Fire Escapes

TODAY I SHALL JUDGE

FIRE ESCAPES

My high school was made up of two brownstone buildings stuck together and filled with interesting dysfunctional nerds. One side of it faced out into a public alley, and this side was the side the fire escapes were located on. Students would occasionally vault onto the dumpsters and climb up the fire escapes to smoke (our designated smoking area was nearby, at the fireman’s memorial, because our principal liked irony) and we could look out the window during class and see the legs of our friends who were skipping class dangling next to us.

Now, at least a few of my friends from high school read this blog, and they may say this never happened, because they like cluttering up my history with facts. They will probably tell you that I wasn’t orphaned in an ice storm and raised by a kindly circus ringmaster either. Anyway, I think these fire escape escapades did happen at least once or twice and in any case, the image of delinquent teenagers climbing around on the face of their school strikes me as a really apt image of what I enjoy about fire escapes.

Fire escapes are one of the many places that the romantic possibilities of cities are located. Sure, they’re helpful for things like not-dying-in-building fires but they’re also this weird, repurposeable space in the urban ecosystem. They allow you to stand in small iron cages above the city streets and look down at the world around you. They’re dramatic looking and outside of daily experience just enough to seem special. The misuse of a structural safety requirement allows you to feel like you’re getting away with something, like the space you’re occupying makes you feel marginally edgier. My bedroom window overlooks a fire escape and from there I can open the window, climb onto the iron structure, climb a rickety ladder to the roof and immediately see a vista of Manhattan in front of me, without ever touching the floor of my room. It’s a departure, and is feels magic or least romantic. And yes I know the only reason I can do this is because buildings are required by law to do their best to make sure people don’t die firey deaths, but please leave me alone, I’m enjoying a moment.

FIRE ESCAPES HAVE BEEN JUDGED AND ARE HEREBY DECREED

GLORIOUS JUNGLE GYMS FOR GROWN UPS

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Brunch

TODAY I SHALL JUDGE

BRUNCH

In an episode of “Da Ali G Show” Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Bruno” character asks a Christian fundamentalist or some sort what gay things are and aren’t sinful. He answers that pretty much everything on Bruno’s list is a sin, including “being fabulous” and “having brunch”. While there’s nothing wrong with being fabulous, or fantasizing about Brad Pitt or anything else on Bruno’s list that I can remember, I think the Christian fundamentalist may have had a point about brunch.

While some may argue that time is the significant defining factor that separates brunch from other meals, I disagree. While it is true that brunch may be eaten much later in the day than breakfast, I have two issues with the whole “it’s a meal between breakfast and lunch” definition. First of all, who is to decide when meals are supposed to happen? As an erratically-living insomniac who used to habitually forget to eat for days on end, I certainly have no idea. Second of all, there are a number of more important distinctions.

Brunch is a meal that is eaten socially, in the company of close friends and lovers (and sometimes awkward, near-strangers who still qualify as lovers by some definitions) while breakfast is eaten solitarily or in the company of spouses for the purpose of ensuring that one has the proper fuel for the day. More crucially, brunch is made by other people and alcohol is served at it.

Not only is it a loophole for early-day drinking (drinking vodka in the morning is a sure sign of alcoholism… unless it’s mixed with tomato juice and spices), brunch involves paying someone else a usually excessive amount of money to make you eggs and then dress those eggs in a bunch of fancy fiddle-faddle to justify the expense. Brunch is decadent on every level. It is a meal for people who either can’t be bothered to crack an egg into a frying pan, or are utterly incapable of such cognitive/motor processes due to the excesses of their previous night. Decent God-fearing people don’t eat brunch. They higher purposes for their Sundays. Brunch is exclusively for those who wake up with headaches in strange apartments at noon, curse the sun for invading their revelry, and then stumble into to the day looking to shell out a few dollars for someone to pamper them out of their self-induced misery for a few moments.

BRUNCH HAS BEEN JUDGED AND IT HEREBY DECREED

A LUXURIOUS, SENSUOUS MEAL OF THE DAMNED

Warren G. Harding

TODAY I SHALL JUDGE

FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT WARREN G. HARDING

What makes a truly awful president? Does presiding over a moment of crisis and failing to do anything worthwhile qualify? Oppressing a minority population? Enacting policies that hurt the country in a lasting way? Damaging the credibility and respect the office itself holds through corruption and abuse of power? The subject of today’s judgement did much to earn his place on the list of worst presidents, where he seems generally agreed upon to be somewhere between worst and fourth-worst president, one surprisingly charitable 2005 Wall Street Journal poll excepted.

Most of us aren’t very familiar with Warren G. Harding, our 29th President. I wasn’t really that aware of him until he showed up on the mediocre HBO gangster show “Boardwalk Empire” as a supporting character. I think its a shame that our civic engagement as a nation is so degraded that we aren’t even familiar with one of our worst presidents. I intend to do my part today, by letting the internet (or the small portion of it that reads my blog) know how, in just two and a half years, from spring 1921 to summer of 1923 Harding earned his superlative position in American history.

“I don’t know much about Americanism, but it’s a damn good word with which to carry an election.”
-Warren G. Harding

Harding is generally believed to have won the democratic nomination by being vague and non-threatening. He liked compromise, had a catchy-but-unspecific slogan about a “return to normalcy” and  avoided taking a recognizable position on the then-controversial League of Nations. As a former newspaper owner, he made himself available to the press where they would soak in his charming, personable manner and trumpet his praises. His facility with the press and affable middle-of-the-road friendliness (although not his sparkling oratory, if this lovely H. L. Mencken quotation is to be believed) meant that he was well-regarded in his short time in office.

“I don’t know what to do or where to turn on this taxation matter. Somewhere there must be a book that tells all about it, where I could go to straighten it out in my mind. But I don’t know where the book is, and maybe I couldn’t read it if I found it! My God, this is a hell of a place for a man like me to be!”
-Warren G. Harding

In terms of policy, Harding actually appears disappointingly competent for a man of his reputation. He didn’t seem to enjoy being president particularly, but passed off important tax legislation to his then-secretary of commerce Herbert Hoover, to what is generally regarded as a favorable result. Unlike a lot of other “worst presidents” he didn’t do lasting damage to the nation by say, leading it into civil war, ruining the economy or what have you. His infamy comes from other sources.

“Harry Daugherty has been my best friend from the beginning of this whole thing. I have told him that he can have any place in my Cabinet he wants, outside of Secretary of State. He tells me that he wants to be Attorney General and by God he will be Attorney General!”
-Warren G. Harding

As will be unsurprising based on this quote, the Harding administration was known for cronyism. He appointed his friends, people to whom he owed favors, etc to cabinet positions. The weren’t always qualified and were frequently corrupt. The most famous example of this is the Teapot Dome scandal, a supremely unsexy scandal involving bribery and the sale of public oil reserves to a private oil company by Albert B. Fall, his Secretary of The Interior/Resident Carmen Sandiego villain. All things considered, while certainly illegal, this scandal doesn’t seem more immoral or against the interests of the country than many acts of deregulation. It certainly isn’t as scandalous as other presidential scandals, for example Ulysses S. Grant more or less actively ran a criminal conspiracy out of the white house and is only considered our eighth worst president. Similarly, his barely-concealed drinking of alcoholic drinks while in office, despite prohibition outlawing it is certainly bad, but not as bad as Gerald Ford’s crystal meth habit (note: I made this up. As far as I know there is no proof that Ford was a tweaker, but there’s no proof he wasn’t either).

“I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies in a fight. But my friends, my goddamned friends, they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor at nights!”
-Warren G. Harding

It would be possible to read this quote as relating to Harding’s cronyism as well, or a surprising reference to casual brawling by a sitting presidential but I’m using it to talk about other people Harding was friendly with who might trouble him. Harding was a big fan of extramarital affairs, fathering a lovechild out of wedlock and having a relatively public affair with his friend’s wife. (The Republican Party had her shipped off to Japan and gave her a $50,000 a month stipend, a move I find breathtakingly brazen.)

Overall, Harding doesn’t seem like an awful president in the sense that he did horrible things to the country. He disgraced his office through corruption and scandal, but he also didn’t make any particularly useful decisions as an executive during his short term (he died of a heart attack two years into his first term, after finding out that the Teapot Dome scandal was about to go public. Harding seems like a man who stumbled into the oval office, wasn’t quite sure how he arrived, then invited some drinking buddies and mistresses in to run the country for a while. He’s someone’s slightly sleazy uncle, given power over a nation, in other words:

“I am not fit for this office and never should have been here.”
-Warren G. Harding

WARREN G. HARDING HAD BEEN JUDGED AND IS HEREBY DECREED

AN INCORRIGIBLE SCAMP, A LOVEABLE OAF, AND AN AWFUL PRESIDENT

There Will Be No Judgements Rendered Today

In an ongoing campaign of poor time management, I have not judged anything today. This has been reflected in the “about” section of this blog.

Time Lapse Video

TODAY I SHALL JUDGE

TIME LAPSE VIDEO

Most images provide us with one sort of fantasy or another (or maybe just most images I consume, in case you haven’t noticed I’m not a very serious person). Time lapse video provides us with the fantasy that worthwhile things happen quickly and breezily. Things get built near-instantly, with a minimum of sweat. We feel the satisfaction of accomplishment without the pesky work part. Nature bursts into beauty instead of struggling for it. Nothing becomes something without any effort or time investment on our part. We don’t have to be patient. Someone else behind the camera did it for us already. I’ll post examples tomorrow, when I have the patience to sift through enough videos to pick the best ones.

TIME LAPSE VIDEO HAS BEEN JUDGED AND IS HEREBY DECREED

I HAVE A REALLY SHORT ATTENTION SPAN RIGHT NOW

Hair

TODAY I SHALL JUDGE

HUMAN HAIR

We all have tendrils made of the same material as fingernails and rhino horns sticking out of the skin-holes on the tops of our heads. In some sense it’s sort of useful to us in cold weather, like a substandard hat, but mostly it’s just decorative. It’s a head-decoration, like an earrings or a fez, but part of our bodies We are essentially forced by our DNA to wear an accessory at all times (some may forgo hair with the help of a razor, but this in and of itself is a strong accessory choice). Hair is, in some ways, the purest expression of fashion. It serves the exact same functions: we can use it to try to look more sophisticated, more grown up, sexier, whatever fantasy of ourselves we want to project. We can use it to explain to people what group we belong to or what kind of people we are without using words (the pompadour, for example, says “Ladies, I’m available” regardless of the gender of the pompadour-wearer). We can spend absurd amounts of money on it. It can frustrate the hell out of us and make us hate ourselves if we take it too seriously. It can have massive cultural significance, becoming a totem for deeply-felt issues of identity. Everything good and bad about fashion is there, grafted to our heads, forcing us to deal with it and constantly growing, even after our deaths.

HUMAN HAIR HAS BEEN JUDGED AND IS DECREED

A CRUCIAL AND INESCAPABLE FASHION ACCESSORY, EVEN FOR THE NAKED

California Girls – Part II

TODAY I SHALL CONTINUE TO JUDGE

CALIFORNIA GIRLS AS A SUBJECT/TITLE FOR POP SONGS –  PART II

In my last post, I said that I hoped that when most people hear the title “California Girls” they think of the Beach Boys. A number of private shameful confessions and “did you mean ‘California Gurls’?”  search results later I concede that this is not the case. Katy Perry’s current single “California Gurls” has risen to an unconscionable dominance in this field.

I should be clear that I am not judging this single from an impartial position. There are few pop cultural figures that I hate more than Katy Perry. If I could remove one song from history it would unquestionably be her debut single “I Kissed A Girl (and Reinforced Patriarchal Notions of Female Sexuality Through This Inexplicably Popular Abomination of a Song)”. Every single song I’ve ever heard from her couches a hateful oppressive message in tuneless screech singing and mediocre-at-best production. Her music is a shoddy, pandering, vile cesspool of pop culture that fails to measure up to even the likes of Fergie and Ke$ha.

That being said, “California Gurls” is probably her best song, at least of the ones I’ve heard. The first time I heard it, I wasn’t immediately disgusted by what it was saying about queers or women, which puts it one over on “I Kissed A Girl”, “Ur So Gay” and “Hot and Cold” immediately. The part of the chorus that goes “ah-OH-ah-OH-ah ah-OH-ah-OH-ah” is almost fun/annoying as opposed to annoying/annoying and the melody in “You can travel the world / but nothing comes close to the golden coast” might actually be sort of affecting in the hands of a completely different set of musicians. I’m also a fan of the proud disposable pop tradition of the nonsensical euphemism, and I enjoy Perry’s contribution here: what the hell does “we’ll melt your popsicle” refer to? Losing an erection? That can’t be it, right?

That’s all the good things I have to say about it. “California Gurls” isn’t a pop song so much as a jingle, with the product being girls from California (they don’t just have wine, raisins and shitty cheese!) and the deluxe model being Mrs. Perry herself. In comparison to the Beach Boys wide-eyed excitement about the fact that girls are pretty, Perry presents a sneering, calculated dual message. The song simultaneously declares “It’s fun to be a girl in California and party all the time. We’re tots more popular than all the girls from other states” and “girls from California are great objects to leer at/fuck”. I find both messages distasteful although the fact that I find Katy Perry generally repellent probably goes a long way towards me not being charmed by her soulless cash-in pop music.

Another way in which Perry squats down and relieves her bowls all over the Beach Boys legacy is the aural aesthetic of the song. The Beach Boys pioneered a sound that defined California in music a sound made of fuzzy warm guitar, major key, vocal harmonies and youthful joy that made you feel vaguely stoned. Most of a century later, Dr. Dre (whom Perry also attempts to co-opt in the form of a particularly phoned-in Snoop Dogg guest spot) created another California sound: a slowed-down groove-heavy atmospheric chill party vibe that made you feel vaguely stoned. “California Gurls” certainly doesn’t pioneer it’s own sound nor does it homage either of those innovators. It’s just slathered with generic pop production that sounds – if anything – vaguely Swedish.

I suppose if I’m addressing this topic I need to also judge actual California girls, since I disagree with the claims made by both Perry and the Beach Boys that they are superior to all other girls. It’s problematic to judge large groups of people and its also problematic to judge women (or anyone really) for their aesthetic appearance alone, and I know many women from California whom I have nothing but love for. However, the platonic California Girl doesn’t really appeal to me. Tan from a salon, blonde from a bottle, breasts from a surgeon, the aesthetic of the California Girl is about creating artificial nubility. It has little room for sophistication and no room for aging gracefully. It isn’t a human beauty standard, it’s a desire to please physicalized through money and effort. To be fair, most standards of beauty are fundamentally sort of disgusting but I thought it worth what Perry is celebrating here (I would argue much more so than the Beach Boys) is kind of icky, like everything Katy Perry likes.

My favorite “California Girls” song incorporates my love for the California sound the Beach Boys pioneered and my distaste for a lot of things about southern California’s visual aesthetic. It is a song of of “Distortion” by the Magnetic Fields. It combines everything fun about the California sound (Sunny fuzzed-out guitars! Upbeat melodies! Vaguely stoned!) with a bitter jealous rant against California girls: “They ain’t broke so they put on airs / the faux folk sans derrieres / They breathe coke and have affairs / With each passing rockstar / They come on like squares / They get off like squirrels / I hate California girls”  It would have been a perfect counterpoint to Katy Perry’s song had it not been released a year or so earlier. It does everything she did wrong right.

CALIFORNIA GIRLS AS A TOPIC/TITLE FOR SONGS HAS BEEN JUDGED AND DECREED

FANTASTIC IN THE HANDS OF GREAT SONGWRITERS, NOT-AS-BAD-AS-USUAL IN THE HANDS OF TERRIBLE ONES