POEM: My Theory on the Long Shadow of Hitler’s Mustache

People once saw in it great panache,
but Hitler killed the toothbrush mustache.

Now no one would dare to wear it.

Except that groundskeeper from Magnum P.I.

who turned out to be the mysterious millionaire.

Maybe, his wealth was Nazi gold?

But that isn’t my theory of the long shadow of Hitler’s mustache.

My theory is that when the short mustache comes back in fashion,
great evil will sit upon our doorstep.

For it is more than a choice of facial hair,
it’s a barometer of remembrance
that lacks an indicator of the half-life
of evil’s stain upon our collective consciousness.



Or, maybe, it just looks stupid on your face.
As if you made a dreadful razor error
and tried to play it off as a plan
through use of symmetry.



In which case, someone should be charting
the rate of application for name change by
Hitlers, Himmlers, Goebbels, and Görings.

An Introvert’s Poem

Please don’t take this the wrong way,
but I wish you existed fewer hours per day.
 
It’s not that I don’t like your company.
 
It’s just that I wish your dosage were smaller.
It’s not like I wish you thinner, prettier, or taller,
 
I just wish there were less of you — temporally speaking.

POEM: Dad’s Strange Lexicon

My father had a strange lexicon.

In second grade, we were playing a word-guessing game like the game show Password (if it were in a classroom of spastic 2nd graders.)

The word was: “BARN.”

I offered the clue: “HAYMOW.”

You can imagine the puzzlement in a classroom of mostly “city” kids raised on Richard Scarry vocabularies. I almost got beat up when my team — the losing team — decrypted my clue into “hayloft,” a clue that would’ve easily won the game.

Our house had a DOG-TROT. I know it was toward the middle of the house, but have no idea what its defining characteristic might have been. I do know that I never saw a single dog trot through the middle of our house because of the policy of “Outside for Animals – Inside for Humans” that reined in our household, except when a wily field mouse snuck in through the basement or a wood duck — distinctly lacking wiles — snuck its way down the chimney and into the wood stove.

I was told, with great conviction, that a “HAN-YAK” was second cousin to a “POT-LICKER.” As a child, I missed that these were terms of derision, and — I fear — I may have hung a slander upon my cousins by licking some marinara off the lip of a piece of cookware once upon a time.

POEM: Running

Botswanans have a saying:
“only food runs”

I wonder how much that sentiment holds sway in India?

Because, as I was running in the park today
a man looked at me
and then looked back behind me
and then looked at me
and then looked back behind me

and then, smiling, he shouted something in Kananda
that could only have been:
“Whatever was chasing you is gone!”

A Conversation of Mutual Disenchantment

“I remember being born.”

“No. You don’t.”

“How would you know?”

“Well, let’s start from the assumption that you’re human…”

“I’d like to think so, but what are my options?”

“I don’t know. Humans don’t have that neural machinery at birth… So nothing from Earth remembers its birth.”

“And yet, I do.”

“Mightn’t you have cobbled together the scene from your mom’s stories, the family photo album, et cetera?”

“Nah! It’s too detailed. Feels too real.”

“I find your ignorance exhausting.”

“I find your certainty perplexing — not to mention irritating and slap-worthy.”

“Let’s agree to be mutually disenchanted.”

“Agreed.”

POEM: Foisted, or: Bizarro Liam Neeson

He fancied himself a Bryan Mills

as played by Liam Neeson in “Taken”

only the Bizarro World version.

For he had no particular set of skills

[least-wise not as applicable to his situation]

&

instead of having had a child taken

he’d had one foisted upon him.

 

While this didn’t fill his every waking moment with violence

in a fight to recover the child

it did fill them all with chaos and occasional contusions

in the struggle to flee the bedlam.

 

And so, in that sense, they were practically twins.

BOOK REVIEW: A Brief History of Vice by Robert Evans

A Brief History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built CivilizationA Brief History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built Civilization by Robert Evans
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book’s title and subtitle suggest its central theme, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. As the title suggests, drugs, sex, and sundry bad behavior aren’t just the abhorrent actions of a marginalized few who society seeks to reign in. In some cases, culture and civilization are built on said behaviors. Evans devotes a fair amount of space to discussing research on vices’s role in the growth of civilization. These hypotheses and theories run a gamut from the non-controversial and well-established to more sweeping claims such as that the agricultural revolution was largely driven by the dictates of beer production (i.e. both the need to produce a lot of grain and to be homebodies through the fermentation process) and that the dawn of religion may be linked to the ingestion of mushrooms of the magic variety. Despite the book’s light and humorous tone, it should be noted that the author treats the latter type of claims with the requisite skepticism.

But this isn’t just a book of history, anthropology, and evolutionary biology as pertains to the origins of vice and its linkage to civilization and culture; it also offers humorous anecdotes of the author’s experiments into how to replicate some of the vices of the ancients – as well as offering step-by-step directions for readers to conduct their own such investigations. As might be expected, there’s a lot of humor in the book. Just the idea of debauchery building civilization offers plenty of opportunity for the subversion of expectations that makes comedy, but then one adds in stories of people (and occasionally other species) making decisions under the influence of mind and mood altering substances (or even under the influence of horniness) and one enters territory ripe for hilarity.

The book consists of 15 chapters that cover both expected and unexpected topics. Not surprisingly, discussion of drugs – legal and illicit — takes up a large portion of the book. [I should make clear that the discussion of illegal substances is purely historical, and the “how-to” sections describe “experiments” that were legal in the author’s jurisdiction and that will be for most readers.] Ten chapters are about various consciousness and mood altering substances including: alcohol (ch. 1 & 4), psychedelic substances (ch. 7, 8, and 10), tobacco and marijuana (ch. 9; treated together because historically they had more in common than in their modern use / legal status), the ephedra shrub and derived products ranging from Mormon tea to Methamphetamine (ch. 11), coffee and caffeine (ch. 12), designer drugs ranging from ayahuasca [made from two different plants that don’t live together and which only work when used together] through pain killers and on to the dangerous scourge of synthesized substances created in labs to get around drug laws for a few days until they will be added to the schedule of illegal substances.) The final chapter (ch. 15) is devoted to the search for the mythical salamander brandy of Slovenia (claimed to have hallucinogenic qualities owing to a toxin emitted by the submerged reptile.) I should point out that I have oversimplified with this division of chapters for simplicity’s sake. Some of the chapters dealt with more than one type of substance. For example, Chapter 10 is really about drug cultures and how they kept people safe in, for example, shamanic tribal societies, and how the loss of such culture is part of the reason we have a more severe problem with substances in modern society.

No investigation into the role of vice on civilization would be complete without discussing sex, though there are only two chapters about it. The first, chapter 6, discusses prostitution / sex work. There’s a widespread tongue-in-cheek reference to “the world’s oldest profession” that hints that sex work is both ancient and that past civilizations sometimes viewed these activities in a much different light than do we in modern, Western society. The second chapter on sex, chapter 13, addresses a different question altogether, but one which has captured the attention of many a scholar (as well as being fruitful territory for humorists), and that’s why there’s such a vast range of sexually titillating activities. It’s not difficult to figure out the evolutionary advantage of extreme pleasure being linked to sexual intercourse. However, it’s much less clear why there are such a huge range of fetish behaviors that are intensely arousing for some while ranging from being boring to disgusting for others. [It’s not cleared up by thinking that there is just a tiny fraction of the population that is into everything. A person who gets excited by wearing a head-to-toe rubber suit while being failed with a halibut might find a foot fetish utterly disgusting.]

For those who are counting, that leaves three chapters on miscellaneous forms of vice. Chapter 2 discusses music, particularly as a lubricant of social activities, and it presents an intriguing theory that Stonehenge may have been built for its acoustic qualities – i.e. to facilitate ancient raves. Chapter 3 explores celebrity worship, an activity which we tend to think of as both recent and as harbinger of doom for humanity, but which actually has a long history – so long that it may date back further than humanity, itself, does. That leaves chapter five, which delves into a grab-bag of bad habits that would today be collectively labeled “douchiness.” This includes narcissism, inexplicable overconfidence, and a tendency toward lying, bragging, and delusions about self or others.

The book has a range of graphics from photographs to diagrams. Some are for educational purposes (e.g. to help the reader conduct their own experiments) and some are mostly for comedic effect. The “side-bar” discussions of how to reproduced the results of the ancients (and the author, himself) are presented in text-boxes for the sake of clarity. There are one or two of these text-boxes in most chapters. As mentioned, the subjects for these “hands-on” activities are chosen to avoid running afoul of the law.

I enjoyed this book. It’s at once amusing and thought-provoking. I think the author hits a nice medium between doling out humor and educating the reader. I’d recommend reading it (though not necessarily conducting every one of the experiments) for anyone who finds the subject intriguing.

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BOOK REVIEW: Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman

Up the Down StaircaseUp the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is a humorous novel about a rookie teacher’s first year in a New York City public school with all the frustrations and victories that experience entails. It’s an epistolary novel – meaning it’s conveyed through a series of documents. Some of the humor is of a “kids say the darndest things” nature – though these are high school students, so the humor isn’t so much born of naiveté as it is a combination of teenage snarkiness and a maddening ignorance of concepts that students should have grasped by that age (i.e. laugh so you don’t cry style humor.) The humor from kids is largely conveyed by students’ comments in the teacher’s comment box as well as via homework assignments.

There’s a second kind of humor in the form of bureaucratic absurdism. Bureaucratic wrangling and lack of resources cause most of the protagonist’s frustrations. This humor is largely conveyed through memos – some school-wide and some specifically to the protagonist, Sylvia Barrett. Barrett also commiserates with her co-workers, and we see some of her frustration playing out through the post-it note equivalent of water-cooler conversations.

The epistolary form offers a challenging format for both character development and story presentation. However, the novel is strong on character development. It achieves this in large part by mixing long-form letters to a close friend with the short memos and comment box entries. The reader gets to see events unfold and responses by way of different documents. The longer letters give us some depth of feeling. There is even a point where Barrett is being swamped by correspondence and we hear nothing back from her, and in this we can feel the degree to which she is overwhelmed.

The book isn’t story-centric. However, there is a narrative arc that revolves around the question of whether Barrett will stay on at the public high school or move on to teach at a liberal arts college. She is torn because she feels she can do good at the public high school and that would be satisfying, but at the same time she is bureaucratically frustrated and demoralized by perceived failures. There are dramatic events here and there to elevate the tension from the run-of-the-mill school events, but not so much that the book ever moves away from feeling like the real experience of a rookie teacher.

The book uses drawings here and there, usually presented as student doodles, to add to the humor.

I enjoyed this book, finding it to be both humorous and illuminating. I would highly recommend it for those interested in the challenges of secondary education or who can appreciate the [bittersweet] humor of it.

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