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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Ekland, Britt

Back in 1981, I was 26 and single and living in Los Angeles. Nautilus machines were then the latest thing, so I joined a gym called Sean Harrington's Nautilus.

I was working out there one day when I saw a beautiful blonde who reminded me of a girl I'd had a crush on in college. She was using the machine the wrong way, so I told her what she was doing wrong. She looked up briefly but otherwise didn't acknowledge me in any way. I looked at her again and it struck me that she was better-looking than that girl from college. (I found out later that she was 39 at the time; if she wasn't quite at the absolute peak of her beauty, she was close enough.)

The policy at this gym was that you were supposed to put your card in the back of the machine you were using. A few minutes later I snuck a peek at the back of the machine that she was on. Her card said, "Ekland, Britt."

She was using that machine the wrong way too, so again I pointed out the right way to do it. Once again she looked at me with what I can only describe as a look of supreme boredom, and looked away without a word. I thought, well, that was my brush with a movie star.

A few minutes later I was on another Nautilus machine and looked up to see her looking at me. Somewhat chastened by her earlier non-response, I quickly looked away, not wanting her to think I was staring at her.

After I showered and changed, as I was leaving (there was about a thirty yard walk from the men's locker room to the exit), I saw that Ekland was standing by the exit. She was looking me right in the eye. I quickly looked away. When I looked at her again, she was still looking at me, holding my eye. I quickly looked away again, not wanting her to think me rude. When I looked at her a final time, she was still staring me in the eye. Supremely conscious of not wanting to be the kind of rube who stares at a movie star, I looked away again. As I walked past her out the door, I wondered who or what she was waiting for.

By the time I got to my car I realized what had just happened. I saw her walk to her car, get into it, and drive off. By herself.

Maybe I'm kidding myself. But I'm positive that if only I'd gone up to her and said something like, "Can I offer you a ride home," she would have said "Follow me" -- probably with that same bored look. And I'd have a much better story to tell.

But I totally John Craig-ed it.

The funny thing is, I've told any number of guys an abbreviated version of this story, and while none have come out and called me a liar, it's pretty obvious most don't believe me.

I never saw Ekland again after that day. But I can't even begin to tell you how many times I've kicked myself since for my lack of gumption.

Looking back, maybe it's just as well I blew it the way I did. Had I somehow managed to insinuate myself into her bedroom, I would almost undoubtedly have been so intimidated by the enormity of the occasion (for me) that I'd have been unable to perform.

And even if I had been able to perform -- and thus had a really great story to tell -- no one would believe me anyway.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The backlash begins

Has there ever been a clearer instance of political correctness than NPR firing Juan Williams for his statement that seeing people in Muslim garb on his airplane causes him anxiety? This is, of course, a near universal reaction among flyers, and understandably so.

Williams didn't say that all Muslims are terrorists, nor did he say that Muslims ought not be allowed to fly. He merely gave voice to personal feelings which almost all of us have experienced.

And how ironic that the victim of this political correctness would be a liberal black man, especially Williams, who never emits anything but nice guy vibes. 

But at least there was a huge public outcry against these thought police. Maybe there's a tiny ray of hope for the cause of honesty after all.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Jimmy McMillan

(Jimmy McMillan)

I didn't watch the televised New York gubernatorial debate the other night, but supposedly third party candidate Jimmy McMillan stole the show by repeating several times, "The rent is too damn high."

McMillan's statement resonated with New Yorkers. The movie Men in Black II must have resonated with him. In one scene Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith get into a scrape with a group of aliens. Jones dispatches a couple of them, then kicks the last one between the legs, to no effect. Mystified, he does it a second time, again to no effect. Will Smith then yells out to him, "He's a Ballchinian!" Jones then pulls down the alien's scarf to reveal his unique anatomy, kicks him there, and the fight ends.

Perhaps that scene will prove instructive to McMillan's gubernatorial rivals.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Cat's Cradle

The twelve hours I spent in a car yesterday went quicker than they otherwise might have thanks to Kurt Vonnegut. I listened to Cat's Cradle in its entirety. I hadn't read it in over thirty years, but my belief in its greatness remains unchanged.

One of the central characters of the book, Felix Hoenikker, is described as "the father of the atom bomb." He invents "ice-nine," a type of ice which only melts at 130 degrees Fahrenheit. It also sets off an instantaneous chain reaction converting any water it comes into contact with into ice-nine, meaning that if it comes into contact with any large body of water that pretty much means the end of the world. As his legacy he has left each of his three children a tiny sliver of the ice.

Vonnegut had fought in WWII, and several of his books, most notably Mother Night, deal with the horrors of war. While listening yesterday I thought that Hoenikker must have been based on either J. Robert Oppenheimer or Edward Teller, and that the idea of ice-nine was inspired by the doubts about the very first atomic bomb test at White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico. (Scientists were originally unsure as to whether the nuclear explosion would set off a chain reaction which would incinerate the entire world.)

But upon reading Wikipedia this morning, it turns out that Vonnegut's inspiration for Hoenikker was neither of those men, but rather Irving Langmuir, a scientist he had come into contact with while working in General Electric's PR department after the war. Langmuir had evidently actually originated the concept of ice-nine himself, as a way to amuse H. G. Wells, whom he had met in the 1930's.

Vonnegut's characterization of Hoenikker as a man who lives on a different plane than most humans, and who is emotionally uninvolved, even with his own children, is actually a perfect description of someone with Asperger's Syndrome, that mild form of autism which has only become widely recognized in the past two decades. (Vonnegut wrote the book in 1963.) Some people with Asperger's, partly because of their intense focus on one thing, are capable of tremendous insights. (It is thought that Einstein may have had Asperger's.)

Vonnegut's understanding of a syndrome as yet unclassified, as well as his insights into the essential silliness of social status, institutional association, mindless patriotism, and even romantic love, are all evidence of his genius. His ability to tie all these things together into an entertaining story is why he deserves to be re-read.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sociopath alert: Robert McMahon

The NY Post ran the following article this morning:

Brooklyn bum fakes war wound for cash

Semper fake!

For years, Brooklyn commuters have opened their wallets for Robert McMahon, handing cash to this heroic and heartbreaking figure, a Vietnam vet in combat fatigues, his left arm missing and his right leg crippled, as he panhandles on Ocean Parkway in Kensington.

He plays to their patriotism, having scrawled his nickname, "Rambo," on the back of his camouflage jacket, along with his years of service with the Marines and two stints in 'Nam that saw heavy action. The top of his empty left sleeve is pinned to his uniform shoulder, and he drags his bum leg behind him.

Robert Mc Mahon appears an arm short.
Photos: Alex Rud
Robert Mc Mahon appears an arm short.
While begging for cash in Brooklyn, he plays up his phony stints in Vietnam.
While begging for cash in Brooklyn, he plays up his phony stints in Vietnam.
At day's end, he counts his cash - with both fully functioning arms.
At day's end, he counts his cash - with both fully functioning arms.
When drivers stop for red lights, McMahon, 53, hobbles over and salutes gallantly, juggling a paper cup and a cardboard sign that reads, "Vietnam vet." They give freely.

They are being scammed.

McMahon has two arms -- and was seen using them last week to count the wads of cash he took off kindhearted New Yorkers.

He is not crippled, as was readily apparent when he swiftly dodged inquiring Post reporters.

And it seems he never served in the Marines nor in Vietnam, according to Corps and Veterans Administration officials who could not find any record of him...

Tuesday, The Post spotted the bearded, one-armed bandit at 4:30 p.m. at Ocean and Foster Avenue, where he limped over to the windows of idling vehicles and held up his cup. Many gave dollar bills. He yelled an expletive at a driver who turned him away.

At 5:09 p.m., McMahon quit for the day, darted across Ocean Parkway's seven lanes with surprising agility and walked briskly east along Foster. Two blocks later, McMahon adjusted himself and quickly thrust his left arm out from under his jacket. He used both hands to count his cash.

When he realized a photographer was taking his picture, McMahon tried to hide his left arm by putting it behind his back, then spat and screamed obscenities at the lensman, threatening to kill him. "I'll put a bullet in the back of your head," he howled....

Most people, when caught red-handed in a lie, display some sort of contriteness, or at the very least, embarrassment. Only a sociopath gets angry. (Remember Bill Clinton wagging his finger at his accuser and angrily saying, "I did not have sex with that woman"?)

But we didn't even have to see that particular behavior to be apprised of McMahon's sociopathy. The essence of sociopathy is dishonesty, and there is no form of dishonesty more manipulative than to pose as something one is not, in order to gain either plaudits or sympathy. But McMahon poses as an armless man. A cripple. And a Viet Nam vet. None of which he is. All to manipulate others' emotions and take advantage of them.

(Where else have we heard this recently? Oh, that's right, Richard Blumenthal, who is running for U.S. Senator. Of course, he doesn't want your money, just your vote.)

Most of us would be too ashamed to cadge money -- or votes -- from strangers under such false pretexts. We'd also be fearful of the hatred which would accrue were we caught. But sociopaths don't feel shame, nor are they fearful of social censure.

That is the key to the behavior of more people than you realize. Next time you come across someone who gets angry when you catch them red-handed, be aware that they have a whole list of other loathsome traits which you really don't want to uncover one by one. They are impulsive, disloyal, extremely manipulative, and wildly egotistical and egocentric. Most importantly, no matter now much they pretend otherwise, they care no more for you than you care for the well-being of the meat on your plate. 
Which is basically how they regard you.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Finally, that proverbial headline

This article appeared in the NY Post today:

Connecticut man bitten by police dog bites back

When a man in West Haven, Conn., was bitten by a police dog after attacking an officer, he bit the dog back.

Roderick Lewis, 23, allegedly approached a police officer on a West Haven street early Thursday morning and yelled out "I need a bag of dust," referring to the drug phencyclidine, also known as angel dust or PCP.

Lewis walked toward the officer, Scott Bloom, and reached into his waistband. When Bloom grabbed the man's arms to restrain him, Lewis punched the officer in the face, WVIT-TV reported Friday.

Onyx, the police dog, jumped from Bloom’s vehicle and attacked Lewis, latching onto his leg, but Lewis bit back -- he chomped down on the dog's side and did not release his bite until Bloom could pull him off Onyx.

Lewis was charged with assault on a police officer, disorderly conduct and cruelty to animals, while Bloom and Onyx were treated for their injuries.

Too bad they probably don't have a tape of the encounter, they could have sold it to one of those nature shows as an animal fight.

Then again, while Mr. Lewis doesn't sound like the most upstanding citizen, I'm not sure he should be charged with cruelty to animals: after all, the dog bit him first.

Mr. Teleprompter

(President Obama speaking to elementary school students in Falls Church, Virginia)

Barack Obama's reliance on Teleprompters has become legendary. He is the first President to even use them for press conferences. Even W, stumbling and inarticulate as he was, didn't use them there. One must admire, however, whoever it is who can write Obama's answers so quickly in response to the questions asked.

Even Chris Matthews, the MSNBC host who famously felt shivers going up his leg when he heard Obama speak during the Presidential campaign, is put off. The other day he disgustedly said that when Obama has a meeting with a group of business leaders at the White House, he brings in the Teleprompter so he can talk to them. Matthews asked, "What's the point of even having a meeting with them if all he's going to do is speak from the Teleprompter? There's no connection there."

From shivers to contempt, in less than two years. And on MSNBC, no less.

The Wizard of Oz no longer looms as large in our collective culture as it once did. But one has to wonder if those elementary school students were reminded of the movie while listening to Obama read from the teleprompter in their classroom:

"Pay no attention to that man behind the screen! I am the great and powerful Oz!"

At least the Wizard wrote his own lines.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The velvet rope

There was a reference in this morning's NY Times TV listings to some fashionable fellow who had never seen a velvet rope he hadn't been able to negotiate. It reminded me of an experience I had around twenty-five years ago with such a barrier.

A new nightclub had opened up in lower Tribeca, within walking distance of where I worked. It had just opened up and therefore attracted the kind of crowd which always wanted to try the latest, hottest thing. A friend ( and I happened to be in the vicinity and, curious about the club, got in line outside the little barrier they had erected (it may have been a velvet rope, I can't remember exactly).

We were never picked to go in. Others were whisked by; we were studiously ignored. Many of those let in were actually good-looking women, who of course always get through in such situations. But various men, most dressed in hipper clothes than the business suits my friend and I wore, were also whisked by.

Eventually my friend gave voice to the thought that had been lurking in back of my mind but which I hadn't wanted to acknowledge yet: "They're not going to give us a second look."

It was pure humiliation.

There are five stages you go through when this happens to you -- not entirely unlike Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's widely-cited five stages of grief.

The first is frustration. ("C'mon, I'm getting impatient just standing here.")

The second is disbelief. ("He must not have noticed me.")

Next is anger. ("Who does he think he is?")

Next is outrage combined with compensatory conceit. ("I'm smarter, richer, a better athlete than that loser. How dare he judge me!")

The fifth, and final step, is justification. ("Oh well, I'm leading a pretty good life and that lowlife is never going to be anything but a doorman.")

The problem is, the doorman has the last laugh, because your private thoughts regarding him remain private -- unless you're truly compulsive.

Of course, the best therapy is, as always, a really lousy memory.

The life I've lived, and the memory I'm cursed with, I could write an entire book on rejection. Maybe I should. It would probably sell.

Then again, it would probably just be rejected by the publishers like every other book I've written in the last ten years.


(above, Tyler Clementi; at right, Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei)

The suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi after his roommate secretly recorded him having a gay tryst and then streamed that recording on the internet has attracted must attention recently. Some are demanding that Clementi's roommate, Dharun Ravi and his accomplice Molly Wei be charged with manslaughter and receive sentences of up to ten years.

There have been other similar cases recently: thirteen-year-old Seth Walsh, from Tehachapi, California, hung himself in his backyard after classmates teased him about his sexual orientation. Gay teenagers are evidently four times more likely to commit suicide; certainly there should be protections for the vulnerable against this kind of bullying.

But it's hard not to wonder about the nature of the punishment warranted here. What if Tyler Clementi had not committed suicide, but had merely laughed off this intrusion into his privacy? What would be the appropriate punishment for the other two be in that case? Explusion from school? There certainly wouldn't be any calls for ten year jail sentences. But had Clementi laughed them off, their crime would have been no different than it was: a grotesque invasion of his privacy. Ravi and Wei had no idea he was going to commit suicide after they exposed him. They thought they were playing an ordinary practical joke. It was certainly an insensitive and cruel joke, but it could have turned out relatively harmlessly had Clementi not reacted so dramatically.

Neither of the the two culprits looks like a prototypical bully. In fact, both look more like types more likely to be bullied themselves. But the internet has allowed technological skill to replace physical dominance as a vehicle for harassment. This raises the question of exactly what constitutes bullying. Is it bullying when someone makes fun of someone else? It would seem that one person's bullying is another person's well-deserved putdown. Do pretentious people not deserve to be put down? I recently made fun of artist Richard Serra in this blog. What if, Serra, in a depressive mood, happened to stumble across this blog and then committed suicide? Would I be guilty of bullying? Should I be charged with manslaughter? (Three guesses as to where I alight on this issue.) Making fun of some pretentious public person is a far cry from invading a closeted gay boy's privacy. But what of the classmates of the 13 year old boy who hanged himself in Tehachapi? They didn't invade his privacy, they merely mocked him; should they be charged with manslaughter?

What if, after seeing that his secret gay tryst had been exposed, Clementi had merely punched Ravi in the face? Wouldn't we all cheer this well-deserved comeuppance? But then of course Clementi would have been guilty of aggravated assault, and he would have been the one to be legally liable for what most of us would regard as a perfectly understandable outburst. And what if, when Clementi punched his roommate, his roommate had then run out of the room (without Clementi pursuing him), and in the process of doing so, slipped, broken his neck, and died? Then Clementi would be the villain of the piece, and would undoubtedly be incarcerated -- even though this would have been a direct outgrowth of a reaction we were all cheering for a moment ago.

Outcomes cannot always be predicted.

And what of Clementi's partner in that gay tryst? His name hasn't been aired, which is as it should be. But what has his reaction been? He is probably saddened by Tyler's death, outraged by the invasion of his privacy, and gratified that Ravi and Wei are now going to be punished severely. But he himself hasn't committed suicide; he evidently has a more sturdy temperament. Are Ravi and Wei less culpable in his case?

And what other factors may have led to Clementi's drastic action? He undoubtedly had a history that predisposed him to suicide. Is it possible that his father at some point communicated a visceral disgust for homosexuals and Tyler was afraid of coming out for that reason? Does his father bear some responsibility here? And what of the high school classmates who may have picked on Clementi for being a wimpy violin player? Did they contribute to his state of mind -- and thus this tragic outcome -- as well? If Ravi and Wei are to be charged with manslaughter, these others might as well be charged as accomplices.

Ravi and Wei should be expelled from Rutgers and charged with the applicable laws regarding invasion of privacy. And they richly deserve whatever social ostracism is coming their way. But they are not responsible for Clementi's fragile emotional state, and should not be charged with manslaughter.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Riddle #2

Guy just sent another riddle in response:

You have a fox, a chicken and a bag of corn.  You need to get them to the other side of the river.  You can only take one at a time.  If you leave the chicken alone with corn, he will eat the corn.  If you leave the fox alone with the chicken, he will eat the chicken.

How do you do it?

If you want the answer to this one, scroll down:

The key to this one is that you can bring any of them back as well as across the river. One answer would be to bring the chicken across the river, return to get the fox, drop the fox off and pick up the chicken, return with the chicken, then drop it off and pick up the corn, bring the corn across, and finally return to pick up the chicken.


Q: There are two Indian tribes in Montana. One is the Whitefeet, who always tell the truth. The other is the Blackfeet, who always lie. You are hiking, and come to a fork in the road. Down one path lies the treasure you've been looking for, and down the other, a man-eating grizzly and certain death. An Indian stands at the fork in the road, but you don't know which tribe he's from. You get to ask him one question to find out which path to take. What question do you ask him?

I pretty much ruined a dinner party the other night by posing this riddle. All conversation stopped and everybody spent the rest of their meal trying to get the answer.

If you want the answer, scroll down:

You ask the Indian, "If you were a member of the other tribe, and I were to ask you which is the safe path, what would you tell me?" Then, whichever path he indicates, take the other one. Because a Whitefoot would tell you the truth about a Blackfoot's lie, and a Blackfoot would lie about the Whitefoot's honest answer, so whichever tribe the fellow you're talking to is from, he'll give you the wrong answer.