Friday, July 19, 2019

"Naturally Funny"


What it means to be “naturally funny” is kind of difficult to explain.

I am not talking about “Class Clown”, with its oppressive “Look at me!’ urgency.

I am not talking about the ability to notice the chuckling incongruities of everyday life.  (Although that’s part of it.  Not everyone driving through Wales takes note of a sign outside a Welsh filling station reading, “Gas and potatoes.”)

And I am not talking about “learning the ‘comedy craft.’”  You can do that.  But if you are not naturally funny, the results are less fluid and comfortably innate.  (Imagine a robot, trying to dance.)

The issue brings to mind the film Funny Bones, in which a successful comedian father caustically informs his unsuccessful comedian son,

“There is a thing called ‘funny bones.’  You either have them or you don’t – You don’t!”

I believe that part is true – “you either have them or you don’t”, though the example suggests the peculiarity in question is not necessarily genetic.

What I know about “naturally funny” is this:

It is as much a surprise to the perpetrator as it is to the audience.

As evidenced by this story.

By the way – in a more serious milieu – an article in today’s paper opined that, despite his “sewer rat” morality, the current president has a great advantage over his opponents due to his ability to tell simple, evocative stories (making him look, inevitably, “terrific.”)  I have warned you about that before.  “Stories” are seriously destructive.  They should be kept away from children at all costs.  Wait!  How would you put them to sleep? 

Now, back to our regular “fluff.”

I am in Grade Eleven.  (What Americans call Eleventh Grade, just to be different.)  Taking a Physics class, none of whose content I generically understand.  I just memorize the textbook and hope for the best.

Our Grade Eleven Physics teacher is Mr. Sullivan, a virtual compendium of Physics.  (Though I suspect he knows very little about Purim.  Averaged together, we are probably equally knowledgeable.) 

Mr. Sullivan has never said anything funny.  Maybe on his own time, but never in class.  No one has ever heard the man laugh.

The day’s lesson concerns the relationship between “frequency” and “pitch.”  To that educational end, Mr. Sullivan breaks out the “Savart’s Toothed Wheel.”

(Named after French Physicist Felix Savart (1791-1841), but originally conceived by English scientist Robert Hooke (1635-1703), so one guy made it up and another guy stole the credit.  So much for honor amongst Physicists.  Or maybe just French Physicists.)

Here’s how the “Savart’s Toothed Wheel” works.

You plug in the machine, which sits groundingly on a desk.  When it is switched on, a thin, tooth-edged metal wheel starts spinning around.  You slip a small piece of cardboard into the teeth.  A certain pitched sound comes out.  However – and herein lies the lesson – if you modulate the spinning speed of the wheel, the pitch immediately changes, squealing increasingly higher as its rotation revs up, droning increasingly lower as it progressively slows down.

Mr. Sullivan executes Savart’s Physical principle to masterful perfection.  He then selects a student to come up and duplicate this simple experiment.

The selected student is me.

Am I nervous?  Of course I’m nervous.  I had been singled out for unwanted attention.  And I know my classmates are vicious, especially – inexplicably – my friends. 

Plus, those “Savart’s Wheel” teeth look real pointy.

Mr. Sullivan turns on the wheel, then hands me a small piece of cardboard.  As I have seen him just do, I approach the fast-spinning wheel, tentatively extending my arm, and inserting the cardboard into the machine’s circling teeth.

Almost immediately, pieces of cardboard are flying all over the classoom.  In was like Lindbergh, returned from Paris, in his ticker-tape parade in New York.  Paralyzed into inaction, I remain frozen in place, leaving the cardboard stuck in the teeth, quickly disintegrating into confetti.   

I had no idea what was happening.  I had assiduously followed Mr. Sullivan’s technique.  The result, however, was startlingly different.  As was the reaction.

My classmates are screeching, as I stand there, covered in cardboard. 

The most amazing thing, though?

Mr. Sullivan is convulsed in hysterics, literally holding his ribs, unable to catch his breath, and making his face turn real red.  I actually feared for his safety.  There was also something bizarre, seeing a serious guy “lose it.”

Finally, the cardboard is totally chewed up, and the classroom tumult subsides.  I return to my seat feeling, incongruously humiliated yet greeted with rapturous applause.

“Naturally funny.”  It’s like charisma.  But sillier.

Unlike charisma, however, it is not on regular display, unable to be summoned, nor consciously controlled.  When it arrives, I can but stand there and watch.

Hoping nobody gets hurt.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

"The Future Comes Through"


I have always been a bigger fan of the past than of the future.  I figure the past can’t hurt me.  The past is past.  What the heck can it do to me? 

The future, on the other hand, is precariously “iffy.”  We don’t know what’s going to happen.  Except for one thing.  And that one really sucks!

Sure, good things can happen in the future.  But good things also happened in the past.  And I was in better shape to enjoy them.

I am thinking – being a “thinking” kind of a guy – “What is one good thing that happens only in the future?”

And then I found one.  (Inspiring today’s effort.)

I offer an admitted trivial example.  But experiencing it opened my eyes to “The future doesn’t necessarily suck.”  (Except for one thing.)

Consider the ballgame I just watched.

Stop it.  I’m serious.

It’s the L.A. Dodgers versus the Arizona Diamondbacks.  And here’s – I was going to say “remarkably” but that would be spilling the beans – oops, I just spilled them again.   

Okay, here’s how it went.  (Try and forget I tipped the ending.)

The Dodgers are down 4-3, in the bottom of the ninth.

The first two batters fail to reach base.  The Dodgers are down to their final out.

After getting the first two strikes, the Diamondbacks pitcher walks the potential last batter of the game.

There is now a runner on first base, two outs, bottom of the ninth, the Dodgers down, 4-3.

The Diamondbacks pitcher walks the next batter.

There are now runners at first and second, two outs, bottom of the ninth, Dodgers down 4-3.

The Diamondbacks pitcher walks the next batter.

The bases are now loaded, two outs, bottom of the ninth, Dodgers down 4-3.

The Diamondbacks pitcher walks the next batter.

A runner comes in.  The bases remain loaded, two out, bottom of the ninth.  But the score is now tied, 4-4.

The D-Backs (belatedly?) change pitchers.

The new pitcher comes in… and walks the next batter.

Dodgers win 5-4.

After five consecutive walks.

With two outs.

In the bottom of the ninth!

I don’t know if that’s ever happened before.  I do know I have never seen it before.  And I’ve watched a truckload of ballgames.

So there you have it.

The one thing special about the future.

The unpredictably wonderful and unexpected “unknown.”

The past’s, like, “We heard about it.”

The future’s, like, “Wow!”

Only the future holds the surprising possibility of seeing things for the first time.

(I was going to say “… and doing things for the first time”, but let’s not get carried away.)

Without the future, I’d have missed those five consecutive, late-inning walks.

But I didn’t.

And that’s why it’s okay.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

"Fortunate Flipping:


Has this ever happened to you?

You flip around the channels, and you come to a movie – a movie you like, a movie you don’t like, a movie you never heard of and don’t know if you like or you don’t like – and it’s the strangest thing.  I wonder if there might even be a name for this phenomenon.  There should be.  It happens often enough to deserve one.

Here’s what I’m driving at.

You flip to a particular movie, and when you get there, they are at precisely the same spot as the last time you flipped to that particular movie.  It’s as if they were waiting for you, or something.  Or there’s an “app” on your TV you accidentally pressed called, “Book Mark.” 

“Hey, they are piling into the car, and driving to Vegas.  That’s exactly what they were doing the last time.”  It’s like an unpaused “Pause.”

You flipped away, the movie said, “We’ll hold the spot for you”, and exactly the same thing is happening when you come back. 

Have I explained that enough times?

It kind of feels like I have.

Anyway, what happened to me last night is the upgraded version of that.  I flipped to two channels, and what I discovered when I got there were two things I wanted to see, at the exact spot I most wanted to see them.

That’s exciting, isn’t it?  Worthy of italics?

Or is reflective of the depressed “Excitement Level” in my overall life?

Anyway, here’s what happened.

I flip to PBS (the American Public Broadcasting channel), and there’s the English murder mystery I watch, Death In Paradise – where a transplanted “White Guy” solves all the homicides for the clueless inhabitants of a Caribbean island.  (“Sarcasm intended.”)

There I am, arriving at the biggest moment of the Season 8 “Story Arc”, the character “Florence”, leaving the island – and the series – after her fiancée is killed, and she herself is shot in the stomach.

In the close to tearful “Goodbye” scene, “Florence” is so emotionally unhinged, she actually touches her crime-solving boss “Jack” on the top of his hand.  This is an enormously big deal.  You can tell, because they do a long “Extreme Close-Up” of “The Touch.” 

What can I tell you?   “Florence” is memorably leaving the series.  And I saw it two times! 

Just because I was flipping.

(My hope is that Caribbean-born “Florence” transplants to England, where she solves all the homicides for a clueless, all-white police force, in a show entitled, What Are You, Stupid?  But I satirically digress.)

Then, my televiewing luck got even better.

I flipped to another personal “reliable”, The Westerns Channel.

And there’s Red River, my favorite western. *

(* I first typed “my favorite movie”, which, quite possibly, it is.)

Not only have I flipped to my favorite western.  (And quite possibly my favorite movie.)  But I have arrived at my favorite spot in the whole movie!

Is this a fun evening, or what?

Two playful competitors, “Matt Garth” and “Cherry Valance”, – each reputedly “good with a gun” – exchange “hardware” so they can examine the other’s “tools of the trade.”  At which point, “Cherry Valance” memorably opines,

“There are only two things more beautiful than a good gun – a Swiss watch and a woman from anywhere.”

And as if that weren’t quotable enough, Valance insinuatingly adds,

“Did you ever have a good Swiss watch?”

Can you believe it?  I came in at that exact moment?

Maybe I was just lucky.

Like a fisherman, casting his net,

I flipped through the channels,

And I caught me two “Big Ones.”

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

"A Little Story (That Did Not Actually Happen) (Though I Wish Dearly That It Had)"


I have a stack of ideas about meaty concerns that often come to my mind. 

For example,

Though I lean toward the “progressive” end of the spectrum, I worry that “My Team” does not, when it comes to its philosophical adversaries, live up to its “Kumbaya” side of the bargain.

My line about that is,

“Conservatives believe everyone’s wrong, but them.  Liberals believe everyone’s right, but conservatives.”

(Note:  This idea, though in loftier form, appeared recently in the New York Times, where columnist Nicholas Kristoff wrote, concerning the attack on a college law school professor for defending a disreputable client,  “… while I admire campus activism for its commitment to social justice, I sometimes worry that it becomes infused with a prickly intolerance, embracing every kind of diversity but one kind:  ideological diversity.”)

The fact that I collect such serious ideas says they are important to me.
The fact that they remain on the stack says I do not know how to write them.  (At least not in “readable fashion.”)

Reminding me of a song lyric I once wrote, that went:

“Whatever plan you’ve got,
You can’t be what you’re not.”

Fortunately, I have an affinity for “small stories.”  Which, thankfully, also come to my mind.

MEATIER STORIES:  “What are you doing here?”     

SMALL STORIES:  “Getting written, Smart Guy.”   

The anniversary of my once-in-a-lifetime Oxford Experience sent this memorable moment floating back to my consciousness. 

And I happpily welcome its return.

Wednesday July 11, 2018.  (I looked it up.)  Which is also stepdaughter Rachel’s birthday.  (Which I did not have to look up.)  England is playing Croatia in the soccer World Cup Semi-Finals in Moscow, the winner advancing to the championship game. 

This is a huge deal for England, who has not won the World Cup since 1966.  (Which I also did not have to look up, since I lived in London in 1967 and they were still talking about it.)  (Along with winning the “Eurovision Song Contest” the same year.)

After finishing dinner in “The Great Hall” (where they filmed Harry Potter scenes), we came out of the dining room, and there, perched conspicuously – and uncharacteristically – on the wall of the foyer was a big-screen TV, broadcasting the monumental soccer game, already in progress.

Some of the “visitors” (none that I met, English) – gathered to watch, more curious than passionately involved.  The game was close.  (Croatia eventually won 2-1, with England ahead, 1-0 at halftime.)

As I watched, my eyes turned back to “The Great Hall”, seeing the college’s “Wait Staff” clearing the tables and “setting up” for tomorrow’s breakfast.  It was a somewhat heartbreaking tableau.  You could tell by their body language, they wanted to be out in the foyer, their eager ears “leaning” intently towards the nearby tantalizing TV.

That’s when it came to me.

Why didn’t a brigade of “visitors” offer to help the college’s “Wait People”, so they could finish up faster and then go watch the game?

Wouldn’t that be something?  “Strangers to the Rescue”, so the real fans could enjoy the history-making event?

The “Wait Staff” would have probably said “No.”  

Ah, but the gesture.

“The Glorious Gesture!”  (As it would be remembered for years to come.)

I feel the shimmering echo of a scene from one of my favorite movies, The Last Holiday – the one with Sir Alec Guinness, not Queen Latifah – in which the guests at a posh beachside resort pitch in in the kitchen, after the hotel’s disgruntled employees solemnly go out on strike.  (I do not know if that “democratizing” scene was included in the “remake.”  I was unwilling to watch it.  Only partly because I wanted to remake The Last Holiday and someone with “clout” beat me to the punch.)

“Pitching in” here would be just like the movie. 

Only real.

Except it did not happen.

I am a “thinker”, not a doer.  I am no “Leader of Strangers.”  Or people I know, for that matter.  (With the single exception of leading a work stoppage of toy wrappers and Harrods.)  The idea came to me.  But that’s as far as it went.

Still, I fantasize heroically leaping into the fray.  Though, being me, not entirely successfully.

IRATE WAITPERSON:  “Not like that!  ‘Oy, are you trying to help us, or bleedin’ slow the job down?”

What I just did, I guess, is kind of what fiction is about – telling stories that didn’t happen, while pretending they did.

I did the same thing.

But without the pretending.