Friday, May 30, 2014

The A-Z of I.V. and "My" ΑΦ Sorority at UCSB

by Drew Martin
When the girl across the hall found out I was inexperienced with women, she grabbed a blanket from her bed, took me by the hand, and led me down to the beach at night.

That was 1987, I had just turned 18 years old and it was my first week of college at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), where I moved after growing up as an awkward kid in northern New Jersey. I lived in an off-campus, coed dorm in Isla Vista, the beachside bungalow college town where 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six students last week. The murders were his revenge against young women for not sleeping with him, and to punish the young men who enjoyed sexual relations he said he was denied.

I will not read his 140ish-page manifesto, but I did watch all of his nearly seven-minute-long final video. The first cue that something is off is that he is a 22 year old sitting in a fancy, new BMW. That is undeserved privilege, and the first impression is that he is a spoiled kid who feels entitled to such material things, which in his mind included women. It is also in this case a shell from the breezy palm trees and California sunlight you see in the shot. 

My grandmother used to say "Don't be ugly." Attractiveness is about how you behave. Rodger was a good-looking kid, but (from what you see in the video) he was repulsive with his narcissism. That being said I do not know what he was like in casual conversation, and I have no idea what he personally went through, and how he felt inside. Boys can be jerks, girls can be cruel, and life can feel empty. But of all places...

Isla Vista, more commonly referred to as I.V., is a party town, but it is not exclusive because most of the action is in the public sphere: on the streets and beach. It is a casual place with a good vibe. It is, in fact, one of my favorite places on Earth. The weather is as good as it gets, and the bluffs, beach and Pacific Ocean are always there waiting for you to unwind and let go of whatever might be troubling you. And if you want to get away from a chilly fog or the student life, the sunny San Ynez mountains are a few minutes away by car, and a doable bike ride. To add to the charm (and the reason why the college town is called Isla Vista), the Channel Islands can be seen from the edge of town. It is a place in which you feel good just by standing still.

What I liked most about the town when I lived there for four years was how open it was and how everyone intermingled. It seemed like everyone was in a band and part of the creative process. On the weekends you could walk around and hear and see live music being played in joints, out of garages, and on patches of lawns. There were homeless dudes, hippies, punks, organic farmers, migrant workers, surfers, skaters, and artists. And there were a lot of smart people. Despite the party town image, the real reason most of the residents are there is for school. 

UCSB ranks high academically, has produced a number of Nobel Laureates, Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellows, and features unique academic foci such as the Institute of Theoretical Physics, the College of Creative Studies, and the Koegel Autism Center.

U.S. News and World Report ranked UCSB number 11 among all public universities. Leiden University in the Netherlands ranked UCSB number two in the world in terms of impact in the field of the sciences.

I left I.V. to move to the Santa Barbara mountains after I graduated and started working on a farm in neighboring Goleta. Then I left for Europe, partly because the older staff of the school newspaper, the Daily Nexus, graduated and moved to Prague and encouraged those of us who worked on the paper to move to Czechoslovakia and work on their nascent English-language paper, Prognosis.

Before I flew off, I returned to I.V. for a few days to say goodbye. I stopped by the food co-op where I had shopped and worked. A young woman I kind of knew there encouraged me to stay another day. At night she suggested I stay over and said I should crash in her bed. When her boyfriend came home and found me casually sleeping next to her, he said, "You don't have to get up. Stay where you are. I will just sleep over here." And with that he flopped on their couch.

I.V. is that kind of place. I remember a roommate of a girlfriend, who in any other place may have been a little more protected, slept with a homeless man in I.V.'s Anisq'Oyo' Park just because he seemed like a nice person. And I remember how other homeless men used my friends' bathrooms on occasion to clean up. Once I spent almost all of one week hanging out with an older homeless man, not out of charity but simply because we got along together. One of my closest friends in I.V. was not even a student, but an older lady who was a music teacher in a local school and who owned a bookstore.  The point is, I.V. is a very accepting place without a lot of pretension, and the student life there is not the end-all, be-all.

The first few days after the rampage, I could not even read about it. I was in denial something happened there. I am trying to make sense of it now, and thinking not so much about the what could have prevented things as it spiraled out of control, but what could have diverted his character away from even thinking those thoughts. I ask myself what friendships he lacked or activities he could have been engaged with to deal with his issues. 

I look back at my time in I.V. and I see myself as a very happy person. Of course I remember my own demons, and low spots but there were always positive swings of friendships, my studies, and the beautiful environment.

I just dug through my photos to see what I have left from my college years. I found only two pictures: one of a friend cutting my hair freshman year at Coal Oil Point (top), which is the surfing area for UCSB students. The other picture is of my somewhat brief encounter in the Greek system. My roommate (pictured sitting next to me on the beach) and I looked into rushing a fraternity freshman year. It did not go so well so he brought me to a sorority house for a party. I actually did not understand how it worked but we were "adopted" by sorority girls. The bottom picture is of me and my big sister (a senior), who I just realized, was from ΑΦ - Alpha Phi sorority, the target of Rodger. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Thin Edge of Nothingness

by Drew Martin
I just watched a riveting documentary called Men At Lunch about the iron workers who are immortalized in the photo known as "Lunch atop a Skyscraper" (pictured here, top)

The location of the image is at the 69th floor of 30 Rock (30 Rockefeller Plaza, also known as The Slab, formally named the GE Building, and previously known as the RCA Building).

It was a staged photograph of the site's actual iron workers as part of a larger promotional photoshoot for the Rockefeller Center in order to drum up excitement about the highrise project, and to lure corporate tenants.

The picture was taken on September 20, 1932. Although the actual photographer of this particular shot is not clear, it has been credited to Charles Ebbets who was directing the shoot. Also shooting with him that day were the photographers William Leftwich (pictured here, second from bottom) and Thomas Kelley (pictured here, bottom).

The image first appeared in the Sunday supplement of the New York Herald Tribune on October 2, 1932 and is now owned by Corbis. The corporation bought it from the United Press International news agency in 1995. It is the most valuable picture in their collection, and as the director of historical photography points out, it is an oddity in that most of the images that sell well are of specific personalities: Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Albert Einstein, Elizabeth Taylor, and so on.

At the time the picture was taken, a quarter of the New York workforce was unemployed, and the nation was 13 years into prohibition. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the governor of New York and less than a year away from becoming the President. The photo of the fearless workers preempted his We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

The filmmaker Ric Burns, who is well known for his documentary New York, speaks throughout this film. He says what makes Lunch atop a Skyscraper great is the number of questions it asks. He adds that a key element for him is the cable in the foreground, which he refers to as an umbilical cord.

It is a remarkable picture, and much of the documentary is about trying to identify the iron workers. While the image engages anyone who takes a look at it, many people have claimed relations to the men. It is a representative picture of an America that is toughing out the Depression, and as a land of opportunity for the wave of immigrants that came to New York City at that time. People want to be part of that to such an extent that they believe they have a personal connection.

The film was produced by the Irish Film Board and so there is a sentimental tone to it regarding the Irish immigrants. The workers on opposite sides of the beam are supposedly brothers from a village in Ireland, and the documentary interviews their senior citizen sons.

More fascinating to me than the workers in the shot are the photographers who were unaccustomed to working at those heights but spent the day straddling the beams in two-tone winged tips and wool suits along with their bulky cameras and extremely fragile glass plates, on which the pictures were exposed.

Click here to watch the trailer for Men At Lunch.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Sports Gene

by Drew Martin
When I returned to America in 1997 after living in Europe for five years, I got the first temp job I could. It was mindless remittance work in a windowless bunker of a place managed by a timecard system. I had one friend there, a Jamaican girl named Racquel. She had a Haitian friend there named Ricky. It came up in conversation between us that I was a runner. He laughed and said white guys can't run. "Oh really?" was my response, which led to a showdown.

I agreed to run against Ricky on his local track up in the Monsey/Spring Valley, New York area, which is home to two very different diasporas: Hasids and Haitians. They do not mix in any way and even have their own taxis to service their communities.

When I showed up on the track and dropped my sweatpants, he exclaimed "Oh shit, you've got cuts" (defined muscles). He got a bit nervous and looked across the track. Back at work we had bet $20 to race one full lap but all of a sudden he was reconsidering. "One lap is too long," he said, "Let's race 100 meters."

I was not expecting this, and Ricky was a muscular sparkplug with a real sprinter's body. I am a long distance runner so the quarter mile was the fastest I ever raced, and only occasionally to help out in a relay. Ricky was powerful but short, so I was confident I could beat him. 

We ran 100 meters and I beat him by at least 10 meters. He said he wasn't warmed up and wanted to run again so I agreed. The second race was even worse. He was probably 15 to 20 meters behind me.

Ricky shook his head in disbelief. "You cheated" he claimed. "How so?" I asked. "You have a longer stride!" he answered. He hung his head down low. We went to a gas station where he paid to top off my tank (this was when gas was under $1 a gallon) and bought a bouquet of flowers for the twenty dollars.

Ricky had a right to be cocky because he comes from the Caribbean, which is home of the best sprinters in the world, and he was unabashedly vocal about running talent being so black and white. Genetic superiority in sports is a hushed conversation in America so a writer such as Malcolm Gladwell is applauded for spreading the word about the 10,000-hour rule, which states being the best at whatever one does is really a matter of putting that much time into one's craft. That sits well in a world where we encourage everyone to give it a shot, and we cheer the underdog, but it does not answer the question of why so many Kenyans can run a marathon at a sub 5-minute-mile pace, and why Jamaicans dominate sprinting.

David Epstein, senior writer at Sports Illustrated, candidly takes this on in The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. Epstein argues that the 10,000-hours rule camp do not "address the existence of genetically based talent because their work begins with subjects of high achievement in music and sports. When most of humanity has already been screened out of a study before it begins."

The Sports Gene is probably not a book I would have picked up on my own. I only started reading it because the shoeshine guy at work gave it to me. He used to play soccer in Brazil and comes by on bad weather days to ask me whether or not I did my morning run. He always leaves shouting "You're crazy!" Fortunately, for me, Epstein was a varsity track runner at Columbia University so it is mostly a book about running, and much more detailed than what Gladwell, also a really good runner, dishes out.

Epstein talks about the hardware of baseball players, the wingspan of basketball players, and the aerobic capacity of runners, cross-country skiers, and sled dogs. It turns out that the stiffness of my Achilles tendons is a running advantage, and also the reason why I stitched both of them in training years ago. 

The Sports Gene, was hard to put down. Unlike Gladwell's style, which is to propose an idea and follow through with supporting case studies, Epstein is more thorough and structures the read better by building on his thesis as he takes you through it.

Pictured (top) here is me in the Fall of 1986 during my senior year, leading my high school cross country team on a race we swept. Pictured (middle) is an older exchange student from Kenya who dominated our running program and humbled us as runners. The caption on this photo in our yearbook reads, 
Caiphus Vilakazi wins the 5 mile run for the third year. Pictured (bottom) is a quick chart I made to illustrate a section in The Sports Gene about the decline in the number of US and UK runners who could break a 2:20 marathon, the increase in Kenyans who have been able to, and the steady stream of Japanese who can do so.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Sixteen Going on Seventeen

by Drew Martin
Earlier tonight my six-year-old son and I rode our adult-kid tandem bike to a recreation area. Next to a soccer field and the town swimming lake is a concrete-surfaced, open-air rink where kids may put on their roller blades and play hockey. More often than not the rink is filled with skateboard ramps and rails as well as with all the teens showing off their skills. 

My son is learning to ride a skateboard now and is pretty good. The problem is it is a really sensitive crowd. Unlike rollerblades, which have a wider, less-cool audience, skateboarding is pretty much locked down to too-cool-for-school teenagers, for the most part guys, which is really awkward because they are trying so hard to be cool, and they are actually doing really dangerous and ballsy tricks but at the same time they still live at home, which is totally uncool. This situation creates tension when their status is jeopardized by the introduction of a dad and his son. 

Tonight the rink was buzzing with about twenty kids, so when we entered, we scooted over to the side and I sat on my board while I watched my son practice his moves. When it came time to leave at sunset, I hopped on my board and coasted over to him. One of the kids was trying to do a move and messed up. I was somewhat nearby and I think he was a little embarrassed and wanted to blame the mistake on me so he muttered, "thanks dad" as I went by. It was such a funny moment because I have not been called dad as an insult in my 15+ years as a parent.

I was thinking of creating this blood-font DAD shirt I just designed to wear when I return to the rink. I was also thinking of bringing a boombox and blasting Miley Cyrus to watch them scatter like roaches. My wife suggested the soundtrack for The Sound of Music.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

At the Movies with Slavoj Žižek: The Pervert's Guide to Ideology

by Drew Martin
When I listen to people talk about a film, they usually talk about whether or not they like it (or whether or not I would like it), and then they might talk about the plot. Rarely am I treated to a discussion about the structure of a film, how sound is used, or its deeper meaning.

So I was happy to stumble upon The Pervert's Guide to Ideology directed by Sophie Fiennes (Ralph's little sister) with music by Brian Eno, which features the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who offers psychoanalytical insight to films including They Live, The Sound of Music, A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver, The Searchers, West Side Story, Jaws, I Am Legend, Titanic, The Fall of Berlin, Full Metal Jacket, The Loves of a Blonde, The Fireman’s Ball, The Brief Encounter, Brazil, The Last Temptation of Christ, Seconds, and Zabriskie Point. 

Žižek uses the music store scene in A Clockwork Orange to explain the ubiquitous and pan-ideological use of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony Ode to Joy.

Beethoven is not a cheap celebrator of the brotherhood of humanity and so on..."We are one big family enjoying freedom, dignity”…and so on. The first part is falsely celebrated today you hear it in all official events is clearly identified with Beethoven as ideology. And then the second part tells the true story of that which disturbs the official ideology and the failure of the official ideology to constrain it, to tame it. This is why Beethoven was doing something which may appear difficult to do. He was already in the purely musical work practicing critique of ideology.

In regard to fantasies he says,

Fantasies are not just a private matter of individuals. Fantasies are the central stuff our ideologies are made of. Fantasy is in psychoanalytic perspective fundamentally a lie. Not a lie in the sense that it is just a fantasy but not reality, but a lie in the sense that fantasy covers up a certain gap in consistency. When things are blurry, when we cannot really get to know things, fantasy provides an easy answer. The usual mode of fantasy is to construct a scene, not a scene where I get what I desire but a scene in which I imagine myself as desired by others.

Žižek explains how the shark in Jaws unites our fears, which Americans perceived as an external threat, while Fidel Castro, who loved Jaws as a leftist Marxist film, said the shark represented brutal capitalism attacking ordinary Americans.

Žižek is captivating with his intensity, and Fiennes lightens the load of his discourse by playfully inserting him in sets and locations of the movies he discusses.

The first placement of Žižek is on set for They Live, a film about a guy in Los Angeles who finds a box of sunglasses, which Žižek calls critique of ideology glasses. When worn, the glasses reveal the propaganda behind everything we see, as well as the aliens in the film who control the propaganda.

While this is not discussed by 
Žižek, the graphic designer Shepard Fairey got his Obey from They Live (middle, movie still), which he combined with the style of Barbara Kruger (second from bottom) for his André the Giant - Obey campaign (bottom).

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Eurovision: It's Not Over Until the Bearded Lady Sings

By Drew Martin
I never tuned into the Eurovision craze when I lived in Europe in the 1990s. It wasn't until a quick trip through the Baltics in 2002 that I learned from an obsessed Estonian woman about these gaudy pop music contests. It has been more than a decade since that trip but this is the first year I noticed a raised ear from the American press. Some have called it American Idol on steroids with strokes of soft porn. One of the more provocative performances was from Poland, which, in addition to the singers and dancers, included two barefooted, buxom folksy peasant woman (top) who erotically perform their staged chores: one washes linen on a washing board in a wooden bucket, while the other one churns butter. (I guess this is the old-world version of a  babe in a wet T-shirt washing a muscle car.)

One thing I can safely say is that if I ever hear another European say "Americans have no culture" my retort will be "Eurovision."

Here is how I break down the types of songs, with their respective national entries:

Surprisingly decent with some soul:
Albania, Armenia, Georgia, Hungary, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Slovenia

Funny, hip, or quirky:
Iceland, Latvia, Switzerland

Throwback rock:
Finland, Lithuania 

Mindless pop:
Belarus, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Israel*, Italy, Macedonia (FYR), Poland, Portugal, Romania, Sweden

Overly sentimental schlock:
Azerbaijan, Ireland, Moldova, Montenegro, Russia, San Marino, Spain

Austria, Belgium

The winning, bearded transgender Conchita Wurst (middle) from Austria with her Rise Like a Phoenix looks and sounds like a parody of a James Bond movie theme/intro.

My top pick (not listed above), which I think captures the spirit of this contest and has the most potential and appeal for a global pop audience is from Ukraine - Maria Yaremchuk's Tick-Tock. It is of course very poppy but it is the perfect pop song without being overly kitsch. It is a nice mix of current pop sounds, and the video nods to Michael Jackson. I have to admit, I was hoping I would like it before I heard it because of Ukraine's current situation. Maria, if you are reading this, I would never secede from the country you live in.

*The Eurovision Song Contest is not the European Song Contest, so it is membership in the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) that allows a country to enter Eurovision. Israel, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia are not in Europe but they are members of the EBU, which has additional members in North African and the Middle East including Algeria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, Morocco and Egypt, as well as the Vatican City - the only member of the EBU to have never taken part in Eurovision.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Ungerer Artist

by Drew Martin
This past weekend I watched Far Out isn't Far Enough, which is a documentary about Tomi Ungerer, the Alsatian artist who moved to the United States in the late 1950s and became one of the top illustrators of the New York publishing world. His loose but economical style was influenced by Saul Steinberg, and his unconventional approach to children's books opened the doors for the likes of Maurice Sendak.

Ungerer had a disadvantaged start: his father died when he was a toddler, Nazis took over his hometown during WWII, and following the liberation of Europe, the French burned all the Alsatian literature. 

Not particularly deep or intelligent, the 80-something Ungerer is, however, charming with a boyishness that lights up his bright blue eyes.

I am a curious person. I accumulate knowledge through curiosity and the more knowledge you have the more you can compare. And once you have control of those...elements you end up with so many ideas you just don't know where to start anymore. 

He admits it gets worse as he gets older: I am crushed by my ideas

On his main influence he offers:
I would say that in terms of drawing Saul Steinberg is the greatest inspiration. His first book was All in Line. And when I discovered that I realized one thing: with a minimal amount of lines you would be able to bring in a whole philosophical concept, a whole thinking process which would take maybe two or three pages in a book can be rendered within a few lines on a white piece of paper.

Ungerer hails from the area not far from where the American Amish emigrated. When he arrived in New York with his regional look, which included a wide-rimmed black hat and a beard that ran along his jawbone people mistook him as Jewish. In a Texas restaurant he was told he would not be served until he shaved his beard. In protest Ungerer pulled out a penny to show the owner that it is the same kind of beard that Abraham Lincoln had.

Ungerer quickly became known around New York as the Condom Man because once he got stuck in the rain on the way to show his work to a publisher. The unprotected drawings under his arm started to get wet so he darted into a pharmacy and asked for a big cardboard box with which he could create a portfolio case. They gave him a wholesale box for Trojan Condoms. He did not know the brand's connection with prophylactics at the time, but thought Trojan was appropriate because he viewed himself as a Trojan Horse in America.

Ungerer made a break from safe themes that were prevalent at the time in America. He turned snakes and vultures into children's pets, and even made a child-eating ogre into hero. The stories became hits and Ungerer was the most popular children's book author and illustrator of that era. What set Ungerer apart was that he also had a very active career with erotic drawings. When pressed at an American Library Association children's book convention to explain how he could be involved with erotica and children's books, he told the proper crowd that if people did not "f&@k," there would not be any children to read books. This was the beginning of the end for Ungerer in America. All of his books were pulled from libraries across the United States and his career took a nosedive. He moved to Novia Scotia and then finally settled in Ireland.

Fortunately, Ungerer's work has had a comeback. He received 
the highest recognition possible for writers or illustrators of children's books - the Hans Christian Andersen Award. His hometown, Strasbourg, even dedicated a museum to him, the Musée Tomi Ungerer/Centre international de l’illustration.

Click here to watch the trailer for 
Far Out isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story.

Friday, May 9, 2014

From One Second to the Next and the Unknown Future: Four Tragedies from Texting and Driving

By Drew Martin
Last week I watched the Werner Herzog documentary From One Second to the Next. In this short film Herzog is a silent narrator, and fixes a patient lens on the victims and culprits of life-changing- and life-ending-accidents that resulted from young men and women who texted while driving.

There is a mother whose young son is paralyzed and brain damaged after being hit by a texting driver, and a young man (top) who plowed through a horse-drawn Amish buggy, which killed everyone inside including children, one as young as three. The driver, whose fatal text was "I love you" to his wife, reads a letter he and his wife received from the father of the dead Amish children:

Dear Ones,
Trusting in God's ways, how does this find you? Hope all in good health and in good cheer. Around here we're all on the go and trying to make the best we can. I always wonder if we take enough time with our children. Wishing you the best with your little one and the unknown future. I think of you often. Keep looking up. God is always there. Sincerely, Martin and Mary Schwartz

When the young man finishes reading, he drops his hand with the letter to his leg, with a look of bewilderment.

Another victim is a globe-trotting business woman who was hit while walking her dog. The accident left her brain damaged, and she cannot be left alone outside for fear that she will walk into the road in front of her house or the river behind her house.

The most-complicated relationship is an unlikely bond between a young man (bottom) who caused an accident while texting, and the daughter of a man who was killed in that accident. The young woman's astronomer father was with another scientist when the young man nipped his car and spun it into the path of a big pickup truck, which smashed it. 

It is heartbreaking to listen to the surviving family members, and unreal to hear the young men talking about the accidents they caused, and lives they took. The film notes that more than 100,000 accidents are caused each year by texting, and that statistic is growing. The young man who caused the accident that killed the scientists offers,

"Knowing every day that you killed two people is the hardest thing you can live with."

When I paused the film midway through it and went down to my kitchen, I found my 15-year-old daughter watching George Carlin Jammin in New York on an iPad. In that moment he shouts,

"A near miss is a near collision. A collision is a near miss!"

It was an absurd coincidence; funny and tragic at the same time.

When I got my license in the late 1980s the message was "Don't drink and drive." Now it's "Don't text and drive." It appears that the constant is "drive" so basically the message should be,

Don't drive and do anything else: drink, text, rubberneck, sleep, rage, pet your dog, shave, put on make up, argue, read, do puzzles, clip your nails, do drugs, poke at blemishes, knit, unwrap anything, tie a tie, put on jewelry, search the glove compartment, kiss, or change clothes.

It is amazing that so many roads, especially in remote areas where there is enough land to divide opposing traffic with a natural barrier, split life and death with a painted yellow line. And when I see people driving crazy I try to think what silly errand they are running; ready to run someone over on a quest for a bagel and a cup of coffee.

I find it odd that Herzog turned his lens on this subject, but I am glad he did because he brought me closer to the topic than would a safety video or news article.

Click here to watch From One Second to the Next.