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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

In Search of America-The Jersey Shore


There's a little summer bungalow on the corner of Bay Boulevard and New Brunswick Avenue in Lavallette, New Jersey. It once belonged to my maternal grandfather, Antonio Scotti, who emigrated to America from the tiny fishing island of Ischia (off the coast of Naples, Italy) in 1918. I don’t know if the bungalow is still there anymore, or if Hurricane Sandy claimed it as one of its many victims on Monday, but I wanted to share with you exactly what that tiny house and being “down the shore” means to us here in New Jersey.

When my grandfather bought the house (and the lot across the street from it) back in the 1950s, Lavallette, like most of the Jersey Shore was nothing like it is today. Most of the houses were tiny, many were hand built by the owners themselves from Post World War II military scrap wood hauled down from up north, down Route 9 (no Garden State Parkway yet) and finally, onto Route 35, the two lane road that connected the barrier island on which Lavallette sits to the mainland. From Belmar, to Point Pleasant, to Seaside to Long Beach Island, the coast of New Jersey was the “blue collar Riviera”, a place where tired workers from places like the Ford Plant, Alcoa Aluminum, Maxwell House Coffee plant and the thousands of labor intensive factories from the north could come for a few days each summer with their families and enjoy the fruits of their labor. America was booming and immigrants, like my Grandpa were living their dream. His children were all married. Some, like my mother, were divorced. All had children, and his snowy-white hair and imposing presence made him the perfect patriarch for our family. He loved being called ‘Grandpa’ by us kids, and ‘Pa’ or ‘Papa’ by his own adult children.

In the late 50s into the late 60s the little bungalow was the place where all the cousins, aunts and uncles spent our summers. Some came for a few days or weeks, and others like my sister and I were sent off shortly after school ended. Our mother was single and the family felt  we kids would be better off with some adult supervision down there than to be roaming the streets all summer and getting into “God knows what’ kind of trouble. I fought with my mother about going down there as I got older, preferring instead to hang with my friends back in Fairview. But all of that began to drift away the moment I crossed the Driscoll Bridge and saw the giant Dutch Boy paint billboard on the other side. It would be just a short while before the smell of the ocean would fill the air, the concrete I knew back home would give way to the sand and the ubiquitous yellow stone that is synonymous with being Down The Shore.  

The bungalow only had two bedrooms. Grandpa shared his with one of us kids (a much sought after honor, by the way). The rest of us slept on mattresses on the floor, or on one of the many pullout beds. Meals were served at the long wooden picnic table in the kitchen, often consisting of crabs (hard and soft shell), caught  earlier that day out in Barnegat Bay, bluefish or flounder caught at the ocean, or the eels and blowfish caught by us kids in our seine nets or by Grandpa from his beach fishing spot.

I remember the eels especially. Like long slimy snakes, they always put up a fight when hooked, and I can remember Grandpa’s face light up when he knew he had one on the line. He’d smile, get all excited and in his broken English, tell us that “eets a bigga one!” Then, when we’d get back to the house, he’d chop off the head, skin it, cut it into sections and fry them up in the big cast iron frying pan my aunts kept in the oven. I know it sounds gross to some of you reading this, but to us, it was a delicacy.

Days for us kids were spent swimming in the bay, or earning spending money by catching baitfish in our seine nets and selling it to the local bait store. We’d go to the Ben Franklin 5 and 10 up on Route 35 and buy bubbles, kites, and whatever junk our couple of dollars could afford.

We played until the sun went down....kite flying, Wiffle ball, and for the really brave, jumping off the bridge that separated Lavallette from West Point Island, where the rich people lived. On July 4th, we’d sit on the beach and watch fireworks light up the night sky all across Barnegat Bay. It was paradise, and even as kids, we knew we were in someplace special.

When we were all settled in for the night, some lucky grandchild would get to sit on the swing with Grandpa that was inside the enclosed porch of the little bungalow. Gramps paid us a penny to pluck the very few black hairs that lay hidden among his beautiful shock of white hair. I know we must have hurt him, but he was patient and paid us for our efforts.

There was only one television in the house and reception was spotty at best, even with a rooftop antenna. There were never any arguments over what was watched. We watched whatever Grandpa wanted or we watched nothing at all. As bad as the reception was most of the time on the old black and white set, it always miraculously cleared up on Saturday nights when wrestling came on. There was only one champion in our house, Bruno Sammartino. Grandpa loved him, and so did we. 

 When we were older, (eleven or twelve) we’d be allowed to go to the ocean by ourselves. We knew enough about safety in the water and we sure as hell knew that we weren’t allowed to go alone. And when we hit our teenage year, we were allowed to go to the boardwalk at Seaside Heights by ourselves. We dressed in our summer finest and walked the five miles to ‘hang’ out at the arcades on the boardwalk or play miniature golf. Of course, we had to be back by eleven pm but it didn’t matter; we were grownups in our minds and were tasting freedom for the first time.

I kissed my first girl on one of the benches that dotted the Lavallette beach along Barnegat Bay. It was late summer, and Veronica, the girl whose family had rented the house next to my Grandpa’s empty lot had captured my eye almost from the day she arrived. Our kiss was both an awakening and a goodbye; she was to leave the next day. I cursed myself for waiting so long in pledging my undying summer love for her but I remember it to this day.

My fondest memory of the shore came on a Friday night during a nor’easter. Grandpa had picked me up in Fairview and we were to ride down there in his white, 1961 Oldsmobile (it had, gasp...air conditioning!)

I don’t remember much about the ride up until we hit Route 35 and were just going through downtown Point Pleasant. The rain and the wind were pounding against the car and the wipers, while slapping dependably, were being severely overworked, even on high speed. I was scared and I think Grandpa might have been a little nervous too.

“You hungry Babba?” Babba was a pet name he had for us grandkids. He didn’t use it often, but when he did, you could see the love in his eyes. He could light up a kid’s heart with it.

“Yes, I am”, I replied.

He pulled the Olds into the parking lot of a long gone restaurant called the Normandy Inn in Normandy Beach. The parking lot was nearly empty, but a soft light shone through the windows. We got out and ran for the door while the cold, early summer rain and the northeast wind slashed at us.

Inside, it was warm, dry, and dimly lit. We sat near the fire place and I distinctly remember being thrilled about it because I had never seen a fireplace before which had an actual fire going!

Grandpa told me I could order anything I wanted, and so I had flounder, and I think he might have too.

During dinner, we laughed and talked while the storm raged outside. I don’t remember what the conversation was, but I do remember that I never felt safer or more loved than I did at that moment. I never wanted it to end.

But it did end, and when we went back outside, the storm didn’t seem as threatening as it had before. We traveled southbound on Route 35, turned right onto New Brunswick Avenue and in moments the yellow ‘Down the Shore’ rocks that covered the property crunched under the weight of the Oldsmobile. We were home and we were safe.


Grandpa Scotti’s presence and influence loomed so large in our lives that when he died in 1967, the family grew apart almost instantly. We no longer had him as the center of our familial universe, and thus, we retreated to our own immediate families, to build new branches and create new traditions on our own family tree. But the memories of the bungalow in Lavallette still bind the cousins together whenever we have occasion to meet, which these days seems to only be at wakes. Strange though, how whenever we do meet up for those fleeting few moments between grieving and reminiscing, inevitably the subject matter turns toward something that happened long ago at the little bungalow on the corner of Bay Boulevard and New Brunswick Avenue. For a kid that had little in the way of a normal family life from September to June, those precious weeks with aunts, uncles and cousins in the summers at Lavallette still comfort me and lift me from the sadness into which I fall from time to time. When I feel unloved or alone, I think back to those single, brilliant days as I watched my Grandpa’s still strong arms row his boat out into Barnegat Bay, until he found a ‘spot’ where the fish and crabs were. He’d toss the heavy anchor overboard and the splash of it hitting the water would douse my lips with the salty bay. Once settled, we would spend hours in safe, serene silence which was punctuated only by my Grandpa’s fishing rod suddenly spasmodically bending, while his fishing line grew tight enough for a Walenda to walk across.  He pulled in his catch with great delight, unhooked it and threw it into the galvanized bucket filled with bay water, where it frantically tried to escape to freedom. Then, he would coach me with silent hand signals as I  pulled my crabbing lines inch by inch toward the surface until we could see the crab feasting on the moss bunker tied to the end of the line. Grandpa Scotti was a ninja with a crab net, and the blue claw never had a chance to escape.

That little house was a haven for me... so much so, that when I moved down here twenty-five years ago, I made it a point to visit it from time to time. When I was going through a painful divorce, I came there often in the fall and winter, parked my car and just sat there looking at the house and the bay across the street. At the time when I was contemplating the most monumental decision of my life, I went there many times because I needed something substantive to hang on to when everything around me was crumbling. And now, after this horrible event that has nearly destroyed it all, I’m not even sure that it is there anymore. For all the help it has given me for so many years, I feel helpless now knowing that it is there all alone. I can’t tell it how much I loved it or how much it matters in my life. I can’t fix it if it is broken, and I can’t say goodbye to it if it is destroyed. All I can do now is hope.    

The Jersey Shore isn't just a place, its part of the DNA for anyone born in this place. Every single Jersey native is connected to it, whether by late night trips down the Parkway after prom to watch the sun rise, or moments when the 'wheel' stopped on your number or color and you actually won something. It is sausage and pepper sandwiches and transistor radios on the beach. It is newly born summer love and rites of passage. It is Springsteen, Bobby Rydell, The Four Seasons and the Drifters telling us to go under the boardwalk. It is a source of pride and a right to brag about something no other state could ever hope to match for it’s unimaginable combination of sheer natural beauty and utter tackiness. It is our way of giving the rest of the country, and particularly New York City, the collective middle finger for heaping an awful lot of abuse and disrespect on us. We know what we have....we surely know.

The shore I once knew is gone now because of Hurricane Sandy. I don’t know what will replace it. Given the times we live in, I suspect that the upscale residents of Lavallette and the surrounding towns which have replaced the blue collar workers of the past will demand a new Jersey Shore which is more suitable to their ‘refined’ tastes. The ‘Guidos’ and the ‘Bennies’ from up north still come down, but they’ve been confined to the neon ghetto that was Seaside Heights. Yeah, it’s not going to be the same. After all who needs a miniature golf course with a 20 foot tall lumberjack smiling at them all the time when you can have an organic produce store instead?    

That’s it. I’m done bitching. Everybody hug, everybody eat, and please, everybody pray for New Jersey. Abbondanza! 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Funny You Should Say That.



When I came back to stand up last fall, one of my first objectives was to re-connect with many of the comics and bookers I had known in my previous incarnation. It seemed logical that by doing so, I might be able to speed up the process of finding work, getting stage time and working my way back to headlining again in a relatively short period of time. So between September of 2011 and now, I did the open mics, hosted some shows, moved up to middling, and was right on target for headlining again, which is where I am right now. Most of the people I knew were still around and have been extremely supportive. They let me work at my own pace, and knew that when I felt comfortable enough to close a show, I would tell them. One booker, an old friend, said he appreciated my candor and respected me for being honest. He also added that so many of the younger acts want to make that leap to closing a show way before they were ready to do so. In short he was lamenting the fact that no one seemed to want to pay any dues anymore and work their way up through the ranks like the comics of my generation did. 

Now at the risk of sounding like one of those venerable Catskill comics, who complained endlessly about the “young kids” who took over the business from them and changed the face of standup, it appears that to some extent, that booker and several others have a valid point. Then, as now, some comics do come up too fast and do want it all before they learn what they are doing up there; SOME, not all.

 On the flip side of that argument though, I have met dozens of hardworking young comics who do open mic after open mic for years, traveling all over the place just for the opportunity to get precious stage time. So in terms of development at least, the serious young comics who love what they do and want to be better are working as hard now as we ever did, and that’s great. But looking around, I see that many of the non-famous veterans with 20+ years of proven ability have become irrelevant fossils in the comedy world and it truly bugs me.

Our business, of course, has always had a penchant for young, fresh faces. In the early days of the boom, my generation of comedians was the one that provided legends like Carlin, Pryor, Seinfeld, Murphy, etc., names that still evoke respect and awe in both the comedy and civilian world. All came from that class of 1970s, 80s and 90s East and West Coast showcase clubs, those places where veterans and newbies could learn and grow together. However, the iconic names I mentioned did not just pop into the public eye. They worked for years before that in obscurity, working everywhere they could and honed their skills, so that when the time was right, audiences all over the world would know their talent and names.

There were those, like me, who did not catch the brass ring. We went on the road for weeks and sometimes months at a time working wherever we could and making a decent living at it. Along the way, we became pros and rarely found an audience we couldn’t master. Some of us went on to write, produce, and act, and some of us stayed in standup, our first love. Some of us got out altogether, mostly out of frustration, and at least one of us had a life altering experience that sidelined our careers for ten years.

I guess that I was being a little na├»ve to think that at 60, the industry might view me as being relevant. This is not to say that I don’t think I am, because I most certainly do. I believe I have more to say now than ever! I also believe that my skills are at a level I never had when I left the business ten years ago. But I am not alone in feeling this way. There are so many brilliantly talented people out there who are being ignored by an entire industry simply because they’ve ‘aged out’....and it’s terribly sad; for the business, the country, and the young comics who could benefit from them.

Network television has never been a medium that spots trends. It has ALWAYS lagged behind and tends to capitalize on them once they filter upward to the programmers. At that point, the trend has usually ‘jumped the shark’ and has peaked. At that point, you usually can spot the demise of a trend as the other non-creative folk copy the format of a ‘ground breaker’ in the hopes cashing in, usually with no success.

Cable shows and networks are a little quicker to respond and in some cases actually take some risks and put up programming that re-defines and elevates comedy quality. The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert are perfect examples. But these shows are staffed, hosted, and written by pros with years of performing and writing experience.

By now you probably know where I am going with this entry. Why is a comedian denied the opportunity for a national voice simply for the crime of aging, when no other art form ostracizes its masters in this manner? Even dancers, who are forced from actively performing due to the physical demands put on an aging body are respected and continue their careers long after their last performance.

It makes no sense. Writers create their entire lives and find depth in their writing that was unthinkable in their youth. Actors grow into their age and often reach new heights in their career by finding the deep, meaty part that eluded them in their youth. Musicians continue to perform into their 70s, 80s and 90s, and in many cases get better with age. And yet comedians, who work as the reporters of life, are often cast aside just at the very time they are not only mining and striking new veins of comedic gold,  but now have the skills to deliver it them in ground breaking ways. It’s mind boggling to think that if Carlin, with his magnificent mind, were in that category of ‘never discovereds’, who were denied a chance to be seen because of age, would probably have remained an obscure entity; respected and admired his peers, but largely forgotten by everyone else. Using that scenario, where would the art of stand up would be today? 

Aside from the creative disadvantages in ignoring the older comic, there are economic ones as well. Over and over I hear from club owners how the ‘numbers’ just aren’t there for live comedy in the way they used to be. And yet it hasn’t occurred to them that by limiting their acts to the 18-30 demographic that they might be shooting themselves in the economic foot. The fact of the matter is that there is a tremendous amount of disposable income in the upper age ranges. Maybe they aren’t coming out to the clubs because they don’t relate to what they are seeing on the stage or television! How else can you explain Jeff Foxworthy’s success or Louis CK’s?

I hope that I’m not coming off here as a bitter old comic because that is not my intention at all. I’m not saying that the newbies and up and comers should be denied anything. They are the future of stand up and should have all the opportunities in the world to grow and develop. But you can’t tell me that there is sound logic in telling a comic with years of experience that she‘s too old to work at a venerable New York showcase, when she’s only in her fifties? You can’t tell me that comics my age, who can go into a club and destroy the room any night of the week in front of ANY AUDIENCE  are not worthy or relevant enough to be put up for a  TV executive to see. Maybe if the club owners listened to the comics, who to the person believe that funny is funny regardless of the age, their business might actually improve!

It’s time that the comedy business muckety-mucks who are the movers and shakers understand that what we do is not the domain of the very young. Everyone...EVERYONE has a place, especially in these tough times. All it takes is a little know-how. To say that older comics’ time has passed is as ridiculous as saying there are no funny females. It is insane to think that in the age of instant communication, no one seems to have had the marketing smarts to understand that comedy is universal. It transcends age. Yes, some comics may have more appeal on either end of the age continuum, but the vast majority of us can cross over and draw, because we are professionals.  

I applaud those club owners, managers, and bookers who see the value in age and experience, and who don’t discriminate. There are many out there I’m sure, and I hope to meet you someday. Keep doing what you’re doing! For those of you who don’t believe that older is at the very least equal, and often better, give us a shot. Market us properly and we’ll show you the money!

Oh, by the way, Phyllis Diller worked into her late 80s. Betty White is almost 91 and is not only on a hit TV show, but hosted Saturday Night Live last year. Rodney didn’t ‘hit’ until his late 40s. Ellen De Generes, Wanda Sykes, and a long, long list of people are still relevant, still funny and still selling out the house. Why? Because funny truly IS funny....at any age!

That’s it. I’m done bitching. Everybody hug, everybody eat. Abbondanza!   








Thursday, August 23, 2012

As Good as Them.


I had planned to make my first new post in six weeks an update on all that’s been going on in my comic life, but as usual, some nut politician has gone and done something far more interesting than anything I’m doing these days, so I am going to bend your ear a bit on the latest insanity coming from the Republican party.

It’s kind of interesting to point out that my very last post had to do with the subject of Daniel Tosh’s rape ‘jokes’ and the ensuing firestorm they caused, and here we are just  a scant few weeks later, and once again, the subject of rape is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Rep. Todd Akin’s ‘legitimate rape’ comments are sweeping through the comedy community and the country at large. But he’s not alone in his sheer stupidity on the subjects of sex and rape, and his utter lack of respect for women.

Let’s not forget Representative Steve King (R-Iowa) who said he’s never heard of a rape-induced pregnancy. Well then, if Steve hasn’t heard of it, it must be so, right? But he might have used his computer and searched pregnancy by rape statistics before he opened his mouth, because he would have found Pubmed.org (published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health) and a study conducted by Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, because according to their abstract of a larger article, Steve is a wee bit out of the knowledge loop on these matters. Here’s what they had to say.

Rape-related pregnancy: estimates and descriptive characteristics from a national sample of women.

Abstract

OBJECTIVE:

We attempted to determine the national rape-related pregnancy rate and provide descriptive characteristics of pregnancies that result from rape.

STUDY DESIGN:

A national probability sample of 4008 adult American women took part in a 3-year longitudinal survey that assessed the prevalence and incidence of rape and related physical and mental health outcomes.

RESULTS:

The national rape-related pregnancy rate is 5.0% per rape among victims of reproductive age (aged 12 to 45); among adult women an estimated 32,101 pregnancies result from rape each year. Among 34 cases of rape-related pregnancy, the majority occurred among adolescents and resulted from assault by a known, often related perpetrator. Only 11.7% of these victims received immediate medical attention after the assault, and 47.1% received no medical attention related to the rape. A total 32.4% of these victims did not discover they were pregnant until they had already entered the second trimester; 32.2% opted to keep the infant whereas 50% underwent abortion and 5.9% placed the infant for adoption; an additional 11.8% had spontaneous abortion.

CONCLUSIONS:

Rape-related pregnancy occurs with significant frequency. It is a cause of many unwanted pregnancies and is closely linked with family and domestic violence. As we address the epidemic of unintended pregnancies in the United States, greater attention and effort should be aimed at preventing and identifying unwanted pregnancies that result from sexual victimization.
Gee, that was difficult to find, wasn’t it Steve? And while you’re at it, how about passing the article along to this guy, the ‘Reverend’ D. James Kennedy, the spiritual mentor to Congressman Akin...
According to Think Progress, Kennedy has said that rape victims who choose abortion are ‘hysterical’. What’s more, Kennedy has pontificated in a sermon that women are “responsible for their own rape”, and says “the immodest woman is contributing to the lust of other people” by wearing revealing clothing. Remember, this is the SPIRITUAL MENTOR of a United States Congressman, a person who makes laws that govern us all!

By now, one would have hoped that Mitt Romney would have flat out condemned these lunatics and their insane reproductive notions as being too radical even for Republicans; but he didn’t. Romney’s flaccid disapproval of Akin and his choice of Paul Ryan as running mate tacitly give approval to Akin’s bat-shit crazy nonsensical ravings. Couple Romney’s reaction with Ryan’s co-sponsoring of a severely limiting anti-abortion bill with Akin and it becomes awfully difficult to believe that either one of them have anything but disdain and feelings of superiority when it comes to women and their civil rights.

By now, you would have thought that Mitt Romney would have also put the issue of his tax records behind him. On that topic he has been somewhat successful, but only because Akin brought a bigger elephant into the room.

By now, you’d have thought the disaster of Romney’s overseas “Look I’m a Statesman”, 2012 tour would be a distant memory, and for the most part it was until Republican conservative congressman Kevin Yoder of Kansas decided to skinny dip in the Sea of Galilee last week and reminded us all once again that having the title ‘Congressman’ ‘statesman’ or ‘President’ does not automatically or magically make one worthy or qualified to bear any of those titles.    

By now, it would seem apparent that Paul Ryan is in the pocket of the mega contributors like the Koch Brothers, et al. Equally apparent is his penchant for speaking out of both sides of his mouth as witnessed by his acceptance of federal stimulus way back three years ago and his aforementioned affiliation with the now persona non grata Todd Akin.  

My mind continues to be boggled then by the poll numbers, which show a virtual dead heat between the President and Romney. One would think that by now, thinking, sane, rational, intelligent people would have the courage of their convictions to admit that they were snowed by empty rhetoric and move their support away from Mitt. But that hasn’t happened...yet. But there is something going on and if you keep your ear to the rail you’ll hear it.

In the Right’s crusade to return the U.S. to the white, male, dominated society they so enjoyed for so long, they have literally hijacked the Republican Party and have turned it into what Chris Mathews on MSNBC’s Hardball called a faith-based political party. Their goal is very simple; they want freedom for everyone as long as it conforms to their conception of freedom. In other words, by taking over the workings of OUR government, they can, in effect, stage a perfectly legal coup and install a theocracy that is no less dangerous than any in the Mid-East.

The Right has done what every tyrannical regime since the dawn of time has done when it wants to control its people; it has created enemies to hate. Just look at their list! They see secret subversive Muslim extremists everywhere including the Secretary of State’s staff. They fear the rise of minorities becoming majorities and thus do everything in their power to stem the tide, whether it’s building walls around borders, claiming false voter registration fraud numbers and labeling the President as illegally born. They fear GLBT folk and blame the deaths of soldiers from wars created by a Republican President on GLBT folk, claiming that this is God’s way of punishing America for recognizing the rights of 10% of its population. And if you don’t think that given half a chance they will find a way to get to you too, you are sadly mistaken.

By now you would have thought that saner voices would have prevailed within the Republican Party. Where is that someone who would stand and be a leader, be a statesman? Where is the commitment to country first and personal gain second? Who, from the party of Lincoln can look to his ideals and rise to the occasion?  Instead, we get a parade of loonies, one crazier than the other. Statesmen? No....sheep is more like it. Pandering deadheads and empty suits like Romney et al, who say what they are told to and who name new things and new people to fear each day, so that simple people, who still believe in the ideals and idea of America, look for a Savior to rescue them.

By now, I hope you are thinking, and fired up to act and not wait until it’s too late to react.

By now, I hope you are ready to tell these people to enjoy their freedoms, but don’t take ours away.

By now, I hope you are ready to vote, despite the new regulations put into place to suppress your voice.

And finally, by now, I hope you say loud and clear to these crazies in November, “Bye...NOW!”

That’s it. I’m done bitching. Everybody hug, everybody eat!    

Monday, July 16, 2012

Tosh's Point? oh.


So much has been written about comedian Daniel Tosh’s ‘rape joke’ controversy lately that I 
almost feel like I’m beating a dead horse in throwing in my two cents on the subject. Wow...a 
simile and a metaphor in  the same previous sentence. Can I be fined for that?


Daniel Tosh, for those of you who don’t know the name, is a fairly young, popular, American comedian who has created a great deal of controversy lately over a comment he recently made to an audience member at Los Angeles’ Laff Factory Comedy Club. During his show, Daniel made reference to the fact that rape jokes are always funny. An audience member who disagreed with him stood up and said that rape jokes were never funny, at which point Tosh turned to the audience and suggested that it would be hilariously funny if 5 men raped that woman at that very moment. At that point, the patron stormed out of the club, complained to the management and proceeded to post her account of the incident on the web. This, in turn, erupted into a veritable firestorm of strongly held opinions within the comedy community and the public at large over what is acceptable behavior onstage and  the comedian’s ‘right’ to free, uncensored, and unbridled speech.

Without a video of the incident, it is extremely difficult to understand exactly what transpired in those few minutes, and my goal here is to not judge who was right or wrong, although I do have an opinion on that.    

For the ‘civilian’ reader, it might be difficult for you to understand why this incident has raised the hackles of so many comedians, and so I’d like to share with you some of the reasons why (I believe) Tosh’s statements just don’t seem to want to subside.

To begin with, comedians take great pride in what they do. Most of us spend endless hours writing, editing, testing, polishing and performing our words for you. The fact that a professional makes his/her acts seem effortless and impromptu is a testament to that statement. Our acts are our children, our lovers, and our friends. We protect them from harm like mother wolverines would protect their cubs.

Many of us spend the better part of our careers seeking our own voice and our own truth up there. In most cases it takes years to find it, but by the time we’re in the business about ten years or so, we have a pretty good idea of how to write for ourselves. Hopefully, in that development period, we find a way to express ourselves in a unique way that sets us apart from our peers. With talent and luck, we work hard to find those audiences who latch on to what we have to say. Sometimes we become household names, but most of the time we live a life of relative obscurity. True, we can have our own fan base and build a nice career for ourselves, and thanks to the Internet, that reality is much easier to achieve than when I started in 1980.

Comedians don’t always agree on what’s funny, but we tend to respect anyone who gets on stage in the first place, though we don’t always like what we see up there. For us, like you, comedy is a very personal thing, and we are discriminating in our tastes.

But I think the one thing we almost all universally agree on is that the stage in a comedy club may be the last place left in America where censorship has not taken hold for the most part. Short of yelling “Fire!” in the room, it is understood that comedians have the freedom to say and do pretty much anything they want in the name of getting laughs and their own personal truth out to the world. And while that is true, it is also a fact that the comedy club is possibly the purest of the free marketplaces; if you don’t like what a comedian says, you don’t have to patronize her/his shows, or comedy clubs in general.

As professionals, we do a lot of self-censoring in both the writing and performance of our acts. We do it for personal reasons (the topic is not one we want to explore), or professional (we want to be on television and ‘nuns giving blowjobs’ jokes will not get us there). Some of us even do it because we don’t want to risk pissing off the audience. Whatever the reason, the majority of comedians, including Tosh, try to stay within their own personal boundaries.

Having said that, we almost all believe that there is no topic in which humor cannot be found. Nothing thrills a comedian more than stepping out on the ledge and making the piece work. The closer you get to the edge, the more skill you need.  On the subject of rape for example, George Carlin proved his mastery of the art of comedy in his piece on the subject. But as he so eloquently said,

“It all depends on how you construct the joke, what the exaggeration is. Every joke needs an exaggeration.” Carlin-Rape can be funny.

If Tosh is guilty of anything at this point, it’s for writing a shitty joke perhaps, or not having the skill level to pull off whatever he was trying to pull off. But it was not the topic he chose. Know that my intent here is not to analyze Daniel Tosh’s act. He’s highly successful, so he must be doing something right.

A comic friend pointed out on Facebook that

"A comedy club is not some sacred space. It's a guy with a microphone standing on a stage that's only one foot above the ground. And the flip-side of that awesome microphone power you have—wow, you can seriously say whatever you want!—is that audiences get to react to your words however we want.”

Our power on stage is there because you have trusted us with it. We in the comedy community understand that and take it very seriously. We also understand that you have the choice or not to come to our shows if you feel we have violated that trust. But in the end, it is the comedian who decides what’s going to be discussed up there....even if the subject is one as sensitive as rape. Your trust in our ability to find the humor in it is your gift to us; ours is the laughter we provide in return.

In Tosh’s defense, the offended woman saw him at a showcase club and not at one of his concerts. She probably had never had the ‘full Tosh’ experience, and he was most likely just one of many comics performing there that night. If she had known that he dealt with rape as a regular part of his act, she probably would not have attended.

Why, might you ask is this issue so important to comedians? Couldn’t he just have deleted the joke, or apologized for it? Well if you ask that question in the bar of your local comedy club, you are going to find yourself in the middle of a debate that makes the Republican and Democrat insanity look like a kindergarten schoolyard argument over a game of marbles. The fact is that comedians see themselves as the minutemen and women of free speech. It’s been this way ever since Lenny Bruce was first hounded by the police for his use of onstage language. Since then, comedians have pushed the envelope and challenged those rules, most notably by people like Carlin (the Seven Dirty Words), Kinneson, Hicks and a few others. Where it gets sticky and ugly is when the freedom to say anything goes the way of ‘Toshgate’; someone who believes they have the right to say something but doesn’t have the skill to pull it off finds themselves in a world of controversy. And trust me, Tosh is not going to suffer over this; his concerts will be sold out, perhaps picketed, but still sold out. His TV show will continue to grow in viewership. All things Tosh will be ‘hot’ for a while....until the next comic says something equally offensive to an unsuspecting audience member.

Not much has been made of the way this customer got her message out. She apparently either tweeted or put it on her Facebook page, and it went viral virtually overnight. Why does this matter and how does it affect comedians? Well, in my opinion, it used to be that comedians spoke for those who had no voice—Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and Carlin were on the forefront of finding the humor in the pain of pressing social issues. Comedians looked to these guys as role models, and audiences felt simpatico with them. They got on the stages and spoke out in a humorous way about really painful stuff. They were more than just like the comedians of the previous Ed Sullivan generation-they were orators who broke ground and touched on subject matter that had remained taboo until their arrival. And they spawned a couple of generations of comedians who picked up the torch and carried on the message. That was before the internet.

What’s happened, I think, is that with the advent of Facebook and Twitter et al., the voiceless suddenly had their own platform in the town square and a place where they could be heard. They began to understand the power that used to be the sole property of the comedian and they are using it. And so when they feel slighted or insulted as in the case of this woman, they now have a venue to spout off, along with the public support to go with it. They have freedom of speech... and that is very empowering. It is so empowering, in fact, that you are seeing what I believe to be either the beginnings of a revolution in comedy, or its ultimate demise in the traditional sense. Combine that  with the endless onslaught of reality TV mentality, with its endless onscreen ‘fights’, whether staged or not,  and the result is that we no longer have discourse--we swing first and deal with the consequences later. We’ve already seen incidents where audience members are starting to react in a ‘reality show’ way (violently)-throwing drinks, attacking comedians onstage, etc.

Perhaps the rules are changing for stand up comedy; I don’t really know. But I do know that those who practice the art hold it in high regard, including Daniel Tosh, I’m sure. I don’t believe that there is a topic that is off limits, including rape. But like Carlin said, “It all depends on how you construct the joke”.


That’s it. I’m done bitching. Everybody hug, everybody eat. Abbondanza! 











   

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

In Search of America—Mayberry, NC and Fairview, NJ


I promised myself I wouldn’t do this because it seems sappy and kind of mentally ill, but one day after learning of Andy Griffith’s death, I find that I am sadder than I was at my own father’s passing, and the urge to write about it can only be eased this one way.

Let me begin by saying that I did not know Andy, except through his work, which was substantial and diverse. From his early years as a successful standup comedian, to his brilliantly dark portrayal of the troubled “Lonesome Rhodes” in Budd Schulberg’s A Face in the Crowd to the Gomer Pyle prototype Will Stockdale in No Time for Sergeants, Andy Griffith’s talent ran far deeper than his easy screen demeanor would have an observer believe.

But it was the Andy Griffith Show, and the creation of Mayberry, for which I and millions of others will always remember and love him.  

In 1960, the show’s pilot premiered as part of Danny Thomas’ hit show Make Room for Daddy. I was 8 years old. My father and mother had divorced two years earlier, and my own Dad was already on the downward alcoholic spiral that would eventually kill him. My mother, a single parent at a time when such a thing was a rarity, had her own demons chasing her. The mental illness which would hospitalize her in eight years was already manifesting itself in violent ways toward my sister and me. Lost and constantly in fear, some of these television characters became my family and comfort, the sanity I needed in the midst of the chaos in which I was living.

Up until Make Room for Daddy, Bonanza, and the Andy Griffith Show, sitcoms revolved around nuclear, well-adjusted, and prosperous families--- three things I had little or nothing in common with. As much as I wanted to be a part of that type of family, I can clearly remember being resentful, jealous, and ever more alienated from my peers as I watched the Andersons of Father Knows Best or the Stones of The Donna Reed Show. They had sane, working parents who took the time to care for and love their children. I had crazy #1 and crazy #2.  Keep in mind that back then, we didn’t have the Internet or cable TV. We had 7 TV channels to choose from. That was it. With no role models at home from which to learn the lessons of life, I (and I suspect a good deal more from my generation) turned to the infant television for my morals, ideals, and guidance. Maybe it wasn’t the best choice, but it was the only one available.

As much as I liked Danny Williams (Danny Thomas) and Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene), I still felt a distance from them; both were successful with plenty of money, and both were men. Though they were both single parents, their prosperity made their lavish lifestyles distant, foreign, and unattainable in my eyes. None of them had the simple charm, wit, love, and values as Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, North Carolina.

1960 was the beginning of the Kennedy administration. The entire country was caught up in the glamour, beauty and pageantry of Jack, Jackie, Caroline and John-John. It has been romanticized to nearly mythical status over the decades for good reason. The Kennedys were young and beautiful. They represented the best vision of what post-war America could be to the baby-boom generation that was beginning to mature and be aware of its surroundings. America was on the verge of becoming Camelot; a fictional utopia where even the elements bow to the whims of the king. The Kennedys had movie star status and everyone wanted to be one.        

For me, the child, Camelot was in the opening credits of the Andy Griffith Show.  Andy himself once described it as “all about love” and that is exactly how I felt listening to that simple, whistled melody and watching this loving father and his son strolling along a dirt road to the fishing hole. I remember thinking gee; this guy took off work to fish with his son. How cool is that?  I used to love to watch Andy’s patience as Opie stopped to skim the rock across the pond. More was said in that 30 seconds about love, passing down the joys of childhood, and the things that really mattered in life than in anything the Kennedys ever did.

Like my hometown of Fairview, New Jersey, life in Mayberry was simple by design. Unlike Mayberry however, Fairview was composed mostly of immigrants and first generation Americans. Life was simple and everyone knew everyone. Like Floyd’s barbershop, the old Italians in my neighborhood would congregate in either Libo’s (pronounced Lee-bo) or Romano’s barbershop and solve the world’s problems. Two blocks away, instead of Ellie Walker dispensing prescriptions and ice cream sodas, we had Mr. Raymond Platoni’s Drug Store and Mary and Tony Famigliaro’s Candy Store handling the chores. Brothers Butchers supplied the meat and Willy’s Fruit Stand (owned by Nunzio Caruso) supplied the produce. On Sundays, after an hour of being tempted by the aromas of fresh baked goods wafting through the stained glass window of St. John the Baptist Church on Walker Street, the parishioners would stream out quickly (but not so much as to seem irreverent) and rush to get the magnificent crullers and jelly donuts at Schenkel’s Bakery before they were sold out. One block up and down Anderson Avenue, the delights of Vito’s Bakery and Pedoto’s Bread awaited those with a more ethnic penchant.

Aside from language and culture, the people in Fairview and Mayberry knew what they had, and except for the Mayors of each town, there were few who wanted to change it. No one was rich, but everybody worked. Kids as young as ten had paper routes, shined shoes, worked in bakeries, wherever they could to earn money for themselves and their families. We had feasts, carnivals and parades, just like Mayberry. Instead of baseball, we played stickball in the street. In the summer, instead of the pond, we had Smokey, the old fire house guy to hose us down occasionally or the local kiddie pool or as we liked to call it, Pop’s Piss Pool Park.

Like Mayberry, we had our 'characters', those folks to whom life wasn’t all that kind. Where Andy had Otis the town drunk, we had Gustavo, who was brain damaged at birth. He would walk up and down the streets of Fairview, grunting, waving and smiling in his own harmless way to anyone who paid attention to him. And while I’ll admit that he scared the bejeezus out of us as kids, we came to watch over him as we got older and he didn’t. We made sure that no on bothered Gustavo. No one had to tell us to do so. That’s just what you did in Fairview. Like Mayberry, we watched out for our own.

What was missing for me in those years was a real life Andy Taylor. I wanted so much to be like the other kids who had parents that loved them, but I wasn’t that lucky. In Andy, I found a warm loving father whose discipline methods didn’t automatically include a metal vacuum pipe or being dragged to a lit stove burner, an aunt who didn’t lock me out of the house from time to time, but who made great pies and lousy pickles. I didn’t have extended family members like an "Uncle" Barney, who loved me like I was his own. Instead I had an uncle who felt he could beat me when he thought I was out of line. That was my mother’s idea of a ‘manly’ influence in my life.

In Mayberry I found peace and contentment on the front porch at night, just enjoying the quiet which was punctuated by the occasional song from Andy’s guitar. And when it was bedtime, I could be assured that my parent would not be dragging me out of bed by my hair in the middle of the night because I forgot to empty the garbage. When there was trouble in Mayberry, it usually involved Ernest T. Bass or the Darling Family coming down from the mountains. Even the moonshiners loved and respected Andy. When there was trouble in my house, someone usually got hurt.

As I said earlier, I didn’t know Andy Griffith. From all accounts he was a genuinely nice, kind soul in real life. I’d like to believe that. And I’d also like to believe that he knew there was a little bit of Mayberry in all of us; that somewhere deep in our hearts we yearned for the simplicity of life and the joys of knowing love, neighborliness, and kindness in our daily lives. I believe that is why, more than fifty years later, the Andy Griffith Show endures in popularity to this day and Camelot is a distant, dying memory.

The real Mayberry was based on Andy’s home town of Mount Airy, North Carolina. I’m told that there is a museum there dedicated to the show. I have considered making a pilgrimage there. But I’m afraid I’d be disappointed, because there probably won’t be a 5 and 10 cent store, but a Wal-Mart. And a CVS or Rite-Aid has probably replaced Walker’s Drug Store. Wally’s Filling Station probably has a mini-mart now that doesn’t even repair cars. Naw, nothing stays the same, I guess. But thanks to my surrogate Pa, Andy Griffith, I can remember life the way I had hoped it would be. Thanks to Fairview, New Jersey, I had most of it.


Rest in peace Andy. 

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Penny for Your Thoughts.


Penny Palfrey, a 49 year-old Australian grandmother of two, stepped into the water and set off from Havana, Cuba on Friday in an effort to swim 103 miles to Miami. She is doing it without snorkel, flippers or wet suit. Oh by the way, she is also swimming without a shark cage, even though much of the trip is through heavily shark-infested waters.

Chief Justice John Roberts also swam through shark-infested waters this week, by being the deciding opinion in the history making decision that kept the Affordable Care Act pretty much intact and gave The President a decisive win against the do-nothing Republican House, maniac Tea Party loons, and the red state reactionaries. In what was clearly a reasonable, well thought out opinion, Chief Justice Roberts essentially told the Veruca Salts of the Right that, like the character in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, you don’t always get what you want by simply demanding “I want it NOW!” in  the petulant tone of a spoiled baby.

Of course, Veruca Palin, Veruca Cantor, Veruca Limbaugh and the rest of the flock stomped their feet and threatened to hold their breath until they turned blue. They branded Chief Justice Roberts a traitor and immediately vowed to begin an effort to repeal the law that the Supreme Court deemed Constitutional. Forget the fact that it passed both Houses of Congress and was signed by the President; the Verucas wanted it their way and thought that Roberts was the just the guy to give it to them.

Meanwhile, Penny Palfrey swims her way to Miami, “excited and a little nervous”, as she moves toward her goal one stroke at a time. She estimates the trip should take anywhere between 40 to 60 hours. She is swimming in the wake of Tropical Storm Debby, so calm seas are not guaranteed

President Obama knows a little about stormy seas too. When a good portion of his own party backed away from the healthcare plan because they were afraid of the political fallout if The Supreme Court had ruled against it, the President stood firm and risked it all, because, as he says, “it’s the right thing to do”. Both Roberts and the President put country first this time, while the Verucas called them traitors, socialists, incompetents and Lord knows what else.

The President, like Penny Palfrey, sees his journey as a series of strokes, each one leading toward a goal. He fought the Right on bailing out the auto industry and won. Now it is well on its way to being healthy again. He fought for TARP, and staved off another Great Depression. He promised to get Bin Laden and he did. Unemployment is coming down, albeit slowly. He introduced a number of programs to help those who are underwater in their mortgages get back on their feet, and it seems to be working. And has pushed relentlessly for a bill to begin rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure; one stroke at a time.

Unlike the President however, Penny Palfrey is not alone out there. She has a crew of 15, who protect her from sharks, provide medical assistance and keep her hydrated and nourished. With all this help, she must be a socialist, no? No one who works with her is asking her political affiliation. Instead, they are working as a team for the greater good of the mission. The Verucas, on the other hand, would be sitting in their ivory towers after having dumped her into the ocean to fend for herself and rowed back to the country club just in time for cocktail hour. But if by some miracle she survived, they’d have been the first to greet her at the shore, touted the indomitable human spirit to the cameras, and claimed that this great feat could never happen in an Obama Presidency.

Yesterday, while Penny put one stroke in front of the other, President Obama made his way to Colorado to inspect damage done by the wildfires out there. He didn’t fly over it in a helicopter the way George Bush did when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. He walked among the ruins. He didn’t ask whether or not they were Republicans or Democrats, he just declared the entire area a disaster zone and promised Federal aid.

Now the Verucas would (and did) say that it was a purely political move, and maybe there’s some truth to that. But aside from George Bush, I cannot remember a president in my lifetime who didn’t visit the site of a natural disaster. These visits demonstrate leadership and unity. They are designed to let all of America know that we are one people who work for the greater good; one stroke at a time. I guess the Verucas would have just let the whole state burn up though, because to offer assistance that came from tax monies might be deemed socialist. But President Obama did what presidents are supposed to do, which is to lead by example.

The Verucas, Palin, Limbaugh, Hannity, O’Reilly, Beck, Cantor, McConnell, et al, have one goal; to continue to foment discontent in America. That is how they make their millions. They need you to be riled up to insure that they have a means to continue to make the very substantial living they do. It sells books and coffee mugs. Your anger brings them huge speaking fees. They are the 1% and don’t give a rat’s ass whether you have health insurance or not. And they do it one stroke at a time. 

“Each swim comes with its own challenges; this is a really big challenge”, says Penny Palfrey. So too does each generation, I think. But it takes a visionary and not a Veruca to understand the challenge and rise to the occasion.

The Verucas want the United States to return to a white-dominated male society. Oh sure, they talk about freedom and democracy for all, but trust me when I say that all of that seems to go out the window when it gets to the backyards of the elite. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the color of America is changing. And all the lashing out at President Obama is merely a reaction to giving up two hundred and thirty six years of Veruca rule. They want their power back, and they want it now. True freedom and democracy may be slow to evolve, but eventually it does; one stroke at a time.

So they can demonize Chief Justice Roberts for upholding the Constitution. They find Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt in Congress, stalemate and block any attempts at real change in America. They can question and re-question the birthplace of our President.  They can bad mouth, tear at, backbite, bluster and filibuster all they want, but they can’t change what’s happening here. It’s changing; one stroke at a time.

For those who want to opt out and follow the libertarian way, please, by all means go right ahead. Think of all the money the rest of us will save when the small government folks stop using Federal money for disaster relief, roads, armed forces, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Education, Environment, and any other services they currently take advantage of. Why, the deficit will be gone in no time!  

I haven’t mentioned Mitt Romney’s role in all of this. I want to thank him for two reasons-- First, for giving President Obama the role model for the Affordable Care Act. Without his tireless efforts, the idea of the individual mandate might never have made it to the Supreme Court. Second, I want to thank him for having offered absolutely no plans to deal with the issues that President Obama has so ably demonstrated he is capable of dealing with over the last three years. It should be an interesting debate this fall to hear exactly what he believes, although that may change three or four times before then.  

Finally, I hope that Penny Palfrey makes it to Miami safe and sound. She is a courageous person and a true role model for women and men everywhere because she believes that large, seemingly impossible goals can be achieved with stepping into the water first and with unwavering tenacity and courage, arrives at the place she’s imagined.

For the Verucas in total, I wish I could say the same for you. And for Veruca Palin in particular, a while ago you asked America how that “hopey changey thing” was working out for us. All in all, I’d say, pretty damned good. And like Penny Palfrey and our President, we’re doing it one stroke at a time.

That’s it. I’m done bitching. Everybody hug, everybody eat. Abbondanza!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Pants on Fire!



I have come to the conclusion that I am a disgusting, dishonorable person. There I said it. But it doesn’t make me feel any better, because I know that the older I get, I will become more disgusting and dishonorable with each passing year. From this day forward, I should not be allowed near children, puppies, or clergy, lest I taint them with the stain of my disgustingness and dishonorableness.  

Why the self-flagellation? I’m almost ashamed to tell you but the lightning speed of my fingers across this keyboard, which far outweighs my will to stop and hide my shame, compel me to do so. It is as if Mother Conscience Herself is forcing a confession from me under the glaring million watt dangling light bulb of Her virtue. And rest assured; her light bulb is not one of those squiggly, new congressionally-mandated light bulbs which were designed to resemble the light provided in the dingy, freezing, prison cell of a Russian gulag hellhole. Nay, gentle reader; Hers is the light of truth and morality, of penance and punishment, of guilt and self-abhorrence. Hers is the power of conscience, which right now gnaws away at my immoral soul like a thirty-two pound New York City subway rat chomping down on the remains of a dirty water hot dog which has been discarded on the tracks by some faceless, corpulent Wall Street heathen. 

What is my crime you ask? Murder? Robbery? Stealing extra Splenda packets from the convenience store coffee station? No, my action against humanity and morality is much more heinous than those insalubrious deeds. Mine was the sort of infraction for which Sister Jane Aloysius, my sixth grade nun from St. John the Baptist School in Fairview, New Jersey would have beaten the skin off my knuckles with her crucifix-studded ruler and then locked me in the boiler room until I had repented.

I lied....about my age... by three years. Oh dear God, Jesus, sweet Jesus and baby Jesus...all the Jesus’s rolled up into one big Jesus...I didn’t mean to do it, I have no idea why I did it, and yet I did do it.

And it felt goooooood.

I should have prefaced this piece by saying that I am a recovering liar. As a child, I often had to lie to my psychotic mother to keep her from physically beating me senseless. It didn’t work all of the time, but I attribute that to the learning curve in trying to become an expert liar.

“Ma, the reason I didn’t scrub the bathroom floor today was because I was playing Johnny on the Pony over on the grassy knoll in Dallas and the Secret Service questioned me all day.”

As you can surmise, living in Jersey and being eleven years old, it was difficult to convince my mother that Mr. Zapruder was, a) the father of my friend Billy Zapruder, and b) Billy’s father had his own private jet and that’s how I got home in time for dinner. That one was good for an intimate conversation with the metal vacuum pipe.

But I got better at lying over time. By twelve, I could lie convincingly enough to skip most of the 7th grade by convincing Sister Agnes that I had whooping cough. This allowed me to stay home and watch hour after hour of sitcom reruns such the Dick Van Dyke Show, and of course my beloved Andy Griffith Show. I became such an adept liar, that I eventually convinced myself that Andy was my father, and that he couldn’t live with me because he was a big TV star and had to live in Hollywood. Of course I never said it aloud for fear of derision by my friends, and so I stuck to the story that I used whenever I had to decline the father and child communion breakfasts; my father was a truck driver who was at that very moment hauling meat across the mid-west toward New York. As time wore on the story grew until eventually, my friends nearly believed that dear ole Dad was the only conduit between fresh hamburger on the table and night after miserable night of Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks.  

Like any drug, lying is addictive. In my high school years I lied about a myriad of things, smoking in the bathroom, cheating on a test, throwing the cherry bomb in the toilet, etc. In adulthood, I naturally gravitated to sales jobs, which allowed me to lie with abandon! And while it felt good at the time to close the deal on the best danged little photocopier in the industry (a true piece of shit by the way), I always felt remorse afterward.

When my children came along later in life, I vowed that I would, if possible, quit lying altogether. What kind of example would I be setting for them if I couldn’t tell them the truth? And while I will admit that it was difficult at first to tell a five year old that their drawing absolutely lacked any life or character (it was a hand-turkey), I felt that I was doing the right thing and that eventually, my tactful side would develop enough over time to minimize the psychological damage to them. I was dreadfully wrong on that one, by the way.

But this latest lie bothered me, mostly because it didn’t really bother me. I did it when someone requested my age for a PR promo, and it just sort of fell out onto the paper. I think more than anything, the fact that it was so easy to do and get away with opened up a can of worms in my head. Right away I began to wonder if this was the start of a pattern and perhaps it was time to call Nicole, my supersonic therapist, who could help me ward off the stampede of hyperbolic falsehoods I was sure were waiting in the wings.

As it turns out, a recent article in the Saturday Wall Street Journal by Dan Ariele (Why we Lie, May 26, 2012) showed me the light! Professor Dan (of Duke University, no less) says that EVERYONE LIES AND CHEATS at some point in their lives! EVERYONE!!!!

Wow. It does my heart good to know that I am not the only one who struggles with this. I will sleep better tonight knowing that there are lying bastards all over the place! Politicians (no surprise), religious leaders, doctors, teachers, drug dealers, spouses (both ex and present) and an unlimited list of others all lie through their teeth once in a while.  According to Professor Dan, we do it for many reasons; some include protecting ourselves, to profit, and to justify conflicts of interest.

So you have wonder then, what keeps us all from robbing each other blind and becoming a nation of Madoffs? Well according to Professor Dan’s studies it seems that things like honor pledges, moral reminders such as the Ten Commandments, and even signature placement on forms are enough to keep most of us in check.

Now you would think that the big, fat, liars in this country, the ones who walk away with billions as a result of their fallacies are the ones that are doing the most harm, wouldn’t you? But Professor Dan points out that it’s the cumulative effect of the little lies-cheating on taxes, lying on insurance claims, etc, that really add up to the big bucks. But how do you know how much cumulative harm say, lying about one’s age, does to society?

As an isolated instance, the little white lie probably doesn’t cause a lot of fibers to unravel from the national fabric of character. But like monetary bilking, the cumulative effect can be catastrophic, especially in hard times like these. And while I hate to sound like a droning harpy, the most damage being done is being done by politicians who for the sake of their own re-elections, will lie repeatedly. What they fail to realize is that year after year of lies and unmeant and un-kept promises causes a breakdown in trust in the system, in each other and in the ideal of America.

There’s a lot of hate in the country these days, most of which is the result of lies in the press and in Washington. And I’d like to suggest that it might be oh so refreshing for all to be unbiased, fair and balanced, and filled with the sense that working for the greater good enhances all of us. Imagine if a politician actually told the truth for a change? Wouldn’t you find it a lot easier to have faith in your government?

All of this starts at home, of course. So I vow that in the future, I will swallow my pride and declare my true age whenever asked. And in that same sense, I think that I probably won’t have to meet with Nicole, the supersonic therapist because I don’t see this one breach of trust as being the beginning of a life of crime.

The final hurdle in our quest for honest is of course, just who do we believe? How do we know who is lying to us?

The short answer is you don’t. The hard solution is how and who do we trust now that we’re armed with the knowledge that there is larceny in everyone? Well, all I can say
to that is that trust is built upon the actions we observe in people and the interactions we have with them. Once in a while, everyone will disappoint us, including ourselves. So I might suggest that since we are all imperfect people, learning to forgive the occasional lie and putting it out of our hearts might be a best practice for us. This way, the next time your best friend, spouse, co-worker or child betrays your trust, all you have to do is look in the mirror, smile and say, “Who am I to judge? I’m a lying bastard too!” Forgive yourself, and understand that you are not disgusting or dishonorable....you're just normal.

Emmis.

That’s it. I’m done bitching. Everybody hug, everybody eat! Abbondanza!  

  .
     

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Milestone or Millstone?


At precisely 12:01 am on June 1, the chronological odometer on the tiny space in time that’s been allotted to me rolled over into what society considers ‘milestone’ territory. Today marks the date of my birth, and I have been officially handed over to that group of wizened, older, people whose job it is to train me in the fine art of pissing off anyone younger than me.

I have already received my official 1,035 page Old Person Training Manual, which to be honest, would only be about 32 pages if not for the extremely large print. It’s beautifully bound, with my name embossed in gold, and has a picture of the drop-dead sexy actor Wilford Brimley on the cover. The book is chock-full of great information which I’ve already begun to implement into my daily regimen. And though I run the great risk of being drummed out of my new gang, I’d like to share some of our trade secrets.

Rule #1- Younger people will rarely punch you in the face no matter what you say to them.

This is an important rule because for many years I have harbored a secret jealousy over this power. Old people use the Law of Presumed Insanity to get away with almost anything.

For example, let’s say you’re in the supermarket and some little snot-nosed punk bumps into you. He says “excuse me” in the proper, polite way. Now prior to becoming an official old person, I would have cheerfully said, “Oh, no problem”, and went about my merry way. But now, being fully and duly authorized to use the Law of Presumed Insanity, I can turn to this kid and say, “HEY! What the hell is wrong with you? I’m walking here, okay? Didn’t your mother teach you any respect for the elderly?”

Pretty cool huh? In the old days (yesterday), such a statement would have gotten me nearly beaten to death with a frozen Cornish game hen. But now, the kid just keeps on going, while muttering something about how miserable old people are!

Rule #2- Pull out of an intersection at full throttle and barely miss getting T-boned by an oncoming vehicle. Then slow down to 3.2 mph.

This is a great one! On a good day with the wind in your favor, you can actually hear the person behind you demanding that God revoke your driver’s license and hear the rounds being loaded into his semi-automatic as he plots his revenge. You can actually learn to read lips and some creative swearing by looking into your rear-view mirror at him.

Rule #3- Carry a change purse and pay for EVERYTHING with change.

I don’t care if you are buying a car! Pay for it with change, and if you are feeling particularly daring, try convincing the clerk at the Home Depot that postage stamps can be used as currency! NOTE: The goal here is to see how long a line you can create and to make them open at least one additional register. Try it, it’s a hoot!

I can’t really share any more than these, but trust me, there are some doozies!

But getting old isn’t all fun and games folks. Hitting a milestone like this can get you down or it can lift you up. It all depends on how you look at it.    

The major issue I have with all of this is that my brain doesn’t know how old my body is. If you took a tour inside my head, you’d find a being that wants to go ride her bike with the other kids after school, play softball in a league, move to New England and open a coffee shop, get back to flying planes, and perhaps be the first woman something or other. And while I know that reality lives in there somewhere, the older I get, the less I want to deal with it, because there’s a part of me that feels like I can still do anything; until I try to do something. Then, when my body rejects the idea of taking up jogging or javelin throwing because it is unable to any longer, I understand the anger and frustration of old people. I understand that their passive aggressiveness isn’t an act of meanness, but a response to the injustice of getting old. So it’s not like I resent getting old, I just wish my brain understood it a little better.

And of course, the idea of being closer to the Grim Reaper’s mini pickup bus doesn’t exactly thrill me either.  Within the last month or so, I have seen at least four comedians pass away, some of whom were friends and all of whom were members of my new club. I’m not afraid of going, mind you; I just have too much to do yet before I get on the bus.

I’ve said before that being a stand up comedian teaches you everything you need to know about life, including when to get off the stage. As I move into this first decade of my sunset years, there are a couple of things I know for sure. And just like I shared the secrets of the Eldherhood of the Traveling Adult Diapers, I’d like to point out some of the things I believe about life.

#1- Life isn’t about quantity, but quality.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t give a rat’s ass about making it to Willard Scott’s friggin 100 year old list, if I can’t do at least 74.9% of what I can do now. For whatever time I have left here, I want to make some noise, scream and dance, make people laugh and go out on my terms. Because if I have to wind up in some nursing home having imaginary conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt, I’d rather jump into the bathtub with the clock radio and end it now.

#2- Money is cool, but love and friends are way better.

Last Tuesday, my friend Nick, along with several other people who I love dearly got together and gave me a surprise birthday party. It was the first birthday party I’ve ever had and I will carry the memory of it with me to the end.

If you’ve never had a surprise party given in your honor, it is a surreal experience. You are led into the room expecting one thing and suddenly, you are faced with people who have played both major and minor parts of your life. One by one, you spot new faces, and it takes a second or two for their presence to remind you of where they fit. And in a blink of an eye, the whole of your life is presented to you. You understand that life is not a day by day experience but merely pages in an entire book. And although each page can make you laugh or cry, love and hate, be grateful or be vengeful, it is the book which has the true meaning. 

There were about eighteen people there at my surprise party, most of them comics. As you might expect, the lines were flying around the room like lightning bolts.

While all the laughing and playing was going on, at one point, I just stood back and looked at these wonderful, creative people who had chosen to be there. Some were relatively new in my life, and others I have known for nearly thirty years. Scanning the table, I had little vignettes in my head of some moment I had shared with them as my eyes rested upon each one. Most were happy times, with a few moments of sadness. With others, there had been long gaps in our friendship over this thing or that. Some I had lost contact with just because of geography and changes in our lives, which caused us to have less contact than we had in other times. But the book, the sum total of it all, filled me with joy because in that one instant I thought, gee, maybe I didn’t waste my time here.

I very rarely share my fear of wasting time with anyone, so I want you to know how difficult it is for me to write this on something as public as this blog. But I promised you my truth in the beginning, and so here it is. My single biggest fear in life is that I will have wasted it on trivial things, like regret and revenge, fear of trying and trepidation over monsters under the bed, and of course, the wasting of time itself. Looking around that room, I understood, maybe for the first time, that our time here is one thing, one finished product, one edifice. Our days here are just the bricks in the wall and not the wall itself. I know now that while I have not always adhered to a proper appreciation of life and thus have weaknesses in my wall, I can remove those bricks and build a doorway where they once prevented entry. Passing through it, I can build the wall of my life from both sides with stronger bricks from the lessons I’ve learned.

I suppose that I ought to end this essay with some pearl of wisdom gained from a life lived, or some quote from someone more eloquent about these matters than I, but really, I got nuthin! There’s really no secret to life other than to live it with a child’s energy and innocence. There’s no shame in getting older because there’s always SOMETHING new to be done. There’s no shame in not being rich because you chose a different path than the one who focused on wealth. There’s no regret needed for mistakes made unless you didn’t learn from them. Finally, there is nothing worse than living a life that has not given love to all, even those that piss you off. Love keeps you young. Love gives you joy and hope. Loves allow you to take that last breath and say, “I’d do it all again, just like this.”

So, when the time comes to get off the stage, I’ll know. I’ll wrap it up with my big closing bit, and if I’ve written it correctly, go off with a big laugh. Or maybe I’ll do the hands bit and just piss everyone off.

That’s it, I’m done bitching. Everybody hug, everybody eat. Abbondanza!



 
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Monday, May 28, 2012

One Nation...ONE.

This Memorial Day weekend, my friend Nick flew in from Chicago on Saturday for a visit and to celebrate my impending birthday (a significant one involving a ‘0’ and another number). As part of my gift, we (actually he) decided we should take a day trip to Baltimore to visit an old comedian friend who teaches at one of the universities there.

The plan was for Nick and me to meet in Philadelphia since he was staying in King of Prussia, Pa., and I was at my palatial estate somewhere on the Jersey Shore. I would leave my Hyundai in Philly and we would ride together the rest of the way. The weather was perfect and there was little or no holiday traffic to trigger my road rage.

If the sum total of your life’s experience with Philadelphia has consisted of eating cream cheese or watching The Philadelphia Story, you really should consider visiting, particularly if you are an American. From the moment you cross over the Ben Franklin Bridge, you get this great sense of history. Every single street in the historic district has a building, a museum or cemetery that provides a direct link to who we are and how we got here. And on holidays such as Memorial Day or the Fourth of July, that feeling is even more evident.

After I met up with Nick, we hopped into his rented, Cherry red Ford Focus and bee lined south down I-95. Settled in with the coffee and cinnamon buns we purchased at a local convenience store in Philly, the conversation, as it always does, had already skipped like a stone about three times across Lake Topic by the time we hit Delaware.

“Have you ever been to Gettysburg?” Nick asked.  I shook my head and declared that it was on my bucket list.

“Fifty-thousand dead over two days”, he said. “Imagine that?”

“As many as died in Vietnam”, I replied. “I can’t even imagine that.”

As we wended southward, our discussion covered almost as much ground as we would over the next several hours. Most of the talk was of comedy and comedians, material and nuance, and war stories from the road. Of course, in between topics, we torture and taunt each other mercilessly, but it is all in fun. Between Nick and I, there are limits and we know not to cross them. But God help anyone who disses either of us in the company of the other. That is where our friendship takes over.

The hour and a half car trip flew by as car trips do when the white line silence is filled with laughter and conversation. It was nearly two p.m. by the time we hit the Inner Harbor area of Baltimore. We found Doctor Ron; our old comedy alumnus turned speech pathologist, who had already put in a reservation at the chosen restaurant . In just a few minutes, the waitress paged us and we sat down for a leisurely Sunday afternoon lunch and reunion. I had a soft shell crab salad which was so delicious that I neglected to notice what the others were ordering.

The topics covered over those next two hours were many; comedy, of course being one of the main components. Politics was inevitable as we are all political junkies who never tire of the ridiculousness of our lawmakers’ bellowing, machinations, and inaction. Personally I feel safe that they are all there in Washington, both Democrat and Republican. At least we know where they all are and cannot do any damage to the real world since they can never agree on ANYTHING.          

We are unabashed and unapologetic liberals though, Ron, Nick, and I, so it was only a matter of time before we began a protracted discussion of the errors and prejudices of the Right, which included Ron’s dissertation and theories on the cognitive dissonance of the Tea Party and the Republican Party in general.

During our meal, I received a call from a friend of mine’s son. He lives in Baltimore and called to ask if he could hitch a ride back with us to Jersey to visit his mom. I said sure and we arranged a meeting time right near the aquarium. We three had a couple of  hours to kill and so we strolled around the Inner Harbor, laughed, talked, ate some killer gelato and eventually met up with my friend’s son at the appointed time to begin the journey home.

Hugs and goodbyes were made and we watched Ron disappear back into the world of academia. We were on our way back to the garage when Patrick, my friend’s son turned to the harbor and pointed something out to me.

“Right out there is where Francis Scott Key wrote the National Anthem.” With that, we turned and headed back to the car.

The ride back to Philly was uneventful, though we did get a bit lost. Nick and I parted ways, and Patrick and I headed to the parking garage to recover the Hyundai. Once over the Ben Franklin Bridge and back in Jersey, we stopped at the first 7-11 we could find, got some fresh, hot coffee for the last leg of the trip and headed out to the strains of Django Reinhardt softly filling the darkened car. Patrick didn’t know much about Django, but he loved the music; so I schooled him a little.

During the long ride on a pitch black road, we spoke about anarchy, purpose of life, career choices and art. Patrick is young, sensitive and completely unsure of what he wants to be. Having been there myself at one time, I listened and occasionally offered suggestions. An hour and a half later, I deposited him at his mother’s front door.

Once home, I fired up the computer to catch up on some email and news in the world, only to read this absolutely horrific story about what had happened in Houla, Syria. If you have not by now heard about it, 109 people, including 49 children, many of whom were infants, were slaughtered by what is believed to be ‘President’ Bashar al-Assad’s troops. Their goal? To suppress perceived dissidents who want Assad’s ass out of power and out of Syria.

To suppress perceived dissidents.

You know, it’s funny how sometimes a phrase like that can spark a multitude of other thoughts and lead you to places in your mind that have nearly been covered over in the dust of years of living. But that phrase, coupled with the historical significance of Memorial Day, Philadelphia and Baltimore, got me to thinking about my own country.

We are a nation of dissidents. Our very founding was the result of not being willing to tolerate an oppressive regime. And in the beginning it was the private citizens who formed militias and marched side by side with the Continental troops to defeat that regime. And like those Syrians who dared to stand up against someone so hideous that he would order the slaughter of children, our defenders, then and now, were willing to die to preserve us.

Because they sacrificed, I thought, I can sit here and write whatever I feel in my heart without fear of being imprisoned or killed. I could take that ride to Baltimore, discuss anarchy and art, and speak freely for and against my government. I can vote for my leaders, and know that it won’t be thrown in a wastebasket because it doesn’t favor a despotic, murderous animal like Assad or his thugs. I can make people laugh and tell the truth at the same time with no censoring but my own self-imposed kind. I can do all these things because someone who I have never met and some that have been close to me have felt duty-bound to preserve the ideal of America for all of us. Is it no wonder then that Francis Scott Key, who was being held aboard an enemy ship at the time of his writing the National Anthem, was so moved at the survival of an ideal, his ideal, that he penned those words knowing that four miles away there were dead and wounded Americans at Fort McHenry?

I have been both proud and ashamed of my country at various times in my life. I can’t really remember a time in my life when we weren’t involved in some kind of conflict. Some I have supported, but most I have not.  But I have never ever felt anything but awe at those who willingly chose to put it all on the line for the idea of America. I don’t know that I could. But because they did, we don’t have murderous animals like Assad here, killing citizens who can’t defend themselves. We trust enough in one another, in our armed forces, and yes, even in our sometimes chaotic government to not turn the guns on us.

Some have called us the world’s police force. Sadly, I might have to agree with that statement from time to time. Ours should not be the business of intervention or nation building. Our job, our primary goal should be to show the world that the idea and ideal of America works through a peaceful example. And I think we do that fairly well overall. But when animals like Assad and company kill their own people without regard for their value simply because they give the perception of being a dissident, then it is time to offer help. We did it in Europe during World War II; and in Libya, and a number of other places. We need to do something for these people; and if we do, if it comes down to yet another armed conflict, our defenders will defend them too, without pause and without hesitating.   

  
My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty....of THEE I sing.

To my fellow Americans who believe that their ultra-conservative, nearly intractable positions aren’t worth the effort of constructive dialogue with those who oppose them ideologically, let me say this.

In Gettysburg and Anzio, Normandy, Viet Nam , Korea, Okinawa, Guam and Pearl Harbor and hundreds of other places lie the remains of those who have died for my right be and speak, opinionate and live my life in the best way I know how. Here in my home, there are those whose lives will never be the same because of an instant in time. They didn’t ask my religion, my race, my sexual preference, or my gender identity. They didn’t care if I was a Republican or Democrat; the only criteria for their willingness to die for me was that I was an American, and when I felt it was necessary, a dissident American.

Here is where religion is separated from government. Here, you can be different. Here is where we have all brought our cultures from our ancestral homelands. They may seem strange to some of you, but it is our right to have them, and to add them to the tapestry of this sweet land of liberty. And though you may not be killing innocents in the streets, when you plot and plan to take our rights away, you are as guilty as Assad’s minions. You are committing a traitorous act when you do those things and you shame the souls who have died for us. Sure you have the right to try to manipulate the system to favor you and your kind, but you will not win because too many of us value what Francis Key saw that morning in the Inner Harbor... the survival of liberty as it exists nowhere else in the world.  

I am a proud American. I have seen a lot in the time I’ve been on this earth, some of it magnificent and wonderful and other times ugly, profane and heartbreaking. But I always view it through American eyes; that is to say my opinions and feelings are colored by a combination of my innate ethnic heritage imprinted on my DNA, and the American experiences of my not-so-distant immigrant past. I believe in the idea and ideal of my country and I thank the people who have defended that ideal on today, their day. Because of them I was able to sit on the steps in a mall at the Inner Harbor and speak freely with friends. Their sacrifice is the reason I am able to reach out to you today in this blog.  And if you don’t appreciate that the preservation of that right alone isn’t enough to die for, then you have become complacent and taken liberty for granted.   

That’s it. I’m done bitching. Everybody hug, everybody eat and everybody thank a service person along with their higher power for having the good fortune to be an American. Abbondanza!