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, December 30, 2007

THE NEW YEAR: It is not likely that I'll be here tomorrow or the next day, so let me take this opportunity to thank all of you who take the trouble to come by The Passing Parade to see if there's anything new to read. I hope that the coming year brings you everything you hope for and then some. Happy New Year to you all.



Thursday, December 20, 2007

MY RIGHT THUMB: My right thumb shines. This is unusual behavior for any thumb, as I am sure you will agree, and especially for one of mine. Thumbs, as rule, do not shine, glow, phosphoresce, or otherwise give off visible radiation unless you live near an old Soviet nuclear reactor long past its expiration date, in which event your thumb will shine, glow, phosphoresce, and otherwise give off visible radiation, along with the rest of your body. But I am not radioactive, so far as I know, nor have I, at this late date in my life, taken up bioluminescence as a hobby, and even if I had, I don’t think I would start my hobbying, if there is such a word, with my right thumb. I suppose I could, but I wouldn’t. I am not sure why that is, though. The opposable thumb is, as we all know, is the foundation of our political system, any game of baseball requiring an umpire, all television programming involving the presence of Arthur Fonzarelli, and of human civilization itself. How many of the great advances in the nearly five millennia of human civilization were only possible because human beings, with their opposable thumbs, could use those thumbs to count out twenty dollar bills to the illegal aliens who actually did the work? The number is limitless, I’m sure, but it still doesn’t explain how I wound up on this tangent about thumbs and their effect on history. Just lucky, I guess.

As I was saying before I so rudely interrupted myself, my right thumb shines. Not the whole thumb, of course—no whole thumb can shine by itself, as I mentioned above. No, a thumb can only truly shine when the individual thumb submerges its individual ego in the collective identity of the hand, something most thumbs are aware of and accounts for their fondness for totalitarian ideologies. So, as I keep mentioning without getting on with the object of the exercise, my right thumb remains its usual opaque self; only the nail shines. This is an unusual occurrence, given the latitude of our happy little burg, and one that requires some explanation beyond the torturous meanderings that constitute this essay thus far.

I drove to the local mall a few days ago, intent on going to the camera store to make an 8’ x 10’ print of the niece marching with the high school band in the homecoming parade. The mall was packed solid, this being the Christmas season, wherein Christians of all denominations go to malls throughout the length and breadth of this our Great Republic and show their devotion to Our Lord and Savior by driving themselves deeply into debt. This generally upsets the natives no end, but they continue to do it, for reasons best known to themselves and evolutionary biologists, and on more than one occasion during my trek to the camera store I had to throw myself up against the walls of this temple of Mammon in order to avoid the stampeding herds of feral Christmas shoppers that inhabit such places at this time of year. I am not sure where all these shoppers come from and it surprises me that some team of naturalists hasn’t tranquilized one or two of these malignant beasts and fitted them with radio transponders, the better to study their migratory patterns.

Eventually, after a good many twists and turns, trials and tribulations, and whatever other alliterative examples you can think of—I’ve more or less ran out of them—I reached the camera store, and there, happy to find my troubles over, I reached in my pocket for a mint. At this juncture, I should explain that I rarely go anywhere without a pocket full of mints. We all have our little quirks, I know; President Grover Cleveland, for example, was inordinately fond of corned beef and cabbage, and President Ulysses S. Grant was inordinately fond of dry, overcooked food, and President William J. Clinton was just inordinately fond, period; so if these people can have quirks, I can have one too, and my quirk is mints. I like them, I want them, and I will have them on me at all times or I will go to extraordinary lengths to get a hold of some. Fortunately, extraordinary lengths were not necessary. All I had to do was go down to the corner of the mall to a newsstand where people from the Indian subcontinent would be more than happy to sell me mints, gum, soda pop, newspapers, and lottery tickets, not necessarily in that order. So I bought three rolls of mints and headed back to the camera store, my anxieties calmed at last, when someone took me by the hand and said, come, I show you something.

You’ve probably noticed that not all the buying and selling at your local mall occurs in the stores. At our local mall, which I imagine is a fairly standard American mall right down to the six figure chunk of cash it took the owners to buy the 1984 town board elections to get the thing approved (laugh if you want to, but that’s what happened), there are any number of vendors who do not have the wherewithal to occupy a store and so must rent their little piece of the main floor. There are a good number of these folks at our mall, hawking everything from next year’s calendars to popcorn to cell phones to a stall where they will pierce your ears and then sell you ear rings to put in the ears once you’ve had them pierced. Given their precarious position in the economic food chain, these unhoused merchants tend to be a little more aggressive than the folks in the stores when it comes to peddling their wares, especially the cell phone salesmen, who either can’t or won’t get it through their heads that I am not holding out for a better deal, I just don’t want a cell phone. I see no reason in the world why I should make it easier for people I don’t want to talk to in the first place to get a hold of me. This seems a perfectly logical position to me, but the reasoning clearly eludes them and only spurs them on to greater efforts to sell me one.

None of these folks had ever tried to physically waylay me before, however, and I was about to tell this one to buzz off when she introduced herself as Aviv and she had something from the debt sea to show me. I immediately asked, the what sea, since it was still early in the Christmas season and we will not start drowning in the debt sea until January or February. She said the detsy, the lowest point on Earth, and then it struck me that the young lady was referring to the Dead Sea, which is the lowest point below sea level you can be on this planet and still be breathing without gills; the lowest point on Earth is the Marianas Trench, which is out six miles beneath the Pacific somewhere. I didn’t feel like quibbling, however; Aviv was (and is) an attractive young Israeli woman—the Israeli part I figured out from the Hebrew lettering on a water bottle, the attractive young woman part I figured out for myself without the aid of signage in any alphabet. I’m getting old, but I’m not dead yet, thank you very much. In any case, Aviv decided, on the basis of some Talmudic wisdom unknown to overweight goyish males, that what I most needed in life was nail care products, and wasn’t I lucky in that nail care products was what she was selling? You bet it was.

Now, I should mention, in the interests of full disclosure, that I don’t think about my nails very often. Nails exists, as do clavicles, for example, and that more or less sums up everything I know about nails and clavicles and everything I care to know about nails and clavicles. Given this fairly utilitarian view, it should come as a surprise to nobody that my view of good nail care is to chew them off when they get too long and spit them out on the nearest floor. Aviv was shocked as I said this, tut-tutting and shaking her head at the awful way I treated my poor innocent nails, looking at me as if I’d said that I enjoyed stomping on kittens for fun and relaxation. No, she could not allow my ignorance to stand. I had to learn the proper way to care for my nails, a process she would sell to me for $29.99, marked down from $69.99. But first, a demonstration.

She seized control of my right thumb and began massaging the nail with what looked like a small sponge. It wasn’t, of course; it was some sort of glorified sandpaper, but Aviv explained that what her sandpapery sponge was really doing was buffing my nail and restoring the circulation to the area under the nail, which has a name that I can’t think of right at this moment. The news about the circulation came as surprise to me—I hadn’t realized my nail had lost any circulation. The subscription numbers were still strong, especially in the suburbs. True, some advertising revenues were down, but I thought that was because we don’t take tobacco advertising any more. Aviv assured me that this was not the case, and that my buffing my nails with special salts from the Dead Sea would stimulate nail growth and eventually lead to a newer, better me. Ordinarily, I would have mocked such a ridiculous claim for the nonsense that it is, but it’s not everyday that an attractive young Israeli woman with masses of curly hair and a low, throaty voice massages my thumb, and so I let the claim pass. Yes, I am that shallow.

I asked if the product were safe, what with the Dead Sea being poisonous and all, and she agreed that the Dead Sea was indeed a vast pool of death where no living creature lived, but then she pointed to a picture of two men, obviously death row inmates awaiting execution, floating on the surface of this very same sea and playing a quick game of table tennis before they disintegrated into the brine. I immediately protested against this cruel and unusual form of capital punishment, but she told me not to worry about it, and so I didn’t. I put the horrible fate awaiting those two poor schnooks immediately out of my mind. Like I said, I am that shallow.

It was then that she finished sandpapering my thumbnail and put something on the nail to “protect” it. I asked what it was, and she told me, but I missed the significance of what she said until the next day, when one of my co-workers asked me why I was wearing clear nail polish on my thumb. It was at this part of the treatment that Aviv turned the charm on full blast as she coaxed me into buying her nail care products for my wife/girl friend/mother/ female relation/significant other for $29.99, marked down from $69.99, and I must admit, it took a huge pile of will power not to buy her wares then and there. So, forced with the overwhelming desire to buy something I knew I didn’t need and would never use on the one hand, and not wanting to disappoint an attractive woman on the other, I did what guys throughout the millennia have done in exactly this same situation: I extemporized, which is just a fancy way saying I started to make not very convincing excuses. I’d have to think about it, I said, there was no point in making a hasty decision about anything, even if Christmas were coming soon. She pouted, clearly expressing her displeasure with my decision and with her wasting her time on such a goy cheapskate. She implored me to think of how happy I would make someone on Christmas morning. I promised her I would, but it would take me some time to mull the matter over and come to a considered opinion, but in the mean time, I wished her a Happy Hanukkah, and she smiled broadly. You’re Jewish, she asked, and I said no, but this is New York, where even the goyim are a little bit Jewish, and then I left her, promising her once again that I would give the matter a great deal of thought and that I would let her know one way or the other before Christmas of my decision. My now extremely reflective thumbnail and I fled then before she sold me time-shares on a condo in Gaza.

So now I have a shiny thumbnail, even though I don’t really have much use for one. It’s certainly a help if I wanted to go hitchhiking, I suppose, or if I need a safety reflector on a dark night. Other than that, I’m a little hard pressed to think of what I am going to do with the thing now that I’ve got it. Maybe I should go back to the mall and ask Aviv for some ideas about that.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

HAPPY HOLIDAYS...AGAIN! : Yes, boys and girls, it's time once again for the absolutely, positively, no two ways about it popular post here at The Passing Parade:the history of Christmas piece. Once again, many thanks to Kim duToit for linking to it a couple of years ago and for the swarm of folks he sent over here. Read, enjoy, have a Merry Christmas.

There are twelve days of Christmas, and I’m sure if you’ve somehow managed to forget that fact over the course of the year retailers from one end of this our Great Republic to the other will forcibly refresh your memory for the next few weeks. Whether you want to or no, you will hear in great detail about lords leaping and laying ladies while pipers pipe and voyeuristic geese pay five gold rings just to watch. I’ve always wondered why just about every picture of Times Square before its current incarnation as Disney World North had a goose or two in the background. There were just too many of them for this to be some sort of odd ornithological coincidence.

But avian porn is not the subject of this screed, so let us move on before the police arrive. The subject of today’s lecture is the twelve days of Christmas and what they mean to me in five easy lessons. For the better part of the late and deeply unlamented twentieth century it was the fashion among a certain set of people to bemoan the commercialization of Christmas, that the demands of Mammon were stifling the essentially religious nature of the holiday, even to the point where that great philosopher and theologian Linus Van Pelt had to explain to Charlie Brown what Christmas was all about by quoting the Gospel according to Luke. Charlie Brown did not seem impressed by this argument, falling, as it did, between commercials for Benson & Hedges cigarettes and the new 1967 Ford Mustangs. The fact of the matter is that Christmas has always been a commercial bonanza, a state of affairs that began when the Roman Emperor Constantine decided that maybe Christianity wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Constantine came to this conclusion after he’d had a dream the night before the battle of the Milvian Bridge in which he saw a shield emblazoned with a Christian cross bearing the words IN HOC SIGNO VINCES (in this sign you shall conquer).

After the alarm slave went off the next morning, clocks being fairly scarce in those days, Constantine put Christian crosses on his soldiers’ shields; as the enemy army outnumbered his by about four to one, Constantine figured any edge he could get was a good one; and then proceeded to march out and stomp on the competition big time. Having won the crown in a pretty convincing fashion—Constantine didn’t have to dangle Chad over a cliff or anything—the new emperor decided to return the favor God did him and make Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. Once a faith exclusively practiced by the most rejected and despised elements of Roman society, the Christian faith became the most inclusive faith in the Mediterranean world since now everyone and their Uncle Bob had to join, everyone, that is, except Constantine himself. Unlike Marshal Feng, the twentieth century Chinese warlord who converted to Methodism and then decided that his troops needed Jesus as well, speeding the conversion process up by baptizing the assembled soldiery with water sprayed from a fire hose, Constantine chose to exempt himself from the revival, correctly figuring that if he stayed a pagan he could go on doing all the fun stuff that pagans got to do like murdering his political opponents, seizing their property, and selling their families into slavery without this sort of thing bothering his conscience all that much. If he was still a pagan, after all, who could blame him for acting like one?

Our current holiday problem started when Constantine decided that a holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus would be just the thing to make himself look good on The O’Reilly Factor. There was, however, one small problem: no one knew when Jesus was born. The Gospels simply say that the birth occurred when Quirinius was the governor of Syria. This might have been enough information in the hands of a competent archivist to pinpoint a likely date, but competent archivists were hard to find in ancient Rome due to the Roman mob’s insatiable appetite for watching overweight, middle-aged clerical types with the wife, the 2.7 kids, the dog, and a thirty year mortgage on a house in the suburbs try to stab each other to death with quill pens in the Coliseum. Constantine, having no solid information to work with, asked the Senate and the people of Rome what they thought of July 15th as the date for Christmas. The Senate and the people of Rome, mindful of the fact that Constantine had the bad habit of feeding people who disagreed with him to lions and tigers and bears, oh my, for the edification of the people in the cheap seats, told Constantine that July 15th was a wonderful idea. Roman retailers, on the other hand, mindful of losing the 4th of July and Bastille Day sales, told him that while his idea was wonderful, it would be even more wonderful at some other time of the year. One clever gent who owned a shoe store on the Appian Way suggested, after giving the matter some thought, that the Emperor make December 25th the date for his new holiday.

Now it was Constantine’s turn to object. At a meeting of the Imperial Chamber of Commerce, he quite rightly pointed out that December 25th was already a holiday, the feast of Invictus Sol and his brother Herschel, the inventors of the pneumatic chariot wheel, upon which the good fortune of the Roman Empire did not rely in the slightest. Then Constantine had the Pope read the relevant portions of the Gospel of Luke. The Pope stumbled through the text, His Holiness being unused to reading anything longer than an address; he had come to Rome to land a post office job in Gaul and wound up as Pope for lack of any other available employment; and after he finished reading Constantine asked the retailers how they proposed to get around the Gospel’s clearly pointing to a summer date for Christ’s birth. After all, first century Judean shepherds did not keep flocks of sheep out on barren hillsides by night in the middle of winter just on the off chance that a passing heavenly host with some free time on their hands would wander by belting out their rendition of Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ in digitally remastered stereophonic sound. Clearly, December 25th did not meet the high burden of theological and historical proof required for such an august feast day.

Then someone, possibly the shoemaker who first suggested the idea of the 25th, or maybe his twin brother—no one could really tell them apart—told the Emperor something that emperors, as a class, love to hear: he was emperor, therefore he could put the holiday anywhere he felt like putting it. And so he did, on the 25th day of December, the high burden of historical and theological proof bending slightly in deference to Constantine’s sudden need for campaign contributions; not everyone in the Roman Empire thought that Constantine’s being emperor was such a good idea and he needed money fast; armies, then and now, don’t come cheaply. Well, over the centuries more and more days got added to Christmas; travel was slow in those days and most people had to use oxcarts that only got twelve miles to the dry gallon of oats, despite the best efforts of the ruminant companies to meet new government mileage standards. The retailers, however, loved the ever-lengthening Christmas season and did their level best to stretch the season out even more.

Matters came to a head in 800 A.D., when on the first day of Christmas the Pope crowned Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor and Charlemagne discovered that he and his entourage were stuck in Rome until the end of Christmas, which occurred sometime in the middle of April. This was a major source of annoyance for Charlemagne, who wanted to go home for the holidays, and so in his third official act, the first two being an announcement that alternate side of the street parking rules were in effect and the world’s first pooper scooper law, Charlemagne decreed that Christmas would only last for twelve days. Retailers throughout Europe objected, which seems to be a theme here, saying that a twelve day Christmas season would drive them out of business; there wasn’t enough time for the scribes to pump out advertising copy in a twelve day season. Charlemagne said, tough luck, pal, in Latin and French, and doesn’t almost everything sound better in Latin and French, and then left town with the imperial crown in his luggage, as well as a couple of counterfeit Rolexes he’d bought from a Senegalese immigrant who’d set up his blanket in front of St. Peter’s Basilica.

The retailers, of course, did not go down without a fight. They’ve been pushing the seasonal envelope ever since Charlemagne rode Out of Town for a second place finish in the fifth race at the Roman Aqueduct. This explains why today, in our modern postindustrial information society, the official Christmas season begins with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and why we still have an annoying carol about the twelve days of Christmas. The unofficial Christmas season, of course, begins near the end of August. This may be why everyone is so happy when Christmas finally arrives—it means that we won’t hear about the damn day again for at least another eight months, something for which we should all shout, Hallelujah and Happy Holidays to all and to all, a good night!

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Monday, December 03, 2007

THANKSGIVING DAY, OR LEAVE THE MONEY ON THE TABLE BEFORE YOU GO, GUY: My apologies for the lack of posting this past month, but the beginning of the holiday season and the lack of ideas has led to one of my periodic bouts of writer’s block. This sort of thing happens every so often to most writers, although it does seem to happen to me with more than usual regularity; in any given year you care to look at, I will have endure enough blocks to start my own neighborhood. It’s annoying, to be sure, but there’s not much I can do except mope around the house in my underwear and wait for something to turn up.

The problem is that there’s nothing out there that is screaming, write about me, write about me. I suppose I could write about the current crop of Presidential contenders, but let’s face it, that’s like making fun of the mentally retarded. First, it’s cruel, and second, their supporters won’t get it. Most people don’t get irony in the first place, or they only get it when you’re sticking someone else with a red-hot irony; poke someone or something they hold near and dear and they’ll get very defensive very quickly. Watch what happens whenever anyone takes a humorous potshot at the junior Senator from New York’s presidential aspirations and you’ll see what I mean.

So politics is out. Then I thought of doing a piece about how squirrels are a lot more aggressive now than when I was a boy. I’m not sure why the squirrels are more aggressive; it may be a generational thing or maybe there’s something new in the water here in our happy little burg; the possibilities are endless. But I do know that squirrels, which used to be a fairly docile, even timid, species, have gone stark raving bonkers in recent years. I don’t think that anyone, whatever their political views or philosophy of life, would disagree that a non-flying, non-animated squirrel bombarding my car with gallnuts in the absence of an animated none too bright moose is engaging in atypical squirrel behavior. Even if you could explain this behavior away, how to explain the sudden need of many young squirrels to go charging in front of moving automobiles? I fear that no good will come of this sudden need for extreme thrill seeking, but frankly, I couldn’t think of a way to maximize anyone’s interest in suicidal squirrels. So that put an end to that topic in a hurry.

That was about a week ago and since then I have been getting desperate for a subject, any subject. Politics isn’t interesting at the moment, no one cares about squirrels—it’s not like hitting a squirrel is like hitting a deer or, even worse, a moose, beasts that will put your car in the shop for a week if you give them half a chance—and arguing about religion is annoying, to say the least. There is no way to prove scientifically or mathematically whether or not God exists; it’s all really a matter of faith; so why argue about it? The universe has existed for ten billion years, the Earth for five or so billion, give or take a billion here and there, and the average life span of a human being in the West is somewhere between 75 and 80 years of age. In short, you’ll be finding empirical evidence for the existence or nonexistence of the Deity soon enough. Enjoy your stay in the sunlight while you’re here because you won’t be here for very long.

This, of course, doesn’t bring up the ongoing commercialization of Thanksgiving at my brother’s house at all. I realize that this is always a touchy subject for a good many people around the old home fire, but I think that having to pay my brother for my Thanksgiving dinner violates the whole spirit of the day. What I find especially galling is that he wanted fifteen dollars for cooking the side dishes, whereas my mother, who actually cooked the turkey—a bird I paid for, just to set the record straight here—did not receive any remuneration from my brother for her major role in the whole enterprise. The fifteen dollars, in and of itself, is nothing; I blow more than that on baloney sandwiches every week; but hitting up the guests at a Thanksgiving dinner is, in my opinion, the lowest of low-rent behavior, if you more or less exclude just about everything you see on Jerry Springer and the rest of daytime television.

Imagine, if you will, a world where this sort of thing is utterly commonplace. Should we start charging children for their birthday parties or demanding a cut of whatever the tooth fairy leaves under their pillows? When over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go, do we turn around and leave in a huff because Grandmother, bless every silver hair on her sweet head, charges us for parking? Will high school students have to leave a fifteen to twenty percent tip every day for the ladies in the cafeteria for yet another nutritious serving of the lunchtime mystery meat, and just where is the French teacher’s cat nowadays, anyhow?

It is clear from these examples, I think, that the ongoing commercialization of American holidays will lead to a situation where no one will want to celebrate anything except Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day, and the Fourth of July. In the first two cases, people will be too drunk to care how much money they’re shelling out to bartenders, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, sons, daughters, lap dancers, and the occasional Jehovah’s Witness, and in the case of the Fourth, you can always get out of going somewhere with your family. The fifth of July is not a holiday, after all; you have to get back to work.

So in the end, I didn’t really have anything to write about this week, or last week either, for that matter. Writer’s block is a terrible affliction, but as you may know, the television and movie writers are on currently on strike, so instead of regarding my block as the ongoing pain in the wazoo it actually is, I am choosing to regard my recent inactivity as a sympathy strike in solidarity with my fellow word slingers. This has the benefit of making a virtue of necessity and makes me feel better about not writing and takes my mind off the existence of God, why squirrels are conducting bombing missions against my car, the presidential campaign, and why my brother is charging me for my Thanksgiving dinner without ever rolling out the dessert cart. I paid him, yes, I did, but you can be damn sure he didn’t get a tip.

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