Birthday thoughts

My oldest brother, bless his heart, celebrates his birthday today, making it fully four days closer to Christmas than my own birthday. This means that, while I can bemoan my fate at having a birthday so close to Christmas, I still get to chuckle at him, because his is positively hiding in the shadow of Christmas. Poor miserable pudknocker.

This reminds me of something I wrote a few years back around this time of year. Think of Christmas not as what it masquerades to be, but what it is: a force of nature… a hurricane… think of Christmas as… well, read on.

Why Travel Sucks

Starting a vacation is for me an abrupt and generally unpleasant experience. Once, on a vacation to Cozumel with my sweetheart, I spent the first afternoon wearing a hot jacket as we strolled together on the sunny beach, because it seemed unutterably lame to jump into something snazzy and tropical. Of course, it was visibly stupid to keep wearing a thick coat left over from the New England frost. And after my sweet and dear one gently questioned my sanity, any retreat to more sensible attire would have entailed a loss of face and an introspective psychosocial analysis I was too goddamned cranky to provide. Such is human perversity.

Why didn’t I just lighten up? Eventually I did; I almost always do. After a day or so, there I was, swaying to salsa music and hoisting margaritas like all the other turistas. But that first day is always a bitch.

Why travel? Where you’re going, chances are you don’t speak the language, don’t know the customs, the inside jokes, the good restaurants. You won’t know if you’re regularly being fleeced in business transactions. Fiddling with small change in stores will make you feel like a five year old.

Why travel? Chronically happy people easily provide the correct answer: BECAUSE of all those things. You’ll learn so much: think of how much fun you’ll have sorting out which restaurants are merely bad from those which are a genuine threat to your health. I don’t deny that this is the right answer. But the initial cranky period interests me. From the perspective of the first day, let me crank up the cranky knob and provide


1. First of all, while you’re away, someone is robbing your house and mistreating your cat. Duh.

2. You can’t speak the language, so everything is awkward, embarrassing, and infuriatingly slow. Or let’s suppose you can speak the language a little. You still feel bad, because

2b. You can’t speak the language well at all (only awkwardly and with that awful American twang), or

2c. You can’t speak the language fluently with perfect use of local idioms, so you’d rather not even pretend, because it’ll just come out sounding awful.

In any event, now they have to speak English with you, and God knows they hate that.

3. You are little more than a wallet. All else is puffery on your part and flattery on theirs. Anyone who depends on tourists bitterly resents them. Why should they have to do a little dance for you just to punch their meal ticket? Honestly, how would YOU like to wear lederhosen and play a tuba every day? You’d be pissed too, tips or not. People in the tourism business vary only in their ability to mask the creeping homicidal mania to which they all eventually succumb.

4. No matter how you choose your itinerary, you will miss the really good stuff. If you plan carefully and obsessively, you won’t be able to improvise and so you’ll miss the proverbial forest for the trees. But if you don’t plan carefully, you’ll waste most of your time standing in lines or sitting in cafes trying to figure out what to do.

5. Americans are bad people, disliked the world over. This is bad news no matter where you go. Your best bet is to try to act invisible and apologize a lot using (without even realizing it) a lame unplaceable quasi-European accent. Please please please don’t put a Canadian flag on your luggage: Stand up and take your well-deserved abuse like a man. The only consolation here is that the Germans are almost as loathsome as you are.

Other tourists, particularly Japanese, are good for making fun of. Try it and see how much it does to assuage your downtrodden self-esteem. See how those Japanese just want to take pictures and then leave! Ha ha! But you know how to do it right, yes sir. No one would ever laugh out loud watching you. Note: this technique is not likely to make you feel any better if the other tourists are Americans, or God forbid, in your party, or God really forbid, your family.

6. Tipping is an activity expressly designed to make you crazy. There is a suave process and correct amount to tip the monkeys who assist you throughout your trip, but you are clueless. James Bond can do it, but you? Give me a break! If you give too much, they will smirk because you are a cash-fat dope, a naive mark begging to be stripped of available funds. If you give too little, they will smirk, and you just know that they’ll be talking about you with their little monkey buddies. Even if you manage to guess the right amount, you still get the smirk if you are awkward and stiff in your delivery. That little smirk is a pain worse than a severe hickey.

7. Your whole trip is one big cliche from beginning to end. I know you planned it carefully and bought the expensive but tasteful Dorling Kindersley Travel Guides. But won’t you feel like a dope when you realize all the other tourists in that darling “undiscovered” restaurant are referring to the exact same page of the exact same guidebook so they can see what to order for dessert? You are just like every other goddamned tourist on the planet, no matter how superior you feel to those poor Japanese, except since you are American, you are actually worse. Just because. Now go to the back of the line.

8. It is possible to die from embarrassment, and you just don’t need to run the risk. Embarrassment sickness is much like altitude sickness. You need to build up tolerance to it slowly, or the shock to your system can be fatal.

9. You can’t win. If your destination sucks, then why bother going? On the other hand, if everything is better there, then you must be some kind of idiot not to live there.

10. Nobody else worries about all this shit as much as you do, and frankly we’re all getting tired of hearing you go on about it. Would you please just shut up and enjoy the show?

Beware of these warning signs during the first day or so of your trip. Give it some time and the pain will probably pass. Strip off your ingrained habit-crust and run around naked for a few days. Try on a little simple dignity. It’ll do you a world of good.

An Alchemist Abroad: Paracelsus in Japan

Welcome to the Twenty-First Century Star Chamber, guaranteed to bring you a wholly satisfying, up-to-date, and quintessentially twenty-first century web-browsing experience. You’ll find no unsightly 1900s-vintage bugginess here: our Y2K Crisis Management Team has performed beautifully and has conducted the site safely across the millennial divide.

This week we present for your sophisticated twenty-first century reading pleasure a very brief poem by twentieth-century poet Joanne Kyger and some excerpts from a twentieth-century expedition to Japan undertaken by our own Paracelsus.

SUDDENLY! by Joanne Kyger

The same Moon in the next century!

Continue reading “An Alchemist Abroad: Paracelsus in Japan”

RAQ: The Star Chamber Rarely-Asked-Questions List

We hope this compendium of infrequently posed queries, painstakingly gathered across many years of operation, will clear up some of the mystery surrounding the Star Chamber.

Don’t see your favorite rarely asked question here? Send a note to the RAQ Master at and we’ll add it to the list.

Q: Are you Star Chamber guys really all the same person, only with a bizarre split personality disorder?

A: No.

Q: Who were the Hittites?

A: Now that’s a rarely asked question. During the second millennium B.C. the Indo-European people known as the Hittites ruled over the “Land of Hatti,” in central and eastern Anatolia (the peninsula which is modern Turkey). They had displaced the previous occupants, the non-Indo-European Hattians, and ruled from the city of Hattusas near the modern Boghazkoy in northern central Turkey, possibly as early as 1900 B.C.

Q: Do you live in a big wacky house like the Partridge Family?

A: No. But the Star Chamber corporate headquarters comprises a large campus, and depending on your taste, you may consider some of the Frank Gehry buildings to be, as you say, “wacky.” Also, much like the Partridge Family, we have madcap misadventures every week. But the answer to your question is no.

Q: Is your site loosely based on the 1983 movie “The Star Chamber” starring Michael Douglas and Hal Holbrook?

A: Surprisingly, yes.

Q: Really?

A: No. Not really. I just wanted to see your reaction.

Q: Do you live in a big wacky house like the Partridge Family?

A: If you ask me that one more time, it won’t be a rarely-asked question anymore and I’ll be forced to strike it from the list. Think of the others and please be more considerate with your questions.

Q: Are these questions submitted by real people, or are you just making them up?

A: What do you think? You’re the one asking the question.

Q: I see. So they’re completely made up.

A: That’s not a question.

Q: Why are you called The Star Chamber anyway?

A: I’m afraid that particular question is frequently asked. You’ll need to refer to our FAQ, which sadly has not yet been written.

Q: Do you live in a big wacky house like the Hittites?

A: Ha ha. Okay, that’s enough questions.

Why Paracelsus?

We here at the Star Chamber wish you all a pleasant winding down of summer. Sad though it is to admit it, the end is nigh. All you autumn-lovers can gear up and get giddy, but I think I’ll take a nap from September to next April.

Four years after appropriating the name of an obscure sixteenth century physician, Paracelsus has finally decided it’s time to explain why. Perhaps this is because the good doctor gave us alcohol, or at least its current name, and therefore he deserves at least an explanation. Al-kohl used to be the name of black eye paint, but for mysterious reasons he decided to apply the name to spirit of wine instead.

Here’s mud in your eye.
Continue reading “Why Paracelsus?”

Super-size it

by Wendy Gulley

The line at the concession stand for the local cinema megaplex was moving excruciatingly slowly. I was vainly hoping to buy some goodies before the previews started in my tiny booth they call a theater. As I inched closer, I discerned why it was taking my fellow moviegoers so long to make their purchases. The helpful young man behind the counter was wearing a button that says “Ask me about the SUPER COMBO.” But there was no need to ask, because he greeted each new customer with “Welcome to Loew’s. Would you like a Super Combo tonight?” Some customers didn’t miss a beat, but most customers were caught off guard for a few seconds before they decided to go ahead with their original order.

No one in line that night actually ordered the Super Combo (which consists of a very large bag of popcorn and a very large drink), despite his dogged persistence. But the helpful young man didn’t stop with just that question. When a customer went on to order a small or medium-sized drink or bag of popcorn, he immediately asked if s/he wanted the next largest size for only x cents more. I must have looked especially thirsty to him, because he asked me TWICE if I wanted to upgrade my drink to medium-size. “Look, I know it’s a bargain,” I said to him impatiently. “But the medium drink is too big for me to put my hand around!” He then gave me my small drink without further cajoling, and it fit in my hand just right as I raced back to the already darkened theater.

Fitting in my hand was one of the reasons I didn’t want a medium drink that night at the movies, despite its “better value”. The other reason is that I simply didn’t want to drink that much liquid! But recently I’m beginning to think that I am the only American that thinks smaller can sometimes be better.

The super combo costs $5.75, while a medium drink and medium popcorn total $6.24.

Size Matters

Perhaps it all started, innocently enough, with the “Big Gulp” 15 years ago. In addition to the ordinary small, medium, and large paper cups for fountain drinks, 7 Eleven Stores began offering gigantic cups that could hold 40 ounces of your favorite soda. For only pennies more, you could get twice as much Coke as a large cup would hold! Big Gulps were quite successful and remain so today, but does anyone actually ever finish all 40 ounces? Is it a bargain if you only drink 20 ounces before the ice melts and it’s too watery and warm to finish?

In the years since then, more and more everyday products are being packaged in bigger and bigger sizes. Ironically, this trend has happened at the same time that the size of the average American household is declining dramatically. Does a household of 2, 3, or 4 people really need to shop at BiggieMart to get giant boxes of cereal that could feed an army? But to get big sizes, you need not go to these special, buy-in-bulk stores that have sprung up like giant weeds in the past 10 years. At any ordinary supermarket, supersizes abound for any type of product. You can now buy a 64 oz. bottle of ketchup instead of the standard 20 oz. size, or a 24 oz. bottle of salad dressing instead of the standard 12 oz. size. Or buy a 45 oz. jar of Ragu sauce, instead of the usual 26 oz. For your cleaning needs, Dawn dishwashing liquid now comes in a 64 oz. bottle that is too big and heavy to conveniently squirt on your dishes. And Tide detergent now comes in a 200 oz. container (12.5 pounds!) that will give you a hernia to tip into your washing machine. But what a bargain. As you pant and heave with the Tide container for the next two years, try to focus on how you saved $2 with your smart shopping.

The trend towards abandoning standard sizes is a puzzling one. In the past few months I have unwittingly purchased: 1) a toothbrush that’s too fat for the built-in toothbrush holder in my bathroom; 2) paper towels that are too wide for the paper towel holder in my kitchen; and 3) soap that doesn’t fit my travel container. My contact lens solution, always a heavy bottle to take on trips, is now only available in a size that is yet a third heavier than before. Take a stroll down the toilet paper aisle in your local chain grocery store and you’ll see that 4 roll packages, the standard size for generations, are now in the minority. Bulky packages of 8, 9, and 12 rolls line the shelves. Perhaps you have been wondering why the sales of large vehicles (SUVs, minivans and pickups) now equal the sales of “standard” cars in the U.S.? Sure, family size is going down and studies show that SUVs put us at greater risk on the road. But we need supersize cars to hold our supersize groceries, not to mention our supersize butts (more on that later). That must be the reason for a couple I know from Indianapolis who has one child and TWO minivans.

Better Value, but at What Cost?

Back to food items, and fast food in particular. McDonalds and Burger King now offer “value meals”, which make it cheaper to get medium or large fries and a medium drink with your sandwich than to get small fries and a small drink. Or if this isn’t enough to fill your belly, just say “supersize it” and you’ll get supersize fries and a large drink for only 39¢ more.

Let’s look at some sample meals. If you want to eat a modest McDonald’s meal, you might order a basic cheeseburger, large fries, and a medium drink. There is no value meal in this case; you must purchase the items at their individual prices, which total $3.47. If however, you decide to splurge and get the “two cheeseburger value meal”, you’ll pay only $2.99 for TWO cheeseburgers, large fries, and a medium drink. That’s right, pay 48¢ less and you’ll get an extra cheeseburger. Or “supersize it” (two cheeseburgers, supersize fries, and a large drink) and pay $3.38, still 9 cents ahead of the one cheeseburger/large fries/medium drink meal.

Meanwhile, at Burger King, a similar meal of a cheeseburger, medium fries, and a medium drink will run you $3.97. But for the same price ($3.99) you can get a double whopper value meal, consisting of a double whopper, medium fries and a medium drink. Why eat that small cheeseburger, with only 380 calories and 19 grams of fat, when you can, for the same price, clog your arteries with the new supersized whopper, which has 870 calories and 56 grams of fat? If you add in the fries (21 grams of fat), you’ll have more than enough fat for your entire day, all accomplished in one meal for less than four dollars!

Of course, breakfast at these fine dining establishments offers bargains as well. At Burger King you can buy a biscuit sandwich and coffee for $2.38, or add hashbrowns to the meal and pay 20% less ($1.99). Why, you’d be a fool not to eat a heavy breakfast at these prices.

Given the Star Chamber’s highbrow readership, I’m sure many of you are smiling at this point, thinking to yourself: “I never eat at these burger places, so I won’t be enticed into eating bigger meals.” But a recent study comparing a typical (better than McDonald’s) restaurant on Long Island to a typical restaurant in London shows that portion sizes weigh about a pound on Long Island and half a pound or less on the other side of the Atlantic. And in addition to the huge portions, Long Island diners also get items such as a bread basket and complimentary appetizers.

Bigger Is Not Always Better

Next time you’re in a busy public place — at the mall, at the BiggieMart, at the Lard-Hut — try collecting some interesting data: what percentage of people you see around you are seriously overweight? I’ll save you the trouble: a lot.

Americans are the fattest people on earth, and they’re rapidly getting fatter. According to the Seattle Times (May 29, 1998) 54% of Americans are fatter than is healthy, and this percentage has grown by about a third in the past 20 years. 1 in 3 adults in this country is obese, as are a fifth of children; these rates have also risen dramatically in the past 10 to 20 years.

Medical researchers view Americans’ increasing obesity as nothing short of a big, fat epidemic. As well they should, since obese people face a 60% greater risk of death, especially from diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. The number of Americans who die annually of obesity-related diseases is 300,000. (For tobacco-related diseases the figure is 400,000.) $100 billion is the estimated annual cost of lost workdays and medical care for obesity-related illness in this country.

And what are we doing to fight this epidemic? Eating supersized portions of food, encouraged by restaurants and food manufacturers. The Big Mac and the Whopper are no longer the big kids on the fast food block. Now we have the Big King, the Double Whopper, the Bacon Double Cheeseburger, the Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese, and the soon-to-be-released-and-overhyped MBX (McDonald’s Big Extra). All at cheap prices.

Some Americans are undoubtedly eating healthier these days. Or trying to. But beware, healthy eaters, of two other food trends: bagels and lowfat foods. Many of today’s fresh-baked bagels pack 500 calories or more. And studies are now showing that people who eat lowfat foods often suffer from the “I deserve to indulge later” syndrome, consuming more calories in the end.

Americans could certainly improve their health by eating more fruits and vegetables, the natural nonfat foods. But only 22% of us eat the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day. If farmers could only grow those peas and carrots in supersizes, maybe people would eat them.

Keep your eyes out for more examples of supersized objects, bombarding us in every direction. The new Godzilla, the FleetCenter (47% of its seats would fall outside the physical confines of the old Boston Garden it replaces), the effects of Viagra (albeit short-lived), and finally– THIS ARTICLE.

Scooping Mayonnaise

Ah mayonnaise. The Viscous Muse.

Mayonnaise, like hollandaise, was invented by the French to cover up the flavor of spoiled flesh, stale vegetables, rotten fish. Beware the sauce! Where food comes beslobbered with an elegant slime you may well suspect the integrity of the basic ingredients.”

— Edward Abbey, “The Fool’s Progress”

Part I. Bert

Bert, 74 years old, refused to retire, and through some bureaucratic quirk, it was impossible to make him go. Here is what he did: in the morning he worked on the crossword puzzle and circled real estate classifieds, and in the afternoon it was his special task to drive Marian absolutely insane. Marian was a brisk and efficient secretary for the little Air Force Liaison office that I frequented. She spent the morning undoing the trouble that Bert stirred up around base the day before. In a world where some people pull their own weight, and others manage to pull only a fraction thereof, Bert was a great beached whale. You would swear he was senile but for the fact that he could righteously defend his position as nimbly as a politician in heat. I feared his fat grabby hands, his thick glasses, his bad synthetic creased suits, his slicked back mobster hair. I feared his anecdotes, because if he got me in his office he would spend a half hour telling me about his engineering exploits with the German rocket designers just after World War II. In short, he was a fascinating old man. In short, he was a mayonnaise scooper. Do you know any mayonnaise scoopers?

Part II. Mayonnaise.

Let’s face it, mayonnaise tastes good. Dry stringy turkey on cheap bread, crumbly bacon on wilted lettuce and dusty toast, what are these without the ennobling powers of the magic white spread? Mayonnaise is extraordinarily fatty, so a little will go a long way. And most importantly, if you absolutely HAD to, you could live years and years on nothing but mayonnaise. Of course you would be a changed person. Think about it: after a while, your complexion would become pale and glossy. Like any addiction, you’d soon be reduced to defending your supply, sprinting furtively from jar to jar. Suppose you had a choice between hard work (let us say, what you do now) and a life of empty leisure fueled solely by mayonnaise. Which would you choose? I thought so. Yet every year, thousands and thousands of people choose the Pride of Hellman’s.

You could argue that this is just another phrase for laziness, for goldbricking. But the truly lazy are fat drippy cats who will pour through the gaps in your arms if you don’t hold them just so. Mayonnaise-scooping is more complex; we’re not talking about the simply unmotivated, the slovenly. We’re talking about someone who is not only clever enough to know better, but still cleverer: they can rationalize and relish every drop of unearned goody that comes their way. They can actively take advantage in a predatory premeditated way that eludes mere bums.

Part III. Examples

1. Across the base from Bert’s Air Force Liaison Office was the building where Lt. Holt worked. Everyone who worked with him knew that he wouldn’t complete a project if you pulled him through it on a big metal hook, yet he was the most decorated junior officer in the building. Why? Because he spent all his time writing recommendations for ribbons and commendations which he would then pester senior officers into signing. See what I mean? That’s a lot of effort, and it suited him. But if the earth swallowed him whole tomorrow, he would not be missed for a week.

2. Marilyn takes two hour lunches, of which she is fiercely protective. She takes the elevator up and down past two flights of stairs. She leaves work at four, announcing to anyone who will listen that she’s now going home to her REAL JOB—taking care of her wonderful children. She spends so little time in the office, it’s no wonder she can’t be bothered to answer her voicemail. Yet she dispenses professional advice with the self-importance of a brain surgeon. Do you know anybody like Marilyn?

3. Think about that kid who comes by to badger you into buying something so he can win a trip to Disney World. Magazine subscriptions, chocolate bars, you can’t even tell what he’s selling, because he’s asking you earnestly “Don’t you want me to go to Disney World?” Let on that you aren’t necessarily concerned about his vacation plans, and he’s liable to snarl and bite off a finger on his way to the neighbor’s house.

Part IV. Identification in the Field

What are the characteristics of a Mayonnaise Scooper? Wounded righteousness and a quick left hook.

  1. They are powerfully lazy about anything having to do with their job.
  2. They are strangely intense about avoiding work even if that involves considerable effort.
  3. They are angry when you catch them with one sticky paw in the Hellman’s.

Suggest to a mayonnaise-scooper that they perform a task that appears in their job description, and you are likely to get a look of blank hatred.

Part V. Mayonnaise Futures

Hard times at work are cruel for the lazy, but they can be strangely exhilarating for the inveterate scooper of mayonnaise. So the question I have been pondering of late is this: will the wired world of the future favor or penalize these perversely lazy shirkers? Wherever you can see the structure that supports an organization, whether it’s a copy room or a warehouse, there is the opportunity to scoop booty. As the structure required to support an organization shrinks due to improved technology, the space in which to hide gets smaller. But these people are good at adapting—even now they’re looking forward to the challenge of being lazy in new and different ways. The slobs are in for trouble, but when it comes to mayonnaise, my money’s on Bert.


I was doing a little web research on mayonnaise as I wrote this. An AltaVista search revealed (at the great Edward Abbey quote displayed above. At the same time, AltaVista exhorted me to “Search for top-selling titles about mayonnaise!” How could I resist? There were nine matches, of which, it may interest you to know, the best match was “Mayonnaise and the Origin of Life: Thoughts of Minds and Molecules” by Harold J. Morowitx.

The Rewards of the Infinite

September so soon.

With any luck, the approach of May will be just as swift. Still, one has doubts. On the other hand, what with the apocalyptic combinations of El Niño, Global Warming, and the End of the Millenium, perhaps next frame is too distant by far. We beg you to take a moment to read about what may be the biggest environmental issue of all time

Alchemy is never far from the mind of Paracelsus, and this week is no exception.
Q: What’s the parlor game that changed the world?
A: Ask Zeno. You’re halfway there already.
Continue reading “The Rewards of the Infinite”