Thursday, December 29, 2011

Prejudices I enjoy too much to give up

Prejudices are by no means rational, or merit-based, or well thought out. Yet everyone has them. The psyche embraces and coddles thoughts that repel the rational mind.
The way to deal with prejudices is to acknowledge them, so here’s a list of mine. Why seek professional help when you can psychoanalyze yourself?
Pop music – Lady Gaga should be Lady Googoo to emphasize the infantilism of pop music. And yet when I think about it rationally I have to concede that pop music brings joy to millions. So I don’t think about it rationally. ‘Gaga’ is hardly a rational concept.
Clothing as advertising – I do not wish to wear shirts that are emblazoned with corporate slogans or logos. Must I not only carry Nike’s logo but also pay for the privilege? Let them pay me! I’ve been told that this is a stupid point on which to take a stand. Impractical maybe, but it isn’t stupid to prejudge those who would manipulate you for profit.
Soccer – I keep wishing that someone would just grab the ball and run with it. This viewpoint defies the sensibilities of virtually the entire world, and yet I can’t dispel it.
Fruitcake – It’s festive and one appreciates the spirit of it. But it tastes funny. The logical response is simply not to eat fruitcake, however I can’t stand to hear others extol it. I veer close to lunacy on this point.

 I believe people read Paradise Lost because they are forced to do so.
Milton’s Paradise Lost – I believe people read Paradise Lost because they are forced to do so. On the other hand, what is education except forcing students to do things they don’t want to, albeit for constructive reasons? Okay, but I still don’t like Paradise Lost.
Hippies – I know they’re supposed to be refreshingly free-spirited. But they call one another ‘man’ and ‘dude.’
Odd names – The chairman of the Republican National Committee is named Reince Priebus. I mean come on; if your name is Priebus, resist the temptation to name your son Reince. And if you have a difficult name, please forbear if others misspell it. I was filling out a form for a kid named Sean, who indignantly informed me that it was spelled Shawn. Like I care.
Madonna – The right to profitable sluttery does not include mocking religious icons. “Madonna” indeed. Friends suggest that I stop worrying about pop musicians and concentrate on my own behavior. This is a logical suggestion; prejudices defy logic.
The French – Sarkozy seems like a regular guy and I’m slowly warming toward the French. In fact, I hereby offer to remove them from this list if they’ll discontinue service charges in Montmartre nightclubs. Prejudices aren’t admirable but they also aren’t permanent.
[For more of the same, visit Alan’s blog,]

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Are romance novels silly?

Are romance novels silly?
Not at all. What the genre needs are some fresh ideas. Herewith excerpts from a few of my own storylines:
Bradley was all man except for his walk – a sort of waddle not unlike a penguin’s. Brittany was a pert young therapist specializing in peculiar walks. “You don’t look at all like a penguin,” she counseled. “But just in case, I’d avoid wearing a tuxedo.”
“It’s no use,” he lamented. “No woman could love a man who waddles.” Her heart went out to him. But how far?
Jeff’s idea of a weekend in Atlantic City frankly tempted Teresa. But could she leave the convent while her garden wasn’t fully bloomed?
Raellen was the belle of the Redneck Riviera, betrothed to rich, respectable Hatton Fiske. But when rakehell race driver Monk Varney rear-ended her truck, she saw it for what it was – his pathetic attempt to meet cute.
Gorilla-Louise Maxwell hated her name, and welcomed the chance to change it by marriage to handsome Dave Sinclair. “Soon I’ll be Gorilla-Louise Sinclair,” she beamed.
The stranger barged into Gwynneth’s Orient Express compartment and thrust a package into her hands. “Take this to Istanbul. Ask the first man you meet ‘Are you the Turk?’ If he says yes, give him the package.”
She looked into the stranger’s dark features. “Proper English ladies don’t go around saying ‘Are you the Turk?’ to strange men. Especially in Istanbul.”
He flashed his credentials. American CIA. Said she, “You’re certainly cheeky enough to be a spy.”
“Americans don’t have time for subtlety,” he whispered. “We’ll meet again.”
So saying, he leapt from the train. And the Orient Express thundered through the night.
After a week as private secretary to the mysterious Dillard of Yorkshire, Ann was contemplative as she walked the moors. Certainly the Dillard was felicitous of feature but his rumored eccentricity was yet to show itself.
Now here he came, bounding across the heath, after her with a butterfly net.
With Lance and Polly it was a battle of wits and wills. “What country is Calgary?” posited Lance.
“Canada,” she answered.
“Wrong. It’s not Cana-dah, it’s Cana-duh! You mispronounced it.”
“And I say it’s Cana-dah!”
“Duh! Come here, you vixen!” Stimulated beyond endurance, they melded into a full embrace, no longer caring about the dominion to the north.
[For more of the same, visit Alan’s blog,]

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

If the Occupy Wall Street crowd ran America

What a swell bunch they are. Befouling parks. Throwing intellectual tantrums in the name of indicting capitalism.
So, you demonstrators are angry? Well I’m angry too. But I’m trying to channel it constructively with a few minor cultural adjustments that might appeal to the disaffected:
How about a Capitalists versus Anarchists softball game?
Demonstrators could go to the homes of people they think make too much money. They’d be invited to come in and take showers.
At the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs could calm the national mood by refashioning themselves as an encounter group called Guys Sharing Their Feelings.
Walmart could soften its proto-Goliath image by secretly referring to customers as “aisle bunnies.”
Educators could name schools something trendy and accessible like Knowledge Barn.
Washington could humanize the budgetary process by rechristening it “Fun With Numbers.”
The Wall Street Journal could more fully embrace the proletariat by renaming itself The Bowery Fishwrap.
Here’s a concept: free air travel on DOT Airlines. Everybody’d assume it stands for Department of Transportation. Nope. Delay On the Tarmac. If takeoff is achieved, the flight will go nowhere, thus reflecting the inchoate goals of Occupy Wall Street.
How about renaming the Chicago Bears something more fervently anti-capitalist, like the Chicago Baboons?
Next time there’s a demonstration, let bankers and brokers emerge from their skyscrapers and talk informally to demonstrators. Couldn’t hurt.
In short, the demonstrators have the semblance of a point: capitalism isn’t perfect and can be ludicrously excessive. But, if you attack it, do so with logic and maybe even compassion. Making a nuisance of yourself isn’t enough.
[For more of the same, visit Alan’s blog,]

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Disrespecting iconic American authors

            Ever notice how many of the early American writers had three names? Henry David Thoreau, for example, whom I refer to as Hank Dave as a hedge against pomp. In fact, I’ve nicknamed them all. In the theater of my imagination, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow becomes “Waddie,” and of course there’s Ed Al Poe. (Ignore the unfortunate reference to a contemporary dog food.)
            James Fenimore Cooper becomes familiar as “Fenimore” and Louise May Alcott is Lulu.
   I don’t mess with Ralph Waldo “Emo” Emerson (at left) too much because he seems to have my number. When I dropped in on him in Concord in 1845, our imaginary conversation went like this:
            ALAN – Do you like Thoreau personally?
            EMO – Sure. He and I both write about nature, which he believes he invented.
            ALAN – You mean Walden?
            EMO – Yeah. You realize he comes to my house once a week for a good meal and to do laundry?
            ALAN – I didn’t realize that.
            EMO – Still, he evinces self-reliance to a laudable extent. Convention is not his master.
            ALAN – Or yours?
            EMO – I hope not. He who would be a man must be a non-conformist.
            ALAN – Do you seek out your own means of non-conformity?
            EMO – No. It’s just that I try not to be slavishly consistent in anything.
            ALAN  - A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds?
            EMO – Yeah I said that.
            ALAN – Do you still believe it?
            EMO – Look, I’d had a few drinks, okay? I’m just saying that society is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members; you, me, Thoreau, all of us. We’re all misunderstood.
            ALAN – And that’s a good thing?
            EMO – It’s necessary. Luther and Copernicus and Galileo and Newton – all misunderstood, as was Jesus. To be great is to be misunderstood.
            ALAN – It’s necessary, but surely not sufficient?
            EMO – That’s true. By the way, if you see Thoreau, tell him he forgot his socks.
            Fast forward to present. If this were a textbook it would be time for those inane Questions for Discussion that have nothing to do with the material that’s gone before. Like “What was on Emerson’s mind when he wrote ‘Nature’?” How the devil do I know? I’m just saying that your mind is something for which to be thankful. It can be used well or badly, or brilliantly, as you and I know. And Emerson knew.
            So, anyway, Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Coping with human grace isn’t easy

The other day a dour woman of my acquaintance smiled at me. She’d never done so before and I overreacted. It lit up my day and I went around like a crazed zealot dispensing charm.
I began to look for grace in the news. Nitwit celebrity Paris Hilton was affected by poverty in India and began giving cash to people on the streets of Mumbai. A social conscience? Hooray. Maybe not a nitwit.
A guy who’d never remembered my name before today remembered it. I gloat.
The lady behind the convenience store register caught me leafing through a tabloid. When I started to pay for it, she looked both ways and then whispered to me, “You don’t have to buy it. You can read it and put it back.” A moment of perfect understanding. And grace.
In Washington, two prominent senators of opposing parties co-sponsored a hospitality suite in a search for better understanding and communication.
More politics? In Rio, businesspeople and poor folk samba together in the streets. Said one Carioca, “We invite all the problems to a big party and we let them dance together.” In the next few years Rio will host both the World Cup and the Olympics. Maybe we’ll all dance in the streets.
And movie critic Roger Ebert, despite losing his lower face to cancer, was moved to write, “We must try to contribute joy. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find out.”
Grace was suffusing my being.
Normalcy returned with a close call on the highway evincing faces knit with rage and bellows of rancor. Here was a recognizable reality, and there was no grace. I began wondering how much grace was feasible for me.
Does one’s capacity expand like a glutton’s stomach? Might behaving too well somehow distort “the real me?” Then again, what is “the real me?” Time to find out, I decided. Enough being a work in progress. So I said a cordial “Good morning” to a sidewalk stranger, just for the hell of it. He looked at me askance for a moment, and then he grinned. “Good morning,” he said.
I don’t know how much more of this I can take.

Friday, November 11, 2011

That I should not say foolish things

On the eve of the Gettysburg Address, citizens of Gettysburg crowded Lincoln’s boarding house asking for a few remarks. Replied the President, “I have no speech to make. In my position it is somewhat important that I should not say foolish things.”
Same for all of us, if you ask me. Here are some iterations I wish I hadn’t iterated:
You went to Purdue? Did you by any chance know Dean Halstead? What a clown!... Oh really, your father?
Yo, officer, Smokey the Bear called. He wants his hat back.
You want the truth? Okay, yes, it makes you look fat. Like a gigantic Bedouin tent. Now may I watch the game?
Yeah, sure, if you’re ever in town give me a call!... Oh, you are in town.
Look, I’m not gonna spend money on a professional clown for a birthday party. I’ll do it myself. What can go wrong?
Tige Rafferty? He’s dead isn’t he? Oh! Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Rafferty.
Of course I can order in French. No snooty waiter’s gonna show me up.
Yes I know you’re chairman of the board, but if I gave you a mulligan I’d have to give everyone a mulligan.
Look, I’ve seen these hypnotist acts before. They’re phony. There’s no way he can make me cluck like a chicken or whatever.
How can you say I’m uncultured? I really liked La Boheme! But, come on, you see one opera you’ve seen ’em all.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Propose a ludicrous idea

            My ludicrous idea is for a Human Decency Festival. It’s simple: everyone would behave splendidly for 3-4 hours on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
            You scoff? Of course, everyone does. So the festival organizers would opt for a more marketable theme like a Collard Greens Festival. Thus is human decency equated with a leafy vegetable, which I regard as a good start.
            As you enter the Decency Fest grounds you’d be greeted by a mean person, scowling and demanding, “Make me smile; I’ll bet you can’t.” The kids would make funny faces and give hugs, and the grump would smile.
            There’d be a Kindness Booth staffed by compassionate volunteers. And a Let’s-Talk-About-Your-Favorite-Subject Booth. Reformed bullies would go about serving barbeque to the weak instead of beating them up.
            As for politics, Democrats and Republicans would speak kindly to one another: “Why you’re not a fascist after all. In fact, you’re very pleasant.”
            “And you’re not a commie pig. Say, how about some fudge?”
            The grapevine would transmit grace (“She reminds me of Mother Teresa.”) and there’d be handsome Internet postings (“U R exemplary”). The homily Be On Your Best Behavior would thematically usher people toward chivalry, and The Basic Human Decency (BHD) song would bounce across the grounds: “If your spirit needs a tune-up and you need a lighter load, just put in a quart of BHD and motor on down the road.”
            There’d be badges inscribed “How May I Help You?” Maybe by listening to someone who doesn’t get much attention. Or by vowing to stay in touch and meaning it. Or by saying, “I’m glad you’re here,” with a fine inflection so it doesn’t sound phony.
            Eventually the beautiful afternoon would succumb to the reality of Monday. Unless possibly there’d be a lingering nimbus, an aura where the spirit of the day had been. Maybe behavioral scientists would start noticing excellent behavior instead of always the aberrant. Maybe they’d come to the next festival and man the Kindness Booth.
            Anyway, that’s my ludicrous idea. It can’t hurt to toss something wild into the hopper now and then.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Eight inside secrets of a great conversationalist

Eight inside secrets of a great conversationalist
1. Speak in humble tones when you know you’re right.
Why do ministers bellow at congregations who are in total agreement? It’s especially oxymoronic when the bellowing is about humility.
When you’re right, there is no need to preach. Certainty is a gift for which to be quietly thankful.

2. Never vie for the floor.
When you can’t get a word in edgewise, don’t demean yourself by trying.

3. Do not tell anecdotes unless you’re sure everyone wants to hear.
By saying, “That reminds me of a story…” you’ve swung the spotlight to yourself. With such usurpation goes an obligation to be good and fast and on point.

4. Solicit the opinions of those who have little to say.
This is an act not of etiquette but of intellectual curiosity, frequently well rewarded.

5. Be kind.
It’s easy to score conversational points at the expense of someone vulnerable. If Humphrey the klutz has cocktail sauce on his chin, you could score easily by pointing it out to everyone. Don’t do it. Disdain the cheap shot.

6. When someone makes you stretch intellectually, say so.
You’ve given me something to think about, you could say. It’s high praise. Talented conversationalists listen intently, seeking sustenance and acknowledging as much when received.

7. Never, never bluff.
When you don’t know, admit that you don’t know.

8. Never attempt to recite the entire plot of a movie/book/play.
How many times have we heard, “Oh, you didn’t see Turtles at Midnight? Well it starts out when….”
And you’re stuck for 10 minutes hearing that which you would not wish to hear even given an interest in the subject.
Art can be discussed from the shared perspective of having seen/read/heard it, but cannot be recounted by one to another.
Incidentally, if you haven’t seen Turtles at Midnight, save your money.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Ten really dumb observations

Thank you for your forbearance as I attempt to prove that an idle mind does not preclude a productive life. 
Why is ‘wise guy’ a pejorative?
I blame the Three Stooges for sullying the concept. 

1. Why is it that we can send a man to the moon but cannot make the referee’s microphone work at football games?

2. When you ask your stockbroker about the market’s direction, must he respond, “Your guess is as good as mine?” Because if my guess is as good as his… you get the gist. Brokers are also fond of saying, “I don’t have a crystal ball.” And I’m fond of retorting that he could simply invert a goldfish bowl.

3. Why isn’t a citizen of New Zealand called a New Zealot?

4. Why does Donald Duck wear a sailor suit? I see nothing nautical in his performance or demeanor. If he’s a sailor, let’s see him weave a lanyard or toss a rope.

5. Why are there towns named Jasper in Georgia, Tennessee, Florida and Alberta? (The latter is in Canada so it’s probably full of Eskimos.)

6. We’re not affronted by decapitations and gore in movies, yet we are socially affronted by mismatched socks or a lady’s slip showing. Imagine: A couple exiting the theater: “You’re worried about my socks? We just saw a severed head.”

7. If you ask me, it should have been Johnson’s Life of Boswell instead of Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Johnson was the reigning intellectual bully of 18th century London whereas Boswell, a Scot, was a gentleman who somehow found himself in Johnson’s thrall.

8. Why is ‘wise guy’ a pejorative? I blame the Three Stooges for sullying the concept. Wisdom is to be coveted, not cited as justification for an eye gouge.

9. If all Will Rogers knew was what he read in the papers, why was he regarded as a sage?

10. An idle mind is not the devil’s playground. An idle mind is more like the devil’s green room on Jerry Springer.

And here’s an idle thought bonus: Bet somebody that if he flew 1500 miles due south from Atlanta, Ga., he’d be over the Pacific Ocean. You’ll win the bet!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Listen to drunks

  “Laws are not the fabric of this society,” he averred. “What is it that keeps you from robbing me? The law? I believe not.”
  The guy was drunk but still kind of eloquent. A professorial Boston drunk in the hotel bar where I’d come for a quiet martini. “What keeps you from robbing me?” he insisted.
  “I don’t want to rob you.” He nodded and said, “You behave decently because you want to, not because it’s the law.”
  “You’re talking about civility?” I ventured.
  “You think civility’s a wimp word, right?” he said. “It’s not. It’s all we’ve got. Know why? Cause without it there aren’t enough cops. If enough of us want to rob each other, there aren’t enough cops. We rely not so much on the law as on one another’s goodness.” We both took a sip. “Fabric of society,” he mused. “Damned useful metaphor. Civility’s the fabric and we’re all weavers.”
  The bartender came over. “You gents want another?” I was staying at the hotel and said yeah. The professional guy said no and slid off the barstool, weaving a pattern all his own
  “You’re not going to drive, are you?”
  He shook his head. “MTA,” he said. “Subway. I enjoyed talking to you.”
  He was gone leaving a renascent nimbus where he had been.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Turning on the charm? Be very careful

            A sudden surge of charm can overwhelm the charmless. Before turning on the charm, regulate your internal Charmometer to the desired setting. Zero for, say, sports events with drunken pals who wouldn’t know charm from a cheese sandwich. Or 10 if you’re attending some fancy-shmancy dinner party. But be careful. I attended one such party with the setting at 10 and scared the hell out of everybody.
            Here are some suggested Charmometer settings for various situations:
            At a singles bar – Start with a setting of 5, to be adjusted upward if things go well. Opening with a 10 can suggest an unpleasant manic quality.
            Visiting the sick – Set at 7; buoyant but not giddy. No need to flaunt the fact that you’re in better shape than the hospitalized party. Break as many hospital rules as you can; it’ll amuse the sick person.
            Visiting a retirement home – Set at a full-blown 10. Let charm supersede Bingo. Be sure your genuine charm transcends the professional friendliness of staff.
            Appearing on Bill O’Reilly or Chris Matthews – Come on like a malignant muskrat, then, as the host is cowed into gibbering malice, calmly escalate to a civilized 7.
            At a formal fundraiser – Set the Charmometer at 4 and snarl your way through the evening. All behavior that takes place in a tuxedo is phony.
            At a business meeting – Set initially at 10. Then, when everyone assumes you’re all-charm-no-substance, revert to a 5. Keep them off guard.
            With kids – Start at 2 and trend upward if they behave.
            While arguing with spouse – Start at 9, then revert like quicksilver to 0, then back again. It’s schizophrenic but you’ll probably win the argument, albeit at the expense of your sanity.
            When you can’t think of someone’s mane – Give ’em a 10 with a gush of faux intimacy that makes names unimportant: “Wow! What a surprise! Look who’s here!”
            Anyone who looks downtrodden – A full dose of the old charm. It’s fun to cheer people up.
            So you get the idea. Incidentally if your Charmometer setting brings you nothing but alarmed looks, deactivate the thing and just wing it. One problem with turning on the charm is getting it turned off when you’re through with it.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Stifle your emotions, most of which are inappropriate

            The guy had died young – 48 – of cancer. He was a fellow of little pretense who, while fundamentally decent, was impish and fun loving. I was enduring the fitful progress of the funeral receiving line by looking back on some of our good times. And I started chuckling.
            Heads turned. “I’m in a good mood,” I explained. “He wouldn’t have wanted us to be dour.” The others weren’t quite sure. Actually I wasn’t quite sure; he might have liked some dourness. But I couldn’t arrest this giddy phase which I ascribed then, and still do, to the rascally spirit of my dead friend.
            My mood was not infectious. Nobody else picked it up, and I heard my friend telling me, as he had in life, to shut up and have a little respect.
            Which I did. I suppose an emotion is not less real if one puts a lid on it until later.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Argue with Martin Luther

    The two of us loiter together in the coffeehouse of my imagination, arguing like a couple of old friends.
            “I wish that the expression ‘free will’ had never been invented,” he remarked the other day. “It is not recorded in Scripture and should more justly be called self-will, which is worthless.”
            This was Marty at his most pedantic.
            “Which is to say that the self is worthless?” I parried. “You seem to preclude the possibility that my will can be in concordance with God’s.”
            Concordance indeed, he spluttered, going on to ask how dare I equate myself with God – which I hadn’t meant to do, as Marty well knew.
            “I only meant that free-will or self-will can be divinely instigated,” I suggested. “Would God have men be puppets, our will superimposed?”
            He left, saying he’d just as soon have me be a puppet, which remark, whoever’s will it reflected, was certainly on the testy side.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Being pseudo-intellectual means always having to say you’re ambivalent

Bad attitude about
Gray Areas
            I asked my friend Ed, a thinker of balanced clarity, to advise me on a business dilemma. He pondered as the waitress refilled his coffee cup. “I don’t know,” he said. “It’s one of those gray areas.”
            “Yeah, but what do I do?” I asked.
            He carefully and cogently outlined all aspects of the problem but refused to make a recommendation. “It’s up to you,” he said.
            “I know it’s up to me. I’m not abdicating responsibility; I’m asking for advice.”
            “It’s a gray area,” he repeated.
            I’ve always hated gray area-ism. It’s for suckers who, finding they don’t know an answer, accept the pop assumption that no answer exists, or that it’s mired in impenetrable gray muck. I fantasize getting drunk and threatening to duke it out with the next guy who says, “gray area.” Somebody’ll throw a punch and I’ll parry by asserting that if morality exists, it cannot tolerate areas of ambiguity. Right or wrong is often difficult to discern, but it doesn’t cease to exist!
            That afternoon, Ed called to say he’d left his briefcase at the restaurant and did I have it – I did – and could I please drop it off on my way downtown?
            “It’s a gray area,” I told him. “Shall I go out of my way to correct your oversight? To some questions, no answer exists. It’s a gray area.”
            He was really sore, like people get when you purloin their pet rationalization, but he cooled off later when I showed up with the briefcase.

Friday, August 26, 2011

They still don’t make ’em like they used to
            Here, by something like popular request, are more classic movie awards that Oscar overlooked:
            Best car chase – Bullitt – Steve McQueen careened across 1963 San Francisco without a care or even much of a plot, as if to say that car chases self-justify.
            Best cartoon character – Daffy Duck – He lacked the emotional stability of Bugs Bunny but was arguably funnier.
Best Hair Ever?
            Most original comedy pairing – W.C. Fields and Baby Leroy – The story about Fields spiking the child’s orange juice is not apocryphal. Fields actually did it.
            Best hair job in movie history -  Else Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein.
            Sappiest tearjerker of all time – An Affair to Remember – Plangent title song attempts to redeem script, fails.
            Most patriotic – Yankee Doodle Dandy – Warner Brothers asked Jimmy Cagney to transition from gangster roles to this bio of George M. Cohen. Released in 1940 with the Grand Old Flag flying, the picture prepared the way for the war we were about to fight.
            Best performance by a horse – Khartoum in The Godfather – Head-in-the-bed sequence ended his career.
            Most heroic in real life – Audie Murphy who fought to a Medal of Honor standard in World War II Italy. He later played himself as a GI in To Hell and Back.
            Best story involving death of central character – Garbo in Camille; John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima.
            Most resonant prop – The Maltese Falcon, aka, the stuff that dreams are made of. The blackbird statue was phony looking but it carried the story.
            Best top to bottom casting – From Here to Eternity – Even the smallest roles were impeccably cast and acted. And regardless of how Sinatra got the part of Maggio (I tend to believe the gangster version), he played it to perfection.
            Coolest actor ever – Toss-up between James Dean and Steve McQueen goes to the latter, who had the good sense to avoid Dean’s Actor Studio mannerisms.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Good deeds don’t always work

Good deeds don’t always work
Then the cat freaked. I don’t know why. 
            One Appalachian winter dusk, a neighbor’s  cat appeared at my door. The neighbor’s house was about a half mile away through the woods and I assumed the cat’s arrival was by way of a neighborly visit.
            I put the cat in front of my fireplace and stroked and petted it for a while. The cat even purred, which was a more vibratory sound than I’d imagined, almost a contented growl. I’ve never been good with animals and this was, I sensed, a triumph for each of us. Paws across the species gap. I confess that I cared for this cat. Too much, as it turned out.
            By eight o’clock I figured it was time for the cat to go home where I knew a bowl of that vile gruel felines eat had been lovingly prepared. Trouble was it was bitterly cold; too cold to put any living thing out into the woods and the cat didn’t seem to want to go.
            So I decided to give the cat a lift home. I put it in the car, turned on the heat for the cat’s comfort and headed out slowly along an icy road. And it was okay for the first few yards. Then the cat freaked. I don’t know why; maybe it had never been in a car. Anyway, it started wailing and jumping and scratching. It got on my head, which is hell anytime but especially when you’re trying to keep a car on an icy road.
            “Calm down, dammit,” I reasoned. The cat leapt into the back seat then back into the front. I guess I was supposed to seat belt her or something. Anyway, I got her home and let her out, whereupon she ran not into the warm house but into those very woods where I couldn’t bring myself to release her.
            Moral: If, in the course of a good deed, the recipient of said deed starts to scratch and jump, desist the deed, which wasn’t as good as you originally thought.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Nametags? Kindred spirits don’t need nametags!

         I was having some apples weighed in the supermarket checkout line.
            “Winesap?” asked the lady.
            “No thanks, just the apples,” I riffed. She laughed. It’s a happy thing to make a stranger laugh, and after that we were kindred spirits. I went out of my way to go through her line. There was a compact of merriment, a virtual guarantee that one of us could make the other laugh. And we did too, for six months or so until one day she was gone. They said her husband got transferred, to Houston I think.
            She’s still laughing, probably behind some supermarket counter in Houston. She never wore a nametag and I never knew her name. But I knew her. We were kindred spirits.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Eccentricities aren’t all bad

            At a table adjacent to mine in our local diner sat a boy with blue hair. A crew cut, precisely sculpted, the color vivid with no discordant roots, as though the teenager had said to a stylist, I’ll have blue hair and I want it done right.
            After my meal I stopped by the booth where the boy sat with four companions, two girls and two guys.
            “Uh, excuse me.” The teenagers turned to look at me.  They were not roisterous as teens sometimes are in that restaurant. All seemed subdued and their conversation restrained. “I’m sort of a student of human behavior and I was noticing your hair,” I told the boy. “Why do you have blue hair?”
            He looked at me matter-of-factly, appearing to respect the inquiry. “I’m new in town,” he said. “I wanted to meet people.”
            I nodded. Plainly he had met people – good ones too, from their look and gravitas. “I appreciate your telling me,” I said.
            He nodded pleasantly.
            I remember thinking afterward that it was a perfectly good rationale for having a blue crew cut. I respected him for having blue hair.
            All of us have eccentricities. Very few of us are pragmatic about them.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The case of behaving nobly, badly made

            I cherish the idea of people behaving nobly. Not me personally, of course, because sacrifice ensues and how much fun is that. It’s not like it’s World War II and sacrifice is compelled by a splendid national purpose reducible to three words: Win the War!
            Fast-forward to now and our moral climate of celebrity-induced torpor.  Does America still have a Great National Purpose that compels sacrifice? OK, I’ll propose one: Let America be the most civilized nation ever to exist.
            Are you up for it? There will be sacrifice. For example, we can give up the coercive fun of bullying in all its forms whether by kids or adults. We can stop shouting our national discourse and abandon the ugly certitude that goes with always being right. (Are you listening Bill O’Reilly and Chris Matthews?)
            We can sacrifice lawsuits in disputes you could settle over a cup of coffee.
            We can stop mucking up our Constitutional guarantees with the sludge of incivility. What good is free speech when we use it to jabber talking points? Since when did freedom of religion suggest the right to behave like a book-burning jackass or a homicidal maniac?
            We can sacrifice the idea that the right to carry a gun includes the right to start a gunfight at one’s personal OK Corral.
            Indeed Congress itself can be rendered dysfunctional by mean-spirited debate.
            So that’s a proposal for America’s Great National Purpose: to become the most civilized people ever. It means expanding the definition of excellence to include everyday behavior. Refining our capacity to ennoble and inspirit one another. Disagreeing passionately and yet remembering that all our major disagreements have two viable sides.
            If we can bring it off, the greatest generation may be us. Sacrifice is involved, but believe me when I say that behaving nobly is better than behaving loutishly. I know; I’ve tried both.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A morality tale for the slightly tarnished

            My rule of thumb is this: Live the little moments well and the big ones take care of themselves.
            Like the cashier at the convenience store who caught me glancing through a tabloid while in line to pay for gas. As I offered up money for the tabloid, she looked both ways and whispered, “You don’t have to buy it; you can look at it and put it back.”
            We grinned at one another in a moment of absolute understanding.
            The next day, filing random thoughts, I didn’t remember the stories in the tabloid. But I remembered the lady at the convenience store. The subtext of life is actually the text, I decided. Or as someone put it, “It’s not how you behave on the dais when you’re being honored, it’s how you behave on the way to the ceremony.”
            You and I are destined to dispense nobility in those odd, awkward asides where nobility and grace and meanness get defined. The thing is that for the very best stuff you ever do, nobody will hand you an award.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Be very careful with folk wisdom

            Murphy’s Law, for example, is a toxic sump of an idea. Actually, I know Murphy. Used to drink with him at a bar in Baltimore. “Whatever can go wrong will go wrong,” he droned. “And at the worst possible time.”
            “Not necessarily,” I riposted. “I’ve just had a day in which everything went right.” I’d moved through the day with the dexterity of Fred Astaire moving through an RKO storyline. There was dignity in every encounter, subplots resolved, schedules clicked. When I craved a soft drink and the machine wanted 60¢, there in my pocket were two quarters and a dime. That kind of day.
            “Just lucky,” harrumphed Murphy.
            “Aw lighten up, Murphy,” I told him. “The antithesis of your squalid Law is that when things finally do go right, it’ll happen with such luminescence that it buries the angst.”
            Murphy glared at me, belligerent with drink. “Since when are you Mr. Sunny Disposition?” He ordered another dram and a hamburger, managing to spill  ketchup on his vest. “Blast! Just before an important appointment.”
            “Well you now what they say. ‘Whatever can go wrong –‘”
            “Aw shaddup. You got a handkerchief?”
            Murphy’s not a bad guy but he has no more standing to make Law than you or I. Just remember, when things go right, it’ll happen resplendently.
            It’s not a law, but you can take my word for it.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

10 clichés from which no good can possibly follow

            You’ve heard these before, usually as preface to an unwanted conversation. Here’s how to fight back:
            Cliché: We need to talk! Response: No we don’t!
            Cliché: There’s good news and bad news. Which do you want first? Response: First a double martini; second, the good news; third, a refill.
            Cliché: My pet did the cutest thing. Response: Sorry, my doctor says I can’t listen to pet stories. It’s a medical thing.
            Cliché: There’s something I need to get off my chest. Response: And I’d love to hear it but I have an appointment in Oklahoma City, Ok.
            Cliché: Viewers may find the following footage disturbing. Response: Then don’t show it, you condescending gargoyle.
            Cliché: May I offer you some constructive criticism? Response: No, but perhaps you’d care to wrestle?
            Cliché: Shall I be frank? Response: Absolutely NOT!
            Cliché: May I see your driver’s license? Response: May I see that strange hat you’re wearing? (More laughs are what cops need.)
            Cliché: I saw the best movie. It starts out…” Response: By all means tell me the entire story. Spare no detail. I have all day. Is there popcorn?
            Cliché: You know what drives me nuts? Response: With me it’s brain cell deterioration.
            And finally America’s single most devastating conversation preface: “I don’t like to spread gossip…” And of course gossip will follow. Just be as kind as you can.

America’s least competent answer man answers your questions

            Q: If my insurance lapses while the premium check is in the mail, am I still covered (Mr. A.H., Bent Tree)
            A: Wow, good question! I have no idea. Sorry.
            Q: Is there a cure for the common cold? (Mr. R.W., Jasper)
            A: Hmmm, I’m not sure. I asked around the office but none of them knew either.
            Q: My husband seems to be losing interest in me, spending more and more time on the golf course. What can I do to put zing back into our marriage? (Mrs. D.B., Tampa, Fl.)
            A: I get a lot of questions about the zing. You’ll probably want to get a good marital advice manual and look in the index under z.
            Q: My silk brocade gown has a nasty stain from Sauce Béarnaise. Any suggestions? (Mrs. F.N., Boston)
            A: Wear something else.
            Q: I’m deeply troubled by our impending moral collapse. American society has become a gibbering morass of gnat-minded technocrats, obsessed with communicating, but having nothing to say. (Mr. C.F.W., Atlanta)
            A: Really? ’Cause, I mean, that’s bad.
            Q: My wife says that “Karl” was one of the Marx Brothers. I say she’s nuts. Who’s right? (Mr. N.N., Marietta)
            A: I’m not sure. I think the Marx Brothers were Chico, Flipper and Gaucho. Or something like that. You could probably look it up somewhere. Or call a TV station; they know stuff like that.
       A Marxist or a Marx Brother?   

  Q: What diet do you recommend? (Mrs. F.W., Forest Park)
            A: It depends on what you want to accomplish. If you’re underweight and yearning to gain back those extra pounds, try dumplings, egg dishes and crème brulee.
            Q: How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? (Miss P.R., Reno, Nv.)
            A: 3.5 cords, chucking at a rate of 6 cords per hour.

Don’t always be open to new ideas

            A pastor friend invited me to a men’s revival rally. Which is fine except that he’s inviting me for the third time, I having declined on each occasion. This time I candidly told him that I find the idea of proclaiming one’s virtue in a crowded auditorium faintly absurd. Why not merely be virtuous?
He recounted some evangelical success stories from past rallies which are irrefutable. He is trying to minister to me, having spotted my rough edges, and I can’t accept his rah rah style of ministration. Is a faith best known by its precepts or by its resonant advocates? I’ve never been sure.
            Anyway I’m not going to the men’s revival rally, whether out of principle or stubbornness. This pastor and I are both trying to enhance the other and neither succeeds.
            He says I’m not open to new ideas. Indeed I am not. I’m more receptive to old ideas, like being left alone to conduct one’s spiritual life as one sees fit.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Groping for wisdom and falling short

Published August 11, 2011 in the Pickens Progress
I’ve always coveted wisdom and yet it eludes me. Seeking to be a wise guy, I emerge a wiseguy.
But you play the hand you’re dealt. Indulge me by considering these random thoughts. Frankly, I can’t get rid of them:
I believe in both absolute truth and absolute freedom of thought. The two are not antithetical.
A stronger force than law is man’s inclination to obey the law. If compliance weren’t widespread and voluntary, there wouldn’t be enough cops. It is man’s basic decency that keeps us safe in our beds.
We have tested the limits of power. Let us also test the limits of civility. For example, after defeating Germany and Japan in World War II, the United States began immediately to restore them to the family of nations.
If there’s nothing you can do, do nothing. When it’s done right, nothing can be an active choice.
Sanctimony is the worst thing you can do to faith. It is worse than heresy, whose practioners have at leave given the matter some thought.
Most people argue to win; the wise argue to learn.
Inspirit anyone you can, anytime it’s possible.
Reason dictates that reason be suspended when it comes to faith. You believe viscerally or not at all.
Virtue is more fascinating then evil. Virtue entails greater risk and is more exciting. And, generally speaking, you stay out of jail.

Kilroy was here.” Somehow this bit of 1940s G.I. doggerel makes sense. Kilroy was omnipresent and thus a spiritual force.
Either nobody understands me, or too many people do. In other words, people who say nobody understands me are simply being indulgent. Try understanding others; it’s the key to being understood.
It is important to learn the lessons of history. But someone has to make history, which means going where the lessons don’t apply.
I’m in the process of field testing these ideas. It’s one definition of life: field testing potential forms of wisdom.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Be very careful with folk wisdom

            Murphy’s Law, for example, is a toxic sump of an idea. Actually, I know Murphy. Used to drink with him at a bar in Baltimore. “Whatever can go wrong will go wrong,” he droned. “And at the worst possible time.”
            “Not necessarily,” I riposted. “I’ve just had a day in which everything went right.” I’d moved through the day with the dexterity of Fred Astaire moving through an RKO storyline. There was dignity in every encounter, subplots resolved, schedules clicked. When I craved a soft drink and the machine wanted 60¢, there in my pocket were two quarters and a dime. That kind of day.
            “Just lucky,” harrumphed Murphy.
            “Aw lighten up, Murphy,” I told him. “The antithesis of your squalid Law is that when things finally do go right, it’ll happen with such luminescence that it buries the angst.”
            Murphy glared at me, belligerent with drink. “Since when are you Mr. Sunny Disposition?” He ordered another dram and a hamburger, managing to spill  ketchup on his vest. “Blast! Just before an important appointment.”
            “Well you now what they say. ‘Whatever can go wrong –‘”
            “Aw shaddup. You got a handkerchief?”
            Murphy’s not a bad guy but he has no more standing to make Law than you or I. Just remember, when things go right, it’ll happen resplendently.
            It’s not a law, but you can take my word for it.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

They chided me for quoting Emerson

 Elitist, they said. The quote was this: “He who would be a man must be a nonconformist.” The remark bespoke not the proud nonconformity of Thoreau, who, during his Walden phase, used to come to the Emersons for a good meal and to do his laundry. Nor was Ralph Emerson’s nonconformity of the flashy contrarian sort, worn as a martyr’s badge.
            It seemed humble and quietly courageous. So I’ve made a list of a few nonconformities central to e.
            For example, I refuse to wear the requisite death mask of solemnity when I walk the streets of a big city. If I wish to say good morning to a New Yorker, Londoner or Atlantan, I will do so. A pragmatic, civilized use of free speech if you ask me.
            Second, I will not mind my own business. What is humanity if not people looking after one another?
            Next, I will not embrace meanly stated politics even when they support my own sensibilities. If I find myself in agreement with a demagogue, I will still disrespect his coercive style and dismiss him.
            The thing is that each of us, at one time or another, will find oneself alone in an opinion, be the forum at a town meeting or a dinner table. Heaven knows it is difficult to disagree with someone who is serving you shrimp cocktail. Better to conform and eat the shrimp. Only, sometimes you can’t. Conformity is always feasible but not always palatable. Emerson seemed to know that, and it’s why I quote him.
            You grab for what wisdom you can, whether from a philosopher or a fishmonger. And if anyone calls you elitist, challenge him to wrestle. It’ll get your thrown out of some of the better homes but it refutes the charge of elitism.