August, 1997.

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8/31/97: Extinction.

I remember hearing the argument of a scientist regarding endangered species that it was useless to protect them, since extinction was nature's way of telling them that they just didn't make it. Suppose sometime in the future, human beings eventually became extinct and were replaced by some tougher and more civilized animal. These species would relegate us to museums where dioramas depicted the once teaming populations of biped that roamed the earth in four-wheel machines and flew over it in giant flying contraptions. Their specialty was the production of toxic waste and the consumption of the top of the food chain (like hamburgers); and, they spent their time writing about trivial but shocking events on something called papers. These papers were sold everywhere and kept the creatures informed of the trivialities. Later, electronic means replaced the papers, feeding the species' voracious appetites for sensationalism. They also constructed huge and cavernous outdoor places where they convened to watch others of their kind bat, kick, and throw air-filled bladders.

Then, one day a cataclysm wiped out the animal, leaving meager traces of their living quarters and machines. Who knows, maybe the new animal will produce entertainments which speculate on the fate of the unfortunate and extinct humans and their destructive ways (like Spielberg's Jurassic Park).

You might say: this is impossible; we have covered the earth with our (dubious) achievements. Technology will take care of us: probably, but not in the way that we think. Tell all of this to the dinosaurs that certainly looked like winners 65,000,000 years ago.

8/30/97: Home Appliances.

The modern kitchen is certainly a storehouse of complex gizmos that do everything from compressing the trash to making bagels. There seems to be a ludicrous history of kitchen aids that no one would ever need (I am sure that everyone remembers the "Hot Dogger" that impaled the wieners and zapped them with high voltage). Some combo machines, like any food processor, have attachments that probably would only be used in times of national emergency, since I have noticed that I never used them and don't know what they do.

I was thinking back to the days when the ice box had to receive a big block of real ice, surreptitiously deposited by the iceman in a convenient outside door. Freezers, of course were unknown, even on the first electric boxes. They also had locks that seemed best at trapping small children (these locks were later adapted to those big bank safe doors). It was a special day when the electric fridge and automatic washing machine were both delivered to my house. My mother had dutifully filled the box with the usual dairy products and produce, and we all anticipated trying the new washer (an experimental model). This device, made by a company called Bendix had to be mounted on springs and bolted to the floor, or it would walk out of the kitchen during the spin cycle. Configured in this way, it had the frightening appearance of those robots in 50's movies.

Little did we know that tragedy awaited us in the very first trial of the very first washload. The machine was so vigorous in the wash cycle that it stuck in that position for an hour. During that time my brother decided to go to the new fridge for some chocolate milk. Not noticing that the entire floor was quaking from the cumulative thrusts of the Bendix, he opened the fridge door and received a flurry of salvos: heads of lettuce, bottles, apples and pork chops bombed him, producing a fright and flight reaction (he was only three years old). We all gazed at the impromptu salad and instantly became leery of technology. We had to unplug the washer and throw out the clothes, which had become rags. Essentially, we had invented the concept of beta testing.

The lesson learned has served me well: new gizmos may both create and destroy; and, they may do things not envisioned by their inventors, turning the hapless consumer in a "sorcerer's apprentice."

8/29/97: Lying Panda Sweatshirts.

The curse of Disney pervades. We believe the cuddley and fuzzy version of nature. At a recent visit to the San Diego Zoo, I decided to take in the pandas, on loan from China. Braving the long lines, I wandered into the panda gift shop and purchased a politically correct panda sweatshirt, depicting two pandas, tête á tête sharing a piece of bamboo. Sucked in by this fuzzy/warm paradigm, I prepared for the real pandas, who appeared to be sullen, solitary creatures who were wolfing down hot dogs (or some facsimile). They weren't even CUTE.

They had the kind of black&white foulness of the homeless or hoboes and a lumbering gait that reminded me of the possums (see Possum Airlines) I trapped in my backyard. How often are we the victims of propaganda, false advertising, and just plain phoney baloney. Having just recovered from the sartorial prevarication of the sweatshirt, I happened on a whole outdoor stand of endangered animal tee shirts. Most of the animals depicted seemed to be enjoying themselves, blissfully unaware that they faced extinction and that the only memory of them would be on a dumb tee shirt.

8/28/97: Fruit Heads.

In the very first Misfit column, The Faculty Meeting, I made the observation the people's faces look like bowls of fruit. It seems that, looing at piles of melons and pineapples at fruit stands, the opposite is also true: a given cantaloupe might look like someone you know. Whole bins of watermelons remind me of the powerful sitting bodies, like the Supreme Court or the Regents of the University of California. It seems that I have seen bunches of bananas in the secretarial pool and a row of pineapples in the beauty salon.

It may merely be a mordent disdain or a real association between life forms that generates this observation. Strolling in the park certainly may reward the casual observer with families of melon heads or bunches of grapes. Expanding the concept to include vegetables like cauliflower or lettuce provides an even broader palette for the categorization of human nature. I feel that I have had many an argument with cabbage heads and have been terrorized by kohlrabi heads.

We get our reality from the internalization of what comes through our senses. It does seem like on the way to the brain those notions take a few wrong turns.

8/27/97: Dogs....and More Dogs.

Shakespeare really began it when he wrote:"Let sleeping dogs lie." Then we got the dogs of war, dog tired, working like a dog, a dull dog, a dog's life, a lucky dog, in the doghouse, a dirty dog, shaggy dog stories, and, a dog in the manger or, perhaps, the ever popular clean expletive, doggone. This pig latin production replaces "goddamn" but implies the sudden departure of a dog which generates anger. Think of all the movie titles: Dog Day Afternoon, Straw Dogs, Reservoir Dogs, My Life as A Dog, All Dogs Go to Heaven, Deputy Dog, The Truth about Cats and Dogs, and Un Chien Andalou. They all suck human nature into semi-civilized bestial behaviour; and, if you recall any of the plots, that observation is confirmed. The opposite is also possible: dogs are raised to the level of people in their manner (like the Disney character, Goofy who is a dog, I assume).

Perhaps the quasi parasitical relationship between dog and man spurs these epithets and titles. The dog is either over or under priviledged, but somehow it is acted upon by forces beyond its control. The word is used in even stranger contexts: how about a HOT DOG? What horror is evoked by the idea that the dog is ground up, spiced and put into a sausage case. Why was the pink mystery meat not called a hot cat? Hot pig would make more sense (how about snake sausage?). I will not "dog" with any more of this doggerel; but, anyone wishing to add to the list is welcome.

8/26/97: Technoclutter.

I was looking at an old movie from the 40's and couldn't help to notice how few gizmos were on office desks. A telephone and typewriter seemed to comprise the full complement of business tools. Occasionally, you might see a Rube Goldberg dictaphone, hulking snakelike in the corner. Today, even the telephone has dozens of peripherals, from fax machines to video conferencing. Electric staplers, erasers, answering machines (new dubbed "voice mail"), copiers, scanners, not to mention all the computer-related stuff, fill up the desk so that often it is impossible to find a simple pencil.

My question is: has all this stuff really improved human communication or has it just enriched the likes of Staplestm, Office Max, and Home Depottm. Do we really need deluxe document shredders and power laminators to both destroy and preserve our pathetic correspondence. It seems that the real creativity of the modern world is invested in discovering what new mechanical device that nobody ever needed before can be invented and installed on the desktop. I wonder what would happen if I put my sandwich into the document shredder? I keep thinking of Douglas Leedy, a pseudo-avant garde composer who, in 1969 stuck his head in a Xeroxtm machine to take a picture of his face, only to become blinded for a couple of days.

8/25/97: Russian Back Pay.

One of the more mind challenging discoveries of my recent trip to Russia was some of the quick-fix solutions that came out of the new social and economic order. Workers, no longer on the dole, expected to be paid regularly; however, the fragile neo-capitalist merry-go-round seemed more stuck in reverse, with most citizens owed months of back wages. A new bartering scheme ensued, with people being paid in products (e.g. workers at the rubber duck factory would be paid in rubber ducks). Although few complaints were heard at Smirnoff, sometimes the absurdity of the remuneration had ludricrous philosophical implications.

"Life is sweet!" crooned many Moscovites working at a sugar plant and paid in tons of the stuff. "These boots were made for..." quipped others from the shoe factory: after all, you could never wear out 200 pairs in your whole life. This week the kinkiest of all occurred in a factory ouside of Smolensk where the workers were offered caskets as a substitute for back pay. Regular readers know that the subject of casket purchase has been discussed (see Mail Order Caskets or Mail Order Caskets Again) in light of implications of death and life.

In a vigorous reaction to the offer, the Russian workers balked and claimed that the company was morbid and perverse to offer them something they could use only in death (of course, there were probably a few vampires who were delighted, as long as the offer included a little home soil). Where would the disgruntled workers store the caskets? I could imagine lower middle class housing developments in rows of the depressing boxes out on the porch. This is one time where is joke is self evident: like one of my former colleagues once said about our university, "this place is a joke, and YOU are the punchline!"

8/24/97: The Horrors of Third Grade.

Since I stubbornly cling to the use of the classic India ink to write music on vellum, I have developed a healthy respect for the ability of the substance to inhabit almost any surface: from clothing to rugs. Real ink has a perverse opacity and seems to spread by a mysterious energy.

My first encounter with ink was in the third grade classroom of St. Bernard's School, a Dickensian monstrosity with rows of those dark little desks with real submerged inkwells. We were issued primitive straight pens and told to write about our previous summer (this was the first day of school). Since I had never used pen and ink before, being a master of crayons, a real challenge awaited me. After dipping the pen in the inkwell too far, so that the cork holder was soaked a large blob formed between my thumb and forefinger. When I started to write on the paper, the pen skipped and a blot of ink flew into the hair of the girl in front of me. I tried to remove it, but I used the inkblot hand to do so and put two blobs on the girl's neck. She stood up and began to scream, but since all the desks in the same row were attached, the sudden motion of the unfortunate girl created a tsunami in my inkwell; and, an insidious wave of ink began to travel down the surface of my desk, soaking the paper. I didn't notice it and put my other hand on the paper, soaking the palm and three fingers. The girl backed into my hand, and an unintentional obscene inkstamp was transferred to her posterior: a big blue hand shape with extended third finger. Doomed to this ink maelstrom, I sealed my fate when I reached for a handkerchief in my shirt pocket, replicating the obscene logo.

At that point the teacher, Mrs. McKinney, a gawky and angular Big Bird type, stormed down the aisle and commanded both of us to stand absolutely still. She tripped slightly and rubbed her posterior on the edge of my desk, giving her a stange ink line that seemed to point at her hips. We all left the classroom amid the vocal rumblings and laughter of the other students. Not since Brian Kelly had broken wind during recess last Spring had such a breach of the social order taken place.

8/23/97: The Rabbit's Funeral.

Sometimes a news story traverses the limits of credibility and rises into the realm of absurd fantasy all by itself with no embroidery. A few days ago a neighbor's pet dog killed (and partially ate) a pet rabbit owned by the family of the adjoining property (this accusation of the dog is alleged). The dog owner felt responsible and took the following steps: 1)gave the dog away, and 2) offered to pay for a pet funeral for the rabbit. The rabbit's owners devised a solemn affair with a procession to the pet cemetery and ritual burial.

Afterwards, the family demanded that the dog owner go even farther in retribution and provide a marble mausoleum to be placed to mark the rabbit's grave. Naturally, the members of the dog's family balked, and the whole thing will probably wind up in court. I say: why not take it to the next level and demand a high mass, flowers, obituary in the newpaper, even more tv and radio coverage, and perhaps criminal proceedings against the dog (extradite him from wherever he was banished).

There is a famous trial from eighteenth-century England in which a pig was put on trial and sentenced to death (recently, a movie was made of that trial). Given our modern court system today, the dog could live out a normal life, just angling for an appeal, if convicted. My question is: would prominent attorneys like Johnny Cochran and F. Lee Bailey take the case? Jury selection would have to eliminate the built in prejudice of dog lovers (and rabbit lovers). The entire world could hang on the precipice of suspense as the verdict on the dog is read; and, of course a wrongful death civil trial would ensue, with the dog plantiffs trying to extract material recompense.

Hollywood could then come into the picture with a bidding war for the movie rights to the case, with various competing offers to those individuals whose dog-rabbit trial books were published. Maybe the whole thing would wind up with a release of the movie, Canine Fugitive or, perhaps the weekly tv crime drama, Killer Dog. I say that the really fortunate people here are the cat owners...unless some bird owners are given litigious ideas.

8/22/97: Copy Machines.

As I prepare to take the ultimate plunge and buy my own copy machine, I look over the compelling circumstances which prompted this extreme move. Going into Kinkostm to make copies of any kind of documents or music has always made me feel like a Nazi war criminal, as I am subjected to Nuremburg Trial style questions about my original sources. Most suspect are my own compositions, which are looked at as though they were sets of secret submarine plans. In many ways, the copyright laws have gone bad in the can, when I am unable to make a copy of my own unpublished work (the only positive byproduct is that I am made to feel that this stuff may be of worth, with the valiant Xeroxerstm disallowing reproduction).

I was taken back to thirty years ago when there was no xerographic process, all copies were made from mimeograph machines, which had waxy master coated with a kind of sticky tar that always jumped to your clothes, or something called Thermofaxtm. This evil monster generated copies on a sort of rubbery pink skin with fuzzy brown lettering. A combination of heat and water was needed to produce the copy, which usually faded, producing copies that looked like seventeenth-century parchment. Photos reproduced by this process would turn a picture Mother Theresa into someone on a Ten Most Wanted poster.

Today we have become obsessed with saving and reproducing every tiny event of our lives. Not only are the most trivial documents preserved in multiples as though they were The Declaration of Independence, but events are videotaped (weddings, funerals, even street crimes), or at least audiotaped (how many dreadful kids' clarinet recitals reside in the vaults of people's homes, never to be played except by the heirs in some distant time in the future). We appear to be documenting everything, as though in the process we endow it with surpassing significance.

8/21/97: Comic Lexicon.

I started to recount all the fake words used in the comic strips to provide secondary sound effect, like oof! and splat! and realized that they could be organized by phonemic roots (like the Arabic language):

1)Ooey words

  • blooey (when things blow up).
  • Spooey (gooey stuff that hits a hard surface)
  • Ptooey (or ptui, where the root would be "ui", meaning expectoration)
  • Fooey (innocent expletive)
  • 2)Otz words.
  • Plotz (good substitute for spooey)
  • Blotz (Garfield swatting a spider)
  • Zotz (application of magic spell)
  • 3)Orp words.
  • Blorp (horrible substance emerging from bottle)
  • Glorp (bad or undistinguished food)
  • Slorp (reflecting primitive table manners)
  • Of course, this could be a life's work (like the Samuel Johnson Dictionary). There could even be a specialized volume to cover X-rated materials (like the works of R. Crumb). I have just given a modest sample from the O's. Maybe these words will find important usage in normal speech or official government documents (like:" Blooey! The Government of Cuba has decided to scuttle the Portaga Visible Immensas Cigar Factory.") The comic language could displace French as the official diplomatic language, and treaties could feature this colorful vocabulary.

    8/20/97: Home Town Blues.

    My present home town was recently in the news because a local pet python had escaped and had swallowed a chihuahua. The old lady who owned the dog evidently recorded the incident on videotape (like the now famous Rodney King tape), and she is now a crusader for pet reform ("no more exotic pets: no tigers, elephants, snakes, or monkeys"). The snake's forbidden meal has given this woman a mission in life.

    This kind of story is typical of the news in loser home towns. I grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey, a similar kind of suburban Siberia where its most famous export was Birely's Orange soda pop, the sweetest and worst on the east coast. There was a large glass window in the facade of the factory where you could watch the stuff being bottled. Plainfield suddenly became prominent when the movie, Born Yesterday was released, because the grouchy and abusive junkman (played by Broderick Crawford) came from there.

    For a while I lived in Collingswood, a suburb of Philadelphia which was a classic tight ass dry town, the most exciting thing was when motorcyclsts would taunt the local police (who looked like the cast of Mayberry, RFD) by racing up the main street at midnight. This place just missed entering paleontological history by 100 feet where the first American dinosaur was discovered on the border of Haddonfield.

    The sum total of these dingy memories indicates that I have always lived in loser home towns: perhaps it is better to risk being rolled in New York that being bored to death in Podunk.

    8/19/97: Mail Order Caskets, Again!

    Riding on the giddy crest of entrepreneurial success, DIRECTCasket is running their big August Sale. In Mail Order Caskets, I outlined the bargain available at this casket supermarket, where "buying retail" means doing business with the undertaker. For August the 50% concept is renewed: buy one csket at full price, and ANY number of other boxes go for half price. Bring the whole family to shop and select a final resting place for each taste and budget. My own feeling is that attending funerals is bad enough, but shopping in advance of need...?

    I imagine a vast warehouse where vampires, very conservative people, cheapskates, and other thrill seekers wheel their shopping carts along aisles of the boxes. You might have the pauper-type pine box, featured in shoot-'em-up movie westerns, of the Dracula model with extra comfortable velvet and replaceable trappings. I remember that my physician uncle had a small platinum stethoscope to hold: maybe you could have a table of occupational accessories. Plumbers would sport a gold toilet plunger, and drug freaks might have miniature crystal and silver bhang pipes. There is no limit to gravesite peripherals that could be made available.

    One last observation on DIRECTCasket: they will ship to any destination, saving that embarrassing trip home with the box sticking out the trunk of the car, or store it for you until that time when you occupy it (what a reassuring thought).

    8/18/97: People you Hate.

    One of the most insidious traits of human nature is the instantaneous reaction to other people that each one of us has on first meeting. There seem to be people that we like or hate immediately, even though the facts may contradict our judgment. Since the mechanism is so variable, we have all had the experience of instant like and dislike. I remember going into an antique store and being refused service: the woman at the counter said " I just don't like your face." I was quite shocked (looking to see if my fly was undone or perhaps there was some horrible spot on my clothes) and was tempted to summon up an expletive as a retaliating salvo.

    I start to think that anyone in a public position may have to possess these mysterious gifts of instant likeability or face obscurity. It is possible that archetypes from the movies have crystallized our evaluative abilities: good guys in the westerns have good skin, white hats, and never scowl. Bad guys have bad skin or some other foul appearance, black hats, and bark: "put the bottle on the bar!" Mafia types, and well as corporate larcenists and sadistic military lunatics are always completely obvious, even before they utter a single line.

    If our character assessment of others is truly tempered by a first-sight appearances, then it is no mystery why so many close relationships break up, dissolved in the mists of delusion. We may always be in the business of making up the identities of all the people in our lives that we choose to associate with. If so, then it is no surprise that wisdom is scarce and folly proliferates.

    8/17/97: Slice of History.

    As I ponder my photograph on my new driver's license, recognizing that it looks like some of those Serbian war criminals, I turn attention to the license itself. The first driver's licenses were issued in Paris in 1893, which means that many incompetent clowns were driving around for at least twenty years unsupervised. The interesting thing about these licenses was that the driver was required to know how to repair his own car as well as drive it. Imagine most of the people you know, underneath the family bus replacing the clutch or water pump. Corporate executives, housewives, heads of state all become grease monkeys along with the usual teenagers and do-it-yourself tyros. I was imagining the members of the Supreme Court working on their cars, as they prepare to leave for work.

    This system would certainly keep us all honest and flush out all the truly prevaricating professionals who fleece the unsuspecting car owner. The cars themselves would probably have remained much simpler with fewer doodads to go haywire. I can remember that the earliest luxury feature appeared on the Ford Thunderbirds (when they were real sports cars) was a sensor that increased the volume of the car radio as the car increased in speed. The imprudent misapplication of this "refinement": may be the cause of all pedestrians (and bicyclists) being held auditory hostage by Dr. Dre and Coolio.

    8/16/97: Telephone Bravery.

    We are all aware how tha communication revolution has freed us to get in touch with other people. First we could send telegrams (wireless), then talk on the telephone (later, conference and cell phones), and now video conferencing and e mail. An unpleasant ramification is the new found bravery that we all feel when confronting anyone, let's say, on the telephone. We will rudely interrupt, hang up, use foul language (maybe only when addressing an automatic voice), and behave as though no real person were at the end of the line. This primitivism has accelerated through the widespread use of the automatic router (if you want to talk to your mother, press 1, your plumber, press 2, etc.). Once again, technology, the symbol of ultimate civilization, is actually bringing us closer to those simians swinging in the trees.

    I would liken outrageous telephone behaviour to those sudden fits that chimps get in which they have to run amok and bite somebody (I still remember when J. Fred Muggs went wild on the Dave Garroway TV show and bit the host). Maybe the host's subsequent suicide was triggered by a subconscious reaction to the incident).

    E mail has pushed the rudeness disease to new heights. I get worse e mail than the most disgusting graffiti scrawled in the worst slum. I have received offers of unmentionable sex, wealth through crime, illegal weapons, strange religions, etc. My reaction has usually been controlled, but every once in a while I let loose with invective that I could never use person to person. Who knows: in a 100 years we will be swinging through the trees with laptops on our belts.

    8/15/97: Sermons.

    A local church recently put up the following sign:

    Having trouble sleeping?
    We have sermons for you.

    I guess that such retrograde advertising fits well into the Zeitgeist of the 90's; but, somehow the idea that a sermon would put you to sleep and that might be its primary goal undercuts the nature of sermons themselves. I think of the philosophically challenging sermons by John Donne or the hellfire ("Jeezus!") Bible thumpers of the recent past and wonder what those ministers might think. Of course, the prevailing modus operandi today is that the minister is "one of the gang", sporting a kind of folksy familiarity: it's not nice to scare people with hellfire and damnation. Of course, that kind of rhetoric keeps people awake. Although, as a child I remember being attracted to Satan (and his "works and pomps", whatever that means). It also seemed to me that people all on their own were capable of being pretty bad without any devilish intervention.

    The emblematic memory of sermons in my past was of my old college friend, Dave Nye, one of those mesomorphic weightlifter types who happened to be the son of a minister. Slumping in the front pew, he fell asleep while his father was laying on one of those George Gobel "aw shucks" homilies. Suddenly, the snoozing Dave let loose with an apocalyptically powerful expulsion of wind, which awakened him with a start. There he sat in a cloud (literally) of his own embarrassment, accompanied by disapproving murmurings of stiff and humorless old ladies. To me this flatulence was an editorial comment on all sermons.

    8/14/97: Minding your own Business.

    Americans seem to value their privacy, particularly in big cities. If anything, a person living in a big city can move about unnoticed and virtually invisible. A polite request for directions may be interpreted as a potential mugging or other attack. As a result, peole usually mind their own business in American cities. In India the opposite is true. I was in Trivandrum, which is a kind of giant dust bowl in the south of Kerala, and got into one of those motorcycle cabs, hoping to get to my hotel. The driver decided to go to any hotel, thinking that he could substitute any one he liked. When I suggested that this alternative was not acceptable, the driver asked another where this hotel was. A big discussion ensued in the middle of the street, and two passing cabs full of passengers entered the discussion. FInally, after about twenty minutes one of the passengers had a vague recollection of seeing the hotel about two blocks away, within walking distance.

    On another occasion I tried to take an Indian bus. The "terminal" was like a large dirt meadow with the buses splayed out in no particular order. Since none of them had been painted since 1946, it was impossible to tell which bus went where. When I finally found the correct bus (although it never got to its destination but broke down in the middle of the jungle) and sat down, a few minutes later someone tried to sit in my lap. They say that travel is a broadening experience: sometimes it can be a flattening one.

    8/13/97: Glue.

    I was just thinking of the time my wife super-glued her thumbs to the lid of the harpsichord. You may wonder how this unlikely series of events could occur. Interestingly enough, I saw it and could not reconstruct the series of event leading to that outcome. Years later I wondered, as I looked at the 35 different kinds of gooey stuff to glue things together.

    Each glue had its particular limitation, but all accomplished the same thing: stick Part A to Part B. The ancient caveman, collecting tree sap was not that different from modern man, mixing up epoxy or white paste (or, I remember some kind of evil looking brown stuff called Franklin Hide Glue, a caramel lookalike that always made me think of poor old horses being led into steaming vats at the glue factory). I was thinking how this white stuff (why is it called "library paste"?) formed a subsidiary diet item for many school children. These paste eaters were notorious in my grade school. What I wonder is whether the prepubescent paste gourmets of kindergarten turned into the glue sniffers of high school. I have to admit being so old that it never occurred to the kids of my generation to do anything with airplane glue other than make airplanes.

    At this point I could become exceedingly restricted in this discussion and talk only about the glue on envelopes. We know that that clear stuff you lick (which is probably the same as on traditional stamps) replaced the blob of wax seal, and now we have self-stick envelopes (and self-stick) stamps. Maybe these miniscule improvements are the greatest indicators of a technology driven culture. We will become famous for all the sticky stuff we have made, as the Egyptians of old were famous for papyrus.

    8/12/97: Outrageous Young Girl.

    Even with my jaded sense of the world and decades of living in New York City and Los Angeles, I saw something that really scalds my eyeballs. I was bicycling into Topanga Canyon when I spied a young girl attired in such an extreme combination of clothing that I almost crashed. She was wearing skin tight camouflage combat fatigue pants, rolled up to the knee above net stockings, each a different color, leading to pumps, one red, one blue. Her hair was in pigtails, and she was wearing a NY Yankees baseball shirt with a bolero vest covered in silver sequins. Add some tomato red lipstick, a string of real pearls, and a Mickey Mouse wrist watch (a lot like Daisy Mae on acid). After recovering from initial culture shock, I realized that this ingenue had given a whole new meaning to the word eclectic. What was so intriguing was that it all worked. She looked marvelous: sexy, ravishing, and totally integrated into the LA Circus.

    She was so close to being a clown, yet far removed from the usual Los Angeles parvenu fashion dinosaur, that she was a perfectly poised and totally original sartorial statement. Suddenly, I felt as though the 21st century would really occur in three years, and this apparition was a preview of a life to come. I think that I would like to live a hundred years.

    8/11/97: Good and Bad Taste.

    As I am about to throw out (see Throw it Out and Throw Them Away) that Bart Simpson Ciao Bella Roma tee shirt I picked up in Italy four years ago, because there is a spot on it that looks like I was bombed by a bird, I started to wonder why I bought the ugly thing in the first place. I notice one of those stupid umbrella hats in the closet and repeat my question: then it comes to me. We are defined as much by the bad taste we have as by the good. In fact, in a modern age frought with stultifying sameness (think of all those McDonald burgers all lined up in a row), sometimes the only way to be an individual is to exercise some horrifying breach of decorum.

    Bad taste is a kind of emblem of individuality, and bad taste may become good, if it endows its author with immortality. Like the Worthless Collections, which make no sense other than to define us, that indecent light-up-nude tie with flashing nipples gives you a place in the world (even if the X-rated tie is never worn). So, next time you get the urge to buy that hat that automatically lowers your IQ 50 points when it is on your head, go bravely forth and get it: one piece in the existentialist self-definition puzzle.

    8/10/97: Resolve All Conflicts!

    I just heard a radio commercial which touted something called the Conflict Resolution Service. Trouble with your boss? Worried about being gay? Too fat? We will help you at the Conflict Resolution Service. This sounds almost too good to be true. We all have been taken in by the scams of organized religions, but at least they give a little pageant, myth, excuse for your racism, and a place to deposit our money to expiate our guilt (we also get to spend time with people of similar delusions).

    It sounds like a hyper-civilized method of having someone else fight your duels for you. I started imagining disgruntled students of means calling up this service to bug me about their grades (kind of like hiring a Mafia protection racket, except that it is voluntary). There is almost no limit to the potential battles this service would fight. The way the commercial goes, even a fight with the boss can be shuttled on to the service: you see a conflict coming on, call these people, and some smooth talking character in a cheap suit goes in and does your arguing for you, getting you a raise in pay, a better office, a company car, an expense account. My question is: do you get to watch? If so, then you become a spectator in your own life, a minor charcter to your own conflicts (the opposite of the protagonist in David Copperfield).

    Maybe we're becoming too civilized. Conflict generates choice, and choice focuses our goals. Perhaps such mechanisms sould not be farmed out to meddling negotiators.

    8/9/97: Warning! Warning!.

    In the interests of public good taste, the following Warning Message (Click on to see it) is being published here: Not only a child will choke on this stuff, but the music alone would probably prove lethal.

    I have always suspected Santa Claus (see Santa is Mean and murderously hated all clowns (see I Hate Clowns), but the combination of these images with music is too revolting to ponder.

    Any music that comes out of a stuffed toy is guaranteed to affect the lower bowel. That's why the designers of kids toys developed such things. They produce a natural regularity which aids the child in toilet training. These toys may strangle you or block you up. We can all be thankful to J.C. Penney's for their responsible management.

    8/8/97: Weasel goes Pop.

    All around the carpenter's bench,
    The monkey chased the weasel.
    The monkey thought it was all in fun.
    Pop goes the weasel.

    Sometimes it is significant to deal with major literary motifs. The previous verse is recited by adults and children alike, oblivious to its inner meaning. We can assume that the carpenter is either unemployed or resting, because he is not working at his bench. The conclusion is that the workplace is unattended and, therefore quite dangerous. The presence of two animals, not usually thought of as pets in the workplace, is extremely curious. Many questions present themselves: why is the monkey chasing the weasel? Perhaps animal rights activists might understand the scenario. The last line, which is probably the key to the meaning of the verse may imply some violence done to the weasel, or perhaps some major health defect. "Pop" sounds like something fun; however, it may suggest cardiac arrest, stroke, or one of those spontaneous combustion events often referred to at the end of the last century.

    What if "pop" were a popping sound, indicating some sort of respiratory distress? The obvious conclusion is that the children's rhyme is about a violent medical emergency at the workplace, unprevented through carelessness. As in the case of Camptown Ladies I felt it necessary to warn everyone of possible nefarious implications.

    8/7/97: Preoccupied.

    The image of the absent minded, preoccupied professor is almost a cliche in popular literature and in the movies: from that flubberized "scientist" to Mr. Chips, the bumbling parade of educators has stumbled before us. I had a high school chemistry teacher who regularly put sulphur in his coffee and a math teacher who never changed his tie, but literally wore them out.

    At Columbia, Prof. Zigmund-Cerbu was famous for being able to speak 43 languages; the trouble is that he could not keep track of WHICH one he was using in class. We had a Prof. Harish-Chandra for calculus who was incomprehensible in that his English sounded like some sort of dialect which would be used by a bad actor playing General Tojo, and his writing on the board looked like a note written by kidnappers.

    Like all students, I had a good many laughs overs these pathetic misfits... until I qualified for the title myself. I was teaching a complicated analysis of a Late Beethoven Quartet and had filled all the blackboards. The students were reaching that point of critical mass where the forbidden sleep beckoned; so, I called a ten-minute break which sent them to the vending machines. When I returned to the class, I picked up practically in the middle of an adverb and proceeded at high speed. The trouble was that I did not look out at the class, but went straight for the blackboard. Turning around I was greeted by toddler chuckles: the class had been replaced by a bunch of touring six year olds who willingly took part in the joke.

    Now I have a more generous outlook on the eccentricities of the pedagogues.

    8/6/97: Who is Joe Gargulo? II

    Readers may wonder if I ever figured out the Gargulo mystery: well, since the note could have been as much as 15 years old, real detective work would have to come into play. Naturally, I called the phone number on the paper, only to find that it was an establishment called The Enchanted Nose, one of those little touristy stores specializing in potpouri, oils, and other stinky stuff that you are supposed to leave around in open bowls. The people there never heard of Gargulo, but they wanted to send me a free illustrated catalog.

    I started to imagine what a real enchanted nose might be: perhaps it would grow in length like Pinocchio or maybe it could smell out good food miles away; if you blew it, you would get your wish. Tiring of the nose game, I looked up Gargulo in the 415 phone book and began calling. Gargulo #1 was extremely grouchy and threatened me with multiple fractures (he never heard of me). Gargulo #2 was the owner of a pet boarding service, and I was referred to one of those automated phone routers (For boarding a dog press 1, for a cat press 2, etc.; we do not board snakes or any endangered species.). After reaching what was Gargulo's TV Repair, I decided that the mystery would remain; after all, whatever emergency prompted the "important" message had long passed.

    Now if I could only make out that word on my grocery list; I also had to figure out what that message for "Raoul" was doing on my phone machine.

    8/5/97: Who is Joe Gargulo?

    This is the question I kept pondering as I squinted at the crumpled wad of paper which I had just extracted from my wallet. Call Joe Gargulo, IMPORTANT the message intoned, along with a phone number from the 415 area code. Nothing about the message- the handwriting, name, or number- had any ring of familiarity. Then I noticed my expired Los Angeles Public Library card with the terminal date of August 1, 1978 and realized that there was stuff in my wallet from my own prehistory. We always tend to think of messages in the present; when they cross over into the timelessness of cancelled checks, business cards from defunct companies (I also found a card from one of those Pie-In-The-Face contract outfits that you could hire about 15 years ago), and movie ticket stubs.

    Suddenly, I had become a wallet archaeologist. I still had my Social Security card from 1955: the pathetic look of the signature betrayed my own callowness of the time. It was as though I had not signed my name very many times: not filled out many forms or paid many bills.

    While the Gargulo mystery continued to plague my memory, I went on to discover a discount punchcard from Bookstar (expired in 1987) and a campaign souvenir from the Geraldine Ferraro campaign (1984). It seemed that nothing in my wallet had anything to do with the NOW. For a second I fantasized a Rip Van Winkle scenario in whch I had been asleep for the last 10 years and was suddenly plunged into the world of Beavis and Butthead, along with Tiger Woods and other "famous" strangers. Then the phone rang and I was being offered a $200,000 loan on my house by some kind of electronic voice. Of course, I had to act NOW: I questioned what that word actually meant. Maybe I should clean out my wallet more often.

    8/4/97: The Mouth of Truth.

    Ambling into the modern world we certainly lost a powerful weapon for good with the demise of La Bocca della Verita in Rome (If you don't know what this is, see The composer challenges the Mouth of Truth). Imagine if we could force Bill Cosby to put his hand into that demon's mouth and ask him if Autumn is REALLY his daughter. Ask OJ about the murders, ask Jesse Helms why he hates grass (has he ever tried it?). The mouth of truth predates sophisticated electronic detection systems and is certainly decisive. Lie and you lose it.

    The real beauty of the system is that if you BELIEVE in it, the fear of retribution will compel you to tell the truth. That is probably the point in the first place. Of course the concept could be extended for minor lies: L'Ano della Verita. Stick your finger in and the worst that could happen is that you will be soiled (I leave all the other ramifications to your imagination).

    8/3/97: Lesbian Pedophile Nuns.

    I got this title from one of the more prurient entries in a usenet news group and started to wonder: Does anyone really believe this? Like " teenage sluts will do whatever you ask." This stuff is a bit of puerile fantasy and nothing more. After the flatulent cloud of pseudo-moral outrage clears what is really left? I think about the nuns I knew as a kid (see Nuns Exposed or Pizza Nut); and, although I thought they were red baiters, racists and nutballs in general, they were morally decent and certainly not pedophiles.

    Everyone is so worried that some sexually oriented or pornographic source will corrupt the precious innocence of a child. Well, I have news for these naive parents: the Wall St. Journal will corrupt anyone sooner; and, growing up is all about dealing with the imperfection of human desires and human fantasies.

    I say: lighten up, you self righteous party poopers. The bad people become bad through a mysterious process that probably involves genetic encoding, and the good people are probably in the majority. Don't confuse innocent fantasy with real life. Think about some of your OWN dreams.

    8/2/97: Fossil Fuel?

    Nobody thinks about the poor dinosaurs and trees which turned into fuel oil to heat our homes and run our vehicles, because so much time elapsed between their demise and our appearance. However, in a town in Sweden there is a tempest of moral outrage brewing over the efficient use of heat from the local crematorium to heat hot water pipes for homes. Somehow this operation put us a little too close to the dead, and there are unwholesome reminders of Soylent Green. Some of the citizens argue that the practice is ecologically sound, while others are merely creeped out. Just think: Aunt Hattie's corpse is heating your bath water.

    It all illustrates one end of a very broad spectrum of how the dead are treated- from two storey mausoleums that can accomodate overnight guests in the Philipines and elaborate pet cemeteries to the crematorium power plant in Sweden- and how we, the living make our peace with it. If human beings are truly spiritual and leave their bodies behind, who cares; but, if body and soul are the same thing, then the use or non use of dead bodies has devastating consequences on the living.

    If the whole earth operates on the recycling of resources, perhaps our philosophies should be compatible with reality. Maybe we float above our existence like so many would-be angels.

    8/1/97: Where are they now?

    Do you remember Jerry Lester (and Dagmar?), The Magic Clown, Pinky Lee, Joan Davis, Soupy Sales, Zacherly? What happened to them? One hint: they are not Supreme Court Justices or elected politicians; they are the flotsam of old time TV, people who had a fleeting moment of fame and then moved on (maybe to ambassadorial posts under Ronald Reagan). Television is proved to be almost a complete failure as a serious artistic medium (please don't lay Playhouse 90 or Studio One on me), but it beats the telephone, and even the internet as a communications conduit. Unfortunately, the flow is so swift that only the I Love Lucy program from the 50's and 60's remains in reruns like some prehistoric fossil or faux-Rosetta Stone.

    The question of enduring wisdom as embodied in archaeological remnants may transfer to surviving television shows. The old shows (and such unfunny characters as Jack Lescoulie and Gale Storm) disappear, because they were full of crap to begin with. Think about that the next time you are looking at The Simpsons. Their images are like logos (see Logo-Mania) on everything from trash containers at the beach to corn chips. Will your grandchildren have the slightest idea who they are [were]? Maybe even Roseanne will disappear: one can only hope.