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)

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

VOGUE: I am an absolute master of fashion disaster. I don’t think so myself, of course; who does, really; but I will freely concede that since I am an interested party to this debate my judgment in the matter might not be entirely impartial. That I am a walking wake, the living excuse for why the government must suppress the Salvation Army once and for all, the place where clothing goes to die, is solely the opinion of our happy little burg’s expert on all things concerning fashion, and if she says I am a walking, talking, breathing example of what not to wear then it must be so. In this neck of the woods, if Ms. Cacao Shinel says you’re a dump, then you’re a dump.

Cacao Shinel is, as previously mentioned, our municipal pundit on what to wear in any situation, a position for which she receives an annual stipend from the city’s recreation department and all the peanut brittle she can eat, and has been ever since her first arrest for assault and battery; most folks in town agree that no one looks as good in those orange inmate jumpsuits as Cacao. Her expertise in the realm of fashion is extensive and her knowledge of the right thing to wear under any circumstances, including a polar bear hunt in either summer or winter, is positively encyclopedic, the product of years of extensive study and rote memorization of the contents of GQ and Vogue magazine. Cacao has studied fashion ever since she was Larry Spielmann, the son of Dr. Herschel Spielmann, who was my family’s dentist for years. Dr. Spielmann still lives here in our happy little burg, in the big house on Grant Street that tooth decay helped build, although he’s been retired for years now.

But once a dentist, always a dentist, as the good doctor likes to say; he still hands out dental floss dispensers to everyone he meets. In fact, having gone through the usual pleasantries and such, he will immediately ask if you floss, how long have you flossed, and if you’ve stopped flossing then you are in for a detailed lecture on why you should start flossing again immediately. I think he even votes based on whether or not he thinks the candidate flosses. He likes the current mayor, but I’m pretty sure he has Mr. Mayor marked down as a non-flosser, which is the electoral kiss of death as far as Dr. Spielmann is concerned. Don’t get me wrong, Dr. Spielmann is a very nice man and a very good dentist, but I have to wonder sometimes if his obsession with flossing had anything to do with Larry’s decision to become Cacao Shinel. He is proud of his son, though, even if he would prefer that Larry go back and get that degree in podiatry he’s been working towards for years.

In any case, Cacao dropped the fashion bomb on me last Halloween. I came to work at the egregious mold pit in the guise of a librarian, thinking that no one would notice me if I blended into my surroundings. This idea immediately came to naught, where it complained bitterly that the toilet facilities on the bus were entirely inadequate, and then I had to answer questions about whether or not the Middle Ages happened after World War II. Still, no one has ever complained about what I wear to work before. I realize that black running shoes are never the equivalent of spit-shined black oxfords, and that I often come to work without wearing a tie, a definite no-no for the white-collar worker in any work situation. On the other hand, my co-workers don’t really care one way or the other, and let’s face it, for librarians every day is casual Friday, more or less. So I didn’t spend a whole lot of thought thinking about my clothes until Cacao came in and immediately announced that I was a fashion pariah of the first water and stained my clothes by hurling anathemas and imprecations at them, staining them beyond the ability of club soda to remove. Cacao, by contrast, had gone trick or treating with her various nieces and nephews in her best Jacqueline Kennedy outfit, complete with the pillbox hat, which, to be honest, I always thought looked kind of stupid, even on Jackie Kennedy, but what do I know, after all? I’m a master of fashion disaster. Ask anyone.

It’s true that I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my clothes—I generally assume that the purpose of my wearing clothes is to avoid embarrassing myself in front of strangers and to keep my ass from freezing off during the winters here. I have no special animus against those who keep track of what’s in and what’s out from year to year; it gives them something to do, I suppose, and keeps them off the streets and out of the bus stations; but I don’t see why I should spend large sums of money buying clothes I wouldn’t wear if my life depended on it. I would wear some of the things I see on television once and then instantly and permanently consign the thing to the closet to feed the moths, and since I don’t regard the moths as pets, they can live without my feeding them, especially since they haven’t finished with my high school gym shorts yet.

I should pay more attention to what I wear, I guess; the ruthlessly utilitarian mode in which I usually approach the purchase of clothing denies me a chance to express visibly (you’ll notice, just as a grammatical aside, the way I didn’t split the infinitive there, much as I wanted to) my inner self and get compliments from co-workers and passersby on my new-found fashion sense. I’ve noticed that women will often compliment any change in a man’s wardrobe simply because it is a change from the usual run of sweatshirts and blue jeans. It’s always nice to receive compliments, especially when you are absolutely positive that all that new stuff you’re wearing makes you look like a first-class dork, but then again, if people didn’t like it, what could they say? That you look awful? That's nothing, really. I’ve been called worse than that by a would be podiatrist in women’s clothes; you’ll get over it, take my word for it.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

DICTIONARY DAZE: The headline of today's dead tree edition of the Middletown (N.Y.) Times Herald Record reads, "Should Illegal Immigration Be A Crime," a statement that causes no end of cognitive dissonance among those of us with access to a dictionary, since it makes us all wonder if the word illegal has some shade of meaning that we've missed somehow. I was under the impression that illegal immigration was immigration in violation of the law, and that violating the law and illegality were more or less the same thing, and that both states were synonomous with committing a crime. I could be wrong about that, of course; I make no claims to omniscience here. Apropos absolutely nothing at all, which means that the following has nothing really to do with the subject so far, in 2005, no fewer than 2,361 Americans had surgery to enhance their buttocks. That's right, 2,361 of our fellow Americans put on weight, usually a phenomenon Americans wish to avoid, so that the fat they put on their bellies could be injected into their backsides at a later date. While it is too early to predict what the long term consequences of such surgery might be, I think we here at The Passing Parade can safely predict that the end of Western civilization as we now know it is at hand and we had all better buy unbrellas while they are still making them. No, I don't know what that means.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

A WORD FROM THE OWNER AND MANAGER OF THIS BLOG: My apologies for not posting anything this past week, but I figured four long posts last Saturday would cover the demand for the week. I know I should post more often, but life, as is its wont, gets in the way, and I am not the fastest writer in the world to begin with. I wish I could get away with doing what Professor Reynolds does; he dashes off a sentence and a link and everyone is happy. Unfortunately, the nature of The Passing Parade doesn’t let me get away with such an easy way of avoiding pencil and paper; this is an essay blog, and the only way you have an essay blog is to write essays, which is pretty damn frustrating, all in all. I am working on a couple of things now—the tank is not dry; I have any number of ideas for posts—I just don’t have the time to write them at the moment. But I will get to it. In any case, I’d like to thank Snoop over at SimplyJews for the sudden uptick in my daily traffic; a comment I made over there has become the most popular thing I’ve written since Kim du Toit linked to that piece I did about the origins of Christmas. I’ve even seen that comment quoted without my nom de blog on it, so I guess I should be happy; I’ve become a minor meme of sorts. Still, it would be nice to just link to stuff and put in a sentence or two and then have everyone read it; life would be so much easier. Heh. Indeed.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

IMMIGRATION: My life is full of harsh and inflexible rules, few of which I actually pay any attention to, but there are three inexorable rules that I always obey no matter what. They are: 1.) the Dewey Decimal System, without which my life would be a horror unworthy of contemplation; 2.) I will not, under any circumstances, make a U-turn in the middle of Main Street when the kids are getting out of school, unlike that dolt who is trying to do just that even as I write this; and 3.) when I can see my hair hanging down into my eyes it is time to get my hair cut. These are simple rules, but they serve me well and as with all things that serve well, I see no reason to change them merely to accommodate a pointlessly changing world. So last week, noticing that the hair was now in my line of sight, I did hie me hence to the barbershop forthwith and posthaste.

There are any number of tonsorial establishments here in our happy little burg I could go to, but I’ve been going to German’s Happy Haircut and Hand Gun Emporium for the past thirty years and I will continue to go so long as German keeps the place open. German offers all manner of hair styling for men, for those that like that sort of thing, but most of his customers, like me, are just there for the regular haircut or for the ammunition. As the name of his establishment indicates, German also sells firearms and ammunition for said firearms. He has samples of his wares on his wall, and so it is that next to pictures of the newest in men’s tonsorial fashions one can also get a look of every manner of small arm from a small two-shot derringer designed for the women’s trade to a .44 magnum and a wide variety of shotguns, rifles, and targets with the head of Fidel Castro set squarely in the bull’s-eye. As you might imagine, German loathes the current leader of Cuba, hates him, in fact, with every fiber of his considerable being, hates him with a passion that may not make him happy but always gives him something to talk about with the customers. In life, el maximo lider de la revolucion may be a lousy pendejo, to use one of German’s tamer epithets for the man, but as a conversational icebreaker Fidel is second to none.

On those few occasions where he does not publicly loathe Castro and all his minions, German saves his ire for people who call him German, as in an inhabitant of the nation that has inflicted oompah music on an unsuspecting world for the past century or so, instead of German, pronounced Hair Mon; he is not and never has been German—German is a rabid Cuban nationalist to the very depths of his being. His other pet peeve is with people calling him Jerry. These are usually young people, but young or not, he finds Jerry intensely insulting for any number of reasons. You’d think that some people would think twice about annoying a man with enough firepower in his store to start his own medium intensity conflict anywhere in the Third World, but apparently it’s been done, and by braver men than I am.

So when I sat down in the chair and saw German scowling, I thought I knew what was coming. “So what’s he done now,” I asked in a somewhat jocular tone; I don’t have to specify who he is; everyone in the barbershop knows who he is.

German muttered something that sounded vaguely like idiot gringos, but could have been the preamble to the United States Constitution—I just couldn’t be sure. I asked, “que pasa, Don German,” it being one of his more flattering beliefs that all of his customers speak perfect Spanish, even those of us whose entire Spanish language vocabulary comes from John Wayne movies. It’s one of the reasons I go to German’s in the first place, along with the jarring juxtaposition of ammunition boxes mixed in with the bottles of shampoo and hair conditioner; I like being a smooth bilingual sophisticate, even if it is just for the time it takes to get a haircut. Sometimes it’s hard to leave the sophisticated charm of Havana in the 1950’s for the somewhat pedestrian life available here in our happy little burg.

“The idiot gringos,” he repeated, “ they will not renew his passport!”

“That’s terrible,” I replied, and then, realizing that I had absolutely no clue what he was talking about, I asked, “Whose visa?”

“Father Jose y Maria, the idiots will not renew his visa,” German announced in an aggrieved tone of voice I am sure he was saving to denounce some fresh outrage by the leader of Cuba, and then he quickly filled me in on the situation.

Father Jose y Maria is a Mexican priest who has been here at Our Lady of Perpetual Suckers, a name given our parish by some mean-spirited wag commenting on the vast amount of money the more elderly parishioners drop at the bingo table every week, for the past four years or so. He is a very popular priest and so the twelve o’clock Spanish Mass is full of people who want to see him say Mass and listen to his homilies, which, I am told, are very funny while at the same time making the moral point all homilies should make. The problem we have here, though, is that Father Jose y Maria came to us to minister to Mexicans, and while there are some Mexican families here in our happy little burg, most of the area’s Mexican population lives up in the county seat or in the fetid slough of urban despond directly across the river from our happy little burg. We do have a large Spanish speaking population here, but they tend to be Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Colombians; I am not sure how German wound up here, so far from the rest of the Cuban diaspora, but I assume that any man with a good trade and a truly prodigious amount of firepower at his disposal can live wherever he feels like living.

In any case, the archdiocese, in its institutional wisdom, decided that since they brought Father Jose y Maria to this country to minister to Mexicans, that’s what he ought to be doing, and so transferred him to a church across the river in the aforementioned fetid slough of urban despond. Before he took up his duties there, though, the archdiocese allowed him to go visit his family in Morelia, a large city somewhere in central Mexico. Father Jose y Maria went back to the warm bosom of his family for a two-week visit; that was about a month ago. For reasons no one quite understands now, the United States government pulled the good padre’s visa, so now our parish has no Spanish speaking priest, the Mexicans on the other side of the river have no priest at all, and Father Jose y Maria, whom the archdiocese brought here to help fill a shortage of Spanish speaking priests, is still in Mexico, where, I presume, there is a plentitude of priests who are both Mexican and Spanish speaking. All of this was news to me; as you can probably tell, I don’t get to Mass as often as God, the Catholic Church, and my mother would like me to. German was more than happy to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of parish comings and goings.

“And then,” German chortled as he sprayed mousse into my hair, despite my asking him not to—I really hate that stuff; my brother is allergic to it and whenever German puts mousse on my hair, I can feel the flesh on my scalp start to crawl like a husband caught in flagrante delicto with his secretary; I usually wash the mousse out at work with some dishwashing fluid, which gets rid of the stuff entirely and gives my hair a nice lemony smell. “And then, Mr. Moran, he calls the father in Mexico and tells him to just go to the border—Mr. Moran, he will come and get the padre and bring him back to his new church and who will be the wiser? A good joke, verdad?”

“Very good,” I agreed. Mike Moran is a former mayor of our happy little burg; he is actually a former everything here. I don’t think there is any civil office available from dogcatcher to tax assessor he hasn’t held at one time or another. Right now he is the president of the local chapter of the Knights of Columbus, where he is the main sponsor and chief fan for the chapter’s baseball team. You can usually find him down in the park during the baseball season, cheering his boys on and loudly telling the umpires to perform anatomically impossible acts not at all consistent with Father McGivney’s original vision of the Knights of Columbus.

This, of course, is what America is all about these days—getting Mexicans to do work that Americans should do for themselves. I know that there are powerful arguments for this sort of thing. Americans, we read in the newspapers, no longer want to do the dirty job of the clergy. Where once every Irish immigrant family would be proud to have a son a priest, today almost no Catholic family wants to see their sons enter the priesthood. American Catholic men have no interest in joining holy orders in today’s society, and so the parishes must import priests from Mexico and Africa. This is the plain truth of the matter and wishing it were some other way will not help us face up to the problem. The problem here is that where once the government regulated the number of Mexican priests coming into the country, today the demands of Big Religion means that the political establishment in this country now turns a blind eye to the never-ending stream of Mexican clerics flooding across the southern border.

This has led to scenes once unimaginable in this country. At street corners across the nation, huddled groups of Mexican priests stand and drink their coffee, waiting for the gringos to come and hire them for a Mass here, a Confirmation there, and occasionally, if they get very lucky, a wedding. There are few sights more shocking to the Catholic conscience than watching these good men gathering around a pickup truck trying to get some gringo patron who probably hasn’t been to Mass in years to hire them to do a baptism for fifty dollars for the afternoon and lunch.

I don’t know if it will come to that for Father Jose y Maria; my guess is that the same government that wants to protect the citizenry from Irish nuns, tall blondes from Connecticut, and Medal of Honor winners is trying to protect us from the menace of Mexican Catholicism, and is trying to keep as many of these priests as they can out of the country as a result. After all, la virgen de Guadalupe looks innocent enough, and for all we know she may well be innocent, but who really knows for sure? Better safe than sorry, that’s the government’s motto, or would be, if they could pull their heads out of their rumps for more than ten minutes at a time.
HOW DRY I AM: Ants are pretty industrious little critters, as I’m sure you already knew. Most people who don’t know anything else about ants, and the number of people who don’t know anything else about ants is a much larger number than you would expect, do know that ants, all species of ant, in fact, are hard driving take charge get the job done in record time little suckers, always up for a go at the toughest jobs imaginable. This attitude towards ants may be a survival from our childhoods, when our mothers read us the fairy tale about the industrious ants and the silly grasshopper, but it’s an attitude that resonates with many Americans. We often see ourselves as the industrious little ants, slaving away while others enjoy month long vacations at the beach, but we’ll get the last laugh, won’t we, when winter comes and the silly grasshoppers have no warm place to go in order to get through the bad times. Ants, by their very nature, resonate deeply with the inner Puritan in every American.

So it comes as a bit of a shock to see these usually industrious and abstemious insects, most of whom are members of the Scottish Kirk and who would never do such a thing in their own homes, come to my medicine cabinet and get totally crocked on my cool mint Listerine. This is an altogether nauseating thing to see; watching any species degrade themselves is a horrible sight, but to see these usually hard working and clean living little bugs get falling down drunk on mouthwash is especially disheartening, and something no one should have to see their medicine cabinet, or anywhere else, for that matter.

I don’t know what it is about ant society that so alienates its members to the point that an evening guzzling a few mouthfuls of mouthwash seems so very appealing, or even the lesser of two evils. I suppose you could argue that the tensions of living and working in your standard ant colony some ants over the edge and compel them to find an outlet in such dangerous behavior. Ants, for example, do not sleep, and so they do not need to go home at the end of the working day; they can keep working 24/7 without a stop. Nor can they argue that have family issues and so must go home to attend to them. An ant’s workplace is their home and the rest of the ants in that workplace are her sisters, and beyond that, in an ant colony only the queen copulates; everyone else is sterile. So your average ant has no children to worry about, no mouths of their own to worry about that might take time and energy away from the good of the colony. There’s only work, work, work, and more work, except for the queen, who is the mother of them all and who stays in the deepest part of the colony’s nest, laying eggs faster than any two championship hens you could think of. An apologist could well argue then that after a few weeks of non-stop grinding drudgery, why shouldn’t the girls get a night off to go get plastered and make lewd remarks at that hot young praying mantis male down on the next shelf while he still has his head on his shoulders, or whatever passes for shoulders for praying mantises.

I can see the result of these all night drinking binges when I go into the bathroom in the morning. Hardly a morning goes by these days that I don’t find three or four ants clinging to the Listerine bottle or lying on their backs on the floor below the medicine cabinet, too drunk to know that they’ve fallen five or so feet and are now just waiting to get stepped on. There is tragedy here as well; some of these ants manage, as drunks will when they try to go anywhere in an alcohol induced stupor, to fall into the toilet bowl and drown before they could swim to safety.

These are terrible stories, but they are all too common here in our happy little burg these days. Many people want to help, but there is very little anyone can do to stop such utterly willful self-destructiveness. The local schools have hired a psychologist and two social workers with experience in the field and have instructed the teachers to do everything in their power to try to keep this pattern of behavior from repeating itself in the next generation, but this smacks of too little, too late. This pattern of dysfunction will go on until the ants themselves decide to change their behavior, and until they do, I will go on killing the annoying little bastards. I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t afford keeping every ant within the city limits supplied with drinks; frankly, I don’t want to be an enabler of such antisocial behavior. I have enough problems of my own without my making their problems worse.
KNITTING KNUDISTS KNEADING KNOTHING: I suppose there are better things I can do with my time than to think about this sort of thing, but it is my time and if I don’t think about then I’m pretty sure no one else will, and it’s a subject that bears thinking about. And then, of course, it’s a free country so if I want to think about this then I have every right to, although some in my chosen profession would challenge that assertion, what with the Patriot Act, but for reasons I’m not sure I fathom the profession seems to be attracting a lot of ninnies these days and so I think we can safely ignore them for the time being. It is with this in mind that I would like to spend some time today examining the larger philosophical question of why would a nudist need to knit?

This question arises from a book of photographs we recently obtained for one of our more non-schizophrenic patrons. In a spirit of curiosity about the photographer and his work, I opened the book to a random page and saw the photograph in question. The photograph itself bore the caption, Kent, England, 1968, and depicted a nudist couple sitting on a park bench. The man in the photograph is drinking a cup of tea—it could be coffee or some other cup-borne beverage, but for the sake of stereotype I am assuming that the gentleman in question is drinking tea—and the woman is knitting something or other. I instantly closed the book with a loud bang, a bang so loud that no fewer than three teenagers actually came out of their angst-ridden self-involvement to see what was going on, but it was too late; the photograph had seared itself into my memory and led inexorably to the question at hand.

Knitting, for a nudist, would appear a bit counterintuitive, as when you go to a kosher restaurant that serves a great cheeseburger. A nudist may knit for many reasons unrelated to fashion; for example, a nudist knit a blanket, which is not clothing, though you could wear one in a pinch—in fact, wearing a blanket in some situations could stimulate a pinch and the concomitant sexual harassment suit, but in general blankets are not thought of as clothing. A nudist might also spend some time knitting an afghan, though I’m sure the Afghan would find the prospect of having some naked infidel knitting him with a pair of needles more than a little disconcerting, to say the least. My grandmother, and yes, this is a totally irrelevant aside having nothing to do with the subject, was very fond of knitting afghans, although she always insisted on knitting them fully clothed, which we were always grateful for.

I never actually saw her finish an afghan, though—she always seemed to be working on the same one whenever she came up from the great metropolis to stay with us here in our happy little burg for the summers; and I sometimes wonder if she knew how to finish them once she’d gotten started. I’m pretty sure that the afghan she was working on the week she died was the same one she’d been working on since she came to this country in 1929, well after the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War made it impossible for large numbers of Jewish intellectuals to remain in an increasingly anti-Semitic Soviet Union. I don’t know what that has to do with knitting nudists or my grandmother, since my grandmother knit, and knit like a woman possessed with a knitting demon, she was neither a nudist, Jewish, or an intellectual, even if she liked listening to Toscanini on the radio.

My grandparents did come to this country in the late 1920’s, which was after the Bolsheviks’ October Revolution, but so was every other year after 1917, and coming as they did from Liverpool I am certain that the Russian Revolution played very little part in their lives, even if my grandfather knew all the words to the Internationale. He also knew all the words to It’s a long way to Tipperary, what with him being a veteran of the Great War and all. Now that I think about it, we still have the afghan Grandma was knitting right up to the time of her death. It’s up in the attic and we had a hell of a time getting it all to fit; there must be a couple thousand sheep’s worth of wool in the thing. I think we’ve been using the thing for insulation ever since Grandma passed away.

So for the interior design-minded nudist, knitting afghans would be just the thing to liven up a dull living room. Or they could make clothing for their non-nudist relatives, if doing so didn’t go entirely against their principles. I could be wrong about that. Nudists tend to cling to their principles, even when those principles seem to make little practical sense. Nudism, when viewed objectively in the altogether, is a most distressing sight, a nineteenth century philosophy with very little basis in scientific fact, but whose adherents tend to hold on to the tenets of that philosophy with ever greater determination the more one tries to disprove those tenets. Nudism shares this absolute determination to hang on to their core dogmas no matter what with other nineteenth century quackeries like Marxism, phrenology, and the odd idea that the Earth is a hollow ball filled with other hollow balls, some which contain equal proportions of raspberry jelly beans and chocolate cupcakes. Adolf Hitler believed passionately in this idea, but he was a vegetarian as well, and prolonged consumption of vegetables can foster odd ideas in those people already inclined to hang by their fingernails off the lunatic fringe.

In addition to the original question, this corollary also arises: why would anyone want to be a sun-worshipping nudist in England, a country not otherwise noted for the consistency of its good weather. It seems odd at best, being a sun worshipper in a country with so little sun to speak of, but I suppose it could be done, up to a certain, carefully calculated point. There are, after all, no famous Eskimo nudists, and there’s a good reason for that.

So, after much fumbling and stumbling about, we still have our original question, and no nearer finding an answer for it, no matter what Socrates thought about asking questions. The unexamined life is not something most nudists have to worry about, especially if they appear in Playboy or Penthouse, and the question of why nudists knit will continue to haunt moral philosophers. Not all nudists knit, however; in the extensive research I did for this essay I did discover a crocheting circle of nudist Unitarian grandmothers in Gloucester, Massachusetts, so perhaps needlework is not so foreign to nudists as I originally thought, or maybe more nudists are willing to compromise on the non-essential aspects of their philosophy than many nudist leaders would have the general public believe. This is a matter for further study, just as soon as the kid next door gives me back my copy of this month’s Playboy.

Friday, March 17, 2006

ERIN, GO PUT A BRAGH ON, DAMMIT! : I realize that this will make me look like a humorless schmuck, but what the hell, you only live once, so let’s go for the gusto. As you may or may not have noticed, thereby covering most of the cognitive possibilities, today is St. Patrick’s Day, a day wherein the Irish and those who wish they were come together and celebrate the great saint and all things Irish. Somewhere along the line, however, the day has become an excuse to get drunk and behave like a jackass in public. This, of course, was not what Patrick had in mind when he returned to Ireland as a priest after having spent years there as a sheep-herding slave. Patrick’s accomplishment is not often recognized; the Irish priest is a powerful stereotype in films and literature, and the fusion of Irish national identity with Christianity is so complete that the one hardly seems to exist without the other, and James Joyce’s characterization of his native land as a priest-ridden bog sometimes makes us forget that the Irish were not always Christians. Patrick managed to convince huge swathes of fifth century Irishmen that Christianity offered a more compelling spirituality than that of the Druids, and he managed to do so without using force. Unlike Mexico or Peru, for example, Christianity did not come to Ireland at the point of a sword; the Irish heard Patrick’s preaching about the person called Jesus of Nazareth, liked what they heard, and let Patrick baptize them into his faith. This achievement is all the more remarkable in that the Irish were different from all other Christian converts up to that time.

Up to Patrick’s conversion of the Irish, converts to Christianity came from the countries of the old Roman Empire or countries that Rome influenced profoundly. The Armenians, the Greeks, the Georgians, the Britons, the Egyptians, were all part of the Roman Empire or from the larger Greco-Roman cultural milieu centered on the Mediterranean and its adjacent seas. However different the individual cultures might be, there were certain political and social realities they all shared, if for no other reason that not sharing them meant a Roman legion might show up on your doorstep to convince you of the error of your ways. The great non-event of Irish history, however, is this: the Romans never reached Ireland. They knew it was there, of course; to the Romans, Ireland was Hibernia or Scotia—Scotland, which you would think would be Scotia, the Romans knew as Caledonia; but for whatever reason, the Romans never made the effort to take Ireland. So, the Irish stood outside the Roman cultural orbit. Ideas and philosophies that everyone in the Mediterranean world had known for centuries were, to the Irish, completely new and unheard of; for them, Latin and Greek were completely foreign languages and so the Irish made a concerted effort to catch up with everyone else. And they did; within a century or so, Irish missionaries are spreading the Christian faith to Scotland and the rest of northern Europe, Irish monks are known throughout Europe for their intellectual achievements, and St. Jerome, the patron saint of librarians and a well-known pill, could call the heretic Pelagius “ an ignorant calumniator, stuffed with Irish porridge.”

Given that the presumed reason for the day, which is the anniversary of Patrick’s death in 493, is to celebrate the conversion of the Irish from paganism to Christianity, I am at a bit of a loss to understand just where getting drunk and obnoxious comes into the mix. It doesn’t seem like the usual way to honor a saint; no one celebrates St. Boniface’s Day, for example, by seeing how much schnapps they can drink before the day’s end, and no one honors St. Agatha’s Day by wearing silly clothes and a big Kiss Me I'm Something or Other button.

Now, for the record, I am not wearing green today. I am wearing light beige pants and a navy blue shirt and the usual black shoes, and no, my underwear isn’t green, either. This seems to disappoint any number of people who know that my father’s family comes from Ireland originally and that my mother is actually an immigrant from there. I am not wearing green nor am I going to drink green beer or eat corned beef and cabbage or get falling down drunk and I will do my best to avoid making an ass of myself today. I don’t always succeed in that last endeavor, but I don’t use the day as an excuse to do it. I don’t know why people of Irish descent feel the need to engage in stereotypical behavior on March 17th , but frankly, I find it annoying when they do, not because I have any particular prejudice against people acting like jackasses, but simply because I dislike having people assume that I should act like one as well simply by virtue of ethnicity. Maybe when I can get away with asking African Americans how come they aren’t eating fried chicken and watermelon on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday I might relent and get falling down stupid drunk like everyone else, but until then, I think I would just as soon miss the festivities.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

DR. JENNER, PLEASE PICK UP YOUR PHONE: Our children’s librarian was out sick for most of this past week. Illness is a bit of an occupational hazard with her, as it is with most children’s librarians, since they must, by job definition if nothing else, spend an inordinate amount of time with small children. This is not a good thing for anyone’s health, as small children are, next to dung heaps, mosquitoes, and Typhoid Mary, among the world’s greatest carriers and breeders of dangerous diseases. There might be a malarial swamp somewhere in the Burmese backcountry that has your average toddler beat in this department, but frankly, I wouldn’t bet on it. It only takes the amount of time necessary to read Curious George goes to the hospital to turn the internal organs of a perfectly healthy children’s librarian into a seething mosh pit of plague and pestilence, if that’s not being redundant.

Given these facts, which are well known to the political and public health authorities from one end of the nation to the other, it is still surprising that no one in a position of authority has done anything about this danger to the nation’s health and well-being. Billions of man-hours and dollars are lost every year to this ongoing menace, and yet the government refuses to take any prophylactic measures against this hazard and one must wonder why this is the case. It’s not like nobody knows about this threat. Even within my limited sphere, I can see the menace in action. Small children brimming over with every contagion known to medical science routinely wander around this egregious mold pit, coughing and sneezing and otherwise spewing dangerous microorganisms at the passersby like little viral shotguns. If that were not bad enough in itself, these children seldom, if ever, cover their mouths and noses when they emit their microbial barrages, and even if they do, they think nothing afterwards of rubbing their disease-ridden paws over books, computers, and anything else that can help them spread dangerous diseases to the unsuspecting masses.

Clearly, the government must do something about this threat. If a hostile foreign government somehow managed to introduce a biological weapon and delivery system as efficient as your average toddler into the country, the Federal government would regard the act as nothing less than a casus belli and rightfully so. But against the enemy within, an enemy we see and hear and demands supper from us every day, the American public seems utterly unwilling to take the steps necessary to defend this our Great Republic and our American way of life. In such cases, the people must take action on their own and not wait for government to make up its mind about what to do about the threat to the nation’s health. Here are a few practical steps you can take to lessen the biological hazard in your own home.

First, write your elected representatives. This will accomplish nothing, but you have to buy a stamp to mail you screed and the money helps the good folks at the Post Office in beer and pretzels. It may make you feel better, but this is merely the placebo effect in action; make sure you have a couple of shots of vodka on the rocks with a twist of lemon after you mail the letter. This really will make you feel better and the alcohol content will protect you from most microbes. Having done this, you may want to imbed your children in that heavy plastic wrapping they sell everything in nowadays. You know what I mean, don’t you, those big plastic things with the tiny bubble in the middle that contains the thing you actually bought and now can’t get to because of the plastic wrapping. Imbedding your children in that stuff is a good way of making sure that their microbiological life stays away from you. You should toss a couple of sandwiches in with your child before you imbed them; they might get a little hungry in there. You will be completely safe from disease with an imbedded child, and the heavy plastic wrapping makes it easy to store your child in the trunk of your station wagon when going on family vacations. At the moment, there is no set limit to how long you should keep your child imbedded; some experts say until age six, others to age nine. Just to be on the safe side, it might be wise to keep them in the plastic until after they graduate from high school. That way you can avoid both childhood disease and adolescent whining, and you can save a fortune in airline tickets by sending them to college via Federal Express.

Sterilization is another good way of preventing your child from infecting you and everyone else in your neighborhood. This tends to be a little harder to do than imbedding them in plastic, as children tend to dislike boiling water intensely. There are a number of ways around this, however. For a complete sterilization, you may want to rub the infected child down with alcohol; four six-packs or a couple of bottles of a fortified wine like Thunderbird will eliminate the majority of microbes on your youngster, as well as several thousand brain cells the child would never have used anyway, and make the boiling process that much easier to accomplish. During football season, parents might want to have some chips and salsa ready when disinfecting their child; this will help you save money on entertaining and will give your usual light beer an interesting aftertaste. As an unintended side effect, pathogens slaughtered in this manner confer on the drinker some small degree of immunity from an entire host of child-borne diseases.

Most parents prefer this method of sterilization, as boiling tends to be a bit problematical, since children don’t like cleaning themselves in the first place and are apt to lie like bandits to get themselves out of any hot water they may find themselves in. You might want to consider putting some onions, carrots, or some other vegetable into the pot with them, but this may give the game away, as children, as a class, tend to regard vegetables with the same suspicion the rest of us reserve for disk jockeys, politicians, and life insurance salesmen.

Other, more theoretical suggestions the government is now testing include the construction of large wind tunnels that will fit in your average sized home. The idea behind this came from a Mrs. Beulah T. Cosgrove, of Deer Park, NY, who had such an apparatus put into her home in 1962 and has not had a cold, the flu, or any other child-borne disease from that day until this, despite her having four children, a dog, and a hamster named Sam. The idea here is very simple; at the first sniffle, the parent isolates the child in a bedroom at the far end of the wind tunnel and then switches the power on. Mrs. Cosgrove had to set the wind speed on her tunnel manually, but the modern wind tunnel is fully digital, and so the concerned parent merely has to punch in 85 miles an hour and let the fan do the rest of the work. No microbe can infect anyone else in the family in such a wind, although your next-door neighbor might object to your bombarding his house with pathogens. A blast fence similar to those used on aircraft carriers might be a wise investment for people who want to use the prophylactic wind tunnel in their homes. Just as a sidebar here, the tunnel also makes a wonderful snow blower, for those of you who do not live in the Sun Belt.

All of these methods; this list is by no means definitive; have both good and bad points, but all of them will help preserve you from diseases, especially child-borne diseases. We tend to give such diseases short shrift and this is always a mistake. In our modern age forewarned is forearmed, and ignoring children as they undermine the nation’s health is always and everywhere a danger to us all. Only when the government finally pulls its head out of the sand on this issue will the prospect of cold and flu season finally cease wracking the nation on an annual basis. If the government does not want to take these steps, then at the very least it should allow the rest of us to escape the pestilence. I don’t mind going to Bermuda, all expenses paid, until the kids get over whatever it is they have this week.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

NO ORGASMS, PLEASE, WE'LL JUST HAVE THE FRENCH FRIES: I think most people would agree that orgasm is a pretty neat thing, especially when you’re young. It’s an admirable thing at most times of the year, including St. Patrick’s Day and in and around the Fourth of July, but when you’re young it seems particularly great. I can’t speak for how women feel about this sort of thing when they were young, but frankly, for most young men it feels like there’s skyrockets going off down there. Most of that has to do with hormones; the body weight of most teenaged boys consists largely of testosterone and attitude, which has the unfortunate effect of producing an exaggerated notion of masculinity amongst young men, who are usually best off if they take long cold showers or join the Marine Corps in order to deal with this flood of hormones. As the young man ages and acquires adult responsibilities, the testosterone level tends to drop off and orgasm become a nice thing to have once in a while with the wife when the kids are off at school or at summer camp. Frankly, at a certain point in one’s life, a really good orgasm is nice, but a perfectly cooked French fry is positive bliss.

The French fry, or the Belgian fry, or the chip of the law firm Phish & Chip, or anyone of the hundred other names of this paragon of oil-based cookery, first saw the light of day in the Belgian city of Liege, a place that has seen much history and heartbreak, none of which has anything to do with our subject and so we will not bring it up again; to be honest, no one likes a whiner and if you can’t take a few Roman/ Spanish/ Dutch/Catholic/Protestant/ French/ British/ German/ German again/ British again/ American invasions now and again, you should move to Bora Bora or to Wagga Wagga or to Secaucus, New Jersey where you won’t have to worry about any of the previously mentioned invaders coming back to your house and stealing everything including the stuff you’ve nailed down and the nails you used to nail the stuff down with.

So the French fry came into this sinful world one late summer day in 1687, when French troops marching across Wallonia, the French speaking part of what is now Belgium, but wasn’t then, the concept of Belgium not having caught on at the time, and one can say with no small degree of verisimilitude that the concept of Belgium still hasn’t caught on in some parts of Belgium today. As they passed through the area, the French troops saw something they had never seen in their entire lives, something so incredible that those who could write scarcely had the words to describe what they had seen, but as this has nothing to do with our subject, we will skip over this and go directly to the invention of the French fry, the legacy of which we are still living with today. It is not often that the fate of empires rests on something as small and seemingly insignificant as a mere French fry, and this, frankly, is not one of those times.

Now, I hope I didn’t offend if I sounded a bit dogmatic about orgasms there. Obviously, everyone’s experience is different; in a world of some six billion you can hardly expect everyone to react to the same thing in the same way. My experience will be different than your experience and both of ours will be different from someone else’s. We are human beings, after all, with the exception of Red Sox fans, not machines put together on some vast assembly line in a free enterprise zone along the China coast. But even with all of the caveats you can throw in, I think it is still safe to say that the French fry is at the summit of human culinary experience, the perfected end product of millennia of trial and error. There are probably more French fries eaten every day than there are orgasms, though many people will dispute that figure. However, when you compare and contrast the long history of orgasm with the much shorter timescale of the French fry, it becomes clear that the disputants are rigging the statistics in order to jack up the orgasm occurrence rate in order to defeat the French fry in overall popularity.

First, one must consider that in every situation involving orgasms, there is usually only one positive occurrence of this physiological state; either the person involved is alone or one of the two persons involved is lying, and while multiple orgasm does exist—the National Geographic Society funded several expeditions to the Bahamas in the 1980’s to look for this elusive beast—it is not very common and so we may safely discount it from the overall statistical base. Then you must take into account the aging population, wherein the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, even with the introduction of Viagra and other such products to the American market. Finally, one must remember that any individual order of French fries contains upwards of thirty or forty individual fries, not counting the little ones that fall to the bottom of whatever that little cardboard thing they come in is called. When you add all of these things together and you exclude the historical data from before 1687 when the French troops saw the incredible thing that we will skip over now in order to talk about the invention of the French fry, it becomes clear to the impartial observer that the French fry is the human experience most people favor. Orgasm, after all, is hardly the sort of thing one would want to share with one’s whole family, however responsible it may be for your whole family.

Most families, on the other hand, routinely share the French fry experience, and many families will go out on certain nights of the week in pursuit of the perfect fry. The pursuit of the perfect French fry, a fabulous creature on the order of the unicorn, who prefers them with mayonnaise, which is one of the reasons why unicorns are fabulous these days and not merely extinct, is one of the few activities that the members of today’s modern and increasingly isolated American family can do together. And really, except for intensity and duration, most orgasms are more alike than they are different, whereas the French fry can be any one of a hundred different tastes and textures, starting with your traditional fry cooked in vegetable shortening, and, if you’re lucky, some animal fat as well. This fry is clearly no good for your long-term cardiovascular health, but it tastes wonderful and when combined with salt and ketchup provide a dining experience second to none. Some fries come soggy, impregnated with oil, which is always unfortunate, while others are fried all the way through to the center of the potato, giving the fry a hard crunchy texture and the taste of a morbidly obese potato chip waiting for some unsuspecting dimwit to eat it, thereby spackling the walls of this dolt’s arteries with not merely bad cholesterol, but truly evil cholesterol, the type of cholesterol that goes in for usury, white slaving, and trips with the family to Fenway Park.

Unlike the orgasm, which often displays no sense of societal obligation, the French fry is a model citizen, often found in mathematics classes throughout the country, often as a substitute for algebra. In addition to this, the United States government has used French fries in times of peace and war for actions that remain classified to this day, and the governments of Estonia and Botswana have awarded the French fry with their highest civilian honors (by way of contrast, the only award the orgasm has ever won is a visit from the vice squad). Universities from one end of this our Great Republic have given the French fry honorary degrees and people have sung the praises of the fry in every known human language. For all we know, even as we speak, humpback whales may also sing paeans to the fry in their own inimitable way, even if those songs just sound like gas to me. As for orgasms, well, in general orgasms are good for very little except creating long-term complications, most of which will require braces by the time they hit seven or eight. And I don’t really see any university giving a degree to an orgasm. You can’t but feel that certain orgasms are not welcome at college campuses in this country, and if that’s the case perhaps they ought to sue; perhaps a civil rights suit is in order here, but I really don’t see that happening any time soon. I know I shouldn’t let pessimism get the best of me, but sometimes it’s hard not to be pessimistic. Maybe it’s just my nature.
AND A FINAL WORD ON THE OSCARS: I like George Clooney. I am not saying that to be ironic or patronizing or to denigrate him; I’ve always liked him, ever since his days on E.R., and if the Academy voted him an Oscar I am sure he deserved it. I know that amongst a good many people on the right there has been some sniping about his acceptance speech, with some people saying that it was self-serving and that he was giving himself a big pat on the back. I did not get that impression; I found it the speech of a man proud of his profession and honored to receive the award that profession bestowed on him. Who would not feel honored in that situation? We all crave the approval of our peers and, God willing, we are all properly grateful to them and to the profession we share when we receive it. So it wasn’t George Clooney and his speech that brought on this little screed.

No, what is giving me a major case of agita was the montage Samuel L. Jackson introduced. That bit of film was one of the most meretricious pieces of malarkey I have ever seen. Hollywood, which doesn’t mind rewriting other people's history in the most egregious manner in order to make a better story, clearly tried to rewrite its own history in that montage and hoping that we wouldn’t notice. Mr. Clooney’s remarks were off the cuff; this montage was not—this is how Hollywood really sees itself, and like so many things in Hollywood, what we see on the screen has very little to do with reality.

Both Mr. Clooney and the montage brought up Hattie McDaniel and how the Academy honored her in 1939 with the first Oscar ever awarded to an African American. Ms. McDaniel won the Oscar that year for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Mammy, the black slave maid to Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. In fact, although she was a talented performer—one can read about just how talented she was in Jill Watts’ new biography of her, Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood—the only work she could get in Hollywood was portraying a maid. She didn’t like it, but as she once put it, she’d rather make a thousand dollars a week playing a maid than ten dollars a week being one. Hollywood did little or nothing to end Jim Crow in America; it simply catered to the prejudices of its audiences, limiting black performers to minor roles as domestics, to the occasional all black feature, or to easily removable musical numbers so that the film would not lose money in the South. And nowhere in that montage did I see any clips from The Birth of a Nation, which actually did bring about tremendous social change in this country, but not in a way that Hollywood now finds it congenial to admit.

Today, with the release of such films as Brokeback Mountain, Hollywood proclaims itself on the forefront of the struggle for equal rights for homosexuals. Indeed, the montage pointed out that in Philadelphia Hollywood proclaimed the truth about AIDS when no one else wanted to bring the matter up. This, frankly, is a rewrite of recent history. Philadelphia was the first major Hollywood feature film dealing with the AIDS epidemic—it was the film that won Tom Hanks the first of his two Oscars for best actor—and Tri-Star Pictures released the film in 1993. By 1993, the AIDS epidemic had been raging for twelve years. In that time, the disease had killed tens of thousands of gay men, including hundreds in Hollywood, the most prominent victim being Rock Hudson, and yet Hollywood only got around to making a movie about the disease and its effects on the gay community some twelve years after the doctors realized that there was a new and untreatable disease abroad in the land. This is not being ahead of the curve; this is following the pack, and following the pack is something Hollywood is very good at. But such cowardice is not new in Hollywood; it is the norm, not the exception.

During the movies’ Golden Age, stars and studios routinely toadied to the likes of Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, knowing full well that either woman could effectively end a star’s career with allegations of sexual impropriety. Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn were just two of the many whose careers took major hits when Parsons and Hopper blared their sexual peccadilloes to the public through their newspaper columns. And when, in the 1950’s, Maureen O’Hara sued Confidential magazine for slandering her, the movie industry first rallied behind her and then headed for the hills, leaving her to fight the charges alone. It does not take a genius to figure out that the editors at Confidential had the goods on many of O’Hara’s original supporters and that the editors did not hesitate to let her backers know that Confidential could break their careers in a heartbeat if they didn't back off. In Hollywood, as in most areas of human life, career preservation and covering one’s ass trumped doing the right thing, a life lesson Ms. O’Hara learned the hard way and writes about in her memoir, ‘Tis Herself.

And when it comes to the 1950’s, there are few periods in recent history that Hollywood is more tendentious about. In 1999, when Elia Kazan received an honorary Oscar for his lifetime of work in the movies, many in the audience pointedly refused to applaud the old man, and when he died in 2003, whoever compiled the memorial montage placed Mr. Kazan’s clip after the clip for Leni Riefenstahl, a juxtaposition that could hardly be accidental. There is only one problem with that linkage: Riefenstahl was wrong and Kazan was right.

The reason why Hollywood loathed Kazan for so long was not that he named people he knew to be Communists in his testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC); other people did the same thing that Kazan did and did not have to bear the collective loathing of the industry that Kazan endured. From the time of his testimony until his death, many former friends routinely called Kazan a rat who’d sold out people he knew were harmless in order to save his career, but on closer examination these charges don’t really hold water. Kazan could have refused to testify and gone back to Broadway, where he’d established a reputation as one of the most brilliant directors of his generation, and where there was no blacklist to keep him from working. He might not have made the money he made in Hollywood, but he’d still be living quite well. As for Kazan’s being a rat, one must suspect a certain partisanship here; if he’d informed on the Nazis, he’d be a hero today, but he didn’t. He informed on the Communists, a party he’d been a member of in the 1930’s, as were many other people in the arts, and he’d left the Party because he could not longer toe the Party line on artistic matters.

Unlike many others, Kazan knew the Party very well and liked the Party very little. And it is important to remember that the American Communist Party was not some independent happy go lucky band of Marxist progressives wanting to improve the lot of the proletariat and free blacks from the oppression of Jim Crow; the Party, we now know, was a front run by and for the benefit of the Soviet Union. So why did Hollywood loathe Kazan for so long? The answer is simple: a bad conscience. Kazan took a principled stand against the Communists and spent the rest of his life paying for it; men like Dashiell Hammett and Ring Lardner, Jr. took a principled stand for the Party and went to prison for it, but what did the rest of Hollywood do? Nothing. Like the Vichy French, Hollywood looked the enemy straight in the eye and then promptly collapsed. The truth of the matter is this: Hollywood collaborated. Hollywood went along with the blacklist, went along with making schlock movies like I Married A Communist, and bent over backwards catering to the whims of politicians out to score political points by putting celebrities on the witness stand. That it was not illegal for anyone to be a Communist in the 1930’s didn’t matter; no one’s inconvenient political background was going to get in the way of maximizing studio profits or enhancing one’s career, which were then, are now, and always shall be the twin lodestars of Hollywood.

So Hollywood caved in, and when the era finally ended in the 1960’s the industry tried to ease its collective conscience; Lardner got an Oscar for MASH (he deserved it; that’s still one of my favorite movies) and Kazan became the scapegoat for all of Hollywood’s sins, bearing their resentment for their own lack of moral backbone for the rest of his life. And what caused this lack? I think it derives from the nature of film as an art form. Film is a collaborative art. For all the intellectual theorizing in film studies classes about the movie director as auteur, the simple reality is that no film director can be the author of his work in the same way that a writer or a painter can be. The vision of the latter is their own; the vision of the film director rests on the approval of producers, the infusion of a tremendous amount of cash, and the coordinated work of hundreds of people. One can argue rightly that the theater is also a collaborative art, but in the theater the technical demands of any given production are simply a matter of degree. As Thornton Wilder showed in Our Town, all the theater really needs is a bare stage, willing actors, and the text; everything else is more or less optional. Movies are the product of art, money, and technology, and the technology has always been expensive. A commercial venture the size of a standard feature film does not promote the prolonged examination of social issues unless a consensus about those issues already exists; there is simply too much money at stake. Hollywood will not take a financial chance on such a film unless they know they can make their money back, which is why the first major studio film about the AIDS epidemic came out twelve years after the doctors diagnosed the disease in gay men, and why the studios relegated blacks, Latinos, Asians, and American Indians to stereotypical roles well into the latter half of the twentieth century. In 2002, all of Hollywood fell over itself congratulating Halle Berry for being the first African American woman to win an Oscar in the leading actress category, and yet no one wanted to ask why only seven African American women had ever been nominated in this category and why it took until 2002 for one of them to win. For all the moral preening one gets from the movie industry about the race issue in the United States, I suspect that their record in this area is considerably worse than almost any other American industry you could pick out of a hat, including used cars, pharmaceuticals, and accordion manufacturing.

The fact is that literature can lead the way into a new and different way of looking at the world in ways that the movies cannot; one need only look at the effects of such works as Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Jungle or The Gulag Archipelago to know that a writer can get way out ahead of the curve and help bend that curve in another direction. As much as movie people want to do that, they can’t—there’s simply too much money and too much personal ambition and too many people involved. For this reason, the movies will always be the camp followers of culture, busily trying to keep up with literature and the other arts, and always willing to put aside personal qualms and scruples for a chance to make a larger profit or to make oneself look good. There’s nothing wrong with improving one’s bottom line; it’s the engine that drives the country, but I think the rest of us would prefer that Hollywood stop pretending that somehow or other it is the moral conscience of the nation and that all those anonymous people sitting out there in the dark who make Hollywood possible are a bunch of ignorant yahoos who need the preachments of a self-involved clique in order to live their lives properly .

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Friday, March 10, 2006

CAD'S RIGHTS: I am not a clairvoyant nor do I play one on television, but I’ve known this was coming for the past fifteen years or so. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the concept of child support rests firmly on the belief, once common throughout the United States, that men ought to support the children they father. This belief was itself the product of a time wherein abortion was dangerous and not readily available, and birth control was at best crude and not very effective. We now live in a world where abortion is both safe and commonplace and effective birth control is widely available. In addition to this, through a series of court decisions, radical feminists have more or less eliminated the male role in the decision to become a parent, reducing him to little more than a sperm donor and an open wallet. Children today are wholly optional, it seems, and only women get to exercise the option. Sooner or later, a case such as this was bound to occur.

I do not know if the courts will entertain this gentleman’s argument, and I use the term gentleman in the most generic sense possible; most judges are old enough to believe the old premise that fathers should pay for their children, and those that don’t will look to the vast corpus of legal opinion that exists on the subject and refuse to throw the baby out with the law books. This attitude, however, will not survive in the long run. The radical feminists have fatally undermined it, thereby proving yet again that the law of unintended consequences is still with us and doing quite well these days, thank you for asking. The radical feminists' constant demand for unfettered sexual rights without any sexual responsibilities have led inexorably to this argument: if a woman cannot be compelled to be a mother, then it necessarily follows that a man cannot be compelled to be a father. If the courts do not accept this argument now, they will sometime in the next twenty to thirty years; it is only a matter of time, for this is the inevitable conclusion of the demand for complete sexual freedom.

It will be more than a little amusing to watch the feminists upend all their usual arguments in order to keep child support going; it will, I think, be very similar to their performance during the Lewinsky scandal, where more than one prominent feminist shaded her demand for ever more stringent protections against sexual harassment in the workplace with her desire to keep President Clinton in the Oval Office. If nothing else, this episode might teach the feminists that running to the courts for redress for all of the nation’s ills might not be such a good idea; any state legislator in the country would laugh off this guy’s argument in a heartbeat, if for no other reason that there are no votes to be had in being known as a defender of cads’ rights, but the courts must follow precedent and the Constitution, and if the Constitution gives women the right to be irresponsible dolts then it must give men the same right. After all, we live in a country that prides itself on giving the equal protection of the laws to everyone, even sexually irresponsible jackasses.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

IMPEACHMENT OF THE PRESIDENT: I see that Harper's magazine has come out foursquare for the impeachment of President Bush, and I fully expect that The Nation will probably come out for impeachment as well, if they haven't already. It's the right of these periodicals to express any opinion they want, of course, but frankly, I don't think their attempts to grab a share of MAD magazine's customer base is going to work. To start with, MAD has better jokes; their cartoonists are better, too, although you may not think so. It's a matter of personal preference, I suppose.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

SCHOLASTIC APTITUDE, OR NOT: I know that I should not admit to such a thing, gas prices being what they are these days, but simply as in the interests of full disclosure I should mention here that I never took the SATs. I realize that this is a shocking admission for anyone to make in this day and age, when the SAT test scores more or less determines the future course of a young person’s life, separating the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats, and franchisees from the flippers. I realize as well that making this admission now will cast a cloud over my family’s good name for uncounted generations to come, but sooner or later the unholy truth of the matter was bound to come out and I might as well get the whole unpleasant business over with in one fell swoop.

For many years, I hid my shame; in our modern postindustrial information society there is not room for those people who do not take the SATs, unless you are an illegal immigrant or Amish, and I have no talent for picking crops or for raising the barns necessary to store those crops once I have picked them. This is, of course, a terrible thing for someone who comes from a long line of Irish agriculturalists to say, but the green thumb abandoned the family when we headed off to Liverpool in the mid-1840’s after a scrumptious farewell dinner of nettles, weeds, and Uncle Sean; it was not necessary to stew Uncle Sean, according to family lore, as he arrived for the festivities already fairly well-stewed. But that is a story for another day.

I don’t remember why I didn’t take the SATs; I’ve always assumed it was a lack of interest on my part, or perhaps it was sheer ignorance. The basic intelligence of you average seventeen year old American male is usually pretty sound, all things considered, but you really can’t go wrong in underestimating how much they really know, especially if they went to public schools, where most kids major in socializing, with the occasional pop quiz thrown in to break up the monotony, and I was no different than any other seventeen year old, which is to say, I didn’t know squat. Perhaps I should say that I knew even less than squat, since every other guy in my class managed to take the SAT and I did not. I’ve tried over the years to find a good reason for why I didn’t bother with the test, why I simply chose to disregard the overwhelming tide of opinion from faculty and friends that I was throwing my life away before it even got started. There are any number of reasons, some more valid than others, as is always the case with life.

It could have been that I did not want to pay for the test. This is my mother’s favorite explanation, because it allows her to revile me in public as a cheap and miserly sort who’d throw his own mother out into the snow to make a buck. This is not true, of course; I am among the most charitable people I know, my munificence a magnificent example to other, less charitable sorts, and I did not throw my mother out into the snow—she tripped on a shovel and fell into the bushes, and the snow broke her fall and kept her from breaking her hip. It was an accident and could have happened to anyone, even if they’d paid their rent on time and in full. And I should point out that at the time I did not have a job and that my parents would have paid for the test, and I’ve never had any aversion to spending other’s people’s money, which is why the civil service suits me so well. My father, on the other hand, always held that my failure to take the SATs was simply one more example of my exceedingly grand capacity for sloth, a mere episode in a life dominated by an unwillingness to get out of the bed in the morning. But I am not Oblomov, although this idea is certainly more attractive than my mother’s idea of me as miser. It’s hard to work up much sympathy for misers.

Or, and this is my pet theory, I just forgot about them. I have forgotten a lot of things over the years, and most of the things I’ve forgotten were probably not worth knowing in the first place, except for the address of the girl I asked to the senior prom, and no, she still won’t speak to me, even though it’s been thirty years; some people, I’ve noticed, have a problem getting over this sort of silly stuff—it’s not good to dwell on the past too much, but that’s just my opinion.

Why would I forget to take such an important test? Well, to begin with, I probably didn’t think it was all that important at the time. Everyone I knew told me the test was important, and I suppose I believed them up to a point, but that was the 1970’s, you know, and I am pretty sure that most of the people telling me that the SATs were important and that I should take them also had Pet Rocks in their rooms and wore platform shoes, and really, how much credence can you give to the opinion of someone who paid twenty dollars for a Pet Rock when they could get a perfectly good rock for free just by going outside? As for platform shoes, I am certain that owning a pair then is grounds for revoking one’s American citizenship now, and I would just as soon not get sucked into this controversy, thank you very much.

But I can tell that some of you are appalled at my cavalier dismissal of a test that you sweat bullets in order to pass so you could get into a “good” college, or better yet, a “name” college. Perhaps I am being a little cynical here, a surprising thing in and of itself, as I am usually the most trusting and Pollyannaish of people, but if you take a look at who teaches at “name” universities, you’d be more than a little surprised. Prestigious professors at prestigious universities do not enhance their prestige by teaching teenagers; teaching assistants teach teenagers, and who are these teaching assistants? Graduate students only a few years older than your freshman; that’s right, the kids are teaching the kids, that’s what you’re paying big money for. Maybe it’s just my lack of a proper perspective about all of this, but I’ve noticed over the years that you can get to the same places in a Chevy that you can in a Cadillac, and for a hell of a lot less money.

The thing that’s the most fun about never taking the SATs is the awed reaction you get from kids when they find out I am testless. A strange look of awe passes over their faces, and then a look of disbelief: I have to be kidding when I say this. The schools have been telling their parents and them since kindergarten that modern life is not possible without getting good SAT scores, and there I am, complete with degrees and everything. Some kids refuse to believe that I am telling them the truth, this being so at odds with everything everyone’s ever told them all of their lives; I don’t press the issue—it’s good that kids have some illusions as they move forward with their lives. Still, life has a way of working itself out without the need to score well on the SATs, as many a predestined success story have found out for themselves; destiny, like so many other things in this our fallen world, ain’t everything it’s cracked up to be.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

CURLING UP TO THE FIRE: Much of life, when you stop and give the matter some thought, is not particularly interesting. The days pass one by one, as they are wont to do, and for the most part nothing terribly interesting happens to break the monotony. Sometimes something out of the ordinary happens and winds up in the newspapers, but as a rule the something out of the ordinary that other people have to contend with doesn’t happen to us or to anyone we know. Life is kind of boring that way. Death seems fairly monotonous too, although I don’t know this from personal experience, but the deceased don’t seem to mind the monotony very much; at least, no one hears them complaining about it. Perhaps it’s because they spend most of their time in the dark, night lights not usually part of your average coffin’s standard equipment, and so they don’t notice the monotony as it's happening. I suppose you could put a night light in the coffin, as well as a sound system and a minibar, so they can pass the time in a more interesting manner, but that brings up the problem of where to plug all of these extras in; most coffins don’t have electrical sockets and no one appears to want a piece of this fairly large market. I can’t imagine why not; I don’t think user safety is much of an issue one way or the other at this point.

Sometimes you find monotony in the most surprising places. Sporting events, for example, are not the sort of place where one would expect to find ennui hanging about your head like clouds of old cigarette smoke. Sports are alive with action, the playing field being a place where life is lived to its uttermost limits, a place of heightened expectation and excitement. You do not go to a sporting event or watch such an event on television in the expectation of boredom having its way with you.

So women’s curling took me by complete surprise. I was at my brother’s house translating a law degree the University of Palermo granted in 1894 from Italian into English, which is no small feat for me, as I do not speak Italian, except for the usual comestibles. The brother, however, can speak the language, and so we spent the better part of an evening thrashing out just what this thing actually said. We were in a trice and a quandary, with the horses exhausted from pulling the excessive weight and one of the wheels about to fall off due to lack of sleep along with both of my legs and part of my left arm, trying to make heads or tails of this document. For reasons others may understand better than I, college degrees in all languages and in all times and climes are chock full of fustian and bombast, and are written in a way that no ordinary human being would really want to speak, if they had a choice. This diploma was no different from any other diploma in that regard, and so the brother and I sat, and we contemplated, and having thoroughly exhausted the possibilities of contemplation, we sat some more, resting up for another intense bout of contemplation, and then for excitement, we checked the dictionary for some of the harder words. The brother called them the harder words; to me, they were almost all gibberish. And then we would contemplate some more.

This went on for several hours, during which time the horses escaped from the trice, the ends and the means finally balanced out, but not before the ends wanted to why the hell the means bought an electric guitar when it can’t whistle in tune, for Christ’s sakes, and where the hell do you think I get the money for all of this, anyway, young lady, money doesn't grow on trees, you know, and I turned on the Winter Olympics, in the vain belief that if we could actually see Italy it might help us with our efforts at Italian—English translation. Events came and events went as we struggled with the bureaucratese, trying to figure out why it should take this many words to launch a brand spanking new shyster on an unsuspecting Sicilian public in the late spring of 1894. During one prolonged bout of hand to hand combat with a particularly recalcitrant pronoun that had us both in a half-nelson and would win the match just as soon as my brother’s shoulders hit the mat, I noticed that we were now watching, or rather, we were now not really watching women’s curling. I ceased my somewhat vain struggle with the pronoun, a snide and callow young lout who constantly had at least one finger up his nose at all times, fascinated by the spectacle unfolding before my eyes. It is not every day, after all, where you see someone televise a sporting event that, to slightly paraphrase what the late Jimmy Cannon of the New York Post wrote of yacht racing, opens up vast new vistas of boredom.

There are some who will mock my opinion; curling, like any other sport, has its hordes of fanatic devotees who live for the chance to watch overweight men sweep the ice in front of a large sliding rock, many of them housewives, no doubt, who want to see men sweep something, anything, if only to convince themselves that men can actually operate a broom if they have to, that there is no physiological or psychological bar to operating a broom, and that such an activity occurs in that portion of the space-time continuum where we all live and is not the product of the fevered imagination of a science fiction writer or someone in need of large amounts of psychotropic drugs. I fully expect that some angry housewife, frustrated by her partner's lack of interest in basic household skills, will petition the IOC to include a take out the garbage field event in the next Summer Olympics, or perhaps, and I know that this is stretching the bounds of the traditional male-female gender roles, a folding your own clothes and putting them away in the right drawer event as well.

Why curling, you might ask, and it’s good that you’re asking since I find it difficult to care one way or the other. The Scots, God love every man jack of them, invented curling, thereby proving that the Scots have way too much time on their hands and that Calvinism, as transmitted through the not terribly fuel efficient vehicle of the Church of Scotland, has had an altogether pernicious effect on the development of Scottish sport. Scotland is, as you may know, the country that gave the world golf, in itself an enormity of historically monstrous proportions, as well as caber tossing and eating haggis, the latter two events being the sort of thing your average television viewer would find entertaining only after downing a Firth of Forth sized vat of single malt Scotch.

Tossing a caber, for those of you unfamiliar with the concept, involves picking up a telephone pole, preferably one without a phone company employee on it, and then just for hoo-hahs seeing how far you can throw it without herniating yourself or incurring overage charges. Eating a haggis, on the other hand, involves filling a sheep’s stomach with stuff that no self-respecting sheep would ever put into their stomach if they had anything to say about the matter, and then cooking said sheep’s stomach for however long it takes to cook a sheep’s stomach stuffed with blood, pork, oatmeal, salt, spices, onions (if available), and the occasional finely chopped Englishman. This hearty repast is then borne with great ceremony to the table of a befuddled family of American tourists, who thought they were ordering the Chicken McNuggets with French fries and a vanilla shake, by loyal retainers of the Clan MacGregor, their march with this great dish accompanied by the regimental bagpipers of the Argyll and Sutherland Highland Regiment playing ‘Rapper's Delight’ before the lads start across the valley and having a go with the Jerries dug in on the hills beyond with claymores, dirks, and broken beer bottles. If nothing else, it beats watching women’s curling.

In any case, I sat and watched as women from around the world slid stones down the ice at other stones as their teammates swept the ice in front of the sliding stones, these stones gliding down across the ice at the slow, stately, and somewhat skewed pace of a reigning queen inspecting the household cavalry after taking her twentieth toke off the royal bong. It made no sense to me then, as it makes no sense to me now, but after a while, I began to watch the nonspectacle of it all with a strange fascination; watching curling became addictive, in the same way that watching soap operas or collecting Italian Quattrocento dentist’s chairs can become addicting. After a while, you can’t really believe you’re watching this crap, but you continue to watch, until it takes a major expenditure of willpower to finally turn the television off and return to the more mundane tasks at hand. We did finish translating that diploma, so I guess that the evening wasn’t a total loss.