Monday, October 31, 2005

Brother Linus channels the SubGenius

I did so poorly as a freshman at St. Newt's Prep that they thought something was wrong with me. As a result of my entrance exam score I was put in the second highest "Official Class", OC 1 . The classes ranged from OC 0, the "vegetables" who were mostly geniuses imported from New York--and which contained a couple of Jews, the first I had ever seen, and even two black kids, to OC 6, the "zoo", whose kids got into the school because their fathers were alums, or because they were useful football team gruntage.

Something was wrong that's for sure. They expected students to study three hours a night. What? I'm only 13! Half an hour a night, maybe. I just didn't have the metabolism for it. What is the urgency? (Since become a lifelong refrain.) Why are we racing through the curriculum? Let's take a break. Can we go over that again?

The boys of OC 1 were bright and aggressive little snots, used to being smarter than most. I fell behind in all subjects almost immediately, most perilously in Algebra and French which were difficult, and Religion which, I'm saying to myself, are you kidding with this stuff! Didn't we do enough already with the nuns?

Poor performance by a student reflected poorly on the selection criteria. The task of determining the cause of my floundering fell to Brother Linus. Beloved by all right-thinking students, he taught freshman Religion (I was in his class), coached the hockey team and was a guidance counselor. There was no escaping this guy and of course as a loser, I couldn't stand him nor he me.

One of the few things I got right on a Religion test (the very idea is appalling) was a matching question--A. Spilled his seed. Q. Onan. Thus "onanism" which was one of the few fields of study I was motivated to apply myself to for the recommended time. Beyond that I just couldn't manage my Bible facts whose study struck me as a mental exercise similar to and slightly less satisfying than counting the number of holes in each ceiling tile in the classroom.

Oddly enough I had no trouble memorizing years of Catechism back at St Pius's. Apparently I had achieved sentience in the meantime.

So beloved Brother Linus in his role as guidance counselor called me into his office, in an effort to understand this gawky dork of a kid who wouldn't learn his Bible facts, who had pimples and thick glasses and probably wasn't interested in sports. In short, not made of the right Catholic boy stuff.

Nevertheless he puffed on a pipe whose sweet aroma he probably thought was soothing to the troubled lads. Put them at their ease, so they would open up, such that he might get a peek into their... paltry little psyches. Oh Brother, let me reveal myself unto you!

Brother Linus leaned back in his chair, drew on his pretentious utensil of comfort and, inadvertently channeling the not-yet-existent Bob the SubGenius, fixed me with his best patronizing and wise look and asked,

"Well Mr. Keefe, is there anything troubling you--anything on your mind?"

Though not yet able to articulate for this beloved Brother the SubGenius doctrine of Slack, I was not too young for self analysis, and was aware enough of the sources of my misery. But I wasn't about to tell him, being part of the problem, after all! Smug Catholic prick, secure in his musky status quo, surrounded by his well-adjusted boy soldiers, who gave the likes of him their unquestioning loyalty, in return for a secure place in the Papist army.

Was that Old Spice I smelled, beneath the Cherry Blend tobacco?

The little atheist-to-be can not but squirm under the brutal thumb of his Inquisitor and after leaving his office squirm still more under the brutal thumbs of his young minions!

Another Brother gave me an IQ test, to be sure they hadn't made a horrible mistake. He asked me the population of the US and I said 200 million, which was pretty good for '67 I think. I also knew the capital of Bananistan, and that Bolivia exported tin, but he didn't ask about them. He did ask if I knew what audacious meant and I said it means chutzpah. I didn't mean to be a wisenheimer in that particular case, but couldn't think of any other word and anyway he ought to know from Mad magazine.

So at the end of freshman year my parents received a nice handwritten letter, in wobbly fountain penmanship, from Headmaster Brother Ricardo informing them of my fate. Expelled! Such is the lot of the Catholic shmendrik. Darn the luck. But wait!

My mother wrote back and said that her son had been unable to concentrate due to his distress over her medical condition. I had no idea she had a medical condition and probably wouldn't have noticed if she did. Anyway she didn't have one--she was fine. She had gone into the hospital briefly for a hysterectomy, described to me by my aunts as "a women's plumbing problem"--uck, that was as much detail as I wanted to know, and I never gave it a moment's thought.

Being wise in the ways of the One True Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church she also enclosed a check, and after a few weeks in Lynn summer school doing long division and typing with the other retards, I was back the next fall, in OC 3 whose kids weren't quite as smart and with whom I could keep up, with my customary study habits.

Years later I learned that beloved Brother Linus died from falling down a flight of stairs at the school. I didn't feel glad about it like a bitter person might, though I do have the urge from time to time to deduce meaning from the ridiculousness of the manner of his demise. As yet, to no avail.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

logic as distraction

I encountered these quotes in quick succession recently, coincidentally when I was plagued with a buzzing sound in the head, and given the "opportunity" to retire. They don't exactly contradict, but do glance off each other:

Bangkok 8, John Burdett. Police detective Jitpleecheep, a Buddhist:

I suppose it must be the delusion of the West, a cultural defilement caused by all those machines they keep inventing. It's like choosing the ringing tune on one's mobile: a logical labyrinth with no meaningful outcome. Logic as distraction.

A Devil's Chaplain, Richard Dawkins, on cultural relativism. Scientists may encounter a form of "philosophical heckling" that goes something like:

There is no absolute truth. You are commiting an act of personal faith when you claim that the scientific method, including mathematics and logic, is the privileged road to truth. Other cultures might believe that truth is to be found in a rabbit's entrails, or the ravings of a prophet up a pole. It is only your personal faith in science that leads you to favor your brand of truth.

How should scientists respond to the allegation that our "faith" in logic and scientific truth is just that--faith--not "privileged" over alternative truths? A minimal response is that science gets results. Show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet and I'll show you a hypocrite... If you are flying to a conference of anthropologists or literary critics, the reason you will probably get there--the reason you don't plummet into a ploughed field--is that a lot of Western scientifically trained engineers have got their sums right.

How to be Idle, Tom Hodgkinson, on work:

The truth about human life is that for most of the time there is nothing to do and therefore the wise man--or woman--cultivates the art of doing nothing.

Dawkins claims the scientific method is not merely another belief to have faith in, because unlike most beliefs, it has proven practical results. The other quotes don't advocate a different method, but they do poke a bit of fun at the value of much modern "scientific" work, (programming the ring tone on your cell phone), which so often arrives wrapped in hubbub and urgency, but is in fact arbitrary and trite.

Each remark makes sense. When work matters, approach it scientifically. But try to maintain a perspective, to distinguish between work that matters, and work that is merely a buzzing sound.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Pepi to Pepé to Peepee

Picking up "A Whole New Bird" in a moment of finish-a-book resolution, which is about the creation of the red canary, got me to thinking about Tweety Pie (though she is yellow), and Sylvester, and Pepé Le Pew, and the wise guys at Warner Brothers making fun of my aunties.

I grew up at 11 Broadway, three houses away from this house which is 21 Broadway. "21" was built by my mother's family in 1926 and occupied by mum and her mother, five sisters and one brother. Somehow they had it built without the knowledge of the father with whom they lived, along with another brother, up the street in Peabody, until moving day. Surprise! Some pictures of the clan at that time, found in the attic here at 21, are here.

Uncle David, aunts Nona and Margaret, and my mother eventually married and moved out. Their mother, my Grammy McCarthy, died here at 21 in the 1950s while we were living in Italy.

We returned from Europe in 1959 and after a year at Fort Devens, my father was forcibly retired from the Army, at the same age as me now, and in a fashion eerily similar to my "retire or else" package from Coswell's Cogs this month. We did what retired people were supposed to do, moved to Florida, where I attended 2nd grade. But my father was unhappy there due to an inability to find a suitable collection of alcoholic peers upon whom to pontificate, so we returned to Lynn and moved into 11 the next year. I was sent to nearby Pope Saint Pius V school for 3rd grade, and continued in Catholic school for the next ten years, my education entrusted to the Sisters of Saint Joseph and the Xaverian Brothers, to whom I am in everlasting debt.

Still at 21 at that time were my three aunties Betty, Ella and Theresa, who never married. Having money and being apparently socially insecure they had had the house "done" by interior decorators from Paine's of Boston, each room according to some motif. The living room, the largest in the house, was a special victim of this treatment, crammed with uncomfortable Louis Quatorze chairs, figurines of some matching creepy Blue Boy and Girl on pedestals, oriental rugs, chandeliers, a Baldwin baby grand piano nobody knew how to play, and various ornate trinkets and gewgaws placed just so, around the faux mantle. All apparently considered fancy at the time. It was then closed off behind French doors for the next thirty years, too important and precious for daily living. I was not allowed to enter unsupervised--I might break something.

Aunt Betty, the boss, apparently thought this is what cultivated people do--they buy sophistication by the pound, mistaking the appearance for the fact. Eh, close enough! Similar to Saddam Hussein's Palaces full of imitation French Baroque furniture.

Puttin on airs. This was the "strive to be like somebody better than you" era, before the "be comfortable with who you are" era replaced it in those turbulent sixties.

The epitome of this store-bought sophistication was "Pepi"--a spoiled, expensive, horrible "French" poodle. (This image is not him, but it is a remarkable likeness--it must be a particular "look".) He was as yippy and neurotic as you might imagine a purebred could be, when raised by three childless and batty old ladies.

It is good that animals know not of humiliation, yet you wonder. Every couple of months he went to the "poodle parlor" and returned freshly pom-pommed and beribboned. Everyone hated him except Betty, Ella and Theresa because like the impressive furniture that you could not sit on, his unpleasantness was evidence of superiority. Naturally the likes of you could not appreciate such a chair or such a dog. He has hauteur--he is snooty--he is French! The more awful he was, the more he proved their point.

Of course they knew nothing of France other than that the interior decorators from Paine's had indicated that it was sophisticated. I wondered if Paine's just had an overstock of quasi-French hardware and unloaded it on these unsuspecting, grasping rubes.

Likewise my father harbored a misplaced aspiration to a European stereotype, but one of toughness rather than elegance. He put on airs of being Irish though he had never been to Ireland so had only a fantasy of the place. Hard-drinking, manly men--tough, but with a twinkle in their eye, ready to fight, or to sing about drinking or fighting, but mostly ready to drink and drink more than anybody else. I drink therefore I am.

Everybody in those days was identified not only by race but by ethnicity too--"that Greek from Peabody", "the Finn", "that Polack" among the charitable labels--even if they had been in America for a hundred years. In later years my father referred to me as Irish and I answered no pa, I've never even been there, nor have you. We're just Americans. He'd have none of it.

America was in thrall to the stereotype. Brucie Blasdale's family across the street also had a poodle, named "Pierre". Every goddamed poodle in America was named either Pepi or Pierre. In Fort Devens we had a Siamese cat named "Chan" after, I guess, Charlie Chan who wasn't Siamese but was "Oriental", sort of and again eh, close enough!

I loved my dotty pretentious aunties, because they spoiled me and I got to sleep over and watch the Jackie Gleason show and the fights on TV in their basement (now my basement, where I am typing this!) on Saturday nights. Betty cooked me hot dogs baked in bread crumbs with baked beans. Haut cuisine, fifties style.

And on the TV I saw Looney Tunes, and the character Pepé Le Pew, voiced by one of my childhood heroes Mel Blanc. Pepé seemed to have been designed specifically to poke fun at America's impression of the French as being sophistiqué.

By chance we got a cat marked like Pepé Le Pew, so she was named, of course, Pepé. But since her name is too close to that of Pepi, le chien prétentieux, we call her Peepee which is close enough to provide homage to the immortal Le Pew, and provides a source of amusement for the rabble who now occupy this house. Peepee--ha ha ha!

This is why I cannot finish books.

Monday, October 24, 2005

the object-oriented life

Off to the local fitness center, to walk up stairs that go nowhere, to lift heavy objects that don't need moving, and to slog on that metaphor of pointless activity, the treadmill.

Exercise has been "abstracted"--removed from the original context of everyday life, and packaged instead as a separate module.

This is the object-oriented model--remove common tasks from the main program, because they obscure the purpose. Create clearly named modules optimized to perform each task, and move them elsewhere. The purpose of the main program, once stripped of its common tasks, should now be obvious.

Your object-oriented life is chopped into discrete bits that are sold back to you, the capitalist tool.

First, "create the need". Convince you that an activity, say food preparation, you once did as a normal part of life, is actually a burden. Exploit any resentment--if you didn't have to spend all this time tending the soup, you'd have more time to spend on your real purpose in life.

Then provide the solution, for a price. Pre-cooked meals--just add water. Is adding water too much trouble? Put it in the microwave as is. Don't bother to wash the dishes, that's a burden too. Eat the Hearty soup right out of the container you heated it up in, and throw it away. What could be better than push-button ease.

Once all these tasks--exercise, cooking, etc. have been abstracted, commoditized, and sold back to you, whatever remains is your main program. And its purpose should now be obvious.

What remains?

We are consumers of our own lives. We work to make the money to pay for the privilege of running on a treadmill, and consider ourselves lucky.

Friday, October 14, 2005

retire, or else

Today was my last day at Coswell's Cogs. I took an "enhanced" early retirement, or EER. Engage the cliche generator, Igor!

What a long strange trip it's been. So long and thanks for all the fish. It's been great working with such a great bunch of great people. It's new beginning--a new adventure!

A load of malarkey, of course. Leaving like this sucks. People took the EER because they concluded that it might suck slightly less than sticking around. A gloomy calculation, disguised poorly by the tinny tone of the resolute affirmations made by its victims. Hear how sprightly I sound, as I dump myself out onto the pavement, for the good of the corporation! See how I demonstrate my devotion to the system that spits out its workers merely because of their age! Here's a buck, granpa, now scram and be thankful it's not a kick in the teeth. You clutch your buck and like a good capitalist tool express your gratitude. This sure is great, a new beginning! Not like those other, old beginnings.

It's the movie Logan's Run--the only thing you can't have in Logan's world is your 50th birthday. Unless you run away...

So I limp out the glass doors, swallowing the bile that rises when I think how our once-nimble and productive organization was changed into an army of petty bureaucrats, harassing an ever-dwindling number of actual workers.

Now I scrape by, fishing through rubbish bins for deposit bottles, with barely enough money to buy scraps of bread for my poor enfeebled babies...well a bit premature perhaps, as I've only been unemployed for six hours.

I'm so happy to be a part of this great new adventure!

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

books begun but not done

I have begun but not finished these books in the last year. I have not been able to read anything serious lately--I guess I am distracted by the trivial-yet-insistent calls of is-it-done-yet from der Korporation. Literature competes (my theory anyway) for the attention of the same part of the brain that deals with the pissant crises of an info-job. I have zipped through other books meanwhile. Is there a pattern? No. Unless random is a pattern.

  • Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky. I read this in college on the third try, got halfway through it again this spring, and put it down. It lies opaque till you find yourself drawn deep, too deep, into Raskolnikov's famously fevered noggin. Frightening to be so inside a murderer's mind.
  • The Cairo Trilogy, Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. Almost finished the first story, put it down.
  • Collapse, Jared Diamond, who wrote Guns, Germs and Steel which took me two years to get through. Mostly done--the Norse in Greenland chapter and one other remain.
  • Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. Only fifty pages in, then stopped. Years ago, read most of One Hundred Years of Solitude, then stopped.
  • The Paradox of Choice--Why More is Less, Barry Schwarz. Pop stuff--you can get the idea from the title. There is too much choice, it is true, and it is exhausting. But maybe I don't need to read a whole book to get the point.
  • A Brand-New Bird, TR Birkhead. About two Germans who created the red canary. Excellent! I made it to about page 70.

Like so many endeavors in my life, begun well then abandoned due to perseverance deficit.

the canard of fluency quacks unconvincingly

With Condoleezza Rice recently in Carjackistan we hear once again the quack of the Rice-is-fluent-in-Russian canard. In June when she met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Ankara the BBC, which should know better, didn't question: "Although Rice is a fluent Russian speaker, the two spoke only in English, the official said."

Rubbish. Of course she isn't fluent. If she were, she would speak to Russians in their own language. If not then, when?

This US Dept of State page contains a transcription of a Rice interview with Alexsey Pivarov which is mostly in English until he switches to Russian at the end. Rice's responses are merely [In Russian]. Naturally we don't expect the State Dept to bother to translate her remarks back into English because for the State Dept, if it's not in English, it's not worth repeating. Or possibly because what she was saying in Russian was, "the weather in Volgograd is redolent of lemmings."

When people learn that I lived in Japan for a while they often say, you must be fluent in Japanese, right? To people who ask this question, life beyond the English-speaking borders is a fantasy land, and the only thing they know about learning an exotic language comes from James Bond movies in which the master spy becomes "fluent" in a matter of weeks. And once fluent, remains fluent without any need for practice. It's a term tossed about by people who have never studied a language because if they had, they would know better than to use it so casually.

Sean Connery has been in two movies in which his character is supposedly fluent in Japanese--the James Bond "You Only Live Twice", and the awful "Rising Sun". And when he opens his mouth and "Japanese" comes out, you cover your ears. Can't he spend an hour or two with a language coach? It matters so little?

I studied Japanese for years and only began to manage to read newspaper headlines. Four-year-olds spoke better Japanese than me. Expectations for English speakers are so low, similar to that of the talking dog, that if you say "the weather is nice today" in Japanese the response is inevitably "your Japanese is excellent!" Why yes, thank you, it is, isn't it. Today however, I will speak only in English...

Can Rice read a Russian newspaper, or just pick out a few words? I bet she could buy groceries and find her way around a train station. But "enough to get around" doesn't have the cachet of "fluent", does it, and it's hard to resist easy credit.