make Karl Rove stain his XXL tighty-whities. But I knew Bush wasn’t being intransigent just to be a dickwad. He’s been really excited about The Lake House for a long time, of course, but the thing is—and he’s going to kill me for telling you this—he’s pretty much a lightweight when it comes to scary movies. He’s a big screamer, is what I’m saying. It’s like going to the theater with your housebound aunt. Or a sixteen year old girl. It’s pretty embarrassing. I can’t imagine how the secret service guys must feel.

A year or so ago, I talked him into going to see Saw with me. And to this day he’s still going to bed with rubber sheets. So, when my fellow liberals chastise him for not serving in Vietnam, I nod along with them, but I also know that it was all for the best. If we had him over there, we would have lost that war three years early.

No matter: under no circumstances was I going to see The Lake House. In this, I was helped by the fact that that particular movie hasn’t been in the theaters for, like, two months. The President, however, is far too busy to keep up with that sort of thing. So, deciding to employ subterfuge, I called him up and told him that I’d relented. We could go see his hero Keanu stink up the screen for a few hours. He was, of course, delighted. He said he’d come on out to Minneapolis as soon as Cheney would let him.

When he got here, however, I broke the bad news to him gently. He was, as I expected, quite livid. “Well, shit, Holmes*! You got them second-run theaters out here, ain’t you?” he squealed. I told him that we did, but that none were choosing to play The Lake House. He fretted some more, and I just stayed quiet. When he loses his temper, it’s best just to stand back and let him badmouth the French. I’m a bit of a Francophile myself, so it can be galling, but mostly I just feel sorry for the guy. Anyway, when he was winding down, I solemnly put out my index finger. Bush glared at it for a few seconds and then his features perked up and he gave it a hearty tug. That’s when I farted. A real nasty one, too.

When we were finished laughing and slapping our high-fives, he said, “C’mon, Holmes, let’s go see some of them snakes...”

And I think he had a pretty good time, all things considered. He got to forget about the stresses and strains of leading (badly, but still...) the world’s sole superpower, he got to put as much fake butter as he wanted on his jumbo popcorn, and he misted up a little at the film’s lets-all-work-together message, just as I knew he would.

As for me, the scratches he left in my arm still sting. And my ears are haven’t stopped ringing from all the screeching he did. But it was a good time, I suppose. When it was over, and he came trotting out of the bathroom with a fresh pair of khakis on, we both agreed that it would be pretty fucking cool to be Samuel Jackson for a day.

*As I’m sure you’ve heard, President Bush likes to give everyone he knows a nickname. Mine is “Holmes”, which is short for “John Holmes”. John Holmes, as many of you are already aware, was a famous 1970s porn film actor. The reasons for me having that particular pet name are cannot be divulged, however, because of certain Skull and Bones society bylaws.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

I can't get to sleep without my Jesus Jammies!

Via Tbogg, please take a moment to check out these weird Bible-centric pajamas on sale through this website. Aren’t they smashing? Don’t you think that your wayward youth might have gone better if your parents had forced you to wear an outfit like that to bed? Doesn’t it seem like you’d be a more fully-functioning, emotionally-centered, spiritually-aware person today had someone cared enough to get you a set of Armor of Gods back when you still had a chance of achieving grace?

Man, kids today get all the breaks...

Monday, August 21, 2006

Time out for serious film criticism...

A lot of times, I like to pose as some kind of highbrow aesthete. I can drop intimidating names with the best of them. I can bullshit you at length about obscure artistic movements and fancy-dancy what-have-you. In the past, I have been guilty of snobbery. I like to think I have cultivated tastes, and I take a passionate interest in a great many unbelievably pretentious things. This is only the half of it, though. The truth is that there is no one on earth who is more easily entertained than me. This is my good fortune, I think, since it allows me the best of both worlds: I have a genuine affection for Djuna Barnes and Jorge Luis Borges and Guy de Maupassant, but I love fart jokes and soppy love songs just as much. There’s a lot of things to like in this world, and I do my best to approach each on its terms, not my own.

This is my way of telling you that I went to see Snakes On A Plane today. And that I found it to be perhaps the best film ever made. My previous favorite, War of the Worlds (2005 version), remains a great cinematic achievement, to be sure—I can’t get enough of movies that feature remorseless, incredibly powerful alien beings coming to earth and killing everyone—but Snakes On A Plane is newer, and new things always have an edge when I’m feeling pop.

Now, you might be wondering what makes this movie so great. Well, I’m glad you asked. First off, it’s hard to argue that the idea of a bunch of poisonous snakes loose on a jumbo jet isn’t one of finest concepts for a film since, say, Gremlins. Snakes are scary. Planes are scary. Put them together and you have scary squared, which is very scary indeed. Think of it like this: if the best art taps into universal truths, what could be more universal than not wanting to be on a plane filled with poisonous snakes? Think about it.

Seriously, though, when it comes to creating culture, there is a time to reach for the heavens and a time to fill a plane with snakes. People need to be enlightened and challenged, but most of us don’t have much patience for that. They would be more inclined that way, I think, if artists started to once again direct their vision towards a broader audience, rather than just doing what they do to impress a small claque of critics, colleague and creative writing instructors. This is another blog post, however. What I’m getting at is that B-movies and silly nonsense shouldn’t be written off just for being B-movies and silly nonsense. There is honor in entertaining people; sometimes I think there’s greater value in a well-crafted crowd-pleaser than in pretentious ego-driven hokum that connects with no one.

But I’m not here to talk about aesthetics. I’m here to talk about Snakes On A Plane. And Snakes On A Plane would just be a goofy disaster movie without the performance of Mr. Samuel Jackson. All kidding aside, he’s probably the only actor in America who could possibly do justice to the role of a FBI agent who finds himself in an aircraft overtaken by hundreds of deadly snakes. In my opinion, he raised the movie from just a good idea to something worth spending five bucks to see. When he shouts “I’ve had it UP TO HERE with these MOTHERFUCKIN’ SNAKES on this MOTHERFUCKIN’ PLANE!”, you hear not just a hardworking civil servant expressing the natural frustration that comes from being on a motherfuckin’ plane filled with motherfuckin’ snakes, but also a commiseration that all of us—all across the world—have to deal with our own personal motherfuckin’ snakes on our own individual motherfuckin’ planes. The way I see it, life (the plane) is a glorious and beautiful thing, but we most all also contend with setbacks, disappointments and our own limitations (the snakes). What do we do? Do we crash into the ocean? Or do we do as Samuel Jackson would do: speak up, stand tall and kill all the motherfuckin’ snakes? I think the answer is obvious.

I’m being tongue-in-cheek here, of course, but not entirely. The roles he gets might not be particularly deep, but Samuel Jackson is always a pleasure to watch. That, in my book, makes him a great actor. Likewise, Snakes On A Plane might not be the most brilliant or forward-thinking piece of filmmaking to come out this year, but it’s still a lot of fun. So go see it. We all need to have a good time now and then.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Minnesota State Fair Makes Me Miserable

Blessed Baby Jesus in a too-small car seat, I hate the Minnesota State Fair. This is just one of those things that I’m going to have be unreasonable and evil about. You can reminisce all you want about your magical memories and you can scold me for being a shitheel stick-in-the-mud elitist and you can try to convince me of all the fun and wonderful things that happen there, but in the end it won’t make any difference. Oh, I might be a little quieter about my throbbing loathing for the fair in order to preserve your feelings or your good opinion of me, but the hatred will still be there, festering and growing and spreading deep in the secret recesses of me. You cannot kill it. It is too powerful. It exists beyond all logic and decency. The only thing I can do is try to accommodate my life to it. I must not indulge it, however. No, no, no: that would be wrong. Dangerous, even. I wish to be known as a responsible commentator on current events and prehensile penises. I don’t want anything to do with the ranty side of the internet. That’s a dead end, full of burnt-out sad people and shrieky nobodies. It’s important to avoid that sort of discourse whenever possible.

But, when it comes to the Minnesota State Fair, I don’t know if I can help it. Because the Minnesota State Fair is an obnoxious load of steaming monkey snot bubbling up from hell itself. The Minnesota State Fair is a warty, cottage-cheese ass spewing stringy diarrhea into a pail filled with scorpions and eels and buzzards and all manner of other unsightly things. If the Minnesota State Fair was a kitten, it would wait until I feel asleep and then start chewing on my perineum with its sharp little teeth. If the Minnesota State Fair was an ice cream cone, it would be filled with bits of broken glass and herpes. If the Minnesota State Fair was a condiment, it would be mayonnaise mixed with the tears of serial killers.

Let me tell you fine people what goes on at the Minnesota State Fair: eating, eating, looking at farm equipment, eating, throwing up and eating. That’s pretty much it. Sure, there’s a “giant slide” and a boat ride and a barn full of horsies and a barn full of moo cows and every fucking politician in the state trying to shake your hand, but eating is the main thing. And eating of the most deadly sort: cheese curds, mini-doughnuts and those hot dogs that explode in your mouth like meaty firecrackers before you even bite into them. It might taste good, but it also turns your intestines into strangly vines and your stomach into a septic tank. You’ll stay away from it if you know what’s good for you.

And will someone please tell me how Minnesota can flounce about proclaiming itself the smartest, most well-educated, specialest state in the country when half of its citizens make a bee-line here during the hottest month of the year for the express purpose of sitting in a crowded tent and drinking glass after glass of milk? Just the idea of an “all-you-can-drink milk tent” gives away the secret that we’re a state full of beastly perverts who should never, never come out into the light of day. In the great, noisy pub that is the world, Minnesota is the creepy, heavy-breathing guy sitting quietly in the corner, slurping his milk with a straw. The rest of the place is wary of him, and with good reason. He’s got that weird accent and he’s wearing overalls with nothing underneath.

And, while I’m on the subject, would it be improper of me to point out that every third person at the state fair weighs at least four hundred pounds? And would it be untoward for me to wish that more of these people would pick out shirts big enough to cover their vast, wobbly bellies? What’s that you say? It would be improper and untoward?

Forget I mentioned it then.

But I’m afraid I cannot be silent on one of the most ludicrous and depressing aspects of the whole hideous affair: the fact that every broadcast outlet in the entire state takes essentially a two week vacation to wank off at the “Great Minnesota Get-Together”. Aliens could incinerate Beijing, Kim Jong Il could take over the White House, and Satan himself could rise from the Middle East and begin enslaving the human race, but we here in Minnesota wouldn’t hear a thing about it until after Labor Day. Our media would be far too busy instructing us in the proper way to eat corn-on-the-cob and regaling us with the ten thousandth cute anecdote about a hundred-year-old fisherman from Cloquet. Goddamnit, important things are happening every second of every day, but all we’ll get is shit like this:

ANCHOR #1: So, are you folks having fun at the fair?


ANCHOR #2: How could you not, Bill? It’s the fair!

ANCHOR #1: That’s right, Tina! There’s always a good time at the fair!


ANCHOR #1: Say, have you made it up to Machinery Hill yet?

ANCHOR #2: You know it! I always like going up to Machinery Hill. Every year! How about you folks, do you like Machinery Hill?


ANCHOR #1: That’s the fair for you!

ANCHOR #2: It sure is!

It’s enough to make someone want to tear their own face off. It really is.

Still, I have to admit that the boat ride is pretty damn cool. When I become governor of Minnesota, I’d ship the rest of the fair off to some godforsaken country corner of the state and use the cleared-away space for an even bigger boat ride. I’m a testy bastard, but a slow canoe trip through a dank tunnel with a couple of cheap dwarf dioramas can warm my heart every time.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The finest coffeeshops in all of Minneapolis...

Nowadays, I get pretty much all my writing done at coffeeshops and cafes near my apartment*. The reasons for this are simple. My home is too distracting to get anything done in. I’ve got the internet, I’ve got piles of books I haven’t read, scads of e-mails I haven’t responded to, a thousand CDs, dozens of DVDs, things I need to clean, things I need to fix, bills I ought to pay and all sorts of other temptations. Yet, at the same time, my pleasant little rooms can be awfully unstimulating at the same time. It’s just my boring walls, my boring floor and all my boring junk, after all. I need to be able to concentrate, of course, but I also need activity going on around me so that I don’t fall into some horrid vortex of self-involved artistic loserdom. So I head off to one of several convenient independent coffeeshops, purchase some foo-foo beverage, spread my notebook pages out in front of me, and chase the muse until I’m sick of it.

I’m pretty easy to please. For a cafe to get my regular business, it needs only to fulfill these three requirements:

1) It needs to sell coffee drinks.

2) It needs to be within a mile of my home

and, most importantly,

3) It needs to have an atmosphere that assures that I don’t feel like some creepy weirdo for pouring my infinitesimal handwriting onto several dozen legal sheets for hours and hours on end. Foolish as it may seem, I’m sensitive about the size of my handwriting. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s insane-person small. But I’m not an insane person. I don’t want to be mistaken for an insane person. Consequently, I like to go to coffeeplaces that cater to sorts who are far more obviously eccentric than I am. That way I can blend unselfconsciously into the background and get a whole lot of paragraphs polished off.

Also, I don’t like to go to the same place every single day. I need at least a little variety, so I tend to cycle randomly through the ones I like. Luckily, I live in an area that’s rich in locally-run coffee outlets, so I’ve got plenty of options. Here are a few of my current favorites, which I recommend you also patronize whenever you’re in the Whittier/Wedge area of Minneapolis, Minnesota:

1) The Acadia (on the intersection of Nicollet and Franklin)

This is my current top choice, largely due to the fact that they also serve tasty and nutritious food. Their coffee drinks are fine, of course, but I have to confess that I’m not really discerning when it comes to those. What’s important to me is the glorious magic of caffeine, without which I would be a whimpery husk of a man, and not the vehicle by which it reaches my bloodstream. I recommend their latte, since it has milk in it and I’ve been told that milk is good for you. But you can get pretty much anything you want and sit there for hours on end: no one’s gonna bother you. The staff is cool and the place isn’t usually very crowded, which means that the vibe is appealingly laid back.

They also serve fancy beers, and in the evening they have small concerts and plays, if any of those things interest you. I’m not so big on all that, so I can’t tell you much about that aspect of the place. Basically, it’s a great neighborhood spot and I get scads and scads of writing done there. My only complaints about the place are small and petty. I don’t care much for the music they play---which is fine, since I have an iPod---and I sometimes get testy when it fills up with beefy, middle-aged book club members who want to shoo me out of my spot so they can push a bunch of tables together and jabber on endlessly and at an uncouth volume about whatever dull author they like this month, all the while spraying forth a ceaseless mist of breadcrumbs and spit.

I also feel that, as one-quarter French-Canadian, I should get a discount at a place called the “Acadia”. But maybe that’s just me.

2) The Spyhouse (on the corner of Nicollet and 25th)

This place is more hipsterish than the Acadia, and it serves less food. I often don’t like to eat when I write, however, so their limited menu doesn’t matter to me. The music they play here is usually better than the Acadia’s, and they have more seating. They also have outside tables, if you’re a smoker or one of those perverts who likes to be outdoors. I find that the spacious and airy aspects of this place make it very conducive to my sort of pretentious arty-fartyhood. You aren’t crowded in with a bunch of strangers, and all the light that comes in through the big windows makes it easy to see what you’re doing. Plus, it’s only two blocks from my apartment, which I realize isn’t a recommendation for anyone else, but it means it’s mighty convenient for me.

I’ve heard people say that the baristas here can be vicious in that sullen art-student way, but I’ve never been treated badly here. Perhaps those critics are just oversensitive. Perhaps they’re the wicked sort who demand bubbly enthusiasm from the college kids charged with preparing their daily cappuccinos. I don’t know. It hasn’t been a problem for me. In fact, I’m so fond of this place that, over the years, I’ve written at least thirty short stories there. That and about fifty blog posts, twenty or so book reviews, dozens and dozens of senseless blurbs and vignettes, and a hefty chunk of one novel.

You’d think that all that creative toil would be worth a twenty-percent discount, wouldn’t you? I sure do, but maybe that’s just me...

3) Caffetto (sort of on the corner of Lyndale and 22nd)

This place is very similar to the Spyhouse in vibe, except that it’s a lot smaller and darker and the staff’s reputation for rudeness is actually deserved. But I like it all the same. I like small and dark, and I don’t give a shit if an underpaid college kid wants to be rude to me. I don’t take that sort of thing personally. The music that gets played for you here is usually fine, and the muffins they sell are damn tasty.

The joint has sort of beaten-up look to it, and sometimes—especially if I’m there when the sun’s down and the lamps on the table are all that’s left to light the place—I can squint and pretend I’m in some dingy corner of Budapest, sipping my latte several years before the Soviet collapse. For some reason, that’s the sort of thing that appeals to me. I doubt that there would be so many willowy punkettes and tattooed band-poseurs on that side of the Iron Curtain, but still...

Anyway, it’s an appealing enough place, but I don’t go there as often as the other two. It’s relatively far away and if I don’t land a table with a lamp it can be hard for me to see what I’m writing. Maybe if they offered me a discount, I could be persuaded to make the trip more often...

*Not that you asked, but the one exception is this blog, which is usually written directly into the computer whenever I find a spare half-hour or so.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Gettin' through Chicago, the phenomenon of Eastness, and the Cline Avenue Sniper

It’s unavoidable. If you’re making a roadtrip from Milwaukee to Cleveland, you’re going to have to go through Chicago. Now, I’ve got nothing against the place, mind you: I think of it as the crown jewel of the Midwest and one of America’s unquestionably great cities. Still, this doesn’t make it any easier to drive through. The freeways are twisty, clogged and perennially under construction. They teem with maniacs who revel in cutting you off and riding your tailpipe. You must contend with Lexuses and taxicabs lunging in so close to you that you can count the hairs on the backs of their drivers’ necks. You must watch helplessly as the lane you happen to be traveling in disappears over and over again, while the exit you need is revealed to be coming up in 1500 feet and, invariably, on the left. All the while, the awe-inspiring and magnificent skyline distracts you. You want to look at it, not the bumpers of a bunch of madcap Illinois bastards. But that would mean certain death, or at least an inconveniencing fender bender. As Run DMC put it, it’s tricky.

And it takes a long time. And once you’ve finished, you’re usually in northwestern Indiana. There are few suitable places to pee in that stretch of the country. We found this out on our recent voyage. You see, it’s recommended by medical professionals that everyone drink something like eighty gallons of water a day. When on a roadtrip (and pretty much the rest of the time, to be honest), I tend to disregard this advice in the name of making good time. Why “consume liquids” and “hydrate your body”when you could make it to Cleveland fifteen minutes faster? It seems like an easy choice to me, but others in our party were not of the same mindset. The lovely and wise Mel, in particular, was intractable on this issue. She refused to sacrifice a healthy equilibrium in the name of slightly-speedier motoring and, as a result, she requested bathroom breaks with alarming regularity.

As we were cruising past the steel mills and the sad casinos of that region, she decided that she needed to go. Greg, who was driving this stretch, was instructed to pull over will all due haste. In my helpful way, I suggested that maybe she could “hold it” until we reached the city of South Bend, a mere fifty or so miles further on. This didn’t go over so well, and soon we were leaving the turnpike and shooting down a bumpy road into the desolate end of Gary, Indiana. The thing about Gary: it’s not the nicest place in America. This isn’t its fault, of course. Gary has been screwed over by polluting industry, bad politicians, racism, economic upheavals, and the neglect of pretty much everyone. The times have been hard on Gary and Gary, in return, has become a hard, hard place. A deserted place too, because there was nary a bathroom in sight. There were only weeds, abandoned factories and piles of discarded tires.

A left turn a bit later brought us over the border with East Chicago, to an unattractive gas station that offered for sale an impressive array of 2Pac t-shirts. It had a functioning toilet, however, and so we trooped in to use it. I wouldn’t have to go until Toledo, of course, but since we were stopping...

Anyway, while I was waiting for my turn, I reflected on the phenomenon of “Eastness”. I have, in my travels, visited or passed through the following places: East St. Louis, East New York (technically part of Brooklyn), and now East Chicago. Also, in a few days, I would make a trek into East Cleveland. Besides the tell-tale “East” label, these places all have overwhelming poverty, appalling racial segregation and massive unpleasantness in common. Why is this? Has there ever been a tidy, prosperous suburb called “East Someplace”? What’s the deal with “East”? As an experiment, I think that we should re-name St. Paul “East Minneapolis” and see what happens to it.

Anyway, after I was finished with the toilet I went up to the front of the place to rejoin my travel companions. They were staring down at a local newspaper, its headline screaming something about the “Cline Avenue Sniper” having struck again. This was an important thing to know since the empty, spooky road we had been driving down was, in fact, Cline Avenue. After chastising our dear friend Mel for allowing her bladder to put us in such grave danger, we bravely climbed into our car (code name: “El Diablo”) and tore ass out of there. Roadtrips are supposed to be about wacky hijinks, not depraved maniacs with guns.

This, I think, just goes to show you the perils of drinking water when you’re in the car.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Klan in Manhattan

Once, back when I was living in Brooklyn, a publicity-hungry branch of the Ku Klux Klan decided to hold a rally in New York City. According to the news stories, they were going to set up a stage near city hall and give all of Gotham an old-school redneck earful. They must have figured that they’d get a lot of television airtime by imposing themselves on the world’s media capital, and they were probably angling for more respect from their dipshit allies all across the racist right. After all, sheet-wearing is passe among even the frothiest of frothing dingleberries, and maybe they imagined they get brownie points from the cooler kids in the bigot scene if they dared to show their pointy hoods in our great Gomorrah of Jewish- Catholic- Black-Latin-Asian-Gay-Secular-Liberalness.

Now, I’ve always been drawn to the strange, the sick and the absurd. This event promised to exceed my wildest expectations in all three categories, so I made it a point to stop by. I didn’t have to work that day and city hall was just a brief subway ride away. I assumed the whole thing would be comprised of thirty dorks wearing their Holiday Inn linens, a few hundred curious New Yorkers, and fifty thousand cops protecting the first group from the second. This was pretty much the case, although I made the beginner’s mistake of forgetting to factor in the crazies. New York City is unsurpassed in the number, variety and impressiveness of its street crazies, and I should have known that an affair like this one would bring them out in droves.

Their presence swelled the crowd from the high hundreds into the low thousands. There were the shout-incoherently-at-cars guys who, thanks to the Klan, had suddenly been given the opportunity to shout incoherently at a whole new audience. There were the scary blank-stare people who make long subway rides home from the Bronx such a menace. There were the unshowered-chess-playing-misunderstood-geniuses, all of them eager to take this event and force it into their elaborate, conspiratorial worldviews. In fact, there were so many people jammed into that tight corner of Manhattan that I could only see the tops of the Klan’s silly hats. They seemed to have a few banners unfurled, but I couldn’t read them. They also had a public address system, but not a single word of their speeches carried past the phalanxes of police officers surrounding them. This was fine with me. I didn’t care to listen to pompous morons prattle on, I was there just to drink in the spectacle.

And what a spectacle it was. For awhile, I was hemmed in between an army of squawking pre-teen girls and the Lost Tribes of Israel. And, as anyone who’s spent time in any of the major East coast cities can tell you, I’m not referring to the Biblical Lost Tribes of Israel. No, I’m talking about the weird cult that shows up on street corners from Boston to Pittsburgh, issuing forth long, amplified, stream-of-consciousness rants intended to “prove” that the black man is the direct descendant of somebody-or-other and, consequently, holier than pretty much everyone else. For this occasion, they had gotten up in their best sparkly robes and brought with them a crudely rendered gallows, complete with a miniature klansman dangling from it. On the lynched doll’s chest, if I remember correctly, were the words “KLAN FAGGET!”. I watched them until they started to watch me and then I moved on. I find it’s in my best interest to avoid confrontations with that sort. I left the little girls to deal with them.

A little further on, I settled in among a more normal bunch of fellows. We stood on our tiptoes to have a look at the klansmen in the distance and shared witty banter along the lines of, “Can you believe these motherfuckers?” and “These motherfuckers are fucked up.” and “If all these motherfucking cops weren’t here, I’d be going apeshit on those backwoods motherfuckers”. It was all very merry and light-hearted, but soon I found I couldn’t keep up. I’m a nice Middle-West lad, after all, and it sounds ridiculous whenever I try to say “motherfucker” twice in a sentence. I didn’t want to be laughed at or, worse, be thought of by my fellow New Yorkers as one of those motherfuckers who felt the Klan didn’t deserve to be called “motherfuckers” fifty times in two minutes. So I excused myself and continued on along the fringes of the crowd, picking up all manner of strange literature along the way.

Eventually, I happened upon a surreal scene. A young black couple came along with a small child between them. “Do you want to see the Klan?” the father asked his son and the boy chirped back, “The Klan!”. As the wife stood beaming at the two of them, the dad hoisted the kid up onto his shoulders and pointed at the tiny stage way off in the distance. “There’s the Klan!” he said and the child squealed with delight. “They used to be bad, but now they’re just sorry,” the mother added. “The Klan! The Klan! The Klan!” the kid cried, an expression of pure joy on his face. “They’re pitiful, ain’t they?” the father asked, “They’re nothing to be scared of, right?” The mother yawned then and the father put the kid back down on the ground and together they strolled on, away from all the noise and commotion.

I left soon after. I had seen enough and I was starting to get hungry. I stopped at a hotdog vendor a few blocks down and bought a knish. While the grizzled old dude was making my change, I mentioned that the Klan was having a rally just up the street. He just handed me a couple of damp dollar bills and said, “I don’t want nothin’ to do with those assholes...” He had the right idea, I think.