This post is about inanities. I am drawing its content from my Inanities File, which I began in the 1960s and continued into the mid-1980s, at which point I lost interest in it. Maybe the world’s inanities so overwhelmed me that I couldn’t keep up. At any rate, I stopped collecting inanities, though every three years or so I would get out the file, peruse its contents, and chuckle, or shake my head in disbelief, or get indignant or angry. And now I am publishing a selection of the file’s contents, for viewers to react as they wish. They may find these items inane, or they may not; it’s a matter of personal perspective. And one’s reaction to an inanity can vary widely, from laughter to scorn to indignation to fury to bafflement.
But what is an inanity? Obviously, something that is inane. But what does “inane” mean? Off the top of my head, I would say “supremely silly.” But to firm up my own definition, I have consulted that authority of authorities, Webster’s International Dictionary, 2nd ed., a ponderous tome that sits on my desk gathering dust, since it requires such an effort to access it. Its definition of inane: “Without contents; empty; esp., void of sense or intelligence; silly; characterless.” I have no quarrel with this, but I especially emphasize “silly.”
Inanities from my file
So here are some items from my Inanities File, taken from newspapers and magazines of the time, items in my mail, a concert program, a wrapping from airline food, whatever. Some are peculiar to the 1960s or a bit thereafter, others could be of any age.
· From the East Village Other of Nov. 15-21, 1968, a statement by poet and ex-convict John Sinclair, manager of a guerrilla rock band and founder of Trans Love Energies, an artists’ commune: “… Our program is cultural revolution through a total assault on the culture which makes use of every tool, every energy and every media we can get our collective hands on…. We are free mother country madmen in charge of our own lives and we are taking this freedom to the kids of America … and … these kids are READY! … BE FREE, goddammit, and fuck all them old dudes, is what we tell them, and they see that we mean it. … We demand total freedom for everybody! And we will not be stopped until we get it. We are bad…. WE ARE THE SOLUTION.” Following this long tirade comes a program that includes the end of money; free food, clothes, housing, dope, music, bodies, medical care – free everything; and finally, since leaders suck, all power to the people!
· From the New York Times of October 22, 1970: “The ordinary white bread that most Americans eat every day was described by a scientist here as being so low in nutritional value that laboratory rats living on it for 90 days died of malnutrition.”
|If it can starve rats, what will it do to you?ElinorD|
· From the New York Times of May 29, 1976, accompanying a photo of a hefty senior manipulating a hula hoop: “Young at heart: Belle Sommers competing in the Hula Hoop competition during the Senior Citizens Olympics at Piedmont Park in Atlanta Thursday. Other events included an ugly-face-making contest and a balloon race.”
· From The Village Voice of January 3, 1977, citing reviews of a new album of the Ramones, four leather-jacketed youths looking very macho and very tough in the accompanying photo: “Ramones is a classic” – Rutgers Daily Targum; “El Stinko garbage of the worst kind” – Dayton Journal Herald; “The last time I was insulted by something as bad as the Ramones was when Mary Hartman shot her husband in the crotch with a bow and arrow” – The Drummer, Philadelphia; “Indeed awesome.” – Performance Magazine; “The worst of New York punk bands.” – Washington Post; “Music to sniff glue by.” – Marty Packin, Asbury Park Press; and many more.
· From a book review in the New York Times Book Review of March 14, 1976, quoting from the work in question: “his cadaverous – but not unhandsome – visage.”
· An ad in I don’t know which New York City newspaper, date uncertain: WE HAVE 560,000 INDIVIDUAL NAMES WITH COATS OF ARMS…. IS YOUR NAME LISTED HERE? THE CHANCES ARE 98% IN YOUR FAVOR THAT WE WILL BE ABLE TO RESEARCH AND FIND A COAT OF ARMS BEARING YOUR NAME…. GET A DOCUMENTED COAT OF ARMS ON YOUR CHECKS…. AVAILABLE ONLY AT FRANKLIN NATIONAL BANK.
From the New York Times of March 3, 1969, dateline Philadelphia, March 22: “Bubble gum has blown up into big business in the United States. Americans are chewing about $100-million worth of it each year, according to Edward L. Fenimore, president of the Philadelphia Chewing Gum Corporation of nearby Havertown. Sales and consumption have more than quintupled in the last 10 years, and there is no sign of a let-up, Mr. Fenimore says.”
· The list of ingredients on a 1-ounce package of Rachel’s Cookies, presumably acquired during air travel, date uncertain: “Bleached and unbleached wheat flour, chocolate chips (sugar, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, dextrose, lecithin), high fructose corn syrup, vegetable shortening (partially hydrogenated) soybean and cottonseed oils with mono- and diglycerides added), sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, soybean oil, molasses, natural and artificial flavors, whey, dried whole eggs, food starch-modified, baking soda, salt, lecithin, baking powder (sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium bicarbonate, corn starch, monocalcium phosphate), enzymes.”
· From an article on the Committee on Public Doublespeak’s awards in The New York Times of November 28, 1974: the award for Educationese, given to Donald Jay Willower, professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, for the following: “Yet, the most basic problems that arise in connection with knowledge utilization may be those that stem from the social and organizational character of educational institutions. A few university adaptations already have been highlighted. Public schools display a myriad of normative and other regulatory structures that promote predictability, as well as a host of adaptive mechanisms that reduce external uncertainties.”
· From the same source, a doublespeak award to Colonel David E. Opfer, former air attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Pnom Penh, Cambodia, for his complaint to reporters: “You always write it’s bombing, bombing, bombing. It’s not bombing. It’s air support.”
· From a Pete Hamill column about New York State Senator Seymour Thaler, inspecting Knickerbocker Hospital with an NBC TV film crew in tow, in the New York Post of May 13, 1967: “We ended up visiting the ward, and with the TV crews gone, Thaler’s indignation was waning. He went into a room and stared at a strange totem-like device that resembled a large parking meter. It was used for washing bedpans. ‘Does this thing work?’ Thaler asked, pulling the handle. It flushed all over the front of his suit.”
· From a letter signed by Timothy Leary and delivered to the Los Angeles Free Press, reprinted in The Phoenix, a Boston weekly, of September 26, 1970: “Brothers and sisters, this is a war for survival…. Ask the wild free animals, they know it…. You are either part of the death apparatus, or you belong to the network of free life…. Listen, Americans, your government is an instrument of total lethal evil. Remember the buffalo and the Iroquois!... Resist privately; guerilla invisibility…. Resist biologically; be healthy … breed. Arm yourself and shoot to live…. To shoot a robot genocidal policeman is a sacred act…. Total war is upon us. Fight to live or you will die. Freedom will live. Timothy Leary. WARNING: I am armed and should be considered dangerous to anyone who threatens my life and freedom.”
· From an article about a Frenchman who won the lottery in France and was beset by a horde of money-seekers, in The New York Times Magazine of May 7, 1967: “The prizewinner for sheer inventiveness or bizarre misfortune … was an elderly fellow who asked for a loan to pay his legal fees, for he had fired a joyous shotgun blast in the air during a wedding celebration and unfortunately had slain one of the bride’s relatives.”
· From a summary of the plot of Mascagni’s opera Iris, in a program for I don’t know what concert by Licia Albanese: “The action … takes place in Japan. Iris, the beautiful young daughter of the blind Cieco, is abducted to a place of pleasure by Kyoto, a procurer, and Osaka, a wealthy rake. She is driven mad by the experience and throws herself from the window into a sewer. Halfway between life and death, she bemoans her own sad destiny, asking why … why? … The rising Sun greets the dying Iris, and she hails her only salvation, the God of Day. She sinks into a field of blossoms and becomes one with the flowers.”
· From a 1985 brochure that came in the mail: “Once again the Mystery School calls us to take the Journey of Transformation in which we leave behind our little local life for a time and pursue Great Life and Great Time. We train to become stewards of the process by which evolution enters into time and the wasteland is greened…. I welcome you to the Once and Future School. Jean Houston”
· From an article, dateline Rajneeshpuram, Ore., Sept. 21, in the New York Times of September 22, 1985: “The desert commune here that recruited homeless people from around the country last year, in what some local residents said was an effort to stack the voting in local elections, is once again in turmoil. A key leader has departed, and a string of allegations against her is being investigated by six law-enforcement agencies. Indicative of the tremors that have rocked the community was an offer last night by its spiritual leader, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, to give all but one of his 90 Rolls-Royces to his 5,000 disciples as a gesture of appreciation.”
|Timothy Leary, arrested in 1972.|
Not armed enough, it would seem.
Some of the above items require no comment; others do. Sometimes the writer is aware of the inanity, and sometimes not. The first one by John Sinclair and the letter by Timothy Leary are examples of the raw, violent edge of the late 1960s and early 1970s: We are wild, we are free, we are bad, we are good, we are the solution, join us or you are part of the problem, and down with everything and everyone one else! This attitude, characteristic of fiery twentysomethings, lacks compassion and understanding, and above all it lacks any appreciation of ambiguity. If you don’t grasp at least a little bit the significance of ambiguity, you will never understand the world we live in, its complexities, its inconsistencies. As for Leary (1920-1996), his advocacy of psychedelic drugs earned him repeated confrontations with U.S. authorities and landed him in jail more than once. His life was too complicated, too turbulent, to summarize here.
At the time of the statement I knew nothing of John Sinclair and Trans Love Energies. I now learn that he had been serving a 9½ to 10-year sentence in Michigan for possession of two joints of marijuana (his third offense), but was released by a court ruling in 1971, coincidentally just after a gigantic concert on his behalf that included speeches by such stellar activists as Allen Ginsberg, John Lennon, and Yoko Ono. The statement itself expressed the credo of Sinclair’s White Panther Party, an imitation of the Black Panther Party.
And today? John Sinclair is now an old dude himself and looks like someone’s grandpa. He is still affiliated with Trans Love Energies, now a medical marijuana dispensary in Detroit, one of many such outlets open in Michigan despite a legal challenge to their operations. I suspect that he has softened and found ways to work within the system, which, for better or for worse, persists in spite of his and others’ youthful ravings. As proof of my surmise, I note that as far back as 1979 he donated his papers to the Michigan Historical Collections of the University of Michigan, where they are available for research, which is a kind of consecration.
In perusing the ingredients of Rachel’s Cookies, I find no less than seven mentions of sugar in one form or another. But I’m no nutritionist. How many do you find? Also four chemicals that I know nothing about. Which is why, after reading enough of these labels, I stopped eating airline food.
The Educationese example of Public Doublespeak reminds me of an education manuscript I once edited that referred to “the young verbal beings”; I changed this to “the kids.”
The last two items are examples of the soft, gooey edge of the 1960s and later – the New Age side of it. The program of the first involved nine sessions and a tuition of $2,000. Jean Houston, Ph.D., is a New Age high priestess, a “pioneer in work as a behavioral scientist emphasizing latent human capacities.” A photo shows a woman in her forties with long dark straggly hair wearing a tunic with a sash, her arms extended, her head bent, with a very intense look. I had heard her on station WBAI and was struck by her remark, “We’ve got to make peace sexy.” Like it or not, war, with all its horrors, is sexy, so she made sense to me. Result: a poem entitled “Peace” that I sent to her. She liked it, read it to her followers, and invited me to come do the same at one of her lectures. Since I would have had to pay a hefty admission fee, I chose not to. As for Transformation in nine sessions at $2,000, that too I declined to undertake. But cursory online research shows that she’s a native of Brooklyn, still alive and active, with many books to her credit.
The last item, on the commune in Oregon, is a reminder that lofty ideals don’t always work out (ambiguities again). The commune, by the way, was located on a 64,000-acre property, and its disciples enjoyed a 12-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week work pace, for which they got $10 a week plus room and board. To reduce the threat of AIDS, kissing was forbidden among members, though they could dance in the disco into the wee hours. The guru accused the departed leader of trying to poison him and his doctor, dentist, and housekeeper (that’s a lot of poison!). Flanked by two machine gun-toting guards, he was reported to be sharing his revelations with followers, and later took a spin in one of his Rolls-Royces, while a security helicopter hovered overhead.
|His red-robed followers greet the guru as he drives by in the ashram.|
Samvado Gunnar Kossatz
|The guru's mug shot, 1985.|
Oregon Department of Corrections
The preceding was all I knew about the guru and his ashram when I read the news item; it hardly suggested life in an idyllic setting, and made me marvel at what seekers of truth and enlightenment will put up with. Now, preparing this post, I learn that soon afterward the commune collapsed, allegations of serious crimes by the guru and his followers surfaced, and Rajneesh fled. When his jet refueled in North Carolina, he was arrested and tried back in Portland on charges of immigration fraud, which resulted in his deportation. What became of his 90 (some say 93) Rolls-Royces I have yet to ascertain.
They abound. For Doublespeak, how about these:
· the Patriot Act
· collateral damage (unintended civilian casualties caused by military action)
· Operation Just Cause (our 1989 invasion of Panama)
· Operation Enduring Freedom (our 2001 invasion of Afghanistan)
· Operation Iraqi Freedom (our 2004 invasion of Iraq)
Admittedly, the word “patriot” turns me off, not because of its meaning but because of the way it is used or misused, and because of those who use it. And what a lot of operations we have launched, presumably for self-protection! But why labor the obvious?
|Operation Iraqi Freedom|
For me, the supreme inanity of recent memory occurred off San Diego on May 1, 2003, when our forty-third president landed in a jet on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, which had just returned from combat operations in the Persian Gulf. With TV cameras rolling, he emerged in a flight suit and posed for photos with the ship’s crew. Later, having doffed the flight suit to appear in presidential garb, he addressed the crew and announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq, with a sign MISSION ACCOMPLISHED clearly visible. All of which was too stagy, not to say premature, since years of guerrilla warfare lay ahead.
|No. 43 in a flight suit. Contrary to the belief of|
some, he didn't pilot the plane.
Another recent inanity: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s comment on the wave of looting that erupted in Iraq immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein, looting that U.S. troops did nothing to stop: “Stuff happens.” In war, indeed it does.
On a more modest note, I must state that the inanity of Rachel’s Cookies – if “inanity” is the right word – is repeated endlessly in processed foods today. This becomes a problem for me in the holiday season, since Bob and I get gifts of chocolates and other goodies that have a long paragraph in tiny print of ingredients that include the same toxic mix of sugar under various names and numerous chemicals with long, unpronounceable names – the very stuff that I emphatically don’t want in my body. And these are well-meant gifts from the nicest people. What to do? Once, not without a few pangs of guilt, we simply discarded a box of high-quality chocolates without devouring a single one. More often we compromise, eating only one or two of the delicious but suspect items a day. But this year we have received a rare bounty of these goodies and have yet to decide how to cope. Will strength of will win out, or will we succumb to temptation? All of which brings us far from inanities, I confess. But maybe the ingredients in chocolates and other delicacies don’t really constitute inanities at all. Maybe today I wouldn’t classify them as such. Temptation, yes, and a risk to one’s health and well-being, but maybe not inanities at all.
And how about gurus and ashrams today? At my health food store I found a glossy brochure advertising courses by various persons under the auspices of the Integral Yoga Institutes, founded by His Holiness Sri Swami Satchidanandaji Maharaj, whose photo shows a benign-looking white-bearded guru reminiscent, alas, of Rajneesh. And, to heighten the parallel, he has a “dynamic Yoga community” named Yogaville in Virginia. Is this a replay of the Rajneesh misadventure? Well, the courses offered range in price from $25 to $80, which seems reasonable. And I can’t dismiss cavalierly their content: Yoga (I do it myself), health, nutrition, laughter meditation, detoxification, and the like. So I’ve looked into the matter a bit.
Online research tells me that Satchidananda (1914-2002) was an Indian spiritual master who gained fame and followers in the West during his time here in New York, where he settled and became a U.S. citizen. He was the opening speaker at the famous Woodstock festival of 1969 and included Allen Ginsberg among his disciples. He believed that we all should realize our spiritual unity and live together harmoniously through optimal health, disciplined mind and senses, a sharp intellect, a strong will (so useful in resisting chocolates), a heart full of love, and a life of peace, joy, and bliss. So who could argue with that? No inanity here. And there’s no mention of Rolls-Royces, not even one. Yes, my health food store, which breathes the spirit of his teachings, is out to net some coin, but I don’t begrudge them that, no, not even if pies that I could get for $15 in the greenmarket were going there, on Christmas Eve, for $19. (They were on sale at half price the day after Christmas.) After all, the West Village is a high-rent district. So I’ll continue to shop there, though the courses and the promised delights of Yogaville don’t tempt me.
Coming soon: Famous New York Murders; Andy Warhol: Genius or Fraud?; the hierarchy of thieves in nineteenth-century New York. Sounds a bit lurid, doesn’t it? Not intended.
Happy New Year to all! May 2014 bring you joy and fulfillment, with or without gurus, with or without inanities, and with or without chocolates.
Happy New Year to all! May 2014 bring you joy and fulfillment, with or without gurus, with or without inanities, and with or without chocolates.
© 2013 Clifford Browder