Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Decisions in Footwear Ethics, Part I: Dr Martens

Recently, the toe creases of my trusty, well-worn Dr Martens began to crack. I had hoped to mend my boots, but when I called customer service for advice on repairing “quilon leather,” they told me, with a hint of wounded pride, that Dr Martens are not supposed to fissure; this was a structural defect. I was therefore entitled to trade-in my old boots for a new pair.

Of course, following their offer, the usual stream of annoying ethical dilemmas trickled into my Jainistic brain, starting with the occasionally-lax approach to veganism that led me to buy the leather boots in the first place. On the one hand, by accepting the offer, yet another cow would have to die. On the other, unlike the first time, I wasn’t technically paying to kill this second cow, and besides, Dr Martens supposedly last a decade, and I did pay good money for my pair...

The boots were “Made in England,” and I initially assumed my footwear to be the product of unionized labo(u)r. Although I have not been able to determine whether Dr Martens’ English workforce is, in fact, represented by a union, the workers apparently have the right to form or join one even those in China.

Essentially, by accepting a new pair, I again reneged on animal rights, but likely supported fair labor. I could have done far better and I could have done far worse.

(Additionally, unless the company changed their policies since I bought my first pair in 2009, I might not have done the best job of researching their environmental-friendliness. Back then, I could swear I read somewhere that Dr Martens are vegetable-tanned, but as it turns out, the company does not disclose details about their impact on the environment.)

I bid my old Martens a sad adieu, for they were perfectly broken-in (save for the part about actually being broken), and as every Dr Martens-wearing ethicist can testify, breaking-in a new pair of those boots is about as painful as an IMF/World Bank Structural Adjustment Program.

The new boots came in the mail within two weeks:

shiny shiny, shiny boots of leather
The Dr Martens people were kind enough to throw in a pair of white laces upon my request. White goes well with oxblood. I was afraid to buy white bootlaces when I lived in Glasgow because, in 1970s UK skinhead culture, bootlaces carried political connotations, and white bootlaces were once aligned with white supremacy; according to the occasional random website, that is. My Glasgow flatmate laughed away my concerns, never having heard of this nonsense before. If I’m not a 1970s UK skinhead, and if I’m not white by British standards (even if I am by American standards), why should I worry?

I nevertheless wore black laces when in Glasgow. Red and black: I could deal with being mistaken for an anarchist, even if not an animal-friendly one.

(In case you're wondering, "Decisions in Footwear Ethics, Part II" will be posted when the Macbeths I've been waitlisted for finally arrive...)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Kale Migrates South for the Winter

Not long ago I realized that my racially-ambiguous self looks more Middle Eastern in some contexts than in others. In the airport, before and during flights bound south of the Mason-Dixon, I look incredibly Middle Eastern.

My initial discomfort among Southerners prompts me to imagine all sorts of awkward in-flight scenarios: suspicious frowns from Texans in Stetsons the size of an oil tycoon’s gut, or one of the many nervous, squat, secretarial gentlewomen in the waiting area turning to me and asking, apprehensively: “are you Muslim?”

Although nothing quite like that has yet happened to me, I have gotten selected for "random" searches before, and once, I even got my hair patted-down. This was in Texas. I laughed about it as it was happening. What else could I do? Who's heard of such a thing? I then realized that this laughter probably made me look even more suspect, which caused me to nervously-laugh a bit more, against my will and better judgement.

To assuage possible suspicions, I turned to the woman who flattened my wavy black locks and told her that I've never had this done to me before. Her response was: "that's why I just love them curlicues, heh heh!"


During my flight to Atlanta, I sat in the aisle seat, next to two women that had boarded together. Naturally, in an attempt to be social, I asked them if they were from our arrival destination.

The woman in the center seat smiled. “We’re from north Georgia.”

Uh oh, I thought: a place with a reputation! The other woman in the window seat looked slightly disconcerted by something; I hoped not my presence.

As I reflexively do whenever someone tells me that they’re from a certain place, I blabbered everything I knew about Georgia:  Peaches! The Appalachian Mountains! Farms! The women joined me in describing their beautiful countryside, and the conversation rolled on through the rest of their state. When I mentioned the obscure Atlanta suburb from which my very best friend comes from, southern or otherwise, both of their faces lit up in recognition. “We’ve been there,” they chirped, and nothing more was said about the place. The same friend would later describe his town as “a church and a strip mall,” but I think he’s holding-off, as I distinctly remember him mentioning that his town boasts a well-loved rock.

I asked them if they enjoyed New York. They lit up again. I began wondering if the disconcerted Georgian in the window seat probably had a slight fear of flight, not Middle-Easterners. A big, blue turbine was blocking her window seat view. Going south from LaGuardia gives airplane travelers a gorgeous image of the New York City skyline. The woman revealed that she never had a window seat before, and she had been looking forward to this one.

Fortunately, once the plane took off, a sliver of skyline was still visible. The two women excitedly snapped photographs of what they could. I was happy for them, I told them so, and I meant it.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Kelsey Gould and the Baffling Budgies

Before his trip to Mexico, my flatmate provided simple care instructions for his two parakeets, Gertrude and Simone. They were named after Simone de Beauvoir and Gertrude Stein, as the woman who named them was a lover of art, feminist social theory and lesbians.

Usually, they chirp at each other rather loudly. My flatmate likes to say that they argue (Gertrude occasionally squawks some rather controversial comments about Francisco Franco). Oddly, and much to my worry, for the first several days after his departure, the two birds were quiet and glum-looking. The chirping fortunately resumed after Gertrude accused President Franklin Delano Roosevelt of socialism.

Worse, although I filled their feeder according to instruction, Gertrude and Simone did not initially appear to be eating very much – I suppose you could say that they ate like birds. However, a few days back, when I added a heaping scoop of seed to their feeder, they suddenly decided that they were hungry. They took turns with each other: their small black eyes, like the pits of a kiwi fruit, watching me defensively as the parakeets pecked.

Above all, the strangest behavior which Gertrude and Simone exhibit is that, whenever I walk into the room, they immediately stop what they’re doing and line-up, like soldiers for a drill sergeant.

The birds are clearly highly self-conscious creatures. Also, although they aren’t used to me, they probably do miss human company. Therefore, to help them grow more accustomed to me, I’ve started spending more time with them, talking to them and singing to them.

Incidentally, the first song that usually comes to mind when I start singing is Slowdive’s “I Believe”:

Sunday, November 4, 2012

14 Passionate Political/Protest Songs

Protest songs, or songs about politics in general, seem hard to come by these days. I find that unfortunate, because a well-made protest song - whether a clarion cry for justice, a lament for a dying country, a personal reflection on current events, or any other form such a song may take - can have a far more profound effect on listeners than any old song exhausting the tired topic of relationships. I've ranked a few of the best examples below:

14. "Post War Dream," Pink Floyd
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher might be blamed for permanently destroying Northern British industry, wrecking mining communities and damaging the power of labor unions, but one positive acknowledgement must be said in her honor: she inspired some of the best music of the latter twentieth century. Pink Floyd's "Post War Dream" is one such Thatcher-era expression of intense political despair (even if we can't forgive the ethnic derogation).

13. "Okie from Muskogee," Merle Haggard
Here's the only right-wing anthem on this list. I read somewhere that this song was popular among the very hippies whom the song ridiculed. A cover appears on Phil Ochs' Greatest Hits album.

12. "Fight the Power," Public Enemy
It would be remiss to call Public Enemy's 1989 hit anything short of a manifesto. After having endured a decade of Reaganism, the voices of those marginalized by such policies had to emerge, tearing-down John Wayne and Elvis Presley - White America's idols - along the way.

11. "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," Bob Dylan
The major tragedy was not that a murder was committed, nor was it that the wealthy murderer was set out on bail, nor was it that the murdered was an innocent, poor woman of color (Hattie Carroll's race is never explicitly stated), but that the justice system, of which we are taught to expect so much, is irretrievably, irreparably broken.

10. "Which Side Are You On?" Florence Reece
Florence Reece's 1931 song about the Harlan County War. Yes, her ragged, Coal Miner's Daughter voice may take some getting used to... Natalie Merchant does a lovely cover.

9. "America," Au Pairs
A blunt, infuriated protest of Reagan's unabashed support of death squads in Central and South America. In fact, during the first 2.5 years of Reagan's presidency, 250,000 people were killed by Reagan-supported right-wing death squads in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatamala alone.

8. "El Derecho de Vivir en Paz," Victor Jara
Literally translating to "The Right to Live in Peace," this enchanting song was released in Chile, during the Marxist, democratically-elected presidency of Salvador Allende. The two were friends, and Jara believed that Allende's reforms would help yield a more just, peaceful world. Personally, the fate of both Jara and Allende, again due to American foreign policy, may have permanently damaged my faith in humanity.

7. "Stand Down Margaret," The (English) Beat
There are at least two studio versions of this song; the familiar "Whine and Grine" version, and this better, albeit lesser-known "Dub" version. As you can tell from the title, this is another anti-Thatcher song, with a sound probably resultant from John Peel's playing of reggae and punk alongside one another on his radio program.

6. "I Ain't Marching Anymore," Phil Ochs
The majority of Phil Ochs songs are eloquently political, albeit none are as well-known as this energizing rallying cry: "call it peace or call it treason, call it love or call it reason..."

5. "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag," Country Joe and the Fish
A powerful anti-Vietnam War statement. The studio version, I think, captures the absurdity of the situation, but the live-at-Woodstock recording, which I prefer, better conveys the urgency of stopping the war: "there's about 300,000 of you fuckers out there!"

4. "Solidarity Forever," Pete Seeger (lyrics by Ralph Hosea Chaplin)
A classic union hymn, to the tune of John Brown's body. Performed here by the legendary Pete Seeger.

And, for good measure, here's a 91 year-old Pete Seeger, helping union members battle Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's plans to strip public workers of their collective bargaining rights:

3. "Waiting for the Great Leap Forward," Billy Bragg

Bragg directs his listeners through the bleak political realities of the day before ecstatically lifting them up to the better world inevitably to follow. Here is the original, admittedly-dated studio recording. Frequently, when performing "his theme song" live, Bragg revises the lyrics to match the contemporary state of affairs.

2. "Mississippi Goddam," Nina Simone

There is a point, somewhere in the song, when Nina's "showtune" erupts into a revolutionary rant; we're not going to wait-out this slow process of desegregation for you to treat us like human beings: "oh but this whole country is full of lies: you're all gonna die and die like flies."

1.  "Strange Fruit," Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday's shocking, frank and haunting anti-lynching song conveys the brutality of southern racism like no other song from the era, hence its position at the top of my list. Prepare to feel a chill run down your spine...


Honorable mentions include the classic communist anthem "The Internationale," Willie Nelson's rather queer "Cowboys are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other," Reagan Youth's "Reagan Youth" and David Rovic's reminder that there will always be "Resistance." Additionally, I have a soft-spot for Jackson C Frank's protest song "Don't Look Back," even though (or, perhaps, because) I find its optimistic chords unconvincing against Frank's tragic voice and lyricism.

A dishonorable mention goes out to the blatantly-racist anti-Obama song "The Great Reneger," with the final word not pronounced correctly: get my drift?