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)

Monday, December 22, 2008

TRADITION: This piece is a sort of tradition here at The Passing Parade; I trot it out every year at this time and I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed not having to think of something new to write.

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 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 whether they wanted to or not, everyone, that is, except Constantine himself. Unlike, for example, Marshal Feng, the twentieth century Chinese warlord who converted to Methodism and then decided that his army should come to the Lord as well, and sped up his army’s salvation by having them stand in formation while he baptized them with holy 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 entertainment 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 Roman army chariot wheel and can opener, a device 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 get a job in the Post Office in Gaul and wound up as Pope for lack 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 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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Thursday, December 18, 2008

UMMM, I MISSPOKE: David Axelrod misspoke. That is what the former junior Senator from Illinois’ transition team says about Mr. Axelrod’s statement that the transition team discussed who the next junior Senator from Illinois would be with the soon to be former Governor of Illinois and they are sticking to that position come hell or new revelations. Five will get you ten, of course, that Mr. Axelrod didn’t know he was misspeaking when he made the statement in the first place—he was simply answering a reporter’s question at the time—but events have overtaken Mr. Axelrod and his response. Events are like that.

Politicians misspeak a lot these days, so much so that you’d think that misspeaking is all the rage in the nation’s capital, the way the Hula-Hoop or the Pet Rock once were. Misspeaking is not exactly the same as lying, of course; lying has that ugly air of purpose about it, an air that might lead your average voter to conclude that his local solon was deliberately trying to deceive him. Lying is cold and hard, while misspeaking is as soft and fuzzy as a teddy bear and much more open to positive interpretation.

Misspeaking is, in its essentials, much more like using the passive voice. Most students don’t learn much about the passive voice in school today, which is understandable once you remember that public education in this our Great Republic is a governmental responsibility and what government wants to answer inconvenient questions from the citizenry? None that I know of, and if you don’t teach the kids about the passive voice in the first place, they’ll never know when you’re using it when these same kids are coughing up their hard-earned tax dollars to pay the Big Three automakers to lose money. Now just in case you haven’t heard yet, the passive voice occurs in a sentence where the subject is the object of the verb, as in the gun was left in the car, but not the cannolis. You’ll notice that you don’t know who left the gun in the car and if you’re smart you won’t ask, and this is the reason politicians and civil service types love the passive voice. It is easier, much easier, for a politician to say that errors were made in the implementation of this policy than it is for the pol to get up and say, I screwed up big time here, folks, I’m sorry. People who screw up lose their bids for re-election; errors made in the implementation of a policy are the gremlins’ fault.

The problem politicians have with the passive voice is that there are still enough people who recognize the beast when the pols trot it out to explain their latest disaster. What our lawmakers really need in cases like this is a way to lie through their teeth without looking actually looking like they’re lying. And thus we come to the ever-growing popularity of misspeaking.

What gives misspeaking its peculiar power is that the listener knows the pol is lying—he is, after all, a politician, and politicians lie when they inhale and when they exhale, when they eat and when they excrete, when they…well, you get the point—but the listener can’t tell just how this guy is jerking them around. A misspeak, beyond being something all pilots want to do, could be a flat-out lie or a simple mistake or a statement someone made without knowing there was a wiretap in the room or even just someone’s half-baked opinion and not at all the official policy of the government of the United States, no matter how many times you read it in the New York Times, which, just as an aside, likes to use the passive voice to plant unannounced editorials in the middle of its news coverage. Just thought I’d stick that in so you’d know what those guys are up to. Now, if you could combine the passive voice with a really good misspeak, the Air Force could accidentally set off a nuke in downtown Denver and then say that the Broncos were responsible for the disaster.

Given the immense popularity of misspeaking amongst politicians, it’s only a matter of time before misspeaking catches on with the public at large. Taxpayers could misspeak on their tax returns, husbands could misspeak about cheating on their wives, and their kids could misspeak about their grades, i.e. Mom, I misspoke when I said I was getting a B in math this semester. Misspeaking could get big, really big, I think, the kind of big that gets its own reality show, unless, that is, you already count C-Span as that reality show. They could change the format around though, and bring in better looking people; the ugly old clowns they’ve got in there now are just so miscast it’s not funny. I mean, really, Nancy Pelosi? Whose idea was that, for crying out loud? Isn’t Paris Hilton available these days?

Yes, I see a tremendous fortune in misspeaking. The opportunities in misspeaking on Wall Street are just too rich to think about and, better yet, the Democrats are returning to the White House. Republicans don’t misspeak as well as Democrats, for reasons that defy explication, although the media holding the Republicans to a different rhetorical and grammatical standard than Democrats might have something to do with it. Lyndon Johnson misspoke so often he opened a credibility gap several miles wide in Pennsylvania Avenue and Bill Clinton misspoke so often he couldn’t keep track of all his misspeaks and so ended up parsing the word is in public. Jimmy Carter tried to misspeak, but he wasn’t convincing as a misspeaker and had to rely on being wishy-washy instead.

Ronald Reagan was the only good Republican misspeaker in recent years, primarily because he’d convinced himself that he wasn’t misspeaking at all; the Bushes, both 41 and 43, weren’t and aren’t very good at it; there’s just something about misspeaking that offends the old New England Puritan spirit, I think; and Richard Nixon was positively horrible at it. Whenever Ron Ziegler, Nixon’s press secretary, needed to misspeak he’d say his previous statements were inoperative, which only made Nixon sound guilty as hell. That he was guilty as hell is not the point here; the entire point of misspeaking is that you never sound like you’re not telling the God’s honest truth as you know it right at this instant. And if it isn’t the God’s honest truth, well, you just misspoke, that’s all. No harm in that, is there?

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Friday, December 05, 2008

WILDLIFE: Squirrels, I think we can all agree, are cheerful little rodents, despite their somewhat untoward personal habits, such as associating with a moronic moose, eating through power lines during the World Series, and dropping dead in inconvenient places. They do not, it seems, time their collective demises to cause the maximum amount of hullabaloo, unlike, for example, the three toed sloth, a species known for rousing itself vigorously from its usual torpor when in extremis, the better to crash elegant dinner parties, where the afflicted sloth will expire in a loud and grotesque manner on the dining room floor between the soup and the main course. So common, and so incredibly annoying, is this slothful behavior that many caterers in South American countries employ platoons of heavily armed guards and deploy them around the mansions of the local elites with orders to shoot any terminal sloth in the neighborhood on sight in order to keep the beast from upsetting the guests. Squirrels, being, in the main, a fairly polite species as rodents go, would just as soon not annoy anyone with their passing. However, this deep modesty on their parts has the unfortunate effect of making squirrels cringe at the very thought of going to a doctor when they are not feeling well and leads them to delay medical assistance until there is nothing veterinary science can do for them. This leads inexorably to squirrels dropping dead in the most unexpected places at the most equally unexpected times.

I bring this bit of squirrel-like (my apologies for not looking up a suitably Latinate word for squirrelly behavior; it has been a long day) trivia to your attention because for the past few days I and everyone else who labors in the egregious mold pit have had to endure an olfactory assault of almost unprecedented ferocity, said assault led by a squirrel who chose to become an ex-squirrel somewhere near this mycological breeding grounds’ heating and air conditioning units, causing all who enter this place to stop for a moment as they pass through the front door and say, “What the hell is that disgusting stench?!” Given that I have just survived attempts by my respiratory and digestive (unless the gall bladder is in some other system, preferably in a star system far, far away annoying Darth Vader instead of me) systems to kill me, the last thing I need at this point is to spend all day long smelling a damn squirrel that ran face first into the fate I somehow managed to avoid. I’m still feeling a bit under the weather, but the prognosis is excellent, thank you very much. On the other hand, Christmas, and with it the relatives, is coming; things will be getting worse before they start getting any better. You can bet the ranch on that one, boys and girls.

In any case, and here we are about to do a major zig along with a minor zag with a permission slip from its parents subject wise—I really don’t feel like complaining about the squirrel now; just thinking about it is hurting my still sore nasal passages—and talk about deer, which stink even worse than squirrels do when deceased but have the good sense not to drop dead on this dump’s roof. The Vampire State, which, as you may know, is a longtime protection racket prevalent in the northeastern section of this our Great Republic, has somehow managed to count the entire population of deer residing within the state borders. Some 840,000 deer live here, which is more deer than I believe there are people in Montana, penguins in Monaco, or Hasidic porn stars in Manhattan Beach. Indeed, there are so many deer here that if the state legislature, as wise and distinguished a mob of two bit peculating malfeasant goniffs who ever got caught with both hands grabbing away in the public till, chose to extend the franchise to them, this state would rate another vote in the Electoral College.

I do not think we have to worry about the legislature pandering for the ungulate vote as yet, but if Caligula could make his horse a senator then there’s no telling what those clowns would do if they thought no one was watching. The deer vote should be fairly easy to come by, I think—as far as I can tell, the only thing that deer want from this state’s political classes is the right to eat my mother’s shrubbery at all hours of the day and night and to crap all over my lawn whenever they feel like it. I appreciate—don’t think for a second that I don’t—the fact that I haven’t had to put store-bought fertilizer on my lawn for I don’t know how many years now, but I would like to walk from one end of my driveway to the other without having to think long and hard about the driveway’s extreme lack of traction.

Still, what really intrigues me here is the number itself: 840,000. I know that round numbers are, in and of themselves, inherently unbelievable, but the idea that the Vampire State could even semi-accurately count the number of deer resident here when it doesn’t know how much money it has (allegedly) stashed in the state treasury strains, and strains well past credulity, the psychic breaking point of all but the most moronic of the citizenry. If this is the state’s number, then in all likelihood the real population is anywhere between three and five times higher than this. You will, no doubt, scoff at this and ask how this could be so, and if I lived someplace else, I might agree with you. But I don’t live somewhere else: I live here. I don’t know how they missed the extra deer—maybe the deer disguised themselves as illegal immigrants, aspiring actors, or suicidal hedge fund managers—but I know the state missed them. That’s just the way things work here. To believe otherwise would call my sanity into question, I think, and lead to other unpleasant repercussions, like becoming a hog caller or an insurance salesman, a thought that sends chills down my spine and a prospect I am sure you find frightening as well.

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