Monthly Archives: February 2007

A vision of Hell

I had a vision of Hell yesterday.

Okay, I’m exaggerating. Maybe it wasn’t actually Hell — maybe it was more like Hell’s Antechamber, or Hell’s Satellite Office, or Hell’s Fifty Percent Off Sales Annex. But while I was there, I was certain that if Dante had been with me, he would have left the Inferno section of The Divine Comedy unfinished out of despair at the inability of words to convey such horror. And if he had written it anyway, Gustave Dore would have exclaimed, “I can’t draw this!” and immediately retired from art.

Actually, I was accompanying The Divine Miss T to a classmate’s birthday party, which was held at a commercial venue the name of which, for legal reasons, will go unmentioned here. Though I will say that for an exasperated parent who spent way too much time reading Mad magazine during his formative years, the name of the joint lent itself perfectly to satirical recastings like Chunk E. Heaves or Skunk E. Sleaze.

I will also note that the chain has been around long enough to have been ridiculed in the second or third season of The Simpsons, when Bart is given a birthday party at Wall E. Weasel (“Where we cram fun down your throat!”) and is regaled with a special birthday song by the orchestra of mechanical animals: “You’re the birthday/ You’re the birthday/ You’re the birthday/ Boy or girl!”Are you situated now? Good.

Maybe I was just in a cranky mood. I’m sure that on some other day, I would have been delighted to be jammed into an overheated room loaded with full-sized adults moving too slowly and knee-high children moving too quickly; where there was no room to sit and whenever you stepped back to let someone go past you blundered into some crappy ride that moved too slowly and was over too quickly, demanding a fresh infusion of tokens; where the various rides, coin games and loudspeaker announcements kept the decibels jacked to a level just below that of a Harley-Davidson road rally, or a line of 747s gunning their jet engines for takeoff; where the human help have to maintain the kind of face-stretching smiles normally seen only on women who have undergone too many face-lifts, or victims of a poison-gas attack from The Joker. Our table was attended was a young woman whose smile reminded me of an old B-movie, Mr. Sardonicus, about a man who is so traumatized by something that his mouth becomes wrenched into a permanent, ghastly, gum-baring leer. That movie scared the snot out of me when I was a kid. Just the kind of thing I want be reminded of at a birthday party.

The Divine Miss T didn’t like it much, either. As we walked, her grip threatened to stretch my fingers an extra few inches. The presentation of the birthday cake was interrupted by the appearance of the chain’s corporate mascot, who inspired an immediate lemming-like rush to pose for pictures. I found myself standing next to a woman who was berating her child for being too frightened to join the rush.

“I’m scared of him, too,” I told her. “He’s a giant rat that rides a skateboard. What’s not to be scared of?” She said nothing. Maybe it was the expression on my face. I saw that expression mirrored on the faces of most of the adults in the place. It was the same expression Charles Whitman must have worn on August 1, 1966, when he climbed to the top of the Texas Tower and started picking off pedestrians. It was the expression Chevy Chase bore when, at the climax of National Lampoon’s Vacation, he said: “We’re on a quest! A quest for fun!” Parents on such a quest will move mountains, ford rushing rivers — do anything just to get a giggle from their kids.

The prospect of rescue came when I realized that the owners, eager to jam people in and clear them out for the next wave of parties, would chase us all out within the hour. That’s when The Divine Miss T found her pleasure zone.

It was the big kiddie Habitrail that rose in one corner of the room. Kids swarming up the steps and crawled through the tubes mounted along the ceiling. I walked beneath it, straining to catch a glimpse of her, trying not to step on anybody or knock anybody down, certain she was lost in the plastic coils and would forever be traumatized. After an eternity (or maybe it was fifteen minutes) she appeared at the bottom of the slide, squealing in delight, ready to go up again.

So, if you’re a parent, I suggest you do everything you can to avoid visiting Hell. But if you go anyway, have your little sprouts check out the kiddie habitrail. It was a little bit of Heaven that didn’t require any tokens.

A field report from kiddieland

Something very cool has happened to children’s television during the interval in which Dances With Mermaids, who is entering her tween years, swore off Barney and Blue’s Clues while The Divine Miss T, who just turned four, started forming her own tastes in entertainment. I’m talking about the very matter-of-fact Latinization going on across the airwaves.

First there was Dragon Tales on PBS, the studious blandness of which left you on your own to realize that the lead human characters (and at least one of the dragons) are Latinos. Then The Divine Miss T formed a deep attachment to Dora the Explorer, which added Spanish lessons and salsa-flavored music to the mix, and now its spinoff Go Diego Go.

Meanwhile, PBS has added a hostess to its morning lineup who is a slightly matronly Latina. (They also have a cartoon about two Hispanic siblings, Maya and Miguel, that has yet to capture either girl’s attention.) Of course, PBS pioneered this decades ago on Sesame Street, where Sonia Manzano never failed to hold my attention even as Dances With Mermaids went to work on her cereal.

Prolonged exposure to Dora and Diego has yet to inspire the kind of homicidal fantasies that Barney regularly conjured up within a mere few minutes. I’ll file further reports on this trend as more field evidence comes in.         


The idea of Flannery O’Connor’s home as a vacation destination immediately conjures up visions of a Southern Gothic theme park (Flanneryland!) where you can cool your heels in the “Judgment Day” waiting room from hell. attend a service at the Church Without Christ presided over by Hazel Moats (no doubt with quicklime still crusting over his eyes), feed the peafowl, and achieve grace with the help of your obliging tour guide, The Misfit. (“You coulda had a great vacation if somebody was there to shoot you every minute of it.”) Assuming you survive the visit, you can pause on the way out and see all the people you wouldn’t ordinarily want to associate with, all ascending Jacob’s Ladder to heaven.

But if anyone embodied the distance between an artist’s inner and outer lives, it was Flannery O’Connor, and this lovely New York Times feature on Andalusia, the Georgia farm she shared with her widowed mother until her extremely untimely death, makes me want to drive down there right now. Be sure to watch the narrated slide show as well.

Is there another newspaper in this country that would conceive and run a package like this? You gotta love the Times.

Poetry alert

If you love poetry and you live in New Jersey, you’ll want to reserve Sunday, February 11, for some quality time at the South Brunswick Public Library with Charles Johnson, author of Tunnel Vision and the new collection Sam’s Place. The reading is at 2 p.m. and admission is free, though you’re asked to bring a non-perishable donation to the township food pantry. The library is at 110 Kingston Lane in the Monmouth Junction section of South Brunswick. If you have any other questions, contact Hank Kalet at — meanwhile, if you don’t know Johnson’s work, click here to see what you’ve been missing.

Fifty so far

A blog that’s new to me, The Culture Club, has a post listing Fifty Reasons to Love Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. Most of them have to do with the lyrics, which is only sensible. How many records can you think of that have more than a couple of killer lines?

Night thoughts on Bill Murray

It was Groundhog Day, so naturally I watched Groundhog Day. I know — how much more obvious can you get? Would you like to read my musings on the strange appropriateness of indulging in repeated viewings of a movie about a man who must repeat the same day over and over again? Me neither.

Though I will say it’s an interesting coincidence that Bill Murray’s two best film performances — Groundhog Day and this other one — both involve long climactic scenes in which he shares a bed with a gorgeous woman and it never gets any farther than a conversation.