The Real Cultural Revolution


First of all, I'll admit that China hasn't been high on my list of places I want to visit—it was well below India, Peru, Argentina, Ethiopia, Maui, and Falling Water. But watching the Olympics at odd hours and absorbing Beijing and its surroundings has piqued my interest. That and a commercial showing that you can get something good to eat 24 hours a day in some neighborhood called something like “Ghost Town.” And I must say that the incredible architecture of the Olympic venues has totally impressed me—from Herzog & de Meuron’s sublime “bird’s nest,” to “the cube” where the water sports go down.


It’s ironic that Mao called his repression a cultural revolution, because the real cultural revolution is what’s happening in China right now, with the blooming of art, fashion, and nightlife, and a general revival of individual spirit in a place we had just assumed to be a permanent monolith of totalitarian boringness.

Even the protesters are hot! I want to go to China and do some business.


As for the Olympics, well, it has been interesting. It’s a little easier to watch than it was four years ago when just about all we saw between events and national anthems was documentaries about small-town Americans who conquered incredible odds—crippling diseases, parental alienation, learning disabilities, eating disorders, combination skin, the heartbreak of psoriasis, whatever—only to triumph on the world stage. Boring! Save it for the Special Olympics. At least this year we got some backstory on the poor unfortunates who aren’t Americans! What a breakthrough!

The best events I’ve seen have been the basketball, where Team Endorsement actually played some D under Coach K, and the sprints where the dread Jamaicans have been so amazingly triumphant. Usain Bolt is phenomenal. I wonder if he could catch a Brett Favre pass? The dude blew everyone and the world record away and started celebrating with ten meters left. The astounded TV interviewer asked what he thought he could have done timewise if he hadn't started hamming it up and bowing way before the finish line and he said “I don’t care.” He had the gold medal and he got it with one shoe untied and a belly full of Chicken McNuggets. That’s the Olympic Spirit if you ask me.


The one thing we haven’t heard much about is theories about how every swimming record is being shattered. I have been watching all of this amazing swimming on TV, watching that green line that is the world record pace crawl across the pool trying to catch seemingly several swimmers in each heat. It reminds me of…well it reminds me of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Of course we know that the swimmers are probably clean, since they have to pee in cups regularly, so what is it? What is it about Michael Phelps that enabled him to win 8 golds and shatter all the records?

Bob Costas explained it one night. Michael Phelps apparently owes it all to his long arm span, big hands and feet (size 14), and the relatively long torso and short legs of his 6’4” frame. If that’s the real reason I don’t know why I haven’t broken any swimming world records. I’ve got the same thing. My petite wife has the same inseam as me and I have size 12 feet and I can palm the rock. I can make it all the way down the swimming pool and back without stopping, but I’m sure not a medal contender. I’m thinking maybe I need a new swimsuit. I just remember the Nike spot with Spike Lee as Mars Blackmon asking Michael Jordan, “Is it the shoes?” and I want to ask Michael Phelps, “Dude, is it the suit?”


I like the suits. The Speedo LZR suits remind me of the bathing costume my grandpa wore in the roaring twenties. Back then guys wore tops, and I can’t help but think how that might improve the look of our beaches today, in an America where 65% of the population is overweight or obese. So many dudes need to wear a “bro,” or a “mansierre.” But I also dig the sort of cubist stars and stripes design of those American suits, and I’m not a lapel pin kind of guy. But aesthetics aside there is evidence that the water repellent fabric and laser bonded seams dramatically reduce drag, and apparently they also improve oxygen intake.



The Speedo suit, fear of which induced several national teams to drop longtime contracts with major sporting goods companies, has led some to charge that it’s “technological doping.” Of course everyone can wear the suit and nobody has to hide it, so it’s not really a valid analogy. It’s more like the sixties when pole vaulting records were shattered as we entered the age of fiberglass. It just goes to show you that all records are good for is breaking, by any means necessary.

When Mr. Phelps broke Mr. Spitz’s record, and pictures of Spitz were flashed all over the place, once couldn’t help but wonder what kind of times he might have recorded with a Speedo LZR, not to mention a shave on his lip and head. Ah, but those were different times. There’s always an asterisk. It’s just usually invisible.

It’s funny, but at the opening ceremonies I finally realized just how much I wanted to hate this Olympics. I was expecting the usual broadcast boosterism of all things American, and I was harboring a definite post-Tiananmen Square disregard for China’s government, but then the Olympics opened with the greatest spectacle since Jean-Paul Goude’s French Bicentennial Parade, staged by the director Zhang Yimou. Sure, there was a little goose-stepping, but it seemed more like it was out of the merry old land of Oz than the Third Reich.




Totalitarian? More like Totalarama! I’ve started to think that there isn’t anything wrong with China that can’t be fixed by fashion, art, entertainment, and consumer-branded materialism. Look at Russia. John McCain can rant all he wants about how Ronald Reagan brought down the Iron Curtain, but we all know it was Hollywood and Seventh Avenue. And the Olympics opening ceremony was the world’s biggest fashion show.

As far as I’m concerned the Africans won the opening ceremonies handily, with their jazzy ethnic regalia.






The Americans looked snappy this year in their Ralph Lauren blazers and Ivy League caps—all except for the guy out of uniform.



What I Did on My Summer Vacation (Part Four)

Apparently lots of rich people have summer homes on Panarea. A lot of them are tucked away but you can see them as you sail by.  Here’s a hillside house that we called "The Playboy Mansion."


We didn't meet anyone, although I think that the guy I kept seeing in the best restaurant, Da Pina, was probably the Parisian art dealer Thaddaeus Ropac. He was wearing a Richard Prince T-shirt by Marni. Da Pina is the best restaurant on Panarea, with amazing fish carpaccios, spaghetti con sarde, fabulous concoctions of shrimp, mussels, clams, and oysters, and the best tuna and swordfish on the planet.

It would have been difficult to simply re-enter New York life directly from the ancient calm that is the Aeolian Islands, home of the god of the winds. So before re-entry we decided to visit the beautiful ancient city of Taormina on the East coast of Sicily. Like many ancient towns this one is on a high hilltop (or is it a mountaintop?). Once this location repelled invaders. Today it attracts tourists. But even at the height of the season this is a delightful place. We stayed at the Grand Hotel Timeo, about as lovely a hotel in about as beautiful a location as any in the world. From our room we would see lava flowing from Mount Etna under the moonlight.

The Timeo, which opened in 1873, is located next to the famous Greek theater, an ancient venue that is still in use today. One night we could hardly approach the hotel for the crowds queuing up for a performance. Well, not queuing exactly. Italians don’t form lines, they swarm. It sounded like they were there to see Yanni. Here’s the view from my room at the Timeo.


And here's the bar.


Taormina puts things in perspective. It’s a perfect marriage of architecture and nature, art and cooking, tourism and mysticism. At the Timeo you could imagine yourself going back to the 19th century. We didn’t eat at the hotel. Having had a $100 tank of gas before I left New York, I was not about to have a $50 hamburger, but we did have numerous highlights at local restaurants like Granduca, which makes the best “al sarde” sauce I’ve ever had, with sardines and wild fennel. And here, as elsewhere, we drank only Sicilian wines, which hold their own with any in the world. On a hot day there’s nothing like a cold glass of Etna-grown Inzolia to make the time pass.

Sicily has a way of putting things in perspective. It gets you back to the important things in life, like the sun, the sea, lunch, viniculture, boat design, the way you wear your hat… After two weeks I found myself absolutely rejuvenated. Eric even got me out in a national park, driving for kilometer after kilometer, looking through a river for a rare Sicilian turtle. And after that, to please our young amateur vulcanologist, we drove as far up Mount Etna as a regular car could go. As we rose we passed from micro-climate to micro-climate until the treeline was in sight. And there was one of Mount Etna’s ski resorts. Buried under black lava. Imagine powder on a black lava base. It was chilling, in a good way.


What I Did on My Summer Vacation (Part Three)

The best way to get around in the Aeolian Islands is by boat, and we got around some, checking out the local neighbors. There are a bunch of islets around Panarea that are apparently remnants of a big volcano that Panarea itself once belonged to. We motored over to Datillo, a remnant of the ancient super-volcano that collapsed about 10,000 years ago. It was a good place to swim, although that's where we discovered that jellyfish are on the rise in this part of the Mediterranean. Datillo comes from the Greek word dactyl, for finger, and there's a rock jutting out of it, well, like a finger. An ancient prophesy says that if that breaks off then Panarea is doomed. Or so said our captain Kika one day, a very cute, bikini-clad Panarea native law student who skippers the local waters during the summer.


Boating around the island we encountered some fumaroles, or undersea volcanic vents. You can tell when you see bubbles on the surface of the sea and smell sulfur. My son decided that these were the underwater farts of the god Vulcan. And we got a big whiff of Vulcan when we boated by the island named after him, Vulcano, a dormant volcano with hot springs which is a literal hotspot for for mudbathing tourists.  Eric got stung by a jellyfish early on off Datillo, and when we visited the local beach lots of kids were hunting them with sticks. Apparently they've been a problem for the last few years, perhaps because the water has been warmer than usual. It was the warmest I've experienced the Mediterranean at this time of year. Al Gore take note.

We did find a perfect swimming spot off the boat, right off the island of Lipari. Lipari is the biggest of the Aeolian islands, and it has a substantial year-round population. One of their industries is pumice—you know, the stuff that your significant other uses to soften her feet. It's volcanic, and they mine it right out of a mountain by the sea. This leads to the unusual sight of floating rocks. But the pumice dust also covers the sea floor offshore,` and so there's nothing alive down there for jellyfish to feed on. It's like a gigantic swimming pool.


After swimming at Lipari we repaired to my favorite restaurant on the planet, Filippino, which is located in a lofty ancient fort above the town, where the archeological museum is located. This restaurant has been serving since 1913 and they have perfected not only Mediterranean seafood cuisine, but also hospitality and service. You feel like a king, even in a slightly wet bathing suit. It's a nice feature of the islands that you can patronize restaurants dressed very casually, because that could never happen in America, where you'd encounter a big sign: No shirt, no shoes, no service. Italians and their aficionados seem to know that they should wear a shirt and some shoes, or sandals anyway, and even when they are quite dressed down they comport themselves with dignity. Meanwhile, Filippino's staff is dressed in dinner jackets and serves with great care and consideration. If I ever retire with the ambition to get very tan and fatter I think I'll move within a boatride of Filippino.


Coming soon: Sicily has a way of putting things in perspective.