Archive for January, 2011

How we treat each other, that’s entirely up to us
January 17, 2011

CAMBRIDGE, MA — A few years ago, a relative of ours had the misfortune to greatly overestimate his capacity of for marijuana intake, with the result that he ended up spending two weeks at the local mental hospital with a bout of toxic psychosis.

I thought of this the other day because of the events last week in Tucson, involving a map with crosshairs and a gunman variously described as “wicked” (Sen. John McCain) and “evil” (you-know-who), but who, from apparently comprehensive accounts, was almost certainly psychotic.

It all took me back a few years because while the Main Squeeze and I didn’t know what had caused our relative’s breakdown then, the relative was, inarguably, psychotic at the time. His age, a generation below ours, was appropriate for the onset of schizophrenia. That is what we feared, from the day the relative walked home barefoot after giving his car away to a homeless man (on the guess the other guy needed it more) to the day about a week later, when he calmly told the Main Squeeze that he knew why he was in the hospital, raising a short-lived hope that he was returning to the reality we shared. This hope, sadly, was dispelled seconds later, when the relative explained, in reasonable tones, that he had been confined because he, and he alone, knew the secret about God and Jesus, that the authorities didn’t want anyone to know. Oh well.

Those were anxious days, and I called the Main Squeeze at work shortly after this “revelation” , when I knew he had just visited our relative again. By a fortuitous coincidence, the Main Squeeze was working a writing stint at a national tabloid magazine at the time, not far from the mental hospital.

“Are you busy?” I asked, the way you do, when you call someone at work.

“Well, yes a little,” he said. “You see a meteor is about the crash into the earth, and I have to figure what to do about it. I may have to call in the BVM.”

Calling in the Blessed Virgin Mary to intervene in planet-threatening catastrophes was a reliable solution to the kind of stuff he was assigned to write about for that particular tabloid.

The biggest difference of course, between him and our hospitalized relative was being paid to deal in such verbiage, as opposed to being locked up for it.

Big difference. Then there was the chicken-and-egg conundrum of who was making who do what . . .

Was the Main Squeeze, with his divine intervention as deus ex machina, creating a climate in which our relative’s cheese slipped off his cracker? Or was our relative just a particularly extreme example of the audience for those imaginings?

We still don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. Our relative returned, thankfully, to normal, which of course was for the best, although his Christ-like phase saw him at his most selfless. But was there a connection? Of course. Neither of them — tabloid writer, or mental patient — was the inventor of God and Jesus. That distinction belongs to more powerful and prolific minds than either of theirs. But blame? Who needs it? They were both part of the same culture.

So here’s what’s bothering me. I don’t remember anyone blaming you-know-who and her crosshairs map for the shootings that killed six people and injured 18, just pointing out the connection between one psychotic mind, and one with no such excuse. Before everyone got confused, I think the point was about what kind of culture we choose to live in.

If we can’t do anything about profitable politics, gun control, and inadequate mental health resources (and I think you have to be nuts to accept any of that), well at least — at least, as our President said this week, “how we treat each other, that’s entirely up to us.”


The R Word
January 9, 2011

SOMEPLACE-IN-MIDCENTURY-AMERICA, PA — Fields of grass blurred by our rental car windows, giving us the hope we were almost there, when my father issued an etiquette primer for visiting country friends.

“These people are different. They aren’t city kids,” he said. “So I want you to watch your language around them.”

Maybe my sister challenged him (did he mean big words, were they not very bright?). My father felt the need to clarify: “Don’t say the ‘F’ word,” he explained. “Don’t say the ‘S’ word.”

My father had a big vocabulary in every sense, and he liked to express himself. He had been pretty careful though not to throw those words (fuck, shit) around in front of us. All the same he knew the horse was out of the barn as far as those words went, and that, at ages seven and nine, this ‘f-word’ ‘s-word’ business was baby-talk, which he disdained. Still we could tell that well-traveled as he was, a trip to a place without sidewalks and buses made him feel more alien than a trip to a city halfway across the world would.

He may have sensed our confusion — were we making fun of our soon-to-be hosts? Or did a good reason (we hadn’t heard a persuasive one yet) exist for us to self-censor on a weekend? — because he added what proved to be an inducement: “And whatever you do,” he added, “don’t say the ‘R’ word.”

The R-Word?!

We were all excitement.

“I’ll tell it to you on the way back,” he promised, “If you’re good while you’re there.”

I think of that drive often, because of the way the weekend turned out, but most often in recent years because of the the grade-school reminiscent use of the term “the N-Word.”

Did it start with the trial of O.J. Simpson, when evidence that a police detective used the word itself helped weight the scales of justice so a man got away with murder? Was that the beginning? If so, it is , like the ’80s boardroom-bedroom night-time television dramas and ’70s cocaine-snorting, disco-going emblem-of-cool celebrities, the ’90s contribution to dated symbols of warped reality.

But it has hung on, although oddly it hasn’t spawned the use of the “K” word, the “S” word, the (other) “C” word, the “M” word, the “W” word, the “G” word, to make palatable racist expressions of other ethnicities.

Another way exists — as owners of the words “dyke,” “black” and others have demonstrated, to neutralize words that originated as expressions of dismissal or contempt. Forbidding a word, we all know, gives it power.

We know that don’t we?

So now an academic has taken a step further in the direction of 1984 and Fahenheit 451, of doublespeak and trashed literature, by fixing what he feels Mark Twain didn’t get right, apparently and changing all the “niggers” in Huckleberry Finn to “slaves.” So many things wrong with doing that, better expressed than I could hope to. Among them, though, the wrongness of not only distorting literature to distort history, but in the course, distorting the present. The word that has been removed from the depiction of life in mid-19th-century America is used now, daily in 21rst-century America.

So current events have had me thinking, again of the day when as wide sky and tall fields flashed by our rental car windows, my father tried to teach us how to act with country kids.

We got there, and the kids pulled us out of the car, eager to make new friends. They lead us to the guest cottage and taught us a poem they had learned recently:

“Jesus Christ Almighty, a mouse went up my heiny! It bit my tit, and made me shit, Jesus Christ Almighty!”

It was accompanied by gestures pointing to the mentioned body parts. We learned it by heart over the weekend.

On Sunday evening, pleased at how easy it had been after all to bridge the country-city culture gap, we got into the car.

“We were good,” we told our father, “even if they weren’t. What’s the ‘R’ word?”

“There isn’t one,” he admitted sadly.

Maybe he realized our trust was at stake, so he told us the “Johnny-Bad-Mouth” joke that had given him the idea: The teacher is calling on kids to say a word that begins with a letter of the alphabet and use it in a sentence. But she won’t call on Johnny, even though his hand is up, begging to be called on, until she gets to “R” (“because she’s scared of the kid,” my father explained). She can’t think of a bad word that begins with R so finally she calls on Johnny. “R is for rat,” he says. “A big fucking rat!”

Which goes to show, it’s all about context.

January 2, 2011

LANTANA, FL — The Animal Rescue League Thrift Store on Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach is a good place to start if you are seeking what you don’t expect to find.

Two years ago, headed for a year-long trip away from home, I found a set of vintage luggage for $25, resolving how I would bring all my stuff with me without spending more than my stuff was worth to do so.

Recently I also found a yoga-mat-sized pink mohair scarf from Scotland — $7 — that has me convinced, for now, that when I return to Cambridge in a few weeks I won’t be miserable in the cold.

The store offers good quality at good prices, some junk but not enough to make sifting through it a chore. I go there because I have come to see that buying things new is not only unnecessary, it’s not as much fun as looking for things that speak to you. I learned this when my job began to vanish a few years ago, when I also learned I didn’t want a job anymore.

The Animal Rescue League Thrift Store benefits the Peggy Adams Animal Shelter which also makes shopping there fun. Last week I found the cat above, named “Nikki,” at the time, there. If I touched her, the staff warned me, I might not be able to stop. I didn’t touch her. Instead I brought my mother back, and now Nikki has a new name, and, if she stops growling at my mother’s other two cats, a home. What we know about her is this: She is at least 6 years old, has spent the last year in the thrift store, and before that was brought in to the shelter by a woman who said she couldn’t keep her. Staff at the shelter, which does not euthanize healthy animals, told the woman they had no room for one more cat. The woman responded that in that case she would leave the cat in the parking lot. “So we took her,” the adoption counselor told my mother and me.

Nikki was walking around our chairs twirling her tail against our legs as we listened to this. So we took her.

2010 in review
January 2, 2011

The stats helper monkeys at mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

Madison Square Garden can seat 20,000 people for a concert. This blog was viewed about 63,000 times in 2010. If it were a concert at Madison Square Garden, it would have performed about 3 times.


In 2010, there were 11 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 94 posts. There were 19 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 17mb. That’s about 2 pictures per month.

The busiest day of the year was July 22nd with 501 views. The most popular post that day was Jellyfish basher.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were,,,, and

Some visitors came searching, mostly for jellyfish, jelly fish, jellyfish pictures, pictures of jellyfish, and appeasement.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.


Jellyfish basher November 2008


The difference between compromise December 2008


At the Carwash . . . January 2009


Many Patterns, One World July 2009
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Signs of Lusaka February 2009
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