Tuesday, September 27, 2011

I Left My Schmuck in San Francisco

Sometimes it's hard for a girl to know what to wear. Or how much to wear. Whether it's dressing to stay out of trouble in Salah ud-Din . . .

. . . or to get into it in San Francisco . . .

. . . there can be so many choices to make. Spangles . . . or tassels? Choker . . . or necklace? Fan . . . or lorgnette? And which earrings? Clothing is a luxury for much of the world, worrying about which clothing even more of a luxury.

Except in San Francisco, where horns are locked, swords are drawn, cudgels taken up (all pointy, metaphorical things, of course) in defense of what not to wear. The supreme luxury, in questions sartorial, is that delicate frisson, the pique of feeling put upon when a paternalistic city, like a distant father, dictates that if you're going to go about nude (which is in accordance with municipal law) then you must seat yourself on a towel "or other material" when using public seating. Well really, dear.

A San Francisco city supervisor with the infinitely freighted name of Scott Wiener has proposed a city ordinance forbidding nudity in restaurants and "requir[ing] unclad people to put a towel or other material down before sitting bare-bottomed on benches or other public seats." The response was immediate. The San Francisco Bay Guardian printed a helpful recyclable tear-out in a recent issue to enable easy compliance with the proposed Wiener ordinance (or, "Wiener's proposed ordinance," if you prefer).

San Francisco being a hotbed of militant older men, other responses were more predictable. In the storied Castro District, a smallish crowd of naked protestors shoaled up like a pod of sunburned walruses in a damp autumn fog last Saturday to protest the ordinance, which most considered unnecessary since most already complied with the spirit of the law. The "Nude-In," as one might expect, did not draw the flower of the masculine populace (or would the opposite of "distaff" be "mastiff"? Someone please look it up and let me know.) And for my money, walking around naked in a September fog in San Francisco seems more like a hard-nippled, clasped-arms way of making a point (see photo) than "celebrating the freedom of the body" or whatever similar rationale floated in that rarified, post-D.H. Lawrence coastal air.

One lady who brought some out-of-town visitors for this Only-in-San-Francisco Moment asked the question on everyone's lips, “Where are the supermodel types? We want to know why it’s always the people who should not be naked who get naked.” (Not even to mention what chilly air will do for your shwanz.)

"If we're all wearing shoulder bags, does that count as naked?"

I've never actually spent much time in the "City By the Bay," but I'm told that this sort of thing is pretty serious business there. The aristocracy of that city take a pretty hard "Don't Tread On Me" stance when it comes to what they will or won't do - whether in personal fashion, political leanings, religious convictions, window treatments - which I understand all come to pretty much the same thing on the West Coast.

". . . and that goes for my Dorothy Draper chintz valances."

The case could be made that they have a point. It takes only a nominal prudence and foresight to carry something to sit on when in public, considering that it's a good deal simpler to remove, say, a wad of someone else's chewing gum from a towel than it is to ask even the dearest of friends their assistance in divesting your mechanically inaccessible parts of the same.

But the lady asked an important question. Why is it that the only people one ever hears about going stark naked are men in whom all the gristle is gone, men who should probably be wearing something . . .  

I actually have a theory about that. I think it's guys about my age who grew up in those crazy Eisenhower Years. 

"Wanna get naked, kid?"

from The Guardian, November 20, 2012

Nudists vow to defy anti-nudity law in San Francisco
San Francisco nudists said on Monday they would continue to walk the streets naked regardless of a proposed law that would order them to cover up.

City authorities are meeting on Tuesday to decide on a new anti-nudity law that is being supported by residents and business owners in the city’s Castro district.

Nudists (in bathrobes)
The law would make it an offence for anyone over the age of five to “expose his or her genitals, perineum or anal region on any public street, sidewalk, street median, parklet or plaza”.

Lloyd Fishbach, left, who was standing naked at the corner of Castro and Market, said it should be his choice to dress as he wants, where he wants.

“There is always someone who is not going to like what you are doing,” he said. “I live in the Castro and I’ve been doing this since first grade. This is just a bunch of uptight Americans. But I’ll still keep doing it and if I see the cops coming I will run and hide.”

Sunday, September 25, 2011

'A Kind of Wild Justice'

Like most capital cases, the recent execution of Troy Davis has polarized people along political lines, the liberal left finding reasonable grounds for a stay of the sentence, the hard right suddenly become uncharacteristically sensitive to the emotions of real middle class people - the victim's family - chronicling their horrific "ordeal" and their need for "closure."

A couple of things interest me in the after-chatter about this sad episode. First (and not to minimize the sufferings of the McPhails over more than two decades), the idea that a human being ought to be executed so that a family can have "closure." Closure is available upon the execution of any number of innocent people, so long as the victim's family is convinced the culprit is actually in custody. But the idea that "closure" is somehow a right or a basic human necessity seems wrongheaded.

Closure is one of those 20th-century notions lifted from the psychobabble promoted by the psychotherapy industry as 1) a right or necessity every healthy person must attain following any sort of trauma whatsoever, and 2) a handy notional benchmark whereby the clinical practitioner can demonstrably claim to have earned $175 per hour. "Closure" may have a place in a therapist's womb-like office (you might need to come to terms with the fact that that snazzy used '94 Coupe de Ville you just bought has been repossessed, or your mother-in-law poisoned the family cat, or you didn't get laid on your vacation).

But closure is a psychic luxury. You can pay $175 per hour for it, but it has no corresponding place in the judicial system, particularly when lives hang in the balance and it becomes just one more reason to lethally inject a person who may or may not have done something. Closure, in a court of law, is a pseudo-scientific, basely sentimental pretext for revenge. It is for just this reason that a victim's friends, family members or creditors are not acceptable as members of any jury trying their case.

The second thing I find noteworthy is the religious fealty the right wing blindly places in a governmental justice system - Government, "the Beast," the Great Evil - broken and pernicious in every way except when a state sets its sights on some poor bastard who's become the overnight darling of the liberal left. "Why," asks one blogger, "do liberals have a soft spot for cop killers like Troy Davis?"

"Liberals," he continues, "don’t like the death penalty; so they are desperate to find proof that innocent men have been executed . . . . In truth, even if an innocent man were executed, it wouldn’t change anything. We already have a system that’s slanted in favor of the defendants in criminal trials and heavily against the death penalty." Apparently the rules of evidence are a liberal problem that can be overcome with a central government strong  enough to slant the system so that capital defendants are expeditiously slid off the tilt?

But mark this - "even if an innocent man were executed, it wouldn’t change anything." In fact, notwithstanding the implication to the contrary, innocent people have been executed, will be executed in future, and certainly nothing has changed. Not yet, in any case. Troy Davis's life may be a breach in that particular wall of idiocy.

A blogger on Tea Party Nation testifies his own fervent zeal for government mandated executions: "Troy Davis was on death row for twenty years. He was given a trial by a jury of his peers and then had countless opportunities to relitigate his death penalty. The justice system was not broken."

Ah, not so fast, Bubba: "On second thought, may be it was. For twenty years, he sat on death row while Mark McPhail’s family had to endure all of the appeals. Perhaps the question we should be asking is why does it take twenty years and an untold amount of taxpayer money for justice to be delivered?" So in the end it all comes back to the same old hymn: the government spent "an untold amount of taxpayer money" and very nearly screwed it up.

"The justice system was not broken." That a government has never erred when meting out capital punishment belies a zealous faith in those very circles that decry the ineptitude, the growth, the inefficiency, the corruption, the godless liberal secularism, the constitutional overreaching they see in every aspect of "Government." Due diligence be damned, they tell us, it only costs taxpayers more money and the government will get it right in any case.

But without due diligence about the evidence, all we have is "the need for closure." Without it, there is only revenge, "a kind of wild justice." The purpose of a system of laws is to enact justice, not to offer psychic healing to the bereaved. In all of this sorry episode, the legal fiction of the "reasonable person" has remained just a fiction.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Down Around Our Heads (update)

I was driving through the post-Rapture landscape of western Kansas yesterday along a two-lane blacktop, scarcely another truck passing me for mile upon mile beneath an unblemished sky, lost in the comforting miasma of my own profound thoughts, when off in the blue middle distance beyond my bug-soiled windscreen something brilliant incandesced into the far horizon like a P-51 into a grandstand, trailing an instantaneous silver wake. It flashed and was gone in an instant - an enormous meteor, the Second Coming, a manifestation of the Evil One - I had no clue what I'd just seen. I'd never heard of a meteor sighted in broad daylight but I couldn't think what else it could plausibly be. I like to think I might have been the only person in the world to have seen it. It was brilliant, hot and instantaneous.

No, not like that.

In fact, meteors in broad daylight are occasionally reported, although as this site chronicles daytime sightings in Texas and Kentucky, I would normally be inclined to remain skeptical since the cognoscenti all insist the Rapture will come to Texas first. Then Kentucky, probably.

Jesus: The Tortilla ("Jesus, the tortilla!")

But I saw something on the Kansas horizon yesterday and it seems that the only plausible explanation could be a meteorite. Well, it seemed yesterday the only plausible explanation - until I spotted this headline in the New York Times (my daily paper, as you may have surmised): "Falling Satellite Could Land in U.S."

Even Miguel can put dos y dos together.  Apparently, even after NASA lost most of its funding there are still six tons of malfunctioning NASA hardware loose inside the earth's orbit and on their way down - "Falling Satellite Could End Where It Began, NASA Says," reads the sub-head inside the Times site, proffering a textbook example of retributive justice if ever there were a fair exchange of eyeballs. "Where it began" would be presumably somewhere in Florida. I could probably live with the horrible consequences of that. NASA officials expect "re-entry" late today or early tomorrow. "Re-entry" is another way of saying that "At least 26 pieces, the largest 330 pounds, are expected to survive the plunge and land along a path 500 miles long."

Let's be honest - none of us has a clue as to what the hell is going on in outer space. We have no idea how many people are floating around up there "manning" some contraption or other.

(Has digital images of you in Under Armour.)

We have no idea how many Chinese or American or Pakistani or Iranian space launches have sailed off over our unsuspecting heads, manufactured to less than exacting standards by impoverished workers unprotected by OSHA labor standards under conditions the EPA could never sanction, a payload waiting only to plummet into your basement and destroy your crop of hydroponic medical marijuana ("No! - it's organic arugula.")

 Iranian space probe

Not to mention private companies sending their own junk into space. The Times report concludes that "About one satellite five metric tons or larger re-enters the atmosphere every year. For example, on a test flight of its Falcon 9 rocket (see photo) in June 2010, the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation placed the second stage and a prototype capsule into orbit. That object . . . came crashing back to Earth two and a half weeks later without causing a media ripple." 

Corporate returns

Public indifference to a rain of potentially lethal metal on our heads is disturbing. But what other response makes sense under the circumstances? The prospect invites the same sort of fatalism one might expect on learning that the stock exchange has just eaten your retirement fund or the FBI has been intercepting your cell phone calls or you got a computer virus from downloading porn or the Koch Brothers will be mining coal in your back yard. What can you do but shrug, turn up your collar, and mutter self-referentially, "Poor bastard." Not a long term solution, to be sure.

For my own part, I couldn't care less. I've been too busy watching the Republican candidates in foro, debating the finer policy points of the End Time. Some days, the Rapture just can't come soon enough. The Long Term Solution, I like to call it.

"Back from Outer Space"

Update 10/22/2011:  from The Daily Beast 

German Telescope Will Fall to Earth

Didn't we just do this? A two-ton German space telescope will crash back to earth today or tomorrow, but scientists can't determine where it will land. The satellite, launched in 1990, will likely break up into 30 or so pieces as it goes through the atmosphere. The largest single piece, the telescope's mirror, is heat resistant and weighs about 1.7 tons. It comes just weeks after NASA's six-ton UARS satellite crashed back to Earth, landing in the Pacific Ocean. NASA was unable to predict where UARS would land, but the odds of it hitting a populated area were infinitesimal.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Name It, You Can Have It

[My father's] opinion, in this matter, was, That there was a strange kind of magick bias, which good or bad names, as he called them, irresistibly impressed upon our characters and conduct. . . . How many Caesars and Pompeys, he would say, by mere inspiration of the names, have been rendered worthy of them? And how many. . .who might have done exceeding well in the world, had not their characters and spirits been totally depressed and Nicodemus’d into nothing?

   - Laurence Sterne, "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent." (Bk.I, ch. XIX)

The sports section in yesterday's New York Times features a reflection on Ted Williams's 70-year-old record .406 batting average, a neat tribute to Williams's prowess as "baseball’s greatest hitter." 

The Swing

What caught my attention, however, was this: "His batting average stood at .39955 with a season-finale doubleheader to be played the next day [Sept. 28, 1941] at Shibe Park, home of Connie Mack’s Athletics." That particular sentence stood out because, driving home through Denver a day or so earlier, I passed by Sports Authority Field, formerly Invesco Field, the home stadium of the Denver Broncos. (Sports Authority, since there's no way for most people to know this bit of trivia, is a Denver-based chain of sporting goods stores which purchased the naming rights to the stadium last month in a 25-year deal at $6 million per annum. Obviously, Invesco needed the dough in these troubled economic times.)

Where is this?

Anyway, reading this sentence, the name "Shibe Park" came back through the mists of a half-century, a nerdy kid glued to the radio listening to Yankees or Dodgers or Giants baseball games. Everyone in those palmier days knew where Ebbetts Field or the Polo Grounds were, and which teams played where. Comiskey Park and Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and Forbes Field, Briggs Stadium - the names of the venues went with the names of the teams. Some were obvious - the Indians played in Cleveland Stadium. 

But who on earth plays at Progressive Field? Or MetLife Stadium? The Packers still play at Lambeau Field in Green Bay - but who plays at M&T Bank Stadium? The 49ers play in Candlestick Park. Who plays in Qualcomm Stadium? Even a casual fan can probably tell you who plays at Soldier Field ("da Bears") or Coors Field. But Safeco Field? PETCO Park?

 Soldier Field (with classical neo-fascist facade) 

Admittedly, corporate sponsorship is nothing new. . .

"It's your coliseum, Boss . . . "

But - and not wishing to belabor the point - on the time-honored premise that sport is a metaphor for life, I've come up with a few of my own ideas for naming opportunities. I suspect these have already occurred to someone, but try them on and roll them around on your tongue.

 . . . the Frito Lay/Toys-R-Us 112th Legislative Session of the State of Texas

. . . the Nabisco/Hellman's Real Mayonnaise Presidential Bodyguards

. . . the Budget Rent-a-Car/QuickLube Presidential Motorcade

The high-stakes sponsorships, of course, are already taken.

The Koch Industries/Time-Warner-Disney Supreme Court of the U.S.

 The Cargill/ADM Senate of the United States

The Goldman Sachs Chair of the Federal Reserve

No, I'm not even going to think about it. Could never happen . . . .

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Summer in Kansas: Turtles All the Way Down

Consider the humble box turtle, Terrapene ornata ornata, a smallish reptile of the Great American Desert, a hapless creature prone to wander from the concealing roadside grasses onto highways.

Turtles are generally modest creatures, not given to bouts of ill temper, never petulant or neurotic, neither skulkers nor biters, never (like a gang of raccoons) strewing the contents of your trash can across a driveway like an FAA crash team reassembling airliner debris.

For all of these reasons, whenever I spot a box turtle wandering slowly across a stretch of Kansas highway, I pull over, walk back to the spot, remove the turtle to the grassy verges of the road, and aim it into the middle distance before I go on. I've found them, snub noses bloodied from a sidewall but still serviceable, stunned but able to churn their slow way into the neighboring ditch, or nonplussed by the quick whirr of tires around them. But then, turtles always appear haplessly nonplussed, somehow deserving of our basic sympathy and succor.

From 50 feet away at 65 mph, they're hard to spot on the roadway, bearing as they do an unfortunate resemblance to a dislodged chunk of pavement. Which of course reduces their chances of surviving the crossing. So it was, the other afternoon, coming along a country road that I did a U-turn to go back and retrieve one of my fellow creatures from an awful fate. The traffic was uncharacteristically heavy just at the moment and as I stood on the roadside, waiting for the last cars to pass so I could venture over on foot to retrieve the turtle, there was the predictable sound from beneath the final car, like a tire running over a full can of Bud Light. 

The irony of the situation was thick - me standing at the side of the road bent on a quick act of mercy, a whole line of autos save the very last missing the little critter, and in a moment my chances for kharmic enhancement and his chances in general erased before my eyes. In the heat of my chagrin I was perhaps ungenerous - it may not have been a moment of deliberate malevolence. Still, I can only hope that his own terrapine kharma may someday return the selfsame turtle to us as a right honorable Senator.

Terrapene ornata ornata (washingtonensis)

I'm not certain what it means to say that "life is sacred." I don't suppose a turtle's life is any more or less sacred than my own. I think all it can mean is that being human and self aware, we all take a particular interest in our own lives and, by extension, in the lives of those near to us and to all those who resemble us specifically, and perhaps by a further extension (in minds capable of extending themselves) to sentient, living creatures in general. Given a world of flourishing living things, it seems only a natural sentiment to wish them continuance, health, pleasure and a prosperity after their own kind. So long as a deer remains out of my immediate trajectory, or a raccoon out of my garbage can, or a skunk out of my parlor, I can wish them well and am to that extent able to consider their lives sacred.

Turtles, of course, are a special case, holding as they do a special place in our cosmology. The earth, it is thought, rests on the back of a great turtle, who presumably rests on the back of a fellow, and so on ad infinitum or ad absurdum (your choice).

The Infinite Turtle Regress

Hume remarks (somewhere) that this sympathy is based on resemblance - our sympathies are strongest for those of our own kind most familiar to us, related by blood or daily commerce or community; that it dwindles as our relations become more remote, or as our physical resemblance lessens, or in a degree as our species differs. So I may be elated to meet a fellow English speaker in the reaches of Outer Mongolia; and perhaps equally elated to encounter a fellow living creature such as a crustacean, were we both stranded on Mars. (A situation, you may have perceived, not unlike encountering a benign reptile in western Kansas.)

"Whither away shall I today -
Miami, Milwaukee, or Mandalay?"

It is for this reason I can regret the turtle's demise but clean the grasshoppers from my windscreen with resignation rather than regret. Many other creatures could never engage my sympathy - even on Mars. 

 Eric Cantor