Life is not all hams and plaques, a wealthy man once observed. We all pass through our painful stints of human suffering, our common colds and weird skin rashes, our groin injuries and eye infections. It’s just a part of life, nature’s way of gently reminding us that we are wretched—fallen from an Eden in the sky that once experienced the skin rash of us. We suffer and mostly we get well again and we learn that all things pass in time.
I had forgotten this inevitable time-healing counterpart to misery recently while suffering from the chicken pox / skin rash / groin injury of cultural annoyances: minimal German techno
, contagiously transmitted through my ceiling from the electrobeatnik upstairs neighbors. I tried to bear it out gracefully, to adapt to it.
Now, I did my time in art school; I’ve had plenty of time to embrace euro minimalism—a sort of sleek paramecium that constantly mutates across cultural forms, avariciously infecting all aspects of domestic life, consuming any trace of eclectic personality, rendering architecture inhospitable, furniture uncouchable and fashion unpimpable. But you must also take this into account: I made my way through art school while working in a printing plant, running an offset press with a very minimalist daily mental regimen. Thump thump thump... 120 beats per minute. Run some heavy cardstock through there, throw in a squeaky roller, some drum scraping and the sound of your vacuum feed sucking up the paper and basically you’ve got what many tweaked out Berliners consider avant-garde
music. Welcome to the machine. Still, if it evokes the emotions, it must be music, and I will admit that this endless mechanical sinus rhythm of subnarcotic subwoofing playing through a soundbox of substandard ceiling joists evoked a very minimalist emotion in me. Homicidity.
Well malice was forfended; perhaps they divined it through the tremulous walls; they are suddenly gone. I saw them leave yesterday, wearing many scarves, laden down with bright vinyl bags. I watched until the last neon green shoelace was swallowed into the darkness of the passage.
And like the sun breaking through parting clouds after a tempest, the calm peaceable kingdom of my apartment is suddenly radiant. I can sit here and listen to the sound of my eyelashes brushing together. Whoosh. Whoosh.
Like mating flamingos. I hear the scraping of a tear of joy as it peeks out of its duct, then scurries across the tundra of my cheek like a young badger in the spring thaw. I hear the birds singing from yonder window. Somewhere, deep in the bowels of this altbau community, a toilet flushes, and hark... someone is peeling an egg. No more will I have to sleep each night with the white noise ocean waves soundtrack. Instead I can listen to the electricity humming in the walls.
Actually it’s way too quiet now.
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“That is pretty draconian — $500,000 is not a lot of money, particularly if there is no bonus.”
Thus spake James F. Reda, founder and managing director of James F. Reda & Associates, a compensation consulting firm, to the New York Times about new proposed compensation limits attached to firms receiving federal bailout money. Considering the extreme lengths to which Americans are currently going to cope with their mugged economy, this is the kind of statement you really have to meditate on to fully appreciate.
I'm sorry, Mr. Reda, the word 'draconian' can't take your call right now. It's very busy, and there are a lot of people ahead of you.
All across America and Europe people have ceased to spend on non-essential things. Nearly two and a half million have lost their jobs in the US alone. Those that can find new work are willing to take deep cuts in salary. The country has entered a period of national humility where a high five-figure salary is considered a godsend, even to experienced professionals with advanced degrees and gilded resumes.
In contrast to this, Reda insists the five-hundred-large offer is insufficient to retain those fattened executives, and that they will surely go elsewhere. Very good. Let's hope it's a planet in the cigar galaxy. Streaming in to replace them will be a swarm of highly educated and experienced talent, with fresh energy and ideas and a genuine appreciation of $500,000. They will climb over each other for the chance to helm a leading Fortune 500 company. Paramount on their agenda will be a remaking of corporate integrity, responsible business accounting and visionary product development for a new era. As everything around us seems to be shedding value, these men and women, products of our hallowed colleges and universities, outfitted with the resolve and determination that stems from being always accountable in a competitive job market, remain one of the nation's enduring commodities. Give them a chance and they just might restore our industrial prestige in the world.
The issue is in debate. These 'draconian' compensation limits are said to have an upside and a downside potential, the upside being obvious, the downside being that they become repellant to the executive status quo. I can't help but see these both as upsides. The status quo of rusty executives needs to be pried away before we can repaint the financial landscape. They may have once represented the apotheosis of leadership and judgment but have since succumbed to the corrosive effect of personal wealth and power. Titans don't play their part in an orchestra; they clear the stage and roar at the audience. Well, if you can't push them off the stage, you can always lower the curtain; perhaps they will get bored and go away.
Speaking of theatre, there is an ancient folkloric tale regarding the death of Dracos, the first legislator of Athens, whose demise gifted our compensation consultants with their extravagant word 'draconian'. It seems that one fine day, while in the Aeginetan theatre, the people, expressing their respect, "threw so many hats and shirts and cloaks on his head that he suffocated, and was buried in that selfsame theatre". Suffocated under a mountain of excess... in this sense, I think our esteemed outgoing executives may have already had their draconian moment.
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Today is a bank holiday in Berlin, though it seems strangely inappropriate for any bank to be in the holiday spirit just now. The reason: the nineteenth anniversary of the German reunification. It feels like a Sunday. Nothing is open, not a thing, not the malls, not even the Chinese import shops. Only the Turks showed up for work today. Doner Kebab never takes a holiday.
Oh, and that division of the civil service that deals with inferior trees, they’re working today. They woke me up this morning with a screaming chain saw beneath my window. Bleary-eared, I peeked out from behind the curtains to see a red van, its red lights revolving urgently, an unnecessarily lengthy Deutsch word emblazoned on its side: Department-of-Publicly-Annoying-Make-Work
I suppose. You come across an abundance of this kind of make-work in Berlin, a capitalistic city renown for its recusant socialism. Yesterday, walking along the corridor of old ball-bearing factories where my office is located, I passed a man riding a tiny motorized sweeper, spinning about the parking lot, chasing leaves in the wind, sweeping them up as new ones blew in to take their place. There was a certain hopelessness, pointlessness and endlessness to this industry that seemed all too familiar to me.
I think the tree squad would have been happy to rage all day beneath my window as well, spanning the required hours that lead to a paycheck, but just as suddenly as it was shattered, the silence returned. Again I parted the curtain, this time to witness as one of the workers documented the freshly tree-damaged roof of a parked car with a digital camera, jumped into the van and sped off, swerving cartoonishly, red lights flashing panic.
The leaden white blanket of October covers the block. Blue patches of sky seem painted onto it. The windows are tightly shut from the metallic coal smoke that perfumes the back courtyard. To be fair, the morning is nearly over, when sensible Germans are pursuing Frühstruck, filling their bellies with slices of cold meat, butter and cheese. I slept late because I was up until five a.m., watching that debate.. that absurd debate.
Perhaps I do understand what isolates me these days. Undoubtedly it involves living in a stoic German neighborhood for over three months without meeting a single neighbor, not even the one who stole my bike, but I think it has more to do with a disconnection from my own culture, from the reality it seems to inhabit, for I am most certainly disconnected from the reality of mainstream America at this point. To witness a debate between a veteran statesman like Joe Biden and a woman who should not quite qualify for a White House internship is simply bizarre. To see her winking at me, bringing me into her confidence with the practiced congenial smile of a tour guide reciting a well-rehearsed script, to listen to her childlike pronunciation skills and mangled sentence structures, to see Joe Biden endure the humiliation of being placed beside her, ostensibly in a contest between equals, brings about in me a sort of indignation, a sort of indigestion and a distinct alienation from the so-called American voter. I am alarmed by the widespread public buy-in to this charade. I am dismayed by the lack or respect expert politicians are afforded today. Joe might just as well be up there squaring off against a cantaloupe. Would anyone question that? I think the cantaloupe really exceeded my expectations… I think it held it’s own… I think it came off as far less of a typical politician…
is that what the collective voice would tell me?
Would a cantaloupe confuse U.S. commander in Afghanistan General David McKiernan with McClellan
, (a major general in the Civil War)? Could a cantaloupe make Joe Biden smile so broadly?
It should be easy to rejoin this mainstream reality by reveling in the entertainment value of all this election year buffoonery, but if I reflect on that idea it only serves to further alienate me, for in what sort of reality does a civilization respond to its own self-inflicted demise by being entertained in the process? Does nothing hold gravity in American society anymore? Not a war on third-world children, not people losing their homes, not a deteriorating environment, not a crumbling infrastructure and least of all a derelict educational standard. The sublimation of Sarah Palin more than confirms that. A former beauty queen cobbles together a degree in journalism from a school that apparently does not consider even an eighth-grade command of English usage prerequisite to a degree in journalism, (and then again, George Bush graduated Harvard with less) becomes the gun-slinging mayor of a frontier town where memos circulate about the notion
of banning books in the public library, makes the implausible leap to state governor, albeit in a state that employs only two industries: the stewardship of nature and the rape of nature, and, by the ill fortune of a sudden presidential cardiac arrest, could become the leader of the free world, and that possibility is something to even consider, to mull over, to debate? Where is that reality, because I am so far removed from it, I might never find my way home.
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Plate 9: A gesture of the body signifying sorrow.
Plate 9: A gesture of the body signifying sorrow
This clinical title is briefly projected upon the far wall of the simple white room, followed immediately by a video of a fey young man in a black leotard prancing about a simple white room, assuming atypical, dramatic poses and holding them, and us, in suspense for far too long an interval of our precious and fleeting lives. This video serves only as a mere backdrop for a fey young man in a black leotard prancing about the simple white room, assuming atypical, dramatic poses and holding them, and us, in suspense for far too long an interval of our precious and fleeting lives.
I am at Kunstraum Kreuzberg Bethanien, a magnificent yet neglected building originally built as a hospital in 1847 on the orders of Friedrich-Wilhelm IV. It faces a neglected park in a part of central Berlin where people reside communally in old trucks and raise ponies. Now it has fallen into the hands of culture. The once bustling hallways are now painted bright yellow and adorned with black, cartoonish graffiti, the kind of outsider art that Berliners are simply mad about. While definitely out of the cultural mainstream, as an alternative art space, it is an absolute miracle, the kind of miracle culture-consuming New Yorkers once took for granted and now pine after.
I am here by invitation, because the previous Friday I had become lost returning from the American Consulate (an epic journey to an outlying part of Berlin bordering on Tunisia), and proceeded to prod strangers for assistance in my confusing native tongue. The U1 train was nowhere to be found at the U1 station. A middle-aged blonde woman overheard me and offered, in her perfect English, to guide me along. She seemed a bit eccentric, which I always appreciate, with her vaguely sixties, Holly-Goh-Darkly appearance and her slightly dingy white poodle. The U1 had been victimized by construction, replaced now by the U3 and a short bus ride. We rode together from train to bus to train. She was very friendly and likeable, as was Scarlet the poodle. Her name was Lena and she curates art exhibitions. When we parted she handed me the invitation, which I accepted as an honor and a clear recognition of my obvious cultural bandwidth.
I extended the invitation to several acquaintances, but it was, as usual, universally declined, and so I ventured out alone. Upon arriving I was rewarded with cheap (but not gratis
) red wine and charged a one-euro entrance fee. On the walls hung some garish paintings and meticulous drawings of an erotic and gender-oriented nature, a ubiquitous thing these days often confused for ‘provocative’. In a back room, an installation created a world of mystery and decadence out of found objects, packing tape and discarded boxes, a ubiquitous thing these days often confused for ‘provocative’. Off to the left of this room, the theme became decidedly gay and video-oriented. A non-athletic man mingled about in nothing but a thong and a cap, a ubiquitous thing these days often confused for ‘provocative’.
Back in the larger main space, beyond the sculpture of two goats rendered from black garbage bags, I noticed an adjoining terrace where people had gathered to smoke. Stepping out into the fresh air restored my social instincts a bit. I spied Lena there, sixties-stylish and now a redhead, and reintroduced myself. She seemed less engaging now, not unfriendly but perhaps distracted. Oh, by the way, I was wearing a t-shirt with a skinny vintage silk tie looped together like a scarf, something I’ve been doing lately if only because there seems to be no concept of fashion faux pas
I became more conversant with the other characters I found there. A man in an all-white open collared suit and thin gold chain, a sort of slept-in-chic look but probably just actually slept-in, asked me where I hailed from. I admitted New York. He glanced conspicuously at my skinny tie as if he had already divined the answer. Soon I was befriending a German performance artist of African descent named R—, who confided that she still gets occasionally treated as a foreigner. We hadn’t spoke long before a woman emerged into the courtyard bearing a flag with the instructions (curiously enough, in English) ‘Performance Now’ and ‘Follow Me”. From somewhere within a bell was ringing. What ensued we will simply catalog as ‘Plate 9
Some time later, the second performance began. The artist responsible for the garbage bag livestock proceeded to attack them with a box cutter knife, but mundanely, as one would unpack something from UPS. As she peeled away the shards of bag and tossed them behind her on the floor, a DJ provided the obligatory art-noise music, the throbbing, foreboding industrial threnody that defines performance art. It gradually became clear that the garbage bags were merely a wrapping. She was unveiling the paper-mache goats that lay beneath. Another vital section of my lifespan was expended, and the performance ended by dying out, by the realization that things had become no longer spectatable
, so to speak. But the newly revealed goats had a power over me; they cheered me with their Cheshire, vaudevillian grins and cartoonish simplicity. They bordered that oft-debated fine line between art and piñata. If I were a moneyed patron on the hunt, the goats would be my latest acquisition. If I were a freeloader here for the cheap wine and the asylum from a scripted Saturday night out on the town, I would have merely strolled around them and returned to the courtyard. And so I did.
Without knowing exactly how, I found myself in a bit of a heated argument with R— about the performance value of unpackaging goats. She defended the artist under the standard, overarching, licentious aegis of performance art, and when I asked her for her own, personal interpretation of the unceremonious unveiling of goats with a box cutter knife, she seemed almost violated by the question, and informed me that her interpretation was private. In the mood for this, I pressed her to admit that ideas are best shared in a cultural forum. She found this appalling and naive. And isn’t there a performance value in being appalling and naïve, I meant to ask her, but I suddenly felt weakened by her German polemic superiority, something that stems from a culturally ingrained ability to become so completely aghast and with such aplomb that any opposing point of view becomes embarrassingly ridiculous.
Call it my working class roots, but I’ve always considered performance art to be a dubious industry populated by a few gifted visionaries and a small nation of pastiche: charlatans and vestigial adolescents working out their need for attention on my free time. It also provides a very convenient means for those lacking more traditional talents to cobble their place in the art world, to justify their chosen lifestyles. While it hardly, if ever, pays off monetarily, it nevertheless attracts grants that provide a respite from the tedium of working class reality, and I have to respect anyone who can consistently escape that fate. And as long as there exists a coterie of intellectuals willing to appear obediently enraptured by a boy in a leotard crouching in a corner, I can hardly blame all those boys in leotards in white rooms across the universe for doing so. Perhaps intellectualized people see something glorious there that escapes my blunt skills of perception. Perhaps I am jaded beyond repair by a society that worships less static industry. Perhaps my implacable radar for the absurd will always eclipse the essential nature of such things by only showing me the overriding humor involved, because a dead-serious German in a leotard crab-walking across a white room to a keening mechanical soundtrack is, you know, at it’s core essence, really fucking hilarious. To someone that doesn’t get it that is. Someone like me.
It’s also very stereotypically Berlin, and I love it for continuing to be so. As the evening wore on, the DJ’s moved things into more of a party mode. The performances were over. Now is the time when we dance.
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This is the latest from the great phraseologia
era of G.W. Bush, used to describe the schedule for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. I have to admit, I find this one very useful, and intend to use it a lot. I have a "general time horizon" for returning to the U.S. for instance, or for getting my life together. I can also use this to tell people when I will be in for work tomorrow or for when I will give up drinking and start training to chess-box.
Here it is in context:
Q: Evan, when will you be in the office tomorrow.
A: Well, I have a general time horizon.
Q: And when is that?
A: When is what?
It's probably the one truly useful thing I've gotten out of the past eight years. Unless you count the colonoscopy.
Looking forward, I expect Mr. Bush to replace General David H. Petraeus with General T. Horizon, thus once again keeping his word without keeping his word.
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I'd just like to add here my appreciation for all the vital commentary I've received on this blog. 'Wow Gold' has become a particularly spirited topic of discussion (although it does tend to make me wonder if my posts are being entirely understood). And I would be remiss without throwing a shout out to John for the slot machine tips on Joker Poker. Again, not quite seeing the connection, but this alone has more than justified my efforts, and will provide me that early retirement I so deserve, strolling the green with other successful Joker Poker millionaires. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine the heartwarming reception and popularity of this generous community I have hereby established. I hope to see more responses from the randomsphere as I provide a blog exclusively for spambots to express their own, somewhat dimensionless—but no less relevant—points of view.
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I've been hovering in Prague a bit longer than expected. Ghosting
is actually how I like to put it. Not quite apart from the crowd, not quite a part of it; not quite a part of reality, not quite immune from it. I'm gliding through a moment in time that has passed on. I'm no longer relevant here, or the place no longer holds any relevance for me. I'm clutching my dead dollars close to my vest (to borrow from a metaphor, in Czech you don’t wear a vest without first growing a moustache). Occasionally a passing stranger will throw me a look and I will be restored to the visible world for an instant. In this way I know how ghosts feel when they encounter small animals, babies and Native Americans.
I've arranged for an apartment in Berlin. It vacantly awaits my arrival. But I have an apartment here as well–—secured through a friend of a friend at far below the rental market on a quiet cobblestoned square in the very heart of the old town—-which I spent three days cleaning and reconstructing with a certain zeal. I've created a livable environment from chaos and neglect. I am reluctant to just up and leave it now that I've invested all that... sweat equity.
But I can find no other purpose for staying on here, unless you consider ghosting a purpose. I've ghosted through a couple of exhibits recently, a Czech tapestry exhibit featuring historical products of the Moravian tapestry works and a retrospective of the Brussels 1958 Worlds Fair, focusing on how the International Style aided and abetted the socialist doctrine of mass provision from minimal resources. The Tapestry thing was amazing in as much as repetitive task creations are amazing. There was a video (possibly a live feed) from the Tapestry works that opened a window into the mind-numbing banality of looming; on closer inspection I realized that the specialized tool being used by the women threading the looms was a kitchen fork. So fork art is what I prefer to call it. Amazing fork art.
The Brussels exhibit touched me with its desperate, gleaming, futuristic horror. Presented with an air of bold optimism, sketches for modular apartments the size of a Winnebago but with far fewer windows, one to be specific, and with far less mobility, rooted as they were into a concrete high-rise rooted into a communist mandate rooted in corruption and distrust. The kitchen oven opened with a push of a button, saving the housewife the arduous task of opening it by hand but not saving her in the least from the unbearable tediousness of being. The counter slid away into the wall after the meal was prepared to provide the elbow room necessary to masticate under the eerie glow of the Tesla—to the eerie drone of propaganda that it brings. The International Style still persists as a driving influence in Czech design. It is form over function, form over meaning, form overdone. In the future vision of post-Stalin communism there is a decorative yearning imprisoned in every light fixture, book cover, motor scooter and hi-fi, a plastic amends for the sins of the city's aristocratically Baroque past. Sketched lovingly on paper with intricate detail in gauche and rapidograph by standard-salaried stars of the Czech design world, the Telsa portable radios are imbued with sculptural purity; ejected from the factory en mass they became cheap, fragile and disposable tokens of state-controlled prosperity. The exhibit is initiated from either historic pride or cultural ridicule—or perhaps both—the industrial world merging with art at a time when socialist Utopia was still a believable outcome untrammeled by the selfish notions of capitalism but rationed now with its own selfish notions that, in retrospect, were merely inferior products masquerading as vanguard. The dreams line the walls in bold sketches; the realities adorn the platforms as a sour reminder. The genius loci
is progressive desperation, blotches of bright color in a monochrome society, an intuition that the septuagenarians morosely guarding the exhibit seem to confirm.
These days Prague has the glint of real Western prosperity. Range Rovers and Mercedes are common street fixtures. Malls dispense major-brand fashions throughout the center. All the requisite luxury tags are represented in cliché, minimal showrooms to a sparing elite while the aspirational brands dominate the culture. I feel like a 19th-century Chinese immigrant here, plodding about it my lowly Kung Fu sparring shoes and second-hand couture. I can hardly afford to eat at all. Bakeshop Praha offers a half-sandwich for six dollars. The alternatives in that price range tend to be well oiled and aggressively battered. Thus far I have sustained myself on two meals a day, avoiding Czech fare for the most part, indulging in Thai, French, Italian and Mexican that has, by the miraculous addition of cream and frypan, somehow staked out a place in the Czech palette. Whenever I mention my budgetary predicament I have to point out that my meager fortune is held in U.S. dollars. This always elicits sympathy, as if I were a Tsunami victim, as if I were Czech in 1999.
Beer is cheap, as always. As I recall, it used to be nearly free. As it is, for someone on a declining-nation budget such as myself, beer is hard not to justify as nutrition. Living as I do directly across the Vltava River from the Letna Beer Garden, a decrepit slice of paradise perched high above the city, it's hard not to consume an abundance of it. On any given day, a number of old, familiar faces hide out there, catching up, spanning time, gazing out over the rooftops as the spires and turrets roll softly out of focus. I recently met Ron there. Ron was one of the first embedded front-line reporters assigned to the 2003 U.S. monstrosity in Iraq. Actually, I met one of his twin sons first; he was working out an algebraic equation to find the fractional area of a right triangle under the dubious tutelage of one of the old expat pioneers (those founding ex-patriots that seem to have run away from nothing more than Western dentistry). I asked the kid what grade he was in. Fourth. Well, going into fourth next fall. This is what happens to young people when you remove them from soporific television programming and invasive branding. Both twins had that telltale brainy look: a precise awning of bangs over delicate, gold-rimmed spectacles. What I found amusing about Ron was that he also sported this same haircut-and-spectacles, was similarly energized, and possessed a similar tendency to overwhelm you with a stream of unrequested facts and data—in his case it concerned bands and music. Despite being a strong, physically imposing figure, I originally took him for a sort of... geekish Henry Rollins fan... early adopter... administrative member of a warrior-elf-clan chat ring... perhaps.
But I had slung my guitar with me when I encountered him a few days later, and he asked to play it. I promptly handed it over and, after the obligatory humbling preface all part-time musicians give about not really remembering how to play, launched into a skillful blues style, ran threw some songs he wrote in the eighties, and then... a staccato song ridiculing the Islamic dietary prohibition of pork. A bit of a non-sequitur
in the program, I asked him whereby he had found the motivation to write such a cultural diatribe. The question was a segue in the conversation. His aspect took on a subtle shift as he told me about his assignment in Iraq reporting for Radio Free Europe. He began to look me directly in the eye as he went into his recollections. Truly interested, for once, in a conversation, I began to debrief him, layer by layer, and, inspired by my genuine curiosity, he began to reveal what I slowly realized were details he did not typically discuss with casual friends.
As he gave me his first-hand account of the initial invasion, huddled for eight days in a roasting armored personnel carrier with a squad of Marines in full chemical suits, his aspect changed even more. He removed his acute eyeglasses and brushed his precise bangs back with his fairly massive hands. He leaned in to emphasize an expressed moment of horror, actually squinting one eye closed while widening the other, pounding out the words like a master-sergeant. Ron became a hardened warrior before my eyes. He told me of so many burned corpses, of what it sounds like when the APC rolls over one, of how the grunts would revel, "I blooded my track!" and how they would refer to the more incinerated corpses as 'crispy critters'. At one point Ron insists that a rocket-propelled grenade cleared his head by about a meter before impacting a wall across the street. His comrades in arms proclaimed him 'blooded' because he took fire. In another incident, when their vehicle was pinned down by small arms fire, his squad began to brief him on the assault-rifle, telling him that they might have to leave the vehicle and take up a defensive position behind it. Ron insisted he was a non-combatant and refused to take the rifle, but he admitted to me that in that situation he might have had no option but to compromise that journalitic stance. Looking at him, listening to his intensity, I could easily see him slinging an M-60 with ammo belts over each shoulder. Fortunately for him it never came to that.
But he was shaken. His wrath was mostly directed at the media, at his home-office superiors who would repeatedly deny him his candor, accusing him of being 'a cheerleader for the military' for painting a grim picture of the situation on the ground at the very moment when victory was being declared. The media was engaged in telling the people what they wanted to hear, Ron asserts, and the back-story was considered antagonism, the musings of a radical and provocative outsider. He cited examples of how the government would spoon-feed prevarications and misleading statements to a press that played faithfully into their hand. One interesting example was the now infamous 'Mission Accomplished' speech delivered by President George W. Bush from the deck of an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. As Ron pointed out, the banner behind the President reading 'Mission Accomplished' was meant only for the ship itself, which was redeploying away from the theatre, and that Bush spoke his words specifically in reference to the crew of that ship, but with full knowledge that the media would reassemble the event, via the magic of soundbites, to give a much larger implication of those words. In this way the administration had its political victory stage without actually declaring the war as won. When Bush now denies having declared an early victory, Ron insists, he is technically telling the truth.
Ron's wife, a somewhat enigmatic French woman who, in that French way, seemed to me to be perpetually amused by the very notion of existence, signaled Ron that they needed to be heading home but Ron responded in a noticeably brusque manner, gesturing her off with a sharp, "Just wait!" and continued on with his recollections. Some minutes later he did this again, this time with visible annoyance. He was engrossed in his memories. Pausing at last, he picked up the guitar and played another song for me, this one chanted more than sung, about all the horror of the battlefield that he had witnessed. It was astonishingly dark. He paused again at the end and looked over at me for a long moment, and then confided that he hadn't really talked about his war experiences in a very long time, not in such detail, and that he supposed that it was my obvious interest, willingness to listen and specific questions that inspired him to tell it now. He paused once more, and remarked with a certain unease that he would probably have nightmares that evening.
It only then occurred to me that war reporters could be subject to the same posttraumatic issues that combatants face. He certainly saw the same horrible things and endured the same nerve-shredding mixture of adrenalized terror interlaced with mind-numbing suspense and boredom. If I had encountered him as a combat veteran I would never have been so prying about his experiences but, as he had been instead a reporter, inquisition had seemed like the natural way to engage him.
Ron is obviously unhinged by the experience of war, all the more reason to idle through an early summer day in peaceful Letna with a pint of Gambrinus and some good friends. I realized then that he was still healing from that experience even now, five years later, and I suspect that this was the reason behind his wife's diligent attempts to pull him away from the subject. His anger towards the media is galvanized. I suggested that he write a book; it seems to me to be a story in need of telling. He told me he was considering it, but was not yet inspired to begin. I suspect that he doesn't know if he's ready to mentally return there. I hope he does, in time. I think it would do him and the rest of us a lot of good to get everything out on the table, in menacing detail, and come to terms with all the damage that has been wrought.
I haven’t ghosted back that way since. The weather has been impossible to predict. One moment it’s a pristine summer day, the next it grows cold and dark and when it rains here, it pours. I’ve scouted a number of locations to photograph at night but have yet to expose any film. Thanks to a pirate antenna on the roof I have 1500 channels of satellite TV to explore. The Persian Music Channel is growing on me but I watch it with the sound turned off. I have Iraqi TV. I have Kurdish TV. I have Nogoingbakistan TV. Throughout the world, I can attest, there is plenty to watch on cable, but nothing to listen to.
Things are quiet here. Everyone who is anyone is hanging with Bobby DeNiro down at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival. Not this cowboy. This apartment provides a perfect place to sit and write, with spacious windows opening into a garden courtyard. There is nothing to disturb me now that Condeleeza Rice has left town. I should be feeling lonely by now but when you have two computers, two external hard drives, a medium format film scanner, two camera systems, a leviathan of cables and adapters, a few clothes and a guitar with you, you never walk alone. What I need right now is a ride to get this mess up to Berlin. I have much to accomplish there. In Berlin, I might actually be relevant again.
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New York in the springtime
a glorious, stricken morass
of stone with curses laden.
The new luxury hi-rises
are beginning to bloom.
Everywhere a convolvulus
of fresh crimson velvet rope
intertwines the East Village
whilst fragile butterflies
in rich couture or slutty
Forever 21 tops
flit from rope to rope,
pursued by industrious colonies
of striped, button down
I pause on my way and listen
to the gentle melodies
of mating birds, car alarms
and vomiting sorority girls.
Chirp chirp whyrr whyrr
ack ack ack
you fucking bitch
eeh eeh eeh eeh
eeh eeh eeh
err-ehh err-ehh err-ehh err-ehh
stole my fucking Zac Posen
chirp chirp chirp.
Ah, and the perfume of money
hangs in the air
like sweet incense
on an Indian hooker.
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Barack Obama’s recent aphorism on the state of the American working class was both politically devastating and essentially truthful. What interests me is how that gaff has enabled his detractors to pin the most unlikely of labels upon him. Elitist.
it with this word? It keeps popping up every electoral season, this most chilling of pejoratives, and yet what sort of sin does it actually connote? Arrogance?
Arrogance is an altogether different animal, one that occurs in the absence of merit and implies reckless self-confidence; arrogance is what currently leads us astray. To be elite is to be, in fact, of a superior merit, yet this seemingly desirable quality has quickly become the political takedown word of the new millennium.
Could it be that to a people suddenly entangled by their own dereliction to an unforeseen period of national humility and economic penance, the very notion of wisdom, integrity and immutable ethics seem culturally alienating? Should our chosen leaders, particularly at such a time as this, not represent the best of us, the ethically steadfast, sedulously educated, monastically responsible few who are, as such, otherwise generally looked upon quite naturally for leadership? Where does the idea take hold that they should instead be no better than the average Neilson family? Or is something akin to a national self-loathing at work here, a shared sense of mediocrity that takes refuge in being considered universal. Many of us realize, deep in our hearts, that we lack the stalwart endurance our predecessors brought to bear in building this country, and now, as inheritors we watch it erode—from lassitude and corruption—and look to each other for the comfort of forgiveness in the form of a cheerful and cavalier affirmation of our serene, convenient lifestyles. To be mainstream American today involves being positive but not challenging, ironic as opposed to earnest, and satiated against the implacable demands of civic evolution. Certainly the elite citizen cannot be seen in this relaxed light, because we acknowledge an immanent work ethic elevates them, an assigned desire for difficult reforms and unsettling breaks with tradition. We find accusation in their words, and risk at once recognizing that our insouciance is outrageously undeserved. We launch pharisaical attacks at them in the name of patriotism and tradition. We seek to lay them low. In mainstream America, we grade ourselves on a curve; where the highest aspiration poses the greatest detriment, and is the most resented. To be elite is just so
Understandably, the word ‘elite’ has taken on its arrogant context, ruled over as we traditionally are by a false elite, a pompously entitled version of our baser instincts who wield their power and influence to suit childish ideas of social exclusivity. Truly, they illustrate the profound difference between elitism
and the de facto
elite. It should be emphasized that democracy in its germinal form, as sketched out in Plato’s nascent architecture, depended on a theoretic elite, governing subset of society. The principal difference, however, was that in this ancient proposition, the governing body were not a false elite, never embellished with the appurtenances of privilege common to monarchs and aristocrats, but were rather elite civil servants who renounced simple pleasures in carrying out their duty to the society they were entrusted to represent. Theirs was a life of unwavering sacrifice, a studious, disciplined, sober existence, an elite calling to serve the future of human civilization through foresight, reason and above all, respect for intellect.
Every great society must be shaped by its sharpest tools, by its most promising minds, by individuals that are indeed of a superior socio-political and historical purview to the masses they serve. In the intoxicating uptake of American democracy, with its banners and anthems and hollow, emancipatory dogma, we have been taught romanticized ideals to the contrary, to the extent that we now find it of greater importance that our leaders should be just like us. We desire them to be straightforward, humble and familiar in every way. This folksy way of thinking assures us a very predictable election year charade where highly sophisticated members of the elite pander theatrically to our simple way of life. The candidates that blossom most naturally in this environment are often the least gifted to begin with. They surround themselves with hand-picked ‘claqueurs of the idiotic’ and stage telegenic spectacles that would make Frank Capra weep from joy. And through this folksy pre-requisite to greatness we have inherited astonishing misjudgments of democracy on the magnitude of the Bush presidency, and to the ridicule of the world.
But of course it’s all political mischief to begin with; when we scrutinize a candidate to become our leader, we are seeking, by definition, to install an elite individual. In the best-case scenario, we are governed by an elite body. A truly elite individual will exemplify the idea of democracy by reaching out to the people in turn, but will also make sound, well-considered decisions in the public interest and strive to understand the greater will. Common folk might scoff at that, insist that all politicians are ultimately liars and evangelists and hypocrites, but only because they cannot seem to measure others beyond their own weaknesses and shortcomings.
And now Obama must be brought down, be made to practice some down-home, folksy theatrics of his own before we can feel at one with him again. His high-minded inspirational appeal has given over to a rough scrutiny of his patriotism and simple humanity, where his choice of pastor holds exponentially more weight than, say, his magna cum laude
from Harvard University, his altruistic career in the Illinois senate or his precocious remonstrance of the Iraq War back in 2002. I can hardly bear to watch this unfold. I feel the weight of my media-fed society upon me like an anchor to my spirit (which admittedly I considered to be altogether extinguished in 2004, when John Kerry was painted in rich, elitist plumage that made him appear almost ‘French’). I cannot read the papers without feeling a great sense of alienation from the mind-set of the population at large. But hey, then again, perhaps I’m
just being ‘elitist’.
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Bush Declares War on Cranes
In the twilight years of his presidency, President Bush now faces a hard reality: he has floundered in his attempts at carving out a legacy as the Great Protector. Al Qaeda still freely operates. Iraq is a convoluted, dangerous mess. Today, however, he showed the nation that he may be poised for a late-inning comeback. Emerging today into his Rose Garden press briefing with a stern and determined aspect, Bush startled those in attendance by declaring a new War on Cranes.
Clearly agitated, Bush described cranes as a material threat that, ‘hates freedom, rejects our values and our great way of life, and seeks to destroy us wherever they erect themselves’.
The announcement comes after a second construction crane toppled over in Miami, killing at least two workers.
“I will ask Congress to approve a new defensive $1.5 billion spending bill to go after these structures and hunt them down, bring them down, put them back in their holes, and insure that they will no longer be able to fall on the heads and homes of decent Americans.”
“I’m not asking here, really, I don’t need to ask. I’m the decider, see? I will not have cranes bringing down our homeland. They’re supposed to be there to, you know, to put it up.”
Some in congress expressed grave concern as to whether the country can afford a War on Cranes, given the current budgetary excesses attributed to The War on Terror. Seeking to capitalize on the announcement to highlight the administration’s lack of vision, Sen. Harry Reid issued his own statement later in the day.
“The current, wasteful, misguided war in Iraq has left us particularly vulnerable to new threats, such as cranes, and without the resources needed to combat them. Perhaps when we are all speaking ‘crane’ and living in the ‘United States of Crane’ we will come to realize what a tragic path this administration has chosen to lead us down.”
The House is scheduled to hold an emergency joint session in the coming days to gather a vote on the measure, which insiders expect will spark a heated and divisive debate down party lines. Republican leaders are already projecting strong, anti-crane rhetoric. Vice President Dick Cheney issued a statement to the press this afternoon warning Americans of the urgency of the matter.
“We have become a open, vulnerable society. Cranes recognize this, they are looking down on us day and night. We must, at all costs, destroy these weapons of mass-construction before they destroy us.”
Additionally, the state department will consider raising the crane-alert level to ‘high-visibility orange’
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