Saturday, September 09, 2006

Next Stop: The White House!

Or, perhaps, the White House II.

Either way...

The Kucinich Express stops in Santa Cruz.

Get on board now, or you're going to feel very silly later.

Ten things that will definitely be on your Calamity Physics midterm.

Last week, I read Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics. With the adoring reviews this book is getting, the cynic in me would lurve to report that it is bad. But it's not. It's actually the best novel I've read this year (and this is an impressive list, see #5 below).

Here are ten things you to know about the novel (no real spoilers):

1. What is the novel like? Let's imagine the style expressed as an equation:
2. Who doesn't like to be flattered? Not me. I was pretty pleased with myself after 100 pages of the novel, as I caught allusion after allusion to canonical novels, Romantic poetry, and the 1980s. Of course, the novel is still readable if you miss the allusions, but I loved running into them.

3. I loved the invented books that the narrator regularly references, and no fake quotation more than this one:

as Yam Chestley wrote in Dixiecrats (1979), 'The South knows two things through and through: cornbread and Satan' (p. 166).
How I wish this book existed.

4. If Pessl wants to be an internet phenomenon, she's well on her way. The "Calamity Physics" website is beautifully designed and really interesting (especially the additional information about the novel, like the rejected first lines). I could have done without the snarky Cliffs Notes, though.

Even more interesting, one can add the main character of the novel (Blue van Meer) as a friend on MySpace.

And, because Pessl's allusions to literature in the novel suggest that she is a good reader, I wouldn't hesitate to take most of her advice on 10 great debut novels. Although I think her Stephen King pick looks a bit like flattering the middlebrow.

5. This book is better than all of the novels I have read in the past year, including several novels that I loved, such as

6. Is Marisha Pessl hot? The jacket photo (right) suggests that she is.

But wait, not so fast, my friend. There are other pictures, and, it turns out, other standards that may need to be applied. Is Marisha Pessl hot or just "book hot"?

[One quibble with the linked table: Sarah Silverman isn't just "comedy hot"--I think she's legitimately hot.]

7. According to a writer-type friend of mine, one of the hardest things to do in fiction is to provide the reader with information that the first-person narrator does not know him or herself. Pessl does this really well in her novel.

8. A favorite passage (and an intriguing idea for university class-schedulers):
Dad once noted (somewhat morbidly, I thought at the time) that American institutions would be infinitely more successful in facilitating the pursuit of knowledge if they held classes at night, rather than in the daytime, from 8:00 P.M. to 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning. As I ran through the darkness, I understood what he meant. Frank red brick, sunny classrooms, symmetrical quads and courts--it was a setting that mislead [sic] kids to believe that Knowledge, that Life itself, was bright, clear and freshly mowed. Dad said a student would be infinitely better off going out into the world if he/she studied the periodic table of elements, Madame Bovary, the sexual reproduction of a sunflower, for example, with deformed shadows congregating on the classroom walls, silhouettes of fingers and pencils leaking onto the floor, gastric howls from unseen radiators and a teacher's face not flat and faded, not delicately pasteled by a golden late afternoon, but serpentine, gargoyled, Cyclopsed by the inky dark and feeble light from a candle. He/she would understand 'everything and nothing,' Dad said, if there was nothing discernible in the windows but a lamppost mobbed by blaze-crazy moths and darkness, reticent and unfeeling, as darkness always was.

9. The original title of the novel was "Hey Donna Tartt: Suck It!"

10. On a recent hike on a semi-deserted trail near Muir Woods, I found myself creeped out by the woods in a way that I've never been before reading this novel. For me, Pessl has managed to put a spookiness back into the forest.

It's not just Ewoks that lurk in the woods.

Field Trip Week: Casual Sex in Salinas, Foucault, Steinbeck, and Dirty Limericks

On Thursday night, Fosco gave his personal assistant, Geoffrey, the night off and headed south on Highway 1 into "Big Salad Country"--the Salinas Valley.

I was in Salinas for several reasons:

  • to visit the largest city on the Central Coast
  • to see the vast fields of lettuce and other greens--trust me, they are indeed vast
  • to get a tossed salad

Oh yeah, and I had also recently heard about a "place" in Salinas where visitors can enjoy the company of Latino men--anonymously and for a short while. Naturally, I had to investigate and I was not disappointed--what a great idea! Latino men are so... spicy.

Casual sex between men--I am always reminded of an interview with Michel Foucault, conducted by James O'Higgins, in which Foucault explains why the prohibition on homosexuality has made it so that homosexuals prefer to focus entirely on the sex act itself, as opposed to the rituals of anticipation, courtship, and intimacy:

O'Higgins: I'm reminded of Cassanova's famous expression that 'the best moment in life is when one is climbing the stairs.' One can hardly imagine a homosexual today making such a remark.

Foucault: Exactly. Rather, he would say something like: 'the best moment of love is when the lover leaves in the taxi.'
Or, something more like: the best part is when I get back into my car and go to get a burger.

Which brings up another delight in Salinas: an In-N-Out Burger, Fosco's favorite!

Did you know that John Steinbeck was born in Salinas? I think there should be a sign at the city limits: "Birthplace of that Novelist You Liked When You Were in High School."

Unfortunately, there is some sort of National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, dedicated to "the exploration of Steinbeck's work and themes." God help us.

I can save everyone a lot of effort by performing an exhaustive exploration of Steinbeck's themes right here:
  • Theme 1: People are still worthy of respect and dignity, even if they are stupid and gross and breast-feed grown men and stuff.
  • Theme 2: Physical strength and retardation are a problematic combination.
  • Theme 3: Sometimes there is a good brother and sometimes there is an evil brother; also, women cause a lot of trouble (see also Book of Genesis).
See, now I'm the National Steinbeck Center.

During my Foucaultian reverie on the drive back to Santa Cruz, it occurred to me that Salinas would be an excellent subject for a dirty limerick. Ergo:

There once was a man from Salinas
Who had an exceptional penis
He bragged: "On a night
When I wear my pants tight,
I score more than Gilbert Arenas."
What other California cities can be thus limericked? Modesto? Eureka? Milpitas? Commenters, consider yourself challenged.

Field Trip Week: Walking on Endor

On Wednesday, Fosco and Geoffrey drove north, over the Golden Shower, er, Golden Gate Bridge, through the Rainbow Tunnel into Marin County, up a curvy, curvy mountain road to Muir Woods National Monument.

If I hadn't been walking through the incredible redwoods on the UCSC campus for the last month, I would have been floored by Muir Woods. Even so, Muir Woods is still gorgeous--I could walk through redwoods all day.

But even though the redwoods aren't especially novel to someone who walks in redwoods every day, Muir Woods still has its attractions:

  • In the spring, Pacific salmon swim up Redwood Creek to spawn.
  • Muir Woods has hosted historic meetings, like the commemoration of FDR held in 1945 by the Charter delegates of the United Nations (held here) and the original summer camping trip of the Bohemian Club, a retreat known affectionately among attendees as "Sodomy Camp."
  • Visitors to Muir Woods have the option of walking the trails, or of renting (at a reasonable rate) a speeder bike. Geoffrey and I chose to walk.

Although this isn't exactly the season for seeing interesting wildlife in Muir Woods, we did come within fifteen feet of some very tame black-tailed deer. However, one question haunted our entire visit:

Where are the goddamn Ewoks?

The rangers refused to answer this question, so I'm writing a letter to Dirk Kempthorne, Secretary of the Interior and former porn star. I'm glad to see that what he did to pay for college didn't affect his confirmation. Incidentally, he must be the first Secretary of the Interior that people want to dress up as for Halloween.

Wow. This post ended up somewhere weird, didn't it?

Latinos are so... spicy

I know I make tons of fun of Indiana governor Misti Daniels, the Dungeon Master of the Midwest. But Californians fare little better in the resident of the ceremonial Governor's Mansion. Here are some recent words of wisdom (caught on tape) of Governor Schwarzenegger:

I mean Cuban, Puerto-Rican, they are all very hot. They have the, you know, part of the black blood in them and part of the Latino blood in them that together makes it.

I'm no expert on "blood cocktails," but I'm pretty sure this was a stupid thing to say.

Read the full story here.

Who was Schwarzenegger talking about? Check out the zesty Latina spitfire here.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Field Trip Week: Seventeen Mile Drive

As the start of school nears, Fosco and his personal assistant Geoffrey have decided to wrap up the summer with a week full of fun California-related field trips.

On Tuesday, we headed south on Highway 1 to the world's most beautiful gated community: Pebble Beach. Luckily, hoi polloi are allowed to drive the main loop of the "village," 17-Mile Drive.

Of course, you have to pay $8.75 to do so.

Because this seems to me like a particularly ridiculous arrangement (why should I have to pay $9 to drive along the beach?), I would lurve to say that it's a scam. Unfortunately, it turns out that I would be willing to pay quite a bit more for this privilege. (Although the good liberal in me still wonders why we have to pay at all.)

The wildlife viewing was exceptional, despite unpleasant weather (and the late season). We saw

  • pelicans
  • Brandt's cormorants
  • sea otters. So playful!
  • a lone seal, lazily napping on a rock (see pic at right and use your imagination).
And, of course, no visit is complete without contemplation of the "signature cypress":
This icon of fortitude has inspired many and is revered as the eternal symbol of Pebble Beach Company.

Although, I would suggest that the "icon of fortitude" looks a little less inspiring now that it's surrounded by a stone and concrete planter. More like an "icon of landscaping" or something.

Fosco was so enamored of the views here that he's thinking about taking up golf. Oh, and he made an offer on a little beach house. He has a good feeling about this one... Keep your fingers crossed.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

In-N-Out Burger: The first rule of the secret menu is, you do not talk about the secret menu.

[The most recent of Fosco's weekly restaurant reviews.]

It turns out there is this whole California fast-food phenomenon known as In-N-Out Burger. In my East Coast life, I had heard of the place, of course. I knew a couple of Stanford grads who had relocated east and who swore that it was what they missed the most about the West Coast. And, as my friend Todd has pointed out for years, the name does have a somewhat dirty sound to it. So naturally, when I passed one on the interstate two weeks ago, I thought it might be worth a try.

The first time I ate there, I was (truth-be-told) disappointed. The menu is extremely limited--only burgers, fries, and shakes/soft drinks. I definitely enjoy a burger, but I also enjoy a variety of potential toppings. The burger I had was fine. Good, even. But nothing that I would go out of my way to eat. The fries were, well, pretty dull. Definitely not McDonald's caliber. I began to write a post in my head: a skeptical Easterner debunks the In-N-Out myth. But then I decided to give them another chance.

On my second visit, the food was exactly the same: adequate yet uninspired. But (and I remember this vividly, with the clarity which life-changing moments sometimes demand), the guy who got his food in front of me had something different, something that was clearly not on the posted menu! It looked like fries, but they were cheesy! And there was some sort of sauce involved! I ate my boring meal and rushed home to do more research.

[This is the point in the narrative where you wonder why I didn't just ask the guy what he ordered. Or, perhaps, why I didn't ask one of the counter associates. These are valid questions. The answer is that I'm not like that.]

Apparently, the reason that the guy had something delicious-looking is that there is a SECRET MENU at In-N-Out Burger. (This isn't quite the same as Fight Club, so maybe I can talk about the secret menu.) The company tries to pretend that the menu isn't all-that-secret by posting it on their website (although you do have to be sharp-eyed to catch it). However, it turns out that the Secret Menu is actually quite a bit more extensive than they would have you believe.

Ever since discovering this secret menu, I have been enjoying my double cheeseburger "Animal Style," that is with

  • mustard-cooked beef patties (What is mustard-cooked? I have no idea.)
  • extra spread (very similar to Thousand Island)
  • pickles
  • grilled onions

Even better, I now order my fries "Animal Style" as well, which means they are smothered with

  • melted cheese
  • grilled onions
  • spread
Gaze upon a miracle:

I am pretty sure this is what the Greeks meant by ambrosia.

The only thing that prevents me from eating every meal at In-N-Out Burger (well, besides a strong desire never to visit a cardiologist) is that the nearest one is over 30 miles from my apartment. (Although it is on the way to IKEA...)

My infatuation with In-N-Out is even more remarkable considering that the company is owned by religious nuts. However, do be assured that, as I gobble down my "Animal Style" fries, I am constantly thinking "Hail, Satan." That should even things out.

The Week in Pictures

Fosco will admit that, when he surfs the web, he likes to grab pictures--odd pictures, funny pictures, strange pictures. They are almost entirely useless, but he keeps them in a little folder on his computer desktop and looks at them occasionally for giggles. He's got one of a marmoset on a garden fence in Palo Alto. He's got one of NY Mets outfielder Lastings Milledge shirtless in a cowboy hat and a blazer. Fun stuff.

But this week... well, it's been a picture bonanza! What with

But, I think Fosco's favorite still has to be

[Explanation here]

I don't know, but it seems kinda like looking in a crystal ball.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

"It's better than yours."

I'm sorry to do this (for many, many reasons), but you should watch this commercial:

[You will have to drag the "Cow Shake Off" video from the left-hand column to the viewer.]

There is something indecent about this whole thing. Which is maybe why it's so funny.

Monday, September 04, 2006

The interstate's choked with nomadic hordes

This summer marks the fiftieth anniversary of the U.S. Interstate System and I have a confession to make: I love interstates.

I recognize that there are many good reasons why the interstates are problematic, but I don't care--I still love them. To tell the complete truth, I am a total interstate geek. I am never happier in a car than when I am on the interstate. I collect interstate trivia. I read atlases and memorize the grid. I have driven through 41 US States-all on interstates. I consider the Interstate System to be the most awe-inspiring construction project in the history of civilization.

Yeah, I'm kinda weird about interstates.

Which is why I love this article in the San Jose Mercury News, which provides glimpses of the social history of California's interstates. And yes, I feel a kinship with Officer Izarras:

On a recent morning in Sacramento, the scene reflected in Felix Izarraras' sunglasses is a video clip of flannel-gray pavement and shiny guardrails. He's a California Highway Patrol officer and also an astute observer of the interstate network -"the most beautiful highway system in the world.''

"The interstates,'' he says, "represent America to me.''

All of which has led me to want to collect some thoughts about interstates:

1. My Interstate Achievements. There are two achivements that I am especially proud of:
  • Over the course of my lifetime, I have driven the entire length of I-80, from San Francisco to New York City. I-80, to me, is the East-West backbone of the country--as John McPhee has pointed out, it is an ancient migration route for both humans and animals. It also reveals a fascinating geological cross-section of the country.
  • I have driven almost all of I-95, from Daytona Beach to Portland (ME). All I am missing is the strip from Miami to Daytona and the section from Portland to Houlton, ME. I adore 95--it connects all of the power cities on the East Coast: Boston, New York, Baltimore, Washington, Miami. Even when I'm stuck in South Carolina on I-95, I can still feel the metropolitan excitement.
2. Interstate Phenomena. Without the interstate, we wouldn't have the totally-pointless billboard-driven tourist attractions/rest stops that are essential for hipsters to enjoy ironically. 3. Why I Feel Safer on the Interstate. I have a friend from Sweden who refuses to drive on American insterstates. He finds the homogeneity offensive and prefers to take routes by which he can sample the "local color." This is all well and good, assuming that one has time for the local color.

But, sometimes the best part of the interstate is the homogeneity. It turns out that large portions of the country are filled with people who are actively unfriendly to people like me and I don't really want to give these unfriendly people access to me. Or, to put it simply, I don't want to get beat up. Especially in unfriendly territory, the interstate is the safest place for a number of reasons:
  • State Police are less likely that local police (or sheriffs, yikes!) to be dangerously prejudiced.
  • There are usually lots of other motorists nearby.
  • Food and gasoline are usually readily available, without the possibility of getting lost.
  • The locals that you interact with (at gas stations or fast food places) are more likely to be used to interacting with out-of-towners.
  • You can drive really fast.
Do you really think I would have driven through rural Mississippi or Nevada without the interstate?

4. I-99 is evil and must be stopped. The numbering system is one of the things that I most admire about the interstates--it's so elegantly logical. But, then there is the abomination known as I-99. According to the system, such a road must be located to the east of I-95, and yet it is not. It's in Central Pennsylvania. This is unacceptable.

I know the explanation, but it still rankles.

5. The Best Song for Self-Conscious Driving on the Interstate. While there are many excellent songs for interstate driving, I'm going to recommend Bruce Springsteen's "Open All Night." Here's a representative verse:
Early north Jersey industrial skyline I'm a all-set cobra jet creepin' through the nighttime
Gotta find a gas station, gotta find a payphone this turnpike sure is spooky at night when you're all alone
Gotta hit the gas, baby. I'm running late, this New Jersey in the mornin' like a lunar landscape
Read the rest of the lyrics here.

6. The Problems with Interstates in Indiana. Regular readers know that I have little but contempt for the state of Indiana. Here are two good reasons why:
  • I was born and raised in Rust Belt, Michigan, a town close to the Indiana border. Ever since I can remember, people have been complaining about the unconscionably long commute between South Bend and Indianapolis. The distance between these two cities (the largest and fourth largest in the state) is 138 miles, yet the drive usually takes in excess of 3 hours on the non-limited-access US 31:
    Ask nearly anyone around Indiana about the drive on U.S. 31. Without hesitation, most will recount how they dread driving between Indianapolis and South Bend. They generally are puzzled that such a busy highway includes unexpected obstacles such as railroad crossings without overpasses, side roads with stop sign access and most of all, those endless stop lights!
    The US 31 Coalition (source of the above quote) wants to do something about this, but, due to an incredibly corrupt and petrified political establishment (and, perhaps, due to the fact that South Bend is one of the few borderline Democratic areas in a very red state), there has been little progress in the last 25 years. Unbelievable.

  • The Indiana portion of Interstate 80/90 aka the Indiana Toll Road has been sold to a private firm. Well, actually, it has been "leased"--but for 75 years (which makes the sold/leased distinction entirely irrelevant for those of us who plan to die sometime before then). This idea was the brainchild of Governor Mitzi Daniels (who is clearly that kid that everyone hated in high school--not because he was smart, but because he was super creepy). The private firm gets to collect (and raise!) tolls on the road for the next 75 years, and the State of Indiana gets 2.8 billion dollars up front.

    Now I'm no expert on public works financing, but does this seem like a ripoff to you? Was this really the only way for the Tiny Governor to raise 2.8 billion dollars? Don't states sell municipal bonds anymore?
7. Art and the Interstates.Are the interstates responsible for any really great art?

On the one hand, Lolita would be an entirely different (and definitely inferior) novel in the era of the interstate.

On the other hand, it would be hard to imagine the oeuvre of Bruce Springsteen without the influence of the interstate highway. In fact, as NPR has pointed out, rock and roll owes a great deal to the interstate.

But, on the one hand, the interstate must be held responsible for Sammy Hagar's "I Can't Drive 55."

Some other interstate-inspired artistic creations:
Any other thoughts, commenters?

8. The Future of the Interstate. What will interstates be like in the future? Well, for one thing, they'll be run by robots or something.

And when can you expect a new interstate to open near you? Find out here.