Quote of The Week

“Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well-informed just to be undecided about them.”

Laurence J. Peter


Archives

Travelling Lite

Inspired by the example of Christopher Columbus, many of us travel great distances for reasons that are not always well thought out. We don’t travel by sea any more of course: we fly. It is one of the many paradoxes of the modern age that, while long distance travel has grown infinitely faster and more convenient, short distances are much harder than they used to be. No conveyance in 1492 took as much time to cover three miles as the 57th street cross town bus in Manhattan, or moved as slowly as the Belt Parkway near Kennedy Airport

That’s why we need long weekends – not to fly to Europe or the Bahamas, which is easy, but to get to and through the airport, which is not. We also need the extra time to pack. We travel fast, but we have fallen woefully behind our ancestors in the matter of traveling light. Ordinary sailors on the Santa Maria, setting out on a voyage of months or years into the unknown, were allowed only the most minimal carry-on baggage – one set of canvas work clothes. Their officers might have a small sea chest with one good shore going outfit and some spare underwear. But that was about it. The hold of the ship was reserved for important things, like barrels of wine.

Since the time of Columbus, the definition of carry-on baggage has expanded beyond all reason. The modern long distance traveler, off for a three-day weekend in Des Moines Iowa, carries enough stuff to sink the Santa Maria forty fathoms deep. It is astonishing what some people will try to carry on to a crowded plane.

Most airlines provide a small box or framework at check in, with a sign explaining that this is the maximum size for carry-on baggage. I have never ever seen anybody use one of these. Passengers arrive at the gate loaded down like refugees with great garment bags containing not human garments apparently, but cold weather outfits for hippopotamuses, plus duffle bags, purses the size of the Goodyear Blimp, portable computers, briefcases, shoulder bags, overstuffed shopping bags, and of course babies, with all their complicated equipment.

The manufacture of so-called “carry on” luggage is a sophisticated industry. The consumer can buy bags engineered by luggage PhDs to within one thousandth of an inch of the specified maximum size, while the airlines’ own experts design their seats and lockers to be precisely one sixteenth of an inch smaller. This explains those wild scenes in the cabin at the beginning and end of each flight, where voyagers punch, kick and hammer their overstuffed carry on bags into every available space and then, when the plane lands, block the aisles as they struggle to drag their tightly jammed property out again.

A heavier than air flying machine is a paradox in itself. It would seem to be in everyone’s interest to keep it as light and buoyant as possible. But no: not only do we have to carry the dead weight of all these excess carry ons, but down below we can hear (and sometimes see) truckload after truckload of vast fat suitcases being loaded into the hold. You get the impression that the owners just put their cases by the door and swept the contents of the house into them.

Columbus traveled light. But he is yesterday’s hero. The age of discovery on earth is over, and the only mysteries left are in deep space. Just think how much baggage our bold astronauts will need for a voyage of years into deep space: thousands of suitcases, numerous changes of leisure wear, tons of pharmaceuticals, mountains of toiletries, and a few babies too. We are trapped by the surly bonds of earth, not because we lack Columbus’s spirit of adventure, but because our excess baggage weighs us down.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Last Yard Sale

We held the last yard sale just in time. The mice started moving out of the basement because of the cramped conditions, and we decided that the great cleanup couldn’t be put off any longer. It was the very end of the season. Ours would the last yard sale before winter, and we hoped that the psychology of “Last gas station for two hundred miles” would work for in our favor.

Our first mistake was asking strangers to contribute extra items for sale, because this was a charity event. Asking people for their surplus junk is like offering free vacations in Hawaii in January. The response was overwhelming. Junk came at us from all directions. Rich people had it delivered by UPS. Most people just dumped it on our doorstep in grocery bags. We had enough junk to stock Roosevelt Field twice over.

Federal regulations require that every yard sale must display certain basic items: a stack of old National Geographic magazines, a set of heated hair rollers, a waffle irons, at least one never-used exercise machine, six or more broken lamps, and a dysfunctional lawnmower. These requirements were no problem: on opening day, we had three useless lawnmowers rusting in the driveway.

Yard sales bring out the worst in people. The sellers get carried away by the notion that the junk they have been hoarding in their basements for twenty years is worth real money. The buyers imagine that they are going to get a bargain. Both sides are wrong.

We had scheduled the sale to start at ten. But about three minutes after dawn, the early birds were circling like crows around a choice bit of roadkill. By nine thirty, the street looked like the starting line for the Oklahoma land rush of 1889. A grumbling and rebellious mass of citizens stood at the end of the driveway with local papers and maps clutched in their hands. In the end, it was impossible to hold the line without using assault weapons. They all rushed in, rushed straight out again without buying anything and went tearing off to the next sale on their lists.

You could see their point. When all this stuff was spread out on tables, it raised the inescapable question: why did we buy this rubbish in the first place? If you go to the mall, it’s easy to identify future yard sale bargains in their brand-new state. So why don’t we realize this at the time?

A few things sold quickly: tools, cushions, tablecloths, costume jewelry, and even a pair of bright green shoes. Some things sold eventually: a huge politically incorrect portrait of an Indian chief, a large bag of black balloons for a depressive’s birthday party, and a giant lawn chess set that had cluttered up our deck for months. Some things we couldn’t give away: old stereos and typewriters, the ancient National Geographic Magazines, the hair curlers and the mowing machines all stayed immovably in the driveway, as if they had been glued there
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Salesmanship doesn’t work at yard sales. This is a meditative, inward experience for the buyers. They want to discover, not to be sold, and they have bargaining skills worthy of the bazaar at Marrakech. Suburbanites also seem to have an acute sense of the value of things, perhaps from years of watching “The Price is Right.” But they can’t bargain at Macy’s, and I suspect that the chance to haggle at a yard sale is half the fun. If they just wanted junk, they could find plenty in their own basements.

As soon as buyers stepped out of the enchanted circle of the driveway, their second thoughts were painfully obvious. I felt almost guilty seeing some of the larger, uglier objects being carried away, knowing that their unthinking purchasers will be threatened with instant divorce as soon as they get home, and forced to hold a yard sale of their own. As always, Thoreau gave the right answer to this moral dilemma. He wrote, in Walden, that when we own a truly hideous object we should just destroy it, and not pass it on to torture future generations.

By noon there seemed to be more stuff than before. It was obvious that neighbors were bringing stuff in, creeping through the rhododendrons at the back of the driveway wearing camouflage uniforms, sneaking in hideous china figurines and genuine colonial warming pans while we weren’t looking. After a long, slow afternoon, we had scarcely any less junk than at dawn, and we wearily packed it back into the garage and basement, where junk hibernates in winter. This was definitely our last yard sale. Next time, we’ll do the environmentally correct thing, and just rent a dumpster.

Tabula Rasa

As I was skimming through the latest heap of junk mail, one promotional message caught my eye. It was on a rather classy-looking white envelope, and it announced: “A special offer on new scholarship in your field.” This was irresistible. I have never been able to figure out what my field of scholarship is, and this mailing might give me just the clue I needed to find my intellectual vocation.

It was a surprise. The enclosed letter began with the words: “Dear Classics Scholar…” and I was transported back many decades to the time when I really was a classics scholar, of sorts. The person responsible was Dr. Lewis, the classics teacher at school – a tall, vinegary, cultured man who probably deserved a better fate.

I hated the classics – the great works of Latin and Greek literature. I hated them particularly because Dr. Lewis held the unreasonable theory that, in order to read Greek and Latin texts, we first had to learn those languages. To make a very long story short, I was a disappointment to him, an utter failure. I rebelled against Latin and ancient Greek. “Dead languages, they’re a complete waste of time,” I protested. The truth was, they were just too much like hard work.

How I regret it now. Dr. Lewis never told us that the real payoff for learning the classics would be self-esteem. There’s nothing more humiliating than failing to recognize a classical reference, or being perplexed by a Latin tag. I’ve known a few real classicists in my time. When I say something I think is original, they are likely to say: “Oh Yes, but don’t you think that Virgil expressed it so much better. Nil novi sub sole.” I am completely and effectively crushed.

Of course, there’s more to the classics than just keeping your conversational end up. The classics are a key to the whole human comedy. Your software may change once a week, but human nature never seems to change. Look at Halloween, for example, a grotesque festival that would have seemed perfectly familiar, although rather silly, to an educated Greek two and a half thousand years ago.

We owe an awful lot to the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome. The Greeks invented the alphabetical script, without which The New York Times and The National Enquirer could not exist. They invented democracy, they invented philosophy, which allows us to ask awkward questions about democracy, and they invented musical theater, which is a pretty good metaphor of democracy.

The Romans were less reflective and more practical. They gave us the inestimable gifts of state bureaucracy, the rule of law, military discipline, global imperialism, and the kind of in-your-face architecture that we see around the Mall in Washington DC today.

Both these great civilizations left magnificent literature. I’ve read fragments of them, but only in translation, which I’m told is a pale shadow of the real thing. Homer, writing perhaps three thousand years ago, created the first and best soap opera in his long-running series The Iliad and the Odyssey. It has everything – sex, violence, jealousy, revenge, treachery, dysfunctional families – it would be a mega-hit on the small screen, except that all the characters speak in verse. Socrates was a genius as a teacher, although we’ve forgotten his lessons now. There were great Roman poets like Virgil and Horace. Even Julius Caesar wrote a splendid history of the Gallic Wars, although he had a full-time job in the Roman government at the time.

Yes, I wish I had paid attention at school. I would have all this, and self-esteem too. But it’s too late to start learning Latin and ancient Greek again. Aqua Sub Pons – water under the bridge. I can hear the ghost of Dr. Lewis telling me that I even got that wrong.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Yesterday’s Pool

Riding the Long Island Railroad into New York has the great advantage that it allows you to enjoy the scenery. The landscape doesn’t rush by in a blur, as it does when you travel on the French TGV or the Japanese Bullet Train. The Long Island Railroad train jogs sedately along at the speed of a horse and carriage, so passengers can appreciate the passing show.

It’s a social and perhaps even a sociological experience because the track passes by hundreds of backyards, offering a peep show into other people’s lives. What strikes me on this particular journey is how many houses have pools: big and small, above ground and in ground, square, round and curved pools, all looking rather sad in the chilly September rain. Even if a few warm days still lie ahead, those pools are yesterday’s news. Halloween witches have already appeared in the supermarket, and the Christmas catalogs began arriving in August. The first snowstorm can’t be far away. But what do you do with a pool in winter? You can’t hide it away in the garage like a barbecue, or put it out for garbage collection like a broken lawn chair.

In fact most pools lie unused most of the time, even in the best summer. Here in the northeast a pool is a very American, very optimistic investment. In all the years I’ve traveled up and down that line I can’t remember ever seeing anyone in any of those pools. We can hear when our neighbors’ pools are in action. Apart from the splashing noises, there are shouts and screams unique to pool use, unlike any other sounds uttered by suburbanites in everyday life. But we hear these joyful sounds on only three or four hot weekends every season. It would make more economic sense for a street or a subdivision to share one big pool – but that would be communism.

Some hardy souls, who hate to waste a good investment, keep their outdoor pools running into October, and even into November. We can sometimes hear their shrieks of joy, which could almost be mistaken for shrieks of agony, when they plunge into the frigid water.

But all good things must come to an end, and a pool cannot just be ignored when winter comes. It must be expensively “closed.” This is a huge operation, comparable to mothballing in Boeing 747. Closing must be done at exactly the right moment: too early and you get algae bloom in spring, too late and you get a pool full of dead leaves. All the water must be drained out, of course, typically four or five thousand gallons, and you have to wonder what happens to all that chemical-rich water. Then elaborate rituals of purification must be carried out, with chlorine and algizide, ending with the installation of a cover strong enough to prevent visitors from the Midwest from falling right through. One advertisement in a local paper shows a baby elephant standing on the pool cover, which may be exaggeration. But it makes the point.

Closing must be a dispiriting as well as an expensive process for pool owners, especially after such a pleasant summer. But sometimes I think that backyard swimming pools are more symbolic than practical. Even the closed pool, its tarpaulin weighed down with rainwater and leaves, is a harbinger of hope, like the Michaelmas Feast in September, or bulbs planted in October, or spring fashions in January, or the darkness before the dawn. Summer will come again. The pool guarantees it.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Bird Brains

Our birds are spoiled. I think of them as “our” birds because they spend so much time in our back yard, shopping around the feeders and giving the indoor cats high blood pressure. But “our” birds have no real loyalty. If the feeders are empty they fly to another house down the street, without a word of apology. When we moved into this place there were seven different feeders in the yard, and all the local birds knew the address. In the interests of economy and common sense we reduced this number to five, which seems more than enough choice for any reasonable bird.

We can assume that birds, like us, appreciate a certain amount of choice but not too much. So I try to simplify things for them by pre-selecting a menu that, I hope, will have something for everybody. But that is more complicated than it sounds. The bird food industry, like every other industry, seems to have decided that when it comes to choice, only too much is enough.

The bird food shop gets more bewildering and more alliterative every year: Cardinals Choice, Songbird Special, Finch Fantasia, Grackle Gourmet, Chickadee Chow, Dodo Delight, and on and on. It doesn’t take much experience mixing and matching these products to understand that we are not being offered real choices but different combinations of a few basic ingredients with imaginative names on the labels. Birds have very small brains, that’s why we use “bird brain” as an insult, yet they are not fooled by these sales techniques. They eat everything, because it’s all bird food.

We humans may not be quite so smart. We are fooled by hype and promotion all the time. Consider the choice of sneakers. We are planning a trip that will involve a lot of walking. My old sneakers are rather dilapidated, and have suffered indignities from the ducks at the local pond. When I was in mid-town Manhattan the other day I noticed that almost every other store sold sneakers. There were huge billboards advertising sneakers.

When I looked down at the sidewalk it was obvious that just about everyone in the street was wearing sneakers. Some people even call them “athletic shoes,” which I suppose is a kind of sympathetic magic. But I needed some sturdy footwear for the trip, so I went into one of the stores at random, thinking it would be very easy to get some sneakers and be out in less than five minutes.

I was out in less than one minute, but without anything to put on my feet. This huge store had thousands of sneakers stretching off into the distance, far too many to choose from. Yet a sneaker, like bird seed, is just a combination of a few basic ingredients: a sole underneath in case you step on something sharp, an upper part made of some plastic or canvas stuff, laces to stop it falling off, and a few primary colors for decoration. It’s not a meaningful choice at all, except for the size and the price. Yet people are passionate about sneakers, invest them with magical powers of performance and status enhancement, and even commit violence to get them. I read about a town in Germany, Herzogenaurach, that is home to both the Adidas and Puma brands. The town is completely divided. Workers from the two factories don’t socialize, or wear the other company’s sneakers, or even marry each other.

Sneakers are sneakers. Birdseed is birdseed. Who are the real birdbrains here?

Copyright: David Bouchier

Re-imagining the Holidays

National Holidays make complete and perfect sense if you grew up with them, and no sense at all if you didn’t. It’s difficult for anyone not brought up in America to get excited about Thanksgiving, for example, and Americans find it hard to work up much enthusiasm for Bastille Day in France, Guy Fawkes Day in Britain, or the Foundation of the Workers’ Party Day in North Korea.

These special holidays make a tremendous impression on us in childhood. All the adults take them so seriously that the public holidays seem like part of the fabric of the universe itself. They march us through the year as relentlessly as the seasons: Martin Luther King Day, President’s day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, and Thanksgiving – all commemorating some more or less mythical part of the national history. On these days we celebrate ourselves, and people like us.

But, for most people like us, it’s not the history lesson that counts but the extra day off work. With the notable exception of Thanksgiving, these festivals are observed on Mondays regardless of the exact date they are meant to commemorate. This convenient fiction gives us a much-needed long weekend. The cunning placement of Thanksgiving on a Thursday allows us to steal four whole days. This adds up to seven official secular holidays a year, or eight if we include Christmas, which has become a kind of non-denominational winter solstice shopping ritual.

It’s not enough. Other nations have many more holidays. Russia has nine, France has thirteen and Japan has seventeen, not even counting religious festivals. Only Albania has fewer national holidays than the USA. As a world superpower we should surely have more long weekends than anybody else.

Only congress can declare National Holidays and they have fallen down on the job, as on so many others. We need at the very least one three day weekend per month. There’s a big gap in March and April, and nothing at all in June or in August. A few more long weekends would be good for our health and good for the tourist industry. It’s almost impossible to take a real break in only two days unless you live right next door to a luxury spa hotel or own a private jet.

We can’t change or move religious festivals, too many delicate sensibilities are involved. But, if religious holidays are taboo, new secular holidays can certainly be created. There are already plenty of special days that should be holidays but aren’t – Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Valentine’s Day are obvious choices, and of course Election Day so everyone would have time to vote. Tax day, April 15 should certainly be a National Holiday, we deserve it, and the holiday deficit in August could be nicely filled by upgrading National Relaxation Day, which falls on August 15. We badly need that. The British have Boxing Day, December 26, as a day of healing and recovery after all the other holidays, and we could use that too.

A few brand new holidays would also be refreshing, and they should celebrate the genius of science and technology – the inventions that make life in the twenty-first century so much better than it ever was before. What about Central Heating Day, FM Radio Day, Medical Anesthesia Day, Dishwasher Day, Prozac Day? If all these were declared to be official national holidays, we would have fifteen long weekends in the year, two more than the French and almost as many as the Japanese. That would be a national distinction worth boasting about.

Copyright: David Bouchier

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