HOME | THREE WEEKS | OTHER WRITING | FAQS | ABOUT THIS SITE | LINKS | NEWS

"First Essays, Full of the Heat of Youth"
THREE WEEKS, VOLUME 1 ISSUE 9 - APRIL 13, 2002

"The more a lie looks like the truth, the better a lie it is."

Cover
On Nations, by Henry William Brownejohns
Notices
On Profanity, by Alexander Swartwout
Notice Regarding Time
Notes Regarding Foreigners, by Jonathan Ephrain Underhill
The Former Smartest Boy in the World, by Alexander Swartwout
Dispatches from Abroad, by Eliza Anne Bonney
The Eavesdropper
The Weather, by H.W. Brownejohns

Return to Three Weeks Issues

(home)

 

 

ON NATIONS

 

THE SORRY STATE OF THE WORLD, FROM AFAR

 

A Few Volleys of Reason into the Swirling Chaos of the Levant

 

A Necessarily Wide View

 

by Henry William Brownejohns

Not since Chamberlain, Hitler, and Stalin canoodled for the peace and prosperity of Europe have three less desirable characters stood front and center upon the world stage, at work upon a project further from their secret ambitions, as Mr. Bush, Mr. Sharon, and Mr. Arafat now do, canoodling over the fate of the cradle of civilization and - only incidentally - the human beings who reside there.  I do not intend any direct comparisons between the members of each dubious trio, but I am not squeamish about equating their cumulative humanitarianism.  I should rather be a carp than an Israeli citizen, and a field-mouse instead of a Palestinian, for all of the consideration these polis’ are receiving from their alleged statesmen.  And yet I find little pride in being a Yank these days either, as our own executive has consistently underestimated the calamity under-weigh in Israel, and our complicity in it - and too late, persuaded by saner counsel, does he now fire off daily ‘stern warnings,’ ignored by all, presaged as they have been by such momentous indecision.   It is too late for  Mr. Bush to succeed by the small gestures of modern diplomacy, and his thinking, like his diction, remains too coarse for such complex affairs.

We have suffered no shortage of reminders lately that America’s geographical distance is politically meaningless, and yet the president and the people remain mysteriously detached from the developments across the sea, as if not only saltwater separated us, but a thick sheet of Plexiglass.  A war has begun, one which we are already engaged in, and which shows no promise of abating before intensifying, and punishing those who least merit it.  The zealots will take every opportunity to embroil the globe in flame, and unless we are keen to it, and act swiftly, sanely, and strongly in thwarting them, we shall witness a truly morbid era in human affairs.

And while attitudes may be lax here in the land of steady habits, this is not for want of opinions.  In fact, I cannot count a soul who does not have his own, and every one who is fortunate enough to have an editor and an inkstand is letting us know what his is.  Ordinarily, this paper would shy away from an item so vigorously overanalyzed, but the current case of Israel is an issue that simply requires our considerable and particular abilities, and one the essence of which I believe has not yet seen print in this country. 

Typically, opinionation among the American people seems to exist in an inverse proportion to information and contemplation.  For example, on the subject of television celebrities - a subject much pondered - opinion is consistent and quiet.  On apocalypse and global war, opinions are as diverse and loudly vocalized as they are shallowly formulated.  Enlightenment being THREE WEEKS’ purpose, we have no recourse but to jump into the editorial brouhaha, and we only hope that your patience is not too worn out, or your sugar-fueled mind too addled to follow our broad circumbendibus about this impossible conundrum.

--- 

The fundamental political unit of human civilization is, in this age, the nation - although I shall quibble about whether this is a natural condition, or an artifice.  Just as the physicists, given ample enough accelerators, seem able to subdivide atoms into protons, protons into quarks, and quarks into ever smaller intangibles, a nation is easily subdivided by a nimble enough political mind.  For example, within America, residents of North Dakota feel unspeakable glimmerings of superiority over the rubes of South Dakota, suggesting that national identity is peaceably divisible.  Within California, San Franciscans quietly wonder what makes Angelenos wake up in the morning, and even why Oaklanders bother settling for such an unseemly side of the bay.  And throughout our placid land, small towns suit their young men and women up weekly for high school sporting competitions which are hardly as valued for their lessons of teamwork and physical fitness as they are for their delineation of superiority among townships within regions of otherwise homogenous cultural consistency.  All this demonstrates, I think, that in a wild state, the two hundred and sixty million of us would be politically impossible to cohere.  Only by a shared system of law are we given a sense of uniformity (and only lately, by a shared mass culture, which endorses that law and its values, and reinforces our allegiance).  Thus, we are Americans, by circumstance and understanding, not by Nature. 

We think rarely of our Civil War, though it’s only a hundred and fifty years past, and when we do think of it, very few of us do so with any kind of visceral comprehension; still, it is historical proof that an entity as perpetual-seeming as America was only just recently entirely dissolved and remade.  The formation of human beings into a nation is only a matter of political convenience, and a relatively modern invention, assisted by technological propagation of culture.  Even such a perceived perennial as France finds itself repeatedly reassessing where it ends and Germany begins, and that old standby Italy is only one hundred and forty, with a government in place just a third as old.  The Old Country - politically - isn’t. 

All of this is worth considering under the circumstances because nationhood in this recent, relatively stable era has become so presumed, and the right to it so unquestioned, that nobody has taken too long to look at its prerequisites, or its consequences.  Yet we are residing in a political world long descended from the good old days of Athens and Sparta, the residents of which would shudder to think of ever shaking hands as Greeks; and even Florentines and Venetians, who considered each other fellow Italians as much as they did so of the Huns.

All of these are underappreciated facts in this country, in this age, and yet they reflect all the more favor upon the significant accomplishment that is America.  I, for one, would not presume to be capable of forging an entire nation out of an alien wilderness, and I do not intend to try.  Were I pressed, I would opt to form a city-state - more manageable, I think - and would be content to put walls up on the George Washington Bridge, plug the tunnels, and make myself a magistrate; never a king, certainly not a president.  So I am duly awed by our own founders’ deeds, and sympathetic to the task before those who would seek their own nations, and even those who have them, and are only trying to keep them in shape.  Contrary to the permanence of the maps they are enumerated by, nations themselves are only rightfully as permanent as soap-bubbles.

But once formed, they present an intriguing prospect for civilization.  By pooling the fates of a mass of individuals into the law and culture of a single state, a nation in effect becomes an individual of its own; and in a world of many such nations, the opportunity thus exists to govern a mass of nations as a mass of individuals.  There is, somewhere down this line of reasoning, a prospect for civilized international law.  Sadly, America, paragon of nationhood, improbably mature soap-bubble, is also the world’s least cooperative four million-square-mile sourpuss.

---

From these very office windows, I stare out daily upon the blue-green façade of the United Nations’ Secretariat building, with its sly proportions identical to those of the monolith in Mr. Clarke’s 2001.  I have never taken the significance of the place for granted: it is the closest thing to the realization of a dream held since the Enlightenment, of a government of nations, a preserver of sovereignty, and an enforcer of civility.  I can first find suggestion of such a place in Rousseau, and then again in Kant, and the honor of housing such a temple so near to home often strikes me as impossibly utopian.  And daily, the grisly newspapers are delivered, and I realize that indeed it is just that.

An international government of nations seems the inevitable result of a world populated by them - just as one should hope that a government of individuals would eventually be formed in a state similarly occupied, rather than a disorganized horde of people finding contentment in perpetual lawless chaos.  After the First World War, in an age in which it seemed that imperialism was on the wane, and the first clicks and buzzes of technology made internationalism apparently the next big thing, our own Mr. Wilson, that is, Woodrow, was the globe’s best visionary, and did what he could to bring about the future prematurely.  Back then, it was the Europeans who wouldn’t relinquish the illusory dominions of the nation-state, and the League of Nations, once formed, was nary but a gentlemen’s club fraught by whining.  One more World War later, and a few more intimidating advances by the scientific engineers, and we now have the prominent slab on the East River, the United Nations; and this time America, seeing itself otherwise unopposable, sulks and hinders the prospects of global governance. 

At least since the ascendance of Mr. Reagan and the unilateralist right (and descended all the way from Nixonian bluster), the U.S. has withheld its dues, shirked its committee responsibilities, wielded its veto powers with impunity, and otherwise ignored the dictates and preferences of the one hundred and seventy-odd other United Nations.  We have no Rousseau to remind us of the logic and beauty of the U.N.’s existence, or its utility to higher civilization, and we have no such brazen critic, besides I, who will point out that our own stalling and ballyhooing in the Secretariat’s hallways is quite directly related to this season’s eruption of tragic war in Israel - and no less responsible for the emergence of such bitter resentment towards America that half the world would send us fireballs.  We reside in a world nearly matured enough for civilized discourse between entire nations, and yet we, solely, act with imperial old-fashionedness, like Charlemagnes holding our own at any cost.

The pipe-dream of a worldwide governing body is, unfortunately, as fragile as any other, and is done in by even one non-participant.  But imagine a hundred and eighty willing participants.  Is it the end of war, as Kant would have it?  I haven’t got so much faith in men’s tempers, and I’ve got far too much in men’s lethal ingenuity.  But a United Nations with a mandate and the full support of its members - that is, the world’s population - is obstructed by nothing but its own convolutions from accomplishing all the fairy wonders of every philosopher’s vision.  Nations would disagree with one another, and occasionally fight, but if one bumped a slumbering neighbor, or flooded his borders with hungry refugees, they would have hell to pay for it, and the ire of six billion pairs of eyes warming their cheek.  As an individual troubled even by the use of too crowded a public restroom, I contend that such a prospect would be motivation enough for a nation, bound in a union, to behave itself generally, and thus improve the political state of the world.

But the United Nations as we have it is not yet that organization.  By force of will, it is more capable than its predecessor, the League, ever was, but it is organized in a Byzantine manner reflective of a hundred different cultural bureaucratic styles, and most importantly, it is viewed with half-sibling contempt by its most powerful member, our United States.  When the United Nations acts and succeeds, it does so with the blessing and strength of the U.S.; when it merely talks into the wind, it does so because the U.S. is running the fan.  One can only hope that the leadership of this country, descended from men who would admire the idealism of such an organization, will themselves recognize the value of participation, and even a country such as ours’ responsibility to the world at large.  Yet our Mr. Bush already warns against an American role as global police-officer, or international nation-builder.  I ask how can human civilization govern itself without some such entity?  And isn’t it better it were us, acting with presumed benevolence and at least some accountability, than a despot unconstrained by law or public opinion?

The United Nations, streamlined, and raised in prominence, is the very body required for such tasks, and the United States is its necessary patron; and in those moments when I first wake in the morning, and am not thinking totally clearly, I can almost smell the emergence of international democracy, just as our bewigged forefathers must have on the stifling summer breeze of Philadelphia - not to mention Rousseau again, hopelessly meandering the gardens of Versailles, which he must have surely known was a doomed paradise.

 ---

Israel, under the leadership of Mr. Sharon, has committed itself to destroying the Palestinian political infrastructure, in order to hold an unmitigated advantage in eventual peace negotiations.  Mr. Sharon will never sit across a table with any Arab who has a reputation; he is seeking a novice to barter against.  Thus Mr. Arafat, barring intervention from the outside, is well doomed.  But for his part, Mr. Arafat would rather be killed and martyred, than survive through politically debilitating compromise.  The untold ambitions of both men bode badly for their people.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush for too long assented to Israel’s argument that it was laying siege only to terrorism, just as he had in Afghanistan, and now their momentum is greater than any Rose Garden rhetoric he is able to muster.  His ambivalence is clearly traced through a review of the newspapers leading up to recent days, until he appears beside the more lucid Secretary Powell, suddenly having chosen a position.  It is no wonder the Israelis have ignored him, and will continue to, playing Red-light, Green-light as he is with their very security and sovereignty.

And the woebegone Palestinians, desperate, have also shown themselves to be, politically and physically, suicidal.  Were I not a field-mouse but indeed one of them, and I saw my neighbor or my son strapping one of those nail-studded bombs to his chest, I would stop at nothing to dissuade him.  For, from my comfy elbow-chair I can see clear that for all the coffee-sipping Israeli teenagers a Palestinian militant might kill with his bomb, he also ensures another hundred of his own will be overrun by tanks, their houses bulldozed.  But from within the streets of the occupied towns, I suspect there is no such lofty vantage point, and suicide and murder make perfect sense.  I offer earnestly, though it sounds naïve, that somebody, anybody, must simply choke down their pride, and be the first to ascend the high road.  It has been pointed out to exhaustion, that in time there will be a Palestine, and there will be an Israel - it is only now a matter of how many civilians must be killed for it, and how much will they loathe each other across that eventual border.

--- 

And while Mr. Bush, Mr. Sharon, and Mr. Arafat are all embroiled, I would also, unpopularly, put some obligation upon God for the strife.  I know that I shall earn few allies in our superstitious age by pointing an accusative finger at the Father of All Things, but if I am going to take the broad view that I have promised, I must account for the influence of the Prime Mover in the dispute over the Holy Land.

I have addressed the unnatural, if practical, conceit of forming nations out of populations, and if I have not yet been clear, I should say I support the idea.  I known of no better way to organize political bodies, and to maintain them at a manageable scale which preserves a degree of local right, and individual freedom (in the better cases). 

But our era is a transitory one, between an age of mythological convictions and one of pragmatic, political necessity, and in Israel, we see these two drives combine into an unhappy hybrid, religious politics.  It is right and reasonable that the Jews form a nation, just as it is right and reasonable that the Palestinians form their own.  But the undeniable inkling of divine right that seeps into the argument for each makes the situation untenable.  The problem with divine anything is that it makes compromise and debate impossible - it is like trying to multiply by zero.  The Israelis must desire a nation not because they are the Chosen People returning to the Promised Land (language that only recently has been marginalized, but is no less of a compulsion to the participants), but because it is a political necessity that a stable nation be established in this region, so that a United Nations can more equanimously govern the governments of the world.  For the same reason, the fairly new movement of Islamist militarism is purely destructive, as it undermines the ability of a United Nations to claim a mandate over its whole membership, and resolve its eventual disputes.  There are factions on both sides that, in the sultry climate of war, are once more nourishing destructive religious motivations for what is purely a political problem.  If the residents of the Levant cannot, by now, see that there are too many Gods for any one of them to be worth their Damns, then none of the parties involved deserve the freedom and security that they are fighting for.  Every time God’s will is invoked, expect an explosion to follow.

 ---

On such a lethal briar, this may be the particular thorn that has the world in a tizzy.  We would like to think that disputes can be resolved on the merits of the parties, but in Israel, there are thousands of examples of every kind of shameful human behavior, and nothing of redemption.  Protests around the world erupt with equal fervor in favor of the Palestinians - who are at once innocents driven from their homes, and subhuman murderers of civilians based on nationality and race - and for Israelis - simultaneously defenders of a hard-won homeland, and brutal occupiers of a defenseless ethnic population.  Both are historically moral people lashing out in the dark, without reason, without thought, and without recognition of their futility.

And we are complicit bystanders, a political force in the world of such magnitude that we should be buffoons to think we have not had a hand in creating this situation.  We established the State of Israel, as a pivotal member of the young United Nations, and, for decades, we have buoyed it against an unreasonable tide of opposition in its geographic vicinity.  In the process, we have alienated the Muslim world by our disproportionate attentions, and we have hobbled the effectiveness of the United Nations by wielding it towards our own national agenda, and not towards the betterment of humanity at large - for which it was, rainbows and dandelions, intended.  The problem of Israel shall not be solved by a horde of small minds moving forward in baby steps.  The world is due for a profound shift in political momentum, away from the petty concerns of nation-states and their local problems, and on to the dynamics of nations, behaving as individuals, in civil interaction, behaving as a whole.  There is even already a building for it, here in dandy old New Amsterdam.

 ---

Our readers, ever dependent upon this paper’s sage judgements, might wonder if we have devised a grand solution to this insoluble conflict.  None of us here would presume so great an achievement - but we do believe that it will not come by the dispatch of various cabinet secretaries, and years of niggling over tortuously gerrymandered borders.  Relief will require either the emergence of a Churchill or a Roosevelt from our lesser statesmen, or the elevation of one of our lessers into such a figure,, and the commission of an act of extraordinary courage and diplomacy.

Fancy, were I the president (and I should  not like to be so), I would even now be on the ground in Israel, or perhaps on horseback, for the photographers.  I should be there not as a gesture of American occupation, but with a message that our country chooses to use its considerable strength, and heretofore underwhelming humanity, to give substance to the will of the United Nations.  In fact, I might ride just beside, and ever-so-slightly behind, that organization’s much put-upon Mr. Annan, as a gesture of America’s intent.  The first achievement is that the fighting should be ceased, and it seems that an American head-of-state cantering through the streets of Israel, pledging allegiance to nobody and therefore hope to both sides, would be at least a curiosity enough to stay the gunfire for a while.

There is, quite evidently, nobody who deserves the Holy Land.  And if the world is going to harbor a whole pantheon of infallible mononymic gods - as it seems it must - then our political institutions ought to reflect that.  Whitman proves it possible, speaking for the race: “Do I contradict myself?  Well then, I contradict myself.” 

Jerusalem must belong to the United Nations, and be governed by it, and policed by it.  The State of Israel must be preserved in its granted borders, and recognized by every member of the U.N.  And Palestine must be formulated and self-governed, though in its nascence, it, too, deserves the protection and mandate of the United Nations. 

None of this is novel, other than the boldness by which we propose it to be executed.  But those aforementioned physicists holed up in their underground particle colliders will tell you also, that since Newton, men have known that any force will be met only by an equal and opposite one.  The war now raging in Israel, and promising to spread, is a fierce momentum; and snivelling nationalist politics, and small gestures, stand no chance of slowing it.     3W   

 (home)


NOTICES

 

EJECTED FROM THE WHITE HORSE

However reluctant we may eventually be to relinquish our contemporaneity, we are always aware of history, and our place in it.  With our posterity in mind, and in homage to those already upon the dust-heap, we sought out a few landmarks in choosing venues from which this paper could be gotten, among them the famous White Horse Tavern of Hudson Street.  With the same good-natured innocence and intuitive sagacity with which this entire project is undertaken, we had our distributor regularly stock a small pile of THREE WEEKS  in a corner of that venerable pub, from which the intoxicated and the out-of-town could leisurely browse.  The White Horse, of course, is mainly known for having housed the drinking binges of some better-known bohemians, and perhaps most famously, was the off-hours study of Dylan Thomas.    That the tavern is these days frequently visited by seekers after literary history - more often than those who are making it - seemed to us all the more reason to insert ourselves into their path, to prove that history still vital.  And as our delivery-man reports, the management saw it quite the same way - a scant intrusion of rag paper, in exchange for an impression of cultural vitality.

In the rounds of the most recent number, however, the White Horse Tavern stopped our man short, and forbade him from depositing his burden.  We had been banished, for untold reasons.  Indeed, the fellow behind the bar allegedly claimed ignorance on the subject, and that neither did he ever know who we were, nor did he care, and that even twenty-five of our humble pamphlets beneath his pay-phone were too much litter for him to bear. 

We are not in the business of making enemies, although it does seem to be a by-product of our profession, and so we acceded to his request.  As such, the White Horse Tavern no longer carries THREE WEEKS, and, we think, has done itself the favor of stepping back forty years, and dooming its eventual obituary to unnecessary brevity.  We shall not hold a grudge, but we do ask that nobody ever refer to the venerable White Horse Tavern as an ally to this paper, when this paper is a larger gorilla.  Until then, we recognize every individual’s right to his opinion and his real estate, and besides we have little worry that we will ever run out of places to drink, and be forced to swallow our pride, and our Scotch, on Hudson Street e’er again.

 

ADVANCES ON OTHER FRONTS

While Mr. Thomas’ old booze haunt was throwing us bodily from the premises, the ivory tower uptown was opening its gates, in the form of inclusion in the computer catalog at the New York Public Library.  The grand library, in its wisdom, has stocked this periodical since its inception, but its overworked clerks have only just got round to typing us into the database.  It was a silent incident, but we think a significant one.  Pass between those old stone lions, climb those disproportionately tiring stairs, and click this paper’s name into the terminal, and there you will find what we have found - validation, confirmation, inclusion, and a nod towards a new moment in our literature.  Mr. Brownejohns did find reason to complain, however, noting that the genre categories under which THREE WEEKS could be found were nothing more lofty than Wit and Humor; New York City; and America.  Not that these are not all high priorities of ours; it is only the old riddle that once something is called witty, it ceases to be.  We have requested the additional category of Indignation, and await a response.

(home)


LANGUAGE

 

ON PROFANITY

 

A DEFENSE OF FILTH

 

A Cusser in Michigan Vindicated by the Courts

 

by Alexander Swartwout

 

 

The judicial system owes the reasonable American people a good deal of retribution, and we should be satisfied that it has begun the job with the overturning of the conviction of one Mr. Timothy Boomer of Michigan, who apparently does not look like a sailor, but speaks like one.  It was Mr. Boomer who, while on a recreational excursion upon a lake, found himself overboard from his canoe, allegedly at the hands of his jocular ‘friends.’  The water in that part of the country being quite frigid, something primeval was triggered in Mr. Boomer’s mind, and he let loose with a string of epithets, expressing, with perfect efficiency, both his physical shock and disgust at his startling new condition of wetness and coldness, and his fury against his ‘friends,’ with whom, we presume, he shares that special sort of tortuous and teasing relationship we all senselessly covet from our allies. 

Unfortunately for Mr. Boomer, there were present upon the scene also a number of conservative matrons with an excess of energy for complaint, their overprotected toddlers, and a single Michigan police officer, who, impossibly, was conscious of a hundred and five-year-old state law prohibiting public usage of words considered indecent by the gentry and the shut-in.  Mr. Boomer was fined seventy-five dollars, and sentenced to four days of  community service for his language.  A patriot, and an exemplar of freedom, he politely appealed, and we are thus brought to his happy exoneration by Michigan’s Court of Appeals.

The editors of this paper wholly support the decision by the court, and the freedom of a person to utter vile oaths in moments of strain or as an alternative to coherent expression.  But Mr. Boomer’s lawyers - lacking imagination or scruples - argued that the issue was one of First Amendment rights, and that even philological salt of the most impolitic nature was still protected expression, thanks to James Madison.  To us, this is a perversion of the Framer’s intent, and we abhor the idea that our enlightened American forebears really felt they were merely doing favors for foul-mouths, just as we know they would cringe at the favors they have done for modern firearm fanatics, less than concerned about the intrusion of foreign kings into their breakfast nooks, than the progress of woodchucks past their backyard Maginot Lines, or federal marshals beyond the walls of their compounds.  The First Amendment, while we agree it ought to be protected in excess or not protected at all, is really a matter of free press, and meaningful expression, and it is admittedly extended too often by barristers and contemporary artists who have nothing better to do but needle their contemporaries, and nothing more meaningful to say other than “Is this annoying to you?” 

The matter of Mr. Boomer and his bad language is one we believe to be scientific, and not political, and hold that the right to use foul words is a right of Homo Sapiens as sure as the right to breathe and eat.  This stance is supported by decades of primate research, and not a little bit of personal experience.  While I am not a fellow who takes language lightly, and who finds pleasure in devising more intricate and nuanced methods of expression than to constantly refer monosyllabically back to copulation and scatology, I am still prone, in a heated moment, to utter a terse oath.  What dark core, then, do I betray with my occasional curses?  None but that first bared by Mr. Darwin.

Our capacity for language originates in a specific area of the brain, which is quite easily mapped by neurologists equipped with electrodes enough.  Of interest in this case is the corollary fact that when epithets are stimulated reflexively by similarly wired subjects (say, by all of a sudden hammering upon their toes), the area of the brain engaged is a different one - a region in the opposite hemisphere of the brain, and closer to the emotional centers.  The language region, meanwhile, is more closely connected to the rational areas of the mind.  Curse-words, it seems, are generated by separate impulses from plain old words.

Delightfully, these impulses, and this area of the brain, are shared with us by our cousins, the chimpanzees.  Indeed, chimpanzees have demonstrated that they even possess a considerably developed language center in their left brain, and lack only vocal cords for expression.  When taught sign language, these hirsute fellows are remarkably adept at developing language in similar fashion to our own.  An example is a chimp, given a vocabulary word for ‘drink,’ and a vocabulary word for ‘fruit,’ and then offered a watermelon, compounded his own vocabulary words, and named the treat ‘drink-fruit.’  Water-melon is not much of an improvement, and frankly embarrasses me for ever having used such a cumbersome terminology.  Still, this is how our language is made.

The gesticulating chimps, being chimps, also devised compound signs for their own fecal waste, and generally did so by calling it after themselves (their human companions are generous enough to give them names) and then adding as a suffix the sign for -dirt.  Thus, a monkey named Jo-Jo will produce ‘Jo-Jo-dirt.’  All of this takes place, say the neurologists, in the region of the chimpanzee’s brain analogous to our own rational language center.

Now, our defense of Mr. Boomer emerges.  Having devised their own dirty words, it was observed that the chimps, in moments of high stress or excitement, will reflexively repeat that sign - ‘Jo-Jo-dirt!’ - while shrieking.  This behavior, apparently, arises from that other, emotional center of the right brain, analagous to where our own oaths come from - these are true monkey swears.  And like our own simple vocabulary of expletives, the chimpanzee’s is based mostly on scatology and copulation.  Vituperation seems to be, besides a reflexive behavior only marginally related to language formation, also a primitive function common to all the higher primates. 

Having just stubbed my toe, and in spite of my good breeding and my adoration of refined expression, having resultantly uttered a syllable of invective, this hypothesis jibes well with my senses.  A good curse is shouted before the steady hand of Reason can have its influence; and in uttering the satisfying lingual plosive of most of our better swear-words, I don’t feel too different from an angry monkey throwing feces at my antagonist.

It remains apparent that in our more human moments, we will want to avoid such usage.  Our dirty words are a part of our language, and surely it is senseless to banish them outright, so long as they have any usefulness in expression.  But it is as senseless to overuse them, in hopes of ‘desensitizing’ ourselves, just as it is senseless to try and break our dependence on heat and sleep.  We seem wired to shout taboo invective under certain stimuli, and only lobotomy can ever remove the validity of that taboo from our psychology. 

Too much extrapolation upon such issues is always a troublesome enterprise, and so I depart from the subject with what is known, and only a little of what I have speculated.  In any case, Mr. Boomer is guilty of nothing but crass humanity, and if the laws of the land do not protect against punishment for that, than they ought not to protect us from anything.  If the lawyers have to reach for the First Amendment because our judges are still as scientifically illiterate as our Boards of Education, then so be it; but let the reasonable among us be aware of the depth of our fallibility.  We are not forgiven for cursing misfortune because we are Americans, or even because we are human beings, but because we are members of that fortunate order Primates, which is really all the more ennobling. 3W

 (home)


NOTICE REGARDING TIME

We can do nothing for you if this is the reminder which finally gets you to set your clocks ahead to Daylight Savings Time  - by now you have been fired, abandoned, and stranded, in all likelihood.  But we would like to acknowledge the phenomenon anyway, because the great temporal shift is one of our favorite mass-actions.  At 2 a.m. on the fateful night, we like to lie in our beds, imagining Time as a great sheet of prismatic glass in the sky, lurching forward into its summertime orientation.  It is one of the rare moments when a fundamental aspect of the universe reaches out and taps one on the shoulder.

(home)


APPRECIATION

 

NOTES REGARDING FOREIGNERS

 

A FEW OBSERVATIONS GLEANED FROM A RECREATIONAL VISIT TO THE AIRPORT

 

A Reflection on New Arrivals

and 

America, Seen Through Alien Eyes, Is Improved for its Inhabitants

 

by Jonathan Ephrain Underhill

 

 

What could I, an avid student of his surroundings, dread more than the growth of too much familiarity with these environs, other than the ire of the readership when these essays grow dull as a result?  Our town, being greater even than the attention of minds far more vast than my own, is paradoxically one of the most quickly forgotten by its inhabitants, who relegate its big noises and momentous scenery to mere background, as a matter of sensory survival.  I, though, charged with offering ever-fresh observations to those voluntarily myopic citizens, must work to find daily novelty, however possible.  It was towards such a purpose that I travelled to the airport, to intercept newcomers to New York, and hopefully, their untarnished perspective.  It turns out to be an enjoyable pastime, pursuing foreigners clandestinely, blending in among the enthusiastic, and, though I have no exotic destination, feeling second-hand the vibration of anticipation, the thrill of departure, and the wonder at arrival, that pulses through such a place. 

It is worth mentioning that the security measures currently in effect, excessive and ineffective, render the airport less than the ideal people-watching destination it might once have been.  There was an age, I suppose, when fathers would bring their sons down to the gates just to watch the planes soar off the runway, and curiosity was enough of an alibi for a stranger to sit in front of the big windows of the departure halls.  The airport today is more of a comedy of commerce and paranoia, neither of which is satisfied - though those of us innocents with nothing more combustible than inquisitiveness in our baggage can still, if persistent, push through and steal a few precious moments of wonderment, before the minimum-wage security staffers pounce.  And it is worth it, to my mind, because no amount of jading seems to protect my senses from the thrill of a jet engine getting going, and the spectacle of one of those confounded things actually lifting up into the air.  When we grow tired of being who we are, I recommend this excursion, for it is a rare source of pride in the species; thousands of generations have come and gone, never having seen the fantastic sight of the tops of the clouds, and now it can be had for the trouble of x-raying one’s shoes.  The age’s transgressions are momentarily forgiven, and then the National Guard hustles you out of the terminal.

 ---

From my own experience, and judging by the testimony of a few recently alit visitors to John F. Kennedy, I am sure that more children cry, and more robustly, when in an airplane landing in this city than any other.  They may not understand it, but I expect these tots sense the profundity of the changing circumstances rushing up at them with the oil-stained tarmac of old Idlewild.  They feel how a thousand generations of genealogy, from wherever they have hailed, are being rendered moot.  The children crying as they land in New York are repeating the tantrum of birth, the first breath, the first mortal shriek.  It is a new beginning, a terrible thing, and in bawling in chorus over the whine of the jets, they transfer a little of their deep newborn anxiety into the hearts of their fellow passengers.  Thus the whole crowd of arrivals steps through the gates of this City wearing the look of the amnesiac, the stunned, the forlorn, the naïve, the optimistic - in short, the infantile.  I am relieved to report that airplanes full of crying babies even now continue to enter this country, and the best of them are coming here to Gotham.

 ---

A trip to the airport, in search of new eyes with which to see, is best concluded by a train ride.  From JFK, the huddled masses once sprayed down on Ellis Island are now corralled onto a colorful bus, which shuttles them through an unremarkable parking lot (but it is an American parking lot, and for many, their first).  From there - still unwelcomed by any white-gloved concierge or even a waving flag and a smiling eagle - the newly arrived board the A train, between two walls of corrugated steel, and embark on the final stretch of their arrival to New York, America - though for all they have seen, they could well be in a refurbished East Berlin.  It is therefore an exceptional treat for myself, or any native, to see with what excitement the visitors look upon the dreadful scenery our gateway presents them with.

On this trip, I became attached to a young German couple, although they did not enjoy the benefit of knowing it.  I followed them out from the baggage claim and customs gate, from which they retrieved only a single small wheeled valise, and carried on their backs a backpack each.  He was a young, handsome fellow with the first glimmerings of a beard on his chin, and the spectacles of a thoughtful soul.  She was an excitable, short-haired girl, clinging affectionately to her Dieter, and, in the whole time I watched, never once relinquishing her grin.

As a benevolent stalker, and a concerned journalist, I allowed a tender obsession to overtake me, and I surreptitiously boarded the parking lot bus with them, gazing around, careful to appear unimpressed, a local.  While they scanned the horizon for skyscrapers, the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, anything, I studied the two of them, bundled lovingly together, and longed to be in his place - for the thrill adventure as much as for the clutch of his adoring fraulein.  They studied a subway map - his pronunciation of American names was exquisite, such that he could probably carry out short interactions with Americans and never be revealed as a foreigner, though he revealingly called it the Metro.  Rather than step in and correct him, and protect him from the ogres of our xenophobic land, I kept my secret distance, and feigned a weary traveller’s expression.  I wanted them to see that I had seen Europeans before - even as my very purpose in that place was to wash off that exact patina of world-weariness.

The young Germans skipped through the turnstile, clutching Metrocards like keys to a castle.  Still, their eyes were offered nothing but mildewy tile and gum-spattered pavement.  I stretched my perception to see any of this with their excitement - and I wondered almost aloud why on Earth such a notorious port of entry, and such a legendary beacon of opportunity and hope, should look so much like an interminable public restroom, and not show off even a little of the better face of America.  But the lovers were unfazed, and now they were part of a small flock of newly landed visitors, all chattering in homegrown accents, dragging their luggage, anticipation still undiminished by New York’s poor showing.  Apparently there was something in the clammy air that charged their hopes, but I was straining to understand why they didn’t just turn back to their country cottages and cobblestone streets.

I sat across from the German couple on the train, so that I could keep track of the intensity of their happiness.  They clutched each other and their suitcase, and watched as the frame houses of the Rockaways whizzed by, as nondescript a landscape as man ever made.  And yet it was renewed for me, because the young man, obviously enjoying the level of dependence his paramour was showing, huddled against his chest, confidently pointed out the novel architecture of the American outlying city.  How practical, how efficient it was.  In each of those buildings, lived Americans, New Yorkers.  They seemed to think this without thinking consequentially; how did they live?  What about those grey mornings broken by the roar of jets, and promising little out the front window?  When everything is new, such secondaries aren’t considered.  The dreary lives all eight million of us bear up under are, everyday, marvelled at from the airport subway, even before the landmarks are, even before the showy spires of Manhattan are ever seen.  I was heartened.

And then, over the jagged horizon appeared a tiny grey smudge, the mighty icon, the Empire State Building.  Now smiles turned to serious mouths.  Chatter and excitement to studious silence.  The building, it felt to me, was my own, and I became immensely proud at how it was enjoyed, even at such an unspectacular vantage.  The whole city suddenly became mine - as it does every few weeks, in similar moments of recognition, of the awe that we simply aren’t capable of maintaining constantly.  A great, filthy, teeming calamity, built for no one in particular, but for its own utility.  I struggled not to get up and sit next to my German couple, and wrap my own arms around them.  I felt like a guest at their wedding.

A transfer station came, and the Germans got out, and ran for their lives through the tunnels to their connection, and I, exercising caution, opted to set them free.  I was sure they had heard terrible stories about people like me, who followed you home from the airport and stole all your traveller’s checks, and kidnapped your smiling mistress.  I wanted them to be free of needless fear, and thought it would be too much to explain to them, still breathing their first American breaths, that I was a well-wisher, and that I was only borrowing their enthusiasm, to rekindle my own.  Indeed, arriving at the office, I found my old ability to gaze out the window, and forget history entire, and the whole future, and just be impressed with what we’ve got here. 3W

(home)


EDUCATION

 

THE FORMER SMARTEST BOY IN THE WORLD

 

OUR SYMPATHIES TO A PRODIGY

 

On an Example of Unsurpassedly Poor Parenting

 

And How it Takes a Village...

 

by Alexander Swartwout

 

 

When Mrs. Chapman initially confessed her fraud, I must admit to being guilty of that most heinous of passive offenses, indifference.  But the subject has stayed with me, whether by a lack of industry on my cerebrum’s part, or because there is some greater significance to the tale itself, I cannot yet be sure.  But I do know that I no longer don’t care, and the plight of poor Justin Chapman, and the abuses of his too-typical mother, now seize my attention, and crave explication.

Mrs. Chapman is, of course, the mother of the fraudulent boy genius earlier named, and the confessor of the crime of counterfeiting him.  She is the impresario responsible for his astonishing test scores, his uniquely precocious abilities across the range of science and the humanities, and not least, his considerable publicity presence. 

Justin is the debunked prodigy, a boy who registered an I.Q. of 298 - a number which makes even this humble author blush, regardless of my opinion on the validity of that quasi-phrenological monkey-test.  He was, numerically, the most brilliant little ruffian on the planet, and by the ripe old age of two, no slouch on the violin, either.  He was taking college courses at four, and was fully enrolled by eight (though it was at the University of Rochester, which seems a red flag grossly overlooked by his admirers), and had just earned a decent B in Ancient History.  A sporting equipment company was using him to sell bicycle helmets, pitching the yarn that such a brain should not be padded by any lesser product.  The whole thing is perfectly nauseating, even without Mrs. Chapman’s revelation.

But then poor Justin suffered a breakdown in the cozy darkness of a movie theater, while watching “Harry Potter,” and he has been under the watchful gaze of baffled child psychologists ever since.  At nine, Justin is as suicidal as any self-respecting neurotic ought to be by twenty, and has already reached that realization most of our egos reserve for adolescence, that “I don’t want to be me anymore.”

It is a tragically detached mother indeed who must let her child get to this point before realizing anything is wrong, but that is who Mrs. Chapman seems to be.  When Justin’s condition raised too many questions to maintain the charade any longer, she finally came out and confessed in the New York Times - perhaps for a final taste of the company of the intelligentsia - that she had faked the I.Q. scores, the SATs, and Justin’s college coursework.  All of it had been done over the internet (meaning that solid, substantial intellectual work has still yet to make an appearance in cyberspace).  It remains unclear how complicit the few hack psychologists who did meet Justin in person are in the whole sham - but it made perfectly clear to the hordes of journalists who had interviewed him and been to his press conferences why Justin only ever read prepared statements and never answered any questions but those approved by Mater.  A whole other essay would be required to properly chastise the lightweight media and the infrastructure of the ‘gifted child’ support community for being so monumentally gullible, and in any case, it would be a waste of my amply matured talents.

What has rather lodged itself in the mill of my contemplation is the reaction to the story among the public.  This paper has long marvelled at the hostility the yammering masses in this country seem to hold towards the exceptional, and what an effective political maneuver it has become to accuse an opponent of excessive intelligence, to win the confidence of the common and dim.  The only kind of achievement that meets with consistent popular approval is athletic achievement, as demonstrated with such spectacular banality at the late Olympic Games.  Success in business is viewed, if with admiration, then also with suspicion.  Success in politics is viewed, rightly, with outright misdoubt.  And success in academics is viewed with a peculiar kind of venom, the source of which is mysterious.

Thus my own initial indifference to the terrible state young Justin Chapman finds himself in is thrown into relief against my considerable critical sensibilities.  The nation at large, while perfectly happy to berate Mrs. Chapman for her shoddy parenting, at once harbored a barely concealed glee for Justin’s fall from grace.  The prospect of such a precocious prodigy made the C-average American public utterly queasy, and brought out their lust for the blood of the capable.  To my awakening mind, this is a symptom as troubling as the ascension of any role-playing yokel to public office.  If Justin Chapman were in fact the illuminati that he was advertised as, shouldn’t the society be better prepared to integrate him into it? 

There is a whole bespectacled subculture devoted to nurturing ‘gifted’ children without allowing them to be bruised by the coarse wider world.  There are clubs, and support groups, and even a magazine solely for prodigies and their fawning parents - which Justin Chapman, as the alpha male of the prepubescent egghead set, wrote a regular column for, by e-mail, of course.  But none of this serves either party, the prodigies or the relatively mild-minded public at large, which is eventually going to have to absorb them.  Even the allowance by the implicated universities to offer these children an education without requiring their attendance is a detrimental segregation.  If a child’s brain is outpacing his body, he ought to be calloused, not coddled, and he ought to learn that an education is as much a social experience as an intellectual one.  Quite likely, a nine year old in a college classroom will be subject to unbearable scrutiny, and more than his share of abuse - and yet I think it would be less than he will receive if he is cloistered in his parent’s home, racking up degrees without accumulating the proportionate number of social lessons and connections, and suffering the far more lethal wounds of muttering behind his back and detached mistrust instigated by a thousand newspaper exposés.  Possibly, a nine year-old in a college classroom, if he is truly qualified to be there, might find himself able to earn his own share of respect with his presumed exceptionalism, and even more idealistically, if all the prodigious nine-year-olds who merited a premature education were deployed to the universities, it might even make a dent in the public perception of their unusual plight. 

Instead, such individuals are hidden away like snot-nosed Fabergé eggs, and they become as unduly precious.  They are resented just as exorbitant and unshared wealth is resented, and when one of them shatters, like Justin Chapman, the public is morbidly fascinated.  The ever decreasing depth of the public intellect could well be the most profound obstacle our society will face, when coming to the fork between Romanesque collapse, and the eternal, if difficult, democratic utopia envisioned by the Founders.  Idiots cannot govern themselves, and we do less so every day.  Nor do idiots appreciate being shown their failings by their mental betters, doubly so if those betters are not tall enough to go on a roller coaster.  And yet the ablest of intellects - and I no longer speak only of these suspicious wünderkinder - prefer to cower in ivory towers, or at the far end of telephone modems.

Our own Governor, Mr. Pataki, made quite a show of meeting with Justin Chapman, when the boy was still a genius; and within a year he was on the front lines against intelligence and culture when he berated Mrs. Clinton at the Senatorial debates for reading famous books by authors he hadn’t heard of.

Now Justin is in an institution, his powers drained, as is Mrs. Clinton, though she does get a vote in the name of the State of New York.  Mr. Pataki is in a strong position to win another term, playing the well-meaning galoot as well as his contemporary Mr. Bush ever could, and certainly aspiring to the same office.  As the rift between the classes in this country widens, so too does the rift between the cultivated and the crass, and neither group seems to want it any other way, though only the latter really benefit, and only so long as their malleability makes them useful to the power-hungry.

 -

Now, if I may take the liberty to modestly undermine my own defense of young Mr. Chapman, who has certifiably been mistreated by both his mother and his society, I would like to here express my general skepticism of youthful prodigies, but on firmer grounds than the knee-jerk distaste common to the unexceptional public.  Justin Chapman, now that he is taking his tests for himself, still shows high proficiency, though nowhere near the messianic levels he astounded the proctors with when he was a pawn of his mother’s.  In all probability, he would have been a top student on his own account, if not a virtuoso.  This makes his breakdown that much more tragic to my sharp eyes, because perhaps he was destined to succeed, and normally.

By which I mean, he might have become a truly valuable member of society, very few of which, it turns out, are ever exceptional children.  On an interminable list of precocious youths through the ages, the only one who made a comparable contribution to humanity in his adult life is Mozart, and though his art is admirable, his life is hardly to be aspired to.

I shall much prefer to take my chances with normal childhood development, and have the time to mold a conscionable human being.  It is little acknowledged outside the realm of primatology and anthropology that one of the distinguishing features of human intelligence is the duration of human immaturity.  The fifteen or so years of human pre-adult development is by far the longest such period to be found in Nature - and corresponds with our brain’s unmatched ability for learning.  Even other higher animals wean their young after a few months or a few years at most, and it is no secret that sexual maturity tends to signal a reduction in learning capacity.

Homo Sapiens’ delayed maturity might therefore be a thing to be grateful for, and encourage, though it might lead to premature senility in the parents of the young.  But our brains are uniquely suited to learn in the time before they are poisoned by hormones, and hardened by harsh experience, and so the spectacle of prodigies such as Justin Chapman seems, at least to me, an evolutionary shortfall.

Such an individual’s mind is prematurely old, and while it makes for a nice show at the county fair, it also suggests that they won’t have their allotted fifteen years of high absorption.  A fast start, and really nothing much more. 

But this very fast start, and the hemming and hawing of sub-par grownups that it provokes, irreversibly warps the normal social development of the prodigy.  Even Mozart, we must wonder, probably didn’t benefit as much by the expectations of the Emperor and his court, as he would have by a tempered and unimpressed tutor, and a few more years of social learning in the schoolyard.  No child, regardless of his proficiency in calculus or on the viola, does well by the gazes of a hundred awe-struck and envious adults.  It seems immeasurably better that he should not be born with any such apparent talent, so that those he does possess can get the adequate years of development they require.  I would vastly prefer a nation of well-adjusted and capable adults, to one of morons and their stellar, doomed children.     3W

(home)


FOREIGN CORRESPONDENCE

 

DISPATCHES FROM ABROAD

 

ACTUAL COMMUNICATION BETWEEN THIS PAPER AND PERSONS OVERSEAS

 

Ms. Bonney Tours a Terminal in Germany 

Our Eliza has made her way to Europe, where she will for a while buttress the so-far paltry efforts of our foreign correspondents.  She was deserving of a sabbatical, for one, and also willing to file reports to slake the thirst of those frequently disparaged readers who simply don’t like anything domestic, and who insist on their prose being pocked with italicized foreign words.  Ms. Bonney, who is one of us, will spare us from too much of this je ne sais quois, because she finds it as reprehensible in American prose as the rest of us.  But she will, in any case, offer the occasional vista upon the Continental life, which we have thus far lacked, despite steady promises.  Ms. Bonney is abroad as an alternate, and when and if we have something legitimate from one of our other international peers - other than complaints about life in the diplomatic mansions, and requests for bond money in guarani - we shall get it to you as priority.  Until then, our colleague will more reliably give you your cosmopolitan fix.

In this first case, we received two separate postcards from Ms. Bonney, who seems to be stranded or laying over in Germany.  One pictured Frankfurt in smoking ruins, in blurry black-and-white, and carried a caption: “1945.”  The other showed four tanned young women, with bare backsides facing the camera, as they motored a boat across a tranquil blue body of water.  The four of them, seemingly unconcerned about ramming another yacht or conking out a porpoise, had their faces turned invitingly over their shoulders, to see what we think of their hindquarters, and in the meantime offering also a glance of their bared breasts in profile.  Whether Ms. Bonney intended anything by the combination, we do not know.  She filled the backs of each with her hasty account - even carrying the story across, bravely, from one card to the other - without leaving room for any comment on the cards’ fronts.  She usually says what she is thinking, so we guess Ms. Bonney probably just ran out of room on the gloomy one, and picked up the saucy one as she would any scrap of paper, upon which to conclude.  In any case, she is in Frankfurt for now, and not seeing much of it.    eds.

--- 

FRANKFURT- Colleagues, Readers, Strangers:  I am in Frankfurt airport at the moment, and unable to get out.  Those who expected I should depart for Europe and seek locales of some interest might find it odd that I wound up here, and you are not far off the mark.  Frankfurt, though probably perfectly fascinating, is supposed to be merely a way-station for my journey, but it has reached up and snared me, and held fast.  It has, by its own power, made itself from a stopover to a destination.

I am a novice to Germany, and as all such types, I am currently in the process of having my prejudices dismantled.  I fear an airport is a dangerous place to make judgements, but if I can not extrude some truth from even a glancing blow with a culture, than I do not deserve employment with the three esteemed fellows with whom I am associated.  We are able, if nothing else, to extract whole universes of truth from sand-grains of experience, or else THREE WEEKS should be forced to regress into a monthly.

As for the efficiency I expected of this place, it is present in only one form: I have been efficiently shuffled into a maelstrom of senselessness and misdirection, with a connecting flight nearby, but eternally out of reach.  I admit to being rather pleased that the Germans are not the juggernaut of ergonomics and cold reason that I believed them to be.  I am much warmer towards them for being fallible, and dreaming up impossible ideas and executing them, like Mobius strips in real space.  Their airport, which is airy and attractive, simplistically boasts three halls: A, B, and C.  The passenger is conducted into the appropriate hall for his flight.  He is then instructed to located the specific gate at which his plane awaits.  These are, rather than numbered in a pragmatic, American fashion, also labeled A, B, C, D, et cetera.  Thus a flyer’s destination may turn out to be something like A-B2, or A-C10, or B-A1, or C-D3.  Mine was C-C1.  To my thrice bedeviled disbelief, such a coordinate didn’t exist.  After a few hours, and several passes through security, I was finally informed that such a letter combination could only be found in a certain kind of sub-hall, which connected each of the main halls at their midway points.  I was much relieved by this point, as my plane had left several times over, and I was able to relax, at last, at one of the cafes, and file this report at leisure.  With little in the way of an agenda, I am hardly distressed at my diversion, and hope to use it to its best advantage, and learn a thing or two about these particular people.  While I do not want to stay in Frankfurt too long, the madness underlying its cool façade has intrigued me enough to occupy a few hours.  Do not presume to know the Germans from afar; there is something familiar beneath their surface.     Elza. Anne Bonney

 (home)

 

 


 

THE EAVESDROPPER

 

-I thought immediately of the word dyspeptic.  He looked dyspeptic.

-Well, you know, what he was was Pollock’s original champion.

-Sure.

-Anyway, Clement Greenberg is over there with Pollock and they’re having dinner.

-He had a car, didn’t he?  A nice one.

-So anyway, in his latest review he had said all these things about Clifford Stills.  You know, he was a big champion of Stills, and Pollock was furious, and Clement Greenberg could just say you know I’m callin’ ‘em like I see ‘em.

-You know I had a friend once who called him, Clement Greenberg.

-Yeah?

-Just phoned him up and called him a fem-hater.

-Oh yeah, yeah, you told me that one.

                                -That’s right.                 3W

(home)


METEOROLOGY

 

THE WEATHER

 

BASEBALL, DAFFODILS, ET CETERA

 

If an American were put to some kind of pictogrammatical test, and asked to draw a picture of a Frenchman, he would probably begin by rendering a beret.  This is an example of what I would call a cultural archetype.  Likewise, one of ours would put a rabbit-fur busby on the typical Russian, and a conical straw boater on his picture of a Chinaman.  Of course it’s a perfect misconception that entire populations are so adorned, but our heads are full of misconceptions, and we do O.K.

Give a similar test to any other kind of fellow in the world besides an American, and ask him to make his picture of one of us.  Observe that he draws a baseball cap.  This thing, this unconventional hat, is so natural to us, that when we leave this land, we notice almost instantly that nobody is wearing one.  Here, it is typical, indeed, archetypical, and I think the reader might sense trouble if they walked down Broadway one day and failed to spot a billed top.  It is our beret, our turban, our secular yarmulke.  And behind its ubiquity is of course a vital significance, and that is, the game.

I am as alert as any of the most young and with-it that to rhapsodize upon - even to admit to still enjoying - baseball, is an act of chic-chic bourgeois suicide.  And yet, I am fearless of the anemic assaults of the stylish, and I can openly say, it is baseball season again, and thank the powers for it.

The game is slow, and it is quiet, and it offers more time to reflect than to become lost in the action, and this is exactly why it suits this author.  It is best watched up close, not like the gladiatorial presentation of the major-league stadiums, but in the neighborhood parks, which offers the afternoon wanderer in this city a surprisingly competitive style of play.  Part of the pleasure of baseball is the kind of air that it requires to be played: still and balmy, inevitably scented with charcoal fires, and punctuated by the chimes of an ice-cream truck, which circulates with an almost perverse insistence on treacly nostalgia, but which nevertheless regularly collects this skeptic’s dollar and quarter.  It is worth celebrating baseball even if you are the impatient new type of sophisticate who either requires ceaseless activity in lieu of strategy and drama, or that old brand of loose-limbed esthete who dislikes sports altogether, because of the sand-pile intellects of the participants, who long ago strung your underpants over the high-tension wires in front of the high school.  Baseball is a spring sport, even as it lingers through summer - and as such, it should remind us to renew ourselves, to lose our grudges against our nemeses, to replace our salt-stained shoes, to clear the stagnant air from our lungs, and to stop now and then behind a backstop, and watch a few pitches, without concern for who is throwing them, or who is hitting them, and with a wonder only at what will happen in a moment from now.

 ---

My own affection for these days and the ridiculously cloying array of pleasures they bring is, on the one hand, shameful to make public, and yet on the other, impossible to conceal.  A string of bitter weeks ended by a few days of light, of warmth, and of reprieve, will make even the most hardened of us here tempted to put an essay in verse, and adorn it with doodles of flowers and birds.  But thankfully we have opaque window-shades, and when the sap really begins to rise, we are able to do ourselves and our readers the favor of stifling such undue glee, and holding steady on our course to Reason.

As concerns flowers, it might have occurred to some of the less reclusive of you that our fair city seems even a bit fairer than usual, and is bedecked with a few more daffodils than any of us can remember.  This is indeed the case, and the reason for it still catches my breath - the luminous display of botanicals this spring is the courtesy of Holland, which, in the wake of the too-gloomy autumn past, donated a million or so bulbs to our soil, in the knowledge that, should we make it to spring, we should arrive at a more lovely one than ever.  Just this has happened, and it makes us glad that not only is there decency and philanthropy left in the world, but a few folks have even got it with style.    H.W. Brownejohns

(home)