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9 entries from November 2011

Photo Friday: Ugged


This week's Photo Friday theme is rugged.  Since I am an effete homosexual, I have nothing rugged to share.  We can do almost rugged, though.   These fancy leopard-skin boots are Ugged, with sheepskin on the inside.  And pirate ugg boots wil keep a buccaneer's feet warm during a casual pillage.
   UGGBOOT Leopard
Where can you get them?  That favourite Tokyo fashion hotspot, Shibuya 109.  Kawaii!

Photo Friday Home

Is it wrong to laugh?

The Man with the Bassoon

EDIT at around ten minutes after publishing the post: Some readers have already indicated that yes, it is wrong to laugh at this.  Rather like calling someone a ritard, I suppose. I welcome a discussion in the comments.

Does an irony about an irony cancel itself out?

GOLFING FOR CATS REALAlan Coren was a terribly, terribly popular writer.  I use the phrase terribly, terribly because that's how he wrote.  A one-time editor of Punch, he subscribed to the why-use-one-word-when-twelve-will-do school of British prose.   He's the anti-Hemingway.

Nowadays, most editors would put his books on a diet.  Needless modifiers—adverbs in every possible clause—graced his sentences.  Speaking of clauses, I once counted seven embedded inside each other.  He's my hero.

So I was terribly, terribly delighted when someone gave me, with neither provocation nor payment, a kind but but not hugely generous, if one were to be honest about the circumstances, gift.

It was a hardback copy of Coren's famous book, Golfing for Cats.  As you can see, the cover bears a swastika.  The contents have nothing to do with golf, cats, or the Third Reich.  Golfing for Cats contains a simple collection of Coren's magazine and newspaper articles.  Golfing for cats wimp out

The introduction tells us that Coren was brainstorming with his editor over a title.  What kind of books became best-sellers, he asked?  Books about golf, cats and Nazis, the editor replied.  So, Coren reasoned, he had the perfect recipe to make a quid.

Then came the global paperback edition.  It would be sold, either in English or in translation, in many places.  These might include Germany or Austria, where the swastika would be in poor taste.  In other places, they might not get the joke.  So the mass-market paperback edition wears a different cover.  With a cat.  Playing golf. 

History does not record whether Coren thought this made a terribly, terribly funny anecdote to tell over sherry at the club, or if he put his head in his hands, and wept.

Comparative Humour: Germany vs. Switzerland

In his movie Ford Fairlane, Rock and Roll Detective, Andrew Dice Clay cast Priscilla Presley as a woman so rich she didn't need a sense of humour. If you look at the world through this lens, humourless people—and nations—make much more sense.

Take the Swiss. When it comes to jokes, the Swiss make the Germans look positively Irish.

A chuckle or two helps a downtrodden nation get through the day.  But in a cashed-up economy,  you could go for weeks without so much as a smirk. 

How rich are the Swiss?  They took the most popular key from their pocket calculators, and sewed it into the flag, that's how rich they are.

True, many well-to-do Swiss wear smiles, but that's just recreational.  Don't mistake it for serious, life-sustaining, meat-and-potatoes laughter.  

In 2009, the Swiss National Museum in Zurich sought to dispel the stereotype.  Witzerland was an exhibition devoted to Swiss humour, which lasted four months and hasn't been seen since.    

The Swiss comic magazine Nebelspalter ("fog clearer") co-sponsored the event.  Yesterday's Nebelspalter cartoons suggest that Swiss readers laugh mainly about money.   They suck heavy schadenfreude out of the Euro.  Not raising a lot of laughs around my house, lemme tellya.

Irony in Steel

Just because they don't have a sense of humour, doesn't mean the Swiss don't make jokes.  Perhaps their biggest joke is the Swiss Army.  I've observed before that it speaks poorly of a fighting force if its principal weapon of combat usually deploys as a corkscrew. 

'Twas not always so.  In the late 1800s, a Swiss Army Knife was exactly that.  A folding knife.

But then, someone had the bright idea to issue the force with rifles.  To maintain a rifle, you need to take it apart.  As a nation of watchmakers knows, to take anything apart, you need a screwdriver.  And bingo, the Swiss Army knife we know today was born.

If you have no sense of humour, you might have missed the memo which says exaggeration is often used for comic effect. 

The German-speaking company, Wenger, one of two which has the contract to make knives for the Swiss Army, came up with this little beauty. Wenger Swiss Army Officer Knife 2

Wenger is serious about this knife.  They are serious when they tell you that it contains 87 implements performing 141 functions—though exactly how a screwdriver can function when its handle is over 100 times wider than the blade is not made clear. 

English-speaking e-commerce sites sell this simply as a "Giant Knife", but the German description (on Amazon.de) reveals the true extent of Swiss humourlessness.   This is the Officer's Version.

They are also serious when they tell you, with a straight face, that they charge $1500 for it at retail.  They are serious when they charge you $2149.95 to buy it direct from the factory, wihout a middle-man.  They are equally serious when they say customers who bought this also bought the Heritage Swiss Army knife, with a paltry four blades, for a mere $500. 

If you plug the amazon.de customer ratings into a translator, you can get a feel for humour in the German speaking world. 

One customer, identifying herself as Frau Imelda Marcos, decries this instrument as sexist, since it doesn't provide a vacuum cleaner.  Others praise it as a medical wonder.  Another thinks its 4G reception is poor.  Still another notes that it failed to repair the Deepwater Horizon.

These are precisely engineered jokes of the highest quality. 

Stranger than Dichtung.

Has the German-speaking world missed an irony to mock, right under its nose, on Amazon?

Colle BaronIt has to do with a certain Karl Theodore zu Guttenberg.   A certain Baron Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg.

That name should be plenty to snigger at.  He skives off more feast days than a Catholic kindergarten, plus he is both Karl of Guttenberg, and he's Karl at Guttenberg. But there's more.

Zu Guttenberg was German defence minister, a real star of Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, until he suffered a humiliating fall from grace.  It turns out he plagiarised vast slabs of his doctoral thesis. (Title: Constitution and Convention, Stages of Constitutional Development in the US and EU.  That should have been a clue.)  His excuse?  He was busy.

He has since taken up a position as Distinguished Statesman at the Center for Strategic and International Sudies in Washington. He lives in Connecticut.  Those who see no irony in this, should really have their funnybones checked.

There's more.  It turns out that the hapless Baron published his thesis.  You can buy a copy on amazon.de.  

Like the Wenger knife, the price tag raises a laugh in itself.  At €490, perhaps it's cheaper to assemble it yourself from the component plagiarised parts.

FussnotenUnlike the Wenger knife, only a handful of German speakers have taken the opportunity to joke at the author's expense in the buyers' comments.   Most are sarcastic rather than witty, though one did suggest that university assessors appreciated the brilliant Dadaism of the Baron's work.

The most delicious irony lurks beneath the reviews.  If the algorithm smiles upon you, in the window where Amazon says what else folks bought, you might see a book written by a previous Baron zu Guttenberg, another Karl Theodor.  He was the current Baron's grandfather, also a prominent conservative politician and published author.

The subject of the grandfather's book?  The art of the footnote.  

Here in German-speaking Europe, irony is no joke.  It's a way of life.

EDIT: The ever-watchful John Carter Wood, co-author of Obscene Desserts, points out a splendid piece about the German sense of humour by Andrew Hammel.  (Here's another by Andrew)  A complex subject, which is an elephant in the room during many conversations between Germans and others. 

And American writer Scott Stephenson tries to make sense of English-Language humour for Germans, in German.  Good luck.

FURTHER EDIT: After zu Guttenberg's disgrace, universities examined several other doctorates held by German politicians.  Jorgo Chatzimarkakis and Silvana Koch-Mehrin both found themselves stripped of their academic titles, when both were found to have copied more than 50% of their theses.  The two are members of a right-libertarian party, the FDP.  Perhaps this will teach them a little lesson in the need for regulation.

How were you born?

$5.99 from the Hillbilly Teeth StoreHow were you born?  That way?  The question scarcely troubles the gay communities of Europe. 

(Unless you count clergy in the Vatican.  Technically, they're a gay community, too.)

But in the United States, it sits at the core of the gay rights debate.  Advocates quote much science to show that homosexuality is innate, immutable and probably genetic; some of that science is contentious.   The subject came up in a discussion on the blog of the redoubtable Mark Simpson—required reading, by the way, for anyone with an interest in issues of gender, sexuality, or culture at large. It got me thinking. 

Problem is, it got me thinking like a marketer.  (Readers may know, that's sorta what I do for a crust.)

The whole born-this-way question reminds me of chocolate. Specifically, chocolate with peanuts or chocolate with coconut.

You see, there are peanut people, and coconut people. People who eat Snickers are unlikely to eat Bounties very often, and vice-versa.

Most of us have tried both, at some time or other.  A few will experiment regularly over the course of their lives.  Many enjoy a bit of variety when the opportunity presents itself.

But true biconfectionals are rare. You work out your taste early in life, and it abides. No matter how much marketers try, we cannot change you. We have wasted a lot of money trying, over the years.

Does a genetic predisposition cause this abiding preference in the pursuit of pleasure? Marketing data suggest it runs in families. Or maybe early childhood diet or other environmental factors influence you. Maybe it just happens.

Problem is, coconut can be polarising. A few people love it, but lots hate it. Let’s imagine that someone got a hair up his ass about coconuts.

He screams from pulpit or television screen that coconut in chocolate is un-natural. It comes from strange places and brings tropical disease. It’s goddamn monkey-food, and anyone who eats coconut is but one step away from consorting with animals.  Coconut is disgusting.

What’s a coconut lover to say? 

  1. No, coconuts are perfectly natural and beautiful and pure.  Humans have eaten coconut for centuries.  They are part of my very being, and I can’t help what I like. Science shows it. Science gives us the truth, the truth is noble, the noble is sacred and the sacred is good.
  2. Fuck off. I can eat what I damn well please.

Why does the US queer community persist with the tortured logic of #1, when #2 is so much simpler?

Americans take sex too seriously. Sex is a part of love, but it’s the playful part. It’s fun, and the right to fun seems to have been Aristabratsroyalty Pacifierdivorced from the right to happiness. Perhaps it’s those dour Puritans at work, but Americans seem to see having fun as the opposite of abiding happiness.

Americans seek to dignify their choice of love-object with some higher purpose, as opposed to just saying that, for whatever reason, I want to warm my willy there.   Or if you're a lesbian, warm your...um, what exactly do lesbians do?

Unless you can find some higher purpose to everything, you're wasting your time.  You can’t just do something because you like it, can you?

Naturally,  I'm curious about the origins of my homosexuality—the same way, as a marketer, I am curious about the origins of the coconut-peanut paradox.

But not knowing how my homosexuality came about should not stand in the way of my right to practise it.  Just like not knowing how you come to prefer coconut or peanuts doesn’t stand in the way of me selling you the stuff.

And with that, the Honourable Husband decides he should really get back to selling  some stuff this fine autumn morning.

Photos link to source.

Comrades in Kitsch

Where is he gay today? Inner-city Sofia, Bulgaria Soviet Army Memorial Sofia 836
Never trust art you can understand.  At least, not art you can understand too fast. 

If you understand art instantly, without strain, the artist is trying to sell you something.  (You can trust me.  That's been my trade for a long time.)

Particularly important when you have an ideology to sell.  Look at the art of National Socialism, the Roman Catholic Church, Evangelicalism, Neoliberalism, or Communism.  There's no doubt what they're selling.

Communism even has its own art movement, and all.  Some call it Socialist Realism.  Others call this school girl meets tractor. 

Officially, the party line states that painting and sculpture should depict the world with utter fidelity, and in so doing, glorify the commonplace.    The flip side: anything a citizen finds in official, state-sanctioned art is the truth.  Not some destructive, unrealistic fantasy that diverts you from the path to progress. Not, in Marx's words, an opiate.

Keepin' it Real. 

The Soviet Army Memorial in Sofia toes the party line.  At first glance, the main statue seems standard-issue heroic.  The pose of a victorious soldier, holding his weapon high, set atop an enormous pedestal, shouts strength and nobility.  It commemorates the liberation of Bulgaria from the Nazis by the Soviet Army at the end of World War II.

Out and About--Sofia day 4 813
The builders designed the grand plaza, one assumes, for military parades. Nowadays, it hosts events like the finals of the World Strongman's Champions League in June 2010, won handily by Serbian favourite Ervin Katona.   You can see the Memorial in the background here and here.  

(We were actually in Sofia that June to see yet another contest of strength.  Bulgarians may eat goat, but they watch beef.)

When not hosting marches or meat sports, defecating dogs and skateboarders move in.

Out and About--Sofia day 4 813
Sad, because the sculpture is extraordinary.  The sculptor (whose name even the fiercest googling does not reveal) created several tableaux of soldiers being welcomed into a small village, both in high-relief and full 3D.  Cast in 1954, it resists the modernism of later Soviet-era monuments, and captures the emotions of a relieved populace in metal. 

Out and About--Sofia day 4 813
Out and About--Sofia day 4 813

Out and About--Sofia day 4 805

Out and About--Sofia day 4 786
Common folk glorifying their military heroes is a theme in socialist art of the mid-20th century.  In the interaction of civilians and men in uniform, we often see socialist naturalism at its most endearing.

Of course, it's equally endearing in the art of the west.  As I stood that summer's morning in the middle of Bulgaria, what sprang to mind was none other than Norman Rockwell.  Others have noticed the similarity, too.

I probably don't need to explain Rockwell to American readers.  And even those abroad will recognise him as the high priest of Americana.  His covers for The Saturday Evening Post and the scouting magazine Boy's Life are the stuff of legend.  His art celebrated American life as one of community and abundance.  Of course, in a time of depression and wartime sacrifice, this was a bald-faced lie for many.

Most think of Rockwell as the epitome of wholesomeness.  But a queer eye can spot a trend.   

WNorman_rockwell-marriage-counselor2omen, if present at all, are self-sacrificing pillars of virtue, or coquettes who claim men as smitten victims. (It's shouldn't surprise us that Rockwell's relationships with women were troubled.)   

His most affectionate portraits of women showed girls as tomboys; Rockwell was credited with the first public appearance of the iconic character "Rosie the Riveter".  His Rosie seems an awful lot more butch than her later incarnations.

Rockwell seems at home showing men in the fellowship of other men, especially when men in uniform assert quiet but friendly authority over their civilian counterparts.  Men are desirable and sexy in his art—they show an unselfconscious masculinity and relaxed sense of humour; his women are highly stylised, and frankly, a bit uptight.

None of this gets too homoerotic, but it's definitely homoaffectionate.

We can't say the same of the Eastern Bloc.  It takes a truly prim, sex-blind culture to miss the blatant gay cues some of the statues.

Out and About--Sofia day 4 786
Kiss me, you fool!

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Flowers?  You shouldn't have!

Out and About--Sofia day 4 786
Adopt the inflatable sex-doll position!

Out and About--Sofia day 4 805

Do you detect just a little too much admiration for the male frame on both sides of the old Iron Curtain?  The Superhero physique seems at home in Rockwell, as well as in socialist art.

So it shouldn't surprise us that the Soviet Army Memorial earned a simple (but no doubt time consuming) make-over earlier this year.  The local English-language media reported on it, along with the graffiti-hounds at Bomb-It.   Bomb-It lifted photos from the best available source.  Ironically, that was the Voice of Russia.  I followed suit, and that's where the photos below come from.

Banksy Bulgaria BombIt 1
A Sofia blogger describes some of the background: Not surprisingly, many Bulgarians think that the Russians driving out the Nazis was rather a good move, and they still remember the event with gratitude.  Many in the community saw this as simple vandalism, rather than noble self-expression.

Bulgarian culture minister Vedhzi Rashidov put it this way.  "Never mind whether we like it or not, Bulgaria lived 50 years under the rule of Socialism and this is a part of our history. If any generation thinks this can be simply erased, it would be unnecessary.  Germany did not remove the Russian tank from Berlin, Austria did not remove [its memorial]"   In fact, the City of Berlin went so far as to restore its monument in 2004.

The Russians, in particular, were outraged.   The nerve of these people!  If any broad-chested socialist hero should turn into Superman, make it Vladimir Putin. 

At the same time, crowds were delighted.  This 360 degree view shows not only the painting in its full glory, but an enthusiastic audience lapping it up.  Alas, they couldn't enjoy it for long, since the Memorial was cleaned as stealthily as it was painted

Banksy Bulgaria BombIt 1
It didn't take long for the artist (or group of artists, for surely this work took more than one set of hands) to be dubbed the Banksy of Bulgaria, especially by the British tabloids.  Not sure about that one.  Banksy, I think, is much more subtle.  The Sophia artists left no room for ambiguity: below their work, they wrote the title Moving Forward with the Times.

If only the Bulgarian Banksies knew how traditional—even old fashioned—their work actually is. 

In many ways, the commercial activity which surrounds the Memorial is a far greater insult to the principles for which so many Soviet soldiers died, is it not?

Out and About--Sofia day 4 813
Frankly, even without its makeover, the memorial wouldn't seem out of place in a town square in the middle of America. OK, nowadays all those guns might be a problem.  But what could be more American than kissing babies?  True?

Copyright notice: Where not an original photo taken by the author, all photos link to source.  I believe that the use of all images conforms with US and EU rules on fair use in quotation and criticism.

Photo Friday: Public Spaces

Not a great photo, technically, for this Photo Friday.  But the subject reveals much about differences in culture across the globe. 

Like all large cities, Tokyo deals with the homeless.  Homeless sleep under bridges, in vacant lots, in shanty towns, in carboard boxes.  There's little need for them to do this; Japan has a decent social safety net.  But the demons that often live in the heads of the street-dweller demand a place in public.  Perhaps the buzz of people around you tempers your loneliness.

But no matter how much craziness scratches the vinyl of their minds, these homeless people are still Japanese.  A sense of order and cleanliness prevails.  Homeless encampments feature laundry facilities.  A homeless man who lived near us in Toranomon would complain loudly to anyone who dropped a cigarette butt on his patch of pavement. Homelessness is no excuse to abandon etiquette.

This shantytown near Ueno station in 2002 shows a remarkable sense of community.  Local police erected barriers near the tents and cardboard boxes to preserve the residents' privacy—Japanese culture draws a strict line between public space and the privacy of your home.   And notice, you gaijin barbarians, that one always removes one's shoes before entering a Japanese home.