Quote of The Week

“The difference between a politician and a statesman is that a politician thinks about the next election, while the statesman thinks about the next generation.”

Theologian James Freeman Clarke

Archives

The Plague

In The Plague, a 1947 novel by Albert Camus, the citizens of Oran in Algeria are decimated by a dreadful infectious disease, which (having no choice) they bear with heroic stoicism and endurance. Clever literary critics say that the plague described in the novel is a subtle metaphor of the German occupation, or of evil in general. But I read it as a much more transparent metaphor of the common cold. If there is one universal plague on the whole human race, this is it.

The common cold knows no boundaries, respects no persons, and ignores the seasons. A summer cold is bad enough, especially when you catch in a place like the south of France. But an start-of-winter cold, as I’ve just discovered, is even more aggravating. I had made it all through last year, for once in my life, without getting a single cold. Just when I thought I was free and clear, an incautious trip in a packed, germ-ridden Long Island Rail Road car reminded me what I had been missing. As I write, and try to speak, the cold is at its height. I’m not happy about it.

The ordinary head cold has been a plague of the human race forever. It’s strange to think that Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Caesar, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Beethoven all knew these symptoms intimately. How many historic disasters have been caused by the common cold? Was the captain of the Titanic perhaps not feeling quite his best that night? At Yorktown in 1781, was General Cornwallis fully alert and in command of his faculties? There has to be some explanation for what happened.

Victims try to dignify their common colds with more impressive names: they say it’s a virus, it’s flu, it’s an upper respiratory infection. But no, it’s just a cold, totally unimpressive and unimportant, except to the sufferer. We get no sympathy, and really deserve none. Friends and family try elaborately to keep their distance, without seeming to.

I’ve always thought that people with colds should just stay home, and stop spreading the germs around. I hate those valiant souls who crawl into the office coughing and sneezing like explosive Typhoid Marys, just to show how dedicated they are. There’s an argument to be made for voluntary or even compulsory quarantine for cold sufferers. It’s estimated that workdays lost through colds cost $17 billion a year. Keep people from infecting their fellow workers, and that figure might drop all the way to zero.

A cold takes about ten days to run its course. There’s no treatment. Antibiotics are worse than useless, building up resistance against the day when you get something really serious. Vitamin C, as recommended by Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling, seems to be largely a mythical defense. The only comfort I know is to stay in bed with radio, DVD, pile of good books, some cats, and a hot toddy made up of whiskey, hot water, lemon and honey. Modern technology has given us some small consolations. Paper tissues are great, and so are those strange green medicines that help us to breathe at night. But on the whole, it’s a rotten medieval kind of disease with no redeeming features.

I can say with a sniff of pride that I once played a very small part in the losing battle against the common cold. Years ago, as an impecunious young writer (the description still applies, except that I’m not young now), I spent weeks at an establishment called The Cold Research Center near Salisbury in England. It was a perfect getaway, the perfect workplace, totally isolated, and the deal was that we were human guinea pigs. The researchers learned some things from their experiments on us: for example that you can’t get a cold by being wet or chilled, or by sitting in a draft. The best way to get a cold from someone is to shake his hand. They also concluded that colds are more or less incurable, because they are not one infection, but about two hundred constantly mutating viruses.

I can’t imagine that such a perverse disease could have evolved by accident. Somehow, as Albert Camus suggested, the plague of the common cold has a deep metaphysical purpose in human affairs. It’s an evil, cunning plot, whatever it is. I’d like to meet the person responsible, and shake his hand.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Romance of Winter

The heating furnace has been giving trouble again, as it does every year. It’s not even the same furnace every year. At various times in different houses we have become intimate with many furnaces: some huge and old, some compact and ultra modern. The only thing they all have in common is that, the moment the temperature drops below forty degrees, they stop working.

This particular episode required three visits by the oil company’s repairman. The first cleaned the furnace, which had been popping intermittently like a distant war. After his visit it roared like a dragon, but no heat emerged. The second repairman bled some air out of the pipes, something I had already tried myself, without much result except a minor flood in the basement. This produced a lot of gurgling, and heat upstairs but not downstairs. The third repairman, who has only just left as I write this, re-set the temperature controls on the furnace, which the first repairman had set wrong.

It’s nice to have some company at home during the day, but I rather resent having to wait for hours for their visits, explain the problem to each successive heating technician, and stand by holding the lamp while they perform their mystical furnace healing rituals. The basement has been like a second home to me for the past couple of days, and I’m seriously thinking of getting a book on Furnace Repair for Dummies so I can tackle the next disaster myself. How complicated can it be?

The men who come to fix the heating are amazingly stoical, in spite of the dirty and subterranean nature of their work. They need psychological as well as mechanical skills. People who lose their heat on a freezing day tend to get hysterical. The repairmen all have the same calm, reassuring demeanor, like doctors who have seen the same symptoms a million times. As soon as they clump through the door, carrying their bag of oily tools, we know that we will survive this crisis, as we have survived before. I respect these men. They are out in the worst of winter weather, and they bring comfort in the most literal way.

Winter must be a good time for heating furnace repairmen. They have plenty of work, especially if every furnace has to be fixed three times, and they have the satisfaction of helping people who are desperate. But, for the rest of us, there is absolutely nothing to be said in favor of winter. Some people try to romanticize it with fantasies about the coziness of life at home in the cold months: the roaring log fires, the savory casseroles, the hot drinks, the warm beds, the winter wonderlands, and the refreshing sting of cold air on rosy cheeks.

But those who claim to love winter are living in a dream world, or possibly in Florida. Roaring log fires are just a way of reducing the heating bills, and they make your bronchitis worse, casseroles are fattening and, in our house at least, the warm beds are only warm because the cats got there first. As for winter wonderlands, the suburban version is usually a snow-choked driveway, an icy windscreen, and a frozen parking lot across which we slither and skid our trolleys like Antarctic explorers with badly designed sleds. The rosy cheeks of winter are merely a warning signal of arthritis, colds, flu, and pneumonia in the immediate future.

Don’t talk to me about the romance of winter. Save it for to the furnace repairman.

Copyright: David Bouchier

New Year, Old Years

Now we begin the eighteenth year of the twenty-first century. It’s no longer a novelty. The twentieth century already seems almost as remote and historic as the nineteenth.

As history moves along, the frontier of memory moves with it. As long as there are people around who remember particular years or events, those things still seem “real” to those of us who came along later. When nobody remembers, those events disappear into the history books. So the first decade of the twentieth century has almost vanished from human memory. It’s a sepia photograph, a flickering silent movie, a scratchy recording of a forgotten tune.

That still leaves a large chunk of the last century that is very much alive in the memories of our more senior citizens, and it’s worth remembering what we remember. Those of us who were born before World War Two have memories of life before television, before penicillin, polio shots, frozen foods, Xerox, contact lenses, videos, and the pill. We were here before radar, credit cards, split atoms, laser beams and ballpoint pens, before dishwashers, tumble dryers, electric blankets, domestic air conditioning, drip-dry clothes, or global positioning systems.

When we arranged a date, computers were not involved. We got married first and then lived together. It’s very difficult to get young people to believe this. We thought Fast Food was what you ate in Lent, and that a Big Mac was an oversized raincoat. We managed our family lives without househusbands or day care. We never heard of FM radios, CDs, disposable cameras, artificial hearts, word processors, or young men wearing earrings. For us a “chip” was a piece of wood, or a fried potato, “hardware” meant nuts and bolts, and “software” wasn’t even a word.

Who would have thought, even twenty years ago, that television would come down the wire and the telephone would be wireless? Who could have predicted students who don’t study, accountants who don’t account, or scientists who cheat on their experiments? Who could ever have predicted that young people would not always be clean, respectful, moral and hard working – the way we were?

We’ve had to absorb a lot of changes, and some of us may agree with James Thurber, who said: “Progress was all right; it just went on too long.” I would add: not just too long but too fast.
What so annoying about the headlong rush to change everything is that we never get to achieve the one and only benefit of age: superior knowledge. Age may bring wisdom to some of us, if we’re paying attention. But who needs wisdom? When your computer screen goes blank you can be as wise as Solomon, and it will stay blank. Knowledge is what we need, and we have less and less of that as we grow older. The instant we learn something it’s already out of date, and any ten-year-old kid knows more. Seniors are eternal freshmen in the fast-moving world of high technology.
The only consolation is that exactly the same thing will happen to today’s smug kids, and even faster. In a very few years they will have to ask their kids how to switch on the three-dimensional holographic home entertainment system – and those of us who remember the crystal set or the 78 record will be history.

Copyright: David Bouchier

I See the Lights!

During the month of December, driving around the suburbs at night can be a profoundly surrealistic experience. Most of the residential streets are dull and dark, as usual. But sometimes you turn a corner and see a multi-colored glow in the sky, as if aliens had landed on the next block. It’s another Christmas light extravaganza.

On the whole, I enjoy the tradition of celebrating the season with a display of lights. It’s a dark time of year. There’s nothing much to look forward to except the dark days of January, then more of the same chilly darkness through February and March. We may as well cheer ourselves up with a few colored lights, just as our ancestors pushed away the winter blues with extravagant displays of candles.

Candles are beautiful, especially in the windows of old houses. However, most people use electric candles, which are a bit of a cheat. They don’t create that lovely wavering effect, as the flame flickers in the draft, and they don’t provide the same employment for the local fire department. When I was a very young child, people still used candles on Christmas trees, and the fire services were busy all night. You don’t get that kind of entertainment with electric candles.

A modest display of Holiday lights is charming. But, when it comes to electrical celebrations, some people don’t know when to stop. Their homes and front yards blaze out with whole galaxies of lights: reindeer with flashing red noses, blinking Santa Clauses, glittering sleighs, and cute little elves, glowing like survivors of a nuclear accident. Some of these displays even have sound effects, which must drive the neighbors very close to homicide. It has become a competitive thing. There are homes, and whole blocks of homes on Long Island that are famous for their annual illuminations. They start working on these projects in August, and some have more than thirteen thousand lights. The impact is stunning, especially when you come on them unexpectedly.

There is a whole Christmas lights sub-culture out here in the subdivisions. There are catalogs full of new and more impressive displays: lighted mobile reindeer sculptures, giant back-lit revolving wreaths, illuminated nativity villages, angels in neon, snowflakes with mini-lights, icicles, falling stars, and rotating trees. The only gesture towards economy I could find was a half-Christmas tree, conveniently flat on one side so that it will fit right up against the wall. I suppose that saves something on the utility bill.

Do these elaborate displays outside people’s homes indicate that a particularly strong religious spirit prevails within? Henry David Thoreau would say that we have to live up to our decorations. But how hard it would be to rise so high.

But my real problem with these over-decorated suburban homes is that they remind me of something else entirely. They remind me of Las Vegas. They remind me of the seaside resorts in England we used to visit as a child, to “see the lights” – hundreds of thousands of colored bulbs strung along the seafront and the pier. They remind me of the circus, the fairground, the carnival. They don’t remind me of Christmas at all. When I pass these glittering houses, I just think about the electricity bills. Such waste would embarrass a Renaissance prince.

When these gaudy displays are switched off (as they should be) on Twelfth Night, when these insubstantial pageants have faded, I will actually miss them. They may have nothing to do with Christmas, but they certainly brighten up our suburban lives for a few weeks. Perhaps, at this time of year, it is better to light a candle, even thirteen thousand electric candles, than to curse the darkness.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Charles Dickens in America

Every December on Long Island the village of Port Jefferson hosts a Dickens Festival. This has evolved into a big event, with dozens of historical and cultural programs and happenings loosely connected to the Dickensian version of Christmas. The sidewalks were made picturesque by actors in period costume: chimney sweeps, bobbies, ragged urchins, characters with names like Thomas Beg Alot, and Lord Dudley Butterworth, Mr. Pip, and of course Ebenezer Scrooge. There was a Dickensian stage set, the sound of bells and carols was in the air, candles glowed in the windows, and there were even real (if rather glum) reindeer to be petted and photographed. If it hadn’t been for the traffic driving on the wrong side of the road, and the lack of air pollution and poverty, it could have been nineteenth century London.

Charles Dickens more or less invented our modern Christmas, with all its charms and excesses. When the Puritans were in power in England back in the 1600s, Christmas festivities were banned, along with plum puddings. Even up to the 1840s, Christmas was not much more than a date on the church calendar. Then along came Dickens and his book A Christmas Carol, and December was never the same again. He published it as quick moneymaker in 1844 to cover the expenses of his wife’s pregnancy. As everyone knows, A Christmas Carol became a mega best seller. On his second American tour in 1867 Dickens read his sentimental story to enthusiastic audiences.

It has to be said that Dickens didn’t much enjoy his times in America, although he made a lot of money here. On his first tour in 1842 he was angered by slavery and oppressed by his own popularity. In a letter he wrote: “I can do nothing that I want to do, and see nothing that I want to see. If I turn into the street, I am followed by a multitude.” Celebrity worship was a new phenomenon, and Dickens wanted nothing to do with it. You can read his colorful observations on the tour in his American Notes, and in fictional form in Martin Chuzzlewit. His second visit was in winter, the weather was foul, and Dickens was in poor health. He died two years after returning to England.

It is impossible though intriguing to try to guess what Dickens, who like Mr. Pickwick was a keen observer of human nature, would make of the Port Jefferson Dickens Festival, and of the extraordinary popularity of A Christmas Carol a hundred and seventy years after it was published. He would be pleased and flattered I’m sure, but without a doubt very puzzled, and probably amused that his Victorian moral tale has survived so well into the twenty-first century.

It’s a wonderful story, A Christmas Carol, although completely wrong for these uncertain times. To be a moral example today Scrooge would have to change in the opposite direction, beginning as a wild spendthrift with all his credit cards maxed out, and ending as the bitter miser he was at the beginning of Dickens’s tale. This is the time for us all to find our inner Scrooge, and say “Bah! Humbug!” to the artificial extravagance of Christmas. It’s not going to happen, of course. We are all “consumers” now, and just as sailors must sail and lawyers must litigate, consumers must consume. Don’t even think about the ghost of Christmas yet to come.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Husband Pen

It’s no use pretending that feminism has made us all equal. The male half of the population still lacks many essential life skills, and the one that shows up most conspicuously as The Holidays loom ahead is our utter failure to grasp even the first principles of retail consumption. Men are useless at shopping.

The rudiments of the skill are there. Just as chimpanzees can learn a few basic words and linguistic signals in a laboratory environment, so most men can manage some basic shopping if we are guided to the right place. This means a hardware store, an auto parts store, or a computer store. There we will putter about happily, and perhaps even buy something. So it’s not as if we can’t shop at all. But, just as the chimps fail to make the leap from primitive signals to full language, so men find it hard to achieve the heights of consumer expertise and relentless foraging that distinguish the fully-developed professional shopper. Take us into a big box store and our brains turn to jelly. Any woman who has been bought gifts by a man, or has tried to shop with one, can attest to this.

So at the festive, high-spending time of year, in the cruel month of December when life becomes shopping and shopping becomes life, what can be done with these useless men? A chain of British clothing stores had a brilliant idea a couple of years ago, when they opened up what were essentially day care centers for men who had been required or persuaded to accompany their loved ones on shopping expeditions. The surplus males can be dropped off in a safe area away from the sales floor – I call it the “husband pen” – where they are kept entertained with sports television, video games, and free drinks. For the intellectuals there are even newspapers. So the men are perfectly happy for hours, and may not even want to go home at the end of it. I don’t know if they are given tags or numbers, so the ladies can be sure to collect the right one. But you know how men are, they would probably swap tags.

It is a step in the right direction, and another sign that civilization is progressing. In spite of all our problems we are more compassionate as a society than we have ever been. We try to protect vulnerable populations – the homeless, the disabled, the mentally handicapped, and now men. It’s good to see men getting a bit of consideration at last, and I would very much like to see this humane institution, the husband pen, introduced into stores in our area.

But how much consideration is too much? Children for example are wildly overprotected today – pumped up with self-esteem, driven everywhere, forbidden any even remotely risky activity, and even followed by GPS monitors sewn into their coats. Sooner or later they will have to face the harsh realities of the world. The same is true for men. It’s all very well for them to loll about in the husband pen, swapping stories and tags, but they are learning nothing about the harsh realities of shopping. One day they too may have to venture into the real world, and face those endless racks of identical clothing and vast displays of unidentifiable household objects, not to mention mountains of entirely useless gifts.

Perhaps it’s best to face the music, bite the bullet, grasp the nettle, and go to the Mall right now, admit our ignorance, throw ourselves on the mercy of the sales staff, and just shop, however badly. Or then again, perhaps next year will be soon enough.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Wild Turkey

Most Americans believe that Thanksgiving celebrates the first harvest gathered by the Pilgrims in the autumn of 1621. The story goes that they feasted for three days on turkeys and fruit given to them by the Indians. This doesn’t sound very plausible to me. The Pilgrims, after all, were English, and the English only eat turkey at Christmas. If the Pilgrims had wanted to celebrate they would have feasted on chicken, or roast beef, or fish and chips, or possibly sausages. But not turkey – not in November.

Americans are naturally fond of the Indians-and-turkeys myth, because it presents such a charmingly innocent image of the first encounter between Native Americans and colonists. But the truth is that Thanksgiving was not established as an annual national event until a much later date, 1863 in fact, when President Lincoln proclaimed it a day of celebration for the turning of the tide against the southern rebels in the Civil War.

This didn’t make for a very happy national festival. The Civil War wasn’t something to be memorialized year after year, reminding everybody of that terrible episode. So the origin of Thanksgiving was pushed steadily back in time until it reached the safely mythical territory of 1621, and the much more pleasing image of the Indians happily sharing their food with the Pilgrims.

Like all such ritualistic events, Thanksgiving has changed as society has changed. The harvest doesn’t seem important to most people, unless they hold shares in agribusiness. The Civil War is ancient history. So Thanksgiving has come to be a family thing – a celebration not so much of national unity, but of ourselves.

Nothing is more heartwarming than the idea of the family – the family in Florida, the family in North Dakota, the family in a photo album, or on videotape. But the traditional Thanksgiving celebration shows that we suffer from some confusion about the pleasures of family life. From year to year, people forget that, while families are wonderful at a distance, the family right in front of your eyes across the dining table can be difficult, critical, crotchety, argumentative, and bring up all kinds of memories best forgotten.

So, as psychologists and counselors have often observed, Thanksgiving is a stressful time for families, because they feel they have to be together whether they want to be or not. Later this week stupendous traffic jams will appear at the George Washington Bridge, the airports will be transformed into the third circle of Hades, more tranquilizers will be consumed, much more alcohol will be consumed, and there will be a sharp spike in the suicide rate.

Family get-togethers aren’t so simple any more, because families are so much more complicated than they were in 1621, and not bound together by such strong religious ties. The Pilgrims based their family lives on the strict precepts they found in the Bible. Today’s role models, as seen on television, look more like warring tribes than loving relatives, but that’s show business.

So how do we get through this festival of family togetherness without committing mass murder? We do it by reverting to very old-fashioned sex roles, and acting out Thanksgiving like a charade from the 1950s. The men lounge about and watch sports; the women stay in the kitchen and cook enough food to put everybody into an after-dinner coma. And thus Thanksgiving has been safely accomplished.

It is a stressful time for families, and most of them face it bravely. It’s a tribute to the strength of family ties, or to the awesome power of guilt, that they go through it every year. But family stress is nothing compared to turkey stress. Consider how the turkeys must feel when they look at the calendar and see that it’s November. Forty five million turkeys will be stuffed, baked and eaten on Thursday without so much as a single defense counsel to speak on their behalf. They aren’t even the same kind of turkeys that the Pilgrims might or might not have consumed in 1621. Those were wild turkeys, much smaller and presumably harder to catch. Our modern turkeys are huge, flightless, domesticated caricatures of those wild, free founding birds. They are the true victims of the Thanksgiving story.

Copyright: David Bouchier

After the Fall

The leaves began to turn, quite suddenly after our long spell of mild weather. There they are, a pageant of yellows and browns and reds, signaling something we would prefer not to think about. I have this insane desire to rush outside and glue them back on to the trees one by one. But it’s no use. The temperature is falling and, unless we can find a way to tilt the earth a few degrees in the opposite direction, there’s not much we can do about it.

At least, here in the northeast, falling leaves have been made into a form of entertainment, and even a source of profit. Over in Europe autumn is a non event. The leaves just fall, and vanish into the soil as compost, just as our school biology teacher taught us. There’s no drama, no excitement, no fun at all. Here, by contrast, fall is a massive theatrical event, in which the whole population gets involved. Sleepy New England towns are turned upside down, motels and inns are packed, and hundreds of accidents are caused by people watching the leaves instead of the road. True, the leaves are spectacular, even glorious. For people who don’t have leaves at home, the effort is probably worth it.

We do have leaves at home, billions of them. For a couple of weeks, it’s almost an aesthetic experience to look out the window in the morning. But beauty is not the only thing, or even the main thing. Fall also imposes a great deal of unnecessary work on suburban homeowners, who must now go out and rake the leaves away as if there were some kind of toxic pollution. Raking leaves may not be mandated under the Constitution but, from the disciplined obedience of our neighbors it might as well be.

The origins of this unique American ritual are not entirely clear. The origins of this unique American ritual are a matter of dispute. One school of thought holds that it dates back to the discovery of America by the Viking adventurer Leaf Ericson about a thousand years ago. The tidy Scandinavians, so the theory goes, were horrified to find Long Island in November buried in a mess of wet leaves. So they set out with rakes and bags to clean up, without realizing just how big America was. The whole expedition perished from exhaustion halfway through Suffolk County. Weak corroboration for this folk tale is found in the modern Norwegian Fall Festival of “Lilofest”, which may be loosely translated as “Hail to Leaf the great navigator who sailed for Denmark in the Spring and found Long Island in the Fall.”

Conventional historians reject this rather silly theory, on the grounds that Vikings were never famous for tidiness (if anything, the reverse), and they were not known to carry lawn rakes or leaf bags with them on their expeditions.

The mainstream history of leaf raking places its origins in puritan New England, where many strange things were incubated. Historians find their crucial clue in the word “rake,” which to the Puritans meant a dissolute or debauched person. Anyone found guilty of such rakish behavior was set to clean up the leaves. It was a punishment designed to remind its victims of purgatory, which is a place of laborious, meaningless and endless tasks.

After a few hundred years of this, the link was well established between fall, rakes, leaves, social respectability and ultimate salvation. Nobody ever again thought to ask, “Why are we doing this?” It seemed self evident that, after the Fall, we must do what we can to be saved, and one of the things we must do is to rake the leaves.

So the ritual has survived down to the present day, losing its original meaning as punishment but retaining its moral meaning as virtue. All over suburbia men and women rake leaves as though their lives depended on it. They rake leaves into bags and into great piles. Their neighborhood is a mess, but their lawns and drives are cleansed. They feel purified and liberated, gazing up through the half bare branches. Then a windy night brings down a few millions more leaves, and they begin all over again. It is a social, moral and physical discipline with deep roots in the founding values of the nation. The final act in the leaf drama comes when the town authorities send out monstrous truck mounted vacuum cleaners, which suck up the leaves piled in the gutters by the heroic efforts of the rakers, and truck them off to some distant landfill.

Now the trees are gaunt and bare, revealing the junk in each back yard. The citizens of suburbia feel virtuous but empty, and rush out to buy fertilizer for their barren gardens. The rakes are hung on the garage wall, like swords in a medieval castle when peace has come. The pageant of the leaves is over for another year.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Morning Sickness

Why do they call it Daylight Saving Time? Time is one of the many things, like youth, beauty and opened bottles of wine, that cannot and should not be saved; and in any case, saving things is positively un-American. Daylight Borrowing Time would be more appropriate. All through summer we took that extra hour of daylight on credit, adding it to the end of the day to give us those long summer evenings.

At the end of October, when things are bad enough already, what with Halloween and the elections and Thanksgiving and the Holidays and winter all coming up, our borrowed time is suddenly and arbitrarily snatched back. Darkness falls in the middle of the afternoon, and half the population sinks into the depressed state called SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder – which is not a disorder at all but merely a commonsense reaction to the months of gloom and darkness that lie ahead.

This nonsense began in the First World War, supposedly as a gimmick to save electricity. But really it represented the triumph of the Morning People. We all know that the world is divided into Morning People and Night People. Morning People are energetic, immature and rash. They get up in what is more or less the middle of the night and rush cheerfully off to work, saying how nice it is to have the extra hour of daylight. Night People are more mature, more thoughtful, and less impulsive. They are a little depressed and snappish in the mornings, and need an extra hour of daylight at 5 a.m. as much as they need a meteor strike. But then they brighten up gradually through the day, reaching a state of maniacal energy and cheerfulness at midnight. In other words, Night People are perfectly reasonable and sensible in every way.

You can see the contrast between morning and night people dramatized every morning on the commuter train. Half the passengers are reading and chatting and gazing brightly out at the bleak landscape. The other half are slumped in their seats like extras from The Night of the Living Dead, eyes glazed or completely closed, clutching paper cups of cold black coffee. There is no point in these Night People going to work at all until after lunch. Economists complain about the dismal rate of productivity, but a little creative re-scheduling of Morning and Night People would bring the economy roaring back to life, abolish traffic jams, and bankrupt the sleeping pill industry.

It’s a law of nature that Morning People must always marry Night People, and vice versa. This explains the residual figure of twelve per cent who never marry, because they can’t find the wrong partner, and also why the average duration of marriage is now down to six years. Morning People hide their perverse orientation before they get married. It is one of those many awful truths that emerges only after the wedding papers have been signed, like a taste for porridge or a partiality for cats. After all, if you tell such nasty secrets before the marriage contract is nailed down, you will certainly stay single all your life. Fifty six per cent of Americans claim to be Morning People, so they win. The clocks go back, and our precious hour of afternoon daylight vanishes. It may be democracy, but it’s not justice.

Morning People have some legitimate complaints about the way the world is organized. But it’s up to them to make their own arrangements. As far as I’m concerned they’re welcome to have night clubs that open in the daytime, midnight movies at noon, candle-lit dinners at breakfast time, and New Year celebrations at midnight in Scotland, which is 7 p.m. our time.
But Night People are the real victims in this morning-oriented society. If we must mess around with the clocks, why not set them forward one year, and back the next, so everyone suffers equally? Let’s have no more puritanical abuse, no more false claims of moral superiority. Above all, let’s have no more alarm clocks, especially not those that have the oxymoronic “humane wake-up system” or that play jolly little tunes, like “It’s a bright, bright sunshiny day” and “Oh What a beautiful morning” – because it never is.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Trick or Treat?

Only five year olds and witches really enjoy Halloween. The build-up is long and tedious, and the event itself is short and nasty. This year, the first Halloween candy and decorations appeared in our local supermarket right after Labor Day. Since the beginning of October the quiet highways of Long Island’s north fork featured full-scale Los Angeles style traffic jams every weekend. Pumpkin madness has struck again. Thousands of cars head east towards the great orange fields of U-Pick pumpkins, which mysteriously appeared overnight. I never saw them growing there during August and September, so I assume that they are flown in fully grown from some place like Guatemala, and arranged in the fields under cover of darkness.

I don’t like the look of Halloween. Normally staid suburban homes break out in an ugly rash of skeletons, skulls, vampires, artificial cobwebs floating ghosts, and hanging corpses. Plastic gravestones sprout in front yards, as if whole families had settled their differences once and for all. Every old barn and warehouse becomes a “haunted house” full of dime store costumes and cheap sound effects.

Whichever way you look at it Halloween is a very, very strange event. The encyclopedia says that it is an old Druid ritual, but I don’t know any Druids around here. They must be hiding behind those masks. Two thousand years ago, back in the old country, before they all migrated to Long Island, the Druids used to celebrate Halloween as the day of Saman, Lord of Death.

This may have been all very reasonable back in the Celtic twilight of the late Iron Age, before the Plastic Age. But it seems hardly appropriate in the twenty first century, when we are all so rational and sophisticated. Yet when October comes around everyone – or almost everyone – jumps to attention and plays his or her part in this theater of the absurd like members of a well-drilled circus team. There’s enough material in Halloween for a thousand conferences and a million PhDs in psychology. What dark, repressed Freudian secrets do we see here, suddenly displayed outside ordinary suburban homes – literally skeletons out of the closet?

Or perhaps there’s another explanation. This is a permissive age, and children as well as adults are allowed to do or say just about anything. The only remaining taboos are those that come under the general heading of political incorrectness. The modern version of Halloween is an exuberant festival of political incorrectness, the one day in the year when no cows are sacred. American witches have often complained about the bad image they get at this time of year. They should have been around in Massachusetts in 1692, when they would really have had something to complain about. But every minority suffers at Halloween: short people, ugly people, crazy people, aliens, transvestites, people of color (any color – green, orange, purple), and above all dead people. They all become victims of this wild effusion of political incorrectness on All Hallow’s Eve. The Greeks called it catharsis. I call it regression.

Copyright: David Bouchier