Monthly Archives: September 2008

Populism repopulated

I’m back.

For the past year-plus, I joined the dark side: I was working for an Internet company called MOLI, first as editorial director, then as an editor at large. It was actually an interesting immersion into the world of digital startups; I learned a hell of a lot, and met a lot of cool people. The best part of the gig was getting to assemble my dream team of bloggers, and edit them every day.

That’s done now. We all got laid off a couple weeks ago. So there’s a dozen more top writers looking for work right now; I recommend them all.

The past six months I wrote a blog for MOLI called Populism. I’m copying those blogs into here now, so they don’t disappear forever. Starting with my farewell column, which pretty much sums it up:

The internet is like an octopus, reaching out with eight tentacles to find its own head. There’s stuff going on everywhere — good, bad, and ugly — but there’s a constant search for a center. My year-plus experience at MOLI has been like a twist on the old riddle: “If a group of talented writers blog into the cacophony of cyberspace, do they make a noise?”

Yes, I like to think, even if the MOLI View has sometimes acted as much as a literary salon as as a magazine. But what a salon it has been! Donnell Alexander has been our Robert Benchley, Rob Levine our Alexander Woolcott, Theo Kogan our Tallulah Bankhead, Richard Pachter our Harpo Marx (sorry Richard, I couldn’t resist!). We’ve had at least two Dorothy Parkers in Wendy Case and Jana Martin. The quality of the writing for the View has never ceased to amaze me. I mean, I knew these people were good when I brought them on, but that day after day they delivered smart, savvy, funny, moving, provocative, and occasionally scandalous reads — plus Queen Juliana’s thoughtful, poetic videos — was beyond my expectations.

Getting a couple handfuls of writers across the country to file original, insightful copy daily should have been like herding cats. But it wasn’t. MOLI’s contributing editors have been consummate professionals, and Natasha Bright, Audra Hodges, and I merely had the pleasure of shepherding their prose through the damn CMS. We were polishing gems, like Cathay Che’s dating and surfing anecdotes, Celeste Fraser Delgado’s stories of working in a youth crisis center, Rebecca Wakefield’s acerbic political anaylsis, and Neal Pollack and Erika Shickel’s hilarious parenting conversations. Our two writers’ retreats truly were like days-long salons — and great bonding experiences for this group of now friends.

I’m indulging in all this back-patting because the View is sadly coming to an end. MOLI is changing direction in the ever-shifting, drifting techno-idustrial economy, and my crew and I are out of jobs.

Our profiles will still be here, and some of us will probably still blog in them. Otherwise, look for us in the blogosphere. These are people who need to be heard, and I’m sure their distinctive voices will find new homes. We may not all meet at the MOLI water cooler anymore, but please, use that Google tentacle now and again, and come say hi.

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Johnny Gets His Guitar

(Originally published on MOLI 8/27/08)

Long before he was channeling Keith Richard into his role as Captain Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp (sigh) was a swashbuckling guitarist himself. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, he played in a band called the Kids, one of many new wave acts trying to make it big in a part of the country geographically — not to mention psychically — far from the established music meccas: South Florida. Not many people know that before bass and Gloria, Miami was a rocking town. As the film Rock and a Hard Place: Another Night at the Agora documents, bands like the Kids, Cichlids, Charlie Pickett, etc., were creating the soundtrack of a tropical Athens (in fact, REM were Pickett fans).

Depp is the only member of this scene who went on to great fame — and he did it as an actor, not a musician. But even the world’s biggest movie star can’t let go of those rock-star fantasies. I suppose that’s why Depp’s strapping his guitar on again; this weekend, he’ll play in a Kids reunion in Pompano Beach, as part of the Sheila Witkin tribute concert that also features Pickett, Slyder, the Romantics (featuring a veteran of the SoFla scene), Z-Cars, and Tight Squeeze.

It’s not the first time Depp has rejoined his old bandmates: The Kids played the first Witkin tribute in 2007. Witkin was a concert promoter who helped build the South Florida scene; her son Bruce was also in the Kids. The ’07 concert was caught by the Rock and a Hard Place filmmakers. Depp wears a vest, beret, and his instrument hanging low. Be still, my heart.

Rock ‘n’ roll, like any arts career, is a crap shoot. Rock and a Hard Place perfectly captures that sense of failed dreams, the ones that got away. I mean, if even having the hottest guy on the planet in your group doesn’t get you an English countryside mansion, whatcha gonna do?

It’s not the first time Depp has rejoined his old bandmates: The Kids played the first Witkin tribute in 2007. Witkin was a concert promoter who helped build the South Florida scene; her son Bruce was also in the Kids. The ’07 concert was caught by the Rock and a Hard Place filmmakers. Depp wears a vest, beret, and his instrument hanging low. Be still, my heart.

Rock ‘n’ roll, like any arts career, is a crap shoot. Rock and a Hard Place perfectly captures that sense of failed dreams, the ones that got away. I mean, if even having the hottest guy on the planet in your group doesn’t get you an English countryside mansion, whatcha gonna do?

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Twin Cities Bards

Maybe it’s the Scandinavian influence, but Minneapolis is probably the cleanest rock ’n’ roll city in America. I remember the refreshing lack of pollution being my first impression, when I began visiting the Twin Cities in the mid ’80s, hanging out on the fringes of the then-verdant rock scene, back when the Replacements, Husker Du, Babes in Toyland, Rifle Sport, Breaking Circus, and Soul Asylum were still around. I was well aware the metropolis had its seedy underbelly– a dark side that New York Times media columnist David Carr documents chillingly in his addiction memoir The Night of the Gun. In fact, I usually stayed with a bassist who doubled as the scene’s biggest drug dealer – let’s call him Sven. But even we pale, tattooed potheads went for hikes around Minneapolis’s many lakes and parks. Remember that scene in Purple Rain when Prince drives Apollonia out to a lake on his motorcycle? The call of nature is never far away in Minneapolis.

Perhaps all that clean air offers a stark contrast to the pockets of depravity and hard-luck characters. Two of the best records of the year so far come from Minneapolitans skilled at spinning tales of gritty realism out of a city not known for its grit. On the Atmosphere album When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, rapper Slug writes about a waitress trying to pay off student loans, a lost-soul rock star, and on “Dreamer,” a single mom struggling to make it from day to day. With a mantra chorus of “but she still dreams after she woke tight hold on that hope/ sometimes it can seem so cold do what you gotta do to cope,” it’s probably the best feminist anthem by a male rapper since Tupac’s “Dear Mama.” Spieled out over jazz piano riffs and spry, live backpacker hip-hop, these are unsentimental but sympathetic portraits worthy of Bruce Springsteen or Joe Strummer.

(Originally published on MOLI 8/21/8)

The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn explicitly toasts Strummer on “Constructive Summer”: “I think he might have been our only decent teacher.” Finn cut his teeth in Minneapolis but formed the Hold Steady in Brooklyn. Whereas he used to locate many of his songs in the back woods and alleys of the Twin Cities, on Stay Positive, he writes about all of America. On first listen “Constructive Summer,” with its backdrop of paper mills and parties, became my instant summer anthem – I was driving around the Upper Peninsula, after all, in a county where the red steel plant of a container company is the largest local employer. I interviewed Finn a couple years ago, and not surprisingly, he knew my old friend Sven. Sven could have been the model for many of Finn’s characters: the big-hearted drunk, the tragedy looking for a savior.

Minneapolis is in the heartland, so maybe it’s not so surprising that it’s produced two of the aughties’ Strummers – Woody Guthriesque champions of the downtrodden and unsung. Unlike the Minneapolis bands of the ‘80s, these bards aim for the anthems. Maybe grit is in the eye of the beholder.

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Life During Stormtime

(Originally published on MOLI 8/19/8)

Yesterday was supposed to be my son’s first day of kindergarten — a banner day in any parent’s lifetime (even if their child already has three years of Montessori under his belt). But Cole’s other mother — Nature — had different plans. Tropical Storm Fay has delayed his entree into public schol by two days so far. It’s so Florida, I have to laugh.

Of course, he and the 599,999 other South Florida kids affected are delighted — while their parents, many of whom still have to work, struggle to find child care. At least most households have not lost their power. I’m sure an inordinate number of Dade and Broward youths have been sucking in an ungodly amount of MTV and the Disney channel. Thank goddess for the Olympics, which gave us something new to watch together as a family last night, curled together on the bed, eating popcorn — until the rain knocked out our satellite receiver, doh!

Ever since I watched one of the first gusts of Wilma topple the majestic avocado tree in our backyard, I’ve loathed hurricanes. The tree was the soul of our backyard, which is in turn the jewel of our house. Its bountiful fruit, as sweet and buttery as chocolate, were the envy of our neighborhood, with whom we always shared. We built our pool around its base, in an elegant kidney shape; I even picked out coping tiles to match the luscious, dark green of its leaves and peels (which, come to think of it, is a similar shade to the background of my MOLI profile). When it fell, my heart broke.

The tree landed in the power lines, miraculously not taking them down. We were able to free it, pull it back up, retie it, and bury its roots. It survived. It yielded no crop in ’06, a small one in ’07, and this year, it has been full of fruit again.

Yesterday my husband tied it to a ponytail and palm: trees helping trees. Fay has been long and strong, but not nearly as fierce as Wilma. Wilma turned our island into Venice, with storm surge creating a river mere feet from our front door, and tore down scores of trees. A picture of an apartment building a mile away, across from the public school that someday — tomorrow? — Cole will attend, with curtains and shades fulttering from its punched-out windows, was the cover of The Miami Herald the day after Wilma. It has taken three hurricane-free years for our neighborhood to begin to look something like it did before that storm-filled year — although there are still holes in the sky where trees once stood, and for-sale signs in a neighborhood where property values had been shooting upward.

Yesterday I ventured to Collins Avenue, next to the ocean. When I tried to leave the Walgreen’s, an outburst had turned the street into a wind tunnel. Sheets of rain were blowing sideways. I was stuck. Eventually, I ventured out and pushed my way through the horizontal water. The wind whipped the car door from my hands and it was all I could do to pull it shut. The old man in the car in front of me gave up on his door, letting it fly open as he ducked into the store, undoubtedly to pick up some necessary prescription, like heart medicine.

Palm fronds littered the streets on the drive home, and a street sign lay fallen. Even the young man carrying a surfboard took shelter behind a building. (In a Herald photograph, a cop explains to one man why he can’t wakeboard in the street.)

The pool is full of leaves and roiling as if Michael Phelps were cutting a swath through it. Out front, the bougainvillea and palms against our front fence are a dangerous wind-whipped gauntlet for anyone venturing down the sidewalk. Me, I’d walk down the middle of the street. But the tree stands tall and amazingly, we don’t seem to have even lost that many avocados.

If you want a glimpse of Fay in Miami, our friends at Shake-A-Leg have baycams at their website. It’s been a comparatively mild storm. And honestly, having just returned from vacation, Cole and I needed the extra days to get prepped for school. But we’re ready now. Can the wind please stop?

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Bottom Up in the UP

(Originally published on MOLI 8/14/8)

We (the media elite) generally think of culture with a big C: the high arts, or else, the mass arts. Ballet or Britney. The folk arts seem quaint, antiquated, parochial. Yet in fact, the artistic drive thrives in small, local institutions, where the heavy lifting of cultural creation and curation is part of the fabric of daily life — far from spotlights and flashbulbs.

I’m talking about places like the Ontonagon County Historical Society and the Ontonagon Theater of Performing Arts, that build the cultural fabric from the bottom up. These two institutions, one decades old, one founded a few years ago, promulgate and preserve the intellectual, imaginative life in a part of the world generally defined by physical culture: hunting, fishing, skiing, boating, snowmobiling, ATVing — or working in the mill, the shipyard, the forests. In the past month I’ve been in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I’ve written about Calumet and the Porkies, but I’ve tended to neglect the town that has always been the center of my summer sojourns, Ontonagon.

Ontonagon, aka Harbor Town, is a boom and bust town if there ever was one. Located at the egress of the Ontonagon River, it has been a portal between the county’s interior and Lake Superior — and, thereby, the world — since the 1800s. Vast swathes of timber used to float here; at the end of the 19th century, they caught on fire and the entire town burned down, except for the brick lighthouse on the river’s west side. That lighthouse is still there today; the historical society offers daily tours. Progress has been so halting in this part of the world that the past is palpably present, not just in the form of relics (a century-old windup foghorn), but in the family names: Many of the old lighthouse keepers’ descendants are still Ontonagon citizens.

The historical society also runs a museum in downtown Ontonagon that is chock a block with artifacts of a frontier life that’s still very much in sway. Needless to say, mostly retirees and teenagers volunteer their time to keep this effort afloat. Bruce Johanson, my husband’s old music teacher, was our avuncular tour guide for the lighthouse. (Two weeks before, his daughter Linda, also a school teacher, took us horseback riding). These are the unheralded stars of small-town cultural institutions, as important in their own right as Brad and Angelina.

Yet another teacher — god bless the educators! — spearheaded the effort to put a theater in the town’s old brick library building a decade ago. Dana Brookins and her Harbortown Players put on several plays a year; tonight, their version of Gypsy opens. I admit full nepotism here: my dog Otis’s father is one of the cast members, and Dana is one of my husband’s oldest friends. The Ontonagon Theater of Performing Arts also hosts visiting artists — shining a beacon of its own.

No discussion of Ontonagon cultural institutions would be complete without a mention of Stubb’s, the bar/museum that has been a repository for yellowing mining photos, taxidermied animals, beer cans, traps, liquor-advertising paraphenalia, and Packers memorabilia since the ’30s. It’s like a Hard Rock Cafe, with guns and bears instead of guitars and costumes. My parents took me here for afternoon Cokes when I was a wee lass. Now, every summer, we hold our annual Canada vs. U.S. foosball tournament here. Since America won again this year, the trophy now stands amid the overflow of bric-a-brac behind the bar, making my life almost complete.

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Happy Birthday Bust!

(Originally published on MOLI 8/12/8)

Fifteen years ago, three smart ladies in NYC decided they didn’t see any magazines that spoke to hip urbanites like themselves. The glossies were too, well, glossy — not to mention governed by a beauty myth that seemed so 1980s. Sassy was aimed at younger women, Ms. at older. Debbie Stoller, Marcelle Karp, and Laurie Henzel craved a publication that spoke to women the way the music of Liz Phair and Missy Elliot did. So in the spirit of those DIY early ’90s days, they decided to start one themselves.

The fact that BUST is still alive and well is in part a miracle, but it’s also a testament to the incredible savvy and tenacity of its founders. I know: I was starting my own publication, a multiculti multisexy journal called Resister, around the same time. And despite the collegial help and advice of the BUST ladies back then, Resister only lasted two issues. I didn’t have the stomach for figuring out how to get circulated as alternative distributors went belly up, for getting money from advertisers, for not being able to pay contributors, for celebrity wrangling.

All of which is to say BUST, I salute you! Along with Bitch — another publication that has amazingly stayed the course since those heady days — BUST captures the interests and insights of that group of proactive women who earned various names: third-wave feminists, postfeminists, do-me feminists, whatever. The magazine’s title is a pun on the fact this is a publication intended for the female half of that demographic that was all the rage, the baby bust. BUST focuses on artists and activists who are expanding the definitions of gender roles and of feminism, women like Kim Gordon, Bjork, Amy Poehler, Chloe Sevigny, Tina Fey, etc. Karp and Stoller’s book The Bust Guide to the New Girl Order was one of the first bibles of this generation. Stoller’s later knitting tomes may not have lit the same feminist fires, but they did help spawn the whole crafting movement.

Tonight Stoller and Henzel celebrate their anniversay with a killer shindig at Spiegelworld in New York (Karp was bought out of the company many years ago). Funny lady Amy Sedaris will host, JD Samson DJs. Peformers include Morningwood, Leslie Hall, Murray Hill, and Free Blood. It’s sold out — that’s how cool and smart BUST still is, 15 years later.

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Paris Outsmarts McCain

(Originally published on MOLI 8/7/8)

I confess: I’ve been a Paris hater. Not that I’ve spent a lot of time pondering twiggy blond heiresses, but when I’ve had to, I’ve been unimpressed. Ms. Hilton has always personified the whole celebrity for celebrity’s sake illness of our society: She’s famous for being famous, for her ability to turn Page 6 antics into careers in television and music. Not my thing.

But I have to give Paris Hilton major props for her hilarious response to John McCain’s inane attack ad on Barack Obama, in which the aging senator impugns his colleage and opponent by comparing him, in photographic flashes, to Hilton and Britney Spears. The ad’s (weak) point is that the Illinois senator is a celebrity, not a leader — and therefore just another talentless bimbo. Then the McCain ad spins off into kneejerk attacks on the Democratic candidate’s energy and tax policies. God, what an airhead!

Hilton’s response, made by the Funny or Die website, mocks McCain as “the oldest celebrity.” Hilton makes letter-perfect funny of her own bimbosity, then offers a smartly nuanced energy policy of her own, before asking if it’s okay if she, if elected, paints the White House pink. From Hilton’s swimsuit to the juxtaposition of youth culture and old politics, the video lampoons the inanity of a campaign that so easily loses its focus on the real issues.

Even before Hilton responded, the McCain ad struck me as a sexist smear. You want to denigrate someone’s intelligence? Compare them to a couple of blond bitches. The ad, called “Celeb,” misses the point of Obama’s importance: He’s a celebrity because of his intellect and accomplishments (and, okay, his good looks and towering charisma); most pundits agree that his fame indicates the possible end of the age of the vapid. The ad also disturbs me because it starts with images of crowds at the Washington monument, which seems to me to be a reference to Martin Luther King Jr. — and an oblique appeal to viewers’ racism.

Even though I’ve never liked Paris, or Britney, I’ve always taken care not to bash them because I know hatred of them is often fueled by misogyny. (Besides, at this point, self-hating Brooke Hogan is the pop tart to hate.) My favorite part of the Hilton video may be when she says she’s thinking of having Rihanna as a running mate. You go girls!

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