Search This Blog



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.