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The frickin’ car. Not mine, but my wife’s. It’s reached the point where everything is starting to go out – suspension creaks like Methuselah’s kneebones, half the gauges give inaccurate readings (Full tank! No gas! Half a tank! Fumes!) and the sin of corrosion infects its vital parts. The radiator started to leak the other day, so Friday she took my car to work, and I drove hers to the garage. I didn’t mind. Gnat came along, and while they worked we went to the deli across the street for hot chocolate and coffee. It’s the ordinary moments that count with kids – not the toys or treats or indulgences, but time. More than anything they want your time. (And toys and treats and indulgences.) We played tic-tac-toe (somehow, she beat me) and Napkin Soccer. The latter requires a salt-and-pepper shaker and a wadded-up napkin. You use your hand as a goalie. She beat me 4-3, whereupon two British guys in a nearby booth set fire to the place, threw a chair through the window, ran down the street, beat up three Italians and set fire to a Somali-owned convenience store. I hate soccer.

Of course, that didn’t happen. In the next booth sat a couple in the early years of latter middle age. (Once you’re in middle age yourself such distinctions become clear. And necessary.) He studied the newspaper with grim, bitter disdain; she had pie. Periodically he would report the news from the World That Was Going To Hell: “IBM is going to sell their computer business to the Chinese,” he said. “Outsourcing. Don’t make anything anymore.” Of course, IBM was selling the PC division because they were making, if I can use a technical term, sub-squat. Because computers are cheap. And now everyone can have one. Would it be better if IBM was making lots of money because people were still paying $6K for an underpowered monochrome-screen floppy disk computer with less memory than a mobster testifying under oath?

“SCORE!” Gnat cried. We were playing round two. She won that one, too.

“They’re still finding out things in that budget bill that they didn’t know were there,” the man said, ominously. “All kinds of hidden things.”

“Don’t they read the bills before they sign them?” said his wife in a land’s-sake voice.

“There’s going to be an investigation,” the man said with humorless satisfaction. He went back to the paper. She went back to her knitting. Either that or she was clacking infant bones together for some inscrutable purpose.

Eventually the car was ready and we walked hand in hand back to the garage. “This is the best day ever Daddy,” she said. I couldn’t argue. You never argue with that, no matter what else happens.

The paper had a review of a performance of “Inherit the Wind,” the play about the Scopes trial The headline informs us that the play’s message is “timely,” because, you know, it “conjure(s) up images of a populace cleaved by religious beliefs.” Just like today, when half of America bows to plastic dashboard Jesus figurines and the other half are proud chin-thrusting atheists, I guess. Cleaved we be. Here’s the quote from the play that the author found timely: “One of the peculiar imbecilities of our time is the grid of morality we have placed on human behavior.”


You could read this two ways: the nature of our grid is the imbecility, or the very imposition of the grid is not just an idiocy, but one particular to our time. The second reading could be the intended one, but it’s too stupid to waste time refuting.

Or is it? I googled about to find the right quote. It’s from the character based on Clarence Darrow:

I must say that “Right” has no meaning to me whatsoever! Truth has meaning—as a direction. But one of the peculiar imbecilities of our time is the grid of morality we have placed on human behavior: so that every act of man must be measured against an arbitrary latitude of right and longitude of wrong—in exact minutes, seconds, and degrees!

Well, it’s a place to start, no? I mean, if you’re heading out for the Island of Murder is Wrong, some directions are useful. Once you get there you can decide whether to land, circle, approach from the north, or just draw it in your notebook and sail on, but at least you know it exists, and exists in a particular place.

Darrow was the fellow who defended Leopold and Loeb, the two young men born of privilege who killed a small boy for kicks ‘n’ grins. He spoke for 12 hours in his closing arguments. Some excerpts from a site describing the trial:

For over twelve hours Darrow reminded Judge Caverly of the defendants' youth, genetic inheritance, surging sexual impulses, and the many external influences that had led them to the commission of their crime.

Because genes and surging sex impulses are much more instructive than a grid of morality.

Never before or since the Leopold and Loeb trial has the deterministic universe, this life of "a series of infinite chances", been so clearly made the basis of a criminal defense. In pleading for Loeb's life Darrow argued, " Nature is strong and she is pitiless. She works in mysterious ways, and we are her victims. We have not much to do with it ourselves. Nature takes this job in hand, and we only play our parts. In the words of old Omar Khayyam, we are only Impotent pieces in the game ‘He plays Upon this checkerboard of nights and days, Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays, And one by one back in the closet lays.’

Note how we’ve moved from indifferent brainless “nature” to a theistic “He” who takes a direct role in the matters of men. Of course we’ve heard this before. Heard it for years. Sane people – by which I mean those who understand the distinction between good and evil, even if they see it only a specious construct imposed by society – are often unable to interpose their will between desire and nature. The devil makes them do it. Oh, and there’s no devil. There’s “nature,” and “genes,” and other “mysterious” factors that combine to make us victims of our boiling synapses. But isn't it odd how the sociopath unable to constrain his desires never kills women on the courthouse square, but spirits away hookers in back alleys at 2 AM? It's almost as if he can control himself, isn't it.

“What had this boy had to do with it? He was not his own father; he was not his own mother....All of this was handed to him. He did not surround himself with governesses and wealth. He did not make himself. And yet he is to be compelled to pay." In pleading that Leopold be spared , Darrow said, "Tell me that you can visit the wrath of fate and chance and life and eternity upon a nineteen- year-old boy!"

Darrow attacked the death penalty as atavistic, saying it "roots back to the beast and the jungle." Time and time again Darrow challenged the notion of "an eye for an eye"

Demonstrating, perhaps, that he didn’t understand it. “Eye for eye” is an injunction to make the penality appropriate, not based in vengeance. Eye for an eye, not arm for a finger.

Anyway, it’s a curious line to draw out as instructive to our age, but it fits something others have ruminated on - the reflexive eye-rolling that comes when you start to talk about <psychostrings> morality. </psychostrings> I am the last person to roam the streets in my Cotton Mather costume, and I've lost my enthusiasm for the adolescent glee that comes from pointing out other people's hypocrisies. All I have are my pathetic attempts to draw a distinction between private and public – that is, Howard Stern saying those oh-so-naughty! words on the public airwaves vs. Stern saying what he wants on subscription radio, or Hustler Honey sex-shows in the Superbowl half-time vs. private rentals from the satellite hot-mama feeds. I suppose it comes down to this: you should have to seek these things out instead of having them come to you. Otherwise the coarsening of the public arena continues unabated, and the good & decent fathers who fought hard for Howard Stern’s right to say shit – literally – find themselves without an argument when the billboard across from their kid’s elementary school uses the same words. Today’s crusading moderate is tomorrow’s prude.

But somehow trepidation towards unraveling all the old “moral issues” has been twinned with reflexive Bush support, so all the bright young things recoil in dread when anyone brings up “values.” At least they have to pretend they do. We can certainly draw distinctions and make value judgments, but only vis-a-vis the important stuff, like whether Nickelback is a Nirvana ripoff or whether that bitch from the Apprentice should have been fired earlier. It's amusing to read reviews of "Closer", a film that sounds like 100 minutes of attenuated gum surgery: four shallow bitter people trading lacerating quips with their transient sex partners. If you believe that puddle-deep self-obsessed people engaged in two-backed beast construction is somehow the most illustrative example of the human condition, I suppose the movie will strike you as high art, but the notion that trivial people screw a lot and argue afterwards is as illuminating as the fact that dogs don't get married after they knock paws. Of course, that's the nature of art: it celebrates the abberant, be it the abberantly lovely or the abberantly horrid. But try and sell the critics and producers on the idea that a happy marriage with kids has more to say about the human heart than a tale of a 40 year old man who throws over his family for a 16-year old stripper. Hah! Anyway. From the most recent Entertainment Weekly, a review of “Wife Swap”:
“Any show could force a vegan mom to live with a gun-toting dad . . . but this one does it with love. Adding to the fun of playing Who’s Crazier? (this week it’s tattooed punk rockers who take their kids for piercings vs. Southern Baptists who punish their daughter by making her write Bible verses) . . .”

Is it too late for me to vote for the family that takes the kids to a shop to have needles driven through their skin as slightly crazier. The proper response – and by that I mean the one right-thinking moderns are supposed to have, automatically – is that whoo-boy, they’re both nuts! Bible verses? Eww. Piercing the kids? Eww too, although, you know, ear piercing used to be considered odd, and, whatever. As if getting Junior an eyebrow ring is somehow as peculiar as making your daughter write “Love thy neighbor as thyself” a few hundred times.

In the same issue of EW, an amusing story about pitching sitcoms. Says the writer, Peter Mehlman:
“Ignore the rumors. L.A. does have four seasons: earthquake season, fire season, riot season, and the most ravaging – pilot season. Network TV keeps groping to win over an America it despises – a viewing public it seems as a blurry, fat, brainless blob of uninsured, Hemi-powered, God-fearing Wal-Mart clerks. I’m paid to entertain them.”

And now you know why sitcoms suck.

On a distantly related note, EW also has this letter about the “Alexander” cover: “When I saw your cover, I excitedly showed my husband what I intelligently discovered: that the first letter of the three last names Jolie, Farrell, and Kilmer spells JFK, which Oliver Stone also directed. Was this intentional or a coincidence? It was probably intended, since it wouldn’t have been possible if the actors were different. How neat!”

That deserves the chastening stare of the Perry Head, I’m afraid.

Hey, mail’s here! Be right back . . .

Mac Connection catalog. They finally lost the picture of the blonde who was supposedly standing by to take your order. Coupons . . coupons . . . Hey, my union magazine. Let’s check the cartoon. It’s by Bill Yund. Uncle Sam, crucified, with the words “’Right’ Values” written on the nail piercing his bloody left hand.

Hey, Bill?