Thursday, April 28, 2011

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Liquid diet (Daily Photo 4.27.11)

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Started the day with coffee and a smoothie made with milk, whey, pumpkin, and Nutella. It tried to come back up when I went for a run. I try, but I don't do well with liquids like smoothies and soup. I'm a solid-food man. Liquids just slosh around in there. Eggs. Toast. Bacon. These are the marble from which I chisel a winning day.

Signs of spring (Daily Photo 4.26.11)

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Spring hasn't officially begun until Myrna starts wiggling in the yard. Therefore, it's now spring.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Ritual sacrifice of a cartoon dog (Daily Photo 4.25.11)

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Saw this on my run today, in someone's front yard. It wasn't in the boonies -- right on North Main Street.

It wasn't the only creepy thing I saw on the run. See the 4 Feet Running blog for more.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Dog and ball (Daily Photo 4.24.11)

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Myrna found a squeaky ball she'd misplaced under a bureau weeks ago. She's had this one for a long time now -- possibly months, maybe more. They don't last long under her vicelike jaws.

North (Daily Photo 4.23.11)

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 I had a dream. I was in Montreal, sightseeing with my wife and some friends. I've never been to Montreal, nor do I know what Montreal looks like beyond the vague descriptors "old," "urban," and "French," but in my dream it seemed accurate enough: tall gray multiwindowed office towers, some glass and steel and others concrete, rising to meet an overcast sky, traffic sounds dopplering by and sounding slightly wet (it's early morning, so everything seems damp with dew or last night's rain), and commuter cars and cabs and buses are following a complex pattern around a flat, open public square where I'm standing amid pedestrian Montrealers going to work and heading to lunch and conducting conversations on cell phones that I can hear snatches of as they walk by and flagging down cabs and crossing the street in waves, squeezing between concrete bollards (to keep drivers from driving into the square), and generally acting like busy upwardly mobile urbanites on their way to other things and so disinterested in the tourists and tourist attractions around them. I'm taking a picture of my wife standing in front of a cathedral. I check the picture and it seems good. Then we're driving in a car along a heavily wooded two-lane highway. It's more overcast. Only the two of us are in the car. Trees line the side of the road, a mix of spiky pines and heavily leafed green trees. The air is cold and misted. Occasionally a car drives by in the opposite direction. We're going north. I get the feeling we're far north of most civilization. And then we arrive at the shore of a wide and cold expanse of dark blue water littered with floating debris. The sky is gray, windless, and the shore is dotted with wooden shacks in various states of dilapidation, some once having been houses and others having been stores or gas stations. I see no people anywhere. In the middle of the debris is a seaplane, apparently abandoned. Then we're in the water, but not in the car. Nik is sitting in a white plastic bucket, her legs hanging off the sides into the water. I'm floating in a discarded open suitcase. Both of us are paddling out farther into the water. We're bobbing on the surface and paddling with our bare hands farther into the lake or ocean, whatever it is. The only sound is of our hands scooping the freezing cold water. Nik bobs near a cluster of floating debris and I paddle my suitcase over to the seaplane's rear and see that it's got a low belly and a ramp-like hatch, and the hatch is open so I can see inside is a tumble of cargo crates and possibly a person sitting in the cockpit but not turning around, not moving. I grab one of the skis of the seaplane and feel the suitcase under me list and sway, and I tell Nik to paddle over, because we're headed farther north still and the seaplane will take us there.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Chicks (Daily Photo 4.22.11)

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The pet store where we buy our dog food had chicks on display, presumably for sale because Sunday is Easter. In the town of Somerset, home of our pet store, keeping chickens is legal even though the place is about as agricultural as the moon. For the record, if you're living in a densely populated Massachusetts suburb you probably shouldn't buy your kid a chick for Easter. They grow up into chickens. Unless you're prepared to care for an adult chicken properly, either as a pet or a potential food source, then you're asking for trouble. In fact, you really shouldn't buy anyone any living creature on a whim, regardless of whatever damn holiday it is. This is why we have Marshmallow Peeps. Get your Easter chicken fix that way.

Snail (Daily Photo 4.21.11)

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The people I come from were farmers. The way they lived was to plant seeds, grow things, pick them, eat some of them, sell some of them, and repeat the process. If they didn't grow things, they died. I can't grow shit. I can't keep houseplants alive for longer than a week. My front lawn is looking like a scrap of dirt lately with occasional tufts of grass poking through and struggling for life. Never mind food: I can't even grow grass. I don't know how this happened, but I know why it happened. It's because I touched it. 

When I first moved into this house, my front yard was lush and green. Now it's patchy, mostly dirt, mostly dead. I see my neighbors' lawns and they're fresh and healthy. They don't do anything to their grass and yet it grows just fine. I don't do anything to my grass and it wilts like a cheap salad and I end up with post-apocalypse landscaping. 

My parents can grow things, but they never taught me how to grow a lawn. I grew up in a tenement. We didn't have grass. My yard was cement. So I've gone 34 years without knowing how a lawn works. I'll go the rest of my life without knowing what to do, I'm sure of it.

I guessed that the way to fix this was to add more grass seed. So I rooted around under the porch, found a bag of sun-and-shade grass seed a few years old and a bag of fertilizer possibly older than that. I got out my Garden Weasel and basically churned up the dirt, spread some seed, added some fertilizer, and sprayed it with some water. I don't know how much of these items I added. "Some" is all I can say. Maybe I added too much of all of these things, or too little. I don't fucking know. What I want is, like, an expert to come to my house, assess my grass, tell me what's wrong with it and how to fix it, and then do it himself because I'm not good with plants. Also, I want this to be free.

Go to bed (Daily Photo 4.20.11)

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Spent most of the day on the couch, on the computer, working on a project. Stanley was my companion for most of this, although by 11 pm he was wondering when the hell I was going to put him to bed already. He's got a routine.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Spring colors (Daily Photo 4.19.11)

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Most days out of the week, the weather is still crappy, but spring is nevertheless still on its way. This is an apple blossom bud on one the trees in my backyard. Soon it'll be blooming, and then my dogs will be leaping into the branches to strip all the apples off the trees.


Nik and I headed out to do some shopping to get our minds off certain unpleasant memories. We swung by an art supply store to get Nik some gear.


She stocked up on some paint.


And smellums.


And candles.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Will work for dumplings (Daily Photo 4.18.11)

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Going for a 10-mile run means one thing: I get hungry. Luckily we are within 3-minute driving distance of a fine Chinese eatery that can provide the nourishment I require. I just noticed a sign on their door when I picked up the food:
"There are meat in our chow mein gravy. Let us know if you don't want it in."
I'm out of work, and they need a copy editor. I'm just saying, I see an opportunity here.

Sniffing the grass (Daily Photo 4.17.11)

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Which reminds me, I have to pick up dogshit in the yard.

Carvel (Daily Photo 4.16.11)

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Nik & I had lunch at my parents' house and stuffed ourselves. No birthday in my family is complete without Carvel ice cream cake, so they bought one for Nik, whose birthday was last week. But since Nik can't eat it, I got to take the rest of it home and eat it myself. Happy birthday to me! Again!

Don't worry, she got some ice cream later.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Book shopping (Daily Photo 4.15.11)

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I've been looking forward to this day for a while: went to the bookstore to pick up the unfinished novel The Pale King by the late David Foster Wallace. DFW has been one of my favorites for a while now, the extremely intelligent, observant, hilarious, ambitious writer of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Infinite Jest, and others. I've read most of his works -- haven't gotten to Oblivion yet, or his book about the concept of mathematical infinity. Most of those former I've tackled several times, including IJ, a novel so complex it can't really be adequately described here except to say: it's about a little bit of everything. I remember being in graduate school for creative writing in the early and mid-2000s, being a DFW fan when others weren't, having frustrating conversations with other writers and writing students about DFW's work where certain miserable shits told me he was "gimmicky" and "too clinical" and "too clever" and "inhuman." In 2008, DFW hanged himself, having lost control of his severe clinical depression. I wonder if these people figured out he was human yet.

His death deprived the literary world of -- no, you know what? Fuck the literary world. He deprived me of future great works and enjoyment. He deprived me of it. Me. I won't get to read any more of his stories because, unfortunately, his brain was full of bad chemicals and he was unable/unwilling/incapable/who-the-hell-knows to get the help he needed. So I'm left with The Pale King, which is incomplete but at least something.

While we were out book shopping, we checked out the other literary offerings. Without DFW, this is what we're left with:

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Chew (Daily Photo 4.14.11)

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Stanley mauling a Woodland Amigos bear.

Petri dish (Daily Photo 4.13.11)

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Not a fan of canteloupe.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Distressed: Replicas, "vintage" items, and New Old Stock

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The following is an essay I wrote in graduate school on April 13, 2005 -- exactly 6 years ago today. It is about the harmful dominance of faux-vintage and "retro" items in pop culture. I wrote it for a class called Construction of Taste, and it got an A. I was fairly proud of my A considering the class concerned the philosophy of aesthetics, and philosophy of any kind tends to baffle and irritate me very quickly. I spent much of this course being annoyed and using words like "bullshit" and "masturbatory." Maybe you'll use those same words here. I don't think so, but it's for you to judge.

I recently found this essay while straightening out my room. Yes, this is the kind of litter I have at home: half-decade-old academic papers. As I was straightening out, I flipped through the essay and remembered that at the time I was so proud of this I'd considered adapting it for publication elsewhere. I never got around to that until now, apparently.

A lot has changed in the pop culture since 2005 -- some of those changes are prefigured here, actually. Other changes met my predictions and went far, far beyond my wildest nightmares. There's a section toward the end that could be a massive new essay just by itself. Updating this essay's references from '05 to '11 would be a huge chore, and might ruin the time-capsule quality this has for me, so I'm just going to hack out some of the references, punch up the language to make it less academickish, and footnote it with new information where I think it helps. 

It's very long, in 6 parts, but I hope it's at least partially interesting. I still believe everything I said here, probably even more deeply now. I think even though this essay is itself a vintage piece it's entirely relevant in 2011.



1. CHANGING JEANS

There is an enlightening and entertaining essay yet to be written tracking the progress of American capitalism solely through the predominant style of pants.

This is not that essay, not entirely—and yet if I might be indulged, the sundry designs of jeans available during my lifetime might provide an illustrative example of postmodern America’s fascination with itself, of how producers and advertisers ransack our own past to sell it back to us refreshed as kitsch, itself masquerading as "vintage."

All trends begin with the avant-garde, filter down to the elites and further down to the mainstream where people like you and I meet them—at which point, to separate themselves from the herd and maintain their status as heralds of What's Cool, the avant-garde rejects the trend, reverses it, and the cycle begins again. I’m not so young that I can’t remember bellbottom pants, although by the time I came along in the late 1970s they had stopped being the uniform of hippies and self-described "freaks" and were becoming too mainstream to sustain public interest for much longer. So when I grew to awareness in the early 1980s, predominant jeans styles had changed drastically, so that the skin-tight thighs and swishing cuffs of Saturday Night Fever and Superfly had utterly reversed to a snug, tapered-leg shape with skin-tight cuffs, thanks to the avant-garde influence of punk rockers like The Ramones. Within a few years, as tighter jeans became more mainstream, the trend reached its maximum point: These tight cuffs would not be tapered enough—I recall family, friends, and even myself folding the excess fabric against our ankles and rolling it up to hold in place an unyielding, almost knotlike cuff. In the 1990s came a period of reversal back to wide cuffs where the pop culture avant-garde and elites (fashion types, celebrities, movie stars) spread their smirking, campy admiration of '70s bellbottom jeans to anyone with a television set. Once again bellbottoms were hip. Now, bellbottom jeans (rechristened "flare" or "boot-cut" in an attempt to repackage the old as new) are becoming too common again, pedestrian, mainstream, masscult.
[1] This has, in fact,
happened. As of 2011,
modern jeans styles have
rebelled once again from
flaring cuffs to skin-tight
cuffs -- in fact, skin-tight
all over. We're talking
sprayed-on tight,
regardless of whether
that looks good on you
or not. It started, again,
with the avant-garde,
and the trend has now
reached to everyday
people you see on the
street, mostly thanks to
the influence of the
Hipster subculture, whose
adoration of vintage
stuff from clothes to used
bicycles to beer brands
to old-style facial hair
is legendary and
possibly worth many
more essay words.

Wearers of bellbottom jeans are not simply keeping their legs warm—they're consciously quoting the past, wearing the jeans in a purposive response to the '70s fashion and as a reaction against the '80s fashion. Some day very soon, the same thing will happen to '80s tight cuffs, given enough time to give them a patina of vintage quality, as well. And the pants trend will continue on, decade by decade, wide, narrow, wide, narrow, wide, narrow, as predictable as time itself. [1]

This is postmodern pop culture: a vicious, endlessly unproductive cycle of acquisition, boredom, nostalgia, and reacquisition.

Producers of pop culture commodities—clothes, popular art, furniture, entertainment—in their fever to sell products guaranteed to make money and be enjoyable, simply sell us what we already had. But now these things come with a veneer of authenticity and uniqueness in the form of “vintage.”

The faux-vintage phenomenon is more pervasive than you might expect—and, I suspect, more insidious. In America, we are the things we buy. What does that say about us, that our homes are full of old-fashioned wall sconces mass-produced and mass-marketed at Home Depot, faux-Edwardian drawer-pulls from Restoration Hardware, our closets full of retro fashions—all phonies? That we’re all distressed? That we’re all fake?

More than that—that we’re happy with fakes. Or, to be more accurate, postmodern consumer culture pretends to give us endless choice but has given us just one: be happy with fakes.



2. ‘SHOPPING IS FUN AGAIN’


Since its inception in the mid-1990s, clothing retailer Old Navy has thrived on faux-vintage style, not only in what it sells but how it sells it. Its advertisements' styles hark back to the 1950s and '60s, with bright, warm colors like orange and brown, gaudy fonts, and a sunny design sensibility that quotes simpler times with golly-gee naïveté. "Shopping is fun again!" is the company motto, as if the consumption of goods had at one time become a mirthless chore. Piped into its stores, for the enjoyment of shoppers from opening to closing, is mid- to late 1970s upbeat funk and soul mixed with occasional modern indie rock. Its TV commercials are intentionally campy, most featuring hammy non-actors and models frolicking on obviously cartoonish, vibrant sets and addressing the camera in a way that can only be described as “self-consciously unironic”—they reek of what Susan Sontag in “Notes on Camp” calls “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” Narrator Gary Owens, the sublimely overmodulated voice of 1960s cult comedy show "Laugh-In," interjects a bit of vintage verisimilitude in some commercials and in frequent in-store prerecorded announcements. Overt references to old films and TV shows are common, such as "The Jeffersons," but more common are casual references to the idea of old films and TV shows, like '60s-era beach movies. The effect is to surround you with things you know, or things you think you know, or things you think you should know, dipping you in a warm bath of nostalgia.

Featured prominently in the middle of almost any Old Navy store is its collection of “vintage” T-shirts. These are typically old-looking, with aged, cracking silkscreened logos on them for obscure bars or diners or travel destinations. “PANCHO’S SEAFOOD FIESTA” is one such T-shirt available on OldNavy.com, with a picture of a lobster wearing a sombrero and the legend, “BAJA, CA.” Another, with a cartoon of an Italian stereotype, reads, “STUFF YOUR FACE! AT JOEY PEPPERONI’S— BROOKLYN, NY.” Another, with a circus-style font and a strange-looking star-and-hand symbol: “THE IDOL HAND FORTUNE TELLER—SANTIAGO.”
[2] There IS a place in
Brooklyn called Joey
Pepperoni
, but it's unclear
if it's meant to be
the same place because the
logo is entirely different.
Also n.b. there's a chain
of Italian restaurants
called Joey Pepperoni,
but it's also not the same
logo. 


None of these places actually exist. It's unclear if they ever existed. But that latter point is irrelevant—consumers buy these shirts, mass-produced and mass-marketed at $10 to $13 each, at Old Navy, not at Pancho’s. [2]

At first blush, this particular faux-vintage market reeks of camp, an ironic appreciation for something earnest but in extravagantly awful taste. The Pancho’s T-shirt, for example, is designed with outrageous and slightly embarrassing Mexican stereotypes in mind—it's in terrifically awful taste that was ostensibly intended for a serious purpose: to advertise a restaurant. But the restaurant isn't real. The shirts are fakes—if camp appreciates anything about the object of its ironic affection, it’s the thing's innocent authenticity.
[3] Since 2005, Old
Navy has largely
toned down the kitschy
feel of its advertising,
and seems to have
limited its line of
broken-in graphic T-shirts
advertising places that
don't actually exist.
I wonder if that's because
they didn't sell well,
because Old Navy isn't
interested so much in
the idea that the shirts
make no sense -- they
only care if they SELL.
Target also sells these.
Just as odd are the
more popular shirts they
sell these days:
T-shirts that advertise
places and products that
DO exist -- using old,
outdated logos for
products that have
largely left the public
consciousness except in
nostalgic form, like a
shirt with a dated logo
for 7-Up complete with
the "Uncola" slogan
from the 1980s, or
a shirt with the Atari
logo, a game system that
no longer exists ... the
implication being that
your shirt is really, really
old when in fact it was
made just recently, with
a logo that was freshly
applied and then worn
away to give it the aroma
of "oldness." It reminds me
of people who spend
hours styling their hair
in such a way that it looks
as if they just rolled out
of bed -- the effort put in
to achieve that falseness
is fairly staggering,
when in fact the easiest
and most authentic thing
to do if you want that
effect is not to style your
hair at all.


These T-shirts are not camp but kitsch—a cheap copy of the real thing. Old Navy provides buyers with a quick, easy way to get the campy feeling you have when you wear a vintage campy T-shirt from a campy place, but without actually wearing a real vintage campy T-shirt from a real campy place. You can have a cheap imitation of an ironic experience. What’s the point? Where does genuineness exist in this commercial transaction? Anywhere? [3]

Walk further into an Old Navy store, and you will find a display of its Special Edition line of pants and shirts. Highlighting the Special Edition line are the jeans. (Yes, again—but if there's a fashion constant in America it's jeans.)  Instead of a pure blue, these pants are darker, or lighter, with discolorations. Instead of noting the quality of the sewing, the Special Edition jeans champion their frayed hems and cuffs, permanent knee-wrinkles, torn belt loops, and overall crappiness.

“Rugged style, with no breaking-in required!” reads an ad online at OldNavy.com. “Unique wash layers subtle color over durable denim. Distressed hems and handcrafted abrasions create a thoroughly lived-in look.”

The “handcrafted abrasions” are, if one looks closely at several pairs of jeans (as I did at several visits to different Old Navy stores), nearly identical 1.5- to 2-inch scrapes in nearly the same spot on the left thigh. Although every color is supposed to be unique, there are several general varieties available, with names ranging from the obvious to the ridiculous: Light Rinse, Medium Wash, Dark Wash, Tart, Imperial, Tanglewood, Battery, and (my favorite) Destructed.

There is no camp element to the Special Edition jeans—just kitsch. For a mere $40 (a regular, un-Special pair costs $20 to $29), you can buy jeans that are pre-consumed as stylish, “unique,” “lived-in.” Instead of expending the time and effort needed to break in your jeans, Old Navy has done that already. Old Navy has made wearing your jeans even simpler.

Umberto Eco references this simplicity inherent in kitsch in “The Structure of Bad Taste”:
As an easily digestible substitute for art [or, any aesthetic experience], Kitsch is the ideal food for a lazy audience that wants to have access to beauty and enjoy it without having to make too much of an effort. … Kitsch is largely a petty bourgeois phenomenon, the cultural pretense of a public that believes it can enjoy an original representation of the world whereas in fact it can only appreciate a secondary imitation of the primary power of the images. 
Eco is right in this case about the “petty bourgeois phenomenon.” Old Navy is a bourgeois store. Its clothes are simple, but they borrow stylemes from more expensive fashions; the company’s advertisements emphasize price and value. But in a reflection of the way the bourgeois class aspires to be aristocratic, this choice of “special” jeans aspires to be like designer jeans: cooler, attracted to anti-ostentation, yet more frivolous with money—down to the illogical price premium you have to pay for pants marred by dinginess and shreds.

The message these pseudo-vintage jeans communicate is that, by wearing them, you can achieve a quick, easy importance, can be as “special” as richer people; by zipping up these self-consciously dated and worn clothes, you can pretend to be older, more of a classic yourself—existing out of your own time. All that is as close as the nearest mall. Not bad for just $40.



3. QUILTS AND OARS

"Buying social status through the convenience of beat-up objects" is not the Pottery Barn motto, but it should be. The Internet, catalog, and bricks-and-mortar retailer produces and sells fake vintage home furnishings indebted in style to the past but without pesky nuisances like the real passage of time to get in the way. And Pottery Barn doesn’t just transcend time; its furniture also takes consumers back to more rustic places—even if they were never there in the first place.

The Nantucket Buffet sells not so much a piece of kitchen furniture as the feeling of Nantucket: “The warm distressed finish of our buffet recalls New England farmhouse furnishings.” For a mere $599 and $100 in shipping, you can own what one imagines is probably a typical fixture of New England farmhouses. Never mind that people who live in actual New England farmhouses generally can’t afford such items—the point is to give people who live elsewhere (urban areas, primarily) a kitschy shortcut to the feeling of being rustic without putting in the effort of:

  • moving to New England
  • finding a farmhouse
  • building your own furniture (or buying it cheaply on whatever meager salary farming in New England brings these days)
  • distressing it through the age and the wear of fingers and bodies against wood in ordinary use
  • letting the natural veneer crack in an appealing way (but not too much)
  • and finally passing the furniture down for a few generations.

But the power of Pottery Barn can even eradicate that latter. Consider the Aris Pedestal Table: “Ours has a broad top, substantial turned base and a distressed finish that gives it the appeal of a family heirloom.”  Or the Old World Map, which if it were real would be a rare treasure one might find in a great-grandparent’s attic: “Inspired by a vintage map from the 1800s, our geographically accurate version has an antique feel. … Included are 20 bronze tacks to mark the outposts you’ve been to or hope to visit.” Figure that—you can own a fake old map and mark the places you haven't been. Or the Patchwork Block-Print Quilt and Boudoir Pillow, which takes something that actual rustic people normally make by hand, individually constructed out of old leftover fabric scraps, and mass-produces them at a price of several hundred dollars for busy rich people. What was once a necessity can be used as a frivolity: “The patchwork design features 12 different patterns that are block-printed by hand using traditional methods and materials. The randomly sized patches are stitched in patterns that change from square to square to accentuate the floral designs.” Whether each patch is truly randomly sized or only manufactured to give the illusion of randomness, the catalogue does not say.

The fake antiques for sale at Pottery Barn have the potential to fill homes with a purchased nobility. But besides elevating the social status of its buyers, Pottery Barn can give people a whole history that never occurred and set of hobbies they will never pursue. One of the most egregious examples of this is to be found in the Spring 2005 catalog: Pottery Barn catalogs feature glossy full-page photos of impressively decorated rooms, complete with knickknacks strewn about in a “lived-in” way, to give the impression that some upscale American couple has just wandered out of frame. In the corner of one such photo are two oars. They appear to be background props, like the books on the shelves or the hat hanging from the Farmhouse Peg Rack—until you realize the oars are for sale.

“Our wooden oars have the timeworn beauty once created only by years of exposure to sea and sun,” reads the description. “Their distressed finish is accented with hints of white and green for the look of antiques.”  Not only are they pre-consumed as antique for your benefit, they’re a mere $39 each, or $69 for two. It just makes sense to have both, right?

You needn’t come from a seafaring family. You don’t even need to have ever seen water—because of these prefabricated relics, minor details like that are now irrelevant. People overseas are, at this moment, carving oars, painting them, and scraping the paint back off to give Americans the kitschy experience of being a longtime canoe enthusiast. Thus has Pottery Barn eradicated time, place, social class, and history.
 
If this consumption appears in any way democratic—leveling the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy for just a few hundred dollars—it isn’t. It’s a surface change. And like the phony T-shirts from Old Navy, the actual objects for consumption are unimportant. The message the seller communicates to the consumer is the actual purchase. Here, that message is, You can pretend come from noble lineage with lots of furniture to pass down from one generation to another. Like the postmodern person you are, you can buy an existence apart from this time.

What is more dangerous is the unspoken message: These are not only fake antiques, but they’re better than actual antiques. These are worn just so—no leaving the distressing to the persnickety ravages of nature, which can distress furniture and oars to the point of rot. Actual antiques take time and effort. These just take some money. They aren't just new and old, but improved. As Umberto Eco writes in “Travels in Hyperreality,” regarding a trip to the Palace of the Living Arts in Los Angeles:

The Palace’s philosophy is not, "We are giving you the reproduction so that you will want the original," but rather, "We are giving you the reproduction so you will no longer feel any need for the original."

But if there's no need for the original, of what use is it? What purpose does uniqueness have, except to provide a template for endlessly copied and refined clones that purport to be "more real" than reality?



4. CLOSET CLASSICS

The Fender Frontline 2005 catalog contains the Fender guitar company’s entire line of instruments and amplifiers, including its “Time Machine Series.” These are a limited run of guitars and basses that are fabricated to look old and feel as if you’ve been playing them for years—when in fact they’re made fresh in a California factory, and you may not even have been born when they were alleged to have been built.

Like the Old Navy Special Edition jeans, you buy these guitars for their fictional history, borrowing that fake past to lend yourself a feeling of authenticity, or permanence, of dominance over time. And like any good fakes, their fraudulence has its own truth: “All are built to exacting specs of their respective vintages, including body contours and radii, neck shape, fingerboard radius, pickups and electronics. Original materials, tooling and production techniques are employed whenever possible to maintain the integrity of these instruments,” and I look askance at the use of the word “integrity” there.  The price is generally around $2,000 for one of these guitars. A regular Fender that’s brand-new and honest about it (and which will play equally well) will run about $400.

Fender offers the Time Machine guitars in three different “trim levels,” so to speak: N.O.S., or New Old Stock; Closet Classic; and Relic®. Again note the imaginary history involved:
New Old Stock: As if the guitar was discovered in a warehouse after many years, never played, and showing no signs of age or wear. Closet Classic: A guitar collector’s dream! Imagine discovering a vintage guitar at a yard sale that’s been stashed in a closet … it’s worn a bit, yellowed with age, the finish is slightly checked with hairline finish cracks that are typical of an instrument that’s been exposed to years of humidity and temperature variations. Relic®: Super worn-in, like your favorite pair of jeans! [See?] Shows natural wear and tear from years of heavy use—nicks, scratches, worn finish, rusty hardware and aged plastic parts. Looks, feels and plays like it’s taken the punishment of many long nightclub hours. 
The idea is to give consumers a taste of authenticity, repackaged and reconstituted for convenience’s sake. If they can’t afford or find an actual 1963 Fender Telecaster (which isn’t terribly different from a 2005 Fender Telecaster), then consumers can have a replica made to such exacting standards that distinction between reality and fake are rendered meaningless. Consumers can even request how authentic they’d like their forgery to be: with the bloom still on the rose or showing the marks of age.

This self-delusion is more painful when one considers Fender’s Artist Series line of guitars. These are instruments produced as replicas of guitars played by famous musicians. In the catalog, one can find the Muddy Waters Telecaster, the Stevie Ray Vaughan Stratocaster, Jaco Pastorius Jazz Bass, the Eric Clapton Stratocaster, Sting Precision Bass. “The [Robert] Cray signature Strat guitar captures Robert’s trademark tone and style. Outfitted with a vintage hard-tail bridge and the Custom Shop’s own Custom Vintage Strat pickups, this guitar is truly unique,” reads the ad copy, misusing both the terms “custom” and “unique.” And to negate the idea of custom work and uniqueness and capturing the personal essence of blues guitarist Robert Cray, the guitar is available in three different colors. [4]
[4] The same goes for Eric
Clapton's Artist Series model:
three different color choices, which is
odd considering any self-respecting
Claptonian knows that Eric's main
guitar was "Blackie."

What the Artist Series faux-vintage guitars offer is not merely an escape to a different time or place, but an escape from oneself. Most guitarists (by this I mean both professionals and hobbyists like myself) spend years finding their preferred sound and customizing their guitars to their specific needs, wants, and tastes. Rather than expend that energy and time, you can simply give up and become your favorite guitarist.

As with all kitsch, there’s an element of reverence for the original—nobody would spend a few thousand dollars on the Mark Knopfler Stratocaster, let’s say, without being a die-hard fan of Mr. Knopfler—and a more worrisome element of surrender to sentimentality. Finding the right combination of neck size and pickup type you prefer can be costly and time-consuming, if you're picky about it. Through the Artist Series, buyers can avoid having to discover their personal preferences entirely. The cost is a price premium (these guitars always have a price premium over the stock issue) and a surrender to Mark Knopfler’s personal preferences and the willing suppression of your own, should they ever appear, and so having to sound exactly like Mark Knopfler all the time; and you must be constantly reminded, when you pick it up and sees the printed signature on the headstock, that the guitar you own is a an exact duplicate of someone else's famous guitar. But given the depths of some fans’ appreciation, this latter can seem less like slavish imitation and more like an extension of the common bond they feel with their favorite artist.

Nor should it be neglected that an Artist Series guitar has the potential to impart upon its owner feelings of connection and parity with the original artist. Therefore, if Fender says that all you have to do is buy a Rory Gallagher guitar and play it through x kind of amplifier to “nail his sound,” then by all rights after the purchase you must be as good a guitar player as Rory Gallagher is. Right? The distinction between the physicality of Rory Gallagher's real guitar and the copy of Rory Gallagher's guitar is essentially nil, down to the carefully-shaped flecks of paint rubbed off the wood. That means you, the apprentice, own the master's tools. With this purchase, you can transcend your own level of accomplishment and your personality; you can go from being a hobbyist to a rock god. The implied lie of Artist Series guitars is that by owning the exact tool that an artist owns, you can vanquish the meritocracy that is artistic talent.

And yet by playing the guitar, the lie reveals itself. There is a disparity between Rory Gallagher and you. You are dressing up as Rory Gallagher, but you are not him. Because true personal artistic expression is probably the only unique thing left.

Probably.



5: ‘KOJAK’ IS DEAD, LONG LIVE ‘KOJAK’


If the problems of faux antiquity were relegated solely to consumer items like furniture, clothes, and musical instruments, then perhaps living in a kitsch-dominated consumer culture might be tolerable. But kitschy vintage forgeries have leaked over to American consumer art, as well, setting the stage for a skewed sense of aesthetics in the art we enjoy as a respite from the daily grind of life in postmodern America. We encounter the plague of kitsch nearly everywhere in our regular lives, and even in our leisure when we try to escape.

Sitting down to a TV show or a film, you may encounter copies upon copies of something else available for your viewing pleasure. I’m not speaking of unoriginal material (although that’s not untrue, either), but literal copies. Remakes of films and television shows are, essentially, kitsch reproductions of old pop culture objects that entertainment producers have allowed to fade, gain an aura of legitimacy through distance or age, and repackaged for re-consumption.

So it is that America is treated to a new version of the 1970s TV detective show “Kojak,” swapping bald white actor Telly Savalas for bald black actor Ving Rhames. No one involved seems to remember much from the original “Kojak,” except for the title character’s fondness for lollipops and his trademark quip, “Who loves ya, baby?” But when the new “Kojak” is featured on television screens across America, it will arrive pre-consumed as an echo of a camp classic detective show, and will be consumed itself as kitsch. TV viewers (who have little enough work to do as it is) won’t even have to bother figuring out if the lead character has hair, or with what he's orally fixated, or what trademark quip he’ll use every show. They’ll already know—because it’s “Kojak,” and it will be pretty much like the old “Kojak.” It's a cop show pretty much like every other cop show, except in this one the cop is bald and likes lollipops. Therefore it's "Kojak," and therefore it's familiar.

[5] First off: Between the time this essay was
written and now, "The Office" (US) did not
become a "cult hit." It became a mainstream
hit, mostly because it repackaged the
original's much more acerbic, depressing,
edgy, and sometimes-horrifyingly-awkward
format, making the characters a lot more
likable, adding more jokes, and overall
making the show a lot more conventional.
It's a great show, and has come into its
own, but the fact remains that it's still kitsch,
directly derived from some other unique
item, reformatted and tempered for mass
public consumption.

Second: At the time I wrote this, I had no way
of anticipating how  unbelievably
insidious and widespread the
phenomenon of cloned TV and film has
become. Remakes and sequels were
quite common at the  time, and I confess
I wish I'd expanded this section of the
essay just a tad to address that, but it
would have ballooned the length a bit
too much. I shudder to think about now.
The explosion of kitsch entertainment in
recent years is fucking epic. Almost ALL
popular mainstream entertainment
now can be called kitsch -- remakes, reboots,
"reimaginings," sequels, prequels,
adaptations. Popular mainstream films
are almost all based on something that's
been pre-sold, pre-digested, pre-consumed,
to the point that mainstream blockbuster
films based on original scripts pretty much
are on the verge of NO LONGER EXISTING.
N.b., this essay was  written before "Hulk"
(2003), already an adaptation of a comic
book series and 1970s TV show, was itself
remade as "The Incredible Hulk" (2008) --
before the new "Knight Rider" and "Bionic
Woman" and "Hawaii Five-O" -- before
 "Spider-Man" was (a) taken off the screen
to Broadway and (b) given to some other
director to be remade as "The Amazing
Spider-Man" (2012)  -- before the reboot
of "Superman Returns," which tried
self-consciously to mimic the style of the
earlier films but which is now being rebooted
AGAIN -- before "The A-Team" movie --
before "Transformers" and "Clash of the
Titans" (2010) and "Rise of the Planet of
the Apes"  -- before every British reality
TV program was ported over to the U.S. --
before AT LEAST four films based on the
idea of ordinary people dressing up like
superheroes were released in recent years
("Super," "Kick-Ass," "Defendor," "Special,"
and I would technically count "Watchmen"
in with this list) -- before the UK then US
"Life on Mars" -- before "The Green
Lantern" and "The Green Hornet" -- before
"Grindhouse" and "Scream 4" and "The
Smurfs" -- before "Thor," "Captain America,"
"Footloose" (2011), "Conan the Barbarian"
(2011), "Arthur" (2011), "Red Dawn" (2011)
-- before the "Battlestar Galactica" remake,
the "90210"and "Melrose Place" remakes,
the "V" remake. Notice how the overwhelming
majority of these seem to emerge from
comic books. I theorize the multilayered,
dense, continually-rebooted ethos of comic
book production has a great deal to do why
TV and film studios seem blithely willing to
remake anything no matter how significant
or insignificant, the way comic books
seem to have 5 or 6 versions of The Flash or
Batman running around all with different
origins and histories and adventures,
and how there are different flavors of
"Spider-Man" and "X-Men" comics, and
multiple "parallel universes" are typical,
how various heroes have had their origins
"ret-conned" once their current adventures
began to contradict their histories. This is
also probably why (a) I have never been
able to stand reading comic books for more
than 1 issue, and (b) why I'm sick to fucking
death of comic book movies and don't ever
want to see another again if I can help it.

The NBC network also recently debuted “The Office,” a copy of the identically titled hit British TV show that has been transplanted in setting to a nondescript office in suburban America. NBC is no stranger to blatant repackaging of the old as new—several years ago the network had great success with its asinine but apt slogan during the summer rerun series, “If you haven’t seen it before, it’s new to you!” It has sold this “new” show as kitsch to the American masses by constant reminder of the original’s cult status—so the unspoken message is that the new one is expected to earn the same cult status before even one episode is broadcast. Watching the new show is posited as a way of acquiring access to the original show's cult status and its cachet as a classic without finding it on DVD collections and, more significantly, wading through those difficult British accents and that strangely formal British diction, unpacking those unfamiliar British references. [5]

Turning the TV off and relaxing with a good book often offers no respite from Kitschy fake antiques. A recent publishing phenomenon has been the appearance of books that tell the stories left unsaid in other works—a means for the publisher to rummage through the past and resell previously successful works of art, and for consumers to relive the experiences from their favorite books, or to experience an echo of the classics without actually reading them: call it Kitsch Lit.

In 2000, Sena Jeter Naslund published the novel Ahab’s Wife, which tells the story of the spouse of Capt. Ahab, who is busy in Moby-Dick hunting a large symbol of man’s ego. Other notable examples include Jack Maggs by Peter Carey, based on the Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations. In 1990, Valerie Martin wrote the novel Mary Reilly, based on the life of a housekeeper in the Robert Louis Stevenson novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Author Gregory Maguire has made a name for himself as an adapter of myths and fairy tales into adult stories, including Wicked, the story of the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz, and Mirror, Mirror, based on Snow White. Arguably, Maguire’s novels and some of the others above achieve effects greater than the derisive moniker Kitsch Lit would presume, but it remains nonetheless that their paternity is kitschy experimentation at best and commercial cynicism at worst. [6]

[6] I was
obviously
never able to
predict what
happened with
"Pride and
Prejudice and
Zombies," the less
said about which
the better.
What’s more, any number of novels have been written in recent years that even have paintings as their kitsch parentage; in particular Dutch master Johannes Vermeer spawned a mini-publishing phenomenon, so that in Girl With a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier gives us the back story of one of Vermeer’s most notable works, and in The Girl In Hyacinth Blue, Susan Vreeland not only bases her Kitsch Lit novel on a Vermeer painting, but one that does not actually exist. So we're full circle to Old Navy’s vintage T-shirts advertising fictional tourist traps. The Girl in Hyacinth Blue is based on a kitschy aura of a kitschy aura of Vermeer’s genius, a simulation of a copy, distilled into a mass-market paperback and dressed up as a rare and wonderful treat—I can give you access, says Vreeland’s book, not just to Vermeer’s work, but to paintings the art elites don’t even KNOW about. I can give you something MORE and something BETTER than you’ll find at any museum. Just buy me…and don’t leave the couch until I’m finished.




6. UNDERSTANDING

Doubtless, the mere lack of availability plays a large role in the persistence of pseudo-vintage items. There are only a limited number of items legitimately from the past that have survived in such condition that they can be appreciated today, and in some cases they’re in the hands of the elites. Furniture, for instance—who among us has an authentically worn set of early 20th century oars lying around? Who has a real 1959 Fender Esquire in playable condition, without a warped neck or bad wiring? Who has a pair of truly frayed and broken-in jeans from the mid-1970s that (a) still has its color and (b) still fits?

Kitsch vintage allows people who could never have access to these items a taste of what it might be like to own a real set of oars, a real Fender Esquire, a real pair of worn-out jeans. It seems like a great democratizing experience—a way to disseminate these products and, more significantly, the feelings these products communicate to everyone. The reality is that it's only the simulation of a democratizing experience. When one considers the price premium one has to pay for crap that's intentionally dilapidated, it becomes apparent that kitsch vintage allows the purchase of previously unavailable products only to the extent that the bourgeoisie can afford them—not everyone.

Perhaps the most obvious reason why Kitsch vintage is so universal among recent pop culture is best stated by Eco in “The Structure of Bad Taste”:
Art is often much too complex for the average consumer, who has only so much time to devote to it. At best, he will be able to appreciate only its most obvious features, or to interpret it according to some formula, the pale ghost of a previous interpretation. So why not help him out by providing him with fragmentary stylemes that have proved particularly effective? 
In a word, Eco is referring to laziness. A consumer wants a bureau that looks expensive and historic. The consumer may not even know why he wants a historic bureau. Old means nice, right? Old means fancy? Old means upscale? Pottery Barn, then, fills that consumer's void quickly and painlessly, by selling him a brand-new bureau that some poor person overseas has purposely dented with a hammer and scraped with sandpaper to expose the bare wood, giving the flavor of historicity without actual historicity. Another consumer wants to play guitar exactly like Eric Clapton plays it, but isn’t willing to put in the hours and years and decades of practice necessary. So Fender sends him a catalog advertising the Eric Clapton Stratocaster, and when he holds it in his hands he and Eric Clapton are no different—they are working with the same tool. Still another consumer wants to be entertained with a new television show without the scary quality of the unknown that newness brings by its nature. So television networks bring him something he is already familiar with, but it looks slightly different. He feels as if he’s consuming something special and different, but, thank God, there is no hard work to be done.

The American brand of extreme capitalism does not allow consumers to be anything other than lazy in this manner. Advertising bombards consumers with new (whether actually new or fictionally new) products every day—people are constantly seeing kitsch refresh itself at the well of the avant-garde, are daily finding new products they must buy or lead unfulfilled lives, are always being chided to consume more and more different commodities every day. We simply have no time to consume a pair of jeans until it is worn to comfort, because by the time that happens they’ll be out of style. It's distressing. And we can't have that. We can't give a new TV show more than two or three episodes to find its adoring audience, because there are new programs emerging and ”in development” every week, hundreds of television channels to choose from, tens of thousands of films that need to be seen, both new and old, the Internet, games—it’s simply easier for producers to find a new winner in a list of old winners, and for consumers mired in the illusion of too much choice to cling, stubborn and frightened, to what is familiar and comforting.

What I find most interesting about kitsch vintage is the sense of false nostalgia inherent in the consumption of these goods. Because the past is past, we have already invested it with meaning and significance. Not so with contemporary life—despite the efforts of television and print journalists to analyze (and pre-consume for our benefit) every second as it happens. Bombarded by evidence of the hollowness of postmodern existence, by wars fought without meaning, by politics growing more visibly corrupt by the day, by social mores becoming more fascistic as the corruption spreads, by an overwhelming amount of information linking the past to the present to the future so that linear time has no more significance, by revolting amounts of choice that on closer inspection look more and more like only one choice—we hide in the past. We surround ourselves with things from calmer times; or if they were turbulent, that’s all over with now. We understand the problems of people in the past, and have fixed them.

[7] I don't know
 about you, but I'm
thinking of the TV show
"Mad Men" right now, a
show whose production
design is built around
fetishizing styles and
designs of the 1960s.
So it is that we romanticize the World War II era, a period that was hell for the people who lived through it—but what nice clothes! People sure don’t dress nice like that anymore, do they, with the hats and all? And the post-World War II era—we sure have learned our lesson from that sort of social repression!  And it turns out they made some nifty furniture, too. [7]  And the 1960s and ’70s—we’ve distilled those turbulent decades full of assassination and social upheaval into a kind of shorthand about hippies and disco and Afro hairdos and "Welcome Back, Kotter." Nothing terrible about those times in history can ever hurt us again—and we have access to all their cool stuff.

Most puzzling about postmodern nostalgia is how it works even if we’re nostalgic for a time and place we’ve never experienced. Cases in point are the Kitsch Lit novels I mentioned, all of them about times no one is alive to remember. Some of them, like Maguire’s novels, hark back to times and places no one could possibly remember, because they never really existed. The Vermeer books and Ahab’s Wife are even written in a fake, kitschy version of the prose style of their alleged time. Another example: much of Pottery Barn’s furniture collections are based on styles of the early 20th century—before the ages of many of the 40-something urbanites who furnish their townhouses and homes with its goods.

Ultra-capitalist consumer culture provides these faux-nostalgic products to satisfy a craving that consumers have, to escape to a more romantic time and place—a time and place, in fact, that we let ourselves believe is untouched by that same ultra-capitalist consumer culture. The means of escape is the same thing we’re escaping from. To free ourselves from consumer culture, we end up feeding it and increasing its hold. This is the most depressing facet of pseudo-vintage kitsch—its repackaged nostalgia lures consumers with the promise of a new kind of existence, and gives them instead an unrealistic simulation of uniqueness defined by cheap physical comfort, emotional distress, and constant unsatisfied longing. Buy these old things. Exist outside your own time, find yourself in an exotic place without leaving your living room, rise above your social status or go slumming at will without danger of physical or social harm, surround yourself with exactly the sort of familiar things that should give you comfort—or become someone else entirely.  You aren't good enough. Live in nostalgia. You can buy reality better than the real reality. You can buy meaning.



Big yawn (Daily Photo 4.12.11)

Like it? 
Myrna was tired from an 8-mile run earlier in the day.

Porch light (Daily Photo 4.11.11)

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That's what it is.

Lincoln Woods (Daily Photo 4.10.11)

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We took the dogs to Lincoln Woods in Rhode Island to do some light hiking. The water here is about a foot away from the dock, so Stanley barely missed touching it with his nose no matter how hard he strained.

More (and better) pictures from the day here, on Nik's blog.

Nik's birthday (Daily Photo 4.9.11)

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It's Nik's birthday. We couldn't splash out on anything fancy, times being tight and all, so we had a simple day out beswirled with extravagant colors and shapes provided by one of the world's leading glass artists. 


There was a members-only preview of the Dale Chihuly exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts. So since we're members, we previewed it. Those are the kind of perks we're used to.


The show was pretty great, with some pieces being really striking, best of all this room with a glass ceiling covered with randomly placed colored objects and light streaming through. Some pieces looked more or less like lopsided fruit plates or misshapen bowls -- like, if you'd taken a glassblowing course and brought something similar home, your friends would say, "That's almost really nice, but it went a little blecch on that one side. Nice try, though." Yet you put it on a shelf in a museum and call it a Chihuly and people stare at it in rapture. Art's funny.


One thing for Chihuly's work: It made me want to touch it. Not only touch, but lick. Something about the quality of these purple glass reeds was very popsicle-like. Seemed like they may have been delicious. I have weird criteria for what makes Good Art. Really great stuff makes me want to lick and eat it. This includes oil paintings. A great oil painting gives me the urge to run my finger through it and eat it, like frosting. It's a strange sort of food-based synesthesia, maybe.

 

You figure out what's going on here.


Afterward, we headed over to our favorite sushi place, Minado in Natick, a sushi buffet. We ate until we exploded. This is Nik's second full plate. It's an interesting place. Whenever we go I'm almost always the only non-Asian around, and strangely for a buffet place everyone is rail-thin. You normally associate the idea of "buffet" with Holstein-sized specimens of self-hating humanity packing their faces with fried salted meat. I've never seen one of those here. It's nice.

More photos from the day here, on Nik's blog.

Bar code (Daily Photo 4.8.11)

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In the kitchen.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Stanley in the yard (Daily Photo 4.7.11)

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He's a miniature pointer.

Cosmos Path (Daily Photo 4.6.11)

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Billions and billions.

Reese's Pieces (Daily Photo 4.5.11)

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Recently I rediscovered the Reese's Piece. I always knew it was there, of course, but it had been a while since I and the Piece had been intimately acquainted, maybe a year or more. On a brief shopping trip I acquired a big ol' bag of Reese's Pieces, stashed them in the freezer, and began "remembering how good they are" -- a euphemism for "stuffing fistfuls of them into my face."

Incidentally, I have a friend who pronounces Reese's as "Ree-sees." I pronounce it "REE-sis," as in rhyming with "pieces." She swears I'm wrong. If you can contribute any information to this debate, please leave a comment.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Overheard Assholes: "Sun"

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A: "Ooo, look, the sun's out."
B: (walking in another direction) "I'm going over this way."
A: "Why, is the sun over there?"

-- two women
in a grocery store parking lot
in the daytime,
both possibly drunk or merely confused

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Nasal cavities (Daily Photo 4.4.11)

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Perhaps closer than you'd ever wanted to get.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Back of the pack (Daily Photo 4.3.11)

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Ran the Thomas Giunta 5K road race. I started at the back, more out of necessity than choice. Check out my race report here.

Burgers and books (Daily Photo 4.2.11)

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Nik & I needed to get out of the house. We hit a Greek restaurant in Providence with a nice little bar. I didn't get a great shot of it, unfortunately. Blame the iPod.


The food was pretty good. I got a lamb burger, and Nik got some kind of huge beef kabob. She had a nice plate of leftovers too -- except they dumped her plate instead of giving it to her. 


We stopped by a bookstore afterward, just to browse around. There's something about this sign that seems poignant to me. I don't know why. As does the one below.

Payphone on Bedford Street (Daily Photo 4.1.11)

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Ever since I spotted a payphone in New Bedford the other week, I've been fairly obsessed with finding others. I was running through downtown Fall River and found this one, outside La Iglesia de Dios Inc. on Bedford Street, which is apparently a storefront church. I grew up around this area. This joint used to be a pharmacy when I was a kid.

No April fool's joke: Only one block down the street, right next to the store where they sell dirty movies, is another payphone. Not only that, but a guy was actually using the phone when I passed him. I'm fascinated by outdated technology -- payphones, newspapers, that sort of thing. You'd assume most people would never need a payphone, what with companies practically giving cell phones away, but it clearly isn't true for everyone.

Out like a lamb (Daily Photo 3.31.11)

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True to form, March went out like a lamb: covered in soft white fluff. It may be spring, but in New England that doesn't necessarily mean anything.
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