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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.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Do We Really Deserve a Netrebko Effect? A Rollins Effect?

Anna Netrebko
In 2007, the outstanding American tenor Brandon Jovanovich won the annual Richard Tucker Award, reserved for “an American singer poised on the edge of a major national and international career.” Past Tucker honorees include Renee Fleming, Jennifer Larmore, and Stephanie Blythe; so Mr. Jovanovich’s accomplishment was no small beer.

Yet, on November 15, in an article by Associated Press veteran reporter Mike Silverman, we learned that “Brandon Jovanovich, a young American tenor” fell victim to what Silverman described as The Netrebko Effect. The bottom line: In a variety show opera gala on behalf of the Richard Tucker Foundation, Brandon had the misfortune of following performances by the charismatic, supremely gifted soprano Anna Netrebko not once but twice. You can read the performance details here. The review offered advice as well as faint praise:
“. . . try to make sure you don’t go on right after Anna Netrebko,” cautioned Mr. Silverman. . . “Jovanovich followed, singing an aria from Lehar’s last operetta, Gluditta, with ardor and impressive volume. But it inevitably seemed a bit anti-climactic.”

A Rollins Effect? It also sparked my recollection of a 1989 Times review when the saxophonist Branford Marsalis sat in at Carnegie Hall with Sonny Rollins and his quartet. Marsalis, an accomplished reed man,  proved no match for the Saxophone Colossus. Times reviewer Jon Pareles was there:

The Rollins Effect? Poor Mr. Marsalis. When he joined the [Rollins] group, offering solos that would sound thoughtful and shapely elsewhere, Mr. Rollins outgunned him with a mixture of raw vitality and a higher calculus of harmony. . . It was no shame for Mr. Marsalis to be outplayed; when Mr. Rollins is in such remarkable form, hardly any musician alive could keep up with him.”

A Psychological Basis for the Effect. Brandon and Branford tasted collateral damage via two related biases that cognitive psychologists insist alter judgment: anchoring and the contrast effect. Experience exceptional quality, and it will become your perceptual and judgmental reference point (i.e., anchor), casting a halo that accentuates the contrast with whatever immediately follows. Pour me a glass of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1945 and the magic of a subsequent quaff of Ripple will be agonizingly diminished. (apologies to Fred Sanford)

Be Careful What You Wish for. Please tell us, Mr. Silverman, that in coining the Netrebko Effect you did not aspire to invest it with generic status. It doesn't work in the business world. Companies dread of having products so dominant that their brand names become generic. That can vitiate the uniqueness of those brands and ultimately threaten the sanctity of their copyrights. (A sure sign of the affliction is when a product name morphs into a verb—I xerox pages, You spackle walls, Ex-wife spams Wig & Pen.)

Although The Netrebko Effect does evoke the nomenclatural mystique of a Cold War chess ploy, it, like Googling between the sheets, might unlock a bees’ nest of bad vibes. Imagine Angela Gheorghiu discovering in the morning papers that her Netrebko-quality performance as Mimi the previous night had eclipsed her estimable costar, Ramon Vargas.

Would tangled up in Netrebko prove a back-handed compliment?--a distinction that might provoke her to trill:

Ramon was good, I was great .   .   . Netrebko is better still!

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Crossing the Bosphorous: When Does Collecting Become Obsessive?

If Turkish Nobelist Orhan Pamuk’s recent novel, The Museum of Innocence, were a quiz show, it might be called, What’s My Obsession? Set in Istanbul and running into the first years of the millenium,  the 530-page volume explores several untidy fixations, each which holds viscous fingers with its successor. The central character, Kemal Basmaci, (the author's demographic doppelganger) embraces a multi-decade obsession over a beautiful young woman.  That begets a second obsession--his compulsive collecting from their trysts and subsequent meetings of artifacts like earrings, barrettes, lipstick dispensers, and lipstick tinted cigarette butts. (Such keepsakes allow him to recapture the relationship in its brief bloom.)

When all prospects for the union dissolve, Kemal turns to more systematic, more febrile collecting with the aim of building a museum in homage to the relationship. Finally--call it performance art, call it life emulating art--Pamuk in real life has avidly taken up research and collecting to build his own museum on behalf of his book. A ticket in every copy will get you into the museum when it opens next year in  Istanbul's Cukurcuma neighborhood.

'Tis a Pity He’s a Hoarder. When does collecting become obsessive? Much of the bad rap focuses on hoarding. The rapaciousness of hoarders bursts through the levees of personal order, spawning hyper-cluttered living spaces and mental and emotional dysfunction. If you suspect a hoarder in your midst or under your hat, you'll find a handy visual diagnostic on dished out by Smith College Professor Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee--the authors of Stuff, a field guide to the hoarding lifestyle. (the diagnostic--Clutter Image Rating Photos--is half-way down the Amazon page.)  And if a case for intervention overflows, seek out a behavioral specialist or your nearest chapter of the twelve-step confederation, Clutterers Anonymous.

A Hoarder's Cornucopia
 Next Stop, Obsessionville. But is our fixation on hoarding a red herring?  Do you really need as a collector to be a card-carrying hoarder to touch down in Obsessionville? For his museum, which ultimately housed thousands of objects (including 4,213 cigarette butts and a quince grinder), Kemal did research at 5,723 specialty museums on five continents. Pamuk himself has visited several hundred specialty museums, many of them in research for his book and his own museum, which will house 83 substantial wooden crates--one for each chapter of the book--filled with buttons, barrettes, cigarette lighters, clocks, china dogs, bird cages, a trycycle, the quince grinder, those cigarette butts, and much, much more.

Orhan Knows Collecting

Kemal and Pamuk’s collecting impulses must be rooted in our species’ adaptive biology. In hunting and gathering societies, “gathering” typically involves encyclopedic knowledge of one’s environment—knowing what is safe to eat and otherwise consume and what might send you for deliverance to your witchdoctor-proctologist. At the same time, classifying and collecting offer parallel aesthetic and cerebral pleasures. As Levi-Strauss may or may not have said, Ordering our world into categories is good to think.

Rx: Sample and Satisfice. In their research, both of our collectors might have settled for a representative sample of artifacts. Or they might have satisficed by settling on acceptable, functional collecting outcomes. But both desired more. Both pushed beyond the centripetal pull of satisficing, where the air gets thin and the seductions of completism hold greater sway. Organized collecting, not hoarding, was and is their game, but haven't they themselves been gamed by their collecting compulsions, those relentless hoarders of Kemal and Orhan's scarce time and energies?

Take it from Pamuk himself. In an October 2009 New York Times article, Negar Azimi, visitng with Pamuk at his future museum, revealed an ambivalent Nobelist:

Today, he announced, he was depressed:
I am a writer. I have books to write. What am I doing building this museum?

Orhan Knows Museums

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Bikes Bully Hummer: The News from Amherst, Massachusetts

A story in the November 2 issue of The Daily Hampshire Gazette gives new cred to Amherst, Massachusetts’ hard-earned reputation as a Valhalla of politically correct gestures and improvisations. The Gazette reported that on October 29th, more than 30 bicyclists descended on a local street “riding in and out” and “causing difficulties for vehicles using the road.” Then, a Hummer rolled onto the scene, betraying  the audacity to honk. The cyclists—perhaps sporting deep-seated aspirations to experience the fraternal ways of heavy metal bikers--surrounded the behemoth when it stopped at a red light. According to The Gazette, the Hummer took blows and saliva from the throng. Then, a cyclist lowered his bike onto the ground, challenging the driver to crush it when the light turned green. According to The Gazette (and the Amherst police), the Hummer “went over a portion of the back wheel of the bicycle, causing minor damage, before leaving the scene.”

GM Buys Hummer. Several years ago, in a visit to Amherst at the University of Massachusetts, former General Motors chairman Jack Smith told a public gathering how the Hummer became a satrapy of GM. In the late 1990s, Smith and his wife were vacationing on the Cape. Both took a fancy to the vehicles, impressed by their successful navigation of the Cape’s variegated terrain. When Smith saw an opportunity to buy the Hummer from AM General in 1998, he and General Motors pounced. They scarfed up the brand name and marketing rights to the military’s Hummer H1 and to the civilian Hummer H2 and H3. Unfortunately for GM, the Hummer soon became a public relations albatross—a brand that exemplified the ultimate in conspicuous, wasteful carbon consumption in a new era of greater fuel efficiency and hybrid automobiles (not to mention GM’s just-released Chevy Volt).

Life after Death. For some, the lumbering vehicle also became a trope for GMC’s own supersize and lack of agility. Long after Smith’s retirement, when General Motors filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in June 2009, the Hummer Division became an unwelcome asset. From then through February 2010, the Hummer’s principal suitor was the Shanghai automaker, Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Machinery, which ultimately got cold feet. That’s when General Motors began winding down Hummer’s operations. The final Hummer rolled off the assembly line in Shreveport, Louisiana in May. But as the Amherst imbroglio suggests, there may yet be a spirited afterlife for the deceased. In towns like Amherst and maybe even the history books, the Hummer may well live on as a touchstone of carbon profligacy and waste.

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Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Wig & Pen Halloween Quickie: The American Dental Association Weighs in on Halloween Tooth Filing

From the ADA's web site:

The popularity of television shows, movies and books featuring vampires has led some people to actually file their teeth to points, making them look like vampire fangs.
 "We strongly caution people against altering their teeth because of a fad. Filing teeth weakens tooth structure and, if the person later changes his mind, restoring teeth to their natural shape can be costly," explains Dr. Matthew Messina, a Cleveland-area dentist and ADA consumer advisor.
 Wig & Pen responds: The ADA has a point.

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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Behold the Trick!

In the inspired Curb Your Enthusiasm episode “Trick or Treat” (Season 2, Episode 3), Larry David, through self-inflicted obstinacy—falls prey to every child’s Halloween equalizer—The Trick. On Halloween night, Larry has been an exceedingly generous candyman until two overage teenage girls, sans costumes, show up at his door, demanding candy.  Larry’s Response: No candy for you!

It doesn’t mean that you’re entitled to go around to peoples’ homes and bilk them of candy, he proclaims.
The next morning he and his wife, Cheryl, discover the girls’ rejoinder: a backyard with trees and hedges festooned with toilet paper. And a special message for Larry spray-painted on his French doors:
                                                   BALD ASSHOLE

That’s a hate crime. We’re a sect. We’re a group, Larry tells two unsympathetic police officers.

You’ve got a long day of cleaning ahead of you! Cheryl responds with still less sympathy.

Fear of The Trick is one buxom reason why Americans typically overspend on Halloween candy. Most of us dread being caught short, so we hedge by overbuying. Consider my friend Herr Doktor Roberto, an economist-statistician who, as a frequent media commentator on the Massachusetts economy, has seen more than his share of extreme economic events during the past decade.

I always buy one or two bags, even though we haven’t had a trick-or-treater in four years, he confesses. I don’t want to disappoint any children and I do dread an extreme event—The Trick. Spending a few dollars on candy is a hedge that I can live with.*

A Mindless, Bottomless Dish. But the deal is not without moral hazard. The next day Herr Doktor Roberto brings all of his candy to work, where he entrusts it with the office manager of his academic department. It eventually finds its way into a bottomless candy dish fueled with similar contributions from twenty or so colleagues and staff members. Not unlike a street hooker, the dish is positioned with fetching accessibility to the public in his department’s reception area, poised for what food behaviorist Brian Wansink calls Mindless Eating. Multiply that enticement by my college’s seven administrative offices and for that matter by all the workplaces in The Realm—and you’ll agree that more than a soupcon of junk candy intended for children has a hefty afterlife in a secondary market that dis-graces the alimentary realms of adults. (A suggestion: slam-dunk your remaining bag(s) of candy in the nearest trash hoop.)

A Personal Note. For the author of Wig & Pen, November 1st (a.k.a. All Souls Day, a.k.a. the Day of the Dead) bears special poignancy. On November 1, 1983, W&P’s father, a dentist’s dentist, entered the great cosmic root canal in the sky. Every year on the day after Halloween, it’s hard not to think of Dad with the sight of every Mars Bar, every Jaw Breaker. To W&P’s good fortune, his friend Bob Marx recently offered a different take on the matter: “Cheer up, Lou. Candy did pay for your college years, didn't it?”
*Here’s an opposite risk-laden strategy:  Another friend reminisced that when her children were still living in the house, she would buy short and, if she ran out, give away some of their candy when they returned from their own trick-or-treating. “What did you do when you ran out before they returned,” I asked. Her reply: “We’d turn off the lights.”

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Monday, October 25, 2010

In Japan, the Macrohouse Is in the Microhouse

 Capsule hotel accommodations in Osaka
When it comes to things Japanese, the notion of small is beautiful is an understatement. The macrocosm is in the microcosm better describes the situation, especially in Japan’s limperific deflationary times. A recent New York Times feature,  Japan Goes from Dynamic to Disheartened: The Great Deflation, chronicles a phenomenon in Japanese urban real estate, the microhouse. It’s an inspired first cousin once removed from Japan’s capsule hotels. (room service depicted above)

In big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, it’s land that’s through the roof, so many aspiring younger Japanese buy breadbox- or perhaps bento box- size parcels and build heavenward. The Times elucidates:

These matchbox-size homes stand on plots of land barely large enough to park a sport utility vehicle, yet have three stories of closet-size bedrooms, suitcase-size closets and a tiny kitchen that properly belongs on a submarine.

The Times continues:

This is how to own a house even when you are uneasy about the future, observes a general manager at Zaus, a builder of microhouses in Tokyo. [Felicitously, the general manager’s surname is Kondo.—W&P]

Take the Tour. Next on the agenda is a video tour of a Japanese microhouse. Note the customary exaggerated, inflated tone of the TV narrator. Perhaps a personal whiff of market deflation will land her in such lodgings. Stay tuned for more deflation, more Japanese-style insularity.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Redemption at the Lhasa Café

Before my first meal at Northampton’s Lhasa Café in 2004, I had never tasted Tibetan food. In all fairness, the café—Western Massachusetts’ only Tibetan restaurant—was but two months old—still working things out. Following flavor-challenged portions of stir-fried vegetables, rice, and two types of Tibetan breads, one of them a wraith-like doughy dumpling called a momo, I finally encountered something with personality. It was butter tea and, for a neophyte, it was nasty--an infusion dominated by ghee (clarified butter) and goosed up with salt, not sugar (statins not compulsory but recommended).

This then was eating-out to live, not living to eat out. And one final touch: Piped-in dinner music was a cathartic lower-register drone-athon by a full complement of Tibetan monks.

Homage to Tibet. Let me underscore my admiration for Tibet and its special planetary role and legacy. Tibetan Buddhism really does offer a cultural and pragmatic hot line to at least the prospect of the Great Beyond-o (and more). Granted, the Tibetan Book of the Dead –a sort of between-incarnations Fodor’s—offers more than its share of challenging prose. But, in truth, it’s no more inscrutable than other instruction guides of Asian provenance. It has nothing, for instance, over the operating manuals that came with my Taiwanese TV and my Korean DVD player.

Given my bullishness for Tibetan Buddhism and the small sample size (ONE) of my exposure to Tibetan cuisine, I resolved to give the Lhasa Café (and myself) a second chance—nearly six years after my visit. This time I did some research. My respondents fell into two categories. The first—drawing on experiences at Tibetan restaurants in Brookline, New York, and Northampton--echoed my previous impression of Tibetan cuisine. But the second offered kudos with the following advisory: Be sure to order meat dishes. Tibetans are a pastoral, meat-eating people. Think of them as Texans of the Tibetan Plateau. (Tara, forgive me.)

Hail to the Yak
 Showdown at the Lhasa Café.  So earlier this week I rounded up two foodie friends and my son and mosied on down to the Lhasa Café. We went straight for the yak, Tibet’s beloved all-purpose quadruped. (According to the owner, the café’s yak supply chain begins on a farm in Nebraska.) We ordered three different yak cum-vegetable stir fries, including one with jalepenos. All brimmed with flavor and were perfectly seasoned with ginger, emma (Tibetan black peppercorns) and other spices. A bit of the yak was stringy, but all of it had a disarming, delicate sweetness and lightness. (Yak, the menu noted, has far fewer calories, and less fat and cholesterol than beef, pork, and even chicken.) The four of us agreed that the meat in my son’s beef dish was less flavorful than the yak, but that the potatoes in his mélange were cooked and seasoned to perfection.

Yaksha Juma Khasta

With these revelations, my doughy momo dumpling acquired new meaning. Its invisible flavor and limp plasticity were now virtues in mopping up and absorbing terrific entries. And the Lhasa Café got the dinner music right. It was an unobtrusive Tibetan-New Age hybrid of lilting vocals and flute.

A final disclaimer and more.  I know that the Tibetan diaspora offers its share of Buddhist vegetarian cuisines, some of which dovetail with Tibetan health/medicine. And I would bet this incarnation that any number of Tibetan cooks bring subtlety and panache to their vegetarian creations. Still, there’s no denying Tibet’s meat-eating ways. In the early 1980s a friend served on a security team that traveled with the Dalai Lama throughout the northeast United States. One of my friend’s reminiscences was of a visit by the Dali Lama and his red- and saffron-robed retinue to a McDonalds. This post ends with two recollections from that story: the Tibetans were received with great hospitality and many in the group ventured higher on the food chain than the Filet-O-Fish.

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Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Beatrix Potter Crime Scene

A Wig & Pen Parental Advisory: Use discretion when reading Beatrix Potter to your children. In almost every Potter tale, her main characters—everyone from Peter Rabbit to Jemima Puddle Duck—flirt with mortal danger. Big whoop, you protest; classic Fairy Tales derive much of their energy and their charm from ill-intentioned miscreants like ogres and witches; giants and goblins.

Still, the marketing of Peter Rabbit and other Potter quadripeds with bipedal aspirations revs the engine of deception: The branding of Peter, Jemima, Ginger, Pickles, and the rest of the gang exudes preciousness that can blind you to Potter’s substantial dark side. You’ll find Potter’s cutesy characters on bibs and bedding, tea sets and toys, even on a line of organic fruit snacks. The cuteness drip will disarm you—you’ll scurry to read her tales to your future grade schooler.

 Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but every distribution of tailed-animal tales has, statistically speaking, tails of its own. Therein lies the danger zone. And in Potter’s body of work, no story lives more dangerously than The Tale of Mr. Tod.

The Tale of Mr. Tod. Potter kicks off the story with the following warning label:

I have made many books about well-behaved people. Now, for a change, I am going to make a story about two disagreeable people, called Tommy Brock and  Mr. Tod.

Both are nifty role models for your children: Mr. Todd (a fox) and Tommy Brock (a badger) combine tooth, claw, and guile to abduct and eat smaller animals in Potter’s magic kingdom. Mr. Todd has half a dozen houses. When he’s in one house, Tommy Brock uses one of the vacant ones as a combination abattoir-diner’s club.

The story begins when Tommy pays a social visit to Mr. Benjamin Bouncer, who is minding the infant brood of his son, Benjamin Bunny. After much conviviality and exposure to cabbage leaf cigar smoke (we all know that cabbage leaves are soporific), Benjamin Bouncer nods off and the badger absconds with the babies in a sack. When Benjamin Bunny and his better half, Flopsy, return to discover the appalling news, Benjamin sets out in a panic to save his infants. On the trail, he teams up with his brother, Peter Rabbit. Eventually, they track down the badger, who is holed up in one of Mr. Todd’s vacant houses, on a hilltop.

The Silence of the Lambs has nothing on Potter’s description of the house and yard:

The house was something between a cave, a prison, and a tumbledown pigsty. There was a strong door, which was shut and locked. [In the yard] there were many unpleasant things lying about that had much better have been buried: rabbit bones and skulls, and chickens’ legs and other horrors. It was a shocking place and very dark.
 Peeking through a window, Benjamin and Peter discovered that Tommy Brock had retired for the night after stashing the brood—still alive and kicking--in an oven for safekeeping and for his next meal. Potter’s description of the kitchen is mouthwatering:

But there were preparations upon the kitchen table which made him [Benjamin] shudder. There was an immense empty pie dish of blue willow pattern, and a large carving knife and fork, and a chopper.

To the reader’s great good fortune, the story ends happily, comically. Mr. Tod discovers Tommy Brock in his house and his bed; the two combatants roll down the hill in a whirl of flying fur; and Benjamin and Peter get away with the next generation in tow.

After reading The Tale of Mr. Tod, Graham Greene speculated that Potter was suffering from some sort of emotional disturbance when writing the tale. Not so, she retorted, it was mererly the after-effects of the flu.

In the Confessional and Beyond. As long as the Man don’t catch you, confession is good for the soul. When my son was five or six, I marched through Beatrix Potter: The Complete Book of Tales from beginning to end. When I got to Mr. Tod, I knew that I was immersing my son in the ruckus, but I was too enthralled to skip to the next tale or even to bowdlerize. Since then (13 years ago), I’ve kept sharp objects and duct tape out of reach. And I’m happy to note that the father-son bonding that began with Beatrix Potter and her serial killers is alive and well. We don’t read Beatrix or, for that matter, Harry, these days, but more than a few years ago our transition to the CSI family of TV shows was seamless.

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Outsourcing and Liquidation: Business Topics for Our Times

So it’s a jobless recovery after all. Is anybody still waiting for Godot? Better to contemplate the insights in these two handy volumes for our post-recessionary times. With The Black Book of Outsourcing, the cult of outsourcing will be your friend whether you’re a still viable business or a downsized employee. If the Black Book fails to save your business, then turn to Last Rights: Liquidating a Company. It’s sure to smooth your transition to the business afterlife.

With their jet black dust jackets, both volumes would sit smartly on a doily beside the guest log at your local undertaker’s. But you can’t judge these books by the wry subtext of their covers. Inside, they are all business and absorbing reading if you find strategy to-do-lists and taking inventory scintillating.

Remember the verbal inventiveness that begat rightsizing from downsizing? You’re gonna love the verbal spawnage from outsourcing. The Black Book identifies backsourcing, cosourcing, heresourcing, insourcing, multisourcing, massivesourcing, and the self-congratultory smartsourcing. Surely writers of The Office could make hay by goosing up this material a la Seinfeld’s Label Maker episode, which explored the deeper meanings of gifting, re-gifting, and de-gifting.

While The Black Book ‘s primary audience is established businesses, its dust jacket, among other things, promises that by reading the book you’ll learn What to do if Your Job Is Outsourced. Wouldn’t you know that the book’s upbeat advice to fallen employees is essentially, Outsource Thyself!—either by brokering your skills with established outsourcers or by founding your own outsourcing kingdom.

When All Else Fails. If outsourcing can’t save your business, head straight for Last Rights, which serves up the mechanics of business liquidation from soup to nuts. “The day-to-day management of a business undergoing a liquidation involves many of the same matters as running an ongoing business, except that the goal is to reach a point where there is nothing else to manage,” observes coauthor Ben Branch, a professor of finance at the UMass Isenberg School of Management.

One of the book’s revelations involves Federal Bankruptcy Code Chapter 11. Chapter 7 offers straight-up liquidation. Chapter 11 allows you to restructure—to take another crack at business viability. But seven of eight firms that file Chapter 11 go down the tubes, notes Branch. Many,in fact, wind up deploying Chapter 11 to morph more advantageously into Chapter 7.

When Last Rights first appeared in the spring of 2007, it became the first book on the planet to offer a pragmatic guide to business liquidation that integrated business and legal perspectives. Considering that more than 95% of America’s businesses fail within their first five years, Professor Branch was puzzled. “I’m not entirely sure how to account for our singularity,” he observed. “I do know that most books on the subject have focused on the legal side of bankruptcy. There’s also a bias on success stories in business writing. In a sense, Last Rights is a guide to the management of salvaging as much as possible from a failure.”

For a view on the sunny side, check out the video below, which explores the benefits of Laughter Yoga in the workplace.

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Friday, September 10, 2010

Walking the Walk with Mayor Bloomberg

Mayor Bloomberg

When New Yorkers elected Michael Bloomberg as their mayor, they knew that they had chosen an independent spirit who could not be bought politically or financially. Now, with 2/3 of polled New Yorkers ambivalent about his determined advocacy of a 13-story Islamic center near Ground Zero, the mayor's steadfastness on the issue has offered us rock-solid evidence that he indeed "walks the walk."

That is consistent with Mr. Bloomberg's recollections of his own wonder years. The mayor, a secular American Jew, grew up with admirable tolerance toward Arab-Americans, Albigensians, Shriners--you name it.

Wig & Pen Walks the Walk. With that in mind, this blog's proprietor--also a secular American Jew--aspires to be more of a mensch, like Mayor Bloomberg. In other words, he asks, what cultural prejudice or angst might he give up to walk the walk, just like the mayor?

After hours of neurotic High Holiday deliberations, I’ve settled on a high-risk course of possible action--ownership of  a Rottweiler. Let me explain. American Jews--secular or otherwise--typically steer away from ownership of Rottweilers and other Teutonic dogs. In 1910, Rottweilers joined Dobermans, Airedales, and, of course, German Shepherds as the breeds of choice for German police work. That arrangement lasted right through the Third Reich. (The original German police Rottweilers had catchy names--Max von der Strahlenberg and Flock von Hamburg.)

Over the decades, this writer has encountered but one American Jew with a Big Four Reichdog under his roof. The man was a victim of circumstance: His wife, an arid Dane, lorded over an intimidatingly powerful Doberman.

Rottweiler reconciliation now?
There must be other exceptions. Next week, at the corporate water cooler, please poll your workmates. And please share any titilating findings with the readers of this blog. (A second exception:  The Israeli armed forces make prudent use of German Shepherds. A friend of mine who gushes with conspiracy theories speculates that Mossad agents smuggled and rehabilitated the first of the recruits from Argentina.)

My back pages. As a grade schooler during the 1950s and 60s, I first learned about the dark side of German Shepherds from my grandfather, Abraham Isaac Sandman . We regularly bonded over TV, but he drew the line at Rin Tin Tin, the show about a crowd-pleasing Shepherd boarded by the U.S. Cavalry and his young pal, Rusty. One day, when Rinty was making life challenging for a Comanche, I overheard my grandfather just outside the TV room mutter, He’s NO good, that Jew-eating dog.
Several years later, my grandfather—a fan of the WWII stalag comedy Hogan’s Heroes, adamantly refused to accept that its two brightest “Nazi” stars—Sergeant Schultz (John Banner)  and Colonel Klink (Werner Klemperer) were both played by Jewish actors. (Klemperer was the brother of Otto Klemperer, the great conductor.) My grandfather was adamant:  No Jew--no matter how despicable--was capable of such camouflague.

A Change of Heart and a Proposal to the Mayor. For me, then, owning a Rottweiler would be a cultural stretch, perhaps even an exorcism of atavistic cultural demons. And I’d have an opportunity, just like Mayor Bloomberg, to walk the walk. But the more I think about it, a second, thornier issue emerges like a hound at the gate: I'd be respponsible for a high-maintenance beast. For me, the Maginot Line for pet ownership has always been: Do I need to walk it?  My late gouramis--Bisquick and Sapphire--and my several cats never presented such challenges. After they went to the pet shop in the ground,  I leapfrogged right over dogs to the high-maintenance vicissitudes of a son.

Mayor Bloomberg is clearly a better man than I for the job. He could adopt a Rottweiler himself--or perhaps take a position in Rottweiler futures, or even create a Rottweiler futures index. Mayorissimo: How about leveraging a dust mite among your billions in a start-up hedge fund that embraces all four breeds of German police dogs and that spreads your risk with positions on chihuahuas and "Yin" pooches like Black Labs and Goldens? And you could manage the fund in New York's financial district not far from the new cultural center .  .  .

Wagner, of course, was another of my grandfather's betes noires.
Here's a Nazi propoganda homage to Wagner that I found on  music critic
Alex Ross's New Yorker blog, Unquiet Thoughts.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Globophobia, Bolshaphobia, and the Kessler Syndrome

Twenty years ago, I discovered an intriguing fact about a coworker. An attractive, confident women in her early thirties, she had a master’s degree and a glass-is-half-full attitude. One day, a visitor appeared at our office door with several helium balloons and a card addressed to one of our student workers. After signing for the delivery, my coworker passed the balloons and card to someone else in our office, and quickly left the room. When she returned several minutes later, she was pale and falling apart.

Later in the afternoon she confessed to a fear of balloons since childhood. But she didn't know why. As a child, she had been ambivalent about birthday parties. Isn't your father a policeman? I asked. He was a cop, no less, with a dark sense of humor. (This blog’s legal team has instructed me to go no further than to note that Dad had once tried to freak out Mom by planting CSI-type evidence in the freezer.) Then it occurred to me: my friend’s fear might have stemmed from her dread over balloons popping, a sound not unlike that of some low-caliber handguns. That, she responded, made some sense. But she just wasn’t sure about the cause and origins of her fear, which is clinically known as globophobia.


Fears for the Rest of Us. Praise the gods of randomness! you might be thinking, for having spared you, your family, and your friends from balloon terrors and other surprising phobias (see Wikipedia's phobia roster). But don't sigh so fast! Many of us have imbibed phobic cocktails collectively. A generation ago bolshaphobia (fear of communists) and nucleomituphobia (fear of nuclear weapons) were all the rage. When I visited my dentist a month after 9/11, he noted that business was booming—his patients were grinding and breaking teeth, fillings, and crowns faster than he could say, Please rinse. And now as we move on with our lives, the specter of accelerating global warming must certainly be taking its collective psychic toll and stoking the therapist’s time-honored mantra--I’m sorry, but we have to stop.

Rx for the Author of Wig & Pen. Since little is normal about this blog, you won’t be surprised to learn that its proprietor is in the vanguard among those with an aspiring collective phobia. It involves the Kessler Syndrome, which entails the scary geometric progression of space junk. Here’s how it works. Most artificial satellites travel just outside the earth’s atmosphere in low-Earth orbits. That allows them to communicate effectively with the earth’s surface and to do exciting things like snooping on military and business facilities. When one of these satellites breaks up, either due to collisions or to deliberate destruction (in 2007 the Chinese blew up their Fengyun-1C spacecraft while testing an antisatellite weapon), it exudes thousands of pieces, each which can take out other satellites. Thus, space junk begets more space junk, which begets much more space junk. Stopping the proliferation involves forcing the junk into the earth’s atmosphere, where it will burn up. Proposals include deflecting the junk with lasers or through collisions with special satellites made from super-strong light-weight materials.

Such science high-jinx gives little solace to Wig & Pen’s afflicted blogster, but as a name, the Kessler Syndrome has a ring worth suffering for. Had George Costanza or Alvy Singer [Woody Allen's role in Annie Hall ] the chance, they might have embraced it with angst. Shouldn’t the name of both the phobia and the junk-generating phenomenon be one and the same? And shouldn’t the author of Wig & Pen be the first to earn the diagnosis?

The Kessler Syndrome

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Glasnost, Amherst College Style

 Clark House Fence(l.)                President's House (r.)

“The fence is inconsistent with the way the college is; we don’t have a fence between ourselves and the community,” Amherst College’s director of design and construction Tom Davies recently told the Daily Hampshire Gazette. Director Davies was explaining the college’s principal decision to take down the 80-year-old, 310 foot-long wooden fence around the Clark House, a former private residence alongside Route 9 in the heart of the campus. Built in the mid-1800s, the Greek Revival building currently houses classes and offices for political science and several other departments.

The Amherst Historical Commission Protests. On Monday night, the Amherst Historical Commission, citing the town’s demolition delay bylaw, voted 3 to 1 with one abstention to commute the fence’s capital sentence for a year. This blog’s readers can judge the aesthetic merits of the fence from the above photo or on their own field trip to the site at the corner of Rt. 9 and Seelye Street. But they should do so sooner rather than later: the fence’s ongoing deterioration, including rot and decay—and facilitated by neglect from the college—increasingly serves the naysayers’ case. While Director Davies cites philosophical reasons as paramount, he also points out that the college would need to fork over $15,000 to paint and repair the fence.

And if he were so inclined, Director Davies might remind us that up by the college’s War Memorial sits the fenceless outdoor sculpture of favorite son Robert "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors" Frost. Still, inconsistencies remain. The college president’s residence, pictured above, is mindfully sequestered behind soaring arbor vitae and other greenery. If ubermenchen still roamed the earth, they might call it a fortress of solitude.

Good Fences? Good Neighbors?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Imodium at Tanglewood

It’s intermission at Tanglewood’s Seiji Ozawa Hall (The smaller hall used mostly for chamber concerts). I’m sauntering across the lawn to the facilities when I spot a diminutive vending machine about the height of a newspaper box. It sports an official-looking red cross beneath eight fully loaded rows of colorful packets of Imodium, Pepto Bismol, Bayer’s, and five other restoratives. The pigmy machine’s sensory overload is almost too much to process. Have I died and gone to seniors pachinko heaven? No, but there’s no doubt about the vending machine and the concert’s shared demographic.

Back at my seat, I do a 360 and observe the usual sea of grey interrupted by occasional thirty- and forty-somethings. The Ozawa Center invariably sports a smattering of even younger concert goers, but I am always suspicious that they are music students associated with Tanglewood.

Elliott Carter and Pierre-Laurent Aimard
Much of the audience had come to hear Bach chamber music, but the evening, organized by the great French pianist and new music advocate Pierre-Laurent Aimard--featured a brilliant, instructive olio that included Bach, Elliott Carter, Intermission and the L’il Medic 8 machine, more Bach, and the gut-wrenching Ligeti Horn Trio. Having persevered through the Carter, the septugenerians beside me failed to return after intermission. (The similarly annuated couple behind me who wondered whether the Hungarian Jew Ligeti was Italian stuck it out.) Carter, whose music has no tonal center but is eternally youthful with conversational and exclamatory vivaciousness, presented his relatively younger audience with inadvertent irony: He is still composing great music at age 101½ .

Such musings of superannuation brought me back to a Peter Serkin concert 20 years ago in Marlboro, Vermont when the pianist jumped into the Italian Concerto. Three measures in, he jumped right back out when his playing fell prey to feedback from the sound system. It took ushers and the audience nearly half a minute to home in on the source of the disturbance: an oblivious, elderly man in the third row whose hearing aid was feeding back into a nearby microphone.

But let us give youth its due. Several years ago just after the precocious chanteuse Sonya Kitchell began a set at the Iron Horse Coffee House in Northampton, Massachusetts, time, space, and music froze after an exceptionally loud cell phone went off. Immediately, an indignant audience-wide search began, which produced the culprit: Sonia Kitchell’s young saxophonist, who sheepishly produced the phone from his saxophone case on stage. When his time to solo arrived, his riffs revealed exceptional energy, exceptional passion.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

To Sheathe or Not to Sheathe . . .

Here’s a suggestion that will bring magic to your next soiree. Have your guests fess up their attitudes and behavior toward umbrella sheathing. This, of course, applies principally to umbrellas that collapse in on themselves; not to most traditional pole umbrellas, which rarely come with sheaths. (Don’t worry about disenfranchising the owners of pole umbrellas at your party. They will revel in smugness as guardians of umbrella tradition. And they will gloat over the behavioral foibles of your other guests, particularly if they happen to be their spouses.)

The big question, of course, is whether your guests use or ditch their sheaths. Wig & Pen put that question to thirty owners of collapsible umbrellas. Twenty-four confessed to a sheathless lifestyle, five said that they sheathed religiously, and one said that she wasn’t sure. Among the sheathless majority, eight,
including the author of this blog, admitted to setting sheaths aside for possible later use. None of them got around to using them, though, although several confessed to micro-twinges of guilt. In contrast, six nonsheathers disposed of their sheaths immediately after the point of purchase—some with relish; some with indignation.

The five dedicated sheathers all exuded a passion for organization. Some admitted to creative ordering systems of everyday artifacts like clothes and cutlery. One sheath-abiding informant noted that he had learned respect for umbrellas from his father, who had lived in London. England, he emphasized, is an advanced civilization in the ways of rain, fog, and rain gear. (When poring through his late father’s personal effects, he had discovered different colored umbrellas that coordinated smartly with the dead man’s differently hued suits.)

James Smith & Sons: London's Largest Purveyor of Umbrellas

Another dedicated sheather was a health educator who had imparted sex education in a variety of venues, including a county prison. A show-stopper in her act involved the proper ensheathment of a condom on an oversized latex “demonstrator.”

Share your sheath-worthy research with the Wig & Pen community! For starters, you might consider the following avenues of inquiry: Is umbrella sheathing behavior positively related to traditional demographic variables like age, gender, and income? How about differences in attitudes and behavior between boomers and Xers? between florists and roofers? between Shriners and Albanians?

Do dedicated umbrella sheathers have a lower incidence of STDs than their sheathless counterparts? How do couples with contradictory sheathing habits mediate their differences? (Is counseling advisable? And If so, how does one find a sheath-neutral therapist?)

Before you begin your research—one more insight, inspired by a friend in marketing. Umbrella sheaths are hybrids—part packaging, part umbrelloid. If you want them out of your life but are conflicted, view them as packaging. You’ll toss them post haste, unless of course, you get mired in proper sheath recycling.

Monday, July 26, 2010

In Praise of Squirrel Literacy

“Squirrels nest in trees?—No way. I thought they lived in stone walls or in holes in the ground like chipmunks,” protested a friend in her early 40s. A similar response from a second friend suggested a pattern. (Both, of course, were referring not to short-tailed ground squirrels but to the ubiquitous grey squirrel that has adapted so successfully in our midst.)

Both of my friends are graduates of fine colleges, but, remarkably, both have lived nearly their entire lives—nearly 95 years combined—in rural Hatfield, Massachusetts. Unlike neighboring Northampton and Amherst—both multicultural hotbeds—Hatfield—with its predominance of Polish, Irish, and Anglo-American descendents, is as ethnically homogeneous as the milk from its Holsteins. If I moved to Hatfield and its several Jewish families fled, I would be the town Jew. This year’s high school graduating class of about 40 sported one African American—a school-choice nonresident [Was she pushed or did she jump?]

Squirrel Literacy Now! If my two soon-to-be former friends from the sticks are so profoundly squirrel-challenged, what about the rest of us from places on the map that don’t involve squinting? A recent New York Times article by science writer Natalie Angier makes a splendid case for squirrel literacy and the squirrel’s—especially the grey squirrel’s—extraordinary adaptive fitness. According to Angier, they can leap 10 times their body length, and rotate their ankles 180 degrees, which allows them to grip with the tenaciousness of a reverse mortgage salesman at a senior center. Those assets combined with double-jointed hind legs allow squirrels to accelerate and change direction on a dime. If they played football, they’d be finesse backs, split ends, safeties.

The surprisingly sophisticated squirrel brain allows for tactical deception. They’ll bury a nut/seed, dig it up, and rebury it, over and over again. If they suspect they’re being watched, they’ll fake the interment and move on to safer ground. Confession is good for the soul. As a five-year-old, I watched a squirrel bury an acorn from my backyard window. When the critter vanished, I retrieved the nut and jiggered the burial site to appear untampered. Then, at my back window, I observed the creature dig in frustration. In retrospect, I’m not proud of my behavior then and, for that matter, of my unkind words above directed at the good people of Hatfield. But for me, impulse control has no pride.

Squirrels are also “master” kvetchers, emphasizes Ms. Angier. Their repertoire of chucks and kuks runs the gamut of negativity from mild discomfort to the prospect of neighborhood-wide bedlam.

A Tale about a Tail. Without question, the squirrel’s lightening reflexes, its loquaciousness, and its juiced-up metabolism give you one furry jive artist. That was much of the charm in Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, an account of escalating squirrel chutzpah in the face of peril—the taciturn, lethal owl, Old Brown. During the six-day adventure, Nutkin’s siblings and cousins paid Old Brown tribute in mice, moles minnows, and fat beetles, the latter which Potter insisted were as good as plums in plum pudding for Old Brown. Nutkin, on the other hand, offered annoying riddles and escalating impertinence, which culminated on the sixth day:

Nutkin made a whirring noise to sound like the wind, and he took a running jump right onto the head of Old Brown!...Then all at once there was a flutterment and a scufflement and a loud "Squeak!" The other squirrels scuttered away into the bushes. When they came back very cautiously, peeping round the tree—there was Old Brown sitting on his door-step, quite still, with his eyes closed, as if nothing had happened. But Nutkin was in his waistcoat pocket!
This looks like the end of the story; but it isn't.Old Brown carried Nutkin into his house, and held him up by the tail, intending to skin him; but Nutkin pulled so very hard that his tail broke in two, and he dashed up the staircase and escaped out of the attic window.And to this day, if you meet Nutkin up a tree and ask him a riddle, he will throw sticks at you, and stamp his feet and scold, and shout—"Cuck-cuck-cuck-cur-r-r-cuck-k-k!"

A Jive Artist Supreme!