Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Waking Up

As far as I'm concerned, my most irritating habit is my inability to get up in the morning. Admittedly, others might disagree.

At any rate, I've struggled for years with this problem, and have tried a wide variety of solutions, including putting the alarm clock in another room (I slept through it), using a wind-up alarm clock (I couldn't get to sleep because of the ticking), and using a zen alarm clock that woke me with a soft gong (actually, the gong was too soft; I was able to lie in bed, relaxing to it, for hours). Finally, I hit upon the perfect solution: I got married. Now, if I hesitate too long in turning off my alarm, my wife threatens my life, plants her cold feet in the middle of my back, or gives me a searing guilt trip. This, combined with the placement of my alarm clock (halfway across the bedroom) and the station I have it set to (irritating country) usually gets me right out of bed.

Unless, of course, my wife is in New York, in which case all bets are off.

Having talked to friends about this problem, I've discovered that we all have very different mechanisms for sleeping in. Some people are just heavy sleepers, while other people hit the snooze like it's a morphine drip, and still others actually enjoy their alarms. Personally, my problem is over-reliance on the snooze coupled with a tendency toward philosophical thought. In a nutshell, I either hit the snooze button too many times or I start thinking about the song that's supposed to be waking me up.

As I mentioned earlier, I have my clock radio set to a twangy, maudlin country-music station. The combination of bottleneck guitars, rough-hewn voices, and conservative lyrics is usually enough to hurl me out of bed. This morning, however, I got philosophical.

Bad mistake.

The band was Heartland. The song? "I Loved Her First." Here's the video:

If that takes too long to load up, here are the lyrics.

Admittedly, the video made me a little misty. The whole thing about fairy tales and tucking in is sweet, and since I'm a little fairy tale and tucking-in deprived right now, well, it just got to me, okay. Really, men are allowed to cry.

But as for the rest of it, doesn't this song sound like something that Ducky would say to Blane in Pretty in Pink? Think about it:

I was enough for her not long ago
I was her number one
She told me so
And she still means the world to me
Just so you know
So be careful when you hold my girl
Time changes everything
Life must go on
And I'm not gonna stand in your way

These are not the words of a father; they sound like something a jilted lover would say. "I'm not gonna stand in your way"? Jesus! Take a step back, Joe Simpson. From previous experience, I know how hard it is when your child discovers that you're not omnipotent. In fact, I've already taken steps to ensure that George will remain blissfully in the dark until at least her mid-thirties. However, "I was her number one/she told me so" is eerily reminiscent of the "I'm really good at french kissing. My daddy says so." line from National Lampoon's Vacation.

Unfortunately, I made the mistake of mentioning this to my wife, who assures me that it's already on the playlist for my daughter's wedding. Hopefully, the wife will forget.

In the meantime, I now know which song is number one on the Purity Ball hit parade.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

On a Lighter Note...

When I was a kid, I spent more time in front of the TV than your average monkey spends masturbating.

Actually, that's not a terrifically inappropriate comparison...

At any rate, the late 70's and 80's were a great time to be a slave to the tube. Not only were there great shows like Wonder Woman, Fantasy Island, The Six Million Dollar Man, and, well, Wonder Woman, but there were also the early forerunners of reality TV. No, I'm not talking about those boring sociology experiments on PBS.

I'm talking about Battle of the Network Stars.

One of the great blessings of my childhood was the willingness of my heroes to make asses of themselves in front of millions of viewers. In shows like Battle of the Network Stars and Circus of the Stars, relatively famous TV actors would show off their total lack of athletic skills in a wide variety of wonderful ways.

Feel the delightful, joyous badness: "Wonder Woman" Lynda Carter swimming against Adrienne Barbeau and Karen "Caroline Ingalls" Grassle from Little House on the Prairie. How about Robert Hegyes, who played "Epstein" on Welcome Back, Kotter racing Jimmy "Dy-no-mite" Walker?

Best of all, Howard Cosell did the announcing. Here's a clip:

I'd forgotten how much Gabe Kaplan resembled Ron Jeremy!

At any rate, you can feel the wonder, can't you?

It's impossible to imagine television actors doing this today. At the very least, they'd have to change the events to things like competitive starvation, running from the police, and recreational drug abuse. And I wonder if today's stars would be confident enough to make total asses out of themselves at the height of their fame.

I'd especially like to see something like this:

Coq Au Vin or no Coq Au Vin, it was a kinder, gentler time...

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Mean Girls, Part III: A Guy Walks Into a Bar

When I first started teaching, I used to ask my students if any of them were feminists. I'd get a few tentative hands, usually from angry-looking young women with short hair. I'd then ask who believed that women deserve the same pay, opportunities, and rights as men. All the hands would go up. I would smile wisely at my students and tell them that they were all feminists. I'd point out that the things I'd mentioned--equal pay, the right to own property, equal opportunities--were the essential tenets of feminism.

My students liked me, so they tried to be kind. They gently pointed out that feminism was the bastion of women in overalls with ugly haircuts and uglier shoes. Feminism was the rallying-cry of the man-hater, the supremacist, the bigot. Clearly, I was behind the times.

I, in turn taught them that what they were talking about was radical feminism, but that mainstream feminism was merely a push for equal rights. I think I swayed a few students, but most of us had to agree to disagree.

Over the years, my dedication to equal rights has grown stronger, but I have stopped teaching this lesson, largely because I think that my students might have been right. I think that the popular conversation regarding feminism has been co-opted by a radical feminist outlook. The goal of the women's movement no longer seems to be parity between the sexes, but rather primacy for women. Everywhere I turn, I see feminists making claims to moral, intellectual, and spiritual superiority. In other words, feminism has become exactly what my students claimed it was: an anti-male movement.

The saddest thing about this process is that the original goals of feminism have not yet been realized, and the battle for equal rights is far from over. There are still dinosaurs who believe that a women's place is in the home and that childbirth is punishment for original sin. More important, the literal enslavement of women is on the rise, with the sex trade kidnapping thousands of women every year, and the brutal treatment of women under fundamentalist Islam is horrifying. However, rather than mount a concerted attack on worldwide brutality against women, I see the women's movement in the United States wasting its energy by taking cheap potshots against men. On the rare occasions that it addresses the larger issue of female abuse and slavery, the primary goal seems to be to draw connections between women under burquas and women who feel insulted in the workplace.

Many contemporary feminists seem bent on becoming exactly the caricature that their conservative critics paint: shrill, humorless, sexist chauvinists with a cruel agenda. In the meantime, I have had to seriously reconsider my identity as a "feminist." If the feminist movement has become frankly anti-male, than any "feminist" male is, de facto, a traitor to his gender and himself. Now, I think that people, regardless of gender, deserve the same rights, and I refuse to prioritize one gender's needs over another's. Under the current situation, I think that makes me a "humanist."

Every so often, I think about Valerie Solanas. Best known for her attempted assassination of Andy Warhol, she was also the author of the infamous SCUM Manifesto. Largely ignored at the time of its creation, the SCUM Manifesto has become revered in some circles as a classic radical feminist tract. I see it as the most cartoonishly over-the-top anti-male statement ever committed to paper.

It is probably worth noting that "SCUM" stands for "Society for Cutting Up Men."

One of the key arguments in the SCUM Manifesto is the idea that men are genetically inferior to women:"The male is an incomplete female, a walking abortion, aborted at the gene stage. To be male is to be deficient, emotionally limited; maleness is a deficiency disease and males are emotional cripples."

This idea doesn't seem so radical anymore. In fact, I found it echoed in a couple of jokes floating around the internet:

What do men and sperm have in common?
They both have a one-in-a-million chance of becoming a human being.

What is that insensitive bit at the base of the penis called?
The man.

Solanas amplifies her argument that men are emotionally stunted sex maniacs, stating that "The male is [...] incapable of love, friendship, affection or tenderness[...]The male is, nonetheless, obsessed with screwing; he'll swim through a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, if he thinks there'll be a friendly pussy awaiting him. He'll screw a woman he despises, any snaggle-toothed hag, and furthermore, pay for the opportunity. Why? Relieving physical tension isn't the answer, as masturbation suffices for that. It's not ego satisfaction; that doesn't explain screwing corpses and babies."

Of course, one doesn't have to go far to see this vision of the romantically-challenged, bestial, sex-crazed man echoed in popular culture. Here are some jokes that make the same point:

What's a man's definition of a romantic evening?

A woman of 35 thinks of having children. What does a man of 35 think of?
Dating children.

Why did the man cross the road?
He heard the chicken was a slut.

Solanas proceeds to argue that men are actually sub-human: "[The male] is a half-dead, unresponsive lump, incapable of giving or receiving pleasure or happiness; consequently, he is at best an utter bore, an inoffensive blob, since only those capable of absorption in others can be charming. He is trapped in a twilight zone halfway between humans and apes..."

This idea, too, is echoed in popular culture:

What do you call a man with half a brain?

What's the difference between a new husband and a new dog?
A dog only takes a couple of months to train

One might wonder if, in Solanas' view, there are any good men. Actually, there are: "SCUM will kill all men who are not in the Men's Auxiliary of SCUM. Men in the Men's Auxiliary are those men who are working diligently to eliminate themselves, men who, regardless of their motives, do good, men who are playing pal with SCUM. A few examples of the men in the Men's Auxiliary are [...]faggots who, by their shimmering, flaming example, encourage other men to de-man themselves and thereby make themselves relatively inoffensive...

Of course, culture seems to agree:

Why is it so hard for women to find men that are sensitive, caring, and good-looking?
Because they already have boyfriends.

Solanas is kind enough to suggest a course of action for ridding the world of this menace: "Just as humans have a prior right to existence over dogs by virtue of being more highly evolved and having a superior consciousness, so women have a prior right to existence over men. The elimination of any male is, therefore, a righteous and good act, an act highly beneficial to women as well as an act of mercy.

Even this bizarre and brutal "final solution" has its echoes in contemporary humor:

How can you tell when a man is well hung?
When you can just barely slip your finger in between his neck and the noose.

How do you save a man from drowning?
Take your foot off his head.

What do you call a handcuffed man?

Perhaps I'm just being oversensitive, but it seems to me that one can only read so many of these jokes before the message becomes clear: all men are stupid, insensitive potential rapists. All men are guilty until proven innocent. The really funny thing is that these jokes didn't come from a Valerie Solanas fan site or a radical feminist blog. Rather, I found them with a simple google search for "men jokes." Once upon a time, one could be reasonably sure that brutally anti-male humor was the limited purview of a few half-crazed radicals on the outer fringes of society. Now, it seems like one sees it everywhere.

In Spreading Misandry, Paul Nathanson and Katherine Young outline six forms of misandry that are becoming prevalent in American culture. I'm not interested in rehashing all of them, but one form is male-bashing humor. Another is the common assumption that men have it easier, or are somehow cheating women.

I got a feel for this recently. Jean works across the hall from me. She's a nice person, if a little too quick to assign blame to white men. Still, we get along well. A few days ago, she told me that I looked thinner and asked me if I'd lost weight. I thanked her for noticing and mentioned that I've lost fifteen pounds this year. Her immediate response was to tell me that "You men have it so easy. All you have to do is exercise a little, and the weight drops right off."

Thinking of the hours I've spent in the gym and on a treadmill, the massive changes I've made in my diet, the gallons of water I've guzzled, I smiled and told her "Well, if women could restrain themselves, they might lose weight, but you girls are incapable of even the slightest amount of self-control."

Okay, I didn't really say that. What I really did was smile and went back to my office. I restrained myself for three reasons:

1. The comment would have been rude and mean-spirited; as much as I can be an asshole from time to time, I try to be a nice asshole.

2. The comment would have been untrue, and I'm smart enough to know that broad generalizations are unfair and unproductive.

And the real kicker:

3. You can't fight misandry with misogyny. Or, to put it another way, you can't hope to conquer prejudice with more prejudice.

Number three seems like a pretty simple equation. I'm surprised that it's so hard for people to understand.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

Mean Girls, Part II: Marriage Penalties

A couple of weeks ago, Sam Roberts wrote in The New York Times that marriage was no longer the norm among adult women in the United States. His evidence was that 51% of women "said that they were living without a spouse."

In the days that followed, it turned out that Roberts had juggled his numbers in order to create this impressive statistic. For example, he defined "woman" as any female fifteen years of age or older. Additionally, he counted women whose husbands were incarcerated, employed in another area, or stationed in a foreign country (such as Iraq) as unmarried. Following Roberts' rubric, for instance, my wife is currently unmarried.

One wonders how many lesbians made Roberts' cut. What about nuns? Women in prison? Joan Rivers? RuPaul?

Although I appreciate some good number-padding when I see it, the interesting thing here isn't Roberts' sloppy journalism or the decline of marriage. What's really fascinating is the responses that his article produced. My particular favorite came from Gina Barreca, who wrote a piece about it for The Philadelphia Inquirer. I've got to hand it to Barreca: she's got style (or, at least, she knows how to copy it). Her article is liberally sprinkled with great pop-culture references, ranging from Mae West's comment that "marriage is a great institution, but I'm not ready for an institution yet" to quotes from the Dixie Cups and the Beach Boys. However, once you get past the numerous cadged lines and television references, it becomes clear that Barreca has hasn't strayed far from the party line on men. She offers a collection of generalizations about "gargoyles" who take advantage of their wives, are childish, emotionally stunted...etc, etc. For evidence, she offers up Homer Simpson, The King of Queens, and other sitcom fodder. As the article progresses, it becomes clear that Barreca's argument is as cartoonish and two-dimensional as her examples. As she writes:

"Any man with a steady job, a history of reasonable sobriety, and the ability to cook one signature meal (either a red gravy for pasta, which they refer to as a "Bolognese" sauce, or a stir fry made in a wok they got from their last girlfriend) can find a woman willing to marry him. Guys who look like Notre Dame gargoyles can find wives who look like Isabella Rossellini. Think Everybody Loves Raymond. Think The King of Queens. Think The Simpsons. Meantime, women who look like Christie Brinkley get dumped for 17-year-olds who work at ShopRite or hookers named Divine Brown."

The real kicker comes when Barreca states that "The question, far as I can see, isn't why more women aren't marrying; the question is why they marry at all."


Well, thank god that Barreca isn't relying on stereotypes. For the record, I want to point out right now that I have never dumped Christie Brinkley for a 17-year-old, nor have I ever cavorted with a hooker named Divine Brown. I do not look like a "Notre Dame Gargoyle" (I'm nowhere near that buff!), and I didn't get cookware from my last girlfriend, as she used cheap-ass aluminum pots that had major hot spots. And, while we're on the subject, I fucking hate woks.

The scary thing is that Barreca is merely parroting what pop culture has endlessly repeated about men. It's hard to turn on a television, read a magazine, or watch a movie without being bombarded by depictions of stupid men being saved by their smarter, funnier, and more attractive wives or girlfriends. My wife and I tried to think of a positive depiction of fatherhood on television. She insisted that Friends filled the bill, while I argued that you really have to go back to the eighties to find a television father who isn't a fat, stupid slob. We agreed, however, that current TV is pretty much a wasteland when it comes to male role models. Except, of course, for reruns of The Cosby Show.

Glenn Sacks and Jeffery Leving offered a response to Roberts in The Chicago Tribune. In a nutshell, they cited statistics to show that, while men do less housework than women, they work longer hours in the office and that, in the end, the work loads of men and women are roughly even. I don't know if that's true, or if housework and office work can even be measured on the same scale. For the first year of my daughter's life, I was her primary caregiver, and I also did the lion's share of housework. Based on that experience, I am unconvinced that the frustrations and joys of child rearing and chores are in any way comparable to the difficulties of office work. Truth be told, I think that many men are probably getting off easy.

However, Sacks and Leving make a strong point about demands. They argue that many women have "excessive expectations" of their spouses: "Most marital problems and marriage counseling sessions revolve around why the wife is unhappy with her husband, even though they could just as easily be about why the husband is unhappy with the wife." In some ways, this rings true. My wife often tells me about her friends and their attitudes regarding their husbands. One popular refrain that I often hear is "I could do it on my own. I don't need him."

We could all do it on our own. None of us really needs anyone else. But is that the tack we want to take in our relationships? Does that seem like an effective bargaining position? One of the key elements of haggling is a willingness to walk away. However, it seems to me that we are far too willing to walk away from our relationships. No, you're husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend/cocker spaniel isn't perfect, and never will be. However, neither are you, and regularly reminding your significant other of his or her shortcomings is not an ideal method for navigating the rocky shoals of relationship problems. Neither, for that matter, is letting him/her/it/Sparky know that you are ready to move on to the next relationship. To put it bluntly, we all want to be wanted. And, at the end of the day, being told that you are expendable does not inspire confidence, loyalty, and love.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Catz Quiz

Okay, the famous Judith has hit me with a meme. I'm passing it on to the incredible Odat, the amazing Monicker, and the astounding Lexy

Of course, I'm also hoping that flattery will keep them from getting ticked off at being tagged.

1. A song?
"Close the Door," Velvet Underground

2. An 80's rock album?
Fine Young Cannibals, The Raw and the Cooked

3. A singer?
Nina Simone

4. A man?
Roald Dahl

5. A woman?
Ann Richards

6. A writer?
Anais Nin

7. A book?
The Last Picture Show

8. A word?

9. A movie?
The Exorcist

10. A wise statement?
Now I know the things I know,
And I do the things I do;
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you!
-Dorothy Parker

11. A colour?

12. A flower?
Bleeding Heart

13. A fictional character?
Tucker Case

14. A name?
Roswell P. Brown

15. A guitarist?
Eric Clapton

16. A guitar?
A Rickenbacker

17. An Age?
The Enlightenment, or 27

18. A famous Historical character?
Henry II of England

19. A flavour?

20. A meal?
Sesame Chicken with vegetable Lo Mein

21. A country?

22. A city?
San Francisco

23. A monument?
The National D-Day Memorial, Bedford, Virginia

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Mean Girls

As I began wrote this post, I found it spiraling out of control. I realized that I had a lot to write on this topic, and that trying to fit it into a single piece wasn't going to work. Consequently, I've broken this into three posts, all of which are only moderately meandering.

A while back, the wife and I were shopping for school supplies at the almighty Wal-mart. As she searched for the perfect spiral-bound composition book and I sought a two-pocket folder that didn't look totally lame, I came across a brightly-colored binder with a childish drawing of a rocket. Looking closer, I read the words "Boys are stupider...send them to Jupiter."

Now, normally, I'd just be irritated at the unnecessary ellipses and the fact that a semicolon would have better set off the independent clauses (as some of you might have noticed, I am a militant supporter of the semicolon). This time, however, I was irritated by the message. As I searched through the binders, I found several similar covers, all equally upsetting (albeit free of inappropriate ellipses). There was the one that pointed out that "Boys are smelly":
And another one advanced the novel suggestion that "Boys are dumb":

Later, when I got home, I found out that the creator of these nasty little notebooks had gotten in trouble over another logo, which thousands of retailers had pulled from their shelves after Glenn Sacks led a protest against it. Here's what it looked like:

Okay, I admit that I have been known to engage in the occasional episode of bad taste, but there was something about this that made me really queasy. A big part of it had to do with the target demographic; while these notebooks might be ironically flirtatious if carried by college-age women, Wal-mart was marketing them to elementary-school aged girls. They were at child-eye level, mixed in with the Care Bears, Sponge Bob, and My Pretty Pony merchandise.

Not to get melodramatic, but I can easily imagine what it would be like for an insecure third grade boy to see this notebook in class. I found it hard to believe that people were actually putting these messages out there. Yet there they were, on sale at the Wal-mart.

This dovetails nicely with recent studies showing that boys are beginning to seriously underachieve in elementary and high schools. Apparently, the structure of a traditional classroom, with its emphasis upon self-control and independence, is not ideally suited to boys. According to this article from the Voice of America, 70% of poor or failing grades go to boys, and boys are far more likely to exhibit learning disabilities. For that matter, boys apparently lag about a year behind girls in terms of maturation.

When I first started teaching, academia was still in the grip of a nationwide struggle to improve the performance of girls in school. I was given numerous pamphlets and textbooks that instructed me to actively encourage my female students. I was taught strategies for increasing female involvement in the classroom, and advised to intensely focus on "drawing out" my shy co-eds. I remember being impressed at the level of attention given to student welfare; as far as I was concerned, the gender issue was secondary to the concern of increasing student engagement and being sensitive to student needs.

A decade later, the situation is rapidly reversing, and I'm not too impressed with the public response. Admittedly, I'm a little sensitive about this, as I was diagnosed with a learning disability in third grade. Like many other boys, I found it hard to organize my work and concentrate on my teachers. Years later, I discovered that I was not alone. In some school districts, as many as 40% of all students were diagnosed as either learning disabled or gifted and talented, which means that almost half of all students were unsuited for the mainstream classroom. The vast majority of these "learning disabled" kids were boys.

Admittedly, I have a problem with the entire issue of learning disabilities, but, apart from that, the diagnoses are so gender skewed that I have to wonder if this problem is sexism masquerading as science. If so many boys can't function in a standard classroom, mightn't there be a problem with the classroom, not with the boys?

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Friday, February 16, 2007


In 1995, I took a class on the history of the Vietnam war. Week after week, as our teacher passed out hundreds of xeroxed articles from period magazines, I found myself gradually realizing the horror of what had happened, both to Vietnam and to the young men that the United States sent there. Ironically, Robert MacNamara's memoir In Retrospect came out while I was in this class. I remember being enraged at his claim that he had realized that the war was unwinnable, even as he continued to send Americans to fight it. It seemed, to me at least, that he was clearing his conscience for his craven complicity in the destruction of so many lives. I decided that this was something that MacNamara should have taken to his grave, as it made it clear, once and for all, just how meaningless the war actually was.

I was reminded of MacNamara a couple of months ago when Gunther Grass, a German writer and Nobel laureate, admitted that he had been drafted into the Waffen SS when he was sixteen. This caused a huge uproar, as Grass had been an outspoken critic of Germany's Nazi past, and had even condemned Ronald Reagan for his visit to Bitburg cemetery in 1985 because Waffen SS officers were buried there. Grass' critics accused him of hypocrisy and smugness, and declared that he should have admitted his membership years ago, as it would have helped heal Germany's emotional wounds.

I found myself thinking about victims. In a culture where victim status is increasingly becoming the basis of legitimacy, it's interesting to think about real victimization, and the people that it hits. As a Navy brat, I grew up surrounded by Vietnam vets. My father didn't go to Vietnam because he was in military intelligence, and was quick to admit that he had a low pain threshold. As he told his superiors, if he was captured by the Vietcong, he was pretty much guaranteed to spill the beans as soon as they pulled out the pliars. Recognizing his sincerity, the Navy sent him to Korea. Personally, I'm glad they did, as my mother followed him to Seoul, where she conceived me.

But, to return to the actual point, much of my childhood was spent in the company of men who had gone to Vietnam. This was something that we rarely spoke of, but it was clear that these men did not remember their wartime experiences fondly. Occasionally, after a few too many beers, they would discuss some of their memories, and the things that they regretted.

I imagine that it was the same for Gunther Grass. In 1942, he was drafted into the Reichsarbeitdienst, or Reich Labor Service, a group that provided support to the Wehrmacht. Two years later, in November 1944, he was drafted into the Waffen SS. He served in the military for the few months between February 1945 and the end of the war.

I don't know what sights Grass saw during his few months in uniform, and I don't know what things he did. I don't want to know.

I do know that many of my father's friends had memories that tortured them for the rest of their lives. I also know that many of them were unable to forgive themselves for the things they did.

Did they have a choice? Did Gunther Grass? I know that, like Grass, some of my father's friends were drafted, while others voluntarily joined the military. However, I don't think that those who chose to sign up really knew what they were getting themselves into. By the time they had figured it out, I imagine that it was too late.

I know what I was like at sixteen, and I have some small understanding of the things that I was capable of doing. I'm really glad that I was never put in a position to do things that I would later regret. Faced with a choice between a low-paying entry-level job and enlistment, I'm pretty sure that I'd choose enlistment. For that matter, given a choice between not going to college or signing up for the National Guard, I'd have to go for the National Guard. In the current climate, that would mean that I'd end up in Iraq or Afghanistan.

When we talk about victims, it's fashionable to focus on people who have to deal with sexual discrimination, or racism, or other forms of prejudice. These are legitimate concerns, but I think we have to broaden our understanding of victimization. It seems to me that anyone can be a victim, and that some of the hardest things to forgive are the ones that we, ourselves, have done.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

I Wanna Go to Kazakhstan!

A while back, I wrote a post about Borat. When the movie opened, Kazakhstan officials raised a fuss about its disrespectful depiction of the country. However, they soon recognized the value of all the free publicity and tied the film in with their growing tourist trade.

Having done some research on the country, I recently realized that I need to visit Kazakhstan. This place is amazing! A former Soviet republic, Kazakhstan is in the process of transforming itself into one of the most futuristic places in the world. The architecture alone is mind-boggling. For example, in the capital, Astana, there is a building, the 344-foot-tall Baiterek (or Byterek) tower, that is designed to represent the tree life. Clasped in its "branches" is a 300-ton glass ball that houses an observation deck. Here's what it looks like:

And here's what it looks like at night:

Inside the Baiterek sphere, there's a palm print embedded in a gold and silver triangle:

Touching the palm print causes the Kazakh national anthem to play.

Now, honestly, how cool is that?

And that's not all. Here's the ministry of transportation:

Some people call this building "the cigarette lighter," for obvious reasons. But it looks so damn cool!

Here's the "Astana Tower":

I need to point out that this is a real building, not a virtual-reality mock-up. At least, I think it's a real photo. Here's another shot:

Check out this one, which is imaginatively titled the "Building of Oil and Gas Companies I":

Additionally, the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev (isn't that an insanely cool name? Way better than "George Bush"!), has built a huge pyramid in Astana, and is in the process of constructing Khan Shatyry, a gigantic, transparent tent that will cover 100,000 square meters of the city and raise the temperatures in the districts it protects. This is necessary because of one of the major downsides to Kazakhstan: it's incredibly cold. During the winter, the temperatures drop to 40 degrees below zero, and the city regularly freezes for six months of the year.

Okay, that's a serious shortcoming. For that matter, it's also somewhat disturbing that Nursultan Nazarbayev (seriously, what a cool name! Try saying it aloud.) is essentially a benevolent dictator. Still, nobody's perfect, and given my own president's prediliction for undermining the Bill of Rights, I have to admit that I might not be in a position to talk about dictatorships. Besides, I'm not planning on moving there.

At least, not until they build the big-ass tent.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Horribly Offensive Party

WARNING: This blog post contains humor of a scatological and sophomoric nature. Before you proceed any further, you should be aware that a strong stomach and a well-developed sense of irony are prerequisites for this particular account. On the other hand, there are LOTS of fun pictures.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I like to throw birthday parties for myself. Every year, I celebrate my nativity by cooking an awful lot of some obscure cuisine for my nearest and dearest. This gives me the opportunity to share the wonder of me, while simultaneously letting the people in my life know that their existence makes mine a little more meaningful.

My friend Tom always helps out. He selflessly spends hours preparing food, kicks in for the cost of the groceries, and helps me clear out all that obnoxious beer that keeps filling up my fridge. This year, Tom decided to adopt my course of action and celebrate his own birthday. However, Tom's focus is not on obscure cuisine; he prefers delicious food that looks like other things.

And so, "Tom Kippur, the Horribly Offensive Party" was born.

Eager to celebrate the wonder of Tom, and tempted by the possibility that his fridge, like mine, might be infested with the dread "bottled beer" parasite, I kicked in. Tom and Dani, his girlfriend, set out to define the boundaries of bad taste with good food. I think they succeeded. All of the following pictures were taken by Manu, our amazing Sri Lankan/West Virginian friend.

The first theme was "politically offensive," so they offered "Pol Pot Pies":

Celebrating the brutal leader of the Khmer Rouge, these tasty treats offered chicken, sodium, and a commemoration of the man who masterminded the destruction of a country and the deaths of millions of Cambodians.

In a nod to the wonders of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Tom also offered "Goulash Archipelago," a Hungarian-spiced tribute to Soviet literature and the most advanced prison-camp system ever developed:

Although the Creme Fraiche and chives were not, actually, part of the goulash, they were delicious garnishes that gave shape to the "archipelago." And, of course, they looked cute in their little bowls.

Finally, lest World War II-era ethnic slurs be underrepresented, Tom tossed in "Nips in Rice Paddies." Inspired by the Japanese flag, these morsels featured rice pudding and caramel nips:

As you can see, the "Nips and Rice Paddies" are in front of my personal favorite, the "Dirty Diapers," aka croissants with Nutella spread. My contribution was a little more scatological. In addition to the diapers, it included the "sausagefest Charcuterie plate":

The "sausage" on the left is Sopressata, which I like to call "Italian Crack." It is, simply, an incredibly delicious sausage. The "pubes" are constructed out of sauteed onions. The sausage on the right is made from braunschweiger, a german pate, garnished with shredded lettuce. Both sausages feature Sicilian meatball "testicles." We also offered a blutwurst penis, which was garnished with sauerkraut and the ubiquitous Sicilian meatballs:

Although some people liked it, I found the flavor of the blutwurst to be as disturbing as its looks. It tasted like iron and week-old refried beans.

Lest the female genitalia be underrepresented, there were also "Pink Tacos," available in "meaty" and "vagitarian":

We also offered "Fur Pie," which was filled with strawberries in a balsamic-port wine reduction and garnished with grated dark chocolate:

As you can see, this was our first attempt with creating a chocolate "bush," and it was a little off kilter.

For those who preferred their fur pie sans garnish, we offered a "shorn" version. This one featured whipped cream:

For the fan of seafood, Tom also offered calimari "condoms" stuffed with horseradish sauce:

As we had a few leftover meatballs, we were able to offer "Overstuffed Diaper, Sicilian Style":

The final theme was religious humor. As Tom was raised Catholic, there were "Filipinos at Easter," a tribute to gingerbread and religious dedication:

Dani, on the other hand, was raised Jewish, hence the beautiful "Jewish Princess Cake" that she prepared:

As you can see, "Bergdorf's Barbie" is perfectly accessorized, and is ready for a night on the town.

All in all, we celebrated Tom's birthday with joy and delight, and a wonderful time was had by all. Once again, many thanks to Manu for memorializing this wonderful occasion.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Rattling Around

I offer deepest apologies, everyone, for the prolonged absence. After dropping the wife and daughter off in New York last week, I've been banging around the house, cleaning, packing books, and getting a lot of things done. For example, I just finished compiling my brother-in-law's Christmas present, which I promptly sent off to him.

By the way, February is the new December.

One thing I obviously did not do was work on the blog. I don't really like to talk about the day-to-day events of my life, largely because they're either mundane or because they involve other people whose privacy I'd rather protect. Instead, I try to use this space to work out some of the ideas that roll around in my head; in the process, I've refined my righteous anger, exorcised a few little demons, and discovered that the things that wither my soul are surprisingly universal.

Over the last week, the thoughts in my head have been pretty boring, to be honest. They've largely consisted of missing my family, being irritated at the state of my home, worrying over my wife's quest for a job, and (surprisingly) rediscovering a few of the joys of living alone. My biggest thoughts, or emotions, have revolved around my family. A couple of days ago, I was worshipping at the altar of Wal-Mart when I heard a baby cry. It was the kind of lusty, soul-felt, life-is-brutally-unfair wail that my daughter specializes in on those occasions when we don't let her do what she wants.

If I was a woman, my breasts would have started leaking. As it was, I was filled with a palpable, physical desire to seek out the kid, lift her on my shoulders, and give her a horsey ride. Hell, it usually works with George.

I was amazed that the sound of wailing, the most irritating sound in my daughter's repertoire, should be the one that makes me feel so achingly lonely.

Another thing rolling around in my head was the recent death of a little girl, Nyia Page, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. If you want to find out the whole story, you can Google her, but I don't want to recount the events surrounding her death. Long story short, she died of hypothermia, and her father was responsible. Apparently, Nyia kept waking him up, and he lost his temper.

I think the most upsetting thing for me was that I could relate to this story. When George was a little younger, and I was surviving on less sleep than the average North Korean political prisoner, there were a few times when my frustration, her tears, and various other pressures started to get to me. On a couple of occasions, I had to separate myself from my daughter, take some deep breaths, hum a few bars of "Let It Be," and generally give myself a little time out. As any parent can attest, no matter how sweet-tempered and delightful a child may be, there are times when our little bundles of joy become nerve-jangling hand grenades of misery and irritation. I think one key to being a good parent, or at least a responsible one, lies in knowing when to step back from the situation, not to mention the child.

So, even thought I don't hit my child, I can understand the loss of one's temper, and I can understand an accident. And I think that's what scares me the most about Nyia Page and her daddy, William. The other thing that terrifies me, though, is that after William Page lashed out at her daughter, he left her outside to die in the cold. Missing my daughter so much, I can't imagine the soulless cruelty that it would take to do that to a little girl.

I don't know what upsets me more: the part that I can understand, or the part that I can't.

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Stepping Out for a Second

A quick apology: I will be incommunicado for a couple of days, as I am moving my wife and daughter to New York this weekend. I hope to be back on Monday. In the meantime, I leave you with a few of my favorite little videos. First, there is the inimitable Miss Swan, a character who is sadly underappreciated:

Next, here is an oldy but goody. It's Star Wars from a slightly different perspective:

Finally, this is a clip from Spitting Image, a British humor program(me) that ran in the 1980's. Every so often, they'd stick in an intense little reality check(que). Check out the puppet versions of Quaddafi, Reagan, Chernyenko, Mobutu, etc:

See you soon!

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