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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Kvetching about Santa

From The Polar Express--Warner Movies
 In his brilliant, riotous book, Born to Kvetch, professor and stand-up comic Michael Wex pays homage to Yiddish as an essential ingredient in a subversive glass-is-half-empty under-culture. Today and during my childhood, that influence lives on via the dark nuances of Jewish American humor and in the critical skepticism of Americans of Jewish ancestry. Glass-is-half-empty Jews? To this end, we must also give credit to the  Jewish American Santa Syndrome.

Item: At age four, after asking my father how Santa could possibly gain passage through our elfin chimney, I learned that life was unfair:

 Santa Visit here? We celebrate Chanukah.

 Item: Two years later, after inquiring whether we might petition Santa for a cameo appearance, I learned still more from my paternal grandmother:

Ho! Ho! Ho! The big guy is pure fiction. But don’t tell your non-Jewish friends. You’ll upset them and, besides, they won’t believe you.

Santa, a fraud?  That proved hard to swallow, much like the jarring but gradual realization that Killer Kowalski and Bruno Sammartino were by and large well-conditioned thespians.

 Item: A critical experiment at age seven. Having hung two stockings by the fireplace on Christmas Eve, I awoke on Christmas Day to find them half empty with gravel (beloved paternal grandmother at work again).

Given my no-nonsense upbringing, I am delighted to share the holiday bobbles below, retrieved in a quickie Lexis/Nexis search:

Authorities Seek Bank Robbing Santa 
UPI—December 23, 2009 Hermitage, Tennessee
"I don't remember a Santa doing that," said Police spokeswoman Kristin Mumford. "I don't recall when a costume like he had today was used for a robbery.” However, the costume is a popular disguise among criminals nationwide. Police in Pennsylvania said a gun-toting Santa robbed a bank earlier this month. One of the most infamous heists in history, the Dec. 23, 1927, Santa Claus bank robbery in Cisco, Texas, resulted in the deaths of six bystanders.

Man dressed as Santa Claus arrested for trying to run over police chief

Associated Press, Chester, Pa. December 26, 2001
Police said William Hatzell, 57, was wearing a full Santa suit when he was stopped and questioned by Bethel Township Police Chief David Houser on Saturday. When he was asked for identification, Hatzell refused to hand it over, and instead backed his car into Houser.

Santa impersonator robs gas station                                                                                                                                               Evening Post (Wellington) December 22, 1997
As robbery disguises go, this one lacked originality, but still served to throw off the chase.

Fraud suspect plays Santa Claus
UPI—Nashville, December 6, 1984.
Garland Shushan, who said he felt like Robin Hood, has been arrested for playing Santa Claus with other people's credit cards--a scam he learned watching the television show ''60 minutes.''

Research Brief:
Claus-trophobia: Sitting on a fat stranger's lap is scary for many kids
The Standard (St. Catharines, Ontario) December 23, 2004
For the second consecutive Christmas, behavioural researcher John W. Trinkaus is investigating the relationship between children and shopping-mall Santas. For more than 90 per cent of the youngsters studied, he reports a visit to St. Nick was met with indifference, hesitance and even Claus-trophobia.

 You may be wondering why Wig & Pen has failed to include among these chestnuts an example of inappropriate contact between Santa and his young visitors. It’s simple: Wig & Pen disapproves. And most emphatically, Wig & Pen is a family blog. Still, every rule has its exceptions:

Woman accused of groping mall Santa
The News-Times, Danbury, Connecticut, December 18, 2007
A Danbury woman was charged with sexual assault after allegedly groping Santa Claus at the Danbury Fair mall. Danbury police were called to the mall over the weekend. The mall Santa told them Lamy had touched him inappropriately while sitting on his lap. Capt. Bob Myles said police were able to quickly find and identify Lamy because she was on crutches. She has been released on a promise to appear in court on Jan. 3. 

Are you a mall or department store owner who's had enough? Get legal advice here.

Warmest Holiday Wishes from Wig & Pen!

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Mind's Eye, Ears, Nose & Throat: Use Them or Lose Them!

In his latest book, The Mind’s Eye, neurologist and psychiatrist-physician Oliver Sacks explores the resilience of human compensatory powers that arise after the loss of senses and perceptual-cognitive abilities that we take for granted. These include speech, the ability to recognize faces (Sacks’ own personal challenge), perception of three-dimensional space, reading, and eyesight. The book’s final, eponymous chapter, much of which appeared in a 2004 New Yorker article, focuses on how different individuals who lose their sight develop very different perceptual-cognitive coping powers and strategies.

The chapter first draws on four memoirs, the first of which depicts John Hull, a professor of religious education in England, who after losing his sight at 43, fell fast into what Sacks describes as an “acquiescent descent into deep blindness.” After that Sacks takes a u-turn, describing three who have lost their sight but [counterintuitively to many among the sighted] have compensated by developing extraordinary visual powers in their “mind’s eye.” The first learned to construct a vivid visual world with engineering precision. The second learned to visualize equally vivid, but aesthetically couched, mental pictures of landscapes and rooms, environments and scenes. The third developed supernormal powers of visualization and visual manipulation—the ability to visualize and manoeuver people, objects, landscapes.

Oliver Sachs also interviewed Dennis Shulman, a clinical psychologist, psychoanalyst, and rabbi, who observed:

. . . I have very visual memories and images. . . My wife, whom I have never seen—I think of her visually. My kids, too. I see myself visually—but it is as I last saw myself, when I was 13, though I try hard to update the image.
When giving public lectures, Dennis confesses to “seeing” his Braille notes visually. He also can recognize many of his patients by smell.

Dennis Shulman and the wasps. The author of this blog was friends with Dennis when he was 13. Many of our mutual friends knew that he was approaching blindness, but were not sure to what degree. Like a family secret, it wasn’t discussed. At about that time, Dennis was central in a short-lived childhood trauma. Seated with several friends at a picnic table in my back yard, he stuck his foot in a yellow jacket hole. Our flight instinct was automatic--so all-consuming, that we didn’t realize that we had left Dennis behind until we saw him through my kitchen window, still flailing at wasps back at the picnic table. Fortunately, my mother’s protective instinct was as involuntary as our own had been—she had him back inside the house before any of us could blink.

Bardic Skills in Jeopardy? While reading Nine Lives, William Dalrymple’s eclectic collection of portraits of spiritual practitioners in India, I came across an example that dovetailed with The Mind's Eye. Dalrymple’s portrayal of Mohan Bhopa, a Rajasthani singer and performer of epics, reveals the bard’s almost preternatural recall of The Epic of Pabuji, a 4000-line, 600-year-old poem that typically takes five nights of eight-hour dusk-to-dawn performances to complete. Ironically, increasing literacy appears to be in part responsible for the demise not only of the bardic tradition but for gaps in the collective bardic oral memory.

Citing the work of Harvard classicist Milman Parry, who in the 1930s went to Yugoslavia to study bardic oral traditions, Dalrymple observes:

I asked whether the bhopas (bards/singers of epics) were illiterate. Milman Parry had found in Yugoslavia that this was the one essential condition for preserving an oral epic. It was the ability of the bard to read, rather than changes in the tastes in his audience, that sounded the death knell for the oral tradition. Just as the blind can develop a heightened sense of hearing, smell, and touch to compensate for their loss of vision, so it seems that the illiterate have a capacity to remember in a way that the literate simply do not. It was not lack of interest, but literacy itself, that was killing the oral epic
  Performing the Epic: See John Smith's article and photos.

If you consider yourself among the handful of readers reconciled to this blog, W&P invites you begin the hadj of committing it to memory. W&P may be just the thing to populate those vast unproductive expanses between you and your therapist.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Bravo, Don Willie!

The New York Times November 21 obit for Norris Church Mailer, the Arkansas beauty who married Norman Mailer, not only sheds light on her marriage but on President William Jefferson Clinton. In what some might consider a coda of stunning irreverence, the obit concluded with an extract from her memoir, in which a female friend in Arkansas politics told the late Ms. Mailer:

“I guess he [Clinton] slept with every woman in Arkansas except you.” . . . “Sorry,” [Norris Mailer] replied. “I’m afraid he got us all.”

Which leads me to my beef with Billy Blythe, the one-act opera (so far just for voice and piano) that debuted in fragments on November 19 at the Women’s City Club in Little Rock. (No new performances as of this writing) Composed by Arkansas natives Bonnie Montgomery and librettist Brit Barber, the opera distills a day in the life of young Bill at 15, shedding light on the tangos and imbroglios of the troubled Blythe/Clinton household. Highlights include Willie’s confrontation with his alcoholic step-father and the future president’s contemplation of his mother’s stratigraphic application of makeup.

Don’t get me wrong—my sympathies are with those who seek the cosmos in a grain of sand, but any opera that trains a psycho-historical micro-lens on William Jefferson Clinton is missing the point: Mr. Clinton and his supersized appetites—from belles to books to burgers--are made to order for the grandest of grand opera. More to the point, hasn’t Willie proved his worth as the Don Giovanni of our times?

Hail, to the Don. The Don transcends all cultures, all eras—he is an archetype among Homo sapiens. In this, Clinton is a lock—a gift to any enterprising composer or librettist. Some Wig & Pen suggestions: Build febrile momentum by cherry picking among pregubernatorial razorback belles, Troopergate dalliances, and subsequent action in the Federal Triangle. Cast roles for Donna Paula, Donna Jennifer Fiori and Donna Monika.

Kenneth Starr is made to order for Satan: a devil who will FAIL. Who will twinkle as Willie’s Leporello? Not the sanctimonious Al Gore, who ditched the tottering Clintonian loveboat of state. But let’s bring him back for the final scene, when Willy and Donna Hillary walk hand in hand along a Martha’s Vineyard beach—while 400 miles south, on a Virginia strand, a supersized Al Gore ambles alone.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

In China, Nothing Protects like Protection

If you seek nuanced armchair immersion into China’s dynamic culture, read New Yorker magazine columnist Peter Hessler’s latest book, Country Driving. With virtually no authorial ego, Peter illuminates the greatest rural-to-urban migration of our times through a narrative loaded with poignant stories of individuals and families and framed with astute economic and cultural insights.

They’ll be watching you. So what’s the deal with the book’s mysterious dust jacket? According to Hessler, who snapped the photo while driving south of Batou, the biggest city in China’s province of Inner Mongolia, available traffic police are no match for vast expanses of highway infrastructure.

Here’s how he depicts the situation in Batu:

. . . in the hopes of managing the new traffic in the way that scarecrows manage birds, the government had erected fiberglass statues of police officers. . .located at major intersections and roundabouts, where they stood at attention atop pedestals. They portrayed officers in full uniform, complete with necktie, visored cap, and white gloves. Each statue wore an ID tag with a number. In Batou, I never saw a live cop.
And south of the city while driving through the Ordos Desert:

. . . periodically a policeman statue loomed beside the road. There was something eerie about these figures: they were wind-swept and dust covered, and the surrounding desert emphasized their pointlessness. But their posture remained ramrod straight, arms at attention, with a sort of Ozymandian grandeur—terra-cotta cops.

Friends you can rely on.

An enduring tradition’s New, New Thing? Before you consider this practice completely off the wall, remember that China has a deeply entrenched history of outdoor statuary—complementary with Feng Shui—that is supposed to confer protection through powerful, supernatural authority figures—dragons, Fu dogs, etc.

During my two weeks in China in 2006, I marveled at such security outside factories and homes, palaces and banks. It would be ludicrous, of course, to infer that the government of Inner Mongolia attributes supernatural protective powers to its fiberglass cloned cops. But it’s no stretch to speculate that the polymer police are an exotic new twist in an enduring tradition of sculptural guardians/authority figures.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Manly Men in the Oval Office

Manly Men (left: from Pete Sousa, The White House File)
Call it audacity of hope; call it a quickening of the presidential mojo—President Obama was back on a basketball court a scant two days after taking that elbow to the mouth and an added helping of 12 stiches. There’s no denying the President’s mental and physical resilience. And there’s no denying the arduous physical demands (and risks) that full-court pick-up basketball can impose on a 49-year-old.

Still, no American president—Obama included—has approached the manly altitudes of Theodore RooseveltAnd no president before or since has lost an eye while boxing in the White House. As president, TR also favored horseback riding in Rock Creek Park, swimming and rowing in the Potomac, jujitsu and wrestling in the White House, and tennis, hiking, and, of course, hunting. When running for president in 1912 on the Progressive Party ticket, he delivered an hour-long speech with a wannabe assassin’s bullet in his chest and blood spotting his shirt. (The 50-page speech, tucked in his jacket pocket, may have been a life saver.) Clearly, TR could take a good shot, both inside and outside the ring.

A Gentleman’s Education. TR began boxing as a student at Harvard, nearly winning the college’s championship. As governor of New York, he sparred several times each week, a habit that he brought with him to the White House, where he periodically moved furniture around his upstairs private office to create a makeshift “ring.” His regular sparring partners were typically U.S. Army officers, including one Captain (later Colonel) Dan T. Moore, who in 1917 confessed: “I boxed with the President on average, three times a week throughout two winters 1904-05 and 1905-06. . .I must have had the gloves on a hundred times.”

Gloves offered protection for the presidential hands but not for the presidential left retina, which became partly detached during one of TR’s 1904-1905 office sparathons. TR kept the incident and his subsequent loss of sight under wraps until well after his administration. But that didn't interrupt him from his weekly communion with the sweet science.

Manly Men Make Peace. In 1903 Roosevelt received the Nobel Peace Prize for having negotiated the end of the Russo-Japanese War. In 2009, Obama was similarly honored. Boxing in the White House? The White House and the Nobel Peace Prize are not what they used to be.