Monday, May 30, 2011

End-of-the-World Bingo (Everyone a Winner)

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death. 
                                       - (Revelation 6:8)

As you may already have heard, the world is coming to an end again. To date, the best guess puts it at October 21, 2011. I say that's the best guess because the same guy who prophesied that date also prophesied May 21, 2011, but right now October 21 seems like it has a better chance to attract the smart money. I haven't been able to find any good odds on the date, but in for a penny, in for a pound.

More likely with a bang than a whimper. Those persuaded of their own sure salvation favor the notion that intense heat will turn the lights out on everyone except them, their pets and their best friends.

The other Big Bang

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have always been lurking in one alleyway or another. I don't mean these guys . . . .

 Notre Dame's backfield, 1924
(l-r Crowley, Layden, Miller, Stuhldreher) 

. . . I mean these guys.


The rationale for this particular date, according to one Harold Camping, is something like this: "On May 21st, 1988, God finished using the churches and congregations of the world. The Spirit of God left all churches and Satan, the man of sin, entered into the churches to rule at that point in time. The Bible teaches us that this awful period of judgment upon the churches would last for 23 years. A full 23 years (8400 days exactly) would be from . . . ." (well, do you need Harold or me to do the arithmetic for you?)  And as you might imagine, this God-to-Satan handoff explains quite a lot about recent ecclesiastical history.

The piece that passeth understanding

It might also occur to you to wonder how the date for these festivities came to be so neatly adjusted. Easy one - Harold just got his arithmetic a little off. "By God’s grace and tremendous mercy, He is giving us advanced warning as to what He is about to do. On Judgment Day, May 21, 2011, a 5-month period of horrible torment will begin for all the inhabitants of the earth. It will be on May 21 [I think he means October instead of May] that God will raise up all the dead that have ever died from their graves. . . [who] will experience the resurrection of their bodies and immediately leave this world to forever be with the Lord. Those who died unsaved will . . . have their lifeless bodies scattered about the face of all the earth. . . . October 21, 2011 is also the last day of the Biblical Feast of Tabernacles . . . ." 

(And a timely reminder too - with a drawerful of "Happy Feast of the Tabernacle" cards at home, I thought they'd have to bury me with them. As it turns out, I can get them in the mail by mid-October, and no need to bury me - a "win-win" if there ever was one.)

Depending on the day of the week or how I feel on any given morning, I've thought any number of times that the five months of horrible torment was already well under way. But looking on the bright side (which I tend to do anyway), I've been wracking my brain to think of something to pass the time until I can get back to work. That problem will solve itself, it seems. And clearly there's no need to worry about environmental cleanup if the world is about to be strewn with corpses and then incinerated, after which whatever is left will look like Montana and have about the same population.

The interesting question is why these end-time announcements keep coming up. If it isn't the ancient Zoroastrians, it's the Mayans.

If it isn't the Mayans, it's the Aztecs, both of whom differ from the Camping Calendar and are shooting for sometime in 2012 . . . 

. . .  not an entirely implausible suggestion.

I call these utterances "announcements" rather than "predictions." A prediction is a complicated idea: if someone happens to say something that turns out to be true, most people simply take it to be an interesting coincidence, maybe an educated guess, but not a prophecy. If that person generally gets it right, we might say he has pretty good sense, or he's thought about it enough to figure some things out. If he gets it wrong, we don't hold him to it. If he gets it wrong most of the time, we don't listen to him much. But if he announces that he is prophesying the end of time, he invariably taps a fathomless ocean of gullibility which is willing to forgive numberless miscalls and allow endless recalculations of the "prophesy."

When anyone utters anything in the future indicative, that isn't sufficient to make it a prophecy, or even a simple prediction for that matter. More likely it's either a) perfectly obvious, as in "Looks like that there cow is going to have a calf," b) perfectly likely, as in "It's going to rain but I don't know exactly when," c) demonstrably false, as in "With 51 Senate seats, the Democrats will pass stricter banking regulations and thoroughgoing campaign reform," or d) completely unverifiable, as in "On October 21, 2011, the world will end."

Predictions about the end times are unverifiable because, for all we know the world has already ended, the rapture has occurred and we none the wiser. The fact that we and everyone we know are still here only proves that we may have all been left behind. Who knew what the rules of selection were? Lots of people we don't know might have been "raptured" while we were lustily sinning away. We'll never find out.

So there was never anything to worry about.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Schopenhauer or a Stetson?

As the days pass and no details are forthcoming of my pending sojourn in windy Washoe County, I'm still wondering what I should do in the meantime to my improvement, profit or moral edification. It feels like enforced retirement - good practice for the real thing, I suppose, but a bit unwelcome because so uncertain when my free time will end and my indenturement commence. Always waiting for the phone to ring, the ball to drop, the train to leave the station while I'm having a pint in the public.

There's no want of things a person might do to fill the days, but I have a limited range of interest and a fairly fixed idea of all the Things I'll Never Do (skateboarding), Things I'll Never Do Again (play Monopoly) and Things I Wouldn't Be Caught Dead Doing, which probably number in the millions. I don't mean to imply that just because I've never done a thing means I'd never do it. I've never worn a cowboy hat, but that's not to say I'd never wear one. I might . . .

. . . or I might not. (Depends on things like how big my nose gets.) But among the latter class of amusement, I can't see myself roaming city parks, public beaches, playgrounds, brownfields, spent nuclear fuel dumps and septic fields with a metal detector. It seems beneath notice, like scavenging or collecting discarded soda cans, except that in those particular instances one might accurately say that someone has to do it. It's a timid and grubbing form of adventure.
(Always wanted to be an explorer)

Amusements that require gasoline never much interested me. The fire roads hereabout are awash in exhaust fumes; the backcountry resonates with buzzy ATVs and dirt bikes. They rut the hiking trails, gouge the national forest, scarify the wildlife and generally extend the predations of those whose physical condition might, in a juster universe, forestall their mindless career. 

Wagering and games of chance hold no charm, although I'd rather gamble in a back alley than in a casino. I have a recurring dream in which I go to a casino by mistake, thinking it's a Budget Inn, find myself bound and duct-taped, forced to buy a ticket and sit through a musical act featuring Brenda Lee and Barry Manilow.

There would of course be domestic repercussions were I to beguile the time by asking other women out on dates. And, in the improbable and unsought event that I might win some aged heart, I could no longer feel that I had any stake in it.

No, the one safe thing I might undertake with any enjoyment is to pursue a bookish life. I can see myself haunting the dust-hazed aisles of a quaint bookshop, like the one where a tweedy Anthony Hopkins presided in "84 Charing Cross Lane."

Such a place is spacious, bright and elegant . . .

. . . the haunt of people themselves bright and elegant, perhaps slightly down at heel but still genteel, absent minded, perhaps pipe smokers, each quietly absorbed in some dog-eared edition of Schopenhauer or Joseph Scaliger.

"Egad - that had never occurred to me!"

The gentleman at the counter, I imagine, also looks much like Anthony Hopkins, and if I were to ask him for anything by Paracelsus, or for Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy," he would tell me in hushed tones exactly where I might find it on a shelf, rather than mentally riffle through his list of paperback romances to try and place the title.

 And whenever I left the shop, I imagine, I would always be delighted with my latest purchase and would always look as rapturously happy as this fellow:

 (Can't wait to get to a bathroom)

I'm certain such places must exist, because I've seen photographs of them and they appear in utterly plausible movies, and most of them seem to be situated along elegant pedestrian thoroughfares in lovely places.

But in actual life, all the bookstores I can find that advertise "used" or "rare" or "antiquarian" books are located in strip malls. The parking lot is empty, the windows are dark, the sign says "Open." The place always seems to be uninhabited, and it generally is, except occasionally for some lost soul who might be either reading or dozing, or just come in because they've missed the bus to rehab.

The shelves sag with the same unvarying assortment of used paperbacks - battered copies of "I'm OK, You're OK" or Alvin Toffler's "Future Shock" or . . . 

The place is bathed in a sinister silence. And sitting at the counter is, not the discreet and knowledgeable Anthony Hopkins in his English leather wingtips, but some photophobe, reading his annotated copy of "The Bourne Identity," who looks more like Rod Steiger in "The Pawnbroker." To enter would be to intrude upon the dust of ages, to desecrate the solitude of a tomb, perhaps startle the bibliophilic bat who presides over the stillness.

So I never go in. Maybe it's time to get me a Stetson and get out a bit more.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Interstate: Good Food, Good Times

"Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?"  - Jack Kerouac, "On the Road"

A 1500-mile trek across the country from Pennsylvania to Colorado might be an "epic," a mad Kerouacean picaresque through a peculiarly American heaven and hell. I just did it, in a shiny car, mostly in the night, and "epic" isn't the right word. 

"Epic" is in fact more an antonym for the bland dangers of the interstate highway system - neither Kerouacean, Homeric, nor Quixotic. More Humbertean perhaps, as in Humbert Humbert, trying to hide by fitting into the correct slot at the correct speed, like some hapless soul sent barreling down a hardwood lane in a wheelchair on a league bowling night.

The Road has always been a metaphor for an existential pilgrim's progress, spatial alteration as a stand-in for a person's possibilities, infinities of choice, dilemma, decision. By contrast, The Interstate is a metaphor for an extended repetitive motion injury, with all the breathless possibilities inherent in innumerable displays of Frito-Lay "products."  The Interstate exchanges the comforting solitude of The Road for a nervous conning of large trucks in your blind spot.

I set out from western Pennsylvania with my brother in a quick, shiny car, our plan being to get from there to here as quickly as is legal and safe (roughly 24 hours), which limited us to the interstates. Two days after the big tornado went through Joplin, an ugly rash of thunderstorm and potential tornado cells still stretched from the Gulf north to Chicago and dictated we drive to the north of it along I-80 instead of I-70 through St. Louis and Kansas City, which would have taken us into the center of a nasty-looking system. 

By eight o'clock that morning the Pennsylvania Turnpike had insensibly become the Ohio Turnpike, then the Indiana Turnpike, and so on past Chicago, the road punctuated only at 300-mile intervals with fueling stops at the same truck stop where exactly the same goods were on offer. By mid-afternoon the big trucks had begun to shoal up in the rest areas like carp at a sewage treatment plant - the drivers napping until dark, when the rigs file from the on-ramps, string out into the lanes and begin to pass one another in a lethargic, courteous conga line.

At some point in the midnight hours in the invisible heart of Nebraska, when my eyelids were sandpapering my eyeballs, I traded the driver's seat and fell into exhausted sleep. I awoke in cold gray daylight at a Colorado rest stop, my neck screwed into the wrong place and feeling like Charles Laughton doing Quasimodo.

"I'm home, dear"

By midmorning I was home again, without benefit of coffee, at Chateau de Montaigne. Just another stop, if the kindest and best, on the road to inevitability. 


"Pass here and go on, you're on the road to heaven." - Jack Kerouac, "On the Road"

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Lost Planet of Syracuse

My hiatus, unannounced and unheralded, is as quietly ended. Miguel has returned from a visit to Syracuse, that bourne from which no traveller returns in one piece. I do not visit Syracuse because its comeliness or benign climate beckon, nor does its melieu bewitch nor its brio ignite the moribund Pictish soul in me. In fine, I have a grandson whose parents were born there and insist on remaining in situ

I lived there myself, even after I finally struggled through its university none the wiser for having been educated. But inertia is one of its principal products, so I anticipate that this was not my last journey to the shores of Onondaga, a once-deep glacial lake whose shallow bottom is a century-old bequest of Allied Chemical.

I found myself with a rental car and some spare time, so I undertook a sentimental journey through some of the old North Side neighborhoods I used to haunt, German and Italian enclaves once boasting family restaurants, social clubs like the Sons of Italy, the Knights of Pythias and of Columbus, the Liederkranz Society, and all the ethnic provisioners - Greek groceries, Italian and German delis, bakeries with names like Steigerwald's, Columbus, and Di Lauro. I used to walk to Lombardis Italian Imports to buy little dried logs of salami and bright medallions of candied Sicilian orange slices. That, a loaf of sesame semolina, a bottle of barbera, some bel paese, was lunch. The old grocery, broken but unbowed, is still there.

Beyond where you attended mass (Italians at St. John the Evangelist or at Immaculate Conception; Germans at Holy Trinity), the more localized loyalties depended on whether your family dined at, say, Danzer's or Weber's.

Weber's Restaurant and Hofbrauhaus 

One lazy afternoon, 40 years ago in my graduate school days, drinking beer with the old neighborhood Germans in the sundrenched bar in Danzer's, I watched a small fellow seated a little way down the bar, cloth shopping bag slumped next to his summertime wine-and-selzer. He would stop each familiar who walked by him, open the bag eagerly, and show off the ponderous hardbound volume of "Goethe's Collected Works" he had just purchased at the public library's annual book purge. I have never since seen a man as pleased with himself and with the world as that fellow was. Everyone seemed delighted for him and, perhaps more significantly, knew what he was showing them. The Germans brought culture to Syracuse along with lots of breweries, all of them defunct by the middle of the twentieth century, many of the old precincts still standing forlorn, the names of empire fading on their bricks.

The city also boasted a broad green park at the top of each of its significant hills. The German neighborhoods surrounded Schiller Park, named for the same poet who wrote the "Ode to Joy," which Beethoven set into the choral movement of the Ninth Symphony. Exactly a century ago, in 1911, the German citizens of the city dedicated a bronze statue on a green knoll in the park. It depicts a noble-browed Goethe handing on the poet's laurels to a muscular young Schiller, the latter demurring by a modest check of Goethe's proffering arm, both of them gazing eternally from the park's lawns over the neighboring residences. I'm guessing that most of the neighbors have no clue who the gentlemen may have been nor why they're so oddly attired.

Now Weber's Restaurant is a derelict, festooned with fraying particle board at the doors and windows, the neon sign dead. Lorenzo's has become a Vietnamese establishment; the old deco black-glass tiles along the top of the building, "Lorenzo's Family Restaurant" once picked out in white glass, reads (after a bad scrubbing) "XXXXXXXX Family Restaurant." 

Even forty years ago, Syracuse was a tired and shabby place, though still mostly intact. Now the downtown has been regentrified; the warehouse and packing district is an "eclectic" mix of high end shops, nifty restaurants, brewpubs and maybe just a few too many Irish pubs. (Or do "eclectic" and "a few too many" fit uneasily into the same sentence?)

But the old neighborhoods, the places where people lived and died and left their cultural legacies, have surpassed even their accustomed shabbiness. The city looks as though it took an overdose of DDT -  you expect shoals of dead alewives piled in the street drains. 

The more things change, the more they change.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Vanity's Final Frontier

"Sunglasses are like eyeshadow. They make everything look younger and prettier." 
                      - Karl Lagerfeld, designer

First, the memory turns dicey and unreliable, then the biceps dwindle and the legs go spindly, that sixteen-and-a-half neck looks more like a wrung duck, the waist travels south for the Long Winter before it finally disappears, the clear eye clouds, the voice becomes a quaver. When age brings lassitude and the gristle is gone, where is a geezer's last vanity? 

Fast cars? There is no sadder thing than an old man in a new Porsche. Motorcycles? You'll kill yourself out there, old fella. A precision set of circus throwing knives? You can't throw, and if you could throw you can't see where you're throwing. (Same goes for guns.) Silk neckties? Why shop early for your own funeral? 

No, the answer is eyeglasses. You need them, you wear them, and they're still cool. Remember those tortoise shell jobs Gregory Peck wore in "To Kill a Mockingbird"?

Someone has started making them again with the approval of the late actor's estate and at the suggestion of his son, Anthony, who owns the iconic originals from the movie. The "Gregory Peck" will cost you $315, the new price of cool.

Eyeglasses are iconic - most of us very likely wouldn't recognize a portrait of Buddy Holly unless he was wearing those signature plastic frames:

Gandhi is recognizeable with or without his specs, if only because we tend to remember people more vividly when they're typically naked. I don't foresee these wire rims making a big comeback unless we warp back to the 70s, but where fashion is concerned I've been wrong before.

Heinrich Himmler was the eyewear trendsetter back in the palmy days of the Reich. Given that trademark blandness of feature set off by flesh-toned plastic, "Wehrmacht Wierd" won't be making a comeback any time soon either.

I have a pair of sunglasses nearly identical to these of Malcolm X. They were also favored by the less revolutionary 1950s suburbanite. I find them intellectual looking, more "liberal arts" than "engineering" intellectual.

This stylish chap is Gustav-Adolph Schur, a German cyclist from the 1950s. The frames are amber plastic. I could fancy a pair of them meself, eh Gromit?

Woody Allen's "New York Nebbish" look is familiar to any culturally adept American, or any average European.

The "Viennese Virtuoso" - Sigmund Freud - is never out of fashion . . . 

 . . . as this fellow at the Cannes Film Festival attests.

My own quotidian eyewear is a smacking red pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarers, as in this portrait of me somewhere in the Hindu Kush (I also have a tortoise shell pair as sunglasses).

The one problem with Ray-Bans is that you can never tell what they'll turn up on:

Here's the look I try to avoid - brings back the chilling memory of my own Himmler-esque pinkish-plastic frames, circa seven years of age, the kind that always ended up with tape securing the bridge.

The smoked lenses of Dr. Strangelove are never quite out of favor. They lend an air of sinister charm and dubious raffishness to an otherwise featureless countenance. I think maybe with a nice white linen suit and a few pounds they could make anyone look like a Sidney Greenstreet character.

And of course, many eyeglass fashions are occupationally specific, as in the fraternity of professional bodyguards . . .

. . . or "lawr enfawcement orfficahs."

Your choice in eyeglasses can say it all . . .

. . . or carry off with aplomb much of your personal fashion statement.

But inevitably comes a time, sooner or later, to every man and woman, when nothing helps - not even a pair of knock-off aviators.