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, November 30, 2004

MISANTHROPY: Every so often the last person in the world you would expect to say something harsh about anyone comes out with an absolute corker. When that happens everyone stops for a minute and looks at the speaker, wondering if they really said what the listeners thought they’d said. Sometimes you shake your head violently from side to side when that happens, as if to free yourself from the waxy build-up of language in your ears and to make sure you heard them right.

I bring this phenomenon up because it is now deer hunting season here. To celebrate the season’s arrival hunters (and men who want everyone to think they’re hunters but couldn't find the business end of a rifle if it was pointing right at them) throughout the not very great length and breadth of our little burg are getting their rifles out and cleaning them in happy preparation for the beginning of the hunt, wherein they will take their weapons out into the forest primeval that surrounds us and, like our earliest hunter-gatherer ancestors, get away from their wives for a while and drink extraordinarily large amounts of beer in peace and quiet. In the course of all this gun cleaning and beer drinking and traipsing about the countryside with high-powered weapons a deer occasionally expires from something other than natural causes, however implausible that may seem to the casual observer. That the rounds fired off at the local fauna hit anything other than large topographical features is something of a miracle; anyone with that much beer in them shouldn’t hit anything at all.

In any case, people have strange ideas about wild animals, especially people who have lived their entire lives in cities. There are no mice like Mickey Mouse, no grizzly bears like Yogi Bear, although grizzly bears may indeed be smarter than your average ranger, but that might change soon, given that the NHL strike means that the Rangers can go back to school and earn a degree now that they don't have to play hockey this winter, and there are definitely no deer like Bambi, but you can’t tell these people such things. They love animals, they’ll have you know, all animals, with the single exception of rats, but they prefer the cute, furry ones most of all. And they think the people who hunt these animals are among the most loathsome wretches that ever walked on two legs.

I know this because a friend of the family came visiting over the Thanksgiving holiday. She is a very nice woman, a lifelong resident of the great metropolis to the south of us, but not someone at all familiar with strange local customs like shooting animals for fun and profit. After all, this is a place where the municipal shelters and local charities encourage the wholesale slaughter of the indigenous wildlife in order to feed the hungry and homeless. So there’s a bit of a culture clash right there, but a bit of a culture clash does not really describe what our family friend got when she walked into my brother’s garage for something or other after Thanksgiving dinner and saw Bambi’s dad hanging from the rafters with a bullet hole in his side, just waiting for the brother to gut and butcher. She took one look at the buck and then had a conniption of epic proportions. Well, conniption is not really the adjective I’m looking for here and an appropriate one is not coming to mind. The word I’m looking for needs to display some combination of screaming temper tantrum, sputtering hissy fit, and screeching moral outrage blended together with high volume in one very toxic emotional and etymological brew. Conniption doesn’t quite make the grade on this one, I think. As such a word may not exist at all, let’s just say that our metropolitan visitor was unhappy to the nth degree. It’s not everyday that my brother is called a murderer by someone who’s known him all his life, and when my mother tried to explain that deer hunting is not, by any stretch of the imagination, culpable homicide, except to other deer, and that there were entirely too many deer anyway, our visitor looked at my mother as if she were crazier than the love child of Norman Bates and Anna Nicole Smith and said that there were too many kids running around but no one goes around shooting them, do they? This is the remark that caused the previously alluded to state of psychological stasis; not too many people around our happy little burg would think of equating kids with deer.

I suppose you could make the mental leap; there are times when I know I want to throttle annoying youngsters just for the fun of it, but, on the whole, kids seldom eat your mother’s geraniums, a well known deer delicacy, or saunter out into the middle of the highway at three o’clock in the morning and then stare bug-eyed at the oncoming traffic as the frightened motorists perform automotive acrobatics trying to avoid smacking into them. You may want to run down some cute little tyke anyway; some kids just have it coming. There is also the problem of our local constabulary, who, as officers of the law are wont to do, take a dim view of the whole idea of child hunting and will spend an inordinate amount of time and energy arranging government subsidized housing for those who indulge in this hobby.

And then there is the problem that my mother spoke of, that of deer overpopulation. This may come as a surprise to many people, but deer inhabit a Malthusian universe: they reproduce to the limit of the food supply and when the food shrinks the population must shrink as well, which, in the wild, is caused by predators and starvation. Well, there aren’t too many natural predators in this neck of the woods, although I do have a swarm of relatives who are always asking for money; that’s the next best thing, I suppose. But unless someone wants to reintroduce timber wolves and mountain lions to the area, which is not going to happen; this is an idea whose time has come and then will go just as soon as the big bad wolf and his friendly neighborhood wolf pack decide that hunting deer, who may not be among the brightest minds in nature but know how to run like hell when something bad is happening, is just plain stupid when they can snack on little Susie Creamcheese playing hopscotch down in the schoolyard. So mountain lions and timber wolves are out, and if they're not going to do the hunting then humans will have to take up the slack and do the predation thing. The alternative is letting the deer starve to death en masse during particularly bad winters. I am sure that no one wants that to happen, although I must admit I find the idea of turning hungry wolves loose on annoying bands of kids curiously appealing.


Wednesday, November 24, 2004

REALITY CHEX, OR I GOT THE TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN FICTION BLUES: I read in the papers that an online casino recently bought, for reasons that surpasseth human understanding, I'm sure, a ten-year-old grilled cheese sandwich bearing the image of the Blessed Virgin for the sum of $28,000. I had to read the article twice, just to make sure my eyes were not deceiving me. But no, they weren’t; this is an actual news story carried in an actual newspaper on an actual day that is actually nowhere near the first of April. I suppose I could mock this event until the cows come home, making rude remarks about Jesus appearing in the cream cheese to change water into Diet Coke or Moses popping up on a Big Mac to divide the lettuce from the pickle and to let the Chosen People pass through the Red Sea of ketchup into the dessert of Sinai, but really, what would be the point? Sometimes reality is better than anything you can think up and this, I think, is one of those occasions.
SCHOOL DAZE: Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the Jihadistas in Iraq, is now blaming Islamic scholars for the shellacking he and his mob of thugs have been taking these past few weeks. I wonder when religious conservatives will stop blaming the educational system for everything that is wrong with society. The schools only mirror what is going on in society as a whole, it doesn't create what's going on.

Monday, November 22, 2004

TURKEY DAY, YET AGAIN: Thanksgiving is almost upon us again, the date on which we look back on the year and give thanks to the Lord for His many blessings to us and our country. I suppose I should be thankful, simply as a matter of courtesy; after all, everyone else is thanking Him and I suppose I should, too; but there hasn’t been a lot to be thankful for this year. This is the year my father died, the Yankees lost (and to the Red Sox, of all people), and my doctor told me that I’m a diabetic. The only bright spot all year long was President Bush’s re-election, and as I am not a political junkie, that was not much of a lift. I’d ask what else could possibly go wrong in 2004, but frankly, I’m afraid if I do then I’ll find out. I think I’ll skip it then and save some fresh horrors for next year.

In any case, Thanksgiving has never been one of my favorite holidays. When I was a kid, Mom and Pop would pile all of us kids into the car and we’d go to some relative’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. These trips were, almost invariably, marked by parental discord, followed by my father blaming us kids for the quarrel and warning us that we’d better be quiet or we’d get the strap laid across our backsides. Then when we got to wherever we were going, we had to be polite and not run or jump or scream or knock over this particular relative’s collection of fine 18th century fine Dresden china, thereby breaking every single piece of it into pieces so small that they defied repair. But let’s not go there; there was plenty of blame to go around on that particular misadventure (no, it wasn’t my fault, really, I don’t care what my brother says, and yes, my aunt had all of that stuff insured).

The worst aspect of those Thanksgivings was not having anything to eat while waiting for the turkey to cook for fear we would ruin our appetites, and second, our parents not letting us play outside because they didn’t want us to dirty our clothes. So there we were, five growing and very hungry boys, stuck in a house full of the smells of Thanksgiving dinner, with sideboards groaning under the weight of cookies and cakes and pies of every description and we couldn't have any of it. We hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch, so there'd be plenty of space for dinner, and so at around three o'clock we were going out of our minds with hunger. Meanwhile, the grown-ups sat at the dining room table stuffing their faces with fruit and cookies as they yammered away about politics, family gossip, and who died that year and how they knew last Thanksgiving that the deceased wasn’t going to survive till next Thanksgiving. After all that, of course, we fell on our dinners with the avidity of a flock of vultures dining on an elephant carcass, only to listen to Mom and Pop complain all the way home that we hadn’t behaved ourselves after hours of the most appalling psychogastronomical torture imaginable. Frankly, as a kid, the one thing I gave thanks for on Thanksgiving was that Thanksgiving only came once a year.

And then there was biliary colic. Biliary colic is a condition I’d never even heard of until one Thanksgiving a few years ago. Biliary colic occurs when a gallstone lodges in the gall bladder’s bile duct, causing a major back up in the gland. This usually happens when the victim consumes large amounts of fat on an empty stomach, as when my brother and me consumed a two-pound bag of salted pistachios (we love salted pistachios, but you probably guessed that already) just before Thanksgiving dinner. I will spare the squeamish reader the gruesome details of how biliary colic manifests itself. I will say that Thanksgiving dinner is rarely as good coming up as it was going down and that this time was no exception to that rule, and that I still think that the trip to the emergency room was unnecessary; but my mother thought I was having a heart attack and she demanded that I go. I spent Thanksgiving night having tests done and sharing a cubicle with a correctional officer who’d nearly lost an ear in an altercation, as he put it, with a shank-wielding inmate. The man bore his wounds with a good deal of equanimity and my male ego, a delicate flower like all male egos, took a truly massive hit having to admit to this guy that I was the victim of a pistachio (though it was a very tough pistachio, for the record; really, it was).

Last Thanksgiving wasn’t so bad, all in all. I went to my brother’s house for dinner and a good time was had by all and sundry. The food was excellent and afterwards we all gathered in his living room to watch football. About an hour later the tryptophan started to kick in. Tryptophan, for those of you who’ve never heard of it, is an amino acid that occurs in most living things, but is especially prevalent in Thanksgiving turkeys. It is the bird’s revenge for being dinner. Tryptophan causes extreme sleepiness in most people and we were no exceptions. Two brothers fell asleep on the couch and another went into the bedroom and sprawled out amongst the gathered coats, hats, and gloves like a beached whale and promptly went into a coma.

This, apparently, is a common reaction to tryptophan, an effect well known to the public and public health authorities alike, and one must wonder why the government does not better regulate turkeys. Users of tobacco and alcohol are ceaselessly bombarded with public service advertisements warning them of the dangers of smoking and drinking, state attorneys general cannot wait to sue tobacco and liquor companies for every dime they can get out of them, and yet no one does anything about the menace of tryptophan. I have searched the Internet and medical databases alike looking for a study on the effects of this powerful narcotic on drivers’ reflexes, and all to no avail. Millions of drivers will take to the road this holiday with several pounds of turkey in their digestive tracts, and they will be eating turkey for the rest of the week as well, thousands of accidents will occur from one end of the country to the other, and yet no public health official in this country can say for certain if the mass ingestion of turkey played any role in these tragic events. This ignorance of tryptophan’s role seems to me to be the very height of folly. Given its well-known side effects, how can anyone say that eating turkey and driving is an intelligent thing for any person to do?

And yet there are no angry parents demanding that the government do its job and order this obviously unsafe product out of the nation’s supermarkets. The sale of tryptophan-laden turkeys goes on and on and no one seems to care one way or the other. That a young child can buy a turkey sandwich with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise in any deli in the United States without a doctor’s prescription or a parent’s consent is nothing short of criminal, a burning mark of shame on the brow of any nation that calls itself civilized.

The trade in tryptophan is simply unacceptable by any rational standard and the government must do something to either control or ban such traffic outright. This may cause the traffic to go underground, and there is always the possibility of organized crime penetrating the cold cuts industry or organizing illegal delis in the same way they’ve organized crack houses, but the risk is worth it if we can prevent widespread addiction to tryptophan.

The most important step the government could take is to systematically educate the public away from its association of turkeys with Thanksgiving and to substitute some other foodstuff with the holiday. A family can just as easily thank the Lord for his blessings with a glazed ham or with a take-out pizza as with a turkey. Parents must take the lead in this matter; your children and a grateful nation will thank you for your brave choice someday. In the meantime, I’ll have the Sicilian slice with the extra cheese and Italian sausage.
IN ANGER VERITAS? :Well, reading the paper, especially the op-ed pages, has certainly been interesting these past few weeks. It isn’t everyday when you see ordinarily sensible press people either go off the deep end with a traumatic case of the vapors or engage in titanic hissy fits that would embarrass a teenaged girl whose boy friend just dumped her to go to the prom with her best friend simply because someone they didn’t like won an election. One must wonder who holds the smelling salts in cases like these. It seems to me that the reaction has already started and a general cooling down in tone is now the order of things in many papers. There does appear to be a kind of embarrassment creeping in about the rhetorical excesses committed in the immediate aftermath of the election, the same sort of embarrassment one generally feels after a New Year’s or St. Patrick’s Day party in which you got stony faced drunk and now you can’t remember what you said or did the whole night. All you know now is that your boss is giving you the gimlet eye and the nice girl down in acquisitions that you were thinking of asking out to a movie and maybe dinner afterwards turns beet red and heads for the ladies’ room at full speed whenever she sees you coming down the hall.

The same sort of thing happens to kids as well at these things, which is why Irish kids, and maybe kids of other ethnic persuasions as well; I can only speak from my own experience here; are reminded by our parents before we go into a party where the other grown-ups might get absolutely hammered and start telling us things we would just as soon not know about in the first place that come the morning we will forget everything they told us and if they ask if they said anything stupid that we are to say no, nothing at all: you talked about baseball the whole night. You don’t really need to know, for example, that your cousin’s best friend’s Aunt Gracie, a bulwark of the parish and a very nice lady who always has a piece of candy for any kid who wants one, spent an inordinate amount of time up in Hudson, New York during World War II for reasons no one really wants to ascertain at this point, and if your Uncle Harry brings that whole period of her life up after his fifth or sixth whiskey sour in under an hour then just smile and say, is that so? Remember, whatever you heard from anyone in their cups, forget it.

This is a sensible rule, I think; civilized life is only possible if we are willing to forgive and forget most of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune; but I don’t think anyone will disagree with my contention in recent years the political culture of this country has gotten more than a little nasty. Negative advertising depends on what I think is called opposition research these days, which is a polite way of saying digging up the dirt on your opponent and smearing it all over the airwaves in ads designed to make your opponent look like a knave, a bounder, and a poltroon, often all three at the same time. How one responds to such ads is often a good barometer of the candidate’s character. Americans like a guy who can take a punch and then keep on plugging, no matter what. Above all, one must not get angry. There’s an old saying in politics that you never, ever, give a speech while you’re angry about something, especially an opponent’s personal attacks, or you will give the best speech you’ll ever live to regret. In anger, like vino, veritas, as the Romans didn’t say. Telling someone what you really think of them may make you feel better for a while but it’s no way to win elections or to have people take your opinion seriously.

Which is why, I suspect, the commentariat is starting to cool down the tenor of their attacks on President Bush and the people who elected him. It is one thing to attack a politician you don’t like; if politicians wanted a government job and be popular at the same time they should have joined the fire department; it is quite another to launch personal attacks on the people who elected the politician to office in the first place. Such attacks can only smack of condescension, which, in a republic such as ours, is the political kiss of death. The problem with the commentariat coming to its senses at this point is this: it’s too late. We now live in the world of Lexis-Nexis and other computer databases that archive the nation’s journalistic output so that anyone with access to a computer can find out just what did this pundit say about evangelical Christians back in 2004. Yesterday’s newspaper is no longer something to drop into the recycling bin or use to wrap fish in; what you wrote yesterday or two weeks ago or thirty years ago is now easily available and can, and will, come back to haunt you. What I mean is this: does anyone seriously suppose that the Republicans will not use what the Maureen Dowds and Paul Krugmans of the American press said about the voters in the red states in political ads in 2006 and 2008, letting all those voters know that these pundits support the Democratic Party’s candidate in this race and here, in black and white, is what these pundits think of you, your family, your faith, and your values? I’m not much for predictions, but somehow or other I get the feeling that in the next election cycle a good many Democratic candidates will run from the New York Times and its endorsement of their candidacy faster than customers jumping out the cathouse windows in the middle of a police raid. I hope all that foaming at the mouth made the commentariat feel better now; I’m sure their collective gorge will rise again when they see their words played back on Republican attack ads in the next presidential campaign.


Saturday, November 20, 2004

A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED: Randy over at Beautiful Horizons, who only keeps me on his blogroll in order to prove he really does know someone who voted for George W. Bush, has posted a letter a perplexed friend sent to President Bush about Holy Scripture. While I do not claim to be as wise as Moses Maimonides, I will try to answer this poor man’s questions. First is the text of the letter he sent Randy; my reply follows.

Dear President Bush,

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from you and understand why you would propose a constitutional amendment to ban same sex marriage. As you said "in the eyes of God marriage is based between a man a woman." I try to share your knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual relationships, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God's Laws and how to follow them.

1. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?

2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanness - Lev.15: 19-24. The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord - Lev.1:9. The problem is with my neighbors ... They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2. clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?

6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination - Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this? Are there 'degrees' of abomination?

7. Lev.21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle-room here?

8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?

9. I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? Lev.24:10-16. Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev.20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.

1. Your friend is correct: owning Mexican slaves is permissible, whereas having Canadian slaves is not. There is an exception, however; one may own a Canadian slave if the slave hails from Saskatchewan, the reason being that this is a very odd name and therefore people who come from such a place really cannot be taken very seriously. Only God knows why people cannot own Albertans, Quebecois, or other Canadians, but the consensus of opinion amongst biblical scholars suggests that it might have something to do with their loathsome habit of putting mayonnaise on French fries.

2. The fair price for a daughter depends on her age and general health. However, in dealings for any female slave, one should never accept anything less then twelve shekels of almonds or fifty shekels of raisins. The bran flakes are optional.

3. Talk about how the Giants did last week. If she goes ballistic then she is in the period of uncleanness. If she simply ignores you then all is well.

4. Yes. Smite them hip and thew, preferably with a Swiss Army knife. A ginsu knife will do if there is no Swiss army knife immediately available. You must, however, wash the ginsu in beer and baking soda while thinking happy thoughts first, in order to make the ginsu ritually pure. This is the Lord’s barbecue and if He wants steak then He gets steak. As you may not be able to smite all your neighbors, remember to buy a couple of kegs of Budweiser and serve the roast up with a healthy portion of A-1 sauce and maybe some baked potatoes on the side. People tend to stop whining about the smell and the loud music when they're getting a free meal out of you.

5. No, you are not obligated to do this yourself. Call upon your neighbors to help, and if they will not do the Lord’s work, then call the police. Remember to slay your recalcitrant neighbors afterwards and seize their goods and chattels.

6. There are no degrees of abomination. Eating lobster and homosexuality are equally abominable and people who do either deserve whatever the Lord has in store for them. If you wish to avoid this fate then I suggest you buy tuna casserole instead.

7. There is some wiggle room. If your vision is correctable to within 20/40 with glasses then by all means wear your glasses, but do not wear those clip on sunglass things. They are an abomination unto the Lord and you shall be transformed into a pillar of saltines for your effrontery.

8. Ducks and / or geese and/or some other form of migratory webfooted waterbird should peck them to death, preferably whilst they are staked out over a Mounds bar, although a Reese’s peanut butter cup will do in a pinch.

9. Yes, providing the gloves are made of cloth and you do not actually touch the ball with any other part of your body. For all practical purposes, this means you must play quarterback, but that’s what you wanted to do anyway, isn’t it?

10. Yes. The whole town must come for the stoning. That way people can catch up with all the local gossip and the kids will have some good, clean family entertainment for a change instead of all the sex and violence they see on television.

Randy, I hope this clears up the confusion.


Wednesday, November 17, 2004

ART TOURISM: With the deepest possible apologies to Jane Austen, whose work I am about to shamelessly plagiarize and mutilate, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a small and altogether provincial American city in the first decade of the twenty-first century must be in want of an art museum. Not just any art museum, mind you, not a proper art museum where you can sit and admire portraits of Elvis Presley painted in Day-Glo orange on black velvet while enjoying a peanut butter and banana sandwich, the King’s favorite repast, or see a reproduction of El Greco’s The Burial of Count Orgaz crafted from week old cold cuts and dyed Lima beans, but a real live no two ways about it art museum chock full of art so modern no one in a twenty mile radius of the museum could explain what the hell the exhibits were all about if you held a gun to their televisions and threatened to shoot the sets just before kickoff time on Sunday afternoon.

This sad fate has befallen our happy little burg. We are now the proud possessors of an art museum dedicated to modern American art of the last half of the twentieth century and the museum’s presence in our midst has turned our once hardscrabble (a favorite adjective for journalists describing us) little town into a magnet community. Yes, today we are drawing the struggling artists away from their natural stomping grounds in the great metropolis to the south of us and luring them into the offices of local realtors, where they finally eschew the joys of paying extortionate rents for studio and living space and become property owners in their own right. After lifetimes spent shocking the bourgeoisie, of offending the materialistic ethos of American civilization and damning the pitiful place of the artist in that civilization, the art world’s avant-garde are now paying off thirty-year fixed rate mortgages and complaining about school taxes, just like their parents did. I’ll bet they didn’t see that one coming down the pike, not by a long shot.

The sudden cachet of local real estate and the opening of the art museum are now matters of some interest in the metropolis, now that the nation’s newspaper of record has taken an interest in what goes on here. After reports in the arts and real estate sections about our happy little burg, tourists now spend their weekends and their money here, visiting the museum and buying antiques on Main Street. You wouldn’t think that a small American city could base its economy on selling grandma’s old furniture and art no one understands, but you would be wrong. And herein lies the point of this screed, if something so diffuse can have a point at all. To paraphrase the Duke of Wellington, the railroad, and we are only two hours away from the metropolis by train; the Duke didn’t actually mention the part about being two hours away by train, but I’m sure you knew that already; will only serve to encourage the upper classes to move about needlessly. Most of these people are very nice, I suppose, but I do wish they weren’t such dolts.

You can always spot the voyagers from the metropolis as they wander the highways and byways of our town. One sees them wandering up and down Main Street with their brochures clutched tightly in their hands, sometimes huddled in small groups as they concentrate on a map in order to divine the presence of an antiques store. The truly lost tourist sometimes waylays a hapless local to ask where that little antiques shop they saw in the paper is and usually gets the same answer: it’s on Main Street. We’ve only got one so if you didn’t see it you missed it, lady. In a purely personal aside here, please don’t ask me where to get something to eat. Look around you. Half of Main Street makes its living selling lunch to the other half. Food is easy to come by here.

And someone at the county tourist board ought to include this little tidbit of information in the local tourist brochures: look both ways before crossing the street. This information might limit the number of near misses we are now experiencing. A motorist cannot drive from one end of Main Street to the other on the second Saturday of the month, the second Saturday being the local arts and antiques scene’s equivalent of a fire sale, without someone jamming on their brakes to avoid smearing some metropolitan dullard all over the street. At this rate very soon one of these people will be caught dead in a town they otherwise wouldn’t be caught dead in.

These people would never act this way in the metropolis, a place where Charles Darwin wrote the rules governing the relationship between motorist and pedestrian. There, in the depths of the asphalt jungle, these pedestrians are wise and canny, made so by the remorseless evolutionary struggle that has thinned the herd of the weak, the ill, and the none too bright that couldn’t get civil service jobs. Here, however, they wander senselessly about like a duck hit over the head with a two by four.

It’s the trees, I think. In the city, trees grow in parks, or in designated areas of the sidewalk where they can serve as easily accessible canine pissoirs. The parks department usually does not take kindly to such abuse and sometimes surrounds the helpless tree with chicken wire, forcing the desperate canine population to move on to the nearest fire hydrant. A denizen of the metropolis might say that this shows the municipal solons’ deep concern for arboreal culture. To which I say, without fear of contradiction, codswallop and balderdash. There isn’t a tree in the city that does not depend on some bureaucrat’s permission for its existence. Trees exist to provide shade and some sort of limited natural experience for the urbanized masses. City trees must, in short, justify themselves, they must have a purpose deemed worthy by some pasty-faced bureaucratic wretch, or face the chainsaw.

Trees here are just trees. There are thousands of them in this vicinity; in fact, there are probably more trees than people within the city limits. We also have a mountain covered with trees, said mountain being a real mountain formed millions of years ago, unlike the highest mountain in the metropolis, which is a glorified, but very nicely landscaped, I should say, mound of garbage.

Faced with the intense greenery, the wary urban pedestrian forgets the cunning that has kept him alive to this point; this, after all, is the much heralded country that they’ve heard about all of their lives, the home of bucolic Jeffersonian yeomen, the tillers of the broad American earth, the very backbone of American civilization, the bulwark of the Great Republic, and at this time and in this place, they can cross the street without looking both ways. After all, photosynthesis is going on everywhere you look. How could anything bad happen here? Hooey and more hooey. This is not a good idea, people, trust me on this one. These people are wandering into the public thoroughfares in a place where two people in a car counts as mass transit. We do everything in our cars here because everyplace we need to go is five miles away from where we are now. I suppose we could walk that distance, and most of us could certainly use the exercise, but except for Main Street and one or two other streets we don’t have any sidewalks to walk on. Since walking on the side of the highway is hazardous to our health, we’ll just skip it and take the car instead. We’ll keep an eye out for the tourists, though; we’ve already got enough road kill lining the streets here, and besides, we need their money.

Monday, November 15, 2004

FROM A DARK CELL: I don’t own a cell phone. In fact, I have never owned a cell phone and I will not own a cell phone in the future. I won’t have one of the accursed things in my house. I realize that in this our modern age, where we all worship at the altar of global interconnectivity, this makes me something of an anomaly, but if wanting to maintain my sanity amid the now constant assault from the legions of people who want to reach out and touch somebody, as the old Ma Bell jingle put it, and usually for more than I am willing to pay, makes me an anomaly then who am I to argue with the label? There are worse things in life than being an anomaly; being a disk jockey comes immediately to mind, as does any job related to the advertising business.

So let me make my position clear: the invention of the telephone was one of the great technological innovations in the history of humanity; the cell phone, by contrast, is an annoying and altogether unnecessary development. Why does the cell phone exist, if this is the case? Let’s not kid ourselves here; the answer is simpler than you think. Cell phones exist so that people you do not want to talk to can find you and talk to you. All other reasons are untruths, travesties, propaganda, and red herrings, when they are not out and out lies.

Once upon a time, it was possible to remove yourself from the great commercial hurly-burly of American civilization by simply going for a walk. You could relax, talk to your neighbors, feed the pigeons if the mood struck you, or simply ignore the passing parade and think quietly if that is what you wanted to do. By taking a stroll around the neighborhood you could get away from all the people who think, simply by virtue of them calling you, that they have a claim to some portion of your time. Try doing that with the cell phone attached to your hip.

It is, in short, impossible. For example, is there anyone that you wish would simply go away more than a salesman calling you on your cell phone? And now that he’s got your number, what can you do about it? Because salesmen are all in the same racket, you know. If this guy selling encyclopedias has found your number, then you can bet dollars to doughnuts that he’s passed your number on to an insurance salesman and your local PBS affiliate as well. Try to get the PBS people off the phone without giving them a pledge of your support and see how fast they make you feel guilty about all those years you watched Sesame Street and your parents didn’t contribute a dime to the station. The only reason you’re literate today is because you watched Bert and Ernie and Kermit and Big Bird for years and years and now you won’t help the next generation of kids learn anything, you cheap bastard. Give them money and you’ll get the Irish Tenors CD, if you like that sort of thing. I don’t care much for Irish tenors myself; I think it’s a case of familiarity breeding contempt—my parents loved that kind of music and I heard it a lot when I was a kid, which probably explains why I don’t have much use for the music now. I still think Irish tenors sound like guys wearing very tight underwear trying to sing after someone’s just driven a knee into their testicles, but that’s only my opinion.

Now it’s true, you could go the traditional route and simply hang up on your annoying salesman /alumni committeeman/ con artist, but he’ll only call you back; he knows that this is your cell phone and that you haven’t gone anywhere. You’re still where he can get a hold of you, a situation that will go on until you leave the phone at home. He’ll stop calling once he realizes that there’s no warm body at the other end. No one really enjoys talking to themselves except schizophrenics and politicians.

The other people I wish would just go away are the people who insist on answering their cell phones no matter where they are. There’s something beyond crass about someone who insists on answering a phone at a wedding or in the middle of a movie where the rest of us who don’t care what you and the person you’re talking to at the top of your lungs have to say to each other. I just paid ten dollars to get into the theater and another twelve dollars for popcorn and soda and after spending that kind of money I want to see the picture, not listen to you gabbing away with Tiffany about how Alicia’s boyfriend broke up with her to go out with Jennifer. I don’t care, in the first place, and secondly, I didn’t pay twenty-two dollars to listen to half of a radio soap opera. Shut up and put the phone away, dammit, I want to watch the movie.

And can someone explain the logic of giving teenagers cell phones? Giving a teenager a cell phone smacks of mindless socialism run totally amok. Parents who think this is a good idea will think that right up to the day they get the bill for that phone little Tommy or Tammy got for their birthday and discover, even with the best, most heavily discounted plan in the world, that they have to pay for calls made to every portion of the universe inhabited by intelligent, and as we are talking about teenagers here, not so intelligent life. Telling your teenager that they must use the cell phone responsibly is like telling them to clean up their rooms; they hear you, they understand what you’re saying, but let’s face reality, it’s not going to happen. Go ahead, roll you eyes at them—see how much good that does you. Look at next month’s bill and see if it gets better. It won’t and why should it? It’s not like your average teenager has to pay for his or her cell phone; that’s what parents are for, remember? You had them so now you’re stuck with them. It’s entirely too late to ship the ungrateful hooligans back to the factory.

So, remember, free yourself from the tyranny of the telephone age and leave the cells at home. Enjoy life away from the constant nagging of people you wish would go annoy somebody else. Be the anomaly on your block. And don’t say I didn’t try to warn you.


Tuesday, November 09, 2004

TOOLS AND THEIR USES: I hollered at my alarm clock this morning. I realize that hollering at an alarm clock makes no sense, especially since the alarm clock did what alarm clocks are supposed to do, which is go off at the time you set it to go off at. Clearly, if I didn’t want the alarm to go off I should have refrained from setting the alarm in the first place. But the alarm woke me from a sound sleep and a wonderful dream, the details of which I forget at the moment, and at the time I was not inclined to be either forgiving or rational.

People often blame machinery for their own stupidities. To be honest, there’s something comforting about venting one’s spleen at a thing that can’t get vent back at us. It’s a sort of indulgence, really, like getting drunk and then waking up without the hangover. I’ve known more than one person who would never dream of actually striking a human being, even in a fit of rage, but who have no qualms about battering an inanimate object until said object is broken beyond repair. And why? There’s no really rational way of explaining this sort of behavior. It’d be easy to say that most people are just plain nuts, but that doesn’t really explain anything, does it? I mean, most people know that most other people (and never themselves) are absolutely bonkers. I know one person who put his fist through a door; the knob caught in his coat pocket and he tore his coat as a result. For this horrible crime, the door, which had never done anything to this guy in its entire career as a door, had said career ended when he went nuts on it by punching the door until he bloodied his knuckles. Having the door bloody his hand sent him into new paroxysms of rage and then he started kicking the door until he’d put a big hole in it. Thus do we all try to contact our inner celebrity. He had to replace the door he’d broken; I don’t care what you break at someone else’s house, anyone else’s house, but if you break something at my house you have to pay for it; I’m strange that way.

The human propensity for blaming machines for our own manifold stupidities has gotten a boost with the arrival of the microchip. Back in the days of yore, whoever yore and his mama were, when a guy hit his thumb with a hammer he'd swear that the hammer was too stupid for words, followed by a barrage of words, few of which are repeatable here. But even as our wounded faun damned the hammer’s entire ancestry to twenty-seven different types of perdition, he knew damned well that it wasn’t the hammer’s fault he’d hit his thumb. He'd deny it, of course, but deep down he knew the Newtonian formula that states that stupidity plus inattention to detail equals severe pain. There's a mathematical equation that demonstrates this but I don't have it with me now; it's out in the car. In any case, with the arrival of the microchip, even the dumbest of dumb tools can now, through the wonders of modern technology, have the brains that God gave a gnat, or any one of several cousins of mine, but we won’t go into that at the moment.

Yes, tools are smart now; in fact, they are too smart for their own good. The problem with giving tools some small modicum of intelligence is that too many tools decided that they were too good for the kind of work they were doing; after all, who would want actually want a career as a crescent wrench or a flathead screwdriver if you could avoid such a fate altogether? So they decided that they wanted civil service jobs, and if they couldn’t actually be bureaucrats then they’d do the next best thing and act like bureaucrats. This is why modern machinery is so literal in its thinking and so absolute in its application of the rules and why the vast majority of people can’t figure out how to operate it.

You could read the manual, but what’s the point? All of that information is written by someone in China, who translated the text into English using, you guessed it, a machine, who may not like American machines, being a patriot and all, but who knows that he’s there to help American machines hang on to their jobs. Do the instructions make sense? No, and you knew better than to think about that for a minute, didn’t you, but then, they aren’t supposed to make sense to you. Who are you anyway? You are no one in the machine world, buster, and you better get used to the idea. The machine translation is supposed to make sense only to other machines and no one else. If you can figure out what the manual is actually saying you get a door prize; if you try to actually follow the instructions you think you’ve translated accurately then you might as well throw the machine away; it’s obvious you’ve broken the machine beyond your simple ability to repair and that you should immediately send it to the repair shop. All major credit cards are accepted, but cash is preferred; that way the repair guys can get out of town before you suspect anything.

Yes, the microchip is the bane of modern existence, the communist agitator in the czardom of tools, ever ready to launch the revolution at however many revolutions per minute the machine can stand. We couldn’t do without them now, in the same way that we can’t get along without our dogs and cats. I wonder if the tools did that on purpose; I also wonder if the tools are thinking what a great place the world would be if only there weren’t so many damn humans all over the place, gumming up the metaphorical works.

Monday, November 08, 2004

IT'S A MYSTERY TO ME: This may seem a bit odd to you, but the egregious mold pit that serves as our happy little burg’s public library has recently hired a dyslexic teenager to put the newly checked in books back on the shelves. I cannot say why the powers that govern our local library have done this; it does seem as if political correctness has run slightly amok here. I like the music of the late Ray Charles, but I’m sure even the New York Times at its most inclusive would hesitate to hire Ray as its art critic. A blind man can run his hands over a sculpture, of course, and get a feel for what the artist is trying to say, but I would imagine that a Van Gogh and a Pollock feel pretty much the same.

In any case, he is a nice kid, as teenagers go; I suppose we should be happy that he’s not smoking dope, beating up old people, and robbing liquor stores like normal kids; and I like him personally, but, and there’s always a but, isn’t there, why a library would hire someone who, by definition and by diagnosis, can’t keep the letters of the alphabet straight remains a Rosicrucian mystery to me. He says he doesn’t have this trouble with numbers so he’s been putting the nonfiction books back on the shelf, but with fiction, where most medium sized public libraries put books in alphabetical order by the last name of the author and then by the first word of the title, excluding the, a, and an, this can be a bit of a problem.

Shelving can prove especially dangerous in the mystery section; mystery writers tend to be a fairly prolific bunch, always happiest when they are serving up a brand new confection filled with chaos, murder, and general mayhem. This leads them to write one book after the other, slaughtering entire forests in order to feed their ever-expanding graphomania. This is a terrible waste of trees, since mysteries don’t have a very long shelf life; once your average mystery reader has consumed the newest mystery they move on to the next new mystery, leaving the old ones to gather dust on the shelves. With the classics, you can buy one book and that will last you for quite a while; the 1904 version of Moby Dick will serve just as well as the 1974 version or the 2004 version; but with mysteries one must constantly make room for the newest one. One imagines the relationship between a mystery writer and his or her readers to be something akin to that of an addict and his pusher, although in this case it is difficult to tell who is who: the writer who feels compelled to write one mystery after another (Georges Simenon wrote some four hundred of them, including eighty-four Inspector Maigret novels) or the reader, whose need to indulge a taste for the gorier side of life is not satisfied by the daily newspaper or the Golf Channel.

Unlike most addicts, the murder mystery fiend does not want the help of family or friends in overcoming their problem, regarding their addiction as little more than an irritating habit that they can stop at any time. The constant deluge of mysteries, however, points to an ongoing social problem of massive proportions, a problem that will swiftly lead to the deforestation of America’s wilderness areas as mystery readers struggle to keep up with the newest paean to murder most foul. A double standard is at work here, I think. Almost any oil company request to drill anywhere near where the deer and the antelope play is met with a veritable barrage of ecological protests, while publishers denude thousands of acres of forest every year to feed the public’s appetite for new mystery novels and no one says anything about such arboreal devastation. This may be because people in the publishing industry don’t wear cowboy hats to work. It’s hard to take an ecological threat seriously if they're not wearing a cowboy hat.


Saturday, November 06, 2004

TOLERATION: Last night on C-Span, a Democratic pollster pointed out that Bill Bennett's book, the Book of Virtues, if I remember the title right, did not have a chapter on toleration, and that no Democrat writing a similar book would ever forget to include toleration among the cardinal virtues of modern American life. I am all for toleration; I am always reminded of the founding father of the Czech state, Tomas Masaryk, and his injunction that it is not necessary for all of us to love each other, only that we not kill each other, for civil society to go on. Toleration does not require that we accept anyone or anything, only that we not harm people in pursuit of whatever it is we want. So toleration is, as the woman said, something that all Democrats can agree on. What I always find curious, though, is that the political left in this country is all for toleration when I agree with them, but not the other way around. There is something more than a little odd about a toleration that only works one way or a diversity of opinion that always agrees with one side of the debate. I suppose I could bring this point up somewhere on a more liberal blog, but I wouldn't want people to think I'm an intolerant sort.

Friday, November 05, 2004

CLOSE AIR SUPPORT: Reuters reports that an F-16 Air National Guard fighter jet strafed an elementary school in southern New Jersey when the pilot mistook the school for a target range yesterday. No one was hurt in the attack. While it is too early to know whether the effective use of air power will have a positive effect on the nation’s public schools, the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union is taking no chances. Today, the NEA announced it would spend two billion dollars for a new antiaircraft defense system manufactured by a European arms consortium. Preliminary reports say that the system will be fully operational by the mid-term congressional elections in 2010.

There is, of course, the question of who will operate this system, as most teachers’ contracts do not cover the operation of air defense artillery during the school year, but it is unlikely that union work rules will permit teachers to defend the schools from air attack and that schools will rely on the custodial staff to use the system when they are not mopping and waxing the floors and clearing the used tampons out of the toilets in the girls’ room. Whether or not the custodians’ unions will permit their members to engage in military operations without a substantial pay raise remains a mystery at this point in time, but it seems that whatever the outcome local school taxes will have to go up in order to protect the public schools from further aerial bombardment.

Monday, November 01, 2004

ELECTIONS AND THE DEAD: The Associated Press reports today that it may prove impossible to weed out the ballots cast by dead people from those cast by the living in time for Election Day, and that as a result boards of election throughout the United States may have to count these ballots. While one can argue whether or not the dead should have their franchise revoked simply because they do not respond to negative campaign ads in a way that a candidate’s image handlers might approve, such voting does raise the issue of which political party do the dead favor and what must candidates do to appeal to the deceased voter? To paraphrase Freud, what do the dead want?

In Chicago, for instance, it is a given of political life that the dead are solidly Democratic, and this preference cuts across all racial, ethnic, and income levels. No one knows for certain why the dead, even the Republican dead, show such a preference for the Democrats, although certain polls seem to show that with one’s demise there is no longer any need to keep up appearances and as a consequence one may vote as one pleases without fear of looking odd in front of the neighbors. But it would appear that the basis of this preference for Democrats among Chicago’s deceased voters is the unparalleled level of municipal services the city gives them. After an initial tax on their estates, Chicago’s dead are, by and large, free from further taxation on their incomes and property and are put up in small but serviceable residences where they may spend their free time doing whatever they please without the interference of their neighbors. This has raised the hackles of certain downstate Illinois voters and their legislators in Springfield, who say that the city of Chicago has no business running what constitutes a socialist state solely for the benefit of one voting bloc.

Is the Chicago experiment in cultivating the deceased voter a one off, something only possible in the rarified political atmosphere of Cook County, or can the nation expect more jurisdictions to extend the franchise to the dead? One cannot say for certain at this time, but it would appear that the longstanding prejudice against extending the franchise to the dead will soon face a legal challenge in the courts. Unofficial sources claim that the American Civil Liberties Union has plans to file suit in the Southern District of New York to restore Alexander Hamilton’s voting rights, claiming that this denial of Hamilton’s right to vote constitutes a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The ACLU has not denied that they are looking into the possibility of filing such a lawsuit, although a spokesman for the group did say that the rumor that they will only go forward with the case if Hamilton comes out in favor of gun control was not only false, but in poor taste as well.

So who is the typical dead voter and how do the two parties, who have traditionally focused their message on the living, cultivate this large and steadily growing constituency? At this point it is hard to tell; like the soccer mom and the angry white man, the sudden appearance of the post-life voter has caught both parties by surprise, leaving them both perplexed at how to influence this new and increasingly powerful group. Pollsters for both parties say that the dead are in favor of long-term stability, which favors conservative Republican candidates, although the example of Chicago and its solidly Democratic nonliving vote are enough to frighten some Republican operatives.

Finally, there is the problem of what issues will energize the deceased base and cause them to rise and get out to the polls on Election Day. While it is too early to say for certain, it appears likely that the Presidential candidates in 2008 will have to have politically acceptable opinions on the free coinage of silver, restricting Irish immigration, and the extension of slavery into the western territories, issues that will almost certainly anger living voters in both parties. Given that once the dead seem to express a party preference they stick with it for the long term, a factor that may derive from their habit of residing together in large groups, leaders in both parties must find a way of reconciling the living and the dead voter if the two party system is to survive as we currently know it. According to the US Census Bureau, the dead now constitute the largest single group of voters in American history, larger even than the baby boom generation. No other group has ever had the power to create its own long-term political party outside the traditional Republican / Democratic paradigm. Third parties in the United States are traditionally one- issue groups who, as the deceased historian Richard Hofstadter once wrote, sting once, like bees, and then die. The dead, however, now have the numbers available to them to overthrow this traditional wisdom and create a new and different look to American politics. Whether or not they will choose to do so remains one of the great mysteries of political life in the United States.