Monday, May 31, 2010

For I am a rain dog too

A fairly arbitrarily selected list of twelve of my favorite Americans, real and fictional, whose admirable and/or compelling qualities I find distinctly American, offered in no particular order and without further commentary (for now):

1. Hunter S. Thompson
2. Ernest Hemingway
3. Tom Waits
4. Jay Gatsby
5. Denis Leary
6. Tony Stark
7. William F. Buckley, Jr
8. Richard Nixon
9. Jack Donaghy
10. Jay-Z
11. Kanye West
12. Woody Allen

Honorable mentions:
Roger Sterling
Dagny Taggart
Charlie Wilson
Nicolas Cage
Johnny Cash
Humphrey Bogart
"A rain dog is - you notice it more in lower Manhattan than anywhere else - after a rain in New York all the dogs that got caught in the rain, somehow the water washed away their whole trail and they can't get back home so about 4 in the morning you see all these stranded dogs on the street and they're looking around like - won't you help me get back home, sir, please - excuse me sir - excuse me sir - can you help me find my way back home - all makes and models, the short ones, the black ones, the tall ones, the expensive ones, the long ones, the disturbed ones, they all want to get home.

So that's a rain dog. It's like falling asleep somewhere and you thought you knew where you were and when you woke up - it's like Mission Impossible - they changed the furniture and the walls and windows and the sky turned a different color and you can never get back..." - Tom Waits

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Cocktail Party

Gifts received:
-a copy of Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon
two bottles of wine
-Pakistani cigarettes

Alcohol consumed:
-one and a half bottles of whiskey
-one and a half bottles of wine
-one bottle of rum
-one bottle of champagne
-half a bottle of vodka

Number of people I was expecting: six
Number of people in attendance: twelve
Number of people passed out in my living room at the end of the night: one
Number of times I've bitched about NATO with a Bosniak, a neocon, and a veteran of the War in Afghanistan on my fire escape: once

Saturday, May 29, 2010

In which I buy cigarettes at a Turkish pizzeria at 2am

The Turk: The usual?

Me: Yeah, Marlboro Reds, thanks.

The Turk: Of course! You here all summer?

Me: Pretty much. I'm in Russia for five weeks, though.

The Turk (who, for the past two years, has been very flirtatious, and is suddenly cold): Oh. You Russian?

Me: Yes.

The Turk: Oh. (pause) You look Russian.

Me: ...thank you.

He shoves the cigarettes at me across the counter. I do not receive my usual discount. I cannot believe my Russianness has not come up before.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Civil Rights are Neither!

Everything old is new again?

The apparently unconquerable Civil Rights Act Question continues to rear its slippery head, this time in Nevada:
"'It’s a simple question, but it’s a ‘gotcha’ question,' [Nevada Republican candidate for Senator Sue] Lowden, a former state Republican Party chairwoman, said on the show “Face to Face.” 'Frankly, I wouldn't even know Rand Paul if I saw him on TV.'"
How the hell has this become a meme? The '64 Civil Rights Act is a thought experiment you throw at naive libertarians their freshman year of college, not a goddamn campaign issue. What's even more frustrating than the repeated asking is the complete inability of Republicans to address, brush off, and get back on message. Aren't y'all supposed to be career politicians?

Look, I'll do you a favor and tell you what to say: in an ideal world, such heavy-handed state involvement in civil society wouldn't be necessary, and given the social and economic inequalities we see between races even today it's clear that the Civil Rights Act was a less than perfect solution, but there are clear instances where imperfect state intervention is better than none. But the United States today isn't a country wanting for government intervention! In fact... [get the fuck back on message].

It's not like the Tea Party is looking for ultra-libertarian rigor and consistency, here, folks, unless there's a secret GOP Plan to finally repeal the Civil Rights Act that no one told me about (there aren't even any prominent Republicans with mustaches ornate enough to twirl evilly, so what would be the point?).

And seriously, Sue, what's with the bus hailing over Rand Paul? Touchy much?

Here's how I'd explain the fascination of the cryogenic pod people apparently running 2010 political season coverage: libertarianism, though older than the baby boomers it currently horrifies, has never gotten much attention on the national stage. Unlike Republicanism and Democratism, it's an ideological system, meaning that consistency is possible, and in consistency-friendly soil strange verdure blooms. The triple-headed dog called Bush Derangement Syndrome, the Campaign for Liberty, and the Tea Party Movement tore away enough old meat to make room for libertarian candidates, who, used to never having a snowball's chance in hell at being serious contenders for anything significant, never really learned how to talk the talk. And now we all get to relive the same old conversations libertarians have been having since way before there even was a Madonna for Gaga to imitate because apparently the Democrats can't find anything more substantive to attack the new wave GOP on?

Oh, and one more thing: isn't race like, still a huge issue, and stuff? Pray to the devil you know, I guess.

Bubblegum Cigars & Marlboro Reds

"Warm beer and cold women, I just don't fit in;
every joint I stumbled into tonight,
that's just how it's been.
All these double knit strangers with
gin and vermouth, and the recycled stories
in the naugahyde booths,

with the platinum blondes,
and tobacco brunettes...
I'll just be drinkin' to forget you-
I light another cigarette...
and the band's playin' something
by Tammy Wynette,
and the drinks are on me tonight."

When that song makes sense with a cigar or pipe smoker, I'll feel kinship.

People outside the dirty soap bubble that is tobacco culture sometimes assume we're a monolith- that a Marlboro man can down whiskey with a thirty-something chomping a Davidoff Grand Cru and achieve some kind of smokers' intersubjectivity. Any serious cigarette smoker will laugh in your face if you suggest that they have something in common with someone who knows their way around a meerschaum.

Don't get me wrong-- while I loathe the smell of cigars I do enjoy pipe tobacco once in a while, and sometimes mix it in with mine when I roll my own. But we do not share a culture, or even an understanding of what it means to be smokers, and we never did- even before the state stepped in and made it nigh impossible.

It's a damn shame, because politically, cigar and pipe smokers have much more clout than we lowly filter-suckers- but we are distinct groups, and have often looked on one another with mutual disdain. Sometime last year I combed Manhattan for a smoking-friendly bar, only to find numerous "cigar bars" with signs bluntly noting that cigarettes were completely unwelcome. Cigar and pipe aficionados, noting the easy class distinction between themselves and we, the maligned remnant, sold us out long ago to preserve their own skins. It's worked out well for them, thus far. Unfortunately the War Against Tobacco is merely a battle in the larger War Against Risk, and they will soon find themselves in the crosshairs- but that's a story for another time.

Frankly, the Federation of Tobacco is rather like Yugoslavia in the early 80s. Ignorant outsiders assume that because of various geographic, ethnic and religious ties that Yugoslavs must, at the end of the day, band together. Unfortunately, a Serb is not a Croat, a Catholic is not Orthodox, and a South Slav is not an Arab; likewise, the man who reaches for a cigar to congratulate himself on the birth of his son or a successful business venture has nothing in common with the nicotine-starved paradox that is the cigarette smoker.

Richard Klein notes that "the pleasure of cigarette smoking is distinguished from that procured by other forms of tobacco consumption insofar as it defies the economy of what Freud calls the pleasure principle. According to that principle, which interprets pleasure on the model of need, the satisfaction of desire results in the elimination of desire... Cigarettes, however, defy that economy of pleasure: they do not satisfy desire, they exasperate it. The more only yields to the excitation of smoking, the more deliciously, voluptuously, cruelly, and sweetly it awakens desire- it inflames what it presumes to extinguish."

In other words, cigars and pipes, despite the costly accessories those habits demand, are utterly bourgeois; cigarettes are tragic, and therefore inherently aristocratic, despite the common proletarian manifestation.

It makes perfect sense, to my mind, that in bygone years, before the Puritan resurgence in American government, cigars were peddled to children as bubblegum, and cigarettes as sugar. Bubblegum is brightly colored and flavored, familiar, and impermanent- one spits it out behind the trashcan on the corner when one is done. The thin sugar sticks that passed as candy cigarettes don't taste anything but narcotic and have little to no aesthetic appeal beyond what they manifestly are, and there's no escaping their effect. The ten year old pays a buck fifty for his Potemkin Lucky Strikes, shoves four or five straight down the alimentary canal, climbs trees for an hour and passes out in its shade when the high recedes.

And then he reaches for another.