Author Archive: Christopher Waldrop

Not Far From The Tree.

It’s not quite Fall in the northern hemisphere but already the days are noticeably shorter. The mating calls of the crickets, cicadas, and katydids are louder with the fierce urgency of the late season. The sky is more blue, the mornings are more crisp, or that just might be the drugs kicking in. Soon it will be harvest season. All these combined to prompt the following pop quiz: Apple variety of classic American burlesque performer?

1. Granny Smith

2. Lily St. Cyr

3. Beverly Hills

4. Birgit Bonnier

5. Mamie Van Doren

6. Royal Gala

7. D’Arcy Spice

8. Sally Rand

9. Carolina Red June

10. Chesty Morgan

11. Gypsy Rose Lee

12. Pacific Rose

13. Paula Red

14. Pink Lady

15. Yakety Sax

16. Ginger Gold

17. Golden Delicious

18. Ann Corio

19. Honeycrisp

20. Honey West

21. Kerry Pippin

22. Jayne Mansfield

23. Fanny Brice

24. Al Lewis

25. Roxbury Russet

Scoring:
1-5: Like the crickets, cicadas, and katydids your mating calls are louder at this time of year.

6-10: Cider? You hardly knew her!

10-15: Your tassels are showing.

15-20: You really like them apples.

20-25: You’ve spent more time in burlesque clubs than Morey Amsterdam.

Ordinary People.

Some critics complain that Neil Simon’s plays rely too much on jokes which, to me, is like complaining that Shakespeare’s plays rely too much on iambic pentameter. And Neil Simon started out as a comedy writer, along with his brother Danny, working on, among other things, Sid Caesar’s Your Show Of Shows in a writers’ room that also included Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner and I can’t begin to imagine what that was like.

His plays are generally romantic comedies, built on a style that can be traced back to ancient Greece and fairy tales–he once said his own life was “kind of a Cinderella story”–but he went beyond the traditional happy ending. Neil Simon was always interested in what happened after happily ever after. Barefoot In The Park, his second play and first big hit, picks up where most romantic comedies end, and his next and probably most famous play, The Odd Couple, centers around two divorced men. The funny thing, though, is that Oscar and Felix enter into kind of a marriage—when Oscar asks Felix to move in with him he even asks, “What do you want, a ring?” And then they end up going their separate ways, although they’ll always have the weekly poker game. Even in his later plays Simon keeps returning to the themes of divorce and how families break up or stay together. In the semi-autobiographical Lost In Yonkers it’s mostly seen from children’s perspective, reflecting how, when he was young, Simon’s father deserted the family for long periods and his mother took in boarders to pay the bills while sometimes sending her sons to live with relatives. Simon said, “The horror of those years was that I didn’t come from one broken home but five.” Escaping into comedy, starting with the films of Charlie Chaplin, was how he survived.

Even though comedies traditionally end on a happy note many of his plays, his best plays, have open or ambiguous endings. While he always affirmed the human desire to survive he also reminded us that after every ever after there’s another story, another beginning. His characters and plays realistic–only once does a character break the fourth wall and talk to the audience, in Jake’s Women–but he also wants them to find happiness and fulfillment, and they find it through laughter. He said, “I used to ask, ‘What is a funny situation?’ Now I ask, ‘What is a sad situation and how can I tell it humorously?'”

Here’s a better line, one that could be a philosophy for life: in Laughter On The 23rd Floor, a tribute to that old writers’ room, one of his characters says, “I knew then and there that if I was going to keep my job I’d have to become as totally crazy as the rest of them.”

Hail and farewell Neil Simon.

Home. Work.

Source: Wikipedia

There were a couple of kids on the bus doing homework and I felt a tinge of envy, not because they were doing homework which I’m glad I don’t hae to do, but because they get to ride the city bus. They must go to the school for the gifted which is downtown so if they ever want to cut class they have access to all the cool stuff in that area. And I kind of envy them being able to do their homework on the bus. I had to ride one of those dumb yellow buses where everybody was too busy throwing books to open one and besides the ride was never more than fifteen or twenty minutes, not enough time to finish any homework, although there was one time I tried. It wasn’t academic homework exactly. I’d gotten in trouble for something and had to do what we called write-offs even though they meant writing on and on and I got an extra hundred when I asked if I could deduct them from my taxes. You know the opening of every Simpsons episode where Bart has to write some phrase over and over on the chalkboard? I had to do those too, but not on the blackboard–I had to do it on sheets of notebook paper and it had to be done after, or before, school. What I had to write five hundred times on this particular occasion was I will never… or maybe it was I will always… which just shows how effective a learning tool forced repetition is, but that’s another story. And since I got them on Friday, which in retrospect seems like entrapment because I was excited about the weekend, I had two whole days to do them. So of course I waited until late Sunday night. I wasn’t too worried since I’d learned a trick from one of the Danny Dunn books: I wrote “I” all the way down the page then “will” all the way down the page and I quickly learned that Danny Dunn had led me astray and writing the same word over and over didn’t make write-offs go any faster. It didn’t matter how fast I worked, though–by bedtime I was short by about four-hundred and fifty lines. So on the bus the next morning I worked as hard and fast as I could and kept going while we were waiting for school to start, although the last three-hundred or so I filled in with ditto marks. I was nervous when I handed them in but my teacher just took them, looked at the number of sheets I’d given her, and threw them away. And that’s when I learned the most valuable lesson of all: not even teachers like having to deal with homework.

Building Up.

When I saw this graffiti decorating the wall along a stairwell I thought, wow, sometimes art and architecture really go hand-in-hand. And then I thought that was a pretty stupid thought because architecture is an art form–even the dullest, plainest building is thoughtfully designed. Any aesthetic enhancement is just icing on the cake. And what is cake without icing? Well, it’s still cake, but really wouldn’t you rather have cake with icing? Or you can have icing without cake, if that’s your thing, although I find that eating just icing gets old really fast. And don’t get me started on the question of whether it’s icing or frosting and what the difference is between the two. Whatever you put on your cake it’s usually served at room temperature so associating it with either ice or frost is kind of ridiculous, but that’s another story.

Anyway considering the confluence of art and architecture reminded me of the saying, “Writing about painting is like dancing about architecture.” There are a lot of variations on that saying which can be traced back at least as far as 1918, although more recently Elvis Costello said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture—it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.” With all due respect to Mr. Costello I’d really like to see some dancing about architecture.

Sometimes, though, I think it’s best to just step back and let a work of art speak for itself. A picture may be worth a thousand words but a thousand words don’t necessarily add up to a picture. That’s frustrating to me as a critic, even an amateur one, but sometimes all I can really do is just say, hey, that’s pretty amazing, ain’t it?

Cheers!

So the NFL has its first male cheerleaders, supporting the New Orleans Saints and the Los Angeles Rams–favorite team of Tom Being Tom— which I think is a fantastic thing. I’m all for gender equality and when the cold weather comes I believe the women who’ve worked so hard to become cheerleaders will appreciate that now they too can wear itchy polyester slacks and sweaters. It’s about time the NFL made this change. College football teams have had male cheerleaders since, well, at least as far back as the 1920’s—it wasn’t exclusively for women, especially back in the day when most colleges weren’t coed. And I feel like I was kind of an accidental trendsetter because I almost tried out for the cheerleading team when I went to McMurray Middle School from seventh to eighth grade. Granted it wasn’t intentional. In the first week of school there was an announcement made over the intercom that anyone who’d like to be a school “Spirit Booster” was welcome to sign up. I had no idea what a Spirit Booster was but it sounded like a fun thing. And my Scout troop used to compete with other troops in the area for something called the Troop Spirit Award, given out to the Scouts that had the most fun, and I was always up for a good time and found that getting my fellow Scouts to laugh and tell jokes and tunelessly sing stupid songs was a great way to get out of boring stuff like tying knots, digging latrines, or putting up tents so we could get out of the rain. Being a Spirit Booster also sounded vaguely theatrical and I was disappointed that my school didn’t have a drama club. MacMurray did have a stage at one end of the gym, but it was kept permanently curtained and never used. Even during the year-end ceremonies a microphone stand was set up in the middle of the gym floor. I still have no idea why the stage was never used but I think it was because the school principal believed Satan was behind anything theatrical. He was an extremely eccentric character—the principal, I mean, not Satan–named Aloysius Waddell. He was a hundred and eight years old, stood six-foot-six, and had to wear special lead shoes because he weighed only ninety-three pounds and a gentle breeze could knock him over. We’d only get glimpses of him in the afternoons when he stood at his office window watching us leave, his beady black eyes turning independently of each other, like a chameleon’s. I only got to see him up close once when I was sent to his office and walked in without knocking and found him pouring paint thinner into a coffee mug, which was a whole different kind of spirit boosting, but that’s another story.
Anyway I was the only boy who showed up for Spirit Booster tryouts and even though they were short a team member the teacher in charge informed me they didn’t have any itchy polyester slacks, only itchy polyester cheerleader’s outfits and even if I could pull off a miniskirt it would be better for everyone if I didn’t pull one on, and really I lost all interest when I learned that being a Spirit Booster meant I’d have to go to every football, basketball, and baseball game.
In ninth grade I went to Overton High School which was much bigger but still didn’t have a drama club, mostly, I think, because of a lack of budget and interest and, after seeing the school talent show, a lack of talent, so a friend suggested I try out for the cheerleading squad. So I did. He told me later he was kidding, but really the joke was on him because I made the team. Being a large school Overton had several cheerleader squads with a hierarchy: the first string were football cheerleaders, the second string were basketball cheerleaders, then baseball, and so on. I really boosted the spirits of the croquet club.

Roses Are Red, Buses Are…

The Nashville MTA has been undergoing some major changes lately, mostly cosmetic, although that’s still a pretty major undertaking. A new coat of paint still costs money. They’ve renovated the downtown bus depot–and even getting a bus depot back in 2008 was a big thing. Before that the main place to catch buses downtown was a row of shelters stretched out over a couple of blocks and if it rained you might be stuck outside. Anyway the Nashville MTA doesn’t even call itself the Nashville MTA anymore. It’s now We Go which seems kind of presumptuous because lots of people go.

The biggest change though is a set of new buses that are purple. Why purple? I don’t know, but I like it. I also wonder how long they’ll stay purple. Most Nashville buses, as in every city, are basically giant moving billboards. Some are completely covered with a single ad–even the windows. Most of them are advertising a couple of local law firms also known for their cheesy commercials and I’m not including any pictures of those because they’re not paying me to put their ad here, but that’s another story.

 

The inside of the buses are clean and shiny and new, which isn’t surprising. What is surprising are the seats. They’ve replaced the traditional burgundy upholstery with slick blue plastic.

Full frontal.

Full backal.

I’m no style critic but don’t purple and blue clash? Why not make the seats purple too, or maybe a nice contrasting orange? In more practical terms, though, I understand the plastic is less likely to hide stains of questionable provenance than the old carpet, but it also means my ass slides forward about five inches every time the bus judders to a stop. They’ve made all these changes and never thought seat belts might be a good idea.

Risky Business.

Several years ago my wife and I went to see Penn & Teller. At one point in the show Penn came out juggling flaming batons and everyone cheered. Then he put on safety glasses, made a wisecrack about OSHA regulations, cracked the bottoms off a couple of glass bottles, and started juggling those. I think a few people applauded politely and Penn explained that we should all be a lot more impressed. The batons, he explained, were made to be juggled–they were balanced–and if he grabbed the wrong end by mistake he could drop it quickly enough to only get a slight burn. Glass bottles, on the other hand, were never made to be thrown around and if he grabbed the wrong end, well, the first three rows would probably be sprayed with blood.

In short for those who didn’t know the physics of juggling the flaming batons really looked more impressive than they were and the broken bottles were more impressive than they looked. It’s something that can be true in other art forms too: knowledge of technique can make something that appears impressive seem a lot less so, and something that at first glance doesn’t seem all that great can actually demonstrate a surprising amount of skill. So should artists always take risks? All I can say is we all would have been really impressed if he’d come out juggling flaming broken bottles.

After the show both Penn and Teller came out to the lobby and stood around talking to people and signing autographs. I joined the big crowd around Penn and looked over and noticed there were only a couple of people around Teller. I wanted to go over to him but at the same time I didn’t. I think Teller’s a fascinating character–they both are, but I’m especially intrigued by Teller, especially after hearing him talk about how he developed a floating ball routine on an episode of This American Life–the podcast, so I was really just hearing a voice. He talks about how a trick has to be perfect, that any flaw is a risk no magician can take:

 I mean, magic is a fantastically meticulous form. You forgive other forms. A musician misses a note, moves on, fine. He’ll come to the conclusion of the piece. Magic is an on/off switch. Either it looks like a miracle or it’s stupid.

That night that we saw Penn & Teller perform I worried that speaking to him would have spoiled part of his illusion, but I wish I’d been willing to take that risk.

Life In The Sublurbs.

Book Blurbs Written About Blurb, My New Novel Written Entirely In The Form Of Book Blurbs:

“Stunning!”

-The New York Herald

“Incredible!”

-The Boston Spectator

“Thrill-seeking!”

-The Tuscon Citizen

“I couldn’t put it down!”

-Stilton Blue, The Seattle Scene

“Surprising!”

-The Leavenworth Leader

“Staggering!”

-The Breckenridge Post-Dispatch

“You’ll wonder where it’s going!”

-The Steamboat Springs Chronicle

“Leaves you wanting something!”

-The Ketchum Banner

“A novel idea for a book!”

-The Bismark Telegraph

“The novelty quickly wears thin!”

-The Sturgis Herald

“An unusual premise that keeps you turning the pages, hoping it will eventually develop into something!”

-Emmental Dickinson, The Bay Times (Omaha, NE)

“Not really a novel!”

-The Ontario Olympiad

“Like no other novel I’ve ever read!”

-Caerphilly Wells, The North Platte Telegraph

“I can’t believe this is a book!”

-Brie Rogers, The Davenport Mirror

“Why would someone do this?”

-The Duluth Star

“About three-hundred pages!”

-Bloodstone Publishing

“About three-hundred and forty grams!”

-Fynbo Shreeve, scientist

“I couldn’t pick it up!”

-Allen Walker, The Catchall

“Just keeps going!”

-Terry Cheshire, The Whitehorse Observer

“Completely messes with your head, and not in a good way!”

-Feta Hampton, The Telluride Post

“The most entertaining drivel I’ve read this year!”

-Red Windsor, The Winnipeg Inquirer

“We only publish reviews of academic non-fiction in the field of biology!”

-Nature

“I keep it next to the toilet!”

—S. Clemens, author of The American Claimant

“Floats well!”

-Boaters Digest

“Responsible for an outbreak of diphtheria!”

-Tiverton Tribune

“Reminiscent of Finnegan’s Wake, and by that I mean completely unreadable and people will only refer to it to sound pretentious!”

-The Ely Telegraph

“Makes you look at aardvarks in an entirely new way!”

-Annapolis Reader

“Opened up a trans-dimensional portal that I fell into and now can’t escape! Please send help!”

-Terry Weiss, The Marfa Bugler

“You might want to read it!”

-The Dorset Times-Picayune

“Potential best-seller.”

-Poughkeepsie Plain Tribune

Coming next year: the sequel, Disblurbing The Peace.

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