Friday, November 28, 2008

Holiday Shopping

Happy Black Friday! I've been thinking about how bizarre it is we actually have a consumer-oriented day with a name to represent retail consumption. How strange too that so many special, one-of-a-kind gifts will be purchased at Big Box stores off the rack holding a few dozen exact replicas of same. How strange that the gloom and doom economy collapse prophets seem to think it's a bad thing that endless huge anonymous yet aggressively branded caverns full of utter crap might go out of business. I'm such a contrarian bastard. Every time I see Linens 'N' Things or Joanne or Starbucks going under I get a frisson of glee up my spine.

You know what else is pissing me off lately? The new spell check databases for Gmail, Facebook, certain fora I'm on, and Blogger. I keep typing in completely legitimate words and they keep getting underlined in red. For example, in this post alone, "contrarian" and "fora." Recently, "vampyric," (here too!), "grotesqueries" (here as well) and my preferred spelling of "dialogue," which seems to have been abandoned for the odd-looking "dialog."

Anyway, these words being tagged as unrecognizable is a very bad sign. Part of the general retardifying (take that, spell check!) of culture.

But I digressify. The holidays are upon us. For the past two nights, J and I engaged in enjoyable sessions of culture browsing on You Tube. Eva Cassidy, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Don Cherry with James Blood Ulmer and Rashied Ali (and an audience full of stunned and nauseated looking Swedes), The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Country Joe McDonald, Miles Davis on the Steve Allen Show with the second quintet doing All Blues at lightning speed (featuring a brief precious moment where good old happy go lucky Steve Allen asks Davis what he's going to play, can't hear the response and asks someone else to tell him, saying "Miles has laryngitis"), The Kingston Trio, Tom Lehrer (a great bunch of footage of him that I didn't know existed; also didn't know he's still on the planet and 80 years old), Eddie Cochran doing Summertime Blues followed by The Who doing the same at Woodstock 10 years later, Patty Waters (sadly, no actual footage, just some examples of the strange yet oddly touching You Tube practice of posting music with still photographs), Leo Kottke, Michael Hedges, Kate Nash, Kate Bush, an almost unwatchable episode of Disco Teen with special guests The Boxtops, Danny Gatton and his beer bottle slide and towel routine, two absolutely horrifying Michael Jackson videos (Scream and In The Closet), "lame American folkie" Dan Wilcox, an excerpt from the Cecil Taylor documentary All the Notes, a duet between Milford Graves and David Murray from a documentary homage to Albert Ayler, a solo performance of the Mahavishnu Orchestra's Miles Beyond by Dave "Fuze" Fiuczynski , Tori Amos kicking people out of her show ("Get the fuck out of my show! It's a privilege to sit in the front row"), Tom Waits in 1977 doing Tom Traubert's Blues, a very brief snippet of Rod Stewart doing same about 5 octaves higher. There's more, but you get the idea.

So here's a thought. Don't buy a single new thing from now to January 2020. Just take the time to get to know even a little bit about what's already been made. Shop for Xmas gifts at thrift stores and yard sales. Or make your own gifts. Or reconfigure the whole idea of what a gift is in the first place. Gift or curse? For example, well-meaning people have given me a lot of utter crap over the years. I always feel obliged to hold onto it. "I can't throw that away! Someone put a lot of thought into buying that!" Thing is, it's all going to go. I'm paring down. I'm offloading big time. The real precious irreplaceable things, like recordings, books, cacti, that stuff will stay, even though I eye it askance since I can't take it with me and every single time I move (9 times in the past 7 years) I have to lug all of it around, a Laputan comedy. (and go screw yourself, Blogger spell check for not recognizing "Laputan." What a world!)

A few afterthoughts in this Special Director's Cut of the Stochasticactus Release of the post titled Holiday Shopping:

I started thinking about what the best gift one person can give to another is, short of maybe a kidney or dying to save someone else's life. I realized that perhaps the single most dreaded phone call from a friend goes like this: "yeah, so, I'm moving into a new place...think you can come over and help me move?" So perhaps the finest gift of all would be to visit every single friend you have and just start boxing up and removing their worthless crap. *Ahead* of the "hey can you help me move?" phone call. Drug them up if you have to, hypnotize them, whatever it takes. Then just gut their space. Box after box of old sand-filled hand weights, signed baseballs, Roy Orbison records, moldy-boxed board games, bread machines, yard umbrellas, whatever.

And here's a novel way to deal with "gift guilt," that feeling when you get a gift that, darn it all, now you *have* to reciprocate. Just send back the original gift with a little note: "Thank you! I enjoyed this ___________ (sweater, pen, Sigmund Freud action figure, pair of socks, etc.) for a short while and have decided to return it to you. We're all going to die anyway and nothing's permanent! Happy Holidays!"

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Where Do We Live, Again?

I'd like to suggest that citizens are all members of their national
community and nations are in turn citizens of one global community.
The amassing of great personal wealth allows for insulation from one's
community that I don't think ultimately makes for a strong, secure,
functional nation. Along these lines, my own borderline lower middle
class finances make it possible for me to insulate myself from, say,
those starving and dying in the shantytowns outside Nogales, a mere
120 miles south. So American attitudes about wealth have also by
extension isolated and insulated the US from being a more participant
global citizen. We were perhaps shocked awake by 9/11, but in my
opinion immediately put back to sleep again by promises of war and

It seems to me we aren't as a people given to any regular and
sustained awareness of events and realities around the world. Small
pockets of starry eyed citizens occasionally band together to fight
hunger, human rights violations, injustice and oppression in "other"
places. But generally, if it isn't at our doorstep, it's not our

This applies within the island nations inside the US as well. Behind
security kiosks and gates, in countless enclaves of wealth for which
no account must be given and which, as a culture, we idolize, any
sense of connection is lost. The wealthy have their own rules, their
own justice system, their own ideas of scale, their own ideas of
fairness and citizenship that are fundamentally, culturally different
from the rest of the population. The more I traveled around the US and
lived in different places, the more exposure I had to this insular
reality. Because my employment has been as a teacher of the wealthy,
I've only been able to afford to live in neighborhoods that were
liminal, on the border between wealth and poverty, yet had a lot of
experience of the values and culture of the rich, "liberal" and
"conservative" alike. It seems to me there is a point at which
quantitative differences become qualitative, at which one no longer
lives in the US at all.

The other island nations are within our borders too, "red-lined"
bombed out urban war zones, rural poverty and scarcity we don't often
shine a light on or even think about. Cities like LA, Philadelphia,
NY, Boston and even towns like Santa Fe offer jarring contrasts
sometimes in a matter of a few blocks. Poverty, hunger and suffering
of our own citizens used to be a popular theme, used to provide a
rallying cry of some kind for those who saw injustice and wanted
equity. In my opinion, it seems that these realities are now just not
very good television, just too dreary and boring to sell newspapers.
You'd think we won the "war on poverty" if you hadn't seen poverty
yourself on a daily basis. It's like the War in Iraq: we can't handle
pictures of coffins, even if they are draped in flags.

So it is that I roll my eyes and think GMAFB when those that got talk
about how unfair it is to be asked to give. "I'm the best steward of
my own wealth, thank you" is really just an excuse for continued
unaccountability, irresponsibility, disconnectedness, insularity.
"Government can't be trusted to solve problems" is an absurd
statement, given the emergence of essentially socialist democracy
since the Great Depression. Real social problems, actually solved by
that old much-hated gummint. Imagine an American historical landscape
over the past 75 years if pure free market capitalism had been adhered
to, no New Deal. My vision of that is wars, uprisings, violence,
destruction, anguish, revolution. "You just want to throw money at
_____________" is a childish dodge. For example, regarding education.
I'd sometimes hear folks spending $27,000 a year on their child's 7th
and 8th grade years dismiss "throwing money" at public education. 9
times the average per student expenditure, in that case. Seems to work
for you and your kid, I'd want to say, but wouldn't. When do we hear
someone say "You just want to throw money at terrorism, you can't
solve the problem that way." Never.

Anyway, we live in the world. If we don't take responsibility for the
gestalt, it will come around and kick us in the ass.