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31 December 2006

Some InfoWeapons for the New Year

Hi, all:

We're going to a Bosnian restaurant (owned by, some dishes are Bosnian -- mostly Mediterranean) in Boston with some friends tonight; should be a blast!

I hope everyone had a good 2006 and will have a happy 2007!

These sources help set the stage for where we are now: still in full reaction against the expansion of rights and freedom that took place in the 50's-70's. Knowledge is power -- at least I'd like to think so. Anyway, some of you may be familiar with these; some not; some by name only; some may have read/seen all of it or some of it; whatever. It's being posted as an FYI by a non-expert; that's all!

Or: "Why Ford Is Being Hailed By Cheney For Pardoning Nixon."

So, for your reading pleasure, and to show how much info is out there:

  1. Pentagon Papers.
  2. Church Committee on COINTELPRO (I have a 14-meg PDF of this if you want).
  3. Trilateral Commission report, The Crisis of Democracy, 1975. Dig Huntington's piece, and dig who was on the commission.
  4. Two views of Watergate, from '73/'74: Chomsky, and A. Cockburn of Counterpunch and The Nation (in first comment).
  5. Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky/Herman, or, why few of us ever heard of or read about 1-4 and much else, or, how propaganda works in a relatively open society. I'd get the full book out of the library; amazing. The strength is in the case studies.
  6. You might like the Chomsky blog on Znet. There is a "sustainers" pay site (dirt cheap) in which he actually answers questions. Zinn, Ehrenreich, Michael Albert, and others have their own sites; all of it is being redone. But the public "blog" is good.
  7. Less time-consuming, in a sense: Vidal on YouTube and Google Video; reverse chronological order of posting. Ditto Chomsky: YT and G (soon to be "Goo-Tube," and the "cleanup" has already begun).
There's some crap on each site due to user-driven metatagging -- plenty of crazy stuff associated with Chomsky, especially, by metatag. But the actual talks by him are great.

This is a mass of stuff; inexhaustible, really. I haven't read/seen all of it, by a long shot. But I've been reading/viewing/writing about this stuff for years. A quick dip in will give you an idea. :) Clearly a "biased sample," but not what you tend to get in mainstream media. The first three qualify for that shaky category, "primary sources."

Feel free to reciprocate with your own list, of course, linked or not.

And, yes, part of the problem is having the time = money to make a study of such things. It's required for citizenship, but nearly impossible for anyone not lucky, fairly well off, free from consumerist "needs," with the educational and intellectual curiosity, etc. It's a sacrifice, no question. I obviously don't have an answer to the problem because there isn't one beyond individual decisions on how to allocate time in our limited stay on this planet.

I'd rather be playing drums or reading novels or hanging out with my wife and friends, etc. -- when not working, obviously. We're talking about free time, here.

This problem is discussed by Chomsky and many others continually, and is well-known and well-controlled by those want to remain unknown while controlling "the masses."

Anyway, Happy New Year!

Dug

PS: Feel free to forward.

30 December 2006

An American Triumph

Ah, it went off like a Texas execution, with all the PR timing we've come to admire and love from this administration. Just in time for coffee and Saturday morning cartoons on New Year's weekend, and to drown out, one can only assume it is hoped, the 3,000th ending of human lives we care about. We don't do body counts for unworthies.

A new beginning. My eyes mist.

1. An absolute miracle of propaganda; amazing what is left out: strong US support till 1991.

The first paragraphs of the lead "news" story aren't so great, either:

BAGHDAD, Dec. 30 — Saddam Hussein, the dictator who led Iraq through three decades of brutality, war and bombast before American forces chased him from his capital city and captured him in a filthy pit near his hometown, was hanged just before dawn today during the morning call to prayer.

The final stages for Mr. Hussein, 69, came with terrible swiftness after he lost the appeal, five days ago, of his death sentence for the killings of 148 men and boys in the northern town of Dujail in 1982. He had received the sentence less than two months before from a special court set up to judge his reign as the almost unchallenged dictator of Iraq.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

--Julia Ward Howe, 1861

I don't expect much from the Times, God knows, but this was a new low. Of course, they must cover their tracks, too, and there are tyrants to topple before we cease.

The only moral issue, it seems, is how much of the hanging video to show.

They're selling postcards of the hanging
They're painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They've got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they're restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

--Bob Dylan, 1965

Now, for us adults out there, some actual facts and analysis, unaccountably left out of the mass media feeding frenzy (the other side of the "Diana effect," another terrible swift sword -- that cuts both ways):

2. Robert Fisk.

3. Robert Parry.

And I believe this version of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" is more apt; had we an actual paper of record, it would be extensively quoted; had we an actual education system, widely known:

Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword;
He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger's wealth is stored;
He hath loosed his fateful lightnings, and with woe and death has scored;
His lust is marching on.

I have seen him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded him an altar in the Eastern dews and damps;
I have read his doomful mission by the dim and flaring lamps—
His night is marching on.

I have read his bandit gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
"As ye deal with my pretensions, so with you my wrath shall deal;
Let the faithless son of Freedom crush the patriot with his heel;
Lo, Greed is marching on!"

We have legalized the strumpet and are guarding her retreat;*
Greed is seeking out commercial souls before his judgement seat;
O, be swift, ye clods, to answer him! be jubilant my feet!
Our god is marching on!

In a sordid slime harmonious Greed was born in yonder ditch,
With a longing in his bosom—and for others' goods an itch.
As Christ died to make men holy, let men die to make us rich—
Our god is marching on.

* NOTE: In
Manila the Government has placed a certain industry under the protection of our flag. (M.T.)

--Mark Twain, 1901

20 December 2006

Why we stand for immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq

THE U.S. occupation of Iraq has not liberated the Iraqi people, but has made life worse for most Iraqis.

Tens of thousands of U.S. service people have been killed or maimed, and hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis have lost their lives as a result of the U.S. invasion in 2003, the ongoing occupation, and the violence unleashed by them.

Iraq's infrastructure has been destroyed, and U.S. plans for reconstruction abandoned. There is less electricity, less clean drinking water, and more unemployment today than before the U.S. invasion.

All of the justifications initially provided by the U.S. for waging war on Iraq have been exposed as lies; the real reasons for the invasion — to control Iraq's oil reserves and to increase U.S. strategic influence in the region — now stand revealed.

The Bush administration has insisted again and again that stability, democracy, and prosperity are around the next bend in the road. But with each day that the U.S. stays, the violence and lack of security facing Iraqis worsen. The U.S. says that it cannot withdraw its military because Iraq will collapse into civil war if it does. But the U.S. has deliberately stoked sectarian divisions in its ongoing attempt to install a U.S.-friendly regime, thus driving Iraq towards civil war.

The November elections in the United States sent a clear message that voters reject the Iraq war, and opinion polls show that seven in 10 Iraqis want the U.S. to leave sooner rather than later. Even most U.S. military and political leaders agree that staying the course in Iraq is a policy that is bound to fail.

Yet all the various alternative plans for Iraq now being discussed in Washington, including those proposed by House and Senate Democrats, aren't about withdrawing the U.S. military from Iraq. Rather, these strategies are about continuing the pursuit of U.S. goals in Iraq and the larger Middle East using different means.

Even the proposal to redeploy U.S. troops outside of Iraq, a plan favored by many Democratic Party leaders, envisions continued U.S. intervention inside Iraq.

With former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger insisting that a military victory in Iraq is no longer possible and (Ret.) Lt. Gen. William Odom calling for "complete withdrawal" of all U.S. troops, the antiwar movement should demand no less than the immediate withdrawal of the U.S. military — as well as reparations to the Iraqi people, so they can rebuild their own society and genuinely determine their own future.

  • Ali Abunimah
    ElectronicIraq.net

  • Gilbert Achcar
    Author
    Clash of Barbarisms

  • Michael Albert
    ZNet

  • Tariq Ali
    Author
    Bush in Babylon

  • Anthony Arnove
    Author
    Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal

  • Noam Chomsky
    Author
    Hegemony or Survival

  • Kelly Dougherty
    Executive Director
    Iraq Veterans Against the War*

  • Eve Ensler
    Playwright
    The Vagina Monologues

  • Eduardo Galeano
    Author
    The Open Veins of Latin America

  • Rashid Khalidi
    Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies
    Columbia University

  • Camilo Mejía
    First Iraq War resister to refuse redeployment

  • Arundhati Roy
    Author
    God of Small Things

  • Howard Zinn
    Author
    A People's History of the United States

Learn Sumthin', Part 2: Chomsky

This will take you much longer! The link is to a reverse chronological list for Chomsky on YouTube.

The same for Google Video.

Mixed in with some nutty stuff (can't control metatags), as is the Vidal stuff to a lesser extent, but the Chomsky ones are obvious.

Enjoy!

Happy holidays.

Learn Sumthin', Part 1: Vidal

A reverse chronological list of videos with Gore Vidal on YouTube.

Here's the same for Google Video.

Enjoy!

09 November 2006

First Things

[[[work in progress...Copyright 2006, Doug Tarnopol]]]

I. Preliminaries

Have you ever noticed?—
Those who privilege the Word
Drive language to conclusions
That are patently absurd?

Heirs of Petrarch
Have made stony rule
Of language’s domain
Thus rebuilding the School.

Jealous, no doubt—
And who can blame them?—
Of the sciences’ attainment
Of the disciplines’ diadem.

In a coup de force
By vanity spurred
They declare to the Thingers:
“First comes the Word!”

The flanking maneuver
Takes many a form:
“Episteme,” “paradigm,” “frame”—
Some referenceless norm.

The object dethroned
(Excepting grammatical)
The subject now grants
Things endless sabbatical.

Word and Thing now divorced
And custody granted
Solely to Word over
A World reenchanted.

No correspondence allowed
From Word’s sealed prison,
Thing languishes apart
Deemed unreal in Word’s vision

All this has occurred
In dreams discontented
While in reality, Things remain
Their realness undented.

But the arrogance of the Thingers!
It is all-too-well-known
How little they heed
How their own thoughts are sown.

Many a Thinger
Has mistaken for real
What turned out to be Word
After the waning of zeal.

It seems that the rub
Is to constantly beware
Of the symbols one uses—
One should use them with care.

But regardless of care
Taken in all good faith
No fallible person
Can avoid fleshing wraiths.

“Fallible person”—
A redundancy surely
Knowledge of Things
Comes not to one purely.

“Purely”—hardly ever!—
Does one person approach
Knowledge of Things
Beyond any reproach.

Only in concert—
In support or dissension—
Do Things reveal
Their true dimension.

Thus, I use language
From letter to symbol
To convey you my thoughts,
Be they lame or nimble.

Being merely human
To you I defer
To divine if my Words
Reveal Things or a blur.

II.

If I may continue
To the meat of my offering
To what can we ascribe
The correspondence I’m proffering?

The proof of the notion
Of things etymological
Must needs be reside
In the past biological.

What? Can this be?
Why bother to read on?
This reactionary reduces
Mankind to agon!

Calm yourself, please!
My politics tilt left,
A thorough materialist
Of spirit bereft.

The dis-enchantment
Of birth and development
Does not entail
A rightwing envelopment.

To return to the point
Our language is an organ
No different in kind
From those viewed by Morgan

Unique? No doubt.
As are all traits, you know,
From the nose on your face
To enzymes that sew.


Copyright 2006, Doug Tarnopol

03 November 2006

A Winter's Tale

Dear friends,

What do I have in common with Marilyn Monroe?

You'll have to come to my production of The Winter's Tale to find out the answer to the question. However, here's a hint: ukulele. OK, fine, that's the full answer: Mar', as I like to call her, played the ukulele in Some Like It Hot and was Hollywood's premier sex symbol, and I also play the uke in The Winter's Tale.

Apart from the ukulele (which I've now been playing for a grand total of two months!), in the show I also play piano, sing, have written original music and, oh yeah, act, too.

The rest of the cast is quite excellent, as well, while the play itself deftly blends comic and tragic elements into one of the greatest Shakespeare ever wrote.

Please help us kick off the production with a strong first weekend!

Performance dates: November 4 - November 19

Location: Access Theatre, 380 Broadway, 4th Floor (two blocks south of Canal)

Tickets through SmartTix: or 212-868-4444

**Use the discount code "FRIEND" for $14 tickets, or purchase four or more tickets for only $10 each (the bulk discount is available only over the phone).

I'd love to see you at the show -- and grab a drink afterwards and catch up.

Cheers!

Demetri

23 September 2006

By What Write

It’s an unnatural act
A deed quite untoward
Denying life, the prime fact,
And the business of living
To pummel a keyboard
And pretend one is giving

As though one’s best thoughts,

Than mere words far more nimble,
Could ever be caught
Or fill more than a thimble

As though it would matter,
Granting wisdom unequaled,
As though hordes would flock
To the art or its sequel.

Juvenal wrote

Out of frustration
So he claimed
After must gestation

Of frustration ingrained
Not only did he dote
On obsequious scriveners
And writers pretentious
But also on livers
Of modes ill-portentous.

Such savage indignation
Fires determination
Of many an ink-stained wrist-cramped wretch

But that life leaves so pained
Satiric inclination
Suggests one should stretch
For more joyous inspiration.

Others, like Orwell,
So he claimed
Wrote from a sense of injustice ingrained
As a desperate warning
Of dark future gathering

As a basic defense
From obsequious blathering


But as Orwell admitted

We toil and perspire
Above all for adulation
Imagined, desired

Though the chronicling fool
Inflamed his just ire
Yet idolatry, exaltation
Adds the most fuel
To the passionate fire

Of artistic creation

Orwell wrote
With certain conviction

That no person sane
Would withstand the affliction

Of digging a moat,
Round a keep thick with pane
The muse thus to deliver,
From life’s noisy friction
That gurgling river

An island internal
Isolation eternal
Sacrifices infernal
While behavior external
Conscientious, fraternal
And suitably diurnal
Mask doings in the keep
The nocturnal kept deep

As for imagined rewards
In the eye of the mind, Ego’s prism
Whence the self always shined:
In the moat float the boards
Of ghost ships adored, anointed with chrism

The Muse pays in kind

No wonder
That Greek
Lost his sight
So pale, so bleak
Is the light
In the keep
It’s only right
That tears rise
From disordered eyes
For just such can weep
Over such a blunder

Something not human
The daimon, the muse
Hands us the knife

To cut loose the earth
Its full pleasure refuse

A phantom our wife

We project onto numen
The cause of our strife

While declaiming to those
Our reflection illumined
Who, much amused,
In fret or repose,
Already live life.

© 2006, Doug Tarnopol

21 September 2006

Owed To Romans Earned, v.2

I.

Beauty equals truth—
A judgment unknown
Where attacks are not critical
On paper alone.

To a gentle poet
From a gentler place
Comes this message proxy
With irregular pace
And hesitant rhyme
On heterodoxy
In a more brutal time
From those who would know it.


II.

Running on the verge ill bodes
For poets dangling, like properties,
Whose owners want odes.

To whom much is given,
Should know when to seize—
Or what—and how avid—
Or risk being riven
When betrayed by a sneeze.

Poets, like a cat, tell lust
“Have no shame!”
The pet drones “Yes!”
But risks the blame.

To those loaned fame
Danger is rife
Not only to those
So brave or absurd
As to follow with deed
What had merely been word.

For history teaches
That support thus contracted
Is tacit and fragile.
To the furthest reaches
Of musings extracted,
Each facet must be agile
Lest the price be exacted.

Better to be sweet-toned
To patrons here present
With alexandrines well-honed
Over dormice and pheasant.

Better yet an epic,
Moral, patriotic—
And, dear Scheherazade,
Scorn the exotic.
No place on this plinth
To glory the Attic:
Save imperial facade,
It’s quite problematic.

Better an oration,
Fawning, pattering,
Strewn freely with awe
And due measure of flattering.
For that power gusts raw
When defied by a smattering
Of lines stolen true
From one’s own creation.
Best it stick in the craw
Than beg ruination.

(For your consideration:
In the oceanic hue
Of divine generation
Dyes the sanguine flaw.
That’s just what will do
To cover the splattering
That always attends the birth of a nation.)

The
princeps’ principle
Can never allow
Juvenile verses
Or satirical prose.
For satyrs can hollow
More than pitiless foes
The ruse that the ruler
Is something invincible.


III.

Hoarse voices from afar,
Sound ashamed to me.
Blameless them, unlike we,
Who (for now) can shun tact
Toward the powers that be.

But not they, oh, not they
Of form Italic
Who, as careful as a tumbler
In a tightrope act,
Leaned as far as they dared,
Fearing the fall
To a black, lonely shore
Bereft by the sea—
Or rolling on the floor
Like a common chick pea.


IV.

In the capital of the empire
Where those unlucky poets
Made their home,
By sweeping steps
Of constant conviviality,
A poet, perhaps luckier,
Convalesced and died young.

Fertile, individual, versifier romantic,
A Prometheus unbound,
Died in Rome
From an infection of the lung.

But he was never prevented
To sing what he sung.


© 2006, Doug Tarnopol

Owed to Romans Earned

Running on the verge ill becomes
Poets dangling, like property.
Us,
To whom much is given,
Should know when to seize—or what—
And how avidly.

For history tells that such support
Is at best tacit—
Us,
From whom much is expected.

Juvenile satire can tell us little.
Or perhaps too much.

Better a martial epic—quick and
Lively—
Or an oration that bends in awe
Of the power that gusts past us.

Sweet-toned to present patrons;
Hellish rulers past presented.

Or as careful as can be
A tightrope act
To avoid a black, lonely shore
Or crushed like a chick pea.

Copyright 2006

14 August 2006

smARThistory

What a blog! Found this randomly...will be blogrolled to the right...

Like hanging out in front of a painting with two knowledgable art historians. Well, not "like" that -- it is that!

Enjoy.

03 July 2006

Introducing the Secaucast!

You asked for it. You waited impatiently. And now I unveil in all its vulgar glory, my new podcast -- the Secaucast!

I describe it as OddPod observations, not from New Jersey, starring myself (DJ name: ScottyJ) and a new guest co-host each week. The first episode features Dan on Draft, a future podcaster himself, soon to be known as Dan on Tap.

The show's definitely explicit and I hope you enjoy it!

Check it out:
Secaucast.com
Subscribe!
MySpace

23 June 2006

My Name Is Rachel Corrie Comes to NYC...Finally

Donna and I will be there on Saturday, October 14th.

It's playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre from October 5 through (as of now) December 3.

Go here to order tickets; would be nice to see folks on 10/14, but try to make this play, anyway.

(For those who showed up to Demetri's Measure for Measure to find me absent, well, this vegetarian now knows not to go to a Brazilian meatfest meal...I got the sweats and slept for 13 hours. This should not repeat itself...though I hope I've built up some enzymatic wherewithal for our delayed honeymoon in Italy, two weeks away!)

On the hysterical "controversy":

I have actually read the play. No, it's not the Oresteia or Hamlet, but it is a moving and complex look at the workings of one young woman's mind, based wholly on her own writings. I imagine it will be an interesting play to see, and I of course am sympathetic to not only the politics Corrie represented but also the courage it apparently takes to put on this play in the leading city of the United States.

That, however, doesn't make it a classic! But, based on the printed version, it looks to be a moving and interesting night of theater.

13 June 2006

Measure for Measure: New York City Production...

From the good folks at the new theatre group, Hipgnosis.

Donna and I (and Ray O., for those who know him) will be there this Saturday, 6/17, at 8PM.

In any event, it runs through July 2.

Go here to buy tickets! It's Shakespeare, fachrissakes!

Best, Dug

PS: Hipgnosis is on the "roll" on the right, for our 6 readers. :)

06 May 2006

Get on the Bus

(© 2006, Scott A. Josephson. All rights reserved.)

I have been sick the past few days, taken ill by what did not strike me for the past year a half. For three days, I was nearly out of commission courtesy of the common cold.

Colds never came easy to me -- they usually required two full days without contact from the outside world. The biggest blow wasn't the mountain of Kleenex overflowing from shopping bags or minute garbage cans. It was the loss of my sense of smell. Food became so much less enjoyable and the task of consuming a meal, on top of a smoldering headache, aching body, constantly runny nose.

There is always the solace of Bob Barker -- The Price is Right remains the last vestige of the sick day. The 1980s are now retro relics, an almost unbelievable decade in light of the past 5 years. Just today, I still thought it was 2005. Blame it on the fog of medicine, our current administration, my inability to read a newspaper or tear myself away from being plugged-in.

Even on a personal day off from work, I couldn't help but check -- and even respond to -- a number of emails of seeming little importance. I can't seem to tear myself away from the sheltered reality of my office, several days of the week of which now exist in my bedroom.

Leaving work early on Wednesday, I continued my duties late that afternoon from home, and the entire next day. For the past month, each weekend has been extended by telecommuting. And we just hired a new member of our department who will perform his duties from California. Perhaps my dream of leaving the Northeast can soon become a reality.

Until then, my new aspiration is to finally board the bus.

Port Authority is one of the most unromantic destinations of Manhattan -- and why shouldn't it be? Lacking the grace of Penn Station and the austerity of Grand Central, it's a 1970s fast food joint of a bus depot, gargantuan and connected to the subway system -- teeming with homeless residents and various derelicts from all continents of filth and debauchery. The commuters aren't the problem; it's the more permanent fixtures that create an ambiance of despair, poverty, and an environment bleaker than the Stalinist architecture of my alma mater.

If anything, it can't possibly be the location of a first kiss.

How I clapsed to loneliness as Bianca ascended narrow escalator, Hoboken-bound to miniscule studio apartment to not some sad little life, but an existence well beyond this suburban pauper's meager imagination -- lingering in the same home, 27 years, knowing only the mittens of Boston for the smidge of a second, not tasting the tongue of a real relationship, feeling somehow stunted and saddened by a girl three years my senior headed home alone. Hands in pockets, head lowered, the moonlight of 8th Avenue descending on his back, stumbles a young man captivated still by the notion that this is somehow going somewhere.

All those endless, countless hours slumped not in front of computer, but grey bricken wall, racing through a dizzyingly short list of cell phone numbers to dial in despair -- just to hear a voice, shed a scrap of attention, avoiding eye contact with every other member of my generation. Trying not to stare or be considered part of any demographic, longingly envying inebriated teenagers, college students, twenty-somethings clearly on unsuccessful paths. Wandering across empty corridorss, devoid passageways, blinking through failed evenings. New Jersey Transit departures dwindling as another revolution makes me realize technology may have not changed us for the better; it is another distraction, ever increasing, to poison us darkly in hospitals of our future decay.

Then the locomotion, rarely drunk, and worse in its scarcity. Piercing volume, jealous in its joy, shrieking the rejection not of poor decisions made in high school or wiser choices in college years -- but not knowing friendship with women, or the healthy balance that brings us closer to understanding friends that are closer to siblings. The darkness -- no, the bleakness -- of those nights come screaming forward within me, hiding in the back of the caboose, hopelessly hoping never to be discovered. It is not to die, not to be forgotten, but to know remorse in one's self, for that shameful stroll in the bitter freeze, bleeding under streetlights, walking past that same depressing mailbox. Knowing the final destination, the end result, the path at journey's end, leads back to that same cavern where the earliest memories began.

One cannot help but weep at this, keys jingling in hand, outdoor light shining as a taunting, yet comforting, beacon -- blinding me as the sprinklers engage. No other sounds, just crickets and few stars, the erstwhile white taxi whizzing by, or the headlights of an endeavor that can never be mine. This has always been my town, it is the sum of my experience, the total wealth and richness of this existence -- dazzling in liquor stores, banks, and groceries, diners and fast food and Chinese takeout. It is where we have spent thousands of our dollars on taxes and forgotten suppers and parking meters, commuter tickets, baby food, and abortions.

It is not where I will let myself die, but it is certainly nowhere I shall be reborn.

06 April 2006

"The Wager," Part 5

(© 1998, 2006, Doug Tarnopol. All rights reserved.)

Parts 1-4 can be accessed here.

--------------------------------------------

Henry came out of his section happy, as usual. He was glad he had talked his committee into letting him TA his second semester. Normally, you had to wait for your second year. Henry loved interacting with the students, and especially enjoyed drawing out the shy ones.

A couple of his students were waiting by the elevator. They asked him if he wanted to go the White Dog for the usual post-section beer. At that moment, a bent figure scurried out of the mail room and spied Henry. Henry groaned inwardly. He begged out of the weekly beer session, blaming work. The elevator carried the students away.

"Hello, Henry. Done with your urchins for the day?"

Randal P. Stoopgoul, professor of Russian Cultural Studies -- not Russian Literature. He insisted on the differentiation.

Stoopgoul had a deformity. His spine was so weak that even the relatively light weight of his small head had been sufficient to arch his body progressively forward until he looked like a question mark. To look you in the eye, he had to crane his neck and cock it to one side. This took great effort. He had quick, nervous movements and high-pitched voice.

"Yes, my section is over."

Henry tried to get around Stoopgoul, but was held up by a thin, bony hand on his arm.

"Where are you running to? Tell me, have you read my latest piece?"

"Uh, no -- not yet," Henry quickly added.

"Oh, you should, you should. It's brilliant. It got the lead in Re(con)figu(rat)ions. It's called '"Get On Your Knees!": Re-presenting Power/Knowledge through Boundary Transgressions in Russian Snuff Pornography, 2000-2005.'"

"Nice title."

"Thanks. I was going to go with a different pre-colonic -- 'Putin on the Hits' -- but you need a sexier pre-colonic than that to get published nowadays." Stoopgoul looked Henry in the eye, nibbling on his lower lip with his large incisors. "What is your dissertation going to be about?"

"I don't know; I'm still a first-year."

"Well, come on, you have to start thinking about it sometime! You can't hang around here for eight years, nowadays, you know. The University wants you guys out in five, max. They're really cutting down on grad-student funding in order to put up that mall. So, what'll it be on?"

Henry paused uncertainly. "Well, I thought I could do something on Dostoevsky...perhaps The Karamazov Brothers. I love that book."

"Yes, yes, we all love Dostoevsky, but what's your angle going to be?"

"My angle?"

"Yeah: the hook. You do want to get a job, don't you?"

"Of course."

"Well, then, you better come up with something that distinguishes you from the herd."

"Shouldn't the quality of my scholarship do that?"

A pitying smile spread across Stoopgoul's face. Henry pressed on with increasing unease.

"I just want to analyze great works of literature."

Stoopgoul's smile split his face even further.

"You know, social and psychological influences on their composition, various readings, reception...influences..." Henry trailed off, blushing in confusion at Stoopgoul's amusement.

"I see, I see. Very quaint. Some formal analysis, perhaps? Maybe a little historical context thrown in?" Stoopgoul nodded his head, scratching his chin in mock-thought. "Yes, yes...mmmmm...."

He spat out a derisive laugh.

"Yeah, maybe if this were the 1940s! Let me clue you in, Henry: the French have invaded since then. Postmodernism runs litcrit in America now." Stoopgoul furrowed his brow. "I remember seeing all those courses on your transcript: 'Post-structural Modalities of Criticisms,' 'Derrida and the End(s) of Language'" -- Stoopgoul tagged the parentheses by drawing them in the air as he emphasized the plural -- "'Beating a Dead Horse: Ivory-Tower Resistance to the Post-Literate Society,' 'Deconstructing the Imperialist Codex in the Age of the iPod' -- all that shit. You aced them; we thought you liked that stuff. You wouldn't have gotten in here otherwise."

Henry paused, then plunged. "Actually, I hated those classes."

"So, you were lying to us during the interviews, then?"

Henry was beet-red. "Yes. But it was easy to mimic the rhetoric, so..."

Stoopgoul laughed. "Then we were right to accept you! That's the first lesson of graduate school: master the lingo."

"But I don't agree with most of the lingo."

"So what? Only a few die-hards have convinced themselves of this crap; the rest simply know what will get them a job. You think everyone at IBM believes in the holy mission of the company? C'mon! Anyway, listen: you better join the parade, my friend. Go to a deeper level in your dissertation."

"Like what?"

"Beats me. All I know is I never met a level I didn't like. I'd drop Dostoevsky altogether, if I were you, actually."

"Why?"

"He's dead, he's white, he's male, and he wrote books. There's four good reasons. Stay away from the canon; don't be such an elitist!"

"You don't have to be Harold Bloom to recognize that some works are for the ages, you know."

Stoopgoul put a hand on Henry's shoulder and lowered his voice. "Look, you and I know that, but it's best not to say something so anti-relativist aloud." Stoopgoul looked behind him to make sure no one was within earshot. He did this by bending forward even further, until his head was nearly upside down, lifting his arm, and glancing out from underneath his armpit. He drew Henry down to his level and continued sotto voce. "Just between you and me, the feminazis are taking over the whole field." Stoopgoul looked around again and scuttled into the mail room. He motioned with his head for Henry to follow, which he did, reluctantly. Stoopgoul spoke quietly and quickly, sniffing constantly, his eyes darting about, never resting on Henry's for more than an instant before looking over Henry's shoulder to make sure he wasn't being overheard.

"Look, I'm your advisor, so I'm giving you some good advice. If I were you, I'd find some unknown female writer, perferably pop-lit and contemporary, and position yourself as her champion. Attack whomever you need to, but make sure you attack some cherished somebody. If no female is available, find a subaltern author of some kind -- class is almost as good a selling point as gender among guilty upper-middle-class academics nowadays. In fact, find a black Russian author and you'll get tenure at Harvard; I guarantee it."

Henry pulled away from Stoopgoul, revolted.

"Look, I'm not a fan of exclusive canonization, and I know all about how writers get unfairly ignored, but don't you find this use of those you purport to champion a little hypocritical? And condescending? Who, exactly, are these 'feminazis,' by the way?"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Stoopgoul waved him off. "You just don't get it, do you? Wait -- I have an angle for Dostoevsky. Didn't he beat his wife? I remember reading that somewhere. Spousal abuse is big now. You can even claim she ghost-wrote some of his work."

"Wouldn't I need some evidence for the ghost-writing? Or spousal abuse?"

"Oh, for Christ's sake, Henry, don't be so positivistic! It's so passé." Stoopgoul rolled his eyes. "Just make a case; it's your 'reading.' One of his characters whacked two women. Who but a misogynist would even think to write that? Ergo, he probably beat his wife."

"But surely a cheap exposé like that would not pass as scholarship?"

Stoopgoul exploded in piping staccato laughter. He stopped short, staring at Henry, mouth agape.

"Oh, my god. You're actually serious." Stoopgoul reached up and placed his hands on Henry's shoulders. "Don't you realize that over the past decade 'cheap exposés' have had the greatest year-on-year organic growth of any segment in the field?" Stoopgoul rubbed his face with his hand in exasperation. "We need to talk more; I've been remiss in my advising, clearly. Look, sit down."

Stoopgoul pushed Henry into the chair next to the copying machine and leaned back against the table that supported the department mailboxes.

"You have to understand the inverted snobbery of academics, Henry. Reading People-like exposés of great literary figures flatters them in a million ways. For one thing, they get to enjoy People-like exposés without actually lowering themselves to read People. Thus, they can still look down on People at cocktail parties." Stoopgoul paused. "Let me step back for a second. Actually, I think People is in now. You know, on the theory that if an intellectual consumes kitsch, kitsch assumes the aura of the intellectual. It's like a kind of reverse-Communion."

Stoopgoul jammed his hands into his pockets and thought for a moment. "Anyway, if you're not willing to do that, you'll have to drop Dostoevsky altogether. Hey, speaking of People, why aren't you into pop-culture studies?"

"I'm not really interested in that. Some stuff I've read is really great -- sociological studies, really -- but a lot of the lit stuff seems to lack rigor."

"'Rigor'? That's the first word in 'rigor mortis.' Don't get caught up in 'rigor' -- liven things up a bit, if you want to get noticed. 'Rigor' means arguments and footnotes and analysis -- everyone skips block quotes, for Christ's sake; didn't you know that? Don't bore people; entertain them."

Stoopgoul whacked Henry mock-scoldingly on the chest with the back of a bony hand.

"Why the hell are you still reading books, anyway? Just about every grad student in this department is doing a dissertation on comics, movies, or fashion magazines. What's your problem?"

Stoopgoul was really starting to annoy Henry. "Gee, I don't know, I guess I wanted to get a Ph.D. in Russian literature because I loved reading Russian literature."

"Shows how much you know." Stoopgoul further considered his advisee's problem.

"Well, if you must stick with 'high culture'" -- Stoopgoul mimed the quotation marks by stretching his arms out and flexing and unflexing his index fingers -- "then you'd better take some sexy theoretical tack. Dig up your notes from those classes you hated. They'll save your ass now."

"Which tack did you have in mind?"

"Well, it's always a safe bet to use as much deconstructionist or post-structuralist jargon as possible. You ever read Anti-Oedipus? Yeah, me, too -- didn't understand a goddam word of it. So, make sure your sentences are so convoluted and opaque that no one knows what the fuck you're talking about -- but make sure you pepper the prose with enough recognizable jargon so that it's reassuringly tasty. Other than that, the more incoherent you are, the more you'll be hailed."

"But what if someone actually asks me what I meant by something or other I wrote?"

Stoopgoul shook his head. "No way it'll happen like that. First, most will never call you on it in public -- they'll be afraid to be shown to have missed the point, especially if they lack tenure. Anyway, no academic wants to look stupid in public; it's the primal fear. Of course, if all else fails, you can always accuse the questioner of foisting a hegemonic reading on you -- that's the beauty of it. Make yourself the victim and your protestations of victimhood will always draw a good chunk of people to your side. This is the land of feeling, of Spielberg, not of thinking."

"Professor, don't you think it's dishonest to bamboozle your audience?"

Stoopgoul raised his hands palms out. "Woah, woah, I don't make the rules. It's all about enlisting allies, anyway, so what difference does it make? Those who disagree with your approach will denounce you, most of the time, no matter what you produce, regardless of its brilliance. And those who are in your camp will usually praise what they know to be shit out of loyalty to the cause. Sure, there are still some brave souls who don't act that way, but they are few and far between. There's plenty of space to hide in academia." Stoopgoul put his hands on his thin chest and repeated, "I don't make the rules, buddy; I just try to survive. Bamboozling in the service of your career is no vice."

Henry looked away in despair. Stoopgoul contemplated his advisee.

"Henry, look, before you discard deconstructionism or whatever-you-want-to-call-it, don't underestimate its appeal. It knocks great authors off their pedestals, even those who might actually deserve a pedestal. It flatters your audience into privately, even subconsciously, feeling superior while publicly decrying the very possibility of 'superiority' or distinctions of any kind. It works on everyone. Students we get now are barely literate, and often anti-intellectual to boot. They love to hear that any kind of difficult scholarship that actually engages with an outside reality can be completely ignored in favor of an infinite number of equally valuable solipsistic readings."

"Oh, come on," Henry said. "Students aren't any stupider than you or me -- what, did some kind of devolution take place?"

"Of course not. It's a cultural phenomenon. Of course there are still brilliant students. But look at the average, and think about why it has fallen in nearly every subject. It's not just TV advertising -- although that helps kill any critical faculties. Most kids have parents who are hell-bent just on surviving, working two jobs, never at home. Schools their kids go to have been systematically starved. What time do they have to inculcate a love of learning in their children -- especially if they lack it themselves? Even in those families that are upper-class or upper-middle-class, who aren't just hell-bent on surviving, most people look at knowledge as only a means to an end, the one and only end that matters: making money and getting or maintaining status. Period. You know that."

Stoopgoul shook his head.

"Henry, I think you underestimate just how anti-intellectual this country is. Why do you think all this solipsistic crap found a home in America? It's the ultimate anti-intellectual stance -- your own personal reality; your own personal Jesus -- what's the difference, really? We're a nation that canonizes tinkerers and inventors -- and pragmatic businessmen who don't fuck around with pansy-ass, navel-gazing 'knowledge' that has no conceivable exchange value. We are known for two philosophies: 'Transcendentalism' -- anti-Enlightenment, watered-down Romanticism; and 'Pragmatism' -- what sounds like a hard-headed, utilitarian approach to knowledge, but which makes no distinction between fact and value, and eschews skepticism and certainty at the same time. Not that both schools have no value -- they have a lot of value --but, c'mon, look at it historically. That's what we've come up with here, and the rivulets of those streams of thought that have percolated into the public mind are usually stripped down to some faux-democratic notion that all opinions are valid. What else would you expect in a culture in which 'I feel...' has become synonymous with 'I think...'? A culture in which material production is king -- God, even."

Stoopgoul paused and bent toward Henry.

"Henry, don't you realize that this deconstruction/postmodern/whatever is the perfect 'philosophy' for intellectuals in a hypermaterialistic culture? It's the perfect intellectual assembly line -- disassembly line, actually. No need for archives; no need for contexts -- just exegesis; personal essays tarted up with some jargon and less insight than most real essays. You can turn this shit out as fast as this copier, practically. Henry Ford, Frederick Taylor -- they would have loved it. Low investment; high return on investment. 5,000 years of culture to debunk -- that's organic growth potential, pal."

Henry slumped in his chair. Stoopgoul pulled up another chair beside Henry's.

"Look, Henry, seriously, you should know all of this." Stoopgoul stared at Henry with uncharacteristic passion. "I have to tell you. It actually gets worse: money is tight in academe, and is only going to get tighter. Because we're a poor country? Obviously not: because we are market fundamentalists. That's the true God, and He determines everything. Whose invisible hand do you think they were referring to? Medical care as well as sneakers; scholarship as well as hamburgers: His omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent hand determines all.

"In our case, our livelihood depends on our undergraduate students. If we didn't give everyone at least a B+, word would get around and they'd stop taking our courses. For Christ's sake, they fucking publish the average grades various courses get for students to read! Can you think of anything more likely to water down education? If undergrads stop taking our courses, we become a 'top-heavy' department -- a lot of expensive professors and grad students, who are paid by the university, serving fewer and fewer undergrads, who pay the university. You do the math, because the MBAs who run this university sure as hell do, and I hear it from them periodically: Get lean or get cut. See ya. Later. Look at what happened to the Folklore and American Studies departments. Gone; bye-bye!"

Stoopgoul waved his hand.

"So, before you get too high-and-mighty, consider these economic realities. We have to please our students. We're hostage to teenagers. Best not to work them too hard or challenge them too much. Best to ratify their propensity to reduce great works of literature to their own adolescent identity crises. We exist, economically, to produce grad students. They become professors who create more grad students, and so on. No saleable item is produced, just knowledge and perhaps wisdom. No true American believes that the pursuit of knowledge or wisdom for its own sake is a worthwhile activity, unless it somehow spins off wealth. That's why academics are grouped with welfare recipients in public discourse -- we're seen as parasites, as opposed to multinational corporations whose parasitism is several orders of magnitude greater. But no matter; very few see that. The supposedly free market is God. Bottom line: the humanities survive only insofar as we can convince suburban parents with disposable income that studying literature and history, et al, will help their children get good enough grades to get into something they deem useful, like law school or business school."

Stoopgoul paused, as if wondering whether to go on. He did.

"Henry, have you ever wondered why Chem 101 is so difficult, whereas an intro history class, say, tends to be easy? It has nothing whatsoever to do with the innate difficulty of the subject matter, no matter what people like to think. The reason is economic and social: the chemistry department can afford to 'weed out' students; we can't. Chemistry is required for medical school. Russian literature is not. There's no pot of gold on the other end of our classes -- unless we give them the high grade they want to get into b-school or law school, after which they'll get their pot of gold. So they think. Believe me, you can make any class in any subject as difficult or as easy as you like. It's the social context that determines the level of difficulty.

"And consider this, too: we're not making napalm over here. We're not hurting anyone with this bullshit. Go over to the polisci, econ, or science departments if you want to get really pissed off. Dig up where a lot of their funding comes from -- not, of course, that they're all bad or all take CIA money. But we don't make bombs here. We write books."

"Fine," said Henry. "I get that we're not hurting anyone. I don't see how we're helping anyone, though. And being hostage to teenagers? C'mon, professor -- you could give them what they want without perverting scholarship they'll never see. I don't buy that argument."

"Look, anything that tears down a great author is catnip to lit professors who are incapable of producing even a middling work of literature."

"You already said that. You're claiming that all lit profs are frustrated writers? I don't buy it."

"OK, Henry, try this argument on for size. You won't get a job if you don't talk the talk. But what's even more important is that since the 'talk' is basically solipsistic exegesis, who do you think is going to have the longer CV, the guy who spent seven years in the archives to produce one dissertation and one article, or the guy who spent seven years churning out exigesis upon exigesis?"

"That can't always be the result."

"No, and it's not always the result. But it usually is. And here's another reason why." Stoopgoul shuffled uncomfortably in his chair, and his voice grew gentler, even wistful. "The generation in charge now in the academy grew up in the sixties. A good deal of 'em spent a lot of their time in college and grad school organizing, protesting, getting their heads busted open in the street." Stoopgoul sighed. "But they're older now, and bitter over the collapse of their dreams. They have kids now, and stocks, investment portfolios. They have a stake in the status quo. It's a lot easier to be radical when you're young and strong and free, and there's a draft hanging over your head. But we still have to look at ourselves in the mirror every morning. So, we publish some pseudo-relativistic attack on something tangentially related to the Establishment. Deconstruction is a great, low-cost way of declaring one's radical credentials, if only to oneself, without having to be politically active, which is difficult, time-consuming, and dangerous -- what with academia fast becoming a joint-venture with the government and multinationals.

"All this postmodern crap -- whatever the hell you want to call it -- the point is, it eases the guilt of lost ideals, of compromises made just a smidgen too easily. It attacks the Establishment in so esoteric a fashion, the Establishment, if it notices, could give a fuck. Of course, we are the Establishment now, too. We are complicit -- and we're useful for the odd op-ed piece rolled out when the administration commits some atrocity. The supposed parasitic academics who are undermining family values and moral certainty are always good copy -- or a good segment -- especially if you'd rather not report what's happening in Iraq. We're also very useful for the rightwing academics and think-tankers, too. But, even more importantly, postmodernism justifies inaction by making any kind of judgment morally culpable."

Stoopgoul nudged Henry gently with his elbow.

"I'll let you in on a little secret: postmodernism is absolutist, despite it's declared hatred of not just absolutism, but of any kind or degree of distinction at all. Behind all the faux-relativism, which is easily dismissable as instantly self-refuting, lurks the self-justifying belief that if we can't be epistemologically -- let alone, morally -- certain about everything, then we can't be even partially certain about anything. Thus, underneath all the intellectualizing is a nice little rationalization for political inaction. It's the argument of the defeated. Believe me, no social activist was ever a relativist. All the downtrodden have on their side is the truth, and the hope that they can appeal to other people's reason and sense of justice in order to convince enough people that things have to change. Disallow that possibility, disallow reason or any sense of justice, and all you have left is naked power. And then the powerful win."

Henry was amazed. He gazed at Stoopgoul, who was lost in thought. "If you really believe all of this, why do you buy into all this shit then?"

Stoopgoul looked at Henry. "I have two children, Henry. They're worth a lot more than scruples, as you may find out some day."

"You have tenure; you don't have to play this game anymore."

Stoopgoul stiffened. "Oh, you'll lose some of those scruples when you come up against a couple hundred competitors for a post-doc or professorship. You think this is a meritocracy? Not with those kinds of odds. At least fifty of those two hundred applicants fully deserve the job. What, then, determines the winner? Connections, politicking, ass-kissing, being lucky or dishonest enough to be unobjectionable to the majority of the faculty. With all due respect, Henry, you're a kid in his early twenties with no responsibilities. Let's see how you fare when your paycheck is on the line. Or when you have innocent dependents."

Henry looked away, embarrassed. Stoopgoul softened.

"Look, I'm sorry, Henry, but it's a war of all against all, and you had better avail yourself of all the weapons at your disposal if you hope to survive in a rapidly shrinking market. It's a zero-sum game."

"I don't remember any of this coming up when I was interviewing."

"Gee, I can't imagine why. I frankly don't know why I'm telling you this now. If we always told the truth, we'd have no grad students. And then our asses would be on the line. You think I want to uproot my kids, my wife?" Stoopgoul laughed cynically. "You think I want to grade exams at this stage of the game?"

Stoopgoul got up.

"I'm your advisor, so I'll give you some advice. If I were you, I'd change my thinking to match the market."

Stoopgoul gazed down at the broken young man sympathetically. He made a lame attempt at humor to cheer Henry up. "Anyway, it's useless to resist. If you can't avoid being raped, you might as well lie back and enjoy it."

Henry cringed. Stoopgoul reddened and turned to go. He turned back again and patted Henry on the shoulder gently. Then his eyes clouded, and he turned and scurried off.

After a few minutes, Henry got up and trudged towards his office. Luckily, none of his office mates were in. He shut the door and fell into his chair, his head in his hands.

***


(© 1998, 2006, Doug Tarnopol. All rights reserved.)

23 March 2006

"The Wager," Part 4

(© 1998, 2006, Doug Tarnopol. All rights reserved.)

Dear Readers: It's been a while -- been busy! Here are links to the first three parts:

First
Second
Third
-------------------------------------------------------

The Lord snapped to attention. "Yes? What were we talking about?"

"The Annunciation? Remember that little incident?"

"Sure. What about it?"

Frustration was driving Mephistopheles close to tears. He struggled to compose himself.

"I was asking what Zeus would have done in Your place."

The Lord assumed a haughty tone.

"Zeus? I can imagine, but I won't soil myself by stating it aloud."

"Allow me. He would have assumed the form of a bull, busted right in there, and fucked the shit out of her! And she would have enjoyed it!" Mephistopheles was exaggerating -- at least the last part -- in order to further goad the Lord.

Mephistopheles paused and added, almost to himself, "Until Hera found out about it and forced Zeus to turn the poor woman into an antelope or something."

"Yeah, well Zeus was a pig!"

"That's true," Mephistopheles was forced to admit.

"And an adulterer!"

Mephistopheles smiled. "Have You forgotten about Joseph?"

The Lord turned red and sputtered with rage. "Enough of this crap! Don't try to sidetrack Me. I've had it with humans, with their jealousy, theft, mendacity, graft, cruelty, bigotry, hate, rape, war, and genocide. They're through. Period."

"Look, that's not fair. They have accomplished so much in so little time, and You insist on ignoring it. What about music? literature? science? The Declaration of the Rights of Man? Michelangelo? Too highbrow? How about, concrete? Sports? That's just off the top of my head; the list is endless."

"I don't think their accomplishments outweigh their crimes. They like to put people in ovens every so often. Or kill folks for wearing eyeglasses. They're destroying the rest of My planet, and show no signs of stopping."

"But if they could only learn to love each other they would create true happiness."

"I don't see the slightest possibility of that occurring."

Mephistopheles was quiet, thinking.

"All right, how about this? What if I could get Henry and Helen to fall in love with each other? Would you reconsider destroying humanity?"

This will be a piece of cake, Mephistopheles thought. A quick potion and the two of them would spend the rest of their lives drooling and staring into each other's eyes.

The Lord weighed this. He sat down at His desk. He crossed His legs. He furrowed His brow. He stroked His beard. He pursed His lips. Then He smiled. That's when Mephistopheles got nervous.

"Let Me see if I have this straight. If Henry and Helen fall in love, I save humanity. Right?"

"Uh, right."

The Lord's patronizing tone did not bode well. He had something up His sleeve. "And if not, I wipe them out."

"Yeah, that's about the gist of it. Not too complicated."

The Lord smiled broadly and walked toward Mephistopheles, hand outstretched. Mephistopheles rose to greet Him, a bit bewildered.

"Mephisto, My boy," the Lord said, putting His arm around the demon's shoulders and leading him to the door, "you have yourself a deal."

"I do?"

"Oh, absolutely."

The Lord stopped at the door to His office. His arm slid off of Mephistopheles' shoulder; His smile lost its bonhomie, becoming vulpine.

"On one condition, of course."

Mephistopheles heart sank. "Of course."

"You must convince them on their own terms. Human terms. No potions, no voices, no gifts, no smoke, no mirrors."

"What?"

"You heard Me. Either they fall in love of their own free will, or humanity is toast. You will simply be the catalyst. And you have to do it within twenty-four hours."

"Are You out of Your mind? No one falls in love in a day! You know that."

The Lord kept smiling maliciously.

"What about my appearance," Mephistopheles continued. "It might cause a bit of consternation, a fourteen-foot red satyr with bat wings and claws."

"I'll allow you a human disguise. I'll put my angels to work devising one for you."

"That hardly solves the whole problem. Your condition makes my task impossible."

"They love their free will so much, let it decide their fate. My angels will be ready in twenty-four hours. If you can get Henry and Helen to fall in love before then, humanity is saved. If not, kablooie. It's up to you."

"You son of a bitch."

In a flash, the Lord had Mephistopheles pinned to the door, two feet off the ground, His hand around the shocked demon's throat. He spoke very quietly, His eyes suddenly shark-black.

"Now, you listen to Me, boy. You will treat Me with respect, do you hear Me? Never forget: I created you. I can also destroy you."

He squeezed tighter, driving His thumb into Mephistopheles' neck, shutting his windpipe. Mephistopheles was struggling, tears running down his face, his claws scraping impotently against the Lord's adamantine flesh. Underneath his agony, he was utterly flabbergasted. Never had the Lord raised His hand to him. Violence among the immortals had been unheard of for millenia.

Then a terrible thought shot through Mephistopheles' agony: He's insane.

The Lord dropped him to the floor. Mephistopheles gasped for air. He stood over Mephistopheles as he struggled to his feet and wiped his eyes. The Lord opened the door. An angel ran up.

"Yes, Chief?"

The Lord smiled triumphantly at Mephistopheles as He spoke. "Will everything be ready by tomorrow?"

"I think we'll be able to swing it, Sir."

"Excellent. Thank you, that will be all."

"Well?" The Lord asked, still smiling. "Do you accept?"

Mephistopheles rubbed his neck and looked up at the Lord. What choice did he have? Besides, his shock was transforming into a deep anger. He wanted to humiliate the Lord by winning according to His impossible rules.

"Yes." Mephistopheles turned and strode out the door.

"Mephistopheles!"

He turned around again to face the Lord through the doorway.

"You had better stick to the terms of our agreement." The Lord walked up to Mephistopheles and looked down into his eyes, their noses almost touching. Mephistopheles shrank back in fear. The Lord's black eyes bored into Mephistopheles'. "Because if you cheat, boy, I'll know. I know I'm slipping, but I can still keep an eye on you."

The Lord released Mephistopheles from His gaze, walked back to His desk, and sat down. He was smiling again. "And I won't be the only one. I'm faxing the gist of this to Lucifer right after you leave. I plan to add the following: If I catch you doing anything supernatural down there, I will order a full-scale Audit of Hell."

This was a serious threat. There hadn't been a Soul Audit in centuries. All souls had to be accounted for and shown to be receiving their proper punishments. Given the present population density in Hell -- it had increased far more dramatically than Heaven's -- and the lax enforcements of punishments since Heaven's oversight had all but disappeared, if the Lord caught Mephistopheles using magic, there would be no way Lucifer and his demons could coax all the souls back to their proper chastisements in time -- especially since they would not go quietly. And then there would be Heaven to pay.

Mephistopheles finally saw what He was up to. If Mephistopheles failed, the Lord would destroy humanity. If he cheated, the Lord would use that excuse to establish His sovereignty over Hell. And Mephistopheles couldn't possibly succeed according to the Lord's rules.

But demons are good liars.

"So what?" Mephistopheles said breezily. "You know we go by the book down there."

The Lord smile grew. "I'm sure you do. But I wonder how popular you'd be in Hell if it became known that you were the cause of an Audit? How do you think Lucifer, to pick a name off the top of My head, would take it?"

Mephistopheles said nothing.

"That's what I thought. Don't try to bullshit a bullshitter. So -- we obviously understand each other."

The Lord began checking His e-mail. Without looking up, He said: "You have twenty-four hours. Get out."

***

(© 1998, 2006, Doug Tarnopol. All rights reserved.)

14 March 2006

Blowing Quantum Foam Bubbles...

Or: "How Not Thinking Hierarchically About Nature Will Get You In Trouble: Part n In A Seemingly Infinite Series."

Part n, as reported in our nation's greatest journal of fiction, The New York Times. (They do sometimes get things factually correct.)

Quantum indeterminancy at the ultramicroscopic level does not necessarily say jack squat about the existence (or not) of free will in one recently evolved species of primate -- let alone anything about the ability of that species' contingently evolved self-consciousness (an apparently unique event, at least in degree) to somehow reconstitute the universe at the quantum level, as this article righteously points out. Not that effects across levels of complexity are ruled out a priori, but they are often assumed a priori.

Reductionism is well-known; but its opposite (there must be a technical name for it) -- the a priori belief that the levels of greater (or greatest -- usually, the human mind) complexity somehow dominate the behavior of the less complex levels -- is equally silly, IMHO.

Re: the subject of this article. Just another escape from reality, IMHO. When are we going to just grow up as a species? Nobody's tending the universe, including ourselves. We can't even tend our own little planet! So, let's just get on with life and all things life-enhancing, already! Grrr. :)

Meanwhile, while upper-middle-class Americans search endlessly for "meaning" in God, the quantum flux, Madonnakabbala, shopping, et al, etc., &c., 3 billion people go hungry for no good reason whatsoever, to name only one gigantic issue among many.


Call me a crazy Marxist (I'm not -- a Marxist, that is ;)) but Engels was dead on when he wrote of the need to view nature hierarchically (other non-Marxists have done so, too, of course -- in case you're all worried now). Classic example: wetness does not exist at the subatomic level. Or atomic. Or molecular. Only when you've got a whole lot of H2Os hanging around do you get "wetness." Is that some kind of fuzzy mysticism? Nope. No natural selection occurs with one individual -- you must have a population ("individual" doesn't necessarily mean "organism," btw). Does that mean natural selection is fuzzy mysticism? Nope. A matter of which level of complexity of matter matters. Or: it's a good bet (not a sure bet) that proximate causation for a phenomenon will be found, well, at the level most proximate to that in which the phenomenon occurs. Especially after 400 years of quite successful reductionism in the sciences, I hasten to add. Might be a good idea to think a little more broadly, without falling into some fuzzy mysticism. I guess Goethe might have had a point, scientifically, after all? (See his Theory of Colors -- can't find a link to an English version online...)

This admittedly rushed version of what I'm trying to get across applies to time as well as space, I think: what does it matter what happened to a few thousand primates on the savanna 10 million years ago (unknowable, anyway) when you're concerned with, say, why 3 billion people go hungry every day, 2001 notwithstanding. Might the answer be found in, oh, I don't know, economic and social systems, and in the recent history thereof? This is coming from an evolutionist, remember -- just not a reductionist evolutionist. Evolution throws down the frame, but 1. we can't know exactly what that frame was, or even is; 2. we do know that the frame of possible actions is quite large, as we have a hugely flexible brain; 3. therefore, the "reasons" must exist within the frame. I wouldn't blame poverty on, say, gravity, but that doesn't mean I don't accept Einsteinian spacetime.

Get yer levels right; look for interdependencies, but don't assume that any level of complexity in nature (or mind) has priority or dominance in any phenomenon, a priori. Also, and it goes against the American ideology to consider the following, but there may actually be things we cannot know, let alone control. In fact, it seems outrageously hubristic to expect, as many seem to, at least subconsciously, that we, a recently evolved primate species on one tiny planet in one corner of a gigantic universe, will "figure it all out" ("Theories of Everything," whether in physics, religion, politics, biology, [sub in field of thought here]). Let alone that the universe exists for us. I don't see the difference between that notion and the one that noses were created to hold up eyeglasses, the sun to warm our faces, and so forth.

Re: reductionism, or, "figuring it all out.":

Having just finished creating hundreds of test items for an ethics course, and having had to review a lot of ethical philosophy (as well as read plenty I never had before), I can say the following. I have yet to find a better ethical rule than the one Confucius (not Jesus) was the first to state: "Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire." (see here, too; he said it twice -- or at least, whoever recorded him in the Analects between the 5th and 2nd centuries BC did). And of course, there will be case-based exceptions to this rule, too, but the burden is on those who would flout the rule.

It's a heck of lot closer than Bentham's felicific calculus (a ridiculous notion: one must go around literally calculating the pain and pleasure each and every moral action will cause before acting) or Kant's equally ridiculous insistence on categorical imperatives, which he actually extended to the point of saying that truth telling applies even in a situation in which you are asked by a murderer where his next victim is. I mean it; Kant defended this position. Now, don't get me wrong: Kant was brilliant, more so, I may say, than anyone reading (or writing) this post. That's what's scary about his dogmatism. The modern defender of the sanctity of personal autonomy was led to privilege truth telling over a human life in order to defend a non-consequentialist ethical system. If murder doesn't remove human autonomy unfairly, I don't know what does.

As Mark Twain once wrote, in "The Diaries of Adam and Eve":

In fact I was not sorry she came, for there are but meagre pickings here, and she brought some of those apples. I was obliged to eat them, I was so hungry. It was against my principles, but I find that principles have no real force except when one is well fed.
Exactly. So, let's make sure everyone's well fed; then we can all discuss categorical imperatives and suchlike.

13 March 2006

The Crush

My I is entangled with you

then, you flatten me

and hide me in your vessel

thats why I'm such a bother

give me back!

04 March 2006

Stripper

A female loves to dance

That's
what
poles
are
for

© 2006

23 February 2006

Bob Dylan - songs (alphabetical by title)

Bob Dylan - songs (alphabetical by title)

What the hell -- these are free, and I don't have time yet to continue "The Wager" ("Seder" was a post using Blogger Word -- a great thing! -- from an old story. Btw, feel free to be offended by it, and to say so. Many readers were; some were not. Satire's like that...)

16 February 2006

Seder ("Order")

[Sorry about paragraph-spacing issues. Did the best I could; don't assume anything is meant by paragraph breaks.]


(Unpublished work © 1998 Douglas P. Tarnopol)

Seder (“Order”)

To the Reader:

Let the Reader be forewarned that what follows is a mere Satire, and, as such, the Reader has to expect a certain amount of Stereotyping and Caricature.

In the hypersensitive Atmosphere of contemporary America—in which the Perception of the slightest spoken or written Affront to any Race, Ethnic Group, Nationality, Creed, Belief System, Life Style, Gender, Sex, Intersex, Age Group, Differently-Abled Non-Victim, Sexual Orientation, Class, or any other similarly arbitrary division of Humanity, is, regardless of Context, greeted with universal Excoriation by those whom, however tightly they may cling privately to the most despicable Hatreds, pine publicly for Civility in order to prevent the very Downtrodden (whom they so diligently defend from Insult while doing nothing to improve their actual Conditions of Existence) from rising up and depriving them of their fancy Homes & Four-By-Fours—in such an Atmosphere it behooves an Author to disabuse his Reader of any potentially distasteful or unpleasant Notions about the Work he-she-one-s/he-they (let us not forget Conjoined Twins) has in front of him-her-one-s/hem(?)-them, lest the Reader swoon from the horrendous Trauma of reading printed Matter whose main Object is not to be Nice, but to seek imperfectly after a kind of literary Truth, which, not being Quantifiable, as in the Sciences; or Certain, as in the countless Religions and Pseudoreligions of our great, enlightened Nation; but nevertheless unabashedly Judgmental, and thus unacceptable to the Postmodernist Movement in the Humanities, has been epistemologically downgraded by each Subculture to: Bullshit, Moral Relativism, and Moral Absolutism, respectively.

To wit, it has been claimed that the present Story is Anti-Semitic, a Serious Charge that demands a Serious Answer.

The Author acknowledges that he has limited his Satire to upper-middle-class Jews living in the northeastern United States, and he assures the Reader that, after much Thought & Soul-Searching, he has attributed this to Accidents of Birth on the part of himself and his Wife. The Author regrets that, due to these Accidents, his Experience has been limited in this Manner, because it has not only circumscribed the present Work, but has also required him to spend far more Time than he would have preferred in the Presence of the two Families satirized herein.

Therefore, let the Reader stave off whatever dangerous Palpations this Story may engender by resting assured that the Author believes in the Depths of his Heart & Soul that, based on what little he knows about History & Human Nature, had he been raised in a different Time or Place, or in a different Socioeconomic Stratum or Ethnic Group with a different Set of Cultural Beliefs and Practices, he would have found equally ample Evidence of the same Detestable Selfishness, Uncontrollable Cruelty, Childish Lack of Self-Knowledge, Fearsome Lack of Self-Love, Tragic Miscommunication, Conflicted Views on Sexuality, Perverted Love of Misery, and so forth, that the Reader will find here attributed to American Jews—albeit these Behaviors would have shone through the differently shaped and colored Lenses of that Time, Place, Socioeconomic Stratum, or Ethnic Group, with its associated Set of Cultural Beliefs and Practices.

Thus, the Reader, now properly prepared, can settle back into his-her-its-one’s-s/his (?)-their Chair, Bed, or other Place of Repose—or he-she-it-one-s/he-they can stand if that accords with his-her-its-one’s-s/his-their accepted Cultural Practice—and read on, safe in the Knowledge that the Author is free from all Prejudice, and that this Story is not meant to offend Anyone—certainly not You, Dear Reader, to whom this satirical Critique could not possibly apply.

Seder (“Order”)

Every seder, Phyllis offers the same menu. No deviation has been recorded in thirty years.

Perhaps she prepared a massive amount of seder-food in the late 1960s, hid it in the basement, and has been depleting it ever since. None of the meats, at least, would have spoiled. According to sacred tradition, Phyllis broils to the point of fossilization. Any enterprising bacillus alighting on, say, Phyllis’ brisket would find no organic purchase.

The food is arranged buffet style on the kitchen counter, aligned to within one degree-second of the usual configuration. The same dishes hold the same foods in the same order. First, the meats. Brisket fit only for making a saddle glistens in a pool of melted fat next to a silver tray of roasted chicken drier than a lunar sea. Next to the chicken, of course, is a matching tureen filled with liquefied chicken fat. (See Comment One)

After the meats come the sweet courses—which is to say, everything else, save the steamed broccoli which is tucked away at the back of the counter, a nod towards newfangled ideas, such as “fiber,” “roughage,” “health,” and “living past thirty five with an intact and functional heart.”

Sweet is perhaps an understatement. One needs at least six pancreases to survive a normal portion of Phyllis’ sweet potatoes. Her kugel is a miracle of chemistry, a sticky orgy of fat and sugar molecules twisting around each other in a heretofore unforeseen variety of compromising positions. Even her salad dressing is shockingly cloying, like the liquid version of a vinegar-based candy popular only in
Holland.

Phyllis has a bit of a sweet tooth. She clamps her jaws down tightly against all the pleasures of life. But desire swells and cannot be forever denied, so pleasure rushes in through that one breach. Consequently, Phyllis has a bit of a weight problem, but only to the extent that you age more slowly in her vicinity.

Matzo-ball soup burps thickly in a cauldron on the stove. A scum of fat is congealing on the surface. This process is periodically interrupted by a bubble from the depths, which, fighting the increasing surface tension, expands and bursts in slow motion, the ripples jostling the waxy carrots and matzo balls trapped like sea birds in an oil slick.

This is what
Paul sees as he walks through the kitchen door. Family members—a category to which he had been grudgingly but unavoidably assigned since marrying Phyllis’ daughter Rachel—enter the household through the kitchen, which is Phyllis’ exclusive domain.

Phyllis is bouncing around the kitchen like a pinball, fretting, marking her maternal territory with her conspicuous anxiety.

She waddles toward
Paul and Rachel like a bloated praying mantis, wrists limp, hands fluttering, as though their arrival is almost too much to bear. She is so happy to see…well, at least Rachel, so worried that they were late (even though they had arrived exactly when they said they would), so concerned that they had taken a bus from Philadelphia to Lower Merion (I mean, on a bus…with those people), so afraid to say the wrong thing to her daughter, who has become increasingly bewildering to her, and so ill at ease around her daughter’s husband, whom she holds solely responsible for her daughter’s transformation.

“Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!” Phyllis whines, getting several syllables out of the two-letter word, each inflection heavy with the burden of her love and motherly responsibility.

She leans forward and kisses her daughter, emitting little moans and hums, clutching Rachel to her bosom as if she had just pulled her out of a burning building.

“I’m so glad you came.”

She turns to
Paul.

“Hiiiiiiii.” Not so many syllables for
Paul. She used to hug him, but they keep their distance now.

“How are you, Phyllis?”

“Oh!”

She grimaces and backs away from
Paul in terror, waving her hands to show him how utterly unimportant she is. Nothing makes Phyllis more uncomfortable than talking about herself in public. She makes herself invisible at social gatherings, a silent preparer of foodstuffs. Speaking out is not Phyllis’ style; if she expresses herself at all, she does so indirectly. She has been trained to defer publicly and attack privately.

The poodles have been bouncing between
Paul and Rachel since they entered. Phyllis has always had male standard poodles. Upon death, the defunct poodle was instantly replaced, creating the illusion of decades of unbroken poodledom.

The poodles get their daily treat after dinner. Phyllis goes to the pantry, dogs in tow, and pulls out two “chewies.” Phyllis waits for them to bark,
dangling the treat above their heads—and God help them if they try to jump up and grab it. They whimper and whine and shift uncomfortably, as if they were trying to figure out a way to get their treat while keeping their dignity. But Phyllis is stubborn: if the dogs don’t perform on command, they don’t get the treat.

Phyllis has a metal can filled with screws and nails. To discipline the dogs, she’ll hide the can behind her back, come close to the offending poodle, and like lightening her hand will flash out shaking the can mightily. To the terrified dog, it must sound as if a canine version of Pandora’s box has burst open. For years, Phyllis has been talking about writing a book on how aspiring mothers can learn to raise children by first raising poodles. This is her dream.

One of the poodles jams his snout into Rachel’s crotch. Phyllis is mortified.

“Oh, Mikey, stop it! Bad, bad! Be good like Teddy.”

Teddy is carrying a stuffed toy hedgehog in his mouth, looking for a playmate.

Phyllis is bright red, completely flustered, hands flapping like hummingbird wings.

“I’m so sorry. He doesn’t mean it lasciviously. Oh!”

Phyllis’ face is contorted as if from extreme pain; she can’t look her daughter in the eye.

“He doesn’t mean it,” she says, begging
Paul and Rachel to believe that no poodle of hers could ever, ever think that…would ever want to….

“That’s not lascivious?”
Paul asks, smiling. He tells himself he’s merely amused that Phyllis is so intent on defending the chastity of creatures who spend the bulk of their waking hours fellating themselves on the couch.

He glances at Rachel; she laughs.

Phyllis looks up at
Paul, her eyes as disdainful as his, but an avalanche of saccharine buries it in a strobe-flash.

“Nooooooooooooo,” she whines, “he’s a good doggy.” And she resumes her zigzag trajectory around the kitchen.

Paul pushes Mikey’s snout away and whispers in Rachel’s ear, “That’s my job.”

She smiles and kisses him on the cheek. Public display of affection between nonconsanguinous members of the opposite sex is taboo in the Steen household.

“I remember,” Rachel had told
Paul years ago, “when I was in high school, a friend of mine told me that her parents were best friends. That seemed completely alien to me, that a person’s parents should be friends, let alone best friends.”

Phyllis has always viewed men as another commodity to be acquired. A smart woman made her choice based on a calculation combining earning potential with a quasi-eugenic assessment of the prospective mate’s capacity to beget upright, intelligent, well-behaved, God-fearing, Mosaic-law-abiding members of a close-knit Jewish community located in an upscale, white suburb somewhere on the Main Line (although Appleton, Wisconsin, Phyllis’ home town, would do) comprised of large, antiseptic houses (with Judaica-filled living rooms no one ever enters unless company is over) and a Conservative synagogue—no doubt a drab, functionalist building coated with hideously ostentatious perversions of Chagall, inside of which, in honor of the great Jewish tradition of anonymous giving, every possible fixture sports a donor’s name, e.g.:

· “This light switch made possible through the generosity of Leon and Mitzy Schlumpkowitz;”

· “This air conditioning vent was donated by the loving children of Abe and Sadie Cohen on the occasion of their fortieth wedding anniversary;”

· “This toilet seat commemorates the bar mitzvah of Aaron Blitzstein, given by his loving parents, Ruth and Morrie Blitzstein;”

—a synagogue in which Phyllis’ pious offspring could observe the Sabbath and keep it holy by dressing expensively, forming business contacts, and gossiping incessantly, a synagogue in which they could pray earnestly to God to keep the shvartze out of the Main Line, to watch over the stock market, and, above all, to protect Israel from being overrun by the swarthy, unshaven, turbaned, scimitar-brandishing, mounted Arabian horde with nothing but the ravishing of pure Jewish matriarchs on their filthy little desert minds.

Phyllis had made two such calculations in her life. The first resultant was Stanley, another Jewish Wisconsinite, who had struggled against the vortex of his family’s expectations until the irresistible tide had ripped him from painting and art history, sucking him into that singularity of twentieth-century American Jewish aspiration where it seemed possible that knowledge and effort would dissolve ethnicity, where the clawing covetousness of the immigrant outsider could be cloaked in the priestly white befitting a people oppressed by moral terror—

That modern-day Levite caste!

That secular Rabbinate!

That heavenly portal through which the Chosen People may partake of the Fruit of the American Vine!

O, Allopathic Medicine, most Divine of Callings, lead us to the Promised Land

Where the Milk of Martyrdom is sweetened with the Honey of Money!


Stanley had always felt unaccountably unfulfilled as a physician, and had once suspended his usual disdain for his eldest, artist daughter to tearfully bemoan his abandonment of painting to her.

The way Phyllis tells it, one day, after three daughters and a dozen or so connubial years, Stanley had announced out of the blue that he didn’t love her anymore. She threw him out, got a divorce, and made her second calculation within a year.

Saul, resultant number two, himself divorced, was selected because he was a pediatrician, which Phyllis felt would ensure both financial solvency and loving parenting. Thus, Saul moved in with his two sons, Isaac (who by his teen years had adopted the more rakish sounding Ike) and David.

The children were all within six years of each other. The birth order—supremely important not just in poodle but also in human litters in determining the precise contours of personality, from whether a child will be rebellious or obedient; to whether it will show more mathematical than poetic ability; to whether it, in its thirty-second year on a cool, moderately humid spring evening in a temperate climate four hundred feet above sea level under a gibbous moon with Jupiter in the second house, will order a kosher entrée or will choose scampi, thereby defiling itself and disgracing its parents and their parents’ parents and their parents’ parents’ parents back to Abraham and Sarah including of course all the many martyrs and victims of 6,000 years of sustained persecution by all parties especially The Six Million who were not incinerated just for being Jews so you could eat shrimp and renounce your faith you ungrateful spiteful evil monstrous nazi CRIMINAL!—was as follows:

Saul’s kids: Ike, David

Stanley’s kids: Leah, Rachel, Sarah.

If these birth orders are superimposed—which of course they must be, since the children were so young (between six and twelve) when brought together by Saul and Phyllis’ marriage—one gets:

Leah, Ike, Rachel, David, Sarah.

When one considers all the crisscrossing forces of early- and late-borns, honorary early- and honorary late-borns, middle-borns, step-borns, step-early borns, honorary step-borns, honorary early-borns, step-late-borns, early-late-borns, late-early-borns, early-middle-step-late-early-middle-borns, etc., and the various combinations of rebelliousness and obedience associated with each category, one eventually reaches the inevitable conclusion that binary, reductionist thinking is a genetically determined trait of a certain subspecies of simple-minded intellectual which invariably engenders a Cambrian-scale adaptive radiation of special pleading when applied to any given real-world situation.

The problem with Saul was that, his medical specialty and reported sweetness during the much-abbreviated woo-pitching phase of his relationship with Phyllis notwithstanding, he was a tortured, miserable, self-loathing, perpetually-enraged powder keg of a man on a fuse most profitably measured in angstroms. Even though he sensed the forces seething within him and did his best to bottle them up by adhering to a Spartan routine of work, sleep, and prayer, he nonetheless terrorized his new family. At best, he treated Phyllis like an endearingly slow house pet; at worst, he would publicly humiliate her. He had been violent towards both sets of children, once lifting one of his sons off the ground by his hair, once smacking Sarah in the face while she was drinking milk because she had used the wrong glass. Saul seemed to enjoy himself only during Jewish holidays.

Stewing ever since Paul and Rachel had come into the kitchen, Saul’s tea kettle starts to keen. No one dares touch it. Saul likes the noise, which is not unlike a chainsaw cutting through steel. Saul drags himself into the kitchen, sagging under the weight of his demons. He does not acknowledge Paul or Rachel. Still holding a grudge, apparently.


Saul constantly radiates ill-humor, mistrust, disdain, and quite often outright hatred. He reserves the worst of himself for Stanley, whom Saul believes badly mistreated Phyllis. Not that Saul had ever voiced his disapproval to Stanley himself; like the rest of the family, he lacks the courage to communicate directly. For example, the “sex talk” Rachel and her sisters had to endure as pre-teens, at Saul’s insistence. He had convinced Phyllis of the need, no doubt couching his argument in progressive pediatrics. He forced Phyllis to do the talking.


She told her girls that they should not be ashamed of sex, that it was a natural, beautiful, wonderful, holy thing, a gift from God they could proudly enjoy—providing said sex was limited to the one white, upper-middle-class Jewish man they married, and bearing in mind that when I say “sex,” I mean conventional missionary position on the bed under the covers with the lights off—coitus only, of course, but: no doggie style, no female superior, no standing up, no other weird, unholy, exotic positions that I wouldn’t know about; no cunnilingus—I don’t care how good it feels, it’s filthy down there—no fellatio…oh, well, if he simply won’t leave you alone and you really want something from him, maybe, but certainly not to the point of swallowing for God’s sake…as soon as he gets close, pull his thing out and either catch it in your hand, leap into the bathroom, and scrub every last filthy wriggling microbe off your hallowed skin, or bend his thing up towards his stomach—that way he’ll make a mess on himself (serves him right), and, if you’re lucky, he’ll get himself right in the eye—no spraying of semen in wild abandon on back, butt, or upturned, open-mouthed face followed by deep tongue kissing either, you little hussy: I know how you think!; and no contact back there of any kind: no fingers inserted during sex, no oral contact—God forbid!—the germs…Oh, who would want to do such a thing?; no spanking, no oils; no mutual masturbation; no outfits; no role playing; and, above all, please, please grant your poor, helpless, selfless, suffering, saintly, martyred mother one request: don’t experiment when you get to college—you know what I mean—I have nothing against those people (they’re so athletic) and you know I believe that they should be free to do whatever they want as long as I never see any evidence of it, but if one of my daughters ever told me she was a…a… Lesbian, it would be the worst tragedy ever to befall your dear, poor mother whose entire life has been sacrificed for you, my darling, precious angel!

Now, where was I?

Oh, yes: no phone sex when you’re separated, no talking dirty when you’re together—I don’t ever want a daughter of mine to yell out to a man to fuck her harder, to pull her hair, so that he grabs her hips and pounds away really hard so the head jabs at her cervix, fingering her clit at the same time, timing it so she starts convulsing just as he shoots his scalding load deep in her hot cunt—no talking of any kind in fact, just hurry up and stick it in there if you must, Saul, and make it quick so I can go to sleep; I have a lot of ironing to do tomorrow morning.

Then Phyllis told her daughters about orgasms. Under Saul’s watchful eye, she said that she had never had an orgasm with Stanley, but that she had multiple orgasms with Saul. Apparently, there were certain circumstances under which Phyllis would drop her feigned innocence.


Saul’s kettle has been screaming for thirty seconds to no avail. Saul is waiting for a complaint, a look, any excuse to get the demons’ claws out of his flesh, if only for a moment.


Saul tries to pass off his rage as an admirably strict morality. Examples of this were like the dust of the earth. In high school, if Rachel lingered in bed after her alarm went off, he would burst into her room and rip the covers off of her. This was to teach her promptness. He had business cards printed up which read, “Your smoking is offensive to me,” which he always kept on his person and distributed with silent contempt in public places. He practiced medicine in a tough neighborhood in
Philadelphia, treating many poor, black families, but he was virulently racist, once claiming that his clientele was innately incapable of learning Standard English: when returning phone calls, Saul was known to announce scornfully “This be the doctor” to his patients. He expected to be praised for giving proper medical care to people who didn’t deserve it. In his own eyes, he was noblesse (or at least more noblesse than his patients) and thus he must oblige; the more undeserving they were, the greater Saul’s nobility. Such was his sense of duty.

Saul covered a bulletin board in the kitchen with the business cards of the two dozen or so liberal groups to which he made donations. All could look upon it and know that, verily, Saul was a good boy. He was staunchly Democratic, but of the more free-market-, law-and-order-worshipping, violently-anti-affirmative-action wing. In other words, he hadn’t quite talked himself into following the rest of his people into the Republican party. Whether this was due to principle, or to the fact that his stubborn loyalty to the traditional political home of American Jewry in general (and of his supposedly impoverished Chicagoan family in particular) was in itself merely a measure of his unthinking piety was anybody’s guess. Until very recently, his loyalty to the United States of America had been such that he had refused to travel abroad—Israel excepted, of course.

Saul finally takes his kettle off the burner and pours himself some water. He drops his tea bag into his mug, and, without making eye contact with anyone, slouches out of the room.

Phyllis is obviously distressed. She had begged Saul to behave before Paul and Rachel came by, and Saul had agreed, but he was obviously taking a typically strict interpretation of his promise, saying nothing negative by saying nothing at all—feeling both clever and self-righteous about it, no doubt.


Interestingly, despite the damage Saul had inflicted on her daughters, Phyllis, the self-advertised epitome of matronage, had never thrown Saul out—though she did throw him down a flight of stairs on one occasion. Phyllis had already been divorced once—what would people think if she was shown to have made a second mistake? And, after all, Saul made money.


Nothing was more important than money because money bought status, or, as the American-Jewish version of that clinically sociological term goes, “Standing in One’s Community”—the very thing Phyllis feared she would lose if she got a second divorce. Money and the ability to earn it were direct reflections of one’s moral worth. Being raised by immigrant parents in
Wisconsin in the 1950s, Phyllis had absorbed equal parts of nineteenth-century Eastern European post-serf urban Judaism, Nordic Protestantism, and post-war American consumer capitalism. Somehow, the interaction left Phyllis with the worst personality traits each subculture had to offer. She might have ended up sporting an earthy, Jewish warmth and vigorous sense of humor, supported by a Scandinavian liberal sophistication, and humanized by a uniquely American hedonism—like an educated, American Zorba with family in Norway. Instead, she mixed ghetto ultrafrugality and mistrust with Lutheran frigidity and vulgar consumerist superficiality. It was as if one had combined the split-screen dinner scene in Annie Hall and taken only the negative.


But the Eastern European heritage dominated. Hoarding, saving, scraping, scratching, scrabbling, scrambling, scrimmaging, scrounging, denying oneself the pleasures of life: these and all the other unnatural behaviors forced upon the poor by dire need, without which they literally could not survive, because of which poverty is considered a social evil, and from which they wished to save their children, were, due to guilt, recapitulated at least in ritual form by those very children. This was to be expected. The immigrant parents, trapped in a harsh economic system, had made a virtue of necessity; their children, lacking necessity, felt they also lacked virtue.


Phyllis’ father had been a tyrannical workaholic who had shown little love to his family aside from the procurement and the often niggardly, always selective distribution of material goods. He arrived penniless, according to Phyllis, and with no help whatsoever had gone on to make a small fortune selling apples in
Wisconsin. Of course, he had enjoyed the initial assistance of a brother already established in Wisconsin, and had spent the tail end of the Prohibition years delivering fruit near the Canadian border…. In any event, Phyllis’ father was a Manichean figure in her mind: he went to all her ballet recitals, but invariably slept through them; he had worked like a serf to support his family, but had driven her mother insane. Phyllis’ mother had had a long bout with Alzheimer’s, and Phyllis must have known that her father was blameless at least in this instance, but her conviction was indicative of deep resentment.


Zadeh’s reach extended beyond the grave, to which he had recently departed. Phyllis was convinced that he watched over her, an almost corporeal omnipresence in her life. Mind you, Phyllis’ father was no Deist clockmaker. Among his many direct interventions in the world of the living had been the manipulation of airline scheduling so as to ensure that all of Phyllis’ daughters could attend his wife’s funeral, which had occurred a couple of years after his own. More tangible was the fi
nancial Partnership he had set up, in which his children and grandchildren shared the money he had left behind. The money was frozen solid; the only way to use it was to pull out completely, which no one could do without the family’s unanimous consent. Phyllis and her brother insisted that the money be spent only for those things of which her father would have approved, such as a free-standing house or “education”—defined of course as “that which leads to a professional goal, and thus more money and status.” Consequently, at least two generations were locked into the moral outlook of a man born in a different century, on a different continent—and into a different culture, despite Hebrew school propaganda.

You see, money was not quite Mr. Smith’s lofty, rational, enlightened medium for the exchange of mere goods and services. Oh, it was an invisible hand all right, but it was suspended, clenched and Damocles-like, over all members of the family ensuring that intergenerational obligations would be honored. And not only did monetary transactions always carry an emotional rider, but the emotional interactions themselves also had an economic character. A stark, ghetto rationale permeated the emotional nexus: one did not give more than one received.

Paul looks at Phyllis as Saul leaves.

“What’s his problem tonight?”

Phyllis looks at the doorway from which Saul exited and shrugs warily.

“Oh, who knows,” she says unconvincingly.

Phyllis and Paul had a strange relationship. She would tell him things her own children didn’t know because they would never think to ask, trained as they were by Phyllis to see her as a self-sacrificing cipher. Her protestations notwithstanding, part of her seemed to appreciate that Paul asked about her, listened to her, even helped clean up after Friday night dinners—a breach of gender roles in the Steen household on par with cross-dressing. Phyllis didn’t really trust Paul. He was male, after all—and an attractive one at that. Perhaps this was the main source of her disdain and discomfort.


“All my friends are lusting after your hunky boyfriend,” she chortled to Rachel on the phone before the wedding. “That’s just what you wanted to hear, I’m sure.”

Paul was totally unlike anyone she had ever known—except perhaps Stanley, which didn’t help. But she acknowledged Paul’s love for her daughter even as she envied it, and for a time this kept her relationship with Paul alive. Sometimes she would even drop her maternal role and pepper her conversation with mild profanities as an uncharacteristic sophistication about the world showed through the cracks of her studied naiveté. As is usually the case, Phyllis, the happy camper, was far more cynical at heart than Paul, the ironist. As for Paul, having barely survived the wreckage of his childhood, he had been desperately seeking parent substitutes, in his teachers, in his friends’ parents, in his professors, and, finally, in Rachel’s parents.

Paul once asked Phyllis why she hadn’t divorced Saul when he had turned out to be less than expected. Phyllis had told him that she could not have kept her house and raised her three daughters without a man. Paul hadn’t asked about her career as a journalist, or Stanley’s alimony payments; nor had he told her that he knew that Stanley had agreed to pay for the girls’ college education; nor had he reminded Phyllis that her daughters’ college and post-graduate education would be heavily discounted because Stanley was a professor at Penn; nor had he pointed out that Phyllis’ father had plenty of money, and prided himself on taking care of his family, if only financially; nor had he pointed out that being deprived of a four-story house in the suburbs and ballet lessons might have been worth being deprived of Saul.


Paul had told himself that he had not pressed her because he had sensed that the myth that she needed a man—even one like Saul—to survive was a retaining wall in the edifice of her self-image, and that he had wanted to protect her from the consequences of her choices, even though her selfishness and cowardice disgusted him. Such was Paul’s sense of filial duty. What he didn’t quite admit to himself was that the very posing of a question to which he already knew the answer could only serve to rub Phyllis’ nose in the consequences of her own choices. He was in some ways a kinder, gentler Saul.


Brightening, Phyllis turns to
Paul and says, “At least he’s taking me to Ireland this summer.”

“That’s good.”


Phyllis had justified her marriage in economic terms, so it was no surprise that she was constantly angling to profit from it. Despite nearly twenty years of marriage, Phyllis and Saul kept their fi
nances separate, even to the point of splitting up bills like college roommates. Phyllis kept things from her husband in order to appear more impoverished than she really was; she was predisposed to feigning poverty anyway. Courtesy of Zadeh’s apples, Phyllis’ daughters each had a trust fund, and, after Phyllis’ parents died, she and her daughters had inherited the Partnership. All was kept secret from Saul, who had recently sold his practice to an HMO for quite a lot of money. Soon thereafter, Phyllis had taken Paul and Rachel out to a victory lunch, proudly stating that she was going to get Saul to spend more of his money on her, and she had worked on him to take her to Europe until he relented.

It wasn’t simple avarice; it was complex avarice. Phyllis had married Saul because he seemed to promise financial security and good parenting. (Love, incidentally, was never mentioned as a possible reason for the marriage.) She had crapped out on the good parenting; if she didn’t get Saul to pay for as much as possible, then she wouldn’t be able to leave as much of her own money for her daughters as a kind of posthumous apology for inflicting Saul upon them.


Perhaps Phyllis wanted love after all, and what better proof of Saul’s love was there than the amount of money he spent on her? If Saul outspent Zadeh, maybe that would heal Phyllis’ wounds. Saul was certainly at least as stern and domineering as her Zadeh had been. Part of Phyllis reveled in Saul’s rages, thrilled at the way he abased her—the more scorn the better. Maybe this was why she had multiple orgasms with him.

Ike and David enter the kitchen from the den. They are laughing. Ike keeps talking to David for a while before he says hello, keeping Rachel and Paul waiting as if he were an important executive.

“Noonie!”

He steps past Paul and grabs Rachel, hugging her close, kissing her. Noonie was Rachel’s nickname when she was a girl. Ike, like Phyllis and everyone else in the family, thinks of Rachel as “Rachie Noonie,” a cute, quiet, shy, demure, presexual angel. They don’t know what to make of the Rachel of twenty seven years, a woman on the verge of graduating medical school who is no longer shy, more sexy than cute, and actively exfoliating her demure layers.


Ike can’t seem to let go of the completely nonthreatening little girl he used to know. He’s pawing at Rachel, planting kisses all over her face. She is making a half-hearted attempt to push him away, not wanting to compound the awkwardness by “making a scene.” Phyllis’ training runs deep in her daughters. It’s all supposed to be a big joke and everyone laughs, even
Paul. He recognizes the trap: if he keeps quiet, Ike will continue mauling Rachel—no one else seems to find it inappropriate. If he speaks up, he’s afraid Ike will launch a condescending attack along the lines of:

Ike: [Backing away from Rachel and holding his hands up theatrically.] Gee, Paul, I didn’t realize you were so oversensitive. If it bothers you that much, I’ll stop. [Shaking his head.] Wow.

Paul: [Feeling silly, even though he knows he’s right.] I don’t mind a little sibling affection, but this is overboard.

Phyllis: [Horrified.] Paul, it’s clear you’re insecure about Rachel, but to accuse Ike of incestuous desires! Get your jealousy under control!

[Rachel’s sisters titter and exchange knowing looks.]

There’s constant tension in the Steen household. They’re like a pride of lions, poised to strike, just waiting for a member to show the slightest vulnerability, which is understood to be weakness. Ike, perpetually the butt of his own jokes about his sexual failure, forces himself on Rachel as a challenge to Paul. How dare Paul take his little girl away!


Ike turns to
Paul and offers his hand.

Paul.”

“Hello, Ike.”

David, towering over everyone at six foot five, lumbers over to Paul and Rachel and hugs both of them. He and his brother are utterly unalike. David is soft-spoken and introspective; he almost became a rabbi, but chose to study comparative religion instead, having decided wisely that agnosticism was a handicap to a cleric. Ike works for a PR firm; he has recently represented Disney in its attempt to strip-mine Civil War sites in Virginia for a historical theme park, and Hooters in its noble battle not to have to hire male waiters. Pushing thirty, Ike’s fundamental motivation has remained unchanged since he was twelve: to appear “cool.”


Saul makes a glum reentrance, and, oblivious to everyone but his sons, resumes midstream a debate he and Ike have apparently been having on and off all afternoon. Saul and Ike make no attempt to include the others; it’s as if Phyllis and her daughters weren’t in the room, to say nothing of
Paul.


The sisters strike up a conversation of their own, each group ignoring the other in a house divided unto itself.


Ike often vies with Saul in ritualized verbal combat. David, however, rarely argues at the dinner table—which is to say, he has extricated himself from the American Jewish gladiatorial arena in which henpecked, insecure males try to recoup some of their masculinity by making pig-headed, ridiculously sweeping pronouncements on (usually political) subjects about which they know little and have thought less, which they subsequently defend for hours by exchanging cheap, legalistic debating points of utterly no consequence while the women clean up. Some common topics for pontification:

1. The Holocaust,

2. Israel,

3. The President,

4. Any Jewish Person Who Did Anything Noteworthy Anywhere in the Known Universe, Divided Into:

a. Mitzvahs, or, “Good Deeds,”

b. Nachas, or, “Accomplishments,” i.e., “Things Which Could Be Posted on the Refrigerator,”

c. Shondas, or “Horrible Deeds which Bring Shame Upon the Perpetrator, the Perpetrator’s Family, Community, and Synagogue, and upon American Jewry, World Jewry, and the History of World Jewry, Including, Of Course, All the Many Martyrs of 6,000 Years of Unrelenting Persecution—Especially the Six Million who did not die only to have their memory desecrated by a feculent vermin like YOURSELF!

5. The Holocaust and Israel,

6. Israel and the Holocaust,

7. American Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust,

8. Why Blacks Shouldn’t Receive Affirmative Action,

9. Why Intermarriage Should Be Punishable By Death,

10. Aluminum Siding and the Holocaust.


Phyllis interrupts in her sing-song official hostess register, struggling to integrate the conversation so as to put on a good face before the imminent arrival of company.


“Did you all watch the Olympics?”


Phyllis loves the Olympics, especially since they have now removed almost any trace of sports in favor of the type of “human interest stories” out of which she has made a career:

First Announcer: [In the studio.] OK, let’s go to the women’s downhill event, taped earlier today and brought to you live.

[Cut to a multicolored blur zooming past the finish line at 80 miles an hour.]

First Announcer: You know, the winner of today’s women’s downhill ski race was a plucky young American named White Bread who overcame AIDS, SIDS, Ebola, a cold sore, Mad Cow disease, prostate cancer, bad air, acephaly, demonic possession, dysthymia, dyslexia, anorexia, bulimia, fear of heights, fear of open spaces, fear of inclines, fear of snow, fear of cold, fear of fear, and fear to compete successfully at the highest level. Let’s go to Laser-Cleaned Smile at the finish line, where the celebration continues.

Laser-Cleaned Smile: That’s right, Talking Haircut. It’s truly a remarkable story. What a role model for all those youngsters watching! She really stepped up, responded to the challenge, took her game to a whole new level, and just did it. And I just want to add that Ms. Bread dedicated her winning run to her 96-year-old grandmother who was present at the race. She’s been in a coma for 43 years, and White says this one’s for her!

[Cut to a blonde, smiling, waving, Lycra-clad, ad-covered skier with her arm around a blank-faced old woman in a wheelchair wearing an Olympic hat, Olympic sweater, Olympic jacket, and Olympic warm-up pants. Even her mobile IV unit has a five-circle insignia on the saline bag. Her head is resting on her right shoulder, an icicle of drool hanging out of the corner of her mouth. She’s giving a thumbs-up with the aid of a Nagano ’98 pencil, to which her thumb has been taped. With Olympic tape.]

Talking Haircut: Just marvelous! [Talking Haircut pauses and puts his hand up to his ear.] Hold on, Laser-Cleaned Smile—this just in…. White’s golden retriever back on the Bread family farm in Americus, Kansas has just had fourteen puppies! Let’s go there live.

White Bread: [Gasping in joy, turns to her grandmother.] Did you hear that, Granny? Puppies!

[Cut to a sepia-toned shot of the puppies suckling at their mother’s teats in a splash of sunshine just inside a red barn. Above the doorway is a huge American flag. Just outside the doorway stand Mr. and Mrs. White Bread—he in overalls with a pitchfork, his face weathered, tears trickling down the creases, dripping on his flannel shirt; she in a flower-print house dress and a white apron, clasping her hands together, the Kansas wind lightly ruffling her blonde bangs.]

Mom: [Sobbing.] We love you, White! We’re so proud!

White Bread: [Sobbing.] Mommy, Daddy, I love you both so much!

Dad: [Sobbing.] You’re Daddy’s little angel, princess! Bring on back the gold, my sweet, precious baby! [He manages to compose himself.] Hey, we’re going to have a big parade down Main Street with the Boy Scouts and the veterans and the church choir is going to sing. It’ll be just grand! The mayor’s even going to give you the key to the city. And then we’re going to have a big square dance in the Union Hall.

White Bread: That’s just super-duper! I owe it all to the family values I learned in my hometown, where no one needs to lock his door.

Mom: [Bursting with pride.] Oh, tell her about you, Cletus!

Cletus: [Embarrassed, looking down at his boots.] Aw, shucks, Melva, I can’t.

White Bread: What, Mommy?

Melva: [Beaming.] Precious, your Daddy’s going to be leading the parade. He’ll be in uniform!

White Bread: [Enraptured, hand on her chest.] Oh, Daddy!

Melva: [Her arms sliding across Cletus’ shoulders.] Cletus, you’ll look so handsome with your private stripes for everyone to see! [She kisses Cletus on the cheek and giggles.]

Cletus: [Also beaming.] Heck, sugar, I’m even gonna dig up that Viet Cong skull to put on my bayonet!

Melva: [Flushed with excitement, in a near-swoon.] Oh, Cletus!

White Bread: See you real soon! I love you bunches and bunches!

Cletus: See you soon, honey-sugar-precious-darling-baby-princess-angel!

[They wave as the puppies romp and suckle.]

Laser-Cleaned Smile: [Wiping away tears.] So, White, what do you want to say to America?

White Bread: [Once again, sobbing hysterically.] I just want to say…I’m dedicating this gold medal to my Mommy and Daddy, my hometown, my fourteen puppies…and…most of all to my Granny, who has been the greatest influence in my life. She taught me never to quit. I love you, Granny! [The crowd behind her bursts into tears as White Bread hugs her Grandmother, who is still blankly motioning thumbs-up.] And I just want to thank my coach, my pastor, and my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who showed me the light and gave me the strength to compete—and who took time out of his busy schedule to reduce my wind resistance just enough so that I could complete the course one ten-thousandth of a second sooner than the next closest skier, whose name I have already forgotten. And I just want to say: God Bless the United States of America, The Greatest Country in the World! [The crowd behind White Bread burst into chants of “U-S-A,” fists pumping in the air. One particularly patriotic fan knocks over Grandma’s IV stand. No one notices.] And I also want to thank IBM, Kodak, CBS, Exxon, GM, Lockheed, General Electric, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Nordyne, the Rand Corporation, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the John Birch Society for spending fifteen million dollars on me over the last four years in my quest for the pinnacle of amateur sports. And all they asked in return was my eternal, unquestioning support of their products and political positions, and to turn a blind eye to their corruption of American republican democracy.

Laser-Cleaned Smile: That’s just great! Congratulations again, White Bread. [Turning to the camera, face full of gravity.] An emotionally moving moment from Japan, where a plucky young American has just dropped another bomb, but this time a bomb of gutsy determination, the lingering aftereffects of which just might contaminate a generation of young Americans. This is Laser-Cleaned Smile reporting from the slopes of Nagano. Back to you, Talking Haircut.

“No, I haven’t seen any of that,” Paul says, making a face.

“You don’t like the Olympics?” Phyllis asks incredulously. Her tone suggests a moral failing equal to pedophilia.

“I like sports; I don’t like watching a hundred hours of soggy, jingoistic filler for advertisements.”

Phyllis glowers for a split-second, then turns away in confusion.

“I love the Olympics,” says Sarah, entering the room, claws at the ready. She is attracted to the possibility of arguing with Paul like a vulture to carrion.


Until very recently, Sarah had been in full contrarian revolt against Phyllis, as only an arrested adolescent can be, unaware that doing the opposite of one’s parents belies a lack of independence equal to total obedience. Sarah had waged a two-decade war of harsh, infuriated reaction, delivered with all the tact and aplomb of a coarse-grained industrial disc-sander.


A one-woman proof of Hannah Arendt’s thesis that opposite ends of the political spectrum attract, Sarah had given up shocking the bourgeoisie with her belly-button rings and leftish pronouncements for shocking the avant-garde with her Stars of David and rightish pronouncements. Only her position had changed; the rage remained the same. She still orbited Phyllis, attracted by desire for affection and respect, repulsed by their absence.


As Rachel had pulled away from Phyllis, Sarah—ever the outsider, never the favorite—had sold out her sister and rushed in, directing her rage outwards, orbiting closer, desperate for approbation.

Thanks to Stanley and Saul, Sarah had a small problem with men. She joked about castration with a frequency that would be disregarded as heavy-handed Freudianism had it occurred in a work of fiction. The epitome of her veterinarian studies was to be finding a way to artificially inseminate cows so as to protect them from vicious, rutting bulls. (Phyllis had begged her to get a Ph.D. as well, in order, no doubt, to shore up the status of such a lowly professional degree.) She was terribly lonely. Her boyfriends were invariably boyish-looking, meek, and intellectually inferior. In the long run, however, they always left her.

Before starting vet school, Rachel and Paul had talked her into taking a vacation. This was no easy feat, as Sarah outdid even Phyllis in tightfistedness. An effort on par with the Manhattan Project, with just as many proddings, was necessary to induce economic fission. Sarah had only acquiesced to Rachel and Paul’s entreaties when her first option—being a subject in a two-week-long darkness-deprivation study hooked up to an IV and various electrodes in a windowless room in Boston—had fallen through due to imminent menstruation.

“You’re going to imprison and torture yourself for two weeks?” Paul had asked incredulously, asking himself for the thousandth time why human beings insisted on re-enacting childhood traumas, unaware that by marrying into this family, he was in the midst of doing the same.

“Well, I’ll get a thousand dollars. It won’t be so bad. I’ll bring something to read. There’s a TV, too, with a VCR.”

Rachel doubted whether Sarah had ever really planned on going through with it; she saw it as a bid for attention and respect, paid self-torture being seen as the highest level of achievement in the Steen household. Sarah begged Rachel and Paul not to tell Phyllis every time she brought it up, protesting too much.

“Do you really need a thousand dollars so badly?” Paul asked.

Sarah had a trust fund worth at least $80,000, a chunk of the Partnership worth around $100,000, years of unspent income invested, no doubt, elsewhere—all of which was increasing double-digitally thanks to the March of Progress.

With the utmost disdain for such a prodigal thought, Sarah sneered, “A thousand dollars is nothing to sniff at, Paul.”

Paul gave up, but Sarah’s ovaries had come to the rescue. Sarah ended up going to Alaska, where she had crashed with an occasional pen pal of hers she had met at camp when she was sixteen. Originally another in a series of saved hotel bills, Mike and Sarah had hit it off. He had invited her to stay with him in the Alaskan wilderness, where he was a forest ranger. She had accepted, and two months later had come home with a ring—this time on her finger, and far more upsetting to Phyllis than any mere body-piercing could have been. At least the flesh that had been pierced was Jewish; Mike was an indistinct Protestant from, strangely enough, rural Wisconsin, a working-class guy with an army background and a Masters in natural resources. In other words, totally unacceptable. To allow such goyische, unrefined genes to intermingle with The Chosen Genes was unthinkable.

“I’m glad you’ve found someone, Sarah,” Phyllis had said when Sarah had finally broken the news. It was clear that she found this unlikely enough in and of itself. “He will convert, of course.”

“No. Why should he?”

Phyllis burst into tears.

“I’ve failed as a mother!” she maintained, perhaps more appalled by his indelibly lowly social status than by the unfortunate fact of his non-Jewishness, a feature she felt sure she could bully her daughter into insisting he correct. Or perhaps she was jealous that her daughter had bagged exactly the kind of man her father had forbidden her to fraternize with.

“Congratulations!” Paul had said. “When are you getting married?”

Instantly nervous, Sarah replied, “Oh, we haven’t set a date yet.”

“Yeah, but roughly when?”

“Oh, maybe in five years.”

Paul considered this, and said, perhaps a bit too dismissively:

“Oh, well, you’re not really engaged then.”

Sarah burst into tears and ran out of the room, leaving Paul stunned.

From the moment she had returned with her ring, Sarah had begun attacking Rachel, and especially Paul. Their ally had turned out to be a Talleyrand. She became offended by Paul and Rachel’s displays of affection.

On one occasion, after some unobtrusive public snuggling in Stanley’s kitchen, Rachel and Paul had left the room. Rachel went to the bathroom; Paul to sit in the living room. He could hear snippets of Sarah’s conversation with Christine, Stanley’s second wife, in the kitchen.

“…it’s offensive…adolescent…”

Paul walked into the kitchen. Stanley had wandered in.

Christine was saying, “Oh, you’ll do the same when Mike comes here.”



They noticed
Paul standing at the doorway.


Sarah snorted.


“I’d never act that way in public.”


Paul was mad.


“Well, I guess some people are ashamed of affection.”


Sarah turned on him.


“Yeah, well maybe you’re just trying to cover up for something that isn’t there!”


Paul understood instantly, and decided not to eviscerate her.


“Sarah, you’re such a sweet girl,” he said sarcastically.


He turned to
Stanley and started a discussion with him as if Sarah wasn’t there.


Needless to say, when Mike showed up, he and Sarah were physically inseparable. No one commented on this.


Sarah’s present mission was to tear down what little respect and affection her family, despite themselves, might have for
Paul, so that her man would look better in comparison.


“He’s really very smart,” she insisted to anyone who would listen, in this case
Paul. “He’s got a Masters’ degree. Natural resources is very complicated. There’s a lot of science involved.”


“I would imagine so. It must be nice to be with someone who loves animals.”


“Yeah, that’s nice,” she replied mechanically, annoyed with
Paul for changing the subject. “You know, you don’t have to go to an Ivy League school to get a good education.”


“I know,” said
Paul, holder of two Ivy League degrees. He smiled.


Selfishness and cut-throat competition—for all her purported radicalism, Sarah was a perfect embodiment of the Zeitgeist. And of the Familiengeist: none of the Steen brood more closely resembled Saul and Phyllis.

Paul glances at Sarah and smiles.

“How you doin’?”

Sarah slants her body away from Paul, suddenly shy, center of gravity on the edge of pulling her out of the kitchen.

“Good!” she says too loudly. “How about you?”

“I’m good, too.” Paul smiles again.

Sarah has just cut her hair short, after years of camouflaging her face with curls.


“It’s a big move for her,” Rachel had said to
Paul, “considering we teased her mercilessly for looking like a clown during her ‘ugly period.’”


That was the last time Sarah had worn her hair short. Like most preadolescents, Sarah had had an awkward stage before her body had pulled all its parts into equal adulthood.
Paul had seen the pictures: she had undoubtedly resembled Ronald McDonald.


Paul mused on the desperate insecurity associated with bodily imperfection in the Steen family. More quasi-eugenics.


Paul himself had gotten acne, glasses, and braces within one terrible month in sixth grade. His youthful cuteness gone, and adult sexiness still years away, he had had to spend some unpleasant time in physical limbo. Once during college, he and a couple of his friends had looked through a box of his old photos, roaring with laughter at that phase, thanking god it was behind them. Sarah had the misfortune of looking different than her two beautiful, older sisters. Not that she wasn’t attractive, or even that she was less attractive than her sisters—these things depending on the eye of the beholder. But her family, and thus she herself, considered her ugly. They let her know this by giving her patronizing compliments, which is like being punched in the face with a velvet-covered fist.


Paul is admiring her Parmagiana neck, and tries to give her a real compliment. He thinks he feels sorry for her, and while this is true, he also can’t stand her. His compliment is designed to boost her self-confidence enough to induce her to leave him alone for the evening.


“Good haircut, Sarah. You’ve got a pretty neck.”


Sarah looks away and doesn’t answer. Phyllis swoops in.


“Sarah, you’ve just been complimented.”


Sarah meets
Paul’s eyes with defiance.


“You know, Rachel has a nice neck, too, which you could see if you let her cut her hair.”


This is said with utmost disdain. Like Phyllis, Sarah feels
Paul bullies Rachel, and, like Phyllis, she will not rest until she has bullied Rachel into accepting that premise. Paul had encouraged Rachel to grow her hair out—away from the cute-little-girl-bangs look and towards a more mature, sexy mane.


All appears yellow to the jaundiced eye,
Paul thinks.


He sees deep sadness in Sarah’s future. He is pretty sure that she will never marry Mike, who seems to truly love her. He had left
Alaska and moved to Philadelphia, having never been to a city larger than Madison, Wisconsin, leaving behind wide-open spaces and self-sufficiency for the pleasure of pointing fat tourists in the direction of the Liberty Bell. Mike was miserable in Philadelphia, and this is how Sarah responded:


Rachel handed the receiver to
Paul.


“Hello, Sarah.”


“Hi.”


“So, how is Mike adjusting to Philly?”
Paul asked.


“He won’t stop talking about
Alaska!”


Paul hears a voice in the background.


“No, that’s not true. You bring it up all the time!”


“Maybe he misses it, Sarah.”


“Yeah, well, he doesn’t have to whine about it all day long.”


Sarah saw Mike’s abandonment of his entire life as her due, the minimum she would expect from anyone. In response to the obvious question, she had announced a couple of times, in front of her family and fiancée, that she wouldn’t transfer to another vet school—not even the one at Madison, where she would get a comparable break in tuition by passing herself off as a resident—nor would she even consider moving to the suburbs of Philadelphia to accommodate him if he got a job in Delaware, rural Pennsylvania, or New Jersey. Phyllis had drilled a pathological sense of entitlement into her daughters, thus ensuring that they would eventually disgust any potential mate and remain in a tight orbit around her in the vacuum of her stone house. Only mommy could provide the love they needed.


Paul had predicted that the relationship would last six weeks. It had lasted a year, mostly due to Mike’s love, or pliancy, or both. Paul had tried a couple of times to express to Sarah the depth of disapproval Mike engendered, the difficult times they would have with Phyllis, and the unimportance of all of it if they loved each other. It had made no dent; Sarah didn’t know how to process such information. She stuck her head in the sand, maintaining that she expected no problems whatsoever.


“Her stubbornness may save the relationship,” Rachel had told her husband. “She can’t admit she’s wrong, so maybe she’ll marry him out of fear of having to admit that she may have made a mistake.”


Paul shook his head and laughed.


“Law of unintended consequences. I hope you’re right.”


The park service eventually laid Mike off, telling him what he already knew, that he needed a background in history to make a career in
Independence Park. He had applied to jobs in the Philly area, but had found none. He finally took a temporary job in Taos—where Leah lived, coincidentally. Sarah was terrified that Leah would steal him away, so she went out to New Mexico the summer after her first year in vet school. Mike was still looking for a job in the north, possibly Alaska, but Sarah had forbidden him to take any offer until after the summer. She had arranged to do some animal research in Taos, after all, and wouldn’t want to be inconvenienced.


“Don’t be surprised if I come back married,” she had said.


“No, we’re not getting married,” she told
Paul a couple of months later.


“What happened?”


“Well, he’s staying out here, so that’s it. It’s OK, because I’ll be too busy in vet school for the next three years anyway.”


“Too busy to be in love? You know, life just gets busier.”


“That’s not true—”


Paul cut her off before she could descend into a comforting haze of meaningless detail-driven argumentation.


“Sarah, do what you want, but be careful. People click with each other this way very rarely in life.”


arah was briefly quiet, then dismissive. The conversation ended with a discussion of the weather in
Taos.


Phyllis is shooing everyone out of kitchen, refusing all help.


“No, no,” she says, flapping her hands. “You kids go into the family room. The Steinkopfs will be here soon, I have to hurry. Go, go.”


“Where’s Leah?” Rachel asks.


Withering disdain is swallowed as soon as it wells up and seizes Phyllis’ face. She waves her hands in frustration.


“Still getting ready,” she bleats, pushing Rachel out of the room.


Ike and David walk into the family room.
Paul, Sarah, and Rachel follow as klezmer music breaks out of the living room, the clarinet and strings fluttering over a driving percussion pattern, describing a musical arc that betrays an Arabic influence the Steens would not like to admit. In addition to an oil tanker’s worth of klezmer and traditional Israeli dance tunes, the Steen’s music collection consists of a few Mozart minuets, a couple of Brandenburg concertos, some Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Abbey Road. The last two are the only surviving members of Saul’s sixties rock collection. Phyllis only likes pre-Rubber Soul Beatles.

A low bookcase spans one wall in the family room. It’s a necropolis, holding the corpses of the kids’ English classes: A Separate Peace, Lord of the Flies, the usual suspects, all diligently read, underlined and held apart from their souls. A twenty-year-old World Book Encyclopedia takes up a third of one shelf, bought no doubt to “round out” the kids’ education. Being “well-rounded” is what a humanistic education has been reduced to in homes like the Steens’, the final step in the manufacture of flawlessly spherical people who glide frictionlessly on cue along paths predetermined towards a dark hole in the green ground.

In any event, Saul loves to run to the encyclopedia whenever a fact, regardless of importance, is disputed in conversation. The Steens treat knowledge as an opportunity to impress or to humiliate, never as the raw material of wisdom, never as life-changing. Knowledge was to be kept at arm’s length. It was welcome in Phyllis’ home only if housebroken. Nothing, not even knowledge, that supposedly primary Jewish virtue, would be allowed to interfere with the great surge up the social ladder.

Everyone takes a seat and the gossip begins to fly.

“Did you hear that Rivka Hershowitz came out?” Sarah says, testing the waters.

Ike, David, and Rachel all look at each other. Ike, the boldest, considers this gambit and replies, parsing his words as carefully as an unindicted co-conspirator.

“Yes.”

Sarah whirls on him.

“So? What do you think about it?”

Ike flies into the fray, meeting misanthropy with misogyny.

“I’m not at all surprised.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just that she always seemed to be heading in that direction.”

[The rest was not perfected. Well, to be perfectly honest, it was abandoned. Whereas the Steen family is somewhat tragic and funny, Paul's family, which wa supposed to flutter in and out as the Seder got going is completely tragic, and not at all funny.]

Disclaimer

The characters and incidents portrayed in this story are entirely fictitious, and, in any event, were nowhere near this bad. No identification with actual persons, living or dead, institutions, places, buildings, and/or products is intended or should be inferred, and no validity can be assigned to the story’s arguments or descriptions since the author is clearly a misanthropic, scatological malcontent.

(Unpublished work © 1998 Douglas P. Tarnopol)