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)

Saturday, October 29, 2005

"...AND THE WINNER IS...:" The New York State Legislature, who are as crooked a collection of political hacks as money can buy, has decided, since they really have nothing better to do with their time, to take up the burning issue of which cold-blooded scaly critter ought to be the state reptile of New York. This must strike the civic-minded New Yorker interested in the Byzantine world of state politics as particularly bizarre, since the vast majority of the inhabitants of the Empire State regard the state legislature as the state reptiles; for some reason Komodo dragons and their habit of ripping poor tax-paying deer to shreds without any regard to whether or not there will enough deer around next year for them to feast on comes immediately to mind in this context, but I’m not sure why that might be. Perhaps the presence of the word Excelsior (Ever upwards) on the state flag gives the classically trained a clue; there’s just something about a state that tells you on the state flag that taxes are never going to go down here ever that freezes the blood and makes you want to fly to other troubles you may not know of, but must be better than having guys in expensive suits rob you blind under the cover of law morning, noon, and night. This propensity for looting the unsuspecting is disguised in Latin, because everything sounds better in Latin, of course, and because New York politicians like having a fresh supply of suckers coming in all the time. I strongly suspect that this is why many school districts have dropped Latin as a foreign language; there’s no point upsetting the taxpayers before you have to, you know.

In any case, other states have state reptiles, and New York has a slew of state things that show our legislature in action. New York, for example, has a state muffin (the apple muffin) and a state beverage (milk) and even a state bird (the bluebird), all of which is very wholesome for the tourists but does not fool those of us who live here one damn bit. Everyone here knows that there is no state muffin, only the state bagel, that the state beverage is the manhattan, and that the state bird is the bird (Flippus birdus), a species native to the state highway system and most often seen at intersections throughout the state displaying itself for the edification of people who haven’t figured out for themselves that the No Turn On Red sign means that they shouldn’t come roaring around the corner at seventy miles an hour in a thirty mile an hour zone. But New York has no state reptile, and since New York will not remain behind other states like denial, anxiety, and depression, the state legislature has sprung into action and is now considering the issue.

I should not say sprung into action, as this gives the impression of purpose and speed, and nothing could be further from the truth. There are 212 state legislators in New York, representing citizens from Montauk at the far eastern tip of Long Island to Plattsburgh on the Canadian border to Buffalo on Lake Erie, but of these solons, exactly two, the Senate majority leader and the Speaker of the Assembly, actually count for something; the other 210 legislators are there for show; they could be department store mannequins and no one would know the difference. We have a beautiful state capitol here in New York, and the state spent a fortune restoring the building, but if they really wanted to save money, and they don’t, who’s kidding who here, the governor, the Senate majority leader, and the Speaker could run the state from a Holiday Inn and no one would know the difference. I should say, then, that these two gentlemen are considering the measure, and since their opinions are the one that count, this means that the legislature is considering the measure.

There are two candidates for this august position: the box turtle and the snapping turtle. There were other reptiles up for the job: the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, the lounge lizard, and Donald Trump were on the short list of candidates, but the rattlesnake didn’t want the job; he already had a good one in private industry that didn’t entail having to put up with politicians, the state police found the lounge lizard at a bar on Western Avenue trying to pick up a SUNY/Albany coed from the Bronx, and Donald Trump said he would only take the job if he could fire the idiots who hired him in the first place. Since politicians in New York regard incumbency and re-election not as something bestowed on them by the voters, but as a civil right up there with life, liberty, and the pursuit of the campaign contribution, they quietly dropped Mr. Trump’s two hundred-page application for the job into the Hudson River when no one was looking and blamed the resultant pollution on General Electric (no one but New Yorkers and environmentalists are going to get that last crack, but it was too good to pass up).

I read that the box turtle will in all likelihood win this thing if it ever comes to a vote. The box turtle is a mild-mannered critter that scoots into its shell at the least sign of trouble, which may help it in the wild but not when it decides to cross the New York State Thruway in the middle of the day. Despite the many signs that the state police are monitoring the speed limit using radar, people routinely speed like maniacs; when the trooper caught me in November of 1992, the speed limit was 55 and I was doing 90 and even at that speed people were passing me left, right, and center. I was just unlucky, I guess, but the one thing I didn’t have to contend with is a humungous turtle trying to cross the highway to the median at whatever the speed just under glacial is. If you hit this thing in your car, you can count on a busted axle just as sure as you’re reading this. And the box turtle is endangered, a not at all surprising fact given its propensity for slowness on the highways, and the newspapers all say that the legislature may give the coveted title to the box turtle as a way of ingratiating itself with the environmental lobby. But most people want the box turtle to win because of the turtle’s amiable personality makes it instantly likeable to everyone who comes in contact with them.

By contrast, the snapping turtle is an aggressive, nasty tempered creature given to spitting at people it doesn’t like, trying to bite the hand that feeds it, and screeching at those lousy little kids of theirs in Yiddish/Italian/Spanish/Chinese at all hours of the day and night. The snapping turtle is smaller, smarter, and faster than the box turtle and not at all averse to sidling up to women in department stores and telling them not to buy that pair of shoes, such a ridiculous price, why buy it here when I can get it for you wholesale? That’s the reason why most department stores in New York won’t let snapping turtles in and why the ACLU is suing many of these same stores for violating the snapping turtle’s civil rights. The snapping turtle is also not endangered; far from it, the snapping turtle is thriving in the new post-industrial economy, having made major investments in computer infrastructure and plant automation, and is now using the Internet as a way of expanding its operations into new areas of endeavor. The box turtle, on the other hand, still uses carbon paper to make copies of important documents.

All of which means, I think, that the box turtle will, in all likelihood, be the New York State reptile, when the legislature gets around to passing the empowering legislation. The snapping turtle is just too much like the rest of us for most New Yorkers to be entirely comfortable with it; the box turtle, on the other hand, is the good, solid boy from down the street you wish your daughter would marry instead of that biker putz from Syracuse with the shaved head and the earring and all the tattoos on his arms. Let's face it, she's wild for this nudnik now, but you and I both know they’ll wind up living in the apartment above your garage with the three kids and him with no job because no one will hire him. A small fortune spent on the orthodontist to keep her from spitting watermelon seeds between her front teeth and four years at Radcliffe studying French literature and the best she can do is that schlimazel and a job at Dunkin Donuts? You work hard all your life to give your kids everything you never had and the most important thing she asks all day is do you want sprinkles on your doughnut? Where did we go wrong, I ask you, where did we go wrong?

Friday, October 28, 2005


Rachel, who is usually fairly level headed; she is, after all, a librarian, a job where you must keep a level head when dealing with all the forces of anarchy, especially those who demand that you submit to them and their vile wish to take out books, magazines, and DVDs when they still have $83.92 worth of fines on their record; is not so calm and phlegmatic at the suggestion that perhaps women should stop complaining about men leaving the toilet seat up and actually lower the seat themselves. Film at eleven.  Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

AVIAN ETHICS: The cover of this week’s Newsweek, which is available at news stands throughout the length and breadth of this our Great Republic, presents the reader with the image of someone, presumably someone with an advanced medical degree in this sort of thing, looking down a chicken’s throat using a small tongue depressor (how do chickens say ahh, I wonder). While I am all for the proper care and treatment of animals, especially chickens; you will find no greater advocate of the idea that the vast majority of chickens deserve more stimulating career choices than original recipe and extra crispy than myself; this photograph, I think, raises disturbing questions about just what does one give a chicken with a bad cold. Plenty of rest, aspirin, and drinking lots of fluids are all well and good, as far as they go, but I cannot help but feel that offering a sick fowl a nice hot bowl of chicken soup goes well beyond the pale of medical ethics, even in this day and age.
CAT COMMENTARY: So, Judith Miller and Maureen Dowd are at each other’s throats in the media catfight of all media catfights, with nothing less than the journalistic reputation of America's newspaper of record at stake amid all the vicious charges and countercharges flying back and forth like so many cocoanut cream pies in a Three Stooges movie, nyuk nyuk nyuk, and the seriousness of it all is so dense that you could carve slices off of it and serve it for dinner, and Dorothy Parker and Veronica Geng are dead, Dave Barry is on vacation, and Tina Fey is staying home with the baby. You know, life can be horribly unfair at times.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

A PORCINE OF THE THYMES: I read, with no small sense of what the hell is going on here, that many British banks, fearing that they may give offense, the ne plus ultra of crime in our politically correct world, have banned the humble piggy bank from their premises since their Muslim customers, for whom the unclean flesh of the loathsome swine is forbidden, might take umbrage at the porcine coin collectors. I suppose that ceramic swine could be offensive to some sensitive Islamic souls, although I cannot imagine why; it’s not like the banks are demanding that Muslim customers chow down on a hearty supper of Canadian back bacon, pickled pigs' snout, and Italian sausages (especially the kind with lots of fennel in them) in order to open a checking account or to use the bank’s ATM machine. And if the banks want to encourage young Muslims to save their hard-earned pennies, thereby encouraging the always-beneficial habit of thrift, they should offer piggy banks in some other shape, such as ducks, lions, or asparagus. For the extremely devout among the customers, the banks could offer piggy banks in any number of abstract shapes, including spirals, swirls, and appropriately enough, arabesques, lest the young Muslim believer fall into idolatry and begin offering pagan sacrifices of coins and sheep unto the graven image of YumYum, the Indomelamicropolymilkofmagnesian vegetable goddess. After all, you can never tell what will happen these days here in the Dar el-Harb; one day the kids are going along fine and before you know it, they're stuffing their mouths with porcelain pork chops and refusing to become martyrs. It's enough to drive any Muslim parent up and over the wall, if there weren't a squad of Israeli soldiers on the other side waiting to push them back.
CHEAPER BY THE DYSLEXIC DOZEN: Rachel has a post up, with links, about the woman who just gave birth to her sixteenth child. One of these links is to a gentleman, and given what he says about this woman and how he says it I am using the term in the most generic manner possible, from San Francisco who is having a fit about this woman’s fecundity, for reasons I am not sure I fathom. Presumably, if the woman was churning sixteen children out by as many different fathers while living on the taxpayers' dime there in California the gentleman might have some plausible grounds for complaint, but as the family involved lives in Arkansas and is not asking for government assistance then what business is it of mine or anyone else’s whether they have one child or fifty children? This fact, to paraphrase Jefferson, neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg, and is surely a personal matter concerning her and her husband alone. I strongly suspect that if the gentleman by the bay had heard that this woman had just had her fifteenth abortion then he would champion loudly her right to this medical procedure and castigate anyone who looked askance at this somewhat enthusiastic use of her right to choose in the same vile manner that he now uses to denounce this woman and her family. Apparently, a woman’s right to choose what to do with her reproductive system applies only to those women who choose the right way; all others can go to the back of the line.

Monday, October 24, 2005

OCTOBER 25, 1415:

O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!

What's he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin:
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

HENRY V, Act 4, Scene iii, by William Shakespeare.

Well, fighting the French certainly seems to be a theme here these past few days. In any case, I suppose I would be remiss in my duties here if I did not point out that there are now just two shopping months until Christmas.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

THE OCCASIONAL BASEBALL GLOSSARY: A careful reading of Neil's attempts to explain baseball to the always lovely Sophia has convinced me that a glossary of baseball terms is necessary for those of you who are not familiar with the game. As I do not have the time to do a complete glossary, I will do the occasional definition and, of course, I will be more than happy to answer any of your questions.

1. Balk: No one really knows what the hell a balk is; even the umpires aren't all that sure and they've read the rule book, or so they say; sometimes you get the impression they just looked at the pictures; but like pornography, we all know a balk when we see it. Balks have something to do with the pitcher, who is the gentleman standing on that mound of dirt in the middle of the field, moving and then stopping or stopping and then moving without checking if there's a red light at this intersection, thereby causing gridlock from one end of town to the other. Before you try this in your own automobile I suggest you check the traffic conditions in your area.

2. Bat: The bat is the piece of wood with which a batter tries to hit the ball. The bat is usually hewn from Canadian maple or Kentucky ash and should be a solid piece of wood and should not be hollowed out to contain tennis balls, cork, metal, or any other foreign substance that gives the batter an unfair advantage over the pitcher...okay, I can hear you snickering out there, knock it off.

3. Batter: A man who makes what I make in a year for the amount of time it takes him to adjust his jockstrap, and that's without him trying to hit a ball. If he manages to do this three times out of every ten times attempted, he is a good hitter. This may work in baseball, but if the doctor your best friend recommends has a similar average vis-a-vis the survivability of his patients, you may want to get a second opinion about that growth on your left leg.

4. Battery: Oddly enough, batters don't have anything to do with the battery, other than stand between the two people that comprise the battery. For reasons lost in the mists of time, the pitcher and the catcher together are called the battery; no one in the game is called the assault or even the unsalted. No, I don't know why.

5. Ball: There is a difference between the literal ball and the descriptive ball, as you might imagine. The literal ball is the ball with which the game is played. The descriptive ball needs a little explanation.

The batter stands in the batter’s box next to a house shaped plate that is set into the ground. This is home plate and is not available in china or in stoneware, although you could probably pick up a set of them cheap on eBay. The zone between the batter’s knees to the point just under the name of the team on his shirt and extending out to the other edge of the plate is the strike zone, so-called because of baseball's neverending class struggle the player proletariat against the capitalist bastards who ruthlessly exploit them. The American readers will now please stop saying, yeah right. Thank you.

Now, strikes come in a variety of forms. You could not swing at a ball thrown (or pitched, as the process is called in baseball) through the strike zone or you can swing at a ball and miss it entirely or you can swing at it and hit the ball foul, which is to say, on either side of the playing field; this, however, only counts as a strike the first two times you do it—after that you can hit as many foul balls as you want and they don’t count for anything except as a gauge of the pitcher’s frustration. A ball, on the other hand, is any pitch that goes below the batter’s knees or above the letters on the front of his uniform or does not cross over some portion of home plate. The person who determines all of this is the fat guy who stands behind the catcher. This is the umpire, whose job it is to decide whether the pitch was a ball or a strike and to enforce the rules of the game on a bunch of overpaid egomaniacs. The umpire is either, depending on which team you support, a judicious and serious solon carefully and correctly applying the standards of the game, or a stupid, fat, blind as a frigging bat jackass obviously taking money from someone somewhere to make sure your team loses. The general rule of thumb in these cases is that if everyone is mad at the umpire he must be doing something right, and my apologies to Neil for lifting this from his comments section. I just didn't feel like thinking of something fresh.

6. Fly out rule: On a ball hit into the air, the runner cannot advance to the next base until the ball is caught. To advance, the runner must return to his base and touch it, or tagging up, as it's called, and then wait for the opposing player to catch the ball. The runner can use this time to ask the opposing infielder for some money, maybe ten or twenty bucks, you know, just enough to tide him over until payday, or for the loan of his comb, since running the bases does tend to make you look scruffy and this is hardly the image you want to present to the television audience. Once the opposing player catches the ball, the runner can advance if he thinks he can do this safely. Sometimes a batter will hit a fly ball far enough into the outfield that a player can tag up and then run to the next base in relative safety. When this happens, the batter is credited with a sacrifice fly, which, despite its name, has no religious implications whatsoever.

7. Infield fly rule: When there are fewer than two outs and men on first and second base, the umpire may call out a batter who hits a fly ball to one of the infielders. He does not do this because he dislikes the batter, although he could, I suppose, if he really wanted to. The infield fly rule is invoked in order to prevent the infielder from dropping the ball, thereby compelling the runners to advance into a double play, of which more later. This sort of thing was very common in the 19th century, when baseball was not the genteel sport it is today; no one in today's game would think of doing such a thing. You know, I can still hear you people snickering.

8. Double play: A defensive play in which a ball hit by the batter causes two outs instead of the usual one. The ways you can come up with a double play, but the classic one is the 6-4-3 play, in which the shortstop, the player defending the area to the left of second base, fields a ball hit to him and throws the ball to the second baseman, the player defending the area to the right of second base, who then steps on second base, forcing out the runner coming from first, and then throws the ball to first base before the batter can get to it, forcing him out as well. Triple plays exist as well, but they are exceedingly rare, and an unassisted triple play, a play in which one player causes all three outs in a single play, is rarer than chicken teeth; I think there've only been like twelve or thirteen of them in recorded baseball history.

9. Infield: The inner part of the baseball field, where the bases are. You can tell where the infield is by that big stretch of dirt usually a third of the way out in the field. Everything from there in to where the batter stands is the infield. Those lines you see converging at the point where the batter stands are called the baselines; everything inside those lines is fair territory, everything outside those lines is foul territory. It is called foul territory because this is where the players spit their tobacco juice. For all the millions the owners make every year, Major League Baseball is still skimpy about providing the players with spittoons.

10. Outfield: The large prairie beyond the infield, inhabited largely by cud chewing ruminant millionaires.

Friday, October 21, 2005

And the author of the anniversary... Posted by Picasa

The Battle of Trafalgar, October 21, 1805. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, October 20, 2005


Yes, we ARE tastefully dressed, aren't we, Smedley? Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

A CLEAN BREAST OF IT: Miriam is discussing a pair of boobs. I do not believe the commentary is political in nature.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

KAOPECTATE IS A GOOD THING: On the purely professional front, this past Sunday a woman came into the library needing to use the rest room. The Sunday staff gave her the key and sent her off to the ladies’ room. She came back a few minutes later and then checked out a computer. Having sat down at the computer, the woman proceeded to type in, and then had an accident; apparently, she was not finished with her previous activity and chose the computer island as the place in the building most in need of homemade fertilizer. The Sunday staff, who are all part-timers and volunteers, were utterly aghast; the librarian on duty is a corporate librarian who usually doesn’t deal with this sort of thing at the Fortune 500 business library where he works during the week; and who wouldn’t be, really?

After the woman fled the scene, the staff was made even more aghast to find that they had to clean up after her, there being no janitor on the premises on a Sunday, and that the culprit had suffered an accident in the ladies’ room as well, and had used the bathroom wall for sanitary purposes instead of the Scott’s tissue we provide for the public. You know, I’m so happy I don’t work on Sundays, but the thing of it is, what I want to know, and what no one will tell me, is just where she was sitting on Sunday, so I can avoid the spot entirely. You know, maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think we’re paying the Sunday people enough to put up with natural disasters like this one.

Friday, October 14, 2005

SANTA ON COURT TV: The Danish Air Force apologized to Santa Claus recently for having killed two of Santa’s reindeer. No one knows why the Danes killed the reindeer in the first place; the Danes do not appear to have some sort of long-standing racial animus towards flying ungulates and so one must assume that the killing was, as the Danes claimed, an unfortunate accident. The Danes will release the names of the slain reindeer after the Ministry of Defense notifies their next of kin.

It did seem odd to me, though, that Santa Claus felt it necessary to file suit for compensation in the Danish courts, but I’m told there’s a much more of this sort of thing these days and that we should all be thankful for it. Fabulous creatures are finally standing up for their rights after years, sometimes centuries of casual exploitation. Only last year, for example, the Easter Bunny successfully sued the American Egg Board for denying him health benefits, especially the money necessary to repair a job-related hernia. Even relatively minor fabulous beings are making names for themselves outside their usual realms these days. Only a few months ago, the shocking testimony of the Tooth Fairy before a Senate subcommittee exposed at long last the long suspected ties between the sugar industry and the American Dental Association, and in a joint press conference this past weekend the Sierra Club and Greenpeace openly denounced the Sandman as a major factor in coastal erosion along the world’s littoral regions, endangering the millions of people who live in those regions.

I suppose there’s something to encouraging in all of this; it is heartening to know that the long-suffering are finally getting what’s due them, but at the same time there is something a little sad about it as well. To see Santa Claus drag himself through the interminable proceedings of a Danish court like some small businessman trying to collect money from a deadbeat customer diminishes the magic of Christmas, I think; you don’t get the ho ho ho from this Santa Claus and I don’t think you’d want to leave cookies and milk out for him. He’d probably be one of those cranky old geezers who stands next to the sled and tells the kiddies to get lost before they put a dent in his fender and he puts their name on the naughty list just for the hell of it.
REFERENCE QUESTION: For the person who keeps coming to here to find out what the name of the song the soldiers are whistling in The Bridge Over The River Kwai, the answer to your question is Colonel Bogey's March. No, I am not making this up; if you Google this term and the title of the movie I am pretty sure somehow somewhere someone will confirm this bit of information. For the person interested in dog penises, specifically the penis of the Canaria presa breed, my apologies, but I do not have any information about this particular subject immediately available, you sick puppy.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

DEVOLUTION: Well, it was nice being a rodent, even if was just for a little while. I am now a flappy bird again. Like I said, it was nice while it lasted.
TRAVELING MAN: I don't travel well, much as I would like to; I just don't, that's all. There may be any number of deep psychological reasons for this aversion to moving too far from kin and kith, hearth and home, cliché and platitude—that many of my nearest and dearest owe me a good-sized chunk of money comes immediately to mind as a reason for standing still. You can't be too careful with relatives—most of them would skip town in a heartbeat if they knew I wasn't around to keep them on the financial straight and narrow. But delving into the deep psychological reasons for my immobility invariably means shelling out at least a hundred dollars an hour for even a bargain basement Freudian shrink with springs popping out of his couch and an unwashed security blanket, and at that price the deep psychological reasons can stay in the deep; I am not sending this guy’s kids to college for a year just because I don't want to leave the moldy confines of our happy little burg. That's just not going to happen, no way.

So, for the most part, I am stuck here. I wasn't always such a stick in the mold, though. I have been to the Gulf Coast, for example, to Biloxi and the Redneck Riviera, back in the days when Katrina was not a name you would actually bestow on a little girl who’d never done anything to you—I was there for a brother’s wedding, which was a disaster in and of itself, but that’s another story entirely—and I was in New Jersey once, and I have been to Italy. That's right, Italy, land of sunshine, classical antiquity, modern iniquity, and Machiavelli to explain it all for you, and I must say that landing at Rome's international airport was a tremendous thrill for me. There's just something about coming to a place that is different from the place you have known all your life that makes the trip all the more memorable. And when the place is Italy, a place you've read about and seen in pictures, television, and the movies your entire life, the thrill is all the more intense. Then things started to go wrong.

It was not my brother's fault, of course; he lived in Sicily at the time and I stayed with him, an arrangement that eliminated my excuse that I'd have no place to stay and couldn't afford a hotel. The trouble really started on the plane over. I was wedged into a window seat in coach, which was small enough to begin with, and forcibly kept there by the two very elderly Italian gentlemen sitting next to me who spent the entire trip showing each other photographs of their grandchildren in Cleveland, Ohio, and by the immense man in the seat in front of me (if you're reading this, fatso, yeah, I mean you). And I do mean immense; if Italy ever decides to compete in the world sumo championships, they should look this guy up—he's a champion in the making. He had me pinned for eight hours by the simple expedient of moving his seat back and forcing my kneecaps towards the back of my legs.

And there I sat for eight hours, crushed between time and matter (I did mention this guy was huge, right? I mean absolutely humongous; if the plane went down in the ocean he'd pop to the surface like a bar of Ivory Soap, he had so much fat on him), and then, to make matters even better, which is me being ironical, but I think you knew that already, someone in first class had a case of the sniffles. So by the time I arrived in Italy to see the land where Caesar ruled, Raphael painted, and Alfredo fettucinied, I had lost most of the feeling in the lower half of my body and had an incipient case of the flu. I was fine for the first part of my first day there; my first dinner of veal and pasta and some Italian vegetable, the name of which escapes me at the moment, was very nice, I thought, although the veal was just a little bit on the dry side along the edges; and then disaster, as it is wont to do, struck. I am not sure what the cause of this particular strike was; I don’t speak the language, after all, but there were lots of hammers and sickles on display and I suppose I could have saved a fortune on hardware and farming implements if I had any interest in hardware and farming implements. But I didn’t and I don’t, so I spent the rest of my first week in a foreign land flat on my back with a high fever and jet lag to boot.

The problem with being flat on your back in a foreign land with a highly communicable disease is that there is nothing for you to do all day except be sick and watch satellite television, which was a very odd experience since almost none of the channels were in English, except, of course, for the BBC, and after a while even that grated on the nerves; the sports guys on the BBC don’t cover major league baseball, which left me in a cognitively dissonant state: I knew it was baseball season, but I could find nothing about baseball anywhere on the television. This, I think, only exacerbated my already weakened condition and led to a maddened continuous rush through the channels as I tried to find something, anything on the television showing a picture of New York. At length I had to settle for a financial news channel showing the floor of the New York Stock Exchange; it wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for, but when you are sicker than ten sick horses and in a foreign land to boot, you do not look a sick gift horse in the mouth, which is a fairly disgusting thing to do even if you and the horse aren’t sick. I could have made a lot of money if I’d bothered to invest in the market that week; I’m pretty sure I knew more about what was going on in Wall Street that most of the brokers.

So there I lay, burning with fever, drinking Nyquil by the quart, and if there is anything that shows the ultimate benevolence of America in our fallen world, it is Nyquil, flipping through the innumerable channels available to the European satellite viewer. After watching a French panel discussion about comedy; at least, I think it was about comedy; no one laughed at all, although one guy managed to crack a smirk worthy of President Bush, so the show may have been about nuclear proliferation instead, I flipped to a interview with a Portuguese bullfighter trying to explain how the bull managed to pop a horn into his backside and then to MTV Germany; you have to wonder if giving MTV to Germans was really such a good idea; and then to three channels of the same guy wearing the same robe reading the same news from Dubai. From there it was off to RAI, the Italian TV stations, for Vivaldi concertos and game shows with a lot of pretty girls in showgirl costumes standing around doing nothing except being pretty girls standing around in showgirl costumes, which is nice work if you can get it, and hence to the local programming from there in Catania, and it doesn’t make any difference what language you speak, Sabina Rossi on Ev’viva la Citta looks good in all of them. And in the middle of the night, when the fever was at its height, there are always the soft-core porn ads from Brazil and from there to Polish television. Here I stopped, utterly aghast, and began to scream.

I am usually a fairly calm person, all in all; the vicissitudes of life don’t usually get me down unless the Yankees’ center and left fielders run into each other at the wall and so allow the go-ahead run to score for the Angels in a game the Yankees should have won, but let’s not be bitter about what can’t be changed now, and so I turned to Polish television, doing so in all innocence, because it was the next channel after Brazilian soap operas and Swiss yodeling contests. I was violently ill, remember, and so I could not deal with the phenomenon before me with my usual aplomb and general acceptance of the usually silly human condition. I looked at the screen and began to scream because I knew I was dying, I was as sure of that as I am that the sky is blue, or would be if this damn cold front over us now would just move out into the Atlantic where it belongs, and I knew that I had arrived unshriven at the hour of my death because I was, in the middle of a foreign land where no one on television spoke English, hallucinating that there was a Polish reggae band manned by Polish Rastafarians in Polish dreadlocks and smoking Polish ganja playing Bob Marley tunes in Polish on my TV screen. Convinced of my immediate demise, I screamed for a priest to hear my confession, terrified that I was going to meet the Almighty with mortal sin on my soul. Then I passed out; whether it was fear of damnation or the quart of Nyquil that caused the slump into unconsciousness is still a point of debate between my brother and me.

I woke up late the next day feeling much better than a man who has just had a near death experience has a right to feel. The fever had broken in the night and while I was still sick, I was now officially on the road to full recovery. I tried to tell my brother about the Polish reggae band, but he told me that I was dreaming things, and frankly, I believed him. The next couple of days went well, and we went off to see the sights of Palermo on the other side of Sicily. I especially enjoyed the Capuchin catacombs, where the 18th and 19th century Palermitano elite are hanging on the walls, most of them looking as good as I felt during my first few days in Italy. On the day before I left, though, while I was just flipping through the channels waiting for my brother to get out of the bathroom, I saw them again. There really are Polish reggae bands, as odd as that may seem; it makes you wonder how something like this ever happened. It can hardly be some form of cultural reciprocity; I don’t have the facts and figures on this at my fingertips, but I would venture to say that polka bands are probably few and far between in Jamaica. I was able to put my mind at ease about one thing; I’m pretty sure those things near their mouths were not reefers; they may have been smoked kielbasa, for all I know, or simply very large microphones, but they weren’t reefers. It’s always nice to know that you’re not crazy, after all. It makes the whole day seem that much better.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

URSINE OF THE THYMES: The Truth Laid Bear, before whose infinite wisdom we must all bow in reverence and awe, has raised me from a flappy bird to an adorable little rodent. I would like to thank all of the readers and linkers who've brought me up to the level of common vermin, and I will do my utmost to be deserving of the trust you have placed in me. To begin with, I will not raid your houses for cheese, if for no other reason than I dislike most cheeses in the first place. I will restrain myself, however, from pilfering your mozzarella, so that you may enjoy your pizza in peace and safety.

Friday, October 07, 2005


I have been tigged by the Pedant-General, no less, for this particular meme. Now, I am old enough to remember the days when tigging was a respectable profession open to a good many intelligent lower class lads; proud parents boasted of having their boys tigged back then, and often took pictures of the process; there's many a proud picture of a tigged boy standing with his parents in front of the old alma mater back in the day, but with the coming of the 1960's and the whole do your own thing mindset tigging became something vaguely louche and unacceptable, by slow degrees becoming the intellectual slough of despond it is today.

I do not have pictures of where I blog; I do have a picture of a desk with a rough draft of something on it, but nothing of the place where I actually write these things or of the computer with which I inflict these screeds upon an unwilling world. I do not own a computer of my own; I have an electric pencil sharpener, which I thought a great advance in communications technology before the niece who knows everything worth knowing told me to stop being such a cheap bastard and buy a computer; and so I must use the computers here in this egregious mold pit to type up these teary missives. The process is fairly simple: I write the blog entries out by hand, adding or cutting as I go. I then type this stuff up, again editing as I go, and then edit again when I put it into Blogger. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

CULINARY QUESTIONS: You can argue about books all day long if you want to, and I know more than one person who doesn’t mind doing just that, but there are those of us who have other things to do with our time than argue about what is or is not true in books, especially in what is or is not true in the popular, specifically horror, genre—at least I hope it’s horror, although you can never tell when this sort of thing is likely to come up, postmodern literature being what it is these days.

I mention this because someone asked me today about something they read in a novel by Clive Cussler. I should mention that I am not a big reader of popular fiction in any genre, so when asked I could not claim familiarity with this particular work by Mr. Cussler. The patron asked if the tavern in a particular Cussler novel, a tavern set in the county seat of our neck of the woods, which is what prompted this question in the first place, actually existed, and did it actually serve the menu suggested by Mr. Cussler. I had to tell the patron that the menu was probably a bit of literary and gastronomic license on Mr. Cussler’s part, given that I had never heard of any tavern in our little slice of heaven actually serving up the roasted, broiled, boiled, fricasseed, deep-fried, sautéed, caramelized and otherwise specially prepared miscellaneous body parts of non-paying customers in a secret sauce with a side order of French fries and a large Pepsi to the general public.

This bit of news deflated the patron considerably; I couldn’t tell if this was because she wanted to patronize this fictional tavern or because she was one of those decent citizens who use their public libraries to live vicarious lives of sin and licentiousness and didn’t like my shooting a hole in her decadent fantasies. I felt bad about this, and I promised her that I would look into the matter and see if Mr. Cussler had based his fictional tavern on an actual incident. That brightened her right up and she left telling me she would call in the morning to see what I had found out. I will check the local history files, of course; if you’re going to do this you might as well do it right, but frankly, I am not holding out any hope for this search. I do wonder, though, if the ethnicity of the person served has any bearing on the menu; if, for example, there is not enough available chicken for General Tso’s chicken, would General Tso do as a substitute, or would you have to get an enlisted man to serve, and would he be a volunteer or would conscription be necessary in this case?

Monday, October 03, 2005

THE TANK IS DRY: In short, I have no ideas for anything, so when this happens I dig out this old chestnut and foist it on the public for another burst of their indifference. You may read or ignore this as you choose.

The brownie’s triumph over scandal and a sordid past, over the many obstacles tossed into its path by an uncaring fate on its tortured and tortuous road to suburban respectability, is one of the great-untold stories of modern history. After several centuries of extensive study historians cannot determine why this should be the case, although lack of interest cannot be ruled out.

In the beginning, or shortly thereafter, Domenico Sbaglio and his half-whittled brother, Guido, scions of an ancient baking house that had fallen on hard times and couldn’t get up, discovered the brownie in 1477; she was working part-time in a bagnio-cum-tire store, swiping the steel belts out of new radial tires and selling them to the rag trade for corset stays. It was love at first slight. Politically, both brothers were supporters of the Pazzi family in their vendetta against the Medicis, who dominated Florence and her sister Sally in those days; the sisters have since moved on to bigger and better things; recent credit bureau reports show that they are now working the perfume counter at the Wal-Mart on the outskirts of Davenport, Iowa and still have trouble paying their bills. Domenico, the moodier of the two brothers, blamed Lorenzo (Il Magnifico) de Medici for destroying the Sbaglio family fortune, ruining the family’s good name, and stealing their ancestral recipe for chocolate bundt cake, which you can have but not eat, although in the interests of cultural and idiomatic verisimilitude it must be pointed out that in Italy cake is not involved in this sort of thing; Italians, sensibly enough, worry about having a full bottle and a wife who is three sheets to the wind, and cleans those sheets with back issues of thyme, and Tide, which wait for no man, but will certainly wait on any attractive blonde who leaves a nice tip. Guido didn’t know why he went along with his brother in blaming Lorenzo for the loss of the family bundt cake recipe. He didn’t like bundt cake to begin with and he was not sure he liked his brother constantly calling him a halfwit; he thought he possessed enough of his wits to get by and he told everyone he knew that he only put up with his brother in order to pick up girls.

As luck would not have it, the Sbaglio brothers died violently in the aftermath of the failed Pazzi plot to kill Lorenzo de Medici in 1478. Lorenzo had both brothers boiled in cooking oil and then baked in chocolate sauce, brownie battered with bats and balls, and then pitched headfirst into the Arno River with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and a man on third. Leonardo da Vinci sketched the details of these horrific deaths from life; Lorenzo later wrote satiric verses under the sketch of each brother mocking them, their suddenly unfashionable brownies, and their family’s recipe for bundt cake.

Leonardo later used details from these sketches in his painting of The Last Supper. The passionate art lover looking at the last plate on the left will see that the maitre’d has piled a stack of brownies upon said plate, a stack that is shaped remarkably like the faces of the Sbaglio brothers. St. James the Lesser is staring wildly at the brownies, struck dumb by this grim omen, although St. Thomas the Doubter looks as though he’s saying sometimes brownies are just brownies, dammit, while the far end of the table, St. Jude the Finder of Lost Things is speaking to an insurance salesman, trying to get a better deal on his homeowner's insurance.

The brownie’s popularity took another hit in the 1480’s and 1490’s when the fiery friar Savonarola first denounced the brownie as sinful and luxurious excess, a vanity worth of the hottest bonfire. At the height of his political and religious influence in Florence Savonarola changed the recipe and his tune, demanding that the faithful eat his newly constituted brownie as a symbol of their devotion to the Church, a change of heart that convinced the Florentines that Savonarola was himself a servant of the Anti-Christ. Arrested, charged with heresy, treason, blasphemy, and sodomy for the unnatural act of adding walnuts to brownie batter, the Florentine mob burned Savonarola at the stake until well done for his crimes against God and man.

The brownie’s popularity waned after the Renaissance; the Baroque elite found the brownie too bland, a trifle fit only for pigs and peasants, in that order, and the philosophes of the Enlightenment, with the exception of de Sade, believed that brownies were a symbol of the ancien regime. Rousseau believed man is everywhere born free but was everywhere enslaved by brownies. Diderot wrote an extensive article in the Encyclopedie on the brownie, an article that gave recipes, glorified the brownie as one of the mainstays of popular French culture, and lashed out at greedy aristocrats who abused their hereditary rights to the first brownies out of the oven. Beaumarchais based the plot of Le Mariage de Figaro on this article, although he had to make extensive changes in the plot to make the play even vaguely acceptable to the censor. His original play circulated in manuscript throughout Europe, running up bar tabs and hotel bills that nearly drove Beaumarchais to bankruptcy. Mozart based the first version of La Nozze de Figaro on this manuscript, in which his villain, Count Almaviva, attempts to use his hereditary rights to filch Suzanne’s brownies. This depiction of aristocratic oppression of the working class proved too controversial for the time; previews of the opera caused riots in Prague in which several people were killed. After extensive background Czechs and trial by combat several rioters were trainspotted to penile colonies in Austria for their crimes. Following the riots the Emperor, Joseph II, ordered Mozart to change his heroine’s brownies to something less likely to cause property damage. Mozart changed the brownies to cherries, believing no one would care about servant girls losing their cherries. Sade, on the other hand, supported brownies vigorously, thinking since brownies were the color and texture of excrement, he could use them to introduce the squeamish to the joys of coprophagy, the Squeamish being a tribe of South American Indians then living on a diet of Brazil nuts and archbishops. The experiment was not successful. Sade himself was inordinately fond of brownies and once served three years and a cup of hot milk and cookies on a cold winter’s night for attempting to poison several prostitutes with brownies laced with arsenic and old masons.

Brownies remained unacceptable in polite French society throughout the First Empire and the Bourbon Restoration, partly because of their connection with Sade and also because Napoleon, Louis XVIII, and Charles X all loathed walnuts, now an integral part of any brownie recipe, despite the cautionary example of Savonarola. Brownies enjoyed a comeback during the Second Empire, when the Empress Eugenie scored a tremendous suces de scandale serving brownies at a state dinner for the newly appointed Papal Nunzio. The British Ambassador, Sir Thomas Culdeane, attended that state dinner, found the brownies first rate, and came away believing that the brownie was much maligned and that he should do something to improve their reputation. Upon his return to England Sir Thomas introduced the brownie to high London society. British reservations about the brownie were numerous, with some tables booked for the early evening and then again around 10:30-11:00 pm to catch the after-theater crowd, but many people decided to wait and see the brownies at home on HBO, and still others waited to hear what the Queen thought of the scandalous French import.

Brownie lovers need not have worried. Victoria loved brownies and her good opinion started brownies down the road to full moral rehabilitation, except for the addition of hashish to the recipe. This specialty brownie was her husband’s discovery; entries in Victoria’s diary for August of 1854 make clear that the Akhmet of Swat introduced Prince Albert to the hash brownie in May of that year, when the Akhmet and Prince Albert were vacationing in Cannes. Victoria, in short, brought the brownie out of moral mothballs and into the parlor, and then into the laundry to get rid of the camper smell. She ate one publicly at her son Albert’s investiture as Prince of Wales, surreptitiously putting one into her mouth in the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who held that brownies were an abomination on the order of the African slave trade, the theory of evolution, and Roman Catholicism, nearly causing an apolexiglass window in the cathedral to break. Even with the Queen’s approval the brownie still retained a moral ambiguity that troubled the Victorians, a hint of the sinister and depraved that kept the brownie from being completely accepted by the middle classes in Britain and for years made the brownie unwelcome in the United States.

Charles Dickens discovered this fierce antipathy when he inadvertently introduced the brownie to the United States during a reading tour in 1857, a tour that nearly ended with an international incident. After a particularly fervid reading of the death of Little Nell, Dickens calmed himself with a glass of rum punch and a brownie. For a moment the audience at the Boston Athenaeum sat in shocked and horrified silence; the next moment the audience charged the stage and the police beat them off with gunfire and truncheons, killing twelve and injuring another sixty. The police detained Dickens for his own protection and then rode him out of town on a railroad. Dickens wrote polite letters of protest to all the leading newspapers of the day, but to Noah Vale, his American publisher, he wrote that by and large that his American audiences were little more than lice-ridden mobs of provincial ignoramuses, permanently addled by strong drink and chewing tobacco, a judgment preserved in his travel book, American Notes.

For the next twenty years, brownies remained an occasion of scandal in the United States. Matters came to a head in 1878 when President Rutherford B. Hayes and his wife Lucy (a temperance advocate best known for banning alcohol from White House functions, a decision which led to that most alliterative of all First Ladies’ nicknames: Lemonade Lucy) consented, at the urging of Alexander Graham Bell and the Emperor Pedro of Brazil, to eat some brownies with their Sunday dinner. Afterwards the President dined on stewed tomatoes.

The firestorm of protest from the churches the following Sunday was intense. One preacher in Kansas warned his flock that the Devil surely reined in Washington, D. C., and from his pulpit in Brooklyn the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher commented on the sad decline of the nation’s morals when the President, of all people, and at the behest of foreigners no less, should consent to eat brownies and stewed tomatoes on the Sabbath. Reverend Beecher predicted there would be “…abominations committed freely, and the young people of this poor, benighted country would revel in lewdness, fornication, and debauchery the like of which has not been seen since the fall of the Roman Empire.” Several well-known Southern preachers intimated darkly that the uninhibited consumption of brownies would lead to miscegenation and other forms of ungodly race mixing.

In the midst of this crisis brownies received some crucial support from some important and sometimes unexpected quarters. The presidents of the Grand Army of the Republic and the United Confederate Veterans, the powerful Civil War veterans’ organizations, for example, both came out in support of brownies, as did Mark Twain, whose characterization of the protesting preachers as a passel of praying jackasses only served to heighten the controversy. When asked for his comments on the controversy William Tecumseh Sherman stated that the whole matter was a waste of time not worth thinking about, much less commenting on. Brownies received a tremendous boost when Ulysses S. Grant supported President Hayes in a newspaper interview, saying that if brownies were beneficial they would do no harm. Millions of Union veterans and stalwart Republicans accepted Grant’s dictum as the final word on the subject, although brownie consumption lagged in the South for several years due to the same raisin being used over and over again instead of walnuts.

By 1900, everyone ate brownies in the United States, North and South. Brownies were so widely accepted, in fact, that Teddy Roosevelt ate a brownie before charging up San Juan Hill without his horse de combat and no one thought anything of it. With the victory over Spain the brownie’s place in American life was at last secured and today the brownie, once a penniless immigrant to these shores, is now a much loved institution of American life and culinary culture.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

ECONOMICS 101: My mother recently received a discount card from her medical insurance provider entitling her to 20% off all the drugs she purchases using this card. As a bargain you can’t beat that, as I am sure you’ll agree; I wish my health plan offered me such a deal; and for Mom this is an added benefit since she doesn’t take a lot of prescription drugs, just the occasional aspirin or Tylenol when she's really hurting. So she’s happy with the whole idea of getting the 20% off. I mean, who wouldn't be, right?

The thing of it is, however, that she already gets any drugs she needs for free because my father’s health insurance plan still covers her, although my father is now beyond the point of needing health insurance, or insurance of any kind beyond that provided for by a clean conscience, the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, and the grace of God. So, as a result of all this, my mother is getting 20% off of nothing. That's right, nothing, as in rien nada niente zip zilch and I ain't got none. I imagine this means that her provider will start sending her money along with the few drugs she actually buys with the card, but it seems to me that I have missed something along the way here. Is it just me, or is giving the customer a discount on something they are not paying for in the first place contradict the basic principles of capitalism?