23 September 2017

Untitled Novel: The Doorkeeper


[Passage from an untitled novel, written 23/24 September 1992]
The doorkeeper came in, obviously awed by the great magician. “You sent for me, my Lord?”
“Yes,” said Simon. “I have learned that a certain man has come to this city today. This man has come to undo the good work we have done here, and to turn people away from the True Path. Do you understand?”
The doorkeeper stared vacantly ahead, his eyes fixed on nothing in particular, his mouth gaping.
“Do you understand?” repeated Simon sharply.
“I’m sorry, Lord,” the doorkeeper said slowly. “My wits are no longer what they once were, and they wander about like woolly sheep in a blizzard.”
“You’ll have to pardon him,” said Marcellus, “He’s old, and he’s never seen a magician before.”
“I am not a magician,” said Simon wearily. “That’s a vulgar term used by people who do not understand the source of my power. I do nothing—I can do nothing—nothing at all, do you understand me?—without the power of God. A magician attempts to bend the forces of the cosmos to his own will; a man of God submits his will to the forces of the cosmos.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” said Marcellus, “I know all that. But you will have to admit, that it is not every day that a man comes into the presence of a great magician.”
Giving up the point, Simon returned to his main difficulty. “There is a man who has come to the city to undo our work here. His name is also Simon, but he is called Rock, and by that name you will know him.”
“Is he your evil twin, Lord?” asked the doorkeeper.
“Yeah, sure, that’s close enough,” said Simon. Good and evil were meaningless abstractions, but what was the point of rubbing the poor old man’s nose in it? “This man will soon show up here, to break apart our discussions and to confuse our counsels. There is no point in debating with him; I’ve tried, and his mind is like a sheet of iron—impenetrable to the slightest new idea or concept. When God allowed us free will, the only real freedom he gave us was the right to be wrong—” He broke off, realizing that he was wandering again.
“So what about this man, Lord?” asked the doorkeeper.
“What about him? When he comes here—and he will come here, you may be sure of that—when he comes, at whatever hour of the day or night, tell him that I am not in.”
“But what if you are in, Lord?”
“Tell him that I’m not in,” said Simon impatiently.
“I am to lie then, Lord?”
“Yes?”
“But what if you’re not in, Lord? Am I to lie then too?”
“No,” said Simon, “In that case, you tell the truth.”
“So if you are in, I lie and say that you’re not in, but if you’re not in, I tell the truth. What if I don’t know whether you’re in or not? Do I lie then, Lord, and say I do know?”
“Whatever you like,” said Simon. “It’s very simple. In any case, and under all circumstances, you tell Rock Simon when he comes that I am not in. Not in. Do you understand?”
“Not in the least, Lord,” replied the doorkeeper cheerfully, “But that will not keep me from carrying out your orders to the last detail. I do not understand orders, Lord; I merely obey them.”
“You may go,” said Marcellus to the doorkeeper.
“Will he do as he’s told?” asked Simon.
“Oh, of course he will,” said Marcellus. “He may talk like a blithering idiot, but he’s really as sharp as we are. Now, what was it you were saying about the relationship between accidents here on earth and the power of God?”
So the rest of the day passed pleasantly enough in such discussions and in the blessings of the power of God. The next day, however, was a different story.
They were at breakfast when there came a cry from outside the house: “The dog’s loose!” This was a scarcely necessary observation, for the dog himself came bounding in to the dining hall with great enthusiasm.
“What is the meaning of this?” said Marcellus angrily, jumping to his feet and addressing the dog as if he expected an answer.
Unsurprisingly, the dog ignored his question. Surprisingly, however, he addressed Simon. “Simon,” he said, in a clear ringing voice, “Rock the servant of Christ is standing at the door, and says to you, ‘Come out in public; for on your account I have come to Rome, you most wicked deceiver of simple souls!’”
For a moment Simon was speechless. The single overwhelming thought that went through his mind was the mental equivalent of a series of exclamation points. The man was clever, no doubt of that. Who would have thought of his using a dog to get by the doorkeeper? Or had the doorkeeper somehow given the show away? The old man had not seemed to be that bright, despite what Marcellus had said. The moment of surprise lost Simon his advantage, no doubt as Rock had intended. Marcellus had left the table and gone off to see what was going on at the gate to his house.
“Go tell Rock that I’m not in—not to him, anyway,” said Simon to the dog.
“Wicked and shameless person,” said the dog, “enemy of everybody alive who believes in Jesus Christ; you see before you a mute animal given human speech to prove that you are a con-man and a liar. Did it take you all night to come up with this lame excuse? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself, doing your feeble best to contend with Rock, the servant and messenger of Christ? Don’t get me wrong, none of this is for your benefit; this is for the benefit of those that you are sending to destruction. You are therefore cursed as an enemy and corruptor of the way to the truth of Christ, who shall prove you iniquities which you have done with undying fire, and you shall be in outer darkness.” And with these words the dog ran off, followed by the people, who after all, had never seen a talking dog before. This was a marvel greater even than Simon the magician, and so Simon was left by himself.
“It’s a cheap trick,” he said to himself. But it worked.

14 September 2017

Quotation of the Day


T
rump is a Frankenstein’s monster of past presidents’ worst attributes: Andrew Jackson’s rage; Millard Fillmore’s bigotry; James Buchanan’s incompetence and spite; Theodore Roosevelt’s self-aggrandizement; Richard Nixon’s paranoia, insecurity, and indifference to law; and Bill Clinton’s lack of self-control and reflexive dishonesty.—Jack Goldsmith
[Source: “Will Donald Trump Destroy the Presidency?Atlantic, October 2017]

03 September 2017

Quotation of the Day


M
eanwhile, the public servants who are in a position to do something about this—not least the Republican leaders of Congress—sit on their hands. Many of them know that their president is morally bankrupt, congenitally dishonest, brazenly corrupt, and when it comes to the highest duties of his office way in over his head. Yet, whether out of party loyalty, fear, or short-term ideological interest, they do nothing. The annals of history are crammed with tales of political and civic leaders who watch their nations sink slowly or plunge swiftly into decay or destruction, yet avoid action—not so much sleepwalking into disaster but walking wakefully, with eyes wide open. We may be witnessing something like that in real time now.—Fred Kaplan
[in “The Secretary’s Rebuke,” 28 August 2017]

20 August 2017

Theology with the Kids [1985]


[written 20 August 1985]
H
eaven is an imaginary place in the sky where dead souls go, says my nephew Brandon [age 5]. The souls go fluttering up like butterflies, and God catches them and puts them in His oven for Him and his family to eat. And what can you tell me about God, Brandon, I ask. I know everything about God, says Brandon. You can ask me anything. Fair enough, say I. Who is he? God isn’t a man, says Brandon incredulously. A woman, then? I ask. God isn’t a man or a woman, says Brandon impatiently. God is the floor of a black hole where all the dead people go. The floor of a black hole? I repeat. A long long time ago, when we were all Catholics, says Brandon, then we all used to go to heaven. But now, he adds, now we don’t go anywhere.
Which is real? my nephew Sage [almost 7] propounds. Jesus or God? Well, uh, I don’t know I reply, I guess they’re both real in different ways. You mean like in another dimension? asks Sage. Well, I mean like Jesus is a real person in history, I say, and he was really executed by the Romans for rebellion against the state— I don’t believe, says my niece Rachel [age 11], that a man could really walk on water. How do you know the priests didn’t just make him up? Well, say I, we don’t really know that anything ever happened in history, but the evidence is— What about God? interrupts Sage. Well, God belongs in a different order of reality, I say. You mean, says Sage, that God doesn’t exist. I mean, I say, that God is a symbol we use for the things that are good and true and beautiful. I mean that God is how we express the purpose of the universe. I mean that God is as real as we make it. Oh, I’m sure, says Rachel, like I’m sure God is real if somebody believes in him. Something’s either real, says Sage, or else it’s imaginary. There’s only one kind of reality. But, Sage adds in consolation, there are three kinds of infinity.

12 August 2017

Gutless


T
he terrorist attack in Charlottesville, North Carolina, is the kind of event that tests a president’s resolve, intelligence, and guts. He needs to be able to keep a clear mind—carefully not jumping to conclusions in advance of the evidence—a firm hand on the wheel (so to speak), and the resolve to take whatever measures are necessary to restore peace and deal with the terrorists.
I will be straightforward here—I do not believe that Donald Trump has any of the three qualities I mentioned. His actions show the resolve of a bored teenager; his tweets betray the intelligence of a high-school dropout, and his performance so far has shown all the guts of a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck. He appears to be a man in way over his head—and I personally think that that is exactly what he is.
But looks can be deceiving. Maybe he will abruptly rise to the occasion like—well, I honestly can’t think of an example right now, but at least in fiction unlikely heroes rise to the occasion when challenged unexpectedly. Maybe he will find the resolve to throw the resources of the federal government behind local efforts to identify and apprehend the terrorist. Maybe he will find the intelligence to successfully direct the nation (and his presidency) through this self-inflicted crisis. Maybe he will find the guts to stand up to the white supremacists that seem to have him cowering in terror.
But I personally believe he is the vain, dumb, gutless jackass he appears to be, and he will continue to drivel mindlessly about how all sides are responsible for the car driven by one driver into a crowd in a classic act of terrorism.

Untitled Novel: The Forum [1996]

[passage from an untitled novel, written 12 August 1996]
T
he Forum didn’t come cheap, Simon said to himself, marvel­ing at Rock’s coup. How had he managed it? The Romans were flocking to see the great magic show, no doubt of it, and the money poured in. It wouldn’t be the first time, he thought; you couldn’t go broke underestimating popular taste. Without think­ing twice Simon disappeared and, invisible to all but unseen spirits, strolled through the gates unobserved and no poorer than he had been before.
The audience was boisterous and unruly; clearly they came expecting a good time. Had word of mouth brought this response? And how many dogs had Rock killed to get the result? How many talking fish had he suborned for the purpose? This was child’s play; a misuse of the powers beyond for trivial and disgusting ends. Simon wafted through the crowd like a gentle summer breeze and soon found himself in front.
Rock stood in the center of the arena, coolly facing the audience. He had no nerves. Simon knew that, but again he won­dered at the stolidity of the man. Rock didn’t enter into it; the man was a boulder, a granite cliff, solid and hard and unmov­able. There was strength in that, sure, but there was also enor­mous weakness. When a cliff crumbled, the ruin was great. Bet­ter to be smoke in the wind than an avalanche—the pain was less.
“Show us your god, Rock,” called out somebody behind Simon. “What makes him so great?”
Simon laughed—he could recognize a shill when he heard one. And as if on cue somebody else shouted again.
“Simon gave us hard proofs—let’s see yours!” The crowd roared its approval.
Rock raised his hands and the crowd fell silent. The man was impressive—Simon had to grant him that. “Romans!” he shout­ed. “You be the judges. I am come to say that I believe in the true and living God and I bring you evidence—hard evidence—solid and irrefutable evidence—that he and he alone is the ruler of the universe. I ask you only to put your eyes and ears in the service of your mind, to see and hear the evidence I am about to put before you. I have seen it—I have heard it—I have felt it—and there are many among you who themselves have witnessed the workings of God in this world for themselves!
“Now you’ve seen the magic tricks of Simon the imposter. These are nothing. Where is he now? Where is he hiding? This is the man I drove out of Judaea for his cruel and heartless tricks played on Eubola, an honest and upright widow. So what does he do then? He looks for new victims, new sheep to slaugh­ter, new jewels to steal. But he is powerless, a whimpering coward who flees the power of God like a rabbit running from an all-consuming brush-fire. He does not dare face me—no, he hides in the darkness and confusion of his lies and deceit, full of fear and delusion. Or why else is he not here to face me. If I am the liar, why does he not show me up? Where is Simon?”
Simon knew an opportunity when he heard it. Stepping invis­ibly into the arena he invoked a stroke of lightning, called for a thunder-clap, and appeared in a whirlwind of colored smoke. There was a collective gasp from the audience, a moment of stunned silence, and then a burst of applause that threatened to bring down the Forum. Simon smiled and gave a slight bow towards Rock. “You wanted to know where I am, Rock?” he asked politely. “I’m here, fool and charlatan, to show you the power of God once and for all.”
Rock looked at Simon expressionlessly. “All flash and noise, Simon,” he observed.  “And nothing but a foul stench left behind. How appropriate.”
Something was wrong. Rock was giving nothing away, but suddenly Simon had the feeling of having walked into a well-planned trap. He felt the quicksand sucking away at his feet, but showed nothing to his enemy. “So tell me, Rock, how comes it that I am not afraid to cross swords with you, if I have not the power of God behind me?”
“First tell me this, Simon the sorcerer,” said Rock, “when you groveled at my feet in Samaria, when you begged me for the secret of the Holy Spirit

02 August 2017

Untitled Novel: Reality Shift [1996]


[passage from an untitled novel, written 2 August 1996]
Heat—suffocation—a sense of overwhelming oppression came over him.  He was sweating like a pig.
“Would you like some roast badger-balls?”  Marcellus’s voice seemed to echo, as if he were speaking through a hollow tube of infinite length.  “My cook makes them from the ambrosia of the Leptunian snake-gods.”
The words made no sense.  Nausea fought thirst for the pos­session of Simon’s soul.  He rose hastily to his feet, groping blindly for the corridor to his private chamber.  “I—it’s—there’s an important—something—” he gabbled.  His vision was beginning to shut down, and before him danced the shimmering heat-waves of a reality-shift.  Time.  There was no time.  A blinding flash of pure insight struck him and he fell to his knees.  Oh God, he thought, let there be time enough—
Something hard struck him, and there was nothing.
#
Not darkness.  Not light.  Nothing.  The stuff eternity was made of.  Yards of it surrounded Simon like a woolly cocoon, pressing him, cutting off his breath.  Where was he?
“I am come, Simon of Gitta.”
The voice came from all sides, like wind in the trees.  There was something familiar about it.
“Have you?” Simon said.  “What is that to me?”
There was an unnatural silence, as if sound itself had been cut off—the silence of caves, the complete silence of death.  Then the voice came again.  “You don’t know who I am, do you?”  Amusement tinged the question.
“I know,” said Simon.  “I know.  Did you think, Simon Rock, that you would be able to sneak into Rome like a thief in the night?  Did you think you were unobserved?  No, Rock, let me tell you that I have watched your progress every day.  I know the tricks you played on that poor captain of the vessel you came in.  I know how you stopped the wind to plague him, and started it again when it served your purposes.”
“It was the will of God,” said the voice.
“Was it?” returned Simon.  “You have delusions of grandeur.”
“It was.”  The voice sounded a little sullen now.
“It is strange, isn’t it,” asked Simon sarcastically, “just how often God’s will and yours somehow coincide.  Isn’t that a bit thick, Rock?  How long can you keep on using that threadbare excuse for following the whims of the flesh and feeding the needs of the corpse you live in?  God’s will, Rock?  Or yours.”
“They are the same.”  This time the voice was definitely defensive, on the run.
“Ha!” said Simon.  “You admit it.”
“I admit nothing,” snapped the voice.  “If what I want is what God wants, it isn’t because I am making myself equal to Him.”
“Then what is it?” demanded Simon.  “What else can you call it?”
“Humility, Simon the Magician, the ability to stop my thoughts and let God’s fill my mind.  The ability to silence my will and let God’s will move me.  The ability to shut out the distractions of the senses and receive God’s truth.  That’s what I possess, Simon of Gitta, Simon the false prophet, Simon the liar and stealer of men’s souls,” said the voice.  “And that’s what you could do with a little of.”
Simon laughed harshly.  “The ability to blind yourself and grope helplessly in the dark.  The ability to deafen yourself to everything but your own thoughts.  The ability to cut yourself off from the Truth—that God gave you your wits to use them, that God gave you your eyes and your ears and your mind for you to put them to use, not for you to pretend a stupidity you do not and cannot possess.  Save that stuff for your sheep-like followers.”
“Enough, Simon,” said the voice.  “It is God who has given us this shared vision, and it would be criminal of us both to waste it in pointless bickering.”
“Yes, Rock,” said Simon.  “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you for the past twenty years.”
“Listen, Simon,” said the voice.  “I will be coming to Rome tomorrow, as you know.  Will you not repent and believe in the Lord?  Will you not do His work on earth?  I warn you, Simon the magician, you are treading close to the abyss.  You and I, or rather you and the Lord, are close to the final moment of truth, and I do not envy you this confrontation.”
“Still confusing yourself with God?” Simon asked derisively.  “Well, Rock, I will not repay the compliment.  I will not ask you to reform, since I know there is no hope of it.  You are too deafened by your own words to know the truth, too blinded by your own light to see it.  But I do warn you, Rock, to stay out of Rome.  You betrayed your Master once.  If you come here—and I say this from the most absolute and certain of foreknowledge, my beloved namesake and enemy—if you come here, Rock, then you will be in the utmost danger of betraying him again.  So take care, my enemy—stay away from Rome, as you value your very soul.  Stay away.”  And with a supreme effort of will Simon pushed back the nothingness and began to struggle to his feet.
But emptiness and blankness refused to retreat, and the voice put in one final shot.  “I thank you for your warning, Simon the magician—for what it’s worth.  But I know myself too well to imagine that I will ever betray my Savior again, and so Rome has no terrors for me.  Farewell—and look out, my one-time friend.  For I know—and I say this from the most absolute and certain of foreknowledge—that you are near the end, and if I have to go down to end your infernal wickedness, then, Simon—it is a sacrifice I am very willing to make.”  And with that the fog cleared and Simon pulled himself to his feet—and found himself facing Marcellus and the other guests, staring at him from the door to his chamber.
“What was it?” asked Marcellus.  “Some kind of fit?”
Simon took one or two deep breaths to clear the Nothing out of his spirit.  “No,” he said.  “It was not a fit.”
“It was a vision,” said one of the guests.  “I’ve seen what happens when a spirit seizes a man before.”
“Yes, you looked dead,” said another.
“Yes, well, in a way I was dead,” said Simon, “dead to this world and alive to another.  Listen, my good Marcellus, could I have a word with your doorkeeper?”
“With my doorkeeper?  Whatever for?”
“I can’t explain,” said Simon, “But I know there is a man coming tomorrow—coming here tomorrow.  And I cannot meet with him.”
Marcellus laughed.  “You—a magician, afraid?”
“I’m not a magician,” said Simon, “and I’m not afraid.  Not the way you mean.  But I know—I know—that this man will bring an end to all our works if he and I are allowed to meet again.  And this cannot be allowed to happen.  So look, man, for God’s sake, let me talk with your doorkeeper!”
Marcellus motioned to a servant, and in a moment the door­keeper came in, obviously awed by the great magi­cian.  “You sent for me, my Lord?”

23 July 2017

Colossal Gall Department [2008]


[Originally posted 23 July 2008]
Y
ou’ve got to admire the sheer chutzpah of it. Chris Mill, the attorney for two of the Camrose cat killers—those were the little psychopaths who tortured a cat to death in a microwave oven and left messages boasting about it for the owners to return to—actually asked for the court to expedite his clients’ sentencing so they could achieve “closure” before returning to school this fall. Words absolutely fail me. This guy is complaining, on behalf of his clients, about the need for them to undergo a psychiatric examination—because they want to get this whole thing over with.
I’m sure they do. Most of us, when caught in a crime, just want the prosecution to go the fuck away. There’s nothing new or amazing about that. Why that should be grounds a judge could act upon is totally beyond me. What the judge ought to be primarily concerned about is the issue of protecting the community from these creeps. The last thing on her mind should be whether the kids get to start school this year with a “clean slate”.
At least Chris Mill’s job is being the spokesmen for this pair of psychopaths. I don’t know what Camrose resident Linda Hugo’s excuse is. “It’s a terrible thing that they did,” she admits, claiming “but it’s now water under the bridge.” Nice of her to be so forgiving of a “terrible” crime committed against somebody else. She weeps for the poor persecuted torturers. “…the mental torment that they’ve gone through is enough” she feels. Wise up, lady. The next time these young Torquemadas decide to go on the prowl, you may well be their victim. When you embrace a scorpion, expect to get stung.

21 July 2017

Madness and Politics [2011]


[Originally posted 21 July 2011]
Y
ou know—just a thought. Jobs. Let me say it again—jobs. That’s what the people of the United States are looking for right now. Nobody gives a damn about this debt-ceiling nonsense. Most people are prepared for a certain number of program cuts and tax increases, but what they’re really interested in is getting back to work. Seeing the economy running again. Bromides like only the market can create jobs aren’t going to cut it any longer. People are tired of praying to a Market God that never seems to listen. This is something that both Democrats and Republicans need to deal with, but it especially applies to the Mad Tea Partiers. Sabotaging the economy in the hopes of winning elections is probably not going to be a winning strategy. People tend to re-elect when their personal finances are going well; folk who surf the wave of economic discontent are likely to crash on the rocks of broken dreams.

20 July 2017

A Note on Judas [1987]


[20 July 1987]
T
he Judas story is inconsistent. It is said that Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, which implies an attempt to keep Judas’ part in the business unknown—but since Judas led the arresting offi­cials there, such secrecy was impossible. Make no mistake about it—there is no reason for the Judas kiss if Judas openly led the officers there. Conversely, if Judas betrayed Jesus with such a secret sign, then his coming with the arresting officials was fatal to the scheme.
Further, it is worth noting that in the synoptic account Judas never leaves the last supper; as far as one can tell he is pres­ent from Jesus’ announcement of the betrayal to the scene at Gethsemane. This at least is more consistent with the kiss; one might picture the officers lurking at the Mount of Olives, Judas giving the pre-arranged signal, the arrest and all that. Against this we may ask, could Jesus’ prediction of the betrayal be an added element in Mark?  In Mark’s source was Judas even at the Last Supper? (On the other hand, the direction of this element is away from having Judas present; witness John’s contortions.)
What about the kiss? Mark has it, Matthew has it, but Luke down­plays it. John has an entirely consistent story that omits the kiss altogether, and he makes sure Judas leaves the Last Supper directly after Jesus’ announcement of the betrayal, giving time for him to bring the soldiers and officers to the appointed place.
So the direction of the kiss element in the synoptics is toward its elimination. But John has no trace of it (or does it?). Is John an example of its final elimination, or is it a witness to a presynoptic version that lacked the kiss? Does either version have prophetic fulfillment significance?

19 July 2017

Waiting for the Goddamn Bus [2015]


[Passage from my journal, 18/19 July 2015]
☉☾
 6:34 m PDT—The big event of the day (I guess) was catching the late bus up to the Burlingame Fred Meyer to stock up on coke the last day of the sale. I grabbed a couple of sacks full of bottles to return and headed up about sunset to catch the 12 going north—and waited forever for the goddamn bus. I probably hadn’t just missed one as there were a couple of other people waiting, unless of course they’d come just before me and had likewise missed the bus. There were people waiting across the street for the southbound 12 as well, so I began wondering about traffic jams somewhere on the route. Eventually, after around forty minutes of waiting, busses came simultaneously on both sides of the street, and I rode up to Burlingame. My transfer was good till after eleven so I figured I had all the time there was to finish my tasks, especially as my tasks were relatively minor. And then I ran into the first snag. None of the machines at the bottle return were working. I pushed the button to call for assistance, only to have the light go dark after a minute or so and no assistance arrive. I repeated the action with the same result. I started to go in, only to run into a guy headed out that way, so I followed him back. He apparently had not come to assist customers, however, but he did ungraciously accept my bottles and give me a receipt for them. And so with that in hand I went into the store. The rest was fairly easy, actually; I picked up six bottles of coke (saving four dollars), caramel, and broccoli for dinner. The machine at the checkout was reasonably cooperative this time, and it didn’t take too long to exchange my receipt for cash. The bus came only a few minutes after my arrival at the stop, and a young lady gave me her seat (probably because I was having obvious difficulty in staying on my feet). And the walk home was nothing and we had our dinner and watched the usual run of shows. And a bunch of Jon Oliver episodes. Eventually I got off to sleep.

18 July 2017

A Pointless Post


I am feeling unwell and have nothing much to say anyway, I guess, not that that’s ever stopped me before. I hope I’ll be back tomorrow, if not sooner.

17 July 2017

The Ultimate Sexual Perversion [1993]


[from my pre-weblog, 17 July 1993]
I
 can’t help but feel that the ultimate sexual perversion is sex without desire. We recognize this in our laws and customs, at least in a sideways manner. Rape and prostitution, both striking examples of sex without desire, are recognized as crimes. Mar­riages are broken up for “irreconcilable differences”—as often as not a code phrases for sex without desire. The idea of having sex with somebody for whom there is no desire is—to use no hard­er word—repugnant. And yet—interesting enough—this is exactly what is suggested to homosexuals (and other sexual minorities) all the time—that they should have sex without desire, or re­frain from sex altogether.

16 July 2017

Sing It, Fat Lady! [2010]



[Originally posted 16 July 2010]
T
oday’s question comes from a long-time reader (hi, Mom!) who wants to know where the expression “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings” comes from. The expression has been around for a bit, at least since the empty eighties, and it’s roughly equivalent to the old proverb, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” attributed to the well-known cartoon character, Yogi Berra. It means apparently that nothing is settled until all the accounts are totaled up, or something like that.
It’s a good point. I remember years ago as a backgammon game wound down my opponent wanted to throw in the towel, seeing that I clearly had the game won at that point. Like an idiot I pointed out that things were really closer than they looked. “If you were to throw double sixes on the next roll,” I said (and boy have these words stuck with me), “and I were to say get a two and a one on my next, well you could easily win the thing.” And much to my chagrin (I should have kept my mouth shut) my opponent did in fact throw double sixes on his next roll, and I got a two and a one or something equally useless on mine, and I ended up losing. It really ain’t over till it’s, well, over.
But the fat lady—where the hell does she come in? Personally, I first remember hearing the expression shortly after I left college, during the reign of the late unlamented Ronald McReagan, Czar of all the Americas. It was a punch-line to a joke I no longer remember, but the set-up was rather like the old Homer and Jethro routine, where the pair wanders into an opera to get out of the rain thinking they were going to see a western, and instead forty-seven people sung without a horse in sight. Hekyll nudges his buddy during a pause and asks, “Is it over yet, Jekyll?” And his buddy replies, pointing to the soprano, “Nah, it ain’t over till the fat lady sings.”
So, maybe, it was a bit of belated Green Acres style humor to enlighten the tedium of those dark days when nuclear holocaust lurked just around the corner. Poking fun at the rubes, as it were. Even those of us who wouldn’t be caught dead creeping into an opera house get the joke. But—but—how do sports come into it? Don’t we usually hear it in connection with some sporting event—a dramatic cliffhanger of a ninth-inning foos- or kickball spectacular? “And there he goes, [I hear this in Billy Crystal’s Howard Cosell voice] bobbing and weaving down the stretch, shedding backstops like ninepins into the goal zone and it’s all over!” “Well, Ed, [comes the reply] there’s still two seconds left on the clock and anything can happen. Remember, it ain’t over till the fat lady sings.”
Okay, well, according to the nearest thing we have to absolute truth written by a roomful of monkeys hitting random keys (full disclosure: I too am a Wikipedia editor) it came about something like this. Ralph Carpenter (described as a Texas Tech sports information director) and Bill Morgan (presumably the nineteenth century baseball player) were calling a game of some sort “in the SWC tournament finals” early in 1976. The score was 72-72, and the dialog went like this:
Bill Morgan: Hey, Ralph, this … is going to be a tight one after all.
Ralph Carpenter: Right. The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings.
Bill Morgan still remembered the incident in 2006. He believed that Carpenter came up with it on the spur of the moment. “Oh, yeah, it was vintage Carpenter. He was one of the world’s funniest guys.”
A couple of years later it turned up again, after a basketball (is there such a game?) contest in April 1978 between the “San Antonio Spurs” and the “Washington Bullets”. Broadcaster Dan Cook observed after the Spurs victory that “The opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” meaning that a single victory didn’t determine the outcome of the series.
Now if you’re like me you may well be wondering, what the hell does opera have to do with sports? (Well, other than the fact that I personally detest them both.) Why would an opera metaphor end up as a sports cliché? And also, you know, the fat lady pretty much sings throughout the opera. It’s not like the soprano waits till the end before she sounds off. It’s sort of an ongoing thing.
Well, there is an alternative explanation out there, and in this one the fat lady has a name—Kate Smith. Yes, that Kate Smith, the songbird of the south, whose function in the world (if we believe the supply-siders) was to sell Studebakers and Jell-O, is supposed to be the fat lady of the cliché. She, goes the story, used to finish off sports events of some kind (something called the “World Series” is often mentioned) by singing Israel Isidore Baline’s patriotic hymn “God Bless America” to a no-doubt attentive crowd trying to beat the rush to the exits.
Smith, who weighed a ninth of a ton in her prime, could certainly have been described as a “fat lady,” so that’s one point in the story’s favor, but the rest doesn’t work very well. First, the singing, if any, is usually done at the beginning of sports events, and in fact on those occasions when she did sing for games (more typically a recording was used), it was before the game began. There was even an expression, a reference to the one under discussion, that “It ain’t begun till the fat lady sings.” And also—well, if she did sing at the end of the game, then “it ain’t over till the fat lady sings” wouldn’t actually be true, as the game would have ended before the fat lady sang. Truth may be expecting a lot from a cliché, but still, there are limits to artistic license, aren’t there?
Now I should warn you that this isn’t going to be one of those pieces where at the end I triumphantly announce Aha—it was Jacques Mallet du Pan, writing in The Virginian, and he did it with the Lead Pipe! No, on this one I’m as Clueless as the next guy. But I’ve got to say that neither of these explanations cut it. They both stink of folk etymology, after-the-fact retrojections into the unknown. Campfire stories. Legends.
Is there another option? Well, another story has it—and like the Kate Smith tale I picked this one up surfing the interwaves—that it’s an old Southern proverb that originally ran “Church ain’t over till the fat lady sings.” You see, this explanation has it, in Southern churches services ended with a song usually sung by choir members who (we may suppose) were specially selected for their weight. It was only when these ladies had warbled their best shot that the doors were opened and the parishioners allowed to finally leave, no doubt giving thanks to whatever God they still believed in after all that.
This explanation has at least one merit—church services do indeed use music to cue the audience as to when to stand, when to sit, and when to beat a hasty retreat. I personally examined many church services on this very point for a college paper I wrote for an anthropology class (Music in Culture), and that one fact stands out very clearly in my memory. Music was liminal, a delineator used to separate events. But I don’t see how the fat lady gets into it. Singing, sure, church choirs are even a cliché themselves. But unless, say, Southern Baptists have some special fat-lady tradition I don’t see how the saying is relevant. And again—in my personal observation music is used in church services throughout—not just at the end. It don’t fit—and if it don’t fit, you must acquit.
Apparently quite a few people have written on the subject, but nobody seems to have hit the nail squarely on the thumb. If anybody has something resembling evidence on the subject, let me know. Or write it up in Wikipedia. It has a whole article on the subject.

rfh left a comment to the original post:
Seriously, the more I think about it, the less the saying works in any context. Singing as a finale just doesn’t seem to happen, at least not so regularly and standardly that it would give rise to a Saying—a Saying as widely used and recognized as this one.
So I guess we’re still wondering.

And Ed Darrell also left a comment:
Memory is a flawed source, but I recall Dick Motta coming up with the line in 1974 during the NBA playoffs. I think this history giving Motta the line is 1978 is a bit off.
So, you gotta go with the documents, eh?

15 July 2017

A Doomed System: A 1972 Essay Revisited


I
n the 15 July 1972 issue of Saturday Review appeared one of the most idiotic godawful articles I have ever wasted my time on. The title was “Chic Bleak in Fantasy Fiction” and the author was listed as Bruce Franklin, described as a former professor of literature at Stanford. The article’s description read “Why do science fiction writers scare themselves with visions of a brutal future? A leftist critic dismisses such Chicken Little visions as mere capitalist despair and sees a bright future in which workers—and  writers—are heroes.” Sadly, that is an accurate description of the article—something that is not always the case with those brief prose snippets intended to drag a reader into the piece.
Franklin’s basic difficulty is that he fails to recognize the problems posed by mankind’s dominance over the earth (in line with the doctrine that most leftist thinkers of the time espoused). A paragraph towards the middle of the piece makes this transparent:
When you get right down to it, we are dealing with a ridiculous question: Is the world really coming to an end? This is not the place to argue fully theories of ecology and population. But we should be aware   that scientists throughout the noncapitalist world recognize that there is now more food and available resources per capita in the world than ever before, that the average standard of living is rapidly rising, and that the means of production are developing tremendously faster than the rate of consumption.
This childish view (which is shared by present-day oil company executives and global-warming denialists) was de rigueur in the bad old days of the early seventies, but it was crap then and it is crap now. In Franklin’s ideology (shaped by the idealistic fantasies of the now thoroughly-discredited Maoist “thinking”) human beings are the be-all and end-all of the universe, its consummate triumph, the goal of all its strivings, and it is therefore unacceptable to even imagine a world in which insects vie for dominance.
And his examples of this mind-excursion are revelatory of the limitations of his research: The Hellstrom Chronicle and Them. He complains (with as far as I can tell a straight face) that the “notion of insects conquering and replacing people” is “totally preposterous”. “The plain truth is that insects have never posed a threat to man’s existence, and we now have unprecedented means for controlling them.” And this he apparently considers a deep thought and a serious objection to a screwball documentary—an excuse for showing off spectacular photographs of insects—that nobody is supposed to take seriously. He considers Mary Shelley’s 1796 “literary fantasy of universal plague” to be absurd since smallpox and bubonic plague have “been virtually eliminated”. The trouble is, according to Franklin, that bourgeois critics … can’t conceive of anything interesting to do in a decent society”.
And what does he think fantasy writers should write about? Rather than the Burgess/Kubrick dystopian vision of youth run amuck, what about a film depicting “a Puerto Rican street gang transformed into a revolutionary party, setting up a drug program and a medical clinic, and organizing and educating their people to win”? Wouldn’t that be more fun than watching a movie about “the transformation of people into living zombies as their bodies are taken over by vegetable beings grown in giant pods seeded from an alien world”? (Personally I’m not that taken by either vision, but if I had to choose one I think I’d go with the living zombies over the revolutionary street gang. Is this what TV is like in hell?)
The trouble is, Franklin thinks, that “[w]riters inside the empire … identify with a doomed system and ruling class and then imagine the possible forms of their own doom.” But the objective reality, according to Franklin, is that capitalism is dying and “the people are winning, from Vietnam to Lordstown, Ohio.” Well, we’ve seen how that played out in the four and a half decades since then. And the people of Lordstown, Ohio—those “makers of cars, typewriters, clothes, movie cameras, houses, and bourbon” that you so idealized—they voted for Donald Trump.
[Note: According to Wikipedia Howard Bruce Franklin “has written or edited nineteen books and three hundred professional articles and participated in making four films. His main areas of academic focus are science fiction, prison literature, environmentalism, the Vietnam War and its aftermath, and American cultural history. … He helped to establish science fiction writing as a genre worthy of serious academic study.” It does not mention this blitheringly idiotic article among his accomplishments.]
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