Continuing in my quest to steal forms from other cultures and make them my own, I present this column to you, O Cornelius Nepos, may my arts and rhetoric skill last through the end of the Cumaean song down through the time of Pollio, again to my own generation!

Often this question has been considered. Many are the great and powerful men who have turned their pens to such a subject. Many of that now ignoble race of the Graeci, dared to ask such a question in the face of a meaningless and often perilous existence. Who can disregard the novel, yet now classic treatise of Plato, who thought that only a philosopher-king could write such a tale? Who can place aside that tattered and worn treatise of the Macedonian, who thinks himself to be superman? One may quail at his diction and his attempts at Atticism, but one is hard pressed to challenge his logic. Even our own, somewhat ignoble and coarser poets have turned their wax tablets to such a consideration, as they mock the concept, each sees in himself a certain worthiness that is categoric of being able to write this unending legend of our day. Often, I too have thought this over, weighing the merits of a Vergilian Superman, or perhaps a Livian. Indeed, for a great deal of time, I thought that only a Cornelius Gallus could do it justice. That is, until I learned Aramaic and grew acquainted with a small yet antique band from the hinterlands of the empire, the Iudaeoi. Who should write the next Superman? The stammaim of the Babylonian Talmud.

1) Anonymity- because no one can identify the stammaim, no one will be able to gain undue credit from the writing. Indeed, the problem with allowing someone to write Superman is that it creates an undue amount of prestige for the writer and expectation from the viewers (for an analogous situation see William Harris, War and Imperialism in Republican Rome, and his discussion concerning the annexation of Egypt).

2) The chain of tradition- Superman is indeed one of the enduring works of our century and composition of a work with such a long prehistory should not be given to one writer in one particular time and place. Rather, let it be written by a group of educated elitists, well versed in the myths from which Superman arose, who can refine, rework, and redact the story over countless generations to produce the next Superman.

3)  In some manner, this final particular trait of the stammaim defies an easy categorization. What the stammaim where able to accomplish in the Talmud was to redact old myths, ideas, and law into some of the most potent ideas which have moved Jewish thought ever since. What was done for Yavneh can be done for Superman. Furthermore, the stammaim will find a way to iron out all of the potential difficulties created by the extraordinary length of the comics publication and there will be countless mutations of the central tripartite cast. With the legend renewed in this manner, in a mere 2-3 centuries, it will easily support a further 5 or 6 centuries with various midrashim, commentaries, historical reconstructions, philosophical texts, and foolish scholarship. In this manner, Superman will enjoy an unending popularity and undergo all sorts of textual mutations, surviving far longer than the son of Octavia.

Despite many years of periodic, late-night dessert binges, I’ve yet to hit rock bottom. So from locations far and wide, from the Upper West Side, to the glamorous Gold Coast, and all the way to Shibuya, you can find me rushing about at odd hours, with little more than a pint of ice cream in hand, a spoon, and a plan.

Over the years, I’ve toned down just how much candy I can polish off in a midnight dash, but it requires constant, conscious effort to do so, and the gains remain limited. A few weeks back, as my girlfriend and I were watching the end of the “Darjeeling Limited,” I noticed that I had been quite temperate with the gummy bears that I had been snacking on throughout the film. In fact, I was so happy about it, that I was beginning to think about what other, more diabolical treats I could reward myself with after the film. As the credits started to roll, my girlfriend asked for some gummy bears, and I said, “sure, I’ve only had a handful.” When the lights went up, revealing an empty plastic box on the arm of my seat, she blurted out, “honey, those were our weekend gummy bears!” I had consumed a pound and a half of candy in one Wes Anderson film. Given that Noah Baumbach has some films pending, I was doubly scared.

However, finding myself at loose ends this evening, and coming off of a week of post-thanksgiving double-workouts, I geared up for a late-night run to the Division street Jewel. Rushing into the frozen foods aisle with manic intensity, I came to a sudden halt between two mutually appealing items. The situation should be familiar to any considerate glutton: not wanting to deal with buyer’s remorse on top of the inevitable post-binge guilt (I really couldn’t spare the calories, and why didn’t I at least waste them on the chocolate? Damn you, cognitive-dissonance reduction!), I had to make sure that I made the right choice between a pint of soy ice-cream and a small (very small) Sara Lee cheesecake. At least, that’s how we’re choosing to remember it.

In truth, the cheesecake was never really in the running. Although in comparison to other cheesecakes, it was fairly low in fat (of which saturates), and it was certainly tastier than the soy ice cream (an acquired taste, if ever there was one), by dint of genetics, it would have also necessitated a few handfuls of lactase pills. Yet the promise of cheesecake lived on, and I stood there, Narcissus-like, pondering the reflection of the cheesecake in the refrigerator window.

This continued until the crow flew by me. Apart from the occasional seeing-eye dog, Division street is particularly devoid of animal life, so the appearance of a peevish black bird swooping over my shoulder was a particularly disturbing surprise. I jumped out of the way, landing squarely on the floor as the crow swooped over a row of cinnamon-scented pine-cones. Everyone in the aisle turned, looked me over for a split-second, and went back to their shopping. Animals might be sparse on Division street, but crazies are a staple.

As I dusted myself off, I saw the offending corvid perched behind the pine-cones. It wasn’t smiling at me, at least, not with its intractably straight beak. But insofar as I was lifting myself off of the linoleum, it seemed content with the mischief it had caused. If that were the only reason that the bird seemed pleased, I could have chalked up the whole exchange to freak coincidence, and continued pondering the higher mysteries of the frozen foods aisle.

Yet, there was something more sinister in the way that bird looked at me, something inexorably wedged in the collective unconscious of evolving man. That little cinnamon-dusted memento mori perched above the pies knew exactly what I was afraid to admit. You’re going to die someday. And the minute you set hands on that cheesecake, you’ll make it come even sooner. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon. And I, or a crow just like me, will be there. Laughing.

I do not think that even the most excitable shopping-spree-contestant has moved with the speed that I had on my way out of the store. Home in an instant, I quickly tore off the soy ice cream’s plastic label, and I trembled to grasp a first spoonful. Thinking better of it, in seconds flat, I was shivering under the table. The spoon rested in the quickly melting ice cream, and I would eat it, nevermore.

The Invisible Inch

November 29, 2007

I need something to do while I drink my after-work drink. So here I am. Not eating ham in the tram with Sam.

While I am here, hamless and tramless and Samless, I might as well tell you about a recent purchase of “mine.” I got some old man pants!

The ten of your who read my last post might have realized this – I was recently on vacation with shepicksyournose. We saw a couple of days that were ripe, so we took them. In Florida. Under the sun. Picked oranges and went to the beach and ate seafood and everything.

Miami? No. Surely the Orlando of Disney? No. We stayed in a southwestern Floridian city where chads probably dangled time upon a once. We stayed with my grandparents, in their beautiful home, in their beautiful community, where the average age is 66.8 years old. And, partly because beautiful homes and beautiful communities are always preferable, partly because our insides are probably in their 60s (I don’t read many books written after 1960, and shepicksyournose knew the words to about eighty percent of the songs on the old-person radio stations they have down there) and mostly because my grandparents are (capital “A”) Awesome, we had a wonderful time.

There was, for me, however, plus another clause, one unpleasant moment. I was wardrobe-ambushed. (Theybitmyclothes).

It was a familial conspiracy, made up of equal parts mother, grandparents, and girlfriend. My pants, shirts, and jeans had been deemed unacceptable. My cries of poverty were ignored, in the face of the (apparent) severity of the situation. They had had enough. A sort of intervention had come. My grandfather would be waking me up early on the second day of my vacation, would be softening the blow with coffee and a bagel, and then we would be going…shopping…so he could buy me a few articles of clothing made in this millennium.

For some background on my relationship with clothes and shopping, see the tail-end of this post. For background on the fail-safe nature of this diabolical conspiracy against me…let it suffice to say that saying “no” to my grandfather (a genuinely quiet, kind, considerate, and non-violent man) is akin to saying “no” to Michael Corleone. How a quiet, kind, considerate and non-violent man is able to wield Corleone-like power and fear is testament to the life the man has lived. You listen to him. You respect him. You argue not. You fight not, when when he tells you that he is buying you pants.

But, dear reader, be forewarned. Buying clothes in a retirement community means that you’ll be making your selections from a line of products developed to suit…a retirement community.

That is why my new pants (which I wore to work today!) come with an extra “invisible inch,” which basically means that the waistline of the pants expands along with the waistline of your waist…for a few pounds.

I kind of like them. And so does my belly.


Tracing the Simpsons

November 29, 2007

Just a quick post while I dash from lecture to lecture. I’m really quite surprised that we haven’t talked about “The Simpsons” that much, both because it is arguably the most important television show of its time, and because Mandrake and I marathon the DVDs upon their release. But I was recently reminded of its import while watching the classic episode, “Lisa the Iconoclast.” There are a number of things really interesting about the episode: Bart is almost completely absent from the story, and Kearney’s age is revealed. But for our purposes, the most interesting aspect is its hilarious neologism, embiggen:

Jebediah: [on film] A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.
Edna: Embiggens? I never heard that word before I moved to
Ms.Hoover: I don’t know why. It’s a perfectly cromulent word.

The word is then repeated about two or three more times throughout the episode. It then disappears into the Simpsons ether only to become a real word, showing up in an academic article about String Theory (although one could question whether or not string theory is real science, and if fake science has real words, but since Yesterday’s post involved proving the existence of “real” ghosts, I’m going to leave that argument to someone else). wiktionary actually has a very good article on embiggen, pointing out its historical antecedents and post-Simpsons uses. They also include this quote from “Nature” for which I am infinitely thankful:

In a case of theoretical physics imitating art, ‘embiggen’, first coined by The Simpsons character Jebediah Springfield, has now been used in a paper on string theory by Stanford University’s Shamit Kachru. In case you need a definition, it means ‘to grow or expand’.

I’m unclear as to how an animated character can coin a word, but the quote nonetheless shows the import of embiggen within the field of science.

The other neologism of the episode, “cromulent” has been less influential. This is probably because the word has two completely different uses (as pointed out by wiktionary), “fine/ acceptable/ normal”, and “excellent/realistic/authentic,” though I’m not that sure how they decided which was the nonce word). All of his shows the lasting impact of the Simpsons on society, and the incredibly permeable boundary (or, more correctly, the total lack thereof) between “low culture” and “high culture.”

Next time: “Marge vs. the Monorail” and its reverberations in mass transit planning.

Catching Up With…

November 28, 2007

I’ve always thought that it would be fun to do interviews at this site. Mostly I envisioned asking various presidential candidates for their opinions on the issues of the day, c’est a dire Little Rock Streetcar expansion, Brandy Taylor/Anne Hathaway/Pretty Feet/all the other favorites of Salad actualia, new items at the Senate cafeteria, and the Treaty of Westphalia. Unfortunately, it’s been very hard to get any presidential candidate to commit to giving an interview (mostly because they’re all of the opinion that Heroes Season 2 is as strong as season one, and that they will be president) so I’ve had to come up with something else to fill this space. So I present Yesterday’s Salad’s first ever conversation with the living challenged, Jacques Derrida.

But before we begin, allow me to deal with the objections that are no doubt being raised as I write. First, this is not Yesterday’s Salad’s first engagement with the no longer living. Shel Silverstein has been suggested as a Superman author, and some of my favorite neighbors are Zombies. And, a reason before the reason, as I mentioned in my comment to JT in the Shel Silverstein piece: “While the [wikipedia] undead page is totally unhelpful, it does remind me that Derrida used the myth of the undead to break down the binary between life and death. But something tells me Derrida was reaching on that one.”

While I’m not one to regularly disagree with so wise a scholar as Mr. Dailysalad, leading luminaries would. Yosef Hayyim Yerushalmi ends his excellent Freud’s Moses with a monologue addressed to Professor Freud, Isaac Bashevis Singer believed in demons, and Messers Freud and Derrida (who now gets a chance to argue his case) would certainly disagree with me. As Derrida explains in Archive Fever (at least in part, a reading of Freud’s Moses), Freud has made references to “real” ghosts in his writing. This has to do with the fact that there is a “truth of delusion, a truth of insanity or of hauntedness.” (87; emphasis in the original) This is analogous to the difference between a “historical truth” and a “material truth.” Something can have a real effect without having ever existed.

So without further ado, a few questions for Mr. Derrida:

1) Did you ever get a chance to watch Seinfeld? Or, do you still hold to your opinion that Deconstruction has no sitcoms, and people are wasting their time doing things that don’t involve reading Deconstruction? (see here for some background, and don’t see Derrida) Read the rest of this entry »

Hithering about Town

November 26, 2007

Over time, the different Saladeers have developed their own particular quirks and rhetorical tricks (or simply stolen them from classical figures; my gaze is fixed firmly on you, ‘designed’lateral!). One figure that I’m most guilty of is the use of invented city nicknames to poke fun at a city. The logic: city nicknames are so ridiculous, that no-one will ever notice. That is to say, is there really so much separating “The Paris of the Prairies,”(Chicago) “Metropolis of the Western Reserve” (Cleveland), and “The Paris of the Middle East” (Beyrouth) from “The Dubai of the Disillusioned” (Chicago), “The Manchester of Mid-America” (Cleveland), and “The Singapore of the Somnambulistic” (Manchester, NH)? One would need to be a skilled socio-cartographer, or at the very least a daft wikipedist, to be able to tell the difference.

Still, the most influential of all invented (fake) city nicknames was H.L. Mencken’s moniker for Little Rock, “The Sahara of the Bozart.” The term was introduced as part of a broader essay bemoaning the cultural ineptitude of Southern Society. He wrote,

Virginia is the best of the south to day, and Georgia is perhaps the worst. The one is simply senile; the other is crass, gross, vulgar and obnoxious. Between lies a vast plain of mediocrity, stupidity, lethargy, almost of dead silence. In the north, of course, there is also grossness, crassness, vulgarity. The north, in its way, is also stupid and obnoxious. But nowhere in the north is there such complete sterility, so depressing a lack of all civilized gesture and aspiration. (more and much more)

Though I hate to apeluchier [obs. rare, “to pick faults, carp”] with myself, I must bemoan the fact that I have missed the opportunity to include Mencken’s nickname in any of our coverage of the Little Rock Streetcar. But never fear, Dash is a quick learner, and will not make the same mistake when discussing the the recent babbitry in the Queen City (Charlotte) and The Necropolis of the Neo-Conservatives (New York). Babbitry, by the way, was also coined by the great Mencken, this time in response to the phenomenal success of Sinclair Lewis’ Babbit which critiqued the type of of materialistic, self-complacent businessmen who made up the bourgeoisie (or, as Mencken called it, the “booboisie”). Babbitry refers to any behaviour associated with this type of person.

As for the babbitry itself: Charlotte opened a light rail system with expectations of 9100 daily riders to 60000 riders on Saturday (though most just came along  for the ride), and New Yorkers celebrated the fact that the G will now be included in the rider report card.

The word, and sadly Lewis’ brilliant novel, may be fading, but babbitry still exists.