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)

Friday, April 29, 2005

Well, it's funny if a Pope does it...I guess. Posted by Hello

Thursday, April 28, 2005

WINING AND WHINING AND NEVER THE TWAIN SHALL MEET: I’ve been reading a book this past week or so, something I haven’t done in quite a while, and it’s been fun, for the most part, except for a major quibble I’ll get to in a minute. I know that some of you might find that statement a bit strange; I can imagine some of you turning to your nearest and dearest with a look of deep perplexity knitting and purling your brows into a nice afghan as you sit around the digital campfire and asking, but isn’t he a librarian? Isn’t it his job to read books? The answer to this philosophically complex question is, philosophically enough, yes and no. Yes, I am a librarian, and no, I don’t get to read books on the job. That’s what the patrons are for, or it would be if we could convince enough of them to stop playing computer games or looking at porn and go read a book.

No, there is no settling down with a good book and a cup of cocoa for those of us in the infoslinging trade, not by a long shot. We spend our days looking for how many people currently live in Barstow, California (21,119 total, according to the 2000 census) or finding out what the side effects of a new baldness cure are (it’ll grow hair, yes, but it will also make you impotent, thereby helping you get the girl and keeping you from doing anything with her once you’ve got her) or scanning reel after reel of microfilm for great-great-great grandma’s obituary because her family, who now live in Wichita, Topeka, and points west know that she died “sometime in the 1880’s” but can’t otherwise nail the date down and I don’t have an obituary index for any of the local papers because no one ever thought to do one. In short, reading books is not something I do a lot of these days, a good thing as I’ve fallen out of the habit of reading books. Having spent the day reading, writing, and sometimes doing arithmetic as well, when I get home the one thing I don’t want to do is read, write, or do arithmetic of any sort; I just want to sit in front of the television and let grossly overpaid people gratuitously insult my intelligence while I listen to the mildew spread over the unused portions of my brain.

But, as I said, and I’m sure you’re getting tired of listening to me say it, I’ve been reading a book this past week. I will spare you the author and title of this particular tome; that information is not very important in the overall scheme of things and I strongly suspect the author may dislike what’s happened to his book just as much as I do, more perhaps, since it’s his name on the front and his picture on the back. This limits his options to a strict regimen of flight or fight when dealing with the contentious reader. Most authors don’t like having to choose between fight or flight and I imagine this author is no different, being a historian confined year-round to the ivied covered halls of academia, a place and state of mind not otherwise conducive to the nurturing of the fight or flight response without having to stop every fifty yards to catch your breath, unless, of course, you have the ball, in which case a fifty yard run is pretty darn good, as it will definitely get you a first down and move you into scoring position.

But what is the learned professor to do when confronted with a reader made unhappy about shelling out some thirty dollars for the professor’s newest tome on the history of the nineteenth century tea trade with China, a ripping good yarn complete with sex, opium, clipper ships, and the Boxer Rebellion against Don King and his hair, if you believe the blurbs on the back. So you buy the book, only to discover that the publisher, in a fit of economy, decided to forego using proofreaders, copy editors, and the requisite editorial support staff and to print your book as is. I suppose it is too much to hope for in this day and age for publishers to actually read what they are printing, but you’d think that writers would not permit their publishers to make asses out of them by allowing their books onto the shelves of your local Borders or Barnes & Noble with spelling and grammatical errors that would embarrass the most orthographically challenged dyslexic schoolboy.

I read this book with growing disbelief, a disbelief caused not by some basic disagreement with the author’s central thesis, although the flaws in his central thesis are so obvious that it casts doubt not only on his conclusions but on his ability to link two coherent thoughts together, a skill not much in evidence in this essay either, I’m afraid, a textbook example of how the consumption of large amounts of caffeine can disorder even the most coherent mind. No, this disbelief is the stunned incredulity of an old Catholic schoolboy unable to believe that a professor at an American Catholic university could get away with so many misspellings without a nun whacking him across the knuckles with her ruler.

The much put upon reader must wonder if proofreading is so arcane an art, something on the order of translating War and Peace from Russian into Zulu and publishing the resultant text in Braille on children’s aspirin tablets or playing Mozart’s Requiem in waltz time with an orchestra of saws, cowbells, shotguns and kazoos, that publishers can no longer find and hire people capable of reading a simple English sentence and analyzing said sentence for spelling and grammatical errors. Typos fill every other page of this book like crabgrass and I wish someone would program computer spellcheckers to realize that discrete and discreet are not the same word and do not mean the same thing: if a man and another man’s wife remained discrete there would be no need for them to be discreet. Frankly, I think this sort of thing bespeaks a certain contempt for the reader, but that’s just my opinion.

I realize that proofreading a manuscript is literary scutwork unworthy of any English major worth their sheepskin, but the mass infestation of typos and homonyms in our texts demand that publishers implement stern measures to stem the spreading plague of misorthography. A solution, however, presents itself, but not here unfortunately; I could use a good solution, maybe with just a hint of vermouth and an olive. I don’t actually partake of such solutions, of course, but I like looking at them before I go get myself a Diet Pepsi. Just as we import guys named Manuel to do our manual labor, so should we import entire armies of proofreaders, spellcheckers, and editorial support staff, possibly from the Indian subcontinent. This new dispensation may take some getting used to at first, but I think the clarity of English texts are important and if they must come tasting slightly of curry then that is the price we will have to pay, unless we want to start teaching grammar in the schools again, and who wants to do that, right? As a subject, grammar is dull as dirt, unfortunately, and it does not promote the self-esteem of your young people, and isn’t that what education is all about anymore?

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

And now, a first here at The Passing Parade, a picture of the our happy little burg's former library, which I alluded to in the previous post. I didn't actually work in this building, but the acoustics are nice, which explains its current incarnation as a concert hall. I am told there is still no air conditioning in the building. Posted by Hello

Monday, April 25, 2005

LIBRARY: Constant readers of The Passing Parade will know that while our happy little burg boasts of many a great attraction, what with an art museum and art galleries and quaint little antique shops and broad open fields where you can catch Lyme disease with little or no effort on your part; we have the deer, they have the ticks, and the deer are, in a spirit of friendship and harmony, more than willing to share the ticks and the disease with you and yours; in fact, Lyme disease is one of this county’s leading exports, along with computer chips and parolees; the literate citizenry, and we do have a few, despite efforts of our many detractors to prove otherwise, are stuck with the public library that I am sitting in right now to serve their informational needs, a building I am only modestly insulting when I call it an egregious mold pit. In truth, it is not an egregious mold pit, only a disgusting mold pit. I am sure there must be some sort of difference between the two, but at the moment I can’t think of what that difference might be. Suffice it to say that we don’t vaporize with Vicks around here; we use Lysol.

We were not always stuck in this oversized Petri dish. Up to 1976, the library did its business out of a Norwegian chalet designed for us in the 1870’s by Richard Morris Hunt; the Hunt building is our burg’s cultural center now and is still easy to find, being the only Norwegian chalet on Main Street. But we outgrew those premises; the building had no air conditioning and as books suck the oxygen out of the air, according to my mother, patrons on the topmost floors wanting to look at the U through Z fiction stacks had to bring their own oxygen tanks with them up or face the very real possibility of asphyxiation; and so in 1976 we packed up the collection, the furniture, and the mummified cadavers of a few P.G. Wodehouse fans who couldn't hold their breaths long enough to pick up The Code of the Woosters and get it down to the circulation desk before apoxia set in; and came up the street to our current mold pit, which is neither Norwegian or a chalet of any sort, but rather an ugly product of the form follows function school of architecture, its function being to give the library staff life threatening respiratory diseases with the form allowing this to occur with maximum efficiency. But in 1976 the library needed more space and so we went, or rather, the staff at the time went to where I sit now, to better serve the informational and educational needs of our community, and to see if they could grow penicillin on their lunches. No one, as far as I am aware, has succeeded in cultivating penicillin, although we do have a tuna and dill pickle on rye sandwich left in the staff room in 1981 that does wonders for eczema sufferers.

I bring all of this up because there’s a movement afoot to tear this place down and build a brand new library on the wreckage. I am all in favor of this, as you might imagine, but there is a small hitch: the price tag. The new library will run the taxpayers of our happy little burg some ten million dollars or so, a sum that we can only raise by getting the community to put out a bond for the money. We’ve had some good press about it, and many people seem to like the idea, and I have been enjoying a feeling of quiet confidence about the whole thing, which is much at odds with my usual gloomy self. I enjoyed that feeling until I read this morning’s newspaper. There, in the local news section, was the report that the city school district, the body that collects our taxes for us, announced last night that they will try to raise the local school taxes by 18.5% in the coming fiscal year. The school superintendent tried to make the increase sound comparatively mild, the superintendent being a man renowned in this neck of the woods for his ability to sell almost anyone on the idea of almost anything, one local wag once telling me that the superintendent could convince a drunk to remove his own liver with a steak knife while he was reasonably sober and make the operation sound like a reasonable thing to do. But I think this time he is fighting above his weight. 18.5% is not as big a hike as 20%, but it’s close enough for the people who will hit the roof at this news to say, “Almost 20%, they want to raise taxes almost 20%!!!” The shrieks of protest from the quick, the dead, the halt, and the lame and all the rest of the good citizenry of our town in between will commence shortly, the school budget will go down to ignominious defeat, and that loud sucking noise you will hear, ladies and gentlemen, shall be the sound of the new library going down the metaphorical toilet, said library becoming what is now popularly known as collateral damage. It appears that I am stuck in this old dump for a few more years. I’ve come to think of this as a peculiar sort of Purgatory, marooned for most of my working life in a building I used to steal stuff out of when I was a kid. Ah well, such is life, as they say, whoever they are.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

THE EFFECT OF LAW: Eskimos have a veritable plethora of words to describe snow, and so do I, none of which I will repeat here. I read this lexicographical datum a few years ago—where I read it I no longer remember, either the source from which I read it or where I was when I read it, although munching on my breakfast while reading the morning paper seems a good bet; this factoid has the hallmarks of one of those filler quotes newspapers toss in so there aren’t too many blank spaces on the page. For some reason the verbal exuberance of Eskimos vis-à-vis snow, which is odd, I think—you’d think they’d get tired of looking at it for eight months out of the year—has stayed with me for these many years, just one more informational dust bunny hiding away under the unmade bed of my mind.

Similarly, I am told by those who care about such things, and they must care deeply about this; I can’t imagine anyone actually doing this as a lark or out of idle curiosity; that Arabic has over a hundred different words describing camels, while English has three: dromedary, Bactrian, and unfiltered. It seems, therefore, that a society with a multiplicity of words for a thing or a concept regards that thing or concept as important to the social, cultural, and political life of that society. This principle applies over the broad range of cultural phenomena, from the arts to science to law. In this last category, for example, one can tell that a society with ever more detailed laws regarding theft is probably, and let me emphasize the probably here, for there are exceptions to every case, a society plagued by thievery in every shape and form.

Now here in our happy little burg, we’ve always been a fairly law abiding lot. We’re no angels, of course; like many small American cities we have our share of miscreants and malefactors who support themselves on the proceeds of the way over the counter and off to the side in a dark corner pharmaceutical business, and then there was the time a nearby volunteer fire department lost a charity softball game to our Bravest by the score of 63-2, after which the profoundly incensed and also deeply intoxicated visiting team left the charity festivities at the fire station and proceeded, or rather staggered, as a man down our main street while singing, for reasons that remain obscure to this day as this all happened in the middle of July, “Silent Night” and "Good King Wenceslas”, to the Veterans Memorial, a mounted World War I issue Browning water-cooled heavy machine gun the city park department had just repainted the previous week. A local veteran of the 45th “Rainbow” Division donated the weapon to the city in 1920 and generations of young boys here in our town grew up standing behind the thing pretending to shoot up the passing traffic for the no good rotten krautchinkgookcommie rats they really were. Upon their arrival at the memorial, the visiting firemen stopped singing, if you could call it that, and stared at the weapon for some five minutes before they started tearing the gun from its perch. The work was hard-going at first; coordinating the activities of eight or nine very intoxicated men is no easy matter; but eventually they managed to pull the gun from its moorings and then dragged it down to Riverfront Park and threw the Browning into the river.

The local gendarmerie, as you might imagine, took a dim view of all that transpired that night and arrested the firemen in the park, where, unlike other criminals who always return to the scene of the crime, this lot hadn’t bothered to leave, finding the benches and soft grass a most conducive place to sleep off the truly prodigious number of beers and Jell-O shots they’d had since coming into town for the game. Most of them were still not completely aware of their surroundings until the gendarmes dragged them in front of the night court judge, who fined them each five hundred dollars for vandalizing public property and for being morons in a public place. Since then we haven’t had much trouble from inebriated volunteer firefighters and that’s the way we like things here. We couldn’t replace the machine gun, though, and now there’s a marble slab with the names of the local slain in battle on the perch where the Browning used to be.

I bring up all of this essentially extraneous material, most of which had little or nothing to do with my basic point and would, no doubt, cause psychic and physical conniptions in both William Strunk and E. B. White, because I recently read in the newspaper that the gaggle of goniffs that double as the City Council of the great metropolis to the south of our happy little burg was seriously considering passing legislation banning the sale of dirty underwear and the public carrying of samurai swords. Now I was under the impression, as I am sure you were as well, that the problem of sword-wielding samurai had finally come to an end with the suppression of the Satsuma rebellion in 1877. This is apparently not the case, if newspapers must report on the daily depredations of sword-wielding samurai in dirty underwear as they roam the streets of the great southern metropolis looking for the set of a Kurosawa film and great buys on counterfeit designer clothes, taking the occasional photograph and every so often lopping the head from the miserable dope-addled carcass of one of the local miscreants. The symbolism of the dirty underwear escapes me, however, but this may be because I have no real understanding of Japanese culture. Japanese culture is rich and profound, according to them that know about this sort of thing, and it comes with a certain insular chauvinism, much like French culture, in fact, except the Japanese are much more polite about it.

The question of what to do with aggressive samurai in dirty underwear has not yet arisen here in our little burg; at the moment the samurai invasions seem confined to the metropolis, where they spend most of their waking hours trying to get tickets to Spamalot, the Monty Python musical now playing at the Shubert Theatre, which is good since we would just as soon not deal with people wearing dirty underwear. We don’t need this headache, not when our local solons are busy keeping the mentally deficient from roaming the burg’s streets earning a living as shoeshine men. This is a shame, I think, because it gave them a sense of purpose and some extra money as well. They did a good job of shining shoes, too; they’d shine one shoe for a dollar and then charge you three dollars for the other shoe. They may be mentally deficient but they’re not stupid, you know, not by a long shot.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

THE POPE, AGAIN: As one of the great election upsets of modern history, the election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger to the Papacy seems to have caught a good many political pundits completely by surprise. No one is quite sure at the moment how this happened; the media's tracking polls, as we know, showed that Ratzinger did not stand a chance, given his very conservative stances on the issues and his last speech before the election, which many pundits regarded as a major gaffe. No firm numbers exist as yet, but right now the conventional wisdom is that Cardinal Ratzinger somehow or other managed to pick up a majority of the Catholic vote and this was enough to put him over the top in the College of Cardinals. Whther or not this will reignite the question of whether to get rid of the College and substitute a fairer, more open and democratic system remains to be seen.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

THE POPE: Mr. Porretto, your neighborhood Curmudgeon over at Eternity Road, has a long post up about the late Pope and his many detractors; it comes in the form of a long fisking of Colm Toibin's article about the Pope in the NYTimes. Mr. Toibin's criticisms are basically the same list we've all heard at one time or another so I won't bother boring you with the details, but in thinking about the detractors and their complaints I am always struck by how these folks are put out by John Paul II's refusal to even contemplate change or to heed them in the slightest way. Since his passing I've been thinking of the dressing down the Pope gave the priests in the Sandinista government back in the early 80's and how all the smart people in the chattering classes then went along with the characterization of the Pope as a man with a conquistador mentality out of touch with what was happening in Latin America.

That analysis was wrong then and it is wrong now. John Paul II was not a conquistador, a European mindlessly determined to bind a Latin American church to a European perspective; he was a man who had spent his entire adult life living under totalitarian dictatorships. The problem the Sandinistas had with the Pope was that he was not some mush minded gringo dolt who couldnt get past his romantic notions and the Sandinista propaganda about the glories of the Revolution; he was a man who saw the Sandinistas for what they were: Communist totalitarians out to turn the Nicaraguan church into an arm of their regime. And the Pope was having none of it. The Pope lived through the Soviet occupation of Central Europe and knew the tactics the Russians used to get their way in such countries as Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the salami tactics, as people called those tactics back in the day. The tactics are relatively simple to understand: the Communists would make a series of non-negotiable demands and threaten civil disorder if they didnt get their way. Once in the government they would demand control of certain ministries, especially those controlling national security and the police, and then would use that power to systematically destroy their political rivals. Hence, slice by slice, like cutting up a salami, the ability of the government to resist the Communists would weaken with every concession until the Communists, with the help of the occupying Red Army, could overthrow the government.

If the Pope resisted even so-called minor reforms in the Church, I think he did it because he questioned the ultimate motives of those making the demands for change, knowing that if he backed down on one item then the pressure to back down on other items would be all the greater, for having made one concession would only convince the detractors that they could have their way. One only has to look at the disaster caused by the more liberal interpretations of Vatican II to see that. The much-heralded spirit of Vatican II had very little to do with the actual decisions of that council, and while Christians hold that the letter of the Law killeth, but the Spirit giveth life, it helps when the Spirit of the Law has something to do with its letter, if only to guarantee we are all singing out of the same hymnbook.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

INSURANCE AND ITS DISCONTENTS: James M. Cain, a much underrated writer, in my opinion, wrote in Double Indemnity, his classic story of love, murder, and getting what you prayed for and finding out that it's not what you wanted, that in a lot of ways the insurance business was a lot like casino gambling. Not in any flashy Vegas way, of course; I wouldn’t mind getting a good front row seat at a revue with beautiful showgirls wearing sequins and phony ostrich feathers and not much else every time I sent in a check for my car insurance, but I’ve resigned myself to the fact that it will never happen; but rather the two resemble each other in that you and your insurance company are placing bets on the great roulette wheel of fate. You take out insurance because you know that bad things happen to people and you want protection from the consequences of those bad things; you’re betting that something awful is going to happen to you. The insurance company, on the other hand, is a giant slot machine willing to take your money because they’ve got rooms full of actuarial tables that analyze down to the minutest detail every possible thing that can go wrong in your life and frankly, no matter what your Aunt Irma tells you about her friend’s uncle’s best friend’s cousin down at the beauty shop, the bad thing you’re worried sick about isn’t likely to happen and would you remember to write your policy number on your check, please, thank you very much.

Given the essentially sporting nature of their business one would think that insurance companies would employ a much happier set of people than they do. I can’t prove this scientifically, of course, but just from my personal observation over the years I’d say that insurance companies probably hire a high percentage of humorless anal retentives than almost any other large American institution I can think of, including banking, the military, and the humanities department of any large university you could name off the top of your head, and if you think I’m overstating the case then try this: file a claim. Your friendly insurance agent is more than happy to take your money when you don’t need his help; your giving him the check fills him with bonhomie and a love of his fellow man most touching to behold. Paying out on a claim, however, upsets their digestion, no small problem in a group so prone to constipation, and causes their skin to break out. You’d almost think that the pot of money they are sitting on belonged to them from the tenacious and usually unpleasant way they defend every penny in the pot. Having real croupiers, pit bosses, and casino managers would, I think, do wonders for the collective image of the insurance industry, since those guys know how to convince people that they are having a good time handing over their hard earned money to complete strangers, and they know that every so often one of the suckers hits the jackpot. The people working in insurance these days make paying your premiums seem like what it is: another damn bill that’s got to be in the mail by the end of the month. I make the check out, I sign the check, I mail the check; let’s face it, at no point in this process am I having fun. Maybe if they sent me lottery tickets I wouldn’t mind giving them the money so much.

And the hoops they make you jump through to get what is, after all, your money, convinces many people who have legitimate claims to forego the opportunity to file a claim and to settle their problems themselves, an outcome that frankly causes some mixed emotions amongst insurance insiders: they are glad that you aren’t filing a claim since that leaves them with more money to invest in miniature golf courses in Miami Beach, but they also dislike the policyholders depriving them of the opportunity to drive the premiums through the metaphorical roof. I know this because the children’s librarian here in the egregious mold pit in which I while away the hours until my death sideswiped my car some years ago. When she came into the library to tell of this unfortunate event I immediately dashed out of the building, if you can call it dashing; I suspect most people would classify my actions that afternoon as more of a slightly animated slow mosey, my heart racing…well, more of a slight uptick, really, in gruesome anticipation of the horror without.

It wasn’t that bad, all in all, although I’ve rather unfairly used the damage as the basis of more than one guilt trip over the years, and I immediately called my insurance company to have them take a look at it. They sent a man out, a very nice fellow, as I remember, but he made it very clear very quickly that he wasn’t going to give me a red cent for the damage and that he regarded my even asking about it as an unconscionable waste of his valuable time, but he was nice about it, so I guess that counts for something these days. The children’s librarian, on the other hand, was utterly aghast that I’d said anything to an insurance company at all, her opinion of her insurance carrier not being something one can repeat in polite society, and offered to pay to have the minimal damage to my car fixed out of her own pocket. I took her money, and no, I never did have the damage fixed; I spent the money on graduate school and a three volume edition of Edward Gibbon’s The decline and fall of the Roman Empire. I read volume one, but not the other two, and now I get this awful twinge of guilt whenever I look at those books; she didn’t pay me so I could indulge my taste for gladiatorial combat or to learn about the fetid and utterly decadent fever swamp of imperial politics as the Christians sat huddled in the catacombs to worship. But then I get over it—guilt, like caffeine, only works for so long before you’ve got to take another shot of it.

But almost all insurance people are positive party animals when compared to those sad and somber actuarial wretches who must peddle life insurance for their daily bread. Like card counters at a blackjack table, life insurance is the one area of the insurance casino where the advantage lies entirely with the policyholder; even with the best efforts of doctors and life insurance salesmen to dissuade them the vast majority of people insist on dying. This is disheartening, to say the least, for your average life insurance peddler, who must constantly rethink his commitment to capitalism and the free market in the light of the millions of people willing to die in order to get their hands on the insurance company’s money. Your insurance representative may, like the good neighbor, be there for you during the worst periods of your life, lending comfort and support to you, but he certainly doesn’t want to give you a check. Sympathy is one thing and a good thing too, after all, and has the added advantage of being free, but money is something else again, and who can tell what might happen to the life insurance business if the companies started handing out money to people because they’ve run into a prolonged bout of decomposition? The insurance-minded imagination boggles at the possibility.

The refusal of many in the life insurance business to admit that they will eventually have to pay off on all of those policies causes some odd behavior on occasion. The news that the life insurance companies spent millions of dollars a year on psychic research, especially in the field of spiritualism, did not surprise me as much as it seems to have surprised the broad range of people in this country, if the opinion polls are anything to go by. If the life insurance companies can definitely prove the existence of an afterlife, that Mr. John Q. Public, recently deceased policyholder, is still alive, albeit on another spiritual plane, then there is no need to pay off on Mrs. Public’s claim. Alive in heaven or hell is still alive, after all, and your friendly life insurance company does not have to pay off if the deceased isn’t really deceased. That Mr. Public is, given his current circumstances, unable to pay his premiums every month is a shame, but not one that requires an insurance company to pay off on his wife’s claim.

What did surprise me was the extent to which the insurance companies’ support Christian Science and its missionary efforts. I suppose if you can convince enough people that death is an illusion then paying off on a claim becomes moot, since there is no death, only, as with the previously mentioned Mr. Public, a sudden and altogether unfortunate inability to pay one’s premiums. And when the existence of heaven and hell is finally proved, of course, this opens a whole new field for insurers: afterlife insurance, in which one pays a reasonable premium in this life in order to avoid the pain of hellfire in the next. This has the further advantage of turning insurance companies into religious organizations of a sort, and hence, tax-exempt entities, a prospect which will maximize profits and bring a smile to the lips of even the most hard-hearted of insurance men.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

PROPERTY RIGHTS: The price of providing shelter continues to rise all over the world and occasionally leads to extreme solutions, as evidenced by the Hong Kong woman who recently discovered that a leech had taken up residence in her nose, said leech occupying the premises without notifying the owner of the effected proboscis of its presence and without offering to pay so much as a penny in rent. I realize that in many places in our modern world rents have gone to whatever the level beyond exorbitant is, but it seems to me the height of effrontery to unilaterally occupy a piece of prime anatomical real estate without so much as a by your leave from the owner. It is just this sort of cavalier disregard for private property rights that causes the interested investor to wonder about the People’s Republic of China long term commitment to the freewheeling capitalism that made Hong Kong one of the world’s most dynamic economies. Residents of the former British colony can no longer assume that the Hong Kong flu, mosquitoes buzzing in their ears, or even discolored toenails are merely innocent manifestations of natural phenomena; now they must consider these things against the long history of unrecompensed private property expropriation that marks Communist regimes everywhere.

As a sidelight to this somewhat odd story, I must report that even here in our happy little burg the price of keeping a roof over one’s head is too much for most invertebrates to bear. Termites, for example, can no long eat themselves out of house and home for less than eight hundred dollars a month for even the smallest apartment here and that doesn’t even include the utilities and cable television. Home ownership is now an all but futile dream for most of the poorer exoskeletal species unless something drastically changes in the housing market soon and no such change appears imminent. Biological infestation, while it may work for leeches, pinworms, and toenail fungus, is hardly an option for the average termite, whose lack of education in an increasingly computerized job market limits them to the lower rungs of the economic ladder and compels them to move into poorer and poorer housing because they can afford nothing else.

Even among biological infesters there are questions of fundamental fairness. Why should a leech, an altogether opportunistic parasite willing to grab hold of any portion of the anatomy it can snag get a duplex with a view when the common toe fungus, which has made a long term commitment to the landlord, should remain stuck in a hot, cramped, and sometimes fetid neighborhood simply because it lacks basic locomotive skills? I usually support allowing the marketplace to make the decision of who gets what and where, but in this case the market seems to have broken down.

The leech, remember, is no paragon of laissez-faire capitalism; it’s getting a free ride. If it were paying market value for the nose then I would be the first to say the leech should stay where it is, but that’s not the situation here. The leech is a squatter and a freeloader to boot; it’s getting three square meals a day and free room and board in a place with two views for absolutely nothing. Why, then, should the leech receive a greater share of consideration than the fungus? I suppose the leech could appeal to biblical authority, pointing to the parable of the vineyard workers who all received the same wages no matter when they started work, but my guess is that argument isn’t going to fly in a judicial system where the judges owe their jobs to the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.

In fact, I doubt that any legal system in the world would buy into this argument. Possession may be, as the saying has it, nine tenths of the law, but all the leech possesses in this case is a snotty attitude; its occupation of the woman’s nose doesn’t even qualify as an illegal sublet; it’s squatting, pure and simple, and for the leech to claim some sort of ownership rights to the nose is ridiculous. Sneaking into someone’s nose and hiding out does not make you the owner, not in anyone’s book.

Not that the problem in Hong Kong ever got that far, of course. The Chinese authorities moved forcefully against the leech, having it removed from the woman’s nose by a forceps-wielding doctor despite the leech’s reluctance to leave. The Chinese, mindful of their image as an up and coming economic power, do not want to pay through the nose for one invertebrate’s now somewhat quixotic attachment to classical Marxism.

Vis-à-vis the pay through the nose bit above: you can groan now if you wish. Go on, let it out; it’ll make you feel better.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

DO YOU KNOW THE WAY TO SAN JOSE...NO, I DON'T: I don’t like giving directions, especially to people who don’t live here in our happy little burg. It’s not that I harbor some deep xenophobic animosity towards the hordes of visitors who come here in search of knickknacks and gewgaws; I’m sure that all of them are very nice people and I am for any activity that stimulates the local economy: there is no more loyal native son than myself. It’s just that the people I give directions to have a distressing tendency of following my directions to the letter and then turning up at the border with Connecticut some fifty miles away with no clear idea of how they got there. I don’t know how they manage to do this; the directions I give work for me and I rarely, if ever, wind up in Connecticut, so it seems something must be lost in the translation.

I’ve always had a problem with directions; in fact, this problem runs in my family. The first of my ancestors to leave Ireland for America didn’t quite make it; he paid for passage to Boston but wound up in Liverpool instead, where he lived for the next fifty years, married and raised a family, and wondered aloud on more than one occasion why there was never any news about how the Red Sox were doing this season in the newspapers. The family had no clue what he was talking about, and began to think him quite mad when he objected vehemently to receiving red socks for Christmas.

After the old man’s death, his eldest son decided to fulfill his father’s dearest wish and emigrate to America. He set off one fine day with a high heart and a silly looking hat his mother had given him for his birthday with five pounds stitched into the lining. The journey of a thousand miles, the Chinese proverb says, begins with the first step, and the journey of a thousand steps led the son from his home to the Admiral Benbow pub, where the son drank away his ticket money and took part in a profound theological debate with some Presbyterian worthies from Belfast about whether or not the Pope was a greater or lesser servant of the Anti-Christ, said disagreement spilling out into the street and eventually, after the smoke cleared away and the damage assessed, to ten year’s transportation to Australia. On the bright side, the son did get to keep the silly hat with the money in the lining, which stayed with him all his life and now comprises the Australian branch of the family’s most valuable heirloom. At least, this is what they say about the hat; I don’t like badmouthing relatives this way, but I think they all keep an eye on that hat because they don’t trust each other not to rip the thing apart for the money. Family history is a wonderful thing, you know, but money is money.

No, it was not until my grandfather arrived at Ellis Island that the family finally realized its dream of emigrating to America, realizing that dream at the precise time we’d given up on ever getting here and had bought tickets to Canada instead; they’d gotten lost on the dock, but we were finally here, at long last, and in New York as well, not Boston, an accident that’s saved us from a lot of athletic heartburn over the years.

In any case, I seem to share this directional blank spot with my ancestors. In my graduate school days, when I studied library science with the high hope of being of service to my community and earning a pittance, a course of study my mother definitely discouraged; she wanted me to be a loan shark. The money is good, she said, and you can work off your hostility whenever you pleased. I demurred, allowing that such a career choice had some definite benefits, but that it wasn’t really me. In addition, I didn’t like the retirement package; I dislike orange jump suits and the free steel bracelets are so last year. My mother disliked my final choice, but she was ultimately supportive of me, even if I was an imp of Satan sent to torture her in her declining years and we all wound up out on the street eating supper out of garbage pails. Mom has a taste for hyperbole, but you’ve already figured that out, haven’t you?

So one fine spring evening I returned from Albany, the dysfunctional capital of the most dysfunctional state in the Union, where I attended the classes necessary for me to go shush to schoolchildren for the rest of my working life, driving home on the New York State Thruway with my radio set to the college’s classical music station, and them in the midst of a Going for Baroque marathon. I drove south with my windows wide open to let in the warm spring air and to let out the sounds of Bach and Handel, Pachebel and Boccherini, and all the other masters of seventeenth century elevator music for the amusement and edification of the deer trying to get from one side of the highway to the other. (So why does the deer cross the highway? Well, it’s not to get to the other side, I can tell you; as far as I can tell dashing across highways in the middle of the night with tractor trailers bearing down on them is the deer version of extreme sports, like roller skating down the side of Mt. Everest or swimming in shark-infested waters wearing links of raw sausage draped around your neck.) I got off the Thruway at the designated exit and there changed the channel, the music of the baroque period giving way to the static of the twentieth century, and went on my merry way to the strains of the Platters singing ‘Smoke gets in your eyes.’ I made the left turn at the bottom of the off ramp and headed off in the direction of the cesspit of urban squalor that lies directly across the river from our happy little burg, there to get on the bridge and cross over.

I suppose it should have occurred to me that, barring accidents, landslides, or Confederate counterattacks, going from the Thruway exit to the bridge on-ramp does not take the better part of an hour; this is, at best, a distance of some two of three miles, but the music was wonderful and the night was warm and the sky a dark velvety purple, with the constellations of spring slowly becoming visible, and it was a good day, all told, and I felt pretty good about myself and all the world that day, and so I didn’t really pay attention to the signs as they whizzed past me until I got to that really big one that says, Welcome to Pennsylvania. That one’s a little hard to miss, accompanied as it is by a squadron of Pennsylvania State Police cars laying in wait for the hapless New Yorker violating the Buckeye State’s traffic laws. Pennsylvania’s not that bad, all told; it looks an awful lot like New York and the natives seem friendly enough, but I wasn’t really planning on going there. And I was late for dinner, too.

I haven’t been back to Pennsylvania since then. These days I restrict my driving to a series of roads that I’ve more or less (more rather than less, actually) memorized, along with the associated landmarks. I never travel beyond these landmarks, and I often think there really isn’t anything out there beyond them, in the same way that ancient mariners, with and without the gooney bird necklace, believed that sailing beyond the edge of the map meant one might soon sail off the edge of the world and fall into the pit of hell or the life insurance business or some other unspeakable travail. All of which renders me unfit for this whole business of giving directions to the unsure and transient, I think, but you never know; some people may actually like Connecticut--there's no accounting for tastes, after all.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

SUBTITLES: There are any number of good reasons why Americans don’t like foreign films, but I think the main reason is that most of the film industry’s target audience doesn’t like to read. Now your average foreign filmmaker has a problem when it comes to breaking into the lucrative American market: the multicultural and hence multilingual audiences of other lands do not exist here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, both of whom speak only English, so your foreign auteur has a conundrum of sorts on his hands. If he makes his film in English, he risks the opprobrium of his native audience, who will resent having a foreign language stuffed into their mouths for the convenience of Americans too lazy to learn their language, and then he risks the wrath of the local chattering classes, who will rise up in a mighty chorus, all of them as one charging that the filmmaker, like some cinematic Benedict Arnold, has sold out his family, his honor, and his native land for filthy Hollywood lucre.

So what is the foreign filmmaker to do? There is dubbing, of course, but Americans only tolerate dubbing in cheesy Hong Kong kung fu movies, where the awful dubbing becomes the comic relief in what would otherwise be an endless stretch of Asians engaging in utterly pointless violence. There’s just something about actors delivering reams of corny dialogue without actually opening their mouths that tickles the collective funny bone in this neck of the woods, and I’ve always been fond of the parts where the hero stops the action and delivers a long philosophical neo-Zen, paleo-Confucian fortune cookie diatribe about the need for all people to live in harmony with each other and in oneness with nature just before he pummels the villain into a pile of hamburger meat. Not enough philosophy classes end in all out hand to hand combat in the West, and I think we’re poorer for it; I wouldn’t mind kicking the crap out the occasional Marxist or even a disciple of Foucault, although I am told that Foucaultians tend to enjoy that sort of thing.

And then there are subtitles. I really can’t say why the American movie going public regards subtitles as the cinematic equivalent of jabbing a red-hot fork into one’s left eye, but anecdotal evidence suggests that this is the case. The only exception to this rule, and all rules have exceptions to them, even the Golden Rule, which requires that you do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Jesus got this pearl of wisdom from the great rabbi, Hillel, who said that this rule was the heart of the Torah and that all else was merely commentary. That may be true; Hillel must have been pretty smart if Jesus quoted him with approval; but almost lost in all of that commentary is the exception to this great philosophical truth, which says that you shall not sign a promissory note for a relative’s car loan, lest you discover what a lying, thieving, no-good skunk he really is. Loving your neighbor as yourself is a nice idea, but not one you ought to carry to its logical extreme.

I seem to have drifted, so let’s leave Foucault to the philosophers and return to the subject of this particular screed, which is, you’ll remember, why Americans don’t like to read subtitles. This is purely my opinion, an opinion without the least bit of scientific evidence to back it up, but a lack of evidence has never stopped any number of other people from jumping to unwarranted conclusions and I see no reason why I should deny myself the same privilege. Millions of people thought the world of Karl Marx, after all, and I think it’s pretty clear at this point in history that the man didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. I mean, Karl spent his days warming a chair in the British Library; I sit in a library all day long too, but I don’t think sitting here gives me any special insight into the workings of capitalism or the revolutionary potential of the working class. I do know a lot about whales, though, because the fourth graders are doing whale reports for their science classes this year, and I get to entertain them with tidbits like did you know that killer whales are not really whales at all? No, they are not fish, either; although they are cetaceans and therefore related to the whales, killer whales are, in fact, the largest of the dolphins, Flipper on steroids and with an attitude problem to boot. Now stop picking on your little sister and be quiet, this is a library, not a zoo, for Pete’s sake.

Anyway, to get back to the subject at hand, I think the problem with subtitles is that the teenagers who comprise Hollywood’s target audience don’t like to read them; for most of the nation's teenagers reading is an exceedingly dull activity done in school, under the close surveillance of a teacher whose job it is to make sure you’re reading, because reading is good for you in the same way calves’ liver is good for you, that’s why you have to eat it, young man, so you grow up big and strong and get into a good college, and you wonder, as you gag on this disgusting chunk of meat because, let’s face it, no matter how many onions your mom puts it to disguise the taste, liver is liver, you wonder how you’re ever going to grow up and get into a good college if you choke to death on this piece of liver right now.

This is a great truth; well, maybe not a great truth on the order of the Golden Rule or e=mc2 or Mark Twain having a better mustache than Salvador Dali, but it’s up there in the overall truth hierarchy. The American love affair with reading, of which E. B. White wrote of so eloquently in the 1920’s, is long over and, I fear, will never return. I realized this while watching a Brazilian film that somehow jumped out of the art house ghetto the market usually consigns such films to in the United States and wound up on a screen in our local metroplex next to theaters running the standard Hollywood fare of loud music, louder explosions, and nubile and mostly unclothed eye candy to take the male audience’s minds off the lack of even a minimally intelligent plot. I was watching the opening credits, having settled down for a long immersion in Brazilian culture and social problems with my large Diet Coke and big bag of heavily salted buttered popcorn, a movie treat with enough calories in it to keep the population of any small Third World country you care to name alive for a year, when a group of young people came in and sat down. I don’t know if they’d actually paid to see this movie; Brazilian movies don’t usually play well in the United States unless there’s a generous number of beautiful Brazilian girls wearing bikinis made from single strands of dental floss in them, and this was not that kind of film at all. My guess is that they were waiting for another movie to begin and decided to kill some time here in beautiful but tragic Brazil.

In any case, the voiceover began, the narrator speaking in Portuguese, as Brazilians are wont to do; I don’t believe they are doing this maliciously to annoy North American movie audiences, of course, not by any means, but rather that the narrator’s penchant for Portuguese is an unfortunate social byproduct of his environment; and the subtitles began flashing across the bottom of the screen. This hitherto unknown and altogether unexpected phenomenon caused one of these young people, a young man with a mouth filled with half-eaten nachos, to loudly exclaim, “WORDS!!! I didn’t come in here to READ!!!” At which exclamation, the young man and all his cohort, shocked by this sneaky and somewhat unethical attempt to induce them to read in a public place, fled the theater posthaste, so that they might avoid the horrid contagion of literacy. After all, there’s too much life going on around us all the time to stay in a darkened theater and read, not when houses and cars and the people contained therein are getting blown to pieces in a loud and truly awesome manner in the theater next door.