Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Power Broker

For some months now, I have been slogging through Robert Caro's 1200-page biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, while taking little breaks in the middle to read mystery novels and the like. It is, without a doubt, magisterial, an incredible picture of the development of New York from the twenties through the sixties and the one machiavellian bastard who rose up to control its destiny.  When I'm done with it, after a suitable pause, I will probably take up the four existing volumes (will he live to produce another) of Caro's bio of LBJ.

That said, I have to take breaks in the middle due to Caro's insatiable appetite for detail.  At times it is wonderful, as figures like Al Smith and other forgotten but honorable figures who were outsmarted by Moses at one point in or the other spring from the page.  At other times, Caro just cannot stop himself from just listing things, the things Moses built.  Something like "and as he stood on that boat, he could see the Belt Parkway, the Verrazano Narrows, the Triborough, the Whitestone, the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, Jones Beach,"  yatta yatta yatta.  And this seems to devolve into overenumeration.

And yet, it is reminiscent of another book I'm in the middle of, which has been sitting on my coffee table for months, something I had never read and picked up for just that reason, a book which lends itself to being picked up and sampled, so rich is its smorgasbord of America, Whitman's Leaves of Grass. 

Why! who makes much of a miracle?
As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach, just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love--or sleep in the bed at night with any
one I love,
Or sit at the table at dinner with my mother,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive, of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds--or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sundown--or of stars shining so quiet and bright,
Or the exquisite, delicate, thin curve of the new moon in spring;
Or whether I go among those I like best, and that like me best--mechanics, boatmen, farmers,
Or among the savans--or to the _soiree_--or to the opera.
Or stand a long while looking at the movements of machinery,
Or behold children at their sports,
Or the admirable sight of the perfect old man, or the perfect old woman,
Or the sick in hospitals, or the dead carried to burial,
Or my own eyes and figure in the glass;
These, with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring--yet each distinct and in its place.

That is, honestly, just a quote I pulled off the interweb because I am too lazy to go downstairs and grab the book and open it to some random place. The point is, I think, that both Caro and Whitman (and Moses) share in this American revelry in the epic, the grand in scope, the cornucopian.  And why not?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Watching Meatballs again

As part of our energetic total family effort to relieve the Chapel Hill Public Library of the need to truck lots of stuff back to its permanent home, I checked out a lot of movies and also CDs on the last day it was open at the mall. Amongst the flix I brought home was Meatballs.  I thought maybe Natalie would want to join us in watching a Bill Murray classic.

Mary took one look at the picture on the cover and was like "I don't think that's appropriate."  I thought it was just a little bit of harmless T&A to draw them in, but I was wrong.  The whole movie was over the top giggly puerile stuff about "making it" and "getting it on" and stuff. Bill Murray even does a little mock would be date rape dry-hump on another counsellor, which I guess was funny back then.

Mostly, it was not all that funny.  I was surprised at how much Murray was, at this stage in the game, very much a lesser Belushi. Not that some of his physical comedy wasn't kinda funny in its own way. But mostly the movie was just alternately cheap, lurid, and cheesy. Even the good parts I remembered, where Bill Murray acts as a father figure to the depressed kid Rudy, was by no means all that.

And all the teenage sex stuff. It's astonishing how different the discourse around sex is for teenagers these days. Meatballs is totally up front about nervous budding sexuality, all the time, and however silly it is, I think it's probably healthier than the neo-Eisenhouerian repression that's in the air these days, even as pornography drives the internet and ever younger kids are "hooking up" in ways we could only fantasize and masturbate about, but while rarely taking the plunge on actually forming relationships.

Saturday, March 23, 2013


A couple of weeks back a woman in an Al Anon meeting mentioned that she had suffered from uncontrollable nervous ticks all her life -- 50 years -- until she came into the program, but that she had calmed down over 18 months in and now could sit still.  Today in a meeting there was a woman across from me whose leg -- one leg propped over the other knee -- was working uncontrollably for much of the meeting.

I realized two things

  1. Time was, that might have bothered the hell out of me, I might have focused on it and been distracted by it
  2. I might have had a pretty active leg myself at times.  In fact, I still might. But not so bad any more, I don't think.

Friday, March 15, 2013

9 am, North Roxboro Road, Durham, NC

I had to go to a lab for some bloodwork, and since I'm on an individually-purchased, high-deductible plan (as opposed to an employer-provided one where my employer reimbursed me for the entire high deductible -- and yes, I've had that crazy sounding thing), I decided to shop for a lab outside of UNC Memorial, where I had been going. So I ended up in a lab inside pediatrician/GP on Roxboro Road. And, while there, I found I was the only white person in the room, a pretty rare but instructive experience. The woman who took my blood had a cutout of a woman with a meat cleaver dripping with blood affixed to her lapel. Above the woman it said "I'm in time out." She explained to me that she was always in time out within the unit, which was funny. She, in fact, was very funny. Anyway, they had a little rap music on and the woman who was handling the blood samples and putting them in the cyclotron or whatever you call it was dancing a little, whatever. I suppose I have an instinct to try to look for differences in an African-American dominant place, but the fact was it was just people doing their boring jobs, happy it was Friday. More importantly, there were lots of interesting taquerias up there, as well as carnicerias, panederias, peluquerias, and even a clothing store for "el y ella". What's surprising in the hispanic market is how mom and pops it all is, how little consolidation there is. As the soft tortilla/meat/onion/cilantro/lime paradigm of taco increasingly displaces the hard tortilla/meat/lettuce/tomato/cheddar paradigm, I can't help but to think that there should be substantial economies of scale available to someone who wants to create a taqueria chain. I'm sure, in fact, that somewhere in Florida, Texas, or California, this is happening now....

Friday, March 08, 2013

On rules

Listening yesterday to Betsy Andreu talk about Lance Armstrong, his doping, and that of her husband, I couldn't help but think back to the culture of the last decade and change and its insistence on achievement at all costs, including the sacrifice of principle. And I have in mind baseball sluggers, financiers, bikers, a whole bunch of folx. It's been all about winning. I"m sure I've blogged on this topic before.

And then I thought about how I model rules-abiding behavior for my kids. Mary is more precise about it. I break little laws and rules easily, like driving the wrong way out of the Estes Hills parking lot at night after I pick up Natalie and friends at dances at Phillips.

And so last night, after pondering this stuff, Graham and I were tossing the basketball back and forth in the rec room, and he asks me:  "So is your dad good at accelerating into yellow lights like David is?"  And I had to stop for a second, and explain that that's something one has to be very careful about, that you really don't want to drive too fast into an intersection. It's apparent that he associated this kind of behavior with a certain bold maleness.  It's a tricky topic, this.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Listening to Steel Pulse

I bought a copy of a '97 Steel Pulse CD the other day. There's a cover of Van Morrison's "Brown-Eyed Girl" on it that breaks new ground, but is pleasant and nice. I found myself tapping my food and singing along. This is the kind of easy pleasure I would have utterly disdained 20 years ago, when I thought that it was the duty of anybody doing a cover to fundamentally reinterpret a song and make it their own, but am now totally at peace with.

This is a clear sign of age. Soon, I'll be one of those guys in a knit tie shaking my bootie to cover bands at weddings.

Later in the record, they cover "Ku Klux Klan."  Upon reflection, I realized it was their own song they were covering. I'm cool with that too.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Sad day at Nice Price

I stopped into the Nice Price Books in Carrboro to try to relieve them of some inventory before they pack up for good.  I did my best.

A couple of things jumped out at me. First off, the "classic" literature section had a really depressing quantity of CliffsNotes. It was visually, if not physically dominated by the skinny yellow plague. The "philosophy" section was all of 3 skimpy shelves, and I could not find the copy of Marcus Aurelius's Meditations that I was looking for.

UNC is said to be a "public ivy", and it comes in the top 25 of many rankings of US universities altogether. The shabbiness of these categories in a good solid used book store in a town that has historically had good book stores is sad.  I'd like to think that these sections had been picked over as hardcore book vultures swarmed over Nice Price prior to its closing.  (Let the record show that I am not one of them. I've got a solid backlog of books at home. I really went up there for music, to help them get some revenue in the door before moving, and relieve them of the need to pack up and unpack inventory at their other locations). I certainly don't think the books weren't there because the store owners didn't buy this type of book, though I could be wrong.  I think that this part of the book ecosystem is dying back, and that's a shame.

I think that the lack of truly old books at Nice Shows the downside of the Entrepreneurial University that everybody's been all excited about of late, that universities have become too focused on pragmatic outcomes over the course of the rattling of our practical age.

As the humanities wither, the door is left open to the purveyors of new age quackery on the one hand and bulk discount Christianity on the other. I think it is probably true that a generation of theoretical enthusiasm within the humanities interposed a layer of crap people have had to wade through to get back to the texture of history itself which is offered by old books.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Oakleaf Restaurant, Pittsboro

This restaurant had gotten a lot of good press, so we went. And it was, indeed a beautiful room and an excellent place to go, and we'll happily go back.

And the food was good. And yet, it wasn't all that, and this is a problem we keep having.  We spent $130 on dinner, but couldn't help walking away feeling that more of our dining dollar had been spent on adjectives, less on nouns, and even with the adjectives they fell down a little.

Take, for instance, my entree.  I got bass with potatoes cooked in duck fat.  You know I was psyched for those spuds. However, while it was apparent they had been cooked in some kind of fat, it wasn't all that special. They weren't particularly crispy or anything, and they needed a fair amount of salt. And the fish was, indeed, a nice and handsome piece of fish, but it had essentially no sauce.  I had to ask for lemon to spruce it up.  I don't know if the sous chef in charge of modifiers just got tired on this one, but why not a little garlic with some berries and some oil or something to spruce it up? It's a $23 dish, you can spare em.

Don't get me wrong, we may go back, so charming a jernt it was, but it won't be tomorrow. Restaurants like this, more and more, seem calculated to assuage the diner and convey to him membership in the ruling class, more than to deliver really great eating experiences.