Tuesday, August 22, 2017

"And Then This Happened"

Driving home after dinner out, we passed “Hotchkiss Park”, a small, “no frills” public area, located half a block from our house.  As we drove by, we noticed a passel of police cars parked by the curb, a flock of local news helicopters fluttering noisily overhead, and an encircling strip of yellow “Police” tape, prohibiting entry to the park, which I knew from Law & Order meant “Crime Scene.”

All signals suggested “Police Trouble” a thirty-second walk from our house.  Less, if you were dashing away from “Police Trouble.”

Being curious fact seekers – rather than nosey busybodies; there’s a difference – we parked the car in the garage and walked back to Hotchkiss Park, to pick up the scuttlebutt.

There, we learned – from other curious fact seekers – that there had been a shootout between Santa Monica police officers and a gun-wielding assailant, the assailant having been been wounded and taken to a nearby hospital for treatment.

“Did you hear the shots?” I inquired of a tall young man standing on a skateboard, which made him appear even taller.

“Yeah,” he replied earnestly.  “I was headed toward the park and I heard, “Pop!  Pop!  Pop!”

That’s exactly how he described it – “Pop!  Pop!  Pop!” 

“And you knew right away it was gunfire?” I followed up, asking a question, revealing that I grew up in a country where people generally wouldn’t.

In the distance, a group of Santa Monica police officers huddled under a large tree in the park.

I have to stop for a moment, for a meaningful digression.

Six years ago this coming September 3rd, my daughter Anna and her husband Colby were married by the exact tree the Santa Monica police officers were currently huddled under.

Hotchkiss Park is a casual operation.  We did not – and could not if we wanted to and we didn’t – “reserve” it exclusively for the wedding.  Meaning, the park was fully functional throughout the service.  As the ceremony proceeded, our guests seated in provided folding chairs in front of the large tree, nearby Frisbees flew through the air, walked dogs quietly “did their business”, and children somersaulted down the park’s undulating terrain. 

It was that kind of a place. 

It was that kind of wedding.

And now, back to the “Crime Scene.”

Finding nothing of great interest going on, we returned home, where we immediately turned on the local TV channels, to see if they if there was anything  about the shooting.  There was nothing immediate, the local stations airing uninterrupted reruns of Two Broke Girls. 

Later that night, during the local stations’ scheduled news reports – there was still nothing.  The event was apparently not sufficiently “newsworthy.”  Although a presidential “tweet” absorbed six minutes of airtime.

The next morning, Dr. M, who habitually rises before me, discovered a brief “mention” on a morning news broadcast, along with filled-in information, that made things considerably more tragic.

Apparently, there’d been a violent altercation between two transient people on Main Street, two blocks west of the park, during which one transient produced a gun and shot the other transient dead.  The Santa Monica police was subsequently alerted, they pursued the alleged murderer into Hotchkiss Park, where there was an exchange of gunfire, and the wounded assailant was then taken to the hospital and, imaginably later, into custody.

So that’s the whole story.  There’d been a murder two blocks from our house and an ensuing gun battle right down the street.

Recalling personal memories, such as…

Just over a month after I first arrived to live in Los Angeles, while watching a “Breaking Report” on the local news, I witnessed members of the Los Angeles police department’s “SWAT Team” in full “Riot” regalia setting fire to a house with six people inside it, burning all its inhabitants to death.  The victims were members of the subversive “Symbionese Liberation Army”, an organization that had previously kidnapped Patty Hearst, who, had she not at the time been out shopping, would have been burned to death as well, during the hours-long siege and subsequent mass immolation.

A new arrival to America.  And I watched that on TV.

A little over a year later, I showed up at work on a new sitcom called Phyllis, where I was informed that one of the show’s actors had been gunned down in the street along with her boyfriend the night before, a “drive by” double-murder that, to this day, has never been solved.

1992 – a city in flames, during the L.A. riots, helmeted National Guards personnel, patrolling with tanks and machine guns in Venice, a neighborhood community, just south of our own.

That’s the city I live in. 

Overwhelmingly for “better.”

But sometimes – too often for my liking,

For worse.

The next morning, after a walk by the ocean, I dropped in on the now reopened Hotchkiss Park, to see, I don’t know, whatever.  Blood?  Expended shell casings? 

No.  I was concerned about something else.

A large tree had once hosted my daughter’s wedding.  More recently, however, it had hosted a gunfight.  Would the memory of our family simcha (celebration) be irreparably supplanted, I wondered, overshadowed by a fusillade of bullets?

I needed to find out if anything had changed.

In the park, a man with a dog checked his messages on his iPhone..  A cross-legged man silently meditated, facing the calming serenity of the ocean.  A young mother pushed her infant baby in a stroller.  A fully encased homeless person slept protectively under a canvas tarpaulin.

I felt satisfyingly relieved.  It felt like “business as usual” at Hotchkiss Park.

Where just the evening before, it was

“Pop!  Pop!  Pop!”
----------------------------------------------------
Birthday greetings to brother Hart, the funniest person you have never met.  Who could wipe the floor with people you have.  Without him, there is no me, which is the least of his accomplishments, although it is one of my favorites.

Best wishes, Big Brother.  

With lifelong appreciation from me.

I am sorry our Mother brought me home from the hospital.  But where else was she going to take me?

Monday, August 21, 2017

"King of the Yees (It's A Chinese Surname, Computer, So Stop Underlining It In Red)"

As I have mentioned before – and actually recently demonstrated – I love seeing something other people have done that I would have done had I been them but I didn’t because I’m not.  Still, I feel peripherally vindicated.  Somebody on “my team” got it out there, and it worked.  It’s like they “won one for the Gipper”, and I’m the Gipper.  End of possibly unnecessary italicized foreword.)  (Still listening to the Eddie Izzard audiobook.)

This opening bit is a little complicated, but I know you can handle it. 

I believe in you.  (Though that may have emerged snootily insincere – maybe because I am embarrassed to say it – I actually do.)

Okay.  Enough flattering the readers.

When I read L.A. Times theater critic F. Kathleen Foley’s opening paragraph, reviewing a play entitled King of the Yees, that opening paragraph being,

“Lauren Yee’s play starts out straightforwardly enough:  An actress playing Yee is rehearsing the play with an actor portraying the playwright’s father, Larry Yee.  Suddenly, the “real” Larry Yee arrives at the theater, full of enthusiasm and unwelcome suggestions.  The “real” playwright Lauren Yee can barely contain her irritation at the interruption.

I said, “This play is for me.”

Why?

Because I knew this would be not realistic drama.  It would instead be allegorical hi-jinx, making a point that, if conveyed realistically, would have immediately put me to sleep.  And because it wasn’t, as I knew it wouldn’t be, it didn’t.  Instead, it was really fun to see.

Coming at it from a unique angle, tackling a serious issue playfully though still insightfully – that’s what I shoot for here, when I am not chronicling my struggles getting a new “Registration Certificate” for my beloved “Salvage” car. 

A minor confession.  (And therefore, no capitals):  Last Friday, I wrote a post about a guy with the ability to balance a kidney bean on the end of his nose, worryingly wondering why he was not the best in that subgenre of entertainment, who now considers for the first time in his life whether his limitations are perhaps not the result of inherent character limitations but result instead from his, albeit impressive, not top-of-the-line natural ability.  I had been thinking about that idea for some time, but it was only when that structural strategy finally surfaced in my brain that I was able to tell that story in a way I felt would be less complainy, pedantic and personally embarrassing.  Playwright Lauren Yee, an unbelievable… wait, let me do this outside of the brackets.  This is (feeling suddenly claustrophobic)… just too constricting.

That’s better.

Playwright Lauren Yee – as opposed to “The actress who portrays Lauren Yee in the play” and “The actress portraying who is supposed to be the actual playwright Lauren Yee” – who is amazingly twenty-one years old – not the two actresses, the actual playwright Lauren Yee – wanted to explore the decline of the traditional San Francisco Chinatown cultural order, as well as her secularized alienation from that culture. 

It would appear that, realizing how clichéd and overly familiar a play of that that nature written in a traditional dramatic format would come off, Lauren concocted an original “fun-house mirror” construction, covering the same narrative terrain. 

Yee came up with a play that is enjoyable, moving and insightful.  (If not deeply insightful.  She’s 21.  When I was 21, my most penetrating insight was that I wasn’t a lawyer.  And I needed a psychiatric social worker to pry that out of me.)

“You’re like your father, but different” is hardly an “Oh, wow!” illumination.  But imagine having to slog through two acts of ponderous psychodrama to reach the same climactic conclusion. 

Instead, the examination of racial identity involves – picking examples from the play at random, though not really “at random” because they are the ones I liked best:

“The actress playing Lauren Yee in the play” admits to “The actor portraying Larry Yee in the play” that she’s not really Chinese; she’s Korean.  To which “The actor portraying Larry Yee in the play” confesses he is only 75 percent Chinese, and 25 percent Irish.  The Chinese-Irish actor then tutors the Korean-passing-as-Chinese actress in the way to correctly pronounce the word “Chi-nese.”

“The actress playing Lauren Yee in the play” then goes on to reveal a painful, early personal experience of her mother committing suicide, and then herself being adopted, remembering a plaintive song her late mother sang to her when she was an infant, which she then sings.  When she is finishes, “The actor portraying Larry Yee in the play” explains,

“That’s Miss Saigon.”

My favorite moment in the production – in which two disparate cultural rituals are hilariously smooshed together – is the sequence wherein Lauren, now heavily immersed in Chinese folkways, participates in a traditional dance routine with an older woman and lion-costumed celebrant and the older woman suddenly produces an empty liquor bottle, sticks it on top of the lion-costumed celebrant’s head and the three of them, with appropriate musical accompaniment, proceed immediately into the iconic “Bottle Dance” from Fiddler on the Roof.

Sometimes, it feels as if Lauren Yee has adopted a Second City improvisational approach, “bits” and fragments flying imaginatively in from every direction, not gratuitously but demonstrably making a point, as, in the latter example, showing that, Chinese or Jewish – “Tradi-tion!” is an enduring visceral component.      

You cannot always – or more than once even – parody the dramatic expectations of a play while you are writing one at the same time – that would get old really fast and you’d be pigeonholed as the “play-parody-writing person” rather than an actual playwright.  Neophyte Lauren Yee took her shot at that specialized target. 


And nailed pretty much dead center.

Friday, August 18, 2017

"Making Your Point (But Missing The Moment)"

Because I’m a pessimist. 

(Note:  In lieu of diminishing the print size of those words – which I do not how to do – please read them as if they were substantially smaller.  An unreadable confession:  The closest thing to no confession at all.)

Pessimists are what optimists call realists. 

… is what I truly believe.

If pessimists were to label themselves, they would say,

“It is a complicated concept, unlikely to receive a full accurate characterization.”

That’s why nobody likes pessimists – they take too long to say everything.  And their answers, although on the money, are generically unsatisfying.  “Go, Team, Go!” is exponentially more inspiring than, “Are you sure you are calling the right play?”  (Although inarguably less clichéd.)  

For provable evidence of “successful pessimism”, it is functionally impossible to point to the stack of mistaken decisions that were not carried out because cooler heads, thankfully, ultimately prevailed.  On the other hand, the proactive “Let’s just go for it!” mentality has given us the Panama Canal, a man walking on a moon

and a malevolent Stink Bomb in the White House.  (“Two out of three”, optimists would crow, ignoring planetarially imperiling President “Three.”  Anyway, enough of that electoral college faux pas.)

A Meaningless Matter of Transitory Consequence:

The Los Angeles Dodgers

A team that, as of this writing, won 85 games this year, while losing a miniscule 34.

My assiduous research – which involves picking up the sports section of the newspaper and looking at the standings – indicates that the next highest division leader in all of baseball, the Houston Astros, has 74 victories (and 46 losses.) 

The Dodgers are undeniably red hot.

They are, in fact, very close to having the best seasonal record in the history of the game!  Going back to the Civil War era, when they played baseball with cannon balls,  contests that were inevitably curtailed on account of explosions.
Returning from whimsical frivolity, the 2017 Los Angeles Dodgers are, by all measurable standards, really, really good.

What practically is the committed pessimist to do with this sunshiny scenario, what partisan pessimists might refer to as “The Difficult Times”?

The pessimist looks – or more accurately, their natural proclivity directs them – towards the proverbial “worm in the apple”, in search of what might identifiably be “wrong” in a seemingly glistening sea of impenetrable “right.”

Which is exactly what I did.

I do not have the exact statistics on this but my experiential sense from watching a lot of Dodgers baseball this year is that, in a remarkable number of games the Dodgers have been behind in the late innings – sometimes up to the last at-bat, where failure to deliver meant winding up losers – and have instead thrillingly rallied to win.

Everyone’s excited about that – a team heroically “coming through in the clutch.”  Call them “The Miracle Dodgers.”  A team that never says “Die.”

It is in that ostensible “Pure Positive” that I unearth a demonstrable concern.

If, it occurs to me – because I am a natural-born pessimist – the Dodgers so often snatch victory from defeat in the subsiding innings of the game, the logical corollary to that “Success Story” is that they are consistently behind during the early and middle innings of the game.

What this troubling trend means is that the Dodgers traditionally – if you can take one season as a tradition – fare less well against “starting pitching” – which they face during the early and middle portion of the game and who are generally the more gifted of the opposition’s pitchers – than they do against opponents’ less talented “Corps of Relievers.”

It is true there is a longstanding baseball dictum that says, “Good pitching always beats good hitting.”  Still, in the case of the 2017 Dodgers, their habit of punishing essentially substandard pitching but not their superior brethren, to the pessimist? – That’s an unavoidably concerning “Red Flag.” 

During the post-season (including the World Series), a time knowledgeable observers proclaim is “a whole different kind of baseball” (because the television-friendly scheduling makes frontline pitching more readily available for service), the Dodgers would, as a result, be facing better pitching more often.

Based on their detectable weakness against other teams’ elite pitchers, despite their eye-popping 2017 won-loss credentials, the Dodgers could be surprising – except to devout pessimists – vulnerable casualties in the playoffs.  

Making the pessimists correct, and the hapless optimists lamenting, “Wait till next year.”

Score one for the “Gloomy Guys!”

Except that sometimes…

Last night, the Dodgers were down 4-2, with one out in the ninth inning.  Yes, there was a weaker White Sox reliever on the mound.  But there were only two outs remaining in the game, and the reliable “Law of Averages”… I mean, how often can the Dodgers pull a rabbit out of a hat?

Anticipating a presumed negative outcome, I sensibly turn off the television.

I check the paper this morning…

The Dodgers win, 5 to 4.

Demonstrating the “down-side of Pessimism”: 

Your prediction makes sense.

It just happens to be wrong.

“Look at that, Abner.  A pessimist, pessimistic about pessimism.”


“Whoopin’ ‘Duh’, Elwood.  What else would you expect?

Thursday, August 17, 2017

"A Possible (Potentially Game-Changing) Re-Thhinking"



In the same league as the discovery of germs, “Natural Selection” and “The Unconscious”, although considerably lower in the standings.

For as long as he could remember, Jimmy had a natural gift for balancing a kidney bean on the end of his nose. 

It came easily to him, right from the beginning.  In his elementary school “Talent Show”, Third-Grader Jimmy won First Prize, defeating a boy who could balance a teaspoon on the end of his chin.  (The unfortunate ”Runner-Up” had suddenly sneezed, his unmoored spoon clanging noisily to the auditorium stage floor.) 

Meanwhile, standing unfazed beside him, Jimmy’s proboscally-borne kidney bean remained visibly – to many onlookers miraculously – unperturbed.   For a full nine minutes and forty-seven seconds!  After which it inevitably fell off, Jimmy’s towering achievement met with thunderous applause and a commemorative Blue Ribbon.

Jimmy’s natural gift made him a popular member of the community – overshadowing his occasionally dark and borderline hostile personality.  Nobody cared.  Known as the incredible “Bean-Balancing Guy”, Jimmy was welcomed appreciatively wherever he went.

Jimmy’s reputation spread far and wide.  No one could recall anyone balancing a kidney bean on the end of his or her nose longer than he could.  Jimmy was the acknowledged, territorial “Champeen.”

As he advanced into adulthood – as all of us must – Jimmy had to face a serious decision concerning his future.  Rejecting the more traditional careers – as they did not involve balancing a kidney bean on the end of his nose, except maybe peripherally – “Not only is he a wonderful accountant, he can do your taxes while balancing a kidney bean on the end of his nose.”  That would not satisfy Jimmy, being an amateur, “bean balancing” celebrity.

Jimmy wanted to balance a kidney bean on the end his nose full-time.

And professionally.

With the “word” in the wind, to nobody who knew him’s surprise, Jimmy was invited to join the company of the “Elites”, in the widely known – and accurately attributed –  “Bean-on-the-End-of-Your-Nose-Balancing Capital of the World”, where Jimmy was readily accepted and, after some preliminary jitters, felt like he comfortably belonged.

And there he remained, balancing kidney beans on the end of his nose with distinction, amongst the recognized “Top Dogs” of the industry.

Yet, despite ostensibly flying high, Jimmy felt vaguely unhappier than he should have.

Because he knew he wasn’t the best. 

Jimmy understood the idea of “Personal Best.”  But, though he got what “Personal Best” was driving at intellectually, the bolstering rationale seemed to be “Brought to you by the folks who gave you ‘Everybody’s A Winner.’”   Through inordinately hard work and endless repetition, Jimmy himself improved his “Personal Best.”  Still, Jimmy’s incremental advances left him naggingly discontent, knowing there were a sliver of competitors who were “Personally Better.”

Despite demonstrable success, Jimmy worryingly wondered,

“How come I’m not the best?”

He considered the possibilities.  He could not believe it was his externally bestowed natural gift that was holding him back.  Natural gifts are perfect.  Aren’t they?  Who would bestow an imperfect natural gift?  (Which, based on the definition of the word “gift”, must be externally conferred rather than internally conceived.)

Would the “Unlabeled External Bestower of Natural Gifts” give an aspiring opera singer “perfect pitch”, except for “B Flat”, which they consistently missed by a mile, even when it was “A Sharp”, depending on the key signature designation?  No.  They got the entire octave.  Even the black notes.

Process of Elimination.

If it was not his externally bestowed natural gift that kept him from maximum accomplishment,

Then it had to be him.

Specifically, his innately pessimistic personality.

It seemed that, deliberately or otherwise, externally gifted Jimmy was sabotaging himself.  

Jimmy sought out professional assistance, to help temper the flaws in his hindering behavior.  But to little detectable avail. 

Jimmy was Jimmy. 

That, in a deal-breaking nutshell, was – and would always be – the inescapable problem. 

And so Jimmy believed, throughout his extended career and into his necessary retirement, the cumulative wear-and-tear robbing the tip of his nose of its earlier resiliency, the balancing kidney beans falling, as never before, to their Newtonian destination.

Besides, nobody was hiring professonal bean balancers anymore.

And there it stood, Jimmy believing for decades that the limitations in his personal limitations had defeated his externally bestowed natural gift, which would otherwise have taken him to the top.

Then one day, while in comfortable retirement, Jimmy’s brain experienced an illuminating epiphany.

“What if it wasn’t me?” Jimmy thought, for the very first time in his life.  “What if, although I dismissed the idea several paragraphs ago, the limiting obstacle was instead my externally bestowed natural gift?”

Jimmy thought long and hard about that, wondering if he had for decades erroneously blamed his perceived “falling short” on his admitted character flaws when the more salient explanation was that, in the context of Olympics gymnastics judges, his externally bestowed natural gift was an impressive “Nine-Point-Seven” but not the Nadia Comaneci-like, glittering “Ten”

“Why have I been defending my natural gift all this time at the expense of my less culpable personal demeanor?” Jimmy curiously wondered, suddenly open to the enormity of his misjudgment.  Jimmy could not figure that out - beyond the obvious “Who wants an imperfect natural gift? – leaving his epiphany inadequately explained, though continuingly intriguing.

“I could easily be mistaken about this”, Jimmy observed.  And he was correct to include that possibility.  New ideas are not necessarily better ideas.  They are simply the most recent ideas.

Still, Jimmy went on,

“It is something to think about.”