Our communities, ourselves.

One of the things that interests me about the internet is its community-building potential. Overwhelmingly, this is a good thing, at least for me — I’ve “met” people online that I’ve later met in person, widened my correspondence considerably and generally find life far more interesting with e-mail than without it. It goes without saying that if you’re a parent of a child with a rare disease, or a dog-fur knitter, or a body-modification enthusiast living in a small Indiana town, you no longer need to feel you’re the only one in the world carrying your burden. Surely there’s a Usenet group for you, or a blog, or whatever.

No matter how small the pond, the internet supplies a map.

One of the more interesting/amusing communities to start talking amongst themselves has been the…well, I’m not sure what they call themselves. New Urbanists, Crunchy Conservatives, New Traditionalists, who the hell knows? I don’t think they do, either. The face they present to the world is of politically conservative Christians who reject the go-go market forces beloved by the rest of their confederates, and in some lifestyle matters verge dangerously close to filthy-hippiedom. Rod Dreher, the self-designated crunchy con, is probably the archetype. He eats organic vegetables (and can go on at great, boring length about it), lives in a Craftsman bungalow, likes urban neighborhoods over suburbs, etc.

Here’s a prototypical post from a Fort Wayne blog called The Good City. The author grew up in the Fort, moved away to New York City, married and had a few kids, and decided to come back to a place where a family of five didn’t have to share 700 square feet. It starts like this:

Tonight I’m sitting out on the front porch of our 100-year old rental house in a paleo-urbanistic neighborhood, and I’m quite enjoying myself. The porch light is on, my pipe is lighted, my legs are propped up on the balustrade, and a slight chill is in the air. Though dark outside, the old-fashioned street lamps allow me to see clearly up and down the street and notice the wonderful rhythm of other houses with similar front porches. Quickly, however, the charming atmosphere so much promoted by New Urbanists begins to fade as I notice that I’m the only one actually outside on my front porch. Well, you say, maybe it’s because this is the coldest night so far this fall. Not true, however. This has pretty much been the same as every other night: for all practical purposes, no one is ever out on their front porch!

Where are they?! Don’t these people know this man returned from NYC to sit on this porch? Why aren’t they populating his fantasy of front-porch America?

Well, it didn’t take me more than a couple times walking up and down the block to realize the problem: instead of sitting out on the front porch, everyone is inside watching TV!

How dare they.

This makes me chuckle because I’m mostly in agreement with him — I, too, love old houses and front porches and wish others did, too, so we could stop building horrible subdivisions and the like. And I’ve written about it. I guess I didn’t realize what a scold I must have sounded like. (Just one tip for the blogger: In Indiana, they call a balustrade a porch railing.)

But not even in my scoldiest moments could I have written something like this, by Patrick Deneen: “It’s a Destructive Life,” all about how George Bailey destroys Bedford Falls:

George Bailey hates this town. Even as a child, he wants to escape its limiting clutches, ideally to visit the distant and exotic locales vividly pictured in National Geographic. As he grows, his ambitions change in a significant direction: he craves “to build things, design new buildings, plan modern cities.” The modern city of his dreams is imagined in direct contrast to the enclosure of Bedford Falls: it is to be open, fast, glittering, kaleidoscopic. He craves “to shake off the dust of this crummy little town” to build “airfields, skyscrapers one hundred stories tall, bridges a mile long….” George represents the vision of post-war America: the ambition to alter the landscape so to accommodate modern life, to uproot nature and replace it with monuments of human accomplishment, to re-engineer life for mobility and swiftness, one unencumbered by permanence, one no longer limited to a moderate and comprehensible human scale.

You know, it occurs to me he might be kidding. But he might just as well be not. The Crunchy Cons blog, which ran at National Review Online when the book was published, swiftly descended into blanket pronouncements that anyone who moves away from the (small) town of their birth is, prima facie, a bad parent and a selfish whelp. I liked it better when we said things like, “It takes all kinds” and left it at that.

OK, some new year housekeeping notes: Along with the sexy and curvaceous Ashley Morris and four others, I’ll be participating in a group blog on season five of “The Wire,” which all fans know starts this coming Sunday. The first episode is available On Demand now, and I’ve watched it twice, but I’m not posting anything until Sunday. Very old-media of me, I know, but sometimes a little stewing time is better than nyah-nyah-I-got-here-first speed. The site’s up now, and called — what else? — The New Package.

(Not-even-a-spoiler: One of the many small jokes in this multilayered series is the background noise of the corner touts calling out their wares, the brand names of which change periodically and reflect the times we live in; in past seasons we’ve heard them pushing heroin called WMD and Pandemic. There’s a new one this year. We should start a pool on what it will be.)


Hank tells us what’s in and out for 2008. You know he’s right.

No, it’s not just you: Network news sucks out loud. John Hockenberry has some thoughts.

On the second day of the New Year, I resolve to bring some order back to my chaotic office. Better get started.

Posted at 8:36 am in Media, Popculch, Television |

36 responses to “Our communities, ourselves.”

  1. MichaelG said on January 2, 2008 at 9:24 am

    Agyness Deyn? = Agnus Dei? Lamb of God? WTF is she trying to say? Has anybody told the Pope?

    Vinho Verde — Here I’m way ahead of kool. Been drinking it for years. It’s $4 to $9 a bottle at BevMo. Clean, clear, crisp with a hint of a sparkle. It’s a great, refreshing summer treat. The “Verde” refers not to the color of the wine but to the state of the grapes when harvested. They’re somewhat green rather than fully ripe. Try some. You’ll love it.

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  2. Julie Robinson said on January 2, 2008 at 9:50 am

    When first married, we bought a home in a decaying neighborhood. Though we came from the opposite end of the political spectrum we were no less dewy-eyed about building community than the new urbanists.

    Reality quickly led to disillusionment. Trashed yards, parents screaming obscenities at children, motorcycles at 3 am, and frequent “domestics” were all part of the daily fare. There were a few good people, but they were simply overwhelmed.

    By the time our daughter was three or four, we knew we had to get her out of there, but of course it wasn’t easy to sell the house. It took two years and we still lost money. So much for our naivete.

    I will say that we never felt unsafe. The criminals that lived in our neighborhood knew there was nothing of value, so they commuted elsewhere to commit their crimes.

    I much prefer the community here at NNC!

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  3. alex said on January 2, 2008 at 10:10 am

    Fort Wayne’s crunchy cons/new urbanists strike me as having control issues, the same pathology shared it seems by everyone who pursues a career in architecture. Quite an odd fantasy world they have in their heads too, mixing bourgeois bohemian consumerism and holy rollerism. Impudent little closet cases, methinks.

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  4. Dorothy said on January 2, 2008 at 10:19 am

    We are hoping to build a new home here in Mount Vernon or Gambier once our South Carolina house sells. Plans include a wrap around porch – just write if Pastor Jeff and his wife want to stop by for a glass of homemade ice tea! And all of you are welcome to stop by, too. NNC is my favorite sharing website of all time.

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  5. michaela said on January 2, 2008 at 11:24 am

    Argh, time to start the annual blog-cott of NN.C, since we refuse to pony up for HBO despite our great and abiding love for The Wire. We were able to watch season 4 already thanks to some, umm, less than legal DVDs provided by my dad… hearing about 5 is gonna kill me.

    So I guess that means it’s time to check out exactly how much Time Warner will extort from us if we splurge for the last season…

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  6. 4dbirds said on January 2, 2008 at 11:27 am

    The Meerkats are out? Never.

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  7. Vince said on January 2, 2008 at 11:32 am

    I must be living in fantasy land. My neighbors and I have front porches and actually use them! We’re less likely to be sitting on them watching each other than we are to hang out on each other’s porches together.

    We talk. We read. We eat Chinese take-out together on our front
    That said, there aren’t many of us. Just 5 homes on our long block who stay out front frequently.

    But this being Portland, we’re the crunchy without the con.

    Oh. One thing more. NOT ONE of our porches has a railing (or balustrade). We teter a full one, perhaps two feet above the ground unprotected!
    They must be death traps in waiting! Quick call Dateline NBC.

    (Hockenberry’s piece is long but worth reading. Especially telling: a network “standards” person watched every news magazine story to insure they are acceptable in the same way censors vet every Saturday Night Live script.)

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  8. Peter said on January 2, 2008 at 11:47 am

    Alex, if I may speak for my fellow architects, bite me.

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  9. John C said on January 2, 2008 at 12:12 pm

    I lived for 13 years in Chicago, all of them in “the neighborhoods” – as opposed to the downtown and lakefront high-rises. Our last place was across the street from a Catholic church that had two Masses in English, one in Spanish and one in Polish. Talk about a melting pot! (And I’m sure my older son barely remembers the prostitutes we used to pass, politely saying excuse us we walked up behind them, on morning walks in his baby stroller.) Like most people we settled on suburbs because of schools. But we drifted toward urbanish ones, like Oak Park. Believe it or not, leafy Grosse Pointe qualifies, at least for us. There are sidewalks, for one. A great many new suburbs don’t have them, which makes it harder on the little ones and the walkers. Also, there are several small shopping districts, one of which is walking distance from our house. And our kids walk to school, as do most kids round here. One thing we lack is a front porch, which I wish we had. But we get along with our neighbors.

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  10. John C said on January 2, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    By the way, I haven’t read Hockenberry’s story. But should it surprise anyone that a network would want to look at stories before they aired? I’ll fight censorship wherever it rears its ugly head. But the owner of a station monitoring what is to be broadcast is hardly that. Maybe I’m missing something.

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  11. Carter said on January 2, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    Off-topic, Nancy, but for the last week or so, 1/2 of the main text, vertically, of NN.C has been obscured by the blue background emanating from the left margin. The comments are clear and readable but the text requires squinting.

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  12. nancy said on January 2, 2008 at 12:32 pm

    Carter, I think it’s a photo problem. Working on it now.

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  13. LAMary said on January 2, 2008 at 12:56 pm

    Sort of off topic: my older son and I saw a promotion for a network show called “Cashmere Mafia,” which looked like some mutation of “Sex and the City” via “Sopranos.” This led both of us in the same direction, that being the next show created will be a combination of “The Wire” and “Big Love.” Mormons in Baltimore! Polygamist drug dealers!

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  14. Kim said on January 2, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    When I lived in Oak Park, IL (John C. were we neighbors? – S. Ridgeland for me) I hung out on my front porch all the time. After moving to VA we surrendered the front porch of the 100-year-old home for a brand-new contemporary with no front porch but the late 1900s replacement: the screened-in back porch. The better to hide from the neighbors, I guess. Anyway, our move from that house to a crazy mash of mid-last-century has restored our front porch, which I hang out on all the time. Took out the old porch post-hurricane and restored it without balustrades. Scary!
    I first encountered vinho verde in Portugal about 20 years ago. Try it; it’s delicious.

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  15. virgotex said on January 2, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    There’s a new one this year. We should start a pool on what it will be.)



    illegal immigrant?

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  16. nancy said on January 2, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    Our front porch in Fort Wayne is one of the few things I truly mourn about the place. We spent plenty of time there. We also spent time watching TV. I guess my problem with too much of this new-urbanism blather is how swiftly it descends into moral finger-shaking about watching too much TV, not to mention its promotion of an ideal I’m not sure ever existed. That’s one reason the George Bailey screed blows my mind — the author writes as though Bedford Falls was an actual place, and not just a collection of Hollywood sound stages.

    Same with front-porch America. For every person who loves hanging out on the swing and drinking a cold beer on a warm summer evening, there’s another who’d prefer to be in the back, behind a screen, or maybe turning burgers on the grill. The big front porch was what houses had before air-conditioning, and I really can’t blame people for preferring A/C to slapping mosquitos out front. It really does take all kinds to make a world.

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  17. alex said on January 2, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    Not sure what front-porch America looks like in other cities, but here in the Fort it’s usually upholstered and squalid, a spare bedroom for drunk and jobless ne’er-do-well in-laws.

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  18. MichaelG said on January 2, 2008 at 2:20 pm

    My front porch is a large, airy, usable, porch with an old time glider. People do use front porches here and back yards as well. It’s a nice place to have a cigar, sip something (maybe some vinho verde) and read. Of course my neighborhood is a tad different from most of yours. For example I haven’t had any Mormons or Witnesses at my door but I have had the Black Muslims politely inviting me to services. I’m sure they were relieved I didn’t go. And the 6 – 8 drug salesmen who hang on the porch across the street all wave and say “Hi, Mike” when I park my car. Living alone here is fine, but I wouldn’t want to live here with kids. New Years Eve midnight sounded like some arab city with everybody firing their weapons into the sky. Seems like so many people confuse their idea of what reality should be with what reality actually is.

    Kim – talking about wine in Portugal: The first time I went there I bought a nice bottle of vintage port — then dropped it in the parking lot at JFK. I almost wept.

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  19. ashley said on January 2, 2008 at 3:16 pm

    New Orleans is now the big-ass petri dish for New Urbanists and everybody else with some type of architectural agenda to push. Me, my kids walk to school, I sit on my porch and smoke illegal cigars and drink fine adult beverages. Some times the neighbor/columnist comes over and shares in the beverage and cigar consumption.

    This feels sort of organic. Pretty much the polar opposite of hell Seaside.

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  20. Scott Greider said on January 2, 2008 at 3:18 pm


    Thanks for the plug. I think.

    I didn’t mean to offend or finger-wag with this post, but rather express sadness over one of the losses American society has sustained with the astronomical increase in TV viewing: social interaction and concern resulting from front porch activities. Being neither a sociologist nor a writer, perhaps I don’t understand it or didn’t express it well enough, but it seems to me there must be connections between some American social ills (social disconnectedness, 50% divorce rate, record low charitable giving, unfathomable levels of pornography usage, etc.) and the population spending record amounts of time being entertained in front of a box. Sure it’s a big statement, and certainly needs contouring (Jon’s better at that than I am). But I felt it was worth putting out there, at least.

    In the end, I am looking to be happy. And I’ve found that helping others be happy is the primary means by which I become happy. Disconnected lives, often times brought about by architecture (the near complete disappearance of the front porch from the American home) or media consumption (average person watches more than four hours of TV a day!), make it much harder for that to happen. Therefore, I’m sad. And interested in what could change to make that happen better. Might be naive, but I feel it in my gut and I don’t know what else to do.

    BTW, at The Good City, I’m the more hot-headed and provocative one, while Jon’s the more sensible and soft one. I hope readers will read some of his level-headed posts before they write off the blog and it’s ideas – if that’s what they were inclined to do from reading your post.

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  21. brian stouder said on January 2, 2008 at 3:22 pm

    New Years Eve midnight sounded like some arab city with everybody firing their weapons into the sky.

    I saw a report on an Indianapolis station over the holiday. They set a camera on a street corner (38th and somewhere-or-other)

    and you could hear a cascade of shots echoing in the night, including automatic weapon fire. They let the video run for 20 seconds, and it sounded like a pitched battle…in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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  22. Dorothy said on January 2, 2008 at 3:37 pm

    This past Monday night was the first New Year’s I can remember where I did not hear noises of any kind at midnight. It’s quiet out here in the country!!

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  23. Colleen said on January 2, 2008 at 3:37 pm

    We un-enclosed our porch in the Fort summer before last…restored it to such a degree that we got a citation from ARCH. We sit out there in the summer, on our wicker rockers, sometimes playing backgammon, but dang…it’s HOT! I blame A/C more than TV for lack of porch sitting.

    And Alex…my route to work takes me past those porches. But you forgot the dirty diaper clad babies…

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  24. Andrea said on January 2, 2008 at 4:42 pm

    After burning through seasons 1-4 beginning with ep. 1 on Aug. 1 and watching eps. 49 and 50 on New Year’s Eve, we signed up for digital cable with free HBO for 60 days to watch season 5 (sadly, no on-demand). We might have to pay for one month to get the entire season, but it’s well worth it.

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  25. Carter said on January 2, 2008 at 4:52 pm

    All fixed, Nancy. Thanks.

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  26. John C said on January 2, 2008 at 5:38 pm

    I used to be a police reporter in Chicago. One of the things I learned is this: At precisely midnight and for a good while after that on Dec. 31, all cops that can be are in their cars parked under overpasses, or in the precincts and area headquarters, away from the windows. Here in Grosse Pointe, a good friend told me that when they put a new roof on, roofers found many bullet marks. It’s one of those things that makes for teeth gnashing. I don’t own a gun but know many people who do. I’m for reasonable gun control and feel that decent folk who hunt or collect or target-shoot or feel they need protection should more or less be able to own a weapon. But what kind of moron thinks it is in any way acceptable to stand out in the yard in a densely populated area and fire round after round – every one of them with a not insignificant chance of killing someone – into the air. Sheesh!

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  27. basset said on January 2, 2008 at 8:14 pm

    New Year’s Eve in the early 80s in Jackson, Mississippi… I’m weekend anchor on the number-three tv station, nobody’s left in the newsroom after we’re done at ten-thirty so I take a portable scanner home and listen for what might develop.

    Right at the stroke of midnight, the police and fire dispatch channels light up – gas-line explosion on the main street down in the hood! I call the on-call photographer, grab a camera myself, and scoot on down there; turns out some drunk rolled out of a bar when the ball dropped, shot a deer rifle straight up in the air, and hit a 17-kilovolt power line which fell onto a no-parking sign. All that current arced down the sign and into the ground, where it found a gas line, split it and set it on fire – so what we have is a gas flame the size of a small car squirting out of a crack in the curb.

    We all stand around and watch it awhile. Photographer shows up, sees a hooker he knows, sets the camera and recorder (this was back in the days of 3/4 tape) on the ground next to me and they disappear for awhile. Aside from that, not much happens for the next couple of hours until the gas company finally shows up and shuts the line off, the crowd disperses, we’re done, nothing to see here, everyone go home.

    Meanwhile… I’m not an architect but I work with a bunch of ’em, we are a New Urbanist, sustainability-sensitive organization, and Alex, you can bite me too. Good to see you got your vocabulary words for the week in there, though.

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  28. nancy said on January 2, 2008 at 8:58 pm

    Give Alex a break now. Fort Wayne’s nerves are a little frayed on the subject of uppity architects.

    Oh, and by the way: Great story, Basset. I’d have loved to see that.

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  29. John C said on January 2, 2008 at 9:11 pm

    I agree Basset. Great story. It reminded me of another night in the 80s. I was working at a small daily outside Boston. A local supermarket started a “singles night” and we dutifully sent a reporter and photographer. The reporter was an extremely prissy sort. And when she returned at about 9 p.m. – this was back when we worked late covering night meetings – we eagerly asked her what it was like. She wrinkled her nose and shuddered. “It was awful,” she said. “Just awful.” About a half-hour later the photog strolled in. He was a legendary bachelor in the swinging 70s style – red Camaro, wide collars and gold chains, etc. “How was it?” I asked. “It was AWESOME,” he bellowed, for all the newsroom to hear. “I was there 15 minutes and I got a blowjob in the parking lot!”

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  30. Julie Robinson said on January 2, 2008 at 9:27 pm

    Oh wow, no way can my story compare with those. We were wakened one July 5 by our daughter, who stated “there’s something naughty in the living room and I didn’t do it”. The something naughty was a bullet that some reveler had shot into the air, unconcerned about its downward arc, which was of course, our roof. The police said it could have come from anywhere within a one-mile radius. We were just happy it was in an empty room.

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  31. basset said on January 2, 2008 at 10:43 pm

    that photog was a real character and well-known, as you would expect. he’d go off to shoot something and just vanish, couldn’t get him on the two-way and this was before cel phones… then come back five hours later with the bottom of the car covered in mud and grass, that kind of thing. I hung out with him quite a bit off work and met some of his shady friends, very interesting characters but you had to stay careful.

    the station was out on the edge of town and after the late news on weekends we would set up bottles and jugs out in the side yard and shoot at them.

    the place had a long driveway and you could see anyone coming a long way off. one night we’re out there blasting away and see that same photog turning off the main road on his way back from a late shoot, ball game or something.

    so we crouched down behind one of the parked news cars and just as the photog got out of his car one of the guys jumped up, screamed “Die, mother****er!” and let loose several rounds of twelve-gauge right over his head.

    the photog managed to get completely under a Chevy Citation faster than you would think possible, wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it. he wasn’t too amused when he realized what was going on, either.

    then there was the morning one of the engineers met me at the side door when I came in at dawn, said “Watch ‘is here!,” and mangled a pine tree with a Mac-10 on full auto, you shoulda seen the bark fly.

    very different kind of place down there.

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  32. alex said on January 2, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    All right, it’s not about architects.

    What really chaps my ass about Fort Wayne’s crunchy cons is that they want a city that looks and feels like an urban gay neighborhood, only without any gays in it.

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  33. basset said on January 2, 2008 at 11:45 pm

    better be careful about mentioning chaps and your ass around ’em, then.

    serious question… how do you think the city should look?

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  34. alex said on January 3, 2008 at 7:20 am

    I think there could be much better planning. I would rather they had policies as in other cities where a business has to exhaust all possibilities for adapting existing structures to their purposes before tearing down and building something new that they’ll be abandoning in a few years anyway. I would love to see more originality in commercial spaces and residential spaces as well, more attention to scale in new buildings to make them harmonious with their surroundings. This town has a long tradition of doing things half-assed and it shows.

    Yeah, I kind of jones for the neighborhoods these crunchy cons are talking about, and might share their enthusiasm except that what they envision is a religious police state every bit as much as an architectural utopia. Having come from a diverse urban neighborhood I see how wrongheaded this is. Religion is a personal matter, kind of like dingleberries and candidiasis, and you just don’t harp on it to others.

    Speaking of personal matters, I never forced my gay marriages into anyone’s face. I never asked for the state’s seal of approval. I know what I have and I don’t need validation from the likes of my Congressman. But I’ll be damned if I stand by silently while politicians and demagogues and new urbanists like the Good City guys make a political football out of the thing that I hold most sacred.

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  35. MichaelG said on January 3, 2008 at 9:29 am

    Dec 31, 1968, Fort Bragg, North Carolina. I was the duty NCO when some numbnuts tossed a grenade from the barracks 3d story window . “Oh, shit”, I thought, with mountains of paperwork dancing in my head. I was due to get out of the Army in two weeks and didn’t want the bother. It took a moment for it to occur to me that somebody might have gotten hurt. Nobody did. With a spark of genius I called the Sgt of the Guard and reported a loud noise. He hot footed over and it became his problem. I kind of stayed lost as much as possible and played dumb (never difficult for me) and managed to avoid the worst of the paperwork. I never did know who threw it and never cared.

    The supermarket singles night reminds me of the Marina Safeway in San Francisco. Stories abound about the place. It has a fabulous view (a supermarket with a view?) and it was probably the best looked after Safeway in the chain since the corporate president and his wife shopped there. Best meat and produce, new carts every few months etc., etc. Everything except parking. It was also located dead center in yuppie singlesville. Wednesday night was pick up night. It was one of those things that just happened. It was never advertised or promoted, it just was. It got written about, but that was after the fact. You can’t artificially create these kinds of things. They have to just occur naturally. The guy in Boston probably read about the store in SF. You can check out the view on local.live.com at the corner of Marina Blvd and Laguna.

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