Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Grease Stain Remover Page (and more!)

The Grease Stain Remover Page is jam-packed with bizarrely unlikely, yet somehow strangely compelling, homegrown fixes. Pour a can of Coke in with the wash! Smear with Cheez Whiz! Spray with lighter fluid or hairspray!

I couldn't stop reading, buoyed particularly by the zesty corroboration by the web page's anonymous proprietor ("Thanks so much Tiki! Super Tip!!"; "Thanks for the dandy tip Ellen!! Works like a charm!"; "Thanks Beth.... yes, your tip has been a great help!") who must spill an awful lot of grease on herself.

I don't do my own laundry, so my interest is purely aesthetic/cultural, but I love this sort of thing. I also read eagerly through those trucker owner/operator magazines stacked up in truck stops down south.

If you share my predilection, here's a remarkable and completely unknown book, available second-hand for under $3: "And I Thought I Was Crazy!", a treasury of human quirks compiled from umpteen contributors. Breathtaking wisdom and pathos in a trashy, cheezy, mass market paperback.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Never Count on Redemption

Well, health care passed. And Obama has dared the right to run this Fall on a platform of repeal, once the plan's benefits (never well communicated) start becoming apparent to constituents. Doing so would be as suicidal as Alf Landon's ill-fated 1936 presidential campaign based on repeal of social security.

Of course, the country will be delighted with its new health care program - even the furious protestors, all of whom will blithely continue to rail against the socialist president - much as those who've come around to deem the Iraq war a debacle seem incapable of reevaluating their early view of war protestors as un-American. And much as many furiously anti-stimulus Republican congressmen proceeded to brag to constituents about the resulting flow of local economic development funds.

This particular dementia is not unique to the right or to any other single group (though it appears that way when one observes across a divide). Rather, it's a deep-seated bug in the human OS. We are easily capable of changing our minds on issues while blithely sticking to an over-arching story. The evidence may change, but the judgement remains in force.

Years ago, a few horrendous assholes swaggered onto the message boards of and proceeded to post in vast profusion, relentlessly pummeling anyone who dared disagree. We asked them to give others a chance, rather than monopolize every conversation, but their compulsive output continued to spread like kudzu. We expunged the nastiest stuff, and, when they howled with indignation, we begged them to start their own forum...which, praise Jesus, they finally did. Predictably, they used the new forum to prattle on about how they'd been forced out because I'd felt threatened by their superior food knowledge.

Fine. Whatever.

But people believed it (a lie oft-repeated becomes truth). And even though these individuals eventually became duly notorious for their "special" qualities, it's amused me that no one ever thought to reexamine the "Leff is a Tyrant" trope they'd worked to circulate.

On the other hand, this psychological issue may represent a "feature" rather than a "bug". If every time we changed an opinion, it involved a major unraveling and reevaluation of our thought systems, it'd be impossible to get on with our lives. And so we retain an irrational but practical ability to insert and retract individual ideas and opinions modularly, without affecting the fundamental structure of our outlook.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Biz Idea: Next Generation Chatroulette

If there are any entrepreneurs out there (or anyone who knows any entrepreneurs), here's a good idea:

Chatroulette is the latest cutting-edge online sensation. The set-up is this: you're paired in a real-time chat with a random stranger, and it's sort of like a social sumo match; if you bore or anger or otherwise turn off your chatmate, he/she will abandon you to move on to the next random stranger (called "nexting"), whereupon you, too, are immediately thrown in with someone else.

Needless to say, it can be awfully thin gruel, dominated by amorous drones looking to "hook up", and plenty of people you'd normally have little interest in chatting up. But that's part of the amusement. As with channel surfing through dozens of uninteresting cable stations, there's a certain ADD-like satisfaction in indulging your unbridled impatience while winnowing and ferreting. And also a certain inherent rudeness and cruelty, but at least it's vented in small, relatively painless bursts (social rejection in this setting, after such brief exposure, and with someone new always right around the corner, doesn't hurt very much).

But it would be easy to thicken the soup, so there's less winnowing required. Just offer "channels", allowing users to connect, randomly, with self-described stamp collectors, bored housewives, home cooks, motorcyclists, fans of various bands, or Presbyterian weight-lifters. Give me a jazz musician channel, where I can sail forth riffs and have them thrown back at me by other players (make new associations! find gigs!). Those who remember IRC - too early for mainstream and lacking a sexy roulette option (much less live audio/video) - will attest to the attraction of this sort of narrowcasting.

Chatroulette is a good first generation effort, but it's not quite ready for prime time. This enhancement, though, could drive this concept to become the next Facebook/Twitter.

Update: even better, allow people to create their own branded channels (customize the graphics, etc.). Perhaps scale back to make roulette merely an option within each channel (call them "salons" or "granfaloons"). Give proprietors a share of ad revenue so they have incentive to attentively manage and market their realm. This could all be built fairly easily/cheaply...and it would kill!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

American Jews Need to Get Loud About Israeli Settlements

Obama seems unwilling to get tough with Israel about halting settlement growth. He's issued requests and ultimatums, but is loath to go beyond tough talk out of fear of losing of Jewish support. The Israeli hawks currently in charge continue to brazenly expand settlements in spite of the administration's rhetoric.

But I get the feeling that a slim majority (or at least a hefty minority) of American Jews may be against settlement build-up - likely enough of them to change the political calculation. Unfortunately nothing's being done to channel this sentiment to achieve change.

In the 1960s and 1970s, American Jews were unwilling to publicly condemn Israel, which they believed to be in desperate need of their staunch and undivided support. This is a different generation, with much less tow-the-line sentiment. Post 9/11, people want peace a lot more than they want to maintain ethnic solidarity. Yet the political wisdom on American Jews remains the same: we're seen as a one issue constituency, and any politician advocating contradiction of Israeli policy would be assumed to automatically forfeit this constituency en masse.

So wouldn't it be fantastic if large number of American Jews spoke out about this one issue? Not just the usual lefty doves, but even some Zionists. Israel itself is conspicuously splintered, with a wide spectrum of attitudes and opinions on practically everything. It's ridiculous that American Jews, for their part, are unwilling to take a stand when they disagree. If they'd stand up on settlements, that would give Obama political cover to force the issue - and that'd be an impressive first domino toward peace. And what American Jew wouldn't be honored to topple the first domino?

I'd help organize such a movement, but, given that I've never been a Zionist (I'm more or less equally disgusted with both Israeli Jews and with Palestinians), I lack proper credentials. But if we presume that the administration is sincerely anti-Settlement (it sure sounds that way), and that Rahm Emanuel (a staunch Zionist) doesn't spend his days begging the president to change his thinking, then Emanuel really ought to be doing this very same political calculus right now, and taking steps to build support among American Jews for the application of much stronger pressure on the Israeli government.

Friday, March 5, 2010

An Unorthodox Perspective on Opposition To Gay Rights

I'm strongly for gay marriage, gays in the military, and, generally, gays having every right anyone else enjoys. But I'd like to pull away a few layers of collective amnesia.

When I was growing up, there was exactly one black child in my class, and he was, to me, scary and different. I certainly never hated him or excluded him - and couldn't have imagined doing either. It was just that there seemed to be an unbridgeable chasm. Conclusive proof could be found in his hair, which was, after all, so strange!

After escaping my sheltered suburban existence, I came to meet, work, and hang out with hundreds of black people. With familiarity, they stopped seeming scary and different. Well, some still seemed scary, but it was because they truly were scary. I had learned to gauge scariness on the merits, rather than on the basis of unfamiliarity. I moved to NYC and launched a career playing black music, finding myself perennially the only white guy in the band. I can recall watching the Count Basie band on TV as a child, wondering whether the sole white musician felt weird. I can firmly reply to my younger self: no. It doesn't feel weird at all.

I also remember, as a kid, accidentally sending the elevator to the basement of my grandparents' apartment building. The doors opened, and Cuban workers, speaking some incomprehensible and alien-sounding language, were eating food that smelled like rotten garbage. I mashed my finger on the "door close" button and held my breath, made nauseous and faint by the stench of the disgusting stuff these strange people were eating.

The smell was garlic. Obviously, I'm well over that now. I also speak good Spanish. And I've sat in plenty of basements with Cubans noshing on garlicky this or that.

Are you getting the idea? Ok, one more.

In grade school in the 1970's, I never met a gay person. Of course, I met hundreds of them, but had no way of knowing. With anyone the least bit effeminate, there were suspicions. Not that I'd want to, like, beat them up. Or wish them unhappiness. But, once again, there was, again, that eerie feeling of unbridgeable chasm. In college, a fellow trombonist drove me home from a gig and casually mentioned, as he drove smoothly through the rain, that he was gay. I nearly opened the door and jumped out. Homophobia, after all, is fear, not hatred. The term has come to apply to both, but, unlike hatred, it's hard to condemn fear.

Having subsequently met lots of gay people, the fear's gone. I no longer worry, ala Tennessee Ernie Ford on I Love Lucy, that gay people want to, like, "vamp" me.

Phew. The above was uncomfortable to publicly spill. As I view my early life, it certainly doesn’t strike me as "A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Bigot". But here's the thing: I've snapped back from these fearful-not-hateful perspectives not because some higher consciousness kicked in. I changed because: 1. I met lots of black people, gay people, and garlicky fried bananas, (and fear of the unknown goes away when the unknown becomes known), and 2. society around me changed, and my role models were embracing rather than recoiling from Otherness. I hadn't seen much of that as a kid. When I did, something clicked.

The same is true for you, I'll bet. Admit it: in 1975 (if you were alive and sentient in 1975) you'd never have favored legalization of gay marriage or gays in the military. How about 1985? 1995? For nearly all of us, it took time for tolerance to develop. It required exposure plus a general trend toward multiculturalism. And the thing to bear in mind is that many people in this country haven't had those things! They live in places with less exposure both to gays and to the general notion of multiculturalism. The rest of us may feel more evolved, but we oughtn’t gloat over our high-mindedness. There were factors in play, and without those factors we’d still see things as we did in 1975. And here's the thing: there are still 1975 people out there, and they need time to catch up.

Really, I think a lot of them are coming along beautifully. What a remarkably pliant society this is, where, in a mere three decades, raw fish has become accepted (imagine serving sashimi in Duluth in 1980!) and people are even discussing, more or less civilly, legalizing gay marriage!

Obviously, I'm not talking about vicious bigots and thugs who scream "faggot". They're beyond the pale. But the hordes voting against gay rights measures are not that. They’re mostly nice, reasonably tolerant people, who don't wish gay people ill, but still find the shifts a wee bit scary and sudden. They haven't been where you or I have been, and haven't seen what we've seen. I don't sneer at them, because I was 1975, myself.

We must legalize gay marriage and sanction gays in military. And we will. The way seems bumpy, but it helps to remember that most resistance is not rooted in hatred or prejudice. It's more mild and benign - just people needing to get a little more comfortable with changing notions. For me, a New York City musician/writer living squarely in 2010, change seems ripely overdue. To understand others, I juxtapose my 1975 self, and can better empathize with their sense of disorienting acceleration.

Of course, opponents will need to adjust their comfort levels after the discriminatory laws are changed. No minority should have to endure discrimination while waiting for the majority to wise up.

End Notes:

1. Not one Republican joined the eleven senators who last week introduced legislation repealing "Don't Ask/Don't Tell"....even though the secretary of defense, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Colin Powell and John Shalikashvili have all called for repeal.

2. My writing here is vulnerable to the DiFara Pizza Effect. When I first ate at that vaunted pizzeria, the place was perennially empty, and owner Dom DeMarco was on the brink of shutting down. Now, of course, he's become a huge sensation, and I keep hearing from scads of people who claim they were regulars there long before the place came to public attention. The question is: where were all those congnescenti when the place was vacant and Mr. DeMarco was dejected and thinking of shutting down?

The DiFara Pizza Effect makes it likely that many (straight) people will read this and insist they were staunchly pro-Gay rights all the way back to 1975. If so, my question is: where were you when gays were being beaten and arrested and no one was uttering a word in their defense?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Trader Joe's Whole Wheat English Muffins

Trader Joe's now sells whole wheat English muffins that are wonderful.

Sorry to keep flogging Trader Joe's products; I promise I'm not on the payroll (though not for lack of effort; after quitting CNET, I hatched the idea of working for them as a scout; I even sent a proposal, but never heard back).

These are texturally similar to regular English Muffins, but there's an intensely wheaty flavor plus surprisingly good nutrition: each smallish muffin has 5g of fiber and 6g of protein, which is truly exceptional.

Even better, after toasting, I actually prefer them with a drizzle of olive oil rather than butter.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Phyllis and Harold

Harold, a phlegmatic blob of dazed resignation, spends his days ensconced in a Lazy Boy in the living room of his Long Island subdivision. Having played by the rules for seven decades, he's attained everything he was ever taught to aim for: the suburban house, the glamorous wife, the successful career, the kids ushered through higher education. He delivered all that was expected of him with flying colors, yet, in his final days, Harold finds himself aimlessly pissing his time away, unable to please his resentful, distant wife. She's pecked him half to death, but even this he's made peace with, shielding himself behind mountains of blubber and a few remaining pieces of the "King of the House" play they'd performed for years - a charade that's the only social structure he'd ever known. Blessed with little capacity for introspection, Harold insists, almost convincingly, that he's got it made...yet one senses beyond his unblinking facade a certain existential dread, much buried, crying out to ask "What the hell happened?!"*

Meanwhile, Harold's wife, Phyllis, a withdrawn, narcissistic creature who secretly deems herself a free-spirited romantic, exists in a state of crestfallen pique. She, too, has played by the rules, and attained everything she was ever taught to shoot for: she's got the rich dentist husband and the suburban house, she cooked, sewed and (sort of) raised the children, she looked good and maintained her figure. Model housewife. But now she's suffocated by a dead-ended life with her phlegmatic blob of a husband, and pines for what might have been. Unlike Harold, though, Phyllis hasn't always played by the rules. Her little breakouts, over the years, were the sole moments when she felt truly alive. Harold, by contrast, wouldn't know "alive" if it smacked him in the face.

Each finds the other domineering and emotionally frozen. Each has become infantilized in the realms in which they've respectively been dominated, and each resents but also fuels the other's distance. It is a stalemate. It is hell. it balance? Hey, after 55 years, they're still together. And, aside from all the hatred and resentment, they appear to be a more smoothly functioning yin/yang unit than either realizes. But Phyllis longs for more. And her husband is slowly slipping away along with his increasingly irrelevant circa 1951 playbook.

Harold's "king of the house" shtick was an expression of conformity, not tyranny. He lacked the creativity to do anything but diligently follow custom, into which he'd unrealizingly frozen. If Phyllis had done likewise, perhaps she'd have managed to bury her feelings as thoroughly as he had, and Harold could have had the retirement he'd dreamed of, with the ground firmly beneath his feet. 1951 forever! Phyllis, trapped, grimly observes the impasse with the most jaundiced of eyes.

Phyllis and Harold is a new documentary directed by the happy couple's daughter, Cindy Kleine, who somehow manages to keep the film's sympathies poised on a razor's edge, never taking sides. Both behind and before the camera, Kleine appears to have extricated herself from the mountain of family luggage, and, from this point of remove, she lets her parents tell their respective stories, crafting and framing it all with a smart but unobtrusive hand. The result could be viewed, superficially, as a zany family movie. But, really, it's a uniquely touching and transcendent work of art.

One of this film's magic tricks is that it conveys these heavy emotional issues with a surprisingly light touch. The tale is so darkly operatic - complete with tears, rages, broken hearts, and angst galore (plus a gristly yet darkly humorous demise for Harold, who choked on a baby lamb chop) - that I can't understand how I managed to leave the theater with a feeling of buoyancy.

If you're of my generation, these characters seem familiar: they're normal parents, that's all. Phyllis and Harold, with their buttoned-up emotions, narrow-minded conformity, and dangling threads of stifled yearning are so thoroughly in synch with their era that it's hard for people my age to think of "parents" in any other way. But of course, each generation is unique. For the generation of Phyllis and Harold, "parents" meant unknowable, highly detached beings for whom life was nothing but toil, self-denial, and sacrifice on behalf of The Children. That was a whole other world of repression and conformity.

So what about us, now? For young people today, "parents" are, perhaps, stunted adolescents who imagine the bongs hidden in their closets to be secret. If that description sounds cartoonish, it's because no one has yet fully grasped my generation, because we're still in charge. Our 1981 vintage playbook remains fully in play. We can't know who we are yet, because patterns of conformity and repression are never fully conscious at the time.

And so we must wither and grow quaint before the next generation can paint us as precisely as Cindy Kleine has done for our parents. At that point, our grown children, viewing us with horror and revelation, will resolve to avoid our unique quagmires, just as "Phyllis and Harold" fills us today with chagrined recognition and determination.

Phyllis and Harold is currently playing at Manhattan's Cinema Village, and opens April 9th in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Laemmle's Town Center 5 in Encino

Here are two previous film-related Slog entries:
Ten Terrific Films You've Never Heard Of and Indie Filmmakers Won't Let Me See Their Films. Here's my weirdo DVD collection (blurbs are not written by me).

* - I may be more introspective than Harold, but I, too, am starting to vaguely wonder what the hell's happening. After seeing "Phyllis and Harold", I recognize this to be a harbinger, and hope it all settles into clarity before I choke on some baby lamb chop of my own.

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