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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 8, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Crackers and Cheese; Soviet Jokes

My favorite cracker, ever since I can remember, is Nabisco's Wheat Thin. It's great with cheese. It's great with tuna fish. Terrific with smoked salmon. There is no chip dip that is not better with a wheat thin than with a potato chip.

And, of course, it's a good snack on car trips. Because, unlike, say, goldfish crackers (or Annie's Bunny crackers, which are the best of the handful-cracker genre, especially the Bunny Grahams), you eat Wheat Thins one by one.

Even if you take a handful out of the box, you still slide one at a time into your mouth and set it on your tongue just for a moment or two, to feel how thin and crisp it is, and then you crunch it and one cracker, all by itself, tastes wonderful.

So it lasts longer than the handful snacks.

Then one day, about two years ago, I read the Nabisco Wheat Thins ingredient list. It contained several things I was trying to remove from my diet.

Not that my diet is all that wonderful and effective. Not that I don't still gain weight in occasional quantum leaps. But by controlling the ingredient list of the foods I eat, I gain the illusion of self-control. I'm an old man. I've learned to enjoy illusions. I'm only a few years away from living entirely inside them, so indulge me, here.

Anyway, the other day I spotted Back to Nature brand Crispy Wheat Crackers. Through the cellophane window on the box (probably not really cellophane, but it looks like the kind of plastic that was called cellophane when I was a kid), I saw that these were meant to be Wheat Thins traveling under a false name.

The ingredient list was right. But here's the real test: Would they taste as good as Wheat Thins?

No. They actually taste better.

I'm not deceiving myself on this. I did a head to head comparison. Alternating back and forth. The Back to Nature crackers are equal or better in every aspect that I could think of.

So if you are self-delusional like me, or if you simply want a better thin wheat cracker, this is the way to go.

*

I remember when I was a kid, growing up during the height of the Cold War, it was something of a revelation when Reader's Digest would occasionally run an example of the humor of the people living inside the Soviet Union. Those black-humor jokes were really something -- I had been taught that Russians lived in constant terror, but apparently they were able to tell jokes!

For instance, one of the earliest of these jokes popped up in response to one of the absurd slogans during the era of Lenin: "Communism = Soviet Power plus Electrification."

Naturally, somebody with a knowledge of junior-high algebra had to restate the equation: "Electrification = Communism minus Soviet Power."

Now that's just plain funny.

The reality was a little more complicated than the depiction in Reader's Digest, however. The Russian people could tell jokes, yes -- but they could get arrested for it. And sometimes did. Especially under Stalin.

Most of the time they got away with it. There were even eras in some of the Communist countries where the jokes were even published. Everybody loved their jokes poking fun at the pretensions of Communism -- even Stalin, though his own robust sense of humor was kind of sickening considering that when he joked about having people shot, everyone knew that he actually did have people shot, which guarantees that you laugh at the joke ... but not very loudly and not very long, for fear he thinks you laughed too loudly or too long.

The real surprise to an Amerikanski like me wasn't that Stalin sometimes told the jokes. It's that telling those jokes didn't mean they hated living in Russia or even hated Communism, and it certainly didn't mean they loved America or yearned for capitalism.

After all, every schoolchild in the Soviet Union and the captive nations knew that they were not actually living under Communism. What they were living under was the openly inferior "dictatorship of the proletariat," and so when they pointed an ironic finger at shortages and long lines and bureaucratic hypocrisy they weren't necessarily rejecting the dream of Communism, only the nomenklatura that were doing such a lousy job of running the country in the meantime while they personally acted just like the bourgeoisie they supposedly got rid of.

"An old peasant woman is visiting Moscow zoo, when she sets eyes on a camel for the first time. 'Oh my God,' she says, 'look what the Bolsheviks have done to that horse!'"

That's a joke from the very earliest period of Communist rule in Russia, as quoted (and, obviously, translated) in Hammer and Tickle: The Story of Communism, a Political System almost Laughed Out of Existence, by Ben Lewis.

Lewis is a scholar who spent years getting access to former Soviet archives that told something about the fate of people arrested for joke-telling, as well as (of course) the jokes that got them arrested. He also conducted many interviews with common people in most of the countries of the former Soviet bloc, finding out not only the jokes, but what the jokes meant to the people.

He started with the idea that the jokes somehow brought down Communism. By the end of the book it's pretty clear that it didn't. Rather, it was a way of living within Communism, and when Communism fell, the jokes went away because they weren't needed any more.

This is a strange book, because along with the jokes, the stories of the jokes, and the stories of the interviews and research about the jokes, there is also an ongoing story about his relationship with a girlfriend -- who was an eastern European artist specializing in Communist nostalgia.

She helped him find a lot of people who had collected Communist-era jokes, but she also didn't approve of his attitude. Like the East Germans who still love their old walk/don't walk lights (they used different figures on the signs than West Germans did), she thought that there were a lot of things better in the old days.

That's no surprise. For one thing, Putin now has reestablished dictatorship, only with the Russian Orthodox Church serving the ideological role of the old Communist ideology (i.e., the opiate of the people) -- a tawdry bargain in which the Orthodox Church helps keep the people happy without democracy, in exchange for Putin's giving them a privileged position in the state. How quickly such religions sell out the interest of the people in exchange for a paltry monopoly.

So anyone who is nostalgic for the good old days can relax: They're back.

But not in the rest of Eastern Europe -- or even the old USSR, except Belarus, which never actually got much of a taste of freedom.

And freedom didn't work out so well -- because Americans were too stupid, with all their triumphalism and absurd claims that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War, to institute a Marshall Plan to help ease the transition.

The result was anarchy, and anarchy always leads immediately to rule by criminals. Call them knights or mafia dons or crime lords, they run the same protection racket: Pay us taxes or we kill you.

And when Putin came in and pretty much ended that system (by publicly breaking one or two such "lords of commerce" and thereby acquiring the obedience of the rest), most Russians were grateful.

It was all so unnecessary. If we had helped Russia they might have come to believe in capitalism. Then we might have won the Cold War. But we didn't. We threw away the opportunity for victory that history briefly offered us. We should be slapping ourselves in George H.W. Bush's and Congress's collective forehead and saying, "Stupid, stupid, stupid."

All of that history is touched on (though with his editorial opinions, and his girlfriend's, rather than mine). Eventually he loses the girlfriend. Eventually he writes his book.

And while the girlfriends stories were annoying at first, by halfway through the book I actually saw the usefulness of them. Her perspective was important, to help readers understand that the jokes didn't mean just one thing.

Here's what matters: The jokes themselves are wonderful.

But there weren't that many of them. Oh, lots of different jokes are listed, but most of them are variants -- the same basic joke recorded elsewhere, but with slight modifications of names or places.

So while this book is not an exhaustive listing of Soviet humor (and believe me, when scholarly folklorists are through with a joke or a story, even the bones have been pulverized and there's little left to remind us of what was funny!), it includes a lot of it, and it's great stuff.

I wondered, as a writer -- even, occasionally, of humor -- if I could create variants of these jokes for use in Obama's America.

Not so far. But Obama is skirting the edge. And if he actually brings off his attempt to manipulate the 2010 Census so as to give permanent majorities to "his" voters by inflating the count in pro-Democratic Party districts, then we'll be ripe for the humor of despair.

Meanwhile, this book is worth reading -- weird personal bits and all.

*

When we spent much of a summer in Provence back in -- what, 1996? -- I became, not just a fan, but an absolute devotee of Laughing Cow cheese.

These wedges of spreadable cheese are one of the few foods that survive translation: the cheese as sold in America is identical to the cheese in France.

Now, I lost twenty pounds in France -- while eating like a pig. Part of this was that in Europe you simply walk more -- rather like living in Manhattan or San Francisco or Boston. And part of it was that I ate far, far better.

I had ice cream (that is, French glace) almost every day -- but I walked a mile to get it. I ate snacks whenever I wanted -- but they consisted of brioche bread with Laughing Cow cheese (well, it was in France, so it was La Vache Qui Rie) spread on it.

I never got tired of it. Every time I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

You can't often find good brioches in America, but you can get Laughing Cow almost everywhere.

A few years ago they came out with a Light version -- but I didn't actually care for it as much and besides, I had lost weight with the full-calorie version, so why bother with an inferior low-calorie version?

But a few weeks ago, I saw that Harris-Teeter was selling two new flavors of Laughing Cow Light: Garlic & Herb, and French Onion.

Naturally, because of my duty to inform you about all things (i.e., my normal cover story for "I wanted to try it"), I bought a wheel of each, and my report is:

Delicious. The other day we made brioches at home, and I slathered on some of each cheese (regular, garlic & herb, and French onion) and while they are clearly different, I loved them all.

Now, that same day, since I was in an experimental mood, I also picked up a wheel of Sonoma Jack -- same size packaging as the Laughing Cow, only brown, and with no cows on the cover.

Oh, no, wait -- I'm looking closely and partly hidden by the price tag there is a cow -- but it isn't laughing.

I'm afraid I must tell you that it is no competition for the real thing. The cheese looks kind of plasticky when you get it unwrapped. It doesn't spread anywhere near as well. And the flavor is blah at best. It doesn't melt in your mouth the same way. In a world with Laughing Cow, why would I bother buying a second package of Sonoma Jacks?

*

To the theater complex at Friendly Center (once called "The Grande" but now called "the theaters at Friendly Center" because all the theaters in town are now or once were called "The Grande"), just a little message:

Aren't you glad that we're not litigious people? Because in some of your theaters, there are weird little triangular extensions to the step so that as we try to slide into our aisle, with our view obstructed by popcorn and other treats, we can catch a heel on it and get spilled into the floor between the seats.

Here's what happens. The refreshments fly all over. An armrest can slam into one's chin, driving the head backward in a very nice example of whiplash. Meanwhile, one flailing arm bruises itself savagely on the edge of a raised seat, while the other wedges itself down between armrest and seat back of the row before.

Lacerations. Pulled muscles. Sore neck. Sore knees. Spilled treats.

How much would little LED lights or even brightly colored luminescent tape or paint cost?

How were those nasty little concrete triangles an improvement over simply squaring off the steps the way we do with ordinary, familiar architecture, so you can predict that when you step down from the stair into the aisle, the floor level begins exactly where the carpeted stairs leave off?

In a litigious world, it is almost unfathomable that such a design could ever be approved and built.

Aren't you glad we are so reluctant to go to the bother of suing companies guilty of bad design?

Meanwhile, though, you have a responsibility: Do something to make those steps safer. The tape or paint or lights can't be as expensive as the lawsuit.

*

My thanks to the readers who came to check out our play, Barefoot to Zion. I hope you enjoyed it. I was immeasurably proud of the performers and everybody else who worked on it. Thank you!

*

This paper comes out on Thursday. Saturday the 14th is the birthday of the woman who for more than three decades has brought me a lot more happiness than I ever deserved. I wish I could give her as much joy -- but she's too far ahead. Still, I keep trying, and she's still here, so apparently I'm doing enough ... so far ...


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