At Long Last, Gobbledygook

Heard yesterday on CNN: “We should form a dialogue around the narrative.”

This isn’t just annoying jargon, it is meaningless. It transmits no comprehensible thought from the speaker to the unfortunate listener.

The woman who uttered this gibberish also said “narrative” and “branding” repeatedly during the news segment. Her spewing of nonsense words was so distracting that I have no idea what her points-of-view are. I’m not exaggerating.

Get this:

She was being asked about whether the West can compete with ISIS-types for Muslim hearts and minds. Yes, friends, what we have come to in our continuing massacre of the English language is an expert in communication who is unintelligible.

Golly, I wonder why we’re losing.

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A Scene From “America, Unchained”

We have all these special days right after Thanksgiving — Black Friday, Small Store Saturday, Cyber Monday, Hot Dog Cart Sunday — to encourage the spending of the kind of money that allowed us to buy things for which we’d been grateful, such as turkeys who are born to be killed and eaten.

The mornings following these special days the newspapers (or TV news or websites) are filled with stories about the antics and misbehavior of typical American shoppers during the first days of the Season of Consumption.

From just one news article found via Google, on this year’s fun:

— New Jersey: a man is charged with disorderly conduct and aggravated assault on a police officer at a Walmart;

— Chicagoland: an alleged shoplifter is shot after dragging a police officer in the parking lot of a Kohl’s department store;

— Southern California: a police officer is injured in a fight at a Wal-Mart;

— Las Vegas: a shopper is shot in the leg after purchasing a big-screen TV at a Target; and,

— West Virginia: at Wal-Mart, a man is slashed with a knife after threatening another man with a gun over a parking space.

(There’s even a website called “blackfridaydeathcount”, if you’re interested in keeping tabs on depravity.)

Those learning about the incidents shake their heads in disgust at the way in which the people in the stories go berserk over objects that after a short time will either get tossed into a landfill, piped up stacks or sent to a third world country where children will dig past the toxic parts in order to find what can be recycled (note: nobody really thinks about this last thing at all).

These observers can afford to ignore the SUPER COLOSSAL SAVINGS!!! of the special days. The people they are reading about and watching on the evening news are the working poor and lower middle class, i.e., people who can’t afford to sit back and mock everybody else if they want to have stuff.

The squabbling shoppers have spent a year on their pleather couches being told by advertisers and alleged “news sources” about the latest and most amazing products that everybody must have so they can be thankful the last Thursday of the next November and to feel good about themselves because America is the best damned country on earth for the worthy ones who have earned it.

Those who have not are, well, lacking.

We have a system in which the less affluent are brainwashed into thinking they need all sorts of Tickle-Ass Elmos and Quadruple-D TV screens to be like the better-off folk – or they suck. After thanking the Creator of The Universe, they rush out, sometimes waiting all night in shopping center parking lots behind barriers. In the worst of circumstances they shoot and run over each other and trample poor bastards who are paid minimum wage to dress as Santa Claus. Those are the stories we read about. But in most cases they are let into the stores like horses out of a starting gate, rushing to the aisles they want, cutting each other off, elbowing, squeezing, doing anything necessary because the SUPER DISCOUNT!!! items are of limited quantity.

It is degrading.

There’s a scene in “Django Unchained” where the cruel master makes a couple of slaves fight to the death. Apparently things like that happened. But they didn’t force the fights only for entertainment — it was just as much to humiliate the fighters, to remind them that they exist only to serve, or to be a spectacle.

See a parallel?

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Diffusion of Responsibility

On March 16, 1964 Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death near her home in Queens, New York. For people of a certain age it is a well-known story.

I don’t know anything about Kitty Genovese. I don’t know if she was kind or mean, a Madonna or a whore. I don’t know if she spent her days aiding the sick or stealing to support a drug habit.

I do know this: there were ways in which she was a good person and ways in which she was horrible. Just like you.

Each time her killer’s knife came down it cut through skin that had started out as a soft baby’s skin and had, over 28 years, became a somewhat tougher, world worn exterior. There were nerves connected to her skin so that each time the knife came down and tore a hole in Kitty Genovese it hurt, a lot.

It hurt a lot when then knife cut the stuff inside her — liver, intestines, stomach, whatever it hit. The organs have nerves and they all hurt like crazy when they are harshly ripped apart by sharpened metal. Blood filled her body and spurted on the ground through the holes in her veins, capillaries and skin.

Because it hurt, and because animals have an instinct for survival, Kitty Genovese screamed. Then she was dead from all the holes in her internal and external organs.

Here’s why her story was famous: the newspapers reported (admittedly, the facts have since been disputed) that lots of people, in their apartments, heard her screams and nobody helped or called the police. The attack, at least according to some, lasted a half hour.

It’s a pretty safe bet that none of the people who heard her howls would have wanted Kitty Genovese to be killed in a horrible, excruciating way. They were all, quite likely, good people who wished no bad fortune on anybody. But they had their own problems!

When something bad happens, a person is less likely to act the more people there are around. Psychologists call this the “diffusion of responsibility”. The Kitty Genovese story, accurate or not, is often used as an example of this phenomenon. describes it thus:

Because there are other observers, individuals do not feel as much pressure to take action, since the responsibility to take action is thought to be shared among all of those present.

The second reason is the need to behave in correct and socially acceptable ways. When other observers fail to react, individuals often take this as a signal that a response is not needed or not appropriate.

This is our national Kitty Genovese Moment.

Civilians are dying every day in Syria, from bombs and bullets and, now, poison gas. To be specific, the poison gas is called sarin.

James Hamblin described the effects of sarin in The Atlantic on May 6:

First, our smooth muscles and secretions go crazy. The nerves to those areas keep firing, keep telling them to go. The nose runs, the eyes cry, the mouth drools and vomits, and bowels and bladder evacuate themselves. It is not a dignified state.

Since sarin has no smell or taste, the person may very well have no idea what’s going on. Their chest tightens, vision blurs. If the exposure was great enough, that can progress to convulsions, paralysis, and death within 1 to 10 minutes.

You can see for yourself what the effects of sarin are on human beings, just by going to I wouldn’t recommend it, though.

There are lots of reasons to be concerned about the idea that the U.S. would shoot missiles into Syria. There could be retaliation, for instance there could be terrorist attacks in Western Europe, Israel or the USA. We’ve had them before, and they are horrible. Innocent people might die, maybe you or I will. We don’t know.

There is something we do know, however, because we know human nature, and because some of us have had to discipline children: if there are no consequences for bad actions those actions will happen again and again.

In the national debate on Syria the neo-isolationists of the Left and Right share the same attitude as the people who heard Kitty Genovese scream — we have lots of other things to worry about, we have hungry people and we have other wars and plus we might be dragged into the mess. We have our own problems!

We are a national example of the diffusion of responsibility, too, because it seems as though nobody else wants to help – not the U.N., not our alleged allies. That makes us feel it’s OK, psychologists say.

This mentality – that it’s not our problem – is neither a surprise or new when it comes to the right-wingers. There has always been a xenophobic America First mentality over there. Boy, has there ever – they even listened to Charles Lindbergh when he said to leave Hitler alone.

It’s probably not a surprise coming from many on the Left either – they have been permanently soured on military escapades since Viet Nam, something exacerbated by the lies that led is into Iraq. I’m usually on their side, truth told.

But unless you are prepared to call yourself a pacifist — to say there is never a reason for violence — this is different.

There are excuses, such as money should be spent elsewhere (a non-existent choice, it is not bombs or butter, it is bombs or nothing). There are anti-American Islamists and al Qaeda types in the Syrian opposition and they pretty much hate us.

But, really, there is only one issue, and it is whether we will let the world know that we will stop the slaughter of civilians. If we can save villages full of children — with little risk to our own troops — will we just watch those children be gassed? Will we continue to begin every excuse by saying how wrong Assad’s actions are?

If you shut your blinds to the screams of a murder victim outside your window, you would ever after wonder if your reasons for inaction were worth allowing a human being to be massacred. You would look into mirrors and feel guilty, because the responsibility wasn’t diffuse. You would know it had been yours.

Do we want to be asking ourselves why we did nothing while sarin was used on innocent people, why we didn’t respond to their screams for help?

And if we do nothing will we, as a nation, ever again be able to look in a mirror and believe we’re good people?

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Let The Freedom To Eat Cookies Ring

No sane person would come to a state beach on the Fourth of July without expecting crowds and noise. I am no exception, but the family sitting closest to me seems to yell everything where only speaking is necessary.

Loud people drive me crazy. Loud jabbering is an intrusion on whatever whack-jobbery is bouncing around in my skull.  I will, shortly, plug my ears and listen to my iPod and that will make them go away. But, fck, it’s nine a.m. , at this hour I should be able to get some quiet.

They’re almost all overweight – the mom is in her polka dot one-piece with a “little” frilly black skirt at the bottom. The two young boys, maybe seven or eight and sporting 1950s flat top hair cuts (one has a red stripe down the middle), have that blubbery flab that leaks over bathing suits, a jiggling layer they are too young to carry. They are cursed by parental neglect in the diet department to a lifetime of obesity. Only the teenage niece is thin (at least I think she’s the niece.) She’s actually attractive, but one look at the rest of the family should be a “buyer beware” sign for her prospective boyfriends.

As I say, they are loud. Little Flat Top One lies on the blanket, eating cookies from a bag. Over the course of the day it becomes clear that whenever LFT One wants something he tilts his head back and shrieks – and polka-dot-suit mom gives him whatever he wants.

She is smoking, as is Regular-size Niece. Mom has a really classy tattoo, etched permanently between her well-insulated shoulder blades, of a heart with wings on either side. A medical student, analyzing her corpus, would conclude there is no “small of the back”.

It’s not just them. I’m looking at the eight or nine closest parties and all but one couple are overweight. Shoot, I could use a few days at the gym myself. One couple has brought a Chihuahua which will certainly urinate and defecate on the sand where others walk in bare feet. Regular-size Niece wades into the water with a cigarette in one hand, holding the hand of LFT Two in the other.

We, this less than perfect gaggle of Americans, are commemorating the birth of our nation, some 237 year ago. As we do this hundreds of thousands of Egyptians stomp around the streets of Cairo either celebrating or cursing the overthrow of now ex-President Mohammed Morsi and his neo-jihadist supporters.

This second (is it now annual?) Egyptian revolution is  remarkable. The government was bounced by the military, but the generals were responding to what was going on in the streets. There is no reason to believe that the military was just taking advantage of an opportunity – little more than a year ago they did the same thing and allowed elections. We can, at least for today, give them credit for acting as the armed forces do in Turkey – as guarantors of an open, secular society.

The fate of most popular movements is that the best-organized of the cooperating groups take control and, unfortunately, they are usually the biggest bastards. There are plenty of examples in history, like Stalinists taking control of the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War (consigning the Republic to defeat by doing things like shooting their allies) or the lunatic Khomeini taking control of Iran in the late 1970s.*

In Egypt 2 1/2 years ago the Muslim Brotherhood used their well-developed network to win a more-or-less free election. But — no surprise — Morsi and his fellows honored their new democratic system by attempting to create an “Islamic state”.  All we can go by is history, and history shows such states wind up with bad things happening, things like acid being thrown in little girls’ faces for the crime of going to school  and the chopping off people’s limbs as punishment.  These are the kind of places that should not exist, anywhere, in the twenty-first century, A.D.

It is a welcome new phenomenon for the masses in a Muslim country to stand up and defeat the jihadists. In Pakistan, a country that had been known for its more-or-less moderate population, the majority has been cowed by violence and promises-of-damnation. This change was nourished by the American invasion of Afghanistan and our pursuit of Taliban/al Qaeda types. Whether or not our actions were warranted, and there is a strong argument for them, only a fool would fail to understand that doing things like occupying their neighboring “religious” country and violating their air space would sour Pakistanis on the U.S.  In Iran there were protests by the educated and western-gazing people after Ahmadinejad stole the presidential election four years ago – but the effort faded under a rain of beatings and arrests, as they tend to do.

[Outcomes of the chaos in Libya and Syria are yet to be known. In Syria, at least, the early signs are not good. What had been a revolution against a dictator has changed into an all-too-familiar ethnic/religious war.  At least some anti-government members of President Assad’s Alawite minority have switched to supporting him, mainly because the opposition is dominated by Sunnis and has set about persecuting and murdering Alawites on the assumption they are pro-Assad.]

As Egypt erupts, the U.S. dithers, frozen by a law that says we can’t give countries billions of dollars in aid if their governments are pulled from power via coup. Mohammed Morsi was elected and was overthrown by generals. We know that. But laws rules that have any purpose must mean something beyond the literal reading of them on a sheet of paper — and the Muslim Brotherhood are enemies of democracy (at least based on the behavior of like-minded jihadists in other places where they’ve had the chance). The difference between “coup” and “revolution” is always determined by the winner. Do we really want to nitpick about definitions when the choice about who to support is clear?

The Declaration of Independence, which I am celebrating in a lounge chair by the ocean, states that governments derive their “just powers from the consent of the governed” and when “a long train of abuses and usurpations…evinces a design to reduce them to absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government…”

Last year the people of Egypt did not think they were voting for authoritarian theocracy. They voted for liberation from the tyranny and structure of the Mubarek regime.

That a jihadist uses democracy to eliminate freedoms is contrary to what our founders wrought from our own revolt – a victory  celebrated today in the U.S. both by the beautiful and affluent and by the obese and benighted.  The argument is simple: the people of Egypt live on a big beach, and they should be able to enjoy it without being covered by burkas.


* In his memoir, Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens wrote “At the moment when Iran stood at the threshold of modernity, a black-winged ghoul came flapping back from exile on a French jet and imposed a version of his own dark and heavy uniform on a people too long used to being bullied and ordered around, For the female population of the country, at least, the new bondage was heavier than the old. And for my friends on the Iranian and Kurdish Left it became an argument as to which model of repression and imprisonment and torture was the harshest.”

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Time Out

My father looks confused more than anything else.

At age 92 entropy and exhaustion will catch up to you. Two years ago he could do anything a 70-year old could do, just a few months ago he could get on an airplane. Somewhere in that period, it seemed to me at least, he kind of stopped caring, that the cumulative impact of 92 years on the Blue Planet just weighed too much.

I’ve seen it before with my grandparents (especially with my mother’s mother, who was the Last Nonni Standing). I would watch them on holidays or other occasions when the larger family was together. The kids would play with kids, teens would join in their circle of loathing and eye rolling, parents would talk about work and cars. Grandparents sat on the edge, mostly watching. I thought it was the language barrier — that after fifty or sixty years English had never quite taken hold and the constant racket of a world full of movies and Pong was just too much for people who were born into a society that didn’t even have radios.

But that wasn’t it. They had simply been moved by age and infirmity out of the flow of Everyday. While they were in their 60s and even 70s they could shop and cook and sort of read the American newspapers (the recounting of articles was sometimes not quite right. I learned I had to check). It had been a while since they’d had jobs, seeing and learning new things daily. At some point the tiredness made it too difficult to keep up with the foreignness — and that had nothing to do with living in a country other than the one in which they’d started. They found other goals to keep them going, say, waiting for great grandchildren. At some point that was no longer enough, they were other people’s doings. The grandkids were settled and raising their own families. The oldest generation decided they were done. After that it was just a matter of clock ticks.

Physicists, who I don’t really understand, will tell you that time as we think of it doesn’t exist. They somehow multiply and divide fractions — fractions comprising letters rather than numbers, even letters to the second and third power — and figure out what happens to two people standing on different sides of the universe at the same moment. One guy takes a step, the second hand moves once. But the fractions and letters and powers say that the moving man isn’t lined up one second away from the other. He’s something like two hundred years away.

Which doesn’t mean that time isn’t real, it just means we created it to put changes into a linear order. What time is, at least some of these physicists say, is the way we measure entropy — things falling apart. This is somehow connected to the Big Bang and the continual expansion of the universe. We frequently hear people say things like “I feel the same as when I was eighteen.” Well, of course they do. The crossing off of days on a calendar doesn’t match the rate at which their bodies are changing or, more precisely, falling to pieces. How else would one explain two forty-year-olds, one of whom is youthful and the other enfeebled? By measurement of time their bodies should “age” at the same rate, but they don’t. Some of us crumble more quickly than others.

When my father was seventy-nine he was found to have cancer at the junction of the stomach and esophagus. Doctors chopped out about a third of the former and the bottom part of the latter. Then they yanked what was left of the stomach up to what was left of the esophagus and tied them together. A year or two later he was playing tennis again. He didn’t stop playing for another eight years, until he lost a portion of his eyesight to what they call macular degeneration — essentially a black hole In his field of vision. The hole took away tennis — he couldn’t see the ball coming at him. More important, it also seemed to take away his desire to paint.

My dad has been an artist his whole life and his best work is what he did most recently – large, colorful abstracts of what look like balls of energy hovering like barbed sunsets over a suggestion of land. But when the macular degen came the painting stopped. For Father’s Day in 2011 I bought him a blank canvass, hoping it would generate interest to get back to work. It’s still blank.

His body had stopped holding itself together. It didn’t matter how “old” he was, what mattered was that he couldn’t do what he enjoyed. He slowed down. He moved to the periphery as his parents had before him, and as you and I will should we not get hit by an even worse fate.

The kids chatter, their parents complain about work and war. The oldest chime in when everyone else pauses to take a breath.

He fell last week, in Florida, where it likely happens enough that it sounds to Charon like he lives under a percussion section. All reports indicated that dad was at the gate we all eventually reach. I flew down. He seems to improve by the day, I think spurred by my mother’s threat of a feeding tube and nursing home. He’s showing the kind of fight I hadn’t seen from him in two years.

But there’s the look of confusion. His brain is strong and sharp and when he has his energy he can converse, more each day. He may stick around a while, which would be very lucky for us all. But his eyes ask how the hell he got there, and why. How many times have you asked yourself what our time here is about, who put us on the earth and whether it’s one of many worlds or one big self-referring circle? And as we reach the end, when our bodies give in to entropy or universe expansion or whatever, we still don’t know. We realize that we will never know. That’s a crueler fate than if there’s only oblivion on the Other Side. Oblivion is…nothing. You can’t even be disappointed by it. But the unanswered question — what was this all about? — torments us up until the last seconds.

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Mirror, Mirror

At some point the American People have to start looking in a mirror. Yeah, as was said a few hundred years ago, the fault for so much we think wrong lies in ourselves.

Yesterday’s New York Times ran an article about the huge payoff by Penn State to football coach Joe Paterno. The essence of the piece was that after the Sandusky scandal broke:

Mr. Paterno was to be paid $3 million at the end of the 2011 season if he agreed it would be his last. Interest-free loans totaling $350,000 that the university had made to Mr. Paterno over the years would be forgiven as part of the retirement package. He would also have the use of the university’s private plane and a luxury box at Beaver Stadium for him and his family to use over the next 25 years… In the end, the board of trustees — bombarded with hate mail and threatened with a defamation lawsuit by Mr. Paterno’s family — gave the family virtually everything it wanted, with a package worth roughly $5.5 million.

It’s time for the public to admit that big-time college sports is one of the most soul-less, money-driven enterprises in our society, certainly the most hypocritical (with its incessant PR bullsht about “student athletes”). I can’t think of one other industry where the public would clamor to reward someone who covered up child molestation – not even in professional sports, which is soul-less but at least isn’t hypocritical, or the Catholic Church (hypocritical but probably not soul-less).

Colleges make millions of dollars by exploiting kids — most of them under 21 — and pissing them back onto the street, uneducated. Is it really a surprise that a business model of using kids as profit-fodder would produce people who believe children are toys available for whatever pleasure they want? *

I remember reading an article about the first Jo-Pa-free game at Penn State. A guy with a sign criticizing the university was threatened and harassed and people took pictures of their children standing next to a Hussein-esque Paterno statue.

Let’s be clear: what happens to former “student athletes” is the fault of every fan of college sports, just as the Paterno supporters are ultimately responsible for the Sandusky affair — they created the forgive-anything-if-you-win mindset with their non-questioning adulation of the sports program.

If only sports were the sole example of the public denying blame for what they’ve created. In October, during the bombardment of negative political-campaign advertising, you will hear several people say they “wish there were another choice, I don’t like any of them**.” This is often said by the very same people who say they don’t like, and aren’t influenced by, negative advertising. The only sensible response to give to such a person is “Um, really, you wouldn’t like them, either.” It does no use to point out that the candidates are before them because they were chosen through a democratic process, that they didn’t fall onto the ballot from a fruit wagon. The idea that politicians are somehow foisted on an innocent and undeserving public is one of the biggest self-delusions in American history.***

I’m pretty sure this is born of a natural human resistance to accept blame and it’s reinforced by TV hacks who say things like “The American people ultimately get it right” when making electoral choices. This is palpable nonsense, easily proved wrong by pointing to the US Congress — about which the American people will complain endlessly, and then re-elect 95% of them because they like their own incumbent.****

When Jimmy Carter ran in 1976 he said he wanted to give the country “a government as good as its people.” That’s pretty much the problem. It’s what we have.


*in fairness to the NCAA, graduation rates at division 1 schools for “all sports” are about 82%. But the rates for sports that make the money — football and basketball — are below 70%.

**well, they won’t really say “were”, they’ll say “was”. People hate the subjunctive tense.

***although, Zoroaster knows, there’s lots of competition, my favorite being that our foreign policy is intended to spread democracy and prosperity for other countries. This is proven false every time a senator or president says America has no “vital interest” in the troubles in some forlorn land (or when we arm dictators and train their death squads).

****not to mention the inexcusable re-election of George W. Bush or that the people of Providence, R.I. re-elected ex-Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci when he was released from prison for taking time out of his previous mayoral duties to kidnap and torture someone with fireplace logs.

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Should Presidents Kill People?

There is an article in this month’s Esquire called “The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama” by Tom Junod. It’s not yet available on the magazine’s website.

It is about the drone attacks, the extralegal executions OK’d by B.O. , our Commander-In-Chief and Leader of the Democratic Party.

I always thought it was stupid to invade Afghanistan, that it would make more sense to just set up shop somewhere and get the bad guys. Given the mess we still have there, i figure i was right. But I wasn’t thinking about drones, I’m not sure they existed, but they’re even better for the get-the-bad-guy approach given that the possibility of American casualties is negligible. As a way of making war it is certainly no more immoral than dropping bombs all over the place and blowing up schools and hospitals and weddings and the like. You get dead civilians either way and you probably get fewer of them with the drones.

And yet.

If we are making specific people targets for assassination, and especially if they’re US citizens, it seems reasonable to expect there be some sort of judicial process to approve taking the case to the President before putting someone on the kill list. The administration says its own review process is enough – well, maybe it is if B.O. is president, but it certainly would not be if Dick Cheney were.

If we use judges to issue warrants and approve wire taps, why can’t we do the same for this? It doesn’t have to be an exhaustive trial, just present credible (and confirmed) evidence and — voila! — another human target for the Flying Executioners. At least there’d be a process.

Nixon bombed Cambodia and lied about it. The Reagan administration traded arms for hostages and re-routed money and guns to assassination squads in Central America who killed children and students and women and even American nuns. Daddy Bush deposed the President of Panama for who-knows-what-reason. Clinton left the 1992 campaign trail to make sure Arkansas executed a guy with mental disabilities. Baby Bush, well, those wounds are fresh.

I don’t want people like that deciding, all by themselves, who gets to breathe tomorrow.

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Not Going To Pot

Too bad about the demise of the proposal to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in New York State. It would have even been ok if they had just done it for New York City – and by Friday.

Decriminalization of pot is fair and treats people like adults. I would rather have it legalized, though, and here’s why: even though it seems an increasing amount of weed is grown right here in the USA, I’m sure a healthy percentage comes from or through Mexico. Mexican drug gangs do things like decapitate the innocent family members of rivals, shoot cops and throw babies off bridges. I don’t want two cents going to those people. Legal pot would (a) put them out of business, (b) let us control what is actually in the stuff, and (c) let us tax it.

If people’s behavior affects others, like driving badly, then punish them for that, not for how they got wasted. Otherwise alcohol should be illegal, too. Plus, colleges shouldn’t have to be pot police. It’s a waste of everyone’s time. The same goes for the Reagan-imposed 21-year-old drinking age (there’s President Personal Freedom for ya).  At a minimum they should lower the drinking age on college campuses only.

[Note: I am aware of the unfairness of giving this just to campus kids and it has practical problems. People will think this is horribly classist or racist, but ask yourself this:  where would people — of any age, race or economic level — prefer to find themselves alone at 2:00 a.m., the Fordham University campus or the streets around it? Spoiled college kids arent angels but more bad things are done by kids aged 18-22 in poor neighborhoods. Hey, it might even be a new incentive for studying while in high school.]

I could probably be convinced to lower the drinking age to something like 14 while increasing the driving age to something like 20. I might be the only person in the country who thinks this, but binge drinking would more likely be finished by the time kids drive. In Italy kids drink at a young age and there isn’t a lot of binging or alcoholism, at least not compared to what goes on here in Reaganland. So, what’s the connection? Gun lovers who excuse the high murder rate in this country compared to Europe say “it’s not the guns, it’s cultural”.

They should agee with me on this. But I’m fairly certain most don’t.

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Shrink Rap

When the Pollock painting in their brains gets too jumbled millions of Americans go to a professional – the kind that sits in a chair and nods sagely and may even offer advice.

There seem to be three options for this unburdening: trained therapists, priests and hairdressers.

Therapist-types have certain things in common with at least one other profession, prostitution. As with a shrink, prostitutes really care about your happiness; they want to make you feel good – but only as long as you’re paying them. I’m not saying that decent psychiatrists won’t care if you spiral into lunacy once you’re no longer giving them money – just that they won’t schedule a time when they’d have to be in a room with you.

Therapists and call-girls also share a rather unique relationship with the concept of time. Mind doctors charge by the hour – and the hour is about 45 minutes long. Similarly, I doubt that most johns fill an hour before concluding their, um, transactions.

[Obligatory disavowal: I have never had business or any other kind of interaction with a whore, unless you count the conversation at my high school reunion at which I sat at a table with an ex-classmate who had reputedly spent several decades as a hooker in Las Vegas. When I asked what she does for a living she responded that she works “with tour groups”. I couldn’t help but think “Yes, and I’ll bet you’ve held several interesting positions.”]

There is, of course, a similarity between modern psychological therapy and Catholic confessionals. There is the same need to recount your horrible transgressions, the same plea (stated or not) that “I’m not a bad person, I want to be good,  and I will try not to sin again” — and the same faith that a hand wave will make everything all better (although with a modern American therapist the hand is yours and the wave is the movement it makes as it signs a check).

Grudgungly, perhaps, one has to grant that confession was probably the first effort to get people to face their bad stuff by talking about it out loud. It was an early form of psychiatry, albeit one that insists on honoring mothers instead of blaming them for everything. Before confession a person foolish enough to admit to failings would be fed to lions, which does not offer a possibility of feeling better after the session.

But the the real professional listeners are hairdressers. There is something about the intimacy of a person shampooing and running her fingers through their hair that makes people want to spit out the details of their personal lives. As far as I know, unlike therapists and priests, the hairdressers have taken no oath of beautician omerta’, so if you tell them anything you’re taking a risk that everyone in town will hear about it.

Hairdressers hear about people’s marital problems and love affairs, their career disasters, their medical afflictions. One told me of a client who dated a man with a family that owned a funeral parlor. When the woman went to meet his family the hosts thought it would be useful to have a little get-together, but not enough friends were available that evening. His aunt solved the problem by collecting a few dead bodies, dressing them nicely and propping them up in chairs around the house. The woman claims not have married into this particular mental storm drain.

I cannot swear to you that this story is true, but the hairdresser does. I find certain advantages in going to an event in which I don’t have to force conversation with the partygoers, but even I have to say that filling the room with dead people is probably not the best way to avoid awkward social situations. There are cadaver-free options that would offer similar comfort – for instance, filling the room with deaf-mutes.

Therapy is helpful to millions of people and it’s a valid and thriving profession. In fact, unless you’re a practicing Catholic there probably isn’t anywhere else where you can go to unburden yourself without having your business blabbered all over town, except maybe if you have a blog almost nobody reads.

Thanks for listening.

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Safe and Soundless

Try hearing this all your life: “Oh, you’re so cynical.” Try going to counselors and doctors and coaches and hearing this: “Do you consider yourself to be cynical?”

It could give a guy a complex.

My answer to the question is “No, but everybody else does.” Just because I think horrible things could happen doesn’t mean I  expect them to. In fact, the opposite is true: I expect things to work out because they pretty much always have. Besides, to mention the worst possible outcome is sort of like grabbing a talisman to ward it off.

There is a, um, slight exception to my sunny optimism and it’s that life pretty much always ends badly. You can be as Pollyanna as you want, but unless you die in your sleep or keel over without having been ill things are generally going to be awful at the end. About the best you can hope for is to only be terribly sick for a short period.

Now that’s something to look forward to.

My parents live in a condominium complex in which the bylaws state the occupants must be at least 55-years old – but I’ve never seen anyone there that doesn’t look 103. They’re gray and bent and their skin is almost translucent. I call it the Old Folks Home and it is almost always silent*. The old people like silence, I’ve discovered, and they hate surprises. I’m fairly certain they hate surprises because they never know when the Big Surprise is coming.

Quiet inspires a feeling of safety and when you’re old you want security most of all. It’s not easy to feel safe if there are teenagers in the halls blasting music about beating bitches and shooting Tech-9s.

It is difficult to look at old people and remember that they were once 20, 40, even 50 years old and could jump on rocks to get across a stream or charm someone into bed. It’s frightening to think that they were confident and strong until they woke up one day to find their bodies had fallen to crap and from then on would be at the mercy of any young thug who might want to knock them over.

They are afraid and they want to live in places, like the Old Folks Home, where nobody young will create problems. Who can blame them?

The Old Folks Home is different from my parents’ complex in Florida, which is best described as sort of a dormitory for elderly people. They do things like sit by the pool or on benches and stroll and chat. They laugh and chuckle and tell stories. It’s a non-stop frat party, except that the parking lot is full of Buicks and nobody is smoking marijuana.

Self-help books and wise counselors will point out that whether in a dormitory or a silent fortress the old people are generally “living in the moment” and enjoying themselves, taking things “day by day”. This is not reassuring.  Looking at really old people is a reminder that you are soon going to be in the same boat – a boat in which nobody will remember how cool your haircut was or how smoothly you could banter. It’s a terrifying prospect. In my years wandering around this blue planet I’ve heard a lot of different opinions on all sorts of topics – one person likes summer, another likes winter. But I’ve never heard one person anywhere say they can’t wait to be old and debilitated.

Once in a while some Funnyman will say “Well, it beats the alternative, ho, ho!” Yeah, I guess so — for most of us the thought of being dead is even worse than being old. If you’re old and can’t do much you can still, for instance, sit in front of your 150 channels. But being dead either means oblivion or a destination for your soul that has a fifty percent chance of being perdition. Compared to an eternity in hell, living in an Old Folks Home isn’t so bad.**


* Unless you count the occasional scream of an ambulance, which is like an announcement that another condo may soon be on the market.

** People have ridiculous concepts of hell. The most popular version is the one with fire and devils who do things like stick barbed wire in your butt, like, forever. Another popular view is “Maybe we are in hell now!” I think it’s generally said as a kind of joke, but talk about cynical.

Speaking of dead people and their destinations, I once met a guy from Falls Church, Virginia. I said “Isn’t that where Jerry Fallwell was from?” He said, yes, and reminded me that the Reverend Fallwell had recently died and moved onto another world. “Yeah,” I said, “I bet he was surprised.”

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