Wednesday, July 31, 2013

"Say Again?"

We watch a lot of British mysteries on TV – Foyles War, New Tricks, Inspector Gently, although that one may be over because at the end of the last episode, both Gently and his pain in the ass sidekick got shot – Gently actually got shot twice – they looked pretty bad, and the show was not on the following week so they may very well be dead, in which case, we will not be watching them anymore, although what a strange way to end a series.  The protagonists both dead?  That would never happen on American TV.  Well, maybe on cable.  But even there, I mean, “I know we’re cable, but couldn’t we just murder the sidekick?” 

If there were ever an Emmy for “Best ‘Downer’ Ending of a Series”… the two actors could come walking out in tuxedos,

“We’re not really dead, just our characters.  Although we are now consequently out of work.” 

I’d kind of like to see something like that.

The thing here is this. 

We watch all these mysteries, and a lot of them are set in small English towns – Hastings, Oxford, up north in Yorkshire.  And as a result of those settings, the characters on the shows often speak in what is, to our ears, undecipherable accents. 

Not that if the shows were set in London we would understand every word.  It’s still England.  But, in those less cosmopolitan localities and especially the further north you go, the more it sounds like they’re clearing their throats while speaking.  And all we can pick up is the throat clearing.

What do we do when we can’t understand the accents? 

We turn up the volume. 

Our behavior suggesting that indecipherability is more comprehensible when it’s louder.  (A strategy akin to speaking more slowly to a person who doesn’t understand English.  As if it were the case that, “Slow English, I understand perfectly.  Fast English – not a word.”  I have never once seen that “talking slower” thing work.  Have you?)

What happens when we turn up the volume?

What we generally end up with is loud throat clearing. 

Hearing everything is important in mysteries.  In a romantic series, you can look in their eyes and see they like each other.  Words there are just confirmation.  But in a mystery, they are telling you important stuff about the case.  You miss out on that essential expository information, and you’re watching a bunch of “policemen” walking around England. 

Which, for us, turns out to be better than anything on American TV.   

There a point this foolishness.  And it’s coming up right now.

I’ve been watching British mysteries for decades.  Struggling with the accents, while admiring the palatial manor houses and the opulent landscapes.  And after all that time, a thought popped into my head for the very first time:

“I wonder if these people I can’t understand would have an equal amount of difficulty understanding me.”

I am aware that this is hardly a “Stop the Presses!” illumination, but it had honestly never occurred to me before.  My surprise came, not only in thinking this thought for the first time, but also in my reflexive response to the question.     

“I wonder if those people could understand me”?

My Reflective Response:  “Why wouldn’t they?”

I don’t speak with an accent. 

They do.

Have you ever heard anyone say,

“The American accent is entirely undecipherable to me.”

Of course, it’s possible they are just being polite.  Or, may-be, the American accent is not comparatively impenetrable because…

We don’t have one.

Excluding regional dialects, such as rural “Southerners” and “Hill people.”  (Documentaries about them regularly include subtitles.)  The majority of us speak uninflected English, like the groomed-for-the-job national news anchor whom someone once parodied saying,

“Good evening.  I’m from nowhere.”

Everyone understands Brian Williams.

Don’t they?

At that point, logic overcame chauvinism and I was forced to at least consider that if we don’t understand people, it is entirely reasonable to believe that the people we don’t understand will not be able to understand us.

Although I could not possibly me explain why.  It’s logical, of course.  But it somehow feels…wrong. 

A friend who overheard me musing about why they would have trouble understanding us explained,

“Because we don’t speak like them.”

That’s true.  But unlike them, we speak clearly and dialect-free.

My most recent theory – not entirely devoid of paranoia – is that if the people we don’t understand – like the ones on those English mysteries – were to say same thing about us, they are simply paying us back.

They understand us just fine.

They just refuse to give us the satisfaction. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

"Summer Times - 'Butterflies'"

“Butterflies” is a Spoonerism, a “spoonerism” defined as “the transposition of the initial or other sounds of words”, a verbal slip associated with English clergyman W.A. Spooner (1840-1930.)  In a spoonerism, a “flutter by” which in reality is what they do becomes a “butterfly.”  I mention this so that if this post is not to your liking, at least you learned something. 

“Spoonerism” substantiates of my assertion that sometimes, when a person is associated with a certain behavior, their name evolves into a commonly used descriptive for that behavior.  Pierre Legerdemain’s acts of amazement bafflement made his name synonymous with the word “magic.”  The latter example, however, may possibly be made up.  Though this does not exclude the possibility that it was made up but on further investigation it actually turns out to be correct.


Camp shows were invariably on Saturday nights.  Sometimes, they were “book shows”, scripted musicals like Peter Pan where I played “Smee” a secondary role which I used to steal the show, or Hans Christian Andersen­, where I played “The Dance Instructor”, a role not in the original script but was which added to give me a part to play because they wouldn’t let me play “Hans” even though I had learned all the songs and I really wanted to do it. 

They had a girl (Tanis Rohr) play “Hans Christian Anderson”, following their having a girl (Wendy Krangle) play “Peter Pan” the summer before.  I mean, geez, maybe there are fewer great parts for women, but do they have to take the men’s parts away from them and hand them over to girls?  Man, that pissed me off fifty years ago!  And I am not entirely over it today.

Aside from the “book shows”, there were also “talent shows” scheduled on Saturday nights, where I got a chance to regale the assemblage with my heartfelt performance of “The Wayward Wind”, or a comedic “song reading”, in which I’d do hyper-dramatic renditions of 50’s pop songs, such as…


Put the bomp

In the bomp

Buh bomp

Buh bomp?


Put the ram

In the




Finally, Saturday nights also delivered message-laden dramatic pageants, serving as culminations for three-day camp-wide programs proclaiming the urgent need for world peace and international cooperation.  (For campers, six to sixteen.)

I remember a line, in reference to the casualties resulting from the World War II bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that went,

“Where will they ever get enough wood to build fifty thousand crosses?”

Ignoring the fact that the vast majority of the casualties at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not Christians.

I generally got big parts in pageants.  I played the martyred leader Imre Nagy in the “Hungarian Revolution” pageant.  I also played Ghandi, less because I was a good actor than because Ghandi was known for his hunger strikes, and I was the skinniest kid in camp because I refused to eat the food.

“Book show”, talent show or pageant, Saturday night was “show night.”  At least three Saturdays a summer, I was up there, performing in something. 

And whenever that happened, I would always get “butterflies.”  (Boy, that took a long time to get there, didn’t it?)

The “butterflies” attacked the moment I got up.  I was distracted the entire day, and no fun to be around.  A situation that made me even less popular with my cabin-mates than usual, if that were possible, and it turned out it was.  Though not entirely without reason.

EARL:  I know I didn’t catch the ball.  Will you leave me alone?  I’ve got a show tonight!”

I tried to exploit my condition to get out of things I didn’t like.

“Can I skip ‘Swim Instruction’?  I’ve got a show tonight.”

That would never work, because I was unable to establish a credible relationship between “Swim Instruction” and the show. 

“How can I concentrate on the ‘Flutter Kick’?  I’ve got a show tonight!”

No sale.

The biggest price I paid for having “butterflies” on “show night” was at the Saturday dinner.  This was the unkindest cut of all.

I ate nothing at camp.  I needed two sets of clothes – one set for July, and another for August when I had lost so much weight my July clothes didn’t fit anymore.  The one exception, the only meal I excitedly anticipated because it was edible was hot dogs and chips (French fries.)  That was my favorite meal.  I looked forward to it all week.

When did they serve hot dogs and chips?

Saturday nights.

And on show nights, I was too nervous to eat them.

The “butterflies” multiplied as we got closer to show time.  My heart would start pounding.  My throat would close up.  I’d feel constantly thirsty and have to race down to the “Pump House” behind the Rec Hall where the shows were put on, where I would lap down gulps of the coldest, most metallic tasting water I have ever drunk.  It was like licking a frozen, water pipe.

All that drinking and I’d have to pee.  (And the Boys’ bathroom was at the other end of camp.)

I could not remember my lines.  I could not remember what play I was in.  I could barely remember what I was doing there.  But I was dressed in costume and wearing makeup, so I knew I was doing something, probably a show.

As the time to go on drew closer, my hands were shaking.  My voice suddenly turned raspy.  I could not have felt more anxious, more feverish, more miserable, more scared. 

And I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

“Butterflies” means it’s important. 

A heightened experience that matters. 

“Butterflies” reflects the climactic confrontation between the moment and the guy.  And the outcome – good or awful – was entirely up to me.

To this very day, when I go to a show, I identify with the people about to perform.  Sometimes, I actually feel their butterflies. 

And I envy them terribly for having them.

Well, at least I experienced them at camp.  And a time or two afterwards.  During four episodes on The Bobbie Gentry Show.  The warm-ups for Taxi and Cheers.  A fundraising production at my daughter’s High School, where I performed a monolog I had written before hundreds of people.

And every time it happened – there it was.


The ultimate compliment concerning that agonizing condition?

It is worth missing hot dogs and chips for.

Monday, July 29, 2013

"You Do What You Do, And You Don't Do What You Don't Do - And That's The Whole Thing"

It really is.  You don’t have to read this now.  Unless you’re curious about what I’m talking about.  But at the end, you’ll go back to the title and think, “They guy was right.  I didn’t have to read this.”  Of course, by then, it’ll be too late.  I am trying to be helpful here, but I’m not sure I have been.

Steven Wright, one of my all-time favorite comedians, who if you don’t know him – or even if you do – is a kind of surrealistic joke teller.  Steven’s off-center perspective appeals to my Sense of the Absurd.  And my other senses don’t mind him either.  Though their enthusiasm pales before my Sense of the Absurd, who for the life of it cannot understand why my other senses are not bigger fans. 

MY SENSE OF THE ABSURD:  Who do you like better?

MY SENSE OF SMELL:  Henny Youngman.


MY SENSE OF SMELL:  He smells funnier.

How do you argue with that?

Steven Wright does jokes like, “I have a friend who’s a disc jockey, and when he walks under a bridge, you can’t hear what he’s saying.”  He said, “There’s a convenience store near my house, it says ‘Open 24 hours.’  I went down there, and the guy was closing up.  I said ‘I thought you were open 24 hours.’  He said, ‘Not in a row.’” 

Steven Wright also said, “You can’t have everything.  Where would you put it?”  And finally, “Sponges grow in the ocean.  That kills me.   I wonder how much deeper the ocean would be if that doesn’t happen.”  

Which gives you a small sampling of his style.  (I love it.  Though when we went to a concert, my companion for the evening fell asleep.)

I once wrote a half-hour script for a PBS comedy anthology series called Trying Times (1987) that starred Steven Wright.  I was asked to be available during the production, in case any emergency rewriting was needed. 

The series, filmed in Vancouver, allowed me to hang out with Steven Wright for five days.  Our time together gave me an intimate (within reason) understanding of how the man’s mind works.

My conclusion:

It works exactly like his jokes.

You hang around a guy, you listen to him talk spontaneously about things, and suddenly, there’s this “Aha!” moment, where the answer to the question one might ask about Steven Wright or any other comedian:  “How does he come up with those things?” is immediately apparent.

He “comes up with those things” because he’s him.  (This works for female comedians as well, only in a higher voice.)

It is really quite simple.  You “come up with those things” because your mind works that way, and other people don’t come up with those things because their minds do not. 

You succeed because of that uniqueness, and because that uniqueness connects with the audience.  If it doesn’t, you are still unique, but you have no job and no career.  You’re just a guy mumbling in the street.  (In that context, I was thinking of wearing a fake earpiece connected to nothing so when I’m mumbling in the street, people will think I’m talking to somebody.)   

Okay, that’s ipso.  Now here comes facto.

You do what you do because you can do it.  But this process inevitably also works in the other direction.

You don’t do what you don’t do because you can’t do it.

Unless you are multi-polar in which case all bets are off, your mind has a dominating perspective, shutting off the other options and precluding you from thinking any other way.  If it allows you to think in a certain way, it precludes you from thinking in other ways, which, when you add then all up, may turn out to be every other way. 

A comedian does not perform in seven different styles.  They perform in one style – the style that comes naturally to them.

Your mind may think absurdly or whimsically or ironically or hyper-logically.  But it may not let you think sexily.  Or meanly.  Or stupidly. 

Or manipulatively.  Or prevaricatingly. Or angrily.  Or sneakily. 

That is not the way your mind works, and there is nothing you can do about it.  And if you try to fake it, forcing an approach that is not naturally yours, it will come off sounding deliberate, like – forgive me – a deaf person unsure about how loud to talk.  

Wrapping Up...

“How do they come up with those things?”

Because that’s them.

“Why can’t they do something else?”

Because it isn’t.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Steven Wright.

Friday, July 26, 2013

"The 'Down Side' Of The Indisputably Superior Option"

Can I come up with crowd-pleasing blog post titles, or what? 

Winston Churchill famously said,

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.”

It is worth noticing that Churchill never said democracy was any good.  He just said that compared to, say, totalitarianism where they kill of lot of people (many of them their own), or Communism, where they kill a lot of people (many of them their own) and promise to share things equally but they don’t, though often messy and disappointing – Churchill also famously said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter” – when “marking on the curve” democracy looks pretty darn good.

As with democracy, I would suggest, so with capitalism.  Communism (or Socialism, I am embarrassed to say I am fuzzy on the difference) looks pretty appealing, especially in excruciatingly poor countries, since a shared, albeit miniscule, amount of something is better than an individualized portion or nothing. 

But in practice, Communism seems to inevitably lead to corruption, shortages, a “Black Market” and a lack of individual incentive, which, projected over an entire nation, means that productivity is debilitatingly low.  (Unless there’s one Commie guy picking up the slack by working really, really hard.)

So instead we’ve got capitalism, where everyone goes for themselves and somehow, collectively, it’s better for the country – productivity, innovation, opportunity and overall wealth.  A person invents a better take-home container for Chinese food that won’t accidentally spill orange chicken all over the front seat – that’s good for everybody.  The better-container inventor cashes in, and your car doesn’t smell like Chinese food.

Capitalism.  It’s good.  It’s nice.  People come here to enjoy the advantages of it.  Sure, they also come for the democracy.  But you can get democracy in Luxembourg.  (I think.)  But where in Luxembourg is there a Mark Cuban character who will put money into your better Chinese food container idea?  Or a country where Mark Cuban can get rich enough to do that.

And yet…  And with me, there is always an “And yet…” Without those “And yets”, I’d have nothing to write about.  Well, I would, but it would all be positive.  And who wants to read upbeat crap?

What is the qualifying “And yet” about capitalism?  The accompanying “down side” of the Free Enterprise system?

Winners and losers. 

In an arrangement where everybody is economically equal, there are no winners and losers, because everybody is economically the same. 

“How many things have you got?”


“So do I.”

You see what I mean?

But in a capitalistic country when there is (theoretically) no external impediment to “making it”, how is it going to feel when you don’t?

And by the way, how many of us – not by anyone else’s standard, but by our own definition of “making it” – actually do?

The result of a free and open capitalistic economy is a potential – and recently, it’s being growing – inequality of assets.

“How much money do you have?”

“Four billion dollars.  And you?”

“Eight dollars.”

“Is that on you, or all together?”

“All together.”

“Really?  In the Land of Unlimited Opportunity?”

Triggering the follow-up sentence, either spoken or understood:

“What a loser.”

One person has four billion dollars.  The other person has eight dollars.  In the same country.  A country that allows everyone a (theoretically) equal chance to make as much money as you can.  Somewhere in your brain, do you not have to wonder, whether it is nice to wonder it or not –

“What is that ‘eight dollar’ person doing wrong?

They’ve got eight dollars!  And nobody stopped them from getting more!

“I enjoy spending time with my family.”

Sorry, no!  “Quality of Life.”  I get it.  It’s admirable.  But, Dude, come on!

You’ve got eight dollars!

Capitalism inevitably means competition. 

“Look at this.  I invented…”

“I invented that yesterday.  And I sold it, and there’s my big house.”

Competition in everything. 

“I can spit twenty feet.”

“I can spit twenty-two and change.”

And what does competition inevitably produce?

Winners and losers.

America didn’t invent capitalism – or democracy for that matter – but they Supersized it, culturally encoding this hyper-competitivism into what I have colorfully labeled, “The Gunfighter Mentality”, the original prototype offering two cowboys facing off in the middle of the street, they draw and fire, the survivor’s the winner, and the loser ends up face down in the dust.   

It’s exciting.  Unless you’re the guy lying face down in the dust.  And before that, it was probably even exciting for them.

“Look at me!  I’m in a gunfight!”

And now you’re dead.  Making you worse off even than the person who has eight dollars.

We know that, statistically, in the capitalist system, there are only a handful of unqualified winners.  Which, by definition, makes the hundreds of millions that make up “the rest of us”…


There’s gotta be a better way of looking at things, don’t you think?

“I enjoy spending time with me family.”

I know.  But it’s not quite it.