Tea For The Tillerson – Poison Variety

Pompeo is here!

“Can’t sleep after my plane ride back from Africa,” Rex Tillerson was overhead to mumble. “Guess I’ll check the Twitter to see what my moron of a boss is up to. Oops…”

Although being dispatched in such an impersonal and cowardly manner is no doubt vexing for the former Exxon CEO, Tillerson will nevertheless depart having left his mark upon the White House. At President Trump’s request, the diplomatic reception room is being redone to reflect Trump’s well-known fondness for rococo kitsch. (And no, Rococo Kitsch is not the name of another porn star.)

On order for display is a Butter Rex Tillerson to replace Real Rex Tillerson, rendered by the Pennsylvania Welders’ Union (Auxilliary Branch), and guaranteed to contain nothing but 100% pure, unadulterated butter. It will, however, contain fewer calories than Real Rex Tillerson, and after the initial outlay of $48,173 will require less upkeep than having Real Rex Tillerson hanging around forever.

Under the new design plan, Butter Rex Tillerson will stand directly opposite Bagel Gary Cohn — a Gary Cohn replica sculpted entirely from swirled bagel parts.

“We have to keep them in separate corners,” explained White House decorator Tham Kannalikham. “If Butter Rex Tillerson and Bagel Gary Cohn were to touch, it could trigger fusion and blow the universe apart.”

The choice of Mike Pompeo for Secretary of State is seen as an unusual move by some Washington insiders, but a natural development by others reading the Trumpian tea leaves. Though the cup may be bitter for Rex Tillerson, it’s sweet for Gina Haspell who takes over at CIA. We guess the promotion to head boy feels like something less than torture to her. On hearing the news, she reportedly broke into an extraordinary rendition of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” But her first chore may be stuffing Rex Tillerson in a coffin for shipment back to Bartonville — a town in Texas named for Barton Fink.

As for Mike Pompeo, when asked if he was fully prepared, the Secretary Designate replied that he had been gently laid over a bed of dill sprigs, covered in lemon slices, and expected to be delicious upon reaching a temperature of 145 degrees.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Trump’s America: Teachers With Guns

Teachers don’t want to become policemen or engage in shootouts with psychos carrying AR-15s. Most teachers want fewer guns, not more. But the arm-our-teachers “solution” is cynically designed to boost gun sales.

The emotions of the moment are overpowering, and I feel them. But we should continue to look at the underlying structural issues: There are AR-15s in our schools because there’s too much money in politics. To get the guns out of our schools, we need to get the money out of politics. Otherwise, on key issues where the American people are largely united — like sensible gun laws — the politicians will vote against the people and side with the gun manufacturers, who contribute millions of dollars to their campaign coffers.

What is this if not rampant corruption? And who took a record (indeed, staggering) amount of money from the NRA in 2016? Donald Trump. He took 30 million dollars.

Too much money in politics clearly leads to a breakdown in our democratic process such that our votes mean less and less, because the politicans end up being de facto employees of their large corporate donors. Long term, we need a Supreme Court which recognizes that the problem of money in politics is a fundamental threat to our democracy — a Supreme Court which will hand down decisions limiting money in politics and curbing corrupt practices.

Otherwise, we’ll continue to have the best democracy money can buy.

Here’s another reason why teachers with guns is a bad idea: In kids’ lives, there’s a strong distinction between nurturing figures and authoritarian figures. Troubled kids open up to teachers who are nurturing and non-threatening, not teachers who seem like part of the security state. The functions of teachers and policemen need to be kept separate and distinct.

(A short clip from the TV series Boston Public exploring the issue of teachers with guns)

Again, there’s been a rash of church shootings, so maybe all the priests should be armed. Then when you confess to stealing your sister’s raisin collection, you won’t know whether to expect Hail Marys or a hail of gunfire!

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Political Potpourri for Presidents Day 2018

Donald Trump tweets, Scott Pruitt fires his food-taster, and unboxing the new MAGA buckets set to replace food stamps. Plus sleepy reflections on Trump’s State of the Union, and another tribute to Anthony Scaramucci.

Trump’s tweet solution no solution at all

To the budding satirist, Trump’s latest tweetstorms provide an embarrassment of riches. In one Who’s Afraid of Virginia Trump? entry, he has the Russians “laughing their asses off.” The burden of responding to it all becomes too great, which I suppose is the point: Massive outrage fatigue, and late night comedians collapsing under the strain of too much delectable raw material. Atonal music and riots in the streets.

Trump’s tweeted “solution” to gun violence of simply reporting troubled people to “the authorities” assumes that “the authorities” really care, and have both the knowledge and resources to stop a person like Nikolas Cruz before he goes postal. Who is the highest authority in our land? Some would say Donald Trump. But is Trump in control himself? Does he have real solutions to complex problems? If you reported Nikolas Cruz to Donald Trump, Trump would probably send him to Guantanamo. Problem averted, you say. But people with unpopular political views might also end up in Guantanamo. “The authorities” sometimes turn out to be jackbooted thugs, even in America. Not all of them, but enough of them that our security forces can be subverted — turned in the direction of fascism by bad leadership at the top. The president sets the tone.

I have no experience with immigration issues, but some would say this is happening now with ICE. Hateful, anti-immigrant attitudes on the part of Trump filter down to enforcement officers, who then feel justified enforcing the rules in a harsh and inhumane manner, sending the signal that there’s a war on immigrants and America is not a friendly place to visit (unless you’re of Normegian stock).

America has the potential to be a light to other nations, but it also goes through dark, Nixonian periods when people are rightly afraid of “the authorities.” According to historian Jon Meecham, comparing Trump to Nixon is unfair to Nixon.

Scott Pruitt fires food-taster

We’ve grown accustomed to administration officials hitting the scandal sheets with their lavish travel, fondness for tobacco stocks, and photo ops running their begloved hands languidly through great steaming piles of money.

It should come as no surpise, then, that EPA chief Scott Pruitt recently fired his food-taster. It was not a cost-cutting measure. When reached for comment, Pruitt explained the move thusly:

“I have very sensitive taste buds, and need a food-taster who will suss out not just poisons, but also ingredients which lack the perfect freshness I desire. My old food-taster, Hermione, who is now in intensive care at Walter Reed Medical, was good with poisons, and saved me on a number of occasions when radical environmentalists tried to spike my ambrosia breakfast with life-threatening chemicals. Now, I have nothing against life-threatening chemicals, but they don’t make a good mix with pâté de foie gras. My new chef– I mean food-taster, Louie, is an expert in all matters culinary. He knows how to ensure that my favourite dish — dolphin prepared with just a soupçon of powdered rhinocerous horn, in a light, sweet, crude sauce — has only the freshest ingredients and will not interfere with my delicate constitution. I can but add: Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship!”

Pilot program to swap food stamps for MAGA buckets

I was fortunate to be chosen for a new pilot program initiated by Donald Trump which seeks to replace the old food stamps with a government-issued bucket of foodstuffs whose contents never vary:

– Chicken McNuggets*
– MAGA hat
– copy of Hustler

(*Requests by vegetarians for Eggplant McNuggets have been soundly rejected by administration officials.)

As one of the first to sample the new MAGA bucket, I can confidently say that it takes the notion of gubment cheese to unparalleled new heights. Like the army’s MREs or “meals ready to eat” (sometimes dubbed MRVs or “meals ready to vomit”), the new MAGA bucket will assault your folk and pop sensibilities!

The Mooch is back, and Cuomo’s got him

Just when you hoped you’d finally seen the last of Anthony Scaramucci, he turns up again on Chris Cuomo’s new (well, old) primetime miniseries on CNN. Fresh from his Broadway stint in the musical version of Goodfellas, Scaramucci’s appearance coincided with the news that Donald Trump gave the order to fire special counsel Robert Mueller last June, but had to demur when White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to resign.

Scaramucci poo-pooed Trump’s legal culpability, but seemed more interested in selling vacation packages for Davos, Switzerland, where the uber-rich go to escape the merely rich. Scaramucci’s return to major media is worthy of a song:

Tony The Mooch (to the tune of “Minnie The Moocher”)

Folks, here’s the story ’bout Tony the Mooch
He really up and screwed the pooch
Was only hired to vex Reince Priebus
Once that was done he had to leave us.

Blue mirrored shades and blind ambition
No sense of conscience, no contrition
He said: “I want to kill those nasty leakers,”
“Or make them smell my dirty sneakers.”
But here’s the truth, and it’s a corker:
He leaked his guts to the New Yorker!

Hi-dee-hi-dee-hi-dee-hi (Hi-dee-hi-dee-hi-dee-hi)
Ho-dee-ho-dee-ho-dee-ho (Ho-dee-ho-dee-ho-dee-ho)
Hee-dee-hee-dee-hee-dee-hee (Hee-dee-hee-dee-hee-dee-hee)
Hi-dee-hi-dee-hi-dee-ho (Hi-dee-hi-dee-hi-dee-ho)

He had a dream about the King of Trumpland
He’d be the Mooch’s money pump man
He’d buy him oil wells from Plains to Charlotte
The Mooch would be Trump’s fawning harlot.

The plot was hatched and Mooch took over
It looked like he was in the clover
His praise for Donald waxed effusive
But soon his language grew abusive.
He nearly won, but had to spoil it
‘Cause Tony had a mouth as foul as a toilet.

Hi-dee-hi-dee-hi-dee-hi (Hi-dee-hi-dee-hi-dee-hi)
Whoa! (Whoa!)
Hee-dee-hee-dee-hee-dee-hee (Hee-dee-hee-dee-hee-dee-hee)
Hi-dee-hi-dee-hi-dee-ho (Hi-dee-hi-dee-hi-dee-ho)

Trump’s State of the Union

From posts like this one, the reader might glean that I come from an arts and spirituality background, not so much politics. Watching Trump’s State of the Union speech, I found myself getting rather depressed. The stories he told to score political brownie points struck me as surreal and grotesque — like things you might read in a supermarket tabloid. I countered by passively-aggressively falling asleep.

On the fringes of consciousness, I suppose I transformed some of his stories in my mind. There was the North Korean who was persecuted for stealing a kumquat. His head was chopped off, yet he didn’t die. He was found by a Christian missionary, who placed his head on a roller-skate and gave him a push in the direction of China. When he got to China, he proceeded to construct a Christian cathedral entirely out of chopsticks. The Chinese didn’t like it and put a bounty on his head. So he roller-skated all the way to South Korea and became a famous radio DJ.

I admit the details may be off, but that’s the sort of story Trump delivered in a tired, plodding manner, reading disinterestedly from a teleprompter. I found it depressing and highly alienating.

Afterwards, some commentators gave him good marks, and suggested that the stories he told were emotionally moving. I wish I could have been moved, but the surreal and grotesque nature of the stories, plus their lifeless delivery, made me feel sad that I am other than those for whom the stories evidently had meaning. My review coming from an arts and spirituality background is that the State of the Union was a depressing spectacle with no connection to reality, no life-breath, and no genuine insight into the things which creative people aspire to.

I’m sorry, but I just can’t live in Donald Trump’s reality. Maybe if somebody painted the walls a brighter color, and let in a little sunshine… And the bedding could use airing out! Is that a Chicken McNugget I see peering out from between the sheets? Flanked by a MAGA hat and…

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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The Gospel Truth About Congress

Celebrating POETS day with an ode to our underworked legislators, and blues, gospel, and jazz. Musings about art, media collage, and the nature of reality.

For the second time in less than a month, the U.S. Congress managed to shut down the government late Thursday night, by failing to fund it. Then, by about 5:30 a.m. both the House and Senate had passed the necessary funding bill for Donald Trump to sign when he woke up — in between defoliating his eyebrows and sticking new pins in his Katy Tur doll. (What that mean, what that mean?)

At one time in the hoary past, Congress harboured the quaint notion that it was their duty to pass carefully crafted budgets. More recently, they’ve taken to making do by passing a series of stopgap funding measures known as continuing resolutions or CR’s. These are hard to fathom, stuffed with pork, and no one reads them anyway. The whole process has become farcical (thus steering it into my natural territory!).

Since they were up all night having adventures, I guess congresspeople were glad to finally adjourn and beat it out of town for the weekend. They are legendary celebrants of nothing if not POETS day, i.e. “Push off early, tomorrow’s Saturday.” While celebrants in Britain and Australia consider it proper to depart by 3:30 p.m. Friday, the U.S. Congress leaves nothing to chance. A Friday train disaster or invasion of midgets might derail their plans for the weekend, so best leave on Thursday and not come back till Tuesday next. Their departure reminds me of this bit of doggerel I penned a few years back:

The moving finger writes O Lord,
And having writ takes five;
So as this Congress now adjourns,
We thank God we’re alive.
We’re glad you didn’t strike us dead
Or cleave our tongues in two;
So many things you could have done,
But kindly didn’t do.
But most of all, O Gracious Lord
We thank you for the pork
Which thanks to CR feeding time
Now drips from every fork.
The rumours reach us now and then
Of hunger in the streets;
But we’re content to roam these halls
And milk the public teats.

I think it would best be recited in a deep, serious basso profundo like that possessed by Senate Chaplain extraordinaire Dr. Barry Black:

Here’s another good basso profundo:

And while we’re on the subject of politicans, scandalizing, and backbiting, here’s one from Bessie Smith:

Moving forward a few decades, how about John Coltrane: “Spiritual”

There’s a Church of John Coltrane which has survived for nigh on fifty years, but is threatened by gentrification. Still, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if their goal was to pray ceaselessly, to make praying as natural as breathing. This brings us full circle, back to Dr. Barry Black:

Another basso profundo with a slow and steady style was the late Sen. Everett Dirksen. In an unusual cultural inversion, he was so square that he actually become hip:

Well, we’ve wandered a bit, but wasn’t it worth it? Wasn’t it fun?

These different connections create what’s sometimes called a “tangled hierarchy.” Sen. Dirksen praising The Monitors in a sci-fi flick from 1969 is an inflection point where we can stop and ask ourselves what the topic-at-hand is. The answer is that there really isn’t one. The fun is in the connections or kaleidoscopic movement of different elements hitting off each other, creating some kind of multidimensional pattern that’s too vast to describe or explain. We can only experience it.

Populist media often use framing to manipulate us and force us down a narrow channel of perception. Buy this! Vote for that! But when we connect media sources more freely, they begin to act as frames for each other. Reality begins to look like a rich, multi-layered tapestry woven of many kinds of fabric, in which we can yet perceive certain shared themes.

The truth that can be told simply and easily in a 30-second cable news segment is a dumbed-down truth — hardly a truth at all. In their richness, the arts have the potential to reveal more profound truths.

The 1960s comprised a new phase in the history of civilization in which many cultures, many views of reality, were colliding. It’s no coincidence that this gave rise, in the arts, to collage forms where it was up to the viewer or listener to respond to the sum total of what was being presented — not necessarily with a logical conclusion, but perhaps simply by giving himself/herself over to the experience of it.

This is related to a field of study which I’ve tried in my way to comprehend: hermeneutics. At its simplest, Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics implies that we each see reality through our own horizon, but that we can collide with other realities, other horizons, other frames, and so become more deeply aware. This stepping out of ourselves to become the whole universe and all of history is at once an aesthetic and a spiritual experience.

To express this in art is not always easy, and may result in dense, difficult works which require some effort to understand, such as James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.

Back in the early 1970s, I remember hearing composer Eric Saltzman’s avant-garde work The Nude Paper Sermon — a multi-layered sound collage (he disputes this term) in which different kinds of music and texts are superimposed. In its way, it’s like a modern multi-track version of Finnegan’s Wake. In the original liner notes for the Nonesuch recording, Saltzman writes:

The Nude Paper Sermon is about the end of the Renaissance — the end of an era and the beginning of another.

Therefore it is about old and new means of communication, about verbal and non-verbal sound, about the familiar and the unknown, about human activity and the new technologies. It is not a “neo-classic” work nor is it a collage; rather it is “post-modern-music, post-modern art, post-style,” a multi-layer sound drama that is itself an example of the kinds of experience which it interprets and expresses: the transformation of values and tradition through the impact of the new technologies.

Recording technology makes all possible musical and sonic experiences of the external world raw material and even, increasingly, part of a common culture. Multi-track, multi-layer experience becomes the norm: Ravi Shankar, John Cage, the Beatles, Gregorian chant, electronic music, Renaissance madrigals and motets, Bob Dylan, German Lieder, soul, J. S. Bach, jazz, Ives, Balinese gamelan, Boulez, African drumming, Mahler, gagaku, Frank Zappa, Tchaikovsky, Varèse . . . all become part of the common shared experience. Recording technology also transforms that which it communicates: it makes all music part of the present and in so doing changes it. There is nothing inherently good or bad about this; technology can liberate and it can oppress. But there is no running away any more; we must master what can oppress us, learn how to use it to create and liberate.

The words of the piece are taken from John Ashbery’s Three Madrigals (texts for soloists and chorus) and The Nude Paper Sermon by Steven Wade (texts for actor). The latter, produced especially for this work, is written to suggest the contemporary verbal barrage, that endless language stream of all those who use words to manipulate others: preacher, politician, TV personality, professor, newscaster, even poet. The actor’s part is a kind of scoring imposed by composer and performer on fragments of text that are used emotively and as a kind of symbology. At times words dominate, at times they are submerged, at times a precarious balance, interaction, or interweaving is maintained.

By and large, printed texts would be beside the point; spoken language — heard and overheard, comprehensible and incomprehensible, clear, elusive, simple, complex, logical, mystifying — is the subject matter here. Perhaps one printed text is in order, however: that part of one of Ashbery’s madrigals which has a traditional structure but is made out of a series of word images and verbal snapshots. It occurs near the very beginning of the work and is set as a kind of Renaissance ruin — real fake Renaissance music (“why don’t composers write like that any more?”) overlaid with electronic graffiti:

Not even time shall efface
The bent disk
And the wicked shores snore
Far from the divining knell!

Read the full liner notes here: The Nude Paper Sermon and Wiretap – Booklet for the CD reissue (PDF)

Parts of the John Ashbery poem stuck in my mind forever: And the wicked shores snore/ Far from the divining knell! So true, but what does it mean?

Forgive the tangent, but people tend to assume there is either sense or nonsense. Yet, beyond what makes logical prose sense, there are infinite gradations and colorations of abstraction. This is easier to understand in the visual arts than in language arts. A painting is, by its very nature, an abstract representation of something; though admittedly, some painters tried to do little more than capture their subjects with lifelike realism.

Still, it’s easy to imagine how painters, in a new era of photography where they no longer needed to be slaves to realism, could gradually relax their grip and drift by degrees toward abstraction. But because we use language almost entirely for practical purposes, we may be quick to dismiss any impractical formulation of words as simply “nonsense.”

John Ashbery’s poems are not nonsense. They often contain exquisitely crafted passages which verge on meaning, and tend to create pictures in the mind, but ultimately defy logic. That is their charm.

In dreams we visit many places, many states of consciousness. Some dreams are like parodies of reality itself, from which we wake up laughing. It’s so much like those wicked shores to snore, being as they are, far from the divining knell…

By the late 1960s, not all sound collages and abstract poetic constructions were confined to an audience of avowed avant-gardists. As Robert Worby points out in this Guardian article, borrowed texts and sounds from short or long-wave radio became part of the new language explored by the Beatles and their producer George Martin. A classic example is the song “I Am The Walrus,” which owes some of its expressiveness to a closing collage with bits of King Lear nicked from an AM radio tuned to the BBC.

Musicians are fascinated by sound, influenced by sound, view the world in terms of sound, and (according to David Amram) symphony artists often have voices which resemble the instruments they play.

Eric Saltzman passed away in 2017, and his New York Times obit included this passage:

Mr. Salzman, among his many side interests, was an avid birder, and particularly favored the song of the elusive hermit thrush.

“The other thrushes are baroque artists, constantly elaborating, reworking and adding to their showy repertoire,” he wrote on his website. “The hermit thrush is a classicist, working on the principle of less is more, multum in parvo. Constantly changing variations appear within a simple, firm musical framework. Complex chords and high overtones climb and resonate between the tree trunks to create a sense of space and depth: a song in three — no, four — dimensional space that seems to speak of eternal things.”

To the mystic, everything is God; to the composer, everything is music; to the painter, all reality a collection of shapes and colours. That is as it should be. And to the collage artist (or maker of home brew mashups), each media source has greater meaning when it collides and refracts with other media sources. The ultimate meaning is supplied by the viewer or listener.

This post isn’t really about Congress, or gospel music. It’s more a survey of reality, reflecting on different media sources which may have something in common. Seeing the connections between things is often more interesting and satisfying than trying to wring out of them some trite prose conclusion about which one can say: lesson learned. How much more enjoyable to say: experience noted!

Backtracking to planet earth and the prosaic meaning of this post, I admit that my poem takes a rather bleak and sardonic view of Congress. In truth, there are some good people there — people of integrity without whom things would be far worse than they are. In between Congressional baseball games and Congressional turkey shoots (the two are sometimes combined for efficiency’s sake), Congress does occasionally turn its attention to doing the people’s business. (Some committees specialise in minding other people’s business. Trey Gowdy, do not ask for whom the bell tolls! What’s that committee called? The House Overbite Committee? “There’s been some backbiting goin’ on.” Meanings refract and collide!)

I’m trying really hard to close by saying some good things about Congress, but am not in the proper mood. Okay, when push came to shove, they actually did manage to nearly impeach Richard Nixon. (Hint, hint.)

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

The Gospel Truth – Video Annex

Michael Stanley: “Poet’s Day” (lyrics here)

Van Morrison: “Summertime In England” (lyrics here)

The Church of Saint Coltrane:

Gandharva Loka Orchestra: “Ai, Ai, Ai Chandra Taraka” (lyrics here)

Eric Saltzman: The Nude Paper Sermon Part 1 (YouTube)
Eric Saltzman: The Nude Paper Sermon Part 2 (YouTube)

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Donald Trump’s Fave New Fast Food: The Nothingburger

Though Trump TV continues to hose it down with gallons of special sauce and haul in truckloads of onions, the memo Trump hoped would somehow discredit the Mueller investigation has turned out to be a huge, gaping, humongous, colossal, double-with-cheese-and-hot-apple-pie-on-the-side, supersized nothingburger.

That may not dissuade Trump and congressional Republicans from continuing to scarf it down like beer nuts and force-feed it to anyone whose jaws are not firmly wired shut. But even a dish so lacking in substance may have unforseen health consequences. For as Bob Dylan so wisely penned in 1967: Too much of nothing can make a man feel ill at ease.

As for the women named in the song and the instruction to “send them all my salary,” I think Trump’s already halfway there with the Stormy Daniels blowup. No shortage of buns around the nothingburger, but each day El Presidente edges closer to “the waters of oblivion.” Hand puppetry is just around the corner.

Do you have a favourite dud meme? I think mine is from an episode of M*A*S*H:

As in the above clip, turns out what we’re dealing with is a propaganda bomb devised by idiots.

Even a wet, runny blister of growth compost couldn’t salvage the Nunes memo, and last I checked he wasn’t offering fries. He has, however, been skanked while he slept.

If queried on the memo, future historians can do no better than to quote the Roches’ elegant summary: “It was a big nuthin’.” I guess I just never knew how big nuthin’ could be!

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Is Donald Trump a Sharkophobe?

Political potpourri, Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway, Saturday Night Live, C.S. Lewis, and a cast of hobos, freegans, nouveau riche, and would-be murderers

There’s an old saying that those with excessive fear of sharks may have leanings in that direction themselves. As a New York real estate guy, and later TV mogul and low-rent politician, Donald Trump has exhibited his share of sharklike behavior. The precise alchemy whereby he might himself turn into a shark is at least hinted at in this passage from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis:

Just as Eustace reached the edge of the pool two things happened. First of all it came over him like a thunder-clap that he had been running on all fours—and why on earth had he been doing that? And secondly, as he bent towards the water, he thought for a second that yet another dragon was staring up at him out of the pool. But in an instant he realized the truth. The dragon face in the pool was his own reflection. There was no doubt of it. It moved as he moved: it opened and shut its mouth as he opened and shut his.

He had turned into a dragon while he was asleep. Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.

Metaphorically speaking, Donald Trump sleeps on a “dragon’s hoard” and harbors “dragonish thoughts,” but his overall tendencies strike me as more sharklike.

Despite these tendencies, Trump is on record (via pillow talk with Stormy Daniels) as wanting all sharks to die! Now, I admit that some sharks can be a bit scary, especially the underwater variety. But Trump’s zero tolerance policy would deny citizenship to that most lovable of breeds, the Land Shark. Candygram!

Listening to this description of the Land Shark, who does it remind you of?

Considered the cleverest of all sharks, unlike the Great White which tends to inhabit the waters of harbors and recreational beach areas, the Land Shark may strike at any time, any place. It is capable of disguising its voice, and generally attacks young, single women. Experts at the University of Miami’s Oceanographic Institute suggest that the best way to scare off the shark in the event of an attack is to hit or punch the predator in the nose. [Or ask Keith Schiller to intervene!]

Trump is also a germaphobe. No Angela Merkel jokes, please; it means he’s afraid if germs. But under the previous theory — well, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions…

Speaking of shark memes, Woody Allen used one to good effect in Annie Hall:

No Van Gogh, but a Golden Toilet

Trump was recently dealt a stunning blow by the art world. The Washington Post reports that his request for loan of a Van Gogh was rebuffed, but those clever wags at the Guggenheim did offer to lend him a consolation prize: a golden toilet. You can read all about it here.

Honestly, what does Trump need with a golden toilet when he already has the services of a platinum sh*tter?

In response to more news of Trump’s philandering, the Christian right has decided to give Trump a Mulligan. To non-golfers, this sounds like something from the Christopher Steele dossier. How exactly does one give a Mulligan? And how many Mulligans will it take before what we have on our hands is Mulligan stew? Maybe giving a Mulligan has something to do with Gerry Mulligan, the journeyman baritone sax player.

Gerry Mulligan, talented jazz musician and possible secret ingredient in administering a Mulligan.

Perhaps giving a Mulligan entails prodding the target with the blowing end of a baritone sax. But is Trump up for it? While inhabiting the White House, Ronald Reagan had Trouble with Polyps (not to be confused with Trouble with Tribbles). Politeness demands that we ask Trump whether administering a Mulligan would be problematic before proceeding further:

Well, there you have it! Anyone wanting to give Trump a Mulligan apparently has the go-ahead.

Sidebar: The Origins of Mulligan Stew

America is a nation of contradictions. As income disparity widens and wealth is siphoned off at the top, one is confronted by the nouveau riche, and plenty of nouveau hobos too. The concept of Mulligan stew originates with hobo culture:

Hobo stew, better known as Mulligan stew, is one of the main attractions at the Hobo Convention. Cooked in giant metal drums, hobo stew is a mixture of meat, vegetables, and whatever else people can find, borrow, or steal and is shared with anyone who wants to eat some. It can be safe to say, one is at the mercy of the cook and you eat it or go hungry.

— from “All Aboard: How Trains Shaped Small Town Iowa”

While the nomenclature may be uniquely American, the Britons have their own version of Mulligan stew, born of the lean times after World War Two when food rationing was mandatory. The Woolton pie (named after Lord Woolton) was a pie fashioned entirely of vegetables; and while a gourmet edition was noshed at the Savoy in London, your common garden variety Woolten pie may have been less savory or delectable.

Besides stews and pies, a soup with ragtag ingredients was also not unknown to would-be epicureans in postwar Britain. A televisual adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage includes this dialogue:

Miss Jane Marple: What is this, Mary?
Mary Hill: Soup.
Miss Jane Marple: Does it have a name?
Mary Hill: Bits-and-bobs-and-odds-and-sods-and-the-meat-ration’s-been-cut-again soup.

There’s also this Monty Python nonsense song, which could imply ingredients in an improvised dish:

Anything goes in,
Anything goes out;
Fish, bananas, old pyjamas,
Mutton, beef, and trout!

Such happenstance cookery brings to mind modern day freegans, who are not hobos, but who do gather their foodstuffs from what supermarkets are ready to throw out. Students in debt and the elderly poor often turn to freeganism as a way of ameliorating the high cost of food. There are solitary freegans, and others more community-minded who get together to prepare meals from shared ingredients.

Now, one thing they seemingly didn’t find was shark food. If you do happen on any shark food, please FedEx to Donald Trump c/o World Economic Summit, Davos, Switzerland. I understand they’re well-supplied with champagne and caviar, but failed to stock up on seal meat and other delicacies prized by Trumpus carcharias.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Potent Quote:

“The rich are different; they have more money.”
–based on a passage by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Unexplained Agatha Christie Ear Candy:

* * *


Just this morning I needed to contact the Department of Redundancy Department about a duplicate me who’s raiding all my pistachios. I also needed to renew my elk hunting license, as elk hunting is one of my few passions in life. And a pair of undershorts I discarded in 1977 has miraculously found its way to the Smithsonian Museum, so I wanted to check on their condition.

Much to my chagrin, I found that none of the relevant agencies were open. Apparently this is the explanation:

My fondest hope is that if and when the gub’ment does reopen, it will sport a sign saying “UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT.” The old management was surly, and Donald Trump’s pick of Stormy Daniels to be the new head of the National Weather Service is conceptually amusing, but fraught with inefficiencies.

Time to spank the Donald with the 25th Amendment!

Sidebar: Stormy Daniels Joke

Once a Chinese boatman made off with all of Stormy Daniels’ jewelry. When the police arrived, they asked if she could identify the thief. “Yes,” she said, “I can describe his junk perfectly.”

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

* * *

Trump’s Mental Fitness: An Expert Opinion

Out of the mouths of babes…

Seriously though, in my non-expert opinion there’s a simple way of understanding the problem of Donald Trump’s mental fitness. If he were an uncle you see at Thanksgiving who rants about all the immigrants being rapists or having AIDS, you’d just say “Pass the yams” and not think too much about it. You know he watches Fox News all day and was no genius to begin with, so you make allowances.

However, there’s something called situational psychosis. A classic example is the computer HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Under normal conditions, HAL would be non-threatening; but place him in an unusual situation which he wasn’t programmed to handle, and he goes dangerously apesh*t. That’s Donald Trump.

Whether or not Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury is accurate in every jot and tiddle, it reveals a large-scale scenario which is helpful and informative: Trump didn’t really expect to win the presidency, and didn’t want to. His run was designed to bolster the Trump brand and perhaps serve as a launching pad for Trump TV. It was a money-making, ego-enhancing venture at the end of which Donald Trump would still have plenty of free time for goofiness, golfiness, and grabbiness.

No one expected Trump to win, including his own family and what is jokingly referred to as his campaign staff — a motley bunch with ties to the former Soviet Union up to wazoo. Winning was both a shock and inconvenience, and also placed in bas-relief the unconventional means used to garner support — taking any help from the Kremlin that the Kremlin was willing to give (and they were willing to give plenty).

Viewed as a huge publicity stunt, Trump’s campaign for president makes sense. As the loser, he would not be subjected to much post-mortem scrutiny, and few would care that people like Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort had actually been foreign agents.

Winning threw a huge monkey wrench into the works. Not only would Trump lose much of his leisure time, but the minutiae of the campaign would be gone over with a fine-tooth comb, and any irregularities might lead to prosecution.

Most vexing of all, Trump would be thrown into a daily situation he was massively unqualified to handle. He was not a president by training or temperament, but would be forced to play one on TV — not as make-believe, but with real world consequences for every word, every tweet, and every ham-handed or bovine-brained decision.

Under those circumstances, he does exhibit signs of situational psychosis or alienation from reality. His legendary narcissism is amplified and transmuted into something far more dangerous. Rather than just getting into a p*ssing contest with Arnold Schwarzenegger over who makes a better host for The Apprentice, Trump is now trading insults with Kim Jong Un over whose nuclear button is bigger and more fully operational. Open the pod bay doors, HAL!

To use the technical terminology, Donald Trump has gone poco loco en el coco (a little crazy in the head). For your uncle at Thanksgiving, a little crazy is no big deal. But for a president with the nuclear codes, and on whose every word the free world hangs, even a little crazy is too much crazy. That’s why 25th Amendment solutions should be seriously considered to remove a man who never intended to be president, is not qualified to be president, achieved the presidency by foul means (including Russian collusion), and is daily making a mockery of the office in an infinitude of ways, such that it may take years for the US to regain its reputation in the international community.

Indeed, our Western allies have resolved to wait out the Trump presidency, viewing it as a temporary (but serious) aberration. Our closest allies, the noble Britons, want nothing to do with Donald Trump, and consider him a bad (if never-ending) joke. The sooner we rectify this aberration through constitutional means, the sooner we can once again show our faces on the world stage without fear of embarrassment.

Trump’s rampant transactionalism is apparently contagious. Republicans as a whole don’t care that he’s unstable and unfit, as long as he can be led in the direction of tax cuts for the rich, deregulation of anything that moves, gutting of consumer and environmental agencies (not to mention the State Department), and the appointment of conservative justices. But this transactionalism comes at a price: the establishment of a new normal which is unpardonably low, and which ratifies the worst suspicions about America — that it has lost all capacity for moral leadership, and has devolved into just another selfish state.

Under these circumstances, it’s imperative that lawful due process be used to end the Trump presidency before further damage is incurred. In “The case for normalizing impeachment,” Ezra Klein of Vox.com makes the point that when a president becomes seriously abnormal, impeachment should be normalized — as a reasonable choice whose consequences are not unthinkable compared to the alternative of leaving a semi-lunatic or raging incompetent in power.

Our founding fathers were intentionally vague about what constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Being a colossal screw-up and making a travesty of the office are sufficient grounds for what, at the end of the day, is a political process, not a criminal one. (Though by the end of the day, some crimes may be alleged by the special counsel.)

As a nation, our psychological dilemma is akin to that of citizens inhabiting the story The Emperor’s New Clothes. Decorum demands that they pretend to the monarch’s excellent haberdashery and sartorial splendour, but reality demands that they “take the bull by the tail and face the situation.”

Dealing squarely with the reality that we are saddled with an unfit and incompetent president may cause some national discomfort or embarrassment, but the pain is far less than that incurred from radiation sickness.

Faced with no good or pleasant choices, the lesser evil is removal of the monarch by constitutional means — unless you’re willing to hazard brushing Strontium-90 from your hair, and wearing stylish rubber underwear for the next 30 years:

(See also: “Guamanians! Test your civil defense knowledge.”)

The problems with having Donald Trump as president re-assert themselves on a daily basis; and while some may succumb to “outrage fatigue,” it’s better to recognize the problem as “Trump fatigue,” and invoke the necessary procedures to alleviate it.

As we measure out our lives in coffee spoons, do we dare to say impeach?

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Sidebar: Life after the White House

Those worried about how Trump will earn a living after being turned out of the White House need not fret. According to knowledgeable sources, Trump has already lined up a gig with NordicTrack, a firm with headquarters in Logan, Utah and having no connection to the country of Normay.

The entire Trump family will reportedly be spokesmodels for the new F-52 line of exercise equipment, code named “Javanka.” The deluxe model or “Javanka 5000” will come equipped with dual gun turrets, a drop-down pod, a vital signs monitor, a MedicAlert pendant, and a free subscription to the large print edition of Reader’s Digest. The unit will be manufactured entirely by children in a new wing of Foxconn called Foxconn Trump Tower located in Spooner, Wisconsin and sporting the latest suicide-prevention technology.

An early prototype of the Javanka 5000. Mandatory retention of user for entire cycling period not yet implemented. Water bottle not included. Some assembly required. Instructional videos available from Trump University Extension Division. Trophy wife sold separately. Infrared photo courtesy North Korean military satellite, later uploaded to WikiLeaks.

* * *

A River of Gratitude

The story of how one simple gift changed everything between Donald Trump and China’s President Xi

President Trump recently returned from a relatively successful visit to Asia — measured on a bell curve where managing not to vomit on the Japanese Prime Minister and not to start World War III are considered successes. There were few substantial gains or diplomatic breakthroughs, but no mega-gaffs either. (Possibly a few dead fish in the koi pond at Akasaka Palace, but for Trump that is coals to Newcastle.)

What should we make of the visit? On the one hand, they say travel broadens the mind. On the other hand, Japanese zen has the concept of no-mind. If Trump had no-mind to begin with, then maybe the trip didn’t broaden anything (except perhaps the national debt). Or maybe Trump’s version is “I no mind if you flatter me to pieces.”

They say there’s honour among thieves. Politicians? Not so much so. That’s why at the ASEAN summit held on November 13, Trump participated in a complicated form of handshake designed to prevent the motley collection of leaders from picking each other’s pockets while on stage together.

The ASEAN summit, and a handshake instead of a kiss.

Trump reportedly signed up for an event billed as “The Spilla in Manilla,” but chickened out when he heard his hotel room was bugged. Clad in a Barong at one point, he was mistaken for a waiter and forced to return the tips he collected from other waiters’ stations.

Trump and Duterte: Two Barongs don’t make a right (or Human Rights)

The most notable feature of the trip was the turnaround in how Trump regarded China and its newly annointed strongman President Xi Jingping. During his 2016 campaign, Trump spoke harsh words about China, accusing the nation of rapacious trade policies and vowing revenge. But after being fêted in the Forbidden City and treated to a military parade, Trump began to thaw slightly.

By the end of his China visit, Trump was singing a different tune entirely. What prompted this miraculous turnaround? It’s almost like he was ready to start passing out little red hats saying Make America Xi Again. (Not to be confused with the motto of the Ex-Lax company, which is Make America Shi– well, better not go there.) But seriously, what spurred the change?

The Chinese are gracious hosts and masters of the ceremonial, so it stands to reason that President Xi could locate just the right gift that would soften up Trump and appeal to his particular interests and proclivities. It was an audio CD that reportedly did the trick:

So next time you have a tiff with a friend (or even a head of state), think how some little gift, carefully selected, can open the floodgates of forgiveness and lead to a river of gratitude.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

* * *

Alabama Narrowly Averts Deluge of Roy Moore Jokes

We’ve all heard the digs at our Southern compatriots: Amabala – the backward state. Passing a roll of Cottonelle to the state which dares to defend its rights (and wrongs).

I know it’s not polite when Easterners rib Southerners about their “backward” culture. But it’s also not polite for Southerners to (very nearly) send the likes of Roy Moore to the Senate, where he might have voted on issues affecting the lives of everyone in the country. Moore’s proximity to the Senate understandably causes a rift in civility.

The late Andy Kaufman was, in part, a comedian. He was also a combination merry prankster and provocateur specializing in the politically incorrect. He craved intense interaction with a crowd, and stand-up comedy seemingly wasn’t doing it for him at a latter stage of his career. So he decided to become a pro wrestler.

As a wrestler, he adopted various bad guy personas, and reveled in the hatred he could generate by (for example) wrestling women, and claiming to be the Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World. In this persona, he would act like the consummate male chauvinist pig, taunting women that he was so superior to them, and they could never beat him (though occasionally they did).

When wrestling men, especially in the deep South, he adopted a different bad guy persona. He and fellow wrestler Jerry Lawler formed a partnership where Lawler would play the popular Southerner that everyone would root for, and Kaufman would play a parody of a New York Jew — which entailed him losing the match, then threatening to sue everyone in sight. But he took it much farther…

Kaufman seemed determined to tear away at any thin veneer of civility which existed between Southerners and Easterners, and to provoke a response of sheer hatred. He knew the stereotypes of Southerners that Southerners hated, and his routine entailed baiting them crudely and mercilessly until he was finally pounded by Lawler (to the crowd’s delight).

Kaufman would bait Southerners live in the ring, or in pre-recorded TV segments meant to drum up publicity for matches. He gave the crowd their money’s worth. They loved to hate him, and loved it when Lawler would finally use the “Piledriver” (his patented move) to finish Kaufman off. If it looked like Lawler had broken Kaufman’s neck, so much the better.

What was the abuse that Kaufman heaped on Southerners that made them want to see Jerry Lawler break his neck?

It was all theatre or a strange kind of comedy, but you wonder who was or wasn’t in on the joke.

Anyway, if Amabala had sent us Roy Moore, what could one do but pass them a roll of Cottonelle, possibly with an instruction manual using pictographs only?

Let’s hope the Old South is truly dead and buried (or at least resting comfortably), and that the election of Doug Jones is a harbinger of the New South marching in the general vicinity of the twenty-first century!

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Of Further Interest

Kaufman and Lawler continue their feud on Letterman (YouTube)

* * *

Of Goobers and Gobbers

If the Donald’s tweets are to be believed, gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie failed to “embrace” Dear Leader, and so suffered a shocking defeat. He mother no love him anymore!

I pity people learning English as a second language. (I pity myself, but that’s another story.) Where does “gubernatorial” come from? It always reminds me of, well…

Mr. Peanut, the original “goobernatorial” candidate

Still, I suppose some candidates are bigger goobers than others. Some are bigger gobbers than others. Remember Gobber Newhouse?

With a feeling of disbelief I recognised Gobber Newhouse. I had had previous experience of his disregard for the licensing laws and it was clear he had been at it again. … He reeled up the aisle, turned, to my dismay, into our row, rested briefly on Helen’s lap, trod on my toe and finally spread his enormous carcass over the seat on my left.

— James Herriot, from All Creatures Great and Small

Enter the Gobber Newhouse lookalike contest and win a free MAGA hat! (Ability to slobber all over oneself not strictly required.)

Gobber Newhouse played by Ivor Salter

* * *

Breaking: Trump Opens New Golf Course on Indian Land

“This is a line of Indians leaving Rancho Malario. To make room for you! Here’s the beautiful Trail of Tears Golf Course…”

Full comedy album here.

More About The Firesign Theatre

“Classic comedy album a Firesign of the times” (Boston Globe)

Note: The album title in question admits of seasonal variations. Now that the Trumpster claims to be resuscitating Christmas, one might say “Don’t crush that crèche, hand me the pliers.” Something to think about while eating at Papa John’s. (Don’t!)

* * *

Schiller’s Ode To Trump (rude song parody)

Keith Schiller, Trump’s former body man, testified before Congress last week. He sang, but not quite in the expected manner. Giving it a Beethovenian blush, his testimony went something like this:

Schiller’s Ode To Trump (libretto)

All these rumors are mistaken,
Don’t believe the dossier;
True, the Russians offered playmates,
But the Donald would not play.

Allen Menschen have their foibles,
All are steeped in Kompromat;
Trumpster is my Daddy Warbucks,
I will be his laundromat.

(Joined by a chorus of Congressional Republicans)
Allen Menschen have their foibles,
All are steeped in Kompromat;
Trumpster is our Daddy Warbucks,
We will be his laundromat.
His laundromat, his laundromat!

Never was a ruffle,
No behaviour unbehoovia;
No sign of those naughty ladies,
No trace of effluvia.

Never was a ruffle,
No behaviour unbehoovia;
No sign of those naughty ladies,
No trace of effluvia.
Effluvia, effluvia!

Known to be a celibate
From Texas to Tralfamadore,
Donald Trump is Mr. Clean
And I’m the one who mops the floor.

Hailed as a gentleman
Who only plays with shuttlecocks,
Donald is my president
And I will wash his dirty socks.

His dirty socks, his dirty socks,
Yes we will wash his dirty socks!

Trumpster is a little lamb,
No girl would need a chaperone;
Leaving off the time that he
Had coitus with a Sousaphone.

A Sousaphone, a Sousaphone,
Had coitus with a Sousaphone!

* * *

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization. No Sousaphones were harmed in the making of this post.

Ruminations on Trump’s Visit to Japan

Updated! From “No Gate” to “Fishgate,” with stopovers to sing the Jet Jaguar song, eat at Alice’s Restaurant, battle smog coming from PR flacks, and hear the Heart Sutra performed in four different languages.

President Trump got everything from Prime Minister Abe but a piggyback ride, which put me in mind of this classic send-up by the MST3k gang:

MST3k is known for its obscure references which people love tracking down. The last line, “Don’t touch my bags if you please, Mr. customs man” is from an old Arlo Guthrie song called “Comin’ Into Los Angeles.” Arlo is the son of Woody Guthrie, and had a big hit with “Alice’s Restaurant,” a satirical talking antiwar song that was later made into a ramblin’ film by Arthur Penn, a veritable paean to anti-authoritarianism.

At his presser with Prime Minister Abe, President Trump spoke slowly and quietly, looking rather tired and restrained. It could just be jet lag (or Jet Jaguar lag), but I wonder if any of the Washington press corps have the nerve to ask Sarah Huckabee Sanders (a.k.a. “Clarice”) if the president is on meds to calm him down and keep him from uttering phrases like “little rocket man” and “total destruction of North Korea.” (They should also ask Sanders whether she still hears the screaming of the lambs.)

The MST3k send-up of Godzilla movies from the 1970s (in this case, Godzilla vs. Megalon) is a lowbrow poke at our brethren from the land of the rising sun. One could discover from Wim Wenders’ outstanding film Tokyo-Ga that Japan is a nation of contradictions. Fifty years ago they were famous for turning out cheap transistor radios and bad monster movies, but this stereotype fails to reflect the hidden (or at least less visible) Japan — a highly cultured Japan rich in noble traditions worthy of study and emulation.

Japanese Zen Buddhism (with its “no gate” philosophy) has had a profound effect on spiritual seekers in the West, and on the New York School of artists and composers. The venerable American literary character Suzuki Beane was probably named after Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki. But even Godzilla, tacky though he was, has become a meme ranging from the computer world (Filezilla, Clonezilla) to the Thanksgiving oven (“Birdzilla” in a classic episode of Cheers). Maybe we should refer to our president’s huge ego as “Trumpzilla.” It can only be tamed by leading it around golf courses until it is tired and spent and requires Bosco. (Maybe a metaphor for spiritual practice?)

Apropos of the MST3k line “He crimefighting covers up a basic insecurity,” what do we make of Trump’s speech to the military at Yokota Air Base?

We dominate the sky. We dominate the sea. We dominate the land and space,” the president said. “Not merely because we have the best equipment, which we do, and by the way, a lot of it’s coming in. You saw that budget. That’s a lot different than in the past. A lot of beautiful brand new equipment is coming in. And nobody makes it like they make it in the United States. Nobody.”

“No one, no dictator, no regime, and no nation should underestimate ever American resolve,” the president said, standing on a stage in an airplane hangar on the base. “Every once in a while in the past they underestimated us. It was not pleasant for them. Was it? It was not pleasant. We will never yield. Never waiver, and never falter in defense of our people, our freedom and our great American flag.”

— Donald J. Trump to troops stationed at Yokota Air Base, Japan, as reported by abcnews.go.com.

While it’s good to have an effective military, bragging about one’s domination and equipment does suggest an underlying insecurity as well as being in bad taste for a superpower. Military force alone is brute force, ignorant force, unenlightened force. There is no such thing as a “smart bomb,” and while Trump’s words may have been aimed at North Korea, they were doubtless a grim reminder to the Japanese people about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Military force should always be tempered by wisdom, compassion, keen insight into subtle aspects of diplomacy, and an overarching desire for peace — all qualities Trump seems to lack, but tries to make up for with braggadocio.

We have yet to see Trump go on a Godzilla-style rampage, but the prospect is not encouraging, and Republican Senator Bob Corker recently vowed to hold a hearing examining such questions as whether Trump has the power to unilaterally start World War III (perhaps in response to a Twitter spat).

Outsized American politicians and Japanese monsters

When George H. W. Bush visited Japan in 1992, he famously vomited on the Japanese Prime Minister. Urban legend has it that this gave birth to a cheap Japanese toy, a likeness of Bush 41 which spewed vomit on cue. Whether or not this toy ever existed, the underlying incident reinforced Japanese perceptions of American politicians as oversized entities capable of extreme behaviour.

President Trump did little to overcome the American oaf complex when feeding fish in a koi pond at Akasaka Palace. Oblivious to their true needs and natural limitations, he quickly emptied the entire box — possibly causing the same malreaction in the fish as Bush 41 had shown 25 years earlier. If a fish could sing, it might have sung to Trump “I need a slow hand!”

But is Fishgate real or fake news? It could be yet another Rorschach test in which we see a reflection of our own internalized views about Dear Leader (or as Schubert would say, “Dear Lieder”). Country Joe and the Fish might dutifully enquire “What’s that spell?” Japan clearly has Donald Trump all a-cluster.

The original 1954 Godzilla movie sported an anti-nuclear theme, and some later tokusatsu films had environmental themes, with pollution poisoning the fish so vital to Japan’s culture, economy and diet. Given Trump’s choice of anti-environmentalists to head environmental agencies, poisoning fish is something we more or less expect of him, and are quick to believe. But until we see a reliable body count from the pond in question, we ought not carp, lest the scales of justice be wrongly tipped. 😉

Speaking of outsized Americans who lack subtlety, the purely technical question has arisen as to what audio format should be used when archiving press conferences held by Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The answer? Definitely FLAC. (For Obama speeches, use OPUS.)

When Sanders walks out, you get the impression she turns on the smoke & fog machine. It’s rather like air pollution or toxic sludge, which were subjects of the environmentally conscious Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (a.k.a. Godzilla vs. Hedorah).

Hey, maybe instead of calling Sanders “Clarice” (from Silence of the Lambs) I should call her “Hedorah.” I suppose after a press conference, reporters are left flopping like fish in a polluted sea.

The Smog Monster flick is strange and wonderful, full of bizarre animated sequences, nods to 60s psychedelia, and a cheesy “Save The Earth!” song in one U.S. release, replacing “Return the Sun!” in the Japanese version. And let’s face it, sunlight is the best disinfectant for political malfeasance.

With its smörgåsbord (or sushi bucket) of influences and techniques, Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster confounded critics. Legendary killjoys the Medved Brothers ranked it one of the worst of all time, but Andrew Pragasam writes:

The movie isn’t that bad. Its schizophrenic tone is born of a desire to please three wildly divergent markets: the kiddie matinee crowd, ecologically conscious students, and counterculture party hounds… Japanese cinema was facing such a financial crisis, Toho Studios were willing to try anything to rake in the yen. However, [director] Yoshimitsu Banno was entirely sincere.

One short animation from the film looks like it might have been influenced by Heinz Edelmann, the graphic designer behind Yellow Submarine:

In the Japanese clip, notice the dark, shadowy cityscape with “lonely people” wearing gas masks. Two tall European women enter, walk towards each other, get vaporized by smog, and merge into a single, two-headed image, which then becomes a crosshatched marking on a map showing the area affected by Hedorah’s pollution.

In “Godzilla is a Radical Environmentalist,” Daniel Oberhaus opines:

Although [Japan] is not without its environmental problems, today Japanese cities are among the least polluted in the world. This is due in part to the swift action against industrial pollution orchestrated by its government nearly 50 years ago, and was reinforced by Banno’s unique take on a Japanese icon in Godzilla vs. Hedorah. For all its corniness and pulpy action sequences, at the film’s core is a radical message that still resonates with modern audiences: the only way to take meaningful action against climate change is to stomp out the main problem — complacency.

Elsewhere, Oberhaus points out limitations of the approach taken by youth in the film:

Half [of it] takes place in a Japanese rock club, where Yano’s older son grapples with psychedelic hallucinations as Hedorah takes over the city. The smog monster eventually makes its way into the club and ends the party prematurely, at which point the elder Yano and his fellow students decide to take action by organizing a “million man march” against the smog monster.

Despite their good intentions, the students’ march is woefully under-attended and devolves into yet another dance party. Banno’s satire has a clear target and message — the impotence of well-intentioned environmentalists who naively believe that they can reverse the damage of industrial pollution with enough marches and bonfires.

Or maybe they just needed a better song! (“Big Yellow Buddha” is one title that comes to mind.)

“No Gate” philosophy and the Heart Sutra

Since I couldn’t resist a header promising a journey from “No Gate” to “Fishgate,” here’s more about the “no gate”* philosophy found in most strains of Buddhism, whether Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, or Japanese.

The terms “no gate,” “gateless gate,” and “gate of emptiness” are used to describe a particular Buddhist teaching. It is not easily grasped, but the essence of it is that the final void reached through meditation is not different from the phenomenological world. Zen is sometimes called the “gateless gate” because compared with some other religions (or non-religions), it’s viewed as non-dualistic.

Discussion of the gateless gate is sometimes connected with study of the Heart Sutra, a scripture accepted by most schools of Buddhism, translated into various languages, and often sung or chanted:

The Heart Sutra in Mandarin:

The Heart Sutra in Tibetan:

The Heart Sutra in Sanskrit (1):

The Heart Sutra in Sanskrit (2):

The Heart Sutra in Japanese (1):

The Heart Sutra in Japanese (2):

The first version, sung by Taiwan-born folk-pop icon Chyi Yu in Mandarin Chinese, might be described as “rich”; while the last version, chanted in Japanese by a group under the direction of Taisen Deshimaru, may strike us as more austere. But at the core is the same mystical teaching that “emptiness is form and form is emptiness.”

Somehow I can’t imagine Donald Trump grasping the concept of shunyata.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization. We gratefully acknowledge the city of Tokyo.

*Not to be confused with “No Gates!” — a chant popular among anti-Microsoft activists and Linux aficionados.

How many Tasmanians does it take to eat the planet Jupiter?

Outback mum becomes YouTube hi-tech maven

In my role as part-time techno nerd and Linux aficionado, I’ve struggled through numerous how-to videos made by lonely guys living in their parents’ basement, cussing up a storm at Microsoft while extolling the preternatural benefits of Water Rat Linux (or whatever distro with a development team of one has lately come down the pike).

Yes, saving the world through Linux how-to videos can be a lonely and thankless occupation — but meet hi-tech whiz kid Philip Adams and his “sinsible” (yet vivacious) mum Diana:

Philip and Diana Adams

Together they’ve become stars of a YouTube channel called OSFirstTimer where mum Diana tries out (and sometimes intentionally destroys) a variety of computer operating systems, goaded on by son Philip, who alternatively guides her, assigns her reasonable tasks, leads her into evil ways, and lands them both in full giggle loop territory.

I stumbled on their antics quite accidentally, being genuinely interested in Remix OS (a.k.a. Android for desktops), and charmed to find their exploration begins with Diana feeding gigantic white parrots on a balcony by the seashore:

The patriarch of the family, Ben, is occasionally roped in, as is little sister Jasmine (or “Jazzy”); but for the most part it’s Philip and Diana who attract viewers with their great chemistry and offbeat approach to matters hi-tech.

Last month I posted a two-part series on “Art and Hermeneutics” which gave me the opportunity to study the works of Hans-Georg Gadamer and learn about the subject from folk already conversant. I therein had occasion to reference musical duets between Stu Goldberg and L. Subramaniam, and between Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and L. Shankar. These duets are dialogical in nature — a word which crops up often in hermeneutics. Dialogue with others can unleash a certain power, beauty, and joy. This is one high falootin’ explanation for why OSFirstTimer videos are so much more engaging than those made by lonely guys in basements. The interplay between Philip and Diana results in a “fusion of horizons,” making the dull subject of computer operating systems seem vibrant and alive.

One of the more intelligent, knowledgeable, and well-spoken YouTube Linux gurus, Joe “Bootsy” Collins (a true Southern gentleman and Linux Mint booster), points out that some purveyors of Linux how-to’s are foul-mouthed and reinforce the notion of tech as a “boys’ club” with high barriers to entry for women. The peripatetic English Bob, however sociable, doesn’t do much to dispel this image with his wallpapers featuring muscle cars or scantily clad Asian women. But OSFirstTimer balances the scales somewhat. The main star is clearly Diana, who’s eminently practical about what works and doesn’t work for her, asserts her preferences with oomph, and is not afraid to choose a pink, flowery wallpaper if the mood strikes her. To their credit, neither Philip nor Diana spend their time vaping or f-bombing (another dig at English Bob).

I’ve quoted Gadamer as saying “If you decide to make the effort to read, when you read you will not deconstruct, but you would learn to construct.” Good advice, but every thesis cries out for its antithesis. Particularly in the world of tech (which some people take so seriously), deconstructionism has its place. Tech companies even offer “bounties” to end users who find creative ways of destroying their products and services. Figuring out how to destroy something can be a good way of learning how to build it better and stronger, an approach also useful when fashioning bear-proof trash bins or squirrel-proof bird feeders:

Fortunately or unfortunately, no one has yet fashioned a Diana-proof OS.

The Internet has proved a mixed blessing — certainly not the Utopia envisioned by early adopters. We’ve become reliant on technology, but there are a thousand-and-one things about operating systems and Net life which are annoying or degrading, so I especially enjoy Philip and Diana’s sojourns into creative destruction, and their live encounters with tech support scammers. Without ever mentioning Turing, they re-enact the Turing Test — or perhaps an old TV commercial starring Ella Fitzgerald:

Is it live or is it Memorex? Surely a meme for our times. Philip is a genius at installing operating systems as virtual machines, so when he and Diana go online, trolling for ways to catch a virus or schmooze with scammers, what ultimately gets destroyed is a virtual install running in VMware, not the real underlying operating system. Still, there’s always the risk that a powerful virus or skilled hacker could get past the virtual machine and attack the host OS. IOW, “Kids, don’t try this at home!”

While OSFirstTimer spends a fair amount of time just fooling around, much can be learned about Net life from creative play, as when Diana falls in love with the BonziBuddy adware, and Philip has to explain that such is vehemently hated in polite Internet society:

Equal opportunity destroyers, Philip and Diana don’t just go after Windows, but also Mac and Linux. In the course of their antics, viewers learn the valuable lesson that searching for free movies is one of the easiest ways to encounter malware and fake antivirus:

While giddy with amusement is their typical state, they become positively hysterical when interacting with “Andrew The Expert,” whom they encounter after getting a fake antivirus warning from visiting a movie site. Is Andrew a real person or a bot? The Turing Test (or Voight-Kampff Test) has not been so rigorously applied since Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, later made into the film Blade Runner by Ridley Scott.

Questions of sentience and legitimacy are never quite put to rest in the OSFirstTimer video, so let me address these issues with a couple of links:

“Ongoing MacKeeper fraud”

“PUP Friday: MacKeeper”

It could be that Philip and Diana encountered a human-assisted bot. The bot interacts with their Mac OS and spits out some canned responses, but when it’s stumped by their questions, a real person situated in Kiev (and always named Andrew) may chime in now and then.

Feigning concern about her privacy, Diana eventually agrees to give her “real” e-mail of fairypop@prettymail.net, which sends her and Philip into paroxysms of laughter. We’re helplessly carried along as they gradually morph the tech session into a computer dating scenario. The “bot” explains that dating is out of the question because it’s currently warming a seat in Ukraine.

This is probably the most insane of the OSFirstTimer vids, but definitely one of my favourites, doubling as a non-prescription antidepressant.

So next time tech is getting you down, hop on over to the OSFirstTimer channel  to see if an outback mum can claw her way through an outlandish OS or unsuspecting tech support scammer. She may succeed or fail, but she’ll definitely entertain you, and you might even learn something.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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