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groovity-poster

Incongroovity painting by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2014)

“While thou livest, keep a good tongue in thy head.” William Shakespeare

We were having supper with friends recently, and somehow the conversation came around to Shakespeare and the news that a number of American universities have dropped the Bard entirely from their lists of required courses for English majors. And the question was asked, “Why should Shakespeare be required reading for English majors in this age of tweeting and texting and unedited garbage topping the bestseller lists and the English language disintegrating faster than the earth is warming?

Then someone mentioned seeing Denzel Washington as Brutus in a horrendous Broadway production of Julius Caesar, a smash hit because Denzel was in the play, though his delivery of Shakespeare’s lines elicited snickers and giggles from his adoring audience throughout the hilarious (not) play—as if there was something kind of cute about a famous movie star butchering Shakespeare. Tee hee.

And that reminded me of a favorite joke about Hollywood: an enormously successful movie star, famed for his roles in bloody senseless car chase thriller detective sci-fi 3-D blockbusters in which he kills and has sex with ruthless efficiency and speaks his few lines with terse tough guy bravado, grows weary of pundits saying he can’t act his way out of a paper bag. So at the height of his wealth and fame, he spends a large part of his fortune and builds a fabulous state-of-the-art theatre in Los Angeles and announces to the world that he is going to play the role of Hamlet in Shakespeare’s Hamlet with a supporting cast of brilliant British actors and actresses.

The much anticipated opening night finally arrives, the audience composed of celebrities and critics and drooling fans, and our handsome hero takes the stage and surprises everyone by speaking more than ten words without shooting someone. But the surprise soon turns to horror as the Bard’s poetic lines are clearly too much for the superstar’s untrained tongue (not to mention his leaden ear) and when he launches into the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, the giggles and snickers turn to booing and hissing, and finally the superstar stops mid-monologue, stalks to the front of the stage, and shouts at the belligerent crowd, “Hey, I didn’t write this shit.”

“Experts always know everything but the fine points. When I took my citizenship exams, no one there knew how the White House came to be called the White House.” Hedy Lamarr

One of my great pleasures is pruning fruit trees that have been properly cared for. Alas, that is not the sort of task I am most frequently asked to undertake. No, most homeowners for whom fruit trees are beautiful adornments to their gardens and the occasional providers of fruit, tend to let their trees grow untamed for years or decades before finally realizing something must be done if those trees are ever to be anything more than gigantic wild shrubs; and those are the jobs I enjoy the least and do the most.

For instance, a neighbor called a few days ago and said, “I’m having a guy come to take care of my old apple tree and my old plum tree, and I’m wondering if you could come over and give him some tips. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, but he’s a good worker and he has a chain saw.”

“Did you want me to prune…”

“No, I just want you to tell him how to do it.”

As a pruner of trees and an editor of manuscripts for forty-odd years (emphasis on odd) I have come to think of the two disciplines as closely related sciences, and my neighbor wanting to employ my pruning expertise gratis reminded me of myriad acquaintances who have called me over the years and said, “I’ve got this article (or poem or story or novel or memoir) I think you’ll enjoy and I’m wondering if you’d like to give it a quick look and tell me what you think.”

“Did you want to hire me to…”

“No, I just thought you might enjoy giving it a quick once over and telling me what you think. Shouldn’t take long.”

So, yes, I have grown a bit weary of people thinking the things I do for a living are not really forms of work, but rather semi-skillful kinds of goofing around. Imagine calling your plumber and saying, “Hey, Joe, I’ve got a busted pipe I think you’ll find unique in the annals of plumbing and thought you might enjoy fixing it, you know, for free. Just for the fun and novelty of it. Shouldn’t take more than a day or so.”

Nevertheless…picture a massive apple tree with a trunk three feet in diameter out of which are growing seven massive arms, each arm a foot in diameter and thirty-feet-long, out of which are growing dozens of huge branches out of which are growing hundreds of lesser branches growing so thickly there is almost no space between any of them resulting in many of the branches being dead and dying for lack of sun and air.

Now picture an equally massive plum tree, the central trunk of which stands twenty feet away from the central trunk of the apple tree, and imagine that many branches of both gargantuan trees have grown entangled with each other to such an extent that the two trees appear to be a single organism composed of ten thousand interconnected branches employing every ounce of their energy to strangle each other. And imagine that these two trees are standing in what thirty years ago was a meadow surrounded by fledgling redwoods and fir trees that have grown into towering sun-blocking behemoths causing the plum and apple to send up twenty-foot-long suckers in a desperate attempt to access the ever shrinking supply of sunlight.

My heart went out to those two sorely neglected trees, and though I wasn’t being paid for my labor, I decided to do the job and save the old beauties. So I began directing the good fellow with his dull chain saw to cut here and there as I wielded my razor sharp Japanese pole saw, and after a couple hours of excising masses of mostly dead wood we nearly had the two old giants separated. Then, with but one more massive arm of the apple tree left to remove in order to complete the separating of the trees, my neighbor said to me, “I can see you really are an expert at this.”

As a Buddhist teacher once told me, “Beware how easily the rocket ship of ego may be launched.”

Puffed up by my neighbor’s praise, I signaled for the chain saw man to make that last cut. He did so. And for a moment of brilliant clarity the two trees stood apart, and I saw just how I would sculpt each one into a state of arboreal perfection and…

A loud cracking sound gave us scant warning to Get Out of The Way as the massive apple tree came crashing to earth, the old girl having been held aloft for who knows how many years by the deep-rooted plum. In a state of shock and awe and suppressed hilarity, I went to view the root mass of the apple tree and discovered that this colossus, a tree as big as a house, had virtually no root mass at all.

“I’m so sorry,” I said to my neighbor.

“Lots of good firewood,” said the guy with the chainsaw. “Most of it already seasoned.”

My neighbor, clearly deranged by the unexpected denouement said, “Let’s just leave things the way they are and see what happens in the spring.”

“The secret to humor is surprise.” Aristotle

Long ago, I was a teacher’s aide at a Palo Alto day care center for children aged two to five. All but three of our thirty children were from single-mother families, thus the three fathers who occasionally came to pick up their kids were looked upon with awe and wonder by the twenty-seven fatherless children, and I was unique among the teachers (pronounced teachoos by most of the kids) for being male.

One of the three children with a father in the familial mix was Damien, an incredibly cute three-year-old who was not yet talking. Our highly analytical director informed us that Damien’s frustration about not being able to speak, and therefore not being understood, might manifest in a tendency to bite other children, and we should be vigilant about averting such outbursts of oral aggression. Damien may have been a child of no words, but he was a fantastic mime, and his imitations of the postures and movements and facial expressions of the teachoos were the source of daily hilarity among the children.

I suspected that Damien could talk but chose not to for whatever advantages he felt that gave him. In any case, he did not speak aloud within earshot of any of the teachers, and so I related to him as a child who, for the time being, did not talk.

Two of the many recurrent tasks of a parent or teacher of wee tykes are the tying of shoes and the connecting and zipping of zippers, skills most children don’t master until they reach their late threes or older. Thus when we would prepare the kids for going outside on cold days, many laces had to be tied and many zippers zipped. One winter morning, as I knelt before the diminutive Damien and struggled to properly engage the recalcitrant zipper of his jacket, Damien looked down at my fumbling fingers, and in pitch perfect imitation of his father said, “Jive ass turkey zippah.”

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Kings and Presidents

(This essay first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2011)

“Divine right of kings means the divine right of anyone who can get uppermost.” Herbert Spencer

I just finished reading an excellent book by British historian Derek Wilson: A Brief History of Henry VIII, 386 pages of densely informative prose that is certainly not brief by American standards. I do not often read history, but I’m glad I read this book because it illuminates much of what’s going on in the world today. But before I tell you a little more about Henry VIII and why his story reminds me so much of George H. Bush, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and innumerable bullies and louts responsible for the ruination of our local, national, and global societies, I thought you might enjoy knowing how I came to be interested in Henry VIII.

“Kings are in the moral order what monsters are in the natural.” Henri Gregoire

Several years ago, I wrote a play about a history professor who has a nervous breakdown that features visitations from Queen Elizabeth I, Henry VIII’s daughter. When I came out of my trance and found that the rough draft contained a goodly amount of Queen Elizabeth data, I thought it prudent to run a fact-check on my muse and see if she knew what she was talking about. So I read two biographies of Elizabeth and was pleased and mystified to find that the information in my play did, indeed, jibe with those historical records.

If this sort of precognition seems implausible or impossible to you, well, so be it. I had never read or seen anything about Queen Elizabeth prior to writing the play. I only knew she was not the same Queen Elizabeth of my childhood who was forever appearing in National Geographics watching African warriors and soldiers dancing and marching in her honor. Twenty years ago, I wrote a novel (not yet published) in which the protagonist, a pianist and piano teacher, knows a great deal about the life and music of Felix Mendelssohn, all of which was news to me. Shortly thereafter I bought my first recordings of Mendelssohn’s music, which I loved, and I read two Mendelssohn biographies to make sure the references in my novel were accurate, which they were.

How do I explain this sort of thing? Well, if you’ve ever been struck hard and completely out-of-the-blue by thoughts of a friend you haven’t heard from in years, and then the phone rings, and you pick up the phone, and it is that very friend, or if you’ve ever for-no-reason-in-particular decided to turn right instead of turning left as you have always turned a million times before, and because you turned right instead of the usual left you saw something that cleared up a mystery or changed the course of your life, then maybe what I’m about to say will make some sense to you.

Jung spoke of a collective unconscious wherein the cumulative experience of humanity resides and may be accessed by individuals, usually through symbolic dreams. In more modern terms, perhaps there is some sort of psychic internet, if you will, from which surprising and informative responses to our thoughts and desires may come, causing us to do things or create things we might otherwise not have created or done. Or maybe I have supra-phenomenal hearing I’m unaware of and without knowing it I listened to long and learned lectures about Mendelssohn and Queen Elizabeth emanating from UC Berkeley five miles from my house. I don’t know.

In any case, when I saw A Brief History of Henry VIII advertised in the Daedalus remainder catalogue for only five bucks, and wondering if there might be any new revelations therein about Elizabeth, I decided to give the book a try.

“If you’re asking me as President, would I understand reality, I do.” George W. Bush

Henry VIII became king when he was a teenager. George W. Bush became President of the United States and might as well have been a teenager, and not a bright one. Henry let other people run the country while he hunted and jousted and partied. George W. let other people run the country while he, I don’t know, watched television? They both had rotten fathers who thought their sons stupid. They both presided over ill-fated military adventures and appeared at staged victory celebrations—George W. emerging from a jet on an aircraft carrier, Henry arriving in a conquered French city wearing armor. The big differences seem to be that George W. only presided over the ruination of his country and the world for eight years, while Henry ruined England and France and Scotland for almost forty years, George W. wasn’t obsessed about producing a male heir and Henry was, and Henry founded the Anglican Church, had scads of wives, and was apparently lousy in bed, whereas George W. had only one wife and founded no church.

“Don’t forget your great guns, which are the most respectable arguments of the rights of kings.” Frederick the Great

One of my favorite books is The Prince and the Pauper, which is ostensibly, fictionally, about Henry VIII’s son. Interesting note: when I tell people The Prince and the Pauper is among my favorite books, I usually get one of three responses. 1. Dickens? 2. The children’s book? 3. Never read it. When I tell these respondents that The Prince and the Pauper was written by Mark Twain, that only smart and imaginative children will enjoy it, that I think the book is Twain’s most beautifully written work, and that I’ve read it five times, my respondents are invariably surprised.

Twain vividly portrays with fiction, and Derek Wilson shows with meticulous biography, that not only does Might Make Right, but once Might has established an entrenched bureaucracy and controls all the money and weapons and commerce of a nation or a world, then absolute nincompoops can be made kings (or presidents) and the monstrous pyramid will lurch along for decades before finally collapsing under the weight of its own corruption and stupidity.

In The Prince and the Pauper, which, by the way, is great fun to read aloud with your mate or children or friends, a pauper (who happens to be physically identical down to his eyebrows to the heir to the English throne, and who learned to mimic courtly speech and manners as a means of escaping, at least in his mind, the violence and grossness of grinding poverty and an abusive father) quite accidentally switches places with the boy who would be king, and the would-be king becomes a pauper in the manner of Dickens’ Oliver Twist.

Once the switch is made, the rulers of the entrenched bureaucracy conclude that the prince has gone mad rather than been replaced, and when they report their finding to Twain’s brilliantly drawn fictional Henry VIII, the king, who is dying, orders that the prince’s madness be tolerated and ignored, and that anyone spreading news of Edward’s distemper outside the castle will be summarily executed for treason. And that, from what I gather from Wilson’s biography, would have been just like Henry.

O, what a tangled web we weave;

When first we practice to deceive! Sir Walter Scott

Lying is the primary method of rule by an oligarchy masquerading as a monarchy or as a democracy with a congress and president. I am thinking specifically of what is going on right now at the Fukushima nuclear power plants in Japan, and how we, the people, are being lied to so egregiously it would be laughable except the powers-that-be, so far, are getting away with their lies and what they are lying about is the ruination of an entire nation if not a larger part of the entire world.

So why did Henry VIII lie as a way of life? Why did Bill Clinton lie with every breath he took? Why does Barack Obama lie with such maddening frequency? And how did these guys get so good at lying? My hunch is that they each developed a false persona early in life in order to survive a childhood that did not permit honesty, either self-honesty or honesty to others, and these false personas served them so well that they became, Henry and Bill and Barack, thoroughly false.

Of equal importance, of course, is why we, the people, so readily believe the lies of our lying overlords and keep electing and/or not overthrowing these monsters? After painful consideration of my own enduring gullibility, I think we believe our lying overlords (at least enough not to revolt) because the entrenched bureaucracy, by successfully controlling our religion, our media, and our education, has instilled in us from cradle to grave a foundational mythology of lies with which their current lies resonate as entirely plausible.

“The least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousandfold.” Aristotle

Regarding Fukushima, the foundational mythology says that the corporations that build nuclear power plants are inherently good. General Electric, after all, is synonymous with light bulb, and who doesn’t love a light bulb? Thus it is inconceivable to a well-indoctrinated citizenry that those who give us light and electricity to run our computers and play our video games would ever build a power plant that might turn Japan into an uninhabitable wasteland for centuries to come. Who wants to believe that? No one. And the puppeteers of king and president puppets know we don’t want to believe what may very well be true. So they say things like, “We are rigorously monitoring the situation, and we are confident the situation will be stabilized relatively soon and that negative impacts on the environment will be minimal,” when the truth is just the opposite.

Here’s a little tidbit I snatched from Reuters that sheds a tiny light of truth on what’s going on at Fukushima. “In its attempt to bring the plant under control, TEPCO is looking for “jumpers”—workers who, for payment of up to $5,000 a shift, will rush into highly radioactive areas to do a quick task before racing out as quickly as possible.” See? Clearly they’ve got things under control. And if you need some quick cash…

“Compassion is the basis of all morality.” Arthur Schopenhauer

In The Prince and the Pauper, while the pauper is fast learning to play the part of a prince, the real prince, who had yet to solidify his false persona, is learning firsthand what life among the downtrodden is really like. And ultimately he learns what it is to sacrifice one’s self for the good of others; which is the quantum opposite of what kings and presidents learn to do. Alas.

If only Obama and Bush and Clinton would each take a turn or two as “jumpers” at Fukushima. Maybe then we would finally see the beginning of the end to the nuclear madness.