Quote of The Week

“All sorts of allowances are made for the illusions of youth; and almost none for the disillusions of age.”

Robert Louis Stevenson


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Happy Hours at the Airport

Air travel is an authentic miracle of the modern age. Popular holiday destinations like London, Paris and Kabul are only hours away; although, if you count the trip to Kennedy airport and the delays at check-in, even the shortest flight can take longer than the original voyage of Columbus.

Personally I prefer to fly out of regional airports like our local one on Long Island. You can park right there at the terminal instead five miles away, and there’s only one small terminal, so you can’t get lost. A few years ago this airport was even smaller, a museum of the early days of commercial aviation. The shorter flights boarded right off the tarmac, so you could take an invigorating walk through the rain and have a good look at your plane, study the various fluids leaking from the engine, kick the tires, and get a glimpse of the captain through the windshield of the flight deck, often fast asleep or reading anxiously in his flight manual. This was much more reassuring than being herded down a tunnel into the bowels of an invisible aircraft. The old, circular terminal has now sprouted two big extensions, and offers many more flights. But although the old 1930s ambience is gone, it is still convenient and quick for those of us who live in the area.

There is a price to pay for convenience. Flights from local airports invariably stop somewhere else first. These layovers come in two types, which I call the Nostalgic and the Olympic. The Nostalgic layover is an antidote to the rush and hurry of modern life. It strands you for several hours in Charlotte, Pittsburgh, or Chicago, and allows you to experience the same slow, relaxed travel timetable that our ancestors enjoyed on an ocean liner or the Oregon Trail.

The Olympic layover is much more of a challenge. The airline drops you at some intermediate point, like Detroit or Minneapolis, with six minutes to make a connection half a mile away across an unfamiliar terminal. Here you can really appreciate the marvelous co-ordination the airlines are capable of. Your incoming flight is always late, while your outgoing flight is invariably on time. In the central control room of the terminal, ground traffic controllers crouch over their screens tracking the rush of passengers trying to find their onward flights. As each sweating group of victims gets within twenty feet of the gate, they radio the pilot “GO, GO” and sit around laughing until it’s time for the next flight. Your baggage, meanwhile, has made the onward flight (another miracle of organization) and is on its way to Boston or Birmingham, never to be seen again.

An overseas flight is not so easy. A few weeks ago we took the long slow ride to Kennedy Airport, with the limo driver from hell flipping the AM stations in search of right wing talk shows or anything about sex. After a few pleasant hours on the Belt Parkway, we were decanted into the gigantic cavern of Terminal One, where nothing makes any sense.

We need airport security these days, if only as a public relations exercise. But I wish it was more convincing. On this particular trip I was stopped at the gate, x-rayed, checked for explosives, and thoroughly searched. Numerous travelers of unimpeachable character, such as arthritic old ladies, small children, and chief executives of big accounting companies, also get stopped and searched. This doesn’t make me feel any safer. Until the political correctness police get over their horror of “profiling” these security checks are a bad joke. Recent reports suggest that air travelers have a good chance of getting an AK47 or a rocket launcher through airport security, unless they happen to be little old ladies or small children.

But security, however unrealistic, is easy to endure compared to the ordeal of the departure lounge. On our recent flight to London, which was delayed by eight hours because the airline apparently lost the plane, we had time to enjoy everything that Terminal One had to offer.

Airport departure lounges all seem to be designed by the same architect, who is suffering from severe depression and wants everyone else to share his pain. The idea seems to be to reproduce the old Christian idea of purgatory – a place of waiting with very little hope. Once upon a time, there was a certain elegance about an airport departure lounge because people dressed up to travel. Now democracy has done its work, and the style is more Disneyland or Muppet show. Perhaps airlines should enforce some minimum standard. There are some very peculiar shops in the departure lounge. Who buys those duty free scarves, ties, perfumes, pens watches. If they are gifts of guilt, the fact is so obvious that it’s scarcely worth the expense.

But the real torture of the departure lounge, what makes it truly like purgatory, is the endless stream of announcements. They all seem to be bad news, they always start off just as you are drifting to sleep in one of their torture chairs. In this hi-tech setting, you might imagine that it would be the simplest thing in the world to make announcements audible. In Terminal One, they are a kind of hearing (discrimination) test, because they run several announcements at the same time. At one point 1. Security announcement 2. Olympic Airlines announcement 3. Gate closing call for another flight in French/ All this plus CNN news, beeps, screaming children, people yelling into cellphones. There are constant calls for missing passengers: “Will Mr Lo Bum come to gate 9 gate closing for flight to Absurdistan – this is repeated every five minutes. Where do these people GO?? There is nowhere to go in terminal one!

The promised delay will get longer and longer as the night wears on, extended half an hour at a time like some exquisite form of torture, even while you know and they know that your plane is still on the ground in Kuala Lumpur or Copenhagen. Most flights are overbooked flights, which creates its own genre of announcements. Then the airline will begin to offer incentives for passengers to quit the flight. They start modestly: a one-way free ticket to Cleveland; then a round trip; and eventually an all-expenses paid vacation in Hawaii. Nobody will buy any of this.
But nobody wants to stay on the ground any more. Even those of us who suffer from vertigo and deep misgivings about heavier-than-air flight still keep buying those convenient tickets to everywhere. Nothing can persuade us to give up the flying habit. How odd it is that we have taken the lesson of the Titanic so thoroughly to heart, while the lesson of Icarus is one we prefer to forget.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Memento Kaypro

What happens to old computers? That’s a rhetorical question. I know the answer. Old computers go straight to my basement.

I’ve been tidying the basement, because it’s cool down there, and I decided to organize the mess in a systematic way – books in one area, suitcases in another, boxes of old files in the far corner, and so on. One area was reserved for electrical stuff, and I put a superannuated computer there, then another, then another, then another. What are all these computers doing in our house? We’re not or geeks, or hackers. My wife and I both use computers under protest and in a state of high anxiety, like primitive savages forced to worship a new and unpredictable god.

A little electronic archaeology allowed me to arrange the computers in layers, according to their ancient origins. The oldest was something called a Kaypro IV, which came into our lives about 1983. This was called a “portable” computer, although “transportable” would be a better name for it. It weighs almost thirty pounds. When we traveled by air we couldn’t take any other baggage. But we became so attached to that monster that we lugged it to Europe four times. My bad back dates from the time we bought the Kaypro.

The Kaypro IV may have been the perfect computer. It used two five and a quarter inch floppy disks, one for the program and one for recording what you wrote. It didn’t record much, but that was OK. Unless you were setting out to write War and Peace, it was enough. The Kayro never crashed, never froze, and never lost any data. It wasn’t Internet compatible, but in 1983 who cared?
Next to the Kaypro was another machine called a DFL, and another from Hewlett Packard, and another from Packard Bell, plus an ancient laptop from Compaq that the cats had disliked on sight. I didn’t explore the furthest, darkest corners of the basement in case I found an old IBM Mainframe lurking there.

The total number of computers in the house turned out to be eight, which was astonishing. We don’t even have kids, and clearly we can’t get rid of these things. Old computers are defined as hazardous material, and must be disposed of “properly.” Unfortunately nobody agrees what “properly” means, which is why they end up in the basement. They also age very fast. Your smashing new machine will be history in about four years – a rate of planned obsolescence that even the auto industry cannot match. With two hundred and fifty million computers in the United States being junked every four years, the problem seems not so much their toxicity as their sheer volume. Whole western states could soon be several feet deep in discarded computers.

Old computers are toxic in more ways than one. Criminals can steal identities from them, and perhaps even material for blackmail. The contents of your hard drive may be emotional dynamite, like Madame Bovary’s letters, or they may be just embarrassing because of the web sites you have visited or the bad poetry you have written in the past. Those computers in the basement are not just junk: they are time bombs.

They are also a source of guilt, because they are such obvious symbols of waste and hysteria. Our old computers are not dead. They all still work. They’re just not fast enough or clever enough for the maniacal modern world. They don’t have enough memory. They are not state of the art. If we applied the same brutal logic to ourselves we would all be languishing in the basement.

Copyright: David Bouchier

We Are What We Drive

The ownership of a car is supposed to confer identity and status as well as simple
mobility. We’ve been looking around for a new vehicle, and the brochures, the
car magazines and the sales people are unanimous in assuring us that the choice
will change our lives for the better, if only we spend enough money and choose
the right make and model. We are, or we will become, what we drive.

This is pernicious nonsense. Anyone who judges people by the brand and cost
of their cars should be condemned to drive one of the world’s most expensive
cars, say a $300,000 Lamborghini, up and down the Long Island Expressway at
ten miles an hour for all eternity. I drive a 1992 Honda, which I love. But I’d be
the same person in a Lamborghini, or on a bike. Nothing would change except
my bank balance.

However cars do reveal character, at least when they are past that shiny new
stage when the proud owner is taking them to the car wash three times a week.
Cars, like dogs, come to resemble their owners. You can learn a lot about people
by looking not at their cars, but into them.

Consider this: in TV shows and Hollywood movies people are often shown
jumping into the passenger seats of cars. They just jump in, without a pause. This
never happens in real life because the passenger seats are covered in junk. If I have
to pick up another person it takes five minutes just to clear a space. Books, CDs,
walking shoes tapes, files, water bottles, phone, tape recorder, notebooks, pens,
tissues, all have to go to the back seat or the trunk, which is already half filled
with similar rubbish.

A car is a mobile museum of its owner’s secret life and secret vices, including
especially those secret eating habits that have to be indulged away from the prying
eyes of physicians and health-conscious spouses. A good psychologist should
be able to diagnose a patient’s mental condition just by studying the mess he or
she carries around inside their car. Some drivers create a veritable garbage dump
on wheels, and Freud had a name for this condition: Coprophilia, or an attachment
to filth. A totally clean interior, on the other hand, might indicate a bad
case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or a brand new car just off the dealer’s lot.
Other indicators of character include outdated inspection stickers, signs proclaiming
the owner’s attachment to various causes, charities, political candidates,
and half-witted fragments of conventional wisdom, and stuffed animals. I have
nothing against stuffed animals. Some of my best friends are stuffed animals. But
which ones people choose, and how they arrange them, must be highly significant
to the trained eye.

Most of us these days use the car as a mobile office, a mobile nursery, and virtually
as mobile home with its own phone and stereo system. In-car television has
also arrived, so far confined to back seat passengers but not for long. Above all the
car is a mobile restaurant, which accounts for much of the interior litter. Look
around when you’re stuck in traffic and you’re sure to see other drivers eating and
drinking. Sloppy fast food and hot coffee seem to be favorite in-car treats,
although extremely hazardous and very messy. When these drivers need a cholesterol
check they can just send in the floor mats.

So if you want the world to judge your character by your shiny exterior, by all
means get a nice prestigious car, but remember to order the optional tinted windows.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Smile Please

I’m tired of being smiled at by strangers. Every time I open a magazine or newspaper I find myself being smiled at relentlessly from almost every page. Advertisers seem incapable of promoting any product – from arthritis remedies to guns – without the aid of one or more actors grinning like lunatics or laughing hysterically. I don’t know about you, but I don’t smile when I get a pair of shoes, or an insurance policy. I smile at things that make me happy, like my wife, or my stupid cat, or a check from a publisher. It’s even worse on television. Drugs for diseases you never even heard of are promoted with little tableaux of smiling and laughing actors who are obviously delighted to have this particular medical problem.

Even the airlines, which have nothing to smile about, offer us images of deliriously happy flight attendants as an incentive to fly. I don’t know what they find so funny about being suspended thirty thousand feet above the ground in a heavier than air machine owned by a bankrupt corporation. Years ago, when the feminist movement was at its height and flight attendants were still called air hostesses, artificial smiling was defined as a form of oppression called “emotional work,” and banned. Now the smiles are back, in the advertisements, if not in the cabin. In fact I’d prefer flight attendants not to smile at me unless they have a very good reason, and I certainly don’t want to think that the pilots up front are grinning foolishly at their control panels instead of fighting the force of gravity as they are paid to do.

People don’t smile much in everyday life, except when greeting friends. Look around in any public place and you’ll see mostly serious and anxious faces. Big grins and loud laughs are even rarer than smiles, except among the very young or the very drunk. Actors must learn how to sing, dance and smile all at once – which is why stage musicals look so peculiar. But most of us can do only one thing at a time. If we’re thinking, or talking, or walking, we’re not smiling.

I was preparing to denounce this plague of phony bonhomie in the media when, for some reason, I clicked on to my own web page. There I was, grinning industriously at nothing in particular. The WSHU web page produced the same result, although a different picture. So I pulled out a few old photo albums, just to complete my embarrassment. I found just one snapshot of me with a normal expression. I was a skinny kid on the freezing cold beach, and the photographer had captured my real mood, which was grim. But through the rest of the albums, through decades and hundreds of pictures, it was all smiles – from graduation to my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. There’s even a picture of me in uniform after being drafted into the army, wearing a cheerful grin. I can guarantee that cheerful was not how I felt.

The habit of putting on a happy face for the record is relatively new. Most photographs from the Victorians era show people with blank or downright miserable expressions. My guess is that smiling for the camera began in the 1920s, when amateur snapshots became common. Snapshots are taken to preserve (or to create) happy memories, so everyone was told to “Smile please,” or “Say cheese.” It’s a kind of sympathetic magic really, just as some crazy dog owners will wag the animal’s tail hoping to make a gloomy dog happy. I know this because I used to do it to my dog, and it worked.

My usual relaxed expression is, like most people’s, slightly sad. When I was younger, rude strangers would tell me to “Cheer up, it may never happen.” But it had already happened. Eventually I may learn to smile about it.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Getting the Job Done

Houses are like people. They go along for months or years without having any problems and then, all of a sudden, everything goes wrong at once. When this happens to a person you call the doctor, unless it’s already too late to be worth the expense. When it happens to a house there is no single individual you can call. You are plunged into the anarchic hell of the Yellow Pages and the classified ads. where all kinds of repairmen advertise their arcane skills.

Unless you have a personal recommendation it is as hard to choose a repair company as it is to choose a doctor. Many of them claim that they are “Family owned operated.” This sounds warm and reassuring, until you remember that the Mafia was family owned and operated, and so was Italy under the Borgias and Iraq under Saddam Hussein. With the arrival of the Trump dynasty the United States is well on the way to being family owned and operated. This is not necessarily a guarantee of anything. We are forced to place a lot of trust in these businesses – to trust their estimates and trust their competence to do the work honestly, correctly, safely, and more or less on time. We would never trust any politician half as much.

We’ve been through a period of weeks in which a lot of trust was required. Scarcely a day passed without a visit from a workman of some kind. I mentioned a few weeks ago our multiple visits from the heroic oil service repairmen. These turned out to be just the beginning of the deluge.

It started with a literal deluge from the chimney, which began to leak dramatically during one of our January rainstorms. Then various indoor appliances stopped working one by one, according to that miracle of modern engineering that guarantees that everything will break down three days after the end of its guarantee period.

So, here came the repairmen, one by one. If you have a house you know the routine, which I guess they learn at repairman school. Stage one is where they terrify you with the awful consequences of failing to fix you problem. These include but are not limited to floods, electrocution, carbon monoxide poisoning, natural gas explosions, oil spills, fires, food poisoning, and hypothermia. Then they give an estimate, which seems almost reasonable, given the terrible danger you are facing from your malfunctioning appliance.

Stage two is usually a phone call on the lines of: “Mr. B. there’s something we need to change about that estimate. Seems you’ve got one of those special models with the computer controlled electronic womble-piffler. We have to get the spares from China (or South Korea or Italy or worst of all New Jersey),” and back comes a new estimate for twice the original amount. At some stage it becomes cheaper to buy a new appliance, or a new house. In the meantime you learn to get along without various appliances you thought were essential to life, so there is an educational benefit.

If your luck is in, stage three is the actual repair. I prefer it when only one repairman is involved. When there are two they tend to argue, and it’s disturbing to hear phrases floating up from the basement such as: “No, no, if you put it on like that it’s sure to explode.” Finally, the loading of tools into the truck signals the completion of the job, we pay the bill, and check our date books for the next repairman’s visit. One day soon every single appliance in the house will have been repaired or replaced. There goes my social life.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Italian Job

During our visit to Italy we stayed on a farm in the Tuscan countryside The landscape was so like a Renaissance painting that we scarcely dared to drive into it for fear of ripping the canvas. It was quiet, it was idyllic, and we could walk for miles without encountering another human being.

The farm was in the business of “Agriturismo.” That is, it is a working wine and olive farm, with some accommodation. This Agriturismo is a subject for a (funny) PhD thesis in itself. In brief, it is invented in the 1960s so that the peasants could move out of their leaking, freezing farmhouses into nice centrally-heated flats, and the derelict farmhouses could be bought by (mainly British) townies with a dream of sunshine and freedom. Our host, Tony, a Brit and an ex-journalist, had written some pretty funny stuff about this himself. Fortunately he had a strong sense of irony. His Italian wife did not. We were their first visitors of the season, so we got a very good welcome.

The farm, situated right in the middle of the Chianti region between Florence and Sienna, was a good place to stay, in spite of the idiosyncratic availability of heat and hot water, The old buildings had been converted into independent flats, each with a kitchen, terrace, fireplace etc. Wine from the vineyard is always on tap, and the nearby village had three good restaurants. The owners made a decent pretense of running a “working farm,” but as far as I could see they spent most of the day talking on their cellular phones, and instructing the peasants to do the actual work.

They also provided some really interesting touring suggestions in the region, most of which involved precipitous dirt roads. This didn’t do my vertigo any good, and the car is soon virtually covered in mud. But we saw some out of the way places – the village where Leonardo painted La Giaconda, for example, although Diane remarked that it had no art supply shop, and the village where Much Ado About Nothing was filmed. We even bumped through one or two tiny hamlets not yet discovered by the New York Times Travel Supplement.

But, as everyone knows, it is a violation of the rules of international tourism to visit that part of Italy without going to Florence. So we did. Florence has never been a peaceful place. Julius Caesar founded the city 59 B.C. as a fortress against the primitive northern tribes. The northern tribes keep coming, even today, and still cause trouble in the gift shops. From the eleventh to the seventeenth century, Florence was regularly torn apart by internal power struggles, fought over by Tuscans, Romans and Lombards, and oppressed by rulers who were less than one hundred per cent democratic such as the Médicis and Savonarola. Machiavelli was a typical product of Florentine politics. In 1797, Florence was annexed by Napoleon, and it was bitterly fought over in World War Two. Then the tourists came.

After an absence of some years we had forgotten just how many tourists could be crammed into this small city. Florence has some of the greatest art and architectural treasures of the world and, even though we were there midweek and out of season, it seemed as if the whole world had come to see them on the same day. We added our own small contribution to the crowding problem, the parking problem, and the pollution problem, when we should have stayed in the country.

The streets were literally choked with compact masses of people, each group shuffling along, shoulder-to-shoulder led by a tour guide with a flag or some kind of symbol held aloft. We saw one tour led by a man with an ear of corn on a stick, presumably a delegation from Iowa. These groups moved steadily ahead regardless of obstacles, including us. In some streets there was nothing to be seen but a mass of bobbing backpacks. The line outside the Uffizi Gallery was half a mile long, and the electronic counter inside the door of the Duomo showed that it had almost reached its maximum capacity of eight hundred people. Overhead, jumbo jets laden with more tourists were droning into Amerigo Vespucci airport every few minutes. When we wanted to take photographs we had to wait until a gap in the crowd revealed a piece of actual scenery, then take a shot quickly without worrying too much what it was.

If you wanted a picture of yourself in front of some famous monument the local street photographers were happy to oblige. They used digital cameras to create a montage of your image standing in front of an empty scene.

A lot of the visitors were high school students from all over the world enjoying an educational tour. “Enjoying” and “educational” may both be the wrong words to use here. I’ve not seen so many bored, unhappy and rebellious young people gathered together in one place since the last time I taught a college class. The only things that seemed to attract their attention were the pizza and ice cream stands, video game arcades, and Internet cafes, which were strategically placed along the main tourist routes. These so-called educational tours may be fun for the teachers, although their haggard faces make me doubt it. I’m certain that they are counter-productive for the students, who probably learn only to detest beauty and culture for the rest of their lives.

“They say that travel broadens the mind,” wrote G.K.Chesterton, “But first you must have the mind.”

It made me glad that my old school never offered anything as fancy as educational tours. As a teenager I got a tremendous kick out of doing Europe on my own – arriving in Rome by motor cycle from London at age seventeen. I knew nothing about Rome after 400 A.D., when the history in our school textbook ended. But my visit was all the more memorable because of more recent developments, which came as a surprise.

I have mixed feelings about mass tourism, because I’m a part of it. Everybody should be able to see unique and wonderful places like Florence. But, with almost seven billion people in the world, we can’t do it without destroying the places we want to see. We felt doubly guilty because both of us had been to Florence before so we really didn’t have to go again. Just to compound the felony we later drove to Venice, where the crowds were ten times worse. Soon they will need pushers, like those on the Tokyo subway, just to shove people into Venice. In short, Italy is full. They must do something to control the crowds. The Greeks have the neat idea of reducing traffic in Athens by allowing drivers to enter the city only on alternate days, based on their license plate numbers. Florence could use a similar system, perhaps based on nationality: Germans on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Americans on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and so on.

Travel agents could help to rationalize mass tourism by exercising a little discretion at the point of sale. A few simple questions such as: “Do you like to stand in line for five hours to see a lot of very large, very dark religious paintings by artists who died four hundred years ago, or do you prefer to play Blackjack?” would help to distinguish the people who would enjoy Florence from those who would have a better time in Las Vegas. But, like all brilliantly simple solutions, this one will never be implemented. Only Savonarola could solve the problem of tourists in Florence.

Charles Baudelaire captured the spirit of tourism in poetry much better than I can say it in prose. Here’s a free translation of Baudelaire’s poem, “Le Voyage” (The Journey):

The true tourists are those who leave just in order to leave;
Their hearts are as light as balloons,
They never shrink from their fate,
But, without knowing why, simply say “Let’s go.”

Copyright: David Bouchier

Summer Visitors

When I was growing up, the most formidable insect killer in the house was a fly swatter. Then DDT was invented, and we sprayed it indiscriminately on anything that moved. My grandmother preferred bugs to DDT, and swore that our spraying would kill her. When she died, a few days short of her hundredth birthday, we went back to the old fly swatter. Grandmother was always right.

The war on bugs has become more sophisticated since those days. Every summer, displays of deadly chemicals appear in the local supermarket, thoughtfully located between pasta and frozen foods. The ads read like publicity from an arms dealers’ convention: KILL, STOP, DESTROY, TERMINATE. At home we have electronic zappers, citron candles, and closets full of chemical sprays. Some pesticides carry the mysterious warning: “It is a violation of federal law to use this product in a manner inconsistent with its labeling.” It makes you think twice before whacking a passing ant on the head with the box. But the bugs love our hospitality so much that nothing will keep them away. For the next four months we will live in a state of siege.

There are more than 700,000 species of insects, and most of them come to our house for their summer vacations. Ants, roaches, silverfish, beetles, flies, hornets, wasps, earwigs, centipedes moths and fleas all converge on our little quarter acre. They are not impressed by our sprays and foggers, baits and powders. They have been around for two hundred million years, and there are a lot more of them than there are of us.

Insects are survivors. They adapt like viruses to anything we can throw at them, and even the most potent chemicals are getting less effective. Just as we humans have made victims of ourselves by overdosing on antibiotics, we have toughened up the insect population with decades of toxic doses, which were almost, but not quite, one hundred per cent effective. As any scientist will tell you, it’s the “not quite” that matters. Not to put too fine a point on it, the insects are winning this contest. We may even be breeding a race of super bugs, like those in the old sci-fi movies.

My perspective on this invasion was somewhat modified by, of all things, a French film. It’s called “Microcosmos” and, like most of the movies I see, it’s about ten years old. I hate to watch movies until they have stood the test of time, which this one has. Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou’s incredible film is simply a microscopically magnified portrait of insects in a meadow on a summer’s day, with a sophisticated musical score.

The insects are astonishing – not just the familiar ants and bees but creatures from another world. Their activities are amazing too. I watched a beetle re-enacting the Myth of Sisyphus, trying to push a ball of dirt up a hill. But it always rolled down again until the beetle – smarter than his human model – found ways to prop it with stones and sticks, and so push all the way to the top. Intelligence? I think so.

I can’t claim that this powerful documentary reconciled me to the intimate company of ants, termites, and flies around the house and on the deck. But it did remind me of the astonishingly beautiful alien world that exists under our feet and over our heads.They are not so unlike us. They are just interested in self-preservation, the rule of survival from the lowest life form to the highest.

It’s a tough decision, whether to continue the losing battle, or live and let live. It may not be too late to go back to the old methods – the fly swatter and the briskly stamping foot. There is no good choice. What Winston Churchill said about General Montgomery may well be applied to our fellow creatures, the insects: “In defeat, unbeatable; in victory, unbearable.”

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Ideal Village

A couple of years ago we visited a long-lost relative of mine who lived with his wife in a beautiful spot in the Loire Valley, in France, with very little other company apart from some donkeys, some sheep, two dogs and a whole lot of cats. Heredity must count for something. There wasn’t a strip mall or a housing development anywhere in sight. It seemed to us, coming from Long Island, an impossibly isolated place. But the fact is that my relative, in his remote house, knows all about his not-very-near neighbors, their families, and their life histories. Here in the closely packed subdivisions, we scarcely know any of our neighbors. They might as well be on another planet.

There must to be a middle way between the seclusion of the deep countryside and the blank anonymity of the suburbs and there is: the village. I love villages – I love looking at them, and reading about them, and living in them. Some of the villages I’ve been lucky enough to live in have been absolute gems – beautiful to look at, convenient, and above all friendly. There’s an urban myth that you won’t be accepted in a village until your family has lived there for three or four generations, but that’s a hundred years out of date. Most villages these days are full of immigrants and “strangers,” like us, and a new resident is always an object of curious, usually friendly interest. Villagers need something to talk about.

Another myth is that everybody knows your business in a village – there’s no privacy. But, once you close your front door, you can have exactly as much privacy as you could have anywhere else. Neighbors may observe your comings and goings, and take note of your visitors, but nosy neighbors are as common in London or Los Angeles as they are in any village. You can have privacy in a village, but not anonymity – and that’s a good thing because most antisocial behavior depends on anonymity. It’s not true that, as many readers of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books may assume, that every picturesque village is a war zone with a murder every week. Villages are safe. I was living in a lovely village in Suffolk, England, when the local vet was murdered in mysterious circumstances. But that sort of thing is not as common as Public Television would have us believe, and in any case the locals soon figured out who did it, and why. They just didn’t care to mention the fact to the police

Murders apart, a village is comforting because you know the whole place and most of the people. It’s typically quiet, which is worth a lot these days, with instant access to the surrounding countryside. With any luck, there are no shops, and therefore no temptation to go shopping.

Urban dwellers always complain that a village can’t have great art galleries, theaters, or symphony orchestras, which is true. But they can have something better: real artists, real actors, and real musicians, who are creators rather than consumers of culture. There’s nothing more satisfying than a nice amateur village performance or exhibition. It makes us feel that we ourselves may not be hopelessly without talent, and that we can be creative too.

This fondness of mine for villages is ridiculously nostalgic, I know, and quite unrealistic, like a taste for steam trains. But I’m not going to give it up. As Miss Marple pointed out, a village is a microcosm of the world, with all human nature in it, including the essential village idiot. That, I think, is why I feel at home here.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Body Beautiful

The local fitness center, where I pretend to exercise from time to time, is quiet during the day. The young high-energy fitness fanatics come and go in the early hours of the morning. When the sun is well up a more mature crowd arrives, and we run through our gentler regimes. These include the cautious lifting of rather small weights, short walks to nowhere on the treadmills, and long stretches of relaxation on the seat of one of the muscle building machines, reading the instructions but not actually doing anything. We have sweat suits, but sweat is not a big feature of our fitness programs.

Our placid routine was interrupted the other day. The gym was occupied, and indeed dominated by a muscular young man who was being stretched to the limit by a ruthless trainer. He was lifting enormous weights, doing excruciating things on what appeared to be large plastic beach balls, and crunching his body on various nasty-looking apparatuses. It was hard to ignore his grunts, groans, and agonized facial contortions. Sweat was flying off him like a yard sprinkler.

If torture is to be outlawed in civilized societies, which it certainly should be, surely self-torture should also be banned. It hurts to watch, and it arouses one’s deepest humanitarian instincts. What could this handsome young man possibly have done to deserve this kind of pain?

The teachers at my old high school – most of them in poor physical shape – were fond of tormenting their pupils with the Latin tag Mens Sana in Corpore Sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body). The school curriculum carefully balanced its intense academic program with a lot of idiotic sports, and we were supposed to be good at both. We were not. Then, as now, there were the brains and the jocks. Then, as now, the performance of the jocks in class suggested that their sound bodies had been achieved without any corresponding improvement of their minds.
The seventeenth century French Philosopher René Descartes proposed that the human body and the human mind have nothing in common. They connect, if at all, rarely and imperfectly. This is the essence the famous “Mind-Body Problem” in philosophy or, more succinctly, “Dualism.”

It makes sense to me. My mind knows where my fingers should go on the piano keys, but will they go there? No. When I try to dance I discover that my feet are not connected to my head. Mind and body go their own ways. You may have a magnificent body with a pea brain, or a brilliant brain perched on a wreck of a body. There’s no contradiction. But we can choose to focus our efforts at self-improvement on one aspect or the other. Life is too short to aim for both.

The excessive cultivation of the body seems out of sync with the modern age. Physical strength was important in the distant past, when we had to plow the fields, fight with swords, and even wind our own car windows. Now all that is redundant. Plowing, war, and window winding call all be accomplished at the touch of a button. Brute strength scarcely matters any more, except to immature men who are caught up in the romance of old-fashioned masculinity. In the course of future evolution we may hope that the body will fade away altogether, leaving only a brain, a pair of eyes, and a vestigial finger to operate the remote control.

At this stage of our history, we need brains much more than we need muscles, however beautifully sculpted. Grunting and flexing won’t get us out of the mess we’re in. A little intelligent thinking just might.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Too Many Vegetables

Spring should be a season of optimism and happy expectation. But, as always, there’s a catch. he big farm stands on the east end of Long Island are gearing up for business. Any day now they will throw open their barn doors to reveal a cornucopia of vegetables so fresh that they have the dirt and pesticides still on them. This sends my wife into a kind of vegetable frenzy. She comes home loaded with the things, and I am expected to eat them.

There’s nothing wrong with eating vegetables. They are even classified as food by some nutritionists. What upsets me is the all-too-common prejudice, often strongly expressed, that we must eat vegetables. This is the voice of the Puritan down the ages: “You are not here to enjoy yourself . This may hurt, but it’s good for you.”

There’s a restaurant that I regularly patronize because it has good food. But it is run by direct descendants of the Puritans. When you place your order, the waitperson says: “I’ll send your order into the kitchen as soon as I see you go to the salad bar.” Some cunning diners are prepared for this, and pass their salad through the window to an accomplice. The rest us just have to hide the salad in our pockets or briefcases, so we can get to the main course.

It’s hard to imagine such totalitarian tactics working with other consumer choices. Imagine being told that you have to drive a Yugo before you can buy a BMW, or that you must watch Touched by an Angel before tuning in to Masterpiece Theater. However, I have never seen anyone protest against the compulsory salad. We all troop over to the salad bar like sheep, who would probably enjoy it much more.

The theologians of the vegetable religion preach that an adult person, in full possession of his or her faculties, must eat five servings of green stuff per day. For those of us with modest appetites, this regime would use up our entire eating capacity, leaving no space at all for real food.

To be fair, vegetables have improved a lot since I was young. I can remember shelling peas, peeling potatoes and trying to dismember a cauliflower without destroying it. Now the fruits of the earth can be found in the freezer section, neatly packed in square boxes with pretty pictures on the front. As a bonus, the good farmers often add a hefty dose of simulated cheese, or Teryaki sauce, which does not occur in nature. Cauliflowers with snow peas do not occur in nature, or strange concoctions called ‘New England’ ‘Bavarian’ ‘Californian’ or ‘Italian’ vegetables. Food science has transformed the vegetable experience.

Everyone has a least favorite vegetable. For ex-President George Bush it was broccoli; for me its eggplant, in all its devious forms. But there’s no escape from them. Vegetables used to be seasonal. Eggplants would appear, and then mercifully vanish for months on end. Now, every green and purple thing is on the menu year round, imported from the ends of the earth to remind us yet again of the old Puritan lesson that we are not here to enjoy ourselves.

Of course, some vegetables are more edible than others. The noble potato, for example can be made into French fries, hash browns, or mash. It can be baked and stuffed with bacon, diced and served with gruyere cheese, boiled, microwaved or barbecued to perfection. In my opinion, the potato is one of the four major food groups. The others are poultry, meat and fish.

Even the inferior vegetables have some good qualities. They make a colorful display at the entrance to the supermarket. They don’t induce queasy feelings in the sensitive soul, who may look at the all-red meat counter with misgivings. They fill dinner plates cheaply when you have unwanted guests, and guarantee that they won’t come again.

But will vegetables make us healthy, as their boosters claim? The fact is we don’t know, because the research is all one-sided. Scientists never look for the bad effects of vegetables. For all they know, carrots may cause depression and broad beans may make your teeth fall out. The only food they ever test is the food that tastes good. So common sense and observation must be our guide. If you have ever traveled to Belgium, for example, you must have noticed that people who live in Brussels are no healthier than the rest of us, in spite of their wretched sprouts. Cabbage is a favorite dish in Russia, a nation with the worst health record in the developed world.

We can always learn something from history. Nineteenth century sailors lived on a diet almost completely devoid of fresh vegetables. Because of this, they occasionally got a disease called scurvy. But this could be cured or prevented by drinking grog, a mixture of rum and lime juice, at the rate of about two pints a day. Perhaps, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, we are here to enjoy ourselves.

Copyright: David Bouchier