Sunday, May 25, 2008

Happy Memorial Day

So the skies finally cleared up over the South Side of Chicago this evening, and I decided that it was time for me to take a break from editing my thesis paper (due Tuesday!), put on some pants, and take a stroll through Harold Washington Park. (Of which I think there are at least a dozen throughout the city.) The park was filled with families enjoying the holiday, barbecuing, listening to music, chasing their kids. It was all quite pastoral. I flaneured from one end of the park to the other, and then reached a bench and sat down to take in the sights.

And then I had one of those moments. You know, one of those, "I am the only white person in the entire park" kind of moments. Not that it bothered or really me (that would be more "racist") but it's just a very strange feeling. And the strangest part about it - and I don't think I'm being paranoid here - is that a lot of the other people in the park noticed that I was the only white guy there, too.

Granted, city parks are designed to encourage spectacle. They're akin to shopping malls and airports, in that they're anticipating that some people will be there just to sit and watch complete strangers mill about. The trade-off (unlike, say, voyeurism) is that the people who go to just watch have to allow to let themselves be watched by everyone else, too. The idea is that everyone is equally exposed to everyone else.

But all that changes when you're the minority (or, even worse, a singularity.) If you've got some quality that marks you out from the rest of the crowd, say, you've got a second head or a chainsaw instead of a left arm, then it is only natural for you to stand out in the crowd. But if you have a different skin color than everyone else, then you ought to be prepared to have yourself put on display for everyone else to gawp at.

Now, I'm pretty use to being such a spectacle for others - I believe that the charitable way to describe my gait would be "drunken stumble," even when I'm sober - but there is an undeniably different sense altogether when you are the sole representation of your particular ethnicity. Fortunately, the sentiment that I drew amongst the other people at the park was mostly, "Is he lost? What is that white boy doing? Is he drunk? How can we help him?" Because I know from experience that the reaction made when an African-American wanders into a white community is closer to, "Is he lost? What is that negro doing? Is he drunk? Should we call the police?"

I guess that all I'm saying is that it's a lot better to be a white boy lost in a black neighborhood than it is to be a black boy lost in a white neighborhood.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Degeneration of Culture: Carlos Mencia

So I was over at the other day, procrastinating, and I read this posting about the "triumphant" return of Carlos Mencia to Comedy Central. In it, the author discusses about why Mencia may be the most under appreciated comedian of his day. One of his major theses is as follows:

Here is, perhaps, the most important aspect of Carlos Mencia and his comedy. It’s the reason most people don’t “get” Carlos. Get ready, white folks, because I’m about to rock your world. See, Dave Chappelle once did a skit to show the world what it would be like if there was a black president.

And it was funny in a “makes you laugh often” sort of way, which is fine if that’s what you’re looking for in a comedy. But Carlos Mencia opted to take the road less traveled by doing exactly what Dave Chappelle did several years later, but with a twist: Mencia was going to show the world what it would be like to have a black president, but he was going to do so without being funny or relevant.

Very true. (I highly advise you to follow the link to Chappelle's skit. It's not his best, but it's pretty funny, and it follows my theme here quite well. You might still be able to watch a version of Mencia's "skit" on Cracked, but I think that Comedy Central is going around the web, removing them all. Still, the image of Mencia in black-face ought to give you an idea of the quality of his material.) But then I got to thinking: "Black President? Black President? Hmmmm.... where have I heard that before...."

The Laugh-Track for this skit is really bizarre. Pay attention to it; are they merely laughing at the absurd concept of a black man "playing" at president?

has recently been involved in a long, drawn-out catfight with Joe Rogan and other comedians who have been claiming that Mencia has violated some kind of unspoken pirate code of stand-up comedy by stealing their material and actually profiting off of it. (Mon Dieu!) But everyone does that to some degree. Good writers borrow, great writers steal. (Trademarked 2008, Joel Enterprises) And if you really boil it down, most if not all of ethnic/ racial comedy is some variation of the formula of "Black guys drive like this: doo-doo-doo-doo. But white guys, they drive like this: dee-dee-dee-dee." ("Hahahaha! We SO do!") So, when you think about it, Mencia's crime isn't that he steals his jokes from other comedians. It's that he is able to do so while making them absolutely not funny. For example:

It's like magic how Mencia can take an otherwise funny schtick and just suck all of the joy (fröhliche, for those of you actively tracing my mental processes here) out of it. And I think that it has something to do with how he responds to the (humorous) situation. Richard Pryor's skit is subtle and nuanced. In just a few minutes, he addresses the discrepancy between blacks and whites in unemployment, the inherent racial biases found in our cultural concepts of high art vs. low art, and the reality that even a black man who is president will still be "boy" to many Americans. And it's all hilarious. If you ever get to see Mencia's, it focuses mainly on how black people love weed, liquor and "bitches". And even though Bill Cosby's football story isn't (overtly) racially motivated, he is still able to convey nuance to his audience. His reaction to his son's betrayal is a kind of a sly, c'est la vie, shit-happens, isn't-that-just-what-kids-do smile, whereas Mencia just shouts a lot and calls his wife "bitch". (There may be a pattern developing here.)

It's almost as if he doesn't recognize what's funny in the joke that he himself is telling.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Have You Voted Yet?

Well, have you?

Election ballot drop-off sites:


Deschutes Service Center
1300 NW Wall St.

Deschutes County Road Department
61150 SE 27th St.

Drive-By Drop Box
Corner of Wall St. and Lafayette Ave.


Lane County Annex Bldg.
Corner of Oak St. and 6th Ave.

Eugene City Hall
Pearl St. and 8th Ave.

Elections Office
Lincoln St. and 10th Ave.

Ballots are due by 8 pm! Stop procrastinating!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Owls Are (Still) Not What They Seem

I was reading Gail Collins' column in The New York Times last week and was shocked when I read the following passage:

Hillary’s tendency to describe herself and her supporters as “hard-working” is getting a little irritating. True, we are all in awe of her energy. True, Barack talks about how he’s been running for president for nearly a year and a half as if that was somehow an undesirable way to spend a considerable chunk of the human life span. But she’s making it sound as if the mere effort of pulling the lever for her instead of him is a demonstration of a superior work ethic. Her voters are “all of the hard-working men and women who defy the odds to build a better life for themselves and their children.” His, presumably, are living off their grandfathers’ trust funds and refusing to commit to their girlfriends.
How does Gail Collins know so much about me? Has she been spying on me, following me around Hyde Park, taking notes on my slovenly lifestyle and fear of commitment? I had to get to the bottom of this. I called up R.A. at work and asked her if she had any idea about how Collins knew so much about our lives. "Joel, I told you, you can't call me here. This is my office's phone." she said. Someone had obviously gotten to her first, and shut her up good. Whether they used a carrot or a stick, I didn't know. I guess I was on my own, that it would be up to me and me alone to find out the truth about Gail Collins and her eerie, omniscient ways. So I put on my fedora, turned up the collar of my raincoat, and stepped out into the night in search of answers.

What happened next, I'll tell you about some other time. Suffice to say that there was much bloodshed, there were many dames with dark and sordid pasts, and that Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. put a price on my head so big that every goon and gumshoe in Manhattan is on the look out for yours truly. But I did manage to escape with the truth intact, the dirty, scandalous truth about The New York Times and how its columnists collect data for their articles.

In a word: Owls.

In two: Magic Owls.

That's right. My extensive and risky snooping revealed that The New York Times provides each of its columnists with several magic owls, straight from Hogwarts no doubt, which he or she can unleash upon a naïve and unexpecting public to spy on their comings and goings and then return to report their findings to their master or mistress before presstime. But, like the ancient wizards and sorcerers of old, not all New York Times writers are of equal owl-powers. Some are more skilled than others, and all of them have different owls with different strengths and weaknesses. For example:

Gail Collins has the very small, witty owls who will break into your apartment at night, read your journal, and steal your socks. They then return to her and report that most human beings are not as smart as they take themselves to be, that even alcoholics love their mothers, that everyone loves a good smackdown, and basically that we get the government that we deserve.

Her colleague in wizardry and witchcraft, Maureen Dowd, also has very skilled owls, but her birds are larger, more decoratively plumed, and absolutely stark raving mad. They also definitely have a background in psychoanalysis, but this propensity sometimes leads them a little too far down the road of absurdity, free association, and projecting Oedipal complexes. Also, they have a strange phobia concerning all things Clinton-esque, (including paranoid visions of her coming after them with an ice-pick) which, I suppose, is not without its justification.

David Brooks doesn't have any owls. He just makes shit up.

Of course, the reality is that these columnists only see what their owls want them to see. For example, the newest inductee to the cabal of columnists is William Kristol. Unfortunately, as a kind of "hazing" that all of the rookie columnists must go through, Kristol gets the last pick of all the owls. This means that all of his owls are not only terrible about checking their facts, but also that they all tend to be kind of douche-bags, therefore making his column appear as if it were written by a douche-bag. It's terribly paradoxical, I know, but it is the only possible way to explain the virulent racism, anti-semitism, and general reality denying that saturates his column on a regular basis.

At least, I hope that it's the owls. I would actually rather not comprehend the alternative.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

It's Not Exactly Penny Lane

It was such a marvelous day in Chicago on Tuesday that, after I got off work, I decided to walk the six blocks north and five blocks east from my job on campus to our apartment. The sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and I thought that a brisk afternoon stroll through the neighborhood was just what I needed before I settled in for the evening to write my Heidegger paper about we can only become authentic human beings after we recognize and embrace the inevitability of our own demises. (My other two papers are about the impossibility of faith and the non-existence of truth. Philosophy is fun.)

So I strolled up to 53rd Street, and then turned right, and this is what I saw:

On the corner of 53rd and Woodlawn, there were two women kissing. And I don't mean kissing as in, "Hi honey, how was your day?" kind of way, but more in a "Let me see if I can swallow your tonsils while I put my hand up your buttcrack," kind of way. This went on for a few minutes, and for all this time I stared stupidly at them. And then they saw me. Awk-ward. But not nearly as awkward as when they then turned around and walked in the exact same direction that I was going in, about twenty yards in front of me. And the entire time they kept turning around and giving me the strangest looks, like I was the publicly indecent one.

Fortunately, as I passed 53rd and Kimbark, my attention was re-diverted to an old man sitting on a stoop to an apartment building with two dogs. Two big, angry, hungry looking dogs. I gingerly tip-toed around their slavering jaws, and was just about scot-free when the man suddenly yelled at me. "HEY." Uh-oh, I thought, and focused on not making eye-contact. "HEY." He yelled again. There was no avoiding it. I turned around. One of his dogs had gotten up and was looking at me, drooling. "Yes?" I said. "HOW YOU DOIN'?" he said, clearly and in all caps. "Good, how are you doing?" "NICE DAY TODAY." "Yup." There was a pause. The dog laid back down, satisfied. The man was staring at something above me and to my right. Clearly we were done here. I mushed on.

I swear, this guy's dogs were like, twice as big.

After I crossed Blackstone,

I lingered for a while to look in a shop window at the latest hot item in Hyde Park: bootleg Barack Obama T-shirts. These are plain black or white shirts that someone has bought in bulk and then photoshopped on to them images of Obama, and usually some slightly irregular version of his trademarked "O" logo. The result of this is that Obama is almost already Big Brother here, with his smiling face and doey, all-seeing eyes everywhere. One of the shirts had his likeness displayed across an American flag, surrounded by the floating heads of Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Malcolm X. I'm guessing that that shirt probably wasn't the best seller last week in West Virginia. And what's up with Mandela?? Couldn't they have come up with a third American Civil Rights leader?

Medgar Evers
Don't know him? Look it up. That's what Wikipedia's for.

Finally I reached 53rd and Harper, and went inside the bank to deposit the paycheck that was literally burning a hole in my pocket. So I got in line for the ATM and - oh, no! Those damn lesbians were right in front of me again! I spent the next several minutes staring intently at feet while one of the women kept looking over her shoulder and giving the stink-eye. Maybe she was just being over cautious in case I was planning on stealing her PIN number, but somehow I doubt it.

The run-in at the bank must have unsettled me more than I anticipated, because, as I got close to 53rd and Lake Park, I didn't realize that I was blankly staring at a young man who was walking towards me on the sidewalk. "What's up.. P-IMP?" he asked me. (Just like that, too, with the emphasis on the first "P") He startled me, but I guess that it was intended as a compliment. I wasn't wearing my pimp hat that day - I had on my wool driving cap, but I would describe that more as "jaunty" than "pimp-tastic"- so he either meant it metaphorically or he could look into my soul and see my essential pimp-alistic nature. Either way, I smiled at him and nodded, and he seemed satisfied.

At last, I reached the grand conclusion of my epic journey: the liquor store, where they were having a big sale on Kentucky bourbon. It made me appreciate the fact that they put the liquor store right next to the bank - it made my trip much easier, and brought a happy end to my arcade game-like experience of trying to get home.

Joel crossing Lake Park Avenue.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

5 Thoughts on a Thursday

1) If you're looking for something to do tonight and are in the Chicago area, I suggest that you got to see The Easy Tease play tonight at the Town Hall Pub in Lakeview on North Halsted. Why the superfluous plug, you ask? Well, because....

2) The band members are currently asleep on my living room floor.

R.A. and I know The Easy Tease from their early days as a Bard College Band, playing on the weekends on campus. Or, at least R.A. says that we do. Both she and the band members claim that I went to multiple shows at Bard, but for some reason I have no memory of ever seeing them live. Of course, this may be because whenever they were on stage at the Multi-Purpose Room, I was outside in the snow with my hooligan friends, "guarding" the kegs. But I have listened to their music on CD and MP3, and they're really good, especially if you're into a kind of folk-rock with cellos and banjos, which I am.

The band got in late last night after playing a "gig", as they say, in Lake Villa, Illinois. They're almost finished with a month long tour that has taken them to pretty much every part of the country that I have yet to see: Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota. After Chicago, they go on to Ohio and then back home to New York.

This is the third time this year that old Bard friends have come to visit me and R.A. here in Chicago, and it's always a great time. (For me, at least.) R.A. and I are definitely going to be staying in Chicago for at least another year, although we're planning on moving out of Hyde Park at the end of summer and finding a place somewhere on the North Side. So if you or your traveling gypsy band are going to find yourselves anywhere near the Windy City ever, be sure to look us up. We will have ample floor space and gin.

3) I hate bluetooths. Blueteeth? Bluetooth devices? Whatever. I can't stand them. I understand your need and desire to multi-task, to be able to drive and talk on the cell phone and eat a Big Mac all at the same time (the very definition of the modern working man). But those wireless headsets just make you look like the aliens have got their brainwave-controlling spawn lodged in your pineal gland, and that you are now a mindless zombie drone of the Great Overlord Zerlak. It's creepy.

4) I was in the University dining hall today, eavesdropping on people again. One conversation that I overheard included one sorority girl (and, I'm not stereotyping - she had her sorority bag with her) telling her friends, "I accidentally got drunk last night."

Accidentally? Did she trip and fall into a vat of blueberry vodka? Did she think that she was sipping all night on cranberry juice that I had just gone a little bad? (Now I am stereotyping.) [Note from the Future: "I had just gone a little bad?" Hmmm... nothing Freudian here....]

Actually, I'm being too hard on the girl. I know exactly what she meant: she went out with her friends last night, having told herself that she wasn't going to drink. But then she started feeling a little awkward being the only kid at the bar without a drink in her hand, and then one thing led to another and the next thing she knew she was neck deep in her third Cosmopolitan. (She wasn't a very big girl.)

But this is a situation where splitting grammatical hairs is useful. Because she didn't get drunk involuntarily (unless someone tied her to a chair and poured booze down her throat). And she didn't get drunk by mistake (unless someone tricked her into thinking that a Long Island Iced Tea was actually tea.). But she did get drunk accidentally - she intended to stay sober but then had that breakdown of will that comes with being offered sweet, sweet liquor.

5) I'm running out of time and thoughts (Damn you Great Overlord Zerlak!), so I'll sign off with the first of (hopefully many) Gratuitous Philosophy Quotes:

"Perhaps the modern European discontent is due to the fact that our prehistory, the entire middle ages, was given to drinking thanks to the influence of Germanic tastes on Europe." - Nietzsche

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Why I Am an Obama Boy

The following is from Senator Obama's victory speech after the North Carolina primary:

This has been one of the longest, most closely fought contests in American history. And that's partly because we have such a formidable opponent in Senator Hillary Clinton.

Tonight, many of the pundits have suggested that this party is inalterably divided, that Senator Clinton's supporters will not support me and that my supporters would not support her. Well, I am here tonight to tell you that I don't believe it.

Yes, yes, there have been bruised feelings on both sides. Yes, each side desperately wants their candidate to win. But ultimately this race is not about Hillary Clinton; it's not about Barack Obama; it's not about John McCain.

This election is about you, the American people.

Did you catch that? I'll give you a moment to look over the text again. Take your time.

Oh, yeah. There it is:

"Tonight, many of the pundits have suggested that this party is inalterably divided, that Senator Clinton's supporters will not support me and that my supporters would not support her."
A perfect use of the subjunctive tense.

Cicero himself would be proud. Obama strikes that perfect chord of suggesting the inevitability of his nomination without outright saying it. In other words, Clinton's supporters are going to support him; they won't have any choice. On the other hand, if we were to imagine an alternate universe in which Clinton somehow managed to win, then we should assume that Obama's supporters would, in that special case, support her.

Wouldn't it be nice if we were to have a President who could use the English language for rhetorical purposes. (Ignoring, for the moment, the fact that the subjunctive doesn't technically exist in English...)

Monday, May 5, 2008

Getting Out The Midget Vote

So I got my Oregon absentee ballot in the mail the other day, and promptly sat down with a pen and a bottle of Jim Beam and exercised my civic duty to vote. However, I opened my envelope to discover, much to my surprise, that there were, like, a million different things that I needed to vote on! "What gives?" I said to Coraline the Cat as I took a shot, "I just want to vote for the nice colored fella with the big ears!" But here they had all of these people I had never even heard of, running for offices I had never even heard of, like "Secretary of State," and "Senator"!

Being the conscientious citizen than I am, I opted not to vote for whichever candidate's name came first on the ballot, or for whomever had the best-sounding name. (Sorry, Pavel Goberman.) Rather, I took to the internets, hoping that they could objectively inform me about the candidates and the issues important to Oregonians. But instead, they gave me something way better:

Steve Novick has a hook for a hand! A hook that he can use as a bottle opener! Not only that, the guy is also 4'9", on account of not being born with any fibula bones. A hook-handed midget who drinks? Does he spend his free time sailing the sea, plundering and carrying off booty? Now there's a candidate who shares my values! My vote is sold!

"But Joel!" said the cat, "Not only are you vaguely racist, but you are also picking your candidate on a purely superficial basis, thereby abusing your rights and responsibilities as a voter!"

"Shut up, Cat!" said I, "Steve Novick spearheaded the fight against Bill Sizemore's Measure 91, which would have cut the state budget for schools, health care, and public safety by more than 20%! He has been endorsed by former Governor John Kitzhaber and by The Oregonian, which said that 'he has the potential to make Oregonians proud'!"

I paused to take another shot.

"Plus, he's a midget-robot-pirate."

Saturday, May 3, 2008

M'Aidez!: An Analysis of Syntax and Semantics in Academic Paper Titles

Thanks to everyone who lent me their support last week when I presented my Master's Thesis at the MA Workshop. I had a good time, and received several very insightful and helpful questions about my paper, "Authority, Justification, and Intelligibility in Fear and Trembling." Now, I hear you mocking my title. But, frankly, coming up with the title for an academic paper is a really tricky thing. I like mine short and to the point. (I am still quite pleased with the title of my BA Thesis: "Somethings About the Meanings of Some Words in English." What more do you need to know?)

Too often, titles follow the basic (rather boring) template of: "Blah-ing the Blah Blah: Blah, Blah, and Blah." For example, from the January 2007 issue of Mind: Vagueness and Arbitrariness: Merricks on Composition, or Theories of Meaning and Logical Truth: Edwards versus Davidson . As you can see, these titles also tend to include a lot of technical-philosophical jargon, such as "arbitrariness" or "logical truth". (Which usually mean something completely different from what they ordinarily mean when they're in a philosophy journal.)

Of course, philosophers are not the only ones who like to adhere to this format - they just find a way to do it without any style or joy. For example, the Summer 2002 edition of the Journal of Modern Literature includes the following gems: Loving Freud Madly: Surrealism between Hysterical and Paranoid Modernism , Oedipus in Dystopia: Freud and Lawrence in Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" , and 'Queen of the Niggerati' and the Nile: The Isis-Osiris Myth in Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God". That last one is just a little too wordy for my taste. But you get the idea: the articles in the philosophy journal treat their titles in a very utilitarian way: "Thing and Thing: Person doing Thing". Short, to the point, no wasted words. The literature articles, however, take a few more liberties with their titles. They try to "catch" you with a catchy "hook"; "Loving Freud Madly? That sounds scandalous!" you say to yourself, or "Oedipus is in Dystopia? How's that guy going to get out of this crazy situation!" or "I don't know who or what the "Queen of the Niggerati" is, and the only way to find out is to pick up this academic journal!" And so on, and so forth.

Of course, the French take article titles to a-whole-nother level, especially when it comes to Derrida. In 1979, he wrote an article entitled: Scribble (writing-power) . What? I mean... what? And everyone knows how the French adore their puns. Well, when this trend leaks into an English-language journal, the results can be ridiculous: "Taking Sides" (On History): Derrida Re-Marx .Get it? "Re-Marx"? "remarks"? Hahahaha! The only thing better than a pun is a Marxist pun!