Midsummer Doldrums; Ted Rall Takes on Art Spiegelman

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:25

    Sweet Dreams, Little Old Rat I'mgoing to hop all over the map in this column-more than usual-in deference tomy colleagues here at 333, half of whom are on vacation. Maybe it's nota fulltime job, but surely next summer publisher Mike O'Hara needs someoneto schedule the time slots available to leave New York and traipse offto the beach, climb mountains, eat in shabby bistros and whatever else peopledo when they're not working. It's been like a ghost town at NYPress'swank Lou Grant-style offices: Mr. O'Hara himself is off on asailboat jaunt in the Virgin Islands, with no access to e-mail; ad directorJimmy Katocin's in Saratoga; Lucky Jeff Koyen justcame back from an Alaskan cruise (I got some smoked salmon jerky as a souvenir);Mike Gentile and Tara Morris are in the Chesapeakeregion, and claim they'll eat steamed crabs at least twice a day; and LisaKearns is still dodging cranky Alex Cockburn's last-minute copy changesby holing up in Rome. As for editorJohn Strausbaugh, we expect him back sometime in October; he and his wife Dianeare in Italy for the fifth time this year, chomping on little birds and drinkingCampari. The bonusof John's absence is the privilege of opening his truckload of mail each day,most of it garbage, but occasionally yielding a book or two of interest. AndI did snag a CD of Janis Joplin's greatest hits. John was alsoinvited-the sole staffer, I might add-to a "Summer Fling" The NewYork Observer is sponsoring on Aug. 14 in Southampton, a benefitfor the Downtown Arts Project. Tickets are a trifling $150 per, and forthat entrance fee you presumably can say hello to, or at least snap a photoof, honorary chairs Laurie Anderson, Henry Buhl and Conan O'Brien;or network with members of the Honorary Committee like Duncan Sheik,Mark Morris, Ross Bleckner, Stephen Gaines, Lisa Phillipsand Nicole Miller. Man alive, that Strausbaugh is a Master of Manhattan; seems the Observer crowd has taken his lowbrow Baltimore pedigreeand chucked it down the turlet, figuring that anyone who edits the be-bop reviewsof both Armond White and Adam Heimlich is someone who knows thedowntown scene, man. (Frankly, since Mrs. M and I rented Phillips' house inthe Hamptons a few years back, when my wife was tubby with MUGGER IIIin her belly, I feel a little stiffed at being left off the guest list. That'sthe reward for criticizing the Observer's Anne Roiphe with suchgenuine passion.)

    Taki'splaying tennis, quaffing ale in the morning and consorting with royalty in threedifferent countries, all at the same time.

    Hey, notthat I'm complaining. My family's taking a chunk out of August to visit relativesin Bermuda one week, and then Mrs. M's parents in Malibu laterin the month. Meanwhile, in steamy Manhattan, you can't imagine the thrill Juniorhad when his hero George Tabb came over the other night with a bootlegcopy of Star Wars Episode I-The Phantom Menace. Both my boys adoreGeorge, his wife Wendy and their dog Scooter; they speak the samelanguage when it comes to films, video games and Pokemon. Junior wasso excited that when he put the film in the VCR and it started, I could feelhis heart pound as the opening credits rolled. His favorite character is thecool arch-villain Darth Maul; Al From Baltimore heard that andsaid, "Well, he is your son. Sam likes the nine-year-oldin the movie the best." Junior had already seen Star Wars six timeson big screens and has memorized the dialogue; that there are Arabicsubtitles in the video George laid on him just makes the whole windfall moreexotic.

    We had aswell time last Wednesday at Spartina-despite the restaurant's lack ofair conditioning-meeting up with our friends Michael Formica and BobHiemstra. Michael's a designer who worked on our new loft, implementinga vision, with Mrs. M's assistance, that was way beyond my ken. For my money-notinconsiderable, but it is our home-he's the best in the business. Bob's a high-in-demandphotographer whose clients include InStyle, House & Gardenand Food & Wine. That night he just came from a shoot with DianeVon Furstenberg, a lovely woman he assured us, and then kept his trap shuton further details. I guess that's a lensman's off-the-record integrity working,even after a few glasses of pinot grigio.

    Spartina'schopped salad is one of the best downtown: lots of feta cheese, chick peas,tomatoes and cucumbers, and a perfect starter before tucking into an enormousthin-crust pizza topped with prosciutto and fontina. We also liked the grilledsardines; pizzas with just mozzarella and delicious dollops of marinara, andone with a slew of vegetables; grilled jumbo shrimp atop risotto; and the smokedtrout salad. Spartina's never a bad bet when you're dining in Tribeca:from the courteous service to top-notch vittles, you can't go wrong. Frankly,I don't know why anyone would sit outside on a summer night-a view of the Hudsonis obscured by skyscrapers-but there was Harvey Keitel, smoking a fatheater and keeping in character with a sour puss, taking in the fumes from thetraffic, which increases year by year, on Greenwich St.

    STOP: It's Friday afternoon as I write this portion of MUGGER and I just saw AlGore on CNN's Inside Politics say that he feels "a strongkinship with the Latino community." Didn't explain why, but I guess he feigns a bond with anyone who might vote for him. We know Maude'sBea Arthur won't: she's the star of a PETA commercial, sayingthat although she voted for Clinton/Gore twice, and even forgives Gorefor the Internet and Love Story fibs, she can't reconcile his endorsementof the torture of animals. This just proves that Gore is grounded: he's spendingtime with what one assumes is his core base of supporters-minorities, gays andlesbians and hardcore suburban lefties-while Bill Bradley is receivinga hero's welcome from the same groups. Mr. Technology can't even break throughto Silicon Valley and Hollywood; that rich turf has been hoggedby the charismatic George W. Bush and the man Newsweek's HowardFineman and his ilk like to call "Dollar Bill." Bradley, by theway, is on a serious Beltway roll. He made his first tv campaign appearanceon Sunday's Meet the Press (and was boring as ever), and it's just amatter of days, I predict, before the pundits raise his chances at defeatingGore to 50-50.

    Back tomy story. There was an interesting "Breakfast Table" exchange in Slatetwo weeks ago between Stephen Harrigan (a screenwriter and novelist)and Cynthia Gorney (a former Washington Post reporter),in which they discussed two of my favorite topics: children and pop music. Harriganwrote: "To me, the haunted grogginess of Goodnight Moon is one ofthe great benchmarks of American literature. And while I'm at it, let me justput in a word here for Teletubbies, which I had never seen until recentlyand whose true worth has probably been terminally distorted by the recent TinkyWinky-is-gay controversy. But this is an awesome show... [it's] so exquisitelyslow it makes Mr. Rogers seem like he's ramped up on crystal meth."

    What a welcomebreak from the usual "Breakfast Table" blather about Deep Throat'sidentity (we'll find out in 25 years and the revelation will be a giant yawn),Ovid and the arts section of The New York Times. I didn'tdelve deep enough in the week's back-and-forth to figure out Harrigan's politicalviews, but I'm with him on Teletubbies, a very rad show, and certainlyGoodnight Moon. I'll never forget memorizing the tale when Junior firstcame home from the hospital after Mrs. M gave birth: I fumbled with the words,and inserted some of my own, like "goodnight little old mouse," butboth our kids loved it and it really did lull them to sleep.

    My currentfavorite book that I read to MUGGER III-aside from George & Marthaand Curious George-is Night Becomes Day by Richard McGuire,one of the best illustrators I've ever seen. My younger son has mastered thebook and changes the words "Tree becomes paper/And paper becomes news"to "Tree becomes paper/And paper becomes NYPress," and looksup to me, half-asleep, with a smile he knows will make me happy. It's almostas satisfying as when he performs a karate chop on a Village Voice streetdispenser or counts the papers left in NYPress' own boxes.

    Harriganwrote about a list of the worst hit singles compiled by Michael Corcoranin the July 22 Austin American-Statesman, an item that caught my eye,since who can't think of songs they hate. Harrigan suggested America's"Horse With No Name," a dopey song to be sure, but it wouldn't makemy Top 100. Gorney contributed "Crimson and Clover," which I thoughtwas a very catchy tune, especially when altered by illegal substances, preferablythe excellent mescaline that was available in the late 1960s. But let's see:"Seasons in the Sun," "Piano Man," "I Am Woman,""Ben," "Something Stupid," "Stairway to Heaven"and "Hotel California" would all make my list.

    I got akick out of socialite Al D'Amato's comments in Rush &Molloy's July 28 Daily News column about the rollicking time hehad attending a Bruce Springsteen concert at the Meadowlands lastweek. "Well, we were swaying. You couldn't help it," the former Senatortold the gossip duo. He was accompanied by fellow Republicans George andLibby Pataki, Christie Whitman and Henry Kravis at theshow, appearances that must've galled the millionaire rock star, who, despitehis wealth and numerous residences, still imagines he's a troubadour out ofa John Steinbeck novel.

    That dichotomydoesn't bother most rock critics. Thom Duffy, international deputy editorof Billboard, wrote in a syndicated column last week that Springsteenis out on the road doing a public service, even though tickets run upwards of$50. While Bruce nets an untold fortune on his tour, Duffy is transfixed that"the characters in Springsteen's songs often had fallen through the safetynet. They were lucky to be working on the highway, laying down the blacktop."Please. I'd like to know the demographics of Springsteen's audience: no doubtthose truly in need, the people who are unemployed or "laying down theblacktop" aren't there. Sort of like at a Knicks game, where celebritiesand high-rollers have elbowed aside the real basketball fans.

    Duffy seemslike he's trying out as a ghostwriter for Springsteen, claiming that the popsinger is a virtual prophet: "Springsteen is presenting an urgently neededperspective on the high-flying economy of the '90s. He is singing about thedarkness on the edge of boom town." This doesn't make much sense: soundslike Duffy is fantasizing about another recession, where he'd be laid off fromhis job, drinking a cheap bottle of wine and wearing out his Bruuuuce CDs. Ithink most people are more than satisfied with the current economy.

    I guessit took D'Amato's mind off his waning influence in New York GOP politics: tryas he might to thwart Rudy Giuliani's Senate bid by boosting puppetCongressman Rick Lazio, it ain't gonna fly. Lazio, despite his $3 millioncampaign kitty and promise of a formal declaration of candidacy, just isn'tgoing to alienate the incoming Bush administration. He'll withdraw, just asHillary Clinton will, even as she's currently spouting her husband'stax nonsense in upstate New York. As I wrote last week, my hunch is that RFKJr. will get into the race once Hillary takes a powder; reportedly, he'sworried about his long-ago heroin bust, but that was back in '83 and he's beenan upstanding citizen ever since. Besides, in my book, heroin possession, althoughnot desirable, doesn't even compare to the Top 100 of Bill Clinton crimes againstthe American public. And omigod, Robert Novak wrote in his syndicatedcolumn of Aug. 1 that Rep. Patrick Kennedy is rumored to have changedhis mind about staying in the House and is running for the open Rhode IslandSenate seat instead. I can't stand it.

    Last wordfrom these quarters on the JFK Jr. tragedy. Gregory Kane, writingin Saturday's Baltimore Sun, has a surly response to those who complainedabout the continuous coverage of Kennedy's plane crash. "So, trolls, themost basic answer to the question of why the media gave 'excessive' coverageto JFK, Jr.'s death is simple. He looked damn good. You don't." (By theway, I wonder why CNN isn't televising the funerals of all those murder victimsfrom the Atlanta shootings last week. Maybe it's because not as manytears will be shed over people who worked in the financial sector, instead ofbeing high school students. Wouldn't spike the ratings, right, Wolf,Larry, Judy and Bernie?)

    Friday nightin late July is one of the few times you can get a table at high-ticket restaurantsin Manhattan; and so it was with ease that Mrs. M, Andrey Slivka andI sat down at 7:30 at Layla, the Mideastern spot in Tribeca. Itwas an exhausting week and there was a lot to talk about: mostly a controversialstory in, of all publications, the Village Voice, and the absurd taxdebate in Congress. But before I get started on a protracted rant, a few wordson the excellent cuisine we lazily consumed: Gulf shrimp dolmades, grilled salmonwrapped in grape leaves over green onion basmati rice, taramasalata, three moundsof herb feta cheese spread and chicken stew with roasted potatoes, preservedlemons and green olives. Next to Periyali, this Drew Nieporentrestaurant is my favorite in the city for this kind of heavy but satisfyingfood. It's a popular place, but for some reason you don't hear much about it.Just as well.

    Anyway,the Voice ran a cover story by Ted Rall last week, a vicious attackon Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer Prize-winner for his two-part familymemoir Maus, the co-creator of RAW, a consultant for many magazinesand the illustrator who stirs up the most controversy at The New Yorkerwith his covers. The piece was called "King Maus: Art Spiegelman Rulesthe World of Comix With Favors and Fear," and drew an immediate and negativeresponse from the admittedly small world of cartoonists in this city (and Seattle).Rall, whose syndicated cartoon runs in dozens of newspapers, and who has hiswork displayed in Time and Fortune (he's also written for NYPress),is no fan of Spiegelman. He thinks the Pulitzer was a ginned-up sop to a trendygenre that the de facto on-the-take contest judges dreamed up out of pure whimsy;that Spiegelman can't draw very well; and is, well, a real shit. He writes:"Spiegelman's rise to power is a story less about one balding chain-smokerthan a case study of the way carefully crafted perception can lead to the realityof power in a media town where people are too busy to keep track of more thanone name per area of expertise. He has never hesitated to wield his dominationof the New York cartooning world to the great benefit of his pals and the extremedetriment of those out of favor."

    I thoughtit was a gutsy story for the Voice to run; it's not often that they attacksacred cows, especially one whose wrath could, and probably will, cause themthe defection of contributors sympathetic to the subject. More importantly,I can't remember the last time people were actually debating about a story thatappeared in the Voice. Maybe sometime back in the early 70s. Idon't know whose decision it was to go with Rall's screed, but he or she shouldreplace editor Don Forst pronto. (And if it was Forst who shepherdedthe piece to fruition, my apologies; there's juice in you yet, Big Guy.)

    Not thatI agreed with Rall's unrelenting barrage of venomous prose. I happen to thinkSpiegelman is a visionary; Maus deserved its many awards; RAWwas a meticulously produced publication that introduced new artists to a devotedaudience; and his New Yorker covers-hiring Spiegelman was TinaBrown's singular moment of brilliance during her tenure there-give thestill-musty old weekly a shot in the kneecaps. In addition, when this newspaperstarted, Spiegelman put me in touch with a number of cartoonists: as a result,Ben Katchor's "Julius Knipl" was born, no small achievement.

    VeteranNYPress illustrator Danny Hellman touched off a firestorm on theComics Journal message board almost immediately after the Voicecame out last Wednesday. I logged out on July 31, but already the download contained21 pages of assorted vitriol, almost unanimously against Rall, with a few nodsto Spiegelman's difficult personality. Here are a few excerpts:

    Hellman: "Even if this world were fair, even if the prettiest artwork managed tooutshine the prettiest artist, I think Ted Rall would still be waitingfor that New Yorker cover... I'm not Art Spiegelman's number one fan.But I will say one thing on Art's behalf: comics as a medium are on life supportright now; as a working cartoonist I appreciate anyone who attempts toexpand the scope of comics into mainstream media. Even if I am not part of Art's'inner circle,' I cannot help but benefit from any increased interest in comicsthat have been generated by his efforts."

    EricReynolds: "Rall's piece was lazy and petty."

    JesseFuchs: "I'm no Spiegelman apologist, and I think Rall made some decentpoints; most of his New Yorker covers have been more style than substance,his Pulitzer, though gratifying for any comics fan, doesn't really mean a hellof a lot, and he is, like most underground cartoonists of his generation, ratherself-obsessed. But the piece as a whole was so pissy and ill-considered that any worthwhile points Rall might have made ended up buried under a mountainof sour grapes."

    Kim Thompson:"Rall's piece is contemptible. Look at how he manages to subvert a positivequote from Gary Panter by putting it in the context of a paragraph about howscared everyone is of Art..."

    Hellman:"I suspect that Rall threw in that Spiegelman/NYPress connectionto enhance Art's villain status in the eyes of the Voice editors (NYPressbeing the Voice's closest competitor)."

    GaryGroth, Comics Journal editor: "I too suspect Art's involvementat NYPress was minimal; last time I was in NYC and saw Art I mentionedthat Russ Smith (NYPress' owner) referred to him as a genius in one ofhis loquacious columns and Art feigned embarrassment over this-a good joke becauseSmith is a widely known asshole. Being heralded as a genius by Smith is likebeing given the anti-Pulitzer."

    (Groth canblow me. I've said Spiegelman's "consultancy" [Rall's term] was limitedto a phone call or two. Groth's problem with me, as I learned from further postingsand an e-mail from him, is my politics, mislabeled Republican rather than libertarian.What that has to do with my boosterism of worthy cartoonists and illustratorsI don't know. You'd have to ask Groth, if he's not too busy rolling a doobieand eating granola.)

    Kaz:"Ted Rall dissed me in a Comics Journal article about a year ago.Something about how alternative newspaper editors wouldn't publish his stripbecause they wanted strips like mine. Meanwhile Rall is in 140 newspapers andI'm in 13! When I called Rall on this (via e-mail) he apologized and whinedabout how he was never invited to any New York cartoonist parties or art shows."

    MikeGorman: "I finally got a chance to read Rall's piece on Spiegelman,and I have to say it has to be one of the worst pieces of journalism I've everread. Which is odd, because I have enjoyed Ted's work in the past (his writingat least-personally, and I hate to be mean, I'm surprised someone with suchlimited drawing skills would criticize another artist's work."

    Col.Dax: "Here's what I think of Art Spiegelman: Maus is one ofthe most perfectly realized comics ever made-I guess all those years he spentfarting around with 'the form' finally paid off. But all of his other stuffsucks."

    I correspondedwith Rall by e-mail and received these comments:

    "WhileI'm not surprised that Art has his defenders-both people who have benefitedfrom his largesse in the past and people who genuinely admire his work, I dothink it's frightening that people as creative as cartoonists are speaking nearlyas one voice on any topic. The people who've been posting comments at the ComicsJournal discussion group are incredibly boring and singularly closed-mindedif they can't see that there is some truth to what I uncovered about Art.

    "Tothose who use the 'sour grapes' argument to discredit my piece, I say this:I've never been turned down for work by Art. And I wouldn't trade my careerfor his. I am read by far more people in Time and Fortune, notto mention my other papers, than see his New Yorker covers. I probablymake more money from cartooning (as opposed to editing) than he does, and Ihave absolutely no desire to become New York's next 'comix' kingmaker-I personallydon't think anyone should have that role.

    "Ofcourse, not every cartoonist is upset. I've been deluged with congratulatorye-mails and phone calls since the piece came out, all from New York-area cartoonistsof all ages who praise me for saying what needed to be said in public, for speakingon their behalf. Regretfully, they're mainly a bunch of wussies afraid of puttingtheir opinions into print-the same guys who ridicule the President of the UnitedStates can't bring themselves to say what they think about another cartoonist.Pathetic, but I'll take my support wherever I can get it."

    But let'sget down to taxes. The current controversy raging in Washington is, ofcourse, a lot of hot air. Let Bill Clinton veto the toothless $792 billion billthat Congress sends him; although I don't know why he would, since it meansalmost nothing, phased in over 10 years, most of it back-loaded. All of thecommentary surrounding the issue is ridiculous: tax relief is a very arcanesubject and most citizens, or members of Congress for that matter, don't understandit. So that leads to a lot of idiotic grandstanding from publicity hounds ofboth parties.

    Democratsand the mainstream press distorted Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan'scomments on the subject last week, focusing solely on his stated first priority,which is a continuation of paring down the deficit. What was omitted in thefrenzy to use Greenspan as an ally of President Clinton was the entirety ofhis statement. This is what Greenspan really said: "My first priority,if I were given such a priority, is to let the surpluses run. As I've said before,my second priority is if you find that as a consequence of those surpluses theytend to be spent, then I would be more in the camp of cutting taxes, becausethe least desirable is using those surpluses for expanding outlays... I havegreat sympathy for those who wish to cut taxes now to pre-empt that process,and indeed, if it turns out that they are right, then I would say moving onthe tax front makes a good deal of sense to me."

    Translated:Greenspan doesn't believe for a minute that the government can be trusted notto spend excess funds on more bloated programs.

    JeffJacoby, in a July 29 Boston Globe column, cut through the malarkey:"'Last week, in the House of Representatives, they passed an irresponsibletax bill that would spend our surplus,' Clinton said on Tuesday. Hear that?'Our surplus.' That is how the liberal mind works. The money belongsto the government, even if the government doesn't need it... The tax debateboils down to a straightforward question: Should you be allowed to keep a littlemore of your own income? Republicans vote yes; they trust you to spend the extradollars sensibly. Democrats, with some honorable exceptions, vote no; they thinkyou are too stupid to be trusted."

    Let's beclear: tax rates should be slashed across the board, regardless of income brackets.The estate tax, perhaps the most anti-American penalty currently in existence,needs to be entirely eliminated. Capital gains taxes must be nixed aswell, or at least vastly reduced; such a measure would only create more jobsand incentives to entrepreneurs.

    It was JackKemp, in last Friday's Wall Street Journal, who made the most senseof this entire hash over taxes. If Kemp had shown as much passion on the stumpin '96 as he did in the Journal op-ed, or had topped the GOP ticket insteadof Bob Dole, historians would have a different slant on American politicsin the late 90s. But that's over; too many spilled loads and too much Whitewaterunder the bridge.

    Kemp wrote,in lambasting both parties: "Instead of competing with the president overwho can inflict more austerity on the American people, Republicans should denouncedebt retirements as an ill-conceived, counterproductive strategy. If Republicansare really interested in helping families and want to maintain a growing economywithout inflation, they should package Rep. Bill Archer's capital gains andestate tax cuts, his reforms in the alternative minimum tax and Bill Roth'sexpansion of IRAs, along with a provision cutting marginal income tax ratesback at least to where they were when Mr. Reagan left office. Better yet, sendMr. Clinton a bill cutting the top marginal income tax rate to 25%, which JohnMaynard Keynes once said is the most anyone should have to pay during peacetime.

    "...Humaningenuity alone-free from onerous taxes, regulations and inflation-leads toprosperity and economic growth. No balanced budget, and surely no reductionof an already-shrinking national debt, ever produced prosperity."

    Boom orno boom, judging by Rolling Stone's Aug. 19 issue, owner JannWenner is pinching pennies. How else to explain just an atrocious pieceof writing by Neva Chonin, a review of a Joe Strummer show atthe Fillmore in San Francisco last month. If Chonin's a day over23, I'd be surprised, given all the factual mistakes, not to mention embarrassingcliches, in the 300-word blurb. "As leader of the Clash," Chonin writes,"[Strummer] infused the lethargic Eighties with a dose of vibrant gritand a radical social conscience. Now, with a solo album on the way, he's pickingup on the Rastaman vibrations he injected into the later Clash albums."

    Where tobegin? Chonin claims the Clash disbanded in '86. Technically that maybe the case, but it was a year after Strummer's coleader Mick Jones hadalready released his first record with Big Audio Dynamite. And the 80swere "lethargic"? That would be news to fans of the Smiths,U2, REM, Hüsker Dü, the Minutemen, thePogues and the Cure. As for the "Rastaman vibrations,"Strummer had that up his sleeve in the late 70s and early 80s; it was old newsby the time the group's swan-song hit "Rock the Casbah" hitthe charts in '82. As for Chonin's conclusion that "Strummer is still givingrock a kick in its complacent pants," I'd say he's out on a nostalgia tour,raking in a few bucks, maybe checking out the bands that have left himin his middle-aged dust.

    On the subjectof pennies, there was a story in Saturday's Times about the city's shortageof one-cent coins, a malady so severe that a McDonald's on 51st St. andBroadway is offering a free Big Mac to anyone who brings in $10 in rolledpennies. It seems that people are simply stashing the largely worthless coinsin jars and forgetting about them, leaving some $7.7 billion out of circulation,according to Coinstar, "the nation's largest manufacturer of self-servicecoin-counting machines." And that's the way it rolls at the MUGGER household:the boys have a collection of piggy banks-the bane of Mrs. M's sense of decorin the loft-gifts that I get every time I'm away on a business trip. Each nightwhen I come home, I empty my pockets and distribute the coins even-steven intosix containers on the mantel.

    I've alwaystaken a lot of guff from friends when I've stopped mid-stride to pick up a pennyoff the street, some comments that can't be repeated, especially since thiscolumn is picked up by Jewish World Review. Don't know why, though:it's like no one remembers Ben Franklin's famous "A penny savedis a penny earned." Besides, I tell my boys that it's good luck to scoopup a penny from the gutter; the only rules are that change found in a cab belongsto the driver, and likewise for a deli or other store. When I was a kid andaccompanied my mom on shopping trips, we'd race each other to snare an errantcoin in the parking lot of the supermarkets on her itinerary; a coupon-clipper,she'd drag me to IGA, King Kullen, A&P, Bohackand the Big Apple to get the best bargains. As I got older, I thoughtthis traipsing around was kind of fruitless, but it was just a vestige of herGreat Depression memories. There was a butcher shop in one small centerin Huntington, Trunz's as I remember, and the man behind the counterwas swell: he'd always cut me a thin slice of bologna or liverwurst while Iwaited for my mother to choose some cheap cut of meat for that night's meal.

    A storyin last Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, by Barbara Carton, caughtmy eye with this captivating headline: "No Snickers, Please: All SmuggledSweets Will Be Confiscated." The gist of the piece was that in today'spolitically weird environment, fully 40 percent of sleepaway camps prohibitcandy sent in care packages from parents; in fact, in what I consider a clearviolation of privacy, some mailroom snoops even sniff and open the packagesto make sure no offending treats have been included. At Camp North Star forBoys in Hayward, WI, there's a woman named Shirley Weinerwho's earned the nickname "Squirrely Shirley" for her efforts to detectbubble gum, M&M's and candy bars while she "feels lumpy letters."Other counselors at camps complain about the rodent and vermin problem thatsweets cause: how ridiculous is this notion, considering all the creepy crawlersthat kids love to find in the woods? Isn't camp supposed to be about climbingrocks, identifying trees, the joy of seeing grasshoppers, red ants, ladybugs,four-leaf clovers, lizards and other exotics that probably aren't present intheir urban or suburban homes?

    Carton alsodistresses the reader with another reminder of the legal insanity that hauntsanyone in business in the 90s: "The growing interception of food care packagesis also a sign of the times-an effort to cut down on legal liability. Campsworry about getting sued should a child get sick from an allergic reaction,or rotten brownies, even though no one in camp-dom can recall an actual lawsuit."

    As a youthin the 60s, I went to camp for five consecutive summers, two-week stints, thefirst three at Camp Mohawk in Litchfield, CT and then twoat the Boy Scout brigade upstate in Gloversville. Mail call wasa highlight of the day: my mom was fairly diligent in her correspondence, andalthough she never sent candy-I was given a small allowance to buy Cokes,Mountain Dew or Dots at the canteen each night-the letters werefilled with what I craved most. Box scores from Red Sox games, the Sundaycomics and clipped political stories. In '68, I was especially pissed that Imissed the GOP convention and had to find out a few days later that RichardNixon tapped Spiro Agnew as his running mate. But my friends gotsome edible loot: I remember Bobby Ringler's grandmother sendingboxes of her homemade rugelach; Bruce Arbonies sharing red licorice whips;and Doug Mazan, usually a whipping boy of other kids, due to his reticent,shy manner, suddenly becoming a hero when he received a huge box of cookiesand candy from his affluent parents.

    Sued fora rotten brownie. What a load of hokum: if this is the way Americana is disappearing,into a California-style abyss of fear and liberalism, I'm taking my kidsoff the bus. They don't need a Squirrely Shirley intercepting, and reading,letters and packages from the MUGGER household.

    A briefdetour to last Sunday's Times. Maureen Dowd, mercifully on vacationfor a couple of weeks, returns to her space on the op-ed page and what doesshe turn in? A very stupid piece on Runaway Bride, a current film thatstars Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. Now that she has that Pulitzer,maybe it's time for some editor with brains to dispatch Dowd to the ladies sectionof the paper, I mean "Sunday Styles," where her increasingly tepidwork will be easier to skip over.

    In the TimesMagazine, Alex Kuczynski was pulled off the Talk beat longenough for a by-the-book profile of James Truman, the editorial directorof Conde Nast who has a mysterious job that's probably not so mysterious:not quite Si Newhouse's butler, but certainly a gofer. Well-paid, withlots of perks, of course. By far the most interesting quote in the article wasfrom Alexander Liberman, Truman's 86-year-old predecessor, who said,"When I was at Vogue, there was no bar code on the cover... About 10 yearsago they put a bar code on the cover, and that's when the magazine ceased tobe art and became a product to be sold like a bunch of bananas... I mean, really,do you think Vogue is about art now?"

    Kuczynskigives Truman far too much credit for his early editorship of Details,saying that his "reinvention made it the first men's magazine that trulyintegrated fashion, culture and politics. He did this by recognizing a new kindof man out there, unthreatened by women or by gay culture, fairly laid-backand hip. He was among the first to recognize the coming youthquake..."I'll concede that Details under Truman was preferable to more recentincarnations, but the truth is that it sucked then, too. I don't remember aword of politics in the magazine, although it's undeniable that Truman madethe magazine harder to read with a "youthquake" design. And maybethe reason the "new" man Kuczynski cites was unthreatened by gay culturewas because he was gay.

    Granted,Details floundered after Truman left (although Joe Dolce did hisbest under undoubtedly trying circumstances) and was virtually unreadable whenMichael Caruso sat in the editor's chair. His successor, Mark Golin,the wiseguy Maxim editor Truman raided, hasn't had time yet to show whathe'll do with the title. The August issue is awful, in the Caruso-mold withLeelee Sobieski on the cover and a "Blair Witch Exclusive,"but I suspect that Golin has inherited a backlog of material. In any case, his"Editor's Letter" is pretty funny, making fun of the demographicshe's forced to chase and the Conde Nast business staff that undoubtedly makehis skin crawl. He closes: "And do pick up September's issue when it hitsthe stand. It's going to be either the big fashion issue...or 195 pages of 19th-centuryShaker furniture."

    It was aquiet weekend at the homestead, with the boys already missing the day camp thatthey'd claimed to be bored with just a week ago. It's no wonder: the gregariousand loving counselors, Sarah Murphy and Cristina Glogowski,were never at a loss for activities, whether it was swimming, fishing, tripsto museums, water pistol fights or strolls in the garden at Washington MarketPark. On Sunday morning, while I combed through the Post and Times,Junior watched some awful show called War Planets, followed by yet anotherviewing of Phantom Menace. Then he ran around the loft, dressed as DarthMaul, with a light saber, trying to induce his brother into a skirmish. Thatdidn't take much convincing. While Mrs. M was still sleeping, the two of themimposed upon me to go downstairs to the bodega for a box of Cap'n Crunch,since they knew their mom would never buy it. I did.

    Later, whilemy wife and I napped, the kids met up with some friends, accompanied by theircare-giver (I can't resist slipping into Upper West Side lingo),and went skateboarding and then swimming in the wading pool on our rooftop.At dinnertime, we called out for pizza, watched the fabulous Marco onNickelodeon's All That (who says there're no black characterson tv?), tucked them in and then I saw the Red Sox win a 5-4 nail-biterover the Yankees, right on the heels of a ninth-inning win the day before,proving the club can't yet be counted out of postseason play. Tim Wakefield,in relief of Bret Saberhagen, almost blew the game, but finallygot Derek Jeter on a force-out with the bases loaded in the top of theninth. John Ellis, one of The Boston Globe's best columnists(in fact, the only readable one aside from Jeff Jacoby), is leaving thatpaper for Fast Company, a serious blow to the Times farm teamin New England. Ellis ain't a Sox fan; earlier this year, in a piecethat debated the merits of a new stadium to replace Fenway, he said whocares anyway, the Sox are perennial losers, just get used to it. See you inOctober, John. You buy the dogs and Cokes.

    August 2