Thursday, August 31, 2006

Consumer Hedonism and Product Novelty.

I've started a book by Woody Register, entitled "The Kid of Coney Island". It tells the story of Fred Thompson, the man who created the famous Luna Park of Coney Island. He struggled with the mindset of the 1800's male- expected to be industrious and to eschew pleasure and sensual gratification. I was surprised that the era's prohibition of fun extended to "reading for pleasure". Leisure was supposed to have a feminizing effect on the red-blooded American male.

Register has written a quasi-academic work, and sifting through it takes work. But the payoff is exposure to sociocultural theory that is often quite fascinating. Besides battling the conventional perspectives of an industrial age society, Thompson (the amusement-oriented entrepreneur) had to respond to the desire for novelty. Sociologist Colin Campbell, from the University of York, is introduced into the discussion regarding novelty's relationship with consumerism. His claim is that "Only in modern industrial societies have innovation and novelty risen to the level of moral obligations" (this is Register paraphrasing Campbell). This fact arises from the definitions of traditional and modern-day "hedonism". In the traditional sense, familiar objects were appreciated for their known sensory pleasures. The modern form of hedonism, alternatively, begins with the individual's dreams of possibility, and the expectations the hedonist has for new and unfamiliar pleasures. The past is a mere record of disappointments, rather than remembered pleasures.

Campbell theorizes therefore, that consumerism is not about the actual satisfaction or pleasure gained from a product... because it will never meet the dreams or imagination of the "modern-day hedonist". The novelty of the product is what holds out the hope that past disappointments will be supplanted, and thus the product must seem unfamiliar, even if in reality it offers nothing new at all. Thus the quality of a particular consumer good is beside the point. It's the promise of the "new", and the neverending cycle of that pursuit that will ensure the success of a company. The main task is to encourage a consumerist hedonism, and then keep the ball rolling.

While grounded in ideas that I could identify as "common sense", this reasoning indeed seemed enlightening. It attempts an answer to a question that has long mystified me- Why do Americans constantly flock herdlike to a succession of shoddy goods and products, whether in the realm of food, film or fashion? They have been tempted by the tantalyzing prospect of an undiscovered pleasure appearing in that new chain store in the strip mall. Advertising is structured so as to catch the consumer's attention with flashy gimmicks and a sense of the novel. The product doesn't even need to be that good... in fact it can't satisfy the continuing quest of the hedonistic consumer because after awhile it will by necessity play the role of the mundane familiar... and inspire the next round of searching.

But how do advertisers turn customers into hedonists? They do it by inspiring the dreams and imagination that lead to the neverending quest for future satisfactions. They associate their "new" products with youth, sex, or financial success. If you choose their brand, then your dreams of satisfaction just might come true. It's actually the expectation that consumers get addicted to.... certainly not the reality of the products.

I'm barely a third of the way through "The Kid of Coney Island", but I'd have to assume that Fred Thompson intuitively understood the ideas that Campbell would explain years later. And that would account for the phenomenal success he would have with Luna Park. The glitz and the glamour created the expectations in his clientele that were the true product that he was selling. It's fair to say that he was literally selling dreams.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Meet Michael Ledeen: Warmonger. Neo-Con.

Every day on the way home from work I listen to 90.5, which is the local NPR affiliate. At 3PM, they air Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Of all the interview programs I have tuned into, hers is the one least likely to inspire me to scream at the radio (or television). Sure there are times when I feel like Gross is letting her guest off the hook on a particularly thorny issue- but I understand that there may be all kinds of unwritten agreements honored so as to encourage people to come back (or to discourage folks from warning their friends against appearing on the show). It is evident that she strives for professionalism, courtesy and substance. I can usually get something out of the show, even if I have little interest in the subject of the interview. But today's guest sure did test my patience.

Meet Michael Ledeen- Co-conspirator in the Iran-Contra affair... Driving philosophical force behind the neoconservative movement that pushed for the invasion of Iraq... Suspected role-player in the Yellowcake forgery that was used as evidence of WMDs in Iraq... Resident scholar at the ultra-conservative American Enterprise Institute... Fellow traveller and inspiration to Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Karl Rove and Donald Rumsfeld... Student of Machiavelli and Leo Strauss... Regular guest on Fox News... Columnist in The National Review.

If there were any justice or true love for democracy in the US or in Western Europe, the above list would be entered into the testimonial record of Ledeen's trial at an international criminal tribunal. But instead, he's given a national audience on Fresh Air. And what's he doing on the radio?

Ledeen is calling for an end to diplomacy in Iran. He is calling for "regime change" in both Iran and Syria. Ledeen claims that we have been at war with Iran since 1979, and that Iran has been killing Americans regularly since that time. He blames them for... the attack on the Marine compound in Lebanon (1983), for the attack on the USS Cole, for aiding the Sunni insurgency in Iraq... on and on, ad nauseum... much of his claims are mere speculation promoted as unchallenged fact. I'm not sure where he is getting his information... perhaps the same Italian sources responsible for the Yellowcake forgery??

Ledeen characterizes himself as a "revolutionary", not as a conservative. And truly, this is the one thing that I trust coming out of his mouth. Ledeen is cut from the same cloth as al-Zarqawi. True conservatism is defined as "the inclination, especially in politics, to maintain the existing or traditional order". Ledeen is one of the most prominent and influential warmongers not currently in the (official) Bush cabinet. If this is the state of "conservatism" in America today, I shudder to think what disasters await us.

So why should we care? Ledeen has been cited as the only full-time international affairs analyst that Karl Rove consults on a regular basis. We all know how close Rove is to the heart of the current presidential administration. There is no doubt that Ledeen was one of the prime movers of the Iraqi policy that has proven to be an unnecessary and costly quagmire. What new adventures will this Pied Piper of destruction lead us into? Just how insane is he? I'll leave you with a couple of quotes, which should give you some idea...

In a column in The National Review, Ledeen proposed a theory that France and Germany conspired with radical Islam to use terrorism to bring down a possible American Empire. He went on to write:

"It sounds fanciful, to be sure," but that, "If this is correct, we will have to pursue the war against terror far beyond the boundaries of the Middle East, into the heart of Western Europe. And there, as in the Middle East, our greatest weapons are political: the demonstrated desire for freedom of the peoples of the countries that oppose us."

The following is a quote from his book "The War Against the Terror Masters"(2002):

"We can lead by the force of high moral example ... [but] fear is much more reliable, and lasts longer. Once we show that we are capable of dealing out terrible punishment to our enemies, our power will be far greater."

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Tragedy and Perspective.

After reading a couple of rather heavy books on "cults", I figured I'd lighten my reading up a bit. So I chose Ace Collins' Tragedies of American History: 13 Stories of Human Error and National Disaster. Yeah, really. I don't know what's up with me either... perhaps it has something to do with the end of Summer?

What is it that makes me want to read accounts of mass suffering and destruction? I've always been intrigued by the way people respond to extreme circumstances. Within the first couple of post-collegiate years when I started reading for pleasure, I discovered Albert Camus' The Plague. I remember liking it far more than The Stranger. I enjoyed picking out the indidividual character types, and trying to predict how they would react as their situation worsened. Years later I would gravitate to non-fiction accounts of catastrophe. Stewart O'Nan's The Circus Fire was a particular favorite. His descriptions of the harrowing fire underneath the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey big top really made me relate to the plights of the victims.

I continued to seek out these tales of misfortune. Sea wrecks, earthquakes, floods... the natural disaster genre was ripe with devastation. Reading these works could throw me into a brooding depression for days, yet I felt some strange compulsion to continue. I even sought out 70's disaster movies, like The Towering Inferno and the Poseidon Adventure. I realized that I finally had gone over the edge when I found myself watching that crappy Will Smith vehicle with the earth-threatening asteroids. That made me step back for a bit.

This past year when Katrina hit, I slid right back into the familiar pattern. I read as many personal accounts of loss as I could find on the internet. The more explicit and horrible the stories were, the more I could feel for the victims. I read with particular interest of the experiences the unfortunate folks were having at the Convention Center and the Superdome. The rawest humanity and animal tendencies were on display, with no holds barred. I tried to imagine what strategies I would employ to get through a period of personal and collective hell.

My obsession with New Orleans pushed me through a period of speculation about worldwide catastrophe. I read about the "peak oil" phenomena, and global warming. I began to stockpile gallons of water, and considered buying a few guns and some gold. In this pursuit I was not alone. Some friends and I had rounds of discussion regarding how best to prepare for worst-case scenarios. Should we buy land in West Virginia, or go target shooting in Cranberry? If nothing else, these preoccupations took the sting out of Winter.

But then daily life and obligations set in, and the joys of Spring and Summer came back around. I put aside my explorations of doom and threw myself into whatever subjects struck me as novel and intriguing. This is healthy- to remind oneself of the lighter side of the spectrum of life. I decided to embrace each day, and extract its meaning and multiple amusements.

Yet the pendulum swings once again, and now we're approaching Falll, and the media is full of the first anniversary of Katrina. There is plenty again to worry about. The range of possible misfortune is once again on the lips of politicians and pontificators. So I pick up the Collins book, and read his sensationalized versions of the Jamestown flood, the Galveston storm, and the Coconut Grove Fire. I discover new events of terror including the school fire at Our Lady Of the Angels in Chicago, and the Great Nashville Train Wreck. And once again I'm enthralled by the gruesome imagery, and the cruel twists of fate.

Perhaps the function of these disaster tales is to remind me not to take things for granted. When I am once again mired in the the drudgery of daily maintenance and obligatory tasks of life, all I need to do is revist this genre of misery and I can once again feel happy and fortunate about the things I have. Somehow reading these stories makes me feel more connected to humanity in a way that pledging allegiance to the flag, shopping at Walmart, or following a sports team never really could.

Monday, August 28, 2006

My Very Own Magical Thinking.

It would be pretty easy from reading this blog to form the assumption that I somehow hold myself at an ironic distance from religion, spirituality, and the mystical world. I want to be clear about just how wrong this assumption would be. While I am not currently associated with any church and/or cult, I do subscribe to some fairly unorthodox, nonscientific beliefs. Often I find myself engaging in what I would characterize as "magical thinking". (Thanks are due to Augusten Burroughs for reminding me of the existence of this concept)

This link
contains a fairly exhaustive study of what the concept of "magical thinking" entails. But in order to placate the time-constrained or lazy reader, I will here tersely define it as "nonscientific causal reasoning". Common superstitions are superb examples- such as the association between the number "13" and bad luck. There is nothing intrinsic in an arbitrary quantification that would determine the quality of future events- but just try and explain that to a gambler on a winning streak at the roulette table, or the millions of suckers who waste their money on the PA Lotto every single day.

You really don't have to dig too deep to discover magical thinking in others. Simply look at the stock market. Folks make speculations based upon all sorts of signifiers... sometimes they apply arcane formulas and sometimes they rely upon their intuition. That's why stock speculation is such risky business. The market follows some slippery combination of all the individual associations that participants act upon. There is no absolute "inherent logic" in the enterprise.

Or look at mating rituals. Everyone seems to have their own personal good luck charms that they believe will assist them in finding the "perfect mate", or at least someone to spend a night with. Almost every area of human activity involves the formation of personal connections that govern action. Many of these connections can be viewed from the outside as scientifically dubious. But that doesn't necessarily mean there is no value in it, or that these individuals are just plain ignorant. There are numerous testimonials to the value of visualization, and optimistic thinking. Just go into your nearest bookstore and ask for the self-help section.

Some scientists suggest that this type of thinking is a perfectly natural result of human neurological functioning. We are natural pattern-formers. We form expectations based upon our perceptions. Our brain circuitry is constantly being rewired by the associations we form. As we continue to make similar associations, neurological connections get reinforced. It really doesn't matter whether or not these connections have any "external reality"- our subjective perspectives define this process. If we believe that subsequent events jive with our preconceived notions, then we are going to maintain those particular notions. It explains the belief in the "the power of faith". It explains the "magic" of creativity.

I am constantly forming patterns out of seemingly unrelated events and signs. I truly believe that the use of words can directly affect ouside events. That surely cements my membership in the "magical thinking" cult. And you know what? I like thinking this way, and I am not ashamed to admit it. Perhaps it's merely commentary on my level of affinty with the rest of humanity.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Satanic Ritual Abuse: A Warning Against Mass Delusion.

Do you have vague childhood memories of drinking blood and eating human flesh? What about shadowy cloaked figures performing ritualistic sacrifices in abandoned woods and isolated cemetaries? Do you remember being forced to perform unspeakable sexual acts? If so, then you may be a victim of the most prominent 1980's anti-cult craze- the hype surrounding "Satanic Ritual Abuse".

In 1980, Michelle Remembers was unleashed on an excitable and insecure American citizenry. This book told the story of an adult woman who, through the assistance of a therapist, recovered a harrowing array of repressed memories from her childhood. Along with some of the experiences listed above, the patient recalled being forced to watch a masked man cut up a human cadaver and sew it back together into a monstrosity. The quality of her recollections were so ludicrous that it is amazing that her tale blossomed into a full-blown national panic.

Thousands of similar cases of repressed memories began to pop up across the nation
. One notable case involved the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, CA. Teachers there were accused of sexually abusing hundreds of children over a period of years. These crimes were said to have taken place in ritualistic, often foreboding settings. Claims of abuse got more and more extreme and unlikely, as if in competition to trump one another. People were charged with crimes in many of the cases, even where little physical or corroborating evidence existed. Therapists, district attorneys, police investigators, social workers, and parents all got into the act, encouraging children to relate the horrible realities from their pasts. Of course the media picked up and disseminated these stories, conspiring to spread the hysteria until the phenomena reached the status of mass delusion.

Years after the accused were convicted based upon the testimony of these children and their therapists, "Satanic Ritual Abuse" was discovered to be a hoax. One study investigated 12,000 cases, and found not a single confirmation of abuse. The purported victims, now grown into adulthood, admitted to lying about their experiences. The practice of recovering "repressed memories" was discovered to be driven by suggestive and leading questions. Children had actually been subtly rewarded for agreeing to the fantasies of the therapists and prosecutors. The mental health practitioners involved were chastised, but this did nothing to mediate the sufferings of the wrongfully accused. Their lives had been needlessly affected by these falsehoods. They were the true victims of "Satanic Ritual Abuse".

Of course, this entire phenomenon was not entirely unprecedented. The Salem Witch Trials is the archetypal example of the depths of paranoia and ignorance Americans have been capable of. Yet the SRA debacle happened not in a time of Victorian or medieval superstition, but in the modern era. Even with advances in the study of human behavior and pathology, our citizenry and media are not so sophisticated as to be able to avoid engaging in false persecutions. Why is that?

Do conventional and mainstream religions preach the decline of our society to the extent that our reality can be artificially constructed? It appears so. Not only are alternative viewpoints discouraged, but they are twisted into monstrous distortions capable of destroying our entire culture, and our children. Fundamentalist ideology contributes to a climate of misunderstanding and intolerance. Sometimes these conditions spiral into circumstances that destroy the lives of the innocent. In retrospect, society learns that the dangers it feared were overblown and sometimes even nonexistent. The belief in the reality of these fears is often encouraged by groups seeking to promote a particular political or moral agenda. We should remain vigilant and incorporate a healthy skepticism when we hear stories of widespread deviance or talk of "evil".

When we entrench ourselves in a bunker mentality, whether through religion or politics, we risk the propagation of myths and misunderstanding. When we identify ouselves in some "us vs. them" dichotomy, we endanger everyone with self-fulfilling prophecy. This is when the greatest danger threatens us all- when we manufacture victims through our beliefs.

Additional Note: I have now finished Mystics and Messiahs- Philip Jenkin's excellent survey of the history of cults in the United States. If you are at all interested in this subject, then this is an appropriate place to begin your explorations. An account of the SRA craze is included in the book. His approach is even-handed and remarkably nonjudgemental. The wealth of historical data is astonishing, and his analysis of the cyclical trends of cult and anti-cult activity is enlightening.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

A Conversation with "The Watchtower".

So to continue on this "cult" theme, I've been meaning to transcribe an enlightening conversation I had earlier this year. It was on the weekend, and I was relaxing on my front stoop and enjoying a cigarette. Two middle-aged women broke away from the men they were walking with, crossed the street, and approached me. I quickly learned that they were Jehovah's Witnesses- the Watch Tower pamphlet they handed me was a red flag.

Since I was enjoying my leisure, I decided to engage them in a friendly conversation about their faith. The following is my best recollection of that interchange:

Me: So... you are out here spreading the word, eh?

JW: Yes... do you know what God has in store for you?

Me: I have a general idea... but maybe you know something I don't.

(What followed was the typical canned message these folks are instructed to deliver door-to-door. I sat, listened, and nodded, while they explained the prospects for our society. I waited for their prescription for salvation, and after I received it they invited follow-up questions. I believe they were quite oblivious to the strange turns that would follow.)

Me: Ok... I think I understand. So let me ask you something I've always wondered about... Isn't there some kind of limit on how many Witnesses will get to join heaven when the final judgement occurs?

JW: 144,000 will get to ascend into Heaven and live with Our Father.

Me: Hmm... 144,000, eh? How many Witnesses have there been?

JW: There are millions worldwide.

Me: So how do you get one of those positions?

JW: God will decide who will join Him.

Me: Does it have to do with how much witnessing you do? Is it based upon net converts, or what?

JW: God will decide. We just do our best.

Me: So let me ask you this... What if you struggled your whole life to be the best Witness you could be, but you only reached the, like,... 144,001st spot? Wouldn't that be a bummer?

JW: Actually, no... because those who have accepted the Word, and are not among those chosen for Heaven, get to live on a Paradise on Earth.

Me: Hmm... so why would you want to go to heaven?

JW: It's a great honor to be chosen. Those who Ascend will live with God and...

Me: OK, OK... I get it. Tell me more about paradise on Earth. I mean... I really like smoking cigarettes and having a beer every once in awhile. Will I be able to do these things without health risks?

JW: Well no... God wants you to treat your body as a Temple. You will have no urge for these chemicals anymore.

Me: Really? Well... what about sex? I like sex. Will that be OK? I surely won't have to give that up? I mean... that wouldn't be paradise, right? Without sex?

JW: As long as it is within the bounds of a Loving Commited Spiritual Union, then it will be acceptable. You know, God wouldn't have made sex so enjoyable if He didn't want it to happen.

Me: Alrite... I like that. Tell me more about that.

JW2: Well... have you ever seen or heard when cats be copulatin'?

Me: (I stare at the until-now silent second-witness, dumbfounded)

JW2: You know they kick up quite a racket. It sure don't sound like they be enjoyin' it much...

Understandably, I am still speechless after this remark. And I remain so, because at this point the two men, who have been hovering nearby, grab the arms of the women and drag them away. I recover... and call after them my gratitude, and they acknowledge me with a dismissive wave. I am now in the position of having driven away a couple of Jehovah's Witnesses. I wonder what my reward will be for this during "Final Judgement".

Do I get a backstage pass, or what?

Friday, August 25, 2006

A "State of Emergency" in New Orleans.

Sometimes I catch a snippet of some ongoing news story, and I am amazed at how detached I am from national affairs. Could I be the only one in the country who didn't know that there are many poor inmates being held without trial in New Orleans? Did you know that there are hundreds who have not had access to a lawyer? Some of them have been incarcerated without the benefit of due process for almost an entire year. It's shameful that this hasn't been a major news story until now (I'm assuming it hasn't).

The Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution gives the accused "the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed." It also guarantees a public defender to those that cannot afford legal representation. Surely there should be provisions to raise a jury pool in periods following crisis or emergency. Is the district of New Orleans still in a "state of emergency"? From a quick google search, I have ascertained that the "state of emergency" was still in place in April of this year. I can find no mention of this condition being lifted. Are the federal and state governments suspending the civil rights of inhabitants indefinitely?

The stories on CNN and NPR that I caught today were inspired by a New Orleans judge who is outraged by the lack of concern the government has shown for the rights of the accused. The city's long underfunded public defense fund is cited as the main reason for the suspension of trials. So the reality is that if you were charged with a crime in New Orleans, and you could afford a lawyer, you generally got released until your trial date. If you couldn't afford a lawyer, you stayed in jail. Of course this is extremely unfair, but it just continues the established story of the poorer classes in New Orleans.

And the lack of regard for the civil rights in New Orleans is representative of the larger picture in our nation today. I never realized that Louisiana was THAT close to Guantanamo Bay.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The New Vrindaban Community, WV.

One of the "cults" mentioned in the books I've been reading is ISKCON- the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. I've had the pleasure of visiting their national headquarters at New Vrindaban on several occasions. Prabhupada's Palace of Gold, is located at the end of some windy little roads near Moundsville, WV.

ISKCON was started by an Indian businessman named Srila Prabhupada, who made his journey to the west in 1965. He was devoted to venerating the Hindi deity Krishna, and set as his purpose the spread of Krishna-consciousnes. Krishna devotees became well known for chanting the names of their lord, and dancing down urban corridors to the sounds of their own hand-held drums. They were notably parodied in the movie "Airplane", for their practice of giving out flowers in public spaces, and soliciting donations.

Like other followers of Hinduism, the Hare Krishna group refuses to eat eggs, meat or seafood. Gambling, intoxication and "illicit sexual behavior" are not allowed. They consider cows sacred. They preach non-violence... in fact there are prohibitions against harming any other living thing. For their sacred texts, they look to the Bhagavad-gita and the Srimad-Bhagavatam (Vedic scriptures). All-in-all their description should lead others to believe that they are simply a force for good in a troubled world. Realities are always more complex than this.

The chain of succession for leadership in the movement led to Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada, (orginally named "Keith Ham"). Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada was a dominating force in the life of his followers- he had the final say on all major life decisions made by them. In fact, he was considered so domineering that he and the temple were actually kicked out of ISKCON under his leadership. His push to add interdenominational elements to the community was controversial and led to factional strife within the Krishna movement. In the early 90's, Kirtanananda was indicted for child molestation, racketeering and conspiracy to commit murder. He was convicted and incarcerated.

My first visit to New Vrindaban occurred right around the time Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada was experiencing his legal troubles. The place was rundown, and an air of oppression lingered over the grounds. There were naked children running wild through the temple, and many of the residents looked (for lack of a better term) like zombies. Many of the buildings were experiencing a rapid deterioration, and others looked like they needed to be torn down years before. Our tour guide seemed extremely slick for a guy with a shaved head, and dressed in a robe. There was only an older couple to accompany us on our look at the palace. They stayed very silent until the guide gave us an opportunity to ask questions before our departure. The couple broke their silence and the man stepped forward to present a photo of their son, who they had been searching for since his disappearance a few months previous. The woman was inconsolable, as our guide recognized her son, but did not know of his whereabouts. This encounter lent a very strange finish to my visit.

Last year, I returned once again to New Vrindaban. My experience was of a wholly different character. The grounds were immaculate, and the crumbling buildings I had seen previously had been torn down. The people inhabiting the place were bright-eyed, alert and welcoming. Our guide was forthcoming about the difficulties the community had experienced during the 90's, and did not try to duck my more difficult questions. There were a fair amount of pilgrims from India and other parts of the world. One of the greatest pleasures of that visit was a tour and lecture introducing us to the ground's organic gardens. The man in charge of agriculture at New Vrindaban was a natural communicator and very knowledgable about his business. He characterized himself as "just an aging hippie". He had known Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada for decades, and characterized the former swami as a great man corrupted nby power.

New Vrindaban seems to have suffered through its time of troubles, and now exists in a state of peace and optimism. Its people are generous with their resources and their knowledge. It exists as a great opportunity for exposure to Hindi worship, thought and action. Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada has been released from prison, but is no longer allowed to set foot in the community. New Vrindaban has re-entered the fold of ISKCON.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

"Cults" and "Churches".

I've recently found myself engaged with the world of cults. It started for me with a book called Communities of Dissent, by Stephen Stein, and continues with my current read- Mystics and Messiahs by Philip Jenkins. No folks... I'm not starting a sideline business. However I have always been attracted to those who live on the margins, and these groups have been alternatingly challenging and threatening the status quo for as long as white folks have been living on this continent.

The United States has had a complex relationship with new religious movements throughout its history. In a way, our society courts controversy by proclaiming itself to be free and open to any sort of religious practices or beliefs (revisit the 1st Amendment if you aren't sure about what I'm talking about). As a result, this country has been a hot-bed of alternative religions. One thing a cultural observer has to do right from the start is understand the perjorative sense of the word "cult". Once that term has been used to describe a group of worshippers, then the die has already been cast, and that group's persecution has begun.

One of the very first targets in eighteenth and nineteenth century-America was the Catholic church. Referred to by "orthodox Christians" of the time as "Papists", Catholics were viewed as "ignorant puppets, whose priests were sexually exploitative and conspiratorial" (Jenkins 28-29). There were political groups, like the "nativists" and the "know-nothing party", that made every effort to stamp out this "growing menace". All kinds of accusations were levied at its adherents. Of course the Catholics were replaced in turn by the Shakers, the Mormons, the spiritualists, Pentacostals, 7th Day adventists, Theosophists, the Watch Tower society, and the Christian Science of Mary Baker Eddy.

Each new religious movement was vulnerable to wild speculations by the mainstream. In fact the function of this great established middle is to define itself against new ideas. Not only did critics work to ostracize people who chose to belong to these marginal religious groups, but they served to quell dialogue between liberals and modernists within their own traditions.

But a transformation seems to work itself over time, in the growth and continued survival of these groups. "Cults" slowly become recognized as "churches", as through growing membership and institutionalization they get a foothold in our society. Thus the kingdom of the Church of Latter Day Saints becomes a state and its presence becomes more or less accepted, and sometimes even venerated by outsiders. The Watch Tower Society becomes the Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Christian Science Monitor garners respect as one of the most objective news sources in our nation. Along with their growth, the extreme beliefs of their founders become softened and made more palatable to the mainstream. But indeed they also leave a corresponding mark on religious thought in our society. Ideas that once seemed dangerous weather long-held resistances and enrich the ongoing spiritul dialogue.

As some groups get promoted to accepted "church" status, other groups are identified as the new "cult" menace. The age-old sensationalistic stories get trotted out once again to besmirch the reputation of members of the alternative group. No doubt there is a kernel of truth in the tales- Jim Jones was responsible for the deaths of hundreds in Guyana... Charlie Manson did indeed persuade his followers to murder Sharon Tate and several others... but these incidents are not normative in the history of alternative religion movements, and indeed long-established churches have skeletons in their closet as well.

I've learned to be skeptical about representations of "cults" in the mainstream media. One need not view these groups as an inevitable threat to one's personal faith or the evolution of one's society. At some level we owe a debt of gratitude to these non-conventional belief systems- they have tested and reinforced our commitment to our First Amendment rights throughout our nation's history.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Change in Title Reflects Change in Proprietorship.

As you can see, there's been a change to the title of this site. I no longer feel the need to identify myself by name in the header. Of course this isn't going to retroactively change all the google hits that referenced the former title, but it gives me at least a small element of plausible deniability regarding the identity of the author of the site. The previous owner/author has relinquished control, and has been supplanted by the current one. He may, however, be making return appearances at an unspecified future date.

How truly creepy is that?

It is to be understood by all readers that a new entity is responsible for posting here. The previous author wishes it to be known that he has diassociated himself from this enterprise, and posts dated after the one immediately preceding shall be considered to be under unidentified authorship, until contradictory information is posted. The former and current authors of this site ask that you please excuse this interruption, and let it not interfere with your enjoyment of the new "Serendipity".

Thank you kindly.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The porch vs. the privy.

What is it about old folks, sitting on their porch and listening to AM radio, that causes such nostalgia and melancholy in me? It almost completely humanizes that cranky bastard that lives next door. Sometimes he will sit of an evening and listen to a ball game. Tonight it was "The Sound of Silence" by Simon and Garfunkel. I smoked my cigarette just a little slower than usual. Invariably his wife will come out and join him, and if I sit quietly long enough... I will hear him clear his throat, cough, and emit his bass profundo complaint about whatever is currently bothering him. Of course, this quickly shatters the wistful feeling from before.

How many people of my generation sit outside on their porches, and while away the waning hours of the day? I don't see many. I see kids, escaping the watchful eyes of their parents and/or guardians, congregated in packs on the front stoops of my neighborhood. Sometimes I see folks after sundown, drinking beer and spreading gossip with their friends. But it seems that most are inside, watching television or doing whatever they do when they get to themselves.

I don't know if I long for the days before the many distractions that keep people from living a more public homelife. I bristle when I see the octogenarians poking their heads out of their front door, closely monitoring my activities... as if I were doing something illicit. Perhaps those people actually need more channels to fill their final days. Yet it is an interest in community that inspires such behavior. It was an activity that was just supposed to be done. More eyes always meant that everyone thought just a little bit harder about the way they appeared in public. Did it eliminate theft, domestic crime and vandalism altogether? Certainly not. But it did give a neighborhood a sense of active involvement, as if everyone truly was their brother's keeper.

Now everyone seems defiant about people staying out of their business. Of course there are benefits to this condition too. It is much more acceptable to pass by the people next door with a quick nod of recognition, or simply to ignore their presence altogether. You don't have to strain your mood or energy with the small talk that accompanies the acknowledgement that other people exist, and that they are part of your world. It is the freedom to not consider others, and it can feel quite liberating after a long, hard day at work. Somehow the balance between community and the need for privacy is struck, one way or another. Certain modes of living, and locations for doing it, tip that balance. The places people choose to call home say a lot about them.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The US Has the President it Deserves.

This afternoon I was listening to Ira Glass on NPR. He's got a program called "This American Life" that runs on Sundays. Admittedly I have never made a concerted effort to listen to this program as I usually have other priorities. But now and again while driving here or there, I have caught bits and pieces of his whiny nasality... and usually I find something in it to be amused by. I've always been under the impression that Glass was a bit of a darling to those of a progressive bent in our society. I was quickly disabused of that notion today.

The theme of Glass' show today was something akin to "Things I Would Like To See Just Go Away." There were stories of annoying pets and lasting obligations promised to former friends. Between tales there was a segment concerning John Kerry, current senator from the state of Massachusetts. Glass was bemoaning the fact that Kerry is still in the public eye after having lost what Glass saw as an "easy" election for the presidency in 2004 (I guess it's lost on Ira that Kerry is in the position of an elected federal official, and thus it is STILL his job to be actively engaged in the national political dialogue). Our fashionable commentator launched into a low-intensity rant about Kerry's style during the campaign. He marched out all the tired accusations of the Bush campaign... "Kerry is a waffler"... "No one can tell what Kerry stands for"... "No one knows what Kerry is talking about"... etc., ad nauseum. Somehow his annoyance with Kerry's style justifies Glass' stated desire that Kerry no longer appear in the media.

NPR has the reputation (increasingly less deserved) of being the home of objective, fact-based, and complex coverage of current events and politics. Sure... they have their share of partisan pundits, but usually these talking heads make an effort to sound just a little bit more intelligent. After all, it would be a very foolish mistake to underestimate the perceived demographics of NPR. The whole idea of public-supported radio is that it is able to avoid the soundbyte journalism of the commercial networks and cable television. So it was with great disappointment that I heard Glass deliver his manifesto against Kerry.

It occurs to me that the United States has the president it deserves... and not just because the populace inexplicably re-elected one of the worst presidents in modern times. The sad fact is that the average American seems to require a leader that speaks like a thirteen-year-old. I was extremely alarmed when I read that our crusading commander-in-chief uttered the words "I don't do nuance." Though it was by no means unexpected. Dubya isn't known for his eloquence of speech or thought. That's not to say that his proclamations are reflective of the nature of his administration. The byzantine nature of the policies and machinations of the federal executive branch should be obvious to all. But evidently the American public does not want to hear about (or is not prepared to understand) such complexities. Maybe Ira Glass is right.

Personally, I found it refreshing that we were offered a candidate that didn't think it necessary to reduce the world's population to "evil-doers" and "freedom-lovers". The problem with Kerry wasn't his elaborate references or his nuanced positions. My frustration with his campaign was that he pulled his punches. He should have deconstructed Bush's "Us vs. Them" mentality. Perhaps he could have been a bit more direct in stating the problems inherent in that worldview. Maybe Ira Glass is right. Maybe the US is a nation of idiots. But then that raises the question..."Just who is Ira Glass talking to?"

Saturday, August 19, 2006

"The Forbidden Zone" (1980)

Every once in awhile I am reminded that cultural transmission of a certain artifact is woefully insignificant. Last night I went to a get-together at a friend's house, and typically, folks wanted to know if I would bring over a DVD to watch. I put a lot of thought into what movies I will share, depending on the context and the people that will make up the audience. This particular group of friends are fairly broad-minded, so I had a lot of latitude. At the same time, I knew that there would be a lot of talking and interruptions, so I didn't want to bring anything that required too much sustained attention. I picked a few things from my shelves and headed out.

When it came down to making my ultimate selection, I was particularly drawn to The Forbidden Zone. I've watched this 1980 Richard Elfman-directed film numerous times, and on each viewing I am further astonished that it's not better known. In a perfect world, it would supplant The Rocky Horror Picture show as the archetypal "midnight movie". It stars "the midget's midget"- Herve Villechaize (best known as "Tattoo" from Fantasy Island). He plays the King of the netherworld referred to in the title. His Queen is Susan Tyrell, whose credits include a panorama of entertainment including Warhol's Bad, and Fat City. These two were actually lovers offscreen as well- a fact that gives one pause. But the driving creative force behind the film was The Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo.

Richard Elfman shared membership in tMKoOB with (among others) his more-famous sibling Danny Elfman and Matthew Brite (director of the excellent and almost equally underappreciated Freeway) . Danny would go on to transition this theatrical troupe into the much more notorious 80's rock band known as "Oingo Boingo" (remember the hit "Deadman's Party" and the theme song to Weird Science?). But before all of this, and his extensive movie soundtrack career, he starred in his brother Richard's production, playing the role of Satan himself.

Forbidden Zone is unlike any film you've seen. It was made in black-and-white, with animation sequences, a man in a frog costume, a collection of jive-talking soul brothers, a flying man-turned-chicken's head, topless slaves, and the strangest pair of brothers you're ever going to see (and I am not referring to the Elfmans). It's a musical with songs that include Danny's demented versions of classics by Cab Calloway and Josephine Baker. The set decorations were created by the cast, and the outlandish imagination displayed in the creation of the sets belies the low budget Elfman had to work with. Admittedly the acting is never consistently professional, and the plot is somewhat disjointed, but if you sit back and take it in without too much critical analysis... then you are in for one hell of a ride. I laughed out loud during several musical numbers, and I notice something I missed with each subsequent viewing.

If you are drawn to the truly strange, and possess sensibilities that are not easily offended, then this will be a great treat for you. If you like the sort of inane and cliche toilet humor that passes for comedy in Hollywood today, then you might as well take the title at its face-value, because it is not for you.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Rogers, Ohio.- A Free (and open) Market.

Today I woke up earlier than I have all summer, in order to go to Roger's Market and Auction in Roger's, Ohio. What an incredible cavalcade of low-rent rural-living junk! It is hard to believe this slice of pseudo-Appalachia is a mere 65 miles from Pittsburgh. Really and truly... for those of you that haven't been to the confluence of the three-rivers- Pittsburgh does have some cosmopolitan culture (I'm not kidding). Of course, Pittsburgh is a bit less than 60 miles from the West Virginia border too... so never mind.

Anyway, the reader may wonder.... "Why would David get up at an ungodly hour, only to trek to another state for a look at a region's junk drawer?" That's a fair question. I had heard rumors of a giant flea market/antique center/market in daytrip driving range. I wasn't looking for anything in particular. I had in mind that if I scavenged a bit I could come up with something interesting to waste a few bucks on. Anyone who has gone to, and enjoyed, a huge open-air market knows what I an talking about. I scouted the web page (linked above) and it seemed promising. More than 5 miles of outside vendor spaces? Hmmmm. Over 1600 vendors? Wow. No admission charge? Right. Free Parking? No way?! Bring comfortable walking shoes... Alrite! I sure will!

Mapquest took me on some smaller backroads, with very light traffic... and for a moment I thought that maybe the rumors and the website were part of some elaborate trap to lure unexpecting urbanites to their doom at the hands of these" salt-of-the-earth" country folk (a la 2000 Maniacs). It seemed particularly foreboding that my cell phone (and that of the friend I brought alone, "just in case") was not working. But the market does exist. For I am here now telling you about it.

Indeed I had no difficulty finding convenient parking, despite the presence of 1000's of cars. There are, in fact, over 70 acres of grasslot where you are free to park your pickup. My friend and I took a look, and decided to meet at the entrance gate four hours hence. Free to wander without considerations or concern, I started walking among the seemingly unending tables of unwanted, but commodifiable items.

I took advantage of one of the many fair-type grab joints to allay my hunger. I braved crowds of unaware zombies, weaving in and out of them with a purpose. It was frustrating, but I had a schedule to keep. I was determined. Three hours later I had become one of the horde. There's just no way to maintain any acuity after a significant amount of time spent overstimulated in this- the bottom rung of our commercialist society. Just so many choices... should I buy the Rottweiller puppy, or the camouflage boonie hat? The italian charm bracelet or the pre-viewed videos? The genuine and alive baby pot-bellied pig, or the air rifle? The chili dog, or the kettle corn? Faced with these crucial decisions, time and time after time, one begins to enter a zone of existence in between free locomotion and confused inertia.

It was time to eat again. Rogers has a restaurant right on market grounds! It even includes the requisite ten-foot long American flag tacked to the wall to remind you that you haven't left the country, only to find yourself lost in some unrecognizable foreign wonderland. (It is actually terribly unnecessary.... this place could be the national center in Disney's Epcot USA. It's completely representative of what is "special" about America.) I got in the surprisingly efficient line and ordered up some classic American fast-food fare... and a piece of strawberry-rhubarb pie. I ate exhaustedly but intently. It did the trick. I dragged my ass out again to look at the indoor markets.

I spent about five hours total at Roger's, and I feel like I got a good indication of what was available. I had thoughtfully brought along extra spare cash. I guess you are wondering what I came home with... insert drum roll... wait for it... one (1) used DVD. That's right. Honestly. Despite the large quantity of goods, unless you are a compulsive shopper, or go for something specific... you just might come home unburdened by stuff. Maybe it was just the mood I was in, but I've had much better luck with similar markets closer to the city. But I wasn't disappointed.

A visit to Roger's is like a journey to an America that exists outside of my own. (It's the one, evidently, that picks the president.) But besides that, it is a true cultural experience. A reflection refracted through a multitude of objects... considered through the changing hands of subsequent owners. What better way to view the beating heart of America?

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Why Am I Creepy?

OK... so I was wasting some time on a message board I used to frequent consistently, and a particular thread drew my attention. I knew as soon as I saw the title- "Favorite Creepy Actors", that I was going to be engaged for awhile. As you already know (if you know me), I am a huge fan of film. I have a large collection of DVDs, many of which could fairly be considered "creepy".

One of my all-time favorite actors is Crispin Hellion Glover. His most famous role was that of Michael J. Fox's father in the Back to the Future series, but you may have seen him in the Charlie's Angels Hollywood schlockfests or maybe What's Eating Gilbert Grape?. If you are of a certain time and place, you may have the fortunate memory of seing his defining performance in River's Edge. I am most blessed to have seen him live, during a presentation of his own film- What Is It? Just to be perfectly clear, this work IS NOT for the kiddies. If you are likewise attracted to the creepy and bizarre, it's worth the effort to seek this out. Suffice it to say that Glover is the archetype by which all other creepy actors can be measured.

But the penultimate performance of creepiness is, in my opinion, Willem Dafoe's portrayal of "Bobby Peru" in David Lynch's Wild at Heart. In fact, the film is a who's who of creepy actors including David Patrick Kelly, the aforementioned Glover, Isabella Rosselini, and Pruitt Taylor Vince. Lynch is probably the most likely prospect for most creepy director, followed closely by David Cronenberg.

There are other people that are commonly cited for their creep factor- Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Malcom McDowell, Steve Buscemi and Vicent D'Onofrio are almost cliches. But a complete rogue's gallery might include folks like Vincent Gallo (Buffalo 66, Freeway), Jake Busey (The Frighteners), Sissy Spacek (Carrie), Shelly Duvall (The Shining, Popeye), Clint Howard (yes...Ron's brother), Glenn Close, James Spader, Elias Koteas, etc. These people make a film for me, even when they are given minor roles.

The hall-of-fame would no doubt include the late-era Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, Dan Duryea, and Richard Widmark. Indeed there has always been a certain audience for these type of characters.

But what has me perplexed is... "Why me?" What is it about my personality or experience that draws me to "creeps"? Is it because I kill and eat babies? (No, that wouldn't be it at all.) Is it genetic or a result of careful nurturing? Am I scarred by seedy memories from the past?

Or is it natural for me, in an age and society that seems to be obsessed with the "perfect look", to be attracted to the margins? I remember in ninth grade, I made an attempt to thwart my nature and become "normal". I looked at what the popular kids were wearing, and took my ass out to the factory outlets with my parents, trying to put together a reasonable facsimile of "the right look". It never took. I was still a bit off... even with my new duds.

It wasn't until coming to Pittsburgh for college that I became successful at "passing". I joined a fraternity, bought some baseball caps, went jogging everyday, and tried to cultivate an "athletic, collegiate and wholesome-American" image. It worked. For about a year and a half. And then I realized how f'ing boring it all was. I just never was truly interested in the mindset, or the people that bought into all that. And I'm still not. Honestly, I actually get a bit of a kick out of not belonging to "the group". I can get rid of cable television, not follow the sport scores, and avoid the mall. I never feel any pressure to keep up with the latest fashion trends or consumerist programming. It leaves me feeling like a bit of a pariah at times, but it's a worthy trade in my estimation.

So I guess I feel some special kinship with these actors. The ones that make "normal" people feel unsettled and uncomfortable. And I suppose they are doing a service to the larger group, by presenting models of "how not to be"- something against which to define the majority. In my advanced age, I am more and more comfortable to be a bit of an outsider. What's especially rewarding is that there are others that feel the same way. I cherish many and call them friends. You know who you are. "You"- not afraid to be a bit different... maybe a bit of a "freak"... and to accept yourself as both flawed and complex. I love you too.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Ever-Widening Blogosphere.

Without getting too postmodern about it, the blogosphere is beginning to open up for me. Before I began writing Serendipity, I didn't really spend much time looking through blogs. Sure, I'd check out the occasional politically-minded site, but I had no idea about the extent and breadth of this virtual world.

My involvement began when I wanted to leave a comment on a blog started by the owner of the flat file gallery that currently houses much of my work- the Digging Pitt. John had his site set up so as to require a Blogger account in order to provide feedback to his posts. I figured what the hell- how long can it take to register? The next thing I knew I had set up my blog, and I was committing to writing an entry every day. Susan Constance, who has her own art-themed blog "Oranje", showed me some tricks of the trade, and I was off and running.

Shortly after setting up this site, I became aware of PghBloggers. It was a revelation to me- there are hundreds of folks writing on a myriad of different subjects.... sports, local news, art, culture, the music scene, gossip... it's all on there. This was an effective way to begin to direct some readers my way. You can even set up RSS feeds (whatever the hell that means).

When I started to talk to my friends about what I was involved with, I learned that some of them have been at this quietly for awhile. My friend L., whom I used to be in a writing group with, has The Boycott Pages and The Sassy Republican. She is a feminist and progressive dynamo, and her pages are not at all what you might expect from their titles (*standard-issue disclaimer). I was flattered when she invited me to join her collective at scribbler's debris. This project involves drawing a theme at random, and spending approximately twenty minutes writing about it. It's a liberating venture.

My own brother was inspired, upon seeing that I was doing it, to create his own blog- "Oh Pun!" says... uh, me" . I am looking forward to the time when he will be able, for a moment, to step away from his three children, and full-time professional job, and post more often.

It's amazing just how courageous people can be in posting their blogs. I have had the opportunity to get to know a friend-in-passing much better through reading her site. It is such an intimate window into her inner world and relationships that I can't even identify it, or provide a link. And there are many blogs just like this- accessible only if you can discover the url. A glimpse of voyuerism into the most personal perspective, with only a few keystrokes. The person you stare at on the street... or the person you never notice... the blog you discover could be written by anyone around you.

Fortunately for the curious, there are many worthwhile blogs open to public consumption. Please check out one of my current favorites- studio-twenty-three. And while you are there, read her companion site- My letter of the Day. Both of these sites are funny and enlightening.

It's remarkable that the blogosphere has grown to its current scope so quickly. I have a feeling that we have only seen the very beginning of a mass movement. Blogs may actually play a great role in democratizing our society. It is no longer necessary to have an advertising budget or corporate sponsorship to potentially reach a large audience. If you have a public library near you, blogging doesn't even require your own personal computer. A chain of interconnection can lead you to places unforeseen, both in the virtual and dimensional spaces within which we exist.

In addition, I believe that there is a very real possibility that blogging can help reverse a decades-long slide in literacy rates in our society. This medium competes for its audience against non-interactive forms of media that have long held a lock on the attentions of our citizenry. It's true that I am not among the earliest pioneers of the blogging movement, but I feel grateful for being a relatively early-riser on the "day of the blog".

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


It's odd to think about just how jarring changes to your routine can be. Today I received my schedule for the upcoming school year. My lunch period has been moved up an hour. My prep period is now first period instead of seventh... and I have lunch duty. I suppose I should feel fortunate that I had five years in which I managed to avoid such an onerous activity. The idea of watching a cafeteria full of 13 to 16 year-olds wolf down their food is enough to churn my stomach, without actually having to experience it 187 days in a year. Oh, how I appreciated being the study hall monitor, in the comfort of my own classroom.

Routine is a strange thing. I have no way to express exactly how deep my love is for the summer, when I decide what to do and when to do it. Yet there are pitfalls implicit in all that opportunity. It's easy to resent the everyday tasks that need to be completed. There's a danger that nothing at all will be accomplished, and that I will simply lose myself in the languor of the day.

Somehow I can find some merit in having my time allotted specifically and inextricably throughout the day. I guess that is a daily condition that few of us can ever avoid. So it makes sense to accept it and find ways to make our routine as efficient and beneficial as possible. However, this strategy makes arbitrary changes in routine all-the-more frustrating. Life is constant and gradual flux, and no matter what we do, we are going to be compelled to adapt to change. This fact makes the task of building routine seem futile.

Perhaps my love-hate relationship with routine is made more acute by the value I place on arts and culture. The word "routine" is commonly used in a derogatory manner when applied in the art world. One might as well accept the label "mundane". The common, time-worn efficiencies of routine are the death knell for the artist. Perhaps that is why someone involved in such pursuits experiences such resentment at the prospect of following an unyielding routine. Surely art necesitates changes in perspective that thwart the ordinary and the common. That may be why we see so many aspiring artists with substance abuse problems, or other variants of escapist pursuit.

Thus arises the question, how will lunch duty affect my work? And I'm not just talking about the work that earns my paycheck. How will it change my daily perspective, and why should the idea of it put me so ill at ease?

Monday, August 14, 2006

Grady Stiles, Jr.: "Lobster Boy"

Pittsbugh has had its share of famous people who were either born or lived most of their lives in the city. Many of them are well-noted- Andy Warhol, Philip Pearlstein, Andrew Carnegie, Jeff Goldblum, Micheal Keaton, Gene Kelly, August Wilson, Stephen Foster... much has been written about the time they have each spent in Pittsburgh. But every once in awhile I come across a lesser known figure who made their residence in this fair city.

Grady Franklin Stiles, Jr. was born in Pittsburgh on July 18, 1937. He was the product of a genetic line that produced offspring with the mutation of ectrodactyly- a "deformity of the hand where the middle digit is missing, and the hand is cleft where the metacarpal of the finger should be" (thanks wikipedia). The name of this condition literally translates to "abortion of a finger". Grady Stiles, Jr. was fifth in a line of famous Stiles males known as "lobster men". He had a long career of performance in side shows and even owned his own proposition at one time.

What makes Stiles particularly interesting is his personal history of trouble. He was a heavy drinker and was said to be physically abusive while under the influence of alcohol. He was also an excessively domineering father. He would train his progeny by wrestling with them until they were at his mercy on the living room floor. For much of his life he used a wheelchair, but he was agile and strong- capable of taking a man by surprise and vanquishing them before they realized what was happening. He could also fire a pistol, as his daughter's fiancee no doubt discovered when he was shot to death by Stiles. This happened right on the North Side of Pittsburgh, on the eve of his daughter's wedding. It was national news, as was his trial's outcome. Stiles, having confessed to the killing "in self-defense", was spared a prison term by a jury that was hesitant to place a man with such a disability in a place without proper accomodations. His daughter held a grudge against him, but he never expressed any remorse for his action.

Stiles met his ultimate end in Gibsonton, FL when he was shot three times in the back of his bald head. His wife Teresa, who was implicated in the contract killing, used "battered wife syndrome" as a defense. Stiles' life is both complex and tragic. In many ways he overcame a debilitating birth defect... only to visit his repressed angers and resentments on his family.

If you'd like to learn more about Stiles, the most famous "lobster boy"... Fred Rosen wrote a book about him. There are also rumors of a movie being made about his life. Keep your eyes open for it.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Boys are Back in Town.

Yesterday the Steelers played their first preseason game of the year. Yes... the obsession of the region continues after the short break between drives for the prize. Pittsburgh is nuts about its football. I'm sure every city with an NFL team is much the same... but in a city of this size the passion can overwhelm the place. People here experience a very real sense of personal loss when the Steelers fail to win. The drive to and from work is more tense, and the mood of the workplace becomes increasingly temperamental. And somehow everyone is expected to share the fortunes or failings of the "Steeler Nation".

This is a problem for me because I can't stand watching football. I loved to play it when I was a kid, but it bores the hell out of me on television. It is the most disconnected of televised sports in America. They are constantly taking abrupt breaks between spurts of intense action. It is a stutter-step dance, back-and-forth between goal lines. Performance relies almost purely upon size, strength and speed. Players are expected to act intuitively based upon the conditioning received from the coaches. If they think for themselves they are doomed. Even the quarterbacks take their orders from the sidelines. In this respect it is the most miltaristic of games, and this quality understandably compels a citizenry infatuated with war. The "Blitz"... the "End Run"... "Lines of Defense"... "Offensive Maneuvers"... these have their parallels in the very real overseas battlefield destinations that "we" send our troops to. And we need to "support our troops"... our side, our team... it's "us vs. them", and "take no prisoners". Don't question the commanders and policymakers- it's too easy to be an arm-chair quarterback. Wear the colors, wave the flag... hooray for "us"!

Sorry, I'm not buying it. This past season, when the local team won it all, I couldn't join the victory revelries. I didn't care when they lost the early games, and I certainly didn't invest myself when they became champions. People at work wondered why I just couldn't get into the "spirit" of the excitement. It didn't matter who really cared, it was just crucial to show your support and "hometown" pride. The fact is that I work in the exurbs, among people that could care f'ck-all about Pittsburgh during any other time... people indeed that have fled the urban centers so that they wouldn't have to experience any of the actual hard work of real support for the city (not to mention city taxes)... people that basically have nothing to do with the city other than following the Steelers. These people want to be regular 'burghers when the Steelers are winning. Sorry... wearing the black-and-gold every casual Friday doesn't make you part of Pittsburgh.

And then there are the suckers in the city- those meat-and-potater folks that ponied up their hard earned taxes so that the Steelers could have a brand new stadium for themselves, even while the city was still paying off the "old" one so recently demolished. Yeah, the Steelers represent us. We may not have decent jobs or adequate public transportation... but shucks... we got the Stillers! The players might make millions of dollars a year, yet still they lack even a shred of loyalty to (or involvement in) the community... but at least they are winners! They'll take those damn gaudy rings to all corners of the nation, and wear them proudly in their new multi-million dollar homes in the suburbs... but they are still "our" boys.

Of course my position makes me a virtual pariah whenever I voice it. Why can't I just let people have their fun? It's only because I see the state of our streets, the conditions of our schools, and the city pools shutting down for the summer because of lack of funds. The city just went through bankruptcy. Yes... that's true... ahem... but we had the All-Star game this year!!! Never mind. I've said enough.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Missed opportunities... and local options.

My trip to NYC and Asbury Park concluded, I now have time to reflect on what I've seen, and what I didn't get to see. A representative example of the latter is Full House: Views of the Whitney's Collection at 75, featuring works of abstract expressionism, minimalism and pop art. The Whitney is highlighting Edward Hopper, one of my favorite all-time painters, with an entire floor of exposure. The DADA exhibition at MOMA was something else that intrigued me. I don't know enough about the movement, and this would have been an excellent opportunity to learn more.

I had several general decisions I had to make regarding how best to spend my time. After a discussion of my beach community documentation project, a docent at the Brooklyn Museum had recommended that I take a drive up to Rye's Playland. It is the only amusement park in the country that is owned by a governmental body, and therefore has maintained some of its essential and unique traditional character. It is supposed to be an architectural masterpiece, and has several rides not found anywhere else- including a version of the steeplechase. A visit to this boardwalk park would have complimented my project well. It was a question of taking a look at a whole bunch of other folks' work, or continuing to work on my own. It's difficult to turn down the chance to see the hotbed of contemporary art- certainly a temptation I couldn't resist.

Having decided to view, rather than to make, art... I needed to choose between masters of the last century, or emerging artists of the twenty-first. The internet is inundated with examples of the classic works of the masters, with plenty of commentary to guide the student. A careful study of these greats will help build a conceptual understanding of the history of American modern art. As mentioned above, there were several exhibits I would have liked to visit. It would indeed have been instructive to stand in front of these works in person, noting the subtle marks of technique. Ultimately I felt that my interests would be best served by exploring the directions the art stars of the future are pursuing. My previous blog entry gave only the most minor view of a small prtion of what I saw. It's overwhelming to confront the mass amount of work available in such a short time span. I did my best, and got a pretty good introduction.

Of course there were all the closed galleries in Williamsburg that I wanted very much to check out- such as Pierogi and Tastes Like Chicken. At least there was no specific show I wanted to see there. There is no amount of time that would allow me to see everything in NYC worth seeing, and I just have to make a commitment to myself to return annually, and chip away at the long, ever-changing list of essential art.

Meanwhile, back home in Pittsburgh, I can jump right back into a smaller world of art and culture. And I have the ability to see most of everything that is worthwhile. Last night I went to Coca Cafe in Lawrenceville to see the solo show of Victoria Cessna. She's a personal favorite of mine, and the creator of one of the most cherished pieces in my collection. This show was no disappointment. Cessna's method includes the use of found photos as source material for her paintings. The event was well-attended and accesible to all-comers.

Victoria suggested I check out the work of her friend David Wallace. (You can learn more about him here.) He has an opening at The Vault, in Brighton Heights, tonight. I haven't been to the venue before, and am excited to learn about yet another hidden treasure of Pittsburgh.

And speaking of hidden treasures... after Victoria's show I went up the street to a hole-in-the-wall bar to see my friends Local Honey (a foot-stomping, working-class, Patsy Cline inspired, female-fronted, alt-country outfit out of Polish Hill). Belvedere's is exactly the type of place I can envision NYC-artist expats flocking to. Its small front room bar gives no indication of the large VFW-style wood-panelled backroom performance space. The bingo-style foldable tables and low ceiling provide it's indie-hipster credibility, and it's $1 drafts of Yuengling meet the accompanying budgetary considerations. Lawrenceville is clearly on the ascendent.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Chelsea Sightings.

My intention today was to see the galleries in Williamsburg. It turned out that they were (but with a single exception) all closed. I do realize that summer is a slow time, but what the hell? Since that was all that had appealed to me about going there, we left for Chelsea.

There is a tremendous concentration of galleries in Chelsea. In the Chelsea art booklet (July-Aug 2006), there are about 200 listings. For the first time on this trip I was especially fortunate- these shows are due to close for the season. John Morris, owner of the Digging Pitt, was especially helpful in making some recommendations for what I should see.

Richard Serra had a show at Gagosian. I never realized how bored I would be by Serra's work. Big blocks and sheets of iron. Whoah... I saw enough of that on the construction sites at Asbury Park. Surrounded by clean white walls and on top of hardwood floors (even with cute girls in the reception area)... this stuff is still just raw material. I'll have to dig deeper into his oeuvre so that I don't remain a philistine.

The Derek Eller Gallery has a sculptural tableau employing a cartoon-like colonial American soldier pissing into the open chest wound of a victim. And it was animated too! It reminded me of going to Chuck E. Cheese as a kid. I liked it. Peter Caine is an artist to watch, and he has a solo coming up. If you live in NYC, go see it. Great fun.

The folks at D'Amelio Terras had some inscrutable installation works. The folks there were quite nice, and they miss John a lot. I learned how to automate wind chimes and how to get better television reception without cable.

Clementine Gallery had some interesting montage works on large sheets of plastic, by Elana Beelaerts. Also, Dieuke Spaans does some harrowing portraits and paints horses big and scary-like. I like the gallery, and the receptionist was nice.

J. Bennett Fitts' show at the Julie Saul Gallery is quite nice. He has photographed motel pools, many of them no longer in use and filled with brackish water. The shots are evocative of isolation and disillusionment. I'll be looking into more of his work.

My favorite gallery was Mixed Greens. Andy Diaz Hope uses pharmaceutical capsules, with small portions of photographs wrapped up and visible through their shells, in montage patterns to create portraits of his hungover friends. His partner-in-crime Laurel Roth uses a mix of domesticity and fantasy to create installations chock full of magical realism. Her work is a combination of the profane and transcendent. The staff at Mixed Greens was extremely helpful and generous. When I asked to see the work of a photographer that they represent (but whose work was not displayed) they were very accomodating. They pulled it out of storage and unwrapped it for my viewing pleasure. This was the most pleasant experience I had at any gallery during this entire trip.

The last arts destination we stopped at was the Chelsea Art Museum. I was quite happy to pay half-price by entering after 6PM. They had an abstract photography show on the first floor. Photo-shopped, scratched and blown up beyond all recognition... the shots left me a bit cold. But they have an incredible installation in the pit. Bjorn Melhaus, a crazy Scandinavian, recorded American war film sountracks and used snippets as a score for his muli-television monitor light show. I was spellbound, and lingered longer in his piece than I spent in the rest of the museum put together. It was like some demented disco for American armchair patriots.

Some of our targets were already closed for the season. I'd like to go back again to see Edward Winkelman's Plus Ultra Gallery, the International Print Center, and the Luhring Augustine Gallery. I could easily be caught up in the Chelsea galleries for days if I took my time to see everything. Best of all, besides the museum, it was all free. Can't beat that.

I guess a trip to NYC wouldn't be complete without a celebrity sighting. Ours didn't come until the last day... We went into a cafe on ninth avenue to get a mocha, and who do we see talking to himself in the corner? Ethan Hawke. Either he has totally lost his mental stability or he was going over some lines for an upcoming project. He was gesticulating and making his trademark facial expressions of astonishment and vulnerability. To his credit, he did have what appeared to be a script in his lap. To my credit I didn't let him know how much I liked his work (in Dead Poet's Society).

Brooklyn destinations.

The first thing I did when I woke up yesterday was find a place to upload a blog entry. I've learned not to rely on finding an internet cafe. We drove to the Brighton Beach branch of the Brooklyn Public library. There I was able to rush through a thirty minute entry before someone else took my place from the queue. Brighton Beach is truly unlike any neighborhood I have ever been in. It is referred to as "Little Odessa", in honor of the Russian city with which it shares its spirit. The main street of the business district is in the shadow of the el train that proceeds directly overhead. It looks simultaneously like a thriving market district, complete with signs in the Russian language, and a location for shady transactions. I loved it. We found an authentic Russian cafe, and I partook liberally (for the first time) of their culturally distinct cuisine.

We also paid a visit to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. This institution's collection rests heavily on antiquities from Egypt, Africa and Europe. There is a floor devoted to tracing the development of American art, but it wasn't very impressive in presentation or content. Perhaps most dubious was the temporary exhibit of graffitti. Twenty-two pieces on canvas by "well-known" NYC street artists are on display. Truthfully, taken out of their usual context, they just didn't work. Rudy Guliani might be happy about its displacement, but I am most assuredly not.

One intriguing aspect of the Brooklyn Museum that I hadn't seen before was the concept of "viewable storage". Of course any large museum has holdings that it simply cannot present due to time and space considerations. The Brooklyn has a dimly-lit section that visitors can walk through and view pieces jumbled together in glass enclosures. You don't get any of the usual commentary or contextual information, but the experience has a very intimate quality to it. I wish the Carnegie would do something similar.

When we were through with the museum, we drove down busy Flatbush Avenue to Coney Island. The boardwalk section was smaller and less seedy than I had expected. I wandered through Astroland snapping shots of the amusements. I decided to waste four bucks going through a dark ride. I noticed in a photo I snapped of the animated spooks that one female specimen was bare-breasted. They sneak that right by the kiddies! The Coney Island spirit has not died- but Coney has definitely been through rough times. There are still remnants of the old Coney crumbling into the past. I ate some Nathan's hot dogs and took in the atmosphere. I even spotted a fat dwarf.

One exceptional thing Coney does have is the Coney Island Circus Sideshow. Unfortunately it only plays the full ten-in-one on weekends. There were four young performers plying traditional "working acts". Insectina's fire swallowing act was very alluring, and Serpentina's snake dance was just as sexy as one would expect. The blow-off, which we viewed halfway through our time there (because the show goes on continously throughout the day), costs $1 and consists of... never mind... you'll just have to see it for yourself. The German Diamond Donny, the "Inflatable Boy", stuck his head in a surgical glove and blew it up through his nose until it popped. He set off a small bear trap with his hand, and a mousetrap on his tongue. Then of course, there were the traditional blade box and human blockhead acts. Even though they don't allow photographs, I was happy to support the efforts of the performers and Dick Zigun, who has worked hard to restore the magic of Coney Island. I went as far as buying a $25 shirt.

Our day was concluded with a trip to Williamsburg... the trendy Brooklyn area. Gentrification has brought its pre-yuppie bling full-force in this area. Granted our visit was at night, so it was hard to tell... but judging by the youngish WASP-y looking folks on the street, Williamsburg is no longer a haven for artists- but rather for art-style and the consumption of the newly-monied. Still, young artists are certainly still showing their work there... all kinds of "important" galleries are in the neighborhood. I hope to see some of them, but unfortunately many are only open during the weekends.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

My Return to Manhattan.

I made the drive in to Manhattan yesterday, through the Holland Tunnell. It was a good time to enter the city- barely any traffic. We found parking ($23 for a few hours) in Chelsea, and set off for the Museum of Sex (27th and 5th Avenue).

They had an exhibit documenting a period (1600- late 1800's AD) in Japanese history that spawned a huge sex industry for the politically impotent merchant class. Even if they could not have much governmnetal influence, they could get their rocks off at a huge pleasure palace in Edo. There was much porn being produced, and many examples were on display- period woodblock prints called "shunga", or "spring pictures". The exhibit put this work in historical context, and traced the development of manga, hentai and adult anime.

The second floor was a study on the development of stag films and "smokers". Vintage films were projected on square-shaped platforms at knee-level. There was accompanying commentary as well, focusing on historical precedents. It seemed a bit strange looking at these films in a museum setting.

The third exhibition space was devoted to selections from their permanent collection. There was a virtual sex outfit of hardware, including penis sheath, displayed on a sleek pure-white mannequin. There was a life-size blow-up doll in fishnets behind a glass case. There were examples of sexual depiction in contemporary American art. Best of all, they had a display of creative self-maipulation machines with plastic phalluses protruding from the side of briefcases, drill attachments and futuristic looking rocking chairs. Something for everybody, I'd assume. They had a great gift shop, but all the prices seemed to be artificially "jacked-up". And unlike the porn shops in Pittsburgh (or so I'm told), there are no sale racks.

In midtown we hit the International Center of Photography. They had an interesting display of the work of a contemporary Korean photographer (Atta Kim) that uses multiple and delayed exposures to great effect. He had shots of the Korean demilitarized zone. There was also a section devoted to the work of a Bauhaus artist from pre-WWII Germany (Marianne Brandt). It consisted mainly of primitive montages on themes of industrialism and gender roles in the Weimar Republic. But the highlight of the Center was an exhibition of rare photos by 1940's era New York photojournalist Weejee. His shots look spontaneous and off-kilter, adding to the humanism of the subjects. I never realized that he was a political progressive. He focused on racial prejudice, and worked to present an emotionally-charged body of work concerning race riots and other more minor tragedies. This, of course, is in addition to his more famous shots of the New York underworld and crime scenes.

I wandered a lot through midtown, collecting my own depictions of post 9-11 New York. I hadn't been to the Big Apple in about a decade, so I was surprised to see just how much gentrification has dominated Manhattan. I didn't see one single place that I would be scared to walk in the deep of the night. Times Square is surely like some Disney parody of a once thriving urban space.

It was refreshing to make my way into Brooklyn... through Coney Island and Brighton Heights, to our motel in Sheepshead Bay. I plan to devote a couple of days to these neighborhoods- places that maintain a unique individual character in our homogenized era.

Monday, August 07, 2006

A trip down the North Jersey coast.

I felt very comfortable in Asbury Park. But there's not a whole lot to do if you are on your own, and you don't feel like going out to a bar. So after I took advantage of the internet access of the public library ($3/hour for non-members), I decided I'd take a drive and see some of the surrounding communities.

First I drove north into the "suburbs" of Asbury. Allenhurst and Deal are quite lavish communities with "beach houses" the size of mansions. Lawns are perfectly manicured and streets so clean that you wouldn't fret about applying the "five-second rule", even if you had been chewing gum. The only non-white faces you see there are the "help". The road markings make it patently clear that they don't appreciate day visitors. "No Stopping or Standing" postings are frequent, and reinforced with "WE WILL CALL THE COPS" signs. I felt like I could be arrested just for taking photos. Too much... so I traveled south.

After the proudly Christian enclave of Ocean Grove, I hit a series of quaint, increasingly yuppie towns like Bradley Beach, Avon-by-the-sea, Lake Como, Sea Girt...etc. These places were all fairly unremarkable and mannered. In between there is Belmar, with just the slightest hint of working class spirit. There were some mexican groceries and auto part stores along with the ice cream parlors.

Keep moving, and eventually you'll run into Point Pleasant. Truly a family-oriented experience, the town has a little business district with antiques, hardware stores, and boutiques trying hard to be trendy. The conservatism of the town defeats fashion, but surely proves to be the source of its popularity. The big draw for the kiddies is Jenkinson's boardwalk. I don't know exactly who this fella was, but he's got a virtual monopoly in Point Pleasant. There's Jenkinson's amusements... Jenkinson's rides... Jenkinson's arcade... Jenkinson's public restrooms... Jenkinson's Bar/Restaurant... Jenkinson's damn aquarium... you even have to pay Jenkinson if you want to step on his beach ($6 for the day). Point Pleasant is clearly family-friendly (the way Jenkinson's wants it to be), and as one would expect- completely vanilla. I wonder if Jenkinson gets the 25 cents per ten minutes that it costs to park anywhere near his empire. I'm sure the police give him a cut of their ticket proceeds. If Mussolini had a beach resort, it would probably look like this.

Further down the coast we run into the getaways of the robber barons of Mantoloking. Without getting into the specifics of grandiosity, let me just note that these beach "bungalows" have driveways (?!). A good deluge could cause billions in property damges. This community is one of few places that could make me cheer for the melting of the polar ice caps. Let them rebuild in Harrisburg-By-The-Sea.

Back down to earth again and into Seaside Heights... the final shore destination of my trip. Not too much to remark upon here. Much like a more congested but cleaner Wildwood, on a shorter boardwalk. There are plenty of motor lodges and package stores to please the mildly discriminating. mentioned that I could find one-act side shows here ... like "World's Smallest Horse"... and "Most Deadly Rattlesnake". But no dice. The long journey down the coast ended in disappointment. But this beach does have an honest-to-goodness sky ride between the boards and the surf. It didn't quite make up for the lack of freak animals, but at least it was something different to look at.

S'up... from Asbury Park.

"Greetings from Asbury Park" just seems so damn cliche. I got into town yesterday and made a beeline for the boardwalk. It's active section is a mere few blocks long, and is bordered at one end by the crumbling and inoperative casino, and at the other by the still barely usable Paramount Theater and Convention hall.

The promenade through the casino houses large picture-postcard and photo reproductions of an Asbury Park now long gone. It's kind of amazing to stand and stare at these photos with the evidence of the current state of the boardwalk area only a hundred feet away. That's not to say that there is no activity... but there is a complete absence of any congestion, and that makes it almost surreal. There was a production of Shakespeare's "Tempest" being presented at the Paramount, and a wine-tasting on the second floor. I paid my $5, and got the equivalent of a small plastic cup of wine. Like everywhere else along the boardwalk, there were not many patrons. I took the opportunity to exit onto the walk that extends itself around the building providing a grand view of the Berkeley Carteret Oceanfront hotel. It was nice to take a loook at it from afar, as I certainly wasn't planning to stay there or at the Empress Hotel (the other prominent accomodation along Ocean Avenue- it seems to be quite a gay paradise). For the current state of Asbury, I think asking for $240 a night is a bit unreasonable. I ended up at the Day's Inn in nearby Neptune.

What I found particularly refreshing about the boardwalk is the complete lack of tourist trap t-shirt shops, and almost complete lack of greasy-food grab joints. The once famous Howard Johnson's has been re-opened this year, but their hours are rather hard to predict. A sign on the door does say (almost pleadingly) that they are "Open Late". I stopped for breakfast this morning, and it was closed. The lack of consumer options hasn't totally stopped the flow of visitors. There were a fair amount of sunbathers and people swimming. It is a strange sight seeing swimsuit-clad beach-goers lounging on their towels in front of deteriorating hulks of former Asbury glory. I was too busy taking photos to go into the water, but it looked plenty clean to me.

As I walked along Ocean Avenue, it became evident that Asbury Park is going to be completely different within a few years. Everywhere you look there is construction happening. There are great mounds of excavated dirt, heavy machinery, and tons of building materials. Plans have been made to built huge resort hotels (one is to be called "The Esperanza") to attract the money that has steadfastly eluded Asbury over the last few decades. Two legendary rock venues are open along this street- The Stone Pony (stomping grounds of "The Bruce") and the Wonder Bar (keeping the iconic "Tillie" alive past her extended life on the outside wall of the now demolished Palace Amusements building).

Off the southern end of the boardwalk there is a burgeoning business district emerging on Cookman Avenue. There are trendy restaurants, boutiques, antique stores, art galleries, and (2) coffee shops. I hadn't come across mention of any of this during extensive internet research. It turns out that it is all brand new. I talked to one gallery owner who could honestly call his business middle-aged after having been open for just two years. This stretch of commercialism can stand up to any I've seen on the northeastern shores. And it's obviously just starting.

No doubt Asbury Park has a long road to becoming a popular shore destination once again. There are still large swaths of urban blight and buildings that need to be razed. Income disparity is glaring on the back streets of Asbury. How will those who call this place home react to the inevitable flood of investment pouring into town? Some shadows of Asbury continue to resist the changes. I've noticed a fair amount of anti-development graffitti. But there is nothing that can stop the cold hand of "progress". And really... outside of the stalwarts that stuck to Asbury during its long decline... who is going to miss its current state? People in Pittsburgh couldn't fathom why I'd want to spend a night here... and I would assume that feeling extends eastward almost to the Monmouth County limits. Personally I enjoy this transitory state, and I'm glad I had a chance to experience it before it's gone.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Turnpike sonata.

There's a certain low-level insanity that I experience when I drive long distances by myself. Upon starting out, I usually ride out the local Pittsburgh radio stations. Once I start to receive fuzzy signals on my regular stations, I let the scan function entertain me for awhile. It gives me two-second windows into Middle-American radio. Ya see, my definition of "Middle America" differs markedly from the conventional one. Drive thirty minutes out of any metropolitan area, and you have your pick of conservative talk, holy-rolling sermonizing or country music. That's been reinforced no matter where I have traveled.

This year I bought a cd player. This solution has served me quite well whenever I have a navigator to manage disc changes. Flying solo, I have a bit of difficulty. I either have to be very organized, slightly reckless, or tolerant of the limited radio options. The best solution is to plan my roadside stops accordingly and sort through my collection in the safety of stasis. Of course this requires forethought. It does me no good if the chosen disc is too short or too long. Often I get too frustrated and turn the car stereo off completely. Then I just listen to the wind current as I motor down the interstate. And after awhile it is my racing thoughts that provide the soundtrack. With the addition of my customary four-shot espresso drink, this can get as annoying as the radio scan function. Depending on my mood, my thoughts can mirror the weather conditions, or be affected by the driving of other motorists. Eventually I get to the point where I am less discriminating, and find myself settling for some cheesey soft rock or 70's classics. Today I actually sat through an entire Billy Joel song and listened to the lyrics of Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train". I actually found the latter quite profound. Believe me when I say that when something from Fleetwood Mac comes on (even post-Rumours) I am jubilant.

The 300 mile slog across Pennsylvania can be mind-numbing, especially when taking the turnpike. Today's drive was assisted by David Cross. There's nothing more satisfying than hearing this comic voice his frustrations with modern society. I made a mental note to find out if he has made any cd releases since It's Not Funny. Unfortunately it looks like he hasn't. So I guess I'll be pulling out his double cd , Shut Up You F'ing Baby on the ride back to the 'burgh. That is... if I can't find a Supertramp marathon on the waves. Maybe I should just quit fighting it and buy an Ipod.

By the way: If you are dying for more PA turnpike talk ... you could do a lot worse than this web site.