May 1997

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5/31/97: Open 24 Hrs.

Every time I return from a foreign country I am struck by go-getter attitude of people of the US. Here we have supermarkets, photocopy services, pizza joints, pharmacies, etc. that are open 24 hours a day; while, in Europe except for an occasional bakery that might open before 9 AM, nobody gets moving before 10. The idea of any business open 24 hours is unthinkable. Also, in many countries businesses are closed for a portion of the afternoon and most of Sunday. My favorite idea like this was in a French town where no business opened on Monday before 1 PM to avoid the inevitable grouchiness that people bring to work Monday morning after a weekend of loafing.

Sometimes the leisure concept becomes absurd, as in Madrid where one cannot get supper before 10 or 11 PM: I had to carry survival junk food in order to last. I started think about the "always open" concept, where it originated and where it might go.

In the past the church was always open, emblematic of its protective mantle; in the future we will have 24-hour wedding chapels (Las Vegas), all-night computer stores (for technical assistance), and of course 24-hour cosmetics shops (I have a friend who travelled with me to a strange town for a concert appearance, and just HAD to get a specific cologne in the middle of the night). Here is a future-wish-list:

1. All-night toy stores (for hyperactive children).

2. All-night florists (for romantic losers and penitent husbands).

3. All-night hardware stores (for do-it-yourselfers who did it wrong).

4. All-night homemade ice cream (for me).

5. The return of all-night movies (not just porno) like in NYC. I am sure that the reader can fill in with a specific all-night wish (ethnic food, pool supplies, snuff, pet shops, you name it).

5/30/97: Some Assembly Required.

The trick word here is some. How many of us have struggled with a set of directions to assemble some machine, even something as familiar as a kid's bicycle, only to find that the directions have 28 pages in Japanese and 2 paragraphs in English. Having constructed many gizmos, from the earliest days of Erector Sets, I can say with some confidence that to build something from scratch is often easier than to assemble some "kit" that is under-engineered to the point that a special wrench, only used on the Space Shuttle and not included in the kit, will bring about the amateur constructor's downfall.

As a public service I am offering a set of guidlines for assembling anything:

Throw away the directions: they are probably for some other device or, at best, leave out the most important step.
Be careful of anything made of plastic: if it hasn't broken in assembly, it will fail and will not be able to be reordered.
Count the numbers of screws and bolts: you will be one short in the correct sizes.
Buy the assembled version: the knuckles you save may be your own.

5/29/97: High Temperature.

Having experienced a recent heat wave in Southern California, I had a chance to observe the perverse personality changes that accompany such a population cookout. Mild mannered old ladies suddenly become aggressively murderous behind the wheels of their ten-year old Imperials. Housewives in their pastel minivans duel with each other, vying for the pole position on the freeway. All this collective anger, added to the usual impoliteness of male drivers of BMW's and other luxury cars creates an atmosphere tantamount to the battlefield of Verdun, pedestrians being the poor and underequipped infantry.

What I propose is a series of vending machines on street corners that have rotten eggs (for throwing), spray shaving cream or other gooey stuff (for windshields), smoke bombs and flares, and, most importantly, squirt guns that pedestrains can buy and use against the insidious auto jockeys. I like the idea of cooling off some irate bully (or delivering a rotten egg to an air conditioned closed sedan). "Are you not only contributing to the warlike atmosphere?" you might ask. If the pedestrian weaponry is used merely to deflate the anger of the monsters, it might work. On the other hand, a cold war could evolve with more powerful weapons, so it would be open season on on anyone walking in the street.

Sauntering by a recent fender bender accident, I heard a voice say distinctly:"Two more clowns off the road!" Somehow that remark engendered my empathy. (you can read more of this absurdity in the earlier post: Killer Autos).

5/28/97: Reformed Fatman.

Having spent the first part of my life as an enormous fatman, my reaction to news stories or incidents that I encounter involving obesity is somewhat skewed. As a fatman, I split my pants while overenthusiastically trying to win a dance contest: this is a prototypical comic situation with the fatman as the butt of the joke.

After becoming an ex fatman I tried to be sympathetic to the obese (I was once known as "The World's Largest Composer," a tag that recalls cavernous carpet warehouse stores). Unfortunately, there was an incident at a New Year's Eve party that caused me to shatter my carefully crafted facade of empathy (a situation similar to my loss of control in Funerals). An enormous fatman (he must have weighed in at over 400 lbs.) arrived at the party, loaded up his dinner plate with a mound of goodies, and proceeded to sit on one of those modern chairs made of chrome tubing. He was so large that the chair was invisible, and the man appeared to float in space.... until the chair began to bend slowly. It was like the whole thing happened in slow motion, the chair collapsing in two, and the enormous fatman rolling on the floor like a side of beef, the party food assuming the role of an impromptu garnish. He made a quick exit from the party, but as the door shut I began to laugh uncontrollably and continued in this condition for at least twenty minutes.

Some of the more polite people at the party were horrified at my lack of control, but when any of them mentioned the incident, I began to laugh even more. Human nature plays tricks on our respectability: just when we think that we are civilized, we begin swinging from the trees once again.

5/27/97: Sea of Blue Beanies.

When I look at a ten-dollar bill, I am reminded of my first day at Columbia College, September, 1959. Chock full of fifties myths and deceptions all 767 of us freshmen sat assembled in John Jay Hall, each of us donning a small blue beanie. Prof. Shenton of the History Department, who looked like those guys who play corrupt police chiefs in movies about the twenties, was rolling out a litany of great Americans like Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, who had forged the destiny of our country, armed with a Columbia education. As I took a look at the class, a mixture of winners of the Rowen Atkinson/Arnold Stang lookalike contest, it seemed improbable that any of us would lead the nation, ever.

We imagined the ghosts of Revolutionary War heroes populating the halls of the campus (In reality, we came upon a ghostly Charles Van Doren, about the take the plunge into corruption on The Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar Question TV show). We saw two kinds of icons: honest ones from the past, and crooks from the present.

Human nature probably remains nauseatingly consistent in the admixture of ideals and weaknesses, but the world is sneaky in the way it changes the means of temptation to evil.

5/26/97: Tubes.

Recently I was pleasantly surprised in a European market to find Moutarde do Luxembourg in a toothpaste-style tube. After a generation of getting mustard all over my clothes and practically creating international incidents when precipitously squirting a soft plastic bottle of that hot dog mustard at Coney Island, I was pleased to find the condiment in a container that was controllable.

I am sure we have all seen tomato paste and mayonnaise in tubes like that: these substances benefit similarly in application. I started to think: what else could be put into a tube that is not there now? Peanut butter and jelly (together) would amaze kids the way Stripetm Toothpaste, with its red and white bead confounded my generation. Maybe some kinds of pens could be filled by concentrates in tubes, rather than messy fountain ink.

The best candidate I came up with was: ice cream topping, particularly for cones. No more dipping or rolling and no more gooey spoon: make way for the designer-decorated ice cream cone.

5/25/97: Good Service.

There used to be a sandwich shop in California that promised that if your submarine was not in front of you in 30 seconds, it was free. The implication was that good service constituted an almost military precision of missile delivery, as though our stomachs were enemy targets. Another pizza chain promised a hot lunch in less than a minute. A television commercial featured race car drivers with stopwatches, torturing some beleagured short order cook.

How different it is in Europe: you could practically sublet a cafe table with the leisurely pace of service. Going out to dinner is a social event embodying conversation, news, fashion, and, most of all, change of pace (from quick to slow). Americans must have their hamburgers et al. exactly the same size and taste, and they must be delivered in the shortest possible time, preferably right to the automobile. I am sure that if some kind of sling could shoot the burgers into moving cars and collect the money, we Americans would have it.

More than anything else, it is this attribute of enforced leisure that I miss when leaving Europe (or almost any other foreign place): producing a full plate of fried chicken in thirty seconds somehow doesn't impress. Maybe this technological marvel will be the most important cultural contribution of the USA.

5/24/97: Photo ID.

Take a look at the picture on your driver's license and ask: am I really that escaped convict mugging the camera? Why didn't I: throw out that corduroy shirt, get a haircut, etc. Do we really want to be identified by the almost intentionally perverse likenesses on official documents. I remember that I had a photo that was permanently affixed to my college transcript that made me look like Charles Manson. Applying to graduate schools and for financial aid, I always wondered if any potential rejection could be blamed on that photo.

Presenting my passport, which is valid until the year 2000, to customs always seems to bring on a sly smile at the Douane, as if to say: who cut your hair? How old are those clothes? I definitely give the impression of a homeless person or Bosnian refugee, not good in those countries where you have to have a certain amount of money before your enter.

My theory about photo ID's is that at the time that such pictures are taken, the subject (victim) is always preoccupied with some bureacratic matter and never prepared. Of course, maybe our photo ID's are a truer likeness than we would like to admit. The worst case is those sepia enamel portraits that families put on gravestones in the Philippines. Half the dead people look like Dracula and the other half look like escaped war criminals.

5/23/97: The Deadly Fridge.

Who knows what evils lurk in the tupperware recesses, way back on those lower shelves. Beware that clam dip that has died a natural death and dried. Grotesque bits of mystery meat, ossified carrots in the crisper, and other mummified artifacts of meals gone bad populate your fridge as we speak. Will you really eat that slimy, leftover pasta, washing it down with that suspect jug wine.

We use the hiding places in the family ice box in a kind of Freudian repression of culinary excesses: why did I have to buy a WHOLE watermelon (last month)? How many recipies call for barley malt?

Today I give you a open challenge to look in the fridge (including the antarctic wasteland of the freezer) and see if you can identify what is there. Remember that guy who kept his murder victim in the freezer for three years: he may have started out as an indolent leftover food packrat.

5/22/97: Hats.

Hats give away a great deal about people: in Tight and Loose Pants and Hat, I address some of the issues of body language. Now I would like to explore the meaning of the hats themselves. I will not linger on the obvious (Yarmulkas, fireman's hat, and the like) that are transparent in meaning and are imposed on the wearer from without. More revealing would be something like the umbrella hat, a (usually multicolored) miniature of the real thing attached to the wearer's head and a clear indication that person is a complete fool.

It would be easy to delve into sexist arguments relating to women's hats as decorative salad, but what about hats that make more than a fashion statement. I am suspicious of anyone wearing a baseball cap in an office; if it is turned around, I become openly hostile and assume the wearer is an idiot.

As a public service, I offer a few suggestions on the purchase of hats:

1. Never wear a hat shaped like food (like those notorious cheese hats worn by football fans in the Midwest).
2. Berets are definitely out; ever since Jack Nicholson wore that violet, silk oversize one in Batman.
3. Avoid any hat which is a grossly oversize version of another hat (those spongy cowboy hats or sombreros).
4. When on vacation, resist the temptation to buy ethnic hats: they will make you look like a clown (you know, those Tyrolian hats with the little brush or any Asian knitted hat).
5. Any bright colored hat (red or yellow) will probably bring the unwelcome attention of the police (unless you are trying to look like Santa Claus or Dick Tracy).
6. Do not dress children or dogs in "cute" hats that only make them feel stupid.

5/21/97: Nuns exposed.

Whenever I see Going my Way, Come to the Stable, or movies in that vein I am always at a loss to reconcile the pink cheeked laughing or prayerful warbling nuns portrayed there against my own rogues gallery of pious pervertsand executioners that ran my grade school.

Earlier in these pages I spoke of Sister Anne Eucharia in Pizza Nut; now I plan to expose some more of these hooded monsters: Sister Agnes Rose seemed innocent enough... unless she was seated at a piano. She insisted on putting down the damper pedal the whole time she played, thereby smearing everything into an obscene and murky musical stew. It was as though that damper pedal was the gas pedal of a big rig. Sister Delphine always seemed stoned to me: she had a beatific smile and was never known to say anything that revealed even a scintilla of intellect (I remember some very flattering and quasi risqué remarks about Clark Gable). Sister Anne Thomasina was about six-foot three and adored basketball, although she never admitted playing the game herself. She had a long, straight nose like the tin nose the bad guy in The Ballad of Cat Ballou had. I did see her make a full-court shot once. Lastly, I remember Sister Angelina, who was enormously fat, like a rotund, brown ginger jar, and squatted like a Sumo wrestler. It was rumored that she was really a guy. I think that she only spoke Spanish, but it is possible that she didn't speak at all (more later).

5/20/97: Windmills.

We all remember that famous scene when Frankenstein's Monster excercises classic bad judgment and goes up in the windwill, the peasants (looking just like the ones in Dracula, made around the same time) pursuing with sticks and torches. Windmills seem to be the ideal landscape object, turning with languid serenity next to fields of flowers. From being inside one, I can attest to the fact the those idyllic scenes on Delftware lie. Inside, all kinds of levers and gears are groaning and threatening to suck in anything within striking distance, and the whole structure wheezes and bends. The effect is more like being on a square rigger ship, even to he rushing water below, since most windmills are used to pump water into irrigation canals.

Don Quixote may have been closer to the truth in his joust. Human baings can feel dwarfed and helpless next to the hugely powerful and relentless machine (I was always intimidated by the noisy and lumbering cement mixers as a child, and somehow I always imagined that big steel ball hanging on the end of a crane would fall on my head).

5/19/97: Big Phone Call.

I tried to make a call in Apeldoorn: you should have seen the people!

5/18/97: Hard Evidence.

Here you can see the author pointing to one of the dreaded Zakkenroller signs:

5/17/97: Tortured Saints.

Throughout the museums in Belgium and Holland the Flemish collections feature paintings depicting either saints or politicians (these categories NEVER overlap) enduring excruciating physical ordeals: The Judgment of Cambyses shows a corrupt judge being peeled like an onion, another painting has St. Lawrence toasting on a barbecue. These works were created to warn citizens (the first painting hung in judicial chambers to keep judges in line). What if painters today used a similar didactic approach:

The Disgrace of Richard Nixon (by David Hockney) could show the ex-president in his "I am not a crook" stance, perhaps with a hangman's noose looming in the background. It could even be part of a diptich, the second canvas depicting the politician's resurrection as a statesman.

Clarence Thomas Takes the Congressional Heat (By Anselm Kiefer) shows the potential justice smarting under the blows of inquiry, bellowing "high-tech lynching."

One thing that the mindset of old time religion gave us were real gargoyles; and, I am convinced that the Flemish painters tooks their cue from those didactic monsters, high in the stonework of gothic cathedrals. We have our saints and monsters, but they wind up doing American Express commercials, like Bob Dole or Tonya Harding.

5/16/97: Accompanying the bad Violinist.

So many of you responded to the perilous adventures in Diva, that I thought to recount another really big concert: I was to accompany one of those violinist-teachers from a local junior college in a program of avant-garde masterpieces (many of you are wondering if these two words are mutually exclusive). As we strode on stage he seemed nervous (I took it to be his prolonged reaction to being indicted for the murder of his wife (he was eventually acquitted); but, he was genuinely freaked by the possibility of three (3) world premieres in a row.

I began with a big flourish of dissonant blather.... he never came in with his reply! I played his part and went on.. The second event involved very soft harmonics, sympathetically vibrated in pizzicati in the violin.... they never occurred! This stiff had frozen and would not unfreeze. Finally he asked me: "Where are we?" I remember Rachmaninov's famous retort:... "In Carnegie Hall." At which he went into his cadenza (really a passage some four minutes into the work) and we finished the concert without incident.

Accompanists love to talk about how dumb singers are, but there are instrumentalists who are of olympic caliber when it comes to stupidity. My question is: Is the woman who is about to be sawed in half ever nervous?

5/15/97: Beware, the Zakkenrollers!.

Having spent a royally escapist time in the area of the old Flemish world, I am replete with stories of folly through the ages and humorous observations (I hope) to make you think twice about your complacent existence. Spending a good deal of time in Holland, I was struck by apparent contradictions in behavior. 1) The Dutch maintain fastidiously clean restroom and baths, but they let their dogs poop all over the streets and sidewalks, creating the deadliest of minefields. 2)Everyone bicycles and all kinds of athletes abound, pumping, pedalling, and generally rolling forward, yet the diet is heavy on potatoes and fats. 3) The people are obsessed with art and literature: the main park in Amsterdam is called Vondelpark, named after the 16th Century Dutch poet, Vondel; yet, nobody ever heard of him, and I was unable to read any of the works in any language in the bookstores.

Any country that is largely self contained in its population probably erects such cultural towers of folly. SO.... what are Zakkenrollers? I was warned by the kind of signs that look like the ones that warn of high voltage, explosions, poison gas, and the like: it turns out that the dreaded Zakkenrollers are pickpockets (it may be possible that the expression: "I got rolled!" came from this term). I must report that I never saw any, nor did I see evidence of any kind of crime, except the crime of obesity on the hips of some of the prostitutes in their display windows.

One last general observation: I have what I call the Old Pizza Test for judging the culinary sensitivity of a place. Rather than going to the finest restaurants, I look for some old pizza that has been sitting under those sweaty lights in street stalls (you know, those slabs that look like pieces of parched Martian landscape in one of those 50's Japanese Sci-Fi turkeys) and evaluate its appeal. Amsterdam has the worst; yet, the food, in general, is among the best in Europe.

For now: Rotzak! More on the trip in coming days (photos too).