Magazine | August 30, 2010, Issue

Heap o’ Nothin’

Back when August was called the dog days, columnists got a break. We were allowed, even expected, to write about nothing much because there was nothing much to write about. “Nothing happens in August” was a given. If you pointed out that World War I and Lizzie Borden both exploded in the first week of August, you were reminded that exceptions prove the rule; as for Hiroshima, that was just a coincidence.

The low-key, upbeat, dog-days vacation column thus became a journalistic tradition. As with all traditions, there are certain rigid rules. First, never depress your readers. Strive for humor but steer clear of wit because while humor goes for the jocular, wit goes for the jugular, and this particular twain must never, never meet anywhere within the borders of the United States, however porous they may be. Second, never predict anything, even an idyll. Frayed Americans relax when they hear that nothing is happening, but if you remind them that nothing might not be happening you will set them to waiting for the other shoe to drop. Third and most important, wallow in sweet nostalgia until you sound like a poster child for arrested development. Lemonade stands, the old swimming hole, the toys your grandfather whittled for you, the lamp you made by catching fireflies in a jar — the whole family-values menu found in Edgar Guest’s poem, which you must quote, that begins “It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house to call it home.”

It takes a heap o’ heapin’ to make a heap, so let’s get started.

I predict that banks will never pay interest on savings again, and as soon as they get us resigned to that, they will start charging us a fee to keep our money for us.

In all the turgid analyses of the “global financial crisis” to which we are subjected, nobody ever mentions a critical aspect of it: money as a figure of speech. “Penny wise and pound foolish,” “a day late and a dollar short,” “don’t take any wooden nickels” — the list is endless in every language and there’s nothing global about it. People, miser and spendthrift alike, have an emotional connection to their money that they don’t even realize until the figures-of-speech column turns up blank in their national ledgers. That the euro is now the coin of the realm in 16 countries is a standing order for psychological mayhem.

If the eternal complaint, “There’s nothing on TV,” seems truer since the digital conversion, it is. Cable companies are gradually taking the best shows, like Turner Classic Movies, and moving them to digital without prior warning, nothing but a fine-print footnote on the back of your cable bill. I predict that the History Channel will be the next vanishing act. Even more traumatizing would be the loss of Animal Planet, the only place left to find touching evidence of maternal devotion. Soon we cable hold-outs will have nothing to watch except Girls Gone Wild and steam mops.

#page#They don’t call him “No Drama Obama” for nothing. He’s even worse than we thought because he has committed the ultimate American crime, worse than anything he has been accused of so far: He has no sense of humor. You can tell just by watching him at the mike that here is a person who knows the words but not the tune. You see him standing like a greyhound in the slips, straining upon the start, but he can’t sense where the start comes. Someone has over-coached him on the subject of “timing.” He doesn’t really feel it, he just knows that comedians are supposed to have something called timing, so he puts on a little half-smile and waits for it — you can almost hear him counting.

My ultimate prediction is based on the scientific certainty of female intuition. I have a feeling that a lot is going to happen. I sense that something is gearing up, gathering speed, starting to peek from behind the curtain. Lights keep going off in my mind like fireflies in a jar, and I already have a poem to go with it all: “Shine, Perishing Republic” by Robinson Jeffers.

We are in the throes of rapid, obligatory cultural change, and to see how bad that can get, imagine that the boy and girl in The Blue Lagoon had lived to be rescued and brought back to civilization. They would have fallen apart. Some tea partiers have already reached that point, but most Americans are still in the tics-and-twitches stage.

One such twitcher is Chris Matthews, whose finicky insistence on correct geographical pronunciations seems to have reached the obsessive-compulsive level. Known for being a Philadelphian, he spent much of Campaign ’08 taking care to pronounce Missouri as “Missouruh” as the natives did, and changing the long A in Nevada and Colorado from “ah” to the local “eh.” As he was broadcasting from these places, I figured he was taking care not to flaunt his eastern vowels lest the natives think he was looking down on them and making fun of their flat western accents.

A reasonable interpretation, yes? No, because he never stopped; he’s still doing it on his show. He will interrupt himself to explain that this is the way to pronounce the place he’s discussing, and he even corrects his guests, which can disrupt their train of thought and distract the viewer. My stomach ties in knots whenever he cranks up his Ob-Com MapQuest service. I wondered if he secretly wished he were from some big tough state, but he doesn’t seem to have any masculinity problems. I think his penchant for dialect lessons is his subconscious way of worrying about the debilitating effects of Our Great Diversity.

Matthews is a liberal with conservative touches, and this is one of them. He is aware that E Pluribus Unum is turning into Ex Uno Plures, but he does not cheer about it as many on the left do. I suspect he believes that people have a right to talk any way they please provided everybody talks the same way, so he has turned his inner conflict into an oblique little ’Enry ’Iggins game that serves him as a safety valve.

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