Thursday, December 28, 2006

You Better Be Ready

So my girlfriend and I went to Lafayette, Louisiana for Christmas. My parents moved down there ten years ago when My Old Man took a job with a jewlery company that's headquartered in Cajun country. The intervening decade has included a lot of tentative explorations of that part of America.

Our new favorite activity, mine and my father's, is to visit Barney's Pistol range. We are quasi-eggheads from Massachusetts. We both like guns, mostly from afar. Even pre Brady bill, you had to pass rigorous background checks and whatnot to own a pistol in the Bay State, so neither one of us had any real experience with them. We'd both shot plenty of shotguns and rifles, but pistols are a whole different animal. Barney's is great because it's like a bowling alley, without the bottled beer. You can rent any ole gun you want, from a Dirty Harry Magnum to the newest Glock or a fully automatic submachine gun. (Of this weapon, one of the staff members said, "It's like bungee jumping or parachuting. You have to do it at least once in your life.") This permits guys like us to enjoy a variety guns without the hassle and responsibility of owning them.

Anyway, my Dad, my girlfriend and I drove over to Barney's and shot a .40 caliber Beretta and a nine millimeter SigSauer, and that was fun. Initially intimidated all to hell, Katie came to enjoy the Bond-girl power of blasting away at a paper target with the Beretta.

My other favorite activity in Louisian is driving around pointlessly. I took Katie on one of these rides, and as we drove we started noticing signs for something called "cracklin." Usually these advertisements accompanied billing for boudin (pronounced "boo-dan".) I know what boudin is. It's nasty sausage. I had no idea what cracklin was. I asked my parents about it. They explained that it was something like pork rinds. Duly noted, we planned to try some before we left.

So on our last day there, we went for a short pointless drive. We intended to get some daiquiris from a drive-thru, another Lousiana custom of dubious wisdom. Click on the photo for a closer look at a typical drive-thru daiquiri menu. My favorite is the Blue Diesel.

We got in the car and wandered around for a while. After a bit of searching, we found a grocery store/meat market with a sign for cracklin. We pulled into the lot.

I have learned that when I go into a new situation in Louisiana, if I immediately introduce myself as a visitor who is interested in a local custom, people are tremendously friendly. There's a strong hospitality trait among cajuns. It's one of the nicests things about the place and the people. So when we entered the store, I walked up to the woman at the counter and I said, "Hi, we're down here visiting, and I'm seeing all these signs for cracklin around town, and I've never tried cracklin. I don't even know how to begin to order it."

The woman looked up from her Us Weekly and said, "well, okay. We got three different sizes. It comes prepackaged." She led us over to a butcher counter. On top of the counter stood three hotel pans. In each hotel pan was a heap of zip-lock bags containing brown rinds. They looked as though they'd been on display for a day or two.

I said, "Do people usually order it hot?"

The woman looked up at me. She said, "Well you can get it hot. But if you do eat it hot, you better be ready for diarrhea."

Katie and I blinked and stared.

"It's real good hot," she went on. "But there's something about it, when you eat it hot, your body tells you it ain't right."

Nevertheless, we bought a four dollar bag.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Running With Scissors

Vanity Fair has posted the full text of its Augusten Burroughs article. I'm still waiting for someone to explain to me why people sought refunds on Frey's book, but everyone has chosen to let this one slide.

How to Make Coffee

From time to time people come to my home. When they visit, I offer them coffee. If they accept the coffee offer, I give it to them. Once I’ve given it to them they sip the coffee and say, “Wow. That’s good coffee.”

They often want to know what kind of coffee I use. I hem and haw about it, not because the coffee I use is embarrassing— I buy Chock Full o’Nuts. I buy this brand because I like the labeling and I like the jingle. It also comes in gigantic cans. I hem and haw about it because if I start discoursing on my preference for canned coffee, I sound like one of those guys who despises modernity as an affected quirk. This hits a little close to home. I do affect this quirk. Worse, in bashing home-ground, whole bean exotic coffee, I’m implicitly saying that you are a sucker. The way you make coffee is qualitatively worse than the way I make coffee. All this is true, and you will know it if you’re sitting in my kitchen drinking a cup of joe. The delicious coffee in your cup is proof that whatever gourmet blend you buy isn’t giving you much flavor mileage. You will feel a sinking sense of shame and inadequacy all on your own. If I start talking about it, well, that’s just not gracious.

Nevertheless, you’ve been lied to. People have impressed upon you the need to drink coffee that costs 29 dollars an ounce because it was grown on the volcanic hillsides of a remote African land, harvested by virgins, roasted by eunichs and sold to you by some pasty-skined trust-fund heroin addict with a face riven by peircings. You do not need to do this. Just go to the supermarket and buy a can of coffee.

But before you do that, throw out your stupid coffee maker. Whatever kind of coffee maker you have, it’s probably wrong. Space-age electronic drip coffee makers, coffee presses, those plastic funnel filter single-serving doo-dads that you put on top of your coffee mug, I call bullshit on all of them. The fancy electronic drip coffee makers bust all the time, and they often cost more than a hundred bucks. Coffee presses are probably the best of the lot. I dissaprove of those on strictly aesthetic grounds. The hot water should drip through the ground coffee rather than sit on top of it. The one-off filter doo-dads make a mess and brew treacley brown water. We won’t even discuss the coffee bags that major hotel chains place in their rooms.

Go and get yourself a coffee percolator. The first benefit of the coffee percolator is linguistic. Coffee percolator is a euphonic expression that nearly matches “ice box” in its poetic potential. You can use the term coffee percolator in a song. You cannot sing a song about a “French Press” unless it’s a dirty song. You can barely say the names of many modern electronic drip coffee makers. Perhaps this lends them an air of mystery and power. I say it’s a cover for the fact that they suck.

You can still buy an electric, plug-in percolator. That’s fine I suppose. I prefer my stove-top percolator (pictured). It’s got a couple of obvious benefits. First, it has no electrical components, so I don’t have to worry too much about leaving it in a sink half full of dirty water when I go out of town. Second, it has no electrical components, so I can make coffee if the power goes out. Third, it has no electrical components, so if I go camping I can take it with me. Also, if civilization grinds to a stand-still and all utility service is cut off, I will have coffee so long as my supply of Chock Full o’Nuts lasts. You will stare mournfully at your four hundred dollar, now useless combo espresso, cappuccino, latte’ making back massager and wonder where you went wrong. And when the zombies come to feast on our flesh, you will be too lethargic to run. The undead will devour you and I will live. But go ahead and buy the electric percolator. It’s fine.

So where do you get a stove-top percolator? I highly recommend George’s Variety Store on the corner of Meserole Avenue and Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. George carries a couple different varieties of percolators. I’m partial to the stainless steel one, because it’s basically unbreakable. For a long time I had a pyrex percolator and that was cool because you could watch the water turn into coffee. But the pyrex broke one day, and I imagine that happens to everything made from pyrex. If you don’t live near George’s, try Wal-Mart.

So once you have your percolator, clean it or whatever. Then place the stem funnel in the pitcher. Pour water into the pitcher until the water is just below the notch on the stem. Place the basket onto the stem. Put your index finger on top of the stem. You do this so that coffee grounds won’t plug up the works. Scoop coffee into the basket until the basket is full. That’s the first tricky part. You have a little lid that goes on top of the basket, and it needs to fit in easily. So don’t overfill the basket. When the grounds are soaked with hot water they swell. Then they either spill out of the basket or they gum up all the works and make a muddy mess. It may take a few tries, but you’ll get it.

So you’ve got the coffee in the basket. You’ve put the perforated lid on top of the basket. Now put the lid on the pitcher. If you wussed out and bought the electric percolator, you’re done. Plug it in, the electronics handle the rest. If you’ve bought the stove-top percolator, now is where the alchemy really begins.

It’s best if you have a gas stove. This is because gas stoves rule and electric stoves are a common household perversion. (Have you ever seen an electric stove in a professional kitchen?) At this point, if you have an electric stove, you should probably just call the gas company and have them come by to install a real stove. If the gas company won’t come, or if you can’t afford to have a gas stove installed, just follow along. The instructions for a gas stove should work just fine. Place the percolator on a burner. I always use a back burner in case I want to cook something for breakfast. That way I’ve got easy access to the front burners. Once the percolator is on the stove, turn on the gas beneath it. Put the gas on low, but not too low.

What happens next is a bit tricky to describe. You are not boiling the water. This is important to realize. If you boil the coffee, you burn the coffee and it will taste like swill. You are heating the water so that a convection current will form. This current will push water up through the funnel. When the water runs out of the top of the funnel, it will filter over and through the coffee grounds—this is the eponymous percolation of the percolator, the filtering of water through the grounds. In order to prevent boiling the coffee, be attentive. Once the percolation begins, turn the gas down as low as you can. You want it to percolate slowly.

How long should it percolate? I usually let it go about five minutes from the point at which it began to perc. You can go longer or shorter, depending on how rich you want your coffee. Sometimes I let it go a while, and this yields a coffee that’s almost viscous like espresso. Other times I’m in a rush and I pull it off the stove as soon as the stuff percolating in the little glass bubble is faintly brown.

Now here is the last benefit of a stove-top coffee percolator. When the coffee is done, you shut off the gas. Then when you want another cup later, you can reheat it, carefully, and it will be good. The reason old coffee tastes like bile when you buy it at the deli or get it at your office is because the coffee has been left on the hotplate all afternoon. The unending heat of the hotplate messes with the delicate composition of the coffee, and so it tastes awful and bitter. But if you only heat it up as needed, it’ll taste just fine for the rest of the day.

That’s it. Enjoy your coffee.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Plagiarism Everywhere.

I know no one reads this other than my girlfriend and some Greek Orthodox Fundamentalist law enforcement officer hot mom from Chicago. All the same, I want to blather about plagiarism and intellectual property rights a bit, if only so that I get it out of my system. I’m sparing my girlfriend the rant that’s building in me. She’s really good at nodding graciously when I go off on these dull tirades at dinner time, but I know they bore her. Given that she’s younger and better looking than I am, and may wake up to that fact at any moment, I’ll be wise to vent it here.

I worked for the Authors Guild for five years. The Guild is sort of like a union for folks who write books. It doesn’t have collective bargaining power, but it does offer other services one associates with a union. Dispute resolution, friend of the court briefs, industry research, blah blah. Mainly, people called in seeking membership because they had a problem.

Many of the problems they had were legit. The caller wrote and published a book and the publisher had just filed for bankruptcy. The author needed help getting their money out of the bankrupt publisher. Happens all the time. We could help with that.

Just as frequently, people called because they were crazy and thought they had a problem. The most common kind of crazy went like this. “I wrote a book about vampires in 1974. I self published it on a mimeograph machine and distributed the copies to homeless shelters in the North East. I have now discovered that Stephen King also wrote a book about vampires. It was released soon after my book was published. Stephen King obviously plagiarized me. Help me sue him.” I am paraphrasing a real phone call from a crazy person here.

We never assisted these people, and not merely because they were crazy. First off, the Guild has a standing policy of neutrality when it comes to inter-author disputes. We also did not assist them because anyone can write a book about vampires. No one owns the concept of vampires. Just like no one owns the concept of bank robbers, or hookers with hearts of gold, or sassy young professional girls just trying to make their way in the big city. Also, no one owns the idea of Christ on the Cross, Templar conspiracies, Jewish Conspiracies, teen love or animals that talk.

My boss instructed me to tell these people, “You can’t copyright an idea.” And it’s true. You can’t. Sorry. If I decide to assume the voice of an egomaniac with dead parents and a little brother in a memoir, or if I choose to write about my impoverished childhood on the dank shores of the Ten Mile River in North Attleboro, Mass., neither Dave Eggers nor Frank McCourt will successfully sue me so long as I don't obviously base my work on theirs. I can't name my little brother Topher or have my Mom fuck her cousin, that would be too close. But generally I can use the basic scenario.

You can only copyright the expression of an idea. That’s a fine point that gets by a lot of people. The concept of raising a little brother without parents is not copyrightable. The sequence of words that A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius comprises is copyrightable.

I bring this up because lately people have gone a little crazy with their accusations of plagiarism. Maybe it’s that the Internet allows folks to more easily draw connections between works. Maybe it’s because people are bored and looking for trouble. I don’t know. But everyone needs to get a grip.

Some of the accusations are legitimate. That overachieving Harvard girl who wrote a Young Adult novel obviously stitched together paragraphs from other young adult novels. The case is so cut and dry, it’s not worth discussing. I believe the story got play because the theft was lazy, and almost anyone who didn’t attend an Ivy League college loves to see an Ivy Leaguer smeared with shit.

But most of the time, the outrage aimed at certain creative people is just a bit off the mark.

Today, implied that their favorite whipping-boy James Frey is ripping off the John Cougar Mellancamp song “Jack and Diane.” Why? Well because he’s written a bit about two young middle-american kids, a boy and a girl, who are obviously poor and in love. That’s it. That’s the similarity. Of course some lawyers should send a letter to Stephen Malkmus for “Jenny and the Ess Dog.” And Bruce Springsteen should be dragged into court too for "Thunder Road." Or maybe Bruce is the beginning of this daisy-chain of rip-off. But then there’s the Chuck Berry song, “You Never Can Tell” which tonally is different, but it’s still touches the subject matter of young lovers facing off against the world. Of course there’s a precedent to that song too. It's called Romeo and Juliet. Anyway, you get the idea.

Last week there was a pig-pile on Ian McEwan followed by a subsequent defense from other novelists. His novel Atonement drew heavily on the memoir of a war nurse. He cited the memoir in his book and at readings. Some of the passages in his book also echoed passages in the memoir, but really, how many ways can you describe the broken bodies of wounded soldiers? And why is this coming up now? The book was published in 2001.

Usually the rip-off accusations are limited to lower brow authors and songwriters, for lack of a better term. McEwan is a a bit of an exception to the rule. Daniel Brown, the definition of low-brow and the author of the Da Vinci Code, has fought off lawsuits from some people who think the notion of Christ as a literal father is their exclusive clever idea. (It is not. No matter what Seth Mnookin tells you.) Despite his earlier victories, more lawsuits have been filed. Meanwhile, David Mamet, god bless him, steals with impunity. “American Buffalo” is essentially an Americanization of “Waiting for Godot.” It is called homage, rather than rip-off. Glengarry Glen Ross blatantly, and artfully, synthesizes two earlier masterpieces, “Death of a Salesman" and the Maysles brother’s documentary “Salesman” into a work that is at least as good as the art that informed it. Sadly, Mamet has begun setting his sights a little lower these days. His new TV show, “The Unit", is an estrogen laced re-tooling of the “A-Team” that suffers from a lack of explosions, nifty building sequences, and most obviously, Mr. T. So far as I know, the Beckett estate, the Maysles brothers and Stephen J. Cannel have not retained attorneys to sue Mamet.

In the McEwan case, he’s somewhat inocculated against a lawsuit because he clearly lacked intent. He cited the woman’s work left, right and center. But this doesn’t stop the shrill haters out there. If it’s any consolation to McEwan, he is in esteemed company. When I was an undergrad a similar controversy arose, claiming Martin Luther King had plagiarized portions of his Ph.d thesis at Boston University. That was my alma mater, so I took a few minutes to check out the thesis. His crime? He forgot to write “ibid” in a few footnotes. It was obviously a copyediting error, but still people got their panties in a twist about it. How much do you need to cite your sources? I mean for Chrissakes, it’s Martin Luther King. I think he gets a mulligan on an ibid or two, don’t you?

Well ultimately, no. So long as there are Jack Shafers, Seth Mnookins and the biddy brigade from Gawker about, you’ve got to be on your toes.

So what, right? You don’t care. You’re not an author. What does it matter? Well, it does matter. Right now we’re seeing the way it matters in film more than anything. Intellectual property “rights” have run amuck in that art form. If you have the time, check out "Bound By Law" an instructive comic book put out by the Center for the Study of the Public Domain.

Now I know essayists for Slate and Vanity Fair don’t count as legal precedent, but judges are influenced by a lot of factors. And their tendency these days is to err on the side of restriction. How happy are you going to be when songwriters like Yusef Islam, nee Cat Stevens, decide to have another artist’s music pulled from the shelves because it shares a freaking chord progression with a b-side written thirty-five years earlier? Go on, shrug, but the Flaming Lip’s “Fight Song” is ten times the recording that “Father’s and Sons” ever was. And there’s a good chance that a book that “plagiarizes” earlier work will also be an improvement. That’s how art happens.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Be Prepared

I was a Boy Scout in the 1980s and I loved it. No one sodomized me, though I definitely heard tales of innapropriate touching. Despite this fact, scouting was among the most important things I did as a young kid. Everybody knows the scout motto "Be Prepared," and it's been on my mind a lot lately.

Being Prepared in the Baden Powell way is a state of mind. It is a zen practice. The totality of your life should be consumed by preparedness. Learn first aid. Know how to light a fire, drive a stick-shift car, put on a condom, sail a boat, paddle a canoe, ride a horse, shoot a gun, write a letter to your congressman, cook pancakes, pitch a tent, ask a girl out on a date without sounding like a jackass. The list is endless. You may be called upon to do this stuff at some point. Call me a nerd, whatever, I don't care. I'm prepared.

So when the story came out last week about the CNet editor who got his family stranded on a snow-bound road, I groaned. I feel bad for his family. I feel bad that he died, but he didn't have to die and that's the worst part of it. If he just had some camping equipment in the trunk, they could have spent half the winter up there. If he had worn decent shoes and a hat, he propbably wouldn't have frozen to death. If he had stuck to the road when he went looking for help, he wouldn't have gotten lost. This list, too, is endless.

The scout motto is on my mind again because of this new story about climbers stuck on Mt. Hood. Okay, so they went mountain climbing in December. Not the most comfortable time of year to climb a mountain, but whatever. What kills me is that they planned a "quick" ascent of an 11,293 foot mountain, so they didn't bring a whole bunch of burdensome cold weather gear. Oh boy.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Don't Play Dumb

A man in Tacoma has been busted for feigning retardation. Apparently his mother got him started at a young age. Now he's an adult and the government wants him to repay the disability benefits he and his family have collected over the years.

Can you imagine the double life that he's led? How do you remember who thinks you're retarted and who doesn't? Are these all issues resolved by Johnny Knoxville in The Ringer?

Back to Basics

A forthcoming article in Vanity Fair allegedly documents the fabrications of Augesten Burroughs in Running With Scissors.

When the James Frey book was exposed as largely fictitious, I took the unpopular position of "who cares?" Lots of people called for the guy's head on a platter. Even if Frey is a jerk in real life, the outrage was completely misplaced. Frey slandered no one. He told some stories about himself that were fiction. In order to enrich those stories, he invented some characters that others found interesting.

The woman who became JT Leroy went one better, she not only invented the stories and all the characters they contained, she invented the persona of JT Leroy. Again, no harm, no foul.

Burroughs, on the other hand, took elements of his real life, and real people from his real life, and then told alleged lies about their criminal negligence as his guardians. Will someone explain to me why he gets a pass and Frey gets villified? Because I really don't understand.

Other People's Money

I love this guy.

There's no scam like an old scam.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Changing Times

A long long time ago I worked as a reporter for a small town paper. Our paper was not the smallest in the region. From time to time we lifted story ideas from yet smaller papers in neighborhing communities. Early on I tried to credit the other papers in my copy. My editor scolded me for the attempt. As far as our readers were concered, the paper that employed me was The Paper. An acknowledgement of any other paper in the universe was a confession of weakness and bad for business. This is the normal way of doing things. You crib the story from another source, do your own reporting, generate your own quotes and hopefully write it up more elegantly. You see this on the news every night at eleven.

Except now it's wrong.

In response to complaints by the editors of smaller papers, the Times has now told its reporters to never read any of the papers that claimed their stories were pinched. Genius.

Notions of intellectual property rights have gotten way out of hand.

A Punch in the Nose

Here is a short list of people who deserve a punch in the nose:

1. Dave Eggers.
2. Jay Leno.
3. The boss at almost any job I've ever quit.
4. Probably you.
5. Andy, the guy who lives across the street from me.
6. That junky on Newel.
7. Tom Wolfe.
8. Gay Talese.
9. Any other elderly white man who dresses like a pimp.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Why Dave Eggers Sucks

Dave Eggers is a bully and a star fucker. I don't care if he writes a book that feeds all the children of Darfur, mends their severed limbs and washes clean the memory of watching the rape and murder of their mothers, Dave Eggers is still a bully and a star fucker.

Stories we tell ourselves

I love Irish Americans. Almost without exception, folks with a Hibernian surname will tell you that they are descended from a king. Where one finds pride in the royalty of the colonized is a mystery to me. I, however, am not descended from a king. My nominal Irish ancestor was an assassin who killed a king.