As the Games of XX Winter Olympics fade into the media morass which brought them to us, it occurs to me that, in fact, it is really only winter for one half of the globe--coincidentally, that half that watches the most television and buys the most stuff (yes, it's the Northern Hemisphere, home to America, among others). It's summertime in the southern hemisphere, yet we, with our self absorption and hemisphere-centric mentality, shove the term "winter" down the throat of the entire world. The opposite situation occurs every four years during the summer games, when it's winter down below. Sure, the southern hemisphere is much less populated, but who decided that our seasons would be the dominant ones? If you're, say, a curling champion from Antarctica, wouldn't you'd be steamed? I would.
Well, I guess they get the last laugh--the stars sure do shine brighter down there. The photo above is Aurora Australis (or, the Southern Lights). This is the same sky that is home to the Southern Cross, as sung about by Crosby, Stills & Young on Daylight Again (1982), which is a respectable album, given that the trio who made it had more fun in the 60s and 70s that almost anybody else on the planet.
While NYC was blanketed with a record snowfall, my GF and I were living on the cheap in a sleepy little Mexican fishing village, down the Yucatan way. For a ten day strech there was little to do but drink beer, swim in the Caribbean, sleep and read books. And read we did, like thirsty fools drawn to sweet water.
My opinions on books are simply that: Opinions. So, for better or worse, here is a list of books I highly recommend, all of which I read on this recent trip (I did not hotlink the titles; you can find them if you want to read them):
Home Land, by Sam Lipsyte: Probably the funniest book written in the last five years. Do you need to know anything more? Yes? Well, reading this book will make you want to read everything he's written, and that's saying something.
Any Human Heart, by William Boyd: A friend turned me onto Boyd, and I'm hooked now. AHH is masterful, epic, touching, poignant, funny and witty. If you're a fan of novels that weave real characters into the narrative thread, this is a wonderful read (one meets Picasso, Hemingway and the Duke of Windsor, among many others). An elegant tour de force.
The Epicure's Lament, by Kate Christensen: While this book tries just a tad too hard, it has a wonderful sense of depth and playfulness, and the main character, Hugo Whittier, scion of a crumbling WASPY dynasty, is so sharply drawn you'll think he's sitting next to you.
Joe College, by Tom Perotta: Perotta's semi-autobiographical take on life at Yale is funny and light, but not at all lightweight. His sense of humor and his wonderful cultural characterizations make this a superb roman a clef.
Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, by Hunter S. Thompson: I had originally read this book when, like a junkie, I devoured all of the good doctor's works, one after another, during my freshman year of college. Hell's Angels is the least gonzo of all of his books (that is, it's pretty much straight journalism), though there are glimmers of the characteristic style. As with most of Thompson's work, what is most impressive are his insights into the larger changes in the social fabric of American culture. More often than not, novice Thompson readers get caught up in the drugs and violence, missing his true brilliance.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon: This was the last book I started on the trip, and so far I've read through the first 200 pages, barely the first third. It's exceeding my expectations, and I find myself reading with a pen and a notepad, writing down a list of what I'm calling "A Collection of Wonderful Words/Lines/Descriptions." Sad, but true.
Yes, that's right. The XX Winter Olympics begin today, and I couldn't be more excited. Call me an old-fashioned sentimentalist, but I am just nuts about winter sports, and the Winter Olympics capture all the glory and passion that is embodied in these endeavors. As a child of Michigan, the great winter wonderland, I was raised playing pond hockey, going cross country skiing and, of course, sledding down the biggest, meanest hills we could find. I don't get to do much of that anymore, so the closest I can come to these boyhood activities is the Olympics. Ah, what a glorious two weeks are these!!
Of course, part of my fascination with the Winter Olympics dates back to Lake Placid, and the Miracle on Ice that was the U.S. Hockey Team that year. In 1980 I was still young enough to believe, still young enough to be touched by a sporting event in an almost spiritual way (the last time I would feel like this was 1984, when the Detroit Tigers won the World Series). In some way, I watch the Winter Olympics because, though I know, at an intellectual level, it's unlikely (I'm far too aware of the corruption and commercialization that has overaken the Olympics), some small part of me hopes that it might be possible to feel the way I felt then, sitting on the floor in front of my father and my older brothers, watching an old Zenith, and cheering our hearts out for a ragtag bunch of American.
Apparently the Grammy Awards were last night. I have no idea what happened, and will use every fiber of my being to try to avoid the inevitable firestorm of media coverage that will ensue. I'm sure some people won some awards, or so they tell me. It may make me a curmudgeon, or somewhat out of touch with what most of my fellow Americans are doing, but I usually try to avoid the big awards shows. I like to listen to music, but I'm not sure what the point of these massive industry blow jobs really is. Perhaps someone out there can enlighten me.
If this entry seems to ramble at all, well, I blame the Codeine. Yes, I'm induced at the moment. Judge me if you will, tell me to just say no, boycott this blog. But there must be some upside to suffering through a root canal procedure, and the prescription meds are the best ones that come to mind. Codeine is a low level opioid that is used to relieve pain. For most of my childhood it was a common ingredient in cough syrups (thus, Bill Murray's classic reference to the substance in the opening scenes of "Stripes", when he is working as a cab driver), though those days are gone. Still, when one has occassion to procure the stuff legally, it's nice to indulge.
And, I'll need all the painkillers I can get to absorb the dental bill, since I, like millions of Americans, don't have health insurance. As a writer not employed by any single corporation, I'm on my own, though I could, for a ridiculous monthly sum, have a terribly basic plan, with doctors I don't know and paperwork I don't understand. And I'd still have to pay out of pocket for my dental needs.
Because, this is America, and while we can spend tens of billions of dollars each month to fight a war for "against terror" (as Andy Borowitz brilliantly noted, you can't really fight a war against an emotion, which is what terror is), we can't seem to figure out how to create a system that provides for superior health care for average citizens. Or, more accurately, the government can't seem to find the funds.
I'd be well out of my league by several orders of magnitude if I said I knew what the solution was. I don't, but there has to be an alternative better than my hoping I don't get sick, and forking out thousands of dollars for those times I do visit the doctor (it's the lab work that gets you). I've been fortunate. Of course, the point of insurance is that it acts as a safety net for those medical emergencies one cannot foresee.
And that's where the Codeine comes in handy. For a little while, I get to float like Thomas de Quincey, enjoying the morphine-like effects of the Tylenol 3 my dentist so professionally prescribed. So far, the evening been nothing but roses. My jaw feels fine, my toothache is gone, and my mind feels fuzzy, but focused. Come to think of it, I think I'll go pop in Season 2 of Arrested Development. Let's just hope I don't laugh so hard that I require medical attention.
And so a nation collectively meanders toward another Super Bowl Sunday, and the articles about how the host city is gearing up appear, each proclaiming how much revenue and revelry the biggest event in sports will bring forth. This year, it's Detroit's turn. One of the city's bright new stars, Ford Field, will serve as the gleaming backdrop as hundreds of thousands come to party and spend money, and then leave town, very likely never to return again, unless, say, the Tigers make it to the World Series (which is almost the same as "never").
I did not grow up in Detroit proper. Very few people of my generation did (at least by choice). The year before I was born, Detroit was engulfed in race riots (and flames), along with Watts, Newark and other urban ghettos. White flight followed shortly thereafter, taking my parents (and nearly everybody else who could afford it) to the green, lake-laden suburbs to the North. Oakland County become the promised land, free of urban unrest and loaded with shopping malls. Yet we retained a connection to the city, visiting to attend museums, parades, civic functions, theatrical events and special family dinners. To the best of their ability, my newly suburbanized parents tried to maintain some sense of the city.
For this reason, I have always felt a strong sense of civic pride, and I consider myself a Detroiter, above all else. I may have spent the past 13 years in New York City, but I am not a New Yorker. And I never will be. Detroit will always be in my blood, and I make every effort I can to defend it (even as I am aware that my suburban upbringing and my current living situation makes me something of hypocrite).
Which is why it's disheartening to see all the hype being lauded in light of the Super Bowl. To me, this year's Super Bowl illustrates a bigger problem with urban planning that has developed over the past decade. Namely, the misguided belief that the best way to revitalize a city is to build casinos and sports arenas.
Detroit has done this, and it has failed. Certainly these shiny new diversions provide jobs, bring in tourist dollars and expose the city to people who might not otherwise visit. But these people come to select destinations, then they leave, to go back to their homes, someplace else.
The only way to build a city is to create a new community out of the ruins. Young families with children need to live there, work there, pay taxes there, care about what happens there. The state's major businesses need to be headquarted there (they no longer are, for the most part). This, sadly, may never happen en masse in Detroit again, because it takes too much effort. It requires the dismantling of not just a corrupt city government and an inept bureaucracy but also the collective consciousness of several generations of Detroit-area residents raised to live in fear of Motown.
The Super Bowl will come and go, and when the party ends, Detroit will once again be the butt of a joke that began appearing on local bumper stickers in the ealry 1980s: Will the last one to leave please turn off the lights?