Thursday, December 30, 2010

Long Day

My eldest daughter got into a car accident today on her drive to the big city to meet a friend. Fortunately she’s okay. Hearing about the accident first from her was reassuring from the get-go. She probably called moments afterward, for she was rather frantic on the phone, understandably. But had someone else called for her and told us that our daughter was in an accident, it would have been quite disconcerting. She had taken my wife’s car because the windshield wipers of her car, a Jetta, which has been a money trap for years now, were not working properly.

It’s been a taxing day, as my wife made the phone calls to the insurance company and I drove almost three hours to get her. She was on the divider of a tollway with her hazards on, not far from an “oasis” exit. We left the keys in the car for the tow truck guy and waited at the oasis. Thank God she was okay, not even a scratch. The front end of the car, however, is severely damaged: the bumper, radiator, and fenders. We’ll pick it up in a couple of weeks from an auto mechanic in the area that works with our car insurance. This will be a severe financial and logistical setback for our family, but we’ll make do. I tried to see the glass half full. I was able to spend time with my oldest daughter who normally has little time for me.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sea of Gold

I often get comments about my serious nature. Why don’t you ever smile? Is there a bug up your butt? You should lighten up a bit, dude. What these unsolicited commentators don’t realize is that underneath the surface I’m laughing hard. Just because I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve doesn’t mean I don’t know how to have a good time or that I’m not enjoying the moment. To the contrary, I like humor, was once voted class clown, and am hardly ever serious about anything. People too often judge individuals from their outward shell and overlook the true person within. But my seeming austere demeanor goes deeper than a mere characteristic of my personality.

You see, whenever I laugh I urinate profusely. I’m talking gusher. And the harder I laugh, the funnier the joke, the more I let loose, like a sprinkler gone haywire. I’ve been this way since childhood. As I look back on embarrassing moments I wish I were a pregnant women, because then at least I could have pretended my water broke. I’ve often used an analogy to convey my propensity to pee while laughing. You know the story about the little Dutch boy who stuck his finger in the dyke, right? Well, imagine that instead of a dyke it’s basic decency and propriety, or in an alternate version of this analogy, my underwear and pants. Finally, imagine someone telling the Dutch boy something really really funny or simply tickling his tummy or making fart noises with the armpit. The little boy starts laughing uncontrollably and lets his finger out of the dyke, thus allowing a golden sea to inundate the city. Well, that describes my situation to a tee! So when you see me scowl after hearing a joke, you’ll know that I’m probably laughing my ass off on the inside but have opted to hold back and allow no cracks in my façade lest the floodgates break open.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Viator Xmas et Deus Absconditus

Christmas at the Viator home has been a fun and restful time.  This is the one morning of the year when my kids are up early and trying to get me out of bed.  After exchanging gifts around the Christmas tree, we had a nice ham meal.  Erika played with her new Dell laptop, while Monika took photos with her new camera.  Jessi's black lab puppy kept us entertained.  She insisted on Simon as a name; it’s her pet, so I don’t want to interpose myself too much in the naming process. Simon, though, is a bone fide no-go. I came up with Balthazar, or Balt for short, and to my amazement Jessi likes it. One of the “magi” who allegedly visited the Christ child is named Balthazar, so I guess it’s a fitting name for a Christmas gift. Truth be told, though, I usually name pets after 16th-century German reformers. Balthasar Hubmaier, an Anabaptist theologian, came to mind.

For fun, I pulled up some funny YouTube clips of Mr. Bean and “Stuart” from MADtv, as the five of us relaxed in the family room sifting through our presents.  Later on, the kids played with their new Mario Brothers Wii game and watched Toy Story 1 & 2. Meanwhile, I sat in the dining room to tear into two books I got from my sister and wife respectively: The Devil’s Gentleman, a true crime book by Harold Schechter and Bloodlands, a historical account of Nazi and Soviet policies in the hapless countries of Eastern Europe.

This evening my wife and I saw “The King’s Speech” at an upscale theater house.  We’re both fans of Colin Firth, though I suspect my wife’s interest in the actor is somewhat different than mine. I took the precaution of buying the tickets the day before, for there’s a large audience for these kind of independent historical films in our community. Firth plays Prince Albert, the father of the current queen of England, who became King George VI after his brother Edward abdicated the throne to marry a divorced woman.  At the behest of his wife, Albert, or "Bertie," saw an Australian self-made speech therapist, Lionel Logue, played wonderfully by Geoffrey Rush, to help the prince overcome stammering. The film featured a star-studded cast that in addition to Firth and Rush included no less than Helen Bonham-Carter, Derek Jacobi, Jennifer Ehle, and one of my favorite actors, Guy Pierce.  We thoroughly enjoyed the film, and it could win either Firth or Rush an Oscar. If you’ll allow me a superlative, Firth has played the best Mr. Darcy to date amid an increasing number of movies or television productions of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Christmas for us is a restful time. Living as an isolated nuclear family far from grandparents, in-laws, and cousins, we don’t deal with traveling to and fro, or with the expectations and (dare I say) hardships of family visits. I suppose previous Christmases have been slightly more eventful in terms of family time. We’ve gone to church, played board games, and watched movies together. This time around it’s as if we’re a conglomeration of solitary creatures engaged in our respective interests and hobbies. Whatever works.  Each family has its own dynamic.

Sadly, or perhaps refreshingly, depending on your Weltanschauung, our Christmas celebrations have become increasingly less a religious occasion—an opportunity to reflect on the birth of Jesus and the salvation of the world through his redemptive sacrifice. I am ever mindful of this development, given my early years devoted to Christian spirituality, theology and liturgy. But there appears to be no turning back. You can’t regain paradise lost. Besides, what I’m calling “paradise,” a particular worldview that finds purpose and meaning in the reflection on and worship of God, might have been nothing more than a chimera; otherwise, I would have never left its pearly gates and safe confines.

You ask Americans nowadays about the meaning of life, and most of them will respond with sweet-sounding words like love, family, and community. I don’t necessarily disagree, but I’ve noticed that God and salvation, tucked away in a manger, have less hold on our heart of heart than they might have had years or decades ago. Nonetheless, perhaps there’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will. Organized religion and its cultural trappings, it would seem, no longer hold sway; yet our happiness in this life might still hinge on a loving Creator whose presence, for whatever reason, seems to elude us and whose providence remains outside our purview.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve

It’s Christmas Eve, right? So I’ll try to be positive. It’s not going to be easy for me, because I’m quite cognizant of the fact that life sucks. I went last minute Christmas shopping with Erika and Monika, my eldest and youngest daughters. We had a good time together, and I enjoy making them laugh, or at least trying to make them laugh. Of course I have to be on my best behavior. I controlled my road rage, except for one instance when some guy was moving too slow in front of me and, feeling personally slighted, I cursed him and his mother to hell. I caught myself, though, and made light of it. “I’m just kidding, kids. Love people!”

My job for Christmas these days is to be the stocking stufferer, a role I relish, since it’s an easier job than buying the big presents. As the girls have grown older, it’s become difficult as hell to buy gifts for them anyway. So what do I do? I get them tons of gift cards. It’s pretty much like getting them money, which kind of sucks, but at least they can get what they want, no? Today Jessi got her biggest Christmas gift already: a black lab puppy. She’s still trying to figure out a name for him. It wasn’t my idea, but I won’t get into that right now.

I ate a lot of chocolate today and feel painfully bloated. I kept sneaking off to the basement to tear into some of the stocking treats I had hidden earlier this week. I’m tempted to become a bulimic, but I’ve heard there’s a downside: the acid from your puke gives you bad teeth and awful breath. I think I’ll take a brisk walk tonight in the snow.

We’re sending out a family newsletter again this year. Do you ever do that? I’m not a big fan of these annual Christmas letters.  With the exception of my friends the Campbells, who have the decency to write something interesting, I don't read other people's newsletters. People shouldn’t know your family business. And if you’re sending out such a letter regardless of people wanting to know your business, that’s fairly narcissistic and arrogant, isn’t it? To my mind, the better family newsletters are the ones that straightforwardly give an update. But I’ve read plenty of those letters that put a positive spin on everything, essentially using the Christmas card as opportunity to brag about their family. Last year we divided our annual letter chronologically into seasons: winter, spring, summer, and fall. This time we’re dividing it into family members, and each of us is responsible for own section. The following paragraphs, then, is a first draft for my part of the newsletter.

I find Pierre Bayle’s description of the 16th-century theologian Wolfgang Musculus apt for the family’s experiences this past year (in an 18th-century English translation, mind you): a life chequered with many extraordinary particulars. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but we did have some excellent adventures in 2010 and I would like to highlight some of them.  For spring break we went to the white sands of Gulf Shores in Alabama, just a few weeks before the BP oil spill in the area. Erika didn't join us, as she had to work.  On the way down we visited the Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee and on the way back we went to Graceland in Memphis. A few days later, at the top of April, I went to San Francisco for my Army annual training. I had one weekend free to visit my family in Los Angeles. In July I went to the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area in Minnesota for a nine-day canoe trip with a few buddies. The biggest event for me this year was clearly the Basic Officer Leadership Course in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. I was there for three months, received some quality military training, and met some wonderful people.

As far as junkets and trips go for 2011, I plan to go to California with a couple of friends in July.  We'll fly into San Francisco, rent a car, and head for the Redwood National Park over the Golden Gate Bridge to the north and then head southeast toward Yosemite.  That's the plan, at any rate.  I hope to arrange another visit to Istanbul, Turkey with our friend Aysen Ngo, a native of the country, but whether it comes to fruition in the course of 2011, what with time and money, is an open question.  I'd take Jessi with me, but if other family members want to come, all the better.  Aysen wants to take her daughter and some other girls too.  We'll see what happens.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Anthropology or Zoology?

I like to think of myself as an anthropologist.  I’m of course not an anthropologist, have no training whatsoever in the discipline, never read an article or book on the subject, and learned the meaning of the word only a few weeks ago.  Yet whenever I find myself in a social context or amid throngs of people I inevitably become an anthropologist, observing the strange animal behavior and taking mental notes.  Actually, I wonder if I’m more a zoologist than anthropologist.  Take tonight at a party, for instance.  I observed some ostensible humans eating like pigs, some puking log dogs, some drinking like horses, and others acting like jackasses.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Augustinian Strain of Piety

Just as I was starting college, I read a book entitled The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (1939), an intellectual history of the New England Puritans by the late Harvard historian Perry Miller. Initially I had intended to study the Puritans in depth, given my "self-inflicted" evangelical background and love of history. Eventually I decided to probe just a bit further back in time, namely to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. I guess I wanted to get a broader context for the New England Puritans, and this search led me to Luther and Calvin. In the first chapter of his book, Miller describes the “Augustinian strain of piety,” making the point that the Puritans followed Augustine—and by extension, Paul, I would argue—more than John Calvin, whom many have traditionally seen as the father of Puritanism.

My take on his phrase and its meaning, which might not correspond exactly to Miller’s argument, is that this expression of piety manifests itself in gratitude toward God for blessings in life and a humble, contrite acknowledgment of one’s sinfulness. That is, we attribute good things to God and blame ourselves for bad things. On the face of it, especially from an agnostic or atheist viewpoint, this seems absurd. How can God be responsible solely for love and peace in the world and have nothing to do with pain and suffering? Is God not omniscient and omnipotent?  Contrariwise, why should we grovel in our failings and never take credit for our own fortune?  Yes, this strain of piety is not particularly rational, but I would argue that its value for living lies in the perspective or attitude it inculcates. A humble assessment of yourself can help you cope with the evils of the world and hopefully keep you from being an arrogant person. I certainly partook of this strain of piety back in the day; in a way it never leaves you, whatever direction your spiritual odyssey might take.  Granted, I'm an agnostic of a sort nowadays, but in my theistic moments I'm still reticent to ascribe evil to God and more apt to find fault within.

One of my professors at the University of California who had graduated from Harvard told me that Miller was an atheist. I had presented an analysis of Miller’s work in this professor's seminar on intellectual historiography. At the time, I was amazed that Miller wrote with such eloquence and depth about the Puritans without having a stake in their spiritual and theological outlook; he was simply viewing his subject with a historian’s eye and not through the eyes of piety. Evidently, Miller, my professor told me, taught an intellectual history of Christianity that featured Augustine, Pascal and Kierkegaard. That must have been a tour de force course!

At roughly the same time that I was thinking about the humility and absurdity of the “Augustinian strain of piety,” the mid to late Eighties, two songs entitled “Dear God” hit the radio: one by the British group XTC and the other by ex-Ultra Vox singer-songwriter Midge Ure. As the title suggests, these songs come across as a kind of petition or prayer. XTC’s "Dear God" addresses suffering in the world. For theists, and especially Christians perhaps, the song takes no prisoners, providing plenty of fodder to raise the ire of church groups. Did you make mankind after we made you? It has some rather unkind things to say about God, and I certainly looked at the song askance when it came out, even as I admired the songcraft—the melody, lyrics and emotional intensity above all—that went into making it. The singer, or supplicant rather, wonders why God allows starvation, disease, and war—basically, the usual objections to a belief in a providential deity. Ironically, the singer addresses God in order to avow his disbelief in God.

One can take this irony in two different ways. First, the songwriter, Andy Partridge to be specific, is expressing animosity toward God. Perhaps the narrator believes in a God, but despises God or at least self-proclaimed God-believers the world over. This is a possible interpretation, one no doubt favored by Christians who are quick to quote scriptural passages like Psalm 14: “The fool says in his heart There is no god.” (Granted, atheists have found their own ancient proof text—to wit, Lucretius in his On the Nature of Things: “Fear is the mother of all gods. Nature does all things without their meddling.”) The other interpretation, which I favor and is probably the songwriter's intent, is that God does not exist, pure and simple. Moreover, the song’s heartfelt anger subtly, I would argue, conveys a sorrow over lack of divine providence in a world run amok. The climax comes at the end, and it packs an emotional wallop when you hear it:

I won’t believe in heaven or hell.
No saints, no sinners, no Devil as well.
No pearly gates, no crowny thorn.
You’re always letting us humans down.
The wars you bring, the babes you drown.
Those lost at sea and never found,
And it’s the same the whole world ‘round.
The hurt I see helps to compound that
Father, Son and Holy Ghost is just somebody’s unholy hoax.
And if you’re up there, you’d perceive that
my heart’s here upon my sleeve. [my italics]
If there’s one thing I don’t believe in…..
It’s you…dear God.
Sarah McLachlan, on a side note, covered this song on an XTC tribute CD. As good covers go, she changed it up a bit, and yet offers an equally good rendition.

Midge Ure’s “Dear God” is more up my alley musically.  True, the chorus is too upbeat for my taste, but his vocals are impeccable and rich; they work well with the music. The atmospheric guitar sounds in the opening verses complement the sense of loneliness and dislocation conveyed in the lyrics. Whereas the XTC song blames God for the evils of the world, Ure’s song beseeches a divine power to help alleviate the ills that humankind has created. Whatever Ure’s religious background, his “Dear God” is a secular tune, not a Christian song. The tone is one of cautious hope, as he cries out for “peace in a restless world.”

Dear God, can you hear me crying?
A whole world crying
Looking for something to say
We had it all and we threw it all away
Is there somebody watching
Somebody watching over the mess that we've made
We're lost and alone and afraid.
So one song blames God for the evils of this world and the other looks to God to heal the world. Both supplications, one irreverent and the other disillusioned, are a valid cri de coeur, in my view. One eschews the Augustinian strain of piety, and the other seems to imply it.  I tend to favor Ure's approach over XTC's, but even C.S. Lewis in his moment of darkness referred to God as a "cosmic sadist."  I can't fault those who express anger at God.  Christianity's answer to the problem of pain is insufficient.  Theologians point to free will: humankind has the freedom to make decisions and not follow the dictates of the deity like mindless robots.  Consequently, the choice for evil will always be at hand.  Late medieval scholastics like William of Ockham tried to explain this with the dialectic of the two powers: potentia absoluta et ordinata.  God has absolute power, but He has deigned to set up a system of secondary causes.  Therefore, God is not responsible, or at least directly responsible, for evil.  However you cut the cake, though, the problem persists: how can an omniscient and benevolent deity allow such suffering in the world?  You can create metaphysical arguments and wander through theological labyrinths all day long and as a theist still be left with this dilemma.

What Perry referred to as "Augustinian," though, really just goes back to the Sermon on the Mount and the Pauline epistles of the New Testament:

One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?  [Romans 9:19-21]

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Mr. Grey (1/2)

I once met a man who dressed himself everyday in grey from head to foot. I kid you not. Why would I lie about something like that? After all, there are weirder things I could make up. For example, I could have told you that my uncle has five arms due to an accident of birth, he being the only survivor of deformed quintuplets. This is not true, and I don’t even have an uncle. I might have exaggerated for dramatic effect the ailment that my sister-in-law Griselda suffers, namely Tourette syndrome, by convincing you with all the feigned seriousness I could muster that aliens, with the approval and even complicity of U.S. government officials, regularly visit her to plant random curse words into her brain in a bizarre intergalactic experiment. You probably wouldn’t buy it, but I’ve made my point.

Before I had the opportunity to meet the man in grey and ask him about his wardrobe, I had seen him for weeks coming and going with his briefcase—and, yes, the briefcase was grey too. I figured he was a paralegal, as he looked relatively young and inexperienced. Perhaps he entered law to change the world, only to become disillusioned in the day-to-day morass of legal posturing and courtroom sophistry. I’ve seen this all too often, for I work the information booth at the county courthouse and most of my friends and acquaintances are either lawyers or lawyer-wannabes. I myself quit law school one year into it, as it was not what I thought it would be.

During the winter I didn’t think much of it. He’d come through the revolving door with a large grey overcoat. Everyone wears the same overcoat, except perhaps Judy, my co-worker, who’s been looking for a guy since her less-than-cordial breakup with her mooch of a boyfriend and seems to sport a new coat or sweater (and shoes too!) everyday. Once March hit, though, Mr. Grey, as we called him—the we here being me, Judy, and Rob, who works upstairs in the Clerk of Courts office—was of course sans overcoat, allowing me to see that his shirt, slacks, and shoes were likewise grey. Everyday! I can’t vouch for the weekends. I’d like to think this guy would unwind, wear a Hawaiian shirt and red leather pants. (Actually, Judy supplied the latter piece of wardrobe in one of our discussions about Mr. Grey, prefacing her naughty suggestion with a nicotine-coated guffaw.)

For what it’s worth, I should point out that Mr. Grey’s articles of clothing were rarely of the same exact hue. On any given day, his shirt might be charcoal and his pants light grey. Then, he might reverse this two-tone pattern. One of his pairs of shoes, I noticed, was purply grey. Once in a while he’d wear the same light grey shirt and pants, and this would make him stick out all the more, as if he were wearing a jumpsuit.

You might wonder why I’m seemingly fixated on this briefcase-wielding fellow. In college I read a book called Death in Venice about a composer who follows an attractive young man around in rather homoerotic fashion. Well, I’m not a composer, nor am I gay like my good friend Rob. But I’ve never met a man (and most certainly not a man in his late twenties or early thirties, which I take Mr. Grey to be), who took such pains to remind himself of life’s basic lessons. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I should also add, however, that what you’d mistake for an obsession with Mr. Grey has to do with something you don’t know, something that would place my inordinate interest, bewilderment really, in its proper context: his untimely death only a few months after I met him.

As chance would have it, we spotted the mystery man at Geli’s Deli down the street from the court building. We eat here for lunch at least once a week, largely because Judy was on one of her hopeless diets and the place serves a bacon and avocado sandwich “to die for” (her words) on their weight conscious menu.

Rob eagerly pointed him out. “That’s him! Jim something….”

“What are you talking about? Mr. Grey?” I gestured with my head toward the grey figure ordering food at the counter. I saw him just at the moment Rob brought him to our attention.

“What do you mean Jim?” asked Judy.

“I know that’s his first name from the grapevine.”  The nebulous grapevine that Rob was referring to is Cynthia Brackman, the receptionist at small claims court, who makes it her business to know everyone else's business.

“Listen,” I cautioned. “Don’t embarrass us.” I knew Rob had an interest in Mr. Grey, and he convinced himself that the guy was gay with no evidence other than his self-proclaimed “gaydar” intuition.

True to form, Judy, who for her part was hoping Rob was wrong in his assessment, walked up to the counter, put on her sanguine pizzazz, and introduced herself to Mr. Grey.

She made a beeline back to our table within a minute. “He agreed to join us. He’s very nice.” Judy winked at Rob in such a way that it wasn’t clear whether she now thought Mr. Grey was gay or if she was high as a kite upon meeting the guy she’d been fantasizing about for a couple of weeks now.

“What did he order?” asked Rob.

“A Greek salad, I think.”

“I knew it!”

I rolled my eyes.

Coffee cup in hand, the man of the hour approached our table.  “Hello, my name is Jim Lemoux.”

“Have a seat,” I volunteered. “Nice to meet you.”

“I’m Patrick and this is Rob. You’ve met Judy already.”

“Yes.”

Rob fixed his gaze on our lunch guest. “Your name is French?”

“Yes, uh, Huguenot in fact. My ancestors were Huguenots who migrated to South Carolina.”

I certainly wanted to ask him about his grey wardrobe, the elephant in the room as far as I was concerned. I figured I’d have to work up to the question with some small talk first, however.

He went on to tell us that he was a legal consultant for the prosecution in the Winchester case. Terrence Winchester had embezzled millions of dollars from various insurance companies.

“Tell me, Jim,” I said, not being able to contain myself. “Why do you wear grey clothing everyday? I hope you don’t mind me asking,” I hastened to add. “I’m sure you get this question often.”

“Fair question. My great-grandfather Thomas Lemoux served as a colonel in the Confederate Army, so I wear grey to commemorate the lost cause but noble fight of my ancestors.”

“Wow! Really?” responded Rob. My friend’s credulity and eagerness to show how attentive he was got the better of him. I could tell from Mr. Grey’s tone that he was kidding. Frankly, I still had my doubts about the Huguenot comment.

“No, not really.” Mr. Grey had a playful look, no doubt endearing himself all the more to my co-workers. Then, the young man’s demeanor took on a more serious bearing, as if he were about to address more weighty matters. “Since you seem genuinely interested in my grey wardrobe, I’ll give you the long answer. Well,” he looked at his watch, “the 15-minute answer. Do you have the time?”

“Yes,” said Judy, “we have a half hour before we need to get back.”

“Very well then. You see, I once fell in love with a woman.” With the last word, Rob’s heart sank. He already had a vision of marrying this guy in Vermont, honeymooning in a quaint winter lodge, and perhaps settling down on a birch tree farm. But I knew he would soon recover, for he, like Judy, was a sucker for a love story.

Yet, as Mr. Lemoux launched into his explanation, I was bothered by Rob's virtual disinterest in the man's wardrobe, that is to say, the reasons and purpose behind it, which I happened to find both fascinating and weird. I knew Rob found Mr. Grey attractive because he usually gets giggly when he’s around someone he likes and, well, Mr. Grey wasn’t exactly chopped liver.

I don’t have any issue with Rob’s sexual orientation, though; that’s not my point. I have lots of gay friends. Around the court house you meet lots of gay people. (On a side note, Judy wished she were gay, given her poor luck with guys.) I just felt Rob was not really tuning into the conversation so much as trying to make himself attractive to poor Mr. Grey, Jim Lemoux that is, through his tone of voice and witty remarks, most of which hit far short of their mark.

“The woman’s name was Maria.”

“Did she return your love?” asked Judy, so caught up in the dramatic way Mr. Grey introduced the story that she seemed to throw patience and decorum out the window.

“Oh yes, very much so. But alas!”

“What?” interjected Rob, eliciting a look from me that said something like Shut the fuck up and listen to the story, asshole!

“It was not to be. She was married with two small children.  I was going to law school at the time, some ten years ago, when I met her. She worked at a university that shall remain nameless, in administration. Her husband was the vice chancellor of academic affairs, a bigwig, whom Maria respected but did not love. Before you get out your air violins, I’ll steal your thunder by admitting that my story is not unique.”

“True,” volunteered Judy, “but it’s not any less tragic.”

Monday, December 20, 2010

Acumen

Last weekend I watched a few episodes of Columbo on Netflix with my daughter Monika. I was pleased that she got into it. It was my favorite show as a kid in the Seventies. My wife half-heartedly watched as well, interjecting a few dismissive comments about the show. She said it plods along and runs too long at 73 minutes. She’s somewhat right, and I only add somewhat because the show is near and dear to my heart in a nostalgic sort of way. Nowadays we’ve gotten used to snappy, quick episodes of 20 or 30 minutes. And an obvious contemporary parallel, the show Monk, which ended its last season earlier this year, got us used to this quick way of doing things. So I recognized what she was saying, and in fact was already thinking it, but I, we, still enjoyed it anyway. Peter Falk is a god, in spite of having been woefully typecast thereafter, and his character is one of the greatest creations of television.

Lieutenant Columbo, Inspector Clouseau, and Monk come from a venerable tradition of the master detective genre that goes back to Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.  No doubt detective-novel geeks could name a few more sleuths to the list.  But before Sherlock, there was Edgar Allan Poe's masterful creation, C. Auguste Dupin, who appears in three of the writer's stories.  Honestly, I never got into Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot.  Dupin, Columbo and Monk are my personal favorites, and I hope to explain why.

I’m sure cultural historians and film critics have discussed these characters sufficiently, but I don’t care if I reinvent the wheel, for I’ve thought about this for a long time. The fascinating thing about Columbo, as anybody who's watched the show would know, is that he’s the smartest guy in the room and yet he doesn’t look the part. To the contrary, he’s a “rumpled face in a rumpled raincoat” and seemingly disorganized and eccentric. What the viewer learns after a while is that there is more artifice in Lt. Columbo’s appearance and demeanor than mere happenstance.  But his uncanny ability to solve a crime is almost preternatural.  Monk is similar to Columbo in that he has many flaws and is a social misfit with a brilliant mind, but his flawsnamely, OCD and a host of other quirksare the opposite of the unkempt, cigar-toting L. A. homicide detective.  Finally, let me go back to the beginning, C. Auguste Dupin.  Unlike Columbo and Monk, Poe's detective is not in law enforcement at all, but nonetheless aids the police in solving a series of crimes pro bono.  Acumen is a Poe-like word, and the author indeed uses it to describe Dupin: sharpness of mind.  He doesn't possess any noticeable flaws like the other two, but they all possess acumen.  The demonstration of their intellectual prowess in figuring out a mystery is a joy to read and fun to watch!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Red Snow

Please enjoy your eggnog and yuletide cheer. Why shouldn’t you, right? Don’t let me disturb you with some facts that just might make you reconsider your festive spirit in this final month of the year. Poets have waxed with tragic eloquence about winter as the season of death and renewal. They’re of course talking about the season symbolically. However, I would like to speak frankly about the literal death of millions in this cold, sanguinary month. December, upon closer inspection, appears to be the month of genocidal massacre. One thinks of the Rape of Nanking, when Japanese troops at the tail end of 1937 raped, tortured, and butchered their way through the streets of China’s southern citadel. The Wounded Knee Massacre on a snowy December day in 1890 was merely the final slaughter of Native Americans after centuries of ethnic cleansing. I’m not sure if Chief Big Foot, pictured above, appreciated the holiday season as he lay dying in the snow. On a family vacation to Mount Rushmore years ago I made a detour through the Black Hills to Pine Ridge Reservation to visit the site of the massacre. It’s a sad place. The young people there had set up a booth with trinkets for visitors; I easily picked up the alcoholism and defeatism in their body language and countenance.

Then there’s the crash of Pan Am Flight 103 into Lockerbie, Scotland, thanks to a terrorist who now walks freely because of a suspicious deal between the Brits and Libya. How about the Montreal Massacre in 1989? A deranged gunman took out 14 students on the campus of École Polytechnique before killing himself. Let me close this sad inventory of mass homicide with the Wisconsin Death March, or Sandy Lake Tragedy. In 1850 the federal government, at the behest of the settlement community and territorial governor, ordered the relocation of the Ojibwe from their ancestral homeland in Wisconsin and Upper Michigan to Minnesota. Four hundred men, women, and children perished during that fateful December. We’re not to blame for the sins of our forefathers, you say?  Let me then ask you a question.  Do you live on land that was not always in the possession of white people?  Trust me. I’m not a bleeding-heart liberal, that is to say, a repulsive hypocrite. Spending our days apologizing for being white is sheer idiocy. At the same time, we ought to recognize that history has consequences for the present. But please do not dwell on such dark, disturbing things whilst enjoying Christmas and New Year’s. By the way, your eggnog is fattening and it will increase your cholesterol.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A German Elf in My Fridge

Not an early morning person by genetic code, I often stay up into the wee hours of the night to read, write, listen to music, and sometimes just stare into the darkness. Of course military duty or work or family responsibilities on any given morning might prevent these late night moments of solitude and reflection. But if I can stay up, I often do, no matter what I might tell myself about “early to bed, early to rise” in the course of the day. Usually I set up my laptop on the dining room table and work away, my productivity depending in large part on whether I’m already tired or suffering from insomnia. More recently, a dislocated shoulder has kept me up at night, and the medication my doctor prescribed hasn’t helped either. I swear, it’s like eating caffeine tablets!

I confess that I’m not telling you about my late-night activities for the sake of conversation; rather, I’m merely establishing the context for a strange occurrence. I already realize that what I’m about to tell you will severely stretch the limits of your credulity, but I feel the need to get some things off my chest.  You see, four evenings ago, as I was listening to Chopin’s preludes and reading Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence, I heard some jostling. At first I thought the cats were playing with each other in the living room and didn’t think too much of it. But the sound got louder and stronger. I turned off the music and set my book down. It was coming from the kitchen, I quickly determined. Suspecting it was some kind of rodent scurrying about in our cabinets, I procured a kitchen knife from the drawer. The sound of silverware clinking and clanging when I grabbed the knife must have stirred up whatever was making the sound, for the jostling—which in the meantime had become more like the sound of something sliding—had turned to banging. I knew then that the source of this sound had some intelligence, for its “behavior” altered when it picked up on my presence.

I realized that something was inside the fridge! With each bang on the door, I could hear the milk jugs shake and the drawers full of produce rattle. I just stood there, knife in hand, with a puzzled face, probably looking like a crazed maniac. The knocking was uncanny; it sounded like someone, not something, was inside there, wanting to get out. Would someone jump out at me once I opened the door? Couldn’t he get out? Why do I say he? How could someone fit inside there? Is this somehow a practical joke? A number of plots for a good horror flick went through my mind. Curiosity and fear swirled inside me until I finally opened the refrigerator door slowly.

I saw nothing unusual at first, so I opened the freezer too.  Was I going insane?  Utterly perplexed, I decided to search the contents of the fridge systematically, starting with the door. My eyes scanned a can of whip cream, Paul Newman’s blue eyes and congenial smile affixed to a jar of Alfredo sauce, a discarded margarita mix that has been sitting there for years, three half-eaten cookies inside a Ziploc bag, and various condiments. Now it was time to look through the main compartment of the fridge, starting with the top shelf: a pitcher of OJ, another Ziploc bag of half-eaten cookies, cottage cheese, yogurt, and….What the hell? Just as I spotted a red felt hat with bells attached, I heard a voice in German: “Was ist denn loss?” I yelped in terror and leaped backwards, bumping my head on the cabinet behind me. The German was so authoritative that a plastic bottle of French dressing seemed to cower in submission.

Once I recovered my senses, I gazed into the fridge with disbelief, venturing forth whatever German I could muster. I could see what appeared to be an elfin-looking creature with an alarmed look on its face. The obvious questions came to my mind: Who are you? What are you doing in my fridge?  Please put the knife down, he said.  “You’re scaring me.” I’m scaring him? WTF! I knew a little bit about German folklore, having lived in Bavaria for a couple of years while researching my dissertation on the German Reformation. “Are you by chance Knecht Ruprecht,” I asked, “the devilish helper of St. Nick who punishes naughty children and rewards good children?” He explained that the whole Knecht Ruprecht was a myth and that he was just an elf. Just an elf? I wondered.  What's that supposed to mean?  Besides, he added, he didn’t have a long beard like Ruprecht supposedly does.

His hometown, he went on, is in Schwaben, or Swabia in English, located in Southern Germany. When I asked him if elves can live in regular towns, amongst people, he looked at me in bewilderment. I don’t know if I offended him or if I was asking the stupidest question in the world. I should also add that the only thing that distinguished him as an elf was his high-pitched voice, his elfish cap, and the mere fact that he could fit into my fridge. Otherwise, he seemed like a relatively normal German fellow.

I never got a straight answer as to how he got inside my fridge. You’d think I would have pressed him on this issue, for it was the elephant in the room that needed explaining; yet, honestly, I started to enjoy our conversation and found the time slipping away. His story was fascinating, even if he was reluctant to answer some of my questions. Elves, he informed me, are decidedly not divine creatures, but they do in fact have magical powers. He would never specify what kind of power he possessed, however. He was the fifth born from a family of seventeen. His ancestors once lived in the northern forests of Germania; nowadays they live near cities and like anyone else want to raise their families and be left alone.

About a half hour into our conversation I inadvertently shut the fridge as I was turning toward a cupboard to fetch a glass. I wanted to eat some of those half-eaten cookies with some milk. Worried that he would take this action unkindly, I hurriedly opened the door, only to find that he had disappeared. “Elf?” I cried, but got no answer. Was he upset? I wanted very much to explain that it was an accident. I must have opened and shut that door countless times for the next hour, hoping the strange German elf would somehow reappear, but it was not to be.

I told my wife and children about the elf over breakfast the next morning. “Dad, you’re such a loon!” exclaimed my youngest daughter, Monika, as she was reaching for the strawberry jam. “I guess I didn’t hear the elf downstairs because the tooth fairy came into my room last night and started a ruckus.” I was disappointed that Monika didn’t believe me, but, then again, I have been known to embellish a tale. Heck, let’s face it: I’m hardly ever serious. Why should anyone believe me? Besides, talking to a German elf in my refrigerator admittedly is a tale hard to swallow. My wife and children blew me off and continued to talk about…the things they talk about. They didn’t even notice that I had the sniffles, due no doubt to spending a few hours next to an open refrigerator!

While at work I couldn’t help but wonder whether I had dreamt this whole thing. It seemed too real. Later in the night, as usual, I sat down in the living room with my novel after everyone went to bed. The knocking started again, at almost the same exact time as the night before. I opened the refrigerator and there he was again! He asked me how I’ve been. I thought his question rather strange, but I figured he just wanted to chew the fat. So I pulled up a chair from the dining room and took a seat in front of the open fridge. I never thought to ask him his name, for, again, I was sort of suspended between belief and disbelief during our nocturnal meetings and not mindful of the normal comments or questions one would make during chitchat. But on this second night he told me his name was Maximilian, or Max for short.

On the third night, I greeted Max with a hearty welcome and sharp set of ears, ready to enjoy another delicious conversation. I say conversation, but, really, I would just listen to his stories, most of them having to do with his family history or elf lore in general. Every now and then I would interject a question or otherwise try to get some clarification on a point he was making; sometimes I would request a bit more detail about a particular place he’d mention, say, or an elfin clan to which he’d make reference. His earlier reticence to divulge information—or so I had interpreted his nervous demeanor—had gone by the wayside. In retrospect, I think on that first meeting I somehow mistook his high-pitch voice and Swabian dialect for nervousness, and his seeming refusal to come out from behind the pickle jar and foil-wrapped ham gave me the wrong impression. He was perhaps more shy and less standoffish than even he would admit.

On this night he surprised me, pleasantly so, by discussing German literature. He explained to me where Goethe got the inspiration for his Gretchen in Faust, referring both to relevant facts in the writer’s biography as well as aspects of the Sturm und Drang movement.  Seeing that I was hanging on his every word (and perhaps overjoyed by the fact that he had found someone interested in literature and his take on things), he recited a poem by Rilke; though my knowledge of German is rudimentary, he impressed me with his intonation and inflexion.  I would have wept had I not become aware of how ridiculous it'd be for a grown man to cry into his refrigerator in the middle of the night.  I asked Max whether he liked elfin poets too.  I still laugh when I think about his response.  He smirked, shook his head sufficiently to make the bells on his little cap ring, and told me that human poets are far superior.

Sadly, not long thereafter, Max informed me that he would no longer appear in my fridge. He revealed to me that he had been cursed by a gnome for having offended him and his family. The elfin council had determined that three nights in temporary confinement should suffice to atone for his sin. “Why my fridge?” I asked. He didn’t have an answer. One last time, though, he regaled me with stories of elves, fairies, German novelists and, oddly enough, the Kulturkampf of the late 19th centurythe latter a particular treat. He even gave me his two cents on Germany’s sad history throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

Sure enough, my little friend was nowhere to be seen tonight. One thing Max said made me feel good about our time together, however. If temporary banishment to my refrigerator was supposed to be penance for his act, he told me candidly, he couldn’t have wished for a better way to do his time than talk to me.  I miss Max.  For good measure, though, I stopped taking the medication the doctor prescribed for my shoulder.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Anne in the Basement

Anne was quite a woman.  More than a woman.  She was larger than life.  What I mean by that is that she embraced life readily, with wide eyes and a wider, infectious smile.  And she was most certainly fun to hang with.  She didn’t care what others thought, and I mean that in the good way.  She was comfortable in her own skin.  I must say, it was so refreshing to be around someone with such self-confidence, and I’m not talking about arrogance.  I mean, who doesn't have insecurities, right?  Anne didn't, or at least she hid her insecurities from others, and if the latter is indeed the case, I admire her all the more.  I’d be lying if I said her self-assurance and can-do attitude didn’t attract me to her, but we always maintained a good friendship, nothing more.

I guess my use of the past tense makes it sound like she’s passed away, huh?  I suppose she's dead, in  a way.  Nowadays she spends all of her time knitting caps and sweaters, rocking back and forth in a rocking chair, alone in her basement.  She won't talk to anybody but just stares into space or at her needle point.  I don’t know what happened to her, but she’s a different person now.  Did she experience tragedy in her life?  Is she suffering from some congenital disease that is just now kicking in?  Nobody knows.  It's funny how someone can go on in this life, at least physically, and yet be dead to the world.  I miss Anne.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Socially Inept

I’m socially inept. I can’t function properly in normal situations. I don’t really know what a normal situation is. I have difficulty with “society,” and continue to use quotation marks around the word for some strange reason. The things we’re supposed to take seriously, well, I can’t. And the silly stuff? Well, it absorbs me. I guess I’m disconnected. I’m the embodiment of Durkheim's anomie and feel all too often like Edvard Munch’s freaky-looking dude screaming out on a bridge. People avoid having a conversation with me. It’s kind of like bumping into your ex-gay lover in Barnes and Noble: it's just an awkward situation. I learned to hate that word, awkward. It reminds me of those other bad “aw” words like awful and, well, that’s the only other bad “aw” word I can come up with at the moment.

Years ago when I was living in Los Angeles I took a self-help course unabashedly entitled “How to Be Normal.” The “life consultant,” a woman by the name of Beaches, encouraged me to stretch myself socially. “Take a chance,” she said. Then she annoyingly kicked into the Abba song a cappella. For a time I referred to myself as “Watermelon,” because I like watermelons, and Beaches suggested that I give myself a name of something that makes me happy. It didn’t work. It seemed too artificial, and, frankly, bizarre. Another suggestion of hers was to keep a journal. Whenever I felt like I was an outcast or that I didn’t fit into a social context, I’d log my feelings on the matter and try some self-analysis. This exercise also didn’t work. After a few months, I had a stack of notebooks filled with doodles and drawings. For what it’s worth, I’m quite proud of one of the drawings: a desert flower defiantly clinging to life in a dried-out riverbed amid a hostile, barren land.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Variation on a Rant

You’re probably like me, huh? The holiday season puts you on edge, in terms of dealing with the masses in public places: the post office, the mall, Starbucks, AT&T store, Wal-Mart, etc. Everyone and their dog is out and about, clawing for this, barking for that, jockeying for position, ignoring queues at the store and just cutting through to the checkout counter. Yes, the very time we’re wishing peace on earth and goodwill toward men, my faith in humanity falters. Outside their respective nuclear families, and perhaps grandparents and a few cousins besides, these people that you see running around don’t give the proverbial rat’s ass for anyone else. I’m no different, but I don’t pay lip service to platitudes about good cheer and the goodness of humanity during the holiday season.

Apart from the quaint social smile that is obligatory for civil people in public places, courtesy and kindness are rare. I know what you’re thinking. When shoppers block your way or drivers get on your ass as you're trying to negotiate ice on the road, you just want to rip out their entrails, as if you’re a zombie exacting some weird form of divine justice; only instead of eating their brains, you chomp on their genitalia like a chimpanzee who’s seized an invading chimpanzee. I totally know what you mean! I feel the same way. Evidently, two great minds think alike.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my fellow man, so long as he stays at arm’s length. Would that altruism, self-sacrifice, and a genuine concern for the plight of others less fortunate were more than fodder for Bible stories and moral fables! But if you think we indeed live in such a fantastical world, apart from a few individuals who’ve dedicated their lives to humanitarian work, then, to quote Judas Priest, “you’ve got another thing coming!”

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Lost in a Sea of Laundry

Many of you consider me a manly and masculine person, if not downright macho and virilea mountain of manhood, if you will. I don’t want to disabuse you of this idealized notion of me, based, I should add, on grains of truth. I suppose you think this because of my hirsute face, my membership at a gym, or perhaps because I carry a concealed weapon with me wherever I go, namely my customized, deluxe Rambo combat knife with sawed teeth and made of D2 steel. However, I’m a regular guy, just like youwell, if you’re a guy, that is.  Yes, though I can pack a punch, I'm a domesticated animal.  In fact, I’m comfortable enough in my ginormous manhood to concede that I regularly perform domestic duties, a case in point being laundry.

What with living with four females, the laundry in our house gets so overwhelming sometimes.  Once my wife got a fulltime job as a high school teacher, laundry became one of my routine chores.  Back in the day, I'd go down to the basement, set up my laptop with a DVD, bring some snacks, and spend hours upon hours folding laundry.  A friend of mine is currently working on a machine that would fold clothes.  I wish him much luck.  As you know, anyone can just toss the frickin' clothes in there.  We have so much dirty laundry in this house, however, that the task of laundering is daunting enough even without the folding.

Take the other day, for instance, when I went down to the basement.  I was simply looking for my lavender footed PJs, as they had been missing for days.  This happens all too often: an article of clothing, usually a beloved article of clothing like my leopard-striped boxers or the aforementioned PJs, disappears for days or weeks on end, only to resurface magically in a laundry basket or inside the dryer. Anyway, the other day I couldn’t find my way out of the stacks and stacks, piles upon piles, of laundry. Caverns of dirty clothes engulfed me, caving in one me as I hazarded my way through the laundry wasteland looking for my precious PJs. I was suffocating and had to get out of there, but I just couldn’t find my way out. It was too dark. Fortunately two things happened. First, my cat ventured into the piles looking for mice or who knows what. I followed him as best I could, groping my way, until I could see a dim light in the distance. I spotted an opening!  With this renewed hope, I unsheathed by Rambo knife and started cutting myself loose from the bras, panties, socks, and towels that entangled me, all the while trying to put out of my mind the old adage, "brown in back, yellow in front."  Fortunately, I survived to fight another day.  I didn't find my PJs that day, but I learned a lot about myselfmy resourcefulness and will to live.

Monday, December 13, 2010

That Christmas Tree Smell

We set up our Christmas tree in the living room yesterday and enjoyed a wonderful family time decorating it. My daughters were sipping eggnog and Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Wizards in Winter” was blasting on the living-room stereo. We all laughed heartily as one of our cats, Augustine, attacked a little nutcracker-soldier ornament dangling from a lower branch. Later in the evening, we watched the movie “Elf,” which has almost become a family tradition. Seeing the sparkle of the Christmas tree lights in my daughters’ eyes made these moments magical. I thought of Greg Lake’s line, “that Christmas tree smell and their eyes full of tinsel and fire,” from one of my favorite Christmas songs. After the movie but before we started to hang our customized stockings from the fireplace mantle, my wife and daughter Monika brought out the delicious Christmas sugar cookies they had been baking and decorating. Thanks to the blizzard on Friday night, we could view a wonderful white wonderland outside our bay window. These two weeks leading to Christmas will be a joyous occasion for the Viator family. We’ll sing Christmas songs, eat pie, play games, and let the season kindle our imagination. The kids will no doubt enjoy seeing the gifts gradually stack up under our balsam fir.

Unfortunately, the scent of pine—a wonderful part of the Christmas experience for many—inevitably evokes in me feelings of fear and revulsion. You see, my Uncle Josh tortured and murdered two teens in the woods on a dark autumn night. The poor high school lovers were unaware that he had been stalking them for hours. When he struck, they were helpless to defend themselves. I was seven years old at the time, staying with him at his farmhouse while my parents were away in Florida. In retrospect, family members, especially my mother (Josh’s sister), should have suspected he was a deranged serial killer, given offhanded comments he’d make, coupled with disappearances of prepubescent children and teens in the vicinity of his home. Yet who can really believe one’s brother or uncle is capable of such vicious, sadistic murder?

I was present during the murders, but I have only the vaguest of recollections. I remember the green vinyl seat in the back of my uncle’s car where I cowered in fright. I just kept staring into the seat, afraid to look out the window or into the front seat. Uncle Josh, wearing overalls and a flannel shirt, was probably within a few yards from me as he mutilated those kids. I really don’t have any images that are imprinted on my mind directly, apart from the green vinyl. Certain smells, such as the iron-like scent of blood and the aforementioned pine trees—not to mention fear itself, which has its own smell—conjure up my darkest nightmares and haunt me whenever I’m around a coniferous tree, which of course is Christmas time, unfortunately. Yes, these olfactory “inducements” inevitably translate into the most horrific mental images, whether nor not they correspond to an accurate recreation of what happened.

I didn’t say a word about the murders to my parents, or anyone else for that matter, in the months before the authorities arrested him, for my uncle threatened to cut off my penis and kill my sister if I said anything. Years later, I read a newspaper clipping at the public library to get some of the facts straight and hopefully gain some healing in the process. Investigators with the county sheriff department found the boy’s dismembered body in a garbage bag next to my uncle’s garage. Uncle Josh hung the girl—or what was left of her—on a meat hook in the basement. Authorities had found her socks only a few days prior hanging from a tree, like a ghastly ornament signaling a dark fate.  They knew she was probably dead, but the sight that met them in the basement was enough to shake even the seasoned homicide detective's faith in humanity and all that is sacred in this world.

The police eventually solved the crime from the tire tracks and inconsistencies in my uncle’s lame explanation of his whereabouts that evening. Two Aryan nation inmates exacted “prison justice” on my uncle about three years into his life prison sentence, but the consequences of his evil live on for the victims’ family members. I was likewise a victim, though it took years of therapy to overcome feelings of guilt and recognize my victimhood. Consequently, the holiday season is a mixed blessing for me. Hanging an ornament on a tree and smelling the pine needles bring painful memories. But I must put on a brave face for my children’s sake. When it comes to Christmas caroling, for instance, I’ll belt out the tune loudly and with exuberance: “Christmas is coming, how happy we will be, the family will gather ‘round the Christmas tree.”

Sunday, December 12, 2010

An Unpleasant Topic

This blog post probably marks the last time I’ll address an unpleasant topic, and I apologize in advance. I feel that I have no choice. However, this issue keeps coming out, or bubbling up, whatever the case may be. I’m of course talking about farts. I don’t want to talk about farts, especially during the holidays. Trust me. As most of my readers know by now, I don’t even like the sound of the word. I tried to banish this four-letter word from my blog, but it keeps coming back. Why? These ubiquitous monstrosities of gaseous waste seemed to emerge everywhere and at anytime. Nothing is sacred in this world.

I’m sitting in the coffee shop enjoying a caffeinated beverage when suddenly someone decides to sit at a table next to me. Farts. I’m at the gym using a weight machine when a woman with a sheepish expression walks by. Farts. I’m washing my hands in a restaurant restroom when the stalls seem to erupt into a cacophony of evil. Farts, farts. I’m just trying to enjoy my bean burrito at Taco Bell. Farts. Two things in this life have always hindered my belief in a benevolent, providential God at the helm of everything: farts and mosquitoes. I’m addressing only the latter pestilence currently. These pernicious things taint what would otherwise be a beautiful and good world.

I think I read somewhere once that Leibniz predicated what he called "theodicy," or the problem of pain, on the mere presence of farts in the world, after spending an exorbitant amount of time at a local beer hall. He had just invented calculus, and needed some R&R time.  He was trying to enjoy a tall dark lager, much like me with my dark roast in Starbucks the other day, when the foul winds of fate turned his mind toward the problem of evil. The best of all possible worlds, he reasoned, would be devoid of farts. When Voltaire developed the character Dr. Pangloss to poke fun at Leibniz in his Candide, the French writer, for all his penchant for sarcasm and wit, did not mention the true origins of Leibniz’s theodicy: farts. Truth is stranger than fiction!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Christmas Spirit

I love the holidays! The Christmas spirit is wonderful, but it has its downside and I try so hard not to let things bother me. People seem to think they can get in your grill. Take the other day, for instance, when I was in line at ShopKo. I had filled my shopping cart with some nice Christmas gifts, plus a little self-indulgence—a Slim Whitman Greatest Hits Vol. 3 CD—to celebrate having gone off medication a week earlier. A septuagenarian gentleman in line behind me caught my eyes as I was grabbing some Chiclets and Gummi bears off the checkout shelf. “For the kiddies, huh?” he said with a smile. I almost lost it, but tried to maintain my cool. Just because I had on my festive green and red sweater from Sears didn’t give him an open invitation to invade my space. When I get into situations like this, I quickly imagine myself as Rousseau in a boat on a small Swiss lake tranquilly looking at nature. It calms me down a little. I hesitated, not wanting to dignify his obtrusive comment with a response.

I decided to employ my conflict resolution skills and figured sarcasm would be the best way to diffuse the situation. Turning to him, I said, “Thank you for that unsolicited remark, indeed for paying an inordinate amount of attention to my affairs, however mundane.” He looked away, but I continued. “You know, most people wouldn’t take the time to ask such questions or attempt to make inane small talk in passing.” He started to move his cart to another checkout line. I ignored the rude gesture and followed him. “But of course you’re not ‘most people,’ are you? Surely not, you’re a kind-hearted, neighborly sort whose self-appointed mission in life is to spread Christmas cheer with a self-righteous smirk and in a reassuring avuncular manner.” One of the checkout ladies blurted something into the store loudspeaker, but I couldn’t make it out because I was busily engaged in a Sunday school lesson on manners. “Why, I’m prepared to give you my life story, if you’re so interested. How nice it is to have someone pry like this into one’s affairs! Why don’t we have a kaffeeklatsch and share family photo albums while I tell you about the ‘kiddies’ and you in turn impart to me some endearing anecdotes about raising children? Wouldn’t that be nice?” As a kind of exclamation point, I grabbed a 5-pack of black socks lying in his shopping basket and tossed it like a basketball into a woman’s cart as she passed by. “Granted, such wanton disregard for other people usually impresses me,” I continued, “but you have set a new precedent for unwarranted meddling. I believe a Congratulations! is in order here, my friend.”

At this point, I was relieved to see a store clerk approach and hopefully usher this man out of the store. “Sure, someone might have mistaken your friendly query for nosiness, an effort to fill your vacuous life with the business of others and thus provide a more amusing preoccupation of time—however selfish and painful for people who aren’t you—whilst you await the sweet release of death.” I tried to make this last point while security was escorting me out the door! Whether or not I have a restraining order is not the issue at hand. Nor am I telling this story merely as a reminder to carry mace pepper spray at all times. The point I’m making is that, like you, I find it difficult to enjoy Christmas holidays with such human refuse walking around, butting into people’s business and spoiling it for the rest of us.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Dictates of the Heart, Restraints of the Mind

Life is unfair.  Yes, it’s full of absurdity and pain.  That which we want, we cannot have.  We long, we yearn, we pine.  Will such passion have an ultimate purpose beyond the grave?  Some of us experience harder fortunes than others, but nobody is immune from the loss of a loved one, unrequited love, or a debilitating ailment.  Few and far between are those lucky souls who get to experience love in its purest form.  Fewer still are those who live a life without regrets.  Buried deep beneath the rubble of our heart lies a crushed soul, an inner core upon which the weight of the world—its obligations, expectations, and commitments—presses ever harder.  Yet the dictates of the heart will be heard, for as Pascal has written, the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.  We possess an indefinable strength to press on, despite continual shocks to the system that heartache, loss, grief, or regret inflict upon us from time to time.  Even pleasant memories are problematic, for they give us images of what could have been even as they make us smile.  Life is not just unfair.  It can be cruel as well.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

My Spider Monkey

I wish I had a spider monkey.  I'd feed it fruits and nuts every day.  It would sleep in my bed and cling to me all night long.  On the downside, I suppose my spider monkey would not be much of a conversationalist, nor would it appreciate my book collection.  Still, we'd hang out at the coffeehouse together, enjoying each other's company.  I wouldn't care what people think, because I'd be happy.  If it's wrong for me to want a spider monkey, please tell me why, for it feels so right.  My little buddy's companionship would help me cope.  We'd keep each other entertained.  It wouldn't judge me, but accept me for who I am.  For my part, I wouldn't treat my spider monkey like an inferior; to the contrary, we'd be partners in crime, two peas in a pod, facing the challenges of the day together.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Living Inside Cory's Anus

You’re a much smaller version of yourself living in Cory’s anus. You’re microscopic. Trust me, I don’t think it’s pleasant either, but that’s the hand you’re dealt. It’s the scenario we’re working with here. What would you do? How would you survive? Why Cory’s anus, you ask? Who cares? What does it matter? You’re inside an anus for crying out loud! I need not remind you. An anus is an anus. It’s not like you’re going to look around and say, “Hmmm, why do I have to be inside Cory’s anus?” No, you’ll just be bummed that you’re in an anus, any anus, this here anus.  It doesn't matter how one looks from the outside, or what gender someone is.   The scenery, I should think, is roughly the same inside each person.  For the record, Cory’s a friend of mine, and I picked him at random, okay?  Granted, he eats a lot of beef, but he works it off as a farmhand.  Now let’s move on. 

First off, you’ll have to ration out any food you’ve brought with you, because you don’t know how long you’ll be inside here and indeed whether you’ll ever get out. Once your food runs out or if you didn’t bring any, you’ll have to learn how to live off the “land.” Problem is, you’ll probably waste too much time and energy asking how the hell you got into Cory’s anus when you could be out foraging. But if you can stay focused, you’re survival instincts will kick in.  Try as best you can to get your mind off the fact that you're stuck inside Cory's anus; otherwise, defeatism will infect your resolve.  Tell yourself that you're in the Caribbean or on the Virgin Islands.  Easier said than done, I know.

Now, if you’ve gathered food and even found a way to ignite some of the gases that continually pass through the area in order to cook it over a fire, you will have overcome your first test of endurance. On the downside, everything you eat inevitably reeks of Cory’s anus. In time, I presume, you’ll get used to the taste and the smell. It will take time to adjust to your new surroundings, however. A week? A month? A year? It depends on various factors: the nature of the anus, your exact location in the anus, the level of your resourcefulness, and just plain luck. But do not get too discouraged, for you have already figured out how to feed yourself in these circumstances. Normally you shouldn’t rest on your laurels, but you'll need to take solace in your accomplishments and build up confidence.  You can do this!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Day of Infamy

On this day sixty-nine years ago Japanese Zeros appeared out of the rising sun to attack the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, thus awaking a “sleeping dragon” and provoking the Pacific Theater of World War II for four bloody years. The militant voices of imperial Japan hoped such an act of aggression would weaken our resolve and give them ample room to spread their imperial reach and seize the natural resources of Eastern Asia. We know how things turned out. An awful racial war ensued, as Allied forces island-hopped their way gradually and painfully closer to the Japanese mainland. Imperial troops were absolutely brutal, and Nanking, the Bataan Death March, and "Comfort Women," are only a few concrete examples of this brutality. But American troops too often looked upon the enemy and treated them no less atrociously. To avoid what could have been the worst battle in world history in terms of casualties, the United States dropped its latest deadly toy on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The smoldering pile of towers from 911 is more vivid to us nowadays than Pearl Harbor, and the former was arguably a more audacious act. Interestingly enough, the same asinine responses to the tragedies have occurred. President Roosevelt allegedly knew about the imminent attack on Pearl Harbor but didn’t say anything about it in order to have a pretext to commit the United States to a war against Hitler and thereby help out his friend Churchill. You have whack jobs like Jesse Ventura claiming with no evidence whatsoever that the U.S. government staged the 911 attacks, making it look like Jihadists were involved to justify a war in the Middle East.  Some even further along on the hate wagon have suggested that the Jews are responsible for destroying the twin towers in order to garner support for Israel.

Some people are just by nature conspiratorial. They like to be a part of a small esoteric group of enlightened souls amid a sea of dupes, you and me.  There's nothing wrong with thinking outside the box, flouting convention, and having a healthy dose of skepticism.  But these conspiratorialists are not skeptics pure and simple.  They usually question the official interpretation of an event because of a deep-seated need to feel special and privilegedprivileged with knowledge in this caseor because of partisan animosity of some kind.  For the most part, those who claimed FDR knew about Pearl Harbor opposed his politics, likewise those who suspected George W. Bush or Dick Cheney of a cover-up.  Then again, some people simply can’t accept the official verdict on the matter, always suspecting duplicity in high places.  Others find it simply too difficult to accept a relatively straightforward answer for a painful occurrence.  Admittedly, the assassination of President Kennedy is rather sketchy. But the burden of proof must always reside with the conspiracy-mongers, not those who painstakingly use research methods and science that end up providing an officially accepted explanation. Nobody in our government knew about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor until the actual “date which will live in infamy” occurred.