Monday, June 30, 2008

Garden of Action Figure Delights

If there is any toy cooler than Hiëronymus Bosch action figures, I've never heard of it.


A moment of silence please


Graz Update

A True Story About Keys, And Then Some Unrelated Pictures.

When we signed the lease on our new apartment, we had to sign for all the keys we received. This is normal. We didn't actually receive all the keys we signed for, though. That's a little less normal. It gets weirder from here.

We got two sets of house door keys, a mail box key that doesn't fit any of the boxes, and 3 keys for nothing we've been able to identify. Also, the bedroom door has an exterior door on it, with a key in it, but we didn't have to sign for that one. It is, however, 100% possible to be locked out of the bedroom in a way that would require the services of a locksmith...

We signed for 3 sets of door keys, a mailbox key, and a key for the storage area in the basement, and were told a very unconvincing story about how the landlady's son (who lives upstairs) has our mailbox key, and a set of apartment spares, and that we should just get that from him. Because.... they couldn't get that sorted out in the week between when we agreed to sign the lease, and when we actually signed it??

While were moving in, the Hausmeisterin delivered the set of spares, but no one seemed to know who has the mailbox key, or which mailbox is ours. Eventually it was communicated to us that the landlady's son had contacted his mother (we suspect she owns the whole building), and she'd called the Hausmeister, who then tasked his wife (Hausmeisterin) with letting us know that we should catch the mailman on his rounds and demand that he re-key the lock for our mailbox. Did you follow all that buck-passing?

Which post box is ours, we asked? Oh, just pick one. Whichever one isn't being used is fine. How would we know which aren't being used? None of them are marked! (Much of that information was shouted from a 3rd story window at Holly while she was in the backyard hanging laundry.) There are 20 boxes in the bank; our building only apparently has 7 units total, and possibly only 5 tenants, now that we have moved in.

Anyway, our mailman moves very fast, and looks kind of, ah, postal. So, Greg went to the post office to talk to them about it. They claimed that they don't deal with deliveries (??), but gave him a phone number of a man who could do the job. Later that same day, we got a could-not-deliver notice (presumably because the mailman couldn't figure out which apartment was ours, we don't have a mailbox, and our doorbell is also not labeled. And also doesn't really work), and the notice specified that we should go to the post office that told Greg they don't do deliveries, to get the thing. Anyway, Greg eventually got a phone call in to the guy who re-keys mailboxes, who agreed to do the set-up, and would just leave the keys in the mailbox, which is how we would know which mailbox is ours.

Which he did, several days later (we neglected to ask when he'd be doing that). Turns out, we have box number 5 (yes, we are in apartment #3), and although we put our name and apartment number on the little tag for the mailbox, the mailman persists in leaving our mail on top of the mailbox.

Still don't know what those other keys are for; nor do we have access to any of the locked storage areas in the basement. Life is full of mysteries. They're going to surprised when we eventually move out and given them back 3 sets of apartment keys, 3 mailbox keys, 4 keys for assorted things that we don't know about, plus 5 things that look like keys!

Stelze: Not for the faint of heart!

Thursday night last week we went to the Gösser Bräu biergarten to try Stelze, which is a hefty portion of a pig's leg, lovingly slow roasted into a state of transcendence. There's not a whole lot to say about the Stelze experience, it is one of those things that you have to check out first hand. There were 3 of us at the table (a coworker of Greg's joined us for this outing), and we ordered 2 Stelze, on the advice of the server, who'd advised us that we definitely did not each need to order one. We should've ordered only 1, and then we would have had room for bieramisu, which we think is probably tiramisu made with beer instead of coffee, but who knows? We didn't have room for that. We couldn't even finish our pork, and we didn't have any kind of appetizers or bread, and just one dish of cabbage salad among us. However! There is a picture: That's probably 4-5 pounds of pork right there. Yes, it's still got the skin and bones, but don't underestimate the volume of meat. We were all groaning happily by the time we wobbled for the exit. (Actually, Greg and Christian were still groaning about all that a week later; Holly may have shown slightly better restraint.)

It's a 3-person grill platter at a nearby greek restaurant, in case you were wondering. We were defeated by this, as well. Christian isn't allowed to order anymore.

Not much to say about this bit of statuary, except that it's probably bigger than it looks, it's 3 stories over the street! Some kind of human gargoyle? Near the main branch of the public library, right downtown.

We're now on to Day 8 of a long term project to get the cat shaved down for summer, without a whole lot of struggling. So far.... she's about 2/3 shaved, and more or less done with the project. She is done; the project is not. What remains is the all the little bendy parts of the cat, and she would prefer we leave those alone. We might; she'll be cooler now, and we get a lot of mileage giggling about her bad haircut.

Don't try this at home, kids, most cats will not tolerate this kind of nonsense. There's a REASON that people get paid to groom other people's pets! Warning: There are FAR too many pictures of the cat-shaving project on the Flickr site right now. Just ignore them, OK?

Adventures in cheap wine... we bought this because, well, it was 99 cents per liter box. Not on sale; that's the regular price. Someday it'll be on 2-for-1, we're sure of it! The boxes are so cheap, there's not even a spout. Wine you have to open with scissors! What will they think of next?! One begins to suspect that the S in S Budget is Suspiciously.

We tried the red, each of us had a whole glass of it before abandoning the experiment. It wasn't as bad as we expected, is the best and only thing to be said of it. We've had the white chilling in the fridge for at least 2 weeks now. It's not that we're afraid; it's that we're... waiting for the right moment. Yeah. That's it. We've mentioned before that the Governator is from here. Here's the biggest we've ever seen him: 4 stories!

That's it for now. Hopefully this has been somewhat amusing for you. As always, more pictures in Flickr, including some chocolate so strong that it comes with a gold MSDS! Do write and tell us what you're up to, and send any entertaining photos you've collected.

Holly & Greg


Goddess of the Week: Hecate

One of the Greek gods of the underworld (the Cthonian gods), Hecate was associated with witchcraft, ghosts and the moon. Her animal familiars are the black she-dog and the polecat. She is also said to be a protector of the firstborn and is associated with childbirth. It was Hecate who led Demeter to the underworld to recover her daughter Persephone.

In vase paintings, Hecate is usually shown in maiden skirt and hunting boots, holding two torches. In statues, she is usually shown in triple form as a goddess of crossroads, a trend that Pausinias says was begun by the sculptor Alkamenes in the fourth century BC.

Hecate also appears in Macbeth, where she commands the three witches. She is also frequently mentioned in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.


Sunday, June 29, 2008

Rufus = Still Weird

Well, here's the latest in the ongoing Carnival of Weird Rufus Quirks: I have a tendency to do things until I feel that I've "perfected" them. This can seem very studious when it comes to learning everything about a particular topic; until that is, it's time to actually write something on the topic and I'm still memorizing minutiae that nobody but me sees the importance of. Then, it just seems a little autistic.

It also seems a little autistic when I memorize a daily walk, learning where every building, bit of grafitti, plant, animal, and trashcan is. I was amazed to find, upon returning to Nantes after two years, that I could still find remarkably obscure things like particular phonebooths. Admittedly, when I was here in 2006, I thought to myself how nice it would be to make the same walks every day until I had "perfected" them, and then perhaps write a book on the places in those walks. I only vaguely understand why this might not seem like a great idea to others.

I think this might be what they call "stereotyped behaviors". It's not the same as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder though: I don't have any need to arrange cupboards a particular way or open a door three times before leaving the house. It's not so much specific rituals that I invent as it taking me a really long time to do the normal things I'm supposed to do. So, taking notes on a book can be very time-consuming. On the other hand, I can easily sit and read a book for 11 hours straight.

The problem is that I get stuck in particular grooves easily. So, something like the Internet is a nightmare for me. I can "check" the same five websites over and over for four hours. In fact, the Internet is probably more addictive than anything else for me. I really do need to cut down to maybe a half hour a day.

So, I'm just throwing this out there. My mother acts very much the same way, so I've likely gotten the personality type from her. This is where the question of "nature" versus "nurture" seems pointless: I act like my parents, like we all do, and who knows why. It is interesting to me, however, that, when applied to my studies, this behavior comes across as "studious"; when applied to things like talking a walk or endlessly studying verb forms, it seems a bit "Asperger's"; and when applied to things like the Internet or going to the pub, it seems "addictive". I wonder if they're all the same personality type.

Postscript: No, actually, it looks like it is not the same as stereotyped behaviors.


Funny Face (1957) -Scene

I have no sound, so I hope this is not redubbed. But this is probably my favorite scene from a movie, even considering all the Marx Brothers movies. Audrey Hepburn's character is reacting angrily to Fred Astaire's uptight character through beatnik interpretive dance. It's very entertaining and of course the sheer talent on display is humbling.


Zimbabwe Update

The President of the United States has called for stronger sanctions against Zimbabwe. Good for him.

Canada has said they are ready to impose strong sanctions too, as soon as they're called to, which is very Canadian, but good too.

Mugabe won the elections- he was the only person on the ballot, and has said that only God will remove him. Sadly, this seems to be correct, but at 84, it might be fairly soon now.

I do wonder if part of what's going on here is that he's afraid to step down, since he'd most likely be jailed or killed soon thereafter.


New Wave is Gay?

Homosexuality is a very difficult lifestyle: do you have any idea how much Whitney Houston they play in gay bars?! I'm really convinced that there are some gays who come out of the closet, visit the local gay bar, hear Cyndi Lauper, and go right back into the closet.

Actually, we have a beloved friend who has been struggling with coming out for about, oh, five years now. His friends and family completely adore him, and his parents are liberal, godless Canadians anway, so they really wouldn't care; but, alas, he's internalized so much homophobia that he thinks the news will be a devastating tragedy for everyone else (aside from Claire and me).

But, for me (being shallow), I keep thinking what a relief it is to know a gay guy who listens to cool music- all he ever plays us is this terrifying death metal that could easily cast Whitney Houston screaming into a lake of fire. I just think he needs to come out for cultural reasons! Of course, there's an irony here in that our gay friend listens to death metal, races bad ass cars, and does extreme sports, while me, the one with the wife, gardens, listens to Madonna and Bowie, collects fashion magazines, and adores Audrey Hepburn movies. But, alas, the difference is that if I had the chance *, I would have sex with Audrey Hepburn, again and again.

Anyway!... Salon recently ran an article detailing a New Wave Mix-Tape for Coming Out. It's definitely a step up from "I'm Every Woman"! But, again, we have so much work to do...
* (And wasn't already married to her superior, of course!)


Saturday, June 28, 2008

Another Sky

I updated it. Well, a little. There are new things by Ira, me, and Emily Rems linked up there.

At least, it's an improvement from me not even changing the date for five months!

Another Sky Web Journal.



Dick Cavett on clinical depression, which he suffers from:

"I know that everyone here knows that feeling when people say to you, “Hey, shape up! Stop thinking only about your troubles. What’s to be depressed about? Go swimming or play tennis and you’ll feel a lot better. Pull up your socks!” And how you, hearing this, would like nothing more than to remove one of those socks and choke them to death with it."


Gotta Look At It Paperwise

Came across the BC Woods blog yesterday, and found the entry on GWB particularly well-written. You, too, might find this resonates a bit.

I ask you this, my fellow Americans: name one other country in the world, that could have withstood even six months of the Bush Administration. There is no answer save America. That, my friends, is why George Bush makes me proud to be an American.
Edit: You also might NOT find that it resonates. In fact, this may be one of your pet peeves. WARNING: Objects in the internet may be more irritating than they appear.


Friday, June 27, 2008


Note on 19th century Handwriting

Remember how dazzling the handwriting of French consuls from the early years of the nineteenth century was? Looking at some documents from the 1880s and 1890s today, I found that the handwriting was still elegant. There is one noticeable change though, across the board: the handwriting is more upright. The cursive from the earlier years leans to the right at about a 10-20 degree angle, which looks to have been standard. In the later decades, it is more common to write the letters going straight up and down, like most of us do now. At most, they lean at a 5 degree angle. Also the writing has become cleaner with fewer swirls and loop-de-loops. Why is this? I’m guessing that the use of typewriters had an effect on how people wrote. Note also that early typewriter fonts leaned to the right about five degrees, in imitation of script. This goes back to our earlier comment on technology: our tools work on us too!


Tonight I'm going to rock you tonight

Sparkling prose from the UK Mirror:
"Last night Guy was holed up alone in his country mansion last night hoping against the odds that he can rescue his doomed marriage to Madonna."


Lacoste: Crocodile Style

Maybe I’ve been unfair to Lacoste. I’ve called their clothes perfect for hanging around the family tennis court half-drunk and waiting for your rich parents to die, or for adding an ironic touch to an axe murder, and I tend to see them as the fashion equivalent of a watercress sandwich with the crusts cut off. Of course, another way of looking at Lacoste is as the sort of clothes that F. Scott Fitzgerald and the smart set would have worn in the 1930s, particularly while they were committing an ironic axe murder.

René Lacoste’s father would have preferred that his son attend the Polytechnique, but René loved tennis. His fragile health prevented him from a full sporting career, but the young man had determination bolstering his body, especially after he saw the “impregnable” Davis Cup carried away by the Americans at age 23. He was hooked; having inherited the perfectionism of his industrialist father, René spent hours perfecting his game and even invented a machine to launch tennis balls. After winning Wimbledon twice and the Davis Cup once between 1927 and 1928, Lacoste dominated world tennis.

Lacoste remained an inventor; he contributed to the Concorde tennis racket and created his famous polo shirt to wear on the court. In 1933, he retired from the sport for health reasons and decided to market his shirts. To these ends, he enlisted the help of André Gillier, a major actor in French knitwear. If his polo jacket was a bit heavy for playing tennis in, his lighter short jersey was unanimously popular with players. But, their real inspiration was adding the Lacoste crocodile to the exterior, making this the first branded clothing. The public was won over by the idea of wearing a legend on their chest.

When his son Bernard Lacoste took over the family business, he made it an international brand. Patricia Kapferer and Tristan Gaston-Breton describe Bernard as, “un visionnaire avec une culture international,” in their book Le style René Lacoste. Educated at Princeton and married to an Asian woman, when Bernad became company President in 1963, the first thing he did was to take the brand to Japan, followed by Brazil, Australia, South Korea, etc. By the early 90s, he was interested in the emerging countries and had opened a boutique in Shanghai. After his death in 2005, his brother Michel took over the company and notably rolled out the new collection for the first time in Brazil.

Lacoste is now sold in 112 countries. The company stagnated a bit in the 90s and lost ground in the sporting market. They responded by reworking their circuit of distribution and remaking the boutiques to give them a “purer” look. And they set up new shops in Manhattan, where elegance and street wear are not at odds like in Paris. Apparently, it worked: in the last five years, their sales have tripled, reaching 1.6 billion euros last year.

Not that I’ll ever wear Lacoste; there’s just something too Gloria Vanderbilt about the clothing with its WASPish combination of elegance and dullness. I think to wear it you have to be on the Harvard rowing team and have a nickname like Cappy or Chas, and be right now wearing deck shoes. Your idea of a light snack is quail. You worry at night that Sotheby’s is no longer solidly top drawer. Among your relatives, “safe sex” means getting the pool boy fired afterwards. All of your friends’ jokes start with: “Listen up, everyone: Thaddeus is about to do his impression of those hip hop fellows. It’s a real stitch!” Okay, tip your waitresses, ladies and germs!

But, I do get it- Lacoste makes nice clothes, and not just for axe murderers.


Thursday, June 26, 2008

Hugo Boss window display in Paris a few months ago.


An old illustration of Mexican clothing from the French foreign affairs archives.


Step with me now, into the future…

…where you carry your telephone with you when you leave the house and all of the cars are fueled by electricity!

Well, maybe.
We’re told that the US is suffering from the great “gas crisis”; apparently, Americans paying the same prices for gas as the rest of the world qualifies as a crisis. Voters are crying for the government to do something, for God’s sake, to control the markets and “out-of-control speculation”! And who’s opposed to socialism now? They blame the gas company fat cats, and I’ve been called an “extremist” and a “peak oil preacher” for pointing out that petrol is a finite natural resource that takes millions of years to renew. So, all I will say now is nyah-na nya-na-na!

The President, true to form, has blamed everyone else, and gone to the Saudis to beg them to pump out more oil. If there’s anything more humiliating for Americans than a US President grabbing his ankles and telling the Saudis to start drilling, it’s probably only the fact that Celine Dion lives in the states now. That’s all I can think of.

Of the two Presidential candidates, McCain is so far leading the contest to make believe that the state can fix this problem. His gas tax holiday idea was pandering, and his drop-in-the-bucket offshore drilling idea is even more so, but people seem to be falling for it. After all, it appeals to that old bedtime story that goes: “You could totally have whatever you wanted, but those stupid radicals won’t let you!”

On the other hand, he’s getting warmer in offering money to whoever can design the ideal car battery: this is what is going to solve the problem in the next decade. One has to wonder though why the state should be funding research and development for the car companies, especially since the person who develops the ideal battery is already going to make a fortune. Andrew Sullivan argues that McCain just doesn’t seem to understand the free market. But, he could see what’s coming and be trying to take undeserved credit for it, like Al Gore with the World Wide Interweb.

Even more depressing, Barack Obama has supposedly been touting ethanol, which should make him popular with farmers in the same way that supporting a lobster-powered car would win him my dad’s vote. It’s not really a solution either. The ethanol dream is dying slowly, but die it must.

I bow to the superior knowledge of gearheads on this, and the ones I’ve spoken to have said that hydrogen would be the best solution. It’s not hard to produce and a hydrogen-burning car would emit water vapor as waste. It would take years to put in hydrogen fueling stations, but it’s a project that the government could actually handle and it would put people to work.

Alas, it seems that the electric car will become a reality sooner. Renault aims to develop one by 2010, as do Toyota and General Motors. GM’s plan for a plug-in car is somewhat inspiring: executives have invested a fortune in the project, saying that John Kennedy didn’t talk about getting to the moon “sometime”. I suspect we will be driving the things within the decade. One irritation: the electric car is whisper-quiet and people have worried that old people will be run over crossing the road; so, they’re developing a fake engine noise to go with it. I’d be okay with a few old people getting hit if I could have a nice quiet walk.

So, the “greedy” car companies will solve the problem they created, while the government will do very little, hopefully. I suppose this is why I lean more towards the libertarian left- I don’t think the state can, or should, solve these sorts of problems. I’m skeptical that the invisible pocket-picking hand of the free market can either, but at least, if you’re sick of GM, you can force them to change simply by doing what I did- replacing a gas guzzler with a Toyota Yaris. Or ride a bike. With the state, you have two guys offering fake solutions, and if you don’t like one fake solution, you have to wait four years to pick the guy with the other fake solution.

I will say though, as an admirer of American muscle cars, that a part of me will likely get a little nostalgic when I watch movies like Vanishing Point with my gearhead relatives.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Looking out my window when I was in Paris.


A picture from the Lamartine book that reminds me that I need to post a picture of the tea set that my sister got me in Morocco. I will as soon as I get a chance!


Polished Philistinism

Margaret Soltan linked to this beautiful autobiographical prose by Walter Kirn about a working-class kid attending a prestigious university with the peerage. It also, from first-hand, makes a point I've made here recently about the relative pointlessness of teaching "theory" before teaching the western tradition that it developed out of.

"The need to finesse my ignorance through such stunts left me feeling hollow and vaguely hunted. I sought solace in the company of other frauds (we seemed to recognize one another instantly), and together we refined our acts. We toted around books by Jacques Derrida, and spoke of "playfulness" and "textuality." We laughed at the notion of "authorial intention" and concluded, before reading even a hundredth of it, that the Western canon was illegitimate, an expression of powerful group interests that it was our sacred duty to transcend—or, failing that, to systematically subvert. In this rush to adopt the latest attitudes and please the younger and hipper of our instructors—the ones who drank with us in the Nassau Street bars and played the Clash on the tape decks of their Toyotas as their hands crept up pants and skirts—we skipped straight from ignorance to revisionism, deconstructing a body of literary knowledge that we'd never constructed in the first place."

Anyway, it's great stuff. And don't worry: it has a happy ending!


"Where we are", "when we are" and Who we Are

While combing through the archives of the French consul to Constantinople (1806) today, I came across a large stash of his more literary notes. These included a no doubt useful guide to reading Arabic, as well as more whimsical writings, such as his attempts at imitating Virgil in French verse and translations of Horace. He also recorded a number of local myths and fables.

I sometimes forget how intellectually curious these people were. Many of their documents pertain, of course, to dull bureaucratic matters; but they also spent a great deal of time studying the places in which they lived and worked. Frequently, I will find “missions” in which the consul has sent a dragoman (a Levant translator) to scope out forgotten ruins or local folk songs. If you were interested in these cultures, working as an ambassador or consulate was ideal; conversely, if you had the interest, you would be good for the job.

I think there’s also a tendency to lump everyone who travelled outside of Europe in the nineteenth century in with the mad imperial scramble of the time (really the latter part of the century). I have had scholars respond with shock when they found out that I am interested in finding out whether the traveling writers that I am studying actually supported the colonial project. “But, of course they did,” one insisted to me. “They were imperialists!”

Well, maybe. But how do all these different motivations: patriotic duty, intellectual curiosity, a love of culture, keeping a job, and even self-discovery: play out and how do they relate to the world around us? Heidegger might have been a bit of a con artist, but he was perhaps right that “to be” can only be understood as Being-in-the-world. How much of “who we are” is basically where we are, and when we are? And, as a historian, am I only really able to study those parts of people’s lives that related to their time and place, but not whatever lies beyond that? Does my curiosity make me an “imperialist” too?


Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Sits like a man but he smiles like a reptile

The opposition MDC party has dropped out of the Presidential race in Zimbabwe, where the downside to participating in the political process is being raped, tortured and murdered. The UN Security Council has issued an "unprecidented condemnation" of Robert Mugabe, which will likely follow precident in resulting in nothing. Britain thinks that having the world deny "international legitimacy" to Mugabe would help, which might be true if he weren't barking mad. Of course, there are those "Sponsor-a-child" programs in Africa; I wonder if we could arm the children of Zimbabwe instead?


Not the best photo, but...

A nice print of what the port in Malta used to look like from Lamartine Voyage en Orient.


O Canada, my home and non-native land!

Sort of a bad news/ good news post here....

First, here's a new-to-the-tenure-track academic talking about getting dicked around by various American "universities" for twenty years (although it sounds like the last ten have been okay). Cringe-inducing quote:

During my 20-year stint as a part-timer, I built a repertoire of horror stories like thousands of other part-timers. One college announced that I would no longer be needed there because my students complained about my forcing them to read pornography in the class. The books they referred to were Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Louise Erdrich’s Tracks, and John Irving’s The World According to Garp. When I pointed out that these books were on reading lists for classes taught by others, I was told, “Yes, but they have tenure so I can’t do anything about it.”

The mentality of American college administrators in a nutshell...

Secondly, and in a very much related story, I have now recieved my permanent residency in Canada! I just have to go in and swear some sort of oath. ("So, uh, no more Budweiser, eh? Getcherself a real beer, okay!") Anyway, I am now, officially, a resident and can both work in Canada and get a health card there. To celebrate, I plan to break my foot.


Monday, June 23, 2008

Goddess of the Week: Salmacis

I'm not sure if you can really consider a nymph to be a goddess, but they're not mortals either. Often the nymphs inhabit specific places or make up the posse of a god or goddess. The Naiads, like Salmacis, were nymphs who presided over brooks, streams, and fountains.

Salmacis was a bit of a slouch, nymph-wise. While the other nymphs were busy hunting with Diana, Ovid reports that she prefered to bathe and comb her hair, and shunned athletic prowess. She could be the patron saint of slackers.
Not only a slacker, but a horny woman; it's hard not to like Samacis. She had the hots for Hermaphroditus, so named because he was the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, and because his face could be confused for a male or a female. Nymphs, in fact, are still turned on by girlish males.
Salmacis tried to rape Hermaphroditus and drags him into the fountain in a passage from Ovid that cries out to be made into an Amime: “I have won, he is mine”, the naiad cries, and flinging aside all her garments, she throws herself into the midst of the water.

‘She held him to her, struggling, snatching kisses from the fight, putting her hands beneath him, touching his unwilling breast, overwhelming the youth from this side and that. At last, she entwines herself face to face with his beauty, like a snake, lifted by the king of birds and caught up into the air, as Hermaphroditus tries to slip away. Hanging there she twines round his head and feet and entangles his spreading wings in her coils. Or as ivy often interlaces tall tree trunks. Or as the cuttlefish holds the prey, it has surprised, underwater, wrapping its tentacles everywhere."
The two of them merged into one being, of two sexes. Ovid uses this to explain why a particular fountain at Halicarnassus gained the reputation for making men who drank of it effeminate. This, of course, is also where we get the word "hermaphrodite" for intersexed beings.



I liked the design of this bathroom sink from the building in Paris where I lived for two months. I have no idea where you would find one though. It reminds me of something in a 1950s hospital.


I'd like to be a gallery/ Put you all inside my show

To steal a joke from the Dead Kennedys (and why not?), most gallery shows I go see end up being like a bad laxative: they just don't move me. The contemporary art that gets shown seems to win out because it fetches a high price, and to fetch a high price because it gets shown. And then you have conceptual kitsch, like the stuff Jeff Koons does, which reminds me of those singing fish that college kids buy, put on their wall, and then say, "Man, can you believe that there are people who seriously like these stupid things?!" I've been to a number of shows where the artist seemed to be pulling an elaborate joke on someone, but everyone in the crowd was in on it. Duchamp's fountain has been the most influential piece of art in the last hundred years, but after 90, the joke's wearing a bit thin.

But, just like when I rent bad movies, I find it hard to get too upset by bad art. It doesn't work or fail to work- it just sort of sits there and exists. In this article from the New Republic, Jed Perl describes it more elegantly than I can:

"I am well aware that these artists know how to produce work that is sporadically elegant, ingenious, and charming. They are not stupid men, not by a long shot. Some of them might be accurately described as dandies and aesthetes, and these are perfectly reasonable things for an artist to be. Nobody can deny that Warhol put a personal stamp on his movie stars and supermarket products. David Salle will tell you that his juxtapositions are no more anti-aesthetic than those of an Old Master such as Caravaggio. Nevertheless, all these artists, in one way or another, are at war with the idea that a work of art establishes a freestanding universe. While their lines of attack are more or less subtle, the result is ultimately the same: they replace the there that constitutes a work of art with a nowhere."
I would really only add, "meh".


Friday, June 20, 2008

Looking Back

Looking Back
Originally uploaded by oferchrissake
The only thing that would make this more entertaining, is if that were a painted-on image, instead of a reflection..


Thursday, June 19, 2008

More Persian ink...


Wednesday, June 18, 2008


Fraternal Greetings, etc.

Well, for all the Trotskyites out there, here's his autograph. I'm not entirely sure why Nantes has this letter from him, instead of the archives in Paris, but there you go.


Anatomy of a Lousy Building

Okay, so here we have an example of a building that doesn't really strike me as ugly, but which sure as hell isn't aesthetically pleasing. In some ways, I find buildings like this even more offensive than the real god awful mistakes I've seen because it's as if they wanted to convey to the rest of us that they don't care about trivial things like what the building actually looks like. Also, it doesn't help the building that it is in Nantes, a town with plenty of nice-looking structures. And it is important that a building fit its surroundings.

So, if you look at the front of the building, it’s not particularly ugly; mostly just utilitarian. It’s flat and mirror-like. More than anything, it’s just not beautiful. Nothing seems to have been done for aesthetic effect. Of course, the look is trying to convey something, but it’s not beauty. In fact, it’s more like power: this is a huge, monolithic building, okay? And it denies any real aesthetic pleasure to the bystander. It’s trying to impress us, but not give us pleasure. If the building was a person, he would be an asshole with slicked-back hair.
The coldness extends to the side. Notice the two large stone frames around the windows. These could be interesting, if they were to follow some sort of pattern all the way around. I mean, they sort of remind me of a bunker, but at least they are similar to the black thing over the entrance.

But, they stop (after three) around this entrance to the side, which is itself bizarre. Note the precarious-looking windows over the entranceway. Inside is a weird courtyard with a similarly windowed-in circular tunnel. For whatever reason, they've built unnecessary tunnels and bridges. At this point, I’m starting to refer to this as the Tetris Building.

There’s the last window edging. And now we have... a semi-circular sunken door. Why? The problem with this building, if I can venture a guess, is that all of its parts are symmetrical, within themselves, but don’t really work together. The other end (which I didn’t photograph) has weird stone columns. So, none of it really makes sense. It just sort of combines elements in an overall shiny block scheme.

I tried to figure out why the Tetris Building offends me, and I think I have it: the building is soulless. I mean, sure it expresses some sort of creativity on the part of the architect (or maybe just neurosis), but it refuses to give you anything really nice to look at. It's just big and shiny and black. I think the color is actually called "Shiny Hegemony". It's a building that makes you feel guilty for slacking on the job. The companies corporate slogan should be: "Fuck You! Globocorp". Or whatever their name is.
The worst thing about buildings like this is that you can't avoid them if you live near them. At least you can avoid bad art. But bad buildings are inescapable.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Shit Happens

From the Department of Great Headlines:

"Aurora man sleeps off stabbing"


One Night in Paris


Gay Brains

Then again, I might be totally wrong about homosexuality. Cool.


An interesting old poster from the archives.


Black Swells

It used to be that you could spot “new money” by the way that they dressed: lots of gaudy flash, like a woman I once saw in the suburbs with more gold trinkets on her sweater (!) than a Colonel. She looked like C3PO! But having survived the tech boom, which Holly probably remembers better than I do, I became accustomed to seeing rich young lads in baseball caps and tee-shirts. Perhaps the fear of being called out as “elitist” (or gay) has prevented the wealthy from dressing any different than the rest of us. If you want to see “bling”, look for people who can’t afford it. They’re not “new money”, just “new credit”.

This article makes basically the same point: people who can’t afford fancy things now all have fancy things, and the wealthy spend their money on things that most of us can’t see. Claire’s über accountant father cringes when he sees Hummers because he knows how much credit card debt their drivers have. Meanwhile, most of the rich people that Claire and I know dress and behave just like everyone else and live in modest homes. So, I think that class is no longer easily identifiable, except perhaps in the case of food. The wealthy really do eat better.

Some have expressed hopes that Barack Obama will set a fashion trend for young black men. I have two problems with this. First off, I’m tired of hearing people complain about “those young black men with the pants hanging down off their ass”. Young men all adopt odd fashions to distinguish themselves; it’s not a black thing. Two words: the mullet. Three more: Billy Ray Cyrus.

Also, they don’t seem to notice, but there are already black men who dress better than anyone else. I’ve been impressed by the wave of black swells in the last decade. While new money whites wear khakis and polo shirts, new money blacks still make an effort to project class. Okay, maybe Tiger Woods wears polo shirts, but I seriously doubt anyone would call him a slob. And, for as lousy as his music and conversational skills strike me, I think that Sean Combs, he of the manifold aliases, has a strong sense of elegance. Incidentally, I was happy to hear that Combs acquitted himself well in a recent film of A Raisin in the Sun. My first thought though was “when is he going to play Gatsby”? If there was ever a match between a character and a role, that would be it.

But, as a male, I have to say that my fashion plate role model is not someone from Paris or Milan, but from Virginia Beach: I am frequently amazed by Pharrel Williams. Not only does he exhibit a great amount of taste, but he clearly has his own style. Look at pictures from one of the chichi parties he attends; compared to most people his age in the public eye, he stands very tall indeed.

So, I wish the article had made note of this: between the rich whites dressed like they just left a frat party and the poor blinged out blacks, there are indeed stewards of style in America: Obama just has the highest profile of the black swells.


Monday, June 16, 2008

A recent addition to the park in Nantes.


1800s Cursive

Here is some of that lovely handwriting I mentioned the other day. This is average for the documents that I'm reading. Some of it is quite a bit better. All of it is better than my own!


Canadiana Report

Roundup of Canada news:

Over 90% of Americans surveyed have a high opinion of Canada. A majority of Candians are lukewarm about Canada.

These people are really not fond of Canada. Admittedly, when I talked about Canadian immigration, I should have mentioned the downside: the government actively tries to convince people to immigrate to Canada for a better life and then, when they show up, they find the job market isn't nearly what they expected.

There's a new Canadian film out with the attention-getting title "Young People Fucking". Claire's seen it and says it's pretty funny. Honestly, "Canadian culture" is still a bit of an oxymoron, but there are some really interesting Canadian filmmakers working now.

One of the most interesting Canadian filmmakers, Guy Maddin, has a new odd movie out, "My Winnipeg", which looks to be as strange and intriguing as his previous films.

And in what appears to be a crisis that is shaking Canadian society to its very core, the "other Canadian anthem", namely the theme to Hockey Night in Canada is going to be changed due to a copyright issue. Civil war is expected.


Sunday, June 15, 2008

Know Your Saints: Saint Valérie

Saint Valérie was a Roman martyr of the early second century. She was supposedly born of nobility and converted to Christianity by St. Martial of Limoges. Her husband was Saint Vitalis of Milan who was buried alive for his faith.

She was soon after tortured and finally beheaded in the company of several other martyrs in the Coliseum. Her remains were gathered and stored in the catacombs of Saint Sebastian. In 1867, the Very Reverend Canon Charles M. Ménard, of Saint Thibodaux, Louisiana, visited Rome and convinced Cardinal Patrizzi to give him a relic of Valérie: part of an arm bone.
In 1868, her reliquary was brought by steamship to St. Joseph Church in Thibodaux, where it remains today. Indeed, as the patron saint of the city, the blessings she brought are thought by some to have been a reason that the city was spared the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
The feast day of Valérie and Vitalis is April 28.


God of the Week: Prometheus

Prometheus could be the patron saint of bondage enthusiasts, if there weren't already so many contenders. As it is, "Promethian" serves as a shorthand for irresponsible curiosity and yearning to transcend the intellectual limits of human life.
Prometheus was the Greek Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. For his crime, Prometheus was bound to a rock where his liver was eaten out daily by an eagle and restored each night. The Titans were the ruling gods of the Golden Age who were overthrown by the younger Olympians. Prometheus was known for his wily cunning in most stories, including those by Hesiod, and was fleshed out in the trilogy of plays by Aesychylus.

Aesychylus made the story more interesting in his trilogy on Prometheus, of which Prometheus Bound is the first and only surviving play. Here Prometheus doesn't just give fire to men: he gives them all the human arts as well. So Prometheus becomes a god of techne and human intelligence.

It's a powerful play because it requires us to see the story in terms of both sacred and secular order, and the gods as both chaotic forces of the supernatural and as political tyrants. It's hard not to sympathize with Prometheus in his refusal to be the lickspittle of power, or as he puts it, not "to be the dog that licks the foot of power." Zeus is arbitrary in his power, or so he seems to be. The burden that he places on humans, who he plans to anihilate, is cruel and unfair, he betrays Prometheus when loyalty would be appropriate, and his unfairly punishes him for satisfying man'ds boundless (so to speak) curiosity about how the world works, which is rooted in their desire for transcendence. Science, after all, is a form of worship. In many regards, Prometheus is simply the typical antagonist "who knew too much". Seen through the framework of social order, Zeus is a despot.
If we look at the play in terms of sacred order, Prometheus's hubris becomes more glaring. Perhaps there are corners of the universe that should remain secret, and therefore sacred. The Romantics took up the Prometheus story as a sort of warning against the Enlightenment. Byron wrote a poem on the topic, and Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein was "the modern Prometheus". I would say that Goethe's version of Faust also draws a bit from Prometheus. And any number of sci-fi films have taken up the theme of man being punished for our boundless curiosity.
And, of course, the desire to know everything has been something of a mixed blessing. Prometheus is the father of all of our medical and technological boons on one hand, and the atom bomb on the other.



"It is the rule that nations and races advance only by contact with other nations and races."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson, table talk recorded in 1866.


Archive Flowers

This image was drawn and sent back to France in the early 1800s to demonstrate the different colors of dyes available in Persia. Finding things like this is one of the reasons that I love the archives.


Soweto, DC

In an effort to "curb crime", DC police are going to cordon off entire neighborhoods with police checkpoints and require anyone coming there to provide identification and a "legitimate reason" to be there, or face arrest. They had wanted to perform door to door warrentless searches, but are not allowed to.

Yes, really. In the capital of the United States.

When I lived in Arlington, I used to love visiting some of the small bookstores in those parts of DC that lay outside of the shopping and government districts. They had really great books of African American history that I never saw anywhere else and that talked about things I had never heard of. Occasionally, police would ask me what I was doing in these neighborhoods, it being widely believed that a white kid from Arlington in downtown "chocolate city" was there to buy drugs. Would I go now, having to enter a police checkpoint and prove that I was really going to buy books? Nope. Not on your life. So, instead of taking those police officers and having them "walk the beat", DC is going to use them in a way that destroys the local economy.

Yes, really.

Never underestimate the stupidity of the DC police force and government. I remember, back in high school, when go-go music got big in DC. You might expect the DC government to be happy about a locally-created style of music that was gaining national exposure and creating an entire cottage industry in the heart of the city. Nope. They waged a battle to close down the go-go clubs in order to prevent the violence that occurred in some clubs. And, of course, I'm no apologist for violence, but damn, there has to be a better way to solve the problem than setting up mini police states.


Algerian Paris

A picture from the archives taken at the 1900s Paris Expo, in which the Champ de Mars was lined with several temporary buildings designed to look like those in Algeria. By 1900, nearly all of Algeria had been colonized by France.


Saturday, June 14, 2008

"The gecko wears a tiara."

There is an ancient Sumerian proverb that reads: "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial: a young woman did not fart in her husband's embrace."

No, seriously, there is. It's here.

And, in fact, if you're the sort of person who can't get enough of ancient literature, Oxford has a great site up of nearly 400 literary compositions from ancient Mesopotamia, including a somewhat brief version of the Gilgamesh story. Here you go: The Ancient Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature.


Are Men Boring?

Sabine Durrant thinks so and a sampling of her friends agree.

What say you? (Hopefully not, "Well, you're a man, Rufus, and you're a crushing bore!")


Friday, June 13, 2008



Is Google making us stupid? Nicholas Carr wonders if the Internet isn't actually rewiring our brains after finding that he can't follow very long prose anymore. Just no patience.

"And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles...

I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Some of the bloggers I follow have also begun mentioning the phenomenon. Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online media, recently confessed that he has stopped reading books altogether. “I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader,” he wrote. “What happened?”

Of course, all technologies rewire our brains. I actually find that my mind doesn't really wander very well when I'm online- I'm not sure why. It's more like driving than reading a book for me in that sense- it requires more concentration. As soon as I get offline, I feel a sense of relief as my thoughts go back to wandering on their own without any of them being filled in by the computer.

But to suggest that people, like me, who use the net often are losing our ability to concentrate and hold a train of thought?

Well, that's absurd! I mean, obviously, the thing we have to remember here is that


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Hidden back alley church in Marseille.


More Lamartine

I'm a sucker for old book prints.


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

oh hey guys, something important happened in canada, for once.

so, we have this awful history of running residential schools for inuit, first nations and metis peoples dating back to almost the birth of our nation with the goal of "getting the indian out of them". it's really fucked them up, and some pretty inexcusable things happened under the supervision of the church and state. today,

canada apologizes

i listened to it on the CBC (canadian NPR) and have to say i was very moved and even though i dislike our current PM, he gets huge points from me for doing this because it took a lot of guts to do it.

here is the speech


“The man is the biggest of all the donkeys.”

That great insult comes from Abdelkibir Errami, vice-president of the Islamic Center of Roubaix. He was commenting on a French Muslim who recently had his marriage annuled when it turned out that his bride was not a virgin after all. The article also details hymenoplasty, a procedure that could also be called "unscrewing". (A like-new vagina for just pennies! Act now and we'll throw in the new vagina smell free of charge!) It's a somewhat popular procedure. Apparently, there are insecure men who believe strongly that a hymen is a terrible thing to waste.

The donkey in question is one such charmer. Apparently, he thinks that a vagina is a bit akin to a can of beer and that once it’s opened it starts to go flat. He was also anticipating the sensual pleasures of making love to a virgin, the erotic thrill of having sex with a woman who is lying stiff as a board with a deer-in-the-headlights look. Mmrrrrrow!

Fathers in patriarchal religions also often have a weird obsession with their daughter’s hymen. The article talks about one nut-job taking his adult daughter to a doctor in Cairo to make sure she’s still a virgin, and her expectations that he will beat her if she isn’t. Of course, there are those corners of Islam where fathers kill their daughters for having sullied the family honor: as if Psycho Dad strangling his little girl somehow reflects well on them. And then you have those creepy fathers from the backwoods of American Christianity taking their little girls to freakish chastity balls: The Enchantment of Your Daughter’s Un-popped Cherry Cotillion 2008.

It's all bizarre and depressing. Some French people are none too happy that the court allowed the fellow to get an anulment over his wife's virginity; they have condemned the ruling in the name of secularism. But, secularism isn’t the belief that the state should invalidate one religious group’s beliefs to make everyone else more comfortable: that’s actually the sort of thing that secularism is there to avoid. And the alternative- saying that nobody can get married or divorced for reasons that accord with their religious beliefs- is ridiculous. Ultimately, I don’t want the state being in the business of telling people that they have to remain married (especially to such a chauvinist) because we’ve decided that their reasoning is silly.

I am however alright with people calling these men the biggest donkeys of all.

[Note: For the record, I'm going to guess that the man actually called the other fellow the "biggest idiot of all", and the Post translated baudet a bit too literally as "donkey".]


One view of the castle in Nantes.


Another Old Book Picture

Another picture from that Lamartine "Voyage en Orient" in the archives.


Warriors and Aristocrats

In the ongoing US electorate hostage crisis, the technician has now dropped out of the race, leaving us with the aristocrat and the warrior. John McCain, obviously, embodies the warrior ethos: he presents himself as a grand hero, and I think it’s safe to say without giving much offense, that people who vote for him will tend to be more concerned about military threats to the United States than Obama voters. Obama, meanwhile, projects a certain aristocratic mien, a class and elegance as well as a fierce intelligence. His voters respond immediately to what they perceive as an innate superiority: one can recognize a leader without looking at their resume. This is not “elitism”, rising as he has from the popular class, but it is cultural aristocracy, and I would guess that Obama voters will tend to be more concerned that McCain voters with the standing and the image of the US in the world. Also it explains Obama’s popularity in Europe, where it’s recognized I think that his rise could only happen in America. Will the US pick the Warrior or the Aristocrat? It remains to be seen.

But, it should also be said that the aristocratic cultural figure cannot declare his wife “off limits”; the kids, yes, but not the marital partner. Nor should he; Michelle Obama is less polished than her husband, but this is to their advantage: it will balance out his somewhat lofty stiffness. His voters should hope that Republicans attack his wife- she’s smart and likeable and attacking her is a tragic tactical error. It will put off the childish Clinton dead-enders who believe that sexism killed their dream and send them running to Obama, and it will reveal the lack of imagination in American politics. Besides, Michelle Obama is awesome. It is a good idea to book her on The View: I’ve been saying for the last month that the campaign should do just this.

In the end, the election will come down to culture versus war: Stendhal’s Noir et Rouge. I’m not convinced that either the Warrior or the Aristocrat will fix very much in the country; we’re at the point where America needs more than anything to elect an Accountant. But what fun would it be to watch an accountant run for office?


Patrons and Clients

Here in Nantes, I’m currently spending my days reading in the archives of the Affaires Étrangères. My dissertation will hopefully deal with French travel to the Levant in the early years of the nineteenth century, and arrangements for travel were generally made through the embassies and consulates in the countries that one was visiting. Travelers found passage by paying for space on commercial ships or postal lines, and they often stayed in convents or with ambassadors. In the days before travel agencies, going for a sojourn was both more exciting and more difficult. Maybe it’s better to call these people vagabonds.

So, I’m reading old letters of introduction. Many of the letters are from important people giving notice that a less renowned protégée will be making a voyage in the future and requesting that the officials look after them. As much I would like to find letters from the actual travelers to the embassies or consulates, they usually went the safer route of having someone like the Paris minister of Foreign Affairs do the talking for them. One had to be fairly well-connected to travel abroad.

In other cases, what you’re dealing with is an outright patron-client relationship. Connections are still important. The relationship between a benefactor and their protégée, or a patron and their client, is probably the most common sort of non-familial relationship in western history. In fact, it’s striking how long patronage lasted in the West, enduring in certain arts and professions until today. This is probably why movies like the Godfather strike us as portraying the ways of the “old country”, patronage relationships really are old world, going back at least to Greco-Roman times.

Clienthood has its privileges. You don’t have to wait until you’ve made your name to gain access to places where a name is required. You have protection and guidance, someone watching your back as they say. More importantly, you have an older friend to guide you as you learn the ropes. This is a bit like apprenticeship, without a contract or necessarily the transmission of some sort of expertise. Graduate student is, of course, an apprentice position, and I can say that the advantage of working alongside someone who knows what they’re doing makes up for the fact that you have to work hard not to disappoint a mentor.

Patronhood also has its privileges. A patron has the assurance that their associates are loyal; something like an unofficial business (patronage is rarely contractual). There is also a sense of passing on one’s legacy and expertise to a new generation, as well as ensuring that the next generation will share your values. And there is something flattering about the respect that a mentor position carries with it. If this is no longer obvious, it is only because we live in a kid-centric culture. In most apprenticeship or mentorship roles, which are as close as we come to actual patronage, there is a devotion that borders on the erotic, but which must never pass that line.

Note, however, that apprenticeship is becoming archaic in the modern world. I would say that actual patronage relationships are exceptional in the modern world, with perhaps an exception in the fine arts: it might be possible to see artistic management as being similar to patronage, although contractual. Probably the rareness of patronage has to do with our emphasis on individual accomplishment and genius. There is something odious in a meritocracy with a person having the doors opened for them.

However, in terms of cultural stability, one might imagine that patron-client relationships would be more beneficial than capitalist competition for producing people with civic virtues. I have no idea if cultural conservatives ever call for a return to patronage, but as well they might.


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

One of the cooler pictures I took in the archives.


Good show!

The Economist is happy with the American primaries, in spite of the fact that they likely seem daft to the Brits, because the end result was that the US picked the two best candidates from each respective group. I'm happy too- you listen to on-the-street interviews with "the average voter" and you start thinking that maybe democracy is a bad idea! But, in the end, both parties really did pick their best candidate. Basically the exact opposite of the last Presidential election, which was like Freddy versus Jason!

So, raise a glass! (Pop allowed)


Monday, June 09, 2008

"Claire and I are more than a little nervous, should I get a job in the states, about bringing in my "foreign-born" wife. The US immigration system is notoriously labrynthine and screwed up, which you can read all about in the stories at My Immigration Story! Also, Claire isn't keen on taking up arms to support the US, and God knows how long it would take to naturalize her, or if it would be worth it for a contract position. And, of course, lots of people go through the system and get totally screwed. But, if we live there without doing it, we could screw that up too. I'm probably "illegally" in France right now. Oh, and let's not forget that Claire has free health care now, and we are not moving anywhere that she doesn't. Period."

so i just read this and felt my two cents were left out on this post. i had a few points and since you never know if people read the comments...well i felt i had to post. once again, it's not highly intelligent banter so skip it if you were looking for something lofty.

first thing: canadians do bitch about immigrants, just not the kind that rufus is. we have a points system and he scores highest in every category (age, country of origin, he speaks both our official languages, he's highly educated, healthy, married to a canadian etc. etc.) rufus looks and acts pretty much like every canadian you see. but there are issues. we are less accomodating of people who speak poor english or who have different cultural values that "the norm" and you can see this exemplified perfectly in my profession when it comes to providing services to people; it can be very ethnocentric toward "the norm". we're working on it, and there are job ads that ask for people from specific cultures to provide services people, women's services comes to mind immediately. okay.

second thing: ruf, you kind of made me out to be this ameri-phobe. or i percieved it that way. he's right, i won't take up arms or even say that i will (like, fuck that.) but that's true of anywhere i might go, that is my ethical stance and it won't change. but rufus forgot to put in that when i married him i knew what i was getting into, and the possibilities that lay ahead, and that above all, i will go with him where he needs to go to work. it's a simple concept. social workers/psychotherapists are needed everywhere so i'm not worried about work. my primary concern is the healthcare system, as a person with a disability it's really upsetting to think about leaving a situation where i am stable and taken care of and i know the system. any change can throw it off and that is scarier than the prospect of living in north dakota. or worse, florida. i'm not against america, land of the little 6-packs of powdered donettes that i so enjoy, but i have a healthy handle on what it will mean to move there. now go to some other web-page. this sort of emotional-barf up isn't usually my style and it's embarassing.



Sunday, June 08, 2008

Life in Zimbabwe

It might be a result of living in such mediated times: this need to make our thoughts clear on issues that we can do nothing about. Hopefully, you'll oblige me in taking some space to do that.

When I say that the the world is currently becoming more peaceful, I do not mean that we're entering an age of enlightened utopia and eternal peace. Human beings being as they are, I don't imagine that will ever be the case. I certainly believe it's worth aiming for. But there are always pyschopaths. So you do your best. You try to buttress society as best you can with the knowledge that there will still be the occasional Leopold and Loebs sprouting up like poisonous weeds.

Robert Mugabe is a poisonous weed. When Zimbabwe was freed from British colonial rule in 1980, he seemed to many like an ideal prime minister, and in fact, when the office of prime minister was abolished and Mugabe made executive president in 1987, many still thought that he was a fairly enlightened ruler in a part of the world that has had less of them than it deserves in the last century. However, at some point, Mugabe went off the rails. Some attribute it to the years of anti-colonial struggle and an inability to see the world any other way. Many have noted a shift in his personality after his wife died in 1992. Christopher Hitchens attributes it to jealousy of Nelson Mandela. And, of course, his paranoia is a self-fulfilling prophecy at this point.

It's common, and apt, to point out that Jews have often been the canaries in the coal mine of tyranny. There aren't many Jews in Zimbabwe, but homosexuals have also played the canary role, and Mugabe's obsessive hatred of gays manifesed itself early, and has become obsessive. Homosexuality was outlawed in Zimbabwe in 1996, and Mugabe has since compared gays to "pigs and dogs". But it was the decision to divest all white farmers in Zimbabwe of their land in 2000, quite often violently, that began the cycle of economic decline. Foreign capital fled, printed money flooded the economy, interest rates rose, and the economy slowed. The last I read, the rate of inflation in Zimbabe was 355,000%. Life expectancy in Zimbabwe is now 37.

Mugabe's response to the problems has been to apply the jackboot to any dissenters and to kill any political rivals that he can get his hands on. It is a miracle that enough voters showed up to force a run-off election. Mugabe has since responded in true despot style. Members of the opposition have turned up dead. At a time of starvation aid groups are being treated as political subversives. The High Court has decided that the MDC can hold rallies- Mugabe wanted them banned. At this point, it's a mystery if enough people will show up to elect a regime that won't have them jailed for voting against it. If not, which is likely, Zimbabwe's decline will continue.

There's no real ethical question about Mugabe himself- he's a monster. The question is how to deal with him. Assassination would be the easiest route... unless his military henchmen don't really feel like going home after he's gone, which is most likely. Occupation would actually be quite easy as well. Zimbabwe is not particularly strong and its military could be easily toppled. But, who would do it, if not the US? And who would support the US in doing it at this point? And who can afford it? It's actually most likely that anyone but the US would be successful in occupying Zimbabwe at this point. I wouldn't mind seeing the UN do it. Alas...

I've often said that the real crime the US made in invading Iraq wasn't that they toppled Saddam or used unilateral force; but that they just didn't take what they were doing seriously. To be frank, I'm not really opposed to the idea of "taking out" dictators; the problem is being so arrogant about your own power that you forget that war is not a way of creating "law and order", but the failure of law and order. It is not a game, or a joke, or a photo op. You don't start a war expecting a "slam dunk"- it's a last resort. And, grim though it might be, often the alternative is more sufferable.

For all their talk about the rightness of their cause, the supporters of the war in Iraq have never said at what point avoiding its losses would outweigh its gains. How many people would have to die before it would have been better to leave Saddam Hussein in power? Watching some of the "neocons" in interviews, I've noticed that they talk often about "absolute values"- "absolute goods" and "absolute evils". And perhaps the quotation marks aren't necessary: I too believe that these things exist. But war too is an absolute evil, and the only reason to ever risk unleashing it is in the hopes of stopping a greater evil; and even then it should never be taken lightly. It should always be seen as a tragedy, especially by those who are waging it.

And so, I think we've learned to think twice before opening that particular box. And Zimbabwe will continue its decline, most likely. But, I assume it would be very wrong to think that the US or its allies will never open it again.


Another Sky Web Journal...

Like I always say, it's easier to read than this thing.

And I finally updated it.


The Ugliest Building in Toronto?

One blogger makes a strong case that it's the new ROM building I mentioned below. I'll try to post pictures of my most-hated building in T.O. when I get home.


My Foreign Bride

One humbling thing for me about visiting Europe was discovering that people here bitch about "foreigners" nearly as much as they do in the US. In France, it's Arab immigrants and Romanian panhandlers they gripe about. My Paris logeuse was actually quite verbal about her problems with the Romanians, as well as which neighborhoods to stay out of because "they have les blacks". In Italy, there's been a debate about whether or not Asian immigrants can actually make pasta, if it's in their DNA or not. I have no idea myself about the pasta gene, but have the breathtaking cultural theory that Chinese restaraunts are good with the noodles.

And there you have it. The problem in Italy and France is much like that in the US: the younger generation does not want to work in such "demeaning" jobs as cook, day care worker, laborer, etc. and so there's a job shortage. Meanwhile, people in less wealthy countries see an opening there. Et voilà! It's really not a problem for anyone until food and rent prices go up and then they find it easier to blame the Algerian cashier than the supermarket owner. And so, you end up with the same paranoia and discomfort as you have in the US, albeit with better-organized support in France for the sans papiers.

To be honest, I would note that America is better at actually assimilating people, but bitch more openly about them; while Europe is horrible about assimilation, but keeps their complaints quiet. By contrast, Canada- which has the largest rate of immigration in the world, thank you very much- seems remarkably untroubled by it. I have yet to be told, "Take off, eh!" But, I also have yet to hear a lot of complaints about immigrants in general. We have no Lou Dobbs.

Claire and I are more than a little nervous, should I get a job in the states, about bringing in my "foreign-born" wife. The US immigration system is notoriously labrynthine and screwed up, which you can read all about in the stories at My Immigration Story! Also, Claire isn't keen on taking up arms to support the US, and God knows how long it would take to naturalize her, or if it would be worth it for a contract position. And, of course, lots of people go through the system and get totally screwed. But, if we live there without doing it, we could screw that up too. I'm probably "illegally" in France right now. Oh, and let's not forget that Claire has free health care now, and we are not moving anywhere that she doesn't. Period.

The end result of this is that a social worker with a Master's degree and a history teacher with a PhD will most likely wind up looking for work in Canada, which is still fairly open to immigrants, and not in the US, which is decidedly not. If you wonder why I'm a bit sick of Americans who bitch about the foreigners who are tekkin der jobs, well it's probably because that's my wife they're talking about.


Saturday, June 07, 2008

This Paris building is nice. Fake, of course. But, still pretty cool.