Bike Thee Behind Me, Satan

Bicycle ImageSo, The Paris Review held acontest to explicate this image in 300 words or less, in the style of Ernest Hemingway, P. G. Wodehouse, Joan Didion, Elizabeth Bishop, or Ray Bradbury. I did a Wodehouse style bit, but I found 300 words insufficient for a proper Plum-like tale. Here’s the full version which I first wrote, and then had to somehow boil down.
In the end, my short bit was chosen as one of the finalists, but not the winner of the grand prize, a bicycle.


Bike Thee Behind Me, Satan
Niffy Mainwaring and Billie Menzies had been engaged about six months when one morning he turned up on my doorstep looking like something the cat had coughed up.
“What ho, Niffy, old son. Whence this bedragglement?”
“It’s off, Reggie. She’s given me the shove.”
“Come in, sit down and unburden, old man.”
Though rather choked up, a stiff W&S soon loosened the floodgates and he began to spill.
It seems he and Billie had had words over the presumptive best man. Niffy wanted me to stand up for him. After all, we’d been pals since school, even before he was called Niffy.
(He’d gotten that moniker in the fourth form, when he’d returned from a less than successful ramble in the woods smelling like an unsavory Aberdeen terrier; and it was his peculiar fate to live up to that unusual sobriquet. It’s not that his natural fragrance was opprobrious, fresh from the bath he’d the aura of dew on the rose, but he had the misfortune of attracting aromas. If he passed a cheese shop the Limburger would fairly leap from the case and cling to him like a limpet. He once said to me that he’d be hanged before he’d visit America. “They have skunks there, Reggie.” And if you think it odd that a fellow wouldn’t stick at being called Niffy, you only need to consider that his Christian name was Beverly.)
Billie, however, wanted her brother, Wendell, to stand at Niffy’s right hand.
“I know you’ve always considered Wendell to be a bit of a pill, Niffy, old scout, but if it will pour oil on the roiled waters of romance I’m glad to forgo the chumly prerogatives.”
“Reggie, I’m afraid I got a bit hot. You see, she said that she’d never consider having as a member of the wedding a man with your taste in ties.”
Now, I’ve been called many things in my time, and there are many aspersions cast on my character I’d be willing to put up with in the cause of helping out a pal, but this was too much. We Peppers have a code, which has come down to us from the days of chivalry, that the fairer sex always be treated with the greatest respect. But when you start deprecating a fellow’s tie, well, that’s the thingummy that broke the whats-it’s back, and I’m afraid my language became rather ripe.
“Oh, I say! I mean, really! I say, don’t you know!” Pretty strong stuff, I’ll admit, but in my defense, I was distraught.
“Almost my words exactly, Reggie.”
“Still, while I understand her being upset at such language, it seems a bit much to chuck the whole engagement.”
“There was something else,” he admitted. “In the throes of defending the old school honor, I happened to opine that her brother was a simpering pustule for whom parboiling was too good.”
“Ah, I see the difficulty. No woman likes to hear her near and dear, however great a gawd-help-us he may be, referred to as a simpering excrescence.”
“Even better. So that’s when she broke it off?”
“No, that’s when she hit me with a niblick. She gave me the push afterI came to. What am I to do, Reggie? I love her!”
“This requires thought, Niffy. And an empty stomach is no fulcrum upon which to place a lever that can move the world, as that Greek chappie had it.”
After getting outside of a couple of good chops and a companionly half-bottle of claret at the Savoy, we rubbered round to the Drones and settled down to a couple of B&Ses and some serious head scratching.
“You know, Niffy, everyone knows that Billie’s been devoted to you ever since you squashed that wasp for her at the Drones’ picnic. Seems to me you only have to give her a day or two to cool down and when next you meet the warm regard in which she holds you will reassert itself.”
“You think I’ve not considered that? But she is adamant that she will not see me for any reason. She’s refusing me entrance at her flat. The doorman has orders to turn me away, with prejudice if necessary. I simply don’t know how I’m to get together with her.”
Just then Gussie Fink-Nottle sidled up with the clear intent to engage in conversation. Gussie’s a fine fellow, but we’d no desire at that point to listen to him go on about his favorite subject. For once, however, the topic he’d in mind was not newts.
“Cheers, Chaps. Any idea yet what you’re wearing to the party?”
“Not that it’s germane to our current discussion,” I said, “but what party is this?”
“Why, the fancy dress. The Anacreon club is throwing a fancy dress next week at Ambleton Hall down in Hampshire.”
“Niffy,” I cried, “isn’t Billie in the ladies auxiliary of the Anacreon? Surely she’ll be at that do. All we need is to get on the guest list.”
“And how are we to do that?”
“Nothing simpler,” chimed in Gussie, “Emerald is on the party committee. She’ll put you on the list.”
“Yes,” moaned Niffy, “but if Billie gets wind I’m going she’ll be sure to stay away.”
“Why would Billie stay away from her fiance?” asked Gussie. So we put him wise to the sitch.
“No problem at all,” he said, “Emerald will be thrilled to help the cause of true love and all that. I’m sure she can keep your prospective attendance dark until the last min. And then it’ll be too late for Billie to absent herself.”
One thing about Gussie, he’ll come through for a friend in a pinch, even if newts don’t enter into the equation.

A week later, the Pierrot outfit rented, I was standing outside Ambleton Hall waiting for Niffy to turn up. Ambleton Hall, if you’ve never been, is one of those stately old piles wherein the family, while venerable in the extreme, has of late fallen on hard times. Three quarters of the rooms were pretty permanently shut up, the family lived in a modest set of suites on the top floor, and the ballroom and other large public spaces were rented out for weddings, balls and other festivities. All in all a pretty good dodge. Kept the family on the grounds and the house out of the hands of creditors or the National Trust.
Finally Niffy arrived dressed in the most complete devil’s costume I’d ever seen.
“What’s that on your feet?”
“They’re a kind of high-heeled boot. Don’t they look like hooves?”
“Yes. But how do you expect to dance in those things?”
“Girls do it all the time. How hard can it be?”
Pretty hard, as it turns out.
After a couple of cups of the rather stiff punch they were serving, Niffy had got round Billie enough for her to let him lead her onto the floor. But in those devilish boots it was all he could do to keep his footing. The worst of it was that he kept treading on her costume. She’d come dressed as a “Muse of Modern Dance,” all chiffon and gauze, and her trailing scarf continually insinuated itself between his feet and the floor.
Now, as I’ve intimated, we Peppers have a Code, and one of its articles is that a gentleman, as the leader in the dance, while he may not be the proximate cause of missteps on the lady’s part, must accept ultimate accountability for any mishaps. Many’s the time I’ve apologized to a partner for mistakenly placing my foot where hers was just about to come down. I’m sure the Mainwarings have their own code, but I suspect it is not as punctilious as that of the Peppers.
I’d just stepped out onto the portico for a cigarette when Billie came tearing out of the hall and legged it down the drive. There was a rack of bicycles further along and she hopped on one and took off. Niffy stumbled out a moment later, and seeing her making off grabbed another machine and pursued. Though attempting to overtake with manly perseverance he was making no headway. He just couldn’t get good purchase on the pedals while wearing that getup. Makes you realize why they’re called velocipedes, not velocihooves.
So there was Billie, flying down the road, scarf streaming behind, for all the world like Isadora Duncan about to be throttled, and Niffy well behind, pedaling for all he was worth but losing ground every furlong; a lack-of-speed demon if ever there was one. As they disappeared round a bend I ran after them, expecting nothing more than to buck up Niffy and tell him all was not lost, and if at first you don’t succeed and that sort of thing. But when I rounded the bend I found I wasn’t needed.
It was the scarf that’d done it. Like that of the well-known danseuse it’d gotten tangled in the spokes, but to far less fatal consequence, merely throwing Billie a tumble. Niffy was sitting on the ground, cradling Billie’s head and murmuring how much he loved her and how he was sorry and that of course Wendell could be the best man, he was a lovely boy, merely misunderstood, and covering her face in kisses. And as Billie came round and opened her eyes and saw the concern and regret in Niffy’s face, her resolve melted, and so did she.
“Oh, Beverly!”
“Oh, Wilhelmina!”
Beverly and Wilhelmina! I ask you!


Foxes in the Henhouse

Dear Senator McConnell,

For three decades your party has been deluded by the trickle-down, or supply-side, fallacy. But the change in the fortunes of the American people over that time clearly gives the lie to that theory of economics. We are on the economic road to becoming a true plutocracy, a nation of paupers ruled by a tiny minority of the supremely wealthy.

Often the Gross National Product is trotted out and used as a false indicator of our nation’s economic health. But the GNP says nothing about the economic health of our citizenry. What use is the GNP going up and up if 95% of the populace sees its purchasing ability going down and down.

Before the British conquest of India, the subcontinent was one of the wealthiest of nations (using the term broadly), yet the vast majority of the populace lived in dire poverty. Why? Because the vast majority of the wealth was entirely in the hands of the aristocracy, the Rajahs and Maharajahs. It is just such a nation that we are headed to becoming, albeit without the charming titles and ceremonies.

It is naive at best to believe that deregulating Wall Street and the Banks will lead to a healthier economy and a better standard of living for all Americans. The less regulation and oversight the financial sector receives, the easier it will be for them to engage in ethically nebulous, or even outrightly fraudulent practices. Similarly it is naive at best to believe that the financial sector is composed of honest, ethical people of good will who have the best interests of the nation at heart, which has become obvious in recent days.

An unregulated system will attract to it a disproportionate number of the unscrupulous and criminally minded. And in an unregulated system, the least scrupulous will invariably rise to the top. Though the majority of folks who work at the big banks and investment firms are decent people, they wind up being led by men who have no interest in anything but filling their own pockets at the expense of everyone else.

And this attitude is not confined to Wall Street. One finds this in contemporary American industry, as well. Many are the stories of CEOs who do nothing to help the firms which hired them, but rather do a terrible job, causing their firms to lose market share and money, leading to massive layoffs, and then the CEOs leave with huge contractual separation awards.

But I digress.

If the Republican Party really wants to be the voice of the working man in America, tell President Obama that his regulatory measures do not go far enough. Insist on the repeal of every financial bill Phil Gramm ever touched. Repeal the Financial Service Modernization Act of 1999. Reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act. Break up the mega-banks into sensible pieces which are not “too big to fail.” Indeed any private institution which is too big to fail is a danger to the nation, as it can hold the country hostage to its failures, as we have seen.

It is time for the Republican Party to shake off the yoke of its corporate overlords and stand for legislation that supports the true economic health of the nation and all its citizens. Remember, the constitution which you swore to uphold was established to, among other things, “promote the general welfare,” not the welfare of the moneyed few.

Just saying.

Head Off The Money

I was thinking the other day about how to limit the influence of campaign contributions by special interests on the legislative process. Campaign finance reform is a laudable goal, but what real chance has it of passing in a significant incarnation when politicians rely upon those funds to run their campaigns? If real finance reform is to all intents off the table how to mitigate the influence of the special interests?

What would happen if there were regulations in the House and Senate that prohibited legislators from sitting on committees which regulate industries that are major contributors to those same legislators? Get money from banks and Wall Street? You can’t sit on Financial Services. Get money from defence contractors? You don’t get a place in Armed Services. Get major money from oil & gas companies? You don’t get a seat in Energy & Natural Resources.

What would the effect of such a regulation be? It would not curtail lobbyists using the deep pockets of their employers to sway the votes of legislators on the floor. Thus there would still be the possibility of corporate contributions making their way into legislators war chests, but the power of those contributors to control the direction of legislation would be minimized. Corporate contributors would no longer be as able to guide the debate in committee and control so directly the shaping of bills before they came to the floor. Of course, it might just change the way that money got to legislators. Corporations might make all their contributions to the RNC and DNC who would then dole out funds based on whether members toe-ed the party line.

It’s hard to say how exactly it might shake out, certainly lobbyists and wealthy special interests would try to find means to reassert their control of the committees. But it might be worth giving it a try. As a House and Senate regulation, rather than a law, it might be simpler to implement. And if it turned out to do nothing, much easier to repeal.

It would also show the American people that, for a change, Congress was actually trying to become an institution which had the welfare of the greater population as its first concern, rather than the privileges  of a wealthy few.

Just a thought.

After Life

Let’s talk about stem cell research, specifically embryonic stem cell research. Some are for it, some against. I’ll state right now that I’m in favor of it, and for all the commonly held reasons. In this essay I’m addressing the folks who are against it.

Without further preamble let’s get to the heart of the matter. Those folks who are against embryonic stem cell research oppose it on the principle that a human embryo, at whatever state of development, is a human life and ought not to be destroyed; that the destruction of a human embryo is tantamount to abortion, which is tantamount to murder. Leaving aside the question of whether it is murder, that being a legal judgment, for the purposes of this discussion, and conceding nothing on a larger stage, let’s assume that a human embryo is a human being with all the human and civil rights guaranteed it by the Constitution and the laws of the States. What are we to do with all of them?

During a program of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) many more embryos are produced than are implanted in the mother. Barring a legal ban on the practice or a quantum leap in IVF technology this will continue to be the case, probably for many years. Even with embryo adoption on the rise there are thousands of embryos being destroyed or being allowed to die through aging every year. Are we to allow these babies, there I said it, these babies to die without thought? Does this callous disregard of these human lives properly honor them? How do we ethically confront the problem of what to do with all these frozen babies? How can we best make sense of, and bring some meaning to, their all-too-brief lives? Perhaps if we look at how families deal with the death of post-born infants we can approach an answer to this problem.

When an infant dies, whether through accident, random violence or genetic defect, one of the questions posed to the parents is whether they’d be willing to let the baby’s organs be used for transplantation. Now, some parents are unable to come to terms with the decision to allow these procedures, some parents may have a religious stand against it, and some parents are simply unwilling to let their child’s organs be used. But many parents come to see that by allowing their child’s organs to be transplanted their child becomes instrumental in saving the life of another. That though their child’s life is over in his death he can give life, allowing the organ recipient the chance at the full lifetime that he didn’t have and sparing the parents of the recipient the grief and horror that the donor’s parents are experiencing.

If a human embryo is as much a human being as a newborn or an infant of a few months, shouldn’t it’s parents be allowed to make that same decision for their unborn child? Shouldn’t the embryo’s organs be allowed to be used in ways that will save other lives? True, embryos don’t have proper organs yet, but they do have body parts. Those body parts are called cells. Cells are what an embryo has to give.

Stem cell research is the embryonic equivalent of organ donation.

We allow, indeed we encourage, parents of newborns or young infants who die to allow their children to give the gift of life through their deaths. How can we say that frozen embryos may not give that same gift? How can we disallow that selfless, charitable, final gift from deceased pre-fetal persons? If an embryo’s parents want their unborn and slowly dying children to help give others a fuller, longer, healthier life, who are we to disallow them this fashion of honoring their children’s brief lives? I say we can’t.

I submit that the decision of what to do with frozen embryos must remain up to the parents. And if they decide that the best way to honor their children is to donate them to medical research, then the government ought to support them in that decision. And government support means funding. The Government must fund embryonic stem cell research, just as it funds organ transplantation.

Here’s quite a good article about the increasing population of frozen embryos, published in Mother Jones July/August 2006 issue.