Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sitting on a Wall

I'm not much of a historian, but I probably know more history than a fifth grader.  So here's my historical observation for today:  I think that the last time our government was so polarized into hostile, fundamentally incompatible camps may have been the decade or so leading up to the Civil War.  (I lived through the 60s--and those years were definitely filled with animosity--still, I don't think most of us really thought that the very fabric of the political system was unraveling:  Congress still managed to negotiate and legislate.)  But now, as in the 1850s, the battle lines seem drawn.  Neither side is going to blink.  And both sides absolutely loathe the other.

Furthermore, now, as in the 1850s, the reason for the mutual hatred is fundamentally cultural.  Oh, I know--there's a lot of disingenuous talk about how the disagreements are essentially about economic policy--and hence, susceptible to compromise.  This is untrue--and we all know it, really.

What divides us now, as in the 1850s, is a quarrel over the basic values and goals of the American people.  What should America be like and in what direction should our society move?

And most particularly, I fear, the quarrel is still--as it was in the 1850s--about RACE (with a dollop of religion, perhaps).  One side  (the Red) wants to "return" to a manifestly unfair--but clearly understood--world in which white people and fundamentalist Christians hold the levers of power.  Because this is a gut feeling/prejudice rather than a rationally defensible point of view, the spokespeople for this side couch the arguments in "economic" terms.  But those arguments are dishonest and in bad faith.*

The other side (the Blue) wants to "move forward" toward a more open, more pluralistic society--a world in which people of many races, creeds and orientations can co-exist in justice.  It's a nice ideal, but so amorphous that it frightens even some of the people who espouse it.  How would such a society function?  What old institutions would have to be dismantled and what new ones would have to be created?  Who would "win" and who would "lose"?  The moral high ground belongs to this side--but a STRONG LEADER is required to articulate clearly a MEANS to accomplish this end.

That brings us to Barack Obama.  Because he is black (and therefore represents everything that terrifies the racists) he absolutely enrages the Reds.  They would rather lose their country itself than allow Obama to score even the slightest victory.  And, alas, Obama has failed miserably to conceive and/or articulate any program that would inspire the Blues to rally behind him and take advantage of their majority and their moral high ground.  He has been content to pussyfoot and play nice (hoping, naively, to "win over" the racists--racists do NOT abandon their racism, Mr. President).

So there is no functioning rudder in Washington--and the country is adrift.  Or, to use another metaphor: isn't American society in 2010 a bit like Humpty Dumpty sitting on his wall?  And weren't we doing the same thing in the 1850s?

How about a rebel yell, here!  Already the governor of Texas is threatening secession! OK, but calm down.  History rarely repeats itself exactly.  Certainly, a strong Red anger prevails in most of the states of the Old Confederacy--whereas a much more tepid Blue spirit percolates about in the remainder of the country (minus, perhaps, Utah).  Still, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which the War Between the States could be repeated, given the heterogeneity of the country in 2010--including the Old South.  I do think, though, that something very unpleasant could result from this standoff:  assassinations, coup attempts, even constitutional crises.  Ding! Ding! There is nothing "divine" about our Constitution.  It has worked, mas o menos, for a couple of centuries.  But the Roman Republic eventually gave way to the Imperium; the Ancien Regime was eventually supplanted by a Republic; and, tellingly, the Romanovs nowadays run restaurants and drive taxis in New York.  It (or, at least, something rather like "it") CAN happen here.

Hello?  Hello?  Is anybody home?  Do you know how to make an omelette, Mr. President?  First ya gotta break some eggs.

* I know, of course, that there are many people--usually Republicans--whose political views are shaped by genuine economic conservatism--and NOT by racism or other cultural issues.  For the sake of this blog, I'd like to exclude those sincere believers from the "Reds."  It's unfortunate that such authentic conservatives (who may dislike certain policies, but who do not irrationally despise entire groups of people) cannot somehow disentangle themselves from the bigots and the hate-mongers.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Axel's Crossing

As that unseemly day in the Bronx Zoo faded from his consciousness, Axel rarely thought of Graziella.  She had become a phantasm, a mere wisp of memory, easily blinked away when, on the odd occasion, her birdlike mien briefly flickered across a synapse.

Until, of course, that inopportune day in the Calico Grill on Park Avenue--what was a New Yorker like Axel doing in a hamburger joint whose walls were decorated with rusty license plates and salvaged farm implements?--where Axel ordered,  he remembered it quite clearly, a California Bacon Burger, which the zaftig but cheerless waitress served perfunctorily, carelessly shaking the lone onion ring off its toothpick anchor in the middle of the bun.  As the crispy circle slipped unimpeded down the bun, past the plate, along the tabletop and, finally and precipitously and sloppily to the floor, Axel grimaced in very real pain:  it was a Proustian moment, he recognized it immediately, rendered even more harrowing by the fact that  it was triggered, not by a delicate madeleine, but by an over-fried onion ring.

Instantly he was  transported back in time (or, rather, outside of time, to the Bronx Zoo)--reliving the shame of witnessing Graziella's pantyhose--whose elastic waistband had snapped--slipping, slipping, slipping--inexorably, unbearably--to the ground.

There, in the faux western diner, Axel--it must be admitted--wailed in anguish.  Unable to face the zaftig waitress, and finding no convenient parakeet pavilion to which to flee, Axel unceremoniously rushed from the restaurant.  Running with no destination (though not entirely aimlessly, since he always maintained certain, well, "parameters"), Axel quickly traversed several blocks of Midtown.  Finding himself, at last, in the familiar verdure of southernmost Central Park (Axel rarely ventured north of the Pond--certainly not into the Sheep Meadow because, who knows?), Axel slowed his pace.  The agony was fading and, of course, there were the ducks to look at.  What to do, what to do?

A moment in church suddenly seemed appropriate.  Some nice stained glass and some soothing music.  Axel often sought refuge and comfort in the fuzzy incense-clouded obscurity of St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue--it was a haven of beauty and grace in the middle of this hellish, stressful city.  Penetrating the gloom, Axel discovered to his delight that a choral high Anglican mass was in progress--and it must have been a saint's day, since the three priests (yes, three--not the pathetic solitary priest so common in Catholic and Broad Church services) were sumptuously arrayed in scarlet stoles and chasubles, all overlaid with gold and flames (fortunately, no birds).  Axel wasn't particularly interested in Christian dogma--all the penalties and punishments distressed him--but he adored the ceremony and, well, the choreography.  High-church Anglicans had much better choreography than Catholics--they just put on a better show, with a lot fewer breaches in decorum (Catholics sometimes got so rowdy).

So Axel genuflected into a pew and watching and listening, he found that the remembrance of things past gradually subsided, to be replaced by fleeting reflections about this and that.  As he admired the skill of the priests in synchronized movement and voice, his weary mind began to wander.  What kind of underwear do those handsome, self-confident fellows wear under their albs?  Axel had once tried boxer shorts, thinking them more unobtrusive, more chaste (when white) than briefs.  But after considerable thought about medieval and renaissance codpieces--and especially in fear of losing his own underwear should an elastic waistband snap, Axel had at last committed himself to the tightest of hip-hugging briefs.  He preferred to think that the elegant priests shared his predilection.

As the mass ended, Axel found himself again in the harsh, noisy and noisome street.  Perhaps he should go home; yes, that was safe.  He would take a crosstown bus, on 57th Street.  As he boarded the ugly blue and white vehicle, Axel reflexively slipped the corner of his dampish Metrocard beneath his thumbnail, where a morsel of--what was it? votive candle wax?--had lodged. Unfortunately, an elderly lady noticed the grooming gesture and smiled knowingly.  Axel collapsed onto the hard plastic bench--not really a seat--how could they call it a seat?--in utter humiliation.  It was all such a burden, such a burden.  He would get out at the next stop.  He signaled.  The door swung open and Axel emerged into the rain-drenched street.  Thunder.  Sturm und Drang.

Turning west, Axel bowed his head, accepting as he must the rain that streamed down and under his cashmere sweater.  Nothing to do.  Then, in the turgid gutter, Axel noticed--oh, must it all begin again?--a half-drowned sparrow, hopping about and pecking pathetically at a soggy onion ring that was floating listlessly along toward the storm drain.  Unable to maintain any further semblance of sprezzatura, Axel surrendered at last to emotion and horror:  "Graziella? he whimpered.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Les jeux sont faits

Hi.  My name is Ken and I'm a compulsive gambler.

I don't know how this happened.  Somewhere in recent years--and especially since I retired--I've begun frequenting casinos way too often, and usually with wretched results.  I have lost a LOT.

Rationalizing has usually been fairly easy:  I'm old; I have several chronic illnesses; I'm bored; I'm useless; Everything is going to hell anyway; I'll win next time; etc. etc.

But the remorse is becoming overwhelming.  It's actually making me sick to think that I have wasted so much money when a) my own brother is unemployed, b) my nephew needs financial help, c) there's a possibility that, despite my gloom, I might live another decade or more and, because of my self-indulgence, find myself dependent on family members.  Mostly, after I return from one of these slot-machine frenzies, I hate myself even more--and wallow even more in self-pity.

So I've got to stop.  I cut up all of my player's and check-cashing cards.  Now I need, above all, to find a focus for my life--because the gambling is just Pascalian divertissement, I think.

Maybe tutoring at the high school.  Maybe some kind of volunteer work at the library.  Dunno yet.

I just hope that I can do this cold turkey, without recidivism.

And people like me can't actually go to "rehab."  "Rehab" is for famous folks who earn at least six figures and who suppose that going to some spa in the desert (and spending five of those six figures) will automatically restore them to health, wealth and prestige.

Rehab reminds me of high school tutoring, actually.  Grace's parents think that she should be an A student in English.  Grace, on the other hand, hates English, doesn't study and lies to her parents.  So the parents hire a tutor for $50/hour.  The tutor "works" with Grace twice a week.  Grace still doesn't do anything and consequently her grades remain unchanged.  So the parents fire the tutor because he/she didn't really  rehabilitate their daughter.  Rehab and tutoring probably can't work very well unless there's some honest commitment involved on the part of the "rehabilitee."

I hope I at least have that commitment.

Wish me "luck."

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Adventures of Ken in Niceland

I have fallen down a rabbit hole--and landed in a Niceland called Minnesota, where, according to our resident Cheshire Cat (Garrison Keillor) everyone is good-looking and above average.  Most especially, everyone is "nice."  In other words, everyone lies to everyone else, all the while firmly believing in the absolute veracity of his/her falsehood.  "Nice weather" means, of course, "Crappy weather but better than yesterday."  "Nice tie," means "Who the hell would wear a tie in this weather?"  "Nice town" means a place like Winona, which has a weed-clogged lake and a boarded-up downtown linked to Wisconsin by a rusted-out bridge that may collapse at any time.

No, maybe it wasn't a rabbit hole that I fell into.  Maybe it was more like the treacle well mentioned in the Dormouse's story (at the Mad Hatter's Tea Party). I'm living at the bottom of a treacle well!  How nice.

Here in Niceland we have mad (i.e., "nice") tea parties, also, presided over by our very own Hatter--Republican governor Tim Pawlenty, who is so crazed by the mercury in his headband that he thinks eight years of doing nothing in Minnesota more than qualify him for similar tenure as President of the U.S.

Unlike the Hatter (actually, it was originally Humpty Dumpty, I think), Mad Tim doesn't celebrate "unbirthdays".  Rather, he celebrates "unallotments"--which are executive orders unfunding programs and projects that were never actually funded in the first place, since the Democratic dormice of the legislature have been mostly breathing and sleeping, sleeping and breathing, and telling the Queen of Hearts (of whom more later) that the tarts are made of treacle.

Now for the Queen.  Michele Bachmann, a very "nice" lady indeed, who rules Minnesota's 6th District by, according to her own website, divine right ("God told me to run for office"  also, "There is nothing like being hot for Jesus Christ").  This queen, like all of her Niceland subjects, is absolutely unconcerned about what we less imaginative types call "reality" (if the roses are white, they can always be painted red).

And, leave it to the Queen to uncover all the plotters and perverts who have tried to steal America's tarts.  Start with gays (they're after our children; get down on your knees); then Democrats (they're anti-American let's investigate); then liberals who want to impose health care on people who'd rather be unhealthy (we need a blood pact to defeat these scoundrels); then pro-choice people; then Muslims; then, then, then....

Smiling beatifically, the Queen demands, "Off with their heads."

To give the Queen her due, she is far too nice to chop off your head while you're actually looking. Now she thinks that God is calling her to run for Vice President as Sarah Palin's running mate in 2012.  Which might put her at odds with, guess who?  Mad Hatter Tim Pawlenty.  D'you remember him?

Anyone got a mushroom?  I gotta get outta here.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Huckleberry Hell

Here's a very partial list of folks who, I'm sure, expect to spend the afterlife plucking harps in heaven:  Pat Robertson, Ann Coulter, Rick Warren, Pope Benedict, Michele Bachmann, Glenn Beck, Ayatollah Khamenei, Osama Bin Laden, George W. Bush and (let's throw in at least one Democrat) Jeremiah Wright.  Imagine what beautiful music these harpies will make together.

And you'd better watch out!  If you don't behave according to the rules these guys promulgate, you will be cast into the Other Place.  That's because all of the aforementioned angels-in-waiting have special connections with the Almighty, connections which give them alone the power to interpret properly (choose one or more) the Bible, the Koran, the Constitution.

If you don't see it their way (never mind that they don't agree among themselves), you're heading for hell.

Do you remember Huck Finn's dilemma?  All the angels-in-waiting of his day have been telling him that he is morally obligated to turn over Jim, the runaway slave, to the authorities.  Huck wants to be "good," so he writes a note revealing Jim's whereabouts.

But, but, but...Jim is Huck's friend.  Jim is the only truly "good" thing that has ever come Huck's way.  To betray this friendship and to hurt his surrogate father would be a monstrous evil--contrary to every impulse in Huck's 13-year old conscience.  So Huck decides to do a "bad" thing--he tears up the paper and says to himself, (with enormous relief):  "All right then, I'll go to hell."

I think it's pretty clear that Huck truly believes that he WILL go to hell (though, of course, Twain doesn't).  But Huck's common sense and fellow-feeling trump the lunacy of the supposedly "good" world.  He knows, somehow, that those heavenly rules supporting slavery are, in fact, inhuman and wrong.  So, for Huck, going to hell is the only moral thing to do.

That's pretty much how I feel when I listen to the hateful "morality" spewed--ever so unctuously--by the angels-in-waiting I mentioned in my first paragraph (about, let's say, anyone who is poor, gay, sick, unbelieving, of another color).  My common sense rebels and I say, with Huck, "all right then, I'll go to hell."

Will you join Huck and me there?  Maybe we can build a raft for that lake of fire.  And have a party! (It'll be a lot more fun than plucking harps with creeps like Ann Coulter and Pat Robertson.)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Shakespeare for your Sweetie

The Winona Daily News (our local five-page scandal sheet and sports chronicle) had an article today about a Valentine's Day service that young (or old) lovers can hire in order to impress their sweethearts on Valentine's Day:  for a modest fee, an actor from the Great River Shakespeare Festival--obviously unemployed at this time of year--will come to your sweetie's residence and recite for him or her one of Shakespeare's "sublime"  love sonnets.

As a money-making scheme, it's not a bad idea, really.  The Great River Shakespeare Festival operates only during the summer months, so goodness knows how the actors support themselves during snow season.  (I keep getting letters requesting contributions, but I'm quite sure that my widow's mites are not keeping many pantries stocked.)

As usual, though, I was amused by the sappy and uninformed adulation accorded the Sonnets--not because anybody has ever read more than four or five of them--but because they were written by "The Bard."  Shakespeare, like a few other "divinities" (Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Beethoven, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, General Motors, CitiBank), is just "too big to fail."

Knock down any of these pillars of culture or credit and, poof, the whole edifice of human civilization will, presumably, come crumbling down.

Hee, hee.  Well, I can tell you this:  Shakespeare, despite all of his unquestionable linguistic prowess, was a shamefully careless grammarian (you can find dangling participles and misplaced modifiers on almost any page); he didn't give a damn about plot logic (the whole denouement of Hamlet is a ridiculous serious of accidents); and his puns--oh God, they are such groaners!

He could have used a nice combover, too, eh?

From my point of view, though, the best joke is that Shakespeare's "sublime" love poetry was, for the most part (126 sonnets out of 154) addressed to a "fair youth", Mr. W. H.--the Bard's "master-mistress."  In other words, these are poems expressing homosexual feelings--and all the hand-wringing by critics over the years cannot change that fact.  Oh dear. Oh dear.  There goes civilization.  And how would a red-blooded straight dude from Winona, MN, react if somebody (such as the Winona Daily News) told him the truth--that the kinda "poofty" actor from the Great River Shakespeare Festival was reciting a homoerotic poem to the straight dude's opposite-sex lover or marriage partner (for more complete information on "opposite marriage", see Carrie Prejean's interview with Larry King). Well, THAT was good money wasted!  Now the straight dude will have to do something manly to prove that he isn't a fag like fancy nancy Shakespeare. Can't watch football tonight--gotta get it up!

And another thing that's fun and funny:  as anyone who's actually read them knows, a whole bunch of these so-called love poems are intended less to celebrate the beloved than they are to brag about Shakespeare's remarkable skill as a poet.  Ever-popular Sonnet 18, "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day,"  is a good example. Yes, this poem does say some nice things about the fair youth.  But essentially, the main message is:  I'm such a damned good writer that I can make you immortal just by talking about you in my poem.

I once wrote a parody of Sonnet 18--in approximate Southern California Surfer Dude dialect.  Here it is.  As long as this blog lives, so will my  beloved Surfer Dude.

Sonnet Numbre 18, to Mr. S. D. (Surfer Dude)
        by Kenethe Kerkabee

I could compare you to a summer's day;
But you're a whole lot cooler dude I think.
The wind shakes up the gnarly curls of May
And summer's ripped before you even blink!

Sometimes the sun's, like, really really hot,
And then again the smog gets pretty bad;
So beauty fades, like skuzzy jungle rot;
'Cause that's the way things are:  it's oh so sad.

But you won't meet this double bagger fate:
You won't need Botox just to keep your glow;
You'll never meet St. Peter at his gate,
'Cause this poem everyone will get to know.

        So long as Hallmark prints and eyes can see,
        You'll keep on stylin' in these lines by me.

OK, sweetie, even if these lines don't live very long, it's been a real trip hangin' out with you.  Cowabunga and Happy Valentine's Day.

P.S.  EWTN, the Catholic cable channel, is broadcasting a program entitled "Quest for Shakespeare"--whose sole purpose, apparently, is to uncover evidence that the great bard was, in fact, a secret Catholic.  In light of the pretty solid evidence that he was also a secret (or not so secret) homosexual/bisexual, the Catholics might want to reconsider their claim to such a--how did Benedict XVI so delicately put it?--"disordered" individual...

If a pillar falls in an unread blog, does this have any effect on anyone?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Prairies, Flags and Trains

The Sound of Music was on again the other night:  flibbertigibbet  Maria singing about her favorite things (stuff like schnitzel with noodles).  I never actually watch this movie anymore, since its denouement is posited on such a colossal gaffe in geography (the Von Trapps cross over the mountain from Salzburg into, get this, SWITZERLAND.  Apparently neither Rodgers nor Hammerstein noticed that those lively and musical hills actually lie between Salzburg and GERMANY).

Well, anyway, if Maria can be consoled by thinking about favorite things, so can I.  Here is a modest list of my "Happy Thoughts" (oops, wrong musical):

First of all, I like prairies, provided they look like prairies--relatively flat and, most especially, empty.  No people!  No trees!  Just grass, as in the National Grasslands of Kansas.  Even if there are no buffalo, one can easily imagine a kind of George Caitlin scene.  Some desert landscapes are similarly evocative--but the mountains tend to get in the way of the nothingness.

I also like flags, especially those that bear some kind of full-scale design--not merely a lazy and boring tricolor of three vertical or horizontal bands of color.  Best flags:  UK, US, Canada.  Worst:  China (almost all red, ho hum--single color/single-party/uniformity),  Poland (a good candy wrapper), France (which probably invented the whole dreary tricolor idea).

However, I have pretty mixed feelings about what the flags represent--nation states.  In general, I think that nation states are a notion whose time is past (or never was).  Empires are better, at least once they've reached the point where only "maintenance" wars are required.  Then we can have an extended period of stability-- a "Pax" of some sort--Romana, Britannica, etc.  Of course, I'm not sure I'd much enjoy a "Pax Islamica" :  in such an empire, I'd probably be imprisoned for life or, more likely, buried alive.  Like Henry Higgins, who wondered why a woman can't be more like a man, I'm wondering why the rest of the world can't be more like sensible, Anglo-Saxon folks.  I have trouble forgiving Samuel Adams and Thomas Jefferson for sabotaging (at least partially) the British Empire.  If we had only been a little more patient, we might have become another mild and cozy Canada--instead of a slew of supercilious, sanctimonious, scarcely united States.  Well, anyway, I sorta believe in world government:  run by phlegmatic, English-speaking prefects.  (French-speaking might be OK, too--better food, worse poetry).

And if the Chinese want to run things, I could handle it.  But wouldn't it be awful if ALL of San Francisco wound up looking like Chinatown?

Trains are definitely "good things."  But I'm not entirely in favor of high speed.  The TGVs push the envelope a bit--too hard to see the scenery when you're zipping along that fast.  I'm more a "wagon-lits" type:  I like to pay the exorbitant fee for a roomette--just enough room to sprawl out during the day and to sleep (on a bed of sorts) at night.  I love sleeping in trains, even when they're clunking around adding cars in Oakland or Albuquerque:  it's cool to do two things at the same time--sleep and "go somewhere."

Birds appeal to me for the same reasons that trains do:  they're usually beautiful and they usually go someplace.  Ever notice that trains often get named for beautiful, swift birds:  eagles, cardinals, wolverines (oops, sorry about that).  Of course, there is no train named "Turkey."  That's because turkeys are not beautiful and they're too stupid to go anyplace, even if they could.  Hence, we eat them.

Eating is also one of my favorite things.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Des mots qui ne vont pas tres bien ensemble

Faith, hope, charity (love); liberty, equality, fraternity.  Blah, blah, blah.  We've heard these formulas so often that we simply assume a kind of complementarity within each triad, viz.:  faith reinforces hope; hope reinforces love, etc.; all elements work together happily in order to achieve some ideal.

But, if we examine each formula carefully, we see that, in fact, it just ain't so.  Au contraire.  Far from being cozy collaborators in a common enterprise, the elements are, in fact, frequently as hostile to each other as were, well, Gilbert and Sullivan.

Let's start with St. Paul's trio.  Remember the old Sunday School hymn?  "Ya gotta have faith, hope and charity/ That's the way to live successfully/ How do I know?/ The Bible tells me so."  Trouble is, faith and hope seem to be frequently at odds--and too much of either of them seems to threaten love.

Faith means "giving it all to Jesus"--trusting that everything that "is" is for the best, in spite of the cruelty, violence and insanity of what God has apparently ordained.  This kind of submission is, in fact, a form of hopelessness--"it's God's will" is merely fatalism disguised as piety.  So the faithful are often not very hopeful (except with regard to anticipated rewards in the afterlife).

Hope means "confidence that things can be fixed, worked out, improved."  It's a belief in progress and free will.  Hopeful people generally don't have much need for faith in Jesus or Yahweh or Allah to reward them in an afterlife.  Things are OK right now--and there's nothing to prevent matters from getting even better.

So the hopers don't have much need for faith, and the faithers don't have very much hope.

Some historical examples?  Since I'm a French major, let's take two Frenchies:  Calvin and Robespierre. Calvin had great faith, but not much hope in humankind.  His omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent God had predestined everything from the beginning of time.  Not much likelihood that human effort could "fix" things.

So Calvin had very little love for anyone.  Why bother?  God takes care of that stuff.  All we have to do is burn the heretics. It's God's will.

Robespierre, on the other hand, had great "hope" for humankind.  Human beings could perfect themselves, without any need for God.  They could become "incorruptible," like Robespierre himself.  Needless to say, he didn't worry too much about love.  If you're going to fix things, you might have to terrorize some folks and chop off a few heads.  But it's for everyone's good.

Let's summarize:  strong faith = little hope = no love; strong hope = little faith = no love.

And yet, St. Paul says, "but the greatest of these is love."  Is he contradicting himself?  Does he really mean that we should do everything we can to GET BEYOND faith and hope--so that, once we've dumped those two contradictory and inhuman emotions, we can finally achieve some kind of truly meaningful state:  love?

Or is love some kind of "synthesis" of faith and hope--not too much of either, or an equilibrium between the two?

Well, how about "liberty, equality, fraternity"?  Just as faith and hope seem mutually contradictory, so too do liberty and equality.  The more freedom humans have, the less likely they are to be equal.  My right-wing friends (yes, I have some) agitate vociferously in favor of more freedom (to do what?  to get ahead at the expense of others?).  My left-wing friends (I have lots of those) assert that unrestrained freedom simply fosters inequality and injustice (so limits must be imposed on individual conduct).

Examples?  Let's take Americans this time.  How about the tea partiers vs.  Tea-party tenets:  if individuals can do whatever they like, without restraint; if no one is his brother's keeper; if social Darwinism should prevail (even though most tea-partiers detest Darwin), then we will have a lot of liberty, but little justice.

If, on the other hand, the moveon folks get their way, laws will be implemented whereby all citizens will receive similar protections and benefits from society--a grave restriction of the freedom of tea partiers who want to "git" whatever they want to "git" from life, and to hell with the whiners and complainers.

In neither case, does fraternity or fellow-feeling matter very much.  The tea partiers despise the whiners and the moveon folks have absolutely no sense of brotherhood with the exploitative tea-partiers.  Hate your enemy, as cable TV news preaches.

Summary:  liberty = limited equality = no fraternity; equality = limited liberty = no fraternity.  Left-wingers and right-wingers alike simply don't much like other people (except, of course, members of their immediate "tribe").

So once again, I ask:  is FRATERNITY, like LOVE, a kind of super-emotion?  A more meaningful state than either freedom or equality?  Is it what we should be striving to achieve BEYOND those other, less humane sentiments?

Ah, what a conundrum!  I can't really figure it all out, but I DO know that, in the long run, I agree with St. Paul--that love is greater than faith or hope.  And I also feel that fraternity--much neglected by the French and the Americans alike--is a way to get beyond obsessions with principles of freedom and justice.

Can love and fraternity prevail? First, perhaps, we have to ditch faith, hope, liberty and equality.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Not there, or, As imperceptibly as grief, our summer slipped away.

Everyone knows Gertrude Stein's mot about Oakland:  "There is no there there."  She had been living in Paris and perhaps felt that there WAS some "there" in Paris.  I love Paris, but it no longer seems like home to me.  Ditto for Los Angeles.  And ditto for my current so-called home--Winona, MN.  Old age is beginning to teach me that, in the end (or, at least, in the almost end), there isn't very much "there" anywhere.

We keep looking for thereness throughout our lives and I think, when we are in our early productive years, we often feel that we have arrived at such a place or state. What is thereness?  A sense of belonging, a sense of being embraced by familiar and unchanging structures, a comfortable stability (both physical and psychological) where everything just "is" and where nothing will ever be anything else.


But there always slips away into not there.  When we say that something is "neither here nor there," we suggest that this particular topic is, in fact, irrelevant, meaningless, beside the point.

I guess that's what I mean when I say that, in my old age, I can't find much "there" in anything.  I am neither here nor there.  Every yearned-for certitude seems to elude me; every destination fails to satisfy--take a picture, buy a souvenir, but then move on to the next "there."

I'm conflicted, of course.  I'd like to feel that I'm a body at rest--in a genuine "there."  But I guess the ultimate "there" is the cemetery--where one is truly at rest.  And, all things considered, at the present time, I'd rather be in Oakland.

No there there?  Maybe that's a good thing.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Dark and Stormy Nights

Recently, a former student reminded me of a wonderfully funny contest sponsored by the English department at San Jose State.  It's the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest which, according to its website "challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels."

When I was teaching at Mater Dei High School, oh so long ago (1976-84), the faculty had a similar contest each year.  I dug around in my files and found a bunch of the entries.  They were hilarious.  Following are two which I wrote (I wrote several more, but these two are probably the best??? of my efforts.)  I'd love to share some of the material written by my former colleagues--exquisite descriptions of Louis XVI clocks, noisome vaults beneath turbid domes, death by guacamole--but who knows? maybe some of this stuff has already been published!  Don't want to break any copyright laws.  OK, here goes. 

I won a "cheap and tacky prize" with this one (apologies to former students who admired my high-mindedness):

Slowly he inserted three fingers, paused briefly to caress the dusky, firmly-rounded surface which presented itself so submissively to his touch, and then, mustering all his considerable force, thrust his entire manhood forward toward the long-contemplated goal, muttering almost incoherently as he reached the moment of ultimate release, "God damn, I really need to make this spare!"

This one is a bit long, but it gave me the chance to introduce one of my favorite "imaginary friends" to the world--Axel:

The bird feeder was empty again, a vaguely ominous and increasingly frequent occurrence which the befuddled and fretful Graziella found not a little vexatious in the midst of this, the most debilitating crisis she had traversed since that dolorous day two years before in New York when the elastic in her pantyhose had snapped apart like an over-fried onion ring just as she was leaving the Bronx Zoo Aviary on the cashmere-sheathed arm of her beloved Axel--a charming but, as it turned out, neurasthenic pre-Raphaelite who in mortal anguish at the sheer unseemliness of the sagging, rapidly-fraying nylon ensnaring his companion's hitherto unhobbled ankles, had spun about and fled precipitously toward the parakeet pavilion, abandoning her to the pitiless mockery of the milling crowd and inducing in her an emotional trauma from which she had not yet quite recovered (despite the therapeutic ornithology prescribed by Dr. Toucan) and which, she now rather biliously perceived, almost certainly lay at the root of her present insatiable cravings for breadcrumbs, beef tallow and cracked sunflower seeds.

Check out SJSU's winners at

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Testosterone Circuses

It's said that the Roman upper classes controlled the masses by keeping the plebes well-supplied with bread and circuses.  The idea must have been sound, since it seems to work in 21st Century America too.  Give us a bunch of publicly-funded stadiums and a whole lot of football.  

Of course, it's politicians who are greasing our palms with stadium "pork," whereas it's the beer and insurance companies who are buying our favor with the Super Bowl.  Maybe we can lump all the donors together under the umbrella term used in Brave New World--the "Alphas."

Alphas need to stay on top--and they are convinced that we Betas and Deltas and Gammas "need" this as well. So, if my reasoning is sound, here's something that both the lobbyists and the politicos can agree on:  bread (chicken wings and beer) and circuses (televised bowl games) are good for America.  Super Bowl Sunday is a sacrament of fattening, dulling food and rapid, but largely harmless, testosterone release.

Ok, Ok.  I know that this Marxist interpretation is pretty far-fetched.  I don't really believe that the Super Bowl is some monstrous conspiracy perpetrated by the Evil Capitalist Establishment.  (Too bad Glenn Beck is such a demented right-winger; if he were a leftie, he could really make a touchdown with my little conceit.)

So I know, intellectually, that football is not actually a plot against the masses.  "Plots" require premeditation and careful thought.  Clearly, no such thinking ever went into the creation of this inane sport.  Instead, football, I fear, just growed, from the grass (or Astroturf) roots of our evolutionary make-up.  Human beings, especially males, have a built-in need to kill others.  It's as simple as that.  And the human brain has evolved to appreciate "creative" ways of killing.  Hence, football:  a creative enterprise (game) that resembles killing, but substitutes making points for taking scalps.

Winners get the cheerleaders.

As you can guess, I loathe (and fear) this game.  Fat lot of good that does me.  I grew up in a football-obsessed family--a father who was a football coach, a brother who was the star high-school quarterback, a sister who, even today (at age 62) wears Viking jerseys and flies Golden Gopher flags from the window of her Rav-4.

Why?  Why do I WANT to believe that football is a plot and that I am a victim?  I suppose it's a matter of self-defense and self-esteem.  For instance:  I can write blogs like this one suggesting to readers (if there are any) that those of us who despise football are, actually, a kind of more highly-evolved race--a group of the Elect--Ubermenschen, sorta--people whose descendants will inherit our felicitously altered genes...

Of course, I don't have any children... Fail!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Freedom Burkas

Yesterday, I went shopping in La Crosse (a necessary trip for pretentious people seeking to avoid Target or Wal-Mart, the only stores in Winona).  Browsing around in Macy's, I found myself briefly in one of the many women's sections.  I think I was in a kind of no-woman's land between lingerie and long dresses (they may have been nightgowns).  Wow:  the tyranny of fashion.  So much padded, elastic, stringy uncomfortable-looking stuff in the lingerie.  But the dresses seemed cool.

I have never been very fond of trousers.  Someone once told me that it was the ancient Gauls who introduced the custom of wearing pants to the Roman Empire.  That's another black mark for the French, since pants are simply NOT as comfortable as tunics or kilts or robes.  Can you even get a wedgie if you're wearing a robe? (Wikipedia, that fount of wisdom, says that the ancient Greeks--whose men wore skirts--thought that trouser-wearing Persian men were effeminate.)

Well, anyway, I think dresses are just fine--for both men and women.  In fact, the mall in La Crosse is frequented by a rather hirsute dude who always wears a kilt.  Nobody points or anything.  (I do wonder a bit about the guy, though:  he seems to have no other occupation.  Can skirt-wearing be someone's profession?)  Well, anyway, to pursue my thought...  I like the idea of men wearing dresses.

Only I would never do it, except as a gag (in a French Camp skit, for instance).  The maternity dress in the photo was, for many years, a staple costume in such skits.  I had great fun playing Catherine de Medicis attired in this atrocity.  I think a lot of men feel as I do.  They love the idea of wearing a dress, but, of course, they simply CAN'T--unless there's some socially-sanctioned occasion justifying the seeming perversion (a skit, a Halloween party, or--admittedly a special case--a Gay Pride parade).

Women, on the other hand, feel free to wear almost anything they might see on the shelves of the Men's Department--though beneath it all, I fear, they still don their stringy, clingy, elasticized and padded undies.

My modest proposal is that we stop all this fashion foolishness.  Wouldn't the burka work for everybody?  A lot of looseness for men--no more need to buy clothing three sizes too big in order to give your "junk" room to breathe.  And no more padding and squeezing for women--since shape would be irrelevant.

You see, once again the French have got it wrong.  Instead of banning burkas for women, they should make them obligatory for EVERYBODY.  They could call them "freedom burkas" --or something like that.

If any of the world's governments take up my suggestion and pass such a law, I do have one request though:  please could we have our burkas in at least one or two additional colors?  Black is classy, I know--but it really shows cat hair.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Deer and the Ten Commandments

Old folks have a lot of time to sit staring out their windows, a la Emily Dickinson.  When I do that--provided the slant of light isn't too oppressive--I often find myself watching deer.  There's a little woods behind our house--full of weeds, scrubby trees and, yes, deer.  Our demented neighbors think that these creatures are "cute" and, in consequence, scatter corn and birdseed about (see lower right of photo) in order to entice the varmints into our shared back yard.  Yes, I said "varmints."  In truth, Bambi and his ilk, despite those pleading wet eyes, are voracious predators who, in summer, devour my tomatoes, petunias, hydrangeas and geraniums--and, in winter, munch away mercilessly at my once lovely Japanese ornamental crab tree.  I can't help thinking that they're hateful and villainous enemies of the human race.  They also have neither fear nor shame.  I once tried to frighten off an entire herd by standing on my upper deck banging a two-quart metal pot with a wooden spoon.  I broke the spoon.  The deer didn't budge.

This brings me to the Ten Commandments, and specifically, to number whatever-it-is (depends on whether you're using the Catholic or Protestant version):  "Thou shalt not kill."  Now I realize that when God inscribed that rule on the Sinai Stone, he didn't have deer in mind. In fact, he probably meant only "Thou shalt not kill any pious Jews who haven't broken any of my other rules (enumerated rather thoroughly in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy--for starters)."  But over time, the admonition has come to be applied to a broader swath of Creation.

But just whom or what am I forbidden to kill now in 2010 of the Common Era?  There seems to be some confusion.  I mean, could I borrow my nephew's rifle and shoot that pesky deer in the photo?  Well, the answer to this question, at least, seems obvious:  at the present time in Earth's history, almost all the Authorized Interpreters of God's will--including Pat Robertson, Benedict XVI and the Ayatollah Khamenei--would agree that deerslaying is permitted, though perhaps only seasonally.

But the guidelines for other life-forms are not so clear.  Convicted criminals?  Wartime enemies?  First trimester fetuses?  Carrots (a life-form, after all)?  And PETA would probably like us to extend the Commandment's protection to, at the very least, the "higher" mammals.  (How does PETA stand on rats and mice?)

Still inconclusive.  Here's a final thought.  Maybe "Thou shalt not kill" means merely:  let's protect ourselves by creating a taboo against destroying anything "like us."  So:  is that deer "like me"?  Well, like me, it seems to have a genuine liking for tomatoes, petunias, hydrangeas, geraniums and ornamental Japanese crab trees.  Dang, dang, dang.  Fail again.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Colonic Profiling

Has everybody been getting a lot of e-mails advertising "colonics" "high colonics" "colon irrigation" and "colon therapy"?  Or am I  being singled out because someone has profiled me and placed my name on a widely-circulated "full of shit" list?

Just for fun, I read a couple of the ads.  Apparently my colon is the source of most of my old age troubles--including, but not limited to arthritis, depression and near-sightedness.  According to one article, Dr. Kellogg, inventor of Kellogg Corn Flakes and other crunchy treats, proved the efficacy of colonics by making millions of dollars persuading people that cleansing their nether regions could be the pleasant byproduct of a tasty breakfast.

Well, corn flakes are one thing.  But hoses?

Mostly, I'm curious about the bodily circuitry involved.  I mean, how, exactly, is my colon connected to my cerebrum (where, presumably, depression resides and from which it must be flushed).  In other words, when my  therapist hoses out my entrails, how does the water reach my brain?  And then, even more importantly, how does it drain out?

Various Internet sources claim that both Princess Diana and Mae West were enthusiastic devotees of colon hydrotherapy.  Miss West asserted that her frequent treatments "kept her young."  It's hard to know exactly what such treatments did for Diana.

I freely admit that I am, more often than not, full of shit.  And I DO want to stay young and avoid depression. So should old geezers like me stop buying Prozac and Oil of Olay and instead put our money into our colons?

(OK.  I couldn't resist writing that.  I won't do it again.)