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Category: Culture

Run It Up the Flagpole
Flags have been in the news a lot this year. I’m thinking about the American flag in particular and the taking of a knee during the national anthem. Some folks get pretty het up about that kind of thing, finding disrespect even if the protest is done in a sad and solemn way. They take flags very seriously, so much so that some are willing to lay down their lives for their flag.

So I don’t want to start any fights here. I honor the sensitivity of flag worshippers, but full disclosure: I don’t care that much about flag reverence. It seems extreme to me, and I don’t see what all the fuss is about when it comes to pieces of cloth versus flesh and blood humans. I am here to examine flags as a broad concept, okay? I am simply exploring my own vexillophilia, not rattling your cage.

The first thing that jumps out at me is that there are a lot of near duplications in flag design. Three simple stripes is a popular motif. The stripes might run either horizontally or vertically, and in most cases they are of equal size. The French, the Russians, and the Dutch, for example, feature different arrangements of this pattern in red, white, and blue. I can’t help wondering if these nationalities are just as willing to die for their flags as some Americans are. If one isn’t paying attention, one might end up dying for another country’s flag.

There are also some geographical themes that stand out. Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland all display simple crosses with one vertical and one horizontal element. Georgia and Switzerland are also in this group, but the Norse connection is what catches your eye. It’s unanimous up there, and even England (an unofficial member of the Norse club) uses the St. George’s Cross flag (which predates the Union Jack) as its standard in sporting events. We could call this similarity a coincidence or evidence of a some dark, menacing conspiracy. I’ll let you decide.

Africa is heavy on red, green, and gold in its color schemes, and suns are a regular feature across the tropics. Five-pointed stars are everywhere (with some accompanied by crescents), but there is only one six-pointed version. While the three-equal-stripes pattern is dominant, many of these feature the addition of crests or emblems. Mexico’s, for instance, is an Italian flag with the eagle-on-a-cactus-with-a-snake coat of arms in the middle. There are many examples of this design style, but I confess that I find it a little disappointing. It’s like the flag designers gave up on fundamental symbolism and just went with something they had lying around the studio. Again, I’m not looking to start a fight.

I must say that I like the American flag. It’s homemade, according to the story, and it has a pretty clear layer of symbology. The red, white, and blue scheme is a nice one, though perhaps I am showing a color prejudice for that combination that seems common in the northern latitudes. I also like the fact that it changes every time a state is added. We may see Puerto Rico get shuffled in any time now, bringing us to a total of 51 stars. It’s an unusual design, too, so I give it points for originality. This could be national pride speaking, but I think that it’s an unusually attractive banner.

I am not alone in my admiration. Old Glory seems to have spawned its share of, if not imitators, then derivative designs. Chile, Cuba, and Liberia all have nice flags that seem to have sprung directly from Betsy Ross’ creation. Malawi’s flag takes ours and puts an Islamic star and crescent where the field of stars sits on ours. That’s a nice touch.

That said, the Stars and Stripes is not my favorite. It’s in the top ten (which is not hard given the large number of banners that fall into the “godawful” category), but not in the top three. My preferences for that honor are strictly a matter of taste, of course, and I try not to let politics (or racism, for that matter) play a part in my choices.

I put Morocco’s flag near the top because it is simple and potent. That green-on-red color combination gives me a mainline buzz, and the Seal of Solomon pentagram at dead center is an anchor of credibility. Class all the way.

Yemen (poor Yemen) is also high on my list. It features the classic three-equal-stripes pattern I’ve mentioned (it’s a classic for a reason), but it gets that basic design absolutely perfect. For starters, the stripes run horizontally rather than vertically. To my eye, that arrangement is the more stable and pleasing of the two — the way you’d want your country to be. Most important, though, they got the very best colors and sequence for this beauty. Red, white, black. Clean, strong, gorgeous.

I’d be proud to have either of those two as the symbol of my country (although I wouldn’t die for either). My choice for number one, though, has got to be Sri Lanka. It is unique in practically every category: design, color, symbology, goofiness. It’s got a lion (somehow holding a sword!). It’s got bo leaves on it, and they represent the Buddhist principles of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. The color choices are meant (I am told) to include other religions and ethnicities.

Better yet, it doesn’t really look like a flag. More like a wall-hanging designed to encourage contemplation. I can’t find any nationalism in it either, unless it’s pride in their yearning for gentle inclusiveness. I might not die for such things, but I could be talked into living for them.

Sri Lanka, I salute you!
Aussie Can You Say?
I went on a little cruise recently, just to see what it was like. It wasn't on one of those big ships, where you're cheek to jowl with hundreds of Americans all gaining weight simultaneously. There were only 30 of us on this little ship, and aside from the two of us and a couple of Canadians, everyone else was Australian.

Is it just me, or are the Aussies the most personable people on the planet? Friendly, upbeat, self-effacing. Even the quiet ones always seem ready for some jocular give-and-take. They are easy to be around, unlike some other nationalities. I won't name names, but some of our other fellow travelers can be grumpy, rude, arrogant. Yes, including the Americans, and yes, including me.

It's a cultural thing, of course. The origin of any given Australian is irrelevant, at least after a generation of living in The Land Down Under. The Aussies no doubt have their own baggage of the intolerance and boneheadedness we all share, but they carry it in a uniquely agreeable way.

My current theory: it's the accent. Perhaps we should all try it.

To which I hope you reply: Ripper, mate! Good oil.
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.
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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon