Fake Fate

Was it always to be thus, or might I have chosen otherwise?

At one point in “The Quest,” his modernist version of a quest romance told in 20 brief sections, the poet W.H. Auden derides occult fascinations as “an architecture for the odd.” Astrology, tarot, et cetera. Earlier, he writes of the future, “We pile our all against it when afraid/And beat upon its panels when we die.”

The particular sonnet, which in some editions is titled “The Tower,” but in Auden’s official Collected Poems is simply called number “IX,” concludes with a warning from magicians caught in their own tower:

Yet many come to wish their tower a well;
For those who dread to drown, of thirst may die,
Those who see all become invisible:

Here great magicians, caught in their own spell,
Long for a natural climate as they sigh
“Beware of Magic” to the passer-by.

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Details, Details

I am a very private person, plus I am pretty committed to being co-dependent with the planet, so I probably waste more psychic energy and time trying to give other people their privacy than I spend on maintaining my own. Especially in those moments when it seems that people around me are oblivious to their horrible and immediate need to simply keep things to themselves. Or to warn me of imminent over-sharing.

I could blame cell phones, blame Facebook and Instagram, think some thoughts about the effect of self-help groups and therapy on the culture at large, but after thinking all those deep thoughts, I do not care about your details, unless you are my dearest, most intimate friend(s). No. Not even then. Even then, there are things I do not really need to know. The details.
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“The least controversial thing you can post is a photo of me? I’m dubious. The most controversial thing you do around me is brag about having opposable thumbs. If hate was a thing, I would do some hate. Is that how you say that?” I am glad I photographed Planet Kitty a couple years ago making her “dubious” face at me.

This blog (typed with my thumbs, because I can, Planet Kitty! I can) regularly publishes controversial posts. What follows is a lightly edited version of “A Conspiracy Theory of Conspiracy Theories,” a column that was published January 31, 2014.
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Anger, Nothing But Ed Anger

The greatest newspaper—ever!—is and was the Weekly World News. Its presence next to every grocery store checkout lane is thoroughly missed by every non-Bat Boy walking among us.

Most American boys who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, and by most, I mean me, made this progression in our reading: from Cracked magazine, which quickly revealed itself to be a weak imitation of Mad magazine, to Mad magazine, which was brilliant but I (we) stopped looking at it around age 14, through a wasteland of our teen years and the New York Times and homework—heck, the Times and all newspapers everywhere just feel like permanent homework, don’t they? AmIRight?—to the discovery that the Weekly World News existed.

It is a three-word title and only one of those three words is correct: Weekly. Is this terrible? No. That is a .333 average and a career batting average like that would result in the hitter being elected to the Hall of Fame. So, weekly, yes. World? A printing press in central Florida certainly is on the globe. But “world” is an exaggeration. News? Well, upon finishing every article I would say out loud, “It’s news to me.”

An alien named P’lod regularly visited the White House and advised presidents Clinton and Bush? News to me. Where is CNN? Someone call somebody. There’s a boy abused by his own shadow? That’s a heartbreaking slice of life story. (An admission: When I was young, my own shadow was faster than me, too. It was only when lights were behind me, but still.) Bat Boy? You can’t make this stuff up … because why would anyone? That is why everything the WWN reported had to be true … ish … or, okay, not at all.

WWNtwinkieTwinkies are a superfood? In my life, on occasion, ‘deed they were. (I have now been sober for almost five years.) I love this article, TWINKIES: THE NEW SUPERFOOD!, by the way; look at that photo. How small a staff works there now? How small is the budget? Once upon a time, the reported paid circulation was a quarter-million readers, and of course, all of the Men in Black. The staff could not afford the minutes to leave the office and spend two dollars on some real fruit and berries and real Twinkies, so they had to copy-and-paste a clip-art photo of a broken Twinkie over a photo of some fruit? Even in the name of truth or comedy? You can see the white border around the middle Twinkie.

I would like to think that someone spent extra time to make this photomontage look this sloppy, in the same way that I like to think, for approximately six seconds, that every word in the newspaper is true.

The newspaper—and yes, only half of that term is correct, in that the publication was in fact printed on paper—the paper ran into hard times and only exists online now. It is there that you will find a few, a precious few, examples of the paper’s opinion writer, Ed Anger, who appeared in its pages from 1979 till around a few years ago. The title of his book, “Let’s Pave the Stupid Rainforests & Give School Teachers Stun Guns: And Other Ways to Save America,” gives a taste of his typical opinion.

Ed Anger was a creation of a staff writer named Rafe Klinger and then was the pet project of the editor, a man named Eddie Clontz. After Clontz died, several writers have revealed that they took turns editorializing as Ed Anger in the years since. Klinger sued the WWN, arguing that the paper could not continue to run the angry Anger editorials, but he lost. Thus, there was some real anger animating Ed Anger’s anger.

Ed Anger hates everything and everyone, especially Democrats, foreigners, religions other than his, wild animals that somehow need protection even though they have claws, complicated foods, and most television programming. Each editorial begins with, “I’m madder than a” and then promptly becomes less funny over the subsequent four hundred words or so.

Ed Anger amused me because I remembered a real Ed Anger in my hometown when I was growing up. I do not remember the gentleman’s name, but people in Dutchess County, New York, may remember in the 1970s a self-published newspaper—a blog, but on paper—by a writer who devoted pages to convincing his readers that all people of color were bad, that all Democrats were Communists, that the local Democrats were Satanists, that his new tin-foil hat was protecting him. Now, anyone can think anything they like and hate anything they want to, can write inspiringly dull sentences outlining their many hatreds, can self-publish those sentences in a newspaper or blog, can spend money getting copies printed and distributed, but this man, the real-life Ed Anger of my youth, he had advertising in his local production! His racist and anti-semitic, single-note, single-theme weekly newspaper, which was basically an eight-page run-on sentence interrupted by headlines, had ads in it. There were local businesses whose owners maybe did not want to rile people up by publicizing their political leanings, but they paid for ads in this one man’s hate-filled quirk.

As Ed Anger might have written: “You know what I think of that?” It is not printable in a family blog.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 11 asks, “Pick a contentious issue about which you care deeply—it could be the same-sex marriage debate, or just a disagreement you’re having with a friend. Write a post defending the opposite position, and then reflect on what it was like to do that.”

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Be Whose Change, Now?

Blame former Vice President Al Gore. In his bestselling book, “Earth in the Balance” (1992), Gore recounts the story of watching his six-year-old son be hit by a car, and the months he and his wife spent bringing the boy back to health.

He writes that “something changed in a fundamental way” for him that year, 1989: he turned 40, watched his son almost die, and lost the 1988 Presidential election. (He came in a distant “don’t remember him running that year” in the primaries to Michael Dukakis.)

On the same page as that list, page 14 in the revised edition, he writes that,

This life change has caused me to become increasingly impatient with the status quo, with conventional wisdom, with the lazy assumption that we can always muddle through. Such complacency has allowed many kinds of difficult problems to breed and grow, but now, facing a rapid deteriorating global environment, it threatens absolute disaster. No one can now afford to assume that the world will somehow solve its problems. We must all become partners in a bold effort to change the very foundation of our civilization.

(Gore does a far better job connecting the personal with the political than I did for him just now, above; reading the long quote on its own, as I shared it, reminds me of a tire-screeching/pulling-the-stereo-needle-across-the-record sound effect. “One minute, he was talking about turning 40, and then? This is connected to climate change how?” Okay. He spends the first dozen pages laying out his political credentials as a leader trying to avert the environmental catastrophe that we are now 20-plus years closer to than when he was writing. Then he reveals something that few politicians like to admit: vulnerability and teachability.) (My own Al Gore cred: the first vote I ever cast for president was for him, in 1988, in the New York State Democratic primary, which Dukakis won. I voted for Clinton/Gore twice and Gore in 2000. Nine years after its release, I have yet to view “An Inconvenient Truth,” however.)

In the next paragraph, he brings in Mahatma Gandhi, and bumper stickers have not been the same since.

I believe deeply that true change is possible only when it begins inside the person who is advocating it. Mahatma Gandhi said it well: ‘We must be the change we wish to see in the world.’ And a story about Gandhi—recounted by Craig Schindler and Gary Lapid—provides a good illustration of how hard it is to ‘be the change.’ Gandhi, we are told, was approached one day by a woman who was deeply concerned that her son was eating too much sugar. ‘I am worried about his health,’ she said. ‘He respects you very much. Would you be willing to tell him about its harmful effects and suggest he stop eating it?’ After reflecting on the request, Gandhi told the woman that he would do as she requested, but asked that she bring her son back in two weeks, no sooner.

As Gore tells it, or Schindler-Lapid tell it, the mother and son visit Gandhi two weeks later and he delivers his health message to the boy. The mother thanks him but asks why he had requested a two-week wait. “Because I needed the two weeks to stop eating sugar myself,” he is said to have replied.

And we all, without prompting, cast Sir Ben Kingsley as “cuddly Gandhi” in our movie version of this anecdote in our minds. In 12-step fellowship meetings, I promise you will hear someone re-tell this anecdote as if it appeared in the great movie biography, or in any biography of the great man.

No version of the story appears in any biography of Mahatma Gandhi. Nor does the “be the change” quote. According to a spiritual writer named Keith Akers, the bumper-sticker-perfect expression, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world,” can not be traced anywhere in the world until the 1970s at the earliest. He spent a couple of years trying to find the statement in Gandhi’s published and recorded works. His article, “Did Gandhi Really Say ‘Be the Change,’” concludes that it is a legend. Not that there is anything wrong with the notion—it is certainly a viable suggestion to make in any debate—but someone wanted to add some historical-philosophical oomph to the thought and attributed it to Mahatma Gandhi.

Akers also shares the amazingly ironic fact that several years ago, the National Cattleman’s Beef Association used the phrase in a pamphlet it released aimed at educating school boards about making sure beef was a part of their school districts’ nutrition and wellness plans for the coming school year. It is not attributed to Gandhi, but there it is, uncited and without quotes, in a document dated September 2005. About beef and its positive role in a youngster’s school nutrition.

In 2011, a writer named Brian Morton published in the New York Times an essay titled “Falser Words Were Never Spoken.” Akers also cites it. Morton expounds on several bogus quotations, including the “be the change” thought, and authoritatively quotes this from Gandhi: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

He calls it the “closest verifiable remark” from Gandhi on the idea, but he does not offer a source so that anyone else can verify its closeness or its anything-ness. A Google search yields articles on spiritual websites that recount the mother and son and sugar story (some quite vividly, making it sound like an adventure tale), and the trek to the spiritual leader, and his request that they check back with him some time later (in some versions it is two weeks, in others, three days). And then the long version of the quote, the Morton quote, is offered in these stories, which were found today in a simple Google search, as Gandhi’s wise words to the mother.

There is no documented evidence he ever even said the Morton quote. Gandhi was an activist, so yes, putting his money where his mouth was would have counted for something. But he was not merely a spokesman for his ideals, telling people how to live. He knew that personal discipline in one person can not change anything, certainly not a government, but that a lot of people of discipline, working together and pushing each other, can. Those who like to vocalize the “be the change” quote are rarely heard speaking about changing unjust political systems or sparking revolutions; usually they use the quote to remind each other to smile more and be more sunny and thus make the world a smilier, sunnier place. And anyone who doesn’t smile back? It’s their fault.

If you want to write a best-selling bumper sticker, water a big thought down to a weak and insipid one, make it sound altruistic but really be about self-congratulation, and attribute it to someone long dead who really was a deep thinker but who would not have thought or even uttered what you are crediting them with saying.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 2 asks, “What change, big or small, would you like your blog to make in the world?”

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Mea cuppa

One of my superpowers is breaking things.

Now, I know that anyone can break anything with enough gumption and/or strength. At best, it is an inadvertent superpower; at worst, it is doom for the planet. I am not certain that I can not break paper.

I learned that I have this superpower the hard way: By claiming that I do not have it. I no longer remember what point I was trying to illustrate when I said to a group, “Nothing’s unbreakable. Right? Who hasn’t broken a so-called ‘unbreakable’ comb?” Perhaps I was talking with a group of fancy people who don’t buy their combs at convenience stores or truck stops, but I had had the experience of buying and later snapping in half a comb that had “unbreakable” written right on it. In. Capital. Letters.

Like some of you, no one in the group knew what I was talking about. Each one’s experience with combing his or her hair with an unbreakable comb was only as described on the tools themselves. Bendy, yes. Twisty, uh-huh. Breaky? Just me.

I once broke a Livestrong bracelet. What was I trying to do with it? Put it on my wrist. It snapped and flew across the room.

A few weeks ago, I was cooking. It happens. I was cooking something in a Pyrex pan in the oven, which is something I should not do. I have metal pans and, usually, common sense. I had a Pyrex pan in the oven, and when the dish was done, I removed it from the oven. (Most cookbooks describe this part, which is the most exciting after all, very blandly. “Remove dish from oven.” It’s the single most exciting part of the cooking experience! Whatever the opposite of overkill is, that right there is an example.)

I moved the food onto my plate and carried the Pyrex back into the kitchen. And then, because I do not think things through, I placed the thick glass cookware in the sink …

(Did you know that not all Pyrex is the same? (Thanks, online world of information.) Corning divested itself of its consumer goods division 16 years ago and licensed the name “Pyrex” to other companies, some of which use a different formula from Corning’s classic recipe, and thus produce glassware that is sometimes not as heat-resistant as Corning’s original. Of course, “heat-resistant” was always something of the point to Pyrex, so this is just terrific. If you see a Pyrex product with the red logo “PYREX” in all caps, that product is one that was made by Corning with the original formula and is stronger. The other logos are the newer products, which are not knock-offs precisely, as Corning did grant those companies licenses, but they are not made following the same formula.)

… I placed the heat-resistant glassware in the sink and hit the faucet. In a split-second, I remembered that objects right out of a hot oven react violently to cold water and I twisted the faucet back off. One drop of water (no exaggeration) left the faucet. When it hit the Pyrex, my sink was suddenly filled with shards of glass. Some of the shards were as big as a finger, let’s say someone’s middle finger, but most were smaller. Oh, and steam.

So I break things. Things that were invented because they are less likely to break.

With great power comes great responsibility, so what am I doing making my morning coffee in a press? (A fine example of which, not my personal one, is seen above.)

The French press “is essentially open-pot coffee with a sexy method for separating the grounds from the brew. The pot is a narrow glass cylinder. A fine-meshed screen plunger fits tightly inside the cylinder; you put a fine-ground coffee in the cylinder, pour boiling water over it, and insert the plunger in the top of the cylinder without pushing it down. After about four minutes the coffee will be thoroughly steeped and you push the plunger through the coffee, clarifying it and forcing the grounds to the bottom of the pot. You serve the coffee directly from the cylinder. Be certain not to use too fine a grind unless you have an athlete or a weightlifter at the table; the plunger will be almost impossible to push down through the coffee.” This is from Kenneth Davids’ classic book, “Coffee: A Guide to Buying, Brewing, and Enjoying,” and my quote is from the 1981 edition. His more recent edition changes the ground to “coarse-to-medium,” the water from boiling to “just short of boiling,” and loses the weightlifter joke. Oh, and “sexy” is changed to “sophisticated.” Too bad.

He goes on, “The plunger pot was apparently developed in Italy during the 1930s, but found its true home in France after World War II, when it surged to prominence as a favored home-brewing method.” That is why, when I first saw one in a friend’s kitchen, I asked if the thing was a “French” press. I knew that much, I guess. I also asked where one turned it on. She didn’t stop laughing long enough to tell me.

After two years of making coffee with one of these, I have broken two so far. Because that is what I do.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 4 asks, “If your furniture, appliances, and other inanimate objects at home had feelings and emotions, to which item would you owe the biggest apology?”

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A Leet

According to WordPress and other services, the number 1337 is important. It is not important for obvious reasons, like, say, reasons that are important, but for more obscure, talismanic ones.

Almost from the start, the online world has been something of a secret handshake society, but a democratic one, in which one and one’s friends can come up with a new secret handshake, and a capitalistic one, in which some secret handshakes become more popular, trendy. Elite. Or, “1337.”

Going back thirty years, users of programming language and speakers of everyday speech started to find places where the two collided. Going back thirty years, teenagers were passing messages to kids in the next aisle by typing on their calculators. Remember doing that? Certain numbers look like letters upside-down, so when one types 0.7734 that is also saying, “hello.” Here is a list of 250 such calculator-words: 250 Words You Can Spell with a Calculator.

I have had only one problem with this from thirty years ago to today: 0.7734 has never looked like “hello” to me. I just do not see it. I was the friend across the aisle from you in school who, when you showed me a secret calculator message, inadvertently said out loud, loud enough to attract the teacher’s attention, “What?”

I also do not see hidden anythings in “magic eye” posters, other than pretty fractals and colors, so I am just a generally all-around evil human being and no fun at all.

In the early days of the internet, in the era of bulletin boards and relay chat, the era in which someone typing on a keyboard in a movie was the height of real drama, those sorts of calculated calculator misspellings became a short-hand way of demonstrating one had inside knowledge about a topic at hand. Some of these terms have entered the culture at large, like newbie or pwned, and many have not.

For all of my life, I have felt like an outsider gazing in at a world of secret handshakes. Further, I am at my most uncomfortable when I try to look like I think I belong with you. Thus, when the kids in school in the ’80s who were “into computers” made it look like a secret society, I lost interest in programming. (Your loss, gaming community!) When the secret handshake society’s special vocabulary filters into the larger society and becomes a trendy lingo for a month or two or a couple of decades, it makes the world look like how I feel when I am trying to bluff my way into fitting in.

(Amusingly, I am composing this rant in a WYSIWYG in which I write my own simple HTML code and do not use a visual editor, a habit dating back to my newspaper work and a blog I started writing [now long lost] in 1997.)

1337-1xWhen one achieves 1337 of anything on a website, it is worth noting because 1337 is a lot of anything. In the case of The Gad About Town, it reached 1337 likes on November 26, when someone liked the column, “Gratitude Week.” In old-school hacker lingo, being an elite member of the community was designated by referring to them as elite, or a leet, or 1337. Again it’s the upside-down calculators that I have never looked at without saying, “What?”

Thank you to my readers and especially those who make the effort to express that they like some of the things I do. You have liked me more than 1337 times so far in ten months, which definitely makes me feel like a member of an elite.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 28 asks, “Today, publish a post based on unused material from a previous piece—a paragraph you nixed, a link you didn’t include, a photo you decided not to use. Let your leftovers shine!”

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