(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2014)
“When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” John F. Kennedy
According to Chinese philologists, President Kennedy’s famous assertion about the Chinese word for crisis is either untrue, not entirely true, or true under certain linguistic circumstances but not under others. In any case, this now popular idea always reminds me of challenging situations in my life that proved to be opportunities for creative inventiveness.
“I’m trying to use the language of today to express a general existential crisis that I think the world and I are going through.” Sean Lennon
In 1967, when I was a senior in high school and intending to grow up to be a star of stage and screen, I landed one of the leads in the Woodside High production of the not-so-great musical Take Me Along, based on Eugene O’Neil’s play Ah, Wilderness. The musical ran on Broadway from 1959 to 1960 and starred Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidgeon. I got the Walter Pidgeon part and Joe Tiffany got the Jackie Gleason part, though I was far more Jackie Gleasonish than Joe, and Joe was far more Walter Pidgeonish than I. However, this was a high school production wherein teenagers impersonated middle-aged adults suffering midlife crises; thus the entire play was miscast.
You may recall the title song Take Me Along because the tune became an annoying advertising jingle for United Airlines in the 1960’s. Take Me Along was the show’s only remotely memorable song, though I enjoyed singing my big solo number I’m Staying Young, a song in which my character laments everyone else growing old while his character is determined to stay young, speaking of ironic poignant existential hokum sung by a horny seventeen-year-old virgin hoping to seem convincing as a fifty-five-year-old grandfather.
Existential hokum aside, the climax of the entire show was the song Take Me Along performed as a bouncy upbeat duet sung by the Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidgeon characters while they executed a good old smile-provoking tap dance routine. I don’t know about Jackie and Walter, but Joe and I were vomitously bad dancers, and no matter how many hours we put in with the choreographer (the sweet but wholly inept Miss Stewart) we sucked. Or as we liked to say in those innocent days of late adolescence, “We sucked raw turkey eggs.”
The rest of the production was pretty okay, and our singing of Take Me Along was fine, our harmonies solid. But our dancing was beyond awful, so much so that we never once made it through the entire routine without screwing up, and that included our dress rehearsal performance, which was so painfully grotesque that even the two-hundred drama groupies assembled by the director to cheer us on were stunned and horrified by our colossal ineptitude.
“The crisis of today is the joke of tomorrow.” H.G. Wells
So we spent two more hours after that dress rehearsal and two hours just prior to the opening night performance practicing the dance routine, but rather than improve, we got worse. Miss Stewart smiled bravely and declared, “I’m sure it will come together when you do the dance in the context of the play.”
When Miss Stewart was gone, I said to Joe, “It will never come together, and we both know it. So here’s what I propose. We do our best not to fuck up, but when we do, we improvise. Okay?”
“But we almost got it,” said Joe, giving me a terrified look. “Let’s just…try to get it.”
“Faced with crisis, the man of character falls back on himself. He imposes his own stamp of action, takes responsibility for it, makes it his own.” Charles de Gaulle
The first act of Take Me Along went off without a hitch. The orchestra sounded plausibly orchestral, no one forgot his or her lines, and the audience seemed mildly appreciative. Yes, the production was deadly dull, but the second act rambled along without disaster until we came to that moment we’d been dreading—our climactic Take Me Along duet and tap routine.
Joe and I moved to the front of the stage, the curtain closed behind us, and we were illumined by spotlights that would follow us around the stage for the duration of the number. Joe winked at the conductor and said, “Maestro, please,” and as the orchestra began to play, two straw boater hats and two white canes were handed up to us from the orchestra pit. We popped those hats on our heads at rakish angles, tucked those canes under our arms, and off we went.
After a few moments of roughly synchronized approximations of tap dancing, and as predicted…we fucked up. Badly. So I launched into a goofy Groucho Marx kind of dance, spinning and sliding and twirling my cane and hamming things up, while Joe doggedly and gracelessly tried to remain faithful to Miss Stewart’s clunky dance routine. And something about what we were doing—perhaps the ridiculous juxtaposition of elements in tension—struck the audience’s funny bone and we brought the house down. Thunderous laughter shook the auditorium, and as we hit the harmonic bull’s eye with the last notes of the song, five hundred people jumped to their feet and applauded for so long we had to come back out for an encore of me sliding and twirling around while Joe relentlessly butchered Miss Stewart’s dance and the orchestra repeated the last few bars of the song.
And though our ridiculous pas de deux unquestionably lifted the show out of the trough of mediocrity into the realm of sublime silliness, Miss Stewart was terribly upset by our failure to adhere to her choreography. Joe apologized profusely to her and promised it (whatever it was) would never happen again. Fortunately, it happened five more times and saved five more shows. Sadly, the one and only time we managed to sort of get through the routine as we were kind of supposed to, the response from the audience was exactly what we’d gotten at the dress rehearsal—embarrassed silence followed by a smattering of disingenuous applause. But every time we fucked up and I improvised and Joe doggedly tried to get the steps right, the audience went insane with laughter and stomped and clapped and cheered until we had no choice but to come out for a curtain call.
“There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.” Henry Kissinger
Darwin suggested that evolution is a progression of genetic responses to environmental crises; and most scientists, until quite recently, believed that those genetic responses resulting in new physical traits and new behaviors were chemical and random. But now a growing number of epigenetic researchers posit that some or all of these genetic responses are actually choices made by something (what, where, how?) that directs genetic potentiality in a less than purely random way, even, perhaps, as a conscious response to crisis.
Nonsense, Todd, you magical thinking dimwit. Go wash your mouth out with soap and write five hundred times: The Universe does not think. Everything that happens is the result of random chemical centrifugal fractal accidents guided by unfaltering principles that we narcissistic humans actually think we understand, even though we don’t.
“There are two principles inherent in the very nature of things—the spirit of change, and the spirit of conservation. There can be nothing real without both.” Alfred North Whitehead
A few years into my eleven-year sojourn in Berkeley, I ran out of work, ran out of money, and found myself the sole support of a woman slowly recovering from a nervous breakdown and her unemployed teenaged daughter and two cats, not to mention moi. As a consequence of this wholly unanticipated crisis, and with three weeks to earn enough to pay the usurious rent while continuing to buy groceries, I spent three days and nights trying to drum up editing work. Failing there, I wracked my brains to think of someone, anyone, I could borrow money from, and when I could think of no deep pocket to implore, I got so panicky I ran out the front door, down the nine steps, and along the sidewalk until I was out of breath and slowed to a walk and asked the unseen powers of Universe, “What am I going to do?”
Then I stopped, turned full circle, took a deep breath and turned full circle again. And as I made that second revolution, I saw not one, not two, but five fruit trees in need of pruning. I had not pruned trees for money in nearly two decades, but as I walked home to get my notebook, I felt overjoyed at the prospect of resuming that line of work. I then slipped handwritten notes under the doors of the three houses attached to those five trees in need of pruning. The notes mentioned the specific trees I felt needed attention, identified me as a neighbor who would expertly prune those trees at a reasonable rate and/or be happy to give advice and free estimates for my services. Universe apparently dug where I was coming from because the phone began to ring and I never lacked for work again.