Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Black Hand

“The Black Hand,” by Charles Gardner Bowers, appeared in the January, 1931 Amazing Stories. It is a story of an arm transplant, but it is also part and parcel of the execrable history of racial attitudes in America.

A white man, the artist Van Puyster, has gangrene of his right hand. The physician/surgeon, Dr. Evans, has a plan to replace the man’s arm with one from a black man.

The temper of the times in its treatment of the black characters shows how the author felt about them. While the white people in the story have names, the African-Americans who are singled out have no names. They are known as “a condemned criminal,” “a negro [sic] valet,” and “a porter.” In this story, the African-Americans are just props.

Author Bowers’ clunky prose is mostly in the form of dialogue, and some of it sounds pedantic, like an article from a medical journal. In those days of early science fiction the emphasis was on the science, and the literary quality of the fiction was secondary. That didn’t stop some of the writers from over 80 years ago from going on to develop their talents — a young Jack Williamson, called in his later years “The Dean of Science Fiction,” contributed a story to the issue — but none of the authors were ever going to win any awards for fine literature.

What struck me also was the endorsement in the editor’s introduction of “an eminent physician and well-known writer” (Dr. David H. Keller, M.D., perhaps. In Keller’sWikipedia biography, his writing is described as “hostile to feminists and African-Americans”). The “eminent physician” said the story “is a clever conception and a fine piece of work,” and, “the surgery is far better than anything I could have written.” I have even more suspicion of it being Keller, who was a psychiatrist. He adds, “The psychological phases of it tickle me pink.” An interesting choice of words.

A spoiler for the story: Having a black arm drives the white artist crazy, and he commits murders of several black people. That is told off-camera, so to speak, because of the method of the story’s construction.

“The Black Hand” is only noticeable nowadays by the plot device using race, and the blatant bigotry of the writer, the editor, and the physician who endorsed it. It is just another example of the gulf between whites and blacks in that era, and in today’s sensitive racial climate is a curiosity and a reminder from a time of outspoken racism.

Click on the scans to make them larger.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Bag lady and the burglar

It has been a week for me recognizing people I know. At the auto show last Friday I saw two retired people I worked with at the school district. Yesterday Sally and I went to a thrift store where I spotted an old classmate from art school 45 years ago, Cheryl R.

I have run into Cheryl several times over the years. She is easy to pick out of a crowd. Her appearance is bizarre, and she does it to herself with her unusual make-up jobs. She has always used bright blue or green eye shadow under penciled on eyebrows, and she does some little tricks with mascara around her eyes. Yesterday I saw she had drawn three little lines, about 1/4" long, at the corners of her eyes. She also has darkly rouged cheeks, which gives her a clownish appearance. My impression was a stereotype of a bag lady. I saw Cheryl putting little trinkets, cheap little ceramics of kitties and puppies, into her cart. I wonder if her house looks like something from the Hoarders reality show.

The thought struck me, seeing Mimi during a re-run of the old Drew Carey Show, that actress Kathy Kinney might have picked up some make-up tips from Cheryl.
Man, I am cruel, aren’t I? Years ago I remember seeing Cheryl with a young woman I assumed was her daughter. I wonder if the daughter worries about her mom. I felt sad for Cheryl, but then maybe she was looking at me and thinking, “I remember that guy from when he was young, and now he’s an old man!”

On our way home we stopped for lunch. In the restaurant I recognized another former co-worker. Gene P. was an accountant for the school district. Gene was fired from the school district because of some bizarre and criminal conduct on his part. I don’t know if he stole from the school district (keeping it confidential, no one in the Accounting Department would have told me if he had), but I found out he had been a house burglar.

Gene definitely had some problems with depression and family issues. I don’t know if he was on medication. The story was that he was burglarizing his neighbor’s homes. The talk around his neighborhood was that someone was breaking in, but no one would have suspected Gene. Gene, the square guy, the accountant, church-going family man. One night a neighbor came home and found Gene in his house. The jig was up.

That was one of his problems. The other was his teenage daughter. (Since the incident I am talking about took place in the early nineties, the daughter would be in her late thirties by now.) Before he was fired Gene took me aside one day to tell me the woeful tale of his daughter, who was stalking magician David Copperfield. We live in Northern Utah, and Las Vegas, where Copperfield was performing, is quite a long way to drive. But Gene’s daughter, who had decided that if David Copperfield, who did not answer her love missives to him, were to meet her he would see what a wonderful person she was, and how happy she could make him. She stole Gene’s car and took off for Las Vegas. Gene called police, and the Highway Patrol picked her up in St. George, Utah. She was carrying a large kitchen knife. Gene told me his belief was if she couldn’t convince David to love her she might kill him. When I heard that story I was flabbergasted. Some people project feelings onto celebrities, even stalk them or try (and sometimes succeed) in killing them. But not the teenage daughter of someone I knew.

I came quickly back to earth. We really don’t know what goes on in families, do we?

I hope Gene’s daughter got the help she needed. Since David Copperfield, as of this writing, is still alive and well I know she didn’t get to him with her big knife. I also hope Gene got the help he needed. He could have spent some time in jail. I never heard, and it never got into newspapers. It was in the very early days of the Internet. If it happened today the story would probably end up online.

David Copperfield’s ability to fly might help when confronted by love-struck teenagers with butcher knives.

I don’t think Gene saw me in the restaurant. I did not say anything to him. I thought talking to me might be a reminder of some very dark days.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Selma — the savage season

I have not seen the movie, Selma, but I remember the event on which the movie is based. The Civil Rights movement of the sixties was marked by being newsworthy. After all, citizens being beaten, gassed and firehosed because they asked for their Constitutional rights made for dramatic footage on television news programs.

Unfortunately for the beaters, gassers and firehosers, that footage went all around the world. It made a mockery of America and its self-righteous proclamations of freedom and “all men are created equal.” It also made the cops look like bullies with clubs attacking innocent people. It was an especially bad public relations image for the State of Alabama.

Life magazine for March 19, 1965, has the story of that event. I find the cover photo riveting; it is the peace just moments before the brutality. Knowing the history makes the image portentous.

Copyright © 1965 Time, Inc.

Friday, January 16, 2015

God of anger or god of love...a god for gag cartoons?

I wrote this in 2012. After last week’s attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices and murder of four cartoonists by two terrorists, it seems to still be pertinent. I added some more cartoons to what I have shown in the earlier post. The New Yorker seems to have a lot of fun with God, heaven, hell, and religion in general, just as Charlie Hebdo does. So far no machine-gun firing fundamentalist Christians have blasted The New Yorker.

Is God a hardass, angry and vengeful? Is God a nice guy, forgiving of human foibles? Does God have a sense of humor? I'm not qualified to say, but I am qualified to say that in the U.S. and other countries which have the great gift of free speech, visualizations of deity have long been available. And that includes visualizations that lampoon and disrespect God. I've got some cartoons I've culled from the New Yorker, and even a couple from the Sunday funnies. To some Christians these are probably blasphemous. But no matter how they feel about the cartoons they don't foam at the mouth, then form an angry mob looking for someone with whom to go to war. (Literally, that is. If angry letters are a form of weaponry then they are known to lob a few nukes on cartoonists and those who publish them.)

I'm speaking solely from my own position as an agnostic, but when I think about religious people I wonder how they can all profess to love the same God, and yet view him so differently.

The past few days some Muslims have been showing some outrage over some corny 14-minute YouTube video. They feel it disrespects their religion. I'm willing to bet that most of them haven't actually seen it, but are willing to go into an anger meltdown, enraged with the United States, ready to spill blood over what they've heard of it from the hardliners who manipulate the faithful.

Imagine how they'd react if these cartoons were about Allah or the prophet Mohammed.

Copyright © 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 The New Yorker:

Copyright © 2012 King Features Syndicate:

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Hostile or humorous? The GO F*CK YOURSELF hat

Last Sunday night we ate dinner at a Chinese buffet in Western Pennsylvania. It is in a semi-rural area and the restaurant was very busy, attracting a wide range of customers. As we walked out I noticed a scruffy twenty-something guy who was wearing a baseball cap that said GO FUCK YOURSELF.

We were with our granddaughters, ages 10 and 8 1/2. I was glad they had taken a different route out of the restaurant and missed seeing this fellow exercising his First Amendment rights to tell everyone who looked at him to GO FUCK YOURSELF.

After all, my young Catholic schoolgirls may or may not have heard that word before, but even if they have I would not have wanted them to confront this man, because then they might be fooled into thinking that somehow the word had slipped into acceptable usage. You can wear a cap that says HAVE A NICE DAY, or PITTSBURGH STEELERS, or CAT. But none of those hats would arouse anyone’s curiosity or ire, would they? People would assume that the wearer of the first cap is a nice person passing along a positive admonition, the second a football fan (and in Western Pennsylvania I think at least half the hats I see are STEELERS hats), and the third you might think is a farmer who got his hat when he went to see the new line of Caterpillar tractors. I did not have the time, nor the inclination, to confront the GO FUCK YOURSELF man. But instead over the past few days in my mind  I have run an imaginary conversation, speaking to the man about his hat that tells me in plain language GO FUCK YOURSELF.

“Excuse me, sir,” — note I call him sir — “I was wondering about your cap. I wonder what it means because it says GO FUCK YOURSELF.”

“You read it, din’tcha? It means GO FUCK YOURSELF.”

“Yes, but my question would be, are you saying GO FUCK YOURSELF in a hostile way? Are you mad at the world or something? Are you shouting an obscenity from your hat because of your positive hatred of society, refinement and decorum? Or would it be that you are making a joke, a satire on those rules of society that give you the right to wear such a message on your head, but you are testing the reactions of onlookers. Are you privately amused that they react as I am, for instance, to seeing it said so blatantly: GO FUCK YOURSELF.”

His scowl, which I noticed when I first saw him, would tell me something of his intentions. I am sure he would also tell me in person. “It means GO FUCK YOURSELF, asshole.”

Okay, then. So the message is not humorous, but hostile, which I took from his body language, facial expression, body odor and mud on his cowboy boots. So even though I would never wear it on my person, on a cap or t-shirt or even a bumper sticker on my car, I would respond back to him, “Well, you GO FUCK YOURSELF, too.”

The difference would be that I would be laughing. Until he slammed his fist into my face, that is.

I created this version of what I saw by digitally manipulating a photo from the Internet. It does not exist except here, in this electronic form. Because it doesn’t exist this hat is not for sale, so do not write me asking if you can buy it, and shame on you for thinking of it.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

The attraction distraction

If you have ever been to a Toys “R” Us store you are aware that it is a large, warehouse-sized superstore, packed wall-to-wall with toys for all ages of childhood.

The stores are neatly arranged and very attractive. The colors of the toys on display are bright, just right to catch a child’s attention. Or possibly cause nerve damage to aging eyeballs like mine.

We went with our son and his two daughters, ages 10 and 8 1/2, to a Toys “R” Us in Western Pennsylvania. It was our older girl’s 10th birthday just that day, as a matter of fact, and she was being allowed to pick out something she would like as a birthday present. As another matter of fact, when you have two children so close in age there is no exclusivity in gift-giving. Both must get gifts on each other’s birthday, lest one feel left out. I don’t know if that is true in your family, but it is in ours. So the younger girl also got to choose a toy.

 As you can see from this photo, our girls have a dollhouse which needs to be continually replenished with new doll tenants.

The younger one is much quicker to decide, the older...well, not so quick. In discussing it with her dad we wonder if her problems with making a choice is that she is a perfectionist, and she does not want to get it wrong. But it was not just her who had a hard time deciding on this day. Just about every child who was in the store with a parent or grandparent (and there were at least a couple of dozen) were having the same problem.

What I heard were a lot of adults telling a lot of children words to the effect of, “Come on, we don’t have all day. Make up your mind.” Or, “You said you wanted a Barbie. Here are the Barbie dolls. So why are you looking at the Monster High School dolls?”

Or like one exasperated older man, “Now look, dammit, I’ve got a lot better things to do today that watch you look at every toy in this goddam store. MAKE UP YOUR MIND AND LET’S GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!” Oh, wait, that was me who said that. Except I didn’t really say it. I thought it very strongly, though, hoping my ESP might plant the idea in my granddaughter’s mind.

Finally the choices were made and we headed out the door. Across the parking lot was a Barnes & Noble store. Knowing how much the older girl likes to read I found myself talking before I had thought it out: “Why don’t we go to the bookstore and let Grandpa buy you both a book?” And the same thing happened as in Toys “R” Us, but this time it was my doing. Eventually, though, even choices were finally made, except they both got more than one book. I like to encourage reading but I think some of it had to do with them not being able to make a final decision on just one book. And the experience of waiting in a bookstore is a lot different than waiting for a child to make up her mind in a toy store. In the bookstore I looked at art books, graphic novels, and even a couple of magazines while the children went about making their choices.

Children are not naturally able to make choices in such situations. They have not yet developed critical thinking abilities, which can weigh the relative benefits of one purchase to another. But adults who design and build toys trade on that childish immaturity. Every product for children is designed in such a way that it is all enticing, all exciting, all promising a level of happiness and a near-nirvana state if the child chooses it.

Children grow up. We eventually learn to be consumers and make wiser choices. Or do we? Products for adults are sold the way toys are sold, and often we pick them out the same way kids do. You will be happy, deliriously happy if you pick this car/detergent/smart phone/pair of shoes...etc., etc. We all know it isn’t possible to be totally satisfied because in this world of consumer products there is always something that is sold as better, more hip, more cool to own. Apple has been selling that throughout their history.