Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Watch This Word Wander

Surplice

This summer a friend of mine bought a new piece of clothing for wearing outside during the hot weather.  Here is a picture.


This appealed to me because it was light and loose, not knit but woven, and probably as comfortable a garment as could be imagined for its purpose.  So I looked it up online.

It was described as a "surplice."  

A surplice, I thought?  This made no sense to me.

Every once in a while (okay, fairly often) I set myself to chasing down the derivation of some bit of arcana.  Let me now share what I have learned about this word.


The Origin of the Surplice

This term combined two medieval Latin ones: super, for over and pellicia, for a fur garment.   Together, they formed the word sourpleis, or surplice in English.

In the early days of Christianity, a surplice was a garment worn by priest over a fur garment.

Below is a picture of Martin Luther wearing a surplice.



Over the centuries,  fur undergarments were replaced by black woven ones (cassocks), but the surplice name stuck.  Surplices have been part of the ritual dress for priests, deacons, acolytes and others in various Christian ceremonies.  Below are two liturgical people in traditional surplices. 




Even today, if you look up the word "surplice" in a dictionary, you will find a definition like the following:

surplice: a loose, white piece of clothing that is worn by priests or singers at church services

The Encyclopedia Britannica agrees with this definition and includes a lot more historical background than is needed for this discussion.  


Surplice Usage in Later Years

Alphabet/Google's Ngram program now can track the use of a given word over time by scanning the more than 25 million books it has digitized in its Google Books project.  (There are about 100 million texts yet to be scanned, and the plan is to scoop up those as well over time.)


  Here is an overview of how often the word "surplice" was found in printed material between 1800 and 2010.



Two things interest me here.  

-- First is the steady decline of the word starting with the beginning of the 20th century.  My guess is that Christians have become more secular, or at least, less likely to participate in religious rituals over time.  

-- Second is the uptick in the use of the word "surplice" starting around the turn of the millennium.


The New Surplice


As I mentioned earlier, I have always been a little slow and so did not learn until this summer that "surplice" had acquired a new meaning, one specific to the fashion industry.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary added a second, non-liturgical meaning for the word "surplice" several years ago.  In this meaning, the word is an adjective:

surplice: a diagonally overlapping neckline or closing <a surplice collar> <surplice sweaters>

Here are some citations from modern women:

The adjective "Surplice" is correct for a top crossing over, April 2012

Surplice sweater in a Macy's ad..this is a very flattering style, which adds
definition if you don't dip in so much @ the waist, December 2013

"Beware of the surplice dress, especially after forty," from
Orchids On Your Budget by Marjorie Hillis, January 2015

'Surplice dress' by Ralph Lauren...but it was form-fitting
with cap sleeves.  It did go to the knee.  April 2016

You see that two things happened here.   First, the surplice garment became a women's garment that had nothing in common with the religious version but was distinguished by a crossover front, as seen below.




Second, by this definition, Diane von Furstenberg dresses like the one below, popular since the 1970s, would qualify as "surplice dresses."  But these always have been called "wrap dresses."





Off to the Races with Surplices

Let us just say that fashion people are not word people.

First, the definition of a surplice dress was expanded beyond the cross-over thing and expanded to include dresses that used to be described as "ruched," like the one below.


Then the word "surplice" reverted from being an adjective to being a noun again.  This is how we arrived this summer with the garment I mentioned at the opening of this post.

Finally, the word "surplice" came to encompass just about any dress or shirt that a woman might wear. Here are some recent fashions that are described as "surplices."









Conclusions

Effectively, a word that used to describe a single, specific item of clothing now describes so many different types of clothing that it has no meaning at all.  

What we have now is a surplus of surplices.

No wonder I can't keep up.


Monday, August 29, 2016

Movie Monday: Hell or High Water



Here's a great movie that you should plan to see.

The piece is set in West Texas, where the effects of the Great Recession are evident in shabby homesteads, lean ranches and multiple roadside signs offering payday loans.

Two brothers, one a paroled felon and the other a divorced father of two sons, concoct and carry out a well-planned series of small bank heists to save the family ranch.  The robberies are inconsequential to the FBI, but they do catch the attention of a pair of Texas Rangers, one about to retire and the other his patient, long-suffering colleague of Native American and Mexican background.

Three of the main roles are beautifully rendered by rising actors whom we will be seeing more and more often.  The fourth, Jeff Bridges as the Ranger whose career is ending, is a graceful, fully realized character who is a delight to watch.

There are several nicely done small performances -- waitresses and small-town Texans -- but the story belongs to the two brothers and the two brothers in law enforcement.

The tight and careful script lays out all the men's personalities, including their flaws.  Their resulting behavior leads to a predictable conclusion that is followed by a coda that leaves a final issue up for resolution.

The movie is about desperate measures in desperate times.  It refers to the bank heists of the also-desperate Depression days, and it deliberately contrasts the broad discouragement of the moment with the noble frontier of old Western movies.

The cinematography is excellent, and the music underscores the theme of a 150-year-old way of life that is ending.  (It does not go unmentioned that Native Americans had been similarly displaced from their centuries-old settlements by the now-dispossessed settlers' ancestors.)

Overall, an excellent piece of work.  Definitely worth a watch.


On the Other Hand

While the personal characterizations in this movie are great and the tensions among them arise organically, the story has some gaping external holes.   A few:  the need for cash when another, obvious source is in plain sight; the means used to launder the stolen cash into a cashier's check; the offer of drilling profits in an economy where slumping oil prices have depressed demand for drilling; the demonization of small bank executives for problems caused by parched pastures and low oil prices, and the adoption of oil drilling when the proposal today might as easily have been for politically unpopular fracking.  There are others.

My point is not to quibble.  These are small matters compared with the Swiss cheese constructions of most popular movies now.


Why the Slow Rollout?

Sometimes I think film producers and theater owners don't give American audiences much credit.  Last weekend was HoHW's third in a very leisurely national rollout -- 909 screens when the much-panned eight-week-old "Suicide Squad" was still playing to smaller audiences at well over four times as many locations.

There is talk of people losing interest in seeing films in theaters, and HoHW has been mentioned as the best picture so far in 2016 by more than a few professional movie critics.  Its Rotten Tomatoes score is 99/100.

Under the circumstances, you'd think theaters might free up a few screens here and there for something besides children's cartoons and adolescent superhero fantasies.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Surrender, New York: A Warning


This new novel has everything going for it.

Its author is Caleb Carr, whose first book, "The Alienist," was a thrilling whodunit set in 1896 New York City, when police were beginning to use scientific evidence to solve crimes.  The book sold more than 1.5 million copies, and the story was optioned for $500,000 by Hollywood; a television series is in the works.

"Surrender, New York," Carr's third book, is narrated by a modern-day former detective who studied the methods of the detective in the first book and who has come to believe forensics are overused.  For this, he has left the NYPD and settled in Surrender, NY where he is asked to help unravel the mysteries of several young people's deaths.

A Wall Street Journal review calls the book a "page-turning thriller" and concludes with this: "Mr. Carr conjures with admirable ease and verve all manner of vivid characters . . . . Skills and thrills are more abundant than plausibility. For maximum enjoyment: surrender, reader."

A New York Times review says Carr "has written an addictive contemporary crime procedural stuffed with observations on the manipulations of science and the particular societal ills of the moment. Call it a mystery with multiple messages."

Based on reviews like these and my own enjoyment of "The Alienist," I bought the new book.

What a mistake.


The Reading Experience

Last night I began reading "Surrender, New York."  Within a couple pages, I was wondering what all the fuss was about.

Here's an early sentence:

       Mine had been one of the most outspoken voices attempting to expose those
       weaknesses; and because my work (and the methods that underlay them)
       had led to a series of widely publicized conflicts with the NYPD's crime lab
       that had ultimately made me persona non grata in the metropolis where I
       was born, I was not altogether surprised but was entirely grateful, when
       SUNY-Albany offered me the chance to help structure their balancing
       course of study.

I underlined the pronoun and possessive here because I couldn't figure out their antecedents.

Here's the next sentence:

        Partnering with my closest co-worker in New York, Mike Li -- an expert in
        trace and DNA evidence who had spent years vociferously pointing out the
        widespread and often fatal flaws that marred the gathering, handling, and
        courtroom use of such evidence -- I gladly accepted the university's offer,
        provided Mike's and my own courses could be taught online.

A little further on came this extended bit, with some very labored dialogue.

        . . . . "Pete Steinbrenner's on his way up."  I could hear Mike cut short his
        presentation for a seminar as I added flatly, "Looks like someone's been
        murdered."

        In the time it took Pete to park his patrol car beside one of the milking
        barns below the hangar, Mike shot out of the plane and down the steel
        steps, his mood characteristically brightened.  "Excellent," he called as
        he joined me, his eyes -- narrowed by years of examining often
        microscopic pieces of evidence -- widened with enthusiasm.  "Should
        I cancel my next class?"  He looked up at me eagerly (Mike stands
        about five foot six, even when excited, while I, despite my usual
        stooped posture, am a good half-foot taller), and grinned almost
        fiendishly as he accepted a cigarette from the pack I held out for him.

        "Not yet," I said, pulling a pocket watch from my vest and popping is
        open.  "You've got a good twenty minutes -- let's hear him out, first."

        "Ah," Mike noised in disappointment.  "How did I know you were going
        to say that, gweilo?" (When irritated with me, it was Mike's custom to
        to use the Cantonese word for "white devil.")

        "Easy there, Yellow Peril," I answered, replacing my watch, producing
        a Zippo lighter, and offering its flame to my partner.

        "Damn it, L.T.," Mike replied.  "I've told you, 'Yellow Peril' refers to the
        Japs -- and the Chinese have a lot more fucking reasons to hate them than
        you do.  So dibs."

         I turned to him, amused.  "'Dibs'?"

         "On hating the Japanese," Mike said, with a wave of his cigarette.

         "Ah," I replied with a nod; but I could not help another chuckle. "'Dibs,'"
         I murmured.  "You often have a whimsical way of putting things, Michael..."

If you can read this sort of prose without gagging, well, God bless you.

In general, the first chapter of a novel is the best one.  The writer returns to it again and again, rereading the work in progress, starting with the first chapter as each additional chunk of writing is added. 

The first chapter draws in the reader.  It sets up the story questions that keep the reader wanting to learn more.  

This first chapter is badly written.  It suggests that the whole book -- all 598 pages of it -- needs a complete rewrite.  Unfortunately, literary agents and publishers may not want to tell a successful author that he has turned in a very flawed manuscript.

I'm perfectly happy to read a long novel as long as it is well written and tells a good story.  But five pages of "Surrender, New York" are about all I can take.


Other Critics

Today I learned that not all the critics were wild for this novel.  From a couple of skeptical reviews:

          I blame Carr’s narrator. Dr. Trajan Jones, a profiler walking in the alienist’s
          intellectual footsteps, is unlikable (not in any good way). His dialogue is pedantic
          and his point of view is thick with righteous indignation. Even his banter with his
          partner, Dr. Michael Li, frequently falls flat.
Carole E. Barrowman
Minneapolis StarTribune  


           Carr’s writing can arouse both admiration and disappointment. His descriptive 
           passages can be elegant and informative but they go on endlessly, maddeningly; details 
           can strengthen a novel but an avalanche of them can kill momentum. . . . All in all, 
           despite some interesting characters and thoughts on social issues, “Surrender, New 
           York” became for this reader an agonizing ordeal.  
Patrick Anderson
Washington Post 

Friday, August 26, 2016

Chilling


Your table is ready now.


The Idiosyncratist is spending much of the year in Tennessee, where the average summer temperatures hover around 90 degrees and the air is generally humid.

It's a friendly, interesting place, but I have had one problem the last couple months:  Keeping warm.


Air Conditioning

It is no coincidence that the American South was less densely populated in the years before air conditioning.  People enjoyed the slightly cooler evening weather on screened porches attached to their homes, and roof fans whisked the hot, high-rising indoor air out of the house.  But still, the weather was wearying.

My impression is that movie theaters were America's early adopters of electric air conditioning.  A double feature in a cool auditorium was a loved summer attraction in many states across the country.

For several generations now, air conditioning has come to be taken for granted.  People still experience high summer temperatures when dashing from air-conditioned homes to air-conditioned cars to air-conditioned supermarkets and such, but only those whose jobs or exercise routines keep them outdoors for long periods suffer the worst of the heat.

But this air conditioning business can go too far.


Settling In

Early in the July, the Significant Other and I went out for a meal at a nice restaurant.  I had learned a lesson when I lived in Texas, which also is warmish in the summer months, and so I tucked a sweater into my shoulder bag.

The SO was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and a pair of shorts.

"You might want to take a sweatshirt just in case," I said.

"I'll be fine," he assured me.

We walked into the restaurant and were escorted to the table.  The indoor temperature was maybe 65 degrees, probably less.

"Wait here," said the SO.  "I'll be right back."

I ordered a nice glass of wine and studied the menu.

Fifteen minutes later, he returned, clad now in long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and a cardigan sweater.

We had a lovely dinner.


The New Usual

Given the size of the kitchen in our apartment (and, yes, the limits of my culinary expertise), the SO and I eat out rather often.  When we do, we take sweaters, which come in handy because virtually all the local restaurants run on the chilly side.

Last night we ate at a nice French place.  Cold.

Last week it was an Indian-Southern fusion spot.  Very cold.

The weekend before, we visited an upscale pizza joint whose menu promoted its 700-degree ovens.  The dining room, however, was very, very cold.  We're talking low 60s here.

(This has increased my respect for Southerners.  Frequently we see women in sleeveless dresses and men in short-sleeved shirts in these restaurants.  They look comfortable and happy. They do not hunch with their arms folded around their mid-sections.  Their teeth do not chatter.  I believe they  could handle a snowy Northeast winter with ease.  These people are tough.)

Anyway, the very effective air conditioning is not limited to restaurants.  Movie theaters are cold.  Grocery stores are cold -- even the canned goods aisles are cold.  The Verizon store is cold.  The mall is cold.

Our apartment building lobby is very cold, and its wifi-lounge area is close to icy.  Once, when the SO was faxing some documents, he asked the concierge if the temperature could be turned up just a  bit.

It was not to be.  The master building controls are not accessible to non-technical employees.  (For the record, we set our apartment thermostat to the low 70s, which is perfectly comfortable.)

We have had air conditioning in homes in other states. It is not cheap, and I know for a fact that the last five degrees of chill are the most expensive ones.

I wonder if perhapsTennesseans are overcompensating here.

It is not for me to tell people how to manage their affairs, but I would mention that money could be saved -- on utility bills and outerwear -- just by adopting a slightly higher, still comfortable thermostat setting.   And, in the larger scheme, the state could reduce its global footprint by asking people to live at what is known in the rest of the country as room temperature.





Tuesday, August 23, 2016

What We Like in Films Today


Below are the top-selling movies in the U.S. last weekend, according to Box Office Mojo, which tracks these things.



Let's study them  a little.

The Big Sellers




No. 1 is "Suicide Squad."  The film is based on an old premise -- a bunch of bad guys/losers recruited to fight evil -- that was hackneyed back when NBC turned it into a TV show called "The A-Team" in the 1980s.  (Naturally there is talk of a new A-Team in the next year or so.)
       Atlantic critic Christopher Orr trashed the film's premise, execution, characters and plotting and then noted "the almost countless flaws. . . the senseless, lackadaisical killing; the desperate, maudlin attempts at emotional connection; the risibly silly climax, which rather resembles the ending of either Ghostbusters except that it’s played straight; the cliché-ridden soundtrack . . . ."  Otherwise, he thought it was fine.
       Top film in the U.S., three weeks running.

No 2, "Sausage Party" also did well in its second week. It's a computer-generated cartoon for grownups, or at least people over the age of 17.  The story involves a bunch of foul-mouthed and horny supermarket products seeking sex and the meaning of life.  (Yes, really.)
       The movie is not politically correct and so ignited a couple of conflicts within the broader social justice community.  The first was whether a Latina taco character on the make was lesbian or bisexual.  The second was whether white people had any standing to comment on the first issue.  (Again, yes, really.)



No. 3 was "War Dogs," a buddy comedy about a couple of 20-year-old potheads who through a series of events become entrepreneurs in the international weapons game.  It is said to be funny and based at least somewhat on a true story, which makes a person worry for the future of our military in this troubled age.  But, hey, it's a goof, so never mind.

What do these movies have in common?  CYNICISM.   They congratulate audiences for being comfortable with gratuitous violence, extreme vulgarity and the idea of incompetents selling large amounts of deadly weapons in an era marked by ongoing wars, urban shootings and terrorism.

Ha ha ha ha ha.


The Second Tier

Kubo
No. 4 is "Kubo and the Two Strings," a story of a boy and two animal friends who work together and use a magic suit of armor to overcome a vengeful spirit.  It is lauded for its innovative technique and so may attract film students as well as children.

No. 5 is "Pete's Dragon," a Disney story about an orphaned boy who is taken in by a friendly dragon; they defeat invaders seeking to destroy their idyllic forest home. One critic called it "just a damn good movie, one I would recommend without hesitation to any audience of any age."


No. 6 was a misconceived repeat of Ben-Hur, the Charleton Heston epic that mesmerized the country and won 11 Academy Awards in 1959.
         Given its production budget,  the sixth-place opening weekend was a disaster.
         Certainly the audience of seniors who liked the first Ben-Hur 56 years ago and wanted to see a new version was a small one.
         Another limiting factor may have been the movie's strong Christian theme of conversion at Jesus' crucifixion.
        (The Christian movie market is now a marginal one.  Two films with themes of life after earthly death have done well among the faith community, and a recent African American family story involving prayer and reconciliation drew many black churchgoers.  But the movies' very limited appeal may reflect the country now, which seems to be post-Christian or maybe majority secular.)
         In fact, the Ben-Hur promotions emphasize its action scenes, which are said to use newer technology to very good effect.

What these three films have in common is this:  SINCERITY.

Filmmakers should promote sincere themes in children's movies.  As I've said before, small children are earnest; they identify with kind and high-minded characters.  It is only over time that they become accustomed to and, I would argue, infected with skepticism.

Adult moviegoers, on the other hand, seem less interested in sincerity now.

This is just my observation.  Make of it what you will.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Movie Monday: Indignation



This is one great movie.

Based on a short novel by Philip Roth, it traces the life of a young Jewish man from Newark who arrives at a Christian college in Ohio in 1951.

The kid is very smart, very serious and, like many 20-year-olds, pretty sure that he knows everything.  He finds love, in a way, and asserts his convictions with intellectual sincerity.

Unfortunately, at that time and in that place, parents and colleges did not allow young adults much of a margin for error.  (There is greater latitude now and a lot more acting out, but this result is not entirely satisfying either, alas.)

When I read the novel -- and you do not need to read the novel to appreciate the movie -- I thought it was Roth's meditation on what might have happened to him, an ardent intellectual Jewish kid about the same age in 1951, had events gone a little differently.

Early on, you learn that the story is not an older man's musings, however, but something more harrowing.

The story is deeply affecting, well written and acted and filmed, but unfortunately it may not be a movie for our age.


The Problem

This movie does not rush.   Its characters are seen in full, in conflict with themselves and, to varying extents, with their milieu.  The external events flow naturally from all the characters' beliefs and actions.  The conclusion is made all the more dramatic because it arises organically from their situations.

I used to watch a lot of foreign movies, and "Indignation" reminded me of some of those.  It does not
rely on current film formulas that seem to require an explosion of some kind every five minutes or so.

"Indignation" moves at its own pace, a sure-footed novelistic pace in a world where there seem to be more people who think they can write novels than people who read serious literature.


Saturday, August 20, 2016

Election Year Reading


If you like a story well told and are interested in the history of small-r republican government, you could do worse than to pick up "Imperium," the first book of a readable three-book series by Robert Harris.

The trilogy covers the career of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the most famous orator of his time, which covers the period in which the Roman Republic tottered and ultimately collapsed, undone from the inside by power-mad conspirators.

Like many educated Romans, Cicero was trained in philosophy and law. He believed in republican government and worked through his life to hold the Roman republic together.  He also was vain, fearful and pragmatic enough to keep his thoughts to himself on dangerous occasions when his life hung in the balance.

Author Harris, who has worked in journalism and on nonfiction books and thrillers about World War II, has done his homework on this trilogy, which took 12 years to research and to write.

The story is told from the point of view of Tiro, Cicero's secretary/slave, whom Cicero ultimately freed and who in fact did write a biography of Cicero that disappeared centuries ago.

In the first volume, Harris recounts how Cicero, a well-educated man but not an aristocrat, gained admission to the Roman senate by marriage to a rich woman and then, once there, effectively prosecuted a Roman governor of Sicily whose record of murder and looting were outrageous even by the casual standards of the time.

By the end of the book, Cicero has been elected to a one-year term as a Roman consul.

(More than a millennium later, English and American governments were patterned on those of the Roman republic.  Rome had two annual consuls, a senate composed of aristocrats and a plebeian organization of tribes represented by elected tribunes.  England had a king or queen or prime minister, a house of lords and a house of commons.  The US has a president, a senate and a house of representatives.)

The second book, "Conspirata," details the events of Cicero's consular year, when a group of conspirators had plotted to overthrow the Roman government, to burn the city and to kill many citizens and specific politicians in the process.

The plot is uncovered and frustrated by republican patriots including Cicero, but the book ends with his exile under threat of death by bitter partisans still angry that the conspirators had been executed by a senate vote and a subsequent order from the consul, Cicero.



The third book, "Dictator" finds Cicero back in a Rome now governed by a triumvirate that has replaced the consuls, neutered the senate and tribunes and made any who disagree fearful for their lives.

As Cicero ages, he finds himself flattering the powerful and dodging the plots of seeming friends and sworn enemies.  Chief among these are Gaius Julius Caesar, who effectively becomes Rome's dictator for life.

We all know how things ended for Caesar and Cicero and how Rome's republican government gave way to a top-down imperial one that survived for centuries.

Knowing these things, however, does not reduce the interest of the books.  The character development, plot pacing and regular references to Cicero's actual oratories keep the reader turning the pages.


Current Relevance

It seems likely that the author, an Englishman, finds parallels between Rome's republican period and modern western democracies.

Political careers, then as now, were seen as opportunities to build great fortunes.

Popular support, then as now, was gained with promises of benefits to be bestowed once politicians were installed in office.

Emotional appeals, then as now, were effective in building public support for or opposition to legislation or candidates for electoral office.


What Is Different

For Americans distressed with our elections or our government the Cicero trilogy offers at least one comfort:  Things could be worse. Much worse.

The inequality of wealth decried in the west today pales in comparison to that of republican Rome.
       There were far fewer wealthy people, relatively, and virtually all had inherited their riches.
There was no such thing as an entrepreneurial economy, and the poor lived hand-to-mouth lives.
        Rome's large slave population was even worse off; within the period, a slave uprising had been suppressed with the slaughter of virtually all its participants.

Rome's spread and influence grew by making war.  Initially this began with the suppression of a Carthaginian invasion. Over centuries, there were wars with opponents in the eastern Mediterranean.  By the first century BC, Rome initiated wars with European tribes for the purpose of taxing them and enslaving their populations.

The human cost of wars was staggering.  Roman generals sent home reports of hundreds of thousands killed on battlefields, most of the dead slaughtered by Roman armies.

The Roman government was susceptible to internal subterfuge, which ultimately led to the downfall of the republic.
        The U.S. has had such incidents -- many presidents targeted for assassination, six of them shot and four of those killed while in office.  But the assassins were generally single actors or members of fringe groups.
        The American founders were familiar with Roman history.  It seems likely that they meant to frustrate the opportunities for broad conspiracies by establishing three government branches with checks and balances among them.



Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Cheap Appliances



This picture was not taken at my house.  But it could have been.



Incident 1

Last year, our dishwasher gave out.   It was about eight years old, and it had cost more than twice as much as our first dishwasher, probably because it had a premium brand name.

We called the appliance repairman.

"The motor's shot," he said.  "It'll cost about $400 to replace it."

"Maybe we should just replace the machine," the Significant Other said.

"Nah, don't do that," said the repair guy.  "That company's making the machines cheaper now.  If you get a new one, it won't last nearly as long."

So we replaced the motor.


Incident 2

We bought a smaller place in another state a couple years ago.  I never liked the stacked washer-driver because its capacity was very small and it rumbled like mad if the two pairs of pants inside each load (that's about the capacity) weren't precisely balanced in the wash tank.

One day I did several loads of laundry, and the dryer began to give off a smell.

We called a repair guy.

"You have to give it some time off between loads," he said of the dryer.  "Five or 10 minutes is all it needs."

"Actually, I was thinking about replacing the machine," I said.

"How old is it?" he asked.

"About 10 years, I think."

"Don't replace it," he said.  "That's a good machine.  The new ones aren't as dependable."



Incident 3

We moved into an apartment in a third state a while back.

The refrigerator had been moved from an older apartment in the building into our newly renovated unit.  The refrigerator was supposed to be frost-free, but it had a lot of frost in it.

So we called the building handyman.

"Ah, that's an old refrigerator," he said.  "I've got a new one downstairs.  It's a better brand.  I'll swap it out."

So we got a new refrigerator.  The handyman changed the door handles from the left to the right for convenience.

Five days later, the new refrigerator was still dripping water on the floor, and the buildup of frost in the freezer compartment was getting pretty extreme.  We called the handyman again.

"That's interesting," he said.  "The door gasket doesn't line up on the left side of the refrigerator."

He ordered new seals for the brand new refrigerator.

That was a week ago.

We're still waiting.

Now we are a little worried about the dryer in our apartment.  It looks new, but it takes two hours to dry a medium-sized load of clothes, even when it's set on high.


Incident 4

Before we left the big house for our multi-state perambulations, we updated the security system and had new control panels installed.

The man who watches the house knows the codes and is a careful, reliable guy.  Four times now, the burglar alarm has gone off when he has entered the house.  (It also went off on the Significant Other once before we left.)

The alarm company has been out several times to "fix" the problem, to no effect.

Now we are replacing the control panels.

I'm wondering if maybe we should have kept the old ones instead.



Perspective

My family is small, and our appliances don't get heavy workouts.

When I was a child, though, my family was large.  The washing machine in the basement must have run 12 to 15 loads a week of linens, school clothes, work clothes, play clothes and gym clothes.  (And, no, it did not have a manual wringer.)

Recently I discussed this with a sibling.

"Is my memory wrong," I said, "or did that washing machine last about 20 years?"

"You're right," said the sib.  "I remember when the folks bought it.  It cost $400. They sold it with the house."

In today's dollars, that old washing machine would cost over $1,000.

Now you can buy a plain washing machine for about $300 or a fancy Energy Star model for something more than $1,000.

What you can't buy, I'm guessing, is a washing machine that will last for 10 years.


Upside

The only good thing I can say about these experiences is that we have a lot of really good appliance repairmen in this country.  They understand how machines (are supposed to) work, and they diagnose problems very efficiently.   Their advice is always helpful.

I learn something every time I talk to one of them.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Movie Monday: Sausage Party



It was only a matter of time before we got a movie like this one.

If Pixar could make children's movies with anthropomorphic toys like Woody and Buzz, eventually someone would make a Pixar-like movie for grownups with sentient supermarket products that are foul-mouthed and sex-obsessed.

And here it is.

These aren't your normal sausages and buns and cabbage and hummus.  They sit on the shelves waiting for the gods -- known to us as grocery shoppers -- to take them out of the store and into the idyllic Place Beyond.

The hapless foods have been sold a bill of goods, of course, and after much denial they come to realize their fate is to be cut to pieces, cooked and eaten.  (One of the many reasons not to take your child to this very R-rated movie is to avoid a rebellious hunger strike starting the moment you get home.)

Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg wrote the script, and they are being given credit for introducing the theme of the foods' existential crisis to animate a grossout movie that would be deeply offensive if it relied on human characters to speak and act the way the grocery products do.

From reviews:


     Seth Rogen may be the most subversively sincere religious allegorist working in movies today.
Joe Leyden, Variety

      'Sausage Party' is just as much a sweet story about belief and faith as it is a vehicle for the
      filthiest jokes you've never dared imagine."
Lindsey Bahr, ReadingEagle.com

      Frank (the head sausage, voiced by Rogen) is a Promethean figure, and what happens
      once the gods are overthrown is scary and interesting as well as fun. . . .


A.O. Scott, New York Times


So there we have it.  Who needs Plato or St. Augustine when the fate of F-bombing vegetables and jars of honey mustard can stand in to represent the all-too-human quandary about the certainty of mortality?

Yes, there are very funny bits, most of them extremely crude.  The bad guy from the personal products aisle is a douche, literally and figuratively.  There is a lesbian hard taco who comes onto a sweet, soft hot dog bun.  There is a Muslim lavosh dreaming of a heavenly reward of 77 bottles of olive oil and getting it on with a bagel who sounds quite a bit like Woody Allen.  It would take an army of 16-year-old boys many years to dream up this many vulgarities, but "Sausage Party" doesn't miss a single opportunity and still clocks in at less than 90 minutes, which is actually rather impressive.

You certainly have heard of the penultimate scene, an extended sex orgy of vegetables, breads and condiments with an extended penetration-plus-penis joke at the expense of a grocery employee.  All very fun.

The movie ends with a made-up solution for the food products' situation that is every bit as implausible as the plight itself.  But this is okay.  By then, you're happy to get out of the theater.


Note:  Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are talented and funny, but their last script, in which American journalists are recruited to "take out" the nasty little dictator of North Korea, almost certainly motivated the the Norks' massive and embarrassing hack of Sony executives' emails before the film's release two years ago. Still, this is a Columbia/Sony production.  Apparently foodstuffs don't fight back.


Sunday, August 14, 2016

Harry Wu, Reconsidered

On May 8, I posted a story about Harry Wu, an innocent man who survived 19 years in brutal Chinese labor camps and spent the rest of his life forcing the world to take notice.

These facts remain, but a New York Times article this morning indicates that his work in the United States is more complicated.  You can find both articles in the citations below.

http://theidiosyncratist.blogspot.com/2016/05/harry-wu-rip.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/14/us/champion-of-human-rights-in-china-leaves-a-tarnished-legacy.html

For those who want an executive summary (and who doesn't these days?) here are some pieces of the Times article.

         His close relationship with lawmakers helped Mr. Wu secure a $17 million grant
         from Yahoo in 2007 to aid families of persecuted dissidents, when the tech giant was
         facing withering criticism for assisting the Chinese authorities in identifying activists
         who had used the company’s email service. . . .

         He provided just $1.2 million to dissidents’ families, while spending more than $13
         million of the Yahoo money to operate his own foundation, which runs a website and
         a small museum. . . ."

         “American politicians think of Harry Wu as a hero, but the truth is he is an immoral
         person who betrayed the very people he was supposed to be helping,” said Wang Jing,
         47, the wife of a dissident. . . . "

         In an interview two weeks before his death, Mr. Wu brushed off allegations of financial
         impropriety and defended his decision to largely discontinue giving grants to Chinese
         dissidents and their families. He said that foundation employees, unable to obtain visas
         to enter China, found it hard to verify the financial information provided by aid
         applicants. But he made little effort to hide his disdain for Chinese human rights activists
         who sought grants, describing them as greedy, deceitful and ungrateful. “Some of them
         lie to us,” he said. “We are frustrated by these Chinese victims.”

What seems to have happened is that Wu was given the money to expiate corporate guilt for its exposure of dissident refugees and that he used the money instead aid to further his personal goal of forcing public awareness of the cruel system that imprisoned him and many others.

Some specifics:

          Mr. Wu’s role as administrator of the money proved problematic. In 2011, Yu Ling,
          the wife of one of the jailed activists, filed a lawsuit claiming Mr. Wu had pressured 
          her to turn over the $3.2 million settlement and then purchased a $1 million annuity 
          in his name. Mr. Wu eventually returned the money but a litany of grant applicants 
          would later cite other irregularities. Some say they never received the money he had 
          promised; others recalled signing blank disbursement forms but receiving only partial 
          payment. A review of the organization’s financial disclosure forms reveals at least 
          $190,000 that is unaccounted for.

There are other creepy allegations -- wife-beating, never prosecuted; and an unresolved legal action for harassment of three teenage girls.  Wu and his wife were divorced.  They had a son whom I tried to locate through social media, without luck.  My guess is that he does not want to be found.

The Yahoo donation to Wu's foundation arose after Yahoo allowed Chinese officials to learn the names of Yahoo users who wrote posts criticizing the Chinese government.  The government retaliated and prosecuted those users, and the revelation of this exposed Yahoo to international shame.  In addition, Yahoo executives sat on the foundation's board and apparently allowed Wu to use the money for purposes that Yahoo had not intended. 

The article also mentions other tech companies' relations with the Chinese government.

          The controversy underscores recurring issues of corporate social responsibility and 
          unintended consequences as Silicon Valley executives, eager to tap into China’s vast 
          market, seek to win favor with the country’s authoritarian rulers. In 2014, the social 
          network site LinkedIn agreed to censor its results in China, and last year IBM provoked
          concern in the White House after it began allowing Chinese officials to examine 
          proprietary source codes for its products. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has courted 
          Chinese leaders in hopes of gaining access to the country’s 700 million internet users.

These situations are fraught.  Years of abuse can harden people and mangle their inborn ethics.  The promise of access to a market of more than 1 billion potential customers can lead corporate leaders to commit acts that would be unthinkable in our country.  

I don't regret what I said about Harry Wu and his very hard life.  But I can accept that he was -- like all humans -- flawed and perhaps seriously so.  We must do the best we can to find truth and not flinch from its consequences.  

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Dr. Martens: Something Old Is New Again

If you are from Seattle or you were paying attention during the 1990s grunge rock era, you remember the fashion ethic of that moment.

A few of those wardrobe staples -- plaid shirts and torn jeans, for example -- have been popular again for several years now.  So, too, have Dr. Martens boots, commonly called "Doc Martens."

Who can forget those boots, big lace-ups with heavy soles and yellow stitching?  Young women wore them with mini shorts and short skirts, a look that was jarring then but has been normalized since.   It is common now to pair lacy tops with heavy jeans or an orange skirt with a green-blue jacket.  Sometime between the Dr. Marten years and 2010, fashion editors began describing carefully coordinated outfits as "matchy-matchy."

People retain fond memories for items associated with important moments of their younger years, and there is a steady market for vintage Dr. Martens classics like the one below, which is being offered for sale online.


History

Dr. Martens, the company, was founded in the late 1940s by an actual doctor who wanted more comfortable ski boots.  It had its white-hot moment in the '90s and then lost its mojo about the turn of the century.  It was combined with at least one other company, or maybe two, and then turned its attention to sandals, brogues, different colored footwear and shoes for for children.  Naturally, it was acquired by a private equity company in 2013.

(I fully expect that, over time,  PE firms will start buying up roadside farm stands, police department cruiser fleets and maybe a revival of the Pet Rock company; is there any enterprise that will not attract those  investors, I wonder? But I digress.)

I realized that Dr. Martens was back when I noticed a Dr. Martens store on the tony Santa Monica Promenade a few years ago.

Now, all these years later, the high fashion houses are giving the work-boot/combat-boot/army-boot look a go.


Examples

Valentino



Ann Demeulemeester



Louis Vuitton

MICHAEL Michael Kors


Steve Madden

Target Gia-Mia Combat Dance Boots


And the Doc Martens classic, the 1460, is still available in stores or by mail order.



Note

It is not so much that fashion changes suddenly.  What happens is more of an evolution.  I have commented several times about the trend toward ankle boots of all kinds in recent years.  What we have here is a variation on that -- a nostalgia-inflected iteration of what had been happening already. 









Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Bikers v. Hikers


There are many signs that Americans love nature and that available space in nature is getting scarcer every year.  If you visit New York's Central Park on a nice weekend day, you will be lucky to find a spot of grass on which to spread a towel and sit.  If you visit Yosemite National Park in California, your quiet interaction with natural beauty will be shared with thousands of other tourists any day of the year.

Also in California, the Muir Woods National Monument is getting so crowded -- more than 6,500 visitors some days along the brief and lovely footpath -- that the National Park Service is considering an appointment system for parking and visits.

Then there is another variation on the crowding phenomenon.  It is the tension that sometimes rises to the level of outright hostility between hikers and mountain bikers.


-----

“One of the places I ride is technically open to hiking,” said an officer 

of the American Hiking Society. “But I would never go there to hike,

because there are too many bikes." 

-----


Last week, a hiker in New Jersey alerted police to some nasty sabotage on a popular hiking and biking path. Here's part of it.


As you can see, it's a piece of wood fitted out with a bunch of screws leaving sharp ends protruding. It had been covered lightly with dirt and left in the middle of the path.  At other points, police found concealed bands of barbed wire and broken bottles, cut side up.

When this was reported in the general press, letter writers assumed that a maniac was on the loose and trying to injure hikers and bikers.  But this almost certainly was not the case.

Hikers wear boots, which offer pretty good protection.  Mountain bikers, on the other hand, travel on inflated tires than can be punctuated by screws, barbed wire and broken glass.

This sort of thing doesn't get reported often, but bikers who have been paying attention report similar incidents every year in areas across the United States and Canada. Several years ago, a psychiatrist was caught and prosecuted for rigging a nylon wire to trip mountain bikers along a path in Southern Oregon.

These are all low acts, of course, but they indicate the escalating level of tension between people who hike on nature trails and mountain bikers who use the trails for exhilarating workouts.


Mountain Biking Evolution

Bicycle riding originated more than a century ago as a way to get around on city streets. Over the years, distance bikers took to highways and country roads for long-distance rides and to challenge themselves by adding steep hill roads to their routines.

Sometime in 1970s, according to the lore, bikers in Marin County, north of San Francisco, began using old fat-tired Schwinn single-speed models to test their abilities to climb hilly trails and then to ride down the same paths.

Over time, the Schwinn devotees began tinkering with bike frames, bike brakes, bike gears and newer tires to improve their vehicles' range and performance. Along the way, the mountain bike (MTB) became a new category of bicycle, and a popular one.  It is now estimated that there are at least 8 million MTB enthusiasts in the United States.


The Seeds of Conflict

Hikers who had had the trails to themselves (and the occasional horse) for many generations grew disillusioned with increasing numbers of hiking newbies and, more, with growing numbers of mountain bikers plying the traditional paths.

For their part, MTB enthusiasts also resented sharing trails with slow-moving hikers who impeded their progress by ignoring yells of "On your left!" or bicycle warning bells that once were the province of four-year-old tricycle riders.

Each group -- hikers and bikers -- perceived its pleasant enjoyment of nature to be diminished by the other.   Tensions ran particularly high on narrow, single-track trails that really cannot accommodate pedestrians and bikers moving side by side.


The Complaints

I used to hike pretty regularly and with great pleasure in the Marin Headlands.  Most of the MTB bikers seemed to be weekday workers who gathered in groups for weekend rides, at the same time when parents took schoolchildren for fun hikes in nature.  I mostly hiked on weekdays and didn't have much problem.

One thing I did notice was that a shallow, damp trail section was turned into a deep gully over a period of months.



The picture above illustrates some of what happened except that my path was worse.  It deteriorated into a two-foot-deep trench with muddy tire tracks in the bottom, and erosion and destruction of plant roots along the sides.  (Since then, many managers of public lands have put up signs closing such trails when conditions are wet, a sensible move.)

In addition, the established hiking community observed other trail damage that was traced to mountain biking.  This led to tut-tutting news reports like the one below from North Carolina.



This naturally irritated biking groups, which had become organized over time.  Spokesmen for such groups insisted that bikers were much more likely to volunteer to work on trail maintenance projects than hikers ever had been.  Experienced MTB riders said they taught newcomers the etiquette of trail respect.

One public action, taken in many locations, was to segregate trials as "hiking only" or "biking only."  This made some sense, but it limited the availability of biking trails overall.  The response of some bikers  was to construct new trails in public or privately held wild areas.  Again, the biking organizations protested that only a few bad apples were to blame for these intrusions.  Meanwhile, hikers and bikers were dismayed as naturalists lobbied to make more and more areas off-limits to all in the interest of protecting pristine nature from human depredation.

When you crowd growing populations of disparate outdoor enthusiasts into smaller and smaller spaces, what you get is tension.  No surprise there.


Mountain Biking as Sport

As the performance capacities of mountain bikes were improved by the applications of physics principles and better mechanics, bike companies began promoting their products by showing the daredevil deeds that skilled riders could accomplish with their new models.  The downside, to traditional mountain bikers, was a changing image of mountain biking from a wholesome outdoor pursuit into an extreme sport.

Stronger brakes particularly allowed for "downhilling," speedy rides down treacherously steep hillsides.  The video below shows some of the romance and thrill of downhilling.



To be fair, these riders seem to be challenging themselves on private courses, not public lands.

The evolution here may be something like that of snowboarding, which started as something new and cool and then, in certain groups, became tests of virtuosity and death-defying derring-do.

MTB magazines and websites argue that 90 percent to 99.9 percent of mountain bikers do not participate in these activities.  The group leaders insist that manufacturers' video demos have given a false image of the sport, or the recreational activity, whichever it is.


Different People

It is pretty clear that mountain biking appeals to different people than traditional hiking does.

Hikers, who have been with us forever, take pleasure from quiet jaunts.  Some march briskly up steep hills and cover long distances.  Some saunter.  Some carry binoculars and stop to look at birds.  It's a diverse community but with general things in common.

Mountain bikers thrill to speed and the wind whistling past them as they whisk along trails or, if their tires allow, across banks of rocks and open country.  They relish the freedom from competition with motorized vehicles on public roads.

Both groups prefer not to share trails.  The hikers fear confrontations with speeding bikers, and the bikers resent having to slow down every time they pass pokey hikers.

I don't think this conflict ever will be resolved.


Note

All the foregoing  makes me think of a song from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, "Oklahoma."

Here's the refrain.

                The farmer and the cowman should be friends,
                 Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends.
                 One man likes to push a plough, the other likes to chase a cow,
                 But that's no reason why they cain't be friends.
                 Territory folks should stick together,
                 Territory folks should all be pals.
                 Cowboys dance with farmer's daughters,
                 Farmers dance with the ranchers' gals.

The song is melodic and the sentiment is nice, but the fact is that such harmony was never the rule in the homesteading era.  Generally the two groups were more like the Hatfields and McCoys.

On a final, more upbeat note, I will mention that there is one matter on which hikers and bikers agree: Both groups loathe  motorized dirt bikes and other off-road vehicles.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Movie Monday: Bad Moms



I went to this movie with some trepidation.  It was written and directed by the guys who wrote "The Hangover," which was pretty darn crude.  That film begat two more Hangover movies and then "Last Vegas," a hangover film for old guys.

It was time for a bad moms variation.   And, surprisingly, it's pretty funny.  Some men won't enjoy it, but virtually all women -- even those who would never get drunk and vandalize a grocery store -- will relate.

There are all the set pieces you might expect:  loutish husbands, entitled children who whine incessantly, a mean mom who runs the PTA and the middle school, lots of drinking, rebellion and, ultimately, a satisfying conclusion.  There is one really bad mom, one really naive mom and Mila Kunis in the middle who takes control of her life, lets her kids start taking responsibility for themselves and then triumphs over the mean-girl PTA cabal.

Embedded in every scene is a theme that other women will recognize:  Moms love their children absolutely, but they feel themselves being held to an impossible standard.  They, their husbands and their children need to renegotiate the deal.

Yes, it's R-rated and the family-movie scolds warn strongly against taking your children to see it.  But it's not nearly as sleazy as "The Hangover" and it's downright wholesome compared to "Suicide Squad," which cost 16 times as much to make and now is spawning the release of fun Halloween costumes that mimic its violent characters.

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Most Famous Bathroom in the Country

We were walking in downtown Nashville yesterday when the Significant Other suggested stopping at the Hermitage Hotel, a traditional place that got a major renovation around 2003.  He'd visited earlier on a business trip.

What a good idea.   The Hermitage is beautiful, really beautiful. Here is a picture of the Grand Lobby, which is a few steps up a handsome stairway from the front door.


You don't see rooms like this at the Hilton or the Omni.

We stopped by the front desk to ask about restaurants, and the clerk mentioned the Grille Room, down a short flight.

"And you'll want to see the men's room too," she said, looking at me.

I gaped.  I dress like a girl, and while I can be assertive at times, I've never suffered any gender dysmorphia.

"It's art deco, and it's famous," said the clerk.  "If there are no men in there, women can go in."

Who could ignore an offer like that?  We went downstairs, and the Significant Other checked to see that no guys were doing their business in the men's room.

It's quite something.








As you can see, the room is large and square, definitely not the style today.  Its walls are horizontal stripes of shiny green and black tiles, and there is a nicely patterned terrazzo floor.  There is even a shoeshine stand with an old-fashioned black telephone on a table alongside.  No shoeshine attendant, however.

Women really seem to like the place.  Many have posted pictures online of themselves there, sometimes in groups sitting on the toilets.  In fact, the chick vote may have helped the spot win a most-beautiful-bathroom-in-the-country award a few years back.  (If you think about it, though, this bathroom had double the potential voting audience, which seems a little unfair.)

It is said this bathroom has been featured in several period movies, but I don't believe it.  No gaffer could set up effective lighting with that kind of glare off the tile and bare bulbs.

I also don't believe men use it all that often.  Who wants to be caught at the urinal when some woman with a cellphone camera could come barging in at any moment? 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Lonely Pyramid

An early view of the Memphis Pyramid


Memphis, like many post-industrial cities, has faced the challenges of emptied-out inner-city neighborhoods and business districts. 

This happened in a Memphis area called The Pinch, north of downtown and near the Mississippi River. Local lore says the name described the pinched guts of malnourished Irish immigrants who fled the potato famine of the mid 19th century.  The Irish were joined by Jews, Italians, Russians and Greeks.

In the 20th century, many of the immigrants and their children moved farther east, and the small stores and businesses that served them closed or followed along.  A new population, African American and mostly poor, settled in The Pinch.  The formerly busy commercial district never recovered, and Memphis was left with a bald spot that needed more redevelopment than just housing projects.  

This is the story of how city tried to revitalize the area.


The Pyramid

In 1989, ground was broken on what was called the Memphis Pyramid.  The event was celebrated with a great big outdoor party.  City leaders had approved a plan to build a civic icon that would attract tourists and herald the turnaround of forward-looking Memphis.

It is easy to see why the pyramid shape was chosen.  It drew on historic themes, including pyramid-shaped Chickasaw burial mounds and the pyramids of Giza, located near the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis, from which Memphis, Tenn., took its name. 

Earlier that same year, a smaller glass pyramid designed by I.M. Pei opened in the central courtyard of the Louvre in Paris and was widely hailed as a brilliant contemporary bit of work.

And, too, Memphians may have noticed that the St. Louis Gateway Arch, 300 miles north along the Mississippi River, had become a prominent local symbol recognized well beyond the boundaries of Missouri.

The construction cost of the Pyramid, $65 million, was shared by the city and Shelby County, which sold bonds to be paid off over 30 years by tax revenues generated by the Pyramid and related developments.

Inside the Pyramid was a 20,000-seat arena, perfect for college basketball games and tournaments, as well as other major sports events and big musical concerts.

During the construction period, a Pyramid operator was hired by the city and tasked also with developing other projects in the empty commercial area.  He promised to bring in restaurants, museums and various activities.  The Pyramid was to anchor a destination entertainment area that would attract tourists from around the country and perhaps even the world.  

After setting the man to work, the city and county expanded his mandate and asked him to establish additional entertainment venues on nearby Mud Island, not far from Memphis' Mississippi shore.

In 1991, the Pyramid opened in an inauspicious way.  During its debut event, a concert, its bathrooms flooded and the water spread far enough to force the musicians off the stage.

Worse, the promised ancillary developments had not been built.  There was no music museum located under the stadium bleachers.  There was no Hard Rock Cafe.  All there was was the Pyramid surrounded by empty land and  parking lots.  

The operator, once named Memphis' Man of the Year, was fired, and his company declared bankruptcy.  People still argue about whether he was a charlatan or whether he had been given an unrealistically ambitious assignment.  

Through the 1990s, the pyramid was used for college basketball games and concerts, but it sat by itself in the middle of an undeveloped area.

Hope was rekindled in 2001 when a National Basketball Association team, the Vancouver Grizzlies, relocated to Memphis and the Pyramid.

Unfortunately, the Pyramid's arena did not meet NBA venue requirements, and so the city sold $250 million in bonds and built the Fed Ex Forum about a half mile away. (Federal Express, which is based in Memphis, paid a generous $92 million for the naming rights.)

In 2004, the Grizzlies and the college teams moved to the Forum, and except for occasional concerts and church convocations, the Pyramid was abandoned.  Even as it sat empty, annual maintenance expenses ran to $700,000.

City leaders cast around for new uses for the Pyramid. A local congressman proposed a Mid-South satellite of the Smithsonian Museum.  There was talk of an indoor theme park, of a science center, of other projects.  Nothing proved out.

By 2005, it was revealed that Memphis was in talks to lease the Pyramid to Bass Pro Shops, the operator of oversized stores selling outdoor gear.  Negotiations proceeded in fits and starts for years.

A general outline of terms was reached in 2010.  Bass Pro and the city (the county had dropped out of Pyramid participation) agreed to a 55-year lease, which sounds a little optimistic. How many stores that opened 55 years ago are still operating today?

For its part, the city agreed to fix up the arena interior.  It carted 900 truckloads of bleacher seats and other irrelevant fixtures to the dump.   It corrected mechanical problems and paid for a major seismic upgrade.  It built the tallest free-standing elevator in the country to the top of the Pyramid, 300 feet up, and then added a viewing platform and indoor space for a bar and restaurant.

At the time of the lease signing, the city pledged to spend $30 million on the upgrades, but a local man told me the spending was understood to be $105 million.  It appears that federal grants for improvements to blighted areas may have made up the difference.

For its part, Bass Pro was reported to have spent $113 million to set up its shop.  Some of the money went to rustic-looking indoor displays and company signage on the Pyramid's sides.  More was spent on restaurants and a $300-a-night hotel, also housed inside the Pyramid.

The whole process took years.  At first Bass Pro aimed to open 2013.  Then the date was pushed back to 2014, then late 2014.  Finally the thing opened in May 2015.


The Bass Pro Shop

I never visited the old Pyramid, but I did go to the Bass Pro Shop last month.  It is remarkable for the range of amusements it offers in addition to outdoor gear.  There were families studying tanks of fish (many, many catfish) and juvenile alligators, as well as stuffed bears and deer.  Fathers and children were practicing shooting with replica long guns at a small diorama-type range.  People were standing in lines to take the $10 (round-trip!) elevator ride up to look at the view.

The merchandise included thousands of fishing reels, hundreds of Bass Pro-themed tee shirts, several displays of camouflage-colored Crocs, and paddleboards, scuba gear, fishing boats and off-road vehicles.

The restaurants seemed to be doing a nice business.   I didn't visit the hotel, but Memphians say its rooms are overpriced and mostly empty.

Worth It?

I am not a big outdoorsperson (although I did catch a fish once.)  I picked out a tchotchke for a friend, and stood in line at the cash register as a couple from Australia paid for several groaning shopping bags full of purchases.

So maybe the Pyramid Pro Shop is a destination, just as the Pyramid was intended to be.  Still, its rent, based on sales, apparently was far less than expected in its first year of operation.

But as I walked out to find my car in the parking lot, I noticed that most of the land surrounding the Pyramid still was empty.

On one end, the city has put up more affordable housing, likely to replace older housing projects that have been demolished.  On the downtown side, there is a new light-rail station.

There is nothing much between these and the Pyramid.

I can imagine the enthusiasm city leaders had when they planned and built the Pyramid.

What they wanted was a lively entertainment neighborhood surrounding the building.

What they ended up, unfortunately, with is a smaller entertainment center totally enclosed within the building itself.


An Icon Repurposed



"(T)his should serve as a cautionary tale for what strange things can happen when political expediency and civic boosterism converge and give birth to promises that outstrip common sense. 
       "It is in such a cauldron that promoters of implausible ideas are treated as saviors of the city by politicians reluctant to conduct basic due diligence for fear of having to abandon the latest magic answer to the problems of Memphis."

smartcitymemphis.blogspot.com
July 19, 2007