Friday, November 22, 2002

..."in the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much the the same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little. The story of their coming to be shapen after the average and fit to be packed by the gross, is hardly ever told even in their consciousness; for perhaps their ardour in generous unpad toil cooled as imperceptibly as the ardour of other youthful loves, till one day their earlier self walked like a ghost in its old home and made the new furniture ghastly. Nothing in the world more subtle than the process of their gradual change! In the beginning they inhaled it unknowningly: you and I may have sent some of our breath towards infecting them, when we uttered our conforming falsities or drew our silly conclusions..."
George Eliot, from Middlemarch

I haven't finished Middlemarch yet, but that passage stopped me cold. Eliot wrote it 130 years ago, and how true it remains! We all know those people "fit to be packed by the gross", and I for one fear daily becoming one.

But the path lays so simply and easily in front of me, of us. The path from the bed to the closet full of work clothes, the path from the door to cubicle, then back to the prepackaged, demographically designed entertainment and commercial marketing

What disturbs me so much about the demographically designed entertainment is how ACCURATE they are! yes, I AM entertained by the same things that so many others of my age/sex/ethnicity/economic strata are!

And what better proof that I am fit to be packed by the gross?!?

I have, in the past, combat this by being scornful and suspicious of anything popular. If too many people liked something, I should not. Very simple. I can't be like everyone else then.

Levi's, Disneyland, popular film, music, television, all these things were to be dismissed, or if not, became guilty pleasures. Perhaps I could intellectualize a movie, if I liked it too much. "You see, Mulan is struggling with her gender identity and trying to come to terms with her own conception of herself!"

The major problem with this approach to life is it's essential FALSENESS. It is reactionary rather than reasoned or real. It did not take into account the merit of the thing.

If I refused to like things that were popular, and tried to embrace things that were alternative, edgy, or avant garde for no better reason than because they were DIFFERENT, I am not seeking a higher path.

I realized that I must look closely at the thing in question. Be engaged in my life; and to evaluate and try to understand what I engage it. This is responsibility at work. THIS is greater individuality.

And yet, the earlier way was better defined. It is frightening to leave behind easy labels.

I was QUITE nervous to visit Disneyland. My boyfriend would not accept my dismissal of it being evil. He said, "you have not been there since you were five. How do you know it's evil?"

So. I have been to Disneyland, and I guess it is not evil. It is a tool, and it can be USED for evil in the wrong hands. That's all I will say about it for now.

Naturally, I do not have to live my life in Disneyland. I live my life between the lines from the bed to the closet and the door to the cubicle. In between the lines, and on the margins, I look for ways to creatively express my individuality. There are flashes of poetry on the meeting notes I have on the table, and I can find time to read Eliot on the bus.

But I strive to remain engaged. Does it have to be this way? In between and on the margins might be a little shabby for my individuality.

Is there another path? Surely, there are other ways to live. Millions of people have lived their lives in millions of other ways.

I have heard a story about a man who put into his margins what I have made the lines.

Sam Hamill, who I only know about because books from his publishing house have been nominated for an award, drew his own lines. He decided a life dedicated to poetry would be his. I am awestruck. He created a publishing house for poetry.

Poetry, that difficult and indescribably beautiful artform that humankind has been turning and returning to since words were formed:difficult, because we must let go of pre-established equational connections and form our minds to new synaptic leaps.

Hamill chose poetry over a pension. He decided that renewing his mind was more important than stability.

I am amazed, astounded and envious.

I heard on the radio (I have searched, but I can't find it again...suffice it to say, it was an NPR station) the story of how he started Copper Canyon Press. He found an old 1907 printing press! He set the type by hand!

Later, he moved from Colorado to Washington, because he could get free rent there.

It is not like I haven't heard of people moving around, and doing "irresponsible" things like that. I grew up with people who did not want to be packed by the gross.

Alaska. There are barely enough people to MAKE a gross there.

So, I understood the "free rent" allure. I knew family after family that moved there, bought a plot of virgin land for practically nothing, and meant to build their dream home, their special individual place for THEM and THEIR FAMILY to be unique.

So, in the three months of summer, they threw up an A-frame structure, and did their best to insulate it against the quickly approaching winter.

And for years afterwards, the pink fiberglass and bedsheets for walls became stained with use, and the path to the outhouse grew bare and hardened.

This sort of individuality was common and not admirable, in my mind. Sure, it could be called "the path less traveled." I'm sure the (non-Alaskan) parents and extended families of the people who chose this life thought their children were the only ones in the world to live this way.

Well, I was FROM Alaska and not so easily impressed. These were the people who could be packed by the gross for me.

What purpose did this lifestyle serve? "Anti-materialism" or "anti-establishment" is only a negation. What is the positive contribution?

Hamill lived in his Washington home without the "basics", in the same way as those crazy Alaskans. However, HE made a lasting contribution to the world.

I feel challenged.
posted by Murphy 11/22/2002

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

I promised to share the story I wrote for my real-world journalistic debut. It made newsprint earlier this month, in the Highland Park News:

From Italy to the Internet: Galco’s Soda Pop Stop in Highland Park
By Murphy Horner

A small revolution has been bubbling up right here in Highland Park. At a time when large corporations and everywhere-you-look name brands are squeezing out all other options, John Nese has created a new business for his store on 5702 York Boulevard. He sells soda pop, and in a big way.

Galco’s Old World Market began over 100 years ago as an Italian grocery store. John Nese runs the store after his father Louis, who can still be found on the premises keeping an eye on things. Nese is proud of what his dad had done for the store. He tells stories of how his father started the first buying co-op to get better prices for their goods.

But things began to change for the next generation. The bigger supermarkets were taking over. They used their huge buying power to cut smaller businesses out of the market. Small shops could no longer get the discounts that supermarkets enjoyed. It was becoming very difficult for locally owned grocery stores anywhere to compete.

John Nese knew he would have to get creative to keep his store open. He noticed micro brewed beers were becoming popular. He liked the idea of the microbrewers. They were small businesses creating a product that emphasized quality, just like himself. But alcoholic drinks were only for people over 21. What about all the younger people or others who did not want alcohol?

In 1995 John decided to listen to his heart and do what felt good. In Nese’s own words, “What makes you feel good? Drinking a soda!” He began stocking hard-to-find sodas in his grocery store. As he tells it, the soda manufacturers were doubtful about whether the soda would sell. But he stocked them anyway, and even bought more varieties. He also began to seek out and buy candies from small candy companies. His philosophy at the time, in his own words, was “to go find little brands…and do what makes me feel good.”

He began to look for all the little brands that were around, and buy their products. After he had stocked 150 different kinds of sodas, people began to take notice. The Los Angeles Times came to Highland Park to see this new Soda Pop Stop and write a story. Apparently the story was so interesting, it was picked up by a news syndicate and published all over America, even running internationally.

Nese’s daughter contacted KCET’s program California’s Gold, and Galco’s Soda Pop Shop received a visit from the ever-enthusiastic Huell Howser. He filmed a show about John Nese’s store, which aired in 2000. A few months after, Sunset Magazine did a story about the Highland Park store that was now becoming a phenomenon.

Now that the word is out, customers are beginning to show up from all over the place. The Saturday I was there, I spoke with Kay and Bob Trevana. They were visiting California from Bloomington, Minnesota. Having seen the Soda Pop Stop on the Food Network, they came to check it out. Kay said, “It’s kind of amazing to see that there are that many pops out there.”

This is music to John Nese’s ears. He says, “The one thing I can do is offer the customer a lot of variety.” He works hard at bringing customers variety. By his calculations, if a customer tried out a new soda from his shop every day, it would be a year and a half before they would run out of new flavors.
But where does he find all these sodas? He listens to his customers. This business makes a huge point of asking the customers what they would like to buy. The proof is lined up on the shelves, in neat glass rows. Nese said, “Like the Manhattan Special. All of these things are from customers’ suggestions.”
The story of how Nese found the Manhattan Special (www.manhattanspecial.com) line of sodas is a classic example of how he runs his business. A number of New York City transplants had been requesting this coffee-flavored soda, so Nese called up the company to place an order. The woman who answered the phone was quite surprised. She wanted to know how the Los Angelino had even tasted the soda. When Nese answered that he had not tried it, she was having a hard time taking him seriously. Nese told her that he had a stack of requests from his customers who wanted Manhattan Special, and that was good enough for him.
She reluctantly agreed to let Nese place an order, but on one condition: he had to come get it. The Manhattan Special Company had been in business since 1895, and this is how they had always done it. If he was serious, he could pick it up himself.
Nese took up the challenge, arranged for a truck to go to Manhattan Special’s door and pick up the soda. He now stocks Manhattan Special in his store, and ships orders from his website (www.sodapopstop.com). His contact with the Manhattan Special Company must have had an affect on their policy, because now they also offer to ship orders to customers from their webpage.
Nese’s goal is bigger than just offering variety. He wants to sell high quality soda pop. In his experience, quality soda is bottled in glass and made with a cane sugar recipe. He feels strongly that the current use of corn syrup as a sweetener in soda is a bad thing. He explained that corn syrup is cheaper than sugar, but the quality of the soda suffers. He has gone to great lengths to get soda made with sugar.
It is hard job. He is a small business. Most of the manufacturers he buys soda from are small. He feels that maintaining high quality product is the best way for a small business to survive in a predatory market. He says, “Make a better product and the people will buy it.” Since he is in direct contact with the people who are buying the product, he has made a point of calling the manufacturers and demanding they use cane sugar and not corn syrup. He has to go all the way to Mexico for some of his sodas.
Customers who visited the store to buy milk and sugar 50 years ago would find it very different now. John Nese and Galco’s have come a long way. There is no milk or sugar on the shelves. But a lot remains the same. There is still a helpful person behind the counter. The owner still cares about the customers. And they still sell their famous blockbuster sandwiches. An Italian deli at the rear makes meat and cheese monstrosities that keep people coming back. Customers feel pretty good when they visit John Nese’s store. And that makes John feel good.

posted by Murphy 11/20/2002

Tuesday, November 19, 2002


Another Radio Drama! Great stuff, that LA Theater works. This one was a "docudrama." Love that word, it sounds so fake.

Of course, it is based on the House Unamerican Activities Committee hearings. Those hearings trouble me. I have been trying to get my head around them. The paranoia about communism seems excessive in retrospect. It was hard to believe that people really took it seriously.

But they really did. People lost their jobs because they knew people who were interested in a political viewpoint.

I can hardly think how this country, based on radical political ideals, would so trample on communism.
But it happened.

The play was based on real transcripts from the hearings: hence the "docu"mentary part of the docudrama.

There seemed to be a real emphasis on how bad it was to inform on other people. the consequences were pretty severe for the ones named as "members of the communist party." They couldn't get work.

It reminds me of the situation now, somewhat. I wonder how Muslim groups might be thinking and feeling now. I haven't heard much about how those detained have been questioned. I suspect they too are asked to name the names of people they know. I might have to find out more about this, I am only speculating right now.

The part that made the most impact on me was the conclusion. James Earl Jones played the voice of Paul Robeson. Of course, Jones's voice is marvelous. But the words that Robeson said were marvelous. He was so proud and magnificent, and the House committee members were scornful of him, because he was African American.

It made me want to find out more about Robeson.
posted by Murphy 11/19/2002

Monday, November 18, 2002

Guilt “On the Waterfront”

Rented “On the Waterfront” this weekend. I had seen part of it on TV years and years ago, and always meant to go back and see the whole thing.

It’s funny to see Brando so young. And Eve Saint Marie, she is so beautiful.

I thought the ideology behind the movie was very interesting. It was from the 50s, and it was set in a poor neighborhood. The men trying to work on the docks were “ethnic”, which was how things were in the 50s. They don’t seem SO long ago, but class differentiation was much more distinct then.

The 60s made a difference.

These men and their families talked about getting “food on the table.” One recurring motif is how a dead man’s jacket is given to someone else who needs it. Jackets, clothing, basic needs were not taken for granted.

They were poor and hard-working. They also had no prospects for anything better. Edie’s (played by Saint Marie) father tells her that he worked and slaved and saved so that she could get out of there. She had been sent to a convent to study. She was sheltered, but she had seen enough to be grateful for it.

The men kept complaining about unloading bananas.

Bananas, now, are the cheapest fruit in the store. Not so in the 50s. I doubt that the average dockworker ever had the opportunity to eat a banana.

They were struggling to get potatoes. It was hard.

But the point of the story was union corruption. That’s a tricky topic. Unions were created to stop corporate or “boss” corruption. But then, Unions became corrupt, and they began to exploit the workers. Almost like, where the bosses left off, the unions took up.

But it was hard to get unions going! They establishment of unions took a lot of work.

Also, I realized as I was watching it, Unions were considered socialist…Red..Communist! So how was this movie part of the whole McCarthy environment of the time?

Come to find out, the director Elia Kazan was brought before the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Twice. He Named Names on the second visit.

There were a lot of people that were blacklisted because of him. He didn’t feel too good about that.

The scene from the movie, where the priest stands over the dead body of the one man who had courage to name names about the corrupt union bosses springs to mind.

It was very preachy. The clergyman gave a very rousing sermon about what was right, and how you HAD to speak out to stop the bad guys. The laborers were throwing things at him, even, and he kept going.

He was SO righteous!

And all throughout the movie, the theme of informing and being a “stool pigeon” or a “canary” was repeated and repeated.

He even had real pigeons playing a prominent role.

One thing I noticed from the movie, too, was the lack of a real answer. Sure, they broke the back of the union boss. But what then? None of those guys were really capable of taking over. The viewer didn’t really have a sense that everything would be “happily ever after.”

You can see how Kazan had re-cast his own story, making himself a hero informant, making the world safe against unscrupulous bosses. I’m sure it scratched a sore itch for him, making this kind of movie.

But it didn’t really show any answers. Right then, I don’t think people had any.

posted by Murphy 11/18/2002

It's monday, and I stayed up late last night catching up on all my house chores.

So I am very groggy this morning.

I am considering whether or not ambition is evil.

One of the reasons I am thinking aobut this is because an old friend of mine recently started working at an Indian Casino.
Times are hard; he is a uber computer geek, but he can't find work. So he got what he could.
He said, "it's amazing to think about. I don't want to be here any longer than I have to, but many of the workers here are completely pleased to have the job, and say things about how stable it is, and how great it is."

It occurred to me that Indian culture is not expansionist. They are not like McDonald's and Starbucks, they don't necessisarily feel the need for more more bigger bigger all the time.
You might call that lack of ambition.
Or you might call it enjoying what life has to offer.
Food, clothing, the ability to appreciate your family and friends-that's really something.

What does ambition get you?
More money, less time to spend it.
Maybe not even more money. Depends on your ambition. I've known enough start-ups to know it doesn't always bring more money.

The angel of light (aka Lucifer) had ambition. Didn't do him much good.

Don't get me wrong. My ambition to do more and learn more has served me well, it's brought me a lot of good things.

But when is enough enough?
How much do I need? When should I stop?

In the Garden of Eden, what use was ambition? Maybe Adam and Eve spend a hard day working on the hedges...So that they could appreciate them the next day? That means they took the next day off.

It is easy on a monday to think that having to get up and work all day is evil.

posted by Murphy 11/18/2002

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