Monday, January 31, 2011

Founding Fathers Too Freaked Out by Cars

Seth Meyers' Saturday Night Live Weekend Update from a couple of weeks ago nails the debate, and the absurdity, of conservative legal theories (that seem to hold sway in the minds of several of the Supreme Court justices) that fetishize the beliefs of the founding fathers in addressing modern social and legal issues.

Meyers suggested that the founding fathers would be too "freaked out" by cars, planes, and the fact that all of the slaves had been freed to even engage these weighty issues in modern American life. It's too good to miss.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Character and Fitness

Jason Flores-Williams is having his New Orleans book launch for his new book, Character and Fitness, on Saturday, January 22, 2011, at 8 p.m., at FAB Books, 900 Frenchmen Street, New Orleans, LA. I will opening up by reading something short, along with Jason's friend and New Orleans' writer, Raphaelle O'Neil. ( Be forewarned, last time I did a reading with Jason, he read a piece that compared his transvestite lover favorably with a twelve year old boy. (Whereas I will likely be reading about being a twelve year old boy at sleep away camp.)

Here are the first few paragraphs of the book, posted on The Brooklyn Rail (which is serializing the book, a chapter a month):

Chapter 1

I drink my coffee and stare out the window at the cars passing by on the highway. I remember the old Kerouac line: whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny automobile? It was all open roads and possibilities for that guy. A wide-eyed, down-to-earth madness that rolled from one coast to another. Football-playing kids with books of poetry by their beds. I grew up in Kerouac's America. He was my guy. One of the first things I did when I got to New York was take the train up to Columbia so that I could walk in his footsteps. I lived for his idea of what we were supposed to be. But there are no angels anymore. No more saints. No visionary catholic supplications or prayers to make to god. No more optimism. No fantastic smiles. No great west. No more cowboys or jazzmen, unless they're in a Visa commercial. I would love to go moan for man, but the credit cards would sue me and the student loan companies would put me in default. No need to go looking for Dean Moriarty, because he works for the collections department of an insurance company in Delaware. He hates his job and would quit and hit the road, but can't afford to miss a mortgage payment. And he's not really in traveling shape anymore, but about 80 pounds overweight. Too big to fail.

I turn away from the window, go back to the Sallie Mae website and finish with the electronic forms for my second-to-last deferment. After this one, I'll be coming in here to Starbucks looking for a job. I can see myself filling out the application at the wobbly table in the corner, wallowing in the glory that really never was, then sitting there with a stupid smile on my face as the 21-year-old assistant manager holds up a mirror to more than two decades of overeducated bad decisions. The goatee with the first signs of grey, crow's feet around the eyes, and the tattoos no longer anti-establishment cool, but mile markers on the road to nowhere. I never expected or even wanted my life to be a straight line, but thought that if you put the time in and paid your dues, then you wouldn't end up back in the same place you were 20 years ago.

I put away my laptop, finish the coffee and head out the door. I walk past the California Pizza Kitchen, the Chipotle and up the sidewalk toward the Target. The way the sun glistens off the minivans is spectacular, haunting. I enter through the sliding automatic doors into the fluorescent lights and cut through rows of candles, heaters, curtains, blinds, slipcovers, mirrors, humidifiers and pet supplies. I stop to ask a salesclerk about the soy milk. The man is maybe 75, thick coke-bottle glasses, splotchy face and crooked back. He should be off somewhere playing shuffleboard and bitching about the young, not spending the last years before the grand exit struggling in the belly of a big box store. It takes him 25 seconds just to walk across the aisle. "I'm sorry to bother you, sir. But do you know where the soy milk is?"

'The milk!"

"No sir, the soy milk…."

"The milk!"

"No sir, the soy milk."

"What milk?"

I feel like the most bourgeois, pretentious yuppie that ever lived. Ohmygawd, you've never heard of soy milk? Didn't you read the article in Salon about the dairy industry? There's as much suffering in a cup of milk as a pound of beef! "Oh wait, sir, hold on…I think I see it right over there! Thank you!" I take off through maternity, outerwear, plus sizes, women's shoes, accessories, luggage, infant, toddler, patio furniture and into the refrigerated food section…Like a liberal in Texas, it's surrounded by chicken nuggets, buffalo wings, sausage patties and microwave-ready cheeseburgers. I take two half-gallons off the shelf and tell myself how wonderful I am for making the enlightened consumer choice, but really the soy milk is made by a subsidiary of a publicly-traded company that's owned by a conglomerate with its headquarters on a space station that controls the factories that make the chicken nuggets, buffalo wings, sausage patties and microwave-ready cheeseburgers. There is no escape from complicity when you're an American. All we can do is turn down the volume from 11 to 9.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Walker Evans at The Ogden

Walker Evans
Greek Revival Townhouse with Men Seated in Dourway, New Orleans
March 1935
Silver gelatin print

I went to The Ogden Museum to see the Walker Evans show on its final day up, January 2, 2011. I have been a big fan of Evans' work since college, when I fell in love with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, on which Evans collaborated with James Agee.

The exhibit comprised three rooms of architectural photographs (the one above was one of very few with any people captured). The first room was New Orleans photographs and the other two rooms were photographs of plantations in southern Louisiana. All the photographs were taken on trips to Louisiana in 1935 and 1936 and are part of the actress Jessica Lange's collection.

As described by the museum, the photographs were intended to document real life during the Great Depression:

Working in what he called the “vernacular style,” Evans forged an approach that preferred the everyday to the precious and the factual over the artful. Although he often photographed inanimate objects, with architecture and signage being among his most lasting subjects, he also captured the harsh realities of American life in the grips of the Great Depression.

But viewing the exhibit in 2011, it struck me that it was nearly impossible for a contemporary viewer to see the photographs in that spirit. It was hard not to see the photographs as historical documents or curiosities from the past. (I was, for instance, excited to see an eighty year old photograph of a house that I like a lot on Esplanade Avenue.) And I worried, as I viewed the photographs of the crumbling old Greek revival plantation houses, that viewers would see the photographs with some measure of nostalgia, something that I suspect would have troubled Evans. (Though these buildings were many decades old when he photographed them and had little bearing on the "harsh realities" of the Great Depression. So I wonder what he found in them?)

NO Comment

I started a new blog tracking offensive comments on, the website that carries The Times Picayune's content. The website, called NO Comment, is my effort to highlight some of the terrible hate speech, slander, and general meanness of the anonymous, and sporadically moderated, comments on I will also use the blog as a forum to discuss how other news organizations are dealing with these vexing issues.

Check it out.