Monday, August 28, 2006

The Old Telephone

It's amazing, a wonder, that one wakes up in the morning.

Better a handful of quietness Than both hands full of toil And much chasing the wind.

I have to let go of the need to know so much. What we can know is so small---the holiness around is so large. Now I trust in simplicity, simplicity and love.
---Hindu sage

This morning I received an atypical communique from a friend who is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Sociology at Ohio University. Ordinarily he checks stuff I send out with a meticulous eye and lets me know when I get carried away. This time his eye seems a little moist and I readily admit he got me that way too...with this wonderful story~~~

When I was quite young, my father had one of the first telephones in our neighbourhood. I remember well the polished old case fastened to the wall. The shiny receiver hung on the side of the box. I was too little to reach the telephone, but used to listen with fascination when my mother used to talk to it.

Then I discovered that somewhere inside the wonderful device lived an amazing person - her name was "Information Please" and there was nothing she did not know. "Information Please" could supply anybody's number and the correct time.

My first personal experience with this genie-in-the-bottle came one day while my mother was visiting a neighbour. Amusing myself at the tool bench in the basement, I whacked my finger with a hammer. The pain was terrible, but there didn't seem to be any reason in crying because there was no one home to give sympathy. I walked around the house sucking my throbbing finger, finally arriving at the stairway.

The telephone! Quickly, I ran for the footstool in the parlour and dragged it to the landing. Climbing up, I unhooked the receiver in the parlour and held it to my ear. "Information Please," I said into the mouthpiece just above my head. A click or two and a small clear voice spoke into my ear. "Information."

"I hurt my finger. . ." I wailed into the phone. The tears came readily enough now that I had an audience. "Isn't your mother home?" came the question.

"Nobody's home but me." I blubbered.

"Are you bleeding?"

"No," I replied. "I hit my finger with the hammer and it hurts."

"Can you open your icebox?" she asked. I said I could. "Then chip off a little piece of ice and hold it to your finger," said the voice.

After that, I called "Information Please" for everything. I asked her for help with my geography and she told me where Philadelphia was. She helped me with my math. She told me my pet chipmunk that I had caught in the park just the day before would eat fruits and nuts. Then, there was the time Petey, our pet canary died. I called "Information Please" and told her the sad story. She listened, then said the usual things grown-ups say to soothe a child. But I was un-consoled. I asked her, "Why is it that birds should sing so beautifully and bring joy to all families, only to end up as a heap of feathers on the bottom of a cage?"

She must have sensed my deep concern, for she said quietly, "Paul, always remember that there are other worlds to sing in." Somehow I felt better. Another day I was on the telephone. "Information Please."

"Information," said the now familiar voice.

"How do you spell 'fix'?" I asked.

All this took place in a small town in the Pacific Northwest. When I was 9 years old, we moved across the country to Boston. I missed my friend very much. "Information Please" belonged in that old wooden box back home, and somehow never thought of trying the tall, shiny new phone that sat on the table in the hall. As I grew into my teens, the memories of those childhood conversations never really left me. Often, in moments of doubt and perplexity I would recall the serene sense of security I had then. I appreciated now how patient, understanding, and kind she was to have spent her time on a little boy.

A few years later, on my way west to college, my plane put down in Seattle. I had about half an hour or so between planes. I spent 15 minutes or so on the phone with my sister, who lived there now. Then, without thinking what I was doing, I dialed my hometown operator and said, "Information, Please." Miraculously, I heard the small, clear voice I knew so well, "Information." I hadn't planned this but I heard myself saying, "Could you please tell me how to spell 'fix'?"

There was a long pause. Then came the soft spoken answer, "I guess your finger must have healed by now."

I laughed. "So it's really still you," I said. "I wonder if you have any idea how much you meant to me during that time." "I wonder," she said, "if you know how much your calls meant to me. I never had any children, and I used to look forward to your calls." I told her how often I had thought of her over the years and I asked if I could call her again when I came back to visit my sister.

"Please do, she said. "Just ask for Sally."

Three months later I was back in Seattle. A different voice answered "Information." I asked for Sally. "Are you a friend?" she asked. "Yes, a very old friend," I answered.

"I'm sorry to have to tell you this", she said. "Sally had been working part-time the last few years because she was sick. She died five weeks ago."

Before I could hang up she said, "Wait a minute. Is your name Paul?"


"Well, Sally left a message for you. She wrote it down in case you called. Let me read it to you. The note says, 'Tell him I still say there are other worlds to sing in. He'll know what I mean.'"

I thanked her and hung up. I knew what Sally meant. Never underestimate the impression you may make on others. On that note I would like to ask you to remember how much difference one person can make in someone's life.

And now, when you've recovered, the item I sent back to my friend~~~

ORIGINS: Some of us tend to think the Internet age spawned the current spate of sentimental tales, because for many our first contact with these gems was their appearance in our inboxes. Yet glurge [link] has been circulating in its current form for decades, as evidenced by this current story about the friendship between a little boy and a telephone operator. "Information, Please" was first published in 1966 in Reader's Digest, a magazine known for offering at least one of these "slice of life" heartwarming yarns in each issue.

There are differences between the version circulated on the Internet (which is the text used as the example above) and the original as it appeared in Reader's Digest. For the most part, these differences amount to the dropping of a line here and there, the changing of one word into another (the "tall, skinny new phone" becomes the "tall, shiny new phone"), and the rendering of words from the original story with British rather than American spellings ("neighbor" instead of "neighbour"; "parlor" instead of "parlour"). Perhaps whoever transcribed this story from the original was working with a hard-to-read photocopy.

There are also two key departures: one of omission; the other of addition. Omitted is a lengthy anecdote that should have immediately followed the "How do you spell 'fix'?" line, about the author's having been given a fright by his sister that resulted in his pulling the telephone receiver from the wall-mounted unit and the quick appearance of a repairman to fix the phone and to inform "Information Please" that the children were all right. (The phone conversation had been unexpectedly interrupted after a loud scream was heard in the background, so the operator had dispatched someone to check what happened.)

Added are the two lines that now close the piece: "Never underestimate the impression you may make on others. On that note I would like to ask you to remember how much difference one person can make in someone's life." In the original, the story concluded with "I thanked her and hung up. I did know what Sally meant." Unlike whoever took it upon himself to edit the piece, Paul Villiard trusted his readers to understand the moral of his tale.

Is this particular entry a true story? It (like many others) was presented as a "first person tale," but glurge-like stories are often full of embellishments and exaggerations — and are sometimes complete fabrications — despite their "true story" labels, and tracking down the originator of a single 36-year-old piece is no easy task. As usual, the better approach to this type of narrative might be to ignore the issue of its literal truthfulness and consider the message: Does this wistful tale truly represent life as it was — a now-gone world in which even anonymous telephone operators took time out to comfort lonely children by helping them treat their injuries, assisting them with their homework, and offering them bits of philosophical advice — or does it represent a way of life we'd like to believe in, one that never really existed outside our imaginations?


Canfield, Jack. A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1996. ISBN 1-55874-379-0 (pp. 14-18). Villiard, Paul. "Information, Please." Reader's Digest. June 1966 (pp. 63-65).

The URL for this page is Urban Legends Reference Pages © 1995-2004 by Barbara and David P. Mikkelson

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Maynard The Fox

When a dog is chasing after you, whistle for him.

---Ralph Waldo Emerson

Today's begging is finished: at the crossroads
I wander by the side of the Buddhist shrine
Talking with some children.
Last year a foolish monk.
This year, no change!


The temple bell stops
but the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers.


How do you tell the difference between a member of the Boomer generation and someone from the generation just before? Here's one way: ask if there's a preference toward a trumpet or an electric guitar. If you're a boy 16 or 17 in many cultures, you like things loud and fast. Boomers love a couple guys on stage with amplified guitars let out full. Whatever the generation that came before them is called prefers a trumpet section in a band, no microphone needed. Both sounds make your hair stand on end and are wonderful, but most Boomers seem to have let the wind instruments lapse into near extinction.

Anyone who knows the name Maynard Ferguson probably can tell you what it was like the first time you heard him...and maybe what the song was. For me it was a feature for him, arranged by Shorty Rogers, of the Bob Haggart-Johnny Mercer ballad "What's New." Joe Rico played it on the radio nearly every day out of that little AM station in Niagara Falls. I remember going downtown to the Music Box record shop (I must have been 12 or 13) and plunking down my 50 cents for a 45 rpm recording of it. (The other side was terrible: "The Hot Canary".) It featured a range of the trumpet previously considered impossible on just one instrument. Maynard played low down into a trombone sound...and then all the way up within seconds to an octave and a half above high C, where generally flutes take over. The arrangement started slow, then changed tempo to way up, finishing off with Maynard pasting noteshigher and higher until he nailed that last one that made people gasp throughout his 60 year career of doing it.

At the time Maynard (we always called him by his first name) was the high note man with the Stan Kenton Orchestra...but he was just about to leave along with over half the band for adventures on the West Coast. Us guys didn't find that out for a while, and so in the meantime we started collecting all the Kenton records we could find. We thought every high trumpet on them must be Maynard. Capitol put out records then without any dates on them, so little did we know we were listening to Kenton from 10 years earlier when Chico Alvarez, also from Montreal by the way, may have been the guy. Didn't matter though: we were getting turned on to some of the most radical orchestral music (and loudest) of the 20th Century.

Soon Joe was playing another Maynard feature he had recorded at a concert at Cornell by Kenton's Innovation Orchestra, which consisted of nearly a hundred players including full string section. This unit toured the whole United States TWICE...before caving in to financial reality of the early 1950s. The feature was called simply "Maynard Ferguson" and was composed by Shorty Rogers. The thing lasted 5 minutes and clearly was death-defying for any trumpet man. Maynard made it sound simple, scrambling, swinging, screeching over that instrument. It was available around 1951 or '52 on a 10 inch LP, which eventually I got, but since Joe Rico played this live recording of it we came to understand these incredible players did this music every night somewhere! Since Kenton's death, at least a half dozen such recorded concerts have been found and released...and you can hear Maynard do it literally night after night. I saw the man a few times and I think I've heard nearly everything that got recorded of the Kenton band when Maynard was in it: I never heard him fluff a note. I know he must have, but I never heard it. How did he do it?

That's what we teenage boys wanted to find out, particularly Tony Cusimano and Gerry Gullo who played trumpet themselves. By the time we were 16 and 17, Maynard had gotten lured out of the sound studios of Hollywood and back onto the road, this time with his own band. He was only 30, but believed in the philosophy of attracting younger players and arrangers with new ideas. There are recordings of his first band in its formative stages but I consider the first record to be "A Message From Newport," on Roulette which I think was released in late 1958. We already had seen this band twice in my hometown. The album and the band were absolutely staggering. For one thing, when he came to Jamestown, he played at a joint called the Fairmount Grill. The place had a bit of a dance floor and a bandstand...but everything had been designed with a little country & western outfit in mind I think. Maynard carried 13 men, and they were crammed up there so close they had to be careful not to finger the other guy's horn! The sound of 4 trumpets, Maynard out front, 2 trombones (Don Sebesky and Slide Hampton, by the way), the "angry" alto of Jimmy Ford, 2 tenors and a baritone, and a full rhythm section of John Bunch, Jimmy Rowser and Jake Hanna was enough to blow us up against the wall opposite side of the room---which of course was the bar. (The owner would serve us at 17, but I assure you one beer on the table lasted the night.) Almost all of the compositions and charts were by guys in the band.

Maynard stood out in front of that band like a cheerleader/drillsergeant somehow combined. He was constantly on the move to the rhythm. He must have been in a marching band around his home of Montreal when he was a kid, because he liked to tuck his horn under his arm and just march up there while the ensemble played away. A huge smile on his face and eyes closed, marching, marching, a bit hunched over...until time for that closing climax, when he'd face us and let loose with such a screaming, molten sound, our jaws would drop and stay that way. He loved to talk to us during breaks and gave us all the time we wanted. Tony finally asked him the question: how the hell does he do it? Critics had been saying for years that Maynard had some kind of freak lip and wouldn't last. Maynard gave the grin that earned him the nickname The Fox and said, "Well Tony, what I do is plant both feet solid on the floor. That high note comes from there. I feel it out of the floor, through my feet, and with tons of breath, I blow that thing out of the horn." Later Tony said to me, "You hear that? He doesn't reach for it. It comes up out of him."

Maynard Ferguson was the most dependable workhorse I think I ever saw in music, particularly jazz. He was there on time and no matter how old he got...and how disappointing eventually his music had to be for me, he kept going. When nobody else in the world had a traveling jazz band (or whatever it was called after "Rocky" and "Star Trek" and other hits he managed to achieve) Maynard still went. Sometimes there were just a few guys with him, but the arrangements were the same...and he'd bring in synthesized keyboards to make more sound. The other day Maynard died at age 78. The New York Times obit tells us his last words were an urgent plea to let him get back on the road. Another tour, in which he would ride the bus like always with the sidemen, was scheduled in a couple weeks. Still the sound of Maynard The Fox rings in my ears.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Once Upon A Time

Once Upon a Time by Henry Maynell Rheam
British Pre-Raphaelite Painter, 1859-1920

Waves recede.
Not even the wind ties up a small abandoned boat.
The moon is a clear mark of midnight.


You have a saying, "to kill two birds with one stone." But our way is to kill just one bird with one stone.

---Suzuki Roshi

After the ecstasy, the laundry.

---Zen saying

Having worked with children and young people most of my career, I noticed almost immediately a major gap in attempts to communicate with these generations. My childhood took place before television and before suitability ratings became recommended at the movies. Nearly every day I marveled at the wonders created in my mind by books. These were children's books and they were directed to a special world kids were allowed to live in then. When I would mention children's tales from which I had learned important things, I've usually found students in class have no idea what I'm talking about. My childhood was a controlled and protected world and I realize there were disadvantages to being in it. Nevertheless as I become an old man, I treasure the memories, the stories, and the traditions of that abandoned world.

I've preserved, not always carefully, many of those books to share---especially the fascinating illustrations---with my own children. But the timing and the choices available to contemporary youth are very different from the 1940s. My daughter, almost 15, can get back as far as the 1950s with her interests...but she pretty much comes skidding to a stop there. Letting loose of a televised perception is something like coming to the edge of an earth that's flat. Falling off would be madness and a nightmare of monsters. Besides, there are so many "adult" problems kids have to solve, like families falling apart, teachers too "stressed" to take interest, murder and mayhem in the news, being marked by capitalism as major consumers, whether our species will survive on the planet. And so I was interested this morning to learn Norton Anthology series---those huge thick books with tissue-thin pages you may have had to read in school somewhere---has added a children's literature volume. What follows is a keen review of the thing. Despite its reservations, I'm going to see if I can find one today, become lost in that world again, and look for the magic key to get out.

Let Sleeping Beauties Lie
By Dorothea Israel Wolfson
Posted August 2, 2006
This essay appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of the Claremont Review of Books.

A review of The Norton Anthology of Children's Literature: The Traditions in English edited by Jack Zipes, Lissa Paul, Lynne Vallone, Peter Hunt, and Gillian Avery

Parents have always fretted about what to read to their children, and experts have always been ready with advice. In their educational writings, John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau together mentioned only three books worthy of a child's mind. Locke recommended Aesop's Fables and Reynard the Fox, while in Emile the tutor Jean Jacques offered his charge only Robinson Crusoe. How times have changed. The new 2,471-page, lap-crushing Norton Anthology of Children's Literature includes several hundred entries, both old and new. But far from representing an efflorescence in childhood literature, this volume marks the genre's sad end.

The editors of the anthology acknowledge in passing their debt to Locke and Rousseau—who in a sense created our modern understanding of childhood, permanently influencing all subsequent children's literature. The editors, however, wish to promote a revolution of their own: a new, more candid, and frankly, more nihilistic corpus. Despite heralding children's literature as "life-enhancing" and "life-changing," the Norton editors aim in fact to dampen children's enchantment with the world, forcing them to acquiesce to the grim realities and multicultural obsessions of contemporary adults.

Of course, this could be because the book was never meant to be read by or to children. The editors, all scholars of some sort, with backgrounds in literature, education, and history, describe their handiwork as a "more scholarly" anthology, one that incorporates "profound changes" from earlier collections, and is intended mainly for the college student. Whereas editors of previous anthologies "favored classic authors" and "canonical texts," with a minimum of reader notes and introductions, the Norton edition aims to be more inclusive of "emergent" literature. As the editors state, "Our critical perspectives, like those of scholars in other literary fields, have been greatly influenced by the research and criticism rooted in the feminist and multicultural movements." Their real hope is "to revolutionize the undergraduate curriculum."

The anthology is divided into 19 chapters covering various divisions within children's literature ("Chapbooks," "Primers and Readers," "Fairy Tales," "Classical Myths," "Legends," "Fantasy," "Verse," "Picture Books," "Books of Instruction," etc.). Each chapter begins with a long introduction in which the editors supply an overview of the genre's historical trajectory, and discuss its defining works, including many hitherto unknown. The chapters contain at least one "core" text in full, along with shorter or excerpted "satellite" texts. Each text is preceded by laborious reader notes, many of which are longer than the text itself. There is also a 32-page section of illustrations from some of the great picture books, including Beatrix Potter's Tales from Peter Rabbit, Jean de Brunhoff's The Story of Babar the Little Elephant, Marjorie Flack's Angus the Duck, Ezra Jack Keats's Snowy Day, and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are.

The editors included some genuine classics, to be sure, some excerpted and some in full, like The New England Primer, A Child's Garden of Verses, Peter Pan, Ramona and her Father, chapbook versions of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and Defoe's Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, and the poetry of Charles Causley and Robert Graves, to name just a few. One could certainly quibble with the editors about omitted texts. Why no poetry from Emily Dickinson, for instance, or any meaningful mention of Shakespeare, whose plays were re-written into children's story form by Charles and Mary Lamb? But such quibbling is to miss the larger problem with this volume. It is not so much an anthology as a postmodernist manifesto.

* * *
As the editors declare in the preface, "In our choice of texts and in our introductions, we have paid close attention to…perceptions of race, class, and gender, among other topics, in shaping children's literature and childhood itself." Practically every text and every author (save for the "emergent") is subjected to a wicked scolding from the editors for its racism, sexism, and elitism. Forget about ogres, witches, monsters, and evil stepmoms; today's villains are gender stereotypes, white males, the middle class, and the traditional family. Retrograde literature must therefore be replaced by a new one, one that is, as it were, beyond good and evil: "In our postmodern age, in which absolute judgments of 'good' and 'evil' are no longer easily made, the distinction between heroes and villains is often blurred."

The editors herald this as a great advance, one they wish to promote by burying the stories under a ton of commentary. To read a children's story out of context, say the editors, is so passé (so childish?): "Discourses such as reader-response theory, poststructuralism, semiotics, feminist theory, and postcolonial theory have proven to be valuable in analyzing children's books." Thus the editors introduce Fun with Dick and Jane by noting that the "world of Dick and Jane was the idealized image of white, middle-class America." The introduction to the chapter on "Legends," which includes The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood and King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, warns that "history has generally been written by the victors and the elites, who tend to view those like themselves—white males, for the most part—as heroes."

In the chapter on "Classical Myths," the editors ponder whether myths are being "kept alive" "by unreflective adults." After all, myths are prone to "strong gender stereotyping—females are passive, males are active.... The protagonists are devoted to a ruthless elimination of the 'other' and to a savagery that is scarcely tolerated" in other children's literature. The genre of domestic fiction—which includes works like Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, and The Bobbsey Twins—"showcased white middle- or upper-class families." But the editors are happy to report that "the genre has come to reflect ethnic, racial and class diversity." Nor are they above offering advice to would-be authors: "still more change would be welcome here."

All this Sturm und Drang over children's stories is hardly new. Ever since Socrates took on Homer by banning poets from the Just City, philosophers have well understood that, as Shelley put it, "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." But to understand how we got here, we need not go back so far. There have been three revolutions in modern children's literature.

The first was instigated by John Locke. In founding a new political and intellectual order—a liberal, tolerant regime—he believed that reforming children's education was of the utmost importance. Notably, he advised against reading Scripture to children, because, as he wrote in Some Thoughts Concerning Education, the Bible was ill-suited to a "Child's capacity" and "very inconvenient for Children." Locke's aim was to take education from the hands of the clerisy, and to overcome its domineering and persecutory spirit.

Contrast Locke's sensibility with that of a contemporaneous textbook. The God-fearing New England Primer (c. 1690), included by the Norton editors, drilled children in their ABCs thus:

A: In Adam's Fall
We sinned all

B: Heaven to find
The Bible Mind

C: Christ crucify'd
For sinners dy'd

This was an education not simply in reading and writing, but in living and dying, one that did not condescend to the limited understandings of children. Locke rejected all this, mischievously suggesting that children learn their letters by playing dice. In the wake of Locke's reformation, a more humanistic educational literature gradually blossomed. Unlike the somber New England Primer, the stories were secular, rational, and geared towards children. Though entertaining, these stories were meant to impart a moral message, to help children grow into responsible adults. In this sense at least, Locke still had something in common with the authors of the old New England Primer.

In the late 19th century, another revolution took place, this time marked by a wholesale shift away from moralizing. A new genre of children's fantasy emerged, seeking only to entertain. One of its most prominent voices was Lewis Carroll. As the editors explain, his "mockery of instructional verse, rote learning, and moralizing school curricula helped move the genre from eighteenth-century concerns with the instruction and correction of children toward modern celebrations of play." This era is known as the "golden age" of children's literature—golden precisely because it celebrated the innocence and playfulness of childhood, and sought to free children from the grief and worry of adults. Carroll's Crocodile, a parody, "seemed to license childhood playfulness, fantasy, laughter, and even idleness." "The change was welcome," add the editors.

Alas, golden ages never last, and children's literature was no exception. The third and last great change occurred in the 1970s, when writers started to "push the boundaries" of material considered acceptable for children. According to the Norton editors, "In the wake of this revolution, writers for the young can deal with sex, violence, disease, and death—in particular because many believe that the innocence of childhood has been destroyed by the media and the commodification of childhood."

* * *
Indeed, it's hard nowadays to tell children's literature from adult literature. As the editors correctly observe, this is partly because the lines between childhood and adulthood have themselves become blurred. Locke thought that the "tender" minds of children should be protected from the corruptions of the adult world—and yet these are now the genre's warp and woof. "Children's literature has also begun to resemble adult literature in subject matter," write the editors, "using frank and provocative language to depict and discuss social problems such as homelessness, drug addiction, abuse, and terrorism and expanding the notion of family to include nontraditional families led by single parents, stepparents, and gay and lesbian parents."

Thus the postmodern adult world, in all its vulgar glory, is visited upon our children. The editors enthusiastically endorse Jonathan Miller's 1984 picture book The Facts of Life, which includes a "pop-up penis." Apparently, alternative families provide especially good material for young readers today. After touting the groundbreaking work Heather Has Two Mommies, and chiding Focus on the Family and the Heritage Foundation for seeing it as a threat to "what they call traditional American values," the editors assure us that "there are today no real taboos in domestic fiction for young adults, and few in books for the youngest readers. Family stories now tackle every painful issue imaginable."

Indeed, they do. Fairy tales, which have always dealt with dysfunctional families, especially wicked stepmothers, now take on a hard modern edge by tackling perhaps the last taboo, incest. The Norton Anthology contains ten versions of Little Red Riding Hood, beginning with Charles Perrault's classic and ending with Francesca Lia Block's Wolf (1998). Block, unlike Perrault, isn't satisfied with the sexual undertones and imagery of the original; her heroine is the victim of rape at the hands of her mother's boyfriend ("he held me under the crush of his putrid skanky body") whom she kills with a shotgun at her grandma's house. The editors tell us that this "story shows how a young girl can take charge of her life, while at the same time exposing the sado-masochistic ties that exist in many dysfunctional families."

Well, perhaps, but is this really a story for children? "Once upon a time" used to be a gateway to a land that was inviting precisely because it was timeless, like the stories it introduced and their ageless lessons about the human condition. But this invitation must now apparently read, "Once upon a time when women were powerless and exploited and white male hegemony ruled the world, and when the sky was dark…."

In a strange way, completely unappreciated by the anthology's editors, we have returned to the pre-Lockean age of children's literature. Locke wished to scrub stories clean of horrific images and premonitions of death—not because he was a naïf or a utopian, but because he believed it possible to build a more rational, humane world. The Norton editors break with him on this central issue. They do not believe in the possibility of a more rational world, or even, it would seem, in childhood itself. And so they have more in common with the New England Primer than they dare to admit. They, too, are obsessed with death and the apocalypse, only they don't believe in redemption.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Fundamental Madness

Still Life with Fruit and Shellfish (and insects), 1653
Jan van Kessel

In my hut this summer,
there is nothing---
there is everything!


Know that joy is rarer, more difficult and more beautiful than sadness. Once you make this all-important discovery, you must embrace joy as a moral obligation.

---Andre Gide

Don't play what's there, play what's not there.

---Miles Davis

My mother was a country girl, born and raised on a working farm in the dairy country around Frewsburg, New York. That is, she was until her father died suddenly just as she entered her teenage years. Then her mother had to sell the place and move her and her 2 sisters into a house in town. It was a difficult time, but through it all that family and the relatives were strengthened and maintained by a religion of strict fundamentalism. No dancing, no music that wasn't church, no theater, no card games (except one called rook, for some reason), lots of Bible and hours and hours at services. These were the United Brethren, a sect related to Amish and Mennonite, which communities also flourished in that part of New York. They still do, although I understand the United Brethren have disbanded. The radio humorist and writer Garrison Keillor was raised United Brethren and he talks about it sometimes---but not often.

My mother became a registered nurse and met my father at a hospital in the nearby city, where he was working as an orderly. He was not a churchgoer particularly, and some family history showed unrepented troubles. The more successful of the Carlsons were politicians and lawyers. His uncle Samuel was mayor of the town, eventually earning the honor of Mayor Emeritus of Jamestown, New York. All of this did not impress my mother's family one bit. The Johnsons opposed the relationship in spades---er, rooks. Dad had great interest and experience in drama, eventually getting a job with the fledgling radio station there. He also took leading parts in plays at the active community theater. When they married, the Johnsons saw it as my mom's seduction into sin by my father. Mom no longer went to church. When I was born a few years later I suppose I was viewed as some kind of bastard at best.

It was very strange growing up and being viewed by my mother's side this way. We didn't see much of them, but of course some family events were unavoidable. My father was well known in the area and he did his best to be cheerful and at least entertaining, but mostly it all was extremely uncomfortable. I had a cousin on that side who was a boy and about my age. We got along pretty well, but playing together was a bit strange since there was so much he couldn't do---and I had been coached not to mention those kinds of things. By the time he was a teenager he was one of the wildest boys in town, with fast cars and fast girls. His family moved quickly to repair that situation by sending him to a rigid bible college. He came back into the fold and remains there still. His 2 brothers-in-law are fundamentalist ministers.

It's really hard to measure and comprehend the effects on one's life of exclusion like this. I don't recall, except once maybe, anybody from the Johnson side trying to convert me or get me to acknowledge my sins. I think I would have been tolerated if I had approached them as a sinner in need of their salvation, but mostly I just felt rejected and alien all my life. I used to see those people once in a while but now that fundamentalists are claiming rule of the United States and the Middle East too, we don't anymore.

I'm very sensitive to fundamentalist presence around me, and that's particularly true in the schools where I work. When my son went through middle school, he received education in sexual matters including birth control. A few years later my daughter took the same courses and heard only about abstinence. Currently Federal funding prohibits teaching other birth control techniques and devices in this country. I saw a documentary on television recently about a girl in Texas who worked for 4 years to get sex education (other than abstinence) into her high school...and failed. A member of a fundamentalist church there herself, she had been confronted by her pastor with a remark that was quick shocking to me. He said many people think Christians are supposed to be tolerant, but actually "Christianity is a very intolerant religion."

A couple weeks ago Bryan Zepp wrote an essay about things fundamentalists won't tolerate. Apparently somewhere in the Bible it says shellfish really are insects and therefore not to be eaten. He presents a waitress confronting a restaurant owner that it's against her religion to serve lobster to a patron...from there to the sacredness of sperm and stem cells, and on to even a glimpse of the End Times. The essay, written I think the day before Bush vetoed stem cell legislation, has stayed with me and I'd like to share it. I'll warn you it's strongly worded.


Kosher Medicine
Keeping the jeezus wheezers out of your groin area
© Bryan Zepp Jamieson

Imagine that you are running a restaurant. It’s a fairly classy joint, nothing snobby, but you can go in and get a nice steak and the edges of your customers’ credit cards won’t be smoking when they leave.

Business is good, but a number of customers have asked about a “surf and turf” plate. You look into it, decide the menu can take a small expansion, and you add a steak and lobster plate.

It’s a hit, and you’re making a decent margin on it. But then one evening, one of your customers comes to you, irate, and tells you that one waitress has told him that she won’t serve the steak and lobster plate for religious reasons.

You confront the waitress, who explains that the bible says that lobsters are an insect, and are an abomination to eat (the bible actually does say that of all shellfish) and that she thus cannot serve it to others because it is wrong. She points out that when she entered your employ, the restaurant did not serve lobster.

You could mention the shrimp salad, but that’s only served on Fridays, and she had requested Friday from an hour before sundown until Saturday an hour after sundown off, and so you just simply never scheduled her for those two days.

So what do you do? The restaurant has the right to serve lobster. You try to respect the religious needs of your employees, scheduling those off who are observant of their sabbaths and allowing the Moslems to take their breaks to coincide with call to prayer. You can’t exactly set up different sections in your restaurant: “No lobster”; “No meat”; “Lactose-intolerant” and “No peanuts”. You already have warnings about milk and peanuts on your menu. You would go broke if you Balkanized the place like that.

Most of the restaurant owners would make a simple choice: tell the waitress to either serve anything available that is on the menu, or seek employment elsewhere.

Keep in mind that the bible strictures about eating lobster are very straightforward. God hates it. You will fry in hell for eating lobster.

Oddly enough, the bible doesn’t say anything about abortion or birth control. This, despite the fact that there were plenty of midwives around in biblical times who had elixirs and potions to induce abortions and decrease the possibility of pregnancy. Indeed, the only thing the bible says about ending or preventing a pregnancy is that if two men are fighting, and hit a woman, causing her to miscarry, they can be subject to a fine. (In America, those two could expect a fine and jail time).

So naturally, we have fundamentalist Christians who are cheerfully serving lobster on Friday nights across the country, while fundamentalists medical providers of all sorts take it upon themselves to deny patients treatment, care, or services that relate in any way to birth control or abortion.

So: abortion. No big deal. If you do it without the woman’s permission, you can get fined. Eating shellfish, very big deal. Fry in hell forever. Hiss, crackle, crackle. Bad juju. So the fundies go after abortion and birth control.

Now, I don’t have any desire to try and explain this thinking. I regard fundamentalism as a mental disorder, one that if allowed to take over a society can be extraordinarily destructive to life and liberty. Kept out of power, it’s a foible, one that can be tolerated. In power, it is madness incarnate.

America spends much of its time teetering on the verge of being taken over by one form of fundamentalism or another. If it isn’t the religious variety, it’s the free marketeers who believe against all logic that an empowered aristocracy will safeguard the rights and safety of working people.

At this time especially, it’s terrifying to realize that there are people in government, including possibly the president himself, who believe that the rapture can be brought about if America sides with Israel in a general regional war in the middle east. More rubbish based on the stoned writings of Saint John of Patmos.

Eventually someone in Israel will read Revelations and figure out that the storyline calls for Israel to get seriously fucked by the True Believers, and they’ll put the brakes on Armageddon. Hopefully. Israel is afflicted with their own brand of idiot fundies.

In the meantime, we have fundies here who are slobbering that God has placed them in positions where they can interfere with patients’ rights to legal and safe treatment because that’s what God wants, even though he’s sorta forgotten to mention it until the past century or so.

Now, if it was just a few fundies employed by stores and hospitals doing this, the stores and hospitals could tell them to seek employment in fields that didn’t conflict with their religious beliefs. I understand Dr. Dino is hiring. But unfortunately, organized religion has decided to get their way over the American people by simply buying out as many hospitals, clinics and pharmacies as possible. The Catholic Church alone controls a majority of the hospitals in America now, and they forbid abortions and contraception, even emergency post rape treatment to prevent pregnancy.

Unfortunately, the law (and the constitution) make it pretty much impossible to tell a business owner that he MUST violate his religious beliefs. You can’t force a fundamentalist restaurant owner to sell lobster, and you can’t tell the Catholic church that it must make abortions available.

Which means that the only real solution is socialized medicine. Allow the churches to own hospitals and pharmacies and the like, but if the American people want to retain their rights to all medical treatment, and not just that which doesn’t violate some fundie’s squeamishness, then they are going to have to act through their agent, the government, to make sure that they have access to medical treatment that doesn’t require permission from the Pope.

Of course, getting the government to go along isn’t easy, since the fundies have been trying to take that over, too. The Senate is expected to vote on stem-cell research tomorrow, allowing use of stem cells that derive from fertility treatments, but Putsch is expected to veto it. It’s part of that idiotic “every sperm is sacred” nonsense the fundies believe. Undifferentiated cells differ from fully developed human beings only in that fundies are willing to save the life of the cell.

You want to keep your freedoms? Then start thinking about giving the fundies a sharp rap on the snout and putting them in their place. That place is not on the back of your neck!