March, 1997.

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3/31/97: Adam and Eve

As promised (in Pizza Nut), I will relate the story of how I was ejected permanently from parochial school. It was a steamy September as our squat class (in my mind we resembled the recruits in All Quiet on the Western Front) huddled together to hear bogus wisdom from the local prelate. He gushed forth with the creation myth, as though he were reading the NY Times (I imagined that he was reading out of MAD Magazine). At a suitable lull in the lecture he asked the assemblage of grunts: "Do you think that there are any people on the earth who were not descended from Adam and Eve?" Assuming that everyone took this story to be embroidered fiction, I blurted out "Of course, you ninny!" After a nervous rumbling of high-pitched kid laughter, the priest shot his index finger in my direction and shouted "HERESY!!" What! You mean people believed this fairytale? He demanded I recant under pain of expulsion: I felt that I had been transported to the 16th century under the Spanish Inquisition and that the rack and other horrible tortures awaited me.

I held my ground (three nuns fainted) and was asked to leave the premises forever. The next week I found myself in public high school (where the girls looked less like members of the Addams Family), began my own middle class version of The Rake's Progress, and finally felt that I could read Playboy with impunity.

3/30/97: Rabbit Delivers Eggs

Imagine this headline in you local newspaper. You would think that the editors had lost all journalistic objectivity. Where did this cockamamie notion get started? We all know that it is difficult to start a myth (remember Charlie Brown and the Great Pumpkin); but it seems that once launched, myths, like the Easter Bunny are virtually unstoppable. Why was this animal chosen, why not the Easter Camel or Easter Chicken: after all, the rabbit does not and never did lay eggs. Maybe we have no affectionate, cuddly memories of chicken stuffed toys.

Here comes Peter Cottontail,
Hoppin' down the bunny trail.
Hippity hoppin',
Easter's on its way.

Now, what does this crap mean? I would defy anyone to find the exact geographical location of this trail: it would certainly come in handy when trying to plant a vegetable garden, because you could trap all the rabbits BEFORE they come and eat the produce.

I would humbly suggest that the turtle would be the ideal easter animal. It lays eggs, it can be made into a fuzzy toy, and it is the right shape so that candy artists could fashion those huge chocolate figures (like those presently constructed in rabbit-shape). However, the one loss would be the loss of chocolate rabbit ears.

3/29/97: Some of your friends are really ZOMBIES!!

Haven't you noticed that some of the people you know walk like they are being controlled by unseen forces from beyond the grave? They advance stiffly as though they had no minds of their own (of course in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California that could apply to anyone). There is a good chance that many of your associates and friends are zombie slaves of some perverse and satanic master who uses them to acquire sacred objects (or merely obsolete junk food, like pop rocks or corn trumpets).

That grocery clerk who can't make change, or that movie ticket seller who seems miles away may be a mere shell of the person who once was. Maybe The Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a documentary film after all, and the zombies among us have already assumed major ruling positions in the government and other institutions. Maybe Clarence Thomas, Strom Thurmond, Pete Wilson, and Alphonse D'Amato are not really as densely stupid as they seem but are faint shadows of their once brilliant selves, now set forward to do the bidding of reactionary blockheads from beyond the grave.

Being in a position where I have to toady to all sorts of bureaucrats may have distorted my view of life a little (like Dostoevsky's Underground Man). On the other hand, John Locke is right on target, and the state of nature is one of peace and understanding. If that is true, where did all the zombies come from? Enough of this wisdom: I have to get back to those taped reruns of Xena, The Warrior Princess.

3/28/97: The Things We Forgot

Demonstrating some antique toys for the children of a friend of mine, I came across a jewel box in the shape of the Capitol Building for the State of South Carolina; and, I realized that I couldn't remember what city the building resided in. (Charleston). So much of what we learn smoulders in the embers of grade school memory: do you remember how to do long division or square roots? How about doing the multiplication tables after 12?

It seems that at some mysterious point, rote learning gives way to real conceptualization; and, then that gives way to gross prejudice, bluster, and general ignorance. I remember learning extremely complex geometric operations involving circles and triangles, details of historical battles, minute records of polar explorers, only to have them swept away in a haze of adulthood. I think that there is learning and also the PROCESS of learning. Whether one leads to the other is open to wild speculation (I am tempted to say: "Everything I know I learned from (Howdy Doody, Ronald Reagan, Jack Paar, ______ you fill it in)." The urge to dump the apple cart is irresistible, yet what is preserved as we prepare for old age and continual drooling? Forty years later I can still laugh laugh at Brian Kelly's perfectly timed expulsion of wind at a Third Grade teacher's question: "What do you have to say for yourself?"

3/27/97: More Doctors

Loyal readers may remember Fu Manchu (where did he get his doctorate?) In that article I point out possible details of bedside manner for the largely fictional healers. Remembering good old Dr. Pullem, the dentist from my home town (The name says it all), I started to comb the newspaper ads for real physicians with appropriate names: Almost immediately, I came up with Dr. Yoho, the plastic surgeon who will suck the fat out of any place you have it. Somehow I imagined a TV commercial in which Disney-style pirates (of the Caribbean) are singing that song in the background as an endless stream of porkers enter Yoho's kingdom to get sucked out. Accompanying the text of the ad were some before-and after pictures of lumpy rear ends that have been "sculpted into a beautiful body." It is as though these women are made of silly putty and are being refined by some latter day Canova into the Three Graces: skin pure and marble smooth.

Considering the niggling horror that all women fear: their derrieres can only get bigger (they think), this ad caters to a primal feminine fear. Maybe men, too have this worry. One of the only funny lines in Mel brooks' Space Balls refers to his character's observation (after his head got turne around). "Why didn't anyone tell me my ass was so big?"

3/26/97: Snatching Victory

Some smart press agent has been using th Siskel-&-Ebert total thumbs-down pan as a recommendation to see the latest David Lynch film. This kind of strategy relies on the lure of the forbidden or the unacceptable: " This [experience] is bad for you, and you should not see it". Telling children that certain foods will make them ill brings on the hidden promise of ill gotten pleasures. I am sure that anyone who has stuck a finger in the lightbulb socket has responded to the call of the wild: we hunger for the experience out of our reach. We also long for retribution and the confirmation of the natural order of things when we receive an electric shock.

I remember a line in a song from The Fantasticks that goes: "Why do the kids put beans in their ears?" The implication is that the parents have said "NO," making the activity at least twice as appealing. It may also cater to those self destructive tendencies that all humans have, the desire to test our mortality. We seem to know just enough of life to get in trouble and sometimes not enough to get out of it. We all teeter on the brink of tasting the forbidden fruit from The Garden of Eden: any one of us would have given in to temptation. Now, where did I keep that old fifth of absinthe?

3/25/97: Dennis Rodman Fan Club

It is definitely refreshing to experience the phenomenon of a counter-culture media star who eschews good sportsmanship, polite and acceptable social behavior and sexual orientation. Not out of sour grapes, since Rodman plays basketball like a god, he is out there on his own terms. People have traditionaly been fascinated with villains, both real (Richard Rodriguez, the Night Stalker) and faux (Rodman), not because we are a bunch of namby-pamby churchgoer types, but because we don't have the guts to break out of bourgeois complacency.

Wouldn't you REALLY like to throw a pie in your boss's (wife's, mother-in-law's, teacher's) face? Wouldn't it be great to cream the car of that road hog who just tried to side swipe you? How about that clown at the bank: let's shove his rules down his throat. Go ahead... put a tack under the collective rump of society: you've earned it. How few of us get to live life on its own terms. That's why the court scene that Jack Lemmon plays in How to Murder Your Wife in which he confesses to the "murder", gets lawyer Eddie Mayhoff to push the wife removal button in the heat of passion, and is acquitted by an all-male jury on the grounds of justifiable homicide is so amusing. Sure, it is a fantasy; but, it represents the suffocated desire of all of us to strike out and do something outrageous.

So, the next time you get the urge to put saran wrapTM over the toilet bowl, give it a thought.

3/24/97: Captain Video

The first thing I remember is that this daily show butted up agaist Kukla, Fran and Ollie (on the other TV channel), which created conflicts much like those between North and South Korea in households where no agreement could be reached on the entertainment. Captain looked like a Greyhound Bus driver, and his "spaceship" had a definite bus cab appearance. The Video Ranger was a classic Schlub and the template for the modern corporate yes man. They seemed to spend a lot of time preparing and eating kid snacks and little fighting the forces of evil. NO ONE would mistake this pathetic effort for Star Trek TM, and I don't remember any strange aliens, except for the occasional (accidental) appearance of a cameraman in khakis.

Most significant was that the pair's mission in space was to get kids to buy all sorts of candy, breakfast cereal, and violence toys (like squirt guns); and, therefore, they were the paradigm for all the (badly animated) superhero action comics now flooding the airwaves. My favorite episode had a near fatal mishap for Captain Video, when a bottle of Coca Cola TM exploded in his lap, forcing him to bend forward and catch his belt on one of the ship's controls. For a brief moment, he seemed to be jiggling his rear end in the camera, like a Disney elephant in Dumbo: then the screen went black.

Children are very impressionable: as a result I had a healthy respect for the gas in soda pop. We had a local brand called Birely's, notorious for its dayglow orange color and 16 oz. size. Nobody ever drank this stuff; it was made for shooting at the other kids.

To ths day, when I open a bottle of Chandon or Veuve de Clicquot, I think of Captain Video who wet his pants in his TV spaceship. I open the bottle with great respect.

3/23/97: Role Models

For those of us who grew up in the early days of television (b&w, VERY small screen, LIVE), we were presented with a curious array of heroes to inspire our (bogus) courage. I particularly remember Captain Video and Foodini the (puppet) Magician. Foodini, who looked vaguely like some Near Eastern stereotype, had the gift of unstoppable and obsessive egomania:

Oh, there's nothing he can't do,
Oh, there's nothing he can't do,
Oh, there's nothing he can't do,
He's the one and only Foo......dini., a song extolled by his assistant, Pinhead.

Foodini's reply:

Let me tell you all about the stars.
Some day I'll even fly to mars.
A man of strength, and brains, and force:
I'm speaking of myself, of course.

What a blowhard; but we kids loved it. His schemes always backfired. The trip was actually to the moon, which was made of green cheese. The minute the ship landed IT too began to turn into cheese. The hapless pair returned to plan even grander adventures. You see: Pride goeth before the fall. As kids, we knew that and were understandably suspicious of Foodini's Greatness.

Tomorrow: Captain Video and the Video Ranger take on the Universe.

3/22/97: Movies Lie

Movies are such a source of out view of the past (See Gore Vidal's Screening History) that we often overlook obvious lapses of historical accuracy; but if we look for them, the movies are usually more amusing than originally intended. Below is a selection, courtesy of The Filmgoer's Companion, by Leslie Halliwell.

The Invisible Man has no clothes on, but his footprints in the snow are those of shoes.
In The VIking Queen a minor character is clearly wearing a wristwatch.
False eyelashes abound on the girls in One Million BC
In Hello Dolly, which takes place at the turn of the century, a junk modern car sits by the railroad track.
In Stagecoach the tracks of rubber tires are clearly seen during an Indian chase.
In The Lodger set in 1944, London's Tower Bridge is shown, then years before it was built.
Another famous example (not from Halliwell) is the famous upward pan shot in High Noon, which reveals masses of telephone poles.

I have collected many more of these gaffs, and I invite you to submit your own. The existence of anachronisms probably challenges the very nature of linear time itself. Maybe we can empathize more closely with the Viking who has a wristwatch.

3/21/97: Phone Sex

Given the runaway success of this telephone fantasy service, why not cater to other kinds of ego inflating fantasies: 1) Phone Lackeys would be a service whereby all your ideas are immediately agreed with and you constantly receive congratulations for resourcefulness and creativity. 2) Phone Mother (or Children) would call you and ask if you are eating well, what your plans for the holidays are, or if you are gaining weight. 3) Phone Cabinet, in which you pretend to be the President of the US (or Prime Minister) and your cabinet ministers confer with you constantly for global advice.

There is practically no end to fantasies that could be fulfilled from the other end of a receiver. Things could get even more elaborate, including phony correspondence and e mail messages. The best I could think up would be called "Phone Hollywood," which would be a panoply of important messages from your "agent," carefully woven with "interviews" given to the press, "contracts" for bogus film roles, invitations to international festivals, and important social gatherings. You would received daily updates from your "social secretary" and pretend to be a major movie star, without all the hassle of real fame.

I am sure that no matter how interesting or substantial one's life is, there is always room for creative embroidery of the truth. That reminds me: I must check in with the home Interpol Office to receive my espionage orders.

3/20/97: Is there a Heaven?

This week's cover of Time magazine weds pseudo-rational journalism with mordent retro-fantasy. Do they REALLY think that they can prove one way or the other? These clowns are guilty of bad taste, bad journalism, and a miserable attempt to play on EVERYONE'S fear of death. Yes, we will all get stiff, croak, will be burned up or put in the ground. Man, you knew it wouldn't last forever. Time magazine has proclaimed THE ANSWER. What a crock. As far as I am concerned, TIME is toilet paper. With all the nonsense in Congress, the Supreme Court, Israel, Bosnia, Korea, Mexico, the Oprah Winfrey Show, et al., TIME sees fit to speculate on one of the two or three mysteries that plague us all. Someone should clue them in to the fact that that territory is occupied by university presses, the Vatican, and Biblical Archaeology Magazine. Rise up, misfits, and write to this errant rag. THEY blow.

3/19/97: Flat Earth Society

I have always admired organizations which persist in folly: for example, the The Flat Earth Society, which insists on illusion, cherishing misconceptions of the past. The present fellowship of cigar smokers harks back to the fat cat days when it was OK to gas wives, friends, or co-workers with tobacco haze. The concept could be extended to the creation of organized groups that engage in forbidden activities, in the present climate of dietary neurosis and political correctness. Some of my favorites: The Red Meat Society, whose chunky and burly members nosh on Steak Tartare while waiting for their prime rib roasts; The Sugar Solipsists, who believe only in the existence of candy treats (a little like the mugwumps of Burrows' Naked Lunch.

It goes without saying, that any Satanic societies would fit into my creative anachronistic definition; however, except for on Halloween, even pseudo-satanic activities make many people nervous (obvious party poopers). Organizations of roller coaster geeks and pyrotechnical hobbyists (amateur fireworks exploders, who may actually be closet pyromaniacs) would fill out the category of mordent collectors' groups. Lastly, the absurd fan clubs would take pride of place. All those Elvis memorabilia collectors and Mouseketeer nostalgia freaks form a typically glazed group. Pee Wee Herman, Angelyne, Divine, Tiny Tim, Fatty Arbuckle, Pinky Lee, Joe Penner, Soupy Sales, and Jerry Lester (shadowy entertainers of the recent and distant past) certainly deserve club chapters of loyal fans. I would direct the reader to usenet news groups for more ideas.

3/18/97: Heads

My grade shool chum, Russell Sullivan, whom you may remember as the circus Pope (see On Retreat I) used to classify all people in the world as either football heads or basketball heads. The world could be divided in half by head shape: what a concept of elegant simplicity (I also noticed that he had a football head and I had a basketball head). Suddenly, all distinctions of race, culture, language, custom were meaningless. AND nobody decided that one head shape had domination over the other. The theory occupied us for months, as we refined the basic definitions and tried to see if more women had one kind of head shape, or if people's heads changed shape as they got older.

We tried to map such things as intelligence, physical abilities, and personality types but finally wound up with a G. Spencer Brown (Laws of Form) A and not A concept, creating the first and primal dividing line for human space. Later on I started to think about all the real classifications of people that are used by the real academic disciplines: had these scholars told us any more about the human condition than a couple of kids with a cockeyed head-theory? I had a new found respect for the uniqueness of each person: groups of people were really more than collections of eggs in an egg crate.

3/17/97: St. Pat, Confessor-Bishop

Saint Patrick was born in 387 in Scotland and converted all of Ireland in 33 years. His feast day is rated a Double by the Catholic Church in their Byzantine saint rating system, something that caught my attention recently. The saints range from Simple to Double, Ist Class with Common Octave. They also rate the saints by their sexual activity and death: Martyr-Virgin, Martyr-not-a-Virgin, Several-Martyrs-not-Virgins, etc. At the same time, you get a point for being a Pope, Confessor, Bishop, Doctor of the Church, etc. I am not sure if you can improve your rating by causing miracles to occur, but it would seem only fair, especially since you are already dead and cannot lobby for a better slot in the Church year.

I started to think about applying this rating system to our celebrities: Heidi Fleiss- A Martyr-not-a-Virgin (Double Major), Jay Leno- A Confessor-not-a-Bishop (Simple), or Doris Day- A Virgin-not-a Martyr (Double, Ist Class). In my system, the celebrities could easily move their status by committing crimes, marriage, divorce, getting their own talk shows (Oprah Winfrey- A Confessor-not-a-Martyr (Simple, 2nd Class). The system would work even better with government honchos; of course, they would have to be required to perform miracles in order to rise in the ranks.

I have not exhausted this topic, and you can expect to hear more in the future with my test: "How to tell if you are a potential saint."

3/16/97: Slogans and Ads

It seems that in the past, advertisers relied on short, catchy slogans to get us to remember their product. Such canards as "Good to the last Drop" or "See the USA in your Chevrolet" seem to have been displaced by startling visual symbols. The enormous, sloppy, drooling hamburger has become too large to be covered by the prose of some agency simpleton (" You deserve a break today."). Fast food companies feed on our penchant for gluttony; and, if most of us are wolfing down chili dogs, pizza, or hamburgers al fresco on the street, the slogan that suggests a break from home cooking has outlived its usefulness.

In general, this post literate, fantasy consuming society has gone beyond words to symbols. What does the Jack-in-the-Box Clownhead have to do with my life? My theory, if you look at him, is that he is today's Everyman, from the neck down he has the bourgeois uniform of an office flunkie. He drives a middle class car and is at home in the workplace. He is also accepted by his peers, and there's the rub: if a clownhead really came into your workplace, you would assume a kid's party, a practical joke, or the clownhead is yet another flipped out person who snapped in the office (of course, plenty of people crack without assuming a bizarre appearance; maybe they just start eating paper clips or talking gibberish).

Irrespective, the outrageous symbol has taken the place of the slogan in the transformation of our society. The Trix TM rabbit and Ronald McDonaldTM were just the beginning. It is also possible that there is nothing to say about modern products: they are probably all the same. Imagine all those different hamburgers lined up on a table: how would you really choose?

3/15/97: The Experts Speak, Again

Many loyal readers will remember Cerf and Navasky's The Experts Speak, as quoted here. Today we look into their collection of technological miscalls:

When the Paris Exhibition closes electric light will close with it and no more will be heard of it. Erasmus Wilson, Professor at Oxford University (1878).
Regarding the telephone: Well-informed people know that it is impossible to transmit the voice over wires and that were it possible to do so, the thing would be of no practical value, Joshua Coopersmith in the Boston Post (1865).
Radio has no future, Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society (1897)
The radio craze... will die out in time, Thomas Edison (1922).
Television won't matter in your lifetime or mine, Rex Lambert, Editor (1936).
I think that there is a world market for about five computers. Thomas J. Watson, Chairman of the Board of IBM (1943).

And finally, the biggest boob of them all: Everything that can be invented has been invented. Charles H. Duell, Commissioner of the US Office of Patents (1899). Boy, was he in for a surprise.

So, the next time you guess wrong on a jury's decision over the Famous Crime of the Month suspect, take heart; you will have become a second class citizen in a large society of blundering blowhards.

3/14/97: "Contents may have settled"

How often have we seen this disclaimer, on that newly opened box of breakfast cereal that looks half full, or those cheesy snacks favored by white people. Somehow this remark is supposed to assuage our anger that the big box has little food or that somehow that can of fried string potatoes became dense with the alignment of the greasy snacks, leaving a generous air space.

Suddenly this remark became a paradigm for me in reference to other, perhaps more disturbing settlings: children could probably say this about the brains of their parents, or employers about their bosses. After being jostled about in the world, people sort of settle in to a kind of half-full stupor. But it's OK, the same full brain resides in that congested mass of settled stuff. That air space is merely experience. Think of all the inflated schemes for curing society's ills: after the mandatory settling process, the miserable residue represent social progress.

I can imagine the pervasive image of all of humanity riding in the back of one of those delivery service trucks, bouncing around through life. The unlucky humans are like those packages in the bad service run by those rock musician-delivery boys in the TV ads, that destroy or mutilate most of the packages. Some people will merely be routinely tossed around before being delivered at the end of their lives: how about the image of a UPS truck driving up to a kind of Mr. Boffo vision of Hell, with the Devil signing for a sorry assemblage of crumpled box-humans, each containing the disclaimer: "Contents may have settled in shipping. All merchandise is sold by weight." So, take heart; if someone says you're full of it, you may be only half full.

3/13/97: Possum Airlines

The possums had really taken over the entire premises: since it was unlikely that I could persuade them to pay the taxes, clean up, or sublet, they had to go. Initially I entertained mass-murderer fantasies, dispatching them with a flurry of machine gun fire or grenades (I had had remarkable success with underground gas bombs against the infamous gophers a few years ago). The waddling possums had become so brazen as to sleep right outside the bedroom sliding door; sometimes they would lumber across the patio (hoping for an invitation to the latest barbeque). I was in constant contact with the animal regulation people, who warned me that no harm must come to the possoms, and that I must trap them.

Each night I set the elaborate cages, and each morning there was a fat and grinning waddler awaiting me. In all, the animal people took away 15 possums in as many days. One morning there was one particularly sad looking one in the cage, a little friend of his kept him company outside the cage (I thought: Your time will come). Now that the fuzzballs were gone, I noticed that the snails returned with a vengeance: I had not realized the possoms' penchant for escargot, perhaps their only saving grace. But, what happened to the rattailed intruders once they were scooped up by the animal regulators? Was there some humongous possom stewpot simmering somewhere in the mountains or worse: some mass gas chamber? My questions were answered about a week later when a local TV station released the story of a load of 25 possoms that had been airlifted to the Angeles National Forest. I couldn't believe it: 15 of the fuzzy vacationers, which had come from my house and had fattened themselves royally on my grapes, avocados, oranges, and all the vegetables in the garden, were getting a free all-expenses-paid vacation (at the cost to the taxpayers of about $50 each). As shocked as I was, at least the possums were flying coach.

3/12/97: Chicken in the Yard

Returning home from a recent concert trip, I was surprised by the appearance of a chicken in my front yard. It came out of the bushes, squawking as if to greet my return; and, it accompanied me to the front door. Later in the day, absorbed in gardening chores, I came across the chicken again, strutting around the flower beds and inspecting my weeding job: it also seemed to be threatening renegade squirrels and unwanted neighborhood cats who like to use the yard as a public restroom. Soon, the chicken would accompany me everywhere in the yard, commenting on the quality of the soil (or perhaps the worms in the soil).

After a few days I got used to the clucking greeting at the front door and noticed that this new pet was making a nest by a bed of jasmine. I had been selected as the lucky landlord for this liberated fowl. The suburban neighborhood in which I live is a relatively quiet island in the war zone of Los Angeles; however, there are a lot of transient citizens (bums) floating around (I had to remove the outside hose faucet, because they were showering outside the bedroom at night. Thinking about these events, I realized the folly of the illusion of privacy that suburban homeowners have: I was sharing my space with at least one chicken and the cast of Tobacco Road, not to mention endless pooping dogs, marauding squirrels, and dozens of lumbering possums.

Shortly after I took this hotel inventory, the chicken disappeared under mysterious circumstances (probably eaten by the transients), the weather became chilly, and the errant chicken eaters drifted away, but the lounging, indolent possums remained. It was then that I decided to trap them, since they had helped themselves to everything in the vegetable garden. (To be continued).

3/11/97: My Favorite Books

When asked for a recommendation for favorite literature, people invariably aim for high class (Bible, Shakespeare) or retro funk (Tom Wolfe, Howard Stern). I want to recommend some books that may have been overlookled in your quest for the written truth. Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book, by Shel Silverstein, is a classic of revolution, goading children to pick their noses and steal money from their mother's purses. The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue quoted earlier in Vulgar Tongue will equip you for " real life.". 1066 & All That (I don't remember the author) was recommended by Jean Shepard years ago as the only REAL history of England. The Experts Speak compiled by Victor Navasky and Christopher Cerf (quoted in The Experts Speak really lays out the folly of those inflated gasbag pundits with their pompous inaccuracies.

Books can be collections of drawings like: The Essential Calvin & Hobbes or the new collection from Princeton of the engravings of William Blake's Prophetic books (sorry to turn serious there for a moment). Books can also be incrementally inspiring like the cookbooks of Julia Child. People always assume that they must GET something out of a book: they have to give something back. You cannot make wisdom from folly, but folly may proceed from wisdom.

3/10/97: Whois? II

Regular readers may have stumbled on Whois? I as a new feature of the column. Today's obscure famous person is Ralph Adams Cram, architect of squat, gothic fakeness. Cram was two years older than Frank Lloyd wright, but he wanted to recall the days of castles and monasteries. Yet, he spent most of his time quacking at H.H. Richardson, the other gothic faker, saying that Richardson had embraced the Ecclesiastical movement. The fine distinctions between these geniuses of mediocrity achieved a polished level of minute perspective. These guys were the real Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dumber. You have seen their grotesque cathedrals and university halls in every small town in the US. One thing can be said about their work. Because of the nature of the entry space, these buildings are the headquarters of choice when students riot and occupy a campus building. The natural fortifications provide them with a kind of territorial equalizer.

Since Cram also used a steel understructure, the buildings were practically bomb proof..., except in the area of aesthetics. They were bombs themselves of the first magnitude. Who knows: these days, when we tell some to cram it!, we may be inadevertently referring to the father of retro fort.

3/9/97: Dying in Opera

A few months ago I dealt with the absurdity of opera and play plots in Happy Endings and More Happy Endings. Focusing on the deaths of characters in opera may be even more enlightening: the most obvious cause of death is as a crime victim (like the Commendatore stabbed by Don Giovanni), instantly offed by a knife, sword, or gun. More creative composers have done in their protagonists by slower methods in order to let them sing on (Simon Boccanegra wails on endlessly as we wait for the poison to take effect). But, declining health is by far the favorite slow death. Boris Godunov, Mimi in La Boheme, Violetta in La Traviata give it their all right up to the final gasp. Naturally, some suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience is necessary.

Wagner would have to get the prize for the most unconvincing deaths. In Tannhäuser Elisabeth's strength fails (declining health?) and the hero, embracing her coffin, dies in ecstasy. Similarly, Isolde, who is in perfect health at the beginning of Act Three, becomes transfigured and dies in the same state over Tristan's body. Maybe both of these fainters collapsed from heart attacks, or they were just overcome by the music. My favorite opera death, however, is that of Desdemona in Verdi's Otello. Deprived of air through strangulation, she goes on for at least another minute, protesting her innocence. You have to admire the durability of this character who can sing and not breathe.

Today, we have a kind of legacy of the extended death scene in all those crime movies where doomed victims reveal critical information to the private eye before giving up the ghost or prolong their appearance on screen way beyond credibility (like Paul Rubens in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who practically does Act I of Swan Lake before croaking). And, of course, there is always the "revival of the villain" who is supposed to be dead, but has enough energy for one more atrocity (like Kathy Bates in Misery). Who said that art imitates life?

3/8/97: Street Entertainer

We tend to think that the unknown and mysterious reside in deep recesses of forgotten places in the mind, or in outer space, or in the realms of occult fantasy. Sometimes the most pedestrian scene is fraught with mystery. I was on my bike and saw an apparently homeless man, swarthy and dressed in rags, dancing on the sidewalk for a flamboyantly attired woman who was sitting in a bright red Mercedes 500SL convertible, parked at the curb. The apparent "pathetic wretch" was being directed to do all sorts of contortions, twists and turns. After a short gawk, I cycled on; but, something about the scene piqued my curiosity. As a result I went around the corner and came back. To my complete surprise, the beggar gave something to the woman, she stepped out of the car, and the homeless entertainer got in the car and drove away, leaving the woman on the street corner.

What could be the explanation for this reversal of events? Either: 1) the woman made an extremely stupid bet with the bum, 2) the "bum" was an eccentric type who enjoyed play acting and the woman was merely a paid prop, or, 3) a crime had just taken place. I began to distrust my perception of the scene, trying to reconstruct details of the exchange. Explanation no. 2 seemed the most plausible, but why? I could not resist and boldly approached the woman on the street. She said that the man was her husband who was trying out a tramp act for a children's party. She was waiting to be picked up by one of the guests. Semi-satisfied I went around the corner again; but in a few minutes the woman was arrested by the police and taken away in an armored van.

I immediately came up with a new set of theories: 1)the couple had stolen a third person's car and were flaunting their success, 2) the whole thing was a police stakeout, intended to trap yet another person, 3) it was some kind of complicated scam, and someone like me was the intended victim. Sucking on a cherry popsicle, I pondered the recently played out events and decided that, like most of what people do, they made no sense. Luis Bunuel could actually be a documentary filmmaker, I mused. That Obscure Object of Desire might be rationality itself.

3/7/97: Quiet!

Although this column tends to magnify human follies, it does not usually take the form of a diatribe; however, talking about quiet in the modern world sucks one into the maelstrom of muckrakerism. I listen outside my studio and hear distant dump trucks, buses, teenage low-rider mobiles grinding away in the distance like some monstrous drag race free-for-all, and I start to understand the appeal of Antarctica (you see, penguins don't drive, and the aforementioned machines would poop out in the cold).

Imagine police helicopters in a raucous, dizzying ballet overhead and some distant dog is slowly disembowelled. The veritable blackening of the skies with airliners and the omnipresent low drone can make one feel like WW II never ended. One thing about being in the countryside in Armenia this summer was that it was quiet. Without the money to purchase the toys of advanced civilization, the Armenians had to make do with campfires and walking, where we have oil refineries and cement mixers.

I started to think about a reverse Connecticut Yankee situation in which a medieval knight suddenly finds himself on the shoulder of the Santa Monica Freeway. I am sure the fragility of human perception would give way to a berserk display of pointless and empty violence. The modern world would have its own Don Quixote, tilting at oil derricks, screaming at trash trucks. Then I began to invent a new product for the modern world which I call the Dynahead. This is a head that you put over your own head, and it filters out anything mechanical, from computerized phone voices to fire engines. There would be a "yowling dog" position on the controls that would filter them out as well. Normal human conversation, as well as music and natural sounds would be unaffected. Deluxe models could have modules that would handle special annoyances, like the horrible sounds emanating from the stalls of public restrooms or athletic locker rooms; and, certain voices (mother-in-law, cranky neighbor, Jehovah's Witness missionary,) could be eliminated.

Wouldn't the Dynahead create a barrier to real human communication? you might ask; a more pressing question is: all this noise is creating an insurmountable barrier to that and even private thought. Before ordering my device, you might want to evaluate the quality of your private thoughts, lately.

3/6/97: Concrete Music

In a recent music seminar the question came up about the sound of cement mixers (this may seem way off the topic, but in a 20th-century course in the arts almost anything is possible) and I was reminded of the worst job I ever had: feeding and emptying a static, vertical cement mixer. I would load up the beast with the proper number and types of bags by hoisting them up a ladder and then adding water (sort of like loading a giant bread machine). Then, I would roll a cart underneath to catch the concrete. Immediately afterwards, I would return beneath the mixer and hose down the track with water. After a few hours of this, I got the sequence of events wrong and went under the mixer as it disgorged its sticky contents. Instantly, I was half-buried alive. Struggling to try to free myself, I became more engulfed, until the mixture began to harden (the combination of the high temperature and the uncovered mass of glop sped this process).

About an hour later some workman found me and began to blast me out of the concrete mountain. Relieved, I was given another job holding on to one of those vibrating jackhammers that pound the wet concrete into a large form on a platform. When I grabbed on to the vibrating unit, I could not let go; and, I skated off the platform, still holding on to the jackhammer. My flight was short and led me straight to unemployment. University graduate school didn't seem like such a bad idea, after all.

3/5/97: On Retreat II

Intoxicated with the bracing fresh mountain air, my four compatriots and I mused on the benefits of monastic existence: if you were in the right place, a Fra Angelico might come by and paint something nice in your cell, or perhaps a Dom Perignon would invent a super bubbly pop that might get you bombed. We avoided the main idea, which was to deny the world of the flesh. In places like India, holy men are out on the street as examples to the people (they also get to smoke ganja legally).

Here in the monastery we would be protected from the distractions of the world; and, then I realized that what I liked best WERE the distractions. I would wind up writing a boring treatise on tuning, if I stayed in this place. After all, music was a public art.

In an especially perverted move, we were taken to the neighboring convent, where we heard young nuns singing Gregorian Chant behind screens. To me the whole thing seemed pure Hollywood, and I half expected Julie Andrews to come bounding along with the Trapp family. So what is real? Maybe Bishop Berkeley is right: you can be sure of yourself, but everything else may be an invention, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

My friends and I returned to the shrine of the Edison light bulb, and it wasn't long before we were having philosophical discussions about Patricia Flynn's rear end. Somehow, that monastery seemed very far away.

3/4/97: On Retreat I

Jimmy Kochen, Georgie Pollison, Patrick Flatley, and I soon became weary of observing the Edison light bulb, although it seemed a good justification for the concept of miracles for us. In the spring a group of monks came into town to recruit "young men" to go on retreat to a monastery to sample the monastic life. We knew nothng of sex and did not realize the implications of the word, celibate (as it turned out, neither did the monks themselves, but that is a different story). Father Kilroy convinced us to try a weekend at one of those places in upstate New York that look like the estate of Charles Foster Kane (aka Citizen Kane). We went with my other good friend, Russell Sullivan, who had the dual ambition of becoming the Pope and the owner of a circus (I did not realize the wisdom of this man, then).

We arrived after a lengthy plane and bus ordeal at a place made of stone and greenery with monks who looked and acted like Arvo Pärt, sad faced, reading the Bible, and tripping on sandals. This stuff was like Going My Way without the oleaginous Bing Crosby. We meditated, milked cows, walked in the woods, pretending to be Thoreau: monks were definitely COOL. (To be continued).

3/3/97: Popeye Family

My best friend in grade school was Jimmy Kochen. He was a tall, gaunt and pale apparition who liked to pretend to say Mass in ecclesiastical vestments of his own design, often substituting a Superman© or other comic book logo for the usual religious symbols. I remember that the rest of his family- his mother, father, and younger brother- were all squat waddlers who resembled Popeye (I could see them with corncob pipes in their mouths, sucking the contents out of spinach cans). It was then that I became interested in the perversities of genetics.

We used to go to Georgie Pollison's house and watch his father building a garage out of flattened oil cans: we were told that the project was begun before all of us were born and would take 20 years. The big attraction on the street was the Edison lightbulb suspended from the ceiling of Patrick Flatley's front porch. I was rumored that it had burned since 1908: all of us kids believed that bit of hyperbole.

Some of you may wonder what life was like before television; well, this is what you missed. This is the thinking man's alternative to critiquing the foibles of SeinfeldTM.

3/2/97: Whois? I

Unix people will recognize this common internet command, in this case a title of a new feature which talks about important people with obscure and strange names. The first candidate is William Crapo Durant (no, not related to the famous couple who turned housewives into amateur philosophers with their multi- volume snorefest). Durant bought the Buick Motorcar Co. in 1904 and started General Motors, the monolithic manufacturing giant that produced iron emblematic of the American Way. Unlike Henry J. Kaiser, who got two cars named after him (the Henry J and the Kaiser), Crapo Durant lingered in the shadows of automotive fame; of course, his name probably deterred designers from using it for a logo.
You can see that even this high class ad cannot sell the name. People will not trust a logo that implies that the product is not going to improve their social status. Check my previous article Killer Autos.

Enjoying wealth and power may be one kind of success, but fame is an elusive prize. It explains why Benny Drubelsky became Jack Benny and Frances Gumm became Judy Garland.

3/1/97: Pizza Nut

The recent purchase of a bread machine has allowed me to produce perfect pizza dough, a lifelong obsession. However, I can remember a time, when I was nine and participating in an international food festival at my grade school, when my deep concern over the perfection of the dough led to disaster. The Catholic school was run by a Mother Superior named Sister Anne Eucharia (her last name always seemed like some kind of disease afflicting those who received Communion too much), a humorless clone of Bismarck an anti-communist of the Reagan variety.

Each of the kids was to prepare an "exotic" dish: I selected pizza, not common in those days and usually available in mom-and-pop bakeries on Fridays. I prepared the dough and started to stretch it. Following natural exhibitionist tendencies, I began to throw the thing into the air, getting more and more full of bravado. Inevitably, the pizza got caught on a low hanging light fixture. As I pondered the dough's removal, Sister Anne Eucharia came thudding into the room, her considerable bulk on the old slat floors set up an avalanche of vibrations and freeing the suspended dough.

Worst of luck and timing conspired, for she was positioned directly under the light fixture when the pizza descended and perfectly enveloped her head (I could not have achieved greater accuracy with a precision bomb sight). With her severe black habit and that gooey, floury head, she looked like a reject from Star WarsTM. Of course, I began to laugh and could not stop: tragically, none of the other children even cracked a smile. They reacted as though she were the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland. In a flurry of floury rhetoric (something involving " having the patience of a saint"), she dismissed me from the festival. Except for a little bravado, none of this was my fault. Natural law had ganged up on me, and doom, in the form of exile, followed. At least I wasn't kicked out of school: that happened three years later over a theological argument (a perfect story for Easter Sunday).