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August 2010 Archives

Chip and Claire


In late 1981 or possibly early '82, during our freshman year of college, my good friend Andy Cohen returned from the wilds of New England on a break and brought with him a copy of a cassette tape unlike anything I'd ever heard before--I dare say unlike anything the rest of the world had ever heard before, either. It was a singer-songwriter with a sense of humor so black it was practically blazing ultraviolet, a guy whose subjects included murder, revolution, and drugs, whose targets included both preppies and anti-nuclear protesters, and whose titles seemed a little raw for the typical folksinger: "We Will Retake Saigon" and "These Morons Have to Go," for example.

This, in short, was Buddy Holocaust.

Buddy, whose real name was Bill Tate, had apparently played only one gig, a single dinnertime show at Dartmouth, but it had become the stuff of legend, and a cassette of his songs was making the rounds of college radio stations. I worked at one of them, WXYC, but even I knew this was pretty strong stuff even for a station that routinely played such pointed songs as the Dead Kennedys' "Holiday in Cambodia." I mean, in one song, the anti-drug anthem "Guess I Lost My Head" (also known as "Drugs Did This to Me"), Buddy sang in extensive detail about killing his girlfriend and cutting her body to pieces, leading to this plaintive chorus:

It's true, drugs did this to me
Forced to kill on PCP
Yes, I escaped reality
Now she seems dead
Guess I lost my head


I found myself fixating on another song, which I knew as "Chip and Claire," but which was known to others as "Preppy Love." In it, the titular couple went through the beginnings of a relationship, then marriage, then--well, I'll just let you listen to it here.

And why am I sharing this with you? Because this evening, I discovered that I was not the only one who remembered those startling songs, though the tape vanished from my ken (and I suspect Andy's) soon after I first heard them. The internet had set aside a corner for Buddy, and though I haven't found them all, there appear to be several of his songs floating around the Web in mp3 form, plus the seemingly singular YouTube video above.

Indeed, Buddy's story made it into a book called Listen Again: A Momentary History of Pop Music by Eric Weisbard, and you can read part of it here. The saddest part of the tale is its brevity. Bill Tate, at the age of 21, ended his musical career and his life in November of 1981 when he crashed his car--possibly on purpose. He was already dead when I heard his music for the first time.

The potency of his songs was extraordinary--even today, nearly 30 years after hearing them, I could have sung you pieces of "Preppy Love" and "Guess I Lost My Head." But in some ways, I suppose I remember them because I myself tried to keep them going, if only through a tiny tip of the hat. When the other members of Terminal Mouse and I were composing our as-close-as-we-got-to-a-hit "Cows from Hell," which told the story of a group of angry cows assaulting a town full of yuppies, I put together a verse describing a yuppie couple being subjected to a bovine ambush. But I needed names for this couple--good, solid, names for a pair of well-to-do professionals who would never have guessed in a million years that their placid First-World lives were about to be completely disrupted by the forces of irony and chaos.

And of course, I immediately seized upon the names Chip and Claire.

In pace requiescat, Buddy. As strange as it may seem, you are remembered, and you are appreciated.


11:10 PM
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"You Ignorant Slut"


Of the many, many wonderful things penned by the late Ralph Wiley, in many ways my favorite is a simple declarative sentence that he issued in response to Saul Bellow's snide rhetorical question, "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?"

Wiley responded, "Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus."

I got to thinking about that line this morning as I began the gradual realization that I had, to put it mildly, missed a few things about the late James Kilpatrick.

Like many other forty-something Americans, I used to watch a lot of 60 Minutes. It came on CBS right after the 4:00 NFL game ended, and it was therefore very easy for me to simply glide smoothly from watching Mike Webster crushing opposing linemen to watching Mike Wallace crushing evasive interview subjects, though I did have to admit that in some ways Wallace did more damage. One memorable segment, back before Andy Rooney was involved (which tells you just how long ago this was, since Rooney is older than anything not made entirely of hydrogen) was "Point Counterpoint," a prearranged debate between a designated liberal (Shana Alexander) and a designated conservative (Kilpatrick) that addressed some issue of the day.

I couldn't begin to tell you what any of those issues were, but I can tell you that Kilpatrick came off as a blowhard. I was not the only one to notice this, as he was skewered by a number of parodists, the most famous being the creators of the movie Airplane! and the then-revolutionary TV show Saturday Night Live. In the former, a Kilpatrick clone is shown in a televised debate about the impending airline disaster, saying, "Shana... they bought their tickets. They knew what they were getting into. I say, let 'em crash!"

On SNL, the Weekend Update news report simply recreated "Point Counterpoint," and, following Jane Curtin's sensible liberal commentary on some subject or other, Dan Aykroyd would crisply respond, "Jane, you ignorant slut!" and launch into a series of baseless ad hominems. This catchphrase became so famous that the first thing I thought of when I heard Kilpatrick was dead was in fact "Jane, you ignorant slut!"

In his later years, Kilpatrick turned up in my mailbox, primarily because my grandmother, who is something of a stickler for spelling, grammar, and usage, would clip his column "The Writer's Art" for me. Not at my request, mind you, but out of a feeling that an English teacher and writer could not help but benefit from his sage advice on pressing issues such as the split infinitive or the proper use of it's. From time to time I would actually use one of these columns in class, such as the it's column, but I would more often look them over and consign them to the circular file. Frankly, even when I agreed with Kilpatrick about a matter of English, I didn't care for his style. He was still a blowhard.

This tendency became most obvious in his periodic columns where he answered questions from readers. Casting himself as the judge of "the Court of Peeves, Irks, and Crotchets," he would examine the evidence provided by the reader and pass judgment on the usage in question. Not all his judgments were bad, in my professional opinion, but there was something irksome in the way he dispatched them, a smug and self-satisfied sense that his was the final authority on English--that his opinion was tantamount to law.

As you may have gathered by now, I am one who, when told not to write a certain way, will immediately attempt to write that way just to see if I can pull it off. And seeing as how we do not have an Academie Francaise to determine what is and isn't official in our language, anyone who designates himself an authority on English had better be prepared to demonstrate his qualifications to me. In other words, Kilpatrick is not the judge; I am the judge. And so is any reader.

(By the way, this dissatisfaction with Kilpatrick's style was explained perfectly by David Foster Wallace in his brilliant essay "Authority and American Usage," where he lauded Bryan Garner for his un-Kilpatrick-like approach in his Dictionary of American Usage. By casting himself as the attorney pleading his case to the judge/reader, rather than as the judge pronouncing law to the reader/plaintiff, Garner made his points about the use of language far more effectively and far more persuasively, at least according to Wallace. It's one of my very favorite essays ever, and you can find it in Consider the Lobster.)

And that pretty much summed up what I knew about James Kilpatrick when he died a few days ago. Point Counterpoint. Jane, you ignorant slut. Court of Peeves. He had rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. So it goes. He had kicked the final can.

But the worms I had never noticed inside that can were numerous. And thick. And ropey. Writhing in frantic disarray, they knotted around each other in a manner more disgusting than I could ever have imagined. And as I looked at them squirming, all I could think was "How the hell did I miss all this?"

Because Kilpatrick wasn't simply a generic conservative blowhard. No, he was out there on the point of the spear, a columnist and editor for the Richmond News Leader during the height of the Civil Rights era, doing much of the same dirty work at the same time as my home state's Jesse Helms. And it was Kilpatrick, as often as not, who gave the opponents of the Civil Rights movement their vocabulary, as well as his own full-throated support. He opposed integration in public schools, preferring instead the doctrine of Massive Resistance, in which systems like Prince Edward County's simply shut down their schools rather than allow blacks and whites to be educated together. And in an astonishing column that was spiked by the Saturday Evening Post in the wake of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four young girls, Kilpatrick penned these words:

"The Negro race, as a race, is in fact an inferior race .... When the Negro today proclaims or demands his 'equality,' he is talking of equality within the terms of Western civilization. And what, pray, has he contributed to it? Putting aside conjecture, wishful thinking and a puerile jazz-worship, what has he in fact contributed to it? The blunt answer, may it please the court, is very damned little."

I can only imagine what Ralph Wiley would have said in response to that. But I imagine that, once he had finished dispatching Kilpatrick's naked bigotry with a pointed observation that in itself proved the idiocy of Kilpatrick's claim, Wiley would have looked at me, shaken his head, and said, "Pete, you have got to pay some fucking attention."



10:06 AM
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The Good with the Bad


I don't have the entire Constitution memorized, though I think learning the thing by rote is a splendid idea. I'm pretty clear on certain portions, such as the Bill of Rights, where I know the concepts quite well and have some of the language down pat--"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"--but I must confess to a certain shame that I do not have such crucial sections as the Full Faith and Credit Clause committed to memory. When I admit to ignorance of such things, I just don't feel like a Good American.

Many others who are ignorant of these things, however, seem to take pride in that ignorance. Or perhaps what they're doing isn't so much proclaiming ignorance as demonstrating their lack of appreciation for the ideals in the Constitution. Consider the recent brouhaha about the planned construction of Cordoba House, a Muslim community center and mosque, two blocks from the World Trade Center site. Objections to the so-called "Ground Zero mosque" have come furiously from a variety of quarters, including the two Republican candidates for the NY governor's office, largely on the basis of... um... well, it's kind of hard to be sure, but it seems to involve their feelings that Muslims should not be allowed to worship near the site of the September 11th attacks.

In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Sir Bedivere concludes that since all wood burns, therefore everything that burns must be made of wood--including witches. The logic being used in this modern witch hunt is not dissimilar: all the terrorists who flew the planes into the WTC were Muslims, therefore all Muslims are terrorists. And we can't let the terrorists win!

Newt Gingrich attempted to link the name "Cordoba House" to Moorish triumphalism over Christianity, prompting this lovely bit of historical smackdown from medieval historian Carl Pyrdum., while Palin used Twitter to urge her followers to "refudiate" the mosque, a coinage she then attempted to justify by comparing herself to Shakespeare on the basis of his creation of new words. (To this last, I can only reply using my own new words: Ms. Palin, please fworkle your grangly wocking blibberdivang before you plock your worrigorgle completely.)

Even the usually admirable Anti-Defamation League jumped onto the woodpile, declaring its opposition to the construction of the mosque. Abraham Foxman, the ADL's president, even went so far as to say that opposition to the mosque might well be categorized "as irrational or bigoted," but that it shouldn't be built near the WTC anyway. Noting that this position contradicted the ADL's stated mission to oppose "unjust and unfair discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens," political writer/TV reporter Fareed Zakaria decided to return the award (and the $10,000 honorarium) the ADL had presented him a few years ago for his actions in defense of the First Amendment.

That Amendment is why, in my layman's opinion, there is no Constitutional way for the government of the city, the state, or the country to deny permission for this construction. The government may not single out a particular faith to support or to suppress, period. NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to his eternal credit, stepped up to make that point (and others) at length:

Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question - should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here. This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions, or favor one over another... We would betray our values - and play into our enemies' hands - if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists - and we should not stand for that.
But First Amendment controversies are nothing new; there are collisions between church and state on a seemingly daily basis, whether it's attempts to slide the book of Genesis into science classrooms or arguments about the constitutionality of nativity scenes. Other amendments create equally widespread uproar, particularly the Second, the Fourth, and the Fifth.

Recently, however, the political establishment has been howling about an Amendment that for nearly 150 years has been relatively well-regarded by the majority of observers: the 14th. Amendment Fourteen was one of the Reconstruction Amendments, passed in the aftermath of the Civil War and intended to enshrine in law the consequences of that conflict. The main theme of #14--the famous theme, anyway--is the principle of "equal protection under the law," but the whole first section is worth quoting:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

That first sentence, defining US citizenship, was an important necessity of the postwar era, establishing at a stroke that everyone born in the US, even those formerly enslaved, were in fact Americans. There were plenty of criteria that could be used--who your parents were, how much money you earned, how many loyalty oaths you signed, etc.--but Congress wisely chose a criterion that was clear and objective: where you were born. If you were born in the USA, you were an American. It didn't matter whether your parents were free or enslaved, native-born or immigrant, rich or poor. Your birth certificate was your proof of citizenship.

The Republican Party, quite legitimately, lists the passage of the 14th Amendment as one of its grand accomplishments. It is somewhat odd, then, to find a number of today's Republicans urging the nation to alter or abolish it, or at least to have hearings about the possibility of doing so. Senators Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell, John McCain and others have been clamoring for such hearings in hopes of doing away with birthright citizenship. Why? Because they don't want illegal immigrants having babies here; according to Amendment Fourteen, those babies are American citizens. And we can't let the illegal immigrants win!

The reasoning behind this clamor is nakedly political: since the Republican base is strongly opposed to illegal immigration, opposing birthright citizenship makes you look like you're trying to do something about it, while the extraordinary difficulty of altering the Constitution gives you political cover for failing to do something about it. (I should note that I am not opposed to doing something about illegal immigration; I just think the method under discussion is unlikely to work.) These Senators and their supporters may feel good about their law-and-order principles,  but I think they may not be considering the consequences of doing away with birthright citizenship.

But for the sake of argument, let's say we do get rid of it. Now: how do you prove you're an American?

"I just AM," you say. "I've never had to prove it before." Well, tough. Before you partake of any government services, we have to be sure you're legally entitled to them. What proof can you offer?

"Could I use a US passport?" you ask. Sure, that would help. If you had a passport. But not every American does, and to get one, you're going to have to give the government proof of citizenship--a task at which you are, let's remember, currently failing utterly.

"Well, I have a birth certifi--oh, yeah," you say. Yes, that may have cut the mustard before, but now it's proof of two things: diddly and squat. Ironically, if you had immigrated legally, you'd have naturalization papers, but because you didn't think ahead and allowed yourself to be born here, you've got nothing.

"This is ridiculous!" you whine. "My parents were both American citizens!" Oh, were they? Prove it.

"Fine! I will! I've got their birth certificates right here!" you exclaim in triumph--a triumph which is short-lived, as you suddenly recall that birthright is not enough to confer citizenship on your parents, either. For all you know, they were illegal aliens. Yes, no matter how far back in your family tree you go, you cannot offer any proof of citizenship on behalf of yourself or any of your ancestors.

There is no form of identification for American citizens. It doesn't exist; it never HAS existed; the United States of America has never REQUIRED that it exist. But if we get rid of birthright citizenship, we will have to MAKE it exist.

But perhaps I'm exaggerating. Obviously those Republicans who want to rewrite the 14th Amendment must have in mind some as-yet-undetermined means of determining citizenship. Perhaps they would simply issue every American an ID card. That would require creating an enormous new Federal agency to collect all the records and issue all the cards, as well as expanding law enforcement to ensure that only card-holders use government-funded projects such as libraries, public schools, and interstate highways. The cost would be considerable, and the authority of government agents would necessarily be broader, but of course no Republican would hesitate to demand that the government be expanded and more tax dollars be spent if it meant protecting Good Americans.

We may not know who those Good Americans are yet, but we can at least be sure that anyone who wants to limit our freedoms or waste our precious tax dollars is clearly not a Good American.

Clearly.


11:19 AM
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Yes We Canton!


In honor of this weekend's Pro Football Hall of Fame inductions, I figured it was time to post my pictures of an equally significant but far sillier gridiron ceremony: the annual presentation of the Super Duper Bowl trophy to the champion of the Fantasy League of Gentlemen/Gentlewomen. Each year, the trophy (which may cost no more than $15) is presented by the previous year's champion to the new champion, which meant that thanks to my Fighting Coelacanths' triumph over the Screamin' Boiled Lobsters at the end of 2009, I received it from my old pal Daniel C. Sipp, owner/operator of the 2008 champs, the Donkeys.

100_3323.JPGEach trophy is unique, and may be handmade or machine-tooled, decorated or still in its original packaging, according to the whims of the presenter. The 2009 trophy was built and painted by Dan from a model kit, with a few special touches to indicate its significance in FLOGG. Here's a closer look at the trophy:

100_3321.JPGAnother view:

100_3322.JPG Yes, THIS is what we play for.

4:11 PM
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Ironically Enough


Sometime around 1990, things started getting too ironic. Or at least the media said so. Chevy Chase appeared on the cover of SPY Magazine making air quotes around the title of the big article on irony, "Isn't It Ironic?" while in the 1996 "Homerpalooza" episode of The Simpsons, the writers mocked Generation X's tendency to make sarcastic comments about everything. And of course there was Alanis Morissette's big hit song "Ironic," which is the ne plus ultra of irony primarily because most of its examples of irony (e.g. rain on your wedding day, a black fly in your chardonnay, ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife, etc.) are not examples of irony at all... which is itself supremely ironic.

irony-free-zone-512x.gif

The reason "Ironic" is so ironic, of course, is that true irony (at least the sort we're discussing now--situational irony) requires a reversal or contradiction of expectations. If you buy a lottery ticket and do not win, that's not irony--that's just math. You can't reasonably expect to win a fortune at the 7-11 counter, so there's no reversal when you don't. On the other hand, if you DID win $23 million, and in your excitement ran out to your car and backed up over a small child, whose bereaved parents then sued you for $23 million... yeah, then we might be talking reversal.

But situational irony is only one kind. The commonest form of irony is verbal irony, where the expression used contradicts the intended meaning. Sarcasm is by far the most familiar sort of verbal irony--saying "Lovely" when facing a commute-wrecking line of traffic, for example, or creating a deliberate contradiction such as "clear as mud"--but others exist. And yes, verbal irony is still winging around the world like time's winged chariot, its axles only greasier thanks to the internet's facility for bringing meaning and expression into violent collision.

Our subject today, however, is the third of the major categories, that of dramatic irony. First defined by the Athenians (and brought to life by Sophocles in Oedipus Rex), dramatic irony is achieved when the audience knows something that at least one character does not--such as the crucial but to him unknown truth about who his real mom and dad were. Dramatic irony can be used for tragic effect (WE know Juliet's not really dead, which is why we are so pained by Romeo's suicide) or for comic effect (WE know Bottom has an ass's head, which is why we are so amused by Titania's uncontrollable love for him), and it is this second use that caught my attention as I was recently musing on an earworm.

The earworm in question is the theme song to the early-Sixties TV show Mr. Ed, a tune that occasionally burrows into my brain for no good reason other than its insane catchiness, but for once it inspired something other than annoyance. As I listened to it going around my cerebrum for the umpteenth time, I got to thinking about the show's foundation: the dramatic irony of Mr. Ed's ability to speak. Only the audience (and Wilbur) are aware of this ability, and the show's comedy is based almost completely around it. If the audience doesn't know about Ed's talking, there's going to be nothing but confusion in America's living rooms, and if everybody on the show knows about Ed's talking, there's no joke--it's just the way things are.

Thus, in order to keep the show on the air, this bizarre fact must be kept secret from practically everyone; as soon as the knowledge becomes widespread, the series is effectively over. The next trick is to turn this necessity into a virtue by making the central plot device for each episode The Keeping Of The Secret. I'm still somewhat amazed that a show with a premise this narrow (and this silly) actually lasted five seasons (I never saw it until it was in re-runs, and even then I don't recall much about it other than the theme song), but apparently Wilbur was successful in keeping Ed's talking a secret for a good while. And maybe in the series finale, he finally decided to paint "TALKING HORSE" over the barn and charge fifty bucks a head for a five-minute conversation.

But thinking about Mr. Ed led me to thinking about other TV shows of the period, shows where equally ridiculous premises relied just as heavily on dramatic irony. Consider what the viewer knows that most characters on the show do not:

*Samantha Stevens is a witch.
*Jeannie is a genie.
*The Munsters are in fact supernatural monsters.
*My Favorite Martian is actually from Mars.
*My Mother has been reincarnated as a Packard.
*The teenager we think is sophisticated Cathy is often her identical cousin, the rock-and-roll-loving Patty.
*Millionaire Bruce Wayne and his young ward Dick Grayson are really Batman and Robin, the Caped Crusaders.

Such Keepings Of The Secret didn't end with the Sixties, mind you--we would later know that Mork is actually from the planet Ork, Sabrina the Teenage Witch is a witch, and ALF is an alien life form--but I don't think there's any comparable situation on TV at the moment. I certainly can't think of a network show (though something may exist on cable) where the entire series rests on the audience's knowledge of a secret. Apparently, once the Age of Irony began, at least according to SPY, there was no need for such an ironic premise on television.

Of course, the irony is that the greatest use of such a premise that I ever saw on television was one in which The Keeping Of The Secret was the exact opposite of the main character's expectation--which is what made it ironic. And oh so very funny.

one_froggy_evening.jpg



2:53 PM
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