The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Thursday, October 28, 2004

AMERICAN SPORTING NEWS: The Boston Red Sox won baseball’s World Series last night by defeating the St. Louis Cardinals four games to none. In response to this unexpected and entirely unwelcome turn of events, skating excursions on the hellfire ice for families and church groups are now in the planning stage, followed by the 4-H Club’s annual exhibition of locally raised prize flying pigs. The fire department's ladies' auxilary will serve a blue plate special of kosher pork chops and beer after the exhibition. You won't want to miss that so come early, stay late, and have fun!

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

ELECTIONS: Well, the silly portion of the political season has finally arrived and not a moment too soon, I think; the voters can always use some diversion. This year we are all a-buzz about election signs and posters vanishing from roadsides the length and breadth of our happy little burg, vanishing with the rapidity of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies off the top of your grandmother’s oven. There’s no apparent pattern to the thefts; signs for Republican and Democratic candidates alike are disappearing during the dark of night with equal speed, with each side declaring that they are the injured party and blaming the other for the political pilferage. The local constabulary is now hot on the case, the gendarmes declaring that they will get to the bottom of the mystery posthaste and once again make our streets safe for politicians to annoy honest citizens.

Frankly, I don’t care if the signs ever reappear; the streets look just fine without them. I can remember the day when one such sign was put up on a telephone pole near a busy intersection on South Cedar Street, announcing that the gentleman running for office was an outsider, new to politics and, unlike his predecessor, who'd been in office for the better part of thirty years, not at all susceptible to the blandishments and corruption that come with political power; the poster finally weathered away halfway through the man’s third term in the state legislature.

And if the posted signs were in any way protected from the elements then they would never go away, remaining year after year until they became an embarrassment. One famously bald local politico had to paper over a poster like this at a bridge underpass; it had been there for years, reminding the voters that when they first voted the man into office he’d had a full head of hair and only one chin. Some politicians, on the other hand, do that sort of thing on purpose. You can save a lot of money on signs recycling last election’s signs for this campaign. It’s good for the environment as well.

I can see the point of stealing some signs. I’ve read somewhere that there are approximately 86,000 governmental bodies in the United States, the vast majority of which hold elections to determine who gets to run things. There’s so many state senators, assemblymen, aldermen, mayors, school board members, town supervisors, and library board trustees running at any given time that no voter can keep track off them all, and before long they all start to blur together in one's mind. The first time you really know who the candidates for some of these offices are comes when you see their names on the ballot. You have no clue who some of these people are, what with their signs disappearing left, right, and center, and in that case why not just vote for the incumbent, since you really don't want to waste your vote on someone you've never heard of and who was obviously not clever enough to steal his opponent's signs. Letting someone too dumb to steal his opponent's signs anywhere near the public coffers is not a good idea, I think; if he doesn't notice his signs are missing what else won't he notice when he actually has the job?

You don’t always need signs or posters to run for office. A few years ago my brother became the president of our local volunteer fire company, elected for reasons that surpasseth understanding, as the Good Book often says of the Lord when He goeth about smiting the hips and thews of passersby for no immediately discernible reason. My brother was a write-in candidate; he agreed to run because a firehouse faction, and yes, we have those here, needed a warm body in the race. My brother won, which everyone in the family found very odd, and makes one question the wisdom of the whole concept of universal suffrage. In the United States, candidates for public office run for that office; in the United Kingdom, a more politically sedate country, candidates stand for office. My brother is one of the few political candidates anywhere who sat on his ass on a barstool for office. He has since retired from the presidency, laying down the onerous burdens of civic responsibility and returning to a richly deserved private life, ending all too early a none too promising political career. He remains firmly ensconced on his barstool, however, offering sage political advice to all and sundry, which is what got him into trouble in the first place.

So for some, but not all, political races, stealing signs is not at all a bad idea. This, however, brings up the question of why anyone would steal the signs of the presidential candidates? Signs or not, it’s not like the populace doesn’t know who’s running, what with those two guys all over the evening news every night of the week and twice on Sunday. Still, you can never be too careful. I bring my Keep Cool With Coolidge sign into the house with me every night. You never know when you’ll run into a John Davis Democrat; better to be safe than sorry. People were awfully bitter about Davis' losing back in 1924.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

ME TARZAN, YOU MOUSE: The trouble with Tarzan is that the guy is never around when you really need him. He’s off swinging from a vine somewhere or taking French lessons from Jane or discussing the finer points of currency arbitrage with Cheetah the chimp. The man never takes his cell phone with him anywhere so he’s next to impossible to find when there’s an emergency; there’s no room on his loincloth for a phone, he says; well, there’s barely enough room on that loincloth for his knife and he manages to hang on to that, doesn't he? I think that knife is what's holding the loincloth up; he's got the edges of the cloth wound around the knife. So I should suffer because he can't afford suspenders? Phooey, that's what I say. In any case, it’s damn near impossible to get a hold of the man. You’d think that Jane or Boy or someone would buy him a utility belt like the one Batman has for Christmas but it’s obvious the idea hasn’t occurred to anyone wandering around the jungle lately. This sort of obliviousness to the creature comforts offered by modern industry is what happens when the Post Office can’t deliver catalogs and other junk mail to the denizens of deepest darkest Africa; the mighty wheels of American commerce come grinding to a halt.

A few days ago I needed Tarzan and, as usual, jungle man was missing in action. As is usual at this time of year, beasts from the lower orders of the animal kingdom are doing their level best to infiltrate my home like so many little Viet Cong trying to come in under the wire. Constant readers will remember my brother’s epic struggle with the Elusive Beast, a woodchuck of Brobdingnagian proportions, who raids my mother’s garden for cantaloupes whenever my brother is not waiting with bb gun in hand. Whatever else one can say about the Elusive Beast, and me and mine have said plenty about him that is not repeatable here, he didn’t try to take up residence in the family home; his burrow next door is good enough for him and his and he is welcome to it. Other beasts, though, are not as thoughtful. In short, I have mice and I want to get rid of them.

This is not as easy as it sounds. For the past eighty or so years, animators the length and breadth of Hollywood, California, have done their absolute level best to convince the great American viewing public that mice are cute, cuddly, and altogether misunderstood creatures, not at all similar to their mangy, flea-bitten, disease carrying cousin, the rat. The late Walt Disney was a leader in this Mice Are Nice campaign, as he spent millions of dollars to make the world safe for Mickey and Minnie and a host of other mousy characters so cute that prolonged viewing of their collected oeuvre can cause the sugar levels of your average American diabetic to shoot through the roof and let the rain in. After decades of pro-rodent propaganda, it is now very difficult for the average American who is not afflicted with mice to believe that mice are neither cute nor cuddly: they are vermin.

This statement will not go down well with animal rights activists, who will, no doubt, accuse me of the worst sort of speciesism, a peculiar and especially virulent form of racism that holds that human beings have no right to make the sort of value judgments about other species that I just made about mice and that there is nothing special about human beings, that we and all of Creation are one, with no one species being any better or worse than any others. On the purely philosophical level, there may be something to this belief, but I do not live on the purely philosophical level, I live in my house and I want the goddamn mice out of it. As for being on the same level with the mice, I hesitate to point out that there is no rodent equivalent of the Taj Mahal, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, polio vaccine, or Sicilian pizza with extra cheese and Italian sausage. When they come up with something as good as the aforementioned then I’ll throw my arms around them and call them brother; until then they’re just mice. I wouldn’t mind it so much if they were paying rent, but there’s no way I’m providing food and shelter to a bunch of deadbeat rodents. This isn’t New York City; there’s no rent control here in our happy little burg.

But I am a reasonable man; I didn’t want to use deadly force unless absolutely necessary. Hence, the unheeded call for Tarzan. I needed that yell of his big time. Remember how Tarzan always got himself out of a jam? He’d spend the entire movie proving that he was smarter than the bad guys even if he’d never been to school and spoke English worse than President Bush, and then somehow or other they’d get the drop on him or Jane halfway through the final reel and he’d let out that big Tarzan yell. At the clarion call of Hollywood every animal of the forest primeval would drop whatever or whoever they were eating and come running, flying, swimming, hopping, or by subway to find Tarzan and do battle with the bad guys and look good in their close ups, thereby saving Tarzan, Jane, and the collective necks of the latest mob of clueless great white hunters lost on the back lot at MGM as they searched for the jungle lair of that semi-mythical creature, the blonde so dumb that she actually screwed a scriptwriter.

I needed the Tarzan yell; I wanted the Tarzan yell; I did not get the Tarzan yell or anything even vaguely like it, although I suppose my yelling, Jesus Christ!, at the top of my lungs can be intimidating if you’re a mouse. It didn’t intimidate these mice, though. Mice scurried hither and thither, which is the first time in twenty years that I have actually used the phrase hither and thither in a sentence, across my bedroom floor. Counting mice, unlike counting sheep, will not put you to sleep; in fact, the reverse is true. Counting mice will raise your blood pressure to dangerously high levels and, according to the American Heart Association, which spent something on the order of five or six dollars on this study, constitutes a risk that cardiac patients should avoid at all times. I kicked one mouse into the corner of my closet, where he gave me a nasty look, as if to say that I could expect the imminent arrival of Mighty Mouse, followed by the eminently well-deserved kicking of my fat human ass. That mouse looked like he’d pay good money to see that happen.

Once I’d gotten this herd of mice corralled in my closet, where they happily ate an old pair of sneakers and then disappeared down the hole in the corner, laughing as they went, I decided that I’d done every the law allows and more in regards to these mice. I summarily sentenced all mice in my house to death for the heinous crime of being a mouse in my house and nonpayment of rent. Thus it was, with a heavy heart and a sad countenance, I set trap after trap in my closet for the high spirited young rodents, said traps being full of tasty grain liberally laced with some type of poison. I then lay in bed and waited for the inevitable.

I heard them a little later, ripping into the grain, gulping it down with the gusto of a kid turned loose in an unsuspecting candy store. I could hear the trays moving here and there as they fought each other for every grain of the tasty, poisoned bait. The sounds did not last very long; I heard them again this morning, but the sound was slower now, more tentative. I realized that the horror must have begun for them. The rest, as they say, is silence. I must fill in their hole later.


Tuesday, October 19, 2004

FOUNDATION GARMENTS: Kaelboel, which is available over on the blogroll with mustard and cole slaw on the side, writes that during the 1980's and 1990's the Dutch Secret Service, the BVD, financed a Dutch Maoist political party that also received support from Beijing. While I am sure that having a Communist Party of their very own is what every little Dutch boy and girl desperately wants for Christmas, I am not at all certain that I would feel the necessary level of fear dealing with a counterespionage organization that chose to name itself after underwear. A certain level of cognitive dissonance occurs, as when one buys Fruit of the Loom for the Vitamin C.

Monday, October 18, 2004

KERRY ENDORSEMENTS: Yesterday, October 17th, 2004, a date which will live in Indianapolis, the New York Times suddenly and deliberately endorsed John Kerry for the Presidency of the United States. Well, gee whiz, you could of knocked me over with a feather when I read that one; there's no way I saw that endorsement coming down the pike, and me a long time reader of the Times, too. It just shows, you never know what some people are thinking until they actually do something.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

THE BROWNIE--A HISTORICAL TREATISE (a Passing Parade oldie but goodie; sorry, but the tank is dry at the moment):

The brownie’s triumph over scandal and a sordid past, over the many obstacles tossed into its path by an uncaring fate on its tortured and tortuous road to suburban respectability, is one of the great-untold stories of modern history. After several centuries of extensive study historians cannot determine why this should be the case, although lack of interest cannot be ruled out.

In the beginning, or shortly thereafter, Domenico Sbaglio and his half-whittled brother, Guido, scions of an ancient baking house that had fallen on hard times and couldn’t get up, discovered the brownie in 1477; she was working part-time in a bagnio-cum-tire store, swiping the steel belts out of new radial tires and selling them to the rag trade for corset stays. It was love at first slight. Politically, both brothers were supporters of the Pazzi family in their vendetta against the Medicis, who dominated Florence and her sister Sally in those days; the sisters have since moved on to bigger and better things; recent credit bureau reports show that they are now working the perfume counter at the Wal-Mart on the outskirts of Davenport, Iowa and still have trouble paying their bills. Domenico, the moodier of the two brothers, blamed Lorenzo (Il Magnifico) de Medici for destroying the Sbaglio family fortune, ruining the family’s good name, and stealing their ancestral recipe for chocolate bundt cake, which you can have but not eat, although in the interests of cultural and idiomatic verisimilitude it must be pointed out that in Italy cake is not involved in this sort of thing; Italians, sensibly enough, worry about having a full bottle and a wife who is three sheets to the wind, and cleans those sheets with back issues of thyme, and Tide, which wait for no man, but will certainly wait on any attractive blonde who leaves a nice tip. Guido didn’t know why he went along with his brother in blaming Lorenzo for the loss of the family bundt cake recipe. He didn’t like bundt cake to begin with and he was not sure he liked his brother constantly calling him a halfwit; he thought he possessed enough of his wits to get by and he told everyone he knew that he only put up with his brother in order to pick up girls.

As luck would not have it, the Sbaglio brothers died violently in the aftermath of the failed Pazzi plot to kill Lorenzo de Medici in 1478. Lorenzo had both brothers boiled in cooking oil and then baked in chocolate sauce, brownie battered with bats and balls, and then pitched headfirst into the Arno River with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and a man on third. Leonardo da Vinci sketched the details of these horrific deaths from life; Lorenzo later wrote satiric verses under the sketch of each brother mocking them, their suddenly unfashionable brownies, and their family’s recipe for bundt cake.

Leonardo later used details from these sketches in his painting of The Last Supper. The passionate art lover looking at the last plate on the left will see that the maitre’d has piled a stack of brownies upon said plate, a stack that is shaped remarkably like the faces of the Sbaglio brothers. St. James the Lesser is staring wildly at the brownies, struck dumb by this grim omen, although St. Thomas the Doubter looks as though he’s saying sometimes brownies are just brownies, dammit, while the far end of the table, St. Jude the Finder of Lost Things is speaking to an insurance salesman, trying to get a better deal on homeowner's insurance.

The brownie’s popularity took another hit in the 1480’s and 1490’s when the fiery friar Savonarola first denounced the brownie as sinful and luxurious excess, a vanity worth of the hottest bonfire. At the height of his political and religious influence in Florence Savonarola changed the recipe and his tune, demanding that the faithful eat his newly constituted brownie as a symbol of their devotion to the Church, a change of heart that convinced the Florentines that Savonarola was himself a servant of the Anti-Christ. Arrested, charged with heresy, treason, blasphemy, and sodomy for the unnatural act of adding walnuts to brownie batter, the Florentine mob burned Savonarola at the stake until well done for his crimes against God and man.

The brownie’s popularity waned after the Renaissance; the Baroque elite found the brownie too bland, a trifle fit only for pigs and peasants, in that order, and the philosophes of the Enlightenment, with the exception of de Sade, believed that brownies were a symbol of the ancien regime. Rousseau believed man is everywhere born free but was everywhere enslaved by brownies. Diderot wrote an extensive article in the Encyclopedie on the brownie, an article that gave recipes, glorified the brownie as one of the mainstays of popular French culture, and lashed out at greedy aristocrats who abused their hereditary rights to the first brownies out of the oven. Beaumarchais based the plot of Le Mariage de Figaro on this article, although he had to make extensive changes in the plot to make the play even vaguely acceptable to the censor. His original play circulated in manuscript throughout Europe, running up bar tabs and hotel bills that nearly drove Beaumarchais to bankruptcy. Mozart based the first version of La Nozze de Figaro on this manuscript, in which his villain, Count Almaviva, attempts to use his hereditary rights to filch Suzanne’s brownies. This depiction of aristocratic oppression of the working class proved too controversial for the time; previews of the opera caused riots in Prague in which several people were killed. After extensive background Czechs and trial by combat several rioters were trainspotted to penile colonies in Austria for their crimes. Following the riots the Emperor, Joseph II, ordered Mozart to change his heroine’s brownies to something less likely to cause property damage. Mozart changed the brownies to cherries, believing no one would care about servant girls losing their cherries. Sade, on the other hand, supported brownies vigorously, thinking since brownies were the color and texture of excrement, he could use them to introduce the squeamish to the joys of coprophagy, the Squeamish being a tribe of South American Indians then living on a diet of Brazil nuts and archbishops. The experiment was not successful. Sade himself was inordinately fond of brownies and once served three years and a cup of hot milk and cookies on a cold winter’s night for attempting to poison several prostitutes with brownies laced with arsenic and old masons.

Brownies remained unacceptable in polite French society throughout the First Empire and the Bourbon Restoration, partly because of their connection with Sade and also because Napoleon, Louis XVIII, and Charles X all loathed walnuts, now an integral part of any brownie recipe, despite the cautionary example of Savonarola. Brownies enjoyed a comeback during the Second Empire, when the Empress Eugenie scored a tremendous suces de scandale serving brownies at a state dinner for the newly appointed Papal Nunzio. The British Ambassador, Sir Thomas Culdeane, attended that state dinner, found the brownies first rate, and came away believing that the brownie was much maligned and that he should do something to improve their reputation. Upon his return to England Sir Thomas introduced the brownie to high London society. British reservations about the brownie were numerous, with some tables booked for the early evening and then again around 10:30-11:00 pm to catch the after-theater crowd, but many people decided to wait and see the brownies at home on HBO, and still others waited to hear what the Queen thought of the scandalous French import.

Brownie lovers need not have worried. Victoria loved brownies and her good opinion started brownies down the road to full moral rehabilitation, except for the addition of hashish to the recipe. This specialty brownie was her husband’s discovery; entries in Victoria’s diary for August of 1854 make clear that the Akhmet of Swat introduced Prince Albert to the hash brownie in May of that year, when the Akhmet and Prince Albert were vacationing in Cannes. Victoria, in short, brought the brownie out of moral mothballs and into the parlor, and then into the laundry to get rid of the camper smell. She ate one publicly at her son Albert’s investiture as Prince of Wales, surreptitiously putting one into her mouth in the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who held that brownies were an abomination on the order of the African slave trade, the theory of evolution, and Roman Catholicism, nearly causing an apolexiglass window in the cathedral to break. Even with the Queen’s approval the brownie still retained a moral ambiguity that troubled the Victorians, a hint of the sinister and depraved that kept the brownie from being completely accepted by the middle classes in Britain and for years made the brownie unwelcome in the United States.

Charles Dickens discovered this fierce antipathy when he inadvertently introduced the brownie to the United States during a reading tour in 1857, a tour that nearly ended with an international incident. After a particularly fervid reading of the death of Little Nell, Dickens calmed himself with a glass of rum punch and a brownie. For a moment the audience at the Boston Athenaeum sat in shocked and horrified silence; the next moment the audience charged the stage and the police beat them off with gunfire and truncheons, killing twelve and injuring another sixty. The police detained Dickens for his own protection and then rode him out of town on a railroad. Dickens wrote polite letters of protest to all the leading newspapers of the day, but to Noah Vale, his American publisher, he wrote that by and large that his American audiences were little more than lice-ridden mobs of provincial ignoramuses, permanently addled by strong drink and chewing tobacco, a judgment preserved in his travel book, American Notes.

For the next twenty years, brownies remained an occasion of scandal in the United States. Matters came to a head in 1878 when President Rutherford B. Hayes and his wife Lucy (a temperance advocate best known for banning alcohol from White House functions, a decision which led to that most alliterative of all First Ladies’ nicknames: Lemonade Lucy) consented, at the urging of Alexander Graham Bell and the Emperor Pedro of Brazil, to eat some brownies with their Sunday dinner. Afterwards the President dined on stewed tomatoes.

The firestorm of protest from the churches the following Sunday was intense. One preacher in Kansas warned his flock that the Devil surely reined in Washington, D. C., and from his pulpit in Brooklyn the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher commented on the sad decline of the nation’s morals when the President, of all people, and at the behest of foreigners no less, should consent to eat brownies and stewed tomatoes on the Sabbath. Reverend Beecher predicted there would be “…abominations committed freely, and the young people of this poor, benighted country would revel in lewdness, fornication, and debauchery the like of which has not been seen since the fall of the Roman Empire.” Several well-known Southern preachers intimated darkly that the uninhibited consumption of brownies would lead to miscegenation and other forms of ungodly race mixing.

In the midst of this crisis brownies received some crucial support from some important and sometimes unexpected quarters. The presidents of the Grand Army of the Republic and the United Confederate Veterans, the powerful Civil War veterans’ organizations, for example, both came out in support of brownies, as did Mark Twain, whose characterization of the protesting preachers as a passel of praying jackasses only served to heighten the controversy. When asked for his comments on the controversy William Tecumseh Sherman stated that the whole matter was a waste of time not worth thinking about, much less commenting on. Brownies received a tremendous boost when Ulysses S. Grant supported President Hayes in a newspaper interview, saying that if brownies were beneficial they would do no harm. Millions of Union veterans and stalwart Republicans accepted Grant’s dictum as the final word on the subject, although brownie consumption lagged in the South for several years due to the same raisin being used over and over again instead of walnuts.

By 1900, everyone ate brownies in the United States, North and South. Brownies were so widely accepted, in fact, that Teddy Roosevelt ate a brownie before charging up San Juan Hill without his horse de combat and no one thought anything of it. With the victory over Spain the brownie’s place in American life was at last secured and today the brownie, once a penniless immigrant to these shores, is now a much loved institution of American life and culinary culture.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

POLKA NOT FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS: I am not what you might call a terribly musical person. The only place I really listen to music is in my car, where I keep my radio tuned to the classical music channel that broadcasts out of Albany. As I like classical music, primarily because I can play the music and not really listen to it, this arrangement suits me just fine. During the school year, however, listening to classical music is a little harder to do. The only reason I get classical music from Albany in the first place is because the communications department of the old alma mater, the State University of New York, College of Arts and Sciences at New Paltz, rebroadcasts the classical music station’s signal. In the summer, this is not a problem; I can listen to the classics, especially the music of the Baroque, till my heart’s content. From September to May, however, classical music goes off the air at seven o’clock so that the college’s radio station can play what today’s musically conscious youth want to hear. Since what today’s musically conscious youth listens to is either rap, which I don’t care for, or a series of loud metallic sounds that bear a striking resemblance to a bad night at the demolition derby, I must look elsewhere for my aural wallpaper.

This is the background to the horrible events of last week. Faced with finding a new source of 17th and 18th century music, I was hitting the seek button on the car radio with ever greater desperation, trying to find some semblance of Johann Sebastian Bach or even one of his kids and finding naught zip zilch zero rien nada and not even bupkis. Well, I thought, naively enough, maybe someone’s playing Sinatra or the Gershwins or Cole Porter. As I wondered through the hellish wasteland that is local FM radio; at night the local AM stations broadcast a wide selection of static; looking vainly for Bach and Boccherini, Basie and Bennett, I came across the ultimate in radio niche marketing. Yes, I had found the polka channel. Utterly aghast, I tried to change the channel while simultaneously avoiding running down a cohort of jaywalking kids. I missed the kids, but did not succeed in changing the channel in time. Traffic then surrounded me, compelling me to stop playing with the radio and pay attention to the road. I was trapped in the polka zone, where no one can hear you scream.

I don’t want to sound snobbish or anti-Polish here, but is there a musical form anywhere on this planet more annoying than the polka? Given Poland’s long and tortured history, I can well understand why the polka became so popular there. If I’d spent the better part of two hundred years occupied by Russians, Prussians, Austrians, Austro-Hungarians in the place of Austrians, more Russians, Imperial Germans in the place of merely royal Prussians, Bolshevik Russians in the place of Tsarist (or Czarist, pick whatever spelling you like, it’s a free country) Russians, Nazi Germans in the place of Imperial Germans in the place of merely royal Prussians, the Soviet Union in place of Bolshevik Russians in the place of Tsarist (or Czarist) Russians, then I’d probably tell the fiddler to play something cheerful to help me forget my troubles too. Having this lot lord it over you like they were God’s gift to Europe is just too damn annoying for words, especially since in the two hundred or so years that preceded the two hundred years of occupation Poland was a great power much given to stomping on various Austrians, Russians, Prussians, etc., etc., etc. Yes, if I found myself in this situation sometimes I’d need a burst of pure high energy polka to keep me sane and prevent me from hanging myself with a length of kielbasa, which, when all is said and done, is not a terribly dignified way to die.

But I don’t live in Poland, I live in the United States, the land of endless dreams and boundless opportunities, where, as Ronald Reagan always reminded us, it’s always morning in America, always a bright and sunny summer’s day even when we are up to our asses in snow. In these circumstances, the polka is not only irritating in the extreme, but is the musical equivalent of dragging your fingernails across a blackboard twice.

Even in America, land of eternal optimism, it is impossible for anyone to be this relentlessly cheerful all the time. It really is enough to make you want to throttle the accordion player with your bare hands. Listening to the polka is like going out with the prettiest, most popular girl in high school, the captain of the cheerleading squad, a girl filled with school spirit and tremendous energy, optimism and personality, and then realizing halfway through the first hamburger that this girl has made it to high school without large portions of her conscious mind actually becoming conscious. Now, when you’re in high school, this may or may not matter to you. After all, she may have the mental acuity of a can of Spam on a good day, but she’s the most popular girl in school, she’s got vim, vigor, enthusiasm, and really nice breasts. So as a teenager you make allowances. When you’re my age, though, and you meet someone like this you just want to smack her until she comes to her senses, even if she still has nice breasts.

And I wonder why the polka channel is broadcasting here in the Northeast anyway. Surely the bulk of the Polish-American population, which must be the polka channel’s target audience, is closer to Chicago and Detroit then it is here in our happy little burg. I’ll grant you, these folks are completely within their constitutional rights to broadcast Jimmy Sturr records morning, noon, and night; I can always change the channel if I don’t want to listen to polkas, but it does seem to me that devoting an entire channel to the polka is a bit much. And why does Jimmy Sturr keep winning Grammys for best polka album? Is he the only polka player the Grammy voters have ever heard of? I think it would be better for everyone involved if the polka channel alerted the unsuspecting listener before the music started, giving us the same sort of warning one sees on rap or heavy metal albums, something on the order of danger, the following broadcast contains extremely cheery ethnic music not suitable for diabetics, pessimists, French existentialist philosophers, and persons suffering from reality overload. Then we'd know to get out of the way before the Beer Barrel Polka came roaring out of our radios at us.

All of which, of course, makes me wonder why there can’t be a Sinatra channel. Someone out there must have enough money to start such a venture. I wish I did. I miss Frank.


Monday, October 11, 2004

FALLEN ARCHERY: Archery began, as near as anyone can tell, sometime during the Stone Age as a better way to hunt. There are paintings on cave walls showing hunters using the bow and arrow as early as 35,000 BCE, and there are other paintings of adults complaining about the damn kids painting on the cave walls and why don’t the cops do something to stop them? Now, one of the benefits of the newfangled bow and arrow, which I’m sure many an old fashioned Cro-Magnon dad told his son was just a passing fad like fire or clothing, is that it allowed you to kill your fellow caveman in a much more efficient manner than creeping up behind him on a dark night and whacking him over the head with a big stick. Not that whacking your unfriendly neighborhood Neanderthal over the head with a big stick was ineffective, but it did require your immediate presence and sometimes it didn’t always work on the first blow. Then you’d have an extremely pissed off Neanderthal trying to whack you over the head with a big stick and pretty soon everyone and his Uncle Bob would get involved and a hockey game would break out, as the late great Rodney Dangerfield once observed. Then the ref would send you and maybe a couple of other guys to the penalty box for five minutes. Life was tough in the prehistoric National Hockey League.

Over the millennia, the materials used to make bows and arrows improved but the basic design remained the same, as did the basic skills needed to operate the device. Then, towards the mid sixteenth century, archers received a startling comeuppance when gunpowder arrived on the scene. Faced with the need to modernize quickly, European militaries traded in their bows and arrows for muskets and cannon. Archery became a sport as its need as a martial and hunting skill evaporated.

I bring this up because a gentleman came into the egregious mold pit that serves as our happy little burg’s library a few days ago and asked for books on archery. I pointed him in the right direction and off he went. A few minutes later, he came into the reference room shaking his head in consternation. He informed me that the library should get some new books on archery since the ones on the shelf were old and outdated. I checked the publication dates of the two books: 1994 and 1998. I said thank you and told the gentleman that I would look into finding some newer books.

Now, given that the bow and arrow’s dominance as the missile weapon par excellence ended about five centuries ago, how can books published in the past ten years be out of date? I haven’t heard of any new movement to re-equip the US military with bows and arrows or to replace the pistols issued to police officers with whatever the newest brand of bow and arrow is. The National Rifle Association, to the best of my knowledge, hasn’t announced any plans to change its name to the National Bow and Arrow Association. And I am assuming that the basic skills archers must have are no different today than those the English archers needed to slaughter the French at Agincourt on the feast of St. Crispin. While I am sure that today's bows and arrows are made from Space Age materials, it seems to me that archery is one of those skills where I don’t have to spend a lot of money on books because what was true a century ago will still be true a century from now. But just in case there are some archers peeved at my denigrating a great sport out there, I just want you all to know that I own a shotgun and I am prepared to use it.


Friday, October 08, 2004

FORE! HE'S A JOLLY GOOD FELLOW!: My brother recently married his longtime girlfriend—married her on the grounds of one of the many state prisons that dot the landscape around our happy little burg, in fact, although I don’t think the location necessarily reflects his views of marriage as an institution…but it might—and I am not sure why he bothered getting married after fourteen years of cohabitation without benefit of judge or clergy. This is just one of those mysteries of modern life that just zips by me without explanation, I suppose. I am not sure what he sees in the girlfriend now that is any different from what he’s seen in the past fourteen years, and I am still trying to figure out what she sees in him at all. I’ve known him a lot longer than fourteen years and I’m still looking for ways to deny that there’s any biological link between us. It hasn’t worked so far but I haven’t given up trying.

That, however, is not the point of this particular screed. Scattered amongst the diverse friends, relatives, and other assorted humanity one finds at such events were my brother’s golfing buddies, a group immediately identifiable by the loud Hawaiian shirts they wore and the oversized Cuban cigars they smoked. If that weren't enough, they were the only people at the wedding wearing shorts. Now, I am not entirely sure why this bothers me; I am, at best, merely a disinterested observer of the phenomenon; but there is something about guests showing up at a wedding dressed as though they expected a golf game to break out halfway through the ceremony that somehow or other rubs me the wrong way. Maybe it’s because I spent over six hundred dollars on a new suit for this wedding and I could have just shown up in my Dockers and sneakers and who would have known the difference?

I don't mind shelling out the money...well, that's a lie, I do mind shelling out the money, it's just I wouldn't mind it as much if I knew everyone else at the wedding was in the same predicament. This is hard to do when there's a whole slew of guys dressed like cabana boys standing in the center aisle practicing their putting skills. The mind boggles at what would have happened if football season had started already. I keep thinking of the bride trying to make an end run around my brother's defensive line (and his golf buddies are big enough to be a defensive line; most of them look like junior league sumo wrestlers) while my brother snuck off the field with no one noticing. He's often maintained that the best place to hold a wedding is in an airport, where it is possible to get lost in the crowd on your way to the chapel and then get out of town before the bride knows what's happened, but this may just be my brother indulging his innate cynicism, although it does sound like good advice to me.


Tuesday, October 05, 2004

DA DA DA DUM DUM: That my Aunt May loathes her son in law is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a deep dark family secret. She makes no attempt to hide her intense disregard for him and never has; if you look at my cousin’s wedding pictures you can see my aunt making a distinctly unfriendly gesture towards her new son in law, viz. the finger, just as he and my cousin are cutting the wedding cake. Subsequent photos show my uncle trying to keep my aunt away from the cake knife. As we are not Japanese, seppuku, in all likelihood, was not her objective, especially since those same photos show the groom cowering in fear behind the best man. The best man, a computer salesman from Springfield, Illinois, the Land of Lincoln, as the travel brochures like to say, looks like he is not at all certain what is going on here, but he clearly does not want to be in this situation.

In any case, the aforementioned behavior on the part of my aunt indicates to me a deeply held hostility towards her son in law that no amount of passing time can assuage. I bring this up because they, they being the uncle, aunt, and male cousin, but not my cousin Ellen or her husband, all came up to my house not too long ago for a family get together. The talk turned to work, or rather, it started as a discussion of how everyone was doing at work that my aunt transformed into a tirade about her son in law and work and how he doesn’t do any around his house and why can't the great hulking brute hang on to a job, although to be fair, the man is on some kind of disability, something that cuts no ice with the aunt at all.

At the height of the tirade, my aunt wished aloud that my brother Patrick had married my cousin Ellen. The conversation stopped immediately as we all tried to grasp the full implications of that statement. It didn’t really compute for any of us, especially for my brother, who told me later that he’d had a sudden vision of my uncle leading Ellen down the aisle to the tune of Dueling Banjoes. I had to admit I was thinking more or less the same thing. The conversation broke down in a mass shuddering and a collective "Ewwww!"

[The story you have just read is true. The names were changed to protect the innocent, in this case, me. I do not feel the need to get my ass kicked by my Aunt May, who is more than willing to kick anyone’s ass if she is sufficiently provoked.]

Monday, October 04, 2004

PEN STATION: Pens like me, although I’m not sure why. I do know that I usually arrive at work devoid of pens and pencils and by the time I leave I have a shirt pocket full of pens. My pocket is wonderfully ecumenical; by quitting time it’s full of felt tips, ball points, gel caps, red pens, blue pens, black pens, even a pencil now and then, and every so often one of those ballpoints with a blue point and a red point on either end, for those of us who can’t make our minds about what color we want to write with. Sometimes a fountain pen finds its way into the menagerie, but I put these in the lost and found box when I find them on my desk; people who use fountain pens are a special breed these days and I know that they will search high and low to retrieve their favorite pens. I know; I used to be one of those people, but the pen eventually went the way of all flesh and I couldn’t afford another one like it. The next time round I bought a Bic.

People don’t give pens much thought nowadays. They are just one of those things we pick whenever we need one and don’t give much thought to unless we need one now and there isn’t one available. But how many times is that, really? Pens are now sold six and sometimes twelve to a box, just like eggs or cans of soda pop, and to a generation brought up on the pen’s ubiquity and low cost the idea that this state of affairs was not always the case seems laughable.

But laughable or not, pens were not always the dispensable item they are today. Back in the days when a goose’s quill was the writing instrument no self-respecting Founding Father could do without, the demand for goose quills was so great that goose breeders could not keep up with it and vast flocks of denuded geese were a common sight in what would shortly be the United States. Unscrupulous men made vast fortunes in the pen game and Wall Street’s first big tumble came when a consortium of New York financiers, backed by money from New Bedford whaling interests, tried to corner the market in goose quills and failed, causing a stock market crash; scores of brokers, their fortunes gone forever, leapt from the first story windows of their offices, causing an epidemic of sprained ankles the length and breadth of Wall Street.

The needs of a growing country, however, required the eventual importation of foreign geese and their quills, much to the chagrin of domestic goose breeders. The breeders could not meet the overwhelming demand they already had, but the idea of giving even the smallest part of their market share to a foreign competitor was anathema to them. Faced with rising competition from cheap foreign quills, the breeders besieged Congress, demanding protection for their infant industry. In those days all American industries described themselves as infant and would keep on doing so for another century and more, well beyond the point where many people noticed that these infants were just a little too big for their diapers. Congress bowed to the pressure, passing the Foreign Quill Importation Act of 1803, which lay a 2200% tariff on all goose quills coming into the United States.

This law was widely unpopular outside the Northeast; in fact, many Southerners regarded the law as a blatant attempt to end slavery and restrict its spread to the new territories, which is more or less what they thought about everything, including canal building, the invention of buttered popcorn, and the introduction of toilet paper to the American market. Southerners vowed resistance to the bitter end. In 1804, an unsigned South Carolina band calling themselves the Palmetto Boys, a temporary name until they could think of something way cooler and might get them a record deal and a shot at MTV, staged a raid on a ship full of overpriced New England geese. They threw the geese overboard, whereupon the startled geese promptly took advantage of the situation and flew away, but not before they collectively crapped on the Palmetto Boys, who broke up a few months later.

Other states were less violent in their approach, but no less adamant in their desire to end the foreign quill tax. North Carolina, for example, urged its citizens to boycott quills altogether and announced that henceforth all state documents would be written in cuneiform on clay tablets. This did not prove immediately practicable. The state hired several teamsters and their tractor-trailers to move the state budget from the governor’s office to the state house that year; the document weighed some eight and a half tons in all and later became the foundation of a federal courthouse in Raleigh.

Faced with widespread dissatisfaction with the law and an ever-growing market in illegal goose quills, plus a tough re-election campaign in 1804, the Jefferson Administration quietly asked Congress to revoke the law. Quill producing states voted against Jefferson that year, but not by enough to prevent his re-election.

Quill pens soon faced a new and, this time, fatal blow. The invention of the steel tipped pen meant the end of the quill. Share prices in quill companies tumbled and then collapsed in the face of this new competition. Thousands of quill geese were thrown out of work by the new device, many of them destitute and jobless for the first time in their lives; few had any job prospects left, except as Christmas dinner.

Many geese, bitter at their reduction to penury, lashed out at imaginary enemies, some blaming the massive influx of Irish Catholics fleeing the potato famine for the loss of their jobs. Anti-Irish bigotry reached its height in the goose community in 1849, when a mob of angry geese pecked several Irish ditch diggers to death at a tavern outside of Albany, New York.

Technology quickly replaced the steel tipped pen with the fountain pen during the American Civil War, and then, shortly afterwards, with the typewriter. The typewriter’s long sojourn at the top of the writing pyramid lasted more than a century, despite the best efforts of pen enthusiasts to turn back the technological clock. Pen technology changed, improving beyond the wildest dreams of the pen enthusiast, but the typewriter matched every such change and then easily surpassed it. This state of affairs did not change until the arrival of the word processor and then word processing programs on personal computers, changes that finally put an end to the typewriter’s long reign at the top of the writing heap.

The end of the pen’s reign did not mean, of course, the end of the pen. Few technologies as useful as the pen are ever completely superseded or abandoned. With the coming of the ballpoint pen much of the inconvenience of pen use disappeared forever. The value of a fine pen ceased to matter to the pen using public; all that mattered was having one at hand whenever and wherever you needed it. The pen, which was once mightier than the sword, became just another cheap disposable item, the technological equivalent of a once rich and powerful man brought low by circumstances and now working for minimum wage at McDonald’s.

That may be one of the reasons pens seem drawn to me. I was part of the last generation of school children who used fountain pens as a matter of course. Unlike today’s kids, I grew up learning how to change ink cartridges without getting ink all over me (something I was not always successful at) and what blotting paper was and how to draw pictures on it without the teacher catching you at it. I think maybe pens see me as a kindred soul, someone who remembers at least the last golden rays of their glory days, someone they can sit down with and talk about the old days when the power of the pen moved the fate of nations. I’ve been on a number of these trips down memory lane; they inevitably turn into crying jags, which is always embarrassing, but pens almost always serve excellent danish and I will sit through most anything for great danish. There’s just not enough good things you can say about great danish.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

ARCHITECTURAL BLUES: Great public architecture is not something most people automatically associate with our happy little burg; public buildings in this neck of the woods tend towards squat Bauhausian glass and concrete boxes endowed by their Creator with a studied indifference to the parade of humanity passing through the doors everyday. This style works better with skyscrapers, I think, and most of these buildings look like they had aspirations of skyscraperhood once upon a time, but had to settle for what they could get once the kids came along while they still had their college loans to pay off. The only way the builders could afford a skyscraper here is if the taxpayers didn’t pay the local cops and civil servants, didn’t pay to fill in the potholes or repair the roads, and dug themselves out of the snow for the next 189 years. In short, skyscraping is more or less out of the question and most of our local public buildings must content themselves with barely groundscraping.

There are a couple of exceptions to this architectural rule. Our burg boasts of a post office designed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, no less, in the 1930’s in between bouts of fighting his Great Depression without the benefit of Prozac, and a fairly new city hall, which is about ten years old and nice looking, I think, and for the several million dollars it cost the taxpayers in budget overruns it damn well ought to look nice. The city hall rests entirely on earth trucked in for that purpose, the engineers discovering halfway through construction that the ground the building rested on would turn into a ocean of mud if a passerby so much as spit in the building’s direction. As the taxpayers wouldn’t pay good money to watch city hall sink slowly into the earth, construction halted while they fixed the problem. This money tossing contest did not endear the builders or the municipal administration to the voters, who actually wouldn’t mind watching city hall sink into the mud if they didn’t have to pay for a new one.

The other exception is the old library building, designed by Richard Morris Hunt in the 1870’s and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which impresses people who don’t know who Richard Morris Hunt was or even care. The old library is immediately recognizable as it is the only Norwegian chalet on Main Street; in fact, I’m pretty sure it is the only Norwegian chalet anywhere in town. As a rule, folks around here are not big on Norwegian chalets, for reasons I am not sure I fathom at the moment. In any case, the old library is now a concert hall and cultural center now, the library itself having outgrown the place by the mid 1970’s when it moved to its current location.

The current library building is not an architectural gem, not by any stretch of an imagination not permanently addled by prolonged drug abuse; it doesn’t even qualify as architectural costume jewelry. It is an ugly red brick box with a cheesy façade that once housed a department store that has long since gone out of business, the owners having retired to Florida or Arizona to avidly count and recount their mountainous stash of nickels and dimes, leaving not a rack of discounted kids’ clothes behind. It is to this egregious mold pit that I trudge each and every day of the week in order to earn my daily bread. I have often thought that there must be some cosmic irony at work here, some schadenfreudenous snickering by the three fat ladies of Fate as they point at me and snicker at how I find myself working my life away in a place I used to steal stuff out of when I was a kid.

But all is not lost, not at all. It ain’t over till it’s over or until the fat lady sings, whichever comes first. For the past few months the minions of a semi-world famous architect have wandered the highways and byways of our happy little burg, digital cameras in hand, looking over the local architecture, such as it is, and laying their plans. They are doing this because, if all goes according to plan and the plans do not gang agley, there will be a brand spanking new library building standing on the site of the building I am in now. At least this is the story the powers that be are telling everyone in town and who knows, it may actually be true.

Now I am not one to quibble about architecture. For me the purpose of any building is to keep the rain off my head while I’m trying to work and to keep me warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Beyond this I have no real requirements. If a building manages to do these things and not cause lung diseases in the process then I will rally round any design the minions come up with. A stylist I am not. But other people are, unfortunately, and the public’s hackles rose sharply when they saw the newest designs for the library.

The minions, in public meetings populated mainly by local architects annoyed that they didn’t get the job, said that they took inspiration from the long and proud industrial history of our town, which explains all the red brick in the pictures. It was all well and good for these people to take inspiration from our happy little burg’s industrial history; in fact, they should have taken inspiration from it; it’s just that the mills they are celebrating weren’t on Main Street and putting a building that looks like a cross between a county jail and a blacking factory out of Dickens was probably not the best idea these guys have had in a year of Sundays and the public said so in no uncertain terms.

So the somewhat chastened minions returned to the metaphorical drawing board; the drawing boards are computers these days, hence the metaphorical; and a few days ago publicly presented their newest design idea. The red brick jail is now gone, replaced by a building with a high pointed roof and small round windows and two large conical structures on one side. This design has gotten a bit more approval than the jail/factory concept, although one astute observer, possibly jaded by the whole process, told me that she thought it looked a lot like a barn with two attached silos, as if the building were the home of a prosperous Amish farmer and his ever growing family and not a public library. There's no pleasing some people, I guess. She did say that this design was a marked improvement over the first one, saying it in the same tone of voice a divorced woman uses when she says that her ex-husband's third wife shows a marked improvement over his second.

And so the design wars continue. All of this is fairly interesting, I’m sure, but what concerns me is where we, we being the library staff plus the books, computers, magazines, and all the other bric-a-brac that makes the modern public library work, are supposed to go and do what we do for a living in the year between the demolition of this egregious mold pit and the opening of our brand new, and, God willing, mold free new building. Several ideas have come up, including moving into the old high school building, where I spent my adolescent years in the primeval age when disco ruled the earth. The library would operate out of the old gym, the scene of many of my worst adolescent moments. Well, so long as I don’t have to do that rope climb again maybe it’ll be all right. I wasn’t able to do it when gas cost less than a dollar a gallon and I really doubt that I could do it now. We will see.