Monday, November 30, 2009

Diasporic Dining: Episode VIII (Let's Do Lunch)

Photo by Hallie Cohen

Most writers today are too young to remember the infamous SASE, or self-addressed stamped envelope. The sight of your returned SASE in the mailbox was the equivalent of being stabbed in the back by the STASI before the fall of the Wall. It was tantamount to being extraordinarily rendered by The Company and involuntarily entered in the waterboarding time trials in Tirana.
The advent of email has ruined certain key rites of passage, like receiving a SASE on a gray afternoon in the middle President’s Day weekend, with no possibility of remediation on Monday, it being a federal holiday.
Of course the phone company doesn’t celebrate Lincoln’s or Washington’s birthdays. Why not call and ask for an explanation?  Then again, there is no law that says a writer can’t just jump off a cliff.

     “Is Max Perkins in?”
     “Who, may I ask, is calling?”
     “It’s Ernie Hemingway, silly.”
     “I see, but I thought you had blown your head off.”
     “No, I actually just got scored by a bull’s horns in Pamplona. In Second Life.”
The Phone Doesn’t Ring Twice is a sequel to James M. Cain's famed novel that is just waiting to be written. It deals with the rage growing in the heart of a writer whose calls to editors are nothing but unanswered prayers.
So what is writing, or literature for that matter, without the SASE, the phone, and the notorious publishing lunch? A writer knew he had made it when an editor or agent invited him to lunch. But the publishing lunch has gone the way of Random House's house.
In addition, most of the midtown Manhattan skyscrapers that publishing companies now occupy have become too expensive for what is essentially a cottage industry, and the average Joe, who still dreams of singing for his supper, or lunch, is left to surf the Internet with a bagel. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Ordinary Pain

You are speeding along by yourself on an Interstate when a really great song like Stevie Wonder’s Love’s In Need of Love Today comes on, and you turn the sound up as loud as it will go.
What is a nice guy or girl? Cordelia wasn’t nice because she didn’t say what Lear wanted to hear. Goneril is definitely not nice. Oracles are not nice. Soothsayers like Calchas are not nice. The Sphinx is not nice in Oedipus because it only proposes riddles. You have to go through hoops to answer what walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?
Lionel Trilling dealt with this subject in a series of essays called “Sincerity and Authenticity.” But what do these terms really connote? Are the Cordelias of the world better than the Gonerils, or are they merely seeking another kind of gain, i.e., martyrdom and moral superiority? One way to get ahead in the world might be to ask for things, another might be to propose self-deprivation. Though Augustine repudiated earthly desires, he made it (by the worldly standard of fame). Gandhi had a good run of success, as did philosophical kindred like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, who used passive resistance to achieve their aims. Is the man of peace better than the warrior? Is Mother Theresa saintly in comparison to Clausewitz, who argued that war was merely “the continuation of politics”? We are all imperialists, both on ontogenic and phylogenic levels. We all want to control and dominate, whether it’s a person, a class, or a society of people. Was Henry Kissinger’s realpolitik fundamentally more evil than the politics of conciliation that might be advocated by organizations of doves?
So is it all a matter of presentation, The Presentation of the Self in Every Day Life that Erving  Goffman described in his famed sociological tome. Is it all public relations? Is personality a series of conscious and unconscious decisions with a pubic face, but no moral scorecard?
Now you are speeding down the same highway and Freyda Payne’s disco classic Band of Gold comes on the oldies station.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Diasporic Dining Episode VII: The Possessed

Photo by Hallie Cohen

Everyone has an as-if personality. We’re all ventriloquists and plagiarists looting the stores of memory. It’s a riot scene, the intensity so extreme that it’s virtually impossible to tell where the goods have come from. The integrity of personality is constantly violated, since it’s not clear where one lode of memory begins and another ends. We engender and possess thoughts only to discover that they are coagulations of recycled intellectual matter on Wikipedia, Twitter, or Second Life. There is a famous Twilight Zone episode, “Time Enough at Last,” in which Burgess Meredith plays a man who only wants to be left alone to read.  He wakes up one day to discover he is the last person on earth, with all the peace and quiet for reading he could ever want, only to break his last pair of glasses. The Twilight Zone was a product of the information age. What was tragic in one context could be liberating in the next. The “Willoughby” episode, in which the hard-driving advertising executive lands in a slow-moving past of an idealized childhood, reflects a yearning for freedom from The Data Base, the monster that strangles the integrity of personality. The internet revolution, and in particular the interactive media sites, with their illusion of instantaneous intimacy, have murdered solitude.
Every age has its hermits, troll-like creatures who live in tin shacks in the wilderness, shunning the conveniences of electricity and running water, and most importantly the company of men. And then there are the Luddites, the hackers, the creators of viruses like Conficker, radical political figures like Kropotkin, and existentialist literary heroes like Raskolnikov, whose millenarian idiom is ultimately an attempt to reduce all texts to one Truth. The Data Base has become the villain, but the cry is no longer “Back to Nature!” since there is no longer any nature to go back to. Possessed and Dispossessed can be used interchangeably to refer to the budding class of Mutants who no longer wish to inhabit their own minds.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Calcei Recalciatus

Sartor Resartus, meaning “the tailor re-tailored,” was the title of a famous work by the nineteenth century author Thomas Carlyle. But Calcei Recalciatus might be a more fitting description for the sensibility of our age. Remember the knee-high boots Jane Fonda wore in her Academy Award-winning performance as the prostitute Bree Daniels in 1971’s Klute? That may have been one of those rare intersections between podiatry and culture, and certainly marked a distinct shift from the notion of looking into a person’s eyes as a determination of character. Klute did for foot fetishism what 2001: A Space Odyssey did for computers, each ushering in an era of new paraphernalia.
Many people have the mistaken impression that platform shoes are relics of the disco era. In fact the platform shoe, along with the fuck-me pump, are both alive and kicking. And if you look down at the golden rail in any midtown bar and you will see hundreds of old fashioned wing tips, as pointed and studded and cocksure as Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt himself. Pat Boone made white bucks famous, but they remain an assertion that joie de vivre is timeless. And what about the fate of the Bass Weejun in an age when Nike running shoes have asserted their hegemony over all other casual attire? The Weejun has become like the Lost Generation, the Fitzgeralds and Hemingways who made Europe their home in the Jazz Age. Loafers, worn without socks, may not have prevailed in America, but they have crossed the pond and live on as character builders in Europe.
Take a walk on lower Broadway in Manhattan any weekend night, when crowds of young people march in lockstep towards the evening’s oblivion, and watch the bouncers part the velvet rope to one of Serge Becker’s trendy clubs, and you’ll see that it’s shoes, not clothes, that make the man…or least make an impression.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Labyrinth of Solitude

Modern technology challenges the notion of place. If we are constantly plugged in to an electronic universe, we are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. What difference does it make if you are at the Taj Mahal or the Parthenon if you are returning emails on your Blackberry? Of course, the same can be said of the printing press and the telephone, but the speed and intensity of modern technology fractures the integrity of the individual ego, defined by the boundary of the epidermis. It is not unusual for a busy individual to be the recipient of hundreds of emails a day, and these, together with the plethora of other information sources, have left in their wake a refugee, a spiritual wanderer increasingly deprived of the usual attachments by which identity is defined. And yet, one is never alone.
Now, let’s look at this from the point of view of the pre-Socratic stoic philosophers. The Eleatics  (Zeno, Parmenides, Melissus), as they were called, believed that the world was unchanging and that the seeming flux was all an illusion. Zeno’s paradox, starring Achilles and the tortoise, is the most famous example of this conundrum. Essentially, the rabid Facebook addict or the individual who has invented an avatar for an online game like Second Life, sits alone in his refuge, attempting to respond to all the messages he receives. He is in constant communication with numerous people all over the world who he rarely, if ever, sees, and who he scarcely knows. In the fifties, people left lewd messages on the inside of toilet stalls. After they dropped one load, they left another in hieroglyphic form. Do these early forms of “cave painting” tell us something about the sources of our modern electronic miracle? Has the high tech world of interactive communication freed us, or merely created a new form of solitude? Perhaps the Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz was right when he compared solitude to a labyrinth.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Diasporic Dining: Episode VI (Organic Fusion at Modestly High Prices)

It’s no longer 1984, but George Orwell’s Newspeak is alive and kicking in our modern culinary establishments. There is a certain kind of antiseptic, multi-starred restaurant, run by graduates of the Cornell School of Hotel Adminisration, which advertises fusion cuisine made with organic, free-range products, in which the dining experience is very close to having a surgical procedure at the Mayo Clinic. After waiting to be seated in a reception area that looks like a doctor’s office and only contains magazines made from recycled paper products, diners are led to their table by a functionary who has adopted the attitude of neutrality still employed by orthodox Freudian analysts. The ensuing parental transference makes it virtually impossible to protest that the table is drafty or the seating cramped.

Photographs by Hallie Cohen

Seat belts are not required, but a diner is left in the care of a creature with the requisite sedative tableside manner. “I will be your server throughout your Organic Fusion Cuisine At Modestly High Prices experience.” The diner will undoubtedly be reminded of the famous Twilight Zone episode, “To Serve Man,” in which a humanitarian manifesto created by seemingly friendly aliens turns out to be a cookbook. Trekkies may confuse their server with Mr. Spock.

The attitude of the server is one of complete understanding, up until a certain point, as the chef and his kitchen are not going to be held hostage by patrons with boundary issues. The server’s job is to tell his or her customers that by coming to the restaurant they have relinquished their freedom, along with a considerable sum of money.

This is what is known as pleasure and happiness in the culture of Western society in the first half of the twenty-first century. The ordering process is one of seeming choices that are little more than self-fulfilling prophecies. There is no way that the diner is going to get ketchup or salt, and chances are nil that his or her palette will experience the delight that comes from awakening familiar taste buds. Duck is never crispy and can never be served whole, and orange sauce is expressly forbidden. Rather, it is only served in portions large enough to feed a bird, and must look and taste like a piece of raw fish. Bread and butter are treated like alcohol during prohibition. “Organic Fusion” has an on-premise Eliot Ness to make sure that interlopers don’t take an attitude towards the bread that oenophiles take towards wine in a BYOB restaurant, ie easy come-easy go.

Paying is similar to being checked out of a hospital or waiting for air traffic control to release your flight during a backup at Kennedy. One can certainly ask for the check, and all manner of complaints and excuses can be made, but no one is paying until the tower is good and ready. However, having completed an experience at Organic Fusion Cuisine At Modestly High Prices, the veteran diner will heave a sigh of relief. Though the experience has it esthetic delights, there is no doubt that it is intended to result in an empty stomach. Having ordered, eaten and paid, the only thing left to do after a meal at Organic Fusion is to get something to eat.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Salt of the Earth

Salt of the earth people can’t complain. Don’t ask how they are if you are complaining about the malignity of the universe, because they invariably “can’t complain.” Salt of the earth people are always elbowing each other as a gesture of understanding. Nudge nudge. They don’t like “troublemakers.” Salt of the earth people, or SOTES, don’t care that there are cohesive forms of social organization (mostly made up of what the famed political philosopher and former Vice President Spiro Agnew referred to as the effete) that are not predicated on the idea that SOTES hold so dear, ie that ordinary folk are better than those who try to be somebody. SOTES tend not to agree with Oscar Wilde’s quote from The Picture of Dorian Gray: “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.”
What is this love of the ordinary, this fascination with belonging, indifference, and self-possession, that makes the SOTE such an object of curiosity? Thomas Mann alluded to this in his story Tonio Kröger, in which alienation brings with it a certain longing. SOTES don’t talk about their anhedonia, their loss of interest in things, or their feelings of longing. Madame Bovary was definitely not a SOTE. In a way, even Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, the quintessential SOTE, might not have finally qualified, due to the ironies in which the author embedded him.
But here are some rules. If you ever pull into town in one of those moods where you’re tired of reading Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf and want to hang with the local SOTES, if there’s a glaring sun, don’t say how Main Street reminds you of the first line of Camus’s L’Etranger: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.” Definitely don’t mention Emile Durkheim’s classic sociological tome, Suicide, and don’t start to talk about Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s On Death and Dying. Pretend you’ve never heard of the word “dystonic.” Don’t let on that you don't know a guy named Will, the local bartender and pundit, a bully and sadist everyone in town has loved since he was an evil little boy. Don’t try to become one of the boys by imitating the derogatory tones they use to talk about the fairer sex. What sounds mildly sexist to you will end up making you seem like a serial killer. Everyone will look at you and eventually you will be run out of town.  

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Little Murders

Are there bad people, or just people with problems that get of hand? The former Serbian leader Radovan Karadzic is now on trial in The Hague, accused of war crimes, but he was once a psychiatrist, a person trained to understand and treat the condition of those suffering from mental illness. Is this a contradiction? For many years following the war, Karadzic lived incognito, sporting long hair and a beard and practicing alternative medicine. His training and the identity he adopted are belied by the fact that he was a murderer and a killer. But surely manifest content is significant; surely some part of him was interested in healing.

Hitler loved dogs. The young Stalin wrote poetry and there were those who thought he might become a priest. What is it that unites these murderers? How do human beings whose behavior shows signs of empathy for others make an about face whereby the brother becomes the other?  Only last week, another crime shocked the nation: the murder of 13 people at Fort Hood, by yet another psychiatrist. What made Major Nidal Malik Hasan open fire? Was he bad or mad?

Little Murders is the title of a play by Jules Feiffer. In a sense, all of us are capable of homicide, and maybe even genocide on a small scale. The beloved wife, friend, business associate, or relative suddenly becomes the enemy, the other, and the vitriol is directly proportionate to the love that once existed. A sense of victimhood can always be counted on to induce revenge. Racial pride was an organizing principle of the Third Reich, allowing for whole new classifications of others. The notion of a shared injury can also become a unifying force that unites a whole population in mass paranoia. Historic feelings of persecution by Christians may have been one of the many causes of the Turkish massacre of its Armenian population. What set the Hutus against the Tutsis, the Janjaweed against the rebels in the Sudan? And what explains the viciousness with which Bosnian Serbs turned against the Muslims with whom they had lived in peace for decades? 

These are no mere squabbles of property lines, money and political power. The depraved indifference to human life that is characteristic of mass murder has the quality of a passion, the kind of passion that once contained the germs of human love. Weren’t the Crusades and the Inquisition about love of God? And yet an academic understanding of the roots of conflict does little to assuage the pain. The guilty still must face trial, even if, as in the case of Karadzic, they refuse to show up.

Monday, November 9, 2009

BJ's Acquires Delta

BJ’s Wholesale Cub, the discount warehouse chain, has acquired KLM, Air France, and Northwest, along with its parent airline Delta. While BJ’s executives have admitted that they have little knowledge of aviation, they indicated that the architecture of their mammoth supermarkets resembles that of an airplane hangar.

Passengers on these airlines are still required to report to their operating carrier in order to check bags and receive boarding passes, but they should call their local BJ’s when seeking flight departure and arrival information.
The BJ’s announcement has stimulated a rash of interest in beleaguered airline stocks from supermarket cash cows.  Sam’s Club has made an offer for British Air and Food Emporium has threatened a hostile takeover of American Airlines. Jet Blue has found a corporate suitor in Popeye’s, the fried chicken chain, which hopes to exploit marketing opportunities in the frequent flier demographic.
“Popeye’s looks at the proposed acquisition of Jet Blue as opening up a lucrative new market of stranded passengers, who will eat just about anything during long, tedious layovers,” said Bill Wilson, an airline industry analyst. “The world is being turned on its axis.” Indeed, Dulles International Airport was the scene of a near collision when the pilot of a Pan Am flight that had been taxiing since the early ‘70s spotted Colonel Sanders piloting an outgoing Singapore Airlines flight.
The history of the food industry’s interest in aviation stocks is a subject that will be dealt with in a forthcoming book by Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, entitled, Getting His Wings: How A&P Heir Huntington Hartford Flew United’s Friendly Skies.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Subprime Health Care

What to do when a notice arrives advertising health insurance—flexible plan, low monthly rate, covers dental, extended family, long term psychotherapy and analysis, cutting edge cancer, acupuncture, imaging, marriage counseling, inexpensive life and auto insurance options, risk of terrorist attack, plus as bonus: free monthly garage parking anywhere in the continental United States and Canada?

A new medical plan has just turned up in the fax machine. What to do? This one offers a $2,500 deductible policy. But before tossing it into the recycle bin, read the fine print. After paying off the $2,500 deductible, enrollees in the plan are offered private hospital rooms on VIP floors with river views, preventative botox, unlimited elective liposuction, preemptive triple bypass, electroshock, with all PTSD and STD’s welcome.

What about the second fax, which arrives a few minutes later? This plan boasts a free Cancun vacation with securitized collateral. What about the cutting edge plan that allows you, the patient, to become his or her own HMO and make thousands in the process? Chronically ill patients with pre existing conditions are welcome. It’s a plan to die for, literally. Just call the 1-888 number and receive a consultation with former IRS agents, who will help you buy your securitized subprime health insurance policy.

Pay unbelievably low rates that only increase when medical care is required. Huh? Read the fine print. The policy says that you and your family are covered for medical, dental and psychiatric, as long as there are no medical, dental or psychiatric problems. Fair enough, because if you think about it, what they are offering is peace of mind. For the low rate of $69 a month, it is possible to possess a solid plastic health insurance card with a bona fide image of the caduceus on the front. When you enter the doctor’s office and the receptionist asks for your insurance card, just hand it over and proceed to treatment. It's the pay-the-piper plan. Someone is going to have to pay the piper once it turns out that the policy covers no medical conditions. But let’s worry about that later. The most important thing is the health of you and your loved ones, even if you have an aneurysm when you receive the bill.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sun Yat Tim

With the budget deficit climbing above the $l trillion mark, Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner announced the creation of new federal watchdogs in order to help prevent the United States from becoming a debtor nation. “We want the US to become a creditor nation,” Mr. Geithner announced. At the same news conference, Mr. Geithner indicated that he was changing his name to Sun Yat Tim in order to facilitate the relocation of the Treasury Office to Shanghai, a move that was announced at a news conference earlier in the week.
The creation of important new agencies, among them ANT (Agency for National Trade) and MUG (Microeconomic Unilateral Genome), are important aspects of the administration’s newest attempts to inject adrenalin into a lackluster economy.
“The development of a whole new set of acronyms is an important first step in moving America back to its position as a world economic leader,” President Obama told CNN in a recent interview. “For every TARP, there must be a PANCHO, or at least a TENT (Temporary Environment Nonspecific Task Force).
Treasury Secretary Tim went on to say that the United States’s balance of trade should in no way be impacted by a policy that virtually guarantees China’s ability to out-price its American manufacturing counterparts.
One of the highlights of the joint Treasury and Federal Reserve news conference was the appearance of Mr. Bernanke in traditional Chinese garb, including a Versace Mao jacket and a Fu Manchu goatee. The Federal Reserve (and its Fort Knox gold reserve) has already moved to Beijing at the request of its creditor. However, Mr. Bernanke has indicated he would retain his birth name, as opposed to adopting the Chinese Sun Young Ben, for personal reasons.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Diasporic Dining: Episode V (Robert Moses Big Band)

Cruising along the Long Island Expressway late on a Saturday night (when the famed Robert Moses artery is uncharacteristically empty), past the low-lying pine barrens that grow out from Shinnecock Bay, the lone driver picks up the sounds of Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller on the local NPR station. The broadcast is part of an ongoing big band series.

Photographs by Hallie Cohen

There have been few examples of executives tossing themselves out of Wall Street buildings, as happened on Back Tuesday in l929, but the world has begun to shrink, and with the repercussions affecting virtually every segment of society, there is solace to be found in the nostalgia of gravelly old recordings, the announcer intoning, “In l942 Captain Glenn Miller brought his trombone to the armed forces…” It was wartime and yet there was hope and a sense of purpose, two ingredients that are lost in the current oil spill of failed materialism. Driving into the night, a busted distributor cap creates muted fireworks, a baleful underscore to the swinging percussion section.

The big band era didn’t produce the topiaries of hedge fund America, but there was a glamour and formality to the times. Back in the ‘30s and ‘40s it wasn’t just the kids who came to see and be seen. In formal attire, the jitter-buggers congregated in places like the Stork Club, with its lipstick stained high balls, lingering fumes of scotch, and cigarette holders, while Johnny Roventini, the diminutive bellhop, cried out his Shakespearean “Call for Phillip Morris!”

Soon the Doppler sound of the muted trumpet has faded, and the traveler wanders the aisles of this century’s late night supermarket, with its Muzak, its outraged British tabloid headlines, its butcher with a blood stained apron—a latter day Henry V at Agincourt.