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Thursday, June 7, 2012


It has come to my attention that gentle humor and irony do not do too well in the medium of the blog.  I think for them to be effective, one must make eye contact with one's interlocutor.  Too often, well-meaning commentators seize on what was, from my point of view, a throwaway line or gentle bit of humor, rather than on the central idea of a post.  I fear my remarks about Homer, Google, and my granddaughter Athena have fallen victim to that difficulty.  As Marshall McCluhan observed  a long time ago, the medium is the message, or, as Aristotle argued somewhat earlier, form dominates matter.

As I prepare for five weeks away from home [leaving at dawn the day after tomorrow], I am reminded once again of the virtues of old technology.  This time I am not speaking of the standard typewriter or the fountain pen, but of two other instances of old technology whose virtues have proven themselves once again.

Susie and I live in a third floor condominium whose principal feature is a large porch or balcony, on which Susie has established a virtual arboretum of plants and flowers.  I am very much an indoor person, but she loves the outdoors, and so leaves the door to the porch open as much as she can.  Not surprisingly, we get flies.  What to do?  Well, it turns out that quite the most effective fly-killer available is old-fashioned flypaper.  The young among my readers may not even know what flypaper is, but anyone who grew up in the 1930's, which is to say before air conditioning, will be familiar with it.  Flypaper is a ribbon of extremely sticky paper that unrolls from a little cardboard tube and is pinned with a thumbtack to the ceiling or the underside of a high cabinet.  It is impregnated with something irresistible to flies, and they are drawn to it, fatally.  The slightest touch with a foot or a wing sticks them to the paper forever.  Over the period of several weeks, we accumulate so many dead flies on the flypaper that I must get up on a ladder, take it down, and replace it with another fresh piece.  Disposing of the old fly paper can be tricky, since it continues to stick to anything it touches.  I am quite convinced that nothing modern science could think up would get rid of flies as quickly and decisively as old fashioned flypaper.

The drive out to Bennett in Greensboro seems to be putting a strain on my back.  I have a forty year history of back trouble, and have spent my share of time with chiropractors and even the odd acupuncturist.  When we lived in Massachusetts, I built an indoor swimming pool into our home [or, to be exact, had it built] and for years found that regular swimming kept the back trouble at bay.  My regime of morning walks seems to be equally effective.

But after several trips to Greensboro last week, my back grew tired, and, as they say, compromised, and I could feel the old trouble threatening to return.  Once again, what to do?  There are any number of powerful medications. of course, as well as a variety of treatments -- heat, cold, electrostimulation, chiropractic adjustments.  But instead of these expensive and often quite invasive interventions, I took myself off to a medical supply store and for twenty dollars bought a firm back support pillow, identical to one I used for many years in Massachusetts.  Magically, on the drive home, my back felt fine, and getting out of the car, instead of the occasion for some pain, was entirely without incident.

I am not a Luddite, or an impossible old fogey, as I hope this blog has demonstrated.  But it is pleasant now and again to discover that there are some everyday problems that have long since been very nice solved.  Now if the transition from capitalism to socialism were just that easy.


P. J. Grath said...

My husband thinks we should get flypaper for our enclosed front porch, which is our warm-season dining room. Even with screens, the door is opened a lot, and flies come in. I'm interested in your story because it tells me that flypaper can still be purchased. Guess we'll start looking. Thanks, and have a wonderful trip!

Jerry Fresia said...

I think I got the central idea of the post, rather powerfully in fact, which is why I made the comment about humor. I push paint around on a canvas with a stick, more or less, and teach same to rather well-heeled students who are able to make the trek to Italy. Here’s the problem: mine is not only a 19th century method, but the very mechanics are inseparable from a kind of anarchism prevalent in Paris throughout periodic democratic uprisings (by painters) during the19th century, in addition to the socialism that was central to the Paris Commune. Try and explain some of that to contemporary production freaks. It is one thing to talk about instrumentalism or the expressive dimension of work to college youngsters who at least must feign interest. Quite another endeavor when your mini-classroom is populated by the “better people” incarnate. My suggestion that ready-mades, mechanical reproductions, computer art, sliced up sharks, and all the rest (not to mention the attendant branding and other market innovations) have not only displaced the proverbial “10 thousand hours” of work (or “years of apprenticeship”) necessary to make a charcoal line appear half-way inspired, but function really, to serve the interests of the “surplus getters” (to borrow a phrase). I find it “vaguely dishonorable” not to paint on location. Using photographs is, indeed, an “enticement along the path to Hell.” My students, however, will have none of it. “His intensity is hard to take,” noted one bejewelled woman. “I didn’t expect this,” opined another. “You’re out of line,” thundered a Mr. Clump (owner of some mega-business) at our cheerful student dinner, when I insisted on calling workers “wage slaves.” All of this led me to envy the Professor’s ability to blend critique with humor. God, I wish I had that gift. It disarms. It greases the skids. I’m shocked at what Bill Maher can get away with saying because he’s funny. And I have never, to this day, have seen anyone tell a mainstream audience that owners fear creative, empowered citizens in the way George Carlan could and get a laugh ( I did, on the other hand, think that my “ at 78 RPMs” was somewhat clever; but when you don’t have the gift, it comes out, as they say, a trifle voulu.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Ah, Jerry, I sense in you a kindred spirit. "You're out of line" strikes me as a simply wonderful response to the use of the phrase "wage slaves." As for humor, by and large people expect serious subjects to be discussed in an appropriately serious style. When I compared Marx's famously difficult discussion of the concept of value in Chapter One of CAPITAL to an old Jewish joke about blintzes, the few readers who found their way to that little book did not know what to make of it. My favorite source in all of this is Socrates. recall Callicles' complaint in the GORGIAS, when Socrates insists on going on about cobblers and such instead of talking in impressive cadences about the power of the state. Callicles says, "Socrates, you keep on talking about the same eubjects." "Yes," Socrates replies, "and in the same way, too."

Compare Chris Matthews' bloviating with Jon Stewart's spot-on anatomization of right-wing insanity.

Jim Westrich said...

I have been lurking a little too long (about two months). Your use of Reuben's phobia as a way of inverting Marx in *Moneybags* was of enormous and enduring help to me in understanding political economy. Thanks. I love that book.

I only took two course of yours back in the 80's but they were both quite memorable and appreciated. I must add, and I still foggily recount this to others, that your explanation of the mechanics of the inversion of a matrix was really remarkable (though, sadly, not enduring).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you, Jim. That means a great deal to me. Of course, you got an A+ in "Formal Methods in Political Philosophy" so I would expect nothing less! :)

Jerry Fresia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jerry Fresia said...

I must apologize for blabbing on at length here, but given the admirable persistence of Socrates, I thought it would be appropriate to add the following.

Back in the 70s, at UMass, I attended an informal talk by the great poet and South African activist (since deceased) Dennis Brutus. The event was hosted by then UMass Provost Johnnetta Cole, who later became President of Spelman College. (I'm sure the Professor knew and knows both of these scholar-activists well). Mr. Brutus introduced one particular poem by saying that someone had criticized him for constantly making the same critique, over and over, and that he, Mr. Brutus had become "monotonous." So incensed was Mr. Brutus that he wrote a poem, the shape and form of which was made as intentionally monotonous as he could. It's power, however, is transcendent. Here it is:

I am the tree
creaking in the wind
outside in the night
twisted and stubborn:

I am the sheet
of the twisted tin shack
grating in the wind
in a shrill sad protest:

I am the voice
crying in the night
that cries endlessly
and will not be consoled.