Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Wednesday, 4:30 PM, Martha’s Vineyard

At this moment I am seated on a park bench facing the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association Tabernacle. It’s true, I really am. I bought a small notebook the other day and I’m scribbling away in it. Of course, later I’ll key this in in the old PowerBook and post it, but let’s consider this a “live report,” shall we? More fun that way.

We arrived in Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, last Sunday afternoon, just me ’n’ the missus, as advertised. We’re staying at my friend Olie’s house. Monday morning, I woke up with the whimsical idea for the short story seen in the preceding post and, while my wife checked out the shops in Edgartown later in the day, I wrote the entire first draft down in this very notebook and had a great time doing it. Tuesday my prayers were answered and it rained, so I used the time we stayed in doors to tweak it up on the laptop. I set the story right where we’re staying and I hope soon to post some scenes from it, especially the bandstand at Ocean Park and some gingerbread houses.

Earlier today we visited Vineyard Haven (or Tisbury, the town has two names for some odd reason) and cruised around. I don’t consider myself very materialistic, but sometimes I really wish I was rich, rich, rich. I went to a bookstore and saw a score I wanted to buy and read, but (a) I didn’t have the money to purchase them and (b) I wouldn’t have had the time to read them all anyway, or at least not as soon as I would want to. Here’s where being wealthy and idle can come in so handy. Working full time and paying lip service to a budget can be tiresome, can't it?.

The spot where I’m at, by the way, is a nearly deserted park, gorgeously landscaped and quiet, aside from a strong wind blowing through the trees and the sound of two flags flapping on a flagpole some thirty feet from where I’m sitting. The capacious, round tabernacle is in front of me, the gingerbread houses are all around me, and a Methodist church is over to my right (the pastor, by the way, is the Reverend Doctor Mary Jane O’Connor-Ropp — a mouthful, ain’t it? Shouldn’t it rhyme with something? The Rev-er-end Doctor O’Connor-Ropp, stipplely steeplely tippity-top).

Okay, the blissful quietude has just been punctured. Four boys, one with a Nextel walkie-talkie squawking away, have invaded the scene. One wants to hit a “fuckin’ squirrel” with a rock. Boys, boys, boys. Can’t you feel God’s presence, for crissakes? Sheesh!

Oh well, time to push on. Ciao!

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Honoria, His Wife

“Henri, I’m tired and I’m bored. Take me out of here. Take me someplace,” the woman said petulantly.

Her husband ceased tapping away at the keyboard of his laptop and regarded her with tired, indulgent eyes. “My name’s Dick,” he reminded her. “Or Richard, if you prefer,” giving “Richard” a bad French pronunciation of ree-CHAR. “I’ll only be another five minutes and then I’ll get ready.”

The woman had been standing at the broad bay window that looked out onto the ocean and the busy shoreline drive that ran in front of it; beyond the low stone wall on the other side of the street she could see the bathers gamboling in the sea and others lounging in the sand. She turned from the scene and decisively approached him with — thought her husband — comic menace, squinting her black eyes so only the smallest portion of their irises could be seen. “Give me a cigarette,” she demanded, putting her face to within a foot of his.

Showing infinite patience, Dick once again looked up from his computer to his wife and sighed. “You don’t smoke,” he said simply. Then he returned to his work.

“Bah!” she retorted, spun on her heel and resumed her post at the bay window.

She spoke with a French accent. Dick knew very little about France. He visited Paris once and asked “Excuse moi — vous parlez Englais?” about a million times, but that hardly made him an authority. Yet in spite of his acknowledged ignorance, Dick somehow formed the theory that his wife’s accent was typical of Southern France, and further refined it to be the accent of a peasant gamely affecting gentility, only with very limited success. How he came up with this notion he didn’t know, but in a short time it became as good as truth to him.

His wife’s black hair, shiny, stretched, and as impregnable as brushed metal, was pulled into a tight chignon. Even at 35, her figure was without flaw. She wore a simple white blouse, open at the neck, and a light blue print skirt cut at mid-calf. A wide, black, patent leather belt gave the exact coordinates of her trim waist. With that body and her unlined face, accented by bold red lips as stark as a stroke of crimson on white canvas, she could easily pass for 25.

They were staying at the house of a friend, Paul Dumaurier. Dick and his wife arrived late that morning by ferry and walked the quarter-mile to Paul’s house, with Dick carrying all the luggage while she floated on ahead of him, her skirt flapping like a sail in the wind. Her trademark black gypsy eyes were concealed by large Jackie O. sunglasses, ridiculously out of fashion, but made fashionable again because she could pull it off. When they got to the house, they caught Paul preparing to leave.

“Oh there you are,” Paul said, snapping closed a valise that was sitting on the dining room table. “Just in time to see me go.” Dick’s wife walked past him as if he were a ghost.

“Hmm?” asked Paul, looking at Dick while inclining his head at his wife. Then he took a step or two toward Dick and inquired in a confidential tone, “What’s up with Susie?”

“Shh, shh — it’s ‘Honoria’ now.”

The two men exchanged a brief glance of understanding.

“Oh it’s that, is it,” said Paul.

“Afraid so.”

“For how long?”

“Since Wednesday.”

“Getting a bit wearing?”

“Today it has been,” Dick confessed.

Paul gave Dick a quick, dismissive smile. “Well,” he said brightly, “sorry I won’t be around for the show.”

“Nothing I can’t handle,” said Dick with a smile in return, instantly relieved his friend shared a similar disinclination to discuss the matter.

Paul’s house was in Oak Bluffs on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Although there was a ferry slip nearby, Paul elected to to pick up the next available ferry in Vineyard Haven, the neighboring town. Dick drove Paul to it in the old Jeep Wagoneer Paul kept on the island. When Dick returned to the house, his wife, whose name appeared as Susan on her birth certificate but who insisted on being called Honoria these days, had fallen asleep on one of the upstairs beds. So Dick pulled out his laptop and busied himself with work until she awoke.

It was the end of August; still summer but getting cooler. By the time Dick put away his things, showered and changed, it was already early evening and slightly chilly. Honoria donned a light sweater and the two of them walked a short distance along the sea wall until they saw the expansive, green Ocean Park, dotted with its numerous park benches set up willy-nilly like so many game pieces. Colorful islets of flowers were plopped here and there, and in the center, acting as a white, circular, columned hub, stood an enormous covered bandstand perched high on its own wood-shingled platform. Dick and Honoria took an oblique course passing by it as they bisected the park, and then followed a small side street to a busy thoroughfare lined on both sides with shops and restaurants.

“Nice of Paul to loan us his house,” remarked Dick as they started up one side of the street.

“But it won’t work,” returned Honoria while peering through the display window of a knick-knack shop. “They’ll find us. And there are fewer places to run on an island you know.”

“Oh right,” said Dick, rolling his eyes. “Don’t worry. We’ve given them the slip so far, haven’t we, dear?”

“Thanks to you, my resourceful Henri,” she said, turning to him and giving his arm a generous squeeze. She had her big sunglasses on again, but he guessed at the approbation her eyes were surely expressing.

“No trouble at all, my dear,” he said. “And it’s Dick, remember.”

They strolled up the sidewalk investigating the shops in a desultory way. Honoria asked all the clerks many questions and Dick kept himself at hand for whenever his wife carried things a bit too far. One girl working in a store that mainly sold T-shirts began to hear about their adventures of escaping the clutches of a secret society whose name seemed to change with every telling, but Dick adroitly stepped in to ask the bemused clerk the price of a T-shirt with an illustration of a tall ship on its front. For more than a half an hour, Dick found sanctuary at the Methodist Campground, a surreal spot discovered behind a block of stores that had, at its center, a great wooden tabernacle that suggested a Pentecostal revival tent, surrounded by gaily painted gingerbread-style houses. Diverted, they slowly walked the circular drive that encompassed the tabernacle and was itself ringed by the fantastic, ornate houses. It was just like navigating one’s way through a storybook. His wife was delighted and she chattered on and on about the eccentric features each one of the little houses possessed.

Finally, Honoria declared she was hungry. They regained the main street and pushed on, now completely ignoring the shops and looking only at restaurants. She rejected all of Dick’s suggestions until they hit on a place call Nor’east, which displayed a menu in front with no prices listed.

“You want to eat here?” Dick asked, already regretting the damage his wallet would surely suffer.

“Oui. This is it. We must eat here,” she said with finality.

Feeling too casual in his pleated shorts and loafers, Dick allowed Honoria to lead the way. The interior of the restaurant was done in the motif of a luxury ocean liner, with exquisitely-wrought cherry wood paneling and shiny brass nautical instruments placed wherever the eye could rest. The maitre d’, a youngish man, slightly pudgy with a receding hairline but dressed in a finely-tailored black suit, approached the pair.

Something about the way Honoria fretfully scanned the dining room set off warning bells in Dick’s head. The restaurant was full, but Dick immediately picked out two empty tables, so surely having to wait for a seat wasn’t the cause of his wife’s apparent distress.

“Two,” Dick said to the maitre d’.

“This way please,” the man replied, gathering two menus and a wine list.

“Wait!” interjected Honoria. “Where do you intend to seat us?” The maitre d’ glanced back at her inquisitively.

“Does it matter?” Dick asked her.

“Monsieur,” said Honoria to the maitre d’, “we are being followed. We cannot let down our guard, not even for a moment. You must place us at a table along the wall, over there in the corner.” The man and Dick looked at each other. “Where we can see without being seen, so to speak,” she elaborated, animatedly pointing to the section.

Both the maitre d’s and Dick’s eyes flew to where she indicated, a dimly-lit, congested corner without an empty table in sight.

“I am sorry madame, but as you can see, there is no place to seat you.”

Honoria turned imploringly to Dick. “Henri—!” she pleaded.

Dick took the maitre d’ gently by the elbow and led him several steps away from his wife. “Look, I’m going to need a favor here.” He already had his wallet in hand and extracted from it a fifty dollar bill.

“Sir,” the maitre d’ said, his expression stony except for his eyes, which betrayed the faintest trace of contempt. “Fifty dollars will not make any of those tables less occupied.”

Dick returned the fifty dollar bill to his wallet and then produced a hundred dollar bill.

“What about this then?”

“Sir,” said the maitre d’ with all the impassivity he could muster, “we’re still faced with the same little problem, aren’t we?”

Dick pulled out yet another hundred dollar bill and addressed the haughty young pup in the pricey monkey suit by saying: “Listen, I’m not asking you to change the laws of physics, or part the Red Sea, or solve the riddle of the universe. It’s not magic that I’m looking for. I just want for us to have a table right there against the goddamn wall.”

Five minutes later, the maitre d’ directed two waiters and a busboy to find room for an extra table in Honoria’s preferred section, which was done with the greatest possible commotion, involving the scraping of chairs, many apologies, and outraged looks on the part of the diners. Honoria found herself seated precisely where she wanted to be and smiled gratefully at her harassed husband who slumped himself down beside her, absorbing the black looks of their immediate neighbors who were suddenly dispossessed of much of their rightful elbow room.

They gave their drink orders to the waiter and, when he returned, ordered their meals.

“Filet mignon,” Honoria announced. “Medium rare.”

“Very good, madame,” said the waiter.

Dick then gave his order and, just as the waiter began to depart, rose from his chair, excused himself to his wife, and accosted the waiter.

“Pardon me,” Dick said in a hushed voice close to the waiter’s ear, “but don’t give her the filet mignon.”


Dick pressed a ten dollar bill into the waiter’s hand. “She’s really a vegetarian. Give her the portobello mushroom thing, only—” and here he leaned in a little closer, “—call it filet mignon, all right?”

The waiter, probably a college student on summer break enjoying this bizarre sequence of events and already framing in his mind the story he looked forward to telling his friends, pocketed the money and said, “Sure,” as if he understood everything and was in conspiracy with Dick.

And so the night wore on, Honoria saying whatever she pleased and Dick running interference with the vigilance and intensity one sees in those performers who can keep six or seven plates spinning simultaneously on slender poles. Finally, near midnight, they slowly ambled their way back toward Paul’s house, retracing their path across the park until they came to the bandstand.

“Henri, let’s go up inside it,” said Honoria.

Dick surveyed it up and down. “I am sorry, dearest, but no. See? There’s no way in.” The structure was set high on a platform and was encompassed by a railing. Dick saw there was a door at it’s base which was quite naturally locked. He could hear the soft hum of machinery inside.

She turned her wonderful black eyes to him and said, “Find a way,” not imperiously, but in an affectionate, coaxing manner. Dick met his defeat once again. The solution was thought of in half a minute, when Honoria kicked off her shoes and climbed up Dick’s back and launched herself off his shoulders, swinging expertly and gracefully over the rail. Dick, no mean athlete himself, found a way to scrabble up with a maximum application of his biceps.

From where they stood, they could see the dark outline of the sea and the many stars impossible to view from their home in the city. They looked at the grand old houses that stood sentry-like all around the common, many with their lights still burning. They could hear the surf and feel the salty breeze and Dick admitted to himself that being there wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

“It’s lovely,” she breathed.

Dick gently slid his arm around her. “It is.”

“Let’s stay here all night,” she said, turning to nestle her face into his chest.

“Against the law, my sweet,” he replied. She gave him a playful little punch on his chest.

Several long minutes went by with Honoria standing quiescently in her husband’s sturdy embrace. There was no hurry; it seemed time no longer was a thing to be measured. She was an exotic bird to him; how life had led her his way was something he still marveled at, because clearly he didn’t deserve anything so fine and rare as this, his wife of six years. “I’ve been meaning to tell you all day,” he said at last, quietly in her ear, “you’re not French. You know the language even less than I do.”

She put her face up to his and kissed him. Later, when they made it back to the house, Dick guided her upstairs to the master bedroom, where he unhurriedly and with extreme gentleness made love to Honoria or Susie or whoever she was for a full hour or more.

The next morning Dick rose very early, leaving his wife softly snoring into her pillow. He shaved, went out for a long run along a bicycle trail, showered, and then set about making breakfast. The aroma of cooking eggs and pancakes and brewing coffee drew his wife somnolently thumping down the stairs. He had just finished setting the table and she seated herself before the plate he prepared for her, her hair completely disarranged. She wore an extra long T-shirt backwards.

“So it’s Susie again?” inquired Dick from the stove, pouring her a mug of coffee.

She made a little pout and eyed him ruefully. “You!” she suddenly said accusingly. “You were a dick, Dick. All day.”

“Ha ha, thank you very much. Now eat those eggs before they go cold.”

“They smell good,” she remarked. “Oregano? Garlic?”

“And a hint of chili powder,” said Dick, placing the steaming mug by her plate. “Now tuck in, dear heart.”

Dutifully, she tried a bite of the scrambled eggs. “Mmm,” she said. Then: “So now it’s your turn.”

“I suppose it is.”

“What will it be then?”

Dick seated himself opposite her. “An English baronet I think,” he replied in a passable British accent.

Susie put down her fork. “Dick, you’re not even trying anymore. Every time we do this, it’s the English baronet or count or lord—”

“Ah,” interposed Dick, “but with a difference. While you were napping yesterday, I took the liberty of rummaging through some of Paul’s things. Did you know he’s a scuba diver?”


Dick reached down underneath his chair and produced a pair of flippers, holding one in each hand and framing his face with them.

Susie’s eyebrows rose questioningly.

“I’m going to wear them,” said Dick, now barely containing his glee, “all . . . the . . . time!”

Susie’s eyes widened and then she uttered a single, sharp laugh, like the surprised bark of a small dog. Then she threw her head all the way back and laughed and laughed until tears stood in her eyes. Dick cheerfully gazed at her, extremely pleased that he achieved the effect he was looking for. Finally composing herself, after wiping her eyes and suppressing a last rogue giggle, she looked at her husband with pure adoration and, holding both hands out to him, declared, “Brilliant!"

Friday, August 26, 2005

Schprock Takes a Holiday

Well folks, I’m outta here. Me ’n’ the missus are heading off to beautiful Martha’s Vineyard for a week, where a friend of ours has kindly allowed us the use of his house. Our daughters don’t want to go, so it’s just the two of us. Daughter Number 1 will drive us down to Woods Hole where we’ll pick up the ferry. Transportation for the week will be Big Blue, our tandem bike. And for once I won’t have to work late the day before vacation to finish up on things — I’m all caught up! Huzzah!

Hopefully, I’ll remain somewhat in touch with all my blogger friends: we’re taking our old World War II era Mac Powerbook with us. It’s one of those ones you have to hand-crank in order to generate power. Legend has it that this was the very Powerbook Eisenhower used to plot out D-Day. And we’ll have to use dial-up of course, just like my father did, and his father before him. Yep, there’ll be a certain amount of roughing it, but it adds to the charm I think.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

See You in the Funny Pages

Consider this a companion piece to The Best Men, because here is another instance where Señor Squeegee and I have collaborated on project that has never come off. This time it’s a comic strip idea called Bucky and Sparkles. The premise is simply this: the strip follows the lives of two clown roommates who never stop being clowns — in other words, the make-up stays on 24/7. Their refrigerator is stocked with seltzer, custard pies and banana peels, and they drive a Cooper Mini that can hold themselves and a dozen of their friends. But what makes it interesting is that we’re talking about a rodeo clown sharing living arrangements with a circus clown — in other words, two entirely different kinds of clowns. Sort of a clown odd couple, if you will.

I basically gave the concept to John and he was supposed to run with it, with me serving as an occasional consultant. John came up with with the idea of Bucky sleeping in a barrel instead of a bed, and a few other nice little touches I can’t recall. I envisioned them living in a wacky apartment building, with tenants like the Fat Lady, an opera singer who always goes around in Viking garb.

Here is my concept of what Bucky and Sparkles could look like:

Hmm. Maybe they’re a bit too cutesy. A little edgier might work better, right?


Speaking of unfulfilled comic strip ideas, about fifteen years ago I planned to create a cartoon strip called Doctor Time. The story is hardly original: a scientist constructs a time machine and he and his loyal assistant take a ride in it but can never get back to the present; instead, they wind up bouncing here and there among the epochs and have many adventures. Doctor Phineas Time is a goofy, well-meaning professor who blithely leads himself and his long-suffering assistant, Simpson, into many scrapes. It’s meant to be funny and possibly educational — certainly it would have caused me to do considerable research.

I actually drew up two or three strips, but a search of my basement the other day for them came up empty. I do remember how one of them went and I’ve sketched it out below. This occurs when Doctor Time and Simpson find themselves in the company of prehistoric man:

DOCTOR TIME: Simpson — do you spy that caveman over there? I shall attempt to communicate with him!

SIMPSON: I don’t know sir . . . do you think that’s wise?

DOCTOR TIME: Tush, tush, Simpson — you forget I’m a trained anthropologist! I will gain his trust by imitating a caribou, a creature well-known to him for its docility…

…When he sees I mean no harm, communication will happen naturally!

CAVEMAN: Buddy — if ya need to relieve yourself, there’s a whole woods right over there!

Two things I discovered about cartoon strips: it’s hard to think of gags and they take a long time to draw! These are just crude sketches and it took me a while to do them. It makes me appreciate the pros!

Monday, August 22, 2005

Cover Story: Alien Albino Eggplants May Be Among Us!

A friend of ours gave us this white eggplant from his garden. He and my wife think it looks like an eggplant with a nose. I said it looked like something else. Now they think I’m fresh. Who’s right? What does it look like to you?

Friday, August 19, 2005

A Little Straight Talk About Not Talking Straight

Okay, this is one I’ve been putting off for a while, but last night while attending one of my “speech groups,” I let slip that I have a blog, and I think a few people from that group might be checking in soon. It’s important to note that this was the “feelings” group, not the “fluency” group, and as the members of the feelings group are all about “advertising,” I now feel obligated to peel away yet another layer of the onion that comprises the personality of yours truly. I promise to be brief — and in the process explain what I just said.

I speak with a stutter. In terms of severity, it’s a rather mild one. On average, I probably have trouble with one word occurring in one out of every five sentences. Usually the episodes are brief and often times unobserved by the listener, but the stutter is always right there where I can see it and I am ever-conscious of its presence. I have stuttered all my life, as far back as I can remember. In the fifth grade, my school had a speech therapist come to see me once a week and we played card games mostly (I don’t believe the stutter was ever addressed for some odd reason). Aside from that one instance, I never sought speech therapy until I was 43.

Naturally, I grew up self-conscious of my speech and I allowed it to hinder me. This “stepping back” took many forms: not contributing to some conversations even when I could furnish the crucial point, playing dumb in class when called upon to answer a question, refusing to ask girls out whose names were too difficult to say, and so on. Here’s a good one: at a self-serve gas station I used while in college, I avoided pump numbers seven and eleven, as at this one station you had to announce what your pump number was when it came time to pay! My career choice may have been affected by my speech, because I anticipated not having to do a lot of talking as a graphic designer.

At 43, I joined a year-long program where I learned the “airflow technique.” The airflow technique is a method of speaking developed by Dr. Martin Schwartz, who one day came up with an original theory on the cause of stuttering while watching someone’s larynx through an ultrasound device. He believes that stuttering has a physical cause, in stark contrast to all the other experts who think it’s psychological. I attended his weekend workshop in Boston, and then for one year I practiced different assignments every week. At the end of every week, I recorded samples of my speech with a special microphone that could detect subtleties in my breathing, and mailed the audiotapes off to a clinician who reviewed and critiqued them for me. I also joined a group of other “airflow-ers” who met twice each month and practiced with them.

My speech is much the better for it, and I no longer shrink from many of the situations that used to intimidate me. I joined a Toastmasters club for a time and I have made more than a few business presentations. At parties, I think some people, having met me for the first time, have come away thinking me glib. My biggest challenge seems to be the telephone, but even there I’ve had my share of successes. Many people who know I stutter claim not to even notice it. It does seem I can communicate well enough.

As mentioned at the beginning of this post, I attend two groups. One is a chapter of the National Stuttering Association, which I attended last night. I call this the “feelings” group, because improving one’s fluency of speech is not the primary focus there. It’s more about sorting through the baggage accumulated from living with a disability (hate to use that word, but there it is). They believe we should declare to the world that we stutter and not be ashamed of the fact — “advertising,” in other words. From time to time, we have special meetings where we each stand up and give five minute prepared speeches. That’s what happened last night, and for the occasion I read Name That Moon.

The other group is what I call the “fluency” group. In this one, feelings are not even discussed. For two hours we practice the airflow technique, doing drills and fining each other 25 cents for every misstep when caught not strictly employing the technique (nobody ever stutters during these sessions). It’s hard work sometimes, but a lot of good comes of it.

Well, as Forrest Gump says, “That’s all I have to say about that.”


Here’s what Peter O’Toole has to say about method actors. I just read this in one of last month’s TIME magazines and thought it was really funny:

“When you’re playing Hamlet, and you and Horatio are up on the battlements, Horatio says, ‘But look, the morn in russet mantle clad/Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.’ Well, it isn’t! You’re looking at Charlie the prop man with a fag in his gob. It’s pretend, for God’s sake!”

Thursday, August 18, 2005

A Must-See Blog

Maybe everyone recognizes Phil as a visitor to this blog. He is also a cancer patient who deals with his condition straight on and in an inspiring way. Please click here to see his most recent post that pictorially documents a trip into New York City for chemotherapy.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Disgusting Humor

Several years ago, a scientific organization of some kind determined with empirical precision the world’s funniest joke. I forget how exactly they did it. I believe it involved the use of the Internet and the most important criterion was that nearly all cultures and nationalities needed to more or less agree that this was without doubt a very funny joke. As best as I can remember it, the joke went something like this:

Two hunters are tracking their prey in the woods when suddenly one of them takes seriously ill. His face turns blue, he clutches at his throat, and then starts making the most alarming gurgling sounds. Presently he drops to the ground as if felled by a sledge hammer and lays there motionless.

His companion, in a blind panic, fumbles with his cell phone and, after dropping it once or twice and cursing through several misdialings, reaches emergency services. “You’ve got to do something!” he shouts. “My buddy’s had some kind of seizure and I’m afraid he may already be dead!”

The person on the other end, needing the distressed hunter to calm down so he can follow the critical directions needed to administer aid to his stricken comrade, replies in a cool, pacifying tone of voice, “Okay. First take a deep breath and then let’s make sure your friend is really dead.”

There’s a pause on the other end followed by the sharp report of a gun.

The hunter comes back on the line and says, “Alright, now what?”

After reading this, you might be thinking to yourself, “Is that really the funniest joke in the world?” I haven’t the slightest doubt you can come up with a whole slew of jokes you might think are funnier. But you have to agree it’s a pretty good joke, and chances are excellent you could tell this to anyone and expect a laugh. I have, and believe me, I’m terrible at telling jokes. It would take a horrible delivery to not elicit even a chuckle with this one.

What separates us from the professional comedian is that the comedian can tell jokes not nearly so universally funny and get people to laugh. I’ve watched many Seinfeld episodes that have the stand-up bits in them, and I’ll honestly admit to you right now that if you dress me in the same clothes as Jerry, put me up on that same stage with the same audience and have me repeat the same material, I will not get anybody to laugh. Seinfeld has that extra something — maybe it’s the comedy gene — that makes whatever he wishes to be funny, funny. I don’t.

What would be the ultimate test for a comedian do you think? To randomly select a page from the phone book and make people laugh while reading it? Perhaps that’s a bit extreme. So how about this: choose a completely crude, tasteless joke with a punchline that stinks, and see what Comedians X, Y and Z can do with it.

That is the premise to the movie The Aristocrats. Fifteen or so comedians take a joke well-known in their circle to be very tough material — a classic comedian’s joke — and have a go at it. Common to nearly all the tellings is a simple beginning and the punchline, which is, “The Aristocrats!” It’s the in-between part that makes the difference, because each comedian has to describe in his own words the filthiest, most obscenely-imagined “stage act” the deepest, darkest recesses of their minds can conjure. It’s scatological and utterly depraved, involving incest, violence, bestiality and anything else that would make your grandmother swoon into a dead faint. Be warned if you go see it: not very many nice words are used. Even Bob Saget, Mr. America’s Funniest Home Videos, is in this one; in fact, he’s among the raunchiest. Watching him unleash is own brand of unadulterated smut is nearly as shocking as an image of Santa Claus ogling kiddie porn. In the theatre where I saw it, several people walked out during the course of the movie. It’s that bad. But as bad as it is, it’s that good.

They saved Gilbert Gottfried for the end, when, during a New York Friar’s Roast in honor of Hugh Hefner just weeks after 9/11, he impulsively resorted to the Aristocrats joke after several other jokes of his bombed. He pulled it off brilliantly. Another favorite of mine was Larry Storch, F Troop’s Corporal Agarn, who gave a relatively clean presentation of the joke (he managed to work a gorilla into it). Others were the Smothers Brothers, George Carlin, Paul Riser, Stephen Wright, Penn and Teller and a bunch more. They even had a mime do it! Plus there were a gazillion other comedians in the film, but they only offered commentary.

The problem with the movie is that it’s edited like a music video. It’s an endless series of four seconds, cut! four seconds, cut! all the way through. The filmmakers never let any one comedian tell the joke from beginning to end without interruption except George Carlin, who actually didn’t tell it all that well. I’m guessing they were afraid of anyone getting bored, so they spliced and diced like madmen. But if you can get past that and the outrageous crudity of the joke itself, it’s a movie well worth seeing, at least in this typist’s humble opinion.

While we are on the subject of disgusting humor, I’d like to bring up a blog perhaps you’ve heard of: Idiots and a Journal of the Disgusting Girl at Work. It is indeed disgusting and quite funny. Only Cotton Mather or Jerry Falwell wouldn’t think this is one of the funniest blogs out there. The author tracks the antics of the worst white trailer trash ho you could ever imagine who happens to work in his office. However, take extreme caution: the language gets a bit coarse.

I would be curious to find out if there is anyone else out there who doesn’t think this blog is entirely on the level. Many of the posts and the author’s comments attending them have the look and taste of verisimilitude, but taken as a whole, it does seem a bit much. The woman, if she truly exists, has to be the stuff of legends. I can’t help but be reminded of the Washington Post columnist who years ago won — and subsequently lost — the Pulitzer for her coverage of a boy dealing with life in the ghetto; she later confessed the boy was actually a “composite” of several children (read: an entirely fictional character). So it could be here, although several people I know feel absolutely certain that Disgusting Girl all the truth and nothing but the truth. You be the judge.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Housekeeping Notes

I finally updated my links! That and organizing my sock drawer are the two chores I always seem put off. I have added new links and I’m now listing all of them alphabetically and by blogger name, instead of site name. Please check them all out if you’re new to this site. Hell, even if you’re not new to the site, check them out anyway.

At the bottom of the list is a downloadable PDF of a story I wrote a few months back entitled Finding Susie Beans: An Oliver Grendall Adventure. Shortly after starting this blog I found myself casting about for material and decided to write a story. It has eight chapters and takes roughly one hour to read. The main character is a pompous, yet kind-hearted cat named Oliver Grendall who solves a mystery concerning a little girl’s lost doll. The model for his character is Mr. Pickwick of The Pickwick Papers. I think it’s funny and I had a good time writing it. There is an “Internet version” of this story of course, but the PDF is slightly more cleaned-up and definitely easier to read, as you don’t need to go hunting around for all eight chapters.

That is all.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Searching for Bobby Fisher

I love chess like I love baseball and football. I enjoy watching a game of chess being played as I would those two other sports. Curiously, my proficiency in chess rivals my ability to play baseball and football. In other words, I am barely competent. Any ranked chess player should avoid playing me like a professional major league hitter roils at the thought of facing knuckleball pitching, as the experience in the latter’s case is reputed to ruin one’s swing for a number of games. So a talented chess player would be better off taking a pass on squaring off against me, because my fumbling play might throw his precisely-tuned mental mechanics completely out of whack. I can instantly cite an example of this: I have a friend who used to play tournament chess. He’s out of practice now, but this guy out of practice is better than me having undergone two weeks of solid training. He consents to play me from time to time more as a favor than anything else. A victory for me usually means making him work extra hard to put me in checkmate. It’s obvious that playing against the likes of me puts puts him off his guard, which is a very bad thing. One time he made a move against me that, at first glance, meant the loss of my queen. I studied the board hard for five minutes, then took his bishop with my knight, placing his king in check. The look of astonishment on his face was priceless. Forcing him to spend a move to get his king out of check immediately lead to the loss of his queen! From there on I steadily picked him apart. The game stood as an unfortunate lapse on his part while, for me, it was my most brilliant victory.

It began for me years ago when my nephew got interested in chess and asked me to play him. In a short while he began beating me regularly. Soon he grew so impatient with my habit of interminably studying the board only to blindly walk into an obvious trap that he once offered to play me without one of his rooks to even the odds. I took great offense at this, and straightaway went to a bookstore to purchase the classic book on chess by Edward Lasker. The book started off very easy, explaining the rules of chess and some general principles to keep in mind while playing. Lasker showed a few basic openings, talked about the “pawn skeleton” and so on, and then, using old-fashioned chess notation, took the reader through fifty or so games with commentary. I found it absorbing and reading this book did indeed improve my game to the point where my nephew didn’t win all the time. Victory was no longer an assured thing.

A few years later, a coworker of mine named Bryan asked me to teach him chess. The next day I brought in my chessboard and I taught him the rules of chess. We played a few practice games and I showed him what I knew of chess strategy, which wasn’t very much. It amounts basically to this: when white, my opening is invariably the King’s Pawn Opening, or, as any experienced chess player would derisively put it, the “schoolboy’s opening.” The idea is to push up the two center pawns in order to free the bishops, so that in the shortest possible time all of the more important pieces (i.e., those that are not pawns) can come into play and help you control the center of the board. Other basic tactics I strictly adhere to are: castle within the first ten moves; never bring out the queen too early; if matched up against a stronger player, trade queens if I get the chance; screw up the opponent’s ability to castle if I can; make him “double” his pawns if possible; harass his queen if the opportunity arises; and few other things I can’t think of right now.

So I taught Bryan everything I knew and then we started playing during our lunch breaks in complete earnest. I showed him no mercy and mostly made short work of him. He never became discouraged and, after a while, would throw a scare into me from time to time. Naturally a good deal of badinage went on while we played; I was always sure to say the most obnoxious things when putting him in checkmate. This scenario went on day after day until finally the unthinkable happened and Bryan won a game. I was left flabbergasted. Taking great delight, he said in his Darth Vader voice: “When I left, I was but the learner. Now I am the master.”

I could have killed him.

Day after day, we played and played. I redoubled my efforts and punished him for his effrontery, but he continued to steadily improve and soon we were more or less on a par with one another. We used to celebrate birthdays where I worked back then, and for my birthday that year he and Maria, another colleague of mine, pitched in and bought me a chess clock, a device speed chess players use to bring the element of time into the game. Then the action really heated up. I would arrive at work every day not necessarily to work, but to beat Bryan at chess during lunch. When he finally left the company, I asked him plaintively, “But what about the chess?”

As I say, I am not a terribly skilled player, but I know enough to be “dangerous.” I can cause an accomplished player to pause and think from time to time. Studying the games of the masters may not have necessarily transmitted their brilliance into my play, but it has given me an appreciation of the game. Which leads me to tell you about one of my favorite things to do.

In Harvard Square in Cambridge, in front of the Au Bon Pain restaurant, there is a line of tables made of concrete in a small public square. Ingrained into the surface of each of these is a chessboard, and there, during good weather (and sometimes foul) the street chess players meet and play for hours and hours. Most often they play five minute games and watching the best of them play is something near to a religious experience. Sometimes I get lost as they make the little chessmen dance all over the board, but most of the time I can see what they’re doing and thrill to a neatly-done sacrifice or gasp at a deadly knight fork the unfortunate victim didn’t spot ahead of time. There is a group of regulars who I always see. They are mostly all male, middle-aged chain smokers, haphazardly dressed and, if one can make a natural assumption from observing a bare ring finger on the left hand, bachelors. Some are intense while others are laid back. Some poo-poo a killing stroke made by their opponent and play on like they still have a chance, while others glower and gather up the remaining chess pieces with one hand and thump the clock to a stop with the other. Their absorption in their games is compete. Coffee often goes cold and the ashes of their cigarettes grow to an inch before they petulantly flick them away. Some move with authority and hit the button of the clock as if to say, No one could have played that better! Others push their pieces almost apologetically and brush the clock’s button lightly with their pinky. Some play for money while others simply for the sport. Some have Ukrainian accents, while others Spanish and still others French. Some are black and others are white. But there is a distinct fellowship one is instantly sensible to, a palpable brotherhood that’s felt when people of disparate backgrounds are drawn Siren-like to a certain place, somewhat like a dutiful congregation answering the village church’s bell. They heed the call.

The most interesting of them is a fellow who calls himself the Chess Master. I first noticed him in 1986, when I worked for a year in the advertising department of the Harvard Coop, which is across the street from the Chess Master’s base of operations. In good weather, I took my lunch breaks in front of the Au Bon Pain and there he always was, taking on all comers for a dollar a game (now it’s two). He was much younger and thinner then of course. He was a smoker naturally (although now he’s switched from cigarettes to cigars), and he always wore a wide-brimmed hat like he does today, which I suspect he uses to help keep him from being distracted by the crowd. There was always a squirt gun lying next to the chessboard. I found out later he used it to keep the pigeons away.

I have never spoken to him, but I’ve always wondered if that’s all he does, play chess for money. There seems no other observable means of subsistence. His clothes have always been shabby, worn as if in a grudging bow to our society's laws requiring us not to appear naked in public. Over the years he’s gained weight and his face is now flushed in an unhealthy way. But one thing hasn’t changed: he always, always wins. Ordinarily, he gives his opponent eight minutes while allowing himself only four. Often his time ticks down alarmingly close to zero, forcing him to make rapid moves that frequently leave his pieces sloppily placed on their squares, rocking back and forth. It’s sheer artistry what he does, no different from a neatly played arpeggio on the piano or subtlest stroke of a brush on canvas that magically makes the whole image cohere. It’s an elegant union of math and art, an Anschluss of right brain and left.

I leave you with the Chess Master’s picture:

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Saturday Beantown Bike Ride Slide Show Extravaganza!

Well, sorry you all have to leave so early! I sure hope it wasn’t the wife’s meatloaf, ’cause she sure makes a mighty fine one, don’t she? Can’t tempt you all with another piece of blueberry pie, can I? It’s homemade. No? Well, here, I’ll help you get your coats. They’re this way, everybody, walk down the hall with me. Here we go.

Saaaay, have I shown you all the den? I haven’t? Let’s just take a peek, shall we? Paneled it myself last week. We’ll just click on the light and — well, would you look at that! Honey, we forgot to put the slide projector away! Ha! And look, the carousel’s all loaded up and everything. We even left the screen up! If that don’t beat all!

Wait a sec, folks, I’ve got me an idea. You have a few minutes, don’t you? Why don’t we all have a looksee at what the missus put in the projector? I mean, look at all these chairs we accidentally set out. No use wasting ’em, right? Come on, Ed and Barbara, you sit over there. Hank, quit standing in the doorway and grab yourself a front row seat. Attaboy. George, Susie, come on in, sit down. Just a minute, that’s all. Honey! How ’bout bringing us in some Cokes!

Okay, now we’ll just shut off the lights and turn ’er on and — click!

Would you look at this? That’s me and the missus last Saturday, posing with Big Blue, our tandem bike! Sure was mighty fine weather last Saturday, wasn’t it? Why I just took me one long look at the big ol’ blue sky and I said, Honeybunch, let’s take us a bike ride into Boston — and that’s just what we did! click!

Oops! Like I said, the missus loaded the slides. Heh, heh! (extracts, drops slide on floor) (fumbles, reinserts slide)

There we go! This here is the Haymarket! It’s pretty famous you know. You can get great deals on fresh produce. And you should get a load of those vendors. They’re pretty colorful, if you know what I mean. The missus had to cover her ears a few times, didn’t you, Honey? Ha! click!

And this here is part of Faneuil Hall Marketplace, right near the Haymarket. A shopper’s dee-light, with lots of pushcarts. The tourists just go crazy there! click!

You know who that guy is? Why that’s Red Auerbach, legendary coach of the Boston Celtics. And right near Red is… click!

…Larry Bird’s sneakers, all bronzed up! Check ’em out! click!

Here’s a jazz band playing. What a set of pipes that guy had! Remember him, Honey? click!

Radio Disney had a show on for the kiddies that day. Ed, your little Junie would have liked this. There’s Bozo. Say, looks like Mister Ringmaster upped his food allowance, don’t it, huh? Ha ha! click!

You can’t walk more than 50 feet without seeing a Duck Tour boat. We’re taking Cousin Ernestine on one next week. click!

Here’s the Hatch Shell, where the famous Boston Pops play on the Fourth of July. Dang, you sure can’t get anywheres near it on the Fourth. click!

And, if you turn right around, there’s the two tallest buildings in Boston, the John Hancock on the left and the Prudential on the right. click!

Now everybody’s heard of Harvard Yard, right? Well, here it is! Man, just standing there made me feel smarter! click!

And here’s John Harvard himself! click!

Finally, here’s one of my favorite things, watching the street chess players play in Harvard Square. See that guy with the hat? That’s the Chess Master. He’s been around since God wore kneepants!

Well, that’s it. Hope you all enjoyed the show. Your coats? Why sure, we’ll get you your coats. No sense being in such an all-fired hurry. Right this way. Come on folks.

Saaaay, have you all seen my model train set?

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Just a Few Things…

Last Thursday night, I attended the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet on Boston Common, free to the public. I can claim to know Hamlet pretty well: I’ve read the play twice, seen Olivier’s Hamlet and the Ethan Hawke version done a few years ago, and have now attended three stage productions. On top of that, I have an audio recording of the play starring Sir John Gielgud as Hamlet which I have listened to no fewer than ten times (impossible to get tired of). With all this in mind, I have to state this was by far the best interpretation of Hamlet I’ve ever witnessed, a magnificently-realized production, ultra-professional on every level. Stagecraft at its finest, and all for free. Of particular note, the director took a few liberties with the script that, well, made me laugh; a good example was the scene when Polonius (the king’s counselor and Hamlet’s girlfriend’s dad) attempts to sound Hamlet out in order to get to the bottom of the prince’s strange actions. The director has Hamlet poolside in a bathing suit with water wings and an air mattress!

Here’s how the scene was supposed to go:


What is the matter, my lord?


Between who?


I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.


Slanders, sir: for the satirical rogue says here
that old men have grey beards, that their faces are
wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and
plum-tree gum and that they have a plentiful lack of
wit, together with most weak hams: all which, sir,
though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet
I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down, for
yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if like a crab
you could go backward.

You see, Hamlet is supposed to hold a book in that scene while saying those equivocal lines. And as I watched, I wondered, How the hell are they going to work a book into this? I didn’t see a book anywhere. But instead, when the moment came, Hamlet squints at the air mattress and starts reading, “Not a life-saving flotation device…” directly from the warning label! It was really funny and it worked. Another nice little touch was in another scene when Polonius does an aside to the audience. Hamlet steps next to him and starts to curiously look around, as if trying to figure out who Polonius is talking to.

But here was the part I liked the best. Right before the play started, the director stepped out to inform the audience that the actress playing Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, was called away at the last moment due to a family emergency. Her understudy would have to play the role, but he wished for us all to know beforehand that she would need to carry the script around with her. I quickly scanned Gertrude’s part in my mind and decided it was a fairly major role, especially considering the big scene between she and Hamlet in her bedroom, when Hamlet mistakenly slays Polonius and the ghost of his father, the dead King Hamlet (on stilts!), reappears. Bummer, I thought. What rotten luck.

It turned out to be an extra treat, because we all got to witness a true professional step in and do an extraordinary job. They put her script in a plain, black, hardcover book. During the course of the play, she naturally kept it with her at all times and referred to it frequently, but what a performance! It was like being summoned to pitch in bottom of the ninth, based loaded, nobody out, game on the line, and striking out the side. The play didn’t miss a beat with her there. I was very, very impressed.


Anybody doing the extra credit assignment, good work! Let me know what book you’re reading. And, for the curious, I’d like to share with you what made me think of giving you this “assignment.”

Last Thursday (the same day of the play), I went to the library expecting to hunt up a specific author to see what other books he’s written and checking one out. While walking down the line of fiction shelves, I on impulse changed gears and decided to do something I do all too infrequently: give an author I never heard of a try. I think doing this every so often helps keep me from becoming a “book snob.” Maybe you know what I mean by that — the sort of person who will only read authors he’s familiar with or those recommended to him by persons of respect. The problem with this way of selecting reading matter is, for every one “approved” book, there’s hundreds of other worthies that will never have a chance to be experienced.

When I was a little boy, the bookmobile used to come to my neighborhood once a week during the summer for kids on recess. For anyone not knowing what that is, the bookmobile was a sort of literary ice cream truck, a rolling library where, with a library card, one could withdraw any book or books of his liking. (Maybe they don’t have them anymore. If anybody’s used a bookmobile, let me know.) Now at that age I was fairly open to anything, so I would spend a half hour or so looking at the books and deciding which ones seemed the most interesting. It was like inspecting a basketful of puppies and asking which of the little fellahs wanted to come home with you the most. My mother had cautioned me “never to judge a book by its cover,” so I knew to glance inside and read enough to get the gist of it. It was a wonderful way to discover a book and it stuns me to realize that I don’t try this approach more often. Last year I encountered an absorbing historical novel that took place during the California Gold Rush by using this method. I wound up doing extra research about the Gold Rush on the Internet because of it. Another time I checked out a book that described a fictional English country town of roughly one hundred years ago called Lark Rise. It was charming.

The book I found last Thursday, by the way, is entitled Strange Fruit. It’s written by Lillian Smith, whom I have never heard of. The title attracted me because it matches the name of a Billie Holiday song about a lynching. And, to crown it all, the book’s cover says it’s “the once-banned, and best-selling, novel about an illicit love affair and race relations in 1920s Georgia.” It was even banned in Boston — a publicist’s dream! — so how could I not read it?


Pop Quiz: if you were marooned on a desert island with a CD player, a lifetime’s supply of batteries and only one CD, what would that CD be? Now, I know the answer is supposed to be Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or Thelonious Monk or something like that, but I would go with the soundtrack album of Run Lola Run. I could listen to it forever. What’s yours?

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Everybody’s Extra Credit Assignment

Hello class. My name is Mr. Schprock. It’s a rather hard name to spell, so I wrote it out for you on the board. I’ll be your substitute teacher for the next couple of weeks at least. Your regular teacher, Ms. Brockelmeyer, won’t be with us for a while. She’s suffering from an “acute stress disorder.” That’s what we used to call a “nervous breakdown.” Your principal, Mr. Witherstare, seems to think this class is responsible. I’ll withhold my judgment for now.

As you can see, I’m wearing a tweed sport coat with patches at the elbows. That means what? Anybody? I’m an intellectual. Say it with me: in-tuh-leck-chu-wul. Very good. What else does that mean? Anybody? Well, it could mean that I’m over-qualified to teach this high school English class. Why do I do it then? Because I’m destitute. Des-tuh-toot. Everybody: des-tuh-toot. Very good.

OK then. I don’t know any of your names, but I have the seating chart in front of me, so please forgive me if I refer to it as I call on you. Let’s see . . . Phil. You in the back. Put the spitballs away please. No, by “away,” I mean in your backpack. I can wait. All right, thank you. And young lady in the front here . . . Chloe. You show good organization. I like the lavender trapper-keeper and that’s a ship-shape pencil box you’ve got there. I’m giving you extra class credit right now. OK, OK . . . Henry and Nypinta. Yes, you two. Pass the note forward. The note, the note. Pass it to me. Right here — I’ll take that, thank you. And who are you? Yes, you young lady? Name? Knitter? Hello, Knitter. Can I see that book? The one you’re covering? The Valley of the Dolls? Do your parents know you’re reading this? Give it to me please. You can have it back at the end of the semester, provided it’s all right with them.

All right, all right! Attention please! People! Ms. Brockel— OK, you two, John and Michele, you can both save that sort of thing for after school! Same goes for the lovebirds over there by the window, Mr. T and Mrs. T! This is English class, not some lover’s lane! Are we clear? Are we? Good. So, as I started to — Trinamick! You’ve got a fresh mouth on you young lady! Don’t think I can’t hear you! I’ll put you on detention faster than . . . than — don’t finish my sentences! I don’t care how witty you think you are! Faster than that! (snaps fingers)

Yes, young man. Third row. A question? Say it again? Reading shed-dule? Shed? Oh, yes, you’re Spirit, the exchange student. Listen up my friend from across the pond, here in the good old U. S. of A., we say it sked, got it? Sked-dule. Schedule. You, Scott, I'm moving you next to Spirit so you can explain to him how to pronounce words. But good question. I was coming around to that. I see Ms. Brockelmeyer had The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James, assigned to you. Well guess what? I hate Henry James! You could use one of his sentences to measure the Empire State Building with! So look, I’m going to take the weekend to come up with a new assignment for you, BUT, in the meantime, I have an extra credit assignment. That’s right people, extra credit, meaning you don’t have to do it, but seeing as how I might be around for a while, it wouldn’t hurt to get on my good side. Right? Right.

Good then. Everybody who wants to get ahead in this class, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to go to the local library and withdraw a book. I haven’t finished yet. This book has to be one you never heard of and by an author you’ve never read. No friend recommended it to you, OK? You haven’t even read a book review on it. All you have to do is look at the book jacket, maybe skim it a little bit and read a few passages. If it seems right, check it out. If not, keep looking. But find the right book. OK? Simple? Good.

So on Monday, I want everybody participating to tell me what book you’ve chosen and why you think it might be a good book to read. And then you’ve got to promise to read the whole thing. Easy, right? Right.

Very well, then. Class dismissed.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Incident at the Poo Poo Hot Pot

Chinese women don’t like me. Well, wait a minute, that’s not completely true: women of Chinese ancestry raised in the U.S. have no opinion of me, but female Chinese immigrants definitely don’t care very much for me. I often feel it in their cold stares or the way they knock past me while boarding buses or escalators. When I place orders at Chinese restaurants, they act impatient and rush me. It may be because I’m too tall or too white or both; I have an aura about me that antagonizes them. Instead of the Goofy Nice Guy persona most people pick up on, I think what they see is Yankee Imperialist Oppressor. I’ve just got a bad look to them.

Several years ago, I was working on a catalog job (I’m a graphic designer). My client contact was a pretty, young Chinese woman named Ling. Whenever we met to discuss the job, she was as cold as liquid nitrogen and acted as if sharing the same atmosphere with me was poisonous to her. Her remarks were punctuated by barely concealed contempt and, despite how hard I worked, nothing I did was right and the smallest slip was proof of my complete incompetence. Now, keeping in mind that I’m pretty good at what I do and most clients are delighted with me, the only thing I could put it down to was that, like all other native Chinese women, she hated me because of this look I seem to have. What else could it be? I worked hard, tried to be polite and kept my stupid questions to a minimum. I gave it my best, I really did. But in the end, rather than have me take the job to completion, she abruptly pulled it from me and had someone finish it internally.

That’s State’s Exhibit A. We now move to Exhibit B. About ten years ago, I was out with a group of people to see a show at the MIT auditorium in Cambridge, MA. For some reason which I’ve forgotten, we parked the car quite a distance away. As we strolled down Massachusetts Ave. on our way back to it after the show, a member of our group recommended we stop off at a small Chinese restaurant she knew of called the Poo Poo Hot Pot. The vote was unanimous, so we went. The only hitch I saw was no one claimed to be particularly hungry. Most people in the group declared they would only order an appetizer, like soup. I remarked that it seemed kind of unusual to not order full-fledged meals at a Chinese restaurant and actually felt a premonition of trouble. But no one else felt it was an issue, so on we went.

It was a relief to see the restaurant more than half empty, as I mainly feared a large party of light eaters taking space away from more profitable clientele might lead to some friction. We were seated, menus were distributed, and I decided I would order a full meal just for appearance’s sake. When the waitress arrived, she did indeed seem taken aback by orders for only soup or chicken fingers. I think one of us might have requested only water. When we finished ordering, she said rather brusquely, “Is that it? That’s all you want?” Someone said yes, and then she snatched up the menus in a fit of pique and stormed away.

This was bad, I thought. What really made me nervous was how my wife, Myrna, would react to a hostile waitress. My wife is Puerto Rican, and — forgive me if I’m stereotyping — like a lot of Latinas the passions inflame in her as quickly as a match to rocket fuel. After a minute, I asked, “Should we leave? That waitress doesn’t seem too happy with us.” Myrna instantly agreed.

I caught the waitress as she walked by and told her to cancel the orders. Anything already being cooked special for us, finish it and we’ll take it to go. The waitress gave me a blank look, then strode directly over to the manager and said a few choice words in Cantonese while gesticulating toward us. The manager, a fairly attractive Chinese woman perhaps no more than 30, came over and asked in her most civil tone what it was we wanted? I replied with some asperity, “Your waitress doesn’t seem to like us very much and we want to leave. I told her, any special orders being prepared for us, go ahead and finish them. We’ll pay for them, only we want them to go. We don’t feel comfortable eating here.”

The manager’s appearance completely changed. Her face instantly took on the very shape of outrage. “What is the matter? What did she do?” she demanded.

“I think she thinks we ordered too little. That’s fine. Just wrap it up and we’ll eat it elsewhere.”

“So you’re leaving?”

“Yes, we’re leaving.”

That was all she needed to hear. She turned on her heel, walked the five or so steps over to the telephone, punched in three numbers and informed a police dispatcher that she, the manager of the Poo Poo Hot Pot on Mass Ave. in Cambridge, had a party of customers attempting to leave the premises without paying their bill.

This sent my wife into a rage and she let forth a stream of very uncomplimentary words to the manager. The manager retorted: “Lady, calm down! You are crazy! I think I smell alcohol on your breath!” and then made a fanning motion as if the fumes were overcoming her. Here I interceded and told this woman to watch what she said and announced our intention of seating ourselves again to wait for the arrival of the police. I told her I explained our intentions to her very clearly, she completely misconstrued them, was still not willing to listen, and now I would simply have to be satisfied with explaining our position to the police.

So we waited. And we waited. I began to form the suspicion that no real call to the police took place. Meanwhile, members of the kitchen staff popped into the dining room from time to time to see the unruly customers who were making such a fuss. Some of the diners gave me black looks. One customer, in to pick up her take-out order and obviously a regular, was told by the manager a bizarre version of what took place. By this time you could see the sole wish of the manager was for us to leave. This woman turned to us and said, “You know what? You people are assholes! She’s a nice person! You should leave her alone!”

The customer left, another five minute passed, and then the manager, who was really becoming quite distraught, finally pleaded to us, “Please! Just go! Go!”

“No,” I said, “you accused us of trying to leave without paying the bill. I explained to you three times what our intentions were, but despite that, you called called the police. That was a serious step you took. We won’t leave until we tell the police our side.”

Then she said, “I know what you think when you look at me! All you see is cheap labor! You get your fancy degrees and high-paying jobs and think you own everyone! But you don’t! You don’t own me!”

And then it became obvious: I embodied everything she hated about this country, the stories she heard and the prejudices she encountered. I was Mr. White Self-Satisfied Smug Capitalist Shithead — or whatever that translates to in Cantonese.

I had kept everyone in my party from saying anything which might escalate the tension by giving a little speech about us showing some class in this situation. Despite that, every now and again Myrna said something ostensibly meant for our group, but loud enough for the people passing by on the sidewalk to hear. “Now, now Myrna…” I’d caution. Another five minutes went by. Finally, I went up to the manager and said, “Look, we can’t wait any longer. But this doesn’t mean I’m admitting you’re right.”

A change came over her. She suddenly appeared vulnerable; the hatred had all drained away. She replied, “The waitress is my sister. She’s only been in this country for a little while and she doesn’t understand English very well. Maybe that was the trouble.”

“Just let me ask you this: do you still believe we’re trying to cheat you?”

“No. I don’t think so.”

Believe it or not, in the end we came to maybe one-sixteenth of an inch away from hugging each other. We both admitted we could have handled ourselves better. She wished we’d come back again some other time; we had a completely wrong idea about her and her restaurant. I expressed a desire to do so. At one point, I inexplicably gave her sister a tip for absolutely nothing (we never got any food, as it turned out). It became a lovefest. Weird.

Of course, we never did go back.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Defining Terms

I’ll turn 50 next February, so suffice it to say I’ve been around the block a few times. I’ve seen some things and done some things and racked up a significant amount of life experience along the way. I expect to have life completely figured out in another 45 years or so, or at least that’s what my philosophical flow chart projects to. So I’ll be spouting wisdom out of one side of my mouth while drooling into a Dixie cup with the other. They’ll call me the Dalai Pajama Lama, or the Bedpan Metaphysician. My nursing home will be a mecca for truthseekers everywhere, and my pilgrims will come away with much knowledge to turn over in their fertile minds. “Not enough prunes! Never enough prunes!” I’ll tell one disciple. To another, I’ll warn: “Watch out for that Blansford — he cheats at checkers and I can prove it!” Yes, the world will be at my feet then.

But for the here and now, and despite my many years on this planet, my sagacity is still rather limited. In fact, if anyone were to ask me right now to define love, to list its characteristics and put into words how it feels, I would probably mumble something about looking it up in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, or refer you to some choice Shakespeare sonnets. I’ve been married for a good many years and have two children (one officially an adult now), but love for me is an amorphous thing, unquantifiable, ethereal. I know there are as many different kinds of love as there are models of automobiles, but as far as, say, enduring romantic love goes (which is something I consider quite apart from mere infatuation), I can’t really pin it down; surely I’d be unable to explain it’s features to someone who’s never experienced it. For me, it’s like describing a color to a blind person. Certainly it would be the sort of thing you’d miss if it wasn’t there; maybe the essence of love is like one of those dim stars that can be seen only in the periphery of your vision — looking at it straight on, it vanishes like smoke. In the end, I couldn’t tell you if love is chemical, intuitive, cosmic or discrete, psychological or physiological. Sad to say, you’ll never get a definition out of me, but I can at least offer a strong indication of the presence of actual, lasting love.

Never expect true enlightenment to reveal itself to you in likely places. I’ve been to the Vatican and have walked through enormous, hushed, antediluvian caverns. I’ve seen Atlantic Ocean sunrises and Pacific Ocean sunsets. I’ve witnessed both my children come into this world and I’ve known many people who have left it. I’ve read a lot of great literature, nearly been killed or maimed once or twice, have had my hard-won trust compromised and my shameful doubts disproved. I’ve come to realize that I can learn more from observing children and dumb animals than from Dr. Phil or the guy who asks men to beat on drums. But through it all, I have only just recently found that the strongest evidence I can point to indicating the existence of real love is in a movie called Mr. and Mrs. Smith. That’s right: a revelation from an entertaining, yet utterly mainstream movie. Not even from something by Fellini or Bergman, or a dedicated, austere, independent filmmaker out to capture Truth one 35 millimeter frame at a time. Thanks to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, I now know what for me is the ultimate litmus test of true love.

Toward the end of the movie, the characters John and Jane Smith are in a tight spot. The odds are overwhelming and death is certain. At that moment, Jane turns to John and says, “There’s no place I’d rather be than right here with you.”

That’s it. That’s love right there. Cut and print.


I’ve figured out another thing recently, but first I have to provide a little background:

Many years ago, I knew a coworker who was a vegetarian. He practiced what he called a “cruelty-free lifestyle.” In other words, he eschewed any product that was the result of the death or suffering of an animal. For about a year, I had a lot of fun with this guy. I used to invent hypothetical situations to test how true he really was to his lofty ideals. For instance, I asked him if his apartment suddenly became infested with rats, would he have them exterminated? Or if he were marooned on an island where the only viable food source was wild pigs, would he kill and eat them to sustain his own life? I was always trying to poke holes in this moral code of his, and he, for his part, always argued back good-naturedly, enjoying the repartee, until finally I came around to admitting that I thought he was right, but years of conditioning made it virtually impossible for me to give up eating meat.

One day, it so happened I didn’t have meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was purely accidental, but I was mindful of the fact and thought it might be fun to see how long I could keep it up. After a week, the game became a bit more serious, and I successfully avoided eating meat of any kind for over six years.

The only meat that tempted me was seafood. I missed it to the point where it became an obsession. So when I fell off the vegetarian wagon, I allowed myself to eat seafood. To this day that’s the only meat I eat. I am no threat to cows, chicken and pigs; nor, for that matter, do wild boar, deer, snakes, rabbits or squirrels fear me.

Explaining my peculiar diet to people has been hard because, let’s face it, it’s rather unjustifiable. Why not eat other animals if I eat fish? A moral transgression in one place certainly makes moral stands in others insupportable, right? My answers were as vague as my thinking. Oh, eating cow, chicken and pig turns me off, I might say, just to shut people up. Call me a picky eater. Or I would say: if you can raise an animal, nurture it, feed it, maybe even give it a name, then slaughter it and still have an appetite for its flesh, then you have my respect. I cannot eat that which I can’t kill with a clear conscience. I know I can catch a fish, gut it and eat it, but I couldn’t do that to a cow.

Now here’s something that troubled me: several years ago, the family and I spent a weekend in Booth’s Bay Harbor in Maine. Nearby, maybe a fifteen minute drive or so, there was an aquatic petting zoo; a small pool inside a building where you could reach in and touch various marine life. I forget exactly what was in there: probably a turtle and small fishes of different sorts, but included were sand sharks, little sharks that resembled their big brothers, only on a tiny scale.

It so happened that one of these sharks was friendly. He came up to me and let me pet him. It almost seemed as if he liked me; I “made contact” with him, so to speak. And so from that day to this, I haven’t eaten shark.

The other morning it dawned on me what may be at the basis of my personal dietary set of restrictions — in fact, it occurred to me while I was playing with my cat. I have always said for some reason I don’t feel sorry for fish, and that’s what makes it so easy for me to eat them. I’ll now refine it further: I can’t eat life forms I feel are capable of receiving or giving affection.

I know, I know — that still might be pretty vague or arbitrary to some people. And I can hear the jokes: does that mean I can eat my mother-in-law? But that’s my new rule. Or rather my old one, only now I’ve just defined it.