Monday, August 29, 2011

Decline and fall of hotel amenities

The news media and blogosphere are still understandably awash in Hurricane Irene. When I boarded a plane in Chicago on Friday evening, on the second leg of a journey home as the storm approached North Carolina, every flat-screen TV in the terminal was tuned to worried weather-people explaining satellite images. The flight crew assured us as our plane pulled away from the gate that we were "heading in the right direction" -- west, away from the chaos shaping up on the Atlantic seaboard.

Figuring readers can get their fill of catastrophe elsewhere, I'm not going to write about the weather today. I'm going to write about shampoo.

Specifically, I'm going to write about those little bottles of shampoo with which all but the most downmarket hotels furnish their rooms. (Yes, this is a sign that I've been traveling for work again. Last week's meeting was in Madison, Wisconsin.)

Once upon a time, little bottles of shampoo with which all but the most downmarket hotels furnish their rooms were handy for two purposes.

First, they were handy to use when one was traveling. If you weren't fussy about particular brands of shampoo, you didn't need to pack any. That was convenient, and it's convenient still.

In fact, in the world of commercial air-travel following 11 Sept 2001, these amenities are even handier. That's because the government now spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually to make flying seem safe. What do I mean by seem? Consider the possibility that a malicious actor worms his way into one of many thousands of jobs cleaning planes or hurling luggage in the 'secure' and 'restricted' back end of an airport. Could happen? Do you think?

To the extent that efforts to make flying seem safe boil down to forbidding passengers from carrying normal-sized bottles of shampoo and other liquids in their carry-on luggage, I submit that the TSA's 3-1-1 rules are aimed ... a little wide of the mark, let's say.

Anyway. Back on topic:

Second, those little bottles of shampoo and whatnot that are stocked in hotel rooms used to make nice little favors to take home from a vacation or business trip. The maids restocked, the guests swept the nice little bottles off the bathroom sink and into the take-home-with-me pile. Not just bottles that were partly used, but the bottles meant to replenish them.

A diligent collector and frequent traveler could save several dollars per year [sic] by reducing shampoo costs at the supermarket or drug store. Some people really went to town on this. I'm not going to name names.

Okay, I'll name one name: Tanner Latham, who confessed to amentity-hoarding live on the intertubes several years ago. Check out the shower caddy photo from his post, at left.

Mr. Latham put his cards on the table in 2008, but I didn't have to Google to know that certain travelers in my own circles, whether on the road for work or fun, plan amenity scavenger hunts ahead of time, leaving ample room in their suitcases for purloined bottles of shampoo and body lotion, soaps, sewing kits, and shoe-polishing cloths.

Well, it could only have been a matter of time before hotels that underwrite this extra-curricular consumption fought back, right? Why shouldn't they? They're running businesses, no? This question of 'fighting back' is what led me to write in the past tense for most of these last five or six paragraphs. Those little bottles of shampoo were handy for two purposes.

How might hotel management stop guests from taking little bottles of shampoo home with them, you wonder?

While a hotelier can reasonably decline to stock a guest's home bathrooms if asked directly, it wouldn't really do to inspect everybody's luggage on checkout. That wouldn't inspire warm, fuzzy feelings about a hotel stay. Not so good for repeat business.

Something tricksier is called for. Something like what I've noticed of late about shampoo bottles provided to hotel guests.

Until a couple of years ago, almost every hotel used the same sort of bottle: plastic, 1 or 2 ounces, screw-top cap.

That last characteristic is the important one: screw-top cap. Little plastic bottles with screw-top caps are not going to open in your luggage on the flight home and ooze shampoo or conditioner or body lotion all over your clothes and cell-phone charger.


Little plastic bottles with flip-top caps ... well ... now you're taking chances. Never mind those cheapo elastic pull-off caps, the kind with a lip that squeezes around the bottle's neck and kinda-sorta seals it shut. Even if you're smart enough to jam all the shampoo you can pocket into the sort of regulation quart-size plastic bag that passes TSA carry-on muster, the flimsier bottles are likely to leave you with a regulation quart-size plastic bag awash in goopy leaked shampoo. This will detract from the unpacking experience, rest assured.

So far as I can tell flimsy bottles are becoming the hotel norm, even in the solid middle-tier chains like Hilton, InterContinental, and Marriott. And this makes it a much less attractive proposition to take home little bottles of shampoo pilfered from one's hotel room.

The crucial frivolous question here: Is this disincentive to shampoo-hoarding an accident? Or is it a secret plot on the part of a hotel industry determined to shore up its bottom line by any means necessary?

Did hotel management types put their heads together at some hotel management type conclave, and figure out that flimsier bottles would stanch the flow of amenities (and profits) from their properties ... or is it just that flimsier bottles are, well, cheaper?

Anybody out there know? Suspect? Have theories? Able to cite proof? Do tell in the comments.

Andrew Bender wrote on the topic of hotel shampoo bottles for Forbes just this month. He had a slightly different angle: Bender wondered what happens to all the partially-used bottles left behind by guests. In satisfying his curiosity, he dug up a new tendency in hotels to repurpose leftover shampoo rather than dump it into landfill.

No, that doesn't mean that guests are given 'used' amenities. Instead, as Bender describes, partially-consumed bottles are collected for outfits like Bin Donated, an "in-kind donation aggregator" in Chicago:

Bin Donated supplies big blue bins to the hotel, housekeepers fill them with partially used product, and Bin Donated collects and distributes the contents to regional homeless shelters, battered women’s shelters and Chicago public schools. “Housekeeping staff is so on board with the program that we donate more than 200 pounds of shampoos, soaps and lotions every month,” says the hotel’s promotions manager, Gretchen Spear.
Can't argue with that. Even better:

Other hotels are getting rid of the little bottles entirely. Hotels including Starwood’s Four Points by Sheraton, Aloft and Element brands, and Home2 Suites by Hilton, have switched to dispensers for shampoo and shower gel.

Have you noticed a shift in the quality of hotel amenity packaging? What do you think? Is it just another instance of cheaper everything, or are we talking intentional discouragement of sticky-fingered hotel guests? And where do you stand on the dispenser question?

Thanks to Tanner Latham, Freelance Writer & Multimedia Storyteller, for permission to use his shower caddy photo in this post. Mr. Latham blogs at Edge of the Road.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Hidden histories

This week's New Yorker magazine boasts a nicely curated letters section, I thought.

The first, from Patricia Lambert of Santa Barbara, CA describes the correspondent's mothers, in reference to the magazine "cover of two brides walking hand in hand across the Brooklyn Bridge" (25 Jul 2011). Ms. Lambert writes, "The image reminded me of my parents, who were closeted gay women in the nineteen-fifties. They were both teachers, and bravely raised me, their daughter, in our happy but very secretive household."

The next, from Nathaniel Smith of West Chester, PA, reminds readers of an often-forgotten Ur-moment in the twentieth-century's Civil Rights movement, a reminder occasioned by Calvin Trillin's piece about the very well-known Freedom Ride of 1961. The Freedom Ride of 1947 preceded by 14 years the one that is now a staple of civics lessons. It was organized by Bayard Rustin and George Houser. As Mr. Smith summarizes in his letter:

In Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia (1946), the Supreme Court found segregation on public interstate buses unconstitutional. In order to test the ruling, CORE organized a Journey of Reconciliation fourteen years before the more famous 1961 ride. Bayard Rustin and George Houser organized and co-led that first Freedom Ride. After various forms of harassment, the 1947 riders were arrested and imprisoned; Rustin published his gripping and influential account as “Twenty-two Days on a Chain Gang.” He then went on to become a close adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr., and he helped organize the 1963 I Have a Dream march, in Washington, D.C.
You might already know that Bayard Rustin was gay. That didn't go down easily in the times and communities in which he first dedicated his life to social justice, and that unfortunate fact relegated him to a back-office role in the Civil Rights movement. In Wikipedia's summary:

Rustin was a gay man who had been arrested for homosexual behavior early in his life. Because homosexuality was criminalized through the 1960s and stigmatized through the 1970s, Rustin's sexuality was criticized by some fellow pacifists and civil-rights leaders. From the 1950s through the 1970s, Rustin was attacked as a "pervert" or "immoral influence" by political opponents, both segregationists and Black power militants. To avoid such attacks, Rustin served only rarely as a public spokesperson. He usually acted as an influential adviser to civil-rights leaders. In the 1970s, he became a public advocate on behalf of gay and lesbian causes.
The remarkable thread that ties these letters together is not, in my mind, that they both concern queer history in the United States. The link that occurred to me is nicely, if obliquely, encapsulated in a Talk of the Town piece a few pages later in the same issue of The New Yorker, one titled Roosevelt's Room by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Paul Goldberger. Goldberger writes about the long-gestating memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt currently under construction on the eponymous Roosevelt Island in New York City's East River. In his article, William vanden Heuvel paraphrases the former president's inaugural address of 1937. From the record of Roosevelt's address maintained by Yale University:

The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.
In remembering and recounting history, it's easy to lose sight of those who have or are "too little" in the currencies of wealth, power, or celebrity. It's just those "little" people whose lives and work animate, drive, staff, and -- in the aggregate -- effect historical currents; yet who are overshadowed by a very few players who come to dramatize the messy business of What Happens when it comes time to recording historical accounts.

A key role of fiction in the multifaceted account of human culture is to open a window into the lives of such "little" people, who are, of course, not "little" at all. Not the Martin Luther King, Jr's, but the Bayard Rustins. Not celebrities like Ellen Degeneres or political leaders like Harvey Milk, but the anonymous mothers of Patricia Lambert, who lived their brave and secretive lives with pioneering integrity, well ahead of equally brave women and men whose lives have and will come to animate the historical record of twentieth-century social progress for those who love outside the mainstream.

What are you doing to change the world? Are you on history's radar? Are you keeping your novelist friends fully informed?

Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the image of Bayard Rustin, August 1963.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Fixing flat tires

When I was a boy --

No, wait. When I was a boy I swore I'd never lead with that silly, self-aggrandizing phrase. Reset...

Back in the last third of the twentieth century, I rode my bike to school. I rode my bike to work. I rode my bike to Boy Scout meetings, and to my after-school jobs, and to the bowling alley, and when my friend J-- was away and I subbed on his paper route. I rode my bike pretty much everywhere.

I got flat tires every so often. Every bike gets flat tires, so it goes. When I got a flat tire I patched it. Once a tube got a few patches on it, I'd relent and buy a new tube. I didn't give the arrangement much thought. I suppose it was, in part at least, a matter of economics: why spring for a new tube when you could patch up the old one?

On Monday morning, a week ago, all suited up for work, my partner found his tire flat where we lock up in the side yard. Yep, I still ride my bike to work, and so does he. That day he walked.

You go to a bike store these days (I like Mike's Bikes, just west of the campus in Berkeley) and you have to work to find a new two-wheeler under $300. You won't find many for less than $500. Over a grand? There's a smorgasbord to choose from. The most expensive bike on Mike's website this weekend is on "Mega-Sale" for $7,799.95.

Um. Yeah.

Matthew and I are pretty frugal about our commute vehicles. Old habits die hard.

My bike is a hand me down. It's the one my brother rode in college some 25 years ago. He gave it to our dad, and after it moldered for a while in the parental garage I adopted it. My brother was serious about trail riding (and still is); he put together a bike built to take plenty of abuse. I ride a mile and a half to work on paved streets, and I'd guesstimate there's about an 18" rise in elevation along the way. David's old bike is holding up fine. I've been riding it to work since the early nineties.

We bought Matthew's bike from a neighbor for $35.00.

So my instinct when we found a flat tire on Monday morning was ... to patch it.

Do people do that anymore? Patch tires? Would somebody who pays eight hundred bucks for a bike -- let alone eight thousand -- compromise their precision-engineered machine with a patched inner tube?

I don't know, actually. Across Telegraph Avenue from the café in which I'm writing this post, Karim Cycle sells used bikes to those who ignore the shop's sketchy reputation (there are at least two sides to that story, caveat lector). I'm guessing a lot of Karim's customers still patch their own inner tubes.

The Missing Link is another favorite Berkeley store, and a co-op business besides (note the dot-org URL if you follow the link). The co-op offers classes in bike repair, and on-line advice that's free to all comers. On top of their Repair Tips page is "fixing flats." That proves I'm not the last of the tube-patchers, right?

In fact, it wouldn't occur to me to own a bike without having a patch kit handy. But if last week's experience is evidence, I seem to have lost my touch.

Oh, I found the puncture easily enough, and I marked it with a Sharpie, and scuffed up the rubber, and squeezed out the rubber cement, and laid a cut-to-order patch over the gluey rubber, and pressed the repaired tube under a piece of cardboard with a heavy cinderblock on top to set. Standard operating procedure.

The patch held for about a day. Then it must have worked loose, because that tire was flaccid as ... as ... well, it was flat as a pancake by Wednesday morning.

Matthew walked to work again.

I sighed, set aside my conservationist principles, albeit reluctantly, and changed out the inner tube.

Now this is the thing. A new inner tube at Mike's costs about five bucks. They happened to be on sale last week when I stopped in, 3 for $10, so I, um, bought three. Ten bucks is a lot less now than it was in nineteen seventy whatever, and it doesn't hurt that I'm gainfully employed. Well, employed anyway.

(What's the difference between "gainful" employment and the other brand? That they take taxes out of your paycheck? There's a Wikipedia article on the topic, but it looks more than a little officious to this skeptic's eye. Anyhoo...)

Changing an inner tube is a lot faster than patching one. Doesn't take much longer to install one than it does to pump it full of air afterward. Broadly speaking, I'm shorter on time these days than I am on five-spots. But it sure seems wasteful to throw out an inner tube with one itty bitty hole in it.

Have you got a bike? Do you patch your own flats, change tubes, or take the bike into the shop and let the guys with grease under their fingernails do the dirty work for you?

Thanks to Sam Dal Monte for the classic flat tire image, posted on Flickr.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Whales at the Field Museum

The Field Museum in Chicago is a soaring temple to scientific inquiry. What do I mean by "soaring temple"? Imagine a skylit, enclosed space big enough to hang a whale from the ceiling at one end, set a couple of elephants on a raised platform at the other, place two towering totem polls in the middle, and leave room for about a bazillion people to mill around besides. Oh, and there's plenty of elbow room.

Through early next year, the Field Museum is hosting Whales: Giants of the Deep, an exhibit on-loan from the Museum of New Zealand (Te Papa Tongarewa). If you have any interest at all in whales it's pretty much terrific. I visited when I was in Chicago at the end of last month.

I was most fascinated by a procession of fossilized skeletons of whales illustrating their evolution from mammals that lived on dry land. Even if you've encountered this odd evolutionary trajectory before it's striking to see. Like many, I generally think of life evolving from a 'primordial soup' and only after hundreds of millions of years making its way onto dry land. The Smithsonian has an on-line exhibit about whale evolution that may be the next best thing if you don't happen to live in or plan to visit Chicagoland this year (actually, it's worth a look even if you made it to the Field Museum). The Smithsonian exhibit's title, interestingly enough, is: "Did Whale Evolution Go Backwards?"

In one of the last galleries of the exhibit there were a pair of sperm whale skeletons, 58 and 32 feet long, respectively. They have names: Tu Hononga is the male and Hinewainui the female. Here's a video that gives a sense of how these behemoths were presented (it's got a pretty sloppy soundtrack, so you might prefer to turn down your speakers):

One of the mind-boggling things about sperm whales is how much whale there is relative to whale skeleton. Here's an image from Wikimedia Commons that illustrates this:

That's a lot of whale, eh?

So standing beside them I was feeling dwarfed by just the skeletons of these creatures, and thinking too about how unimaginably massive they would be fully-fleshed. Most of all, though -- because of their physical architecture, I think, and also the way they are mounted so that a visitor senses how they move through oceanic space -- I was conscious of the tubular construction of these whales.

No, I'm not trying to write like a surfer-dude.

What I mean is that the essential calorie-processing nature of these flesh-and-bone giants was overwhelmingly apparent as I stood next to them. Big, big mouths. Many, many teeth. And the ponderously graceful rib cage that once enclosed the fore end of a digestive system (not much different from yours or mine, only bigger) that stretched from nose to tail. These cetaceans are not nibblers. They're seafood processing machines. I stood beside their skeletons imagining these whales alive, flipping their tails through the salty depths, opening wide to suck down several thousand pounds of squid each day.

That such creatures exist, so massive, so intricately elaborate even stripped down to skeletons ... it's wonderous stuff.

Toward the start of the exhibit I was standing next to a man and his son, the boy perhaps nine or ten years old. We were looking at displays about the earliest whales, protocetids I think they were, which lived about forty million years ago. The man was explaining the exhibit to his son, saying something along these lines: "All this stuff they're saying, see? It's about evolution, and none of that's true. No. It's not true. God created everything, all of this." He said this three or four times, in different variations, as we moved slowly, in parallel, through the exhibit.

The kid didn't answer. I wondered what he was thinking behind his silence, taking in the displays, listening to his father's warnings, surrounded by mobs, literally thousands of people, who had come to visit this enormous temple to scientific inquiry, to see, consider, gaze in awe and wonder. I have no doubt that the many, many people at the Field Museum that Saturday had come with all manner of agendas and perspectives, and that the gentleman beside me wasn't the only one who thought the Darwinian frame of the exhibit shoots wide of the mark.

Still, it struck me that that this dad wasn't doing his beliefs any favors by telling his son they'd come to the museum to look at lies.

As I sometimes do when I'm awed by the beauty and grandeur of the world, I thought of a passage from T.S. Eliot's Little Gidding:

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

Eliot was a self-identified Anglo-Catholic, yielding to none in depth and acuity of vision, but at the same time unflinching in his acknowledgement of human limits. Sense and notion. Sometimes it's just not enough.

In the Field Museum, beside those massive skeletons, those creatues fantastically architected to pass through the vast ocean, eating life and being alive ... well, kneeling in wonder seemed square on the mark.

That doesn't make evolution a lie. Not even a little bit. It just means that the world is deep.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Picasso from Paris at the de Young Museum

San Francisco's de Young Museum is hosting yet another Paris-based road show, this one on loan from the Musée National Picasso Paris, which is undergoing renovation until Spring 2013. At the de Young, Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris will be open through October 10, 2011. I visited the exhibition this past weekend.

The de Young has recently been a rich beneficiary of museum renovations in Paris. Last year it was work from the Musée d'Orsay that crossed the Atlantic --in two back-to-back exhibitions -- while that museum was undergoing renovation from late 2009 through Spring of this year. The de Young was the only museum in North America that hosted both the Birth of Impressionism and Post-Impressionist Masterpieces shows sent abroad by d'Orsay. (I blogged about each of these, in July of last year and this past January, respectively.)

The Musée National Picasso is drawn from a collection of work that the artist himself held at his death in 1973. The collection came into being as payment of inheritance taxes to the French government, and amounts to nearly 3,600 drawings, paintings, sculptures, and other work. About two-thirds of these are cataloged (with photos, from which most images in this post are linked) at, a site run by a consortium of museums and other French cultural institutions.

The Picasso show is quieter than either of the d'Orsay exhibitions: not nearly so many blockbuster paintings. But the work selected for the current exhibition is thoughtfully curated and gives a sweeping sense of the artist's vastly fertile imagination and depth of vision.

Consider, for example, the sculpture Tête de femme (Fernande) of autumn 1909:

and a study Picasso drew the summer before as he prepared to create the bust:

These works, one shown beside the other in the de Young show, give a keen sense of Picasso's range of both vision and expression as he considers the same subject over the course of a mere several months out of more than seven decades as a working artist.

La danse villageoise (1922) is hung in the same small gallery as a canvas on which the artist painted a number of small studies for the larger work -- hands, the female figure's head -- that permits a viewer to trace, for example, the degree of formal stiffness he chose to depict in the work itself, and so the evolution of Picasso's ideas about how these figures relate to each other.

The show's curators chose a fine, writerly quotation with which to conclude the introductory essay at the entrance to the de Young exhibition.

"Scornful of theories and fixed ideologies, he often worked in multiple pictorial modes simultaneously, and he frequently revisited earlier themes. In a prolific career that spanned nearly three-quarters of the 20th century, his work not only participated in the Modernist revolution, but it also responded to world events, including four wars. We can further trace Picasso's fascinating and tumultuous personal life through his art; as he once commented, 'painting is just another way of keeping a diary'" [emphasis added].

For an artist as prolific as Picasso, that makes a lot of sense.

I was fascinated to see Picasso's inverted paraphrase of the anarchist Michael Bakunin
over a doorway between galleries at the de Young show. "Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction," was the quote from Picasso, translated into English. This from the painter of Guernica (1937), and of Massacre en Corée (1951) a chilling echo of Manet's Execution of the Emperor Maximillian (1868) and de Goya's El Tres de Mayo (1814) [thanks to Matthew Felix Sun for the art-historical references]. Picasso's protest of American intervention in Korea is included in the de Young show.

[For the record: As Bakunin wrote it in 1842 in German: "Die Lust der Zerstörung ist zugleich eine schaffende Lust" ("the desire to destroy is also a creative desire").]

The de Young exhibition is a fascinating trip through one of the most fertile and prolific imaginations of the twentieth century. The museum in Paris is well worth a visit if you're there when it reopens, but if you're anywhere in the neighborhood of San Francisco between now and the first week in October you'll want to visit the de Young to see highlights of its collection while we're fortunate enough to have them on loan.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Truth and Mystery
Art bliss at MOMA
The Steins Collect at SF-MOMA

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Apocalypse and Zeno's paradox

It's old news, but it's coming back at you: several months ago, U.S. heathens were treated to a cross-country billboard & bus shelter media blitz with its epicenter in Oakland, California, headquarters of Family Radio and apocalypse-addled, unordained preacher Harold Camping. Camping predicted to his congregation and over the airwaves that the end of the world would occur on 21 May 2011.

Didn't happen.

Camping promptly changed his tune, saying that the rapture has been rescheduled for five months later, 21 October 2011. Camping has a history of predicting judgment days that don't come to pass: 21 May 1988 was one, 7 September 1994 was another.

So zoom in to the UC Berkeley campus, to Sproul Plaza, ground zero for left-leaning activism since the Free Speech Movement of the mid-1960s. Zoom in further, to find "Yoshua" -- a nom du discours for a loooooooooooooongtime denizen of of Sproul Plaza who been excoriating the sins of Berkeley's student body for about as long as I can remember (we're talking decades here). Here, take a look at this video for a sense of his style if not much sense of his views:

I don't know how Yoshua is connected to Harold Camping. What I can tell you is that he brought Camping's message to Sproul Plaza before anybody I knew ever heard it: Yoshua was counting down the days to the May 21st apocalypse months in advance of the predicted event. I thought he was just doing his usual hyperbolic, self-gratifying, mildly-entertaining thing until the billboards started to go up around town. Then I realized he had allies. Yup. Yoshua was part of a movement.

So what now, in the wake of the fact that the world went on after May 21st? Yoshua is no more daunted than Camping. The other day when I passed by the corner of Bancroft and Telegraph, there stood Yoshua in front of a resurrected countdown to the rescheduled end of the world.

You've got to admire the man's commitment. Damn the facts, full-speed ahead, no?

When I saw Yoshua counting down to a new apocalypse I thought of Zeno. Remember Zeno? Zeno liked paradoxes, and constructed some forty of them as arguments aimed at proving that his philosophical mentor (and lover, some think), Parmenides, was correct to assert that "all was one indivisible, unchanging reality" (this from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Zeno's paradoxes, most of which have not survived the two and a half millenia since he conceived them, attempted to demonstrate that absurd conclusions follow from assumptions opposite to Parmenides positions.

So Zeno's paradox known as the "dichotomy" comes to us by way of Aristotle (Physics, 239b11). The argument as Aristotle put it: "motion is impossible, because an object in motion must reach the half-way point before it gets to the end."

That is, traversing a distance of any length involves getting halfway there, then halfway from the halfway point to the end, and so on ad infinitum (which is Latin, sorry, I don't know how to type in Greek). Getting anywhere, in other words, involves an infinite number of journeys of finite length. It takes forever. Like getting to the front of the line at the DMV.

Or getting from The End is Near to The End is Here.

Poor Yoshua. Always huffing and puffing his toward doomsday, never quite making it to rapture.

Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the image of a fresco in the Library of El Escorial, northwest of Madrid: "Zeno of Elea shows Youths the Doors to Truth and Falsehood."

Monday, August 8, 2011

Chicago deep-dish pizza

I'm still milking my recent trip to Chicago for blog material. Why not? It's a rich and culturally diverse city, there's loads to see and do and write about. This one goes out to L--, who lives (as I do) in California.

L-- insisted, as we were planning a weekend we'd both be in Chicago, the weekend before last, that it was essential to sample real Chicago deep-dish pizza. No question about it, that's what we were eating at least one of the evenings we were going to be in town. She said that all manner of pies had been passed off as "real" Chicago deep dish in her California experience, and she wanted a taste of the real thing. A touchstone. An authentic experience.

We were hanging out with S-- on the Saturday evening (I don't know why I'm hiding their names, if these people don't comment on this post I'll eat my ... pizza). S-- lives west of downtown, and he knew just the place for an authentic, touchstone, real-thing, not-a-tourist-trap Chicago deep dish pizza. Giordano's was the place he said. A chain, yes, with "over 55 locations in Illinois and Florida," according to their web site, but still the real thing. He drove us to the one in Westchester. At Giordano's, as many do, they call the Chicago-style variant of pizza "stuffed," which is apropos because it's also how you feel after you eat more than a slice or so of a pie.

True confession: I am not a fan of Chicago deep dish pizza. Never have been, and I hail from the South Side myself (it's been a while, but still). We have a little chain out here on the Left Coast called Zachary's: three locations in Oakland, Berkeley, and San Ramon. In the evenings they're packed, at least the two I pass on a regular basis, the ones in Oakland and Berkeley. Especially the one in Oakland. Constantly packed. Lines out the door packed. It's been that way for years. I shake my head in wonderment each time I go by the place.

In the runup to our meal at Giordano's, talking about what characterizes Chicago Style pizza while trying not to be a pill about it, it occurred to me that "stuffed" pizza is really lasagna, more or less, without the pasta. Lasagna baked in a yeasted crust. S-- considered my proposal, and agreed that it's close to the mark. This epiphany was comforting. Now I could spin the evening positively. No, I wasn't about to endure a style of pizza for which I have little respect. Instead I was going to have lasagna for dinner. I love lasagna. I love lasagna almost as much as Garfield!

A win-win, for both the Californians.

We ordered the special, as S-- recommended. Sausage, mushrooms, green peppers, onions. It was a'right, for lasagna without pasta. I really don't have more to say about it than that.

I guess I'm pretty attached to the New York style thin-crust at Arinell's, greasy as it is, here in Berkeley & San Francisco (Michael Bauer, the principal food critic for the SF Chronicle, had fine things to say about Arinell's); or the late Pie in the Sky around the corner on Center Street, which didn't last long but served an outstanding slice. And, if you want to get all fancy about it, to the wood-burning oven pies at Chez Panisse and its kin. I thought Pulino's in New York had it right when I ate there about a year ago.

But, hey, it takes all kinds of pizza to make a world.

Thanks to mytimemachine for the photo of a large Giordano's Chicago Style Stuffed Pizza, via Flickr.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Marilyn Monroe meets the Haymarket Riot: a tale of two Chicago sculptures

Marilyn Monroe on Pioneer Square

Last weekend I stopped by Pioneer Square in Chicago, where a sculpture by Seward Johnson was unveiled a couple of weeks before, on July 15. You may have seen the photos already, though perhaps not the dorsal view included here. This representation of a kultural touchstone-moment from The Seven Year Itch stands 26 feet tall. It is a monumental exemplar of misogynist kitch, and it's booked to tower over the Magnificent Mile until spring of next year.

Am I overstating the case? Check out the trailer for the 1955 film, in which Monroe plays a wide-eyed, breathy, quintessentially dumb blonde who tempts the fidelity of her married neighbor when his family leaves town for the summer. Just the facts. You decide.

Film critic Richard Roeper titled his Chicago Sun-Times column of July 17th, Marilyn Monroe’s giant blowing skirt sculpture brings out the worst. Here's what he had to say, quite tamely I think, on the topic of misogynist kitch:

Even worse than the sculpture itself is the photo-op behavior it’s inspiring. Men (and women) licking Marilyn’s leg, gawking up her skirt, pointing at her giant panties as they leer and laugh. It’s not that the sculpture is shocking or sexist or obscene -- but it’s definitely bringing out the juvenile goofball in many of us.

I didn't spend a lot of time lurking beside the statue in wait for regrettable behavior. No need. A steady parade of tourists acted just as Roeper described, as if they were reading from his script.

I'd barely gotten my camera switched on when an Italian family walked up to the sculpture and set up to capture digital memories of the kids standing in the shadow of Marilyn's crotch. Look closely at the oldest girl, on the right in the photo. She's ten or eleven years old, I think, and she's posing. Yes, you see it now. She's posing in imitation of Marilyn herself, as if she too were struggling to hold down a flimsy, revealing dress that is being blown upward by the air rushing up from a subway grate, baring just-about-all.

Does this photo capture a moment of corrosive influence on a pre-adolescent? Or are we seeing an exemplary enactment of women's dignity, in which anyone would hope their daughter might participate?

Maybe the father holding the camera is Silvio Berlusconi's cousin.

The Haymarket Memorial on Des Plaines at Randolph

Later that morning I had breakfast with writer friends at Ina's, a Chicago institution to which a member of my virtual critique group & his wife introduced me. On our way, we passed a sign that clued me in that we were in the neighborhood of Haymarket Square, the site of a seminal event in American labor history, the Haymarket affair of 1886. In short, at a labor rally in support of regulating a standard workday to eight hours (c'mon, you didn't think the 8 hour workday was engraved on stone tablets at Sinai, did you?), somebody threw a bomb, killing and injuring both policemen and civilians.

Eight anarchists were charged with responsibility for the bombing, though they are now (and were, even as popular hysteria raged in the wake of the event itself) widely regarded as innocent of the charge. Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel, and Adolph Fischer died on the gallows following a travesty of a trial. Louis Lingg committed suicide in his jail cell. Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe, and Michael Schwab were pardoned by the Illinois governor, John Peter Altgeld, in 1893, a deed that demonstrated his integrity but wrecked Altgeld's political future.

(In response to worry that the pardon would poison his party's political fortunes, Altgeld replied, "No man has the right to allow his ambition to stand in the way of the performance of a simple act of justice." Subsequent governors of Illinois have disregarded Altgeld's straightforward moral position ever since.)

When I asked whether the locals among us knew where Haymarket Square was situated, they told me about the Mary Brogger sculpture dedicated in 2004 at the site itself, and suggested we try to find it after breakfast. We did -- with the help of an iPhone, but that's another blog post.

Here's a more complete account of the Haymarket affair given by Johanna Greie, as retold by Emma Goldman in the opening pages of her autobiography, Living My Life:

The entire speech concerned the stirring events in Chicago. She [Greie] began by relating the historical background of the case. She told of the labour strikes that broke out throughout the country in 1886, for the demand of an eight-hour workday. The center of the movement was Chicago, and there the struggle between the toilers and their bosses became intense and bitter. A meeting of the striking employees of the McCormick Harvester Company in that city was attacked by police; men and women were beaten and several persons killed. To protest against the outrage a mass meeting was called in Haymarket Square on May 4. It was addressed by Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer, and others, and was quiet and orderly. This was attested to by Carter Harrison, Mayor of Chicago, who had attended the meeting to see what was going on. The Mayor left, satisfied that everything was all right, and he informed the captain of the district to that effect. It was getting cloudy, a light rain began to fall, and the people started to disperse, only a few remaining while one of the last speakers was addressing the audience. Then Captain Ward, accompanied by a strong force of police, suddenly appeared on the square. He ordered the meeting to disperse forthwith. "This is an orderlv assembly," the chairman replied, whereupon the police fell upon the people, clubbing them unmercifully. Then something flashed through the air and exploded, killing a number of police officers and wounding a score of others. It was never ascertained who the actual culprit was, and the authorities apparently made little effort to discover him. Instead orders were immediately issued for the arrest of all the speakers at the Haymarket meeting and other prominent anarchists. The entire press and bourgeoisie of Chicago and of the whole country began shouting for the blood of the prisoners. A veritable campaign of terror was carried on by the police, who were given moral and financial encouragement by the Citizens' Association to further their murderous plan to get the anarchists out of the way. The public mind was so inflamed by the atrocious stories circulated by the press against the leaders of the strike that a fair trial for them became an impossibility. In fact, the trial proved the worst frame-up in the history of the United States. The jury was picked for conviction; the District Attorney announced in open court that it was not only the arrested men who were the accused, but that "anarchy was on trial" and that it was to be exterminated. The judge repeatedly denounced the prisoners from the bench, influencing the jury against them. The witnesses were terrorized or bribed, with the result that eight men, innocent of the crime and in no way connected with it, were convicted. The incited state of the public mind, and the general prejudice against anarchists, coupled with the employers' bitter opposition to the eight-hour movement, constituted the atmosphere that favoured the judicial murder of the Chicago anarchists. Five of them ---Albert Parsons, August Spies, Louis Lingg, Adolph Fischer, and George Engel --- were sentenced to die by hanging; Michael Schwab and Samuel Fielden were doomed to life imprisonment; Neebe received fifteen years' sentence.

Interested readers might also want to check out Frank Harris's 1908 novel, The Bomb, a controversial fictionalization of the riot and its aftermath written by a journalist (and, according to John Dos Passos, an "objectionable little man").

Perhaps not so objectionable as The Seven Year Itch, and the inexplicable wish to glorify Marilyn Monroe's humiliation.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Google Chromebook on Virgin America

I flew yesterday on Virgin America, and took a spin on one of the Google Chromebooks the airline is loaning to all takers this summer on its routes between Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, and Boston. Yeah, I know, that makes this blog post something of a shill-piece. Still, the concept -- a lightweight machine that relies on network for most everything it does -- is worth thinking about if one thinks at all about how technology is evolving. So, here goes...

I've been on a few flights in the past year on which interent is offered for twelve or fifteen bucks, but it just hasn't been worth it to me to fork over even a few dollars for the privilege of being tethered to a screen while tethered by a seatbelt. I like having a good excuse to spend hours off-line. But the freebie, and knowing I was too brain-dead to do much else following back-to-back three day meetings -- one for work, and one with writers in my critique group -- led me to the "Chromezone" station at my boarding gate in Chicago. And there I was an hour later, drafting this post on a Google Chromebook at 34,175 feet and 478 mph according to the screen on the back of the seat in front of mine.

The loaner machine Virgin America is providing this summer is a Samsung Series 5 (note that Acer makes a Chromebook too). The basic machine feels solid, though the hinged plastic doors that cover the ports feel pretty flimsy to me. I decided not to exercise them too hard: a condition of borrowing the device included a 'you break, you buy' agreement signed with my credit card at ORD's Gate L3.

It was a bit strange to be on-line in an aisle seat, complete with intermittently wailing 15-month-old beside me (an iPad seemed the most effective device to keep her calm). At the same time it felt a bit too normal. A bit too much like being matrixed in, you know? Doesn't matter where I am, I'm in GoogleWorld, drafting a Google-hosted blog on a Google Chromebook, using Google Docs, keeping an eye on my Gmail account, and broadcasting the fact that I'm on-line and in the air at the same time on Google+. It was almost enough to make me feel the back of my neck, to make sure I wasn't actually hardwired to the headrest.

This matrixed-in mode is meant to be a feature not a bug. The Chromebook FAQ answers the question "Who should use a Chromebook?" as follows:

Chromebooks work best for people who live on the web - spending most of their time in a browser using web applications.

Yeesh... Live on the web?

Maybe I'd have more to say about the device and the experience if I were a "real" reviewer (check out David Pogue of the NY Times, who doesn't recommend the Chromebook concept).

From my perspective? The Chromebook is a limited-function laptop that works reasonably nicely if you've got network. That's the story in a nutshell. (For what it's worth, the Samsung feels more like a laptop than a netbook to me, but my comparison point is a work-issued Macbook Air, which is more-or-less the same size and weight as the Chromebook I test-drove).

Bottom line, the Chromebook doesn't run software oriented to local storage, let alone to finding oneself offline. Yeah, you can plug in a flash drive and use or save files to actual hardware, yeah, there's some functionality without network ... but basically the Chromebook is a screen, a keyboard, and a Chrome browser. Nothing wrong with that, but it's pretty limited once you step away from wi-fi (you can buy 3G access if you've got the the $500 model of the Samsung device, or tether to a phone with a data plan ... but you still need a cell tower).

To be fair, you can't overlook the fact that Samsung is selling the package for less than a third the price of the Air. And you don't have to pay for OS upgrades, at least not yet. I suppose the cloud-based bit-box model might work for some people.

It was fun to do some in-air IRC, but the novelty wore off fast. In the end, I'm not one of those people who wants to live on the web. I was pretty much done with the device when we reached San Francisco and it was time to hand the loaner back to the guy at the gate.

But, hey, if you happen to find yourself flying Virgin America between now and 23 September, why not give the Chromebook a test drive?

Thanks to Andy Sternberg for the image of the Samsung Chromebook Series 5, on Flickr.