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“Politeness is a sign of dignity, not subservience.”

Theodore Roosevelt

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A Better Class of Crime?

After walking twenty blocks in crowded midtown Manhattan, I discovered that a flap on my briefcase was hanging open, exposing my credit cards, cell phone, and all the other portable treasures that make modern life possible. Nobody took the trouble to steal them, and I was forced to reflect on the decline of crime and the lack of enterprise shown by our local street criminals. In London or Paris my valuables would have been gone before I had walked ten paces.

What happened to the legendary pickpockets, the linear descendents of Fagin’s boys, whose cunning arts could empty even the most secure pockets without the victim feeling a thing? Nobody can be bothered to learn the craft. The skilled pickpocket has declined into the unskilled mugger, who avoids busy city streets. The last time anyone tried to pick my pocket was in Stockholm, and the effort was so clumsy that I had to assume that the young gentleman was an amateur, or perhaps still in the early stages of his training.

The same decline of expertise has struck the once skilled profession of burglary. Where are the cat burglars of yesteryear who could climb vertical walls, like Spiderman, and slide through apparently locked doors and windows? Where are the gentleman burglars, with beautiful manners and interesting hobbies like collecting antique books? The gentleman burglar was always exquisitely dressed and could crack any safe with a few deft touches. Today’s burglars, if television pictures are to be believed, are very unfashionably dressed and can’t open anything without using a sledgehammer, a backhoe, or dynamite. A gentleman burglar, who left everything neat and tidy, would be positively welcome compared to the Neanderthals who seem to be in the business these days.

The civilized burglar lives on in fiction: Arsène-Lupin, Raffles, and more recently Bernie Rhodenbarr carry on the tradition of a craft that rewarded dexterity and intelligence rather than muscle. But they are not imitated in the real world, which I at first put down to the deplorable state of school system. Kids just don’t learn the value of practice and patience. I was about to call my senator with a proposal for an educational reform bill on the lines of “No criminal left behind,” when I realized that I myself had failed to crack the problem.

Criminal skills have not vanished, they have just moved up market. All the smart people are into white-collar crime. Not a day passes without some new revelation: college administrators getting rich from student loan scams; fire district officials and school board members on Long Island pocket pocketing millions; rapacious non-profits, charities and churches; sleazy businessmen evading taxes; bent doctors manipulating Medicare; and creative stock market operators conjuring money out of thin air. We won’t even mention lawyers and politicians. These respectable crooks have more than compensated for the decline of skills in traditional crime. They can take more money in a day than the best pickpocket could in a lifetime, and it’s all comfortable indoor work.

This crime wave among the privileged and educated classes is a bit depressing, if only because I have missed the opportunity to take part. Reading the morning headlines I feel I have been a fool all my life: paying my taxes, keeping a single (accurate) set of accounts, and drawing a sharp line between money that belongs to me and money that belongs to other people. A fool and his money are soon parted, and I suppose I must face the fact that I am not, and never have been, smart enough for crime.

It is no use hoping for more honesty, but I would like to see a bit more subtlety. This white-collar crime is all so tacky and blatant. Admittedly the perpetrators usually (but not always) dress better than their street counterparts, and often have degrees from good colleges, although I doubt they could open a safe without a key. But they have no taste. They spend their loot on golf, fried chicken and trips Las Vegas. If we must have a huge white-collar criminal class, and apparently we must, the least honest citizens can demand is a bit of style.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Roar of Spring

One of the several things that makes April the cruelest month is that suburban homeowners take it as their cue to bring out their wretched machines.

I say “home owners,” but what I really mean is “men.” Do you see many women wielding these machines? No, and here’s why. Men have problems. Tom and Ray, the car guys you hear on public radio, have identified a condition that they call “Male Answer Syndrome.” This is a hormonal imbalance that prevents men from ever saying “I don’t know,” and forces them to give an answer, even a wrong answer, to any question whatsoever. I believe that there is a similar and related disease, which I’ll call “Male Engine Syndrome” – the male’s inability to tackle even the simplest job without starting up some kind of very noisy engine.

The small, air cooled two-cycle gas engine is extraordinarily efficient. It produces more racket and pollution for the buck than any other device – although for a really excruciating pitch, the high-speed electric motor runs it a close second.

If it is true, as H.G.Wells wrote, that our machines have made us into Gods, we are unnecessarily noisy gods, like some of the more rambuctious Roman deities. Any man, however modest his condition, can make his mark on the neighborhood with a chainsaw: like Jupiter or Vulcan, he can be heard.

As spring turns into summer, the suburban power tool symphony inexorably increases in volume. Mowers are joined by leaf blowers and weed whackers, tillers and shredders. Reluctant husbands start on all the home repairs that they had avoided all winter. Out come the electric saws, the chain saws, the drills, the sanders, the paint sprayers, and the power washers. They may hate the work, but they love the noise it makes.

In part, of course, this is pure laziness; or to put it in a more positive light, it’s a man’s natural desire to avoid bodily wear and tear and premature ageing. I have seen men bring out an electric circular saw to cut a piece of wood 2″ by 1″, that could be cut with a handsaw in ten seconds. Clearly, such men are serious about conserving their physical energy. They have power windows on their cars, automatic garage door openers, and electric toothbrushes. No exertion is too trivial to be avoided.

Husbands who have to go out to work, and so leave their patch of suburbia unnaturally silent, can call in a lawn service. They have even noisier machines, mowers big enough to harvest the prairies, and super hurricane-power three-hundred decibel weed trimmers. On a fine day, several lawn services will converge on our neighborhood and run all their machines together, like a chorus from some mechanical hell.

When the local kids get home from a hard day at school, at about noon, they drag their industrial-strength amplifiers outdoors and play vile music at full volume until their parents, conscious of their social obligations, arrive home and yell at them full volume for ten minutes, before pulling the plug and putting on their own vile music at full volume

If there are any moments of near-silence, we can listen to the bulldozers tearing into the nearby woods to create yet another development of “Woodland Estates.” Somebody within a couple of blocks is invariably having oil delivered, a cesspool pumped, trees trimmed, a driveway resurfaced, or a roof replaced. The concert never stops.

If we walk down to the beach for a bit of peace and quiet, we see not footprints in the sand but tire tracks. This is a visible warning that teenagers with All-TerrainVehicles are enjoying the beauties of nature in their own way, although we can usually hear them coming for half a mile. Looking out to sea, we can enjoy a roaring vista of powerboats and jet skis.

The National Institute of Health reports that ten million Americans now have hearing loss caused by too much noise. The Environmental Protection Agency has introduced progressive regulations for quieter and less polluting engines on garden machinery. But we won’t notice the improvement until the regulations come into full force in the year 2006, by which time we will scarcely be able to hear the difference.

Laws won’t help. Making noise is one of those inalienable American rights, like the pursuit of happiness. If the issue gets to the Supreme Court, they will certainly rule in favor of the noise makers, even if they have to yell the judgment at the tops of their voices.

But there may be a technological rather than a legislative solution.

The portable CD or MPs player can maks the most appalling noises available in a private, portable form, injected right into the victim’s eardrums, without disturbing anybody else. What we need are some really nasty CDs that would satisfy men’s craving for high-decibel meaningless noise. There’s a big potential market here. “Chainsaw Symphony”; “digger Sonata”; “Dan Drives Twenty Thousand Roofing Nails while Playing his Boom Box full volume”, and so on.

If the boys must have their noise, let them have it on headphones, and leave the rest of us to enjoy the natural music of a suburban summer: the birds, the dogs, the insects, the swish of sprinklers and the gentle sounds of a million gardeners, working the old fashioned way, with their hands.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Down to Earth

What exactly should we do on Earth Day. April 22? Back in the 1970s, when Earth Day began, the answer was fairly simple: plant a tree, raise consciousness, promote cleaner air and water. It was a ritual of purification and celebration, a day for us to show how concerned we were about the deterioration of our environment, and our (perhaps naïve) determination to put things right.

Now it’s more daunting. Global warming is a mega problem. A few hybrids and windmills won’t solve it, let alone devious evasions like carbon credits. We need to change completely how we live – no more long distance flying, no more pointless short car trips, no more thermostats set to our perfect comfort zone three hundred and sixty five days a year. The penalty for failing to change these habits, so we’re told, will be a new and more comprehensive version of Noah’s flood, with our home on Long Island one of the first places to go under.

This is definitely something worth worrying about. But are we really going to change how we live? I should give up my car, become a vegetarian, and live in a tent but I won’t. I should reduce my carbon footprint, but that’s harder than reducing my waistline. The habits of a lifetime don’t change so easily. As the water rises I guarantee that we’ll see the first amphibious SUV’s splashing down the street towards the Mall, gulping gas at fifty dollars a gallon. Every morning I get stuck in a line of enormous SUVs waiting to deliver children to the local Montessori School – tiny kids being carried in vehicles big enough to accommodate a couple of water buffalo.

Global warming must take its place in the hierarchy of human problems and, given a choice of problems, we will always prefer the ones that cause the least personal inconvenience. So why worry about global warming when the cosmos itself is such a dangerous place? Here we are, zipping through infinite space on a ball of dirt so small that even the most intelligent aliens have never noticed it. Every day astronomers report exploding stars, and the annihilation of whole galaxies in unimaginable collisions. The Andromeda Galaxy is headed our way at eighty-seven miles a second, and killer comets and asteroids are coming at us like paint balls from all directions  at about twenty-six thousand miles an hour. We are threatened by giant cosmic clouds of poison dust, and super-magnetic neutron stars, and the latest speculation by scientists is that a rogue “bubble universe” made of phantom energy could appear out of nowhere and gobble up the earth quicker than Washington gobbles up our tax dollars. Then there’s the giant Hadron Collider in Geneva, which could create an uncontrollable black hole that would swallow the planet in a matter of seconds, if the bubble universe and poison clouds don’t get us first.

All this is rather disturbing, but at least it puts the anxiety about global warming in proper perspective, somewhere between cholesterol and the deficit. There’s nothing to be done about vast cosmic threats like exploding galaxies, so we can worry about them, as it were, free of charge. There’s no need to make any changes in the way we live.

But global warming and climate change are not at all like science fiction. They seem to demand dramatic action, but what? Remember the slogan coined by Friends of the Earth: “Think globally, act locally”? It set me thinking about that sly fox Voltaire. In his comic masterpiece Candide Voltaire created a character who suffered every conceivable disaster and never quite gave up his optimism. But at the very end of the book Candide concluded that the world was a madhouse, and there was nothing to be done except act locally. “We must cultivate our garden,” he declared, meaning we must just get on with it and do what we can where we are.

It’s not exactly a rousing slogan, but it’s probably all that most of us individually can do on Earth Day: plant a tree, or maybe some rice, buy a recyclable shopping bag, get the old bicycle out, cultivate our gardens: just do what we can. This is known as coping, also as common sense, or the way of the ostrich.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Taxed to the Limit

The best thing about the past, generally speaking, is that it is past. It’s over. Whatever mistakes we made can be forgotten or filed away, except on tax day when we have to relive them all over again.

It’s always with a sense of doom that I pull out the boxes and the files and start working through the contents. There it is, the whole of my life for the past year reduced to dollars and cents: every meal and hotel room, every postal packet and phone call, every printer cartridge and paper clip, every check flowing in and every check flowing out (a considerably larger number), and every regretted extravagance. Whatever fantasies I may have had about my financial habits, this is the inescapable reality. False memory syndrome has no chance when we sit down to do the numbers.

I really resent having to face this reality check every year. It’s a reminder of all the projects that didn’t work and all the bad decisions I made. Did I really need a five hundred dollar computer printer when I could have got one for a quarter of the price? Was it absolutely necessary to upgrade my wardrobe with no fewer than three new shirts, when the old ones looked almost as good as they did when I bought them, in 1986?

Quite apart from the unwanted reminders there’s the sheer clerical tedium of the job, adding up hundreds of slips of paper and trying to arrange them into some kind of convincing economic story. These numbers mean nothing to me. But I know they mean something to the IRS.

I’m not the only one who fails to understand the full Byzantine complexity of the US tax system. Almost nobody understands it, and those who pretend to understand it are usually fooling themselves. I suspect that the tax code is like the Microsoft operating system: it has taken on a life of its own, and has evolved beyond the power of the human mind to grasp.
So, for many years we’ve employed the same friendly and reassuring accountant to lead us through these mysteries. We sit in his office, as we did last week, watching in amazements as the numbers leap about on his computer screen. It’s like an economic makeover – nothing that emerges at the end is quite like what went in at the beginning. What emerges is a set of tax forms so elaborately structured and so beautifully printed that it would be sacrilege (we hope) for the IRS to question them.

If our accountant has a fault it is his honesty. He is scrupulous, careful and conservative. We need an accountant more like the famous Arthur Anderson who could turn our mundane losses into billions in paper profits, which we could then steal and go to live in the Caribbean. But our man frowns on this kind of creative accounting. Instead he presents us with a more or less horrifying sum of tax due, plus a whopping bill for his own services.

I like to think of what out tax contribution buys in concrete visual terms, perhaps some school library books or medical help for a poor senior citizen. But I can’t get it out of my head this year that our tax liability will cover the cost of just four 155m high explosive artillery shells. So I would like a kind of line item veto at the end of my 1040, a more elaborate version of the organ donor statement on the back of my driver’s license. It would be quite simple: a list of major government expenditures (including Congressional salaries and pensions) against which the taxpayer could just check off “Yes” or “No”. The President believes in smaller government. Taxpayer choice would make his wildest dreams come true.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Down by the river side

Mr. Toad and all his friends from the river bank are a hundred years old. This important literary information may leave you completely indifferent, unless you know who I’m talking about. Then you may get a faraway look in your eyes, and even begin to mutter the magic words: “Boop-boop.”

Mr. Toad is the most prominent and certainly the loudest character in The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham, which was published in 1908. Either you were brought up with this book or you were not. If you were you will certainly remember Toad and his long suffering companions, Water Rat, Mole, and Badger, who live an idyllic life by the river and in the Wild Wood, interrupted by bursts of wild excitement, usually precipitated by Toad, who is a kind of Walter Mitty character but more active.

Toad has enthusiasms, one of which is the motor car – hence “Boop-boop” – and his gentler and more sensible friends try to save him from himself. Some people adore the book, others find it fey and silly. But it made an impression on a lot of children, including me, because the animal characters are so good natured and sympathetic. Life by the river has its dark side, but there are no superheroes and, apart from one unfortunate chapter that you can skip, very little sentimentality. Like Lewis Carrol’s Alice stories, this is real life through the looking glass. We all know at least one Mr. Toad, just as we all know at least one Red Queen.

Until recently, when I read a biographical sketch of the author Kenneth Graham, I had never realized another and more elusive appeal of The Wind in the Willows. The characters are all solitary creatures who love their little homes. There is an affecting passage where Mole, who has been enjoying all kinds of adventures on the river, catches the scent of his own underground burrow and is overcome with homesickness.

It seems that Kenneth Graham had a lifelong dream of a little room of his own where he could just be alone, and be happy. He even went looking for it in London, believing it must exist somewhere. How many of us had such a fantasy as children – a hideaway, a room that nobody else knew about, a secret garden? Children’s literature is full of them, or used to be. It’s a deeply anti-social fantasy, so it may be out of fashion nowadays. Reading about Kenneth Graham brought my own fantasy back. My little room of the imagination was closely modeled on that of Sherlock Holmes: rather dark, full of books and papers, curiosities and scientific experiments, and discreetly managed by a kind housekeeper who would provide regular meals and ask no questions.

In The Wind in the Willows Water Rat has his cozy nest in the river bank, Mole has his tidy burrow, Badger has rather fine quarters under the roots of a tree in the Wild Wood, and Toad, in keeping with his excessive character, has Toad Hall. Through all their adventures these places always call them back.

Even as we live our lives in the chaos of other people, and enjoy it, I suspect that most of us as adults still harbor that childhood fantasy of a secret place where nothing and nobody can trouble us, an apartment 7B with no name on the door or, like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, just a room somewhere with one enormous chair. Oh wouldn’t it be luvverly.

Copyright: David Bouchier
With acknowledgements to Richard Ingrams

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.

I 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 this 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. 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 call them “athletic shoes,” which I suppose is a kind of sympathetic magic. But I needed some sturdy footwear 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

This is a Test

Nobody likes to be tested, yet tests and examinations seem to be an inescapable part of the human condition. The Chinese had an elaborate system of academic examinations more than two thousand years ago. The most ancient universities in Europe have been around for over a thousand years, teaching and testing, and it’s still going on. At the end of every semester students are faced with examinations. Enough knowledge has been imparted, so the professors hope, that the students can be quizzed and assigned to their proper places in the academic hierarchy.

Tests seem curiously redundant in this so-called information age. Never has so much knowledge been available so easily to so many with so little effort, regardless of education. By the magic of the algorithm, whatever it is, search engines like Google and databases like Wikipedia have become a vast electronic crib sheet that can answer all our questions in less time than in takes to say “duh.” Why waste valuable brain cells remembering anything? The only problem is that if your brain is empty to begin with you don’t know what questions to ask the oracle, or what use to make of the answers.

I’ve taken a lot of tests and exams in my lifetime, and I bet you have too. But they tend to get less frequent and more voluntary as one gets older. The last formal test of knowledge I can remember taking was thirty years ago. This is a rather alarming thought. I could be ignorant of virtually everything, and not know it. I’m sure I would get an F on my understanding of computers, baseball, particle physics, or celebrities. But maybe I don’t even know the things I think I know, because it is so long since I’ve been required to prove it. Nobody has asked me recently to explain the key ideas of Montesquieu’s great book The Spirit of the Laws, or to conjugate a Latin verb.

Of course we are informally tested all the time. Everyday life poses numerous questions that require an answer: Is it garbage collection day today? What kind of sauce goes best with halibut? Who is attorney general this week? and so on. But nobody is keeping score and, frankly, we get lazy. A question about solid geometry, which would be a gift to any student prepared for the test, can catch a senior citizen unprepared as he browses the shelves of the pharmacy. When conversation in the sports bar turns to Beethoven’s last quartets we may not be able to contribute anything useful.

I tested myself, using some SAT old exam papers from the web. I did well enough on sentence completion and comprehension, and I knew when Jamestown was settled and what the War of 1812 was about. But when it came to questions on science and calculus I flunked out completely. My final score was so embarrassingly bad that I don’t even want to talk about it.

It has often been said that the knowledge of one’s own ignorance is the beginning of wisdom. I think Socrates said it first, but maybe I’m wrong about that too. And perhaps that’s why we test so much, not to reveal ignorance to the examiner but to the student. Also, as every teacher knows, it’s a guilty pleasure to give a test and not have to answer it yourself.

But to reduce the complacent superiority often felt by adults perhaps we should all be tested from time to time, without the help of Mr. Google. It wouldn’t do us any harm to be reminded of all the important things have forgotten, or that we never knew.

Copyright: David Bouchier

It’s the lack of thought that counts

Meditation: the very word has a relaxing feeling about it. No thought in no place, quietness, peace, perhaps even enlightenment. It sounds almost too good to be true.
Over the years I’ve been encouraged by various (possibly false) friends to try meditation. They claim it had done wonders for them, and that I should seek out a guru. But I’m really not a guru kind of person, and the big commercial meditation companies had no attraction either. Why pay large sums of money to learn how to sit and think about nothing?

But recently I’ve felt that a little mental vacation would do me good, just a short break like the standby mode on a computer: everything switched on, but nothing happening. I decided to bypass the guru and try the library, where the index showed a healthy stock of over seventy books, videos, DVDs and audiotapes on the subject of meditation. Surprisingly, almost all these items were checked out. There must be more mental stress and anxiety in this comfortable corner of Long Island than I had thought.

The book I found on the shelves was quite old, but meditation itself is thousands of years old so the instructions could hardly be out of date. The authors offered a list of goals for the potential meditator, not all of which were appropriate for me. One suggested goal was the perfection of the body, “asana” in Yoga. But the pharmacist looks after that side of things. Another goal was to detach oneself from thought, action, and emotion; but I’m rather afraid that, without those, there might be nothing left. Yet another goal was stress reduction, but I don’t have stress, or I didn’t until I started on this book. Meditation, I was assured, could help me to tune in more fully to the world around me. But I want to tune out for a while. The only goal that appealed to me was that associated with Za-Zen which, if I understand it correctly, is to meditate in order to reach a mental condition that by definition cannot be reached. That’s my kind of goal.

But the Zen masters tend to give me a headache:

This Dewdrop Universe
Is just a dewdrop
And Yet
And yet

Writes Zen Master Izza – and you can’t argue with that, which perhaps is the whole point.

Even Zen offers no escape from the hard discipline of meditation, which is to live in the present moment and not let your mind go chasing shadows in the future and the past. But there’s no time to live in the present moment. It is already full, mostly with making lists of things to be done in the future. When the future comes I won’t have time for that either.

But of course the whole point of meditation is to break that cycle, so I decided to meditate at once, before the future caught up with me. I prepared in the approved way, sitting relaxed in a quiet place, breathing deeply, and trying to empty my mind with a silent chant of “OM”. In the background I played some appropriately spacey New Age music. No incense, it makes me sneeze. My model and guru substitute was the cat Robert, who can sit and stare into space for hours without (apparently) being distracted by any thoughts whatsoever. The music played. The cat stared into space. I stared into space. Time passed. I began making mental lists of things to do after I had finished meditating.

This wasn’t working. It was time for a little mental Jujitsu. I gave up thinking of nothing and tried to remember the names of the American Presidents in historical order: Washington, Adams, Jefferson…Madison…and, success at last, my mind had become a complete blank.

The cat lost concentration and began looking at me suspiciously. Suspecting some infringement of his feline copyright he began to shred the carpet. Perhaps I really do need a guru, or at the very least a more philosophical cat.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Makeover

It seems that nothing defines us so much as our desire to be something else, which may explain the impulse to dress up at Halloween, and at weddings, and other occasions when anonymity may be useful. We love the idea of the makeover, the dramatic transformation, the sudden effortless leap from one state of being to another. There’s nothing new about this. The Greek myths are full of transformations although, because the ancient Greeks had a pessimistic view of life and fate, the transformations were often of a negative kind. The gods could change themselves into animals, birds, or humans, and sometimes got stuck in that inferior state. Often the gods and goddesses transformed others punish them. Daphne, the beautiful daughter of a river god, for example, was demoted into a laurel tree, Narcissus and Hyacinthus became flowers. It wasn’t much better in Biblical times. Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt for some minor infraction of the rules. Shakespeare loved to play with transformations, as when the weaver Nick Bottom was turned into a donkey in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Our more optimistic culture gives a positive spin to the fable of the instant makeover. Some of our most popular legends and fairy tales are about how an ordinary person, through luck or magic, turns into an extraordinary person. Men become gods or heroes, women become (very often) princesses, like Cinderella or, more recently, pop stars. In the Wizard of Oz the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion all dreamed of getting a makeover, although they didn’t need one. Batman, Superman, and all the other super-heroes and super-heroines dreamed up by Hollywood are appealing precisely because of their chameleon quality.

But now the dream of instant self-transformation seems to have escaped from the fantasy world, and is propagating like a malicious virus in real life. It has morphed into TV shows like American Idol that promise instant celebrity, and endless makeover shows that offer bullying advice on fashions, plastic surgery, fitness, fatness, and even good manners. Now the shows have expanded their realm even farther, instructing us how to makeover our homes, our gardens, our children and even our pets. Nothing is immune from this rage for sudden and dramatic improvement except perhaps the mind. I haven’t heard of any TV shows that claim to improve the mind, although a brain makeover is what many of us most urgently need. I myself would like to be smarter, younger, taller, and thinner, in that order, but nobody is offering that particular package deal.

The myth of the instant effortless makeover is enormously seductive. But if magic fails there is always the slow road. It’s called re-invention. Unfortunately this is hard work, and it takes time. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in American lives, but how wrong he was! Think of Ronald Reagan. American lives are all about second, and third, and fourth acts. The Wall Street Journal even has a regular column called “Second Acts” that has featured a Bay Area defense attorney who became a college track coach, a Telecom executive who started a fashion handbag business, and a banking executive who became a chef. One of the champion self re-inventors is Rosey Grier whose odyssey took him from pro football with the LA Rams to being a TV personality and singer, a Christian Minister, and currently an expert on needlepoint.

The end result of self-reinvention is every bit as dramatic as a makeover, and it last longer, and you learn something in the process, and you can recognize yourself in the mirror afterwards.

Copyright: David Bouchier

As others see us

I have always been intrigued by the notion of seeing the world through the eyes of another person, or even another animal. I know it’s not possible, physically or metaphysically, but sometimes I dream that it is.

This fantasy of mine started with a bad-tempered black cat called Peter. I grew up with this cat and I never understood him, although he understood me perfectly. No matter how long you live with a cat his or her opinions of you will remain a mystery. What is the feline view of the world? When my present cat Robert decides to sit on my desk, nose to nose, staring at me with great intensity for long minutes, what does he see? A love object? A large ungainly animal that should be a cat but isn’t? A slow and inefficient automatic can opener? Or is he thinking something so profound that I couldn’t possibly understand it? Dogs are easier to read, at least on the surface. But I have a feeling that underneath all that hail-fellow-well-met tail-wagging enthusiasm they are thinking dark and devious thoughts. Your typical dog is a salesman, whereas your typical cat is an eastern mystic. Either way, you lose.

It’s exactly the same with human beings. We can never understand how other people see the world, no matter how much we talk about it. And because people are better at acting than dogs we spend much of our social time trying to guess what is really going on in their minds. What we call shyness is really an acute awareness of this gap between what we see and what we get. That’s why we routinely say things like: “He seems friendly enough,” or “I get the impression that she’s clever.” We don’t know, and we know that we don’t know. Some people like to pretend that they see beneath the surface. They say: “I read it in his face” or “I saw it in his eyes.” No they didn’t! Think of good old Bernie Madoff, everybody’s trusted friend. Think of poor old Julius Caesar, stabbed to death by his honorable friend Brutus. Beware the Ides of March. You never know.

What we would most like to know about other people, and our pets, is: what do they think of us? It’s summed up in this famous couplet by the Scottish dialect poet Robert Burns. This is an English version.

Oh would some Power the gift to give us
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion.

If we could see ourselves as others see us, through their eyes, would that put an end to all our vanities and misunderstandings? Would we love our enemies at last? In science fiction, the power to read thoughts always leads to disaster. We can’t live with each other without keeping secrets.

This is probably good because it gives us a million reasons to pretend, to have fun dressing up our bodies and our personalities. Daily life is such an entertaining show precisely because we can’t quite see the machinery behind the curtain, although we know it’s there. Other people are interesting precisely because every one of them is a puzzle with no solution. Sometimes I agree with Shakespeare’s cynical view that all’s the world’s a stage, and all the men and women (and cats) are merely players. But who knows if that’s what I really think?

Copyright: David Bouchier