Thursday, June 26, 2008

Papa Gene's Blues: Monkees

Need a little cheering up? Here's a good one!

I have no more than I did before
but now I've got all that I need...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Thank You, George Carlin

George Carlin's perspectives started working their way into my psyche as soon as I first saw him on Carson when I was a kid. He made sense just where I needed it. His humor brought a distinct enjoyability to life that still motivates. He divined the springs of our thinking and the causes of our sense, nonsense and, most important, anti-sense.

When I was twenty, I was a writer for a weekly radio show produced by Drake-Chenault, the fathers of syndicated radio. The head writer knew how I felt about George Carlin so she sent me to interview him when "A Place for My Stuff" was released. I was studied at acting calm, cool, collected, LA, but experiencing the escalation of excitement of being in the room with the man who had legitimized the tiniest crevaces of wonder in my mind completing synapses I never knew had fired - it made me grasp at my thoughts, sometimes missing - for fear of appearing to be in the awe I was in up to my chin.

I had to pause the tape recorder half way through when my pretending calm had driven me all the way to distraction.

I admitted nervousness.

"It's okay, be cool," he said. I shook it off some, gave an apology, "not needed," he said, so a laugh, and I pressed record again to ask about concerts, albums, projects and processes, with a little talk about his recently going public about the coke problem, but without dwelling on it. "It's not news anymore," he said, "I'd rather talk about the new stuff."

George Carlin talked to me like a friend, he and I and our glasses of water in that PR company's office in Beverly Hills that day. At the end of our appointment he let me bring the interview to a close. He got up and walked me to the doorway. I thanked him again for the interview and he held the moment a bit longer and told me syndicated radio had been an early enemy. "They put local radio comics like us out of business."

"They did?" I said.

"Replaced us with automation. Some guy goes in pushes a button - no more small town DJ's. I used to wear a t-shirt in those days, it said," (he spoke the font and moved his hand across his chest to show where the words went), "'F*** BILL DRAKE."

"I never thought about that part..." I said.

And George Carlin said, "Well, now ya know!"

He had met the unwitting envoy of his old nemesis with absolute kindness. The hyperawareness of his persona that had me awestruck fell away, and in that moment I saw him for who he was - same as portrayed on stage and screen - simply a good guy (and clever genius).

"Do you still have the shirt?"

"I'm sure it's somewhere..." he said.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Sign that Tends to be a Sign

See this sign here, the one with the two left arrows showing? See how part of the sign is covered by the tree's lush, healthy branches? I know what is hidden, and I like its symbolism.

This particular obstruction doesn't present a traffic hazard because the signal is long, the street ends in a T and it's obvious what drivers' choices are even without a sign.

It's not about the traffic in this story, it's about the sign. This sign is prophetic; it spoke to me this night, just as it spoke to me once before:

Near the end of 2000, when the US presidential election results were still uncertain and conversations about the outcome hung on chads, I came to a stop at this same intersection. It was dusky night and the glow of my turn signal reflected in rhythm on the sign, drawing my attention into a safe-driver's minor mesmerization. Two arrows showed pointing left, and, hidden in today's picture, one curved to the right. It was winter and the trees had no leaves (it has been a long eight years, maybe the trees were just sprouts back then).

I wondered if the sign could be telling me whether Gore or the other guy would become president. The sign seemed to say, "The left has more votes!" and alternately, "The right is clear and present."

Eight years later, I am pleased to see the right is out of the picture.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Common Superstitions Explained

Today is Friday the 13th, and so I'll reflect on superstitions. Much of our misunderstanding as humans boils down to semantics. Unless we think for ourselves we will fall for superficial reasoning. I contend that some of our most prized superstitions have sensible origins.

For example: it might be bad luck to walk under a ladder if someone up atop it dropped something!

"Aye, Jimmy's restin' well now, but he had a bad piece o'luck today..."

"What happened?"

"Bucket o' paint poured straight down onto his head, it did..."

"How!? Why!?"

"Well he was walkin' under a ladder where the man was paintin' the eaves."

"Tsk, and a bucket o' paint poured down on his head. That's some bad luck, in'it!"

The next day, another telling:

"Jimmy was walkin' under a ladder and somebody dropped a bucket of paint on his head!"

"That's terrible!"

"That's bad luck, it is!"

Repeated as overheard at the general store:

"Mrs. O'Flaherty says it's bad luck to walk under a ladder!"

"Well, I won't be doin' that then, anytime soon!"

Here are a few more, with less illustration, but the same principles apply:

Breaking a mirror brings seven years of bad luck.

Think about it: when mirrors were a new invention, if you lived far away from where they were made, it would be a safe guess that it would take about seven years to replace one. So that's seven years walking around ugly. Not a good piece of luck.

It's bad luck if a black cat crosses your path.

Picture ye olde coach cabbie at dusk, driving the ugly queen (her mirror broke six and a half years before) to the royal ball. Suddenly he sees something small and dark in the road ahead! He veers abruptly! The queen, in her corset and rigid of middle, is thrown sideways in the coach, her crown falling askew! The next day the cabbie is beheaded. What was that dark figure that crossed his path - and why didn't he see it sooner?! It was small. It darted into the path. It was dark against the falling night's shadows. It was: a black cat!

Opening an umbrella in the house is bad luck.

Close quarters. Slim object expands suddenly, its dimension becoming perpendicular to its immediately prior state! It could hit something valuable (like a vase or an eye).

Step on a crack, break your mother's back.

That’s just a vicious little rhyme.

Why would a rabbit's foot bring good luck?

Possession of the foot of a rabbit suggests an ability to kill one. Assuming a person lived in an area where there were no plants to eat, perhaps the foot would evidence prevention of starvation.

Over a baker's dozen rationales endure for Friday the 13th being bad luck. Theories date back to, and include, the Last Supper, punitive dictators, revolutions and even a the idea that the number 13 itself is simply bad to the bone. When the 13th falls on a Friday (a particularly distracting day of the week emotionally) why, anything could happen! Aye, 'tis a bad piece o' luck to have a common belief amassed in justifications so plentiful that every attempt to pin it down leads to another reason to feel unlucky.

* * *
"I'm lookin' over a three leafed clover
That I overlooked bethree!"
- B. Bunny

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Without context,
steals the mind and hides it
in an existentialist void.
Who could be an optimist
or passionate about anything from there?

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

"These Fifteen... [crash!] ...Ten Commandments..."

Mel Brooks had it right beyond the laugh. When Moses came down from the mountain to announce the Commandments to the children of God, I suspect he did drop a third big stone tablet.

A Third Tablet Theory could explain a few things about why the Ten Commandments are so easily disregarded. Maybe the Third Tablet was all footnotes: "*VII: ...unless thou canst get a quorum to agree that it's okay to kill!" But since Biblical researchers do not seem fixed on asterisks, I wager that if a Third Tablet ever could have existed, it would more likely have had statements the other ten were contingent upon.

We seem to mean well, but we are obviously missing some crucial information.

Let's have a look at killing - go right to the heart of good versus evil. We, the people, whether with our progeny or our money, kill. Whether the source of our humanitarian beliefs is religious or not, as a group we feel good about cherishing human life, and we agree that war brings anguish. But we live as if special permission existed in cases where we agree as a mob that taking the lives of others is not murderous if committed as acts of war.

Judeo-Christianity doesn't have the market cornered when it comes to claiming to value the preservation of human life and then dismissing it. Fighting for peace is rampant throughout the religious and secular worlds, but the idea of maybe just five more commandments - or some kind of explanatory note - tickles a nerve. What if we actually could have received crucial information - direct from the All Knowing - that fell crashing to the ground? I like the idea that we might piece together our integrity and become what we espouse ourselves to be.

We need to use our heads and keep them connected to our hearts. Ultimately we lack faith in our own intelligence (or, faith in God's creation). We claim we have no choice, sometimes, regrettably, sadly (bowing our heads), but to kill. We pretend God likes the good ol' boy buddy system, and that rules can be broken if it means our team wins. We justify killing by declaring the other team to be evil.

We get support for our team by insisting the other team doesn't value human life. We become what we feign to loathe, but we swear it is temporary. Have a look at the history of the world parts 2 and beyond as performed in the theater of real life: our readiness for war is by no means temporary.

We perform great acts of obtuse irony by praying for the killing to cease but we allow war as an acceptable default. We teach our children to be good. Yet, a portion of every generation on Earth goes to war. To win, let alone survive, soldiers are forced to commit to actions which, by necessity, break their spirits. Those who live through the experience return home. But their attempt to find a comfortable place within themselves and their society is pinched and pained as they try to fit back into a pretence.

Accepting the premise of a supreme being laying down ten rules for good behavior, dictated as keys to living a life as close to God as possible, and seeing how easily we fall short of following even the simplest of them (don't take other people's stuff without permission, don't fool around behind the back of the person who trusts you...) maybe there really is some missing information somewhere. Maybe we really are just a few crucial statements short of what we need to know to truly be good beings!

Back to Mel Brooks: The deeper humor of the joke is the idea that even Moses could deny his blunder for the sake of putting on a good show; and that's at the root of our fallibility. Whether in the tiniest part of a moment of truth or encompassing the overriding greed of a big plan, somehow Cowardice in the role of Hubris creates the illusion that bearing false witness is relative.

Maybe we like to claim that we are simply children of God so we can be excused for not understanding how the rules really go. But look around: we seem to be trying. We seem to need help. Think of the people you love, like or simply admire. We're driven by some truly kind principles and desires. We really do try. So, what's missing from the instructions?

Here are a few possibilities: Perhaps a Third Tablet might tell us to learn to anticipate the outcomes of our actions (and inactions); grasp the deeper meaning of empathy; develop conscience as integral to our being; and take responsibility for ourselves.

Inside or outside of religious beliefs it does seem plausible that we could use principles like that to help us live up to the standards we claim are our highest. We could even become supremely good and successful as a species. Such optimism could even boost us up onto the wall to see into the Garden of Eden.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Ants that Bite, Ants that Don't

We walked to school when I was a kid; Mom said goodbye at the front door and the bunch of us could make it safely the several blocks to school to be met by the crossing guard every schoolday. As we closed the gate, my mom would always call after us, "Don't let anybody look at you crosseyed!" We knew what that meant even though we didn't know what it meant.

There were usually the four us us and the three of Todd's family, but by the time Todd and I got into fourth grade sometimes the grouping was different - changing schools for the older kids, altered start schedules on special days, I'm not sure, but occasionally the two of us were left to get each other to school - or maybe we lagged behind doddling too often and the bigger kids assumed we were following. Nothing bad happens in this story, you can relax.

This cool early fall morning, it was just Todd and me. We'd come to the vacant lot with the tall dry yellow grass. It was a good place to find examples of the ants we'd been talking about earlier while sailing big ficus leaves, with red berries in them, down the gutter water, singing the Gilligan's Island theme and making up stories about the Skipper fighting with Gilligan and the Professor solving problems. (Todd's Mr. Howell was superb.)

Red ants bite, black ants don't bite. No, all ants bite. No, only red ants do. Why would their biting be determined by color? Here was the vacant lot. It didn't take Todd long to find a nice crack in the soil with red ants, big red ants, industrializing their way in and out of the crack.

He squatted down and let one crawl onto his hand though I kept telling him he didn't need to prove red ants bit so much as prove black ones didn't. But we were ten and the ants available were the big red ones. The ant explored his palm and he turned his hand as the ant went over his fingers. Todd was no dummy, he had just fallen under the spell of, "Maybe all ants don't bite and maybe I've misjudged these big red ones..." Todd turned his palm up again as the ant found the thin fold between index finger and thumb.


We shook it off and I apologized as if I'd bitten him. We walked on. He winced that it didn't hurt. We put our attention on the route to school.

The crossing guard was gone.

She had taught us well, and we crossed the boulevard practicing "Safety First!" like champs.

We went through the gate onto the schoolyard.

No one was there.

No children on the playground running, no rhyming at the drinking fountain and spitting - jumping-back dodging water spew from the rougher kids, no jumping rope, no kids on the bench at the side of the building sneaking into their brown bag lunches. Quiet school. No girls brushing each other's hair. Empty school.

Todd and I, with a feeling of sudden Saturday tried to wrap our minds around this vacant schoolyard. Where the - ? Could we be late? We'd only stopped a couple of minutes. Could we be late? We hadn't played around that long.

Maybe we were late.

We had classrooms across the hall from each other in the new building. We went up the stairs and into the classrooms, ducking our heads in a little goodbye as we opened our classroom doors. I went to my desk and sat down. The the teacher didn't point me out or make a fuss, she just let me start working with the other children and gave me a little smile of admonishment and welcome in perfect balance. I doodled ants that day - a big red ant and little black ant.