Sunday, January 31, 2010

Dark Secrets of an Austrian Family (1/2)

If I had a nickel for every popular misconception and outright lie that I’ve heard or read about the Holocaust, I’d have a mansion on the Westside. Since there are so many wild claims about the worst genocide in history, I thought I'd write a blog post about them from time to time.  If you haven’t heard of these claims, you probably will eventually. The Holocaust came to an end 65 years ago, but it still casts its dark shadow across western culture today and misinformation will continue for decades to come.

As with all significant historical figures, numerous controversies emerge later that need sorting out by historians and biographers. This problem is no less the case with Hitler (pictured as a baby above), who rivals Jesus of Nazareth, Martin Luther, and Abraham Lincoln as the most written-about historical figures in the West. In fact, just about every facet of his personal life and career has spawned myths and misconceptions. I would like to address one of them here because I hear it so often from those who have never really studied the Nazis or the Holocaust. You might have heard this one: Hitler was a Jew. This misconception about Hitler, made innocently or not, is based upon anomalies, curiosities, and gaps in the historical record, as are most misconceptions and myths. But before I examine this claim, let me briefly address why people say such things.

First, there’s the person who heard that Hitler was Jewish from “somewhere,” some second-hand source. This person might come across this notion on an Internet site, a reference in a magazine article, or at the water cooler at work. But more likely he (and it usually is a he) picked it up by osmosis in the stratosphere. Since this claim goes against the accepted view of Hitler, a mass murderer of Jews, it makes the person making the claim seem educated, in the know, and in possession of a keen, even esoteric, understanding of the world that eludes the common person. One can almost hear the line, said with utter conviction in the eyes and in the voice: “Well, actually, many people don’t know this but Hitler was in fact…” The question we must always entertain, if not ask, about such people, whether they’re claiming that Franklin Roosevelt purposefully allowed the Japanese to bomb Pearl Harbor, or they’re “exposing” the government-led conspiracy to assassinate John F. Kennedy, or they’re pontificating on the meaning of Islam, is this: Have they ever studied the topic? Have they read credible sources of varying viewpoints? Have they cross-checked their sources and, from a sifting of the more probable theories, analyses and hypotheses, put together an informed opinion that is consistent with the evidence and that appreciates the complexity of the issue? Have they ever read the Bible or the Quran? Have they read any book?

While this person’s crimes are ignorance and pride, the second type of claimant has a more nefarious motivation. I believe that antisemitism can lie at the base of this statement about Hitler. That is, they’re saying implicitly that Hitler was Jewish because only a Jew could do such a horrible thing. Leave it to the Jews to murder their own people and then blame it on other races to make them feel guilty. Ascribing this sentiment to these disseminators of the Hitler-was-Jewish myth might seem a bit harsh, but I think it could be a motivation, even if the person is not fully conscious of it.

The source of the controversy over Hitler’s alleged Jewish ancestry stems from a curious omission in 1837 and a confession made just after the war. The question essentially is about Hitler’s paternal grandfather. The baptismal record for Hitler’s father, Alois, names the mother, Maria Anna Schicklgruber, but leaves a blank in the space provided for the father. Why?

While awaiting his sentence at Nuremberg where he would ultimately be hanged, the Nazi Hans Frank (pictured) claimed that Hitler commissioned him as his personal lawyer to find any incriminating evidence from his past that could be used against the future dictator. According to Frank’s inquiry, Maria Schicklgruber worked as a cook in the home of a wealthy Jewish family, the Frankenbergers, at the time of Alois’s birth. Also, the senior Frankenberger supported the child financially on behalf of his 19-year-old son, who was the father. Moreover, when Frank informed Hitler of this embarrassing revelation about his family history, Hitler came up with a bizarre explanation: since his grandmother and grandfather had the child out of wedlock and they could not support the child, they made the wealthy Jew think that he was the father in order to support the child. In the spring of 1938 Hitler had the Austrian hamlet of Döllersheim, where his father was born, wiped off the map. Very little trace of it remains today. Why?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Japanese Hero

During a trip to Japan with my daughter Jessika in the summer of 2009 I resolved to visit an obscure monument that pays tribute to a hero, Chiune Sugihara. It was off the beaten path; we had to take a series of trains from the city of Nagoya and then a bus to the small town of Yaotsu, his birthplace. I’m glad we made the journey, apart from the fact that it made us miss our bus ride to Mt. Fuji. Most Japanese, I suspect, know little about him, judging from the quizzical looks I got. Sugihara was Japanese consul in Lithuania and helped save thousands of lives by painstakingly and hastily writing transit visas against the dictates of his government. It was a simple act fraught with danger and risk. As he and his wife left on the train he was still filling out visas and handing them out through the window. He lived most of his life in relative obscurity. Blacklisted for this act of compassion during the war, Sugihara could not find a bureaucratic position in his home country commensurate with his experience and training. Consequently, he lived and worked in Russia under a pseudonym for many years to support his family. He died in 1986 not long after Israel declared him to be "Righteous among the Nations," the only Japanese person who’s been granted this honor. He only asked that one of his sons receive an education at the University of Jerusalem. One former prime minister of Japan, Noboru Takeshita, once expressed pride that his country had someone like Sugihara during those awful times.

Friday, January 29, 2010

They Control Us

I’m not one of those conspiracy nuts. I don’t believe there are little green men or Leninist operatives lurking in every dark corner or behind every rock. Masons, Illuminati, Rockefellers, Elders of Zion, Commies, the bogeyman—take your pick—populate the minds of the sick, perverted, and paranoid hatemongers. I scoff at rumored plots to take over the world.

Nonetheless, I find the government’s efforts to control us disturbing. I could make this case on the basis of language alone. Why must I flout convention? Can I not disregard or even destroy convention? Is that asking too much? And what if I didn’t want the whole kit and caboodle but merely a part of it? Is that possible? Would they begrudge me that one sliver of caboodle? Do I have to wreak havoc? Or can I inflict it? Why does something have to be highfalutin? What if I’m desirous of small or midrange falutin? Must we go all the way? The demonic government and its evil minions seek our destruction with such propaganda.

I try not to worry about it. Why should I? I’m safely ensconced in my mountain retreat in eastern Montana liberating people from their fears through sophisticated mind-spirit techniques that I developed years ago. By “developed,” I mean the Alien-Goddess once breathed these scientific principles into me, giving me extraordinary prophetic powers until universal restoration occurs with our reptilian-like brothers and sisters hundreds of billions of miles away from here. My disciples call me Supreme Father and together with my assistants we practice “enlightenment therapy.” The idea is to keep the feeble-minded in isolation chambers and help them withstand the onslaught of unhealthy influences. They have the privilege of hearing my voice 24 hours a day on an intercom, but that’s only to soften them up for “freedom of thought” exercises later. I carefully monitor the situation and protect them from what I call the Oppression Industrial Complex, that is, the barbaric world outside our walled compound.

We must counter falsity in all its forms. For instance, Jihadists believe that 72 virgins await the martyr in paradise. Rubbish. First of all, the sex is pure and sterile, without emotions that get in the way, and it’s a spiritual experience, not carnal. Group sex is only one means to express the godhead, though we practice it exclusively. It’s not about genitalia and physical contact, though we avail ourselves of these things, and quite often. A few wayward apostates have told reporters that we’re a “sex cult.” Only Satan’s children could spew such vile filth. We do nothing illegal. Just ask my third and fifth goddess-mates Tabitha and Zeena, who are not 12 and 15 respectively, but actually 44 and 49 in Purity Palace years. So they’re actually older than me! Currently we’re trying to convince these liars to return to the fold and all will be forgiven. As part of the reinitiation ritual, we will gather around them in a circle, hurl abuse at them, and subsequently take them out beyond the guard towers of our sanctuary for castration therapy. We do not perform this ceremony in malice or with anger in our hearts; rather, like my predecessors Jesus and Gandhi, we take seriously our responsibility to correct and chastise deceivers.

I don’t place much stock in my associate degree in baking and pastry arts from Western North Dakota Technical College. I had not yet received my spiritual calling and, more importantly, Big Brother was simply using this “education” for His own purposes. Visitors are impressed with my diplomas and plaques from prestigious schools of higher education like the Institute for Lightbearing Wholinity, the University of Alienology, and Ascension Polytechnic—all of which, I might add (and I don’t mean to boast), were founded here under my auspices. The motto for each of these institutions is “Think for Yourself.” In fact we have emblazoned these words on armband patches. Everyone wears them.

We have the pleasure of sending off our advance party via the comet Eleustron to Purity Palace, or what the blinded masses ignorantly call the planet Saturn, a place where authoritarian mind control is non-existent and people can roam freely in nothing but gold lamé gowns. Eventually we’ll transport our entire family there, but I myself will hold the fort indefinitely and continue the important work here to bring others into the light. Taking the arduous path of self-sacrifice in order to give back to the community, I’ll refrain from drinking from the Salvation Goblet. My beachfront home in Malibu, the chalet in Vale, and alleged Swiss bank accounts mean nothing to me. They are a means to an end. Perhaps you are looking for an escape from the mind-controllers out there? The Alien-Goddess tells me that Purity Palace needs more attractive females, particularly brunettes with firm bodies and sensual skin. We can help you.

In the meantime we like to think of our ranch as a proto-utopian weigh station, a celestial checkpoint where our inspectors place your cares on the scales and lessen your load. Despite our busy day of confiscating cell phones and laptop computers; separating children from their parents; installing cameras throughout the compound; managing our tape ministry; and arranging marriages, we always make time to welcome visitors.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot!

It seems like I’m always saying this phrase, in a way. I might be walking down the street and the words slip out. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Or I’m reading the newspaper. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Perhaps I’m negotiating downtown traffic on my way to work. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. What do I mean by this phrase? Well, it’s a quick list of my favorite hobbies. I just like to say it a lot, I guess, especially when someone comes up to me and asks, “What's your deal, man?” I rattle off these words to pique their interest, and then I proceed to explain.

Whiskey is straightforward. While I have no palate whatsoever for beer and consider wine-tasting too snooty for a simple guy like me (even though I had ample opportunities to enjoy both beverages when I lived in Bavaria for almost two years and near Sonoma, California likewise for two years), I find hard liquor, and above all Jack Daniel’s or Maker’s Mark, to be a soothing elixir after, say, a hectic week. I should point out that I drink it strictly for medicinal purposes, creative release, mental sustenance, spiritual rejuvenation, medical assistance, emotional catharsis, wit enhancement, sorrow drowning, and mood relaxation—the last reason being a catchall phrase to include any situation or circumstance. I also limit my consumption to the weekend, apart from those weekdays and weekday evenings when I want to make a preemptive strike before the weekend or as a follow-up treat for having gotten through the weekend. In the days of yore I used to drink whiskey with a medium bucket of extra crispy Kentucky Fried Chicken. It became a ritual every Friday night after broom hockey with my buddies. Once I became more health conscious thirty pounds later, however, I cut out the KFC; nowadays I just drink it without the meal. Whiskey with a Coke keeps me youthful and makes me fun to be around.  Just ask my wife, who's usually handing me a highball glass of that delicious honey-colored panacea as I walk through the door.  By the way, I had the words of St. Paul to Timothy in the original Koine Greek inscribed on my “medicine cabinet” in the dining room: Use a little wine for your stomach...

By Tango I mean my dancing skills, and maybe even the “dance of life” more generally, not so much the specific dance called the tango. I actually fell in love with my wife at a Sadie Hawkins dance. We were both seventeen. She asked me to go with her because I was incredibly shy, shyer than Michael Jackson when he’s not on stage or Norman Bates when he’s not knifing someone. At the time our high school gym was being renovated, so the administration rented an abandoned Kmart not far from a toxic waste dump and set up a makeshift dancehall. Though the foul odors throughout the building and parking lot made us unbelievably nauseous, nothing could stop the blossoming of young love. Admittedly, when she took my hand and invited me out on the floor, I was hesitant, only in part because I wasn’t a huge Spandau Ballet fan. In truth, I had danced only one time previously: when as a kid I had to urinate but neither opportunity nor receptacle presented itself. I would “dance” this weird jig, which involved holding my schnarzle and sort of running in place with a frantic look on my face. Come to think of it, this situation arose more than once. Be that as it may, I couldn’t dance worth beans.  That all changed when I went to dancing college and picked  up an MA in dancography.  My thesis was on dirty dancing with half the chapters alone devoted to grinding.

Finally Foxtrot refers metaphorically to my lifelong passion for hunting. This is a strange activity for a vegetarian (in the post-KFC period of my life), I suppose. I don't eat venison or beef.  The buck, moose, and drake need not fear me.  When I'm in the woods I'm usually in a drunken stupor and dancing in just my birthday suit, not wielding a gun or perched on a tree stand.  No. The chipmunk and raccoon are my friends.  I hunt exclusively blue falcons because you can easily find them. In fact, they’re really the opposite of an endangered species: they’re an augmented species, if you will. Because of overpopulation, it’s okay and advisable to take them out. Usually a good smack will do the trick.  And you don't have to go out into the Great Outdoors, though you can find many of them on a canoe trip, for instance.  Other areas they frequent include the workplace during layoffs, the military during a work detail, or any place where a patron leaves a gratuity. 

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot! Whiskey Tango Foxtrot!  There you have it. Chances are, if you approach me, I’ll have these words on my lips....in a way.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Moments


Here’s what I like… I like a well-placed china crash or splash cymbal in a piece of music. I like meeting my wife in a coffee shop and talking about life for a few before we go back to work. I like driving alone on a desert highway at twilight and seeing a reddish sky. I like encouraging young soldiers and making them laugh on a drill weekend. I like coming across a well-crafted or profound phrase, sentence, or passage in a novel and reading it over and over. I like coming out of the gym after a good workout and refreshing shower. I like sitting in a park or walking through a meadow during autumn and gazing at maple trees. I like my cat plopping down on my chest in the morning when I’m still in bed.  I like sitting with my wife in an outdoors Jacuzzi in a hotel courtyard somewhere  in Arizona and letting the sun, whirling hot water, and tequila do their thing.

I like watching a movie at the theater with my kids and sharing the popcorn or sneaking in candy for them. I like standing in front of a classroom eliciting analysis in one moment and exercising my wit in the next. I like canoeing in a pristine lake with virtually no one around except close friends and an unsurpassed landscape of rock facings and pines. I like hitting the sack after a busy or strenuous day. I like sitting in a Mexican restaurant anticipating a nice plate of enchiladas. I like conversing with someone of a different culture or ethnicity. I like situating current events into a historical framework. I like lit candles on a winter night. I like staring at a campfire and getting lost in reverie. I like to admire the beauty and intelligence of a German shepherd.  I like laughing with my wife and daughters.

These are the moments I like best. Some are few and far between, others ready at hand. Sometimes they catch me unawares, at other times I seek them out. While my melancholy temperament prevents me from seeing this life as anything but a vale of tears, replete with the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” when I die I’ll be thankful for these moments.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Stanford Prison Experiment

In the famous Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo simulated a prison environment in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford University. Twenty-one male students, picked on the basis of emotional maturity and physical health, participated in the research experiment. Zimbardo and his colleagues randomly divided them into prisoners and guards. To give a sense of reality, police officers arrested the “prisoners” in their homes and brought them in cuffs to the mock prison. After an eight-hour shift the student-guards could go home; but the student-prisoners, stripped to a gown and issued a number, remained in cells 24/7. The researchers took precautions to establish some ground rules. For example, the guards could punishment or reward the prisoner as they saw fit, but they could not inflict any physical harm.

What were the results of this study? Though he had planned for two weeks, Zimbardo called off the experiment after only six days. The guards began to demoralize and abuse the prisoners. He identified three types of guards: those who acted like tyrants, those who behaved like moderately tough correctional officers, and those who were somewhat friendly and granted favors (though they never opposed the other guards). The prisoners tried unsuccessfully to revolt and experienced (or exaggerated) emotional stress. For their part, the guards, sporting sunglasses and wielding nightclubs, resorted to solitary confinement for some and withholding bathroom privileges for others. Like most laboratory experiments, the SPE does not sufficiently approximate reality. Nonetheless, the researchers demonstrated that guards and prisoners can switch off their individual identities and succumb to a different set of norms that escalate into brutality and sadism. More recently Zimbardo served as an expert consultant in the investigation over the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in which a renegade group of U.S. Army reservists abused and humiliated Iraqi prisoners.

Sources:
(1) Neil Kressel, Mass Hate: The Global Rise of Genocide and Terror (2002)
(2) James Waller, Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide  ( 2002)
(3) Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (2008)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Man Picking Nose

The other day I saw a man who was ostensibly caressing his moustache with his fingers but in reality was clandestinely transferring what in colloquial terms is called a “booger”—a dried or partially dried selection of mucus, for you science buffs—directly from his nostrils into what the French call la bouche, that is to say, the mouth. The implications one can draw from this action is that the man was intending to masticate, if not digest, the said booger, perhaps under the false impression that it would serve as some kind of vitamin. But you aforementioned scientists know that there is no empirical data to back this up. The thought that humanity is capable of such loathsome habits is a bitter pill to swallow, or booger, as the case may be. One might think that this story is a product of my sick imaginings, but it’S NOT.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Cat Report

I would like to introduce readers to my cats: Peter, Louis, and Marty.  I'll no doubt make reference to them from time to time, as they've provided me with many insights about human nature.  Yeah, that's right.  Sometimes you got to observe another species in order to get a grip on your own, even if you risk ascribing human attributes to animals. I'm just throwing out the latter part of that sentence to appear thoughtful.  Whatever.  What?  Humans aren't lazy, selfish, conniving, and sadistic?  Okay, enough with these observations.  I'll come back to them in due time.

First of all, I'm not crazy about their names, but, as it turned out, the family acquired each of these cats when I happened to be away on military duty or otherwise on the road.  These cats ruin a tradition I had established years ago.  I would name a cat after a 16th-century Protestant reformer.  Luther, Ulrich, Caspar and Oeko have given us plenty of joy and love in the last couple of decades.  Regardless of the name, these cats have been great additions to our household.

Peter, the black and white cat pictured above, is perhaps the best cat we've ever had.  Trying to make a bad situation better, I've imagined his rather prosaic name to be short for Peter Martyr Vermigli, an Italian Reformer whose theological work helped lay the foundations of the Reformed tradition.  Nowadays our relationship is such that I bite the back of his head and neck like a mother would do for her kitten.  I'm hesitant to mention this gesture of affection in light of my previous blog entry, but I assure you that it's strictly platonic. I'd even go so far as to say that he's incredibly handsome, in my opinion.  Again, I'm not attracted to him sexually; rather, I'm perfectly comfortable in my manhood to be able to say such a thing so brazenly.

Peter likes yogurt.  I would think most cats do, but he's the only feline in our house to gobble it up like a MoFo.  He exhibits some canine-like features. For instance, he sleeps at the foot of our bed.  I'm not sure he's one of the smartest cats you'd come across and he possesses a rather melancholy disposition.  Moreover, he doesn't get along with most cats.  Last year it got really bad.  For whatever reason, he constantly picked on Xerxes, an orange tabby we had until his untimely death after being hit by a car last summer.  Despite these blemishes on his moral character, Peter is my favorite.

Louis, our new orange tabby, is arguably the most attractive cat we've ever had.  He's the one getting his ear licked by Marty.  I could probably spend minutes upon minutes just watching him sleep or acting up on the cat tree in the living room.  I had thought Peter would hate him just as much as he hated Xerxes, but that doesn't seem to be the case.  Perhaps the difference is that Xerxes, like Peter, didn't have claws whereas Louie does.  While we humans consider Peter to be the elder statesman of our household cats, we tend to forget the law of the jungle that really determines who's the boss.  I bet Darwin wrote something like the cat with claws controls the gene pool in that big fat book of his.

And then there's Marty, who, I admit, is named after Martin Luther, at least in my mind.  He looks nothing like our first cat, Luther, who, until Peter came along, was always the first feline in my heart of heart.  Marty's only saving grace is his penchant to purr heavily on very little stimulus.  He has beady eyes and kind of looks like a weasel in the face.  The kids describe him more as a rabbit in appearance, but I say weasel.  He's also the most skittish and hardly ever goes outside.  He's an asshole sometimes.

This morning when we woke up it was like Lion Country Safari in our bed.  I caught part of the shenanigans in the photo to the right, but I don't know if you can make it out.  Everything was fine until Marty came along and started to pester Peter, turning an erstwhile snuggle-fest into a ruckus.  Their frantic movements shook me out of a deep sleep, which kind of sucked because I was dreaming that I lived back in the 14th century.  I had a crossbow and I was wearing a codpiece.  But I digress.  I tossed a blanket over the cats and that seemed to defuse the situation.

You might be wondering what became of our previous cats. (And I'd also add here Ursula, Augustine and Xerxes whose names are historical but not a part of the Reformation motif.) In most cases, we suspect, a car hit them or a predator got'em. We've learned our lesson over the years; now we don't let them go outside at night. Nocturnal creatures that they are, they'll scratch and moan to go out, but no dice. I think there's a metaphor for life somewhere here. It's like parents looking after the welfare of their children, though the latter only see cruelty. Likewise, God deprives us of those material things for which we so ardently yearn for our own good and yet all we see is a "cosmic sadist." We don't see the bigger picture; we only want our desires fulfilled and our appetites satiated.  My friend John has picked up a number of deep truths like these just by observing his yellow lab. He's better at the "metaphor for life" thing than I am.

I think I'd identify myself most with a cat. A few years ago we as a family figured out who would be what kind of animal.  My wife, by her own choosing, would be a cow.  One of my daughters would be a bird, another a turtle, and the third a dog.  There was no doubt that I'd be a cat.  I like to just lie around and give people that judgmental look.  Unlike dogs, cats do not heed the call of a master--unless it's mealtime.  They're pretty much solitary creatures that march to their own drum.  That's me, for good or ill.  I wouldn't say they're anti-social, but they certainly are moody.  Me again, well, plus I'm anti-social.  And they're not immune from the natural formation of hierarchies.  Currently Peter and Louis have been jockeying for position on the top platform of the cat tree.  Notwithstanding these shortcomings, cats are fun to have around.  Besides, they're all I got for male bonding these days.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Rumors about my Uncle Willard and a Black Cow named Cindy


I don’t like bestiality—humans having sexual relations with animals. What I mean is that I don’t appreciate it as a conversation topic, not that I don’t personally engage in the act. The latter goes without saying. I should qualify this statement a bit. I actually don’t mind the subject of bestiality coming up in social discourse if it’s in jest. For example, if you were to say something like “The nice thing about my cats is that after the loving’s done, they don’t call their girlfriends about it” or “I like chimpanzees in the way you’re not supposed to like chimpanzees,” I wouldn’t get all over you, as if you’ve violated some social taboo. I realize you’re saying these things tongue-in-cheek. I know humor when I hear it, as do most people with any kind of wit. They can tell from the context, or maybe by the outlandishness, that you’re making a joke.

Last week I told friends at Chuck’s retirement party that—and this is the setup—because the coming winter is going to be an especially cold one, I’m gearing up for a lot of three-dog nights. Then the punch line would follow: I just hope our house isn’t full of half-human puppies come springtime! No-one except me really laughed, aloud anyway, but I think they liked my humor; they’re probably using this joke themselves, which would explain why they didn’t even crack a smile when I told it: they didn’t want to look like they enjoyed it too much because they were already planning on stealing it. I can’t blame them, and I don’t mind if they don’t credit me for it. It’s some of my best material and if I ever decided to go into standup comedy I’d save it for last. Bestiality, after all, should be a subject of ridicule. We should laugh about such disgusting things and not let them bother us.

The problem is my uncle Willard. He visits the old homestead, my grandparents’ farm, on the weekends. Rumor has it that he has a fondness for a particular black cow named Cindy, and by fondness I mean sexual attraction, be it love or lust. This is anything but funny, it’s repulsive, and when someone tells a bestiality joke, I’m partly laughing, but I’m also thinking about my uncle Willard. My brother-in-law has speculated that the name of the cow, my grandmother’s choice, is at least partially responsible for enticing my uncle to do, or allegedly do, things he would never do otherwise. He thinks the name Cindy is too sexy for a cow. I tend to agree. Maybe it connotes a starlet or exotic dancer in my uncle’s mind. I don’t know for sure. This might not be only about Cindy, though. Uncle Willard’s restless heart had been wandering for years, I suspect.

My dad and his friend Jerry both have an interesting hypothesis: when Uncle Willard was a kid he used to go cow-tipping, but he didn’t quite understand what the term meant. (Jerry goes a bit further in his insistence that my uncle did not go all the way with Cindy. I don’t know enough about the subject to understand what he means by that. What irritates me is that Jerry doesn’t really know, but he’s trying to protect my uncle. That’s noble to a certain extent, but it’s unhelpful when trying to ascertain the truth. Jerry got mad when I asked him, “What? Were you hiding somewhere and watching them?”) Another idea, now referred to as the incremental theory by those of us concerned, is that someone dared my uncle to do the deed with a cow and it became a habitual act over time. That is to say, it might have started with one cow “innocently” enough, but as he became a teenager his lustful attraction escalated and, gradually, he engaged in more liaisons with a greater number of cattle and with increased frequency. My daughter once added—and I thought this was particularly clever—he was continually seeking greener pastures. In this thesis, Cindy is only the latest conquest, albeit perhaps a more long-term relationship in my uncle’s sickening long line of reluctant (or indifferent?) four-legged partners.

All I know is that my uncle seemed so happy when we saw him last year at the family Christmas party. My wife made the comment that Willard looked like a million bucks in his snakeskin boots and Christmassy turtleneck sweater. I thought Uncle Willard, having lost twenty to thirty pounds, bore a faint resemblance to the actor Rory Calhoun in his latter years. He appeared to have overcome his earlier bouts with depression and addiction to painkillers. Although my uncle was obviously no younger than he had been the previous couple of years, he had lost his haggard appearance. The family had worried about him after Gladys, his second wife, finally succumbed to a congenital heart defect almost three Julys ago now. Did she ever know about his bovine trysts? What about Betty, his first wife, for that matter? Betty was actually half Cherokee and so might have been more attuned to the dictates of nature. Perhaps a better question, one that looks to the future, is whether Cindy has somehow turned him around. I guess I can’t begrudge him finding happiness. I choose to see the positive. For instance, if Uncle Willard had gotten involved with a bull instead of a cow, or with Sam, our 12-year-old Old English Sheepdog, the family would have taken the news with even greater hardship. (But you can be damn sure that, unlike Cindy, Sam would not tolerate my uncle’s advances!)

I suppose I’ve violated the “need to know” rule here, but I brought up my uncle to make a point. If you’re referring to bestiality to be funny, I’ll probably laugh my pants off. But if you’re talking about it in a serious way, I’ll inevitably think about my uncle and become uncomfortable. If I get fidgety or become sullen, don’t take it personal.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Shock the Monkey: Stanley Milgram’s Experiment

Imagine some guy zapping the bejesus out of you with an electrode strapped to your wrist. You’re not at the Schick Center getting shock therapy to lose the cancer sticks. You’re not a part of some sadomasochistic cult sitting in a strange basement in nothing but your birthday suit. Imagine further that this guy is electrocuting you whenever you give the wrong answer to his questions. You’re not being asked questions like “Where’s the next attack going to occur?” or “Where’s the bomb?” Instead, he’s asking you to make associations between words. Now, before you imagine yourself tearing off the electrode and lunging for the guy to throttle the life out of him for causing you so much agony, envision yourself in his role. You’re the one punishing some poor sap whenever he doesn’t get the right answer. But there’s a catch: the electric shock is a ruse and you don’t know it. You think that this guy is howling in excruciating pain every time you zap him with ever increasing amounts of voltage, but he’s in fact an actor faking it. Why are you administrating electric shock to this guy? For $4 an hour you agreed to participate as a “teacher” in an experiment on the use of punishment in the learning process and now a researcher is standing by telling you to proceed.

Psychologist Stanley Milgram devised and conducted this experiment at Yale University in the 1960s. It’s not really about the learning process, however. He wanted to know how far people would go in harming another person at the behest of an authority figure. In essence the ruse consisted of three individuals: the experimenter, a learner, and a teacher. The first two were complicit in the game. The “teacher” was unwittingly the subject of the experiment. The experimenter instructed him to read the questions to the “learner,” who was strapped to a chair and hooked up to an electrode in an adjacent room visible to the subject through a glass screen. With each wrong answer, the teacher was to flip one of the thirty switches on the “shock generator.” The shocks ranged from 15 to 450 volts, each with corresponding labels like Slight Shock and Extreme Intensity Shock. The experimenter told the teacher to increase the shock with every wrong answer. Accordingly, the learner—again, an actor—would grimace, howl, be unresponsive, convulse, you name it. Most of the subjects expressed concern along the way, experiencing a great deal of stress at times; nonetheless, the experimenter would tell them dispassionately to continue with the experiment.

So what did these subjects do? Despite their misgivings, the majority of them went all the way to 450 volts. Even Milgram was surprised by this percentage. His experiment also tested degrees of proximity between the teacher and learner as a factor in doling out physical punishment. While the first subjects were rather remote from the guy strapped to the electrode, in a second experiment the teacher could hear the learner’s resistance more clearly. Then, Milgram put the teacher and learner in the same room. Finally, the experiment required the subject to place the hand of the victim on a “shock plate” to receive the shock, thus requiring physical contact. In each successive experiment the number of subjects who zapped the victim with the higher volts became successively less. However, the majority of them still took it to the max, 450 volts. Later Milgram conducted his test on women and found roughly the same results.

So what does all this mean? It means that ordinary people can administer grievous suffering on other human beings when they’re told to do so by an authority figure, in this case a scientific researcher. It helps us explain the involvement of seemingly normal individuals in death squads or concentration camps during the Holocaust, let alone other atrocious events in history. Milgram conceded that his experiment only roughly approximates reality. For instance, the subjects of the experiment felt a bit at ease in complying with a researcher at a university (and Milgram in fact moved the experiment to an office building to take this out of the equation); they probably reasoned that the guy in the white lab coat knows what he’s doing and surely no serious harm would occur. In real life, such comforting thoughts aren’t always present. The perpetrators of genocide or war crimes operate under different conditions. Yet Milgram’s experiment still provides us with an important and sobering insight into the human condition. People will often turn off their own moral sensibility in certain situations and act as an agent of some higher authority.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Ars Moriendi

For those of you who are down in the doldrums and contemplating suicide to garner some posthumous attention and sympathy, I’ll only say—and I can’t emphasize this enough—that you need to think seriously of ways to maximize the intended result. What’s likely going to happen is that your family will move on within a couple of months, let alone any friends and acquaintances you’ve made over the years. You’ll be a blip on the screen. At best you’ll get some two-sentence obituary that doesn’t even specify how you died. If there’s a photo, it will be that geeky picture of you in high school, years before you got hirsute and fat. Besides, the funeral will give you only cold comfort, for I suspect hardly anyone will attend. Perhaps a few will show up to the wake, but if you went the ole shotgun-down-the-throat route, that won’t be pleasant. Sure, I could be insensitive to your emotional state by suggesting that you up the meds, but drugs are so passé and they’re a cop-out anyway. If it’s of any help, here’s my suicide plan to extend the period of grief, regret, and shock.

First of all, keep in mind that you need to create a lot of buzz around you before you even touch that .45 caliber or bottle of pills. Set-up is everything, and so patience is absolutely critical. To bring attention to my suicide, I’ll need to have friends and family members, or at least actors who can pose as friends and family, express on a widely publicized television program their regrets over lost opportunities. This means that I’ll have to get control of the media. For this purpose I will assemble a team of Leninist-type operatives to topple the current government, destroy the old order, and create a one-party utopian community starting at Year Zero. Ultimately, propaganda that entails in no small part a cult of personality campaign involving countless statues and banners of my face will propel me into the seat of power. From this position it will be easier to engineer sympathy for my death that is commensurate with my new status as “Father of His People.”

Inevitably reactionaries, crackpots and other vermin will try to undermine our efforts. They’ll attempt to subvert the sympathy I aim to create for my suicide by claiming it’s a selfish, pitiful act. I hope to demonize these people with the full weight of my propaganda machine. If I play my cards right, my minions will place these “lice” into concentration camps, at least until we’ve constructed death factories in the outskirts. I’ll have the last laugh and full satisfaction once I’ve taken my life, for every subject of the state will be required to recite the following words from their government-issued booklet: “How sad! What a loss to us. If only we had seen the signs and mended our hateful ways!”

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Between the New Left and the New Right: Can Women Trust Men?

In the course of their struggle for women’s suffrage, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wondered whether they could rely upon the men who had at least seemed sympathetic to their cause. This question has probably arisen in the mind of every active feminist who has engaged in the day-to-day hard work of reform and consciousness-raising. What political path should feminist activists in more recent times walk as they pursue their objectives? Within the last forty years, the political culture of America has experienced two movements—from the left and from the right—that solidified developments and political philosophies of the previous century; these movements, in turn, would leave their mark on the polarized political landscape we traverse today in the early 21st century.*

The revived women’s movement would at first embrace the New Left in the 1960s, but this alliance for a number of feminists would not turn out to be a match made in heaven. Feminists could not forget the words of Stokely Carmichael, a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a prominent figure in the Black Power movement who liked to joke that women’s proper position in the movement was “prone.” An expression of the countercultural Yippees—“shake a chick’s tit instead of her hand”—also did not endear these leftist revolutionaries to women activists. A male leader of the New Left dismissed female organizer Shulamith Firestone with the comment: “Move on, little girl; we have more important issues to talk about here than women’s liberation.”

To many women leaders the much-vaunted sexual revolution seemed to be really a male-dominated quest for sexual supremacy. Sexual freedom was a guise for guiltless sex, emotional detachment, experimentation with drugs, and the exploitation of women. By 1968, when protest against the Vietnam War reached a new height and student political protests had turned violent on college campuses across both Europe and the United States, those values of the counterculture that women had embraced and advanced, love and community, had degenerated into promiscuity and self-indulgence. As one observer put it, the free expression of sex gave women “the obligations of an impersonal lust they did not feel but only believed in.” Male sexuality and desire, not deep emotional attachment, characterized the Sexual Revolution. Male leaders of the socialist and Black Power movements were more interested in advancing their respective agendas of toppling Western capitalism and advancing African American males; women, it seemed, were merely pawns to be manipulated and relegated to the background.

Famously, Robin Morgan, in a piece entitled “Goodbye to All That” (1970), gave voice to this disillusionment and announced her own departure from the New Left: “Goodbye, goodbye, forever, counterfeit Left, counter-Left, male-dominated cracked-glass-mirror reflection of the Amerikan nightmare. Women are the real Left.” Women activists begin to ask questions about their movement: Are we treated equally and have senior leadership positions? Are we unwittingly promoting the male attributes of sexual exploitation and violence? Should we continue to work within the male-dominated left or pursue our goals without men altogether? By the early 1970s many feminists begin to see New Left men as strange bedfellows indeed. A decade later, however, they would face perhaps an even more hostile foe: the New Right.

Liberal feminists were achieving some legislative victories in the early 1970s. Then, by the end of the decade, just as feminists thought it was safe to go back into the water, the New Right reared its dorsal fin. A new conservative movement had already begun to emerge in the wake of Senator Barry Goldwater’s unsuccessful run for the presidency in 1964. For feminists, the movement seemed to be a revivified version of the traditional conservative threat—old wine poured into new wineskins; but this time their opponents were tanned and rested. By the late 1970s social conservatives and economic libertarians forged a tenuous alliance. Evangelical Christians, led by political savvy ministers like Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham, began to mobilize Nixon’s “silent majority” in order to peel back the counterculture. For their part, political and economic conservatives lamented the Democratic control over congress and sought to govern the country on the basis of classic conservative principles. The election of conservative Republican Ronald Reagan, former Hollywood actor and two-term governor of California, signified the coalition of these two disparate forces and heralded a new era, the “Reagan Revolution,” that promoted small government, big business, social conservative values, and a strong national defense with mixed results.

The 1980s seemed bleak to women who had been fighting for various women’s issues throughout the previous two decades. The states did not ratify the ERA by the deadline in 1982. Budget cuts in healthcare and welfare led to the so-called “feminization of poverty,” as the government focused its efforts on cutting taxes and crippling the Soviet Union. Some feminist critics interpreted women’s fashions and images of women on TV and film as a reaction to feminist gains in the 1970s. Pornography was on the rise. Women filed more sex discrimination charges than ever before. Reported rapes increased. It seemed as if serial killers and abortion clinic bombers lurked behind every street corner. Conservative talk radio started to dominate the airwaves. Church leaders and Republican senators talked about overturning the Roe v. Wade decision. Reagan’s overwhelming victory against Walter Mondale and his female running mate appeared to vindicate the conservative revolution and at the same time reveal, in the eyes of establishment feminists, misogynist sentiment throughout the country. Seven years later, in the televised Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas controversy, it seemed that men could harass women with impunity and be rewarded with high government positions.

NOW’s Statement of Purpose advances the idea of creating a new image of woman by working with men “in an active, self-respecting partnership.” No doubt individuals can find loving and mutually respectful partnerships with members of the opposite sex. But can women achieve their lofty goal of full equal rights in the broader framework of the public sphere by forming a partnership with men who express sympathy for the cause—the Frederick Douglasses and William Lloyd Garrisons of today? At any rate, while feminist leaders currently walk hand in hand with the Democratic party, they know to look both ways before they cross the street.

* This directional reference to political affiliation comes originally from the French Revolution. In the National Assembly, the Girondins, or moderate republicans, literally sat on the left side, while the Jacobins, radical republicans, sat on the right side.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Jessika

On Saturday I went to my daughter's basketball game.  She's a natural-born athlete.  She's even a better swimmer than basketball player and the swim team coach moved her up to varsity.  She had acquired a number of ribbons and awards before starting high school.  Now she already has a letterman jacket after her first semester of 9th grade!  I'm quite proud of her.  Anyway, her team won the game this past Saturday, but she was disappointed with her own performance.  I like the fact that she's aggressive when boldness is indeed called for.  She was blocking this big girl--and I do mean heavy--and challenging her with no fear.  I played sports as a kid, mostly soccer and baseball, but Jessi must have inherited agility and an intrepid spirit from her mother's side of the family, because she's really good.  I suppose the only thing I contributed was her height, as she appeared to be the tallest on the team.  By the way, I'm not much of a photographer, but I did take the photo above.

I offered to take Jessi and her friend Lauren to the movie theater later in the evening and I tagged along.  I snuck in some of her favorite treats: sour gummy candy and Reese's peanut butter cups.  She also likes Butterfingers.  Anyway, we watched The Lovely Bones.  The movie was good, but somber, as the plot revolves around the murder of a 14-year-old girl by a lone neighborhood weirdo.  Afterwards in the car I told the girls that the novelist and filmmaker could have easily based the evil character on real life.  For instance, the white middle-aged loner built an underground bunker and after he killed the hapless teen he placed the body in a safe in his basement.  He also kept the girl's bracelet as a souvenir and would fondle it in his fingers from time to time.  Last year, when Jessi and I saw the Liam Neeson movie Taken about a couple of girls being abducted in Paris and sold on the sex slave market, I likewise warned her that such things really happen.  In fact I had wanted her to see the movie so that she would at least be mindful of the possible dangers out there before she someday gallivants across Europe with friends.  As I was telling Jessi and Lauren about similarities of the character in The Lovely Bones to various serial killers whom I've studied, it occurred to me that they might think I'm a weirdo--hopefully not the sadist killer type of weirdo but a weirdo nonetheless.  In retrospect I thought this might be freaky telling them what I know.  But, again, I wanted to warn them of the dangers that lurk beyond our doorstep.

On Sunday I took Jessi out to practice driving.  She turned 15 in November and will be starting driver's training in a few months.  I had already started her out on driving in the late fall but that was before the snow and ice hit.  I have to say that she's doing quite well.  She's practicing on my wife's car because it has automatic transmission.  Eventually she'll graduate to stick shift, but she's gotta get the basics first.

The last couple of times we went out I had her drive around the well-landscaped and spacious grounds of a Catholic pastoral center that's perched atop a hill overlooking the west part of town.  It's absolutely beautiful and serene, and it's also eerily vacated.  We've both commented that it would make a great set for a horror movie, especially one of those old-school satanic movies about demonic possession or whatnot.  The weird bronze statue of an Eastern Orthodox-looking Jesus with outstretched hands that greets you when you enter the long driveway adds to the freakiness.  I like to pretend that strange, ghastly faces are peering out of the windows of the brick buildings as Jessi drives by.  I can totally see a bewitched nanny on the roof of what I take to be a parsonage with a noose around her neck, ready to jump, and crying out, "Check this out, Damien.  This is for you, Damien."

There I go again.  I gotta learn to bridle my imagination when it comes to horror because Jessi can easily get nightmares.  I should know better.  It's difficult for me not to think about such things, however; it's congenital, I think, because I've been fascinated with monsters and evil since I was a child.  But I think Jessi has accepted my perverse fascination with the perverse, just as my eldest daughter, Erika, has.

Jessi and I went to Japan last August.  I've discussed this trip before, and I'll perhaps talk about other aspects of it later; but I wanted to mention something about Jessi.  Before the trip I was a bit worried that she wouldn't have a good time, that things would go awry, and that she would complain about walking around so much or have difficulty keeping up (I have a wide gait).  I found all of these worries to be groundless.  It was a great time, and I was impressed with Jessi's attitude throughout.  Also, she not only kept pace with me (and never complained about walking so much) but sometimes I even had trouble keeping up with her!  Sure, we could have taken the subway more often, and we did indeed use the subway and train system for long distances.  But when I visit a place, especially an exotic land like Japan or Turkey, I want to get a feel for it.  I don't want to see only the tourist attractions and I don't want to whiz by these places.  No.  I want to walk the whole city if possible, looking through alleys and observing regular folk on the street.  I think that Jessi enjoyed this experience too.

Speaking of foreign places, I'll never forget the cute little baby crying in the window when we lived in a house in Bavaria, Germany.  By we, I mean my wife, Jessi, our eldest daughter, Erika, who was four years old at the time, and me.  I was conducting archival research for my dissertation.  I recall one morning--maybe more than one--when I left the house in the morning to catch the train into the city.  Jessi, only six or seven months old, was looking out the window at me from the dining room window.  She was crying up a storm (not literally).  What a cutie she was, a full crop of dark brown hair and the biggest brown eyes you've ever seen.  Memories like these, I'm almost certain, add time to my otherwise lugubrious life.

My plan is to take Jessi (who exhibits a particular wanderlust among my children) to every continent before, say, she turns 21.  I'm not sure if her time in Germany counts for Europe.  Since I'm a wealthy man (not), I hope to visit South Africa within the next three years.  As you can gather, I like spending time with my daughter.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Thin Veneer of Civilization

I go to McDonald’s. I’m sitting there eating a breakfast burrito watching CNN, minding my own business. Some guy saunters up and sits fairly close to me, his eyes initially on the TV, mumbling about this or that. I can tell he wants to strike up a conversation. He’s almost in my line of sight. With peripheral vision I observe him trying to make direct eye contact. I could look away from the screen, gaze out the window in the opposite direction, and ignore him, but I refuse to let this stranger alter my actions and ruin my bliss. Try as I might, though, it’s difficult to carry on as if he weren’t there, whoever this moronic primate is. I feign even greater interest in the news in a vain attempt to ward him off. Will he have the audacity to disturb my pensive mood?

The anchorwoman is reporting on a speech the president will address to American school children later in the day, but only half of my brain is paying attention. I’m reading the streaming text at the bottom of the screen. It feeds out one-sentence reports on U.S. casualties in Iraq—four soldiers killed by a bomb in Baghdad—and one death in Afghanistan. I wistfully, and somberly, think about these lives as a mere blip on the TV screen and reflect back on my deployment in Afghanistan when I would watch the news with fellow soldiers and ex-military contractors, disheartened at what passed for breaking stories back in the States—like the earth-shattering death of bimbo B-actress Anna Nicole Smith, for example—and contrasting the glitzy newscasters and sound bites with our own lives: a vexing routine of dodging rockets and mortars, reading reports of casualties downrange, and attending impromptu Fallen Comrade ceremonies in the middle of the night. Now I’m back on this side of the world, I ruminate, watching CNN and imagining the seemingly forsaken and forlorn soldiers, crimson heroes who sacrificed limbs and lives in a foreign land. It’s surreal.

“So, anything interesting in the news?” asks the rotund 50-year-old body-space trespasser. Pensive mood disturbed: mission accomplished. I glance at him only enough to see his fatuous grin. Without being overtly rude, I use body language and tone to suggest I don’t want to engage in any conversation whatsoever, that he’s intruding upon the fortress of solitude, that my purpose in being here is decidedly not to speak on familiar terms with wayward strangers. “I don’t know,” I reply curtly. I realize my mistake shortly thereafter, the mistake of not being more forceful and rude at the outset. Later I will think of Woodrow Wilson who didn’t heed General Pershing’s advice to march into Berlin and let the Germans know beyond a doubt who lost World War I. Unlike our 28th president, I discovered the fruits of my mistake in my lifetime, namely about 45 seconds later. But at the time, with just this brief exchange of words, I felt more like Dr. Doolittle, what with this guy’s bovine acuity, asinine expression, and simian mannerisms.

“Skippy” walks away and I think this is done. Now, burrito consumed, I can make love to my Sausage Biscuit w/ Egg and continue pondering the tragedy of war. But he returns, coffee cup refilled, and has the temerity to take up his seat again. He’s talking at the screen so that others in the restaurant—me above all, I come to realize—can hear him. He’s spouting off something about education. My muscles tighten up and I think homicidal thoughts. “So do you have children?” he dares so ask. In situations like this I use a technique that keeps me from understandably ripping out his testicles and stuffing them into his erstwhile yapping mouth, which by the way is simply nature’s way of saying you’ve overstepped your bounds. I count to three slowly in my mind and breathe deeply, thus allowing a cooling off period and an opportunity to formulate words instead of responding with violence. “No, but I do have a Ka-Bar combat knife in the trunk of my car and would love to plunge it into your neck. I would also request that you not ask me, someone whom you do not know, personal questions. In sum, I would do these two things, but not necessarily in that order.” I want to break into an evil smile, but I don’t, for I fear he would misinterpret the gesture and not take the threat seriously.

At that moment I think about the thin veneer of civilization and I’ve been mulling it over ever since. This societal façade can dissipate in an instant like fog meeting a sunny dawn. How similar we are to the beastly world! The Darwinians had it right. What kind of deranged chimp can’t pick up on simple body and verbal signals and risk the blade of chastisement for his audacity? He could not discern even the most basic of clues, as if his Neanderthal brain was navigating somewhere between the Scylla of Shit and Charybdis of Shinola. My stream of consciousness led me to James Huberty, a 42-year-old security guard in San Ysidro, California deciding he’ll walk down the street to the local McDonald’s armed to the teeth and take out forty people. Don’t misunderstand me: Huberty is rotting in hell, or, for you atheists, he’s rotting in the memories of the living from generation to generation. If you were to fill an entire McDonald’s with these pudgy middle-aged Skippies, I would not be tempted to take them out. That’s because, warts and all, I’m still a Mensch. This guy, however, Mr. Garrulous, who stormed my tranquility like a Hobbesian invader, a caffeine-intoxicated stalker who must subject others to the tyranny of his self-styled witty remarks about this, that and the other, is no better than the beasts of the field and, to employ Darwin, bears the indelible stamp of his lowly origin. He’s probably a pedophile too for all I know.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Nastiest Tetragram Known to Man

I hate to bring this up.  I really do.  But it's been on my mind and I just can't shake it.  A few evenings ago I was at Starbucks talking to my editor, Janet.  She's a great gal, I want to be clear.  I've always followed her constructive criticism and she knows her stuff.  But barely into the conversation she employs the F word.  Now, true, it fit the context of her story, and in her defense I really don't know how she could have avoided using the profane four-letter term.  She was talking about the effect of one of those jumbo burritos on her boyfriend's bowels.  The thing is,  I just freeze like a manikin when I hear it in a public setting. I'm of course talking about the word fart.

I've even tried to get rid of the phenomenon in my own life.  Over the years I've trained my rectum to forgo the emission of gaseous waste with much discipline.  At first I would starve myself or place duct tape over my poop hole.  For an entire summer I even retired to a monastery and wore a hair thong.  Nowadays I exercise a moderated form of kegeling, only instead of the pelvis, I'm constricting the muscles of my anus.  (I'm thinking of writing a book about the experience.) I've gotten to the point where I can eat just about anything without f--ting, the only exception being food with beans, cheese, fruit, and grains (including chips), or actually anything that contains fiber.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm okay with using bodily terminology.  For example, I always try to rectalfy a situation.  I coined this word and define it as "using the rectum to make the world a better place."  Fart, however, is absolutely beyond the pale.

I'm only mentioning the word here so as not to be misunderstood on what it is I'm condemning.  It repulses me, so much so that I admonish my children when they say it, scold my wife when she does it, and rebuke my dog when he wantonly sniffs it.  Other words I object to, and that are related etymologically, include farting, farted, and farts.  I don't want to see these terms on my blog.  Readers shouldn't be subjected to such puerile filth.  I suppose people think they're being funny or cute when they use these words.

To the contrary, whenever someone uses the F word or its aforementioned derivatives in the course of a conversation, I instantly lose respect for the person, irrespective of the intent.  I mean, even if they're explaining the effect that Cool Ranch Doritos have on their system, say, or if they're describing some "plumbing" issues they have from a medical point of view, I care not.  I once heard a CEO of a major company that shall remain nameless utter these strange words: "Would that my diarrhea had turned to mere farts."  I henceforth viewed him in a negative light.  So when people use the word even in a serious discussion of health-related matters they might as well be employing the term in its most common usage--as potty talk just for shits and giggles.  You see?  I'm okay with the S word.  But if you use the F word around me, I'll look at you askance and walk away.  It's the nastiest tetragram known to man.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Bursting at the Seams

I want to thank readers personally for making this blog such a success.  I never dreamed it would turn out this well after only two weeks.  I've thoroughly enjoyed reading your responses to my posts, and I appreciate the solid support.  When my wife suggested I start a blog as a way to combat depression, I didn't think it would amount to much.  Boy was I wrong!  Most of my readers are either male or female, which is nice.  I guess my blog appeals to a wide range of folk.  I assure you this is me, Der Viator, personally writing to thank you, and not one of my staff members.  Staff?  Yes, I've had to hire a PR team for this blog because your letters and comments have been overwhelming and I can no longer get to them all. 

I'd like to introduce some of my staff members.  They said I could use only their first names and no photos.  So I feel it's okay to give you some details about them, because you won't know whom I'm talking about or where they live.  Kevin works in promotions.  We call him lovingly "Mr. Grey," because, I kid you not, he sports a grey article of clothing every single day.  Sometimes it's a shirt, other days it might be pants or even socks.  When you get the merchandise, like our Der Viator Rocks t-shirt and the Der Viator Blog mug, he's the one sending it in the mail.  Keep up the good work, Kevin!

Dayna runs our HR department here at Der Viator Blog.  I don't know what I'd do without her.  She's a great gal and we all enjoy her sense of humor.  I know she won't like me saying this, but we're all hoping she'll drop her boyfriend, Trace, a geological information systems manager who's more interested in maps and his supposed ex-girlfriend than our wonderful Dayna.  The Hungarians have a word for guys like Trace: asshole (I'm using the English translation here). Sorry, Dayna, but it's true.

Lastly, Ted is the one who screens your comments and now answers your questions.  The irony is so thick I could cut it with a knife.  I used to work for Ted at UPS back in the day.  He was the night manager and I was a loader/sorter.  He's a great guy and an asset to our team.  Oddly enough, we have in common a taste for Jack Daniels and an interest in botany.  We often joke about the time we got wasted at Descanso Gardens.  He's getting married in August to a fine woman from Minneapolis and we're all going to the wedding.  Looking forward to it.

Though Ted usually answers your mail, I'll take a little time here to respond to some perennial questions that have popped up.  The way to pronounce my first name is like the word dare.  My surname is pronounced with a long i, as in Steve Vai.  The stress comes on the first syllable.  Yes, I am in fact married.  Sorry, ladies.  While I'm known to embellish or fictionalize aspects of my life, the part about being married and having three children is true.  Will I include more scatological pieces in future blog entries?  Yes, I'll try not to disappoint you.  But what you need to realize is that I have many readers with diverse tastes.  Hopefully everyone can find something to his or her liking in this blog.

I'll be appearing in May at the Border's Bookstore in West Langbein.  So come and have a blast.  I'll be speaking about my latest work of fiction, a short story entitled "Family Portrait."  Bring the kids too, because we'll have an inflatable bounce house and plenty of ice cream.  I'll be signing autographs, even though I know you guys go immediately to Craig's List and EBay with them!  Once again, my heartfelt thanks goes out to the readers.  Until next time, keep living the dream!

Der Viator

Friday, January 15, 2010

A Californian Texan

My dad turns 82 today.  Born in Bakersfield in 1928, he was raised thereafter in the farmlands of West Texas, only to return to Southern California with his wife and two young daughters a few decades later.  As a child during the Depression and within the southern reach of the Dust Bowl, his youth reads like a  John Steinbeck novel.  Like many of his generation, he admired President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the federal government's efforts to help the farmer.  Taking more after his mother, a schoolteacher, than his father, a yeoman, my dad devoted his adult life to secondary education.  After graduating from Texas Tech in Lubbock he became a high school teacher at the ripe old age of twenty-one.  As an educator and Democrat in a conservative area at the height of the McCarthy era, he came under suspicion as a Commie.  He's regaled me with stories from those bygone days, and his mischievous grin and wistful expression always betray a retrospective sense of humor and a fond remembrance.

80, by the way, is the new 60.  Just ask Pope Benedict XVI, George Herbert Walker Bush, or Robert Mugabe.  My dad is healthy of mind and body. His social nature seems indefatigable, and his smile infectious.  If you ever visit Santa Clarita, you might see him chatting someone's ears off in a coffee shop, talking shop with retired teachers at the Unitarian Universalist church potluck, standing outside Walmart with his Democratic friends in support of some candidate, auditing new elementary school teachers for Pepperdine University, or writing a letter to the editor about protecting the environment.  Due to the accident of birth, I didn't imbibe his political outlook and I'm not quite the political animal he is; nonetheless, I attribute my interest in politics in general to him.  To be frank, he's always demonstrated a concern for today's social and racial issues that does not particularly distinguish others of his generation.

I have many fond memories of doing stuff with my dad.  I recall being in Y-Indian Guides back in the Seventies when I was a wee little lad and going to places like Placerita Canyon and Big Bear.  When I was about 17 he took me to my first rock concert.  Can you believe it?  An aspiring drummer in my high school years, I wanted to see a drummer named Carmine Appice whose band was playing at Perkins Palace in Pasadena.  I couldn't find anyone who was interested in going or who had a set of wheels.  So my dad drove me down there and we both got exposed to the crazed atmosphere of a rock concert for the first time (and only time for him).  Marijuana was of course in the air and some dude was tripping out big time in the row next to ours.  More recently, my dad and I visited the grave of my eldest sister, Laura, who died from cancer when I was only five.  On the rare occasions that I return to California, I've gone to the site for whatever reason once I entered my thirties.  A couple of years ago my dad ordered a brick with my name, rank, and country of deployment engraved on it and had it set into a plaza square along with other veterans of past wars. My own view is that only those who died in the line of duty or those who serve in combat (as opposed to combat support like me) deserve such recognition.  But I appreciated the gesture nonetheless.

These memories of a stable family upbringing and a father who was always around, I think, enabled me to grow up a relatively normal person.  Moreover, my dad's lifelong commitment to education and his pioneering spirit had sown seeds within me. Like him, I was determined to get an education and leave the safe confines of my home state in pursuit of opportunities elsewhere. 

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Gender Theory (of Cheesecake)

I need your help, and because I have so many readers who love to bake, I thought I'd bring it up now.  Next time you host a dinner party I'd like you to conduct a little experiment and afterwards send me the results.  The working hypothesis that I'm testing is basically this: by a high margin more women than men prefer cheesecake. 

So here's what you do. Invite friends and co-workers over for a shindig. Might I suggest an Italian meal, manicotti and Caesar salad, and don't forget the diet soft drinks.  Surely someone will bring a bottle of red wine.  For you Miss Susie Homemakers out there, freshly baked bruschetta with plenty of garlic and a smidgen of oregano or rosemary would be nice.  You can either prepare the desserts yourself or have guests bring some in potluck fashion. The key thing is to have variety. First, provide non-cheesecake desserts (and not just one) like brownies with white icing or chocolate cake or meringue cookies or whatnot. Second, make sure you have a variety of cheesecake: cherry and chocolate, say.  One of our dinner guests, a dear friend of ours named Evelyn, hadn't touched my wife's special mud pie cheesecake because, as she explained later, chocolate makes her rosacea act up. So her reason for not eating cheesecake was invalid and it threw off the study.

Ladies, it's important that you don't spill the beans until afterwards lest you taint the results. Once everyone has had dessert and you're all sitting around chewing the fat, then you can talk about it if you like. As they say in the military, you can conduct an AAR, or after-action review. I suppose it could provide an interesting conversation topic for about five minutes while you're getting out Pictionary.  Until then quietly observe who eats what, but don't be obvious about it, because they'll think your keeping tabs on how much they eat.   Men and women struggling with their weight, Americans in other words, are already self-conscious enough.  A friend of ours caught me watching her choosing a dessert, and with disastrous results; but I'll discuss what not to do a few paragraphs below.

As you can gather by now, I have administered this non-scientific survey myself.  However, I need more subjects before I can confirm my hypothesis definitively.  Perhaps Der Viator readers could email their own results and we could base my anecdotal evidence on sounder quantitative data.  In addition we could hazard an explanatory theory to account for this gender divide.  Admittedly, I've worked out a few preliminary ideas  already, and I'll share them at the conclusion.

Since some of my readers—and most assuredly not you—are not well versed in etiquette and social protocol, I'd first like to offer some do's and don'ts in carrying out this study.  My dear wife, bless her heart, has obliged my relentless search for truth.  She's been the one making the dinner arrangements and preparing the meals, while I develop various theories upstairs in my office.  I'm hesitant to bring up some of my mistakes in conducting the study, as you might think I'm the most socially inept person you've ever met; but I think it's important to show you some of the pitfalls.  Let me say at the outset that I can be quite charming and personable, the type of person you'd be delighted to have at a party.  My wife won't testify to my gregarious side, but that's only because she has a different definition of social.  (Just because I don't grin like a chimpanzee and gesticulate like a seal doesn't mean I'm aloof.)

Joyce, a mutual friend of ours, noticed me observing her cut a slice of cheesecake and place it carefully on a plate.  A few crumbs from the graham cracker crust flaked off onto the table top.  She picked each one up by meticulously smashing them with her index finger and then licking them.  Fearing she figured out that I was conducting an experiment on gender-based cheesecake consumption, I tried to gloss things over, and, boy, did I say the wrong thing.  “My, Joyce, you have quite an appetite. I think that’s great.” I blurted out these words without considering their effect.  Still not thinking, and self-admittedly obtuse when it comes to the female of our species, I called to my wife. “Honey? Get out the reserve plate from the frig.” I realized instantly that I had made the situation worse.  The other guests stared into their plates trying to come up with a new conversation topic.  The rosacea on Evelyn's face, by the way, turned extra red, and she hadn't touched the chocolate cheesecake nor the M&M's I offered her earlier.

“Oh, I’m sorry," came Joyce's belated response. "I guess I am gobbling this thing down, aren’t I?” Another awkward pause ensued for five seconds and I swear it seemed like five minutes. “They’re so good."  She laughed nervously and manufactured a fake smile for appearances' sake. "I should start back on my diet, you’re right.”  No-one could miss the indignant tone in her voice. If you make a faux pas like I certainly did, quickly recover with a compliment. “Your blouse is cute, by the way."  I mentioned the only women's store I know (because it's located next to Barnes & Noble), thinking I needed a bit more detail for chit-chat.  "Did you get that at Lane Bryant?”  During pillow talk time with my wife later in the night, I learned I had made yet another gaffe.

Here’s the way it's supposed to happen. You’re all sitting around the table. Enough time has elapsed since the meal. You talk in the most amiable, polite voice you can muster: “Bill? Joyce? Karen? Evelyn?  Would you care for some dessert?” “Why, yes, I would,” Joyce responds. “Thank you, sweetheart, for asking.” The sweetheart reference repulses you, but you bite the bullet and press on. Your wife lays out the goodies, and you supply the plates and forks.  Simply thus.  Don't get out a notebook; don't start gawking at their plates.  Merely make a mental note, and utilize peripheral vision.

So why should we trouble ourselves with such an experiment?  That's a good question.  I suppose it satisifies my curiosity.  I suspect a physiological or cultural explanation for the preponderance of women who choose the cheesecake.  And I should make it clear that if you're a guy and you choose cheesecake over other dessert options, I don't intend to impugn your masculinity.  There's always been at least one guy who'll nibble on it.  It's not %100.  So consider yourself part of the ten percent club on cheesecake.

I have toyed with a few theories to account for these test results. Perhaps it has something to do with the process of making cheesecake, or cheese at any rate.  After all, enzyme and estrogen both start with the letter E.  This is possibly a coincidence but highly doubtful.  Another theory I'm developing is called the Motherly Instinct theory.  Women, according to this theory, like cheesecake because this particular dessert, arguably, is a bit more dairy heavy, and women, as lactating nurturers, identify with it.  Perhaps someday, somehow, the results of this study will lead to the cure for cancer, breast cancer especially, given the whole cheesecake-breast connection I've established.  I'm just throwing that out.  You never know.  Now, some uneducated people would suggest these theories are lame, but you, faithful Der Viator readers, appreciate the scientific spirit of inquiry as much as I do.  Remember what they said about Copernicus.