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Category: Culture

The Grille of my Dreams
For the first time in 35 years, I am in the market for a new car. A lot has changed in that time. Prices have gone way up, technology has introduced a higher level of quality, and everything is more complicated.

One factor, however, has remained constant. Although such concerns as mileage, reliability, safety, and cost are important items on any checklist, I think we can all agree that the number one consideration in choosing a new car is the look of its grille.

The grille, after all, is the face of your vehicle. It is the image you present to the world, and like it or not, it speaks to your character and your worthiness as a human being. You don’t have to believe me; just ask anyone who had the misfortune to own an Edsel. If you are too young to remember that sad late-50s Ford product, I will tell you that it was likened at the time to an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon.

That is not the kind of look you want to be associated with you and your loved ones. The expression on the face of your car will be thought of as your expression, so there is good reason to choose carefully. Such judgments are, of course, matters of opinion, taste, and gut feeling. In this case, mine. But I have given the matter a lot of thought, and I hope that my modest assessments might help others who are in the market for a new automobile.

Although my observations deal only with passenger cars, I will note in passing that all trucks pretty much have the same expression on their faces. Nearly all of them feature rectangular grilles. The chrome “teeth” may be aligned horizontally or vertically, but the overall impression is one of effort and clenched determination. That grimace tells everyone that this vehicle is ready for anything. It’s not a friendly face, but friendly isn’t what you’re looking for in a truck.

Passenger cars are a different matter. There, you want friendly. Unless you are in the market for a muscle car (or something even more dangerous, like a Jag), you want your car to be a buddy. That is why most cars have grilles that appear to be smiling. Hondas are a good example. Though some models are a little goofy-looking, the entire line have expressions that are warm and supportive and very likable.

But there are smiles, and there are smiles. Mercedes and Caddies, for instance, have grins that seem less than sincere, even condescending. VWs smile, but I get the feeling that they are not genuinely happy. Priuses exhibit a prim countenance that can come off as smug. Other members of the Toyota family, by contrast, appear to be laughing heartily. Unfortunately, the poor things are sorely in need of an orthodontist.

I don’t have the space here to go through the entire market, but we should at least take time to examine the offerings from Detroit behemoths Ford and Chevrolet. Both sport the popular six-sided polygon configuration that closely approximates the human mouth itself. It is, no doubt, a pleasant look, but in my opinion the designers in both cases have gone too far. The subtle, suggestive curves of these grilles make them look too much like smiles. What’s more, they cross the line between friendly and sexually provocative. The Ford Fusion and Chevy Malibu, for example, look positively randy. I don’t want to have an affair with my car, just a relationship based on mutual trust and caring.

If you are looking for a new car, I hope that you have found my research useful. For the record, I have made my choice: the Honda Clarity plug-in hybrid. The Clarity, like its stablemates at Honda, has a broad, sincere smile and a gentle aspect. And though Its grille resembles to some the gaping mandibles of a giant chrome insect, I am proud to call it my friend.
Dead Etiquette
The walking dead are everywhere these days. They’re on TV. They’re down at the local cinema. For all we know, they might be walking among us. And that raises an important question about manners.

Ordinarily, if someone is determined to eat your brains, you don’t need to observe the courtesies expected in polite society. No one demands that we say “please,” or “thank you,” or “after you, I insist” to a zombie. Their willingness to crack open our skulls and gobble our gray matter clearly absolves us of such duties.

When it comes to appropriate terms of address, however, I think we should not be so quick to abandon etiquette. Proper greeting is a base-level sign of respect that is fundamental to our social order. And why should such rules apply to the undead, you ask?Well, as I understand the zombie phenomenon, any dead body can be reanimated and made to lurch around in search of other peoples’ thinkmeat. The person (or soul or life force or consciousness) who previously inhabited the body has (according to many) gone on to its reward. If that person has lead an exemplary life, so the story goes, he or she is welcomed into Heaven and invited to sing Hosannas for all eternity.

Such folks aren’t just good people, they’re saints. Doesn’t that entitle their remains to a certain level of respect? I think we have to say yes, if only to honor their memory and all the fine things they did and stood for while alive.

It’s tricky, though. You wouldn’t want to get caught, frozen, struggling to choose the most respectful way to address a saint, while the saint’s revivified carcass tries to eat you. Oh, I know what you’re thinking: “Come on, dude, it’s a zombie! Just blow its head off with a 12-gauge and let God sort it out.” Okay fine, but what if it’s a Jesus zombie? What if he has rolled the stone away and come out as one of the living dead? What are your chances of getting into Heaven if you blow the head off the Son of God? All I am saying is that it never hurts to be polite.

So how does one address a saint, exactly? For instance, do I call Saint John the Baptist “Saint” or “Saint John” or just “John?” “Baptiste” has a nice flair to it, but none of these seems right. Sir or madam seem wrong, somehow, too. How about something appropriate to their station? Your eminence? Your grace? Reverend? Those seem too stilted — and might even be taken as a mocking jibe by an already agitated zombie.

As an alternative, I am suggesting the simple term “friend.” It is, after all, the highest honor we can grant to a fellow human being. It is intimate without being too familiar, welcoming without demanding anything in return. I can’t imagine anyone, living or undead, objecting to it as a proper term of address. I haven’t had the opportunity to field-test this greeting with an actual zombie, but I feel confident in recommending it as a respectful and polite greeting for anybody who does meet one. As the being staggers toward you, hail it cheerily with a “What ho, good friend?” and see what happens.

If it still insists on eating your brains, there’s always the 12-gauge. At least you tried. That is all polite society expects.
Space Noir
SPOILER ALERT: If you are planning to wait until the end of Season One of Star Trek: Discovery, then take advantage of CBS All Access’s one-week free trial, and binge watch all fifteen episodes in a week, then God help you. Be aware also that reading this will ruin your devious little plan.

Star Trek: Discovery, the latest star in the constellation of Star Trek space operas, has boldly gone…well, you know. While the show takes care to adhere to the canon of history laid down by its predecessors, it dares to break new ground on a number of fronts. I am so impressed with this new show, in fact, that I am declaring it the best Star Trek yet.

I do not take this position lightly. Kirk and Spock are written into the deepest level of my cultural DNA. Whenever I've wanted to seek out new life and new civilizations, the Enterprise has always been my starship of choice. And yet, the Discovery beckons. For one thing, it’s snazzier than either Kirk’s NCC-1701 or Picard’s NCC-1701-D and E — even though it pre-dates those starships. That is not a complaint. While this new Star Trek series has gone backward ten years into the original’s past, my personal timeline has continued to move forward. During that time my expectations regarding production values have matured along with me. Consequently, I'm willing to overlook this break in continuity.

The aliens are also better, especially the Klingons. If you are any kind of trekkie at all, you are aware that the Klingon look has undergone an odd evolution over the years. They’ve always looked bony and angry, but this purple, hairless version is more, well, alien-looking. They could actually be creatures from outer space rather than humans with rubber foreheads. They’ve even got their own font (Trajan Pro Bold, if I’m not mistaken) for the English subtitles. Add to all this a new complexity of character that goes beyond the simple badass of previous Klingons, and you have a truly worthy adversary for the Federation.

It is in the characters on Discovery, moreover, that we find its clearest superiority over other Treks. Prior series had casts of characters whose personas remained essentially the same from episode to episode. With a few exceptions, each installment stood on its own, each time with the cast regulars placed in some new situation. I’m only a few episodes into Discovery, but already individual characters are evolving as the series progresses. A couple have even died. It’s more of a Game of Thrones miniseries approach to sci-fi. Episodes are not so much individual stories as chapters in an unfolding drama, and the roles are growing and changing as we watch. That’s new, too, and I like it.

There is something else that is new about these characters. Most are flawed and troubled — sometimes deeply. Past Star Trek personae have had their little hang-ups, of course, but nothing like these tortured souls. Michael Burnham, the Vulcan-trained Earther who is the series’ protagonist, set off a galactic war with the Klingons while killing her mentor in the process. Discovery’s captain, Gabriel Lorca, is kind of an asshole. Burnham’s love interest has some serious kinks of his own thanks to an abusive relationship…with a Klingon. And so on. They are all fighting on the side of good, I suppose, but battling their own demons at the same time. Those demons are among the engines that drive the show, and I prefer this space noir format to the old, two-dimensional band-of-heroes model.

Writing a show with this premise has got to be challenging, though. The number of variables that have to be accounted for every week would be daunting. Not only does some fresh scientific element have to be introduced and explained (or over-explained, as is sometimes the case), but the larger arc of the story has to be moved forward. The individual struggles of ever-changing characters have to be managed as well. On top of all that, the producers have decided to supply a credible cliff-hanger every week that is coherent within the larger arc of the series. With all these balls in the air, sometimes the stories can get a little thin. On the other hand, Star Trek — and science fiction in general — has never been known for phaser-proof plotting. As long as I get my aliens and some zippy science, I’m pretty much good.

In that last regard — the zippy science — Discovery is also making a better effort than its forbears. Two of the early episodes include a tardigrade, a normally microscopic space-dweller that weighs in on Discovery at half a ton. They explained why, but I sort of lost the thread. In one episode, they give a technical explanation for an invisibility cloak that borders on the plausible. In another, they accomplish near-instantaneous interstellar travel using…spores. Oh, yeah.

If you are a trekkie but still holding out on Discovery, I get it. It’s about the money, right? Then let me share with you some wisdom from Jean Luc Picard: “Money doesn’t exist in the 24th century. The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.” Don’t you feel a little bit silly now?
Bee Wars
Once you get past any anti-insect prejudice you might have, it’s not hard to like bees. They are hard-working, loyal, and brave. You might even come to think of them as cute. Maybe not ladybug cute, but pretty darn lovable.

They will sting, of course, but unless you’re dealing with the Africanized variety, they’re not really looking for trouble. Stinging, after all, is a weapon they can only use once. They’re not likely to use it out of pettiness or pique. Only when they feel that the hive is threatened or their own safety is on the line will they go there. And even if they do, there’s no real danger beyond a small pain and an insignificant bump that might need to be scratched (unless you’re allergic, of course, in which case you could die — along with your attacker).

Practically everything else a bee does is good for us. The honey, the wax, the propolis, the pollinating — does any other animal provide as much benefit without having to die? Bees might be the most peaceful, productive, law-abiding citizens of planet earth. Who could imagine them doing anything bad?

Mass murder, for instance. Surely these adorable little creatures would never involved in anything like that. And they’re way too busy for terrorism or genocide or war. Right?

Well I used to feel the same way. That was before I saw them with my own eyes, plundering our own hive — the robber bees! They came in great numbers, stealing honey and anything else they could carry off. And there was killing, lots of it. No blood, of course, but but the ground below the main entrance was littered with legs, wings, antennae, and unattached thoraxes.

I can understand an invasion by ants or wasps or raccoons, but the idea of luftwaffes of bees raining death and destruction on their own kind just seems wrong. How does a community built on conscientious hard work and team play transform itself into a murderous, thieving horde? Certainly there is an alternate explanation.

One possibility, I suppose, is a queen gone mad. I could imagine all that power changing someone, even a bug. Or perhaps the pressure got to her, and she lost her grip. In either case, on a whim or as part of some demented design, she might have commanded her workers to wreak havoc on their neighbors. They’d have to do it, of course, because she is the goddam queen.

I can also envision a cabal of drones seizing control of the hive. You can guess how these guys must feel about their lives. Sure, they’re waited on hand and foot. Sure, they don’t have to work. And the sex is great. But it can’t be a very fulfilling existence. For one thing, you only have sex that one time, and when you’re done you die. Not working sounds great, but a man needs to step up and meet the world. Make his mark, count for something. I figure that must go for male bees as well.

And drones are big buzzers, too. Bigger than the queen, even. They could swing a coup if they worked together. And once they were in, you know the first thing these dudes would want to do is invade somebody. Cause that other hive has really been asking for it anyway.

So that could be it. Maybe. But honestly neither of these scenarios strikes me as very likely. Impossible as it may seem, honeybees are no less warlike than any other species. Their hive, with all its intricacy and organization, represents no more than a veneer of law and order. Given the opportunity, they’d conquer the world and rule with an iron stinger.

If only they weren’t so damn busy.
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