Two Slice Santorum's Secret Ingredient

Of all the things I'm looking into, I've spent a considerable amount of time searching for connections between rural and urban America. The gap might be growing between the two. Still, I honestly don't see outright hostility across that divide. While doing research for this book, I spend time in both "places" - asking people questions that sometimes reflect upon separate states of mind. For those reading closely, you saw that I spent a few days last week in a mostly progressive and fascinating enclave within a sprawling urban landscape - I'm winking at you West Hollywood. A few weeks prior to that, I logged 1800 miles crisscrossing three states in the upper Midwest. I talk with liberals. I talk with conservatives. I've got an angle - we all do - and it comes from questions I have about a very particular snippet of America that I see having connections all across the map.

Now this will sound like a stretch, but I'm led at this moment to think about Rick Santorum and where he resides in the America I'm exploring. You've probably heard some form of his most recent punching bag quotes, loosely paraphrased as "Obama wants everyone to go to college - what a snob" and "JFK's claim that church and state should be separate made me throw up." There are so many others, all of which I can guarantee you based on real experience are percolating in the opposition research archives of countless young politicos, reporters and satirists waiting to make the next "Aha!" point to help their particular aim. The easy and gratifying money is to bet on what Santorum will next come out against (how about refrigerators - "America was a much better place when we just got huge chunks of ice delivered - daily"). My point isn't that his hyperbolic, dated character is on par with Bryce Dallas Howard (Hilly) from the movie version of "The Help". Although if he keeps this up, all of America may soon be leaving toilets on his lawn (read the book and/or see the movie if you miss the reference). No, I'm saying that what's being seen in Santorum's language is a matter of creating an American separation that just doesn't exist anywhere but in the mind of a few dispirited outliers. Maybe he'll do the one thing that no one else in America seems capable of doing - getting people to finally pull the lever for Bob Dole, er...Mitt Romney (although the strong possibility of Democrats crossing over during the open primary in Michigan to vote for Santorum makes too much disruptive and predictive sense to me). Still, wherever you reside in this America - urban or rural, current or past, happy or angry - this sort of separate but equal revisionism just doesn't reflect anything I've seen out there. Call me an optimist. Or a snob - I don't mind.

Sorry - just had to get that off my chest.

What I've learned thus far in LA - Celebrity Lookalike Edition

I'm in Los Angeles. West Hollywood, specifically. WeHo - as the locals have deemed their (relatively) young City. There's a confluence of issues and sources here that fascinate me - book research, I assure you. And my first day spent on the job here yesterday was incredibly insightful. The things I saw outside of my central pursuit were equally - maybe even more so - interesting. If you live in LA, I'm sure the daily absurdities wash over you like just so many hours spent in a car struggling to get from place to place. But for this visitor, I simply can't let things go unmentioned without being something of a tourist as I allow my eye to wander. I'll offer a few choice moments. Starting with something smack in the middle of my quick tour.

Few places seem busier than Whole Foods around dinner time in a city now entirely obsessed with the sorts of goods for sale there. The parking lot is total mayhem - a small piece of what I imagine Baghdad looked like just after the American invasion. But with much nicer cars. Once inside, it's readily apparent that everyone shops like they just stole a credit card from their parents. I had one of my few celebrity sightings of the day there - Mena Suvari, buying a somewhat reserved version of the grab bag of goofiness all the rest of us seem to need to survive. Outside of that entertaining but overlong errand to fill the fridge in my hotel, I had cultural pursuits that put wind in my sails. A great conversation with one of the booksellers at the cool indie store Book Soup in WeHo - I often ask how unwritten books (wink, wink) would be shelved in the mindset of this shop or that. Later I made a valiant attempt to get in for a show at The Groundlings - I should have bought a ticket online when I looked over the weekend. Everyone's curiously circling around that comedy troupe as the farm system for stardom. Vaguely recognizable faces mixed in with us rabble. Along with that of Cedric the Entertainer who waltzed inside with a happy looking group just before those of us in the rush tix line had our short wait ended in vain. No worries - thereafter I followed the LA Weekly's "best o' the day" suggestion and headed to Skylight Books in the Los Feliz neighborhood. My LA experience isn't that deep - I surely wouldn't have gotten there were it not for my iPhone. But I'm so glad I did. It was a tribute to a departed local legend - Scott Wannberg - by a cast of characters Charles Bukowski would have lovingly conjured up had they not collectively and individually beaten him to the punch.

After that soul-edifying and bookstore-validating showcase, I was in the process of killing some time before a late showing of "Shame" at the Los Feliz Theatre up the block (it's a movie I recommend, if you can somehow imagine drawing comfort from watching horrible things happen to questionable people - portrayed in full frontal artiness). A curious fellow started chatting me up. Or vice versa. He being of the meandering line of thinking and the appearance of someone who spends plenty of nights on the street. And me being of the killing time variety of the uninitiated. He'd been asked to come up to speak at Wannberg's tribute. Although he often trailed off into mumbles and finding his charm was something you had to work at, it was obvious this man had many stories to tell. After a series of back and forths, he complimented me. Well, that's what I'm calling it. Because it was so beautifully random and dated that I can't see it in any other way. He said I had the look of many men. The list - and this is for real - was as follows: Sting, John Glenn, Ken Berry, and Dean Jagger. Given that yesterday was the 50th anniversary of John Glenn's mission to be the first American in orbit - I'll take it as a karmic compliment while still hoping he meant the younger, Right Stuff-ier version. And when I Googled Dean Jagger, I also hoped for the younger. Much, much younger. Putting aside that obvious vanity, I was reminded later by searching that Ken Berry was a character actor I saw countless times in the 70s. It should be noted that in delivering the "compliment" this fellow said most people these days don't remember people from the decades he recalls best. I didn't thank him for that. Which I should have. I can actually see some of those hints and resemblances (sorry, Sting). We all have our celebrity lookalikes - some more au courant than others. For everything else I've seen here already and hope to see, that's the conversation that floats to the top of what I'm brewing up currently.

With that spilled out and my thinking freed up, the time comes for more exploring. I hope to offer up more here soon in this or an equally random vein, if you care to check back. But thanks for doing so.

Reading fashion's tea leaves...me stupefied

As NYC's Fall Fashion Week draws to a close, what did I learn? Not much. I'd compare it to speed shopping for snowmobiles to take back home to the family's date plantation in Dubai. Obviously, there's an unbridged gap between the description of what's being shown on the runways and what can be learned by the uninitiated. Maybe I should have spent more time watching "Project Runway". Or any time, really. Maybe I should have learned to sew so I could dissect just how much artistry goes into the construction of clothes. Sadly, the solitary, mandatory "home ec" class I endured in 8th Grade slipped away like an unsecured knot of invisible thread. Still, I looked for themes - things that might seem to carry through from designer to designer. One thing I thought I was seeing was a strong Chinese theme - Jason Wu's buzz thanks to his Michelle Obama connection at least echoed a bit in what I perused early on. But then I realized I was probably only channeling the single actual live fashion show I saw when I'd traveled to Beijing last September. No, I'm not able to take that leap of pretension into "trend forecasting". Although that term - "trend forecasting" and the concept that some people make their bones doing so - did get me thinking. In that pursuit, looking at fashion is no different than obsessing over any public art form. Yes - I said it. Fashion is, quite surely, art. From that admission, however, the concept crosses over for me into a vast, shared space with all the other forms of discourse and commerce. If you'll indulge me - in this way of thinking...fashion is literature is the Westminster Dog Show is political horse-race handicapping. Because for every person who is deep in the process of doing the job, there are countless minions of others dissecting and trying to "trend forecast" what is being created or shown or discussed. And like that vast majority of other forecasters, I can no more say what trend will move from the runway to the Street than why a flouncy little Pekingese could ever beat a Dalmatian or an Irish Setter. Or why Rick Santorum in a sweater vest makes any more sense than Mitt Romney in a tattersall shirt. In other words, I'm done reading fashion's tea leaves. At least until I learn to securely anchor some of those buttons I'm currently missing.

What comes to mind when traffic keeps me from "A Separation"

The older and more decidedly rooted in my urbanity I become, the more sensitive I become to the growing separation between urban and rural America. Not exactly sexy Friday night stuff. But I missed my art house movie, so this is what's on my mind at the moment. If we're discussing institutions that remain to hopefully bridge that physical and metaphorical separation, none that I can think of have the singular and almost spiritual importance packaged up in the grand metaphor of the U.S. Postal Service. There's very little news in the statement that these are tough times for that institution. But this week's release of truly terrible numbers from the last quarter of 2011 adds fuel to the engine driving toward a major retooling of what we all get for the price of a stamp. In a nutshell, a $3.3B loss during what should be the biggest time of year for the people still using the mail means drastic changes are ahead. From here, the debate over what to retain seems in need of a modern King Solomon. But for me it provides a fascinating test for how rural history will continue to intersect with commerce all over the map. Soon the debate will arise in Congress for all those Constitutional originalists who also supposedly wear the green eyeshades of deficit and/or debt hawks. Article One, baby - it's in there. Beyond that, though, anecdotes do matter. What about all those mail order businesses in small town America - should they send their specialty wares out by email? And what about newspapers? Imagine a daily paper being delayed by a few days - at the earliest, if the stripped down system remains. I keep looking for a Solomonic way of reasoning for this "split the baby and deliver it on time" conundrum. I'm just riffing here, but what about if we partnered a for-profit business with the idea of keeping all those thousands of small town meeting places occupied? If you keep the buildings, they will come. So get cracking (and packing), America. I'd hate to think of a Starbucks on Main Street in every small town across the Land, but that may be what sort of outside the drop box thinking that's called for in these new times. All I know for sure is that if the Postal Service is shuttered, I'll be clamoring to open a franchise for some new sort of Pony Express. Just imagine the crowds of romantics - and hipsters - looking to reclaim this analog manner of communicating. It could be the cat's pajamas.

Looking for the lowdown on high fashion

Lightening strikes twice in a row for me in this - I'm really getting excited about NYC's "Fall Fashion Week". I'm still no fashionista. No matter what the photos of me from my modeling days in the 80s may offer as contrary evidence. The point being that I'm trying to find my way down that absurd, generally appalling, yet still interesting catwalk so that I might peer upon the beast that is fashion with a capital "Fascism" (minus the "-ism"). And like what I presume to be 99.99% of those interested, I'm doing so long-distance. Finding my way to the exclusive online shows is a bit like digging for truffles in the Amazon. If any of you have suggestions for how to find the hottest shows attended only by those truly in the know - along with the savvy few sitting in darkened basements in what I picture as little more than their boxers - I'm all ears, dahling.

NOTE: One streaming avenue I saw noted in the WSJ recently that supposedly will offer these events online is KCD Worldwide (if you're out there trolling, lovely and amazing KCD folks...hey, how you doin'?). From what I can tell, they are in effect a PR firm representing the people who mostly wouldn't give you the time of day back in high school. Maybe if I keep asking, they'll let me in for part of it ("Mercedes-Benz Fall Fashion Week" runs from February 9th through the 16th). I mean it's not like I'm asking them to go to prom with me - just open the door a crack and let me see what people do when they're hanging out watching other people be awesome and beautiful. Actually, that sounds a little locker room creepy. If it works, what's the harm in that? Point being, I promise you won't even know I'm there and I won't make a sound. Well, aside from a few Tweets. Air kiss.

The biology of stink

Since returning to Seattle, I've been thinking about what makes animals smell anything but sweet. Some recent vet science and associated folksy conversations got that thought bubbling. What really made me take notice was the paired timing of a NYTimes "Science" section piece earlier this week on that particular trait. Given that it's also Groundhog Day, I'm today pondering what makes certain animals so darn, well, funky. I'm sure Punxsatawny Phil has a wholly unnatural grooming regimen given how pristine and camera ready he always appears when hauled from the ceremonial stump in Pennsylvania (in case you missed it, America - 2012 will feature an extra six weeks of this weird year's version of winter). But run across a groundhog in the wild and it would surely give off a bit more than a cutesy pose. I think anyone who's ever crossed or even just considered in passing the skunk has the anecdotal equipment to know how certain animals can really musk it up. I grew up surrounded by - or obliviously steeped in - one such brand of powerful stench. And as any farm kid will tell you, the stink signature of certain animals can be dissected and discerned from a mile away. Much more so if you happen to be driving anywhere through farm country in the middle of summer. It's the chemistry of those individual stink signatures that I'm currently sniffing around. That's what passes for fun 'round these parts.