Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010, In Review

2010 was simultaneously horrible and awesome.

It was horrible because it was yet another year wherein I (and thousands of others like me) survived on part time jobs and freelancing. I do not want to sound ungrateful- I happen to love my part time job (more on that in a bit) and freelancing has been immensely fun, especially when I manage to actually get paid in a timely fashion. Any enjoyment that I had of 2010, though, has to be accompanied by a gigantic asterisk.

This wasn't a year of great progress- it was a slog. All in all, a positive slog that will hopefully get us back to where we need to be, but for too much of this year surviving, rather than thriving, was the order of the day. And yes, I know that when someone like me says that it comes across as immensely arrogant. I'm a reasonably well-off educated white boy in the U.S.A. who has quite a few things going for him. It's utter b.s. to pretend that I'm going to be destitute any time soon. However, I'm thirty years old now and would rather like to start a career. (Helllllloooo, grad school!)

That said, the one big job that I did have this year was immensely awesome. I loved it. I still love it, actually. I love that I've learned things from it, that I've become a better public speaker and better communicator. I love that I've learned how to be funny on a consistent basis and can get different crowds of people to laugh at the same jokes. I love being a performer, a showman, and a knower-of-things. I enjoy the hell out of being a tour guide.

Giving walking tours of Portland has been a fantastic experience, and has made me realize something that I always sort of knew about myself: public speaking makes me high. When I taught for GEOS and then Kaplan, I got some whiffs of that- those days when a class just clicked and the students all went "ooooh!" at the same time. For four years now my job has pretty much been "get up in front of a bunch of people and edify them." Now, I finally realize that I'm quite good at it.

Again, I'm sounding arrogant. It's very nice, though, to know what you're good at. I happen to be a good public speaker and knower-of-things. This hasn't just been applicable to tour guiding, by any means. I also officiated a wedding for some very good friends of mine back in March, and have occasionally done stand up comedy. Stand up, by the way, ranges from being transcendentally awesome to horribly painful. I try to veer towards the former.

It's weird that a lot of the time, I'm a professional performer. It's also odd to know that Performance Joe is very much a persona, and not one that I created deliberately. He has a different way of speaking, a different cadence a different sort of mode about him than me. This is true of all performers, and is not a new observation, but something's always weird and new when it happens to you. (By the way, Performance Joe sometimes gets out during social occasions, where I've been told that he can be boisterous and annoying.)

Let's see, what else?

Oh, yes. I talked to some very nice people. That was cool. I also finally encountered the storied and sprawling metropolis that is Los Angeles, which was quite an eye-opening experience. Spent plenty of time in San Francisco, as well, which has rapidly become one of my favorite places on earth, though one time I did have to spend ten hours in a car with a crazy man to get there. Also, a bunch of bigots ended up causing nothing more than a big party here in Portland, which turned out to be quite the uplifting experience.

Oh yes, and I led around a bunch of zombies on bikes.

Anyway, I had fun. Tons of it. I'm in no position whatsoever to say that 2010 was dull or boring or lacking in neato things to do. I have, though, been very conscious of the lack of real progress over that past year, and that remains frustrating.

In that sense, I'm quite ready to leave this year behind. C'mon, 2011- have something nice for us.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Pretty Okay Daft Punk Video: What I Thought of the New Tron Movie

Given that I had a previous post on Tron, I feel bound to offer up a few thoughts about the new movie, which I saw last night.

It was highly adequate. There were a few good thing about it, and a few less good things as well. I'm just going to do a rundown of them. Spoilers ahoy!

Good Stuff:

-Jeff Bridges. Had Bridges not appeared as Flynn, the movie would have very little reason to exist. His being there made it seem more like a "real" Tron movie, and not just an attempt to cash in on geeky nostalgia (even though it is totally that). I loved it that Bridges played the older Flynn as basically an all-purpose Jedi/Buddha/Jesus/The Dude sort of character, an old man with crazy powers in the Grid akin to that of some kind of wizard/god. Also, seeing him digitally de-aged was a neat party trick. I'm sure that it will look terrible and dated in five years, but I enjoyed it for the time being.

-The movie is beautiful. Stunning. Shiny. Dazzling. Electrifying. It is an eye-poppingly wonderful calvacade of cool visuals. The lights and sets and costumes are all fantastically extravagant and orderly all at once. The aesthetic of Tron seems to be that there is a profusion of energy and color, and it is all tightly controlled. It is ecstatically mechanistic, like a choreographed rave. I wish there was a more positive word for "soulless" because the machine-world of Tron is soulless and gorgeous in the best way possible.

-Likewise, the soundtrack by Daft Punk is excellent. There are very few movies where, upon hearing the soundtrack, I think "I would like to hear that in a context outside of this movie." This was one of them.

-References to other films were nice. Flynn's apartment outside of the Grid resembles the apartment at the end of 2001, and at one point he quotes War Games saying "the only way to win is to not play." Bridges also seemed very conscious of his most famous character, The Dude, and put more than a little Big Lebowski flavor into Flynn.

...And that, unfortunately, kind of does it for the really good stuff.

Less Than Good Stuff:

-The action sequences hit their marks, but they weren't all that thrilling or memorable. While I didn't find myself groaning or disliking them, they weren't incredible.

-Garrett Hedlund, the guy who played Sam Flynn, was dry, bland, and didn't really seem like his father's son. He was too preppy and well-coiffed, too much of a nice, clean leading man. Also, the part where he parachutes off of the skyscraper is just dumb.

-Olivia Wilde (Quorra) also didn't thrill me, but she was very nice to look at.

-I didn't imagine I'd ever think, while watching a movie, that it needed more Bruce Boxleitner. Tron: Legacy, though really did need precisely that. Tron himself appears several times in the movie, but always wearing a black face mask that completely obscures his features. Normally, I'd just think that this was the kind of cheap trick that a director would use if they couldn't get a given actor for their movie, but Boxleitner appears as Tron's creator, Alan, early in the film. He also shows up as Tron in a flashback. He could have totally whipped off the mask for a big dramatic reveal! I was expecting that. Not having that there was strange and aggravating.

-Oftentimes, the movie was way too talky and self-important. Instead of dramatic it seemed staid.

-The filmmakers seem to have forgotten that Tron is supposed to happen inside of a computer. The Grid is portrayed as a kind of alternate dimension. In the original film, Tron & Co. were inside of a specific computer system. They don't explicitly contradict this, but it bugged me somewhat.

All in all, the movie wasn't great unless you were already a Tron fan, and even then, it was only kind of okay. I'm sort of nervous that the franchise (which had once been a nice little piece of cult nostalgia) is going to get crushed under a new wave of sequels and spin offs. I saw Star Wars get revived, only to be crushed to death by its resurrection. That franchise is in a state of deeper necrosis than it ever was precisely because things were added to it. I don't want the same thing to happen to Tron.

On the other hand, I did love all the pretty glowy lights set to Daft Punk.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Against Monopoly: An Invective

The other day I had the occasion to go to a mall with some friends, and the whole Cathedral of Consumption (as per usual, this time of year) was decked out with tinsel and faux tree branches, red ribbons and assorted signifiers of consumptive yuletide. Winter Wonderland and its ilk played on the loudspeakers. Patrons moved about, negotiating mall traffic whilst clutching multiple red-and-gold bags redolent with perfunctory gifts.

Such things were expected, but in the mall I espied another seasonal phenomenon. There with the wreaths and the songs and the rest of it were several different versions of Monopoly. Not just in one store (Barnes and Noble may have been the worst offender) but in several.

Classic Monopoly. Star Wars Monopoly. Disney Monopoly. Simpsons Monopoly. Family Guy Monopoly. Anniversary Monopoly in a gold box. Monopoly called "Onyx Edition" which is in a black box for some reason. Monopoly, Monopoly, endless fucking Monopoly.

I hate Monopoly. I hate it as a game, as an object, and as a gift. I hate that it's successful and enduring. I hate that it's a piece of Americana and a fixture of households. I hate that it teaches bad lessons about economics and how real estate works. Worst of all, this year countless editions of it will be given as a thoughtless gift. Festive wrapping paper, glowing with festive potential, will be unfurled to reveal a board game of dubious fun and economic fallacy. The various editions will be played once, probably on Christmas or the day after, and then boxed for good. The various bills and pieces will be lost, possibly lodging themselves under refrigerators or in the ducts of heating systems. Years later, when cleaning a vent, someone will find a small, half-melted bit of plastic, and infer that a Monopoly hotel probably got lodged in there somehow.

As a game it requires little to no skill and the conclusion is usually evident from the start. Someone manages to buy up the various valuable properties, and from then it is only a matter of time until the other players go bankrupt. There are no comebacks in Monopoly, and after a certain point little of the uncertainty which lends any game drama. There is very little room for cleverness or wit, very little space for elegance. It is, ultimately, a grown-up version of Candyland- a game flush with iconic adornment, but has very little in the way of actual playability. For all of its non-complexity, it demands that we pay attention and store the various player pieces, cards, bills, houses, hotels, and dice. Upend a Monopoly box, and a whole bunch of disparate shit is on the floor. It is disparate shit that is so much sound a fury (in plastic form) signifying very nearly nothing at all.

Monopoly inspires my hatred precisely because I love games so much. I love Scrabble and Cranium. I love Jenga and Apples to Apples and Trivial Pursuit. I dearly love Risk, in all of its incarnations. Each one of these games has more elegance, more grace, more intelligence and is ultimately a better source of fun than Monopoly. Yet Monopoly gets endlessly repeated and endlessly sold, and is, for some reason, one of the best loved board games out there.

This year, I implore you: Do not buy your loved ones Monopoly. Buy them something with drama, like Axis and Allies. Gift them a game that will actually make a party better (nor more boring) like Apples to Apples. Wrap in paper a game that excites the strategic mind, like Risk. These games, I guarantee you, will be more fun the Monopoly, a terrible game that is wholly unworthy of the attention, money, and love that it receives.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Goodbye, Blank Slate or What I Think About That New Tron Movie Coming Out

It is occasionally alarming how much geek culture is defined by nostalgia. Watching Star Trek or Star Wars or the rest of it does not make me me think of the future or possibility or sweeping vistas of the world of tomorrow. Instead it calls to mind childhood and adolescent comfort, something familiar, tested, and proven. They are narratives and artifacts that don't have to stand up to the rigors of contemporary scrutiny. Why should they? They carry so much emotional cache.

The fact remains, though, that they don't transport me to the future. They transport me to the 1990s.

Nostalgia pieces by definition wistful, and bring to mind forgiving smiles and gentle rationalizations of their flaws. An object of nostalgia might appear simple, but we justify it by saying that it was from a simpler time. Effects were less sophisticated. Budgets were lower. Audiences weren't as savvy. That's what we tell ourselves to excuse Luke Skywalkers's ludicrous comment about "power converters," or to justify transparently cheap monster costumes.

Nostalgia is not bad or wrong per se, but it is warm and unchallenging. It is easy to idealize the objects that produce it, to put layers upon them and add dimensions that are not there. In almost every incident, the idea of the nostalgic item is much better than the work itself.

Which brings me to Tron.

Tron blew my fucking mind. I don't remember how old I was when I first watched it. Maybe eleven? Twelve? I don't really know. But there were glowy lights on everything and it was about a guy who got zapped into a computer and, man, that was cool. The guy had to play computer games inside of a computer! C'mon- how neat is that? There were tanks and motorcycles and everything was covered in neon because back then that's what the future looked like.

I watched it again in college, and, much to my surprise, found that I still liked it. Last year I actually got my ex-girlfriend to watch it and she had to concede that the movie that her geeky, overenthusiastic boyfriend had recommended to her was "kind of fun."

And it is. Tron, though, is quite a simple movie. There isn't much to it, really. Why is the Master Control Program so evil? He just is. Why is Tron the good guy? He just is. How is it that Tron's disc will bring about a new order on the grid? It's a MacGuffin- just go with it.

Tron is a very pretty movie with an okay plot. Fortunately, it seems that the filmmakers knew that. Tron is shallow, but has no pretension to depth. It is thin, but does not pretend to be substantive. The ultimate message of Tron is, really "Hey, look! Shiny computers! Whee!" This is all well and good, and makes it the perfect nostalgia piece.

Because Tron is so basic, it's completely possible for a thirty-year-old geek like me to invest it with all kinds of layers and awesomeness as I wistfully recall it. Fans like me can imagine any sort of drama or depth we want of Tron, because the movie is ultimately just a bunch of cool blinky lights and zoomy computer game action. In lots of ways its a blank slate that we can project all kinds of affection and imagination onto. The idea of Tron is oftentimes better than Tron the actual movie. If it were to come out now as an original film, it would probably be dismissed as readily as Avatar was by people who actually care about science fiction.

Disney has decided to cash in on the widespread affection and nostalgia for Tron and release a sequel later this month, nearly three decades later. Like many other genre fans, I'm completely geeking out about this and probably will fork over the extra cash to see this thing in 3D. However, once the sequel comes out, a certain amount of the nostalgic "oomf" of the original is going to get taken away. Tron will cease to become an object of nostalgic affection, and turn into a franchise.

With that, it will go from being something that can be vague and unspecified, to something specific. It will no longer exist primarily in the minds and emotions and memories of fans- instead it will be an actual thing, separate from their feelings and ideas of of the original. Tron won't be something that belongs to fans anymore, a pop-culture byword that recalls shared experiences of wonderment about computers. Instead, it will become the first movie in what is likely to be a series. We won't have a blank slate to play with anymore. The idea of Tron will be gone, and in its place there will just be Tron.

This does not bother me too much. Later this month, though, I'm going to buy a movie ticket, put on a pair of 3D glasses, and a little bit of my nostalgia and geeky affection for Tron will be gone forever.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

In Which Elvis Asks Me Who I Am

"Who are you?" asked Elvis. We were sitting across from each other on the MAX and he was looking directly at me. He stared through his massively thick glasses, quizzically. "I've seen you around a lot!"

Given that my primary job is the walk tourists around Portland whilst gesticulating at buildings, landmarks, etc., this wasn't too unusual. A few other people have also recognized me and asked who I am.

"My name is Joe," I said, "I'm a tour guide."

"Oh, that makes sense," said Elvis, "You're in Saturday Market a lot. I've seen your groups. What do you tell them about?"

"Oh," I said, "you've probably seen me telling them about the Skidmore Fountain."

"Ah," Elvis smiled a bit, "You know, you should tell them about me. You tell them about some stony old fountain, but you don't tell them about one of the best things in Portland!"

Portland's Elvis is an old guy, maybe in his fifties, sixties, I'm not sure. I've also got no idea what his real name is, but he's known as Elvis throughout town, so that name works well enough. He's wearing his black and gold jumpsuit is holding a guitar case. I've seen his guitar- it is a beautiful guitar. It has waves and surfers and ships and Hawaiian scenery on it. Everybody recognizes Elvis. He's a fixture of the town. His picture is outside Voodoo Doughnut.

"I've seen you," I said, "but I didn't want to put you on the spot."

This is true. I am completely comfortable talking about buildings or fountains or geographical features. I'm also okay talking about dead people. Talking about a real, live person who is walking around, though, like they're a piece of architecture seems a bit weird to me.

"Why not? That's why I'm there. Next time you see me, say 'hi.'"

I say okay.

"I mean it!" says Elvis, "I'm part of Portland just like that fountain is."

I have to admit he has a point. We talk for a bit and he asks me how I got a tour guide job. I told him I was a teacher, got laid off, and then turned into a tour guide. He says that he's been performing at Saturday Market for twenty seven years. That is quite a bit of time, and he is part of Portland. If I have the opportunity, I would like to say hi to him on a tour, but don't want to treat him like a mascot. I snuff that thought out, though, on account that its a tad patronizing. He is a part of Portland. I'll say hi, next chance I get.

It's my stop and I have to get off the MAX.

"Hey, one more thing," says Elvis, "I've seen you tell that story about the guy launching the airplane off the roof of that hotel. Is that really true?" He's referring to Silas Christofferson, who in 1912 flew an early lightweight craft off the roof of Portland's Multnomah Hotel.

"It's totally true," I say, "But he was later killed in crash."

"That's too bad," says Elvis, "but I'm glad it's true. You say hi, next time!"

"Yes, sir," I say, and step of the MAX.

And I really will, too.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

"Kids These Days..."

More than once in the past year and a half, I've felt myself biting back on a strong but irrational negative emotional sensation. It wells up in the back of the throat and steams behind the eyes, fomenting in the upper chest and manifesting in clenched fingers that coalesce into fists. Various primal (and unproductive) responses assert themselves, and I have to say to them "calm down." In a few moments, it goes.

This incipient rage? Near hatred of the Baby Boomer generation. In particular, any Boomers tilting their heads and gazing in wonderment at the plight of people in their twenties and thirties. I found that much talked about piece in the New York Times earlier this year to be utterly infuriating. More recently, though, the Oregonian ran a story asking if Portland was the new Neverland, (as opposed to the old one?) and the proceeded to mock young-ish people for not yet having "real" jobs and wasting time with bikes and comic books.

Whenever I see this sort of thing, I'm dumbstruck by how Boomers (yes, I'm generalizing) try to assign blame and point fingers at younger generations for presumably not doing anything, being layabouts and slackers. I have two responses to this:

1: Older generations have always complained about "kids these days." Here's a famous quote you've probably heard before:

The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.

Ladies and gentlemen, that was Socrates. Hearing the older generation bitch about the next is literally as old as Western Civilization itself.

2: The issue of people in their twenties and thirties isn't really an issue about what's wrong with them, or the culture, or anything else. It's an economic issue, and trying to dodge that reality is, I think, intellectually cowardly.

We are still reeling from the effects of a gigantic recession, and are only slowly recovering. The cause of all recessions, broadly speaking, is a failure of demand. When people don't want, don't need, or can't afford various goods and services, we all suffer.

Right now, there is a below-average demand for labor. Experienced workers (older workers) are going to receive preference over people who have just gotten out of degree programs or have only a few years of experience (i.e., less than a decade) and it stands to reason that younger workers will suffer.

In the meantime, why not get on a bike? (It's cheaper than owning a car!) And why not make comics? (If you've got a lot of free time, you might as well do something creative in order to use your brain.) The issue that gets decried as being some kind of generational anomaly actually has everything to do with the disappearing middle class.

And so, when it is framed in generational terms, my instinct is to snap back at the Boomers and tell them that the Rolling Stones are overrated. I bite it back, though, talking myself down with a nice little internal economics lecture.

Wish they'd do the same thing...

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Regarding This Past Friday Night

Finishing work on Friday evening I was in high spirits- my tour had gone well, the weather was agreeable, and I was on my way to meet some friends for burgers and beer at one of Portland's local hipster holes. The streets of downtown were crowded with people who had showed up for the Christmas tree lighting in Pioneer Courthouse Square, and every third person seemed to have a green blinking light on their person. (They must have been handed out as a promotional item.) I passed the Square, took a look at the tree, and a huge crowd of people were still there singing carols. Jogging a few blocks over to Burnside, the newly-lit White Stag/Made in Oregon/ Portland, Oregon sign lit up the night. All was wonderfully festive.

And the next morning I opened my browser to discover that someone had tried to blow all of that up.

The facts of the case are widely reported, so I won't bother reiterating them here. I'm quite happy they got this guy, and all for stings, but there are two things that I can't stop thinking about:

Firstly: As a matter of personal policy, I refuse to be frightened by this. Like the poster says, I'm going to keep calm and carry on.

Secondly: Law enforcement (at least based on reported anecdotes) seems to be targeting foreign-born individuals who have become radicalized. Most of the time, it seems that these guys probably couldn't pull off their desired schemes themselves. The feds are with them every step of the way. Left to his own devices, I wonder Mohamud would have gotten the materials he needed.

Again, I like the idea of stings. It's a great thing to keep potential criminals off balance. Potential terrorists don't know if they're talking to an actual Jihadist or a federal agent. Sowing that kind of overcaution, confusion, and fear among these criminals is great, strategically.

And yet, I wonder how many unbalanced guys the FBI would catch if they targeted the militias in Montana, the self-appointed border guards in Texas, or the white supremacists in Idaho. How many other Tim McVeighs are out there that could be stung into arrest? How many native-born, equally bloodthirsty, equally unbalanced white Mohamuds are there?

I have no kind of sympathy for adherents to radical Islam. They are, at the very best, foolish. However, history tells us that they are not alone. Prior to September 11th, 2001, the largest terrorist act in American history had been carried out by a radical white Christian. McVeigh's kin, gun-toting religious radicals who are doubtless incensed by the very existence black president, are still out there.

What could we reap with a focused effort? Given the collaboration, encouragement, and resources of an undercover FBI agent, what kind of potential violence could we find welling from religious white America? I don't doubt that Mohamud (may he spend his remaining days ingloriously in prison) has an equal and opposite out there, a kind of inverse brother born not in Somalia but in Kansas, reading not a Quaran but a Bible, and just as filled with impotent unarticulated rage, and dreams of violence.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Why I Killed SonicLlama

This (wholly narcissistic) issue has been on my mind off and on for the past year or so. Quite some time ago, I ceased to use a screen name on this blog. Not only that, but I tweet using my real name as well, and when I comment on various forums I do so as "Joe Streckert" if I can use a space, and "JStreckert" if I can't.

Previously I'd gone by the nom de net "SonicLlama," a handle that I acquired in high school. It stuck the way nicknames usually do, lodging itself in my mind. I attempted to use a few others: "Cerberus," as I've always liked the big three-headed fellow, but ultimately that was too negative and possibly too pretentious to use on a regular basis. Sometimes, in FPSs, I went by "Mr. Mutilate," but the drawbacks of that one should be abundantly obvious. "Metis," was another attempt, a Greek term meaning "skill" or "wisdom." The main appeal was that it was invoked at length in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon.

The trouble with "Metis" was that later I found out that it's both the name of a Native American group up in Canada, and the term for an inbred werewolf in the Werewolf: the Apocalypse RPG. Not wanting to have my meaning mistaken, I quickly ditched that and went back to using "SonicLlama," even though I'd long since grown tired of the moniker. The breaking point came, I think, when a then-girlfriend referred to me as "SonicLlama" on her blog. Seeing my high school screen name used in the context of something kind of sweet and romantical seemed highly weird, and I just ditched the thing altogether.

Being utterly unable to think up something meaningful or witty, I simply started blogging as "Joe" and then appended my last name to it. At times I wondered if this is something that's sort of foolish, given that anyone could Google me and find, for example, pictures of me with stupid hair. I've also wondered if my habit of appending my real name to things on the internet at all narcissistic. I do like attention, after all.

But... No. No, I don't think so. In fact, I wish that more people did what I did. Using my real name means that I don't say anything online that I wouldn't say in person. Being a troll lacks all appeal, and big part of that is that I don't take on too much of a persona while online. There still is a bit of one, but appending "Joe Streckert" to my blog and twitter feed prevents me from ever succumbing to the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, a process wherein normal people become insufferable while behind a scrim.

Screen names are fine, and it is fun to give yourself a nickname (I might think up something specifically for gaming) but for now whenever I see someone else posting under their real, actual name, it makes me smile a bit. Maybe, like me, they couldn't summon up a handle that fit them well. Or maybe they just don't want to be a fuckwad. Either way, I approve.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

An Incomplete List of Fifteen Books

Okay, I'm doing one of these chain Facebook note things. I never do these, but this one's about books. Apparently it has the following rules:

Rules: Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen novels you've read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes. Tag 15 friends, including me because I'm interested in seeing what books my friends chose. (To do this, go to your Notes tab on your profile page, paste rules in a new note, cast your 15 picks, and tag people in the note.)

Okay, that's nice. I guess the point is that you can't pick books that say "Hey! Look at how awesome I am because of my refined taste in wordy things!" Being genuine and honest seems to be the point. Oh, well.  Here's the (definitely incomplete) list:

1. Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson
As a kid I identified tons with Calvin, with his endemic behavioral problems, overactive imagination, and love of very large words. I love comics to this day because of Calvin and Hobbes, and Watterson showed me from a very young age that there is no contradiction between being ironic and sincere, or both snarky and poignant. Calvin is a deeply realized character, and to this day I still see a lot of myself in him. He's also a guy who imagines killer snowmen and time travel, and there's no contradiction in that.

2. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
Were's in elementary school here. I was a little Catholic school kid in a dumb uniform and I was fully aware of the Christian allegorical elements of these things while I was reading them. Because, c'mon. Aslan is fucking Jesus. It's not subtle, people. By the time I got to The Last Battle, I was fully disgusted with Lewis' world-view, even at the young age. Lewis, in that book, is hugely judgmental of nonbelievers, casually racist, and generally thinks that dying is grand because that means you get to hang out with Jesus all the time.

This was my first inkling that religion was actually sort of fucked up. I think I was eight or something.

3. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Yes, everyone and their dog is going to choose this. This is not original. Whatever. It really is quite good, despite being hugely popular, and blew my mind into approximately 12,586,327 individual pieces back when I was twelve. I loved every overwrought word of it, and got turned into a ginormous nerd because of it. I roll funny-sided dice on a regular basis because of this trilogy, just like every else.

4. Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare.
This is the first Shakespeare play that I read, saw, and really understood. This was in middle school. Beatrice and Benedick's relationship is defined by unspoken attraction that they act out by making fun of each other. There was this girl I liked in eighth grade, and I let her know as much by writing nasty columns about her in the school newspaper. (She happened to be the student body president, so it was kind of relevant.) Anyway, the point is that there was this girl, and I really liked her so I totally insulted her because I didn't understand my feelings or girls or anything. Kind of like in Shakespeare.

5. 1984 by George Orwell
We're back in eighth grade again, and this is where I learned about political satire, dystopia, and hot, hot politicized sexuality. Winston and Julia totally did it and it was political and that was totally awesome because not only were they having tons of sex, they were also totally Sticking It To The Man by bumping uglies. Jesus Christ, that was sexy back when I was, like fourteen. Also there was some other stuff. Stuff about the nature of power and control and mind-warping people into subservience. That was creepy.

6. Everything Isaac Asimov Ever Wrote by Isaac Asimov
Along with Star Trek, Asimov turned me into a total technophile. His stuff seems sort of dated at this point, but he made me believe in The Future

7. Neuromancer by William Gibson
I'm pretty sure that reading this book is a step on the road to enlightenment. Also, this really hot smart girl lent it to me. That was awesome. According to Gibson, even if The Future (which really, is where we live now) turned out to be horrible, it would still be pretty interesting. On top of that, it would be a place where we'd all look awesome whilst wearing leather and sunglasses, and have sex with hot cyborgs.

9. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
If I were to explain why this book is truly awesome, it would give away the ending. It's neat, though, because it's a medieval Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Really! The book is totally Holmes and Watson as monks in the Middle Ages investigating murders in a monastery that have something to do with books. If you like this book, you are automatically a giant nerd.

10. The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus
At this point I'm a college freshman and have a non-ironic Che Guevera poster on my wall. There was an unfortunate chin-beard in there somewhere. The Myth of Sisyphus is basically Existentialism 101, and I still regard it as great reading if you don't want to get depressed about how repetitive life is. Meaning in life is self-generated, and that's actually totally okay.

11. The Collected Stories of Ryunosuke Akutagawa
Whilst in Japan, I attempted to read Japanese literature. Granted, it was in English. Akutagawa stuck with me the most. He's quite witty, and almost cruel with how he deploys irony (though never in a way that comes off as cliched, at least not by Western standards). His story Green Onions is a great example of an author hating his characters, and loving every moment of it.

12. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
I read this in Japan while thinking a lot about the direction my life was going and what sort of person I was. It was inspiring and thought provoking. I suppose that makes me a total cliche, utterly unoriginal, and something of a parody of the white-guy-in-foreign-country-finding-himself. Whatever. My experience was genuine and neato. Shut up!

13. Ulysses by James Joyce
For a long time I thought I hated Joyce because I thought he was impenetrable. He's not, though. I totally penetrated him, and found it a very rewarding experience. Ulysses is a puzzle box with all kinds of references, puns, jokes, and Easter eggs in it. It's not really about anything, but it's a totally cool aesthetic experience that stretches your brain-parts out.

14. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
This book made me want to dig up Nabokov's corpse, eat his brain, and absorb his writing talents. While reading it I wrote an essay all Nabokov-like, and successfully pitched it to a literary event. It was the first time that I ever got paid for anything I wrote, and Nabokov helped me get there.

15. Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
I've read a few other of DFW's books, but Consider the Lobster was the book that made me really love him, and sort of wish that I could be him (except without the depression part). There are very, very few authors whom I would call inspiring, but DFW is one of the most. He utterly charmed me with his wit, erudition, and utter genuine nature, and is one of the few writers whom I admire unreservedly.

Um, yes. there's probably some other stuff, too, that I forgot.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Aww! It thinks it's Oregon!

Washington is stealing our logo. It's kind of cute. Really, we should be flattered.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Look! Horsey!

I've seen several of these around town, and the gag is hardly original, but I think it's funny every single time I see it. Honestly, I kind of wish every horse tie had some variant of this going on.

Update: Apparently this is a thing! Like, an organized thing! A friend of mine on Facebook alerted me to the existence of the Horse Project. Check it out!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Some Underrated Monsters

It's Halloween, which is objectively the best holiday all year. It's not nearly as stressful as Christmas, it's sexier than New Years, and is barrels more exciting than Flag Day. It's also the holiday where we'll all be reminded how pervasive two of the most popular monsters are- vampires and zombies. I guarantee you that every single Halloween party you go to will have, at the very minimum, three people dressed as these things.

It's easy to see why. Vampires are an excuse to dress up all sexy-like. Dracula and Co. have always been distinguished by their nifty clothes, deathly pallor, and sexy neck-biting business. That's all well and good, but vamps are a tad overexposed. As for zombies, they're a super-easy costume to do: just slosh some blood on yourself, and, boom, you're a zombie. You don't have to have a particular clothing style or anything; all you need is gobs and blood and maybe a bit of putrescence. Boom. Zombie. Done.

The great pantheon of other monsters, though, seem to be sadly ignored. Not just in terms of costumes, but in general. What follows are a few monsters whom I think are just as creepy as the popular dead guys.


Yes, I know. Werewolves are in everything. They were in Buffy and they're in True Blood as well. The problem with the wolves, though, is that they've sort of become a foil to vampires. Every other bit of vampire media seems to set up werewolves as the natural enemy of vampires. The World of Darkness did this, as did Underworld, as did that horrible Van Helsing movie.

I've got no problem with the Wolves Vs. Vampire thing, but the raging furry dudes ought to have a chance to stand on their own. The werewolf is basically about how scary it is to flip out and lose your shit, giving into rage and emotion. That's something worth developing. Instead, they've just been a beastie for vampires to fight.

The Phantom of the Opera

This another instance where the creature in question is pretty popular, but not used to his full extent. The Phantom today is best known for the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, which establishes him as a romantic lead first, and deranged killer second. People tend to think of the musical before they think of Lon Chaney's freakish and psychotic Phantom, if they think of that at all. This is a guy who's grossly deformed, gets obsessed with starlets, and then hangs people for his own enjoyment. He could be right up there with the Frankenstein Monster as a freakish horror, but instead is viewed as being all romantical and misunderstood. Rightly, he should be viewed as the aristocrat-killing opera-haunting all around murderous badass that he used to be.

Entities From H.P. Lovecraft's Mythos That Are Not Cthulu

Cthulu gets way too much attention. He's everywhere- movies, games, t-shirts, toys. You can't go into a comic shop without tripping over a bunch of tentacles. As much as I like Cthulu, though, he overshadows the other nasty elder gods that Mr. Lovecraft bequeathed on us- grotesque beings such as Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat With a Thousand Young; or the King in Yellow, an eerie being who makes a memorable and hugely creepy appearance in The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. The big green tentacled dude has been overexposed to the point where he's almost a parody of himself, but the rest of Lovecraft's pantheon is still genuinely creepy.

Pretty Much Everything From Japanese Mythology

One of the better books of ghost stories I've read was Lafcadio Hearn's Kwaidan. Hearn was one of the first Westerners to be nationalized as a Japanese citizen, and he loved the folklore from his adopted land. Most people now think that his wife, a Japanese woman, had just as much to do with the book as he did, but he was a dude, it was barely the 1900s, and his name was put on the book.

Anyway, the thing that I find sort of creepy about Japanese mythology is that there are a disturbing amount of stories where a guy marries a lady, and then the lady turns into an ice witch or crane or fox or some other variant, often abandoning her husband once he learns her secrets. One can play armchair psychologist and wonder what this says about Japanese culture, but the idea that beasties are actually in your living room rather than out in the dark woods is niftily squicky in a pod-people sort of way.

Hungry ghosts are also genuinely spooky. Vampires are supposed to illustrate the horrors of thirst, hunger, and general lack of satiation, I suppose, but anymore they're way more about leather and sexy times than anything else. Hungry ghosts, dried out husks forever trying to satisfy themselves, seem actually damned.

Anything William Blake Ever Painted

William Blake is one of my favorite painters. He was also probably insane, and his paintings of scenes from Dante's Divine Comedy are fairly creeptacular.

Actually, paintings aside, he himself was probably pretty monstrous.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

About A Certain Urban Nickname...

I've never liked the name "Rose City."

Portland, to me, has never been the "City of Roses." That name reeks of airbrushed idealism, it seems forced and false. The idea of this place as some sort of fragrant garden, some sun-dappled manicured lawn redolent of blooms and buds seems hugely false. The region is fertile, yes, it is green, certainly, but it has never struck me as particularly rosy.

The everpresent evergreens seem a better symbol, as do the layered and enveloping clouds. This city isn't suggestive of brightness and perfumed plants. This place is rain-soaked. It is green and awash more with the scents of coffee and hops than any ornamental plant. Roses are an ignored ideal. Portland deserves a sobriquet.

"Puddletown" is more accurate, but there are rainy cities everywhere. Such a name is not terribly unique. A better fit is "Bridgetown," a name that brings to mind our wonderful and inspiring urban infrastructure. "Stumptown" speaks to the actual history of the place, and is a reminder that we stand in the middle of what once was a dense forest. Even "Rip City" works better than the floral monikers. It is full of nonsensical bravado, reminiscent of Drexler-era games of NBA Jam. But, it calls to mind something real, a time when the Trail Blazers were a force to be reckoned with.

All of these are good. All of them are better than the too-cheery names "Rose City" or "City of Roses." All of them seem to have more of that very in-demand commodity; authenticity.

I hope that the roses fade, that "Stumptown" and "Bridgetown" gain primacy. A stand of evergreens or the spires of the St. Johns Bridge are more real and more inspiring symbols of our metropolis than any non-native flower will ever be.

We are Stumptown, Puddletown, Bridgetown, even Rip City. Roses, it seems, just happen to grow here.

Friday, October 8, 2010

"I Don't Create. I Own.": In Which I Finally Watch Wall Street

Goodfellas is, ultimately, a movie about how hollow and empty the life of crime is. Chances are, says Goodfellas, that you'll probably end up dead. Or, if you don't, you'll at least end up washed up and existentially empty.

Yet when watching it one thinks, "Being a gangster sure looks like fun, what with all the snazzy suits and easy money."

Wall Street is, ultimately, a movie about how hollow and empty the life of stock trading is. Chances ares, says Wall Street, that you won't produce anything and you might go to prison. Or, if you don't, you'll at least end up washed up and existentially empty.

Yet when watching it one things, "Being a stock trader sure looks like fun, what with all the snazzy suits and easy money."

I finally sat down and watched Oliver Stone's eighties epic this evening, and while I enjoyed all 125 of its minutes, I couldn't help but feel that the movie kind of misfired. Reason being, I ended up being utterly charmed by Gordon Gekko, the slimy stock trader who was really supposed to be the villain.

Make no mistake- Gekko is presented as a reprehensible person. He's a lying, manipulating bastard who plays other people to get his way, and wholly owns that. The "greed is good" speech has been widely touted as summing up the movie (and in context, it is pretty badass) but when Gekko proclaimed "I don't create. I own," that really summed up his character for me. He owns his leechlike state. He touts his non-contribution to civilization as a point of pride.

He does not provide any good or service to anyone. He enriches himself on the labor of others. He can decide the fate of thousands of people, yet in the end he's little more than a petty oligarch.

Yes. I got it. I was totally on board with Wall Street's anti-corporate message.

The problem, though, is the Michael Douglas, as Gekko, is pretty damn charismatic. He eats up the screen, chews up and spits out the scenery, dominates the entire film, and is ultimately just bigger than anything else around him. He's huge, vibrant, attractive, and looks like he's having a great time. I had a hard time hating him, even though he was so obviously a son-of-a-bitch.

This is why Wall Street, at the end of the day, is something of a failure. At least ideologically. After seeing it, I kind of wanted to go to New York and blow hundreds of thousands of dollars on steak dinner, hookers, cocaine, and abstract art; all the while surveying the Manhattan skyline from a lofty perch. I will bet you anything that there are swarms upon swarms of WASPy little douchebags infesting trading floors and financial institutions because they were inspired by this movie.

Hell, I'm super-liberal, borderline-socialist, tree-hugging, crypto-hippie, and I was nearly inspired to go put on a pair of suspenders and become a professional swindler. Imagine what it could do to someone more nastily disposed. At Goodfellas is about the mafia, an organization that is sort of hard to join. Wall Street, though, is about the financial service industry, an industry that hires people all of the time.

And that's why Wall Street is, ultimately, a failure. Its heart is in the right place, but its inspiration points staunchly in the other direction.

In Praise of the Satchel

Bookbags are heavy, unfashionable, and reminiscent of Mormon missionaries and high school students.

Messenger bags, while wonderful, are sizable. The whole thing is vaguely fashionable and utilitarian, but in the end is a very large bag. For a day on the bike, they are great. For a night out, they are not.

A briefcase demands to be carried, and having one's hands free is a plus.  What's more, it is far too businesslike for social occasions.

What is a guy to do for those times when he's going out, but doesn't need a huge carrying case? How can one carry around a say, book, phone, iPod, and notepad, but not have to carry the aforementioned pieces of luggage?

The answer is simple: the noble (and unfairly maligned) satchel.

Call it a man-purse if you like. You may even shorten that to "murse," if you so choose, or make a facile scrotal pun but calling it a "man bag."  Call it whatever the hell you want. I don't care. Your complaints that my trusty shoulder bag looks sort of swishy and effeminate are dwarfed by the sheer functionality of the item.

What do you need when you go out? I always carry a book with me, for those times when I'm waiting for/riding on public transport, or in the event that I simply want to spend a bit in a park or coffee shop reading. Not having a book make me feel naked and exposed, like I'm missing something essential.

I also carry around my iPod. You know, for music and podcast whilst walking. Striding through the streets of Portland, satchel on my shoulder, with the dulcet tones of either the Dirty Projectors or NPR's Planet Money in my ears truly does put me in a specific demographic, one which I completely enjoy occupying.

In the off chance that I need to write something down, I carry a pen and notepad. This is a very, very handy item to have on you. When someone says "do you have something to write this down on?" I can say "Yes. Yes I do."

All of these handy items (and oftentimes more!) are toted around in my trusty black satchel, an oiled-canvas bag that I've had for a few years now. I got it as a going away present, and it is, far and away, one of the most useful gifts I've ever received. It has been to Japan, China, Korea, and even as far as California. It's held a camera, voice recorder, bottled water, an amplifier, and even a marriage license. When handed a stray piece of paperwork, I need not fold it up awkwardly- it goes in the satchel.

I am proud of how danged handy, how wonderfully useful this item is. As widely-used as it might be, though, by urban types such as myself, the satchel is unfairly spurned. There seems to be a stubborn subset of men who reject its use because it vaguely resembles a purse.  Certain kinds of men, insecure in their masculinity, deny the obvious usefulness of the satchels.

On the off chance that any of those guys are reading this, I would like to address them specifically for a moment. All of you guys who, for some reason or another, think that the satchel is vaguely girly.

Guys, let's talk about that for a moment. Women, you might have noticed, wear pants. So do we. They wear shirts, just like us. They also get haircuts, much like we do. Would you walk around sporting women's pants, shirts, or haircuts? Okay, some guys would, but for the most part, dudes, you'd get pants, shirts, and haircuts designed for you. Our pants are designed for a dude-waist rather than lady hips, our shirts are made with guy shoulders in mind, and our haircuts are generally a different species than those the ladies favor.

Thus it is so with the satchel. The satchel is no more a purse than any other dude-designed item. Try it! It is useful! No longer will you have to stuff paperwork in your pocket or keep five things in your hands at once. No more will you be without a writing implement or reading material. Your iPod and phone will not rest awkwardly in your pockets, and if you get sick of sitting on your wallet, it can go into the satchel. Glasses and sunglasses fit easily inside it, as do any other doo-dads or whatever you might have on you at the time.

Men, do not let this obvious bit of utility pass you by. We have the technology to carry around day-to-day items. You need not shirk from this innovation, this satchel. It is useful, it is nice looking, and (don't worry) it's definitely not a purse.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

In Which the Front Wheel of My Bike Gets Stolen at a Busy Portland Intersection

For the first time in my life, I willingly approached a Greenpeace canvasser.  "Hello," I said to her.

"Hi!" She was smiley and pixie-like and had red streaks in her hair.

"I know you guys have been on this street corner all day. My bike's been parked over there, and someone stole the front wheel. Have you guys seen anything?"

She thought for a minute. "Yeah!" she said, "there was some guy messing with a bike over there earlier, but I didn't get a good look at him."

"Any idea of what time?"

"Maybe two. I don't know. Three? I was watching the pedestrians, mostly."

"Okay thanks."

"Do you want to help save the environment today?"

"Look, I just had the front wheel of my bike stolen."

"You ride a bike! Obviously you care about the environment."

"I'm in a very bad mood right now, and have to file a police report."

"Okay, but it's a great cause!"

I walked away. The corner where my wheel was stolen, SW Broadway and Morrison, is an incredibly busy spot. Several retail spots, tons of pedestrians, a few buskers, some canvassers, and a handful security guards are nearly always there during the day.

I asked around to see if anyone had seen someone messing with my bike. I asked the Baskin Robbins, Abercrombie &, Fitch, Nordstrom, multiple security guards, a few buskers, and a great deal of Pioneer Courthouse Square. I didn't know why. There was no chance that I'd get my wheel back, I suppose I wanted some sort of satisfaction, or wanted to know that it wasn't possible to just go up to a bike in a public place and, you know, steal parts of it without detection. The presence of lots of people would be enough to deter you.

Unfortunately, no one had seen anything of substance. My bike wheel was crippled, and some thief has a new front wheel, along with an old tire and much-patched tube. I was annoyed at the thieves, certainly (I had some nice thoughts about weaponizing my U lock and bruising up their soft tissue with it) but I was also pissed at Portland itself. This was on a dynamic, well-trafficked intersection. I would hope that the light of day, the presence of crowds, and general feel of the area would be enough to deter crime. It usually is, but today I got to be the one guy who happened to get his shit jacked.

In a very, very public place. The whole incident reminded me how easy it is to slip beneath people's perception, as this clip illustrates. Stealing is actually quite easy, as is sleight-of-hand, being unnoticed, and stealth in general. When I was in high school, a classmate walked into a McDonald's, took the gigantic ketchup dispenser with him, and then walked out. Nothing happened to him (he claimed that it was a "social experiment" and subsequently had a ketchup dispenser in his locker all year.) The Willamette Week actually did a story on this, and a reporter was able to very easily steal his own bike. I don't have any profound conclusion here, but I really do want to believe that the presence of tons and tons of people on an intersection an exert enough ambient social pressure to make people behave. It works, I suppose, most of the time, but every so often a crowd of people on a street corner are all too happy to see nothing.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Something That Happened on the Yellow Line

When the doors opened by Union Station, a very drunk man stumbled onto the Yellow Line. He was late middle-aged, at least fifty. Perhaps over fifty-five. He sat down behind a woman in a wheelchair. She was small, perhaps thirty-five, and had a blanket over her legs.

"Can I ask you something?" he said, slurring his words. The woman said nothing.

"Can I ask you something? What's wrong with you?" She turned her head.

"Nothing," she said. "What's wrong with you?"

"You're in a wheelchair."


"What's wrong with you?" He could not sit straight. His shoulders rocked with the train and he put his hand against the window.

"Are you asking me why I'm in a wheelchair? Is that what you're saying?"


"I got shot. That's why I'm in a wheelchair."

"Bullshit." From his slurring mouth, all the syllables were longer. The Ls, in particular, were stretched in such a way that left his inebriation wholly undisguised.

"You don't believe me?"


"My brother got involved with some bad people, and when they came for him, I was with him and I got shot."

"Fuckin' bullshit."

"And then, he was scared and felt guilty about what happened to me, and he killed himself a few days later."


"That's why I'm in a wheelchair."

The man seemed to think, very slowly, and then looked as if he believed her. "Was it gang-related?" he asked.

"Yes, it was."

"Were they black guys?"

The woman paused, and said "Yes, they were."

"Are you racist now? Because you were shot by a black guy?" Both the drunk man and the woman were white.

"You should eat something," said the woman. She got some crackers from her bag, and gave them to the man. He began to eat, spewing crumbs onto the ground.

"I wanna go to Lloyd Center," he said. "When's Lloyd Center?"

"You're on the wrong line. This is the Yellow Line."

"I'm not going to Lloyd Center?"

"No, you got on the wrong line."

"Fuck." His hand was on the window. "Your hair is so pretty." He put his hand in the woman's hair. "It's like you're an Indian," he said, running his fingers through her strands. She was blonde. "Can I go to your house?" he asked her.

"No," she said, "I think you should get off and go in the opposite direction. That way, you can get on another line and go to Lloyd Center."

"I wanna go to your house." he stroked her hair, and ate crackers.

"This is my stop," said the woman. It was the same as mine.

"Okay," said the man. He put his hands on the back of her wheelchair.

"I know how to work this," she said. "Don't worry about that."

I saw them going in the opposite direction, and was very, very afraid for the woman. Even obviously intoxicated, the man still had two legs and could take her. Very quickly, I turned and jogged up to them.

"Ma'am," I said, "is there anything you need a hand with? Anything you need taken care of?" I nodded at the drunk, still holding on to her wheelchair. My heart was pounding. I was offering to get in a fight on this woman's behalf. Even if I called the police, I would still have to deal with him for a few minutes. There would have been unpleasant physical altercations.

She smiled at me, and said nothing for a several seconds.

"I'll be fine," she said, "but thank you."

She and the man went in the opposite direction, and I hoped that she was right.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Someone in the BBC Has a Sick (and Admirable) Sense of Humor

I can draw only one conclusion from this picture from a BBC slideshow:  The ages-long rift between Anglicans and Catholics still hasn't healed, and the BBC is trying to undermine the Pope by trying to make him look as leering and creepy as possible.

With kids.  The pope is leering at a bunch of kids.  If your organization has a problem with child rape, why the hell would your P.R. department ever let you within a hundred feet of children?  Christ, this picture is unfortunate- the only thing missing is a creepy van.  I'll bet that somewhere in the BBC, the photo editors are chuckling about how goddamn clever they are.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

An Open Letter to America's Really Rich People

Dear People With Several Times More Money Than Me,

We have had our differences.  There were those nasty incidents back in college when I was all hopped up on Marx and proclaimed mostly non-ironically that we should "eat the rich."  I also used to have a Che poster and have used the term "capitalist pig-dogs" on more than one occasion.  Sorry about that.  I feel differently now, but I believe in getting the elephant in the room out of the way.

Especially because now I (and indeed, all of America) kind of needs your help.

Our economy is not doing so well.  Yes, we're recovering, but rather slowly.  A while ago, when the stimulus was passed, I hoped that one of my favorite economists was wrong.  Paul Krugman said over and over again that the stimulus was going to be too small to get the economy going,  I love Krugman, but in this case I really, really hoped that he was wrong.  Incorrect.  Not on it.  Erroneous.

Alas, it seems like he won that Nobel prize for a reason, and the stimulus really was too small.  We need another one, but there presently isn't the political will for such a thing.  If the government isn't going to start feeding the economy, then the demand is going to have to come from somewhere else.  In this case, you guys.  You massively rich humans who go to sleep on beds made out of Benjamins and have doorknobs that cost more than me.  You guys are sitting on approximately ten bazillion-bajillion dollars of wealth, and that money really needs to be spread around.

As yourselves:  Do I have every XBox game ever made?  Does my cat own enough sweaters?  Are there enough melon ballers in my life?  Do I really own enough blenders?  Is my life really complete if I don't have my very own sushi franchise?  I can tell you right now- the answer is no.

Rich people, for the sake of us all you need to do what you do best- spend.  Spend widely and freely.  Spend with abandon and excess.  Spend because the rest of us can't.  Go out to eat and order dessert.  Tip your server well- they will put that money into circulation, trust me.  If you're eyeing a new gadget, go ahead- buy it.  Buy the pro version, even.  Get yourself a new set of drapes.  Or a summer home.  Or a velodrome.  If you happen upon some crazy entrepreneur with a wacky business model, go ahead and invest in her idea.  Who cares if it doesn't work?  You've provided much-needed liquidity.

Would it be nice to live in a hippie-utopia zero-growth economy not dependent on consumption in order to sustain itself?  Sure.  That's not the world we live in, though.  In the meantime, us normal people really need you guys to start being profligate and excessive for the sake of America.  I wish that we could have another stimulus- a nice big one that incorporated high speed rails and alternative energy.  That would be fantastic.  But, I know it's not going to happen.  In the meantime, though, while the rest of us are doing less than awesomely it's up to you, rich folks.  It's up to you to spend and spend and spend until we've got money again.

So when you go out to Restoration Hardware and buy a bagload of artisinal hammers, remember- you're not just helping yourself.  You're helping us all.  You're doing what's right for America.


-Joe Streckert

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Price of Weirdness

The night before last I found myself in line at Voodoo Doughnut with Seph and his girlfriend L.  Neither of them had ever been there, and Seph was keen on getting a doughnut as an early birthday celebration.  Standing in line at Voodoo's east side location, we were surrounded by plenty of self-consciously weird and kitschy decor- Kenny Rogers posters, pinball machines, and a cardboard cutout of Elvira.  Sundry other bits and pieces decorated the area, and Voodoo's trademark pink wall filtered out from behind the posters and ephemera.

An elderly couple were in front of us.  They were looking about the room with grins on their faces.  I imagined that they'd seen this shop on the Travel Channel or the Food Network, this crazy pastry hut that puts bacon on maple bars.  At the counter was a young woman who fit right in to the whole tableaux.  She was young and pretty in a Suicide Girls type way, redolent with tattoos and sporting a spetum piercing.  The elderly couple in front of us looked at the Kenny Rogers posters and took pictures of those.  They took pictures of the pinball machines and Elvira.  When they got their doughnuts, they asked the young woman if they could take her picture, too.

"Uh, yeah."  She smiled nervously.  Perhaps she was weirded out by having an older guy suddenly take her picture.  She tried to laugh a little, and look candid, but was obviously slightly uneasy.  The old couple in front of us, though, were quite happy with their whole experience.  They left with a bag of doughnuts and a camera of pictures, satisfied that they had indeed found something that makes Portland as odd as it is.

I enjoy it that Portland is self-aware about its weirdness.  If anything, it pays a significant chunk of my own bills.  In my capacity as a tour guide, I take people to see things like Voodoo and the 24 Hour Church of Elvis, all marks of oddness that allow us to maintain distinctiveness.  On an abstract level, it's a nice source of regional pride to know that one lives in an easygoing and fun place, but more practically it's great for our tourism industry.  Visitors, obviously, want to see something they can't see at home.  We can give them that.  We can give them weird doughnuts and Elvis worship and signs that are really big double-entendres.  Tourists will come here and pay money to see these things, and spend money while they're here.  That's great.  But, there's a price.

The price is the nervous laugh of that Voodoo Doughnut employee, out of towners gawking at us and ours and saying "Wow!  You guys are weird!"  I get it all the time.  I mention to tourists that I ride my bike to and from work every day, and a few have asked incredulously if I'm afraid for my own safety.  I find such questions hugely naive, but understandable if you come from somewhere where everyone drives.  When I've mentioned Portland's penchant for vegan and vegetarian lifestyles, I've been asked more than a few times about alleged attendant health problems- another set of questions I think are naive.

Upon reflection, though, I know that these questions are not dumb, and that that older couple wasn't wrong to gawk at Voodoo Doughnut.  I joyfully provide people with information, and Voodoo joyfully dresses itself up to be weird.  Most of the people that this brings in are not naive gawkers, but there will always be a few.  There will always be a few old people taking tourist pictures of the local tattooed populace, or wondering with disbelief how one could ride a bike everyday.  This reaction is aggravating, but unavoidable, and ultimately part of something much more positive and entirely worth it.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Rest of a Letter

A few people have said to me this week "Hey, I saw your letter in the Mercury!"  My response has usually been "Um... thanks.  Yeah.  Thanks."  Or something akin to that.  I'm quite happy to be in the comments section of a local newspaper defending the ranks of nerd-dom, but I didn't think they'd actually publish it.  The original letter was comically long and verbose, and I wrote it on a whim as something of a silly fan letter.

For those of you who said "Hey, I saw your letter!", though, here is the overly long original:

I normally enjoy One Day At a Time, Ann Romano's highly neat column.  While reading it, I usually experience a feeling that approximates joy.  It is with great regret, then, that I write this missive regarding her column of August 19th, 2010.

"Avoid nerds?"  Really, Ms. Romano?  That hurts.  That hurts deeply.  When your slings and arrows are directed at the effete elites of "Hollyweird" (as you so call it) I can do nothing but root for your trenchant and bitchy commentary.  I imagine you bringing the mighty to heel with nothing but a sneer and an insult, devastating and deflating the puffed-up and the arrogant whilst you sip a martini poolside like the magnificent she-bastard that you undoubtedly are.

But... Nerds?  Us?  You've used your powers bitch-smack to us?  We who have suffered so much already?  Really, Ms. Romano, that is just cruel.  While it is unfortunate that Adrianne Curry dressed as Slave Leia was groped, I can assure you that it is not generally representative of nerd behavior.  You insinuate that we are so sex-starved and perma-horny, that of course we are going to grope, fondle, caress, and otherwise boorishly handle any and all examples of the unclad female form that we happen upon.

I can assure you that, the vast majority of the time, just the opposite is true.

You see, Ms. Romano, we are a timid folk.  We generally live in awe and fear of the opposite sex (or the same sex, if that's what we're in to) and I can guarantee you that most nerds who like ladies are far more likely to comport themselves as gentlemen (or gentlewomen) than other segments of the population.  Jocks and douchebags will gleefully slap an ass at the slightest provocation.  Hip-hop enthusiasts will proclaim their approval of a lady's gyrations with boisterous enthusiasm.  Your average male will exhibit all manner of sexism and gropiness after a few beers.

Not so with nerds, though.  As a nerd who has dated other nerds, I can assure that the behavior you wrote about was not at all representative.

Oftentimes, our social awkwardness acts as a sort of anti-harassment shield.  Faced with the possibility of any intimate contact, we stammer and freeze, overthinking the entire situation.  We wonder what we should do, and fret about whether we are coming on too strong.  We try to read our opposite number, and wonder if they feel the same.  We start sentences, and then don't finish them.  For nerds, foreplay often begins with awkward hugging.  Then, if the hug goes well, we'll wonder if we should try and kiss the other person.  This usually leads to a lot of dodging around of the faces and perhaps a chaste peck.  While other social groups would interpret this as license to, for example, kiss harder and deeper, nerds will still be fretting at this point.  We will wonder whether or not tongue would be an acceptable addition, and whether or not it would be uncouth to affectionately run our hands over our partner's back.

At this point, male nerds will become anxious about whether they have an erection, or even half of one.  We are well aware poking a lady with an unwanted boner is quite rude, and will oftentimes strategically shift out of the way.

All of this needs to be sorted out well before any groping happens.  Even after sexy activity is achieved and a good time is had by all, nerds will often go home, wonder what it all meant, and the cycle of fretting and awkwardness will begin anew.

So, Ms. Romano, I can assure you that the incident you described was a horrendous anomaly.  On behalf of the vast majority of nerds, most of whom are entirely un-grabby when it comes to ladyparts, I apologize for what occurred.  I also promise that neither I, nor any other well-meaning nerd, will grope any of your various feminine bits.

As for the existence of juggalo nerds...  Such cross-pollination is necessarily impossible.  Nerds are defined by their intelligence and juggalos by their lack thereof.  Such a hybridization would be as absurdly freakish as, for example, a gay Republican.  That hypothetical hybrid would soon implode under the weight of their own fundamental contradictions.

Here's hoping that in the future the awesome power of your bitch-ray will be more tightly focused on more deserving targets.

Live Long and Prosper,

-Joe Streckert

Friday, August 27, 2010

I Have No Idea What These Are

I saw these costumes at Last Thursday on Alberta.  The majority of it was comprehensible to me- various bands set up at regular intervals, drum circles, people on stilts, fairy wings.  Normal stuff.  One particular performance, though, was rather mystifying.  I saw the figures pictured below, and found their presence genuinely enigmatic.  They were dancing, and, later one, stood utterly still.  I wondered if they were some sort of traditional costumery, or merely an invented weirdness.  Are the below-pictured a thing?  And, if so, what nature of thing?  I was perplexed.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Certain Mosque

The issue of the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" has been greatly distressing.  All manner of bigotry and nastiness has surfaced on the right, of course, but what I've found quite distressing is that leftists have been quiet on what seems to me to be a clear-cut issue of tolerance and liberty.

When Obama said that Muslims definitively have the right to build their community center on private property, my heart fluttered a little.  I was immensely pleased and got a little bit of the "Yes We Can!" vibe again.

Then he backpedaled.  He said he was not commenting on the "wisdom" of the Cordoba Center's construction.  My heart fell.

This issue should not even be a controversy.  At all.  This is the U.S., and one of the best, most admirable things that we've ever done is institutionalize freedom of religion.  No one is compelled to belong to a state church or religion.  No one is required to believe anything that the state tells them to.  Citizens are free to assemble, discuss, and believe whatever they like.  That is, really, quite profoundly incredible.

I'm an atheist- I don't believe in any kind of god or gods, and that philosophical stance is immensely important to me.  However, I think it would be massively deplorable if even atheism was enforced as a state religion.  The state should be utterly neutral in these matters.

That neutrality is not exciting or sexy.  It is not amazingly compelling.  It is, really, massively boring to have one of the most powerful entities in the history of humankind (the U.S. government) not take stands on issues such as religion.

That unsexy boredom, though, allows for so much else to transpire.  The U.S. is a stew of religions and philosophy, of mutually contradictory worldviews and outlooks.  That pluralism is utterly fantastic.  As fervently as I cling to my own philosophy, I would never, ever, want the state to enforce it.  Not even my philosophy is worthy of a breach of state neutrality.

This is profoundly important, and I really do believe that having a government divorced from any religion whatsoever (even mine!) is very, very important to maintaining a civilization.  The very idea that we should prefer one philosophy over another (on private property, no less!) is cause for distress.

I keep hoping that someone on the left will express this.  I keep wishing that some Democrat will take a principled stand and inform America that religious liberty is one of the most fundamental pillars of our free state.

But, I have my doubts.  Right now, I can't identify any admirable leftists in government.  I wish I could, but there's no one.

That distresses me far more than anything Gingrich or Palin says.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Awesome Thing: The Truth is Sticky

Jenny isn't real.

What's fantastic is how quickly we all knew that.

Just this morning, pictures of her and her dramatic quitting were zooming around the Series of Tubes, being shared as if they were fact.  By this afternoon, the full scrutiny of the Internet was on them, wondering who this woman was, where she was, if she would grant interviews, what the specifics of her job were, etc.

Soon enough the truth came out, that the photographs of a woman quitting her job and accusing her boss of being a sexist Farmville addict were, indeed, a hoax.  As nice as the mini-meme was, I was more excited at how quickly the collective intelligence of everyone was able to ferret out bullshit.  Sure, not in terms of something truly important, but the world very quickly found the truth.

And the truth stuck.  People didn't keep believing the meme because they wanted to.  Reality surfaced, and the pleasant illusion was let go.

I might sound a little idealistic here, but this makes me very happy.  More people than ever before have access to accuracy, truth, and good information.  More people than ever are able to look up and find what is, in fact, real.  More people than ever before illuminate that which is real that that which isn't.

And, when faced with the truth, it's wonderful to see people discard illusions, even little ones.  Yes, this is an inconsequential issue, but I felt rather good today knowing that our collective intelligence can, indeed, overthrow pleasant unrealities.

Ross Douthat is a Bigot

If I spent all of my time railing against right-wingers with whom I disagree, I would have no breath left in my lungs.  However, I recently came across a column I thought was so subtly nasty, that I was compelled to write about it.

Like most snooty American liberals, I read the New York Times editorial page.  Paul Krugman is probably my favorite avuncular bearded economist, and I find Thomas Friedman sort of amusing, as he usually gets quite enthusiastic about issues that broke five or so years ago.  (I recall him being very excited about cell phone cameras in the mid 2000s.  It was cute.)

Yesterday at dinner my friend L asked me if I'd read it that morning, and I said that I hadn't.  She alerted me to a piece by Ross Douthat, the NYT's resident token conservative who isn't David Brooks.  Douthat's column was basically a screed against gay marriage, but not for the reasons that you'd expect.  He does not seem to oppose gay marriage for religious reasons or because it will lead to polygamy.  He says, basically, that heterosexual marriage is special because:

This ideal holds up the commitment to lifelong fidelity and support by two sexually different human beings — a commitment that involves the mutual surrender, arguably, of their reproductive self-interest — as a uniquely admirable kind of relationship. It holds up the domestic life that can be created only by such unions, in which children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents, as a uniquely admirable approach to child-rearing. And recognizing the difficulty of achieving these goals, it surrounds wedlock with a distinctive set of rituals, sanctions and taboos.

The point of this ideal is not that other relationships have no value, or that only nuclear families can rear children successfully. Rather, it’s that lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support.

Again, this is not how many cultures approach marriage. It’s a particularly Western understanding, derived from Jewish and Christian beliefs about the order of creation, and supplemented by later ideas about romantic love, the rights of children, and the equality of the sexes.

This is utter sophistry.  This is ahistorical dreck.  This is nothing but thin apologetics for bigotry.  A few points:

1:  Douthat's last section, about "equality of the sexes" is particularly laughable, especially when juxtaposed with Christian and Jewish beliefs.  The ideal of sexual equality is new, and we don't have religious traditions to thank for it.  Thank the feminist movement.  Thank women's liberation.  Thank Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem for that.  Prior to that, wives were pretty much property.  You're actually going to claim that "later ideas" "supplemented" religious beliefs?  No.  Just the opposite.  These later ideas overturned religious beliefs.

2:   He is also equating marriage with monogamy.  Admittedly, this is most people's expectation, but it is entirely possible for married couples to have any array of sexual arrangements open to them.  There are plenty of happily married non-monogamists out there, and their marital unions are as legally binding as anyone else's.  Marriage, really, is about whatever the people in it say it's about.

3:  Douthat also brings children into the equation.  Aside from the fact that the children of gay couples tend to be just fine, who says marriage has to be about children?  Matrimony doesn't equate to kids.

4:  Heterosexual marriage, says Douthat, is distinctive.  All relationships are.  Heterosexual relationships are distinct from each other, and homosexual relationships are also distinct from each other.  For instance, an elderly couple who get married late in life and can't have children will have a very different relationship than young people who pop out tons of kids.  Both relationships, though, are worthy of legal sanction.

Douthat ends his column with this bit of semi-coherent vileness:

[I]f we just accept this shift, we’re giving up on one of the great ideas of Western civilization: the celebration of lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate. That ideal is still worth honoring, and still worth striving to preserve. And preserving it ultimately requires some public acknowledgment that heterosexual unions and gay relationships are different: similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit.

"But based on Judge Walker’s logic — which suggests that any such distinction is bigoted and un-American — I don’t think a society that declares gay marriage to be a fundamental right will be capable of even entertaining this idea

Douthat obviously thinks highly of heterosexual marriage.  Great.  Wonderful.  Good for him.  However, we're not just talking about how we feel about people's relationships, here.  We're talking about the law.

We're talking about health care and inheritance, tax breaks and hospital visitation rights.  We're talking about partner benefits and unique legal protections that apply to spouses.  We're talking about a whole array of privileges that come with marriage.  Very real privileges that translate into rights, money, and legal recognition.  For that state to deny such things just because "lifelong heterosexual monogamy is a unique and indispensable estate" is indeed "bigoted and un-American."

The state, in matters sexual, really ought to be neutral.  We would balk at the government taking official positions on religious beliefs, political parties, or journalistic entities.  Theoretically, the state is neutral with how it treats with all of those in their various forms and kinds.  It should be likewise so with sexual behavior.

I would not be nearly so incensed about this if it weren't in the New York Times.  Not because the NYT is a liberal newspaper, but because it's serious one with standards, an editorial board, and all that.  Even though they carry Maureen Dowd, I still expect them to maintain a certain degree of intellectual cache.

Douthat would be a more honest person if he just said his thesis directly- that he does not like the idea of gay relationships.  He is, I imagine, uncomfortable with the idea of two men having sex.  Such queasiness is not the basis for law.  I'm uncomfortable with the idea of two fat people having sex, but I still believe they should get to have their relationship sanctioned.

There is nothing left for the opponents of gay marriage.  No argument that carries any sort of serious weight.  Nothing for them to say that is at all persuasive.  On every meaningful philosophical point, they have lost.  Douthat and others like him are grasping at straws, and those straws are slipping away.