Mirth & State

Like many habitually shy babooners I am cowed by crowds. In a gathering of two or more people I will tend to move to the periphery, which is no easy task if there is only one other person in the room. My party personality falls far short of “gregarious” and doesn’t quite make it to “lively”, landing much closer to “quiet” and “thoughtful” and sometimes, “a houseplant”. Were I inexplicably attending a massive public event on the National Mall like today’s “Rally to Restore Sanity”, led by comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, I think I would be most comfortable experiencing it from somewhere around Alexandria, Virginia.

Still, I hope Comedy Central’s stars and their fans have a beautiful and memorable day. Sanity is worth rallying around. Moderation and respect are good goals for the national conversation. Getting people whipped into a state of frenzy over reasonable discussion and principled compromise is an appropriately ironic mission for this mammoth gathering on the eve of the midterm elections.

I’m not surprised to see that a phony “debate” has sprung up over whether it is fitting for comedians to be so politically prominent, as if humor was somehow separate and distinct from other forms of human communication. Making a joke of it is how we deal with things. All things. Laughter is a way to gain perspective. And there’s nothing at all in the Constitution about any kind of “separation of mirth and state”. Take a look. The phrase doesn’t appear. I rest my case.

Stewart and Colbert are good, and I’m a fan. But when I think of great comedy duos, another pair comes to mind first. Over the past few days I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying a new 4 CD set of the collected works of the legendary radio comedy duo “Bob and Ray”. These guys were absolutely the best at drawing a laugh with an absurd situation, a line, a phrase, an inflection, or a sound. Were they political? Their portrayal of the imperious Commissioner Carstairs, tyrant of the zoning board of the city of Skunkhaven, was a dead ringer for the red baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy. But alongside their uncanny grasp of human nature and their casual ability to skewer the occasional politician, Bob and Ray excelled at exposing the inanities of media – a mission they share with Stewart and Colbert.

Here are Bob and Ray on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Who makes you laugh?


Yesterday we had a great discussion about noticing the beauty in things that have a history, whether they are people, books, or old trunks. Jacque sent this photo of a family heirloom – a well-traveled piece that is now her coffee table. You might be able to make out the year “1807” on the side of the trunk, which is the year the Strattons started their journey. I can only guess it’s rather humbling to set your mug of pumpkin spiced organic decaf on a trunk that was once attached to a wagon rolling over the unspoiled prairie. How can you not think, “Oh, the places you’ve been’!

Not that I would ever choose to go back and trudge across the Midwest with Jacque’s relatives. Time travel is a fascinating improbability, and hobbyists are always looking for evidence. The latest craze swirls around this clip taken at the Hollywood premiere of a 1928 Charlie Chaplin film, “Circus”. Because of the position of her hand, some people are convinced the woman who walks behind the stuffed zebra is a time traveler talking on a cell phone.

Cooler heads have suggested she is probably using an ear trumpet. Why rule out the tantalizing possibility that she is talking on her iPhone? Because the cell phone coverage in 1928 was even worse than it is today due to the complete absence of phone towers and the total non existence of any supporting networks and the absolute unavailability of anyone else to talk to. Spoil sports.

I prefer to think she is a time traveler; a nun perhaps, sent there to collect objects that will be tagged for future wabi-sabi status, or to negotiate for the purchase of a Honus Wagner baseball card so it can be trimmed, shellacked, and eventually sold to fund the sister’s ministries to the poor in 2010. Naturally.

If you could travel backwards to any place on Earth at any time in history with the caveat that you had to stay there (although you could take your cell phone), where would you go?


Yesterday Steve in St. Paul mentioned (with characteristic modesty) that he won a photo contest organized by a group of camera enthusiasts who challenge each other to offer exceptional images that connect to a declared theme. In the case of Steve’s winning entry, the theme was the Japanese notion of wabi sabi. What is wabi sabi? Steve will explain it in a moment. But first, here’s the picture.

Steve says:

Wabi sabi is an oriental concept of aesthetics. It holds that things can be beautiful if they are worn, aged, broken or missing parts. In fact, not only can such things be beautiful, but there is an inner beauty to things that have served well and now look like they have served well. So a westerner trying to understand the concept might think that my photo was pretty “in spite of” the wear and tear on the Bible. To an oriental mind, that worn Bible is far lovelier than a new one could be. This aesthetic is one reason orientals tend to honor older people. It is the opposite of the western tendency to chase the young, the shiny, the perfect.

Well done, Steve. I think that’s a gorgeous photo. And the older I get, the more I appreciate the idea that there can be great beauty in things that are aged, worn, bald, bleary eyed, a little jowly, and in desperate need of a shave. Especially first thing in the morning.

The trick is getting everyone else to see that.

Steve is right about our fascination with the shiny and “perfect”. It would take a cultural shift for us to embrace the idea that there is a dignified beauty in a well-used object. Perhaps the slow disintegration of the baby boom will make gorgeous decrepitude the Next Big Thing, rather like the revived TV career of Betty White, but for everyone.

Right now, Wabi-Sabi in the USA is limited to 4 locations in California. I like the looks of the one in Rancho Cucamonga.

Do you have a favorite object that reflects this notion of wabi-sabi?

High Profile Pride

I usually don’t read ads that show up in my e-mail inbox, unless they come from old friends who are trying to set a record for the number of !’s in a single message!

Hiya, Wally from Wally’s Intimida here to remind you that SUV’s are making a comeback! Yes! Just a few years ago you couldn’t give one away. I know. I tried! But some attitudes have changed. Or to be more exact, some attitudes have gone back towards where they were ten years ago! Why? Who knows? Maybe it’s that Tea Party thing. We’re rolling back the clock on everything, all the way back to colonial days!

Of course, people haven’t forgotten 4 dollar a gallon gasoline, but here’s the difference today – Everybody’s so completely broke and totally discouraged, they’re willing to say “What the heck, I’m gonna buy a Sherpa anyway!” And I’m ready to answer with a “What the heck, I’m gonna sell you one” type of deal! It’s a race to see which one of us can sign on the dotted line first!

Gas sipping electro-auto-snobs will say a thirsty Sherpa doesn’t make sense, but I say making sense is overrated. All you have to do is watch the political ads on TV to see that the people who don’t make sense are having all the fun! So what the heck? Why not get a Sherpa, especially if you grew up rattling around like a loose BB in the back of your mom and dad’s giant car? Now that you’re grown you want to have a car that’s AT LEAST that huge, and when the family’s not looking you can jump back there and roll around some more just for old time’s sake!

Worrywarts will say “high profile” vehicles are a dangerous rollover hazard in high winds like the ones we’ve had lately, but that’s so negative! High profile has never been a bad thing in America! When high profilers fall, they land on low profilers, so which would you rather be? Better to keep your head above the crowd so people can see you! If you’ve got rollover worries, just outfit your new Sherpa with the “Tumbleweed” package, featuring an extra set of wheels on the roof in case you do become inverted. No problem in the Sherpa Tumbleweed – just keep on going!

So throw caution to the prevailing 38 mile per hour northwest wind. Drive on, roll on or blow on down to Wally’s Intimida for the best deal I can possibly give you on a mammoth ride – the Sherpa from Intimida.

Why? Why the Heck Not?

It’s good to see Wally hasn’t lost his bubbly spirit and exclamatory extravagance, even in the face of this economy and these winds.

How have you fared against the great “land hurricane“?

The Cassette Walkman Dies … And Lives!

The remarkable part about the news that Sony is discontinuing the Walkman cassette player in Japan is that Sony was actually selling a cassette player! That’s amazing. And here’s something even more astonishing – you can still buy a Walkman cassette player in the USA. I would have bet against this, and I don’t bet.

Rectangular-headed monstrosities do seem to have a way of hanging on. The Walkman Cassette player looks rather clunky to us now, but in its day it was sleek and amazingly small. Most people have moved on, throwing their old cassette technology away in alarm, as if it were on fire, fearing that they would be left behind. Perhaps we’ll find Walkman remains submerged in a local lake or buried in the trash.

But the playback technology for photos, audio and video has changed so rapidly, future historians and garbage pile archeologists sifting through the landfills of our day will have a tough time telling what the various electronic devices were for, or in which era they were used. I suppose the landfill layer on which items are discovered will set an approximate date, much like counting the rings to determine the age of a tree. But will they have the patience to work out the technical difference between an open reel tape recorder from the 1960’s and a wire recorder of the 1930’s?

As the excavation goes on, evolutionary clues will emerge. On an upper layer they’ll find many differently configured and exotic CD players, and then a missing link – the vinyl LP to CD recorder! Just below that, discarded record sleeves and tone arms will begin to emerge. A few layers underneath will be the living room stereo cabinets with turntables nestled inside, their speakers covered with a luxurious looking fabric to fit in better with mom’s expensive drapes.

And at all levels of the debris there will be abandoned VHS tapes – rectangular plastic boxes. Just like the original Walkman.

How many layers of playback technology are in your landfill?

Welcome to Moon Base Baboon!

It seems like every time scientists consider the question of water on the moon, our natural satellite looks wetter and more hospitable than the time before. Last week, a data summary from the 2009 mission that crashed a rocket booster into a crater at the moon’s southern pole revealed a lunar area with a surprising number of useful minerals and more water than the Sahara Desert.

Not quite Wisconsin Dells, but it’s a good start.

Watch out for the rocks!

So, mere weeks after the president signed a 2011 NASA budget authorization that scraps plans to return to the moon, people are talking about returning to the moon again. The tone of this chatter is overwhelmingly pro-Moon Base. The base would use existing water and available resources to provide a jumping off point for deep space travel, taking advantage of the moon’s weaker gravity to launch heavier vehicles. This notion lines up nicely with developing private space industry – something the Obama administration has said it favors. Maybe depressed Earthbound strip mall developers will find a new opportunity off-planet.

As a way station in space, our cold, airless moon already has all the charm of the Belvidere Oasis, my favorite over-the-freeway rest stop on the way to Chicago, which was described in Peter and Lou Berryman’s song about cleaning the refrigerator (When Did We Have Sauerkraut?) as “such a pretty name for such an ugly place to go”.

But at least it would be a place to go. And that’s all you need to draw tourists. So will our Moon Base be like the Belvidere Oasis, with a Panda Express and a Starbucks alongside the Mars Rocket fueling port? And as more water is discovered, could Tommy Bartlett eventually open up a Lunar Ski Show? With 1/6th Earth’s gravity, doing the pyramid would be easier, no?

Grandpa Branson has given you some retail / office / factory space at Moon Base Baboon. What is your plan?