The Apple Rolls Back Towards The Tree

"One spill. Maybe 2 if the first one is small."                      "Are you nuts? 3 minimum. 4, if it's Bounty."

If this Amy Schumer sketch is to be believed, a woman doesn't like to be told that she's turning into her mother.  You're better off telling a man that he's turning into his dad. Most guys will just nod their heads in rueful acknowledgment.

Yesterday was the third anniversary of my father's death, and lately I've been seeing more and more of him in myself. My father was a "Depression baby." He never spent money easily. He put off getting rid of old household items for as long as possible ("we may find some use for that later"). He spent hours reading Consumer Reports, but seldom bought anything. He cleaned out old peanut butter jars and stocked them in the pantry, in case we ever needed extra drinking glasses. He waited until the kitchen sponge fell apart in his hands before opening a new one. 

Like all parents, he grew exasperated with the wastefulness of his kids. Most of his complaints about me were standard parental fare --"Turn off the lights when you leave the room" -- but sometimes the nature of my infraction was more esoteric. Paper towels, for instance. If I spilled something in the kitchen--a splash of Dr. Pepper, say, or a spoonful of Jell-O---I'd use a paper towel to clean it up, then throw the towel away. My father inevitably pounced. "How can you waste so much of that towel?" he'd say, aggrieved. "Look: you only used one corner! There's plenty of good material left." 

Such scolding made me think there was something seriously wrong with my father's outlook. We were talking after all, about a paper towel. It was cheap and it was disposable. How sad, I thought, that my father couldn't see how irrational he was being. How sad that he didn't know how to truly live.

I was not making any money at this point, though I was quite prepared to spend my father's. He was a psychologist with a private practice--essentially a one-man business. Some months he had no idea how he was going to pay the gas bill, but he and my mother kept me blissfully unaware of the financial side of things. As far as I was concerned, there was always money, and to value it above other things was to miss out on life. So I looked on my father with an unearned sense of superiority, and felt pity for him because he gave money too much importance. It never occurred to me that my financial insouciance was only possible because of his financial anxiety.

The irony is not lost on me now, when I'm starting to see the same look of pity in my own kids' eyes. A recent dinner with my younger son drove this home. After spilling some pasta sauce, he got up from the kitchen table, grabbed a fresh paper towel, wiped up the sauce and threw the towel out. "What are you doing?" I asked incredulously. I pointed to the three crumpled-up paper towels sitting on the kitchen counter, which I had used to clean up some earlier spill. "You could have used one of those! They're still perfectly good!" 

My son shrugged, I took a step back in horror, and my Dad's ghost laughed, sounding not so much like himself as Nelson Muntz, the schoolyard bully from The Simpsons. One quick, short "Ah ha!" and I knew I'd become a Depression baby too.


Agent Carter's Rebound

         For those of you who've never seen it, Marvel's Agent Carter is an action/espionage adventure show, with a side helping of superhero. Set in the late '40s, the show's protagonist is the frighteningly capable Peggy Carter, the romantic foil to Steve Rogers in the first Captain America film. Now that the war is over and Captain America is apparently dead, Carter is working for the SSR (an organization that will eventually evolve into Marvel's super secret service S.H.I.E.L.D.)  

     One of the main themes of the first season of Agent Carter was the trouble professional women have being taken seriously by their male co-workers. The show got a lot of mileage out of the way Carter ran rings around her fellow agents, though inevitably it was the men who got the credit for her work.  For this new season, the show has added the element of race, and its treatment in the first two episodes illustrates one of the challenges of creating a period piece TV show: how do you realistically portray the racial attitudes of the past without offending present day notions of diversity and progressiveness? 

   The Season 2 premier of Agent Carter introduces a possible new love interest, an earnest black scientist named Jason Wilkes. Carter first encounters him when she sneaks into a sinister industrial firm called Isodyne in order to investigate a murder. They run into each other in a hallway, and, after a beat of surprise, Wilkes immediately invites her back to his office, in order to wow her with the still he has built in his apparently ample spare time, a collection of glass tubes and beakers in which he creates "the best wine" Carter has ever tasted. Carter is on a mission, but she's also charmed by Wilkes, and engages in some light badinage while trying to get information. Were Agent Carter set in the present, this meet cute would seem perfectly normal (if a little ham-handed). But this is supposed to be the late '40s, when such forwardness to a white woman could--and sometimes did--get black men killed.

    Suspension of disbelief is a funny thing. I've never had any trouble accepting that Carter can beat up just about any man she encounters, nor that a villain can freeze people solid with a touch of his hand, as happens in this first episode. But the ease with which Wilkes moves in the world of white people struck me as scarcely credible. Affable, intelligent, and confident enough to recognize the chance that his interest in Carter will be reciprocated, he is a "post-racial," Obama-esque figure years before such a thing existed--before the civil rights movement and "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner," before it was even legal for black and white people to marry in many states (though California did repeal its miscegenation laws in 1948, around the time in which Agent Carter is set.)   

     To be fair, the writers do try to address the racism of the time. At one point, Wilkes says that Isodyne is the only company that would employ "one of his kind." Later, as he and Carter are on the run from some murderous company thugs, they encounter a white store owner whose attitude--including calling Wilkes "boy"--sends Carter into a fury. When she expresses her desire to settle things with her fists, Wilkes smooths things over, noting that the store owner is hardly the only racist in LA.

    That's about it. Wilkes doesn't seem angry about such treatment, nor particularly hampered by it. So far, so good. So far, so bland.

     Perhaps Wilkes is not meant to be a recurring character. By the end of the second hour, he seems to have been sucked up by the mysterious black ooze which serves as the show's current McGuffin. If they bring him back--and he is not possessed by some sort of alien demon (such things often happen in the Marvel Universe)--I hope the writers make him more compelling, and explore the dramatic possibilities of his character's presence. How will the other men in her life--buttoned-down butler Edwin Jarvis, playboy inventor Howard Stark, sad sack SSR agent Daniel Sousa--react to Agent Carter's interest in Wilkes?  A romantic relationship between them would highlight Carter's disdain for convention, and also give her plenty of opportunities to get outraged on Wilkes behalf: a good thing, as actress Hayley Atwell is most engaging when her character is either angry at, or annoyed by, men.

    Besides, how cool would it be for Captain America's ex-girlfriend to find happiness in the arms of a black man? This is a woman whose romantic ideal is the blond-haired, blue-eyed Steve Rogers, a guy who dresses in an American flag and beats people up for a living. For her to end up with a nerdy, African American scientist would be a subversive act in ways that resonate as much now as they would have 70 years ago. 

More Cowbell

I look tired? Well, I  did  just record  Blonde on Blonde ...

I look tired? Well, I did just record Blonde on Blonde...

Have you ever heard The Troggs Tape? The Troggs Tape is one of those celebrities-at-their-worst artifacts, capturing an unproductive recording session by The Troggs, the British group who gave us "Wild Thing" and "Love Is All Around." The track they are trying to create was eventually released as "Tranquility"--an irony, as most of the tape is the band members arguing. Very little music is actually made, though after a while the accumulated repetition of "fuck," "fucking" and "fucking fuck off you fucking wanker" does attain a certain kind of melodic brilliance. If this sounds like a description of a scene from Spinal Tap, that's because the Troggs Tape was one of the prime inspirations for the fake British heavy metal trio. Echoes of the Troggs Tape can be found in just about every depiction of rock star ass-hattery that has followed, from VH1's Behind The Music to SNL's famous "More Cowbell" sketch with Christopher Walken.

The Bootleg Tapes, Vol,. 12: The Cutting Edge, 1965-66 brings to light another famous recording session--or rather a series of sessions that took place between January '65 and March '66, in which Bob Dylan created what many regard as the greatest work of his career, the albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde. The banter preserved here is often quite funny, though it never reaches Troggs Tape levels of ridiculousness.  But I was delighted to hear, during an early rehearsal for "Visions of Johanna," producer Bob Johnston stop the take and cut in with an instruction to the drummer: "More cowbell."

This retroactively meta moment comes on Disc 9 of the special Deluxe Collector's Edition of The Cutting Edge.  Including everything Dylan recorded during this period, this 18-CD monster has 379 tracks. That's far more than last year's "The Complete Basement Tapes," though far fewer songs are attempted: there are a lot of takes of "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" and "Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat" to wade through. It's amazing that Dylan devoted so much energy to such minor songs, but that's how these sessions went. Even some of the more sure-footed offers took a while.  There are about fifteen versions of "Visions of Johanna," for instance. Though the final record sounds like it  emerged in a burst of easy brilliance, it had to be attacked over and over until Dylan was satisfied.

Unlike The Beatles, who were even then starting to construct their final records from multiple versions and overdubs, Dylan kept doing take after take until he got one he liked. In most cases, that live-in-studio performance became the final record. As anyone who has seen Dylan in concert over the last 50 years knows, he doesn't consider the released versions at all definitive. These are the songs that define him, yet he continues to tinker with the arrangements and phrasing, even going so far as to write new melody lines on occasion. The Cutting Edge shows that this is not something he started doing mid-career: it was his method from the start. Unlike The Troggs, fruitlessly arguing about how to make a mediocre song come alive, Dylan kept banging away at his good songs, until, by dint of sheer perseverance, they became masterpieces.

Too Much Cheese

The bros at Epic Meal Time have been taking culinary excess to cartoonish extremes since 2010. They’ve stuffed Philly cheesestakes into sushi wrappers, baked cinnamon roll/cotton candy pizza, and-- in the video above—created the enormous All-Bacon Burger, which clocks in at nearly 50,000 calories and includes 25 pounds of pork. Their cheerful culinary abominations have garnered 800 million YouTube views and attracted the participation of celebrity guests like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tony Hawk. The crew even has its own merchandise and mobile game.

So, by combining the 21st century model of Internet success with the 20th century model of the good life (or a gross parody thereof), Epic Meal Time has inadvertently created a perfect commentary on contemporary America, a place where "bigger and better" has become "biggest and weirdest."

In the video above, they also manage to embody our current racial confusion—without, one expects, quite meaning to. Listening to four white boys refer to themselves as “gangstas” and boast about “trill mobbin’” in mock hip-hop accents leaves one feeling almost as queasy as the sight of an entire block of cheddar being wrapped in raw bacon: you worry that if one doesn’t make your heart explode, the other will.

Net Neutrality, Naturally

Overall, we’re neutral about a lot of things—string theory, cashews vs. almonds, the artistic value of the “Finding Bigfoot” franchise. But one thing we’re not neutral about is Net Neutrality. We’re nuts for Net Neutrality. After all, the Internet is the arena in which we make our magic, the worldwide street fair in which we peddle our wares. If Big Cable has its way, that wonderful street fair will become an awful big-box mall, with only three or four chain stores that all sell the same products, and anything funky or interesting will be priced out. The internet will turn into Manhattan, for God’s sake!

The FCC is voting new Net Neutrality rules TODAY, and while things are looking good for the pro-Neutrality cause, no one should get complacent. Help seal the deal by visiting sites like the one below and making your voice heard.