If everyone’s white, do you even realize the racism is there?

Sundown TownsI’ve probably mentioned here before that I grew up in Austin, Minnesota, a.k.a. Spamtown USA. Of course I noticed growing up that there were few if any African-Americans in town, but it had never occurred to me that there might once have been, and I was never told of any racial conflicts that had ever taken place.

In fact, race (at least the black/white divide) was almost a non-existent concept in my childhood. In the ’80s there were quite a few people in town of Asian descent, mostly refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, which was a source of its own kind of tension, but I’m sure I was at least 10 before I saw a black person in real life (although by then I knew Gordon, Susan, David and Olivia from Sesame Street quite well).

I’m not sure if I had ever even heard the term sundown town until today, when I happened to be searching online for something completely unrelated about Austin, and I was even more surprised to learn about a disturbing incident that took place in my hometown in 1922.

These days racial tension is going strong in Austin, due in large part to changes that have taken place in the economic environment of the city. So race is mixed up, along with economic class, immigration and labor union issues, into a complex and for the most part poorly-understood stew of thinly-veiled hatred, anger and frustration on every side.

I guess it just goes to show that the history of race relations in this country is far more complicated and troubled than many of us even know. In an election year where, for the first time, both a woman and an African-American have a real chance of becoming our next president, it’s important to reflect on how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go.

OK, putting ads on my site was worth it just for this

As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been running Google ads on my website for the better part of two years now. I do feel like a bit of a tool, but hey, it’s earned me a whopping $114 in cold hard cash so far. (OK, maybe that’s revealing too much about my low readership selective appeal.) But it was all worth it just to discover an ad for DopeKitz.com appearing on one of my music pages.

Now, the ad features some animation which is apparently JavaScript-driven from Google ads, because when I tried to save it to repost here, it was a JPEG (and if anyone out there has ever heard of an animated JPEG before, please let me know). So I’ll just have to recount the experience for you as best I can.

First, it says, in an EXTREME font (both distressed and metallic — a winning combination):

YOU A PRODUCER?

And then, in an even MORE EXTREME font (with randomly-sized, overlapping letters):

GOT HEAT?

Followed by an explosion of EXTREMENESS mixing multiple distressed fonts, and with a tantalizing sample of the mangled grammar to follow:

STEP YO’ GAME UP!

This then changes to the final frame, a still shot of the URL in bold black text: www.DOPEKITZ.com over a picture of a row of woofers.

Clicking the link takes you, of course, to DopeKitz.com, a place where design is alternately excessive or non-existent, and where the only apostrophes are in places where they don’t belong! A place that implores you to “Find out what some of the industrys Hottest producers Have already discovered.” (Yes, all apostrophes are optional and all H-words are capitalized.)

Don’t miss such outstanding products as “Killer Klapz 1 & 2” and “Monsta Drumz,” although my personal favorite is “Screwed Voicez.”

Whatever you do, just remember: “Dont Waste your DOE.”

(Incidentally I believe that was the only instance on the entire page of correct use of “your/you’re”; fortunately they’ve tempered it with errors in every other word in the sentence.)

Is this a joke?

Yesterday, contrary to all expectations, I fell in love with the new iPod nano.

I had never even considered a nano before, because I just felt I needed more capacity. But the other day I was looking at my 30 GB iPod and I discovered that I had over 3600 songs on it that I had never played and that was when I realized I didn’t really need to carry my entire music collection (or, to be honest, 1/3 of my entire collection, because that’s all 30 GB could hold) around with me. That opened the window of opportunity for the nano to win me over, but I still wasn’t really considering it. I was too in love with the idea of the giant screen and Internet access available on the iPhone or the iPod touch.

But yesterday, all of the pieces seemed to fit into place. My wife and I had planned a little weekend trip to Stillwater, MN and we were going to stay at the “historic” Lowell Inn. That logo should have told me everything I needed to know (mainly, that the place has been on a steady decline since the 1970s), but I overlooked it. We arrived in Stillwater and had a fine afternoon checking out the antique shops and vintage bookstores, and having lunch at the Freight House. But then at 3 we headed over to the Lowell to check in. I immediately sensed that the place wasn’t quite as luxurious as it appeared in the tiny photos on their website. Oh, sure, with your glasses off or squinting, everything looked really nice, but there were little details that said otherwise: paint chipping in places, the Post-It note by the front door indicating the location of the door bell, the bent vent grates, the loose stairway railings. But it was when we got to our room that our hearts really sank. We were expecting a suite, or at least a reasonably large room, or, well, let’s be honest, a bathroom that actually had walls and a door and not just a big curtain draped across it, that was too narrow to afford the user of the bathroom total privacy. (It was impossible for the curtain to be closed in such a way that a person sitting on the couch couldn’t see a person sitting on the toilet, either directly or in the mirror.) I also noticed more loose grates, and the headboard of the bed was barely attached, and other weirdness about the room, and was left in a bit of a funk. I probably wouldn’t have cared if the room hadn’t cost $168, but I just kept thinking of all of the other things I could’ve spent that money on.

So, after mulling it over for about 20 minutes, I mustered up the courage to do something I rarely ever do: we decided to go down and ask for our money back, and leave. The proprietor was a bit flustered at this, but he offered to cancel out the room and, if he was able to sell it to someone else, to refund our money. About a half hour later as we were leaving the Stillwater area to head back to Minneapolis, he called and let us know he had been successful. In the end I have to say I was extremely appreciative of the service we got, and I suppose the room’s antique charms might win over some guests, but in the end there is no way I will ever consider staying at the Lowell Inn again.

As we headed back we made our revised plans for the night. We were now flush with cash that we had intended to spend on the hotel and a nice (and commensurately expensive) meal at the Bayport Cookery. So we decided to go to Southdale instead so we could do some shopping and then head over to the Galleria for dinner at Big Bowl.

And so it was that I came to know and love the iPod nano. While SLP was visiting various clothing stores, I headed down to the Apple Store to play with the iPod touch. I had already seen a friend’s iPhone, but since I have less than zero interest in switching to AT&T, I know that particular gadget will remain elusively out-of-reach for me. So, the iPod touch. I was really enjoying looking at it, but then I happened to go over and check out the new nano. It was just a curiosity, nothing else, but I fell in love instantly. The screen, though small, is unbelievably sharp; I love the new user interface; and it is so small! It’s the first iPod I’ve seen (aside from the useless iPod shuffle) that I could actually imagine carrying around in my pocket most or all of the time.

I didn’t buy it immediately, although I wanted to. But the rock solid logic of this basically being the amount of money we saved by not being stuck in the Lowell Inn for a night convinced SLP as well, and on our way back home from Southdale we stopped at the new Super Target that just opened in Richfield, and that’s where I got it.

Now, on to the actual topic of this post. This morning I was checking out Apple’s website for carrying case options for the new iPod nano. I was a little disappointed that the new models don’t come with the little faux-leather slip sleeve that my previous, 5th generation iPod came with. And as I perused the options I discovered the iPod nano swimbelt. Yes, it’s real. Apple doesn’t joke when there’s money to be had. But do people actually swim with their iPods? Apparently at least one person does, because there is one (and only one) superlative review of this product there on the site.

A Virtual Tour of the Salton Sea

I’ve always been fascinated with maps, and with studying all of the intricate details of various random places on the planet. Perhaps the one place that has provided me with more morbid fascination than any other, though, is the Salton Sea.

Most people who know me well have already been regaled with tales of the bizarre origins and even more bizarre current state of the nation’s largest cesspool. I’ll leave it to you and Google to learn more on your own. I do hope someday to get around to scanning the photos an old California acquaintance took for me there, though: countless dead fish washed up on a foul beach; the rusted-out shell of a half-submerged bus; and more scenes too depressing and/or disturbing for words.

But back on the topic of Google, one of the great wonders of “Web 2.0” (the quotes aren’t part of the name, but they should be) is Google Maps, particularly the satellite image feature. While I find it somewhat disturbing that Google makes available to any lunatic with Internet access a fairly detailed aerial photograph of my house, I love being able to use it to vicariously explore areas that would either be too expensive or impractical to visit for real.

Sadly, it’s too late for vicarious exploration of the Salton Sea, at least parts of it. My curiosity got the best of me (and SLP), and I actually dragged her along on a day-long trek to that God-forsaken hell hole back when we lived in Southern California in the late 1990s. But we only explored the eastern shore, specifically the Salton Sea State “Recreational” Area (quotes mine) and the “lovely” village (quotes no one’s) of Bombay Beach. The bitter remnants of foolhardy land developers’ shattered dreams in the western shore towns of Desert Shores and Salton City are far superior in their desolation. (That said, there was still a moment in Bombay Beach, while driving along the nearly abandoned waterfront, where I was on the verge of a panic attack after being overcome with dread and foreboding.)

Here’s good place (Fig. 1) to start our virtual aerial tour of Desert Shores. Both Desert Shores and Salton City present some indication of the scope of those aforementioned shattered dreams in the form of pointless grids of unused dirt roads stretching a considerable distance inland from the shore.

Figure 1
Figure 1.

But the waterfront is still the most fascinating — and terrifying — place for me. Note the artificial peninsulas jutting into the water, perfectly designed for primo waterfront property with boat access. Oh but wait, most of the peninsulas are completely featureless, save for the discolorations left behind by the mobile homes (Fig. 2) that, at some time in the distant past, had once been there. (Mobile home footprints are pretty easy to figure out… but I have no idea what the hell happened here [Fig. 3].)

Figure 2
Figure 2.
Figure 3
Figure 3.

Of course, some hardy souls won’t be dissuaded so easily by the fear of others, the lack of any semblance of a viable local economy, or the putrid stench of decay that blankets the area. Here we see a (relatively) thriving street (Fig. 4) with three lavish compounds, one with a swimming pool (why?) and another with a tennis court.

Figure 4
Figure 4.

And what can I even say about this image (Fig. 5)? Here, at the end of the most miserable stretch of waterfront property in the known universe, it appears someone has parked their car for some nefarious purpose. My theory is that it was a suicide, perhaps decades ago, and I may be the first person since the event to notice that the car is even there.

Figure 5
Figure 5.

See how depressing this place is? I’m 2000 miles away and it’s making me lose the will to live.

Moving on… on a lighter note, I believe I’ve found the thriving commercial hub of Desert Shores (Fig. 6). (The Sea and Sun Motel is likely nearby.) Just off the four-lane (I know, I can’t believe it either) highway that skirts the western edge of the town, I see several cars and a few semi trucks. And a large building with two large, empty parking lots. But there’s a lot of activity across the street to the south! Oh wait, I think that’s a junkyard.

Figure 6
Figure 6.

There is one segment of the tourist market that is drawn to the area: the kind of people for whom this sort of landscape (Fig. 7) inspires excitement. Much of the desert wasteland of inland Southern California — south of Palm Springs and Joshua Tree, north of the heavily irrigated Imperial Valley agricultural area (an artificially lush area whose early and ongoing development were largely responsible for both the initial and accidental creation of the Salton Sea and for its perpetually increasing putrescence), and east of any place a rational person would ever care to venture — is designated for recreational use of the kinds of loud, heavily polluting, generally obnoxious all-terrain vehicles that are rightly banned throughout the vast majority of civilization.

Figure 7
Figure 7.

So, let us conclude today’s lesson geography lesson on this positive note: for every crazy place on Earth, there’s some crazy person who will like being there.

For instance (you knew I couldn’t just leave it at that): Moving a hundred miles or so to the northwest, here we have a look at an interesting stretch of the Cajon Pass (Fig. 8). You’ll notice four distinct bands of pavement here. The two on the right — four lanes in each direction — are Interstate 15, the main route connecting the greater Los Angeles metro area to the High Desert cities and on to Las Vegas. The two on the left are “Historic Route 66,” now San Bernardino County Road 66.

Figure 8
Figure 8.

But wait, look closely! Back before I-15 was there, Route 66 was a divided 4-lane, but now that’s clearly superfluous, and San Bernardino County has decommissioned half of the road and turned it back into a 2-lane. I once drove this stretch on a return trip from Las Vegas to Los Angeles where I decided (insanely, as it turned out — almost worthy of a resident of Desert Shores) to eschew the Interstates and see if it was still possible to make the trip entirely on alternate routes. My idea was that I’d follow Historic Route 66 as much as possible, but I discovered somewhere in the vast stretches of desert east of Barstow that while the road technically still existed, it was no longer maintained. I also discovered just how much damage scorching desert sun can do to pavement in a couple of decades. So before long I was back on I-40, but as soon as 66 was passable again, I exited the Interstate. So here it was in the Cajon Pass that I discovered the curiosity that is the decommissioned half of Route 66. The pavement is still in relatively good condition, albeit overgrown with weeds. The maintained 2-lane is excellent and a joy to drive compared to the exercise in anxiety that I-15 poses (with speeds averaging 85 to 90 MPH in the slow lane, and perpetually heavy traffic). But the decommissioned half is far more interesting. There are many median crossings, and although the road is no longer open to traffic, the county makes no effort to keep people off of it. I noticed a surprising number of sad looking old men sitting alone in their parked cars in shady spots, staring up at the trees… the mountain… the sky… the drifting memory of an idealized past, gone forever.

A note on the images contained on this page: These are screen captures from Google Maps. I realize these are copyrighted, and I am making no attempt to pawn them off as my own. The only reason I’m including them instead of just linking to Google Maps (which I am also doing) is because as I learned when I sent one of the links to a friend, the image on Google Maps is cropped to the size of your browser window, so despite the coordinates I’ve set, what you see may not be exactly what I was intending for you to see. So, in other words, yes, I copied these images from Google Maps, but it’s their own fault. And they should also remember that the only money I make off this site, pitiful as it is, comes from their own ad service, so they’re making money here anyway… surely more than I am.

A note on the Salton Sea itself: I’ve just learned that there’s a documentary out now called Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea by Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer and narrated by John Waters. I have not seen it but it looks interesting, and is probably more enlightening on the nature of the place than spending an hour looking at satellite photos. I just hope it includes a visit to the site of Figure 3. (The link to the trailer on the official site doesn’t seem to work, but I found it on YouTube.)

Addendum (October 30, 2006): While there is (obviously) plenty to talk about just within the Desert Shores area, I would be remiss if I neglected to give more than passing mention to the saddest and most incredible area of the land surrounding the Salton Sea, that being Salton City itself, an extensively planned yet sparsely developed area (have a look — zoom out and pan around to see just how expansive it really is… or would have been) that one could envision having developed into a metropolis to rival a reeking version of Palm Springs.

The humble quest for cheap furniture

Last night was not unlike so many other nights in my household, although it was imbued with a special sense of purpose. Far more than the usual preparations had taken place: I made the great trek to the basement to retrieve the tape measure and actually determine with some level of accuracy the physical dimensions of a space in our house that we envisioned filling with yet more cheaply priced, cheaply made, pressed-sawdust-and-glue-with-fake-woodgrain-laminate-surface, some-assembly-required (OK, all-assembly-required, and-with-a-tiny-awkward-metric-Allen-wrench-at-that) furniture, courtesy of IKEA.

IKEA is a mystical place with a rabid cult-like following, and for many years SLP and I have counted ourselves among them. We pined for the big blue-and-yellow box when we left California, and we praised the heavens when we learned it would finally grace the adopted homeland of 99% of the world’s Swedish emigrants. (C’mon, what took so long?)

But I gotta say, the magic is wearing thin. Too many meals of dried-out overcooked meatballs and new potatoes for which the adjective can only be intended as irony. Too many cheap pieces that took way too long to assemble and then never quite matched anything else and eventually ended up in the basement, on the curb, or in pieces (for sport).

Alas, last night was just such a time. We were on a mission to locate and acquire at least five, perhaps more, short bookcases to line a knee wall below an angled ceiling in our upstairs. But the $20 “Kilby” (or was that “Billy”… or “Fjørnårsl” or some such nonsense) bookcases we had our eyes on happened to be 2 inches too tall. Oh well, at least we fed the entire family for under $11.

What to do… I know! Let’s try Target! 80% of the cheap, DIY furniture in our house may be from IKEA, but the other 20% is from Target, and the bookcases we already have and know will fit, which we thought we had gotten at IKEA, must’ve actually been from Target.

The problem is, Target’s gotten too big for its britches. In trying, admirably, to position itself in stark contrast to Wal-Mart, they’ve gone and done away with all of the basics, like the cheap, no-frills Sauder (slogan: “Good furniture made possible”… yes, possible!) bookcases and such that they used to carry for years and years. My wife constantly complains that Target is lacking this or that simple necessity, but for me, now, it finally hit home.

Faced with having my grand mission of obtaining approximately 25 cubic feet of book storage for less than $100 devolve into nothing more than a rambling trek along American Boulevard, with nothing to show for a wasted evening besides a mediocre meal and my son’s Blue’s Clues jigsaw puzzle (which just goes to prove Target Axiom #2*), I pulled out one last possibility.

Well… we could always try Menards.

Now you have to understand, I am deeply scarred from a lifetime of unwilling exposure to the Menards guy (yes, I was just as shocked as you are). He’s long since retired, but the mind-melting jingle (“Save big money at Menards!”) endures. I have nothing against the place, in particular; it’s just not a place I generally think to go to for… you know… anything.

But it just so happens that there was one a convenient distance from Target. On our way home, in fact. So, why not check it out? I was amazed. They had a mountain of just the cheap Sauder bookcases I was looking for… but a new model… wider… and on sale for $15.88! So we actually ended up getting more precious cubic feet and saving about $20 from what we’d expected to pay at IKEA or Target.

I was a bit disheartened, though, to notice the bookcases are apparently a part of Sauder’s “Beginnings” product line. Ten years of marriage, and we’re still stuck on “Beginnings.”

Anyway… tonight came time for assembly. Now I’ve put together enough cheap furniture (and then some) in my lifetime. I’ve seen so many of that particular sort of cam locking screw mechanisms (and the wooden support pegs that always seem to be paired with them) that I could probably put together something assembled with them without instructions… or tools… using my feet… while sleeping… in another house.

Sadly, it was not enough humiliation for them to simply call these bookcases “Beginnings.” No, no. The cam locks are gone, and in their place a new device of such cunning design, given the almost sinister appellation “hidden connector,” that I am convinced that the only reason Sauder still retains designers in its employ is to concoct ever more devious, counterintuitive, and downright impossible means of sticking two boards together. What’s so bad about, you know, a screw?

The hidden connector consists of a circular piece of brown plastic, about the size of a quarter and 1/4 inch thick, with two opposing holes on the edge and a large angled hole on one side. These are pounded with a hammer into circular holes that just slightly overlap the edge of the shelf boards. Then you insert special screws into the angled side hole and stick them through the edge hole that lines up with the place where the hole in the wood overlaps the edge (are you still with me?), although actually you should have put the screw in the plastic piece first… that’s easier.

Next, try to figure out a way to stick a screwdriver in the hole at an angle and actually make solid contact with the screw head. Good. Next, attach the shelf to the side pieces, and repeat for the other shelf… but don’t attach it too well, or you’ll never get the bottom bracing board, held in with four metal pegs, in place without having to use undue force and, in the process, scratch the hell out of the thin layer of laminated oak pattern lithographed paper that’s glued to the outer surface of the pressed-sawdust-and-glue boards that constitute this fine piece of furniture, the best you can buy for the price of a CD or an extra large supreme pizza.

OK, how long did that take, 45 minutes? Great! One down, four to go!

Ah, the things I’ll do to save a buck.

* Target axioms: 1) If you go into Target set on buying one small thing, and only that one small thing, you will still somehow end up spend at least $50 and needing one of those jumbo plastic shopping bags to hold your purchases; 2) Even if you are absolutely convinced that you will walk out of Target empty-handed, if only just this once, you’ll still end up buying at least one item.

Addendum (October 27, 2006): I’m sad to report that it appears the “Menards Guy” website is no more. As for the Menards Guy himself, I do not know…