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This column has been running for a little over a year, and in that time
we have discovered many amusing wrong turns in human nature. Now it is time to go
on more polar expeditions and African safaris, seeking out only the best in
folly. The Misfit will retire for the rest of 1997 in the hope that someday a triumphant
return will once again be deflating all those behavioural balloons. There is one last
recommendation for the perfect Christmas gift: a place in Ohio called Art and Artifact
sells a tie with a likeness of the "Mona Lisa", wearing a Santa Claus hat.
If you begin to collect statistics about the nations of the Third World, an interesting, if not confusing picture of the state of civilization emerges: In Afghanistan there is one toilet for every 1000 people. Now I would call that a long wait if one needing that facility decides to be civilized. In China, fewer than half the homes have hot, running water, yet 78% have television; while in Peru one can see a forest of tv antennas for sale on the street but no actual televisions in the appliance stores.
It is entirely possible that each country has its own priorities as to what constitutes civilization. In a distant and seemingly backward portion of south India (Kerala), people walk about in loincloths, yet the literacy rate is the highest in the world and the mathematical skills are also the highest. The place is like a huge jungle garden, with clusters of palapa restaurants and not one sign of technology (manufacturing plants, shopping malls, parking lots, etc.). In the United States every house has at least two toilets and three tv sets. In many warmer sections a third of the homes have swimming pools and spas. Cable and satellite television are in 80% of the places, over half the homes have at least one personal computer, yet half the teenagers are incapable of filling out a job applicaton or balancing their checkbooks.
Americans seem to equate human comfort rather than human knowledge with
civilization. I guess that is no more full of baloney than that island in Micronesia
where wealth is measured by how fat the wives are.
Most of us have been taught by dreadful teachers, and in the quasi somnolent state of listening to them we often notice their most annoying habits. Beyond the usual lineup of perverts who are always sniffing their fingers or rubbing their eyes, there are more subtle annoyances:
This crew is my first lucky seven to be included in the pantheon of great wafflers.
There will definitely be more later.
Monday evening I went to a Rolling Stones concert; I have no particuar love for rock and roll, but I thought that the event might have some historical significance (like seeing St. Louis's Pruitt Igoe get blown up in 1973). Curiously, on arriving at the arena I was forced to wait in the longest line I had ever seen-at least 10,000 people, all of whom had to be checked through security. Suddenly, looking at these poor souls, many of whom had been drenched by a recent rain, I felt like I was in the cast of extras for the "Burning of Atlanta" scene from Gone With the Wind. We were stricken Confederates, victim of the aging rock wars.
Waiting in line is not just an inconvenience: it is often a window into larger and often concealed truths about human nature. I don't know how often I have been in line at the ice cream stand for a banana split, only to have my expectations ruined by the fattest person I have ever seen in front of the line, ordering the same thing. Mired in the comraderie of a shared experience, people in line will confess intimate details to total stangers who happen to be near. One woman whispered to me that her breasts were fake and that her husband had only one testicle in the line to get on the roller coaster at Coney Island. To quote T.S. Eliot:" After such knowledge, what forgiveness?"
Movie queues are perhaps the most interesting. Anyone who is leaving the theatre and
tries to give a bad review of the film to the people in the ticket line is immediately viewed as a
quisling, a slime, and not part of the group. Many years ago, the college where I teach had
a special screening of Deep Throat, a notorious porno flick, as a scheme to raise
money for a scholarship fund. Thousands of students queued up in a line that stretched a
quarter mile across the south campus. Anxious to help the worthy cause, I got into the line
for my ticket and began to notice many of my own theory students there also. I never saw
such a wave of embarrassment on their part as when I waved to them. Of course, it never
occurred to them that I should be embarrassed being seen by them.
Like th ustoppable ghouls in Night ofthe Living Dead the gift catalogs just keep coming. Having already broken ground kin this topic with The Oriental Trading Company, I continue my research with a catalog called "Improvements." This outfit claims that the stuff hawked in their pages are things you and I actually need. I am sure that that electronic ear themometer would be the perfect gift for grandma, perhaps you know someone who needs a dedicated "golf storage center." In addition to the usual rubbery Santa Clauses and christmas lights, there are some real Christmas gems:
There is a musical cd or cassette entitled, "Toolbox Christmas," a selection of your favorite carols performed on power tools, like a table saw or power nailer. I can imagine "Deck the Halls" performed by a chorus of electric drills or "Jingle Bells" on pliers and hammers. Who knows: such a unique album might win a Grammy Award.
Are you nervous about the strength of your washing machine hoses? Fear not; they have titanium, industrial strength models in gift presentation boxes. Has the possibility that your hair drier might self destruct in flames as you sleep kept you awake? Get "Hose-o-matic" which sucks out nasty debris from the implement.
As you can see, "Improvements" will bring you into the twenty-first century... and don't forget to
stock up on squirrel repellent.
It used to be that after a long and visible career, ex-presidents, generals, literary lions, celebrities who became icons, and enduring heroes (like sports greats or astronauts) would write some ponderous account of how they became the idol of everyone, while adorning the cover of Timetm magazine (or the Wheatiestm cereal box). Now, a single incident can generate not only a book (usually as told to), but a tv miniseries and endless appearances on tv talk shows (with nighttime in the forefront).
Today's criminal or victim can become the object of complete attention by ghost writers, producers, tv executives, and a host of lackeys who tune the news into pulp fiction. Recently there was a woman whose small and barky dog was swallowed whole by a boa constrictor. This story should not really have any legs, yet some desperate producer is developing a show based on pet aggression with the woman as the series host (I think that at least three dog food sponsors are lined up).
The Lady Di automobile accident is a curious paradigm: producers are already casting the parts. If this isn't
cynicism of the most extreme variety, then we have not seen it. I see that there is an HBO movie about the life of
Don King, the boxing promoter. Since he is still promoting, the reverberations between real life and fantasy might
obscure any REAL truth. Of course, maybe that is the answer: we don't really want truth; we want to be entertained.
I know that if I am never interviewed by anyone on 60 Minutes, Access Hollywood, or 20/20, I will have
failed as a proto-celebrity. Pinky Lee, Soupy Sales, and the Magic Clown: where are you when we need you?
As I ponder whether to use my beloved Bart Simpson Ciao Bella Roma tee shirt as a garage rag, I start to evaluate the whole collection of logo-festooned souvenirs of various recreational trips. In past weeks, I have already addressed specific shirts (see Lying Panda Sweatshirts); but, today I was thinking about rampant capitalism and its extension into advertisement enslavement through the decoration of articles of clothing, plastic cups, umbrellas, etc.
One might have an obvious negative reaction to a Marlborotm umbrella or a Budweiser
In the last stage, people who wanted to be famous imprinted their pictures on the article of underwear (which is what the
tee shirt used to be). Now, you too can get your picture or your favorite pet's picture on it. In a way, technology
has democratized fame.
When you ask people what their favorite color is, you usually get a prompt, and generally honest reply. A lot of idle speculation about the significance of this choice has been made, relating it to personality type, height, weight, astrological sign, or taste in food (see What is your Favorite Color?). I had a girlfriend years ago who was obsessed with the color, yellow. Everything she wore had a prominent accessory that was bright yellow, her car was bright yellow, and she tended to mix that color with bright red. To me she always seemed like a big, fat parrot, squawking on a perch (she was a singer).
Although my favorite color is blue, I once made the disasterous mistake of having a suit made of some loud cream and red checked material. Every time I wore that suit I got into a fight with someone. It was as though the suit was broadcasting that I was the most obnoxious person on the face of the earth. I definitely lost at least one job wearing that suit and also got picked up by the police as a suspicious person (I could have fit right into the cast of Guys and Dolls). Since the suit was comfortable, I was reluctant to part with it and decided to go the whole way: since it had a red lining, I bought the loudest red tie and red striped shirt to go with it. Unfortunately, the entire outfit made me look like a carnival barker, a cheeseball flim flam artist. Store clerks always kept one eye on the cash register and carefully counted their change when I appeared in this getup.
Finally, I threw the suit into a public trashcan, only to see it rejected by some bum rummaging through the debris. It
seems that the bum preferred an old Pee Wee Herman halloween costume that had been discarded by someone else.
Ever since I was a small child and made the monumental error of ordering four dozen chocolate-covered doughnuts from the Dugan man (prompting an intstantaneous punishment from my parents), I have had a fear of going to the front door to greet "strangers." This afternoon I respond to the muffled clang of the San Francisco trolley bell that is my doorbell, look through the peephole and spy a 400-pound man in a tattered Bozo costume, blowing his nose on his left sleeve. Somehow I know that I must not unlock the security door. What is it about the front door that it has become the province of Jehovah's Witnesses, nefarious grade school children selling magazine subscriptions to the Readers' Digest, and every nut and weirdo within 100 miles to try and get in my house?
I have fantasized laser rays, hot oil descending from the roof, and various Indiana Jones' style spring-loaded spears and other booby-trap devices to foil these intruders. Somebody named Johnson said:"a man's home is his castle." I think he was right, except I would say fortress. MY place is a magnet for every escaped nuthouse inmate west of the Mississippi River.
A solution must be found. I have always liked those giant boxing gloves on springs that punch forward when an intruder tries the front door. Molten lead and hot oil have also grabbed my fancy, but they are really not environmentally sound, since they always have to be hot. Anything involving high voltage electricity is intriguing, but history has proven that the inventor usually takes the juice. Building a moat in the suburbs is not practical, and high fences topped with broken glass give the impression that there is something worth carrying away (which there is not).
The best deterent I heard of was a pet cobra that was allowed to roam the house at will. The front door was
never locked, but after one highly publicized incident, the homeowners were left alone.
Everyone has heard stories about postal workers who freak out, pull out revolvers, and begin shooting everyone. Given the statistic that one out of five people is probably bonkers, I started to recount years of students whose brains may have been fried, but who have just not yet gone over the edge.
1) The religious nut who stood up in class saying, "I too, await my eternal reward," after I had mentioned something about Palestrina going to his: the student just repeated himself over and over; I suggested that he would get it sooner than he thought if he didn't sit down (he was carried out by a security guard).
2) The paranoid who was sure that his homework was being copied and placed in a secret FBI file: I tried to convince him that the papers were not interesting enough for anyone to bother.
3 The lunatic composer who dressed like Wagner, right down to the velvet beret: he was sure that he was a direct descendent and would shortly have his opera produced by King Ludwig of Bavaria.
4 The ex-husband of a student who barricaded himself in my office and threatened to kill anyone who confessed listening to Schoenberg's music. A dramatic scene ensured where the department chair tried to talk the nut out of his weapon. Another crazy grad student immediately began writing an opera documenting the incident (my part was to be sung by a heldentenor).
These are only a piddling sample of those who have gone around the corner. When I realized
how many certifiably wacko people had crossed my path, I saw that this list would be added to in the
Thoreau imagined the average man as leading a life of "quiet desperation." I think that nothing is quiet today. Signs, commercials, rock music, jack hammers, and political pundits shrilly vye for our shredded attention. Our desperation is in the middle of the last Carl's Junior ad, between Joe Camel ads. You must have the latest rising crust pizza or SUV (sport utility vehicle). Brush your teeth with the designer gel that will forgive your sins and remove all bad breath. Every 6 minutes the traffic patterns of the world, the stock market, and the verdicts in the latest crime trials will be delivered to your front door.
" I am innocent!" shouts the fugitive. " I don't care!" rebuffs his captor. We are all basically innocent: we are merely guilty of sensory overload. Too many boxes of soap and breakfast cereal have perverted our senses into dull submission. I'll eat it, I'll use it, I'll dedicate my life to it. we shout.
Walden Pond beckons like an eternal reward on earth: please save us from our own prosperity, that Gilette
blue blade used to the mystical moment of dullness (with apologies to e.e. cummings). If Ellen Degeneres could
only have an audience with the Pope, he could straighten her out.
Today, from the exalted vantage point of a senior professorial chair at a major university, I started to think about what that really means and of all the B.S jobs I've held in the interim. We are never as good as our greatest moments: the football great who completes the touchdown pass, the olympic marathon miracle... these are merely passing, flickering moments in a long and dark night of the Soul (excuse me, St. John of the you know what). We are never as good as our greatest moments; luckily, we are never as bad as our most horrendous.
I jumped back to 1964, when I had renounced the House of Intellect and wanted to help "the people" (who the f*ck are they?). I became an employment interviewer for the State of New York; and, after making the usual mistakes- like sending a convicted rapist as a chauffeur for a modelling agency, I settled into a reasonably insane lifestyle which included taking down job descriptions which would make Dante barf.
One job involved showing up at the railroad yards at dawn in hip boots and a bucket. Another was an ewmergency: 4000 watermelons had fallen off a freight train in the heat of summer and were rotting at a record rate. The mess had to be disposed of NOW (for $1.50 per hour). Send us your best illegals...
What was I doing here? What planet was this? I went to a factory where old mattresses were being disemboweled and the contents were being reused as car seats. It turns out the foreman had a special level on the clock to turn it back, so dumb day workers slaved 14 hours for every 8.
Hooray for the groovy Supreme Court: they think Prop. 209 is OK. What a bunch of clowns! They must have been raised
at Disneyland or in Beverly Hills. Keep the faith (to yourself), brother.
This provocative title refers to those universally compromising drivers' license and passport pictures that turn teenagers into instant delinquents, housewives into mafia gun molls, and old men into deposed dictators. When the photos were black-and-white, the effect was even more complete, replicating those post office posters of America's most wanted. With the advent of color a new dimension of horror has taken over.
The latest seems to be a transformation into unflattering animal caricatures. I am sure the police and douaniers have seen herds of cows, sheep, and goats. My own recent passport picture was instantly dubbed "chickenhead" by my wife because of the strange hairdo that visited itself on my head when the photo was taken.
What paranoia-inducing laughter have I endured at the hands of the border guards and countless foreign officials as they hold back guffaws and moronic grins. T.S. Eliot's Prufrock had nothing on me:
Bad things happen when you delve into your wallet for anything but money (see Who
is Joe Gargulo?and Who is Joe Gargulo II?).
The next time, imagine that miniature, smirking Picture of Dorian Gray decorating your license
is truth rather than fiction. Those old ladies really ARE killers; those teenagers ARE circus fools and
I awoke in a cold sweat last night from a horrific vision of dozens of squat, obese and hairy and scowling monkeys scurrying out from the back door of my house. Initially, I chalked the nightmare up to a combination of halloween and my delirium from the fever of the flu; however, hours later, this dream stayed with me like an indigestible Pink's hotdog. Immediate various officious committees of university faculty came to mind (see The Faculty Meeting and Faculty Meeting II). If these transmogrified grotesques could haunt my conscious life, what could they do in the unconscious? I am sure all of us have chewed on some realistic phantasm of sleep, only to give up on any reasonable interpretation.
The strangest animal dream in my recollection was had by a college roommate of mine concerning my Aunt Lena, an enormous, rotund woman with the mind of a child (we nicknamed her the "dangerous dumpling, a.k.a. the amazing simian brain transplant"). In my friend's dream this woman became transformed as she rose up from a giant pot of spaghetti sauce. We conjured up an interpretation that she was a beacon, a warning like the ghosts in Dickens' A Christmas Carol: in real life she made no sense, but in the dream, like Jacob Marley she admonished all to mend their ways or forge the chain (in this case of sausage) of regret.
Freud's Interpretation of Dreams may or may not be a roadmap for a partial solution to the inveterate
nuttiness of human nature, but it definitely makes for better recreation than Parchesi (see
Thinking about All Saints' Day, the traditional end of the evil spirits and goblins of halloween, I started to wonder about all those patron saints that get little recognition. I have been told that there is a patron saint of basketball; would that mean that every sport has a patron saint? What about the idea of creating a patron saint of shopping. In the past, the patron saints were associated with major activities of human beings. If now shopping is a major event, it must have a patron saint.
Let us create a patron saint of talk show hosts, of radio psychiatrists and DJ's: all of them were talked to death by obstreperous guests or blasted to death by heavy metal rock.
Usually the patron saints of old were martyred in some gruesome way that alludes to the thing they protect. The patron saint of shopping could have been trampled in a flash sale or strangled by tight underwear or pantyhose in the dressing room. Equally important would be the patron saint of credit cards, probably a victim of the mob for going too far into debt. These saints would have to have a specific ranking, like Double Major with Common Octave (see more on the rating system with contemporary examples from tv in St. Pat, Confessor-Bishop).
Leaving the world of recreation, the politicians already have patron saints- martyrs whose smarmy careers were wiped clean by assassination or disgrace. Richard Nixon would most likely be the highest ranking patron saint, largely because he is a paradigm for political survival in a long career (as opposed to John F. Kennedy, an obvious choice in the short term). Nelson Rockefeller, quintessential liberal who died in the middle of a sex act with a woman not his wife, would probably rank further down.
As you can see, the Patron saint game is a vast and untapped resource to which I must return from time to time.