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)

Sunday, May 29, 2005

What Memorial Day is really all about... Posted by Hello

Saturday, May 28, 2005

THE MAY STORM: This morning my Aunt May was complaining again…well, let me rephrase that a little, since my using the word again might, simply by definition, cause the reader to infer that Aunt May has, at some hitherto undocumented and therefore constituting one fairly humongous suspension of disbelief, point in her life stopped complaining about whatever the annoyance of the day was and had a conversation about politics, religion, the economy, sports, sex, her husband, her kids, the dog, or some other subject that either could not, would not, or otherwise did not lend itself to the usual metamorphosis into a long list of grievances, said grievances aired at length and then discussed in excruciating detail by herself.

I got back from the post office just as she launched into a discussion of her health and I immediately wished that my government, a government that does not hesitate to locate, at the cost of millions of taxpayer dollars, a major Coast Guard installation in West Virginia, a state set squarely in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains and one that noticeably lacks a coast worthy of the name, much less one that needs guarding at these prices, that this very same government would send me on a secret mission to the darkest parts of darkest Africa, the most mysterious places of the mysterious East, or somewhere beyond the back of beyond, there, like Shakespeare’s Benedick, to pluck a hair from the Great Cham’s beard, anything at all to get me out of the house and away from Aunt May, because her prolonged jeremiads against the fates that hate her so much, and with good reason, if you ask me, usually begin with how bad her health is these days.

In short, and I heard you think too late, buster, and just see if I try to make this thing any shorter just to suit you, smart guy, I’d gotten back from the post office in time to hear the daily whine from beginning to end, with nary a sign that she was ever in a mood to stop. I was completely, utterly, and absolutely stuck. It’s strange to think that I have known this woman for more than forty years now and in all that time I don’t think she’s enjoyed good health for more than two hours straight at any given time; we do not, as a society, appreciate how much hypochondria can be a life’s vocation, even, in the best of cases, raised to the level of art, and it makes you truly loathe the hard of hearing, who can surreptitiously turn down the volume on their hearing aids in these situations and then nod and smile their way through one of Aunt May’s more protracted and gruesome soliloquies about her bunions.

My presence, however, suddenly changed the dynamic, if you want to call it that. My mother’s family, for reasons that I’ve never bothered to think too much about, tend to name their first born sons after our grandfather, a man who died years before I was born. I am sure he was a very nice man, but he had a large family, all of whom have children of their own these days, and some of them have children of their own, and consequently there are a plethora of us with the same name, and yes, family get-togethers can get confusing, what with twenty or so of us all saying, what?, whenever someone calls our name. Family get-togethers was the subject uppermost on Aunt May’s mind this morning, for a moment eclipsing the negative effects the modern world has on her health and peace of mind, and that is no mean trick, I’m telling you.

The reason for the sudden turnaround is that my cousin, who, as mentioned, has the same given name as myself, is finally and long last marrying his girl friend, and after two kids, an SUV, and a house in the suburbs complete with a mortgage I think we can all agree that it’s probably well past time for them to tie the knot. You would think that Aunt May would be happy about this turn of events, that she would welcome any change in my cousin’s marital status that might finally keep my uncle from referring to his own beloved grandchildren as those little bastards. You might think she’d be ecstatic over the upcoming nuptials. You would be wrong.

That Aunt May despises her current son-in-law with a passion is a phenomenon I’ve brought up before, but the disinterested observer might ascribe this visceral dislike to the fact that the son-in-law is not the most likable person you are apt to meet in a month of Sundays; the future daughter-in-law, on the other hand, is a lovely young woman that anyone would want as a member of their family. Anyone, of course, does not include Aunt May, for whom the young woman in question is, was, and will always remain the vile temptress who led her precious little boy off the straight and narrow path and dragged him down the primrose lane into her personal pit of iniquity, there to wallow in a devil’s stew of lust, corruption, and fornication; Aunt May wanted my cousin to be a priest, and so did he, until he met his future bride to be in college. Hormones being what hormones are, that ambition didn’t last very long after their first meeting. Aunt May still hasn’t forgiven her; I think Aunt May was looking forward to my cousin getting his cardinal’s hat a couple of weeks after his ordination. She always had high hopes for him.

So you can imagine the tenor of the prolonged rant I had to endure this morning, since by a process of magical thinking I can, because of our exact same name, stand in for my cousin while he is off doing whatever it is that future bridegrooms do with their kids on a Saturday morning, and why should a deeply annoyed aunt rant about one thing when she can rant about several things at once, I had to listen to what I’ve come to regard as the standard litany of woe, beginning with my cousin (Aunt May's daughter) Ellen’s not getting married in the Church or in a church at all, for that matter, an impossibility under the Catholic rules governing this sort of thing; the son-in-law is divorced from his first wife, whom he married in the Church, and the first wife is alive and doing very well, thank you, and without much in the way of financial help from himself, because giving financial help requires an income other than your wife’s. And then, horror of horrors, Ellen got married in a restaurant’s main dining hall by a minister of an unspecified Protestant denomination wearing what looked suspiciously like a polyester suit, which led to that whole ugly scene with Aunt May wondering out loud during the ceremony if the minister officiating was the restaurant’s head chef or just the short order cook. Ellen didn’t appreciate that crack at all; neither did the son-in-law, but I think I’ve established, if only by inference, just how much weight he pulls in that family.

And so on and on it went, for the better part of an hour, although the relative nature of time made it seem more like the better part of a day, the philippics, the jeremiads, the slanders, the calumnies, against the future daughter-in-law, the current son-in-law, her bunions, the ingratitude of children in modern American society, her liver, the loose morals of American women, her back, the rudeness of the current crop of cashiers and baggers down at the local supermarket, her gall bladder, and so on down the line until every social problem faced by the United States corresponded with one of her aches and pains, and Aunt May was no longer an elderly Irish lady engaging in a prolonged self-pitying rant about her son marrying a floozy (she’s not, just for the record; I didn’t want to leave that impression), but a great, even Christ-like figure bearing the sins of a great nation on her broken and aged immigrant body.

Frankly, I wanted to dive through a window and escape, but my mother gave me one of those meaningful looks that says if she’s got to put up with Aunt May’s diatribes then so do I. So I sat and listened for another hour or so, praying for some deus ex machina to put an end to the agony, and then I got one; a call from the security company that protects the egregious mold pit where I earn my bread and butter. Apparently the Saturday staff had set off the alarm and the company notified the police, who were on their way to the library to investigate the alarm just as soon as they finished their jelly doughnuts and coffee at the Dunkin Donuts over on the other side of our happy little burg. This was clearly a chance for me to demonstrate my leadership skills, to show everyone how calm and cool I could be in a crisis situation, a test of my management abilities. So I bugged out of the house, with my mother looking daggers at me, and headed off to the library, where the cops still hadn't arrived when I got there half an hour later. So right now I’m just sitting and waiting and hoping that by the time I get home Aunt May will have returned to New Jersey and all I will have to listen to is my mother tell me what a low and gutless coward I am, leaving her there all alone without any protection against the full fury of Hurricane May. It was a low trick to pull on Mom, I know, but desperate times require desperate measures.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

DRY DRIER DRYEST: I am having one of those occasional dry spells again, and at the worst possible time, too, what with folks popping in from Eternity Road and Normblog left, right, and center, (and many thanks again to Norm, LG, and Mr. Porretto, our friendly blogospheric Curmudgeon) these spells being a period of near suicidal despair in which every idea I have falls to pieces after 125 words and it occurs to me that even with the maximum possible use of adverbs, adjectives, and using seven words where one will do there is no possible way that I can stretch this thing for another 400 to 1,000 words. No way, Jose, just ain't gonna happen. Well, that being the case, I posted this back in December of 2004 and it doesn't seem all that bad--I usually think all my stuff is lousy, and the older it is the worse it gets. Maybe I should stop reading my own stuff; in any case, just as soon as I come up with something I will back, preferably in the next few days. Something's got to give, as they say, and when it does I will pass the results on to you posthaste.

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.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

THE JUNGLE 2005: The always controversial Princeton University philosophy professor Peter Singer recently sent a letter to an upscale grocery chain, Whole Foods, congratulating them on what a wonderful job they've done instituting humane standards for compassionate treatment of farm animals. Given that the good professor is controversial because he does not believe there is any moral difference between animal life and some forms of human life, most notably newborn infants and the long-term comatose, I think it wise for all consumers who care for their peace of mind to stay away from this particular chain of stores and do their shopping elsewhere. One cannot be too careful in dealing with a business that apparently holds, as Professor Singer does, that children and piglets are more alike than they are different, for then there is no telling, when push comes to shove, what they will put in the sausages.

Via Rachel at Tinkerty Tonk.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

10 THINGS I HAVE NEVER DONE: The ten things I’ve never done craze is sweeping the blogosphere these days, and since I think, as you may have gathered, that everyone is entitled to hear my opinion on just about everything whether I know what I am talking about or not, I have decided to do a list of my own, thereby proving once again that I am a prodigious catcher of ships that have already sailed, a wonderful closer of barn doors after the horse has bolted, and a great jumper onto bandwagons that have already pulled away from the curb. I also tend to repeat myself a lot.

10. I have never bought a commemorative plate. I don’t think I would buy a commemorative plate, not from any animus towards people who do, and I certainly do not think that any social or moral opprobrium should attach itself to the buying and collecting of commemorative plates as such; I just don’t understand why anyone would buy plates they won’t use to remember an event that probably wasn’t worth commemorating in the first place. Charles and Diana? You may have the plates, but Diana is gone, may she rest in peace, and the marriage ran into the deer on life’s highway years before that, and now Charles is married to his horse, and you still have the commemorative plates from 1981. A word to the wise: you’ll save a fortune in paper plates if you use the commemoratives. Trust me on this.

9. I have never coached a woman in childbirth. Over the course of many years I have noticed that as a general rule, and you really should avoid labeling some things as general rules, since general rules, as a general rule, tend to have more cracks in them than a fat man’s toilet seat, but as a general rule women will sit still and do their absolute level best to be polite at social gatherings while men yak away about sports, work, and all the other things that guys like to yak away about, something that men do not thank women enough for, I think, but that there’s no faster way for two women to clear a room of men than to talk about childbirth. Let one woman mention to another that Mrs. So-and-So from down the block spent twenty-two hours in labor with her third child and every guy in a five block radius will vanish like a crooked accountant facing an audit from the home office, and just as quickly too. Even the guys who’ve coached their wives’ delivery disappear as though reliving the blessed event was just too much for their fragile male psyches to endure. And just as a sidebar here, why is the husband there at all and why is his not getting in everyone’s way called coaching? You take a look at any coach in baseball and what you see is a guy whose paid his dues and spent years playing and coaching teams at either the major or minor league levels; no one would think of hiring a guy who didn’t know a split fingered fastball from a slider to coach a baseball team, but men, who will never give birth, are there in the delivery room telling their wives/girlfriends/significant others how to go about their business as if they knew what in the hell they were talking about. Send the men back to the waiting room and let them stew like they used to.

8. I have never dropped an atomic bomb on Fenway Park, although I would like to; in fact, eliminating the Red Sox once and for all is one of my life’s great ambitions, but one, and it gives me no pleasure to say this, that I will never achieve. One might ask, why the animus; after all, in terms of achievement the Red Sox and the Yankees are not even close. The New York Yankees have won more championships that any other team in the history of organized professional sports, all sports, mind you, not just baseball, whereas in 2004 the Boston Red Sox won their first championship since 1918. That’s right, 1918; only the Chicago Cubs, who last won the World Series in 1908, had a similar record of futility. I think that part of the problem is that the Red Sox are like that stupid fly that keeps dive-bombing your face on your wedding day. Here it is, the most important day of your life, you’re enjoying yourself tremendously, and yet you can’t fully enjoy it because this damn diabolic peske fly will not stop hounding you. It keeps coming at you, trying to get into your eyes, mouth, nose, and the rest of your face and in general trying to ruin the overall tenor of your championship day. The devil had more to do with the events of last year than anyone has let on so far, I think. No team has ever come back from a three game deficit to win in a championship series, and yet the Red Sox did it against the Yankees, and all the while there was a lunar eclipse going on, an astronomical event that blocked the proper working of the Curse. I’m sorry if this offends some people, but there’s no telling me that the city of Boston and all the inhabitants and denizens thereof didn’t collectively sell their soul to Satan for that championship.

7. I have never married, something my mother reminds me of every time I see her. It’s not that I haven’t tried over the years, and no, Mom, I’m not gay, despite what your ex-daughter-in-law said about me; she’s nuts, remember, that’s why she’s your ex-daughter-in-law and not a current and in good standing member of our otherwise happy clan. It’s just that the relationships didn’t work out for one reason or another and now I have arrived at the age where I have to admit that the whole marriage thing has more or less passed me by, unless I import someone from somewhere who will love me for who I am, appreciate me for my many talents, and positively worship my astounding capacity to get them a green card. I like weddings, though, but then I think that most guys like weddings; it’s being married that guys would just as soon skip. After all, on your wedding day, you spend an hour or so in church saying things you don’t really mean (forsaking all others? I mean, really, is this guy kidding or what?) and then go to a great party where everyone except the bride’s mother tells you what a great guy you are and how lucky you are and then you go on vacation with a girl you like a lot and copulate freely with her with the full blessing of society and the church. Her mother will, of course, still think you’re not good enough for her little girl, but then you’re not marrying the mother, are you, and with any degree of luck the mother won’t be going on the honeymoon to watch you get conjugal with her precious little baby. The trouble starts, as near as I can tell, when the couple gets back from the honeymoon. Anyone who’s ever been to an airport knows that the departure lounges have all manner of amenities for the departing passengers, but that there’s next to nothing for the arriving passengers; the airport people want the arriving passengers to get the hell out of the airport forthwith and posthaste, with no loitering or stopping for a decent hamburger, please; you can do that anywhere else except here at the airport. It’s always seemed to me that a divorce lawyer could do a booming business in returning honeymooners right there in the arrivals area. The party’s over now, boy and girl, and if you want out now’s the time to say so, before the parents start hounding you for grandchildren, which will start just as soon as you get home.

6. I have never, in the immortal words of Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, picked my feet in Poughkeepsie. I have picked a lot of things in Poughkeepsie, and I will spare you the gruesome details, but picking my feet is not one of them. I once scratched my ass in Scranton, but that’s hardly the same thing, I think. In any case, there are lots of things to do in Poughkeepsie that don’t require taking off your shoes and socks, but I really can’t think of what they might be right at the moment, but I’m positive that there are activities a-plenty for the well-shod family to indulge in, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

5. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Communist Party, and I am not saying this to hang on to my phony baloney job in Hollywood. I have never been to Hollywood, I don’t have a job there, and I do not ascribe to the theories of Karl Marx in any way. I don’t even know who Karl Marx is. He might have been Groucho’s father, for all I know about him. I did see a picture of him in Life magazine once, and I could tell immediately he was a dangerous un-American radical filled with all sorts of dangerous un-American radical ideas. You can tell that sort of thing from the man’s beard. It’s very clear that he supported putting mayonnaise on French fries and believed that putting ketchup on a hot dog was a sign of psychosexual immaturity, unless it was Sigmund Freud who believed that. I don’t know anything about Freud, either, except that he smoked cigars. Freud had a beard too, now that I think about it, and so does Fidel Castro, so maybe there is a connection between cigars, hot dogs, beards, and Communism that I haven’t heard of yet. Well, it doesn’t make any difference, I suppose; I don’t smoke and I’m not all that fond of hot dogs, either. I prefer pizza, preferably with sausage and pepperoni.

4. I have never bought a lottery ticket. I know, as the commercials say, you’ve got to be in it to win it, but I’ve noticed that most of the people in it don’t win it, either. Maybe it’s just me, but the whole concept of gambling simply goes by me, leaving not a wrack of understanding or ribs behind. If I go to the store and I give them money, I get something in return; if I go to a casino and give them my money, they take it and then try to get me to give them more money, and I don’t get anything from them. My brother the racetrack tout says that they give me a good time while I give them my money, but I seem to be missing the good time; all I know is that I have less money now than I did before I placed the bet and I have nothing tangible to show for it. Then, of course, here in New York the proceeds of the lottery go to supporting education—at least that’s the official story—but if that’s the case, how come my school taxes never seem to go down? Millions of people play the lottery here every day of the week and the vast majority of them don’t win so much as a nickel for all the money they shell out playing the various games, so someone must be getting a hold of all that money and I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts, or I would if I were a betting man, that whoever’s getting that money sure as hell ain’t spending it on education.

3. I have never eaten caviar. Look, I don’t like chicken eggs; when I was a kid my mother had to pour salt on the morning egg so I could get the thing down my throat without vomiting and now that I am an adult there’s no way in hell I am going to eat another chicken egg straight from the shell as long as I live; so the whole concept of eating fish eggs is, for me, up at whatever the level beyond utterly and mind-blowingly, if there is such a word, disgusting is. Second, let’s face it, caviar are sturgeon eggs and have you ever seen a sturgeon? You can hardly imagine a more ugly looking fish, even if you tried and swallowed a fifth of Scotch to help you. Nothing good can come from something so vile-looking, believe me. You can argue, naturally, that my niece is the product of my brother not the racetrack tout or the Navy lifer, and that this brother is not exactly the spitting image of the Apollo Belvedere, not by any stretch of the unaddled imagination, and that the niece is an altogether lovely blond young moppet who looks an awful lot like a recruiting poster for the Nazi Party when she isn’t busy dying her hair all the colors of the rainbow and several that are not. This otherwise excellent caveat falls short, I fear; the niece’s mother, the ex-sister-in-law, is a nice looking woman when she isn’t being completely stark raving nuts. In the case of the sturgeon, however, both the mother and the father are visually vile beyond the wildest imaginings of anyone with vision corrected by prescription eyeglasses to 20/40, and frankly, I am not sure I would want to deal with a fish that takes the prospect of tens of thousands of its relatives winding up on a cracker with such complete equanimity. Family feeling still counts for something, even in our postmodern world, I think.

2. I have never read The Scarlet Letter all the way through, but then, who has? I think Nathaniel Hawthorne’s literary standing is the product of schoolteachers who would rather bore students to tears with this book than let them read Mark Twain, who is ten times better than Hawthorne could ever hope to be and who is actually funny to boot; The Scarlet Letter, to my mind, fits Twain’s definition of a classic—a book that everyone praises and no one reads—to a tee, and Hawthorne himself is pretty small beer next to Twain. I mean, everyone in the world knew and loved Twain; Ulysses S. Grant chose Twain to publish the old soldier’s Memoirs, a classic of American literature. Hawthorne’s best friend was Franklin Pierce, the fourteenth President of the United States. So maybe Grant was not the best President in American history, but Pierce was the presidential equivalent of the man who wasn’t there in the Ogden Nash poem. And while your high school English teacher might not agree, Twain was, hands down, a much better writer than Hawthorne was, no two ways about it. If you don’t think so, compare Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown with Twain’s The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. If Hawthorne took himself any more seriously he’d have to take a laxative just to pass gas; Twain’s story is still great 140 years after the story first saw print. I just love that frog.

1. I have never done the chicken dance at a Romanian Orthodox wedding reception in East Orange, New Jersey. Well, that almost goes without saying, doesn’t it?

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

And then, in the category of library believe it or not, the city school district sent the annual budget to the taxpayers yesterday, a budget that will raise the local school taxes 8 to 13%. Unlike other, less happy lands, of which we are the envy, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the taxpayers of our happy little burg vote on the school budget, so when people complain their school taxes are too high they have no one to blame but themselves. The budget of our egregious little mold pit was on the budget as well, and the same people who voted for an 8 to 13% rise in their school taxes voted down a 0% increase in their library taxes, which only goes to show that even if you give the public what they want they still won't vote for it.
THE EFFECT OF DIRTY DISHES ON THE OTHERWISE SANE: I went to see my mother the other day. At first glance, the disinterested observer may deem this a harmless, even laudable, exercise in filial piety, an adult son demonstrating his love and concern for an aged parent. I’d think so too, if Mom would stop yelling at me as soon as I walk in the front door. This happens to me a lot, I’m afraid. I’ve often wondered if this whole first yelling, then conversation dynamic happens to other people or whether this is some ethnic quirk peculiar to the Irish—first yelling, then conversation—but let’s leave that question to another day. For now, by way of explanation, the cause of all this maternal abuse was that vilest of contemptible villainies, that paragon of evil in the modern world, that most loathsome of crimes, leaving a dirty dish in the sink.

Yes, the last time I visited Mom I left dirty dishes in the sink. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, which I think is Latin for do I need a travel agent to book a flight on this guilt trip or can I do that online? I did not, however, no matter how much Mom says otherwise, leave them there for her to clean. No indeed, I ran hot water on the plate and glass, and then gave both a good squirt of dishwashing fluid to boot. My purpose in doing this was to allow the dishes to soak for a while, a practice I’ve found makes the inevitable job of washing the dishes that much easier. My mother and my brother the Navy lifer and not my brother the racetrack tout, on the other hand, insists on an immediate washing and drying of plates, a practice that the broad range of civilized opinion throughout the world regards as a senseless American barbarity on a par with nuclear weapons and ketchup. No cultured European, for example, would ever wash a dish immediately after using it; the very suggestion would draw odd stares from Lisbon to the Urals and cause the passersby to look askance at the Yankee Doodle Dummy who first voiced the idea. My brother scoffed loudly, as Navy men are apt to do; in the Navy one must scoff loudly so the men can hear you scoffing over the sound of the engines; and said that he liked soaking his dishes in elbow grease; that stuff works like a charm, he says.

The prolonged plate soak is not a new, old, or merely fangled idea at all, but rather one of great antiquity, first proposed by St. Ambrose of Milan in the fourth century, although the idea did not attract much attention at the time given the overall lack of washable dishes in Europe during the Dark Ages. The idea gained popularity when Charlemagne ordered the soaking of all dishes in his kingdom in the ninth century at the suggestion of his advisor, the cleric Alcuin of York, and then discovered, to Charlemagne’s great mortification, that there wasn’t a complete set of dishes anywhere in his realm; his subjects survived on a diet of TV dinners, jelly doughnuts, and canned salmon, none of which requires a plate. Even Charlemagne didn’t have a complete set; he ate off paper plates and drank his mead out of old jelly jars. The idea caught on after Alcuin sent somebody to the Pottery Barn to buy a set of dishes for the king; after the news hit the National Enquirer everyone was off to the Pottery Barn for a set of dishes just like Charlemagne’s, thus displaying for the umpteenth time the power of brown-nosing to stimulate the economy, and shortly afterwards soaking your dishes became a fixture of European life. So today the practice of soaking dishes is general throughout Europe, a practice that has shown itself remarkably resistant to any and all attempts at Americanization. Today, for example, at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, some sixty-one years after that grand establishment’s liberation by Ernest Hemingway, the dishwashing staff is still soaking a set of dishes used at a German officer’s bachelor party in 1943, and the staff will continue to soak them until the greasy patina of bratwurst and National Socialism comes off those plates entirely.

My mother, however, although she is a European born and bred, would not accept this reasoning. After some fifty years in America her natural European desire for a long dish soak has gone the way of all flesh, leaving her with an all-consuming desire for clean tableware cleaned immediately. She said that my refusal to clean my own dishes was willful laziness on my part, a bad habit I share with most of my brothers and my father as well. I denied this vehemently, and she expanded her attack of the male of the species in general, claiming that her sons, and men in general, were all a bunch of lazy good for nothings who would only wash a dish under extraordinary circumstances. Before I could deny this vicious calumny, she pointed out that the way she knew that transubstantiation, the miraculous conversion of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ during Mass, actually occurred was that Monsignor O’Reilly, a male and therefore subject to the same lazy disregard concerning dirty dishes as almost all others bearing the Y-chromosome, cleaned his own chalice at the altar after he finished, proving the existence of the Real Presence. After she finished her tirade she marched out of the room, her wrath trailing after like a banner, and headed out to her garden to plant cantaloupes for the consumption of the Elusive Beast, as we call Marmota monax in our house. I stood there for a moment and then got on the phone and called Sears—it being clear to me, if no one else, that Monsignor O’Reilly needs a dishwasher up there at the altar so he stops making the rest of us look bad.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

SISYPHUS IN SUBURBIA: Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, all is vanity and vexation of spirit, and the Preacher saith all of this without once ever taking a gander at the denizens of Hollywood, California, a curious sinkhole dedicated to the peddling of optical illusions and intellectual flatulence, where vanity is the official municipal religious cult, if the conspicuous presence of large numbers of plastic surgeons in the area performing that sinister faith's propitiary rites is anything to go by. That any American city would establish its own municipal cult is clearly a violation of the First Amendment and the civil libertarian mindset, but if the wall separating church and state takes a pounding in the drive for a new and improved you then there’ll always be twelve guys named Miguel just off the truck from Oaxaca who’ll be more than willing to patch that wall up for fifty bucks apiece in cash, and when they’re done that wall will look even better than you do. As for the civil liberarians, not to fear; this is where they get most of their money and they will say nothing; after all, he who pays the piper calls the tune, so get that tummy tucked with a clear conscience. The Republic will stand.

Still, it’s that vexation of spirit thing that always gets me where I live, along with the telemarketers, who are rapidly ascending my personal hate list of economic vermin, but that’s a subject for another day. I think it speaks well of the Preacher, who didn’t speak well himself, what with that lisp and all—you’ve got to admire someone who has something important to say and says it even with a speech impediment—that he can see the futility behind much of human endeavor. A plastic surgeon can take ten years off a person’s face, but not off their life; a 45 year old who looks thirty is still 45, no matter how much they paid for the facelift. Yes, all is vanity, as the Preacher saith: Ponce de Leon’s voyage was vanity, a futile search for the Fountain of Youth, a voyage that came to naught in Florida, where Ponce had to stay overnight in a fleabag hotel at the height of the tourist season because he didn’t call ahead to get reservations at a good hotel; the endless search for the Northwest Passage was all for nothing, for you can go from the Atlantic to the Pacific and the fabled riches of Cathay by going around North America, but only if you bring your ice skates, and why would you want to go to Cathay, the erstwhile English name for China, when you can buy its fabled riches for twenty percent off each day, every day at Wal-mart? Spanish conquistadors searched the American Southwest for decades, obsessed with finding the legendary golden city of El Dorado, and the final fruits of their obsession was a six month sublet at a Pueblo Indian apartment house on a cliff with a view just north of Santa Fe, with no pets or smoking allowed, but all the utilities and cable Internet access thrown in for twenty dollars a month extra. The Spanish talked it over for a couple of weeks and in the end passed on the place; the apartment was really just too small and there wasn’t enough room outside for the kids to play soccer or burn the occasional heretic at the stake.

But there are few activities more vexing of spirit or more evocative of the ultimate futility of all human effort in the face of a cold and uncaring cosmos than the constant, almost religious, need for suburbanites throughout the world to spend their weekends mowing their lawns. Mowing a lawn is futility writ large, the ultimate expression of unending and unrewarding Sisyphean labor, since the person mowing the lawn is not solving his or her grass problem, they are simply encouraging the growth of more grass. I am still trying to figure out how this grassy behavior differs from the those plants we deem weeds; there appears to be no difference to the naked eye, but that may be because the naked eye is wandering up and down the shoreline wondering where they left their underwear and swearing by all the saints in heaven that they’ll never skinny dip in this pond ever again. From the purely scientific view, there is no difference, of course, except that when the grass grows back we accept the phenomenon without comment, and then complain bitterly when the weeds, in a spirit of botanical solidarity, do the exact same thing.

So it was my desire to free myself from the psychological torment of such existential torment that I avoided mowing my mother’s lawn for several weeks. I hated mowing the lawn when I was a kid and now that I am not even vaguely youthful I still loathe mowing the lawn. Some people take to mowing, I know, as there are some who take to sports or stamp collecting or selling term life insurance, but I am not one of these pathetic wretches; some people are born apartment dwellers and I appear to be one of these people. And I have no facility for the work as well. My first venture into the realm of freshly cut grass ended badly; having first worked myself into a botaniphobic rage beforehand, the better to lay waste to the front lawn without conscience coming back to haunt me later, I went out and cut down the grass on the front lawn, the garden, my mother’s tulips, and was savaging the rosebushes when my father tackled me and pulled me away from the lawnmower to keep me from killing again. Thus did I, to only slightly paraphrase Tacitus, make a wasteland and call it suburban respectability. Since that time I have been everyone’s last choice when it comes to mowing a lawn. I only mow if I have to and I mow only when there is no one else available.

Therefore, with great trepidation, a heavy spirit, and a couple of stiff Harvey Wallbangers, heavy on the vodka, light on the orange juice and skipping the Galliano altogether, that my mother let me near her lawn mower. She did not want me to mow the lawn at all, but my brothers had other things to do and the grass was now at the point where a pride of lions could safely hide and ambush the passing unwary gazelle, and so the grass had to go before the people from Animal Planet showed up to film the bloody goings on in our driveway.

I did fairly well, if I do say so myself, and I am saying so myself, as you can see. I kept away from the flowerbeds and the rosebushes and concentrated my efforts on actual grass, weeds, dandelions, and a very pretty little purple flower which, according to all the homeowners I’ve spoken with, is in fact a pernicious weed of some sort or other that refuses to die despite the best efforts of all and sundry to kill it, the flower clinging to life with the tenacious and single minded fury of Marxist academics and Red Sox fans. And yet…

And yet in the midst of my mowing I could hear the Preacher preach that all is vanity, that all of human effort and aspiration eventually comes to nothing, that the grass will grow back no matter what I do to it today. Perhaps that explains the prominent role of Euclidean geometry in the mowing of suburban lawns; perhaps the mower seeks, through the imposition of squares, rectangles, and parallelograms—I mow in isosceles triangles; it may not make sense to you but I like them, as they are easier to make with a lawn mower than a dodecahedron and a Boolean hypercube—to reduce the primordial chaos of nature at its most docile to a standard set of forms that do not threaten the human self-image of man as center of the universe. We do not want our illusion of control sullied by the inherent disorderliness of our lawns and so we force our geometric template upon them, making the grass submit to our psychological need for order in a chaotic universe. If it were not so, who knows what evils might then follow? Thoreau wrote that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation; if the illusion of lawn mowing as mere household chore ended and suburban lawn mowers could see that they are nameless prisoners in an existence of unremitting and never-ending struggle between botany and geometric solids then many a good man, disheartened by the apparent meaninglessness of it all, would simply choose to stick their head into a hypotenuse and kick away the stool.

Friday, May 13, 2005

THICK AS THIEVES: It is spring here in our happy little burg, and in springtime here a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of larceny. Yes, as you might imagine, the lilac bandits are out in force this year, as they are every year at this time, the hordes of floricultural banditti scouring lawns and gardens the length and breadth of the countryside for the not terribly cunning and none too elusive lilac bush. That’s right, none too elusive; I mean, get real already, it’s a plant, not an ivory-billed woodpecker—now there’s a species that’s got elusive down to a hard science—and plants are remarkably immobile unless you hit them with a weed whacker. And when the bandits find the lilac bushes, devastation follows like a faithful dog or my alumni association out for a donation; the thieves will strip the bushes of every blossom they’ve got, stamp the tulip beds underfoot, threaten protesting old women with loaded garden shears, letting no decent feeling or shred of humanity stop them as they lay waste to garden after garden in their mad pursuit of purple pelf.

And once they’ve loaded their vans with as many lilacs as their vans and allergies can stand, these wretched specimens race southwards to the great metropolis to peddle their ill-gotten booty to an unsuspecting public who little suspect that the sprig of lilac they just bought for their significant other is, in fact, hot goods. Once upon a time there was no hope for victims of lilac larceny; the local gendarmerie regarded the large-scale pilfering as little more than a yearly outbreak of civil unrest brought on by long suffering local asthmatics driven mad by pollen and eager for almost any degree of relief from the all day coughing jags once so common in this neck of the woods. The introduction of money to the equation, however, has permanently altered the view of local law-enforcement authorities. With organized mobs of blossom bandits roaming the countryside like so many Vandals looking for a Roman city to sack, the local constabulary is cracking down hard for fear that lilac larceny may inexorably lead to tulip theft, rose robbery, and petunia peculation…okay, that last one was a bit of a stretch, but you see my point, right? In response to the tremendous outcry over the recent wave of floral thievery, the local gendarmes are setting up checkpoints every two hundred yards along all roads going in and out of our town, and if this morning’s traffic is any indication of future trends then the last car should be through all of the checkpoints just in time for next winter’s first snowfall.

All this effort, of course, can do little to help those people whose lives now lay shattered forever by these shears-wielding miscreants, people who have seen gardens they’ve labored over for years destroyed by the criminal avarice of a few greedy sociopaths, but all of us can hope that with the introduction of new legislation that strengthens the penalties for this shocking crime that the authorities will prosecute these vile offenders to the fullest rigor of the law.

This brings up the question of why these guys won’t swipe something like asparagus or spinach or broccoli, which only adults claim to like and the large scale disappearance of which would have children shouting from sea to shining sea that the great day of Jubilee had, at long last, finally arrived. Yes indeed, children would rejoice with biblical fervor the disappearance of any of the aforementioned plants, especially asparagus, a plant whose only useful function, as far as I can tell, is that it turns your urine green and lets you pretend that you’ve had too much green beer to drink on St. Patrick’s Day so your friends will think you’re cool. Other than that, would anyone actually care if asparagus went extinct tomorrow? I don’t think so, except for parents who like to make kids eat green stuff that’s good for them, and as Groucho Marx once so wisely put it, this world would be a much better place for children if parents had to eat the spinach. You’d think that parents would stop saying something so dumb and let the kids get back to stuffing their faces with candy and chocolate ice cream as the kids celebrate the final, complete, and utter, and yes, I know I’m being redundant here, but I’m striving for a literary effect, dammit; eradication of these vile, infernal, and altogether pernicious weeds.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

THE POINT, PLEASE: Our lives are full of otherwise pointless activities, most of them designed to keep our minds busy as we wait for the undertaker to shovel us under, and some of these pointless activities are even more pointless than others, if such a thing is possible. No one can explain why this is so; some of the greatest minds in human history have grappled with this deep philosophical question only to throw up their hands and their lunch at the end of the day and take up something simpler, like Parcheesi or special relativity. And yet we keep at it, hoping against hope that somehow, in some way, the point of some of the more pointless things we do will become clear to us, which defeats the purpose of the exercise, when you think about it, since the point of pointlessness is to be pointless; if you had a point you wouldn’t be pointless, although that may not be true of some Democrats.

One of the many pointless things we must all endure is, of course, higher mathematics. Now you’re saying to yourself, that guy’s all wet, math is important. I agree, math is important, which is something I wouldn’t have said in the fourth grade except under extreme duress. I hated math then, hated it with a deep and abiding passion; I am a poster child for the victims of that 1960’s phenomenon, the New Math, which differed from the old math only in its complete and utter incomprehensibility to the elementary school mind. I think the idea behind the thing was to make math enjoyable and easy for to students to learn; if that was the case it didn’t work. Before the New Math mathematics was a difficult subject that required an intense effort for students to grasp; after the New Math reared its ugly head the teachers told us that math was now officially a difficult subject that was fun to learn, an oxymoron that grated on our elementary school minds like someone pouring a bottle of ketchup on a piece of liver and telling us that the result was a hamburger with everything on it.

So when I got to high school I was, without a doubt, the most innumerate product of the parochial schools ever to show my face in the halls. The guidance counselor, noting that I’d flunked math in every grade since Sister Mary Julian whacked across the back of the head for not knowing what two time three was back in the second grade; Sister Mary Julian did not like teaching little boys—she thought that little girls were the closest thing to the cherubim or the seraphim, I forget which is the alleged female of the angelic species, that anyone could find in this fallen and sinful world; little boys, on the other hand, were imps of Satan and suppression was the order of the day in dealing with them and all of their works. In the meantime, the guidance counselor, who was being very nice about waiting for the digression into the psychological roots of my inability to perform all but the simplest mathematical functions to end, has gone for a cup of coffee and hasn’t come back yet, which means, I think, that he probably stopped for a raspberry danish as well. If he were here, though, he’d bring up how he told me to take General Math, the math course recommended for those of us whose mathematical intelligence ended when we ran out of body parts to count.

Consistency, Emerson wrote, is the hobgoblin of small minds. I am not sure if that means that consistency is something favored by the small minded, since they cannot grasp anything other than the familiar rut they are in, or that consistency is something that the small minded fear for reasons that I am not sure I grasp, so I am not sure if my consistency in flunking General Math is a philosophically good thing or not. My mother didn’t think so at the time; I could tell from the way her face turned purple when she took a look at my report card; and I know that failing General Math marked me, in that horrific way that teenagers fear, with my classmates. I was, at the time, the first and only student in the history of our happy little burg’s high school ever to fail General Math, a class designed by some of the best minds in the education world to pass the most determined innumerate on to the next grade. I endured the strange stares of my classmates, who looked at me with that curious mixture of pity, contempt, and awe that one usually reserves for circus freaks or unreconstructed Marxists. Humiliated by my failure, I took a college track algebra course the next year and passed, thereby fulfilling my math requirement. I passed mainly because some kids broke into a yeshiva in Brooklyn that year and copied all of the college track final exams (they’re called Regents tests in New York) and then sold them all over the state; that year the State Education Department passed everyone taking a college track course, and a good thing, too, since otherwise I’d still be in the tenth grade.

It was there in algebra that the utter pointlessness of the subject matter first dawned on me. At the time I asked the teacher what the whole point of algebra was, since I would never need to use it. She defended the study of mathematics with deep intellectual subtlety, telling me that the point of algebra class was to pass and then move on to trigonometry and pre-calculus, but I should say that in the thirty years since I took that course no one has ever asked me if 3x + 9y (21w-7)=12, what does x represent and my guess is that no one ever will. For the most complex math problems in my life I pay a nice lady from Westchester seventy-five dollars and she struggles with my 1040 for me. I got a nice refund this year, too.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

EXPLODING TOADS: You may not have heard about this, or if you have, you may not be treating the information with the seriousness that it clearly merits, but there is a pond in northern Germany where toads now explode on a regular basis. German authorities have not, to date, discovered why toads have chosen this pond to explode in or even why they are exploding at all, although the authorities say they do not believe Middle Eastern politics are involved and that they are more inclined to believe that the reason may be more local than previously thought.

One group of scientists suggested recently that the toads were not actually exploding, at least not in the sense that the toads, who are, let’s face it, not the most finicky of eaters, which is a nice way of saying that they’d eat like pigs if they weren’t already toads, had just swallowed a large firecracker and were about to top it off with a delicious dessert of scrumptious dragonfly, complete with all those calories and trans-fats that are playing hell with your average amphibian’s cholesterol levels, when firecrackers do what firecrackers do best and blow the toad to all hell and gone. No, this gaggle of scientists contend that the culprit in this case is none other than the common European crow (Corvus corone), who, in murders mostly fowl, are plucking the livers out of the toads with their beaks and leaving the now disemboweled but still living toads to perish miserably in the water.

Now, crows are, on the whole, pretty clever birds; I don’t think there’s anyone anywhere who will want to dispute that. They may even be the smartest of all birds, although given the relatively undemanding standards of avian intelligence being the smartest of all birds is an honor akin to being the thinnest patient at a fat farm. But the scientists’ premise rests on the unproven hypothesis that even a creature facing nature red in tooth and claw armed only with a birdbrain would willingly eat a toad’s liver and not just wait for the second course. Some theories are so bizarre that they pass beyond the merely speculative and into the realm of science fiction; this, I think, is one of them.

Obviously, there are people who eat calves’ and goose liver, as well as those who eat fish eggs and frogs’ legs and fetal swine, among other things; human gastronomical ingenuity covers a broad range of species, especially in France, where many pesticides are banned and people must get rid of garden pests by the most efficient means available, which is often the frying pan, but we are not speaking of people here, we’re talking crow, and while Jeremiah Johnson didn’t mind eating the livers of Crows I have not been able to find anywhere a recipe for an entrée that includes a crow's liver or atoad’s liver for that matter, unless you include that whole eye of newt, tongue of bat Shakespearean witch's spell sort of thing, something that’ll make your boyfriend’s tongue swell up to nine times normal size for lying to you about going to the junior prom with your best friend’s cousin's slutty little sister. But he had it coming, no two ways about it, but it doesn't really count as a recipe, does it? I mean, you wouldn't spend a day over a hot oven cooking this for your family, not if you could just order a pizza with everything, except the anchovies, of course; I don't know why anyone would ruin a perfectly good pizza by putting anchovies on it, but that's just me, I guess.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

A DEATH IN THE FAMILY, SO TO SPEAK: I don’t like whining; complaining about things you can’t really do anything about has always struck me as counterproductive at best and usually annoying to anyone who has to listen to you go on and on about whatever it is you’re going on and on about. Years ago, for example, I worked with a woman who’d talk to anyone at all about her poor health, especially as the poor health of her reproductive tract, a subject I would just as soon skip as a topic of polite discourse. Don’t get me wrong; she was a very nice woman, very active in her church, and she got on well with the patrons, but asking her how she felt today was invariably a big mistake, since she was always more than willing to tell you whether you wanted to know or not.

I remember she once began a conversation in the lunchroom with a new employee about how well her son was doing playing Little League baseball, which was true; the kid was hitting .432 that year and did a great job in left field; and then steered the conversation, as I knew she would, to the subject of her health with the steely determination of the swallows returning to Capistrano, a temperance advocate to the saloon, and my brother to the fifty-dollar window at Saratoga. I sat there trying to eat my lunch, a sausage and meatball parmagiana hero from the Albanian pizzeria down the street when my medically malcontented coworker discussed, in explicit and altogether gruesome anatomical detail, the extensive webbing her gynecologist had found in her uterus during her last checkup. I got up to leave; I am always uncomfortable when women talk about things like this, something I chalk up to a lack of prolonged exposure to women and their health problems; I have no sisters, only brothers, four of them, and Mom would sooner cut her own throat than discuss something like this with us; my discomfort at the turn this conversation took compounded by the previous conversation about her son, the two subjects suddenly combining in my mind to produce the bizarre image of her playing the outfield, trying to shag fly balls with her pudenda. This image was sufficiently bizarre for me to choke on a piece of sausage, from which fate the new employee rescued me by the quick application of the Heimlich maneuver to dislodge the offending chunk of pork. The new employee, who, like me, is still slaving away in this egregious mold pit, later thanked me for giving her an excuse to terminate a conversation that was beginning, for her, to border on the utterly surreal.

So I do not want to appear to be whining when I say that I wish people would find somewhere other than our men’s room floor on which to pass away. I realize that dying in the bathroom has an ancient and honorable history. The great fourth century heresiarch Arius, who held that Christ was not co-substantial with the Father in the Holy Trinity, died in a commode, his bowels exploding, according to one contemporary chronicler, as a sign of the wrath of the Almighty, although more secular historians suggest poison as a more likely cause of death. King Edmund II of England died in the bathroom as well, stabbed to death by an assassin hiding beneath him in the toilet, the assassin no doubt thinking that there must be an easier way to earn a living. In more modern times, Lenny Bruce and Elvis Presley both died in their bathrooms, and Rolling Stone Keith Richards has almost died in his bathroom enough times for him to earn an honorable mention here. But passing away in the men’s room of a public library bespeaks a certain lack of gravitas unworthy of the public library as an institution. The deceased would have been better off passing away while hunched over some scholarly tome in the reference room, death alone ending his unquenchable thirst for knowledge; dying in the men’s room smacks of simple carelessness.

I know I shouldn’t complain about the gentleman’s passing in this manner, that I should instead view our men’s room as a stage on which the great drama of human existence is played out. As T. S. Eliot’s Apeneck Sweeney has it, all of life is but birth, copulation, and death, and of the three two have occurred in our men’s room. There are no births to record as yet, but several years ago our security guard discovered a man and a woman in the men’s room attending to a call of nature other than the two specified in the architect's design criteria. The disinterested observer might wonder why two people would choose such an otherwise romantically unconducive place for an assignation, but Cole Porter’s birds, bees, and even uneducated fleas do it in circumstances even less congenial than those found in a modern American public lavatory, so perhaps we should celebrate the power of love to overcome one's physical and psychological circumstances rather than dwell on the somewhat off-putting location of those circumstances.

It may be the shock of the new that is driving me to this prolonged bout of whinging about a man who obviously had no control over the time and place of his passing; I’ve been working here for just about eighteen years now and this is my first cadaver. Maybe if I hauled corpses out of here every other day I might have gotten used to the process by now. After all, people check out library materials all the time; I suppose that there’s no real reason they can’t check out themselves if they wish to—this is a public building, after all, and so long as they don’t break the law or bother the other patrons or make too much noise then people can more or less do what they want. It’s just that after a long day spent trying to find out how many carpeted passenger carriages there are in Europe I would rather not deal with a small army of cops, firemen, and paramedics trudging into the library in search of the deceased, although I did learn that the equipment that paramedics use for CPR and defibrillation actually talks them through the process. The voice of the machinery sounds an awful lot like the guy who does the p.a. announcements at Grand Central, and it must seem a little strange to the coronary stricken commuter as he lies on the platform in the middle of a circle of increasingly desperate emergency medical personnel that his last conscious act on Earth is wondering whether or not this is the 5:25 train to Poughkeepsie.

Sunday, May 01, 2005


For those of you who are wondering, I usually dig out this hoary old chestnut when I am beyond whatever the state beyond utterly devoid of an idea for a new piece is. These dry spells usually don't last very long (knock on wood) and God willing and the river don't rise I'll have something new up shortly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Dickens discovered this fierce antipathy when he inadvertently introduced the brownie to the United States during a reading tour in 1857, a tour that nearly ended with an international incident. After a particularly fervid reading of the death of Little Nell, Dickens calmed himself with a glass of rum punch and a brownie. For a moment the audience at the Boston Athenaeum sat in shocked and horrified silence; the next moment the enraged audience charged the stage with murder and mayhem on its mind. The police beat the crowd off with gunfire and truncheons, killing twelve and injuring another sixty before they finally put down the uprising. The police detained Dickens for his own protection afterwards; the great author could not return to his hotel because there was a lynch mob waiting for him there; and then rode him out of town on a railroad. Dickens wrote polite letters of protest to all the leading newspapers of the day, but to Noah Vale, his American publisher, he wrote that by and large that his American audiences were little more than lice-ridden mobs of provincial ignoramuses, permanently addled by strong drink and chewing tobacco, a judgment preserved in his travel book, American Notes.

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

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

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

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