Tag: Culture

Day 983: Pistols At Dawn On Bloody Island

Header

Allow us a moment to reflect upon our broken culture and praise the glorious days of yore – the days of righteous morality, of a productive and contributory collective ethos, and of… duelling. Stupid friggin’ duelling.

Of all the ridiculous traditions that we hauled on our societal backs from the grubby landscape of the Middle Ages, duelling has to be among the most laughable. Honor and respect marked the blinding colors of the duelling flag, and men chose to end one another’s lives rather than take the more accepted modern approach of simply living in a perpetual state of passive-aggressive loathing.

When gloves would slap faces in 19th century St. Louis, the moment of stone-chinned confrontation would usually take place on a small divot of land in the middle of the Mississippi River called Bloody Island. This sandbar had crept above the water’s surface in 1798, and throughout that renegade century, Bloody Island was a lawless haven for antiquated honor defense.

Authorities agreed to look the other way when duels were to be fought on this crunchy piece of turf midway between Missouri and Illinois. Firing at pistols at one another in either state was illegal, but on Bloody Island nobody cared. It was all about nobility, about virtue, about manhood… and whatever.

CharlesHartBenton-1

Thomas Hart Benton (also called “Old Bullion”, probably because he was a big fan of chicken soup cubes) was a Missouri Senator who pushed strongly for western expansion of the United States. He also pushed a little too hard upon the feelings of one Charles Lucas while they were battling over a land deal in court, back when Benton was an attorney. The two exchanged rather public words, which culminated when Benton had the audacity to call Lucas a “puppy.”

A puppy. More vile words were never spoken. Read more…

Day 980: The Man In The Zoo

Header

Within the margins of human behavior, how is it possible for our hunger for self-awareness to coexist with our penchant for abandoning empathy and basic compassion? History’s most exquisite brains have combed the mines of knowledge and speculation in order to pilfer as much truth about ourselves as can be swallowed by mortal minds, yet in doing so they have occasionally stomped upon our collective dignity by treating the subjects of their study as though they belonged to an unrelated sub-species.

Ota Benga was just a dude. Had the trajectory of his existence not been marred by western interference, he might have lived a blasé life of hunting, storytelling and raising a family. Instead he was plucked from the lush, equatorial forests of his youth and made a slave, a sideshow wonder, and a zoological exhibit for slack-jawed tourists.

Most of the injustices thrust upon Ota’s arc were done with the false pretense of anthropological education, cloaked in evolutionary flim-flammery and racist eugenics. But what did we learn, apart from humankind’s tragically vast tolerance for our own assholishness?

OtaBenga-1

A member of the Mbuti tribe in what was then called the Belgian Congo, Ota Benga’s life was first derailed by Belgium’s King Leopold II around the turn of the 20th century. Leopold had dispatched the Force Publique, a heavily-armed militia aimed at reminding the Congolese natives that they’d best remain devoted to producing rubber for Belgium’s financial gain. Ota was out on a hunt when the armed men showed up and murdered his wife and two children. When he returned to his village, he was captured as a slave. Read more…

Day 963: The Hounds Of Fealty

Header

Yes, I’m writing about dogs again. Last year saw the earthly departure of Rufus and Yoko, my two loyal – albeit halitosis-heavy – bulldog assistants, and I would be remiss (which is Latin for “an asshole”) if I did not honor their memory with a few feel-good tales of puckish pooches to warm the cockles (which is Latin for “the taint”) of the heart. Luckily, as chock-full as the internet may be with cat pictures, it is similarly packed with tales of loyal canines.

I make no apologies for the fact that I am a dog person. Dogs may not be smarter than cats – though they could be; I distinctly recall some Youtube video in which a dog retrieves a beer from the fridge – but they are more emotionally devoted to their human friends. I love that when I come home every day, my remaining bulldog assistants (Bessie & The Bean, so named for her legume-esque stature) are jubilant to the point of ridiculousness. In my limited experience, cats simply don’t offer that kind of overflow of positive energy.

And devotion. That’s a big one. The loyalty of my slobbery little friends has never truly been tested, but I’m sure it exists. The canine companions who grace today’s page have all demonstrated a form of loyalty that every super-villain dreams of extracting from but one of their grunting minions.

Hachiko-1

Any pile of devoted-dog stories must contain a customary bow to Hachiko, the Akita owned by University of Tokyo professor Hidesaburo Ueno. Every afternoon, Hachiko would show up at Shibuya Station to await Ueno’s train. In May 1925, only about a year into their relationship, Ueno suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and never made it home. Hachiko showed up anyway, and proceeded to pop in to the station at the exact same time every day to await his master’s return. For almost ten more years. Read more…

Day 959: Day Two Of Peace & Music

Header

Said I’m going down to Yasgur’s farm, going to join in a rock & roll band.

Got to get back to the land and set my soul free.

 

Somewhere amid the cultural symbolism and the anthemic declarations of a generation’s identity lies the actual music performed at the Woodstock festival. Contrasting that weekend with the tighter and more disciplined Monterey Pop Festival from two years earlier reveals an evolution in rock culture: the glittering aftermath of psychedelia, the re-blossoming of foundational blues and folk through rock-tinted lenses, and the collective embrace of instrumental mastery.

The Who sent jaws dropping to the dusty floor in ’67 when Pete Townsend assaulted his guitar into pieces; at Woodstock they were neck-deep in exploring the possibility of rock-opera. The Jefferson Airplane soared on the strength of their early hits at Monterey; two years later their music was more introspective and demure. Soul music, which had tickled the Monterey crowd to the tune of Otis Redding, Lou Rawls and Booker T. & The MG’s, had rocketed into the realm of cosmic funk by 1969, with Sly & The Family Stone representing. And Janis… well she was just Janis. No higher compliment could be given.

Some of the Woodstock performances were iconic. Others were merely adequate. Then there was Sha Na Na, which fit into the vibe of the festival like a can of tuna fits onto a dessert cart. But the music is unquestionably the skeleton that gives the experience its historic form and structure.

Just imagine what could have been.

LedZeppelin-1

A number of acts were either rumored or invited, but never made the bill. Bob Dylan, the poet-rebel of the Newport Folk Festival four years earlier, was the most logical invitee. He lived near Bethel in the actual town of Woodstock, but he’d already committed to the Isle of Wight Festival at the end of the month. Shiny new superstars Led Zeppelin were selected, but promoter Frank Barsalona didn’t want his band to be just another name on the bill. The Doors figured it would be a second-rate Monterey Pop so they turned it down, an act that guitarist Robby Krieger claimed they later regretted. Read more…

Day 958: Day One Of Peace & Music

Header

“I have come to lose the smog

And I feel to be a cog in something turning.”

I have been trying to reconcile my relationship with the Woodstock festival for more than 20 years. “These are your grandparents,” I told my daughter as the movie played in our living room this week. But Woodstock reached further than its generation, even beyond the magnificence of its music. It was the temporary realization of pure Utopia – or at least that’s how its legend trickled down to me, some schmuck born 2400 miles away, five years after the last gnarly raindrop had voiced its opinion that the festival ground should be mud.

Perhaps the images of a groovy, grubby, smoky paradise are merely the false concoctions of media (in this case, the documentary film Woodstock) and reputation, but this is the image that tickles my imagination and tilts my longing toward that sensation of community, of parity, and of that shared experience of being billion-year-old carbon in the same cosmic stew with a few hundred thousand friends.

2014 not only boasts the 45th anniversary of the decade-defining event, it also features an aligned calendar, allowing for the three days of the original festival (August 15, 16 and 17) to land once again on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Today I’ll be exploring what built Woodstock from the sloppy ground up; tomorrow I’ll delve into the music and on Sunday the potent culture – real or imagined.

To begin among the festival’s roots, one simply must start with the sitcom.

JoelRosenman-1

In 1967, lawyer Joel Rosenman (pictured above) and his friend John Roberts decided they wanted to write a sitcom about two entrepreneurs who fall into wacky weekly hijinks as they try to bring their business plans to fruition. For research they plopped an ad into The Wall Street Journal, claiming to be “young men with unlimited capital” looking for investment opportunities. Two of the men who responded, concert promoter Michael Lang and “Dead Man’s Curve” co-author Artie Kornfeld, intrigued the would-be comedy writers so much they abandoned their plans for television stardom and became the very entrepreneurs they’d planned to depict. Read more…

Day 945: These Scary-Ass Kids Today…

Header (1)

They’re out there.

Brazenly cutting through the city’s shadows with a cocksure strut, hocking Mountain Dew-flavored loogies onto public sidewalks already stained with the scuffed memory of generations of overpriced footwear. Their pants sag lower than their wilted ambition, their ball caps are aimed in all directions except those most appropriate for playing ball, while dubstep rhythms reel and bounce off their plastic-coated eardrums, fuelling their demonic scowls and shiv-happy instincts.

They’re out there, and they’re coming for us. Teenagers. Youths. Hooligans in training.

So sayeth the paranoid rumblings of the ephebiphobics, scrawled almost illegibly into notebooks, their furrowed frowns crinkling into permanent facial lines. To these skittish grownups, society is but a scraggly blond dreadlock away from Lord of the Flies meeting The Outsiders meeting The Wire. Their fears are not racial, they are not economic, and they have but a tenuous foothold in reality. After all, isn’t the typical teen an ethical off-shoot of Kiefer Sutherland’s sociopathic ‘Ace’ from Stand By Me?

Some outgrow the violence. Others grow up to become sadistic torturing super-agents.

Some outgrow the violence. Others grow up to become sadistic torturing super-agents.

It is perhaps a testament to my unwavering commitment to immaturity that I carry not a scrap of ephebiphobia in my pocket. From the Greek ephebos, meaning ‘youth’ or ‘adolescent’ and phobos, meaning ‘something that piles the heebies upon your jeebies’, ephebiphobia is an astonishingly common fear. Excuses can be made: “Kids today have no respect”; “Remember what those kids did in Columbine?”; “It’s all that YOLO and swag talk, and I don’t trust that Marky Mark or his Funky Bunch.” But the truth runs deeper. Read more…

Day 941: Welcoming Our Alien Friends. Or Perhaps Overlords.

Header

Presently, our only tangible research into the cultural and societal impacts of extra-terrestrial life arriving on Earth seems limited to the fanciful concoctions from the Hollywood daydream machine. Will aliens greet us with a peaceful hand-gesture like they did to that pig-owner guy in the Star Trek movie? Will they fire up the blasters and devastate our cities like that movie where the Fresh Prince teams up with that jazz singer?

Actually, people – and I’m talking about educated people who probably wear business attire to work – have put time and effort into calculating precisely how our society would react to a party of interstellar visitors. Given the unlikelihood of this ever occurring, one could make the argument that the dude who stacks salad plates at your local Sizzler is contributing more to the smooth functioning of society than these educated folks, but I’m not here to make that argument. I’m just the messenger.

When it comes to the purported existence of our little green friends, I find it unfathomably selfish to believe we’re the only slabs of meat who have put together a society in this vast universe. I also believe it likely that someone else has fashioned some sort of tin can (or whatever they have in place of tin) and blasted into space. But to believe they’ll stumble upon us, or even care to say hi if they do? That’s where my credulity glides off the track. Still, it’s fun to daydream.

And always smart to keep some just-in-case signage lying around.

And always smart to keep some just-in-case signage lying around.

For thirty years, the SETI Institute (that’s Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence for you acronym-lovers) has been using science, research and speculation to look into the likelihood and nature of possible ETs who might drop by unannounced. The first part of the discussion centers around how they contact us. Do they send us a coded message like the ones we’ve launched into deep space? Do they take over our computer systems and implant a digital hello on Google’s front page? Or will they do a pop-in, no prior call, completely oblivious to the fact that we already made plans to watch the game with some old friends from college? Read more…

Day 905: Slapping Those Words In Their Smarmy Little Faces

Header

There is a scene in the Kevin Smith film Clerks 2 in which a character (a very white character) decides he wants to “take back” the term ‘porch-monkey’ so that it can shed its racist connotation and act as a slur against lazy people of all tints and hues. The joke, of course, is that he is far too pink to spearhead any reappropriation effort. That sort of collective shift in perspective has to take place within the group who had been thwacked and battered by the word to begin with.

This is why I get physically jolted by a mighty douche-chill whenever I hear two white guys refer to one another as “nigga”. That not only betrays the linguistic rules, it comes across as patronizing and – as much as the intent may not be there – at least mildly racist. Oh, and put your damn hat on straight. The brim has a functional purpose, squank-bag.

The unholy n-word is probably the most famous case of a word being reclaimed by its one-time victims and re-introduced into their lexicon – albeit only into theirs. But all across the cultural spectrum there are reappropriation missions underway, consciously or unconsciously shaping the way our language will taste and smell for the next few decades.

Sorry, white people. Even if we're quoting Chris Rock bits, it's still not cool.

Sorry, white people. Even if we’re quoting Chris Rock bits, it’s still not cool.

For a minority to capture a word that had once been used as a pejorative slur against them, to tame it, then to re-release it into the wild as a neutral or even a positive thing, that’s an act of true empowerment. A perfect example is the word ‘gay’ – once fired as a derisive snip toward homosexuals, the word was forcefully taken back with the advent of the Gay Pride parade in 1970. So much so that the word is now commonplace among gays and non-gays alike. Unlike the n-word, those outside the box are allowed to use it. Read more…

Day 868: Tapping The Rage Of The Bus Uncle

Header

Before plopping my be-Speedo’ed word-butts onto the winding waterslide of today’s twisted topic, I’d like to point out that I never intended to pen a disquisition on any Youtube celebrity or trendy viral video. That was before I encountered The Bus Uncle.

The Bus Uncle is no Numa Numa, and he’s no Leeroy Jenkins. In fact I’d wager that none but a few folks in this hemisphere have ever heard of him. But in Hong Kong, the participants in this video each had a lively and strange fifteen minutes of fame. The spotlight upon their encounter prompted an entire society to examine itself, to question its mores and the tensile mesh of public etiquette. In fact, the story after the video is far more engrossing than the video itself.

Youtube has expanded to the point where one can lose an entire afternoon watching nothing but trampoline accidents; a public transit shouting match is not likely to rocket up the hits parade in 2014 unless it involves violence, a celebrity, or possible demonic possession.

BusUncle-1

51-year-old unemployed restaurant worker Roger Chan was having a lousy day. He’d had an argument with his girlfriend, and his stress level was set to boil over like an unchecked pot of angst-ridden soup. He was on his cellphone – allegedly talking to the Samaritans, a hotline specifically for people with emotional distress. Then a young uppity kid named Elvis Ho tapped him on the shoulder, asking for him to be a little quieter. That was when shit got real. Read more…

Day 866: Blessed Be This House Of Poop

Header

People often ask me whether or not I worry about running out of interesting topics before this thousand days is up. My response is always the same. “Of course not,” I tell them. “I haven’t yet written about toilet gods.”

Well, today I throw caution at the swirling fan and cash in on one of our species’ most notably bizarre predilections: assigning a higher power to the place where we poop.

Modern religions have spent too long on the proverbial fence, blindly adhering to its monotheistic principles and paying no mind to our spiritual doody needs. There is no patron saint of having eaten too many spicy enchiladas last night, nor am I aware of any Hebrew or Muslim prayer to combat lactose intolerance. We must look to the faiths of the ancients for this.

KawayaKami-1

In old-timey Japan, bodily waste wasn’t buried underground and forgotten. It would be collected and spread around the fields, acting as a fertilizer and completing that grand circle of life that most of us would rather not think about. For this reason, the kawaya kami (toilet god) was a god of fertility. Not the fun kind of fertility that we usually (but not always) reserve for another room in the house, but the food/crop sort of fertility. Sometimes family members would sit in front of the toilet and eat a bowl of rice in order to appease the god.

The other big plus in praying to kawaya kami was for protection. Collecting fertilizer material from toilet basins was dirty work, but also a bit on the dangerous side. There was the risk of tumbling into the muck and drowning, which is probably the worst way to die this side of inhaling next to Ann Coulter. Kawaya kami – if properly appeased by your consumption of malodorous rice – can save you from such a fetid fate. Read more…