Thursday, May 24, 2007

Going Out Gurus Love Borf the Leech

Recently, Going Out Guru Julia reviewed the Borf show, The Consolation of Ruin, running through this weekend. The show, in an empty building on North Capitol Street, exhibits graffiti and multi-media stuff.

I usually like reading the GOG column, and while this piece was interesting, I couldn’t help but think that Julia was overly impressed with the whole Borf thing. She seemed infatuated with the “anarchy” of it all, and all but thrilled that she had to be blindfolded and led into the building.

That’s all okay with me. No accounting for taste. But then she writes that the show contains, among other things, a “pretty cool riff on the famous Eddie Adams execution photo made out of smiley-face stickers.”

I had to read that again to make sure I understood: yep. She said it. A “pretty cool riff.” Cool? COOL? COOL? Julia, what the hell is wrong with you? There is nothing romantic or cool or funny or ironic or anarchistic or radical or chic about this picture, about this death. The Borf Brigade appropriated it to use in their little side show of naval-gazing suburban angst because they are ignorant and self-centered. Julia, you should be ashamed of yourself for giving it any kind of credit.

So what’s this Borf show all about? Unless you’ve been under a rock for the past few years, you know who Borf is. John Tsombikos was arrested in 2005 for spraying paint all over DC, and now owes DC twelve thousand bucks. The Borf Brigade hopes to raise money to help him pay his fine.

Tsombikos (and his Borf Brigade friends) is an artist. What’s more, he’s a protestor, and an anarchist, with important thing to say! Things like “grownups are obsolete” and, as the Washington Post reported in 2005, Borf “…doesn't believe in the state, capitalism, private property, globalization. Most of all, he doesn't believe in adulthood, which he considers ‘boring’ and ‘selling out.’”

I’m not sure if by “doesn’t believe in” he means that he doubts these are real things (sorry, Borf, they do exists), or he simply doesn’t like them.

I suspect it’s the first, because it couldn’t possibly be the second: Borf grew up in Great Falls, pays (or did) to attend the Art school at the Corcoran, apparently eats food and wears clothes, and even drives a car, and the spray paint he uses doesn’t grow on trees. All these things, plus the huge amount of free time and the freedom to come and go as he pleases, are all the products of “the state, capitalism, private property, globalization,” and yes, most definitely, “adulthood.”

Sorry, Borf (and your brigade), you’re a hypocrite.

Like all anarchists, Borf wants to believe that he supports the oppressed and down-trodden, the workers and the poor. But these are the very people who do things like go to work every day at places like spray paint factories so he can have something to steal from paint stores, where other working people work. You know why they work? So they can eat. And pay rent. (Steal enough paint, Borf, and they won’t have jobs any more.) Not everyone grew up in Great Falls, Borf.

And then people like me and the Metro bus driver and the bar tender and the bookstore owner and the minister and the paper seller and the packer truck driver and everyone else who lives in DC (but ironically, no one who lives in Great Falls) have to pay to have Borf’s spray paint washed off or covered up.

Borf Brigade, why not go out and study drawing and painting, and maybe a little history and literature while you’re at it, and then spend a few years working really, really hard learning to make the best art you can while trying to earn a living. Or, is hard work and studying and paying your own goddamn way also things anarchists don’t believe in?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Senator Coo-coo Bananas Hates Rachel Carson

Senator Tom “Coo-coo Bananas” Coburn, who, according to Wikipedia, has said that he favored the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions and that homosexuality was the biggest threat to America, and said that television had sunk to “an all-time low” when NBC decided to air Schindler’s List, “with full-frontal nudity, violence and profanity,” describing it as “...irresponsible sexual behavior...I cringe when I realize that there were children all across this nation watching this program”, has threatened to block a bill to honor Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring and advocate of environmental protection.

Now, suddenly, Coburn has concern for 2 million people that die each year from malaria, which, he claims, could be wiped out by DDT. He squarely places blame for all these deaths on Carson.

If he’s so concerned with the loss of innocent life, why doesn’t he, a U.S. Senator, use his power and influence to do something about it? There are innocent people dying every day all across the world, from car bombs and rockets and small arms fire and starvation and genocide to HIV/AIDS, dysentery, and malaria. Take your pick, Senator, and propose something!

Instead of blocking a bill that honors a respected writer and scientist, he should propose legislation to end poverty, the biggest contributing factor to malaria. That’s a tall order, but for someone who knows everything and is morally correct on all issues, it should be simple enough.

And his argument about DDT and malaria is ridiculous. We used to have malaria right here in DC, but it’s been gone for a long time. A clean environment, sanitary conditions, suitable housing, clean drinking water, a reliable food supply, pavement instead of mud-puddles, are what help eradicate malaria. DDT can be part of that strategy (even Rachel Carson saw a use for DDT), but it’s disingenuous to think that only DDT is necessary.

Coburn doesn’t like Carson because he sees her as a left wing environmental crusader whose book helped bring about the Environmental Protection Agency, stricter environmental laws, and the U.S. ban on the use of DDT. While he’s a medical doctor, Coburn doesn’t believe in science, instead allowing his right wing political agenda to cloud any small amount of logical thinking his brain may be capable of. (To his credit, but only a small amount of credit, he did call for the firing of Alberto Gonzales.)

I don’t think it matters whether the senate honors Rachel Carson or not. Her work speaks for itself. Coburn makes himself look foolish, and only makes Rachel Carson’s calm reasoning, clear writing, and good science look even better by comparison.

Friday, May 18, 2007

How to Shop for Wine

The thing about buying wine is that you’re not drunk yet when you’re doing it. This makes it rather difficult to grab whatever rot gut is cheapest and go on your merry way because your unaddled brain allows reason to cloud your judgment: “If this bottle is only $2.95,” you say to yourself, “there’s a good likelihood it contains something I would rather not drink, like antifreeze. Or goat urine.”

A $4.99 bottle might only contain rat hair or cockroach antennae, you reason, not as bad as the cheaper bottle, but still not pleasant. You continue reasoning on up the price scale: $6.99 probably just has dirt in it, $8.99 might be reasonably poison free but it’s probably made from something other than grapes, $10.99 must taste like gym socks, etc.

On up the pricing scale you go, until you are left with a wine from some unpronounceable French maison in the most expensive Appellation of France. And you can’t afford to buy that. So you leave, empty handed.

This is the problem I constantly run into while shopping, sober, at my little wine store on U Street next to The Ellington. They have a whole array of seemingly good wines at low prices all of which I’m scared to buy because of my unreasonable fear of blindness or hair loss or premature death.

There’s only one obvious solution to this problem, but it takes quite a bit of planning on my part. First, I must keep a half finished bottle of wine on hand in our apartment, a cheap bottle I purchased previously. I call this my “priming” bottle. Since I drank half of it before with no ill effects (except, of course, drunkenness), I know it’s safe to drink. So I polish off that bottle. But I must open a second bottle, because such habits indulged in frequently quickly build up mighty tolerances. I drink off half of that bottle, and then, thoroughly sloshed, I’m adequately prepared to go wine shopping. Off I go to my wine store, buying anything I want, because my reasoning now goes like this: “they don’t know whadahell they’re doing in this-here store, they got all the prices screwed hic! screwed hic! screwed hic! wrong. Mustuv left off some zeroes or somethin’.” In my inebriation, the inexpensive bottles seem quite the deal! You might be thinking to yourself that the opposite might be true, as well, that I could just as easily buy an expensive bottle using the same reasoning, but I’ve found this not to be an issue. Even drunk, I’m still a cheap bastard. And so I buy another bottle, take it home, set out a couple glasses, and pass out.

When I again decide to buy wine, I have waiting for me my half-full “priming” bottle and a second full bottle, and the circle is complete. I must admit, it’s not everyone’s idea of a good time, and it’s not even my idea of a good time, but it beats the hell out of drinking goat urine. Or, at least I think.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Ultimate IQ Test

I took one of those IQ tests on the interweb the other day, and I think I failed. I spent a quarter hour choosing shapes and completing patterns and deciding who was taller, only to find out in the end that I had to pay to get my results. And now they have my email address, ensuring that I get flooded with spam from and everyone they sell their mailing list to.

I’m not very smart. If I were, I wouldn’t have bothered with it in the first place.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Golf Clubs on Metro

"Golf is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into a even smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose." -- Winston Churchill

I’ve carried lots of different things on metro trains: groceries, cakes, boxes, bicycles, hockey skates. And now, golf clubs. I was forced to borrow clubs from a friend, and this necessitated taking them for a train ride to get them home. I’ve seen people with lacrosse sticks, tennis rackets, pizzas, full football pads, even an air conditioner, on metro trains, but never, as odd as it may seem, golf clubs.

Taking golf clubs on metro is not as strange of an experience as I had hoped. I got a few funny looks, but they passed quickly. Only one man made a comment, and not a very witty one. Something to the effect of “where were you golfing down town?” And I had been rehearsing my responses all day, too, but never had a chance to use them: “Well, you see, I seem to have lost my balls,” or “Is the clubhouse this way?” or “You know, I’ve got this wicked slice, and…”

The worst thing about it: golf clubs are heavy. On the train, leaning against them jauntily, one arm akimbo, hat at a rakish angle, it's easy. Riding the escalator in a similar, if slightly more compact, manner is no big deal, either. But carrying them down U Street, having to wait for the lights and dodge other pedestrians, especially after a long day of work, is quite trying. I nearly threw them under a bus, but I persevered, although I was forced to drag them behind me the last block and a half, tug-of-war style. And I gave away the three iron along the way to lighten the load. It’s a terrible club, anyway, more fitted for street fighting than hitting a little ball. I hope its new owner puts it to good use.

I’ve been trying to think of other seldom seen things to carry onto metro: perhaps I’ll wear ice skates next, or maybe ski boots with the skis slung over my shoulder. Or maybe I’ll wear boxing gloves, although I’d have to ask the station attendant for help at the turnstile. Maybe I’ll just wear a motorcycle helmet. Maybe I should anyway, all the time.

In any case, I haven’t returned the clubs yet, and I don’t look forward to carrying them once again down U Street. Perhaps I’ll just take up street fighting. The motorcycle helmet won’t look so crazy then.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Mules Frites on the Hill

Eating mussels (not muscles; you only make that mistake once, I can assure you) is a strangely indulgent activity.

I had the great good fortune of having them at Belga Café last night. But when the waitress first put them down in front of me, I wondered why, exactly I had ordered them. There they were, piled in a steaming heap, their internal organs hanging limply from their open shells, bathed in garlic and wine and butter.

My first two beers at the Hawk-n-Dove, and the subsequent Duvel at Belga, got me to musing about what exactly I was about to eat. My thoughts left me reticent to shove the first peach-colored mollusk into my mouth. You see, I was at a loss as to what part of the mussel I was actually eating. Unlike crabs, where you know when you’re eating a leg or a claw or an eye stalk, or even beef, where you can at least identify which part of the cow you’re devouring: rib eye or rump or tongue, the mussel remains a mystery. The answer is, of course, that you eat all of the parts of a mussel: lips, brains, toenails, eye balls, and all. (I’m just speculating here, never having taken the time to really study a mussel.)

My reticence only lasted as long as it took me to tear the first mussel from its shell and raise it to my lips. I ate the entire vat, plus a few of my wife’s mussels as well, in a silent slurpy frenzy. The frites with mayo and a couple of Belgian ales later, and I couldn’t care less what parts of a mussel I ate, as long as I didn’t eat the shells. Although, truthfully, I probably wouldn’t have minded those very much, either.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Writing, Suffering, and Primo Levi

I have a New Yorker cartoon pinned up in my cubicle. It shows a college student sitting in her Ivy League style dorm writing a letter home: “Dear Mom and Dad:” she writes, “Thanks for the happy childhood. You’ve destroyed any chance I had of becoming a writer.”

I think I had a happy childhood, and a rather easy life up to this point. I live a country with great material wealth. I want for nothing. I am personally more wealthy, in money and possessions, than probably 95% of human beings alive today. (If you’re reading this, you probably are too.) Does this disqualify me from “becoming a write?”

Lately, I’ve found myself reading Primo Levi, the Italian chemist and writer who was an Auschwitz survivor. He wrote some of the best books I’ve ever read.

Was he a good writer because he had good material? Are his books profound because the experiences he had made him profound? I’m not trying to make light of his experience; it's a basic technical question for a writer. Levi had terrible, life altering things happen to him. These experiences fueled his world view, and were fodder for most, and one could argue all, of his writing. If he had grown up in late twentieth century America, would he have written so well? Would he have written at all?

In college, I sat around with other English majors discussing whether you needed to suffer to produce great art. Back then, we agreed that in some way, indeed you did need to suffer, even though I secretly did not want to suffer, ever. You’d have to go through a war, or grow up in horrible poverty, or have been abused, or have some terrible disease, or be a member of an oppressed people to have something legitimate to say.

Today, I come down on this question in approximately the same place: you do need to suffer to produce great art. But I’ve refined my premise: basic human existence in no matter what circumstances provides enough suffering to fuel any creative soul for many lifetimes. No need to wish for or, worse, seek out more suffering.

Hard work, drive, and talent (whatever that is) determine what you fashion out of your experience. If you believe that you don’t have anything to say, then you don’t have anything to say. And if believe you do have something to say (even if you light your cigars with hundred dollar bills and are the picture of health), if you say it truthfully and well, and keep at it, then, indeed, people will discover that you do, indeed, have something legitimate to say.

So I’d like to believe that Primo Levi would have written great books no matter when or how he might have lived. But, selfishly, perhaps, I’m glad he lived when he did and wrote what he did.

Monday, May 7, 2007

DC Building Height Limit

There’s been some talk recently about raising DC’s building height limit. In a recent Washington Post article, an architect speaking at a development conference is quoted as saying: "We have a moral imperative to increase density, to get us out of our cars." This is a laudable goal: as population density increases, retail businesses move in creating a busy, thriving neighborhood; the busier the neighborhood, the safer the neighborhood. Since DC is well served by both subway and bus, and plus is a very walkable city, new residents won’t necessarily increase car traffic. Higher density is green by its very nature. Higher density is a good thing. But we don’t need 30 or 40 story buildings to achieve it.

The premise is that DC is running out of vacant land on which to build, and soon there will be no sites to develop from Florida Avenue south to the waterfront, and from Capitol Hill to Georgetown.

Right now, there is an awful lot of vacant land and under-developed real estate in those areas, and adjoining neighborhoods. Once those are all built out, perhaps the city should consider raising the building height limit.

But even then, there is really no reason to.

A critic of the plan to raise the building height limit said that “…high-rise buildings would spoil a low-lying, Parisian-style city.” Paris is an interesting comparison. If only DC were like Paris! Paris has a population density over 6 times higher than DC’s. (Paris: approximately 64,000 people per square mile; DC: approximately 9,000.) How is that possible?

There are very few buildings in Paris that are higher than 6 or 7 stories. But there are also very few buildings that are lower than 6 or 7 stories.

I’m not suggesting that DC should strive to have that kind of population density. But a little more density would be nice. To increase density, we don’t have to get rid of the building height limit; we simply have to use our real estate more efficiently. Most of residential DC consists of neighborhoods filled with 2 – 4 story row houses. In Paris, these neighborhoods would be fill with 6 and 7 story apartment houses. We don’t need to destroy DC’s huge stock of wonderful row houses. But I am suggesting that places that are blighted with bad mid-20th century development be transformed into something more urban.

All over the city, there are examples of 1950s – 1990s one and two story buildings that are a waste of real estate. Look at 14th Street NW between, say, R and W streets. Or consider the building across the street from The Ellington on U Street: Crème is located there, and a dollar store, and the Rite Aid on the corner, among other businesses. Great uses, but the building itself is only a single story. Ten or 20 years ago, someone thought it would be a good idea to build what amounts to a strip mall there. Four or five more stories on top of it, which is in character with the rest of the neighborhood, and you’ve just increased density. Twenty years ago, a one story building may have made economic sense; today, the owner of that building is losing money (or at least not making money) every day that he can only rent out one floor. Development like this could happen all over DC’s central core.

There are many ways to achieve a good density. Getting rid of the over-all height limit in DC is not one of them. Encouraging the kind of in-fill development I described above could help.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Suburban Youth Teach U Street A Lesson

MAGIC TRAGIC 2AM, NEHI, and so on. A couple mornings each week as I walk down U Street, I see the latest angry expressions that the oppressed masses of disenfranchised white middleclass suburban youths have spray painted onto my neighborhood’s buildings, bus stops, and sidewalks. Much like the ’05 Parisian riots of unemployed and shunned suburban youths, or the riots that tore apart this same stretch of U Street 40 years ago, these youths are expressing their outrage at the injustices they see all around them.

Apparently, this group of (sub)urban radicals has put together a searing manifesto, which includes such items as “one of the five televisions in my house may not be working”, “my parents didn’t (that’s right, DID NOT) buy me the latest nano for Christmas,” and “first Napster, and now just possibly Pandora!” One cannot help but sympathize.

In a show of solidarity, I suggest that the residents of DC take it to the streets (or the Drives or Courts or Cul-de-sacs or whatever). Let’s head out to Silver Spring and Bethesda and Wheaton and express our own outrage on their buildings and bus stops and sidewalks (if they have sidewalks, that is)! Meet me at the Duron Paint store on 14th Street in Columbia Heights tonight just before closing. Wear your most tattered hoody and we’ll head out to commit acts of, well, random vandalism, I guess.

I’m open to suggestions as to what to what our "tag" should be. It has to be of course cryptic, have a rather loose relationship with grammar, and strike fear into the hearts of suburbanites. I’ve come up with a few ideas, like “COMMUTER TOLLS ARE GOING TO GET YOU” or “DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR CHILDREN ARE? (HINT: IN DC, AT NIGHT, WITH SPRAY PAINT!)” or “PLEASE DON’T RUN ME DOWN JUST BECAUSE I’M WALKING”; but perhaps those are too long and violate the “cryptic” mandate.

Or maybe DC should institute a new curfew, but only on white suburban kids.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

I’m Not Going To Take It Anymore

My wife has decided it would be funny to make a certain obscene gesture whenever anyone walks past our apartment. This may be directly related to her other decision to put coconut rum in everything: sauces, gravy, deserts, drinks, house plants, shoes.

Being the supportive husband, I’m happy with her decisions, and they've given me license to make a few of my own, the most important of which is the decision that I’m not going to take it anymore.

Now, what is the “it” that I’m not going to “take” anymore, you might ask? And to where have I been taking “it” up to this point? These are both good questions. “It” can be many different things, and their destinations are equally variable. “It” might be a banana I don’t want to eat because it has turned brown and mushy. Some people might like that, but I can assure you, I’m not one of them. Traditionally, I’ve taken such “its” to work as part of my lunch, only to dispose of “it” in a coworker’s bottom left desk drawer.

Other “its” might turn out to be small pocketable items arrayed on the shelves of local purveyors of sundries that I have no right to “take” (at least not without the requisite exchange of currency) but always seem to end up in my bottom left desk drawer. I believe I have a problem with bottom left desk drawers. You might even say I’m a “bottom left desk drawer” man.

But probably the most important “it” is an umbrella. I’ve taken “it” just about everywhere, and for what? It neither raises me in my colleague’s estimation nor is it useful as either a defensive or offensive weapon. Plus, I’m always leaving “it” everywhere, necessitating sheepish returns to stores, museums, offices, alligator nests, and scenes of drunken merriment in vain attempts to recover “it.” I don't need the hassle and I’m not going to take it anymore.