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The Birds of St. Louis – More Than Just Cardinals

Posted on 2015.11.11 at 20:12
Current Mood: flighty
Current Music: Surfin' Bird - The Trashmen

Lone Elk Park? I’d never heard of it. It’s in Valley Park, Missouri, a little west of St. Louis. Here’s how we ended up there: I realized a few weeks back that I had a couple of unused Personal days in the bank at my day job, and the deal with those Personal days is that I have to use 'em or lose 'em by the end of the year. Holiday time wasn’t an option so I picked a Monday and Tuesday in early November to give myself a nice long weekend in which to… do something. It needed to be something modest and unambitious. After some looking around, we agreed on St. Louis, Missouri, less than a day’s drive from Chicago. Our general plan offered the myriad diversions of St. Louis if we opted to pursue them, and our cabin twenty miles west of town offered peace and quiet if we opted not to pursue them.

Our list of goals going in was nearly nonexistent. On our first full day there, the Big Plan for the day was that CC and I would visit a fabric store. Really, that was it, and we were fine with that. But you see, when you leave yourself with that much uncommitted time, you are free to pursue whatever pops up in the road. And so…

We were driving into St. Louis on I-44 when we saw the sign at the top of this post. The photo was shot through the windshield of a moving car, which is why it looks the way it does. World Bird Sanctuary? Well heck, we both love birds! I asked CC if she wanted to go. “Sure!” she replied. Half a mile later, I exited and began to follow the twisting roads that the signs pointed me along. After a few miles, we began to wonder if this wasn’t a wild goose chase (though that would have been appropriate for a bird sanctuary), but we pushed on.

We finally came to the front gate, noted that admission was free, parked the car and began to walk about. The first building we entered contained no other people, but it did contain bulletin boards, handouts, and a few large cages. The first one we looked at contained this:

That’s a live owl; specifically, a Northern Saw-Whet Owl by the name of Olaf. The folks at the sanctuary haven’t yet determined Olaf’s gender since the males and females of this species are nearly identical, but Olaf was good enough to pose for this picture. Our first big surprise, though, came when we walked out the back door of the building and were presented with this sight:

Just in case you’re reading this in the dark and can’t see the photo, that’s a bald eagle. Well damn! I’d never been anywhere near that close to such a creature. And this shot has been cropped a bit but it was not taken with a zoom lens; we really were that close. He is tethered to his perch, and while he can jump on and off of it and move around a bit, he can’t go very far when he’s on exhibit. In case you’re wondering, a great many of the birds there are animals that have been injured to an extent that they could not survive on their own.

We finally found a docent who was able to fill us in on the scope of the place. There are dozens of birds there, mostly kept in screened outdoor enclosures. Seeing the whole place requires walking a mile or two, which we gladly did. Oh gosh – we saw hawks, owls, turkeys, several varieties of chickens, crows, ravens, even an Andean condor with a 12-foot wingspan fer Chrissakes! I didn’t take pictures of any of the ones in enclosures simply because I didn’t think they’d look very good being seen through wire screening, but they were a delight to see and get close to.

The building that housed the gift shop also contained animals, including a rabbit (which we were allowed to pet) whose fur was almost unimaginably soft. It also contained several talking parrots, though they had little to say to us.

There are a couple of additional points I want to make. First of all, this is a modest facility. As I said, admission is free but donations are gladly accepted – and we gladly made one. If you walk in the door expecting something Disney-fied, you’re going to be disappointed, but if you walk in ready to accept it on its own terms, you’re going to be delighted. Great fun for the whole family & kids of all ages.

My other major point is that this experience was the happy result of not having everything planned out ahead of time. I'd looked at various St. Louis tourism guides before leaving Chicago, and none of them mentioned the World Bird Sanctuary, but in fact, I’d make it a point to stop there again the next time I’m in the neighborhood.

One final minor point: This photograph. I don’t have a story about it, but I liked the bird and I like the photo. It’s a peregrine falcon. Enjoy.


How to Suck Without Really Trying

Posted on 2015.11.02 at 17:23
Current Mood: amusedamused
Current Music: Brotherhood of Man
It was early 1992, I think. I was happy to be playing the role of Bud Frump in a production of the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. For me, the highlight of the run was the night my brother Frank was in the audience, since he had played the same role several years earlier. But I’m not here to talk about that; the lowlight of the run makes for a much better story…

The show was originally scheduled to open the first weekend in January, which upon reflection is a terribly strange time to open a show. The holidays are over, people are done spending money for a while, and the Michigan weather is liable to be inclement. But I don’t make these decisions; that’s when we were scheduled to open and we prepared accordingly. But then, sometime in late December, we received word that our producer had sold a performance to a group for a presumably nice chunk of change. The show was to take place on New Year’s Eve, several days before our scheduled opening.

If you’ve ever worked on a play at any level of theater, you know that pushing up your opening night is not a trivial matter. Much scrambling was begun by everyone from designers to costumers to actors in order to put up a complete show by December 31st. Pros that we were, it all came together and we were ready to go by the appointed night. But there was one factor no one had considered until the night of the show.

Our performance was scheduled to begin at 11:30 p.m. When we arrived at the theater that night, someone had finally realized the implications of this – that midnight, i.e., the New Year, was going to hit somewhere in the middle of Act I, and our large, well oiled audience would want to celebrate at that moment. So a plan was put in place – wherever we were in the show at midnight, we would come to a halt on a signal from the musical conductor. The entire cast would then enter and we would lead the audience in a rousing chorus of “Auld Lang Syne”. We would then go back to the start of whatever scene we’d been doing and start it over.

If the theater people reading this are cringing right now, rest assured that the rest of us were cringing twice as hard. It all struck many of us as an appalling scenario, but really, once the decision had been made to start the show at 11:30 p.m., the rest was inevitable. We could at least tell ourselves that this wasn’t a public performance; it was a private party and as long as they had a good time, we could just chalk it up as a very strange dress rehearsal.

By the way, the protocols for midnight all went off as planned, although starting at about five to midnight, people’s electronic alarms started tinkling all over the theater, announcing the approaching moment, and a murmur built in the theater until the musical conductor took over just before the hour hit. Lovely.

head shot

Being Stupid in Upstate New York

Posted on 2015.09.30 at 17:27
Current Mood: relievedrelieved
Cayuga Lake is one of the Finger Lakes of western New York state. It is almost 40 miles long and, at 435 feet, is one of the deepest lakes in the United States. On the lake’s western shore, a short drive north of Ithaca, one will find Taughannock Falls State Park. The park’s signature feature is its 215-foot falls – 33 feet taller than Niagara Falls and the tallest single-drop waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains. The park does not disappoint when it comes to scenery.

As is often the case when one finds a great waterfall, the surrounding land is extremely hilly and offers myriad opportunities and challenges for the casual hiker. The late summer of 1983 brought three such hikers to western New York – my friend Jim (then a resident of Ithaca), my brother Dan, and myself.

The day was clear and brisk and started out well enough for us. Maybe we should have been listening for the distant strains of “Dueling Banjos”. The key moment was when we decided it was time to stop following the course of the lazy stream that wound its way through the park, so we turned left and began to scale the steep sides of the valley we’d hiked into.

If there was a way up, it was clearly this long upward stretch of broken slate that headed into the trees overlooking the valley. It was a little too steep to actually walk on properly, but it was manageable enough to half-walk and half-climb up the path. It was strenuous but doable.

Jim, being the most fit of the three of us, got up to the trees first. He quickly realized that the apparent path we’d been on disappeared as it hit an impenetrable forest of trees and bushes. He announced that we’d have to go back the way we came, and I’ve never doubted his assessment of the situation or his recommended course of action. But as any good soldier knows, there’s a right way and a wrong way to execute a retreat. I chose poorly.

It turns out that climbing down such a hill is far more difficult than climbing up one. The optimal approach, in retrospect, is probably to reverse the same moves that got you up there; that is, to go down feet first, still facing the ground. I opted to try walking down, facing down the hill. Even though I was doing so in a very crouched position, this approach had the effect of putting my center of gravity far too high and forward over my feet, which impelled me to walk down faster in order to keep up with gravity’s inexorable pull. I should have immediately seen where this was leading, but I did not.

There was no good end game for the approach I had taken; acceleration begat acceleration. Within a matter of seconds, I was dashing down the hill at a furious pace, unable to slow down, my only hope being that I might reach the bottom of the hill before I lost my footing. I didn’t miss it by much; I was only about 20 feet from the bottom when I went pitching forward, landing face-first on a pile of crushed slate.

I never lost consciousness, though it’s possible I sustained a concussion from the impact. I’d felt the stone shards tearing into my face. I’d kept my chin up, which saved me from losing any eyes or teeth, though one of my first thoughts was that my jaw must surely be broken.

Jim and Dan caught up to me and helped me sit up. I don’t know whether they saw me go down or how quickly they realized that I was significantly injured. My jaw wasn’t broken, but there were two substantial wounds; one at the bottom of my chin and that other, the larger one, on the side of my chin. I could feel that a flap of flesh at least a couple inches long was hanging from the larger wound. And there was blood.

I was exceedingly fortunate to be in Jim’s company that day. At the time, he was aiming at a career in medicine and he’d spent a couple summers riding around in ambulances in New York City as a summer job, so he was used to far worse than this. He immediately got me over to the nearby stream and explained that what we had in front of us was very clean fresh water. He washed out my wounds as best he could under the circumstances and bound me up with whatever clean cloth we had on hand. We then had to walk a mile or two back out of the park to get to the car – not an easy walk for me given my stunned condition, but I managed.

As we drove to the hospital, fear began to creep in. At this point in my life, I was a full-time performer. I acted in shows constantly and had a regular job as a messenger for the Eastern Onion Singing Telegram Company. I’m not making this up. The possibility that I might have suffered a permanent disfigurement began to make me quietly frantic. I mean, I never had matinee idol looks to begin with, but this could have limited my castability even more.

At the emergency room, the doctor looked at my wounds, cleaned them up a bit more, and got ready to stitch me up. It was time for me to make my plea. I explained to him that I was a performer for a living, so if there was anything he could do to minimize the potential for disfigurement or scarring, would he please do so. He nodded and promised to do what he could.

By the time the stitches needed to come out, I was back home in Detroit. My sister Bev, lucky for me, was a registered nurse and she volunteered to take out the stitches for me. She expressed admiration for the suturing job the man in New York had done. She declared it the most precise job of its kind she’d ever seen.

As for my poor face – there was some scarring, though hard to see from more than a foot away. If I get into just the right light, I can still see a crescent shaped line curling over the left side of my jaw, but if I’m looking for something to blame for any unsuccessful auditions I may have given, I’ll have to look elsewhere. And anyway, the lasting takeaway from this incident has nothing to do with scarring and everything to do with learning how not to climb down a steep hill covered with crushed slate.


9/11 – Someone Else’s Story

Posted on 2015.09.16 at 12:47
September 11, 2001 happened to all of us who were around then. Each of us processed it, and continues to process it, in our own individual ways. So each of us has our own story about that day and that time. I’m not going to tell you my story, not right now anyway. Instead, I’m going to tell you Jim Warren’s story. Jim can’t tell it himself because he died young – a little over six years ago as of this writing – but I think his story deserves to be heard, for reasons that have nothing to do with the event itself… and everything to do with the event itself.

Jim and I were good friends. We’d met because he’d married my sister, but our friendship somehow survived their subsequent divorce. In fact, when Jim remarried a few years later, I was the best man at the wedding. Yes, you read that right, but that’s quite another story.

Jim was a Steel Guy working in the automotive industry. This meant that he was often sent to far-flung corners of the world to visit steel plants in person. So it was that 9/11/01 found Jim in Beijing, China on business.

It was nighttime in Beijing and Jim was in his hotel room surfing the TV channels. The viewing options were pretty limited. Most of the channels were broadcasting in Chinese, but occasionally, one would come across a Western movie that was subtitled in Chinese, yet the actors were speaking English. And there was one English language news station.

As Jim was flipping through the channels, he came upon a scene of the just-collapsed Twin Towers. At first, he took it to be some sort of disaster movie and he kept on flipping. Soon, though, he came back to that station and realized that this was no movie; it was a live broadcast of the events that were unfolding in New York.

Jim decided that he needed to get out of his room, so he went down to the hotel bar and convinced the bartender to switch the TV over to the news channel. After the bartender did so, a couple of other English speaking patrons came over and began watching with Jim. He told me that it felt good to able to share this event with someone he could actually talk to about it.

As you may recall, air travel was severely restricted in the U.S. for days after 9/11, so Jim was stuck in Beijing for the better part of a week after his business there had concluded. This meant that he had a lot of time to explore the city, and he availed himself of the opportunity. And this leads me to what I think is the most significant part of Jim’s story.

Jim tended to stick out in a crowd. He was a large man with a bald head and a full beard and mustache. In a place like Beijing, he stuck out even more. A little scene played out many times for him over those next few days. A Chinese person on the street would see that Jim was obviously a Westerner. They might ask whether he was an American. Time after time, these strangers would then offer their condolences over what had happened on 9/11 and express their shock and sympathy.

To me, this says a couple of things that we don’t always think about. First, that this was a day felt around the world. Second, and more importantly, it underscores the difference between governments and people and should serve as a reminder not to conflate the two. It might be easy to imagine the government of China taking a dispassionate, cold-blooded view of 9/11. Maybe that’s an accurate view of their government and maybe it’s not, but even if it is accurate, it says nothing about what an ordinary citizen is thinking and feeling.

It should serve as a reminder that we humans should be united by our commonalities more than we should be divided by our differences. Oh, emphasizing those differences can give one a good old adrenaline kick if one enjoys working up a little bloodlust… but I’d much rather see us at peace, embracing our finer emotions and our higher aspirations. As long as so many humans retain their taste for war, this message will never cease to be timely.

I never found out exactly what killed Jim. He’d been recovering from a stroke that had hit him a couple of weeks earlier, but he was in rehab and his prognosis seemed excellent for a full recovery when the fatal event occurred. I never sought to find out any more details because… well, because they don’t matter. What matters is that Jim isn’t here anymore. The rest is just paperwork. If Jim leaves any legacy behind on this earth, I hope stories like this one will be a part of it.


A Few Quick Snapshots — Literally

Posted on 2015.09.12 at 19:12
Current Mood: happyhappy
Notes on Our Late Summer Travels – Part 3
(You'll find Part 1 and Part 2 right below this entry)

That’s a peacock. Of course, you and I already knew that, but there is still an air of mystery about him. We encountered him as we were strolling through the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens. By the way, combining the zoo with the botanical gardens is a great idea. This place has the loveliest landscaping of any zoo I’ve ever visited. I could also say that this place has the most diverse fauna of any botanical garden I’ve ever visited. Anyway, this peacock was strolling about unleashed and unattended. He was perfectly content to let me stoop down right in front of him and take his picture. So given his lack of restrictions, the mystery is this: Does he live there, or was he simply a fellow guest taking in the sights?

This was also on display at the Cincinnati Zoo. Specifically, it was on display inside a stall in one of the men’s rooms. You’ve gotta love creative signage!

This is a portrait of CC relaxing in far eastern North Carolina. I’ve just now taken another look at this photo and realized that there’s something else on prominent display here – that object behind her with the diagonal black & white stripes is the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. At 210 feet in height, it’s the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States. We arrived there fully intending to climb all the way to the top. OK fine, don’t believe me. Really, we were going to do it. But fate intervened in the form of that ominous sky you see in the background. A few minutes before we arrived, thunder was heard by the people whose job it is to listen for such things, and the Park Service temporarily closed the lighthouse. We hung around for a while and toured the visitor center, but it never reopened while we were there.

This is me having a stare-down with my old buddy Thomas Jefferson. I’m the one on the right. Tom won the stare-down, by the way. Again. We’re standing near his home, a place he called Monticello. I didn’t mention it at the time, but by the look of things, Tom has been spending way too much time outdoors without sufficient sunblock.

There’s quite a story behind this photo. We’d been in Charlottesville, Virginia and we wanted to be in the Detroit area in two days time, so I scanned the map and looked for a city about halfway between the two. I settled on Marietta, Ohio based purely on its geographical location. Since we had some time that morning in Marietta, we decided to check out some of the local history by paying a visit to the Campus Martius Museum. When we got there, we learned that they had a temporary exhibit on the second floor consisting of Civil War memorabilia mostly belonging to an avid collector, one Larry Strayer. What’s more, Mr. Strayer happened to be at the museum that morning. We went up to the second floor, introduced ourselves, and were treated to a personal tour by Mr. Strayer, who was able to fill in a host of details that weren’t printed on the museum display cards. His collection includes uniforms, weapons, photos, and a great many other objects, some quite rare and historically significant. It is one of the best collections of Civil War material I’ve ever seen. If you’re interested, the collection will be there until about mid-November.

That’s it for this year’s trip. It contrasted greatly with last year’s trip, which you can read about if you’re interested – just scroll down in this journal to my entry from July 2014, titled “Swirling Around Nebraska”. Last year’s trip took us west; this year’s trip went southeast. Last year’s trip consisted of a lot more driving; this year, we wanted a bit more time to stop and smell the native flora. Next year, who knows? Maybe it’s time for that long-delayed road trip to Tierra del Fuego.


The Seed of a New Country

Posted on 2015.09.10 at 22:39
Current Mood: accomplished
Notes on Our Late Summer Travels – Part 2
(You'll find Part 1 right below this entry)

Jamestown, Virginia
In many ways, I am a poor student of history, though to quote Monty Python: “I’m getting better.” Honestly, prior to this trip, I wasn’t sure what the significance of Jamestown was or who lived there or when it was that they did whatever they did. I knew it was the site of an early settlement, but that was about it.

You may correctly infer that I never got around to seeing the animated Disney film, Pocahontas. My bad.

Now that I’ve been to Jamestown, I’m pretty gung-ho on the place. Hear me well: If you want to understand how the United States got started, you have to go there. That’s a pretty strong statement considering that Jamestown was founded in 1607, over a century and a half before the Declaration of Independence was sent to the print shop, but it’s no great stretch to say that without Jamestown, this country might very well be speaking Spanish or French as its primary language.

I’m not going to lay out a detailed history of Jamestown here. That’s what Wikipedia and Disney movies are here for… or even, hey how about this: You could visit there yourself! That’s a fine idea! I can’t recommend it highly enough. So let me offer a few tips on how to visit the place.

That may seem like an odd concept – offering tips on how to visit a place like Jamestown. I mean, what’s there to figure out? You drive there, you get out of your car, you walk into the visitor center and away you go. But you see, there are two huge separate facilities at Jamestown and they consider themselves to be in competition for your tourist dollar. Fortunately for you, we visited both places, and while they cover some of the same material, there are considerable differences between the two sites.

Our first stop was Jamestown Settlement. It is located on the mainland, a mile or two from Jamestown Island. It consists primarily of four elements: 1) A full-scale replica of the original fort, complete with a working blacksmith’s shop and various other facilities, all staffed by appropriately costumed docents; 2) A reconstructed Powhatan Indian village (which I confess we mostly skipped due to time constraints); 3) Fully seaworthy replicas of the three ships that brought the colonists over from England in 1607, which we were able to board and tour; and 4) A sizable museum. The museum is quite wonderful. It contains countless artifacts and many well done displays, tracing not just the history of Jamestown, but also the world on both sides of the Atlantic that gave rise to its founding.

Oh that? That’s a chicken that stepped into my path in the blacksmith’s shop as if she owned the place. We’re told that she belongs to an heirloom breed that goes back to Roman times, so of course her mug shot gets a place of honor in my account of our visit.

Considering all of the history and artifacts on display, one might wonder what a competing facility could possibly offer, but there was one vital nugget of information that was unknown when Jamestown Settlement was built: The precise location of the original fort. That information had been lost to history for years; centuries actually. It was generally thought that erosion of the shoreline on Jamestown Island had put the remains of the fort underwater a long time ago.

All of that changed in the mid-1990s, when archaeologists found the fort’s location. It turned out that only a few feet of it had gone underwater. The rest of the fort’s remains, including many fabulous relics and more than a few graves, were all underground waiting to be discovered. That facility is now known as Historic Jamestowne (note the added ‘e’).

Historic Jamestowne is an active archaeological site, and we paused to watch real archaeologists as they gingerly troweled at a dig site. Thousands of the objects they’ve uncovered over the past twenty years are on display in an adjoining museum. Included there are a couple of skeletons, representative of the many graves on site. Some of the bones bear the clear indications of cannibalism, dating from the winter of 1609-10, known as the Starving Time, when most of the settlers died. The human price of establishing Jamestowne was brutally high.

That’s a statue of Captain John Smith. Though his name sounds suspiciously like an alias, I have no doubt that it was his real name, as he was far too egotistical to have ever hidden his true identity. I say that with all due respect; he was a truly remarkable fellow and well deserves his prominence as a key figure in the survival of Jamestown.

Queen Elizabeth II and her consort Prince Phillip have visited Jamestown on two occasions (I’m assuming they weren’t around for the Starving Time, but I can’t swear to it). Their first visit was in 1957 to mark the 350th anniversary of its establishment (by a group of Englishmen, in case you’d forgotten). Their second visit was in 2007, when the couple returned to mark the 400th anniversary. I can’t help but wonder whether Liz & Phil thought they still owned the place.

I’ve never been too keen on having people tell me what to do, and I try to practice the Golden Rule in that regard, but I’m going to make an exception today for which I hope I will be forgiven: You really ought to visit Jamestown. Or Jamestowne. Ideally both. I will close with a little moment from our vacation that has no larger narrative. This is the Grandy, North Carolina Art Gallery. The car was moving and we had places to be, so we did not pull over and experience the artistic wonders of Grandy, nor did we get to pet the goats that were jumping about next to the gallery. We will save that for a future Art Galleries with Farm Animals vacation.


On Some Forgotten Highway

Posted on 2015.09.07 at 16:02
Current Mood: relaxedrelaxed
Notes on Our Late Summer Travels – Part 1

CC and I were on vacation. We’d driven countless miles on twisting, hilly country roads to reach this place. We pulled up to a booth not unlike those on toll roads, paid our fee, and continued on into the park. A few more miles down, we came to the parking lot, which was bustling with traffic. The attendees were of every sort – the young and the old, large groups and solitary tourists, even whole families with babies in tow. We parked, got out of the car, and made our way towards the focal point of the location.

At first glance, it looked like a huge billboard, but it would properly have been called a mural. It faced a narrow road that was closed to traffic. Hundreds of people were milling about, many seemingly oblivious to the mural; some staring intently at it. A clue to its theme could be heard in the air – a recording of the Beatles singing “Hey Jude” played on an endless loop, though the recording had been remixed to add heavily distorted bass notes and other electronic effects.

The mural was said to have been a collaboration between Paul McCartney and John Lennon. A simple sign nearby identified it as “A Visualization of the Song ‘Hey Jude’” It seemed to my eye to be some sort of collage, containing separate, unrelated elements. I could not see any sense to it either as a whole or in its individual parts. As an aid to the artistically naïve, a thick piece of Plexiglas was overlaid on the mural, calling out particular elements and explaining them in detail, thus obscuring parts of the mural.

In short order, I had parted company with CC and moved to the balcony of a building across the road from the mural, from which one’s view was unimpeded by the heads and hats of other tourists. As I stood there, trying to make out the text on the mural, a set of double doors opened behind me and a group of people exited the building. A woman’s voice on a loudspeaker then calmly announced, in an English accent, “Miss Nancy Simmons of Cambridge University will now give a lecture on her analysis of the mural. Your six dollar admission fee to the park includes this lecture.” After no more than a few seconds of internal debate, I decided to skip the lecture.

I made my way down to the ground level, where I met up with CC. We agreed that we’d seen quite enough of this attraction and that it was time to move on.

And I woke up. This is what all that driving can do to your brain. Let’s be clear on this point: The mural does not exist, though God knows, the remix of “Hey Jude” could be real.

That dream occurred this morning, less than 48 hours after I’d returned home from two weeks on the road with CC. In no way does it represent my feelings about our vacation, except as a reminder that one must be selective about which attractions one visits in this great land. There are wonderful, stunning sights worth seeing and thoughts worth thinking… but there’s a lot of the other stuff too. Happily, we’d done our homework and only took in sights that were commensurate with our interests and intellects. I say that not to brag, but to encourage others to do the same sort of prep work.

Our time away took us through eight states of the Union. In order, they were Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, and Michigan. I’m not going to attempt a comprehensive description of our travels in a single article. Instead, I’m going to focus on a single day that struck me as significant. In the weeks to come, I may add additional essays, but we’ll start with one of the best days we experienced:

Richmond, Virginia
Richmond has a population of a little over 200,000, so it is merely the fourth most populous city in Virginia. Still, there are few cities in the U.S. that can claim such a wealth of historical significance. CC and I quickly came to feel that we could have spent our entire vacation there without exhausting its ability to fascinate us. Rather than offering you an overview of Richmond’s many charms, I will talk about the two historical sites we visited in the course of a memorable day.

Our first stop was the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site. It may not be the first place, or even the tenth place, you would think of visiting in Richmond, but it quickly became apparent that it richly deserves its National Historic Site status.

The house itself is on a block of Victorian homes. If you were driving along 2nd Street, you might not take much notice of them other than the fact that one home seems more decked out than the others with its brightly painted brickwork and well maintained awning. But once you enter the house, a remarkable story is brought to light.

Maggie L. Walker was born in 1864. Her mother was a former slave and her father was a white Irish immigrant. Virginia law at the time prohibited interracial marriage. Maggie was raised in a meager, hard-working environment, but she leapt far beyond the difficult circumstances of her upbringing and ultimately became the first female bank president of any race to charter a bank in the United States. She was a successful business person and a community leader in an era when this was a seemingly unimaginable aspiration. In her time, she was one of the most well known African Americans in the country, though she is apparently far less well known today. Her home, which we toured extensively, is a 28 room mansion, still outfitted and decorated much as it was when she lived there. Her story can be an inspiration to anyone of any race or background.

Here is where I get to talk about one of our great strategies in planning this vacation. We traveled out of season, i.e., we went after school had gone back into session. When we arrived at the Walker House in the late morning, we were informed that we were their first visitors of the day. Our tour guide, an elderly ex-Army man named George, had only the two of us to show around the house, so there were plenty of opportunities for questions and answers, in addition to which we could move at our own pace and focus on the objects and stories that particularly interested us. Take it from me – travel out of season to maximize your experience.

After leaving the Walker House, we drove for about ten minutes and covered about a million miles, for our next stop was the White House of the Confederacy (which I will refer to as the WHC), the executive mansion where Jefferson Davis and his family lived for most of the Civil War.

Old photographs tell me that the mansion was once surrounded by a generous amount of open land, but nowadays, it sits rather incongruously surrounded by hospitals and medical school buildings. Unlike the Maggie L. Walker house, which is operated by the National Park Service, the WHC is privately owned and operated. It is next door to the Museum of the Confederacy, which time constraints prevented us from visiting, but we had nearly two hours in which to tour the WHC.

It is a remarkable storehouse of historical artifacts. Room after room has been maintained in a Civil War era state of preservation, with furniture, fixtures, paintings, clothing, and all manner of other items on display. It is easy to imagine President Davis and his family living their lives there amidst all of the finery and gentility, albeit while fighting a losing war and coping with all of the uncertainties that accompany such a life.

Still, it was impossible not to be struck by the contrast between the Davis family’s lifestyle, attended as they were by various servants and slaves, and the harsh realities of Maggie L. Walker’s early life; remembering that for all of Walker’s later success, she was born into Richmond as a poor black child in 1864 while across town, Jefferson Davis was leading a government that was fighting for the right to keep people like her enslaved, among other goals.

Ah, but let me end on a lighter note. As an individual visitor, you are not obliged to consider the heavier implications of these places. If you entered as nothing more than an aficionado of antiques and Americana, you would find more eye candy in these places than you would in a dozen episodes of Antiques Roadshow. And if, during your visit, you happened to learn something about the people who lived there and their life stories, it would only enrich your experience.

Stay tuned; there’s still plenty to come, including our visit to the home of a man central to defining what it means to be an American, a man whose writings about individual freedoms have inspired millions around the globe, yet who owned slaves. Or maybe I’ll write about the people who came here over four centuries ago who laid the groundwork for what was to become the United States. Or maybe I’ll write about CC getting her feet wet in a large body of salt water. I’ll get back to you.


Strangers on a Train

Posted on 2015.06.24 at 16:32
Current Mood: amusedamused
Current Music: 500 Miles - Peter, Paul & Mary
I boarded the L train at Belmont Avenue this morning and sat down next to a chunky young man wearing a Chicago Bulls jersey. One stop later, at Wellington, a woman boarded. She was a little out of breath, probably because there is no escalator at the Wellington station and she’d probably just climbed the stairs. Still, she seemed nimble and energetic. She immediately made eye contact with the young man next to me and pointed sharply to the side, indicating that he should get up. In case that wasn’t clear, she followed it up by saying, “I should be sitting there because of both age and disability.” Her age seemed indisputably to be approaching 70 or so, so there’s no arguing against her age qualifications. As for any disability, we will have to take her word for it. To his credit, the young man did not hesitate to rise, and he smilingly surrendered his seat to her.

The next character in this scene is Bicycle Man. We’d all had to step around him and his bike to get to and from our seats. He was a fortyish fellow who looked as if he could have been Lewis Black’s kid brother, though he seemed to have a sunnier disposition than Mr. Black’s dyspeptic stage persona. Bicycle Man tried to engage the woman next to me in a conversation about giving up one’s seat to older people. He couldn’t say enough good things about his own upbringing; how he’d been raised “the right way” to defer to the elderly. The woman seemed pleased by this exchange. She then motioned towards his bike and said, “Back home, I ride my bike all the time, but you can’t go more than 12 miles an hour around here.” I wanted to congratulate her on overcoming her disability to ride her bike so enthusiastically, but it didn’t seem like the right moment. She then said, “We don’t have public transportation where I come from.” It seemed painfully obvious that she wanted someone to ask her where exactly she came from, but no one took the bait. After a moment, she sighed and stated that she came from Vermont, though she failed to explain how she’d ended up in Chicago. I suspect it may have been the result of a weekend bicycling trip that got out of hand, but that’s pure speculation.

Just then, we pulled into the Armitage station. Another woman, apparently somewhat older than the woman next to me, began to exit. As she passed by Bicycle Man, he wished her a good day. He reached out towards her and it looked as if one of his fingers may have brushed against her arm. She turned sharply and said, “Don’t you touch me! You keep your hands to yourself!” And then she was gone.

That little glitch had the effect of discouraging further conversation on everyone’s part. The only exception was the deaf man across the aisle to my left. He was speaking in sign language with the woman next to him, periodically making an odd sound that I took to be laughter. Before long, Bicycle Man decided to try inserting himself into their conversation, thought it seemed clear that he knew no sign language. This did not stop him from earnestly making big hand motions in an effort to tell a story about his bicycle. He seemed blissfully unaware that he’d just interrupted someone else’s conversation, but the couple took it all in stride as if they’d encountered his type before.

At the Washington/Wells station, all of the aforementioned folks exited together. For all I know, they may still be standing on the platform chatting away, though I doubt it. No moral here. No proper denouement for that matter. Just an odd confluence of characters who briefly met in the Twilight Zone.

Plane Stamp

F Is Not a Noun

Posted on 2015.04.23 at 16:28
Current Mood: okayokay
Current Music: FM - Steely Dan
We all start out ignorant. Some of us stay that way, but most of us move forward from the womb and amass such knowledge as we can. So it was with me.

Initially, I knew nothing of dirty words. All words were perfectly fine, except that there were some whose meaning I knew and some whose meaning I did not know. At some point, I became aware that some words were “dirty”, which is to say that my parents did not approve of me uttering them in any context, and other people might find them highly offensive. An important clue was that some of these words were never (in my childhood anyway) heard on TV, radio, or records.

These early dirty words fell into two general groups: The first group was words such as “stupid” or “idiot”, which described negative, though completely real, human traits that one would not wish to possess. And of course, these words were frequently uttered on TV, radio, and records, so while they were insulting, they weren’t too bad. The second group – the truly dirty words – was words such as “crap”, “shit”, or “asshole”, which utilized excrement or its related orifices, often as metaphors for people or their personal traits. Due to their emotionally charged, transformational nature, this second group was a far more interesting collection of words.

It quickly became clear that the King of Dirty Words was a four-letter ditty we all know, which I will refer to as F#¢*. I would hear older kids use F#¢* in a variety of forms and conjugations and it was clearly the heavy war club among swear words. The trouble was, I didn’t know what it meant.

Well, I prided myself on being a resourceful urchin, so I reasoned it out. It seemed clear that this had to be some kind of super-duper ultra gross synonym for the nastiest thing I knew of – human excrement. So I not only had gotten the essential meaning wrong; I had also mis-identified it as a noun rather than a verb.

So it was that one day soon after making this connection, I was bickering with my older brother and told him, quite pointedly, to “Eat my F#¢*.” When he responded by falling down, laughing hysterically, I immediately realized that I had made a terrible mistake. To his credit, he quickly explained that F#¢* was, in fact, a verb, and he gave me some garbled explanation of what it meant. I don’t recall exactly what he said, but it was enough to permit me to move forward and use the word properly thereafter, even if I didn’t yet appreciate its nuances.

Postscript — A few years later, when I had acquired a more comprehensive and anatomically detailed understanding of the word F#¢*, I walked into the house one day and announced that there was nothing dirty about the word – that it described a completely natural and common process; that there was a word for every such process and this was simply the word which described that process. Included in this announcement was my casual and frequent uttering of the formerly taboo word. My mother took quick exception to this new-found linguistic philosophy. She quickly and effectively discouraged me from any further articulation of this line of reasoning. And though she offered no alternative terminology, I saw that it was not in my best interest to pursue the matter further.


Work is Play and Play is Work

Posted on 2015.02.25 at 20:13
Current Mood: amusedamused
There are various people in my life with whom I communicate primarily through this journal. As you can see by the date on my last entry, this is the first thing I’ve posted here this year. As the song goes, “…I been one poor correspondent, and I been too, too hard to find, but it doesn’t mean you ain’t been on my mind…”

Rest assured, I have been writing. A lot of it has been on Facebook, on which I post just about every day, often multiple times per day, plus the comments I leave on other people’s posts. If you and I aren’t Facebook friends, well, that’s a shame. To a lesser extent, I have a presence on Twitter, though my tweets mostly take one of two forms: either I’m commenting about hockey or I’m posting entries in hashtag contests. If you don’t know what a hashtag is, please note: It is NOT a lawn game played with recreational drugs. A hashtag, you see, is a text-based means of tagging content for sorting purposes… oh never mind. I don’t mean to sound condescending, but if you don’t know what they are, you probably don’t want to know. Moving on…

The role this journal serves in my life is very different from the role served by Facebook or Twitter. Those sites are for shorter, more topical, spur-of-the-moment thoughts and ramblings. I’ve tried to reserve LiveJournal for longer, more composed pieces or photo dumps. I haven’t been here much lately because one big thing has been taking up my writing time: I’ve been working on a play. Let me back up a bit and give you a brief history of myself as a playwright:

At various points in my (presumably) adult life, I have taken up my pen and/or keyboard and begun to write a play. When attempting to write an original work, the result was always the same for many years: After several pages, my mind would run dry or I’d hit a dead end that I lacked the inspiration, discipline, or technique to work my way out of.

The one exception to this was the adaptation I wrote in 1989 of the musical Babes in Toyland. That, however, was a special case for several reasons. First of all, it wasn’t an original work; it was an adaptation, which was a great deal easier than wholly inventing something on my own. I was working directly from two sources: The original 1903 script and a much later adaptation written by the late Dr. Joseph French. In fact, it was Dr. French who’d hired me to write the adaptation. We were keeping Victor Herbert’s original score (though I managed to omit the dreadful “Our Castle in Spain”), so I just needed to fashion a new telling of the tale around the existing songs, plus fix a few story problems that cropped up along the way. The other factor that greatly focused my efforts was that I was contracted to make a couple thousand dollars when I was done, plus a couple thousand more in royalties once the production opened. I must admit that money has a wondrous way of focusing my attention and energy.

So Babes was an outlier. The experience of writing it seemed to have no effect on my ability to actually write a play of my own. And so things stood until the middle of the last decade.

One day, my ambitious and talented friend Francesca called. She was putting together a festival of new one-act play readings and was short by two plays. I called her “ambitious” a moment ago and I should clarify – she’s not merely ambitious for herself; she’s ambitious for her friends. She had a pitch for me that day – that I should write two one-act plays for her festival, which was about two months away. Sounds crazy, right? She’s calling someone who’s never written anything of this sort and plopping this opportunity – and responsibility – right into his lap. But the fact is, her outrageous faith in my abilities made me resolve to make this happen.

After admitting to myself that my established writing approach hadn’t been working, I decided to take a leap of faith and change the rules. Primarily, this meant that the goal was not going to be writing a wonderful play; the goal was going to be writing a complete play. If I could work in anything wonderful along the way, so much the better, but the bottom line was that these plays had to be completed.

And it worked… with a few caveats, the main one being that my plays sucked. Now, now, don’t try to put a happy face on this. Those two plays were atrocious. They received their one and only public reading in The Theatre Building on Belmont Avenue and were thereafter consigned to the trash heap of history. And I feel good about that.

You see, I recognized going in that this was my chance to take a class in play writing. I learned a lot by writing those two lousy plays. I thus resolved to move on to better mistakes the next time around.

The next time around happened last year, when I took part in a project called Play For Keeps. It’s a play writing workshop run by Stockyards Theatre Project, one of whose guiding lights is, once again, our friend Francesca. At each session, a group of writers gets together and shares whatever they’ve been working on. The roles are assigned among those present and we read their material aloud. We then talk about what we’ve seen. It’s a simple concept but an effective one. At the end of the process, there is a public reading of selected scenes from the various pieces, each one being cast and directed by local theater folk.

My piece in Play For Keeps was a full-length, two-act science fiction play I’d spent quite a bit of time working on. Though I’d received a lot of encouragement from the group, I ultimately abandoned any thought of finishing it. I reached a point where I no longer believed in its merit. It had some good ideas and a few good scenes, but it wasn’t going to work as a play, so I shelved it.

Once again, I feel good about that. I made much more accomplished and sophisticated mistakes on that piece than I had on my two one-acts, so I’m calling it a Win.

All of which brings me to my latest play. Just like last time, this one involves science fiction and time travel, though in a vastly different manner than before. This time around, I’m feeling as if I’ve cast aside some of the encumbrances and phobias that have slowed me down in the past. Mainly, I’m clearer than ever on the notion of writing to make myself happy. If I were hired to write something, I might not feel so carefree, but the fact is that I’m writing something with almost no chance of ever turning a dime of profit or playing at a theater near you, and I’m not reporting to anyone but myself, so I’d darn well better make myself happy with it.

There is an interesting duality that comes over me when I’m writing this play. One part of me is immersed in the creative process, while another part of me is sitting in the audience watching it – laughing, frowning, being intrigued, being bored, being entertained. It’s that side of my psyche that I’m trying to please.

This philosophy is absolutely bearing fruit. This one has the potential to be a full-length play that I will actually finish writing and be happy with. That would be a wonderful thing. If I can do that, I will then begin to consider whether anyone might possibly wish to produce it, but until then, such thoughts are of no concern to me.

I’ve mentioned some of this to friends who are utterly non-theater people, and their reactions have been amusing. A common response is along the lines of, “Shouldn’t you try to write what the public wants?” I love that response because it neatly delineates the eternal quandary of the professional artist.

The first problem with that question is that it tacitly assumes that anything new and original is a bad thing, that your proper role is to give people more of what they already have. Now that is a perfectly reasonable way to pursue a career, and one may become an accomplished craftsperson by doing so. I’m not dissing that approach. There’s just one distinction that must be made – it’s a career as a skilled craftsperson, not a career as an artist.

Consider that phrase for a moment – “professional artist”. Give each word equal weight. It’s almost a contradiction in terms. If each of those words is to be fully honored, then the task at hand is not to create what the public wants; the task is to create your art and expose it to your potential audience (or the other way around). Maybe some people will like it. Maybe enough people will like it to make you a living. Or maybe your goal isn’t to be liked – hey, you never know with these artistic types.

As for me, I am still in the early stages of development as a playwright. As such, there are a great deal of “professional” considerations that I needn’t trouble myself with anytime soon. For now, the play’s the thing. I’ll keep you posted.


Crossword Solutions!

Posted on 2014.12.29 at 15:26
Current Mood: puzzled
Current Music: We Can Work It Out - The Beatles
What's this about a crossword? Well, I sent out my annual crossword puzzle the other day (give it till New Year's Eve). Truth be told, I sent them out a little late, so yours may not have arrived yet. But it's also possible that my disorganized file keeping has caused me to mislay or overlook your address, so please don't feel slighted if you haven't received yours. Instead, do something about it — send me your address so I can mail one out to you! That hyperlink below will show you the solutions to both of my puzzles. By "both" I mean the one I prepared for coworkers at my day job and the one I prepared for friends & family. If you're not a coworker of mine, there's little chance you'd know some of the longer answers in my coworkers puzzle. Likewise, if you are a coworker, some of the answers in the friends & family puzzle might be exceptionally difficult. In any case, don't click on that link unless you're ready to see the solutions.
Click here to see!Collapse )


There’s a terrible joke…

Posted on 2014.12.19 at 12:41
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative
Current Music: I Started a Joke - The Bee Gees
Yes, too terrible for even me to relate in its entirety. Ponder THAT for a moment!

It isn’t that the joke is scandalous, highly sexualized, or derogatory to a specific ethnic group; it’s just that it’s the most painfully contrived joke I’ve ever heard, all in the pursuit of a most unworthy payoff.

I heard it from my older brother, who picked it up God knows where. I do not say that in order to pin any undue blame upon him because the truth is that both he and I laughed ourselves sick over the joke when we first heard it. I’m guessing I was about 10 or 11 years old at the time, so this memory actually cheers me up — it makes me realize how far I’ve come in my appreciation of the funnier things in life.

I stated at the outset that I wouldn’t tell you the joke, and I’m sticking to that pledge. I will, however, give you part of the setup, which should convince you that I needn’t complete the task. Here you go:

A woman inherits a large estate. The name of the place is Hairy Butt. She also has a dog that she names Crack…

That’s as far as I’m going. To be clear – that’s just the setup; it’s not the funny part (feel free to make air quotes when reading the last two words of that sentence). It’s one of those jokes, i.e., one that requires an excruciatingly forced group of key words that will show up as part of the punch line; insisting that the listener suspend all impulses to question the joke’s logic or complete the joke ahead of time. It’s the kind of joke made up by someone who likes to laugh but who has failed to ponder any of the nuances of joke construction. Either that or it was made up by someone whose aesthetic growth stalled when they were about five years old and whose threshold for laughter is extremely low.

There is no grand summation to this story, except that it offers a glimpse into how we once thought and offers an opportunity to compare it to our present-day sensibilities.


The Shot Glass Thief

Posted on 2014.11.15 at 13:43
Current Mood: creative
Current Music: I'm on Fire - Bruce Springsteen
ShotglassI’ve always liked this piece – an elegant hunk of antique glass, molded in a more refined era. It has sat on my dresser for over 20 years. Every time I look at it, I think of Fritz, who is the shot glass’ rightful owner.

If Fritz is still alive, I’m sure he has no idea that I have this, or that the glass itself still exists. If he has any memory of it, he probably assumes that it was destroyed in the gigantic inferno that destroyed most of his belongings. Let’s sift through the ashes and uncover the reasons why I am the custodian of this artifact.

In the early 1980s, I was working at Detroit’s Attic Theatre. In addition to acting in quite a few of their productions, I was the bookkeeper for the company. It is a small miracle that the theater survived my tenure as bookkeeper, but that’s a story for another time and a few refillings of this glass.

In 1983, the Attic produced John Guare’s play Lydie Breeze. I played the small but vital role of a suitor who makes his one and only entrance three pages before the end of the play. I am proud to report that more than one published review singled out my performance for praise. More importantly, at least with regard to this essay’s topic, I was in charge of collecting props for the show.

[Sidebar — Since 1983, John Guare has substantially rewritten Lydie Breeze, so any remarks I make about the play’s structure or characters may not apply to the script as it presently stands.]

Among the items I needed to come up with as Prop Master were an antique Ouija board and a glass that the characters in the play would use to move over its surface. I employed my sister Helene to make the Ouija board. She had a flair for calligraphy and, for a modest fee, she carefully painted all of the requisite characters onto an old board pulled from my father’s stock of lumber.

The shot glass was another matter entirely. I tried out quite a few different items without success. It needed to have a smooth rim (since it would be used upside-down) and it needed to have some heft in order for it to be pushed evenly over the varnished surface of the Ouija board. This was where Fritz came in.

Fritz ran an unusual business. He was a lifelong collector of stuff, which is a polite word for junk. He owned more junk than anyone I have ever met – and that is no small boast given some of the collections I have seen. Ah, but organized junk can become something else entirely. In Fritz’ case, it became a props and interior design company. His warehouse contained several model rooms showcasing different historical eras. For example, one room was completely outfitted as a 1940s business office. Everything was there – desks, chairs, lamps, wall sconces, telephones, wallpaper, hat racks, doors, windows, right on down to pens, pencils and stationery. Other rooms targeted specific eras of the early 20th century in similar fashion. It was stunning to realize that everything one was looking at was genuine from the era and was completely functional.

Beyond the showrooms was the dimly lit floor of an old warehouse that had begun life as a manufacturing facility. Fritz’ floor space was equivalent to that of a large supermarket and was crammed with everything imaginable and unimaginable, even including an antique operating table and an electric chair used for executions.

Fritz had an established relationship with the Attic Theatre and with various production companies around town as a source for incomparable prop rental. Full disclosure – I recorded my first radio commercial for Fritz’ gallery. In it, I imitated the voices of Humphrey Bogart, Boris Karloff, and Sydney Greenstreet. It was, in all honesty, an abomination, and I’m eternally thankful that Fritz couldn’t afford to air it very much. If I am fortunate, no copies of this recording still exist.

When I went to Fritz’ place and told him what I needed, he literally pointed me towards the warehouse floor and sent me off on my own while he attended to other matters. It was grand fun, never knowing what the next drawer or the next cabinet might hold. I could have happily spent the entire day there, and it was a tribute to my self-control that I was able to walk out of there a half hour later with this shot glass in hand. I must note this in all fairness: Lydie Breeze is set on Nantucket in the 1890s. This shot glass is of a style several decades after that. So shoot me. It was the right size, the right weight, and it slid perfectly over our Ouija board. If anyone in the audience was that focused on our shot glass, then the actors weren’t doing their jobs.

After Lydie Breeze ended its run, props and sets were disassembled, stored, thrown away, or returned to the people from whom we’d borrowed or rented them… except for this shot glass. It somehow fell through the cracks. I’m sure Fritz didn’t miss it; he had thousands of other items to keep track of; he wasn’t going to lose sleep over this bauble.

And then… maybe a year or so later, disaster struck in the form of a fire. There were other businesses that rented space on other floors of the warehouse. At least one floor contained a large collection of priceless antique cars. I’m told that the wooden beams that held the building together had soaked up a lot of grease over the years, so once the fire got going, the whole place went up. In the newspaper the next day, a veteran firefighter called it the biggest fire he’d seen in his whole career. When I was able to get close to the site a couple weeks later, it looked as if the sidewalk in front of the rubble had melted. I don’t even know if that’s possible, but that’s what it looked like. Fritz had apparently been in the building when the fire began on a lower floor, and it was spreading so quickly that he had to run for his life and had no chance of saving any of his stuff.

I am probably not doing justice to the level of devastation caused by that fire. It was the one time in my life when I felt a tiny twinge of insight into what a war zone might feel like. Things that you assumed would always be there – big monolithic structures that seemed impervious to the vagaries of nature or the follies of mankind – are suddenly gone, utterly gone, taking with them a chunk of cultural heritage that cannot be rebuilt. And that’s just coming from me – someone who’d only been inside the place maybe three times. I cannot imagine how Fritz felt about it.

I’ve heard that Fritz got back into the business sometime after that. I don’t know whether he had stuff stored elsewhere to get him started, or whether his collecting acumen simply kept chugging away. I never saw him again after the fire. If he’s still alive, he must be getting up there in years, but if you’re reading this, Fritz, drop me a line if you’d like your shot glass back. I mean, I’d be happy to keep it right where it is, but I’d understand completely if you wanted it.


Letter to Havana

Posted on 2014.10.02 at 11:00
Current Mood: happyhappy
Current Music: Come On-a My House - Rosemary Clooney
In honor of Throw-Back Thursday, we’re going to go all the way back to March 13th, 1950. That’s the date on a letter my late mother wrote to her sister Betty. A bit of background: I never knew my aunt Betty. She died young from MS. I know that she spent some time in Havana. According to this letter, she was working there, but I really don’t know the details. My mother was 17 when she wrote this and still living with her parents on Parker Ave. in Detroit. Mom was always an avid and excellent letter-writer, and it’s clear that this talent came to her early in life. Her penmanship in this letter is precise, stylish, completely readable, and utterly recognizable; the style changed very little in the course of her life. Here is the complete text of the letter:

Dear Betty,
Just received your letter and am eager for graduation so that I may join you in Cuba. It surely is wonderful of you to present me with an “all expenses paid” trip as a gift; but, when I acquire a steady position I’ll be able to repay your many kindnesses a hundredfold.

Mom is having a hectic time with that nephew of ours. Either she’s feeding him or rocking him to sleep.

His mother is recuperating but still unable to sit for a length of time.

Daddy is working now, and we’re all making a sacrifice to endure the baby’s bawling until his father is able to leave the hospital.

Sleep must be a marvelous thing. I’ve already forgotten how eight solid hours of it feels. But, one glance at the sweet countenance banishes all sorrow and rids one of that “tired” sensation.

I’m delighted to hear of your successful secretarial position there in Havana. I can just picture your daily routine: Rise at six o’clock; get to work by seven; slave until three, and then, rush to the beach where you can swim and endure the sunshine until the time approaches for the preparation of your many beaux.

I don’t envy you as far as weather is concerned. Cuba has quite a bit of warm sunshine; but Detroit, at the present, is blanketed with snow and possesses a slightly cool temperature. Spring is just around the corner, and that means housecleaning.

Mom and I will miss your elbow grease when it comes to washing walls and floors. Remember how you spent your summer vacation of ‘forty-eight? I was rummaging through my photo album and came across the enclosed snapshot. Let it remind you of those “good old summer vacation days”. Boy! You really put forth energy in scrubbing that dining room floor.

There goes that baby crying again. It’s his feeding time.

All of us martyrs send our love.

Write me of your newly discovered romances. Save some for me.

Respectfully yours,
Mary Anne Zabor

Among other things, this letter serves as a reminder that letter writing is a dying art, having been mostly replaced by text messages and comments on social media. I’m pretty sure mom never made that trip to Havana, though I couldn’t tell you why, and all of the people who could have filled in the details have passed on. But that’s really not an issue. I don’t need the details; just a quick whiff of mom’s spirit is all I require.


Bristol '14

Posted on 2014.08.31 at 23:54
Current Mood: amusedamused
Current Music: The Minstrel Boy (Trad. Irish)
We made it up to Kenosha, Wisconsin on Sunday for the penultimate day of this year’s Bristol Renaissance Faire. It was a scorcher and we had to work at staying hydrated, but as always, a good time was had by all. The one bit of bad news was finding out that one of our favorite shops – the bookstore – is gone, as the long-time proprietor has decided to retire. Before departing the faire today, I filled out a comment card with one simple request: “Bring back the bookstore!” Only time will tell what kind of influence I have at Bristol. On to a few select photos:
In spite of the syntax of their banner, these two are, left to right, Guido and Dirk. I’ve seen their show on various occasions and they’re always a treat. A special flourish, bow, and tip of the cap goes to them on the occasion of their 25th anniversary as an act. Long may they wave their swords!
This oddly proportioned child was making quite an amusing racket crying out at passers-by. Now let’s back off and see what’s really going on here:
Yes, those are stilts. So now you know. It was still pretty darned funny.
This exotic woman was just about the loveliest sight I saw all day. She did not speak, so I cannot tell you anything more about her, but she happily posed for the photo and smiled coquettishly when I remarked on her beauty.
There are many diversions for children at Bristol and this is one of the most striking. The youngsters seen here have been strapped to bungee cords and are bouncing high into the air off trampolines. If I weighed around 75% less, I would be all over this.
Our final shot is a panorama of the crowd. That impressively tall fellow on the right side of the picture is a member of the acrobatic comedy team Barely Balanced, and yes, he is walking on stilts. If you ever get the chance, this is a crowd you should be a part of.


Called Out by the Empire

Posted on 2014.08.31 at 00:24
Current Mood: spacey
Current Music: Space Oddity - David Bowie
On Friday last, we thought we were going to US Cellular Field in Chicago to cheer on the visiting Detroit Tigers as they took on the White Sox. As it turned out, the baseball game was a mere backdrop to the main point of the evening: It was Star Wars Night! Hundreds of Imperial subjects, as well as an undisclosed number of rebel sympathizers, converged upon the stadium and claimed it as their own. I can’t say much more than that, as I live in a galaxy far, far away from theirs and have limited knowledge of their customs and political dynamics, but I have a couple of intriguing photos to share.
Here, it appears Princess Leia has been captured by Imperial forces and is being escorted to an undisclosed location for purposes of interrogation. Most intriguingly, they appear to be acting under the direction of Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander, whose Imperial allegiance had been heretofore unknown to me.
But then, much to our surprise, a second Princess Leia appeared. We are left with many questions but no answers – Has an imposter princess been put in place by the Empire to deceive her subjects? Should we call her Princess Liar? Is one of them a stunt double? Or maybe – I may as well say it – a clone?


The Woman Who Liked Men

Posted on 2014.08.25 at 20:15
Current Mood: amusedamused
Current Music: Come Go With Me - The Del-Vikings
Many years ago, in a land far, far away, I was cast in a show. Even though I’d been in a lot of shows at that point in time, it happened that I knew none of my fellow cast members. While it is fun to do a show with old friends, it can also be really cool to come in as a complete stranger to everyone. It’s a chance to check one’s professionalism and renew one’s commitment to giving an honest effort.

This new group of acquaintances was an enthusiastic, hard-working bunch, so things went along very well. I quickly hit it off with two people in particular – we’ll call them Dorothy and Eileen. In fact, I began to feel particularly attracted to Eileen. While Eileen may not have picked up on this, it seemed that Dorothy did, and she decided to give me some advice.

Dorothy and Eileen had gone to school together, and while they were certainly friends, they were also very different people. Dorothy took me aside one day and said, “Look, I know you’re attracted to Eileen, but there’s something you should know about her… She likes men.” Dorothy said this haltingly, as if she hadn’t quite put her thoughts into words before blurting them out.

Dorothy’s declaration confused me, and I responded, “Well, that’s the kind of woman I was hoping for – the kind that likes men.”

Dorothy sighed. “No, I mean she likes… LOTS of men.” I began to catch on. I thanked Dorothy for the advice and began paying closer attention to Eileen’s behavior. As I got to know her better, the truth of Dorothy’s statement became apparent.

Now let me be clear about this: I imposed no moral judgment onto Eileen or onto anyone else in this matter. She was of course free to date whomever she wished, and as many people as she wished, and it wouldn’t affect how I felt about her. But it would affect my decisions and actions. The simple fact was that I’ve never had any desire to view dating as a group competition, or even a group activity. I want my dating life to be about a relationship between two people. In my view, it’s hard enough to sort out a solid relationship between two people; the prospect of being part of a dating tree held no appeal for me. Clearly, many people take a much more open view to dating scenarios than I do, and that’s fine – vive la différence! I’m not prescribing this for anyone else – you’ve got to find the approach that works for you. Finally, in the spirit of full disclosure, I think my main reason for telling this story was simply to pass along the moment when Dorothy and I had the exchange about Eileen liking men. It belongs in a script somewhere, and if anyone would like to appropriate the line, you have my permission.


I Was a Teenage Leper

Posted on 2014.08.20 at 17:05
Current Mood: amusedamused
Current Music: 3500 (from "Hair")
I was 18, didn’t have a care. Working for peanuts, not a dime to spare… and we’ll stop right there, because the comparisons with Bob Seger begin to break down pretty quickly after that. It was the summer right after my high school graduation and I was working on my first community theater production. The show was called Impressions. Act I consisted of music and dancing highlights from Hair, Tommy, and Godspell. Act II consisted of highlights from Jesus Christ Superstar and Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. It was, at least in my rosy recollections, a grand entertainment. Certainly, the cast included a bunch of folks who would go on to do a lot more wonderful work in the ensuing years. Let me put it this way: It was one of those shows – the kind you never forget; the kind that makes you smile a hundred different ways at the thought of the people and the moments that played out over the course of the summer. It was the right show at the right time in my life.

Okay, let’s ditch that soft-focus lens and talk about some of the real stuff that happened. Like many dozens of others, I was there to be a singer, not an actor. Specifically, I was there to be a chorus singer. My one solo line in the entire show came during the Hair segment. This was the line: “Black uniforms, bare feet, carbines.” Didja sneeze? Then ya missed me. But that’s okay. No complaints here. I was surrounded by a lot of talented people and it felt good to be considered as their peer, even if I didn’t quite believe it myself.

One of my few moments actually standing on the stage came during the Jesus Christ Superstar segment, in which I played one of a group of lepers, and this is where our story takes a strange turn…

As a leper, I was tasked with developing my own costume. We were given a tight range of colors to shoot for and a few general guidelines. When I brought the matter to my mother’s attention, she had a moment of inspiration – I could use a monk’s shroud that she had lying around.

Yes, you heard me, a monk’s shroud. It’s a long story. Look, I come from a very Catholic family, okay? And no, it had never been used. The shroud was made of a thick, rough fabric and was dark brown in color. My leper costume needed to be a much lighter shade, so mom put it into a vat with a bunch of bleach and we hoped for the best. The result was a light brown color that was pretty much spot-on for our purposes.

Next came the “distressing” (theater term) of the garment. This meant ripping random holes in it and smearing it with dirt and grease. All good. Ah, but then, it became apparent that you could see quite a bit of me through the holes in the garment, and seeing my tighty-whities on stage would not have been in keeping with our 1st century A.D. theme. And while wearing nothing at all under the garment might have met our historical criteria, it would have created an entirely different set of potential issues that I needn’t detail here.

What to do? What to do? Well, it was immediately apparent to me that I needed to find some flesh-colored briefs, so off I went to a large area shopping mall. I searched… and I searched… but found nothing even close… UNTIL – in a fit of desperation, I began looking in the children’s department. On the swimsuit racks, I found a pair of briefs that were the perfect shade of beige – in a girl’s size 6. With opening only days away, I clenched my jaw and made the purchase. The fit was, well, ultra-snug, but it wasn’t as if I had to wear them for the entire second act; it was really only about ten minutes a night. Surely I could grin and bear it.

I may as well admit that I felt more than a little sheepish to be wearing a little girl’s bikini bottom, so I was careful to never let my fellow cast members see me getting in and out of it. It was just my little secret. In retrospect, I probably should have been a little less secretive.

Weeks after the show had closed, cast members began to meet up and share photos their families had taken during the performances. These were the pre-Internet days, so photo sharing was done by meeting people face-to-face and actually putting photos into their hands. If they wanted copies, you had to make arrangements to take the negatives to the drugstore and order additional copies. Yes, these were primitive times, but we somehow managed.

Anyway, it soon became apparent that a legend had sprung up in certain circles. According to the legend, photographs demonstrated conclusively that I was wearing no underwear during the leper scene. One cast member possessed a particularly graphic photo which purportedly showed my bare butt through a hole in the costume. No denials on my part were deemed as credible; the photographic evidence trumped my pathetic explanation. As for the beige briefs, I had consigned them to the trash on closing night, so a key piece of forensic evidence was now irretrievably lost.

And that’s how things have stood from that day to this. I never personally received a copy of any of the incriminating photos, nor would I be inclined to display them in this journal if I possessed said photos. But if any of my fellow Impressions cast members or show patrons are reading this, you have my solemn word that these are the true facts of the case.



Posted on 2014.08.10 at 15:41
Current Mood: artistic
Current Music: Turn the Page - Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
That spelling, though a little unusual, comes directly from her neatly pinned nametag. Johanna was a waitress at a Sanders location in Detroit in the 1970s. She may well have waitressed there in the 60s, and even the 50s and 40s for that matter. I can only tell you about my interaction with her, as we never had a proper conversation outside of our waitress/customer relationship. In particular, I want to talk about a particularly memorable exchange that occurred between us on a sunny weekday in 1978.

For you non-Detroiters, what was Sanders? — I’m using the past tense here – “…what was Sanders?” – even though a handful of Sanders locations still exist, but in the 1970s, there were dozens of them. Sanders was chiefly a chocolate and ice cream shop. It was founded by one Fred Sanders in the 1870s and it was a Detroit institution for generations. My dear late mother had worked at one of their downtown stores in her teen years, and Sanders cakes and chocolates were often found in our home, as most supermarkets around there carried their products.

One Sanders was located on Detroit’s far east side, on Houston-Whittier near Kelly. It sat only a couple blocks from a store called Merchandise Mart, which sold automotive, hardware, gardening, and other household supplies. I worked there as a stockboy/auto counter worker when I was in my late teens.

Merchandise Mart was my first “real” job other than my years as a paper boy. I was earning only a hair above minimum wage, so lunch tended to be a modest affair. Further up Kelly, there was an independent burger joint that many of my coworkers swore by. This should tell you all you need to know about the place: On the glass of their front window, they had crudely painted the slogan, “Buy 'Em By the Sack!” I quickly learned that their products did not agree with my digestive system, so I sought out nearby alternatives.

Now Sanders, despite its close proximity to my place of employment, was not an obvious choice as a lunch spot. Most people, even teenagers like myself, did not want to have, say, an ice cream sundae for lunch. But in fact, Sanders had a short menu of regular food. My standard order was an American cheese sandwich on white bread with lettuce and mayonnaise. And a Coke, served in one of those large conical paper cups that the server would crisply snap up with a metal holder that served as the cup’s base. Kind of a meager lunch, I’ll grant you, but it was inexpensive and it got me through my shift.

There’s something that’s very clear now that wasn’t obvious to me at the time – Sanders had already peaked and was in decline. People my age weren’t going there in great numbers. Their clientele was mostly older folks who’d grown up going to Sanders, along with the occasional family group, but the demographic and business shift that would end up nearly killing the company had already begun. The result was that I was usually an outlier in the group. The gang sitting on the stools at the counter would be a bunch of old folks – and me, a pimple-faced, 6’2” teenager with an enormous bush of hair on top of his head. And I mustn’t forget to mention that I would invariably be wearing my white short-sleeved shirt and black bowtie, since I was coming there straight from work.

Johanna was usually behind the counter. Her uniform was always neatly pressed and she never seemed to have a hair out of place, though that hair was done up in a style that seemed as if it had not changed since the end of World War II, and it was colored a most implausible shade of blonde. She was one of those people who was impossible to dislike, smiling and friendly to everyone she waited on, though one sensed that outside of work, she was probably rather quiet and shy. If I may presume to say so, she seemed to have a particularly maternal regard for me. I always tried to put a smile on her face and she invariably did the same for me.

One afternoon, I came in pressed for time. There were only a few vacant seats at the counter. I sat down at one and gave Johanna my usual order. I added, somewhat sheepishly, that I was in a bit of a hurry. “Don’t you worry,” she assured me, “I’m fast.”

Before my filters could kick in, I breezily replied, “So I’ve heard!” Well, the place fell out. The oldsters at the counter all began to snicker and guffaw in spite of their assuredly proper upbringings. Johanna flushed utterly crimson at this sudden hubbub and covered her face with her hands. She said, “Oh my” and nearly collapsed in tears, all the while enduring the continued tittering of the regular customers.

I was of two minds at that moment. On the one hand, I’d just made a whole long counter of people laugh. On the other hand, I’d done so at the expense of someone I had no wish in the world to offend. On the balance, I felt pretty bad. When Johanna had recovered and was able to stand and speak again, I offered my most heartfelt apologies. The next day, I had lunch there again and apologized again. It took a few more visits before things were the same between the two of us.

I suppose this might seem like a silly little moment. As I’ve described it, you might very well wonder what all the fuss was about. Some might suggest that Johanna was being far too sensitive and that she needed to get in touch with the real world. I can’t place that kind of judgment upon her. I can only deal with the facts as they occurred.

Calling a woman “fast” was an antiquated expression by the time I was growing up. I don’t recall ever hearing someone my own age use it to describe a woman who could readily be cajoled into having sex, but that’s what the term meant to people of an earlier generation. That may have been a part of the power of that moment – that a rather impolite term was being referenced by a youngster like myself. And of course, the thought that anyone would project such an implication upon the seemingly simple, sweet, matronly Johanna – that is, I’m sure, where much of the audience’s reaction came from. But it was in reality a bad misstep on my part, a failure to sense Johanna’s possible mindset. I can, of course, fairly blame it on my youth and ignorance, but the truth is that on some level, I knew I was playing out on the edge of some risky material. There’s gold to be mined out there on the edge, but mourn not for those who fall into the chasm.

Ultimately, I took it as an important lesson in reading one’s audience. Oh, there have been many more such lessons in the years since then. I’ve offended more than a few people with ill-considered wit. I’ve also made countless thousands laugh. In the process, I’ve learned a lot about how to not hurt people – and how to help them. Humor has always been, and remains, a central part of my life’s art. For that, I offer no apologies.


Lombardi Needs a Timeout

Posted on 2014.08.04 at 18:06
Current Mood: satisfiedsatisfied
Current Music: Back on the Chain Gang - The Pretenders
A lot of people I know have posted recently about the concept of “Lombardi time”. It isn’t a new idea but it seems to be in vogue lately. It is usually posted in the form of a quote reportedly uttered by the late football coach Vince Lombardi, and it usually goes something like this:

“If you’re early, you’re on time.
If you’re on time, you’re late.
If you’re late, don’t bother showing up.”

People usually post this to indicate their enthusiastic agreement with the philosophy. My feelings on the subject are more nuanced. To begin with, there’s an important distinction that needs to be made – is this simply being declared as one’s personal approach and philosophy to one’s own work, or is it being dictated as The Way People Will Conduct Themselves When They Work With/For Me? As stated above, it is the latter – this is Lombardi telling people that this is how they will conduct themselves when they work with him. And as such, it is perfectly unprofessional.

Yes, I know its defenders will disagree with me right there; they would probably say that it is the very essence of professionalism. But hear me out. If you want to adopt this as your personal code of conduct and it works for you, that’s fine. As a personal code, it may be a fine pathway to professional conduct for an individual. Just don’t kid yourself that it’s the One True Way for all people. When you make this the rule for people who work under you in all situations, you have become unprofessional in your conduct as a manager. You have stated that you do not trust the people who work for you, so you feel it necessary to play little head games with them and insist that they play along. You have demoted yourself from manager to babysitter.

From what I’ve read about The Green Bay Packers when Lombardi became their head coach, this may have been a valid approach at the time. It sounds like it was a team full of disorganized, unprofessional individuals who had to be whipped into shape in a strict manner. Championships ensued. So yay, Coach Lombardi. Maybe he was the right man in the right place. But when you project this into every work situation and every profession as a basic rule, you only make yourself into a dictator who may be feared and obeyed, but who can never be respected as a fellow professional. In fact, if this management approach is brought to bear upon a group of true professionals, it stands an excellent chance of only destroying morale and loyalty. And folks, I speak from experience, having been on the receiving end of management quite comparable to this approach and having seen the damage it can do to a working team – damage that the manager can never, ever accept as being traceable to their own policies.

So how about this approach to treating me like a professional: Tell me what time you need me to be there, and by God, I’ll be there and I’ll be ready to go. I will figure out what time I need to arrive in order for that to happen. Why? Because I’m a professional. If your approach is, “I’m telling you that you need to be here at 9:00 a.m., but the SECRET time you need to be here is 8:30 or you will have violated my secret rule,” then you’ve just made yourself look like a fool in the eyes of anyone with a sense of dignity and personal accountability. Oh, you actually want me there at 8:30? Fine. Tell me that’s my starting time and we won’t have any problems. Do you see how that works?

In the end, Lombardi’s dictate to his workers may fairly be translated as this: “I assume that the people who work for me are unprincipled and cannot be trusted to give their full effort unless I treat them like mental weaklings. I can out-think them and I can bully them, so I shall. Anyone walking through my door who says they are already an evolved professional with high standards of dependability is assumed to be a liar. There is no place for such people here. Competence, professionalism, and results are not the primary goals here; adherence to an arbitrary code of conduct takes precedence.”

That’s actually a charitable translation in that it gives the manager credit for trying to get some sort of performance out of their workers. The harsher translation would be, “Because I’m in charge, I will abuse my power by making the schedule revolve around my needs. Because there might be traffic delays or acts of God that will make you late one out of a hundred times, I want you to always be here unnecessarily early. My free time is important but yours is not. As your manager, I can dictate to you; I can even punish you for failing to read my mind and you just have to take it. It’s good to be the king.”

Finally, the least charitable translation would be something like, “I don’t actually know much about managing people, so I’ve settled on a few basic rules that cover my ass and keep me in power, while allowing me to tell myself that I’m building character and running a tight ship.”

In closing, let me offer this as the closest thing I can muster to an olive branch for those of you who crave being managed in this manner – If that’s how you as a worker need to be managed in order to function in a professional environment, then I hope you find such a manager.

Plane Stamp

Swirling Around Nebraska

Posted on 2014.07.27 at 21:56
Current Mood: accomplished
Current Music: Ride Like the Wind - Christopher Cross
No, CC and I never entered Nebraska on our recently concluded week-and-a-half trip. We decided before leaving Chicago that there was nothing we wanted to see in the Cornhusker state (no offense to the fine upstanding huskers of corn who populate the place), so we decided to broadly circumnavigate the state’s borders. We took a southerly route on the way west, through Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, and Utah, and we took a northerly route on the way back, through Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

My initial approach to documenting our trip was to do it in traditional chronological order. But as I considered the many and varied moments we experienced, I realized that we will not remember the trip chronologically, so it would be inappropriate to record it that way. An old friend of mine was fond of saying, “Life is a collection of moments,” so I will present this trip as a collection of moments grouped into individual narratives and broad categories.

This isn’t by any means a complete record of the places we visited. For example, we spent an enjoyable hour or so visiting the Cottonwood County Historical Society in Windom, Minnesota, but there’s neither a story to tell nor cool photos to show, so I won’t go into any further detail. I hope you’ll enjoy the stories and photos I’ve chosen to share here.

This Doesn’t Look Like Tatooine

CC and I both enjoy visiting old houses and museums, and we did a lot of that on this trip. When we saw that the Hamill House Museum in Georgetown, Colorado was right along our path, we decided to pop in (Note: There is also an old building called Hamill House in New Jersey. It has nothing to do with the place we visited. We didn’t go through New Jersey, okay? Maybe another time).

Anyway, Hamill House Museum is a gorgeous Victorian mansion built in 1879 by silver baron William Arthur Hamill. It is still lavishly furnished and decorated with a great deal of original material. As we approached the house, we joked that it could be the home of actor Mark Hamill. Well, it isn’t. HOWEVER, we discovered that William, the old silver baron, was actually the great-great grandfather of Mark “Skywalker” Hamill! For the record, the Hamill family still occasionally comes back to Georgetown for family reunions at the mansion, but we were told that Mark has not been in attendance as of yet. Bottom line: We will now begin telling people that we were in Mark Hamill’s house. And to those of you who would say “That’s not true!” I have only this to say: Picky, picky, picky.

St. Joan of Wichita

Well of course we went through Wichita! You don’t drive all that way just to skirt its borders and glimpse the city walls through the mountain mist! And besides, there were museums we planned to visit there. They were all closed, by the way, so our tour of downtown was very brief. But on our way back to the car, we passed the Wichita Public Library. Why is there a statue of St. Joan outside the place?… Anyone?… That’s what I thought. So I had to take a picture of it. After my return to Chicago, I learned that the original statue was a gift to Wichita from the city of Orleans, France in 1970. The original was carved from stone and is now in storage somewhere in Wichita, but this bronze copy now classes up the library. Still unanswered is the question of why Orleans felt so enamored of/indebted to Wichita. Perhaps an emergency airlift from Wichita had quelled the Great Orleans Corn Riots, but I’m just guessing here.

They Sure Are Fond of the Letter K in These Parts

You may be reading this sign as “Kabing”. That was certainly my first instinct. Ah, but you see – we were staying in a Kamping Kabin at a KOA Kampground in Springfield, Missouri. The sign actually reads “Kabin 6”. I may drop them a note of quick tips on the subject of letter spacing. I will omit any critique of their spelling, as I try not to take on lost causes. Here’s a proper view of the Kamping Kabin we stayed at in the Alma Center, Wisconsin KOA:
Aside from two nights in hotels, we stayed at KOAs all along the way. I want to take just a moment to recommend them to a certain kind of traveler. I have never in my life slept in a tent or a sleeping bag, but I can totally dig the KOA Kabin experience. They go for an average price of around $65 a night. What you get is a cabin with one large bed and a set of bunk beds (bring your own linens), a front porch with a swinging chair, electricity, wi-fi, and usually a heater and/or air conditioner. There is no running water, so you have to walk a short distance for lavatories and showers. There is some variation in specific amenities since they are franchises. Many of them have laundry facilities, TV and game rooms, and pancake breakfast deals. Most of them are quieter than you might think and offer a good night’s sleep. For my money, they’re preferable to most $65 a night motels. Just to be clear, most of the campground consists of parking areas for conventional campers, but they all have at least a handful of cabins, usually at the edge of the property. So not only were the KOAs enjoyable, but for a long trip like ours, they represented a substantial savings compared to booking hotels every night.

While I’m on the subject, the absolutely nicest KOA we stayed at was in Alma Center, Wisconsin. It was exceptionally beautiful and well run. Since there’s a photo of it just above, I should mention that it was slightly larger than the usual one bedroom cabin. We were upgraded to a two bedroom that night at no additional charge. By chance, a large patch of wild raspberries and blackberries was growing right behind our cabin. We were told that we were welcome to pick all the berries we wanted. While we did pick and eat a few right off the vine (they were delicious), inclement weather denied us the chance to do any serious berry picking. But we’d go back to that one in a heartbeat.

Not Just Any Old Tree

No, indeed not. That, my friends, is an American Elm. Once common, it has become a rare sight in most of the U.S. since Dutch elm disease wiped out most of them in the mid-20th century. This one is also exceptional because it is the largest and oldest elm I can recall ever seeing. I wish I could have taken a wider angle shot to show the true extent and majesty of this tree, but I couldn’t get to the proper vantage point to make the shot possible.

This tree dates to the 1830s. It is located right in front of the Historic Indian Agency House at Fort Winnebago in Portage, Wisconsin. It was planted by the family of the man for whom the house was built – John Kinzie. Kinzie Street in Chicago was named in his honor. John and his wife Juliette were remarkable people and I commend them to your attention for further study. We toured the home in Portage and had a great time. If you’re ever in the area – about 40 miles north of Madison – and you want to see some cool history, it’s well worth the drive.

Dinosaurs in the Desert

This sign is in far western Colorado. It is presumably tens of millions of years old and provides a rare glimpse into the spiritual lives of dinosaurs.

Not far from there, just into Utah, we visited Dinosaur National Monument. If you’re an aficionado of that kind of thing, you must go there. You must. Your counter-arguments are invalid. Go.

Dinosaur National Monument is in a dry rocky desert, but millions of years ago, the area was green and swampy and teeming with – you guessed it – dinosaurs. Countless thousands of them died and sunk to the bottom of a river bed, where they became fossilized when the river dried up. This photo shows me, your intrepid explorer, belt askew after cheating death in the wilderness yet again, standing in front of the actual river bed next to actual dinosaur fossils that have been left in situ:
For a better perspective, here is CC standing next to the exposed river bed. If this photo were larger and had higher resolution, you would be able to see hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fossils here. Many important fossils and nearly complete skeletons have been pulled from this area in the past century, and they have been displayed in museums all over the world. If you’re still not convinced that you have to go there, I give up.
While we were poking around in the gift shop, attempting to unearth new contributions to paleontology, we learned that there were ancient petroglyphs etched onto nearby cliffs and rock walls. Well golly – as long as we were in the neighborhood, how could we pass up the chance to see them? It turned out that the petroglyphs were on National Park Service land and we got directions from a gift shop employee.

In retrospect, I don’t think that employee had ever visited the site herself, as finding the location turned out to be about a 30 mile drive, mostly on rugged, unpaved, one-lane desert roads, to a non-obvious location. Still, we persevered and ultimately found it. This first shot was taken using an extreme zoom lens, as the location was high up and not apparently accessible without climbing equipment:
A little further along, there was a zig-zagging path up the rocky hill that only required a little bit of climbing in order to scale. It led right up to the etching you see here, though I did need to climb up onto a four-foot boulder in order to get this angle.
I should note that there was a sign nearby placed by the National Park Service asking visitors to please refrain from touching or defacing the petroglyphs, though there were no rangers guarding the place. It doesn’t look as if anyone has done much damage to them, probably because this isn’t the kind of place one wanders into on a drunken joyride, and the walls are far too massive to simply haul away.

How old are the petroglyphs? Archaeologists aren’t sure. They were put there by a group we call the Fremont Culture, though it is unlikely that’s what they called themselves. I mean, c’mon – what rival tribe would be afraid of the “Fremonts”? Then again, this inability to intimidate anyone could explain their disappearance. But there I go speculating again. They lived there from about 200 A.D. to 1200 A.D., so they certainly predate Columbus and his successors, but there’s a lot we don’t know about them. The only other thing I’ll say is that it is really awesome to stand directly in front of something that was etched on that very spot probably over a thousand years ago. It imparts a kind of understanding that cannot be put entirely into words.

A footnote to our journey through dinosaur country: Later that day, we bought gas at a Sinclair station. Considering their traditional logo, it could not have been a more appropriate place for us to replenish our fossil fuel. Also note the presumably yummy elk and bison jerky for sale there. We had just eaten dinner or we’d have been all over that.

You Make Me Feel Like Branson

We only spent a few hours in Branson. We’d stayed an hour away from there the night before, and we were a few hundred miles away by the end of the day. Staying in Branson at the height of tourist season is a bad idea for reasons too numerous to list here. We made a surgically precise break-in and break-out with only one Branson location on our agenda: The Titanic Museum. Within the parameters of this trip, we were not interested in attending the Baldknobbers Jubilee or visiting The Dick Clark Theater, the Andy Williams Theater, or any of the other sites traditionally associated with Bransonian culture.

It is downright bewildering that the largest collection of Titanic artifacts anywhere in the world (other than the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean) should be found in Branson, Missouri, but hey, I don’t make these decisions. The fact remains that it is a well designed and fascinating place to visit if you’re into Titanic-related stuff, and it isn’t nearly as cheesy as the Branson connection might lead you to expect. Shown here is an archival photo of CC’s great grandmother as she prepared to board the R.M.S Titanic in Dusseldorf.

Deadwood is Alive and Well

We would go back to Deadwood, South Dakota anytime. It looked like an attractive and fun town, full of diversions and edifying experiences. A lot of people probably go there for the casinos or the shopping – and those would be fun to do another time – but we rolled into town having researched only one local attraction – the Adams House:
It was built in 1892 by a well-to-do Deadwoodian and is chock full of furnishings that date back either to its original construction or to its 1930s state of décor. As historic homes go, it’s an exceptionally fine example and a treat to tour. As with most such historic homes, photography was not permitted, but I pulled this photo off their website:
What’s So Bad About the Badlands?

One of the highlights of our trip was our visit to Badlands National Park in South Dakota. One of its secrets is how it sneaks up on you. You’re driving along through fairly flat grasslands. Even as you’re approaching the main gate of the park, you wonder what’s so bad about this benign if somewhat arid plain. Then suddenly, you realize that you’ve been approaching it on the high ground. The terrain suddenly shifts and you find yourself looking into jagged canyons and beautiful, albeit harsh, vistas of rock walls displaying a chronology of millions of years of changing climates and topography, followed by millions more years of erosion and tectonic upheaval.
Here is an example of what one may see there, though with a couple of notes: We were there when the sun was high in the sky, so the colors are not as vivid as they would be in the morning or evening. Also, it’s difficult to discern the scale of this photo since it contains no human or animal figures as points of comparison. The drop-off shown here is probably at least a couple hundred feet, though parts of the park are considerably higher.

As we stood admiring the view, a large animal suddenly appeared, trotting along almost straight at us. It was a pronghorn antelope! I quickly snapped this photo, and I was very fortunate to have it come out as well as it did.
Here’s an enlarged close-up of our antelope friend:

Baseball with a Side of Sausage

Near the end of our trip, we stopped in Milwaukee to attend a baseball game between the hometown Brewers and the New York Mets. Though the Mets won that night on a late home run, we had a great time. Before the game, we encountered a group of local celebrities: the sausages from the world-renowned sausage race that takes place at every Brewers home game. CC had the rare honor of meeting the Chorizo and putting her arm around his sausage:

Alas, the Chorizo came in last at that night’s sausage race. I’m not sure how this was CC’s fault, but she was surely culpable in some way.

That’s a quick overview of some of our trip’s highlights. We did a variety of fun things and drove and drove and drove. I’m home right now and I didn’t get into the car even once today, and I’m very happy about that. But I’ve got to tell you – I had so much fun. I saw things I’d never seen before. Some were things I’d heard about and had always wanted to see; some were things I had seen before, yet I had completely new interactions with them; some were utter surprises that I didn’t expect on any level until they appeared before my eyes. I think travel is an important thing. I think it teaches us things that can’t be put into words; things that can’t be written down in a textbook – or in a blog. So this post is ultimately only a set of hints and clues to what we experienced. To learn more, you need to do it yourself.


A Pebble Was Cast

Posted on 2014.07.09 at 19:52
I’m not going to list the names of the people shown here. I figure that after 35 years, they deserve the option of anonymity if they so desire. But that’s me with the glasses and the wristwatch, in the company of a bunch of awfully talented people.
It was the spring of 1979. I was an earnest but inexperienced actor. My complete resumé at the time was this: Two high school shows, two college shows, four community theater shows, and a lifetime of trying to entertain people. And then… a moment occurred; a moment when everything changed and the rest of my life began. I didn’t realize any of that at the time, but that’s what it turned out to be.

While I was busy being a 20-year-old ne’er-do-well, neither employed nor a student, my friend Ed was studying with the theater department at the University of Detroit. He had been scheduled to play a supporting role in a production of A Night Out by Harold Pinter, but he’d had to drop out of it for some reason or other. At the time, Ed and I were similar types as actors, by which I mean we were both larger than average, louder than average young character actors. “Aha!” I thought, “Maybe they’re desperate to recast this role and I can just slide into it even though I’m not a student.”

What made this role more attractive than the usual college theater fare was that it was being produced as part of a theater festival to take place at Detroit’s Attic Theatre, which was very prominent and highly regarded at the time. The notion that I might have a shortcut to performing a role at the Attic was all the motivation I needed. I looked up the Attic’s phone number and called to inquire as to the casting situation for A Night Out.

I want you to notice something right away about my choice – it was fundamentally flawed. The Attic was not producing this show; the University of Detroit Theater Department was. There was no chance I was going to get hooked up with A Night Out by making this call. But as the saying goes, fortune favors the bold.

The person who answered the phone at the Attic was, I later determined, Harlan Moyer, who was one of the theater’s founders and who was at the time married to the Attic’s Artistic Director, Lavinia Moyer. Trying to sound cordial but professional, I asked whether they would be holding auditions to recast the role in the Pinter play for the upcoming festival. Harlan paused a moment to figure out what I was talking about, but he quickly caught up.

“We’re not producing that,” he began, “You would have to call the theater office at U of D to find out about that.”

“Oh, I see,” I replied, suddenly feeling as if I’d been unmasked as a rube.

“But we’re having auditions here on Saturday for our next show, Steambath. Would you like to schedule an audition time for that?”

“Yeah, that would be fine,” I said, trying to sound calm. And so my audition time was set.

Here’s how ignorant I was about the theater world in Detroit: I’d never imagined that you could simply call up a place like the Attic and schedule an audition. Surely one had to have connections, or maybe even an agent, just to walk in the door. Yes, I was that clueless. And not just clueless, but also… unempowered.

The audition day arrived. I walked in not expecting to know a soul there. It was therefore a welcome delight when I ran into Kim Carney in the lobby. I’d worked with her the previous year in Candide at Wayne State University’s Bonstelle Theater, and it was gratifying to see, and be recognized by, someone whom I held in such high esteem.

There are different ways to run an audition. Sometimes, we all wait in the lobby while they call us in one at a time. Fortunately for me, this was not one of those times. We all sat in the theater together and watched each other perform. You’ll see in a minute why this was so fortunate for me.

In the course of the afternoon, I’d had my name called two or three times, tossing in lines as a part of group scenes. I could tell with utter certainty that I had not been noticed. At all. If that had been the end of my day, I’d have walked out of there and no one would have remembered me. I was getting a little depressed around the edges. But then the director, Jim Moran, threw out a lifeline. After the scheduled readings were finished, Jim had an announcement: “Is there anyone here who didn’t get a chance to read, or who had something specific they wanted to read?”

This was my chance. With nothing to lose, it was time to be bold again. In leafing through the script, I’d noticed that nobody had done anything at all with the supporting character of Bieberman, and I thought I’d figured out a way to make it memorable. I raised my hand and said, “Yes, I wanted to read the scene where Bieberman is disguised as an old man.” I had a particular funny voice I’d been doing for years that usually got a laugh, so I used it for that scene.

And what happened when I did that? Everybody laughed, especially Jim. What more could I have wished for? I’d been noticed! Whether they cast me or not, doggone it, I’d been noticed.

A few days later, the phone call came. I’d been cast as Bieberman. I was going to be a professional actor! All sorts of other things happened after that.

The show opened in July 1979 on Friday the 13th, but this proved to be no omen of disaster whatsoever. Steambath was the hit of the summer in Detroit theater, selling out most of its performances. Oh, and the laughter! This was one funny show. This considerably softened the blow of my first professional review in The Detroit News: “Charles Greenia seems to not get the joke…” Ah well. Reviews are, after all, an occupational hazard.

As with all shows, no matter how successful, Steambath finally closed in early September. A few weeks after that, our director, Mr. Moran, who was also the theater’s business manager, asked me to join the Attic’s Artistic Company and serve as bookkeeper. Even if you have a low opinion of my acting, take this to heart: I’m a far better actor than I am a bookkeeper. It’s a wonder the theater survived my two year tenure in that capacity.

By the end of those two years, my life had changed completely. As bookkeeper, one of my duties was to sign all of the actors’ paychecks. Mind you, I had no power at all to decide what we spent money on, but one tends to remember the name that signs one’s paychecks, so after two years of that, just about everyone in Detroit’s theater world knew who I was. More importantly, I’d gotten to do a lot of quality theater with people who were much more artistically evolved than I was at that point. That’s when I learned how crucially important it is to work with people who are better than I am. It can be humbling, but it’s a damn fine way to get an education.

After I left the Attic, I came back to do several shows there through the 1980s, most notably the monster hit Piaf in 1985, but that’s quite another story…

Addendum — On the day of the Steambath auditions, there was a cute, diminutive young woman dashing about, delivering resumés to Mr. Moran and generally coordinating things. I took her to be Mr. Moran’s assistant; perhaps an intern of some sort. The following week, I was introduced to her and found that she was in fact Lavinia Moyer, the theater’s Artistic Director. I hoped she hadn’t seen my double-take when we were introduced and I decided to leave my first impression of her unspoken. Still, it set a good precedent for the kind of collaborative environment that the Attic embodied at that time.

One final bit of business — I own half a dozen or so pictures from the Steambath photo shoot, but this one stands out. It’s me again. I’m not going to give you any context for it. Suffice it to say that my character was not a master of the martial arts, and this was the only scene in which I was not attired in boxer shorts and a towel.


High School Confidential & The Statute of Limitations

Posted on 2014.05.27 at 16:22
Current Mood: creative
Current Music: Detroit, Rock City - Kiss
This goes back to the mid-1970s, so I’m going to cross my fingers and hope that the statute of limitations has run out. Otherwise, I may have to surrender my high school diploma…

It was a mid-term biology exam. A big-ass multi-layered set of quizzes and tasks. A major portion of the exam was particularly devilish. A week or so earlier, we had been given a list of about a half dozen different topics that we might have to write about in great detail. On the day of the exam, we would each open our personalized exam and see which two topics we must then write about. So we were forced to prepare a half dozen different sets of knowledge, but only two of them would actually be written about on that day.

So I gambled. I didn’t prepare all of them. I prepared, I think, four of them and trusted my luck that neither of the other two would be chosen for me. Well, Lady Luck was not on my side that day. One of the topics was indeed one that I had not researched at all. The description was something like this:

Choose and discuss a particular drug with regard to its development, uses, abuses, addictive properties, consequences of overdose, and remedies.

Well… there seemed no point to just throwing in the towel, so I decided to go for it. Nothing wishy-washy here; you can’t let them see you sweat; just a complete mountain of B.S. I decided to pull an enormous, detailed essay completely out of my butt. I chose an unexpected drug that the teacher would be unlikely to already know much about – I chose Novocain. I figured the teacher might already know a lot about such obvious targets as aspirin, heroin, or amphetamines, so this was my way of trying to sneak around his knowledge while still choosing something utterly commonplace.

With great apparent confidence, I described in loving detail the advancing paralysis, negative effect on heart, lung, and other organ functions, and even death, that would supposedly characterize an overdose. Every word of it was a fabrication. Conveniently, I stated that Novocain had no known addictive properties, thus relieving me of the burden of dealing with that point. I decided that heavy intake of fluids and transfusions would constitute the standard treatment for an overdose and stated my case with the clinical sobriety of a small-town hospital chaplain.

When our grades came back, I found that I had received a B on the exam as a whole, as well as a B minus for my essay on Novocain. I had been marked down slightly for being hazy about the history and development of the drug, but my other assertions had sailed through unchallenged.

As with everything we do in our scholastic careers, this episode was a learning opportunity. It was a lesson I’d been taught before, but this served as a cogent reminder. The lesson: Just because someone is older, or more educated, or holds a position of authority over us, does not mean that they cannot be outsmarted. Ultimately, it is also a lesson in humility, because we, in turn, may one day find ourselves outsmarted by those who are theoretically “beneath” us.

Okay, maybe that’s not the lesson everyone would take away from this story, but everyone processes these things in their own way.

All of which demonstrates yet again that the most important lessons our elders teach us are the ones they don’t realize they’re teaching us.


Click Whores of the 21st Century

Posted on 2014.05.13 at 15:54
Current Mood: working
Current Music: Real Real - Nina Simone
“These Are the Most Beautiful Photos Ever Taken”

“20 Movies You Must See Before You Die”

“Taylor Swift’s Worst Wardrobe Malfunction EVER”

“The 25 Funniest Commercials Ever Made. #14 Had Me on the Floor!”

You must surely have noticed that we are living in an age of unprecedented hyperbole. If you aren’t familiar with the word “hyperbole”, look it up right now. I’ll wait.
Ah, you’re back! You might have noticed that some definitions of “hyperbole” say that it is “not meant to be taken literally” which demonstrates that it’s really the wrong word to use in this application, because the types of claims shown above are meant to be taken literally. So maybe a better term for this sort of headline would be… oh, let’s say… “bullshit”. Yes, that seems about right. And why? Why would they so shamelessly hype their little articles? Because there’s one thing they want from you; just one minor, insignificant thing:

Your click.

Yes, your click. A small thing, really. You’ll hardly miss it. Just a flick of your finger, after which you may move on to other pursuits. Read the article or don’t; it’s all the same to them, for they have received your click. It is their Precious. It is the thing they spend their waking hours craving and dreaming about receiving. The articles themselves are merely a necessary evil; not something to fuss over. While the articles may frequently indulge our presumed fetishes, the most lurid thing on display is actually the click fetish of the site’s owners.

For you see, the moment you click upon that link, the beast has been fed. The counter on that web page notches up by one. And when the counter grows large, advertisers are happy. Their money purses loosen up a little more with each click. I’m oversimplifying a more complex marketing process, but that’s the gist of it. Yes, of course – it’s about the money.

Unfortunately, this approach to online communication is contagious. Now, it’s beginning to creep into non-monetized websites. Even humble bloggers with no reward other than the pleasure of putting their words out and seeing that their words have been read are beginning to adopt the Click Whore style of titles and lead-ins. It’s becoming the common language of article titling.

Maybe, at some point, we’ll collectively figure out that we’re being duped into looking at photos and articles that don’t match the hype. But I doubt it. Too many web surfers truly do not care whether the words and images put before them contain any truth, so long as they are stimulated, diverted, and can feel that their convictions are being validated. But truth? You want truth? Sorry, we’ve stopped carrying it; truth tends to be more expensive to obtain than fantasy; demand for it was too low anyway; and besides, it alienated some of our most prized customers.

I may go back and change the title of this post. How about: “You Must Read This – The Most Important Blog Post of the Year”. Too much? Hmmm…


Bad Behavior

Posted on 2014.03.11 at 14:58
Current Mood: chipperchipper
Current Music: Bad Businessman - Squirrel Nut Zippers
I want to tell you about the worst coworker I’ve ever endured. I want to be fair here; well, as fair as I can be. I’m going to try real hard not to claim knowledge of what she was thinking. I may speculate, but I won’t claim to actually know. And to be even more fair, I’m also going to tell you about the good she unwittingly accomplished.

Let’s call her Josette. She had seniority over most of us and had no reason to feel insecure in her position, yet she apparently did. Anyone who came in with a skill set comparable to hers was automatically her enemy. She would actively work to undermine such people, slandering them to coworkers and even actively sabotaging their work. I know; I watched her do it. People who had worked there longer than I had told me that she had even gotten some of her imagined enemies fired by telling management lies about them. After seeing how she operated, I tended to believe those stories. And when she realized I was friends with some of her enemies, she began to treat me differently as well. At best, I was completely ignored. At worst, my efforts were similarly undermined. And this was not a passive activity on her part; undermining her enemies was an energetic undertaking for her.

Please forgive me for not being more specific in my descriptions of her activities. As vindictive as she proved to be, I’m going to be vague about when and where this all took place. Perhaps some of my former coworkers will happen across this post. If they do, they will surely recognize the situation I’m describing.

So why didn’t I report my findings to management? Why didn’t those even more directly harmed by Josette lodge formal complaints? Well you see, they did. And they got nowhere with it. Management would typically respond to such complaints by either ignoring the situation completely or making a token show of response before allowing things to go back to normal.

It became plain that management liked Josette. Or if they didn’t precisely like her, they liked having her there. She performed a couple of valuable functions for the bosses. First and foremost, they valued having someone of her age there who was never going to leave, as this was a difficult commodity to find. I know that doesn’t exactly make sense, but you’re going to have to trust me on that one.

The other invaluable role Josette played was the role of management’s little snitch. Any discussions or meetings involving employees were fair game for Josette to report back to management. We watched her do it, walking directly from an employee meeting into the boss’ office. It seemed that she either didn’t care if we knew, or perhaps she wanted us to know that she was helping management keep an eye on us. Not that we employees were up to anything illicit; it was apparently just a way of trying to make us fearful and compliant.

So what do I think was actually going on in Josette’s mind? All right, let’s speculate. I think she was a fearful, insecure person who felt she was guarding one of the most precious things in her life. I think she viewed her little evil acts as a small matter in light of what she was receiving in return. I think she convinced herself that we were small, silly folks receiving nothing less than justice at her hands. But at the top of her mind, I think she regarded herself as a kindly woman who was fair and loving to those who mattered. But I think she put all of us who were her coworkers into a little alternative universe box; she was not obliged to grant us the courtesies granted to the “real” people in her life.

I mentioned at the outset that she had unwittingly accomplished some good through all of this. It came in the form of how the rest of us related to one another socially. It is common in human society for people to rally around a common enemy, and I think that’s what happened here. Almost any time a group of us would get together far away from the job and Josette, the conversation would turn to sharing stories of her evil acts and stunning pettiness. People from very different backgrounds, who might otherwise have had trouble finding a common frame of reference, could all relate to stories of Josette’s deeds. You could call it a bunker mentality if you like, but it definitely contributed to our camaraderie. It has been some years since I left that job, yet it is still common to share these stories when meeting former coworkers. Some of them still break out into impressive strings of obscenities when referring to her, but it somehow feels therapeutic.

Some might bemoan the fact that we continue to dwell upon such a negative energy as Josette and our powerfully negative feelings about her, but I can’t look at it that way. The fact is, we’ve shared many a laugh over all of it. With the passing of years, it is only occasionally that we get genuinely pissed off about it. The stories of her evil have largely been transmuted into something like a collection of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that we tell to scare others while giving ourselves a little shiver and a laugh. As for Josette, I’ve heard that she’s moved to another state far away, where she now walks among an unsuspecting populace like a newly freed Hannibal Lecter.


Never Try to Blackmail a Singing Telegram Messenger

Posted on 2014.03.04 at 14:03
Current Mood: amusedamused
Current Music: Baby Face
When I was in my twenties, I spent two and a half years working for the Eastern Onion Singing Telegram Company. I delivered well over a thousand singing telegrams during that time. It was a strange, semi-nomadic existence, particularly on Saturday nights. That was the night when one would usually do most of one’s telegrams for the week, driving from one end of town to the other, out to far-flung suburbs and back again, with the night’s work often ending at midnight or later. Frankly, it was an awfully fun way to spend an evening – going from one party to another, always being the center of attention when I walked in the door, making hundreds of people laugh, maybe even getting a tip for my trouble, and going on my way before I had a chance to wear out my welcome.

[SIDEBAR: I would love to have illustrated this post with a photograph of me in one of my messenger tuxes, but I do not own a single picture of myself in costume. That’s kind of funny in light of the fact that untold thousands of photos were taken of me in costume, but they were all taken by friends of the telegram recipients. So while my face probably graces countless photo albums to this day, it does not grace my own albums.]

You should understand that I played a variety of characters in this work, each with its own corresponding costume. An incomplete list includes Eastern Onion Man (red leotard, tights, and cape), Mr. Wonderful (all white tux, white top hat, white cane, white shoes, long-stemmed rose in my teeth), and the one and only Chuckie Chicken (red & pink fun fur, big red chicken feet, and giant chicken mask headpiece). These costumes were typically strewn about the back seat of my car along with various standard accoutrements, including my big red tambourine, a battery-powered monkey that clanged his cymbals together, and several obnoxious whistles. This was in addition to a generous supply of party hats and noisemakers and boxes full of hot pink Eastern Onion business cards.

There was usually no time to go home between telegrams on a busy night. This meant that I was often obliged to completely change outfits while scrunching my 6’2” frame around the passenger compartment of my Plymouth Valiant. That’s day or night; rain or shine; frigid winter through sticky summer. So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised the day I was changing costumes at the side of a rural highway and a police car came rolling up. They said they’d gotten a call that someone was having a seizure in their car. I explained that it was just me changing clothes, and because I was at that moment wearing a top hat, a pink ruffled shirt and a bright red cummerbund, they believed me and drove on without further interrogation.

There are many stories of triumph and tragedy I could tell, though the better ones will probably never appear in print form. Not with my name on them anyway. So let me jump to the end of the story.

After two and a half years, I’d gotten all I could get out of the singing telegram business in terms of training and experience. And that’s a big thing, by the way. To this day, I consider that time to have been the best training as a performer that I’ve ever received. One had to learn how to work a crowd; how to perform when it’s just you and the audience; no director, no critics, no supporting cast. One learned how to play any conceivable (and inconceivable) sort of venue, from bars, restaurants, and bowling alleys to fancy reception halls and swanky nightclubs; from business offices to hospital rooms; from supermarket parking lots to the pitcher’s mound at a softball diamond in the middle of a game.

But at a certain point, I hit the wall. I began to dread doing even a single, brief telegram. It was time to go. I decided to give myself a Christmas present. Sometime in October, I advised management that December 22nd was to be my last day. They thanked me heartily for giving them such generous advance notice.

It seemed I realized something at that moment that management did not – that they would not be happy losing me right before Christmas. Christmas through New Year’s was a busy time in the singing telegram business, and scheduling was made all the more difficult by the many messengers who took time off during that period.

I was therefore not in the least surprised when I received a phone call from the boss in early December, asking me if I could stay on through the end of the year. Well, no. I was already insanely looking forward to being done with the job and enjoying my holidays, so there was no way. The boss was dismayed with my intransigence in the matter; with my utter refusal to negotiate on that point. He then tried blackmail: “Wellll… if you’re not going to be available then, we need to give work for the next few weeks to the messengers who are going to be here for us.”

I replied in a chipper, cooperative tone: “I understand completely. If that’s what you need to do, then that makes perfect sense.” And so we concluded our phone call.

Well of COURSE there was no drop-off in my bookings for those last few weeks. They were already short-staffed and were in no position to be petty just to punish someone on their way out the door, so even if I was eager for the job to end, I could at least go out the door with a decent paycheck in my hand. On December 23rd, I paid another visit to the office to drop off my costumes and other company property. The phones were ringing off the hook with holiday bookings so there was no time for management to wish me well with great ceremony. I set my stuff down in the supply closet, waved goodbye to the staff, and stepped out into the brisk air of freedom. And anyway, I wasn’t there to rub their noses in it; it was simply time for me to go.

The next time I write about my time with Eastern Onion, we may discuss the darker side of the business, replete with criminal activity, news reporters, threats, lawyers, and depositions.


Local History

Posted on 2014.02.09 at 20:08
Current Mood: accomplished
Current Music: The Night Chicago Died - Paper Lace
It occurs to me that many of this journal’s regular readers are not from Chicago and do not live nearby. I want to share some local history about the design of the Chicago flag. These facts are well known to anyone who grew up here, so will apologize in advance to my Chicago readers. For the rest of you, though, I think this is cool stuff.

The flag’s two blue bars are a memorial to two men instrumental in the development of Chicago blues: Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Though neither was born in or near Chicago, their impact on Chicago blues is such that they have been memorialized in Chicago for all time.

Each of the four stars across the middle of the flag represents a pivotal moment or factor in the city’s growth and identity. The first star commemorates the opening of Wrigley Field (originally called Weeghman Park) in 1914. The second star recalls the invention of Chicago deep-dish style pizza at Pizzeria Uno in 1943. The red color is often thought to represent either tomato sauce or pepperoni, but these are probably urban legends.

The third of the four stars is, oddly enough, the most recently added star. It was added to the flag in 1985 so that we might never forget the Bears’ Super Bowl victory that year. A clue to the significance of the fourth and final star lies in the fact that it is a six-pointed star. It is a snowflake, and its shape represents the hexagonal crystal structure of snow, so the entire array of stars collectively represents the omnipresent risk of excessive snowfall, and the red color is meant to emphasize the seriousness of that risk.

Bonus Trivia — The name “Chicago” is derived from a French rendering of the Native American word shikaakwa, translated as “village of many restaurants”. The first written reference to the city by that name comes from the memoirs of explorer Robert de LaSalle in 1679: “…We stopped for the night on the north side of Cheecawgo [sic], where we enjoyed the antics of a small tribe of Indians, whose ability to turn a phrase and improvisational antics were most amusing, though the price of their liquor was such that our imbibing was kept to a minimum…”


I Think We Saw Two Movies – Or Was It Just One?

Posted on 2014.01.21 at 17:27
Current Mood: artistic
Current Music: Slave - Elton John
It was certainly our intention to see two movies. CC and I went to the movieplex in Evanston last night intending to see both Saving Mr. Banks and 12 Years a Slave. A day later, I’m not certain whether that actually happened…

I know we saw a lot of the actor Paul Giamatti, but I’m not sure whether he was a chauffeur for Walt Disney or a Louisiana slave trader. As I recall, the plot concerned a powerful white master and his living property, which consisted primarily of a black mouse and a group of penguins.
* * *

All right – yes, we saw both Saving Mr. Banks and 12 Years a Slave, and Paul Giamatti actually appears in supporting roles in both movies. As usual in this journal, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS in the ensuing discussion, so take that under advisement if you’re planning to see either film anytime soon.

First up, Saving Mr. Banks. I’m glad we saw it first, because our perspectives might have been a bit curdled and cynical if we’d have viewed it in the wake of 12 Years a Slave. If you somehow didn’t know it already, Banks is the story of Walt Disney’s 1961 negotiations with author P.L. Travers over the rights to her book, Mary Poppins. Disney and Travers are played, respectively, by Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson, though I have enough respect for both of them that I’m sure they could have traded roles with no ill effect.

Hanks is an interesting and canny casting choice here. On the one hand, casting such a well-known actor as such a well-known character offers a great potential for failure due to our possible inability to forget who we’re watching (see John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror for an extreme example of such a failure). In this case, though, that potential liability is turned into an asset. The fact is that we know Tom Hanks and we like Tom Hanks. He therefore buys a bit of character credit for portraying Walt Disney and allows the movie to let some of the character’s flaws be put on display while enabling us to keep liking him. Walt is a wheeler-dealer and a bit of a humbug. At a few points, it looks as if Emma Thompson might actually be playing Dorothy Gale journeying to the Emerald City to confront the Wizard of Oz, but the movie pushes through on the strength of how much we enjoy these actors and their characters.

On the other side of the table from Hanks, Emma Thompson is pitch-perfect as Travers. One gets the feeling that Thompson has found her own inner world-weariness and her own insecurities and has channeled them into the character of Travers. For her performance, Thompson has been nominated for Best Actress in the SAG Awards, the Golden Globes, and several others, and the recognition is well deserved.

When I arrived home after seeing Banks, I was moved to research more about the real-life P.L. Travers. What I learned was most illuminating. There are some fascinating details that were either completely absent or barely hinted at in the movie. For example, as a young woman, Travers was an actress who worked with a traveling Shakespearean company. Her Wikipedia bio includes a photo of her in the role of Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The film offers almost nothing about Travers’ personal life beyond its many flashbacks to her childhood in Australia and her close relationship with her father. He is portrayed as an alcoholic who dies when Travers is still a little girl. While he is shown as having coughed up blood, the precise cause of his death is not revealed. Travers’ bio reveals that her father died of influenza when Travers was eight years old.

One personal detail that remains a bit of a mystery to me is why she insisted upon being called Mrs. Travers. Her real last name was Goff and she adopted her father’s first name of Travers – that information is disclosed in the movie – but it’s specifically the “Mrs.” part I find intriguing. Travers never married, though it seems clear from what I’ve read that she was bisexual. There is also another curious fact from her personal life, for which I will quote directly from Wikipedia:

…At the age of 40, Travers adopted a baby boy from Ireland named Camillus Hone. He was the grandchild of Joseph Hone, who was W. B. Yeats’ first biographer. Hone and his wife were raising their seven grandchildren. Camillus was one of twins, but Travers did not adopt his twin brother, Anthony, or any of their other siblings. She selected Camillus based on advice from her astrologer. Anthony remained with his grandparents. Camillus was unaware of his true parentage until the age of 17, when Anthony met Camillus unexpectedly at a bar in London…

There is another great quote I’m going to include, because it illustrates another area where the film has massaged the historical facts into a more pleasing form. I quote once again from Wikipedia:

…At the film’s star-studded première (to which she was not invited, but had to ask Walt Disney for permission to attend), she reportedly approached Disney and told him that the animated sequence had to go. Disney responded by walking away, saying as he did, “Pamela, the ship has sailed.” Enraged at what she considered shabby treatment at Disney’s hands, Travers would never again agree to another Poppins/Disney adaptation…

Please understand – I am not suggesting that these details should have been in the movie in any way. They may very well have muddied up the narrative to no good effect. Rather, I offer them to illustrate a strength of the movie, that it was able to distill a simple, understandable, and intelligent story from the messy details that make up a real life.

To those who might complain that the studio is rewriting history to suit their corporate goals, I would say this: Of course they are. I expected some of that and so should you. Let it serve as a reminder that every film is a fiction. At the same time, remember that this is not a history lesson; it’s an entertainment. You may as well ask a Twinkie to be a soufflé. The soufflé may be tastier, but it’s a lot harder to find and it won’t last nearly as long on the shelf. And I’ve bought a lot of Twinkies in my time. Moving on…

Twenty minutes after the screen went dark, we settled into our seats in another part of the multiplex to watch 12 Years a Slave. I’m not going to go into much detail about the plot because the title kind of tells you what you’re in for.

I have to give Slave an oddly mixed review. Overall, it gets very high marks for its craftsmanship on every level – from the writing to the acting to the direction to the cinematography to the production design. Where it falls a little short is in the area of viewer experience.

There are some built-in problems with a movie of this nature. First of all, though I’d read nothing about the film in the way of plot details, nothing surprising happened for a very long time. It seemed clear that Solomon Northup was going to be kidnapped into slavery early on. It logically followed that he was going to experience horrible, dehumanizing treatment and be forced to witness even more. It also seemed certain from the outset that he would somehow be freed later on and make his way back to his family. So while individual moments of the film sometimes held a great deal of drama, the overall arc of the story was so transparent that it had the effect of keeping me on the outside, waiting for the gears of the plot to mesh.

Now of course, some might respond by saying, “But that’s the story. It needs to be told.” And I would agree with that. But as a dramatic experience, these factors impact the viewer’s engagement. It also gives the film a sense of being that bad-tasting medicine you must take for your own good.

Still, as a white man from a long line of white stock, I thought it would behoove me to seek out another opinion, so I asked L, an African-American friend of mine, how she’d felt about the movie. She replied, “I didn’t care for it at all. Couldn’t wait for it to be over.” While she acknowledged the movie’s historical accuracy and realism, she said she’d only gone because a friend had taken her there and that she wouldn’t have chosen to see it otherwise. “That kind of thing” is not her cup of tea.

All of which proves nothing, I suppose, except that reactions to movies are completely individual and don’t necessarily have anything to do with ethnic background, and I guess I already knew that, so let’s keep going.

CC, who only days before had read the book upon which the film is based, had some interesting comments regarding differences between the two. For one thing, she said there are lengthy passages in the book where nothing at all happens except for intricate descriptions of technical processes and procedures. This appears to be typical of pre-20th century novels and isn’t exactly a criticism of the book; merely a description of its non-cinematic characteristics. So kudos to the filmmakers for leaving that stuff out! There are also various characters from the book that are left out and scene details that have been changed.

Just as in my discussion of Saving Mr. Banks, I must point out that these changes are not necessarily a bad thing. Art may sometimes be defined as a lie that tells the truth. So it is with all great movies. So is 12 Years a Slave a great movie? I’m not ready to throw that garland around its neck just yet. I want to let it marinate a while. Yes, I’m mixing my metaphors and I’m liking it. Let me say instead that it is an unforgettable cinematic experience that shows a lot of extreme, yet believable, human behavior. It is as much a cautionary tale as it is a history lesson. It is a film that possesses harsh artistic virtues. You might walk out not having precisely “enjoyed” the experience, but you might find that a deeper satisfaction has been imparted to you and you might be awfully glad you went.


Not of This Earth

Posted on 2014.01.15 at 16:49
Current Mood: amusedamused
Current Music: Space Oddity - David Bowie
An interesting tidbit cropped up in the news today – those astronomers searching for life on other planets have not only found life, they’ve found intelligent life!!! I know, right? And what’s more, the aliens have their own Internet! Yes, yes, I was amazed too. After consulting with one of my hacker friends, I managed to tap into an alien news feed and found a very interesting article. Well, it isn’t the article itself that’s so interesting; it’s the comments section that follows the article. While there’s still a lot we don’t know about these creatures, it seems that the regular folks on this alien world aren’t necessarily so different from the regular folks here on Earth. First, a few excerpts from the article:


The Andromeda Council has announced an end to injustice, including, but not limited to, an end to war, poverty, discrimination, and denial of economic and social opportunity… Chairentity Neila stated that, “It will not require threats or punishment to achieve this; it is merely the logical conclusion of all our efforts of the past millennia… While there will inevitably be holdouts, they will come to see the wisdom of this approach… We ask that all voices, both pro and con, be heard in the coming days as peace and justice become the guideposts of our society…”

My first reaction upon reading this was the thought that these creatures are clearly not human, as this approach to enacting societal change is completely incomprehensible in human or even earthly terms. I then moved on to the comments section, where I found, most comfortingly, that their culture and ours do share some philosophical grounds:

[1] “Praises to all who have finalized this process! The only negative is that it didn’t happen 10,000 years ago, but this is a quibble, as time travel technology will soon address that inequity.”

[2] “Anti-violence wimps! The right to suppress and kill those with whom we disagree built this planet. Those who would deny our heritage are wiglas who have traded in their zoggles for fofflats.”

[3] “Really Neila? Are you so ignorant of history? No, I don’t think so. You are well aware that this declaration of yours is a violation of the Treaty Seven Code, but you seek to destroy our most sacred political bedrock in the pursuit of trivial justice. This Code has survived for centuries, resisting far more powerful tyrants than yourself. Injustice may have its downside, but it shall prevail!”

[4] “Amen to Commenter [2]. Chairentity ‘Wigla’ is a zorch lover who should be hung by the jarje and eaten by the Mummak.”

[5] “I told people three years ago that this was where we were headed. They ignored me then and are sobbing in their kipaps today. I would never advocate violence against anyone, least of all a public figure, especially now. I will only say that there would be much rejoicing if Neila – and Ebel, Tofanovi, Soss, and the rest – were found with a frike around their yerbs and their zoggles in a chuchax.”

[6] “Check this out! I’m working from home now making BIG MONEY and you can too!” [link redacted]

[7] “Does anyone have two extra tickets to the Cobacti vs. New Didip game? (sorry to go off-topic but didn’t know where else to ask)”


Chart Clip

Invested in My Past

Posted on 2014.01.11 at 14:39
Current Mood: amusedamused
Current Music: All Those Years Ago - George Harrison
“You can afford to put together an investment portfolio,” the man assured me. I was pretty sure he was wrong.

“No, I can’t. I live with my parents. I don’t have a steady job. I own virtually nothing in the way of tangible assets. I have no money at all available for investing.”

He was having none of it. “That’s what you think, but I can show you that you’re mistaken, that you actually do have investable income. And then you’ll have wealth that will grow without you doing anything else.”

“Please believe me, I really don’t have any money to spare for this sort of thing.”

“Yes you do!”

We went around and around on this topic for a few more minutes. He wanted to come over to my house and make a formal presentation. I told him it would be a waste of his time, but he insisted it would be no trouble at all. So I finally gave in and set a time for him to come over.

We didn’t know each other well at all. The contact that had brought us together was that we were both working on the same medieval feast, a one-time-only gig that I’d gotten on account of being friends with a few of the participants. Now, over thirty years after the fact, I’ve completely forgotten what he was doing there. He may have been a musician. But his day job was clearly more modern and, to my tastes, far more mundane.

Our meeting took place on a Sunday afternoon. My dad greeted him at the front door. He walked in wearing a three-piece suit and carrying a briefcase, which paired very oddly with my t-shirt and absence of shoes or paperwork.

So the meeting began. He dug right in, asking me a battery of questions about my income and expenditures. Each answer was crisply jotted down. After about ten minutes of this, he paused and quietly scrutinized the data I’d given him.

“Well… according to these numbers, you can’t afford to invest anything at this point in time.” He sounded astonished, but at the same time, he said it as if I’d been leading him on.

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, but you said you wanted to come over and prove me wrong. So I let you come over.”

At that point, we agreed that there was no point in discussing the matter further. We shook hands and I escorted him to the front door. Since that day, I have become far more selective about who I will let into my home and to whom I will devote my free time. Oh, and the guy? I never saw him again. I can only assume that he wisely deleted my digits from his Rolodex.


I Am Grievously Offended

Posted on 2014.01.10 at 01:12
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative
Current Music: Words - The Bee Gees
I attended a social gathering recently; a rarity for me – my reclusive ways are hardly a secret. About twenty of us were having a good time – eating, drinking, laughing, periodically trading odd bits of verbal ribaldry. All was going as well as our host might have wished until an unfortunate incident transpired.

During an otherwise light-hearted group discussion on Pre-Raphaelite Aesthetics, our friend W, warily regarded for his quick, biting wit, likened the Brotherhood’s struggles to those of the Parliamentarians during the Battle of Marston Moor – a tortured analogy even in the most sensitive of hands. In particular though, W employed an irreverent (and historically dubious) metaphor to describe the Royalists’ defeat that I will not deign to repeat here.

As you may well imagine, a pall fell over the room. For a long moment, no one made eye contact; nor did anyone seek to follow up W’s comment with any sort of rejoinder. Our resourceful host did his best to rescue the evening by announcing that everyone was welcome to avail themselves of the cake & sherbet cart that had just been wheeled into the dining room, but the damage was done. While I cannot speak for our host or for any of the other guests, I will say that W may find himself on the outside looking in when the spring social whirl kicks in.

Now back to the incident that spoiled our collective evening – I don’t think I am being overly sensitive in my indictment of W’s conduct. A glance at the calendar will tell you that we are speaking of a battle that took place less than four centuries ago. In other words, the wounds can scarcely be considered to have healed. Who among us has not wondered how our family’s fortunes (and indeed, the fortunes of the wider world) might be very different today but for a few fateful choices by Mr. Cromwell and Prince Rupert? Who among us has not bowed his head in reverence for the thousands who met their maker on that bloody day in 1644? For our friend W to callously disregard the feelings of all present in such a manner is tantamount to expectorating into an open crypt (not to put too fine a point on it).

The true core of this issue goes far beyond W’s incautious words. It is hinted at in Henley’s lyrical query, “How can love survive in such a graceless age?” For it is in this graceless age that we must stand witness, on nearly a daily basis, as “pundits” inundate us with jocular references to horrific events and shameful moments from our recent past. To name but a few, I have in recent weeks been subjected to “zippy” one-liners and giddy bon mots referencing such solemn topics as the Northern Chinese Famine of 1876, the 1711 sinking of the Schleswig, and even the Queensland cyclone of 1875 (!). Clearly, we have lost our way as a polite society.

It would be unconscionably hubristic of me to offer any sure prescription for alleviating society of these seemingly omnipresent lapses in taste and judgment. I will have to settle for emulating Ghandi in his dictum to “be the change you wish to see in the world.” And though wishes may be of little practical value, I will allow myself one small wish – that we may somehow advance beyond these shallow inclinations in the very near future; I shudder to consider what sort of puerile “humor” we may have to endure this December as we mark the 300th anniversary of the Ottoman-Venetian War. I would imagine the commercial purveyors of such “comedic” material are already sharpening their pens in anticipation of that cruel milestone.

In closing, I trust that everyone reading this journal will continue to observe a simple directive that your grandmother may well have stitched onto a sampler in an era when human prudence rather than arbitrary rules might have suggested a 140 character limit: Tragedy Plus Time Is Still Tragedy.


Crossword Puzzle Solution!

Posted on 2013.12.27 at 10:35
Current Mood: puzzled
Current Music: We Can Work It Out - The Beatles
You may now be thinking, “Crossword puzzle? WHAT crossword puzzle?” There are two possible explanations: 1) It’s in the mail and you simply haven’t yet received it; or 2) I have unaccountably failed to send you one. If it’s answer 2, please don’t feel slighted — my level of organization is poor even on the best of days, so I’ve probably mislaid your address, if I ever had it to begin with. So here’s the deal: ANYBODY I know who has made it to this blog and is reading these words is welcome to receive one of these puzzles. Just send me your address and I’ll pop one in the mail. In any case, don’t look at the solution until you’ve given the puzzle a fair shot (you are of course free to disregard my plea and look anyway).
Click here to see the solution!Collapse )


I Return to Springfield on My Own Time

Posted on 2013.12.16 at 18:50
Current Mood: historical
Current Music: Travelin' Man - Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
For as long as I’ve lived in Chicago, the notion of a trip to Illinois’ capital city has been rolling around in my head. I’d spent a day there many years ago when I was on tour with The Wizard of Oz. That was the memorable day when Karianne, our Glinda the Good Witch, fell ill and was replaced for the day by chorus member Shawn. But there was no time for sightseeing that day, even though I’ve always enjoyed touring state capitals. Last weekend, the long-dangling shoe finally dropped in the form of a two day trip to Springfield, Illinois.

[NOTE: In a grievous oversight, I neglected to pack my good camera for the trip, so photos were few in number and taken with my iPhone. I’ve done what I could to gussy them up and make them look presentable]

Ah yes. The second week of December is a fine week to think about driving long distances on pleasure trips in the northern latitudes. No, I’m serious. You’re avoiding crowds in a big way and you’re getting lower rates on hotels. And when you visit tourist sites, you’re going to park as close as you please. That being said, there is a potential downside to traveling in the severe off-season. On this trip, we got a good look at the butt end of that downside.

Here in Chicago, we’ve already seen several substantial snowfalls. But Springfield, a three and a half hour drive south of here, experienced its very first snowfall of the season on the evening we arrived. The flakes were just beginning to fall as we pulled into town. It was no big deal, we thought — three to five inches in the forecast; no plans that night other than finding a nearby dinner; the city will be plowed out by morning and we’ll get on with our plans.

By the time we were setting out to eat, several inches of heavy, slushy snow had fallen. Our dinner plans were simple — we could see a huge Bob Evans restaurant down the road from our hotel, so we decided to walk it. There were no sidewalks and our feet quickly became wet and cold while we dodged cars along the shoulder of the road, but the Bob Evans beckoned before us, lit by candlepower comparable to that of a small airport, shining through the frosty air like a gigantic red and white Santa Claus with a sack full of pancakes. Upon arriving, we found the display to have been illusory, for the restaurant was closed. In fact, it had been closed for some time for remodeling and was due to have its grand reopening the following day — which was why it was all lit up. Our dampened, furrowed brows thereupon swiveled around and we scanned the highway for alternatives. We immediately discerned that the only nearby option was the Denny’s across the street.

This was where our luck began to change. Though neither of us had much enthusiasm for dinner at Denny’s, the meal far surpassed our expectations and the wait staff was as personable as one could wish for. In fact, the following morning, we returned there for breakfast and found that the night crew had erected a snowman. The picture below demonstrates our affection for that particular Denny’s:
The following morning, we looked out of our hotel window to see that the snow had mostly subsided and the main roads had been cleared. Our day was to begin with visits to a couple of small, private museums, beginning with the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War Museum. Its website advised us that the museum “…contains medals, photos, actual battle swords, currency, drums and other musical instruments, books, documents, a Union soldier’s uniform, and dresses from the Civil War era.” But when we arrived, we found that the weather had apparently kept away the people responsible for unlocking the place and welcoming visitors.

No matter – there were plenty of other interesting historic sites to visit in Springfield. We proceeded to the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Museum, described as being “…full of Civil War memorabilia including artifacts, documents, and historically significant items that have been donated by veterans’ relatives.” Sounded pretty cool! And maybe it is. It was also closed without announcement or explanation. It was becoming apparent that the first snow of the season had left many locals disinclined to leave their homes. Meanwhile, we few hardy tourists drove around on the cleared roads quite unimpeded.

It was time to go for the heavy artillery (as General Grant might have put it). We headed over to the Lincoln Home National Historic Site. Unlike these modest, privately owned facilities, the Lincoln home is run by the National Park Service. It is a hugely popular tourist destination. And it was open! And there were no lines!! And it was completely awesome!!! I took this picture of it:
If you know me very well, you might know that I rarely speak publicly about the value and meaning of our country’s history. And I’m not going to make any attempt here to link Abraham Lincoln’s words and deeds to the U.S.A. of the 21st century. That exploration would be complex and nuanced and has no place in this simple entry. I will simply report that there is a power to standing in the very rooms and standing by the very desk where Lincoln contemplated some of the most important thoughts and words that any American has ever conceived. The whole place is in a remarkable state of preservation and restoration, making it very easy to picture Abe and Mary and their boys in their day-to-day lives. I wish every American could visit there and feel the pride and inspiration that is engendered by contemplating the life of a backwoods Illinois lawyer who rose to where he was needed. CC and I walked out of there feeling as if our trip was now a complete success, regardless of anything else we might or might not do during this weekend. I was even tempted briefly to go back the following day and tour it again.

Another thing you may know about me is that I’m not into cemeteries. They strike me as a waste of good real estate. I’m not trying to start an argument or cause trouble, but that’s just how I feel. So it was with some hesitation that I agreed to proceed to Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery to visit Lincoln’s tomb. But — and I’m surprised to be saying this — I’m glad I went. And I’m glad I was there in the off season, when there were literally no other visitors and the tomb itself was fringed with snow from the previous day. As CC observed, it was appropriate because winter is the dead season. It is a beautiful and contemplative place, as you may see in this photo:
To give you a little perspective, the central obelisk is 117 feet high. The afternoon was getting on and there wasn’t much good light left on this short, overcast day, but we walked around in the icy air until the unshoveled walkways forbade further progress. Speaking of perspective, I have a piece of advice: If you should go to Springfield yourself, I recommend you do what we did and visit the Lincoln home first before going to his tomb.

The next morning, we visited the Lincoln Library and Museum. They are actually two separate facilities across the street from one another, but they are as different as can be. The library is primarily, well, a library. If you’re looking to do research on Lincoln, that’s where you’d want to be. There are a few small galleries and some interesting wall hanging exhibits there, but it’s definitely the Grownup Table compared to the museum across the way.

The Lincoln Museum is going to be fun and interesting for a certain type of tourist. For another type, its $12 admission ticket may become a small regret. The centerpiece of the place is unquestionably the holographic stage show. It is far and away the most technologically impressive holographic stage show I’ve ever seen — the theme parks in Orlando pale by comparison. So if you’re into stunning high tech wizardry, there’s that, though the content of the show doesn’t break any notable ground in the way of historical education or illustration.

Most of the rest of the museum consists of galleries, or perhaps I should say rooms, from different moments in Lincoln’s life. The most consistently impressive part of those galleries is the mannequins of Lincoln, his family, and other historical figures. They are artfully executed and strikingly lifelike.

One of the biggest disappointments of the Lincoln Museum is the paucity of actual historical artifacts. Though there are a few here and there, we were mostly looking at reproductions of artifacts. You may think I’m being a little fussy in carping about this, but I think that when you’re in The Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois, there is an expectation for more actual historical material than what is actually on display. This place is more like the Honest Abe Theme Park or Abe Lincoln, the Traveling Extravaganza. As such, I suppose it makes for a fine introduction to Lincoln’s life and work — and there are some terrific visuals here and there, make no mistake — but its ambitions are centered around breadth and striking visuals rather than depth and insight. To the extent that Lincoln himself is on display, it is much more a display of Lincoln the myth and Lincoln the cardboard cutout than Lincoln the man. Bottom line: I’m glad I went, really I am. There’s some cool stuff I’m glad I saw. But unlike the Lincoln Home, I don’t think I’ll be returning.

Aside from some shopping that needn’t be detailed here, that was our Springfield trip. We’re awfully glad we did it and we hope to go back someday soon, perhaps after the groundhog has given everyone the go ahead to emerge from their respective burrows and reopen their shops.


Thanksgiving 2013

Posted on 2013.11.29 at 13:29
Current Mood: fullfull
Current Music: Ho, Ho, Ho (Who'd Be a Turkey at Christmas) - Elton John
The day after finds me happily sampling leftovers from yesterday’s feast, which took place courtesy of my brother D and sister-in-law N. If this had been my Thanksgiving board of fare 20 years ago, I wouldn’t have thought anything was different other than the deliciousness of every last course. But in fact, this was a vegetarian feast.

They’ve come a long way over the years in preparing fake meats, as attested by both the tofurkey and the veggie meatloaf; in both cases, I went back for seconds. Other dishes on display here include corn pudding, sweet potatoes, dressing, the best collard greens I’ve ever had, green beans, vegan mac & cheese, mashed cauliflower, cranberry sauce, vegetarian jello, and rolls. Not shown: the sweet potato pie, the bread pudding, and the fine folks with whom I shared the day.

After all of that, I did not eat again for about 14 hours, which may not be a long time for you, but it certainly is for me. There is yet another family gathering in the offing at the home of my sister E and brother-in-law J. If I am able to type afterwards, I may report back.

Heartiest thanks once again to D&N for their hospitality and generosity! I hope everyone reading this had a warm place, a warm meal, and warm people on their holiday.

Osiris2, Cy2

Cat Portrait

Posted on 2013.11.02 at 18:32
I just want to share this photo of Smoke and Flecks. They have the same mom & dad, though Smoke was born a couple years before Flecks. There's a whole story there, but I'm not going to get into it just now; far be it from me to cast aspersions on the morality of non-humans. Just enjoy the picture!SmokeFlecks11-13


In Mom-oriam

Posted on 2013.10.09 at 15:13
Current Mood: cheerfulcheerful
Later this month, we will arrive at what would have been my late mother’s 81st birthday. I have a few quick vignettes about her to offer today:

• My parents did some amateur theater together before they were married, mainly through the religious organization they both belonged to, the Third Order of St. Francis. My mother once told me of a particular show they were doing in which she and my father had a scene together (though I don’t believe they had begun dating each other at this point). Mom said her job in the scene was simple – she just had to sit there while my father’s character ranted at her in a long speech. Somewhere along the way, though, Dad drew a blank; he didn’t know what to say next. His way of dealing with it was to look at Mom and growl, “Well don’t just sit there; say something!” It really is a wonder they ever began to date one another after a moment such as this.

• One late summer night, I walked into the house to find mom watching TV in the living room. On the screen was a popular black singer and her backing vocal group. “Gladys Knight?” I queried. Her immediate reply: “I sure am – it was hot today!”

• I was maybe 12 years old. I don’t know what we were watching, but they shifted to a beach scene featuring a lovely young woman in a yellow bikini. My mother only said two words, but she said them in a tone of semi-disgust: “Egg yolks.” She may even have waved her arm dismissively.

If you’d like to see more stories about Mom, CLICK HERE to read a post I wrote in 2005, just a few months after her passing.


Fort Wayne is in Detroit

Posted on 2013.09.20 at 00:24
Current Mood: accomplished
Last Friday, CC and I drove to Detroit to spend the weekend at Fort Wayne. It’s an actual military fort that dates back to 1845. It sits on the banks of the Detroit River near the intersection of Livernois and West Jefferson. One may still go into the old fort and peek through the narrow gun slots in the fort’s thick outer walls. The fort and surrounding area remained an active military installation right through the Vietnam War, so there are buildings from a wide span of American history, including a jail that was built during the Spanish-American War and housing built during both world wars.

The occasion was Civil War Days at Fort Wayne, and we were there as vendors, though the term used among Civil War reenactors is “sutler” rather than “vendor”. It’s a historic term that refers to the merchants who would follow armies around in the 19th century and sell them all manner of supplies. CC was there to sell her historically accurate caps, shirts, kerchiefs, and pokes (a poke is a small cloth bag with a drawstring closure).

The following photos should give you a flavor of our fun and fascinating weekend.

This is CC crocheting outside of her tent. The shot reminded me of an Impressionist painting, so I’ve rendered it to look (somewhat) like one.

A couple of patrons who were into it enough to come in period dress. That’s the three-story barracks building in the old fort behind them.

CC with a most enjoyable patron. She was there in the character of an actual historical figure – a freed slave who became well educated and later went to work as a spy for the North by posing as a kitchen worker and finding employment in Jefferson Davis’ household! This woman was a high-energy delight – and was the only person with the sense to have brought a parasol on that sunny day.

CC in front of her tent, open for business. In case you’re wondering, she made the dress she’s wearing here, as well as all of the wares on display.

A proper view of CC’s caps. The ones down front are designed in Union or Confederate colors, while the other ones are generally less overtly militaristic. I talked her into making the rainbow one and I still think somebody’s going to see it and will have to have it.

A Confederate company marching by, in time with their drummers. CC would typically run to the edge of the road and wave her kerchief at such groups as they passed. Occasionally, one of these stoic lads would subtly tip his cap to her. True to her non-partisan, pacifistic spirit, CC would wave her kerchief at both Confederate and Union companies.

On Sunday, two teams of 19th century baseball reenactors played an actual game according to bygone rules, with bygone dress and equipment. These fellows are members of the Detroit Early Riser Base Ball Club. There actually was a ball club going by that name in the years leading up to the Civil War. Their present-day namesakes play games throughout the warmer months against other old-time teams from other Michigan cities.

Their opponents in red on this day were from Flint, though I did not catch the team’s nickname. Just pretend you don’t see the soccer nets in the distance.

There is also a ladies’ vintage baseball team called the Detroit River Belles, and several of them participated in the game for a couple of innings. The pitch shown here was smacked far into left field for a double. Just pretend you don’t see the Ambassador Bridge to Canada at the far right of the picture.

Ma & Pa Reenactor posing for an archival photo. In case you didn’t know, the reason so few people are smiling in 19th century photos is that the cameras of the day required lengthy time exposures, so one had to assume a relaxed expression that one could hold without moving. Also note that CC made the cap and shirt I’m wearing. It was a fun and fascinating weekend. We met a lot of interesting folks and saw some memorable sights. It was my first time attending such an event, but it will surely not be my last time!


A Cable Car Named Desire?

Posted on 2013.09.05 at 19:37
Current Mood: busy
CateJasmineWe saw the film Blue Jasmine the other day. Fair warning: I’m going to give away key plot points in this discussion, so if you’d rather not know, best to stop right here.

I can say some wonderful things about Blue Jasmine. I can say some disparaging things about it as well. This is often the case with Woody Allen’s films, even in the best of times. Let’s begin with some of the wonderful stuff.

At the head of the list is Cate Blanchett. If there’s anything she can’t do as an actress, I haven’t seen it yet. She carries the film as its title character. Her performance embraces the big moments and the little ones, her character’s madness, near-madness, desperation, cultured shallowness, and spiritual blindness. If she doesn’t get an Oscar nomination, I will be shocked.

Let’s talk a bit more about Ms. Blanchett; specifically about her face. It is a wondrous thing. You could say that her eyes, though large, were kind of squinty and you’d be right. You could say that her nose was slightly bulbous and you’d be right. You could say that her mouth was too wide and you’d be right. You could say that she wasn’t beautiful and you’d be right… and you’d be very wrong. She has one of the great faces in movie history. When she wishes it to be beautiful, that is what it is. I have a theory that Woody Allen has developed a fascination with faces over the years, and in that respect, he may have found his ultimate leading lady.

Blue Jasmine unfolds in two alternating time frames. One is in the present, where we watch Jasmine trying to put her life back together, beginning with moving into her sister’s apartment in San Francisco. The other time frame is in the past, where we watch Jasmine living the high life with her wealthy, wheeler-dealer husband Hal (Alec Baldwin). We watch as Hal plants the seeds of his own destruction – shady business dealings and countless dalliances with other women. Jasmine is oblivious to all of this for years before it comes crashing down upon her. When Jasmine learns of her husband’s affairs, it is she (apparently) who turns him in to the FBI. By the time of the present-day time line, her husband has committed suicide in prison and all of the money, the houses, the jewelry, etc. are long gone.

For much of the movie, we wonder how Jasmine is going to learn to be a whole person again. But the more we see of her in flashback, the more we realize that she’s never been whole to begin with. Still, given the usual conventions of drama, we wait for the moment of self-realization, the moment when she begins to grow into the person she needs to become.

There is a key moment when our expectations for Jasmine begin to tilt irrevocably downward. At a party, she meets Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a man with money, intelligence, and charm. He aspires to a career in politics, and we get the feeling he might do well in that arena. He is instantly smitten with Jasmine. She realizes in a flush of excitement that he could be her ticket out of her sister’s cramped, working-class apartment and back into the moneyed life of leisure she craves. The key moment is when Dwight begins to ask her about herself and her past. What comes out of her mouth is a string of lies – no child in her past, no disgraced dead husband, no destitute living arrangement with her sister, and a sudden imaginary career as an interior designer. As Jasmine piles lie upon lie, we realize that she is digging herself a deep, deep hole from which this relationship cannot possibly escape intact. We know that her one chance for salvation must begin with an acceptance of the truth and a rejection of her shallow past, but Jasmine lacks the vision and the courage to take that step. When it all comes out – on the day the two of them have begun to window-shop for wedding rings – the dissolution of their relationship is merely the inevitable dropping of the other shoe that we’ve been awaiting.

There is another substantial phase of the plot involving Jasmine’s sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Ginger’s marriage with Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) ended sometime between the two time lines of the film, probably as a result of an enormous monetary investment gone bad. Ginger and Augie were not people of great means, but they’d had the good fortune to win $200,000 in the lottery. They’d handed all of it over to Jasmine’s husband Hal for him to invest and give them a handsome return. Ah, but then came Hal’s downfall and with it went all of Ginger and Augie’s money – which they saw as their one shot to move into a higher social class. Apparently, their marriage was unable to survive this trauma.

By the time Jasmine arrives in San Francisco, Ginger has taken up with Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a big, strong, loud working stiff. He might not be the kind of guy you or I would ever hang around with, but he’s basically a pretty good guy. Ginger could do a lot worse.

There’s a recurring friction between Ginger’s world and Jasmine’s. When Jasmine gets overwrought (which is never far off), she just can’t keep her mouth shut about her low opinion of Ginger’s lifestyle, apartment, friends, and choice of male companionship. There is no happy medium between Jasmine and Ginger, and we know early on that this is not a sustainable living arrangement unless something or someone changes in a big way. I won’t say more about the Ginger subplot, and here’s why: While there’s nothing wrong with it and it’s perfectly watchable and entertaining, it’s ultimately a sidebar to the story that carries us along – Jasmine’s.

It was only after I’d left the theater that it occurred to me that Allen has actually served up an extremely loose retelling of A Streetcar Named Desire. The parallel was pretty clear once it entered my mind – the widowed madwoman forced by circumstance to live with her poor sister and her brutish male companion. But in fairness, Allen has used Streetcar only as a jumping-off point (note that the names Blanche and Jasmine both come to us from the French language). Blue Jasmine is rather like a jazz riff on Streetcar. Just as a jazz riff on the song “Blue Moon” might take it to places that Rodgers & Hart would never have imagined or intended, Allen’s riff on Streetcar creates a wholly new piece of drama that is connected to its source only by its most basic elements.

I have chosen this jazz metaphor quite purposefully. It is no secret that Woody Allen has played clarinet in a jazz combo throughout his adult life. It makes sense that a jazz sensibility should cross over to other expressions of his art.

So what is the downside to Blue Jasmine? A few things stand out. The moment I referred to earlier, when Jasmine and Dwight are shopping for wedding rings. It is at precisely that moment when Ginger’s ex-husband Augie runs into them on the street. He then proceeds, unfortunately for Jasmine, to articulate the truth about every lie she has told to Dwight, even though Augie has never met Dwight and hasn’t seen Jasmine for a few years. It sounds as though Augie, without truly realizing it, is going through a checklist of ways to ruin Jasmine.

In a stylized farce, this sort of scene would be completely acceptable. We might even enjoy watching it happen. But in a movie such as this, which tends towards realism, it feels forced. It feels like lazy writing. Oh it’s dramatic, certainly, but it also takes us out of the drama and reminds us that we’re listening to the gears of a climaxing plot as they furiously grind away. I’m not going to sit here and tell Woody precisely how he should have written these revelations, but there had to be a way of doing it that would have been truer to the style of the film.

My companion at the showing I attended had an intriguing idea. She thought this film should have been made 40 years ago. It certainly seems more in the company of such films as Five Easy Pieces or A Woman Under the Influence than the company of any current American films. But on the balance, I’m glad it got made now, because it stands in stark contrast to the mass appeal confections that more and more define Hollywood.

So do I think you should see Blue Jasmine? How the heck should I know? A certain kind of moviegoer will enjoy it. Another kind will not. I can tell you that I’m glad I saw it and I found it engrossing, thanks to Woody Allen’s intelligent if flawed screenplay and the all-around good performances – with Cate Blanchett occupying the throne (as is her habit in cinema). But make no mistake (here I go again with the spoilers) – the film does not have a happy ending. Jasmine does not have a moment of transcendence, a moment where she grows into the person she needs to become. She ends up as she must, out on the street, babbling to herself and anyone within earshot, depending upon the kindness of strangers.


The Best Song Ever

Posted on 2013.07.18 at 12:17
Current Mood: amusedamused
Current Music: You'll know soon enough
CarlDouglas2I was a teenager living in Detroit in 1974. At that moment in time, most of my siblings were teenagers as well. Like many people in that age range, music was a big part of our lives. The big pop music radio station in Detroit was unquestionably CKLW, at 800 kHz on the AM dial. As the call letters imply, CKLW was a Canadian station. It was based in Windsor, Ontario, just across the river from Detroit, but it enjoyed a long run in the 60s and 70s as an influential pop behemoth.

At some point in 1974, CKLW began an extensive promotion. They asked listeners to send in post cards (how very quaint!) listing their favorite songs of all time. It was either 3 songs or 5 they wanted; I forget which. For that matter, I don’t recall whether I sent in a post card. After some weeks of collecting data, Radio 8 (as they called themselves) began playing the results of our voting, presented as The Top 300 Songs of All Time.

Those 300 songs were played over the course of a weekend, played in reverse order, climaxing with the great reveal of Number One. A few siblings and I really got into it, with someone manning the radio at almost all times, writing down each song as it came.

Momentum built slowly. The songs at the bottom of the list were a mixed bag, many of them relatively obscure records older than any of us. While I don’t recall any specific titles, I imagine the list’s lower tiers included such ditties as “Elusive Butterfly” by Bob Lind or “Personality” by Lloyd Price – or songs that us kids didn’t know at all, which would have given us an excuse to grab a snack or go to the bathroom.

As we got into the top 100, excitement began to build. We were now in territory where we knew every song. The stylistic breadth of the collection was striking, ranging from Motown to bubblegum to adult contemporary to rock n’ roll to novelty songs, and everything in between.

When we reached the top 10, the heavy hitters came up to bat. I think “Hey Jude” by the Beatles was in there, for example. A lengthy commercial break preceded the playing of Number One. It gave us time to wrack our brains and try to figure out what mammoth classic hadn’t been played yet. I must confess we were stumped.

The commercial break ended. The DJ’s excited, resonant voice boomed out, “And now, the number one song of all time!”… and we heard a man’s voice singing “O ho-ho-ho… O ho-ho-ho…” Yes, the number one song of all time was “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas. Yes it was. My siblings and I let out a moan of anguish. Nowadays, I might call shenanigans, but I’d never heard that expression in 1974. You see, “Kung Fu Fighting” was indeed a big hit. It had climbed to #1 on the charts only weeks earlier. And we knew, beyond all doubt, that this was the ONLY reason it was now the number one song of all time.

We knew it was a goofy near-novelty song. It did not belong among the pantheon of immortal songs we’d been listening to all weekend. Despite our tender young ages, I think we all knew that this contest had just been unmasked as a sham. I think we grew up a little bit at that moment; lost a bit of innocence. We had just been told, in big capital letters, that PEOPLE WERE STUPID, that their better sense could be swayed en masse by whatever song happened to be atop the charts at that moment.

History seems to have borne us out in the succeeding four decades. “Kung Fu Fighting”, if it is played at all nowadays, is heard as a goofy piece of nearly forgotten disco fluff. Not that it’s a bad song; heck, you can dance to it and do faux kung fu moves for all 3:15 of its running time. If someone wants to include it somewhere on their Top 300 list, I won’t quibble. But those DJ’s words still ring bitterly in my ears after all these years:

“And now, the number one song of all time!”…


I Started a Joke

Posted on 2013.07.02 at 20:09
Current Mood: amusedamused
Current Music: Make 'Em Laugh - from Singin' in the Rain
The late Johnny Carson was fond of saying that there was nothing in the world more boring than listening to comics talk about comedy. Mr. Carson was probably right about that. Nevertheless, that’s precisely what I’ve come here today to discuss. I have a lot of thoughts on the subject of humor that have been straining to come out into written words for a long time. So maybe this is a bit of self-therapy for me, but I hope you’ll find it entertaining.
* * *

Here’s what it comes down to: I’ve been trying for most of my life to make people laugh. I know I’ve had some success at this. I know it because I have ears and I’ve heard the laughter loud and clear. In some circles, humor seems to be my defining characteristic. By “some circles” I mean people who don’t know me very well. But we’ll get back to that; I want to address this topic more or less chronologically.

My late mother owned various 78 RPM records. Her collection included recordings by Spike Jones, Rosemary Clooney, and Louis Armstrong. She once told me of an incident that occurred when I was still a crib-bound infant with only rudimentary communication skills. One day, she noticed that I was attempting to imitate the guttural voice of Louis Armstrong as she was playing one of his records, even though I was nowhere near uttering my first word. Although I have no memory of the incident, I’d like to think that she reacted by laughing and fawning over me, thus reinforcing the behavior. As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.

(Hmmm… maybe I’ve missed my calling… maybe I should be the front man for a Louis Armstrong tribute band…)

As my childhood progressed, I added various tools to my humor kit. This was a matter of necessity; I discovered early on that if I could get kids to laugh, it might distract them from actively picking on me or beating me up. But even in less dire circumstances, such as family gatherings, humor was a way for me to be noticed and appreciated by adults. This was no small accomplishment. Many adults pay scant attention to children, particularly other people’s children. By making them laugh, I became, if only for a moment, their peer. That’s a wondrous feeling for a child who might otherwise have been powerless to make an impression – a positive one, that is – on an adult.

There is a story, once again passed along by my mother, that I find fascinating. I don’t know how old I was – maybe 12 or so. Just for fun, I was spending the weekend at Aunt Rosie and Uncle Andy’s house. Aunt Rosie was a bit of a night owl, and we sat up together on her front porch in our pajamas late on a sultry Saturday night, talking for hours about this or that. It was, I think, the only in-depth conversation I ever had with her.

A few days after I’d returned home, my mother related a phone conversation she’d just had with her sister, Aunt Rosie. She quoted Rosie as saying something like, “You know, for the longest time, I thought Charles was such a rude little boy. But I finally figured it out – he was just trying to be funny.”

Well, *sigh*, there’s the epitaph for many a failed joke: He came across as rude when he was just trying to be funny. There are some great lessons to be drawn from that moment. For starters, it was a call to me to be tuned in to my audience’s sensibilities as well as my own. If I want my performing art – or any other kind of art – to matter, then it absolutely has to touch my audience’s world and their realities. Otherwise, I’m engaged in nothing more than public self-gratification, which is not my thing. The public part anyway. So a belated thank you goes out to my Aunt Rosie who, like my mother, has moved on to that big comedy club in the sky.

Humor served me well in grade school. I learned quickly that a well-placed joke in a written essay could distract (some) teachers from noticing a lack of content or proper structure. And besides, making people laugh was fun! In retrospect, striving for humorous effect in school essays was also honing my skills as a writer, since one must attain a kind of mastery over wording and structure in order to pull off a written joke. Privately, I liked to think of myself as a class clown – ah, but here was the twist: I looked down my nose at those class clowns whose highest aspiration was to disrupt the class by making rude sound effects or blurting out non-sequiturs. Mere disruption was never my goal. I wanted everyone laughing, including the teacher. A side benefit of this was that if the teacher was laughing, I couldn’t get into too much trouble.

This set of guidelines reached its highest moment of expression one day when I was in the 7th grade. I was in the back of the room (I was generally placed there on account of my height) showing handkerchief tricks to my friend Leo. Please note that most of these tricks had been taught to me by my dear mother. When Leo guffawed loudly, Sister Ildefonse (yes, that was her name) snapped, “Leo! What is so funny?” And my good buddy Leo threw it right on me: “Chuck’s doing his handkerchief tricks!” Thanks Leo. I owe you one. Sister switched her attention to me and said sarcastically, “Well, perhaps Charles would like to do his tricks for the entire class!” I shrugged and said, “OK.” Sister wasn’t ready for that. She paused a moment to collect her thoughts, then said, “All right, at the start of class tomorrow, Charles will do his handkerchief tricks!”

And so it came to pass. I had a day to put my act together. The big moment was my closing trick. As noted earlier, it had been taught to me by my dear, God-fearing, church organist mother. It had a bit of a risqué kick to it though (as did my mother). It was a multi-character story that ended with me folding my large handkerchief into the shape of a brassiere. It took some cojones on my part to go through with this at St. Ignatius of Antioch Elementary School, but well… you never really know where the line is until you cross it.

The moment of truth arrived. I sprang the punch line and held up the hankie-bra for all to see. The room fell apart in hysterics. I peeked around to see what Sister Ildefonse was doing. She was bent over in hysteria, her face turning purple with helpless laughter. Oh yeah! Just what I was praying for! I returned to my seat, and Sister Ildefonse never again cited me for inducing laughter. Nor did she ever again invite me to perform for the class. Coincidence? I think not. But that’s okay. Really.

From that point forward, I began to accelerate in my exploration of humor. A key discovery was in stumbling upon the power of humorous self-effacement; that is, making oneself the butt of the joke. Like so many scientific breakthroughs, this one came about by accident. I was engaged in some verbal/mental gymnastics with my older brother, which we did a LOT at that time in our lives. I accidentally phrased something incorrectly in such a way that I was making an extremely disparaging remark about myself. My brother laughed himself to near hysterics. And I made a Note To Self about the power of self-effacement. Nobody else I knew was purposely exploiting this area of humor, and I felt as if I’d stumbled onto a gold mine.

Also at about this time, I began to learn that humor was useful for far, far more than merely evoking laughter. I’d read anecdotes about Abraham Lincoln, about how he was fond of telling funny stories and singing funny songs, and about how he would use these stories as parables to make political or philosophical points. Those accounts of Honest Abe were a source of inspiration for me, spurring me to study the uses and effects of humor even more closely.

As you may be noticing, a lot of what I’m describing is simply the process of becoming an aware adult. Lots of people go through this (with, alas, many exceptions), but the difference is that my primary medium of communication and growth remained humor. In time, though, I perceived that what I was doing with humor was entirely translatable to other emotions and other systems of thought. All of these manipulations of language, perspective, and character could be used independently of humor to serve many varied goals. Sometimes, humor was simply the spoonful of sugar that allowed me to express something a bit weightier (nicely mixed metaphor there).

So, you may wonder, does this mean I’m just a big phony? Presenting myself as one thing while serving my own private agenda? Let me answer that question simply: No! And yes. I hope that’s clear.

Okay, a bit more detail then: It is my fondest wish to be understood; to present myself clearly and honestly; to have others respond in kind; to accept and appreciate others; to be accepted and appreciated myself. If I come across as serious and thoughtful, it’s because I am serious and thoughtful. If I come across as goofy, scattered, amusing, and a little too in love with the sound of my own voice, it’s because I am those things as well. Yes, humor is a valuable tool for me. It’s also something I genuinely enjoy. When I look in the mirror, I don’t know whether I see an artist looking back, but I do see an entertainer looking back.

Those of you who’ve known me for a long time might expect me to move on to a discussion of my high school years, when I became somewhat notorious for the humorous pieces I wrote for my high school newspaper, but I’m not going there today. Here’s why that’s a separate discussion: By the time I got to high school, most of my approach to humor had been established. Mind you, I’ve done plenty of refining since then; I cringe when I read some of the things I wrote in high school. But generally speaking, I had moved into the polishing phase of a humor sensibility that was pretty well worked out. I decided that this post was long enough simply with an examination of how my base of humor was established. So this post is by no means a complete manifesto of my thoughts on humor and how I’ve used it, but it will do for a start. I may revisit the topic down the road if I am so moved. Thanks for coming along!

ADDENDUM — Things That Make Me Laugh
Many times over the years, CC and I have been in the company of friends, bantering and having a good time, when the friends have said, “You guys must just laugh together all the time at your house!” – or words to that effect. This makes us laugh, because the truth is ever so mundane. At home, we generally go quietly about our respective pursuits. CC might be working on a craft project or calmly surfing the internet for one purpose or another. I might be ensconced on the couch watching TV, taken up with a sporting event or an episode of Chopped on the Food Network… or maybe writing for my blog. Oh all right… we do have fun together. There are plenty of laughs. The fact that we can still make each other laugh after knowing each other for over 25 years is a wonderful thing. But our household is not nearly the circus one may imagine it to be. We’re almost like real people.

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