32 posts categorized "Men and Their Minds"

Brexit Explained

Brexit
Where is he gay today?
 A burger joint on Fulham Broadway, London.

Overheard from the next table, a group of men in their early thirties. 

"Of course you got sick.  Can't 'elp it if you travel abroad."

"Mate o' mine reckons you can get sick from just handling the money. It's filthy."

"A lot of them carry their money in in their arse-cracks.  The criminals are so afraid of looking gay, they won't touch another bloke there." 

"They say you should get your cash out of the machine in the morning, put it in your pocket, and jump in the swimming pool."  (Murmured agreement)  "Yeah, the chlorine cleans it right up."

Conversation ends as Spanish waiter arrives at table with lunch. 

No, I'm not making this up. 


The Definition of Sanity

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Peace.  We heard that word a lot over the recent holiday season.   Prayers for it, wishes for it, regret at how little of it seems to abide.  Heavenly peace, peace on earth, the prince of peace, peace to all men, peace was on everybody's lips.

Isn't it ironic that the new year always begins so peacelessly?

That goes double for our otherwise genteel neighbourhood.  A mere 5 doors away from us, we find the Europaplatz; a noble public space which the city government, for one night of the year, surrenders to hammered arsonists with explosives.  They're so drunk, most of them can't even find the place, and begin to blow shit up anywhere handy.  This was the view from our front window at one minute past twelve. 

 

That jars with my customary New Year's resolution.  From the previous sentence, you might conclude that I make the same, unsuccessful resolution every year.  You'd be right.   

My new year's resolution would appear to fit the definition of insanity often attributed to Einstein: it's crazy to do the same thing year in, year out, when the only result so far has been failure.  

Personally, I prefer a different definition of insanity: Giving fireworks to drunks.

My usual New Year's resolution aims for an oft-misunderstood state of mind; that is, mindfulness. To be present in the moment, to abandon that which angers, to be thoughtful in word and deed.  To mutter, when needed, Reinhold Niebuhr's famous Serenity Prayer, minus the first word.  

In 2012, I made a binding promise, in public, to be mindful.  Like, with a meme on a website, and everything.  It lasted eight days. 

This year felt different.

An afternoon walk on New Year's day, as always, revealed a the detritus of the night before.  But the sun, low in the sky, cast a light that made the trash, abandoned atop some recent snow, seem almost poignant. 

Detritus footpath

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Detritus whirligig

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Detritus beastmaster
Cars tried, and failed, to keep their dignity under the snow dumped on them.

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Buildings and trees schemed which pals to tag for the Ice-Bucket Challenge.  

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The usually sombre St. George's Church felt quite perky.  Under fresh snow, even their graveyard shines with optimism.

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By the time I reached the Maximiliananslagen, our local park, I was primed for a good mood.  Mind you, the park lifts your mood no matter what.  Its visitors have mastered the very skill I lacked; an unselfconscious ability to hang out, and enjoy simple pleasures. Especially on the sledding hill. 

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Yes, Rover, the yellow snow always smells more interesting, doesn't it?

It was then, I stumbled on an impromptu lesson in being present in the moment.  Three hung-over-looking men decided that the best thing to do this fine day, was grab a few shopping bags, and in an ass-chilling fit of madness, go for a slide.

  

I shall use these men—clearly too old to find joy in anything so childish as losing control of the direction in which their butts are travelling—as my example for 2015. 

This year, the resolution might stick, mildly.  I'll keep you posted.

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Blueskystudio2The first photo is entered in the PhotoFriday Weather challenge.


A Saturday Outing

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These several dozen dicks form a detail from a Keith Haring work, snapped at the Paris City Museum of Modern Art last July.  

I share it in honour of Coming Out Day 2014, which occurs every October 11.   Haring, as you may know, created the first Coming Out Day poster in the late eighties, and it remains an iconic work.

Coming out.  Is that still a thing?   Arguably, notwithstanding a rocky start, communities in the bourgeois West found diverse sexualities relatively easy to accept over the last half-century—easier, perhaps, than accepting the full implications of gender, race or economic equality.    

In our highly connected age, when we fight to keep the details of our private lives private, a public declaration of what gets our rocks off feels a little risky.  Maybe even déclassé.  

But we should ask ourselves if this reluctance is a matter of being discreet, or ashamed. Coming out day

Nice people don't talk about what goes on behind their bedroom doors.  So much of gay politics has concerned itself with making sure that bedroom door opens into a highly mortgaged house protected from estate duties through marriage.  Have we forgotten we have sex?

Over the last decades, coming out has focused on the social aspects of sexuality—marriage, money, personal safety, and community.  We want to weave our parners into the fabric of our economic and family life, whatever form that takes.  And for that to happen, revealing your orientation is a necessity.  Nobody knows it better than my husband and me. 

But coming out has a personal dimension.  Part of that personal dimension is erotic.  

When I came out, it meant more than just being able to bring a bloke to a dinner party.  Someone had given me a licence to find the world an erotically-charged place.  I ogled, I slobbered, I saw immense beauty in the men around me.  I found it easier to keep all this arousal respectful if I could actually talk about it, in a relaxed way, with anybody in earshot.  Still do. 

If you find talking about sex tacky, tough.  Jane Austen didn't write the queer script, pal. 

Revealing a sexless sexuality is pointless.  To stay schtum about the erotic side of our queerness doesn't make the world a freer, more open, more humane place.  It just announces that we're willing to conform to Puritan expectations.  It's just another closet.

All I can say is that coming out—even as late in life as me—did this bloke a power o' good.  Dammit, I could be horny anyplace I damn well pleased.  I loved talking about sex, and I loved hearing about sex.  My repartee began to sound like a gay Carry-On movie, if that's not a tautology.  The smutty banter was authentic.  All that applies today, too.  

To queers everywhere, enjoy mental health.  Coming out is a Mood Gym.

If you're in a safe place to do so, today is the day to tell the world where your libido points you. Lots of people, in many parts of the world, don't have that luxury.


The Christmas of Drinking Half-Decent Wine for a Change. Part One.

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Time for a bit of crowdsourced Christmas cheer.  Your advice, please.

One of the curses of adulthood is patience.  Grown-ups know how to defer gratification.  It usually works out for the best, but from time to time, you have to loosen the corset, open the poppers, and live a little.

I've collected wine, in a modest way, since university days.  A few dozen nice reds actually got schlepped across oceans and equators.  Since arriving in Munich, Master Right and I began to hunt for bargains at wine auctions—the Munich Wine Company in Diesenhofen offers some real gems if you look carefully.

In a wine-auction house, most of the stock is nicely long-in-the-tooth.  Much comes from estate sales; previous owners stockpiled wine in the cellar, waiting for it to age, and never quite made it to their last tipple. 

It occurred to us that some of our wine is so old, that it may no longer improve with age.  And that if we drink the stuff at our current modest rate, it could end up with a new owner, yet again.

So Master Right and I have declared 2012 the Christmas of Drinking Half-Decent Wine for a Change.   We're having a quiet Christmas at home, but you can celebrate with us.   Tell us which bottle to open with tonight's traditional baked ham. The choice is between two chardonnays, and a pinot bianco.  

The bottle in the centre is a classic 2001 White Burgundy from the Mersault appellation near Beaune—a find from the MWC. This wine is so smooth that you scarcely know you're drinking it, until you suddenly realise how happy you are.  We bought half a dozen to impress my high-school pal Neville.

Neville poses a grammatical problem when I choose to describe him.  That problem is the order of adjectives. 

Is Neville the cigar-smoking, ballroom-dancing, black-belted, corporate-compliance-credentialled, wine-connoisseur banker?  Or is he the banking, ballroom dancing, corporate-compliance-credentialled, wine-connoisseur, black-belted cigar-smoker? 

(You needn't look for him amongst my Facebook friends; one could include internet-prudent on the list of adjectives, too.)

Of course, the aspect of his many-faceted character that concerns us is wine-conoisseur

The bottle on the left is an Eileen Hardy Chardonnay, sourced in cleanskin.  Neville offered it as a gift in exchange for one of the bottles of Mersault.  The grapes for this vintage probably came from the limestone soils of the Padthaway vineyards, in the far south-eastern corner of the state of South Australia.  Online reviews call it "plump".  Online merchants call it expensive, but sourcing it in cleanskin makes it consumable with a good conscience. 

The bottle on the right is a younger choice, from 2006. Given the sweetness of the meat, someting drier and fruitier may be in order, like a Pinot Bianco.   The Jermann wine has a misleading name—it's not German at all, but Italian, from the region just to the north-west of Trieste.   My maternal grandfather was born not far from there.  

So help us choose.  Better palates than mine have given a merry thumbs-up to all of these. 

We're giving you all a nice big, plump thumbs up, too, for the holiday.  May you have a happy one.

Stay tuned to help us decide how to wash down the duck on Christmas day.


Is Hitler Funny?

An arcade game at the Munich City Museum

An arcade game on display at the Munich City Museum

Hippies would set my father off.  He couldn't fault their principles—hippies had impeccable morals, you may recall.  So he went ballistic on their hair.   Filthy.  Bedraggled. Disgusting.  No wonder they can't get a damn job.
 
Once, as he sat at the kitchen table reading the paper, he stumbled onto an interview.  Perhaps a student protester, or a sitter-in of some kind.  Don't fault long hair, argued the spokeshippie, because Jesus had long hair, too.
 
To my father, this proved they were not just miscreants, but morons.  Even the biggest dunce knows that barbers didn't exist in those days, he would shout. This snippet stood as a centrepiece in his tirade repertoire for years. 
 
One day, when I was a senior (matriculant) in high school, I ventured a comment on what I'd been reading in class.  The Roman historian Plutarch wrote that people knew Cicero was in a bad way, because he walked through the forum unshaven, and hadn't been to the barber.  So they must have known how to cut hair in Jesus' time.
 
It seems my father had discovered another moron, in the form of his own flesh and blood.  Christ didn't live in Rome, he sneered. 
 
I pointed out calmly that Palestine was a Roman colony.  Christ could have found a barber if he wanted.  But most religious statues show Christ with long hair—statues endorsed by the church, on display in a consecrated space.  Maybe the Son of God thought long hair wasn't such a big deal.
 
He stayed silent for a moment, thinking about what he'd just heard.
 
Besides, I added, how many ancient statues have you seen with long hair?

The stream of abuse nearly drowned me.  Ungrateful, insolent, evil, immoral, that was me.  How dare you.  One more remark like that and you'll be thrown out on the street.  See how you like that, smartass.
 
I just stood there and took it.  Someone had bolted my feet to the floor.  I wanted to vomit.
 
When I could get a word in, I bleated hastily that I didn't mean anything by my remarks.  This had no effect whatsoever.  For ten minutes, the mudslide of bile never let up.   Only when my father was spent, physically, could I get away. 
 
Fascism, Dad-style

I recalled my father during that famous scene from Der Untergang (Downfall).

51CWF3Z4R9L._SL500_AA240_Downfall takes us into the Führerbunker, in the last days of the War.  An aide has just told Hitler that General Steiner couldn't carry out an attack, as ordered.  He simply had too few men.

Hitler loses it.  The army disobeyed an order.  The Prussian generals betrayed him.  All they learned at the military academy was how to use a knife and fork.  He should have shot them all, like Stalin did.  The soldiers were weaklings. Cowards.

One of Hitler's deputies stands his ground, meekly.  He rebuts the accusation as ungeheuerlich; "monstrous" or "outrageous".  Kafka uses the same word to shock us in the first sentence of Metamorphosis; he applies it to the giant vermin once called Grigor Samsa.

Does Hitler hear this?  Not at all.  The tirade goes on unabated, with no-one listening.  The Führer is the Führer's only audience. 

 

Nowadays, this behaviour has a clinical name: Narcissistic Rage.  It's often triggered by an insult, or a simple statement of uncomfortable facts.  In therapy, one treats the narcissist by revisiting the abuse which made him mentally ill.  But what's the right response for a casual victim, caught in the crossfire between a madman and his ego?

Mocking the Monster

Unless your tormentor holds a gun to your head, the wrong response is to stand there and take it.  You cede power to him.

The right reponse, I feel, is to smile.

An old adage tells us to laugh in the bully's face.  It takes his power away.    When the pompous ass gets a pie in the gob, his anger makes him look weaker, not stronger. I should have told my father dude, even fucking Fred Flinstone gets a haircut.

People with skills and lack of anything better to do, often spoof this scene in Downfall by way of subtitles.  Probably, that's how you first came across it.   Parodies became so numerous, that Constantin Film asked YouTube to take them down—illegally, as it happens.

The pizza guy is late, and Hitler goes berserk.  The cast of Friends won't come to his birthday party, and Hitler goes berserk.  He is banned from X-Box Live, and Hitler goes berserk. Gran Turismo 5 changes its release date, and Hitler goes berserk—"as usual", the underscreed reminds us.  It took exactly 36 hours for Hitler to go berserk about Tom Cruise's divorce.

And you know what?  A lot of them are quite funny. 

Oliver Hirschbiegel, the director of Downfall, agrees.  Friends in the online world send him these parodies, at which he laughs heartily.   "The point of the film was to kick these terrible people off the throne that made them demons," he says. 

Do the parodies actually amplify the message of the original work?  When it comes to giving demons the shove, a belly laugh packs plenty of kick.  Think about political cartoons.  Think about animated cartoons, for that matter.  

DduckmeinkampfIn World War Two, animation powerhouses like Disney and Warner Brothers produced propaganda films.  In fact, Disney's State Department contract is credited with keeping the company afloat after Fantasia tanked at the box office in 1940.

In Der Fuehrer's Face,  Donald Duck dreams he is a Nazi and finds life rather unpleasant.  The theme song, recorded by the über-silly Spike Jones, became a hit in 1942, and the film itself won an Oscar in 1943.  (You can watch it here. And read a discussion here.)

But Disney's biggest war film is grim, overbearing and utterly unfunny.  Education for Death cracks a few limp jokes, but spends most of its ten excruciating minutes aping Leni Riefenstahl with ink-and-paint.  (Take a look at it here.)  Shadows, silhouettes and low, wide angles abound—a bit like a modern-day political attack ad.  Oscar bait, it ain't.

Slide1Education for Death evokes a visceral response.  The audience feels confusion, fear, and need to escape.  If that was the goal, it worked.  Fight or flee?  It was flee for me.

The enfants terrible of Warner Brothers took a different tack.  They made the enemy stupid, rather than evil.  Much easier to understand, and ultimately, to act upon.

Take the 1944 cartoon Russian Rhapsody.  (You can watch it here.)

Soon after the film starts, we catch Hitler in a fit of narcissistic rage, of the kind which defines him in our cultural memory.   He spits a torrent of nonsense at an unseen audience; the writers and animators used many of their own names to construct a German-sounding rant, since many had fled Germany a decade before.  After half a minute of hysterical shouting, the cartoon lands a devastating punch.  A hand holds a camera card before us.  It reads: Silly, isn't he?

Slide1Let's assume that these cartoons were an early example of the Family Guy school of animation.  That is, a cartoon aimed at adults, but which uses the conventions of the medium to reduce adult concerns to child-like simplicity.  Cartoons are crude by nature; they can turn superego concepts into big, loud, colourful creatures of the id.  

In World War II, Disney and Warners scratched two different spots on the American emotional underbelly.  Which approach proved more effective? 

Disney scares me.  This is useful in wartime, of course.   But the Warner approach succeeds on a different level.   

Warners mocked the enemy.  If someone had pointed out, in 1923, that Hitler was clearly and self-evidently a Froot Loop, maybe nobody would need to fight him in 1939.  

Columbia Studios actually did point out that Hitler was a Froot Loop, some time before the US entered the war and propaganda became official.  They harnessed another id-liberating force: The Three Stooges.  In You Natzy Spy, Moe Howard became the first American comedian to play Hitler on film, predating Charlie Chaplin by nine months.  Both Curly and Moe considered it their finest film.  For my taste, any Three Stooges short that didn't sock Hitler with a cream pie on the schnozzola, missed the opportunity of the century.

Ve Have Vays

The Nazis knew the subversive power of mockery only too well.  That's why they tried to stamp it out. 

Rudolph Herzog, son of the famous Werner, was cleaning out a great-aunt's apartment after she moved.  He made a rather curious discovery; several pages of jokes from the early forties, making fun of the government.  He set out to discover if these japes betrayed a sly resistance by rank-and-file Germans, or simply allowed a nation under pressure to blow off steam.

It led him to make a documentary film and write a book about humour under the Nazis.  The book is pubished in English as Dead Funny, and in the original German as Heil Hitler, das Schwein ist Tot!, or Heil Hitler, the Pig is Dead!  The accompanying documentary film bears the unfortunate title Ve Have Vays of Making You Laugh.

The Pig is Dead refers to the punchline of the all-time most famous anti-Hitler joke.  I shall not tell it here. It is no more than mildly funny, and further, it's one of those jokes that regularly get applied to almost any political leader.   

Among its 256 pages, Herzog's book contains about 100 jokes.  Most of them are simple ad hominem insults—few deal with the substance of Nazi ideology.  The Guardian review describes those jokes as "feeble".   And even for these, the tellers faced death.

The Nazis ruthlessly persecuted anyone who took to humour for a sense of perspective.  They wiped out a vibrant political cabaret scene, focussed on Berlin.  At its peak, the notorious People's Court  executed 2000 people a year for "defeatist humour".  Those who escaped the death penalty, might be harassed or imprisoned.  When the Nazis murdered comedian Robert Dorsay, they went so far as to announce it on billboards.  Be warned: that's what comes of a wisecracker. 

From a dozen years of history, in a nation which documented itself meticulously, we find a total of eight dozen political jokes.  And lame ones at that—of all the jokes Herzog documents, the most biting and inventive come from inmates of the concentration camps, often about themselves

It's a ghastly thought, but inescapable.  Jews, gypsies, jazz musicians, homosexuals, students and intellectuals—groups the Nazis most hated—held shrewd, distinctive senses of humour.   In his extraordinary paper on humour in the Holocaust, John Morreall reminds us of the Talmud.  According to the ancient Rabbis, those who make others laugh earn a place in Heaven. 

Under National Socialism, it might earn a Jew his place rather quickly.  Welsh journalist Gareth Jones wrote from Berlin in 1933:

Even Jewish jokes are regarded by many Nazis as part of the subtle scheme of world domination by the Jews. Hitler suggests that the Jews try to depict themselves in comic newspapers as a harmless, humorous people in order to mislead public opinion into thinking that they are no danger.

Any sensible person should have found this laughable.   Jones goes on to describe an encounter he had with the German Students Union.  Jews were constant liars, they maintained.  Since the language of the Jew is Hebrew, you see, anything he speaks in German must perforce be a lie.

How can one respond?   One could engage reason against this claim—does the same logic apply to translations of the Bible into German, for example?  But frankly, arguing with a madman agrees to the madman's terms.  A better response is are you fucking crazy

Crazy, they were. They were so fucking crazy, they couldn't see jokes cracked under their very noses. 

Morreall tells the tale of Freud's flight from occupied Austria.  The Reich agreed to let him emigrate, as long as he signed a letter stating he hadn't been mistreated.  Here's what he wrote:

To Whom It May Concern:
I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to anyone.
Sigmund Freud

In a common cabaret schtick, artists would wear gags in their mouths, and sit silent onstage for several minutes.  When they left, the MC would announce that concludes the political part of our programme.   The sketch passed muster, it seems.

The Fish Laughs from the Head

Nazi discomfort with humour went all the way to the top, to the Führer himself.  In 1943, the US Office of Strategic Services (predecessor to the CIA) circulated a psychoanalytic profile of Hitler.  They, too, thought he was fucking crazy. 

Like so much early work in the field, it falls victim to psychobabble and speculation.

The authors spout conventional wisdom of the time, like homosexuality being a perversion and women being weak or submissive.  With Freud still avant-garde, they looked for daddy issues under every rock.  And the OSS let a few howlers slip through; Hitler's godfather, they maintain, was Jewish, which must have made for a perplexing baptism. 

Nonetheless, the report shows a good deal of corroborated evidence that Hitler despised even affectionate jests made at his expense—thousands were condemned after naming their dogs or horses "Adolph", for example.  

Hypocritical, since Hitler was a gifted mimic, who lampooned friends and associates mercilessly.   The report notes that he is "afraid of logic".  Since humour delights in following logic to extremes, it's no wonder he hated a joke.

The Nazis fractured a nation's funny bone, and for a dozen or more years, it joked with a limp.    How could they wipe out an entire culture's sense of humour, and get everyone to think it's a good idea?  How could they make humour a sign of decadence?   How could they make it politically incorrect to laugh?  How could they get away with it?

At this point, it would be easy to wheel out the old trope about humourless Germans.  Not only does it derail the discussion, but it simply isn't true.  There may be much to say about cultural differences among nations, and the distinctive ways they laugh about the world, but this tired stereotype shouldn't be included in it.  

Rather, let's get back to where we started.  Why did narcissistic rage earn respect it didn't deserve, when a laugh could deflate it? 

Righteous Anger. 

Many have written how they felt mesmerised—indeed hypnotised—by Hitler's public appearances.   He aimed to enchant as well as persuade; the music, the pomp, the surroundings, and even the (literal) armies of attractive men and women.  Hitler's speeches beguiled them so thoroughly that few found the power to resist.

His oratorical technique hardly broke new ground, though.  A memorable setting, repetition, pauses, sensing the emotional temperature of an audience, building to a climax—they are the foundations on which the great speeches of history get built. 

Read the words Shakespeare puts into Marc Antony's mouth at Caesar's funeral.  Notice how he starts casually and low key (Friends...lend me your ears...).   Look at how often he repeats words for rhetorical effect, like honourable and ambitious.  He saves the clincher for the end, where he subtly slams Caesar's opponents as "brutish beasts" who have "lost their reason".

Watch I Have a Dream, to see the same devices in action—which shows one can use rhetorical technique for good, as well as ill.  

 

What made Hitler different, and uniquely persuasive to his fellow Germans of the time?  Looking at his speeches today, the element that makes them distinctive is the sheer volume of  Narcissistic Rage.  He starts slow, sometimes almost benign, but whips himself into a torrent of anger.  Even the most fiery orators seldom reach the fury of Hitler in full flight.   Where else can we find the seductive certainty of Narcissistic Rage at work?

Look to the pulpit.  I recall the same tone of indignant anger at the conservative Catholic church of my childhood.  The priests spat contempt; for sin, for sinners, for the congregation itself (especially when the parish was short of cash).  And for the most part, the laity not only sucked it up, but did as told.

The most spellbinding holy rage, of course, comes from fundies.  They resist mockery because they are virtual parodies of themselves.  The late American comedian Sam Kinison, who specialised in the comedy of anger, actually started out as a fundamentalist preacher.  

Yet congregants take them seriously.   Believers are schooled to believe such anger is righteous and good.   No wonder.  For many years, such speech was legally protected from even the gentlest ribbing.  Remember blasphemy laws?   They prove stubborn to undo, even in the most liberal of jurisdictions.  While enforcement has relaxed, the social norms they fostered have not.   For many ardent believers, a mere chuckle at the word of god is tantamount to the most appalling violence.

And in Bavaria, where we endure a Catholic Church of the most bitter and toxic sort, should we be surprised that other bitter and toxic ideologies once earned a place at the table?

Anger Unlaughed At

In modern Germany, have we developed a healthier perspective on anger?    The ever-present threat of a public scolding by strangers, Wutbürger outrage, or even ex-President Wulff's voicemail messages, give me pause. 

One thing is for sure.  We have not re-learned how to make fun of fascists yet.

One of the reasons we don't make fun of fascists very well, is because you can't talk about them openly.  The government proscribes the manner in which Nazism may be depicted.  No Nazi symbols in public—though theatre, film, television and books may use such symbols as long as they do not advocate in favour.   When it comes to National Socialism, the German authorities really do have no sense of humour.

Still, as the events of the 1930s and 40s fade from living memory, German satirists have begun to experiment.  The results, so far, are grim. 

Take the 2007 film Mein Führer—Die wirklich wahrste Wahrheit über Adolf Hitler, or Mein Führer—The Really True, Totally Trudeldee-do Truest Truth About Adolph Hitler. (That's my own translation, which evokes the full cringe of Fremdschämen one feels when one hears the original).   It is considered a blot on he career of anyone associated with it.  Plug the Amazon reviews into Google Translate to get a sense of how badly audiences received the piece. 

Most object to the film on the same grounds as Downfall.  Talking about Hitler as a clown or weakling humanises him, and earns our sympathy.  This strikes me as a poor understanding of the mechanics of ridicule.

So the duty to humiliate last image from http://featherfiles.aviary.com/2012-08-22/f77694d11/3ae3168fc0d441a9b97995ceec46245a_hires.pngcentury's greatest tyrant falls to media from abroad.  And they earn mixed reviews here in Germany. 

Chaplin's The Great Dictator was released in the West in 1958, and in the East in 1980.  It gets a warm reception, perhaps warmer than in English-speaking countries. 

That's understandable, since the film is politically correct in a mainstream European way, and it ends with the hero making an angry public speech, in the finest German oratorical tradition. 

Even so, many approach it with caution.  Online comments in the German-speaking world always begin with the disclaimer we really shouldn't laugh at Hitler, but...  One Amazon reviewer suggests, kindly, that viewers need to be prepared to make an "emotional and intellectual investment" in a film such as this—presumably, without encouragement, they might be reluctant to do so. 

The German-language production of Mel Brooks' The Producers, if you'll pardon the expression, bombed.  (For the plot of The Producers, click its Wikipedia page here

The press and theatre cognoscenti gave it a thumbs up,—could they do anything else, lest they be painted as humourless German stereotypes?  The Berlin production won an honorary Ernst Lubitsch Prize, usually awarded for a comic performance in German language film.  A spokesperson for the Admiralspalast Theatre spoke of the honour: "The story of two Jewish crooks fits to Berlin like no other, reflecting the great tradition of Jewish humour."  (My emphasis) 

I see.  It's Jewish humour, not humour per se

After an inital flourish of enthusiasm in both Vienna and Berlin, audiences stayed away.  Promoters blamed poor marketing 

Let's conduct a brief thought experiment.  Imagine Atlanta in the late 1920s.  A theatrical impressario wants to mount the latest Broadway success, a story of two scamming theatrical producers who need to find a guaranteed flop.  The protagonists stumble upon a play called Springtime for Ol' Massa, with a centrepiece that features a chorus of Antebellum gentry singing about all the human beings they might chain up and whip. Its plot turns on how the play-within-a-play is mistaken for satire, and becomes a surprise hit. 

Our impressario might blame his failure on poor marketing, too. 

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At ten Euros, a German-dubbed version of the original Producers commands
almost twice the price of a DVD of Mein Führer—the Truest Truth
Season One of Hogan's Heroes costs over thirty Euros, by the way.

On the other hand, we can point to a real-life Nazi-themed surprise hit: Ein Käfig voller Helden, better known as Hogan's Heroes.   The show, dubbed into German, enjoys a solid cult following, and is a staple of DVD racks across Germany.  Now there's something to make a cultural anthropologist's head explode. 

(Recently, my language skills have progressed from atrocious to merely awful.  I've set myself the task of watching Hogan's Heroes and The Great Dictator in German.  The Vienna cast album of The Producers sits in the car CD player.   Lemme get back to you after I've digested them all.)

Practical Mockery

Not long after I arrived in Munich, I stumbled onto a demonstration at the Isartor.  A neo-Nazi group had organised a march, and it earned a huge police presence.  Officers lined the streets, formed human barriers around public buildings, and filmed the event so troublemakers could be recognised later. 

Caught in the crowd, I had missed an important fact.  When I got home and read the press reports, I learned that the police spent most of their energy on the angry counter-protestors.   The evening paper told us how the police kept Nazi opponents kettled-in, as we say in German.   The placard in the photo reads Fascism is not an opinion, but a crime.

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Tempers flared.  The neo-Nazis, relatively few in number, actually had the upper hand from a political and PR point of view.  Police needed to keep cool heads, since the encounter easily might have turned into a conflagration. 

Did anger work?  What might have worked better? 

To answer that question, please click on this link.  It shows a parade float from Karneval 2007 in Düsseldorf, via the Petaflop Design Group's coverage.  The float consists of a giant papier-mache figure of Hitler in uniform (minus the swastikas, of course, since that would be illegal to show in public).  A large turd hangs out of his ass.  The turd is labelled "NPD" for the National Democratic Party of Germany, widely regarded as a neo-Nazi group

Why didn't the protestors just borrow the parade float, park it along the route, and repair to the pub?  Much better plan.

Of course, it was important to view the neo-Nazis as a serious threat.  Their ideas and twisted morals pose such a danger to humanity, we must stop them at every turn, and by every means.  Thoughtful men and women must be roused to action.

But it doesn't hurt to make fun of their goddamn stupid shoes, either.

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The Brown Danger.  So Dangerous are Bavaria's Neo-Nazis

Responsible Comedy.

Laughter has magic to it. Those who employ humour to mock an undeserving subject, generally come undone.  Those who make a sense of humour their constant companion, hold up a shield against hypocrisy and inhumanity.  Morreall reminds us that laughter is our most powerful weapon against indoctrination.

But should we, like Lear, make the jester our conscience?   Are comedians becoming our moral voice?  Arguably, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert act as the moral voice of America, since America's traditional moral voices spout the devil's words. 

That brings with it a responsibility.  Bill Maher is one of the new breed of moralist comedians; he cautions the angry comics of this world to remember their power.  The have a choice to use that power for active good, not just to skewer an easy target.  

Prince Harry goes regimentalNot every joke about Hitler serves a noble purpose. And just calling your opponent a Nazi hardly amounts to a winning argument

As Charlie Chaplin began to shoot The Great Dictator, he reflected on the project.  Both he and Hitler were born in April of 1889, were of the same height, and even had the same moustache.   Chaplin observed that the Führer "is the madman and I'm the comedian...but it could have just as easily be reversed."

Laughter helps us remember who's who.

Must his madness drive us?

I don't think about my late father very much.  When I do, my jaw clenches, and my blood pressure rises.  He failed the benefit of the doubt I gave him so often, and so consistently, that I mentally look the other way when he pops into my head.   If anger seeks to breed, then mission accomplished.

He was very much the family rogue.  His several siblings, along with their spouses and children, tiptoe around my father's memory.   Just like I do. 

At a recent family gathering, we chatted about how my aunts and uncles enjoyed such close and devoted relationships.  Marriages of forty and fifty years are the norm; divorce in our family is practically unheard of.

Except for my father, of course.  When he died, he was engaged to his third fiance.

The exception had to be acknowledged—especially since his son was part of the conversation—but the family did its best to politely sidestep the topic.  I felt I should say something.

"Well, you know Mike. He was a randy old billy goat."

A cousin spurted her drink out of her nose.  Another replied, quietly, "Yup."   Everybody laughed. 

I felt better.  We all felt better.  We could move on, to talk about important things; which granchild was graduating from where, what the latest baby had been named, who was on vacation, what flavour doughnut one should choose at the coffee shop, and the price of gas these days.

We could move on.

So, my German friends and neighbours, feel better.  Laugh at Hitler heartily.  When you hesitate to do so, you cede him (and his contemporary followers) more power than they deserve. 

Is Hitler funny?  The answer is yes. Moreover, he's laughable.  And long may he stay that way.

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Images in this post come from diverse sources.  I believe that the reproduction of all images and content conforms with US and EU rules on fair use in quotation and criticism.  If you use these images, similar conditions apply.


The World's Worst Buddhist

Daibutsu Kamakura pensive
The Daibutsu (Amida Buddha) at Kamakura, near Yokohama, in April 2004.
He looks in a pensive mood, which isn't very Buddhist of him.

If you must have a religion, Buddhism strikes me as a good idea.  By all accounts, it tries to unite the spiritual and the temporal, in a healthy way. 

Should one need the solace of prayer, one could do worse than meditate; meditation is prayer turned inward, rather than upward.  Regular meditation can increase physical and mental well-being.

Buddhist meditation focuses you on yourself, your mind and body.  Is this selfish?  Not at all.  In theory, such deep understanding of one's own being fosters both compassion toward others, and self-reliance.  

(All this compassion doesn't keep you from being a sexist creep, from time to time.  The Dalai Lama maintains that a woman might well become his successor—but she's gotta be a looker, since appearances count.)

So, without wishing to trade-in my broad-church atheism for an actual religion or nuttin', I took Buddhism out for a spin.  Not the whole thing, but a couple of Buddhist precepts.  January was to be a month of ditthi, viewing reality as it really is, not as we wish it to be, and sati, seeing things for what they are with clear consciousness and a sense of truth, as well as being aware of the present reality within oneself, without any cravings for more, nor distatste for what you have.  

IlovesmallstonesA meme piqued me to do it.  Buddhist priest and therapist Kaspalita, along with writer Fiona Robyn, declared that January 2012 become a River of Stones.  Each day, they encouraged readers of their website to write a small stone.  In their words, a short piece of writing that precisely captures a fully engaged moment.  If you read their work, you'll discover that the stones they write, are true gems.

Just what the doctor ordered.  Therapists and support groups tell me that a family like mine—where children were served generous helpings of emotional torture sprinkled with little jimmies of violence—will create adults with a distinct quality of mind.  We have trouble engaging in the moment.  Disengagement with the moment, after all, was once a tool of psychological survival.  The habit dies hard.

Kill it, though, I must.  So I set up a Tumblr for my River of Stones, and dubbed it Der Fluß aus Steinen.  Alert readers will have noticed a link to it on the sidebar.  Readers may notice, too, that it no longer appears.  I lasted eight days. 

It started smoothly enough.  I resolved to capture each stone in a photo, and write of it later.  On January 1, a Christmas three atop a crane on the Odeonsplatz caught my eye.  I imagined that the presents underneath would be Erector Sets for all the little cranes to enjoy.  Maybe Erector Sets were the crane equivalent of toy soldiers, or Barbie.  So far, so good.  Step one on the road to enlightenment.

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Eight days later, I cast a pair of weary eyes around the office.  Mindful of my surroundings and present in the moment, a full pencil sharpener loomed into view.   Should one iron the shavings, to improve the feng shui and attract positive chi, I wondered?   Not exactly On Walden Pond.

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And so, mindful of my surroundings and present in the moment, I gave up.

I could never get the hang of these little moments of exquisite, poetic sensibility.  They're all terribly nice, but so what?  

Let's give it another go, right now.  Around me, I notice a number of things in the room where I sit.  It is a living room.  The prints on the wall hang slightly crooked; maybe they leaned together for a furtive smooch, and hastily composed themselves as I walked by.  

These pictures in mild disarray remind me of a Casanova caught in flagrante, who must dress fast to escape.  One could do a 5-7-5 haiku about that.

A lover revealed. 
He is not quite complete.
His socks took too long.

Talk about unmindfulness!  Not only did I fail to describe what sits in plain view, but I leapt to another, more interesting story, the likes of which I've never experienced in person.  (Call me a coward, I always hid naked in the wardrobe.) 

I chose imagination over observation.  Bad Buddhist!

Haiku purists take a dim view of all this metaphor and narrative.   High haiku must adhere to a strict rhythm—it needn't rhyme, because given Japanese grammar and phonology, rhyming would be too easy to be considered artful.  And it must stick to what the poet sees and hears. 

Matsuo Basho wrote arguably Japan's most famous haiku in 1686.  There have been hundreds of translations of these seventeen simple syllables.  Plainly put, the poem states there is a peaceful old pond, a frog jumps in and makes a splash. 

Call me a philistine.  Call me obtuse.  But...I don't get it. 

My Japanese friends (and my husband, to boot) assure me that I am missing a great source of artistic satisfaction, not to mention the serenity which comes from contemplating a moment of exquisite beauty.  Well, yeah.

I have a long way to go.

In the meantime, imagination provides both diversion and solace.  A certain amount of inserenity can pump you up, just as much as a good whiff of chi.    But you have to dodge a trap—living too comfortably in your imagination, rather than seeking comfort on the panet Earth.  Perhaps that's a discussion for another time.


Denglish: Check Your Male

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This billboard, with its tantalising wisp of chest hair on a svelte torso, didn't raise too many issues of language.  At least not at first.

It's an ad for World Compact, a tabloid version of the prestigous German national daily The World.  Few know this, but the paper was founded in Hamburg by the British occupying forces, who modelled it on The Times.  Early this year, the new Welt Kompakt was hyped as a hipper, snappier version of Die Welt, with the blunt slogan Short. Different. Printed.

The headline reads: We chat on the phone with Mama and check emails at the same time. Are we ripe for a new newspaper? 

I pondered this piece as I waited for a train, and it began to fascinate,  on a number of levels.

It's Short.

First, look at all that hybrid-English!   In spite of all the Englishy words, the ad contains one of the few sentences which is longer in its English form, than in the original German.

As a language, German pursues precision.  Its grammar riddles normal conversation with redundancies and extra info—must I really specify the gender of my math teacher?   German doesn't just borrow a short Latinate word to describe an abstract concept, it must explain the idea in detail—no science, for example, but rather wissenschaft, which clarifies that science is a knowledge accomplishment.   This example turns a seven-letter word in English into a twelve character word in German, a typical margin.  Words and sentences seem to last an eternity.

Copywriters must put the maximum meaning into the shortest possible space.  The Texter(in) who wrote the billboard shows a mastery of the craft.

It's Gay.

Second, do my homosexual readers (you know who you are) detect some code?

I mean, who else but a gay guy would clutch his mother's photo to his nice-but-not-too-worked-out pectoral while (at least) half-naked?  

These clues had me looking at the model's fingers, for that foolproof sign of homosexuality—a ring finger shorter than the index finger.   Bingo!   He's family.

Let's leave aside the clear message that he's having naked phone-sex with Jocasta, and look at the word used to describe it.

He telefoniert with Mama.  He doesn't rufen her an, or as we would say in English, call her up.  (in German, he technically calls her on.)   Telefonieren refers to a discussion, an exchange that lasts a while.  In English, we're far less precise.  We neeed to use the phrase to be on the phone with someone. Or to add a clarification, like I phoned her for a long chat

The word telefonieren may sound familiar to an English ear, but it's a little more precise than we expect.

It's inboxed.

You native English speakers: what do you reckon about the word Mails?

Before the turn of the century, the word mails sounded dumb.   Grammatically, mail was a mass noun, as opposed to a count noun.   Such a noun never appears in the plural, like  traffic, Jello or pseudoephedrine.  The well-known 1998 movie is called You've Got Mail, not You've Got Mails

If you wanted to talk about pieces of mail, you might use a word like letters or postcards.  But how do you refer to a single unit of email?   No such descripive term exists, so English speakers have turned email into a count noun; e.g  I need to answer a couple of emails before I leave the office.

Germans cleverly side-stepped this minor confusion when they wrestled with what to call these new electronic messages.   No need for e-posten or e-briefe when you can just shorten the English word email to Mail and apply it—to mailen something always means to send it electronically.    The noun form started life in German as a count-noun.

The German language could have cooked the word from scratch, but it was easier to buy one ready-made. 

It's Checked.

The grammatical distinction between a mass-noun and a count-noun proved so riveting that I nearly missed the choicest morsel of English in the whole headline.  The verb checken

The Honourable Husband believes that no language borrows a foreign word just to sound cool.  The language has to need it.  Especially in this case, since checken is an odd word that flaunts its English origin through spelling.   The guy on the billboard really should tschecken his mail.

So, why does German need the word check?   I answer with another question: Have you ever been checked in Germany?

Germans don't check things.  We examine things, certify things, analyse things, understand things, ensure things, rate things, measure things, record things, judge and evaluate things. The closest literal translation for check, in German, is überprüfen; literally, to over-prove.  It can be excruciating. 

Nothing over-proves this better than reality cop shows.  

Such shows reflect their cultures in distinctive ways.  Sam Richards wrote in The Guardian that American shows like COPS and Rookies "glorify police work as a flashy, heroic fight against the forces of evil".  Their British equivalents, such as Cops with Cameras or Street Wars "present a grim, ceaseless and unwinnable struggle against petty crime motivated by booze, drugs, poverty and boredom."  In Germany, the forces of evil....create disorder!

Mein_revier_logo_300_88_kabel_eins

 Mein Revier—My Beat—promises that Ordnungshüter räumen auf!   Guardians of Order Straighten Up! 

Viewers quiver with excitement as two officers help a young Kölner find his car when he's forgotten where he parked it.  Two others take care of an angry drunk until his wife can come and get him.  Viewers find polite parking inspectors worthy of note.  Next week promises that an attractive Russian woman will be caught with too many duty-free cigarettes.

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Achtung Kontrolle! (no translation necessary) focuses on first-world problems, too.  

This link shows a teenager left alone while her parents are away; her parties have caught the attention of the apartment-building super and he phones the police to check that everything's in order.  The young woman outsmarts the cops with her superior cunning; she doesn't answer the door.   

In Die Chaos RastätteThe Chaos Rest Area—we follow an Autobahn catering inspector as he ruthlessly puts a motorway caf through its paces.  Top notch toilets, but poor time-and-motion management. In order to get a Bockwurst and a latte—your standard trucker coffee break—one needs to visit every corner of the shop.  It gets  worse if the trucker decides he wants a packet of tissues.  Unacceptable!

Achtung Kontrolle! recently did a feature about when to switch on, and switch off, your rear fog light.   I was on the edge of my seat.

Lucky these guys don't have any neo-Nazi thugs left to catch.

Borrowing from necessity.

Back to the point.  The point is that German didn't have a world to describe the casual, take-it-or-leave-it attitude with which a modern cyber-citizen must view his bulging e-mailbox.  So it looked to the messiest, most haphazard tongue it could find—our very own English. And they found what they sought—the word check.

So, it was with smug pride in my native language that I glanced away from the billboard.  My train had left.  Damn.  Must overproof the schedule, next time.


Number 49

7049_Unimog_RMatchbox cars were my drug of choice. 

I would beg my mother to abandon her ironing board—an easy sell— so I could turn it into a miniature autopia.  The board's cloth surface maintained just the right amount of friction; a car could glide smoothly, but stay put when parked.  A hard surface like a table top argued noisily with a toy car, especially if equipped with those newfangled Superfast wheels. 

Speed vs. Accuracy

My childhood pals and I rarely raced our cars.   To send one scooting across a floor, or down a track, meant the whole thing would be over in an instant.

On a smooth surface, a toy might travel twenty feet in a second.  At a scale of 1:60, that's like a real car reaching 800 miles an hour— four times the speed of Formula One.  A beguiling thought, but pretty boring in real life.  If you've watched F1 from trackside, you'll know that the spectator sees but a split second of noisy blur.

We got down to eye level with these cars. They had to move accurately, and with grace. As we drove them down the lanes and highways of our bedrooms, they would pick up a fair clip, but we enjoyed the drive.  We shifted imaginary gears.  The little car bodies rolled in the right direction as we took corners.   

Many of the pre-Superfast cars came equipped with steerable wheels.  You tilted the car body in the direction you wanted the wheels to turn.  This pissed us off.   Body roll goes opposite to the direction of travel.  You don't have to study Newton to know that.

My room may have been a mess.  My shoes scuffed, and untied.  I ate like an animal.  But my Matchbox cars were tucked neatly in their carrying cases, often in the original cardboard box.  In a childhood full of chaos, these tiny machines reperesented order.  Thoughtfulness.  Peace.

Take your mind off thinking. 

Robert Pirsig makes some shrewd observations about mankind and machines in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.   He feels that mechanical work can give an "inner peace of mind".   Lincoln_logs_building_sets It involves an understanding of the physical world around you, its potential and limits, and becomes almost a form of meditation.

So does building things.  American children of a certain age will recall Lincoln Logs.  The toy seemed simple; you stack bars of stained wood atop one another in order to build primitive cabins, barns and forts. 

But a young mind had to deal with a number of  issues.  How do the logs interlock?  Which pieces stacked on which to form a triangle?  How many logs, of what type, did I need to build a particular structure?  For a four year-old, it demanded complex spatial reasoning and a good deal of patience. 

Did I actually play with the cabin, farm or fort afterwards?  No.  That wasn't the point.  I basked in satisfaction.   I was the master of something.  At least one bit of this kid's world was under his control.

Country rocker Skid Roper treasured his toys, too.  In a simple ode, he asks his mother what happened to my Lincoln Logs?  Right now, he needs their help.  He has difficult stuff to think about.  Maybe emotional stuff.  This simple task will occupy his head, so his heart can think, in its own way.

For me, the song rings true, even if Mojo Nixon spoils it with his stupid harmonies in the last verse.

What happened to my Matchbox cars?   To the best of my knowledge, they rest safe in the closet of my brother and sister-in-law's spare room.  I left them, well over a decade ago, for my nephew to enjoy.   I rather hoped he would treasure them as much as I did. 

But these matters are deeply personal, and he chose his own contemplative toy: Star Wars Lego.  He even named the family dog Yoda, after his second-favourite Star Wars character.  Darth Vader would have sounded odd for a dog.

Metal, in the flesh

Of course, to a modern kid, the collection amounts to little more than an historical relic.  But what history!

Mathbox gave kids like me a window on the glamourous world of mid-century European motoring: Ferrari, Lambourghini, Iso Grifo, Pinnafarina, Mercedes ambulances, Land Rover fire trucks, sedans called saloons and trailers called caravans.

When they watch Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, many Americans of my age get the joke about Ford Prefect thanks to Matchbox.

Living in Europe, one stumbles across a real version of these cars from time to time.  They almost always cause a double take—like when you see a celeb on the street.  Often, they don't look anything like you imagined them

Take the Lotus Europa (#5).  Given the shape of its micro-clone, I thought a Europa must be some kind of delivery van (especially since the toy version had a towbar) rather than the sexiest of low-slung, mid-engined cars.  Lotus only made 9000 Europas, but the Matchbox version sold in the millions.

The biggest shock came from my first glimpse of a classic Unimog (#49).   This was a bit of a dullard in my collection.  Interesting enough, but with the bright red and not-quite-sky-blue paintjob, it fell into the stocking stuffer category, rather than making it onto Santa's list.

The real thing packs a whallop.  I want this truck.  I want to ford streams.  I want to climb hills sideways.  I want to bowl over saplings as I make my way through a forest.  I want to ride this truck like a horse.  A real physical, gut reaction.

Unimog 2a
Quite a contrast to the feeling of calm, order and purpose I got its miniature counterpart.  A real Unimog is kinda sexy.  Even with the gooby bit on the front that lets park rangers pick up Otto bins.

An emotional lesson

Maybe that's part of growing up.  We learn to integrate the physical, the intellectual, the emotional. 

When I get in a car today, so many things cross my mind and heart.  The order and precision of the dials.  The slightly different engine note when the tank is full of 102 octane, rather than 95.  And from time to time, the feeling of mastery when you take over the gears and spin some higher revs than, perhaps, is prudent.

Those little cars affected me profoundly.  Today, I find it odd to  think that many use the word "mechanical" to mean "soul-less".  

My apartment, from time to time, may still be a mess.  My shoes are still scuffed, and often untied.  When nobody's looking, I still eat like an animal.  And the great big grown-up automobile I drive still feels a bit like the tiny cars I piloted across the ironing board.  My car a haven of peace and order, but at the same time, a source of incredible physical sensations and excitement.

Judging by the concept car below, the people who are designing the next Number 49 get it.  Hard to park, but awesome for parkour.  I might not buy one, but I'd sure as hell like to take it out for a spin.

Mercedes_Unimog_Concept_01

All photos link to source.  Special hat-tip to the Matchbox Wiki and mrdiecastman for several hours of reminiscing pleasure


The Third Annual International Day to Bite Me, January 13.

Clean desk loafing
Look at the photo above.  What do you see? 

Here's what I see.  A clean desk.  And absolutely no work being done!

It astonishes me when self-righteous neat-freaks suggest that a desk with no sign of work upon it shows more evidence of industry than a desk which looks like it's actually used.

That's why the second Monday in January—National Clean Off Your Desk Day—gets my goat.

In 2009, Deutschland über Elvis declared an anti-holiday in response.  The International Day to Bite Me occurs every January 13, and celebrates a number of things. 

It celebrates creativity, thoughtfulness, and humanity.  It celebrates a temperate and relaxed order to one's life, as opposed to an obsessive quest for absolute control over everything that happens around you.   It empowers you to resist, when others tout their neuroses as virtues.

HOW YOU CAN PARTICIPATE

First, choose your target.  When they nag you, let'er rip.  Then  go to the Official International Day to Bite Me Page, and leave a comment.  Let us hear your stinging riposte. Tell us who you told off.  How did they take it? 

If you're feeling really riled up, you might like to post a story on your own blog.  Or show your support on the IDTBM facebook event page.

And you can get into practice for the big event on January 7.  It's I'm Mad as Hell and I'm Not Going to Take It Any More Day.  The perfect warm-up, wouldn't you agree?