A cartoon in this morning’s paper triggered a memory, a set of memories, about what is funny.
At the heart of funny is the joke. Normally, the joke has several elements, which are supposed to occur in a specific order:
- punch line
- (sometimes) kicker, a punch-line topper.
In that cartoon, however, things are reversed: punch line comes before set-up.
You could argue that the what seems to be a mis-placed punch line really is a set-up, and that what appears to be a mis-placed set-up really is the punch line.
The memory toward which it propelled me was yet another use of the punch line: the punch line which has no story.
We can’t have been the first to discover and play with the idea, but my friend Frank and I — this is sixty years ago or so — started doing it as a form of practical joke. Our idea was that one of us would recite a story-less punch line, and the other would laugh heartily. Everyone else would look on in confusion, at which Frank and I would reply, in mock amazement, “You mean you never heard that joke?”
Of course they hadn’t. There wasn’t one. And that was the joke.
Maybe I need to include a few examples to make the idea clear.
- My foot’s caught in the torpedo tube.
- He had one, but the wheels fell off.
- Wait, it’s coming out at this end.
I guess you had to be there. And, sixty years ago, most of you weren’t. Trust me, however: at the time, they were funny.
Although each major religion tries to prove its own unique charm and dignity and relevance and truth, all of them build on two basic rules:
- Recognize an over-arching entity.
- Treat others as you want them to treat you.
Or, more formally:
- “I am the Lord thy God.”
- The Golden Rule.
Set aside “Lord thy God” for now; if such a Being exists, has powers and motives beyond our ken, and has dominion over us, we can do little more than guess at what is going on.
Look instead at Golden Rule.
The first corollary to GR has to be a warning against harming another person. Killing, for instance: that would qualify as harm. So if you do not want to be killed yourself, you ought not to kill others.
There remains, however, one complication. As is often the case with complications, it centers on interpretation, on the meaning of words. Here, it is the meaning of one word: “others.”
Liberal (with a small “l”) reading suggests it means people in general, everyone on the planet, everyone in the universe, should we ever find and interact with extra-terrestrial beings.
Still, in some quarters, the “others” whom one must treat as oneself are more tightly defined. They are members of the same
- ethnic group
… well, you get the idea. The “others” may be clear in your mind, but may not be exactly the same as your neighbor’s “others.”
For that matter, who is your neighbor?
The point I’m getting at is this: We are a moral people, by our own definition and standards. We therefore would not harm — would not kill is what I mean — others without good reason. Without justification. A contentious subject, one about which I’ve written at excruciating length elsewhere.
How then can a sane and thoughtful person condone drone attacks, unwarranted invasions, bombing of civilians, or any of the thousand other crimes we commit in the name of national security? National pride. National arrogance.
Are we ourselves the only “others,” the only ones who deserve to be treated well by the rest of the world? And if that is that case, what of those outsiders, those others who are not “others?” If we do not recognize them, why ought they to recognize us? Are they now justified in trying to kill us, just as we try to kill them?
Despite advancing years, I often do not sleep well at night.
I’m trying to make real sense of a news item. (Of course, that often is the only rationale for blogging.) The one in particular is this one at NPR Brains Sweep Themselves Clean Of Toxins During Sleep.
The title pretty well sums up research findings from the University of Rochester, that while we sleep, our brains are more active than we previously believed: they are taking out the garbage, so to speak; literally washing the brain cells.
The article centers on more-obviously chemical — or perhaps “tangible” is the word — elements, those responsible for Alzheimer’s and other brain disorders. Flushing those out is clearly a benefit, a good reason for sleeping late in the morning, say.
But I can’t help wondering about other elements. Specifically, I wonder about our dreams. If the stuff of our brains is being laundered while we sleep, if presumably bad stuff is being flushed away, what might that say about our dreams?
A pair of Shakespearean quotes come quickly to mind
- To sleep, perchance to Dream, and
- We are such stuff as dreams are made on
The first is from Hamlet, and can be misleading; the sleep referred to there is the sleep of death. But the second, from The Tempest, is about real sleep and real dreams.
Clearly, our waking lives (or perhaps those of our ancestors) provide the basic ingredients for dreaming. But now, are some dreams about what’s flushed away, and some about what remains?
Obviously, I have no clear answer. It’s simply an entertaining idea to activate the sluggish brain. Do keep in mind, however, as you think about the possibilities, that basic research on the subject, so far, has been with mice.
Several people have asked me for comments on Syria. What ought the U.S. to do about the use of poison gas to quiet civil unrest?
The range of altenatives is perhaps wider than is usually discussed.
- We could turn our heads, say nothing, do nothing.
- We could condemn the (alleged) massacre.
- We could demand U.N. action in the region.
- We could assemble allies to threaten attack.
- We could organize a unified cross-border strike.
- We could — alone or with others — invade Syria.
- We could…
Well, you can see how the list might grow, top and bottom and middle. Still though, a litany of alternatives does not come close to recommending a course of action.
So here’s what I think.
First of all, we do not attack, nor do we align ourselves with anyone who does.
Second, we do not attack.
Do I repeat myself? Very well, I repeat myself. It is a complex issue; any glib or quick or violent response is de facto a bad idea.
Our own history abounds in crimes against humanity. Not crimes we have endured; crimes we have committed. In that, we are precisely like every other empire, nation, tribe, team, or individual who ever resorted to violence in pursuit of personal gain.
We are no less red in tooth and claw than we were eons ago. More sophisticated, more devious, more complicated, yes. Less violent, no.
We cannot erase or atone for past crimes, ours or anyone else’s, by killing still more people.
… and five more just like him.
The local classical music station occasionally drives me crazy. But that happens only when I listen to it, which I seldom do these days. It’s a matter of taste. Apparently many folks like the station’s taste. I frequently do not.
Understand, I do like classical music, as a genre. I grew up with it (more on that subject in a moment) and — for a mostly-happy five years — I worked at this local station. [Full and frank confession: Yes, I was, in my wild and crazy middle age, a classical disk jockey.] But — and this is a wide-ranging commentary on all the arts, from Shakespearean drama to kindergarten finger-paint — it isn’t all good. Some of it is mediocre. Some of it is dreadful.
As far as music goes — and that’s what this is mostly about — the best critical standard is the one promulgated by Edward Ellington: “If it sounds good, it is good.”
An obvious corollary is there for the taking: “If it doesn’t sound good, it isn’t good.” The Duke explained it more tactfully: “There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind … the only yardstick by which the result should be judged is simply that of how it sounds. If it sounds good it’s successful; if it doesn’t it has failed.”
So. For the moment, and for Michael, I turn to what was my father’s favorite piece of classical music, one which became one of my own favorites. It sounds good to me, so I have no reservation about claiming that it is good. Agree or disagree, but not until you’re heard it to the end.
Click on the picture. You’ve never heard a double bass played like this.
… and five more just like her.
We live in a two-party world, it seems. Here in USA, it’s either Democrat or Republican. A runner in baseball is either safe or out; a pass in football is complete or incomplete; school grades — at all levels — increasingly are Pass or Fail; drivers, when stopped, are either drunk or sober…
Well, you get the idea. And I’ve been thinking about our world today, and the places where we have choices, choices which, at the end, are largely this or that.
- Bill Murray or Steve Martin
- Al Pacino or Robert DeNiro
- Apple or MicroSoft
- Honda or Toyota
- Jersey Shore or Miami Beach
- Creationism or Evolution
- St. Paul or St. Francis
So, a little game. Choose one or the other of the above pairs. Or make up a pair to add to the list. Or — and this is the real challenge — come up with a genuine middle-of-the-road alterative to both elements.
Maybe there’s hope yet for a rational, honest, and productive middle path through the mist and out of the forest. Just watch out for the black-hat lady with the cauldron… and don’t lie down in a field of poppies.
That guy behind the curtain? He may, in the end, be our best hope.
… and another guy, this one usually in front of the curtain.
- You’ve probably already heard about it; if not, details are easy to find. Here’s the gist of the story.
- A department of the Russian government — ostensibly the buyer-of-stuff-for-intel — is buying typewriters. Yes, typewriters, those old pre-computer keyboard things. Typewriters.
Why such a deal at this particular time? Are there some previously-unnoticed Luddites in the Kremlin?
The explanation seized upon by the press was fairly obvious. Too obvious, perhaps. In the words of a Kremlin spokesman:
“After scandals with the distribution of secret documents by WikiLeaks… it has been decided to expand the practice of creating paper documents.”
That will cut down on foreign intercepts, by golly.
Well, yes, that might be the case. Another possibility: every typewriter, no matter how precisely machined to specs, has distinct characteristics: slight variances in key spacing, letter alignment, platen firmness, things like that. You might even call them meta-data.
- The point? Careful investigation of a typed message can determine which typewriter produced it, and therefore, which typist.
- In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg gave The New York Times Xerox copies of a highly-embarrassing Defense Department study of the Viet Nam War. (Check Pentagon Papers if you’re too young to remember this.) The FBI asked Xerox to have its reps make a copy from every machine they serviced; using those copies, the feds hoped to track down the leaker’s machine, and therefore the leaker. But again, even copies made on one of a million machines can be traced back. (Xerox refused to go along with it. Ellsberg was ID’d anyway.)
Meta-data, everywhere you go.
But what really caught my attention was one basic fact. Someone is still buying typewriters. I take great comfort in that. You needn’t get interested in Bronze Age technology, but I do now and again treasure that old Smith-Corona portable. for at least two reasons.
- It has a genuine “feel” as you write. Keys cannot be lightly fingered; they must be hammered on. You have to honestly want to use that letter, write that word, take the story in that direction. None of this “automatic” (read=careless) writing, the stuff which happens, all by itself, apparently, when you let your fingers fondle the computer type-pad.
- It makes you write more slowly. You have to think about what you’re writing. (I know, I know, it can be embarrassing. But try it sometime. Maybe you’ll like it.)
Came across an essay — a blog post, really — which set me to thinking. (It was by Charles Simic, whose work is liable to put anyone’s brain in motion.) He was writing about serendipitous joys of bookstores, those lovely obsolescent remnants of civilized society. Go. Read it, then come back and finish here.
It reminded me of my own fascination with old-fashioned commerce: real hardware stores (there’s one in town, half a mile away, where I go occasionally just for the ambiance, needing nothing but usually coming away with something); real drug stores, the kind with a soda fountain but without Cheerios and beer.
And of course, book stores. The one which came to mind reading Simic’s piece was in New York, as his was, and still is. My first experience there was in the late Fifties. I had just gotten out of the Army, and was trying to find myself in Manhattan. (I learned that I wasn’t there, and perhaps just as well.) But I did find jazz clubs and city parks and — here it comes at last — book stores.
From somewhere in my late teens, I had a memory of a book about mass delusions. I looked around the used book section for something called “Mass Delusions.” Found nothing. A well-dressed elderly man stood at the top of the stairway — I was on the second floor — as if ready to answer questions. He was, in fact, there to answer questions.
I had heard him, a few minutes before, deal with a middle-aged woman who asked where to find a book by Grace Metalious: “On the first floor, madam, in the fiction section, on the shelf marked ‘M.’” His tone made clear that neither the woman nor the book she wanted — Peyton Place — was worthy of his time or energy.
I approached hesitantly, reluctant to admit my youthful ignorance, expecting a similar curt dismissal. But I summoned up courage, and asked. He looked at me a moment, then scratched his jaw, thought another moment, and said, “There is just such a book, young man, and I’ve come across it, but cannot recall the exact title. I am sorry.”
All right. I was not an absolute fool after all. I thanked him for his time and wandered off to look at other books. Ten minutes later, he tracked me down and reported, in great good humor, that I was looking for Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, by Charles Mackay, first published in 1841.
Then he took me to a shelf holding three copies of the book. I picked one up, leafed through it, and went to the cash register to pay for it. I’m pretty sure his good cheer had to do with recalling and finding the book more than with selling it.
Anyway, a few excerpts from EPD — I’ve lost that bookstore copy, but have it now as an epub, thanks to Gutenberg.
- “Three causes especially have excited the discontent of mankind; and, by impelling us to seek remedies for the irremediable, have bewildered us in a maze of madness and error. These are death, toil, and the ignorance of the future..”
- “Nations, like individuals, cannot become desperate gamblers with impunity. Punishment is sure to overtake them sooner or later.”
- “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one.”
There is more, much more. Worth looking at next time you marvel at how wise and clever we are today.
Weary of intel ops, climate change, Mid-East wars, political bamboozling on both sides of the aisle? Me too. Time to think about some really important issues.
Life and Death, for instance.
This whole line of thought, of doubt, of inquiry arises again — I’ve wondered about these things before, as you have — with a play: Big Maggie, a sharp, dark comedy set in rural Ireland about fifty years ago. It opens on a cemetery scene: a man is being buried; we learn about him only through the struggles and complaints of his survivors, notably the widow, Big Maggie of the title.
The first scene is all set in that cemetery. An old man (me) and woman are saying prayers and collecting gossip about the departed. We’ve also been paid to say a few prayers for a dead woman, and we can’t find her grave. It isn’t marked; there’s no stone; finally we hear that she’s buried between a rose bush and a tree.
From that, and from the kinds of personal images we all have, I got to thinking about people who die, and how we try to remember them — have they gone on to a place where we shall meet again, or have they simply ceased to exist, and is that what will happen to us in our turn — whether to keep their spirit alive or to console ourselves or… well, heaven (perhaps) knows what.
Now we come to the central issue. It’s tied in with all sorts of relic-mongering and art-collecting and religiosity, of course, but here goes.
What, or how much, do we owe to our ancestors in the way of honoring them when they have died, and still more, to what degree and how shall we honor their efforts to honor their forebears?
I believe archaeology and anthropology are good and necessary; we are not merely entitled, we’re obligated to discover all we can about who we are, where and whom we came from.
But collecting bodies and monuments and items left to honor the dead, building museums for them, buying and selling other people’s memories and physical elements of their heritage — can we justify any of that? And if we cannot, is there any way sanely and responsibly to object, to complain? Or is this merely the way old people are bound to think as they look ahead?
Definitive answers not required. Suggestions welcome.
My local paper the other day carried a couple of unrelated items, both tucked safely away on inside pages, where they wouldn’t get much attention. But something did strike me about them: a message for the Conservative bloc in Congress.
Here’s the first story, linked to more comprehensive back-up than my local rag provided.
Teenagers from Minnesota, Wisconsin and New Hampshire bested competitors from 17 other countries to give the U.S. its sixth title at National Geographic’s biennial geography championships for schoolchildren… Asha Jain, of Minocqua, Gopi Ramanathan, of Sartell, Minn., and 14-year-old Neelam Sandhu, of Bedford, N.H., edged their counterparts from Canada and India in Wednesday’s final round of the National Geographic World Championship in St. Petersburg, Russia.
And here’s the second, referring to the TV network, Univision.
The Spanish-language network giant has just beat out all of the other major networks for July 2013 (June 27, 2013 – July 17, 2013), claiming the number one spot in the coveted “under 50″ audience category. This landmark moment for the 50+ year old network is more evidence that the Hispanic and Latino communities are growing, and the younger groups of key target audiences are preferring an increasing amount of programming that is more culturally relevant.
Check again the names of those US kids who won an international competition. I didn’t try to find out for sure, but I’m guessing, from their names, that none of the three is part of a recent immigrant family, and maybe not from Northern Europe either. Then, there’s the Univision triumph in TV ratings, something that Fox — and maybe the other three as well — must be taking quite seriously.
Oh, about that title at the top, something that maybe doesn’t need reforming. I was talking about our immigration policy.
Working last night on a poem — at this point, really, little more than an idea — a series of images from the window of a train traveling from Albany to New York. And as I was juggling a few lines
broken toys, scattered auto parts
discarded stoves, hopeful shaggy gardens
realities of life in the shadows
I was reminded of an article I’d read that morning. It was an excerpt from a new book,
Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America. You remember Obama; he won the collision; he’s the President. Romney was his opponent; he lost; he’s now sort of an unemployed millionaire. One reason he lost — in many minds, the biggest reason he lost — was a speech he gave to a room full of well-to-do supporters in Florida. Here is the money quote: (emphasis added)
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. And he’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people — I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center that are independents that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not, what it looks like.
You can perhaps see how the lines of the poem triggered memory of the speech. It was called “the 47 percent” speech; I think it might better have been called the “entitlement” speech. Perhaps someplace it was.
Now, about the the article I mentioned, the book excerpt published in The Washington Post. It includes Romney’s post-facto analysis of the speech himself, an analysis in which he calmly and — I suppose blithely is as good a word as any — tries to explain what he said, and what he meant.
Here, broken out in dialogue, is part of Romney’s (March, 2013) interview with Dan Balz, who wrote Collision 2012. (emphasis added)
Romney: “”They’ve got a bloc of voters, we’ve got a bloc of voters, I’ve got to get the ones in the middle. And I thought that that would be how it would be perceived — as a candidate talking about the process of focusing on the people in the middle who can either vote Republican or Democrat. As it turned out, down the road, it became perceived as being something very different.”
Balz: “You mean that you were insensitive to a whole group of people?
Romney: “Right. And I think the president said he’s writing off 47 percent of Americans and so forth. And that wasn’t at all what was intended. That wasn’t what was meant by it. That is the way it was perceived.”
Balz: “But when you said there are 47 percent who won’t take personal responsibility — ”
Romney (interrupting): “Actually, I didn’t say that. . . .That’s how it began to be perceived, and so I had to ultimately respond to the perception, because perception is reality.”
So we have a rhetorical debate. How shall we parse two statements, open, it seems, to the sort of jesuitical nit-picking which Bill Clinton elevated to a political art form. The statements are these:
- Romney in 2012: “I’ll never convince [47 percent] that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
- Balz quoting Romney in 2013: “[Y]ou said there are 47 percent who won’t take personal responsibility —”
So. Are 1 and 2 equivalent? Or is Romney justified in claiming to have been misrepresented?
If you haven’t been worrying about global climate change — please don’t call it simply and misleadingly “global warming” — maybe this will make an impact.
It’s an article in Rolling Stone. Here’s part of the opening paragraph.
Jakobshavn is the fastest-moving glacier in the world, and it is sliding into the sea at a top speed of 170 feet a day. How quickly this giant slab of ice and snow – and hundreds like it across the North and South Poles – disappears is the biggest uncertainty in the world of climate science. The faster these glaciers melt, the faster seas will rise, inundating cities throughout the world, and the more unpredictable the world’s weather system is likely to become.
Click on the link even if you don’t read anything. The graphics alone may do the trick.
Interesting, that a sixteenth-century religious fanatic, a man who planned to blow up the English Parliament and kill the King, should emerge five hundred years after his death — and what an appropriately-bizarre-heroic death it was — as a symbol of revolution everywhere.
Well, practically everywhere. As curators of No Caption Needed point out, the media in the US are generally more interested in fifth-grade antics of the Senate, and doings of multi-millionaire athletes, than in hard news from places on the globe not currently under our thumb. Or heel.
After reading news accounts and opinion pieces from all over, I remain pretty much unchanged in my reaction to the NSA (et al) electronic snooping story: It’s bad, it’s wrong, but what did we expect? What could we have expected?
In any hierarchical system — corporate, national, social — those on top monitor what’s going on below: dissent, money, plots, votes. It’s a critical element of staying on top.
A few years ago a silly book came out in which the author claimed to find extensive Roman Catholic material tucked secretly into Shakespeare’s plays. Wife of a British diplomat, she was tipped to her truth in Moscow when she attended plays in out-of-the-way venues, and saw anti-government material worked into the scripts. She assumed a few members of the audience had to be government officials, and they seemed unaware of what was happening on stage. The satire, the barbs, were going over their heads, although those in the know, did catch the “secret messages.”
Wow, she thought. The Kremlin doesn’t know what’s going on here. From there it was only a hop and a skip to her analysis of Shakespeare, and finding “secret messages” there as well, propaganda which Elizabethan officials did not recognize.
The government did not recognize? Really.
Apparatchiks in the cheap seats may not have picked up on details, but the guys back at the Kremlin knew exactly what was going on. And they let it, because it was small-time and small-audience. (Note that Pussy Riot got into trouble not so much for what they said as for winning a big audience.) Play small, and those at the top will treat you as a safety valve: let a few nonentities blow off steam in the back alleys; they’ll be happy and won’t take their troubles to the main streets.
Face it. Governments know a great deal about us… including how (they assume) we’ll respond to various stimuli. In response to which, I repeat two of my favorite lines from Wendell Berry:
- Denounce the government and embrace
- As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
Long ago, my only objection to Florida was that it was flat and hot. Then it gave us George Dubya. Now it gives us George Zee. David Simon neatly echoes my sentiments:
You can stand your ground if you’re white, and you can use a gun to do it. But if you stand your ground with your fists and you’re black, you’re dead…. I can’t look an African-American parent in the eye for thinking about what they must tell their sons about what can happen to them on the streets of their country.
Okay, Florida contains a lot a honorable people. I even know, like, and admire some of them. But Florida also has become a favorite hangout for people whose — philosophy, code of ethics, social vision, set of values — call it what you will, but it is so far from my own that I have trouble acknowledging them as members of my own species, let alone my own country.
The only rational way for us to co-exist is for one of us to secede from the Union. But we’ve been there, done that, and it didn’t end up well. In fact, it was the conclusion of that secession, which was never a resolution, that haunts us still today.
Perhaps if one of us — my side or their side — could pull off a successful separation, we each could then send reps to the United Nations, and hope something like a World Court could keep us from each other’s throats.
Though come to think of it, similar to what’s going on right now in Palestine. Not what the casual observer might call auspicious.
I don’t know. Suggestions welcome.
Occasionally my mind, unable to comprehend or to deal with current events, leaps cheerfully to Ye Goode Olde Tymes. One such tyme, far enough back that it requires no data from short-term memory but not so far back that it’s dangerously obscured by mist, was the intermittent fifteen years — between 1958 and 1995 — I spent in broadcasting.
And this morning, perhaps because I was listening to music of Ginastera, I thought about payola. You know, accepting favors or gifts in exchange for on-air promotion of something important to the gift-giver. (Ginastera and payola? Yes.)
I willingly accepted payola three separate times. Begin with the first, because it was first and because it was
Read the rest of this entry »
Today is the Fourth of July. Independence Day. Birthday of the nation, in the hearts of many.
So. What is going on here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, now, today, on this most auspicious and — surely in the minds of many — noble holiday?
You are not going to want elaboration, details, footnotes, and all that sort of time-consuming — and no doubt tendentious — explanatory stuff. You just want the facts, ma’am,
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Forty years ago, Wendell Berry published a poem titled Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front. I admired it then, and have come to admire it more every time I read it. It spoke to the times, it speaks to this time, it will speak, alas, to times yet to come.
Lacking permission — and oddly, for a blogger, respectful of copyright — I include only a few lines. They ring more telling, more poignant, today than they did those forty years ago.
every day do something
that won’t compute.
Denounce the government and embrace
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
Please, read the whole poem.