Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
I had no idea that I was reading the "Read Across Rhode Island"
book of 2005 when I finished the first paperback page of Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner
. My grandmother had lent me the book a few weeks prior, and I was going to read the novel on her good judgment alone. Fifteen years ago, I stumbled, bleary eyed, through the final pages of Where the Red Fern Grows
on her soft couch, and I think I've been porous to her literary suggestions ever since.
The Kite Runner
is about Afghanistan, and does not mention Osama Bin Laden once. So too, it replaces our current popular associations with Afghanistan - The Taliban, Poppies, Destroyed Buddha Statues and Terrorism - with the big picture themes of Class, Honor and Resistance. It is the tale of Amir, his Afghan adolescence, urgent flight to the US and ultimate return. By arcing a tale from the early '70s until 2001, Hosseini chronicles the resistance of the people of Afghanistan to the monarchical reign of the Shahs, the communist occupation of the Russians and the fundamentalist oppression of the Taliban. With detailed descriptions of Afghani life and culture, both in Afghanistan and in the Bay Area Afghani expatriate community, Hosseini transmits a vivid image of the vibrancy of the afghani people. In addition, The Kite Runner
has finally made me appreciate that the true difference between the Shite and Sunni Muslim branches is one primarily of class, not of faith.
Bin Laden is not a representative for the people of Afghanistan, but he has become one through some extremely unfortunate events. A fundamental tenet of war is the dehumanization of the enemy. By making the Taliban seem an inclusive term for all Afghanis, we sleep better at night, or forget about an ongoing war completely. Hosseini's novel triumphs by weaving an enticing story interspersed with all the things we don't get to hear about on the nightly news or in the New York Times
. People love good stories, but everyone who reaches the concluding paragraph of The Kite Runner
has just completed a crash course in the culture and history of Afghanistan, as well.
I've yet to strike up a conversation with a stranger about The Kite Runner
, as supposedly was quite normal during Chicago's hugely successful "One Book, One Chicago"
reading of To Kill a Mockingbird
, but I'll do my best. And anyway, I only just found out about this whole Read Across Rhode Island thing a few days ago.
Another fashion season is upon us; another spate of stars using their fame to sell strikingly similar handbags; another reshuffling of billboards. Yes, this season the purveyors of perennially pointless apparel have proved, yet again, that the business of fashion is the business of selling attitude and lifestyle. A business that requires confusing and often downright unrelated window displays.
To celebrate the changing of the proverbial fashion guards I took a stroll around San Francisco's Union Square
. It's a brightly lit few blocks with larger-than-life celebrities adorning the sides of buildings. Most of them (the celebrities) are stopped mid-stride, to casually fix the heel of one of their shoes. It's a world where elevators come right up out of the ground, where hotdog vendors and flower merchants graciously share the sidewalk, and where the glass fronts of many-a-building are full up with the latest fashion offerings.
Bridging The Gap
As it was in seasons past, it seems pink continues to be the new black. This makes it the longest running "new black" since paisley eked out a victory over plaid back in '62.
Fortunately, the Gap's just unveiled "Pretty Khaki" line, which implores passers-by to "Enjoy Being A Girl", has just the right apparel to update any closet with plenty of the new black. Apparently this involves wearing stylized safari garb. Straight out of Casablanca
these new waistcoats, shirts and scarves make stunning use of the new black in ways that would have Humphrey Bogart squealing like the girl he's always enjoyed being.
The Gap isn't the only company to dredge up past styles, or rework aesthetics that were left for dead for very good reasons. Many companies are seemingly scraping the bottom of the barrel to come up with new and, um, interesting interpretations of spring fashion. The examples that follow constitute but a partial list of the displays in and around Union Square.
Saks Fifth Avenue
- Dinner parties. Dinner parties where people stand on the tables. Dinner parties held in the vast nothingness of space. I don't know what Saks is trying to convey here.
- If surfers, florists, journalists, and construction workers wear jeans, there's a pair out there for you. Come in, try a few on, then sit in one of thirty-eight substances and leave an ass print on this piece of cardboard.
- In one of the seasons more confused packaging efforts, Diesel is attempting to appeal to the bug collector in all of us. That little biologist who spent countless tender summer months trapping butterflies, moths and the occasional housefly has grown into the poster child for hip-hop and now fondly relives those youthful days through enormous, green, fly-shaped decals.
- Reminding you that cool can still be printed on a t-shirt and that vintage-that-isn't demands just the right pair of gel-soled sneakers. And, where else can you play the original Pac-Man
amongst stacks of shag rugs and semi-naughty board games?
- Waifish nymphs dress in layers of lace. And, if the picture behind the silver, headless mannequin is any indication, one of them is very interested in having sex with me.
The undeniable question all of this begs is: What do any of the displays have to do with clothing?
The short answer is: nothing
. There is absolutely no connection between you and the gypsies in the Neiman Marcus window. But, then, fashion is more than the clothes we wear; it's also the way we wear them. Today's consumers expect that their dollars will buy more than the latest article of clothing.
Not so very long ago William Randolph Hearst supposedly declared, "You supply the pictures, I'll supply the war." True or not, this brazen statement accelerated U.S. involvement in Cuba and helped to prime the country for the Spanish-American War.
Around the same time Quaker Oatmeal began putting the visage of a folksy old man (think Wilfred Brimley) on the side of its containers. It was a profound change. Until then the only information on the side of anything was: its name, the company that made it, and some proclamation of the type of job/miracle it would perform, a la
"Snake oil! For all your gastric discomforts!"
A short while later, the Coca-Cola Company, famous for combining the sweetening effects of sugar with the nose-numbing effects of cocaine, introduced Santa Claus
. With an ad campaign that featured innumerable old men with gray beards and an untold amount of red velvet, Coca-Cola turned elfish Old Saint Nick into a jolly, fat, mitten-wearing sodapop drinker.
The two companies had discovered that selling a lifestyle is as important as selling a product. In much the same way as the Spanish-American War defined the course the country would take in next decades, the actions of Quaker Oatmeal, Coca-Cola, and the like have led to our current fondness for surrealism behind glass.
If you already have plenty of the old black there would be no reason to buy the new one unless it came with a new attitude as well. The fashion "seasons" are no less an invention than the idea of Cuban involvement in the destruction of the battleship Maine
, or our current conception of Santa Claus. The seasons form a collective fairytale being told through billboards, magazine ads and window displays.
So, as you walk around Union, Times, or whichever square you prefer, think of Hearst dressed as Santa catching fireflies at an inter-galactic dinner party. If that's the kind of lifestyle you hope to find with a new Louis Vuitton bag then, by all means, set down your butterfly net, buy one and enjoy being a consumer, even if the display doesn't quite make sense.