Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Happy Holidays

It's said great Gautama sat 'neath the Yule tree and pondered,
"How do all the toys fit in the sack?
And when the temples discovered Saturn's forehead uncovered
then how'd that bring the sun back?"

And on Solstice Joe thought that he'd surely get caught
so he conceived of a divine affair.
And when the baby got swaddled, he passed Mary a bottle
and they hung socks by the manger with care.

With the temple degraded then reconsecrated
the Macabees were heard to admit,
"If Elijah came sooner, we could've had that newcomer
turn that oil to sweet Manischewitz."

As mistletoe sprawls through midwest shopping malls
Baldur spins in his cold mountain grave
and tells Ahura Mazda to light the candles of Kwanzaa
to lure Amaterasu back from her cave.

The athiests sneer, "well, it's just about beer"
and the humanists politely agree.
But they'd best get it right, else the Goddess will smite
(which would just mean more dumplings for me).

And everyone's gotta share the wealth for al-Adha
(or at least that one works out this year)
So on the eve of Hogmanay, I wish everybody
the appropriate seasonal cheer.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Lupe's Christmas part 2: The King of Diamonds

Reginald Wayne Dupres cinched his immaculate overcoat against the wind as he stepped onto the porch. He breathed deeply of the city air--a small city to be sure, and a bit far from its heart, but then Wayne Dupres was a small man in many ways--and doffing his hat, a beret as neat as his overcoat, into the cup of his hand, he turned and bowed deeply at the front door of the home. It was an ineffectual gesture to be sure. By now, she'd already be returned to the fireplace or to the kitchen table, where she'd pore carefully over the family ledgers, drifting into the comfort of checking sums, lulled by the careful skritch of her pencil, till the safe smells of rubber and shaved woods calmed her, until her mind came to that rest state, where Wayne's meaty, visceral reality could dissolve back to that thing of straw she carried around in her mind, that sexless empty vessel that was wrong about everything, always, always wrong. Wayne allowed himself his moments of irony, at least when she wasn't watching.

Stepping down from the stoop, he walked into a surprise drift of snow that had come up the short walk from the street. The damn plow had come off schedule, burying the cars on the side of the road, with an extra swerve to the house he shared with her. Figures. Wayne brushed the snow carefully off of his wool leg, frowning. He had so few pleasures, so few that he could wear outside anyway. He brushed his lapel--ermine--and thrust out his lip with a brio that he imagined to be sincere. He strode through the snowdrift, finding it passably clean, and thrust his hands in the deep pockets of his overcoat, forced a whistle. Marie could sink into caricature as well when they were apart, and before long she was a supporting presence in Wayne's mind, that rare soul who matched his goals and whose pecadillos matched his own.

Pecadillos, you say? No, Wayne and Marie are not nice people, they're our antagonists in fact, but if our characterizations are bad, they're not quite that cheap. Marie, as we've hinted, resorts to accounting under those long periods of personal stress, and she possesses a shelf of many neat books, carefully maintained. What on earth does she account, haunting, as she does, that tidy kitchen table for so many hours on end? Well, we'll get there, but suffice to say that there are a number of government programs which warrant returns. Her enterprise has a lawful paper trail at least, and a carefully tended one. She keeps track of her husband's ample failings as well, and those of others around her, but I suppose we've hinted at that too.

For his part, Reg. W. Dupres is a grown man who plays with dolls. This, we admit, is a trifle stranger than his wife's compulsive bookkeeping. When Reggie (Wayne) Dupres was a boy, some of his sister's Barbies had met strange ends. This wasn't rare in the neighborhood, but as his schoolmates terrorized the girls' royal court with kidnappings and torture, firecrackers and disturbingly bloodless decapitations, Reggie secreted the disproportioned creatures to the back of his closet and set them on golden chairs, where they could sit judgement from a private Olympus. Sometimes the his sister and her friends would lose hats and clothes too, and if there were suspicions, they were never voiced. No one knew how the outfits would be carefully scrubbed and rinsed and matched, organized into tiny concealed boxes, and set to carefully occupy a series of nooks and keepsaked drawers, from which the queens could rise and rule on many a neglected evening.

Yes, little Reggie had cared a great deal for his appearance, and fine clothes mattered more to him than summer camp, or video games, or friends, but bullies nonethelss found little purchase in the boy. They'd scatter his perfect class notes, and he'd steel up his little neck and walk, seemingly oblivious, to his house. They'd brake their bikes in front of him, and get it in their minds to throw mudballs in summer and snowballs in winter, and yet Reggie was an unrewarding target, soon forgotten. He swallowed his dignity and continued on, marched home where he could take out his aggressions in private, and calm himself with the joys of accessorizing, braiding and combing little plastic tresses.

Fancying himself a businessman, he made it through a college degree, keeping a few private boxes from an assortment of obnoxious roommates, mostly successfully. One evening, he came home from classes to a small bonfire of Mattel treasures, but by that time, Wayne had already graduated to more realistic figures. He'd kept a wish list for American Girl, then Creedies and Kishes, and eventually a taste for antiques, perfect little Victorian girls and boys. Without appetites for alcohol, food, or sex, he'd started a few investments in the brands without any further reservation, each carefully arranged on, at first, particleboard bookshelves, and eventually in places of honor on the walls and corners of his various apartments. Meeting Marie was a surprising thing, and in those days, she admired his fastidious notes, complete with receipts and collectors' appraisals. Before long there were signatures, carefully recorded in front of a justice, and then, without much warning, it had been ten years.

They told themselves they were a fine match, and perhaps they were. The decade between had found them overseeing a few well-subsidized foster creatures, complete with complicated paperwork and a great deal of attentive grooming. They managed not to kill any of them, and each found new homes in the system or winded their way back to their old ones, but the lucrative nature of the arrangement was lost on neither of the couple, and they told themselves they were doing good deeds in the process. And the necessity of guardianship did draw a speck of personality out of Wayne at least, a jaunty smile that could match some of his more cavalier outfits, and he evolved into the couple's public face. The children generally met Marie a little later. It had been a year without a ward, however, and ice was setting in, a slow crackling freeze, as each of the two regarded the other's highly defective nature and picked yet another cold battle to fight.

Wayne clumped through the snow, letting his aggression dissipate with steaming breath. Before long, he imagined himself a nineteenth century gentleman, with fur boots, gloves, and capacious overcoats. Perhaps he should invest in a pipe, but regrettably times had evolved, and you couldn't smoke one of those things just anywhere. He decided it wise to be on the lookout as the weather turned. Winter could sometimes reveal a few strays, and it was a good time to look. He'd walk about town, starting at the library; they liked to gravitate to the warm places, and they rarely knew how to dress properly for the cold.

Wolfman and young Ms. Guadalupe had a deal: he'd take care of the provisions, so long as she agreed to learn something constructive once in a while. The learning wasn't challenging (or unwelcome) for Lupe, but the whole business of guidance certainly was another matter. Wolfman didn't think in terms like "single parent" and "homeschool" as a rule, but even without the legal distinctions, he'd wandered into such a role. He didn't think in terms of "education" even, but he certainly valued knowing stuff. Perhaps he imagined Lupe could grow into one of the powerful women of his occasional temporary acquaintance, and he was pretty sure that whatever the motions most of the world went through to go about their incomprehensible mass-produced lives, such players were a product of something else. Perhaps Wolfman wished to guide her into an adulthood free of the malice that seemed to fester in other effective minds like hers, or maybe he just acted in some vague sense of parental responsibility, or a more acute feeling of love.

And Wolfman's responsibility brought him closer to the manners of the masses than he realized. In the evenings, he'd study what Lupe had gone over the previous day, in a futile attempt to keep up with the girl: she flitted insatiably from physics to philosophy, from business to biochemistry, from mathematics to music. Wolfman did his best to keep up enough to propose leading questions (as I suppose we've previously mentioned). Their mornings would be spent on a meal, purchased from a rapidly dwindling bankroll, and some quality time (another horrifyingly unfamiliar term to Wolfman) before the girl was let loose to prowl the public institutions of knowledge. The public library had computer access, but the university library was, while she was not strictly allowed in there, much easier to lose herself in. In between, Lupe would trot about town, enjoying the weather if it was enjoyable, or causing trouble with the hapless townies (the students annoyed her particularly, dull and entitled and arrogant) when she felt secure, and pondering how to prank her mentor when she felt less so. She didn't have much heart to do that today. As Wolfman waved at her and turned around, she could almost see the tail drooping behind him. Like him, she had a finely tuned sense of indignity. She'd never tell him how much she admired his sacrifice.

Wolfman made his way back to the trailer, which from the outside looked like a derelict leaning against a brick building, butting agaisnt a weedy lot. Entering it was a careful deal though, and he checked the tracks in the unwelcome snow, and found the bit of string still pulled across the door. He figured sooner or later someone would notice the extension cord, or some light seeping out of the door, and if no other arrangements could be made by then, they'd have to find some other cave to huddle into. He sighed and his shoulders drooped, as if he could feel the weight of life on them. Freedom had never used to be such a challenge. He kicked his shoes at the base of the door and walked in.

Inside, Wolfman smacked his hand to his chest, and dug a paw into the pocket there, gave the deck a desultory shuffle or two, and pulled off the top card. We already know its identity.

Wolfman wasn't a fan of kings. It wasn't for the authority--queens are much more regal, really--it was more that they seemed such dissapointed, dangerous spirits, their sad disinterested eyes guiding hands of violent design. Three of the four were frowning (at least in the pack with the naked, bike-straddling cherubs), finding their own inevitable deeds distasteful. (The exception was Hearts, who smirks as he swings, and thank the gum-throwing boy Hey-zoos that it wasn't that crazy fucker.) Diamonds had cash though, cold cash, and an open hand giving, taking, or sometimes both. Wolfman shurgged, and pensively twirled the card over the back of his knuckles, hiding the stub of his ring finger for a moment. Well, he considered, looking at his home, what the hell did he have to take anyway? He flipped the card onto the floor and tore his hat off the surface of the table (an unnoticed triangle of vinyl came along for the ride). He supposed he'd have to ask for a new beard. He tilted the cap at the most rakish slant he could manage, and stalked out of the trailer. Wolfman was sure that he had the worse end of their bargain, but if you could press Wolfman, he'd surely admit that any such bargain was not what their relationship was all about. Some people just belonged together.

He leaned a block against the door to keep it shut while he was gone, fixed his primitive alarms, and slunk off to his thankless job.

[Finish this by Christmas? The cards see it as unlikely.]

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Lupe's Christmas, Part 1: The Four of Clubs

The hat scurried across the card table chased by a growl. It pinwheeled across the scarred, stained surface, and caught on a tear near the edge, white polyester fuzz grabbing onto cracked vinyl in an ancient oleaginous liplock (hot polymer on polymer action), unlikely to be broken without tearing off a piece of one or the other. Wolfman eyed the hat, sighed, and slumped into his rickety folding chair.

"This is no way for a man to live."

He dropped from the chair to his knees and dug through the little fridge parked crookedly beneath the table, and pried the last beer bottle off the sticky surface. His red shirt hiked up to reveal his lean, hairy back. Lupe giggled.

"Not funny," he said. "Bullshit." He popped the beer and then sat back up, patting his pocketless shirt.

"It's called 'work,' Wolfman. I know you've done it before."

"Not even work. I can handle work--well, for a little while. No, this is more like 'bullshit.'"

Lupe lowered her book and looked at him with lidded eyes, said nothing.

"I mean, Jesus! One kid threw gum at me, it caught in my beard!"

"Where is your beard?"

"The white one? Who knows."

"Damn kids, huh?"

"You should talk."

"He probably pronounced it Hey-zoos, you know."


"Not Jesus. He-e-ey-zoo-oos."

"Huh? Who's Heyzoos?"

"And you say I should go to school."

"I'd never say that. That was your aunt. Your last one, or maybe the one before that."

"Yeah. She didn't really get me."

"Who does?"

"Or you."

Wolfman made a face. "Yeah, well, the alternative is living like this--" He waved his hand around the den, stopping at the leather jacket piled into a corner. He put down his beer and dove at the coat, began rifling through the pockets. A deck of cards appeared in his hands, or maybe half a deck. Red bicycle backs.

"Or work?"

"Yeah, or work."

It's worth it, maybe, to expand the scene a little at this point, let the camera zoom out and examine the tableau from a second-person present tense that separates ourselves nicely from the action, such as it is. We now see Wolfman hunched over the grimy table, shoulders arched high as he fiddles with the cards. The Santa hat still clings to its filthy crag on the corner, ignored by everyone. Wolfman has his chin thrust out, and long brown hair spills out over the back of the hated red shirt. He's grinning lascivously at nothing in particular. Immediately to his right is an ill-fitting door, which, when the string holding it baack is released, opens outward into the dark and the cold. We can follow the extension cord from the crack beneath the door to the fridge and to the bare light fixture screwed into the plywood wall and fitted with a yellow bulb. Its soft light makes the interior feel more homely, and warmer, than circumstances would otherwise suggest.

With its back to the card table sits an old, formerly blue couch. From its stains and tatters, you might assume that its a roadside rescue, and you would probably be right. The short couch--more of a loveseat, really, or maybe a fat chair--is wedged in between wheelwells, and at its foot, at the rear of the trailer, are a couple of milk crates filled neatly with books, two battered suitcases, and an unkempt pile of blankets. (The blankets are Wolfman's responsiblity; Lupe is small enough to curl up on the couch, of course, and that section is relatively tidy.) The books might also be salvaged, or maybe someone has a library card, taken out bashfully, or with rolled eyes, under an assumed name. In any case, both books and luggage belong to Lupe, a scruffy but attractive girl of about twelve, who is doing her level best to exude a womanly calm. She does this not because she's good at it (although she's getting better), nor because the situation calls for it. No, it's an expression that she's picked up from an aunt (not a real aunt--the closest thing she had to one of those is now bolted up in a Canadian country club), and it has a remote possibility of annoying Wolfman, who can become comically irate those rare times that Lupe can break through. It's not working now.

All right then, let's bring the camera back in.

Lupe sighed and released her aloof vigil. "Did you really mean it about school?"

Wolfman gestured at the crates of books. "I think we've got that covered."

"How long do you think we'll be here."

Wolfman grimaced. "Wish I knew, Frankenstein. But I can tell you that something usually comes up." He tugged at the hat, which was indeed stuck.

"How about a card?"

Wolfman whimpered. "Aw, man."

"Maybe it'll tell us something?"

"Nah, it just tells us where we are, not where we're going to be. They, uh, respond to the present circumstances. It's not magic or anything."

"Then let's see."

"All right. Fine." Wolfman whipped off the top card from his partial deck and slapped it on the table.

"The four of clubs," said Lupe. "Boring and strong."

"Sure," said Wolfman. "It's telling us we're here. The four points, they trace out a door, right? With darkness behind it. Like that door" He gestured to his right. "It's just this bullshit little trailer, and this bullshit job."

"Maybe tomorrow will be better."


Now, it could be noted that a door isn't just a place, but more like an exit, an observation that was not quite lost on Wolfman, who licked his lips when he thought about the flipped card, and possibly it wasn't lost on Lupe either, although neither mentioned it. A four is also a double pair, a dark twosome with its shadow close by. Could it mean an evolution of the first two into some different two? Is the shadow pair something external to the first one, trailing it? It's not as though Wolfman's astrology is an exact science. Indeed, divination is no science at all, even if some people are gifted in making the symbols look true.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Review: The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli

I find the portrait of Machiavelli by Santo di Tito intriguing (shown on the right, generously sponsored by Wiki-something), and I'm evidently not alone: it graces most editions of The Prince that turn up on a quick browse through Amazon. (My own edition, translated and excellently annotated by Wayne A. Rebhorn, is from the bonanza of Barnes and Noble cut-rate classics, and sports a contemporary Portrait of a Gentleman by Bartolomeo Veneto. Those Tuscan Renaissance painters had a thing for knowing looks.) It's a young, boyish Machiavelli, and his smile is a little impish, his eyes are bright and eager. Niccolò looks like a man who is hiding nothing, happy in his knoweldge of the system, unconcerned about its smaller consequences. I hate to judge his work this way, but that smirk is affecting how I scope out how I feel about Machiavelli, raising up a small affection for the man.

Machiavelli is on a par with the big set of Renaissance geniuses, and it's fascinating to me how art and politics became scientific well before chemistry and physics did, how in Machiavelli's case, the study of the workings of the state took such a pragmatic, evidence-based turn under his pen, a good hundred years before Galileo's scientific reasoning got him into trouble with the church. Machiavelli had actually collaborated (unsuccessfully) on some civic works projects with that other great empiricist of his generation, Leonardo da Vinci, and had extended the occasional professional courtesy to the artist. Did one's epistemological sense affect the other's, crossing disciplines, as they were? Certainly there was something in the Tuscan air in those days.

The Prince is written as a primer to young rulers, an alarmingly honest instruction manual to supplant the idealistic moral lessons that new princes might normally receive at that time. (According to Dr. Rebhorn's notes, Erasums had at the time of Machiavelli's writing, recently published such a hopeful instruction manual for instance, chock-a-block with decent Christian humanist motivations.) The Prince came instead from the author's careful diplomatic observations, and from his personal study of Latin historical texts. Machiavelli's tone is a little didactic, but there's a sense of irony, a hint of sarcasm, the occasional wordplay. He's lecturing, and going after the truth as he sees it, but there's an inner amusement behind the writing. The damn smirk.

Although he writes in a lot of thinly supported declarative sentences, he allows himself a great deal of room to work through his thoughts and entertain alternative ideas in the text, and he provides plenty of examples. These are not always easy to follow to his conclusions, in part because his times are so politically complicated to the eyes of a non-historian (or at least this non-historian). He's surrounded by a divided Italy that's constantly shifting alliances with foreign imperial powers, throwing up short-lived rulers and popes to pursue neighboring territories and cities under a too-limited set of proper names. The lengthy supplemental material could take away from the reading if you paused at every footnote, but it's very welcome. Contrasting his complex political environment, the examples Machiavelli pulls from antiquity are often suspect for their simplicity. He's pulling heavily from Livy and other Roman historians, as well as a couple Biblical anecdotes, and when the history gets distant enough, he doesn't shy from accepting the occasional legendary origin story at face value. If the stature of rulers are necessarily fallen in Machiavelli's present, it's unclear whether it's his nostalgia that's coloring his opinion, or his disappointment with Italy's international impotence, or if the mythology is intentional in the comparisons the practical man is trying to draw.

Machiavelli's motivations for The Prince are transparent--he's trying to work up some favor from the Medicis; Niccolò wants his old job back--but it's also clear that Machiavelli is hungry for the renewed international power of a reunited Italy, a new Rome, and he exhorts a new prince to take command and resist the other European powers with Italian forces. He also hungers for a modern version of a Roman-style republic, and there's a strange undercurrent in the writing where, he instructs a prince to power, but the message that he must never earn their contempt through oppression (through theft and disrespect of their customs--they get past love easily enough) or displays of weakness, seems at odds with the contention that a populace allowed to remain accustomed to freedom will eventually overthrow a prince (or will be able to hold out for a weak one). Nor does Fortune, according to Machiavelli, favor the longevity of princely rule. The Prince is a stark lesson on how to be a monarch, but it doesn't really justify monarchy. Aside from that final urge to cast off Italy's foreign bonds, Machiavelli fails to ask the obvious question, the one that contrasts so oddly with his advice to let the people be the people: what good are princes in the first place? They're a natural way to organize society, he implies, but Niccolò the republican also has his own agenda. Are the failures of monarchs built in, and would Italy be better unified under a king, who could then be cast off? Machiavelli is certainly smart enough, and cynical enough, to write in a couple layers of meaning.

Niccolò Machiavelli's political philosophies are very much products of that complicated international context. When wars among small states were inevitable, a military-minded monarch was well-advised, and controlling people with fear and respect could be considered a necessary defense against foreign powers. Machiavelli often notes that a prince succeeds when the people are motivated to fight for him, and he discards other "nobler" internal motivations that idealists would assume lead men to that end. As a modern reader, an obvious question is whether his lessons carry over to today's world, or whether they have been borne out in practice in the intervening five centuries of civilization. Certainly, militarism is alive and well, and those who've risen from the barracks have earned respect, but we moderns often like our bureaucrats too. Machievelli's advice on colonies probably didn't envision such vast cultural differences as the West would eventually encounter in those efforts, but his advice about governing foreigners in their own states while preserving their customs can probably be interpreted on similar grounds. Did the invaders instill fear and respect in the locals? Did they take care to understand local ways? Did they give too much gravy away too early? Did they steal and tax unduly? His advice in conquest to embrace the powerless opposition while keeping them powerless, and domestically to use consel without letting the counsel lead, has likewise not been rediscovered in many an adminstrative post-mortem. There remains a problem of the extent to which a foreign prince is damned by failure to understand the local power structure very well, or the local customs, or even the extent to which he can. (I'm reminded of recent readings of Graham Greene, say, who'd eloquently novelize its inherent doom, and Howard Zinn, who reported the success of stamping out customs and local power on the North American continent, both voicing the people's views of history instead of a prince's.) Machiavelli's advice to project an image of honesty, respect, and fear which is at odds with any personal qualities a leader may have is almost too widely taken and obvious to mention these days, but still, it's best not ignored.

Saturday, December 06, 2008


Dearest reader(s),

I deeply apologize for the sparse output lately over the past several months. I've been nearly as awful a reader too, and I'm even more sorry for that. There's work, and that's one excuse, but it's really more the recurring awareness of my own basic idiocy that keeps me down, that dreaded and unwelcome knowledge that, despite my buffed veneer of knowitallism and that carefully rehearsed cynical smirk I so like to flash around, I'm not fit for even the most quotidian aspects of life planning, the results of which inadequacy have left me impoverished, down a car, and too full of self-loathing to haul myself out of bed, never mind over to the computer to scrawl out my signature mentobabble.

I've been robbed, my friends! Used! If traffic cops sometimes let me off with warnings for looking like such a goofy, sincere young man,* that gullible visage of mine is like pink meat to the confidence artists of the world, and they are legion, lurking behind every form, infiltrating august institutions like parasites. And my defenses are weak.

Scam the first: If you grew up in a certain small, liberal (sort of), Northeastern state (hi twif), you may remember the public health measures routinely administered to grade school students. I remember the primary years as an endless succession of dispassionate headphone tests, finger pricks, colored dots and sideways Es, and hair toothpicks. (I remain proudly cootie-free to this day.) Of these, the dental visits were the most fun. Yeah, the "swish" was dumb, but once a year, we got to waste half a day in the auditorium watching 8-mm films of tooth-brushing propaganda, and then they sent us home with those awesome red chewie tablets that allegedly revealed plaque deposits, and which we (naturally) used to concoct vampire dramas on the school bus or wasted in efforts to alarm Mom when we walked in the door.

The grand picture of public health was never appreciated by the eight-year-olds, or not this one, and I can't say that I've spent much time since thinking how it was all paid for. If pressed these days, I'd guess some sort of minor, half-assed health measure ponied up by the state, which probably did less good than intended (though we're all happy the lice outbreaks were controlled), but not a hell of a lot of harm, considering. Nor even a lot of cost: how much for an eye chart, and the school nurse could only spend so much time on her nails.

So when my darling C. stuck the permission slip in front of my nose (that very morning of course, while running fifteen minutes late already) a couple months ago, I didn't think much of signing it. We're more litigious these days, and more cost-conscious. If they can convince my dental insurance to pay for a portion of the overpriced jug of fluoride rinse and for someone certified to administer the squirt pump, then I can live with it. (And if I have to pay thirty bucks to do it, that's okay too.) And among a population that fights every public fluoridation proposal with voluble ignorance, I figured it was just less trouble to tally the people who would opt into a fluoride program in this silly burg. Naive assumptions, all of them (well, except for the "silly").

Turns out the "fluoride rinse" I signed junior into was actually a group of visiting dentists, swarming the local schools to provide oral exams and some sort of tooth sealing that is quite beyond the "fluoride rinse" indicated on the very brief form (which of course I had reserved no copy of, and which, of course, is not held through any official school channels). Now, why anybody would want an allegedly comprehensive oral exam to be administered at school when you have dental insurance that lets you do said exam in a place with, you know, dental care facilities, is beyond me. I rather resent the insinuation from my phone conversation with this office that people opportunistically jump at free medical care, and also resent the fact that they contacted my insurance company, who told them that C. had very recently had the same exam performed, the result of which was a hasty action to make sure they got their bill in before my regular dentist did, the insurance co. having understandable limits on the number of those sorts of procedures in a given year. I thought I was signing her up to swish.

Why would dentists visit schools to administer "comprehensive" oral exams? The only honest reason I can think of is charity, in which case there's no need to talk to the insured kids in the first place. The more likely reason, is that their scamming some bucks out of schools and worried parents in a semi-legal operation. This is probably why they use second graders to disseminate their dubious information instead of school staff. The cost of this is about $150, an angry dentist, and enough fluoride in my daughter to effectuate the worst possible government mind control schemes.

That, and now I have a little red S in the lower right-hand corner of my credit report.

Scam the second: The main reason I still have the Citibank card I held in college is that it sports a great old picture of me. ("That's you? You look so...happy.") Also for emergencies, uh, yeah, that too. Back in those ancient times, I somehow** agreed to buy "Protection Plus," a plan which evidently offers insurance beyond my normal legal recourse against identity theft and credit fraud. They sent a letter saying that I had to call them to cancel the useless service, which would otherwise appear on my credit card bill. Protection Plus keeps tighter bank hours than Citibank dreams of (Citi, for whatever its other sins, features live, articulate and accommodating customer service people who are available 24/7), and they were hard to reach for the day or two their threat remained on top of the pile. Before long I forgot about trying, and as promised, a prurient $70 charge popped up on my 5-years-celibate Citi account.

I paid the damn thing, fearing late fees and a little black D next to the red S more than I worry about the loss of 70 beans and my dignity. I'm not enthused about the two dozen phone calls it'll take to abolish these fuckers from my life, and it's not a remote possibility that I'll eventually forget about them in the absence of any new Citi bills. I suppose I could actually accept and utilize the "service" Protection Plus renders, but for some reason I don't want to give these assholes my other credit card numbers.

Like many scams, it was a play on my vanity, however indirect, but it didn't stop me from falling for it. I am unfit for the public.

Scam the third: I didn't buy an American car from any patriotic impulse. It's just that after some minimal research, the Chrysler dealership was the closest place that sold minivans and luckily, I was able gimp my old (and short-lived) Toyota there before the boiler exploded. (Did I really want a minivan? Does anyone ever?) I drove out of there with the same model that Consumer Reports now places on its worst of the worst list, but who knew that then, and it was indeed spacious, and over the years, it trucked a lot of drywall.

Our T&C has suffered electrical hiccups since we've owned it, and we've entered that glorious stage when the monthly repair bill costs more than the loan payment used to. It's been predictable and inevitable stuff, brakes and suspension and, reaching back to plug myself, some shit rotting underneath, but rapid-fire proximity of auto disasters can work up some mighty distrust. That vehicular suspicion is much stronger in my wife than myself, and my doubt in her opinion is why I was driving that enormous shitbox as it shuddered through its final roadworthy lurches. Oh, those clunks really are noisy, just like she said. Whiiirrrrr! She didn't mention that. The engine's revving, huh. Wow, now I'm not going anywhere at all, ten miles from home.

The failure to move was, it turned out, a failure to transmit, if you catch my meaning, and the knocks and creaks were (yet another) suspension issue and haven't been addressed. The mechanic disassembled the transmission, discovered a missing o-ring on the filter (!), and suggested we hold off on the suspension repair. He did this to build trust, I'm sure, and he even cited the golden rule in his reasoning. The o-ring was, he acknowledged, a hopeful band-aid, but it seemed to be running fine for the time being.

Now, I really like my mechanic, or at least I want to really like him. He is, unlike some of these guys, very easy to talk to when you can reach him, quietly confident, and he has one of these bright, open faces I feel inclined to trust. He's also a local institution, which has to speak for something. On the other hand, he's a mechanic, and as such, he's a nemesis, just itching to ream me with his information asymmetry, and as a general rule, I always try to imagine how the garage might be screwing me anyway. One of the previous times he worked on it, he kindly alerted me to some other problems (alarm bells!), which I let him work on (sucker! rube!), but he just doesn't seem as shifty all those other mechanics (fool!).

If I had more brains and less conscience, I'd have rolled that duct-taped tranny to the nearest dealer for a trade-in, but I unwisely hoped for the best. The repair held up for a weekend. On Monday, on my way to work, the transmission shuffled its coil (spring, pulley, valve, etc.) with a more dramatic flourish--it felt something like hitting a speed bump at sixty--and those gears no longer spun ineffectually, they ground ineffectually as the engine impotently revved. It's now back in the shop facing a $3100 repair, not to mention the certain death that's still looming unrelated in the rattling front end. Did I mention it only has 107,000 miles? Fuck Chrysler anyway.

I'm clearly not going to do this repair: the car is worth less than three grand, and I'm not even sure a new transaxle will do the trick (I wouldn't rule out the persistent electrical problems as the root cause of this). The second breakdown was a lot more dramatic than the first, and I can't shake the nasty questions: did my mechanic soak me for the first $200 realizing that he'd be out for the larger repair, realizing no sane person would put a new transmission in that rolling turd? Did the first repair make it deliberately worse, make a new transmission unavoidable? It's reasonable that the quick fix was made in good faith too--it's not like he lied to me about it doing the trick. These are worrisome, expensive questions, and to my disadvantage, I'm obviously not mentally equipped to deal with quick-witted repair people, especially not nice ones.

I summarize, dear reader, that I am one of nature's dupes. With this insight, I'm preparing to spend the morning at the Honda dealership shopping for a highly priced used Civic or Accord, at least if my credit report isn't too marked up. (This is based, on the off chance anyone's curious, on Honda's general reputation for reliability, and the fact that my rotting 10-year-old '87 Accord was the only awful car I drove that I ever liked.) I mean, surely I can trust a used car salesman, right? I'll be sure to let my mechanic take a look at it.



* As a matter of fact, I am also plagued by the real injustices that this petty whine contrasts. Awareness is a rough ride.

** Yeah, somehow. Probably something associated with my being a dope. I feel like I'm narrowing in on it.