LJ Ross

P.T. Anderson’s Latest and Our Obsession with “Like”

With a kind of psychological depth that Freud could have only dreamt of, the opening sequence of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master pulls us into the scarred, dangerous and licentious life of a World War II veteran. Some critics have called Anderson a true auteur of our era, citing The Master as an example. The movie as a whole is not exactly enjoyable, but it is good, possibly great—certainly better than what we’ve come to expect from our modern cineplex experience. We’re compelled to ask, is it the wrong priority to expect that films be primarily enjoyable? If the answer is yes, then P.T. Anderson has made a unique American masterpiece. The Master is frustrating in all the best ways.

Loosely inspired by scientology, The Master tells the story of a sexually warped and violent drifter named Freddie Quell (excellently played with crazed fervor by Joaquin Phoenix) struggling to cope with his return to the States after serving in World War II. Freddie stumbles upon Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), leader of a cult called The Cause, which has something to do with accessing past lives in order to achieve present self-actualization so that they might time-travel into the future. Or something. But Anderson’s lens is fixed less on doctrine and more on the psychology behind religious quest. Or perhaps it’s the religious quest behind psychology. Dodd—like an abusive method-acting instructor—uses interrogation to uncover his followers’ past traumas in order to help them find enlightenment.

Like members of The Cause, The Master wanders, but we follow, if only because of great acting and visually stunning action sequences. Watching Freddie being chased through a farm, ride away on a motorcycle in the desert, or drift out to sea, we experience the transient nature of the American West as not only a quest for home, but also a quest for truth, discovery and history. Tethered by this empathy, we’re guided through a beautiful, sweeping travelogue of 1950’s America and a clear narrative that slowly devolves as the characters hit dead-ends.

The story’s journey is as sexually frustrated as its characters. And perhaps this is the film’s cornerstone. In Dodd and Freddie’s never-ending and always evolving quest for fulfillment, consummation—both sexual and spiritual—goes unfulfilled and fragments into individualized sensory experiences. At worst, Anderson could be accused of self-importance, or to use a more apt term: masturbation. At best, that’s the point. The characters’ yearning for sexual and spiritual gratification becomes a dry well. And the audience’s thirst for traditional narrative goes unquenched, leaving us stumbling from the cinema’s sanctuary, a mess of confused emotions, bashfully asking, “Was it good for you?”

And here—like Dodd’s followers—we’re faced with the unfortunate gauge of personal enjoyment. So often we leave a theater saying, “I really liked that,” as if we’d eaten a candy bar. But for some films enjoyment might not be the right gauge. When it comes to Hollywood fluff built to make a buck, our entertainment is and should be the aim. Certainly there’s room for popular comedy and drama as diversion, if only to democratize film. But in this individualistic culture, have we been trained to want or expect the wrong things? If so, has this training impaired the way we experience unique or original forms of art that require a different metric?

If the first question we ask after experiencing a piece of art is “Did you like it?” we’re operating out of a skewed framework. Our transactional culture is preventing us from doing the larger calculus required to comprehend art’s intrinsic value. Fettered by Facebook clickers that tally numbers of “likes,” this framework is rather graceless.

Judging a piece of art primarily by personal enjoyment is symptomatic of the commoditization of art. But worse, it also shackles originality. Too often we’re enslaved by narrative consummation (as opposed to narrative fragmentation) as a result of our transactional framework. In The Master, Anderson reaches even deeper terrain when he applies this aesthetic tenet to truth itself. In their relentless search for self-actualization—whether through cognitive, spiritual, or relational means—the characters of The Master begrudgingly disregard the hard reality in front of them: Truth and beauty are not at the mercy of their autonomous, broken desires. This futility is fascinating and frustrating to watch (and, by the way, made all the better if viewed the way Anderson intended in the hard-to-find 70mm film format, which hasn’t been used in twenty years and was normally reserved for epics like Lawrence of Arabia).

The novel, too, is often subject to our personal gratification, and serves as a parallel form that is plagued by transactional barriers. With many forms of story, narrative consummation is often too conveniently associated with the “redemptive” narrative, a misnomer that bears examining. Recently in The Guardian the writer Howard Jacobson considered the value of literature without redemption. But before doing so he wisely examined the other side of his argument:

We are…if not exactly ‘saved’ by reading, at least partially ‘repaired’ by it: made the better morally and existentially. To those who found that idea fanciful I would put the question: when were you last mugged on the Underground by someone carrying Middlemarch in his pocket? We read to extend our sympathies, to see ourselves in others and others in ourselves, to educate our imaginations, to find liberation from the prison of the self, to be made whole where we are broken, to be reconciled to the absurdity of existence, in short to be redeemed from flesh, the ego and despair… Reading literature remains a civilising activity, no matter that it’s literature in which people do and say abominable things and the author curses like the very devil. What’s at issue is how we describe the way the civilising works.

When we judge art according to personal enjoyment, we’re implying that art’s civilizing value is contingent upon our individual satisfaction. In other words, our autonomy strangles both the intrinsic and instrumental values of art, leaving the redemptive aspects of any narrative restricted to flourish only according to our needs and our needs alone. And here, Jacobson sees irony: “Whence redemption as a measure of literature’s worth, and how to justify it given how little in the way of atonement on the Christian model, i.e. deliverance from sin; and how little in the way of intelligibility on the rationalist model, i.e. deliverance from fragmentation, so many of the world’s great novels countenance?”

After some appropriately provocative gusto, Jacobson goes on to say that people “would rather hear Anne Frank aver that ‘In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart’ than read Primo Levi’s gathering despair or the survivor Jean Améry refusing forgiveness and redemption.” To demand clarity, direction, and consummation from our narratives is to miss the point. Lostness bears importance in the path to wholeness as well:

There is no being reconciled to loss. What’s gone is gone. What’s suffered is suffered. But some novelists make it possible for us to stare at pain with bitter and derisive comedy, and because there is a part of us that values truth above illusion, we grab at that bitter comedy for dear life.

The individualized, transactional attitude is just one thing that keeps new and unique art from reaching a broader audience. But perhaps that can change if we take different criteria into the civil and communal sanctuary of the theater, criteria that measure engagement as much as enjoyment, because we can’t always trust what we like; criteria that reflect art’s intrinsic goodness and remember its civilizing advantages. If we’re sick of seeing mush on TV and the same formulaic Hollywood plots, we’ll have to abandon self-gratification in favor of community-engagement, to usher in an appreciation of the new and unique, of thoughtful expression instead of zoned-out disassociation.

With The Master, P.T. Anderson has taken a daring step in a new direction. It’s worth seeing even if you don’t like it.

61 Local: the Profits of Virtue

The buzz of Brooklyn’s BoCoCa neighborhood is a cacophonous mix of old-meets-new. Throw-back butchers, all-the-rage restaurants, inviting art spaces, all- too- proud Brooklyn bars, art installation converted dumpsters, yarn stores that serve alcohol, educational centers, community gardens, and the list goes on. Each establishment possesses its own characteristic quirk. But one spot is a little harder to nail down. That spot is 61 Local, a community center/public house/bar/restaurant/art space/community garden/think tank/beer hall.

All those slashes might seem to indicate a place that’s trying too hard to be everything for everyone. Thankfully, that’s certainly not the case. Their multi-functional mix works. Moreover, it thrives. 61 Local is a privately owned public square, where creativity, community, and collaboration collide.

Photo by flickr user ethikus.

Dave Liatti is the owner and mastermind behind 61 Local, which he opened in 2010. A former Sixpoint Brewery engineer, acclaimed foodie and designer, and one of the entrepreneurial icons behind Brooklyn’s locavore movement, Liatti’s vision for 61 Local is more than just another bar. “61 Local is a meeting place for friends, a watering hole, a house party, a creative space and an inclusive environment that fosters collaboration and the positive exchange of ideas,” Liatti and Kris de la Torre, his manager, told me.

The one defining characteristic you can pin on the place is its theme. Everything at 61 Local – from the beer you drink, to the cheese on your sandwich, to the stool you sit on – is locally sourced. The cavernous interior is repurposed from its roots as a sprawling town house and garage, marked by a large map on the wall to indicate the exact origin of each item you’re consuming. Here, locavorism reigns. But Liatti’s aim goes deeper than just practicing ethical eating and buying habits; his reason for sourcing locally is that it creates stronger relationships. At 61 Local, the aim is to bridge the gap between the care and creativity of the craftsmen and the customer who enjoys their products.

“The relationships we have with our vendors is one of the greatest pleasures of working at 61 Local. In almost every case we have met face to face with the individual or collaborative that’s behind the product,” de la Torre says. “We strive to understand their process, their inspiration and their needs as a small, independent business. Opportunities are arranged every month for our staff – and sometimes customers – to meet with different vendors, volunteer with them and establish a personal connection that many bars do not prioritize the same as a public house would.”

But what does all of that mean for the customer? More ambitious than sourcing locally is maintaining a profitable business that exists to serve its community. 61 Local is a community center. Literally. “The community center component of 61 is really evident as you watch the slew of patrons through the course of a single day. In one afternoon you could easily see artists from Invisible Dog Art Center next door co-mingling with professional and home brewers meeting to swap some brew, creative professionals who work from their new home office at 61, babies and neighborhood moms, three generations of a family celebrating an anniversary, urban farmers delivering flowers for the tables or selling us some greens, neighbors gathering to pick up their CSA share, actors prepping for an audition on our mezzanine, or any number of friends who know that coming into 61 probably means running into a good friend or beer buddy,” says de la Torre. “It’s great to feel this sort of buzz.”

And there’s quite a buzz. Shortly after its opening, the blog “Brooklyn Based” said that Liatti has “turned 61 Local into a creative hub for neighborhood artists and foodies looking for a place to kick back and collaborate.” TimeOut New York said, “With its single-minded focus on hyperlocal purveyors, Dave Liatti’s sprawling beer hall doubles as an unofficial clubhouse for Brooklyn’s DIY artisans.” New York Times’ food critics said of the establishment, “Never has hanging out at a bar seemed so virtuous.”

Photo by flickr user bhuny.

Any New Yorker will tell you that it’s hard to find a true ‘third place’ that achieves community building free from the trappings of profit-mongering. This raises the question: is localism a kind of temperance to avarice?

I once heard a customer come up to the bar at 61 Local and try to order a Coke. In a fascinating exchange, the bartender kindly explained that they don’t carry those kinds of goods. “Most customers are really excited and appreciative to forgo the typical bar selection for something a little closer to home. Who knows? That soda they just got served might have been made by the couple sitting next to them at the bar. There’s something extra enticing about that.”

What’s different about 61 Local is the intention behind their entrepreneurship. “At 61 we really strive to make connections. Taking the time to meet and understand who is behind each of these events has allowed us to bring together some wonderful, ambitious and creative individuals. What makes this successful is that often times new projects are born from the connections first established at 61 and we are more than happy to provide the context for realizing these projects.”

How Liatti’s vision was actualized is as much a product of his surroundings – he’s lived in DUMBO since before it was called DUMBO – as of his own brilliance. “The creative, DIY nature of what is happening in Brooklyn right now has absolutely shaped 61 Local. The public house was born as a resource for just that sort of effort. This is also why we carry such a large number of products ‘Made in Brooklyn’ and much of our programming is geared towards spotlighting local projects. The spirit of 61 is very much a reflection of present day Brooklyn.” And as for how they want 61 Local to grow: “It would be great if the reach of 61 Local continued to expand and we became more widely acknowledged as an advocate for local projects and community building. If more bars could act as a resource for their community that would be a positive step.”

Part of 61 Local’s neighborhood is negatively affected by the environmental dangers of the Gowanus Canal, a south Brooklyn sewage gross-out that recently received superfund status. With the addition of a new NBA arena nearby – the hotly debated Atlantic Yards – sewage overflow is likely to increase, sending the Department of Environmental Protection into a tizzy.  Last year, 61 Local received a DEP green infrastructure grant to build a roof garden that will absorb rainwater, which will help prevent the run-offs that cause sewage overflow and serve as a rooftop garden to grow herbs and vegetables to use in the restaurant.

This is just one example of how 61 Local is experimenting to see how privately owned ‘third spaces’ can be defined by the goal of caring for the community it serves. It might be idealistic to say that locavorism can completely transform communities and the way we think of free markets. Cultural homogeneity is still a wolf at the door of those dining at the local-only table. But perhaps it’s not too far-fetched to wonder if, in locavorism, we’re seeing a mode of capitalism that’s fueled by collaboration as much as competition. Of the customer it asks: can we consume more virtuously? Of the vendor it asks: how can we create deeper value from this good? From both these questions, 61 Local is finding positive and profitable results. Lets see who follows suit.

 

 

 

 

Want to check out what’s happening this summer at 61 Local?

“Summer at 61 Local is going to be HUGE! We are currently developing a free bike tour to Red Hook every first Saturday. Riders will get to meet some of our friends making delicious things down in that ‘hood and end the journey with lunch and a beer at 61. We’re also hosting new lecture series on local ecology and the watershed, spending lots of time at various urban gardens in Brooklyn and will offer plenty of opportunities for customers to tag along. We also have a great line-up of seasonal brews coming out on tap and a growing selection of exceptional wines on tap as more wineries jump on board with the keg program.” – Kris de la Torre

 

When a Giant Plucks a Tree

Off it came. Off, right like that, plucked off the earth like a hundred year old daisy. The Giant yanked up the old tree right there, right in the middle of town, right in front of everyone. The ground lifted and split and up came the roots with an ancient soil that rinsed off onto the street. The crowd of people resounded with an arching “Ohhh” before the Giant raised the tree towards his mouth. He bit down on a branch like a brontosaurus, tasting and gnashing the twigs and leaves but then quickly realized ‘no, I should not be eating trees’ and spat with a toddler’s vehemence. The Giant held the massive oak by the trunk and shook it and out came several squirrels and birds that crawled and flew all around his colossal frame, scaring and tickling him equally.

“He doesn’t know what he’s done!” one old man said. “He’s always yanking on things before thinkin’ what they’re attached to.” This thing happened to be attached to the earth, attached to the past, attached to the town in a way the Giant didn’t know, or at least didn’t think about, before plucking it from the hearts and minds of the residents of Ripple Spring, Maine, in this November of 1894.

No one knew what had gone through the Giant’s mind but everyone in town suspected that nothing, nothing went through his mind. He just did it. Just like he always does everything: without any consideration for others. Like the time he went around eating all the deer. He just did it. He just ate all the deer in town. And no one could stop him, because by the time Mary Sampson found him devouring a doe in her backyard, he’d already eaten thirty others. All anyone could say was, “Oh, come on! Now there’s no more deer to look at!” And then they went back to their business jaws clenched, hate brewing.

But the Giant was part of the town, a legal resident. Their oldest resident. Older than the tree, at two hundred twenty-four. And so they put up with the deer incident and all those like them. But this. This was the oak – the Ripple Spring scarlet oak! – smack in the middle of town. This was the tree that turned so vibrantly red in October that from afar you’d think some sacrifice had hovered over it the night before. “More beautiful than blood” the townsfolk would say as they admired it from the tobacconist across the street. And now it was gone. Its life ripped away by some living monument, this Giant, this bumbling piece of bothersome history. How could they put up with this? They couldn’t.

“You’d think he’d have a larger brain, what with that massive body.”

“You’d think.”

“Yah, you’d think,” all the drinkers at the Cavanaugh Tavern echoed as they sipped their Narragansett ale with squinty and plotting fervor.

“But he’s only massive.”

“Massive and stupid.”

“I’ve always said, ‘There’s nothing worse than someone that’s large and ignorant.’”

“Mmm,” the others agreed.

“Sure he’s been here the longest, and he is one of the last ones – thank God – but why should we put up with this behavior. It’s just reckless. I don’t give a damn if he is a historical landmark: I’d be hanged if I went around eatin’ all the deer, rippin’ up trees, sittin’ on funeral homes.”

“He’s worse than a Massachusettian,” Dick slurred.

“Yah!” they all yelled.

The front door swung open and in came Charlie Franklin and the noise fell and the hearth crackled, caught in the aim of the outer gusts. Charlie had lost an arm fighting at Chancellorsville and had been mostly quiet since. He and his wife Anna lived on a farm just outside town and if he’d known the men’s topic of conversation for that evening he might’ve stayed home. But he was there now so he bellied up without a word to the others.

“Can you believe it Charlie, he’s gone and – hey Charlie, I says can you believe it: he’s ripped up the oak!” said Dick.

“Ah,” Charlie mumbled, “I’m sure he didn’t know any better.”

“You oughtn’t take his side, Charlie. Sympathy is cruel if not matched with Consequence.”

“Well… it’s not like he’s killed anybody.”

The others paused. Charlie was right. The Giant hadn’t killed anybody. He’d only destroyed the town a little. Compared to having the last Giant in the state, a little destruction was surely something to put up with, Charlie thought.

A young wayfaring transcendentalist, who wore a bright green vest and was drinking alone in the corner, suddenly stood up and discovered he was drunk and quickly stumbled outside at a near gallop, as if he suddenly realized he had somewhere better to be. He ran up the road and then veered into the woods as if to escape society into the fold of nature’s bosom. The others jeered the transcendentalist – as they did all of them up there, for good measure – and got back to the business of the Giant.

Charlie sat and quietly listened as the others continued to complain with growing contempt. He gulped the last fourth of his beer and slid on his coat with some awkward extension of his only arm and slung it like a matador around his back and put on his hat and walked out the door and the hearth crackled and the others drank more.

“Well maybe Charlie’s right. He hasn’t really hurt anybody.”

“Right.”

“And even if he had… they’re not gonna lock him up. He’s too big!”

“Right!”

“We’re stuck with him.”

An avalanche of vituperation began to trickle in their brains. They all sat and licked the foam from their lips, a little more hunched than usual, and a quiet befell the bar that felt louder than any noise.

“Well… What say ye we do something?”

Their eyes moved. Their heads didn’t.

“Well… what? What do you think we oughta do?”

Suddenly the front door swung open and slammed against the wall as Charlie Franklin backed in without breath and without voice dragging with his only arm some cumbersome limp and muddy thing that appeared to be a person.

“God, Charlie, what’s this!?”

“I didn’t even see him. He ran in front of the carriage. Just out of nowhere.”

It was the transcendentalist. His sternum was collapsed, crushed under the wreck. They all huddled around. One man crouched down and examined his pulse and opened his green vest to find less than he had hoped and then put his hand on the transcendentalist’s forehead and exclaimed, “He’s dead, Charlie.” And opportunity rang before bereavement.

It was as if fate dropped into their beer mugs and they stared at it as it swirled into some cruel divination, which they imbibed with the relish of a cup everlasting. Here’s to Opportunity. Here’s to Recompense. Here’s to the chance for Ripple Spring to at last be free from its primordial, clumsy Colossus.

“Now… We don’t know this poor young man. Nobody knows him. But I’ll say this…” Dick exclaimed, with the index finger of a politician. “This looks like the work of a Giant.” Dick pushed back his shoulders, his eyes stony, his mouth resolute, with the confidence of Satan himself. “Wouldn’t you say?”

“What?” Charlie asked. “No, this man ran in front of my horse, this isn’t–”

“Yah,” a fat man interrupted. “I think you’re right, Dick. In fact before I was here I think I heard that Giant stomping down that very road.”

“Yah,” a few others agreed.

“Just look at his chest! Sure, that’s the work of a Giant, then.”

“Yah!”

“Well, then we need to find him!” said Dick. “He won’t get away with this, men.”

“Now listen, this isn’t right,” said Charlie. “I’m tellin’ you: he was struck by my horse.”

But it was too late. The men shouted at Charlie to hush up and think of the town and if he didn’t want any trouble himself he’d stay out of this. They pushed Charlie aside and stepped over the transcendentalist and ran into the town screaming murder and indiscretion and beckoning others to join their bitter scission. On Main Street, windows lit up in near rhythmic succession, accompanied by excitable eyes and such a cacophonous sounding of rumors that even the cows began to low of legends. Charlie watched their gathering storm, as their ten became twenty, and soon their twenty, fifty.

And then, amidst the melee, came a rumbling that only Charlie heard. In a giantless town you’d think it was a far off thunder, but this wasn’t that. Another succession of soft booms sounded, the growing and noisy crowd still unaware. Boom, they sounded again, and soon after became felt. Charlie looked out across the trees, whose moonlit tops rustled and spread. The Giant had awoken, made curious by the worst curiosity, and was walking towards the town perhaps expecting some better festivity. Soon one little girl looked at Charlie and saw what Charlie was seeing. “Look! In the woods!” she screamed. “It’s the Giant!” Charlie quickly unhitched his carriage and mounted his horse and galloped out into the woods, as the little girl watched him and then ran off to her half-drunk father, Dick.

As Charlie rode, the terrifying adrenaline of a veteran’s valor was resurrected in his soul. He felt transported back to their cavalry’s retreat at Fredericksburg, where once before he rode away from the same hyena-like yapping of a rebel yell. He missed the weight of that history, violent as it was. For a second he thought he felt a muscle in his phantom arm before being brought back to reality, where he was charging a Giant.

He met the Giant and halted the horse and the horse stamped and whinnied with wide eyes as it sidled at the feet of a less graceful beast. Charlie raised his one arm and yelled, “STOP… YOU NEED TO COME WITH ME. YOU NEED TO BE PROTECTED. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?” The stupid Giant didn’t understand, but he followed Charlie anyway because he was hungry and the horse looked good.

Charlie led him through the woods and across the plain to his farm and then dismounted his horse. He opened the doors to his barn and then turned around to find that the Giant had eaten his horse. Charlie yelled, “Ohhh, dammit. Now don’t! If you’re hungry I’ll give you some food, but you can’t eat my animals. Now, get in the barn.” The Giant hunched down and entered the barn and sat on the ground as roosters fled from his crushing haunches.

Charlie got a bucket of oats and brought it to the Giant. “Here. You can eat this.” But the Giant didn’t. “I’m trying to protect you. I’m risking my life for you, you hear?” Charlie said, looking into the Giant’s cavernous nostrils. The Giant breathed out his nose with childlike diffidence.

Charlie climbed to the top of a stack of hay and met the Giant at eye level. “People don’t like you. Do you know that? You can’t go around pullin’ up trees or eatin’ whatever you want. You can’t do that. People don’t care that you’re a part of history. Not anymore they don’t. You’ve gotta be worth somethin’ to them. And right now, you’re not. You’re worthless. But if you were a little less stupid, people might change their minds. They might want to get to know you. They might ask about who you are, what this place used to be like. Understand? DO YOU UNDERSTAND?” The Giant vapidly nodded his head in apparent affirmation, but it was unclear if this communication breakthrough was mere coincidence or truly a step forward in reconciliation. Charlie took it as the latter.

“Now look, I brought you these oats, you can eat these oats. See? Eat. They’re good.” Charlie put a few oats in his mouth and chewed them, and the Giant, now eye to eye with Charlie, appeared to start to grin. “You can eat them.” He reached a handful of oats towards the smiling mouth of the Giant. “Open your mouth and eat. I’m trying to take care of you. I’m trying to protect you. Eat.” The Giant opened his mouth and before Charlie could pull away the Giant quickly chomped down on Charlie’s arm, severing it at the shoulder. Charlie screamed and fell backwards and his armless body toppled to the ground and dyed the hay before he passed out at the feet of the Giant.

The barn was still. The Giant gazed at nothing with bovine daftness as Charlie’s bicep dangled from his lips. He peered out the opened barn door. Off in the distance he saw a collection of fired torches, hurriedly bopping towards him on the plain. Under the flames came a hollering chorus of voices. It rushed forward and away from the past with a recklessness that saw only Tomorrow and knew only Now. The torches advanced like savage rockets. The old Giant turned his massive head to listen to the rising clamor, and for the first time, dread befell him, and his ears perked from the venom of their sound. Charlie’s body lay helpless in a spreading pool of scarlet, as the oncoming voices mounted in the darkness, calling for the Giant, chanting “justice… justice… justice.”

After the Summer

After the summer you’ll see hoards of lonely Brooklynites pack into bars that boast fireplaces. In SoHo you’ll see layers of clothes never paired before and in the Financial District you’ll see office windows lit up a little longer than usual. You’ll see college students hauling their lives back into dorms and you’ll see high-schoolers loitering on corners with their backpacks, screaming at each other from confused libidos. Up in Harlem, you might notice that things are quieter, which is a mystery. And in Queens you’ll see a stadium with a ghostly sea of empty seats, like injured pews after some disastrous wedding.

If you walked over a bridge right after summer you might notice that the sun creates a softer orange when it falls over New Jersey, as if it’s slowly baking Passaic.  You could stare into it and be fine, wholly opposite to the cruel face-of-God searing you get on a July noon. Despite the warnings from the news, the sky and sun are on our side in the fall, and the weather finally diplomatic.

But this year, after the summer, on a recent September day, on a certain south-facing corner of Barrow Street, you’d have seen Gloria Banks do something no one’s ever seen before.

For thirty-five years, from nine to ten a.m., Gloria sat on her stoop, facing downtown, taking in each fall morning, which she claimed were always the best mornings of the year. At sixty-eight years old, Gloria had lived in Manhattan most of her life– although she was born in New Hampshire, where she would head in November to visit her cousin. Before she retired, she worked at the American Museum of Natural History, which she’d tell you is now much less impressive than it used to be.

If you asked Gloria what she thought of history she’d tell you that autumn is the only season it belongs in. She’d explain that the past has a funny way of reviving itself when leaves fall; that things that have passed have better stories than their dreamy, saccharine counterparts.

Even though they lacked a little compassion, she always preferred the bits of life that were more concrete and muscular, like the city she belonged to. She’d take pavement over dirt, any day. She didn’t necessarily like the lifeless modernism of the midtown skyscrapers but nor was she fully wooed by the undulating curves of their rebellious offspring. More important than a structure’s shape was its substance. The city was a sturdy old place. That’s why she liked it.

It was for this same reason that she always read the obituaries before any other section of the paper. They were, of course, the most objectively reported part of a newspaper. Obituaries read more like durable facts. Death was a certainty. And for Gloria, there was no news worth reading that wasn’t certain.

When she read the obituaries on her stoop, she would do so out loud to passing strangers with the boldness of an insane person, though she was far from unstable. She would orate the death directly to one person, as if her recitation was the only task of a town crier in a city-for-one. She would give weight to the ones that made her sad, and laugh through the ones that she thought funny, but she was never flippant. There was a reverence in her ritual that brought honor to every story, even those that earned a chuckle. She wasn’t there to rebuke or entertain or even venerate. For Gloria, remembrance was an enjoyable hobby, and best when done out loud, in public.

If you passed her it wouldn’t be unusual to be shouted at with something like, “Burt Garrison, 81, died of lung cancer this Tuesday. Burt was born in Syracuse, New York and served in the Second World War as an aircraft engineer. He was known for his relentless positivity and diehard work ethic. Burt leaves behind a wife and four children who love and miss him dearly. Farewell Burt, you done good.”

She would tell you herself that her hobby was a strange one. But that wasn’t the point. ‘If we could start our days with substance,’ she thought, ‘we’d all be a little less pissy.’ Besides, very few people ever reacted negatively to hearing an obituary. How could you? Most just walked by, either in fear or amusement.

She once became hysterical with laughter when reading the obituary of Newt Balinski, a self-proclaimed adventurist and risk-taker whose final words were “Watch this.” Gloria laughed for so long that someone called the police, for fear that her hilarity would suddenly turn into something tragic.

Or there was the obituary of a woman named Heddi Trolley, who committed suicide by traveling to San Francisco to actually jump in front of a trolley car. Gloria was enamored of the story, and wondered why on earth her obituary would not make reference to something so curious. Trolley killed herself, in the most conceivably literal sense. That was something. Gloria sat wondering for hours, staring at the downtown skyscrapers. Was she the only one struck with such catharsis by Heddi’s elaborate orchestration? Or do these types of things just sometimes happen?

On September 11, 2001, Gloria sat with her paper as usual, facing downtown, but couldn’t say a word. She only watched. From nine to ten that morning nothing was as it had ever been and her stoop felt oddly hollow. From then on, she stopped reading aloud. Her morning ritual ended, and for the next ten years she wouldn’t find remembrance a worthy hobby.

But on a recent Sunday in September, something changed. The soft autumn sun prompted Gloria to revisit her old custom. She dusted off four newspapers that she had collected from ten years prior, sat down on her stoop, and read aloud every obituary printed of the two thousand nine hundred seventy-eight lives that were lost that day. She read aloud through the entire morning, into the afternoon, and continued into dusk.

At seven o’clock, the sun set across the edge of her cheek, as she faced south and the violet evening turned dark and empty, her voice still resounding, now with an elderly tremble, oscillating between a broken yowl and a soft lullaby. When the darkness closed in and turned to night she was the only sound in the West Village and knew it and felt it and incanted with a holiness that would pause the furthest planet.

She continued to read aloud, for hours and hours through the night, until her voice became hoarse and her hunched and aching spine felt like a fossil. At six a.m. her pace had slowed to a drag as the dawn broke on the crest of her nose.

She finished reading the obituaries at seven a.m., but decided to stay outside to greet the grocery deliverymen and the dog walkers. A young woman stopped with her labrador and said hello as the dog shat on the sidewalk between them. Gloria politely disregarded the awkward incident, as she always did, thinking to herself that ‘petty unpleasantries like this give the city its skin.’ When the young woman didn’t clean it up, Gloria did, and threw it out and then walked up the stairs and stood at the top of her stoop. From there she noticed a new crane had appeared above the other buildings. Newly erected iron beams reached mysteriously into the sky and she wondered what they might look like once covered and how high they might reach.

The morning stayed its soft orange for what seemed longer than usual, as if it decided to contemplate its own function. A cold, crisp breeze leapt off the Hudson and somebody began shouting off in the distance. A cab sped by and honked at an eager jogger. Gloria went inside her apartment, her voice still reverberate in lingering retrograde amidst the morning chorus of Barrow Street.

 

The Quiet Film

Five minutes in, you’re shifting. Folding your arms. Unfolding your arms. Crossing your legs. This armrest. No, that armrest. All the while thinking, Oh no, will this film be this slow for two more hours?

It is commonly the unlucky task of modern filmmakers to entertain first and make art second. Anything less and most of us are fidgety. Our culture of sensory-overload has unfortunately forced some art forms to drill in dramatic tension like a pneumatic device; a shock collar ready to jolt us if we drift away. Which begs the question: why do we expect films to bear the same function as a roller coaster?

Michelle Williams in Meek's Cutoff

The new film Meek’s Cutoff begins with a sequence of three families fording a river with their goods in tow. One after the other, they wade through with their livestock, wagons, birdcages, and everything else. The scene is long, wordless, and utterly enthralling.

The film takes place in 1845, following three families as they tread the beginnings of the Oregon Trail. In their search for a bountiful land on which to settle, they become misguided and lost, trapped in a harsh wilderness.

The film is implacably quiet and slow, and all the more interesting for it. The plot, though loosely outlined, leaves much to the imagination. It is a film more American than most, compiling imagery for a people lost in a quest to achieve their dreams. The family’s search seems futile, and the quiet tone of the film seems sympathetically relevant. The drawn-out, meticulous images sear into the viewer’s brain, serving as metaphors as much as pieces of a story.

It is altogether effective — achieving everything you’d look for in your standard movie-going experience. If juiced up with a big budget, quicker shots, more action, and a love story, the film might be a blockbuster. But, despite its excellence, you probably won’t find it in many theatres. The reason? It’s a minimalist film.

One of the great tools of art is that it helps us slow down and reflect. It’s a rarity in our culture to be able to stand, mouth agape, and take in beauty for long periods of time. Regrettably, our default mode is to say, “Let me comment on the art, not the other way around.” We are eager to judge non-traditional styles, not experience them.

The brand of the minimalist film seems to render the critic useless, as the main thing to criticize is the style itself. Whether this is good or bad is up for debate. But since the minimalist film is very decidedly a contemplative style, you can really only experience it for yourself, creating a valuable objectivity that leaves you more moved than opinionated. One could argue that it is for this visceral mystery that art exists, but when it comes to film, most of us are conditioned to want something speedier and more immediate. Perhaps the reason for our boredom when viewing art is not a justifiable reason to be bored. Perhaps our minds are too frenetic or stubborn to admit our flawed opinions.

Although the argument against our ADD-culture is often too belabored, it’s worth noting that filmmakers have it decidedly worse than most when it comes to finding an audience. Audiences have been trained to expect an explosion here, a gross-out scene there. For the filmmaker, making industry of their art necessitates far too much compromise.

Quiet (or “minimalist”) films deserve a fairer hearing. Especially nowadays. They pair the richness of photography with the power of narrative, giving equal measure to each. They give us a respite from the sensory rush we are accustomed to in everyday life. And not surprisingly, the minimalist film can achieve introspection as much as escapism. We often reserve the term “reflection” for quiet spaces, like gardens or churches, but quiet films can offer an equal sanctuary. Here your mind is fixed on a set of meticulously crafted images, the beauty of which can draw us into empathy or help us see a landscape in a new way.

So, beyond market conditioning, why do we insist on our movie-going experience to coddle our expectations of a traditional story arc with expensive fireworks? We don’t expect Phillip Glass to sound like Wagner, or Pollock to look like Van Gogh. Why do we limit our movie-going choices to the narrowest of margins and the most industrial of styles?

Paul Dano in Meek's Cutoff

Perhaps we’ve become too quick to criticize, where art urges us to merely be openly affected. Art’s strength is in its power to transcend, to bask in beauty and mystery, to contemplate viscerally and not just normatively. To truly experience these benefits requires a slowing down that most of us are unwilling to brake for, let alone pay the cost of admission for.

In slowing down, we move forward into new territory, allowing the raw materials of the world to shine in a new light. Installation artist Cory Arcangel recently posited in his interview with The New Yorker that, “Isn’t it the whole job of art to let new things in the door?” The quiet film helps us greet new things with the attention they deserve, and not speed by them with a hurried glance or cold shoulder.

Our quality of film as a culture is something to be proud of. But might that reputation dissipate if we are never willing to take the time to recognize what is new? Without slowing down, we might see far more emulation than innovation in the film world. Taking the time to rest and slow down when we enter a movie theater might energize us more than we think.

Harbinger of Spring

I am thawed. Spring. Beneath this snow heap I’ve emerged from a thousand discontented winters. All has melted around me, a nobody caveman frozen in absurdity. How long have I laid in this icy solidity? A hundred, a million years? I don’t know. How could I? If I recall correctly I had slipped on a glacier in Siberia whilst escaping a frustrated mammoth. But that might be wrong. I’m not sure. They say the brain is the last of the organs to fully defrost. But really, does it matter?

But what’s this? I have somehow drifted into a metropolitan bustle, surrounded by civilians and Duane Reade pharmacies. From Siberia to a city sidewalk, another victim of plate tectonics. People pass by, staring at my genitals, betrayed by a loincloth. This childhood nightmare: why should I be surprised at its fulfillment? Empty.

How my embryonic chamber – this sidewalk snow – lasted this long in this large a municipality is a wonder. You would think they’d have plows by now. They must be recovering from some global deep freeze. Perhaps there’s a neighborhood meeting where they could explain all this. I should probably register to vote.

The filth of a blizzard: Next to me lies a one-winged pigeon with part of a Snickers wrapper in its mouth, killed mid-swallow in a final attempt at satisfaction. Nearby is a tattered pair of underpants printed with robots and wizards. Such waste. And here I see that is not all. Needles. Toothpaste. Sour Patch Kids. Trash litters this sidewalk soup. I was better off in Siberia, where the only litter we saw was the morning after a pack of saber-toothes binge hunted and flung their scraps all over town like temperamental dictators. They were always a fussy lot, tigers.

But, look. What cheery-eyed insanity governs the faces of these urbanites? What scantily clad impulse has driven them to adorn their bodies in such thin and bright material? So quickly are they healed of their cabin fever! Such abandon, I feel it myself. It’s as if this seasonal pattern has wrought in them a charge of primal indiscipline, as all have abandoned occupation on this sunny Thursday for a 3pm happy hour at a bar called “F*** It”.

They are wild with freedom. I commiserate with their yearning for recklessness, for now is the time we all together agree that wouldn’t it be great to finally get to the beach.

‘I would love to try that one restaurant.’

‘I would love to go to that concert in the park.’

‘I would love to set a couch on fire and start a college riot.’

I wonder if that bar serves food. Nachos sound good. Maybe a margarita.

Only cavemen really know that Spring is the scorned lover of Responsibility, forever badmouthing it’s well-intentioned advice that they ‘take it slow.’ In these few months she will take her revenge, a promiscuous blossom that will inevitably wither in the heat of an Indian summer. Spring has sprung and will be undone and apparently I rhyme when I’m drunk.

Not surprisingly, alcohol tolerance seems to deteriorate when you are frozen for long periods of time and oh my God a bucket of Coronas is only five dollars? Are you kidding? I’m getting that. I’m totally getting that next.

So here I stand, thawed, naked, on the sidewalk of a bar where no one seems to care. Oh how I’ve missed the sorrow of civic-minded solipsism. I can but despair in the weight of this Sisyphean season, knowing full well that winter will surely come again. But this is Sprunk – sorry, spilled my drink – but this is Spring, where frost is defeated. Am I lost? Found? Am I old? Am I new? How much longer for my nachos?

Off-Broadway: Long Tails, Affordable Tickets

A great quandary in the arts world is: how do you make programming affordable for all? If we truly believe in the importance and necessity of art, then it goes without saying that art should be sold with an egalitarian price tag. The last few holiday seasons have been characterized by lighter wallets, so it is encouraging to find that some arts institutions – namely those that were previously typified by audiences donned in fur coats and monocles – are beginning to offer creative alternatives in an attempt to diversify audiences.

The theatre world in New York is beginning to reap the effects of a long-tail culture. That is, different theatre companies and collectives are reaching niche markets of people who are interested in very specific styles of art. Off-Broadway is capitalizing on this new demand trend, while Broadway is still lagging behind, trying to fit their content into a one-size-fits-all product.

Off-Broadway has a more flexible structure, offering something for everyone. If you want to see something new and edgy you can go to Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. If you want to see something experimental and collaborative-based, you can go to SoHo Rep. If you want to see a re-envisioned classic, you can go to Classic Stage Company. Ars Nova is great for comedy and camp. MCC is an‘emotional powerhouse’ kind of place. And so on and so forth.

But it goes even smaller. Like the iTunes “listeners also bought” feature, the downtown theatre scene is made up of splinter groups known for pushing the boundaries of narrative and storytelling. The Amoralists, The Debate Society, Elevator Repair Service, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, among others are all grassroots collectives producing some of the best new theatre out there.

And Off-Broadway companies are starting to recognize the grassroots/collective appeal. Like indie record companies who found out how to create consumer allegiance through a like-minded aesthetic, Off-Broadway theatres are finally teaming up and sponsoring the work of these collectives to establish new audiences. The Public Theater recently co-produced something from Elevator Repair Service, and SoHo Rep did so with Nature Theater of Oklahoma. This pattern – of grassroots artist collectives teaming with non-profit Off-Broadway companies – is where theatre is headed, whether Broadway is on board or not.

This works best in New York, where space is at a premium. It only makes sense that a myriad of smaller theatres that provide an array of options will thrive, whereas massive theatres might dwindle. Sure, it’s not a lucrative business (has the theatre ever been?), but this trend is increasing as our culture morphs into niche-appeal. In order to support the trend, ticket prices to these smaller theatres have become more democratic and more competitive.

But word isn’t spreading quickly enough. New Yorkers and tourists alike still look first to Broadway when they consider seeing a show. And because of this, the casual theatre-goer still perceives the stage to be too expensive.

So, in an attempt to support the excellent community-reliant art form that is the theatre, here are a number of ways to take advantage of affordable theatre tickets from some of the culture-setting Off-Broadway houses in America’s theatre capital.

For Young Professionals…

HipTix with Roundabout Theatre Company

If you’re between the ages of 18-35, HipTix is an affordable ticket service through Roundabout Theatre Company, whose shows range from huge Broadway musicals to intimate black box plays. Membership is free. All tickets are $20 or less (I’ve purchased $10 and $15 HipTix via their handy email blasts). Plus, HipTix members can purchase advance tickets and receive invites to exclusive post-show parties. (Monocle and fur coat not required.) You can choose to upgrade your membership to HipTix Gold with a $75 tax-deductible contribution, which ensures two orchestra level seats to every HipTix show.

Vineyard Theatre

If you are a theatre artist or under the age of 30, a $30 tax-deductible Vineyard Theatre membership will get you $15 tickets to every single show. This, out of all deals in New York, is one of the best. The Vineyard Theatre is at the top of their game, and is arguably producing the best new American theatre out there. Recent productions of The Scottsboro Boys and Middletown prove that the theatre is still alive and well, so long as we’ll go to it. Vineyard Theatre has a sterling reputation that is being elevated each year, so see their shows in their intimate Union Square theatre before they head to Broadway and cost you a fortune.

Rattlestick Playwrights Theater – Under 30 Plan

A $20 membership for those under the age of 30 will get you one $15 ticket to each Rattlestick show. In addition, members receive priority booking, invitations to Under 30 Members’ nights with meet and greet with playwright, director, cast, crew and staff, and free admission to all public readings as part of their developmental Evening Reading Series throughout the season, including The Good Plays Festival, TheaterJam and other special events. Rattlestick is known for excellent, edgy, new theatre, where you can see plays from the best up and coming writers.

Playwrights Horizons Student and Under 30 Memberships

For students, a $10 membership gets you $10 tickets to all shows. If you bring a friend who is also a student, they can get a $15 ticket. For those who are under 30 but aren’t students, a $20 membership gets you $20 tickets. All tickets can be purchased in advance (no standing in annoying rush and lottery lines). Playwrights Horizons is another great theatre that serves as America’s home for fostering new plays and musicals.

For Smaller Theatres…

Most theatres under 100 seats won’t charge more than $20 for a ticket. If that’s out of your price range, the always-fascinating SoHo Rep has 99-cent seats for all Sunday shows– yes, 99 cents— and PS 122 has “Passports” available for purchase where $55 gets you into 5 shows.

For Everyone Else…

TDF (Theatre Development Fund) Membership

This is for those who prefer to have a wide-array of options. Shows available on TDF range from the most buzz-worthy musicals on Broadway to Off-off Broadway, with a smattering of dance, concerts, and variety shows in between. Full-time students, full-time teachers, union members, retirees, civil service employees, staff members of not-for-profit organizations, performing arts professionals, members of the armed forces or clergy are all eligible for membership, which right now costs $30. Broadway tickets usually cost $25-$35, Off-off Broadway shows cost $9. TDF also houses the famous TKTS booths that are situated around the city. If you don’t have a membership, brave the crowds and find discounted tickets in person. Or, get their brand new TKTS iPhone app to see what’s selling. See their website for more info.

Atlantic Theater Company – 15for15

Started by David Mamet and William H. Macy, the Atlantic is a mainstay of the American theatre scene. Plays from Martin McDonagh, Ethan Cohen, Sam Shepard, and Harold Pinter can all regularly be seen at Atlantic. And $15 tickets are available for the first 15 performances of all their shows.

General and Student Rush…

Most, if not all, theatres offer discounted rush tickets on the day of the show. If you are willing to stand in line, in the cold, and risk not getting a ticket, they are a fine way to see great theatre. Most are priced around $20 with a very limited availability. Each theatre’s rush policy differs. For general info on all shows go to the TalkinBroadway.com Rush Board.

Some of the best rush policies are found at 2nd Stage Theatre ($15), Atlantic Theatre, Vineyard Theatre ($20), MCC ($20), MTC ($20), and The Public ($20), which actually has a warm lobby and cafe you can wait in.

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Sufjan Stevens’s The Age of Adz and the Irony Spectrum

Recently, the indie music world has been pulled taut between two very distinct ends of its Irony-worldview spectrum. Irony – that all- encompassing value of conscious discordance held by artists and audiences dwelling in places like Brooklyn and Portland – is an ingredient that you could say gives music its “indie” status. And for all the smug defeatism on the Gen Me periphery, the independent music world seems to be shrugging off the cynicism and fighting snark with two very different weapons: sincere folk-based orchestration and digitally futuristic innovation.

Sufjan Stevens. Photo by Marzuki Stevens

This tension could be further defined as the contrast of “where did we come from?” with the blinding chaos of “where are we going?” In this sense, the artist is both sage and soothsayer, preacher and prophet. If these categories are in fact the two ends of the irony spectrum, then Sufjan Stevens has tossed one hell of a curve ball into the mix with his long-awaited new album The Age of Adz.

In a recent article from Pitchfork, there was a curious term used that evoked murmurs of a musical changing of the guard. That term was “post-Merriweather world.”  The Pitchfork writer was off-handedly referring to Animal Collective’s 2009 album Merriweather Post Pavillion, which has set the bar for indie music standards on the digitally prophetic end of the spectrum. The album is seen by some as this generation’s White Album. And generally speaking, that assessment is correct. The influence that Merriweather has had in such a short amount of time is remarkable. Here, Animal Collective created a near-perfect model of melody mixed with chaos. The album is filled with tribal beats, digital loops, Brian Wilson-esque vocals, and is utterly enjoyable, despite its abrasive tendencies.

Where Merriweather anchors the digitally innovative side of indie music’s ambidextrous sound, several other artists anchor the opposite end. Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, Joanna Newsom, and Bon Iver all express the clean and sharp tonalities of American folk-based orchestration with their own unique spin. Stevens’s most popular albums drifted more into this arena, and may have inspired some of the aforementioned artists towards their current sound. Illinois (2005), Michigan (2003), and Seven Swans (2004) all contained plenty of flittering woodwinds, handclaps, feel-good choral arrangements, and reflective banjoes.

The two ends of this spectrum started as ironic-laden attempts at creativity, but have since undefined themselves to (forgive the semantics) ironically yearn for sincerity. This, in a fascinating artistic turn of events, has given us musical forms that range from four-part harmonies to crushing keyboards. But the theme that has emerged from this creatio ex nihilo has been a return to the stalwart value of authenticity. “First one to the most ironic sounding sincerity wins.”

If all that hasn’t tossed you into a tilt-a-whirl of post-modern pathos, then The Age of Adz will.

In The Age of Adz, Sufjan Stevens has certainly flown over towards a “post-Merriweather” aesthetic, but he doesn’t go all the way there. Stevens cannot resist musing on where we’ve come from, and in this sense, he would seem to land somewhere in the middle of the irony spectrum. Adz is like a grab-bag of everything Sufjan. But more. Much more. Those hoping to hear something like a revamped hymn might be shocked to discover some of Adz’s new sounds. Like autotune.

But what is fascinating about Stevens’s aesthetic journey is that he has previously dabbled in a chaotic electronic sound in his early album Enjoy Your Rabbit. Diehard Sufjanians know that Enjoy Your Rabbit (2001) had more of an impact on Brooklyn’s electronica experiments than casual listeners care to acknowledge. You can hear premonitions of a “post-Merriweather” world in Enjoy Your Rabbit, yet Stevens decided to bank that prescience – at least partially – until now.

With Adz, Stevens is pushing the listener to evolve on both sides of the spectrum, if not create a new ear entirely. In one sense, his abrasive electronica is more in your face than ever (the title track, Age of Adz, at times sounds like a robot having a religious experience). But on the other hand, we hear recollections of the artist’s gentle folksiness in tracks like Vesuvius and Futile Devices.

But the final track, Impossible Soul, is really what the album is all about– or at least what everything leads up to. The 25-minute, 5 part symphonic epic approaches Wagnerian in scale, capping the album in jaw-dropping fashion. Ranging from mellow and contemplative, to probing and distorted, to catchy dance mix, to folk minimalism, this is where Stevens pulls out all the stops. The transitions are smooth and nearly inevitable, even when that autotune comes out. (When detached from its T-Pain prejudices, the autotune even seems to sound appropriately Sufjanian.)

The leitmotifs present in Illinois are even more subterraneous in Adz, giving the album Sufjan’s archetypal narrative feel, which isn’t surprising, considering he recently released his cinematic suite The BQE. One might even argue that it is Sufjan’s adherence to narrative that has set him above the post-modern irony humdrum, but Adz is far too grandiose for such a simple answer.

There is no doubt that Sufjan Stevens’s impact on the music world is huge. We have seen band after band take inspiration from his ambitious styling. Adz might have a similar influence; it certainly is large enough. Sufjan fans will find that a number of listens will be required to find all the beauty in Stevens’s incredible texturing.

The Age of Adz’s mysterious and epic qualities seem to give rise to the question: What happens to indie music when irony comes full circle? In the case of Sufjan Stevens, the answer is that it certainly won’t take us back to a familiar sound. But then again, what is irony’s aim if not originality?

If we were drifting above and beyond the irony spectrum, a sure sign would be an album with the scope of Adz. It would be unfair to label the album mystifying and difficult. If anything it is sincere and enjoyable in its own weird way.  Don’t call it a revolution, but what we have in this stage of Sufjan is an indie-rocker from Brooklyn who gave autotune some heart. That is no small thing. And neither is The Age of Adz.

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The Predominant Pigskin

The advent of fall carries with it a fairly newborn American tradition at the peak of its popularity: professional football. Compared to most cultural traditions, which are established over decades if not centuries, football has entrenched itself in American culture faster, and with a larger presence, than any other contemporary national tradition.

In the last 25 years, NFL viewership has more than doubled. Last year’s Super Bowl attracted 106.5 million viewers, beating the MAS*H finale record of 105.97 million. Television networks are savvy to the demand. In 1989, at the height of the Joe Montana era when pro football had already established itself as the most popular American sport, TV networks paid a combined $473 million per year to air NFL games. The next year, in 1990, that amount nearly doubled to a whopping $900 million per year. Today, five networks are contracted to pay a combined total of $3.085 billion per year to air a sports league whose teams play once a week for five months out of the year. This is anything but ordinary.

Typically, when a cultural institution is as dominant as the NFL, the masses begin to loathe the institution for its monopoly. But with the NFL, public opinion has largely abstained from railing against this behemoth business. On the contrary, our culture tends to marvel at the NFL’s success. America is rooting for a major corporation.

Collectively, our interest has not waned, our wallets have remained opened (despite stark economic realities), and Americans’ schedules continue to give priority to this national pastime. But why? What sets the NFL apart in its popularity? The answer is something remarkably simple: the product values place.

It might seem obvious to say that local sports teams rely on the locale in which they play, but the NFL in particular has adhered to a community-centered ideology by setting out to not just create entertainment, but to establish tradition. Sports organizations seek to create a consumer who holds not just an allegiance to their sport, but an allegiance to an individual entity within that sport; an allegiance to a single team. It could be said that identifying allegiances is not dissimilar to identifying values, in which case the NFL has identified and chosen to invest in an inherent societal good. More than time and money, people value Home.

For an increasingly transient society, the idea of Home is one thing we will always long for and identify with. Where-somebody-is-from will always be a determining factor in how we think of them. Place isn’t fleeting. Place is resilient and hard to destroy (in some instances, attempts at destruction solidify an even stronger sense of identity for that place. See the recent Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints). Even in a global culture, place remains a constant and a necessity.

What sports teach us is that if a cultural institution serves to advance the powerful constant of place, tradition is born and that institution thrives, but the NFL has taken this a step further.

It is worth noting that NFL teams play approximately 1/5 of the number of games that NBA teams play, and 1/10 of what MLB teams play, yet pro football still has the highest revenue. One could point to parity, salary caps, or athleticism as the leading cause for the NFL’s success, but all those elements are merely results of the true outlier. That is that pro football has attained its “hometown tradition” status through a consistent commodification of Sundays.

By reserving its tradition to occur on one already communally-oriented day of the week – the only day of the week our society reserves for home-life and not work-life – NFL games have become more than entertainment. They are now events. With events comes nostalgia, and only with nostalgia can traditions be instilled.

By establishing a Sunday ritual that fits into the existing cultural fabric, pro football transcended the typical bounds of sport, leisure, and entertainment. It became a people’s game, a new national tradition that borrowed from the historical southern tradition of SEC football. Here, cultural capital was attained and the NFL entrenched itself in the lives of Americans. But has pro football lost sight of its community-oriented roots? Has it gotten too big for its own good?

Over the last twenty years, the tradition of Sunday football has slowly crept into the rest of our week with games now occurring on Monday and Thursday nights. Fantasy football has controversially shifted fan values to the individual player. The NFL has its own TV network and a 24-hour news cycle. We are inundated with everything from updates on a quarterback’s pinkie finger, to the circus-like annual tradition of “Favre Watch.” As a whole, we’ve bit on their unashamedly explicit branding.

The power of greed, some argue, has spun the league out of control and into a less upright sport.  Following the upcoming season, the NFL must face a few ugly hurdles that threaten to compromise the integrity of the league; namely the very grim reality that pro football might not exist in 2011. Disputes about length of season, concussions, and most of all, player salary, are running out of time to be resolved. Without a CBA negotiation that pleases both owners and players, pro football could turn into an uncapped league and go the way of Major League Baseball. In this situation, teams like the Cowboys and Redskins (the league’s most lucrative clubs) would become the football equivalent of the rich and famous New York Yankees, and all parity would likely be lost.

However, despite these challenges and forewarnings, NFL fans have shown that the bedrock of community and Home still trumps the individual player. The majority of fans still value home teams over individual superstar athletes. Teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers boast the most dedicated fan base in the league and yet had one of the league’s smallest operating incomes of 2008 at $14.4M, compared to the Washington Redskins’ $58M.

In 2008 Luke Russert wrote an op-ed piece for ESPN Magazine that outlined how the NFL can sustain fan interest by holding to its community emphasis, highlighting the preservation of the crisis-bound Buffalo Bills as a potentially pivotal move.

The league should man-up and give Buffalo fans a stake in the team, like in Green Bay. Under the Packers model (formed in 1923), 112,088 fans hold more than four million voting shares in the team, having paid from $5 (offered in 1923) to $200 (1998) per share. There’s no owner to pocket the profits, just an advisory group of fans to make sure every penny is reinvested in the team. The benefits are huge. In financial straits and need cash? A fan-owned team can sell more shares. Need pols to approve a new stadium? Your franchise is co-owned by voters. If Buffalonians are given a stake in their team, I’ll wager . . . that the Bills open the 2015 season in new digs on the shores of Lake Erie. Hello, revenue!

The proposition isn’t as easy and foolproof as it sounds. There are many hurdles in taking the sport public (a 1961 ban on public ownership being the primary one, which could be overturned only through an owners agreement) and some argue private ownership is what brought the league into prominence in the first place. But Russert has NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on his side. “[Fan ownership provides] . . . a great bond with the community, something we’re trying to achieve,” said Goodell. Look no further than the faithful cheeseheads of Green Bay to see that it’s also good for the brand.

Teams like the Green Bay Packers, Buffalo Bills, and Pittsburgh Steelers remind us that community ultimately trumps cash, and leads to larger profit margins in the long run. Total public ownership is probably too drastic a measure, but the attitude behind democratizing the sport is compelling to say the least.

As the NFL has proven over the last 25 years, working to advance community is not only an upright investment, it’s also a lucrative one. For the ultimate team sport, the NFL must wisely abide by its original principles if it is to sustain growth. Otherwise, 50 years from now NFL stadiums might look more like abandoned malls than cultural landmarks.

Diesel Wants You to “Be Stupid”

Like balloons, we’re filled with hopes and dreams. But over time a single sentence creeps into our lives. Don’t be stupid. It’s the crusher of possibility. It’s the world’s greatest deflator. The world is full of smart people doing all kinds of smart things… That’s smart. Well, we’re with stupid. Stupid is the relentless pursuit of a regret free life. Smart may have the brains, but stupid has the balls. The smart might recognize things for how they are, but the stupid see things for how they could be. Smart critiques. Stupid creates. The fact is if we didn’t have stupid thoughts, we’d have no interesting thoughts at all. Smart may have the plans, but stupid has the stories. Smart may have the authority, but stupid has one heck of a hangover. It’s not smart to take risks; it’s stupid. To be stupid is to be brave. The stupid aren’t afraid to fail. The stupid know there are worse things than failure–like not even trying. Smart had one good idea, and that idea was stupid. You can’t outsmart stupid, so don’t even try. Remember only stupid can be truly brilliant.

So “BE STUPID!” – The DIESEL STUPID PHILOSOPHY

 

Pitch Meeting with Diesel Execs and Anomaly Ad Agency

Setting: the top floor of a high-rise office building

DIESEL: Just to reiterate, we’re looking for something edgy here for our new global ad campaign. We sell jeans– jeans with attitude, and the world needs to know. Show us what you’ve got.

AD MAN: Ok, so let me tell you what we came up with. Let’s just start off with what I think is a crackerjack idea. What do you think of this: “Be an a-hole. Diesel.”

DIESEL: “Be an a-hole?”

AD MAN: Yes.

DIESEL: That’s it?

AD MAN: That’s it. “Be an a-hole.”

DIESEL: Hmmm. Maybe. What else do you got?

AD MAN: “Drop out of school.” Diesel.

DIESEL: Ok. What’s next?

AD MAN: “Don’t eat breakfast.” Diesel.

DIESEL: I kind of like breakfast.

AD MAN: “Pee your pants.” Diesel.

DIESEL: Ehhhh, it’s a little too visceral.

AD MAN: “Burn a book.” Diesel.

DIESEL: Interesting. GETTING WARMER, but no.

AD MAN: “Voting is lame. Diesel is not lame. Diesel. Not as lame as voting. Loser.”

DIESEL: Too long.

AD MAN: “Drink Diesel.”

DIESEL: Like gasoline?

AD MAN: Sure.

DIESEL: Or like our company?

AD MAN: Either way.

DIESEL: Could be hazardous. LAWSUIT POTENTIAL.

AD MAN: “Spill Diesel.”

DIESEL: Ok, now I’m just not tracking. Are you talking about jeans or fuel?

AD MAN: “Pour Diesel in your eyes.”

DIESEL: You do know that we sell jeans, right?

AD MAN: “Just do it.”

DIESEL: What?

AD MAN: “Just do it.”

DIESEL: Are you telling me to “just do something,” or is that your slogan?

AD MAN: Which would you prefer?

DIESEL: I can’t tell if you’re being sardonic or if you’ve just run out of ideas.

AD MAN: “Be nothing.”

DIESEL: Ok, I think you’ve just run out of ideas.

(The DIESEL EXECS starts to exit the room.)

AD MAN: Wait! I do have one last idea. Last night, when I was procrastinating for this job because I was busy being spontaneous all over the place, I came up with something I think you might like. It was 2am, and I had just broken into a day care because I was really craving some Nilla Wafers. I got home, pounded a fifth of Schnapps, vomited over my fire escape, and wrote this.

(He hands a crumpled up napkin with the “Be Stupid Philosophy” written in crayon to the DIESEL executive.)

DIESEL: “Be stupid”?

AD MAN: “Be Stupid.” It’s not just a horrible slogan, it’s a philosophy.

DIESEL: Hmmm. Keep going.

AD MAN: Be stupid! All your life you’ve been told, “Don’t touch a hot stove!” Well maybe you should touch a hot stove! Just to see what its like! All your life you’ve been told, “Don’t drink water out of swamps!”  Well, maybe that water tastes great and I just want to find out for myself! To be stupid is to be brave. The stupid aren’t afraid to fail. The stupid know there are worse things than failure, like not even trying, or death, or not being able to afford really expensive jeans, or losing your allowance when you’re 28, or having a warrant out for your arrest for breaking into a day care for a couple of stale cookies and some gummy bears that you found glued to a piece of construction paper. Be stupid. That’s my pitch to you. If you don’t like it, fine! That’s smart. But we want you to be stupid. “BE STUPID!”

DIESEL: I can’t tell if you’re being ironic or if you’re actually telling me to be stupid.

AD MAN: Neither can I!

DIESEL: So do you even know what you’re actually trying to say?

AD MAN: Does a bear cut down trees with a hammer?

DIESEL: What?

AD MAN: Exactly!

DIESEL: I think I like it. It’s so stupid it’s confusing, which makes me want to know more, which would be the exact opposite of being stupid, which brings me back to being confused.

AD MAN: Yeah, ideally we’d like for people to just “Be stupid” and not look into it any further.

DIESEL: Why is that?

AD MAN: Well, you do sell $200 jeans right?

DIESEL: Touche. So, what does this look like? What sort of images are we talking about here?

AD MAN: I’m thinking we get a bunch of models doing stupid things.

DIESEL: Oh, ok. (Pause.) So, just to be clear, we are or aren’t being ironic here?

AD MAN: Yes. We get a bunch of models doing stupid things with dangerous animals. We could have a guy taunting a pack of wolves. We could have a girl in a bikini about to feed an angry lion or something. You know, stuff like that.

DIESEL: Oh, so you mean people actually “being stupid.” Like, you’re really telling people to “be stupid.”

AD MAN: Sure.

DIESEL: Not an ounce of sarcasm?

AD MAN: I honestly can’t even remember what that actually is.

DIESEL: Sarcasm?

AD MAN: No, thank you. I just ate.

DIESEL: Let’s get back to the project.

AD MAN: Right.

DIESEL: Despite an alarming sense of confusion, emptiness, distrust, and utter darkness, I’ve got a good feeling about this. You’re no Don Draper, but I like where your head is at. Or where it’s not at, or, you know, where it is.  Anyway, I just have one last question.

AD MAN: Shoot.

DIESEL: What if people respond negatively to being told to “Be stupid?”  What if people are smart enough to realize that we have no clue what we’re actually saying, and as a result become entirely disgusted by our product? Since we plan on putting these ads in teen magazines, what if we get some parents that are concerned about their kids “being stupid” from our ads that tell them to “be stupid”? What if spontaneity isn’t always the best choice? What if our culture is actually fed up with recklessness and sensationalism? What if people are more interested in a virtuous way of life where advertising enhances the product, the customer, and the culture? What if this whole thing backfires? What if we’re on the wrong side of a big joke?

(The AD MAN stares at the DIESEL executive. Silence.)

AD MAN: To be honest with you, I didn’t hear a word of what you just said.

Good Work and Beer Culture

After a seismic economic collapse and a rather dreary decade as a whole, there have been a few new trends that would look curious if they weren’t surrounded by the debris of a recession. One of these trends is beer.

Beer has always been popular in our country, but always in different ways. It’s an old story to discuss the recent dominance of microbreweries over macrobreweries. The shift that we’ve seen in the last few years has gone even further. Now, even microbreweries are giving way to smaller craft breweries, and because of this trend, never in the history of our country has beer been more of an artisanal practice. This is quite an occasion.

Quite an occasion, because this example provides us with an excellent gauge for how our culture now approaches work. We can all see consumers trying to shift from quantity to quality. Toyota’s CEO recently said that their failure in manufacturing was because they had become more concerned with profit margin than with creating a quality product – ironic, since the highest quality products are starting to take in the most profit. We are becoming (we hope) more intelligent consumers who buy less crap and look for more efficient products.

But beer gives us an even deeper insight. Not only are people demanding higher quality products, but we also have less money to spend on those products. Americans are no longer satisfied with “high quality” being an ostentatious attribute only affordable to the rich. It is now a standard of living for the middle class. This means that consumer demand requires companies to not only look at their bottom line, but at the quality of business they are practicing. And because of this, suddenly business ethics matter a whole lot more. We are now a culture beginning to demand that manufacturers ask, “Is it good?” – the very question at the basis of the origin of work.

In her essay “Why Work,” Dorothy Sayers poses a challenging renewal of work ideology and uses a rather prescient analogy to our topic at hand. Her audience is in far more troubling times than ours. She is speaking to a society in the midst of World War II.

The habit of thinking about work as something one does to make money is so ingrained in us that we can scarcely imagine what a revolutionary change it would be to think about it instead in terms of the work done.  To do so would mean taking the attitude of mind we reserve for our unpaid work – our hobbies, our leisure interests, the things we make and do for pleasure – and making that the standard of all our judgments about things and people.  We should ask of an enterprise, not “will it pay?” but “is it good?”; of a man, not “what does he make?” but “what is his work worth?”; of goods, not “Can we induce people to buy them?” but “are they useful things well made?”; of employment, not “how much a week?” but “will it exercise my faculties to the utmost?”  And shareholders in – let us say – brewing companies, would astonish the directorate by arising at shareholders’ meeting and demanding to know, not merely where the profits go or what dividends are to be paid, not even merely whether the workers’ wages are sufficient and the conditions of labor satisfactory, but loudly and with a proper sense of personal responsibility: “What goes into the beer?”

Sayers is calling for a new ethic in work. And our culture seems to be taking her proposal seriously. The discussion of “ethics based on what?” is deep, and one that must be had. But for the time being and space provided, it is good to explore the fascinating case study that we presently have in front of us: beer is better than ever.

Quality beer is gaining steam because it is inexpensive, enjoyable, increasingly more complex, and more accessible and, somehow, less pretentious than wine. Whether through food pairings, beer-devoted restaurants, or the popularity of homebrewing, beer’s ascendancy is all around us.

And with most Americans having less to spend, yet desiring to advance their palate, getting into wine is expensive. Good thing beer isn’t.

So, in an effort to quite literally put the money where the mouth is, here are five American micro/craft brewed beers that are at the top of their game, and will definitely make you, too, say, “It is good.” To the average drinker, these “gourmet” beers will possess the same complexity as a $50 bottle of Bordeaux, but cost you less than $15 bucks (and some even far less than that).

In no particular order…

Pliny the Elder

    • Brewery: Russian River (Santa Rosa, CA)
    • Style: Imperial/Double IPA
    • Tasting Notes: Citrus, pine, sweet malts, with floral aroma
    • Food Pairings: Blue cheese, spicy crab cakes, fried seafood
    • Rating on RateBeer.com: 100
    • ABV: 8%
    • Best served in: Snifter or tulip glass
    • Price: $5

If the Belgians define their beer by complex yeast strands, Americans have come to define our beer by hops, which means the IPA has become our style of choice. Huge and complex hop profiles define this beer, along with 40% more malt than your typical IPA. It is crisp, full-bodied, gold in color, and highly drinkable.

Xtra Gold

    • Brewery: Captain Lawrence (Pleasantville, NY)
    • Style: American Style Trippel Ale
    • Tasting Notes: mild hop, clove, fruit, honey, crisp citrus, sweet honey and floral aroma
    • Food Pairing: roast vegetables, rotisserie chicken, fish. Can be used as an apertif before dinner or with shrimp cocktail.
    • Rating on RateBeer.com: 97
    • ABV: 10%
    • Best served in: Goblet or wine glass.
    • Price: $9

From the brewer:
“This beer is an American adaptation to the classic Belgian style of beer known as a Tripel. Historically Tripels were brewed to have a very light golden color, a moderate hop presence, and be around 9% alcohol. But we are not in Belgium, so I decided to crank up the hops, dry hop the beer with American Amarillo hops, and brew it to 10% ABV. This is our American Tripel, enjoy.”

If you want to take things a step further, try purchasing a bottle of Captain Lawrence’s even more affordable standby “Liquid Gold” and use it to steam shellfish.

Bourbon County Stout

Editor’s note, because she couldn’t resist: this is my all-time favorite.

    • Brewery: Goose Island (Chicago, IL)
    • Style: Imperial Stout
    • Tasting Notes: bourbon, oak, chocolate, coffee, with vanilla and smoke aroma.
    • Food Pairings: smores, cigars, flourless chocolate cake
    • Rating on RateBeer.com: 100
    • ABV: 11-13%
    • Best served in: snifter
    • Price: $9

From the brewer:

“I really wanted to do something special for our 1000th batch at the original brewpub. Goose Island could have thrown a party. But we did something better. We brewed a beer. A really big batch of stout-so big the malt was coming out of the top of the mash tun. After fermentation we brought in some bourbon barrels to age the stout. One hundred and fifty days later, Bourbon County Stout was born – a liquid as dark and dense as a black hole with a thick foam the color of bourbon barrels. The nose is a mix of charred oak, vanilla, caramel, and smoke. One sip has more flavor than your average case of beer. It overpowers anything in the room. People have even said that it’s a great cigar beer, but I haven’t yet tried a cigar that would stand up to it.”

Also, this beer ages quite well. It’s definitely worth dropping a few more bucks if you can find older vintages.

Local 1

    • Brewery: Brooklyn (Brooklyn, NY)
    • Style: Belgian-inspired Golden Strong Ale
    • Tasting Notes: clove, pepper, sweet malts, slight fruitiness
    • Food Pairings: spicy fish, ham, fine cheese
    • Rating on RateBeer.com: 95
    • ABV: 9%
    • Best served in: trappist glass, tulip, or a tumbler
    • Price: $10

From the brewer:

“In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, we forge barley malt and hops from Germany, aromatic raw sugar from Mauritius and yeast from Belgium into our latest beer, Brooklyn Local 1. Behind the full golden color you’ll find an alluring aroma, a dynamic complex of flavors. Belgian flair, Brooklyn fortitude and a dusting of our special yeast. To create this beer, we use the old technique of 100% bottle re-fermentation, a practice now rare even in Europe. It gives this beer a palate of unusual depth.”

120 Minute IPA

    • Brewery: Dogfish Head
    • Style: Imperial IPA/Belgian Strong Ale
    • Tasting Notes: incredibly complex hop flavors, citrus, pine, fresh grass.
    • Food Pairings: fried seafood, aged cheddar, fatty fish, Szechwan
    • Rating on RateBeer.com: 98
    • ABV: 21%
    • Best served in: trappist glass, snifter
    • Price: $15

From the brewer:

“Too extreme to be called beer? Brewed to a colossal 45°P, boiled for a full 2 hours while being continually hopped with high alpha American hops, dry-hopped every day in the fermenter for a month, and aged for a month on whole leaf hops, 120 Minute IPA is by far the strongest IPA ever brewed. And at 21% ABV and 120 IBU’s, you can see why we are calling this the Holy Grail for Hopheads.”

This beer is a sipper, and is meant to be savored like a sherry or dessert wine.

And a few other helpful beer resources:

Shepherding Artistic Objectivity

Whether unashamedly biased or covertly slanted, American documentaries are generally so politically charged that we’ve become accustomed to asking, “How much of it was true?”

This is an unfortunate fate for an art form. Why? Because polemics eventually turn audiences into skeptics, skeptics into cynics, and cynics into people who don’t like art. It’s a vicious cycle, and one generally ignored by all those who claim to create art “for a cause.” The more an artist’s imaging of truth gets warped towards the right or the left, the more they manipulate their audience’s heartstrings at the cost of reality, the more the cause outweighs the humanity, the more futile the “cause” becomes.

The casualty here is true objectivity, a beast the documentarian has had to tackle since the genesis of the art form. The question is this: If imitative art is always subjective in its portrayal of reality, what happens when imitation is removed and reality is merely imaged? Can objectivity be reached through a lens?

I admit that I have become calloused towards an increasingly frustrating yet always entertaining art form, and want the best for its future after Ken Burns retires. But I have hope for the documentary. And this hope was reignited by watching livestock for two hours. Sheep, in particular. Hundreds and hundreds of sheep.

The documentary Sweetgrass is something of a meditative odyssey surrounding the fate of the American West. The film tells the story of a group of Montana cowboys that lead their sheep to summer pasture in the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains. The journey is 150 miles long and has been done for over a century, but only a handful of cowboys still attempt it.

You would think that a documentary set in Montana, subtitled “The Last Ride of the American Cowboy,” directed by anthropologists from Harvard, would be replete with the typical slant you see in documentaries today. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Made by Lucien Castaing-Taylor (recordist) and Ilisa Barbash (producer), and bordering on the definition of an ethnographic film, Sweetgrass explores the favorite cinematic cliché of cowboys without delving into hackneyed imagery or nostalgia, and is respectful to its topic, to say the least.

The film traverses the Montana landscape, starting at the end of winter before the sheep are sheared. As the film slowly moves into spring, the focus is shifted from the mesmerizing personalities of the animals to the tormenting hands of the cowboys as they embark upon the journey through mountains they both love and hate. The filmmakers capture such realistically grand images that you wonder how much money Hollywood studios would have to spend to replicate such transcendentalist eye candy.

The film brings you into the violence of creation on scopes both large and small. In one scene, we witness the darkly comic birth of a lamb, assisted by a ranch hand, in close-up. The lamb is born into a circus of chaos—bleating choruses of sheep, humming machinery, cowboys tossing slippery infants on top of one another—and we see the awkward difficulty of a shepherd’s task.

At another point we witness the same type of chaos, of man against nature, as a panoramic shot is underscored by the frustration of a cowboy attempting to wield nature. In a futile effort to herd his sheep up a hill, the cowboy screams a slurry of curses so creative that you wonder if you might be witnessing a contemporary Greek tragedy. From a distance we see the little specks of white wool scatter up the mountain from a valley, the cowboy utterly furious in all his limitations, as a massive cloud slowly moves into frame over the valley, asserting its cosmic reign.

It is in this contrast—the close-up intimacy with a strange beast and the landscaping enormity of Montana’s beast of nature—that Sweetgrass transcends a “nature documentary.” You can sense the anthropological scalpel of the filmmakers, making it all the more trustworthy, and ironically, all the more artistic. Metaphors abound in every image both small and large, the most direct being a mysterious looming sign posted on the forest’s edge that reads “Wilderness” as the cowboys exit the very wilderness they’ve toiled in, returning home after tackling the epic pass.

The film at times feels like spiritual parable. Sheep, shepherds, mountains, nature, mysterious beasts attacking flocks. Every shot makes you want to look underneath the image, to search for meaning in the utter enormity of nature.

It is the stark and committed imaging of truth that sets this documentary apart from others. There is no commentary. There is no music. There is nothing but the footage, which achieves a sort of minimalist epic quality, and strips away any trap of sentimentality or heartstring tugging or worldview persuading. It is a strange joy that for once you can watch a cowboy’s silhouette riding his horse across the spine of a mountain, singing some ancient melody, yelling at his dog, and think, My God, it’s real. What Mr. Castaing-Taylor has achieved is the unthinkable task of making the cowboy myth reality.

The film could have chosen to tackle the political aspects of public grazing rights for ranchers and the plight of the ranching industry (a topic that deserves a good deal more attention from all of us—especially those of us who make laws). But wisely, Sweetgrass veers away from that temptation, making you wonder if the political divisiveness surrounding such issues might be trounced by the sheer sympathy garnered in the objective telling of such a story.

Perhaps due to its ethnographic emphasis, Sweetgrass approaches objectivity as gracefully as Ansel Adams. Its story and images evoke the notion that creation alone is enough to earn our sympathy, that there is art in purity, that stories are honored with unflinching realism, and that the best artists are devoted truth-tellers.

Time Capsule: The Last Ten Years

 

 

December 25th, 1999:

Six days from now, I will load my shotgun and retreat to the bunker I built out back. On January 1st, when Y2K hits and the chaos ensues, I will be one of the few who has a year’s worth of food and enough batteries to power my discman for five-plus years, making it possible to listen endlessly to the awesome new song “All Star” by Smash Mouth-surely the last great song ever to be written- providing me a glimmer of hope in our soon to be bleak world.

I will be my own dentist. I will mend my own wounds. I will make potable my urine, like in the recent movie Waterworld-a movie that was entirely underappreciated and will someday surely be recognized for its cinematic genius.

I have Tang. Lots and lots of Tang. I’m not sure why I chose Tang, but I chose it. And there’s no going back now, for society will soon fall apart, and all soft drinks will most likely be gone. And when that happens I will have three-dozen canisters of Tang and one canister of Nestle Quick strawberry milk mix, just to change it up every once and a while.

I have stocked up on plenty of gasoline, as the national average price is an extremely affordable $1.22. For that matter, most things are affordable, like homes and titanium and underground bunker kits. With the DOW hitting 11,000 for the first time ever, it makes sense that it’s all downhill from here.

With the incoming technological meltdown, my job as a web designer will be pointless, so I quit. The World Wide Web looked to be just another fad anyway. Too bad. America Online was so cool. The internet was such a beacon of truth, but I guess the truth is obsolete when jets are falling out of the air and people are running around looting soft drinks from convenient stores.

I have cashed out the majority of my bank accounts, taking half with me and using the other half to purchase stock in Lehman Brothers. Because if there is one thing that can sustain the blow of a technological meltdown it is our stalwart banking system.

This sounds strange, but I really want it to happen. I don’t know why, but it’s like that feeling when you rent a car on a business trip and you really just want to crash it, because, hey, it’s an expensive rental car, and it would be cooler to beat the hell out of it than to just drive it. That’s what it feels like. And I think a lot of people feel that way. Especially my neighbor who just bought a bunch of monkey blood that he’s going to keep in the freezer in his garage because he thinks it will be incredibly valuable in the New World Order.

So, to sum it all up: Merry Christmas? Yes, obviously. Happy New Year? I’m afraid not.

January 1st, 2000:

Here’s what’s convenient: I have a good sized bunker that I can now use for storage, an incredible water purifier, and a year’s worth of Tang. Glass. Half. Full.

Some years later…

October 25th, 2008:

Bunker = great investment. The DOW has dropped over 3,000 points over the last month and now eeeeeeverybody wants a bunker. We’ve got two wars and a global economic meltdown happening and now nobody seems to be laughing at “that Y2K freak with all the tang and toilet paper.” Well, well, well. Almost ten years later, after terrorism, hurricanes, global warming, and the disappearance of bees, it seems that nowadays, eeeeeeeverybody thinks a BUNKER might be a good idea. How ironic. Well, let me tell you: you snooze you lose. I’ve been waiting for the end of the world since I was born, my friend. I’m more prepared than a…

If there’s one thing I’m sure of it’s that this-is-it. This is the meltdown; the end of it all. As a self-proclaimed scholar of Nostradamus, I can tell you that all the signs are there. Go ahead, check it out. You can read all about it on the resurgent internet, which has once again become a beacon of truth for we End Timers.

It is game time. It’s going to be dog eat dog, survival of the fittest, and ever since I had gastric bypass surgery and took my family on Wife Swap I am feeling more fit than you could ever imagine. So here’s what I’m gonna do: I’m gonna get in my bunker. Have some tang. And emerge 14 months from now on December 25th, 2009, to receive the greatest Christmas gift of all: laughter! Laughter towards all you naysayers who thought “it’d all be ok soon enough.”

So when it all falls apart and you’re up to your elbows in ash and abandoned cars and debris and other images evoked in Tim LaHaye novels, don’t come knocking on my bunker door for help.

December 25th, 2009:

I have emerged. This is a little awkward.

“Agriburbia”: Friend or Foe?

Over the past five years, there has been a general scraping for ideas about how to reinvent the suburbs. The suburbs are there. They are not going away. We have already paved over the land. But after a sub-prime mortgage crisis, who is going to live there?

Moreover, many American city infrastructures are built to coexist with a suburban ideal. We built highways, not train tracks. Malls, not mainstreets. Mega-churches, not parishes.

All of these are glaringly obvious realities. They have been exhaustively discussed and criticized by film documentarians, city-dwelling snobs, and environmentalists. Yet none have viably answered the question: What do you do with a paved living space that has outgrown its resources?

A 2008 article from The Atlantic Monthly (that warrants important reading for anyone interested in the future of urban planning) posits that suburbia could become the next slum.

If gasoline and heating costs continue to rise, conventional suburban living may not be much of a bargain in the future. And as more Americans, particularly affluent Americans, move into urban communities, families may find that some of the suburbs’ other big advantages-better schools and safer communities-have eroded. Schooling and safety are likely to improve in urban areas, as those areas continue to gentrify; they may worsen in many suburbs if the tax base-often highly dependent on house values and new development-deteriorates. Many of the fringe counties in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, for instance, are projecting big budget deficits in 2008. Only Washington itself is expecting a large surplus. Fifteen years ago, this budget situation was reversed.

It goes on to state some dizzying statistics:

In the first half of last year, residential burglaries rose by 35 percent and robberies by 58 percent in suburban Lee County, Florida, where one in four houses stands empty. Charlotte’s crime rates have stayed flat overall in recent years-but from 2003 to 2006, in the 10 suburbs of the city that have experienced the highest foreclosure rates, crime rose 33 percent. Civic organizations in some suburbs have begun to mow the lawns around empty houses to keep up the appearance of stability. Police departments are mapping foreclosures in an effort to identify emerging criminal hot spots.

We have a problem on our hands, and the number of people with the money and ideas to fix it is shrinking. Since there is no sound solution quite yet, it’s important to not only consider what we can do to solve it, but the philosophy with which it ought to be approached.

In terms of environmentalism and sustainability in recent years, the city has won. More people are flocking to urban centers. We have identified an enemy in over-consuming. Green is hip. On this account we should take hope, as the idea of an urban center is once again kindly greeted.

But the problem still stands, what do we do with the suburbs?

A recent article in the Denver Post profiles a developer on the Front Range who is attempting to do some good in this area.The development is called “agriburbia” and sets out to build suburban sub developments where backyards are turned into small farms. TSR Group, the creators of agriburbia, have over 3,000 acres of land in the process of becoming agriburbian communities. But will it work?

The article describes TSR Group’s efforts as threefold:

First, their TSR Group works with homeowners with less than an acre, designing an “edible landscape” that not only provides food for the family but also contributes to the group’s network of restaurants.

The Redmonds [TSR Group] also work with landowners sitting on their property and waiting for the economic revival when they can begin building and selling. The Redmonds manage those empty parcels as “steward lots” that feed local restaurants and deliver cash to the landowner.

And thirdly, the Redmonds are trying to develop farm-cultured communities like Platte River Village in Milliken. Homes surrounding farms already are planned for the middle of Littleton and Boulder, using small spaces to grow organic produce.

“Agriburbia” is not alone in its efforts to make better use of the land upon which we’ve sprawled. Similar agricultural sustainability projects have sprouted (pun intended) all over, in places like Vermont, Idaho, and the Chicago suburbs.

All of this is done with good intentions. But is it getting to the root of the problem?

Imagine waking up in a large suburban home and walking out to your backyard to pick a few fruits and vegetables to eat for the day, all in the name of easing the environmental cost of shipping food. Then you hop in your car to commute 40 miles to work.

It’s like building a garden bed on top of your Hummer.

What’s curious about this development is that it’s a prime example of an increasing sensibility that treats sustainability as merely a salve for our environmental guilt, as opposed to a practical way to solve a big problem. But sustainability is not attained through a feeling.

The idea that sustainability is a penance paid simply through intelligent purchasing is innocently nearsighted, but more problematic is the idea to return to the autonomous indulgences of a sprawl design that’s wrapped in recycled newspaper, claiming that the sum of your repentant emotions is good enough.

There needs to be a focus adjustment. Wouldn’t building more sprawling suburban developments-agriculturally friendly or not-just exacerbate the problem at hand? Isn’t it the idea of a sprawled neighborhood that got us into this mess?

Of course, any efforts toward more sustainable modes of living are, in most cases, a net positive development. But when you go to rehab, they don’t say, “Addicted to heroine? Let’s take it down a notch and put you on cocaine for a while.”

By this standard, our focus on greener cars would be misplaced as well. Whether or not a car is green, the users of the car are still transporting, using energy over large expanses of space, requiring funds for roads that are no longer there. And until someone invents a new, radical, green means of transportation (like, say, the transporter from Star Trek), we will still consume at an unsustainable pace.

Some might argue that curbing the consumerist habit is an acceptable compromise to kicking it. Possibly, yes. But what is more important is not treating the major problems (sprawl, autonomy) like merely pesky items that can be swept underneath the locally made hemp rug that sits in the foyer of our 3,000 square foot McMansion. What needs to happen seems to be a cultural shift that investigates why we want the things we buy.

How do we shift the culture? Live with people. Live closer to them. Community and density are not only tools for sustainability but also tools for economic growth. Where there is density there are ideas, where there are ideas there is commerce, where there is commerce there is work, where there is art, where there is culture, where there is renewal. (Not to oversimplify things.)

A dense urban center is also a farmer’s best friend – that is to say, urban density promotes agriculture by saying that the majority of the earth should be used for a farmer’s cultivation. (In these terms, its important to realize that a dense urban center is not qualified by population, but by space. In other words, a small town is more like a big, dense city than it is a sprawling suburb. This means that suburbia didn’t start as a spread out small town but rather a unique experiment, never before attempted, that outgrew our resources to maintain it.)

I have no answer for what to do with vacant suburbs. But there are slippery slopes and old idols to avoid in brainstorming for solutions, as well as certain practical steps to take in discerning what to do with a failed piece of urban planning.

Our focus should be centered on establishing close-knit, walkable communities, not just reducing personal carbon footprints. We need to view sustainability not as the starry-eyed goal for a greener planet, but as a means for human flourishing. If this happens, then the environmental problems spurred by consumerism will be trounced through a creative social sustainability and a radical, ancient concept that historians have termed “sharing.” To see the big picture means focusing on people as much as innovation; density’s greatest asset is the prospect for creativity in togetherness.


For Further Reading:
The Denver Post: “‘Agriburbia’ sprouts on Colorado’s Front Range”

The Atlantic Monthly: “The Next Slum?”

The Atlantic Monthly: “Towards a New Urbanism”

“My Other Car is a Bright Green City”

The New York Times: “Can We Uninvent Suburbia?”

Dead Malls

WTF?

Balloon Boy. Sneezing Panda. Sleepwalking Dog.

There is a sort of warped existence in this world that controls much of the way we interpret humor and mystery. Plainly put, a large amount of things that are “weird” can be considered “funny,” and as a culture, we seem to be exploring this more frequently than ever before.

Technology, it could be said, is the defining feature of our current age, the sitting poster boy for technology being the internet and the new way we process the world: through the lens of a computer screen.

If one of technology’s main goals is to advance human flourishing through efficiency and knowledge by means of direct access to information, then one could rightly say that technology has brought certain combative elements to being efficient into our cultural sphere. In other words, too much information doesn’t necessarily mean more efficiency, mostly because we’re too fascinated by that which is warped and mysterious – so much so that we’ll watch a video of a dog sleepwalking and running into a wall ten times before it gets old. Why? Because it’s weird. And hilarious. And “cats doing funny things” has permeated our worldwide web of information to a point of warranting investigation.

A number of companies have capitalized on this fascination – the main one being, of course, YouTube, where one can click frantically through this world’s oddities for hours on end. But another source of constant entertainment has to be Yahoo! Odd News, a news page completely dedicated to the stories that evoke hilarity from the mystery.

Compiled of five “weird news” sources from around the globe, including Reuters and the AP (yes, apparently they have “weird news” divisions), Yahoo! Odd News has brought a journalistic sense to the weird, mixing the small town police blotter with Barnum’s American Museum.

If you haven’t seen the headlines on Yahoo! Odd News, you are missing out on a magical land of wonderment that will give you a good laugh and make you question the advancement of human evolution. Some headlines include “Burning bunnies keeps people warm and cozy,” “Texas man finds a rocket launcher on his property,” and “Lottery winner causes riot at Ohio coat store.” What?

The odd or otherwordly has always been newsworthy, but viral videos and citizen journalism has made it even more so. What’s interesting is that this content is not substantive, but strange. Instead of giving weight to a thought-out investigation, readers and viewers seem to be more interested in the inexplicable. In a post-enlightenment culture, where everything is weighed on the merits of scientific plausibility, this seems to be a universal interest of the masses that reason can’t trump.

On YouTube, you can while away the hours watching top viewed videos like “Baby Panda Sneezing,” “Charlie Bit My Finger,” and “Bizkit the Sleepwalking Dog.” All of these are out-of-the-ordinary acts in familiar contexts.

Why is this important? Because it takes up our time.

“Bizkit the Sleepwalking Dog” has had over 17 million views, if you add up all of his videos cumulatively. That’s nothing. “Charlie Bit My Finger” has a whopping 127.4 million views, or 242 years worth of viewing time for one video. The number of videos of babies doing weird/funny things has reached staggering proportions (a baby laughing an old man’s laugh – 95 million views, “Baby Laughing Devil Laugh”– 23 million views, “Snake Swallows Hippo”– over 12 million views combined, “Battle at Kruger”– 46 million views equaling 755 years of viewing time for that one video alone). “America’s Funniest Home Videos” would have a problem on their hands. We have such quick access to the technology that is imaging our world that our eyes can’t keep up with our brains. We are capturing too much to see. Moreover, we are capturing too much to explain.

It would be hard to imagine that the creators of YouTube started their video venture in an attempt to give voice to all those crazy things that animals and babies do. But that is largely what it has become. The weird, warped, and otherworldly aspects of this planet have always been around; we just now have a medium to readily view them. In other words, the world is not a stranger or more inexplicable place than it was 500 years ago – we’ve just come up with more ways to shine light on the fractured earth we live on. This begs the question: in its explanation of those things which we didn’t before understand, does technology also uncover the same amount of things we never knew existed? Is technology filling a hole by digging another hole?

Whether it is proof of a broken creation that a dog sleepwalks and runs into a wall can be debated. But even our highest sources for news can’t resist the temptation to put a camera on the bizarre. CNN’s coverage of the Balloon Boy has been widely satirized because the network gave it such weight. It was a story of epic proportions that ended in ordinary fashion. The major news channels couldn’t pass up the possibility that a boy might be flying,Flight of the Navigator style, in a saucer-shaped homemade dirigible. It was the potential for otherworldliness that caught the attention of the masses.

It is human nature to be inquisitive, to stand in wonder. Whether it’s a viral video or a journalistic account, these things provoke us to engage others in our fascination. But why do we feel the need to share this with others and insist that they be fascinated, too? This has become a significant cultural tool. If something can provoke a “you gotta see this” response, then people will follow.

Imagine if we had that same fascination about legislation. Every time a bill passed, would you email your friends after reading it, saying “OMG, you gotta see this amendment that blocks the G.O.P. effort against Rangel”? No. That would never happen on the level that YouTube has achieved. The old saying goes, “There are two things you never want to see being made: laws and sausages.”

Culture is shaped by what fascinates us, and according to our time spent watching the aforementioned videos, we’re attracted to the mystery in our world.

If comedy is truly the highest form of drama, then it is obvious that something isn’t quite right. It is this same instinct that makes us step back from our computers, chuckle in complete confusion, and ask: WTF?

The Diaries of Dennis, A Hipster

“This summer the unvarying male uniform in the precincts of Brooklyn cool has been a pair of shorts cut at knickers length, a V-neck Hanes T-shirt, a pair of generic slip-on sneakers and a straw fedora. Add a leather cuff bracelet if the coolster is gay.
 
In truth this get-up was pretty much the unvarying male uniform last summer also, but this year an unexpected element has been added to the look, and that is a burgeoning potbelly one might term the Ralph Kramden.
 
Too pronounced to be blamed on the slouchy cut of a T-shirt, too modest in size to be termed a proper beer gut, developed too young to come under the heading of a paunch, the Ralph Kramden is everywhere to be seen lately, or at least it is in the vicinity of the Brooklyn Flea in Fort Greene, the McCarren Park Greenmarket and pretty much any place one is apt to encounter fans of Grizzly Bear.”

The New York Times, August 12th, 2009.

My name is Dennis. And I am a hipster. At least I thought I was.

For the majority of my twenties, which seems like an eternity at five years now, I have done everything I can to avoid being cool in order to get people to notice me. I have failed miserably.

It’s getting harder and harder to stay ironic. And I feel like just giving up.

I have worn chain wallets and women’s pants, had beards and moustaches, and have made the switch to macrobiotics and raw food diets. The amount of money I’ve spent on overpriced second-hand flannel has put me severely in debt. My head has seen more hairstyles in the last five years than a Glamour Shots in Peoria, Illinois.

Photo: Joel Bedford

Photo: Joel Bedford

And now, just when I thought I was up to date on what is not cool but actually cool as long as you don’t call it that, this whole fat thing comes around. Apparently, being slightly overweight is now what I have to do in order to look like I don’t care.

So with all my might, I will develop a potbelly, a baby bump, and portray it by wearing a T-shirt that is slightly too small, so that my Buddha belly pokes out above my waist line and is just barely visible to those I am trying to act like I don’t want to notice me.

If this doesn’t work, it’s over. If I fail this time, and don’t achieve true apathetic bliss, I will give in to my massive desire to wear a polo and a crisp pair of slacks. This I vow to you.

For the next few weeks I will share my journal with you, so that you can see my process, and so someone can publish it in my biography some day after I achieve fame and die in a plane crash.

WEEK 1:
Dropped the whole vegan thing. That’ll never work if I want to develop the roundness I’m looking for. Have changed my diet to Popeye’s Chicken and Hometown Buffet. Had a small ethical crisis for my once strongly held stance on “what one should put in their body,” but quickly extinguished it with a third helping of spare ribs. I’m off craft beers, and back on copious amounts of PBR, 20 of which cost the price of one craft beer. I think beer might be the key.

WEEK 2:
Nice small gut, but nowhere close to where I want to be. If a flannel-clad lumberjack was my previous style informant, then is a pregnant mom early in her second trimester my current inspiration? This is all so confusing.

WEEK 3:
Looking good, but I’m having a much harder time getting up the stairs to my apartment. Have reignited my childhood love for Mountain Dew.

WEEK 4:
Hope acne is in, because I sure have a lot of it. The cost of establishing a positive self-image is priceless. I’ve heard of a few guys who are shaving their potbellies to give the look a nice gleam. Think I’ll try that.

WEEK 5:
I cut the hell out of my stomach when I was shaving it last week. That sucked. Remember the Pregnant Man from a little while back? I look like that guy if he got shivved in prison. But I really think I’m making an impression in public.

WEEK 6:
Have a great looking gut but have fallen behind the curve. Let me drop some knowledge: Summer trends, like the potbelly, seem to be based on indulgence and bright colors, whereas fall is more introspective and brings in beiges and browns and muted yellows. Apparently there is a new trend that is sweeping the Borough and parts of Portland and quickly supplanting the potbelly. That trend? Jaundice. I ran into some people who were saying they saw some band “all yellowed-out and jaundiced” and that they were “brilliantly ironic.” This is all a little strange to me because I thought jaundice was a disease. And I looked it up and it is. It’s a disease. It’s a disease where you turn yellow. So I’m not really sure what to think of that but apparently you can get it through cirrhosis of the liver.

WEEK 7:
Two ways to get cirrhosis of the liver: 1) genes, 2) binge drinking. I’m hoping for a combo of both, and I’ve already got the drinking thing going with the beer so I’ll just keep that up.

Done with the potbelly and attempting to achieve an authentic yet responsible case of jaundice. Maybe I’ll luck out and get some liver spots in the process.

WEEK 8:
OK, so first its like “cholesterol is so hot right now” and then its like “jaundice is the only way to be relevant” and then its like “you’re nobody if you don’t have smoker’s cough” and I’m all like “what the hell?” You know? How am I supposed to feel about all this?

WEEK 9:
Good week. I’ve got a great gut, a nice full beard, and a good yellowish hue going on. I’m in a sort of existential funk, though. I can’t really seem to form a lucid thought and I feel really weak. I thought that a little transcendentalism might fix that and considered going camping but then quickly realized that I don’t know how to set up a tent. And I don’t know where you’d go camping around here. I’m from the suburbs of Milwaukee and we never really went camping. Decided to listen to a bunch of Nick Drake instead.

Some teenage girls saw me and freaked out and then giggled and called me a zombie the other day on the street. It felt nice to be noticed for a while but it stirred more questions than answers.

WEEK 10:
Hospice care is nice, but boy, it sure would be nice to have an English-speaking nurse. Guess I’ll lay off the “latest trend following” until I’m healthy again. But I’ll definitely stick with it for the long run. Giving up the battle to remain ironic would mean selling out, and that’s one thing I swore I’d never do unless it paid well.

If I learned anything through this experience, it’s that if you’re trying to be cool by not being cool, or at least subconsciously attempting to not be cool, or pretending to be not cool in order to be cool, it would be cool to at least act like you are unaware of all that is cool but at some level have a deep obsession for that which could be considered cool, just in case someone asks you to become famous.

It is this potentiality for cool that makes one cooler. And of course this can only be found within your perfect-inner-famous-self. At least this is what you will tell yourself while you secretly look outward, with your eyes, and develop an idea of what is cool through the world around you. Just push away the objectivity of your inner confusion. Ignorance is bliss and can come off as totally hip. Especially when it doesn’t take a shower in order to preserve bed head.

Rick Steves, Travel Guru

If you’ve ever been browsing PBS during random afternoon hours or late at night, you might have come across an awkward khaki-pantsed northwesterner with a Minnesotan accent stumbling through basic phrases in Finnish whilst trying to buy a herring in Helsinki. This man is Rick Steves. His program is Rick Steves’ Europe, and to the elation of millions, it is now on Hulu.

This may sound like paltry news to some, but I take it as a sign of a fascinating monopoly on a very large tourism industry. Or at the very least, a sign of Rick Steves’ rapid rise to geek-chic popularity.

Rick Steves’ Europe is a travel program centered on a philosophy of traveling “through the back door.” Steves has traveled to Europe and beyond for 30 years, providing readers and audiences with something other than large tour groups, stuff-your-face cruises, and the out-of-reach extravagancies that you usually find on the nostalgically opulent Travel Channel.

Steves’ philosophy is that “globe-trotting destroys ethnocentricity,” and he makes no bones about it: his efforts in educating you as a traveler are intended not only to give you a better travel experience, but also to build a better reputation for the U.S. in the minds of the rest of the world.

It is this philosophy that has popularized Rick Steves – not his glitzy production value (there isn’t any), nor his jaw-dropping excursions (he’s never been on one), and definitely not his fashionable appearance (he wears the same thing for his entire trip: khaki pants and a button-up short sleeve shirt, usually with a very plain backpack slung over one shoulder).

No, Rick Steves has built an empire on being awkward. Or rather, he has built an empire on being okay with being awkward, especially in foreign countries.

Why is all of this important? Because his guidebooks often sell out to preorders before making it to the shelves. His is by far the best-selling travel guidebook in America.

This is saying something. A few years ago, it seemed like the best options for traversing Europe were to a) backpack it, staying in grimy hostiles, showing up in places where you had little idea of how to see the sites, or b) join a massive tour group.

For those wanting to take a European vacation that was thrifty and adventurous, yet broadened your cultural horizons, there were few books or television shows that could show you the way.

If you purchased your standard travel guide, it came along with a healthy speculation of what was being recommended, always making you wonder if someone was getting a kickback at your expense. But Steves’ has eliminated this concern. He has no endorsements, and he declines the extravagant event invitations offered to him by tourism boards. He is interested in traveling as most people must travel: on a strict budget. As he states in his philosophy:

“In many ways, spending more money only builds a thicker wall between you and what you came to see. Europe is a cultural carnival, and, time after time, you’ll find that its best acts are free and the best seats are the cheap ones.

A tight budget forces you to travel close to the ground, meeting and communicating with the people, not relying on service with a purchased smile… Simply enjoy the local-style alternatives to expensive hotels and restaurants.”

Steves encourages lodging with the grandma who happens to have a spare room and plenty of fresh scones as opposed to the lavish hotel with a bellboy who is eager for his tip. And he tells you where that grandma lives and gives you her phone number.

Instead of leaving you to pay for guided tours that might inevitably end in various gift shops, Rick Steves provides informational tours for you via downloadable MP3s. In Rome, for example, he has designed a “night walk” that includes large amounts of history and the best gelato places in town.

Steves has written an excellent book called Europe 101: History and Art for the Traveler to give you a wider perspective before diving into the overwhelming amount of history you can encounter in Europe.

He emphasizes the art of picnicking in France to save money, and lets you know the name of the bartender at a hidden pub/bicycle shop in Ireland.

As evidenced by a number of awkward exchanges on his TV show, all of this comes at Rick’s expense, as he puts himself out there. He knows that to reap to biggest benefits from traveling, you must “become a temporary local,” and that often means going outside your comfort zone. But he emphasizes doing this with a polite yet curious attitude, not a snooping loud one.

What is remarkable is that Rick knows one language: English. After 30 years of traveling around Europe, he has made a point of learning how to creatively communicate with locals for the sake of his audience.

So, what does all of Steves’ awkward fame mean? It seems backward to equate a lack of coolness to a better cultural perspective, but then again, that might not be so far off the mark. Steves is transforming what it means to have a good vacation. He values cultural engagement more than comfortable hotels. He values history and education more than making the funniest face next to the Buckingham Palace Guard. He makes the Ugly American a nerd.

Steves’ philosophy is restoring a spirit of courtesy and politeness to what has become the image of American tourists: generally, a bully. He humanizes that which is foreign through a willingness to be uncomfortable. He’s endlessly curious about what shaped him, about his cultural roots.

What he has done with his books and programs is taken these values, very wisely assumed that they mattered to millions of other Americans, and monopolized a portion of the travel industry through the application of this very hopeful philosophy.

His approach intelligently upholds a respect for the truest desire of his audience: to understand themselves and others more fully by traveling. He has created a wiser consumer by assuming that his audience values being culturally savvy. In my mind, that makes good business sense.

Steves’ competitors are surely taking notice of his uncomfortable savoir-faire. Let’s see if the rest of the travel industry is willing to get a little awkward along with him.

The Hurt Locker:
Dismantling the Summer Action Movie

That was a good movie. Let’s go fight each other with some bottle rockets.

This might be the best way to describe The Hurt Locker if it was your standard summer action movie. But it’s not.

Probably more a function of the times and not the industry, action films seem to have lost their zest over the past decade or so. The lavish 1990s were a time for just blowing stuff up. We had enough stuff. Lets just blow some of it up. Got a boat? Blow it up. Eiffel Tower? Blow it up. What happens when two jet skis collide? A massive explosion, obviously.

In the 90s, Hollywood reminded us why we love destroying things and summer movies became a testament to the idea that the best way to fulfill our urge for power is by blasting something all to hell.

There’s a famous story of a well-known Hollywood studio exec who would not greenlight a script unless there was an explosion every four pages. In a two-hour film, that’s about thirty explosions. Hollywood spoon-fed us destruction because they knew we craved it.

For whatever reason, it seems that things have changed.

Today, we have replaced the Destruction summer flick with the Superhero summer flick, as movies like The Dark Knight and Iron Man employ the most cutting-edge special effects, exchanging explosions for reality-bending graphics. Movie studios have added otherworldly heroics to the menu while keeping destruction as the classic go-to. Yet these films are hardly ever laced with substantive qualities of intelligent acumen.

July and August have always been the months to flaunt your big budget special effects. But summer has never been the season that Hollywood has said, “Oh man, watch how awesome this explosion is,” and asked us to use our brains at the same time. That’s why The Hurt Locker is one of the most original films of the year.


Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, with the imaginative tension of an evil jack-in-the-box wielding a grenade, The Hurt Locker tells the story of Bravo Company, an elite Army unit in Iraq whose job it is to detonate I.E.D.s.

The movie starts abruptly, with no opening credits, only a quote from former New York Times Iraq expert Christopher Hedges: “War is a drug.”

If that holds true, then the film’s lead junkie is Staff Sergeant William James, the cocky, wild, and courageous team leader, played with powerful precision by Jeremy Renner. Sergeant James treats his job of detonating and defusing bombs like a cowboy – or, rather, a rodeo clown that’s ten times smarter than the cowboy. His recklessness is comical, yet strangely reassuring, and his company learns to trust him as it becomes obvious that his gunslinger approach is a product of experience and selflessness.

But James’ passion for the task at hand eventually turns into a sort of paranoia, and we realize that the reality of this urban warfare-that no one can be trusted-has taken its toll on James and created an inconsolable, and arguably noble, addiction to danger. (The ease with which Renner portrays James’ anguish underneath the suave and irreverent leader is enthralling, and deserves award-circuit recognition.)

At this point, director Bigelow rummages through the heavy-metal conditioned psyches of Bravo Company and gets you thinking quickly, amidst the ticking time bombs surrounding her characters. She explores the brutality that each man has adopted in order to keep themselves sane at war, and toys with the tender breaking point that is boldly soothed by James as the leader. In a gut-wrenching scene, in which two soldiers engage in a punching contest that elevates to a level bordering on the erotic, it is clear that there is either denial or a thick haze surrounding the pain that lies within.

The cinematography uses the ever-popular handheld camera technique that pulls you into the death-defying tasks of Bravo Company, first-person style. Rarely has this technique felt so appropriate, well-suited for a film whose aim is to make you sympathize with its characters through the sheer proximity of an explosive.

But where The Hurt Locker really hits its stride is when Bigelow lets the film breathe and withholds from her audience the comforts of cinematic fulfillment. There are times in the film where the audience is left hanging with the soldiers for far longer than Hollywood comfort standards. If a bomb doesn’t explode when we are used to seeing bombs explode, then what on earth is going to happen? Tantalizing paranoia ensues, and Bigelow stretches the parameters of suspense like an older brother telling you not to flinch.

This torment is what sets the movie’s tone apart from typical summer fare. Flannery O’Connor once said that violence has a strange way of returning her characters to reality and preparing them for their moment of grace. The same rings true for the characters in The Hurt Locker, which dances on a trip-wire between the contemplative psychosis of war and the rabid devices of destruction that fascinate and return us to a stark reality of chaos.

The up-close nature of the film drags you not only into the high anxiety precision of defusing explosives, but also into the psychological realm of a group of guys quietly attempting to push away the insanity of their jobs. They are brave, to say the least, and this is the first Iraq war movie that achieves a “non-political agenda” status. It is clear that the filmmaker believes that, no matter your opinion of the ethicality of the Iraq War, we must hold a deep respect for the daring sacrifice of our troops and executes such a sentiment with artistic grace.

There’s no need to go on about the film’s strengths. There are plenty of them. A myriad of critics have praised this unlikely summer hit (it scores a 93 on Metacritic.com, higher than Schindler’s List and Star Wars). And although the movie doesn’t seem to warrant as much acclaim as the aforementioned films, its universal praise is most likely because there is substance beneath what’s being blown to bits on screen.

Save for a few scenes of canned dialogue involving the supporting characters, The Hurt Locker holds you with the suspense of a dangerously rickety amusement park ride, all the while making you question the fear and anxiety that each character is dealing with.

This is far from the political statement movie. Above the devices of money, fame, Hollywood, or politics, The Hurt Locker is an intelligent expression of the beauty behind the destruction, and the harsh reality in the rubble.

The High Line –
Manhattan’s Newest Public Park

In the movie Wall-E, the opening sequence is a vision of a post-human American city. It’s a landfill where once gleaming steel structures are overrun by drifts of plastic. The vision served as a beautifully comical cautionary tale that restored a genuine heart to an otherwise machine of a movie company. If Wall-E is a cautionary tale, then New York’s newest public park, The High Line, is an unlikely fairy tale.

The High Line, which opened its first stage to the public on June 9, is an elevated public park that sits 30 feet in the sky atop a set of dilapidated train tracks that were abandoned 30 years ago. Designed by James Corner Field Operations and Diller, Scofidio & Renfro, it runs from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District up to West 20th Street, and will eventually make its way up to 34th Street, spanning an incredible 23 blocks.

The tracks were once used for herding cattle to meat processing plants, but were overrun in the 70’s and 80’s by highway development. It has been the pillar of a crummy side of town for years, and only with some pesky, ardent supporters of its preservation, 155 million dollars (44 million of which was raised by donors), and a team of urban visionaries has it been restored to the coolest thing in town.

After climbing three stories of stairs to this surprise party of a public space, what you see is an astonishing achievement of nature restoring industrial decay. Aside from the sturdy, dark blue steel pillars that support this mysterious landmark, the park is completely hidden. This effect gives the park a sort of speakeasy feel, as if lying atop the dingy tracks were some sort of secret club.

Once in the park, you can see stretches of the city and the Hudson River rarely seen by New Yorkers. At dusk you can watch the sunset on the Hudson as boats go by. The trains have been replaced by lavish promenades interspersed with the sort of plants you might see in New York if it hadn’t been paved over hundreds of years ago. Prairie grass, berried bushes, and spruce trees abound in a bizarre and exciting way. The gardens all stand tall and animated, like pets energized to see their keepers after weeks at the kennel.


Photo: Makoto Fujimura

Looking down, you feel superior and transcendent to the pesky traffic below. It feels good to be justifiably condescending towards the loud metal boxes that don’t have nearly as good of a view and are bound by traffic lights. You can lose your way quite easily on The High Line, as the amount of traffic signal-free strolling you can do is alien to your typical city dweller.

The walkways are made of a concrete that doesn’t feel like concrete, but rather a composite material of finely smoothed particles. This adds to the wonder of the space. When you’re outside in New York and your feet hit something that doesn’t feel like concrete, it’s a memorable experience.

Wild grass shoots up through slats in the walkways as if to blur the barriers between human innovation and natural beauty. Chairs and loungers rise out of the ground and blend into wood structures, making any sitting or laying space feel connected to the nature that the designers have imposed and creates a flowing wave-like effect that adds to the tranquility of the space.

At 17th street there is a massive tiered, amphitheater-like structure that ends with a giant glass window, making the expansive 10th Avenue an unlikely and fascinating stage for pedestrians to ogle. The rows of wooden benches are a series of ramps that make the sitting area a veritable playground suspended above a busy street.

The materials throughout are thoughtful and polished. The lighting is subdued, highlighting only the plants and sleek structures. And the views of the surrounding neighborhoods are new. You’re not as high up as a skyscraper’s observation deck, but you are close enough to get a true vibe of the area.

And the area is transforming. Once a dilapidated ruin of warehouses, meatpacking plants, and streets riddled with crime, this neighborhood is now a burgeoning zone for new commerce and living. Architects across the globe have been chomping at the bit to get a building in the newfound “High Line District,” and a few great ones have succeeded. The posh new buildings include an apartment building that has an entrance onto the actual park and a hip new hotel that straddles the south end of the tracks.

In the short time since its opening, The High Line has achieved a bevy of excited residents, thrilled to see the neighborhood transform. Patty Heffley, a cabaret performer, has lived to see the High Line through many stages. When the tracks were unused and weeds began to grow, Heffley wanted to plant flowers. She would try and throw water balloons with seeds in them, but her efforts were fruitless. Now Heffley has started performing for park-goers from her fourth-story fire escape in a show called High Line Park’s Renegade Cabaret.

The High Line has become wildly popular amidst artists as well. There are already a countless number of fashion and commercial photographers and film crews shooting and snapping amidst the sea of strolling park-goers.

Though the neighborhood is slowly being restored and gaining a more stylish status, the park stays true to the grittiness of its past. Throughout the promenade are signs of what once was, as train tracks jut through gardens and graffiti lines some surrounding buildings. You never get the idea that you have left a city and entered a bucolic respite (a very wise choice on the designers’ behalf), but you feel as if the city’s attractive elements have been amplified with ruggedly wild gardening and spatial intelligence.

New York City is renowned for always looking forward without being tethered to the past. This philosophy has made for some dangerous progress and violent renovations, but in the end has always been a net-positive ideology for the largest city in America. But with this audacious public space, the city seems to have achieved both a deep regard for its history and a bright glimpse of hope for its future.


Photo: Makoto Fujimura

The designers of The High Line built the space with the idea of there being “romance in the ruins” and they achieved just that. It is prophetic in nature, steering the town’s aesthetic towards one of profound respect for its story and groundbreaking ideas for its future.

Equally important is that The High Line serves as a role model: it’s the biggest recycling project in New York City’s history.

Is it too much to say that the park is New York’s brightest example of how to restore a city? Head up the stairs on Gansevoort and Washington Streets and decide for yourself – before it’s overrun by tourists.

America’s Rebellion Against the Car
The Philosophy Behind Making Times Square a Public Space


Manhattan’s Broadway, after a portion of it was closed
to automobile traffic earlier this year.

America, in a stuporous hangover from a decade-long party of indulgence, seems to be recovering in a cultural rebellion against the drink that ailed us.

In a highly prescient move to invest in the future of New York City, the closing of Times Square to automobiles marks the first large step towards what could be a new brand of American urban planning.

The experiment to close down Broadway between 42nd and 47th streets and around Herald Square is an attempt to not only decrease congestion on sidewalks, but also to see what will happen when such a famous American space is entirely devoted to people that use their legs.

In the most courageous step of urban planning in the last ten years, New York has made Times Square a pedestrian-only area. That is, a public place without cars.

If you were to walk through Times Square a few weeks ago, you would have had to wade through a jam of tourists. From a pedestrian’s standpoint, it was the annoying tourist trap of the city, where elbows were bumped, solicitors of entertainment were relentless and obtrusive, and busy New Yorkers lost valuable time. It was still a fascinating area, with plenty to get excited about. But at times the congestion felt as if all of a sudden something terribly violent could happen, and a sea of civilians would engage in a frenzy of savage behavior. In cities, this type of neurotic claustrophobia tends to lead to the over-commoditization of an area in which innovation loses out to mass quantity/low quality commercial goods and the area invariably ends up imploding giving way to crime and more plastic (see: Times Square circa 1974).

Times Square has been steadily improving since its days of grit and grime in the seventies. To say the space has just “gotten better” would be like saying the discovery of fire was “kind of cool.” The area used to be a bastion of debauchery, with the type of folklorish urban wickedness that you only see in Kurt Russell films from the eighties.

Nicolai Ouroussoff, the architecture critic for the New York Times, described the new pedestrian-only Times Square as such:

“A large part of the design’s success stems from the altered relationship between the pedestrian and the structures that frame the square. Walking down the cramped, narrow sidewalks, a visitor could never get a feel for the vastness of the place. Now, standing in the middle of Broadway, you have the sense of being in a big public room, the towering billboards and digital screens pressing in on all sides.
This adds to the intimacy of the plaza itself, which, however undefined, can now function as a genuine social space: people can mill around, ogle one another and gaze up at the city around them without the fear of being caught under the wheels of a cab.”

It is this sort of remarkable open space, in the midst of a densely crowded Manhattan, that gives Times Square such potential. If the space is upheld (they will try the experiment until December), New York has the opportunity to set a precedent for new urban centers in America, where commerce can thrive because of the absence of the automobile.

Removing cars from Times Square seems to be as much of a revolutionary statement for America as creating a public space. The philosophy is no longer that the automobile is a tool of freedom, but rather a hindrance in a world that needs to figure out how to live more sustainably. It is the resurgence of density over sprawl, quality over quantity, that is picking up steam in our beleaguered economy. And with an administration in the White House that has the opportunity to re-evaluate the transportation authorization bill in September for the first time in six years, hundreds of billions of dollars could be routed towards innovative modes of transportation that lead to more sustainable and dense urban centers.

This new philosophy, adopted by Mayor Bloomberg and the proponents for a car-free Times Square, seems to be saying that an increasingly wireless marketplace, defined by the emergence of a creative class, has lesser need for the automobile. Mobility in commerce can now happen on all levels, from a device in our pocket to a satellite in space. All of this is to say that the move in making Times Square a public space is a step in the right direction, in keeping American cities out of the business of ancient ruins for possibly a few more centuries.

New York’s other brave public works project, the High Line, is a great example of how public spaces positively effect the commerce around pedestrian-only areas, as commercial real estate prices around the High Line have skyrocketed and dug the lower west side out its “dilapidated” status.

On the Subject
The New York Times has been covering the Broadway pedestrian mall.
• Lose the Traffic. Keep That Times Square Grit.
• No Vehicles, but Plenty of People on Broadway
• Photo Essay: A Traffic-Free Broadway
‚Ä¢ Reinventing America’s Cities: The Time Is Now

But Times Square is unique in that it needs no commercial boost. It is already the symbol for American ingenuity. So how do we transform a space that will maintain its hard-working American grittiness, yet still become the highest standard for urban pedestrian sanctuaries? This will be the question that the city of New York must carefully answer if they are to be the example for the New American City.

It is not as if America can attempt to transform Times Square into a European socialistic space where local farmers could sell their goods and trees could provide a sense of natural tranquility. That would be foolhardy. That is not the spirit of Times Square. The space itself is paved and futuristic, the living and breathing image of capitalism at its best. With more room to breathe and walk, Americans can now witness the wonders of commerce happening around them, amazed at the brilliance of each piece of advertising, each technological development, and each news ticker announcing the progress of the information age. It is a place where they can experience high art and hundreds of different ethnicities at the same time.

New York will have to bank on this infrastructure to design Times Square in such a way that these strengths can be exploited and enjoyed. The arts will play a major role in this and Broadway theaters need to rise to the occasion of this rare opportunity if they want to be at the cusp of this potentially lucrative wave. Broadway theaters have somehow stayed afloat over the past few months, some even increasing their revenues from this time last year, and more people interacting with each other in an open space – without the hindrance of congestion – has never been a bad thing for the arts community.

To those concerned about how they’ll deliver goods to the five blocks closed to vehicles, or how they ought to navigate the new streams of traffic on adjoining avenues: Figure it out. You’re running out of gas. This is the time for architects and urban planners to step up. It is time for us to make new strides in mobility, yet be willing to go back to that ancient pastime of “walking.” It would do us all some good to shed a few pounds and make eye contact with a person of a different race.

The continual decline in popularity of America’s greatest invention, the automobile, is sure to be a contentious topic for decades to come. Its greatest rival will be a New Urbanist way of thinking that esteems walkability and encourages a newly creative marketplace where home and the workplace once again come together. It is not only dense urban spaces that could combat the automobile, but also the way we do business altogether.

This is not meant to be a highfalutin’ utopian dream or nostalgic musing, but rather an attempt at practical steps towards greater civility. The autonomy of a vehicle has given the individual freedom of mobility, but also created an insular community of strangers that have the freedom to throw temper tantrums without consequence and rebuke their fellow travelers from the safety of a large metal box. These can be combative elements to the audacious social optimism of urban spaces, making honking a 100-decibel car horn amidst a sea of innocent pedestrians a selfishly irresponsible and uncivil act. To say the resurgence of public car-free spaces is a step towards higher personal responsibility and a culture of greater civility is no “dreamy” thing.

Ouroussoff wrote an article recently in the New York Times called “Reinventing America’s Cities: The Time is Now” in which he lays out practical steps towards a new urban center. Anyone concerned about the future of their own city should read his thoughts.

Barring any setbacks, Times Square has the chance to be a model for the new way we build cities and, without the danger of some angry SUV blaring its horn and zipping past kids, could be the place where the strengths of capitalism and the beautiful intricacies of the American marketplace could stretch its legs and flex its muscles.

A Dinosaur Crawled Into My Backyard
(Attempts at Connecting with Nature)

A dinosaur crawled into my backyard last week. This reminded me that I live in a city where you don’t regularly see dinosaurs. Or even backyards. You see pavement. And now, apparently, you can see dinosaurs, too.

I stood looking out at the gray dawn of a Brooklyn morning towards our anomaly of an urban backyard. And suddenly I saw it: the dinosaur, emerging from our neighbor’s yard by way of a hole in the tattered fence that separates our two territories. I stepped back and thought about lying down and playing dead, because if a dinosaur is like anything in this current world, it is like a bear, and we all know that bears hate dead people, especially when they’re lying down. But I denied my natural instincts and stood frozen, in a sort of old-West showdown with the Jurassic Knickerbocker. I thought to myself: For he is a dinosaur, and I a human with a massive urge to Google “what to do in case you see a dinosaur.”

It wore a black and orange shell, a half-bowl on its back that was scattered with some sort of hieroglyphic pattern, like it was carrying with it some map or scroll of ancient tradition long forgotten by its present surveyors. There is no story I know of his. He is a relic. He stands stoic, wise, ancient, hopefully herbivorous. Probably herbivorous.

For he is a dinosaur.

And I a twenty-something white guy, who can’t imagine a world before cell phones.

He was small in stature and had a long neck and seemed confused. Perhaps an infant offshoot of the triceratops, I thought, or maybe some mentally handicapped dwarf version of the brontosaurus that decided to put a seashell on its back, like some adult-sized cape that he insisted on wearing outside the house much to the chagrin of his irritated mother. He paraded in costume across our stone path and held his nose in the air to determine which portion of our backyard to traverse next. I hoped he would eat the Allegheny spurge, which is ugly and weed-like. For he is a retarded dinosaur, and might like to eat weeds. And I a humble onlooker, fascinated by his disabled wisdom.

He crept along slowly, with patience, as if he had no train to catch or iPhone to monitor. I had forgotten, for a second, that a dinosaur would probably be unfamiliar with the pace of the world he has now returned to and thought of going up to him and teaching him how to use Twitter so that he could update us all when he eats a leaf or has a “sad day ‚òπ.” Or perhaps he would appreciate if I taught him the basics of social networking sites so he could post embarrassing pictures of his drunken friend, the stegosaurus, who totally got wasted at Sarah’s birthday party last week. He might like that. But then again, he might also just like a piece of lettuce. For he is a dinosaur. And I a great educator of useless cyber relationship sites.

It looked at me as if it wanted something. My urban conditioning urged me to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t have any change,” or, “No, I don’t like stand-up comedy,” or, “No, I don’t have a minute for the environment or dying children.” These were the things I normally said to strangers in the city. But he was a dinosaur. And I a speechless inhabitant of his once home.

After a moment of silence, I finally went inside and yelled out to my wife with childlike glee, “The dinosaurs are back! The dinosaurs are back!” She sardonically, distastefully looked up at me. I had to explain to her – “There is a dinosaur in our backyard, come look” – and she begrudgingly followed my beck and call like a mother responding to a child screaming for more toilet paper. She looked out and saw the midget beast. I said to her, with cathartic wisdom, “For he is a dinosaur.” She stared at the creature in an existential trance and, after a long silence, quietly replied, “No. For he is a box turtle. And you, you are an idiot.”

According to Wikipedia, box turtles can live for over 100 years. The one in our backyard has been alive for at least 30. Our neighbors explained to us that, some decades ago, a pebbled-toothed man was digging in his backyard and struck a shell that birthed a head and four legs and crawled out from the ground that it had been hibernating in for the past five months. It was as if the pebbled-toothed man had stumbled upon a mix of magic, some perfect mineral combination that conjures extinct residents and resurrects them from the dirt. The box turtle was fed tomatoes by the local neighbors and trekked through the backyards of four of the brownstones on our street, and has lived here ever since.

It has a name that no one can remember, which seems appropriate for a wild turtle living in an urban environment. New York can have a short memory at times.

I’d like to think that the turtle has been here for centuries, and was second lieutenant to George Washington during the Battle of Brooklyn, but stayed behind when Washington ferried his troops across the river in retreat – the first true American, who was too stubborn to let the Brits push him around. I can picture him brandishing a bayonet against a sea of Redcoats, like a character in a Disney movie. “Tell us who you are, you rogue!” the Brits would say. And he would reply, in a wry matter-of-fact way, “I am a turtle. And I don’t mess around.”

A few days after the sighting, my wife’s grandma regaled us with a story of when they found a box turtle some years ago and took it to the high school science class for it to be looked after. The class for some reason wanted to heat it up, and did so (perhaps in a microwave, I don’t know) and the turtle expanded and internally exploded and died. A cruel fate, to be sure, but a lesson to remember: Never microwave a turtle. Like a Ding Dong, it will explode. But perhaps that fate is apt in its irony; in that we have a propensity for crushing ancient, sacred things for convenience sake; in that we are addicted to microwaves and anything that can perform a task half as well in half the time.

A few days ago, I awoke to find the box turtle perched on a dirt mound staring at me through the window, like it was creepily watching me sleep. After the awkwardness subsided, I opened the back door and stared back at him a while. “Hey,” I said. “Hey,” he said back, in a slightly higher pitch, as if he had always known me, yet I could never fully know him. He waddled away with his wrinkled and rocky skin like some boulder come alive from the ground. A time capsule. And for the first time in a long time, I felt in touch with the softer places of this earth, where concrete had no reign and grass still grew. I knew I was privileged to be witnessing the ancient and forgotten nature of the city to which I belong. I take comfort in the fact that we still share this space with elderly reptiles. I hope we can sit down over a rotten tomato or head of lettuce, and they can tell me what it used to be like.

The Ugly Path to Adulthood

Thomas Sadoski and Piper Perabo in a scene
from Neil LaBute’s
reasons to be pretty.

Playwright Neil LaBute has always been a master of malice. His plays, filled with the grand intricacies of name-calling and the subtlety of allusive pricks to the heart, are studies on the subterraneous cruelty we have grown accustomed to brandishing against those we say we love.

In his newest play, reasons to be pretty, now playing under the direction of Terry Kinney at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway, LaBute’s characters have moved beyond the point of grinning and bearing anything. These characters are fed up with being treated unjustly. They have unleashed some primal forms of cruelty that are familiar in appearance, but when placed under the careful microscope of Neil LaBute, can be as brutal as a National Geographic documentary.

reasons to be pretty opens with the play’s main character, Greg (Thomas Sadoski), being verbally ripped to pieces by his girlfriend, Steph (Marin Ireland), for a comment he made to a co-worker that was meant to be “harmless” and completely unheard by anyone – especially his girlfriend. Greg’s comment concerned Steph’s physical appearance, which compared a certain body part to the new ogle-inducing blonde that works upstairs. The body part: Steph’s face. The abominably nasty word used to describe Steph’s face: regular.

The deadly comment sets off a series of events that place Greg in the judgment seat, where he is charged with the seemingly impossible task of being an adult. That is to say that he is fessing up, trying to be responsible, and asking those around him to listen, forgive, and change. If you’re a character in a LaBute play, this task is like juicing a two-by-four.

Steph breaks up with Greg and her immense anger turns into utter resentment in an achingly awkward scene where Steph stands up in the middle of the local mall’s food court and reads aloud Greg’s physical flaws. With vengeful flashes of Medea, Steph spouts off Greg’s physical defects executioner-style, remarking on everything from his premature balding to his (clear throat) nether-regions. But in the play’s first glimpse of compassion, Steph reveals why her predatory litany does not fit Greg’s crime: it wasn’t true. What Steph read aloud to the world was fabricated, constructed to be hurtful. What Greg said to his buddy about her face was honest. Steph reveals her longing to do good, which is constantly trumped by her lust to punch back.

While Greg attempts to repair his shattered relationship with Steph, his co-worker and best friend, Kent (Steven Pasquale), fans the flames of Greg’s moral predicaments as LaBute’s archetypal – yet always enthralling – testosterone-driven male. Like an old high school friend you didn’t want to run into over Thanksgiving, Kent’s locker room-language induces laughter at first and audible moans of bitterness later. Kent’s wife, Carly (Piper Perabo), is the play’s picture of “acceptable” physical beauty until she becomes pregnant and undesirable to Kent.

What unfolds is a whirlwind of conflict where people are asked to be accountable for their cruelty, or at least explain it. LaBute’s script has been revised since its off-Broadway run six months ago, and focuses less on an obsession with looks than on the ramifications for such conceited fascinations, which is what sets the play apart from his earlier works.

With plays like The Shape of Things and Fat Pig, LaBute has become the theatre’s expert on our culture’s physical obsession. Fat Pig is the story of a thirty-something male who falls in love with an obese woman. In the end, selfishness wins out, as the man dumps the woman and admits that even “true” love will fall victim to his obsession with appearance. This heartbreaking, deep-seated truth – no matter the cost, people are out more for themselves than others – is at the root of LaBute’s plays.

But reasons to be pretty adds another element to the cruel-on-cruel crimes of his characters: by the end, most of them are desperately trying to be responsible. Whether they succeed at growing up is debatable, but it is a theme that LaBute has only scratched the surface of until now.

In the playwright’s note, LaBute writes, “I’ve written about a lot of men who are really little boys at heart, but Greg, the protagonist in this play, just might be one of the few adults I’ve ever tackled.” Along with this new sense of adulthood, the characters in reasons find themselves with a moral dilemma. If they are to grow up and act responsibly, then they insist those around them do so as well. In the theatre, this is the point when characters get hurt or do some hurting themselves. In reasons, this ethical catharsis culminates in a rough and bloody fight, Greg being the character who prevails. Was this violent match the point of Greg’s becoming an adult? The audience sure thought so, applauding and whooping for the average Joe who finally took justice into his own hands, as if to say, “Yes, the adult thing to do is to beat the shit out of those who wrong you.” We the audience, apparently, were as unequipped to bang the gavel as the fallen characters we were observing.

In essence, LaBute’s characters in reasons are struggling from taking on the role of judge and possessing the mercy to rule outside their own self-interests. They are trying to adopt a morality that ultimately falls apart when those they love and care about fall short of such a high standard. This is LaBute’s equation for cruelty, and sets him above the mold in being able to express the normalcy of the chaos we live in.

All of this makes for a dizzyingly exciting night of theatre, with countless thematic implications that go deeper than just the skin. Even though many of LaBute’s scenes are filled with comically heavy arguments, it is the more subtle yet equally as potent jabs that tell us who these people really are. Their attempts at true goodness and beauty are executed with a sort of awkward frailty, like a child taking the training wheels off.

As always, LaBute’s dialogue is rhythmically beautiful, profane, and clever. He has concocted some of his most hilariously well-crafted insults and slurs to date, making one feel a little less pretty and somehow disturbingly more at home for laughing with and at the characters.

The performances are outstanding, particularly Marin Ireland’s acerbically biting yet exposed Steph, and Steven Pasquale’s wretchedly funny Kent. Thomas Sadoski as Greg provides us with a perfectly magnetic performance of LaBute’s everyman.

Director Terry Kinney (co-founder of Chicago’s continuously impressive Steppenwolf Theatre), brings an energy and flow to the play that makes it as comical as it is tragic, allowing us to hear LaBute’s dialogue at such a clipped and naturalistic pace that you would feel as if you were eavesdropping if you weren’t in a massive Broadway theatre. Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen’s sound design, and Kinney’s scene transitions, accelerated by a spinning siren and loud rock music, give the feel of an unpredictable joyride (it’s hard to go wrong when you toss a Radiohead number into the action).

David Gallo’s sets and David Weiner’s lighting provide a working class warehouse where the drama unfolds. Amidst the set’s towering shelves of stacked products of plastic, one wonders if this warehouse is the image of Greg’s world around him – a place with walls of baggage too high to scale, the work of unloading it never to be completed, like some American middle-class Sisyphus.

LaBute’s characters all hide behind their own egos through books, looks, and machismo, and by the end of the play are not necessarily stripped of their own selfishness, just a bit more responsible for it. This breeds a blatant compassion in his characters and, as one who has kept a keen eye on LaBute’s work, is an intriguing trail to see the prolific playwright go down. LaBute is raising some fascinating questions in reasons to be pretty. What do we value in relationships? Is it looks? Honesty? Flattery? Sacrifice?

And most importantly, in all seriousness: what would it take for you to love an ugly person?


reasons to be pretty

By Neil LaBute; directed by Terry Kinney; sets by David Gallo; costumes by Sarah J. Holden; lighting by David Weiner; sound and music by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; technical supervision by Hudson Theatrical Associates; production stage manager, Christine Lemme; fight director, Manny Siverio; general manager, Daniel Kuney. An MCC Theater production, presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, MCC Theater, Gary Goddard Entertainment, Ted Snowdon, Doug Nevin/Erica Lynn Schwartz, Ronald Frankel/Bat-Barry Productions, Kathleen Seidel, Kelpie Arts L.L.C., Jam Theatricals and Rachel Helson/Heather Provost.

At the Lyceum Theater, 149 West 45th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.
WITH: Thomas Sadoski (Greg), Marin Ireland (Steph), Piper Perabo (Carly) and Steven Pasquale (Kent).

When Avant-Garde Becomes Accessible:
Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion


Merriweather Post Pavilion,
Animal Collective’s latest album.

Experimental art is usually more deadly than effective. But there is always that rare gem that is wildly in touch with the underpinnings of aestheticism, like a secret passageway down untrod paths of new expression. This is a lofty designation to apply to any artist, but it’s what Animal Collective has achieved in their new album, Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Animal Collective, the New York City/Washington D.C./Lisbon based avant-garde musical group, is made up of Avey Tare (David Portner), Panda Bear (Noah Lennox), and Geologist (Brian Weitz). Since their breakout album Feels in 2005, Animal Collective has been on the cutting edge of the indie music scene. But their sound is a far cry from your standard rock band.

Though they’re sometimes categorized as “psych folk,” “noise rock,” and “avant-garde,” no label fully encompasses the band’s sound. Their tribal melodies tease more than they culminate. They never speak down to their audience. Their standard of complexity never stoops to the expected. They are experimentally courageous.

With Merriweather Post Pavilion they have hit the crest of their progressive wave. “In the Flowers,” the album’s first cut, begins with futuristic, industrial noise before the band’s standard dreamlike vocals cut through to dissonantly accompany a plunking minor chord on a piano. This droning intro lasts for nearly three minutes before it explodes into an alarm of melody that is at once joyful and distressing. The song grabs your attention with its obscure intricacies and is an appropriate introduction to the album’s unpredictability.

“My Girls” is the album’s most accessible song. It floats from Brian Wilson-esque harmonies to dance floor, pop-infused minimalism. The song evokes the image of tribal groups of hipsters, bobbing in motion as if to resurrect the rain dance or some other weather-invoking spiritual. Lead vocalist Avey Tare folds in lyrics of patriarchal desires over a sound setting unlikely for the topic at hand: “Is it much to admit I need a solid soul and the blood I bleed, with a little girl, and by my spouse I only want a proper house.” The song then breaks down into an almost hip-hop style rhythm and provides the album’s catchiest riff: “I don’t mean to seem like I care about material things like a social status. I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls.”

The entire album is filled with a sort of musical schizophrenia (an Animal Collective trademark), crossing genres quicker than one would expect and holding certain sounds longer than one can sometimes handle. Each song changes before you can describe it. “Also Frightened” yelps (is that coyotes or Apaches or just people from Williamsburg?), then morphs into robotic rhythms and cacophonous vocals, where “Guys Eyes” begins with strange jungle sounds (or was that a tuba?) before destructing into a testosterone-laden chant.

Then there’s “Summertime Clothes” that is a loud, distorted, electronic, happy song, which turns into tribal monotony. In contrast, the psychedelic lullaby “No More Runnin” and the ambient-sounding “Taste” make one wonder if the band has stumbled upon some sort of folk mythology from the future.

With all the attention deficit disorder of Merriweather…, the band has somehow avoided creating an album filled with anthems. As much as each song changes within itself, there is never a feeling of switching sounds for the sake of switching sounds – a trend far too popular in indie rock nowadays.

Minimalism is a key element to Animal Collective’s sound, using long-lasting tones to extract a certain emotion or perpetrate a musical purgation. This minimalism helps justify the group’s use of excessive melodies that are as effective as they are interesting; memorable as they are strange.

Most memorable might be the melodies interspersed through the album’s closing track “Brother Sport.” This Afro-electronic tribal celebration is the band’s most ambitiously constructed melody to date – ambitious, because it is incredibly pop-y. The song’s dueling vocals and sirens give the listener six full minutes of sugary escape. It is palpably repetitive in rhythm and sound before exploding into a cathartic coda of melody, exchanging sour for sweet with an excellent payoff.

“Avant-garde” has consistently described Animal Collective’s place in the indie scene, with their bizarrely resonant sounds that meld into corrosive melodies and tribal tones, but they haven’t been coined “accessible” – until now. Animal Collective hasn’t changed their sound, their techniques, or even their premise for creating music. Perhaps they have trained us into being wiser listeners. Perhaps a band that was before its time has finally been caught by the hands of the clock they were dragging behind them. Whatever it is, they have created a complex gem of an album, as influential as it is enjoyable.

Bell of the Ball:
An NFL Commentary

The NFL has become a hotbed of athletic theatre. Football is America’s most popular sport because it is highly entertaining, amazingly athletic, and elaborately strategic. Bordering on cinematic in its production, the game is an ongoing narrative that brings cities and communities together each Sunday to celebrate a victory or mourn a loss. We experience four acts (four quarters) of improvised storyline that no movie director could ever emulate – especially not Oliver Stone (see the groan-worthy Any Given Sunday). There’s no reason to make a movie about a game that’s better than a movie. The game is enough.

This year we experienced plenty of noteworthy NFL stories. Whether it was the Detroit Lions being the first team ever to achieve an 0-16 record, another edge-of-your-seat Superbowl, or Plaxico Burress accidentally shooting himself in the leg in public because he was carrying a gun in the waistband of his sweat pants, there was never a dull moment for America’s sports columnists. One player’s story, however, struck me as particularly interesting.

That story was the season of Denver Broncos running back Tatum Bell. Bell started the year as tailback for the Detroit Lions. He was traded in 2007 from the Denver Broncos, a team with whom he had a nice career, gaining over 1,000 yards rushing in 2006. He was set to be the Lion’s starting back until Rudi Johnson entered the situation and took the starting position away from Bell. Bell was let go and asked to pack his bags. Unfortunately, upon exiting the facilities, Tatum Bell took the wrong bags … literally.

Not only did he take the wrong bags, he took the bags and valuables of the player who replaced him – Rudi Johnson. What started as a supposedly honest mistake suddenly boiled over into a media frenzy accusing Bell of stealing $200 in cash, credit cards, and several personal items that belonged to the very person who stole Bell’s job. “Everyone’s putting it out there that I’m a thief. They’re acting like I got released, and I was mad, so I took the bags of the guy they brought in behind me. But it’s not true, and that’s what’s hurting me so much right now,” Bell said.

Looking for a story more interesting than Peyton Manning’s bursa sac, the sports media milked the Bell accusations dry. Rudi Johnson accused Bell of theft, the Lions made no comment, and we never found out if Bell was telling the truth. “I’m very, very concerned that this is my career here.”

Bell was right. He was not given due process and was labeled damaged goods, unfit for the morally upright NFL, whose players are more often accused of drunk driving and steroid use than petty theft. Bell left Detroit humiliated. His career was over. No team wanted to hire a thief.

After the melee in Detroit, Bell returned to Colorado, the place he and his wife made home before Bell got the job in Detroit. It was at this point that Bell’s story took a turn so unlikely, one would think it was the screenplay for a Saturday afternoon movie on ABC Family.

Tatum Bell was desperate for work. And, like many Americans in our current crisis, was willing to participate in a humble-pie-eating contest to get a job. So one day, Tatum Bell, who only two weeks prior was a starting running back for an NFL franchise, stepped into his local mall, and asked for a few applications.

The mall that Bell stepped in to was the Aurora Mall in Aurora, Colorado. As a proud Coloradan, I feel obligated to paint a picture of what I remember the Aurora Mall to be.

The Aurora Mall is like that weird gift shop on your drive home from your family vacation to the Grand Canyon that offers an assortment of sweatshirts with howling wolves on them, and has a strange Lakota woman sewing something in the corner next to the “Sounds of the Prairie” CDs. The Aurora Mall is your number one destination for white elephant gifts, black lights, lava lamps, and quasi-inappropriate paraphernalia that middle-schoolers keep in their lockers and show to their friends. The Aurora Mall is verging on the post-apocalyptic, with several abandoned department stores and a Santa at Christmas that smells like deer jerky. That’s the Aurora Mall. And Tatum Bell got a job there. At a kiosk, nonetheless.

His job was working as a cell phone salesman at Mobile Solutions. “I just appreciate them giving me a job,” Bell said. “I was working 9 to 5.” Bell sold “a couple” phones and said the job was “actually pretty hard.” Bell would kindly chat with Broncos fans that incredulously approached him at his kiosk. Then he’d try and sell them a phone.

When asked his reasoning for pursuing the job after coming off an NFL salary, Bell said “Just supporting my family. Doing what I can do.”

Bell worked humbly and tirelessly. He watched the Denver Broncos on TV each Sunday and tried to keep in shape, clinging to the remnants of a former dream-come-true.

After a few weeks, Bell noticed a bizarre trend in the Broncos depth chart: their running backs were dropping like flies.

A pigskin plague hit the Broncos backfield with such force that it seemed as if anyone who carried the ball was bound to be put on injured reserve – out for the season. By midseason, the Broncos were so banged up at the tailback position that they turned to their rookie fullback, Peyton Hillis, to carry the ball for every single one of their running plays. It was only a couple games before Hillis suffered a torn hamstring, falling victim to the curse and sidelining him for the rest of the season.

After five tailbacks were hit with the plague (there would be an unprecedented seven total by the end of the year), Bell’s phone rang. Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan invited Bell to practice with his former team. Bell obliged, went to practice, and proved that he was a better football player than cell phone salesman.

“I think anytime somebody’s out on the streets for a while, everybody gets humbled,” Shanahan said. “If a coach has been fired, a player that’s been cut, it’s the same thing. You look forward to those opportunities and you take advantage of those opportunities once you get them. And Tatum’s come in, worked extremely hard and he’s taken advantage of an opportunity.”

“I’m humbled,” Bell said. “I didn’t think I was going to get another chance, to be honest. I thanked coach Shanahan for giving me this chance. I’ll do whatever it takes. I’ll play special teams. I’ll play center. I’ll do whatever it takes to help the Denver Broncos win.”

Bell didn’t play center, but he was the Broncos starting tailback for the last four games of the season. He worked hard and did his job. Not dissimilar, I’m sure, to his position at the Aurora Mall. I’d like to tell you that he led the Broncos to a playoff berth and broke several records, but apparently, Cinderella has to return home from the ball at some point. The Broncos lost three of their last four games and crumbled in tragic fashion. But Bell persevered. His last game was his best, racking up over 100 yards of offense and two touchdowns, including one off a 37-yard run.

What is most remarkable about Bell’s story is not the cosmic irony of his rags to riches tale, but the resilience and poise he maintained through it all. His sense of altruism, despite the circumstances, was astonishing. “I had to hold my head up high,” Bell said. “That’s what I had to do to feed my family.”

The meek inherited a bit more of the earth when Tatum Bell walked into that cesspool of plastic trinkets that is the Aurora Mall. In a country in the midst of crisis, Tatum Bell is an encouraging example. If we are, in fact, in store for tougher times, then I take comfort in the resilience of a gridiron jock who won with humility.

Notes From a Budget Truck

My wife and I are moving from Los Angeles to New York, it’s the middle of January, and I never thought I’d find myself so obsessed with the contents of a 16-foot Budget truck.

Our route is long, tough, and snowy. My father has likened it to the Joad family tour except without nearly as much dust, death, or squatting down and squinting our eyes and picking up a handful of dirt and letting it run through our fingers while giving some inspiring speech. “Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there” . . . mmmm, maybe? I’d like to say that I’d be there but apparently I’m more concerned with all the crap that’s in the back of this truck.

I’ve been worried that our things, locked away in this 16 foot gas guzzler, will somehow be stolen. I’m worried that a group of vandals will materially violate me – that they will take bolt cutters to our padlock, steal our things, and top it off by painting something phallic on the side of the truck because they somehow found out that I didn’t spend extra for the zero deductible insurance, and adding insult to injury is what these thieves are all about. These guys are smart. Too smart.

I’ve been so paranoid at times that I’ve found myself checking on the truck every hour or so, discreetly peeking out the window of our Motel 6 room, like some gossipy grandma in a Southern Gothic novel. This obsession is ridiculous.

My paranoia with the things we own began shortly after we loaded the truck in a real-life game of Tetris with three people who would have rather been sleeping. I never knew how much I cared about our second-hand printer, our blender, and our cake stand that has never been used. It’s a cake stand. Who on earth uses a round cake stand more than once or twice a decade? Am I really going to bake a cake – specifically, a round cake – then frost it, display it on a porcelain stand, and later take it off the stand to eat, just so that people can see this round cake, in all its prominence and glory? “Oh my God, look at that round cake! It’s on a stand! Who would have thought to put that round cake on a stand! Look at how useful that is! I wouldn’t have thought much of that ugly little round cake unless it was propped up, as it is, on a pedestal, as if it had something to say! As if it was about to come alive and open its little chocolate lips to compliment me on my haircut! I declare: look at that cake! Standing there! I don’t even want to eat that sexy little cake it’s so beautiful!” No. I didn’t think I cared a lick about that cake stand until I obsessively wrapped it in newspaper and bubble wrap and carefully stacked it among the other boxes of things I tell people I don’t care about. But apparently I do. Care, that is.

My paranoia peaked in Denver. And I think it’s because of Radiohead. The band. You see, when I was in sixth grade Radiohead came through Denver (my home town) on tour and all of their equipment was stolen. They made statements on the radio pleading with the burglars to return their things. They never did. Radiohead left Denver bitter and angry and a little more afraid of the Mile High city.

Our truck, this automotive behemoth, was too big to fit into a parking spot close to where we were staying, and we were forced to park it about a quarter mile away. Out in the open. Where the Mile High bandits could get it. They didn’t, of course, and my suspicion, which likened our fake ficus plants to Johnny Greenwood’s guitar, was unjustified. We left Denver and our “truck o’ stuff” was okay.

I’ve been told that New York City has a way of forcing you to get rid of things. The city’s confined living spaces force you to purge your nonessentials. This is a good thing, if you ask me. Upon arrival in New York, I imagine we’ll come through the Holland Tunnel and be pulled over by a teamster whose job is to inspect all the objects we plan on cramming into our junior one-bedroom apartment. “Okay, California boy, why don’t you open up the back there and we’ll see what ya got.” He’d rifle through our things and carelessly toss a number of items into a muslin sack. “Don’t need dat, don’t need dat, you can get rid of dat, I never even seen one of these before, don’t need dat, and you definitely don’t need this cake stand – although it is very nice – what is that, porcelain? Alright, that’s all. Welcome to New York, sunshine. Get ready to freeze your nips off. Vote Tammany and have a nice day.”

I’ve never been a packrat. In fact, if you were to research the amount of material items owned by the average American, I’d say that I’d be in the lower 30% (and that’s based on absolutely zero empirical data, in case you were wondering). It’s not the “things” that I care about. It’s that somehow this nomadic expedition across the country has intensified my territorial instincts, like I’m some sort of rabid possum. And my “territory” is everything that is tightly packed into this rental truck. In fact, one might even say that these “things” are my only “territory” for seven days on the road. I’m not asking for a pity party or anything, I’m merely trying to express this bizarre feeling of in-between-ness, of not belonging and only having “things” that belong to me. This seems analogous, or at least somehow connected, to the sort of alienation and autonomy to which our culture is falling victim, and it has led me into a type of neuroticism so self-involved that I compare my situation to the band Radiohead (see above).

If we don’t fulfill the inherent need to belong, it would make sense, in all our errant ways, that we fill that need by purchasing things that we can say belong to us. In other words, does a lack of belonging breed materialism which leads to neuroticism which leads to paranoia which leads to believing that this downward spiral of material obsession will continue and Steve Jobs will eventually create a troop of iPod robots so sleek and desirable that they will seduce us into being their slaves?

If “things” turn us inward towards ourselves, then surely there is something that can turn us outward towards others, and from my experience it’s nothing you can get at Best Buy. Even if we don’t truly believe this to be true, we must act like it is true, if we want to be a culture free from the slavery of materialism and iPod robots.

We tend to overlook exactly why we so strongly desire material things. It is easy to complain about our addiction to consumerism, or dismiss it as a cliché not worth examining, but it’s difficult to assess the reasons behind our material obsession. I think that maybe we’re not really obsessed with these “things”. Maybe we’re obsessed with something else. Maybe we’re obsessed with ourselves and being in control of things, and perhaps that is why we sometimes struggle to belong – we’re too concerned with ourselves to be concerned with others. Or maybe I’m completely wrong.

Instead of trying to find the answers to all these difficult questions, I’ll tell you a story from the last leg of our trip that illustrates a point far better than I could write.

Something happened on the final day of our journey that seemed to wrap things up quite nicely, like an ironically violent ending to a David Cronenberg film – the kind that makes your jaw drop.This one came out of left field, and seemed so cruel and surreal that I felt myself levitate a little bit, as if at any moment I would wake up from this nightmare.

We had traveled 3,000 miles over seven days to our destination, and everything had gone just fine. The truck had not broken down. Vandals had not stolen our things. My wife and I were still married. Everything had gone fine. Everything was out of our truck, in our apartment, and I was on my way to return the most expensive and valuable “thing” in my possession: a 16 foot Budget truck. I was traversing the narrow streets of Brooklyn and on the final quarter mile of our 3,028 mile journey, Murphy and his law staged a coup d’état. I was driving down a small one-way road with double-parked cars, which made it even smaller. I was almost to the end of the block when I heard a loud crunch. The back of my truck had crashed into a double-parked car behind me. I was two blocks away from the drop-off station. My soul wilted a little bit, then got up, left my body, and went to vomit on the street corner. I had hit the car’s side mirror and possibly the passenger door. The mirror was dangling there like a lemming that decided to change its mind. But it was too late.

What am I going to do? What on earth am I going to do? A large man of at least 250 pounds got out of the car. He came around to the mirror. I apologized profusely. He said nothing. I stood there cowering, conjuring up any possible way I could get myself out of this mess. And then a miracle happened. I saw that the mirror had been duct taped to the car. He somewhat ineffectively re-taped it back on and stood there for a few seconds in silence, looking at the damage. The large man looked at the “thing” he owned, surely one of his most valued possessions. He looked at his car. He looked at me. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. Don’t worry about it? He got back in his car and I drove off and returned the truck. And it was over. Don’t worry about it. Indeed.

An American Beer Garden

In a recent trip to Munich, I encountered a cultural phenomenon unknown to my apple pie Americanism: beer gardens. In Munich they have beer gardens. (I know this is not a revolutionary find. You’re probably asking yourself which isolated desert state I live in.) But they have beer gardens in Munich. Outside. In parks. Where children play, and moms walk with a stroller in one hand and a beer stein in the other. They drink, communally, outside. In the middle of a weekday afternoon. Some even actually wear lederhosen. They share giant picnic tables with complete strangers and awestruck tourists like me. They guzzle liter after liter of ridiculously good beer out of massive glass beer steins in public. And the most remarkable thing: generally speaking, they do this with extreme civility, without the slightest whiff of debauchery.

Points of Entry
• Read more about the Bavarian origins of beer gardens.
• If you are in New York City, check out the Bohemian Beer Garden in Astoria, Queens.
‚Ä¢ For further thought on community gathering places, see Ray Oldenburg’s classic book, The Great Good Place.

It got me wondering: Could this ever happen in American culture? If so, the scene that I envision goes something like this:

Noon: Beer garden opens in middle of public park.

1:00pm: After much pondering, confused passers-by start taking pictures on their cell phones of strange man in lederhosen behind the counter pouring beer.

1:10pm: First American ventures out and buys a beer. Sits down at a bench and starts drinking.

1:15pm: On-lookers are shocked that the man isn’t concealing his public alcohol consumption with a brown paper bag. Old woman on nearby park bench gets scared and stops feeding pigeons.

1:20pm: Four others get curious.

1:30pm: Half a table is filled with five happily drinking Americans.

1:35pm: Whole table is filled with ten happily drinking Americans.

1:45pm: Cops show up and check everyone’s I.D. in the area, just to be safe, as well as the old woman sitting on the park bench.

2:30pm: Five tables are filled with more than fifty people enjoying the outdoor beer garden.

3:30pm: Local police set up fence around beer garden to keep out minors, requiring hand-stamps and background checks before entry.

4:00pm: McDonalds erects similar beer garden 20 yards away, selling their patented McBeerstein. You can keep the collectors stein if you purchase a gallon of beer. Also available is the “Cerveza Steino” and “McDonald’s Southern Style Beer Chicken Sandwich”. The “McRibwich Beer Soup” to be released in August.

5:00pm: Beer wenches are required to lower the neck on their uniform (or “dirndl” as it is known in Bavarian culture) by three inches.

5:30pm: American Apparel puts out new line of lederhosen and dirndls.

6:00pm: Local radio station shows up with “foam machine” and a four baby pools filled with pudding. Loudspeakers are set up to blast hardcore rap across the park.

6:15pm: Post-work crowd arrives with loosened ties and low spirits due to the 400 point drop in the DOW and rising gas prices. Radio station raffles off a Hummer. Post work crowd sows their wild oats with a “my happiest years are behind me” attitude and drinks until the loneliness is gone.

6:25pm: Best Buy provides twenty 52″ inch plasma TVs so that customers can watch Monday Night Football and VH1 at the same time. Beer wenches replaced by Hooters girls.

6:30pm: Grass turns brown. 27 squirrels die in freak canola oil spill from McDonalds beer garden.

7:00pm: Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity and Tri Delts show up from local university. Underagers are equipped with fake ID’s. All are clad with garb from the “Pimps and Hos” party from the previous night.

7:45pm: Police increase the fenced perimeter, adding security choppers above to patrol the area.

8:10pm: CNN, MSNBC, and FOX News arrive with cameras and run a breaking news story entitled “BEER FORTRESS: What’s Really in Your Water?” Wolf Blitzer gets wicked smashed.

8:30pm: United States Department of Defense labels beer garden a prime terrorist threat zone and makes you take off your shoes before entering.

9:00pm: Someone’s hand gets cut off. Riot ensues. Police take action.

9:30pm: News channels release video of the “Beer Garden Brawl”. Popular clip of twenty-something male being accosted by police while saying “Don’t cut my hand off, man!” breaks record for most hits on YouTube.

9:45pm: Old woman on park bench teaches Tri Delts how to jitterbug. Tri Delts make old woman hit beer bong.

10:00pm: Tribes are formed. Media infers that tribes are split among races. Tribe leaders deny such allegations.

10:40pm: “Girls Gone Wild” arrives. Are accused of being “a little too late”.

11:15pm: Ancient soothsayer is seen crying in the middle of all the action screaming, “It was so good at 3:30pm!”

11:30pm: On a dare, Wolf Blitzer eats a pigeon.

11:45pm: For no apparent reason, cement trucks are brought in and a freeway is constructed through the middle of the beer garden. Suburban housing development begins.

Midnight: Unbeknownst to the human race, trees are actually a living, breathing species that are capable of walking and talking (Lord of the Rings-style) and decide to uproot themselves and move away from what is left of the park, half going to Kennebunkport, Maine and the other half drowning themselves in the closest ocean, bringing the American beer garden experiment to a sad and bitter end.

Could there be hope for an American beer garden? Are we going the way of the Europeans with our return to the city centre and increasing murmurs of new urbanism, the dying off of the suburbs, the downfall of the automobile, family values that might be close to gone, and spending habits that outweigh our paychecks? Do you have to hit rock bottom in order to see the top? If America was a teenage girl with an addiction to consumerism, could she be in the passenger seat of Mom’s SUV, careening down pedestrian-free streets, her iPod blasting the Jonas Brothers, on her way to rehab? Could she maybe, just maybe, be out of denial and on the path to renewal? Answer: yes, maybe. But what is it going to take to get her there?

I expect that it will take an increase in the number of pies that sit cooling on windowsills. The Cubs winning the World Series. The continuation of a thriving micro-brew movement. More festivals showcasing giant squash. And maybe the emergence of a trend in overalls.

Maybe a beer garden would force us to experience nature with strangers, start new traditions, get out of our cars and malls, encourage family interaction, and create relationships and spirited conversation. The benefits are obvious. If there is an equation for good community, I think it goes something like this: people + nature + moderate amounts of alcohol – television = good.

I’m sure that Bavarian culture has its fair share of flaws as well, but there are many things about their society to admire and note: relentless celebration and preservation of homespun traditions, purity laws for brewing beer, public spaces in prime real estate areas that are reserved for local farmers to sell their goods, dancing around maypoles in olden attire (yes, they still do that), ancient folk-songs and stories being taught in schools, sausage, polka, and the list goes on. We do some of this, but not nearly as well.

I’m not saying we all ought to put on some lederhosen and open another Epcot Center, but convening outside with others is a start. Maybe in a park. Baby steps, baby steps. Maybe we can add beer a little later on, when all the awkwardness subsides.

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