Friday, November 30, 2007

It's Out There

Imagine that you're a trucker. Naturally, like all Americans, you were affected in at least some emotional sense by the terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center. Now imagine, as a trucker, the best possible thing you could do to memorialize that event.

No, wait. Better yet, forget imagining that you're a trucker. Just imagine whatever you think would be the the best thing a trucker might do. Now, any smart trucker is just going to go about his business and mourn the loss of life in a quiet way; he's not going to memorialize 9/11, at least not externally. No, you gotta imagine what a misguided trucker who left a few brain cells right next to the ephedrine on the bedside stand at Motel 6 might do.

So, if you're imagining a red, white, and blue 18-wheeler with murals on all sides, emblazoned with a slogan that reinterprets or even reimspiritinates "Never forget!" and "Always Remember!" and leaves them in the rhetorical dust, you're on the right track. Now, if there could be no greater trucker memorial than the one you're imagining, would it be only imaginary? Or would it be real? Or would it take the form of a miniature, radio-controlled semi sold at the Iowa 80 Truck Stop?

Of course, a real memorial is greater than an imaginary one, so if this really is the trucker's memorial of which there is No Greater Trucker Memorial (NGTM), then the NGTM must necessarily be real. Think of it this way: if you can imagine the NGTM as existing only in your mind, but you can also imagine it existing for reals, the former is absurd because the latter is in fact greater by virtue of its existence. Indeed, the only thing even better than one NGTM is the form of the NGTM also being impressed on hundreds of RC trucks which can be purchased for the bargain price of $89.99 each.

And in truth, that is precisely the case. I had seen the RC trucks, and just as "the fool says in his heart, 'There is no God'" I thought to myself, "This is so absurd it could not possibly exist in reality." How wrong both the fool and I were! It turns out that John Holmgren of Shafer, MN, has indeed created (or perhaps channeled) the NGTM, and here it is. The "Rolling Memorial." Check your local Love's or Iowa 80-affiliated truck stop for the RC version. Have you forgotten?

Thursday, November 29, 2007


Recently, the distinguished members of the MWF Transfer Student Lunch Table were discussing some point of theological profundity too deep to relate here when some soul present mentioned Billy Graham and Joel Osteen in the same breath. I can't remember what they were saying, but I think they were drawing some sort of comparison or assigning the two to some sort of shared class. Isaiah N. responded by stating that only one of the two was American.

Initially, I took this to mean that Graham was American and Osteen, Texan. Makes sense, right? Texas (or Mexas) is its own entity; as evidence I submit to you that I never recovered from the culture shock I got living in Dallas. But I think what Isaiah meant was something like this: Osteen is essentially American, and Graham is only accidentally so. The idea is, I think, that if American culture suddenly ceased to be, Joel would suddenly burst into a pleasant puff of pink smoke and naught would remain of his presence but a pile of dollar-colored dust. Billy, on the other hand, could have been born in Africa, Europe, China, or Mexico, and his gospel message would have remained more or less the same.

Maybe it's an obvious point. But I wonder if Graham's methods weren't distinctly American, too, just those of a different era. Maybe Graham was simply more modest. Certainly the message he preached had a very different thrust than the stuff of Osteen. Graham didn't buy a stadium to hold church in...he just rented 'em and broadcast the goings on via TV. I kinda think Ol' Billy was just as American as you, me, or Gary Johnston (double major in theatre and world languages at Iowa University). I don't mind it too much. Mostly I just like to think about Joel Osteen evaporating in pink puff of smoke and drifting out over the Pacific.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Question of the Canadian Tuxedo

What are the logical consequences of the Canadian Tuxedo?

To begin to understand this problem, we must first understand the nature of the Canadian Tuxedo itself. A Canadian Tuxedo is generally agreed to consist of a denim jacket worn with jeans. If there be any disagreement, please make it known. However, whether the Canadian Tuxedo consists simply of the jacket and jeans, or furthermore involves a denim button-down shirt and/or vest, I think the essence of the Canadian Tuxedo should be clear enough.

While the tuxedo analogy may be readily apprehended, what particular Canadianness pertains to a denim jacket/pants combination? It's popularity amongst our northerly neighbors? Is there any evidence that this ensemble is any more popular in Canada than say, in Croatia or even the United States? Based on the evidence of readily visible Canadians--Jim Carrey, Barenaked Ladies, Red Green--such an inductive argument would be hard to make. Even allowing for the proposition that famous Canadians by their famousness represent a group more likely to wear actual tuxedos, the contrary propensity of American-worn Canadian Tuxedos would serve to negate any particular Canadianness.

Perhaps we should consider what we connote when we employ the designation "Canadian." Doug Gibson has made an interesting case for referring to home-schoolers as Canadians. According to Gibson, home-schoolers may be properly be called Canadians because they share with Canadians a certain Otherness. Homeschoolers, like Canadians, possess and exhibit an ineffable Something that sets them apart from familiar society. Canadians possess and exhibit an equally ineffable Something; the nature of the Something does not matter so much as its distinguishing quality and social effect. Put another way, if one cannot put ones finger on what makes a newly-made acquaintance subtly but decidedly different, "He's homeschooled" or "She's Canadian" both confer the same comforting sense of illumination. One interesting facet of Gibson's logic is that, by extension, "Canadian" is a more accurate term for a homeschooler than "homeschooler," since (1) homeschoolers often attend co-ops, play sports for public or private schools, and/or attend community college and are therefore not strictly home-educated and (2) Canadian home-schoolers may, theoretically, exist.

At this juncture, we might conjure a feminine equivalent of the Canadian Tuxedo based on homeschooler attire, something on the order of a denim jumper worn over a blue denim blouse: the Canadian Evening Gown. This, however, would be fallacious. We must remember that Canadian in this context refers to a very definite Otherness, but not to homeschooledness particularly. This is not to say that a Canadian Evening Gown would not consist of a denim jumper over a denim blouse, only that it would be a logical error to arrive there via the avenue of home-education.

If the Canadian in Canadian Tuxedo only denotes quality x of Canadians (and homeschoolers),
however, we have made little progress toward understanding why denim is its source material. Consider George Constanza's emphatic insistence that he would drape himself in velvet were it socially acceptable. Now, while the precise social acceptability of draping oneself in velvet is debatable (in fact, a friend of mine once dated a man who draped not only himself, but his entire apartment, in velvet), it is certainly no less subjective than that of draping oneself in denim. If a known degree of social deviance were the essence of Canadian, we might call a Canadian tuxedo any ensemble fashioned of a material whose use falls outside the standard deviation. An outfit consisting of courderoy pants, jacket, and newsboy's hat seems as likely a candidate.

But intuitively we might want to call such a courderoy ensemble a Welsh Priest's Frock and a velvet one a Romanian Spacesuit. We must examine the essence and accidents (attributes) of denim if we are to solve the mystery of the Canadian Tuxedo. Essential to denim is its Americanness. This point cannot be argued. While the rest of the world has adopted its use, it has not adopted denim qua denim, but denim qua American Stuff, the denim fiber representing the most elemental of essentially American molecules.

As far as American imitators go, no country competes with Canada. Quebec aside, Canada looks, sounds, sings, drives, and acts American. At least as far as clothing is concerned, nothing is more American than denim. We associate it with the inventiveness of Levi Strauss, the rugged individualism of the Old West, and the too-cool-for-schoolness of James Dean. Therefore, denim represents the standard of perfection if one is to dress American. Yet, in principle, the closer a thing comes to accurately mimicking another thing, the more fraudulent it becomes. An accurately reproduced $1 bill is more fraudulent than a $6 bill of similar quality.

Indeed, one of the pitfalls of imitation is the failure to apprehend the true nature of the thing one imitates. Often, this manifests in an over-achievement. I would argue that the reason we think of a denim-jacket-and-jeans combo as a Canadian Tuxedo lies in the suspicion that the Canadian assumes that more denim means more American. Thus the Canadian, in an attempt to out-American the American, might wear nothing but denim. Furthermore, we suspect that the Canadian confuses the essentiality of denim with its transcendence. That is, the Canadian confuses the primacy of denim in the hierarchy of Americaness with a sort of primacy of in the hierarchy of classiness. Thus, it comprises his Tuxedo.

Of course, we Americans know that denim is elemental to our couture, but it is not its totality. It is also not the most noble of materials; in fact, I would argue that we are comfortable with that notion as a reflection of our culture at large, but that is a topic for another time. What is important is that we estimate the Canadian's fashion sense to be such that a preponderance of denim would join the apices of Americanism and fashion. This, I surmise, is why we refer to the denim jacket and jeans as a Canadian Tuxedo. It also suggests why Americans wear Canadian Tuxedos at least as often as Canadians; it simply represents a failure to grasp--due to hickness, fuddy-duddiness, or even homeschooledness--the nature of denim as it pertains to America and its locus on the hierarchy of couture material.

Friday, November 02, 2007

For those of us Non-Saints

Happy All Souls Day.

Early 11th century, Burgundy: Odilo is abbott of Cluny, a monastery dedicated to prayer. During a time when the best a needy Christian could do was petition a heavenly saint for intercession, Odilo and his brethren apparently had the guts to take their requests all the way to the Big Guy himself.

One day a foreigner arrived at the monastery with an unusual story. Shipwrecked on a presumably deserted island, the traveller nevertheless encounters a hermit. The hermit tells him of a place on the island where something mysterious happens. He invites the traveller to the spot and instructs him to incline his ear to the ground. The traveller hears demons conversing. The demons complain that the souls they afflict in purgatory are having their burdens eased by the prayers of the monks at Cluny.

Impressed that the prayers of ordinary monks proved so potent, Odilo declared the day after All Saints' Day as All Souls' Day to commemorate the efficacy of lay prayer for the living and limboed. His November 2 holiday spread throughout the region and was eventually adopted by the Church itself. Hooray for St. Odilo, and Happy All Souls' Day, friends.