Wednesday, July 27

Dangerous Books

I see fundamentalists are complaining about Harry Potter again. This happens every time a new Potter appears. The claim is that there are several scriptural proscriptions against wizards, unicorns and flying broomsticks. Some groups are planning book burnings or, if denied a fire permit, book stompings.

It is easy to make fun of these groups, but they appear to be sincere. In fact I have no argument with their position. They are free to believe as they wish and burn whatever they want within the confines of municipal fire codes. Isn't that what America is all about?

Quite frankly, though, I think by picking on such an innocuous target as Harry Potter they are just making it more difficult to act when a real problem appears.

For example I was browsing through a newly opened children's bookstore the other day when I noticed a slender volume called "Hey, Kids! Let's Worship At The Feet Of Satan" on a shelf near the door. When I pointed out to the clerk, who was sitting at the counter busily stuffing envelopes, that I didn't think this was appropriate reading material for children he gave me a scornful look. "Ever heard of the First Amendment, buddy?", he said, putting a letter into an envelope.

"I believe in the First Amendment as much as anyone. I just don't think children should be exposed to a book called 'Hey, Kids! Let’s Worship At The Feet Of Satan' or, well, this one right here on the counter - 'Beelzebub And The Blustery Day'".

"That's not for me or you to say", he hissed as he quickly wrote an address on the envelope. I think it was 666 something. "What are you? Some kind of fanatic?"

"I don't have to be a fanatic to know that a child shouldn't be reading books called - look at these, stacked right here on the floor - 'Demons, Demons, And More Demons' or 'Lucifer Has Two Minions'."

"Well, there's nothing you can do about it, pal", he said, quickly licking the envelope with an extremely long and remarkably flexible tongue. He shifted slightly on his stool, as if he had been sitting on something uncomfortable and looked up with bloodshot eyes. "Is there?"

"Nope, nothing I can do about that", I said backing slowly away, trying to decide if his tongue was actually forked or was that just a trick of the light. "Nothing at all I can do about that." I turned and half-ran out to the street and didn't stop until I was several blocks away. I didn't sleep well that night.

When I walked by the next day it looked like the store had gone out of business. If it had ever been in business at all. The door was secured with a rusty padlock and the windows had accumulated what seemed to me to be much more that 24 hours worth of dust.

I'm sure there must be an explanation for all this, but it's much too mystical for me to figure out.

I mean, what do I look like? A wizard?

Monday, July 25

Party Problems

I was at a party recently when I saw my friend Mac talking with a fellow to whom he bore some resemblance.

“This is my brother,” said Mac.

“Wow,” I said, “He looks just like a younger version of you.”

“My older brother”, he continued.


This brought to mind the time I was at a party and asked a woman with a rather pronounced abdominal protrusion when her baby was due.

“I’m not pregnant”, she replied.


Then there was the party where I kept referring to the principal of my son’s school as “Colonel” because somehow I had gotten the idea that he had once held that rank in the military. It turned out he had never been in the military and, in fact, was a committed pacifist.


Obviously I have some issues here. As I see it I have only two choices. I either have to stop going to parties, or I can commit myself to making more intelligent conversational choices and giving crystallized, thoroughgoing examination to anything I am about to say.

There's no doubt about it. The choice is clear.

I'm going to miss those parties.

Friday, July 22

Ghoulish Weathermen

Is it just my imagination, or do TV weathermen become more ghoulish during hurricane season?

This thought came to mind this morning as I watched my local forecaster excitedly tell me that Tropical Storm Franklin was the sixth - SIXTH! - tropical storm of the season. "And," he gloated, "IT'S ONLY JULY!!!".

And what's with that name? Franklin? What kind of a name is that for a hurricane? Are they running out of names? For a long time hurricanes were always given feminine names. Who could ever forget hurricane Camille? Now they include masculine names too. They still talk about Hurricane Andrew. One year there was a Hurricane Georges - with an "s". Not that there's anything wrong with that.

If the Weather Service is running out of names for hurricanes, I have an idea for them. If baseball teams can name their stadia after corporations, why not name hurricanes after some of the finest companies the business communities have to offer? How about hurricane Enron? Or tropical storm Worldcom?

I guess that would be a bit redundant, thought. Naming a disaster after a disaster.

Tuesday, July 19

The Baby Gift

Despite the difficulty I have had in the past finding acceptable gifts for various occasions, I was given the task of purchasing a shower gift for a close family friend who is having her first baby.

I went to a place called, I believe, “Babies Is Here” or something like that. Apparently grammar is not a strong point in the prenatal mercantile trade.

My wife had thoughtfully provided me with a list of acceptable items. "I learned my lesson with 'The Skinner'", she'd said as she made out the list, referring to the hunting knife I had once sought to bestow upon a friend as a Bon Voyage present.

Holding my list I approached the young lady behind the counter and said, “I’m looking for a baby shower gift.”

“Is it for a boy or girl?” she asked.

“Well”, I smiled indulgently, “how would I know that? It hasn’t been born yet.”

“Oh”, she smiled even more indulgently, “they can tell”.

“Ah, yes”, I pontificated. “The wise and powerful gift of a women’s intuition…”

“Not intuition.” – the unexpressed epithet “stupid” hung in the air – “Sonogram.”

“Of course”, I said, as it were something I had known all along but only briefly forgotten. I repeated the word, as if savoring it's significance. “Sonogram." It sounded scientific, so I tried to cover my ignorance by adding, "I don't think they believe in that. They’re…” I tried to recall who it was that probably wouldn’t believe in science. “They’re Republicans.”

She warily bent down to study her computer terminal. "Is the mother-to-be registered?"

"Oh, she and the father-to-be both vote in every election." She paused and a heavy silence descended upon us. Finally I spoke up. "Primary and general," I explained.

"I mean is she registered for baby gifts?"

Clearly I was out of my league, now. I understood registering your car or registering your gun, even possibly registering your hunting knife if you were allowed to have one, but registering your baby gifts seemed like a pretty blatant invasion of privacy.

But as I saw her hand begin to edge ever so slightly toward the red security phone on the edge of the counter I determined that this was not the right time to get into that discussion.

I handed her my list. "Just anything on there will be fine," I said.

I ended up with a baby bottle warmer, a couple of hooded bath towels - one pink and one blue - and a monitoring device which would allow the parents to listen in on any private conversations their baby might have with other members of its cadre.

Might as well get used to it, kid. They've already registered your gifts.

Saturday, July 16

Northern White Males

I have my clock radio set to NPR even though for the first 15 minutes or so after it goes off I’m usually too stupid with sleep to understand a word they are saying. This morning, however, I swear I heard a reporter talking about the endangered Northern White Male. Since I am a member of this threatened community, this brought me half awake anyway.

Evidently one of the problems is that Northern White Males are having difficulty feeding their young. Now, I haven’t had a raise in over two years, but I can still feed my teenage son – just barely. If the price of pizza and hamburgers goes up it could get dicey. So I can sympathize with other Northern White Males having trouble making ends meet.

Then, through the gradually lifting fog of slumber, I heard the unsettling news that Northern White Males are on the verge of extinction, even though in days gone by they had been considered quite valuable - mainly because they're big, slow, and float after they are harpooned and killed.

When the reporter added that the biggest threat to Northern White Males consisted of being hit by ships, becoming entangled in fishing lines, and offshore pollution it occurred to my slowly focusing mind that perhaps I had made some kind of mistake. As the report went on it dawned on me that there must be more than the 300 Northern White Males the reporter said were left on earth, and, while the death of any man is a tragedy, losing Northern White Males at the rate of 8 a year doesn’t seem so bad.

After I woke up fully, I checked the NPR web site and found that the story had actually been about northern right whales (they got the name “right” because they were considered the "right" whale to kill in the 19th century – because of that post-harpoon floating thing).

Because of this experience I'm thinking that perhaps NPR requires too much thought first thing in the morning. Maybe I’ll switch my clock radio to a station that requires little thought but still generates enough noise to wake me up. Maybe talk radio.

I suppose you can call me ridiculous for all this. You can call me a fool, if you like. But, please, don't call me Ishmael.

Sunday, July 10

Kids and TV

A new study indicates that watching too much television may have an adverse effect not only on children but also on adults who watched too much TV when they were children. I find this study very suspect because it just so happens that I have watched a whole bunch of TV since I was real little and I don't think it has hurt me none.

The study found, for example, that children who have television sets in their rooms scored lower in math tests. But just what kind of math questions did they ask children who are devoted television viewers? Did they bother to ask how many episodes there were in "24"? Or how many children the family in "Eight Is Enough" had? Suppose each of those children appeared in each episode of "24". How many children would that be? I have no idea, but that's beside the point. What if "Two and a Half Men" were on "60 Minutes". How many minutes would that be? See, it's all in how the question is framed.

Another study, looking at 1,000 adults in New Zealand, found lower education levels among 26-year-olds who had watched lots of TV during childhood. Sure, I can see that.


What kind of television programming could they possibly have in New Zealand? "CSI:Auckland"? "Everybody Loves Kiwi"? Come on, what kind of a study of TV viewing is that?

Finally a study of 1,800 U.S. children found that those who watched more than three hours of television daily before age 3 scored worse on intelligence tests at ages 6 and 7 than youngsters who watched less TV. Excuse me, but how do you tell how much television a 3 year old is watching? Do you have them fill out a form or something? Just because you sit them in front of a TV doesn't mean they are watching it. If you sat them in front of a book for 3 hours a day would that mean they were reading it? Would their intelligence tests improve? If they didn't, would that mean reading is bad for kids?

And exactly how do you measure the intelligence of a 6 year old? I have a teenage boy and, College Board or no College Board, I doubt anyone has the ability to measure the intelligence of the typical 16 year old. Unless the answer to every question is “whatever”.

And anyone who is a regular reader of these posts must have wondered if there is any measurable intelligence in a 57 year old man.

So how do you accurately measure the intelligence of a 6 year old? Can Judy color inside the lines? Is Johnny able to recite “Mary Had A Little Lamb” by heart?

Well, Mister Big Time Scientific Education Tester, here is a question that any TV watching 6 year old can answer without thinking. Suppose the answer to this question would determine how intelligent you are. I’m just wondering how you do.

Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?

Thursday, July 7

Adventures in Camping

Over dinner the other night a young actor friend mentioned to my wife and I that he was going camping next month. This was not earth shaking news because he is quite the outdoorsman and it is not unusual for him to disappear into the Adirondacks for a week or ten days only to emerge looking like a well-tanned, highly photogenic version of Jed Clampett.

“I’ll be going to Patagonia for two weeks,” he said.

“Ah, Patagonia,” I replied wisely. “That’s in Pennsylvania, isn’t it?”

“No,” he beamed. “South America.”

“South America?” I asked, slightly concerned. "Isn’t that mostly jungle?”

“Not Jungle,” he said patiently. “Rain Forest.”

“Sorry. I didn’t know there had been a name change.”

Later that night my wife suggested that we get him a going away present, and I was assigned the task of finding something appropriate.

Next day at lunchtime I walked over to a nearby, somewhat old fashioned sporting goods store and trudged up the three flights of stairs to the camping department. I was tempted to make base camp on the second floor and carry on to the summit in the morning, but I had to be back in the office by two.

I usually only go to the sporting goods store to look at baseball equipment and dream of unfulfilled glory, so the camping department was unexplored territory for me. Also my only experience with the jungle – I mean rain forest – came from watching Tarzan when I was a boy, so finding a suitable gift was going to be a challenge.

A leathery skinned old man was behind the counter. “Hello”, I said. “I have a friend who is going camping in Patagonia and I wanted to get a little Bon Voyage present. What do you suggest?” He stared at me for a long time, opened his mouth to speak once or twice, and then stared some more. Finally he said, “Bon Voyage for a trip to the jungle?”

“Rain forest, actually.”

Looking back I suppose it might be considered by some an odd thing to give a going away present to someone about to embark on an expedition into the darkest recesses of the terra incognita. I don’t suppose anyone gave Dr. Livingston a going away present. Or Lewis and Clark. I probably could have asked the clerk about that. He looked old enough to have known Lewis and Clark.

After a few more minutes of silence I remembered Tarzan swinging through the trees with a knife in his mouth. "How about a knife?" I asked.

"Yep, we got knives right over here," he said and steered me to a glass case filled with ominous looking cutlery.

Unsure how to proceed I asked, "Er, do you have anything that could be comfortably held in the mouth?"

"Well," he said, scratching his head, "you usually want to hold it in your hand..."

"Well, of course you'd need to hold it in your hand when you are using it," I said, trying to sound informed. "But what do you do with it when you are, um, you know," here I sort of muttered, "swinging through the trees."

"I reckon you could hold it in your mouth under those circumstances," he said, suppressing a chuckle. "But you might consider a sheath instead."

"Ah, the sheath. Of course. I'm sure that's how some would do it."

I ended up getting a nice hunting knife, which he rather disconcertingly kept referring to as "The Skinner", and a buckskin sheath beautifully decorated with genuine Native American beadwork.

Of course my wife made me take it back the next day and exchange it for some insect repellant and 6 rolls of Charmin-To-Go. But for the afternoon just knowing I had the ol' "Skinner" tucked away safely in my brief case made me feel just like Tarzan, King of the, um, Rain Forest.

Tuesday, July 5


For my last birthday my wife gave me a small pair of binoculars. They fit easily into a coat pocket and are very handy for Broadway shows and for Yankee games where the upper deck seats that I favor (i.e. can afford) are located somewhere in the vicinity of the orbit of Pluto.

On July Fourth I decided to take my new binoculars with me when we went over by the river to watch the fireworks show. I know some people like to get there early to stake out a good viewing spot, but since we live within walking distance it's a more casual event for us. We usually wander over a few minutes before the scheduled start, meet up with some neighbors, and watch the fireworks from behind the heads of all the people who got there early. I invariably end up behind a tall man carrying a tall child on his shoulders. This is not as bad as, say, being in a movie theater seated behind a tall man with a tall child on his shoulders since fireworks spread out pretty far across the sky and if you don't see every single sparkle, well, that's good enough.

Unfortunately Nelson, my nemesis, was there. Nelson is one of those fellows who always have the latest, brightest, biggest, and fastest whatever it is you have the older, duller, smaller, and slower of. This evening he had a pair of binoculars that looked like something the Navy might use for observation at sea. The body must have been a foot long and the lenses were the size of cake plates. He was busy adjusting the focus and I quietly guided my wife past him so we wouldn't be noticed.

Several of the other couples greeted us as we settled in to watch the fireworks and I proudly pulled my new binoculars out of the pocket of my jacket.

"What have you got there, Jim?" I heard Nelson's booming voice. "Opera glasses?"

"No, Nelson, they're not opera glasses," I replied haughtily. Then, searching for an appropriate rejoinder, I ill advisedly chose, "They're more like bird watching glasses."

I believe I heard my wife groan, but I'm not sure.

Nelson made a great show of looking at the now completely black sky. "Not too many fowl out tonight, Jim. I'm afraid you're in for a disappointment." He slowly brought his binoculars to his eyes and looked into the empty sky. "Hey," he shouted, "I think I can see Pluto."

I refused to let this incident quell my enjoyment of the fireworks, and through my opera gla…--I mean binoculars -- got a perfectly good view of the rocket's red glare haloing around the back of some tall kids head.

And I believe I spotted a Great Horned Owl on the way home.

Sunday, July 3


I wandered into the shelter earlier than usual because I heard there might be shoes. "Sorry, no shoes today", said the man with the belligerent voice and sympathetic eyes. "Maybe next week." I looked down at the scuffed brown loafer on my left foot and the black high-top sneaker on my right. Yeah, they could last another week if I kept a lot of walking off my to-do list. I smiled at that. To-do list. Those were the days.

As I walked out I noticed a well-dressed man carrying a book. This was a good sign. People who read are frequently more generous than those who don’t.

“Hello, sir”, I began. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I have recently been released from prison and am in need of assistance.” I had never actually been to prison, but this was a well-tested gambit that often elicited a contribution.

The man, however, walked right past me. Undeterred, I scooted up behind him and tried How The Gulf War Had Really Messed Me Up, but he just walked faster. I increased my speed to keep up but when I started itemizing my health problems, the man broke into a run.

He moved pretty good for a big man and had about six steps on me before I put it into high gear. I caught him at the library steps, which the man had climbed two at a time. He was frantically yanking on the doorknob, and then turned around with a wild look in his eyes. I was afraid he was going to scream.

“It’s closed on Wednesdays”, I said. “Budgetary restraints.”

He nervously raised the book over his head, holding it like a club. “Not one step closer,” he said. “I don’t have any spare change no matter when you were released from prison or how long you were in The Gulf.” So! He had been listening after all. A warm feeling of satisfaction spread over me.

“Look, mister,” I said, “if you’re going to use a book as a weapon you’ll need something more substantial than ‘The Prophet’.”

He glanced up at the slender volume in his hand and lowered it until it hung limply at his side. “It was my wife’s, actually,” he murmured. “It’s a week overdue.” He looked at the little “closed Wed.” sign on the library door. “I guess her branch would be open today.”

“Most are,” I said. “The Donnell, Mid-Manhattan, Yorkville…”

“Yes, Yorkville. That’s hers.”

“Nice little library. Clean toilets.”

That reminded him of our respective stations in life. “Yes, well, I suppose I could try another branch.”

“I guess you don’t spend too much time at the library,” I said as he squeezed past me and gingerly walked down the stairs.

“No, my wife is – was – the reader in the family.” I followed him down to the sidewalk and walked along side of him. This time he didn’t speed up.

“She doesn’t read anymore?” I said.

“Oh, I’m sure she does. She's...we're not...we're...", he whispered the next word with awkward unfamiliarity, "...separated.” Then he smiled bitterly and looked at the copy of 'The Prophet'. "Yes, she was a reader, alright.”

“Mine, too,” I said.

“You have a wife?”

“Used to. Not anymore.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It happens.”

"Don't I know it."

He turned a corner and headed uptown, but I didn’t follow. “The Donnell is just 30 blocks. You can walk it in half an hour,” I called to him. “Thanks,” he called back. “I’ll just get a...” He trailed off and an uncomfortable look spread across his face when he realized he was talking to someone for whom a taxi might as well be the Space Shuttle. He started to say something, but a cab pulled up and he got in without comment.

I wandered past the library and back to the center where it turned out some shoes had come in after all. I got a nice pair of Oxfords that didn’t fit too badly (and at least matched) and some watery macaroni and cheese.

As I was leaving Mrs. McCarthy stopped me and said someone had left something for me. She handed me a library copy of ‘The Prophet”. Inside the front cover was a hundred dollar bill and a note. “Perhaps you can return this for me tomorrow and pay the fine. P.S. Keep the change.”