My Dream of Hell (or at least Purgatory)

I’m in a state of the art movie theater. The screen is three stories high. The patrons sit in swivel chairs, like Captain Kirk’s, on several broad tiers, each rising above the one in front. Confusingly for me, every chair has a little screen mounted on its right arm, for watching the movie or (presumably) something else.

Also, why should it be a swivel chair? Does it mean that I’m supposed to face a different direction?

I pivot about 120⁰ to the left, away from the big screen, until I am facing the aisle and the door in the left rear corner. Now I can see if my friends are coming. While I wait for them, I can also watch the movie on the little arm-mounted screen.

The Touching History of the USS Monitor

During a 2004 visit to Virginia to see my grandma, I dropped in at the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News and stumbled onto the USS Monitor turret in a desalinating pool in the back. I knew the turret had been raised two years earlier but didn’t know where it was.

It was very odd to behold the storied artifact that I’d seen countless times since childhood in paintings or primitive photographs. In such contexts, it was History. Now, it was a nondescript hunk of metal in an oversize kiddie pool in a junkyard. The weather was gray and misty, and there was no one around. I had the Monitor all to myself, and I tried to commune with it, to sense the History emanating from it, as it always did in books.

However, I felt nothing. With no long-dead naval officers posing around it for a long-dead photographer, enshrouded in no oil-painted smoke from its battle with the Merrimack, the Monitor turret was stripped of its ancientness. It wasn’t really History. How could it have been? It was right in front of me, part of the inglorious present tense. I could even take this cheap picture of it.

So of course, I went and did it: After looking around to make sure no one was watching, I reached into the tank and put my fingers on the rusted metal, hoping that the thrill of transgression would approximate the elusive thrill of touching the past. Maybe it did, because it sure felt icky. In fact, after only one second of contact, I became terrified that a skeleton hand would grab me by the wrist and pull me in, and I yanked my hand out of the water as fast as I could.

I shuddered. My teeth chattered. Was that the sensation I’d wanted?

I wiped my hand on my jeans and went in to the gift shop.

A Meditation on Freedom and Equality, Inspired by The Last of the Wine

Though freedom and equality are the warp and woof of American life, some difference of opinion exists as to how to they are related. For example, the argument between the political left and right may be viewed as one of ends versus means, with those on the left believing that equality is the key to freedom and those on the right believing the opposite.

In Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine, a remark made by Lysis suggests another relationship between freedom and equality:

I want a City where I can find my equals and respect my betters, whoever they are.

In other words, equality is a subset of freedom: the freedom to recognize our equals (and betters) without having them recognized for us.

It’s interesting that while searching for his equals and betters, Lysis mentions no inferiors. Perhaps he is conscious that he lives surrounded by people possessing talents he lacks, and that absent an unfree system of imposed social classes, designed to denigrate most talent as menial, the notion of inferiority is meaningless. Thus does Melville’s Ahab, in contemplation of his ship’s carpenter, lament, “Here I am, proud as a Greek god, and yet standing debtor to this blockhead for a bone to stand on!” More acceptingly, I reflect that when I summon a plumber to my house, the very reason for my doing so is that he can do at least one thing I cannot. In him, therefore, and in enjoyment of the freedom imagined by Lysis, I see only an equal or a better.

Listening to Dvorak with God

The second movement of the American Quartet commenced, and even as the beautiful arpeggios began carrying me away to Spillville and beyond, the perfectionist in me wondered if it was loud enough. However, my heavy limbs could not be moved to reach for the remote to turn up the volume, and I rationalized my inertness by dismissing my perfectionism: If I gave up trying to create the perfect experience (at the ideal volume) and simply let it come to me, then perhaps it would.

At that moment of surrender, the whirring clothes dryer in the next room shut off, and the Dvorak came through in all its purity. I smiled and thanked God for rewarding my faith.

And then the air conditioner clicked on.

Hammered by Kindness

Sharing my diary entries detailing my “long way home” return from Taiwan via Europe in 1992, and reliving my decision to switch from flophouses to luxury hotels, I’m reminded also of how my sudden reintroduction to attentive restaurant service, after weeks of Chinese and Russian shabbiness, produced literally intoxicating results.

It was in the Xx Restaurant in Budapest (or was it Munich?) that the waiter, on bringing me my menu, asked if I would like to have an aperitif, while I looked it over. What a considerate question! This was more like it, I enthused, someone who knows how to treat a guest. Not wishing to profane the moment with a “No, thank you,” I asked the nice man to bring me a gin and tonic, which I remembered was customary for summer, even though I wasn’t really thirsty.

I sipped at the fizzy drink while perusing the bill of fare, and when the tuxedoed veteran returned to take my order for dinner, he asked me what sort of wine I would like with it. Of course! I remembered. One drinks wine with dinner at civilized establishments such as this one. I told my man that I would rely on him to provide the most appropriate ambrosia to match the veal I’d selected; and he brought the excellent white Burgundy for me to begin enjoying well in advance of my entrée. Naturally, I was careful also to finish off the gin and tonic, to avoid being rude.

The veal, balanced perfectly with the wine, melted in my mouth, and I leaned back in bliss, recalling how one week prior, I had considered myself lucky to be given a cold bowl of borscht, assuming I found the dining car of the Trans-Siberian open. When my hovering host cleared away my plate and asked me what I wanted for dessert, I started to cry, it had been so long since I’d been so well taken care of. I requested the chocolate mousse, and when he inquired, off-handedly, as to what sort of cordial I should like to go with it, accepted his recommendation of cherry liqueur.

A good half hour later, at the close of my repast, I wiped my mouth with the cloth napkin, paid the bill, took a deep breath of the fullest contentment and gratitude, rose to leave, and found that I could not walk.

On Goodyisms

Once, several years ago, I was driving around with a close friend whom we’ll call Socrates, when we saw a bumper sticker proclaiming, “I Support Women in the Arts.” Socrates turned to me, rolled his eyes, and groused, “Well, I do not support women in the arts.”

I understood. My friend Socrates, who was (and remains) quite supportive of women in the arts, was mocking the bumper sticker’s implication that he wasn’t.

Socrates was reacting, in a natural if unfortunate way, to a goodyism, or weaponized platitude, a non-controversial statement designed to elevate the status of its invoker. Cheap to the point of costing nothing, the goodyism yields a great return, in the form of moral superiority and its concomitant political advantage. Holier than thou is a phrase that can be associated with goodyisms; yet for the balance of this essay, I would like to discuss not the holiness that the goodyism confers upon its wielder but the opprobrium that it delivers upon thou.

Many goodyisms, especially those one might see on bumper stickers, are subtle exercises in demagoguery. The goal of demagoguery is to make its audience ask itself, “Who could possibly be against _______?” In the current example, the operative question is “Who could possibly be against women in the arts?” The real answer is “Nobody,” which points to the hallmark of the goodyism: the lack of any serious opposing position, its non-controversial nature. However, the implied answer is “Scum,” and since the goodyist has taken a certain position, it follows that everyone opposed to him is scum. It matters not that no one really is opposed to him on the ground beneath which he has raised his banner (women in the arts, in this case); all that matters is that the banner has been raised. Defying no one, he has nonetheless issued a call of defiance. Hearing it, his audience is compelled to choose sides, either to stand beside him on the moral high plain or to sink into the scum.

That the audience is indeed so compelled is illustrated by the Lenny Bruce routine about one-upmanship in religion, in which one villager promises to give up five farms and three rivers for the Lord, and the next villager, not to be outdone, promises to give up ten farms and eight rivers. In our example, we are invited to pledge our farms and rivers for the sake of women in the arts, and nobody wants to be behindhand in making the pledge. The member of the flock who offers the fewest farms and rivers is branded a profane person; and the one who remains silent must surely be a lurking devil, for “Whoever is not with me is against me.”

The goodyism, therefore, is an offensive weapon disguised as a defensive one. It is passive-aggressive. It is designed to provoke a response (or a non-response), to divide the community on the basis of that response, and to anathematize everyone on the wrong side of the divide. The fact that it is gratuitous, based on an obvious proposition, highlights its offensive character.  Since silence gives consent to the demonization implicit in the goodyism, there is really no choice but to push back against it. The worst thing you can do, however, is to return fire with irony, as Socrates did, if only to me, by joking that he was against women in the arts. Remember, the goodyist has set a trap for you; he has all but accused you of heresy. You have ample reason to be irritated, but giving vent to your annoyance with an irreverent jest only makes it easier for him to spring the trap. It is much better to answer with a purer form of humor, to cut him down to size. The next time someone aims a goodyism at you like “I Support Women in the Arts,” say to him what my father would often say to me: “Bully for you. Now what do you want, a dog biscuit or a cat biscuit?”

No! Speed Racer, No!

A quarter cup of non-decaffeinated coffee has unlocked repressed memories of watching Speed Racer as a five-year old, which I always found extremely scary and confusing. The contrast between Speed’s cute family life and the appalling evil and danger to which he subjected himself was just so bizarre and impossible to assimilate that it has troubled me ever since.  Watching it on after-school TV, which suggested normalcy, was a real mind-fucker, too.

Now I am hysterical.

I rant: “If you’re a professional car racer, you can’t just kill the other drivers!”

I invent ironic dialogue: “So long, Pops, Trixie, Spritle. I’ve signed up for a race through an active volcano. If I win, I’ll bring home a big trophy, and we’ll go someplace nice for dinner. If I lose, I’ll be burned to a crisp in molten lava, along with twenty other people.”

And, of course, I take to YouTube, finding the show’s opening credit. I watch it over and over, really freaking out. Check out the boyish grin at 0:28 and nonchalant murder at 0:40.

Our Famous Java

My daughter has been playing an online game in which players try to run a successful coffee stand, controlling such variables as advertising, location, and product quality, in order to turn the best profit. One supposedly bad thing that may happen is that customers become sickened by the coffee, but of course, Mademoiselle has turned this eventuality into a desired result; nay, it has become the object of the game. She will not rest until the area in front of her business is a veritable Versailles fountain court of projectile-vomiting patrons.