Pigeon Trouble – Conclusion

Bob:  “Ray, what do you mean, the pigeons betrayed you?”

Ray:  “Oh Bob, I used to be so much more like you – enjoying the time I spent with my wife Sophia just sitting, relaxing, tossing bread crumbs … I started to take them into my confidence.”

“You trusted the pigeons.”

“Very much!  They were like family to me.”

“But then the car, and the money …”

“… but my Sophie!  My beautiful wife Sophie!!”

“What happened to Sophie?”

“They committed the most terrible, awful, unspeakable things against her!”

“You mean … ?”

Now sobbing uncontrollably, Ray exclaims, “They raped her!  Again and again and again!!”

“Pigeons.  A flock of pigeons raped your wife.”

“They played us both for fools!  Why did I trust them?  Why would they hurt her so?”

Just then a woman in her mid-forties came up to Ray and said, “Dad, are you all right?  What’s wrong??”

“I’m sorry, Judy, sweetheart, I’m sorry I couldn’t protect her.”

“I’m afraid this is my fault,” Bob says, “ – we just got to chatting about the pigeons …”

Judy rolls her eyes and laughs a bit, “Oh Dad, not again with the pigeons!”  She then turned to Bob and said, “Don’t worry, it’s okay.  It seems lately that my mother has become a little more withdrawn, a little less responsive.  We don’t really know why – and my dad seems to think the pigeons had something to do with it.”

“The pigeons DID do it, Judy!  It was the goddamn pigeons!”

“Yes Dad, it was the pigeons … Don’t worry, Bob, he’ll be fine …”

“Bob, don’t trust them!  Kill them while you still can!”

Judy helps Ray get up slowly from the park bench; then they leave together.  Bob shrugged his shoulders and went back to feeding the pigeons.

“Huh,” Bob thought to himself, “Money stealing rapist pigeons!  I guess that is pretty ridiculous …”

One of the pigeons, though, caught Bob’s eye.  “That’s strange,” Bob thought.  He squinted back at the bird, frowned, and said, “hey, what are you lookin’ at??”

Toys R Us

The recent demise of the beloved toy store chain reminded me of a story I read back in the 80’s about the company’s research and development department.  At least I think I read this somewhere …

“It started out like any other day in the Toys R Us experimental labs.  The toy makers had a rigorous yet startlingly simply approach to finding new toy ideas:  put one child in a plain, open white room and give them an ordinary, everyday household item subject to the child’s whims of fancy.

“There was an occasional problem, of course.  For example:  have you ever wondered why those large plastic dry cleaning bags and other similar items now carry the warning ‘this is not a toy’?  Let’s just say that one awful morning in the lab has gone on to save tens of thousands of children from parents who sincerely believed the shiny, smooth clear things would calm and entertain their loved ones for hours.

“Anyway … the Toys R Us labs had become so hugely successful that the marketing department struck on the handsome notion of coupling the lab work with public tours, a kind of research-themed amusement park.  Those curious enough to want to peek in on the imagination process could observe the lab by standing outside and looking through a one-way mirror.

“‘Won’t the monsoon conditions deter people from coming?’ asked one naïve toy scientist.  A few marketers admitted they hadn’t really thought about that, but no worries – some complimentary corn dogs and chips could be included and increase the park admission ticket price.

“Now you think you’d have a difficult time attracting curious looky-loos to pay good money to covertly observe children playing with mundane objects while they stood eating in the pouring rain.  And in most corners of the world, you’d be right.  But Toys R Us had the good fortune to partner with mega-retailer *******, which was always on the lookout for new ways of attracting more customers to its stores in tens of thousands of rural locations across the country.

“No amount of rain-soaked corn dogs would ever get in the way of the possibility of horrific child accidents and the consolation to be found within the huge white spaces that encompass every discount item imaginable.  Toys included.”

Pigeon Trouble – Part One

Bob and Ray sat on a park bench, talking to each other and casually tossing bread crumbs to the flock of pigeons in front of them.

Bob:  “Sure are a lot of pigeons, huh?”

Ray:  “I’ll say – filthy beasts.”

“I like feedin’ ‘em – makes me feel useful, y’know?”

“Yeah, that’s good – get ‘em to let their guard down …”

“Excuse me?”

“With bread in their bellies, they won’t know what hit ‘em.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m talkin’ revenge, my friend, pure and simple.”

“Revenge?”

“You know – for what they did …”

“What did they do??”

“Buncha hoods … ruined my DeSoto …”

“Oh – you mean they pooped all over it …”

“Of course they pooped all over it!  How else are they gonna ruin a DeSoto?”

“Well, they are pigeons …”

“Hey, these are some downright despicable pigeons.  The DeSoto was just the beginning.”

“The pigeons have it in for you …”

“Now you’re gettin’ it.  Know what else they did?”

“Poop on another car?”

“Go ahead – you won’t be laughing when they rob you blind.”

“They robbed you.”

“Took every last dime:  savings, investments, 401-K, pension plan – all gone!”

“So they cleaned out all your bank accounts …”

“Clean as a whistle.  Hedging, derivatives, credit default swaps – those dirty birds knew exactly what they were doing …”

“Um … have you talked to your daughter about this?”

“She doesn’t listen to me – says I’m just too old to know what’s going on.  But I know – I know plenty …”

“Same here – can’t get anyone under 65 to take me seriously.”

“My prized DeSoto is ruined, and I’m living off my daughter without a penny to my name.  Those birds are pure evil.”

“Well, I guess all you can do is put it behind you.”

“I can forgive the car, I can even forgive the money … but …”

Ray seems to be on the verge of tears.  Bob, trying to be sympathetic, asks, “… but?”

“The betrayal, the violence …”

“The pigeons?”

“Yes, the pigeons!  Goddamn it, haven’t you heard anything I’ve told you?”

“Calm down!  How did they betray you?”

To be continued …

The Ugly Celibate

In “Existentialism is a Humanism,” Jean-Paul Sartre tells a story of a young man who became a Jesuit priest.  As a young man, the fellow had had a number of bad breaks:  he grew up in poverty; his father died at an early age; he felt like a charity case; and he botched every romantic relationship he ever had.  For all intents and purposes, he was a loser’s loser, a cautionary tale for the rest of us.  Strangely, though, instead of being bitter or depressed, he looked upon all these events as signs that he was meant to live a sacred life, not a secular one – no doubt “for the greater glory of God.”

Sartre asks, why interpret the signs this way?  Other interpretations were possible:  he might dedicate himself to carpentry, or become a revolutionary.  In all of this, it’s clear that the events or signs had no “content” in and of themselves; it was the young man who gave those signs their meaning.

There’s a conundrum tied into this story, something I like to call “the problem of the ugly celibate.”  Imagine that this young Jesuit was born horribly disfigured, without hope of changing his appearance.  Suppose further that it never really dawns on the young man that this horrible disfigurement may be at the root of all his subsequent bad breaks – too ugly for human connection.  And still, with all of this, the young man says yes, I take the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, all for God’s greater glory.

Here’s the problem:  can you say you are living a chaste life if, in fact, there was never any chance that you would ever get laid?  It’s the good-looking celibate (male or female) whose vow of celibacy embraces a real sacrifice – or “such a waste,” as I remember those from either gender comment upon the news that a classmate wanted to enter the religious life.

In conjunction with Sartre’s take on humanity as the source of all meaning, it comes to this:  Is the ugly celibate only deceiving himself?  Or does he in fact affirm humanity’s ability to give meaning, no matter how seemingly illusory, to ordinary, everyday existence?  An aphorism from Nietzsche helps:  “No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”  If an individual is aware of the conditions in which she lives, and still says “yes,” that’s not self-deception – that’s affirmation, of both self and world.

One of the Worst Times of My Life

I had a difficult time wrapping up the master’s portion of the graduate program.  The oral examination consisted of topics / questions / issues in the history of philosophy.  Even as I think about it now, I’m not exactly sure what it was I was supposed to have expected.  I guess what I learned after failing it miserably was that, while my examiners wanted to see what I knew and what I didn’t know, maybe more importantly, they wanted to see whether I was comfortable talking about these topics with them, whether I would respond with expansive enthusiasm.

Now at the time, I was much more comfortable being concise.  When one of them asked me a question, I would answer – briefly.  No more than thirty minutes in, I started seeing something in their faces, something that said I wasn’t doing well.  I pretty much shut down for good.  They began asking even easier questions, and mostly all I could say was, “I don’t know.”

So the examiners decided that maybe I would do better with a written exam.  About six months later I took it.  I thought my ordeal was over – but one of the examiners was not satisfied.  So the next remedy was that I should write a master’s thesis.  Took about another six months, but I did it – fifty or so pages on the topic of philosophical complementarity.  Even then I think the same examiner voted against accepting it – so it passed two votes to one.

That night after the oral exam was easily one of the worst times of my life.  I had planned to celebrate passing the exam with a couple of friends over dinner – but I was an absolute mess.  I went to my tiny student housing studio apartment, turned off the lights, laid in bed curled up in a fetal position, and cried myself sick.  My friends did come by, knocked on my door – but I didn’t answer.  They soon figured out that things didn’t go well, yet still wanted to go out, encouraging me, telling me to forget about it, it wasn’t the end of the world.  I was inconsolable – it was the end of my world.  I was as shell shocked as I had been after I first came back from the seminary in January 1979 – all at once, the world in which I thought I was meant to be was gone.