Friday, February 27, 2009

"To Sir, With Love - Part B"

I was a substitute teacher in the London school system (though I had no teacher training, nor had taught anywhere, ever). I’d fill in for a day or two, and then I’d move on. Absent High School teachers sometimes left lesson plans for me to follow. I usually pretended that they hadn’t, giving students a “free” period to read on their own or get a start on their homework.

With Elementary School classes, where I had the same students the entire day, I had no idea how to fill the time. This made for some very long school days. For everyone.

One day, I was assigned to Saint John’s Church of England Infants and Junior School. (My first thought was wondering what their school cheer was.) The school was located in Kilburn, a district of London, which, back then at least, was populated by people on the lower rungs on the economic ladder.

More than half the students originated (or their parents originated) from the West Indies, primarily Jamaica and Trinidad. The rest were Irish kids, who, I was informed, had been expelled from Catholic schools for being too difficult to handle.

Too tough for nuns? Hmph. (Meaning, I though nuns were drill sergeants in habits. And these kids were too difficult for them? But not me? Hmph, indeed!)

Saint John’s headmaster (read: principal) was Mr. Kinsman – a middle-aged man, wearing a tweed sports jacket and a mustache to match. (I could imagine him going into a Menswear Store and saying, “You see this mustache? I want that in a sports jacket.”) On first view, Mr. Kinsman seemed entirely ordinary. But I quickly discovered he was the perfect person for the job.

Mr. Kinsman had energy and spark and playfulness, and intelligence and dedication. He loved his profession, and he loved the students. And the students loved him.

Mr. Kinsman would unexpectedly burst into a classroom, announcing, “Spelling contest! Bucket of tar for the winner!”

Nobody wanted a bucket of tar. There, in fact, was no bucket of tar. It didn’t matter. The students caught the headmaster’s enthusiasm, and exploded with excitement.

Mr. Kinsman took to me right away. During the lunch break, I complained that it was getting tiresome, nomading from school to school, and even worse, when I wasn’t needed, being all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Mr. Kinsman was a doer. So he immediately did something.

Cleaning out a little-used storage area, Mr. Kinsman assembled a new classroom. He siphoned off fifteen students, instantly creating a new class. He made a call to the school administration, and Bingo-Bango! – no more substitute teaching for me. I was a permanent teacher at Saint John’s Church of England Infants and Junior School.

Fifteen students. Around eleven years old. A “fifty-fifty” boys and girls; same thing, black and white. One student, I learned, came from a family of fourteen. That was one child smaller than the class. If you threw in the parents, the class was smaller than the family.

The most significant statistic was this: Only two of the students could read.

Let’s take stock here. I am now in charge of a group of energetic, in some cases, certifiably difficult students, all haling from circumstances strikingly different from my own. This was no longer a question of filling in till the real teacher came back. I was the real teacher. And I was expected to teach.

You’ve probably never thought about this. I hadn’t either, to that point. But suddenly, I was pondering, “How do you teach somebody to read?” In a way, it’s miraculous. They can’t read; and then they can. How exactly does that happen?

I’m sure at Teachers’ School, they prepared you with techniques for teaching children to read. I hadn’t gone to Teachers’ School. I had no clue how to do it.

Illiterate children can’t “read on their own.” As a result, the teacher is required to actively fill the day with activities, which are, hopefully, at least tangentially related to learning something. The problem was, I wasn’t trained in how to do that either.

So I made it up.

Five days a week, from nine to three – minus “Assembly”, where they sang Anglican hymns, a lunch break and two recesses – I had to invent quasi-educational activities for my antsy and often truculent students to participate in.

Activity Number One: Art Class.

I handed every student a sheet of drawing paper. I instructed them to fold the paper in half. Neatly and carefully. I told them to fold their paper in half again. Press down on the fold, make a nice, clean crease. I had them fold the paper in half again. Then again. And again. And again. And again.

And again.

I had used up about five minutes. We were moving along.

When it was impossible to fold the drawing paper any smaller, I told the students to unfold their papers, and lay them flat on their desks. They would now notice that the folding had produced a substantial number of little squares.

My final instruction:

“Draw a picture in each of the squares.”

By the time the last student finished their “art project”, I had taken close to an hour off the clock.

Activity Number Two: Math.

“Sums” and “take-aways” – in English we can understand, adding and subtraction.

My objective was two-fold. To help students master adding and subtraction while killing as much time as I possibly could. I concocted a plan that would successfully achieve both.

My secret? Extremely lengthy mathematics problems.

I wrote them on the blackboard:

894,562,115,046,335,962,871,232,100,645,962

minus

437,285,516,997,234,886,051,740,992,345,678.

Four such problems easily consumed another hour. At the same time, those kids were learning.

One day, as my students were struggling with my mega-“take-aways”, Mr. Kinsman paid a surprise visit to my classroom. He complimented me on how quiet it was, and how diligently my students were working. Then he glanced at the blackboard.

And he called me aside.

Mr. Kinsman offered me some advice.

“If you want them to ‘get’ the concept of ‘take-aways’, you have to give them problems reflecting their everyday experience. ‘Five cats, minus two cats.’ ‘Seven dogs, minus three dogs.’ You see what I’m getting at?”

I told him I did. And he left.

I now had a dilemma. I knew Mr. Kinsman was right. But his advice was unhelpful as related to the desperately-needed killing of time. Somehow, I had to satisfy both concerns. And I figured out how.

After Mr. Kinsman’s departure, I returned to the blackboard and made an adjustment to my subtraction question. The question now read:

8945621150463359628712321006459628 CATS

minus

4372855169972348860517409923456789 CATS.

With strategies such as these, I would make it through the day.

Tomorrow: Things I did right – a considerably shorter posting.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

"To Sir, With Love"

Those schoolgirl day-ay-ays

Of telling tales and biting nails are go-o-one

But in my mi-eye-ind

I know they sti-i-ill…will still live on and on…

I had lived in England for four months and I hadn’t worked a day. What did I do? I don’t remember. My evenings were covered. I went to the pub; that was a constant. I also went to the theater, movies, and sometimes, a pub person threw a party and invited me along. The specifics are hazy, but I know I was active.

What did you do in the daytime?

Beats me. I’d visit the House of Commons and sit in the gallery. I did that, maybe, twice. So there was that.

What about the rest of the time?

Don’t press me. Sundays, I’d buy the Sunday London Times, which was a very thick paper, go up to Hampstead Heath and read it on the grass. That was Sundays.

And the other six days?

I’m thinking. Once a month or so, I’d take the Underground to Trafalgar Square and read a week-old copy of the Toronto Globe and Mail at Canada House. The Leafs won the Stanley Cup that year. I read about it in Canada House. I shouted a belated “Yay!” (I received some rebuking glares for that. It’s a quiet place, Canada House.)

So there was House of Commons twice and once a month at Canada House. And the rest of the time?

I have no idea. I had some money, my expenses were under control (I was eating meatballs out of a tin. And kind of liking it.) With the exception of camp, where I’d been a counselor (primarily because I was too old to continue being a camper), and a year or so as a paperboy when I was eleven, I had no work experience whatsoever. I had never had a legitimate job, and had no idea how to get one.

Then this guy I met told me that as a college graduate and a member of the Commonwealth, I qualified to be a substitute teacher in the British school system.

I’m not sure I wanted a job. Though at some point, I wouldn’t have a choice. My money wasn’t going to last forever, and I had no interest in going home. Going home meant – at least I thought it meant – knowing what you wanted to do with your life, and I was totally clueless. It’s not fun being in your hometown when you don’t have any plans. There are people there who know you. And they’re always asking, “So, what are your plans?”

"I don’t have any!!!"

You don’t want go all Vesuvius on people for simply asking you about your plans. They’ll tell your mother. And then… Let’s just say, when you’re undecided about your future, it’s better to be somewhere else.

For me, the “somewhere else” was London. But there was something unsatisfying about doing nothing. Just as I had never had a legitimate job, I had never done nothing before either. There was always something. I went to school. Then I went to camp. Then I went to school. Then I went to camp. Then I went to Law School. Then I quit. Suddenly, I’m living in London doing nothing.

It didn’t feel like enough.

At the time, none of these thoughts came into my mind or out of my mouth. Consciously, I believed I was having a pretty good time.

And now I hear they’re throwing substitute teacher jobs at anyone with a degree. I couldn’t turn that down. It would expose me as a person who didn’t want to work. Which, is probably what I was, but this was before slackers, and you didn’t really want that label.

So I signed up to be a substitute teacher.

Here’s how it worked. Every morning, after seven-thirty, you would call this, I don’t know, Teacher Dispatch number. The dispatcher would tell you whether they needed you that day, and if they did, they’d tell you which school to go to, and you’d have to hurry to get there before “the bell”, so you’d be on time to start substitute teaching.

Whatever that meant.

Which they didn’t tell you.

For me, the “call-in” process presented a problem. My landlady, Mrs. Tompkins, was extremely frugal. Telephone usage cost money. So every night, before going to bed, Mrs. Tompkins locked her phone in the kitchen broom closet, so her tenants couldn’t make “break the bank” phone calls while she was asleep.

Mrs. Tompkins didn’t get up until eight. The substitute teacher assignments were “first-come, first-serve.” To have any chance of working, I was therefore required to go down the block to a payphone at seven-thirty in the morning to make the call.

Here’s what I had to do. Every weekday, at six-thirty in the morning, I had to get up, shower, shave, put on my “teacher clothes” – white shirt, tie, sports jacket and nice slacks – grab a quick breakfast, then go out to the payphone to make my seven-thirty phone call.

That was my routine. Five mornings a week. Unfortunately, my first two weeks, I was informed that I wasn’t needed. “Nothing today,” the dispatcher would crisply report. “Call back tomorrow.” And that would be that.

Except for this.

It was seven-thirty in the morning. I was all dressed up. And I had nowhere to go.

Other substitute teachers enjoyed the luxury of calling from their homes, free from crazy landladies who incarcerated their telephones. Those people could stay in their pajamas. If they weren’t needed, they could go back to bed.

I was all dressed up!!!

Finally, the drought was broken. I received my first assignment. That’s when I noticed something amazing. I discovered myself running down the street to get to my job. This is highly noteworthy, as I am not in the habit of running anywhere.

Tomorrow: I am given my own class, with absolutely no idea of what to do.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"Truthful Optimism"

Is it actually possible?

Can it really be done?

Though I never heard it discussed specifically, evidence of this conundrum is popping up everywhere. On cable news. In The New York Times. In my head. I’m aware of my tendencies. They’re not so positive. I have to factor that in as I work this thing out.

Optimism and the truth. Can the two of them actually co-exist?

In the Op-Ed Section of last Sunday’s New York Times, Maureen Dowd captured one side of the issue, while simultaneously taking a swipe at former President Clinton, who himself, was taking a swipe at President Obama, who beat out his wife in the primaries, obliterating his post-Monica promise: “Stick with me and I’ll make you the president.” (That last part, I made up. But can’t you kind of imagine…)

Maureen Dowd characterizes Clinton’s rebuke of Obama thusly:

The Man from Hope whose Missus castigated Candidate Obama for raising “false hopes” is now criticizing President Obama for not peddling more gauzy hope.

Quoting her quote from the former President:

It’s worth reminding the American people that for more than 230 years everyone who bet against America lost money. I just want him [President Obama] to embody that and to share that.

In other words, “Hey, Guy Who Beat Out My Wife In The Primaries, show us more optimism.”

It’s tough being against that. You need optimism, especially in difficult times. Hence, the proliferation of “sunny” songs written during the Depression. “Keep Your Sunny Side Up.” “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” “Sonny Boy.” (That was different. The kid in the song died. I just needed a third “sonny.”)

Who exactly is against optimism? Well, I’m not a fan, but, as mentioned, I’m congenitally negative. New York Times’ columnist Frank Rich, though not an opponent, offers an illuminating warning.

In a column in the same Op-Ed section as Dowd’s column, Rich reminds us that it was a denial of reality (a reality optimism frequently “re-imagines” in order to “sunny up” its message) that led us to this mess in the first place, as well as parallel messes, such as the steroid era in baseball, and Iraq.

Rich writes:

One of the most persistent cultural tics of the early 21st century is Americans’ reluctance to absorb, let alone prepare for, bad news.

That could be a problem.

Americans are reluctant to absorb bad news, demanding optimism instead. On a tangible level, we know that optimistic consumers and investors are essential for our recovery.

So, optimism it must be. Even if it’s, as the former president seems to be suggesting, an obligatory optimism, whether the situation warrants it or not.

Fine. Except that Frank Rich warns us that irrational optimism (or as former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan called it, “irrational exuberance”) delivered us to the spiraling hole in which we currently reside.

So what exactly do we do? Or, more immediately, as the president addresses the joint session of Congress, what precisely does he say? (This post was written yesterday, before the president’s address.)

“Well,” you may wisely opine, putting the pieces together, “you have to be honest while remaining hopeful.”

In a catch-phrase, you need to display

“Truthful Optimism.”

The question is, under the conditions that prevail, is there really such a thing? When things are okay, it’s easy to be truthfully optimistic. You just say what it is, and everybody’s happy. That isn’t even optimism. It’s simply telling the truth.

The problem arises when things are terrible. You want to stay truthful, but you’re encouraged, by no one less than a former president, to be optimistic. Can you really do both?

As Frank Rich further observes, each position comes with its own brand of trouble:

If he [President Obama] tells the whole story of what might be around the corner, he risks instilling fear itself among American who are already panicked…But if the president airbrushes the picture too much, the country could be as angry about ensuing calamities as it was when the Bush administration’s repeated assertion of “success” in Iraq proved a sham.

Yow.

Rich is encouraging the president to find a respectable middle ground. But what if there isn’t one? What if “truthful optimism” is not an actual thing? What if it’s an oxymoron – two words, which, barring ironic implications, do not belong side by side?

Think about it. What does it mean to be “truthfully optimistic”?

Doctor to Terminal Patient: “You’re dying. But your nurse is a knockout.”

Airline Pilot: “The plane’s malfunctioning. But we haven’t killed any ducks.”

Investment Manager: “Since your fee structure’s pegged to how much you have invested, your tremendous loss of net worth means you don’t have to have to pay us nearly as much.”

Am I wrong, or are these things not helpful?

Oxymoron or not, the president has to say something. But what? If he tells the truth, he scares people, which immediately makes things worse. He presents an upbeat fa├žade (with little to back it up), and they resent him later for lying (should things deteriorate even further).

How does he pull it off?

I really don’t know.

But I’m feeling kinda shaky.

So I hope he can.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"Oscars Post-Mortem Rant"

I watched the last hour of the Oscars. Before that, I was at a yoga class. This particular practice is called “Restorative Yoga.” You do an hour-and-a-half of poses without ever standing up. When I originally took “Restorative”, I characterized it as napping with strangers.

(This is a tiny glimpse of me in a nutshell. I make fun of something; then I end up loving it. Which is one reason I could never be a movie critic. I’d have to write my review of every movie twice.

The First Review: I wanted my money back.

The Second Review: It could be my favorite picture.)

The Oscars don’t mean anything to me. For one thing, I wasn’t nominated for anything. (Apparently, to get nominated, you have to actually do something in movies, aside from just going to see them.) Secondly, I don’t see violent pictures, which, I think, rules out every “Best Picture” nomination this year.

I did make the mistake of seeing “Best Picture” winner, Slumdog Millionaire. The reviews said it was cheerful. It was, except for the torture of the main character, the selling of the girl of his dreams into prostitution, and the blinding of a little boy’s eyes with acid. I wanted my money back. (I am not planning to see Slumdog again.)

My favorite movie that I saw last year? The Wizard of Oz. I saw it on television. I also enjoyed, among others, Lawrence of Arabia, All The President’s Men, Singin’ In The Rain, Red River, High Noon, Double Indemnity and Casablanca. Ditto on where I saw them.

The Oscars mark “on the curve.” It’s “Best Picture” this year. If it weren’t, the above pictures and other indisputable classics would be nominated over and over.

They don’t do it that way. The Academy chooses five of what they consider the best from that year. They never say, “The best pictures of 2008? Well, none of them were that great. We’ll see you next year. Good night, and drive carefully.”

Instead of more than three hours, the Oscars telecast would be over in twelve seconds.

By now, I imagine, anyone under a certain age is pretty much sick of me, though my contemporaries may be more forgiving. Here we go again. Another round curmudgeonly grumbling. A tedious reprise of, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to”.

How about some perspective, huh? When it came out, Casablanca was considered standard fare. The Wizard of Oz didn’t get all raves either.

There’s no place for any of that! Not while enjoying our nostalgic look through the rear-view mirror. Sing it, Baby. The old is great; the new is garbage. Blah-buh-blah-buh-blah-blah-blah.

No.

Or, more emphatically,
No!

Listen to me. I know it’s an unpopular thing to say. I know art’s supposed to be subjective. But, I’m telling you,

It isn’t.

There’s good and there’s bad.

And everything in between.

As a writer, I can tell good writing from crap. I can tell if a story holds water. I can tell if it omits essential steps in its development, or it doubles back on itself, repeating the same series of moves over again. I can tell if it builds organically to its climax. I can tell if that climax pays off. I can tell if the movie resolves itself smoothly, or stumbles on its way out the door.

I can tell if the characters are heart-beatingly multi-dimensional or stereotypical stick figures I can tell if the movie made me think, or moved me emotionally in a disturbing but illuminating way.

Wait a minute. You don’t have to be a writer. Anybody can be sensitive to these elements. You may not articulate them that well. (I may not have articulated them that well myself.) But if you’re open, you can feel them in their kishkas (Yiddish for “your gut”).

I realize there are movies that scored huge at the box office which are totally lacking in these aforementioned considerations. But in my view, no movie ever made less money because it happened to made sense.

Another wild assertion? Movies that make sense stand the test of time.

“Special Effects” are constantly being topped. But you can’t “top” logical believability and emotional truth. Certain values are timeless. Cave men could get The Wizard of Oz.

Yes, some issues are generational. Some values have changed. It would be hard to do a contemporary movie whose “big, dark secret” is, “He’s gay.” A response by today’s audience would be, “So?”

Judd Apatow married horny with introspective, generating comedies that are hilarious, and feel new. The old movie standards wouldn’t have allowed such shenanigans. Though the exploitation of “no standards” can be wildly uneven, when the liberating freedom is used skillfully, the results are shockingly refreshing. Or to younger audiences, just funny.

Today’s movies offer a speeded-up tempo, a nod to the familiar (to the young) fast cutting of MTV, commercials and video games. But “faster” needn’t mean, “The story doesn’t make sense.” Why can’t a movie move quickly, but remain logical? I don’t know. But invariably, they don’t. (Mission Impossible. Any number.)

On the other side, moviegoers who’ve been around a while are often brought low by a debilitating dose of, “We’ve seen that already.”

They’re trying to get the antagonist to “break on the stand”. In Frost/Nixon, it’s Frank Langella. In A Few Good Men, it was Jack Nicholson. In The Caine Mutiny – it was Humphrey Bogart.

It’s exactly the same scene!

By its third incarnation, people who are familiar with those movies are like, “Are they doing this again?!

For whatever reason, or combination of reasons, it feels to me like movies have lost something. Maybe it’s the glamour. Sean Penn ain’t Cary Grant. Maybe…well, you know this stuff. The Youth Market. Language sacrificed to international distribution. The robotic attention to the bottom line. Maybe even, they’re running out of ideas.

All I know is,

The movies aren’t as good.

“Best Animated Feature” – Wall-E?

Dumbo.

Please. The jailed mother, touching trunks with her big-eared baby through the prison window bars? The quintessential alcoholic fever dream – “Pink Elephants on Parade”? A flock of hipster crows chirping,

I’ve seen a peanut stand

I’ve seen a rubber band

I’ve seen a needle that winked its eye.

But I think I’ve seen about everything

When I see an elephant fly.

Oh, my.

And if that’s not the best, try Lady and the Tramp.

Monday, February 23, 2009

"Movie Night"

I’m living in London, in the late 1960’s. I’m in Leicester (pronounced “Lester”) Square, sitting in an arcade, playing a minor league slot machine, trying to win “subway money” back to Hampstead.

The Underground fare to Hampstead was “one-and-three”, meaning, one shilling-thrup’nce; in understandable English, one shilling, three pence. In North American money, that’s, well, a pound back then was two dollars and eighty cents Canadian – two-forty American – and there were twenty shillings in a pound, twelve pence in a shilling, making it…I don’t know.
Somewhere around twenty cents. Thank God, they don’t do “shillings and pence” anymore. I never got the hang of it.

The machine worked like this. You dropped thrup’nce in the slot, you pulled the handle, and if you won, you got two thrup’nces (or sixp’nce) back. It was pretty easy. Seven times out of ten, I earned my subway money. I guess the arcade can make a profit from my three losses. You could probably work it out. Not me, but somebody not immobilized by "shillings and pence."

I win my “subway money.” I’m starting to leave, ready to take my “free ride” home to dinner when I look out the window and see barricades being set up across the street.

“What’s going on?” I inquire.

“The Queen’s coming to the movies,” I’m informed.

What you need to keep in mind is that we’re talking about a time before cassettes and DVD’s. In those days, the only way you could only see a movie was by going to the theater. You could not see a movie (except old movies) anywhere else. Now I imagine if the Queen wanted to screen a movie in the palace, she could say,

“I’m the Queen, dammit!” Get me a movie!”

Hollywood bigwigs had Screening Rooms in their Beverly Hills palaciosHiH. Why not Her Majesty?

Ye Olde Screening Roome, built by William the Conqueror to enjoy outtakes from the Battle of Hastings.

“Look! There’s Harold. They’ve shot him in the eye!”

More important than whether or not Buckingham Palace was equipped with a Screening Room is Point Two. To wit:

England is nothing if not Tradition. Annual “events” pepper the calendar like celebrational buckshot. The FA Cup, the cricket “tests” at Lords, the rowing competition on the Thames, the Epsom Darby, “Guy Fawkes Day”, the Annual Flower Show, fox-hunting season, the Eurovision Song Contest, and I’m sure but have no patience to research many, many more.

This was another of those annual events – the night Her Royal Majesty went to the movies.

Ergo: The barricades spanning the entranceway to the Odeon Leicester Square.

“Her Majesty's Movie Night” was a popular spectacle. Bystanders, in surprising numbers, gathered to see Queen Elizabeth arrive, step out of…a coach?, and exit into the theater.

It appealed to me to join them. I had no pressing business, nowhere special to be. And hey, who doesn’t want to see the Queen? I departed the arcade, crossed into the square, adding my personhood to the burgeoning throng.

The assemblage was increasing. Which in a way is amazing. What exactly were we going to witness? – a middle-aged woman, probably not wearing her crown, stepping out of some vehicle and walking into a theater? Some diehards might wait around for her to come out. But there was really nothing to see.

She might honor us with a queenly wave, but that’s about it. It’s not like Her Majesty would be delivering a speech, or regaling her subjects with “special material”…

I love the movies

They’re such fun to see

My favorite ‘Bo-ond’

Is Sean Con-nery…

And yet, you could sense a festive mood igniting the gathering, a real holiday atmosphere. Though bitterly cold, the growing throng, steam billowing from their mouths, waited patiently, “hug-patting” their shoulders and tempering the elements with fortifying beverages.

The Queen’s “Arrival Time” arrived. Then passed. Then passed ever further. The crowd continued to wait.

Fifteen minutes…twenty minutes…half an hour….

That’s when it happened. Almost unconsciously, I found myself separating from the crowd and heading towards the Leicester Square Underground Station.

I was going home.

Why the unexpected change of plans? Because, standing there in the cold, an illuminating question had suddenly popped into my head.

And the question was this:

How long would the Queen wait to see me?

Friday, February 20, 2009

"Earl Descartes"

The philosopher, Rene Descartes, tried to figure out what could be proven to be verifiably in existence (in contrast to what might possibly be a dream), and the only thing he could determine with a certainty was the existence of the thinker who was trying to figure this stuff out.

His efforts provided his now-famous conclusion: “I think. Therefore, I am.”

I come at it from a different perspective.

I’m attending a play at an outdoor amphitheater. As the audience is about to take their seats, a woman approaches me. Attractive, mid-thirties, a number of months pregnant.

“Hi, Earl.”

Her voice is friendly.

“Hi,” I reply, taking an equally friendly tone. But my betraying eyes are screaming, “I don’t know who you are!”

She picks up the cue.

“I worked with you on Best of the West.”

Aha.

Best of the West was a television show I’d created and produced a decade or so earlier. This woman had apparently worked on it with me. I have no recollection of her whatsoever. But she’s nice. And she’d taken the time to say hello. Pregnant and all.

I owe her my attention. Which emerges as hyper-interest and concern. What have you been up to? When’s the baby happening? Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl? My guilt at her absence from my memory bank sends me into “interest-overdrive.” I’m just jabbering away. Blah-buh-blah-blah-blah.

It’s totally meaningless. Except for the underlying message. Which is: “Don’t hate me for forgetting who you are.”

The play’s about to start. I unnatural a, “Nice to see you again”, and we take our seats. The play begins.

Don’t ask me what it’s about. I am way too upset. I had insulted a totally nice person. Right in front of her prenatal child.

I can’t let it go. I am determined to make amends. When the play ends, I search for her in the departing audience, hoping to send her home with a finishing dollop of Pomerantzian je ne sais quoi. I discover her, still sitting in her seat. The pregnancy suggested that she not buck the crowd.

“Remind me,” I inquire familiarly. “What exactly did you do on Best of the West?”

To which the woman replies,

“I was your assistant.”

Moments like this provide the verifiable evidence of my existence.

“I embarrass. Therefore, I am.”

Ironically, it’s on precisely those occasions when I wish I weren’t.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

"London Times - Part Seven"

“That’s the best thing since sliced bread.”

I never got the sense of exactly what that meant, not having been born in 1910. It appeared, however, that people were so excited by this technological advancement that sliced bread became the measuring stick for all the technical innovations that followed.

“Seedless watermelon is good. But it’s no sliced bread.”

I grew up with slice bread. I take it for granted. You open the package, and there are the slices, lined up side-by-side, every slice the same size and thickness. Who knew that one day, the idea of sliced bread would bring a nostalgic tear to my eye Certainly not your humble reporter.

I had become accustomed to the fact the England of the late Nineteen Sixties was, if not a Third World country, at least a country with a higher number than I country I’d been brought up in. Many of the amenities were considerably less than state-of-the-art. The heating. The plumbing. The phone system. And, as I was about to discover…

The bread.

Hampstead, where I lived, was like a little village. It may have actually been a village. I didn’t grow up with villages, so I wouldn’t know for sure. There was this place in Toronto called Forest Hill Village, but I don’t think it was ever a actual village. It was just an area. A village is, or at least was at one point, a distinct geographical entity. Hampstead easily could have been. Forest Hill Village? Well, maybe. A village on a hill in a forest. It’s possible, I suppose. Once. A long time ag…

Somebody, please – stop me for musing!

Among its small grocery markets, fishmongers and butcher shops, Hampstead’s main drag, Heath Street, included two terrific bakeries. One was called Louis. The other was called, I’m going to give this spelling a try but don’t hold me to it – Grodzinskis. The two were very similar, both bakeries offering mouth-watering pastries and baked goods. One of them was easier to spell.

Neither of them sold sliced bread.

I remember ordering my first fresh rye bread with caraway seeds at Grodzinskis.

“Could you slice that for me, please?” I requested.

“We don’t do that, Dear,” came the smiling reply.

I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. In this place, you sliced your own bread.

(Could I have purchased a loaf of (the English version of) Wonder Bread at the market? Sure. But, you know…ew. I mean, I had surrendered to dinnering on canned meatballs from a tin, but you have to draw the line somewhere.)

The price of my Bedsitting Room included what they called “kitchen privileges.” My single room was without a kitchen. You had to cook somewhere. So the landlady, Mrs. Tompkins, allowed me to use hers.

I wasn’t much of a cook. I ate out – at a nearby Greek restaurant where my hunger forced me for the first time in m life to consume peas – and a Chinese restaurant run by Pakistanis. Don’t ask. When you’re hungry and the opposite of wealthy, you lower your standards. Maybe eliminate them completely.

My breakfast was cold cereal, tea and toast. In my case, toast made from Grodzinskis super-fresh, moist and tasty rye bread with seeds. My mouth waters at the thought of it, as it often did then. You didn’t even have to put anything on it. You could enjoy it “as is”, or toast it up.

But first, you had to slice it.

Okay.

I get out the bread knife. I stand directly over the bread, which I’ve placed atop an old, wooden table. I start sawing a slice from the end of the loaf, making every effort to cut straight down. (INSERT BREAD-SAWING SOUND HERE.) Finally, I feel the knife edge scrape along the table. I had sawed my way through. I had carved off a slice of bread.

I look down at my handiwork. I have not made a straight slice. Not even close. The top edge – or the bottom edge if you turn the slice over – the edge from which I had started my slicing, is pretty much the normal width of a slice of bread. The bottom edge appears to be three to four times wider.

I had carved myself a widening slice of bread, normal-sized on one edge, and increasing in broadness on its way to the other. Artistically interesting, perhaps. But I’d have a devil of a time fitting it into the toaster.

There is only one thing to do. I set my slice on the table, the narrow side away from me, and with all the weight in my body, I press down heavily on the wider side, hoping to flatten it enough for my misshapen slice of bread to fit into the toaster. And more importantly, when the toasting was completed, my delicious slice of rye would be able to pop right up.

So there I was, standing on my tiptoes, pressing the corpulent edge of my bread into the tabletop with every ounce of energy I could muster.

At this point, Mrs. Tompkins’, eight year-old son, Willy, walks into the kitchen.

“What are you doing?” he inquires.

“I’m making toast.”

Apparently, Willy had never experienced this method of toast making before, and he was understandably intrigued. He was also interested, as it turned out, in my Grodzinskis rye with caraway seeds, a type of bread he had never tasted, as his mother, a Scottish lady who counted her pennies, had raised him exclusively on the processed variety.

Being a generous sort, and wishing to distract him from the embarrassment of my bread-slice squashing, I offer to make Willy a piece of rye toast as well.

This, of course, would involve a second round of slicing.

I did considerably better the second time; the thicker end required only minor compressing. I then inserted both slices in the toaster, my slice requiring considerably more effort, then pulled the thing you pull down, down.

Bouncing with anticipation, we stand over the toaster, peering inside every five or six seconds to check on the progress. Our eyes widen with excitement, as we discover the bread, gradually browning. It wouldn’t be long now. Very shortly, Willy and I would be feasting on toastily delicious seeded rye.

Finally, we hear the telltale metallic toaster click. That was the signal. Our toast was ready. Willy’s slice pops right up. Well, not all the way, but half. Extrication would not be a problem.

Not so with my slice, which doesn’t pop at all. It just sits there, immobilized, singed around the edges, at the bottom of the toaster.

Smoke begins rising from my stuck bagel's slot, as the room fills with the unmistakable odor of burnt toast. We had an emergency on our hands. Not a serious one from a fire standpoint, but one that could easily get you thrown out of your Bedsitting Room.

I grab the bread knife, and plunge it into the offending slot in the toaster (I don’t remember if I took the plug out first; I probably didn’t; I’m not at my best in emergencies.) I struggle to pierce the bread with the bread knife, hoping, thusly, to hoist the bread manually out of the toaster.

But it was no good. The bread was wedged in there too tightly. As it became increasingly cracker-like from the declining but still elevated toaster temperature, my continuing puncturing and hoisting efforts caused the slice to break apart, shattering into independent fragments of bread and crust.

I try to stab individual fragments, hoping to liberate them out one at a time. But since they were tightly ensconced, my upward flicking motions send pieces of blackened toast erupting out of the toaster and flying around the room.

I continue to work feverishly. Thoughts of enjoying some Grodzinskis toasted rye are now a distant memory. I simply wanted to stop the burnt toast smell and its accompanying smoke. Which meant extricating the bread from the toaster. Which meant continuing to poke around in there with the bread knife. Which inevitably led to more toast fragments soaring into the air.

That’s when Mrs. Tompkins came in.

“What are you doing?” she cried.

“We’re making toast!” replied Willy, excitedly.

Well.

You know when you’re really worried about something, but the real problem turns out to be something completely different? That’s exactly what happened. It turns out Mrs. Tompkins was less upset by my toast-making debacle than that I had introduced her Willy Boy a better quality of bread. This disturbed her immensely. Why?

“He’ll be wanting it all the time now.”

Fortunately, her unhappiness did not rise to “eviction” level. Though later, when I finally was evicted, I am pretty sure that it played a part.

I’d like to say I eventually became more skillful in this business, but that would be fiction. I remained about the same. What changed immensely was my appreciation of the saying, “That’s the best thing since sliced bread.”

I am not convinced that they’ve topped it yet.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

"Nature and That's It"

You hear it all the time: There’s “nature” and there’s “nurture”. “Nature” implies, “Chip off the old block.” Literally. “(S)he’s just like me.” This is usually expressed in a positive context. You rarely hear, “(S)he sets kitties on fire, just like me.” On the negative side, “nature” provides a ready-made excuse: “My biology made me do it.”

“Nurture”, on the positive side proclaims, “There’s no such thing as a bad boy.” “Nature” is never the final word; “nurture” can ride to the rescue and repair the damage. On the negative side, “nurture” offers forth the West Side Story excuse: “I’m depraved on account of I’m deprived.”

It’s a fascinating issue. And much studied. I remember in psychology classes, in order to identify the contributions of “nature” versus “nurture”, researchers focused on identical twins raised apart. “Identical twins raised apart” serves as the quintessential Petrie Dish. You have the “nature” component, represented by the identical twins’ matching genetics, and the “nurture” component, supplied by their having been raised in differing environments.

I always found the whole arrangement extremely curious. “Identical twins raised apart.” How exactly does that happen?

It wasn’t like there were two or three cases, there seemed to be dozens of them. What exactly went wrong? Did they lose one twin in the hospital? Did an infant twin fall out of the car on the way home? Or is it more deliberate. The parents drive across the country, walk up to some stranger and say, “Hi. We’ve got two kids who are exactly the same. Would you like to raise one of them?”

Somehow it happened. They raise one, and the other one grows up in the South. And yet, the similarities between identical siblings who have never met are often quite astonishing.

“We both hate cantaloupe.”

“It makes me come out in hives.”

I was going to say that.”

I was going to say, ‘We both hate cantaloupe.’”

For decades, arguments over the pre-eminent contributor to personality have raged back and forth. Substantial sums have been spent searching for the definitive answer to this mystifying question:

“Which is more important, ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’?”

None of these efforts were actually necessary. All they had to do…

…was ask me.

I would have told them.

“Nature” is everything.

Case closed.

Oh, Earl.

There. I said it for you.

I’m sorry. It’s “nature” and that’s it. “Nurture” doesn’t really exist. It’s simply expressed “nature.” Where’s my evidence? I don’t have any. I offer my opinion unencumbered by study or research. I have no patience for that stuff. Blame it on my nature.

Okay, here we go.

Everyone (except the identicals) is born genetically different. That, my friends, is the ballgame.

Your genetic recipe is you. Unique and distinct. Now. Everything that comes at you, external stimuli, what’s happening with your body, everything is filtered through your individualized genetic screening system.

There is no “natural response” to anything. There is only your response. And how is your response determined? The only way it can be – as interpreted by your unique and distinct genetic recipe.

It’s always “nature”.

Calm babies. Fidgety babies.

Nature.

Clingy children. Risk-taking children.

Nature.

What about the nurturing effect of their parents?

The parents “parent” according to their nature. It’s the only way they can “parent.” The kids respond their parents’ “parenting” according to their nature. It’s the only way they can respond. There is no nurturing in the process. One machine acts according to its genetic programming; another machine responds according to its genetic programming.

Jumpy mother. Easygoing kid: “Oh, Mom. It’s nothing.”

Jumpy mother. Jumpy kid: “Oh, my God!!! It’s bad!!!”

Easygoing mother. Easygoing kid: “Snoozerama.”

Easygoing mother. Jumpy kid: “There’s something she’s not telling me!”

And where do the parents learn to “parent”? From their parents. Isn’t that “nurture”? No. Why not? Because their parents were “parenting” according to their nature. And their kids (now the parents) were interpreting that “parenting” through theirs.

It’s always “nature”.

Blue eyes – nature.

A sense of humor – nature.

But her Dad’s funny too.

That’s his nature.

His parents weren’t funny.

But his uncle was.

What about peer groups?

What about them?

“She learned it from her friends.”

She learned it from her friends’ what?

Behavior?

Generated by what?

Her friends’ nature?

Interpreted by what?

Her nature.

So it’s always what?

“It's always nature!”

Always.

So you’re saying people can’t change?

Genetic mutation.

And that’s it?

You ever been in therapy? Change is possible, but it’s really hard. Why? Because you’re taking on biological hardwiring. I imagine some people are more genetically predisposed towards change than others. Of course, they’re not as likely to be in therapy. Or at least not for the decades that those who are less predisposed have endured.

Does my solving the “nature-nurture” dispute make any difference? I’m not sure. If it’s always “nature”, you can stop studying “nurture” and save half the money. That can’t be bad in this economy. And if it’s always “nature”, they can stop giving away one of the twins. That always seemed wrong.

As a natural excuse-maker, I strongly prefer the “nature” excuse.

“My environment made me do it”?

Change your environment.

“My biology made me do it”?

That feels more sturdy.

You don’t agree with my “everything is nature” theory? That doesn’t surprise me. It’s simply your nature to believe in “nurture.”

In this case, however, your nature happens to be wrong. *


* Either that, or I’m wrong but it’s my nature to believe that I’m right.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

"Flexibility"

In show business – maybe in any business – the key to career longevity is flexibility. Times change. If you want to survive, you have to adjust.

Wonderful advice. (Invariably delivered by an agent, whose personal idea of “adjusting” is adjusting the width of his ties and lapels.)

However…as Professor Irwin Corey would announce at the beginning of his act…

…some of us are inflexible.

We stubbornly – or steadfastly, if you want to be positive about being negative – refuse to change. Our thinking on the matter?

We’re delivering what we do best.

It’s gotten us this far.

In the long run, you’re safer with the tried and true.

The rebuttal to our thinking?

In the long run, you die in the short run.

The thing about flexibility – and I’m not speaking as an expert here, I’m situated towards the unbending end of the continuum – is that sometimes, the “flex” is not as great as we imagine. “Just a little change…” – as they sing in “Beauty and The Beast” – can keep you in the game.

I once heard a story about the legendary comedian Jack Benny, who happens to be one of my all-time favorites. As opposed to a joke-telling comedian, Jack Benny was a character comedian, the laughs coming out of the audience’s awareness of his hilariously flawed persona. This strategy kept Jack Benny popular for over half a century.

But there was a time when things weren’t going so well.

Benny was performing on the vaudeville circuit, taking his unique but, as yet, not fully developed brand of comedy from town to town. He wasn’t “knockin’ ‘em dead”, but he was doing all right.

Or so he thought.

At the end of one matinee, the theater manager called Benny aside and said that he was firing him. Benny asked why. The manager said he wanted to replace the comedian with a dog act.

Thinking quickly – and flexibly – Benny proclaimed, “I can do a dog act.”

The theater manager was surprised to hear this, but he agreed to give the comedian a try.

Directly after the matinee, Benny raced to the local pound, where he purchased a dog and a leash. That night, when Benny stepped onstage, he was accompanied by the dog. The comedian walked over to a prop “lamppost” standing on the stage, tied the dog to the lamppost, then moved to the front of the stage, and proceeded to do exactly the same comedy act he had done before.

Flexibility.

Sometimes it's just buying a dog and not using it.

Monday, February 16, 2009

"Buy Polaroid"

This is a story a guy I know told me about his grandfather.

The grandfather was a successful financier who prided himself on getting in on the ground floor of moneymaking opportunities. One day, he met Edwin Land, the inventor of the, then, revolutionary Polaroid camera.

Excited by a conversation with the inventor, my friend's grandfather was certain he could make a killing in the stock market by investing early in Land’s company.

Before leaving on an extended vacation to Europe, the grandfather left an urgent message for his secretary. The message said:

“Buy Polaroid.”

When he returned from his vacation, sitting outside the door of his apartment was a brand new Polaroid camera.

Friday, February 13, 2009

"A Surreal Moment I Liked"

Yesterday, I told you about a surreal moment I didn’t care for. This is the other side of the coin.

I’m teaching school in England. A guy I know named Gilbert gets four tickets to the London premiere of Cabaret. Gilbert has a girlfriend. He says, get a date, and we’ll “double” at the premiere. I tell Gilbert I’ll try. Getting dates is not…let’s just say I do a lot of other things better.

I don’t venture far afield. I ask another teacher. Miss McCausland. I don’t remember her first name. The students called her “Miss.”

Miss McCausland wasn’t interested in me. I wasn’t interested in her either; I was more interested in the idea of being interested in her. But none of that mattered. Miss McCausland said yes. I had a date for the premiere of Cabaret.

(I’ll leave out the play. Judy Dench as Sally Bowles, a memorable production. But this isn’t about the play.)

After the show, I ask Miss McCausland if she’d like me to accompany her home on the Underground. Miss McCausland says it’s not necessary. I say, “See you in school”, and that’s that.

I’m standing on the Underground platform. I’m alone. (There are other people on the platform, but they have nothing to do with this story.) Suddenly, stepping onto the platform across for me, also alone, is Gilbert’s girlfriend, a girl I had never met before that night. She seemed pretty cool at the theater. Spirited, funny and smart.

I give her a little wave. She gives me a little wave back. Then we stand there, waiting for our respective trains.

The situation feels awkward.

It seems like we should be doing something.

Deciding to kill time in a, hopefully, humorous manner, I mime drawing two parallel vertical lines in the air in front of me, crossing them with two parallel horizontal lines. I make an “X” in the upper right hand corner of this invisible “game board.”

Nothing happens. Oooh. Had I made an embarrassing mistake? Thankfully, no. From across the tracks, the girl mimes drawing a large “O” in the middle square of my “game board.” She wasn’t “thrown” by my actions after all. She was simply planning her strategy.

The game is now on.

Invisible “Tic Tac Toe.”

The world around us disappears as we focus intently on the game, both of us knowing precisely where those “X’s” and “O’s” are going. Our minds merge into one, enjoying a reality just the two of us can see.

We’re down to the final moves. I stymie her “O’s” with my intervening “X.” She’s about to place her “O” when her train pulls in.

The doors open. Then close. The train pulls away. The platform is empty.

I never saw that girl again.

That was a surreal moment I liked.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

"A Surreal Moment I Didn't Care For"

I was visiting Toronto when I read in the newspaper that CBS had cancelled Major Dad. We were staying at the Four Seasons Hotel. Anna liked it there. They gave you popcorn in a Frisbee.

The article said that Major Dad had been dropped from its Friday night time-period, and been replaced by a new comedy starring Robert Urich.

I felt terrible. A show with my name in the credits, a show that paid me regular royalties was going away. Of course, the cancellation wasn’t just about me. People I knew would be losing their jobs. But getting back to me, if Major Dad had been picked up for a fifth season, I was contractually entitled to an enormous bonus. How much would I have received?

A millium dollars.

I can’t say it the real way. It’s too painful, even today.

I had some “cancellation steam” to work off, so I threw on some sweats and went to work out at the Four Seasons gym. I got on the treadmill and I started to walk. I don’t run, but fueled by the anger at the people who had cancelled my show, I was walking with intensity.

“Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Hate. Hate. Hate. Hate.”

From my encasement of grumbliness, I glanced over at the man who was exercising beside me. I blinked. I looked again. I blinked again. It was totally surreal. The man on the treadmill beside me was…

Robert Urich.

The guy whose show was replacing mine.

You know how on a computer, you click on something and you drag it to someplace else? That’s exactly how it felt.

CBS had clicked on my millium dollars and dragged it over to Robert Urich.

It was not a long drag.

He was standing three feet away!

I could watch my money, floating out of my grasp, and falling gently into his.

Bye-bye, millium dollars.

Bye-bye.

Tomorrow: A Surreal Moment I Liked

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"Composites"

“Composites” (in this context at least): Two words, identical in meaning, that bond together to become an entirely new word.

I’m a counselor at Camp Ogama, taking care of six year-old boys. One morning, during “Clean-up”, a camper comes up and says he’d like me to take him to the Health Center. He wants to see the doctor. I say, “What’s the problem?” He says he’ll only tell the doctor.

I take him to the doctor. Doctor Diesenhouse. Red-haired, smart and kind. The kid insists I remain outside, then shuffles, alone, into the Examining Room.

A few minutes later, the camper cheerfully emerges. “He gave me a pill,” he reports. “I feel better.”

The kid returns to the cabin, I hang back to confer with the doctor. “He’s fine,” Dr. Diesenhouse assures me. “What was wrong?” I inquire. The doctor says the boy was too shy to say it out loud, so he told him to come up and whisper it.

The doctor then repeated the words the camper had nervously whispered in his ear.

“My weenis hurts.”

Weenis.

An entirely new word.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

"Things That Shouldn't Make You Laugh, But..."

It’s winter in Toronto.

I’m on a date.

She buys a Popsicle.

It sticks to her tongue.

Monday, February 9, 2009

"Irrefutable Logic"

I'm not here. But I left you some stuff. This is the first one.
-------------------------------
With his mother out of town visiting family, it fell to my friend Alan’s father to fix dinner for himself and his son.

Inexperienced in meal preparation, the father whipped up a dinner comprised in its entirety of two items:

Potatoes and corn.

Looking down at the plate set in front of him, my friend Alan was understandably dismayed.

“Dad,” he asked incredulously, “what kind of a dinner is potatoes and corn?”

To which his father, with irrefutable though less than satisfying logic replied,

“You like potatoes, and you like corn. What could be bad?”

Friday, February 6, 2009

"Memories Of A Place I Didn't Visit"

I’d love to tell you about when my daughter took me to Disneyland on my birthday.

I’d enjoy describing how she picked me up and drove us to the Magic Kingdom, where, it turned out, as she later astutely observed, the longest line we waited in all day was in the parking lot. The park itself was not crowded. I have no idea where those parking lot people went.

I’d enjoy relating how we walked up to the ticket window and Anna announced, “It’s my Dad’s birthday.” She wasn’t showing off. “Birthday People” get into Disneyland for free. (Saving sixty-nine bucks!)

We also get to wear a large button that has an arcing “Happy Birthday” on the top of it, and Disneyland painted along the bottom, leaving a scrolly-looking place in the middle where the “Birthday Person’s” name can be printed on it with a Sharpee.

We didn’t have a Sharpee. And the ticket seller had neglected to print on my name. But I wore it anyway, and whenever we passed a Disneyland employee, they cheerfully called out, “Happy Birthday!”

Finally, we met an employee who said, “You don’t have your name on your button.” He immediately picked up a Sharpee and printed it in. For then on, whenever we passed a Disneyland employee, they cheerfully called out, “Happy Birthday, Earl!”

I felt like I was in an episode of The Prisoner, or a character from The Truman Show. Surprisingly, it hardly felt creepy at all.

It was really cool to run into the other “Button People”, people who had the same birthday as me. They were all over the place, Feb. 4’s of every age, race and gender. Somehow, I know it sounds bizarro, but I felt this cosmic kinship with them, as if all of us had chipped off the same planet.

Standing in line, I blurted to a female Feb. 4, “We should keep in touch!” To which, she replied, “We should meet here next year!” I could well have been mesmerized by the moment, but she sounded like a younger, female version of me.

It was wonderful. There were versions of me everywhere!

I could go on about how Anna and I liked the same rides, the not scary ones, demonstrating with some certainty that there’s a transferable gene for “wimpiness.” We hit the Peter Pan ride, then on to Pinocchio. No “Space” anything, no “Splash” anything. Our boldest dip into scariness was Pirates of the Caribbean, which begins with a prodigious drop. We were terrified – almost equally – but we got through it together.

I could describe my pride when Anna bought me a souvenir with her own money. It looks like a little pirate’s sword sheathed in a scabbard with this metal…something that hooks onto your belt loop, letting it hang down like a real sword, except it’s a pen and it writes red.

Pirate’s Blood.

I could chronicle the Jungle Cruise, where the guide wasn’t as funny as the Jungle Cruise guides from some previous visits. I could talk about Autopia, where I drove my fake car as problematically as I drive my real one. I could include my disappointment at hearing that It’s A Small World, my favorite wimpy Disneyland ride of all, was closed for repairs. I think they were taking out Iran.

I could rattle on about the new Buzz Lightyear ride, where you shoot laser guns at targets from a moving vehicle, which was so much fun that when it was over, we ran back to the “Entrance” and went again.

Most special of all, I could try and convey the inexpressible joy of being escorted around Disneyland by a delightful grown woman who, on countless occasions, since age 3, had been escorted around Disneyland by me.

It would be great to tell you about all of those things.

But I can’t.

My daughter didn’t take me to Disneyland on my birthday.

I was sick.



Tomorrow, Dr. M and I are leaving for a week at this spa we go to in Mexico. (No product placement on this blog.) After many visits there, I have fashioned my own personalized Men’s Workout Program. The program is comprised of three elements: Men’s Nap, Men’s Hammock and Men’s Bath.

I have left some little vignettes to tide you over. I hope you enjoy them.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

"The Truth About Radio Commentaries"

A few years back, I delivered a half a dozen commentaries on the NPR radio series “All Things Considered.” The following is a commentary they passed on. I could not understand why they turned it down.

---------------------------------
I really enjoy talking directly to an audience. It’s like a conversation. Well, not exactly like a conversation – I’m doing all the talking. Which, now that I think of it, differs only in degree from conversations I’ve experienced in my actual life.

When I deliver one of these commentaries, I’m hoping you’ll consider my point of view on whatever I’m talking about and when I’m finished, go, “Yeah” or “No”, but “Yeah” is better. The important thing is to elicit a reaction. Getting a reaction means I’ve made contact, and that makes me feel good. Less lonely. And – this one’s kind of embarrassing – immortal.

The way I see it, when I communicate my thoughts and opinions, it’s like, now, they’re out there, outside of me. Forever. After I die, they’ll still be floating around somewhere, in an archive, in cyberspace, in the minds of the people who were listening.

Simply by their being someplace, even though I’m no place, a piece of me would be left behind. Which would make me, in a certain way, not the best way – “the best way” being with me still around – but in a way that’s at least better than nothing, immortal.

The only kind of a “fudgy” thing about talking on the radio is that I’m not actually talking to you. I’m reading to you. Like the line, “I’m not actually talking to you, I’m reading to you”? I read that. And the line, “I read that”? I read that too.

I’m actually reading this whole thing. Including the line, “I’m actually reading this whole thing.”

It’s not natural reading to people, unless the people you’re reading to are children going to bed, or the blind. You never see, like, somebody you know coming up to you on the street, suddenly taking out a card and reading, “Hey. How’re ya doin’?” That would be weird.

Not on the radio. Reading is what radio commentators do. Which is fine, I guess. Except for the fact that, although we’re reading to you, we’re expected, in our writing and our delivery, to create the impression that we’re not.

To me, when you’re reading to someone but pretending you’re talking to them, that’s cheating. And it’s not like you can’t tell the difference. Somebody sounds like they’re talking to you, but there’s something unnatural about their delivery, like a missing human connection. There’s a reason for that. They’re reading to you off a page.

Reading doesn't compare to talking. Something gets lost. The spontaneity, for one thing. If, while you’re reading, new thoughts suddenly pop into your head, thoughts that precisely express what you’re currently expressing less precisely, if your mind starts considering those new thoughts, it would totally mess up your reading.

“I’m reading…now I’m considering…ooh, where was I?”

You know what I’d really like to do? Put down this paper I’m reading from and just talk. You know what? I’m gonna do it.

(WE HEAR THE SOUND OF A PERSON SETTING ASIDE HIS PREPARED MATERIAL.)

Okay. Here we go. Simply talking. From me to you.

Just a second, okay? I’m collecting my thoughts. I’ll be right with you.

Okay. Here we go.

Okay.

(THERE’S A LONG, TORTURED BEAT. FINALLY, WE HEAR THE SOUND OF A PERSON PICKING UP HIS PREPARED MATERIAL.)

You know what? I’m gonna keep reading. But at least now, you’ll know what I’m doing.
-----------------------------
You know the most incredible part of this thing? That I couldn’t understand why a radio show, which features people reading commentaries every day, would turn down a commentary on why doing that is bad. There are times when I truly amaze myself.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

"Welcome to Whopperland"

To all my Dad’s readers:

My Dad asked me to tell you he’s sick today, and he won’t be able to write on his blog. He told me to apologize and to say, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Oh, one more thing. If you happen to be in Disneyland today and you happen to spot me and a person who looks like my Dad there, it’s not him.

My Dad couldn’t possibly be in Disneyland.

Because he’s sick.

Even if he weren’t sick, he wouldn’t be in Disneyland. He’d be home, writing a post for this blog. Today, he won’t be doing either of those things. He can’t.

He’s sick.

Today’s my Dad’s birthday. It would have been really fun celebrating my Dad’s birthday with him in Disneyland. My Dad loves Disneyland. So do I.

My Dad took me to Disneyland for the first time when I was three. He was so excited and proud, a father taking his little girl to Disneyland for the first time.

I remember, we were coming through the entrance, and my Dad said, “Anna, where are you!” I guess I was supposed to say, “Disneyland!” but I didn’t. Instead I said, “I’m right here, Daddy.”

It’s too bad I couldn’t take my Dad to Disneyland for his birthday. That would be really special. But my Dad is a disciplined and responsible person. He’d never take a day off from writing on his blog to go to Disneyland. Even on his birthday. The only thing that would keep him from writing on his blog is if he were sick.

Which he is.

Not in Disneyland with his daughter on his birthday.

Sick.

You got it?

Not Disneyland.

Siok.

Real sick.

Anna.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"Renewals"

The last time I had to renew my Driver’s License in person (rather than by mail) I was working at Universal Studios. I mention this not to brag, though I wouldn’t put that past me. I brag at the drop of a Borsalino. Which is a rather expensive type of hat. Which I happen to own. And it’s really nice.

I mention the fact that the last time I had to renew my Driver’s License in person I was working at Universal Studios because Universal Studios boasts a unique on-site feature. Universal Studios has its own branch of the Department of Motor Vehicles right there, on the studio lot.

Again, not bragging, but I’m not aware of any other studio having its own branch of the Department of Motor Vehicles located conveniently on the premises. The employees of other studios had to go to the regular DMV’s. With everyone else. We didn’t. We had our own place. Just for us.

And what a Department of Motor Vehicles it was. Not that I’m putting down the regular Departments of Motor Vehicles, exactly. It’s just that sometimes, those places have a discouraging vibe to them, not totally dissimilar to the Post Office. It’s like there’s this subtext of regret pervading the operation, like the people working there are thinking, “I have a job, and that’s good. But it’s this."

In contrast, at the Universal Studios Department of Motor Vehicles, you felt a positive vibe the moment you stepped through the door. It was all bright colors and sparkling smiles, sort of like the musical comedy version of the Department of Motor Vehicles.

“Upbeat” doesn’t adequately capture the mood. You know how an office feels the day before Christmas. Giddy, verging on, “Who cares?” That’s what the Universal Studios Department of Motor Vehicles felt like every day. The concept of “official business” was almost an afterthought. This was more of a party atmosphere.

All of this mattered to me. And here’s why. There are three parts to renewing your California Driver’s License. You have to bring in your application form which they mail you. You have to pay the license fee. And you have to pass an eye test.

Yeah. It’s the third one. Not my easiest thing. If there were a continuum labeled, “Things I’m Good and Bad At”, seeing would sit way over on the “Bad” end, next to “Being comfortable at parties.” An eye test says, “We’d like to shine a light on pretty much the worst thing you know how to do.”

Understandably, I was nervous.

I hand the Universal DMV folks my application form. I pay my license fee. All that’s left is the eye test.

I stand at the line you’re supposed to read from. I cover my left eye, (not necessary because I can barely see out of it when it’s not covered.)

I focus on the eye chart. I’m having trouble making out the letters (which is a problem, because that’s all eye charts have on them). I stall. I make lame jokes. I complain about the glare from the overhead lighting. One thing remains constant. The letters on the eye chart are elusively out of reach.

At this point, a sympathetic employee from the Universal Studios Department of Motor Vehicles asks,

“Would you like to stand a little closer?”

“Can I?” I reply, trying to suppress my surprise. And appreciation.

I move closer. I pass the eye test. I may be misremembering this, but I believe the room erupted in a spontaneous cheer.

Flash Forward to yesterday morning.

I’m back at the DMV. It’s the regular one this time, a Department of Motor Vehicles devoid of any Universal Studios home field advantage. I have my application form. I’ve brought money for the license fee. I’m there for the eye test.

You can tell I was hardly looking forward to this ocular challenge. I’d received my invitation to this party two months ago. The appointment was for two days before my birthday (license renewals are keyed to your birthday). In two days, my California Driver’s license would be invalid. I’d have had to take a whole new test. Including a driving test.

I can’t explain why I put this off. Maybe I was hoping, in the intervening period, I would learn to see better. No, I don’t think that was it. I have a stock answer for why I tend to do things in the hardest and most excruciatingly agonizing manner imaginable.

Because I’m me.

That says nothing. And it says it all.

Arriving a few minutes early, I “recon” the DMV facility, looking for an easy eye chart. (This particular DMV had maybe sixteen windows, like in a bank, each with eye three charts posted on the wall behind them.) Looking for an easy eye chart’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. Because of the glare from the fluorescent lighting, some of the eye charts really are easier to read. The problem is you don’t get a choice. You go to the eye chart they assign you to.

They assign me to Window Nine. The DMV employee takes my application form. He takes my money. (Which I’ve always found premature. What if I failed the eye test? Did they give me my money back?)

An now it’s “Game Time.” The DMV employee tells me to cover my left eye and read the chart.

I look at the Window Nine eye chart. It’s not one of the easy ones. I immediately make an excuse. Suspended from the ceiling as part of the DMV’s festive tribute to Valentines’ Day is a large red crepe paper ball. I complain to the DMV employee that the ball is obstructing my view. It’s not. I’m grasping at straws. I dance around, repositioning myself at a less challenging spot (where there’s less of a glare from the lights). I quickly read the letters.

C P F L A. (A little “heads up” for if you’re ever taking the test.)

He says, “Now, cover your right eye.” I say, “Let’s not waste each other’s time.” He lets it go. I pass.

I head for the parking lot, waiting for the relief to set in. It never does. I run half the gamut of emotions. Anxiety? Big time. Relief. Never. Why not?

Because I’m me.

My mind has jump-started into “worry” mode. About what?

The next time I have to renew my driver’s license.

And since it’s unlikely I’ll be working at Universal Studios

It’s going to be the hard way.

Monday, February 2, 2009

"The Immortality Of The Name"

Once, when she was younger, Rachel and her mother were driving past a mall when Rachel, always curious, asked her Mom this question:

“Why is a store called Robinsons?”

“What do you mean?”

“How did that store get the name Robinsons?”

Her mother explained. “Robinson is the name of the person who started the store.”

­“No!” scoffed Rachel dismissively, sensing she was being teased.

“It’s true,” insisted her mother.

“I don’t believe it!”

Her mother persisted.

“A person started that department store. And their name was Robinson.”

Rachel seemed literally stunned.

“You mean, there is actually a person named Robinson.”

“That’s right.”

Rachel sat quietly, wrestling with this astonishing new idea.

“What about Macys?” she finally inquired. “Is that a person too?”

“Yes,” her mother assured her.

Saks?”

“Yes.”

Neiman Marcus?”

“Two people. They were partners.”

Rachel’s jaw dropped in voiceless incomprehension. These places she had frequented all her life. Can they really all have been named after people?

It’s fun watching kids learning stuff they didn’t know. Grownups are more knowledgeable, of course. But we may not be as knowledgeable as we think.

Sticking to the “things named after people” arena, we know or at least can look up the fact that in 1812, Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts deliberately repositioned district boundaries to the political advantage of his own party. This dubious strategy would be known forever after as “Gerrymandering.”

Joe Hooker was a Civil War general who, according to one source was “not a very strict military leader and allowed his troops to spend plenty of time in the company of paid ladies of the night”, thus, if not originating, then greatly popularizing the nickname, “Hookers”, which has remained in our vocabulary ever since.

Another Civil War general, Ambrose Burnside, was famous for his unusual facial hair. Flip around his surname and his immortalization in the dictionary is immediately apparent. Sideburns.

There are many examples of this nature – personal tendencies evolving into words we continue to use today. The thing is, through general disinterest, and a spotty educational system, the link between many words and their original derivations has been lost in the murky mists of history.

Let’s try and find them, shall we?

You think, at some point, there may have been this troublemaking Irish family called the Hooligans? Siblings in other families start roughhousing, their mother cries, “Stop it! You’re behaving like a bunch of Hooligans!” Where could that descriptive have obtained its meaning, if it weren’t an allusion to some rampaging family that actually existed?

Not all Irish families fought, of course. One of them, liked to played pranks, their name chiseled in perpetuity – the Shenanigans. Everyone’s heard the words, “We’ll have none of your Shenanigans!” and we immediately know what that means. Is it not then likely that “shenanigans” derives from a family famous for their whimsical obsession with practical jokes?

Man, can you imagine what happened after the Shenanigans played a trick on the Hooligans? Must have been a real donnybrook.

The Donnybrooks. There's another family you wouldn’t want to mess with.

“Oh, come on,” you’re thinking. “You can do that with any family name.”

No, you can’t. Watch.

“You’re such a O’Houlihan!”

Meaningless.

“Stop Schwartzing around.”

Nothing.

You see? It’s not every family. Only ones identified with exceptional behavior.

A perpetually noisy family – the Hullabaloos. A family, always making a fuss – the Kerfuffles. Okay, I may be crossing the line with those two – maybe. But those earlier ones definitely deserve looked into.

And it’s not just families. It’s also unique individuals.

Where do you think “finagle” comes from? Bernie Finagle. He messed with the books.

The guy who was always messing up? Seymour Botch. People fail in their efforts – they’ve “Botched” things up.

A woman driving people nuts by continually clearing her throat – Rebecca Phlegm.

We use these words all the time. But we never consider where they came from.

“Don’t dawdle!” – after Jennifer Dawdle, always bringing up the rear.

“Makeshift” – after furniture maker Walter Makeshift. Everything he built almost immediately fell apart.

Hugo Dumbfound – perpetually scratching his head – “Dumbfounded.”

Albert Haggle – he never paid retail for anything.

Peter Scalawag…

“No!” you scoff from wherever you are. “I don’t believe it!”

Suit yourself.

But remember. That’s exactly what Rachel said.