A New Moral Alphabet of Vice and Folly
Illustrations and Text by Stan Washburn
An Astronomer gifted his son with an expensive telescope to encourage his fascination with the infinite grandeur of the skies. But the boy was already fascinated: the new girl next door. Just his age. Right there. No telescope required.
Moral: First things first.
A Beautician did what was possible, but her client left no tip, sulking that she’d had higher expectations. “Next time try a magician!” cried the beautician. She was instantly fired, but minutes later, stepping into the street, she laughed and clapped her hands and did a little dance right there on the sidewalk.
Moral: Sometimes it’s worth it to say what’s on your mind.
A Clairvoyant foresaw misery and disaster for certain of her clients, but hadn’t the heart to tell them. Instead, she foretold sunny prospects of love and fulfillment. Her dishonesty troubled her, but the upside was that happy clients keep coming back, and she was raking it in. “It can’t be all bad,” she considered.
Moral: It gets tricky when you have a business to run.
A Diva, hugely inhaling, burst her bodice. The applause was thunderous. “I’m onto something,” she thought, beaming generously. “I must speak to my dresser.”
Moral: Pay attention to your audience.
An Entertainer, massaging the truth to punch up his routine, noticed that his audiences didn’t quibble about facts so long as he delivered on hilarity. Which suggested a career in public office. He triumphed, thanks to his command of truthy entertainment, style and flash, smoke and mirrors.
Moral: And then we wonder why democracy is shaky.
A Farmer delighted in the intelligent and eager nature of his hogs. Then one day he tripped and fell among the creatures. They swarmed over him. Only fragments of his larger bones, well gnawed, were later found.
Moral: Reciprocity is not always a feature of relationships.
A Gourmand indulged himself prodigiously in all categories of food and drink. “You won’t last long if you keep this up,” intoned his physician. “C’est la vie,” shrugged the gourmand, anxious not to miss his luncheon reservation.
Moral: It’s good to die happy.
A Hunter, disconcerted by the gory presence of his kill, resolved never to hunt again. But he continued to eat meat, neglecting the fact that the decorous cuts he found at the butcher were simply gory kills perpetrated by somebody else.
Moral: A blind eye is to conscience as oil is to machinery.
An Idealist, brooding upon the world, concluded that as a practical matter the grossly imperfect is about as okay as things are likely to get. “So why struggle,” she wondered—“unless things get even worse because I’m just sitting here.” Eyes down, she devoted herself to hopeful causes.
Moral: You never know.
A Jester made the classic jester error of cracking a joke about the empress. She was not amused, and ordered him thrown into the dungeon; but he pointed out that she was getting the last laugh, so he had, in fact, given her amusement. Which she had to admit, and in fairness released him.
Moral: Humor is one of those subtle things.
A Kingmaker was suddenly struck with the conviction that he ought to be employing his clout in the public good rather than for low partisan ends. This stopped him. But then what? What is the public good? He had no idea. He’d never thought about it. And what about his reputation? And his livelihood? He poured himself a stiff one and stirred uneasily.
Moral: Ethical insight can lead you down a twisty road.
A Librarian was so unrelenting in her espousal of highfalutin books that people found it fatiguing to be around her. But one day she let slip that she kept a stash of murder mysteries and romances hidden under her bed, and loved them. Word got around, and her circle warmed to her.
Moral: You can only be so much better than your neighbors.
A Madam amused her girls with delicious accounts from the time of her own youth and beauty. As it happened, most of her tales were false, but nobody questioned happy flights of fancy that lightened the grueling spirit of a brothel.
Moral: Honesty isn’t the only virtue.
A Nymph grew bored with a life of lolling about in romantic landscapes. She applied to law school, but the uproar when she arrived at her first lecture—in the nude, naturally, being a nymph—astonished her. The school manual, she pointed out, didn’t mention clothes—and she was beginning to wonder whether the law could really be so very lofty a calling as everyone made out.
Moral: Nothing is quite as impressive up close.
An Ogre couple quarreled over issues of cuisine. She preferred their kills well done, while he insisted that they come to the table still bloody. But in time they grew tired of bickering, and turned vegan to neutralize the point of contention.
Moral: Life is easier if you can be a little flexible.
A Politician approached the Gates of Hell in very natural terror of the torments said to await predators like himself. But the fiends on duty greeted him cordially as a brother, and urged him to carry on Below just as he had Above.
Moral: It’s warm to find yourself among kindred spirits.
A Queen groaned at the endless grand ceremonials and fancy weddings. She winced at the absurd immensity and gaudy vulgarity of her palaces. The ostentation of her royal carriages appalled her. On the other hand, everyone was polite to her, money was never a problem, and the food was good.
Moral: Learn to take the rough with the smooth.
A Recluse applied himself so compulsively to abstruse researches that his social life dwindled away to nothing. The intellectual lady down the hall was attracted to him, but she was immersed in arcana of her own, and between them they could never quite find the time.
Moral: Sometimes there’s nothing to be done.
A Scholar promised his wife to thin out the endless jumble of books and papers cluttering their apartment. But before he got around to it, the bust of a philosopher, teetering on an insecure stack of journals, fell on his head, and his widow was left to clear away the mess.
Moral: Do it now.
A Tooth Fairy, after many happy years of whispering past sleeping munchkins to leave a treat under the pillow, worried that she was in a rut. But bending an elbow at the Fairy Bar, a colleague told her to relax. “I’ve done some pillow work on a fill-in basis,” said she. “Love those kids. I’d get a transfer if I could.”
Moral: Novelty isn’t everything.
An Umpire found it depressing to be constantly yelled at. But he remembered those blood-curdling accounts of crowds in ancient Rome howling for the slaughter of innocents, gladiators, or anyone else who wound up in the arena. It soothed him after a game to ruminate on those stories—running his mind over the details—savoring them.
Moral: It’s comforting to know you’re not the only one.
A Voter, presented with a choice between two detested candidates, swore he wouldn’t vote at all. But he’d always despised your namby-pamby non-voter. And of course, detestation is incremental: 49 percent is not as bad as 51 percent. Holding his nose, he marked his ballot for the slightly less detested option.
Moral: 49 percent is not as bad as 51 percent.
A Witch, tiring of her dreary traditional costume, whipped up something livelier—a little dash, a little skin, a little attitude. Warlocks loved it, and other witches saw that she was on to something. Her social life picked up wonderfully, and she had to move her coven to a more capacious ossuary.
Moral: Go for bold.
A Xylophonist, busking, noticed a famous promoter lingering near her for a long moment before passing on. She felt a great surge of hope: surely he would be back. Eagerly she played until dark and after dark and far into the night on the deserted street.
Moral: Hope sustains but does not enlighten us.
A Yachtsman, far from shore, ran his boat onto a rock. It began to sink. He was a renowned scientist, an admired social commentator, a fabled ladies’ man; none of this was of present use to him. What he needed now was advanced swimming skills, which he’d neglected.
Moral: Attributes are valued according to circumstance.
A Zombie was bored chasing her diet of human brains and flesh, but of course this was all that preserved her from being entirely dead. She took to dating highbrow intellectuals so that, before dinner at any rate, she could enjoy a more stimulating social life than is generally experienced by those in her situation.
Moral: Sometimes it’s hard to read new friends.