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6 entries from April 2008

Geek Antiques

Where is he gay today? Adamstown, PA
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Right now, I’m looking at some toy furniture from 1959. The boxes are labelled Mattel Modern. The blurb explains how this furniture suits those new-fangled, dressable 9-inch dolls.
Not long after, one of those dolls went trash-glam. Her dream-furniture turned dream-pink, and she needed a dream-garage for her dream-campervan and dream-Corvette. As well, her dream-bed turned into a single, because she checked in her pal Ken's pants.  

The price tag reads a hefty $950 for the set.  Elsewhere in this gigantic antique store (an old hat factory), you can buy the real thing for less.
Master Right and I are partial to the odd antique.  That’s why we chose to visit Adamstown, which bills itself as America’s Antique Capital.  In a store like this, I generally riff through the old books while he scours the building for decorative arts.
Alas, the town is a place for really serious collectors—most of the value in such stuff goes way over my head. Let's ponder this $350 Flying Nun Lunch Box, for example.

Now, why would the Flying Nun Lunchbox command over four times as much as the Bonanza version behind it?  Sexism?  Is it American religious mania at work?  Shouldn’t this precious lunchbox be in the Vatican?  How did the last pope overlook canonizing Sally Field?  Wouldn’t the Flying Nun and Little Joe make a nice couple?  Isn’t Carlos hot?  Do you think Hoss lives up to his nickname?  (Oops.In the most sexless situations, one’s mind wanders back to the biological imperative, no?)

Master Right and I were just about to leave for an ephemera-induced quickie when we chanced across a table full of Life magazines.  It looked like a full set, from the late thirties to the seventies, pretty much covering the entire Luce era.  The antique dealer, unable to sell the collection, had begun to flog individual copies at a fiver each.

Hmmm…I wonder?Can we find August 1945?

Sure enough, before us lay the magazine with that photo, arguably the world’s most famous.  I nearly missed it, since like most of us, one would expect such a famous pic to make the cover.

Alfred Eisenstädt was a Prussian Jew who fled the Nazis in 1935. He snapped the image with a Leica M3 (a German camera) on August 14, 1945, though it didn’t appear until the August 25th edition of Life.  His last photo, in 1993, was a family photograph of the Clintons. Eisenstädt died in 1995.

Five bucks later, we own an original appearance print of one of the world’s most famous works of art. Not a bad buy, I think.

Echoes of Albert, Part Two.

Where is he gay today? Princeton, then a B&B in eastern Pennsylvania

Gimme a good bookshop, five hours, and fifty bucks. You’ve got yourself a happy man.

I’m a sucker for first editions, especially those signed by the author. It’s my only real passion as a collector, though the collection itself is a slender one.

Imagine my delight at the Labyrinth Bookshop in Princeton. Of course, you’d expect great bookshops in a university town, but since Amazon undercut them all, quality booksellers are doing it tough. The university itself owns the Labyrinth, which relieves it of some of the regrettable pressures of commerce.

The name Labyrinth is just about the most blatant case of misleading advertising I’ve ever admired seen. The shop is anything but a labyrinth—neat, well-laid-out, easy to find what you’re looking for. Just as important, easy to find what you’re not looking for: the chance encounter with a catchy title, the little known work of a popular author, the deceptively authoritative staff pick. The kind of reading you won’t get from people with your browsing history also bought… Frankly, I want to know about people who don’t have a similar browsing history. As long as they’re smart.

Labyrinth excels at this. A large display table creaked under the weight of (signed, first edition) works by local authors. (Ah, to live in a town whose bookshop has a table groaning with local authors!).

A first edition, signed by the author. At least, I think it's the author.

One leapt out at me: I Don’t Believe in Atheists by Chris Hedges. When I took the book to the counter, the clerk commented that the author had been getting flack from both sides of the religious fence—believers and non-believers alike. Definitely worth a read, it seems.

We retired to an inn in nearby eastern Pennsylvania to relax. Master Right and I love American B&Bs, spoiled, middle-aged fags that we are. Cameron House, in Mount Joy, fit the bill.

If one must ponder weighty matters of moral philosophy, best to do it in a nice bath.

Hedges picks up prominent atheists on matters of their own doctrine. I agree with much of it.

Atheists are generally pretty moral people—statistics show low crime and divorce rates amongst non-believers, if that can be used as a ready reckoner. And they manage it without recourse, necessarily, to rules laid down by a god. If they’re like me, they simply use common sense.

Common sense, though, is not the same as rationalism. Prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins call themselves rationalists, and tout reason as the only defensible moral guide. If everyone were just utterly rational, mankind would progress and everyone would be happier, they say.

Hedges pillories this point of view. Moral wisdom generally makes rough sense, but it cannot be wholly logical. Many rational decisions about a course of action can be utterly inhumane—economic rationalism springs to mind.

I can recall reading Sam Harris—or was it Dawkins? The thesis had me nodding about all the reasons not to believe in an unseen man-like god. But the argument lost me when it veered into using reason as the all-purpose moral reckoner.

When, for example, do we make a decision to go to war? When you can spend a few lives to save many? Some of us might agree. But Harris and Dawkins mount a case that involves calculating the likely casualties of the invaders through their own friendly fire vs. civilian casualties of those invaded. Frankly,it didn't make much sense when I read it. It sounded like interpreting a commandment. Or even playing god.

The notion that reason alone will always lead us to a good moral outcome strikes me as rather faith-based.

They don't believe in atheists, either.

Hedges points out that true moral wisdom is a combination of both the rational and the emotional. That’s what the Enlightenment was all about, no? (By the way, the Enlightenment threw up a few moral doozeys, too, like slavery.)

It’s a bit tough to pick up on what Hedges does believe should be a moral guide. From what I can gather, he goes back to something our civilization has known for a long time. Good moral judgment comes from having lived a full, well-rounded life. From a well-exercised heart, not just a limber brain.

That other Princetonian, Einstein, put it perfectly. “Ethical axioms are found and tested not very differently from the axioms of science. Truth is what stands the test of experience.” Is this not why we have always looked to our elders for moral wisdom?

I’m not zufrieden with everything Hedges writes. He argues against a belief in the perfectibility of mankind, but I think he dismisses too easily our collective ability to make moral progress. Even if that moral progress falters from age to age.

In 1941, Einstein delivered a paper to a symposium on science, philosophy and religion. He said, “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.” Substitute the word “emotion” for “religion”, and I believe you have a great creed by which to live life. What is it about Princeton that attracts the thoughtful, and not just the smart?

P.S. If I don't agree with Dawkins, why do I still keep his Scarlet A on this blog? Hey, if Obama can differ with his preacher and still keep the faith, so can I.

Echoes of Albert

Where is he gay today? Princeton, New Jersey

Master Right and I stand before 112 Mercer Street, Princeton. The front gate sports a sign which says Private Residence. Behind that gate sits a modest frame house, probably Victorian, with a tacky 1970’s Hacienda-style front door. Frankly, it could use a paint job.

Does this fixer-upper really need to warn passers-by that it’s not a public building? Apparently so. It is the one-time home of a certain Albert Einstein, who lived there for the final two decades of his life, and where he died in 1955.

Princeton is enormously proud to have given Einstein refuge when he fled the Nazis in 1932. But the place shies away from celebrating, arguably, its most famous resident.

Einstein wanted it that way. He deplored the cult of personality which developed around him. You’ll see no Einstein Memorials, Einstein Monuments, nor The Story of Einstein Interpretive Visitors’ Centre in Princeton.

But alas, this is America, and the Celebrity Imperative is hard to shake.

Trees in the newly redeveloped shopping district hint at Einstein. They form a nucleus for circulating electrons etched in the pavement—even though Einstein correctly maintained that his work had little to do with the development of atomic energy.

The local clothing shop can’t resist cashing in with an improvised Einstein mini-museum. They sell T-shirts branded with the word Princeton, but they replace the middle e with mc2, since we all know that’s what e equals. Further, I could find no socks in this clothing store. Apparently, Einstein never wore socks.

Princeton isn’t the only town that keeps a bit schtum about its relationship the 20th century’s pre-eminent genius. Few people associate Munich with Einstein, but it was here that he spent his formative years.

Einstein was a Bavarian, born in nearby Ulm. His family moved to Munich when he was a child. The Einsteins ran an electrical engineering business, and constructed several substations for the city’s new electrical grid.

The site of the family apartment at Müllerstrasse 5, now a council works depot, sits in the thick of Munich’s gay quarter. Legend has it that Einstein formulated the famous theory of relativity by sensing the relative speed of trams as they passed each other; it’s satisfying to think that he did so on tram #18, the Vaseline Volvo, which today still glides up and down Müllerstrasse.  EDIT: Apparently, it was actually a tram running past the clock tower in Bern. 

It was in Munich that young Albert acquired an unfair reputation as a scholastic dullard. He was not, as legend has it, slow to speak, nor inept at math. He missed out on his high school diploma because he had little patience for languages, especially French. His sister Maja joked that the Greek master was right, Albert was a complete failure, since he never managed to become a professor of classical languages.

We can credit his younger sister with much of Einstein’s modesty and good humour. She often reminded her brother that it takes a thick skull to be the sister of a genius, so often did they bang heads in childhood roughhousing.

A small memorial to Einstein in Berlin. He worked there from time to time until he fled Germany in 1932.

Einstein was a total sucker for beautiful women and married twice, but he remained devoted to Maja and spent several of his last years reading to her, after a stroke confined her to bed.

Along with his sister, other Einstein family came to Princeton to complete the household; his second wife (and cousin) Elsa, Elsa’s daughter Margot, and his secretary Helen Dukas.

Here’s a little by-the-way. Wife number one, Mileva Maric, was a feisty student whom Albert impregnated in a careless moment. They spent some years together, and many feel she should be credited, at least in part, with Albert’s academic achievement.

Some say that when the couple divorced, Albert was so skint that he found it hard to make a decent property settlement with Mileva. To sex up the deal, he agreed to turn over any Nobel Prize money in the unlikely event he should he win. In the tradition of many ex-wives, Mileva laughed all the way to the bank.

Princeton proved a good match for the Einstein clan. Neither so self-conscious as Harvard nor bourgeois as Yale, Princeton feels thoughtful. Dating to 1742, the colonial architecture of the third oldest university campus in North America anchors the landscape with dignity. A haven for American liberals, the town lends a sense of peace in which humanitarian ideas flourish. Like colonial America itself, the town is a creature of the Enlightenment.

Einstein remarked "I [find] Princeton fine. A pipe as yet unsmoked. Young and fresh.”

Today, Princeton presents itself much as it did to Einstein in the middle of the century. Geography helps; the town deliberately stays isolated from the brutal commercial development that clings to the Boston-Washington corridor of freeways and rail-lines. The authorities consign strip malls and big-box stores to the nearby suburbs of Philadelphia and Trenton. (Gosh, does that mean Einstein never went to the A&P?)

If you visit Princeton, go to the public library. You’ll find a mural, made of hundreds of ceramic tiles. It’s a mish-mash of ideas, history, scraps of thought and memory.

It echoes the chatter of Princeton’s classrooms and coffee houses, its parlours and pavements. And its bookshops, as we will see.

I like it here.

For spacious skies

Where is he gay today? Under the flight path at Newark Airport

A frayed Old Glory

Visiting America always makes me uncomfortable.  

Americans long for a sense of connectedness, but are horribly wary of each other.  Every interaction with a stranger seems to be an armed truce. Unless one of the strangers is trying to sell something, of course.

As the Australian writer Don Watson notes, Americans often use the words freedom and security as though they were interchangeable.  Yet all one needs to do to do is fly somewhere in the USA to know that the two often sit at odds.  For a nation which values freedom above all else, in few other countries on the planet are people so pushed around, restricted, controlled, examined, judged, and just plain stiffed.  

Maybe it's just New York.  Or its evil twin, New Jersey.  

Master Right and I flew in from opposite sides of the world--he from Kobe, me from Munich--and met at Newark Airport.   We chose to recover from jet lag at one of the many nearby Econo-Snooze Inns.  Inn and Suites, let's not forget.

Right and I scored one of the and suites, with a kitchenette. We figured the airport and its poorly-served surrounds would be a crummy place to try and find a bite.  Better to pop over to a supermarket and grab a modest snack. 

The view from the And Suite. 

Not a great strategy.  The knotted hairpiece of freeways around Newark complicates even the simplest errand.   One might see a supermarket across the road, but need to travel a mile or two just to find a place to turn around.  And you'll get lost trying to do it.  Because urban planning, like all government functions in the USA, lives not to promote public efficiency, but to dish up pork.

In the end, we had to abandon the And Suite and eat at the Inn bit.  Now, this being a family hotel, the breakfast buffet the Mario-Hilto-Sheratot or whatever reflected contemporary American family values.  The hot course was a sausage patty and ring of scrambled egg, which one could place on an English muffin, with a shred of cheese on the top.  One could even, at great risk to life and limb, operate a self-serve waffle maker.  

That is, it was a self-serve McDonalds.  These people had managed to de-skill a McJob.

No complaints from the largely family crowd who frequented the place.  There was a school group whose conversation seemed to revolve around what parlour games could be played for money.  One said that he had played dominoes for cash. 

Master Right and have a few days to kill before I need to see an accountant in NYC to sort out my American income tax.  We have rented a car--no, let me correct that.  They have upgraded us beyond a car.  We're driving a Tony and Guy hair salon.   They call it a Cadillac Escalade, which sounds rather like a cross between the words escapade and escalation.  Why not talk straight and call it a Cadillac Troop Surge

We'll keep you posted.