Category Archives: Levity

How to Sound Foreign, etc.

News reached us yesterday of a dazzling metamorphosis, a case of so-called Foreign Accent Syndrome. A middle-aged woman visits her dentist for the removal of several teeth. She steps into the fog of anaesthesia a native of Bloomington, Illinois and an hour later emerges a native of someplace between London and Dublin. Such cases, we’re assured, are not unknown to medical science. But if I know you, dear reader, the story percolated through your brain overnight and you woke this morning with a single, desperate question: “Where can I get a surgery like that?” You always wanted to sound foreign.

First things first. Before your insurer will agree to cover the surgery you’ll need a diagnosis. Talk to your doctor. An aural examination may identify you as a sufferer (for example) from Francopenia, Italopenia, or Moldopenia – that is, the condition of sounding insufficiently French, Italian, or Moldovan. Verbal pathologies like these are surprisingly common and generally picked up in childhood. Chances are that you suffer from more than one of them. Your doctor may be kind enough to offer a list of diagnostic alternatives. Choose one based on the deficiency you most want corrected.

Depending on your diagnosis, the procedure will vary in degree of invasiveness and unpleasantness, as well as recovery time. Correction of Francopenia, for example, falls on the relatively pleasanter side of things, entailing the intentional surgical deviation of the septum (assuring a nasal affect) and three weeks of intensive tube feeding on cream-based sauces, butter-cooked gastropods, and (naturellement!) pâté de foie gras. At-home recovery involves a month-long immersion in the music of Serge Gainsbourg and the dueling filmographies of Truffaut and Godard.

If, however, you are ill-starred enough to suffer from Russopenia (sounding insufficiently Russian), expect something more trying. Pre-surgical prep requires three months subsistence on a liquid diet of second-quality vodka and smoked tea. Then your abdomen is opened and stuffed with beets while your liver is removed, marinated in more vodka, and laid open to the abuse of a bare-fisted Cossack boxer who pummels it for three successive days. The poor defeated organ is finally set on fire and doused with sooty Moscow snow before being replaced. Successful treatment of Russopenia may reduce your life expectancy by one third.

There are other pathological possibilities. My wife, for instance, suffers from a condition not listed in any diagnostic manual: she’s often mistaken for being foreign though she has no accent at all. She seems to give off a sort of audio displacement field that steals brief snippets of verbal output from conversations no doubt occurring, in real time, on other continents. Or it may be that she’s perfectly well but those mistaking her for a foreigner (grocery store employees, mostly) suffer from a disorder that makes them hear accents where there are none.

He may blush at my sharing it, but as a kid my brother had a bad case of Logorrhea. Our parents never brought him in for a syllabectomy; I suppose they hoped he’d grow out of it. Anyway, it’s a fairly common condition, as you’ll know if you’ve ever taken public transport or watched a televised presidential debate. Poor little guy. Classmates were always quoting Run DMC at him (“You talk too much, homeboy, you never shut up”), and the fact that he had a voice like Linus from Peanuts didn’t help things. I admit that I was a talky kid too, but my brother’s verbal incontinence was truly astounding: morning to night his whole day was one long messy vowel movement.


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From the Desk of Answer Man: Fickle Favorites

Dear Answer Man:

I am in fourth grade, which sucks. The other kids at school are always asking me about my favorite food, favorite color, or favorite brand of sneaker. The problem is that I can never make up my mind. Sometimes I want to eat tacos all day, other days I can’t live without pizza. Some days I like blue and other days red. And once I went to school with a Nike on one foot and a Converse on the other – by accident! I’m in big trouble. Who am I anyway?

~ Tommy Thomas, Age 9

Dear Tommy,

I’m convinced that if Socrates were alive today he would spend all his time at the mall. That’s what it means to live the examined life anymore: to be obsessed with your own consumer choices. So, my fickle young philosopher, you do have a problem, but it’s not that you can’t make up your mind. It’s that your inability to make up your mind bothers you so much. Three thoughts to buck you up:

Fickleness is a hedge against tedium. How boring would it be if you were forced to make a once-and-for-all choice between Mexican and Italian food? Not even Mexicans and Italians want Mexican and Italian for dinner every blessed night.

Fickleness is proof that you’re not dead. Trust me, the day will come when you’ll feel like proof is necessary. But cheer up, consistency is the last thing you should expect from yourself. And I mean that literally: it is the very last thing. Only the dead are consistent.

Fickleness is infinite power. It’s the power of self-definition, first of all. It was Feuerbach or Brillat-Savarin who said it first: ‘you are what you consume.’ There you have the answer to the existential yelp at the end of your letter: Today you are a boy who likes tacos and red and Nikes. Tomorrow you will be a boy who likes pizza and blue and Converse. You can be a different person each day. When you’re a little older and get a job you’ll find that all these various selves are required to share a single bank account, which gets a little crowded, but that’s why credit was invented. Because fickleness is economic power too. As an adult, marketing executives that earn more in a year than you will in ten are going to line up to lick your boots for a buck. Really. Whole industries will rise and fall by your sovereign dime. If it weren’t for your philosophical compulsion to constantly redefine yourself in consumer terms, Tom-Tom, the world economy would collapse – we’d all be dressed in rat skins, eating boiled grass and mashed acorns, and licking salt from the walls of slug-infested caves.

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Defeated by Televangelism

It would surprise anyone that met him in the street, because he doesn’t look the part, but my father-in-law is a television evangelist. The man’s enthusiasm for video entertainment is so great – he considers it so necessary to his own beatitude – that he can’t imagine others don’t feel the same need for it in their heart of hearts. Now, the fact is that my wife and I have been a great disappointment to him in this regard. We neither subscribe to cable nor use a dish. What’s worse, when the nation’s broadcasters  switched their signals from analog to digital a couple years ago, we never bothered to get a converter box. We tossed out the rabbit-ears and let our home and ourselves – and our children – lapse blithely into a state of unregenerate Cimmerian darkness.

In my father-in-law’s eyes, this was intolerable. Our salvation was at stake. Twice he invaded our home (where we still kept a television) to install digital converters and antennae. Twice we graciously returned them, ostensibly because the reception was spotty or because we didn’t want the massive electric antlers on such prominent display. This past weekend, however, the wily apostle out-foxed us. While my wife was at the grocery store and I was sick in bed, he sneaked over and, to our children’s great delight, installed a high-end digital antenna that fits discretely behind the screen and guarantees us thirty or so different broadcast channels. At least half of them are in Chinese or Spanish, with another quarter in Vietnamese, Tagalog, Hindi or Bengali. But it still makes a domestic revolution.

I wasn’t always such a doubter. Like my wife, I was raised in the faith. In my childhood home the television was switched on practically all the time. It slept when we slept and woke when we woke and was by far the most voluble and conversationally reliable member of the family. I don’t regret it. What would any late-‘70s/early-‘80s childhood be without afternoon reruns of Andy Griffith, My Three Sons, I Love Lucy, Gomer Pyle, The Brady Bunch, and Gilligan’s Island? What kind of miserable degenerate would I be today if it weren’t for Good Times, The Jeffersons, The Facts of Life, Diff’rent Strokes, Three’s Company, Donohue, Geraldo, Silver Spoons, Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Solid Gold, Alf, or (glory of glories) Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom?

A few years ago I might have summoned enough righteous bluster to refuse the gifts my father-in-law is hell-bent on bestowing, but the fact is that my Luddism these days is more a matter of habit than principle. Let us have a little of the old leaven, I say. As for the children, we’ve restricted screen-time up till now and can still do so. We’ll stick, for the most part, to PBS and reruns.  Some of the old shows are still on. Just the other night our kids decided they’d never seen anything as wonderful as a 1970s episode of Lawrence Welk: the ladies in their confectionary makeup and Day-Glo dresses, the men with permed hair and painted-on smiles. So let the children praise their grandfather as a savior bringing fire from heaven. Like Julian the Apostate on his imperial deathbed, I concede with a shrug: ‘Galilean, thou hast conquered.’


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From the Desk of Answer Man: New Year’s Resolutions

Dear Answer Man,

All my friends are making New Year’s resolutions. Where did this custom come from? Have you made any resolutions for the new year?

Sincerely, Maura Less

Miss Less,

Contrary to vulgar belief, New Year’s resolutions were invented (by a royal of Denmark, I think) to provide you and me with a convenient excuse NOT to do something – or, as the case may be, not to not do something, which in practice means to do something that you wanted to do all along. Think about it. If you’re only held to account once a year, it’s easy enough to blow it in the first few days. You’ve resolved to eat no chocolate this year? Oops, it’s the sixth of January and you just ate a delicious chocolate chip cookie which you baked by accident. Don’t worry, there’s always next year. It’s only 359 days away.

See how that works?

Well, that’s one way of answering your question. Here’s another: New Year’s resolutions were invented to guarantee us the pleasure of failure at least once per annum. Because, really, failure is a species of pleasure, quite different from success, and more acute and satisfying the more our failure is total. This explains why it’s a good idea to set yourself a high goal when crafting a New Year’s resolution. Make it, in fact, a stratospherically lofty goal.

Which brings us to your second question, about my own resolutions. As I informed my wife on New Year’s Eve (after a couple gins), my original New Year’s resolution for 2011 was: ‘To have sex with all my favorite Hollywood stars.’

She laughed at this.

It occurred to me while shaving next morning that she probably thought I was making it too hard on myself. I considered myself in the mirror for several minutes. Yes, I decided, she’s right: I am a handsome devil. I wasn’t setting myself an ambitious enough goal for the year. I was far too likely to succeed and would inevitably find myself at year’s end without the toe curling pleasure of the failure I desired. What a thoughtful, supportive wife.

‘Darling,’ I said over a late brunch of eggs and coffee, ‘you were right to laugh at my resolution last night. To sleep with all of my favorite Hollywood stars! What was I thinking? But I’ve thought better now and made a revision. Here it is. Over the course of the next twelve months, I hereby resolve (inshallah) to politely – but firmly – decline sexual overtures from all my favorite Hollywood stars.’

I tell you, Miss Less, I’m already in ecstasies over my certain failure this year.


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Hic Bibitur

This past weekend in Petaluma, north of San Francisco, the wife and kids and I encountered the monument above, erected by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, as it says, in 1891.  Sprouting from the top of the granite block (not easily seen here) is a water fountain.  Drink if thirsty, the grim message goes, but only water – forever.

That was a hell narrowly avoided, wasn’t it?  Personally, I find that such relics of militant sobriety inspire me with a boundless gratitude and admiration for our irreformable human nature.  And a sick, sick craving for a gin and tonic.

H.L. Mencken, in the fourth series of his Prejudices (1924), reminds us that “all the great villainies of history have been perpetrated by sober men, and chiefly by teetotalers.”  Conversely, he says, all pleasant and ennobling products of human culture have their origin in booze.  What we need in order to be better persons, generally, is more alcohol rather than less.  If we want to love our neighbor, lead happy lives, and be peaceful and decent citizens, then we ought to live (he says) in a middling state of perpetual tipsiness:

I am well aware that getting the whole human race stewed and keeping it stewed, year in and year out, would present formidable technical difficulties… On the one hand there would be the constant danger that large minorities might occasionally become cold sober, and so start wars, theological disputes, moral reforms, and other such unpleasantnesses.  On the other hand, there would be danger that other minorities might proceed to actual intoxication, and so annoy us all with their fatuous bawling or maudlin tears.  But such technical obstacles, of course, are by no means insurmountable.  Perhaps they might be got around by abandoning the administration of alcohol per ora and distributing it instead by impregnating the air with it.  I throw out the suggestion and pass on.

Reading this again last night a cartoon light bulb flashed in my head and I thought of a passage marked in my copy of Flann O’Brien’s The Best of Myles.  I don’t know if it’s a case of great minds thinking alike or if O’Brien (writing somewhat later) took inspiration from Mencken.  In any case, O’Brien’s ‘Myles na gCopaleen Research Bureau’ turns out a truly novel method of imbibing:

It is provisionally called ‘Trink’ and looks for all the world like the ordinary black ink you can buy for twopence.  ‘Trink’, however, is a very special job.  When put on paper and dried it emits a subtle alcoholic vapour which will hang over the document in an invisible odorless cloud for several days.  A person perusing such a document is surrounded by this cloud.  The vapour is drawn in with the breath, condenses in the mucous tract, gradually finds its way to the stomach and is absorbed in the blood.  Intoxication ensues, mild or acute, according to how much reading is done…

We are not yet at the stage when we can risk printing the Irish Times with it, but the other day we decided to use it for one or two posters intended for the country.  The results, noted by our own plain-clothes narks who were on the spot, were quite satisfactory.  A few people on their way to work in a certain town paused for a moment to spell out the placard (our educational system is weak remember) and to reflect for a moment on the news.  The news was bad, as usual, but the parties taking it in experienced a strange feeling of elation and well-being.  They went on their way rejoicing and one of them, a staid school master, went into his class and straightway led them in a raucous rendering of ‘Alexander’s Rag-time Band’, bashing out the time on his desk with a pointer.

That’s a long quote, I know, but really I couldn’t help it.  Intoxication, “mild or acute, according to how much reading is done” pretty well sums up my own response to O’Brien, and Mencken too.  No doubt my copies were printed in Trink.

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From the Desk of Answer Man

Believe it or not, I am sometimes asked my opinion on serious topics of the day. Really I am. People the world over flood my inbox with the most surprising questions. Some, for example, want to know if I’m ready to become a multi-millionaire through some sort of fancy bank transfer. Others ask me how much I’m willing to spend for a genuine gold-plated Rolex.  Still others want to know if my manly vigor is flagging or if my wife is “getting all that she deserves” from me. These are excellent questions which I hope to answer someday. But not today. There are more pressing things to consider.

 ‘What makes someone an intellectual, and can I be one?’

By asking the question you’ve probably disqualified yourself. An intellectual is first of all someone who already knows himself to be an intellectual, or secretly suspects it. He never asks confirmation from others because it’s his own imprimatur that counts.  Besides, it’s not fashionable to be an intellectual anymore. Being an intellectual is something like being a “goddamned idiot” or a “two-bit whore” – that is, one is called an intellectual by others but does not set up shop as an intellectual on one’s own.

 ‘That’s not quite what I meant…’

I hope you’re not confusing an intellectual with an academic. Several of my friends and family members are academics. Somewhat fewer are intellectuals, if you ask me. At least we’re on too friendly terms for me to call them that to their faces. The Academy in its wisdom does not concern itself with producing intellects. Pillar of the economy that it is, it’s main duty is to prop up the acronym industry – which, as we all know, is too big to fail.

 ‘All right then. What makes someone an artist, and can I be one?’

But darling, you already are. The Spirit of Universal Affirmation, whom we adore, insists upon it that we each possess “the soul of an artist.” The trick is to match it with the body of one. That’s what cosmetic surgery is for.

 ‘What makes someone a philosopher, and can I be one?’

Philosophia (if you’ll indulge me in a little etymology) is borrowed from the wily Greeks and means the love of appearing wise. With the exception of numerous celebrities and politicians who make their living by a public show of folly, every Jack and Jill from here to Hudson Bay wants to be thought wise (but not an intellectual!). So, you’re in luck; it’s nothing difficult. If you want to seem wise, then you are a philosopher.

 ‘Last question. What makes someone a poet, and can I be one?’

To be honest, I was winging it with those other questions. But this one I think I’ve got a better grip on. Poetification is the process of compression and shrinkage by which an admirer of Edgar Allen Poe is turned little by little into a scale model of the great man himself: a Poe-et. That’s one definition. Here’s another: a poet is a lesbian, or sometimes a suicide. If you find yourself a lesbian or dead by your own hand, rejoice: you are a poet. Be careful, however, not to confuse a poet with a poetaster, the latter being no poet in his own right but a mere cannibal of poets.


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The Trouble with the World Explained

The trouble with the world today (in case you want to know) is that you can’t tell the crazies from the passably sane. You’ve noticed this if you spend any time in a grocery store. It used to be that a prowler among the produce who talked to himself, debated invisible adversaries, or professed love in the direction of the cauliflower was immediately understood to be off his rocker. You pretended not to notice; you casually left that person’s vicinity. All was well with the world.  

Nowadays, however, you step closer. You look twice, three times. Is he talking on a mobile phone? Look again, around his ears; he may be wearing a hands-free device. Like Alice, you don’t want to go among mad people, but you want to know what you’re dealing with.  Just a little reassurance. Nothing on the left ear; check the other. He certainly seems to feel strongly about something or other, doesn’t he? But, ah! There it is, see! That thingy curled up on top of his right ear. What a relief. -Excuse me? No, no problem at all, mister. No – that won’t be necessary. Have a nice day!

The effect of technology on society is to proliferate symptoms of schizophrenia. Even non-adopters breathe it in like second-hand smoke. I remember the first time I saw someone talking on a cell phone with a hands-free device in a grocery store. Not badly dressed for a crazy, I thought. When I realized what he was doing, I could hardly believe it. I stood laughing in the dairy section, like a crazy person, for a full five minutes. What a clown, I said to myself. Doesn’t he know everyone will take him for a lunatic? That’ll never catch on!

It’s worth observing that despite the broad use of such technologies today, the average number of grocery store soliloquists encountered in any given week hasn’t much changed. One might have expected otherwise. What’s the meaning of it, I wonder? Could it be that there are fewer crazy people around than there used to be? That seems unlikely. Maybe they’re getting better drugs. Or maybe, since insanity is traditionally expressed by behavior counter to social norms, the crazies these days are the ones going quietly about their business.


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The Semiotics of Cat Swatting

Cats, it appears, are always being batted at by broom-wielding matrons in old cartoons and fairy tale illustrations.  They have presumably done something to deserve it, or else the matrons in question, cheated of careers in hockey or golf, are re-capturing the glory of young girlhood at the expense of their domestic animals.  Roughly sketched, those always seemed to me the two interpretive possibilities. 

Now, however, I stumble on a third.  No sooner have I picked up the broom and begun sweeping the kitchen floor in the evening than our cat, from whatever corner she was dozing in, infallibly appears and puts herself directly in the way.  She has not, to my knowledge, been naughty; and I never cared for golf or hockey.  Nonetheless, I am instantly transformed into a crotchety matron (patron?) launching kitty from the kitchen.

This happens too often to be mere coincidence, and so I wonder if the old image of the cat getting batted with a broom is not, after all, a symbol of household transgression receiving its just reward, or of swatter’s regret for missed chances at sports stardom.  Maybe, instead, it’s a revelation of some unguessed perversity of feline nature: Maybe cats just like a good spanking now and then.


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The Tropic of Taqueria

Patrick Kurp notes a “culinary disappointment” during his recent trip to Portland: the inconvenient closure of the local taquerias.  I can sympathize.  I don’t know Mr Kurp but I used to live in Seattle, not far from where he lives now, and I can assure you that there is no such thing as authentic Mexican food in Washington State.  I’m surprised to hear that it may exist in Oregon, but Kurp once lived in Houston so he ought to know what he’s after.

Predictably, the Mexican food improves the farther one travels down the west coast of the United States.  From San Francisco southward is a golden territory.  The 38th parallel, as I imagine it, marks an invisible Tropic of Taqueria, roughly coinciding with the historical frontier of Spanish and Mexican settlement.  Our relocation to California six years ago was full of gastronomic consolations (local wine, year-round farmers’ markets, fresh artichoke and avocado, etc.) but easy access to real Mexican food was perhaps the most consoling.

A personal favorite is Taqueria La Bamba in Mountain View, not far from the campus of a certain Internet Goliath I will not name.  Their al pastor and carnitas (crisped at the edge and tender inside) are tasty perfections.  Also recommended are the Salvadoran pupusas, thick corn tortillas stuffed with pork or cheese and eaten with curtido, a fermented cabbage and onion relish.  Wash it all down with a glass of sweet horchata to put out the fire.  At La Bamba, a taco will set you back a negligible $1.85.

A more recent discovery is Victor’s, not far from my office in San Francisco.  While their al pastor failed to impress, the carnitas and sopes have been praised in my hearing.  The chief reason to eat here, however, seems to be the saucy compliments (and I don’t mean the salsa).  At Victor’s you get to hear yourself called “guapo” (handsome) at least a half dozen times by the motherly ladies behind the counter.  “Hola, guapo!”  “What’s it going to be today, guapo?”  “Hasta, guapo!”  This is what Victor’s is known for.  To judge by my receipt ($4 for a single taco), the special treatment comes at a premium.

Photo credit: Flickr user mrjoro


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The Virgilian Lots

My wife asked what I was doing with the dice.  “Divination,” I said.

On the train coming home from San Francisco yesterday I read the portion of Rabelais’ third book in which Panurge begins to wonder if he should marry.  Pantagruel suggests he test his fortune by the Virgilian Lots.  “Bring me the works of Virgil,” he says. “If you open it three times at random, and on the page that your finger strikes read the lines whose number we have agreed on, then we can explore your future as a husband.”

Having already given my soul to the devil by playing with a Ouija board (age eight) and chanting “I believe in Bloody Mary” before a mirror in a dark room (age nine), I thought I might as well try the Virgilian Lots.  I had no specific question to pose.  It’s been eleven years since the wedding bells rang for me, so Panurge’s problem isn’t mine.  But I thought I might simply present myself, in the form of a question mark, for the general sentence of the oracle.

Following the example of Pantagruel and Panurge, I took my copy of the Aeneid from the shelf, the Robert Fitzgerald translation.  I ransacked the game closet and found some dice.  I saw there were about thirty lines on each page of my copy of the Aeneid, so I rolled five times and added up the results: 14.  In order to avoid garbled prophecies, I decided that if the fourteenth line on the page weren’t a complete sentence I would instead take the whole sentence of which it was a part for my answer.

I opened the book at random.  My first trial landed me on the following lines from Book IV:

Why will he not allow my prayers to fall
On his unpitying ears?

I’m not sure what to do with this.  The words are Dido’s.  Should I put myself in her place?  Am I the one whose prayers go unanswered?  Or am I playing Aeneas to someone else’s Dido and being pitiless and unsympathetic?  Maybe, I thought, my second trial will help clarify things.  I found myself, then, in Book X, with these lines:

Either you stay here for the carrion birds
Or the sea takes you under, hungry fishes
Nibble your wounds.

A dilemma.  I think that, given the choice, I would rather be nibbled by fishes.  Prometheus is famously pecked at by birds, but I imagine he’s bad company.  Under the waves I could hobnob with Milton’s school pal, Edward ‘Lycidas’ King.  He’s sure to have some dish on the old poet.  How any of this relates to falling prayers and unpitying ears, I don’t know. But my last trial brought me the following lines from Book II:

………………And out we go in joy
To see the Dorian campsites, all deserted,
The beach they left behind.

This sounds more encouraging.  My enemies have decamped.  I am alive, though Troy is fallen.  Were my prayers finally answered?  Will I pass unscathed through the jaws of Dilemma like Odysseus through the monstery Strait of Messina?  Encouraging, maybe, but still unsatisfying.

As a child I knew people who used the Bible for divination.  Peter De Vries describes the phenomenon in The Blood of the Lamb.  You start by holding the book up with its spine resting on the table.  Then you quickly remove your hands and let it fall open and with eyes closed point a finger randomly at the page.  Whatever question you had put to God, the answer was in that verse.  (“Moab is my washpot” was the omniscient reply in the De Vries book.)  I wonder how long people have been using books this way, whether the Bible or Virgil or the I Ching, or whatever?

So much for my experiment with the Virgilian Lots.  As one comes to expect with oracles, the answers I was given were as doubtful as the question I had posed, which was myself.  Perhaps I’ll try it again in the future with something other than the Aeneid, something more playful.  Maybe Breakfast of Champions or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.


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