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, April 30, 2006

A SOMEWHAT MODEST PROPOSAL: Well, I suppose this was bound to happen sooner or later, human nature being what it is, but I fear that politics has raised its ugly head here in our happy little burg and now we are not as happy as we once were. Politics seems to have that effect on people, I’ve noticed. The issue that’s getting everyone’s knickers in a twist is taxes, which I’m sure doesn’t surprise you, especially school taxes. Yes indeed, it is that time of year again, the time when the school board goes to the public an announces that they need to raise taxes yet again and if the public votes the budget down the board will have to cut programs for the kids. Without the eight percent tax hike they are asking for, the board will have to curtail art classes and music classes and many other extracurricular activities that kids and parents enjoy so much and that would be a shame.

School taxes are always a contentious issue here in our currently not so happy little burg. That’s because people pay more in school taxes than they do in property taxes and, in many cases, state and Federal income taxes. This year’s scary announcement about having to cut programs if the budget doesn’t pass is, I suspect, something of a red herring; the board of education would just as soon have everyone forget that they asked for an eight percent raise in taxes last year, and once the budget passed, promptly jacked the final figure up to 25.7%. Last year was also the year when those of us stuck in this egregious mold pit were hoping against hope that we would get a new library building, but alas and alack, as they say, the board of education announced that that final 25.7% figure a week before our building referendum, and that more or less put an end to that. So we soldier on in this dump, which, if I were to entertain my paranoid streak, and why shouldn’t I, it’s a free country, is why the school board announced their tax hike when they did; they needed someone to take the pummeling of an outraged public and we were the designated pummelee, if there is such a word.

The problem with paying school taxes, of course, is that money allegedly goes to educate children, most of whom are inherently uneducable, and are therefore best left in a state of happy ignorance, and to pay the teachers, most of whom are more than vaguely moronic. After all, having successfully gotten out of the pedagogical hellhole that is the American educational system, why would anyone in their right minds go back into it if they something better to do with their time? This, however, does not stop them from asking for more, even if their record with the more they wanted last year doesn’t really inspire a whole lot of confidence. No sirree, students may be failing from one end of this our Great Republic to the other, kids may not know what century the Civil War was fought in or that during that conflict the Germans were not fighting the Viet Cong, or even that the Middle Ages did not occur after the Second World War [no, I am not kidding; the homecoming queen, of all people, asked me that one], but the teachers want more so they can continue the great job they are doing educating American kids.

The teachers want more money and smaller class sizes, even though there is no empirical evidence that more money and smaller class sizes will help them teach the little savages, and they would like us all to forget that once upon a time in America Roman Catholic nuns taught classes with fifty to sixty students crammed into the room, and taught them well, with little more than a piece of chalk, a blackboard, and the willingness to smack me upside my head for being a smartass all the time. And they did it for no pay, too. Now, I am not advocating that teachers not get paid, of course; I am all for civil servants getting more money—being a civil servant myself I could hardly feel otherwise, I suppose. It’s just that I can’t help but wonder what it is the teachers have being doing that rates the annual pay hikes. Businesses that turn out defective products go out of business; schools that turn out defective products get more money. Go figure.

The reason for this topsy-turvy system of rewarding failure is, some folks tell me, the teachers’ unions in this country, and that if I were really smart I’d just drop this whole librarian thing I’ve been doing and go back to school for an education degree. That way I could join the union too and get the kind of benefits librarians don’t get. This is true, I guess; I don’t belong to a union, if for no other reason than I think that civil service unions are an abomination that the state ought to ban forthwith. There is something more than a little cognitively dissonant to me about people who can’t lose their jobs organizing a trade union, but you can get used to anything if you give it enough time.

In any case, since the power of this particular obscurantist union lies ultimately with its control of a government sponsored monopoly, the answer to the problem of grasping unions and ineffective education is really quite simple: eliminate the monopoly. No I don’t mean vouchers per se; I mean let’s go to the absolute root of the problem and eliminate compulsory education altogether. The public pays extortionate school taxes because we think that the schools have to educate all of the kids in a given area, but if the schools only had to educate some of the kids in that some area, there were more money to spend on those kids who actually want an education and taxes could go down. And the kids who do show up would be easier to educate, since they really want to learn. The discipline problems that couldn’t care less about school will have other things to do.

I know some of you may object to this idea. You’re no doubt thinking that if there’s no school then more kids will get into serious trouble with the police because they have nothing else to do with their time. This is true, but if they wanted to do something to do these kids could always go to school, and for the more recalcitrant, the state can always build more prisons. Other people may point out that in our postindustrial information society our nation cannot afford a large underclass of unemployed near illiterates. Well, I’ve got news for those of you who think that: we’ve already got a large underclass of unemployed near illiterates and the economy is doing just fine. Getting the ignoramuses out of the schools and into the streets will also help alleviate the problem with illegal immigration; for the first time there will be a large pool of native born Americans who will be able to compete with illegals for the crappiest available jobs.

The teachers’ unions will fight this proposal tooth and nail, of course, as they do every other educational reform that doesn’t put more money in their pockets, as they do not want to surrender their monopoly on public education. Teachers are irreplaceable, they will say, although that’s not what they teach in the education schools. Nope, you know what they say there? The tell the prospective teachers that their job is to facilitate the student’s natural desire to learn, that a child learns to read and write and do math in much the same way as they learn to walk or talk. The teacher is there to help the child learn how to learn; actually knowing something about the subject you want to teach is nice, but not really necessary. If this is so, and it must be or the education schools wouldn’t be telling new teachers this, then why bother having a teacher at all? Why not simply get somebody's mom to teach the class and then shift the excess teachers over to the IRS or the department of motor vehicles or some other equally annoying bureaucracy where they do something at least tangentially useful while irritating the taxpayers beyond endurance? That way they can annoy us no end, which they were going to do anyway, and the public can get the full measure of annoyance we paid for without the smarmy sanctimony that comes with them pretending they are annoying us for the sake of “the children.” Frankly, the children, with or without the quotation marks, can go suck eggs.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

GLOBAL WARMING AND THE BALD SPOT: Global warming grows worse with each passing year, or so a good many scientists tell us, and that if the warming continues to get much worse then entire species like penguins and polar bears may go extinct due to the loss of their icy habitats. To prevent this, we would do well if each and everyone of us did our best to cut our personal emissions of greenhouse gases, which I imagine involves avoiding cabbage and most types of beans, and that while we’re at it, it might be a good idea if we all went and bought ourselves a hat.

This is one of life's tougher lessons, I fear, and I learned it the hard way. During last week’s sojourn to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, I diligently tramped from one end of the battlefield to the other. I climbed Oak Hill and Culp’s Hill and both of the Round Tops, and yes, coming down Big Round Top is a lot easier than going up it—going up Little Round Top is not easy, either, but I found it a lot easier going than Colonel Oates and his Alabama regiment did it 1863; it’s a lot easier to climb almost anything if there aren’t large numbers of Red Sox fans shooting down at you. From the Round Tops I tramped on to the Devil’s Den, where there are neither devils nor dens with comfortable chairs, but only annoying little kids playing soldier and screeching at the top of their lungs for their mothers when they get hurt, and the Wheatfield, where there is no wheat, and on to the Peach Orchard, where there are no peach trees, but where there is a nice statue of a New York city fireman, to Cemetery Ridge, where, among other monuments, there is a statue honoring the Tammany Hall regiment, which only goes to show just how far some New York Democrats will go to get votes, and then to the Angle and to Cemetery Hill and thence to the parking lot, where I collapsed in a semi-comatose heap next to a bus chock full of kids from Morristown, New Jersey, who spat gallons of Mountain Dew in my face to revive me. Tramping up and down the countryside of southern Pennsylvania in eighty-degree heat in a leather jacket and two cameras around my neck is not such a bright idea, something I discovered only after I’d done it. And as a consequence of all this tramping, my face was sunburned for the first time in thirty years.

Now, I should point out that I am not in any way a vain person. As I see it, in order to be vain about your looks you have to be good-looking to begin with, and frankly, I’m not. I am not a complete horror; seeing me does not provoke involuntary vomiting in laboratory rats nor does it induce hysterical blindness in hebephrenic schizophrenics, but that’s about as positive as I can be about my looks. Given that I don’t look like a movie star, I do not spend a lot of time looking at myself in mirrors. I don’t need to know what I look like; one look in the morning to shave myself and comb my hair will generally do me for the whole day. So it was not until I stepped into the shower the next morning that I realized that my bald spot was sunburned as well.

Having a sunburned bald spot is more annoying than you can imagine, if for no other reason than that big shocking pink spot on the top of my head makes me look like a vaguely gay overweight Orthodox Jew. I know my hair is thinning up there, of course, but out of sight, out of mind, as they say, and as I can’t see the spot when I shower and shave I don’t really think about it all that often. I’ve had to think about it for the past week or so though, because first, it’s as sore as hell, and second, my skull is now molting faster than a rattlesnake on crystal meth and my self-esteem is hurtling over the brim and into the abyss with every corn flake-sized slab of skin that winds up on my shirt. I don’t mind the winter all that much, but I do mind looking as though I’m carrying my own personal blizzard everywhere I go.

As a corollary to all of the above, I should point out that I am not exactly what you would call an outdoorsy kind of guy to begin with. I know the great outdoors exists; I’ve seen Ansel Adams’ pictures of it, but if it is all the same to you, I would just as soon not spend a whole lot of time out in the great outdoors. Adams’ photographs are wonderful, things of beauty to behold and to marvel at, but you don’t see the squadrons of mosquitoes he had to fight off just to take those pictures. Nature is all well and good in its place, but I would just as soon not have invertebrates use me as the basis of their personal ecosystem. This is just a personal preference on my part, you understand; I know there are people out there who like insects. I'm not sure I know why; liking insects strikes me as only a cut above enjoying beating your elderly mother black and blue with a five iron every morning, but it takes all kinds to make a world, as they say, and who am I to quibble with someone else's likes and dislikes?

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

EMIGRATION BLUES: A pair of gentlemen who had nothing else to do with their time decided, for reasons best known to themselves, to walk around the world, or as much as of the world as they could reasonable walk without getting their feet wet, no mean trick on a planet covered mostly by water. The two gentlemen began their trek in Tierra del Fuego at the southernmost tip of South America some years ago and had reached the furthermost Russian settlement in northwestern Siberia, where the Russian border authorities promptly arrested the two of them and returned them to Alaska.

The Russian border authorities are deluding themselves. These two gentlemen are merely the first of a horde that will soon swamp any attempt to hold back the tide of immigrants from south, or in this case, east, of the border. We see in our time the Aztec drive for conquest reborn and pressing ever onwards as the Aztecs seek to reestablish Aztlan in los Estados Unidos de Gringolandia. Having reversed Winfield Scott’s victory of 1848, the Aztecs will demand that they get their portion of the 54-40 or Fight demand that led instead to the occupation of Tenochtitlan by the evil gringos. Once all of western Canada and Alaska is in their hands will come the inevitable push into Siberia. The day is rapidly coming when Ivan Ivanovich will look out over the frozen wastes of the Bering Sea and see men in blue jeans and baseball caps hopping from ice floe to ice floe trying to make landfall on the sacred soil of the Rodina. He will try to stop those men, sometimes arresting them, sometimes shooting them out of hand, but nothing will stop the inexorable pressure of their coming. Once they establish their presence in Siberia, then they will bring their wives and children after them in order to complete the occupation, and an area once took its orders from Moscow will take them from Mexico City instead.

There will some positive results at first; Russian golfers will finally get greens worthy of the name and Russian contractors will get workers who will do a good job without having to give them a couple of shots of vodka first, but in the end there will come a crisis. Radical immigration activists will demand teachers teach in both Russian and Spanish, no mean trick given that the two languages have completely different alphabets, and the Russian Orthodox Church will have to replace the Virgin of Kazan and the Vladimir Mother of God with the Virgin of Guadalupe if the Church knows what’s good for it. On the other hand, the borscht will taste better with some jalapenos in it, and people who don’t like vodka can acquire a taste for tequila, although I think the Russians might be more than a little put off by the worm. Vodka doesn’t have worms, after all, and while cultural cross-pollination is no doubt a wonderful thing, some things just won’t make it over the culture divide and my guess is that worms are probably one of those things.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

GETTSYBURG: Well, I am back from the great overland voyage to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, back despite the best attempts of tractor trailers to drive the brother and me off the road, although from the absolute lack of comments on the last couple of posts I’d say no one knew I was gone in the first place. Be that as it may, the trip went well, except for the people in the room above ours who apparently wanted to take a bath, turned the water on, and then promptly forgot that they’d left the water on. Watching warm water gushing from a light fixture has a vaguely Magritte-like quality to it, or would, if we weren’t more worried about electrocution than art criticism.

And I find that the American talent for mislabeling was just as alive and well back in the 1860’s as it is today. I climbed to the top of Big Round Top, following the advice of the Park Service sign, which said that this was a self-guided tour, self-guided tour being a bit of bureaucratic doubletalk that means start walking up the hill and when you get to the top, you’ve arrived. So this is what I did, in my heavy leather jacket, and two cameras, and my overweight and out of shape body. I stopped twice along the way, first because I was sweating like Mrs. Murphy’s pig, and second, because if I am going to have a heart attack, I would just as soon have it sitting down as standing up; that way my obituary will, I hope, point out that I was not trying to be a complete idiot when I dropped dead from exertion. I did reach the top, though, none the worse for wear, though I would venture to say that if my legs and heart would not agree with that assessment if they had anything to say about the matter, and looked around and saw not a blessed thing except trees and a monument saying that Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the 20th Maine were here not doing much of anything after their successful defense of Little Round Top, the hill next door to Big Round Top.

There are markers and memorials everywhere at Gettysburg, commemorating something of importance; I am sure if Robert E. Lee’s horse, Traveler, evacuated his bowels anywhere near the town of Gettysburg there is a memorial to the event somewhere in the vicinity. There is, after all, a commemorative marker in front of the house where Brigadier General Schimmelpfennig, who’d got cut off from his command on the first day of the battle, spent the next three days hiding in a backyard woodshed next to a pigpen, an event I am sure the good general would have preferred everyone to forget, had he lived long enough to be embarrassed by his enforced absence (he died shortly after the end of the war). So having found that there is still nothing to see on the top of Big Round Top, the brother and I went next door to Little Round Top, the name of which is the mislabeling I was talking about at the beginning of the previous paragraph and from which subject I seem to have strayed a bit. In any case, I should point out that Little Round Top is something of a misnomer, and that the name should properly be Not as Big as The Hill Next Door But Still Pretty Damn Big All The Same Round Top. I realize, of course, that this new appellation, however accurate it may be, does not flow as trippingly off the tongue as its current name, and in all probability will not replace the old name anytime soon, even if it is the more accurate description. There is also no wheat in the Wheatfield, no peaches in the Peach Orchard, and neither devils nor dens in the Devil’s Den. There is, however, a seminary on Seminary Ridge and a cemetery on Cemetery Ridge, and there is a statue of Abner Doubleday along a highway in the park made after he didn’t invent baseball. So there is some verisimilitude involved in all of this, even if you have to look hard to find it.

But all in all, the trip went well, although I am surprised that there are no discounts for active duty or retired military people; here is a town that owes its good fortune to the United States military and you'd think they'd give my brother a break, what with him spending most of his adult life in the Navy, but this neither here nor there, I guess; the Navy didn't fight at Gettysburg, so I suppose the brother is not entitled to any deals, but it's the overall sense of ingratitude I don't like, I guess. I am also sunburned for the first time in at least a quarter of a century, and now advancing age has included a new place for sunburn to occur: the top of my head. The hair is thinning up there and I forgot all about the thinning spot; I refuse to call that portion of my head the bald spot since it's not really bald, you know, only somewhat thinned out a bit; until I scratched up there and felt my scalp stinging. The next time I do this sort of thing I really must wear a hat. Sunscreen would be a good idea too, I think.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

EXCUSES, EXCUSES: I will grant you that blogging is always light here, but for the next week or so it will be even lighter than it usually is, if such a thing is possible. I am leaving our happy little burg and this egregious mold pit behind and am going on vacation. My original plan was to go to Cancun and get college girls drunk before doing unspeakable things to their left ears, but that plan fell through, and so I am off to Gettysburg, PA instead, there to see the battlefield and Eisenhower's home. I'm not sure what else there is to see in Gettysburg, but I am sure I will find out when I get there. So, everyone enjoy your Easter / Passover / Nondenominational Holiday of your choice, and I will see you again in about a week or so.
DEATH AND NO TEXAS: Funeral homes are pretty fascinating places, all in all, though you might not think so if you work in one. That’s a pity, really, a case of familiarity breeding contempt, if you will—the sheer economic wonder of the place just eludes you. Here is a commercial enterprise that does a thriving business every year despite the fact that almost all of its potential customers don’t want to have anything to do with it and would just as soon never have to use its services at all. You’d have to work in the public schools to find something equally unpopular, and public education only works because the government requires the kids to show up. Funeral homes just have to wait for the customers to drop in, to the financial discomfort of the life insurance industry, a business that prefers to have people insure themselves against the inevitable, which is profitable, rather than the inevitable actually occurring, which is not.

Unless, of course, you own a funeral home, where the inevitable brings in money hand over fist. When you own your own funeral home, for example, people will come to you and buy big ticket items that wouldn’t dream of buying otherwise and these same customers will take your word about these items and what they will do or not do, as the case may be. If every business in the country could get away with this, the number of lawsuits filed each year in the United States would drop faster than Sister Mary Frances’ jaw at a strip club. The sheer audacity of some of these claims and the fact that anyone can make them with a perfectly straight face is nothing short of positively breathtaking.

For example, if you go to your average American funeral home, someone on staff will be more than happy to sell you a coffin that is absolutely, positively, no two ways about it guaranteed not to leak for five hundred years. Think about that for a second. How do you check that claim? Can you go to your local public library and check the Consumer Reports for May 1506 and take a look at the product rating they gave this particular line of caskets before you go running home to tell your assembled loved ones that your Uncle Harry can now go for half a millennium without worrying about getting his feet wet? Will the manufacturer refund your money if some water manages to get into the thing in 2247? Are all the parts and all the workmanship under warranty for all of that time, or will the guarantee lapse after, say, three hundred years? Then, of course, why would Uncle Harry worry about getting a leaky coffin in the first place, since he has finally arrived at that happy point in his terrestrial existence when he doesn’t really have to worry about whether or not he’s going to catch a cold.

Following the purchase of the coffin, which is expensive enough, considering only one person gets to use the thing, there is the question of where do you put it once you’ve got Uncle Harry in it. This might seem an easy decision to make, but you would be incorrect in your assumption. Whether you like it or not, you can’t bury Uncle Harry out in the back yard next to your dog that got run over when you were six years old. No indeed, Uncle Harry has to go to the cemetery, and to go to the cemetery you must have a plot, and buying a cemetery plot is as full of twists and turns, shifts and bad faith as any other real estate deal.

First, location, location, location; no matter what anyone says about just dump me anywhere, the fact is everyone wants a tomb with a view, even if Uncle Harry won’t be able to see it, what with his watertight coffin in the way. People fight over getting a prime site in the cemetery are willing to shell out big bucks to get what they want, even if they have to sublet to a family of illegal aliens and a troupe of street mimes in order to pay the maintenance charges, and all this for a place too small to hang your hat, assuming Uncle Harry really needs a hat for the next five hundred years. Hats would seem purely optional at this point, I think; it’s really a question of personal preference.

In any case, you will, at the end of this long and drawn out process, be the proud owner of a plot of land too small to qualify as an apartment in Manhattan, and you will own said plot in perpetuity. This statement is a bit of a howler, I think, and is right up there with the coffin not leaking for five hundred years in audacity, because by the time perpetuity comes around to ask you for a loan or whether or not she can go to the senior prom with that way cool Hell’s Angel from Martian Colony #9 you will be in no condition to check out what perpetuity has to say about your owning the land. I imagine old Khufu thought he had a lock on all he surveyed at Giza, courtesy of his building the Great Pyramid, breaking the Pyramid Workers Union, and his casual dismissal of OSHA regulations. No sooner was he dead than every other Pharaoh decided he just had to have a pyramid in the same neighborhood and the damn things kept popping up around old Khufu like geometric mushrooms. Ramses II was another big shot who bought the line about owning his plot forever, and where is he now? It’s just as dead as he is, or maybe even deader, since Ramses has a good civil service job these days as an exhibit in the Cairo Museum. I think there’s a garage over the spot where they buried him the first time, but I could be wrong about that.

It’s not likely that Uncle Harry would get a gig as good as Ramses got, although when you think about it, this is a big comedown for Ramses, steady as the job is. One day you’re the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, and all of sudden it’s three thousand years later and you’re stuck in a glass box with all of your relatives nearby and snot nosed little kids who don’t want to be there in the museum in the first place are staring at you through the glass and going, EEEEWWWWWW, that’s gross! (Or the Arabic equivalent thereof). That probably won’t happen for Uncle Harry. Three thousand years on he’ll be in a museum somewhere, stuffed in a drawer somewhere along with a lot of fifth century American Indians and whatever the archaeologist could find of your grandmother as well. So much for all the money you spent for perpetuity; all you really got for the money was some space in the drawer next to the janitor’s lunch. That’s something to look forward to, isn’t it?
VISIBLE PANTY LINES AND THEIR CONTRIBUTION TO MODERN AMERICAN SOCIETY: To start with, let me just say that I am not in the habit of, nor am I comfortable with, discussing women’s underwear. I know that the vast majority of women wear underwear, just as the vast majority of men do, and that men and women’s underwear differ from each other to best suit the fashion and excretory needs of the individual involved. I am merely stating that I am not in the habit of discussing such things. Underwear, for me, is a societal phenomenon of the same order as covert operations or cleaning septic tanks; something necessary but best not thought of in any great detail. I merely assume its existence and then move on from there. Underwear, by definition, is out of sight and therefore out of mind; if you wanted people to know what you were wearing under your clothing you would wear them over your clothing and spare everyone the unnecessary chore of trying to guess what your underwear looks like.

So it is with no small degree of consternation that I now put my two cents in on an aspect of this issue that I would, frankly, just as soon skip altogether. I find, however, that silence is no longer possible, since this issue is now the subject of intense media scrutiny all over the country. I am referring, of course, to the increasingly bitter dispute between those women who prefer to wear Freudian slips and those who prefer the Doppler shift. Now, just to preface my remarks, let me just say that I am in no way taking sides in this long running and always bitter dispute. I think that Freudian slippers look much nicer on women than the usual pair of high heels and I am sure they must be that much more comfortable as well, but I admit I am looking at this issue from the somewhat Neanderthalish perspective of your typical heterosexual American male, whom most of you would expect to have such an opinion. I know that many of the women I work with would rather have their husbands catch them in the nude on a city bus than wear a pair of Freudian slippers during the workweek, which they regard as a sure sign that the wearer is out on the town looking to play the strumpet with a Dixieland jazz band. I’ve always thought that condemnation a bit harsh myself, but then I don’t have to wear the things, do I?

Having arrived somehow at a discussion of footwear, which was not my intention, let us return to the question of underwear, as that is ostensibly the subject at hand. However, in the discussion of footwear, and no, we are not going to talk about shoes today, we see a foreshadowing, if you will, of the larger topic of underwear now violently wracking this country. For the adherents of the Doppler shift tend to regard those women who prefer the Freudian slip as somewhat suspect in their personal morality and overly fond of socialism and the welfare state in their political views. In more that one poll of women who prefer the Doppler shift, what is most striking is their almost visceral distrust of women who would wear something that permits something of a personal nature to pop out at any time. Adherents of the Doppler shift regard themselves as a fairly practical group, their ideas tried and tested in the fire of experience, and so have no use for a garment that sags when it should support, thereby allowing sudden moments of unexpected truth to pop out, usually in a setting where men have been drinking too much and are apt to make lewd comments about the sudden exposure. The Freudian slip is simply too compromising a garment for these women to wear comfortably.

Those women who prefer the Freudian slip allow that wearing one might cause some difficulties, but that women who wear the Doppler shift exaggerate these difficulties no end. The supporters of the Freudian slip see their rivals in the Doppler shift as a bit stodgy and old fashioned, and one woman I know told me that she thought that that whole Doppler crew, as she called them, was nothing more than a mob of hypocrites, or whatever the collective noun for hypocrites is. How else, she asked, can you explain a group of women that looks and sounds different as they come and go? You can’t, she said, and if you find that your best friend is fond of wearing Doppler shifts, then hire a private detective forthwith; that is just about the surest sign there is that she is having an affair with your husband. Many who prefer the Freudian slip echo this woman’s concerns and say they would rather put up with the possibility of a dozen wardrobe malfunctions than have people think that they are hypocrites, so hateful is the very concept of the Doppler shift and everything the shift represents to them.

So intractable are these groups that you might think there is absolutely no room for compromise between them, but there is at least one point that bridges the chasm of mutual hostility. If nothing else, both sects hate, loathe, and despise, although not necessarily in that order, the visible panty line. The visible panty line is an associate of the Mollusk family, according to Federal law enforcement authorities, responsible for handling the family’s extensive loansharking operations and labor racketeering in the slough of urban despond directly across the river from our happy little burg. The visible panty line is a vile and vicious little punk, especially after a few drinks, and has table manners so completely loathsome that many restaurants who must endure the usually unwanted patronage of this unsavory lot set aside a private room where these two bit thugs can feed upon their horrid repasts out of sight of the regular customers, who are often sickened at the sight of them in their gastronomical frenzies.

I do not deny that they have a certain rough charm, which, I’ve noticed, many women find amusing, but that wears off quickly. Women found in their company often deny that they are; some going as far as claiming that they are merely conducting sociological research for a major university; but generally when the word gets around the woman’s reputation for intellectual seriousness is fatally compromised. The extreme antipathy these hoodlums generate among all classes of women should therefore come as no surprise to anyone, or that women who would fight each other to the death over Freudian slips and Doppler shifts would choose to put aside their quarrel for a day in order to better fight the panty line. This can sometimes go to unfortunate extremes, as it did only a few years ago across the river, when the local gendarmerie charged two sisters, the elder of the two being a supporter of the Doppler shift, the younger a Freudian slip wearer, with the murder of a middle-aged panty line in his home, for reasons that no one could adequately explain. The sisters were the product of a middle class home and a Catholic school education and had never been in trouble with the law before their arrest and subsequent trial and conviction. They did not attempt to justify or in any way try to mitigate their behavior the night they killed him, only to say that he had ruined a brand new pair of pants. This is, as I said, an extreme case, but it seems indicative of the complete and utter disdain most women hold the lines in.

But the visible panty line is more or less the only thing these two warring groups can actually agree upon; the rest of their time is spent lambasting each other with imprecations, anathemas, and sometimes with sesquipedalian language so intemperate no family periodical would publish it for fear of alienating those of their readers without access to a really good dictionary. Can these two groups, long at odds with each other, finally come together in an appreciation of the other’s strong contribution to our common culture? Probably not, at this point, I am sorry to say; the differences are so strong, the demonization of the other so complete, that it will take years of shopping for the two sides to find some common ground from which they can move on into a brighter and, one hopes, more peaceful future. Until then, we must all endure what we must endure.

Friday, April 14, 2006

SCIENCE FAIRS: It is Easter time once again, and that means that the kids are on their nonsectarian, nondenominational, holiday that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with any nationally dominant religion in any way, shape, or form, spring recess this week. Spring recess means a lot of things to a lot of people, but here in our happy little burg it means one thing in particular to the students in grades 4 through 8: Science Fair.

Contrary to what you might think, Science Fair is not something a lot of kids look forward to, not by a long shot. Most science projects cannot be done on the bus on Monday mornings, which is when and where our local crop of scholars prefer to do their homework assignments, and so these projects are wildly unpopular, since they cut into the time these kids can spend hanging out with their friends. The younger kids like doing the projects the most; they are perpetually trying to find ways of building an atomic bomb to get rid of their younger siblings, and are almost always disappointed to find that nuclear weapons research has not yet found a way to eliminate the irritating younger brother or sister from the family home and yet preserve their Playstation at the same time. As a result, interest in doing the science projects drops precipitously after the fourth or fifth grades, leaving not a wrack of interest behind.

Parents dislike the projects as well—kids may not get to do these things on the buses, but that does not mean that they will surrender their highly cultivated habit of pedagogical procrastination simply because these projects have to be done, not while there are parents available to do the projects for them. Most parents dislike having to do elementary and junior high school again, figuring that they did it once and that should be more than enough for any given lifetime, and they really dislike having Junior telling them he has a science project due only two or three days before the project is due, especially if they had plans to go golfing that weekend. Grandparents, on the other hand, love science projects. Not that they will actually give the kids and their grandkids anything more substantial than moral support; it’s just that for them, this is revenge for the time their kids, today’s parents, pulled the exact same trick on them and more or less at the same time of year, no less. Some things don’t ever change.

The Science Fair also means a sudden spike in business here at the egregious mold pit, as the kids suddenly realized that in addition to free computer games, the library also offers books on how to do science projects for their perusal. Most kids who use this place do not realize that the books on the shelves are available for them to take out, in much the same way that the computers and DVDs are, and so tend to look at our attempts to point them in the direction of the science project books as a poor and somewhat tasteless attempt to play a practical joke on them. Parents, on the other hand, tend to grab any and every science project book that they can lay their hands on. Most of them have not had to do a science project since they were in elementary or junior high school and are, to be frank about it, somewhat bereft of ideas on how to get such a project done by Monday morning. But in the library, as in life itself, and if Borges was right the two are synonymous (he wasn’t and they aren’t), the early bookworm gets the books. This, understandably enough, upsets those parents whose kids waited until the Saturday before the project was due to tell them about it no end, and led to our putting the collection of science project books on the reserve shelf so everyone can use them, although that does not prevent some parents from trying to steal them.

Of all the people involved in this annual disaster, I think I have the most empathy for the science teachers. They’re the ones stuck doing this thing year in and year out. They don’t really have much use for the Science Fair; the mystery has long since vanished for them, but the fair is part of the curriculum and so they have to assign the projects whether they feel like assigning them or not. Watching the science teachers at the fair is, I think, something akin to watching movie critics sitting themselves down in a theater and getting ready for another heaping pile of Hollywood slop or watching the old newsreels of marines about to land on some godforsaken mosquito-infested Japanese-held island in the South Pacific. There’s a forlorn look in their eyes as they prepare for yet another grim day at the front. I’m pretty sure that for some of them if they have to look at yet one more erupting papier-mâché volcano with its food dyed baking soda lava pouring down the sides and threatening a small but picturesque village inhabited by broken Ken and Barbie dolls they will take a high-powered rifle up to the roof of the nearest school and start picking off the passersby just to relieve the utterly unbearable ennui of it all.

There’s only so many times you can pretend that this stuff is even vaguely interesting, and I’m sure having to tell soothing lies to parents about how well their progeny could do if little Johnny or Janie would only apply themselves and did the work does very little for one’s own morale. Little Johnny and Janie will, in fact, never do the work, not now, not ever, first because they’re dolts, and second, because doing dumb science projects is what parents are for, and third because it means having to move away from their computers and televisions for more than five minutes at a time, which, let’s face it, simply isn’t going to happen; one must have priorities in life, after all, and erupting baking soda, for all the carbon dioxide induced sound and fury involved, is clearly not one of the more important ones.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

FADS: Trebuchets are all the rage nowadays here in our happy little burg, although I must admit that I am at something of a loss to explain why this should so. There doesn’t seem to be much practical use for medieval military hardware in our post-industrial, postmodern information society; you could, I suppose, pile all the snow from your driveway into the thing and fling it over the next hill into your neighbor’s yard, but this is almost certainly going to cause complaints from these very same neighbors, who have no use for the snow they’ve already got and don’t want to bother getting rid of yours as well. Other possible uses involve removing unwanted life insurance salesmen and Jehovah’s Witnesses from your property. Trebuchets do a good job of this, even if the salesmen are a fairly slippery lot and the Watchtower Society will, no doubt, look askance at any homeowner who used a family trebuchet to launch a Witness into the nearest available large body of water. As a rule, the Witnesses want their souls to fly up to the Lord, their limitless faith bearing their souls forever upward towards Paradise. They prefer to book all other flights with their travel agent.

And yet, for all the thing’s impracticality, a trebuchet is the thing to have now. There is scarcely a house built anywhere inside the city limits that does not have a trebuchet in the driveway next to the SUV or out in the backyard next to the swimming pool. Condo owners keep theirs on the roof. I must admit that it is hard at this juncture to know if this is simply a local fad or the first small indicator of a much wider trend. Frankly, I don’t understand the attraction. Having your own trebuchet is fine, I guess, if you enjoy that sort of thing, but no one seems to know why we’re all so suddenly mad to own our own little bit of the Middle Ages. It’s certainly a great conversation piece, and it’s great for hurling dead cats and dogs and other roadkill across the river into the slough of urban despond directly across the river from our happy little burg. The kids love watching the carcasses arc high over the river, flopping head over heels as they fly through the air, and then disappear into what’s left of the business district over there, although the merchants are getting more than a little annoyed at having to clean dead raccoons off the sidewalks in front of their stores every morning. This trebuchet thing started as a rich man’s fad, but now anyone can get in on the action. The local Wal-Mart is selling a trebuchet kit for those who enjoy the aggravation of trying to put things together with an instruction manual computer translated from an obscure Chinese dialect, and for the classically minded and those not so well off there’s a line of mangonels and onagers, and for the poorest consumers, a consortium of office supply companies has gotten into the market with a very large rubber band that an enterprising kid can stretch from one tree to another and shoot his little sister over into Connecticut.

It’s hard to explain why some fads start; I am old enough to remember the 1970’s, when there was a new fad every twenty seconds or so. Fads came and went with such regularity then that you could set your watch by them, and no sooner had one arrived that it was gone again, waiting for its inevitable revival some twenty years later as the retro look. The problem with such fads is that they don’t really change, whereas those of us who wallowed in them have, and now we look back at the embarrassing cretins with bad hair and skin we were then and wonder what the hell were we thinking. I mean, really, the mullet? Whose bright idea was that, anyway? Maybe if there was a revival of any other decade I could understand the fascination, but the Seventies were more or less awful, with an emphasis on the more and a corresponding lack of emphasis on the less, a time when egregious taste and Jimmy Carter, if that is not actually redundant, ruled the land, and if you don’t think so, I still have my lime green leisure suit stuffed up in the attic somewhere.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

SLOTH, AND NOT THE THREE TOED KIND, EITHER: My apologies for not posting more, folks. I wish I had a good excuse for the lack of fresh material, something like I had to go to the dark and evil jungles of deepest, darkest Danbury, Connecticut, there to fight the fanatical vegan adherents of the secretive cult of YumYum, the Indomalaymicromelapolymilkofmagnesian goddess of punctuality and bicarbonate of soda, but the fact of the matter is I’ve been too damn lazy all week long to bother thinking of anything new to fill the empty blogspace staring us all in the face. It’s not like I don’t have ideas for new posts, but for the past week or so the idea of actually getting down to work and doing something with those ideas has been almost too awful to contemplate. One of these days, when I really don’t have any new ideas, I’m going to kick myself for being so lazy now, but I’ll worry about that when I get to it, I suppose.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

OIL: You may not have noticed this, but Iran announced the other day that it was not going to use oil as a weapon against the West as it continues its quest to become only the second country in history nuked by the United States Air Force. You would think that such an announcement would bring glad tidings and happiness to all and sundry, except maybe for those Iranians who would just as soon not glow in the dark, and would cause an immediate drop in the price of gasoline at the pump. You might think this, but you would be wrong; the price of gasoline didn’t do anything at all, although you might wonder why not, since the news that the first son of the third wife of the Emir of Palookastan had to go to a hospital in Cleveland to get a boil on his backside lanced caused the price of gasoline to spike ten cents in twelve minutes. I know, on a purely intellectual level, that the law of supply and demand governs the price of gasoline, but there’s just something about the way the price never falls as fast as it goes up that grates on my nerves and leads me to suspect that someone, somewhere is having a good laugh at my expense.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

CIVIL SERVICE: You might not believe this, but in the civil service it is always important to catch the next great new thing. You might wonder why people who have jobs they can’t lose would care one way or the other about a new anything, since we’re going to get our paychecks whether we think of anything original or not. Your cynical attitude would be incorrect, however, as well as uncharitable; civil servants care deeply about their work and are on a constant lookout to find new and more expensive ways of spinning the bureaucratic wheels. It is with this great truth in mind that I am pleased to announce that our very own egregious mold pit is now an Equal Access Library.

At this juncture I am still not entirely certain what constitutes an Equal Access Library, other than that we will now provide library services “…from womb to tomb…,” to quote the official literature. The assistant director will handle the information needs of the latter group, while our children’s librarian will upgrade the sterling services she already provides our happy little burg's population of microbe-breeding tykes to include those who have not yet arrived. I, apparently, will sit at the reference desk and answer questions, which is what I would have done anyway. As a general rule I disapprove of reference librarians doing anything except answering questions. Answering questions is what a reference librarian’s job is all about and having us do something else detracts from our main function. You do not ask racehorses to pull milk wagons, a metaphor rapidly going the way of the manual film camera and the dodo bird.

In fact, I disapprove of civil servants doing anything except what they’re supposed to do; more often than not permitting a civil servant to do anything not clearly specified in their job description is simply an excuse for demanding more staff and money in the next fiscal year. Civil servants should get the absolute minimum required to do their jobs properly and anyone who comes up with a bright idea to do the job better should be taken outside and beaten to within an inch of their life, a necessary deterrent for those who cannot otherwise get canned. If they want to foist their bright ideas on an otherwise unsuspecting American public they should get real jobs in private industry, where the company can terminate their employment in a heartbeat should the bright idea turn out to be a disaster, which is usually the case. Most ideas are disastrous, when you look at them in retrospect. Most new bad ideas are really old bad ideas in disguise, and it wouldn’t do for someone with nothing invested in the new bad idea to point this out to the American public, who will first have to shell out vast sums of money for the new bad idea, and then shell out the equally vast sums required to ameliorate the unforeseen social problems the new bad idea will create in its wake. This is one of the reasons most governments and political parties discourage the study of history in school these days; you can’t tell what people will do if they start looking at bad ideas in retrospect beforehand. This could lead to personal and departmental accountability, or worse, cuts in one's annual budget, and this is a prospect most civil servants would just as soon live without.

In the main, though, I am for anything that gets more people to use the public library, an institution I believe is almost synonymous with American democracy, and I’m not just saying that because this place keeps me in beer and pretzels. I am, however, at something of a loss when it comes to how the two groups specified will take advantage of the program. I do not, as I’ve mentioned here many times before, make any claims to omniscience, so perhaps I am not taking a long-term view of this program’s potential, but while I am sure the assistant director and the children’s librarian will perform their usual Herculean labors trying to make a success of this program, I see no practical way of moving the in utero and the interred from their natural disinclination to use the public library.

There is, after all, the question of transportation to the library; both groups of people are more or less dependent on family and friends to get them anywhere; and then having gotten to the library, there is the question of where they will store the library materials until they are due back at the library, shelf space being at something of a premium for both the pre-birth and post-life communities. I imagine that with the passage of time there’d be more space for the latter to store unread books and DVDs, but this is not true of the former group, where time and space shrink in direct proportion to each other and without the aid of Einstein’s special theory of relativity. And for both groups, of course, the families involved would object strenuously to constant backing and forthing such a program involves. I am all for programs to help shut-ins get library materials, but as in all things there are people who insist on taking things to their logical extremes and I think we are wasting our time trying to get through to these people.

These limitations, of course, will not stop the people who dreamt up the Equal Access Library concept. Having convinced their betters in the library bureaucracy that this is a great idea, they are now hard at work trying to get libraries all over the county to implement it. In all likelihood, the idea will fall on its face, despite everyone’s trying to make a go of it, but this is the civil service, after all; the people who came up with this abomination will, no doubt, get a promotion for their efforts and will probably get more resources to continue next year what they shouldn’t be doing in the first place this year. Thus it always is, here in our happy little burg.