Sunday, November 1, 2015

That's The Hell Of It




Monrovia, California

November 1, 2015


In heaven there is no beer.
That's why we drink it here.
And when we're gone from here,
Our friends will be drinking all our beer.

Let's take a look at heaven.  When people consider death they frequently talk about a the existence of the dead in some realm where they can look down upon us living folks with approval, or perhaps with disapproval.  "I can't help but think that Uncle Joe is smiling on us right now as we barbecue and watch football."  Or "Your mother is up there watching you two fight right now, and you're breaking her heart." You know the drill.  But it's not so much what Uncle Joe or Mom are supposed to be doing from the afterlife that interests me as the fact that we "can't help but think" about it.

Evidently, as the human brain evolved we acquired the capacity to wonder about the answer to the ultimate question of "life, the universe, and everything," as Douglas Adams so succinctly put it.  And as deep as our thinking has taken us, most of us have not been able to accept that the answer, while perhaps not "42," is equally pointless and beyond our reach from a purely utilitarian perspective.  We have, for some reason, been given the ability, and indeed the compulsion, to ponder an essentially imponderable thing. Maybe it's to help us wile away the time.  Maybe it serves a species-wide behavioral purpose, as though we've had some drivel-filled motivational seminar by a headset-wearing snake oil salesman hardwired into our brains.  Whatever the neuro-chemical basis of the phenomenon, we do tend to dwell on the hereafter.  And because there's no precisely correct answer, we manufacture answers.  Our natures apparently abhor an information vacuum when it comes to the idea of an afterlife.

Some say we think about all this because God puts the ideas into our heads.  It is not to such people that I address this posting, though of course they are invited to read on if they wish to.  Whatever the prime mover of our curiosity, internal or external, we humans have for most of our existence spun out the most outlandish theories of which we're capable--heavens, hells, purgatories, beliefs in ghosts, spirit worlds, reincarnation, and the presence of ancestors in our daily lives, to name just a few.  First it was because we didn't understand jack shit about science and nature.  We had little understanding of chemistry or biology (not that we've reached any pinnacle there).  When people died, we knew they were done for, of course, but we didn't know much more than that.  Today, armed with a better knowledge of the human body and the role of the brain, not to mention of the basic elements that make up life, we still don't seem to know, or to wish to know, jack shit about what happens when we die.

Why?  Probably because the truth is simply too simple, and too brutally final, at least from a local terrestrial perspective.  What we have no trouble believing about the end of the lives of animals other than us--dogs, chickens, goats, fish, bugs, microbes--we cannot or will not apply to ourselves as a species.  We're different and special, we think, and figure that God, or the gods, have some Special Purpose for us.  Surely our own lives can't end with just a whimper and a final exhalation and then ,,, nothing.  Food for the worms.  I don't think that such finality--the fizzling out of the human spark into nothingness and ultimately into the elements of which we're made (carbon and oxygen primarily)--is such a bad thing.   The fade-to-black scenario is certainly a form of eternal life; just not one that most people care to embrace.  Better than burning in hell and having devils stab you with a pitchfork every couple of minutes, if you ask me.  But some folks, perhaps most, would rather imagine risking an eternity in hell than to imagine no eternity at all except for an eternity of oblivion.  The anticipation of a real, lifelike afterlife tends to motivate them in some way, and also to take their minds off the more immediate and mundane tasks at hand.  Well, I'm not about to deliver some explanation for this rather singular phenomenon of the mind, either in religious terms or Jungian terms, or in any terms at all.  As usual, my job isn't to come up with the answers, just to bitch about the facts.

The western scriptures, always maddeningly contradictory and only occasionally insightful, do anticipate the physical nothingness of humans--dust to dust, ashes to ashes.  Where they veer away from reality as we know it is in postulating that the "soul" exists on a nonchemical and nonbiological  plane, and also in propounding the idea that the dead will rise.  But once the dead do rise, and are judged or whatever, and sorted into the keepers and the losers, what happens?  The most common images of the afterlife perpetuated by the world's religions are, if you ask me, sorely deficient as positive motivational tools.  These images, whether they are of the so-called "good" postmortem life or its painfully bad opposite number, are hardly designed to inspire confidence, or comfort, or fear, in any intelligent person over the age of ten.  Religion really hasn't kept pace with either scientific knowledge or political evolution.  Religion used to be out in front, inextricably merged with science and politics to form a solid truncheon with which to beat all of humanity into submission and obedience, leading and scaring us with its eerie sophistication.  Wise priests, witch doctors, the infallibility of the Pope, the divine right of kings--they're all gone except in fiction.  Priests are now drunken pederasts, witch doctors belong in Abbot and Costello movies, and wise kings are the stuff of Disney cartoons and Broadway musicals. The Pope, well he's just a laid back guy in funny clothes who wants us all to get along, like the Dalai Lama.  During our centuries of progress in science, politics, and the arts, religion has remained steadfastly and stodgily ancient in both its view of mankind and its depiction of eternity.  While we've been busy streamlining our physical lot as a species, nobody has been modernizing our conception of the hereafter.    

Plenty has been written about hell already, and it's easier to imagine than heaven is.  Hell is a lot more lurid and interesting than heaven is because it includes things we already know--pain, fire, stench, deprivation, isolation--carried to the nth degree.  But still it's your grandfather's hell--full of old fashioned images, at least for more affluent westerners.  Yes, we're always being warned about how bad and nasty hell is, but when it comes to describing heaven, we fall far short of creating enticing incentives.  Maybe at times in history (or even in parts of the world currently) where just offering someone a clean realm free of the smell of excrement, the sight and feel of open running sores, death at the hands of soldiers and hemorrhagic diseases, and the drudgery of the wheel sufficed (or now serve) to get people to behave themselves and strive for paradise, a cloudy fluffy white city of gold in the sky is enough of an enticement.  But for most of the developed western world our comparative removal from such daily horror and wretchedness ought to encourage the purveyors of heaven to kick things up a notch.

I was at a Christian funeral not long ago, and one of the preachers talked about the departed being with God forever, sitting at the feet of Jesus, grooving on salvation, and all that.  It sounded boring, particularly because the guy who was talking about it was sanctimonious and dull and a lot more judgmental than he probably thought he was being.  I definitely wouldn't want to spend eternity with him; that would be pure hell.  Jesus might be a great guy, but the thought of spending eternity with him sounds a little like being at an endless Bernie Sanders rally.  There's something lacking in the human imagination when it comes to picturing absolute bliss on an incorporeal plane.  Being in the presence of divine light sounds like maybe the beginnings of a good acid trip or that first snort of cocaine, but in order to appreciate such things you have to be able to contrast them to the mundane.  Otherwise, if there's no end to the joy (particularly if you have to share it with self-righteous hymn singing TV evangelists, or Mother Teresa, or your old aunt Minnie--the one with the moustache) the fun goes away pretty fast and it becomes the norm.  Where's the bliss in that?  If there's going to be a heaven, can't we make it at least sound more heavenly in human terms?

Heaven shouldn't just be the lesser of two evils--the devil we know versus the God we really don't know.  Christian heaven is sometimes spoken of as a beautiful city where God dwells, and where there is no more pain and sorrow.  No more pain and sorrow?  Is that the best we can do?  We have drugs for that right here on earth.  And on top of all the bliss, we're told we get to worship and glorify some absolute Master.  All the paradigms of religious worship are based on a pre-modern Hobbesian social model involving benevolent dictatorship.  Ultimately, whether we're on earth or in heaven, we seem destined to prostrate ourselves at the feet of some all-powerful being.  To kiss his ass, to adore him, to love him, to do his every wise bidding, whether we want to or not, because it's for our own good.  As Mel Brooks said, "It's good to be the King."  But how good is it to be the King's subject?  A very uninviting kind of cosmology.  Satan, we're told by John Milton, got tired of all that, and lit out for greener pastures.   In theological terms, that was a horrible rejection of all that was good.  In human political terms we'd call it a fight for the Rights of Man.  Indeed, our own country was founded on such a rebellion, and we keep insisting that it's the Greatest Country on Earth.  If any of that is so, then you have to wonder why the absolute hierarchy of heaven is so great.

So how is any human being expected to imagine such a place as heaven, and if it is unimaginable, why is anyone expected to aspire to it?  As best described in Christianity it almost sounds like living in a sensory deprivation chamber, and it lacks all we have as a species that keeps us striving and moving and progressing.   For God's sake, promise us some pleasure to which we can relate.  Here the radical Muslims have an edge, (at least according to rumor) in that they promise martyrs a large number of virgins with which to copulate in the afterlife.  This concept of Muslim heaven is of course sadly adolescent in both its promise and premise, as is, I'm afraid, the entire religion from which it stems.  But at least it promises something palpable.  The far Eastern idea of death and reincarnation on the great Mandala, coming back as other animals and all that until at last, after many such rebirths, one attains some sort of blissful nothingness, sounds a lot more like repetitive punishment than reward.  In Christianity apparently we don't even get to enjoy any carnal pleasures after death--one of the reliably fun things we have, along with eating, drinking, taking drugs, watching TV, and sleeping.  In the religion I grew up in, if we're virtuous enough to make it to heaven, we're supposed to be above all that earthly stuff.  But to my way of thinking, the prospect of spending eternity surrounded by nothing but virtue is a little like promising a kid that when he grows up he'll actually love green beans and want to eat them at every meal.  Makes you want to avoid growing up, doesn't it?

Each culture's conception of heaven seems to reflect the values of the religious group that dominates it.  The radical Muslim heaven to which I referred (accurately or not) incorporates the profoundly immature misogyny of the entire culture from which it springs.  The far eastern heaven reinforces the set-in-stone caste system that yokes all humans to the same lot, good or bad, for their entire lives.  To escape from it you have to expect to be stuck in some other, maybe better and maybe worse, existence for another lifetime.  The western Christian heaven incorporates our denial of the validity of the enjoyment of normal human impulses.  If heaven is such a great place to aspire to be in, why can't we make it at least sound inviting, not just for frustrated young men strapped with explosives and stinking of tobacco and coffee, but for all humans?

All this, I'm thinking, is what makes it so damned difficult for the clergy to keep their would-be subjects in line.  If life is so bad, rather than just trying to scare us with something that sounds comparatively worse, entice us with something that seems immeasurably better--in solid human terms, not just in abstract wispy images--dudes in halos standing on clouds in New Yorker cartoons.  Offer us a heaven we can sink our teeth into, and I'll consider believing in it.  Promise me pleasures and palaces that sound interesting and tasteful, and foretell good company and good times, not to mention good food and good sex for all, and I'll behave myself.   Otherwise, leave me the hell alone.



Friday, September 4, 2015

The Four Freedoms




Monrovia, California

September 4, 2015

Hello friends.  In 1941, as the U.S. was nearing its plunge into the already-raging Second World War, President Franklin Roosevelt made a speech in which he declared the existence of Four Freedoms, which the peoples of the whole world should be able to enjoy, and which, by the way, they weren't enjoying much of at the moment outside the U.S. and a few other countries.  These four freedoms were Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.  Roosevelt was trying to nudge us into more active participation in the war, a participation that at that moment seemed painfully far off to the British and the other beleaguered countries that became our allies or were eventually released from German or Japanese bondage.  Some time after Roosevelt's speech, in soldierly fashion, Norman Rockwell got out his brushes and turned the Four Freedoms into covers for the Saturday Evening Post, and the rest is history.

Having recently returned from a month in Europe, traveling through several of the countries that were under siege back when FDR gave his Four Freedoms speech, I have had occasion to consider that these freedoms have been achieved in those countries to a great degree.  Speech is generally free, or as free as anyone wants it to be.  People can worship as they please, or in the case of most Western European countries, not worship at all, unless they're Muslims, in which case they worship altogether too much.  Freedom from worship seems to be the highly laudable goal toward which Western Europe is moving, or was at least before the scourge of conservative Islam reared its ugly head.  Churches in the great capitals are often beautiful historical artifacts, and fortunately little else.  And there is comparatively little want or fear in Western Europe today, at least in the economic sense.  Want in the sense of famine or even hunger isn't a prominent factor, notwithstanding the great numbers of beggars outside the train stations.  Fear of political repression, although always a possibility where the not-too-distant past has been so full of wars, inquisitions, genocides, and pogroms, at the moment isn't much of a factor.  In general it's a continent where the economic stance of even the mainstream political right wing would make many Democrats in the U.S. blush at their own stinginess toward their fellows.  Fear of terrorism from radical Islam still exists, I grant you, but most Europeans of today bravely face that threat in the most mature way possible, namely, by trying to live their liberal and tolerant lives with a minimum of rancor.

I know I have just made some rather broad generalizations, my fellow Americans, but on the whole it's undeniable that the particular Four Freedoms spoken of by Roosevelt have been achieved in Europe to at least the same degree as they have in the United States, and that's great.  Indeed, Europeans enjoy much greater freedom from the fear of gun violence on the part of both law enforcement and random nutbars than we do here.  However, we in this country still enjoy several freedoms not entirely accepted throughout the otherwise affluent and socially advanced nations of which I speak.  I would therefore like to take this opportunity to have a little fireside chat with you about a new (if more modest) version of the Four Freedoms, inspired by my recent visit to Great Britain and the Continent.

The first is Freedom to Pee.  Throughout Europe today there is a phenomenon for the most part not present in the United States, and that is that when one goes into a public bathroom, especially in a train station or a museum, and often in a restaurant, one is expected to grease the already greasy palm of a slatternly matron or crusty old dude, or to put coins into a vending machine to obtain a token, or go through a turnstile, or whatever, all for the privilege of taking a leak.  Not everywhere, mind you, but frequently enough that it behooves the traveler to keep some pocket change handy at all times for such a contingency.  Our public bathrooms may not always be as clean as those that cost money, but by God they rarely cost anything.  You might say, in defense of our neighbors across the ocean, that the paid bathroom attendant positions give individuals at the margins of society an opportunity to make some money and help to keep the areas clean; but I would argue that a better use of public funds would be for the national train systems and other public places to hire people for a living wage to clean the bathrooms rather than placing them in extortionate positions outside lavatories where people, due to their need to go to the bathroom, are at their most vulnerable.

The second is Freedom from Caffeine Deprivation.  The European idea of a cup of coffee is closer to the thought of a cup of coffee than to an actual receptacle containing the beverage.  A couple of sips and that's it.  All for the equivalent of four to six U.S. dollars.  You might be under the impression that espresso and dark roast coffee have more caffeine than light or medium roast coffee, but you'd be wrong.  It's all about the same. Starbucks, that overpriced product of American ingenuity, is the only refuge from coffee stinginess the poor Europeans have, and they love it, mostly I'd guess because Starbucks provides you with a decent amount of brew, and a better value, ounce for ounce, than a restaurant does, which is ironic considering that in this country the opposite is true.  In the UK the coffee is slightly more plentiful, but since they're mostly tea drinkers, they tend to make their coffee so weak and insipid that it pretty much tastes like tea.  Apart from Starbucks even a 12 ounce cup of coffee is impossible to come by, and the free refill doesn't exist, as if those things were simply aspects of the grotesque American tendency toward reckless overindulgence.  So the Europeans muddle along on far less caffeine than we do.

The third is Freedom to Be Cool.  Air conditioning as we know it is painfully lacking in most hotels and private residences in Western Europe.  This has a great deal to do with the fact that many buildings in Europe are old and do not have central forced air heating, and hence lack the capacity for central air conditioning.  The task of retrofitting buildings is far too expensive, which leaves less effective window units as the only alternative, assuming you have the type of windows into which you can fit such units, which most buildings do not.  Furthermore, in Europe getting anyone to come and do a job at your house in an inexpensive and timely manner is, apparently, an almost unattainable feat.  In the cities at least, the idea of tackling a project on a do-it-yourself basis, so common in the U.S., doesn't seem to occur to the average middle class European.  At any rate most people, from habit since time immemorial, just put up with the heat.  Buses are notoriously hot and stuffy, usually equipped with tiny dormer windows that let in precious little fresh air and almost no relief from the stifling and rank atmosphere of bodies that are often noticeably free from deodorant.  When a heat wave hits, the elderly die in droves.  Western Europe has given us many of the most important scientific advances of our time--in mechanics, medicine, chemistry, and architecture to name just a few areas.  But it has been painfully slow to address the issue of personal comfort with respect to heat and humidity.

And finally we come to the fourth freedom.  This one I call Freedom from Ridicule.  Europeans are a fairly tolerant people (except when they go on fascist bloodletting terror-trips every other generation or so).  But that does not mean they really like what anyone else does, or how they talk, or dress, or conduct themselves.  A small continent filled with several dozen countries and as many separate languages and cultures cannot, it seems, exist successfully without each country and culture looking down its nose at all the rest.

The English are far too polite and reserved to say so, but when they look at a foreigner they're thinking, "Who is this daft wanker, and why is he talking that way and when is he going to leave?"  They tolerate their former colonials from the Middle East and the Subcontinent (and also the Italians), because, devoid of things like kebobs, curry, and pizza, English food would be inedible.  As for the Scandinavians (and by that I mean the Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes--essentially one people speaking three different dialects) they most definitely don't need either you or your money.  It has been a thousand years or so since anyone in Scandinavia seriously thought about anyone else, and that was only to kill, rape and pillage.  Now that they've gotten all that out of their systems, they're fine with just staying home.  When visitors come they do muster some crisp, detached politeness.  Unlike the British they don't even value other people's food, remaining content, as they have for millennia, with fish and cheese.  The French regard anyone who isn't French with a mixture of pity and contempt, cut them off when they try to speak their language, and then look past them to the next customer.  And the Belgians, well, they're just boorish and rude, in a quaintly medieval way.

Most, if not all, Europeans tend to blame whatever problems they might be having at the moment not on themselves, but on whichever group of foreigners is currently intruding on their otherwise happy lives.  I will grant you that in this respect they are not unlike Republicans in the U.S.  Everything that's happening that's wrong is because of foreigners.  However, the big difference between Europe and the U.S. is that in this country people don't generally remain foreigners for long.  We are a country of immigrants, none of whom can claim that God gave us this land (excepting the Native Americans, who do think just that, while conveniently forgetting that they too arrived here from somewhere else and spent many thousands of years moving around and slaughtering one another before the white man arrived).  We Americans may hate others, but we're not united enough, ethnically, to engage in collective ridicule of them.  In America, if someone sticks it out long enough, and has children while situated in this country, at least those children will be citizens, entitled to all the privileges that the law allows.  (The glaring exception to all this is African Americans, but that's a subject for another speech.)  The idea that belonging can be attained, taken pretty much for granted over here, isn't a foregone conclusion Over There.  You want to be Swiss or German or Austrian?  Such a desire is understandable from the point of view of the Swiss, the Germans, and the Austrians, but good luck if you aren't one of them.  And good luck to your spouse and children and your children's children, unto the third and fourth generation.  Once a foreigner always a foreigner.  That's because the European countries aren't just countries.  They're cultural and ethnic bastions.  In fact, they were that long before they ever became countries in the modern sense.  Things are changing in Europe, albeit very slowly.  In the meantime, they indulge in the continental pastime of ridicule, the anodyne alternative to outright bloodshed.

These modest proposals are not meant as criticisms or condemnations, but as ways to improve an already richly varied, often beautiful, and always fascinating part of the world.  And with that, my friends, I bring my little chat to an end.    

Monday, August 31, 2015

Tell Your Doctor If You Die




Monrovia, California

August 31, 2015

You've got to love the ads for prescription drugs that run on TV.  After telling you about the wonderful things the medication can do for you, the voice-over then spins out a string of caveats, some of which leave the viewer's mouth agape with wonder that the drug is being sold at all, much less that anyone would buy or use it.  Since you need a doctor's prescription to get them, you have to ask your doctor various things, and hope that he or she is going to know the answers.

One of my favorites is the one that goes something like, "Ask your doctor if you've been to a country where certain fungal infections are common." What I always wonder is how anyone is supposed to know this.  I picture a patient sitting on the examining table with the disposable paper on it and saying, "Doctor, have I been to a country where certain fungal infections are common?" and the doctor replying, "How should I know?  The last time I saw you was six months ago when you were here.  You've been somewhere?  Well, so have I.  I went to the Caribbean for a medical conference  and my trip was paid for by Pfizer.  Now let me write you a prescription for Exculpia for that itching.  Be careful, and good luck."  I mean, do doctors, much less their patients, know what countries have "certain fungal infections"?  I doubt it.  My doctor doesn't even know exactly where Michigan is.  Okay, okay.  I understand that part of the problem with the caution in the ad is semantic, or more precisely, grammatical.  What they obviously mean is, "If you've been traveling recently, tell your doctor where you've been, and then the doctor MIGHT know, if it's some God-forsaken third world country, that some sort of horrific galloping crud is know to exist there, in which case our drug may so seriously impair your immune system that you shouldn't risk taking it and being eaten alive by a disease that could be latent in your system and which a normal healthy person would be able to fight off without even knowing they had it."  But that would take too long and would turn people off to the idea of begging their doctor to prescribe the medication even more than the shorter warning would.

Other warnings seem equally sinister.  For example, "Women and young girls shouldn't even HANDLE this medication, much less take it."  There's a problem there, too, wouldn't you say?  Big red flag.  Or, "Do not take this medication if you are now pregnant or might become pregnant."  Or have ever been pregnant, or if your mother was ever pregnant or if you have been to a country where pregnancy is common.

Then there are the ads where one of the side effects of the medication is Death.  Man, that's got to turn anyone off from using the product.  It's one thing to use something like booze, where maybe you could drive drunk and kill yourself or others, but that wouldn't be your intention.  Or to be busy eating a Whopper and fries in your car and veer into a guardrail while you're dealing with the wrapper, or the sauce.  Again, purely unintentional, and not the recommended (although probably a very common) way to consume the products.  But when the advertisement specifically states that one of the consequences of taking the product is that it might kill you, you have to wonder.  We know this to be the case with cigarettes, and the ads do most certainly warn you of their danger.  And no one pretends any more that cigarettes are in any way safe, or healthful, or beneficial, or that you should ask your doctor if it's okay to smoke.  But to have a DEATH warning as part of the advertising campaign for a doctor-prescribed medication that's supposed to help you is another story entirely.

On a less sinister note, my all-time favorite warnings are in connection with erectile dysfunction medication ads.  Let's just call them Viagra ads for short, even though there are at least three such brands commonly touted on TV.  The promise of these products, of course, is that they will give you a hard on, with the implied promise, created by the women in the ads, the blues music that plays in the background, and the walks along the beach at sunset, that they will turn you into a hootchie cootchie man, a porn star, or Casanova himself, and that you will at last be able to service and satisfy those ravishingly beautiful and sexy women who desire you but just can't get enough of you.  Okay fine.  Advertisements for all kinds of products routinely deal in the creation of moods and in feel-good imagery.  Nothing new here.

But then comes the warning: "Ask your doctor if your heart is healthy enough for sex."  This warning alone is enough to make someone go limp and to make the women in your life run for the exits.  Think about it.  Who wants to have some guy die on top of you while you're both naked?  Suddenly the man toward whom the ads is aimed isn't the good-looking, square-jawed, late-middle-aged stud who plays the parts--the Most Interesting Man In the World--but a wizened old dude with a pacemaker and an oxygen tank sitting in a ratty La-Z-Boy chair smoking Pall Malls and watching football.  A feast for the imagination, whether you're a man or a woman watching the commercials.  And I can again imagine the doctor-patient conversation.  "Doc, is my heart healthy enough for sex?" asks the man.  The physician answers, "Well, Mr. Jones, I think you know the answer to that one.  Right now your heart isn't healthy enough for you to walk across the room, which is why you're in a wheelchair."

On the plus side, however, is the other warning in the Viagra ads, probably the only instance where the possible side effect is designed to sell the drug, rather than to put the purchaser off: "Call your doctor or seek immediate medical help if you have an erection lasting longer than four hours."  Yeah, right.  That's what I'm gonna do if I get a four-hour woodie--call my doctor.  And he's going to say what?  "Mazel tov.  Enjoy yourself and call me in the morning."  Seriously, although I'm sure this could be a painful experience, in the imaginations of most men watching the commercials the idea of getting a marathon boner doesn't seem so much a problem as a blessing from the gods.  Take a number and wait outside the door.  If my heart holds up I'll be with you in a while.

Well, enough of this silliness for now.  Stay thirsty my friends.  But don't drink the water in a country where certain fungal infections are common.  And tell your doctor if you die.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Man In Black








Monrovia, California

August 30, 2015

For some time my readership has been down to a lean mean handful of folks--John C., Cousin S, Billie Bob, and a few more.  I appreciate your continuing interest, even though the blog has long since morphed from a travelogue into sputtering polemics.  With each posting the number of hits diminishes, except for one a few months back that got over 6,000, which I'm pretty sure was because of some Asian or Eastern European automated computer scam.  I don't pretend to understand how it works beyond the fact that I got a gigantic number of spam comments, and I know they weren't from friends of yours truly.  I've talked about the spam comments before--written in Chinese or Cyrillic characters, or in the Western alphabet but in a different language, or in weird or demotic English showing beyond a doubt that the writer's first language wasn't English.  At the end of all these comments, invariably, there is an invitation to visit that person's blog, usually with a mildly pornographic name.

So here we are, guys, just us chickens, as they say.  This will be short and to the point.

Johnny Cash.  This guy, star of television and revered by many, is in my opinion one of the most overrated songwriters and performers of his time and genre.  Never mind that he could barely sing--others have had shitty voices and kept going.  Bob Dylan hasn't been able to carry a tune in a paper bag since the 1970s, but his ability to write brilliant songs continues unabated and puts him at the highest levels of modern music.  Tom Waits sounds like a malfunctioning garbage disposal and has a voice that only a Frenchman could love, but he continues to turn out hauntingly beautiful lyrical ballads (which, I am compelled to say, would be even more beautiful if they were performed by others).  Lesser lights, like the abominably overestimated Leonard Cohen, also couldn't sing worth a damn.  Truth be told, a bunch of popular singers can't sing well, so never mind that aspect of Johnny Cash.  Besides, his deep bass voice did get some people's juices flowing and that made up for his less than one-octave range.  Also, after Joaquin Phoenix played him in the movie, some younger people got interested.

My peeve isn't about his voice but with one of his more prominent songs in particular, Folsom Prison Blues, which pisses me off every time I think about it.  Johnny Cash dined out on that one for years.  But the song makes almost no sense.  You might say that Dylan's songs are rather dense at some levels, filled with impenetrably symbolistic word-weaving, but they're always entertaining, usually pleasing, and operate at a level that doesn't suggest a lack of verisimilitude, only that he's thinking on a plane far above that of ordinary mortals.  And when his songs tell straight out stories, like The Sad Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll or The Hurricane, they stick more or less to the facts.  (The only reason I even bother to mention Bob Dylan in the same paragraph with Johnny Cash is that Bob was enamored of Johnny for a time.)

Back to Folsom Prison Blues.  This is ostensibly a song about a guy who is in prison because he murdered someone.  But there's something wrong with the facts.  He shot a man in Reno, right? So what's he doing in a state prison in California?  I checked, and there's no Reno, California, by the way (although some anecdotal info on the internet suggests that people have indeed tried to find a Reno, California, because of that song).  Surely if the song's protagonist had been caught in California this state would have extradited him back to Nevada, where the crime took place.  And California would be more than happy to extradite him, since the crime was serious and California has more than enough prisoners of its own to deal with.  It's not the same as France taking in Roman Polonski because he's an auteur and they don't see the point of prosecuting a guy for having sex with a young teenager.  And if, by chance, there was interstate flight involved in this shooting in Reno, or something else making it a federal crime (like maybe the guy he shot was a mailman on his route or a soldier or a U.S. Senator), there are any number of wonderful federal prisons in California and Nevada where he could be housed, rather than in Folsom State Penitentiary.

The other thing that bugs me about Folsom Prison Blues is that damned train.  Folsom Prison is located about 20 miles from Sacramento, way up in the north central part of the state.  While it is theoretically possible that a train going through Folsom might be headed "on down to San Antone," it would have to switch in a few different places to get there, first traveling the length of the state down to the southern part and then heading east along the tracks of the old Southern Pacific or the Santa Fe, a rather indirect route.  How an inmate at Folsom might know that a train passing that prison would be heading to southern Texas is beyond me. Perhaps that tells you how dumb prisoners are in general, but I think it tells you more about how dumb Johnny Cash was when he wrote the song.

But the most absurd premise of all, long a part of his mystique and prisoner-friendly disposition, is that Johnny Cash was himself a criminal of some sort.  This was part of the reason he had some credibility with prisoners, and perhaps, in his mind, the reason he wanted to entertain them.  The same imprecision went into the creation of this idea as that which contributed to the odd ideas in Folsom Prison Blues.  Well, give the guy some credit, I suppose, for the fact that he wanted to lighten the dreary lives of convicts.  A real mensch.  But here's the story about Johnny Cash himself: he was indeed arrested a few times, however, the longest he stayed in jail was a weekend or so, and the charges were possession of amphetamines, or disorderly conduct, or peccadillos of that nature.  He never came close to a real prison, except when he sang in them.  He was a criminal in the same way that Ozzie Osbourne or Jim Morrison or Keith Richards were.  In other words, not really.

Okay, thanks for letting me get that off my chest.  More rants to follow, and sorry it's been so long between postings.


Friday, April 24, 2015

Babel



Monrovia, California

April 24, 2015


"I think it's so people won't know what they're saying."

This statement by my young American friend of Filipino ancestry was a follow up to his initial response to my question about how many languages are spoken in the Philippines.  "Something like seventy," he had replied, and then made what at the moment I had thought of as that slightly paranoid observation with which I began this posting.  Really? I thought.  You're implying that there are that many languages in the Philippine archipelago because groups of people don't want other groups eavesdropping on them?

"My dad used to speak a different dialect of Tagalog, which my mother didn't understand at all.  It made her angry."  As regards the differences of opinion between his now-separated parents, I do not know if the language problem factored heavily into the mix; his mother's anger was probably more the function of things having nothing to do with language per se,  Still, I had never thought of deliberate secrecy or a desire to piss off others as reasons behind the origins of languages.  Maybe in their perpetuation--in fact certainly so--but not in their very initiation.  All my understanding of language development--and I admit it isn't a great deal--has centered on the idea of a reverse of our national motto, e pluribus unum--from many one--as it relates to the tongues of humans.  That is, our languages tended to multiply as we dispersed and became separated from one another, populating isolated chunks of land, where we soon evolved new languages like birds might develop new colored plumage in different environments.  I do know that linguists theorize about a proto-Indo European language that might have been the mother of many of the western languages, which developed into many different branches as its speakers scattered here and there.

 In the book of Genesis in the Old Testament, the kick-ass-God-as-lawgiver-and-punisher part of the scriptures that Republicans love to quote, there's a passage that talks about the Tower of Babel.  According to the story, for a time after Noah and the Great Flood, everyone spoke the same language.  Some time later, when the population had multiplied a good deal, they traveled eastward and decided to start a city and build a very high tower, one that would take them into the clouds, which evidently was tantamount to attempting to trespass into heaven.  God, who in the Old Testament is often depicted as a neglected and disgruntled guy ("like an old man trying to send back soup at a deli," in the immortal words of George Costanza), afraid that humans will have too much power and maybe forget to kiss his ass for having created them, decides to destroy the Tower of Babel and scatter the people, after which they spoke different languages and couldn't understand each other and were generally confused and befuddled.  Hence, the story would have us conclude, the breakup of languages into mutual unintelligibility was all our fault, because we sought too much power.  A bunch of languages would thus hinder us, due to the fact that we would always have a hard time understanding people who lived in other places.

This story is instructive of how some early people thought about God.  First, they saw God as a kind of fading tribal elder rather than an infinite and unchangeable Master of the Universe.  In fact, these two almost diametrically opposed images of God play back and forth throughout the Old Testament.  The Master of the Universe, who would have the power to destroy the tower and scatter the people, would obviously have no need to do such a thing, because he would already be so mighty that insecurity simply wouldn't register with him, much less give him any reason to take action.  After all, how god-like could humans ever become if they were the controlled product of the Creator of All Things?  Not too much so, I'm thinking.  But that rather deistic view of creation doesn't make for good storytelling or for effective domination over people by religions.  So if God was an old geezer who'd once been the top dog but was now sort of losing his clout, and not being worshiped enough in his opinion, then it would make sense for him to stick it to his potential competition before they put him out to pasture for good.  But as usual I digress.

Following my young friend's statements about the Philippines and about his parents, my mind went immediately to occasional afternoons when my father and his siblings, and in the early years my grandfather, would sit in the living room and speak Dutch in front of me.  I knew that all of them could as easily have spoken English. I knew they were consciously and deliberately excluding me from the conversation and at the same time indulging in a language they spoke as kids which they didn't get to use much any more.  It didn't make me angry; rather, I was somewhat fascinated with the strange guttural sounds emanating from their mouths.  This was just another form of "grownup talk," like the polysyllabic, euphemistic, and otherwise cryptic ways adults often talk over and past their children in their presence.

As we all know, existing languages are often employed as a way of excluding outsiders.  Sometimes this is done in the hope of keeping non-dominant cultures alive and important.  Other times speakers of a language have a feeling of superiority about their own language and consider other languages concomitantly inferior.  "Your language has no poetry, no romance--it doesn't sing."  People bemoan the extinction of a language in much the same way they wring their hands over the extinction of an animal species.  This doesn't take into consideration that languages, like living things, are in a constant state of evolution and flux, and that the world has lost many times more languages and species over the millennia than exist today, or even than existed at the supposedly Edenic moment (1066? 1492? 1620?) when some nasty evil conquering group came and began to supplant the indigenous folks whom God had placed on the land with his own hand.  Languages are indeed like species of flora and fauna: some invade, some adapt, and some die out, but all change constantly.  And yes, occasionally some are hunted down and extinguished on purpose.

We've seen instances of the outright suppression of the native languages of subjugated peoples by dominant cultures--practices like forbidding the speaking of French or Spanish or Native American languages among students in U.S. schools, or the prohibition of the use of Irish or Welsh or Scottish in Great Britain by the English.  Get everybody in a straight line, and most importantly, understand what they're saying so they can't joke about you behind your back or conspire to subvert your rule.  At the other end of the language-as-dominance spectrum, liturgical languages used in religions, such as Latin, Hebrew, and Old Church Slavonic, are artificially preserved more or less as they were centuries ago in order to keep the old magic and mystery of the liturgical traditions alive, and, more importantly, to separate those who know these languages--mainly the clergy--from the unwashed masses.  "There is only one way to talk to God, and we know what it is," say the wise men of the church.  In other areas of endeavor as well it's always been important for a group of people to master the language, or at least the arcane vocabulary, of their professions, so as to elevate themselves from those not in the know.  Lawyers do it, physicians do it, as do middle managers who engage in Dilbert-speak to show that they're up on the latest bureaucratic or corporate lingo.

So then, what if some languages, or most of them, began, in the dim recesses of human history, long before conquest by imperial hordes and the advent of the printed word, as ways of pissing other people off?  Imagine this: one small group of people related by blood and kinship (what I'll call Tribe A) decides it hates the next group over (Tribe B).  Tribe B has been stealing from Tribe A and interfering with their hunting or gathering, and perhaps Tribe B accidentally or purposely killed or injured one of Tribe A's people or kidnapped one of them.  This is the basic shit that has happened throughout human history, and happens today in one form or another all over the world, civilized or otherwise,  It happened in myth and legend and in historical and sacred stories everywhere.  Somebody fucks with somebody else, usually at the family or tribal level.  The people who have been messed with either retaliate, starting a feud or a war, or have to move somewhere else.

But suppose that instead of fighting or fleeing Tribe A just decides to make up a different language, so that the next time they encounter people from Tribe B, the Tribe B folks won't know what they're saying.  Meanwhile the Tribe A people would know both languages, so they'd have something of an advantage.  A little like school girls whispering into each other's ears and giggling.  Nothing pisses someone off more than having secrets kept from them.

I admit this is all a little far fetched.  But consider it as a concept that contrasts with our received idea of what language has always been used for, namely, to help us communicate better with others.  We think of the fact that people speak different languages as an obstacle to communication, and encourage them and ourselves to learn other languages, when maybe what we really enjoy as a species is being able to irritate others by making them have to figure out what's going on, then just when they do understand, changing it again.  Teenagers constantly create their own slang in order to exclude their elders, from whom they feel alienated.  Disenfranchised minorities of all kinds coin their own vocabularies to allow them to communicate in ways that exclude the majority.  It might just be more fun to speak a language that your neighbor, or your teacher, or your boss, or your government, doesn't understand.

Maybe the Bible got the moral of the Tower of Babel story all wrong.  When God tore down the tower and scattered the people who were trying to encroach on his divinity, perhaps the people decided to start speaking a whole bunch of different languages just so God wouldn't know what they were saying, and what they were up to.

Just to piss him off.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Strange Bedfellows

March 9, 2015

Monrovia, California

It's just a matter of time before same-sex marriage is legal throughout the United States.  States that have hitherto resisted are toppling on the issue one after the other, and all that remains is a Supreme Court review of the decision by the stodgy 6th Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld the constitutional ban imposed by my old home state of Michigan.  It'll all be over soon, and gay couples will be able to marry everywhere in the nation.

There's one phenomenon I've noticed, which I'm sure you have as well.  It is that most, if not all, of test cases brought to court involve elderly or middle-aged lesbian couples, not gay men.  This is interesting and telling, I think.  First, we should bear in mind that most of these test cases are guided through the system with a certain amount of deliberation beforehand by the civil rights people who take on the task of suing the various governments involved.  Therefore, these are not random would-be gay marriages, but ones selected with due care to present situations most carefully calculated to elicit sympathy from the jurists who hear them,  And it works for the most part, except of course when it comes to hard heads like Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Antonin Scalia, who are as lacking in the milk of human kindness as reptiles, and are the living embodiment of Ted Knight's character Judge Smails in the movie Caddy Shack.  ("I've sentenced boys younger than you to the gas chamber.  Didn't want to do it.  I felt I owed it to them.")

It stands to reason that a heterosexual federal judge at any level (and that must account for the majority of them) is going to feel far less threatened by a couple of "spinsters" than by a male couple who look like they belong in the Village People.  Female homosexuality and male homosexuality are alike in name only.  They occupy positions at two far different points on the continuum of what most straight people consider to be the least and most outrageous forms of human sexuality.  Contrast, if you will, the idea of a couple of women, one perhaps a bit butch, snuggling on the couch, caressing and kissing, to that of a couple of sodomitic men cavorting in shocking hairy nakedness.  Never mind the reality, to the extent that it differs from those images. As for the issue of homosexual partners as parents: if one mother is good, then two mothers must be twice as good, whereas the raising of a child by a pair of prancing, priapic, males...well...how wholesome can that ever be?  When people, especially men, think of lesbianism, if they're not a little, shall we say, interested, then they're at least generally not discomfited.  But when most straight folks think of gay men, they imagine nipple-pierced dudes in parades, groping men in seedy bars, boy scout leaders gone wrong, priests, sports coaches taking showers with the boys, old men in trench coats, fairies singing show tunes, and so on.  Add to that the (not erroneous) perception that men are generally more violent and prone to overt criminality than women are, and that's another reason male homosexuality is more feared than female homosexuality is.  Mind you, these are stereotypes and fortunately represent gradually disappearing images in public perception, but they count for a great deal with the old farts in robes who represent the law in its majestic equality.

Thus it is that more often than not lesbians have been chosen to carry the banner in the campaign for same-sex marriage.  Choosing one's battles in the realm of constitutional law isn't a new phenomenon.  Rosa Parks was selected by the NAACP because of her mature, studious (remember the glasses?), hard-working, nonthreatening demeanor. First, she was a woman, not a dangerous-looking guy who might rape the flower of southern womanhood up there in the front of the bus.  Second, she was plain, dignified, and prim--no smart-assed gum chewing teenage tart or flashy denizen of some sawdust-floored juke joint.  This was a deliberate calculation, and it helped to win the battle before it even began.  It wasn't a cynical decision, but a wise one.

Similarly, in the celebrated interracial marriage case, Loving v. Virginia, which is sure to be cited again soon, Richard Loving was white and his wife Mildred was black.  Had it been the other way around, one imagines that the case would never have made it beyond the rough justice of the nearest tidewater hanging tree, much less to federal court.  Again, as a test case, this was a carefully selected one.

Apart from being "homosexual," what do lesbians and gay men have in common?  Not a hell of a lot, besides their unfortunate placement by straight society under the canvas of the same freakshow tent, They appear to have no use for one another, sexually speaking.  Each side tends to use its own equipment, as it were, and never the twain shall meet.  Lesbians need gay men, as they say, like fish need bicycles.  And gay men need lesbians about as much as bicycles need, well, fish.  In terms of what turns them on, women who love women erotically have more in common with straight men when you think about it, and men who love men erotically have more in common with straight women.  But when the gay marriage ban is finally gone for good, these two diametrically divergent groups will have benefited equally by virtue of their propinquity within the same artificially-created category.

What I'm saying is that the two groups have only been thrown together by the narrowest of technical commonalities, and to the extent that they work for and root for one another they are comrades in arms.  Great.  But beyond that, what good are they to one another?   Except, of course, as compassionate human beings united in a campaign to bring more compassion to the public at large.  I guess that's enough.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Je suis....

Monrovia, California

January 12, 2015

One of the big stories in the news these past several days has to do with the attack on January 7 on a satirical magazine in Paris called Charlie Hebdo.  I'm sure I'm not telling you anything you don't know.  As I gather, Hebdo is short for hebdomadaire, which is French for weekly, in case you wondered about that.  Charlie is whatever....a cute first name for which there is no doubt an explanation.  Anyway, a bunch of people were killed, and most of the western world is up in arms about the attack, viewing it as an assault on free speech.  The magazine's stated editorial position is essentially left-wing, pluralist, and decidedly anti-authoritarian.  The phrase "je suis Charlie" is now circulating in the streets and on the social media worldwide, signifying a sense of solidarity with the magazine and its right to publish whatever it wants to, particularly if it's offensive, since if it weren't nobody would care and none of this would have happened.

It seems that the attack on the magazine was carried out by some pissed-off Muslims, due to the fact that the publication prints insulting caricatures of Muhammad, and it is forbidden in some (but not all) versions of Islam to make any kind of image of that individual, known as The Prophet, most particularly I suppose images that are not flattering. In response to the attack some Muslim leaders have proclaimed that it was an indefensible act of terrorism and shouldn't be considered a religious act or to represent the mentality of the majority of Muslims.  These qualifications are deemed necessary because of anti-Muslim sentiment circulating in the western world because of various other violent actions sanctioned and financed by people professing to be Muslims of which we're all familiar--attacks, bombings, hijackings, assassinations, and prices being put on the heads of individuals, all by what we now call radical "Islamists," to differentiate them from Muslims in general. Most everyone is pretty happy to concede that there is a divide and even a disconnect between regular run-of-the-mill Muslims and people who are compelled in the name of Islam to kill, maim, and otherwise cause things to go BOOM against folks whom they consider to be the enemies of their religion and profane cultural imperialists to boot.

Also in the social media and elsewhere there have been some folks who, while condemning, or at least not condoning, the acts of people like those who shot up Charlie Hebdo, and its crew, have pointed out that the west is inherently racist and intolerant of pretty much all religions other than Christianity, and particularly of religions whose principal adherents are not of native European stock.  This is without a doubt true.  The folks who point out this fact are more concerned with the idea that a publication like Charlie Hebdo might represent cultural antipathy toward Muslim immigrants from Africa and the Middle East (of which there are many in France), as well as toward lots of other things, to the point of being pretty vicious in its satire.  These cultural relativists in effect have said that Charlie Hebdo is tolerated and even venerated because its targets are not your everyday walking around secular Frenchmen who consider themselves French in a more or less pure sense, i.e,, those who can trace their roots on the soil that is now France back to the time of the Celts, the Roman legions, or the mishmash of Frankish Germanic and Norman invaders who followed them and more or less defined, by about 1000 A.D., what it means today to be ethnically French.  Excluded from this group would be Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus and other wogs and fuzzy wuzzies.  The French have always been disdainful of  people and things that are not French, as they see it, and reserve the right to make fun of such persons and things.  And so, by the reckoning of the critics of Charlie Hebdo and western culture in general, the staff of the magazine was more insensitive than they had a right to be and perhaps got what was coming to them.  They were, like so much of the western world has been for a long time now, "Islamophobic."  Of course this view doesn't take into consideration the apparent fact that some of the same group that attacked Charlie Hebdo also attacked a kosher Jewish market which, one can safely assume, was not in the business printing caricatures of The Prophet.

Here I must pause to mention what I consider to be one of the peculiarities of the English language and perhaps also that of French.  We use the suffix "-phobia" (from the Greek) to denote hatred of things as well as fear of them.  Hence agoraphobia is fear of open places, but homophobia is hatred of homosexuals.  I suppose there are some who believe that all hatred is rooted in fear, and that fear and hatred are two sides of the same coin, so what's the difference?  But when it comes to suffixes we have one that means love of --"-philia" but none that precisely means only dislike of, so "-phobia" has to do double duty. Anyway, we are told by some that what might be the real culprit of the violence in France is Islamophobia, meaning a hatred and/or fear of the religion of Islam, or of Muslims, or both.

Liberal-minded people don't like to cop to being haters.  We like to say we respect all religions, but just not the extremists among them who would interfere with our right of free expression, including our right to make fun of the extremists.  We stand firmly and foursquare for the right of all people to peacefully worship God as they choose.  Etcetera, etcetera.  So even though we might be Charlie, at least for the time being and until the next big news happens somewhere else, we are emphatically not Islamophobes. and perish the thought.

I will now take a long breath and let it out slowly before I proceed.  After careful and due consideration of all the many manifestations of the religion of Islam, I must say that I am decidedly Islamophobic.  I don't hate the individuals who profess the religion, but I do most definitely hate the religion.  I think it's time to point out that the emperor is wearing no clothes, so to speak.  And dress it up any way you want to, Islam is a fucked up phenomenon.  Mind you I don't dislike only Islam, and I have nothing against the concept of a God as a force in the universe.  But the people who scare and repel me are those who profess to know what God is thinking or what God expects us to do or not to do.  That covers most of the religions that come readily to mind.  But more to the point, I don't like religions that have all-male clerical hierarchies, that believe in the segregation of men and women during worship, that put women into a position clearly subordinate to men, that tell women how to dress and act when they are in public, that tell people how to pray, what time to pray, and what to say or not to say to God.  I do not like religions that insist that only certain individuals can speak directly to God under certain circumstances.  I do not like religions that tell people what they should and should not eat.  I do not like religions that prohibit or require certain activities on certain days of the week or on certain holidays.  With respect to most of these things, Islam comes to mind, as well as parts of Judaism and parts of Christianity, particularly Roman Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism.  And most of all I do not like religions that are so conceived that their adherents can in any way take it into their heads to commit acts of murder and mayhem in the name of or in defense of those religions, whether or not such acts are, strictly speaking, condoned by the religion.  The mere fact that groups of persons can believe it to be okay to commit violence in defense of a given religion and not be considered insane is enough of an indictment of the religion and its adherents to make me more than ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater as far as that religion goes.

It is unfortunate that billions of people all over the world profess Islam as their religion.  That fact can't be undone, though I certainly wish it could be.  These people might be inclined to act like fools even if there were no such thing as Islam, but I can't help thinking that Islam helps them to act like even bigger fools.  So I am content to hate the religion, not just in its most extreme and politically-motivated manifestations, but in its most peaceful and well-meaning forms as well,  It is a blight on the earth and I'm sorry it can't be eradicated in one fell swoop.

But you say Pete, how can you condemn an entire religion based on the activities of some fanatical adherents of one of its extreme branches?  Easy, watch me.  And I'll condemn yours too if any of its members commit criminal, or misogynistic, or just plain bizarre acts in the name of their faith. Well then, you say, what about Christianity?  Shouldn't we get rid of that too?  Sure, put it on the list, but for right now the one we have to be most concerned with, worldwide, is Islam.  Priorities.

So, while je ne suis pas Charlie, je suis un islamophobe, if there is such a noun in French and if I got the gender right.  And even if not