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Erik Ipsen P-14
THE HILLENDALE HOBBY CLUB:
a three-part story
by Ron Singer
Given the conditions under which he labors, it is no wonder that the performance of Senor Hector Babineau, Manager of the Hillendale Hobby Club (HHC), tends toward the erratic. Not only is he slave to the whims of forty-some supervisors, but the salary attached to his position is pathetic. Ardent hobbyists all, the Club members also act as if their own amateurism should prompt our guest speakers to appear free of charge. Like most people who love money, they seem unable to understand why anyone else might want some. Even the rent we pay to the Congregational Church, where we hold our bi-monthly meetings, is a pittance.
As for me, I am so rich that I have long since overcome the prejudices of my class. The juggling chimp, the blind hypnotist, the born-again erstwhile serial murderer, the idiot savant who can multiply seven-digit numbers in his head –-they all have to eat. As Vice-President, I have proposed to the Board that, in order to beef up Senor Babineau’s salary, each member be assessed a hundred dollars, which is chump change to the residents of our exclusive enclave. But, no, pennywise….
On at least one recent occasion, Babineau may have come a cropper --or, on second thought, he may have scored a coup.
“It is my pleasure to introduce to you this evening, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Hillendale Hobby Club, the eminent graphologist, Gospodin Imra Dikovitch. Mr. Dikovitch is President of … .”
As he rambled on in his high, whinnying voice, instead of listening to Senor Babineau, I scrutinized him and the guest. Since they were standing side by side directly in front of us, and since, as usual, I was seated front-row center, I had an excellent vantage point. They were about the same age and height – fifty-ish and short. The portly Babineau wore his dyed and billiantined black hair shoulder length. That night, he was clad in a shiny teal suit with a fat pink tie, navy shirt, and mock-alligator loafers. Skinny Mr. Dikovitch was also a “dude,” but a dude of a different stripe, sporting a goatee and black polo shirt, black tuxedo top, tight black jeans, and tooled cordovan cowboy boots.
When he finally began to speak, it was in a muttered bass with faintly central or eastern European inflections. Unlike Babineau, Dikovitch cut directly to the chase. Meanwhile, the Manager tiptoed up the central aisle of the church to where an old-fashioned slide projector sat on a small wooden table.
“I am here tonight, good people, to present a graphological analysis of the writings of the esteemed Armenian novelist, Arakel Arslanian, who lived from 1861 to 1957. With the recent resurgence of Arslanian’s reputation in eastern Europe, and with the imminent publication in U.K. of his most popular novel, which will appear under the title, The Tigers of Yerevan, it seems more important than ever for readers to understand the great man’s psyche. In a way, to do so is a form of caveat lector. Why do I say this? Because, not to put too fine a point, Paron –Mister--Arslanian was homicidal maniac.” I could almost hear the members’ ears twitching. “First slide, please.”
The lights were lowered, and, turning in my seat, I could see Babineau’s round face, illuminated by the bulb on the projector. A few seconds later, a manuscript page in a language unfamiliar to me appeared on the fold-up screen beside the speaker. The first characters were these:
Ա Ի Լ Խ Ծ Կ Հ Ձ Ղ Ճ Մ Յ Ն Շ
Ո   Չ   Պ   Ջ   Ռ   Ս   Վ   Տ.
(Lest you think I am an idiot savant, myself, I should explain that I photographed the slide with my phone.)
Using a wooden pointer, Dikovitch began. “Take the fifth character, “Ա,” which is the equivalent in Hayeren, the Armenian language, of “e,” in the Latin alphabet. You will note the violent sweep of the first, downward stroke. Is it any coincidence that this is the initial letter of “mayr,” the Hayeren word for “mother”? May I inform you that Arslanian’s mother was rumored for many years before her death of being a practitioner of human sacrifice, a witch?” He paused melodramatically.
“Next, let us consider a second word: սպանություն. This time all the letters, including the initial ones, are formed in a soft, looping handwriting which evokes the feeling of the calligraphy of classical Arabic love poetry. սպանություն is the Hayeren word for “murder.”
Dikovitch nattered on in this vein for another eight or ten minutes. Then, he abruptly stopped. “Lights!” he commanded. Turning the projector off, and the lights back on, Senor Babineau came trotting toward the front, clapping his hands loudly.
“Please, everyone,” he said, “put your hands together for our wonderful guest, Professor Imra Dikovitch.”
While the Manager heartily pumped the speaker’s hand, the audience applauded with an enthusiasm normally reserved for sympathetic politicians. Babineau called for comments and questions. Several hands shot up, and he pointed to a bejeweled, matronly woman in the second row, a few seats to my right. I recognized her from the country club, the HCC, where, on several occasions, I had seen her hitting golf balls into a practice net.
“That was fascinating, Professor,” she said with a smile. Her bracelets jangled, and Dikovitch made a courtly little bow. “But tell us, please, how your analysis might affect our reading of Mr. Arsenal’s …”
“ …‘Arslanian,’ “ Dikovitch corrected.
“ … of Mr. Arselan’s novel?”
“Excellent question!” exclaimed Babineau, peering at the guest with exaggerated interest. To me, the question was obvious. Dikovitch’s answer was not.
“Well, Madam,” he said, “assuming that you really intend to read The Tigers of Yerevan, I suggest that you approach this book with extreme caution. The main plot is a retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story, in this case depicting love between representatives of nationalities who are mortal enemies, an Armenian and an Azeri. Well, it would be easy to infer that this story is a plea for peace and harmony. Doesn’t that sound nice? But such an inference would be a gross misreading. Properly understood, The Tigers of Yerevan subtly invites the reader to draw from the poisonous history of enmity which leads to the death of the lovers the lesson that both sides are completely justified in slaughtering each other and should continue to do so, full speed ahead! Tigers of Yerevan is by no means what you would call ‘progressive’ novel!”
After several, less consequential questions, the evening ended with a second round of applause. Consulting his watch, Gospodin Dikovitch accepted an envelope from the Manager and departed. Babineau rushed over to the refreshment table and began to stuff his face. I joined him at the table.
“Well, Peter,” he crowed. “So how was that one? Not bad, eh?”
“Very interesting.” I swallowed half of a shriveled pig-in-a-blanket and washed it down with a swig of mediocre white wine. “But how do we know whether to believe this ‘expert’? After all, he may have his own fish to fry.” That brought Babineau up short. Raising his eyebrows, he swallowed what was in his mouth before replying. “He came with excellent references, including one from a personal friend of mine in Columbia University’s Department of Linguistics.”
“Well, ‘excellent references’ could be beside the point. They may suggest that he knows his stuff, but not that what he told us was true. I have a suggestion.”
“Shoot,” said Babineau, crunching a pale carrot.
“For one of our upcoming sessions, why not invite a medium? Perhaps, such a person would be able to channel Arslanian’s spirit. Maybe, she –I assume-- could even ask him about his mother. At least, she could bring up the supposed subtext of The Tigers of Yerevan.” I confess that I was being half-facetious. My serious half really wanted to learn more. Both halves, as usual, wanted to be amused.
“Hmm,” said Babineau. “Interesting idea. Let me look into it, Peter, and get back to you.” Putting his smile in place, with quick little footsteps, he hurried off in the direction of the Helen whose question had launched these ships. I went home.
Two weeks later, the phone rang. It was about nine and, having finished supper, I was in my study reading C.V. Wedgwood’s excellent history of the Thirty Years’ War.
“Mr. Vice-President,” a familiar voice announced, “this is your servant, Babineau.” Sometimes, you could not tell whether the Manager was being unctuous or ironic. “I have found the very person you suggested.”
“Oh?” Not that I had forgotten, but I was still surprised.
“Yes, the medium! Even better, an Armenian medium. I found her in a storefront on East 56th Street, in Manhattan. I was on my way to meet some friends for dinner. Her name is Anoush Baklavarian. ‘Anoush’ means ‘sweet’ in Hayeren, by the way.”
“You don’t say. Have you signed her up?”
“Well, not yet. You see, her fee is a bit … steep. As per Ms. Sheridan’s instructions, I am currently engaged in delicate negotiations with Ms. Baklavarian.” Colleen Sheridan is President of the HHC.
“Look, just sign her up, I’ll pay the difference. I’m really interested in what she might have to say.”
I could almost hear Senor Babineau bursting into a radiant smile. “Yes, certainly,” he said. “It will be a matter of one-hundred dollars above the usual fee.”
“You mean, twenty-five for the medium and seventy-five for you?” I was only half joking.
“Mr. Peter! Please! I am a man of probity. Do you think I would have taken the position of Manager of the HHC if I were a mercenary kind of person? If not for my day job, I would be starving.”
“Don’t make me cry, Senor Babineau! Anyway, sign her up!”
Two months later, and one minute late, the assembled members buzzed with anticipation. Any moment now, Senor Babineau would make his typically flamboyant entrance through the swinging double doors leading in from the church vestibule. I was in my usual place. Like most of the other members (except the infirm), I was standing and peering back toward the doors. What came through them was like a wedding procession –a very peculiar one.
Tonight, Babineau wore a special outfit that I had not seen before. It combined a baggy white suit with a rakish Panama hat. At his side waddled a fat old woman wearing a special outfit of her own. The main garment was a voluminous black, white, red and yellow gown with something like pleats in the front. From beneath her buff-colored shawl peeped a pair of silver earrings, set with what looked to be ping pong-ball sized pearls. Although she leaned on a silver-tipped wooden cane, Babineau was supporting the woman, presumably Ms. Anoush Baklavarian, by the elbow. There was a gasp from the membership when we realized she was blind.
One of the round white plastic card tables normally stored in the basement had been set up in front, surrounded by eight folding chairs. Babineau led Ms. Baklavarian around the table, and, tapping with her cane, she subsided into the chair directly facing the audience --us. After an anomalously succinct introduction, the Manager asked for six volunteers. He then sat down on the chair to the medium’s right.
About twenty members, myself included, rushed to the front. We soon sorted ourselves out, however: six of us took the remaining chairs at the table. The sorting principle appeared to be a combination of age and wealth. At least, none of the six was under sixty or a non-multi-millionaire. As soon as we were seated, Babineau clapped his hands, and someone in back dimmed the lights. Without further ceremony, in a resonant, heavily accented contralto, Mme. Baklavarian launched the proceedings. (I cannot keep referring to this guest as “Ms.” Politically correct though the appellation may be, in this case, it is just too incongruous.)
“Mr. Babinetti has already explained why you invited me to come here this evening.” Although he flinched, Babineau did not correct her. I thought the mistake might have been intentional, some kind of joke. “Everyone at the table will please join hands.” The medium closed her eyes and grasped Babineau’s hand and that of the woman to her left, the bejeweled matron. I could sense among the six of us a certain reluctance to take our neighbors’ hands, a reluctance, which, I confess, I shared. After all, ours is the land of power handshakes and air kisses. But Mme. Baklavarian brooked no hesitation.
“Please, everyone,” she ordered, “do as you are told! If you are unwilling to accept my authority, what you have asked me to do will be impossible, and I will leave immediately.” Although it did not matter to me, I was sure she would not forego the fee. But it didn’t come to that. We quickly, if squeamishly, joined hands.
“Are we ready, then?” she asked.
“Ready,” Babineau replied.
Without further ado, Mme. Baklavarian launched into what I recognized from countless books and movies as a garden-variety séance. I will spare the reader the hackneyed details: the mumbled entreaties, disclaimers when nothing happened, and renewed entreaties. Finally, there was a rattling of the table, as either Mme. Baklavarian set off a chain reaction by violently shaking her neighbors’ hands –or the invisible ghost of the writer, Arakel Arslanian, rumbled into our midst. Aside from this rattling, there was not the slightest sound from either the occupants of the table or the other spectators.
Mme. Baklavarian began the séance proper by addressing a few reassuring-sounding words to our guest. Although she spoke (presumably) in Hayeren, she provided us with a running translation. “I have apologized to Paron –to Mister-- Arslanian for disturbing his rest this evening, and asked him whether he might be willing to answer a few questions.”
Having said that much, and with our hands still shaking, she cocked her ear toward something just above -as it happened- my right shoulder. I felt a sort of shudder behind me (or was it my own shudder), and, after a few seconds, she translated the specter’s putative response.
“He says he is not certain he will be able to oblige us. He feels hostility at the table, and wonders whether we can suspend our disbelief.” She cocked her ear again, spoke into the air, waited, then translated. The shuddering continued. “In fact, if not for my own kind entreaties, he says, he would already have fled back to his own realm.” Again, the ear was cocked; again, she translated. “Only because he has something very important to impart has he given us this second chance.” Starting on her left, the medium appeared slowly to scan the table with her sightless eyes. Stopping when she reached the bejeweled matron, she asked, “Well?”
The matron, who looked as if she were trying to keep under control an excitement that could almost have been sexual, whispered her reply. “I am ready to believe our visitor.”
Mme. Baklavarian’s blind gaze continued slowly around the table. I confess to a certain frisson of my own, but, by the time she reached my place, which was the last one before Babineau’s, and stopped again, I had composed myself. Without waiting for her to ask, I said, in what I hoped was a calm voice, “I am also ready, Madame. I apologize to our esteemed guest.”
Once again, she addressed the ghost, this time at some length. Then, she said to us, “I have made your apologies, and I have reiterated exactly what we hope he will tell us.”
By now, the shaking at the table had subsided. The medium cocked her ear toward the empty space above us, and, for several minutes, she appeared to listen intently. Then, she spoke briefly, apparently asking another question, and listened to Arslanian’s long reply. Finally, she brought her blind gaze back down to our level.
“He has now responded. He begs us to release him from the ordeal that his return to the realm of the living has inflicted upon him. But, since what he has told me is so important, he suggests that, if there are further questions, we should give him a few years to recover, after which we can try to summon his spirit again.”
That, somehow, seemed funny, maybe because it occurred to me that, in a few years, several of the older members, myself included, might have joined the great Armenian novelist on the other side, which would obviate the need for a second seance. I was not alone: there were titters from the audience. Once again, our hands began to tremble, this time even more violently. Mme. Baklavarian shook her head in obvious disgust, dropped her neighbors’ hands, and muttered what I can only assume was a Hayeren imprecation.
“That did it!” she announced. “Paron Arslanian has departed in a –how do you call it? --huff.”
“But what did he say before he left?” two of us simultaneously asked. The assembled membership murmured its assent. “Yes, of course, I will tell you this,” she replied. “And I think you will be impressed.” There was absolute silence; the medium had us eating from her hand. “As requested, I asked Paron Arslanian to speak about his work, specifically his masterpiece, The Tigers of Yerevan. Although I am unable to quote his exact reply, I will give you the jest of it.” No one so much as coughed.
“He did not deny that the underlying message of his novel is that the Armenians and Azeris are both culpable for the Nagorno-Karabach wars. He believes, without regret, that the conflict will end only when the two sides have destroyed one another. He went on to generalize from this war, to speak of the Israelis and Palestinians, Indians and Pakistanis, Irish and English, and so forth. His message was the same for each conflict: a curse on both sides, a wish to see them obliterated from the earth in an orgy of mutual destruction.” For several seconds, the room was silent. Then came what was, perhaps, the biggest surprise of all. “But Paron Arslanian ended his diatribe with a –how do you say—a beatnik-ific, no beautif…”
“ ’Beatific,’ “ I prompted.
“Thank you. I cannot remember all of his examples, but he be-a-ti-fi-cal-ly imagined the earth without any human beings. Do you remember the Bible passage where the Lord…” (she hastily crossed herself) “… throws back the curtain and reveals the glory of creation to his faithful servant, Job? Well, it was like that.
“Paron Arslanian described many creatures: a rhinoceros peering nearsightedly through the tall grass of a savannah, a crane standing like a sentinel on one thin leg in a lovely marsh, swallows darting across the sky at dusk, elephants on the bank of a river splashing each other playfully … and many other such pictures. He was in the midst of describing a giraffe bending gracefully toward the tender leaves of a small tree when he became exhausted. Then, you laughed and drove him away.”
With her blind eyes, Mme. Baklavarian looked out at the crowd reproachfully. Without another word, leaning heavily on her cane, she rose. Senor Babineau scrambled to his feet. Again, he took her by the elbow, and, to somewhat ambivalent applause, the tandem toddled back toward the double doors. We all remained silent; the only sound was the tapping of the seer’s cane. The expression on most of our faces is perhaps best expressed by that famous phrase from Keats: “a look of wild surmise.”
After a few moments, President Sheridan stood up and, muttering a few words about “our most interesting guest,” she announced the date of the next meeting, “speaker TBA,” and sent us all on our way. Exiting the church as quickly as the slow crush permitted, I saw no sign of Senor Babineau or Mme. Baklavarian. I assumed he was guiding her to the train station, which is about a hundred yards from the church. It was a pleasant evening, cool for mid-summer, so I strolled back toward my house, which is in the opposite direction from the station, and less than a mile from the church.
Two months have passed. Apocalyptic though the diatribe of the ghost of Arakel Arslanian may have been, it was, in a sense, even-handed. The Armenian certainly seemed free of any obvious political bias, unless you could call him a rhinoceros-ophile, or something. Of course, we have only the word of the medium, Mme. Baklavarian, for all of this. But I must say that I, usually skeptical to the bone, did sense a certain … force around the table that evening.
--Evergreen Review, Summer 2013:
www.google.com/webhp?q=The+Tigers+of+Yerevan Your Link Text
General Introduction by Peter O.M. Paulsen, President:Next month, the HHC Events Series will wrap up its eleventh season. For almost seven of these, the organizer has been our prestidigitator-in-residence, Sr. Hector Babineau, recently promoted from Events Manager to Executive Vice-President. As President of the Board, I myself championed his promotion. One of three Vice-Presidencies, the vacancy opened last June when a nonagenarian lawyer expired. You may recall Sr. B.’s having curated, three years ago, a pair of provocative programs about an eccentric, genocidal Armenian novelist. Well, just last week, he treated us to another unusual lecture, this one by a savant who purported to unlock that riddle of riddles: what makes evil rulers, evil? As you will see from my summary, the speaker presented several theories, old and new. As if that were not enough, the evening ended on a note that was at once topical and personally unnerving.
Sr. Babineau Introduces the Speaker: Mr. President, Meine Damen und Herren, ‘Dames et ‘Sieurs, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is with singular pleasure that I welcome you to the 73rd installment in the series of distinguished lectures and demonstrations here at our beloved Hillendale Hobby Club. [Never mind: Sr. B. is pushing 60! As you will see, I am providing authorial comments and other useful information in italicized square brackets.
It gives me great pleasure to introduce tonight’s speaker, Dr. Norbert N.G. Pelicanos, M.D., PH.D, CNS-FN. Having previously occupied numerous prestigious academic positions across the globe, Dr. Pelicanos is currently Affiliated Lecturer, University of the Highlands and Lowlands, Upper Lake Ness, Scotland.Dr. Pelicanos’ third degree, the “CNS-FN,” is perhaps in need of elucidation, which will conveniently lead into tonight’s lecture. The initials stand for “Clinical Nursing,” with a specialty in “Facial Neurology.” In other words, the speaker is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the motor and sensory functioning of facial nerves. But, rather than sing further the praises of our distinguished guest, and in order not to trespass any more upon his allotted time, without further ado I give you the eminent neuroscientist, Dr. Norbert N.G. Pelicanos.
[Applause. Dr. Pelicanos was a big, bald, heavy, red-faced fellow wearing an off-the-rack, three-piece pin dot suit. Babineau descends the stage and sprints up the center aisle to the slide projector.]
Many thanks, Sr. Babineau. President Paulson [with a nod in my direction]. And thank you, as well, illustrious members of the Hillendale Hobby Club, for inviting me to address you this evening. First slide, please.
[Slide #1: thumbnail photos of Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Carl Jung, Kim Jong-un, Sadaam Hussein and Vladimir Putin]
By way of introduction, you will please indulge me by participating in a little experiment, or if you prefer, a quiz!
I will direct the laser pointer toward each of these six portraits, in turn. When I point at a non-dictator, you will kindly raise your hand. And remember: don’t vote with your neighbor. Mob psychology verboten!
[An anxious titter. Pelicanos points at Hitler. No hands are raised.]
Very good, although, of course, that was an easy one, since Hitler’s is perhaps the best-known face of the 20th century.
Ah, ha! Very interesting. Benito Mussolini, Il Duce.
[Points at Jung. Many hands are raised, some then lowered.]
Again, most interesting! The eminent Dr. Carl Jung.
[Points at Kim. Quite a few hands are raised.]
Heh, heh. Perhaps you were fooled by the bangs and pudgy baby face! Oops. I gave that one away, didn’t I? How much time, please?
[The speaker’s muttered curse is masked by a cough. By now, readers will have noticed that the expert on neurologico-facial organization was himself rather disorganized!]
[Points at a photo of Sadaam in civilian dress, in which he looks like an intellectual. Several hands are raised. A few are then lowered.]
[Putin photo. Some hands up, some indecisiveness.]
That concludes our little experiment. Thank you, Ladies and Gentlemen, for participating. I will now proceed to a few remarks that may illuminate some of your “votes.” These remarks will also carry us toward the heart of tonight’s presentation.
[Quite a windbag!]
Adolf Hitler: what a lot of ink has been spilled over this monster! I shall spare you the usual psychobabble: “Of course, in every screaming dictator there lurks an abused child, etc. etc.”
[Points at Jung photo.]
But let’s be serious. In 1939, Carl Jung --who himself looks as if he could be one of those inflexible technocratic dictators, doesn’t he? -- met Hitler and Mussolini. His observations were as follows: Hitler did not once laugh, which was, in a way, remarkable, since Mussolini was a notorious buffoon. Hitler’s mood throughout the meeting seemed sulking and ill humored. Jung judged him to be sexless and inhuman, single-mindedly devoted to the creation of a mystical super-state that would redress his grievances over perceived personal and historical insults. In short, a highly dangerous man!
You may be more surprised by Dr. Jung’s estimate of Mussolini, whom he sized up as a man of originality, warmth, and energy. Ha! Tell that to the Ethiopians!
Seriously, what the 50% success rate of this revered polymath suggests, is the hit-and-miss nature of early psychoanalytic method. But, lest we cast stones, I remind you that your own success rate on tonight’s quiz was not very different from Dr. Jung’s! The explanation for these mixed results is simple: like all of us, dictators come in different “packages.” But the differences can be misleading.
Uh, oh! Seventy-seven years later, the meeting of the famous threesome seems like a historic relic, or even a myth or joke. But that, as they say, was then. In the interim, to quote the old pseudo-feminist cigarette ad, “You’ve come a long way, baby!” Or, more specifically, we’ve come from early psychology, or the infant science of mind, to its maturity, and on to the science of today: brain science.
Turning, then, to mature psychology, what do recent personality studies tell us about the mental landscape of dictators? Next slide, please.
[Slide #2: Three sets of bar graphs, showing relative strength of traits for Hitler, Kim, and Sadaam.]
These graphs illustrate a point that may or may not be obvious: to different degrees, all dictators share specific personality traits.
[Points to Bar Graph Set #1.]
Well, then, just Hitler, again. The consensus among experts is that he had highly elevated scores for paranoia, antisocial impulses, narcissism, and sadism. The profile derived from these scores indicates pronounced schizophrenic tendencies, including grandiosity and aberrant thought processes.
Damn! No Sadaam! No Kim, either! Oh, yes! Guess who scored highest on the sadism scale.
Now, then, turning from mind to brain, what can today’s scientists tell us that was hidden from their predecessors? Both not much, and a great deal. What I will show you next –and here we reach the heart of my presentation-- are computer-simulated MRI’s of a normal brain and those of two dictators, Enver Hoxha and Idi Amin. Keep in mind that Images B and C are not taken from actual tests, none having been performed. Slide # 3, please.
[A slide of three brain images. Babineau: Three minutes.]
Damn! Just Hoxha. Image A is a normal brain.
[As he proceeds at machine-gun speed, Dr. Pelicanos keeps pointing. This last section of his presentation was completely new to me.]
[Points to Image B.]
When it is abnormal, the amygdala contributes to making two percent of the world's population, psychopaths --and a few of the most versatile and talented among them, dictators. But the amygdala does not act alone.
In the brain's lower frontal lobe, we find the circuit most likely damaged in the psychopathic dictator. In most brains, this is where aggressive impulses originating in the amygdala are inhibited, and moral and ethical choices considered, through interactions with the orbital and ventromedial cortex.
Whoa! When we struggle with moral dilemmas --the battles between angel and devil in us--this part of the brain is activated. However, when the center of the frontal lobe is malformed or injured, it fails to activate, and the amygdala, also abnormal, takes over. Which brings me to the facial nerves.
In many ways, and at lightning speed, the amygdala triggers reactions to stress. Signals transmitted to the facial nerves produce the extreme facial expressions associated with panic. Given the dysfunctional amygdala of a dictator, such expressions are magnified to the point of parody. Take Mussolini, notorious for the India-rubber malleability of his...
[Babineau: Sorry, Sir. Time! A flustered Pelicanos barrels into his peroration.]
Damn! To conclude, what I have demonstrated, I trust, is that Neurology confirms and extends the findings of Psychology. Perhaps unsurprisingly, dictators have different brains --and minds-- from the rest of us. So what lies ahead? If recent DNA mapping of schizophrenia is any indication, we may one day be able to map what I call “the totalitarian genome.” If and when that happens, who knows? Questions, please.
Dr. P.: Thank you so much, Ladies and Gentlemen, for your incisive questions. [They were all softballs.] But now, if I may, I would like to bring tonight’s lecture closer to home by asking all of you a question. [That again?]
May I have a show of hands from those of you who plan to vote for the current Republican Presidential candidate?
[Now that was a curveball! Predictably, a few hands were raised a few centimeters; one arm shot proudly skyward (our most blatant fruitcake); and many other members twitched with uncertainty (as to whether to reveal their intentions?) Naturally, the few liberals from both parties kept their hands glued to their sides, some even ostentatiously scowling.]
[Raising his eyebrows a la Groucho Marx]
I assume I don’t have to spell out the relevance of that little survey to my presentation? Dr. Babineau? Ready?
[And that was that –almost.]
Despite the hurried welter of the lecture and the brevity of the Q & A, the event seemed to resonate. At least, as the members milled around the refreshments table, I noticed that few had left. And the incentive for lingering was certainly not the mediocre white wine or frugal assortment of cheese, crackers, and crudité provided by our Hospitality Committee!
Glass in hand, I eavesdropped on the usual holocaust chatter, including a frisson over human lampshades that I found highly distasteful. I was more interested in the reactions of those illustrious members who happen to do business with regimes led by the very people whose psyches Dr. Pelicanos had just limned. I wondered, for example, about the thoughts of the diplomat who, prior to retirement, had sawed his way through countless rubber chickens at central-Asian banquets, where he was regaled, no doubt, by delusional encomiums recited by the sycophantic underlings of moronically sadistic totalitarian kleptocrats. And what were the thoughts of our two eminent dealers in African blood diamonds? But from neither diplomat nor merchants of death did I observe a single visible reaction. Not only are these men adept at keeping their counsel; they do not blush easily.
Of course, when it comes to dirty money, which of us can say that his or hers is anything but? I confess that, if examined closely, a large part of my own fortune could, in one way or another, be impugned. Not that most of it has not long since been scrubbed clean by philanthropy and length of tenure, but at least a few small problems, such as third-world infant malnutrition, and a melted iceberg or two, could plausibly be laid at my doorstep. I say that lest you accuse me of belonging to the Holier-than-Thou tribe.
Suddenly, I found myself face-to-face with Dr. Pelicanos, who was also nursing a glass of wine.
“Oh, Mr. President,” he said, with a cunning smile, “a question for you, if I may?” I nodded warily. “When I polled the members just now, I couldn’t help noticing that not only was your hand not raised, but your facial expression was...well... furious. May I ask why?” Whatever his motive, Pelicanos had certainly pressed the right button. As I prepared to reply, I felt my customary self-control deserting me.
Again, the professorial eyebrows shuttered, a la Groucho. Then, with a hearty guffaw and a small bow, but without further comment, Pelicanos turned on his heel and sauntered over to the refreshment table, where I saw him spear what looked to be a large, wilted lettuce leaf.
Were people staring at me? In an effort to calm down, consulting my phone, I saw that, if I left immediately, I could be home in time for the Film of the Week, on Public Television. So, with a quick congratulatory handshake for Sr. B., I threaded my way out into the soft May evening.
Whether or not it was coincidence, the film that night was that early masterpiece of brain science, Bride of Frankenstein. For me, there is nothing like a good horror comedy! Seventy-five minutes later, as the end-credits rolled, I realized that the film antedated the good Dr. Jung’s meeting with the two historical Frankenstein’s by a scant four years.
And now, a week later, I find myself wondering whether Norbert Pelicanos, who had obviously prepared enough material for ten lectures, might be available for a return engagement. Interesting fellow!
Minsky Redux: The Psychology of Investment
By Dr. Yolanda Jellin,
Three years later, Dr. Norbert Pelicanos, world-renowned specialist in Psychology and Facial Neurology, regaled us with a learned lecture-demonstration on the brains and faces of totalitarian rulers. That evening was made especially piquant by the speaker’s inclusion of our own country’s subsequently elected
For each of those evenings, the facilitator and emcee was Sr. Hector Babineau. By 2016, Sr. Babineau had risen from Events Coordinator to Executive Vice-President, which position he has now held for about a year. One other bit of housekeeping: having served, myself, as Club President for less than a decade, I have just stepped down to “make way for youth,” as a faction among the membership put it. (Since I am not yet seventy, I resent the aspersion.) Our new President, Ms. Jane Folderolsky, is a forty-something stock analyst. Though relegated to the status of private citizen, I have decided to record this, my third (and –who knows-- perhaps my last) account of another noteworthy lecture.
At the end of my last account, I expressed the hope that Dr. Pelicanos might be offered a return engagement, when he could expatiate on some of the points that time limits had forced him to stint during his first presentation. This, alas, did not happen. About a month later, while he was lecturing a group of Residents in Neurology at his home base, The University of the Highlands and Lowlands, Upper Lake Ness, Scotland, Pelicanos suffered a fatal stroke.
We learned of Dr. P’s death from his secretary, in response to our second invitation. This person was kind enough to offer us the services of the late doctor’s assistant, but, as instructed, Sr. Babineau declined (with thanks, of course). My thinking was that there was no reason to believe any assistant could possibly have measured up to Pelicanos’ standard of entertaining expertise.
In searching for a substitute, we put our heads together, ultimately deciding to take a totally different tack. I can’t recall our precise reasoning, but our choice was Dr. Yolanda Jellin, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the psychology of financial markets. Although, as you will see, Dr. Jellin’s presentation turned out to be less sensationalistic than the ones about the genocidaire and the dictators, it certainly held our attention.
Introduction Of Sr. Hector Babineau, Executive Vice-President, Hillendale Hobby Club (HHC).
Illustrious members, thank you for attending this, the 74th installment in the Lecture/Demonstration series of the Hillendale Hobby Club. May I remind you that the taking of photographs is prohibited. Also, please turn off all sound devices. [pause] Thank you. Without further ado, I turn the proceedings over to Sr. Hector Babineau, Executive Vice-President for Programming, who will introduce tonight’s speaker.
President Folderolsky, esteemed President-Emeritus Paulsen, and fellow members, tonight we offer you a rare treat. As the saying goes, we are about to “follow the money.” And not only that! Tonight’s guest, Dr. Yolanda Jellin, Professor of Applied Psychology, and Chairperson, Department of Economics, University of North-Central Wisconsin, at Graywaters, is perhaps the world’s foremost authority in the cutting-edge field of Investment Psychology. As such, I anticipate that she will not only show us how to follow the money, but will help us understand why it goes, where it goes. Without further ado, Dr. Yolanda Jellin.
[Dr. Jellin was a tall, bony woman with shoulder-length gray hair. She wore black-framed glasses, a navy-blue power suit, and flat black pumps.]
“Madame-President Folderolsky, President-Emeritus Paulsen, Vice-President Babineau, and distinguished members of the Hillendale Hobby Club:
I am honored that you have chosen me as your guest speaker this evening. Since time is limited, I will get right to the point.
As is well documented, investment behavior is driven by the same psychological forces –anxiety, fear, optimism, stubbornness, and so on --as other types of human behavior. Where the obvious becomes more interesting is when we try to attribute particular investment decisions to more particular causes.
For instance, there is a school of thought that finds a major cause for the collapse of financial markets in 2008 in the fact that the centers of the brain for optimism and pessimism are completely unconnected. By ‘08, a long period of rising asset valuation had prompted the “optimism center” to act, even more than usual, as an independent agent. Massaged by rosy prospectuses from their brokers, investors pushed aside any anxieties they might have felt that bubbles do eventually burst.
[I loved the Professor’s dry manner, and wondered if she was married –no ring-- and, if not, whether I might ask her out!]
When the bubble did burst, the pessimism center took over, ushering in a brief period of doom and gloom. Which brings me to what may be the principal motive most of you have for being here tonight.
[Yes, the PRINCIPLE motive!]
We are currently experiencing the second longest stock market boom in history. Shouldn’t 2008 have taught us to use our capacity for rational thought to strike a balance between optimism and pessimism, to allow the two sides of our brain to communicate? Did that happen? Perhaps, in a few, unusually cool brains it did. And perhaps, in the brains of many other investors, it also happened –for several seconds!
[A gale of anxious laughter.]
But, all too soon, the brokers’ rosy prospectuses re-enforced investors’ well-known, deep seated reluctance to accept responsibility for their own decisions, and, once again, the sky has been the limit. This would suggest that markets are not organized to manage properly the powerful emotions triggered, in a Pavlovian sense, by the smell of money!”
[i.e. money makes our species drool! ... After a pause, during which she sipped from her water bottle and cleaned her glasses, Dr. Jellin mentioned a principal objection to the theory she had just presented.]
But, surely, not all investors think alike. What about the contrarians? Aren’t some investors (e.g. Warren Buffet) very rational? True, but we’re talking about critical mass here.
[At this point, the presentation strayed from investor psychology and, I fear, became less interesting, even causing a few members to drift off. For perhaps twenty minutes, Dr. Jellin --an academic, after all-- waxed eloquent about such arcana as Austrian business-cycle theory and Keynesian economics, throwing in a sidewinder or two from the classical economists, Malthus and Ricardo. Even I found myself hoping there would not be a quiz! Then, the lecture took a sudden turn for the better.]
Some of you are of an age to recall that notorious emporium of sin from the sexist old days, Minsky’s Burlesque House. Well, folks, there’s a new Minsky in town! Dr. Hyman Minsky’s theory explains the life and death of business cycles, and, although his theory is strictly economic, it is completely compatible with the theory of the divided brain.
Dr. Minsky identifies the main cause of business cycles as overextended credit lines, caused by greed, which prompts investors to parlay gains from rising markets into loans to seek further gains through increasingly risky instruments. Such instances of bursting bubbles have been dubbed ‘Minsky moments.’ Well, folks, the next four years may come to be regarded as an extended, public-sector Minsky moment.
[As it happened, I had read about Minsky moments, which blamed the Ponzi schemes and other engines of massive debt accumulation for the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 1988. At this crucial juncture in her lecture, we were all hoping Dr. Jellin would loop back to “our principle motive” –that is, offer at least a hint or two about the likely economic consequences of the policies of our newly elected, highly erratic Chief Executive (or, as Norbert Pelicanos might have put it, “about what is going on in the Executive Dysfunctional Center of the brain of our newly elected Dictator-in-Chief”).
I had my own ideas. The “policies” we should expect would be a rehash of outmoded trickle-down and mercantilist economics, which would do to our country what the unwise tax cuts of Governor Sam Brownback had recently done to Kansas: i.e. drive us to the verge of bankruptcy. In a way, Dr. Jellin made the same point, but she did it through a joke --at our expense.]
Since Minsky's is not, strictly speaking, a theory of psychological investment, I will not go into further detail. Instead, I'll close with a warning, of sorts. Folks, you'd better hope we're not on the verge of another Minsky moment! Because, if we are, most of you in this room tonight are going to be caught with your pants down! And, not to hurt anyone's feelings, but that would not be a pretty sight! [To me, the quip was as good as a tip: we should get out while the getting was good. But not even I, who consider myself a fairly rational person, was about to heed the tip. Why not? Greed, of course! The joke marked the end of the lecture or, as Porky Pig used to say (and, perhaps, still does), "That's all, folks!" To which I might add Woody Woodpecker's mocking chuckle, "Uh uh uh ah ah."]
Aftermath: By Peter O.M. Paulsen (POMP).
“Thank you, Professor,” she said, “for a fascinating lecture. I especially enjoyed your jokes about burlesque. I had heard of the Minsky moment before, and had even read a bit about investor psychology. Or to quote Dr. Greenspan’s famous phrase, bubbles are created by ‘irrational exuberance.’ Anyway, here’s my question. As a corporate counsel, I wonder if what I might call ‘a reverse Minsky Moment’ could possibly explain some of the frequent out-of-court settlements in civil litigation. Specifically, could the readiness of both sides to accept such settlements, in certain cases, depend, at least in part, on whether the attorneys for both plaintiff and defense had coincidentally suffered a recent string of defeats that made them both gun-shy?”
A small smile flickered across Dr. Jellin’s handsome face. “Well,” she said, peering at her interlocutor through her half-glasses, “that’s a clever, if rhetorical, question --a conjecture, really. Perhaps, those hypothetical counselors would be ‘gun shy.’ Who knows? The simplest way for me to evade your question is to point out that I’m not a lawyer. However, the question may already have prompted a research study, or two, in which case you could simply consult the literature --look it up. Sorry, that’s the best I can do. Next, please.”
Always a good sport, Colleen flashed her 1,000-watt smile, accompanied by a characteristic flip of her ash-blond hair. But I could read her lips: “Thanks for nothing.”
And that was that. Babineau looked relieved. In keeping with the spirit of “the dismal science,” the end of the proceedings was unremarkable. We ate, we drank, we went home.
Last night, instead of a Film of the Week, PBS was serving up a dose of reheated folk music by a bunch of aging leftist icons, accompanied, I assume (since I did not watch) by frequent begging interludes (fund-raising appeals). Rather than partake of this pablum, when I got home, I hurried to my desk to write (i.e. word-process) this account, which I finished this morning (Monday).
By the way, some of you may have noticed that yesterday’s date, March 12, 2017, marked the beginning of Daylight Savings Time, and that the moon was full. You can make what you will of this coincidence. If March also turns out to feature a blue moon –i.e., a second full moon—to celebrate the double coincidence, I intend to dance naked (for a few moments, at least) in the privacy of my own back yard. (Minsky, anyone?) I may even invite Dr. Jellin over to join me.
Yesterday, before the automatic braking system kicked in, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average plunged more than 500 points. My broker's phone has been off the hook. I think I can safely say that I'm ruined! And there was no blue moon last month.