If I can raise the money by August 15th, I'm suing the pants off of this guy. Come on! It'll be fun.
If I can raise the money by August 15th, I'm suing the pants off of this guy. Come on! It'll be fun.
This is not a blog post about “EEEEEW! A SPIDER!” This is not a blog post about, “THIS BIT ME! WHAT IS IT?” This is a blog post about how wonderful my wife is.
About a year ago I noticed this spider building a web in the little track space at the base of the window just over our kitchen sink. At the time it was too small for me to get a decent picture of it, but it was big enough to catch my attention and hold my interest as I did the dishes and watched it for any sign of aggression. I called to my wife to ask her if she wanted me to kill it or take it outside, although I sort of hoped she wouldn’t because I had watched it for a few minutes by then and I had developed a small sort of affection for it. My wife shouted back, “It’s not an it. It’s a she. And leave her alone. She’s the kitchen spider.”
I said, “You’ve given her a name, haven’t you?”
She said, “She’s the kitchen spider. She doesn’t need a name.”
You cannot imagine how much I love this woman. It gives me great joy to share a home with her, two dogs and a kitchen spider.
Here is my winning performance at Write Club L.A. from a couple of weeks ago. I was to present a piece on the prompt "Destination" against the lovely Cricket Rumley who was to write on "journey."
The next WRITE CLUB L.A. is in TWO WEEKS!Posted by WRITE CLUB Los Angeles on Monday, June 29, 2015
As some of you may know, a few days a week I teach martial arts privately in a park in the San Fernando Valley. I get there early whenever I can so that I can do my asthmatically adjusted warmups unselfconsciously, stretch out, and then sit and meditate amongst the squirrels until my student arrives, thus creating something of an illusion that I am always there, that I am always at full flexibility and that I am never out of breath.
School is out for summer. Kids move through the park in matching day-camp tee shirts, herded by young adult counselors. Today, as I sat in stillness, I overheard the following exchange between a counselor and a small (six or seven year-old) boy whom I assume to be Nathan.
COUNSELOR: Straight lines! Straight lines!
COUNSELOR: Nathan. Straight lines! Let's go!
NATHAN: You will never . . . take . . . our . . . FREEEEDOOOOMMMMMM!
COUNSELOR: Nathan! Now!
NATHAN: (very softly) Fascist.
I think I love that kid. I think I might have been that kid.
A Tale of Two Jokes
“What do you call a black man flying a plane? A pilot you racist bastard!”
“What are three things a black man can’t get? A suntan, a tattoo, and a job.”
The first was from HBO’s “True Detective.” The second was from the Bernie Mac/Ashton Kutcher film Guess Who. Even though both jokes are about race, when Kutcher’s character told the latter, everyone at the table was extremely offended.
On the former, there was no outcry, because it said something important about race, the fact that when people hear a joke that starts with a question about a minority, the expectation is for the punchline to bigoted or denigrate the minority subject group.
Both of these came to mind today when I was listening to right wing talk radio (a masochistic hobby, to be sure) and thinking about Jerry Seinfeld’s recent comment about political correctness, a term that has been hijacked by the extreme right to the detriment of comedians who righteously rail against it.
The groundbreaking comedians who fought political correctness were going to jail because they challenged a certain status quo. This status quo told society how to dress and act and speak. It demanded total conformance and literally jailed people who did not.
Another thing about these nonconformists: they were a minority. They used words to empower themselves as well as other minorities. They called bullshit on the dominant power structure who were and continue to be generally full of shit. Selfish, greedy, racist, sexist, holier than thou, hypocritical bullshit artists.
To be those things was to be politically correct, a part of the problem. Recently, being politically correct has come to mean not being allowed to say racist and sexist things. And there is a huge difference in talking/joking about race, sexism, and homophobia and saying racist, sexist, and homophobic things.
Allow me to provide another example.
Racist Statement: “What’s up with all these niggers on welfare? Why can’t they just get a job?”
Statement About Race: “If you are on welfare, they call you a nigger. If you have a job, they call you a nigger with a job.”
There is a word in each statement that is not considered “politically correct.” However one statement is obviously racist and the other obviously not. If you say the second statement and people are upset, that is a PC problem. If you say the first statement and people are upset, you don’t get to hide behind political correctness because you are not being politically incorrect. You are being a racist.
Now this does not mean you should not be able to say the first thing. Say it all you want. Say it with a megaphone. Put it on your website. Get a tattoo of it across your forehead. If you are a comedian tour the country with that as your signature bit. But you don’t then get to complain and cry political correctness when people boo you or boycott your show.
There may be some people who ask, “Well, Mr. Smarty Pants PC man, how do we find the line? Are you saying we should censor ourselves? That will kill comedy!” My answer to that is simple. If you are a comedian and you honestly don’t know whether your material is about race or racist, about sexism or sexist, you should probably find a new line of work.
Also, you are free as a bird to be the racist/homophobic/sexist comic all day long. People will either buy tickets to your show or they won’t. You are even free to say how sad you are that people will not buy tickets to your racist/homophobic/sexist show because of political correctness.
But if you say that. If you say how horrible it is that you can’t call people fags or talk about how lazy Mexicans are because of a PC society, you are doing a disservice to those who came before you. To Lenny Bruce. To George Carlin. To Richard Pryor.I honestly don’t think Seinfeld was saying that. I like to think he was talking about the people who are offended because they do not want to think deeply about the material, the people who are afraid to confront their own biases and prejudices, and the bias and prejudices of society in general
What I do think is that we must embrace free speech but be always aware of those who may use it for an ulterior agenda. I am no fan of political correctness, in its original meaning. But when the power structure, the ones who say cut your hair and get a job and JayZ says the N-word but I can’t so that’s unfair are hiding behind a shield given to them by those whose very soul is anathema to that ideology, something has gone awry.
If we’re really honest with ourselves as a society – and I know we rarely are – Capitalism has developed into a sort of cultural sociopathy. We can pretend that corporations qualify as people because that allows them to spend money to affect politics, but that insidious self-deception falls apart when we start down the path of examining what it means in terms of personal responsibility, or personal accountability, or conscience. I happen to believe that personal responsibility, personal accountability and conscience are at the very heart of humanity and therefore more necessary to the definition of personhood than capital.
Even those most outspoken about the power of the invisible hand of the marketplace know that a level of disingenuous rhetoric is necessary for a business to thrive in a Capitalist environment. Look at the mission statement of any company, large or small, and then compare that to its actions. You will read something to the effect of, “Our mission at Brand X Airline is to provide a seamless and pleasant consumer experience, connecting the passion points of every community we serve. This serves as part of our commitment to our dual bottomline of Performance and People. Our ultimate Purpose is to connect people to what’s important in their lives.” You might find a corporate claim that, the mission of a supermarket is to bring the best and freshest food to the public in a clean and inviting atmosphere or that the goal of an insurance company is to provide security and protection for its clients. None of these mission statements is true and all of these mission statements prove to be false time and again as the customer service to which they pledge their focus is abandoned in favor of more profitable practices, cost-cutting at the expense of quality or client experience or safety. Regardless of the mission statement, ever-increasing profit is always the true mission and goes perpetually unstated.
In retail stores, employees compliment customers on how the clothes they might buy make them look. Salesmen impress upon them how beneficial the car under consideration will be for their careers, their families, their personal sense of well-being. They never, ever speak aloud the real motivation for their apparent interest, the desire to make the sale, to earn the commission or the paycheck. Producers and gallery owners speak of their desire to bring worthy artists to the public eye while actually trying to increase the price of the product with which those artists provide them; meanwhile artists must create the sense that they love what they do so much that they would do it for free while not allowing advantage to be taken of them by those willing to take them at their word.
From the bottom rung of the economic ladder to the uppermost echelons of the corporate hierarchy, money becomes the subtextual impetus while human compassion and service receive constant lip-service. This reflects the very nature of individual sociopathy: the ability to present a charming, caring, emotional façade while calculating for personal gain.
The United States is a Capitalist nation. Before it is a Democratic Nation, it is a Capitalist Nation. We tend not to notice this, largely because Capitalism has been pushed so deep into the subtext of all discussion. By conflating other economic models with unappealing structures of governance such as fascism or totalitarianism, the possibility of revolutionary economic discussion has been nearly entirely forestalled. When grade school teachers compared the benefits of Democracy to the threat of Communism, as they did throughout the years of the cold war, any critique of Capitalism came to be perceived as an assault on Democratic principles. This distorted belief that our political structure could be favorably compared to a foreign economic model persisted generationally as children grew up internalizing by osmosis a wholly false dichotomy.
Thus, even as increasingly unregulated Capitalism leads us deeper into economic disparity, back toward a neo-feudal system of limited inherited wealth and a legacy of widespread perpetual poverty, we deny ourselves the very language we might use to intelligently discuss the issue. We cannot discuss whether we might prefer governance whose mission is to benefit the community, or the society, rather than to serve capital because to do so seems an assault on Democracy itself. To speak of an alternative to Capitalism can be perceived only as a call for some sort of Dictatorial Oligarchy. That Socialism functions well in many European countries, that the people of those countries benefit from expanded social services and live happy, healthy lives in peace and freedom cannot penetrate the zeitgeist of a Capitalist nation unless that nation has the language, the intellect and the education that allows it to see past its automatic inference that Socialism is vaguely evil and was a word once used by Nazis and the USSR. Any attempt to create not only equal opportunity for all citizens but also to value all citizens equally cannot be fairly considered until we can do away with the threat that such thoughts will be deemed Communist and therefore equated automatically with the repressive regimes of China and North Korea.
The ability to present an acceptable demeanor, a pretense of humanity while acting out of unconscionable motives is sociopathy. After decades of war justified by lies, it becomes apparent that sociopathy has lapsed in true, murderous psychosis. We have so lost our way that we, as a nation, kill people and believe that it is justified, that it is right, that it is good. Almost nobody would say that the best foreign policy is to kill tens of thousands of people every year. Almost nobody would say that peace is bad or that it can be achieved through a permanent state or violent conflict. Yet these are the policies we maintain, these are the tactics we employ and they seem to make sense when the rhetoric says this is the way to freedom and security and the true motivation, the profitability of it all to the weapons manufacturers, the oil industry, the military and its contractors and so on is buried under seemingly benign mission statements about “the development, manufacture and marketing of innovative products of the highest quality for demanding applications in the commercial, law enforcement and defense markets with value-added solutions derived from a thorough understanding of our customers' needs and aspirations.”
It is my hope that someday I may live in a healthy America. I do not care if it is Capitalist or Communist or Socialist. I do not care whether it is structured as a Democracy, or a Republic, or a limited Representative Democracy (which, by the way, is what we have now). What matters to me is that the values of my nation be driven by conscience, not by profit. I want America to become a country whose mission statement aligns with its actual mission.
Tonight I attended Troy Conrad’s SET LIST show (produced by Paul Provenza) at the IMPROV on Melrose. At some point I should write a whole piece on SET LIST, how brilliant it is as a structure, how much I enjoy doing it and how I fear that by being at the very first experimental play-around-with-the-idea version of it, I may have doomed myself forever to being on Mr. Conrad’s B-list of performers. Not right now though.
Right now I write only of the genius of Eliza Skinner, singer, comedian and improviseur extraordinaire who blew my mind tonight with a combination of talent, professionalism and artistic integrity under the most difficult of circumstances.
Let me set the stage a bit for you. SET LIST forces stand-up comics to improvise stand-up material on a series of goofy topics shown to them in real time at the same time as they are shown to the audience. A huge projection will show up on the wall behind Emo Phillips that says, “CLOWN PROTUBERANCE” and he is expected to go into a routine as though that was the prompt he would have written for himself on his set list when planning what to do for the evening. Once he’s mined it for what laughs he can find, he turns back to the projection to find that the next thing on his never-before-seen set list is, say, “THE PYTHAGOREAN CONSPIRACY THEOREM,” and off he goes on that one. It’s incredibly difficult, great fun to watch, both terrifying and great fun to do and wholly dependent on performers who are experienced enough and comfortable enough with their own comedic voices to be willing to jump off a ridiculous cliff and trust themselves to find wings.
Eliza Skinner takes it a step further. Using a pianist on stage and occasionally drum beats and hip-hop loops played by the same tech guys who show the topic slides, she handles each of the absurd set-list topics as the subject of a wholly improvised song. She does it brilliantly. When she stumbles, it is in the blurring of syllables to make up for an imperfect scansion or a doubling of lines to get to a rhyme that blows the A-B-A-B structure she has set up for a verse or what have you. To an audience it is barely perceptible. To the eye of a fellow improviseur it is often indiscernible unless one notices the flash of disappointment she has in herself. She does the impossible and when she does it with minor imperfections she considers it a small failure. She’s that kind of good.
Tonight, for her big closer, Troy announced from off stage that she would be joined on stage by aging pretty-boy comic and former premium cable celebrity actor Hal Sparks for a duet. Hal had performed earlier in the evening and had done a perfectly serviceable set and he brims with confidence. He joined her on stage and the topic given them for this closing number was “NICE GUY EXTINCTION BALLAD.” Avery, the wonderful pianist set a progression and Eliza began to set up a premise and a song structure. After just one or two establishing lines from Elize, questioning whether there are any nice guys at all anymore, Hal interrupted her flow, denying her premise and declaring himself a nice guy.
She managed to hold her track despite the denial of her premise (an improvisational error of the highest order) to set up the song. Failing to spot the many gifts she had handed him in laying the groundwork for an on-topic song, Hal reversed his original position (that he was a nice guy) and created a verse about how women prefer pricks.
Eliza rankled. This is where she began proving how amazing she really is.
Eliza Skinner maintained song structure, maintained melody and scan and rhyme as she took issue with the sentiment expressed. She sang her disagreement.
Her control of technique and construction was so powerful, so elegant that even as Sparks responded in un-rhymed, half-scanned, sung conversation, it seemed as though they were working together at the creation of a duet. The audience began to respond enthusiastically.
Oblivious to how unsuccessfully he was dealing with the exercise, Sparks became increasingly sexist, increasingly vulgar and increasingly offensive to anyone with any sense of feminist decency. He became a self-serving, self-certain lothario. Eliza, in the moment, angry, now working with a man who had become, in essence, a heckling sexual harasser with a microphone, sang that she would rather be alone than be with anyone like him. She sang her disagreement, her disdain and ultimately her dismissal of him. She sang of his incompetence at the thing that she does well and his intellectual dishonesty. She did it all so organically, so flawlessly that when Hal began trying to sing over her in bursts of defensive semi-lyric it seemed to be a battle-of-the-sexes show tune.
When Skinner left the stage, Sparks remained, not knowing he had lost. He tried to talk to her, self-congratulatory and certain they had been great together; she did not want to engage him. Her anger was real. Her anger was righteous. She felt her set had gone badly.
I understand why. What should have been a cooperative effort had turned into a battle and her opponent had been too self-absorbed to even realize it – a living metaphor if ever there was one for the very struggle women endure on a daily basis. She could not be certain in that moment that she had been the clear victor because she had been insulted, hurt, sung over and treated poorly. In the vulnerability of performance, especially improvisational performance, one becomes the object of other people’s experience and rarely has a moment to be the subject of one’s own. When those moments happen, the performer is left entirely at the mercy of the audience to tell them how it went, who they were during those moments. It is a discomfiting sensation. Unnerving at best, terrifying at worst.
Eliza Skinner proved tonight who she is. Eliza Skinner rocks. In the most difficult of circumstances, in a situation that literally shows up in the nightmares of performers – without a script, on stage, working with an out-of-control partner – she owned her talent, remained fully present, allowed her emotional life and her organic responses to guide her actions and proved that improvisational comedy can be powerful, theatrical art.
That she doubts herself, that she is dissatisfied at times with what she does tells me that she will continue to grow, to refine, to develop. Man, I hope to get to see her perform a lot more as she does. She is a force to be reckoned with and, despite my certainty that I should be booked for the show more often than I am, to tell the truth when I watch her work, I feel like a B-lister at best.
 My characterization, not his actual intro credits
It seems there are so many threads to pull together for this piece to make any sense at all that I will never be able to slow the thoughts enough to convey the layers. Did I mention that this post is pot related?
First thing you have to understand is that I smoked pot every day of my life from the time I was fourteen to the time I was 34. I have said often that I was stoned out of my mind for twenty years and couldn’t figure out why my career was not taking off. Apparently some of the time even I’m not listening when I talk about myself.
In ‘98 I quit smoking pot and over the course of the next ten years I was diligent about saying, “No thanks, I’ve quit,” aloud whenever an offer was made as a means of reinforcing the idea in my own mind. Also, I had taken up Martial Arts training as a new way of fighting my depression and I was using that identity marker in lieu of the angry-stone-rebel thing I had been doing since high school.
Then, about six or seven years ago I was at a party celebrating an important milestone for a story telling show that I had become heavily involved in. One of the people who created that show had moved on to much bigger things, television staff writing, heading up writing departments and so on. I wanted to meet and impress her. As I was realizing that social anxiety was getting a hold of me, I started to make a round of party good nights and was waved over by a good friend, a successful famous comic whom I know. I told him I was leaving. He suggested that I stay. He introduced me to the very woman I had hoped to meet as a pipe slipped from his fingers to mine. I took a hit, thrilled to be at the cool kids’ table. And a few seconds later I blacked out in a bush. Three times. Because I used to be a comic.
The next day I went to the doctor about this. He said, “Some people can have a vasovagal reaction to pot. It makes them faint.”
I said, “But I used to smoke all day every day! I once had a dealer tell me ought to cut back a little bit.”
He said, “Yeah. I’ll bet there are a lot of things you used to be able to do that you can’t do anymore.”
A few months later I contacted the woman I had wanted to meet at that party and she agreed to lunch with me. We talked about the business. She asked me to do some free punch up on some scripts as a way of checking out my work. We’ve remained cordial and friendly over the years. She’s never hired me. I can’t really say that I blame her. The first time she met me, I melted into the nearby foliage. This is not the impression one wishes to make on those who can use you for regular, get-dressed-and-go-to-a-place-to-work kind of jobs.
About six months ago I went back into therapy to figure out how the hell I keep managing to sabotage my career. I get things going, it feels like there’s momentum and then I somehow manage to prevent myself from breaking through to any level of real success or – you know – making a steady living.
Now, the only therapy my insurance program covers is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. If you’re not familiar with the various forms of therapy, if Freudian Therapy is Kodály approach to musical technique, and Jungian Depth Analysis is the Suzuki system then Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is sort of like Professor Harold Hill’s Think System from The Music Man.
But my therapist likes to be part of the solution not part of the problem. So, while the insurance people say, “Take him for six weeks, find out what he’s thinking about when he gets sad and tell him to stop thinking about that,” she doesn’t hesitate to say, “Yeah. You know what? He could use another six weeks of reminders.” Then she and I can continue to do the actual therapeutic work at hand.
Now, there’s another show in town, another ultra-hip, high-end show that’s been around for a long-ass time and where I’ve never gotten to play. For years this has been a point of frustration for me, a feeling that the woman who runs it, a woman I like and respect didn’t think I was good enough or cool enough to play with her and her friends.
It only occurs to me now that in the days when I was stoned all the time, I may have behaved in any number of inappropriate ways that I failed to store in any of my swiss-cheesy drug-addled memory banks. I have literally no way of knowing.
A few months ago she finally tried to book me for a night that I was already booked elsewhere so I had to turn it down. Then finally she booked me for a gig and I was able to take the gig and plan to do her show next week.
This week I went to her show to be supportive and to see a couple of good friends perform. It was incredibly exciting to feel like I was finally considered a part of the group I think of as my peers.
I am so very excited to be a part of this show; I am goofily puppy-dog eager. I am also neurotically punctual and trust neither my navigation skills nor the cooperation of Los Angeles traffic. So I left my home early in jacket and tie. I arrived at a strip mall within walking distance of the venue. I parked. I realized it was still an hour and a half until showtime. I downloaded the latest issue of Lapham’s Quarterly to read while I waited.
After a while a couple of comics I’ve known for a long time showed up. I joined them. A friend offered me a hit of pot. I checked my neodapper, steam-punk pocket watch (a Galaxy S4 on a watch chain, my current affectation of choice) and found that I had at least a forty-five minutes before the start of the show I was here to see. I said, “Sure” and took the hit.
I think I stood up after a while to head inside, but I’m not certain of that. I know that I swam back from a parallel reality to realize that I was lying on the pavement with my friends standing over me, helping me up. I had cut my head a bit on the pavement and was bleeding some. At some point, somebody called the paramedics. I remember wondering if I should call my wife for moral support or my manager for damage control. I think I may have blacked out a second time for a moment or two, ‘cause there’s some vague time in there.
That happens when you’re rendered suddenly unconscious. I know this because, as a martial artist, I competed in full contact tournaments for a while very badly. In fairness to me, most of my losses were to twenty-somethings who spun around and spiraled up into the air to kick me in the head while I, in my forties, lumbered about the ring like a tranquilized bear. I digress.
Paramedics came and took my blood pressure and asked if I wanted to go to the hospital. I said, “No thank you. I’m not going to hospital ‘cause I took a hit of pot and had a vasovagal reaction.”
And they said, “Well, sign this electronic, Captain Kirk clipboard acknowledging that you are aware that you could die,” as if that’s not something I’m aware of every day of my life already.
They went away and I went in to watch the show. An amazing show, by the way. Those who performed were spectacular. I feel largely like an ass for being a center of attention for a bit before the show.
Now: I was a embarrassed and humiliated in a way that turned part of me introspective AND I’d had a hit of pot good enough to make me black out. So even as I watched the show and turned some of my focus outward and laughed at some great work by some of my most genius peers, I was peeling back the layers of the experience.
Cognitive therapy is all about identifying behaviors and changing them, rather than figuring out the root causes of our issues or telling and retelling our stories. I mock it as an approach, but there’s something sort of down-home sensible about it and, after all, the band does perform at the end of the Music Man.
I’m in therapy to find out how I’ve been sabotaging my career. For twenty years I smoked pot and couldn’t figure out why my career wasn’t taking off. Now TWICE I had gotten involved in shows run by people I very much wanted to impress and the moment I felt I had been invited to the cool kids' table, I had taken a hit of pot and fallen down. The reasons can be sussed out later. Clearly the behavior has to change. I must not ever smoke pot any more at all.
That both of the people I most wanted to impress were smart, talented, beautiful women is an important detail to be dealt with in therapy as well, but is not, I think, pertinent to the particular aspects of this story I seek to highlight here.
The clarity of the realization that my pot smoking days must be declared forever and officially over was painful. The pattern of drug use as self-sabotage seemed troublingly human and sad and so, so very obvious. All the layers unfolded in front of me like onion petals once the skin is peeled away; the stench of my frailty stung so badly I wanted to cry.
The show ended and I had to get to my car. I was wholly sober now, running through the night’s events with my rekindled, resettling intellect. I blasted Butch Walker and allowed myself to be alone with my thoughts, to give them words and texture examine the nuances.
I knew I would have to write it all out as a blog post. My wife would be asleep by the time I got home. She has to get to work in the morning and there is no possible way she would appreciate me waking her up and saying, “Honey! Honey! Honey! I took a hit of pot tonight and now I understand everything!”