Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Today’s Reality Is Yesterday’s Punchline

I’ve been posting sporadically this week (and by “sporadically” I mean “not at all”) because I started a new job. It’s a step up from my old one and I’m damned glad to have it, but on the other hand it’s very difficult for a newspaper writer starting a new gig; since I haven’t cultivated any sources yet there’s nobody I can call to say “I need a story. Got anything?” So I’ve been scrambling about introducing myself to the people on my new beat and scrolling through the Internet in search of local issues to write about, and by the time I get home I just can’t bear to look at a computer screen any longer than it takes me to check my e-mail.

Instead, I’ve been reading those old-fashioned things — what are they called again? Like web pages, only they’re made of paper and have no interactive functions? That’s right, “books.” Specifically, some old Erma Bombeck books I found in a thrift store. Bombeck, for those of you who don’t know, was a popular humor columnist back in the 60s and 70s, and her chief subject was the hassles of being a housewife and mother.

A lot of the old humor doesn’t carry over into the modern world; it’s more to be read now as a sociological study than a slice-of-life comedy. Bombeck’s generation was the Baby Boomers’ parents, and she was (for the most part) among the last American women to be raised with no expectation that they or any other woman would have a job and a husband simultaneously.

In a piece she wrote around 1965, Bombeck said this about disappointing Christmas gifts husbands gave their wives:

One of the more conscientious husbands can always be counted upon to come up with the item mentioned last July when his wife snarled “what I need is a decent plunger!” Inspired by his power of retention he will sprint out and have a plunger wrapped as a gift. No one will be more surprised than he when his wife cups it over his mouth!

Others will seek out the advice of young secretaries who have read all the magazines and know that happiness is an immoral nightgown. Depending on the type of wife she will (a) return the nightgown and buy a sandwich grill, or (b) smile gratefully and wear it to bed under a coat, or (c) check out the secretary.

It goes on like this and then Bombeck switches into semi-serious mode, giving husbands useful gift advice (and one of the saddest things I’ve read this year) concerning the difference between the frugal, bread-wrapper-saving outer persona of their wives, and what they yearn to be deep inside:

Hidden is the woman who sings duets with Barbra Streisand and pretends Robert Goulet is singing to her. Who hides out in the bathroom and experiments with her eyes …. Who reads burlesque ads when she thinks no one is watching …. Who thinks about making ceramics, writing a play and earning a paycheck.

The italics are mine; in Bombeck’s day that phrase wasn’t worth italicizing.

So for the most part, I’m damned glad to be living in my time and not hers. Mostly. But look at this: in 1979 she published Aunt Erma’s Cope Book, a witty parody of the self-help self-actualization books so popular in the 70s. After lampooning Transcendental Meditation, astrology and other improvement-a-go-go 70s trends, Bombeck discussed how, with her newfound confidence and ability, she would take on the terrifying task of chaperoning at her son’s high-school prom.

This bit, with the lead chaperone explaining the rules to Bombeck and her fellow conscripts, was at the time meant to be a ludicrously exaggerated bit of humor:

If you are going for a ‘bust’ of any kind, make sure you are familiar with the facts. Two years ago, a guidance counselor summoned an emergency unit, two police cruisers, and a priest for a boy who had just thrown two Tic-Tacs into his mouth to improve his breath.
Wow. You mean once upon a time, a kid at school could be busted for drugs only if he took actual drugs, not druggish-looking substances? We’ve all seen cases of modern zero-tolerance incidents where something that isn’t an illegal drug but kind of looks like one if you squint at it is enough to get a kid expelled. I’d link to some such cases for y’all, but I have to go to work.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Please Ignore Any Possible Double Entendres

I had to visit the doctor last week for one of those good-health check-ups you’re supposed to have annually although my last one took place during the waning years of the previous millennium. This was one of those el cheapo visits where you spend 35 minutes sitting alone in an examination room, three minutes having the doctor poke at you and make sure nothing untoward pokes back, and another half hour filling out insurance paperwork.

I had a $30 co-pay for this visit. I have no idea what it actually cost. Then I went to have my car’s oil changed, which is arguably more important to the health of my car’s engine than three minutes’ worth of doctor going “Does this hurt? [poke] What about this? [poke] What about this [poke]?” is to the health of me. No appointment necessary; I paid $25 and was out of there in ten minutes. The poky doctor appointment, by contrast, required multiple phone calls to make a reservation weeks in advance.

Could be worse. Overall my car needs a lot more fix-it care than I do, and at least the car insurance companies focus on actual accidents rather than routine maintenance. Should that change, I’ll move to one of those overpriced cities where nobody has a car.

Imagine: need an oil change? No more can you find dozens of quick-lube places competing with each other for your business; instead, you have to call your insurance company and make an appointment and fill out scads of paperwork before you qualify for coverage that leaves you with only $25 as a co-pay. Need a tire? If you call now and wait on hold for 15 minutes you can make an appointment to speak to an insurance-company mechanic who’ll inspect your old tire three weeks from next Tuesday and write you a prescription. Running low on gas? You can’t visit any of the fifteen stations in your neighborhood because you have to drive 32 miles to the gas station run by the insurance company and wait for a mechanic to write you a gas-requisition pass before you’re allowed to buy any.

All this extra paperwork and bureaucracy will make insured car maintenance a HELL of a lot harder to get than it is now. That, in a nutshell, is why basic health care in America is so damnably expensive. It's not just that it's expensive to treat some acute illness that requires months and months in the hospital; if conditions are just right even something relatively minor like a broken bone or an attack of appendicitis can run you into the poorhouse.

Sorry about the rant. Can you tell I hate dealing with my insurance company?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Waiting For The Cleansing Storm

I figure we’ve got about ten years left before somebody proposes a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing Americans the right to go through life without ever being offended. By anything. Or anyone. At any time. I don’t know which Congressnut will be the first to propose it, but it’ll likely be in response to a ground-up grass-roots organization of Ordinary People (read: college students) trying to Make the World a Better Place.

Listen: I might lose my electricity and Internet connection later, because we’re supposed to get walloped by a big winter storm here in Connecticut tonight. Despite the many personal inconveniences I’m likely to suffer as a direct result of the snowfall, I’m hoping for a nor’easter cataclysmic enough to become an emergency and dominate local headlines for days. Anything to get John Petroski and the people he offended off the news.

In case you haven’t heard, Petroski is the wannabe Onion writer who attends Central Connecticut State University, where he writes for the student newspaper. Last week he published an editorial piece called “Rape Only Hurts If You Fight It,” which might have been an effective piece of satire if only Petroski weren’t tone-deaf to the melodies of humor:

Most people today would claim that rape is a terrible crime almost akin to murder but I strongly disagree. Far from a vile act, rape is a magical experience that benefits society as a whole. . . Take ugly women, for example. If it weren’t for rape, how would they ever know the joy of intercourse with a man who isn’t drunk? In a society as plastic-conscious as our own, are we really to believe that some man would ever sleep with a girl resembling a wildebeest if he didn’t have a few schnapps in him?
Blah blah blah. Between the first sentence and the wildebeest/ schnapps clause there’s a couple of paragraphs* that fail as satire because Petroski doesn’t realize that to do effective satire you can’t simply repeat something you don’t believe; you have to take it to an absurd extreme. Maybe if he’d gone so far as to suggest that rape be made a graduation requirement: to qualify for a diploma all women must amass 120 credits, 25 hours of community service and one forcible rape. And every man is required to help at least three women meet this requirement in addition to spending 25 hours at a university-sponsored Rape-Prevention Prevention seminar. The school nurses can do DNA testing to ensure each student follows the rules, and then — oh, never mind.

Perhaps, if Petroski had been a completely different person who possesses actual talent, his hooray-for-rape piece would be hailed by future generations as the Swiftian Modest Proposal of the twenty-first century. Maybe. But even if he had, that wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference to the campus protestors who will one day cite Petroski’s article as an example of why we need that Constitutional amendment:

Student protesters said they found many articles and cartoons in The Recorder [the newspaper] offensive. Among demands were [editor] Rowan and Petroski's written apologies, the establishment of a student code of ethics that will update The Recorder's constitution, the refund of all women's student fees for the spring semester and mandatory participation in a rape prevention program for Rowan and Petroski.
Notice that? All the women on campus, even the ones who never read the article, have been so victimized that the university owes them money. Now read the response of the administration:
CCSU President Jack Miller's statement took a moderate approach. "It goes without saying that John Petroski ... has the freedom of speech to offer his opinions … Miller promised that a group of students and faculty will examine the editorial process and make positive steps to educate students about the damage "such blatantly misogynistic and homophobic content causes." He added that hateful speech is not protected by the First Amendment and is not worthy of publication.
Okay, so Petroski has the right to express his opinions though some opinions are just so bad that freedom of speech doesn’t apply. But Miller’s quote in this article, despite its frightening self-contradiction, sounds downright innocuous compared to what another paper quotes him as saying:
"Rape is a profound violation of body and spirit, and to make light of it, even in satire, is abhorrent," Miller said. "We need to be sure that students understand that such hateful speech is not protected and simply is not worthy, on any ground, of publication."
Wow. That snark I made a few paragraphs ago about including rape in the graduation requirements is so hateful that it doesn’t even qualify as protected speech.

Remember the story of the boy who cried wolf? That doesn’t strictly apply here; the boy invented his wolf-story out of whole cloth. This is more like the story of some people who cry “giant man-eating poisonous snake!” at the sight of an earthworm dehydrating on the sidewalk after a summer rain. Yes, rape is a hideous crime. Even worse, there still exist in this country judges and politicians boneheaded enough to believe for real what Petroski tried to say satirically: she loved it, she asked for it dressing the way she did, why’s she getting so uptight when it’s just sex?

Dammit, people, save your protests for snakes like these, not worms like John Petroski. The guy has a tin ear for satire but he DOESN’T ACTUALLY CONDONE RAPE, and thus far there’s no reason to think he’s ever done it himself, either. So write an equally insulting editorial if you wish, and rejoice in the knowledge that Petroski’ll spend the rest of his college career having one hell of a time finding a date. But don’t think your offense is actually an injustice.

*I know, by the rules of blogging etiquette I really should’ve linked to the full text of Petroski’s article here. But the only places I can find it online are in men-are-scumbag-oppressor blogs to which I refuse on general principles to link. Instead, I’ll cut and paste the text of the editorial in the comment thread.


Friday, February 09, 2007

What Is This “Criminal Intent” Of Which You Speak?

Let’s face it: even the brightest little kids can be pretty stupid by adult standards. When I was about seven I lived near a street that must have seen a lot of car accidents, because you could walk along the curb and find no shortage of little squares of broken safety glass, and red and orange pieces of broken tail and brake lights.

I thought these were diamonds, rubies and topazes, since I was still young enough to consider the world the sort of place where a kid could find millions of dollars’ worth of jewels lying in the street and the grownups wouldn't notice. One day I even filled a church offering-envelope with this accident detritus and gave it to the minister, telling him “They’re JEWELS! You can sell them and use the money for the church!”

The minister, to his credit, was kind enough to smile and say thank-you rather than give me an angry lecture on the difference between gemstones and street garbage. Thank God I grew into adulthood when I did — if a kid tried pulling the “fill an envelope with broken glass” stunt today she’d probably be arrested on suspicion of trying to kill the minister. Suppose he cut himself and bled to death!

Get this: yesterday was a bright and sunny one here in Connecticut. Down in New Haven, a second-grade boy walking to school found a bagful of shiny, pretty rocks glittering in the sun. He picked up the bag and brought it to school, and even shared his newfound treasure with his classmates.

The little boy made no attempt to hide what he’d found, since he had no idea there was anything wrong with bringing a bagful of shiny rocks to class. That’s because the little boy never heard of “crack cocaine.” But the New Haven police surely have, and so they arrested a seven-year-old boy for possession of narcotics.

The 7-year-old boy, whose name was not released, told officers he found the packets of drugs on his way to Truman School on Wednesday, police said.

"We interviewed enough people that we're comfortable with that answer," New Haven police Sgt. Rick Rodriguez said.

But they're still charging a seven-year-old with possession.

NEXT-DAY ADDENDUM: I have found a more detailed story in another paper here. This story says the kid is eight, not seven, and offers the following explanation for why he was arrested and charged with a felony:
The boy is charged with a felony, but police decided to arrest him to ensure he receives services from the court, such as counseling, said Police Chief Francisco Ortiz.

"I was surprised also" that the boy was arrested, Ortiz said. "He was not fingerprinted. The goal here is not to punish the child but to get court services and get support for the child that he might not otherwise get if an arrest was not made."
Oh, Christ. This kid does not need "court services" or "counseling" anymore than I did when I gave my minister a bagful of broken glass. All I needed was somebody to take two minutes to explain why those shiny things in the street are best left alone. And while the boy in this story certainly needs to be told why those pretty rocks he found are not something children should play with, what are the realistic chances that he'll find another baggie of crack the next time he goes to school, anyway? What "counseling" does a small child need for seeing something shiny in the street and wanting to pick it up?

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Wall’s On The Wrong Border!

A Canadian man was arrested by the U.S. Border Patrol after he tried to cross the Niagara River on a raft so that he could pay an American credit-card bill in person, thus saving himself an $85 fee:
Wayne Kingwell, 40, of Fort Erie, Ont., was pulled to safety by state police and firefighters Monday on the U.S. side of the river near Grand Island … he can't drive across the nearby Peace Bridge connecting Ontario and New York because of a past legal dispute with the Canadian government.

Kingwell was taken to a local hospital to be treated for hypothermia. Later, he was taken into custody by the U.S. Border Patrol and now faces a charge of illegally trying to enter the United States.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Expanding My Horizons Without Leaving My Couch

I collect antique 3-d photography; specifically, nineteenth-century stereoscope cards and View-Master reels from before 1970, when the company started getting lame. (Did you know that View-Masters were originally made for adults, and when they first came on the market could only be bought from “licensed View-Master dealers” found primarily in upscale department stores? It’s true! I could talk for hours about the history of stereoscopic photography in America if my well-developed social skills didn’t preclude such behavior.)

Buying additions for my collection can get a wee bit pricey at times, so I’m in the market for a less expensive hobby and I think I’ve found one: Conspiracy Theorism.

Let me share with you the conspiracy theory I’m developing right now: the Patriot Act is a government plot written by the credit-card companies to force all Americans into eternal debt slavery. My eureka moment (or "awakening," in conspiracy-theorist terms) came when I tried opening a savings account at a local bank.

I already have a savings account, of course, but I’m fed up with my current bank because they keep making bonehead mistakes that take forever to fix. So I figured I’d switch to another one just down the street. Unfortunately, it’s illegal for me to open a new bank account right now because I don’t have the required paperwork. Specifically, the Patriot Act requires a person opening a savings account to have two forms of ID but I only had one with me — a driver’s license.

I’m trying to figure out a plausible scenario beginning with “Jennifer opens a bank account with only one form of ID” and ends with “Thus did New York disintegrate into a giant mushroom cloud, which never would have happened if only she’d been required to show two forms of ID when she opened that account.” For that matter, replace “Jennifer” with “a bona fide TERRORIST” and I still can’t think of a plausible way that could play out.

But I digress. Here’s the hook on which my conspiracy theory hangs: for a second form of identification, I can use a credit card. So can you. We’ve all seen news stories about toddlers or housepets being issued credit cards in their names. Hell, I once had a VISA gold card issued to me and maxed out before I even knew I had it.

Yet as a defense against terrorism you can’t open a bank account and save money unless you have two forms of (presumably anti-terrorist) identification, and a credit card counts as one.

Conspiracy theorists often repeat themselves, though you may not notice this at first because the restatements sound a little different each time. Legally, I need no proof of identity to get into credit-card debt, yet credit-card debt (or at least acquiring the means to get into it) counts as one of the forms of ID the government requires before I’m allowed to save money rather than owe it

I expect to find Conspiracy Theorism a rich, fulfilling and time-consuming hobby, should I choose to pursue it. There are so many examples I can cite for my collection! Granted, I don’t strictly need a vast conspiracy to make sense of something just as easily explained by simple malicious government incompetence, but neither do I strictly need a couple thousand 3-d images from bygone eras. That’s the whole point of a hobby.
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