And although the Pentagon may have become lax on the matter of desertion, it is a Torquemada on the matter of obesity. In fiscal year 2002 the Marine Corps discharged eighty-eight people because of an excessive percentage of body fat; the Air Force discharged 394, and the Army discharged 945. (The Navy did not discharge anyone for obesity—perhaps because in that service the extra buoyancy is actually an advantage.) The Russians, no doubt honoring some vestigial memory of superpower competition, have shown a similar resolve in the weight department. Last September the overseers of the Bolshoi Ballet dismissed the well-known ballerina Anastasia Volochkova on the grounds that "she is hard to lift."
In his book The Control of Nature, John McPhee described the dynamic of upthrust and erosion in the mountains of southern California. "The San Gabriels, in their state of tectonic youth, are rising as rapidly as any range on earth," he wrote, and then added, "Shedding, spalling, self-destructing, they are disintegrating at a rate that is also among the fastest in the world." Standards experience a similar dynamic.
The body dimensions of the original Barbie doll were such that if she were life size, the critical measurements would be 38-18-34. But in 1998 Mattel introduced a revised doll, Really Rad Barbie, whose unofficial extrapolated dimensions were 36-24-34—a modest step toward a different ideal. A box of Crayola crayons once held a single crayon whose shade was designated "flesh"—roughly the color of a piglet after a warm bath. Now Crayola markets a whole box devoted entirely to flesh tones: peach, mahogany, sepia, burnt sienna—the full Benetton spectrum.
Some standards aren't worthy of the name in the first place, and in any event standards will always be in flux. But surely there are a handful on which we might all agree to hold the line—this far and no further, unto the end of days. To start this long-overdue public conversation, I'll propose ten.
I. "EMPLOYEES MUST WASH HANDS BEFORE RETURNING TO WORK" ("Los empleados deben lavarse las manos antes de regresar al trabajo").
II. "Women and children first" (except maybe Ann Coulter).
III. Notoriety does not denote "famousness," enormity does not denote "bigness," and religiosity does not denote "religiousness."
IV. "The bat shall be a smooth, round stick not more than 2 3/4 inches in diameter at the thickest part and not more than 42 inches in length. The bat shall be one piece of solid wood."—official rules, Major League Baseball
V. "Honey, you look great!" (still the only correct answer).
VI. "Parents should never issue birth announcements or write letters of thanks that pretend to be coming directly from the baby."—Miss Manners
VII. "First, do no harm."—Hippocrates
VIII. The federal adulteration limits for cocoa powder ("75 or more insect fragments per 50 grams") and chocolate ("60 or more insect fragments per 100 grams").
IX. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."—the Golden Rule (worth a try?)
X. Anything that does "little more for humanity than keep the publishing world afloat" deserves an award.