Friday, October 26, 2012


When I was a kid I improved my English comprehension by reading Mad magazine. The publication was an icon, the last of the EC Comics line famed for its gore and cleavage, and in the 1970s it had a circulation of more than two millions. This was without advertising, wants ads, subscription cards or any of the other revenue-makers that allowed other publications of its type to survive.  Mad, published seven or eight times a year, was in a class by itself and though its competitors, namely Cracked, tried to emulate the satires and parodies that were its hallmark, no other publication had as much an impact on adolescent readers. Mad, since it was a magazine, could avoid the stifling Comics Code Authority, and so lampooned everything—movies and TV, politics, families, educators, and the school system. It was shameless and incredibly cruel dealing with celebrities; it skewered parents and siblings, lecherous uncles and tippling aunts. It had a particularly wrathful affinity for Disney characters and once ran a piece on Darnold Duck who, after wondering why he had only three fingers and always had to wear gloves, decided to murder the rest of the Disney crew.  Al Jaffee, Mad’s longest-running contributor, was once quoted as saying, “[Mad] was designed to corrupt the minds of children. And from what I'm gathering from the minds of people all over, we succeeded.” It did so by never patronizing its young readers, never trying to persuade them that everything was going to be all right. In fact, the mag’s vicious and talented crew was pretty certain everything was going to hell in a handbasket regardless of what grown-ups said, and lovingly chronicled the trip.

Mad’s  young 1960s readers would a decade later have a hand in ending the Vietnam war and expelling Richard Nixon from the White House. For me and thousands of other mostly-boys, Mad allowed a flirtation with risky language and risky thoughts. None of us wanted to become the ‘What, Me Worry?” kid, Alfred E. Neuman, the magazines big-eared, gap toothed and freckled mascot, but we could appreciate his malicious disregard for those who wielded power. We too wanted to kick authority in the crotch, make fun of the jocks who beat us up and give the finger to the mean girls who approved. We were the kids who didn’t quite have the balls to cherry-bomb the school toilets but cheered on the idiots who did.  

Mad still exists, though it is now in color and, sadly, has been forced to accept print ads.  Still, it has survived Cracked which went under in March of 2007, and National Lampoon, an emerging-adult publication with more prose than pictures, that folded last millennium.

In my time, Mad pioneered the use of the word ‘crap,’ which was considered daring. Today, the word ‘bitch’ is in common use, as are ‘WTF’ and references to farts and threesomes. This, I suppose, is normal. Language changes and what was taboo a generation ago is common parlance today. The essence of the magazine hasn’t changed, though. It still hates celebrities and did a wonderful spread on Justin Bieber. One on the Kardashians is in the offing (I can hardly wait). Meanwhile, a compendium, ‘Certifiably Mad by the Usual Gang of Idiots’ has a brilliant hack of Harry Potter, a ‘50 Worst Things About the Internet,’  ‘A MAD Look at Lady Gaga,’ and ‘The Walking Dud.’

AT $7.98, ‘Certifiably Mad’ is a bargain.




Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Usless Debates

I didn’t have the heart to watch the third presidential debate. I watched the first two and was unnerved, appalled, saddened and angered. Now I’m just curious: Is there really any reason to have these events anymore? Do they prove anything, aside from the fact that both men are sort of idiot-savants capable of memorizing and spewing out meaningless statistics? What, exactly, was accomplished?

During the first debate I saw an autocratic schoolyard bully throwing his weight around. The President looked sort of like Alfred E. Newman, accommodating and fragile, attempting to show that good manners might win the day. They didn’t. I didn’t think Romney ‘won’ because he intimidated the debate’s ancient arbiter; rather he struck me as a man unused to being questioned by lesser being, and we are all, in his eyes, lesser beings.

Obama came to the second debate with advice ringing in his ears: be more forceful, less compliant. There were more meaningless statistics. Does anyone really know what a billion means? A trillion? I don’t. I measure numbers by their relationships to my life and while I can fathom a million or two (there are multi-million dollar homes not far from where I live; a Bugatti Veyron costs a million), when the zeros start piling up into the double digits, they cease to bear any relationship to my life. The friends I spoke to after the debate feel the same way, and some of them make pretty good money. My point is that it’s easy to throw numbers around. Anyone can do it; it’s political white noise, and I would have thought—and hoped—that both the President and the Governor had more on the ball, that they wouldn’t have to resort to such cheap tricks.

What bothered me the most, I think, is that the staged encounter between these two politicians gave them both the opportunity to wreak havoc with facts and figures, further confusing the really important issues the nation faces. Both Romney and Obama were equally guilty of massaging statistics to fit their needs, whether speaking about the debt, unemployment, defense spending or the GM bailout.

What I wanted to hear was Obama saying, “OK, folks, let’s get down to brass tacks here. The Governor is a pretty smart guy, but in the US, smart guys are a dime a dozen, and many of them have the bad habit of speaking out of both sides of their mouths. Kinda like George, here. Oh. Sorry. Mitt. Who the hell names their kid Mitt? But I digress. Elect me, and you get a man serving his second term. I know the office—hell, I’m already President! I’ll work my ass off. I know the job, and I’m not going to be seeking re-election so I’ll be able to spend the time working for you.” Here, he would turn to Romney and smile graciously. “Elect the governor and he’s going to spend the first two years in office going—pardon my French—‘What the f**k!’ Then he’ll spend the next two years trying to get re-elected. You think he’s gonna have time to take care of the nation’s business? Dream on…”

But Obama didn’t say that. In fact, neither of them said much of anything new, and what they did say isn’t to be trusted, skewed as it was so serve their political needs.

In the end, I did like Obama’s suit better, and I didn’t think much of Romney’s 1961 haircut. I suppose that’s all I’ll have to vote on.


Monday, October 15, 2012

Goblin Fart Bread

The price of the bread I usually eat for breakfast recently jumped from $3.99 to $4.99 a loaf.

There’s nothing special about this bread. It’s not baked by Third World children in search of self-expression, and no part of its cost is passed on to charities. It’s a round loaf, unsliced, about ten inches across, and since it’s baked without preservatives and I don’t keep in the fridge, it goes bad within a matter of days. Oh, and it’s pumpernickel.

Pumpernickel, incidentally, is not in and of itself a grain and there are no amber waves of pumpernickel swaying in the American breeze. It’s just rye, though the name has an interesting history. 

According to the highly trustable Straight Dope website, “pumper” is from High German and means ‘to break wind.’ “Nickel” is derived from the name Nicholas, often given to devils and goblins. So ‘pumpernickel’ is the devil’s fart, possibly because being high fiber, it creates gases as it passes through one’s body, and it’s difficult to digest.

But this is not an etymological discourse, even though the origins of pumpernickel’s name bring a new twist to breakfast.

A one dollar escalation in a four dollar staple item is a price increase of 25 percent. Rye, to the best of my knowledge, has not become a rare agricultural treasure like truffles or the tasteless lichen scraped from the sides of cliff by small Asian men dangling from baskets. Nope, rye is just that, a modest, cold weather grain whose harvest of millions bushels is used largely in the baking of bread and the distilling of whiskey.

So why the sudden price increase? I asked the baker in my local food store and he didn’t know. There had been no announcement. One day, the bakery’s computer spat out price tags that read $4.99, the next day it was a dollar more. He volunteered that he, personally, hadn’t gotten a raise that might account for the price increase, and neither had his cohorts manning the ovens. No one, he added, was driving a Mercedes. His crew bakes an average of a dozen loaves of pumpernickel daily, a couple more on Saturdays, and these are generally sold by 6 p.m.  Leftover loaves are sold at deep discount or discarded the second day. According to sources that for obvious reasons must stay anonymous, the cost of producing pumpernickel bread is around eighty cents a loaf, when you count the ingredients, packaging, the salary of the baker, and the power used to fire the oven and run the giant mixer that kneads the dough. Add wastage, at a liberal ten percent, and transportation costs of the grain, say another ten percent. That’s still  long way from $4.99.  

So just for the hell of it, I found the store manager, who wasn’t even aware of the price increase but volunteered to check her computer. Same thing. Citing her Econ 101 class, she started to tell me about guns and butter, or, in this case, pumpernickel and butter. She did not make a convincing case and was aware of it, so after a minute or so of discourse, she went to check on the bratwurst and knockwurst in the pork product aisle.

It struck me that in earlier times and other nations, such a drastic change in the price of bread would have led to revolution, or at least loud demonstrations in the street. Here, not so much. In fact, the baker told me, no one else noticed the bread suddenly paying buck more.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. A while back, 12 ounces of assorted bagged lettuce and greens were $2.69. Now they’re $3.89. Same lettuce, same bag, same weight, different price. Hydopronic tomatoes, largely tasteless and colorless fruit (or is it vegetable? The argument rages on among aficionados) now cost as much as vine grown.  At this rate, I’ll be eating unadorned kale (which has neither risen nor fallen) three times a day within a few years.

What this proves, among other things, is that bread is no longer the staple it once was. Very possibly, the present American staple is the Big Mac, and you can rest assured that Mickey D is not about to slap at 25% increase on its most celebrated concoction. It also demonstrates that the prices of niche foods, which I suppose is what pumpernickel bread is, can be manipulated at will. I wouldn’t be surprised if the bread vanished altogether in the near future, just as the inexpensive decaf ground coffees like Bustello and Pico disappeared from supermarket shelves in my area about a year ago.

I’m not sure what consumers can do. All I know is that whether the price increase applies to tasteless hydroponic tomatoes or farting goblin bread, it stinks.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Adventures of Paul and Todd

I don’t personally know Paul Broun. I’ve heard he’s a doctor, though to my relief  I understand he’s not actually a practicing physician. He’s a Republican, a representative from the great state of Georgia, and he believes that the earth was created in six days by God some 9000 years ago. He believes this very firmly, going so far as to tell a crowd at a church banquet that anything deviating from this theory is “lies straight from the pit of hell.”

“God’s word is true,” Broun said, according to a video posted on the church’s website.   "I've come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it's lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior."

In case anyone doubted the depth of his beliefs, he added, “"You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I've found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don't believe that the earth's but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That's what the Bible says."

Rep. Broun, aside from being a physician, also has a B.S. in chemistry. In his speech, he credited the Bible with governing his approach to government. “What I’ve come to learn is that it’s the manufacturer’s handbook, is what I call it,” he said. “It teaches us how to run our lives individually, how to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all of public policy and everything in society. And that’s the reason as your congressman I hold the holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I’ll continue to do that.”

Honestly, I pretty much don’t care what a person believes.  For centuries, a lot of folks thought the world was balanced on the back of a giant turtle supported by four standing elephants. At about the same time, people in Europe thought the earth was the center of the universe, and you could be burned as a heretic if you held other views.

What bothers me, I guess, is that Representative Broun is a highly-placed member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee HSSTC). In fact, he’s the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight which “has general and special investigative authority on all matters within the jurisdiction of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

That raised some concerns. And when I found out Representative Todd Akin, a Republican from Missouri is also a member of the HSSTC, I gave up all semblance of calm. Akin, you might remember, is the gentleman who said that women don't get pregnant from "legitimate rape" because their bodies have "ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

The exact quote was:  "From what I understand from doctors, that's really rare," Akin said of pregnancy caused by rape. "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let's assume maybe that didn't work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist."

Akin’s statements are harder to forgive than Broun’s, possibly because they’re even more outrageous and cannot be ascribed to a faith of rock-hard density, and possibly because the Missouri Congressman (and Senatorial candidate) has a comb-over that is famous throughout the Washington area, a place that generally feels people with comb-overs should keep their opinions to themselves.

What I think is that the doctor Akin refers to when speaking about rape and pregnancy is Dr. Paul Broun. It’s the only thing that makes sense. They probably met someplace on Capitol Hill, which is a rather small area with a lot of comb-overs, and they recognized in each other kindred spirits. Then they decided to take over the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

By now, all of us should be shuddering.   


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Inelegant and Rude

We are in an inelegant and rude age.  If I look for definitions of the word ‘inelegant, I get ‘unstylish, unsophisticated, tasteless, vulgar, unpolished, clumsy’ and ‘awkward.’ If I dig a little deeper, in a thesaurus, say, I find ‘gawky, graceless, maladroit, ungainly, splay,’ and ‘uncouth.’ I particularly like the word splay, which I did not know existed until a few minutes ago. The Encarta dictionary defines inelegant as ‘lacking grace, sophistication, and good taste in appearance or behavior.’ Which I think pretty well defines these times.

I dislike today’s über relaxed styles. I’m offended by 14-year-old girls with uplift bras that have little to lift, and 14-year-old boys trying to emulate pimps. The fact that we have taken baseball caps and made a fashion statement of wearing them backwards makes as much sense to me as crotchless men's underwear. I am only slightly placated by the fact that in the 16th century, it was considered elegant for aristocratic ladies to grow their pubic hair long and tie bows and ribbons in it. Two centuries later, the height of fashion was false eyebrows made out of mouse skins. So maybe being a kid who likes to wear his pants around his knees is OK. He doesn’t know better. We can’t say the same for buyers of high-end jeans who have made a utilitarian pair of trousers into largely useless pre-faded pants that will never see a day’s hard work. In fact, I’ve often wondered about the purpose of a $200 a pair of denims. Is the wearer pretending to be a worker among workers, or mocking the working class as a whole by implying his pants are worth more than a day’s labor and are dry-cleaned? It’s all pretty mysterious.    

What irks me more than the uselessness of fashion in our times (though I am relieved we no longer use cod pieces) is behaviors that seem to have crept in at about the same time we started inventing more and more ways to say less and less. I find it incredibly odd to see a young couple sitting at a table, each engrossed in their phone or tablet. I wonder about young parents whose children are running amuck in public spaces, and it strikes me that I have never seen anything like this in Europe.  Perhaps Pamela Druckerman, author of the bestseller Bringing Up Bébé, is right in thinking that “the French, (who in her world are educated professionals living in the Paris area) handle pregnancy, childbirth and early childhood better than obsessive, competitive American hyper-parents.”

I am certain as well that inelegance has crept into the way we drive nowadays. We’ve become aggressive, rude, impatient and careless. We talk on the phone and text while at the wheel, and think nothing of blocking intersections and driveways. Statistics show that cops are issuing more moving violations, and traffic courts throughout the country are handling more cases than ever. For a while, road rage was front page news. Now we seem to have accepted its existence as part of living here, much as we’ve accepted handguns, mass murders (defined as the killing of more than five people), greenhouse gases and tasteless tomatoes.

So inelegance and rudeness are close cousins. Public Agenda, part of The Pew Charitable Trusts, found in a study that “most Americans surveyed say rudeness is on the rise in our society and 41 percent admit they too are sometimes a part of the problem. Unhappiness with reckless drivers, cell phone abuse, poor customer service, swearing and litter came from big cities and small towns in all geographic regions as large majorities of Americans say they believe life truly was more civil in the past. And American business is paying a price for the lack of manners - nearly half the people surveyed (46 percent) say bad service drove them out of a store in the past year.

“Among the report’s key findings were:

·        79 percent of Americans say lack of respect and courtesy should be regarded as a serious national problem;  

·        73 percent believe Americans did treat one another with greater respect in the past;

·        62 percent say that witnessing rude and disrespectful behavior bothers them a lot and 52 percent said the residue from such episodes lingers with them for some time afterwards;

·        Six in 10 believe the problem is getting worse, and;

·        41 percent confess to having acted rude or disrespectful themselves.


One of the more noteworthy findings in the Public Agenda survey was how little respect rudeness has for boundaries: experiences with bad behavior were virtually the same whether one was from the North or South, rich or poor, living in a big city or a small town.


Gee. We’ve finally found something the entire country does well.