Monday, August 28, 2006

A Case Of Blatz, A Block Of Cheddar And Thou

I have two more substantive posts in the pipeline for this week. One concerns my reflections on living in Madison, away from "home" for a year (the anniversary of which was yesterday). The other is focused on Swinging London in the '60s, but not what you expect; think more Drury Lane than Carnaby Street here.

In the meantime, enjoy this wonderful site recommended by NPR legend, host of Whad'ya Know? and Madison resident Michael Feldman (which was in turn recommended by my dad).

Hey, poetry is not just about, well, poetic things. It can be about anything. I published a series of poems about molluscs in my high school literary magazine. They were good, I was told.

Maybe I was just told that to get me to stop writing the likes of "Hey, Buddy Mollusc."

Hey, their loss, right?

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Prenuptual Rituals and Human Nature: A Personal Reflection

All things considered, I think that I have a decent grasp on many of the sociocultural dynamics that define and (some might say) plague our world today. How people interact with each other and their culture over time is a "broad-brush" generalization about what many historians (including me) do in their work.

There is one sociocultural dynamic, however, and its set of attendant rituals and practices that utterly eludes me: everything to do with getting married.

Now, there is a certain level on which I DO understand the whole thing. That would be the recognition of the importance of marriage in a particular society (as narrow as that definition might be), the public acknowledgement that two people are now linked officially as well as emotionally and the formalization of a partnership that will redefine the position of the couple vis-a-vis the rest of society.

I also understand that these things, which a society deems important, often become laden with ritual because they are, in many ways, inherently conservative acts. The people involved are saying, in effect, "we will play the part in this ritual to prove that, at the end of the day, we are not maverick. We are not radical. We agree with a certain amount of society's expectations."

Much of this understanding, incidentally, comes from the days where marriage was more a business deal than an emotional event. Before, oh, the eighteenth century, marriage was really just an arraingment for the continued inheritance of property. It was not until later that emotion even entered into it. That much I get.

Perhaps what I don't understand is the performative aspects of the rituals that come before a marriage in the modern United States. These would be the bachelor(ette) party. In particular, one particular aspect of each that has come to my attention through observation and, in the latter case, participation.

First, the bachelorette and her cadre. I view nothing with more horror than the arrival of a bachelorette party at any bar at which I am ensconced. "Why is this, Will," you may ask. Think of the group dynamic that just entered my space and you will understand. The group will, invariably, begin to draw all of the attention of the staff until getting a drink is slightly harder than distilling one for yourself in the bathroom.

Then their attentions will doubtless turn to the other patrons of the bar, in many cases, all men. There are two types here: those men who will egg the women on and participate in their escapades and those who would just as soon be left alone. No points for guessing which of those I am.

It is well and good if it ends there (which it often seems to): with the jagoff locals wrapped up in the "fun," and me (and the other sullen, angry sots) moving elsewhere. It can, however, turn into the worse case scenario: your participation is "requested" by the fiat of the group of women or expected by proxy due to the fact that you are a man. This situation is often precipitated by one's male friends, seeing the possibility of women with their inhibitions down, trying to knock one for six, as it were. Your participation is then expected.

This is where I draw the line. If the rest of your group wants to get involved, fine. Not me. In the great words of Eric Cartman, "screw you guys, I'm going home."

Oh, and to the women, no one actually thinks you are funny/cute/charming/more attractive when you behave like this. The men who play along are just in it for the, well, you know, and the ones who don't really DO just want to be left alone. Most of the women who read this space know this and this is not directed at you (hopefully). To the rest, seems a bit harsh? Seems, madam? Nay, it is.

Now, as far as bachelor parties go, most of the ones that I have attended seem to be more private, not out in public affairs. There is a public component, no doubt. A few bars, some food and then, inevitably, the strip club. Words cannot express how uncomfortable these places make me (strip clubs, that is).

Do I think that it is women being objectified? Yes, but the women there know this, exploit it to great profit and think nothing more of it. I have no problem with this. Sex is the best way to cajole a man out of his hard-earned cash and, if it can be done, more power to those who can do it.

So what is it that makes me uncomfortable? Hard to say, really. It may have something to do with seeing my friends, people I respect as human beings, in the throes of the lowest aspects of human nature. I try and find the best in all people, and no people more keenly than my friends. They are such a wonderfully diverse and deep group of people and I consider anyone fortunate to meet with us. It is truly an experience not soon forgotten.

Take these people that you respect and put something female and unclothed in front of them, and the whole scene changes. They begin to behave, for lack of a better word, like all of the worst characteristics of guys that you hate and do not associate with under any circumstances.

Is this part of the male nature? Some would say that it is and that my revulsion in the situation tells more about me than my friends. I, however, think that it is something else. It is tantamount to seeing any side of someone that you respect that causes you to re-evaluate that respect and attempt to rationalize it. Something like catching your dad with someone who isn't your mom.

Complete and coherent? Not really. It is, it must be admitted, a complex consideration and one that I am not sure I will settle any time soon. In the meantime, however, I will go with my rationalizations of the past, write this behavior off to momentary insanity brought on by base urges and alcohol and move on through the experience.

As before, I must give great credit to alcohol, which has gotten my through many an uncomfortable bachelor party moment. Many has been the time when I have sucked down countless overpriced Dewar's and waters at strip clubs waiting for everyone else to "get it out of their systems" so the real drinking can commence. Oh, booze; what would I do without you?

To wrap this up, perhaps I am completely off base with my observations and I have missed the mark completely. Perhaps my biases and personal shortcomings are being brought to bear on something that everyone else thinks is fun. Perhaps I am, as ever, making far too much of this.

Or maybe, just maybe, me and the Dewar's Highlander have a point.

What say you?

Monday, August 21, 2006

Let's Get Trashed

O.K. The title to this post is a bit of false advertising. Below are not my ruminations on the merits of a booze-up (though they are indeed many). There are instead two observations concerning garbage.

First, in the wake of the aforementioned "hippie Christmas" here in Madison, the streets are again clear of the garbage mounds...with a few exceptions. For you see, the city requires an additional payment to dispose of appliances. It seems that you must pay for anything larger than, say, a toaster. Instead of the garbage heaps, therefore, the streets are dotted with microwaves, fridges, air conditioning units, computer equipment and other electronic gee-gaws that have gone to Appliance Heaven. They all bear a bright green sticker as evidence of their un-pick-up-able nature.

It is quite a "catch-22" if you think about it. In fact, in the book Catch-22, the dead man in Yossarian's tent is somewhat of a metaphor for these appliances. In the case of the dead man, there were seemingly good administrative reasons why the man could not be moved; no one knew what they were, but they must have been frightfully good.

With the appliances, the people who threw them out have moved, possibly out of town, so they're out. The landlord won't touch it, much less pay for it, because he/she did not throw it out to begin with. Lastly, the city will not pick up any appliance that has not been paid for. See what I mean? The streets of Madison are dotted with little curbside monuments to governmental and systemic ineffeciency.

Observation number two comes in the form of something I noticed about myself. Through no extra effort on my part, I am actually quite environmentally friendly.

First, and this is the big one, I do not own a car and have not in three years. I go everywhere via public transportation. I'll bet that even Al Gore cannot say that. Second, I recycle/reuse almost everything possible. Madison's recycling program takes almost anything (except appliances, apparently) and being a swinging bachelor (ahem), I create very little trash. The bulk of the trash I do create is the recyclable kind (empty beer cans and the cases that they came in, mainly). Thirdly, I wash my clothes in a high-effeciency, double load commerical washer that uses less water and less soap, therefore creating less toxic (especially from my socks) run-off.

So there, Al Gore, your truths (if they indeed be that) are not inconvienent for me at all. Nice try at making me feel guilty, though.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Typonomy Blundering, Spatial Understanding

A short news item concerning misprinted Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) maps led me back to a pet subject of mine: the power of maps.

Granted, this seems like an accidental oversight, and one that will cost the already cash-strapped CTA quite a lot of money to correct.

Which led me to these thoughts: what would happen if they were not corrected? What would have happened if no-one noticed?

Maps have a certain air of authority to people in the modern world. It is thought that they are scientific documents, produced by professionals and they are therefore foolproof. Think about this. You look at a road atlas, transit map or whatever and you just figure that it is correct. Most people, moreover, consider that the makers of these maps have no motive other than providing correct geographical information to get you from here to there with the least amount of hassle.

On one level, this is what maps are: utilitarian documents that represent a three-dimensional reality in two dimensions for people who want more information about the territory depicted. They are, on another level, much more than this.

Think about the awesome conceptual leap that it takes to represent something on a scale and in a different dimensional framework than it is normally experienced and you'll see what I mean. A map cannot, obviously, represent territory on a 1:1 scale, so decisions must be made, items included and excluded. It is in these comissions and omissions that the deeper meaning of cartography begins to reveal itself.

In other words, what is left out of a map often tells as much about the maker and their society than what is included. Just as in music, you must listen for the silences as well as the notes.

As shown by the CTA blunder, place names also carry an awesome power behind them. While this case was just a mistake (most likely), it illustrates that typonomy is important and can be a very loaded concept. One need only look at maps of "colonized" areas to see the power of place names over the understanding of the landscape for conqueror and conquered alike.

Is the case of the CTA the same as the (as some have argued) cultural genocide of place re-naming. Hardly. What it does show, however, is that maps shape understandings of territory as much as territories lead to the creation of maps of all sorts.

Am I making too much of this? Consider how we do (or don't) "think cartographically," (to use David Buisseret's words. How do our minds experience and process space? From another angle, what is it in all human cultures that leads them to express space cartographically in one way or another?

For more visual learners (and because it's more interesting), are these images maps? Why or why not?

Oh, if your answer to "am I making too much of this" was yes, you may be on to something...

Monday, August 14, 2006

Madison Halloween 2006: The Death of Fun And/Or Freedom

As another school year here in Madison draws near, thoughts locally turn to all of the highs and lows that the influx of tens of thousands of people bring about every year. We are in the midst of the spate of moving trucks and monumental garbage piles of the "moving-in" period (and the garbage picking mecca that is refered to as "hippie Christmas.")

Doubtless, thoughts also turn to the hoary old chestnut that is Halloween in Madison, 2006. After last year, which was more subdued that previous years, Mayor Dave still seems worried about the revelers and their antics. So, what is his plan?

He intends to charge a five dollar admission charge, barracade every entrance to State Street and set an upper limit for the number of "tickets sold. Read the full story here.

This plan has the support of the Madison Common Council and other groups such as the Associated Students of Madison, the Interfraternity Council, Downtown Madison Inc., and the State Street Business Association.

It does not, however, have the support of the UW-Madison Student Government, who claim that it punishes the innocent and presumes guilt on the part of all attendees for the rowdy acts of a few troublemakers (most of which don't even live here). Check out their objections here.

What do I think, you ask? Let's look at this from a few different angles: the city government, the partygoers and the business owners on State Street. Then, having considered that, let's take a broader view.

The City of Madison
From the city's standpoint, it seems that this may be just another bandage on a gaping head wound. Sure, the money will be welcomed and, on paper, the plan does seem to stem the tide of, well, the tide of people that crowd State Street. On paper, that is. Actually, the enforcement of this policy seems more easily said than done. Take a look at a map of State Street, scan up and down and try and count all of the access points...sure are a lot, no?

Not to mention the fact that while State Street is a pedestrian mall, it is crossed by several streets that are not (Lake, Gorham, Johnson, Dayton, Fairchild). How will traffic be directed through these areas while limiting access on foot?

Another enforcement issue comes in the counting of the admissions charged. This will take a level of coordination that, while keeping the coercive presence to a maximum, might lead to miscommunincations and other issues of coordination. Perhaps not, but it could happen.

Halloween Partygoers
This is the proverbial "x-factor." This is the reason that there is a problem in the first place. From these people's view, they want to be in public, act stupid, drink and get in fights. No amount of coercive effort will change this. What will, you ask? Well get to that, but first, the lizard brain.

The lizard brain is the brain as functioning under the influence. It is well known that the first thing to go, cognitively, when drinking is judgement. This means that the irrational becomes necessary and that doing what one would normally not do seems like the best idea ever. Now, imagine 70,000 people in a similar condition and the enormity of the situation takes hold.

O.K., the first people there will not cause a stink. What about those who are turned away or those who pay, are admitted and then are unable to access drink because bars will not allow it (not likely, but who knows)? In other words, you wanna know how to make angry drunks even angrier? Antagonize them and put a barrier between them and their goal. This will, and has, presented problems.

Business Owners on State Street
It seems from the preliminary endorsements, the business that cater to the crowd on State Street are amenable to the city's plan. Given the recent incidents (although last year was a bit less intense) and the property damage, I guess I'll buy that.

Personally, if I were a business owner (more specifically, a tavern owner), I would take considerable exception to a government plan to limit access to my place of business in order to make the government's life easier. I want to earn as much as possible and, given the no smoking ordinance and the crackdown on drink specials, every little bit helps.

I would also want to know what exactly the city plans to do with the money. If you are limiting access to my business and charging for the right, I want a detailed expense accounting of the funds.

More Kerosene on the Fire
An additional factor that could, well, complicate things comes in the fact that Halloween always comes during football season. Halloween happens to fall on a home football Saturday here in Madison (wherein the Badgers will ride roughshod over the Cryin' Illini). This means more people, more booze for more of the day. I am sure that this has been considered in all its ramifications.

It has, right?

The Broader View
What is really at issue here, given all of the above considerations, is freedom of assembly. When did it become acceptable to charge citizens admission to walk down a public street? When did it become O.K. to limit people's right to assemble by charging a fee? These are the real issues and ones that the city has yet to answer. What say you, Mayor Dave?

Another issue to consider is the notion of "rebranding" Halloween. I agree that it may do the city well to welcome visitors and make them feel at home; in some strange way, this may influence their behavior. If they come and see "Welcome to Halloween in Madison" and "Enjoy Your Stay" rather than police on horseback and barracades, things might just be different. Maybe so, maybe not.

I have not, however, seen any moves in this direction and no rumblings that things will be much diffferent.

In closing, this event will never go away. It has taken on a life of its own and anything short of martial law will not completley stop people. The primary responsibility of any government is to protect its citizens lives and property. In doing so, however, it cannot trample other rights that the people hold no less dear. It is this balance that must be struck and the plan as it stands for Halloween 2006 does not do this.

Further Reading
Oh, you might be interested to read several blog posts by former Madison Mayor Paul Soglin (yes, the serial mayor himself) about Halloween this year. Somewhat amazingly, Soglin is the voice of reason...not a usual role for him. I quite agree with him that constitutional issues are at stake and that the activities are, at their core, sophomoric and inane. Can't these kids drink in the woods on Halloween like normal people?

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Gross Blog Negligence

Yeah, yeah. I know. I have not posted in ten days. Here's why:
  • I went on vacation. I went back to Oak Forest and then to Highland, IN and then back to Oak Forest to then depart for Lake Geneva, WI from whence I left for Arlington Heights, IL by way of Richmond, Spring Green, Volo, Wauconda, Fox Lake, Lake Zurich (all in Illinois) and returning to Lake Geneva, WI via Wonder Lake, Woodstock and Hebron (also in Illinois. We returned to Oak Forest via Kenosha, WI (where I ate a bratwurst).
  • I had a lovely time.
  • I am trying to get ahead for the fall semester. My results have been mixed.

I will return to Madison and more regular posts in a few days. My travels have proved (as they always do) great fodder for reflection. Here's some of the things you can expect (with a certain generosity of spirit):

  • Why the arrival of a batchelorette party at the bar you are inhabiting is a sure sign of trouble.
  • The interesting blending and bleeding of borders between rural, suburban and rural.
  • Other curmudgeonly observations, no doubt.

Aren't you lucky?