29 May 2006

Rubber Chicken Dinners

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Rubber Chicken Dinners [rbr chkn dnrz], a unique breed that roams much of Earth, but is not known to exist elsewhere in the galaxy.

Family, Genus, Species, & Sub-species

Family: Catered Meals
Genus: Dinners
Species: Rubber Chicken Dinners

In the last half-century, a number of sub-species of Rubber Chicken Dinners have been identified and their existence has been independently verified. These include:

  • Diplomaticae – Typically practiced by Departments of State or Offices of Official Protocol. This sub-species sometimes develops out of a sense of symbiosis, wherein members of one community exchange Rubber Chicken Dinners with visiting dignitaries from other societies. More common is the obligatory species, in which one society tries to impress visitors from another with their riches. Diplomaticae is reported to be the best variant, if one is forced either to give or receive Rubber Chicken Dinners.

  • Benefiticus – Perhaps the most prevalent sub-species. The Benefiticus occurs when a community wants to raise awareness or support for a project, and community or project leaders believe that the aggregated conditions (e.g., Fashion, Money; see below, Environment & Environmental Conditions) co-exist in sufficient density to make Rubber Chicken Dinner-Benefiticus environmentally stable. The Benefiticus has properties that enable mutation and thus ensure proliferation: in initial appearance, a new Benefiticus may initially appear different from earlier incarnations (e.g., new entertainment, different catering) but eventually produces the same symptoms (see below, Other Characteristics).

  • Honoraria – Since Honoraria often appears in connection with Benefiticus, a few scholars have broken with established science over whether Honoraria should exist as its own sub-species or if it more properly should be considered as a variant of Benefiticus. Honoraria can be identified easily by certain persistent elements, which may include: Tableau Dais, Speechification, and Presentation Trophius Plaques.

Environment & Environmental Conditions

While Rubber Chicken Dinners have been spotted in many areas of the world inhabited by humans, they are a predominantly a feature of those communities that make a point of considering themselves “civilized” or “educated.” A number of anthropologists have speculated that even though Rubber Chicken Dinners are considered by their host societies to be “sophisticated,” in the long scope of human development they may actually represent a set-back – much as trepanning and blood-letting were considered adequate medical treatments of earlier ages.

A few conditions must exist for Rubber Chicken Dinners to survive. These include:

  • Fashion – Access to the latest designer clothing is important, for both sexes but especially a society’s females.

  • Jewelry – Similar needs as fashion.

  • Time – Often overlooked, or seen as a benign force, substantial time is required for the survival of Rubber Chicken Dinners.

  • Money – The spectrum can be wide and, in some cases, this may be more about the appearance of such rather than its actual presence. Both males and females must display the characteristics of having money, though the manifestations are usually distinct according to sex. Also, this sometimes correlates to Female Cleavage (see below, Other Characteristics).

  • Service Economy – The presence of the symbiotic species CaterWaiter is considered a requirement. While some consider there to be only one breed of CaterWaiter, anthropologists who have studied the subject have concluded that not all CaterWaiters are created equal, either in appearance or aptitude. CaterWaiters comprise a large part of the service economy.

The scope of these conditions may be relative, rather than absolute. In other words, the same degree of fashion, finance, or funding is not needed in each society in order for Rubber Chicken Dinners to develop – only that they must be present in some form.

Physical Appearance

One identifying feature of Rubber Chicken Dinners are the large rooms, often called “halls” or “banquet halls.” Elaborately-decorated tables are extremely common, usually with floral components that obstruct vision across the table; decorations may be Thematic, sharing traits with other visible components within the room, they may be Dissonant, wherein contrasting themes dominate throughout the room or from table to table; there is no ability to predict Thematic versus Dissonant themes in advance. Table decorations may also be Gaudy. Music and dancing are also typical.

Food is, of course, an absolute identifier of Rubber Chicken Dinners, and may come in several stages, usually referred to as “courses.” Common is the “pre-plate,” wherein participants find the initial course already present on the decorated tables upon entry to the hall. Rubber Chicken Dinners normally involve three such courses, including a main course and a dessert. While it is from the early predominance of Rubber Chicken as a main course that Rubber Chicken Dinners achieved their common name, we now understand that – perhaps in an effort to elude detection – many Rubber Chicken Dinners now also include main courses of Dried Beef, Fishy Salmon, or the Mushy Vegetable Plate (optional).

A trait believed to be exclusive to Rubber Chicken Dinners is the presence of a Journal or Book, a publication that includes full, half-, quarter-, and eighth-page “advertisements” promoting some Rubber Chicken Dinners participants, proclaiming the virtue of the central object in a Rubber Chicken Dinners-Benefiticus, or referring to the subject(s) invoked by Rubber Chicken Dinners-Honoraria.

Other Characteristics

There are a number of foolproof ways to identify Rubber Chicken Dinners, including:

  • Bad Food – Whether it’s Dried Beef, Fishy Salmon, or the eponymous Rubber Chicken, if the food is nearly inedible this is a strong give-away.

  • Female Cleavage – Some societies have worked hard to eliminate this, but it does persist as a feature of Rubber Chicken Dinners, particularly of Rubber Chicken Dinners-Benefiticus, where women believe that revealing copious amounts of skin will either distract from the absence of jewelry or add to its effect.

  • Loud Music – If the music is of a volume that is disproportionate to what you actually need in order to hear, you may have found a Rubber Chicken Dinners.

  • Snarky Comments – This is both a common characteristic and a rapidly-spreading symptom; depending on the volume of those around you, it make take longer to identify this characteristic, but usually each table has a carrier who points out the Snarky Comments to their table-mates.

Interestingly, recent developments in DNA analysis have established that what was previously considered a distinct subspecies, Rubber Chicken Dinners-Koshericus, is in fact only a surface characteristic of any of the other sub-species. There are no genetic markers identified solely with Rubber Chicken Dinners-Koshericus. Nonetheless, a predisposition towards Koshericus-style Rubber Chicken Dinners can be found in many locations, particularly in New York City. Koshericus-style can be identified principally by its ability to make normal Bad Food seem good, and by a tendency towards extended Speechification.


There are few proven methods for eliminating Rubber Chicken Dinners. However, some homeopathic and home-body specialists advise those who fear that they may be at risk for encountering Rubber Chicken Dinners to simply ignore it entirely. In some instances, there may be ramifications for this, e.g., in Rubber Chicken Dinners-Diplomaticae. Yet in the most common variant, Rubber Chicken Dinners-Benefiticus, if the fortitude can be found, one can essentially buy one’s way out, by making a monetary contribution at the level of a seat, two seats, or a table, but doing so absent a commitment to engage with the Rubber Chicken Dinners directly.

22 May 2006

Social Skills

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I grew up in an environment that a friend once called “unrestrained gentility.” Even the most informal of dinners was an extremely organized, somewhat elaborate affair consisting of good china, cloth napkins and place mats, wine, and three courses: a main course of at least two dishes, a salad course, and dessert. Table manners mattered; conversation was varied; we served from the left and cleared from the right, and heaven help anyone who tried to stack a plate. The dining room (as with every other room) had art on the walls, and was a formal space used almost exclusively for that purpose: dining. In some other era, all this might have been called bourgeois – not in the negative sense, merely as an accurate description of the scene: an upper-middle-class family that understood the social codes that went along with eating a meal. It was never pretentious, it simply was what it was; other than my periodic, teenage complaints about the time requirements (making, eating, and cleaning up from an extended meal every night took time), I don’t know that I thought much about it.

Table manners and formal dinners may be the least of the worries for most of us, but they serve as a useful entry into the process of socialization, and the challenges we face as a society – even if we do not necessarily recognize those challenges as such. Take the current national debate about immigration which, when presented in Congress, from the lips of the President, or in the news media, tends to focus on seemingly-rational economic issues: do immigrants “steal” jobs from Americans? do they drive down wages, or are they taking jobs most Americans don’t want? is it better to have immigrants taking our jobs here than to have U.S. companies outsource those jobs to workers overseas?

What most people are too polite to express are their fears about how those immigrants will affect their lives and their communities in other ways, such as hearing more Spanish than English spoken in certain neighborhoods, or new restaurants serving strange foods and wafting out foreign scents. People worry that the immigrants will not adapt, and will change our society more than our society will affect them – even though, historically, these changes have been mutual. To take but one example: pasta and pizza were once considered foreign foods, but are now staples of the American diet, while the Italian immigrant community has assimilated into American culture as successfully as any other. That is what most immigrants want: to adopt our culture while giving something back to it. They want to learn our social skills and habits – they do not want to stand out as “foreign” – but to do so without feeling forced to give up their own sense of their culture or past.

Another undiscussed challenge for socialization concerns the American educational system. As with most aspects of our society, we are all too focused on the extremes: either addressing the children with “learning disabilities” in a special environment, or pushing everyone else towards standardized tests that are all-too-standard. These tests do not do a good job of measuring someone’s ability to think because, for the most part, thinking is not taught: our schools teach content, not the process of learning content; we teach the need to follow rules, not the need to understand why the rules are there, which in turn carries an implicit message about one’s right to break those same rules. Even discussions about whether our schools focus too much on teaching for standardized tests, rather than on other areas, do not engage these questions – because what schools (and teachers unions) argue should be taught is just more content, more of the content not found on the tests themselves.

None of this addresses the underlying problem that different people learn differently. We needs students equipped with an understanding both of how they themselves learn, and of how to teach themselves. And we need structures – schools, teachers, and curricula – that can accommodate the differences from child to child more effectively and flexibly.


During and after college, I would often joke with my family about our family meals in relation to aspects of upper-middle-class socialization, because college was supposed to teach a kind of social awareness. At least, that used to be the theory; anyone who went to a school like Harvard or Princeton would surely have learned such things as table manners as an implicit part of their education, if they did not know them already. Sometimes, these skills are learned positively, by observing others around us and picking up their habits, particularly when those traits are widely shared. I know people who figured out the “proper” way to hold a knife and fork because they sat and watched others around the table, and there are no lack of pop-culture examples of this kind of experience; anyone who has seen the movie “Pretty Woman” will likely recall the restaurant scene with flying escargots and a profusion of seemingly-unnecessary silverware. Other skills are learned negatively, the result of teasing or insulting mimicry by a group against the person who does not know or follow the proper social codes. This kind of hazing is brutal but, usually, effective. Not always, though: I can also think of a few people whose table manners are bad, and who never altered their habits, either through group observation or as the result of being teased.

The joke, though, was how often my alma mater, Hampshire College, seemed to fail this socialization test. It is no surprise: that just is not what Hampshire is all about. But it serves as a useful foil for this very issue, of how to create an environment that focuses on teaching the process of learning, not on teaching content – and of what happens when you construct an educational model predicated on understanding why and how a person might want to break some of the rules that exist in our society. Social skills may fall by the wayside because students decide that they do not care, or in some cases because they are not necessarily capable of caring: they have made a decision about their priorities, and are willing to accept the consequences of discarding certain social norms and rules. The “proper” way to hold a fork is dismissed as irrelevant.

I sit not in judgment but in awe. All of us, daily, make mistakes in etiquette or disregard certain rules of how people normally function in society. Most of us, though, do not do so with ever-conscious intent: we do not decide not to say “thank you,” we just forget. When we err in some elemental area of social interaction, we do so because we do not know any better. Few are those among us who make conscious decisions about how they wish to behave in this area – people who know the rules and opt, for whatever reason, to disregard them.

Perhaps what this says, though, is we should worry less about how or whether we teach different rules, and pay more attention to teaching why we teach them – that we should pay more attention to the underlying issues behind and about learning, rather than just being worried about the lessons themselves. Americans concerned about the integration of the millions of immigrants (legal and illegal) coming the the U.S. might find comfort in knowing that people coming to here were instructed about not just the whys and wherefores of how our society functions, but about the social and philosophical constructs behind them. And our entire culture would be transformed if we changed the focus of our educational system from one that seeks a bland, banal kind of equalization – everyone should be able to do well on a standardized test! everyone can get a B.A. degree! – and instead taught according to need, according to ability, and ultimately with an eye on the underlying framework of learning itself.

16 May 2006

Temporary Exhaustion

A.D. Freudenheim, Editor

I admit: I had a whole article written to post this weekend. I haven’t posted it because, on reading it again, it’s boring – another long screed about the horrors of President Bush and how he seems to have forgotten that he works for us, that he is actually employed by (as opposed to Lord of) the citizens of these United States. But do you need to read that again? I have written it before, any number of times, with different words and varying emphases, but it’s boring already – never mind that there are a thousand other blogs making variations on the same points. (For the record, my driving thesis this time was that the Bush Administration’s governing philosophy is simple: the ends always justify the means. This is why the Administration’s politics and policies do not always seem to fit neatly in the “conservative” box: “conservatism” is not the underlying motivation, in case you hadn’t noticed.)

Bottom line: you want to hit President Bush where it hurts as quickly as possible? The biggest mess Americans can create for Bush will be by electing a Democratic majority in Congress in the November elections. Let’s just hope it’s not biggest mess Americans can create, period. Those poor Democrats. Maybe someday they’ll get their shit together.

There are other things to think about these days, in any case. Here are a few:

1. Having resisted for a long time, I am currently reading Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. If you have read it, you know how it is; if you haven’t read it, I’ll say that it is an entertaining thriller (thus far) if not exactly the best of the genre. However, the author’s fixation on the Catholic Church’s suppression of the divine feminine makes for an interesting read in the context of my Feminism & Me series of articles. If there is truth to the idea that the rise of the Church is responsible for the subsequent focus on eradicating the “feminine goddess” and variants of the woman-worship theme from society, then what does that say about both feminism, the role of women today, and the focus of their sex and sexuality as a dominant theme? I don’t have a response for this yet, but coming soon will be a review of Pamela Paul’s Pornified: How Pornography Is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families, as well as Jenna Jameson’s autobiography and it will be difficult not to touch on this issue.

2. In discussing the Norah Vincent book Self-Made Man, a friend made the observation that Vincent’s perspective on the dynamics between men, and between men and women, could not help but be informed by her lesbianism – which is to say that, as a woman, Vincent may be a member of the oppressed majority, but as a lesbian she is a member of a minority community. It would be difficult to imagine that Vincent’s view of the world could be uncolored by this, which to my mind makes her analysis that much more insightful and valuable. Her descriptions of the emotional repression faced by (and imposed by) men takes on an even more sad, desperate hew when cast in that light, and I am grateful for the observation.

3. You can be forgiven for not following the saga of the Satmar sect of orthodox Jews, who are fighting over leadership of their community following the death of their grand rabbi Moses Teitelbaum. What is interesting, though, is the confluence of potentially-schismatic events occurring in some major religious institutions these days: the Anglican Church is fighting (and talking schism) over gay bishops, the Roman Catholic Church is feuding with China over the appointment of leadership, and then there’s the Satmars. (And the Satmars should probably feel flattered to be included in this list, considering the difference in numbers between worldwide Catholics, Anglicans, and Satmar-affiliated Jews.) No, I haven’t been reading too much Da Vinci Code-style conspiracy theory. More on this subject to come.

4. The next issue of the journal n+1 is out. Buy it, folks! Although I didn’t write the first essay (though perhaps I could have), “The Intellectual Situation: An Interruption,” by Chad Harbach, is disturbing and absolutely worth reading.

06 May 2006

Primum non nocere

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

“First, do no harm” (Primum non nocere) is a foundation principle of both ancient and modern medicine, a reminder to doctors that they must always consider the benefits of any action they might take in direct relationship to its risks – and put the welfare of the patient first. Among other things, this simple dictum serves to backstop the use of any new remedy before it is deployed, lest more harm be done; a sick person may present a tempting testing ground a new treatment, but the risks of that treatment, relative to its value, must always be carefully considered.

Perhaps it is time for us to require our politicians to make a commitment to this same principle: to do no harm when legislating for our benefit, and to consider – as an integral component of lawmaking, rather than an after-the-fact, blue ribbon commission by-product – the risks and dangers of any new legal “remedy” relative to the expected benefit(s).

At first blush, this may sound like a recipe for endless debate and inaction – which is, in its way, the system we have in place currently. Social Security reform has not happened because our legislators cannot agree on any changes to the system that do not, in their view, make it better for one set of constituents at the expense of another group. Our tax code continues to be a complicated, cancerous mess, and the Alternative Minimum Tax metastasizes unabated, ensnaring more and more of the middle class while Congress turns a blind eye. And Congress has failed dramatically to act in relation to the war in Iraq, other than to serve as a check-writing machine for the initiatives of our ill-advised President Bush. This legislative inaction hardly meets the test of doing no harm, since we can see quite clearly the impact of the war on both our soldiers and our financial deficit.

Maybe in governance terms the principle under discussion should not be one of inaction, but of more measured action, the equivalent of taking two aspirin and checking back with the doctor in the morning. (Few of our national governance episodes require a trip to the emergency room; for those that do, the immediate course of action tends to be quite clear.) So, in the case of Social Security, an obvious, aspirin-like step might be to raise the national age of retirement, from 65 to 70; there is little to debate in the fact that our citizens live longer and are therefore capable of working longer, and there are copious foreign examples (such as Germany) to show the negative effects of a younger retirement age on government-funded social welfare systems. This could hurt some people – e.g., those for whom 65 is one year away, and who have already begun to plan their retirement – but the impact could be mitigated by establishing a progressive scale for implementing an age increase over time. Of course, changing the retirement age would not address all of the Social Security system’s problems, but it would be a start, the rational beginning of a longer-term process, a treatment that remains consistent with the underlying, already-established mechanics of Social Security.

That point is key: legislating in a manner that is consistent with the accepted mechanics of the system in place. Everyone believes that the Social Security system is there to serve as a retirement fund (that they’re wrong is, unfortunately, rather beside the point), so changes should be made in a way that sustains that goal while strengthening the system itself. Likewise, our tax code is (more or less) progressive, which means it is designed to alleviate the impact on the less wealthy parts of the population and to demand more money from those who make more. Therefore, a fix to the Alternative Minimum Tax should be uncontroversial – even if it means lost government revenue – because raising the income threshold affected by this piece of the law would be consistent with the essential, accepted progressive aspects of our tax law (and with the reasoning behind the Alternative Minimum Tax in the first place).

Another important piece of this discussion concerns the involvement of citizens, beyond voting. We the people should, as in medicine, become more actively engaged in our own legislative health. Just as with medicine, where we hire physicians to help heal us – but where we must also take part in the process ourselves – so should we remember that our elected representatives are not hired solely to act on their own. Democratic principles must share with medicine a common understanding that the responsibilities of the hired help do not remove or negate the responsibilities either of the patient or the citizen. The recent, absurd Republican proposal for a $100 gas rebate for Americans is an example of citizen engagement: the voluminous (negative) response to this idea helped kill it. Likewise, protests across the country about changes to our immigration policies will probably reveal the value of citizen participation in the process of governance just as the civil rights protests of the 1960s helped eliminate racist laws.

In governance as in medicine, a variation on Newtonian physics holds true: every action causes a reaction. The question is whether the reaction is worse than the initial situation. It may be that a medical dictum such as Primum non nocere is inappropriate for governance, where the fundamentals of lawmaking are much more like the business of sausage-making than of health care, and where the patient rarely cooperates. The insurmountable difficulty is that most politicians believe in something few doctors accept: their ability to create a Utopian state, the governmental version of eternal life. Within the medical world, only the lunatic fringe spends its time on achieving human immortality. Sadly, in politics the rhetoric is always keyed to the idea that one person’s policies will cure everyone’s ills.