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Reading Holy Books and Mourning David Bowie

I used to teach a class on Middle Eastern history. The director of the program wanted me include the Qur’an among the recommended readings. I was against it, but I relented. So I turned its inclusion into a teaching point.  As an exercise for the class, I asked students what books they would recommend to people from the Middle East for an American history course. Some mentioned DeToqueville or Thomas Paine, some mentioned the Bible. If the student did mention one of those, I’d ask if they  themselves had read those books. The discussion went from there.

This brings me to the passing of David Bowie. Social media exploded this week with professions of love for Bowie, heartfelt comments on his influence and the like. There is no doubt that David Bowie was an interesting and influential artist, a compelling personality, and a commercially successful musician. He was not, however, my type of music, though I really enjoyed “Heroes” and “Changes.” Was I being left out? Judging by social media yesterday, I was in the minority in my ambivalence towards the Thin White Duke.


I don’t think that reading the Qur’an is useful for a Middle Eastern history class for three reasons. First, the Qur’an is a contradictory, vague and very long read. Second, reading a text from a millennium and a half ago to understand current events is insulting to the people in the region, as if they stopped thinking in the 7th century. But never mind those two, because my main argument was this: is it worth reading something to understand people that most of them probably haven’t read themselves?  I would guess that, people being people, most folks either read something about the Qur’an or have it explained to them by someone else. They know the big teachings, the declaration of faith, and the proper celebration of the major holidays

I guess this because of my personal experience as an American. If students suggested the Bible, I asked if they’d actually read it. Most hadn’t. They also hadn’t read DeToqueville or Paine, or any of the other important works they’d recommended.  They’d read things about those books or had the key points of the books explained to them. I would then turn to the books Americans actually read. To judge by the best-seller lists, these are  diet and self-help books, genre fiction, and celebrity memoirs. Things that are much easier and more enjoyable to read than the Bible or the books you skipped the first time in Political Science 101.

If we want to understand America, should we read the books Americans want us to read about themselves, or what they actually read? I vote for the latter, but I’m not certain that I’m right. Your own opinion will vary depending on whether you want to understand people as they are, or as they want to be.

Many people clearly have a deep connection to David Bowie. In addition to admiring his persona and his music, he had a significant influence on popular music. If we wanted someone to understand the popular music of the late 20th century, I suppose you would include his works as a necessary part of the canon. But very few people actually listen to David Bowie. Not one of his albums is featured on the Billboard Greatest 200 Albums of All Time, which measures album sales since 1958. He’s also not on the Top 200 Artists of All Time, also based on sales. He doesn’t warrant inclusion into the BMI 100 Songs of the Century, which is based on radio airplay. When given the choice, we Americans actually listen to things like Journey, Bob Seger, and Toby Keith (nos. 58, 75, and 79 on the Billboard list), the checkout lane genre fiction of music.

You could take this to a very cynical conclusion, which would be that social media is full of people hoping you’ll think of them as having carefully considered musical taste, while they are actually listening to dreck like Rascal Flatts and “Don’t Stop Believin‘.” America is a nation spending a fortune on diet books and exercise wear while we sit at home marbling our hams with Stouffer’s Cheesy Colon Packer Deluxe. We’re lying to ourselves and everyone else.

I’m more positive than that. We all want to put their best self out there in the world.  The self that likes unique art, idiosyncratic personalities, and difficult music. We should like music like Bowie’s, even if our Spotify playlists are pockmarked with Sam Smith and Walk the Moon. More importantly, we aspire to be part of a community that does as well. A newsfeed full of David Bowie is comforting. Trapped in the Trump Nadir, we can be part of a community of taste. We can be people who value art, people who celebrate individuality, and  people who enjoy important music. At least, as Bowie would have it, we could be them – just for one day.



One Percent Inspiration

I really don’t understand the appeal of “Keep Calm and Carry On,” a phrase now decorating posters, mugs, and mousepads. I suppose it’s better than “I bought you this of crap for your office because you work for me, I don’t really know you, and every detail of your personal life depresses me.” But not much.

Why has this phrase become so popular? Isn’t America calm enough already? We live in a time where it’s ok for non-burnout non-surfers to use the word “chillax.” Because we’re so laid back and calm, we can’t even muster the energy to say “chill out” and “relax.” When else in history could you buy hoodie footie pajamas that you can wear under your Snuggie while sitting in a reclining chair with a built in cooler, for the love of God.

We’re so calm that we don’t even get excited about things we should get excited about. The economy tanks, the people who caused it get huge bonuses, and everyone loses their house and what do a bunch of kids do to protest? They go camping in a little park near Wall Street  for a while, until it gets too cold for shouting at each other and they go home. They kept calm and *didn’t* carry on. You know who didn’t keep calm? The Tunisians. the Libyans, the Egyptians,and  the Turks.  They got fed up, got angry and then they carried on past getting shot at, tear gassed, assaulted and worse. What’s the worst thing that happened to the Occupiers? They missed a semester at Cooper-Union, lost their voice, and their iPhones got scratched?

There’s another group who didn’t keep calm and carry on: actual British people during WWII. The “Keep Calm” posters only came to light recently because they were overshadowed by much less chillaxed turns of phrase, like Winston Churchill’s “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech. Here’s what he said that speech:

You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.

That doesn’t sound one single bit like a country or government that’s going to keep calm and carry on. That sounds like Britain, under the leadership of a man who looked like an angry infant, is going to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and they’re all out of bubblegum. That’s the most interesting thing about “keep calm” – it was a dud in its own time. The British thought it was condescending and stupid. Who could’ve guessed condescending and stupid would one day be in vogue?  Aside from the geniuses at MTV, BET, FOX, MSNBC, CNN…

Well, there’s the problem. These inane posters are part of the hundred bazillion dollar Inspiration Industrial Complex. It starts with touching stories of people helping each other out following a natural disaster, and descends via Oprah’s Empire of Evil  to ABC News having an entire site that’s basically “Disabled People: They’re Just Like You!”

The nadir of the inspiration industrial complex is the inspirational quotes racket. I hope the Gandhi family rakes in killer royalties from  the “Be the change you wish to see in the world” t-shirts. In spite of the fact – or especially because –  he never actually said it. On t-shirts and bumper stickers, Gandhi has become a one dimensional cartoon character with a tag line. The only difference between Charlie Brown and Gandhi is that Charlie Brown is the bald one with the shirt and no glasses. Also, he tries to kick a football and Gandhi tried to something something Britain India. Who knows? I just think it’s weird how much Gandhi looks like the Mandarin in Iron Man 3. Che Guevara has it even worse – he doesn’t even get a tag line, he’s just a face with no voice. I guess that makes him Woodstock. This is for the better, since Che said some crazy stuff probably best represented by a bunch of exclamation points.

I can’t see being inspired by a single quote taken out of context from a famous person that  I don’t know much about. And I get all my history from Republican presidential campaign speeches, so I don’t know crap. Still, using quotes like this seems exploitive, essentializing. Like it debases the person and their accomplishments. It’s not exactly using Martin Luther King Jr. to sell Chevy trucks, Apple computers, or to hype a telecoms company, but is using his letter from Birmingham jail to motivate you to lose twenty pounds all that much better? Cellulite anywhere is a threat to fitness everywhere! Let calories roll down like waters and pounds like an everflowing stream!

I should probably just keep calm and carry on myself. Or maybe I could get in on the inspiration racket by hawking books full of inspirational stories and quotes. Hell, it worked for King James and those unscrupulous millionaires the Gideons. I’m feeling inspired. As  Margaret Barnum Meade once said, “never doubt that that fooling a small group of people some of the time can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

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The Garden of Good and Evil. Mostly Evil.

An Olive Garden is opening near my neighborhood. In Chicago. And not the Chicago that people from Aurora claim as their home when travelling. Actual Chicago. When I moved into the neighborhood seven years ago, a real estate agent asked me if all my neighbors were Mexican (needless to say, I ditched the agent). There’s still a late 70s primer-gray Ford parked down the street, and I’m pretty sure my house still falls securely in the Familia Stone territory (suck it, Latin Kings!). And yet, here comes the bricks-and-mortar symbol of bland middle class whiteness, closing in on me like a speed freak waiter in ill-fitting black pants asking me “have you been here before?” as if (a) the experience I’m about to have is so mind-blowing that I need to prepare for it or (b)my knowledge of Italian is severely limited and I’m going to need a translation of the menu – “what the hell is bruschetta? Do I look like goddamned Benito Mussolini?” Needless to say, this is causing me a lot of anxiety.

I could probably make a cultural argument against the place. Olive Garden is hardly doing a good job representing Italy. But if you follow the news, Italians are doing a crappy job of that themselves. Maybe Italy deserves to be lightly breaded, fried, topped with marinara, mozzarella, and parmesan and served with spaghetti, just like the $12.75 eggplant parmigiana. “Parmigiana,” interestingly, has nothing to do with “parmesan,” but is part of the traditional Tuscan blessing, “Parmigiana la prossima settimana,” which means “may your bowels move in the next week.”

What about the food itself? Let’s say you can no longer get your hams into an airline seat to visit the land of the Renaissance masters. Why not indulge in the Garden’s “Tour of Italy?” This delicious dish features lasagna, chicken parmigiana, and fettucine alfredo. All at once. I hope that a tour of Italy was on the list of things to do before you die, because you won’t be living for much longer. This “tour” has 3830 mg of sodium. Screw the recommended allowance and the nutrition scourges who would tell you that’s a bad thing! Instead, try to envision eating a bit more than a teaspoon and a half of table salt. Oh, and you can add the equivalent of and six tablespoons of lard. I guess sodium and fat is better actually in something, but still. I personally enjoy the “lighter” menu, which includes options with 24, 20, and 19 grams of fat. Lighter, in this context, presumably means something less dense than having your colon stuffed with modeling clay so you can star in the next BodyWorlds exhibit.

This is America, so you absolutely have the right to have your limbs to look like blue ribbon entries in a Bavarian state fair knockwurst competition. I do wonder if you should reconsider wearing all the brightly colored workout wear, though. With the exception of Kermit the Frog, no one should look like a parade balloon of themselves. Eat what you want – but do you want to grow your third and fourth butt cheeks at a place that is taking part in the destruction of America?

Put simply, the Olive Garden is the greasy, salty, fake parmesan covered manifestation of the hypocrisy of America. Ok, one of the many hypocrisies of America. Olive Garden doesn’t really have anything to do with fetishizing the Constitution and killing people with flying death robots. Or celebrating amateur athletes while letting the NCAA exploit their uncompensated labor for billions. Or saying we love music and listening to Bon Iver and Maroon 5. That last one is just the hypocrisy of one of my co-workers, but it’s out there.

Within a mile or two of the new Olive Garden are at least four family owned Italianish places. Probably more, but I can only eat so much red sauce. They’re all different, with their own recipes, very different ambiance and presentation. The one closest to me is owned by a second generation restaurateur – his parents owned a place down the street that was torn down and replaced with a bank. It’s a good place, staffed by about three people. These are local businesses, not owned by a giant corporation that serves 400 million meals a year. Not all of those are via the Olive Garden, to be fair. They also own a couple of seafood and steakhouse “concepts.” Concepts as in conceive of an actual restaurant and then completey fabricate the actual experience of it. The Olive Garden, in the corporate parents’ own words is “an idealized Italian family meal” – in much the same way that Mario and Luigi represent an idealized Italian family plumbing/princess rescuing business.

This is what actually drives me crazy about Olive Garden and all the other national family casual “concepts.” They’re effectively tricked out McDonald’s, with millions and millions served the exact same meal. Where’s the America of the family business, the America proud of the regional differences in cuisine – where’s the America of the individual? How much of an individual can you be if you just stuffed your gut with a pasta bomb identical to the one some guy in Sheboygan and another in Poughkeepsie just ate? These restaurants even look all the same. As near as I can tell, every metal sign made before 1983 is screwed to a wall somewhere. Have a friend blindfold you and drop you off at an Applebee’s, Chili’s, or Friday’s booth. Amongst the kitschy signs, onions blooming and jalapenos popping, see if you can figure out where you are. Then ditch that friend, because he’s a jerk. Who would do that to someone?

One of the reasons for living in the city is to avoid the stultifying sameness of the cookie cutter kingdom that exists outside the limits. No one ever talks about the local dishes and successful family owned joints in Schaumburg or whatever the God-forsaken equivalent burbs are in New York, Philadelphia, or Baltimore (ok, maybe someone talks about them, but I stopped listening after they said they moved to Fish Belly Acres to ‘get more for their money’). The city shouldn’t be a place for the Olive Garden, and yet I know that big restaurant companies make their decisions about new locations very carefully. I hope they’ve got it wrong – I hope that my neighbors will stick with the local options. LIke Italian beef. Sliced meat served on a bun with cheese and soaked in its own fat served at place with the owner’s nickname in the title and an actual Little League trophy (or four) behind the counter.

God Bless America.

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It’s Not You, It’s WALL-E

I’m always honored when a single female friend of mine asks if I know any single men. I deeply appreciate that my many female friends trust and like me enough to think that I could match them up. But I can’t. Please stop asking. I don’t know if  you’re seeking companionship or if you just miss having socks all over the floor and a stack of magazines in the bathroom. It’s not you, it’s me. I haven’t said that in years, but unlike last time when it actually meant “you smell like cat urine, your tattoos look like Rorshach tests, and you mispronounce February” this time it’s actually true.

Well, it’s not me per se. It’s who I am. I’ve been married for ten years,  which means most of my male friends are married, too.  Single men don’t want to be around me. I’ve been emasculated by having to go to Target to buy nursing pads. That is probably the last activity you will ever see featured in a beer commercial. I would have thought that it was a guy having a physically intimate relationship with a horse, but Budweiser’s Superbowl ad proved me wrong.

What’s left of the single men I know are a little…ehhh. Do you really want that last piece of chicken from the chafing dish? No one wants that piece. It’s been sneezed on by extreme emotional stunting and picked at by crazy tongs. Better to wait until they bring out a new tray when the current wives and girlfriends start popping their clogs in 20 or 30 years. Is that a terrible thing to say? You’re the one who wanted me to set you up.

By my age, men on their own are like aging stars – big balls of gas that are about to go supernova in a bright flash of batshit before collapsing on themselves into black hole of regret.  Women admirably seem to organize themselves into book clubs, or workout groups, or whatever you call those things where one woman is selling lingerie or kitchen crap or candles to all her friends and they have to keep having parties to sell more until there’s one huge group of women standing in their underwear in a candle-lit kitchen and then there’s a pillow fight…never mind. The point is, these are social activities. Sexy, sexy, social activities. Men don’t seem to do these things. Our scanty underpants don’t come from parties, they come from being washed 10,000 times since we bought them at Dollar General in 1997.

In one way or another, men left to their own devices are like WALL-E. We just stack and collect garbage all day in the guise of our “hobbies.” Sometimes this garbage is physical. Lionel trains, possibly the worst toy for anyone under 25, come to mind.  And, who do you think is buying a $150 “stunningly life-like”Green Arrow statue?  What use does this stuff serve? It’s just stuff to collect and organize and obsess over.

Some of the garbage is abstract, but the object of  pointless obsession nonetheless. I went out to dinner once with a guy who spent an hour talking about oak casked malbecs and how the joke of the movie Sideways had something to do with pinot noir actually being a subvarietal of some other kind of something something. I have no idea. Because it’s just stacks and stacks of garbage this guy piled up in his mind. I enjoyed Sideways a lot, and I know only two things about wine: (1)it should be 6.99 and (2)it should say Kirkland on it.

I listened to sports talk radio once, for 10 minutes in 2005 on the eve of the White Sox going to the World Series. All I remember is this: some guy called in to compare the pitching lineup of the 1959 Sox to the 2005 team. This poor bastard was all alone on planet White Sox collecting garbage about  Billy Pierce and Early Wynn on the chance that someday he could get on the radio to compare them, to, uh, that chubby guy who was a really good closer in 2005.

What happens in WALL-E? The little guy robot is running around in a world only he inhabits stacking garbage until one day a sleek, tough female shows up. She shows a little interest, and then he totally invades her personal space when she falls asleep. He later stalks her all the way back to her home, where he screws everything up and eventually costs her her job. Also, there’s some environmental message. But the point is this: Eva was once a super awesome high powered girl robot, and now she’s stuck on a planet full of garbage with a male robot that pieces keep falling off of. Is this what you want?

There’s a point between the mid-20s and the mid-30s where I think women can stop men from getting too involved in their own interests and thinking about something other than themselves (or Early Wynn). Biologically speaking, it’s probably the point at which the testosterone is still overpowering the OCD. After that, it’s an inverse bell curve in terms of interest in women, picking up again maybe in the mid-60s when my peers’ current obsession with cured pork will inevitably lead to the need for a partner to help change the colostomy bag.

You’re really better off on your own.

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Children of a Lesser Dog

I have a dog. I also have two children. Sometimes, I take all three of them out to the park at once. This is generally a horrible idea, as I end up standing in a field yelling three different names with no obvious reaction from any of the living things within a hundred yards. To the casual onlooker, I am just a sad lonely man all alone in the world, pockets full of crap, calling the names of his tormentors and then inexplicably asking the sky if anyone wants a treat. At the moments I can bring all three creatures into near-me orbit, we often find ourselves visiting with other dogs and their owners.

And then some jackass always says “I don’t have kids, but my dog is like my child.” As always happens when I’m confronted with statements of pathos and extreme loneliness, I just get angry. The conversation with these sad sacks always begins with them seeing Jack (my dog, not one of my sons) and saying “what kind of dog is that?” What they really mean is “what kind of dog is that?”  Jack is clearly a mutt. No one would ever breed a dog like him, unless the AKC starts rating dogs on their frequent whimpering and visible erections.

But they’re not really asking because they’re interested. They want me to return the question so they can tell me about their dog, which is inevitably some purebred something. I don’t fall for it anymore. I just say “oh, is your dog an Entlebucher Mountain Dog?” Of course, it isn’t. No one has an Entlebucher Mountain Dog. But nothing is more annoying than spending $1,100 on a purebred Jack Russell only to have some jerk in the park ask if it’s an Entlebucher Mountain dog. “It’s a Jack Russell Terrier, they say. “Oh,” I say, “I think my dog just peed on your shoe a little.”

This is why your dog isn’t like your kid. None of us get to choose (or would want to) purebred name brand kids. I’ve never said “This is my son, he’s a Miniature American Curly Coated Jew.” Again, no one would breed a kid to be like mine. With my giant head and my wife’s thin neck, my older son couldn’t lift his melon up for the first 18 months of his life. He always seemed to be looking for change at his feet. Though I suspect that the people who ask “what kind of dog is that?”are the same people who ask, in so many words, “what kind of kid is that?” You think this doesn’t happen? You clearly don’t have friends with adopted or mixed-race kids. People will come up to these parents and say  “how did a bitch like you get a pup like that?” Ok, not exactly in those words. This is 21st century America, and we still can’t get our heads around the fact that there are many paths to love and parenthood, and not all of them are going to be sanctioned by the AKC, or in this case, Republicans.

So your dog is like your kid, and you chose to have a purebred dog. Oh, if only I knew my boys were going to grow up to be show-quality beautiful. Sure, they’ll be dumb as posts, behave terribly, and have all sorts of weird health problems because they come from cousins marrying, but what glossy coats! …I was making a joke there, and then I realized this is exactly the reasoning of Jessica Simpson’s father, and parents who put 6 year olds in beauty pageants. In these cases, aren’t dogs and kids just status symbols? Look what I’ve got! I spared no expense! Perfect genetic beauty! If only you could somehow put a vanity plate on your dogs or children. Or maybe join a club to celebrate the purity and heritage of your children’s bloodlines. Other than the Daughters of the American Revolution, that is. I wonder if the DAR and AKC share development consultants.

Spending all your time and resources on a living thing does not make it like your child. All the cute sweaters, booties, and treats don’t change the fact that if you die in your house and no one finds you, your shih tzu eatz u. No, really. I appreciate that being a parent has been reduced to another American status symbol race. Maybe your dog is like your kid. God help your dog. Whatever the hell it is.

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Sport Futility Vehicles

Like many fathers, I worry that my own narrow interests and hobbies will be passed on to my sons and that he will grow up without a well rounded education in manly things. Thus, as I’ve done for the last few Februarys, I feigned interest first in the Superbowl and then in cars, which put us last weekend at the Chicago Auto Show.

Late in our visit, we decided to try the mini test track in the Chrysler/Dodge/Fiat/Jeep area. (Pictures of these areas are available elsewhere.) This was a surprisingly popular attraction, given that it was essentially a trade: you give Chrysler an incredible amount of personal information (you could save typing by just letting a foreign owned corporate behemoth scan your drivers’ license!) and they let you sit in the passenger seat of one of their cars on a tiny track for 30 seconds. This seemed really appealing to my 7 year old, who is apparently at the same level of emotional maturity as the dozens of fully grown men in front of us, there even without a child to humor and/or feel guilty about.

The Chrysler track was there to demonstrate the vehicles’ 0-60 speed, while the Jeep track involved a steep fake hill you could ascend and descend in your choice of Jeep vehicles, like the Wrangler, the Patriot, and the Phi Delt Pledge. There we were, just south of downtown Chicago checking out vehicles based on their acceleration and hill climbing ability.

In downtown Chicago.

If I could do  a Venn diagram of flat places in the US and metro areas with the most crippling traffic, the intersection would be a picture of the Sears Tower and a comically small mayor flipping you off.

The steepest thing you’re going to climb in your car in Chicago is the ramp to the parking garage at the mall, and the fastest you’re going to go is back down that same ramp when the Cheezie Mayo Dubl D’Lite you got at the food court starts feeling like it might come back on your upholstery.

The Auto Show experience reminded me of my neighbor during the blizzard in Chicago in 2011. He has some fancy 4×4, and while a couple of us were outside clearing the alley, he pulled out of his garage and promptly got stuck. As we’d done for other neighbors who needed to leave, we pushed him clear and then did so again when he got stuck at the end of the alley. About 3 minutes later, the car appeared at the other end of the alley.

It turns out that he was so excited to experience the snow, he’d allowed us to push him twice just so he could drive his 4×4 around the block. His heavy, dirty, cold, stupid 4×4 that shot slush all over my pants. Somehow, they never show these scenes in beer commercials or for that matter, Jeep commercials.

The next day, the city cleared my alley. Both my 2002 Accord and my 1992 Corolla made it out just fine, although maybe they would’ve looked more stylish with giant tires and a roll bar. Alas, it was too cold for me to wear a sleeveless t-shirt and cutoffs, which means no one could see the barbed wire tattoo I’d got from the machine at the grocery store.

A few days later, it warmed up and the snow was gone. We  haven’t had any snow accumulation for any length of time in Chicago in the two winters since. Maybe my neighbor is driving up the embankments next to the on ramps for the highway to see if he can get stuck in those. He’s probably running over the daffodils that now come up in February thanks to a changing climate and, well, the increasing popularity of vehicles like his.

We never made it into either the Chrysler or the Jeep vehicles at the Auto Show. Eventually, my seven year old son reasoned out that it was a dumb use of his time when there were other things to see.

As we walked away, I swore I could see some guys still in line framing the cars with their hands as they moved them back and forth whispering “Vrroooom! Vrrrrrrrrooooooom!!”

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