The view from my pinhole on reality.|
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|Thursday, May 16th, 2013|
|In My Science Fiction Story ...
... “God” is a sort of grad student -- or more likely, post-doc -- in the Realms of the Divine. He launches the Big Bang in an attempt to demonstrate a predictable-but-pretty little universe that starts from [near] nothingness, condenses-condenses-condenses, BLOOMS into somethingness, expands-expands-expands -- and eventually diffuses back into [near] nothingness.
Alas, not long into the experiment, he discovers biological contamination on one unremarkable little blue planet in the otherwise nicely developing model. There’s just this one little cell of it in the whole cosmos -- but that’s enough. The experiment will have to be dismantled.
His mentor, Lor, commiserates. “Well, it happens,” he says, “in universe building.”
Scene 1: Interior. A standard institutional cafeteria. Two beings, one rather more mature than the other,
sit at a table, lunching on what actually appears to be ambrosia.
God. “But such a tiny little speck. Argggh!”
Lor. Nevertheless, it’s a no-go. It’s got to be pristine. You present a universe that was even briefly, infintestimally contaminated by biotics and the Committee are not going to be impressed. You’ll get a reputation for producing shoddy work. It will never, ever be valued in the Realms of the Divine, however well it unfolded otherwise. Don’t waste any more time or resources on it.
God. Of course. You’re right. I’m taking it down this afternoon.
God. … The thing is …
God. I went in and had a look at them.
Lor. Honestly, God!
God. [sheepishly] I just thought I would.
Lor. Surely you didn’t …you didn’t reveal yourself, did you?
God. No -- no. Of course I didn’t. I just … had a look.
Lor. So what did you see?
God. [Shakes his head.] A planet rife with life forms, that’s for sure. Every niche and nook and cranny is teeming with life.
Lor. Numerous species, eh?
God. Oh, millions. Numerous and diverse.
Lor. The usual dog-eat-dog arrangement?
God: Yes. Natural selection, of course, has organized it all with ruthless efficiency.
Lor. Primitive little organisms?
God. Oh, mostly. But some are fairly complex. … There’s this one species – honestly, Lor, I know you don’t go in for slumming, but I really do think you’d have found them amusing.
God. [Laughs] Well, they’re clever little biotics, in a way. But crazier than loons. Self-aware. Possessed of language, mathematics and technology – all on a certain level, of course.
Lor. Uh-oh. You’ve got to pull the plug on this, God.
God. I know. I’m going to. This afternoon.
[Scene 2. The same cafeteria, the following day.]
Lor. Let me buy you a cup of nectar, God. It was tough luck what happened with your project, and I know you’re disappointed that you’re not going to have a submission for Fireworks Day this summer … but you’re new at this.
God. Thanks, Lor.
Lor. Everything shut down smoothly?
God. [Looks down.] Well … you see … Actually …
Lor. [Puts his tray down and fixes God with a astonished look.] You didn’t do it, did you?
God. I just thought, you know … as long as it was up and running, I’d have another little look at biotic civilization. This species I was telling you about, that calls itself “human” …it’s fascinating in a way.
Lor. In a watching-a-train-wreck sort of way, I expect.
God. Well, there is that aspect of it, for sure. [Shakes his head, incredulously] They just can’t stop killing each other. They never stop. Mass killings, single killings. High-tech, low-tech. Meticulously organized military strikes. One-off, spur-of-the-moment bang-bangs. Psychopath-gone-berserk slaughters. … And then the weeping, the wailing, the gnashing of teeth with regret that this is the way they are. The hoping and resolving that they’re going to stop being this way, one of these days.
Lor. Yewh, God.
God. Well, they’re the product of a long cut-throat process of evolution. They’ve got a lot of killer instinct built into their genome.
Lor. Any other built-in compulsions?
God. Sheesh. Sex, of course. That’s for sure. And it’s not their fault, really. Natural selection set them up – gave them this hyperactive sex drive -- just to be sure that there’d always be sufficient numbers of them around, in case they needed to gang up on some stiff competition. I’m probably underestimating here when I say that fifty percent of human time-energy-endeavor-emotion has gone into the pursuit of sex.
Lor. Well, that’s the way it is with biotics. What else?
God. [Laughs.] They do this stuff called “art.” Been doing it ever since they emerged as a species. They do it all the time, everywhere. [Waxes enthusiastic.] It’s marvelous, Lor. Paintings, music -- everything from cathedrals to cupcakes. Taj Mahals to toe-rings. Literature. Every group of them who ever lived anywhere on Earth – the planet is called “Earth” in the language they use in this one place I like to hang out in -- every group of them has used some medium to create something that expresses their inner feelings, their esthetic sensibilities.
Lor. Is this why you call them clever?
God. Well, it’s one of the reasons.
Lor. What’s the other?
God. Well, they’re curious and want to find things out. Some of them, I mean. Don’t let me oversell them as a species. Maybe five percent of them could be called thinkers in any sense. But some of them, the intellectually elite, think and wonder and look for answers. They’ve developed a method of investigating and testing physical reality – they call it science – and you’d be surprised at what they’ve been able to figure out. They know, Lor. They know about their universe. … Some things anyway -- certainly not how or why … but some things. And they’re just little. [Beams.] This has all come about really recently in their history. And now, now… They’re developing technology that going to help them along tremendously.
Lor. God, listen to me. Don’t get fond of these biotics just because you inadvertently created them. It would be a big mistake.
God. Some of them even think – their technology is expanding and improving so rapidly -- that they’re going to reach a point, a singularity, at which technologically-enhanced humans become so much more capable, so much more intelligent than they ever have been, that they couldn’t even properly be called humans any more. Then these super-intelligent bio/techno amalgams are going to design even more intelligent “post-humans,” and so on.
Lor. [Wearily.] This has happened before, God. In biologically infected universes. It happened in one Nog made a few seasons ago. Believe me, nothing good comes of it. Once they achieve singularity, these biotics just keep on going. Then, before you know it, you’ve got uber-intelligent organisms who feel they’re entitled to rub elbows with divines. And even to complain that their universes are not unfolding the way they think they should.
Scene 3. Lor’s office. A few days later. Lor is sitting at his desk. God shuffles in, diffidently, and stands before him.
Lor. [Glances up and takes in God’s affect.] I take it that your experiment is still extant?
God. [Unable to look up.] Yes.
Lor. [Drums his fingers.] May I ask why?
God. [Clears his throat self-consciously, tries to speak, fails, then tries again.] I want to see the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Lor. [Incredulous.] Playoffs?
Lor. [Grasping at straws.] There’s a team you like?
God. The Toronto Maple Leafs.
Lor. God! You don’t intend to intervene, do you?
God. [Looks up surprised.] Of course not. It wouldn’t be any fun at all if I did that.
Lor. Are the Toronto Maple Leafs expected to win this competiton?
God. Not really. But their fans think they have a shot at it.
Lor. Do they ever win? The Cup, that is?
God. Well, they have in the past, but not for a long time. Earth time, that is. I just want to see what happens, Lor.
Lor. [Starts to speak, but gives up.] Okay. Okay, God. I’ll see you back here, soon.
Scene 4. Lor’s office. A couple of weeks later. God stands, nervous but plucky, before Lor’s desk.
Lor: So did the Leafs win?
God: Nah. Beaten out by the Bruins in the first round.
Lor: Too bad.
God: But it was in the seventh game! In overtime! A heart-breaker.
Lor: So it goes. Are we through with this now?
God: [Looks down and drags the toe of his right sandal across the carpet.] The thing is … … see … I really like their chances for next year. Or the year after that at the latest. The very latest. Probably.
Lor: You’re kidding.
God: [Bravely.] Not really. Actually – no.
Lor: [Sighs and throws up his hands. Sighs again.] Okay. So we’re waiting for the Toronto Maple Leafs to win the Stanley Cup. This time I want your promise, God, and I want a rainbow on it.
God: [Beams ecstatically and raises his right hand.] I promise: as soon as the Leafs win the Cup, I will pull the plug on this whole thing. [A brilliant rainbow appears in the sky outside the window with a musical ping.]
[Lor nods resignedly, then buries his face in his hands. God exits as discreetly as it is possible to do while leaping up every few steps and clicking his heels together.]
|Four Extremely Short Stories
Mikey Sheehan opens his half of the sandwich and takes a look.
“Lard,” he says sadly.
“It’s not lard,” Fran says indignantly. “It’s oleo. My mama just hasn’t mashed the … yellow stuff into it yet. She has to do the wash today, you know, the diapers. And the rug. She has to sweep the rug with the carpet sweeper.”
But Mikey, a man of few words, shakes his head regretfully and lays the sandwich down on the cement porch step, next to the “cow.”
It’s a chilly and cheerless November day and Fran and Mikey have the block all to themselves. The older kids – Patsy and Irene and Bobby and Daryl – have gone off to first-grade this year, leaving them alone, adrift between the grown-ups and the babies.
Yesterday after school Bobby had selected a nice, chalky rock and set about expressing himself in the written word on his neighbors’ porch step. “Whatcha gonna write, Bob?” Patsy asked. “’Cow?’ Bobby and I can write ‘cow,’” she explained importantly.
Mikey’s sister Irene is going to the Catholic school.
They yell at each other a lot at the Sheehan’s house and have their supper about four o’clock.
“You should eat your sandwich because children are starving in Europe,” Fran tries, although she finds the preposterous illogicality of this ploy infuriating when adults try it on her. How could it possibly help starving European children if she managed to gag down a bowl of slimy oatmeal or sloppy bread and milk? Or if Mikey ate his bread and margarine, for that matter?
Mikey tips his white sailor hat farther down on his forehead, and resumes the seat of his hand-me-down trike, with the genuine rubber treads. He shoots Fran a sidelong look, and asks gruffly, “Are you gonna be my woman?”
Fran puts her sandwich down beside Mikey’s and the porch step. “Okay,” she says and hops on his back running board for a ride down the sidewalk .
“Hubba-hubba,” Mikey observes to a passing Packard.
Something that calls itself a “shelter,” Marybeth explains silently to the universe, as she stamps and jigs up and down the well-ventilated little bus-stop enclosure, has a obligation to offer a bit more in the way of comfort than, say, something that calls itself a “bald expanse of wind-swept tundra.”
If the One-Sixty-Two appears in the next three minutes and nine seconds she might just survive. Otherwise, too bad. At least she won’t have to go to work.
She’s wearing heavy socks over her pantyhose inside her boots, carrying the high-heeled shoes she’ll put on when she gets there in a bag. Still, skirt lengths have been creeping up steadily in the past few years, and the slightest little gust of wind is murder.
To work, to work. To bloody, bloody work. “I hate work,” Robertson Davies wrote, “… considering it to be… beneath the dignity of anyone of fine feelings or intelligence.” Marybeth had copied that out and pinned it on her bulletin board at home, She cherishes the thought of it throughout the day. SOMEBODY understands.
There’s one other occupant of the bus shelter at the moment. A youngish man wearing after-shave, a very nice coat, and a put-upon look. Some PM-3 or -4, an assistant to some Assistant.
Marybeth knows the type. They wander the halls of the bureaucracy, wearing their neckties and making sporadic attempts to look busy. (While she herself works like a stevedore and gets paid significantly less.) They mutter and snicker and nudge one another as you walk by -- the clear import of the little performance being, “There goes a girl who’s no better than she ought to be.”
If she stepped over there and slapped the shit out of them, she muses from time to time, she’d be spoken of, after her firing, as having been a shockingly poor sport.
When she gets to the office Marybeth will apply herself with ferocious intensity to her IBM electric typewriter. Concentration makes the time pass, she’s learned. She’ll be typing a fifth draft of the current Cabinet Document – a tactful suggestion from the Department to Cabinet as to how this already-quite-pleasant and well-ordered country might be improved in some aspect, and offering suggestions as to how the government could go about doing it.
THIS DOCUMENT IS THE PROPERTY OF THE GOVERNMENT OF CANADA, it says, in capital letters, across the top of page 1.
Everyone in the division is required, in the spirit of team-playerism, to pretend that (a) the Document is a missive of vital importance, and (b) that they’re working under an inexorable deadline. It has to be on the Minister’s desk by 9:00 o’clock Friday morning! None of which is remotely true.
Marybeth knows that Cabinet is unlikely to take up the issue this Document deals with within the next six months, and that when they do, they’ll have their own ideas. The policies they institute will bear no more than a passing resemblance to the suggestions outlined in the Document.
Every time the Document is revised – a word changed here and there, a few sentences added or deleted, a paragraph reworked – the whole 70-page paper has to be typed all over again. The final version must be Perfect.
Typing is an activity Marybeth has no talent for but has none-the-less gotten good at by dint of simply having had to do it for uncountable hours.
One thing she’s noticed: having typed the damned Document, word for word, four or five times, she knows better than anyone what it actually says and doesn’t say. She corrects the Assistant Deputy Minister’s misapprehensions and points out contradictions, when necessary, tactfully, but with a certain inner satisfaction.
Marybeth beats her numbing hands together. She is FREEZING here!
The light is beginning to strengthen. She peers down the street, concentrating on each bus as it approaches, her heart sinking as it turns out to be the wrong one.
It has to be soon. Yes. Yes, yes, yes! This is it: 162!
As the 162 pulls in toward the bus stop, the PM-4 steps forth and flags it on past. It wasn’t, apparently, the bus he was waiting for.
Hearing Marybeth’s strangled shriek of rage, a look of blank surprise suffuses his face. “Oh. Did you want that bus?”
She chokes on the freezing air for a time and a time, then wipes her nose and clears her throat.
“No.” she says firmly. “No, I didn’t want it at all.”
When Paula appears at the kitchen door, barefoot and disheveled, Tommy is breaking eggs, messily, into what appears to be an old tin pie plate.
He startles a little when he sees her standing there, then gives her a long, searching look. At this point he sort of loses it. He wipes his eggy hands distractedly on his plaid boxers, coughs uncertainly, and finally says huskily, “Once there was a beautiful princess, and her name was Paula.”
Paula crosses the gritty floor and cups his face in her hands. “And she had this fella,” she says archly, “and he had the nicest nose. It was really, quite, fine.” She tips his face forward and bestows little kisses down the length of his nose. “And, every once in a while,” she goes on, “he made her breakfast. And so she lived happily ever after.”
Groping behind him, Tommy has found a kitchen counter stool. He sits and pulls Paula astride him, nuzzling and murmuring unintelligibly.
A moment or two later her eyes catch his. Really blue, really intense …
Oh, god. The kid is serious.
This can’t …
She seems to be having a problem with her solar plexus … some sort of temporary paralysis.
The heart is such a dumb-butt!
She CAN’T fall in love with a guy who’s five years younger -- not to mention two inches shorter than she is -- simply because he has a remarkably straight nose!
This is not going to work out well.
Life is not a FAIRY-TALE!
Although she’s quite sure she’s said none of this aloud, she distinctly hears him whisper against her neck:
Charles and I clump into the Pangburn’s kitchen in quest of information.
This is serious. The thrilling, high-stakes game of real life, grown-up life, is coming closer every day, and Charles and I don’t mean to let it catch us unprepared.
Mrs. Pangburn is not present in the kitchen at the moment, although her blue-jeaned bum is. She’s apparently cleaning the cupboard underneath her sink. Boxes of Brillo pads and Glad bags, bottles of Windex and Pine-Sol are set out at random. The bum waggles back and forth as she scrubs the contact-papered cupboard floor.
“Mom,” Charles asks, “do you know it when you’re drunk?”
The bum stops waggling.
“I?” she asks starchily, from inside her cave.
“Well… one. Does one know it when one is drunk?” Charles rephrases carefully.
She chortles briefly. “Yes. One knows it when one is drunk.”
We clomp back down the hall, disappointed. I sneak a sideways look at Charles to see whether we have to believe this, but apparently we do. And he ought to know: he’s 7 and I’m only 6 ½.
|Wednesday, July 11th, 2012|
|You'd Be So Nice to Share a Planet With
Having set Penn Jillette straight about the basics of ethics and morality in my last posting, I now move on to improve the work of Henry Alford on the subject of manners and courtesy.
Alford has written a book entitled – and let me say right here that this is the most delightful book title I’ve seen in years – “Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That: A Modern Guide to Manners.”
Alas, once you’ve read the title you’re past the good part. The book itself turns out to be a rambling bore that seldom, if ever, gets down to brass tacks. (Why is this, Henry? The hall of bad manners is so strewn with brass tacks that I swept up a handful in no time.)
Worse than that, Alford seems, from time to time in his rambles, to lose touch with even the basic concept of courtesy -- which, since you ask, I’m going to explain as a genuine effort not to annoy, embarrass, inconvenience, distress, or disrespect the people who have to share this planet with you. (Alford thinks a jolly game of “see who can touch the waiter the most times” is great fun -- and apparently sees no discourtesy or disrespect there.)
Anyway, it’s a shame to waste a good idea, so let me help him out a little.
Bee-Bee’s “Would It Kill You?” List and Believe Me This Is Just for Starters:
Would it kill you to step out of the room to make or take that phone call? Believe it or not, other people don’t want to listen in on your personal phone conversations – not even if they’re close friends or relatives. It makes them uncomfortable and bores them at the same time.
Would it kill you not to block the supermarket aisle? If you have to stop and peruse the merchandise – which, of course, you do from time to time and have every right to do – PULL OVER! And don’t park your cart just parallel to another cart that’s parked on the other side. This blocks the aisle and people can’t get through, see? Also, could you teach the four or five children (or defensive linesmen) who always accompany you to the supermarket to walk in single file, instead of spreading out in a flying wedge across the aisle?
Would it kill you to accept or decline any (specific) invitation at the time it’s offered, instead of stringing the prospective host or hostess along endlessly, making it impossible for plans and preparations to proceed? Are you in or out?
Would it kill you not to throw out an outrageously provocative political (or religious) pronouncement at a social gathering of people of mixed persuasion? Or, if you’re one of the provoked, would it kill you not to rise to the bait?
Would it kill you to hurry up a little, or at least not dawdle, when people are waiting for you? Say, waiting for you to pull out of that parking space, waiting for a restroom stall to become available, waiting for you to make up your mind what you want to eat?
Would it kill you to stop patronizing old people? Elderly women are not made giddy with delight at being called “young lady.”
Would it kill you to stop praying ostentatiously in public? Jesus, apparently, thought that it wouldn’t (Matthew 6:5-6).
Unless it truly matters, would it kill you to put a sock in it when you find yourself about to correct someone’s grammar, pronunciation, grasp of the facts, memory of some incident of yore? Much as you’d think people would appreciate this, somehow they don’t seem to.
Would it kill you just to say, “I’m fine, thank you. How are you?” when asked how you are? Unless the question is being put to you by the 911 operator, it’s a simple gesture of politeness and doesn’t call for a detailed and accurate assessment of the state of your well-being. And just saying you’re fine will make you feel better.
And while we’re sort of on the subject, would it kill you to just LIGHTEN UP A LITTLE, instead of inflicting your foul mood on everybody who comes within ten yards of you? It would be the nicest thing you could do for your fellow humans.
|Saturday, November 5th, 2011|
|We Try Harder
Back in the 2000 presidential campaign Joe Liberman said, or definitely implied, that people without theistic beliefs couldn’t be really moral people. (Also, they were un-American.) He seemed to think this was an innocuous truism and was probably surprised when grumblings of objection broke out across the land. But it really didn’t amount to much, and I expect he soon forgot about it. (I, myself, did not forget. Unable to bring myself to vote for him, I had to abstain on the presidential/vice-presidential question on the 2000 ballot. I certainly wasn’t going to vote for the other guys.)
Senator, that really hurt. Unbelievers, I find, want very much to be good people. They want it as intensely as the most conservative followers of established religions. They try harder, because they have to. They have to work out the how-shall-I live question for themselves, and responsibility for their decisions and actions is entirely their own.
Their consciences, furthermore, are tender.
Christians have this principle of forgiveness, which is an undeniably laudable human gesture, and an undeniably necessary one in human relations. However, even when his fellow humans can’t quite rise to the occasion, a Christian can ask God for forgiveness -- for anything, for everything, at any time. And receive it. The slate is simply wiped clean, even at the last moment of life: “Between the stirrup and the ground, he mercy sought, and mercy found.”
This has always struck me as just too damn easy. You’ve got to own your own life. The way atheists look at it, what is is, and what happened happened, and if they’ve done something they’re not proud of, they can’t make it un-happen by reciting some incantation. They have to live with a bruised conscience for a long time.
In his book God, No, Penn Jillette offers a list of “Ten Commandments for Atheists.” I haven’t read this book, but I’ve seen the list. It’s not bad. It has some good stuff in it. But it’s tethered, rather strangely and unnecessarily it seems to me, to the biblical Ten Commandments. For example, I don’t think putting aside a non-working day, or time, is very important. If you’ve got work to do and feel like doing it, there’s no reason to make yourself sit on a chair all afternoon just because it’s Sunday or Saturday or whatever. I also think that wishing and hoping are all right – even a little envying -- as long as you don’t start scheming about how to get other people’s stuff away from them. Also … it seemed to me that a few pretty essential points got left out.
So. Not really satisfied with Penn Jillette’s list, I found myself wanting to make my own. There were a couple of obstacles, however. First, atheists are loath to issue commandments, and even more loath to receive them. Mine would have to be – like the old joke – “Ten Suggestions.” Second: I certainly wouldn’t want ANYBODY to think I was implying that I was a master of all these virtues – or even very good at them at all.
Nevertheless, I made my list, and here it is:
Bee-Bee’s Ten Suggestions to Atheists for Keeping Your Conscience Quiescent
Seek truth, and cherish it as the ultimate ideal -- but never be too certain that you’ve found it.
Love and respect this little blue spaceship that is our home.
Don’t hurt other people if you can possibly avoid it. Not even a little bit.
Don’t tell lies, not even to children. (Hint: don’t do things you’re going to have to lie about later -- when the chickens come home to roost.) (I’m talking to you, Mr. Politician.)
Don’t lie to yourself, either. Don’t let yourself rationalize and make excuses, telling yourself that you can’t be expected to be a (strictly speaking) nice person – at least not today -- because you’re so stressed, and put-upon, and, unlike other people, have all these problems.
Don’t deceive people, cheat people, exploit them, manipulate them. Don’t betray people’s trust. The Christians have a rule that clarifies most situations: “Do unto others … “
Be pleasant in all your encounters with your fellow humans. Really. Ninety-five percent of the time it’s easy. Courtesy is the queen of virtues.
While recognizing that everyone needs help now and then, take responsibility for your own well-being to the fullest extent you can.
Don’t be selfish and greedy and grab a lot more than your share –then add insult to injury by pretending you deserve it. (I’m talking to you Mr. CEO, Mr. Banker.)
Be fair. Admit it, ungrudgingly, when you’ve been wrong. Acknowledge others’ contributions. Don’t ever, ever take credit for someone else’s work or ideas.
Be tolerant of other people. Cultivate a sense of what’s your business and what isn’t. Search your heart for empathy, understanding, compassion. Remind yourself that, “There but for the [vagaries of fate] go I.”
Stop complaining. Count your blessings. Look at it this way: the odds of your ever having found yourself alive and standing here on this planet were a gazillion-trillion-quintillion to one. But here you are. Be glad, and embrace this unlikely experience.
Keep your sense of humor about you. You gotta laugh.
(Okay, if you’re counting, that’s 13. I couldn’t seem to boil it down to any fewer.)
|Thursday, April 1st, 2010|
|Of Loons and Men
Okay. We all know that life has its farcical aspect, but this is the question that haunts me: does it have any other aspect at all?
Environmental health officers, I read online today, removed hundreds of rabbits, recently, from a residence in an eminently civilized Canadian city.
Hundreds. From the house, you understand. At least 500 rabbits, according to reports, lived their merry lives in this residence, unconfined and unrestricted in any way.
There was a picture, too, of a nice house on a pleasant street. Which just goes to show, in case you doubted it, that You Never Know what lies beyond closed doors.
The neighbors, of course, knew all too well. They said the householders had been heavily into rabbits for at least three years. (I wonder how long it took to get the place condemned.)
So. There it is. We belong to a race of beings who are crazier – I was going to say crazier than loons, but that would be an insult to all loons. Compared to humans loons are paragons of stability, prudence and common sense. This is a fact of life that simply has to be lived with.
Could it be that the craziest of all are those of us who try to buck this trend? Those of us who suppose we have responsibilities and restraints, who pay our bills, make our beds and floss our teeth, who try to do our duties and eat our vegetables every day? Maybe we’re the real nuts. Why do we bother? We could just say farewell to tiresome rationality, kick back and get ourselves 500 rabbits.
(I have to admit to a certain horrified admiration of the ladies of Grey Gardens, who had the courage to Just Say No to any conventional idea of saneness.)
Nothing dire would happen to us if we did. Because of the extremely unsanitary conditions, the people living in Rabbitville were ordered to clean the place up and to move out until they had done so. But I’ll bet neither of those things will happen in more than the most token way. They’ll probably move out overnight, and as for cleaning the place up -- cleaning it to the extent that anybody else would ever dream of living in it -- that would be quite impossible. The house will have to be razed to the ground when Rabbit People die or move on.
Yes, I do know that cases of animal hoarding are not unknown and are probably not even extremely rare. But that’s only among humans. Homo sapiens. The species we belong to. Show me the loon that keeps 500 rabbits.
|Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010|
|This nearly was mine
The lady who lives next door tickled us all the other night with the story of her two oldest sisters, who, when they were girls, divided up all the songs.
Every song in the world, that they knew of, became the property of one sister or the other. Then, neither was allowed to sing one of the other’s songs without permission. (Of course when they were mad and having a fight, that’s exactly what they would do: sing one of the other’s songs, loudly and in her face.)
This is the sort of thing that makes perfect sense to a kid. My sister and I agreed that we might well have divided up all the songs, if we’d thought of it. (I remember owning certain trees, while she owned others.)
And we could have done it, too, with our lively young brains. We’d have simply said --
I’ll take “Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground.”
Well, I’ll take “I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair.”
-- and so on until we’d mentioned every song in the world. Nor would we have forgotten who owned what.
Now that we’re old, I’m afraid we’d have to work from some sort of written list of every song in the world, and such a list doesn’t seem to exist. And we’d have to write our choices down and check our personal lists frequently.
Also, now that we don’t live in the same household, she might sing one of my songs without asking permission and I wouldn’t even know it.!
Here’s one song that would have been up for grabs. Our Irish grandfather used to sing it for us.
Three or four cousins over the sea,
Perry-Mary-Dick-Tom on my knee,
Three or four riddles they sent to me,
Parthum, quartham, paradise anthem,
Perry-Mary-Dick-Tom on my knee.
Is there a cherry without any stone?
Perry-Mary-Dick-Tom on my knee,
Is there a bird without any bone?
Parthum, quartham, paradise anthem,
Perry-Mary-Dick-Tom on my knee.
Is there a blanket without any thread?
Perry-Mary-Dick-Tom on my knee,
Is there a book that no man’s read?
Parthum, quartham, paradise anthem,
Perry-Mary-Dick-Tom on my knee.
Cherry in the blossom without any stone,
Perry-Mary-Dick-Tom on my knee,
Bird in the egg without any bone,
Parthum, quartham, paradise anthem,
Perry-Mary-Dick-Tom on my knee.
Blanket in the fleece without any thread,
Perry-Mary-Dick-Tom on my knee,
Book on the press that no man’s read,
Parthum, quartham, paradise anthem,
Perry-Mary-Dick-Tom on my knee.
NOTE: “Perry-Mary-Dick-Tom on my knee” = Perry merry dictum domine.
“Parthum, quartham, paradise anthem” = partum quartum pare dissentum.
|Tuesday, July 21st, 2009|
|If you're so smart
Christopher J. Ferguson delivers the bad news (The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 15, 2009) that not every child is secretly a genius.
Ferguson takes issue with those who want the concept of “intelligence” to include a multiplicity of personality (interpersonal, intrapersonal) and even physical (bodily, kinesthetic) characteristics.
I’ve been reading and hearing this “multiple intelligences” blather for decades. It has enormous popular appeal because, of course, once we all accept it, everybody can be intelligent and every child can be “gifted.” The problem with this position, Ferguson points out, is that empirical evidence in support of it is not robust.
He favors a return to the concept of a single intelligence entity (g)and hazards this simple definition: an innate cognitive ability that powers learning. (Even though he admits this isn’t perfect, I have to quibble with him a bit. It can’t be quite that simple. It’s also the innate cognitive ability – and this is inescapably important -- that powers problem-solving. Even problems that have never been encountered before.)
“[T]he belief that intelligence does not exist as a single, reliable, important, genetically determined construct,” he says, “is a … fallacy. Unfortunately, some children and adults are just unintelligent. It’s not fair, it’s not politically correct, but reality is under no obligation to be either of those.”
Well said, Christopher J.
There it is. Not everybody is intelligent. Don’t, don’t be bamboozled by pretenders, because they abound everywhere. In the hope that it might be of some help, I offer this brief guideline:
How to Spot a Smart Person in Five Easy Steps: Bee-Bee’s Highly Personal and Crotchety Checklist
One. A smart person can tell the difference between what he WANTS to be true and what actually seems to be the case.
He has a keen sense of what constitutes evidence and can easily tell the difference between evidence and sentimentality, evidence and anecdote, evidence and conjecture, evidence and what everybody “knows.” When the evidence is inconclusive, as it so often is, he can defer judgment.
Two. A smart person can tell if a given pronouncement makes no sense.
Reading or hearing a statement that is simply devoid of logic, or coherence, or grammatical sense, or content leaves him smacking his head. (“Well, you know what I meant.” No, I don’t.)
Three. A smart person is skeptical.
She resists the embrace of the current fad (probably dietary), panacea, conspiracy theory or path to “spiritual” bliss. She’s unlikely to run out and purchase the latest self-help book – be there ever so many celebrities swearing by it.
Four. A smart person discriminates between what’s interesting and what isn’t.
She reads things. Ideas excite her. She has little taste for the mental cottoncandy of vacuous, gossipy, celebrity and scandal obsessed, transparently sensationalistic and commercially driven pop culture.
Five. A smart person can change his mind.
If a proposition which he has been inclined to believe, even for a very long time, is shown in the light of further evidence to be of dubious credibility, he thinks, “how interesting,” and drops this belief, happily and without experiencing the least embarrassment or ego-bruising.
|Tuesday, July 7th, 2009|
|Tuesday at Bee-Bee's
I see (front page, NY Times) that Michael Jackson’s body will attend today’s memorial services in Los Angeles. The lucky “ticket holders” are no doubt thrilled.
Those not so lucky as to hold tickets can watch the festivities on live television – gavel-to-gavel on every network, I expect.
How much would you have to pay me to watch it?
A hundred dollars? Not a chance.
A thousand dollars? (Remember, Bee-Bee lives on a tiny income.)
A million dollars? A million dollars to watch the sobbing and screaming, the wailing and falling out, the prostrate grief of a few hundred thousand of the celebrity’s closest friends in and around the arena? (People do love to grieve in front of TV cameras; people all over the world, apparently.)
I’d consider it.
Unanswerable Questions I’d Really Like to Know the Answer to Department:
What is the distance between me, as I sit here, and the nearest bullfrog? The nearest coyote?
What happens to ordinary household items that simply disappear one day and are never seen or heard from again? Even if the fates decree that I can never have them back again, where in the name of heaven are they, and how did they get there?
Will Wonders Never Cease Department:
My dentist confessed that he doesn’t floss every day. “It’s a drag,” he said.
|Wednesday, July 1st, 2009|
|That's what I like about the North
The New York Times features an op-ed piece today in which 11 Canadians now living in the States say what they miss most about the True North. I thought I might as well chip in.
What I Miss about Canada: Ten Endearing Things
*They make tea in pots. Consequently it’s good and everybody drinks it. (Only Americans think there’s something suspiciously effete or effeminate about tea-drinking.)
*Very ordinary people, such as parking lot attendants, hockey players and four-year-olds go around speaking French.
*Canadians are insanely hearty people. This is how they sing Jingle Bells: “Vive le vent, vive le vent, vive le vent d’hiver.” This means hooray for the (God-help-us) winter wind! They not only sing this, they mean it!
*When you’re sick in Canada you visit a doctor. (Any damn doctor you choose.) You get the treatment you need, promptly, then go home and forget it. No charge. Whatever lies you’ve been told to the contrary, this is how it works.
*A two-party system of politics would strike Canadians as ridiculously restrictive and dull. They expect to see parties spring up and die out as regularly as events dictate. This makes for a volatile political scene, of course – fractious, but endlessly entertaining.
*Newfoundland is out there in its own half-timezone. “World ends at midnight!! (12:30 Newfoundland.)”
*Canadians recognize fine linguistic distinctions. A “check” is a friendly, bone-rattling slam on the hockey rink; an order directing a bank to pay money is a “cheque.” A degree-granting institution is a “university.” A school specializing in practical skills is a “college.”
*Boxing Day, December 26, is a legal holiday and a legitimate occasion for having a party. And New Year’s Day is quite important. People actually have fun on January 1.
*Canadian currency may look like Monopoly money to Americans, but, trust me, it works. One-dollar and two-dollar denominations are coins – very pretty and distinctive. Bills start with fives.
*Canadians like sugar pies and French-fries doused with gravy. They pull little huts out on to frozen lakes, then sit in them and drink rye. You might say they’re a bit nutty.
Happy 142nd, Canada!
|Friday, June 26th, 2009|
|Just visiting here
“I am a visitor from another planet, observing human ritual with amazement and disbelief.” -- Erica Jong
I’ve had this quotation on my bulletin board for years. I identify with it, deeply.
And few things amaze me more than the significance accorded to celebrities’ deaths. It is truly, truly unbelievable, to me. I honestly think that if, say, complex life forms were discovered on Europa, it would make less of a stir in the American and international media than the (Oh my God) death of a “celebrity.”
I was in a public place (our local YMCA) a couple of years ago, as it happened, slogging along on a treadmill, when a news bulletin of “The world will never be the same!!” magnitude flashed onto the TV screens arrayed in front of me. Anna Nicole was dead!
I assumed a tragic face, hoping everyone would think I was too broken up to talk, and slunk away. I sped home and rushed to my computer, eager to learn what contributions to the human race this Significant Person, whom I had somehow never heard of, had made.
Half an hour later I was still baffled. Anna Nicole was apparently a person who was … famous, you see. Famous for … being famous.
At any rate, the non-stop coverage of her death went on for four or five days, as I recall. Possibly a week.
I don’t mean to sound heartless here. I’m sorry when a young mother dies, leaving children behind. I really am sorry.
When Princess Diana died … I was surprised, for sure, and honestly sorry to hear it. However, the difference between me and “normal” people, you see – try to follow me here -- is that I didn’t suddenly believe she was a woman I’d known personally and, more than that, that she’d been my very dearest friend. While all about me were sobbing and rending their garments, I just couldn’t get with the program.
So now Michael Jackson is dead. A talented person, no doubt, but one whose personal choices were hard to admire. All of his memorable work will live on in recordings and videos. Here’s to a remarkable entertainer. Enough said.
I don’t expect the media frenzy on this is going die down in less than a month. But at the very least Jackson’s demise knocked Mark Sanford (yet another highly placed politico-adulterer) off the front page.
|Thursday, June 25th, 2009|
|Shall we dress for dinner?
Kudos to French president Nicholas Sarkozy who has come down firmly in favor of stamping out the Muslim burqa in France. He sees these head-to-toe veils as unacceptable symbols of the enslavement and subjugation of women. (Apparently most of France’s Muslin population, all but the radical fringe, agree with him.) What the French have in mind, I gather, is an educational campaign to discourage the practice of wearing burqas, not an outright law against it.
I see Muslim women wearing headscarves all the time, but I’ve never actually seen anybody in a burqa except in pictures. (Admittedly, I don’t get around much.) I expect I’d be horrified if I did – a moving tent, usually black, with a little grille or slit for the woman who’s presumably inside to peek out of.
Can you even imagine being forced into one these hidey-holes, assured from a tender age that that’s where you belong? How could anybody do such a thing to a young woman? How could anybody convince her she was so shameful?
It’s a learned thing, of course. A cultural, conventional thing. And even the strangest cultural conventions, once they’ve been practiced for years and years and years, seem to make perfect sense to the people practicing them.
It got me to thinking, though, this burqa thing.
We keep most of our bodies hidden in most public situations, don’t we? Even in secular western societies. It’s surprising, when you think about it, how we can know people – know them fondly and well and for a lifetime, and never see more than the periphery of their actual, physical bodies, the actual, physical beings that they are.
And that’s quite okay with us. We don’t want to see the bare bodies of our friends and associates. We don’t even want to picture them in our minds. (Jon Stewart’s book America features a very realistically rendered drawing of the Justices of the  Supreme Court, all smiling and all stark naked. It’s funny, but with a unsettling edge.)
No, we want everybody wrapped up, thank you very much, ourselves most of all. Having our naked bodies exposed in public is really the most excruciating, humiliating fantasy we can come up with. (This never happens, of course, but we have a lot of nightmares about it.)
It’s a cultural, conventional thing. Kind of sad and kind of laughable, but there it is.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting it would be more rational if we all took up nudity as a way of life. There are very real and practical reasons why our forbears took up wearing clothing – and prudery, I suspect, wasn’t one of them. Clothing insulates us from an abrasive world. (Think how limited you’d be without shoes.) It protects us from the cold, from the sun, from scrapes and scratches and the attack of stinging, biting insects. Our primitive ancestors didn’t foresee this, but clothing protects us from bacterial invasion. (Picture yourself getting on a city bus, nude, and sitting down on a seat where hundreds of other people, nude, had sat. Enough said.)
I will suggest this, though: If our whole society did, for some unfathomable reason, take up nudity – all of us and all at once – we’d be totally used to it in two weeks. That’s what I think. Embarrassment, shame, and even excessive curiosity would have run their course. But wouldn’t people be consumed by lust? No more than they ordinarily are, I would say. Not after they got used to it. Remember, it was once a heart-stopper just to catch a glimpse of a woman’s ankle.
Bodies are, after all, a lot like faces. Just like faces, in fact. Some are old and some are young; some are cute and some are ravaged; some few are beautiful, but most are not. Still, they all have the same basic features, arranged in the same basic order. (Okay, in the case of bodies, there’d be TWO basic sets of features.) Big deal, we’d think, confronted with yet another naked body.
Still, all in all, I’m keeping my clothes on, and I hope you will too. It’s a complicated and evolving cultural convention, but as long as there’s a rough parity-of-shame between the genders, I’ll ride along with it.
|Monday, June 22nd, 2009|
|Waiting for Mi - schel
Everywhere I turn these past few days I run into another account of the famous psychological experiments of Walter Mischel, the Marshmallow Guy.
These experiments took place some years ago. You may have heard about them: Mischel would take a four-year-old into a plain little room, as devoid of stimulation and distraction as possible. There’d be a table and chair and a little bell. He’d seat the kid at the table and place a marshmallow in front of him or her. “I’m going to leave the room for a while,” he’d tell the kid. “You can eat this marshmallow any time you want to, BUT, if wait until I come back, I’ll give you ANOTHER marshmallow, in addition to this one. If you decide at any point before I come back that you want to go ahead and eat the marshmallow, just ring the bell and someone will come in and you can do that -- but then, of course, you won’t get the second marshmallow.” (See, the bell didn’t bring Mischel back. If the kid rang the bell, he/she lost.)
Most of the little tots tried manfully to resist temptation and hold out for that second marshmallow. Some lasted less than one minute; others hung in there for quite a while -- as long as twenty minutes. But it was a difficult, trying experience for them in either case. (There are videos that plainly show this.)
All this got REALLY interesting only in subsequent years, when it turned out that the “gratification delayers,” the holders-out, did better in school, had altogether higher approval ratings from their teachers, made better scores on their SATs, went to more prestigious colleges, etc.
Reading all this, a small spot of unease began to churn at the back of my mind. Why was this bothering me? Why couldn’t I react the way you’re supposed to? Hooray. Self-deniers win; hedonists lose. … Then gradually a memory … a memory from the long, long past began to emerge. Suddenly it burst forth quite vividly (complete with proscenium and footlights):
Scene: A windowless, white-painted room, at the center of which sits a small rectangular table with a child-sized chair at either end. The table is bare but for a shiny desk-clerk’s bell. A featureless door is seen upstage left.
[The door opens and THE RESEARCHER enters, leading BEE-BEE and JEREMY, two four-year-olds. THE RESEARCHER gestures and the children sit down, BEE-BEE stage right and JEREMY stage left.]
The Researcher. [With a geniality bordering on falsity.] Now, then! Is everybody comfortable?
Bee-Bee and Jeremy. Yes.
The Researcher. Well, children! I want to give you … a little treat! [He sets a cocktail napkin in front on each child, and, with great flourish, places a marshmallow on each napkin.] These marshmallows are yours to eat whenever you like.
[JEREMY picks up his marshmallow.]
The Researcher. [Testily] Just listen a minute!
[JEREMY puts his marshmallow back down.]
The Researcher. [Clears his throat importantly] I’m going to have to step out for a little while. AND, if you’ll WAIT, until I get BACK … BEFORE you eat your marshmallows, [grins maniacally] I’ll give you ANOTHER marshmallow to go along with this one!
[BEE-BEE and JEREMY exchange long looks.]
The Researcher. If you decide you really WANT to eat your marshmallow BEFORE I get back, and NOT get the second marshmallow, just ring the little bell. Someone will come in and you can … [with faint distaste] go ahead and eat it.
See you later! [Exits through door.]
[BEE-BEE and JEREMY sit glumly for a few seconds.]
Jeremy. He had to step out for a while.
Bee-Bee. One of those important, adult matters, I suppose.
Jeremy. I suppose.
Bee-Bee. They do seem to have these important matters to attend to, don’t they?
Jeremy. Seem to.
Bee-Bee. [Laughs hollowly.] Who knows what it takes to run the world, hmm?
Jeremy. Yeah. Who knows.
[Both shuffle their feet and sigh wearily.]
Bee-Bee. He didn’t really give us ANY clue as to WHEN he’d be back, did he?
Bee-Bee. Five minutes? Fourteen hours?
[A long minute or two passes. Both fidget morosely and glance at the door frequently.]
Bee-Bee. Really. A fair bargain would have included SOME eventual time limit, wouldn’t it have?
Jeremy. I guess.
Bee-Bee. Not just left us hanging here till hell freezes over, for all we know.
Jeremy. I … yeah.
[More minutes pass in squirming, table-leg-kicking wretchedness. JEREMY takes his shoes off, puts the right shoe on the left foot, the left shoe on the right foot, laboriously ties them up again, and then decides, all in all, to return them to their original positions. BEE-BEE, meanwhile, sings four verses of “Mrs. Mouse, Mrs. Mouse,” but apparently loses her concentration, as the song ends “She’s a young thing, and cannot leave her mother.” Silence ensues.]
Bee-Bee. [Drumming her fingers.] Adults are treacherous, Jeremy. You know that. He may NEVER come back.
Jeremy. [Alarmed.] He said he would come.
Bee-Bee. We may end up holding the bag here. With one of those “It really couldn’t be helped,” and “You wouldn’t understand,” adult rationalizations.
Jeremy. He said … [Wrings his hands mournfully.] … … he would come.
Bee-Bee. [Cocks an eyebrow warningly.] Your mom may come to pick you up before he gets back. She’ll be in a hurry and in no mood to stand around listening to you explain that you can’t leave just now, and can’t really say when you WILL be able to.
Jeremy. [Distraught.] I can’t go … I want …
[Bee-Bee shakes her head regretfully. She hums for a minute or so and examines her fingernails nonchalantly.]
Bee-Bee. A marshmallow in the hand, I’ve often heard it said, is worth two in the bush.
Jeremy. [Looks around with wild surmise.] You mean … ?
[Bee-Bee nods meaningfully.]
Jeremy. We could … ?
Bee-Bee. We could.
Jeremy. [Whispers] … blow him off?
Bee-Bee. We don’t have to play this game.
Jeremy. [Wistfully.] But, gee, I hate to miss out on that second marshmallow. … I do like a good marshmallow.
Bee-Bee. Who doesn’t? But do you like being toyed with? I say let’s just eat the damn marshmallows we’ve got. Then we’ll go and make a beautiful mural on that blank wall over there. I have two crayons in my pocket, a green and a purple. … I envision a pastoral scene, replete with cows and tulips …
Jeremy. A turtle or two would be nice. Can I have the purple?
Bee-Bee. Sure. Then when Dr. Whozzits comes back we’ll be happily engaged in creative play, instead of sweating bullets, as he so gleefully expects.
Bee-Bee. Well, then. Okay.
Jeremy. [Nervously.] We’re supposed to ring the bell. Someone will come in.
Bee-Bee. What? WE CAN’T EAT A MARSHMALLOW WITHOUT ADULT SUPERVISION?
Jeremy. Yeah! We can! We will! [Pushes bell aside.]
Bee-Bee. [Lifts her marshmallow.] Cheers.
Jeremy. [Lifts his.] Cheers.
[Each pops marshmallow into his/her mouth and chews happily.]
Note: In ensuring years Bee-Bee fulfilled all expectations of never amounting to a damn. Jeremy grew up to be a rather nervous, indecisive person, inclined to second-guess himself a lot.
Neither was ever asked to participate in a psychological study again.
|Friday, June 19th, 2009|
|One snake's meat
Took a little girl to the zoo a couple of weeks ago. When we got there she wanted to see the snakes.
So, we and a few other people are looking in this box-like glass-fronted compartment in the herpetarium, home of some evil-looking green serpent -- I’ve quite forgotten what it was in view of what happened next -- when the back wall of the box is let down and we see a zoo attendant standing there holding a mouse. A live, wiggly little mouse. Feeding time. The zoo-keeper turns the mouse onto its back and, quick as a wink, whips it down so that its neck, I guess, hits the lower ledge of the box. The mouse wiggles no more. He throws it to the snake. Everybody watching is stunned.
Behind the zoo-keeper, in the back area, we could see many rows and stacks of little mouse cages. The shocked gentleman standing next to me murmured something about “a concentration camp of mice.” Then we all moved off in the direction of the exit.
I sure, sure wouldn’t want to have the job of running that camp, nurturing those little mice, and then feeding them to the snakes.
That would feel like cruelty to me.
Illogically enough, frying hamburgers at McDonald’s would not.
Now I’ve known my share of vegetarians and vegans, and I’ve always been patient and respectful of their point of view. As long as it doesn’t fall to me to plan their meals and cook them, I don’t care what categories of food they eschew. But I’ve never been the slightest bit tempted to become one myself. In my heart I think they’re … I was going to say silly, but let me call them misguided.
They don’t seem to understand the way the world works.
It would be nice if manna just fell from the heavens onto our plates, but, in point of fact, if we want to survive we have to eat other living organisms that probably would rather not be eaten. (And yes, a carrot is a living organism of exquisite complexity that would probably prefer not to be jerked out of the ground and devoured if it had any say in the matter.)
Or it would be nice if we could just photosynthesize our own food. That would be the perfect solution. But we are what natural selection has made us – one of the untold thousands of life forms on this planet that live by eating other life forms. I didn’t invent this system, but there it is.
Of course a snake is simply what natural selection has made it, too. A snake has as much “right” to eat, to pursue its survival, as anybody else. I know this. I believe it.
So who’s silly now?
Me, of course. Fine-haired, effete little me. It pains me to see an unsuspecting mouse fed to a snake, but I’m quite indifferent to the fate that has befallen the chicken leg or tuna sandwich on my plate. That is to say, I don’t think about it at all. And don’t want to. (So if you’re organizing a field trip to the slaughterhouse, count me out. Moral cowards, I understand, are not comfortable there.)
My forbears of a very few generations back would have laughed their keesters off at me. If they were lucky enough to own any livestock, they didn’t get maudlin when slaughtering day came around. If they managed to bag an antelope out on the prairie, more high-fiving than sniveling was likely to break out. They didn’t sentimentalize reality. They were too unambivalently grateful to have something to eat.
I’m going to try to look at it that way.
|Monday, March 6th, 2006|
|All Right, One Final Word ...
About movies, then I'll shut up ... for a while.
"Crash" won the Academy Award for Best Picture last night. It was a compelling film. Far be it from me to deny it.
Today I'm wondering, as I often do, why they have "awards" in the arts at all. Every such competition assumes two things: (1) that apples and oranges can be meaningfully compared, and (2) that the result can be definitive.
Somehow I doubt it. As a little boy I once knew pointed out to his Grade Two teacher (he was disappointed with the evaluation he'd gotten on his diorama): Time alone can judge a work of art.
I predict that fifty years from now "Crash" will be quite forgotten and people will still be watching "Brokeback Mountain."
Today I'm wondering, once again, why I devoted a long, long evening to watching this tiresome marathon. Today I'm asking myself how fabulous "entertainers" can be so boring -- especially when they know that billions of people are watching them.
Every year I tell myself I'm never going to sit through this extravaganza again, and just in case I mean it this time, I'd like to present
Bee-Bee's Academy Award Awards for This Year
Mind Your Manners Award: Jon Stewart. What a disappointment, what a yawn.
Best Acceptance Speech: George Clooney, who actually seemed to have thought about what he'd say.
Best Dress: Hilary Swank.
Worst: Charlize Theron.
Worst Presenter/Introducer Award: Lauren Bacall, who apparently had to idea what she was supposed to say in introducing the film noir montage and, being for some reason unable to read it, was completely lost. Excruciating.
Almost as Bad Award: Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, who did a very long and very awful pastiche -- supposedly Robert Altman-esque -- by way of presenting Altman with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Excruciating.
Best Presenter/Introducer Award:
(Jennifer Garner slipped on her way downstage to the podium, recovered herself, then quipped, "I do all my own stunts." Would have been great but for the nagging suspicion she staged the whole incident to get the laugh -- which, actually, scarcely materialized. She'd frightened everybody too much.)
No. the award goes to: Jake Gyllenhaal, who delivered his presentation in a totally poised and professional manner, without once succumbing to self-conscious giggles, which even Dustin Hoffman did.
Highlight of the Evening Award: The "gay western" film montage. Hilarious.
|Friday, March 3rd, 2006|
|The Last Picture Show
To the movies again this week. (I promise this is the last movie I'm going to talk about for a long time.)
The film we saw this time was "Match Point," Woody Allen's take on Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy" via the 1951 movie "A Place in the Sun" -- with some interesting twists.
It's also highly reminiscent of the 1989 Woody Allen film "Crimes and Misdemeanors." In "Crimes and Misdemeanors" Allen points out, apparently in open-mouthed amazement, that it's entirely possible for the bad guys to win and the good guys to lose. (Hadn't you noticed this by the time you were seven years old, Woody?) In that picture the jerk gets the girl, the saintly rabbi goes blind, and the guy who had his mistress murdered (she was pressuring him and threatening to tell his wife) gets away with it.
Now, in "Match Point" Woody Allen is back with another amazing insight: whether you win or lose in this world depends largely on pure random chance. (To which I say, duh!)
Now don't get me wrong here: I liked this film. The plot is twisty and engrossing, the cast is marvelous, and visually, it's spellbinding. When it was over my movie-going buddy and I could hardly believe that more than two hours had passed.
"I'd rather be lucky than good." This is what the protagonist says at the outset of the story and what he's clearly adopted as his guiding philosophy. "Chris" is a young man who's just a little soured on life, having recently given up on the professional tennis tour. Now he's scraping along without any real prospects, working as a tennis pro at a posh London club.
He was a good tennis player -- in the talented, skilled sense -- but not a lucky one. As his friend points out, there were any number of games in which, if he'd just been a little bit luckier, if the ball had just dropped the other way, he would have beaten the top-ranking players. Nevertheless: it didn't happen.
Not surprisingly -- if you're conversant with this film's antecedents -- Chris is befriended by a wealthy and socially elite family; in fact, he's quite taken into their bosom. The father of the family sets him up in a lucrative job, and the daughter falls madly in love with him. They get married.
Everything is swell except that Chris has this not-so-elite mistress who's pregnant and pressuring him -- pressuring him to leave his wife and marry her, just as he's promised. When she begins threatening to call the wife herself and reveal everything, Chris's desperation becomes unbearable.
He decides, bravely enough, to murder her -- to risk everything on the chance that he can reverse the previous pattern of his life. This time he will not be good -- he has no skill or experience when it comes to planning and executing a murder and he's bound to make a few mistakes, and he's certainly not going to be good in the virtuous sense -- but he will, by-god, be lucky.
You find yourself hoping he'll pull it off. You don't like him much, but you don't like the mistress either. (A practical piece of advice if you hope to live to a ripe old age: don't drive people to desperation.)
So it all comes down to chance, and no one could have predicted what happens. (Neither can the viewer.)
I don't suppose I should scoff at Woody Allen for supposing he's discovered some interesting new principle in human affairs here. People of his age were reared on a thousand fairy tales and Hollywood movies that presented life as a simple morality tale in which good was invariably rewarded, evil was punished, honesty was the best policy, hard work paid off, and the sheer bloody randomness of the universe was kept firmly under the rug.
I guess it just takes some people a little longer to get over this indoctrination then others...
|Three Stages of Woman
During the first (relatively carefree) phase of a woman's life she's called "Miss" -- as in "May I help you, Miss?"; "Would you care for some more tea, Miss?"; "That will be $24.95, Miss." She sort of takes it for granted that things will always go along this way, until one morning, perhaps not long after her 30th birthday -- probably one cold and dreary morning when she's feeling inexplicably tired -- a postal clerk says to her, "Do you need insurance on this, Ma'am?"
Bingo. She has come, inexorably, to the middle, or Ma'am stage of her existence.
I've always defined middle-age quite simply as that long stretch of years when you're no longer a young thing and not yet an elderly person. It's a no-nonsense time of life, that's for sure. It's the middle-age people who have to shoulder responsibility for the world, who have to try, as best they can, to keep civilization staggering along. It falls to them to provide for the needs and well-being of both the young and the old. They're the ones who have to get up and get the work of the world done every day, and the buck stops with them.
People in the Ma'am stage tend to have tight schedules, duties from early till late, never enough time. Nobody is expected to cut them any slack, and indeed nobody does. (Have you noticed that social programs, almost without exception, are designed to benefit either the young or the old?)
And so it goes, for years and years.
At a coffee bar the other day the counter person handed me my latte saying, "Here you go, Dear."
Oh, joy! The final confirmation that I had successfully (or by hook or by crook) negotiated the Ma'am phase of life and arrived safely on the other shore. I was a Dear!
I laughed out loud and walked away drinking a toast to a long and happy Dear-dom for myself -- leaving the Starbuck's people shrugging their shoulders at each other and concluding I must be a dotty old Dear.
|Tuesday, February 14th, 2006|
|Is February Necessary?
February -- and I'm probably not the only one to have noticed this -- is a dreary dishrag of a month. Not really one of the highlights of the year.
The IRS sits with its little hands folded, patiently waiting to hear from you. Why don't you get your documents together, sort them out, buckle down and just do it?
At least there's Valentine's Day -- if you like retail-driven holidays. The stores are awash with merchandise. Go buy a commercially-produced message of devotion and give it to somebody.
In this very spirit of love and romance, I suspect, psychiatrist Scott Haltzman is offering a little book entitled The Secrets of Happily Married Men. (All I know about this book is what John Tierney says in his column today. I haven't seen it myself and would be unlikely, actually, to pick it up and peruse it if I did.) Apparently it tells married men how to manipulate their wives advantageously (tell her you adore her each day -- then, presumably, cross that off your list of today's chores) and even why: "Wives ... tend to make the decision on whether to have sex." Happy Valentine's Day to all.
And so the weary month wends on. In February I appear in public looking like Haggis McBaggis, and don't care. I give people who run into me with their shopping carts a pained look (not the protocol where I come from). There's also, of course, the weather.
I live in a dry state, but right now we're suffering the worst draught we've seen in fifty years.
Every day the wind blows. I mean the wind blows forty or fifty miles an hour, every day, withering the landscape and ripping the shingles off the roof. The local weatherman advises that the fire hazard is extreme.
The scene grows drier, grayer, drier, grayer.
How to keep your chin up in February, that's the problem. Here's a modest proposal:
Aunt Bee-Bee's Cold Comfort Nostrum for a February Day
- Close the blinds, whatever time of day it is. Shut the world out.
- Put a martini glass in the freezer.
- Select one of your nicer plates. Cut a few thin slices of cheese, something tasty, whatever's your favorite. Put these on the plate along with a few good crackers (stoned wheat thins or triscuits) and a small handful of salted cocktail peanuts.
- Take one fancy pimiento-stuffed olive out of the bottle. Rinse it briefly and lay it on a paper napkin to drain. Spear it with a toothpick.
- Put three ice cubes into a small cocktail shaker or any sort of little pitcher.
- Pour 1/4 cup (that's 4 tablespoons) of Tanqueray gin over your ice.
- Add 1/2 tablespoon (that's 1 1/2 teaspoons) of Martini & Rossi extra dry vermouth.
- Stir it, don't shake it -- eighteen times clockwise, then eighteen times counter-clockwise.
- Pour it into your frozen glass; add your olive.
Take your martini and your snack and sit down in front of the television set. Revel in the exquisite boringness of it all:
- The 1500 meters is his best event! (Whoosh!)
- Let's see how he does on his third run! (Whoosh!)
- He needs to keep his edge and ... maintain his concentration! (Whoosh!)
- And he finishes in seventh place!
|Thursday, February 9th, 2006|
|It Ain't Necessarily So
The nation was stunned this week by the results of a comprehensive
federal study investigating the effects of a low-fat diet on the health
of 49,000 American women.
I'm sure you read this. To everyone's surprise, the data showed
no health benefit accruing from adherence to a low-fat diet. No
less heart disease, stroke, breast cancer, colon cancer. Health
professionals everywhere were bumfuzzled.
This is the way it was done: the women were assigned at random to one
of two groups. The first group were told they could eat whatever
they pleased; the second group were told to go on a low-fat diet and
stay on it for eight years. (What could be easier than
that?) The researchers would monitior the women's health, and at
the end of that time they'd know exactly what effect the low-fat diet
Just a minute. I have a small problem here.
How could you possibly know what a person ate over the course of eight years? I mean really know. You couldn't
-- unless you locked her up and watched her 24/7. Eight years is
a long, long time, and a low-fat diet is less than no fun.
Well, according to the researchers, the low-fat group were reminded
regularly to stick to the diet. Furthermore, they said they did.
(Am I the only one to have noticed this about people? If you've
sternly admonished them to adhere to a certain less-than-enjoyable
behavior, and if there's no way for you to know, actually, whether they
did or did not, and if admitting they did not is going to make them
look weak and foolish, they're going to say they did.)
Could the study's basic assumption -- that the one group's diet was
significantly different from the other's -- be unjustified? I'm
not say it is
, but could it be
Could this have had anything to do with the surprising result? (Ask
yourself this: how long and how well do people ordinarily stick to a
The last thing in the world people are able to be objective and honest
about is what they eat. I'm certainly no exception to this.
A small confession: I always wash the scoop immediately after serving
myself some Dutch Chocolate ice cream. I do this even before I
eat it. I dry it and put it back in the drawer. That way I
won't have to see it in the sink later and be reminded of my
indulgence. It's easier on my conscience if I can just put the
whole episode out of my mind, and I'm usually pretty successful at it.
Now, am I supposed to believe that the tens of thousands of women in
this study were incapable of such self-deception? Or that, in the
interest of science, they steadfastly rose above it? For eight
No wonder the results of nutritional studies are so contradictory and confusing. They depend on people telling
researchers what they eat, and quite apart from any reluctance to be candid about it, people don't even know
what they eat. Really, they don't.
"How often do you eat beets?" a doctor once demanded of me. (He was doing a study.) "Cauliflower? Lima beans?"
The only honest answer was, "I couldn't say. I really don't know."
Of course he was having none of that. "Once a month?" he persisted. "Twice a month? More often than that?"
"I sort of doubt that I eat any of these things on a predictable schedule ... "
But a determined researcher, if he presses the question insistently
enough, can always extract an answer, however meaningless, from his
interogee. I know this for a fact.
"Maybe once a month," I think I finally said. He gleefully threw
that datum into the hopper and probably published a paper eventually
saying, "People who eat beets at least once a month ... "
It seems to me that the only thing these current researchers can say for sure is, women who reported
having followed a low-fat diet for eight years had no lower incidence of these diseases than women who reported
having followed a higher fat diet.
But what do I know?
|Tuesday, February 7th, 2006|
|A Day at the Pictures
To the movies Saturday, twice. My movie-going buddies and I
thought we might as well take advantage of these halcyon days when
almost any film nominated for an Academy Award in any category is
playing in our area. It's generally downhill from here in the
The first film we caught was Good Night and Good Luck
the story of how Edward R. Murrow and CBS News screwed up their courage
and openly denounced Senator Joseph McCarthy and his smarmy tactics
back in 1954. (I'm oversimplying it a little; some of the people
in the story are more courageous than others, of course.)
It's a very focused little film, masterfully understated. (One of
my companions resented it, this understatement, thinking the message
ought to have been hammered home with fire and thunder.) It
wasn't done that way, though. No one rends his garments or
shrieks from the rooftop. Calmly, the words of Murrow, of
McCarthy, and of his hapless victims are presented and allowed to stand
umembellished, speaking for themselves. The effect, I think, is
chilling. Particularly is you substitute, in certain
places, the word "terrorist" for "communist."
Another deft touch: the whole film has the look of a 1954 TV
drama. It's in black-and-white, of course, and there are no big
sets, no exteriors, no long shots. Every scene (though
beautifully composed and lighted) is a small interior, limited in
detail, viewpoint and scope of action.
Young people seeing this film today probably don't know what this story
is about, we all agreed. They probably don't like it, and its
cautionary undercurrent is lost on them. Too bad, I suppose, but
it is refreshing once in a while to see a film that isn't pitched to
semi-literate 14-to-25 year-olds.
Murrow is seen at the end of the film (and in the beginning) giving a
speech in 1958 to a group of television news producers. He
deplores the paucity of serious/sober programming in American
"We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We
have currently an built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing
information. Our mass media reflect this.
... Television in main is being used to distract, delude,
amuse and insolate us."
Thank goodness that's all changed since 1958.
Down the street, then, across the way, and into our seats for the second feature, Pride and Prejudice
Came out a couple of hours later disappointed and, I'll admit, slightly agrieved. I expect every lover of Pride and Prejudice
who sat through the film felt pretty much the same way. (Those
14-to-25 year-olds of whom we were just speaking, who've never read Pride and Prejudice
and who don't know Jane Austen from Jacqueline Susann, probably liked it well enough.)
Oh, well. The world didn't need another movie version of Pride and Prejudice
anyway. This is the fourth one I've seen, and two of them are quite good.
This latest interpretation, in a misguided search for a new approach I
suppose, tries to make something earthy and coarse out of something
cerebral and elegant, and it all works out pretty poorly.
Earthy it certainly is. Plenty of barnyard shots, pigs'
testicles. Mr. Bennett's household appears to be not so much
shabby-genteel as just plain slatternly. Nobody in the whole film
looks particularly clean -- most notably a grubby Donald Sutherland
playing Mr. Bennett himself.
The whole story of Pride and Prejudice
you see, turns on the funny-but-unfortunate situation of the Bennetts'
being, while officially of the land-owning ladies and gentlemen class,
actually ... not quite
If you portray them as absolutely beyond the pale, however, you've
rather missed the point and the central dilemma of all concerned.
A one-line precis of the novel might read something like this: A
wealthy gentleman who prides himself on his lofty standards is bowled
over in spite of himself by the intelligence and wit, character and
taste he discovers in an unlikely young woman.
However: In this version, the remarkable Elizabeth Bennett, as
played by Keira Knightly, is an indolent and slovenly girl, much given
to giggling and shouting and, for reasons best known to herself,
dressing like a washerwoman. There's something disturbingly sly
about her, as well. (What was this supposed to convey?
Clearly, she not the sort of person to smite the heart of a man of impeccable taste.
Not to worry, though: Mr. Darcy, as played by Matthew Macfayden,
is an impossible oaf, devoid of elegance or even the slightest
suggestion of gentlemanliness. (You keep expecting him to scratch
his butt and grunt, "Hey, dude.") When it comes to Mr.Darcy's
hauteur on initially encountering the Bennetts, the best Macfayden can
manage is a sort of adolescent sullenness.
Ms. Knightly's Elizabeth is obviously good enough for him.
And I guess the filmmakers decided that if they juiced this story up
enough they could dispense with the humor. Those delightful
stuffed-shirts Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourg come off in this
version as pathetic (Tom Hollander) and mean (Judi Dench). And
that paragon of intellect and accomplishment Mary Bennett is left out
of the story almost altogether.
How could they have got it so wrong? This is supposed to be witty, not bawdy; fine, not common. Pride and Prejudice
as Tom Jones
? Sorry. Bad idea.
I said I'd seen two very good film versions of Pride and Prejudice
and I wanted to tell you what they are.
The first was on "Masterpiece Theater," way back in 1980. (I had to look this up.) Anyway, it was so
good I thought there was no reason ever to make another movie of Pride and Prejudice.
But make another they did. It also appeared as a mini-series on
PBS (1995). To my surprise it was quite good, too. Colin Firth
plays Mr. Darcy to perfection; it's my absolute favorite Colin Firth
|Friday, February 3rd, 2006|
|On Certainties and Scents
Austin Dacey has a thoughtful op-ed piece in today's New York Times
discussing the pope's aversion to moral "relativism."
Dacey is a think tank philosopher who writes about science and religion and ethics. He's associated with such [whispers
] "secular humanist" publications as Free Inquiry
and Skeptical Inquirer
. He's currently working on a book about the secular conscience.
I want you to read the whole piece, but let me quote just a bit of it here. The emphasis is mine:
"The pope has used the term 'relativism' to describe not only
non-absolute standards, but also uncertain ones. The alternative
to certainty, however, is not nihilism but the recognition of
"Accepting that we are fallible doesn't keep us from thinking we are
right. It just keeps us from thinking that we couldn't possibly
be wrong. And that's a good thing. The ability to revise beliefs in the light of new information is part of what makes having a mind worthwhile.
Read the whole article here:
But enough of these trivial ruminations on ethics and morality.
Let's get down to the really important religious issues, such as:
What did Jesus smell like?
There was a feature story about this on the local news last night at
6:00. Honestly, there was. (I don't ordinarily watch the
local 6:00 o'clock news, but a lady of my acquaintance phoned to advise
me that this story was coming up. "What did Jesus smell
like??" she shrieked. "Like sweat. Like unwashed body. Like dirt, like camel dung!)
Oh, no. According to the marketers of Jesus-scented candles and
oils, he smelled like myrrh, aloes, and cassia (a sort of cinnamon-like
bark). The recipe is right there in Psalm 45.
According to the Channel 4 story, effusing your home with this aroma
effects a decided spiritual uplift -- not only to people but to pets as
Stock up today.