Archive for November, 2009

Let Us Pray

The plethora of fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s typify the recent change in eating habits. That they are antiseptic, depersonalized, a gastronomic atrocity, as critics have complained, is basically true.

Some critics have declared that the fast-food restaurants have caused changes in eating habits, but it seems more likely that they simply reflect the fundamental changes that have taken place in society as a whole. Traditional social rituals have declined, and the new rituals that are replacing them—rituals based on automobiles, television, technology, and efficiency—cut across previous religious affiliations, ethnic loyalties, and class allegiances.

A meal at McDonald’s can be looked upon as having some of the character of a social or religious ritual. Rituals occur in designated places, marked by distinctive emblems such as the cross above a church, and at prescribed times, such as the sabbath. For a patron of McDonald’s, the eating rituals occur under the Sign of the Double Golden Arch and at the prescribed times of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Ritual is also characterized by words and actions that have been prescribed by people other than the current performers of the ritual and that have been codified in some revered text, such as the Pledge of Allegiance or the Bible. The employees of McDonald’s who take the orders and deliver the burgers, fries, and shakes display a behavioral uniformity that is prescribed by the originators of McDonald’s and codified in the 360 pages of its standardized Operations Manual. Those responsible for carrying out the ritual have been trained at the McDonald’s analogue of a seminary, known as Hamburger University, in Elk Grove, Illinois.

Ritual is also repetitive and stereotyped, of a limited range, adhering to a largely invariable sequence. Day after day, year after year, burgers are sold at McDonald’s with virtually the same catechism of requests and replies: “I’ll have a Big Mac.” “Will there be any fries with that?” “Thank you, have a nice day.” The transactions at McDonald’s express values esteemed by the modern North American society: technological efficiency, cleanliness, service, and egalitarianism. At a McDonald’s, people find exactly what they have come to expect. They know the liturgy, and what pecuniary dues they will have to pay; they have found the comfort, the security, and the reassurance there will be no surprises that are among the benefits of any ritual.

—Peter Farb, Consuming Passions

The Truth Is Out There

Scientists from the Space Research Institute of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (BAS) revealed Monday that they are in contact with extraterrestrial beings.

The Slavic doubledomes are said to be scrutinizing pictograms that arrived in the form of crop circles; there, they say, lie the answers to some 30 questions earlier posed to the aliens by BAS researchers.

“They are currently all around us, and are watching us all the time,” Deputy Director of the Space Research Institute Lachezar Filipov said. “They are not hostile towards us; rather they want to help us, but we have not grown enough in order to establish direct contact with them. They are ready to help us but we don’t know what to request from them in case of contact.”

Filipov said that humans will never be able to communicate with these creatures via radio waves; instead, they may be reached only by the power of thought. He predicted that humans and aliens will be chatting away telepathically within ten to fifteen years.

The aliens are meanwhile deeply cranky about “people’s amoral behaviour” in the abuse of nature, Filipov said.


And This Little Piggy . . . .

Firefighters dispatched to a farm in southern Australia on a report of a possible natural-gas leak instead encountered a mammoth sow in the midst of a flatulence frolic.

“She got very excited when two trucks and 15 firies turned up and she squealed and farted and squealed and farted,” said fire chief Peter Harkins.

“I haven’t heard too many pigs fart but I would describe it as very full-on.”

Fifteen firefighters and two trucks responding to a suspected gas leak on a small farm at 10:30 on a Tuesday night may seem a tad excessive . . . except when one considers that Australia does have a tendency to periodically burst into flames and then burn for weeks and weeks. Chief Harkins in fact credited the farm family for contacting authorities: “It’s all bottled gas up here and a leaking cylinder could pose a major fire risk.”


“When we got there, as we drove up the driveway, there was this huge sow, about a [265-pound] sow, and it was very obvious where the gas was coming from,” said [] Harkins.

Harkins said the day had been wet, warm, and slightly humid.

“Smells are always exacerbated in those conditions. We got to the property and we could smell a very strong odour in the vicinity.

“It didn’t take us too long to work it out because we could both smell and hear her.”

The pig is apparently a family pet, friendly and docile. But, as the Herald Sun suggested, the animal may require a change in diet. As Harkins told a Melbourne radio station:

“I don’t know what they were feeding this thing but we certainly heard it.”

Harkins said the owner of the flatulent pig had apologised for calling 15 firefighters to his farm at Axedale, near Bendigo.

“He was a little bit embarrassed to say the least. It took us a little while to compose ourselves, to speak to him,” Harkins said of Tuesday’s incident.

The animal’s humans, protective of their pig, have sent the sow into seclusion, and refused photographers permission to snap shots of their porker. The pigs pictured on this page, then, are only possible suspects.

The River

How many trips in the world does one really want to make again? For me, not many. But I would go back to the Nile over and over, as if in mysterious return homeward, or in quest for some ancestral memory that has been only partially and tantalizingly revealed to me—as at that interval when one passes from sleep to waking. On the last evening aboard the Abu Simbel there comes to me a moment when I know the reason why I shall always want to come back to this river. Moored to the riverbank at the edge of a small village, the boat is peaceful, all energies unwound; at dusk, alone, I go up on deck and feel in my bones the chill of the coming night. In the village I see a nondescript street, children, a camel, a minaret. Far back on the river two feluccas rest as if foundered immovably upon a sandbar; the light around them is pearl-gray, aqueous, and they seem to hover so delicately on the river that it is as if they were suspended in some nearly incorporeal substance, like gauze or mist. With their furled sails, they are utterly motionless; they are like the boats on an antique china plate of my childhood. As the light fades from the sky and the stars appear, the village is silhouetted against the faintest pink of the setting sun. I am aware of only two sounds: the clinking of a bell, perhaps on some cow or donkey, and now the voice of a muezzin from the minaret, intoning the Koran’s summons in dark and monotonous gutturals. It is then, in a quick flood of recognition, that I feel certain that I have been here before, in some other century. But as the sensation disappears, almost as swiftly as it comes, I ponder whether this instant of deja vu means anything at all; after all, I am a skeptic about mystical experiences. Nonetheless, the feeling persists, I cannot quite shake it off—nor do I want to. And so I remain there in the dusk, listening to the soft muttering of the muezzin and gazing at the distance feluccas miraculously afloat in the air. And then I wonder how many others—hypnotized like me by this river and the burden of its history, and by the drama of the death along its shores and waters, and eternal rebirth in all—might have known the same epiphany.

—William Styron, “Down The Nile”


Giving Thanks

Darth Dribbles

Darth Cheney, edging ever closer to Becoming One with the birthers, the deathers, the teabaggers, and all the other far-fringers currently eating away at the corpse of the Republican Party, has decreed that President Barack Obama “doesn’t fully understand or have the same perception of the US role in the world that most Americans have.”

Obama’s a dim-bulb stumblebum traitorous Muslim Kneegrow, that what you’re sayin’, Darth?

Darth next darkly intimated that another nefarious Kneegrow, Attorney General Eric Holder, is some sort of febrile Manchurian prosecutor hell-bent on dragging terrorists up to New York so they can there propagate Evil.

“I can’t for the life of me figure out what Holder’s intent here is in having Khalid Sheikh Mohammad tried in civilian court other than to have some kind of show trial. They’ll simply use it as a platform to argue their case—it’ll be a place for them to stand up and spread the terrible ideology that they adhere to.”

Darth, who was okay with his hireling George II smooching Saudi princes, and prancing about with them hand in hand, also fulminated that Obama’s respectful bow last week to the Emperor of Japan was “fundamentally harmful” to the United States.

Dang, Darth! Sounds like mebbe you think somethin’ pretty darn drastic oughtta be done to that Kneegrow!

Darth’s bilge was spilled Monday morning on something called the Scott Hennen Show. Hennen is the smooth-talking smoothbrain assigned by the rightwing noise machine to organ-grind lies out the radio in the Fargo, North Dakota region. As evidenced in the photo to the right, Hennen is a hunter, so it is possible that at some point Darth may be compelled to shoot him in the face.


Peasant Palate: I Will Make You Gumbo

We’re a family who for 40 years flowed back together for Thanksgiving, there in a little house on the coast of California. But people, they do get old, and so the woman who rented the place to us all those years, for a modest, reasonable fee, was recently forced to pass the property on to her children, who, it develops, are Robbers. They want rent achievable only by folks who serve on the board of directors at Goldman Sachs. So this year this family will stay scattered.

A few years ago I developed a serious gumbo jones, and one year took my spike to the coast for Thanksgiving. There I succeeded in hooking all the junior members of the family. Since this year I will be unable to stand and deliver, I’m posting here the recipe, so all the scattered family can brew the drug in their own homes.

My recipe is a variation on that of the folks in the photo above, Maudice and Bill Gentry, presently of Oakland, California, formerly of Texas and New Orleans. Gumbo, associated most with New Orleans, is a West African, Afro-Caribbean dish, with French and Choctaw Indian accents. Some folks think gumbo must contain okra, but in this they are Wrong. You can put okra in it, but it’s no more necessary than is owl or monkey, which some folks also like to see floating in their gumbo.


Head Trips

Back in July I put up a grumpy post in which I opined that “[d]reams are but a nocturnal processing system, of information received while the corporeal container is up and about. In any remembered dream I can easily find analogues to events or emotions experienced in an earlier waking state. Or nudges towards things I should, as KGO’s Ray Taliaferro puts it, ‘be thinking about, talking about, or doing something about.'”

Now, according to the New York Times, a Science Man is saying dreams maybe aren’t even that.

In a paper published last month in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Dr. J. Allan Hobson, a psychiatrist and longtime sleep researcher at Harvard, argues that the main function of rapid-eye-movement sleep, or REM, when most dreaming occurs, is physiological. The brain is warming its circuits, anticipating the sights and sounds and emotions of waking.

“It helps explain a lot of things, like why people forget so many dreams,” Dr. Hobson said in an interview. “It’s like jogging; the body doesn’t remember every step, but it knows it has exercised. It has been tuned up. It’s the same idea here: dreams are tuning the mind for conscious awareness.”

Meanwhile, a second Science Man, quoted in the same article, is claiming that dreaming, rather than some form of robotic jogging, is actually “consciousness itself.”



Shame The Devil

She was waiting for him with her arms folded.

“I refuse to believe in the existence of a God who permits the suffering of innocent children.”

“So why are we getting married in a church?”

“To melt his heart,” she replied.

—John Le Carre, The Constant Gardener

Willy DeVille, who wrote the song offered below, described it this way:

“It’s a song about a couple who is very in love. They have no money, but someday they wanna get married in a big church, and have a gold earring and new boots. And you wanna look so pretty for that girl. I think men always try to be so ‘macho.’ I think that’s very stupid.”

The guitar-playing, sweet enough to melt any heart, comes courtesy Chet Atkins.

The person who uploaded this song to YouTube cut the thing off while the final note was still in sustain. Proof that things are not yet perfect.

What It Is

Love should run out to meet love with open arms. Indeed, the ideal story is that of two people who go into love step for step, with a fluttered consciousness, like a pair of children venturing together into a dark room. From the first moment when they see each other, with a pang of curiosity, through stage after stage of growing pleasure and embarrassment, they can read the expression of their own trouble in each other’s eyes. There is here no declaration properly so called; the feeling is so plainly shared, that as soon as the man knows what it is in his own heart, he is sure of what it is in the woman’s.

—”On Falling In Love,” Robert Louis Stevenson

The Hyena In Winter

November 16, 2009

Karen says I need to keep speakin’ into this tape recorder, for the book she’ll write under my name, so I can get vindicated by history. So that’s what I’m doin’. At least till the Monday Night Football comes on. Then I need to go drink me some pretzels.

I see he’s over there in Japan now, the kid, Dumbo. Bowing to their emperor. Kid’s got no sense. Everywhere he goes, the bowing. It don’t look right. America don’t bow to nobody: and when he’s president, he’s America. Like I was. Hell, he even bowed to the Saudis, when anybody with any sense knows you’re supposed to hold their friggin’ hands. Have to—otherwise those hands’ll be squirrelin’ all around your pockets, filchin’ your money.

Me and Dad, we never bowed to no Japanese. Dad, he really knew how to handle ’em—hell, he threw up on the prime minister. Sure: the story went out that it was because he was sick on them pills and that jet lag. But that was a fib. Really he did it on purpose. He’s a real card, Dad. People just don’t appreciate that.

I guess maybe I did screw up with them Japanese that one time. I was feelin’ kind of feisty, after drinkin’ a couple of pretzels, and I tried to do the hoedown-dance with the Japanese prime minister. Didn’t go so well. Dummy just stood there: guess he never heard of the hoedown. And Pootie-poot, he looked at me like he thought somebody oughta put me back in the crib.

Karen—make sure that picture don’t go in the book, will ya?


You Can Never Be Ordinary Again

“We did what we could but it was not enough because I found you here. All of you are not just names on the wall, you are alive. Your blood’s on my hands, your screams in my ears, your eyes in my soul. I told you you’d be alright but I lied. Please forgive me. I see your face in my son. I can’t bear the thought. You told me about your wife, your kids, your girl, your mother. Then you died. I should have done more. Your pain is ours. Please, God. I’ll never forget your faces. I can’t, you’re still alive.”

President Obama is right: of Major Hasan we should not “jump to conclusions.” But there is one thing we can know for certain: the horrors of war are not cabined to those who fight in them.

The centrality of war is the intentional killing of human beings: the healer is charged with preserving life, to “abstain from doing harm.” When these worlds collide, when a healer is tasked with applying the healing arts to those deliberately damaged by war, then, as one nurse learned, “you can never be ordinary again.”

The note quoted above, left by another nurse at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, speaks to that. Beyond the “furthur” are more such voices. Many more.



We too must suffer all the suffering around us. What each of us possesses is not a body but a process of growth, and it conducts us through every pain, in this form or in that. Just as the child unfolds through all the stages of life to old age and deathshe (and every stage seems unattainable to the previous one, whether in fear or longing) so we unfold (not less deeply bound to humanity than to ourselves) through all the sufferings of this world. In this process there is no place for justice, but no place either for dread of suffering or for the interpretation of suffering as a merit.

You can hold back from the suffering of the world, you have free permission to do so and it is in accordance with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided.

—Franz Kafka

I See Food Dying

Now, I famously hate salad bars. I don’t like buffets. wastedWhen I see food sitting out, exposed to the elements, I see food dying. I see a big open petri dish where every passing serial sneezer can feel free to cough, drool, and fondle with spittle-flecked fingers. I see food not held at ideal temperatures, food rotated (or not) by person or persons unknown, left to fester in the open air unprotected from the passing fancies of the general public. Those New York delis with the giant salad bars where all the health-conscious office workers go for their light, sensible lunches? You’re eating more bacteria than the guy standing outside eating mystery meat on a stick.

—Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour

“The Crucifix Creates Discrimination”

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that displaying crucifixes in Italian public schools violates religious and educational freedoms. It has ordered the Italian government to pay a $7390 fine to an Italian mother, Soile Lautsi, who has struggled for eight years to compel her children’s schoolsyou vill vorship as i vill in northern Italy to remove crucifixes from the classrooms.

The Court rejected the government’s disingenuous argument that the crucifix is not a religious totem at all, but instead “a national symbol of culture, history, identity, tolerance, and”—get this—”secularism.”

Sanely, the Court concluded that secular, state-run schools, where attendance is compulsory, must “observe confessional neutrality in the context of public education,” and that crucifix-clogged classrooms “could easily be interpreted by pupils of all ages as a religious sign and they would feel that they were being educated in a school environment bearing the stamp of a given religion.”

Crucifixes have been compulsory in Italian classrooms since the enactment in the 1920s of two laws under the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, a personage aided and enabled by the Catholic Church, which for millennia has been the premier peddler of crucifixes.

Lautsi’s husband, Massimo Albertin, said the family was satisfied with the court’s ruling. “We believe the ruling is a positive signal from Europe to Italy, which seems to increasingly lose its secularism,” he said from their home in Albano Terme. “The crucifix creates discrimination.”


La Bete Humaine

Not content with bombing the moon, NASA now plans to bombard monkeys with radiation, to “understand how the harsh radioactive environment of space affects human bodies and behavior.”

bomb the monkeyMonkeys were routinely tormented and tortured in the early days of space flight—on both sides of the Cold War—but this will be the first time in decades that the doubledomes of NASA have decreed it is necessary to flog our cousins for the Greater Good of mankind.

“We realized there was a need for this kind of work,” intoned Jack Bergman, behavioral pharmacologist at Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital in Boston. “There’s a long-standing commitment on the part of NASA to deep space travel and with that commitment comes a need for knowing what kinds of adverse effects deep space travel might have, what are the risks to astronauts. That’s not been well assessed.”


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When I Worked

November 2009