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)

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

CHURCH GYMNASTICS: Catholicism is certainly more competitive now than it was when I was a boy. Back then almost any warm body who wanted to become a Roman Catholic could do just that simply by showing up for a few lessons and maybe a baptism if you weren’t a Christian of some sort or other already. I remember when I was getting ready for my Confirmation there was a lot of talk about being a soldier in the Army of Christ now, but I’m pretty sure the nuns did not intend for any of us to act like John Wayne and go leaping on the stray Protestant tract left in the church by accident and absorb the shock of justification by faith alone before it went off inside the church. There were no kamikaze Catholics, as far as I knew; we just weren’t that sort of church.

So it was with no small measure of dismay that I read about baptism rehearsals. I read this wondering just what there was to rehearse. Roman Catholics do not delay baptism; the earlier the baptism the better. We don’t like having children wandering around with the stain of original sin on their souls when we can get it washed away with holy water with bluing for extra whiteness. As the recipient of the sacrament is an infant, rehearsing is a bit onerous, as babies don’t often do what they are told and don’t like being held in uncomfortable positions for very long while the priest drones on and on about rejecting Satan, the prince of darkness and the father of lies. Rehearsing, therefore, is not something you want to spend a lot of time doing if you are a prospective godfather; you just want to get the whole thing over and done with before the kid decides to unload from either the front or the back on the suit you just had dry cleaned for the occasion. Just as a sidebar here, for those of you whose only experience with a Catholic baptism is that great intercut sequence of baptism and wholesale slaughter that occurs near the end of The Godfather, as a rule Catholics don’t usually assassinate each other at baptisms. There is often a party of some sort to mark the event, where there may or may not be a family fight, especially when your maiden aunt, who really should have gone into a convent, preferably one she couldn’t get out of on holidays, brings up that whole business about your cousin marrying that woman (she was a Methodist) outside the Church, but gunning, garroting, bombing, and otherwise doing away with your enemies in an operatic orgy of bloody violence is entirely optional.

Looking into the matter a little further, I find that baptism rehearsals are becoming quite common these days, now that American Catholics have picked up the habit of total baptismal immersion from our Protestant brethren. Catholics didn’t used to do this, you see. For centuries it was enough for the priest to pour some water over the child’s head and say the necessary prayers and that was it, the child was baptized. There was no need for immersions, total, partial, or otherwise, although the idea of total immersion for infants is not something I can go along with. I stood godfather to one kid in my entire life and if I knew then what I know now, and had total immersion been available, I would have held the kid’s head under the water for ten minutes or so. At the time he was a very cute baby; at least that’s what everyone, including my mother, said—I’m the wrong person to ask because all babies look more or less the same to me; and I wouldn’t know better until much later. Perhaps adult baptism is the best way, after all; that way you know that the stinker is getting what’s coming to him when you hold his head under.

But to return to the subject, things are much different now than they were when I went to parochial school, if what I read is anything to go by. Nowadays no child can become a baptized Roman Catholic without being able to do a backstroke over two hundred meters in the baptismal font. Infants who do not finish in the top ten positions in the competition get another chance when they reach their first birthday; if they fail to place again their parents are taken aside and advised that they really ought to consider becoming Presbyterians or Dutch Reformed, both of whom are notoriously bad swimmers. Something about Calvin’s doctrine of predestination prevents people from learning to swim properly. Why this should be so is a mystery to me, but the studies seem to indicate that this is in fact the case. Just when these changes came about I don’t really know, but I suspect it has something to do with the reforms promulgated by the Second Vatican Council. I don’t remember there being a lot of gym equipment in church prior to the 1970’s, but afterwards you couldn’t get to a pew without stepping over a gaggle of bodybuilders doing crunches in the church nave. Maybe it’s just me, but those guys always seemed way out of place during the Easter Vigil. They were very nice guys, all in all, I don’t mean to criticize them here, but you never knew when they yelled, three more, just three more, if they were talking about weightlifting or making a theological point about the Trinity. I’m not theologically modern enough for the times we live in, I guess.

BOOKS AND THEIR DINNER TABLE OF DISCONTENTS: Literacy is a good thing, all in all, but as with anything else, of course, there are some disadvantages. Most of us would rather not read income tax forms or the English language instructions on how to put a toy together written by someone who cannot actually speak English themselves, but has seen pictures of people reading English on the television and it doesn't look all that difficult, or the nutritional information on the sides of our favorite breakfast cereal when it tells us that one bowlful of the stuff has enough sugar in it to rot the teeth of a bucketful of white lab rats. This tends to depress us unnecessarily. We are awash in information these days, much of it unwanted.

But on the whole, the advantages of literacy outweigh the disadvantages. Literacy allows human beings to free themselves from the tyranny of the present moment, to compare one era with another, and to preserve and pass on to our posterity the knowledge we have gained so that they may prosper from it. Not that they actually do, of course. Most of human history sees people doing the same stupid things over and over again and hoping for a different result. It’s pretty silly, when you think about it, but that’s another argument. Be that as it may, throughout human history the central method for transmitting the hard won knowledge we pay little or no attention to is the book, which is arguably the greatest single invention in human history, although ketchup comes pretty close, and is easily one of the most popular. The demand for books increases from year to year. Thousands of new titles come out every year and publishers are hard pressed to keep up with the public’s insatiable appetite for them. Paper companies cut down thousands of acres of trees every year to keep up with the demand. If book publishing alone stopped tomorrow at 3:32 pm EST, and the presses stayed off for a year, the number of trees saved could provide enough wood to give a two story split level ranch house to every man, woman, and child in the Rocky Mountain states and all of Connecticut east of New Haven. Books sell at a truly impressive clip in this country and that does not include the books the author’s relatives buy in order to keep peace in the family. The publishing industry is one of the powerhouses of the modern American economy, a multibillion dollar industry dedicated to the buying and selling and promoting of books, which is a little strange since so few people actually read books anymore.

From what I’ve read the large bookstores estimate that some ten to twenty percent of their stock does eighty percent of their business, a statistic mirrored by library circulation figures. The rest of the books are there, for lack of a better way of describing them, for decoration. Given that the numbers of books published, printed, and sold in this country keeps going up, there must be some reason that people keep buying a product they have no intention of using.

The sales figures clearly reflect a respect for books, and any librarian who’s had to deal with a patron donating an outdated encyclopedia with three volumes missing, the collected works of Joseph Hergesheimer, and a run of the National Geographic that's been sitting out in the garage since the middle of Franklin Roosevelt’s second term knows that most people honor the place of the book in American society and regard the destruction of books, any book, no matter how ratty it is, with the same horror they would feel if their favorite child announced one fine day at the dinner table that he or she wanted to go to Canada over their spring break and club baby seals to death with a crowbar. So people drop their old unwanted books off at the library, which then performs the necessary bibliographic euthanasia and has them carted away for recycling into cardboard boxes or manila envelopes or brown paper bags that fall apart whenever the humidity level gets above eighty percent.

There is something almost Zen-like about a billion dollar industry based on a product almost no one really uses; restricting book sales to the people who actually read them would close down most publishing houses tomorrow or the next day; and there is no other industry I know of that tries to do this. If you found that eight out of every ten hot dogs you bought were just sawdust in a skin, which may be the case anyway, you’d be complaining left, right, and center about how you’d gotten cheated and no misplaced reverence about the place of the hot dog in American life and culture would stop you. But when publishers sell us books we do not read no one says a thing about it. Publishers might themselves some time and money if they just printed the dust jacket and some interesting book flap copy and filled the middle with the Chicago telephone directory. It’s a lot more useful than a lot of books you read these days, always assuming, of course, that you read books in the first place.

Soon improvements in printer and computer technology will give us even more books. With the mass digitization of books, no book need ever go out of print. Millions of books will be available to the public for a small fee, which will grow larger as time goes on because that’s the way life works. All you will have to do is call the book up on a computer and your local bookstore will print it out and cover it for you. And now we see that entire libraries will soon disgorge their contents onto the Internet, making the wisdom of the ages available to anyone who wants such wisdom at the click of a button, beginning with books that are now in the public domain. Yes indeed, books no one wanted to read a hundred years ago will be instantly available to anyone who doesn’t want to read them now. A vast new world of books is opening up here at the beginning of the third millennium, although one suspects that most of us will simply wait for the movie version, thank you very much, or maybe just watch television.

Thursday, December 23, 2004


1: And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. 2: (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) 3: And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. 4: And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) 5: To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. 6: And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. 7: And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. 8: And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9: And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10: And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11: For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12: And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13: And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. The Gospel according to Luke, Chapter 2, Verses 1-14.

And to each and every one of you, a very Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

MAGICAL THINKING: Mr. Harvey Wasserman is coming to our happy little burg to lecture on the allegations of massive voting irregularities in the Ohio returns this past Election Day (Mr. Wasserman's opinion on the subject is here) , which may have cost Senator Kerry the Presidency. That the Republicans stole the 2004 Ohio elections is fast becoming a tenet of left-wing belief in this country. How else, the left argues, could a certifiable idiot / Machiavellian mastermind / tongue-tied dolt like George W. Bush win a free and fair election? It is strange, I think, that people who mock religious belief and believers so assiduously can nonetheless believe that if you beat a dead horse often enough it will come back to life.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

PHOTOGRAPHY 101: George Silk in October. Helmut Newton in January. Francesco Scavullo in January as well. Carl Mydans in August. Richard Avedon and Eddie Adams in September. And Henri Cartier Bresson in July. As you can no doubt see for yourself, this has been a bad year for noted photographers. Famous shutterbugs spent the year dropping faster than a parson’s jaw in a peepshow. No one can say why so many photographers passed away this year, but on the whole it’s enough to make you want to hide your camera in the closet and smear lamb’s blood on your doorposts, and yes, I know I’m shamelessly mixing metaphors in this sentence. Get over it.

Be that as it may, a lot of people have made their opinions known about the deaths of these men, but it seems to me that the one set of people we’ve heard nothing from are the people most entitled to have an opinion: the people in the pictures. Let’s take a couple of examples from the work of Henri Cartier Bresson. Two of his most famous pictures are the guy jumping into a puddle behind a Parisian train station and another of a group of Spanish kids in front of a big white wall with small windows punched into it. There’s a jowly middle-aged man with a large paunch walking behind the kids. He’s wearing a suit and a fedora, his pants held up by a belt that goes over the top of his gut. He looks like a minor civil servant content with life and the three square meals the taxpayers are providing him with. Now this guy obviously didn’t know that he was about to appear in a famous photograph or he would do something about the way he looks. From the way he’s walking I think it’s safe to say either one of two things about him: first, he’s walking downhill, or second, one of these kids’ friends, a kid who doesn’t appear in the photograph, has just hit him in the backside with a rock propelled from a slingshot and the pain hasn’t registered yet. But still, you’d think the guy would’ve done something if he’d known he was about to become semi-famous, sort of. Maybe he’d have gone on a diet or taken up jogging or otherwise done something about the way he looks. Or maybe gone down another street to avoid being in the picture in the first place. The best way to avoid photographic immortality is to avoid famous photographers in the first place.

The fat guy in Madrid at least had that opportunity; the poor schnook in Paris wasn’t so lucky. Just how this knucklehead wound up in the middle of a big puddle is lost to history, but in the middle of a puddle is where Cartier Bresson found him and his feeble attempts to extricate himself from the stupid situation he finds himself in are now considered Cartier Bresson’s masterpiece. Think about that for a second. You find yourself, for reasons even you don’t really understand: maybe you saw something in the water, a fifty franc coin, perhaps, or maybe you were just curious about how deep the puddle was, but in any case you are now out in the middle of a huge puddle with no way to get back to shore without getting yourself soaking wet. And you don’t know what’s in that water. The puddle is behind a train station; every bum in Paris could’ve spent the day pissing into that puddle; there’s no way to tell. Maybe you went out into the middle of the puddle to relieve yourself, too. Why not? Everyone else is doing it so why shouldn’t you take a leak while you’re out there, it’s a free country.

Having finished your business, whatever your business may have been, you know find yourself in the middle of a giant sized predicament. You’ve gone out into the middle of the puddle and now you can’t get back. You try a variety of strategies, none of which works, and now there’s a grim choice: if you want to get out of this predicament you will have to wade through the puddle. There’s no other way out. So you steel yourself and push off, throwing yourself as far into the puddle as you can go. It isn’t very far, but it would not have been far enough, in any case; the puddle is too big. So you race through the puddle, hoping that there isn’t anything under the surface of the water that might trip you up, and finally get to the other side, having ruined a perfectly good pair of shoes in the process. But you’ve made it, your feet soaking wet with water and urine, but you’ve made it.

And then you notice that there’s a guy with a camera taking your picture. You yell at him to go buzz off, maybe you try to run after him and get the film, but by the time you get to where he was, the photographer has disappeared. You call him a bunch of names not repeatable here, even in French, and then go home with your squishy shoes, annoyed at yourself for having gotten into the situation and even more annoyed that someone actually saw you in the situation and then took pictures of you. But as with all things human, you forget about it. The irritations of one day disappear, covered up by the fresh disasters of the next day and the day after that. And then, one sunny day after the war, coming home from your favorite cafe and smoking your twentieth Gauloise of the day, you walk down a street in Paris and see an advertisement for a gallery show of the greatest photos of a man named Henri Cartier Bresson. Well, the name means nothing to you, but there on the wall poster is his most famous photograph…and for a moment you can’t remember why this looks so familiar. After all, it’s been years, more than a decade, in fact, and after the war and the Occupation and the war again and then the Liberation who can remember something that happened all those years ago? But then, in a flash, it comes to you—the photographer behind the train station, on that day when you peed into the puddle and then had to walk through the piss and the mucky water to get home. This is the man’s most famous photograph, and it is of you making an ass of yourself. All the good things you’ve done in your life amount to nothing; your name, the good reputation of your family, the care with which you raised your children and provided for them, all come to naught. You are the foil of a cosmic joke, a joke in which you are the comic and the straight man, the setup and the punch line combined. Your entire life has come down to this: you are the man in the picture, the man about to land in the puddle, trapped in mid-stupidity by one of the great photographers of the twentieth century. And photographers wonder why no one likes them.
HOW DRY I AM: Well, this happens every so often, especially when you provide your own content: the tank runs dry and you run out of things to say. Granted, you'd think that with so many things to poke fun at that you could spend a lifetime writing and still not get around to everyone who deserves a good jab. You'd think so, but you would be wrong. Life would be a lot easier if I spent the day linking to what other people have written, but I prefer writing my own stuff, whenever possible. I’ve got a couple of ideas, but nothing is really gelling into a piece at the moment. So, until I can think of something of my own, here’s a link to one my favorite essays by Benjamin Franklin, the classic Fart Proudly. Maybe I’ll recycle some of my older pieces as well. I hope the dry patch will be over soon and I’ll have something new before Christmas.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

THE GRAPES OF WRATH...KINDA: With the closing of the Salinas Public Library, thousands of disadvantaged Californians from John Steinbeck's home town are taking to the highways in large caravans that stretch as far as the eye can see, traveling east towards the promised land of Oklahoma, where they expect to find an endless supply of library books waiting for them. The desperate readers go to Oklahoma clutching flyers from public libraries the length and breadth of the state in their hands, flyers promising easy access to the Internet and to children’s story hours, to the New York Times bestsellers and to the newest movies out on DVD. They come with hope and great expectations in their hearts, only to find that others have taken out The da Vinci Code before they arrived and that public libraries in Oklahoma won’t lend books to non-residents. They will triumph over these adversities, however, because they’re the people, and you can’t lick them. Knock’em down and they’ll get right back up again. (Music swells as we see a line of old cars head down the highway towards the Tulsa Public Library; singer begins to sing “Red River Valley.”)

"For a long time my darlin' I've waited
For the sweet words you never would say
Now at last all my fond hopes have vanished
For they say that you're going away

Then come sit by my side if you love me
Do not hasten to bid me adieu
Just remember the Red River Valley
And the cowboy that's loved you so true. "


Tuesday, December 14, 2004

BUT LICKER IS QUICKER: Alcohol consumption is up here in our happy little burg, if the DUI statistics are anything to go by. I can’t explain why this should be so, only that is. The local gendarmes detained some fifty-seven people for driving under the influence within the city limits this past year, which is fourteen more than they stopped last year. So there are either more drunks on the road or the local Finest are getting better at catching them; proficiency in this area, unlike baseball, for example, is hard to measure statistically.

Still, the presence of such a trend is somewhat disquieting, to say the least. The mixture of alcohol and almost any field of human endeavor you care to mention is almost universally disastrous, unless that field of human endeavor is making an ass of yourself. If that’s your aim, then by all means, top off the twenty Jello shots you’ve had in the past fifteen minutes with another one and a couple of beers for good measure, but before you do, give your best friend the keys to your car, this always assuming that he’s not just as crocked as you are. Otherwise, whatever it is you’re trying to do whilst under the influence, stop trying to do it; you will not succeed.

One of the many things you should not do while under the influence is watch public television. I’m not speaking here of the children’s programming, which is fairly harmless even when combined with heavy drinking, although the hopelessly intoxicated will want to sing along with big birds and purple dinosaurs, or the political, news, or cultural programming, which alcohol makes even more soporific than it already is, putting the inebriated to sleep and keeping them off the road, thereby serving the greater good by promoting the cause of highway safety. No, I mean public television’s nature and science programming, which no one should watch unless completely sober.

I bring this up because, as you may know, deer season recently ended here and my brothers, having killed, gutted, butchered, and otherwise disposed of one male deer, decided afterwards that reassembling the deer’s skeleton might be a good idea. They decided to do this on a Saturday afternoon after watching college football and gulped down enough beer to keep a team of Clydesdales scooting back and forth from the brewery for a couple of weeks, give or take a day. With the games over, they apparently turned to public television and watched a program about the deer problem now afflicting those of us here in the northeastern United States (I realize that deer afflict other areas as well, but we also deal with their attendant problems: our county’s leading export is Lyme disease, which we have more of than anyone else in the United States). Having watched the program and come to the conclusion that reassembling the deer’s skeleton would be a good idea; it’d be educational, one brother opined, although we all know what deer look like and don’t need any further exegesis on the subject.

And as I said, they were in really no condition to tie their shoelaces, much less reassemble a deer. With the courage of their DUI convictions, however, they went out to the garage where the remains of the deer remained and set to work putting Bambi’s dad back together again. As you might imagine, if all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not put a simple egg back together again, then how much more difficult must it be for a troop of drunks on an educational binge to disunravel a disassembled deer.

At first, they thought they ought to try to put the meat back on the bones but that failed as they kept slipping in the offal mess they made on the garage floor (yeah, that was bad, I admit it) and then decided to just putting the skeleton back together again. For this purpose, the brothers and company (mostly drinking buddies) cracked out the scotch tape, the glue, and a thousand yard ball of twine that my brother keeps in the hope that someday he might get some use out of it. He bought the ball about five years ago, I think, and I think since then he’s used about forty yards of the stuff. There are only so many things you can use twine for, you know.

Well, killing a deer is a lot easier than putting one back together again. I know this because my brothers called me down to help them, for reasons I’m pretty sure I don’t understand, since I know absolutely nothing about the anatomy of the white-tailed deer, and I found them in the middle of the garage with large numbers of bones glued together at odd angles and held together with twine and tape. I tried to make some heads or tails of the skeleton because I’m pretty sure they couldn’t, even though I’m no expert. A deer’s skull does not rest on its pelvis, I’m reasonably certain of that, and I am also sure that a deer’s ribs do not emanate from its front legs, but from the spine, the same as other vertebrates. There were also bits I didn’t understand at first, like the use of beer cans for the bones they couldn’t find or had stashed in the refrigerator with the meat still on them, said beer cans being reinforced with sticks and golf clubs. I’m no golfer, but I’m fairly certain that one of the buck’s front forelegs was a five iron.

“So what do you think,” the brothers and their cohort announced grandly. I was not sure what I thought, or if I should tell men so far in a drunken stupor that they could actually ask me what I thought of their skeletal recreation. I tried to be diplomatic, but I couldn’t think of anything right off the top of my head, which is something that happens to me way too often, I think. In this case, though, the lucky entrance of a wife saved me from having to tell a none too convincing lie. I don’t have a wife, so this is not something I can prove with facts and figures, but it seems that most wives object to trying to clean clothing drenched with deer’s blood. And the brothers and the friendly cohort were dripping with deer’s blood; at least, the parts that hadn’t already dried to their skins dripped. One of the reasons I don’t have a wife is that loud, high-pitched scream that emanates from them when they see something like their husbands covered in deer’s blood, following by ferocious swearing and nagging of a fairly intense nature. I don’t spend a lot of time wallowing in deer’s blood; wallowing as a recreational activity has never really appealed to me, but I think I’ll skip that whole screaming thing, if it’s all the same to you. On the positive side--well, it might be positive; it's purely a personal opinion, I think; they did manage to use another fifty yards of my brother's old twine.
SOME RELIGIOUS ASSEMBLY REQUIRED: I don’t know if we’re any more religious here in this neck of the woods than in any other place you’d care to mention. I suppose no one can ever really say for certain if people who attend religious services do so because they actually understand and believe in the tenets of their faith or if they go simply because going somewhere to pray once a week is just one of those things that people expect other people to do. God knows the answer, of course, but He’s not letting anyone else in on the secret. But if the number of buildings used for religious services is any sort of indicator then I’d say all in all we seem a fairly religious lot.

The majority of people here in our happy little burg are Christians of one sort or another. There are two Roman Catholic churches here, as well as a cloistered convent where the nuns spend their days praying for the world’s salvation, a tall order to be sure, especially for a group of nice women who are getting on in years, and a Franciscan seminary where young men steeped in sin and secularism enter one year and come out as fully fledged Capuchin friars a few years later. The Capuchins are best known for lending their name to a type of coffee; yes, cappuccino is named after this branch of the Franciscan movement, the swirl in the froth at the top of the cup resembling the Capuchins’ pointed hoods, although I don’t know if they get any royalties from the coffee companies for the use of their name. It doesn’t seem likely, though; that’s a shrewd commercial move, you see, and not at all the sort of thing one would expect from a bunch of guys who’ve decided for the sake of their souls to take a vow of poverty. It’s one thing to be poor; lots of people are poor and they don’t much like it and they’re trying to work their way out of poverty. It’s another thing entirely to decide that you want to be poor and take a solemn oath to stay that way. Maybe I'm not taking the broader view of this, but it seems to me that this is probably not the sort of person you want to go to for smart investment advice.

The full panoply of mainline Protestantism is represented here as well, from Dutch Reformed to Southern Baptist, and for those who find mainline Protestantism, well, mainline, and therefore something of a bore, there are any number of storefront Pentecostal churches, some with services in English and Spanish, where the Holy Spirit can move you in the language of your choice. Over near the old high school we have an even older synagogue, and in the heart of the business district, wedged a bit uncomfortably between a liquor store and an Italian butcher shop with salamis and sausages hanging in the front window, there is a mosque, from which the muezzin, or a recorded version of a muezzin, invokes the Shahadah and calls the Muslim faithful to prayer five times a day over a loudspeaker set to whatever the volume setting just above a passenger train hitting a truck full of dynamite at sixty miles an hour is.

But all in all, we tend to get along with each other pretty well. I think nearly everyone here recognizes that there must be a time set aside from the hyperactive hustle and bustle of modern American culture, from the eternal commercial gotta—make—a—buck—get—it—done—today—rat race freneticism that permeates all of our lives, and spend some time quietly contemplating the Lord from whom all good things come and to thank Him for His blessings upon us. Having that time alone with the Lord, away from the constant pressure to buy and sell, is important not only for our spiritual health, I think, but it’s important from a psychological standpoint as well; it gives us all a chance to decompress a little. So it was something of a shock to open my church’s weekly bulletin during Mass and see them asking me to remember the church in my will. Leaving something in your will for the church is a time-honored tradition amongst Catholics, of course, especially if you are a fairly rich Catholic who’s realized somewhat late in life that the means by which you’ve become fairly rich do not bear a great deal of examination by authorities either temporal or divine, but actually seeing my church trying to drum up business in the weekly bulletin while the priest is giving a homily on the meaning of charity in the modern world was a bit much, I thought.

I suppose what really nonplusses me is the idea of the church having an interest in my demise beyond that of whether or not my soul passes muster and enters Heaven. I’m sure my church wants me to get to Heaven and dwell forever with the angels and saints in the beatific Presence of the Lord forever, all of which is very nice, you know, but I can’t help getting the feeling that the question of where I’m going is not nearly as important as when I’m going, and the sooner the better, preferably. It gives another dimension to the parish priest asking me how am I feeling these days.

I don’t think I’d mind giving the church something in my will, if I had a will or a way to give them something, but then again, one of my more unattractive personality traits is a strong streak of paranoia. If I did will the church something then I’d never be able to go to a Catholic hospital again; I’d look at every doctor in the place as if they were trying to turn me into a down payment on a new roof for St. Aloysius Gonzaga Elementary School (St. Aloysius Gonzaga, for those of you who are interested, is the patron saint of youth and altar boys; St. Jerome is the patron saint of librarians and translators; St. Barbara, for reasons I’m not sure I fathom, is the patron of artillerymen. She must do something else as well; all Catholic saints multitask—having all that work to do keeps them off the streets and out of trouble).

Maybe I’m making too much of this; I’ve been known to do that; but there’s just something about the way the nuns look at me these days that makes me suspicious, like I was the doofus nephew with the winning lottery ticket and they were thinking about how much good they could do with the jackpot if only I were out of the way. You know, I think I will stay away from Catholic hospitals, now that I’ve given it some thought. A new roof for an elementary school costs a fair-sized chunk of change these days and my liver is bothering me.


Monday, December 13, 2004

HARRY THE HIPPO, HOME AT LAST: I suppose this story should mean nothing to me, as I am not a resident of Cape Town, but I find myself wondering how it is that in a city of 2.98 million people no one noticed a young picked on hippopotamus for more than ten months. One assumes that there are only so many places a young hippo can hide, and that there probably isn't a large and well-organized underground dedicated to hiding very large semi-aquatic mammals from the South African authorities. With these as givens then, it seems to me that the South African police have spent a truly inordinate amount of time hunting this particular fugitive down. If they cannot find a hippopotamus in the middle of a vast urban area, how well can they be doing at hunting down human fugitives, who look like the majority of the population of Cape Town and do not weigh literally weigh a ton?
DELINQUENCY AND SPRING BREAK: Thirteen whooping cranes arrived in Crystal River, Florida recently, getting a jump on the usual spring break crowd, which usually arrives in March and April. The cranes whooped it up, engaging in loud and often boorish behavior, such as throwing beer bottles at passing automobiles, vomiting in the middle of the street, and fighting with local residents who warned them to stop the inappropriate behavior. After a pitched battle with a local motorcycle club broke out in the middle of Crystal River's main commercial thoroughfare, the police arrived to stop the fight and take the cranes into custody. At their hearing, the cranes, all Canadian residents, promised to behave themselves in the future and were let off by County Judge Marvin Lipschitz with a stern warning that any future recurrence of their rowdy behavior would mean incarceration in the county jail for at least a month.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

THE PERSECUTED FLEA: There are sillier hobbies than making shoes for fleas, of course, although I can’t think of what they might be right off the top of my head. Nor am I entirely convinced of the case for fleas wearing shoes in the first place; fleas have managed these past few eons to get on quite nicely without shoes and no one, except for the occasional troublemaker, has complained of their discalced status, so there doesn’t seem to be any cause for complaint there. The drive to shoe fleas is, I think, a result of our overly litigious society. No pet owner wants to be at the wrong end of a class action suit alleging that their favorite cat or dog is a living, breathing bundle of workplace safety regulation violations. The question of shoes is only part of the equation at this point. Not only are fleas unshod, they do not wear hard hats or any other form of safety device detectable with the naked eye. In addition, cats and dogs feel an intense antipathy towards fleas and routinely indulge this loathing by trying to kill fleas wherever they can. Given their basic motivation, i.e. extreme prejudice towards fleas for no other reason than fleas are who and what they are, the question of civil rights violations and hate crimes are sure to arise.

In any case, it is a good thing, I believe, that someone has finally taken an interest in clothing the naked flea. For far too long, the scandalous nudity of fleas has prevented them from moving on to fulfill their full potential as a species. Clothes make the man, as Mark Twain once famously put it, and what is true for humans is equally true for fleas. So the movement to provide fleas with shoes is a good sign that after so many centuries of neglect, someone is finally taking notice of the intractable problem of nude and shoeless fleas and trying to do something about it.

What kind of person dedicates their life to solving such a deeply rooted problem? In Russia the flea’s main benefactor is Yuri Nikodemonovich Grobkin, a former computer systems analyst from Saint Petersburg, who dedicated his life to the cause after seeing the widespread persecution of fleas by cats and dogs in the former Soviet Union. “It was terrible,” he said in a recent interview, “watching them rip into the fleas like that, acting like mindless animals.” His determination to help the fleas began with the basics, he went on: he saw the fleas’ need for snowshoes to brave the cruel Russian winters and decided to start there.

By the end of that first winter, Mr. Grobkin managed to shoe just three fleas, but the lessons he learned proved invaluable in terms of manufacturing and marketing. Today, Mr. Grobkin’s passion for doing good mixed with tremendous commercial appeal has made the Russian flea shoe market the largest in the world, something that had not gone unnoticed in the rest of the world. Rumors abound in Moscow and Saint Petersburg these days that an Italian consortium headed by Gucci may try to enter the Russian market with a luxury model shoe. Mr. Grobkin hopes that this is not the case. “I was just trying to help poor fleas make it through the winter,” he says, “not become fashion models. I think it would be terribly inappropriate for foreigners to profit from a charitable effort. I don’t think it’s right.”

Mr. Grobkin’s hopes for the nascent Russian flea shoe industry may well come to pass if the Russian parliament, the Duma, has its way. A recent bill proposes an absolute ban on the importation of foreign made flea shoes into the Russian market and provides money for the aggressive promotion of Russian flea shoes throughout the world. Italy and the People’s Republic of China have already filed complaints with the World Trade Organization about the bill, saying that it is grossly protectionist. The bill’s backers in the Duma did not comment on the Italo/Chinese action. Mr. Grobkin, on the other hand, has moved on. He is now trying to improve the lives and working conditions of acrobats in Russian flea circuses by requiring all such circuses to use nets for their most dangerous aerial acts. “It’s the only work many of them can get,” he says, “and they need help now before any more of them are needlessly hurt. As for the shoes, what can I say? Charity starts at home, that’s what my mother used to say.”

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

AIR POWER AT WORK: Before I begin, I should make clear that I have absolutely no military credentials whatsoever other than a passing interest in history and politics, so when I offer an opinion on this sort of thing the reader should take what I say with a couple of pounds of salt. Unlike some people I could mention; Noam Chomsky comes immediately to mind; I don’t think that expertise in one field confers any special insight into another field, even if the two fields are somewhat related; I wouldn’t ask my urologist to fix the plumbing in my house, for example, and I’m sure you wouldn’t, either.

Having said that, I see in the papers that the government of Thailand, faced with a restive Muslim population in its southernmost provinces, and what country eager for world attention and American military aid does not have a restive Muslim population these days, has decided to drop millions of origami cranes on these very same restive Muslims as a symbol of goodwill. Origami, as you may know, is the Japanese art of folding paper into various shapes—it’s almost a form of transient sculpture, really-and people who know about this sort of thing tell me that the paper crane is a symbol of peace. This may well be the case, and I will support any reasonable effort to bring about peace, harmony, and understanding amongst the peoples of the Earth, but it seems to me that the best way to make a large population of restive Muslims even more restive is to spend millions of dollars littering on them.

Beyond the cost of having to clean up all that paper, and in a humid climate like Thailand’s picking up all that wet, clumpy paper for recycling will be nightmarish in the extreme, it seems to me that the military efficacy of origami as a form of ordnance is unproved, as compared to such traditional materials as dynamite. Even when compared to other nontraditional air force ordnance such as chicken salad sandwiches or jars of orange marmalade, and I mean real marmalade with the chunks of orange rind in it, not the sickly sweet jelly by any other name that American supermarkets fob off on the unsuspecting consumer as marmalade, origami cranes seem singularly lame as a weapon of war. There’s just something about dropping a paper crane from a warplane that, to my mind, connotes a certain lack of seriousness about the entire enterprise. A restive Muslim struck on the head by a jar of orange marmalade falling at thirty-two feet per second per second is rendered hors de combat, at least for a little while, permitting a short period of rest to his restiveness, but the same person struck on the head with a paper crane is rendered cranky and deeply annoyed, as when one of your in-laws, someone you never really liked to begin with, asks you for a loan.

The papers also report that school children in the affected provinces have put out large nets to catch the cranes as they fall to earth. This seems to negate the whole purpose of air power, as I understand that purpose. Traditionally, the targets of air raids do not mark their locations with large X’s or bull’s-eyes. During World War II, for example, factories went to great lengths to disguise themselves as golf courses, hospitals, pig farms or some other militarily inoffensive institution. Given this history then, making the task of the enemy air force easier by stringing up large and very visible nets does seem counterintuitive, as does the whole concept of trying to catch a bomb, unless you are a wide receiver.

In addition to this, the papers further report that the Prime Minister of Thailand, whose idea this was in the first place, wrote a message of peace and reconciliation on one of the cranes and then signed it, announcing afterwards on nationwide television that whoever finds this particular crane will, if an adult, get a job, or, if a child, receive a scholarship. This removes this somewhat odd project from the realm of counterinsurgency, I think, and into the realm of promoting lotteries, which is not altogether a bad thing, as this sort of thing goes. There’s nothing more likely to make people less restive than the hope of having their number hit and their money troubles solved in the blink of an eye. I would imagine, what with winter coming on, that New York State’s own goddess of good luck and great fortune, Yolanda Vega, a nice lady who tells the millions of my fellow New Yorkers who play the state lottery every day what the winning numbers for that day are, wouldn’t mind a trip to exotic Thailand in order to promote peace and goodwill among the people of that tropical country. It certainly beats staying here up to her ears in the snow.