Archive for November, 2010|Monthly archive page

What’s New . . . and Old – Nov. 29, 2010

In Uncategorized on November 30, 2010 at 1:22 pm

Ego Blowout

A fond tribute to a faithful road warrior and a lament for an identity theft.

The Moving Walkway

Lines composed upon a netbook while stranded in an airport.

The Dark Side of Darwin

Natural enemies in my own back yard.

It’s Like Talking to a Machine

The horror of grocery shopping and the relentless march of dehumanization.

We Hate You Back

Those bullies? To this day, I wouldn’t cross the street to save their lives.


Ego blowout

In Unpublished genius on November 30, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Changing tires on the great mandala

by Clif Garboden

I miss Jerome terribly. Inseparable for years, we covered many miles together. Toward the end, old age and infirmity made him a less reliable travel companion, but I was blind to his faults. Jerome was my 1989 Buick Park Avenue — four doors, moon roof, loaded, jet black with red leather interior. I bought him used, in 1997, already eight years old but with only 43,186 miles on the odometer, for $6000. I named him Jerome after Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, a/k/a “the Bus” — an homage. Over the course of his next 125,875 miles, we came to depend on each other. We were friends.

This sentimental habit of anthropomorphizing automobiles is a family tradition. In my time, I have driven a 1966 Chevy Biscayne named Thane of Cawdor, a 1974 Checker dubbed the Enterprise, a 1977 Impala called Big Youth, and a Jeep Cherokee named Snow White. But none of those (except possibly the Mighty Thane) had as much personality as Jerome did.

The Mighty Jerome, at age 14.Jerome was a gentleman brute — a top-of-the-line luxury model with opera lights on his sedan posts; but he could cruise at 80 miles an hour and had a horn to rival a diesel locomotive’s. He never hit a bump I could feel. And this gentle giant was a killer. He was rear-ended twice, both times suffering only cosmetic bumper damage while totaling his assailants.

On the road, Jerome commanded respect. Despite the miles, he kept his good looks. In his later years, other drivers saw us coming — gleaming black hulk with now-extinct chrome bumpers and protruding door handles — and assumed that I was a) a classic-car buff who cared too much; b) some joy-riding antique duffer likely to make an irrational driving maneuver; or c) a time traveler. Whatever the reason, nobody cut Jerome off in traffic. Anything smaller than a truck got out of his way. Nobody tailgated Jerome either. A blast from his horn cleared entire highways.

Jerome was what they called Real Steel. His engine was bulletproof; I had his transmission rebuilt; and I tolerated the loss of amenities as one by one, the air conditioning, the power antenna, the automatic headlights, even the ventilating fan ceased to function. But in the end, I betrayed him. Jerome and I made our last ride, on four of his six cylinders, to a Toyota dealer, who gave me $1000 trade-in just for being amazing and despite the fact that Jerome, at 16, wasn’t even listed in the Blue Book. I watched with genuine sadness as the salesman ushered the old boy out of sight behind the dealership to await auction.

I drove home in a prim used black 2002 Camry. It’s beautifully engineered, well designed, fuel efficient, comfortable enough, simple to operate, and looks just like every other car on the road. And that’s why I really miss Jerome. In Jerome, I was special, an Interstate man of mystery. People noticed; toll takers offered compliments; pedestrians applauded when I parallel parked. Jerome’s replacement is just part of the scenery — unnoticed, unremarkably normal, never complimented. I’d traded something eccentric and funky for something common and sensible, and it felt like defeat.

In Jerome, I could be king of the road. Even among peers, I always knew where I stood in the automotive pecking order. Jerome had the most elaborate tail-light array and the longest roof-line of any full-size late-’80s Buick. Status among peers; and all those lowly Electra drivers knew it. If such subtle distinctions exist among Toyota models, I’m not aware of them, and let’s face it, the king of the road does not drive a mid-size import.

Respect? Forget it. My new car has a horn like a bicycle’s; other drivers don’t even look, never mind cringe. People cut me off at intersections and pull out in front of me from driveways. I’m invisible; I’m tailgated. Passed. Numbskulls on cell phones slow in front of me, uncaring. In Jerome, I was feared; now I’m presumed harmless. It’s been a drastic adjustment. I’d gotten used to having some personal space when I drove, and now I’m just part of the pack.

I try to put aside false values. I comfort myself that I’m driving a smaller, smarter, cleaner car. I’m trying to adjust, and perhaps, in eight years and 126,000 miles, I’ll embrace the virtues of automotive anonymity. Meanwhile, we’ve named the Toyota Jerry — an homage.

Clif Garboden is the former  Senior Managing Editor of the Boston Phoenix and an excellent driver.

© Clifton Alan Garboden

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We Hate You Back

In Unpublished genius on November 28, 2010 at 11:36 am

When Adults let children abuse children, there are no happy endings

by Clif Garboden

My bullying experience was textbook, or perhaps storybook, straight from the pages of a 1950s Boys’ Life. I was in first grade and the youngest kid at the bus stop where the “big kids” frequently stole my hat for taunting games of keep-away or threw my lunchbox over the hill into the nearby creek. They didn’t like my boots. They didn’t like my answers when we compared grades. They didn’t like me because they weren’t especially nice or bright, and probably because their parents and siblings didn’t like them much. Pay it forward.

The gleefully delivered ritual indignation went on until one winter day when Donny, a tall-for-his-age fourth grader, “washed my face out” — a then common form of child-on-child assault that involved rubbing some relatively helpless kid’s face with handfuls of snow. I fought back, literally jumping up to deliver a flailing punch to my tormentor’s face. I expected to be killed, of course, but, to the amazement of all, Donny started to cry and ran home. More remarkably, just like the fables about cowardly bullies predicted, the harassment stopped after that. Stand up for yourself, my son, etc.

That scene — true story — wouldn’t happen today. (Actually, today, I’d be the one expelled for fighting.) Bullying seems to have changed. On the universal spectrum of hectoring, my episodes (traumatic enough for me, thank you) land somewhere in the territory of “children can be cruel.” This was before the invention of poison-pen Tweets and Facebook defamation. Most low-tech browbeating was randomly dispensed in service of no greater ideal than an age- or size-defined pecking order. Big kids picked on little kids. Our adult supervisors ignored it. Some, apparently, believed it somehow purified us.

The bullying we hear so much about today is, by comparison, downright evil, and it’s actively enabled by our schools. Often, the poor misfit being hounded is some student that teachers don’t like much anyway, and so adults turn a blind eye. Worse, some sorry teachers will tactically scapegoat an unpopular pupil in an attempt to win over and control the rest of a class. School boards will deny it, but bullying at school never, ever happens without at least one adult’s tacit sanction.

Image-conscious suburban schools have done a pretty good job of minimizing physical bullying, but that’s merely shifted persecution’s arsenal to taunts, threats, and rumor mongering. In my experience, no kid ever said “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” First of all because where I grew up there was always a ready supply of sticks and stones at hand with which to test the claim. But mostly because everyone knows that cliché retort is a lie.

Today’s educators try touchy-feely tricks like group reconciliation, a technique my son once defined as “getting everyone into the same room so they can tell you what’s wrong with you all over again.” Bullying can indeed be stopped by a courageous peer or a scolding adult, but heroes are hard to come by these days.

What are bullies’ victims to do? There is no good choice: they can A) hate their tormentors or B) hate themselves. Plan A condemns them either to seethe in frustration or to strike out and, inevitably, end up being blamed for the whole situation. Plan B offers a life of cowering despair versus the impulse to attempt an often self-destructive escape. Which brings us to the late 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, a Central Massachusetts high-school girl allegedly bullied unto suicide by verbal pressure applied by a pack of jealous Northampton brats.

Relentlessly humiliated, the courts contend, Prince tragically took the extreme way out, but millions of other bullying survivors simply live with some unfair stigma they’ve been forced to internalized. My friend Jeff, who was bullied mercilessly at the Northfield Mount Herman school eventually snuck out and ran away. Retelling the story decades later, some Pollyanna type asked him if, given the perspective of years, he’d forgiven his attackers. He answered quickly, simply, and offhandedly, quipping, “No, I hope they’re all dead.”

I don’t cut Donny any slack either. It’s that simple — and that permanent.

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It’s like talking to a machine

In Unpublished genius on November 26, 2010 at 4:24 pm

by Clif Garboden

Years before Charlie Chaplin fell into the gears of the giant factory in his 1936 film Modern Times; even before the “M-Machine” went kaput in German Expressionist filmmaker Fritz Lang’s 1927 epic Metropolis, dystopian images of a world overrun by industrialization were established motifs in literature and pop culture.

Jules Verne foresaw the consequences of a world electrified at the expense of art in his “lost” futuristic novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century, ironically first published 131 years late. Writing in 1901, E.M. Forster warned us what would happen when “The Machine Stops.” Half a century after that, Ray Bradbury echoed Verne’s sentiments in his classic Fahrenheit 451.

Twenty-first-century man grew up shadowed by visions of techno-totalitarianism — of life in a depersonalized society governed by machines and adjudicated with appeal-proof decisions based on soulless data devoid of context.

0n TV, in 1967, The Prisoner’s Patrick McGoohan, rejected being named Number 6 with the plainspoken manifesto, “I am not a number. I am a person.” As early as 1968, Stanley Kubrick and futurist Arthur C. Clarke made the possibilities of dehumanization by computer all too real by pitting 2001 astronaut Dr. Dave Bowman against the know-it-all cyber-menace HAL. In 1971, the Kinks christened the 20th century the “age of insanity” and “a mechanical nightmare.” By 1981, even Bob Segar was complaining that even he felt “like a number.”

19th-century Luddites and Saboteurs feared for their jobs; in the 20th, we dreaded the loss of our very souls.

It was with such wake-up-hyperventilating thoughts running in the background that I approached the self-check-out station at Stop & Shop.

Artificial intelligence? My very approach prompted the machine to talk, advising me what to do first if I was a “Check It” customer. I didn’t know what that was, so I panicked and headed to the 12-items-or-fewer queues in search of human reason. But the lines were long and the clerks were working at a pace worthy of recruits from the Island and the Terminally Bewildered, so I gave the self-serve another shot.

My purchases — microwavable frozen lunch entrees — were on sale. I knew this because the cooler where I found them was plastered with signs to that effect. But as I scanned each by-now condensation-slick box, the computer’s deceptively sweet voice itemized the full, pre-sale, prices. So my total came up wrong.

I pressed the “ask for help” button, prompting help to appear quickly and demonstrably impatient. “Hi, these are on sale four for $10, but the prices here . . .” My helper was way ahead of me. Telepathic perhaps. Or just an ornery mute robot-bitch. She slapped some sweet spot on the touch screen, revealing a grid of colorful options, one of which she poked, and voila my order totaled $10. “How did you . . . ?” But she was already gone.

It went on like that. The machine’s sweet voice from hell instructed me to push “finish and pay.” I did; nothing happened. Help swooped in unbeckoned, tapped on the screen, and evaporated again. Mrs. HAL next suggested I sign my name. Huh? Where? “Not there,” my suddenly vocal succor yelled from afar. No, not on the screen attached to the pen. “On the other screen.” Oh yeah, this little chewed up one labeled, inexplicably, “Jean.”

I was living the bad dream. I was Number 6, David Bowen MD, the Little Tramp lost in the cogs fighting an intractable machine. My vital contact an exasperated woman who would yell at but not talk to me.

Could it be that the worst has already happened; that the mechanical nightmare has been reality for some time and that our dehumanization is all but complete? That even grocery shoppers have been robbed of their humanity and set adrift in a sea of impersonal nastiness and confusion?

So be it. I give up. What’s the use of protesting “I am a person” when there’s no other person listening?

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The Dark Side of Darwin

In Unpublished genius on November 26, 2010 at 4:19 pm

What doesn’t kill us must have been careless

by Clif Garboden

In Sunday school, they taught me that, in addition to the stigma of  irredeemable sin, my God-given birthright granted me dominion over fish, fowl, cattle, and even all creeping things. At the time, I accepted that as good news. Lucky break: mankind — my kind — ruled the natural world! Apparently this no longer applies to the things that grow in my yard — even unto the creeping things, if you count Virginia creeper. In my corner of the natural world, it’s all survival of the fittest. And I’m clearly too out of shape to be a contender.

Anyone who’s traded the city’s concrete plains for suburban paradise knows that imposing dominion on Eden’s relentless flora involves a lot of the kind of stoop labor your grandparents left the Old Country to escape. Back in my urban years, before I bought into this God-forsaken little acre and a half surrounding my house, urbane friends and I made fun of landscape-obsessed outlanders who traded compliments with their neighbors like, “Gee, Harve, your lawn looks just like a carpet.”

Heaven forbid I ever have a carpet that looks like my lawn — shaggy, uneven, worn, brown-stained, grub ridden. Lawns are relentlessly needy — too much water, not enough water, nitrogen starved. Can’t keep up. But tending grass is kids’ stuff compared to challenges posed by the heartier plants out there. The problem with lawns is that they really want to die and require endless pampering. The problem with the rest my yard’s vegetation is that it all wants so terribly much to live.

A previous owner, who evidentially needed a life (or at least a couple of goldfish), installed all manner of ornamental shrubs and plantings around my spread. Every spring, I resolve to keep them at bay; to weed, prune, and cultivate routinely. To maintain instead of putting things off until only a full-out assault of major backbreaking autumn yard work will put things right.

You know the end of that story. Comes back Eastern Standard Time and it’s a jungle out there. Sigh.

The plant world’s secret weapon is its annoying ability to adjust and adapt. Prune one leafy hedge-face and the opposite side of the bush will flourish in retaliation. I heard somewhere that suburban lawns are now beset by stubby varieties of dandelions that evolved because their taller ancestors were routinely mowed down, leaving only the short, squat seedlings to mature, multiply, and thereby overtake the weedy gene pool. Dandelions can do that? Wow. I find that terrifying. Do I even stand a chance?

It gets worse. A dandelion’s survival skills, stubborn roots and all, are nothing compared to the tenacity of vines, which occupy the top of my personal natural-enemies list. Spindly and insidious, vines are capable of strangling full-grown trees if left to run their murderous course. And exterminating vines is pretty much a doomed mission. Plants like the dreaded Virginia creeper have roots more extensive than the New Jersey state-highway system. Yank on one of these suckers hard enough and, as a last defense, it will simply break. You may rip out some major arteries, but you’ve left plenty of tertiary routes in reserve, lurking beneath the soil waiting for you to turn you back.

Virginia creeper can kill even North America’s “most widespread tree” the chokecherry (botanical name: Prunus virginiana, which suggests that the Old Dominion really has a lot to answer for). Chokecherries, which live up to their name by choking out competing herbage, multiply seemingly overnight into impenetrable groves of saplings. But to no avail if the creeper is in town. In this back-yard home-edition of rock-paper-scissors, creeper conquers all — including the chokecherry’s prolific rival, the ubiquitous/grow-anywhere Norway maple, which will take root in everything from flower beds to clogged roof gutters to those little grooves in your windshield-wiper blades.

The landscaping freak who sold me this property’s crowning achievement was planting three species of shrubbery nestled together for effect. Okay, perhaps he started with two and the third horned in on its own to referee. In any case, each fall I hack this merry trio down to the stems; each spring the terrible triplets resurrect with a three-way vengeance — forever embraced in their medley of struggle. They thrive thrice on competition — mutual hatred fueling survival. These combatants flourish to entangle, each desperate to outgrow and to starve or shade the others to death, all while warding off potential outside intervention with thorns and poison berries.

Overgrowth is everywhere. Scraggly wild roses embrace my shutters; Boston ivy obscures my windows; poison ivy crowds the lawn; forsythia growth-spurts as high as an elephant’s eye; big-enough-to-trip-the-dog crabgrass overruns the marigold plots and the flagstone walk; yew shrubs aspire to be yew trees; ground ivy expands to fill any vacant space; and untold varieties of unnamed weeds whack back. Each fall I trim, saw, prune, mow, hack, chop, and pull to little effect. Each year I fight. Each year I lose. Such is the cost of dominion.

My yard. Mankind’s burden. Mine to subdue. The Bible tells me so. Thank you, God.

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The Moving Walkway

In Uncategorized, Unpublished genius on November 24, 2010 at 4:00 pm

Lines composed upon a netbook while stranded in an airport

Caution; the moving walkway is about to end.

The moving walkway is about to rear up and break through the ceiling, killing you and anyone else within 50 feet.

The moving walkway is about to die and refuses to die alone.

The moving walkway is about to break for lunch.

The moving walkway is about to break for no apparent reason.

The moving walkway is about to cry it a river.

The moving walkway is about to recite several random stanzas from a tedious poem by James Russell Lowell.

The moving walkway is about to clip its toenails.

The moving walkway is about to sink into Lake Erie.

The moving walkway is about to go to war with a Third World superpower.

The moving walkway is about to speak in tongues.

The moving walkway is about to vote for the socialist candidate.

The moving walkway is about to club a baby seal.

The moving walkway is about to pick your pocket.

The moving walkway is about to mail a hot tennis shoe to Egypt.

The moving walkway is about to vomit on your living room carpet.

The moving walkway is about to shine your shoes.

The moving walkway is about to turn on it’s creator and cast him into a pit of fire.

The moving walkway is about to leave it to Beaver.

The moving walkway is about to pray for those in peril on the seas.

The moving walkway is about to prove it can fly.

The moving walkway is about to invent the Internet.

The moving walkway is about to utter an ill-advised racial slur.

The moving walkway is about to spill something.

The moving walkway is about to board the midnight train to Georgia.

The moving walkway is about to go crunch.

The moving walkway is about to experience a new rebirth of wonder.

The moving walkway is about to settle in for the long haul.

The moving walkway is about to give up.

Sometimes, the moving walkway feels so groovy it could cakewalk back into town.

Sometimes, the moving walkway just gets so weary.

Right now, the moving walkway can’t take no mo’.

— Clif Garboden


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