Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Thousand Of My Closest Friends


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

“Who’s that nun holding the fish?” I wonder aloud as I see the photo on my Facebook page. And why is that guy telling me and everyone else what he thinks of Bobby Brown? Why does my daughter keep griping about how cold it is in northern Michigan (especially since it’s all the way up into the 20s)? And that guy with same name as me—he posts every day about nothing in particular, except that he does it in Dutch, which makes it seem even more odd and remote.

And why do I keep going on to Facebook? What am I looking for? Until now I’ve stayed off the subject of Facebook, which I became involved in only recently. I’ve considered the fact that I have a blog, which is perhaps only a more drawn-out and verbose version of Facebook. Who am I to cast stones here, when I have a page dedicated to long attenuated rants on whatever is in my head at the time? At least the people who post on Facebook say only a sentence or two. And I’ve considered the possiblity that whoever is reading this is thinking very much the same thing about me that I’m thinking about the nun with the fish, the guy with the opinion of Bobby Brown, my Florida daughter visiting the north, and the Dutch guy with the same name as mine.

The Dutchman, by the way, is one of two people with the name Peter Teeuwissen on my “friends” list, and the only reason I befriended—or more accurately “friended”—them is that we share the same first and last names and have never heard of each other. In Holland, ancient land of the Teeuwissens, this is perhaps no big deal, but where I come from it qualifies as pretty damn close to amazing, or at least weird and unsettling, like discovering your doppelganger. Part of the reason I added the two Peter Teeuwissens, I must confess, other than trying to find out if they’re shirt tail relatives, is that I have comparatively few friends on Facebook. At present I have a paltry 50 of them, including my children, a grandson, and several cousins and cousins-in-law. And also the Dutch guys who may or may not be cousins. Perhaps we’ll never know if we are, and in the meantime I’ll keep reading their daily postings that say things like “Voel me ineens oud..." which, thanks to Facebook’s handy built-in translator, I know means “I feel suddenly old.” It’s written above a photo of an audio cassette and a pencil. The photo bears the legend, in English, “Our children will never know the link between the two.” I had to think about that for a minute. First I assumed it was about the relationship between an instrument of the primitive technology of communication (pencil) and a piece of the obsolete technology of communication (cassette). Then it hit me. I was analyzing it the wrong way. The pencil is for rewinding the cassette. Cute.

Some of the people I visit on Facebook have hundreds, even thousands, of friends. I wonder about this. Does anyone really have that many friends? At present I think I know every one of my Facebook friends personally, except for the two Dutch guys. I suppose I could have quite a few more friends if I went with the “any friend of yours is a friend of mine” philosophy. Sometimes I’m tempted to do that, knowing the people with thousands of friends already will probably accept my offer of friendship, if for no other reason than to augment their friend numbers. I could go through that interminable list they have on Facebook, the one of all the people in the world who are friends with at least one of your friends. I could invite every one of them to be my friend and would surely get several hundred, maybe even a thousand, new friends. American friends, French friends, Dutch friends, Belgian friends, Arab friends. Kids, dogs, retirees. Hey wait, I think, I’ll bet that’s what other people do. Then I think, No, maybe they really do have more friends than I do. Then I start to feel comparatively friendless. It’s a vicious cycle. Would I feel more connected to the world if I had a thousand friends on Facebook, or would I feel phony and get pissed off as I’m assaulted by trivia from people I don’t even know? I could always block their comments and keep them as friends simply to impress myself and maybe others. And I could “unfriend” most of them, I suppose. I’ve done that in a few instances. But do people know when they’ve been unfriended? They must, since their friend totals go down. Is it considered unfriendly to unfriend someone, or just par for the course—necessary housecleaning, like paring down the Christmas card list? That can be a trap for the unwary, because just when you’ve got your list down to a manageable several dozen you get a card from someone you took off the list. Is there a way to unfriend someone without seeming to be cutting them? I don’t mind not having lots of friends nearly as much as I mind being thought of as unfriendly.

I have even fewer blog followers (called “members”) than I do Facebook friends. I have just 36 of them, at least of ones who have declared themselves to be followers. I don’t know some of them at all. I do know that at least one of them has been dead for over a year. And one is signed in twice. So that leaves 34 living, separate beings. And I’m pretty sure that close to half of them only followed for a time and have ceased doing so, and that half of the other half are sporadic readers. I started the blog as a log of my travels across the country. Now that I’m done walking for the present there’s less to say and fewer people to read it. This, and the rest of the postings I’ve done over the past year, could be likened to a more profane version of a weekly column in one of those small local shopping newspapers you see on the molded fiberglas seats in a laundromat. Andy Rooney-esque mutterings from an amateur. “Did you ever wonder” stuff, minus the Seinfeldian punchlines and delivery. Long musings going nowhere anymore, instead of twenty miles forward each day.

I begin to think of the comment from my namesake in the Netherlands. “Voel me ineens oud . . .” I feel suddenly old. That puts me in mind of T.S. Eliot. “I grow old . . . I grow old.” Prufrock, aging and alone, even in a crowd. Maybe I could use more commiseration, even if it’s in a foreign language. Maybe I could use more friends, readers, fellow travelers through life, telling me about the big fish they’ve caught, the cold they are feeling, their cats and horses, the gigs their bands are playing, their aches and pains. If I had a thousand of them on Facebook would they be any less real than if I had a thousand friends in the flesh? Would I then begin to crave solitude instead of the company of so many? Like those New York and Hollywood types we’re always reading about whose houses are filled with sycophants and hangers on, who throw parties for several hundred of their nearest and dearest. “Dahling,” they say, giving each a peck on the cheek. Then they talk to the same five or ten friends they always talk to. Meanwhile out at the pool people they barely know are drinking and splashing. There, at least, they come because they want and need proximity to the host, the hub of the wheel. Or they need to be close to free food and booze. “I have heard the mermaids singing each to each. . . I do not think that they will sing for me.”

I decide to leave Facebook and such dreary contemplation alone and gravitate toward what I consider to be the more concrete and real part of the Internet, my email. Real letters, or their modern equivalents, from people I know, and who know me. I click on AOL and glance at the home page first to get a dose of the latest news. There’s a blurred picture of a man, obviously filmed with a phone or a personal camera. In the middle of the image is a box with an arrow, on which I'm supposed to click. Underneath the picture it says, “Watch: He Has No Idea He’s In For Monkey Attack.” So much for the news. Then I sign in to the email. It says I have seven messages. Two are from Bed Bath and Beyond. (How did I get on their mailing list?) One each from Southwest and Delta airlines—“It’s time for your spring getaway vacation.” One from Johns Hopkins medical school about the latest research. One says “Vjagra 0.90. Cjalis 1.80. Our stores provide good pills for good price.” As I delete it I picture someone at a computer in Bosnia. Wonder what the weather’s like right now in Bosnia? The seventh and last email is to me personally. It’s an electronic bill. Then the U.S. mail arrives. Same thing. Six ads from banks and requests for money from charities for every piece of first class mail, and that’s usually a bill.

Maybe 50 relatives and friends I actually know on Facebook isn’t such a bad number. It's a pretty well-thought-out list, inclusive but not overwhelming. There’s the nun with the fish, who is really one of my oldest and dearest friends, a man who just happens to be cowled in some sort of winter fishing garb out on a cold river in northern Michigan so that only his face is showing as he shows off his catch. And my friend who bitches about Bobby Brown and other celebrities and about sports teams he doesn’t like but was a kind and helpful colleague when I was in the working world. And my daughter, whom I love even though I don’t care about most of what she writes. And the two Dutchmen who may, after all, be my third cousins once removed. These are no random acquaintances, no casual hangers-on doing lines of coke in my upstairs bathroom, no Kato Kaelins at my house on Rockingham. Were I to expand the list I would be spending most of my time wondering who the hell these people are who are talking about politics I don’t believe in, bragging about grandchildren I’m never going to meet, showing me photos of animals I don’t care about, and contemplating their navels. "Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?" I get enough of that already, but if I started receiving multiples of it from strangers it would be far worse. It would be like one of those commercials they're currently running for satellite TV. “When you have a thousand friends on Facebook, you don’t really know anyone. When you don’t really know anyone you become depressed and have to get shock treatments. When you get shock treatments they tie you down to a table and put something in your mouth to keep you from biting your tongue and your memory is partially erased. Don’t have a partially erased memory. Keep your Facebook friends list short.”

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Romney Problem

Southern California

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Okay, I may have missed a deadline—you decide.

I predicted here that the Republican nomination race would be settled for all practical purposes by the end of the first week in February. Instead things are being dragged out a bit, with Rick Santorum having won a couple last week. Rick, a/k/a Sanctum Sanctorum, the Holy of Holies, is an interesting knave in the euchre deck of presidential wannabes this year. As luridly compelling as Mitt Romney’s story is, Rick’s is in some ways even stranger. Let’s look at the salient aspects of each man’s life, taking him all in all, as Shakespeare said:

First name really Willard;
Worked as night security guard at Stanford to fund secret trips home to girlfriend;
Served as Mormon missionary in France during the Vietnam War;
Involved in deadly car crash;
Probably wears secret long underwear;
Thought by some to have engaged in vampirism while governor of Massachusetts;
Unfounded rumors that he appeared in several Mexican snuff films;
Was separated at birth from the actor Bill Pullman;
Uses white shoe polish on hair at his temples.

Father’s name is Aldo;
Represented World Wrestling Federation to try to exempt it from federal ban on anabolic steroids;
Seriously entertains Intelligent Design alternative to theory of evolution;
Introduced law to prohibit Nat’l Weather Service from giving out free info;
Claimed to have found evidence of Iraqi WMD in his own backyard in Pennsylvania;
Rumored to have engaged in torture of small amphibians in the Amazon;
Guarded Republican desk filled with candy in Senate for ten years;
Thought to be a member of secret Catholic organization Opus Dei;
Alleged to have been accidentally castrated by a pit bull at the age of 19.

Regarding the last point, I should mention that the word “accidentally” is used in its narrow insurance-law sense, i.e., that the alleged occurrence was an accident from the standpoint of Rick himself. We do not know the state of mind of the pit bull.

I still think Mitt is a shoo-in, but it might take until Super Tuesday for him to ice it. So reluctant are the GOP voters to give the nomination to Romney, even though they know they’ll have to do it eventually, that they continue to tease him by granting victories to his opponents, even as his delegate tally inexorably rises. Others have expounded on this phenomenon, and it’s time I weighed in.

Why do the Republicans hate the idea of Mitt Romney? The word “hate” has a good deal to do with the answer. For one thing, Mitt’s not quite enough of a hater himself. This isn’t to say that he’s not a good Republican in the classic sense—supporting rapacious capitalism in its many forms, believing in the cliques of privilege that underpin his social class and his religion—but there’s something missing from the equation for Mitt, or rather something added on his side. As a member of a minority religion he’s bound to be just a trifle more tolerant than many Republicans feel is appropriate. And he did govern a state whose attitude toward its citizens is somewhat more generous than the national average--considerably more so than the bastions of southern and western paranoia that form the underpinnings of the modern GOP. These things make him suspect, and an outsider to boot, even though the Mormons are as indelibly Republican as any group could possibly be. But it’s one thing to let Mormons, or South Florida Cubans, or Catholics, contribute to the general cause of fear and loathing and narrow mindedness, and another thing altogether to make a member of such a group the party’s national standard bearer. Bobby Jindal the Indian, for instance, is fine as the Republican leader of a hopelessly miscegenating bunch like the people of Louisiana, but for president? I think not.

Which brings us to the second reason for the Mitt Romney dilemma, namely, that some people hate the idea of a Mormon becoming president. Why? Not because Mormons aren’t sufficiently sober, industrious, upright, conservative, driven, secretive, and clannish. They’re all that and more. It’s because they don’t worship the Lord Jesus Christ the same way most Republicans do. They’ve taken the basic mumbo jumbo of Christian doctrine and kicked it up a notch, with multiple heavens, baptism of the dead, Jesus visiting North America. And as I’m fond of mentioning, they have that secret underwear. Lock Moses and St. Paul in a room with L. Ron Hubbard and Timothy Leary and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is what you'd get. If you aren’t down with the predictable orthodoxies of Protestantism as it’s practiced in the U.S., you simply aren’t good candidate material in the minds of most folks. Take away that pesky Mormonism and Mitt would win in a landslide in places like Maine and Iowa. He has no other serious liabilities. He’s a younger John McCain without the taint of years in the Senate. But there’s that strange impenetrable religion, so superficially similar to the One True Faith but so bizarre-o and sci-fi in other ways. . . .

The GOP tent is not a large or welcoming one. Most real Republicans absolutely must
believe they’re part of a well-defined and exclusive group. It’s the group that starts with being good Americans, then narrows itself to being relatively pure Americans, then draws even further into itself by being religiously and ethnically correct. When the votes are needed, the party will welcome the unwashed masses into its midst, but it will never really let them in to the sacred halls of power. It’s like the bit from that movie The Good Shepherd, where Matt Damon is talking to the Mafioso down in Florida. The gangster says to the WASP Damon character, “Let me ask you something...we Italians, we got our families, and we got the church; the Irish they have the homeland; Jews their tradition; even the niggers, they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Wilson? What do you have?” To which Damon replies, “The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.”

Perhaps Republicans in the modern era can best be understood in terms of the parliamentary style of governance. They are a minority party which will, in order to get a majority, ally themselves with or lure in such disparate groups as white trash, members of the working class, Asians, Cubans, upwardly-mobile Mexicans, the occasional person of color, Mormons, Catholics—even fringe utopians like the Libertarians. But that’s just to get into office. The funny thing is that because they’ve been pandered to, members of these outsider groups sometimes delude themselves into believing they’ve overcome their newness in the country or their ethnic or cultural distance from the mainstream. Sorry. Even counting the Democrats we’ve seen only one Catholic and one brown-skinned president. And just two with brown eyes. (Can you guess who the other one was?) Even Obama, in spite of the fact that his mother went native, is a mainline Protestant and half English and traces his ancestry back to Massachusetts in the 1640s.

But the reason Republicans hate Mitt Romney most is that they know he's probably going to lose. And that’s the best reason of all, from a purely practical point of view. They sense they are headed for defeat in November, and are pissed because no one has come along to rid them of the dusky interloper in the White House. Who would have thought the Party of the White Man would be unable to find a suitable, safe, and sane candidate among all the oligarchs and patricians this country has to offer? Many of the faithful have to be wondering, Has the nation that produced George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and George Herbert Walker Bush fallen so far that it is to be given over entirely to ninnies, Bible thumpers, cultists, papists, and the racially impure?

Students of Republican history remember another time the party surrendered itself completely to its far right wing in a desperate attempt to unseat an incumbent. The year was 1964 and the product was Barry Goldwater (the son of a Jewish dry goods merchant, of all things), who led them down the shitter. All the while there were Lodges and Rockefellers who would have been happy to bear the standard. Such is the state of disarray in the Grand Old Party that at the beginning of the selection process this time around there wasn’t a regular Protestant male in his right mind from a good eastern family in the lot. It’s enough to make an elephant cry.

Monday, February 6, 2012

He Is Risen

Burnsville, Minnesota

Monday, February 6, 2012

Yesterday was Super Bowl Sunday, a day that has become like a religious holiday. Really, it’s more of a sacred experience than Christmas and Easter as far as I am concerned, and I don’t even follow the NFL closely. But that’s how it is in general with the Christian holy days, too, and probably also for Passover among Jews. The major holidays are not for the devout, who live within their religion on a daily or weekly basis and who need no special mumbo-jumbo and red flag occasions. The holidays are attention-getters for the backsliders and apostates, designed to remind the less-than-faithful of their roots and of what they ought to be doing and believing. So despite the fact that I don’t believe in pro football I was filled with the spirit of the day.

My daughter Katie and I woke up early to take her son to hockey practice. “Vince Lombardi is risen,” I said to her. “He is risen indeed!” she answered me back in the ritualistic fashion we part-time paschal football fans have. “Hallelujah!” we said in unison.

After hockey we went shopping for the makings of the holy feast, which can vary from household to household, but usually contains several of the sacred dishes, such as chili, chicken wings, chips and dip. The body of Vince. And naturally there are any number of libations, often including holy light beer, or soda pop for the Protestants and abstainers. The blood of Vince.

All afternoon people cooked and stirred, sliced and diced, mashed avocados and added lime juice, until the guests began to arrive. As the moment of kickoff at last came in sight, our attention to the food intensified. One of the ways we worship in this country—to celebrate what is good and right and essentially American—is to eat a great deal, and this is the day when it is most important.

My grandson, who is eight years old, was the youngest person at the celebration, so he was assigned the duty of asking the Four Questions of Super Bowl Sunday, an ancient ritual that helps us to remember where we came from and what binds us together as a people. For those who celebrate in a more secular way, let me refresh your memory about the Four Questions. Really it’s five questions, including the introductory one, but they call it the Four Questions for some arcane reason known only to the clergy. Young Isaac came and stood next to me, the eldest member of the gathering. After I read a passage from the scriptures regarding the relaxing of the celebration penalty rule during the Super Bowl game, he asked me earnestly and on cue, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” I answered, just as seriously, to the knowing nods of the group, “Because this is the day we commemorate the beginning of our deliverance from the ancient system in which all of football was separated into two leagues, the National Football League and the rival American Football League.”

Then began the questions in earnest. “Why is it that on all other nights we eat salsa or bean dip with our tortilla chips, but on this night we eat guacamole?” I replied, “On Super Bowl Sunday we eat the oiliest of all chip dips to celebrate football, the sport in which the players are the fattest, in the country where the Lord has made his people to live off the fat of the land and to be the fattest in all of his human creation. And be sure only to buy the avocados that give a little when you squeeze them.” Isaac nodded and drew his breath for the second question. “Why is it that on all other nights we go to the bathroom or grab something from the fridge during commercials, but on this night we watch the commercials and laugh indulgently at them and tell each other that they are good?” My answer, from the ancient text, was simple: “Because on Super Bowl Sunday we celebrate not just the game of football but also the generous and beloved corporate sponsors who pay obscene amounts out of their obscene profits in order to put their products in front of us so that we can enjoy the game.”

At this point we all took a break from questions to have some chili and a lot more cheese and crackers, in addition to the tortilla chips with just a hint of lime dipped reverently in the guac. And Diet Coke, with just a hint of caffeine, so as not to fill up too much on beverage. And to watch more of the four-hour pregame show with the beloved Al Michaels and that master sports kibitzer Bob Costas, with his watery blue eyes and mastery of the irrelevant overstatement.

As kickoff was rapidly nearing, we reassembled to finish the sacred questions. Isaac asked the third one. “Why is it that on all other nights we go out into the garage during halftime, or walk the dog, or try to appease the wife by performing some chore or other, but on this night we stay seated for the entire halftime?” Again I recited the answer from holy writ. “Because on Super Bowl Sunday during half time there is always the possibility, however slight, that a part of some woman’s body may be accidentally exposed, and we wouldn’t want to miss that in real time, even though we could You Tube it endlessly the next day.” Finally it was time for the fourth and last of the Super Bowl Questions. Isaac was doing great, and hadn’t missed a beat. I was in awe of his preternaturally sharp memory and his precocious interest in spiritual matters. Perhaps he will become a pop culture guru when he grows up. “Why is it that on all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining, but on this night we eat in a reclining position?” I didn’t have to read the answer, for it was as obvious to me as it was to everyone else. Some things about religion are far more self-evident than they are mysterious. It is this confluence of the obvious and the comforting with the unknown and unknowable that makes for the most well-rounded spiritual experience, in my opinion. “Because on this night of all nights we are so stuffed with junk that we can hardly move, and so full of cheese that we probably won’t take a crap for a week.”

Then began the holiest time of the evening, the moment we’d all been waiting for—the kickoff and the beginning of the most-hyped game of the season.

The purpose of the Four Questions of Super Bowl Sunday, of course, is not only to teach the youngest among us the unique nature of our collective cultural experience, but remind us of our rich heritage even as the Super Bowl continues in an ever-changing world. Without the Super Bowl how many young people would understand Roman numerals, for instance? Or know who Madonna is? In addition, the pre-game home ceremony encourages the youngsters to continue to ask all sorts of general questions, such as why does an intentional grounding penalty turn into a safety when the quarterback is standing in the end zone when he throws the ball, and why professional athletes and their large coaching staffs can’t make sure only eleven players from each team are on the field at the beginning of a play. The more a person gets to know the game the easier it is to prepare for the more intense theological issues, like why God gave us football in the first place, and why he won’t ever let the Lions go to the Super Bowl.

After the game was over and the guests had given their personal benedictions, it was time for the warm good feelings of the holiday evening to continue with a dose of reality television in which people with mediocre voices try to break into show business with the help of established celebrities. As if the field weren’t glutted enough already. The glow of the holy day was still on me. Passes, commercials, catches, commercials, penalty flags, commercials, commentary, commercials. I was set for another year, and for the dry football-less spring and summer, until the page is turned once more on the liturgical calendar and we begin the march toward the next Super Bowl, the next big fat Roman numeral. Until then I resolved that I would try to keep the words of Vince Lombardi in my heart. “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” “The dictionary is the only place where success comes before work.” “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” And the one Tom Brady and his band of brothers will carry with them until fall: “We didn’t lose the game; we just ran out of time.”

May God bless and keep you until then, and may Vince Lombardi make his face to shine upon you, and may the spirit of smash mouth football dwell within you and give you peace.