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Like millions of other movie junkies, I went to see the latest Batman extravaganza and started to wonder why this Batfamily has no Batmom? Naturally, all the super heroes are orphans who fight for truth and justice out of a healthily redirected sense of parental loss (probably from violent crime). The Batmom could have appeared in super flashbacks: maybe nobody thinks of moms as doing heroic things.
In the comic book world the divisions of the good and evil, as well as the stultifying
and heroic must be clear cut. That is why comic books have a relentless quality.
I remember as a kid receiving a gift of a lifetime subscription of the Donald Duck comic
when I was a patient in the hospital. After many years and changed addresses the
comic continued to follow me, even to the dorm at college. As a graduate student
I used this information to get revenge on a particularly loathsome and boring
professor. I purchased for him a lifetime subscription to the Superman comic; and,
sure enough, the thing arrived every month in his mail tray. I also made sure to let
some of the other faculty (who were friends of mine) in on the caper. So, each time
the comic arrived, the boring professor got a laugh and some kidding. Even when he
changed teaching jobs (twice), the comic followed him....literally to the grave.
Somewhere a lone, unhappy dog is howling and complaining. Of course, he decides to become unhappy at 3 AM and is soon joined by 2 other unhappy dogs. Thoughts of mysterious intruders cloud your sleep-deprived brain, and you sink back into suburban stupor. The night before, a stumbling drunken neighbor begins a raucous chorus of profane rhetoric, inspiring a corresponding chorus of cackling crows, who continue the party long after the drunks have passed out.
Sounds of fire and police sirens, rocket engines being tested, helicopters, poorly
modified hot rods, lumbering cement mixers, etc. fill our nights and befoul our dreams
of civilized order. A few years ago the composer, Peter Maxwell Davies moved to an obscure Scottish island
which had neither electricity nor paved roads. He said that after three days he could
finally hear again. It is possible that a kind of nervosa surburbiana to which
we fall prey is a mortal enemy to true peace of mind. So many of my friends avoid environmental
and dietary evils to prolong their good health, but it is possible that stress produced from
the apprehension of distant noise does far more damage than real mayonnaise, sausage, or
Having just had a new rug installed in the living room, I was reminded of that wonderful flying carpet that Douglas Fairbanks had in The Thief of Baghdad. He could cruise around on that thing without using any fuel and without any parking problem. It is a common belief that if humans conceive of some gizmo, it will come into being. Yet, there are objects of innate fantasy, like the flying carpet, that more clearly represent our vaunted aspirations and probably will never exist.
Let's suppose these peripatetic rugs could be purchased: would we then have limousine (stretch) flyers, sports models, ones with built in CD players, etc.? We know that we would be plagued by super flying-rug pitchmen on TV and vulgar ads in the newspaper. Of course, the police would have to have black and white cruiser-carpets to chase those flyers who broke the (already established) flying-carpet traffic laws.
Would there then be carpet flying teachers and carpet traffic school? Having taken this
musing to the usual absurd length, I started to realize that whatever human activity we
cook up, there is a plethora of subsidiary cultural baggage that comes with it. Aladdin also
had a flying carpet, but he had a magic lamp, too. Think of all the rules we would make up if
those things really existed and were for sale. The Genie's could be their own salesman: they would be
a paradigm of ourselves in the present world, selling our abilities to the highest bidder.
We have all seen these surreptitious, excavating monsters. Behind the wheel of their cars, concealed by newpapers and magazines, or blatantly displaying their wares, the nose pickers parade before us, decent law abiding people. They (the nasal miners) seem to find solace in crowds, where they carry on their activities in a cloud of pseudo-invisibility.
But, why do we try to get away with it? Somewhere in the dim past, we revert to antisocial and barbarous behavior, sneaking a dig here and there. Sex may be unattractive, but it may have its elegance in the static preservation of a dynamic moment; but, nosepicking is strictly a forbidden activity, whether in art, photography, or in real life. We marvel at the videotaped evidence of police brutality, but imagine the revolution in human manners, if the unsavory acts (such as nosepicking) are recorded and reported (like the Rodney King beating).
The upshot is that, somehow technology will reform the species and civilize
us to the point where we will not be an embarrassment on camera. Remember, Jack
Kennedy may have been a louse in real life, but on camera he was a prince.
Hey, all of you science graduate students, how about a summer research job that might turn into a good thesis project? This ad certainly caught my attention.
Wanted: Replacement laboratory assistant. Salary and rank will be determined by
experience, and hours will be extremely flexible, including late-night and during sudden inclement
weather.. Completed doctorate is not a prerequisite, but
candidate must have knowledge of electricity and anatomy, and must not have any
prior convictions for felonious theft (also, must not have tendencies to acrophobia).
The position involves close association with an eminent
research physician and may include travel to Eastern Europe.
Interested parties may contact Igor@FrankLabs.org. FrankLabs is an Equal Opportunity Employer with
facilities for the physically challenged.
I started this column as a reaction to the lightning fast cultural changes occurring around the world. The latest announcement of a physically challenged Becky doll (as a companion to Barbietm, with its own wheelchair) has totally flummoxed my usually sophisticated neo-New Yorker sensibiity. In the world of political correctness things are changing so fast that reactions cannot be trusted. Simultaneously, the GOP has eliminated the NEA, and effectively, government support of the arts. I like to make jokes but when the news has global joke possibilities greater than any I could cook up, I throw up my hands. The physically challenged Becky is aimed at whom? (black dolls make sense because black people will identify with them) do physically challenged people want physicaly challenged dolls? In my mind, it looks like disabilities are equated with races other than white. That sounds extremely sick.
I ask: what is next? Dolls of drug dealers, deposed despots, bomb criminals,
Hollywood Madams; who cares about the message? Maybe by playing with dolls like Becky we
reaffirm the belief that we actually control our lives. After all, a child can
"cure" Becky... or put Barbietm in the wheelchair; but, maybe all of
our graven images, from Voodoo dolls to Barbietm have the quasi religious effect of
letting us play out our control-freak fantasies.
Herein lie tomes that were never completed by their authors, barred by technical obstacles:
This is only a partial listing of arresting summer reading that we consumers are missing.
I will have an updated list of "lost books of the Bible" to append to this
When I have to make a public announcement or speech I always repeat these words in my head. How often have you had your patience and sanity tested by some impromptu windbag who can't make an end to so called "brief remarks?" At a recent awards ceremony, the speaker before, a diminutive and initially reserved Japanese lady, began to thank everyone that she had taught in her 30 year career, then she started on her husband, 4 children, and various assorted relatives. Finally she started to praise her own teachers: the list kept growing; and, twenty minutes later her brief remarks had become a major catalog: she had become a voluble, oratorical monster. It was like sliding downhill with no friction to stop her. A conductor in a recent concert decided to make a few "brief remarks" about the forthcoming composition and proceeded to analyze all of society's ills as a reflection of the message of the composition. 15 minutes later the gas was still being passed, while the nervous musicians behind in the orchestra were twitching like drunks in detox.
However, the worst case I know of happened at a birthday party for a singer I
know, who decided to tell publicly what each of the guests meant to her. The first
guest she chose to speak about was my wife, whom she had just met and hardly knew; but, somehow,
the singer spoke for 15 minutes about how potentially great their friendship
would become. With 30 or so guests at the party, the entire
fuzzy thankyou process took over three hours. By then all the party guests
were foaming at the mouth. Time stands still for the keynote speaker, and it is
practically impossible to judge how much of it is being used up in rhetorical wind.
Have you ever wondered what you would find if you removed one of those manhole covers and went below the street? The less creative of us might protest that merely wires and pipes, the arteries of a great city fill the dank tunnels, but I can remember a guest on the Long John Nebel Radio Show (see Angels) who proposed that the Deros, a race of subterranean overlords lived there and periodically dragged one of us normal folk below to serve as an unwilling slave. They were preparing a full scale invasion and would take over in 1984.
The myth at the college I attended included a detailed description of underground caves where art treasures were stored (a seamier version described obscene medical experiments that had failed). Actually, the tunnels were used by Doug Sweet, a blind student who paid for his education by dealing in exotic drugs (like the one that would allow you to retain the information for an entire course if read in a 24 hr. period: but, of course you would forget it the next day). Workers in factories imagine scenes from Metropolis under their industrial complexes, the passages inhabited by the likes of Darkman (Evil) or Batman (Good).
There is probably some quirk of human nature that inspires our "manhole curiosity," arising from a
feeling of impotence at not being able to raise the manhole cover easily by ourselves (after all, manhole covers
do not have manhole doorknobs). We, thereby, relegate the depths to the realm of myth and superstition.
The couple that cooks together probably winds up divorced. I have always relished cooking new a exotic dishes, and many years ago I purchased a large restaurant stove (see Fairy Queen of Stove Parts) in order to pursue the activity with greater seriousness. However, cooking is probably at best a solo peformance. There is something about six different concoctions frothing away at once on the burners that makes you feel like Merlin.
I can remember a few years ago preparing a spicy Indian feast with the assistance of my then-girlfriend (who became a then-wife and a then-ex-wife). We furiously rolled out Chapatis, made our own Ghee and began to enter the ingredients for an extremely hot Vindaloo. The only problem was that both of us added the full measure of spices, making the dish into an inedible sludge that was releasing toxic fumes, causing temporary blindness and choking us both. Observing the stuff simmering on the stove, we both decided to double the recipe (minus the spices) and wound up with enough food to feed 20 people. Of course, we had to furiously roll out even more Chapatis to accomodate the impromptu dinner guests. Since we didn't know 20 people who got along with each other, the feast became like a session of international graduate students pretending to be the UN General Assembly. Fights broke out and the conversation collapsed into a din of racial and ethnic insults.
Now I have the rule that there is one chef, very much like the idea that only one person can drive the car.
How do you know when you are receiving irreparably bad advice? I discovered the answer with disasterous results a few years ago. I was on one of my bicycle rides in an old rustic canyon and came across the house of a former student. Thinking to visit him (he was not home), I got off my bike, only to be chased away by a large and growling dog, who proceeded to pursue me a half-mile. I escaped, owing to the existence of high gear (which the dog did not possess).
Two weeks later a companion and I travelled by car to visit the same student; and, when we drove up the drive the dog (Oscar, by name) started growling and jumping. My friend got out of the car, but I wouldn't budge, rolling up the window and locking the door. Everyone in chorus shouted: "Don't worry, Oscar won't bite." Lulled into false complacency I took the bad advice, and the minute I got out of the car the dog lunged at my rear end like it was the main course at Antoine's. In addition to torn pants I received a nasty bite which necessitated that I work standing up for the next two weeks.
Why did I listen to these people? Basically we all have faith that no dog will
bite us; but, metaphorically, a few do. How many times have you heard: " That
water is perfectly safe to drink," or "Trust me:......." (you fill in the rest).
We are all gullible to a point (as Henry Fielding said: we are all as God made
us, and many of us are much worse).
Nothing surprised me more than when we were looking for a book in my aunt's garage that was filled to the rafters with stuff, only to discover a complete BMW Isetta car under all the junk. I have talked about people who collect useless objects (see Worthless Collections), but my aunt is in the world class of junkophiles. She has a fully functioning Wurlitzer jukebox in her living room, along with a couple of 40's pinball machines. Replacement parts for 25 makes of vacuums (I should put my aunt in touch with the Hollywood junkophile from the earlier column) and National Geographic Magazines going back to 1929 fill a bedroom closet. Please don't forget about that 5 gallon jar full of aluminum 1943 pennies and Snap, Crackle, Pop (Of Rice Krispiestm fame) hand puppets. She is the only person I know of who had a complete set of lava lamps in all the available colors, as well as one that had a statue of a hula-skirted woman who would do a slow grind when the lamp was turned on. She is the kind of person who will start collecting those Laurel and Hardy and Mickey Mouse telephones when they begin to go out of style.
My aunt was big time, but the worst case I know of concerns a supervisor I had while an employment interviewer
in New York City. He had occupied
the same office since Franklin Roosevelt was Governor. What I remember was an enormous stack of folders
and papers on his desk at least four feet high. This supervisor suddenly dropped dead in his chair; and, when the office
was cleaned out, correspondance from Roosevelt was found at the bottom of the pile on the desk, unanswered after more than 50
years. When the supervisor was replaced the new one began amassing papers and had a stack a foot high in a year. He
was obviously the right person for the job.
Undaunted by their own ignorance, possibly altered states (drunk or stoned), or congenital stupidity, many husbands will hold forth with blustering abandon flooding public conversations with their fatuous babble, while their wives hold back demurely in silence. Since my own wife is an air raid siren, I have not always had the "usual" husband's right to pontificate senselessly or act like Napoleon; but, as an observer of human folly I can find no explanation for this social mechanism in most other couples.
The most extreme case I know was a couple in which the husband was a generation younger than his wife. She was a famous performer and knew many of the greatest artists of this century, while her husband was a simpering university student. When he began to talk of the perils of college dorm life or of the latest basketball game, his wife curtailed her conversation (which may have been about an encounter with Koussevitsky or John Cage) to let this fool bore us with his naivete.
I can only think that this kind of behavior is like those scenes in animal nature films where the
prancing and snorting males are making a fuss on some hilltop, while the females graze below, feigning
invisibility. If might is right, then mighty blowhardishness (sic) is all right. My question
is: how long will we men get away with it?
We have all seen those racks of specialty magazines devoted to a dizzying array of activities and hobbies from pyrotechnics to lithops gardening. However, a few special interests may have been ignored:
1.The Television Rerun Journal, which dwells on only the stalest and corniest shows which may only appear on public access (like complete reruns of Pinky Lee).
2.The Poison Mushroom Explorer's Weekly, devoted to culinary daredevils and collectors.
3.The Bubblegum Saver's Gazette, full of helpful hints on preserving the sticky wads.
4.Homeless Traveler and Hobo, a (necessarily) free throwaway with schedules of freight trains and good hitchhiking routes (also soup kitchens around the world).
5.Do-It-Yourself Dentistry, a real challenge with a special section on used equipment.
6.Pyromaniac's Journal, a perverse companion for the criminally insane.
7.Bubble Butt Observer, for those who like Big Beautiful Woman but want even more.
8.Pornographic Pets, for the truly diseased dog owner.
9.Cooking with Garden Pests, a whole new use for slugs, possoms, and bugs.
10.Toxic Waste Landscaping, a whole new look in back yards.
As you can see, this magazine thing is a great untapped resource for some
enterprising publisher with the courage to give the (sick) people what they really want. People
who want more journalistic abuse can check out Magazine Racks.
Cruising recently along a case of frozen turkeys at the local supermarket, I thought once again about the subject of faculty meetings. Having addressed these events in The Faculty Meeting, the very first of these columns, and having developed strategies for Meetings in general, I started to think about the distant past in my shaky association with academe.
The year is 1970: the faculty are assembled in the traditional Friday afternoon slot. As the meeting begins I have a moment of instant horror at the collective obesity (including mine). Three colleagues are already asleep, and a fourth (who looks like Bozo the Clown) is knitting and clucking. Why didn't I finish law school? echoed in my brain. We were raising triviality to a high art. Another professor always insisted that every written document be read out loud, and a 75 page monster was being revealed to us. I felt the forbidden sleep coming on: the inevitable somnolent stupor beckoned. Luckily, the professor next to me (who was fast asleep) was required to reply to a question. "What do you think, Prof. Sawmill?" (sic). In reply to his name, he gave a start and slipped off of his chair, taking two cups of coffee with him. The din restored my attention, and Sawmill nodded some kind of agreement on the way down.
This was the same meeting where educational benefits were announced for faculty
wives, and I suggested a somewhat reduced program for faculty mistresses. This lapse
of taste produced no laughs.
Squinting perilously in front of my five and one-half inch black and white (actually grey and white) TV in the late forties, I can remember barely making out the shapes of Buffalo Bob, Howdy Doody, and Foodini (see Role Models), lurking behind a blizzard of snow interference. Ed Sullivan looked even more cadaverous as signals wrapped around themselves to produce ghosts, vertical roll, and loss of sync (everything looked like a stack of lightning bolts). In those days you could tune stations in continuous bands; so, it was possible to get stations from Philadelphia or Boston if you were in New York (this long gone hobby was known as DX'ing, still a favorite mind number for ham radio operators). What it meant was that under certain atmospheric conditions, you could choose to get a crappy picture from TV stations other than the local one.
Now, with the advent of HDTV ("Horrible Detail Television") you will be able to count the bumps on Bill Clinton's nose, or stage your own bad toupee contest among TV news anchors. Your favorite football players will sweat realistically as they pummel the opposition, and those gooey butter-substitute products will look even more (un)realistic in computer-enhanced yellow.
Gee, progress is sure a wonderful thing. Now, where did I store that crystal set I made as a kid?
The idea of zombies originates from the power of voodoo to reanimate the dead: the process does not always produce a convincingly live person. In the horror movies of the 40's these lumbering hulks were a popular adjunct to a mad scientist or bogus high priest (usually George Zucco: See Zombies walk among us or Some of your friends are really ZOMBIES).
My contention in a previous piece was that we are surrounded by individuals posing as the undead; they are actually just stiff bores who are also trying to turn us into zombies through dull and pointless chatter. In my mind the concept precisely defines that dehumanization process that claims many office workers as victims of corporate voodoo, capable only of making polite and fatuous conversation about the weather or the NBA playoffs, the latest crimes, or how much weight Oprah has gained or lost.
Halliwell, the movie historian, relates an incident from a Ritz brothers film in which the brothers enter
a bar and order the rum punch drink called zombie; "Three zombies!" one of them says;
and the bartender replies: "I can see that, but what will you have to drink?"
Looking at those unhappy bears in the Moscow circus tiding bicycles and rolling hoops, I was struck by the unnaturalness of animal acts. After all, the animals would never do these things for themselves. A bear would not ride a bicycle, when it could run; and, how amusing and musically satisfying is a seal that plays The Star Spangled Banner on auto horns?
Most dog owners teach their pets some stupid tricks: is this some sort of perverse domination? Remember Dr. Samuel Johnson that warned that it is not prudent to teach a pig to dance: they do not do it very well, and it annoys the pig.
The misfit announces a contest: send in the most disgusting trick that you have ever seen a pet do. The prize will be
your very own posting in this column, along with a permanent link to your website.
There is a famous scene in The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe where the confederation of spies selects a dupe on the basis of his outrageously mismatched shoes. In our obsessed quest for order, human beings are greatly concerned with things like matching colors: socks that are the same, pants and coats that seem to belong together, and the like. When I was a student, I would buy a dozen pairs of the same socks so that decision was easy. Color matching may have something to do with a desperate need for order in one's life, or it may be merely the imposition of temporary fashion (there are plenty of paintings from the Renaissance where the clothing has no matching parts to bilateral symmetry).
Extrapolating to the complex issue of matching colors, we are led to believe that there is some kind of natural law, feeding off a great color wheel in the sky. Yet, for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, a dominant color scheme (pink and green) was chosen that became a fashion statement in itself. Conservative people will hedge their bets and choose muted colors, or perhaps only one color. The so-called "purple people" or "yellow people" occasionally come up on the horizon.
What would happen if all bets were off: would the "black leather people"
suddenly develop a taste for pink lace, would boring business suits instantly sport orange
silk ascots? It is possible that the weight of the Freudian superego is no more intrusive
than in our choice of attire: we are being oppressed by our own clothes. Maybe that is why
certain kinds of lunatics tear them off and go running nude in the streets in lemming-like
Claire captured the true religious meaning of this great event from a
food sign in Amsterdam.
Every summer as a kid I remember seeing this "poetry" emblazoned on highly polished slabs of varnished redwood and sold at those cheesy stands in Atlantic City. Using my typical Eastcoast hyperrationality, I assumed that the verse meant that the doughnut had substance and was worthy of pursuit, while the hole was empty space. When I discovered sex, the thing took on a whole new and perverse meaning: it seemed to be a warning against promiscuity and general superficiality. When I found out that women did not like this proverb applied to them, it's meaning once again slipped quietly away.
Recently, I started to muse on the doughnut/hole duality and wondered about the idea that space was not really empty (when we used to make our own doughnuts, the cut out hole dough was always fried and turned into a ball). And what about negative space that draws you in and takes energy: concentrating on the hole could be fatal. The doughnut, of course, is a torus, a solid object with a continuous surface and much beloved by topologists. The last thought I had was that by concentrating on the doughnut we are condemned to an eternal journey of existentialist self-definition.
The Taylortm Pork Roll stand on the boardwalk
had one of those signs hanging on the wall: until now I always thought of that
place as friendly, certainly not the repository of complex ideas.
Another thing that struck me on returning from Europe was that drinking fountains in the US have all but disappeared. In the smallest towns in France and Belgium)there are public faucets, fountains (some are notoriously naughty, like the little kid pissing in Brussels), and public water taps. Some buttoned up health official in America would probably say that the disappearance is to prevent the spread of germs. My theory is that the fountains' removal coincided with the conversion of gas stations to convenience stores. They want you to buy those 16oz. bottles of Cactus Coolertm or perhaps Eviantm water (in the upscale neighborhoods). The upshot is that we see legions of self-righteous health-food types carrying bottles of bogus spring water (have you ever noticed that the water dispenser outside the supermarket is connected to the city water supply).
In european cities pissoirs have all but disappeared (probably through the efforts of pious feminists who see it as a sexists symbol): I saw a few in Amsterdam and in Rome; but, in the US the public restroom itself in city gas stations is starting to make a grand exit. We all know that these are horrible places where many unspeakable acts occur, yet travellers rely on them. Usually, you have to buy something in order to use the facility (not very sporting, since these places are still often populated by drunks and homeless people).
Another convenience that is on its way out is the air/water stand that allows you to fill up with these motoring necessities. Although the stand still exists, the designers of newer stations have evil intentions in concealing where it might be; and, the motorist is more likely not to find it (maybe some kind of prize should be awarded when the site is located).
It starts to sound like "the good old days" were better: I don't necessarily think that, but
the availabilty of 25 different kinds of soda pop and King Size
Snickerstm at the gas station is not my idea of progress.
You notice a 4 ft. high stack of magazines and begin perusing them: a stern George Bush glares out from the cover of Newsweektm. Iraq has invaded Kuwait; unfortunately, it is 1997. Maybe it is time to unload those magazines. The packrat gene is strong in all of us (see Throw It Out), and we need not look far for signs. What about that old suit and shoes, that look like Chaplin could have used them in The Gold Rush. Keys that no longer look familiar (part of my Clown Test), paper bags or cartons that now contain hiding places for roaches and lost socks, and piles on anything that have transmogrified into one amorphous mass are our modern day totem poles.
What if you were killed in the next five minutes? How much mess and embarrassment
would you leave behind? Destroy the evidence of your slovenliness now, or it may be your
One of the joys of world travel is to be able to experience breakfast in the myriad of world cultures. My personal favorites are the Kerala pancakes and Masala Dosas in South India; but, when asked, I always opt for scotch and fudge as my favorite breakfast. Do I really eat this? Yes, when I can; but, you can take it as a joke. In Hungary you find commuters wolfing down blood sausage with Pepsi Colatm. Throughout the Benelux countries and in the UK, meat, cheese, fruit, and granola with yogurt are the daily fare. In Spain most people need a fix (booze or coffee) like in Russia.
Mexico treats breakfast like a main meal with fresh fruit juice (jugo), some kind of enchilada, coffee, bread, and lots of fresh fruit and eggs. China has congees that are like porridge (white paste glue). Americans, of course, take the first prize with pancakes (or waffles), bacon (or sausage), fruit juice, prunes (to get all of that out), cereal, and eggs (at least three). To burn all of this up you would have to denude the Brazilian rain forest; but, as everyone knows, we Americans are becoming a nation of blimps. If I can't have scotch and fudge, I will settle for a heavily caffenated cola drink and some popcorn.