Look At Me Right Now! .com

June 10, 2014

Social media has ushered in – among other things – an age of staggering egocentricity. Any mook with a mobile phone can, with sickening ease and speed, announce anything to the world. Idealists regard this ability as the freedom of unregulated self-expression. In truth, not every aspect of every self is worth expressing. Too seldom does somebody with an intelligence quotient greater than the number of letters in the English alphabet announce something interesting about something interesting. Too often, social media is little more than an open sewer in which worthwhile self-expression suffocates in dim-witted self indulgence. The ability to tell anybody anything has fooled many into thinking anybody cares. Granted, those many probably did not require much effort to fool.

Why do we visit museums? To see worthwhile art. What if museums let slip standards and filled themselves with every cartoon from a third grader’s penmanship notebook? We would not visit. Or visit once, just for the novelty.

Once, publishing a thought to more than the number of subscribers to a neighborhood newsletter required a threshold level of intellect and  at least a nodding acquaintance with the language in which publication was attempted, and typically applying that aptitude to something worth the effort and cost of publication. This was a golden age in which “selfies” did not exist – or, if they did, were not inflicted upon readers like mustard gas. Discretion existed. It was understood that, just as restraint is the essence of taste, an absence of restraint proves an absence of taste.

When effort and cost ceased to constrain publication, so too did quality.

Worse than a simple absence of taste (which is a personal problem) is an overinflated sense of self-importance (which can present a public problem). Those unrestrained by taste in an age of social media are free to indulge a staggering egocentricity which insists people other than their parents care that they are a) sooo tired of waiting in line at Starbucks ha ha ha!, b) thanking all my peeps for the bestest birthday wishes!!! feel sooo loved, or c) omg so so so excited for Glee season finale!!!!!!!!!!

Cost and effort, the safeguards of publishing which once kept the thoughts of morons safely out of sight, are hence mourned.

This may be an ironic stance for a web log to take. The medium was once rightly derided by Joe Rago of the Wall Street Journal as the provence of “the blog mob” – a territory to be avoided. But drastic times, etc. Public discourse used to be a marketplace of ideas. Entry to the market meant having something worth selling. Nowadays, the cost of admission is a cartload of garbage with which to abuse shoppers.


Different Expectations.

May 16, 2014

WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange recently sat for interviews which were to form the basis of his ghostwritten “autobiography,” the final draft of which he objected to publishing on the ground it made too much information public. An “unauthorized autobiography” was thereafter published, over objection. Some cried hypocrisy: the man whose mission was to expose the secrets of governments was taken aback at the prospect of his own secrets made public.

In truth, there was no hypocrisy: individuals (typically) have a greater expectation of – and right to – privacy than governments, because individuals are not given power by the citizenry. Governments, conversely, are empowered by, and accountable to, their citizens – the private investigation of governments (by citizens, journalistic citizen apparati, or other means) is an important check on their power and a shield against over-reaching, as well as an alarm to corruption and waste (necessarily tempered by security concerns). Individuals, on the other hand, are answerable to laws, not to the population at large, and have thus a more pronounced expectation of privacy in their affairs. People elect governments, making governments answerable to people. The same is not true of Mr. Assange, who never stood for election.


Arms & Manners.

May 13, 2014

With deservedly little fanfare and even less facility with written English, we return to the digital fray with two quick notes.

No. 1:

A photographic phenomenon hardly less detestable than the “selfy” is the “skinny arm,” an affectation of young women who, through wishful thinking, have come to believe that photographs taken of them with arms cocked and angled toward the viewer make said arms look thin. This is not the case. Arms typically look fat because they are, not because of poor posing. No imaginative posturing will correct this. A treadmill might.

No. 2:

There is nothing more indicative of low origin than discourtesy. Your editorial staff recently flew to Boston, by way of Chicago. Going and returning, the administrative and mechanical failings of several airlines made sailing less than smooth. Nothing much could be done about this on the ground level, but the rudeness and complete absence of tact with which airline terminal workers foisted on travelers 15-hour delays hardly improved things. Irate customers became more so. Responding to exasperation, workers complained loudly to customers of their own tedious hours manning ticket booths and check-in desks overnight, leaving little question as to how those particular workers got stuck working an overnight airline ticket booth in the first place.


The Prints of England.

September 17, 2013

The English political magazine Vanity Fair published over 2,000 lithographic caricatures between 1868 and 1914, the bulk of which documented the Empire’s social, sporting and governmental notables. The subjects were as often the fodder of snide editorial asides, though a sympathetic establishmentarian stance pervaded. As the magazine’s title indicated, the caricatures tore into the assorted vanities of their targets – though in the good-natured way of an inside joke. They appeared weekly and became the journal’s distinguishing feature.

Originally assailants of royalty and politicos only, the caricaturists soon enlarged their focus to include actors, artists, sporting types, judges, men about town, and the assorted ornaments and oddments of the imperial military. Victims learned to appreciate that lampooning came as recognition for some accomplishment (laudable or less so) and took it in stride, like the subjects of friars’ roasts. Few protested. Thomas Gibson Bowles, founder, explained his magazine’s purpose in response to a critical Daily News article: “There are grim faces made more grim, grotesque features made more grotesque, and dull people made duller… but there is nothing that has been treated with a set purpose to make it something that was not already originally in a lesser degree.” Bowles himself provided biographical accompaniment to the art under the pen name Jehu Junior.

Two of the more popular caricaturists proved to be Carlo Pellegrini and Leslie Ward, each also thankfully prolific. Their work was published under the pseudonyms Ape and Spy – Ape considered the wittier and more insightful of the two, Spy drier and more aloof, often studying subjects clandestinely for hours. Judges presiding over court were especially vulnerable.

Each man sketched in public, then returned to the magazine’s studios to create final drafts in water color. Lithographers printed the product by way of the innovative transfer paper, the invention of which was critical to the enterprise. Lithography eliminated the necessity of drawing backwards to account for the reversal of printing presses. Their prints remain highly collectible today, as both bits of anecdotal history and political art.


The Big Fire.

July 30, 2013

From Racquet Club: A Youthful Hundred: “The Big Fire, or: Who’s That in the Negligee?”

The busy, hot St. Louis summer of 1957 reached its peak in early August. The Racquet Club slowed down with the rest of the city, as members vacationed in cooler climes, and the squash players, who typically liked cold courts to keep the ball from getting too lively, suffered with summer’s usual stifling conditions. Saturday, August 3, had been a typical, lazy, midsummer weekend day of no particular note. That evening, out at Sportsman’s Park, the Cardinals, led as always by Stan Musial, had vanquished the Phillies 3-1. Around 3:30 a.m., Larry Callan, a cabbie driving by the Club on North Kingshighway, noticed flames coming from the windows of the second floor above the Card Room, in the area of one of the squash courts. He immediately pulled over to the corner of North Kingshighway and Westminster and pulled the alarm on box 1725.

Three other alarms were called in by fire personnel as they arrived over the next thirty minutes.

At 3:30 a.m., the Club had, of course, long been closed for the evening, its only inhabitants being a few boarders and one or two employees asleep upstairs. One of these folks became aware of flames tearing through the second-floor squash area, roused the others, and led a contingent of a half-dozen sleep-addled Racquet Clubbers, in various states of nighttime dishabille, from the upper floors, down three flights, through the Library and foyer, and to the sidewalk outside. By the time they had assembled in the front of the building, sirens were filling the warm night air, and hook-and-ladders were pulling up to the curb.

Suddenly one member — it is unknown who — roused the cobwebs sufficiently enough to gain his bearings and with them, his sense of decorum.

Looking at the flames jumping out of the second-floor windows, it was obvious the fire would prove to be costly and damaging. On the other hand, it was a big building, the fire was at the moment isolated in one area, and the fire trucks were already on-site. The danger would obviously be fully contained in short order. Given all this, he stepped in front of the helmeted firemen in their heavy gear, axes in hand, jumping off the trucks and preparing to storm in though the front door. The service entrance, he informed them, was down the alley, and the Club would appreciate it they would kindly redirect their efforts by using that door.

The somewhat surprised firefighters stopped dead in their tracks, looked at one another, shrugged, and ran down the alley for the service entrance.

In a few hours the fire was out, although, unfortunately, two firemen were hospitalized. Almost certainly the bar had been temporarily relocated to the sidewalk out front. (It is hard to imagine the members fighting fire without firewater.) But most importantly, decorum had been maintained, protocol followed, even in the midst of the conflagration. The front door had remained a members-only passage throughout the crisis.

Lest some feel this too rigid an adherence to regulations, it must be remembered that the rules were in fact relaxed: the firemen were not required to wear ties as they went about their duties, even though the dress code required it of everyone in the public areas of the Club.

The cause of the blaze, which appeared to originate in a storeroom, was never identified. In terms of damage, the squash court was fully charred and burned, the Card Room was gutted and damaged by water, and the Oak Bar incurred smoke damage. Final costs for replastering the walls and ceiling downstairs, repanelling the walls, sanding and refinishing the floors, and tending to wiring and ductwork issues exceeded $20,000. Fortunately the painting of Judge Taylor at the east end of the room and the mural over the fireplace were undamaged. No efforts were made to repair the squash court, however, and it would remain a sealed-off ruin for more than twenty years.

There was, as it turned out, fallout beyond the physical damage. Apparently, one of those so rudely rousted by the flames from the fourth floor, and left standing on the sidewalk at 4:00 a.m., turned out to be a woman — and not an employee. No acceptable explanation for her presence was ever offered. Women, of course, were not allowed on the premises, day or night. In addition, business was frowned upon, so even were she a consultant of some variety, as is likely, she would still have been outside the protocols established for Club activities. There is no record of a sanction of any individual who may have been serving as her host for the evening. Larry Callan received 125 from the Board for his Club-saving effort, and the Fire Chief received a letter “to show our gratitude for the efficient way his fireman put out the fire.”


One Observation.

July 20, 2013

In the wake of the conclusion of the George Zimmerman trial, in which Mr. Zimmerman was acquitted of any wrongdoing in the death of Trayvon Martin, a number of pundits and personalities of all types have decried the racial element of the process. Because Mr. Zimmerman is white, they allege, he was set free after killing a young black man. Never mind that Mr. Zimmerman is actually Hispanic; they believe his ethnicity was a decisive factor in his vindication.

Those same voices appear now raised in opposition to the acquitting jury’s verdict – that is, in de facto accusations of racism against a majority of those jurors. No such voice has produced a viable scrap of evidence Mr. Zimmerman acted in any way other than that necessary to defend himself when confronted with deadly force. Despite that absence of evidence, they appear dead-set on believing that Mr. Zimmerman was set free because of his race, not because of the lack of any evidence contrary to his explanation. The logical corollary of the fact these commentators believe Mr. Zimmerman was wrongfully set free is that they also believe he should not have been set free, which in turn correlates with the fact they believe he was guilty of killing Mr. Martin without justification. They have yet to identify proof in support of that position, which leads to the conclusion that those same people who believe Mr. Zimmerman was acquitted because of his race now appear intent on assuming his guilt based on nothing more than that same race. The absurdity of the double standard is palpable.

Editor’s note: The post above reflects no opinion regarding the facts of the case; rather, it is simply critical of those who assume a defendant’s guilt (or innocence) on the basis of nothing more than race, regardless of the assumption or the race. It is as wrong to assume a man is guilty (or innocent) of a crime because he is white as it is to assume the same thing because he is black. The post above is critical of knee-jerk racial assumptions.


A World Unto Itself.

July 2, 2013

I spend an inordinate amount of time decorating. An inordinate amount of money, too – especially in comparison to purchases which could have some more readily identifiable bearing on my quality of life. For instance: food. Or: internet service. Or even: gasoline. The net dividend of most paychecks (what isn’t vacuumed up by the student loan shylocks) is most often left in the polished brass coffers of little antique shops. Why there? Because that’s where they sell walnut writing desks and little crystal inkwells. Antique shops offer the worst sort of potential for impulse buying: a beat-to-hell Persian rug? An etching of Napoleon on the march? Ring ‘em up.

The efficiency with which I finance the college careers of antique merchants’ children recently led a friend to ask: why? Why spend so much time and treasure making a place that – since I live alone – few people ever see look like an English country house? Wouldn’t the money be better penned up in a savings account or invested somehow?

The answer is two-fold: first, my apartment is well-insured and in a very old building. When and if it ever goes up in flames or (more likely) simply subsides into the earth, I’ll make a bundle. Second, no. The money would decidedly not be better saved than spent. Here is why:

The world is, even at best, disquieting. Buses are loud. People are discourteous and care about ridiculous things called Kardashians. Buildings are ugly and everything is beginning to look prefabricated and shoddy. English is butchered daily by almost everybody – and not in small, forgivable ways, but on a tremendous and violent scale: most Americans treat their country’s national language like Hitler treated Poland. The political left and right have gone insane in equal measure. Fashion is garish. In general, the lowest common denominator prevails.

Step into my home. Things are quiet and gentle. There are old rugs on the floors, which are wood and polished. Sit in any cozy chair and there is a table within arm’s reach where you can set a drink. There are brass and glass ashtrays, but only for cigars. Or, if you want, a rack of pipes is in the library – next to the old Vanity Fair caricatures and some engravings of sailboats. The light is natural, from big windows, or else soft and dusky, from thickly shaded lamps. Look anywhere and you will see neatly stacked books about nearly anything. Hunting scenes are on the walls and blankets are across the backs of chairs. A number of small bars (in the kitchen, the dining room and the library) are convenient and well-provisioned. There is ice in the freezer and tumblers in the cabinet.

No matter what the world demands in the way of tolerating vulgarity, your home – house, apartment, condominium, cabin – is your own. In it, you can create a world to your own specifications, the world you would prefer. My own tastes are clubby and subdued. Yours might be modern and sleek. In either case, the pleasure and reassurance of being able, at the end of any day, to slip into a world of your own taste is priceless.

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