Maddie worked as a travel guide in Argentina and a teacher at several educational nonprofits in San Francisco before joining Mother Jones. She’s also written for Outside, the Bay Citizen, and the Rumpus. She manages Mother Jones' Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program.
"Can you imagine what it feels like to have a black cloak drawn over the country and everything is cut off?" Laura* asks me. She's stuck in her apartment in Cairo, and finally cell phones are working again, for now. I got through to her twice on Saturday, and she's been filling me in on what it's like to be a foreigner in the city. She's grateful to have phone service again, because on Friday, that means of communication had effectively vanished. "You couldn't call anyone. You couldn't access the internet; everything was just shut off."
Laura, one of my best friends, has been in Egypt for less than a month. After spending nearly two years traveling around West Africa, she was looking forward to a calmer existence in cosmopolitan Cairo, where she'd be working with refugees. Then, shortly after she moved there, the protests began and chaos erupted. When I spoke with her on Saturday, she described the scene on the ground: "I'm looking out my balcony and it's gotten to this point where police are basically gone, the military is guarding the square and certain ministries, but there are just thugs and bandits in the streets with guns, and a lot of looting is happening."
"I have a bag at the door with a passport and some water in it in case we have to run. I don't want to be alarmist, but things are deteriorating very quickly.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's attempts to suppress protesters by cutting off internet and cell phone service only seems to be making the situation worse. Thousands continue to defy the police, ignore the imposed curfew, and rally to demand that the current regime step down. And sadly, in some cases the protestors have been met with brutality. "I saw an old woman shot in the face yesterday," Laura tells me.
Even worse, police seem to be shooting people and then beating them afterwards.
We were walking along the Kornish next to the Nile, and we saw these people on the bridge, not even protesting, just looking at what's going on. Police trucks—not military, but police, there's a distinction because they're not necessarily working together—went across the bridge and opened fire on people standing there. Then there were these plain-clothed police—that's the scariest thing, is that they've hired thugs who are dressed in normal clothes and carry canes to beat people—going up onto the bridge and taking them down off the bridge and beating them. Because if you've been shot, that's evidence you're a protester, so therefore you need to be beaten.
Laura and her friend saw a young woman who'd been grazed by a bullet caught amidst a frenzy of canes. They grabbed her and dragged her away from the mob. "We had to link arms with her and walk her through these checkpoints so she would stop being beaten," Laura explains. "It's so fucking unreal. I don't know what's going on."
On Friday afternoon, Laura and her friend made a trip to the American Embassy, just blocks away from Laura's apartment, to register in case anything happened to them. When they got there, a curfew had just been declared and they were forced to spend the night. During their stay, the Embassy came under attack, and it was rumored that a group of looters stole armored Embassy vehicles.
Now back at her apartment in the relatively calm Garden City neighborhood, Laura can do little but peer out from her balcony at an apocalyptic city echoing with gunshots. "We keep looking outside and seeing these men walking around with sticks, and we assume they're defending the neighborhood. But no one knows who anyone is."
I talked to Laura again a little later, around 3 AM on Sunday morning, and she sounded like herself again; sense of humor intact. She said the men wandering the streets below were her neighbors on a make-shift patrol, trying to maintain order since the police had fled. "The men downstairs have swords, but they're eating yogurt," she tells me, laughing a little. "One guy on the corner has an AK-47."
Every so often, she hears tanks rambling down the Kornish, a street running parallel to the Nile about a block away. Her neighbors have moved big flowerpots in a maze-like pattern on her street so that cars won't be able to zoom through very quickly. And even though tension is high and drama continues to unfold around them, life for those not directly involved in the protests is, for now, a waiting game. The American Embassy has encouraged those with "their own means of transportation" to leave the city, but so far have ordered no emergency evacuations for US citizens.
"I have a bag at the door with a passport and some water in it in case we have to run," Laura tells me. "I don't want to be alarmist, but things are deteriorating very quickly. It's probably fine, probably nothing's going to happen to me. But at the same time, no one expected any of this to happen."
The first time I saw Ratatat live, the energy of the music prompted me and my college friends to sing through most of the experience—not an unusual reaction for a concertgoer, except when you take into account that Ratatat's songs have no lyrics. A combination of rhythmic force and the lyrical personality of the central riff made us feel encompassed by a rock or hip-hop ballad—soon the entire room was shaking along to the beat.
The duo, made up of multi-instrumentalist Evan Mast and guitarist Mike Stroud (who's also played with Dashboard Confessional and Ben Kweller), carves songs out of electronica, hip-hop, and heavy-metal grains, though what sets them apart is their ability to provide clear shape and definition to their instrumental melodies. With their LP4 album, relased in June, they dish out more of these imaginative-yet-controlled tracks—"Party With Children" and "Drugs" being the most climactic. I recently emailed Stroud to ask about his favorite music, guilty pleasures, and fantasy venues.
One drizzly Tuesday in San Francisco's Mission district, 20 second-graders squirm happily in anticipation of making "funny-faced sandwiches" with nutrition coordinator Meghan Elliott. Pitas present themselves for decoration; Elliott doles out hummus, cheddar cheese, apple slices, raw spinach, and raisins. "Hummus is kind of like healthy mayonnaise," she explains, as her mostly Latino students eye the mystery spread. "It's made from beans so it's really creamy and full of protein, so it's good for your…" Half of the class immediately responds: "Muscles!" Soon students get to work on their sandwich designs. "This is aaawesome," a round-faced kid in the back exclaims as he dunks a plastic knife into the smooth spread. I approach a table of three girls and ask to take a seat. "We haven't tasted hummus before today, it's brand new to us," says a girl named Paulina, delicately adding spinach bangs to a pita face.
"If presented with a new food multiple times, there's been a lot of research that shows that kids will try it. Especially when they're around their peers, when they're in the classroom," Elliott tells me later, nibbling on posole (Mexican hominy stew) and a pomegranate-speckled salad in her office at Leonard Flynn Elementary School. Personally, I'm convinced she can get kids to try anything. Once, while working in Flynn's after school program, I watched her get my entire class of third graders to rave about raw kale.Nutrition Coordinator Meghan Elliott: Photo by Chris Black
Getting any kid to like raw kale is hard enough; Elliott's job at Flynn comes with challenges of its own. The school district categorizes 73 percent of the school's families as "socioeconomically disadvantaged," and the lure of cheap, fast food is real. The child obesity rate for San Francisco's low-income kids stands at 16 percent. And that's for kids in preschool. So while today's sandwich-decorating lesson may seem fun and light-hearted, it also aims to prevent serious chronic health issues later in life for these kids—diabetes and heart disease, for instance.
Through classes like today's, nutrition coordinators like Elliott spend the school year revealing new realms of affordable snacking possibility to students at low-income schools like Flynn. Elliott's employer, the San Francisco Nutrition Education Project, began in 2002 with funding from the USDA's Food Stamp Program and typically educates students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, many of them Latino and African-American. "Mortality rates are not highest among white, rich kids," Elliott tells me when I ask about the program's demographics. "A lot of the work we are doing is prevention for kids who need it, and schools that have families with fewer resources."
Hurley, the latest release from irreverent alt-rock foursome Weezer—and the band's first on indie label Epitaph—debuted at No. 6 on Billboard's chart of the Top 200 albums—not bad for a band whose loyal old fans had been griping that something (presumably something dark and evil) had become of the band they grew up on. The album marks a reversion to Weezer's earlier self, and not just stylistically; most of the lyrics evoke a state of perpetual adolescence. In "Memories," front man Rivers Cuomo recalls pissing in plastic cups before we went on stage / playing hacky sack back before Audioslave was in rage. And, in "Trainwrecks," We think it's uncool to be on time / Mooching off our friends is not a federal crime. The album is simple and nostalgic, with plenty of raw guitar hooks.
Hurley also addresses the band's present: In "Time Flies," Cuomo croons: Look into the mirror, there were lines around my eyes. And: I'm still in the race, and I'm barely keeping pace, but it's worth the ride. Which all might look kind of depressing on paper, but Cuomo still delivers his lines with the characteristic flippancy his fans so love: Even when I'm gone this stupid damn song will be in your head / I'll be looking down with a twinkle in my eyes. There's no forgetting that Weezer's still just a bunch of overgrown kids proud to put their nerdiness on display. We caught up with Cuomo recently to ask about his favorite music, aging rock stars, and what's on his iPod.
*Update:After this was posted, Duncan Hines pulled their commercial from YouTube, according to The Vancouver Sun. You can still watch the video below. A Duncan Hines spokesperson told me via email that "Our intent was to entertain fans with a fun video about chocolate glazed cupcakes, and nothing more."
When Duncan Hines partnered with film studio Filmaka to release a new ad campaign on YouTube this week for their "Amazing Glazes" frosting line, their aim was to "inspire creativity during the height of baking season" and portray how their icing "makes dessert sing." The theme of the first video is "Hip Hop Cupcakes," (see below), but rather than striking a chord with urban bakers, the video just seems to be pissing them off. Readers and bloggers have criticized the film's director, Josh Binder, and the dessert company's PR department for failing to see how the cupcake characters might be mistaken for performers in blackface. Director Binder has a number of videos that might be considered "controversial," like one for Western gear in which a cowboy lassos two women to be his companions, and another that shows samurai bread loaves crying "hi-YA!" at one another.
Binder's Duncan Hines commercial shows vanilla cupcakes that—when covered in gooey chocolate frosting—begin to sing. An enraged commenter on the site Racialicious complained: "I am appalled that there seems to be not one single marketing staffer at Duncan Hines/Pinnacle Food Groups with any awareness of the legacy of US minstrelsy and racism that is inextricable from the dark brown, red-lipped, googly eyed characters" depicted in the video. Writes a Womanist Musing blogger: "Do I really need to break down why Blackface cupcakes are racist? I sincerely hope this commercial is fake, because if not, it represents a direct attack on Black people."
Duncan Hines might have saved itself the outrage if they had searched for a different title for their bizarre cake characters other than "Hip Hop." Some viewers are perplexed at what makes the music from the video hip hop; there are no lyrics, for instance, and the music seems more focused on harmony than beat. "Black Eyed Peas sound more hip hop than that," writes an administrator on WooHa.com.