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Collected editorials

Just who in the hell am I, anyway?

Work is the curse of the drinking man

People ask me, whatever happened to the May issue. The answer is simple enough. I have been running all over the country side of central South Dakota checking whether houses still exist and are habitable. TIt was work. I had sworn off work so long ago that I had forgotten why I swore off work. Now I remember. I do hope that I never let that happen again.

Just who in the hell am I, anyway?

I first starting using my email address back in the last century, 1996 to be exact. Over the years I have contributed thousands of articles to usenet and have a popular website. Hundreds of people, perhaps thousands, have me in their address books. My email address has been harvested many times over the years; I get all sorts of strange email as a result.

Spammers and list makers aren’t the most reliable of people. They screw up every once in a while and get me mixed up with somebody else. My identity isn’t being stolen; it’s being revised. For years I have been waging war against reality; these days reality is waging war against me. Thus:

According to a site called eversave.com my name is Tammy Richardson, I was born in 1979, I am male, and I live in Virginia. At least they have my gender right, though I never heard of Tammy being a male name. I won’t say when I was born, but in 1979 I was older then than the real Tammy Richardson (if there is any such person) is now.

Country Wide Mortgages thinks that I live in South Carolina and that I have a mortgage with them. As it happens I live in South Dakota and don’t have a mortgage with anybody. They have my name right, though. I wouldn’t know what they think my gender is.

Every once in a while they send me emails telling that my latest mortgage payment has been received. I suppose my counterpart would like to get these emails. (It occurs to me that maybe he doesn’t and is grateful for their little snafu.) I’ve tried to tell Country Wide that they have a problem. Unfortunately their web site very cleverly provides no way to tell them that they are in error – unless you are a customer. I see where Country Wide is in trouble. I can’t imagine why a well run outfit like that would get into trouble.

Recently Country Wide has been rescued by Bank of America, which is a case of the lame carrying the lame. This starts to get into twilight zone territory. I have a credit card with BofA. Their left hand, the one that owns Country Wide, still thinks I am in South Carolina, whereas the right hand, the one that bought MBNA, thinks I am in South Dakota. Much like Bilbo, I am feeling kind of thin and stretched out these days.

Country Wide isn’t the only one that thinks that I live in South Dakota. The Mike Huckabee political machine thinks so too. Over the past year I’ve gotten calls to action and updates on the Huckpac. On one hand I admire him for changing from unhealthy obesity to a healthy life style and for campaigning for better public health. On the other he is a fellow traveler in the worst sort of fundamentalism and Republican rock head politics.

And on it goes. I haven’t been keeping track of how many cyberspace avatars, but it makes me wonder. In cyberspace, just who in the hell am I, anyway?

Baby, come back

I rather fancy that many of my readers are not Americans. For that matter I have the horrid suspicion that some of them aren’t human. There are unreliable reports that some of my web pages have been incorporated verbatim into anthologies of Vogon poetry. I place no stock in such stories myself, preferring instead to regard them as instances of the base calumnies that circulate on the internet. Still, many of my readers are not residents of that blessed nation that is the home of that greatest of institutions, mom’s apple pie. (Why apple pie prepared by American mothers is special is a mystery to me, but it is widely reported to be a premier part of the American Way of Life. Who am I to argue with the American Way of Life.)

I digress – or is it dye grass? I always get the two mixed up. Let’s get back on track. There is an American corporation that markets a dusting device, a sweeping device, and a mopping device under the trade name, Swiffer (TM). They have an advertising campaign promoting their devices that was entertaining the first twenty times and obnoxious the next five hundred. Still, it persuaded me to purchase their devices and use them off and on. They work, albeit not as wonderfully as the advertisers would have you believe.

The devices are quite ingenious in their way, by the way. Your ancient feather duster, your ancient broom, and your ancient mop are inexpensive and can be used practically forever without further expense. Swiffer devices are not quite so inexpensive. More importantly, they come with pads, fluffy things, and bottles of cleaning fluid that must be replaced regularly. This is very good for the large corporation; they get a continuing stream of income from the sale of the original device. Perhaps they took a lesson from the vendors of printers, who make all of their money from the sale of ink.

Some of the ads feature a feather duster sitting in a chair, being told that it is being fired because it just doesn’t cut the mustard. It’s out of date and isn’t as good as the new guy. In another commercial a woman is using a Swiffer duster. She hears a mariachi band playing “Baby Come Back” beneath her window. When she looks out the window she sees her old duster peeking our from behind the band.

Recently I stopped in a Menards recently to buy tile grout. (Menards is a chain of superstores that sells building supplies and related stuff.) As I walked down one of the aisles I noticed a big rack of feather dusters. Mind you, these things don’t use real feathers; they have some miracle of modern chemistry that looks like feathers.

I immediately thought of the ads. As it happens I have no memory of ever having owned a feather duster. I suppose I must have at some time in the past, but if I did, it’s in the category of “long ago and far away, things I almost remember”. I said to myself, self, you are going to have to get one of those things and find out what the competition is like. I took it home and ran madly about the house dusting here and there, and what do you know – it was easier to use and did a better job than that Swiffer device. What’s more, you don’t have to buy any of those replacement thingies.

Whatta you know. Hey, Baby, I’m Back!!!

The bitter taste of health

A little while ago in the course of casual conversation I learned that many pills that some people take pass through the digestive system only partially absorbed or not at all. If I were you I wouldn’t worry about the aspirin you took this morning – the unabsorbed pill syndrome mostly affects people who take lots of pills. You might wonder how they know this. If you are smart you won’t ask, but it doesn’t matter because I am going to tell you anyway. It seems that researchers collect samples of, er, ah, fecal material and examine it carefully for fragments of unabsorbed pills.

You may well wonder how it is that I learned this in casual conversation. Just what sort of person is this Harter guy and what is with him? Most people’s casual conversations are about things like books, and flowers, the latest movies, what the kids are doing, who is sleeping with whom, and such like. They don’t talk about gathering and examining poop… except when they are talking to me. I don’t know why, and believe me, I don’t want to know why.

Well, I knew what to do about that. I take six different kinds of pills – I’m a “quack myself” sort of guy. Three are prescription – there’s the blood pressure medicine, the stomach acid reduction stuff, and the rat poison. They all work fine. I figured that I didn’t have to do anything about them. Then there are three non-prescription, fish oil, glucosamine chondroitin, and vitamins.

The deal on the fish oil capsules is that I break the capsules open and suck the contents down straight. Yes it tastes horrid, but I am a manly man with hair on my chest and I can take it … or something like that. So that’s taken care of.

That left the other two pills. Maybe they were passing straight through and not doing anything. I decided that I would grind them up with a mortar and pestle each morning. You know what? Those pills taste really awful when they are ground up. They must use the reference chemical for bitter tasting stuff or something like that. But I did it, Being a manly man with chest hair and all that, I accepted the taste as the bitter price of health.

Fortunately I had another casual conversation with a friend who knew about pills and such, and she said that I had it wrong, that my non-prescription pills dissolve right away as they go down without a problem. Hurrah. No more bitter powder in the morning. I retired the mortar and pestle away and went back to swallowing pills whole.

Gotta love them casual conversations.

Whatever happened to being neurotic?

Once upon a time there was a man named Sigmund Freud. Sigmund was an inventive sort of chap; among other things he invented psychoanalysis, neurosis, psychosis, projection, resistance, the ego and superego, the subconscious, and penis envy. He taught us how to analyze our dreams and uncover childhood secrets that we are still ashamed of. Freud was da Man.

Americans have always had a prediliction for grabbing onto the latest thing, and they went gaga over Freud. Psychoanalytic jargon became part of the pop culture. We had the Oedipus Complex and the Electra Complex. (Today we settle for the Apartment Complex.) Above all, there were neuroses and neurotics.

The thing about people is that we like to talk about them and for that we need a vocabulary. That’s where things like religion and psychology come in. They provide a ready made vocabulary and a set of concepts to go with them. For example, a traditional Christian will talk a lot about things like the seven deadly sins and walking paths. Freud gave us a whole new vocabulary. We Americans love novelty.

I suppose the heyday of Freudian psychobabble was the forties and the fifties. We had men in gray flannel suits and alienation. (Don’t ask me to explain about men in gray flannel suits; if you are under forty you just wouldn’t understand.) Naturally I was into that sort of thing too. Actually I alternated between being establishment Freudian and beatnik – I was never one for travelling the road less travelled – too many ruts and too big a crowd.

Every age needs its poets and for me that poet was Jules Feiffer. Strictly speaking Feiffer was a cartoonist, but his cartoons were sheer poetry. I still have three volumes of his cartoons, entitled “Hold me!”, “Sick, sick, sick”, and “The Unexpurgated Memoirs of Bernard Mergendeiler”. They are full of wonderful little psychodramas. One of my favorites featured a guy who looked something like that guy in that picture over there.

Picture a scrawny guy holding a beer, and holding forth on his complaints with the world. Nobody has respect for him, not his wife, nor his kids, nor his boss. You can tell that he is a slob with a sour disposition. The first page starts like this:

I used to read them ads – know what I mean? “even your best friend won’t tell you” ads – and it used to bother me because if you’re a right guy – nice to your mother and everything – what kind of girl is it who’d give the gate because of the wrong toothpase you use – or what kind of phoney friend is it who’d spend his time not drnking with you but smelling you?
(Good questions, these.) Our hero goes on to complain that the ads imply that don’t need to become a better person to become popular – it suffices to change brand names. He goes on to explain that he was a general loser in life. In his head he can hear the ads screaming, “Change your soap, change your toothpaste.” He resists – who a man is shouldn’t depend upon what brand names he uses. Finally he gives in, and what do you know, it works. His wife glows, his love him, and everybody is his buddy. The last page reads:
Three weeks of it was all I could take. Then I went back to the old ways. If they prefer that kind of guy to me, the hell with them.
I mentioned my Feiffer books to Our Lady With The Large Black Dog. She browsed through, looked a little puzzled, and said, “These people are sick.” Well, yes, I thought, that’s what it is all about. It’s wonderful. I didn’t say it though. I think it is one of those generation things. They just don’t do neurotics anymore.

Victor Meldrew

One of the disadvantages of being American is that we only get a small fraction of the British TV comedies. We get some on PBS and some on BBC America, assuming that one actually watches those channels, but only a sampler. British comedies are a bit different than their American counterparts. The traditional claim is that the British have stiff upper lips and are slow to get a joke, the classic mot being that one tells a Brit a joke in his youth so that he will have something to entertain him in his old age when he finally gets the joke.

This stereotype is not at all correct. The British, at least in their comedies (Parliament being one of their comedies), have a wicked, if often understated, sense of humor. I do not say that all Brits do – I expect that the diners on Bubble and Squeak are much like their American counterparts. Then again, anyone who eats something called Bubble and Squeak must have a sense of humor, even if they are not aware of it.

All of which is to say that I had not previously been aware of the British sitcom, One Foot In The Grave. The lead character is one Victor Meldrew. The Wikipedia article had this to say about him:

“the character was the archetypal grumpy old man.”

“…in the UK the term a Victor Meldrew has become shorthand for a constantly bitter and complaining elderly man…”

The odd thing, perhaps not so odd, is that the viewing public seemingly had a great affection for Victor Meldrew. In the end they killed the character off in a car crash. According to the article, passers-by left flowers at the railroad bridge where the fictional accident occurred.

I am not quite certain whether this reflects a universal truth or not. In fiction and in the movies irascible old men are often sympathetic characters who are treated affectionately. (Irascible is a much nicer word than grumpy, don’t you think?) Thus we have a movie called “Grumpy Old Men” that was popular enough to rate a sequel. “Gran Torino” stars an irascible old man. John Wayne got his Oscar for such a character. On the other hand, quite often these treatments are about the redemption of irascible old men. Perhaps the moral is that there is hope for Victor Meldrew, with the not so subtle message that there is hope for us too.

Be all of that as it may, I suppose I shall have to take it as a little clue if people start calling me Victor.

This page was last updated May 8, 2009.

table of contents
Collected editorials