Archive for May, 2022

More oddments

Initially, I was wondering why so many believers in absurd conspiracy theories are devout Christians.

Then it hit me: Western monotheism is the purest of conspiracy theories — the entire universe is overseen and controlled by an invisible, omniscient, omnipotent spirit that communicates only with its closest followers, who cannot objectively prove this communication to anyone else.

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I just bought 10 thumb drives for a total of less than $30. Each drive holds 16GB of info, which is 16 times as much as the 3-foot-tall 1GB state-of-the-art hard drive unit our publisher crowed about at the Welcomat in 1990.

And each of these powerful objects that I can hide in the palm of my hand costs slightly less than a large green pepper at the grocery store.

Something is definitely amiss.

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Previously unrecognized benefactors of humanity:

Alexander Graham Cracker, inventor of the pre-assembled pie crust.

Edward R. Merrooww, early friend of abandoned house cats

Jacqueline Kennedy Agnostic, first woman to believe in absolutely nothing

James Fenugreek Cooper, chef who established East Indian cooking in America

Mother Tearassa, fastest nun ever to win a Formula One race.

Mary Queen of Scats, premier collector of fossilized coprolites.

Marquis de Sod, lord of 150,000 acres of removable turf.

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9/11 seems to have had the same propulsive effect as Pearl Harbor (and with almost the same fatality figures). The difference was that with 9/11, unlike 1941, we have had no obvious enemy (the Japs!) to focus on, only shadowy figures who might be anybody, who might be mingling among us. So we came up with the PATRIOT Act and REAL ID, which achieves nothing but to make life more annoying and fearful (I haven’t gotten my REAL ID yet, hoping it will just fade away – the deadline has been pushed back at least twice). Even the name “9/11” is nebulous, not a descriptive pointer like “Pearl Harbor,” not something you can lay you hand or mind on, only a peculiar slashed numeral. 

A decade after Pearl Harbor, we had been through history’s most destructive war, conquered our major enemies and turned them into friends (or at least colleagues), our new enemy having changed name and description.

A decade after 9/11, we have botched all attempts to identify, meet, or defeat the enemy, instead turning the enemy internal, the “other guy” on the street – and developed myriad new ways to shriek at each other and toss blame like rice at a wedding. 

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Please sign a petition begging Mexico to take back Texas and renounce the U.S. “illegal and ill-conceived” steal of the region from its colonial home in the mid 19th century. In truth, the state was originally stolen from Native Americans, but at this point it’s difficult to pinpoint the tribes most affected. And anyway, they don’t want it.

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Latest suggested advances from Apple:

iLife: Your phone, watch, pad and computer can now do everything concerned with living, so that you no longer have to be present in your own life.

Smart Glasses: These have nothing to do with eyesight; they are digitized table glasses that automatically fill with Scotch and soda the moment the drinking level reaches below 10%. Excellent for sipping while reading 19th-century English novels.

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The latest Supreme Court decision, denying state-convicted persons the right to appeal in federal courts over convictions resulting from ineffective counsel, even in capital cases, strikes at the very concept of justice. It defies the Court’s own precedent.

Christ, we’re in for a hideous year.

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A sordid deed

On graduating UPenn (1961), I picked up a grant to study for a year at Stanford. Not sure, but I think it might have led me to an M.A. if I’d sat it out.

Ratcheting west across America by train, I assumed I’d never return to the east coast (not sure what that reasoning was either). I looked at my watch and thought, “I’ve gained three hours in my life!” 

I chose the longest rail route, a broad sweep down through the South and up along the west coast. That way, I thought, I’d see the largest swath of the country.

The travel agent warned against the itinerary I’d chosen. I hadn’t studied the geology, etc. of the area I’d be traversing, but Ha! Young college grad – who listens?

Rumbling through the South, the route doesn’t offer much. And starting half way across Texas, you dribble through 1200 miles of desert until you hit Los Angeles. And with only a couple hours layover, there’s no Los Angeles to see (is there, anyway?).

I switched lines going north toward Paolo Alto but don’t recall much of that trip, though it had to have been better than baking through the unchanging rubble of desert.

No major campus today could be like Stanford in the early ’60s, when it was still OK for a major educational institution to be untidy, and for college living to be inexpensive.

Us gradders lived in a (barely) converted WWII naval barracks on the edge of the main campus. We each had a single narrow room separated  from its neighbor by a wall with the acoustical thickness of a Kleenex.

My slapdash bureau was painted gray, “U.S. Navy” stamped on the drawers. I had brought little inessential with me, except – sent along by Railway Express – my collection of human bones, including a hinged skull (to be explained some other time), and a set of antlers. I formed these all into an altar atop the bureau. 

Ah, Railway Express … that long-time mainstay of train travel was in its final days. At the delivery station, hundreds of disconnected items lay spewed across a vast floor. I had shipped my record turntable and associated items tied together with twine, unwrapped. No one had the least idea where anything in this jumble might be. I blundered across the floor until I found my stuff – except for the turntable base. Gone. In the dorm, I elevated the turntable on a couple 2×4 castoffs.

I’d received a $2800 scholarship, which in those days would scoot you through a full year of grad school (tuition, dorm, plus cash stipend). It came through the journalism department, where, in a hazy way, I wanted to be. But the J courses in the catalog looked remarkably boring. I took only one. For the rest, I registered for communications, history of film, and a study of Eastern religions.

I remember absolutely nothing of the J course. It wasn’t bad, it just … wasn’t

Communications was “taught” by an effete older fart with a grotesque smile whose major pastime was letching after the female grad students. His course (based on such flummery as a study comparing overseas editions of Reader’s Digest) was a sinkhole. For my final paper, I said as much. Across the margin (in red), he wrote, “I guess I have to give you an A for your observations and myself an F, so let’s settle on a C.” Sonofabitch.

The film and religion courses, though, were eye-openers. The film instructor – young, vital – made me see film history in a new light and also inspired me to write movie reviews for the student newspaper. After watching a double feature of Gigi and North by Northwest, I wrote a paper for class about the differing use of color.

Hitchcock, in Northwest, chose subtle greyed shades and smooth blending, never intrusive. Gigi, under Vincente Minelli, was a chromatic disaster, a slather of clashing blares, including a scene in which amiable old shithead Maurice Chevalier, in a cream-colored suit, visually absorbs into an arbor of white roses. (Maybe that was deliberate?)

The Eastern religion class was taught by a German named Spiegelberg who had lived in India and somehow looked like a Brahmin. A beautiful course.

In our basic-living dorms, we machine-washed our clothes and hung them to dry on clotheslines between two arms (fingers?) of the barracks. You could iron your shirt on a beat-up ironing board. OK, younger people, I can’t explain the why of this: I wore a beard – as I have, uninterrupted, since age 20 – scuffed pants with holes in the knees, and weird short-sleeved checked shirts. So help me, I ironed the shirts. 

I developed more friends than I might have expected, but only one whose name I remember (but which I won’t unleash here). The nephew of a renowned editor, he had schooled at Harvard and aided Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert in conducting their early experiments with LSD. Friend Joe (I shall call him) introduced me not only to the hallucinogenic culture (without the hallucinogens), but to Lawrence Durrell’s deliriously opulent Alexandria Quartet. Joe was into things in a way I could never be and still am not.

(Years later, he visited Philadelphia and I tooled him around the local countryside. He seemed non-plussed. He called after he returned to California to ask that I mail his umbrella back to him. I did, inside a cardboard tube. We haven’t corresponded in the three decades since. What do such cloud-ringed passings say?)

I spent much time at Stanford walking the dry gulches outside Paolo Alto. After a bit, I bought a bicycle, my first. One weekend I decided to pump down to Monterey, about 85 miles, trying, wobblingly, to read a map as I went. Somewhere above San Jose I banged over a curb and wrecked a tire. But my stupid luck kicked in again: I found a bike shop open nearby that could fix it – on a Sunday!

Further on, I veered off the accepted route onto a deadend gravel roundabout where I skidded, fell and ripped the skin off the palm of my right hand. A taciturn guy drifted out of the only nearby building and looked at me without speaking. I held up my hand, bloody. He walked to a spigot on a pipe sticking out of the ground and turned it on. He (or I – one of us) spoke a single word, but I couldn’t tell you what that word was.  I washed my hand and biked back to Palo Alto.

A month later, as I prepared to pack up my sullied aspirations and escape my mother (an intertwined tale of explanation, to be told later), I entertained the fantasy of biking back across the country to the east coast, giving back those three hours.

Instead, I did something that still disturbs me, though not as much as it should. I stood in the myriad lines for winter registration in the Stanford gym, knowing I would leave, and signed up for courses, paid for room and board I would not use – and pocketed the living stipend, in cash. 

Then I caught a Greyhound bus and fled.

It’s the only time in my life I’ve stolen so much as a nickel. How much? Maybe $350, but the amount doesn’t matter. When I returned to Philly, I walked around the city with the cash in my pocket which I slowly eked out to keep me alive.

Years later, I wrote to Stanford and asked what I owed (without explaining clearly what I’d done). They said it was the amount of the journalism scholarship for that term, around $900. I didn’t have it then, so couldn’t pay it. And still haven’t. At today’s college rates, I’d probably owe them all our savings.

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Two broken legs, two brass balls

While a teen living at 3607 Baring St. in Philly’s Powelton Village, I had a lovely, frisky kitten. I couldn’t find it one day and worried myself sick. Finally I uncovered it rolled up in my bedding, unable to get loose. It had broken both front legs.

I knew it liked to skitter up the ailanthus tree out back and I’d seen it leap, at least once, head downward. I’m sure that practice had been the cause of its fractures.

In those days, the Penn vet school held an open clinic on Saturday mornings where it treated small animals for $2. Lots of institutions then believed in providing service (pretty much all I can say in praise of the ’50s, except for its diners and little motels). Setting the kitten’s legs didn’t take much time or effort: two tongue depressors, a wrap of gauze and tape, and a few weeks to heal.

The kitten adapted without missing a beat. It tap-tapped full speed around our first-floor apartment and across the concrete out back (but not up the ailanthus). When I returned to the clinic to have the “casts” removed, I expected a tentative relearning of the complications of walking. Not a bit. As soon as it hit the floor it was tear-assing around like the day before its tumble.

What became of that kitten later? Did it live a happy, extended life? Did I have to give it away? I can’t even recall its name. I hate losing that continuity of memory.

We lived on the first floor then, while the owners, Hillary and Gertrude, for some reason lived upstairs. Especially strange because Hil devoted most of his spare time to creating a radiant garden in the small strips available out front and alongside the concrete driveway (one of the few such driveways in Powelton).

My bedroom was in the front, facing onto Hil’s strip garden of salvia and other slim flowers. The room was probably the front half of the original parlor, graced by seven-foot-high windows. I could enter directly from a side door in the vestibule, pushing through what we’d made into a shallow closet. 

I loved that room at a time when I didn’t find much else in life to love (though I did have a mad crush on Dorothy Collins, the virginal singer on TV’s “Your Hit Parade”). I’d spend homework breaks banging a ping-pong ball against the wall, using an old sandal as paddle. Since the walls harbored sconces, doorways and those seven-foot windows, the carom was wholly unpredictable. I got pretty good at anticipating random rebound.

The kitchen and rear entryway were wainscoted in knotty pine that dead-ended half way up the wall, with no molding to finish it off. Down in the basement, I sawed four-inch-wide shelves with rounded corners that I stained to match the fluted boards and then nailed along their tops. Looked OK – friendly, like some of those little motels. The Minwax stain I used (Ipswich Pine) had an enticing odor. It’s my default wood stain to this day.

For a short time we had an Old English sheepdog, Brandy, an endearing beast who would back his rump up to the couch and watch TV with us. OE sheepdogs have long, curly hair everywhere. We had to trim around his eyes so he could see where he was going, and when I took him out for his daily crap, I used hair clips to divert strands from the neighborhood of his anus.

Brandy got distemper and died by his water bowl after a week of misery. We should have had the sense and compassion to have him put down sooner. Rod lifted the rigidifying body into the trunk of his car to take it in for cremation.

The 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings were held around the end of the school year, and I watched hour after hour of them, fascinated. Nearly all the personalities were bigger than life, unlike most pipsqueak, sound-bite politicians of recent years. Only Trump can match them in brazen disdain for reason and decency. 

(An update for the younger set: Sen. Joe McCarthy form Wisconsin was the central figure in the ruinous anti-Communist crusade of the early ’50s. Senate hearings dealing with accusations and counter-accusations between the Army and McCarthy became the first daytime political media event, with gavel-to-gavel coverage – pretty unimaginable on later network TV.

McCarthy had been mostly a distant noise on the news up till then, with the coverage confined to newspapers and radio, but those live hearings were his Armageddon. He came across as a smug, crude, bullying, half-crazed lout. It was all downhill for him from there. Score one for TV.

By then, Rod and Vic were both married and working for Sun Oil, Vic on the ships, Rod in research and development. Both spent their careers with Sun. Dad was a contract inspector for the Navy, working, as he had years earlier, in Upper Darby.

Sydney Boyle, the sister of Peter (Young Frankenstein), lived next door with her East Indian husband, whose name I can’t recall. The Boyles’ father was a local kids’-show personality, Chuckwagon Pete.

I have no idea why this couple spent time talking to me, a weird introvert teen. Both were funny as hell. Here’s my favorite limerick, which the husband whispered in my ear:

There was a young man of Madras

Whose balls were both made of brass.

In windy weather

They clanked together

And sparks came out of his ass.

From 3607 Baring, I often walked the mile and a half to my all-boys Catholic high school (we couldn’t afford the trolley on a regular basis), along Lancaster Ave., which angled northwest through the otherwise rigid gridwork of Philly’s residential layout.

The once prosperous Jewish business district between 40th and 44th Sts. on Lancaster  Ave. was in its death rattle, squeezed by a surrounding Black slum. Around the year 1900, that stretch of Lancaster Ave. had been the center of a poor black area with a great deal of vigor. The wheel of fate?

A distribution plant for Phillies Cigars – once a leading national brand – retained lovely stained glass transoms, and half-block-long stores still sold paints, wallpaper, and appliances in a sad, afterthoughtish way. During my high-school perambulating years (1953-57), into the fading storefronts moved used-furniture outfits, tiny takeout joints, and the redolently named seafood store, Porgy and Bass. Treegoob’s upscale furniture store (shortened from the immigrant Treegoobovich), a fixture for decades, lasted into the ’60s. 

I wonder what’s left now? But I don’t think I want to visit.

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A job less odd, though disconcerting

A story of demolition and leaky pipes.

In the early ’80s, Linda and I took on a contracting job together. The only time. With my temper (and even without it), I’m not much fun to work with. 

Bob, a social radical we knew from living in Powelton Village, bought a house in nearby University City (the area around Baltimore Ave. to the west of UPenn). In the ’30s, Bob would have been a leftist unionist. Still was, in spirit. 

At his place, Linda and I tore down walls and replaced them with… other walls. Bob wanted to install an apartment on his second floor, which would entail erecting a new staircase partitioned off from his living quarters, installing a kitchen and bathroom, and opening up spaces. It was the most ambitious reconstruction project (other than our own Baring St. house) I’d been involved in. I was delighted that Linda wanted to be part of it. It would be great to work together.

As we surveyed the work, we saw that Bob had done just about nothing to anticipate our intervention. He had removed nary a picture from the walls nor sequestered a single piece of furniture. Since we were being paid an hourly rate, it was no loss, but it rankled for lack of foresight.

He had hired a Powelton architect we knew to sketch the renovations. She came up with a neat plan that included puzzling details. What was this full-height wallboard zigzag down by the corner of the stairs? It would require a multitude of additional 2x4s, narrow wallboard strips, corner beads, plus hours of taping and sanding. I estimated the extra cost of this artsy doodad as at least $300 – a non-negligible sum back then. We talked to the architect. She was not delighted by our reservations but graciously cancelled the zigzags in favor of a simple 90-degree corner.

Upstairs, ripping out the wall between the hallway and what would become the kitchen – in order to create an unimpeded visual flow – we encountered a nest of rather important gas and waste piping. Back to the architect. Could we, perhaps, interrupt the visual flow with a two-foot-deep drop, rather than relocate half the world’s plumbing?

Grumble. Granted.

For the plumbing work, we relied on Morris, who’d spent many hours working on and swearing at the Baring St. house. Morris was 80 years old, ill-tempered, ham-fisted and terminally addled by 60 years of inhaling lead fumes. He scattered his tools like the after-effects of Hiroshima, then, lying flat on his back under a basin, bellowed expletive vexation when he could not locate a particular wrench.

Morris was cheap, though, even in those cheap days, and the work he did was decent if not top-drawer. And since he never brought an assistant (who could work with the man?), I earned carpentorial wages for ferreting out his hacksaws and pipe dope.

Morris installed the copper tubing by notching into the joists beneath the floorboards: It’s true if it works. The next day, Bob called to say that “the place is a zoo,” with a slow leak dribbling through the ceiling. Up came the floorboards, revealing a nail penetrating a copper feed. Patch, test, replace the floorboard, moving the nail location two inches to the right.

The next day, same complaint from Bob. Unlikely as it seemed, my replacement nail had hit a knot, turned almost 90 degrees to the left and gone through the pipe. Again. 

Among other lessons at Bob’s, I learned one way not to erect a flight of stairs. Once I’d cut through the joists and properly reinforced the opening (skills I had almost perfected from re-aligning our segment of the Baring St. house), we’d had the stringers fascinated at a lumber yard, a great time-saver. (“Stringers,” for the uninitiated, are the inclined supports, with notched cutouts, that nestle the stair treads.)

I decided it would be simpler to assemble the whole shebang on the first floor, then raise it into place as a unit. From this decision emerged another excellent, if limited, learning experience.

I tied a rope around the upper end of the assembly, stood on the second floor, at the receiving end of the opening and heaved. Up the assembled staircase came – a good six inches. A full set of steps weighs a sizable amount. 

This heaving and hauling went on for awhile, with Linda propping from below. Changing my approach, I looped the rope over my shoulders and used my full body for the last haul. I did get it up there but suffered an extensive rope burn from the weight expanding the rope across my back.

UPenn’s radio station, WXPN, operated in those days as a continuing musical experiment. I found most of their off-the-cuff (if not off-the-musical-radar) programming exhilarating, but “Diaspar,” which came one around 3 pm, drove me to distraction, in large part because of the snot-nosed duo who ran it.

But while you and your wife are demolishing walls, you’re not in a comfortable position to change the station. Day after day, as our bodies were starting to tire, ”Diaspar” blared all manner of insane shit while I roiled and muttered at them. But along the way, I began to get a feeling that slowly blossomed into appreciation. There were aural things out there I needed to know more about. I doubt anyone’s had a less intentional music lesson.

Linda had one scary encounter. Standing on a milk crate upstairs, she flipped back and slammed her head into a brick wall. For a moment she was not only stunned but lost her power of speech. She couldn’t call out to me, and I had no idea anything had happened. Yet, as usual, the gods of chance smiled on us. Her only after-effect is that she can no longer pronounce “Schenectady” without a stutter.

As often noted, when I perform physical labor, I lash into torrential rages directed at my own blundering incompetence. That depresses Linda, which I think was the major reason our interior-terraforming partnership dissolved. She went home to work on her pottery; I stayed on to complete the detail work.

Hers was the better idea.

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