Tuesday, June 28, 2011

My Bracelet, My Savior

All hail the power of Jesus’ Name! Let angels prostrate fall;
Bring forth the royal diadem, and crown Him Lord of all.
                                                    - "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name," Edward Perronet (1780)
Magnetic therapy products are apparently running afoul of disgruntled consumers who have proven willing to sue for various misrepresentations and malfeasances on the part of companies which flog the benefits of magnetism. For example, Lobatoz v. Dream Products Inc., a class action suit in California "alleges deceptive marketing of the defendant's 'Magnetic Slimming Panties.' Plaintiff alleges under California consumer protection laws that the undergarments are falsely advertised as having healing properties and health benefits as a result of magnets contained in the undergarments."

In this case it isn't clear that the advertising makes any claims about magnetism that could be connected to the underwear. The ad merely says that, "For centuries people have believed in magnetic therapy to help improve circulation and relieve aches and pains," which may be true or false, depending on when you think the Age of Aquarius really began. Following that, it merely  says that, "These amazing garments are by far the fastest, easiest way yet to appear instantly slimmer." Neither of these sentences makes any claim connected to any claim made by the other sentence - the most any reasonable soul could safely deduce is that the "imported Nylon/Spandex" probably has slimming properties. Anyone who draws any inference from two sentences related only by proximity is just asking for trouble. 

Nevertheless, magnetism is out of the bag here, and whenever any causal connection is remote to all but the most heated imagination, someone will assume one. The Golden Vortex  (I couldn't begin to explain how this works, having read the explanation on the website) is apparently a magnetic ankh, which its inventor speculates was a healing instrument among the Egyptians made (magnets being uppermost in her mind) by forcing three magnets together, thus:

"A wand of sorts"

"My magnet discoveries forces [sic] me to believe it was a wand of sorts that magnetically interacted with the sympathetic nervous system to help keep the body and mind balanced and healthy," writes the ankh entrepreneur, who proceeds by documenting the powers procreative, digestive, excretive and secretive, locomotive and cognitive, in cultures which profess to use magnets in some form or other. One satisfied customer testifies that a multitude of gastrointestinal difficulties ("acid reflux, burping, burning from haiatial [sic] hernia") were conquered: "I suspect your device may be, truly, a lifesaver," he chirps. "I noticed that when wearing it all today, no symptoms, zilch. Despite having coffee, a full dinner at a buffet, the symptoms did not reemerge until around 9 pm, two hours after removing it. I have noticed this over the past week. From now on, I’m wearing it, constantly.” Truly, it's better to spend untold amounts of money on magnets that will allow you to ignore your gastric weaknesses long enough to drink coffee and eat all the fried food you can at cheap buffets.

 "I could eat a full-grown oryx, long as I got my Golden Vortex . . . " 

The received wisdom on these measures seems to be that, "These devices are generally considered safe in themselves, though there can be significant financial and opportunity costs to magnet therapy, especially when treatment or diagnosis are avoided or delayed." Which is a nice way of saying, fine if it makes you feel better, but you're only lining some charlatan's pocket. 

With one exception. Take an ordinary magnet, place it in a gnomic configuration such as a circle or an ellipse, add by some feat of necromancy the Healing Power of Jesus, and by Gum (if I might mince an oath)  you might be on to something. Jesus is a pretty handy all-around package, an all-in-one prophylactic and analgesic. No need to ask yourself "who shall wear the starry crown" when for a scant $9.95 anyone can buy a little foretype of that celestial accessory for the wrist.

Hell's Kitchen

Established routine is a pragmatic and comforting brand of fatalism, a concession I happily make to the rules of daily living - step out of line, try something different, and you'll pay for it, bub. Call it timidity, compulsion, lack of imagination, or just the same geriatric perseverance that causes old people to repeat themselves from one minute to the next. 

 "Jesus, not again already."

The simple fact is that routine works because it delivers the expected. There are no surprises, no comeuppances, nothing is overspiced, too sharp or abrupt. Why go out of your way to meet a rude awakening?

For this reason I generally patronize the same restaurants, Monk-like, over and over. If I want a burrito, I go to Monica's. If I want Vietnamese food I go to Saigon Cafe. For Chinese takeout I call China Village. It's easy, I know what I'm getting, and am invariably satisfied with the results. I fork over my credit card without resentment, without second thoughts. Non, je ne regrette rien. Spare me gastronomic surprises when all I want is what I want.

"Could we maybe just . . . we should leave?"

Last evening, hungry, tired of driving around, finding my familiar haunts closed, I finally halted on the sidewalk beneath an awning emblazoned with "Dat's Italian!" (Diner's Rule #1: if a restaurant has an exclamation point in its name, don't go in.) The "Dat's" was unpromising, and in retrospect the Italian flags, the syrupy strains of Dino piped out into the pedestrian thoroughfare, and the smeary pastry case (empty) inside the entrance should have dictated an abrupt volte face. But, weary and famished, my stomach had already unseated my judgment. I wandered far enough into the interior murk that I was arrested by the quick attentions of a waiter - the only prompt solicitude he would display through the remainder of my "dining experience," as it proved.

Sheeplike, I found a small table at the back and was no sooner seated than new patrons began to file in by twos and fours, until the place was full. I began to suspect that the tables were filling only because it was one of the few places open. The restaurant had been in business for little more than a year but it had the worn, slightly seedy air of an Italian restaurant stranded in a neighborhood the Italians had all deserted to later ethnic pioneers in Buffalo or Pittsburgh. The flocked wallpaper, the plate rails along the wall with plaster cherubs and cheesy crockery, the "autographed" photos of Frank and Dino - cut-rate Neapolitano at its worst.

 "Jesus, not again already."

No one seemed to have any plates of food in front of them, and the tables by now had filled. I noticed off in the distant corner a large family seated at a large table, no food in sight. At last, plates began to come out of the kitchen, shelved on a passthrough conspicuously lacking a heat lamp. The waiters (a lean and disheveled pair of them) rushed about purposefully if empty-handed, as though in a rerun of Fawlty Towers. The plates sat undisturbed on the passthrough. Finally one of the pair noticed them and sauntered over, lifted a lid from one of the servings, and stared at it as though it were a strange and unaccountable thing. He seemed to wonder what it was and how it had arrived there. He replaced the lid, walked to the front of the restaurant, picked up his order pad, stared at that for a longish while, set it on the counter, returned to the plates languishing by the kitchen, and continued to study them as archaic curiosities or academic conundrums.

"Soooo . . . wot I tink is diss?" 

He picked up a plate - a single plate - and carried it to a table at the front of the restaurant. His mate, seeing that between the two of them there were but four hands, picked up another single plate, and followed. Plate by plate, the order traveled to the front of the restaurant. By now plates for the large table were emerging through the passthrough and cooling nicely while the waiters returned with the plates they had recently delivered to the front. The food was (like the Laodiceans) neither hot nor cold.

All this time I had been nursing a single light beer and getting hungrier by the minute. I stopped one of the waiters and asked for some bread. Bread comes with the meal, he said. (He had that manner of some waiters who kneel at the tableside when addressing a diner which always makes me want to roll them over backwards.)  I looked at him and smiled expectantly; the bread eventually appeared. Meanwhile plates were traveling both ways - from the kitchen to the large table in the corner, and from other tables back to the kitchen for reheating. The cook was obviously producing one order at a time - some of the diners at the large table had nearly finished their meals as the last few were served theirs.

On the sidewalk as I exited, Bobby Darin was belting out Volare!  One too many exclamation points for one evening.

(Diner's Rule #2: never eat in a place named 'Pit,' 'Shack,' 'Shed,' 'Trough,' 'Corral,' 'Feedlot' or 'Barn.')

Friday, June 24, 2011

Among the Savages

"So we may well call these people barbarians, in respect to the rules of reason, but not in respect to ourselves, who surpass them in every kind of barbarity."
                      - Michel de Montaigne, Essays, Bk. I, Essay 31, "Of Cannibals"

I invariably feel a wave of sympathy and vicarious trepidation for those increasingly rare groups of indigenes who are suddenly "discovered" - most generally living quietly, unaware that they were even lost, somewhere in the Amazon drainage (where according to my sources at Al Jazeera, the latest discovery resides), or in the green fastnesses of Borneo or the mountains of New Guinea. On the intermittent occasions when they are stumbled upon, their places of habitation have generally been proof against the witless incursions of extreme rock climbers, skateboarders, unicyclists and the unshorn survivalists whose sponsors send them into the Third World to film them living off venemous snakes and plankton.

"Dude, this Amazon is gnarly."

The Val do Javari, a corner of Brazil snug against the backsides of Peru and Ecuador, has given up its secrets to a satellite image that detected heretofore undocumented agricultural clearings in remote jungle. Helicopter sorties earlier this month confirmed a village with four longhouses and roughly 200 inhabitants, with nary an iProduct or a hair dryer to their name.

 Aerial view, April 2011

Clearly this small population doesn't represent a windfall for Apple or Coors Lite sales, and to its credit the Brazilian government is keeping civilization at bay, for now at any rate. Brazil's policy is to avoid contact with uncontacted tribes so as not to disrupt their natural habitat or breach their immunity by introducing strange diseases. The people belong to the Korubo, an extended tribe in that region of the Amazon drainage, the same group who starred in a 1996 video of a government work party making first contact with a village in the same neighborhood.

There is in their faces - and in our cultural imaginations that interpret their faces - a happy innocence that may or may not be there in fact. "So many authors have hastily concluded that man is naturally cruel, and requires a regular system of police to be reclaimed," Rousseau famously remarks; "whereas nothing can be more gentle than him in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the pernicious good sense of civilized man. . . ."  This we may call "sentimental anthropology."

In fact, the Amazon tribes have always shown their credentials - as typically murderous as any other primates, equally fractious and warlike (if not quite so effective) as their modern counterparts. I still recall a story from childhood, in one of my monthly issues of "Natural History" magazine, about five missionaries who made contact with a notably truculent Ecuadoran tribe, landed a light plane along the river, and were summarily skewered to a man by the residents. At the time, of course, I was horrified and not a little tittilated, but in the intervening years, without wishing anyone such a fate, I have learned to appreciate the opposing point of view and the fervent wish to preserve a status quo. The perpetrators had no idea what a dose of religionizing they were in for, though they have learned in the interim -  evangelical zealots and relatives of the five casualties made a point of, first, inundating them, and then converting them, not entirely to their improvement. One of the ironies of the whole tragedy, if not part of the tragedy itself, is that several of the principal spear-wielders are still extant and long since turned into good converts.

Anticlericism in the New World.

The Brazilian government monitors but makes no further contact with indigenous groups that lack exposure to the rest of the world, having learned that there's not much either capitalism or evangelical outreach have to offer them. Illegal logging and gold and oil exploration are already pushing into uncontacted Indian lands and pose a lethal threat, since the residents may be living atop what somebody else wants. In the face of the loss of their accustomed habitat and cultural bonds, learning double-entry bookeeping  (the 19th century version of "Xcel Workbook") or sitting through PowerPoint sales and marketing presentations from representatives of interested extraction industries seem frivolous.

 "No, no - just want to talk."

Capitalism is a rational pursuit, if by 'rational' we mean a suiting of means to ends. In this, the Korubo are barbaric. But their barbarisms are not in the league of those more rational barbarisms practised by large-scale industrial capitalism. Slash-and-burn jungle farming isn't much of a living, but for some few it's not a bad life. They've done it for milennia and yet here they are, still with us in the modern world eating manioc or whatever they eat, having adapted, and persisting intact into an utterly alien epoch.

Montaigne published his essay "Of Cannibals" in 1580, based on the reports of a simple fellow in his employ who had been to the New World on an expedition, but (as Montaigne remarks) has no education and so "is wedded to no theory."  "Their buildings are very long, with a capacity of two or three hundred souls," he notes, as though he were describing the recent photographs of the village; "they are covered with the bark of great trees . . . . "

Montaigne records that three indigenes transported from Brazil had an audience with the French king, and comments that they remained "ignorant of the price they will pay some day, in loss of repose and happiness, for gaining knowledge of the corruption of this side of the ocean; ignorant also of the fact that of this intercourse will come their ruin (which I suppose is already well advanced: poor wretches, to let themselves be tricked by the desire for new things, and to have left the serenity of their own sky to come and see ours!)"

He is willing to sentimentalize the newly discovered citizens of Brazil, but he makes a point that has a bearing on this most recent uncovering of a "lost" tribe. The Korubo seem better off without the benisons of modern technology - maybe they don't require medicine, or longer lives, or asparagus and strawberries in the winter. Maybe we don't either. Is their culture better than modern Western culture because it's simpler? It's doubtless better for them.

The culture we've created in the 21st century doesn't seem to have advanced us much beyond the Amazonians who still eat, procreate, get drunk and go to war over it all. Whatever modernity has to offer won't improve them. We can't save their souls in any sense - better to leave them in peace.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Member of the Opposition: San Francisco's Circumcision Ban

The male member is a highly comic figure, even (especially) when not the subject of graphic portraiture. It has always had its mockers and detractors, always gone about with a bit of raffish tarnish, always been the chap who draws the easy laugh, the cheap snigger and the staged trip-up. It begs disadvantageous analogy with the smaller rodents and fungi, its character always in question - too often in the way, or simply not there when needed.

Now the City of San Francisco has done its worst by the wee lad (I really wanted to write "wurst" there but I am not going to add puns to the manifold tribulations of Le Petit Prince).  A proposal to ban the circumcision of children will be on the November ballot in San Francisco - the nation's first public vote on whether to dismantle or not to dismantle. This sort of public attention does not contribute anything to the gravitas of the minor citizen in question, nor to the body civil (if that's the right word here) that would even bring it up for a vote. ("Put it to a vote" might be a happier phrase, but let it pass - as I said, a highly comic figure.)

"Yo, careful!"

Supporters of the ban say male circumcision is a form of genital mutilation - akin to the illegal mutilation of females - unnecessary, extremely painful, possibly dangerous; and that parents should not be able to force the decision on a child.  

"Parents are really guardians, and guardians have to do what's in the best interest of the child. It's his body, it's his choice," said San Francisco resident hand-wringer Lloyd Schofield, the measure's lead proponent.  Cutting away the foreskin, he insists, is a more invasive medical procedure than many new parents or childless people realize.

"Couldn't we make it less . . . wrinkly?"

In a 1999 article in The Humanist, the authors argue that circumcision violates both the Fourteenth Amendment and international law, specifically the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Be that as it may, circumcision seems to be the default procedure on little boys born in the U.S. The worldwide average, according to a Huffington Post article, is 30 percent, though the U.S. average is close to 80 percent. Proponents of circumcision generally cite its hygienic advantages - a suitably coiffed pecker is presumably less likely to catch in ski lifts, Tommy-lifts, elevator doors, car doors, trouser mangles, tailgates, zippers, CD players, malfunctioning prostheses and so on.

For my part (if you'll permit that expression), I had no say in the matter, nor do I remember the procedure as being either traumatic, degrading or particularly uncomfortable. I do have childhood memories of the doctor who performed it - "Dunn Me Wrong" Dunn, who made reparations for his violation of my human rights by handing me a little corked vial of sugar "pills" every time he examined me in his office, with the earnest injunction to take them regularly until they were gone. It never occured to me that I had been "docked," in common with the sorts of dogs - Dobermans, Great Danes, schnauzers, boxers - that regularly had their ears and tails ideally reconfigured for the Westminster Trials.

Would you do it to your dog? 

The national Jewish and Muslim communities are promising legal remedy should the measure pass a vote, as such a proscription violates immemorially old religious practices. In that respect, it seems as though the San Francisco City Council is a) trivializing its legislative mandate, and b) engaging in the sort of moral fascism that would also conceivably criminalize, as a violation of their rights and inherent dignity, the sale and transport of goldfish in plastic bags.

Goldfish in Gitmo

As is so often the case in instances of preposterous legislation, there is a fundamental deficiency in any leavening sense of history. The schmekel has been the object of rabbinical jurisdiction for milennia, instructions for its proper care and feeding institutionalized in sacred writings from ancient days. It brings peace and makes war . . . 

Rape of the Sabine Women (Jacopo Ligozzi) 

Its names are legion. It is a literary character, a biblical character, a figure of myth and legend. The Greeks and Romans deified it as Priapos, a rustic fertility god, protector of livestock, crops and male genitalia.The classical Mediterranean countryside was awash in goat-legged satyrs on the lookout for the easy tumble (the goat's horns were the symbol of the cuckolded husband).

"Beat it, kid."

The Hindustani countryside is littered with lingams, the stumpy, becomingly modest stone monuments to Shiva's procreative travels, invariably watched over by a canopy of five cobras (which might plausibly represent the San Francisco municipal overlords).

  "Is he 'Big Boy,' is he 'Little Boy'?" 

The final irony is that San Francisco of all places, a city known for a broader than usual tolerance of "lifestyle choices," should unaccountably choose to put its collective hand in the civic pants to the extent of removing the question from the realm of personal choice. Whether to go smooth or wrinkled into the world should not be left to the same people who set the zoning regulations. 

As I said, a highly comic figure. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Vote Naked

In Evelyn Waugh's 1934 novel, A Handful of Dust, a boring English aristocrat named Tony Last divorces an unfaithful wife, turns his back on England and escapes into the Brazilian rain forest. Lost, marooned in the jungle, Tony falls ill and wanders delirious into an isolated village where he is nursed back to health by the illiterate half-caste Englishman, Mr. Todd. Todd is a lover of Dickens, and Tony's fate is to remain Todd's prisoner for life in the remote jungle, reading aloud to him from Todd's mildewed set of Dickens' novels.

"By the time that they were in the second volume however, the novelty of the old man's delight had begun to wane, and Tony was feeling strong enough to be restless. He touched more than once on the subject of his departure, asking about canoes and rains and the possibility of finding guides. But Mr. Todd seemed obtuse and paid no attention to these hints.

One day, running his thumb through the pages of Bleak House that remained to be read, Tony said, 'We still have a lot to get through. I hope I shall be able to finish it before I go.'

'Oh yes,' said Mr. Todd. 'Do not disturb yourself about that. You will have time to finish it, my friend.' "

This bizarre scenario returns to mind because it seems to me that the only thing worse than a lifetime of reading Dickens to an illiterate might have been sitting through a reading of Dickens by the author himself.

"You there, Sir - sit down!"

No, I take that back. The only thing worse than a lifetime of reading Dickens to an illiterate is the quadrennial runup to the Presidential election, in which, by a horrible role reversal, serial illiterates read some version of Dickens to the rest of us.

The field, of course, will be dominated by the Micawberesque blather and humbug of Gingrich. Adding to Gingrich's brand of humbug is Tom Miller, a "career flight attendant" whose political website sports the same litany of imminent fears familiar to any Republican and Faux News listener, everything from "Elected officials publicly dismissing the United States of America as a Judeo-Christian nation," to "Enemies captured on a foreign battlefield to be brought into our cities, tried within our public court systems, and given the rights and protections of a U.S. citizen" to "The wage of Federal employees to be 90% higher than the average of private sector employees" to "My President to appoint 36 czars, bypassing the Congressional confirmation process, giving these individuals a Federal authority over the citizens of the U.S.A." And more from the same hymnal.

But beyond the seemingly unending prospects of watching a waffling Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty's mindless embrace of contradiction, Michelle Bachmann's ignorance, Sarah Palin's cute gormlessness, Rick Perry's razor-cut machismo, Herman Cain's clueless affability, there are some bright spots in Bleak House. I'm not making any of this up just to add the spice of irony to another deadening political cycle.

For 2012, there is even a Democrat willing to take his chances against the incumbent, a chap named Randall Terry. Terry is a used car dealer from upstate New York and founder of the militant anti-abortion Operation Rescue. 

"I'll have an LGBT on white bread."

Terry is in favor of life, according to the introductory blurb on the nonpartisan website 2012.presidential-candidates.org. "[I]t may seem a little odd for a pro-life and anti-LGBT candidate to run for the Democratic nomination," his introductory copy concedes in understatement which, like the impending campaign, is devoid of any irony. Presumably Terry is for life, so long as it resembles neither a prime rib nor some person who behaves in ways which are none of his business. Fortunately the national patience will not be much taxed by Terry, whose mantle of sanctimony will doubtless be worn, again with merciful brevity, by Rick Santorum, the ex-Congressman whom Pennsylvania wisely forebore to return to his duties in Washington.

"I can't feel a thing." 

The candidate, who was reportedly lobotomized during a rowdy Republican fundraiser in the 2000 election cycle ("I thought it was the tattoo room"), claims civil liberties as his first concern - he opposes abortion rights, same-sex marriage, gay adoption, the teaching of evolution, sharia law, and gun control. He supports the Patriot Act, torture and domestic wiretapping. He apparently lacks an economic or foreign affairs agenda, presuming that a nation free from sin and theological error is a safe and happy place, where poverty strengthens character and where war is something we do to someone else.

On the Tea Party ticket there is Robert Burck, better known as the Naked Cowboy, "The World's Most Celebrated Entertainer."  Burck was a tourist attraction on Times Square for many years, his most recent ambition to be "the wealthiest person who has ever lived," presumably edging out Mithridates, Darius and Cyrus (kings of Persia), Ptolemy of Egypt, and Porfirio Rubirosa (the good always die young - in Ferraris). For $500, you can be married in Times Square by the "Reverend Naked Cowboy," although his official website makes no mention of his presidential aspirations nor does it outline a policy agenda. Naked is a notoriously litigious cowpoke, the stuff America's political heritage is made of.

Robert Burck: The next Johnson?

Last, though in this field it's always hard to tell who might be least, I give you Jimmy ("The Rent is Too Damn High") McMillan, who has retooled a failed mayoral bid in New York City (2009) and a failed gubernatorial bid in New York State (2010) as a Republican presidential run. Some people just can't be rejected by enough other people at one time to be happy. This tonsorial artifact and curiosity of the barber's skill has since shifted his sights to President Obama, warning that, "If you don't do your job right, I am coming at you." McMillan filed a legal notice against the New York City Board of Elections for removing the word "damn" from his party's name on mayoral ballots, arguing that from all he can find in the King James Bible, "Damn is the word of God."

McMillan explained to a gathering of Young Republicans at New York University, in a flotsam of prepositions and pronouns adrift of their referents, that, “Daddy gotta do what Daddy gotta do [when] you can’t afford to live here, you can’t afford to buy that," adding, "It’s easy to talk to you cuz you like my kids.” Presumably McMillan has sired several upper-class white children who can afford the freight at NYU. And for many presidential aspirants, conversation is always much easier once grammatical constraints are scuttled.

On second thought, I may have taken too dim a view - maybe things won't be so dismal this year, at least until the wheat of sanctimony is threshed from the chaff of comedy. I'll even take back what I said earlier about Sarah Palin. If she runs, that'll be fun, too. But for my money, it's the Naked Cowboy by a furlong (or a farsang, whichever is longer).

 Vote Naked

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Rosy JPEGs of Memory

“We are just scratching the surface when it comes to interacting with the brain, but this experiment shows what’s possible, and the great potential of interacting with the brain in this way.”  
                                       - Daryl Kipke,  professor of bioengineering, University of Michigan

Today's New York Times reports that, "Scientists have designed a brain implant that restored lost memory function and strengthened recall of new information in laboratory rats — a crucial first step in the development of so-called neuroprosthetic devices . . . ." In short, neuroscientists can improve memory with a brain implant that mimics the firing patterns of neurons. This differs from "implants that allow paralyzed people to move prosthetic limbs or a computer cursor, using their thoughts to activate the machines." The new device "translated . . . signals internally, to improve brain function rather than to activate outside appendages." Rats learned to remember which of two identical levers dispensed water; the animals first saw one of the two levers appear and, after being distracted, had to remember to press the second lever to be rewarded. I can almost imagine the rats manipulating a tiny cellphone app with their thumbs to get the water.

"Water, water, aspirin . . . damn apps never work."

The rats were implanted with a tiny array of electrodes threaded from the top of the head into neighboring areas of the hippocampus, which (as I have noted elsewhere) is responsible for memory in creatures with brains. 

Creature with brain

I'm pleased that experts are busily "scratching the surface when it comes to interacting with the brain," and can appreciate the potential of such technological breakthroughs as well as the next person (see photo above). For that matter, I'm personally in favor of interacting with the brain, scratching or no scratching, which being only human, I try to do regularly, scratching generally being one of my favorite ways to interact with my brain. But since my brain seems to have a mind of its own and interacts with so many things besides me, I have only a mixed record of success. On those increasingly rare occasions when my brain is interacting, it's all I can do just to keep my thumbs out of the way

which to my way of thinking is enough reason not to have a Twitter account. You can probably see where this might be going.

Neuroprosthetics will doubtless prove a benison to humankind, particularly since so complex an organ of apprehension is prone to predictable malfunctions at unpredictable times.

"Uhhh . . . this ain't my car keys!"

Nevertheless, much as I dislike throwing cold water on progress, this trend seems to be going in the wrong direction. Playing with electronics is playing with fire. Think about it - the human brain connected to a pair of thumbs connected to . . . there's no telling what might happen.

Christopher Lee, New York's forgotten ex-Representative
Following that, it's just too easy to imagine the tragicomic prospect of some poor chap's neuroprosthetic memory-enhancing implant short-circuited by a dowsing in the shower, a surfeit of ear wax or a too-enthusiastic application of Valvoline . . . 

. . . broadcasting his innermost thoughts, dreams and aspirations via his Twitter account without the interposition of anyone's thumbs. I leave it to future neurological research to discover whether, since memories often return to us in a visual format, neuroprosthetically enhanced memory will be reproduceable as a .jpg file.

(His thumbs got in the way.)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Death of the Tour Caterer

[From a manuscript purported to be among the literary relicts of the estate of Ernest Hemingway. In observance of the 2011 Tour de France which commences this July, as it does each year.]

The Death of the Tour Caterer

That summer it was very hot. In the mountains it was also very hot. The mountain passes held the heat and shimmered in the afternoons. That year we had come for the bicycle racing. It was in the season after Coppi had won his last Giro in the Italian mountains. We had come to the French mountains for the start of this season. 

The days were hot like steel. We had come on the train as far as Argentuil where the mountain stages would start, and we sat in the café on the square, moving farther back into the shade as the sun moved. The white wine of Auvergne was cold in the carafe and it was very good. 

It will be a good Tour this year, said Burns.

Yes, I said.  

Why do you say so? asked the woman.

Because, said Burns. It is being catered by Berthold Infantile again. The creme of all Tour caterers. His fromage roti en croute is a legend on the Swiss team. But for his paté des truffes en brioche he was awarded the Legion d’Honneur.
Yes, I said. It is true.
 Berthold Infantile, tour caterer

It’s so hot, said the woman. Order something cold, please. 

I turned to the waiter standing in the shade. Garçon, un Campari avec soda et citron, s’il vous plait. 

Que? he said 

Una Campari con soda y limon, por favor. I said. The Spaniard turned and was gone. When he came back he held the Campari on a round tray. He set it down and the woman took it and sipped it quickly in the heat. I picked up the carafe of wine and drank the straw-colored wine from the neck of the bottle. It was cold and it was very good in the wet bottle. 

What is special about Infantile? asked the woman. 

For me it is the oeufs en glacée au Brillat-Savarin, said Burns. 

Infantile is a genius, I said. He alone is the Tour. 

Everyone agrees, said Burns. All the riders agree. When he catered the Giro after the war he found the best wines from nowhere. The war had destroyed the best cellars, but he found the wines anyway. They appeared. Twenty years old some were, some older, premiere crus, deuxieme. He even served a ’24 Chateau d’Yquem to the mechaniques. And he defied the rationing because he refused to set out panoni for the riders. He had found besides the wines some foie gras. The authorities were amazed at his ingenuity. They left him alone because the riders insisted. 

Bartali nearly went to jail defending him, I said. 

The woman looked bored. She fanned herself in the heat. It was very hot and the wine was very cold. It was good. Burns filled his glass with the straw-colored wine. We both drank the wine and looked away. 

Bartali in the mountains, 1937

From the street Bassano the Italian rider came into the plaza of the café. He was lean. He walked over and sat down next to the woman. She moved into the shade. Bassano looked away.

You are riding? I said. 

Yes, he said. I am riding. It will be a good Tour, he said. He looked darkly at the woman. 

Why, asked the woman. She looked back at him and smiled.

Infantile, he said. Berthold is catering the Tour again this year. Tremendous. The timbales, so heavy you can’t ride afterwards. They will be the deeds that canonize him.  

Yes, I said. But the ortolans are very scarce this season. The table de pavé will not be complete without the ortolans, I said. 

Bassano looked at me and said nothing. He looked away at the waiter and ordered a beer. It came and it was cold. He drank from the bottle and looked away. He thought of the ortolans which were very scarce that season. 

Fausto Coppi

That season the Tour went very slowly in the early stages because of the heat in the plains of the Loire. Burns and I had stayed in the mountains with the woman. We followed the progress of the race each morning in the newspapers that came to the hotel. We read the morning papers and drank the white armagnac of Gascogne in large balloons and ordered pots of the dark coffee and waited for the mountain stages to begin. 

Each day as the Tour edged closer to the Mont d’Auvergnais the advance crowds became heavier. Some Spaniards took the floor above our rooms and we heard them drinking Rioja and cognac fundador late into the night. Their cigars glowed on the terrace above our windows and they talked very softly in the night.  

The first mountain stage from Pont au Roussel to Point d’Abysse was the stage on which the Englishman Tony Smythe-Whyte had died in the last season. In a twisting descent on the Col d’Epicure his rear wheel caught a bit of the torte flambé des ananas Cointreau that Infantile’s apprentice had dropped on the road while handing it en passant to a Yugoslav domestique. That year the judges nearly ended the Tour catering. But Berthold remained firm. Bartali nearly went to jail defending him. 

So Berthold had returned always in the seasons after that one. He was the Tour. No one blamed him for the death of the Englishman. It had happened and it was finished. But he no longer used bananas in his tortes dulces

Gino Bartali

Bassano led after the eleventh stage. The Italians kept the pack away from him and he led. When the Tour arrived in the mountains for the twelfth stage Bassano had gained weight. 

Bassano has grown fat, I said. 

Not fat, said the woman. Perhaps - pudgy. 

On the first morning of the mountain stages Infantile’s old lorry parked on the street beneath the hotel balcony. Infantile came from the lorry and walked slowly into the hotel. He came into the bar. He saw me and nodded. 

Berthold, I said. 

Jack, he said. No, no cognac this morning. I am not well. His voice was low and he looked away.  

You are perhaps only tired? But the riders count on you, I said. 

Yes, he said looking at me. They count on me. But on whom do I count? On my idiot apprentices? On no one can I count. On whom does Infantile depend? On God alone. Perhaps. 
He looked away. 

It is true, I said. Have a coffee. The coffee came and it was hot and dark. He looked at the barman and turned away. 

The riders, he said. They think they cannot ride without my timbales, without my canard aux marronnes, without my poule de Bresse, my pommes de terres aux Lyons. I give them my soul.
He drank the dark coffee. 

Yes, I said. It is true. I looked away. 

My very soul, he said. I am tired. Omelettes de porcines, entrecôte de bistek, sole a la mousseline. The riders, they would eat away my soul. I can barely feed the Italian team. 

It is for France that you do it, I said. 

He sighed. Bassano has grown fat, he said. It is good he rides for the Italians. But I am tired. If it is for France, how do the Italians and the Spaniards win the Tour every season? If I feed them as well as the French am I not a traitor to my country, to my compatriots? Et pourtant . . . .

In the street his apprentices had set the table de pavé. It was covered in white cloths and laid with croissants aux chocolat and buerre au Normandie. The butter was pale and glistened in the crocks. It was cold. 

The mountain stage had started below in Saint Apostole an hour before. I waited on the street in front of the hotel. The peloton of the Italians rode in a close line up the street to the hotel. They stopped and put the croissants in their pockets and remounted. Then the Spaniards came, and the Swiss. It happened in this way many times that morning. The butter was no longer cold and it darkened the pockets of the riders’ jerseys. 

Raymond Poulidor, Jacques Anquetil

An Italian mechanic from the Molteni squad found him first. When the lingue de boeuf en gelée did not appear at noon farther along the stage route the Italian had gone to Berthold’s room in the hotel. Infantile was lying on his back. His eyes were open and he held the beef tongue over his breast. It had not yet been boiled. His toque blanche hung on the bedpost with a fresh apron.

When his wife was told of his death she looked away. The Tour will never be the same, she said. She did not weep. 

He was very sad about the quail after the war, she said. After the war he knew it would not be the same. The quail were scarce and the quality was poor. He said to me that his salmis de caille en port rouge et blanc suffered. The salmis was Blagosevic’s favorite, the favorite of the Bulgarian team, she said. And the ortolans became scarce after the war. Then, of course, there was the Englishman . . . . 

She said nothing else. 

Madame Infantile evacuating ortolans during the war

There was a wake for him in the plaza of the Café d’ Argentuil where the Tour had entered the mountain stages. The riders came and sat in small groups, sitting without order on the café chairs. They did not speak. 

Bassano wiped his eyes. He stood up. 

The other riders looked at him. He gulped and did not speak. They looked away. 

When he spoke he told of winning the Tour in the last season before the war. It was the season when the mechanics were on strike and the bicycles were not kept well. It was before the war and there was no oil for the chains of the bicycles. The pelotons made much noise in that season. 

Bassano spoke of the season of no oil when the mechanics went on strike. The riders remembered and they nodded their heads. Some riders looked away. 

He spoke of his friend Berthold and of the table de pavé of the great Infantile. He spoke of the timbales. He remembered the ortolans which had not been scarce in those years. It was in those years that the riders gained much weight in the tour because of the table of Berthold, he told them. 

He told of how the table of the great Infantile had won the race for him that year. The early stages were easy that season, he remembered. There were plenty of ortolans then, and sturgeon en aspic, and the timbales were filled with the ham of pigs fed on chestnuts, with the truffes noir of Picardy. And the bottles of vins Bordelais were covered with the old dust of the cellars of Saint Emilion. 

He remembered every one of Berthold Infantile’s tables des pavés in the lowland stages that season. He remembered each vol-au-vent, each pot-au-feu, he remembered the heaps of ortolans they ate like popcorn at the halts. The langoustes en hollandaise. . . , he said, and he stopped. The young riders waited for Bassano to finish the story of the langoustes. The older riders wept. Bassano looked away. 

Then he told them of the mountain stages in that season, how the bicycles made much noise because there was no oil. The bicycles were difficult to ride because there was no oil that year, and the passes were very steep. 

I could hear the other riders behind me like locusts, he said. Their chains rasped like swarms of cicadas. I heard them plainly. It was my signal to ride harder. They could not catch me so long as I knew where they were. 

He told them of how in the hardest mountain stage the table of Infantile had saved him the race that season. 

There I was, he said, the Alpe d’Huez to climb the next day, nothing in my water bottle but the last of the La Tache ’27, and nothing to grease my chain with but the confit au canard.
The widow Infantile could no longer weep. She looked away.

  'The Year of No Oil'

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What the Soigneur Knew

With the Tour de France a scant three weeks away, the 2011 cycling season has thus far been squeaky-clean as compared with previous years, when team cars full of enriched blood samples, EPO and performance enhancers of every stripe were being apprehended on montane byways, elite riders were failing post-stage urine tests, and top seeds were sitting out the Grand Tours like Denver Broncos at Super Bowl time (what do you call 45 millionaires sitting around watching the Super Bowl?) It seemed that little had changed since the Festina team doping scandal of '97 opened that can of worms to the purview of a fascinated world.

Watch  that stomach

The most urgent question in cycling these days is, not whether Alberto Contador will be permitted to ride in the Tour (he will, apparently), but whether Lance has been altogether forthcoming about his own use of banned substances in past championship years, beginning with his first Tour win in 1999. In fact, Bicycling Magazine has devoted an entire subsection of its online edition to the matter under discussion.

Lance has denied all charges to the point of harrassing, bullying and even suing detractors and any potential witness for the prosecution, which is actively investigating charges levelled by former teammates. A recent New York Times article relates an encounter between Armstrong and Tyler Hamilton in an Aspen, Colorado restaurant frequented by Armstrong and his entourage. 

Hamilton, who recently appeared on a segment of "60 Minutes" devoted to doping allegations against Armstrong, has been subpoenaed to testify in grand jury hearings concerning Armstrong's drug use while a professional cyclist. The FBI is interested in securing footage from the restaurant security camera that may record a case of Armstrong "tampering" with the witness, Hamilton. The stories surrounding Armstrong and his former teammates are beginning to smack of a "Goodfellas" outtake . . . 

"Whaddaya want fumee?"

Hitherto, the ritual has been the same in almost every case of doping - denial, rejection by former friends and teammates, silence, and finally abject confession. Whether it plays out according to form in Lance's case I have no prediction - the verdict will establish the fact, whether or not he actually doped. But it seems appropriate, at this balmy time of year and in these unfolding circumstances, to recall more lenient times when drugs were simpler, and to remember a cyclist who seems now more gentlemanly, forthright, and cultured than many of the current lot.

Jacques Anquetil, ca. 1952

Jacques Anquetil was the first cyclist to win the Tour de France five times, beginning with the 1957 Tour (and consecutively in '61, '62, '63, '64 - he was subsequently joined by Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain and Armstrong, who added two Tours to the record). Anquetil was short, dapper, well-dressed and courtly. He was a Norman and was said to be partial to the rich fare of his home province - preferably washed down with champagne - to the point of not altering such a diet even for the rigors of the Grand Tours. Never a roisterer, his training regimen was never what you could call spartan. His fans would rush out with glasses of the bubbly for him as he finished a stage. He never seemed to suffer for that (though he did suffer in the mountain stages). On the rest day during the 1964 Tour (one story goes), Anquetil feasted on a slab of roast lamb while the other riders were out for an easy ride and a day of rest. The next day, he was dropped on the first climb, losing over four minutes to the stage leaders. A champagne-filled water bottle supplied by his team manager Geminiani finally soothed his troubled stomach, and he eventually regained the field.

Anquetil (l), Poulidor contend le Puy de Dome, 1964 Tour

He was an elegant cyclist with a classically steady cadence. The journalist Owen Mulholland wrote of him, "The sight of Jacques Anquetil on a bicycle gives credence to an idea we Americans find unpalatable, that of a natural aristocracy. . . . that indefinable poise was always there. The look was that of a greyhound. His arms and legs were extended more than was customary in his era of pounded post-World War II roads. And the toes pointed down. . . . His smooth power dictated his entire approach to the sport. Hands resting serenely on his thin Mafac brake levers, [he] appeared to cruise while others wriggled in desperate attempts to keep up."

"Toes down, boys, and wriggle."

Nonetheless, he could be maddening to fans, onlookers and teammates. He calculated everything by way of expending the least possible effort to win. In all his Tour victories, he only occasionally won a stage. He never took a chance, never attacked except when necessary, never assisted his fellow riders. He remained a cipher, a superb cyclist but never an animateur.

Doping predates the Grand Tours, beginning with the notorious indoor "six-day races" of the 1890s, when riders dosed themselves on nitroglycerine or strychnine. Doping included ether, always alcohol, and after the Second War, amphetamines. It was only in 1966 (the year before the Englishman Tom Simpson collapsed and died in the Tour from amphetamine overdose) that France passed its first drug law - a law which did not govern the Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling's governing body.

Anquetil, who took amphetamines, probably said the final word on doping and the European Grand Tour circuit - in a debate with a government minister on French television, he remarked quite frankly that no one could ride the Bordeaux–Paris on bread and water. Cyclists, he insisted, had to ride through "the cold, through heatwaves, in the rain and in the mountains", and they had the right to treat themselves as they wished. "Leave me in peace," he concluded; "everyone takes dope."

He was, like anyone else, a man of his time, unapologetic, candid about his doping, willing to forfeit the world hour record to spare himself the indignity of a urine test in a public stadium. Presumably Armstrong is also a man of his own time, though the times are different and call for tactics less seemly, less forthright and manly. For my own part, I can't get breathless over the final issue of Lance's doping allegations. I've always assumed that he doped, but whether he did or didn't, I'm almost too old to have any more heroes. Besides, no man is a hero to his soigneur.

 My heroes have, on occasion, been cowboys.