Monday, October 31, 2011

The Provisional Obituary

Prepare Your Own Obituary. Or would you rather let your kids have the last word?
                                                -  (classified ad, New York Review of Books) 

Browsing the NYRB classifieds, as I do assiduously, this advertisement from "ObitWriter" caught my eye. I think it was the parting dig about the chances we might be running in defaulting to our offspring, bequeathing to them the license of our palpable absence to play fast and loose with the nicer points of our biographies. A noble service, providing "pre-need obituaries," and a tempting offer of assistance. But at $100 per hour, it seemed good sense to make the attempt on my own before calling in a hired hand (or pen, as the case may be).

"And when she learned of your. . . shall we say. . . ambidexterity?" 

The obituary writer is one of those hirelings, like a wedding planner, whose services one never imagined on offer to a grateful public until the moment of throwing down one's pen with a horrible oath, overturning the inkwell in the full knowledge that the task has proven beyond one's own meager powers of expression, imagination, foresight, organization, fortitude, execution, management or lasting interest. 

The Wedding Planner

It could be a lucrative profession (one's clientele always oblige by dying), but not so lucrative as the wedding planner's (they generally die but once). Still, a potentially endless field for the harvest, and with a penchant for the nicely turned phrase an erstwhile litterateur (or litterateuse) might realize a tidy noncorporate income.

Not that it would be easy money - writing "pre-need" obituaries, it goes without saying, implies the inevitability of at least one editor, and one for whose affairs it may be necessary to put things nicely, with a certain sensitivity to nuance and to the ambiguities of a life lived perhaps a bit . . . haphazardly. 

And then, once the client is gone to his reward, a new set of editors takes over. "Jones was widely known in local winetasting circles," or "Smith's personally funded researches into statistical probability and return on investment (ROI) made him a legend among the region's casino managers" may not necessarily admit of broad interpretation, so the poor scribe is either required by surviving family members to rewrite it or leave out entirely the very thing which gave the deceased any notoriety. It's a devil of a choice, and phrasing the truth to universal approval can be a torture. (This is, succinctly stated, the Theory of Relativity.)

"Oww-butt Einthein" 

In the interests, then, both of Miguel's household oeconomy and the wish for an accurate encomium upon my translation to a better world, I loosened my pen and inscribed the following "characteristic" or brief - one possible history, however provisional, of an unconcluded life.

Miguel de Montaigne, beloved and widely acclaimed boulevardier, raconteur, flaneur, gougnafier, branleur, homme du monde, jean-foutre and bon vivant was a happy issue of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, being among the first wave of Baby Boomers to wash ashore on the soil of his adopted homeland.

Little Miguel was an energetic and curious lad, displaying early the spirit of enterprise and entrepreneurialism by amassing much of his young companions' lunch money, new toys and coveted items of clothing in youthful games of chance and wagers on local pigeon races. He continued on his path as humble wage-earner until his untimely expulsion from "normal" school. A series of such misunderstandings stamped Miguel early as an industrious and self-reliant little fellow.

As a young man, Miguel felt an avocation for theology, and passed several cloistered years as a seminarian. It was understandably a surprise, then, that his discovery by the local gendarmerie occasioned a change of life for the young devotee, who always maintained, as he put it so aptly, that he had "merely entered a secular cloister for a time." This intervention by the local authorities in these youthful ventures first raised in Miguel his suspicion of government and a lifelong scorn of the bureaucratic.

The nature of these fledgling entreprenurial beginnings, coupled with his familiarity with legal procedure and his general want of formal education, suited him for a life of public service in elected office, for a seat on the stock exchange, or for a life of leisure. He chose the latter, little imagining that his paucity of resources would require certain compromises in his dearest principles. 

He was lucky in love and in all sired thirteen children, who mourn his passing. He was a loving father and a faithful husband on several fronts in what he called "la guerre d'amour." He always expressed in private his regret that, the laws and customs being as they are, his various families could never meet. Still, as he always said, "je regrette rien." His epitaph reads, "Beautiful girls, walk a little slower when you walk by me."

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Man of Ready Wit

"[T]hose who joke in a tasteful way are called ready-witted, which implies a sort of readiness to turn this way and that; for such sallies are thought to be movements of the character, and as bodies are discriminated by their movements, so too are characters."
                                               - Aristotle, The Nichomachean Ethics, Bk. IV, ch. 8 

With snow coming soon to the high country, I improved the time by taking my portable camp over the Divide to the Great Sand Dunes to soak up the last of the sunshine. I found a site, settled in, and prepared myself for a quiet evening at home. Presently a couple of youngish chaps from Vermont pulled in to the neighboring campsite, set up a tent and likewise settled in. The palpable indifference between my neighbors and me was all very congenial.

Home away from home

Before very long, the fellow from the site adjoining theirs on the other side wandered over and struck up a conversation with my neighbors. Neighborly of him, I thought. An hour later, it was time for my supper, and I realized that the fellow was still standing in the same spot, his two listeners having never moved in the last hour, and that the only sound I'd been subconsciously hearing in the interim was his drone. Better them than me, thought I - I'd have sent him on his way long before now.

After my modest repast I stepped out to enjoy the last of the light over the dunes, and the trio had now settled in for the evening by a campfire, the droner still holding court. As yet I'd not heard the sound of any other voice, no more than an occasional polite chuckle from his two captives. Well, I thought as I prepared to climb into the old rack, this can't go on all night. I tried to fall asleep, but after a quarter-hour the quiet night made the steady drone more audible and more intelligible. Sentences began with "Back in my day . . . " or "After I was through college . . ." or "You could get those things back in the 60s, 'specially in Mexico." The Most Interesting Man in the World, I muttered. His parents were probably both named for him.

Rather than let myself descend into sleepless irritation, I rummaged in my kit for my trusty rubber earplugs, inserted them, and promptly dozed off. I awoke hours later (I supposed), gingerly tugged one of the plugs from my ear, and heard the insinuating drone unabated in the darkness. The night was otherwise still, and I could hear the auto-fascinated sod plainly - "Well," he drawled, "no matter whereya go, thereya are."  Oh shit, I moaned in silent irritation, did he really say that? In went the earplug and back to sleep.

He did really say that. The cliche, of course, is the stuff of the "interesting" narcissist's conversation. The trite, the vapid, the lazy-minded, the speciously clever but empty phrase - nothing calculated, nothing thoughtful, nothing funny or clever, just blather intended to pass oneself as a "character," a "really interesting guy," or whatever. An outright insult is less maddening than a cliche.

By contrast, nothing is so pleasant as ready wit. Not buffoonery or puns or heavy-handed guffaws, but the gift of quickness, a sensibility to words and their nuanced meanings, a sense of when it's appropriate and when not. Such people possess a genuine social virtue - a minor one to be sure, but still a conversational polish that gives a complicated pleasure, that does not pale or cloy with acquaintance.We are all logophiles to some degree, so it is pleasant when we hear someone play with words in ways that bring us up short and make us think about the verbal turn we just took.

When I was a young man in college some time near the end of the Little Ice Age in Europe, there was a fellow in the college business office who was notorious for his unwitting malapropisms - a real butcher of the language. There was also a member of the faculty who was equally famous for his wry, glancing wit, an offhanded sort of genius he had for the mot juste. Together in conversation, the two of them were a lethal combination. I was not present for this exchange, but one of my professors, a faculty colleague of the wit's, reported it. 

Passing one another on the campus quad, the professor inquired of the business office chap whether he had passed a pleasant weekend. "Oh," he replied, "my wife and I did a bit of furniture shopping - bought a new sexual sofa."

"Well," drolled the wit, "nothing like an occasional piece in the living room."

Friday, October 21, 2011

By Jesus' Nails

Searching for the best and most inventive of curses he could find to make a point against the visitor who had just too severely cursed his manservant, Walter Shandy settles upon the Roman Catholic form of excommunication. Explains Walter:  

"I have the greatest veneration in the world for that gentleman, who, in distrust of his own discretion in this point, sat down and composed (that is at his leisure) fit forms of swearing suitable to all cases, from the lowest to the highest provocation which could possibly happen to him — which forms being well considered by him, and such moreover as he could stand to, he kept them ever by him on the chimney-piece, within his reach, ready for use. . . .

[S]o rising up and reaching down a form of excommunication of the church of Rome, a copy of which, my father (who was curious in his collections) had procured out of the leger-book of the church of Rochester, writ by Ernulphus the bishop—with a most affected seriousness of look and voice, which might have cajoled Ernulphus himself—he put it into Dr. Slop’s hands."
              (Laurence Sterne, "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent." - Bk.II, ch.II)

Bishop Ernulphus's Anathema, which Sterne then writes out in its entirety in both Latin and English, contains such passages as this:

May the holy choir of the holy virgins, who for the honour of Christ have despised the things of the world, damn him — May all the saints, who from the beginning of the world to everlasting ages are found to be beloved of God, damn him — May the heavens and earth, and all the holy things remaining therein, damn him, or her.’

 Boat Ride to the Other Side

Colorful stuff, that - a pure and unadulterated stream from a Golden Age of Cursing, surely one of the grander legacies of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. I had long been meaning to work up a helpful practicum of curses and cursing, recognizing (as must any civilized person) that the art of swearing has fallen into a sad state in the past several centuries, and wishing to add my small effort gratis to the cultural revival that must surely overtake this once-great nation. 

Stumbling on a Huffington Post story about Jesus' nails, this passage in Sterne sprang immediately to mind. "By Jesus' nails!" I thought, seeming to remember that I must often have read some such Shandean passage as: " 'Pon Our Lord's nails!" cried my father, "I would not give a fiddlestick for it!" T'was a round papish oath - my Uncle Toby blush'd." Alas, the oath appears nowhere in Sterne, though many just as fine are found there.

A moment's reading and it dawned that the report concerned no such trenchant manner of speech, nor even Our Lord's grooming habits, but a new documentary concerning the alleged discovery of some of the nails used at the crucifixion. The nails turned up most recently in the laboratory of a Tel Aviv anthropologist who is an expert on ancient bones. Science, for all its pretensions, seems to be as often an unwitting dupe to superstition as it is a font of knowledge. 

The premise of the film, "The Nails of the Cross," is that some nails were discovered in a Jerusalem tomb (supposed to be the tomb of the high priest who surrendered Jesus to the Roman authorities), then mysteriously disappeared for 20 years and were rediscovered in a Tel Aviv laboratory by a journalist named Simcha Jacobovici. The filmmaker is trying to establish that these were very likely the nails used to secure Jesus to the cross.

Several thoughts spring to mind - recall the once-brisk trade in "wood of the true cross." Historians have always scoffed at this phenomenon by pointing out that enough of the true cross exists in the reliquaries of the faithful to build an armada of ships. It seems a reasonable corollary to suspect that there is also ballast enough in the crop of extant holy nails to sink the entire fleet. The Church wisely forbids the sale of these holy relics.

Nonetheless, the curiosity for relics is immemorial in the species - and in truth it seems a natural urge to want some connection to those we regard with particular veneration as especially wise, holy or good. Hipbone connected to the thighbone, thighbone connected to the legbone, legbone connected to the footbone - close is good enough in the veneration business. But, as Thoreau famously (and somewhat mystifyingly) remarks, "Some evidence is circumstantial, like trout in the milk." Even circumstantial evidence would be strong by comparison with the speculations that typically afix the provenance of a relic, Jesus' nails being no exception.

 The Radius of St. Ulna

But just as important, relics have been a part of our language for milennia - they are the very stuff of oaths. Our forefathers have sworn by the bones of St. Hilarion, or by the chains/keys/watchfob/spectacles/truss of St. Peter, or by the chasuble of St. Chrysostom or the nickers of St. Bridgid. 

A good oath belongs to any person of imagination touched with a gift of the logos - it should enter the conversation like an aged cheese. Here, as a foretaste and advertisement of my intended "Panopticon, Thesaurus and Amanuensis to the Ancient and Revered Art of Swearing Like a Bloody Gentleman (Classical Method)," I have included a handy exercise - see if you can replace the sample captions with oaths riper, more penetrating and memorable.

 "By the ballocks and braces of Pitt the Elder." 

 "By all the mystical appurtenances of St. Cunagunda."
 (This isn't as easy as it seems)
"Ministering saints and angels of mercy preserve us!"

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

One Man's Meat

As the world population balloons blithely towards seven billion people, one of us is missing and presumed eaten. A German tourist (by now a redundant expression like 'round circle') has disappeared in the bush of Nuku Hiva, a large island in the South Pacific archipelagoes. The chap was reported lost by his female traveling companion, taken off on a goat hunt by a resident guide who returned without him, attempted to lure the lady into the brush on a search for her "injured" mate, and then attempted to molest her credulity further by tying her to a tree and making some suggestions which did not invite a broad interpretation.

 The Preprandial Tourist

Searchers have found recently charred human remains, including teeth, bones, jaw and skull fragments and what appear to be melted dental fillings scattered around an extinguished fire. Both local authorities and French police are searching for local tribal people, many of whom had noticeably left before the dessert course. According to one "newsiness" source, "The tribe suspected of killing and eating Mr Ramin had claimed they gave up cannibalism years ago. Local authorities are investigating but it remains unclear if any tribesmen have been held, or even found."

It would naturally be unconvincing to merely deny having enjoyed Mr. Ramin at all (as if they might have stood accused of a mere dietary lapse or a hankering for a seasonal specialty). No, the times demand that the practice itself be soundly repudiated. The current age also demands that French and Nuku Hivan authorities, wherever their personal proclivities may tend, concertedly launch a furious and outraged search for the absconded dinner party.

"Not me, Doc - can't stand tourists."

In this age of "individual rights" it is natural to suppose that we all have the right to travel freely and unmolested wherever the wind or democratic fancy might take us. In our saner moments, we (especially Americans) understand that this isn't the case. But it's easy to think that Siemens and ExxonMobil and Mitsubishi and Tata and Suzlon and Nissan have not only tamed the globe but that they own it and obligingly invite us to burn their gasoline in their automobiles and airplanes to enjoy the usufructs of their civilizing global omnipresence.

Without diminishing the gravity of murdering - or, more charitably, eating - an innocent traveler, the world is not yet like that. It seems to make a difference that the German was probably eaten, but why should it, really? Had this happened in, say, the United States (saving Texas, Utah or Nevada), it would be a clear case of psychotic aberration. But we Amero-European naifs can still stray beyond the pale of "civilized" humanity into old and "unaccustomed" customs, into places of the globe where (unbeknownst to us) we had no business being in the first place - places like Afghanistan where, though we may not be eaten outright, we might be converted to a godless Islam or shot on sight. We know better than to walk through the Hindu Kush these days, but how much else do we know? Dead is dead, whatever the state of the corpus delicti. Other cultures, not so distant from our own, already know this vaguely.

(They can't remember how Captain Cook tasted)

The "global" economy is one of our fondest myths. Even to call the act a murder is to presume that our own "developed" moral code has suffused the globe and made it a finer thing than it was at the creation. Had the poor sod not (by all appearances) been a group barbecue it would have been just the murder or disappearance of a luckless traveller, the usual Muslim terrorist cells would have been under heightened suspicion for a week, a foreign minister would have expressed condolences, and that would have been the end of the affair.

But, presuming he's been eaten, the moral abhorrence is palpable. Whatever for? Most of what human beings have done over the last, say, six or seven or eleven millennia was never dictated by some theory of "free market forces" nor by some Judaeo-Christian proscriptions about what's fit to eat, nor (mirabile dictu) by any "global" economic considerations such as fostering a "robust tourism industry" or "encouraging World Bank participation through the good faith removal of economic barriers." But it's still the case that large cultural tracts on the globe owe Western capitalism no moral debt whatsoever. Quite the contrary.

An ancient culture still rules in many places, mainly because culture is an evolutionary mechanism that still bonds us. Talk about "economic barriers to development." Maybe we still need some faint gasps of cultural individuality (maybe not cannibalism, but . . . ). It once fused us into survival groups (however murderous we were). Granted that survival is, for roughly two-thirds of the globe's population (so far), not an immediate issue; granted that lots of those old cultural adaptations may be a bit outdated or irrelevant to modern survival.

Nonetheless, custom dies hard. Adaptive behavior is not abandoned merely because it is no longer necessary - if that were the case, who in the hell would willingly eat a turkey at Thanksgiving?

(Which ones just smoked some weed before dinner?)

No, much of what humans do and persist in doing beggars the economist, the global market theorist, the theologian, the aid worker and the missionary. Take them all in all, human beings are a tough lot. Too bad more of us aren't a hard sell.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Critic's Notebook: 'The Wrong End of a Woman'

"Methinks, brother, replied my father, you might, at least, know so much as the right end of a woman from the wrong . . . . Right end of a woman! — I declare, quoth my uncle, I know no more which it is than the man in the moon!"
    - Laurence Sterne, "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent." (Bk.I, ch. XXXII)

In the age of social networks, when women stream live videos of their home deliveries on Facebook, share sonograms, breast feeding tips and cervical dilation data to the millimeter (mm), it's entirely likely that you may happen upon the "wrong end of a woman" while surfing the Internet or the wilderness that is cable. Marni Kotak has just upped the ante for overshare. Kotak is a performance artist who intends to give birth before an audience on the stage of a Brooklyn art museum

(Probably should have had it in the woods)

I have no particular difficulties with this intended act of public spawning - after all, it seemed an inevitability, given our cultural impetus towards the sort of personal "transparency" that too often collapses into vapidity. And you can attend or not, depending on your interest and whether the event corresponds with one of the lacunae on your astrological, lunar or standard (Gregorian) social calendar. If it turns out that you can make it, I'm sure it was meant to be.

Her motives, whether narcissistic or gender-empowering, don't pique my interest so much as her rationale for choosing to make the birth a public spectacle. It is, she claims, an artistic moment: “Giving birth is the most direct expression of the creative life force, and, therefore, the highest form of art. By giving birth in public as a work of performance art, I am making the statement that everyday life is art, just as it is.”

These two sentences bear some scrutiny, the first being incomprehensible and the second being just wrongheaded. For starters, the idea of a "creative life force" has the ring of profundity and spiritual gravitas that masks its lack of any sense. It's fun to confer ontological ballast onto our grand words and overheated phrases, but aside from a world of living breathing creatures all capable of doing animal things like procreating, we'd look long and hard for something else besides - a "life force" driving all these acts of creation here in the sublunar dirt. As though one were to watch all the whirls and frolics of a dancing child and then wonder, "But where's its 'dance'?"

Furthermore, "Everyday life" is not art - it's what the garbageman does while riding the garbage truck, what the clerk at the convenience store does while ringing up your corndog, what the janitor does when the office has cleared out for the day. I'm not saying these things can't be done artfully, with a certain individual panache, with a sense of style or flair or joie de vivre or personal elegance, but they're just not art. Even things that can be done artistically, like applying makeup or dressing store windows or hanging draperies, aren't art - to claim that they are is to allow too broadly, to permit that even the cheesy drapings of the workmanlike Christo comprise art, which is plausibly open to dispute.

Art about art

Art, even "realist" art, necessarily involves artifice. It can represent the world as it appears, someone's perception of the world, a sentiment about the world. Art is intentional in the sense that artistic works necessarily have an object (even if no more substantial than a psychic state) - something beyond the artistic object which gets expressed in some act of representation. It's also intentional in the sense that it's deliberate. Giving birth (beyond some indefinite point at which natural process is no longer choice) becomes biological inevitability, neither intentional nor unintentional. (This has no bearing on whether an "artist's intentions" are relevant to judging a work.)

But giving birth in public is just giving birth in public - just that and no more. It isn't the "direct expression" of anything at all - no more than a phallus is a "phallic symbol." It may be wonderful for all concerned, but it isn't a "performance" of something else, it neither expresses nor represents something beyond itself nor transcends everyday living to say anything about anything.

Art about life

In short, everyday living isn't art, and childbirth is part of everyday living for many of us carbon-based types. A counterexample here may be both helpful and fun. Suppose that some "artist," humbly obscure or otherwise, decides that his loo is now his studio, and begins to take commissions on his output. Does that make him an artist? or transform his performance of an everyday and inevitable function, however beneficial to himself or advantageous to the larger society, into "Art"? 

The answer by now should be at least as clear as mud.

'Jump (me)', She Said

The Federal Aviation Administration, wielding the truncheon of its air safety mandate, is investigating a porn star and an office receptionist for jumping one another on video while jumping one another from an airplane over the clear California skies. In this radical reinterpretation of "air traffic control," mid-air sexual congress initiated in a light plane may now trump the FAA's broader, more traditional and more costly congressional mandate to insure the safety of large commercial airline traffic.

 "Where, exactly?"

Alex Torres, a French Canadian porn star who goes by the nom de pecquer "Voodoo" and who (until the other day) moonlighted at Skydive Taft as a weekend jump instructor, took off with Taft receptionist Hope Howell for a tandem jump. Evidently the pair were accompanied out the bomb bay and into the empyrean by a videographer, who caught the in-cabin commencement, the in-flight consummation and the post-landing cigarette. (The only other "French Canadian porn star" would be Michael Palin doing the "Lumberjack Song.")

The video went viral until Torres removed it from the Internet, quickly realizing that media saturation could weaken any leverage he might have with "The Howard Stern Show," which was the apparent motive for doing the thing in the first place. (Howard: you can watch it uncensored right here.)

Probably for having attracted FAA scrutiny, Torres was dismissed from his employment, as was Howell who, clearly oblivious of any double entendre in the expression of her sentiments, told a reporter that she "got a phone call saying I was fired, and I feel like that was a stab in my back." I suppose she could have said, though only slightly more felicitously, that she felt let down.

Another blogger has remarked that, "The FAA’s reported involvement is based on the fact that any activity that could potentially distract the plane’s pilot is off-limits. No criminal charges are pending, and there is no suggestion that the pilot actually was distracted."

Arguably, a porn star who can't distract a pilot whilst in flagrante delicto may be on a descending career arc in more than one sense. On the other hand, those pilots have seen pretty much everything.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Poker With Aliens

In a recent New York Times column (The Stone, October 5, 2011), the author wonders whether, on the chance that they should arrive here, "Will the aliens be nice?"  He concludes that the prospect is not a neutral one and that its fascination may well be outweighed by its downside: "[F]or the foreseeable future, contact with [extraterrestrial intelligence] would have to result from their coming here, which would in all likelihood mean that they far surpassed us technologically. They would be able to enslave us, hunt us as prey, torture us as objects of scientific experiments, or even exterminate us and leave no trace of our civilization."

"Can't I just keep one?"

In short, earthlings might realize the worst of possible worlds - the aliens might be just like humans. Which raises the further question whether the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is worthwhile and desirable as scientific inquiry, merely neutral, or entirely imprudent. "Since we have no way of predicting with any certainty the outcome of such contact, it might seem that we have no reason to assume a bad rather than a good result.  From this we might conclude that there is no objection to pursuing SETI, if only to satisfy our curiosity."

The calculation, then, becomes a sort of reverse Pascal's Wager: if some course of action might produce a greater benefit than merely a neutral state of affairs, or (at worst) a sustainable disadvantage, it seems reasonable to pursue that course of action. For example, the invading (visiting?) aliens might bring a peaceful world order, technological wizardry to clean the environment, reverse climate change and prevent thermonuclear holocaust. But "they might . . . give us each thousands of years of excruciatingly painful existence as their slaves. This might not even be due to moral perversity; they might be so beyond us that they were incapable of recognizing us as objects of moral concern." They might, in other words, behave like we would.

Pascal's Wager assumes that there's no downside if you choose the course of action that might (or might not) result in the optimal outcome, while failing to do anything might (or might not) result in the worst possible outcome. It's not a choice in which the consequences are symmetrical. In the case of aliens, however, there will be an outcome whatever we choose to do, and it stands an equal chance of being good or terrible. So any continuing attempt to contact extraterrestrial intelligent life arguably has no benefit for us. Chances are equal that aliens could either save us, annihilate us, or just enslave us. And the choice will be theirs, not ours. Who would stay in the hand and ask for more cards, given those odds?

There's another possibility, of course: they might also be cloyingly nice and bring us the best of their advanced civilization, things like small dogs for pets, air freshener, processed "space food" . . .

. . . distributed-risk bundled financial instruments and the One True Religion. Still want to play?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Knucklehead Ranch

Does owning a hunting camp called "Niggerhead Ranch" make you a redneck? Absolutely. A racist? Not necessarily. No more, probably, than climbing Squaw's Tit (Alberta, CA) might qualify you as a groper, or running a jet ski across South Dakota's Squaw Humper Dam or casting a worm into Little Squaw Humper Creek would make you a wenching, antifeminist misogynist (although casting one's worm anywhere these days could . . . never mind).

Owning a scrubgrass rattlesnake ranch called "Niggerhead," however, does make you a . . .


. . . unless, of course, you've only ever invited select fellow "lawmakers" to join you there. (Lawmakers are like neighbors who all own barking dogs - none will ever complain about the excesses of the others' dogs.)

A recent article in Slate points out that, "The U.S. Board on Geographic Names . . . issued two blanket rules decades ago to erase racial slurs from federal maps. In 1962, they replaced “Nigger” with “Negro” in the names of at least 174 places. You can still find such locales as Free Negro Point in Louisiana and Little Negro Creek." Of course, one is free to translate into the regional dialect - as you might expect, federal cartographic standards do not always apply locally. And then you can always find those little cartographic obscurae on private property, Rancho Cabo de Negro a case in point.

Some "liberal pundit from Guvuner Perry's home state" (not an oxymoron, apparently) on one of the left-leaning talk shows pointed out, quite reasonably, that there is a good deal of "residual racism" in this country and that a place name for example, particularly of a place that's been in a family for decades, can escape notice as much from familiarity as from insensitivity or racism. I'm guessing that's the case with Guvuner Perry, although the subsequent song-and-dance about the offending piece of rock having been painted over sometime just after the last Ice Age is predictable, lame, and strains credulity. One does not strain to imagine the sort of guest generally in attendance chez Domaine de la Tete Noir . . . 

"Oh, dwat! Pwugged one before Wamadan."

. . . as opposed to others generally pas invitee . . . 

College educated hunting party, Cornell University, 1969

So think of it this way: does owning a hunting camp called "Niggerhead" make you a knucklehead? Well, does naming your first-born "Dalejunior" make you a redneck?  


Does Elmer Fudd have trouble with the letter 'R'?

"Happy Wamadan, Wick!"

Did John Wayne make movies?

Does Herman Cain know who's his Daddy?

Can you see Wasilla all the way from Russia?

So far, not so good. It may take the Supreme Court to bag this election. Guaranteed 5-4, just say the word.