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People In Brick Houses Shouldn’t Throw Bricks.

The Real Story Of The Three Little Pigs

“Listen, I’ve come up with a plan. You know that guy who’s always bugging us? I know I’m tired of him always coming around and I know you two must be too, so I’ve figured out a way to take care of him.”

“You mean we’re gonna get him locked up?”

“No. We need something permanent. You know he’s been locked up before and in three or six months he’s out again, coming around and annoying everybody. The plan I have is to take him out for good.”

“You mean—“

“No!”

“Yes. That’s exactly what I mean. The guy’s a menace, a real menace, and it’s time we stepped up and took some real action to get rid of the son of a bitch.”

“That’s funny.”

“What?”

“Son of a bitch. Because he’s a—“

“All right! Enough kidding around! We need to get serious. Now here’s my plan. Mike, you need to build a house out of straw.”

“Why do I need to build a house out of straw? What’s wrong with the place where we live now?”

“Shut up! This is all part of a bigger plan. We can’t just take him out somewhere and rub him out. That would look bad. There’d be too many questions. It doesn’t matter that no one likes him. People would still be suspicious. And he wouldn’t fall for it. We have to be careful here. All right, Jeff, you need to build a house out of sticks.”

“Why sticks?”

“Because I’ve only got enough straw for one house, okay? And we’ve got sticks all over the place.”

“Why not build two places out of sticks then?”

“Because I’ve already got the straw! And here’s what we do. Mike, you wait in your straw house until he comes around.”

“How do we know he’ll come around?”

“He always does, doesn’t he? And when he comes around you knock the house down.”

“After I’ve gone to all the trouble to build it?”

“Yes! And then you act like he did it. Act all scared and run to Jeff’s stick house.”

“Yeah, I learned how to make a pretty good lean-to out of sticks when I was a kid.”

“I don’t care! Then when he comes around to Jeff’s stick house you knock it down too.”

“Sticks are heavy! What if they fall on us?”

“Use little sticks!”

“It’s not gonna be big enough for both of us if I use little sticks. Are you really sure you’ve thought this through?”

“It doesn’t have to be that big! Look, just hide behind it and kick it down from the outside. This doesn’t have to be that difficult. Now after you kick it down you run here, okay?”

“And we act scared.”

“Now you’re getting it. When you get here come in and lock the door. Then when Wolf comes knocking we’ll tell him the door is stuck or something and the only way in is through the chimney.”

“What about the windows?”

“Shut up! He won’t ask about the windows and if he does we’ll say they’re swelled shut or something. We’ll just keep telling him the only way in is to climb up on the roof and come in through the chimney. Eventually he’ll go up there and come down the chimney. We’ll have a nice big fire going.”

“What? Come on, Kevin, this is pretty serious, even for him. When you said you had a plan we thought maybe you’d make him move away or something. We didn’t think you meant—“

“How else did you think we were gonna get rid of him? Come on, the guy’s a huge hassle and he’s always going to be one. Jeff, remember that time he ‘borrowed’ your lawnmower?”

“Well you told him he could.”

“Shut up! I just told him where it was.”

“You know, I’m getting pretty tired of you telling us to—“

And Mike, remember the time you found him sleeping in your bed?”

“Well you let him in the house and then you went off and left him there alone.”

“Yeah, I had to go to court, remember? For that traffic thing where they said I was responsible but we all know the light was yellow when I went through the intersection. I was trying to be nice and just told him to make himself comfortable. I didn’t tell him he could sleep in your bed. He did that all on his own. The guy’s a menace. He bothers everybody, and he’s nothing but trouble. Don’t you agree we did something? Come on, guys, we’ve got a huge problem and we need to fix it once and for all.”

“Yeah, I agree.”

“Me too.”

EPILOGUE

“Hey, guys, thanks for having me over. Kinda warm for a fire, though, ain’t it?”

“We just thought it would be fun to fire up the grill.”

“Sure, sure, always a good way to make something tasty.” Wolf sniffed the air. “It’s really nice of you to invite me over for lunch. Speaking of that something smells pretty good there. What is it we’re having?”

Jeff and Mike exchanged looks.

“Ham.”

Coming To America.

Modern standup comedy originated in the United States but does that automatically mean that the U.S. produces the best standup? Comedy is such a subjective thing I’m not even sure that can be gauged. That’s what I thought about when I heard a This American Life story about French comedian Gad Elmaleh, whose birthday is today.

Elmaleh is incredibly famous in France. He plays to huge screaming crowds and has enjoyed great success and he’s left it all behind to come to America and do standup comedy in English. Why? This is how he explains it:

Because if you’re a great soccer player in America, you want to be with the Real de Madrid. You want to be with Barcelona. You want to be with Bayern de Munich. You want to be with Arsenal.

And it makes sense. My first thought on hearing that was that he was looking for an audience that understands and respects what he does. Standup comedy is still very new in France–what Elmaleh does is considered groundbreaking there. And then I realized there was something much subtler in his explanation. He’s got fame and respect in France. Doing standup in America isn’t necessarily going to earn him bigger audiences but, like an American soccer player joining Arsenal, he’s facing more competition, higher standards, and harsher critics. He had to get rid of most of his act because it just doesn’t work for American audiences. He’s not just learning how to work in a different language. He’s having to learn to do standup comedy all over again.

He hasn’t come to the United States in search of an audience. He’s come in search of a challenge. And I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that desire for a challenge is very common among standup comedians–that might be true of standup comedians no matter where they’re from. It just might be the one thing about comedy that’s universal.

Rights And Responsibilities.

Technically I’ve never been kicked off the bus. Like any rider I’m responsible for sticking to various rules: I’m not allowed to smoke on the bus (even if I smoked),

or play loud music (I prefer using earbuds to listen to podcasts),

or eat or drink,

although there seems to be quite a bit of flexibility on this last one, judging by the number of empty bottles, snack wrappers, packages, and other detritus I find on the bus. Once I sat down in the back and found a little pile of chicken bones resting on the windowsill, but that’s another story.

I say I’ve technically never been kicked off the bus because I was once ordered off the bus by a driver, but so were all the other riders. And this was not one of the usual situations. There was no emergency or anything wrong with the bus. Sometimes I have had to leave a bus because it broke down and we were all allowed to get on the next bus to come along and continue on our journey.

No, on this particular occasion the reason we were all thrown off the bus is because the driver would go about two blocks then pull over in the middle of the block and get out his cell phone. Bus drivers are supposed to keep their cell phones in a metal box at the front of the bus that blocks cell signals, but he was ignoring that rule. He also glanced at his cell phone while driving, ignoring the road ahead.

Someone finally complained about him pulling over. Instead of doing what he was supposed to he made us all get off the bus, which we did. The next bus wasn’t far behind, and in fact once we’d all flagged it down and boarded it went past him. I don’t know how long he stayed there playing with his cell phone.

In retrospect I wish we’d all gotten out our cell phones–which riders are allowed to use–and reported him. Just because he had a uniform and the keys to the bus, just because he was in a position of authority, doesn’t mean we had to do whatever he said. We had a right to expect a driver who would carry us safely, who would obey the rules. And since he wouldn’t do that we should have done what we could to hold him responsible.

 

Self-Made Stand-Up.

Source: WorldCat

A few years ago Charlie Murphy did a gig at Zanies Comedy Club in Nashville and I wanted to go. I don’t remember why I didn’t—it might have been that I was out of town, or it might have been that I only read about it after he’d come and gone. That still happens to me. I’ll pick up last week’s copy of The Nashville Scene and read about some event and think, hey, I’d like to go to that, oh, wait, it was yesterday, but that’s another story.

This was a few years after Chappelle’s Show and especially the Rick James episode made Charlie Murphy famous, and I wanted to see him do standup because as funny as I thought he was on the show I wanted to get past that. I wanted to know what else Charlie Murphy could do.

What else he could do included writing a memoir, The Making Of A Stand-Up Guy, that opens with this haunting statement:

Anyone who has given up will

never know just how close they

came to winning the game

And then in his introduction he talks about the challenges that came with his own fame, and says,

In order to steer clear of trouble in these new situations, I had to learn to ask myself, What would Rick James do? Then, if I knew what was good for me, I would just do the opposite.

Having a famous brother he must have also gotten some sense of both the benefits and pitfalls of fame, but he was determined to make his own way. And that’s what strikes me about Charlie Murphy: having a famous brother might have been a gateway to comedy, but he didn’t start doing stand-up until he was forty-two, and he was determined to make his own way. He was determined to find his own voice. In 2011, five years after the end of Chappelle’s Show and still working hard as a stand-up comic, Murphy did an interview for The Breakfast Club podcast. He talked about being booed recently at a small venue and said,

Every comedian does get booed and whenever it happens, you know, it’s your fault. Okay, you can never blame it on the audience. It’s your fault because as a comedian you’re supposed to be able to read what the situation is. And sometimes when you get booed even though it’s your fault that’s as far as it goes because you didn’t read it. It doesn’t mean that you wasn’t funny, it means that you didn’t read the situation and come with the right medication for the situation.

Unfortunately there was no medication that could beat back the leukemia that claimed his life at the age of fifty-seven, just fifteen years after he started in stand-up comedy, and I think about how I came so close to seeing him live.

Hail and farewell Charlie Murphy.

Art Is Therapy.

A college friend of mine majored in art therapy. Her dream was to be a full-time artist, but, as we all know, that would be an extremely difficult path with almost no chance of success, so she chose art therapy as a viable career option that she hoped would still allow her time to work on her own art. Just once I’d like to hear someone say, “You should take some art or photography classes, just in case that whole corporate accounting thing doesn’t work out,” but that’s another story.

While part of studying art therapy was psychology and even some medical training there were also art classes and critiques of her work. She had a painting of fish in a pond that was really amazing, with the water mostly transparent but just enough of a reflection of trees and sky that you could see it. I’d never before appreciated that while it can be difficult for a painter to capture what we can see it’s even tougher to capture what we can’t see. It’s one thing to capture bright colors and bold textures, but conveying a smooth, transparent surface is a whole other level.

A major art critic came to campus to look at students’ works and before he went in he made a short speech.

“Some mornings I want tomato juice for breakfast,” he said. “Some mornings I want orange juice. If you give me tomato juice on a morning when I want orange juice I won’t like it. It doesn’t matter if it’s good tomato juice. It doesn’t matter if it’s the best tomato juice in the world. I still won’t like it because what I want is orange juice.”

This was a very revealing statement to me. Of course art criticism is personal. It doesn’t matter how much you know about art. A critic who admits that their views are subjective, who is aware of their biases, is, in my admittedly biased opinion, the best kind of critic.

He looked at my friend’s painting and said, “Some people here are giving me tomato juice and some people are giving me orange juice. This is pineapple juice. It never matters how good it is. I hate pineapple juice.”

A critic who admits that their views are subjective and doesn’t care is, in my completely objective opinion, the worst kind of critic.

And even though it wasn’t directed at me I felt angry about what he’d said. I took it personally.

Because I liked the painting his comments were an indirect swipe at my judgment.

Several of us got together later to console my friend, but she didn’t need consoling. She was channeling her frustration into a whole new work, a weird sculpture built out of yarn and strips of copper. She called it Superman On LSD In The Middle of Mardi Gras.

If there hadn’t been a personal connection, if I hadn’t known her or how she was feeling when she made it, I might have seen it as tomato juice—and I hate tomato juice. Instead I looked at it fully aware that I couldn’t be objective but that was okay. I liked it. It made me happy, and that was therapeutic.

How ya like them pineapples?

The Emperor Of Ice Cream.

Spring is officially here. Summer may even be officially here, a lot earlier than usual, and I’m not just saying that because it’s been warm enough that I can go out in my bare feet. What really sealed the season for me was the first appearance of the ice cream truck in my neighborhood which I normally associate with summer but, hey, if the ice cream truck is going to come around this early then maybe it’s a spring thing too, and maybe that’s better because I’m always willing to spring for some ice cream. Yes I can go to the store and buy ice cream anytime, but there’s something special about getting it from the ice cream truck. I distinctly remember the first time I got ice cream from an ice cream truck, although technically it wasn’t ice cream. The truck came up our street, which was a cul-de-sac that had kids in more than half the houses, which so we were the proverbial fish in a barrel. In fact we were better than the proverbial fish in a barrel because the fish will keep swimming around whereas we were hooked as soon as the truck blaring “Do Your Ears Hang Low” or maybe something by Edvard Grieg came rolling up to us and we ran out into the street and didn’t care that we had bare feet because we all went barefoot so much we had feet like Hobbits, but that’s another story. I was still too young to read and my mother came out with me because I was also too young to have money, and I looked carefully at all the options, and when it was my turn I pointed to a picture of a big-nosed red and blue troll wearing a crown, because if there’s one thing kids love it’s the Troll King from Peer Gynt, and I said, “I want that kind please.” And an older kid sighed and said, “Duh, that’s a snow cone,” because older kids are jerks. So I didn’t actually get ice cream, I got a snow cone, which was the most disappointing experience of my life up to that point. Admittedly I was four so I hadn’t had a lot of disappointments, but if you’ve ever had a snow cone from an ice cream truck you know it’s basically just ice chips and colored water, although it did come in a neat little paper cone that had a picture of the Troll King on it that I enjoyed looking at until it dissolved and I was left with a runny mess of slightly sticky red and blue water.

And then I got older and could go to the ice cream truck by myself and use my own money, which was cool because I’m pretty sure that was the first time I could buy something by myself without my parents standing over me, and I’d always get a strawberry ice cream bar that I’m pretty sure had a picture of Solveig on its wrapper. It was also really interesting to me because I heard that in exotic places like New York you could call and order exotic foods like pizza and somebody would deliver it right to your home. We couldn’t get that, or maybe we just didn’t, but the ice cream truck was the next best thing. In fact it was even better because it was ice cream and you didn’t have to call anyone.

One day when a younger cousin from another state was staying with us the ice cream truck rolled up to the cul-de-sac and we went out to get ice cream. And my cousin said, “This is the same ice cream truck that comes to our house. He drives all around the world every day.”

I sighed and said, “No he doesn’t. There are different ice cream trucks in different places and no one can drive all around the world.” And then I told him there was no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny and that if his baby teeth didn’t fall out fast enough the Tooth Fairy would come into his room in the middle of the night with a pair of rusty pliers because, duh, older kids are jerks.

I feel really bad about that now and I feel like I’ve gotten some karmic comeuppance because when I heard the ice cream truck a few days ago I went springing after it but could only make it so far because I was in my bare feet and my feet, like the rest of me, have really gone soft. And there are no kids that I know on the street so the ice cream truck doesn’t stick around. So what I’m saying is, can I borrow anyone’s kids? I promise not to destroy their childish innocence even if they believe the same ice cream truck travels the world, but I will tell them the bitter truth if they ask for a snow cone.

 

Coke Heads.

This picture of several Doctor Pepper knockoffs is making the rounds of the web and is unattributed, although this particular version is pulled from BoingBoing.
Notably absent is Mr. Pibb although if you’ve tried the current version, Pibb Xtra, you know that leaving it out is an act of mercy because it is to Mr. Pibb what New Coke was to Coke, but only if New Coke had also been flavored with lemon, durian, and Borax.
New Coke was of course prompted by the devastating Cola Wars of the 1980’s, a conflict which had been brewing since the very early days when both Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola contained real cocaine and people were slipping on banana peels everywhere, prompting the very first anti-littering campaign and the slogan “Keep America Beautiful”, followed by the very first anti-loitering campaign and the slogan “Keep America Beautiful–Stay At Home”, but that’s another story.
Too often overlooked are some of the other great soft drink conflicts of the 20th Century, so here they are.
Lest we forget.

Pepsi Challenge 1975-1984

The Great Bare Knuckle Root Beer Brawl Of ’29

The Tang Altercation 1969-1973

The Nehi Conflict 1950-1954

The Great Fresca Fracas 1991

The Ascent Of Mountain Dew 1953

The Moxie Square-Off 1949-1951

Sun Drop v. RC Cola (Supreme Court Case, 1954)

The Shasta-Fanta Scrimmage 1984-1985

The Cheerwine And Big Red Ruckus (limited to Shakey’s Pizza parlors in the Midwest) 1973-1982

The Sarsaparilla Shoot-Out of Aught Seven

The Donnybrook of Shloer 1916-ongoing

Someone Else’s Two Cents.

Back in the old days when I first started riding buses you had to pay with exact change, which I thought was a terrible idea because it’s hard sometimes to have exact change, and also the bus driver really had to pay attention to make sure you were putting in the right amount of change, and bus drivers have enough on their minds with just driving the bus. Although it was kind of fun that time I dumped the exact change, all in pennies, into the fare collector. And there were a few times that someone got on and didn’t have exact change and would plead with other passengers and ask if anyone could break a five and I always felt guilty because if I had any change at all it was only exactly as much as I needed to get wherever I was going which I carefully sorted out before I left, but that’s another story.

Now you don’t have to have exact change. If you pay too much the driver can give you a card with your change on it that you can use for your next ride. You can’t really get any money back, you just get credit that you can only use on the bus. Back in the old days I remember getting gift certificates for bookstores and other places I liked and if I didn’t spend the full amount they’d give me exact change. Now you get a gift card and if you don’t use the exact amount then you end up paying them. Or you throw away the card with some unused money still on it, which is why I seem to find change cards all the time on the bus.

Needless to say I think it’s a terrible idea but I can’t think of what the alternative would be, although I’m more confused about how someone ended up with exactly two cents left on a card when all bus fares end in either five or zero. The fare collector doesn’t even take anything smaller than a nickel anymore. So obviously throwing away that fare card was a great idea.

Goodbye, Dummy.

In an episode of Tales From The Crypt, “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy”, Don Rickles plays a successful ventriloquist whose career was cut short by a terrible tragedy. After years out of the spotlight an aspiring ventriloquist, played by Bobcat Goldthwaite, asks him to come to a performance. After bombing Rickles tells him, “It wasn’t terrible. Okay, it was terrible. You had no technique, no material, no concentration, and you had no idea how to work the audience.” He then suggests that the younger performer consider another line of work. He seems genuinely pained as he says this, as though he really is speaking to an aspiring performer. Watching it I wonder if his performance came out of experience, if Rickles had to be so brutally honest to younger performers or if, when he was young, he’d been told he’d never make it as a comedian. If it were the latter maybe it would explain the origins of his act. Most comedians try to win audiences over. As the original insult comic Rickles was determined to make audiences hate him, and they loved him for it.

It helped that he so often punched up, going after the rich and famous–in particular Frank Sinatra, but other members of the Rat Pack too. When I was a kid I think my introduction to Rickles was hearing him say, “I don’t hate Sammy Davis Jr. because he’s black. I hate him because he’s a Jew.” He also punched down, too, going after minorities and calling out faults of audience members–he was an equal opportunity offender. It started as an accident, as he would say in interviews. One night, doing badly with prepared jokes, he insulted a man in the audience and got big laughs. And yet the insults were never meant to be real, never meant to hurt. As he says at the end of his album Hello Dummy,

“Will Rogers once said, ‘I never picked on a little guy, only big people.’ May I say to this entire audience, on a hectic night, you are pretty big and I do thank each and every one of you.”

And sometimes Rickles was on the receiving end which could be just as funny. Bob Newhart said they hung out together because “Someone has to be his friend.”

A lot has been written about the rise of stand-up comedy in the latter half of the 20th century, but where many of its innovators–Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce–and members of the generation before–Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, Red Skelton–get a lot of attention Don Rickles has barely rated a mention. Gerald Nachmann’s Seriously Funny: Rebel Comedians Of The Fifties And Sixties only describes Rickles as “professionally obnoxious”.

Now that he’s gone I hope he’ll get a fuller, fairer assessment as a comedian and a performer, someone who had technique, material, concentration, and knew how to work an audience, even when he wasn’t in front of an audience, acting on TV shows and in movies ranging from Kelly’s Heroes to the Toy Story films. To simply forget him would be an insult.

Hail and farewell Don Rickles, ya old hockey puck.

 

Hidden In Plain Sight.

Every artist wants their work to be seen, right? Actually if there’s one thing I’ve learned after years of studying art it’s that the one thing that’s true of art is there are no absolutes. There are artists who work in silence, who work only for themselves, creating works that may not be found until after their deaths—obvious examples being Van Gogh who only sold a couple of paintings in his lifetime and for the most part wasn’t trying to please anybody but himself, and Emily Dickinson who, although she tried to publish a handful of poems, did most of her work in private.

And at the other end of the spectrum there are artists who deliberately seek fame and attention; although this is largely a modern phenomenon there have probably always been artists who courted the rich and powerful, even if it meant doing the bidding of the king and his court.

One of the interesting things to me about graffiti is it seems to fall somewhere in between. Artists create works that are publicly visible but they’re usually very personal. Take this, for instance.

Yes, there are a lot of layers to “very personal” art. No artist, no matter how personal their art, is working in a vacuum. They’re influenced by other artists, by history, by the world around them, and by myriad other factors. Why’d you choose that design? It’s sort of what other people do. Why’d you choose that color? Maybe it was all that was available. In fact there have been fads for certain colors because they became available—blue began to appear more in 19th century Japanese prints, for instance, because of the discovery of a new blue pigment, but that’s another story. Every work of art represents a number of choices, but only some of those choices are deliberate on the artist’s part—there are also a lot that are made by circumstances.

To get back to my point about artists wanting their work to be seen, though, here’s a broader view of where that piece is located.

The work is pretty large and the artist deliberately placed it high on a building on Nashville’s Charlotte Avenue, which is a major street with lots of traffic. But it’s placed on the side of the building, facing a side street that most people won’t take unless they live in the neighborhood or take a wrong turn. And even then you really have to be standing in just the right spot to see it. One of the reasons I didn’t get a closer picture, aside from all the NO TRESPASSING signs and fences and some guy looking at me suspiciously, is I couldn’t see a way to get closer and still be able to see the work, aside from climbing up on the building, and maybe I should have asked that guy, “Hey, could you give me a leg up here, and maybe also a ladder?”

There are a lot of reasons the artist probably chose that exact spot—most of them not really choices but rather a matter of circumstances, but I like to think there was some intention there, that the answer to, “Why’d you choose that spot?” would be, “Because I wanted people to make an effort to see it.”

Now here’s an Emily Dickinson poem.

#930

The Poets light but Lamps —

Themselves — go out —

The Wicks they stimulate

If vital Light

Inhere as do the Suns —

Each Age a Lens

Disseminating their

Circumference —

 

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