Wednesday, November 30, 2005

"Once upon a time..."

I love those words. I have, for as long as I can remember. The promise of a story, offered to the listener, given weight by the gravity of ritual incantation.

So here is an autumn tale, just for you.

Once upon a time, far to the north, far from any wide blue ocean, there was a place where winter lasted much longer than it lasts now.

My family lived there on a farm, miles from the nearest town or village.

Nights turned cold after the garden was harvested and my mother had finished canning the apples, tomatoes, at least four kinds of pickles and the green beans; after the potatoes, onions, cabbages, and winter-squash were all stored safely away in the root-cellar; the peas, corn, and carrots bagged and stacked in the freezer.

Soon the frost would come every night, growing deeper and holding the land more firmly with every shortening day.

When the days turned cold enough that meat would keep well in the smoke-house, and the neighbor's wood-stove scented the cold air in the mornings, then it was time to butcher hogs.

My father would choose a morning and wake me long before daylight. I'd help him drive a couple of hogs up the livestock chute into the stock-rack on the truck, and we'd drive the few miles to the neighboring Hutterite colony. The defroster in the truck didn't work very efficiently, and my father would scrape a hole just big enough to see through in the the thick frost on the windshield. He'd drive with his head craned down to peer through the slowly widening clear spot.

When we got to the colony, my father would find one of the men, and together we'd unload the hogs into the holding pen. My part was really done, then. I'd wait shivering with the truck. Sometimes there was snow on the ground already. Usually, heavy frost rimed the branches of the cottonwoods, glittering in the headlights of the truck and light falling from the windows of nearby buildings.

In the frosty pre-dawn, the colony women in their long black dresses, with a bright, print aprons and head-scarves were already at work in the communal kitchens, baking bread for the day and preparing breakfast. One of them would bring me a smoking chunk of spicy homemade sausage wrapped in a warm breadroll, and a mug of cocoa. She'd offer it with a smile, and a glance at my father for his permission.

I'd stand in the pool of light from the big flood-lights on the barn, waiting. A small girl, seven or eight years old, munching soft bread soaking up hot fat from the sausage, sipping steaming cocoa.
Gradually, the sky would lighten to winter-gray. My feet so cold I couldn't feel them, by then, my father would finally come back with the men to load the carcasses--butchered, cleaned, bristles scraped. We'd drive home to breakfast, and my mother would spend the rest of the day cutting up meat. Over the next three or four days, the hams and bacons would be injected with brine and packed in sugar-cure. She'd carefully weigh the scraps and trimmings, season them, and grind the meat into sausage.

If you've never been inside a smokehouse--it's the most remarkable mix of salt, sweet, and smoke smells driven deep into the walls, season after season. Loops of sausage in natural casing, hams, and bacons hung to smoke slow, until they're all salty and pink; then all of it wrapped in heavy waxed brown paper and packed into the big chest-freezer on the back porch, stored against the long winter coming.

I don't know how to describe that feeling--the feeling of the winter's food stored against the coming dark and cold. It's not something people often experience during these days of fresh tomatoes and oranges, year-round. It seems very much to belong to a different place and time.

Once upon a time.

Monday, November 28, 2005

WalM*rt Christmas Riots

I've been bemusedly perusing the news reports of Black Friday brawls breaking out in the local Evil Empire Retailer Super-Centers.

The Free Republic reported:

In scenes reminiscient of the Great Depression, Americans lined up early this morning outside stores across the country as word of shortages of Christmas gifts caused riots when the stores opened.

With the price of gasoline and heating oil having hit record highs this year, consumers waited in the freezing cold to be first in line when the doors opened at 5 a.m. to buy laptop computers and other essentials before supplies were exhausted.

Riots at stores from Washington, D.C. to Washington state and as far south as Florida were reported. Shocked mothers complained their children were traumatized by the violence. Many expressed fears their children would be afraid to open their Christmas gifts for fear of causing a riot.

What on earth?

From a Yahoo News story: "Tempers flared at a Wal-Mart in Orlando, Fla., where a man allegedly cut in line to buy a bargain notebook computer and was wrestled to the ground, according to a video shown by an ABC affiliate, WFTV-TV."

Apparently, some folks are blaming this behavior on the Bush Economy.

"George Bush has never had to get up at three in the morning to wait in line for Wal-Mart to open so he could get a $400 laptop for his children," observed Robert Rubin, former Clinton administration Treasury secretary. "Bush's irresponsible tax cuts have hurt working families. I haven't seen lines like this since the breadlines of Republican Herbert Hoover's Great Depression. The shortages of Christmas gifts at this time of year shows how much Bush has squandered the Clinton legacy of sound economic policies."
Okay, you know what? This is just appallingly bad behavior, economy or no economy. These are not people trying to get a loaf of bread to take home to feed hungry kids. These shoving matches are over cheap laptops and plasma TV sets.

What in the name of all the little green gods has come over us, that we'd act like this?

What is so important to you that you'd publically brawl in the parking lot of the World's Largest Retailer, just so you didn't miss out on the one-day bargain price?

I honestly can't think of any single material thing that I value that much.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Holiday Season kicks off, TODAY!


And a very happy Thanksgiving, my friends, to you and yours.

Now I must go and cook stuff. *grin*

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Victorian era and my Varga-girl shirt...

My rather flippant comment about the Varga Girl shirt, at the end of my last post, led to an interesting response from Sour Duck--and a link to an excellent and thought-provoking article: "Vargas' Blonde Sambos".

Now, since I'm a sucker for links, and an even bigger sucker for googling, you can probably guess how I've spent the greater portion of the evening. Serendipitously, this all ties into the topic of how women are portrayed in the media--hence, circles right back to the deodorant-ad discussion.

Not that straying off-topic ever daunted me. Still, it's nice to at least pretend.

So come with me...this is interesting stuff.

Andrea Dworkin's article, "Vargas' Blonde Sambos", is fairly damning of the whole pin-up girl phenomenon--Varga Girls, in particular.

Among other things, she writes:

Vargas slimes women by trivialization or, perhaps more maliciously, by creating invisibility. The faces are all cosmetic, not a life line in them, the so-called women mostly blonde, with an emphasis in all the drawings on the breast or vaginal area. There are lots of bright red nails but no rib cages or muscles, no fat because there is no flesh; there are hard nipples, vacant smiles, painted toe nails, infantilization, hairless bodies; big eyebrows to designate the hairiness not seen; the blondes are good and childlike; the redheads are a little tougher; black hair is the sign of the wicked woman.
The drawings are propagandistic, fetishized "proto-porn", to Dworkin, and hardly even qualify as pop art.

My problem with this premise is that it takes as granted that pornography--or proto-porn, as the case may be--and art are mutually exclusive. I'm not convinced that's true. I'm also not convinced it is NOT true--but I'm not quite prepared to make it a gimme.

Ms. Dworkin also nearly ignores the historical, cultural, and artistic context of Alberto Vargas' work. Vargas' pin-ups follow a tradition of stylized--and yes, idealized--illustrations. I'm only going to drag you as far back in time as the end of the Victorian Era, and the famous Gibson Girls.

Everything you've heard about the Victorian era--the repressed sexuality, the strict adherence to conventions, the basements full of shocking sorts of sex-toys--lots of it's true, and probably more, besides. Charles Dana Gibson illustrated the end of this era, in the United States. Gibson also more-or-less defined the ideal picture of late-Victorian womanhood.

It's a picture American women have never quite escaped.

One writer (the article isn't bylined, or I would credit the author) explains:

'Many writers have attempted to describe the Gibson Girl, but Susan E. Meyer, in her book America's Great Illustrators did it best and most simply: "She was taller than the other women currently seen in the pages of magazines.. infinitely more spirited and independent, yet altogether feminine. She appeared in a stiff shirtwaist, her soft hair piled into a chignon, topped by a big plumed hat. Her flowing skirt was hiked up in back with just a hint of a bustle. She was poised and patrician. Though always well bred, there often lurked a flash of mischief in her eyes."'

Gibson Girls illustrated the idealized turn-of-the-century American woman, for better or worse.
Much changed with the end of the Victorian age. By 1930, America is in the middle of the Depression. We've seen the Great War. Prohibition is over, an abject failure. By the 1930s, one of Gibson's artistic successors was George Petty.

One biographical sketch of Petty notes:
After graduating from high school Petty travelled to Paris to study at the Académie Julian under Jean-Paul Laurens. Petty then returned to Chicago, working as a photo retoucher for a local printing company.

By the early 20's Petty was working as a freelance artist, painting calendar girls and covers for The Household magazine. It wasn't until 1926 that Petty opened his first studio in Chicago, by which time his client list had grown enormously.

"In 1933, the depths of the depression, Esquire Magazine was started. At a time when The Saturday Evening Post was a nickel, The Ladies Home Journal a dime, and Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan a quarter, Esquire debuted at 50 cents. Only Fortune, started in 1930, just three months after the stock market crash, was priced higher at $1. And just as Fortune had confounded the prophets by being successful, Esquire's first issue sold out - even with a print run of 100,000." (source page)

By the thirties, Petty was doing freelance adwork illustrations, and cartoons for Esquire. The Petty Girl first appeared in 1933. Here's an early example of Petty's airbrush work.

Cheap, easily-reproduced, color printing was something of a novelty in the early 20th century--the Chicago Trib finally went color in 1936. Esquire's pin-ups (and the calendars, etc) were inexpensive, full-color art for ordinary folks living through the depression. Since calendars and magazines still have to be purchased, the images were specifically aimed at men--because men were the ones who controlled money, for the most part.

This, finally, brings us to Alberto Vargas. Esquire hired him in 1940.

A year later, America entered World War II. The Varga Girl went, too. Airmen decorated their planes with imitations, like the Glamerous [sic] Gal P-51 Mustang, pictured below, on the left.
Soldiers and Seamen plastered their walls and bunks with pin-ups. Masturbatory fantasy material? Sure.

Proto-porn? Oh, hell--I dunno as you can even call it "proto"--Vargas did illustration work for Playboy, later on.

Is it art?


An essay by Maureen Honey, argues rather eloquently that it is:
Alberto Vargas did not create the relatively narrow parameters for women’s ideal role after the war. As a commercial artist trying to survive, he excelled at picking up on the mainstream cultural trends flowing around him, and he was able to combine his talent for erotic art with wartime forces placing the pin-up in a central location. To appreciate the skill with which he did this is not to approve of the images themselves, however, nor to dismiss as trivial the impact they had on popular culture. Women’s opportunities constricted after the war in large part because representations of female strength were overtaken by those of sexual objectification. It may be possible to combine women’s sexuality with nonracist egalitarian portraits of female accomplishment, but the end result of World War II was to divide these images into contestatory domains even as they met on the common ground of women’s maternal destiny. Perhaps there is something inherently sexist in warfare, especially when erotic frankness is paired with conservative family norms, but the Varga Girl serves as a reminder that cheesecake is not on the margins of culture but rather is as American as apple pie.

She's right, of course. But she fails to ask the question we must ask ourselves: Do we want to participate in perpetuating that image?

Where is the line between art and propaganda? Where does the kitschy pop-art appeal separate from the overt sexualization and objectification of women, and become just kitschy pop art? Does it ever?

I'll freely admit, I'm troubled not at all by the idea of pornography being art--at least sometimes.
However, I'm deeply troubled by the notion of my beautiful Hawaiian shirt as anti-woman propaganda.

Art is disturbingly powerful as a propaganda tool.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Carnival of Feminists

The newest collection of excellent feminist blogging is out. Sour Duck hosts this round.

A really fascinating entry, over at Culture Cat, was this comparison of a 1973 deodorant ad with a 2005 ad. Fascinating and appalling.

Now, I will confess that I have a really stunning Varga-Girls-on-classic-cars Hawaiian shirt. A very cool designer friend of mine made it for me. I love that shirt.

I'm a chick, though, so it's okay, right?

Monday, November 14, 2005

I might as well warn you now...

The holidays are coming. I love the winter holidays, unabashedly. I'm sentimental and silly as a little kid about it, really.

Just so you have fair warning.

Thanksgiving is right around the corner, and I'm terribly excited. I walk around planning menus in my head. Not that I'm cooking for anyone. Still, one should give these things a great deal of thought.

Perhaps it will snow. *Happy thought!* Of course, it only snows about once every few years, here. Far more likely it will be partly cloudy, with highs in the 50s, and scattered showers.

That's okay. It will be Thanksgiving day. I will watch the Macy's parade, and cook delicious things for myself, and dig out the Christmas music, which will replace all the normal music in the house, until my housemates rebel outright.

And perhaps it will snow.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Democracy in Action!

So the Kansas School Board voted 6 to 4 in favor of including a prepared statement about Intelligent Design in high school biology classes. (A prepared statement? Perhaps to prevent those pesky science teachers from scoffing and jeering?)

Reporter John Hanna points out, in the linked AP article, "In addition, the board rewrote the definition of science, so that it is no longer limited to the search for natural explanations of phenomena."

In Kansas, "Science teachers will now be required to instruct their students that evolutionary theory is not proven, and will have to add that life is in fact so complex, it could not have arisen without the involvement of some external agent, or higher power."

At the same time, the Dover, PA trial winds up with closing statements: "lawyers for the defence argued that intelligent design is a 'legitimate educational objective', and described it as 'the next great paradigm shift in science'."

So what did the voters do in Pennsylvania, yesterday? They threw the bums out. All eight pro-ID Republicans were replaced by Dems who don't believe ID should be taught in schools.

Look, it boils down to this: I don't care if people believe in ID. They have no friggin' right to teach what they believe, their religion, to my kids--especially not using my tax-dollars to pay for it. They had to REWRITE THE DEFINITION OF SCIENCE to make it fly.

Guess we won't look for any great scientific minds to come out of Kansas.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

On the Road...

Blogging this from the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, and my plane is boarding as I type. I'll be on the road for the next five days, so I don't know how much you'll be hearing from me this week.

I shall miss you all ferociously.