Wednesday, August 16, 2006


Has anyone noted the utter absurdity of our officials envying British antiterrorist tactics? For anyone who hasn’t read or heard the nonsense, let me quote at length from Eric Lichtblau’s article in Tuesday’s New York Times:

WASHINGTON, Aug. 14 — Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzalez on Monday ordered a side-by-side review of American and British counterterrorism laws as a first step toward determining whether further changes in American law are warranted.

The plot to blow up airliners bound from Britain to the United States has highlighted differences in legal policies between the two allies, with American officials suggesting that their British counterparts have greater flexibility to prevent attacks.

Newly revised British counterterrorism laws, for instance, allow the authorities to hold a suspect for 28 days without charges, where American law generally requires that a suspect held in the civilian court system be charged or released within 48 hours.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in appearances on the Sunday morning news programs that he thought bringing American laws more closely into line with Britain’s, particularly regarding the detention of terror suspects without charges, could help deter threats at home.

“I think certainly making sure that we have the ability to be as nimble as possible with our surveillance, it’s very important,” Mr. Chertoff said on “Fox News Sunday.”

“And frankly,” Mr. Chertoff added, “their ability to hold people for a period of time gives them a tremendous advantage.”

Mr. Gonzales echoed those remarks Monday in an appearance before a veterans group in Chicago. Asked about Britain’s 28-day policy, he said, “That may be something we want to look at,” according to an account by The Associated Press. But he also said: “Is it consistent with our Constitution? We have to look at that.”

Gonzales and Chertoff struggle mightily to overlook their own well-documented, years-long and chargeless imprisonment, rendition and torture of — although many hardly deserve this description — terrorism suspects, foreign and domestic, as well as the illegal tapping of phones and investigation of finances enabled by presidential “signing statements” or merely national ignorance. We’ve held Jose Padilla and dozens, if not hundreds, of others in our prisons at length without charges, and it’s unlikely to the point of impossibility that some terrorist somewhere has overlooked this; so which would dissuade this theoretical terrorist more — being held without charges for 28 days by the Brits, or disappearing for several years into some nameless black hole of waterboarding and beatings run by the Americans?

Talking about what “American law generally requires” in this context is like noting that the Ten Commandments says “Thou shalt not kill.” This being the case, it’s not a little offensive watching Gonzales’ and Chertoff’s attempts at innocence via earnest yearning to adopt British techniques that might stem terrorism. It probably confuses the British, too.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Given the level of directorial interpolation and deletion going on in the Commonwealth Shakespeare Co.’s “Taming of the Shrew,” this year’s free Shakespeare on the Boston Common, it is more than a little odd and offensive that the ending ran as written in the late 16th century — with the explosive Katharina becoming an obedient servant to Petruchio, her new husband, and telling other wives at length that “thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy head, thy sovereign.” Petruchio makes 100 crowns off this display, winning it from other husbands.

Director Steven Maler set the play in Boston’s North End in the 1950s, which is about the last time Katharina’s sentiments might have been so enthusiastically embraced. It’s an entertaining conceit, but putting “Shrew” into a time capsule, even one back only 50 or so years, doesn’t really forgive the faithfulness to the script. Earlier in the show, when Lucentio urges other characters to “give him head,” meaning listen, another character turns away, muttering he doesn’t want to see any such thing.

Funny, but contemporary, and it’s cha cha-ing along a pretty fine line to make the play relevant in such a way to modern audiences without acknowledging that the resolution of the play, as written, is agonizingly sexist. To say the reaction to “give him head” and Katharina’s speech are both items for a time capsule, and thus acceptable as such to a modern audience, is glib; Lucentio and the others on stage share an idiom, so there’s no getting around that misunderstanding “give him head” is a comment to people in 2006, not the 1950s. There are Shakespeare purists who wouldn’t want to change the message of the play’s ending, but once you start screwing around with the text to make three hours of “Shrew” fly by, setting it in “Bostonia,” making Petruchio’s horse into a Vespa and such, you start to lose moral authority on leaving the sexism intact.

It would have been so easy to get around the excruciating nature of Katharina’s speech, too. As the people with whom I saw the play pointed out, Petruchio and Katharina could have been shown to be in collusion — as equals — to win the 100 crowns by falsely portraying her to be a meek and subservient woman.

This inadequate amount of effort, interestingly, reflected itself in a very different and very physical way on the production, which ended Sunday. The set for the play was beautiful, clever and accomplished, but it was also set low enough that much of the onstage action was impossible to see from only several meters back. It’s a mystery why set designer John Coyne couldn’t raise the action high enough over the lawn that audience members could see the action no matter how far back they sat.

The director and set designer made impressive efforts in their respective arenas, and each seemed to make decisions to hold back that caused discomfort to the audience — or, at least, to audience members with enough distance to appreciate what was lacking.

Friday, August 11, 2006


A new terrorist plot is coloring an ongoing political season, and that means there are some important things to remember in the upcoming weeks and months. All are important primarily because Republicans, and the increasingly indistinguishable Democratic U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, have politicized and will certainly continue to politicize the threat of terrorism, painting Democrats as weak and their election as an invitation to attack. This reached its nadir in the 2004 elections, when Vice President Cheney said:

It’s absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on Nov. 2, we make the right choice [in electing a president], because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we’ll get hit again and we’ll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States.

Now, as then, we must remember that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, happened while a Republican — George W. Bush — was in office. We must also remember that every attempt since to strike the United States or its allies with terrorism has taken place with the same Republicans in office.

It is also worth noting that intelligence agencies and every sane, conscious and knowledgeable person on Earth acknowledges that Iraq, which the United States and its allies attacked for no reason having to do with 9/11, has become a breeding ground and rallying point for terrorists. The primary reason for this is that our presence in Iraq angers a lot of people. We have no good argument for having invaded or occupied the country — and the world knows it. (If we wanted to make a point about U.S. might and mercy, the delights of democracy and the perils of pursuing terrorism, it should rightfully have been done in Afghanistan, where we had moral authority. Instead, that nation is slipping back into the hands of the Taliban, just as we are losing in Iraq, and Osama bin Laden is still free.)

Hard-liners say terrorists would be emboldened by our leaving Iraq and strike us all the harder. As Lieberman said of the man who beat him in the Connecticut Democratic primary:

If we just pick up like Ned Lamont wants us to do, get out by a certain date, it will be taken as a tremendous victory by the same people who wanted to blow up these planes in this plot hatched in England. It will strengthen them, and they will strike again.

A proper response is that, in fact, the terrorists would have less reason to be angry if we left Iraq, and we would have more resources to use in keeping ourselves safe from them.

In short, Republicans and their policies are a provocation to terrorists and — considering Iraq and the astonishingly flawed Department of Homeland Security — wasteful of resources that could be used to combat terrorism. Voting them back into office would be a dangerous error.

Thursday, August 10, 2006


Since being an outsider breeds resentment, you can imagine the pique simmering in me from a dozen-plus years living in, ahem, Red Sox Nation and its overlapping districts of Patriotstown, Celticsville and Bruinsburg. Oh, and Revolutionboro. (A mighty small place, Revolutionboro.)

I was nervous the first time crossing the border into the nation; nearly everyone else on the T had prepared by dressing in native garb — a dizzying array of jerseys, jackets, T-shirts, caps and so on labeled “B” for “Red Sox.” I knew that when we got to the station we’d have to queue up and pass inspection, and I wasn’t wearing a single article of clothing advertising my allegiance to a local sports team. My jitters were soothed, though, by an official announcement that, upon arrival, “Those who are not wearing Red Sox-branded clothing shall be issued Red Sox-branded clothing.”

Well, no. This is just in the imagination of someone utterly disinterested in the fortunes of Ye Olde Towne Teame, or whatever cutesy, nonsense nickname sportswriters use when they tire of writing “Red Sox.” Neither the hordes of drunken fans that clog the T nor the horrendous traffic that clogs the streets at game time cause me anywhere near as much irritation as the simple ubiquity of Red Sox clothing. It warrants the same bitter, resigned stare from me as the Abercrombie & Fitch folk get, a look I can put into words as: “Could you try just a little harder?” Sox apparel is the equivalent of the pro-family, anticrime politician, or the people who controversially assert themselves as being in favor of fun and liking stuff. But good stuff. Not bad stuff. This is branding of the most obligatory nature, a national ID card, and the sense of oppression suggested by that is no accident.

I wish I got it. It would make my life much easier, I suspect, if I could be one of the Sox crowd. Throw on the jersey, put on the cap, take out a bank loan, head to Fenway. And talk endlessly and knowledgeably about the game, the players, the trades, our chances, that Theo, those darn Yankees. Argh, those Yankees. They suck! They’re kind of like Hitler, aren’t they? Yes, especially when they buy up all our players with their damned Yankee money — they have too much of it, it’s disgusting — and confuse us by making sure the people we loved as one of us last season we vilify this season as turncoats.

I don’t get any of this, unfortunately.

The team’s success, or individual players’ genius on the field, reflects little upon Boston and not at all upon the individual fans who get so worked up contemplating one, the other or their opposite.

There are metaphorical aspects of the team to consider, I acknowledge, romantically casting us and the city as scrappy, lovable losers: the players are underdogs struggling against a curse, a storyline that had to be rewritten when the Sox actually won the World Series, and had to be revised again, in a Pynchonesque petering out of plot and structure, when it again lost; the team is also an embodiment of a city struggling to maintain its pride against a behemoth quietly buying up and shutting down its soul. As much as this should resonate, it’s hard to stay serious about it when the players earn millions a year and inevitably turn free agent, only for the narrative to be repeated the next year with different players.

Now, if we invest emotion in the players as our surrogates on the field and against New York, we also have to admit that pretty soon all these guys will be off to a bigger paycheck elsewhere. And that just leads us to admit that Boston is a city of transients, an endless line of passers-through in a queue that just happens to lead past a souvenir shop full of Red Sox paraphernalia. While we’re waiting to leave, we’ve nothing better to do than shop. Beats talking to the guy in front of us, but it’s not a very romantic image.

When Red Sox players really were Bostonians — born here, living here, with family here — our tribalism made some sense, as we could argue or imagine that the players were us and, if we were good and fate smiled upon us, vice versa. The skills of the players were worth celebrating because they suggested native talent, or at least the pluckiness that kept us competing through several decades of accursedness. There was an emotional connection.

With the revolving door of players, fandom has become a very different game: one of calculation, of dollars and cents, of whether management bought and sold the right players. In terms of dramatic narrative, it should be about as fun as hunting through the stocks tables in the Journal to see how much money other people made that day. Somehow, the Red Sox and other sports teams at its level have figured out how to make people respond emotionally to this, and even pay for the privilege.

Inevitably, I’m led to a final metaphor: of mass slavish, unthinking devotion to a government that does absolutely nothing for its citizens but offer endless war, glimpses of other people’s wealth and bright, ubiquitous flags to wave. But that sounds depressingly like the United States, and we don’t live in the United States. We live in Red Sox Nation.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


I’ve referred to New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman roughly a half-dozen times in this blog, each time bashing him as uselessly obtuse and confused. I’ve called him “deranged,” an idiot, theorized he’s “absolutely fucking nuts,” “wrong-headed,” a weirdo, “off the rails,” a babbler, a “bright-eyed rube,” someone struggling to “stay on his meds.”

But now I feel like the idiot, because he’s none of the above.

What he is, it turns out, is an extraordinarily wealthy man — living in a $9.3 million home, married into a family with an estimated worth of $2.7 billion — essentially working undercover as a shill, a beard, a stalking horse for his class, nine times out of 10 espousing cynically self-serving ideas in the guise of globalized idealist.

Struggling to see clearly into the reasoned, liberal penumbra of the Times, I imagined him to be smart but misguided, intellectually isolated by the shock of 9/11 but worth listening to for signs of recovery. In fact, his dangerous opinions (Iraq is a grand experiment we should support! It’s a flat flat flat flat world, and we should embrace a globalized economy because it’s so exciting to compete!) are nothing but the standard arguments of an elite who doesn’t have to care what happens to the rest of us — and doesn’t.

His biography on the Times’ Web site somehow fails to give full disclosure of his immense wealth or suggest how it may affect his views or writing; David Sirota, writing late last month on, fills in the missing details.

I’ve rolled my eyes uncountable times after reading Friedman’s columns, but never caught on to why they’re so overwhelmingly misguided. Despite my acknowledgment that I was a willing participant in my own deception, that doesn’t mean I feel any less deceived. Or angry.

With the very rare exception, notably his columns on GM feeding American’s oil addiction, Friedman does not write as one of us. He is, in fact, one of them — a member of one of the 100 richest families in the country, according to Washingtonian Magazine, one of those who are not hurt by war or globalism and thus cannot honestly discuss it from the level of one who is.

Spread the word: Friedman doesn’t write nonsense; he writes propaganda.

Monday, August 07, 2006


Stagnant wages, rising costs. For the longest time this formula that cannot be solved meant little to me, because I was earning good money and spending little of it. Now I’m earning much less money for roughly tripled living expenses, and a great deal of my pay goes to just getting back and forth to work: I bought a car and now must pay maintenance, insurance and gas for it. That gas is flirting with costing $3 a gallon at even the cheapest station — and by flirting I mean shucking its clothes with the zeal of a porn star doused in Spanish fly — is just part my financial depression.

The other part will seem ridiculous, but here goes: The bean and rice quesadilla I get almost daily for lunch at Anna’s Taqueria has risen in price to $3.35 from $2.95, which means at the checkout I’m paying $3.52 instead of $3.20. This happened last week. (The previous rise at the checkout had been a relatively harmless 10-cent step in June of last year.)

Some menu items have risen less in price — the chips and mini quesadillas have gone up 10 cents. And some menu items haven’t risen in price at all — guacamole is still 55 cents.

Unfortunately, I never buy mini quesadillas or guacamole. My lunch has jumped in price by 10 percent, and I drive some 90 miles a day in a car bound inevitably to break down part by part powered by a terrorist-friendly, environmentally unfriendly substance the price of which is rising inexorably, even as my wages stay the same.

How will I vote in 2008? For someone who truly understands diplomacy and who will not casually toss it aside to exacerbate unrest among petrostates in pursuit of “democracy” or armageddon. For someone who has an energy policy that moves us away from hydrocarbon fuels and global warming. For someone who seems to understand that I, not the richest 1 percent, need to see some improvement in my paycheck and bank account.

Stagnant wages, rising costs. To keep up, I could skip the bean and rice part of the quesadilla and just get cheese. That costs $2.90, up from $2.60, which should put me right back to paying $3.20 per day for lunch.

Thursday, August 03, 2006


Slowly, oh so haltingly, there’s progress on making the Plan B “morning-after” contraceptive available over the counter, but only to women 18 years or older.

Conservatives, the small-government people, are still opposed. In its Tuesday coverage of the issue, The New York Times quoted the Concerned Women of America’s Wendy Wright — the perfect name for someone in her position, from the WASPish “Wendy” to the metonymy of “Wright” for those she represents — as saying it was wrong to sell the drug over the counter because any man could buy it.

“You could have a statutory rapist buy the drug in order to cover up his abuse,” Wright said.

It’s worth noting Wright’s technique in this flagrantly flawed argument: She has tried to find the worst possible use of the drug to demonstrate the horror of allowing it to be used at all, a strange gambit for people broadly associated with supporting the free flow of automatic weapons and cop-killer bullets as a celebration of American rights. If it’s unfair to lump birth control opponents with gun nuts, then consider that Band-Aids might be stripped from pharmacy shelves because, obviously, domestic abusers could use them to heal the wounds they’ve inflicted.

It’s also worth considering that bans on abortion keep failing because they make no provision for girls or women who have been the victims of incest or — right — rape. A girl who has been raped, statutorily or otherwise, could imaginably want to take the Plan B contraceptive to ensure she doesn’t bear the baby of her abuser.

It would be the rare, obstinate but ignorant girl who would insist on waiting nine months to give birth to a man’s baby just to prove him a criminal. A medical examination and DNA swabbing could do the same with less impact on her lifestyle.

The galling thing about the Plan B debate is that it hinges now on a woman being 18 or older to get the drug when the age of consent comes up to four years earlier in all but 14 states in this country. For example, a girl in Hawaii is legally entitled to have sex at the age of 14, but she wouldn’t be entitled to buy this form of contraception. It has nothing to do with physiology; a 23-4 vote by a Food and Drug Administration advisory committee approved the drug for all ages, only to be overruled by an agency official on moral rather than scientific grounds. The drug is 18-and-over because manufacturer Barr Pharmaceuticals rewrote the application to make agency approval more likely among conservatives, who are also the state’s-rights people.

This would put Plan B in a short but pervasive list of U.S. age inequities, including the classic protest that 18-year-olds can join the Army, kill and be killed, but not drink alcohol for another three years. My favorite is the little-noticed puzzle that kids are charged an adult price for movies once they’re 12 or so, but can’t see R-rated movies alone until they’re 17. There’s a roughly five-year gap in which they pay as an adult but can’t go to such movies without an “adult guardian.”

None of this makes any sense, of course. Especially in the context of the ages of consent already established state by state, the 18-or-older restriction seems on the one hand pointlessly arbitrary, on the other hypocritically moralistic — like keeping a hangover treatment for those 23 or older because you don’t want to encourage binge drinking among those most likely to engage in that behavior.

Once you’re legal, you’re legal, and there shouldn’t be different levels of permission based on an FDA official’s opinion of the rightness of your actions.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006


The MBTA comes in for a lot of criticism, and rightfully so. Understanding the agency’s fiscal bind and having some vague hope Daniel A. Grabauskas can fix the system as he did the motor vehicle registries doesn’t mean giving a pass on performance; if anything, the MBTA needs all the criticism it can get to help set goals and priorities.

But when it does something right, that should be mentioned, too.

And yesterday, when I noticed my monthly T pass hadn’t arrived and called to inquire, the MBTA really did something right.

A live person picked up the phone immediately. She found my information rapidly and, while noting that the card had been sent and should already be here, didn’t automatically reject my problem. In fact, she made a long-term fix — changing my address from the one I’d been at nearly a year ago — and sent out another card.

This was so far from the conflict and argument I expected that I was essentially stunned into joyous silence. This is to correct that silence, more or less.

UPDATE: A Federal Express package arrived this morning. Inside was an envelope holding my new T pass. I would never have guessed the MBTA would Fedex the pass to me. Incredible! Wonderful! Surprising!

Saturday, July 22, 2006


Here’s another reason to shop local, or at least to stay away from buying online — and another one of those customer-service nightmares that seem to happen only to me (although I know that cannot be true). It’s also, finally, a warning for anyone buying from

I made that mistake and, following instructions on the back of my receipt, went to the Sears at CambridgeSide Galleria yesterday to return my online purchase, a swimsuit, and get my credit card reimbursed. The instructions were simple: Bring that credit card, the receipt, the swimsuit and packaging. No problem. The swimsuit never even came out of the packaging.

At Sears, though, I was told there was a problem. I was required to bring a printed e-mail holding a confirmation number — something not mentioned, obviously, on the return instructions on the receipt. I pointed this out more than a dozen times over the course of the next hour or so as I climbed the hierarchy of sales clerk, manager and, via telephone, Sears and representatives and their respective managers and managers’ managers.

The conversations all began with a Sears worker explaining that this e-mail — back home on my computer — was necessary to the reimbursement process. I would read them their own return instructions from the receipt sent me with the swimsuit. They would reply, “Yes, but we need the confirmation number on the e-mail.” I would repeat that the return instructions said nothing about this. They would reply, “Yes, but we need the confirmation number on the e-mail.” The warning about the return process is also visible on the Web site at some point, I was told, but this proves or resolves nothing. If Sears really wants an e-mail confirmation number, it can say so on its receipt instructions as well as online or in an e-mail.

After all, consider the process: I go to, find item, buy item, wait for item to arrive in the mail. When the item arrives on time, I have no reason to go looking back online or in my e-mail. When the item arrives with return instructions printed on the back of the receipt, I get a brand-new reason not to go looking back online or in my e-mail. If I had, isn’t it just as reasonable to conclude that the paper instructions are correct and the electronic wrong as it is to assume the electronic instructions are correct and the paper wrong?

“Yes, but,” they said, “we need the confirmation number on the e-mail.”

Finally, a Sears representative offered a way out: The store could give me a gift card for that amount.

This is retailers’ favorite way of dealing with complaints: “We’re sorry eating our product poisoned you, causing you a week of severe gastric distress. Here is a coupon for more of our product.” But I wasn’t eager to go shopping at Sears again. I insisted that a gift card was an inadequate and unacceptable response to my problem. Another impasse.

Finally, I asked if the store could cash out my gift card. The Sears representative on the telephone said yes, if the store agreed to — never mind that the store manager had called this representative looking for a solution to the impasse. But the store manager agreed to cash out the gift card. Problem solved, in much the same way Jack Nicholson almost got his wheat toast in “Five Easy Pieces,” by ordering a chicken salad sandwich with no chicken salad.

We went upstairs. The Sears manager processed the gift card and an immediate gift card reimbursement. She put the reimbursement, it turns out, on my credit card.

Thursday, July 20, 2006


In the words of the Zeitgeist Gallery’s Alan Nidle, “We live to fight another day.”

Last week’s hearing over whether the gallery can legally hold performances resulted in what sounds like, as Nidle described it, a very odd and dissatisfying compromise for everyone involved: The city says the Zeitgeist can go on doing what it wants for a year, but it will be monitored. At the end of the year, the city will decide what to do.

What’s interesting about this compromise is that Nidle doesn’t intend to do anything differently at the gallery, and the city knows it.

The gallery goes on irritating the city. The city goes on threatening the gallery. It’s something like the cartoon relationship between the sheepdog and the wolf who call off their life-and-death battle at the end of the workday.

Perhaps the decision makes sense considering only one gallery neighbor came to the hearing to complain that its performances were a bother — but not much of one. Usually, the neighbor returned home only after performances were over. Nidle thought the neighbor seemed like a pretty nice guy.

(This is something of a trend. Gus Rancatore, who is about to be pushed out of his Someday Cafe location in Davis Square, has pretty nice things to say about Peter Creyf, whose Mr. Crepe would be the replacement. It seems like only in the greater Cambridge area would business owners seem so phlegmatically resigned to acknowledge the finer points of the people ruining their lives — although in each case, these are just stalking horses. Nidle is really threatened by a voraciously officious, officiously voracious city government; Rancatore is falling victim to disingenuously rapacious, rapaciously disingenuous landlord Richard Fraiman.)

It’s unlikely to matter. By the time the city again takes up the matter of the Zeitgeist, the gallery will probably already be on the move to Central Square. Nidle has his eye on the old Skippy White’s space at 538 Massachusetts Ave., where he will add to an already vibrant square but hardly do himself a favor in the “I’m not a club” perception.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


There’s a hearing scheduled for 8:45 p.m. Thursday that could end, or save, performances at the Zeitgeist Gallery, a vital part of Cambridge’s art and music scene for a dozen years. A Cambridge zoning official, identified by a Zeitgeist supporter as Sean O’Grady, insists the gallery should have a $500 entertainment license and is known to be bringing forward at least one neighbor who opposes performance at the space. (“Today, O’Grady said there were other opponents,” said Rob Chalfen, maintainer of the gallery e-mail list.)

The contradiction is obvious: If an entertainment license resolves the problem for the city, what relevance do complaining neighbors have? Certainly people crabby over avant-garde sound pollution aren’t going to suddenly be satisfied knowing the din that’s suffered is backed by a $500 fee.

The city, it seems, is using the neighbors to make a point, which is that it demands money — the city’s vaunted fiscal responsibility run amok. It’s not dunning the spectacularly endowed Harvard University here, but a small art gallery that happens to think art isn’t just hung on walls.

And the gallery’s Alan Nidle doesn’t want to pay $500 for an entertainment license when he’s only asking donations from people attending, just as you can’t be running a bar if you only give away the booze (and pass the occasional hat). That argument may not hold back the city this time, although it has in the past, and the Zeitgeist may suffer for it.

At a reception to be held after the hearing, Chalfen said, “people can learn about the Zeitgeist’s alternate plan — to move to a nearby space that is both currently empty and zoned for what the city calls theater.”

The Zeitgeist has moved already this year, from space at 1353 Cambridge St. that is now the all-music Lily Pad, to 186 Hampshire St., which was the New Words Collective before that moved to 7 Temple St. A move may be the best thing for it, if it gets the city off its collective — or collectivist — back.

But for a city as boastful of its funk as it is of its fiscal power, this is an awfully grim approach to an enduring source of art and enlightenment, and it seems like part of an ominous trend.

The Brattle Theatre is only halfway to the $500,000 it needs to stay in Harvard Square after the end of the year; Toscanini’s is very likely losing its Davis Square Someday Cafe, and its Harvard Square location will be shut down while the landlord works on the host building — effectively cutting two-thirds of Toscanini’s revenue stream. This follows hard on the heels of the construction in front of Toscanini’s Central Square location that crippled business for weeks.

These are the businesses we need to support. I’ll be at work during the Zeitgeist hearing, damnit, but I hope to stop by the reception afterward to find out what’s going on.

The hearing is at the Senior Center, 806 Massachusetts Ave., across from City Hall in Central Square. The reception will be at the Zeitgeist, Chalfen said, “regardless of the outcome.”

Sunday, July 09, 2006


“Fashion” and “fascism” are not as unrelated as I thought — and this has nothing to do with the recent release of the film of “The Devil Wears Prada,” which recapitulates the lessons of high school (people can be mean, but less so if you dress like them) through the adventures of a comely naif working at a style magazine.

Nothing so photogenic here. I merely went looking for a swimsuit and discovered that, this year, the hem is down to the knees. This is apparently the result of a surfer influence, although it might as well come from gangstas or America’s increasing tendency toward obesity. Or all three. For some reason, every fashion trend we have is making men’s clothes baggier, possibly coalescing into an ideal of obese people surfing with Saturday Night Specials jammed down their shorts.

Shorts? Are they still called that, or are men actually wearing culottes now? It feels that silly.

Who are the fashion decision makers able to so completely lower an iron curtain — perhaps an Indian-sarong-style iron curtain, for an ethnic relaxed look — on the border between two years? While I continued wearing my ancient and anachronistic nylon Adidas shorts, wearing out their lining, the style went from ridiculously minimal in summer 2005 to absurdly maximal now. This is suspiciously Manichaean, as though the decision makers are testing the extent of their powers by jackknifing an entire nation of consumers through fashion changes so extreme that it suggests the ultimate fashion accessory is a look of bewilderment. (For consumers, that is. For models, it remains a look of surly vapidity).

It works, too, as I’ve been unable to find swimsuits that go down to midthigh, even online, just as I’ve found it impossible to buy a three-piece suit. I remember asking a fashion-forward friend about this years ago, only to have him laugh in my face — the concept so absurd, that I would look for something so out of style. What’s replaced three-piece suits are jackets that button all the way up to the sternum, and shoppers are supposed to believe that somehow this won’t look as stupid in a few years as the Nehru jacket does now; the three-piece suit, meanwhile, a staple of coolest-man-ever Cary Grant, is relegated to yuks associated with used-car salesmen and baby-blue crushed-velvet prom attire.

Style is timeless. It’s fashion that’s of the moment, susceptible to the whims of the mad and their manufacture of the frequently unwearable, the kind of stuff that is essentially radioactive: You can’t use it, you’re slightly ashamed of the one time you did use it, but it has an incredibly long shelf life. In short, it’s impractical and fails the test of common sense.

Gangsta wear, for instance, is based on the idea that the baggier the clothing, the more firepower can be hidden within. Divorced from the actual smuggling of weaponry and converted into fashion, you just get a lot of people wearing ill-fitting clothing that makes it difficult to move if, in fact, there’s some sort of situation in which they wished they’d brought a weapon. For many of us, we can’t wear it and embarrass ourselves if we do. Onto the shelf with it.

And gigantic swim trunks? They fail the common-sense test in a different way.

If Americans are so obsessed with being tanned, and find farmer tans so risible, it seems incomprehensible they are now embracing swim trunks that will leave them with gangsta tans. Knees will be a rich, prewrinkled brown, thighs will be like purest milk. Unless it is dictated, perhaps, that we must all adopt the swim trench coat and, as an accessory, the swim fedora by fashion police headquarters (where the fashion police gather to make bitter comments about fashion internal affairs and wonder if things would be better as a fashion state trooper or perhaps if they were promoted to fashion police administration).

Because fashion is art, designers and decision makers will always be able to apply the logic of art — there is none — to what they do, and this makes failing the test of common sense pointless, like complaining that a Dali or Picasso is illogical. But fashion is also big business, and that means there’s something else at work.

It’s the same thing behind the evolution of technology that has us revamping our music collections from vinyl to tape to CD to mp3 and our movie collections from reels to VHS to DVD to whatever’s next. And as soon as what we want to listen to, watch or wear becomes unusable, we’re trapped into committing to an entirely new lifestyle, forced into changing.

I just wanted a replacement swimsuit. Not to look like an idiot. Not to waste my time, nor to despair.

I wanted a swimsuit, not a Brownshirt.

Monday, July 03, 2006


True love lives just past the Interstate 93 tolls in New Hampshire, in the rest stop’s men’s toilet in the stall farthest from the door. It is there that some incurable romantic paused late last year to etch into the smoked-plastic toilet paper dispenser:


This raises questions. How long did it take? Was Dave traveling with Carrie at the time? Did Carrie wait impatiently, yell at Dave when he emerged, only to be abashed when he told her what had taken so long? Did Dave ever tell Carrie at all? Has Carrie ever seen Dave’s message of love for her? How did Carrie react? Did she say, “Aw, I love ya, ya big lug”? Did Carrie etch a similar message in the toilet paper dispenser in the women’s room? Are Dave and Carrie still together? Do they visit the rest stop often? And, last but not least: Is this not the most romantic thing you’ve ever heard?

Friday, June 30, 2006


The failure of Senate legislation over “flag desecration” came as a relief and a surprise. When the vote went down Tuesday, I fully expected to experience the ultimate humiliation of living in a country that celebrates its freedoms by taking away the right to burn its flag as a protest or statement of policy — or, for that matter, for fun.

The penultimate humiliation, of course, would be that such legislation passing meant there were huge numbers of people, represented by a majority of U.S. representatives and senators, that failed to grasp the difference between protecting pieces of cloth (probably manufactured in Malaysia) and metaphorically burning the U.S. Constitution, which the pieces of cloth are intended to represent. Anyone who dies in war “for our flag” isn’t really paying attention.

And the legislation failed by only vote. Hardly encouraging, and embarrassing enough on its own, but I’ll take what victories or relief I can get.

Living in the United States is wholly embarrassing anyway, solely because our leaders are such hypocrites. Every time they get up to make a speech they unleash pieties scandalous, if not bitterly hilarious, when contrasted with their behavior. A classic came when President Bush traveled to Turkey in June 2004 to lecture about how “Suppressing dissent only increases radicalism,” a lesson so applicable in his own country and in Iraq — where his military licensed and shut down newspapers, infamously leading to savage rioting (and possibly sparking the entire insurgency) — that one wonders how Bush managed to get the words out.

More recently, in May, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice unleashed a howler on the graduating class of Boston College:

“It can be tempting ... to opt for the false comfort of a life without questions,” she told the graduates. “Unfortunately, that’s easier to do than ever. It’s possible today to live in an echo chamber that serves only to reinforce your own high opinion of yourself and what you think. That is a temptation that educated people have a responsibility to reject. There is nothing wrong with holding an opinion and holding it passionately. But at those times when you’re absolutely sure that you are right, go find somebody who disagrees. Don’t allow yourself the easy course of the constant ‘amen’ to everything that you say.”

She may have meant this as an unthinking piety, as a rebuke to students she feels are knee-jerk liberals or even as a sotto voce dig at her boss, the president, who notoriously surrounds himself with incompetent toadies and rewards them when their inbred policies inevitably fail. It doesn’t matter how Rice meant it. Her position as a toady to Bush, albeit as the most competent one, removes all moral authority she has to say such things and be taken seriously, just as you don’t want to be lectured on good diet by a McDonald’s executive or discuss the benefits of multiculturalism with a member of the Klan.

Spewing and embracing such hypocrisies seems reasonable, though, in a land where you kill a freedom because you love it and burning a flag can’t possibly be “speech” protected by the First Amendment because it’s, well, so offensive — even if this is the essence of the First Amendment; there are few cases on record of constitutional crises brought on by people asserting that bunnies are cute and love is all around us.

Or, for that matter, that black is white, up is down, left is right, that Bush thinks suppressing dissent increases radicalism or that a Bush aide thinks listening to differing points of view is groovy.

It does, however, seem bothersome in a land where — keep in mind, this is the same land — the Supreme Court affirms that contributing money to a political campaign is constitutionally protected “speech,” a position applauded by many who back an amendment that would criminalize flag burning, and the president says he got permission to tap U.S. citizens’ phones when Congress authorized “force” against Iraq. This is an assertion that becomes all the more astonishing after a reading of the resolution, and even after a reading of relevant portions of the War Powers Resolution of 1973. These documents make clear that the “speech” in which Bush is engaging in regard to his authorization to tap phones is what the average person would call a “lie.” Any member of Congress who swallows this theory shouldn’t be allowed to vote in favor of a flag desecration amendment; you must accept flag burning as “speech” if you accept wiretapping as “force.”

It is embarrassing to live in a country whose most prominent attributes seem to be the capacity to lie and be taken in by those lies. This kind of humiliation can quickly turn to anger, of course. I’m frankly angry enough, and concerned enough, to want to make a strong statement against all of it.

Perhaps burning a flag?

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


Some of the most excruciating hours of my life have been spent watching open mic comedy nights. Years later, I distinctly recall the horrible trapped feeling: sinking in my seat, my gut clenching, eyeing the exit but unable to leave without being seen as abandoning the sad, desperate people taking the stage like concentration camp victims Playing for Time.

Largely because of these experiences, I’d always thought a good way to do comedy would be to tell the audience at the start of a set that laughter was not required or requested — that the comedian simply had some thoughts to share, and if any struck the audience as funny, well, it should go ahead and let loose. This technique has its own drawbacks, which I understand not from trying standup comedy, but from adhering to a kind of Antioch approach to sex: Basically, if you talk too much about what you’re about to do, the spontaneity drains away, leaving only awkward self-consciousness.

The right comedian could still make this work. The wrong comedian would be as screwed as ever.

I’m not talking just as a long-ago audience member. Despite the ancient scarring, I recently immersed myself in local comedy — standup, sketch and improv — and had far more positive experiences once I removed myself from the brutality and tragedy of the open-mic night. (Oddly enough, many comedians say they did great their first time on stage. Then they go chasing that high, more often that not with cruel results.)

When I see bad comedy now, I still wince, my gut still churns a little with discomfort, but I’m able to take a more analytical and less visceral view of it.

I know now, for instance, that “bad comedy” doesn’t necessarily mean comedians aren’t giving you good stuff. They can send out into the audience perfectly funny bits, honed on stages from Dorchester to Worcester for weeks or months, that usually sail out straight and true to perform astonishingly graceful, daring and clever midair loop-de-loops before bowing out with a flourish of enchanting fireworks. But in some places those perfectly funny things just plummet to the ground, one after the other, flailing around and grunting faintly as everyone looks on in horror. This happens where there’s bad comedy feng shui, where some slight jiggering of the comedy club equation — the space between tables, the brightness of the lights, the number of people in the room and lord knows what else must be plugged in as variables — afflicts an audience’s willingness to laugh with a muteness that prevents it. It’s possible to get laughs in The Thirsty Ear, the hidden pub at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but attempting it isn’t for the reckless, the amateur or the unlucky. The Thirsty Ear may be the Mount Washington of Cambridge comedy clubs.

It’s also a good venue for observing what comedians do wrong. Destructive or unproductive practices can be missed in a more forgiving room, where laughter can echo or come reflexively long after the funny has stopped, providing cover for a blank or bad stretch. In the Ear, though, every line, every bit, every act-out (I use this comic jargon to show I’ve been paying attention) has to pull its weight.

So while I’m really just a dilettante with no right to speak, largely based on my slogs across the Ear’s comedic desert, I’d advise comics to avoid the following:

“Ladies.” This word is delivered knowingly, winkingly, as a follow-up to revealing a particularly unappealing or off-putting aspect of a male comic’s behavior or persona. For instance, that he’s an engineer. “Lay-dees.” Or that he’s seven feet tall and weighs 410 pounds. “Lay-dees.” This can actually be a funny thing to say, but it’s overused, and trotting it out merely makes the comic look unoriginal. This is no particular comic’s fault; but the word, and ideally the whole self-deprecating shtick behind it, needs to be retired for a while. As an alternative, just don’t be the second or, god forbid, third comic to use it in a single night.

“It’s good. Good stuff. Good times.” [Repeat.] These nonsense phrases come mumbling out as a comic tries to shift gears, but they unfortunately just suggest that the gears are slipping — that, in fact, there’s nothing at all going on inside a comic’s head and, thus, nothing to listen to. This is because these phrases are simply sardonic validations the comic is using to comment on his own material, and they probably wouldn’t be used at all if what was taking place on stage deserved validation, sardonic or otherwise. “Good times,” especially, is something people say because they’ve heard other people say it as ironic commentary in times of mordant distress, and that’s how anybody even slightly versed in humor will take it; using the phrase not only looks like thievery, and lazy thievery at that, but suggests that the user has missed the fact that the irony only works as commentary on what the comic sees, not what the comic says. “We used to take turns clubbing baby seals. Good times” is entirely different from telling a joke that gets no laughs and following it up with “Good times,” just as saying “That sucks” is different from saying “I suck.”

“Okay. It’s funny to me.” This can be good. It also risks sounding like a comic is insulting the audience, making it them versus him, and unless that’s the comic’s thing, it’s a bloody awful thing to do. It makes the audience defensive, which gets them thinking of why the comic is wrong and unfunny rather than giving the benefit of a doubt that something really was funny and missed the laugh it deserved. Finally, it gives the audience a chance to think, “That’s the problem — it’s funny to you, not to us.”

“What else do I got? Yeah … so …” [Looks at watch.] Ugh. Death. This is a cruel world, and nothing sparks an audience’s collective alarm like the suggestion that the person on stage isn’t in control. Jim Morrison, Billy Joel and Ralph Garcey couldn’t get away with it, and you can’t either. The audience will feel trapped, and your hesitation will make it feel agitated as well. Add in a cover charge or a two-drink minimum and you’ll have actual anger to deal with.

Most of these unfortunate phrases are used to fill in time to get from one joke to the next, and the rest is defensiveness springing from the same source: The laughter of the audience is supposed to cover the transition from one joke to the next, and when it doesn’t, the comic stands revealed as inadequate.

Don’t let it happen, comics. Never let the audience see that you’re uncertain, grasping or desperate. Smile as you sink. Connect your jokes with friendly patter, not subconscious mutterings. Relieve your watchers from the need to feel anxious for you, and maybe of the need to laugh at what you’re saying. You may not make it as a comedian, but you’ll save many people from years-long horrors that have them running for the exits before you can even hit the stage.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


There’s an atypical and extraordinary post over at Go Fug Yourself, which usually restricts itself to pointing and laughing at celebrity fashion faux pas. The domainatrixes at Go Fug Yourself — the name refers, of course, to something being “fugly,” or “fucking ugly” — tend to stick to giddy gasps of horror when the beautiful and famous transgress or clucks of tongue when they wander into a few common danger zones: bad plastic surgery, bad fake tans, tops that compress breasts into pancakes or let them droop like, well, Kirsten Dunst. And so on.

The bloggers never lost the power to amuse, but I’d stopped expecting to be surprised. Their site’s post about the Lohans was unexpected and bracing.

Using the paparazzi shots that flood daily through Go Fug Yourself’s electronic filing cabinets, the site shows how Lindsay Lohan has clearly wandered into a danger zone far greater than that of the “bedazzeled boots” of Teri Hatcher or red mess Maria Bartiromo wore to suggest “the local brothel’s patient schoolmarm.”

“You can’t ignore that spaceyness in her irises,” blogger Heather writes to Dina Lohan of her starlet daughter. “It’s there. They’re not connecting … Do you not see? How are you letting this happen?”

The site achieves true urgency and poignancy in warning Dina Lohan that her daughter is in trouble. “LOOK AT HER,” Heather writes. “Something’s either missing or overmedicated or has been beaten into submission.”

The case seems damning just scrolling from one out-of-it shot of Lindsay Lohan to another, but the post ends on a shot of her clutching harshly to her younger sister, Aliana, perhaps protectively, perhaps for balance. “Know what scares me the most?” Heather writes to Dina Lohan. “That you have more of them to ignore. I can only hope they don’t get sucked into the vortex. How creepy is this photo?”

The post is a tour de force, and, again, totally unexpected.

Go fug for yourself.

Friday, June 09, 2006


In the past few years Disneyland has added hotels and a Toontown, turned its parking lots into a Downtown Disney shopping district, created an entire neighboring park called Disney’s California Adventure and shut down its hoary Pirates of the Caribbean ride for a movie-inspired revamp.

The park is still the — self-proclaimed — happiest place on Earth, though, and its trash cans still impart the oddest of messages to visitors. Dispersed at roughly one-meter intervals throughout the park, they all ask that visitors “Waste Please.”

The park’s recycling bins merely reinforce the grammatically and environmentally suspect nature of the trash cans. The recycling bins, of which there are about two to every 12 trash cans, urge visitors to “Recycle Please.” There’s no misreading “Waste Please,” then: Waste, please! Mickey says “Waste!”

Hard to believe this peculiarity hasn’t been noticed over the past decade or so. The only other thing that hasn’t changed in the park, apparently, is the “It’s a Small World” ride, which is just as clunky, earnest and maddening as it has been for 42 years. It may inspire people to take high-powered rifles into towers, but at least it doesn’t ask them to be profligate and thoughtless.

Saturday, April 29, 2006


My newspaper — the one I quit this blog to do — died long ago, but its remnants are everywhere, from the disconnected fax machine to the box of advertising rate cards I can’t bring myself to throw away. Because I’ve been trying feebly to revive it, Cambridge Day also keeps its presence on the Internet; I wanted to keep the event listings coming in, for one thing.

One of the unintended effects of this, though, is that I’m occasionally contacted by people seeking media coverage. I feel bad when I can’t follow through and help.

Especially when they send free stuff.

That’s what the band Pinocchio Syndrome did, providing a nine-song compact disc, publicity still, press release and biography. Having inadvertently conned the quartet into wasting a bunch of effort and postage, not to mention abusing its hopes and good will, I figured the least I could do was listen to the album and pass on what I thought about it.

In short, I wasn’t even done with the first listen before racing furiously for the press release to find out when the band was playing next. I was shattered to find out I’d missed its performance upstairs at The Middle East by less than a day. Hell. It was even more frustrating to find out that, because I’m starting work next week, I can’t get to the band’s May 18 show at T.T. the Bear’s Place. (On the other hand, Pinocchio Syndrome is scheduled to go on at 11 p.m. This makes it barely plausible that I can catch some of the band’s set, given that things are rarely on schedule at rock clubs, let alone rock clubs in the greater Big Dig area.)

I had this reaction, obviously, because I liked Pinocchio Syndrome’s music. This is not the usual metal crap, indie tedium or, thank god, American Idolatry. Indeed, trying to categorize the band merely reveals the pointlessness of the activity. What can I say? That Pinocchio Syndrome is like Primus meets Fiona Apple meets Joy Division, Metric, the Doors, Radiohead and Massive Attack? And that list wasn’t even in any particular order, so anyone gleaning direction from it is almost certainly going to get lost.

To be honest, Pinocchio Syndrome work from the “Free Heat” album is just this side of headachy, but it drones on (the median length of songs is 4 minutes, 13 seconds) in a way that is more epic than monotonous, and it is easy to imagine a live show leaving listeners dazed, stunned openmouthed. When you finish a Syndrome song, let alone an album, you feel like you’ve been somewhere — and that, while it wasn’t so easy getting there, the journey was as important as the destination.

The music is heavy on guitar but rescued by piano. The former makes it grandiose, the latter ironic. The result is a decadence strangely reminiscent of Brecht and Weill, or Jacques Brel, for that matter, particularly when co-vocalist Renee Dominique Greer calls out theatrically “I love ... the lies” and repeats it four more times. “Keep your secrets and tell your lies,” she sings, and one imagines it being sung from one actor to another, with the pounding drums and frenzied strings rising from a pit. “Your 20/20 vision’s got four eyes.”

The band doesn’t traffic in simple love songs, odes to rock ’n’ roll or even polemics, which would sound silly atop its musical excess. Instead, it tells stories aided by Greer and fellow vocalist Max Goransson singing in everything from sullen mutters to outright screaming to Broadway swing, including in the deliciously dissipated, cuttingly sardonic “It Was a Bad Idea from the Beginning,” in which Greer gives full throat to a rollicking jibe at the self-dramatizing:

They’ll talk about you like you don’t even exist
And maybe you don’t, but the whispers persist

You’ve got your razor and you’ve got your reasons
You’ve justified your alibi that you just can’t please them

The funny thing is that the drama in Pinocchio Syndrome’s music is an easy invitation to this kind of earnest excess, even as the lyrics wink and slam the door in its face. You have to work a bit to get the point, including making it past the pretension in the band’s Web bio (“Pinocchio Syndrome began, with time, as a feeling. Then suddenly it was a thought that couldn’t even be uttered, an unfathomable concept.”) before getting to the deadpan giveaways (“You’re either with us or against us, so don’t fuck around”).

The conceit is even suggested — possibly even on purpose — in the band’s name, which says explicitly that all lies are given away if you know where to look. Is Pinocchio Syndrome a chronic condition? A cure would definitely be worse than the disease.

“Free Heat” can be downloaded, for free, of course, at

Thursday, April 27, 2006


I just caught a moment of the television show “Fear Factor” in which best friends are obliged to, yawn, eat disgusting things. But these disgusting things were more disgusting than anything I’d seen while flipping past before: a “sausage” of pigs blood and eyeballs and another of live Madagascar hissing cockroaches.

One woman brought herself to chomp down on the pigs blood and eyeballs — which went bursting out of the skin and spilling over her plate — as the other gaped at the squirming, clacking horror on her plate. “I can’t do it,” she kept saying, touching the sausage tentatively before the giant cockroaches erupted from the thin skin and scattered, slithering, twitching, over the table.

Host Joe Rogan seemed perplexed.

“You couldn’t eat even one,” he said to the woman, who controlled herself and sat back down in front of the creatures. “What happened?”

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


It wasn’t so long ago that Museum of Fine Art employees told us 9/11 means you can’t stand in corners to look at photographs. It was an even shorter time ago we were told thirsty MFA moviegoers must stay thirsty — because revealing there’s a water fountain just around the corner is apparently not policy. And yesterday my backpack (and laptop) had to be checked in, while my friends’ purses didn’t.

I asked why, and the guard didn’t know. His manager did, though: 9/11. Again.

Bombs fit in backpacks, but not in purses, he told me. “I know,” he told me.

We were not actually at the museum to test whether we’d be irritated every time we went. We were there for the free Art in Bloom event. Foolishly, I spent $5 for the 36-page event guide, thinking somewhere in those 36 pages was some value. After all, there were 70 exhibits of flowers and art over two floors of giant museum, and it would be nice to get the inside story on what we were seeing.

Too bad the guide is worthless.

Just as an example, here’s the text on exhibit No. 48, flowers by the Chicatabot Garden Club’s Jean McCarthy and Linda Meanns of a painted relief of the judge Mehu in the old kingdom Egyptian wing:

This image is a fragment from a large relief depicting a fishing party on the Nile. Mehu is shown from the waist up, facing left, and wearing a long wig, short beard and collar. The colorful paint is well-preserved.

Fascinating, but a bit of a gloss on the material you find posted next to the painted relief of the judge Mehu, which goes like so:

This fragment from a fishing scene shows Mehu dressed in a short, formal beard and heavy wig. Standing in a papyrus skiff (see drawing), he holds a yellow painted harpoon with which he has speared some fish. The bright colors give a vivid impression of the original appearance of all Egyptian tomb wall painting. Two door jambs with images of Mehu and his wife, also from his tomb chapel (see photograph), are exhibited in the corridor adjacent to this gallery.

Information on the flowers? Not so much. Reasons to buy guide? None. Irritation at museum? Consistent.