Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception

So, in keeping with the reason why God put me here on Earth, I had to drive a carful of teenage girls to some event. Normally I tune out their conversation because it is incomprehensible.

Not yesterday.

The girls were arguing about who had the best phone app to track her period.

Bless us 'n' save us, Missus Jack Davis!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Rhode Island Diet

I am a self-betraying stooge for a weight loss clinic. I have to note and disclose everything I eat during twelve weeks, and I have to report the daily variations in my weight. Every Sunday evening I make these disclosures on the website of the Oberkommando running the show. This morning, standing in my altogether at the daily weigh-in in my bathroom, I was neither at the same weight as yesterday nor at a lower level. In fact, I was one pound heavier than I had been a week ago. Panic. I had to make those weight disclosures tonight. I knew the culprit. Last night, there was an unfortunate three-way between me, a novel and a bottle of screwtop rosé. The contents of the bottle had somehow insinuated themselves between my lips as I read the novel at my kitchen table, in the vicinity of where I would wake up at about two in the morning. Life is full of such coincidences. As I stepped off the scales I pondered my options. I could lie to the Oberkommando and risk a court-martial. No, too daunting. Or I could count on the workings of intestinal transit to lessen my weight. Yes, good! So, Adam and Eve-like, I took a couple bites of an apple, bounced about a bit to encourage peristalsis and waited for Ma Nature to come calling. She did, and I did – though I will not inflict the details of the operation on posterity, even if posterity is what it was all about. Anyway, I then stepped back on the scales and somehow, impossibly, I was a half-pound heavier. Desperate now, I reached for my helmet. I would delay breakfast, bike like a madman, then weigh myself. The rules stated that you had to weigh yourself before breakfast – they did not specifically say just after you woke up. So I wouldn’t be deceiving anyone, would I? I would take my beloved bike trail. This would be my first time on it this year. Somehow I had developed a vague fear of tire inflation, which had kept me off my bike for months. Conquering this fear, I grabbed the pump and set to work, and soon I was hurtling lancearmstronglike down the familiar stages of the trail: The Ramp That Hugs, The Ramp That Doesn’t, The Hill of Death, Riverside Drive, Redemption Slope, The Fallopian Straightaway, Voldimort’s Cottage, The Lesser Fallopian, Tankerville, Dari Bee, Extramarital Parking State Park, The Bridge of Hungover Fishermen and then at last, to Bristol, Rhode Island, and its seaside Gull Guano Boulevard. Pausing only an instant to take a slug of water, I turned the bike around to head back the fourteen miles to the Center of the Universe (i.e., Providence). I was elated, the sun felt good. As this was the first time I’d been on the trail as a non-smoker, it no longer felt as if I was pedaling uphill all the time. The sensation was novel. And the sights! All the familiar sights came back to me in all their human glory: the tramp stamps and tanktop gullies of the girls, the tattooed biceps and dirty looks of their boyfriends. The archetypes were out in force, too. At Mile 15: The Tottering Grandfather. Later on: The Teeth-Bearing Sprinter. Then, in quick succession: The Immodest Behemoth, The Sullen Virgin, The Unicycle Mime, The Aspirational Jogger, The Aerodynamic Lawyer, the hotties, the fatties, the homeys… trail nuts, all. And I love them. At last I pedaled up The Ramp That Hugs, then went the two blocks home. I was exhausted, but in a good way, as if I had just attended a successful reunion. I stabled my metal steed and headed upstairs to my apartment. The scale lay in wait on the tile floor. I stripped off then stood on it. I had lost three pounds. There would be no court martial.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Masterpiece Theater

President Obama today: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

Say what you want about the guy, but when it comes to delivering a clear, lapidary message, he is peerless. This was a masterpiece of succinct political discourse.

The dogs bark, but the caravan passes.


Sunday, March 18, 2012

Border Incident

8 a.m., at a St. Lawrence River crossing into the U.S. from Canada. I pull up at the booth and recognize the border guard: young guy, with a mullet and a straggly beard.
Him: Where you live?
Me: Providence.
Him: Why were you in Canada?
Me: To visit my father, in Ottawa. I was there three days.
(He surveys my passport)
Him: How come you’re an American?
Me: Had a green card…
Him: Hmmm… What do you do?
Me: For a living?
Him: Yeah.
Me: I’m a writer. I write books.
Him: What kind of books?
Me: History books. My last one was about medieval history.
Him: I’ve had you before…
Me: Yes.
Him: Why don’t you write about Northern aggression?
Me: You mean… like in the Civil War?
Him: You can’t have a civil war between two separate countries. The South was independent.
Me: Oh.
Him: Yeah, it was the War of Northern Aggression. Why don’t you write about that?
Me: I… I’ve never thought about it that way.
Him: You can go. Welcome home.
And the agent of the United States government waved me through.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Stephen Makes Friends

Yesterday, at my younger daughter’s new school: So there we are, a clutch of parents, waiting to pick up our kids. Some of the parents are obviously professionals – lawyers, accountants, doctors and the like. We stand on a sidewalk, facing a building fronted by a large plate-glass window. Huge SUVs idle on the street.

Through the big window we can see a hundred or so middle-schoolers gathering their things, fastening their backpacks. The vista is an unrelieved expanse of skinny jeans, Abercrombie & Fitch, American Apparel, Urban Outfitters, Uggs…

“I think I’ll wait for my daughter to come out of the building,” I say with an attempt at levity. “They all look the same, I can’t tell them apart.”

Silence. Looks of horror.

The empty space surrounding me suddenly grows very large.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Questions for a New Year

Why ill in kill, but laughter in slaughter?

Is men in women there deliberately?

Do all interesting women have problematic relationships with their mothers?

If the child is the father of the man, then he’s sleeping with… ? Never mind.

Which Republican presidential candidate would you feel most at ease with in a bar, sharing a pitcher of hemlock?

When a priest pennstates a choirboy, is the end-product sancta santorum?

If Immanuel Kant but the Vatican, should we even complete the sentence?

Are you better off in life crying in a Bentley or laughing on a Vespa?

Is Sumatra comfortable?

Why do Americans pretend there’s an “r” in Goethe?

If your spouse gets raptured, do you have to quit your swingers’ club?

Can you get acne from Facebook?

Is your guiding principle WWYYMD?*

Why does Texas exist?

Did Jimmy Carter really say, “I came, I saw, Iran”?

Is one man’s Mede another man’s Persian?

Do you pronounce Cretan and cretin the same way? Why? What have you got against Greeks?

If you were a drone, would you enjoy the flight?

Can you have an atrocity in the countryside?

Have you heard the one about Orthodox Jews refraining from having sex while standing up because it might be construed as dancing?

Who was Kim Kardashian’s equivalent in Classical Antiquity?

Do you agree with the following syllogism: “Socrates is a man; all men are mortal; therefore Socrates is a homosexual”?

Does it get better? Really?

*What Would Yo-Yo Ma Do?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Vive le GOP!

For reasons unknown to my conscious self, I watched the two Republican debates that took place in New Hampshire this weekend. Actually, I had heard, from snarko barfly friends, that the debates were what you could watch if you had exhausted your Three Stooges queue on Netflix, but, alas, with Cain and Bachmann gone, I never got the promised laff riot.

Instead, I got the peculiar feeling of being in France.

(Let us here, at the outset, retire the usual uninformed faux-sophisticate wheeze and state clearly that no Jerry Lewis joke is in the offing.)

Why France?

Because it seemed to me that the shiny white men on stage were talking about a world that no longer existed.

Background: As a journalist in France in the 1980s and 1990s, I sometimes did political stories. Not mainstream stories, but quirky ha-ha-those-crazy-French features about the country’s political fringes. On the left, the US has nothing comparable to what can or could be found in France. But on the right in France, there was a plethora of teeny and not-so-teeny parties and movements – Front National, Action Française, Renouveau Français and others – that appealed to, say, 20% of the electorate. And what they had said two or three decades ago, I realized with a start while watching the teevee this weekend, resembled what the speakers of New Hampshire are saying now.

Not in their particulars, of course, but in their worldview. Both – the present-day GOP and the French ultranationalist right – are not so much conservatives as archeologists, and militant archeologists at that.

In the French iteration, France is still Number One, Top Dog, Center of the Universe, Indispensable Nation of the world. The distressing past hundred or two hundred years have been swept under the rug by the Senegalese chambermaid, and the speakers at rallies could depict a world still under the sway of the great Parisian idea machine. Homeland of human rights, beacon of liberty, and all that. If any acknowledgment had to be made of the reality of the planet – that France was not first among equals on the world stage – then our far-right orators would cite not outside influences beyond their control, but domestic enemies, enemies within. For the hoarier of these groups, those enemies remained Jews and Freemasons. For the more “modern,” they were Arab immigrants and, well, Jews.

But the takeaway was that the world had not changed – if anything was temporarily amiss, that could be remedied by addressing the enemies within.

Now, back to New Hampshire. The militant archeologists there are living in a dig that, through carbon dating, I would put at about 1948 or 1949. The rest of the world, after the war, is on its knees. America is the undisputed Number One, Top Dog, Can-Do, Know-It-All, Benign, Superior Despot/Liberty Beacon of the world. The intervening sixty or so years or history have been swept under the rug by a Dominican illegal, and the speakers can paint a world where what America wants, America gets. Europe, the Middle East, India, Asia… they are all still bit players in the great Broadway musical known as We Are The Best. And if there is a jarring note coming from the ochestra pit – a shrill piccolo blast of reality regarding declining American education, income, influence, etc. – that too, pace the French archeologists, can be blamed on an enemy within. Thus the commies have become American Muslims; the liberals, socialists; the unions, antiAmerican layabouts; the poor, parasites.

Again, what is not acknowledged is that the world has changed. And that this change cannot be stopped, much less undone. I would say that identifying and fighting internal enemies to combat external forces is what adds the tags ‘militant’ and ‘futile’ to the title of archeologist.

Change has always been the central challenge to the conservative. Those wishing to remain in an inflexible past become the fringe, then gradually go away. A few of the French mini-movements I mentioned above are no more (excepting, of course, the far-from-mini Front National). But what is surprising here in this country is when a major political party, with all the resources at its disposal, deliberately chooses a starting point, a ground from which to argue, that in no way resembles the fluid, ever-changing realities of world politics and power relationships. The French ultranationalists are more ridiculous than the GOP – French superpowerdom lying so far in the past – but that does not make the Republicans’ fundamental error any less egregious.

And, yes, of course they are sincere in their beliefs. Trappist monks are sincere in their beliefs. So are flat-earthers. But, in politics, to address the world as it is requires seeing the world as it is. All parties, in all countries, make exhortations to patriotism and national exceptionalism – that’s par for the course. Yet here, the pride in having been Number One for a few decades has engendered, in the American conservative mind, a sort of romanticism. They look at ruins and see castles.

Just like archeologists.