February 28, 2006

Letting Go

"If, in fact, U.S. troops pull out of Iraq anytime before their mission is accomplished — the plan of some Democrats and the wish of a few Republicans — then defeat is surely what this debacle will be called." — Richard Cohen, in an Op Ed piece in the Washington Post a few weeks ago ("Let Rumsfeld Go").

No. Based on past experience, the US will either pull out whenever it damn well feels like and simply proclaim victory no matter what the resulting state of Iraq (after all, with the short attention span of the US public and media, who'd care after a few months? Who here now cares or thinks much about Afghanistan?) while blaming Iraqis for their inability to live in peace, or it'll spend the next thirty years whining about being the victim there. Or quite possibly it'll do both.

February 26, 2006

Don't I Remember...

My studio landlords Jim and Alma — a genial couple slightly older than me, who I've known for a while now — drop around today to do the annual fire alarm / smoke detector / etc. test in my studio. It takes a few minutes, and as Alma and I are talking about some of the photos on my walls, she gestures at all the studio gear around us, smiles up at me, and says "Jimmy! Just look at all this stuff... when you moved in you had nothing. Don't you remember?"

I do. It's not entirely true that I had nothing, but when I moved in here all those years ago, I was effectively bankrupt, in debt way beyond my means, with little or no real income, hoping each month I wouldn't get further into debt, always wondering where the rent check would come from. At one point I was a week from having to formally file for bankruptcy, well over $100,000 in debt, with no income at all, and nothing in the bank. A bunch of people — Jim and Alma included — were patient, or helped, and some things are different now. I'm not bankrupt, I'm not heavily in debt, and I'm surrounded by a studio and a lot of gear. It's a start, I guess…

February 23, 2006

Easy Targets

The Golden Mosque is bombed, dozens -- perhaps hundreds -- die in the ensuing violence, sectarian civil war looms, and on the TV news here last night? The story plays way down the line, a minute or so of meaningless images and soundbites some twenty minutes into the newscast, after a story about a man impersonating a police officer, our Governator's quandary with a recent botched execution, and -- coming right up! -- a possible change in the weather this weekend.

February 20, 2006

Culture Shock

When I moved to Berkeley in the mid 1980's from London, I called Pacific Bell to order a new phone and phone line for the apartment I moved into in downtown Berkeley. Within ten minutes I had a firm time for the next day when the phone line would be installed, I was given a choice of several numbers to use for this line, and I was told the bill would arrive within a few weeks. The next day I had a working phone and phone line.

In London, when I moved to my then-new place a year earlier, I had to order the new phone and phone line from British Telecom six weeks in advance, paying an advance deposit of £150; I was told I would not be told what number I would be getting until after the phone was installed (in fact I was asked why I needed to know); and that I had to be there the entire day of the installation (with no indication of even which half of the day the installer might turn up...). When finally installed (a week late, on a day's notice...), the phone did not of course work; it took me more than another four weeks to get them back out to fix it. At one stage when I got exasperated and asked why it would take so long to get a working phone line, the phone worker just looked at me as though I were a little dim and said that since London's phone system was the oldest and most complex in the world -- all Britons seem to know that Britain invented the phone, along with television and computers, and every Londoner "knows" that London is the biggest and most complex city in the world -- things like this were inevitable, weren't they?

February 14, 2006

Paranoid Thoughts

Paranoia's such a cherished and enduring part of the American character because it's so often just another way of being self-centred, self-important, and seeing yourself as the centre of the universe.

February 11, 2006

Why I Love Berkeley, Part 34

Berkeley Ace Hardware

Berkeley Hardware: a small cramped eccentric old downtown hardware store that could be at home in lower Manhattan, staffed by a motley crew of Berkeley stereotypes, with a working little electric model train set running around the walls just under the ceiling, and no usable parking. I've been shopping there on and off for nearly twenty years (long before it became part of the Ace Hardware empire). I once had an older woman shop assistant there patiently and very politely try to explain to me the different types of vacuum cleaner they had displayed in a cluttered heap against a back wall. She finally just looked at me in amused disdain, bit down on the imaginary cigarette in her mouth, and said "Listen kid, You don't clean floors much, do ya?! Whatthefuck do you want expensive crap like this for [gesturing at the deluxe models on display]? This one's for you..." and rummaged around for the cheapest looking thing she could find behind the others. A few seconds later she was back in decorous professional mode, looking blankly around her. I still have the vacuum cleaner in my studio fifteen years later; it still does the job just fine.

(Part of Berkeley).

February 09, 2006

DIY

Punk was essentially a DIY thing, supposedly driven by an ideology that claimed anyone could play, given enough enthusiasm ("this is a chord, this is another, this is a third. Now form a band" -- Sniffin' Glue).

And so some of us believed, in our inner-city front rooms and suburban Sydney garages. But somehow we'd got the message a little twisted. We took pride in our sloppiness, our inability, we wore our amateurishness as a badge of honour, we thought of ourselves as thumbing our noses at bands like Yes or Boston who could actually play (and who played upon that fact). We thought our technical badness was part of the whole point of what we were doing.

But I remember when I finally got to hear "Anarchy In The UK" -- those guys were sharp. Cook and Jones were tight. They knew exactly what they were doing, and how to do it. No sloppiness there, no studied slacking off or duff notes. These guys could play. I still think of them (with Glen Matlock) as being one of the best, most propulsive, and tightest rhythm sections around at that time. They gave the impression that they didn't give a fuck about it all -- but they didn't have to: they could play.

Shit. My idols had feet of gold. I could barely even aspire to play like that. It wasn't the badness that was the point -- it was the accessibility, the inclusiveness, the acting-on-your-enthusiasm... (and, of course, badness is difficult to sustain, and most of us quickly got better).

Sometimes it's hard to see what's really going on from the other side of the world, everything coming to you second or third hand...

Sometimes I just think we weren't the sharpest tools in the toolshed.

(Part of Punk (and Later)).

February 06, 2006

So Many Enemies...

Elinor Burkett's "So Many Enemies, So Little Time": at first I couldn't make up my mind whether this was a nicely subtle satire on Americans abroad, or whether she had as much self-blindness as the Iranians she criticises midway through the book:
But [their] warmth was laced with a curious historical blindness, a fascinating blend of indifference, gullibility, hubris, and self-pity. Poor us, we're so misinterpreted and misunderstood.
Like so much US writing on foreign countries, she combines the occasional fairly insightful obervation on other countries and cultures with a wilful and sometimes bizarre blindness to her own country and culture (and to the effect that blindness has on her own observations of other cultures). For example, much as I absolutely despise theocracies (and fundamentalisms) of any type, it's hard not to sympathise a little with the targets of this typical aside: "Except that American credit cards didn't work in Iran, a country that still hadn't apologized for snatching our embassy and its residents twenty-one years earlier." Funny that. Iranian (and US-Iranian history in particular) didn't exactly start in 1979; modern Iran is at least as much a Western creation as it is self-created; and there's all that nasty stuff that the US hasn't exactly apologised for, either (like, oh, the Shah).

"Evil, after all, lurks in hovels and caves among the illiterate and undereducated. At least that's the prevailing assumption. Iran bore little resemblance to the refugee camps of the West Bank or the Tora Bora Caves." Or to the White House, or the Knesset, or the streets of Munich or San Francisco, or any of the other myriad places evil lurks. Isn't that the whole point of evil? Evil lurks at least as much in the eye of the beholder as out there in the hovels and caves.

"So in Iran there was no contradiction between Stone Age fundamentalism and modern technology, between Gucci shoes and polygamy." Let's try that again, with a slight change: "So in the US there was no contradiction between Stone Age fundamentalism and modern technology, between Gucci shoes and polygamy." Well, that last part works best in Utah, but you get my drift. More cuttingly, it could have been, "So in the US there was no contradiction between Stone Age poverty and modern technology, between Gucci shoes and barefoot beggars'.

I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, to discover she wasn't like this at all, to read of some incident -- some tragedy, whatever -- that happens to change her perspective, something that brings it all home to her. But no, it just keeps going on in the same jaunty, self-confident, slightly impatient, faux-iconoclast, condescending father-knows-best tone that I usually associate with The Economist. Combined with the overall air of implacable cultural superiority, and the impressions of a traveler utterly unable to contain her impatience at people who aren't yet quite at her stage of enlightenment and benevolence, it's a difficult read. But worth it in some ways -- while you'll learn some interesting stuff about Kyrgyzstan and the other surrounding Stans, what you'll really learn a lot about is Burkett's world and ways of thinking, and the limitations they have when faced with the reality of the rest of the world.

February 03, 2006

Conspicuous Desperation (Say It Out Loud!)

"ILIKEME" -- California license (number) plate on a small sporty car I saw driven by a woman on Sansome Street in the City (San Francisco) yesterday.

February 01, 2006

De Kooning In London

"[In London de Kooning] met the painter Francis Bacon [...]. De Kooning admired Bacon, who was five years younger than he was, [...]" — Stevens and Swan describing de Kooning in London (in the late 1960's), in "De Kooning: An American Master".

Reading that pulled me up with a jolt. For me it was like reading about a meeting between (say) Oscar Wilde and John Cleese. I have a lot of trouble thinking of Bacon and de Kooning as contemporaries. I mentally place de Kooning in the same era as (say) Pollock or Rothko, a creature of the 40's, 50's, and 60's; Bacon, on the other hand, was a live and very active presence in the London I inhabited in the mid 1980's, still visible holding court in Soho (if you knew where to look), still at the height of his powers. De Kooning was alive too, I guess, out there on Long Island, in the twilight of his mind, but until I'd read this biography, I though he'd been dead for years by then.

(Of the two, Bacon seems to me much the stronger artist, much more driven, more interestingly sui generis in comparison to de Kooning... (which doesn't make him the better artist, but never mind)).


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