Midsummer Doldrums; Ted Rall Takes on Art Spiegelman

Written by Russ Smith on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.


Sweet Dreams, Little Old Rat

I’m going to hop all over the map in this column—more than usual—in deference to my colleagues here at 333, half of whom are on vacation. Maybe it’s not a fulltime job, but surely next summer publisher Mike O’Hara needs someone to schedule the time slots available to leave New York and traipse off to the beach, climb mountains, eat in shabby bistros and whatever else people do when they’re not working. It’s been like a ghost town at NYPress‘ swank Lou Grant-style offices: Mr. O’Hara himself is off on a sailboat jaunt in the Virgin Islands, with no access to e-mail; ad director Jimmy Katocin‘s in Saratoga; Lucky Jeff Koyen just came back from an Alaskan cruise (I got some smoked salmon jerky as a souvenir); Mike Gentile and Tara Morris are in the Chesapeake region, and claim they’ll eat steamed crabs at least twice a day; and Lisa Kearns is still dodging cranky Alex Cockburn‘s last-minute copy changes by holing up in Rome.


As for editor John Strausbaugh, we expect him back sometime in October; he and his wife Diane are in Italy for the fifth time this year, chomping on little birds and drinking Campari.


The bonus of John’s absence is the privilege of opening his truckload of mail each day, most of it garbage, but occasionally yielding a book or two of interest. And I did snag a CD of Janis Joplin‘s greatest hits. John was also invited—the sole staffer, I might add—to a “Summer Fling” The New York Observer is sponsoring on Aug. 14 in Southampton, a benefit for the Downtown Arts Project. Tickets are a trifling $150 per, and for that entrance fee you presumably can say hello to, or at least snap a photo of, honorary chairs Laurie Anderson, Henry Buhl and Conan O’Brien; or network with members of the Honorary Committee like Duncan SheikMark Morris, Ross Bleckner, Stephen Gaines, Lisa Phillips and Nicole Miller. Man alive, that Strausbaugh is a Master of Manhattan;
seems the Observer crowd has taken his lowbrow Baltimore pedigree and chucked it down the turlet, figuring that anyone who edits the be-bop reviews of both Armond White and Adam Heimlich is someone who knows the downtown scene, man. (Frankly, since Mrs. M and I rented Phillips’ house in the Hamptons a few years back, when my wife was tubby with MUGGER III in her belly, I feel a little stiffed at being left off the guest list. That’s the reward for criticizing the Observer‘s Anne Roiphe with such genuine passion.)


Taki‘s playing tennis, quaffing ale in the morning and consorting with royalty in three different countries, all at the same time.


Hey, not that I’m complaining. My family’s taking a chunk out of August to visit relatives in Bermuda one week, and then Mrs. M’s parents in Malibu later in the month. Meanwhile, in steamy Manhattan, you can’t imagine the thrill Junior had when his hero George Tabb came over the other night with a bootleg copy of Star Wars Episode I—The Phantom Menace. Both my boys adore George, his wife Wendy and their dog Scooter; they speak the same language when it comes to films, video games and Pokemon. Junior was so excited that when he put the film in the VCR and it started, I could feel his heart pound as the opening credits rolled. His favorite character is the cool arch-villain Darth Maul; Al From Baltimore heard that and said, “Well, he is your son. Sam likes the nine-year-old in the movie the best.” Junior had already seen Star Wars six times on big screens and has memorized the dialogue; that there are Arabic subtitles in the video George laid on him just makes the whole windfall more exotic.


We had a swell time last Wednesday at Spartina—despite the restaurant’s lack of air conditioning—meeting up with our friends Michael Formica and Bob Hiemstra. Michael’s a designer who worked on our new loft, implementing a vision, with Mrs. M’s assistance, that was way beyond my ken. For my money—not inconsiderable, but it is our home—he’s the best in the business. Bob’s a high-in-demand photographer whose clients include InStyle, House & Garden and Food & Wine. That night he just came from a shoot with Diane Von Furstenberg, a lovely woman he assured us, and then kept his trap shut on further details. I guess that’s a lensman’s off-the-record integrity working, even after a few glasses of pinot grigio.


Spartina’s chopped salad is one of the best downtown: lots of feta cheese, chick peas, tomatoes and cucumbers, and a perfect starter before tucking into an enormous thin-crust pizza topped with prosciutto and fontina. We also liked the grilled sardines; pizzas with just mozzarella and delicious dollops of marinara, and one with a slew of vegetables; grilled jumbo shrimp atop risotto; and the smoked trout salad. Spartina’s never a bad bet when you’re dining in Tribeca: from the courteous service to top-notch vittles, you can’t go wrong. Frankly, I don’t know why anyone would sit outside on a summer night—a view of the Hudson is obscured by skyscrapers—but there was Harvey Keitel, smoking a fat heater and keeping in character with a sour puss, taking in the fumes from the traffic, which increases year by year, on Greenwich St.


STOP:
It’s Friday afternoon as I write this portion of MUGGER and I just saw Al Gore on CNN‘s Inside Politics say that he feels “a strong kinship with the Latino community.” Didn’t explain why, but I guess
he feigns a bond with anyone who might vote for him. We know Maude‘s Bea Arthur won’t: she’s the star of a PETA commercial, saying that although she voted for Clinton/Gore twice, and even forgives Gore for the Internet and Love Story fibs, she can’t reconcile his endorsement of the torture of animals. This just proves that Gore is grounded: he’s spending time with what one assumes is his core base of supporters—minorities, gays and lesbians and hardcore suburban lefties—while Bill Bradley is receiving a hero’s welcome from the same groups. Mr. Technology can’t even break through to Silicon Valley and Hollywood; that rich turf has been hogged by the charismatic George W. Bush and the man Newsweek‘s Howard Fineman and his ilk like to call “Dollar Bill.” Bradley, by the way, is on a serious Beltway roll. He made his first tv campaign appearance on Sunday’s Meet the Press (and was boring as ever), and it’s just a matter of days, I predict, before the pundits raise his chances at defeating Gore to 50-50.


Back to my story. There was an interesting “Breakfast Table” exchange in Slate two weeks ago between Stephen Harrigan (a screenwriter and novelist) and Cynthia Gorney (a former Washington Post reporter), in which they discussed two of my favorite topics: children and pop music. Harrigan wrote: “To me, the haunted grogginess of Goodnight Moon is one of the great benchmarks of American literature. And while I’m at it, let me just put in a word here for Teletubbies, which I had never seen until recently and whose true worth has probably been terminally distorted by the recent Tinky Winky-is-gay controversy. But this is an awesome show… [it's] so exquisitely slow it makes Mr. Rogers seem like he’s ramped up on crystal meth.”


What a welcome break from the usual “Breakfast Table” blather about Deep Throat‘s identity (we’ll find out in 25 years and the revelation will be a giant yawn), Ovid and the arts section of The New York Times. I didn’t delve deep enough in the week’s back-and-forth to figure out Harrigan’s political views, but I’m with him on Teletubbies, a very rad show, and certainly Goodnight Moon. I’ll never forget memorizing the tale when Junior first came home from the hospital after Mrs. M gave birth: I fumbled with the words, and inserted some of my own, like “goodnight little old mouse,” but both our kids loved it and it really did lull them to sleep.


My current favorite book that I read to MUGGER III—aside from George & Martha and Curious George—is Night Becomes Day by Richard McGuire, one of the best illustrators I’ve ever seen. My younger son has mastered the book and changes the words “Tree becomes paper/And paper becomes news” to “Tree becomes paper/And paper becomes NYPress,” and looks up to me, half-asleep, with a smile he knows will make me happy. It’s almost as satisfying as when he performs a karate chop on a Village Voice street dispenser or counts the papers left in NYPress‘ own boxes.


Harrigan wrote about a list of the worst hit singles compiled by Michael Corcoran in the July 22 Austin American-Statesman, an item that caught my eye, since who can’t think of songs they hate. Harrigan suggested America‘s “Horse With No Name,” a dopey song to be sure, but it wouldn’t make my Top 100. Gorney contributed “Crimson and Clover,” which I thought was a very catchy tune, especially when altered by illegal substances, preferably the excellent mescaline that was available in the late 1960s. But let’s see: “Seasons in the Sun,” “Piano Man,” “I Am Woman,” “Ben,” “Something Stupid,” “Stairway to Heaven” and “Hotel California” would all make my list.


I got a kick out of socialite Al D’Amato‘s comments in Rush & Molloy‘s July 28 Daily News column about the rollicking time he had attending a Bruce Springsteen concert at the Meadowlands last week. “Well, we were swaying. You couldn’t help it,” the former Senator told the gossip duo. He was accompanied by fellow Republicans George and Libby Pataki, Christie Whitman and Henry Kravis at the show, appearances that must’ve galled the millionaire rock star, who, despite his wealth and numerous residences, still imagines he’s a troubadour out of a John Steinbeck novel.


That dichotomy doesn’t bother most rock critics. Thom Duffy, international deputy editor of Billboard, wrote in a syndicated column last week that Springsteen is out on the road doing a public service, even though tickets run upwards of $50. While Bruce nets an untold fortune on his tour, Duffy is transfixed that “the characters in Springsteen’s songs often had fallen through the safety net. They were lucky to be working on the highway, laying down the blacktop.” Please. I’d like to know the demographics of Springsteen’s audience: no doubt those truly in need, the people who are unemployed or “laying down the blacktop” aren’t there. Sort of like at a Knicks game, where celebrities and high-rollers have elbowed aside the real basketball fans.


Duffy seems like he’s trying out as a ghostwriter for Springsteen, claiming that the pop singer is a virtual prophet: “Springsteen is presenting an urgently needed perspective on the high-flying economy of the ’90s. He is singing about the darkness on the edge of boom town.” This doesn’t make much sense: sounds like Duffy is fantasizing about another recession, where he’d be laid off from his job, drinking a cheap bottle of wine and wearing out his Bruuuuce CDs. I think most people are more than satisfied with the current economy.


I guess it took D’Amato’s mind off his waning influence in New York GOP politics: try as he might to thwart Rudy Giuliani‘s Senate bid by boosting puppet Congressman Rick Lazio, it ain’t gonna fly. Lazio, despite his $3 million campaign kitty and promise of a formal declaration of candidacy, just isn’t going to alienate the incoming Bush administration. He’ll withdraw, just as Hillary Clinton will, even as she’s currently spouting her husband’s tax nonsense in upstate New York. As I wrote last week, my hunch is that RFK Jr. will get into the race once Hillary takes a powder; reportedly, he’s worried about his long-ago heroin bust, but that was back in ’83 and he’s been an upstanding citizen ever since. Besides, in my book, heroin possession, although not desirable, doesn’t even compare to the Top 100 of Bill Clinton crimes against the American public. And omigod, Robert Novak wrote in his syndicated column of Aug. 1 that Rep. Patrick Kennedy is rumored to have changed his mind about staying in the House and is running for the open Rhode Island Senate seat instead. I can’t stand it.


Last word from these quarters on the JFK Jr. tragedy. Gregory Kane, writing in Saturday’s Baltimore Sun, has a surly response to those who complained about the continuous coverage of Kennedy’s plane crash. “So, trolls, the most basic answer to the question of why the media gave ‘excessive’ coverage to JFK, Jr.’s death is simple. He looked damn good. You don’t.” (By the way, I wonder why CNN isn’t televising the funerals of all those murder victims from the Atlanta shootings last week. Maybe it’s because not as many tears will be shed over people who worked in the financial sector, instead of being high school students. Wouldn’t spike the ratings, right, WolfLarry, Judy and Bernie?)


Friday night in late July is one of the few times you can get a table at high-ticket restaurants in Manhattan; and so it was with ease that Mrs. M, Andrey Slivka and I sat down at 7:30 at Layla, the Mideastern spot in Tribeca. It was an exhausting week and there was a lot to talk about: mostly a controversial story in, of all publications, the Village Voice, and the absurd tax debate in Congress. But before I get started on a protracted rant, a few words on the excellent cuisine we lazily consumed: Gulf shrimp dolmades, grilled salmon wrapped in grape leaves over green onion basmati rice, taramasalata, three mounds of herb feta cheese spread and chicken stew with roasted potatoes, preserved lemons and green olives. Next to Periyali, this Drew Nieporent restaurant is my favorite in the city for this kind of heavy but satisfying food. It’s a popular place, but for some reason you don’t hear much about it. Just as well.


Anyway, the Voice ran a cover story by Ted Rall last week, a vicious attack on Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer Prize-winner for his two-part family memoir Maus, the co-creator of RAW, a consultant for many magazines and the illustrator who stirs up the most controversy at The New Yorker with his covers. The piece was called “King Maus: Art Spiegelman Rules the World of Comix With Favors and Fear,” and drew an immediate and negative response from the admittedly small world of cartoonists in this city (and Seattle). Rall, whose syndicated cartoon runs in dozens of newspapers, and who has his work displayed in Time and Fortune (he’s also written for NYPress), is no fan of Spiegelman. He thinks the Pulitzer was a ginned-up sop to a trendy genre that the de facto on-the-take contest judges dreamed up out of pure whimsy; that Spiegelman can’t draw very well; and is, well, a real shit. He writes: “Spiegelman’s rise to power is a story less about one balding chain-smoker than a case study of the way carefully crafted perception can lead to the reality of power in a media town where people are too busy to keep track of more than one name per area of expertise. He has never hesitated to wield his domination of the New York cartooning world to the great benefit of his pals and the extreme detriment of those out of favor.”


I thought it was a gutsy story for the Voice to run; it’s not often that they attack sacred cows, especially one whose wrath could, and probably will, cause them the defection of contributors sympathetic to the subject. More importantly, I can’t remember the last time people were actually debating about a story that appeared in the Voice. Maybe sometime back in the early 70s. I don’t know whose decision it was to go with Rall’s screed, but he or she should replace editor Don Forst pronto. (And if it was Forst who shepherded the piece to fruition, my apologies; there’s juice in you yet, Big Guy.)


Not that I agreed with Rall’s unrelenting barrage of venomous prose. I happen to think Spiegelman is a visionary; Maus deserved its many awards; RAW was a meticulously produced publication that introduced new artists to a devoted audience; and his New Yorker covers—hiring Spiegelman was Tina Brown‘s singular moment of brilliance during her tenure there—give the still-musty old weekly a shot in the kneecaps. In addition, when this newspaper started, Spiegelman put me in touch with a number of cartoonists: as a result, Ben Katchor‘s “Julius Knipl” was born, no small achievement.


Veteran NYPress illustrator Danny Hellman touched off a firestorm on the Comics Journal message board almost immediately after the Voice came out last Wednesday. I logged out on July 31, but already the download contained 21 pages of assorted vitriol, almost unanimously against Rall, with a few nods to Spiegelman’s difficult personality. Here are a few excerpts:


Hellman:
“Even if this world were fair, even if the prettiest artwork managed to outshine the prettiest artist, I think Ted Rall would still be waiting for that New Yorker cover… I’m not Art Spiegelman’s number one fan. But I will say one thing on Art’s behalf: comics as a medium are on life support right now; as a working cartoonist I appreciate anyone who attempts to expand the scope of comics into mainstream media. Even if I am not part of Art’s ‘inner circle,’ I cannot help but benefit from any increased interest in comics that have been generated by his efforts.”


Eric Reynolds: “Rall’s piece was lazy and petty.”


Jesse Fuchs: “I’m no Spiegelman apologist, and I think Rall made some decent points; most of his New Yorker covers have been more style than substance, his Pulitzer, though gratifying for any comics fan, doesn’t really mean a hell of a lot, and he is, like most underground cartoonists of his generation, rather self-obsessed. But the piece as a whole was so pissy and ill-considered that
any worthwhile points Rall might have made ended up buried under a mountain of sour grapes.”


Kim Thompson: “Rall’s piece is contemptible. Look at how he manages to subvert a positive quote from Gary Panter by putting it in the context of a paragraph about how scared everyone is of Art…”


Hellman: “I suspect that Rall threw in that Spiegelman/NYPress connection to enhance Art’s villain status in the eyes of the Voice editors (NYPress being the Voice‘s closest competitor).”


Gary Groth, Comics Journal editor: “I too suspect Art’s involvement at NYPress was minimal; last time I was in NYC and saw Art I mentioned that Russ Smith (NYPress‘ owner) referred to him as a genius in one of his loquacious columns and Art feigned embarrassment over this—a good joke because Smith is a widely known asshole. Being heralded as a genius by Smith is like being given the anti-Pulitzer.”


(Groth can blow me. I’ve said Spiegelman’s “consultancy” [Rall's term] was limited to a phone call or two. Groth’s problem with me, as I learned from further postings and an e-mail from him, is my politics, mislabeled Republican rather than libertarian. What that has to do with my boosterism of worthy cartoonists and illustrators I don’t know. You’d have to ask Groth, if he’s not too busy rolling a doobie and eating granola.)


Kaz: “Ted Rall dissed me in a Comics Journal article about a year ago. Something about how alternative newspaper editors wouldn’t publish his strip because they wanted strips like mine. Meanwhile Rall is in 140 newspapers and I’m in 13! When I called Rall on this (via e-mail) he apologized and whined about how he was never invited to any New York cartoonist parties or art shows.”


Mike Gorman: “I finally got a chance to read Rall’s piece on Spiegelman, and I have to say it has to be one of the worst pieces of journalism I’ve ever read. Which is odd, because I have enjoyed Ted’s work in the past (his writing at least—personally, and I hate to be mean, I’m surprised someone with such limited drawing skills would criticize another artist’s work.”


Col. Dax: “Here’s what I think of Art Spiegelman: Maus is one of the most perfectly realized comics ever made—I guess all those years he spent farting around with ‘the form’ finally paid off. But all of his other stuff sucks.”


I corresponded with Rall by e-mail and received these comments:


“While I’m not surprised that Art has his defenders—both people who have benefited from his largesse in the past and people who genuinely admire his work, I do think it’s frightening that people as creative as cartoonists are speaking nearly as one voice on any topic. The people who’ve been posting comments at the Comics Journal discussion group are incredibly boring and singularly closed-minded if they can’t see that there is some truth to what I uncovered about Art.


“To those who use the ‘sour grapes’ argument to discredit my piece, I say this: I’ve never been turned down for work by Art. And I wouldn’t trade my career for his. I am read by far more people in Time and Fortune, not to mention my other papers, than see his New Yorker covers. I probably make more money from cartooning (as opposed to editing) than he does, and I have absolutely no desire to become New York’s next ‘comix’ kingmaker—I personally don’t think anyone should have that role.


“Of course, not every cartoonist is upset. I’ve been deluged with congratulatory e-mails and phone calls since the piece came out, all from New York-area cartoonists of all ages who praise me for saying what needed to be said in public, for speaking on their behalf. Regretfully, they’re mainly a bunch of wussies afraid of putting their opinions into print—the same guys who ridicule the President of the United States can’t bring themselves to say what they think about another cartoonist. Pathetic, but I’ll take my support wherever I can get it.”


But let’s get down to taxes. The current controversy raging in Washington is, of course, a lot of hot air. Let Bill Clinton veto the toothless $792 billion bill that Congress sends him; although I don’t know why he would, since it means almost nothing, phased in over 10 years, most of it back-loaded. All of the commentary surrounding the issue is ridiculous: tax relief is a very arcane subject and most citizens, or members of Congress for that matter, don’t understand it. So that leads to a lot of idiotic grandstanding from publicity hounds of both parties.


Democrats and the mainstream press distorted Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan‘s comments on the subject last week, focusing solely on his stated first priority, which is a continuation of paring down the deficit. What was omitted in the frenzy to use Greenspan as an ally of President Clinton was the entirety of his statement. This is what Greenspan really said: “My first priority, if I were given such a priority, is to let the surpluses run. As I’ve said before, my second priority is if you find that as a consequence of those surpluses they tend to be spent, then I would be more in the camp of cutting taxes, because the least desirable is using those surpluses for expanding outlays… I have great sympathy for those who wish to cut taxes now to pre-empt that process, and indeed, if it turns out that they are right, then I would say moving on the tax front makes a good deal of sense to me.”


Translated: Greenspan doesn’t believe for a minute that the government can be trusted not to spend excess funds on more bloated programs.


Jeff Jacoby, in a July 29 Boston Globe column, cut through the malarkey: “‘Last week, in the House of Representatives, they passed an irresponsible tax bill that would spend our surplus,’ Clinton said on Tuesday. Hear that? ‘Our surplus.’ That is how the liberal mind works. The money belongs to the government, even if the government doesn’t need it… The tax debate boils down to a straightforward question: Should you be allowed to keep a little more of your own income? Republicans vote yes; they trust you to spend the extra dollars sensibly. Democrats, with some honorable exceptions, vote no; they think you are too stupid to be trusted.”


Let’s be clear: tax rates should be slashed across the board, regardless of income brackets. The estate tax, perhaps the most anti-American penalty currently in existence, needs to be entirely eliminated. Capital gains taxes must be nixed as well, or at least vastly reduced; such a measure would only create more jobs and incentives to entrepreneurs.


It was Jack Kemp, in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, who made the most sense of this entire hash over taxes. If Kemp had shown as much passion on the stump in ’96 as he did in the Journal op-ed, or had topped the GOP ticket instead of Bob Dole, historians would have a different slant on American politics in the late 90s. But that’s over; too many spilled loads and too much Whitewater under the bridge.


Kemp wrote, in lambasting both parties: “Instead of competing with the president over who can inflict more austerity on the American people, Republicans should denounce debt retirements as an ill-conceived, counterproductive strategy. If Republicans are really interested in helping families and want to maintain a growing economy without inflation, they should package Rep. Bill Archer’s capital gains and estate tax cuts, his reforms in the alternative minimum tax and Bill Roth’s expansion of IRAs, along with a provision cutting marginal income tax rates back at least to where they were when Mr. Reagan left office. Better yet, send Mr. Clinton a bill cutting the top marginal income tax rate to 25%, which John Maynard Keynes once said is the most anyone should have to pay during peacetime.


“…Human ingenuity alone—free from onerous taxes, regulations and inflation—leads to prosperity and economic growth. No balanced budget, and surely no reduction of an already-shrinking national debt, ever produced prosperity.”


Boom or no boom, judging by Rolling Stone‘s Aug. 19 issue, owner Jann Wenner is pinching pennies. How else to explain just an atrocious piece of writing by Neva Chonin, a review of a Joe Strummer show at the Fillmore in San Francisco last month. If Chonin’s a day over 23, I’d be surprised, given all the factual mistakes, not to mention embarrassing cliches, in the 300-word blurb. “As leader of the Clash,” Chonin writes, “[Strummer] infused the lethargic Eighties with a dose of vibrant grit and a radical social conscience. Now, with a solo album on the way, he’s picking up on the Rastaman vibrations he injected into the later Clash albums.”


Where to begin? Chonin claims the Clash disbanded in ’86. Technically that may be the case, but it was a year after Strummer’s coleader Mick Jones had already released his first record with Big Audio Dynamite. And the 80s were “lethargic”? That would be news to fans of the SmithsU2, REM, Hüsker Dü, the Minutemen, the Pogues and the Cure. As for the “Rastaman vibrations,” Strummer had that up his sleeve in the late 70s and early 80s; it was old news by the time the group’s swan-song hit “Rock the Casbah” hit the charts in ’82. As for Chonin’s conclusion that “Strummer is still giving rock a kick in its complacent pants,” I’d say he’s out on a nostalgia tour, raking in a few bucks, maybe checking out the bands that have left him in his middle-aged dust.


On the subject of pennies, there was a story in Saturday’s Times about the city’s shortage of one-cent coins, a malady so severe that a McDonald’s on 51st St. and Broadway is offering a free Big Mac to anyone who brings in $10 in rolled pennies. It seems that people are simply stashing the largely worthless coins in jars and forgetting about them, leaving some $7.7 billion out of circulation, according to Coinstar, “the nation’s largest manufacturer of self-service coin-counting machines.” And that’s the way it rolls at the MUGGER household: the boys have a collection of piggy banks—the bane of Mrs. M’s sense of decor in the loft—gifts that I get every time I’m away on a business trip. Each night when I come home, I empty my pockets and distribute the coins even-steven into six containers on the mantel.


I’ve always taken a lot of guff from friends when I’ve stopped mid-stride to pick up a penny off the street, some comments that can’t be repeated, especially since this column is picked up by Jewish World Review. Don’t know why, though: it’s like no one remembers Ben Franklin‘s famous “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Besides, I tell my boys that it’s good luck to scoop up a penny from the gutter; the only rules are that change found in a cab belongs to the driver, and likewise for a deli or other store. When I was a kid and accompanied my mom on shopping trips, we’d race each other to snare an errant coin in the parking lot of the supermarkets on her itinerary; a coupon-clipper, she’d drag me to IGA, King Kullen, A&P, Bohack and the Big Apple to get the best bargains. As I got older, I thought this traipsing around was kind of fruitless, but it was just a vestige of her Great Depression memories. There was a butcher shop in one small center in Huntington, Trunz’s as I remember, and the man behind the counter was swell: he’d always cut me a thin slice of bologna or liverwurst while I waited for my mother to choose some cheap cut of meat for that night’s meal.


A story in last Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, by Barbara Carton, caught my eye with this captivating headline: “No Snickers, Please: All Smuggled Sweets Will Be Confiscated.” The gist of the piece was that in today’s politically weird environment, fully 40 percent of sleepaway camps prohibit candy sent in care packages from parents; in fact, in what I consider a clear violation of privacy, some mailroom snoops even sniff and open the packages to make sure no offending treats have been included. At Camp North Star for Boys in Hayward, WI, there’s a woman named Shirley Weiner who’s earned the nickname “Squirrely Shirley” for her efforts to detect bubble gum, M&M’s and candy bars while she “feels lumpy letters.” Other counselors at camps complain about the rodent and vermin problem that sweets cause: how ridiculous is this notion, considering all the creepy crawlers that kids love to find in the woods? Isn’t camp supposed to be about climbing rocks, identifying trees, the joy of seeing grasshoppers, red ants, ladybugs, four-leaf clovers, lizards and other exotics that probably aren’t present in their urban or suburban homes?


Carton also distresses the reader with another reminder of the legal insanity that haunts anyone in business in the 90s: “The growing interception of food care packages is also a sign of the times—an effort to cut down on legal liability. Camps worry about getting sued should a child get sick from an allergic reaction, or rotten brownies, even though no one in camp-dom can recall an actual lawsuit.”


As a youth in the 60s, I went to camp for five consecutive summers, two-week stints, the first three at Camp Mohawk in Litchfield, CT and then two at the Boy Scout brigade upstate in Gloversville. Mail call was a highlight of the day: my mom was fairly diligent in her correspondence, and although she never sent candy—I was given a small allowance to buy CokesMountain Dew or Dots at the canteen each night—the letters were filled with what I craved most. Box scores from Red Sox games, the Sunday comics and clipped political stories. In ’68, I was especially pissed that I missed the GOP convention and had to find out a few days later that Richard Nixon tapped Spiro Agnew as his running mate. But my friends got some edible loot: I remember Bobby Ringler‘s grandmother sending boxes of her homemade rugelach; Bruce Arbonies sharing red licorice whips; and Doug Mazan, usually a whipping boy of other kids, due to his reticent, shy manner, suddenly becoming a hero when he received a huge box of cookies and candy from his affluent parents.


Sued for a rotten brownie. What a load of hokum: if this is the way Americana is disappearing, into a California-style abyss of fear and liberalism, I’m taking my kids off the bus. They don’t need a Squirrely Shirley intercepting, and reading, letters and packages from the MUGGER household.


A brief detour to last Sunday’s Times. Maureen Dowd, mercifully on vacation for a couple of weeks, returns to her space on the op-ed page and what does she turn in? A very stupid piece on Runaway Bride, a current film that stars Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. Now that she has that Pulitzer, maybe it’s time for some editor with brains to dispatch Dowd to the ladies section of the paper, I mean “Sunday Styles,” where her increasingly tepid work will be easier to skip over.


In the Times Magazine, Alex Kuczynski was pulled off the Talk beat long enough for a by-the-book profile of James Truman, the editorial director of Conde Nast who has a mysterious job that’s probably not so mysterious: not quite Si Newhouse‘s butler, but certainly a gofer. Well-paid, with lots of perks, of course. By far the most interesting quote in the article was from Alexander Liberman, Truman’s 86-year-old predecessor, who said, “When I was at Vogue, there was no bar code on the cover… About 10 years ago they put a bar code on the cover, and that’s when the magazine ceased to be art and became a product to be sold like a bunch of bananas… I mean, really, do you think Vogue is about art now?”


Kuczynski gives Truman far too much credit for his early editorship of Details, saying that his “reinvention made it the first men’s magazine that truly integrated fashion, culture and politics. He did this by recognizing a new kind of man out there, unthreatened by women or by gay culture, fairly laid-back and hip. He was among the first to recognize the coming youthquake…” I’ll concede that Details under Truman was preferable to more recent incarnations, but the truth is that it sucked then, too. I don’t remember a word of politics in the magazine, although it’s undeniable that Truman made the magazine harder to read with a “youthquake” design. And maybe the reason the “new” man Kuczynski cites was unthreatened by gay culture was because he was gay.


Granted, Details floundered after Truman left (although Joe Dolce did his best under undoubtedly trying circumstances) and was virtually unreadable when Michael Caruso sat in the editor’s chair. His successor, Mark Golin, the wiseguy Maxim editor Truman raided, hasn’t had time yet to show what he’ll do with the title. The August issue is awful, in the Caruso-mold with Leelee Sobieski on the cover and a “Blair Witch Exclusive,” but I suspect that Golin has inherited a backlog of material. In any case, his “Editor’s Letter” is pretty funny, making fun of the demographics he’s forced to chase and the Conde Nast business staff that undoubtedly make his skin crawl. He closes: “And do pick up September’s issue when it hits the stand. It’s going to be either the big fashion issue…or 195 pages of 19th-century Shaker furniture.”


It was a quiet weekend at the homestead, with the boys already missing the day camp that they’d claimed to be bored with just a week ago. It’s no wonder: the gregarious and loving counselors, Sarah Murphy and Cristina Glogowski, were never at a loss for activities, whether it was swimming, fishing, trips to museums, water pistol fights or strolls in the garden at Washington Market Park. On Sunday morning, while I combed through the Post and Times, Junior watched some awful show called War Planets, followed by yet another viewing of Phantom Menace. Then he ran around the loft, dressed as Darth Maul, with a light saber, trying to induce his brother into a skirmish. That didn’t take much convincing. While Mrs. M was still sleeping, the two of them imposed upon me to go downstairs to the bodega for a box of Cap’n Crunch, since they knew their mom would never buy it. I did.

Later, while my wife and I napped, the kids met up with some friends, accompanied by their care-giver (I can’t resist slipping into Upper West Side lingo), and went skateboarding and then swimming in the wading pool on our rooftop. At dinnertime, we called out for pizza, watched the fabulous Marco on Nickelodeon‘s All That (who says there’re no black characters on tv?), tucked them in and then I saw the Red Sox win a 5-4 nail-biter over the Yankees, right on the heels of a ninth-inning win the day before, proving the club can’t yet be counted out of postseason play. Tim Wakefield, in relief of Bret Saberhagen, almost blew the game, but finally got Derek Jeter on a force-out with the bases loaded in the top of the ninth. John Ellis, one of The Boston Globe‘s best columnists (in fact, the only readable one aside from Jeff Jacoby), is leaving that paper for Fast Company, a serious blow to the Times farm team in New England. Ellis ain’t a Sox fan; earlier this year, in a piece that debated the merits of a new stadium to replace Fenway, he said who cares anyway, the Sox are perennial losers, just get used to it. See you in October, John. You buy the dogs and Cokes.



August 2

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