Archive for April, 2011

Crosses and Shame, just in time for Easter
April 25, 2011

God doesn’t play an especially important part in my life. She lets me do my thing and I let her do hers. My relationship with God might well be summed up as one of mutual disinterest, not unlike my relationship with the Easter Bunny (though I well admit to having a little more resentment toward the Easter Bunny, after a childhood of lame presents.)

So moving to the Biblebelt, as is known this region of the Southern US, has been an interesting experience. Disinterest is difficult to maintain when “Jesus is the Lord” is loudly proclaimed at public events, on roadside placards, on bumper stickers and license plate holders, and even napkin dispensers at the local taco shop.

Ambivalence is especially difficult to maintain in St-Augustine, a small town that houses “America’s most sacred acre.” Tradition holds that the first mass in the new colony was held here in 1615. A mission church was built not long after. A sign at the site proudly proclaims “Indians were signing hymns in Latin by the 17th century.”

Having successfully converted the natives centuries ago, the local church has decided to spend its resources harassing and shaming women audacious enough believe that they control their own reproductive rights (I say reproductive rights because the word uterus was recently banned in the Florida House of Representatives). The local church has filled a field with 4000 crosses (representing the number of “babies” aborted every day in America), as well as some pictures of adorable and (we are supposed to assume) murdered babies. 

I’ve included some pictures here for those of you who live in countries without the benevolent tyranny of God.

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Caught in the Bayou
April 20, 2011

It’s impossible to describe everything that happened last Saturday, the boiled peanuts, the slave plantation, the narrowly averted wild Bobcat attack, the drive-thru beach, so I’ll just start at the point when I’m standing on a shrimping boat getting sniffed by a carnivorous dog named Hunter, who’s known as much for his love of Arby’s roast beef sandwiches as his habit of falling overboard.

Sitting at the helm is Hunter’s master, Jeb, unquestioned commander of this ship, the Captain Lee. Jeb’s been shrimping off the coast of Florida for 30 years. The clutter in the bow seems to date back just as long. I stand awkwardly in a mess of overflowing ashtrays, dog food, screws and specialized fishing tools I’d never seen before. A tacky pin-up girl shares space on the wall with a crucifix and twice already the dog has stuck its snout up my sundress. This ship is obviously designed for men to spend weeks together at sea. It wasn’t made for girls in floral prints.

Jeb’s been painting and fixing up his boat to prepare for the shrimp season that begins May 1. Despite the improvements he’s made all around, he’s reluctant to replace the splintering front windows. They’re made of a special baby blue tinted plastic that isn’t manufactured anymore, but Jeb can’t imagine clear or brown tinted windows on the Captain Lee. It just wouldn’t look right. Such aesthetic concerns are the unknown woes of the shrimp fisherman.

Window colours seem trivial compared the Jeb’s financial troubles. Since diesel went from 80¢ to almost $4 a gallon, fuelling up means he leaves port $30 000 in debt before he catches a single shrimp. Even if he has a good catch, prices of wild Atlantic shrimp can’t compete with Asian and South American farmed shrimp. Almost all the restaurants in the area are chains – Popeye’s, Red lobster, Papa John’s – and they all sell imported, farm raised shrimp, despite the local fishing industry.

Almost as though on cue Jeb admits to the great Fisherman cliché; after so long at sea, he can’t imagine doing anything else, though he understands why his own son isn’t interested in the business. Despite a love for motorcycles, it’s obvious that Jeb’s attention rarely goes beyond fishing. Lost in the mess on the counter are four seasons of HBO’s Deadliest Catch and a copy of The Perfect Storm, DVDs about fishing to help him get through the long boring hours of actually fishing. Jeb picked them up cheap at Blockbuster when it went out of business last year. Blockbuster video couldn’t compete when people started downloading movies from the Internet, or renting them for a dollar from the DVD booths at McDonald’s.

I leave feeling depressed. Since Jeb started fishing farmed shrimp has taken over 90% of the American market. I wonder what will happen to him and Hunter. Will the Captain Lee be sold off in pieces like Blockbuster? Its baby blue windows, nets and front helm may end up decorating a booth at the local Red Lobster, inviting us to imagine genuine American fisherman while we enjoy $20 all-you-can-eat shrimp, farmed fresh in Thailand.

Jeb and Hunter wave goodbye

(Here’s a great feature article on the shrimp industry, from my favourite left-wig environmentalist magazine: http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/4395)

Tea Party done taught me 10 things
April 17, 2011

10- Americans are Taxed Enough Already, in neon colo(u)rs.

"Drill here, Drill now" with a picture of the Gulf of Mexico.

9-America is in decline and must be restored to its former glory.

Note that "restored" America has obliterated Canada.

8- Tea Partiers don’t hate jihadists. Indeed, they support their stay in Club Gitmo, an all-inclusive, air-conditioned jihadi daycare. “The food at Club G’itmo beats the taxpayer-provided lunches in the infidel’s schools. Plus, [they] provide students with all the tools needed to worship the god of their choice, free of charge! Every check-in gets a Koran and prayer rug!”
(http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/home/eibessential/illustrating_absurdity/clubgitmo.guest.html)

7-The Tea Party is open to Hispanics. As long as they are legal and show no untoward signs of being Hispanic.

Guy in background was on Home Improvement!

6- The economy has been so badly affected by Obama’s presidency people can no longer afford quality sign-making materials.

The boy in the middle is Russian, to his left an Israeli. They could barely speak English but their indignation toward wasteful spending was palpable.

5- Obama is not American unless proven otherwise.

I pointed out that Obama is American, regardless of where he was born. My point was irrelevant to this Cuban, as are the differences between communism, fascism and socialism... "Obama is going the same thing Hitler did, the same slow changes that Castro brought to Cuba..."

4- Making a black man dress as Obama and wear giant ears for a crowd full of white folks isn’t racism – it’s fun!

3- Political signs make a statement. Children holding political signs make a more emotionally powerful statement.

2-In the land of the free anyone can protest. You can even protest tea party rallies and wear pro-choice T-shirts. You may, however, have to answer to the police.

"What is this, a Harper rally?" I heard her ask, in my imagination.

1- If you’re going to hold a rally, you need something to attract protestors, so know your demographic. Be sure to hold your right-wing rally in an environment protestors will feel comfortable, a place they’ll be naturally drawn to. If there are no trailer parks in your vicinity, and Nascar isn’t available, any upscale dining establishment will do.

Berlin Gets Its First Microwave
April 13, 2011

“Maybe we could get a microwave too?”

I ask my boyfriend this as we drive through a suburb of East Berlin, on our way to pick up a used refrigerator for our flat.  It seemed an ideal time to make demands for new appliances, or maybe I was just trying to distract myself from my surroundings. While the wall diving East and West came down over 20 years ago, East Berlin remains its own unique place. The neighborhoods that were closest to the West have all been gentrified over the years, while the farther corners of Eastern Berlin have emptied, becoming economically depressed, and sad.

East Berlin is grey: grey sky, grey streets, grey buildings. You usually know you’re in the East when you see bright yellow streetcars (there were never any streetcars in the West, but the ones in the East remain). But even those jolly bell-ringing trolleys don’t go out as far as we’re going. Many of the apartment buildings are empty, deserted ages ago, as soon as people we’re able to leave. Broken windows and fading graffiti add to setting. It’s the kind of area that, having never known happiness or joy or light, is determined to swallow up and destroy your soul. The whole place has an aura of permanent gloom. As though in the event of nuclear meltdown it would still survive; its women will continue running their errands, pulling their shopping baskets languorously behind them, their weary eyes glued to the same grey pavement…

It is here that I realize I desperately need a microwave.

“Ja, I’m not sure. I’m not really a microwave kind of person,” he answers, obviously scoffing at the idea that I, a Canadian, feel the need for this ridiculous appliance.

Having never considered that I could define my identity through my choice of electrical appliances, I again daydream myself out of East Berlin. What kind of appliance am I? A chrome platted toaster? Do I dare imagine myself a sleek and sophisticated curling iron? I start equating my friends with certain machines: “she’s a noble rice cooker,” I think to myself, another friend is certainly a vintage style mixer. Grama is a reliable chest freezer, full of hearty soups.

It soon becomes clear to me that I’m being ridiculous, though my German boyfriend, still chattering away in his own particular version of English, doesn’t see anything wrong with likening people to appliances. That’s because for him, and many other Europeans, the microwave is the quintessential American appliance, symbolic of McCulture’s obsession with effortless instant fulfillment.

During my travels in Europe I’ve come across a number of people (French, German, British), who take on an air of light scorn toward all things considered too American: weak coffee, peanut butter, microwaves, eating with the left hand, saying “on weekends” rather than “at the weekend.” This was especially true when I taught English in France, where I often met Brits who implored me to teach “proper” English words like pavement, aubergine and lorry rather than sidewalk, eggplant and truck. I had a friend in France who was convinced herpes came from the Americas. It no longer shocks me to hear this kind Eurocentric behaviour. What’s shocking is that, so long after the end of the “great” European empires, some people still can’t hear how self-important and condescending they sound.

Things can be slow to change in Europe. East Berlin is a testament to that. Despite being sucked into progress and freedom, East Berlin is the same miserable place, just with new Western-style social and economic problems.

We did eventually get a microwave. It’s a great way to make popcorn. It turns out it’s even a convenient way to reheat yesterday’s spätzle and schnitzel. Instant fulfillment has arrived in Germany.

Ode to the User Friendly Sidewalk
April 3, 2011

Note that these signs aren't in front of a road, but a forest.

CNN is on and it depresses me. CNN is always on, alternating sound bites from democratic and republican politicians who reiterate the same buzz words every day. They always emphasize things like “American competitiveness,” “the American way of life,” and “freedom,” though what any of those words mean has been lost through inane repetition. I imagine their handlers congratulate them after each broadcast if they manage to slip in something as obscure, yet poignant as “family values.”  “Constitution” is the new buzzword, no longer referencing the foundation of America’s legal system, but some forlorn time that inspires insipid nostalgia for the epoch of “our” founding fathers. The Declaration of Independence wasn’t the birth of American democracy, but its historic glory, to which social conservatives would love to have us return. Mostly I ignore it, partly because it’s depressing, partly because I’m fond of the Marriot’s free breakfast, and CNN is always served with breakfast, along side biscuits and lumpy discoloured gravy.

After a delicious breakfast of waffles, I try and make my pedestrian way somewhere in Jacksonville. In one direction there’s a park (PPRIVATE: For the exclusive use of Deerwood Apartments residents – Trespassers will be prosecuted). In the other direction there’s a mall, though it’s unlike any Canadian mall I know (think of the biggest strip mall you’ve ever seen, multiply that in size by 20 and add a lot of drive-thrus). My two choices seem to signal the death and rebirth of the American community. There are no great public spaces left in Jacksonville, no downtown core, no civic cent(re/er). So much for parks as a natural habitat maintained by local government for the enjoyment of all. Parks here are private spaces.

What remains as public space centers on consumption. “Let’s go to the mall!” said the great Canadian philosopher Robyn Sparkles. And to the mall we go: it seems to be the only thing to do here. And before it sounds like I’m being scornful of permanently backward America, it’s important to remember that things haven’t always been like this. It was the Americans who invented a truly public national park system in the 19th century, in stark contrast to the aristocratic hunting grounds of Europe that kept game in, while keeping the commoners out.

A beautiful place for trespassers.

It isn’t just the spaces either, but the roads that connect people together. In Michigan, the government is ripping apart paved roads it can no longer afford to maintain due to its shrinking population. Sidewalks don’t exist in my neighbo(u)rhood. Not really. They are windy aesthetic boardwalks (impossible for bicycles), or a few blocks of pavement that end in bushes, not because of the overgrowth, because that’s just where the sidewalk happens to end. There is a straight sidewalk on the main road by the mall, but there are no crosswalks that allow pedestrians to cross eight lanes of traffic safely. I’ve seen more rare birds (cranes, cormorants, herons) than I have fellow pedestrians or cyclists.

The end of the sidewalk.

Not only are the no great public places in Jacksonville, but the very arteries used to connect people are missing, or end in a pile of bushes marked “PRIVATE: Keep out.” So I’m forced to turn around once again, and return to another day of shopping.

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Robert Putnam wrote a book about this phenomenon few years ago called Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Rebirth of American Community. In doing research Putnam discovered that while more Americans are bowling than ever before, they are not bowling in leagues, as they become increasingly disconnect from their communities, families and democratic structures.

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My next post is going to be all about microwaves! Which electrical appliance are you?

Re: Last post. For those of you who enjoyed the “God preferred” T-shirts, I bring you the “Jesus loves you but I’m his favorite” button!

God's favo(u)rite!