Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Promise is not performance

What is the point of staking your business's reputation on something that, in the nature of the case, you can't possibly control?

I am thinking of the new billboard ad for Kroger that promises "faster checkout," as well as the ad for Walgreen's that I just heard on AOL Radio saying that a customer went to Walgreen's and "with no lines, he was in and out in a flash." (Never mind that that seems to imply that people have stopped shopping there, which is one of the only reasons that there would be no lines.)

I have shopped at both Walgreen's and Kroger for over 35 years now, and speed is not among the virtues of either. Indeed, as I have pointed out to a Walgreen's manager, it is my experience that, even if I am there at 2:00 in the morning and with no other customers in the store, I will have to wait. Walgreen's clerks dawdle, and it seems to make little or no difference how much or how little customer traffic there is at a given hour.

I won't say that Kroger cashiers are *as* bad, but they aren't much better. Even when one of them tries his or her best, the store's equipment may malfunction; the cashier who checked out my entire order this past Sunday had to call another employee to help her figure out why the scanner would handle everything but the bunch of bananas I was trying to buy.

(Sadly, those aren't the only issues. As long as their shelves are fully stocked, all is well, but ask for a product that you normally buy there that you couldn't find on this visit, and you are wasting your time—indeed, in my observation, employees and management of both places seem bewildered and unaware of the product you are describing there to begin with, even when it is their store brand!)

If I were a Walgreen's or Kroger manager, I might, indeed, privately hand a token to two or three customers each day and tell them that if they weren't checked out in 5 minutes, their order would be free, and I would then use that as a tool to improve the quality of service. But even the very best business should expect, as a result of its success, to have more traffic, which means more and longer lines. For a business whose service isn't even very good to begin with, to advertise itself as though it offered better service than other places is absurd.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Chacun a son date

It's too intriguing not to look into, so I'll definitely log on to, a free dating site for bibliophiles, based on the idea that "you can tell a lot about a person by looking at his or her books" (well, more precisely, by asking someone to list the books that he or she has actually read). As I said to my son, a devout Eastern Orthodox Christian of a scholarly turn, "When you meet a woman, be sure to ask her how many volumes of the Church Fathers she's read, so she'll be in no doubt as to what kind of man she is dealing with." Fortunately, he's aware of my sense of humor.

My only caveat will be what I have already encountered: those who are well read also tend to be pro-choice absolutists and to assume that all conservatives are mentally deficient, which tends to make for brief conversations. Perhaps I'll be pleasantly surprised.

On the other hand, if someone started a site called, he would confer a tremendous benefit on those of us who stop reading dating ads at the point where the other says she likes "quite" evenings at home. brings Apple fans together, arguing that they match well because they "tend to have creative professions, a similar sense of style, and an appetite for technology." Yup, that's pretty much what I thought—I'll run the other way. matches lovers of pot. Nuff said. (I could start a site called matches virgins. I truly respect chastity and am disgusted by the lax modern ethos that seems to hold that reserving oneself for marriage is somehow morbid; as I said to one of my kids once, "There's only one first time." Having said that, something about this site's name and self-advertisement strikes me as being as creepy as the religious family therapist I heard once who suggested, quite sincerely, that a dad give his daughter a bouquet of flowers when she has her first period. I'm not kidding.

In any case, I too waited—until I found the wrong one (but then, so did she), whereupon I resolutely set to work. I am truly happy for those who wait and have their prudence rewarded in a blissful union with a truly compatible mate; I have to question whether focusing primarily on that criterion is likely to help seekers achieve that goal.

Honestly, after getting into the habit of rising at 4 a.m. to walk 3 miles before breakfast and recalling the appreciation that I silently extend to other similarly dedicated souls that I happen to see out walking or jogging at the same time, I'm rather inclined to start a site called Like the one about virginity, it would certainly disclose something important about those who responded.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

I should have stayed home and listened to the Brandenburg Concertos

We all have to make a living, but Liam Neeson's latest action thriller, Unknown, which I saw this evening, should really be titled "Forget It." Neeson is OK, I suppose, though Bruno Ganz was more interesting, and if cab drivers in Berlin look like Diane Kruger, I will definitely plan a visit and see if I can find one to give me a ride.

Basically, the film is The Bourne Identity for AARP members, and of course I'm glad to see Neeson, who is three months younger than I, proving that people our age can still kick butt over something more important than a parking space. Still, the basic existential issue here is whether a man our age can attract and hold the interest of January Jones, to which, alas, the answer is "Not unless you look like Jon Hamm—sorry." (Which reminds me: if Neeson's character had just spent his time doing what Barry Pepper did to January Jones in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, he wouldn't have bothered with car chases and knife fights.)

If you want to see two good films that amount to pretty much the same thing as this one, watch Roman Polanski's (yes, I know, but watch this anyway) 1988 film Frantic, with Harrison Ford and Emmanuelle Seigner, or the better-known The Fugitive, from 1993.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Mecca can wait

Life is a matter of choices, as every adult knows. You choose one thing and give up someting else. Safoorah Khan and the Obama Justice Department are having a hard time getting their heads around this. After just 9 months teaching middle school math, Ms. Khan wanted 19 days' leave to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. Nothing wrong with doing her religious duty. Meanwhile, there is the small matter of the school kids who actually need a teacher, pilgrimage or no pilgrimage. Ms. Khan was refused her leave, resigned, and made the pilgrimage anyway. The Justice Department is suing on her behalf for religious discrimination.

I am one who welcomes attempts to incorporate peace-loving Muslim citizens into our national life. A Muslim may be your doctor, accountant, the engineer at a local plant, or the hard-working business analyst who occupied the cubicle across the aisle from me for several months. I am disgusted by yahoos who think all Muslims are secret agents of terror and want to harass and intimidate people who merely want to build secure and prosperous lives for themselves and their families in the United States.

Having said that, I wonder if 19 days of leave after only 9 months would have been expected by an adherent of any other religion: a Christian wanting to spend Easter week in the Holy Land, a Buddhist wanting to honor the Buddha at one of the venerable shrines of Japan or Cambodia, a Wiccan wanting to visit Stonehenge. I think not.

“This was a profoundly personal request by a person of faith," said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, who compared the case to protecting "the religious liberty that our forefathers came to this country for.” Thomas, please. It was a profoundly inconsiderate request by a person who can see only one side of her faith—a particular duty, which doesn't have to be performed in your first 9 months on a job—while overlooking the larger context of that faith, which includes a strong teaching on alms-giving and our duty to those in need. Which, for a schoolteacher, would include children. Funny that someone should overlook something so obvious.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Remember that thou art but mortal

Caesar died on this day in 44 BCE; Nicholas II of Russia, whose title, Czar, derived from Caesar's name, was forced to abdicate the same day 94 years ago. Both were gruesomely murdered, Caesar by those who feared both the man and his power; Nicholas and his family, by those who despised or perhaps even pitied the man but feared the use that powerful nations might make of him. The remains of Nicholas and his family have been exhumed and venerated; Caesar's mortal remains are immaterial to his legend. Caesar, like Madonna and Jackie, needs only one name to be immediately known; Nicholas briefly achieved nearly that degree of fame some years ago, with the publication of Robert K. Massie's Nicholas and Alexandra, later made into a film.

Caesar was about 6 years older, at the time of his death, than Nicholas at the time of his, though decades older in ruthlessness and cunning. Nicholas was too uxorious for his own good, while Caesar boldly displayed the masks of his first wife's Marian ancestors at her funeral though, like almost everything else he did, it was a calculated bid for power. Derided as "that boy in petticoats" by a scornful instructor when he was a military cadet, Caesar witnessed, firsthand, the savage conflict between the populist forces of his uncle, Gaius Marius, and Marius's opponent, one of the few men who matched or exceeded Caesar's own ruthlessness, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who ordered one of his men to bring him the teenaged Caesar's heart, when Caesar defied Sulla's order to divorce his wife. Like John F. Kennedy as a young man, Caesar was underestimated by many around him and thought a youth of slender promise.

Captured by pirates in his youth, Caesar charmed them with his charisma and ransomed himself but promised to find the pirate band and crucify them, which he did. As a young soldier, Caesar was entitled to an ovation whenever he entered the Senate, for having saved a Roman legion by his courage.

The men who murdered Czar Nicholas were those who would never have been admitted to his presence at all except on saints' days, while Caesar's murderers were led by a man of his own class and, indeed, possibly his own illegitimate son. Caesar and Brutus were both descended from the ancient Roman nobility, though neither family had seen a member occupy the consular chair for centuries. In America, it would be as if a Winthrop, having been elected President and reaching for unconstitutional powers, had been dispatched by a Cabot. The murder did not take place in the Capitol or, indeed, in the Forum at all, but in Pompey's Theatre, where Caesar fell, wounded, at the feet of a statue of his former partner and son-in-law, later rival. His wounds might not have been fatal but for the fact that his partisans fled, leaving their leader to bleed to death over a period of 2 hours on the floor. If he had sufficient presence of mind while dying, Caesar may have remembered the words whispered in the ears of every Roman conqueror in his triumphal parade, by a slave standing immediately behind him in his chariot, "Remember that thou art but mortal."

Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed a film adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in 1953, with an amazing cast that included James Mason, Sir John Gielgud, Greer Garson, Deborah Kerr, and a 29-year-old Marlon Brando as Marc Antony, as well as Alan Napier, later to achieve fame as Batman's butler, Alfred, in a cameo role as Cicero. The film's producer was John Houseman, who made every penny of the budget count, filming several scenes on the abandoned set of the 1951 epic, Quo Vadis, which had also featured Kerr. For the mob that alternately cries out for Brutus and then for Antony, Houseman had only a small group of extras, but he backed them up with a tape mixed of sounds that included a jet engine and the roar of a crowd at a Whitesox game. In one of his several entertaining memoirs, Houseman recalled walking the set on the day they were to film the scene of Caesar's triumph, and an assistant director, seeking to pump up the crowd of extras, cried, "OK, kids! It's hot! It's Rome! And here comes Caesar!"

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Girl, interrupted, by the Golden Horde

Alexandra Wallace, a student at UCLA, laments on YouTube© that she is dismayed by the multitude of Asians at her school. Whether at the sight of Asian students' large and attentive families coming around dormitories on weekends to cook, clean, and shop, or at the sound of the students themselves enthusiastically chattering on their cell phones in the library in their native tongues, either to catch up with friends or to discover whether their families survived the tsunami, Ms. Wallace considers herself aggrieved. Her Asian fellow students' library behavior is particularly annoying, she says, because they tend to interrupt her epiphanies.

Ms. Wallace certainly puts me in mind of a library in one respect, since her own natural endowments are at least as impressive as the twin volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary sitting on my shelf and don't even require the aid of the magnifying glass thoughtfully provided with the dictionary, to appreciate. I am at least as gratified to see the word "epiphany" occur in the unscripted conversation of a modern college student. And I certainly second her desire for silence in the temple of learning, believing, with Gibbon, that "Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius."

Ms. Wallace, who criticizes the Asians for not adopting "American manners" may not realize just how rare she is. She has apparently lived all 20 years or so of her admittedly brief life without being aware that loud, heedless discussions of purely private matters inflicted on bystanders in public places via cell phone are American manners. The poor Japanese, known for their alacrity in copying, and seeking to improve, the best of American inventions, may simply be trying to fit in. As for Ms. Wallace, perhaps she was raised among the Amish, though her speech doesn't suggest it and her mode of dress would indicate that if that is her origin, she seems to have discarded that group's dress code with abandon.

If Ms. Wallace has, indeed, lived this long and remained so little aware of real American manners as to find public cell phone conversations peculiarly Asian, she has certainly achieved a kind of distinction; indeed, it occurs to me to wonder if her obliviousness arises from having read a Zen text and become lost in contemplation of the Diamond Sutra or something. I too detest loud, public cell phone conversations though admittedly, hearing one in an oriental tongue would at least spare me the litany of "I was like...he was like...whatever, dude!"

Perhaps Ms. Wallace is like the woman I once worked with, some years ago, who went to Hong Kong for a week with her husband. When she returned, the rest of us asked her how she liked it. With a gesture of distaste, she said, "It was OK, I guess--but good God, all those Orientals!"

In any case, I must admit that I, too, have misgivings about Asians in libraries—they have an unsettling tendency to show up the rest of us.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Monday, March 14, 2011

All things to all people, and nothing definite to anyone

In thinking about "Campaigning as All Things to All Republicans," the article about former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty's nascent Republican presidential candidacy in today's New York Times, one should be heartened, first, by the fact that it occurred to anyone at the Times to make a Biblical reference, even obliquely, by invoking a phrase from St. Paul's first Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 9, verse 22. Indeed, I imagine that the article was written by someone about my age, who may have been quizzed by a younger copy editor: "Interesting turn of phrase--where did you come up with it?"

Pawlenty is amiable and intelligent and is who I thought Senator McCain would choose before McCain began to demonstrate, rather embarrassingly, the truth of the adage that hope deferred makes the heart sick, and made some embarrassing choices.

Pawlenty's own choices this electoral season are not easy ones, though he should realize the extent to which he sounded a cautionary note for his own candidacy when he uttered this home truth:
“I think the people who get tossed around in this process are people who don’t have their compass set, who don’t have their feet firmly planted on the ground. And then they start to just grab for the wind and they flop around."


And granted that Pawlenty doesn't have a Michael Bloomberg fortune, his visits to New Hampshire were not thought experiments or philosophical exercises but, presumably, early tests of strategies to garner votes. Accordingly, as the Times tells us:
"At a recent Tea Party Patriots rally, he pronounced, 'The government’s too damn big!' To an evangelical audience, he declared, 'The Constitution was designed to protect people of faith from government, not to protect government from people of faith.' And to Republicans in New Hampshire, he closed with a gentle plea: 'Please leave with hope and optimism.'”

Nothing wrong with making potential supporters feel at home, I suppose. But I can't help but wonder if the estimable former governor might be on more solid ground—philosophically, at least—if he had something like the following to his respective constituencies:

To the Tea Party: "At some point, you need to make up your mind if you want the central government provided by the United States Constitution or the toothless mockery of national government that existed under the Articles of Confederation. The Founding Fathers understood the difference. Do you?"

To Evangelicals: "The first instrument of government in North America did, indeed, begin with the words 'In the name of God, amen.' It was the Mayflower Compact. It was sufficient to organize a small settlement in a day when men literally believed in witches; it was not a suitable foundation on which to build an entire nation made up of people of many widely varying beliefs. Our Constitution is a product of the age of the Enlightenment, not the age of Jonathan Edwards or Cotton Mather. It is important to know the difference and act on it."

To the New Hampshire Republicans: "Please leave with hope and optimism, but only after realizing that the only sound basis of such is to reject the know-nothingness that threatens to hijack the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt."

Now that would make for an interesting candidacy, even though, in today's political climate, it might well be over almost before it started. And then Mr. Pawlenty could go home and read Albert J. Beveridge's biography of John Marshall or Marshall's biography of Washington.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Listen, my children, and we shall sing, of the ignorance of Peter King

Is Deroy Murdock rehearsing for April Fool's Day? The National Review contributor called New York Republican Congressman Peter King a "modern Paul Revere" for his nonsensical and time-wasting hearings on Islamic radicalization. A closer description might be H.L. Mencken's memorial summation of William Jennings Bryan: "A charlatan, a mountebank, a zany without sense or dignity."

Never mind the fact that King has loudly defended Irish Republican Army terror in Northern Ireland and compared the slippery Gerry Adams to George Washington(!) Begosh and begorra, if the damn'd Mooslims would just hoist a glass or two and act as if they longed to return to auld sod, they might find a soft spot in the Congressman's heart and he'd forget the whole thing. But it at least makes you wonder how the man decides who his enemies are.

Does Islamic radicalism exist among some middle-class westerners and is it preached by some irresponsible imams? Yes and hell yes. Nothing has amazed and exasperated me more, in frequenting message boards and chat rooms peopled by atheists and agnostics, than to discover a certain type of skeptic of religion who, when he loudly objects to God, really means Christianity: Buddhism is enlightened, Hinduism is exotic, Taoism is nonjudgmental, and as to violent manifestations of Islam, well, who are we to judge—anyway, ever heard of the Crusades? As long as no one in their neighborhood is being beaten, stoned, or beheaded, they don't want to talk about it. That kind of two-facedness disgusts me.

Yes, there is Islamic radicalism, and I would say it has certainly shown its problematic face in Britain and other parts of Europe, though not so much here. (The Times Square bombing attempt, Ft. Hood shooting, and attempted "underwear bombing" were reprehensible incidents so far isolated, in the U.S.; in Britain, there is more of a trend.) King says that Eric Holder and Janet Napolitano lie awake nights worrying about it, and insofar as the nature of their assignments is to anticipate events and head off terror before it could happen, I don't blame them. When I worked at Memphis's City Hall and was in the anteroom of the Mayor's office one day, I was amazed at the fact that we were in the direct line of sight of any sniper wannabe who cared to park himself on the walkway to Mud Island, but it never occurred to me to try to get the Mayor to convene hearings on the risk of psychos posing as tourists. Holder and Napolitano have their quite valid concerns, which include wondering about the next Anwar Al-Awlaki or Nidal Malik Hasan, while King has his tawdry search for the limelight, which includes exploiting an aggrieved dad from Memphis who mourns for the son who became radicalized and is now dead. His grief for his son is as real as was the tragedy, but isolated instances do not make a trend, and King has shown nothing to prove otherwise.

Can a single Al-Awlaki exercise a dangerous influence? Certainly. Could 50 Al-Awlakis sow the seeds for hundreds of Fort Hood shootings? I have no doubt of it. Does King have any evidence that such vipers are being nurtured in American mosques? Thus far, as the Washington Post noted today, there is a large ratio of drama in his hearings to real substance.

Meanwhile, the likely effect of his hearings is to needlessly demonize the hundreds of thousands of Muslims who live peaceful productive lives in the United States and are as horrified by bombings, female genital mutilation, and the like, as you or I. Does King have facts and figures to show that the other kind of Muslim is somehow in the ascendant in our country? If so, let him cite them. If not, let him remember the lamentable example of a certain United States Senator of 50 years ago who went down to everlasting and richly deserved disgrace.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Forgetting Miss Daisy

Memphis's Victorian Village exists today mainly because one determined old woman was too stubborn to move out.

In the 1880s, Adams Avenue was known as "Millionaire's Row." James Columbus Neely, a wholesale grocer, bought an imposing pile at 652 Adams in 1883 for $45,000 and made it still more grand, adding a third storey, hand-painted wallpaper, faux wood grain on the cypress doors, and, later, Tiffany-inspired stained glass bought at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. His oldest daughter, Pearl, married a son of the former Mayor of Atlanta in the house in 1890, in front of 400 guests. A replica of Canova's sculpture "The Kiss," purchased by the Neelys, was so heavy that the parlor floor under it had to be reinforced by a brick column built in the basement. Neely lighted his parlor with some of Memphis's first electric lights and was buried from it when he died at 75 on the same day as Queen Victoria, in 1901.

His second daughter, Frances, known as Daisy, entered the house as a girl of 12 in 1883 and died upstairs in her half-tester bed 10 days before the first Apollo Moon landing in 1969. Too frail to ascend the steep stairs in her 80s, she had one of Memphis's first non-commercial elevators installed.

By the '20s, Memphis society no longer dwelt on Adams, some of whose houses stood vacant or were used as boarding houses or, in the case of one of the decaying mansions, as an art school. Daisy refused to leave the house where her parents had lived and died and from which she buried her own husband, Barton Lee Mallory, in 1938; the house where she had raised three children and where she lived with memories of her oldest son, Bill, a decorated soldier of the Second World War, who died a few days before the end of the conflict in an aviation accident. She had hired Annie Cartwright Bess as a nanny for her children in 1907; she moved Annie into the room next to hers when both were in old age.

Her uncle's equally imposing mansion next door, for which the Tennessee State Legislature and Supreme Court had suspended sessions to attend the housewarming, was torn down to make way for the Juvenile Court; stone dogs that once adorned the front steps still keep watch in front of the court building. Had Daisy moved out, as did her neighbors the Fontaines, around 1929, the house would have been sold and eventually demolished, to be replaced eventually by a housing project or a parking lot. But Daisy refused to leave. A local paper says of her that, participating in a fox hunt around 1897, she caught up to the fox, being mauled by the hounds, dismounted her horse, drove the dogs off, and cradled the dying fox in her arms as she rode back to rejoin the hunt. The same determination informed her treatment of the imposing old place where she had engaged in tableaux vivantes at the turn of the century and where her book club, inspired by an idea that occurred to her and her friends on a tennis court one day in 1895, had gathered to improve their minds.

She willed the house to the Daughters of the American Revolution, who first operated it as a museum in the 1970s, but its maintenance proved too much for their slender resources, and they sold it to the City of Memphis around 1987. The city operated it as a house museum, a nationally recognized example of the Italianate Gothic style and late Victorian decorative art (the carriage house behind the mansion contains a 1988 doctoral dissertation of 800 pages on nothing but the house and its contents).

I volunteered as a docent there in 2003 and 2004, after spending years taking my children there when they were small, to give them a sense of history. My daughter thought it was the natural fate of a house to become a museum after the death of its occupants and, when we went home, took me to her bedroom and showed me where she wanted the silk ropes placed a century from now.

The Fontaine House, two doors away, abandoned by the 1960s, was magnificently refurbished and is now operated by the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities. A mansion across the street from it, built as a wedding gift for a Fontaine daughter, is an upscale lounge. Up the street, the 1859 Greek Revival Pillow-McIntyre house contains law offices. Next door to the Fontaine House, the Goyer-Lee Mansion is the periodic beneficiary of enthusiastic corporate volunteers who spend a day refurbishing it and non-profit organizations who propose to develop it for community use, and those plans generally come to nothing.

Daisy's house was closed by the city in 2004 for lack of funding to maintain it, and its reopening is perpetually postponed. Following an agreement between the city and the federal government in 2005 to make all city facilities ADA-compliant, the house must await that necessary work, as well as $268,000 in repairs to the roof and refurbishing of a third of its 70 windows, at $4,000 apiece.

Meanwhile, if someone would only lend me a key, I would gladly go there on weekends and continue to give tours, as I once did.

If, as we read, the Pompeiian ruins are crumbling away from sheer neglect and the Renaissance palazzos of Venice are sinking into the sea, one must be philsophical about the deterioration of a single house not 200 years old; if, as a friend assured me yesterday, a part of our city's continuing financial troubles is the fact that city employees received no raises for 3 years, we must rate the urgent needs of the present over the stained glass and hand-stencilled wallpaper of those long dead.

Still, the likes of the Mallory-Neely house is something we can ill-afford to lose. More than faded wallpaper and forgotten fashions, such houses are a link to an era, the understanding of which is moving away from us as rapidly as galaxies recede from each other while the universe forever expands. In these houses, the telephone was kept in a closet and answered by the butler; bathrooms were a luxurious innovation that no one was ever seen entering because they were concealed in small hallways; husbands and wives slept in adjoining rooms and "kept each other company" by invitation and agreement; the disposition of a visiting card spoke volumes, eloquent in their silence. Men welcomed the discharge of factory smoke as the harbinger of a modern age and studied new and more advanced weapons as devices to forever keep barbarism at bay. A single financier saved the United States from catastrophe in the panic of 1903, and more modern thinkers who proudly called themselves "Progressives" fervently hoped that the 20th century would herald a new era of peace and prosperity.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Numbered and swiped

My e-mail brings me an offer of a photo-personalized check card from my bank. If it makes it easier to retrieve it in case of loss, well and good; my father's first Mastercard©, issued in the 1970s, bore his photo for identification.

But that does not seem to be all my bank means; because businesses are reduced, nowadays, to proffering a degree of fulsome flattery to John and Jane Doe that, one hopes, would have embarrassed the vainest Renaissance cardinal, I understand that my bank intends to convey the promise of a sort of apotheosis in this life if I consent to adorn my check card with my 58-year-old face. "Show off your image every time you make a purchase!" it says, encouragingly. Frankly, I can think of purchasing some personal necessaries where a public display would not be the first thing I would want, rather like asking the clerk at the drug store for the restroom key and then listening to her announce over the store's public address system, "Restroom key to register 1!"

Offers like this tempt me to use a photo in which my back is turned to the camera or, better yet, I am lying in a casket. What, I wondered, would the Man in the Iron Mask, or Young Goodman Brown, or the Lone Ranger have made of this? Life is a balance of self-disclosure and private reserve; the second seems to be vanishing away.

But even before I thought of the mischievous photo possibilities, I considered the e-mail in the light of interpreting the offer quite literally: your check card is your personality; that is, we are reduced, for purposes of modern living, to the status of a piece of plastic, so thin as to be barely 3-dimensional, bearing a stripe (and not the healing sort) that contains all the information about us that anyone feels he needs to know, numbered, security-coded, and capable of enduring a confirming swipe between two restraining metal lips, that confirms our identity and give us leave to function another day, until our expiration date. All else is ephemera. And perhaps that's why, as the canny bank marketers anticipate, we need to compensate by posting our faces on these pieces of plastic, to reassure ourselves and all others that we are in fact more than the light and disposable tokens to which we seem to have been reduced.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.