Thursday, August 6, 2020

Flashback 2006: Chuck E. Cheese

     Lord & Taylor went bankrupt this week, the oldest department store in America. Ann Taylor—no relation—too. Just a pair of dozens of retailers—J. Crew, J.C. Penney, Neiman Marcus—seeking bankruptcy protection in the COVID-19 era.
     Despite popular perceptions, going bankrupt does not necessarily mean going out of business: just the opposite, it's a last-ditch strategy to survive, using a court to keep your creditors at bay while you try to get your act together. 
    So not the end. But not a good sign either.
     All part of our changing pandemic world, with outsized impact because of the emotional factor. It isn't as if most of us want to rush to Lord & Taylor. Rather, I imagine, many Americans have a little knot of associations with these famous names. I still remember cringingly buying a black polyester suit with my mother at Penney's—where, now that I think of it, I worked, in the catalogue department, pairing product with orders, for one extremely unhappy month when I was 17. So a feeling somewhere between "good riddance" and the death of a high school classmate you knew sort of.
     Then there's Chuck E. Cheese. There was a distinct How-Did-I-Get-Here? hellishness to finding oneself in a Chuck E. Cheese, the kind of sudden realization that makes you want to return to infancy and start life over and see if you can do a little better so as not to end up here.
    At least there was wine...
    Though I did have a memorable moment there, on my son's 3rd birthday. I figured I probably wrote about it in the paper, and did. It's from when the column filled a page, and I've left a few of the earlier items on the page, and the original subheads, as a set up and in case you have time to kill. Or you can just jump to the end.

     Speaking of religion's stranglehold on America, I read Sam Harris' book Letter to a Christian Nation this week. The brief polemic is well worth the hour or so it took to read, if only for his neat dismissal of the Ten Commandments, which are neither the basis for our legal system nor even particularly moral, at least in the sense we understand morality today (the first four are about the need for religious intolerance).
    "It is time that we admitted that faith is nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail," Harris writes.
     Strong stuff. Though I'm not sure who is supposed to benefit from Harris' book. The supposed audience -- zealous American Christians -- are not known for entertaining heretical ideas. They will certainly dismiss this book as mere prejudice.
     And those who sympathize with Harris don't really need further evidence that the country is in the thrall of our own mullahs pressing their beliefs on the unwilling.
     Still, it is bracing to see reality so clearly enunciated and defended, and to be reminded of just how automatically our culture kowtows to the whims of certain faiths.

     There is a counterargument that Harris overlooks, and however unlikely a defender of faith I might be, I feel strongly enough to not only point it out, but to label it the Steinberg Codicil.
     It goes like this:

     Life, despite its brevity, is actually quite long, and often filled with tragedy. One must occupy oneself with something, preferably something that offers comfort and meaning. Religion, despite all the harm it does, is no more delusional than a range of other recreational activities, from following sports to engaging in hobbies. Take thimble collecting, for instance. It, too, is based on a tissue of fantasy: the belief that the collection means something, that it is aesthetic, that the thimbles reflect both your personality and a kind of permanence, that they won't just be promptly sold off on eBay by your shrugging heirs. Whether you believe in angels or Charlie's Angels seems a mere matter of style.
     Science, on the other hand, can be cold comfort. For all its innumerable contributions, science has seldom inspired a great painting or an endurable opera. A keen mind such as Harris' can cut faith off at the knees, but he provides no replacement.
     My older son and I are 72 cantos into Dante's Divine Comedy, though neither of us believe in the eschatological system contained herein. We are not reading the Periodic Table. That is not a bad thing. The good news about religion is its grip around the throat of humanity has been relaxing for 500 years. When Harris writes "We are building a civilization of ignorance," it is one of the rare times when he is 100 percent wrong. We are not building it, we are tearing it down. Or trying to.

     I don't know what clump of neurons have been carrying around "eschatological" all these years, but when I looked the word up, I was a little shocked to see that it actually is the right word for the circumstances: "the part of theology concerned with death, judgment and the final destiny of the soul."
     That makes me feel better about not being able to name a current member of the Cubs. At least I'm using the storage space for something else—whether that something else is worthwhile or not I'll leave to you.

     Critics of the president have a tendency to see signs of his malignancy everywhere—the hidden hand behind the 9/11 attacks, the cynically tumbling gas prices just before the election.
     I thought I was immune from such folly but, speaking of Dante, I was reading Paradiso to the boy the other night and came upon these lines. A sentiment expressed 700 years ago by Beatrice but also one that could have been uttered by Hillary Clinton last week to rebuff the notion of staying the course in Iraq:

Be faithful—not unreasonably so.
Like Jephtha when he made his offering.
Better that he had said, 'I have done wrong.'
Than keeping faith to do a greater ill.

     When my elder son—whose 11th birthday is today—turned 3, we held the party at a Chuck E. Cheese's pizza parlor. It was difficult, for me, because I view the place as hell without the flames —the clanging games, the shrieking kids, the horrible animatronic creatures grinding through their limited repertoire of movements. Being there struck me as indicative of my low status in life. Though the place did serve wine, which helped.
     We were at Chuck E. Cheese's because that's where he wanted the party held. I subscribe to the theory that children should get what they want, at least occasionally, particularly on their birthdays. I was rewarded by one of those moments of parental joy that burn themselves in your mind, when your child establishes, to your relief and delight, that he is turning out exactly like you. The Chuck E. Cheese character was making his dramatic entrance, to the unfettered joy of the gathered 3-year-olds. At that moment my son turned to me and said—I swear —"Dad, do you think it's appropriate to have a mouse in a restaurant?"
     This year—and I pass this along, not just to brag, but to give reason for hope to all those currently enduring Chuck E. Cheese or its equivalent—we're taking him and a small group of friends to the Symphony Center for the Civic Orchestra of Chicago's "spooky musical adventure." Yes, I know. I have no doubt that five years from now I'll be writing about his desire to tattoo a winged skull on the back of his neck. But we ain't there yet, and I'm enjoying every millisecond until the inevitable.
       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 25, 2006


  1. The subject of Chuck E. Cheese causes me to remember my late father of who one of the few good things I can say about the man is , he was a good grandfather. He saved me from ever ending up at the place. He loved taking my boys there. No birthday required. I'm pretty sure he liked the pizza.

  2. "When Harris writes "We are building a civilization of ignorance," it is one of the rare times when he is 100 percent wrong. We are not building it, we are tearing it down. Or trying to."
    Dream on, heretic. I remember writing essentially the same in college lo these many decades ago, predicting that religion had lost its grip on humanity's soul and that it was unlikely that religion would precipitate any more wars. Then Ireland, and Jihad, and India, and with each passing year I remembered my blithe prediction and reminded myself that After changes upon changes
    We are more or less the same, but still a man hears what he wants to hear
    And disregards the rest, hmmmm

  3. Thimble collectors are not out telling me what to do, how to behave, or that I too should collect thimbles. I find your analogy weak in that regard.
    And yes do enjoy your shortish time on earth...
    Thanks for the column.

  4. As soon as I saw the image of the pocket watch whose hands read 8:15, I realized what day it was. The Bomb fell on Hiroshima at 8:15 AM on August 6, 1945...75 years ago today.

    Nice one, Mr. S--a lot less graphic and jarring, and far more subtle, than using the more widely-known image of the charred and melted watch that was forever frozen at the same position. I first saw it in Newsweek magazine, decades ago, and have never forgotten it.

    We MUST take the nuclear codes out of those tiny hands.

  5. Well, there's a lot to chew on in that one column. Skipping ahead to the Chuck E. Cheese segment wouldn't do, at all. I'm assuming you checked and have never posted it to the ole blog before, but I remember it pretty well for it having been written in 2006.

    Just the fact that you were reading The Divine Comedy with your ten-year old is worth the price of admission. When I was his age, I'd have certainly been more interested in the Box Scores. But now I probably pay less attention to sports than Neil, if that's possible.

    "When Harris writes 'We are building a civilization of ignorance,' it is one of the rare times when he is 100 percent wrong." Well, that observation about Harris' book hasn't aged well. Of course, it depends on which "we" is being referenced. Though even from the depths of the Bush II regime in 2006, it was hard to envision the day when the president would so blatantly celebrate (and mightily depend on) his under-educated base, honoring them by plainly stating: "I love the poorly educated."

    And I don't believe in angels or Charlie's Angels, but I know which of them make for a more intriguing poster. : )

  6. Yeah, the place is a full frontal assault on the senses, to be sure. The kids requested a couple of birthdays there when they were very young. My attitude was that it was about them, not me.

  7. I enjoy reading these older columns, because they still carry significance. Sam Harris on religion, an excerpt from Dante, and memories of our kids’ birthday parties at Chuck E Cheese.
    A necessary respite from today’s stressful world.

  8. Your son's Chuck E. Cheese mouse-in-the-restaurant comment serves to remind us that even very young kids can have the occasional blinding insights; it's just their initial challenge of learning speech that prevents them from expressing more of them, more often.

    Our #1 son was somewhere in the first half of his first decade when he was reading a book in a waiting room, sitting between his mother on one side and a relentlessly helpful unknown lady on the other side who was trying to teach him about the alphabet, a topic he'd mastered ages ago. She kept trying to quiz him on the difference between "B" and "b," but his attention was on something more interesting elsewhere. After she interrupted him a third time with the same question, he finally snapped, "Yeah, yeah, lower case."

    He has been married and off elsewhere for years now, but to this day, if any family member gets to over-explaining something, someone else will murmur, "Yeah, yeah, lower case."


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