cats & modernism

suddenly, Mr. Whiskers realized that not even Frank Lloyd Wright could design an adequate scratching post

suddenly, Mr. Whiskers realized that not even Frank Lloyd Wright could design a scratching post that would meet his expectations

A notice came across our desk today that identifies October 29 as National Cat Day (not to be confused with International Cat Day on August 8, which is a semi-legit event sponsored by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, who seem like very decent folks), which is founded by someone who calls herself a “pet and family lifestyle expert, animal behaviorist, designer and author” but who somehow does not even have her own wiki.  Unlike most “national” holidays, Cat Day has a sponsor: a kitty litter company.

This is silly, and not only if present company raises an eyebrow to the idea that cats deserve any kind of celebration (dogs, on the other hand . . . ).  Rather, our concern is for the sake of the felines themselves.  Did anyone ask them if they wanted or needed the honor?  We assume their response would have been a collective are you kidding dahhhrling, every day is cat day, before (or while) they sauntered away to poop in the fern.

Still, the pictures of cats in architecture got us wondering.  Of course the picture-story from Architizer features only Modernist buildings, but this time the bias seems only too perfect.  Slinky, sexy and alluring, yet cold, aloof, high-maintenance and unaccommodating: cats & modernism are a match made . . . somewhere.

truth be told, we dig this one

truth be told, we dig this one

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hero: Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel in 1937

What an inspiring and accomplished woman: truly one of the twentieth century’s great icons of taste–at least the skin-deep kind.  Pity about the whole Nazi-sympathizing thing.

 

thinking about the profession on International Women’s Day

Galla Placidia () & Marianne Cusato (b. 1974)

Galla Placidia (392-450) & Marianne Cusato (b. 1974)

As you know, International Women’s Day was founded in the early twentieth century in places where socially-progressive people sought to acknowledge, celebrate and encourage women’s contributions in all aspects of life, including the professional world.  To commemorate the day, a few contemporary outlets of archi-news have compiled digital tips-o-their-(virtual)-hats (like this one and this one) that, predictably, focus on a small set of twentieth-century femmes moderniste whose work has been deemed worthy of taking a small, delicate place at the edge of a center that remains dominated by men.  And while it’s true we should know more about architects like Eileen Gray and Alison Smithson–not primarily because they were lady-architects but because they were interesting architects–, it’s also important to consider a broad sweep of history as a way to consider the important meaning in women’s absence from the historical record.  And it would not be bad to broaden the way we think about architectural contributions while we’re at it.

This is especially true since the way we typically look for women in the architectural record is, itself, skewed by a particularly modernist ideal of what it means to be an architect.  This image–the solitary genius blazing a new path with the white-hot brilliance of his unprecedented invention–obscures the fact that architecture is a collaborative venture and, for the most part, one that grows from, and is bound to, longstanding traditions.  Although one person may be responsible for key elements of inspiration or development, actually completing a building  requires a lot of established ideas, and a lot of hands.  Before we start counting the ones that are required to cut stone and hoist lumber, consider the ones that reach into deep, deep pockets to fund the project in the first place.  The people who pay for  buildings like to have a say in what they look like: true now as it ever has been.  By appreciating the role of patrons and clients in the development of architecture we not only arrive at a fairer understanding of the architect’s job, but also can start to give credit to the many and diverse people who are foundational to any building activity.

This is one way to acknowledge women’s contributions to architecture, around the globe and through all time, long before the slow progress into actual professional practice that starts in the late nineteenth century.  Before then, and in most places, architectural design was tightly tied to traditions of the building site, and thus much less likely to include a woman who might ascend through the ranks of manual laborers to a position of authority as a designer.  Yet in the record of great patrons it’s an easy thing to find  women who have made extraordinary contributions as patrons to some of the world’s great monuments: the Egyptian pharaoh Hatshepsut, Early Christian empress Galla Placidia, Ottoman haseki sultan Hürrem Sultan (Roxelana), Queen of France Marie Antoinette and American socialite-suffragette Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt Belmont all come readily to mind.  Each of them was a woman of extraordinary power and privilege who was intimately tied to building projects over which they extended significant influence.  Surely there are others.  Lots, and lots of others.

Admittedly, exerting this kind of influence is different than directing a design; that kind of control came slower to women, only after architecture emerged from the age-old traditions of manual construction as a profession that privileged the act of drawing as an intellectual and creative discipline.  One would imagine that once practice moved indoors, the welcome mat might have been laid out soon thereafter.  Yet architecture remained a tight fraternity, even as new educational programs were founded that might have taken a more liberal view.  Although MIT admitted women to its academic programs as early as the 1870s, their numbers remained relatively small until it provided dormitories for female students–in 1964.  The role model of MIT’s architecture program, the École des Beaux-Arts, admitted women as early as 1897 but for years the academicians thought it “improper” for women to have access to the workshops in which male students worked, effectively excluding them from the competition system on which the school was based.  And how about those allegedly avant-garde Bauhausler?  Not so avant afterall.  Although Walter Gropius admitted “the beautiful sex” into the Bauhaus, he steered them to the weaving workshop to ensure the architecture studios remained the realm of the “strong sex.”

Well into the twenty-first century, women have made great gains in terms of admittance to, and graduation rates from, architecture program.  The problem that persists is: what happens next?  The numbers of women who drop out of the profession are vastly different from country to country, but rare is a place where we see a 50/50 split.  Studies like this one and this one try to make sense of the data but there’s clearly a lot more to do to figure out the disparity between, say, Sweden and the US and Australia.  Findings from research on women in (and out of) architecture seem to explain a toxic mix of national policies concerning family/maternity/paternity leave and professional culture regarding the nature of the workplace.  Supporting legislation that supports women will support families, the profession, and architecture as a whole.  Redefining the nature of success as an architect makes room for lots of different people of different inclination to participate in and contribute.  These issues go way deeper than graduation rates–and certainly wayyyyyy beyond anything that a poorly conceived toy can do.

Down with dress-up dolls; up with real-life action figures like Marianne Cusato, recipient of the first-ever People’s Design Award from the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in 2006 for her design of the Katrina Cottage, which represents the kind of contribution to the profession we’d like to see more of: beautifully designed buildings that recognize human dignity.  More of that, please, and more of anything that broadens the field to increase the talent in the pool, especially as that talent can be directed toward reminding the world that architects can be relevant.  Dude-bros, it’s time you found the strength to ask for some help; maybe even time that you gave yourself the freedom to break free of that open-office-plan prison and try out the kind of flex-time arrangements that work so well for women.  Maybe they work well for you, too, and you get more time to show your kids how cool you are.  While this day is on the calendar to shine some rays on “women’s issues,” we’re more than happy to share the spotlight; in fact, we think it might work out better, for all of us, that way.

a pink Katrina Cottage

a pink Katrina Cottage

I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts

Thomas Jefferson, sculpted by Houdon (1789)

Thomas Jefferson, sculpted by Houdon (1789)

You see I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts. But it is an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed, as its object is to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, to reconcile them to the rest of the world, and procure them its praise.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote those lines to James Madison in September, 1785, the two were communicating long-distance about a new project underway: the State Capitol for Jefferson’s (and Madison’s) home state of Virginia. Jefferson was in France, where he had served for six months as US Minister Plenipotentiary.  Although exposure to practices of the French crown left him cold (or, actually, revolted) he was warmed by the glories of architecture, both ancient and modern, available to him in France.  Jefferson had gone to Europe feeling pretty enthusiastic about the arts, but became an even stronger proponent of architecture as a symbol of national health and strength.  In the next decades he turned the three major architectural projects of his life to fulfill the ideas he shared with Madison, designing in a way that not only delighted his own taste, but that promised to provide “models for study and imitation” by other American builders.  For the Virginia State Capitol he drew from the Maison Carrée, a Roman temple that he beheld in Nîmes, where he “gazed [at it] whole hours . . . like a lover at his mistress.”  By 1819 he had realized the “academical village” that he had theorized for at least fifteen years, crowning his plan for the University of Virginia with the Pantheon-inspired Rotunda.  With these two public buildings, Jefferson presented America with fully realized studies of the “most perfect examples” of what he called “cubic” and “spherical” architecture from antiquity.  In the meantime, he had continued to tinker with his own home at Monticello. Originally designed as a fine but unexceptional Palladian villa, it was imaginatively redesigned after the Hôtel de Salm (with which Jefferson admitted being “violently smitten”), recreating très moderne Parisian elegance as best he could in Albemarle County.

Of all the Founding Fathers, Jefferson is perhaps the most foundational: author of two of the country’s signature documents (this one and that one) and provider of the core of the Library of Congress collection.  Elevating architecture among those political, religious, and intellectual endeavors, Jefferson penned the clearest articulation in a president’s hand of the value of architecture to a country.  He put theory into practice by providing “proof of national good taste” and by seeking opportunities to develop that taste among his fellow citizens in the first place.

Read more of Jefferson on architecture here.

PAV 3 det 274

Pavilion III at the “Academical Village”

stop the madness: enough with the pumpkin spice everything already

we feel your pain, Mermaid Lady

we feel your pain, Mermaid Lady

Once upon a time we welcomed the change of season, especially the advent of autumn, for the sudden chill in the air that was still warmed by a golden sun, the easing of leaves from green to gold against a brilliant blue sky, and the joy of bundling up with opaque tights, great jackets, and fabulous scarves–the suggestions that we are ready to stave off winter’s blast without yet actually having to face nasty weather.

And then there is the food.  The passage of each season brings a new menu: clementines are a bright note in sleepy winter akin to the flash of a cardinal on a snowy tree branch; as the world wakes in spring we look for the buds on the trees and sunny asparagus on our plates; in summer we anticipate the huge bounty of garden goodness that culminates in the arrival of Queen Tomato; then with fall we look forward to an orchard outing to enjoy that crisp air, play farmer, and pick so many apples that, once home, we are forced to condescend into baking crisps and cobblers until the kitchen moans under the weight of all the oatmeal-ensconced goodness.

Welcoming those seasonal treats–fruits of the earth still very much tied to the earth–represent more innocent times before a relatively recent development that flavors our autumn in a much different, even sinister, character.  Having already co-opted every conceivable holiday as a festival of consumption, Big Business has conspired to marketize the very change of seasons.  Building on historic traditions of identifying favorite foods at particular holidays–cranberries at Christmas, latkes for Hanukkah, green bean casserole whenever two or three Lutherans gather–, the scourge of Pumpkinspiceitis is now foisted upon us.

Pumpkinspiceitis derives from a regrettable, but historic, inclusion of pumpkin pie on the Thanksgiving table.  It is a curious phenomenon: pumpkin pie.  As a pie, it’s an inferior dessert; as a pumpkin product, just a clever way to get rid of something easy to grow but which no one really wants to eat.  (Like most of the Thanksgiving table, it’s also just bad history.)  Even if you think you like pumpkin, be honest: it’s just taking the place of something else that you know you’d rather have.  To make this horrid squash edible, all kinds of stuff is stirred in and gooped on top to actually cover the taste of the pumpkin.   More desperate than any other garden spawn (slightly worse than zucchini, but maybe not as hopeless as rhubarb), this homely orange orb demands not just special treatment to hide its natural flavor but the particular concoction conjured up by some set of Weird Sisters, probably in the nineteenth century.  Their brew of ordinary spices–cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg,  allspice, and cloves–has achieved iconic status due to the ubiquity with which it is used to mask the natural grossness of this “dessert.”

trouble maker

trouble maker

With a name as creative as its inspiration is delicious, “Pumpkin Pie Spice” represents all that’s bad about home cooking, and by extension, food consumption, in America–which makes it especially sad and ironic to bring to the table on a holiday that is so completely American.  The blind ease with which the home cook grabs for the inevitable plastic jar, purchased years before, used annually but never between December and October, is likewise exemplary of the oh-you-shouldn’t-have-bothered ideal that is rampant across the country.  The idea of a pre-mixed spice blend is not so bad in and of itself, as we see from a very, very long tradition of Indian garam masala and Chinese Five Spice.  Traditionally, among those cultures each household will have its own version, ground to suit the family’s custom and taste.  The ‘merkan equivalent is only home-made by DIY-types with obsessive Pinterest habits.  Pre-packaged and sold at the grocery store, Pumpkin Pie Spice is the Hamburger Helper of baking–except that Hamburger Helper is consumed year-round, and Pumpkin Pie spice had a very narrow window of relevance, confined to Thanksgiving weekend, and therefore is even dumber.

At least that was the case before the rise of  Big Pumpkin (not to be confused with the Great Pumpkin).  At least ten years ago, some genius at some mega spice dealer (we’re guessing a certain Fortune 1000 company with a penchant for red lids) figured out a way to foist their product on the American public and increase their market share by popularizing a product that was irrelevant for  fifty-one weeks of the year.  Their target?  A product of great popularity among Americans, and which many Americans are more than happy to crap up with flavor additions rather than enjoy the actual flavor of what they’re consuming: coffee.  With the help of some genius at some mega coffee dealer (we’re guessing a certain Fortune 500 company with a penchant for a nippleless, two-tailed mermaid), they found their opportunity, and convinced the masses that their lattes were not good enough as lattes, but ought to be made to taste like dessert, and not just dessert but the lowliest of desserts, pie; and not just any old pie, but a pie so stupid it is made out of mushy vegetables.  And so it was, and so it is, that Pumpkin Pie Spice lattes, introduced in 2003, are now welcomed by crazed Starbuckians the way the solstice must have been greeted by the ancients at Stonehenge: with religious reverence and enthralled enthusiasm, evidence that the gods have not yet abandoned the world (although to the rest of us, this flakey excuse for a coffee drink is just one more proof of our fallen state).

Pumpkin Pie lattes might not have been such a problem if the silliness around them had remained cloistered in Starbuckses.  But their mind-boggling popularity has launched a whole new ridiculous enthusiasm for the “flavors of fall,” and this is really where we need to draw the line.  Food should taste like itself.  Spices and herbs are meant to draw out and complement the natural flavor of a thing, not disguise it–especially if the base flavor is something quite respectable.  In the name of Taste, you must avoid, ignore, renounce and repudiate the following products, all of them evidence of the overreach of Big Pumpkin and foul offspring, the sinister seasoning:

macarons

The divine macaron is not a place to play fast and loose with intercultural fusions.  Non!

and pumpkin salsa is just wrong

Likewise:  salsa is a tomato product.  People who eat pumpkin salsa probably think that pineapple is an acceptable pizza topping too, and we have nothing to say to them.

pop

Since toaster pastries are already skimming the bottom of the barrel, maybe this is ok, except for the pumpkin part.  Pumpkin for breakfast? No.  You meant to bake a cinnamon muffin.

PP marshmallow

Whether you mash your marshmallows in s’mores or float them in hot drinks, no; this just won’t work.

This also raises the quation of judgemnt at TJ's, which only gets worse . . .

This is all kinds of wrong, and is one of a dozen bizarre missteps by Trader Joe, whose judgement we call into question due to the store’s amazing variety of bizarre pumpkin-themed products.

no

Let us guess: we are supposed to pair this with nutmeg hummus, right?

ew

Please!  Yogurt is for fruit, not squash.

this would be bad enough on its own, but then yu see just a few aisles over . . .

This would be bad enough on its own, but then you see just a few aisles over . . .

seasonal foodstuffs are silly enough, do NOT start seasonally moisturizing

. . . this.  Seasonal foodstuffs are silly enough, do NOT start a seasonal skin-care regimen!

spieces associated with warm baked goods stirred into frozen food?

Spices associated with warm baked goods stirred into frozen food?  The horror!

c

Culver’s is currently offering Pumpkin Pie Spice shakes as well as “Salted Caramel Pumpkin Concrete Mixers,” with actual pumpkin stirred in, which MoT junior staffers can attest is a very, very bad idea.

et vos, Ben & Jerry?

Et vos, Ben & Jerry?

If you’re not yet swooning from the madness, read on for our candidates for Worst Spawn of Big Pumpkin’s Evil:

third runner-up for Nopest of Nope

Third runner-up for Nopest of Nope

Vice President of Nyet

Vice President of Nyet

King of No

King of No

Although Pumpkinspiceitis has caught the CDC unawares, wise men saw this nonsense coming a mile away–indeed centuries ago.  Founding Father and Culinary Connoisseur Thomas Jefferson (a much more reliable T.J.) worried what would become of his nation, and left the following in manuscript form:

It is self-evident that not all flavor profiles are created equal; not all are endowed by their creators with honesty of expression and decency of marketing.  Sadly, all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer sketchy food products and egregious marketing, while evils are sufferable in their cheapness and trendiness, than to right themselves by abolishing goofball flavors as they ought to, and just drink coffee that tastes like, you know, COFFEE.

This is not a tirade against the spices in Pumpkin Pie Spice.  We, like Mr. Jefferson, want you to enjoy cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves and nutmeg (the last of which ought to be ground the moment before use, but you knew that, right?).  But enjoy them where they belong: coffee cakes, cinnamon rolls, snickerdoodles, and stupid fruit desserts. (If you really, really feel compelled to eat trendily in October, you may have an apple cider donut but then, for Heaven’s sakes, pull yourself together.)

This does not address the matter of the pumpkin itself, which still has little use in the world.  The following is the best we can do to offer semi-legitimate, but still pretty sketchy, uses for citrouille (French for “yukky apple of the dirty vine”):

pie

You may as well buy this as go through the motions of “baking a pie.”  If no one in the house has any real baking skills, or can be bothered to make a cheesecake, why not.  Mrs. Smith’s it is.

xxx

Pumpkin soup: at least this comes in a cute bowl. But we’d still prefer a decent shrimp bisque or French onion, thx, and you know you would too.

And then there’s this, maybe the reason pumpkins exist at all:

we feel your pain, Mr Pumpkin

we feel your pain, Mr Pumpkin

the image of International Women’s Day

1964

Happy Women’s Day, Dear Women! (1964)

As its name suggests, International Women’s Day is, indeed, a global event.  Yet in spite of its reach–and age (almost a century old)–recognition of IWD in the US is almost nil.  In spite of efforts by various presidential administrations to turn up the volume on “women’s issues” during the month of March, acknowledgement of the month, and more precisely the day (March 8), are pretty much ignored.  This is not the case in nations with a long history of observing the date, including eastern European countries and Russia (where it began), Scandinavia, Australia, and recently in Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Cambodia, Angola (among dozens of others).  It’s notable that in the latter countries–none of them the picture of civil rights awesomeness–that IWD is an official national holiday, not just a day for potential local celebrations, which is the way it is observed, hit or miss, in many industrialized, democratic nations of the west, where it enjoys prominence neither on the national calendar nor in the national consciousness.

1970

1970

In the places where it is observed, the manner in which IWD is recognized has, and does, differ across time and geography, from a highly politicized event marked by marches and protests, to a holiday that prompts the gifting of flowers to ladies.  This variety of interpretations and manifestations is clear in the great variety of graphic art–much of it pretty wonderful–related to IWD.  Much of it runs in the vein of the image on the left, celebrating IWD as a kind of happy and feminine (rather than feminist) holiday.  Lots of flowers and ethnic frocks, images of women isolated in abstracted backgrounds: no context of work or even home life, no men to suggest father/husbands, no children to make this another mothers’ day.  These are lovely images, some of them more graphically superior than others.  (We like the clever figure eight in this card from 1970, suggesting a dance as well as the date of the holiday.)  Such an image is there to remind you, if you are not a woman, you’d better go buy some bouquets for someone who is.

winds

which arm holds the cell phone?

Another common theme in the IWD posters, and Revolutionary art overall, is the elevation of women from traditional spheres of work in the home and recognition of the huge amounts of labor required of running a household.  The Russian image on the left shows a multi-limbed mom, each of her arms indicating the amount of time required of various tasks, leaving only 17 minutes per day to care for her child.  Surely what is required is for this femme-mill to be energized by winds of change, both to alleviate the drudgery of home labor (other graphic messages demonize “kitchen slavery” and encourage literacy among women) and focus her domestic tasks not solely on upkeep of the house, but instead on raising the next generation of Bolsheviks, as one of her contributions to the state.

1914

1914

These are pretty interesting images, but perhaps the most compelling posters are the ones with more overt political significance.  The Soviets have a great number of these, which is not surprising in consideration of the tradition of mass-produced Constructivist art following the Revolution.  Indeed, IWD was launched during those years and as a means to formally acknowledge women’s contributions to the Communist and Socialist movements.  Thus the posters are populated with Frauen waving flags of political change, bolcheviques commanding farm equipment in Ukraine and handling machinery in Soviet factories.  The posters reveal a blend of ideology and reality: women are valued contributors, and expected participants, in all aspects of society.

That is the overall message of International Women’s Day anywhere it is not just a strategy to boost flower sales–and not even to that low status does it reach in the US.  However, for that economic possibility alone, one might expect that the Land of Hallmark to elevate the date.  Think of it: not just the purchase of posies, but the mimosa brunches and gifts of jewelry and chocolates adding to the economy at this heightened season of potential male guilt wedged between the Superbowl and March Madness.  Yet good capitalists steer clear of this thing, probably unaware of the Socialist/Communist history of the holiday, all too wary of the potential of a movement that challenges the longstanding power structures in America: systems firmly rooted long before the advent of IWD in other countries.  The suffrage bill was still winding its slow and tortured way through Congress when the Soviets were calling on women to stand up with men to support and defend their country.  After contributing to the American war effort at a huge scale, helping to enhance the US as the industrial powerhouse it became at mid-century, middle-class female citizens were rewarded with one-way tickets out of offices and factories and into suburban tract housing.  Today, American women are like the windmill-woman above, but with less support from the state: maternity leave lags far behind Canada, Norway and Denmark (usual suspects) and even Mexico, South Africa and Pakistan (that hurts).  A study from 2006 shows that gender pay gap in the US (22.4%) and Canada (27.5%) keeps company with Botswana (23.3%), Madagascar (26.1%) and Singapore (27.3%); it’s not as bad as Kazakhstan (38.1%) but well behind the EU, Egypt, Iran, Mongolia, and Australia (all 14-20%).  Granted, numbers can be beguilingly straightforward, and never tell the full nuanced story–but their consistency certainly refutes the prevailing myths that suggest that the issue is irrelevant or even non-existent.

Overall the data confirms the continued economic and social discrimination against women in the US.  For that reason, IWD could be an important opportunity to raise awareness and prompt change. However, even among the most interested parties there seems to be a split opinion about how to go about making such progress.  Perhaps this is another curious and somewhat ironic manifestation of the general freedoms enjoyed in North America.  Witness the posters below, from British Columbia (left) and Québec: if the real IWD stood up, would she be revealed as a scarf-wearing radical, fist raised before some kind of rising sun motif, à la imperial Japan, leading the charge of eagles and helicopters? Or would she totter between a political rally and a shoe sale on psychedelic go-go boots?  In alternate decades, Russia and Eastern Europe have treated the day either as a celebration of feminine prettiness or female strength; the poster at the top achieves a certain middle-ground, with the pretty lady adjusting a headscarf whose pattern intermingles blossoms and leaves with the hammer and sickle.  L’état est la femme.  Considering the posters below, Canadians might want to work out which way they mean to go, and if it is possible to blend feminine softness with a feminist edge.

Their neighbors to the south might wake up and do something.  But that would take a different kind of political will in the US–where women comprise 18% of the House and 20% of the Senate, and a whopping seven women serve as state governors.  Fabulous as poster artists and local organizers might be, they cannot alone affect the means by which a holiday–Socialist in its roots–might be woven into the national calendar as a symbolic measure of women’s actual participation in American life.  That requires a recognition that Socialism is the enemy neither of capitalism nor democracy.  The New Deal, the Great Society, public education, food stamps, Social Security and Medicare are all pretty Socialist–and pretty American too.  Putting basic human rights aside, it’s also a very American trait to make the most of available resources to achieve economic advance–even when there is little social and political will to invest in other kinds of progress.  International Women’s Day is an opportunity to highlight the wasted resources embodied by 51% of the global population, imagine a way forward to make the most of it and, finally, for heaven’s sake, pave the way to make it happen.

scratch pp.pptx

two recent views of International Women’s Day

Several images are from this interesting blog.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s shoes

you can’t handle the suit.

New Year’s Eve promises glamour, excitement and magic.  Not that the evening really lives up to its reputation very often, but one can hope for a surprise, and maybe a little glitter that will twinkle on into the new year.  Rather than roll out one of those long lists that chronicle the year that is passed, MoT looks ahead to the promise of 2013, finding our hope in one bright glimmer from ’12 that took the form of Benedict Cumberbatch (and not just his shoes–but back to them momentarily).

Of the little cadre of impressive young British actors who made a great big spiffing splash this year, Benedict Cumberbatch receives the salute from MoT Department of Anglophilia and General Sartorial Coolness.  His peers Michael Faasbender and Tom Hiddleston (below) probably have been told their whole lives that they are rather easy on the eye (in addition to having all that talent). They are people we expect to smoothly transition into positions as masters of their domain, not to mention style icons du jour.  Not so much Benedict.  He is the most unlikely screen star of the batch, awkward and quirky, like his name.  He’s too lean, he’s got that bushy hair, small eyes, and gaunt features in that long horsey mug.  In short, Benedict Cumberbatch is not another pretty face.  And yet through performance after performance somehow has made these motley features tremendously compelling.  Is he more captivating because of his uncharacteristic looks or because we mortals somehow relate to him better because of them, and enjoy the surprise of being so thoroughly pulled into the orbit of his easy but uncomfortable coolness?  It’s like this: you go to the Louvre knowing you’re going to see gorgeous beautiful graceful things that you’ve known your whole life and have been taught to admire; you know how to identify their widely-loved features, are not surprised nor disappointed by Canova or Leonardo or whoever.  You leave and go on to the next expected stop of wonderfulness on your itinerary.  Or you go to some small gallery you only remember vaguely reading about in some dumb blog.  But behold: there’s some artist, let’s say some watercolorist–you didn’t know you even fancied water colors–whose work leaps off the wall, commanding you with its sweeping colors and unexpected brushstrokes.  You stare.  You can’t pull yourself away.  You’re late to work.  You think about it for the rest of the week, you tell all your friends: you’ve got to go see this guy.

Benedict Cumberbatch is, of course, the unexpected surprise, and not just in his film roles.  While other stars are obviously, boringly (if elegantly), styled, we get the sense that Benedict just sort of does what he wants because he doesn’t think anyone is looking, anyway.  And as with his performances, nails it, as you see in the cropped picture above.  Why do we include an image of just the shoes?  Because to take in the whole unlikely charisma of this fellow is to court disaster.  You are advised to look upon a complete ensemble only through a pinhole pricked in a shoebox.  Don’t blame us if you don’t heed our words.  You’ve been warned.

Shouldn’t life just be like that; shouldn’t we all wish our new year to unfold in the same majestic manner with an outlandish and brave use of whatever unpromising–or maybe just non-traditionally promising–material we have?  We wish for ourselves and you, dear reader, a Cumberbatchish year.  Let’s call it the year of the Cumberbatch.  Annus Cumberbilis.  Set off fireworks tonight, but tomorrow, follow the Sign of the Shoe.

perfectly acceptable, predictable hangars for Armani, if you like that sort of thing.

Delaware has the best elections

Delawareans, in the act

Whenever Election Day rolls around, like lots of folks, senior staff at MoT reflect on previous elections.  Their memories eventually rest on a time–a time before there even was an MoT!–that they lived in Delaware and enjoyed its superior elections process.  This will come as a surprise to many, since the state of Small Wonders rarely attracts much attention unless it catches spillover news from New Jersey or Philadelphia, is mentioned as the destination of Amtrak-lovin’ Joe Biden, or is featured on the Discovery channel’s study of Punkin’ Chunkin’.  Indeed, it’s easy to overlook a small place that is for most people little more than a rest stop on I-95 between DC and NY; a region that is sort of north and sort of south all at once, a place that is on the eastern coast of the country but doesn’t really feel “East Coast,” a state whose official bird is a crabby blue chicken and whose official plant is Scrapple.  Even after living there for a few years, a person may wonder . . . well, a person wonders about Delaware.

But not on Election Day.  On this day Delaware shines like a little diamond with policies and practices that make even the most disillusioned voter stand a little taller and walk with a little more pride when they take part in the process.  First, at the polling place, individual voters are announced as they step into the booth.  It’s a bizarre surprise the first time it happens to a person–but a cool thing, an American thing, to adapt a practice dreamt up for announcing lords and ladies at Ye Olde Timey society balls to every chicken farmer, DuPont chemical engineer and MBNA junior accounts manager who goes to cast a ballot.  It’s a practice that dignifies even the lowliest polling place, and a vastly superior experience than having your code number passed to you by an emphysemic blue-haired retiree as they cough into their other hand and nod in the direction of the machine you’re supposed to go use, which is what happens at MoT‘s local nicotine-stained VFW.  (A sad event in the Land o’Lincoln, to be sure.)

The follow-up to Election Day is even better.  Two days after the election, Delaware celebrates Return Day (and have been since the eighteenth century) with a celebration in Georgetown, the town where voters used to all go to cast their votes.  Former candidates (successful and not) take part in a carriage parade, and then leading members of the two parties bury the hatchet–literally.  They get a hatchet and stick it in sand and, for at least a short time, the dust is allowed to settle and people put party pettiness aside to share a plate of Scrapple.  In its animated use of civic space with activities that instill a truly civil character into the electoral process, Delaware’s elections  exemplify traditions that are worth spreading to other states (maybe minus the Scrapple).

Delaware: letting freedom ring and questionable pork products fry since 1787

patriotic clothing

the terrorists win.

Exhibiting one’s patriotism is noble when it’s done in good taste.  Activities that reveal one’s dedication to a nation’s principles and ideals and better angels are in really good taste.  This includes engaging in well-informed public discourse, practicing proper etiquette in the presence of the flag and festooning one’s house with bunting on national holidays.

Festooning one’s self with bunting on national holidays, however, is never a good idea.  It may be a habit elsewhere too, but is definitely a problem in the U S of A where, especially on Independence Day, all across the fruited plains, Americans indulge in bizarre costuming in the name of patriotism by mis-appropriating the flag in hideous garments.  America’s national holidays already teeter on the verge of caricature.  It’s not MoT‘s mission to get preachy about national pride, but we will humbly suggest that the triumvirate of Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day ought not to be the days-off-work that define the start, peak, and end of summer, extolled as excuses to have a barbecue.  Of course you ought to have a barbecue–we’ll bring the brownies–, and it would be great if sometime during the day you did something to recognize the intended nature of the day, but it would also be wonderful if you’d not take part in patriotic-dressing-cum-flag-desecration.

It’s not that the American flag is an inviolate symbol, it’s just that its design is really not amenable to attractive clothing.  There’s a reason stars and two-tone striping don’t show up on a lot of your non-holiday-themed garments (unless you wear a certain kind of uniform).  The color combo of red, white and blue is very, very hard to pull off.  So use them wisely.  If you are compelled to decorate yourself like the flag, consider diminutive stars that may be mistaken as polka dots at a distance.  Choose stripes wisely; seersucker is not a bad option.  Flag pins may be required on politicians’ lapels, but giant star earrings are prohibited.  Finally, you can only choose two of the three colors from the flag.  (Alternately, forego the whole walking-flag thing and dress as your favorite Founding Father: this guy and this guy knew how to put together an outfit.)

These are the rules for flag dressing, which has very few exceptions.  You MAY wear flagoriffic clothes if:

1. you’re a little girl

2. you’re a crazy old man

3. you’re an athlete in uniform

4. you’re a superhero

5. you’re a pop star who is basically a cartoon image of a real person

(and then, if you’re going to do it, do it right)

6. we take that back

America is the home of the free and you are free to wear whatever God-awful clothing you like, but please, consider the tender sensibilities of people who have to look at you.  Honor the men and women who have died defending this country and its flag so it can wave proudly from sea to shining sea, not so you can Old Glorify your bottom or star-spangle your bosom.  Those colors may not run, but if we see them at the picnic, we may turn tail, and we’re taking our brownies with us.

Correction: these colors do indeed run, and jump, and also basically look awesome just poised for action.