Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Some what mystified by the commotion at the abbey, Brother Francis returned to the desert that same day to complete his Lenten vigil in rather wretched solitude. He had expected some excitement about the relics to arise, but the excessive interest which everyone had taken in the old wanderer surprised him. Francis had spoken of the old man, simply because of the part he had played, either by accident or Providence, in the monk’s stumbling upon the crypt and its relics. The pilgrim was only a minor ingredient, as far as Francis was concerned, in a mandala design at whose center rested a relic of a saint. But his fellow novices had seemed more interested in the pilgrim than in the relic, and even the abbot had summoned him, not to ask about the box, but to ask about the old man. They had asked him a hundred questions about the pilgrim to which he could reply only: “I didn’t notice,” or “I wasn’t looking right then,” or “If he said, I don’t remember,” and some of the questions were a little weird. And so he questioned himself: Should I have noticed? Was I stupid not to watch what he did? Wasn’t I paying enough attention to what he said? Did I miss something important because I was dazed?

Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz (54)

For obvious reasons, I never told you about my notebook, with a cover as green as mansions long gone, which I use as a commonplace book, a phrase which here means “place where I have collected passages from some of the most important books I have read.” The passages hold some of the most crucial secrets in this sad and flammable world. As much as it breaks my heart to tear them from my dark green notebook, it is simply not safe to keep them any longer.

Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography (159)

Monday, December 30, 2002

“I don’t see how,” Klaus said, his eyes looking worried behind his glasses. “There’s only one copy of the catalog, and it’s pretty complicated. Each of the items for the auction is called a lot, and the catalog lists each lot with a description and a guess at what the highest bid will be. I’ve read up to Lot #49, which is a valuable postage stamp.”

Lemony Snicket, The Ersatz Elevator (173)

If you are ever forced to take a chemistry class, you will probably see, at the front of the classroom, a large chart divided into squares, with different numbers and letters in each of them. This chart is called the table of elements, and scientists like to say that it contains all the substances that make up our world. Like everyone else, scientists are wrong from time to time, and it is easy to see that they are wrong about the table of elements. Because although this table contains a great many elements, from the element oxygen, which is found in the air, to the element aluminum, which is found in cans of soda, the table of elements does not contain one of the most powerful elements that makes up our world, and that is the element of surprise. The element of surprise is not a gas, like oxygen, or a solid, like aluminum. The element of surprise is an unfair advantage, and it can be found in situations in which one person has sneaked up on another. The surprised person – or, in this case, the surprised persons – are too stunned to defend themselves, and the sneaky person has the advantage of the element of surprise.

Lemony Snicket, The Ersatz Elevator (59-60)

Wednesday, December 25, 2002

Lewis’s suicide has hurt his reputation. Had Cruzatte’s bullet killed him, he would be honored today far more than he is; perhaps there would be a river named after him. But through most of the nineteenth century, he was relatively ignored and in some danger of being forgotten. In 1889-91, Henry Adams could write a multivolume history of the Jefferson administration and scarcely mention Meriwether Lewis or William Clark (whose reputation at the time rested far more on his accomplishments in St. Louis as superintendent of Indian affairs than on the expedition).

Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage (474)

Freethinking Judge Thomas Hertell of the New York legislature was the first to introduce legislation to protect the property rights of women. Ardent atheist Ernestine L. Rose, a Polish immigrant, became the first to lobby for passage of the Married Woman’s Property Act, as well as becoming the first canvasser for women’s rights. Like Wollstonecraft and Wright, Rose was an object of vituperation, libeled by clergy as “a thousand times lower than a prostitute.” Fledgling freethinker Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who had been the first to call for women’s suffrage, took the lead in calling for marriage and divorce reform, becoming the Bible’s sharpest critic by the time she penned the Woman’s Bible nearly 50 years later. “My heart’s desire is to lift women out of all these dangerous, degrading superstitions, and to this end will labor my remaining days on earth,” she wrote in 1896. Stanton’s “coadjutant,” Susan B. Anthony, was an agnostic, and their feminist partner, Matilda Joslyn Gage, author of the influential Women, Church and State (1893), was a freethinker who in 1890 formed the first national feminist organization to work for the separation of church and state.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, “Why Women Need Freedom From Religion,” in Everything You Know Is Wrong, edited by Russ Kick (170)

That’s not fair!” the vice principal squealed back at her. “The stone building over there contains the cafeteria. Meals are served promptly at breakfast time, lunchtime, and dinnertime. If you’re late we take away your cups and glasses, and your beverages will be served to you in large puddles. That rectangular building over there, with the rounded top, is the auditorium. Every night I give a violin recital for six hours, and attendance is mandatory. The word ‘mandatory’ means that if you don’t show up, you have to buy me a large bag of candy and watch me eat it. The lawn serves as out sports facility. Our regular gym teacher, Miss Tench, accidentally fell out of a third-story window a few days ago, but we have a replacement, who should arrive shortly. In the meantime I’ve instructed the children to run around as fast as they can during gym time. I think that just about covers everything. Are there any questions?”

Lemony Snicket, The Austere Academy (24-25)

For most people, honesty is such an unusual departure from their standard modus operandi – such an aberration in their workaday mendacity – that they feel obligated to alert you when a moment of sincerity is coming on. ‘To be completely honest,’ they say, or, ‘To tell you the truth,’ or, ‘Can I be straight?’ Often they want to extract vows of discretion from you before going any further. ‘This strictly between us, right?... You must promise not to tell anyone.’ Sheba does none of that. She tosses out intimate and unflattering truths about herself all the time, without a second thought. ‘I was the most fearsomely obsessive little masturbator when I was a girl,’ she told me once when we were first getting to know each other. ‘My mother practically had to Sellotape my knickers to me, to stop me having at myself in public places.’

ZoĆ« Heller, “What Sheba Did Wrong,” in Granta 79 (131)

Wherever the drug rep goes, whether pharmacy, hospital, doctors’ offices, anywhere, he leaves a trail of little gifts prominently displaying the name of the particular pill he’s pushing. For quite some time, the coffee cup with the drug name enameled on the side was a favorite (and it’s still a perennial giveaway). Other staples are the notepads, pens, diaries, rulers, calendars clocks and even umbrellas – all bearing the name and slogan of a particular pill. In some cases more expensive items are handed out to doctors – for instance detailed ceramic heart models, or a life-sized take-apart model of a human brain may be left with a doctor as a visual aid when he or she (hopefully) prescribes the pills to patients.

Jim Hogshire, Pills-A-Go-Go (26)

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

There are two kinds of fears: rational and irrational – or, in simpler terms, fears that make sense and fears that don’t. For instance, the Baudelaire orphans have a fear of Count Olaf, which makes perfect sense, because he is an evil man who wants to destroy them. But if they were afraid of lemon meringue pie, this would be an irrational fear, because lemon meringue pie is delicious and has never hurt a soul. Being afraid of a monster under the bed is perfectly rational, because there may in fact be a monster under your bed at any time, ready to eat you all up, but a fear of realtors is an irrational fear. Realtors, as I’m sure you know, are people who assist in the buying and selling of houses. Besides occasionally wearing an ugly yellow coat, the worst a realtor can do to you is show you a house that you find ugly, and is it is completely irrational to fear them.

Lemony Snicket, The Wide Window (34-35)

Monday, December 09, 2002

There is another story concerning wolves that somebody has probably read to you, which is just as absurd. I am talking about Little Red Riding Hood, an extremely unpleasant little girl who, like the Boy Who Cried Wolf, insisted in intruding on the territory of dangerous animals. You will recall that the wolf, after being treated very rudely by Little Red Riding Hood, ate the little girl’s grandmother and put on her clothing as a disguise. It is this aspect of the story that is the most ridiculous, because one would think than even a girl as dim-witted as Little Red Riding Hood could tell in an instant the difference between her grandmother and a wolf dressed in a nightgown and fuzzy slippers. If you know somebody very well, like your grandmother or your baby sister, you will know when they are real and when they are fake. This is why, as Sunny began to scream, Violet and Klaus could tell immediately that her scream was absolutely fake.

Lemony Snicket, The Reptile Room (142-143)

The captains had assumed that when they got out of the mountains they would be in a country with an ample supply of deer and elk. They were wrong. The hunters – those still on their feet – were unsuccessful. Fish and roots purchased from the Nez Perce remained the diet. On October 4, Lewis was still sick. The next day, Clark reported, “Capt Lewis & my Self eate a Supper of roots boiled, which filled us So full of wind, that we were Scercely able to Breathe all night felt the effects of it.”

Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage (296)

Sunday, December 08, 2002

But studies and experts disagree as to whether there is a relationship of any kind between pornography and violence. Or, more broadly stated, between images and behavior. Some studies, such as the one prepared by feminist Thelma McCormick (1983) for the Metropolitan Toronto Task Force on Violence Against Women, found no pattern to indicate a connection between pornography and sex crimes. Incredibly, the Task Force suppressed the study and reassigned the project to a pro-censorship male, who returned the “correct” results. His study was published.

Wendy McElroy, “Pornography,” in Everything You Know is Wrong, edited by Russ Kick (153)

Their findings were confirmed in a 2001 paper by Swarthmore and University of Maryland economists Thomas Dee and William Evans. “The nationwide increases in MLDA (minimum legal drinking age) may have merely shifted some of the fatality risks from teens to young adults,” they conclude after examining multiple factors. Raising drinking ages from 19 to 21 to cut 18- and 19-year olds’ traffic deaths by 5 percent but increased fatalities among 22- and 23-year olds by 8 percent. “The magnitude of mortality redistribution,” Dee/Evans report, “is quite large.”

Mike Males, “Myths About Youth,” in Everything You Know is Wrong, edited by Russ Rick (123)

The media continue to perpetuate the myth that Manson’s only motivation was to start a race war. Actually, his brainwashed so-called family unknowingly served as a hit squad for organized crime figures that he had met in prison. Three decades later, Manson continues to be a symbol for the end of the 1960s. One thing is certain, though. Charlie was never a hippie. Recently, Variety, the bible of Show Biz, reported that prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s 1975 book about the Manson family, Helter Skelter, has been bought by, appropriately enough, Propaganda Films.

Paul Krassner, “Charlie Manson’s Image,” in Everything You Know is Wrong, edited by Russ Kick (86)

Saturday, December 07, 2002

As you and I listen to Uncle Monty tell the three Baudelaire orphans that no harm will ever come to them in the Reptile Room, we should be experiencing the strange feeling that accompanies the arrival of dramatic irony. This feeling is not unlike the sinking in one’s stomach when one is in an elevator that suddenly goes down, of when you are snug in your bed and your closet door suddenly creaks open to reveal the person who has been hiding there. For no matter how safe and happy the three children felt, no matter how comforting Uncle Monty’s words were, you and I know that soon Uncle Monty will be dead and the Baudelaires will be miserable once again.

Lemony Snicket, The Reptile Room (32-33)
Lewis did all this with the utmost seriousness. It never occurred to him that his actions might be characterized as patronizing, dictatorial, ridiculous, and highly dangerous. From what we know from old Dorion, these Yanktons were peaceable, at least compared with their neighbors and relatives, the Teton Sioux, farther upriver. But his idea of how to make them allies was to give them worthless medals and wardrobe trappings rather than the guns and powder they needed. And to make one chief the big chief was to meddle in the intertribal politics about which he knew nothing. In general, it would be impossible to say which side was more ignorant of the other.

Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage (163)