Alison's two weeks on the west coast

After two weeks of being away from home and away from the blog, I'm back in Charleston. From June 10-25, I was in the following places:

1. Seaside, CA
, visiting with Catherine and James, flying kites on the beach, eating cheese blintzes and chocolate chip cookies, and generally having a wonderful time. I also got to go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and touch sea urchins, sea slugs, and god knows what else in the touch tanks.

2. Oakland, CA
, taking part in the National Women's Studies Association Conference, hanging out with a bunch of cool feminists, and interviewing Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler, founders of Bitch magazine, for my upcoming book on feminist zines.

3. Olympia, WA, working with a team from the College of Charleston to design a first-year experience for our campus. While I was there, I also got to interview Nomy Lamm for the aforementioned book on zines.

Now I'm back and trying to nudge myself into serious, full-on research mode...you see how well that's going, what with the blogging and all. But I wanted to let you all know where I'd been.


Wal Mart Story

Alison and i are in the news today. We both get quoted in Charelston's CityPaper on a story about Wal Mart. Take a look at it. That's me doing the Superman thing on the cover, and obviously me that's standing in front of the store.

That was really scary, by the way....

...i thought when i started this post i was gonna write about how my recent experiences of getting interviewed has taught me to use (and also be leery) of the media's need for soundbites. They want the concise version, the insightful comment. I'm not good at that. I ramble. Jason interviewed me at a coffee shop where i went on for like fourty minutes---ohhhh! trucking! China! disposable culture! addiction to fleeting style! ohhhh! ohhhh! ohhhh! I see how difficult--and uninteresting--writing like that could be, but then i also see how "boiling a story down to its essense" leaves out so many important factors. After all, if god is in the details, are we just making noise when we essentialize things?

Anyway, that was what i was gonna write about...until i wrote that it was scary to get my picture taken in front of Wal Mart. See, if i deal with that honestly--if i look into my soul and reflect on what was scary about going back to a Wal Mart--i see...well, of course, i see a lot of things.

On the perimeter of this soul of mine, i find that one reason i was scared is because i truly don't want to make strangers uncomfortable. I know that might sound like a contradiction to people who know me--i know i revel in making people uncomfortable--but the way i usually get to make people uncomfortable is okay with me. Standing in the parking lot of Wal Mart was different. Maybe that difference is that this time i've got something to lose. I'm not the one in control. Sure, the good Southern boy in me says that we aren't supposed to make a scene (and it's that expectation that the rebellious part of me plays against), but standing there in front of god and everybody...well, it exposes ME.

See, if i talk about poop at a party, or make the woman at the Quaker meeting squirm , i'm the one in charge. But if i'm in a parking lot i'm just one of hundreds of opinions...

Maybe i'm not making sense here with this rumination. Let me boil it down for you, and tell you what lies deeper in this soul of mine: the reason i was scared has less to do with my sense of genteel manners than it does the fact that I lack courage.

This is a complicated notion. Let me see if i can sort it out. Alright:

Southern boy. Taught good manners. Doesn't want to make others uncomfortable. (On the other hand, i use this expectation as a springboard for iconiclasm.)

Then we have:

Southern boy. Taught to be courageous. Be a man. Wear a belt. Carry a hankie for the ladies. Stand up for what is right.

Which Southern boy am i supposed to be? The courageous one? Or the one that doesn't question tradition? Or are they the same thing?

One answer to this dillema is found in a tried and true process: achieve wealth, wear a suit, act respectable most of the time and fight the good fight through economics. If this suit-wearing me is fairly conservative, gives at church and helps the needy, then i'm considered both a good citizen and courageous. The worse case scenario is that i'm not conservative and then i just get labelled "eccentric." (as we all know, the meaning of "eccentric" is "the enhanced buying power of a pariah.")

But, i'm not sure that's real REAL courage. Just like with me and alison in the story--it's easy, not simply courageous, for us not to shop at wal-mart. We can (mostly) afford it.

I'm struggling here. I can't quite get a grip on what ails me, you know? See, what really comes to mind is this: Do you know what takes real courage? Sitting down at the counter of a Woolworth's in Nashville, TN in 1963.

I used to work at a machine shop at Vanderbilt Hospital. While i was there i had quite a few conversations with one of the machinists named Odie. Odie, a soft-spoken black man, brilliant machinist, and Baptist preacher, once told me how he went to the ...well, i don't remember what the name of the training classes that were held for the sit-in folks at the time, but he went to those classes. What they did there was prepare the students for what might happen when they went to these sit-ins. They prepared them by striking them, spitting on them, hurling racial epithets right in their faces. They treated them like dogs...they treated them like pariahs. Odie told me that he didn't make the cut. He couldn't keep his cool. Odie was one of the gentlest souls i've ever met, but even he couldn't handle the heat doled out just in a practice session.

What about those that really did sit at those counters? How much courage did it take Rosa Parks to do what she did? I was told that the folks that rode the buses to Washington were instructed to write a sealed letter to their families--saying goodbye. The letters were to be read in case they were murdered.

So who the fuck am i? ooohhh....white boy takin' a stand against wal mart. don't wanna upset anybody.

I believe in the wal mart thing. i think those guys are damaging our humanity. and i think we let them do it by continuing to shop there. I think we create the necessity for some people to have to shop there by shopping there. This should stop.

We need more courage.

See, i think the deal is is that wearin' a belt, holdin' the doors open for ladies, carryin' a hankie, doffing your hat to those you meet is called courtesy. This is a good thing, but it isn't courage.

I've missed that point. John Wayne and the rugged American individualist, the man of steel and the southern boy i was brought up to be are the same thing. I've just gotten it wrong by conflating courtesy and courage. Society taught me wrong by saying they are the same things. I think i see how that's a smoke screen. True grit is found in really really standing up for the things i believe in. Like those folks at the lunch counter.

How ballsy is it to stop shopping at Wal Mart when you can afford not to? How tough is it, really, to wear a suit and work in a bank and tithe 10% of a hundred thousand dollar income? I listened to Dave Ramsey last night talk about "buying salvation." Really. Evidently tithing is a part of this purchase.

Where the hell are the Martin Luthers when you need them?

They aren't me. I'm just a loud mouth who tries to behave and gets alot of stuff wrong. I pray to be more like them.


Here's what a friend of mine has to say on the subject or courtesy and courageousness:

Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. He began to teach them and he said:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those that hunger and thirst for goodness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see god. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of god. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of goodness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salt again? It's no longer good for anything--except to be thrown out and trampled by men.

You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine for people, that they may see the good deeds and praise god in heaven.

....Jesus wrote a letter home, too, before he got on that bus. Don't miss the point.


5, 6: Pick Up Schticks

I'm aware that i have a schtick. (i'm also aware that "schtick" is a yiddish word with the original meaning of "a piece, or a bit," hence it's easy transition into "a comedic routine," with "piece" and "bit" serving the same purpose. I learned this by googling the word this morning, so as to know how to spell it correctly. Isn't language fun? Like, check out sometime how many common, daily phrases come from sailing...loose cannon, the bitter end, yar hoist the fo'c'sle to leeward ye mangy seadogs, etc. Amazing....)

Anyway, I'm aware that i have a schtick. Several schticks, actually. For instance, I've known for years that it's my job to go with Alison to faculty/graduate student parties and talk about poop. I learned early on that the best way answer to a question about Elizabethan literature was to say something along the lines of "man, i took a poop this morning, and it was like a foot long!" In my own graduate experience, since most of us were a lot less theoretically-minded and the poop thing can wear thin pretty quick, my schtick was to be at a party and yell "man, NO TALKING SHOP!" (not much of a shtick, but sheese, we're at a party, you know?)

What i want to get at here, though, is that i now live in Charleston, right? Turns out that here, i really don't need a schtick. Just walking around as myself in this town is enough. For example, i've noticed a particular conversation starter which i stopped using when i was 13 or 14 years old. That conversation starter is the question "Where do you go to church?" I stopped using that one back in the day when i starting meeting people that would look confused for a second and then say "uhhh....i don't go to church?"

Not so in Charleston, however. Therefore, "Yeah, right" is not the proper answer for the church question. And even with my serious answer for that question i still have to watch out: I told someone the other day that i identified as "a Friend, you know, the Quakers" and got a rather leery stare as a response. I can't win. (Already my politics has gotten me in a bit of trouble with some area bluegrassers. I went to try out for a band the other night and found that i'd been googled ahead of time with the resulting concern that i "might pull a dixie chicks on stage.")

So, what i'm sayin' is that here in Charleston i'm pretty much doing schtick just by opening my mouth. I figured this out, definatively, yesterday. here's what happened:

I attended my first Charleston Friends meeting yesterday morning. I'm of course still a little too brash and showy for most faithful quakers, but, on the whole, they are a tolerant bunch. They are patient and kind and are willing to allow me a space to grow up. So, i felt safe. I felt like i was among peers.

After the meeting ended i stood around and introduced myself to folks, which is a painful process in itself...

"So, you've just moved here?"
"Yes. Well, my wife and i moved here last year, but i didn't get here until last week."
"Oh. So, you were still in Tennessee?"
"Uh...well, actually, Alison and i moved here from Tennessee, yes, but i was coming from Massachusetts."
[sometimes the word Massachusetts is enough to get a sidelong glance]

"Oh, okay. What were you doing up there?"
"I was finishing up grad school."
"Oh! How nice! What were you studying?"
"Oh! How nice! Are you a sculptor or a painter?"
"Uhhh....Well, i was in a furniture design program."
"OH! How nice! So you make beautiful furniture then!"
"Well, I didn't actually make any furniture there..."

[i start losing them at this point, but i've found there's no use in lying to simplify the details--better to go ahead and get the confusion out of the way at the outset]

"So, you don't make furniture?"
"Well, i make furniture, but i consider that my Craft. My Art is a little different."
"So, what is your art then?"

At this point, ofcourse, they're gone. Most of the time i've just let it drop at "so you make beatiful furniture, then?" Yesterday, though, i felt safe. I gave the "people" answer, and the woman i was talking to said "what do you mean?" I still felt safe, so i gave me next safe-ish answer: "like social justice projects." (I figured at a Friends meeting....)

"Hmmm....social justice?....Like what?"

I've developed several ways of addressing this question, and yesterday i choose to go with "The Yes Men" answer. (For brevity, take a look at www.theyesmen.org.) So, i'm explaining, with increasing glee, about how The Yes Men created a fake media scandal about Union Carbide and the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, and i notice this woman looking increasingly scandalized. She starts twitching and stuff. Usually, people are enthralled with this story, but this woman starts looking around the room, adjusting her purse. She needed an exit. Bad.

I had mercy. I cut it short. Before i even got to the part about the PR disaster it caused Union Carbide in Europe and how the American wire never picked up the story because of widespread corruption, i just ended it with "yeah, it was really funny."

She didn't even take the time to appear relieved. With wiiiide vow-wels she simple said, "We-ull, We-ull just haaave to tawlk mo-uh." And was outta there, leaving one of those little puffs of cartoon smoke in her wake.


making a sandwich

It is a spectacularly beautiful day. The sun is out. A sweet sweet breeze is blowing through the house. I've had no electric light on yet. It is also a summer Saturday, which, if i were in the Nashville Biffle House right now, would mean one of three things on the lunch menu:

pimento cheese, tuna salad or egg sandwiches.

I was never a lover of pimento cheese, but alison and several of her friends have sung the praises of my dad's pimento cheese--one person even calling a few years back to ask for the recipe. (one of the secrets i'll let you in on is pickle juice, another one is the cheese: My Dad inadvertantly says some really funny things, but this one might have been the funniest: When i called to ask for the recipe for that friend Daddy vociferously insisted you needed a "Good Quality American Cheese") .

Tuna salad was never really all that good to me, either. I love it nowadays because i put curry in it. Even if my folks knew what curry was i figure they'd think it was un-christian. So no curried tuna salad as a kid.

Egg sandwiches. Now that's what i liked. So that's what i've made today. It isn't faithful to the Biffle version, and it differs in several astounding ways.

First off, let me tell you this: every once in a while i'll be in a conversation with someone and they'll mention something that, inexplicably, i just don't feel right about. I've noticed it's usually some yet-uninvestigated vestige from my very conservative up-bringing. So, like, one time someone mentioned that they were having a dead relative cremated. I remember thinking something like, "oh no. They might go to hell for that." I've checked with Mama and Daddy on it, but they said they didn't teach me that. I'm not sure about, though. I picked it up somewhere.

Anyway, the reason i tell you this is because of all the rule breaking i did to make this sandwich--things that would have never happened in the Biffle household. First off, the ingredients: whole wheat bread, sliced tomato, avocado, fried egg, homegrown sprouts and mayo.

rules followed/broken:

whole wheat bread---good.
avocado-------------ava whato?
egg fried in real butter------who are you, a Rockefeller?
homegrown sprouts-------a sure ticket to hippie hell.
mayo---------sweet nectar of the gods. my family puts mayo on barbeque. an unknown, fourth wise man brought mayo to baby jesus in the manger.

two biggies: i salted the tomato. (and with Old Bay!) and finally--drumroll please---i cut off the bread crust.

horror of horrors.

i've eaten the sandwich now as i've typed. It was delicious. The day is still beautiful, but i can't seem to shake that fancied sound of hellhounds I've let loose upon my trail.

(oh. and one more thing as a jab at Deandre and perhaps Eliza: i cut the tomato on a cutting board from which i didn't first bother to clean off some cheese mold.)


guest post

As a follow-up to the "Me, in the Press" post from the other day:

What follows is a "guest post" from Michael Santos. For this post I edited the opening comments directed specifically at me so as to keep the focus on the issues, but his full text can be found in the comments section of that particular post. (I hope you don't mind, Michael.)

For those who don't know, Michael was of enormous help to me in my thesis work. He was instrumental in helping me put together much of the information that i used in the exhibition, and also in securing use of the westend lot--selflessly giving up plans that he already had for that space so that i could do my thing on it. Thank you so much, Michael.

In addition to all that help, however, Michael also belongs to an elite group of citizens of New Bedford who take time to say things in places where there's a good chance they won't get listened to. That takes a lot of courage. I did it for just a few short months and it was enough to almost suck all the life out of me. Michael, and many others like him, are out there everyday spreading the word and the hope. There are a lot of us who will never find out just how tough that is.

For those of us lucky enough to have a choice, i just wanna say we need to come to know the full of extent of that privilege and blessing if we ever intend to be of greater use on this planet. For everyone else out there doing that work while the rest of us are playing catch-up, i just want to say: Hang in there. Hang in there. Some day maybe we'll all be on the same page.

This is Michael Santos, producer/editer, of the documentary about the sencless violence going on in the city of New Bedford. (13 by 3 mile problem)

While we are throwing a crazy amount of money into anti-gang bills, and locking up our children, we refuse to take off our horse blinders to be able to see whats really going on. Its very simple... We in NewBedford must adopt a value system that puts every life in New Bedford on the same level. When we consistantly refer to our children as "gang bangers" we sub conciously take the value of there lives not only from ourselves, but the very children we are labeling. If you rase a child calling him crazy his/her whole life, that child will probably grow up and think he/she has to live up to this name. When somes child gets murdered WE NEED TO BE OUTRAGED AS IF THAT WAS ALL OF OUR CHILD!!!! You see while were blaming the kids themselves and the parents alone, we are excusing the rest of society of there responsibility to there children. Yes it does start at home, but when our children leave home to go to school they should be our teachers children. When they hang with friends they should be thier children. Where ever they have to go they should be considered all of our children. All this blame must stop shifting to one side, cause we are all guilty. Lets start evenly distributing the responsabilities of lookig after our children. Its so simple,but we as a society can,t figure this out? Or is it that certain people taht own realastate in New Bedford knows that the prices of there property fluctuates with how many minorities are living in our city? Well I say this.. What ever it is, our children are the most valubale resource we have. Worth far greater than your properties will ever be. Walter it was a pleasure to meet someone else who has this great trate. Your message was powerful and I hope you planted that seed of love during your short stay here in New Bedford cause boy do we need some.


Well, it's a slow day in the blog world for me. It's a slow day in the real world, too. The reason is because heat has come to visit us. And before i hear the humid lips of a hundred Charlestonians smack apart to say "you don't know heat, sir," i want to preemptively say that "yes i do."

Just like everybody else, i like to make my claim to some kind of weather superlative--even when that superlative is a burden....well, particularly when it's a burden. Isn't that funny? I mean, i get a little insulted when someone here says that Tennessee is not as hot and humid as Charleston. How dare they say that? Matter of face, If i were sitting here now having the "heat conversation" that included me, a Charlestonian, and someone from New Orleans, we'd all be engaged in a game of one-up-man-ship.

"Well, I remember the time that it got to be so hot and humid that nobody even moved around. It was so hot that people just sat there--didn't eat or anything...."

"Well, i remember when it got so humid that folks were in danger of drowning just for breathing...

"Naw, that's nothin'! i remember one year it got so hot we all just melted into little pools of water. It was alright, though--too humid to evaporate. We all managed to re-constitute every evening when it cooled off a little bit..."

Anyway, i'll give in and say that i imagine Charleston, come July, is gonna be a little hotter and a little more humid than Nashville...although, well, Nashville was in that basin that kinda held the heat in...

...and it's not even hot yet. I've just yet to acclimate. But just to do a hundred and eighty degree turn, check out these snow pictures from Massachusetts:


Sales Pitch

[For Charleston-area readers: there is a sales pitch you might find interesting at the end of this post. If you don't want to endure the rambly stuff up here, skip to the end and subject yourself to what it is i have to offer].

Alison and i have had an ongoing discussion about "how much money is enough?" We've been in that sticky place of having a bit more money year after year, and consequently, having a corresponding higher standard of living year after year. This is good, but when does one have enough?

So we talk about how we can avoid the slippery slope of ending up like couples who collectively make a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year and still lament that they're "having a hard time making ends meet." We've notived how easy it is to get into that predicament, and don't want to be there ourselves. I think we both believe that this is an important ethical consideration--and not just one of economics or mere frugality.

Sometimes the discussions that surround this are heartfelt and realistic, and sometimes they're just dreamy. Example: Alison's car recently broke down and we're chosing not to replace it for the time being. We're gonna try and get by with one vehicle. (i want to point out that i try to remember and be grateful for having a choice in this matter. It's a wonderful luxury not having to ask how we're going to afford one car in the first place. I've been there and it isn't any fun at all.) We also are doing tiny things like trying to eat out as little as possible. We've gotten rid of cable television.

Sometimes, however, these discussions are the dreamy type: thinly-veiled ambitions concerned with how we both secretly wish we were mind-bogglingly successful (and not just monetarily, but, you know: famous). So one dreamy thing i've decided is that when Baxter Sez is a world famous blog, it still won't have advertisements on it. Isn't that considerate of me?

But anyway, i'm mentioning all that because i'm fixing to break that rule right here and stick an advertisement on our blog. It's for me, though. Hopefully that makes it better than putting an ad on here for viagra or something.

I've just gotten out of school. I've yet to decide what it is i'm gonna be doing for a livelihood here in Charleston. If i follow the arc of my graduate career i'll be an artist that depends on writing grants for public work. I'll probably also do some adjunct work teaching art this coming fall. I may just open me a gallery. One arty thing i'd love to do is buy some of these tiny, tiny houses here on the peninsula, rebuild them as effective, affordable living spaces and offer them--with the help of private lenders--to working-class single mothers, at affordable, achievable prices. They'd be called Freedwoman Cottages.

Anyway, the options are limitless. Currently, however, i'm in limbo. I'm here at the house blogging and cutting holes in the walls of our house. This is fun, but it don't pay the bills.

So, that's why (get ready for the sales pitch) i'm making this special one-time offer (replete with the sentence fragments that are the stock-in-trade of advertisements):

Have you been dreaming of finally having those built-in bookshelves? That special one-of-a-kind piece of furniture to impress your friends and be the envy of your neighbors? A redesign of the bathroom that will have you bathing in bubbly tranquility? That's why i'm offering to you, today, a chance at a discounted rate for quality, creative craftspersonship.

But seriously, i've got two weeks before i start teaching a short woodworking class here in town and want a gig in the meantime. If you actually do need some built-in bookshelves or whatever (the "one-of-a-kind" furniture isn't really a realistic option as i haven't set up a proper shop yet), drop me a note at walter.biffle@gmail.com, and we'll get it movin'.

If that weren't enough already i'm gonna follow alison's advice and play on your sympathies:

Please help pay the medical bills of this poor, pitiful, conehead cat.

inky needs your help...


Me, in the press

i don't know how long it'll be there, but take a look at this:


Although i am one of my favorite subjects, i've found it rather difficult to toot about my project in Massachusetts. It's been a tough row to hoe: I genuinely wanted attention on the issue, and i also wanted/needed recognition for the kind of work i was doing.

I wasn't selling work, of course, nor was i really adding anything new to arts methodology (and tried not to care if i was). So i couldn't pursue those angles. Also, since the project was a community-based thing with which i was trying to encourage dialogue between different communities, the Arts section of the paper wasn't really the best place to go for the press the project needed. I discovered the Arts section of the Standard Times wasn't equipped to handle this sort of thing yet. They wanted to know about me, what i was saying new in the artworld and so forth. (A review of the show gave me a short blurb about making "memorial steele in the vein of Robert Indiana," but dammit, i wasn't dealing with visual aesthetics here).

Other sections found it to be a community interest story--always with the angle of what "this concerned citizen was doing to try and make a difference."

The nuts and bolts of the project--the plea for community discussion--couldn't be laid out within either of these formats. Also, since some of the powers at school both (selfishly) didn't care about this kind of work, and (unselfishly) felt it was inappropriate to focus more on one student's work than another, they couldn't help me with spreading the word either.

It probably also didn't help that the "economic contradictions" i was addressing, i.e. the regentrification of downtown buildings vs. the nearby forgotten communities, were actually embodied in the single biggest funder of a monthly arts festival: downtown real estate developers. Named AHA!, this festival was using the school and art work as a means of bolstering and advertising the economic recovery of the downtown area. They might have seen a problem with helping disperse an art project that took their interests to task. An AHA! event took place about two weeks after the MFA exhibition went up, and the entire show was conspicuously absent from most of the press coverage. I think i'm over-rating my own significance to think that i may have been the cause of that, but it's still kind of interesting.

Several people encouraged me to create a press release for myself and send it out to different papers. I really felt odd about this. I really didn't want to capitalize on the misfortune of others.

What was i to do, though? The best it seemed i could hope for was using the "me" angle in order to "create awareness," my least favorite activist buzzphrase. But still, that left me with calling up a newspaper , or writing a press release that said "Hey! looky here at what I'm doing!" So i chose pretty much to do nothing. I was left in this ego/altruistic driven limbo where i had to sit back and complain about how neither I nor the project was getting any notice.

Unfortunately, the day the show came down--May 20th--two young people opened fire just a block up the street from the school, killing one person, wounding another. A few days after that an allegedly retaliatory hit was made on one of the mother's of the shooters. They killed her in her bed as she slept. The community was up in arms again. Almost a year had gone by with no one being murdered in New Bedford, and this was a rude awakening for everyone. The newpaper was rife with editorials and comments from citizens concerning the apathy the public had fallen into during this lull in the violence. Why hadn't we done anything? they asked.

I feel that i'm whining here. I don't mean to do that. But i'm bothered, man. For one thing, i know that lots of people--and not just me--were going to see the mayor and talking to council members about this thing in the year leading up to this new spate of violence. I also attended meetings in November and December of 2005, January and February of 2006, made up of perhaps 90 people from various non-profit organizations, that were doing their best to grab a piece of an eleven million dollar anti-gang bill. I made an embarrassing and desperate plea with that group of people to do something in the meantime while they waited the year or two before that money came in.

I personally contacted eleven different non-profits specifically in place to deal with youth and violence and masculinity and so forth and asked them if they wanted to get on board. I just wanted to borrow their "students," too. I wasn't asking for money or for them to take on any administrative burdens or anything. I simply asked if they thought any of their kids might be interested in discussion groups, or acting as tour guides for the two lots that i'd put out. I asked if school groups might want to visit the three locations of the exhibit. I tried to reach the mayor on four seperate occasions. I didn't recieve any responses.

After these most recent murders the editor of the newspaper wrote a fairly good, fairly windy editorial he put on the front page of the paper claiming that something had to be done. That this issue was not about a southend/westend feud (it is) and that gangs must be stopped. We must talk about these issues! he said. He said that this was not about finger pointing--that the mayor and the DA and others were not to be blamed for this situation. Gangs with guns were the problem. This was a "we" problem and "we" needed take a personal interest in what was going on here.

It's the "gang thing" that gets me most. Although i thank Brian Fraga for writing a very nice article about me and my project (a concerned local citizen--Nelson--stepped in to encourage press coverage of the project), he inadvertantly does something in the article that i find telling: he says something along the lines that "Michael Santos' documentary project was about gang violence in the city." Well, i hung around people that were fairly close to the streets and none of them ever said anything about gangs. I was Michael when he stood up at a meeting and courageously pointed out that "this isn't anti-gang legislation--this is anti-me legislation."

I don't deny that there are probably loosely knit groups of disenfranchized youth in New Bedford selling dope and toting guns, but i find the "gang" mantra really disturbing. It continues to put a face of them/us on the whole issue.

I know this is a scattered post, but i'm feeling mixed up about the whole situation right now and don't quite know what i want to say.


kurt elling is heavy, you dig?

Well, to join in on the all-Spoleto-all-the-Spoleto-time buzz, i'm gonna write a little bit about a show i went to see last night. It was a performance by my favorite singer...well, no...my favorite vocalist, Mr. Kurt Elling.

But first, for all non-Charlestonians: Spoleto is an early summer malady that seems to strike almost all natives here. Like the plot twist of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story, all locals, for the period of a few months walk around saying "SpoletoSpoletoSpoleto." When you ask someone, or try to find out what it is by looking in the newspaper or the web, you come up with a lot of comments on how wonderful this Spoleto is, but little else. When i came to house shop here last year about this time, Spoleto disease was in full force, with signs on every street corner announcing the onset. "Spoleto 2005!" they said. This year is the same--just with a different number.

Although this mostly benign illness seems to strike everyone, it appears to have the most effect on people that wear expensive sport coats and no ties--and small shoes, the kind they give you to wear at a suit fitting. Women's dress necklines tend to plunge. These particular people are, for a short while, struck with the urge to dock their sailboats and walk around downtown holding small plastic cups. I can only assume that Spoleto makes a person thirsty.

There's also a less high-falutin' strain for people that dress in t-shirts and shorts that's called Piccolo Spoleto. An interesting name given that both the clothes and the cups are bigger at Piccolo Spoleto events. Perhaps the size distinction refers to wallet size. For instance, those of us in the Piccolo section of Kurt's performance last night paid $15, whereas the pennyloafers paid up to $70.

Alright. Enough with the crap. Both Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto--named for the Italian city--is an "arts and culture" festival. The reason it's hard to put a finger on it is because the damn thing is a huge, sprawling affair with theater and visual arts and jazz and classical music and discussion groups and on and on. The only real confusing thing about it to begin with is the use of the word Spoleto. I'm not concerned enough to look up the real information, but i think it has something to do with an Italian composer from Spoleto, Italy that liked Charleston and started an arts festival here 30 years ago. All in all, the whole thing really is impressive, with quite an egalitarian array of prices and entertainments, like the more successful days of Nashville's Summer Lights Festival (alas!), but spread out over the period of a month (and with a lot fewer rubber beer can holders.)

Kurt's performance was two sets: a first set of Frank Sinatra tunes, and a second where he did his own thing. Since i don't write reviews, or even read them really, i don't know how i should order things here, so i'll just say this: His backing band, The Chicago Jazz Ensemble, was top notch. The sound in the Gaillard Auditorium was really good, as was the PA reinforcement--tastefully done with little coloration of the band itself. I sat in two different locations for the two sets. Nosebleeds for the first set (nosebleed being a side effect of Piccolo Spoleto illness) and on the floor in front of the stage for the second set. As i correctly suspected, the older members of the pennyloafer bunch had been weakened by prolonged exposure and had to clear out for the second set, so i snuck in for a seat.

Kurt's vocals were mixed a little dark, so a lot of the words were muddled. I don't know if that was the fault of the soundguy, my two locations, or the fact that Elling doesn't usually perform with big bands. He seemed just a tad out of his element all night. But speaking of out-of-elements, i'm wondering if he wasn't given instructions to keep it kind of calm. Although i'd never suspect him of anything less than top notch professionalism, he did seem to banter quite a bit about "playing charts that keep you cats happy," and that he and the band would be back for a second set of "mostly positive, mostly happy tunes that you'll like." (i'm paraphrasing, by the way--do those belong in quotes?).

A highpoint for me was the perfomance of the Coltrane tune, Resolution. Kurt does a vocalise for 'Trane's melody line. As i only bought the cd last night--and again because of the dark vocal sound--i don't know what the added lyrics are. Still, it was a happening rendition. Special mention goes to the sax player who laid out a 'Trane-worthy solo. As i know nothing of the Chicago Jazz Ensemble i can't say whether they are stellar soloists, but this guy really did give it hell. While he played I was thinking about how exciting it must have been to see the real Coltrane play live--it gave me goosebumps.

For what it's worth, maybe there's something to my theory that the festival organizers told Elling to keep it simple. As i was walking out with...well, let me say this: as Elling started saying "thank you for coming tonight" and stuff over the band, the crowd was already headed for the doors. Did they think they were at a ballgame, or something? By the time the conductor presented the band and Lawrence Hobgood (Elling's fulltime bandmate and co-arranger), most everyone on the floor was gone. and i'm only talking about 60 seconds here between Kurt's goodnight and the final beat. I think that was a little rude. Still, as i was going to say, while we exited i eavesdropped on comments from the more healthy pennyloafers: "that's some set of pipes that guy has." " he sure can hold a note." and my favorite: "that was like Ella Fitzgerald singing to Miles Davis. What were all the noises he was making?" (For those unfamiliar with him, Kurt is kind of a newage scat singer. If you have the slightest musical inclination you're right along with him and his noises. )

After the gig i did something i rarely do and went into the lobby and bought his newest cd. I even stood in line and got him to sign it. I'm happy to report that Kurt is about my height. That's important because, like most folks, i compare myself to celebrity. (Kurt for instance is a year older than me and is the vice president of the organization that puts on the grammies. I, on the other hand, have read the word "vice-president" off the back of a cereal box--but, like i said--he's 39. I'm merely 38 and have a whole year before i must distinguish myself as much.)

Matter of fact, i'd say Kurt Elling is a good half inch shorter than i am.

Anyway, he graciously shook my hand, signed my cd and told me to "play it loud and disturb the neighbors." Was that perhaps another inoffensive slur on a rather tame crowd?


Please don't taint my reputation

Well, i'm writing this from the back porch here in Charleston. That's something i hope i won't have to be mentioning for a while. There's two reasons for that--one good, one not so good: the first reason--the good reason--i won't have to be saying it is because, by golly, i've moved back home.

Thank goodness. I've been gone from home for almost all of 3 years. Before that, i was gone for a lot of the three years it took me to finish undergraduate work, and before that i was gone a lot of the time playing music. Alison and i recently celebrated a seventh wedding aniversary, (and have been together for almost fifteen years) but it's really a sham--we don't know what it's like to actually live together.

The bad reason i won't be mentioning writing on the back porch is that i figure here pretty soon it'll be too balmy--even in the mornings. Currently we still haven't given in to running the air conditioner, but that won't last much longer. This morning's air, even at 7:30 am, is wetish and warm. It makes me want to go wash my hands.

Alright. Today's title is lifted from the Post and Courier in an article about fake designer goods. Robert Chavez, the CEO of fancy handbag company Hermes, says that "although fakes have created a greater awareness of Hermes in the U.S., the poorer quality can taint the reputation of our company."

Just like the porch, i have two reasons i was drawn to writing about this: first reason: "taint" is now a funny word. i just had to snicker when i read it. I will never hear the word "taint" again without thinking of the 5 inch taint skit from Mr. Show. The second reason is because the article is dealing with something near and dear to my heart---craftspersonship. (an unwieldly term, i know, but at least gender neutral.)

The article is talking about the damage done by counterfeit Gucci and Hermes and so forth stuff. Now, without really getting into the odd world of how a money value actually gets attached to a product (and the price for "style" as opposed to quality or actual need) i want to point out something the article brings up.

Hermes evidently has strict quality control. They search the world for the right leather. They reject anything with flaws in it. They employ only the best artisans (i'm a little skeptical of that part.) They report that it takes an artisan 24 hours (!) to complete one of their signature Birkin handbags.

Alright. Part of my art is furniture making, right? If i'm making a really nice piece of furniture (again with the caveat that i'm not dealing with the style vs. quality thing) i too search for the correct pieces of wood. I reject anything with flaws in it. I am a properly trained artisan. It may take me...matter of fact, i won't even talk about me. Let me mention Greg Smith, the best woodworker i've ever met. It took Greg three months to design and build a one of a kind, free standing jewelry cabinet out of a pristine piece of European Pearwood. His price? I think it sold for around $9,000. He took 50% of that home after the gallery commission. The price for that 24 hour Hermes handbag? $7,200. Something's a little silly there. (i think $9,000 for a cabinet is silly, but a freaking handbag? Come on, man.)

Now. On to the next thing. The article is talking about the damage done to these companies asking $7,200 for a handbag by the knockoff folks. It reports that the House and Senate recently signed into law the Stop Counterfeiting in Manufacturing Goods Act. Chavez and the writer of the article maintain that "copyright infringement is bad. We've all been told that it's not right to take credit for other people's ideas, and that stealing in punishable by law." That "today's luxury labels spend a considerable amount of time and money protecting their intellectual property rights, products and trademarks."

Well, being in the career path i've been in--particularly the crafty end of fine arts--i know quite a few folks that design highend products, either as their own work or for one of those big companies. One person, who worked for one of the big names actually mentioned in this morning's article, told me it was her job to go to one-of-a-kind galleries where artisans show their work and buy things that she found particularly attractive. She then took them back to board meetings where that company would then decide whether they wanted to create their own line using that artisan's contribution to the medium.

So, i the case of a glassblower for instance, Joe the glass guy may have labored for years to create a method of producing a certain individual touch in his flower vases. Big Company simply has to go shopping to find it, figure out how to do it, and then make a thousand copies. So much for "taking credit for other people's ideas," huh?

More to the point, i know a furniture maker that was approached by another Big Company and was asked to license (for a very small sum of money and no recognition) his particular design touch. He said, "no, i don't think so." Big Company representative then told him "well, you can license it to me, or i can just buy it, have it copied, and not give you anything at all." Kudos for the honesty, but gee whiz. What choice did the guy have?

Lastly, the article goes on to say that these knockoffs hurts the job market and the American Economy and blahblahblahwahwahwah. It also points out that "although it may seem as though you're getting the same product for a lot less [per the designer knockoff], the differences add up. You may think that the high end price of the real thing means you're paying for the label, but most of the time, the price reflects the time and work put into the product."

Well, let's get something straight: You Are Paying for the Label. And you're paying for the newspaper that reports that crap in an article that details the cost of these bags along with a photo of them and a masked woman and the information as to where to get them in Charleston and the fact that "Hermes will open a new 3,000 square foot store...at South Park Mall in Charlotte this fall." That's not news--it's advertisement and it makes up about 70% of Big Company's budget.

If you really wanna help the American Economy, Don't buy this crap. Support a local artisan.


How long can the IRS keep me on hold?

I got a notice that I owe the IRS $18.08 because my tax return was a month late. My tax return was not a month late; I mailed it on April 17, like probably half of everybody else. But now I'm up to 19 minutes and 56 seconds on hold, so I think I may just pay them the $18.08 so that I can get off the phone and get on with my life. This must be some sort of scheme.