Friday, December 15, 2006


Cold weather makes me irascible. Adding to this discomfort is a litany of annoying little things that society imposes on me. Here are a few of my favorite winter irritations:

Pasteurized Cider -- Every fall for many years I have purchased cold, dark, sweet, unfiltered apple cider locally. I would then leave it overnight on the kitchen counter until it started to ferment slightly. Finally, after a day of rechilling, I would then drink my slightly-carbonated, libation to autumn in New England. Now, due to a one-in-a-billion food-processing accident in California, all I can find is a pale, insipid, pasteurized product called “apple cider,” but much more like apple juice. One again, the food Nazis have made my world a little smaller.

Anonymous Answering Machine Messages -- It is quite grating to have placed an important and expensive call to an unfamiliar person in Saskatchewan only to get a terse answering machine message that says, “Hi, it’s us. Please leave a message.” Now, these provincial putzes at least could include their phone numbers so that I know I haven’t called a bordello in Biloxi. (By the way, to be grammatically but annoyingly correct, it is “Hi, it’s we.”)

Magazine Inserts -- My main motivation for becoming insanely rich is so that I can hire a “magazine valet.” This would be one who, dressed in full livery with white suede gloves, would riffle through my newly-delivered magazines and remove all those loose solicitation cards. That way, when I read these periodicals, my lap would not be constantly littered with such detritus.

Prolonged Voice-Mail Messages -- Frequently overly conscientious business people feel compelled to leave elaborate and up-to-the-minute phone messages, “Hi, this is Fred Mertz and I am in the office today, Thursday, July 23rd, but may be in a Board of Directors meeting or lunching with the Sultan of Brunei. I am interested in returning your call but, if it is important, you may want to contact my Executive Assistant, Siegfried Sassoon, the fourth, on extension 34895 ... or, if he is unavailable, my Executive Secretary, Nancy Drew, on extension 34897. If this is an emergency, you may call my beeper at 888-555-2345 and then enter 678-999. On Tuesday, my daughter had a bouncing baby boy, Mergatroid, weighing eight pounds, six ounces. We plan to vacation in the Barbados in September. My father’s gal bladder has stopped acting up. Thanks for your call. Please leave a message after the eighth beep.” I have reproduced the whole message here, but I generally hang up somewhere around the Sultan of Brunei.

Neat Litterbugs -- What possesses people to be fastidious while they are trashing things? There is a brand of urban slob who will reach down and carefully place a Starbucks latte cup right-side-up beside his/her car before leaving a parking space. Or neatly wrap a used diaper and put it under the nearest park bench. Do these teeny fits of tidiness really mitigate such gross slovenliness?

Architectural Food -- It seems these days that every dish I order in a fancy restaurant comes piled high as a tottering pilaster ... defying gravity and good gastronomic sense. Has the measure of culinary merit now become altitude and not sapor? Another paradox to ponder -- why are all our newly-built civic monuments flatter than the proverbial pancake?

Public Grooming -- In olden days it was considered impolite to comb you hair or put on your makeup in public ... hence powder rooms. It’s not that I don’t enjoy inhaling clouds of dandruff on the “T,” but need I also sit on the finger-nail clippings of others? I suppose public tooth brushing or face shaving are just a whisker away.

Dial Tones -- Few of us use dial (pulsed) phones anymore. So why do digital-keypad telephones have “dial tones?” And how do we “dial” a phone by punching some buttons? When we send E-mail do we call it a “telegram?” When we consult our watches, do we still view a “chronometer?” Do we call refrigerators, “ice boxes?” Of course not! So, please, let’s update our phone terminology.

Plastic Thread -- There should be a new place in purgatory into which the inventor of clear plastic thread and its users would be hurled. Garment manufacturers, in order to save a few pennies by not having to change thread colors, now torture their wearers with the constant scratching from the cut ends of this filament. This purgatory locale would a briar patch filled with nettles and razor wire.

E-mail Junk -- By this I don’t mean junk E-mail (or “spam”). This has been lambasted enough. Rather, I refer here to all those annoying extras you get in E-mail messages, particularly those that have been forwarded. For instances, why must all the co-recipients of E-mails be listed twice in painfully convoluted ciphers? Does the computer forget in that short span of message text to whom it is addressing this E-pistle? Also, why is the message text often repeated (sometimes twice or more) in the body of a forwarded message? And why do all those little greater-than signs (>>) scatter themselves all over forwarded E-mail messages like chicken tracks? Come on you Internet techies ... these are not difficult problems to solve. If you can transmit smut to our children, the least you can do is get rid of this E-mail junk.

Big Word Users -- Few scholarly artifices engender my trenchant passions like those literati who espouse antiquated synonyms whilst composing expository prose. These inane and erudite accouterments generally bequeath naught to their reader’s comprehension other than an acute discernment of their author’s ego-inspired hyperbole.

Compulsive Call Screening -- Due to such things as phone solicitors, some clever people now never ever answer their telephones. Instead, they screen all their calls through an answering machine. This, of course, is understandable, but can sometimes cause extreme frustration. For instance, like when you know that they are at home and you need to reach them in a hurry ... say to tell them that someone with a hockey goalie’s mask and chain saw is jimmying their cellar door.

Airline Lies -- Every time a flight is canceled, airline counter personnel offer the same lame excuses: “Your plane is experiencing mechanical difficulties.” or “Weather at your plane’s feeder airport has forced the scrubbing of this flight.” Just once I would like to hear: “This plane is not fully booked, so we are canceling it and cramming you into a later one so we can generate higher profits.”

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


A while ago a very bright liberal daughter of some friends said that she didn’t like the religious elementary school that she had attended because they had been “judgmental.” I then engaged her in a short colloquy about this subject (I, being in favor of drawing conclusions) and didn’t make the slightest dent in her social armor. So I have decided to try to memorialize my feelings on this issue in order to argue my case further and perhaps even open her mind a little.

The definition of “judgmentalism” I would like to use here requires a little visualization. Imagine that you are sitting in the middle of a large circle drawn on the ground and that you are metaphysically sorting through all the thoughts and things of life. You place those thoughts and things that you find acceptable inside the circle and those that you don’t, outside. I think we all perform such a chore with some regularity and even pleasure. For instance, you might place “fouling the environment” outside the circle, or unacceptable; and “the smell of baby powder” inside, or acceptable. At some point you must make such a placement decision on “being judgmental.” Aha, now comes the conundrum! Can you place this behavior outside the circle without being hypocritical? And if you do, then you are denying the very process you may savor.

The best path off of this uncomfortable paradox might be for this young lady to admit that she just didn’t like this elementary school because its value system differed from hers. In fact, her put down of people and institutions for being “judgmental” is nothing more that an easy pejorative, a semantic substitution for ideas too weak or embarrassing for social expression. Such pejoratives (for example, “homophobe” or “knee-jerk liberal”) have become, at least to the unthinking, a way of quickly winning arguments with a backward wave of the hand and the nodding approval of one’s clique members. In other words, they are a dialectic code for “the social norm is to find this behavior unacceptable and, if you don’t comply, then we will think less of you.” Notice, I say “we” since such tête-à-têtes are usually sprinkled with such aphorisms as a way of testing newcomers to see if they have enough common receptor sites to be considered as someone to whom we will pay attention. Of course, this newcomer may also be applying a similar Rorschach to the testers to decide whether they too are worth a fiddler’s fart. Then the ridicule-or may become the ridicule-ee.

Historically these code words shift and jive. The older, cruder forms were often short and stabbing, such as “pinko” or “crybaby” or “bum.” Today, our salon societies have evolved much more subtle and sophisticated membership applications ... polysyllabic (and often humorous) aphorisms that slip off the tongues of our dilly dandies like cheap oil off of freshly-opened sardines. There are even those who seem to coin such terms for a living. Those that quickly come to mind are Rush Limbaugh (“femi-nazi” -- a hyper-radical feminist), Tom Wolfe (“x-ray” -- a socialite whose skeletal-look seems to be her only claim to self worth), and James Carville (“sexual McCarthyism” -- daring to pass judgment on President Clinton’s peckerdilloes).

Therefore, I am here pontificating on nothing really new. I’m old enough to remember, in the 1950s and 1960s, when similar semantic weapons, which are now so capably used against the right, were leveled at liberals with equal efficacy. However, I do not recall conservatives denying their left-wing foes the ability to think or form judgments. This is the insidious demagoguery against which I now rail. I honestly hope that this one flicker of liberty is not snuffed out as tribute to our current worship of feelings over consequences.

Friday, December 08, 2006


“In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking, now heavens knows, anything goes.” (Cole Porter)

Recently I wrote a blog on another site (Dartmouth Traditions) about college traditions, their plusses and minuses. This has caused me in turn to think about much of today’s social and political conflicts in these same terms – the push and pull between modernity and traditions. To be specific:

Gay Marriage – a main argument against gay marriage is that it changes the definition of “traditional” marriage (one man, one woman). Therefore, the “modern” view is pro gay marriage. However, I find it most ironic that gay couples often wrap themselves in the age-old marital traditions (a walk down the aisle, a wedding cake, exchanging rings, etc.). This has just a touch of pathos to it.

Radical Islam – it seems that much of bin Laden’s hatred of the West has to do with the creeping modernity with which we seem to have infected the world. Sex, drugs and rock-and-roll would clearly vanish under traditional Sharia rule (the ultimate world goal for Al Qaeda). Women (and I suspect many minorities) would lose centuries of emancipation. And whole populations would resemble Afghanistan ere its recent liberation: one-eye burkas (see BeliefNet), brutal stoning-to-death executions, destruction of centuries old art works, etc. “Civilizations” would clearly become a lot less civil.

Journalism – Ernie Pyle exemplified journalism in the Second World War. David Gregory exemplifies it today. There is a rift between these two styles of reporting as wide as the seas. Is the traditional journalism mold better than the “modern” one? I’ll let you be the judge.

Rap Music – Does anyone really think that out-year reunions of today’s youth will nostalgically involve Gangsta Rap? Modernity is not always indisputably better.

Old Europe – Without traditional garb, food, architecture, etc. Rick Steves would have to find another line of business. The charm of traveling through France, Germany, Spain, etc. is experiencing these delights first hand. Usually, however such vacations do not include a sampling of the local politics … which is far from traditional.

Art Movements – Impressionism, Cubism, Abstract Impressionism, Pop Art, Op Art, etc. Art movements come in quick succession like waves sucking on a money-strewn beach. Which of these movements are “traditional”? Time alone can make this ultimate judgment. But please give me just one opinion … Andy Warhol has done more to trash the progress of art in the twentieth century than the Taliban ever could have.

The lesson here is that everything old is not necessarily good and everything new isn’t necessarily bad. However, once a tradition is establishes, it has an inertia that should not be fooled with carelessly. But changing circumstances can devalue a tradition as well as make a good innovation poisonous. It is only mindless insistence on a style of behavior that seems truly dangerous.