Me Week: Stuck in Ancient Greece


I love learning stuff. I always have. The world’s full of astounding things and who among us has been astounded too much? Occasionally, learning something fires my imagination in strange ways.

In November 2013, this led me to write Also, Heidegger Was A Shingle Weaver, as my love let me in on the absolutely unsecret point that Socrates had a job. And not an esoteric sort of job, rather, but the sort of job that any of us might have. Well, any of our fathers might have, since I’m from Generation X, and we don’t have jobs because Baby Boomers can’t afford to retire and Millennials oh just don’t get us started.

Learning stuff pays dividends, too, in the form of filling the hungry web pages that need stuff written. In trying to add factual precision to a throwaway line in that Heidegger piece, I found something that surprised my love. Turns out Socrates held political office, possibly just the once in his life, and we both felt more in touch with the cosmic all for knowing this, and then, well, you know how it is when you learn stuff.

And then the day after that I got to wonder about: Ancient Greece. What the heck, guys? You should have been doing better. Fount of Western Civilization and all that but they had some real impulse-control problems. Just saying.

Why My Love Accuses Me, Correctly, Of Being A Consequentialist


I was reading Robert E Conot’s Justice at Nuremberg, possibly because I was feeling too good about humanity both as a concept and in the way it was actually implemented. Conot mentions how following a series of suicides and suicide attempts:

At night the Nazi leaders were required to sleep with their hands outside their blankets, and were not permitted to turn their faces toward the wall. Whenever one rolled over in his sleep, the guard took the long pole designed for opening the high windows, pushed it through the porthole in the door, and poked and awakened the sleeper.

And so help me, this got me thinking. Sleeping with hands over the blankets? Not being able to roll over? Getting jabbed awake whenever I do roll over? I can sleep through a lot, but I’m sure the Allies could jab me with a stick enough that I woke up. At least the Americans and Soviets could. The British I suppose would if someone lent them a stick because they couldn’t afford one themselves. The French might if the other Allies would just let them in. Sleeping in those conditions? Never. I would be a lousy war criminal.

Then I remembered: oh yeah, I want to be a lousy war criminal. If there’s one field in which you should ignore the advice “always do your best even at stuff you don’t like to do”, committing the atrocities that defined “atrocity” for the 20th Century is it. So if there were any doubt in my mind about whether to be one of history’s greatest monsters — and there isn’t; I’m on the “don’t be” side and won’t even hear arguments the other way — the sleeping conditions would push me towards “don’t be”.

And this made me realize: I have found literally the worst reason imaginable to want to not be a war criminal. Besides everything else I can’t figure who would be undecided or leaning-toward-yes right up until they hear about the postwar prison conditions regarding sleeping with your arms over the blankets. I guess I’d be kind of glad-ish to hear this turned someone away from unleashing the cruelest demons of human nature on other people. It’s still a weird thing to come to, is all.

Sade and the Marching Auxiliary


If you’ve been listening along with Vic and Sade episodes this week you maybe noticed that not much happens in them. The characters talk about what they’re up to, but they don’t do much about it. That’s part of the style of the show. It has an almost classic respect for the ancient unities of Greek theater. Each day’s installment is one scene, at one time, and rarely do characters enter or exit, at least not much. Doing stuff is almost impossible in the ten minutes or so of conversation they have.

But stuff happens between episodes. And, more, it’s remembered. Vic and Sade is a representative of the serial-sitcom. It could have storylines going and progressing and developing, five days a week, just the way they might on soap operas. Vic and Sade isn’t a strong representative of the genre, the way that Lum and Abner or the difficult granddaddy of them all, Amos ‘n’ Andy, are. Vic and Sade stories aren’t as long and don’t dominate weeks of storytelling the way the more dedicated serials do. But it’s there.

Here, for example, at least after about the first two and a half minutes (spent talking about the wonders of Crisco and perhaps local advertisers), is a continuation of Vic’s All-Star Marching Team. The Marching Team is hoping to put together a Ladies Auxiliary. Sade is targeted to participate. She’s uninterested in marching and she and Vic talk just a little past one another about the point. The Marching Team was based on an absurd premise to start. And now the Ladies Auxiliary promises to be further absurd, as it can’t just be the wives of the Marching Team members. Many of them aren’t married. (One has intentions of marrying his beloved early in 1948, a joke which barely registers until you know that this episode is from the 22nd of February, 1941.) It’s not the straightforward absurdity of the original Marching Team premise, and its need to rehearse when none of the members can get together. That doesn’t keep it from finding wonderful absurdity anyway.

Vic and the Marching Team


Maybe I’ll just carry on with the old-time radio and make it a Vic and Sade week. Picking out episodes makes me want to hear more episodes, and I like talking about the stuff I enjoy. So here goes.

One of my favorite comic modes is the deadpan absurdity. The name almost explains it. Presenting the most ridiculous idea possible with the straightest face possible delights me. If someone questions your absurdity, you can own up to it … or you can try explaining why it really makes sense all along. Take the second path and you are entering the heady woods of the American heritage of tall-tale folklore, of the reductio ad absurdum that earns mathematicians their pay, and — if you happen to answer every objection soundly — conspiracy theory.

Vic belongs to a lodge, the Sacred Stars of the Milky Way, the way many people did in 1941. The way even more sitcom men did. The lodge wanted to organize an All-Star Marching Team. The head lodge chose ten members, Vic included. Lodge headquarters wants them to practice marching as a unit. The members are distributed across the country. The members aren’t asked to spend money and time travelling to each other.

So … how to rehearse marching as a unit when you just can’t get together? And there’s an answer, and it’s ridiculous. There’s obvious objections. They’re answered with a straight enough face that it all almost makes sense. It’s wonderful.

And a note for listeners: boy, the sponsor’s introduction really does go on, doesn’t it? If you are already as sold on Crisco as it is possible for you to ever be, you can skip to about two minutes thirty seconds in and the start of the real action.

Ridiculous Episodes Of History


Tamim Ansary’s book Games Without Rules: The Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan describes the first time Afghanistan sent a diplomatic mission to the United States:

The Afghan delegation came to New York in 1922, but as it happened a ludicrous adventurer hit town at the same time: an old woman named “Princess” Fatima Sultana … She came festooned in jewels and looking like every New Yorker’s image of a Theda Bara-style exotic from the mysterious east. Her jewels included one particularly large diamond she called the Darya-i-Noor (River of Light). She was travelling with a rascal who called himself the Crown Prince of Egypt. …

To make matters worse, these two con artists fell victim themselves to an American con artist named Weymouth, who convinced them he was with the Department of the Navy and said he would present Fatima to the president of the United States — he had his eye on that diamond. The New York press didn’t know which was the real diplomatic delegation, and they picked the one they found more entertaining: Princess Fatima and her entourage.

Princess Fatima would lose her diamond and run out on her hotel bill. The actual Afghans got ignored. And we have to wonder how the United States lived through a bad episode of Top Cat. I don’t mean to make myself sound too intelligent. I was nine before I realized I was smarter than some episodes of Three’s Company. But I was definitely only eight years old before I couldn’t buy the fake-exotic-royalty-in-New-York plot. The heck, people?

But the incident reflects something historians hope you won’t ask about. Until about 1975 the whole world was so casually run that anybody could put anything over on anybody else, anytime they wanted. For example, from 1927 through 1931 the cash-strapped Soviet Union stayed afloat by selling counterfeit trains on the New York Central. Passengers would gather around a marvelous painting of what looked very much like a train. They’d only notice fourteen hours later that neither it nor they had gone anywhere. The scheme finally ended when the United States extended diplomatic recognition to the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad. The Pennsylvania Railroad wanted to laugh about this, but they had just bought track rights through the Canadian province of “Roberta”.

In 1852 a group of Americans hoped to take over Cuba for the benefit of the Cubans, they kept telling themselves and everyone else. So they built a replica of the White House and the Capitol in Havanna out of some wood they had left over from another project, to lure the American government over. As it happens they only managed to fool the vice-president, William R King. He didn’t die of embarrassment at being fooled, but when he left for the real Washington he only got as close as Alabama.

In 1817 Great Britain annexed the Caribbean island of Saint Martin O’The Lee. Its exact location was unknown to everyone and the land was proven in 1932 to never have existed. Despite that, sectarian violence continues along the arbitrarily-drawn border known as Chamberlain’s Belch. That’s named for Neville Chamberlain, but not that Neville Chamberlain. Also not the other Neville Chamberlain you’re telling people you thought of right away because you want to seem smarter to them. It’s the other other one.

In the mid-30s a mysterious figure claiming to be another brother wormed his way into Popeye’s nephews. The hoaxer would appear in shorts for over a decade before vanishing, probably absconding, never to be heard from again. And the amazing thing is that five years after that another of the so-called nephews would vanish, revealing he had been an impostor all along too.

In 1645 an Italian lawyer presented King Louis XIV with a moon for Venus. Astronomers kept insisting they saw it for over a century. It wasn’t until 1762 that everybody involved admitted that they had to be dead of old age by then. And so it they were, and we went back to ignoring that big shiny moon-like thing hovering around Venus. Don’t stare.

Dozens of Rhode Island cities in the 19th century fell for groups of organized rowdies presenting themselves as the state government. The actual state government chased after them, wielding brooms and biographies of Roger Williams, for decades before the last of them finally set up in New London (“Mystic”), Connecticut as a government-in-exile. They’re still there.

We’ve tightened things up since those days. Today, anybody can still put anything over on anybody else. But they have to go through a metal detector and put their keys and loose change in a plastic bin first. It’s progress.

Betty Boop: Crazy Town


For today’s cartoon I’d like to offer something that’s just absurd: the Fleischer studios’ 1932 Betty Boop short Crazy Town. After the handsome opening credits — which include James Culhane, who’s famous in animation circles for doing the “Heigh-Ho” sequence in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and writing (as Shamus Culhane) the classic textbook Animation From Script To Screen; and David Tendlar, who never achieved fame, but who animated for Fleischer Studios/Paramount Studios for decades and then went to Hanna-Barbera, so you’ve seen his work — Betty Boop and Bimbo take the trolley to Crazy Town, a place where pretty much any sight gag the animators could think of gets done. Many of them are simple reversals of expectation, birds that fly under water and fish that swim above, or barbers that make hair grow by cutting it, but that doesn’t infringe on the childish glee that comes from seeing the reversals. And then, of course, things keep getting stranger.

Why I Should’ve Watched My Mouth


The trouble started when my dentist suggested a more convenient way to get my teeth cleaned. Convenience is pretty much the source of every trouble, if you take a generous enough view of “the source”. Here the proximate cause was that getting my teeth cleaned is a thing to do, while the modern efficient society requires that we be doing at least four or twelve things at once, and my willingness to just hang about and be there left him unnerved. What other things could I be doing that I wasn’t? I suggested I could also stare intently at the bird feeder which has been occupied by a squirrel for six years straight and which is bending over under the accumulated mass of squirrel, but he didn’t think that enough.

What he suggested was that I could have him pop my mouth out, leave it there for him to clean efficiently, and I could go off to the mall or to a movie or to poke onto the Internet where I could find a thing and make fun of it digitally. I was skeptical, but he pointed out that it’s much easier to clean the back teeth if there aren’t all that front cheek in the way and if he doesn’t have to go around my mouth, and I figured I wasn’t expecting to say much of anything that day anyway, so I agreed. Of course, I used a series of head-bobbings to indicate approval, lest he think I wasn’t taking him seriously.

You’d think the first thing to worry about after he popped my mouth out was how it’d leave my moustache just hanging there. You’d be right, but then I went and did something foolish. I pretty near always go for fast food right after a dentist’s visit, dating back to when my father always took us kids to White Castle after the dentist cleaned our teeth, because my father wanted to be sure we grew up appreciating the inherent absurdity of life. So I rode over to the Burger King where the cashier once complimented my accent and sought reassurance that I don’t think Michigan accents sound funny and proceeded through a series of grunts and pointing at menu placemats to convince the cashier that I was late for the breakfast service. There’s a happy ending, though, since they had the cheesey omelette wraps left over.

There was something like forty minutes left, so I went over to the mall where I found stuff and looked at it manually. That went about like you’d expect, although outside the gourmet popcorn place I realized I had to cough pretty badly, and the gourmet popcorn cashier would only do it if we rang it up as a sale of a small bag of bacon-guacamole glazed popcorn. I’m glad I didn’t eat any either.

I got back to the dentist’s a little bit early because I was sure I was running late, and that’s the only way I get anywhere on time. He had this apologetic look and had me read over a brochure on fire safety while he tried to edge out of the room. They had got a little busy too, what with it being the modern age, and realized they were none too sure where my mouth had got to. This was no joke; they even showed me all the cupboards and we checked even the annoying drawers you have to kneel on the floor to see, and it just wasn’t there.

They’re sorry, of course, and you might imagine they would be, but they were able to set me up with a loaner mouth in order that I could bite people who needed it. And meanwhile the dental insurance company is pretty sure that if my mouth goes two weeks without appearing they can swing to buy me a permanent replacement. There’ve been some great upgrades available the last couple of years — stuff with polymers that sounds so great because I used to read a lot of pop science books from the 60s when polymers sounded really great, sabre teeth, micro-lasers so I could read a compact disc just by licking it — and I have to say, at this point I’m kind of hoping they don’t find it. It’s a weird state to be in, isn’t it?

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