Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Get Your Hand Off My Asana

"Why do Baptists discourage sexual intercourse? Because it leads to dancing." (Methodist joke)

You may recall my old friend, Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican's chief exorcist. He's back in the news, having found the Devil lurking under a yoga mat somewhere: the Daily Mail reports last week that the good father warned a group of Catholic faithful about the dangers of yoga. "You think you are doing it for stretching,” said Father Gabriele, “but it leads to Hinduism.” Here is another instance of a well-meaning and otherwise intelligent person who, having settled on a theory he particularly likes, quickly finds that everything conforms nicely to it. Father Gabriele has mounted his hobby horse, and his hobby horse (which he will ride a-crupper into the weeds 'til Kingdom come) is Old Nick himself.

The hand on your asana

This cautionary pronouncement, like the joke about sex and dancing, is a case of the "slippery slope," a fallacy of informal logic unfailingly invoked by the limp-wristed, the vaporous, the timorous and the spinsterly to spare the gleefully incautious any untimely plunge into the twin Abysses of Pleasure and Enlightenment. Vote for Obama, they whisper, and "before you know it" (the trademark phrase and present sign of the fallacy) the Christmas tree in the White House will be replaced by a slaughtered goat, the menu in the Congressional cafeteria will secretly become halal, Sh'aria law will be enacted by legislative zombies in Oklahoma or Minnesota (both states apparently preferred hotbeds of Islamist conspiracy), the American dollar - instituted and backed by a benign God since the deliverance from Egypt - will be supplanted by the yen/yuan/reichsmark/ruble/rupee/rand, schoolchildren will be taught to spell 'Koran' as 'Quran,' and we, by the waters of Babylon, shall be taught to weep. Mark my words, they invariably conclude.

I'm not saying that a good stiff regimen of yoga, properly practiced, isn't hell, but that's just metaphorical, like saying that the Republican debates or a date with Herman Cain are hell. I'm guessing that most of the people who practice it (those of my acquaintance at any rate) really are "doing it for stretching." Among other things. Of course, this omits any consideration of naked yoga, which may well be a slippery slope for the weak-minded, the intractibly lonely, the very aged or the blind - for my money, watching a middle-aged acolyte with a trust fund and a rice cooker stretch, sweat and breath studiously while naked isn't much of an aphrodisiac.

"Could you check my breathing?"

"My advice to young people," Father Gabriele adds in yet another slide into illogic, "would be to watch out for nightclubs, because the path is always the same: alcohol, sex, drugs and Satanic sects." Before you know it. 

"First a couple of G&T's, now this . . . "

The good father is bested in his logic only by Jose Benitez, the mayor of Huarmey, Peru. Hizonner has apparently been, by mysterious methods, tabulating the homosexuals in his bailiwick. He concludes that their numbers are increasing because of the high strontium content in the town's drinking water. It's probably safe to assume that the young Huarmeyeros drink the local tap water, and (assuming the mayor is right and their numbers really are growing), the mayor has stumbled on yet another informal fallacy, the hoary and bearded post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Or in plain English, since the young men are drinking the water and then (in the mayor's astute judgment) becoming homosexual (if that phrase makes any sense whatsoever), the cause must lie in the drinking water since this only happens after the male residents imbibe. Since none of the otherwise-gendered residents are affected by the refreshing draughts of local strontium, one suspects it's the mayor's problem more than the town's problem. This effectively removes the chance that his error is excusable on the grounds that he's not a chemist.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Critic's Notebook: Still Crazy

I think I can pretty much tell Art when I see it. I don't know that much about it but I know what I like. And I know that Art (with a capital 'A') is supposed to be either about Truth . . . 

. . . or Beauty . . .

Although frankly it's not quite that simple - there's also Symbolism, as in this picture, which is a symbol of, well . . . 

. . . some guy with monkeys, I'd guess. Or maybe this symbol of a cat, which kind of gets me right in the old ticker . . .

That's art, for my money - that cat just seems to be looking right at me wherever I stand. So you can imagine the aesthetic and visual consternation on my recent visit to the newly-opened Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, where the works of the artist are currently (and presumably forever henceforth) on exhibit. Now, I asked myself, can this be Art? Granted, the first painting as you enter the exhibition is pretty straightforward. There sits Clyfford himself looking a bit standoffish I may say, but himself nonetheless, about six feet away if you were in the same room with him (which in a way, I suppose, you are, if you see what I mean). I mean, you look at the picture and you know where you stand, and where he stands (or leans, more like it), and everything seems just as it should when viewing a bit of Art.

Farther along and things begin to get a bit dodgy, although you can still tell what it is you're looking at (illegal farm workers).

After that, it's anyone's guess what's going on. Everything comes unmoored, the figures get wierder and then quickly disappear. How is anybody supposed to be able to tell where they're standing? I figure you should be able to look into the painting and tell pretty much how far away you are from the thing you're looking at, not to mention what you're looking at. Stuff shouldn't be flying at you out of the painting, it's enough to make you (me) jumpy. Is this about an explosion? And is it about the red thing or about the little black things?

As for the poor sod who's trying to sort all this out, it doesn't help to call something '1949' or '1957' - they don't faintly resemble any of those years (as best I can recall) or the numbers. So I sat down in front of one of them and tried to figure out what was going on here. But I couldn't focus, my eye kept traveling up and off the canvas. I just couldn't find the thing I was supposed to be looking at. Sometimes it's all you can do to calm down and pay attention. You'd expect a black canvas to be calming, like "Night in a Coalmine" or something. But not this one.

 So I sat down in front of another . . . 

. . . which didn't make anything plainer. I thought there must be something I was missing, maybe something else off the top or bottom of the canvas that should have been inside there somehow. How could the guy have missed so much material, I wonder? Either something was bleeding onto the canvas from somewhere outside it, or the thing he was after didn't make it onto the canvas and remained at large. I couldn't tell which.

Midway through these big panels, I thought things were pretty frenetic, what with paint spilling downwards or up, things getting off the canvas and so on. But when the paint started to move I figured I'd call it a day. You can't paint an energy field.

Trying to figure this guy out. Still - he's no Christo.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The 'Waffle House Index' (Update: Walmart Index)

There's an old saying in the South: “Another day, another Waffle House robbery." Or, in the words of one blogger, "Waffle House is home of cheap coffee, cheap women, and the lowest ratio of working bathrooms in the continental United States."

I don't know anything about the character of the ladies to be found in Waffle Houses but it's a popular franchise whether or not the plumbing works. Eighteen of these iconic breakfast places with the yellow roof and block-lettered yellow sign were robbed across the South in the summer just past, mainly in Georgia (where the chain started) and Alabama. Two men (currently awaiting trial in Alabama) would enter a restaurant, place a to-go order, and pull a gun when the food came. It isn't clear whether it was because they'd eaten the food, nor exactly why thieves seem drawn to the brand, which has been receiving more such philanthropic demands than other similar restaurant chains in the South, like IHOP, Denny's, Bob Evans or Shoney's.  It seems probable they're not coming in to use the bathroom and then robbing the place as an afterthought.

 'Don't Flush'

All-night restaurants are a pretty obvious target for hard-timers and heist artists - they're open into the wee hours when lots of folks aren't navigating too well or thinking clearly; they can take in a good amount of cash business in the course of a day; they sell things like fried eggs and grits that Southerners seem to want badly enough to steal for; and (in Georgia particularly) nearly every interstate exit has an easy hit-and-run Waffle House right near the on-ramp. I guess you could say it's a sign of hard times.

In  fact, the Waffle House enterprise has become one of the more reliable economic indicators - the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in a recent "FEMA Blog" post, explains why the "Waffle House Index" provides sound emergency and risk assessment data for decision making in disaster areas: "[M]ajor companies such as . . . Waffle House serve as role models in disaster preparedness. . . . These companies have good risk management plans to ensure that their stores continue to operate when a disaster strikes. . ." 

The disaster and risk index works like this: "If a Waffle House store is open and offering a full menu, the index is green. If it is open but serving from a limited menu, it’s yellow. When the location has been forced to close, the index is red. Because Waffle House is well prepared for disasters… it’s rare for the index to hit red."

The Waffle House has of late become a significant part of the heartland's Cultural Space, much as the court and cathedral once were in medieval Europe, or as the corporate boardroom in today's America. Plans are hatched, ideas traded, policy hammered out, dreams dreamed and alter egos altered in the nation's Waffle Houses. To cite but a few recent instances:
  • Last month, Florida lawmaker Brad Drake announced that he is "sick and tired of this sensitivity movement for criminals" and promptly introduced a bill in the Florida legislative session that would end the state's practice of execution by lethal injection and replace it with the electric chair or, at the inmate's request, a firing squad. Drake, a marketing executive elected to the state house in 2008, got the idea after chatting with a "fed-up voter" at a Waffle House in his district.
  • Four elderly men — bespectacled and so hard of hearing that they strained to hear a federal judge at their initial court appearances in Gainesville, Ga. — are accused of conspiracy and may be linked to a loose association of fringe militia groups targeting federal and local government buildings for bombings. The New York Times reports that "At the Waffle House here, no one can believe that the gray-haired men who came in almost daily for egg sandwiches and coffee could have been terrorists plotting to blow up government buildings and kill masses of people using poison from a bean plant that people in this rural part of the state grow to ward off moles."
  • Two weeks ago, Sara Jean Rusher, 52, was arrested by U.S. marshals at a Waffle House on Peach Orchard Road, Augusta, GA, having been on the lam for 17 years.
  • A cross-dressing bank robber in Marietta, GA has thus far evaded police, but was spotted on surveillance video this month eating at a Waffle House.  
 "So would it kill you to wear pants when we come here?"

Maybe this is all purely coincidental. Or maybe it's another instance of the "magnet syndrome," like tornadoes and trailer parks, or like overloaded Filipino buses and ravines. 

Still, one wonders how these various risk assessment indices are concocted. Clearly the agency experts charged with grading our relative danger levels make no allowances for personal exigencies. Full menu or not, eating a hearty breakfast in a Waffle House when the plumbing is dodgy could be 'code red' in anyone's private index of "Emergencies That Keep Me Awake at Night."

November 30: Harper's Magazine reports in its online "Weekly Review" that "In the course of Black Friday sales across the United States, police knocked a grandfather unconscious at a Walmart in Arizona and tasered a man at a Walmart in Alabama; an off-duty police officer pepper-sprayed unruly shoppers at a Walmart in North Carolina; a woman pepper-sprayed fellow shoppers to get to a discounted Xbox 360 at a Walmart in California; and customers rioted over $2 waffle irons at a Walmart in Arkansas."  8 9 10 11 12 

It's no stretch to suggest to the relevant federal agencies that in addition to the "Waffle House Index" there may be a "Walmart Index of Consumer Economic Indicators." The index would be calculated on several variables such as number and distribution of violent consumer-on-consumer incidents at national Walmarts, numbers of consumers involved in each such, total value of all items whose ownership is in dispute, severity of consumer-on-consumer retaliation, severity of police or security response.

Based on this year's index readings, the economy is springing back and consumer spending should carry retailers over the 2011 hump.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

'There Ain't No Sanity Clause'

"The brains of older humans are cluttered with irrelevant information." 
                                               - Harper’s Magazine (“Findings,” November 2011).

Scientific research is a trove of surprising propositions, none more so than truffles such as this heady speculation unearthed by social scientists like hogs rooting a Picardine oak forest. Irrelevancy is a relational attribute, however, determined only in relation to something else it is found irrelevant to. Information may be irrelevant in one aspect, but entirely pertinent in another - if the 12:15 is arriving in the station on time it won't be irrelevant information if it's you who happens to be tied to the track. Nonetheless, the sort of information lodged unshakeably in older brains is, so far as social science is concerned, irrelevant simpliciter - of no possible use in any relation whatsoever. 

I find upon reflection that this must be true. I can remember, to cite a trivial example, the name of my first grade teacher from the palmy boyhood days of six decades past - Mrs. Rigby, like in the Beatles song about "Eleanor Rigby," who picks up the rice in a church where a wedding has been/Lives in a dream/Waits at the window/Wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door, and so on although I don't recall her name being Eleanor, come to that though why on earth should I remember the name of a woman already old and unmemorable by 1950? But I do. Irrelevant information indeed. No movie star, our Mrs. Rigby (Mrs., not Miss), though it occurs to me she must have been born in that same golden era as were some of the old screen idols like Clark Gable (betrayed by some of his leading ladies as suffering from halitosis, as did they each in their turn); or Garbo, or the tragically short-lived and eternal ingenue, Jean Harlow, although on further reflection I can't recall any of them being named Eleanor either, although there was Esther (Williams).

 Jean Harlow

Speaking of which calls to mind a funny story about Jean Harlow who, when still a fresh young face in Hollywood was in attendance at a cocktail evening at which Tallulah Bankhead was also a guest. Evidently J.H. had just learned the phrase "bon mot," which she shoehorned into the conversation at every opportunity, persisting in pronouncing it as spelled, "bonn mott." Finally, with an elaborate patience born of petulance, Tallulah pounced. "It's pronounced 'bawm moe,' dear," she purred languidly, Frenching the phrase perfectly. "The 't' is silent - as in Harlow." 

Plenty of stories as well about Tallulah herself, whether true or not I've no idea, like the one Sabbath she attended a Greek Orthodox mass, the priest entering the sanctuary from the rear and making his way forward toward the altar, richly caparisoned (as the phrase goes) in alb, surplice, chasuble and all the priestly whatnots, swinging a censer (which is a different animal from a 'censor') of  smoking incense down the aisle, whereupon Tallulah when the saintly cleric reached her pew in his venerable progress leaned out and in her best stage whisper said, "I love your gown, dahling. But your purse is on fire."

Tallulah Bankhead 

Although for my money, when it came to the bon mot no one could outdo Winston Churchill. By now the tale of his inebriated exchange with Lady Mary Astor at the dinner table is legend ("You're drunk, Sir!" "Yes, madam, and you're ugly. But in the morning I'll be sober.") Irrepressible even in youth, he once sent a corsage to a young lady with the injunction to "pin it to your white meat." Asked as an elder statesman to account for the martial glory of the Royal Navy he growled in his characteristic growl, "Rum, sodomy, and the lash!"   As Robert Burton (The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621) reminds us, Aristotle held that "melancholy men of all others are most witty," and Churchill seems a melancholic sort, though in our more modern age melancholia is a minor crime, a treasonous subversion of the doctrine that happiness shall be universal, a certain sign of moral turpitude akin in gravity to the Catiline conspiracy against which Cicero (who was Tully) fulminated so eloquently in centuries past ("How long, Catiline, will you abuse our patience?").

Cicero upbraids Catiline in the Senate

Melancholia as you know is the predominance of the black bile - the hotter and drier humors prevailing, an imbalance in the animal spirits which are as you will recall the medium of conveyance for such subtle events as our thoughts, passions and imaginings, a highly refined and rarefied liquor whose subtle influence occasions the motions of the humors in all the assorted ventricles, chasms, receptacles, creeks, channels, conduits, rivulets, ravines, puddles and reservoirs of the brain, transmitting commands and volitions to the limbs and likewise transforming the perturbations and oscillations of the nerves into images, impulses, sensations, smells, sounds, appetites and what have you. Or, as Burton's afore-referenced Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) has it, "The brain . . . hath many concavities distinguished by certain ventricles, which are the receptacles of the spirits brought hither by the arteries from the heart and there refined to a more heavenly nature, to perform the actions of the soul. . . etc. etc." 

From all of which it follows that wit is a bilious excrescence which causes hot and dry spirits, as Heraclitus also implies when he observes that the wisest souls are the dryest (from whence I suppose we get the term "dry wit"), while foolish souls are moist, as in the souls of inebriates such as the uncles of Sancho Panza, famed for their palates but objects of ridicule when, asked to sample a cask of the finest Salamancan, one claimed to taste iron, the other to taste leather. (As the subtle reader might expect, a key on a leathern thong was discovered when the cask was drained.)

A wet soul

One of the wettest souls must have belonged to a Victorian gentleman who boasted in the precincts of his club that over the previous evening he had drank three bottles of port after dinner. Asked whether he had required any assistance, he conceded that indeed he had sought the assistance of a bottle of Madeira. It also bears mention here that the venerable Locke subscribed to a "particle" theory of perception, the animal spirits being set in motion by the bombardments of tiny particles emitted to the eyes and our various animal sensoria via sensible objects. Burton as well brought to the world's attention the fact that "England is a paradise for women, and hell for horses: Italy is a paradise for horses, a hell for women" - and Burton didn't even know Silvio Berlusconi, who has become as irrelevant as most of the information in my brain.

 "So long, suckahs."

But there's no sanity clause in life's fine print - as Harpo Marx put it, "Ya can't fool me - there ain't no sanity clause." Oh God, stop me, what am I doing with all this stuff, it's completely irrelevant . . . I can't seem to clear my head . . . . 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Sweet Comic Dossier

"The idea behind the pseudonym is that you can eliminate the dossier effect, where everything you're doing is being collected, archived, and linked to you."
                                                                                    - Austin Hill

Salman Rushdie, the novelist, recently had his Facebook account restored to him with the social network's consent that he may continue to use his original Facebook identity, "Salman Rushdie."  Facebook was insisting that he is really "Ahmed Rushdie," the name on his passport though one he has never otherwise used. After a Twitter-storm when his account was frozen, Facebook restored his original identity and reactivated his account - "Ohhh, you're that Salman Rushdie!" (Whereupon Rushdie aptly posted on his Facebook page Popeye's immortal, “I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam.”)

He has a point - if you're already famous as, say, Yogi Berra or Pee Wee Herman, and can't use that name, then why would anyone have a Facebook page (ignoring for now the obvious question why anyone would have a Facebook page).

 "Haaah - I wish you could 'marry' me on Facebook!"

Mr. Rushdie wasn't even trying to be pseudonymous. But Facebook claims discretion over how its users will identify themselves and enforces that right by shutting down accounts discovered as (or merely suspected of being) pseudonymous. (This has spawned a Twitter thread about the "nym wars" - Twitter freely allows the use of pseudonyms.) Admittedly, since one can now purchase more and more things on Facebook - things like airline or concert tickets - a pseudonymous Facebook persona may prove inconvenient, particularly if the TSA should become involved when someone tries to "leverage" his pseudonymously purchased airfare.

Its insistence on the use of real identities is good for Facebook's business. On the other hand, granting its putative role as a mobilization and information resource in recent democratic dissent around the globe, one can anticipate that Facebook might lose some of its market if it insists on actual identity as a term of use. But apparently it's doing just that, perhaps calculating that people who are mobilizing to toss bricks aren't the same people who are going to be buying airline tickets or cubic zirconium watchbands. It's about "monetizing" the Internet - that's what "social benefit" really means.

"I 'friended' it on Facebook."

I confess I reside on Facebook as Miguel de Montaigne. That is, of course, my real name although I have no easy way of proving it, my birth certificate having been lost during a heavy storming of the family chateau by the Anabaptists in the Thirty Years War. People do, of course, use online pseudonyms to protect themselves, such as victims of abuse; others do it merely to harass people with impunity. I suppose were I to use a fake name, I might properly be included among the latter since I use Facebook only to link to these blog posts. I was constrained to open an account in the first place because it's the only way I can see any photographs of my grandson and heir of my estate.

 My grandson

I'm assured by friends who regularly use Facebook (not "friends" who use Facebook) that it's both useful and lots of fun to have one's own page - useful because it can be a business tool for professional networking and corporate outreach; fun because you can learn immediately and regularly the details of your friends' mood swings, town and highway gas mileage, effects of their medication, lab results, states of their childrens' (or pets') bowels, investment portfolios, alcohol or chocolate consumption, household credit, domestic strife, existential confusion, self-delusion - all of the things that render the use of a pseudonym entirely without point.

Social networking archives will one day be mined as a complex anthropological midden, a trove of psychic and cultural rags, bones and oyster shells. Facebook, like King George III's crapularium, will be intently peered into and swirled about by a bevy of anxious social scientists seeking reassurance of an abiding sanity. Small comfort, if "that’s all that I yam.”

My best "friend"

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

God Is My Running Back

I was in southern Kansas Monday last, a scant fifteen miles north of the Oklahoma line, planted in front of a television screen as Oklahoma State University's football team narrowly defeated the Kansas State Wildcats in a 52-45 donnybrook that edged the Cowboys up into second place in NCAA rankings. I'm not a football fan, scarcely ever watch a game, but this was the game to see if you only ever see a game or two each season - a fast-forward sequence of kickoff returns, interceptions, breakaway downfield scampers, long arcing pass completions, quarterback sneaks - all the right ingredients for an adrenalin-draining heartbreaker. I'll say no more - this isn't really about football. 

I was in a southern Kansas farmhouse, as I think I said, and the Cowboys and the Wildcats had scarcely desisted from this near-equal exchange of ministrations, the field of endeavor still warm, the turf still scuffled, when I went upstairs to bed. I rested for a moment in precarious monopedalian equipoise, gingerly removing one leg from a trouserleg, when the lampshade began to rattle, then the blinds, then the whole upper story of the old manse, undulating slowly like a waterbed in a clapboard railway hotel.

So, Oklahoma State wins an absolute squeaker over Kansas State and Oklahoma has an earthquake plainly felt in Kansas. Coincidence? I thought not. Yes, God had spoken through the earthquake. God, as we know, speaks through earthquakes, although in fairly general terms so you're never quite sure in what you (or more likely, everyone) may have erred - like when your second grade teacher used to drag you along the playground by one ear muttering, "You know very well what you've just done, young man!"

I scampered back down the stairs to find that everyone in the house had congregated in the kitchen and dived into the popcorn and soda pops in a fizz of nervous, giggly eating, all oblivious of the internet admonitions of Pat Robertson. We all agreed that being spoken to in an earthquake was preferable to being spoken to in a tornado or in a house afire, we all agreed that we'd gotten off easily this time and vowed to be better persons in future.

But surely, I reasoned with myself, these events - an earthquake coming on the heels of an OSU victory - cannot be coincidence, particularly where fervent prayer is . . . well, does one deploy prayer, or merely employ it? In any case, football has become, more than ever, the arena within which good Americans show their worthiness of divine benefactions, where God in his turn reveals his will to those same good Americans and pronounces his judgments favorably upon them. Unless you're a Penn State fan.

Football, having supplanted baseball as the national waste of time, has become the latest and most visible devotional space. I can't imagine a professional cycling team on the godless socialistic European circuit kneeling in prayer before a stage or a meal or at bedtime. They know that God doesn't see them doping. Even Americans haven't always prayed over their sports; the practice seems to have started somewhere in Texas and spread like a gastrointestinal parasite into the more susceptible Southern states across the Hookworm Belt.

"Thank you, oh Lord,  for this oxycontin."

"Heave an egg out of a Pullman window," H. L. Mencken wrote back in the 1920s, "and you will hit a fundamentalist almost everywhere in the United States today." Heave a bottle onto the playing field at Sports Authority Stadium at Mile High and it's just as likely. The devout Tim Tebow, inventor of "tebowing," quarterbacks with mixed success there of a Sunday in autumn. For now, at any rate.

Tebow has either riled or inspired by example his colleagues in the National Football League. Except as a matter of mild curiosity, I don't understand why anyone cares one way or another about Tebow's mostly ostentatious devotionalism - his "oppressive piety," as Frank Bruni nicely puts it. He has replaced the celebratory endzone "spiking the baby" with this . . .

"Thank you, oh Lord, for my open receiver."

A New York Times article reports that, "Supporters have reacted to criticism of Tebow as an indictment on religion, while detractors seem to delight in every wayward pass." Both sides, of course, assume that God gives a shit about football. Or Tim Tebow. The French and Italians all realize that God can't ride a bike anyway.

 IF God rode a bike . . .

For my part, I'll take a good earthquake. Even if I can't quite understand the message, it makes me sit up and pay attention. The only thing that could make a football game more of a snooze is praying during a football game.