Welcome! Now Go Home.

Your huddled masses yearning to breath free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Emma Lazarus: “The New Colossus”

Engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty

In the 1947 musical “Finian’s Rainbow” the bigoted Southern senator Billboard Rawkins is trying to buy up the entire valley in order to sell it at an inflated price. One of his henchmen informs him that someone is now living there.  The senator asks who it is and gets the answer: “Immigrants.” He then exclaims, “Immigrants! Damn!  My whole family has been bothered by immigrants ever since we came to this country.”

In the senator’s angry reply, we have a condensation of at least one part of the immigration puzzle that is currently being debated in our country. (Perhaps, “screamed” would be a better verb than “debated,” as debate implies some degree of rationality.) 

Sometimes it appears that the longer one is in this greatest of all lands, the shorter his or her memory becomes about the ancestors who came here from so many different places. Even those with pedigrees that go back hundreds of years forget, or ignore, that a good number of those who came here in the 1600s and 1700s were “indentured servants,” fugitives from debtors prisons, or other forms of jailbirds (bad word, even if accurate). Supposedly the Mayflower carried a total of forty passengers, but today the descendants far outnumber the mathematical possibilities for four centuries of descendants.

Some think they know, of course, that immigrants often wear strange clothing, eat even stranger foods, are, by definition, morally inferior to the rest of us, tend toward criminal activity, and have carloads of children. When those charges are leveled in the 21st Century, they usually refer to—and let’s get it out in the open—Hispanics from Central and South America, as well as some Asians.  In past years those exact same charges we aimed at Italians, Poles and Greeks in the early 20th Century; at Asians in the late 19th; at Irish and Germans in the mid-19th, and even at the French before that.  Jews, of course, were chosen to receive these charges from 1650 until—let’s see, what day is it?  Oh, yes, today!

Mormons, who originally came from all over Europe, joined the Native Americans in a program especially designed for them: extermination. (Years later this became referred to by others as a “final solution”). AfricanAmericans or Blacks or Negroes usually do not have these charges leveled at them, because they could hardly be called “immigrants,” a term which implies at least a modicum of acquiescence.

The most emphatic cries relate to immigrants who are UNDOCUMENTED. That word has replaced the less politically-correct word “illegal” in the tirades.  “Illegal” was preceded by the even uglier term “Wetbacks” during the insensitive 1950s.  And some still use the term “Mexicans,” regardless of national origins. 

I have not done any deep research or study to support my supposition, but it seems to me that most of the people who speak the loudest about modern immigrants have last names that indicate Northern European origin.  Their comments often imply and sometimes even announce with pride that their ancestors came to America properly and with DOCUMENTS.  When their ancestors were still in Europe, they often had to have these DOCUMENTS to travel between villages and districts within their own countries. When traveling between countries, proper DOCUMENTS were not only a vital necessity, often they were a matter of life or death—at least, incarceration. (Italian immigrants got the ugly, disrespectful name of “Wop” because some were With Out Papers.)

My maternal grandparents came to America about 1905. Did their journey to freedom require papers in good order?  No question!  They left what is now Lithuania, but was then part of Czarist Russia, and needed to transverse Poland.  From Poland it was on to Germany; from Germany they needed to travel to either Belgium or The Netherlands. Perhaps, I really do not know, they may have had to crossover to England. Either way, they then suddenly encountered a rather large problem: a little wet spot called the Atlantic Ocean. For those who may not be aware of that “little wet spot,” let’s just say it ain’t a dry river bed.   (How many anti-immigration people remember how difficult it was for the survivors of the “Titanic” to wade across that ocean, even though Leonardo and Kate were halfway across the Atlantic before the trouble started?)

 When we throw in the complications that my grandparents had: my infant mother, and her siblings were Jewish—a group loved, admired, and persecuted beyond anything we can imagine by the Russian government and people, by the Polish government and people, and by the German government and people–we see that they damn well better have had complete, correct, and impeccable DOCUMENTS.

If someone should be wondering about my paternal grandparents’ immigration, so do I. My father was born in England, but his parents were from Germany and Poland—I do not know which was which. 

Are there some criminal elements in the immigrant community? Darn tootin’! Guess what! There are also criminal elements in families that have been here for generations. We can, of course, send any criminals back to their native countries. Then Reno and Las Vegas can start giving odds on how long it will be before a given baddie crosses the border again. 

We are “A Nation of Immigrants,” some with pedigrees, some with rap sheets. Perhaps we will see the day when the Daughters and Sons of the Revolution, the Civil War, or any other historical event will pick lettuce in the Central Valley. Perhaps someday they will bus tables and do the vital, if not glamorous, menial labor so necessary to our culture’s existence. Perhaps! But I, for one, would not bet on it.

There are many valid issues relating to immigration, and these issues need to be discussed and resolved as rationally and unemotionally as possible.  Unfortunately, such discussions and actions need to happen in Congress, and we all know how much that body accomplishes. Like most of our “insoluble” problems, this too will be solved given sufficient time and leadership.   Meanwhile, when it comes to breaking up families with children who are American citizens by birth, perhaps our leaders could show just a drop or two of common sense. Yeah! Sure! 

Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

(But make sure their DOCUMENTS are in order.)

Let’s put UNITY back in commUNITY

 HAPPY THANKSGIVING TO

 NEW IMMIGRANTS,

OLD IMMIGRANTS,

NATIVE AMERICANS

AND ANYONE ELSE.

Thrills in Sports for a Non-Jock

An old, old story tells of a young man rushing down the street in New York. He sees an older, more mature man and excitedly asks, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”  The older man slowly answers, “Practice. Practice.”

The question could also apply to AT&T Park, Levi Stadium, Oracle Arena or any other sports venue. The answer could also include, “Dedication and discipline.”  Of course, a little natural talent also helps.

Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles

When I was young I loved participating in sports, especially basketball, softball, table tennis, baseball, badminton, and tennis. I loved participating, but discipline, dedication, and practice were not in my vocabulary or my personality. Do not worry, this will not be about my triumphs and great moments in sports, but rather about lessons I learned, my enjoyment, and some defeats. Whatever skills I had can now be found in my personal rear view mirror and getting up from the couch and walking across the room require Herculean effort–well, almost Herculean.

DISCRETION:  When I was a senior at Washington High School in Los Angeles, then a virtually all white school, some buddies and I drove over to Fremont High, a virtually all black school that kept its gym open well into the evening. We went to shoot a few hoops. I was guarding a young black man and he was guarding me, but he kept doing little tricks that got beyond annoying rather quickly. He would pinch, poke with his fingers and open hands, and pretend to spit at me. I lost my temper and used an old trick involving my rather strong hips to knock him to the floor. He quite loudly accused my mother of having four legs, a tail, and being quite hairy. The entire gym suddenly quieted and all eyes were on the black guy on the floor and the white guy who put him there. The tension was palpable.

I did not want an evening of fun to develop into a race riot, especially when I was in a distinct minority. I had to act and act quickly, so I went over to my nemesis, put out my hand, and said loud enough for most everybody to hear, “Sorry, it was my fault,” and I helped him up. The tension immediately dissipated and the usual gym noise returned. We both continued playing hard, but there were no more incidents.

A quick word about the man who taught me how to use my elbows, knees and hips as both offensive and defensive weapons. When I was thirteen my family moved to Atlantic City, NJ. I had never played basketball prior to moving there. For some reason one of the NBA players who worked out there decided to help this stranger to a basketball court. He taught me how to protect myself, with sometimes a good offense being the best defense. He was a little man, about 5’ 7” but as fast and cool a player as I have ever seen. I never saw him off the court, and why he taught me so thoroughly I will never know. Some of you may have heard of him:  Red Klotz. He became the most losing coach in the history of sports because for over thirty years he was the playing coach for the Washington Generals who played against the Harlem Globetrotters. According to Wikipedia he played until he was 68 years old, won two games against the Globetrotters, but he lost over 14,000.

KNOW WHEN TO SHUT UP:  As a theater student who also loved sports, I was chosen to be the public address announcer at my community college, then called junior college, football games. We had a miserable team and had won one game all season. In the closing minutes of the final game we were behind, but down to the opponent’s 16 yard line with time running out. The quarterback threw a pass which was intercepted and run back 84 yards for a touchdown. Over the loud speaker I stupidly and hurtfully said, “Oh, well, you can’t win them all.”  At which point our entire bench turned to face the booth as if they had been choreographed and some sixty players saluted me–with one finger. The band director who was also an assistant dean suggested that I might want to stay home the following Monday. I still have not fully mastered the lesson of knowing when to keep my mouth closed.

HUMILITY:  Although I never had any coaching or formal training, I was always a fast runner. While at a special school in the Army at Ft. Benning, GA, our barracks were about 150-200 yards from the “Beer Garden.”  Several men in my company had run track in high school or college, and when we visited the “Beer Garden,” they would challenge me to a race. I have tried beer several times and just do not like it, so winning would get a beer for the others, a pint of ice cream for me. In the four months we were there, I never bought a beer, and I had a lot of ice cream.

One Saturday, however, one the trackmen and I were running just for fun. A young soldier came up to me and said, “You’re fast. Want to race?”  Confidently I agreed. We both were wearing green fatigues, and when the starter yelled, “Go!”, he exploded as if shot from a rocket launcher. All I saw was the back of his uniform. When the rest of our group got to us, one of his friends asked if I knew whom I had just raced. I did not. “Oh, he’s Curtis Cooksey and he holds the world’s high school record for the hundred yard dash.”  Mr. Cooksey and I shook hands, and I had a small dose, albeit temporary, of humility.

HISTORICAL DRAMA:  In October of 1957 I was on the public address system at a high school basketball game at the school where I was enjoying my first teaching experience. During the game one of my students came over to me, held up a portable radio, and said, “Listen.”  All I heard was a strange “Beep–beep–beep.”  The student explained what it was, and I in turn asked everyone to listen during a time out. It was, of course, the Soviet Union’s Sputnik, the first human made satellite in space marking the beginning of the “Space Age.”  Who won the game?  I have no idea.

THE BIG THRILL:  Perhaps the most exciting time I ever had connected  with sports occurred when I was not a participant, not an announcer, but simply one of 35,000 spectators at Dodger Stadium to see Sandy Koufax pitch against the first year New York Mets. Better actors learn quickly to “feel an audience” and respond to the audience’s responses. It is a lesson he or she carries over into being a member of the audience. On June 30, 1962, those of us among the spectators all began to notice that the Mets had put up a lot of goose eggs by the fifth inning. By the sixth or seventh the throng was unusually quiet and anticipatory, yet few would discuss it. The crowd hushed by the end of the eighth and everyone wanted to get to the top of the ninth when the Mets would bat. The hometown Dodgers had a comfortable lead, but few cared about that.

As those of you who know baseball probably realize, Koufax was on the verge of his first no-hitter. 35,000 of us began breathing as one body. With each pitch we inhaled as the ball left Sandy’s hand; we then held our collective breaths until the pitch was called a ball or a strike or foul,  Twice the ball was put into play and resulted in an out.  If I remember correctly some fifty-five years later, I think Koufax issued one walk in the ninth. When pinch hitter Gene Woodling came to bat, each pitch had all 35,000 standing and inhaling together, holding our breath together, then exhaling a sigh together. On the final pitch,  it was inhale, hold, and then explode as one body.  Johnny Roseboro, the catcher, raced to the mound and threw his arms around the beaming pitcher. We all wanted to do the same, but it was a quieter, more sedate time.

On the shelf above the computer desk where I am writing this, there is a gold (not real gold), small picture frame with a fifty-four year old ticket stub in it. The stub reads “Dodger Stadium/June 30, 1962, RESERVED $2.50.” No, that is not a typo:  the reserved seat cost $2.50 back in 1962.

Exciting? Good? Please do not tell any of my former English students, but It don’t get no better than that.”

A Fable…Or Is It?

Once upon a time, in the not too distant future, or maybe even today, a small country called Teenieland was severely excoriated for violating the civil rights of a neighboring territory named Malicea. The civil rights that Teenieland supposedly violated included the right of the Maliceans to shoot rockets into Teenieland cities, the right to set fires in other cities where the rockets could not reach, and the right to attack civilians as well as military personnel.  Indeed, Malicea had within its written charter a section outlining the objective of total elimination of Teenieland and the “annihilation” of all its citizens regardless of which One and Only God those citizens worshiped, including the same One and Only that the people in Malicea worshiped.   (It’s there, folks.  You can “Google” it.)

No one seemed to notice that the largest country in the world in size, Zarland, and the largest country in the world in population, Ceramicia violated more and, even more violently, the rights of their own citizens and the rights of some neighbors. Not even the strongest country in terms of Power and Money, Lucreland, challenged the other big guys. (I understand their reluctance to pick a fight with the big guys. Although I personally shun violence, I would rather fight  a ten-year old than a two hundred seventy-five pound football lineman in top condition.  I believe it is called “cowardice,” or is it just  “GOOD JUDGMENT?”)

Eventually, however, a few of the citizens of Lucreland decided it should boycott Teenieland’s goods and services as a testament to their own superior morality.  At first the movement consisted mainly of college students who needed some semblance of morality after what happened at the frat party last weekend.  Slowly, however, the movement gained in numbers, strength, intensity, and hypocrisy.

The movement welcomed the “professional” protestors who knew of a hidden passage of the Constitution of the Lucreland that insisted that everyone has the right to smash windows, set cars on fire, and throw bottles and rocks at the police when protesting, even if the protest damaged innocent people who had nothing to do with the protest against a tiny country thousands of miles away. 

Then it came to pass that the worst criminals of all, the elected members of the Forum of the Lucreland, decided that to protest “that thing about whatever” in the land of “whatchamacallit” could be a great re-election issue.  Despite differing philosophies, the intelligent politicians (all seven of them) as well as the vast majority, whose only philosophy is to get elected and then re-elected then become a consultant, jumped on the band wagon. 

Members of every party, even the independents, all joined in placing before both houses of the Forum a bill to boycott all goods and services from Teenieland because that nation had the temerity to attempt protecting its citizens from people who would harm them. At first, however, they could not get the bill passed. Then one group, that was either the meanest or the smartest of them all, added a sentence that extended the boycott to, “Any item or device produced or invented in that country.”       

Passage was almost overwhelming, but unintended consequences shook Lucreland to its core. The brilliant denizens of the Forum forgot, or did not know, that one invention of Teenieland was, THE CELL PHONE.  Chaos ensued throughout the land.

After the police, along with the military, confiscated and incinerated millions of cell phones, criminals gave up robbing banks and 7-11s, selling narcotics, and extortion. The real money for a while lay in black market cell phones. That too also ended quickly because the providers had been forced out of business and no one could place or receive calls.  Land lines became important again, telephone booths reappeared, but the cell phone was not forgotten and its absence changed lives drastically.

For the first three months psychiatric and suicide hot lines were overwhelmed by calls from people who were lost without their closest, and sometimes only friend, their youknowwhat.

In virtually every large city, people were seen walking the streets holding their right hands to their right ears, but with nothing in the hand. Sometimes they would just stop walking, fall to their knees, and weep.

Homes burned to the ground while on-lookers questioned one another as to what they could do, forgetting the land lines in neighboring buildings.

In one southern city a friend asked another friend, “Who was the Third Avatar of Vishnu?”  Neither knew the answer and both suffered horribly from their frustration and abject ignorance.  (You don’t know? Really?)

Now only people in the islands knew when it was high tide there, while people in the desert suffered anxiety attacks from lack of this totally useless information.

In frozen wastelands no one knew what the score was in the fourth inning of the Pittsburgh/Cincinnati baseball game.  Indeed, only a few had ever heard of either Pittsburgh or Cincinnati.    

Couples going out to dinner for the first time stared at one another not knowing what to do or say. Some learned to carry two decks of cards, one His, one Hers, so they could each play various forms of solitaire.

In one college town a couple who had met in the Freshman English class on a joint assignment discovered that they were first cousins, sharing one set of grandparents. Their only child was born with severe congenital problems.

Automobile accidents from distraction grew exponentially because no one remembered how to concentrate on driving without conducting a business deal, arranging a tryst, or screaming at his/her spouse.

Grown men had to choose between white or rye when the store was out of wheat bread. Some were badly shaken by this monumental decision-making.

After almost two years of this chaos, coincidentally, also the time of an election cycle, the first unanimous vote in the Forum in over a hundred years repealed the boycott on cell phones. Teenieland in a display of chutzpah, however, said, “You want cell phones? You also get hummus  Repeal the whole idiotic, stupid, immoral thing.”  Because most of the members of the Forum thought hummus was an unmentionable part of the body, they agreed to end the whole boycott.  Cell phones reappeared almost overnight.  And everyone lived happily ever after.

 

Well, not quite everyone.  Soon it was a re-election year again, and the Forumers needed a new issue. They decided to outlaw sex for everyone except elected public officials. Not one person was re-elected and soon the Forum dissolved.

 

 THEN, EVERYONE LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER.  Well, again not everyone.  The citizens of Malicea still just wanted to kill . . . somebody.

Directing the Braggart Warrior

Or…

Murphy’s Law Revisited

Probably most people who read this column—all three of you—have never had the privilege, the excitement, the frustration, the anguish, and the exhilaration of directing a play. Some might even ask, “what the heck does a director do?“  The answer:  Mostly he or she worries a lot because the director is responsible for putting the many aspects of the play into an understandable, coherent, and, hopefully, entertaining artistic whole.

Acting, interpretation of the script, music, sound effects, sets, lighting, costumes, and props all contribute to the finished product, but they all begin with the director’s concept and knowledge, although the actual creations of the individual parts fall to experts in the various fields. Then the director makes certain that all the parts fit together into one unit. The finished product can be the source of great pride, wishing for more time, making excuses, or unfortunately sometimes just plain old embarrassment.In 1963 and 1964 I was teaching full time at a high school in Downey, California, while also working for my masters degree in theater at Cal-State, Long Beach. I was the first person to go through the newly formed and accepted program when I came face-to-face with a primary example of Murphy’s Law:  “If anything can go wrong, it will.”

I wanted to direct a modern, small cast play as the final requirement for the degree, leaning toward Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. The faculty nixed my proposition, informing me that the play must be of classical origin with at least a moderate sized cast. We finally agreed on Miles Gloriosus, or The Braggart Warrior, a Roman comedy from about 200 B.C by the playwright Titus Macius Plautus. (The play formed one-third of the 1960’s musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum.)   We  needed a modern English translation for the contemporary American audience.

A faculty member who taught Latin at Long Beach volunteered and wrote the translation. While he was a delightful, kind, gentle person and a fine teacher (I was told), he did not know beans about what is funny to an audience. So I had to spend a great deal of time re-writing with the timing, rhythms, and actors’ abilities in mind. Then things got worse.

My chief advisor and chair of my committee, a man I considered also a friend, was to handle all the scheduling and other administrative details with the university. He had some “minor” surgery scheduled near the beginning of the process. When the doctors performed the surgery, however, they discovered inoperable and advanced cancer, giving him just a few months to live. Obviously my need to schedule time and space for rehearsals, performance, and other mitigating factors became quite low on his list of priorities. I now had to handle those details from fifteen miles away and with no formal credentials.

One of a director’s first jobs is to meet with set, costume and lighting designer(s) to discuss the style and needs of the show. Such factors as basic colors, time period, or important set pieces such as an entrance to the kitchen, a window that lets in sunlight, a desk with a telephone, or whatever. I met with the set and costumer designer assigned to my show, went over the basics, and we agreed to meet in two weeks with him presenting preliminary sketches. When I went to the university to meet with him, I could not find him, so I asked some theater students if they had seen him. The reply came, “Oh, didn’t you hear?  He died last week.”  The young man was 23 years old, obviously a shock to everyone. After a week or two, I was assigned another designer.

Designer 2.0 and I went through the same process with an agreement to meet in two weeks. He phoned me a few days later to inform me that he had had an interview at Disney Studios and they offered him a full time job on the spot. We then went to Designer 3.0. This one worked out well, thankfully. Indeed, she not only did a fine job with sets and costumes, but we dated for a few months after the play.

Now it was time to cast the play. I had auditions scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, November 25 and 26, 1963. Those who were around at that time may just remember that Monday, November 25. Only one thing seemed to happen in the United States that day: we buried the assassinated President John F. Kennedy. All schools, most businesses, and just about everything else came to a standstill in that time period. So I had only Tuesday for tryouts. That Thursday, however, was Thanksgiving, and many, if not most, students simply went home for the holiday. I had five men tryout for seven male roles. I spent Thanksgiving weekend re-writing again.

Because of my chief advisor’s medical condition, no one bothered to inform me that the main stage play directed by a faculty member needed more rehearsal time, so they added two weeks. Those two weeks coincided with my first two weeks of rehearsal, and my two male leads were in the other play. Just try starting rehearsals without the main male parts.     

One week or ten days before the play was scheduled to open, my leading lady came up to me after rehearsal and said, “I decided I don’t want to do this, so I am leaving.”  I now had just a few days left, but I had no female lead. Two summers before I had directed a musical for junior high students at a community center. The center director’s daughter, then a high school student, was my assistant and she was now a stage hand on my production. I told her she did not have to do it, but if she wanted the part it was hers. She accepted, learned the lines and movements quickly, and actually did a better job than the original lead probably would have done. Hey, at least one good thing happened.

My advisor was well enough to come to one of the two performances, although he had little positive to say. When he told me that the play was not really working, I told him, “I don’t care. It is done and that is all I care about.”  He understood. That was the last time I saw him alive.

I naively thought that once the show played, it was over and I would be anointed a Master of Arts. The faculty committee members informed me that I needed to write it as a thesis, including what problems arose and how they were solved. So I wrote some more, all this in the days of typewriters, not computers with word processing.

So I wrote, included pictures and the script, as well as the analysis. I then presented the finished copy to the committee and a copy to the library at the university. The library refused it, however, because I had done their copy on 10# onion skin paper and they wanted 9#. Not only was all this B. C., Before Computers, it was also Before Copiers. I took all 200+ pages to a blueprint printer, paying $.25 per page in 1964 dollars. Fortunately, the library accepted that copy even though it was 20# paper. I gave them the copy and they accepted it exactly five minutes before I would have started losing academic credits faster than I could make them up.

 Did I ever want to say, “The hell with it,” toss the script in the trash, and forget the whole business?  Of course I did. Often. Recently I read some philosophy that San Antonio Spur’s basketball coach Greg Popovich gave reporters regarding his star player’s injuries and the team’s 0 – 3 playoff standing against the Golden State Warriors: 

 Circumstances are such that we could be in a totally different position right now. That didn’t happen. It’s called life. Slap yourself, quit your crying and move on.

Fifty-three years ago I, nor anyone else, heard of Popovich, but his advice seems as relevant to problems with directing a play, coaching a basketball team, or anything else in life where one experiences setbacks. After five decades the tragic, as well as the simply frustrating, events of that four month period remain in my mind as clearly as the NBA playoffs of 2017.      

Make America Great? Again?

My country, t’is of thee,

Sweet land of liberty,

OF THEE I SING!

In honor of our country’s birthday, this article will be a subjective, personal, and individual assessment of the United States of America, and how it stands in my eyes. Your assessment may be different, but that too is one of the beautiful aspects of the U. S. of A.

My father was born in Stoke-on-Trent, England, in 1896. His mother was German; his father Polish. In 1901 Pop was just four years old when the family, he was the fifth of seven children, migrated to the area around Scranton, Pennsylvania. During the Depression he worked as a delivery man bringing cakes and pies to the small grocery stores scattered throughout Central Pennsylvania. He had a sixth grade education and worked on the cake truck until ill health forced him to take less strenuous work. He died two months short of his sixtieth birthday.

My mother was born in Czarist Russia in what is now Lithuania in 1904. She came to America as an infant in my grandmother’s arms less than a year after her birth. Her family also settled near Scranton. She was one of fourteen siblings, ten of whom survived into my lifetime. She had a tenth grade education followed by two years of nurses’ training, the normal amount in the 1920s. She lived into her seventies, although she was plagued with illness in her later life.

(About now some of you readers may be thinking, “Okay! So what?”  Bear with it just a bit more. As the magicians always say, “All will be revealed.”)

Although neither of my parents had any idea what constituted a college education, there was never any question that I would attend college. I did reasonably well in school, if I liked the teacher and the subject matter. The opposite, of course, was also true in classes where I did not like the teacher or the subject matter. Academic discipline and I were total strangers, as were most other forms of self-discipline.

In addition to my parents’ lack of understanding about what constitutes education, I had another problem at school in my formative years. I belonged to a minority religion, and I mean a small minority religion. The name ”Cohen” proved to be a dead giveaway to my being Jewish. To those who have trouble understanding the situation, let me put it in its proper context:  it is the late 1930s and early 1940s. I am the only Jewish kid in my school, not just my class, but in the entire school. Many, if not most of the other kids come from homes in which  German is the first language, and whose homes prominently display pictures of , not President Roosevelt, but of Adolph Hitler….that changed, of course, in December 1941 with the attack on Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war with Japan and Germany.

An eight to twelve year old does not get used to names such as “Kike,” “Dirty Jew,” and “Christ-killer.”  Nor does he get used to the bullying. I learned to run fast, talk fast, and use my sense of humor to ease tensions. Needless to say, I hated going to school. In 1949 I graduated from high school and, to get my mother off my back, I agreed to go to community college for one semester. My world turned 180 degrees; I now enjoyed school and found that learning can be fun. Twenty-one years later, after receiving my teaching credentials and teaching at the high school level, I finished my dissertation and was crowned with a PhD.  I certainly did not get rich teaching at the college level (Surprise!), but I made a decent living and my family enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle.

(To insure that no one interprets this as being nothing but self-promotion, I would like to add that I also wanted to be a professional baseball player, but had to admit that I could not hit the fast ball consistently nor the curve ball at any time. Over the years I also attempted to fix or construct things, but invariably finished the project with two extra parts left over or the “thing” had sides that were not parallel. One needs to know what he cannot do as well as what he can do.)

If my “success” story were unique or even unusual, I would not be telling it now. It is not. Similar stories can be told by the tens or even hundreds of thousands.  Not just about the person who goes into academics, does well, and enjoys life. Some of the successes are in quite different fields:  law, medicine, police, fire fighting, teaching in general, technical fields and especially in business. A person opens a small business or becomes an electrician and spends long, hard hours on the job, then expands and hires others, perhaps opening a second or even a third shop or restaurant. That kind of modest success has been repeated countless times in our country.

In our magnificent country no one asks, “What is your political advocacy?”  There is no “What is your religion?”  nor “Who is your father” test. I, you, and millions of others just have to show why their mousetrap is good or even better than the old one. Then he or she gets to “do their thing.”  Hopefully most will succeed and at least hit the curve ball occasionally.

Of the hundreds of countries on this planet, how many can boast of the success of the little, modest guy or gal? Simply count those nations that do not ask those useless questions. (Don’t worry, you probably will not need all ten fingers.) 

If you do not like counting on your fingers, just remember that for each individual who wants to leave this country, there are thousands who want to enter, seeking the opportunity to better their lives and their children‘s lives. I just have to go back as far as my parents to mirror that desire. Unless you are a Native American, you may have to go back further, but with most Americans that was the motivation for the past three or four hundred years.

In my opinion this success factor alone identifies the U. S. of A. as a great nation. When coupled with our strong economy and our military might, it makes us not only the greatest country now, but also the greatest in the history of this old, blue marble wandering about in space. We do not need to be “made great again.”  WE ARE ALREADY THERE.

Does that mean that the United States has achieved perfection?  Of course, not. When hundreds of millions of people are involved in anything, there are bound to be problems. Certainly the path to success that I enjoyed is not open to everyone—yet! Certainly there are inequities in our social systems and in our economics. When a billionaire’s secretary pays more in taxes than the billionaire, something is radically wrong. Anyone who thinks that we have achieved social and racial equity has a distorted view of reality. One homeless person or one child going to bed hungry is too many. When people who need therapeutic aid get punishment in prison instead, we need to ask why? and then make changes.

No question:  “We still got troubles, right here in River City.”  In my judgment, however, the goodness and greatness of the U. S. far, far outweighs the negatives.

During the civil rights unrest of the 1960s and 70s a story made the rounds about a backwoods, Southern, Black preacher who gave a brief, but magnificent, sermon to his tiny congregation. The grammar, in modern slang, sucks, but the philosophy applies to the entire country, even more today than it did fifty years ago…

            WE AIN’T WHAT WE SHOULD BE,

            AND WE AIN’T WHAT WE GONNA BE,

            BUT WE BETTER THAN WE WAS!

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, AMERICA

What’s in a Name? Lies!

In recent years we have heard a great deal about renaming sports teams that have names considered offensive to Native Americans. The primary objects have been such professional teams as football’s Washington “Redskins” and baseball’s Atlanta “Braves” and Cleveland “Indians,” as well as smaller teams with similar names. We will not belabor that point which has been made so often and so emphatically. We will deal with other sports teams whose names do not precede our European, African, and Asian ancestors, but rather because the are either misleading or make no sense whatsoever.

With June marking the second month of the season and the indoor, winter sport of basketball finally coming to a close, the time has come to examine those team names involved in the National pastime, which is still BASEBALL. We might also take a peek at some other team names that make little or no sense.

Some team names make sense because of their location or an article of clothing.  For instance, Seattle borders Puget sound, the Pacific Ocean, and suffers with about 527 days of rain annually: hence, the Mariners. The American League Chicago and Boston teams identify themselves by the color of their socks:  White Sox and Red Sox , respectively, not to mention the original name of the Cincinnati Red Stockings, now just the Reds.  For the Houston, Texas, team Astros makes a great deal of sense.  (The space program, Tom Hanks, and “Houston, we have a problem!”)  The New York Mets play in the largest METropolitan in North America, as do the Yankees.  (We will not touch that one for fear of invoking another “Babe Ruthian” curse.)

Animal names try to indicate a fierce attitude that will not offend, but still give a fighting, tough image for the team. Are the Arizona Diamondbacks really poisonous and deadly?  (Probably not, at least until they get some better pitching.)  Florida’s Marlins suggests a laid back, “Let’s go fishing” attitude, while across the state the Tampa Bay Devil Rays suggest aggression again.

The business people in Chicago are torn between the Bulls and the Bears.  Perhaps they should just concentrate on the World Series championship Cubs.  In hockey the “Second City” returns to Native Americans with the Blackhawks.

Now it is incumbent upon the writer of this column to identify some of the mis-named or badly named teams.  (Anything to get away from politics for a while.)  To carry out that duty, we shall begin in our own backyard with the Oakland Athletics or A’s, who before coming west resided in Philadelphia and Kansas City.  When the old Pacific Coast League played AAA ball on the West Coast, Oakland had the Oaks, like the big strong tree. Why not once again?  Based on their performance in the past few years, let’s change from the A’s to the C Minuses.  (Once a school teacher, always etc.) For now, Oakland also has the Warriors. “Warriors?”  Perhaps the Finessers.  Or maybe the Show Timers #2, but not Warriors. They have too much fun to be WARriors. Anyway, they are another Philadelphia team that migrated west to the Promised Land.

Then we have the San Francisco 49’ers who play in Santa Clara.  Is there anyone living outside of an institution or a cave who would confuse Santa Clara with San Francisco? (The way the team played last season might get them moved to the Middle East or Ketchikan, Alaska.) 

Oakland Raiders?  Las Vegas Raiders?  Maybe they should have Bekins somewhere in their name. (Is it not strange the way winning covers up and even solves problems?) 

When we travel to our friends in Southern California, we really find the misuse of language in team names. In Northern Tiajuana–oops, that’s San Diego–we find the Padres. While many, if not most, of the original Padres were good men, some of them treated the Native Americans like slaves or like savage children, treatment vastly worse than naming sports teams irrationally.

It is in the Los Angeles, however, that we find the real naming culprits.  The original Brooklyn team received the name Dodgers because they had to dodge streetcars to get to the ball park. Has anyone ever ridden a streetcar in Los Angeles?  Has anyone ever SEEN a streetcar in Los Angeles?  (I actually did ride them back in the late 1940s and early 1950s.)  Perhaps a better name would be the L. A. Traffic Sitters or Freeway Parkers. Maybe simply the LaLas.

The other baseball team in So Cal is the Anaheim or Los Angeles Angels or Halos. At the risk of sounding like a mathematician, I say “Anaheim is to Los Angeles as Santa Clara is to San Francisco.”  They should follow the Disneyesque example of the hockey Ducks and become the Mice or the Mickeys.  (It ain’t gonna happen!)

Once again Los Angeles has the football Rams.  That is, of course, the Cleveland Rams who begat the Los Angeles Rams who begat the St. Louis Rams who . . . Sounds almost Biblical.  Pick a name, any name will do, although those ram’s horns on the helmets look really cool.

Which brings us to the basketball Los Angeles Lakers, long, long ago the Minneapolis Lakers as in Land of a Thousand Lakes.  Yes, there are lakes within the City of Angels; there is even a Silverlake District. To be consistent, however, they would have to be called the Large Puddles, which is not terribly masculine.  Call them the Valleys, the Freeways, the Tar Pits—anything but Lakers.

Finally, in round ball we come to the most egregious and absurd name in all of professional sports:  the Utah Jazz.  UTAH = JAZZ!  An oxymoron if there ever was one. The state of Utah has some magnificent scenery such as Bryce, Zion, and the Arches; tons of lovely mountains; salt flats; and in their lake full of sodium chloride. They have one of the world’s greatest choirs whose classical and show music has few peers. However, JAZZ??  When the team resided in New Orleans, that name made geographical and musical sense, even more than the current Pelicans.  (As one who frequented the Hermosa Beach Lighthouse while in college during his often misspent youth and still loves to hear real jazz, I find the concept appalling.)

But enough about basketball, the indoor, winter game still being played in June.  Certainly enough about four hours of commercials occasionally interrupted by a football game.  Hockey?  Booooring!  We have survived the long, cold, wet, empty winter months and BASEBALL is back and in full swing.  It does not really matter to this old baseball nut what we call the teams.  All we need to know are the last twelve words of The Star-Spangled Banner:

“Land of the free and the home of the brave, PLAY BALL!”

A Modern Dictionary

CYNIC: A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they should be.  (An homage to Ambrose Bierce and “The Devil’s Dictionary,” ca.1880.)

CONGRESS:

1. A political body originally designed to discuss and solve political and governmental issues for the citizens.

2. Now, a political body whose sole function is re-election and avoidance of holding down real jobs.

3. A group of men and women who are convinced that compromise is immoral, illegal, and fattening.

4. Collectors of the largest welfare checks in captivity.

COURTESY: 

Huh?  (An archaic word with no meaning in the 21st Century.)

EXPERT:       

One who does it somewhere else.

HANDSHAKE:        

An ancient and useless method of establishing a contract between two individuals in which they pledge mutually rewarding products or services.  Obsolete.  (Admonition: get it in writing.)

LOOK-A-ME: 

(Known as “celebration” in sports); a procedure in which superbly conditioned, well-trained, strong athletes appear to be self-centered three-year olds simply because they ran a football    for a big gain or touchdown, made a tackle, caught a forward pass or shot a basket, resulting in the athlete jumping up and down, dancing, running with arms wide spread, or other manner which screams, “Mommy, Mommy, look at me.” (Editorial  Note:  This condition could be cured by having the athlete stand  in the center of the court or field and forcing him or her to demonstrate the “Look-a-Me” dance every time he or she fumbles, misses the basket (air ball), drops a pass, or misses a tackle—It ain’t gonna happen.)

 LOYALTY:   

See “Courtesy.”

 NEW AND IMPROVED: 

A label indicating that the producer of goods or services has discovered a way to make the product or service for 1) a cost of 5% less, while 2) charging 10% more , and 3) hoping no one realizes that the product is 15% less efficient or tasty.

ONE DAY SALE: 

A day in which stores, usually large department stores, sell special items at prices not usually available to the general public. The length of time between One Day Sales sometimes lasts as   long as forty-eight hours.

PRIVACY:

Archaic. It disappeared with the development of electronics.

RELATIVITY: 

(You want Einstein in a column that makes an attempt at humor?) The art of dealing with your relatives.  Most of mine live on the East Coast, one of the happiest factors in my life.

SERVICE:      

The offering of information, directions, and expertise to customers by authorized and knowledgeable staff.  Oddly enough it usually disappears as soon as a financial transaction takes place.

S.T.E.M., also STEM: 

An acronym for Scientists, Technicians, Engineers, and Mathematicians about whom the public hears of a constant need for more STEMs to clean up the air and water and to save the environment for future generations.  (One might note that much of the guilt connected with the despoiling of the planet can be attributed to Scientists, Technicians, Engineers, and Mathematicians.)

STOP SIGN: 

A red, octagonal, totally ignored artifact of modern life; many do not realize that is an acronym for the initials S. T. O. P.:

                        S = Slow down Slightly;

                        T = Take a Tiny peek,

                        O = Oh, phOOey, Others will stOp;

                        P = Press and Pound the Pedal.

SURGERY:    

1)  A method of repairing human beings whereby a common Individual allows a highly skilled and specially trained doctor to obtain his/her Mercedes or Lexus. 

2)  Something that is “minor” when another person has it, but “major,” frightening, panic-inducing, and horrible when contemplated for me.

SUV:              

A truck with a really, really, really neat toupee, and a great deal of plastic surgery, but, nonetheless, a truck.

TELEVISION NEWS: 

A fun and entertaining method of presenting information about fires, murders, floods, mayhem, war, earthquakes, stupidity, sports, and weather to a public that is certain those who suffered deserved punishment and revel in knowing that it did not happen to them.  Those who report the “news” are called “anchors” because they sink as  low as possible until they hit bottom. (Whether the stories are real or fiction is totally irrelevant.) 

TRUTH:         

The dissemination of facts as opposed to lies, half truths, and opinion; it is avoided in daily life; it is mostly ignored in business; and it is unknown in politics.

TURN SIGNALS: 

A totally unused, decorative stem on the left side of a steering wheel used mainly to balance the important stem or stems on the right side.  (Use of the device might give important information or advice to other drivers, but “Nuts to them.”)

UNIVERSITY:

A collection of schools and departments of higher learning of the finest quality.  (Universities can be distinguished by athletic teams that consist of 68% students of color, while the general student body consists of 6.8% students of color.)

 

We’ll Keep Shylock

Recently an article appeared in a local newspaper in which the author suggested that we should consider eliminating Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” from the literary canon of the great Bard’s plays.  The anti-Semitic portrait of Shylock, the Jewish money-lender, established the reason for the removal, or at least, for ignoring the play.  Shylock’s character certainly is thoroughly despicable, angry, vengeful and full of vitriolic hatred.  He is also, however, the most interesting character in the play, with only Portia coming even close.

As a not very religious but committed cultural Jew who has experienced anti-Semitism first hand, I would like to oppose any attempt to “banish” Shylock or the play.  And as one who has acted, directed, produced, written, and studied theater, literature, and Shakespeare for over half a century, I would extend my opposition to any play, novel, short story or any other work of art, so long as it does not advocate or incite any violence or threats.    

Shylock is, no question, despicable.  Even in his famous and sympathetic speech:

“Hath not a Jew eyes?   Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons. . .”

He loses his appeal, however, on the final line.  After his empathetic comparisons of Jews and Christians, Shylock states that if a Jew wrongs a Christian the result is revenge. He then states:                  

“The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard, but I will better the instruction.”

Hardly a conciliatory ending to his appeal for equality. He follows the threat with his insistence on getting his “pound of flesh” because Antonio cannot repay the 3,000 ducats, both terms which were agreed to in the loan documents.

He gets some sympathy all right, but then twists it into the threat. At this point we might note that other Elizabethan authors and playwrights fashioned Jewish villains that make Shylock almost a lovable pussy cat. Christopher Marlowe’s Barabbas in “The Jew of Malta,” is a prime example, along with Thomas Dekker‘s “The Jew of Venice.”

In other Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, Jewish money lenders “enjoy” such names as Gripe, Hornet, Bloodhound, Lucre, Moth, Perfidious Oldcraft, and Sir Tyrant Thrift. Those names make the characters hardly seem like people we would want to invite to dinner or go with to a ball game.

Earlier writings such as Chaucer’s “The Prioress Tale,” established the horrible stereotype, and Dickens continued it centuries later with his Fagin in “Oliver Twist.” 

Shakespeare based the play on an Italian play called “Il Pecorone” (“The Simpleton“) in which the evil money lender has no name. Gianneta, the merchant, has only about 2000 words, and the equivalent of Portia has her suitors not simply give her gifts to woo her to marriage, but they must sleep with her and if they do not please and satisfy her, they must forfeit their own fortunes and property. (Sorry, but no English version of “Il Pecorone” exists, at least not as of a few years ago when I did the research.)

Shylock is a stinker, no question, but banning him and the play poses the threat of a word I personally despise: censorship.  If we can censor a work because it offers a horrible example of a Jew, what is to prevent someone else from censoring another work because it offers too pleasant a picture of a Jew? Once that Pandora’s box has been opened, how do we close it?  We all know the answer to that question: it stays open.

The plays of August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry, as well as  countless others, might be censored by some as being too human a picture of African-Americans. How about a thoughtful and sometimes gentle Asian absolute monarch?  Goodbye “The King and I.” Will we also “banish” Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” which gives an unnecessarily evil portrait of Richard, because the grandfather of Elizabeth I, Henry VII, killed Richard and usurped his throne?

Under no circumstances do we need clergy, lay people, government officials or anyone else deciding what adults can write, present, or read because once that snowball starts rolling downhill, it is not long before it becomes an avalanche. We need to remember the lessons taught to us in the 20th Century by people named Hitler and Stalin, not to mention our own American/un-American H. U. A. C.

In my totally fictional novel, By Any Other Name, I have an imaginary discussion between Christopher Marlow and the man who, in the novel, writes the plays attributed to Shakespeare. They discuss the images of Shylock and Barabbas. Marlowe, whose Jew was even more vile than Shylock, insists that the primary decision of depth of evil lies with the audience for whom the work was written. There can be no question that the Elizabethan or Jacobean audiences were vastly different from those of 21st Century America. Audience members in the 16th and early 17th Century had probably never even seen a Jew; Edward II banished all Jews from England in 1292.  It was not until the middle of the 1600s that some were allowed into England.

Will some go away from a production of “The Merchant” thinking and even saying aloud, “Yep, all the Jews are like that.”  Hopefully others will realize that it is a play written over four centuries ago and not a true reflection of life as we know it or a depiction of an entire culture.  It is a play; a work of art, not sociology.

Shakespeare himself had a narrow “religious” line to walk.  He came from a devout, involved Catholic family at a time when England still smarted from Henry VIII’s abandoning the Catholic Church and establishing the Anglican Church.  He dared not enter the conflicted world of religious strife in England within his plays. Jews made excellent villains, and the theater needs villains in order to contrast with the heroes.

Finally, I patently reject the suggestion to have panel discussions after the final curtain of “Merchant” or any other play, as the author of the article posited.  As Willy himself once said, The play’s the thing.”  We hope that audiences will find food for thought after “Merchant,” or any other play or novel. The play must, however, in the final analysis stand on its own as a work of art.

Because it is April, let’s all wish the Bard a happy birthday and commemorate the 453rd anniversary of his birth.  Not too many people still make us think, as well as entertain us, even after four centuries.

 HAPPY 453rd

           

           

 

Yummy!: Memorable Meals

Most of us experience meals that are especially memorable from time to time.  Sometimes the food tastes or is presented so wonderfully that we remember those factors, perhaps even forgetting the occasion. Then there are the times when “yummy” was not enough, but something special happened or a celebrity or famous person appeared or was nearby.  Perhaps a simple meal changed into a memorable one simply because of the circumstances.  Here are a few “Memorable Meals” that have brightened and highlighted my life and remain important in my memory.

When I was a small child in the 1930s living in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, I saw little of my father during the week. The Great Depression brought hard times to virtually everyone, and my father was fortunate to have a job that put bread on the table for his wife and bratty little kid (me), paid the rent, and kept the wolf from the door.  He arose at 5:00 AM and was out of the house by five-thirty six days a week.  He did not return home until sometime between 7:00 and 8:00 PM daily.  But HE HAD A JOB; many others did not.

He would load his delivery truck with packaged cakes and pies, drive into the anthracite regions of Central Pennsylvania, and service “Momma and Poppa” grocery stores in towns like Shamokin, Mount Carmel, Shenandoah, and Paxinus.  (I am not certain of the spelling of the latter, but to this day I remember the small bridge leading into and out of the town that frightened me every time we crossed it.  Bridges do not usually bother me, but just thinking about that one bridge still gets me queasy some seventy-five years later.)

When I matured to the ripe old age of eight or nine, on summer days with school out, my father would wake me at five. I got dressed and ready, and got to watch him shave.  Then we headed out to a small diner on Fourth Street where we always had the same breakfast: ham and eggs with toast, coffee for him, and milk for me. After breakfast we, really he, loaded the truck then drove out for the small towns and little stores.  (Super markets did not exist yet, at least not in that area.) I helped him carry the cakes and pies into the stores where the proprietors would make a big fuss about “Cohen’s kid.”  Then they plied me with candy, pretzels, and soft drinks in every store.  I was a “man” helping Dad and working.  I believe I slept most of the time while Dad drove, but I was as happy as any kid on the planet. (To this day, just thinking about those special breakfasts puts a smile on my now old, wrinkled face. Often when something bothers me or some family crisis hangs over us, I manage to get to an old fashioned diner and order, you guessed it, ham and eggs. Breakfast, lunch, or dinner? It does not matter, although I do not recall ordering it more than once in any day. Ham and eggs remains my number one comfort food, only with English muffins and iced tea instead of milk.)

In April of 1950 I was nineteen years old and a student in junior, now “community,” college. A buddy of mine from high school had joined the Marine Corps Reserves and played on their baseball team.  While we were playing catch and hitting fungoes to one another, he told me that the Reserves had a good team, but lacked a first baseman. I played first quite well defensively and hit all right, at best.  He told me that if I joined the Corps, I would have to march around once a month, get $10, and could play first base on their team. I agreed to sign up on a Saturday morning that April.

For the life of me I cannot remember what the occasion was or why I had to go, but that Saturday there was some sort of brunch at my college and I had to attend. I, therefore, did not enlist in the Marine Corps Reserves in order to play baseball. The fateful day was in April 1950, in June the Korean “Police Action” broke out, my buddy and his group were called up to active duty immediately. By August they had suffered 50% casualties. (I do not remember the occasion, the food, or anything else about that brunch, but I thank my lucky stars for that MEMORABLE MEAL.)

In August 2016 my wife Shirley and I celebrated our 50th Wedding Anniversary.  In addition to a brunch for family and close friends, we treated ourselves to an Alaskan cruise. We had taken the Alaska cruise before, so sightseeing was not our primary motivation.  We had had a relatively difficult year and wanted to be pampered. Someone else would prepare meals, clean up after them, make the beds, and generally take care of the little daily, household chores we wanted to leave behind for ten days. 

For those not familiar with cruising, meals are quite sumptuous, well prepared, usually delicious and plentiful, plentiful, plentiful. Those so inclined can easily enjoy three to six fine, large meals every day as part of the basic fee for the “room and board” on the ship. Most ships also have specialty restaurants where, for an additional charge, one can be served ethnic foods in large portions and delightfully presented. Shirley and I had never bothered with any of the specialty restaurants in our many cruises.

When we arrived at our stateroom as we boarded the ship, we found an envelope outside the room with an invitation to enjoy a special dining experience at the Steak and Seafood specialty restaurant. It was, indeed, special!  The courses and portions could have fed us for two or even three dinners, although we managed to pack away most of it.  The preparation and presentation of the various courses were just delightful.  The taste, or rather, “tastes”? Tres Bien!  Molto Bene!  Delicioso!  In other words: a heck of lot better than our usual fare. It capped our two week celebration of our fiftieth in fine style.  (Thank you, Princess Cruises, for a delicious, memorable meal that greatly added to our already memorable celebration.)

 About ten years ago Shirley and I visited Venice, Italy, for four days.  It was our first, but not last, time in Venice.  We were on a three week Grand Circle tour that included Rome, a week in Sorrento, a week in Montecatini near Florence, and an optional four days in Venice.  Our hotel was an ancient convent that had been renovated, modernized, and made comfortable and inviting. Venice consists of many islands and we stayed on Lido Island.

We decided to take a sightseeing walk around some of the island and search for a place for lunch. We found a place in Italy that served a wonderful American food: PIZZA.  Although Shirley eats chicken, fish, and some beef, she could easily become a vegetarian.  To me, pizza is Hawaiian—ham and pineapple, period.  The restaurant did not have individual sized pizzas (pizzi?), so I asked if we could have one half veggie and half ham and pineapple. One would think I had asked to desecrate the Italian flag or vandalize a church. All the server said was a resounding, “NO!”  Slowly, in English with my newly acquired ten words of Italian, I tried to explain that it can be done and how it is done, using, of course, many gestures.  The server relented enough to say he would ask the boss, his attitude indicating that there was no way for it to happen.  A few minutes later he came back with a puzzled expression and hesitantly said, “Okay.”  We got our half and half pizza.

The pizza was good, not great.  There some places here in the East Bay that, in our opinion, are as good or better, but it was tasty and palatable. (We remember that lunch fondly, however, because we felt that we had changed the course of Italian culinary history.)

When I was about fifteen or sixteen, my family lived in Atlantic City, New Jersey.  People were just settling into life that did not center on war and the wartime economy that predominated during World War II.  Radio was our primary, indeed only, means of immediate communication with television a few years off in the distance. When I could, I enjoyed listening to Arthur Godfrey over the AM, simple, scratchy quality radios available then.

One day on his show, Godfrey told the story of Ginsberg, a Jewish tailor from the Bronx who had no wife or family and was ready to retire. He decided to give himself a retirement present of cruising back to Europe and visiting the graves of his parents. The first day on ship he was seated with a Frenchman who also was alone. At dinner the Frenchman arrived first, sat at the table, and greeted Ginsberg with “Bon appetite!” as Mr. Ginsberg sat down. Speaking no French, he simply replied “Ginsberg.”  The situation repeated itself at every meal until a steward overheard the two men unable to communicate in a common language. The steward took Mr. Ginsberg aside and explained that Mr. LeBlanc was saying, in essence, that he should have a good satisfying meal, which embarrassed the retired tailor. At the next meal he made a point of arriving first and when the Frenchman sat down, he proudly said, “Bon Appetite!”  To which the Frenchman replied, “Ginsberg.”

When Shirley and I got married, I told her the story and it became a family joke.  (Recently in the dentist’s office, I spotted a copy of the magazine “Bon Appetite,” and said to Shirley, “Look, there’s Ginsberg magazine.”  The receptionist who overheard had a puzzled expression on her face which seemed to ask, “A magazine named Ginsberg?”)   

About twenty years ago when we still lived in Daly City on the Peninsula,  early one morning we got up, drove to the airport, flew to Vancouver, Canada, rented a car, and headed for Banff National Park. By about three-thirty in the afternoon we had not had lunch and both of us were exhausted and famished.  We found a rustic, upscale restaurant high in the Canadian Rockies where we each ordered a salad. It seemed to take forever to prepare the salad, and we both were losing patience when the server finally appeared.

He placed our meals before us and, with a touch of attitude, said, “Bon Appetite!”  Simultaneously we both blurted out, “Ginsberg,” and both of us started laughing hysterically with tears streaming down our faces. The poor server could not understand, asked if something were wrong, and lost his “tude.”  We tried to explain between the laughter and the tears, but we were not too successful.  The memory of that meal was worth every penny of the extra tip I left the bewildered young server.

So to you, dear Reader, when you sit down to dinner tonight, we wish you “Bon Appetite!”  You know the response!

The Trip of a Lifetime

In February I celebrate my eighty-sixth birthday, and at eighty-six we celebrate every one of them as though it could be the last one. Shirley, “the Boss,” and I will be going through the Panama Canal from San Diego to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  We did the trip from East to West several years ago.

Although the Boss and I have traveled extensively once the kids were on their own, we were confined mainly to the U. S. and Canada prior to that. I have visited 49 of the 50 states, some during my bachelor and Army days, while Shirley is just a few short of that number. We have been to at least 16 European countries, all of North America, most of Central America (we are not sure about El Salvador), and three nations in South America, as well as Israel, the Palestinian Territory, Turkey, and Morocco. Not as much travel as some, to be sure, but more than many others. All our trips were, in various degrees, exciting, adventurous, educational, and, most important, enjoyable.

One trip that I was fortunate enough to be part of occurred way back in my bachelor days, a few years before the Boss and I even met. In terms of personal growth and expanded learning in my chosen field, as the old saying goes, “It was a TRIP!”

I had taught drama, speech, and English for two years in high school in Southern California when, in 1959, I decided the time was ripe for me to become rich and famous as an actor. After teaching two years, I moved to a residential section of Hollywood and started making the rounds of agents, producers, and auditions. Although I had some success, I saw quite early on that I did not want to continue the lifestyle that I was then living. I also missed the classroom and interaction with students. I, therefore, enrolled in the graduate school of theater at UCLA in late 1960, and began classes toward my master’s degree in January of 1961.

Although I felt the program was a bit too regimented for my taste, the classes were excellent. I was cast, however, in the musical “Finian’s Rainbow” based on my reading four lines from the ancient Greek play “Antigone” by Sophocles, a casting I did not then and do not now understand. My sheer dumb luck, however,  came through with flying colors. A student had to be in residence in the Winter Semester to be eligible to audition that Spring for a show sponsored jointly by the University, the U. S. O., and the Department of Defense.  The show was scheduled to tour a variety of service bases in Asia, and, indeed, we did exactly that.

As a student, I had been strictly a commuter, living with my parents and later in my own tiny apartment. For the four to six weeks of rehearsals and early performances I rented a room in a fraternity house, learning to live with the odor of perspiration and beer constantly in the air. Our company fortunately received permission to perform George M. Cohan’s “Forty-five Minutes from Broadway,” using the script written for a performance honoring Cohan’s 100th birthday and shown on the great television show “Omnibus.” Some of us who became cast members also performed songs about U.S. cities and states between scenes and to open and close the show. I became the villain in the play, spoke directly to the audience at the beginning as MC, and then ended the show singing and scatting “Route Sixty-six,” with the entire cast joining in the finale.

During the rehearsal period an undergraduate student at UCLA who was of Japanese descent taught us a few expressions in that language including “Where is the bathroom?”  “Please,” “Thank you,” “Where is a restaurant?” and “Can you tell me where I can find a teaspoonful of toilet paper for my horse?”  (I never got to use the latter one, but the others helped.) Incidentally, the undergraduate student’s name was George Takai, better known today as Mr. Sulu of the original “Star Trek.”

The director, the cast of twelve (including the director’s wife), and the pianist were allotted a total of ten steamer trunks in which to pack our sets, costumes, and lights plus one suitcase each for personal belongings. It was tight.  We had rented our costumes from Western Costume in Hollywood, and I wore a suit worn by a minor star in a long forgotten movie. That was as close as I came to becoming “rich and famous.”

After a few trial performances at UCLA, we played a few more at service bases around Southern California, then boarded a gigantic, slow, propeller cargo plane for the interminable trip across the Pacific Ocean. In the next six weeks we traveled some 45,000 miles, did 46 shows, and visited Japan, Korea, Okinawa, Guam, Wake Island, and Hawaii, performing in the hot, humid summer both indoors and outdoors.

Every place we played had different sized stages. We did one show on a stage no more than fifteen feet wide with yet another on the stage of the Toshi Center Hotel in Tokyo, which at that time was considered the most modern theater in the world, with a stage some 50-60 feet across. The dancers, of course, had to practice on every stage because some stages demanded giant steps and movement while others required little baby steps.

On a personal note, even the act of eating a meal meant new horizons for me.  Although my father was the better cook, my mother did most of the cooking, as did most women in those days when Dad worked from early morning to mid-evening.  My tastes remained stagnant with my mother’s style of cooking: vegetables boiled until they were almost a paste; meat well done until it bordered on leather.  (All right, so I exaggerate a little bit.)  Knowing that I would not be returning soon to this part of the world, I asked the waiters to bring me something good, but not to tell me what the ingredients were until after I ate. It worked; I tricked myself and expanded my culinary horizons greatly. At the service bases where we often ate, indigenous laborers served the food in cafeteria lines.  I quickly learned to ask for rice, not potatoes, because the natives then included me as one of their own, and gave me extra portions of meat also.

Our audience sizes varied greatly from about twenty to a few thousand.  The base which had the fewest audience members was located 100 yards from the Communist lines near the 38th parallel. The men were not permitted to discuss what kind of electronic work they did, but any serviceman, regardless of how long or short his time there had been, could simply say he needed  to transfer and it would be arranged immediately. Anyone who ever served in the military knows how unusual that is. The men there also served our troupe a delicious chicken dinner with all the trimmings. The following day, when we were at our next venue, we were informed that those men had gone without dinner so they could feed us.

Our show was a completely clean, wholesome performance, which was not always the case with USO shows. Some had young, and not so young, women in skimpy costumes showing a lot of skin and telling off-color jokes with strong sexual content. We were amazed and delighted at the number of servicemen who thanked us, saying that our clean show was the way they preferred to remember their wives, mothers, girl friends, and sisters.

Occasionally though, we did have problems. In one scene the male lead danced around each of the four chorus girls and kissed each one on the cheek.  On Okinawa we were informed that there had been race riots between black and white service men. Because one of our chorus girls was black, we were obliged to cut the kiss in that particular scene. The racial tensions prompted the Army to station men with clubs backstage to protect us. Once, just before I went on stage to speak to the audience as MC, our “protector” said to me, “If there is trouble, you can have my club, because I’m getting my butt out of here.” Not too heartwarming when one is just getting ready to go out to face an unknown audience. Thankfully, we never experienced any of those problems.

Although we had racial problems on Okinawa, we had two incidents that qualified as unusual and frightening theatrical situations. One of our chorus girls, Jan, sang “The Boston Beguine” between two of the scenes. The comic song basically deals with a man and a woman who do not know what to do with their new found love because all of the books they should have read were banned in Boston.  The song, written in 1952, ends, “Land of the free, home of the Braves, home of the Red Sox, and home of the Boston Beguine.” The Boston Braves baseball team had moved to Milwaukee, and John Kennedy was President, so Jan changed the ending to “Land of the free, ex-home of the Braves, home of the Red Sox, home of Jack Kennedy, and home of the Boston Beguine.” 

The baseball references usually received a chuckle and the Kennedy reference mild applause. One night in August, however, “Home of Jack Kennedy,” got all the servicemen and women on their feet, booing, and shaking their fists.  Jan, naturally was shocked and shaken.  Between performing, traveling, and sightseeing none of us followed world news, and on that fateful day, the Russians raised the Berlin Wall and President Kennedy had extended duty for all service personnel an extra six months.  Needless to say, Jan cut out the Kennedy reference for the remainder of the tour.

Because of an administrative foul up (Yes, those things happen in the service), a large group of servicemen were told we would perform at noon, but we were not scheduled until two o’clock.  The men, all of whom had records as petty criminals, fighting and minor thefts, had been sitting in the hot, humid tropical sun for two hours when yours truly came on stage alone to start the festivities. I learned a great deal in a great hurry about handling a hostile audience, but I survived and the men enjoyed the show once we started.

After several shows in Okinawa, we flew to both Guam and tiny Wake Island, the scene of intense fighting during World War II. Our efforts on those outposts drew enthusiastic applause and appreciation from those stationed there.   Then it was back to the “good ole’ US of A.”

Although we had the chance to relax a bit in Hawaii, we also did three shows there before returning to the reality of our normal lives. (“Reality?” “Normal? Los Angeles? A contradictions of terms.) Exhausted and worn out from our travels and constant performing, we returned to our separate lives with new insights about theater and performing;  new understandings and appreciation for other cultures; and, at least in my personal case but I suspect for all of us; expanded horizons  as performers and, more important, as ourselves.