The history of Islam: part three

My first college roommate once asked me, “Do you know why we Arabs hate you Americans?”

I responded, “No, Mohamed, please tell me why you Arabs hate us Americans.”

“After World War II,” he informed me, “you helped rebuild your friends, Britain and France, and that made sense. You also helped rebuild your enemies, Germany and Japan, and that was strange. You helped everyone else in the world—you even helped the Jews get their own country—but you did nothing for us. That’s why we hate you today.”

It seems strange that a young man, born several years after the war ended and the rebuilding was accomplished, should carry a national grudge to the point of hatred. It also seems strange that, in spite of that hatred, he would travel to the United States to take classes in our schools. But Mohamed’s view of the United States reflects a reality found across the Muslim world over the past seventy years. (Bear in mind that, while most Arabs are Muslims, most Muslims are not Arabs. Yet from Indonesia to Nigeria, the feelings expressed by my roommate are common.) For a time, the United States had become a world power, matched only by the Soviet Union. But Muslims had exercised political power in the world in the past, and they expect to rise to that level again.

Five hundred years ago, many Muslims lived in powerful Old World empires ruled by Muslims. The Ottomans, the Safavids, and the Moguls each were stronger and more advanced than any European government. Muslims could take credit for scientific and medical advances, for philosophical inquiries, for outstanding artistic accomplishments, and for revolutionary mathematics (such as algebra). But new things were happening in Europe: exploration of the world’s oceans bringing discovery of previously unknown lands, reformation of the Christian Church, a Scientific Revolution, an Industrial Revolution, and a philosophy that called itself the Enlightenment. On the political front, Enlightenment philosophy declared that all human beings are equal and that we all have rights; that government should be limited in power and should protect those rights; that people should have freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly; and that education provides a way to develop those freedoms and to establish that equality. Coupled with an economic movement called Capitalism, this philosophy was developed in western Europe, was tried in the thirteen United States of North America, and was eventually established in Europe and was transported around the world.

 As the Muslim empires lost political power, some leaders tried to imitate European ways, hoping to catch up to Europe’s scientific and industrial advances and to maintain their place on the world stage. Other Muslims said that Enlightenment philosophy was opposed to Shariah and the Qur’an; they would accept western science and technology, but not western ideas about freedom and equality. By the end of the first World War, the Muslim empires had collapsed. European governments—especially Britain and France—held political power over north Africa and west Asia. But, following the second World War, Britain and France began to divest themselves of their colonies. They recognized national governments in Africa and Asia, withdrawing their armed forces and seeking trade with their former colonies. Where Old World empires once had prevailed, now Third World nations were on the board, eyed by the powers of the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States offered freedom, democracy, and the benefits of capitalism. The Soviet Union offered stability, socialism, and a dream of world-wide Communism. Both sides in the Cold War looked at the Third World as a battleground for their ideas. Both sides assumed that “the enemy of my friend is my enemy” and that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” If a government favored one side in the Cold War, opponents of that government were assumed to be fighting for the other side. The possibility of a third side that hated both Americans and Soviets seems to have escaped both Americans and Soviets during their conduct of the Cold War.

Eventually, the United States and its allies won the Cold War. The Soviet Union collapsed. China remained under the control of the Communist Party, but it turned away from socialism and embraced capitalism. Those few countries that cling to soviet-style socialism (North Korea and Cuba) are trapped in economic doldrums; those that embraced freedom and capitalism most fervently (such as Germany and Japan) became economic powerhouses.

Meanwhile, the Muslim world remains skeptical about the value of freedom and democracy. Most are governed by a small elite. While they learned to play the economic game of capitalism, teasing industry’s thirst for oil to their enrichment, Muslim governments continued to try to balance Shariah against Enlightenment values of freedom, equality, and education for all people. Well-to-do Muslim families in Asia and Africa have satellite dishes; they watch American television. They do not tune in to religious broadcasting or to documentaries on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. No, they watch our entertainment shows. They have learned about life in the United States from Seinfeld and Friends, from Jersey Shore and the Kardashians. Given those examples, one can easily see why Muslims might question the benefits of freedom, democracy, and education for all people.

All Muslims are not the same. Many appreciate the United States and value what we are when we are at our best. Most do not wish harm upon us, so long as we leave them alone. But twenty years ago, a group of Muslim terrorists attacked the United States. They did not target churches; they worked to destroy the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They showed us what they reject about us: our obsession with worldly wealth and power, our display of human beings at their worst rather than at their best.

Before we hope to be a light to the world, a shining city on a hill, the United States must clean up its own act. We must learn to use freedom responsibly, to use education in a way that shapes better people, to devote our resources for meaningful purposes. We can do better than we have done. When we live up to our own standards of truth and justice and the American way, then we will be recognized as people who have something worth sharing. J.

Science fiction got it right

Last night I finished rereading a science fiction novel from the late 1960s, one that I first read when I was a boy, about twelve years old. The novel is oddly prophetic of some aspects of our current political situation.

I have always been a voracious reader. My mother used to say that she taught me how to read when I was four so she had time to do housework and other tasks instead of always reading to me. The public library was not far from our house; I could walk there and back without crossing any streets, which was a blessing, since I often read while walking home from the library. I regularly won the summer reading competitions sponsored by the library for children; some of my friends tried to keep up with me by checking out books and returning them unread, but my proximity to the library kept me ahead of their pace. By the time I was twelve, I had exhausted the children’s section of the library and was exploring the larger collection. My attention was drawn to a display of paperback science fiction novels. I met the great science fiction writers there: Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, and others. I also read books that had no hope of becoming classics. Three books in particular were favorites; in the last five years, I have managed to acquire copies of all three—one because it is back in print, one that I found in a used book sale, and one that my daughter the librarian tracked down for me even though I could not remember the name of the author or the title of the book.

Bug Jack Barron, by Norman Spinrad, is the book I finished last night—the one that is back in print. Frankly, I’m surprised that I was allowed to read that book at that age—my parents must have trusted the library staff; either the library staff trusted my parents to oversee my reading, or they did not know what some of their novels contained. Bug Jack Barron has pages that would make Henry Miller blush. (When I, as an adult, read Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, I wondered at first what the fuss was about, since I had read dirtier work in my younger and more impressionable years.) Because of those selections, I cannot recommend the book to most readers. Still, the plot and characters remained vivid in my mind over all these years, so the book contains some literary value.

Bug Jack Barron is copyright 1969, but it clearly was written a year or two earlier. It is set in a near future—no year is specified. Telephone communication largely includes video as well as audio material. Marijuana has been legalized and is commercially available. A third political party, the Social Justice Coalition, has formed out the Civil Rights Movement. Although the SJC has elected some African Americans to state offices and into Congress, it has not resolved the larger racial inequalities in American society.

The title character, Jack Barron, is a television personality. He has a call-in show: viewers call to “bug” him with their problems, and he uses his prominence and celebrity to help solve those problems. At this time, the Democratic Party has a stranglehold on Congress and the White House. At one point, Barron comments on that fact that, over the course of many years, the Republicans had nominated only two men capable of claiming the presidency: Eisenhower and Reagan. But now a coalition of SJC and Republican leaders wants to nominate Jack Barron, knowing that his television personality is popular enough to defeat any likely Democratic candidate.

The bulk of the story revolves around a multi-billionaire whose medical researchers are unlocking the secrets of human immortality; much of his funding comes from people whose bodies are frozen at death and stored until their fatal conditions can be medically cured in the future. All of Spinrad’s characters have a deep fear, even revulsion, toward death; no mention of religious hope or comfort ever appears in the novel.

The most interesting aspect of the novel, though, is Barron’s realization that he can control his opponents through his television show, editing what they say to show them at their worst while enhancing his heroic stance. On his own, Barron has discovered what we now call “fake news,” and with that tool he plans to seize and hold power. I wonder how Mr. Spinard is reacting to our politics of 2020. J.

A brief and pointless observation

One night last week I wanted to fill an hour with mindless entertainment and scanned the DVDs on the shelf for something that would be less than a feature-length movie but more than a half-hour episode. (Yes, I could have watched two half-hour episodes, but never mind about that.) On a whim, I grabbed my set of Van Dyke & Company DVDs and selected episode six. If anything brought about that particular choice (aside from ethanol-induced randomness), it was the Justin Timberlake song “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” that I have heard too many times on the radio in recent days.

Let me explain. For reasons that elude my thinking even on ethanol-clear days, Justin Timberlake chose to record and release a song that strongly resembles the disco anthems of the mid-1970s. Van Dyke & Company was recorded and broadcast in 1976 and 1977. Being a variety show, it had musical guests, and some of those musical guests performed disco music. Trying to understand why anyone would want to revive said music, I chose an episode that features a performance of one of the original perpetrators of disco music—namely, KC and the Sunshine Band.

Van Dyke & Company was more than just another variety show. Seventies television was crowded with variety shows—some of them great, including Carol Burnett’s shows, but many of them average to poor. Dick Van Dyke was already a very popular entertainer; he had hosted his own situation comedy (sitcom) and had appeared in classic movies such as Mary Poppins. Everybody knew Dick Van Dyke. Rather than create just another variety show, Van Dyke chose to risk a parody of variety shows. Several running jokes fed subtle humor into Van Dyke & Company. For example, Dick Van Dyke presented himself as a star who was completely in control of his own show, yet he continually found himself forced to change his plans by the producers of that show. (One of those producers, also a writer of the show, was the comic genius Bob Einstein, who also played his character Super Dave Osbourne in two of the episodes of Van Dyke & Company). In episode six, Dick Van Dyke complains to the studio audience and viewers about a letter received by the show claiming that he only provided space to popular music performers to enhance the show’s ratings. Van Dyke emphasized that he personally chose the music performers and was close friends to all of them; he then completely garbled the name of KC and the Sunshine Band, leading to corrections from off-stage by Bob Einstein. Later in the show, Van Dyke complained that the producers had promised KC and the Sunshine Band two musical segments; Van Dyke went on to say that he was not consulted about that promise and that he demanded the second musical segment for his own song. As he began his song, his seat was wheeled off-stage and a curtain lifted to reveal KC and the Sunshine Band, who proceeded to perform their second song—a disco anthem which repeatedly informed the hearer, “That’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh, uh-huh.”

Andy Kaufman appeared on most of the twelve episodes of Van Dyke & Company. Any fan of Andy Kaufman should own the recordings of this show, since they include Andy Kaufman performing before audiences who did not yet know what to expect from his act. In this sixth episode, Andy appeared as a cowboy. Dick Van Dyke had already selected four volunteers from the audience before Andy appeared. When he came on stage, Andy started a record and convincingly lip-synced the performer on the record, who was leading four children in singing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” Part of the joke was that the four volunteers apparently had no indication, when they were chosen from the audience, that they would be expected to lip-sync parts of a song. Andy was able to appear totally in control of the act, to the point of pushing his four volunteers into place and backstage as they performed for the audience in the studio and at home.

Unintended (I think) additional humor contained in this episode lies in the fact that KC and the Sunshine Band were also lip-syncing their two songs, but Andy’s lip-syncing talents completely blew them out of the water. Especially notable are KC’s hands on the keyboards—he appears to be striking the same chord repeatedly throughout the entire song without any change in hand position. (Given the lyrics of the songs, it’s entirely possible that they also involved only one chord.) Andy’s lip-syncing as a joke contrasted with KC’s lip-syncing as a serious attempt to entertain made this episode of Van Dyke & Company even more amusingly surreal than the writers and performers had intended.

Viewing this episode did not help me to ascertain why Justin Timberlake would care to revive a style of music that quickly became obsolete and deserves to remain forgotten. This noon in the car I heard once again his rendition of “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” and I thought I could hear one of the background singers slipping into “That’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh, uh-huh.” J.

Comic geniuses

Tim Conway died this week; he was eighty-five years old. Tim performed on many occasions over the years, but he is best-remembered and best-loved for his comic antics on the Carol Burnett show. Along with Carol and Harvey Korman and Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway would play parts in comedy sketches. Each episode of Carol’s show was taped twice, on consecutive nights, and then the producers would edit the best performances of each night into one broadcast show. After having followed the script on the first night, Tim Conway would often improvise on the second night; his unexpected antics frequently forced his acting partners to burst into laughter on stage. The producers generally chose to broadcast the second-night version, making Tim Conway famous for his ability to take his fellow performers by surprise with his comic wit.

Andy Kaufman died thirty-five years ago today; he was thirty-five years old. Andy may have been best-known for playing Latka on Taxi, but he was best-loved for the material he created on his own. Latka was an adaptation of one of Andy’s inventions, Foreign Man, who would attempt stand-up comedy and fail miserably. He would finally resort to celebrity imitations, from which he would suddenly emerge with an Elvis Presley imitation, one so brilliant that even Presley admired his work. Andy appeared on Saturday Night Live more than a dozen times, including its very first episode. He also had two television specials that are still available—one made-for-TV special and one live performance at Carnegie Hall. Many of his other performances can be found by searching the Internet.

Tim Conway and Andy Kaufman never performed together, so far as I know. Their styles would not have meshed, given Conway’s slapstick and improvisation skills and Kaufman’s performance art and characterization skills. Both comics flourished in the same format, that of the variety show. This kind of television peaked in the 1970s, with some weekly shows like Carol Burnett’s and some seasonal shows like the Bob Hope Christmas Special. Variety shows focused on one or two famous performers, a company of stock performers, and special guests, usually a mixture of musical performers, comedians, and other celebrities (serious actors, sports figures, and politicians, for example). Carol Burnett’s show was one of the best of the genre. Countless bits of hilarity still come to mind when her show is mentioned, but the musical ability of Carol’s team and their guests also rises above much of what was done for entertainment at that time.

In 1976, Dick Van Dyke assembled a short-running variety show; Andy Kaufman appeared on more than half the episodes that were shown. Van Dyke and Company was, in a sense, a parody of variety shows. Van Dyke feuded with the producers of the show, disdaining their suggestions or openly regretting their refusal to let him do what he pleased. He responded to letter-writers who claimed that his musical guests were merely a means to gain viewers and had no relationship with Van Dyke; following his denial of the charge, Dick Van Dyke immediately mangled the name of his next musical guest. When Andy Kaufman appeared on the show, he was generally Foreign Man, interrupting Van Dyke to the elder comedian’s apparent annoyance. Van Dyke actually thought Andy was brilliant and was delighted to have him on the show. Andy got to perform with other celebrities, including Carl Reiner and John Denver. The recording of his transformation into Elvis on Van Dyke and Company is special because the audience is not prepared for the routine, as they are in other recordings of that act.

Another comic genius, Bob Einstein, worked on Van Dyke and Company. Einstein died in January of this year; he was seventy-six years old. Einstein was a writer and producer of the show; he also appeared in several episodes. In one episode, Einstein walks onto the stage during the closing monologue after Dick Van Dyke has fumbled a line; like a baseball manager, Einstein calls for a relief comedian (who turns out to be Tommy Smothers). Einstein also introduced his Super Dave character on Van Dyke and Company; as Super Dave he would later appear on many television talk shows, including those of Johnny Carson and David Letterman.

In the 1970s, many comedians drew laughter from their audiences by shocking them with vulgar language and taboo topics. That trend has continued to the present. Tim Conway, Andy Kaufman, and Bob Einstein were able to amuse and entertain without descending to the depths of human depravity. Their humor surprised people, but the surprise was generally one of delight, not one of repugnance. It’s a good thing that so much of their material was recorded and saved, so we can remind ourselves and show others how genuine comedy looks and sounds. J.

The celebrity roast of Nelson Mandela

My memory is not what it used to be.

Then again, it never was.

I wanted to write a post about something I saw on TV a long time ago and how it affected me. But when I started factchecking what I saw, it turns out that what I remember didn’t actually happen. Some people would blame this on the Mandela Effect, saying it really did happen, but the lines of history have changed. Others would simply acknowledge that memory is not as reliable as we generally want it to be.

Here’s what I remember: in the 1970s there were frequent television specials called celebrity roasts. These were staged like tributes to performers such as Bob Hope or Lucille Ball, but instead of honoring their careers and achievements, these shows made the honorees the brunt of jokes and humorous insults. The roasts were, of course, heavily scripted. The episode I remember honored Orson Welles. The reason I remember that episode is that, at the end, when the honoree got to stand and respond to all the evening’s speeches, Welles deliberately jettisoned the script that had been prepared for him and gave sincere, spontaneous, and glowing tributes to all the entertainers who had just spent the hour insulting him. I would like to think that Welles’ graceful and kind example helped me to mature at least a little bit, realizing that it is classier to be kind to others than to return insults with insults.

The Internet confirms that dozens of such specials were filmed and broadcast in the 1970s. Dean Martin was the host for all these roasts except the one in which he was honored, when Don Rickles hosted. Rich Little and Nipsey Russell were frequent speakers at these roasts. I thought I remembered Paul Lynde being on them often, but he only spoke at two roasts. In addition to the many comedians that were involved, occasionally athletes were honored. Two politicians—Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan—also received the gauntlet of the roast.

But although Orson Welles was a speaker at several of these roasts, he was never honored with a roast. My memory of his gracious kindness is a false memory.

Well, not entirely false.

A little further digging has shown that, on October 5, 1978, James Stewart was honored with a roast. Orson Welles was one of the speakers. When Welles rose to speak, he discarded his script and gave Stewart a heart-felt tribute based on memories of experiences they had shared. When Stewart had his opportunity to speak at the end of the event, he responded to Welles in the same spirit. It is possible that he also spoke kindly of the other speakers.

It is natural that, because of Welles’ classy behavior at this roast, I would think of him as the featured star rather than merely one of the speakers at the event. This is why factchecking is important: human memory is quite fallible.

Here’s another example: I remember hearing an exciting baseball game on the radio in 1984. The Cubs and the Cardinals were playing in Wrigley Field, and my parents and I were weeding the garden behind our house as we listened on a small transistor radio. The game was tied in the eighth inning, and the Cubs had put in their star reliever, Lee Smith, to preserve the tie. The pitcher was due to bat sixth in the bottom of the inning, so it seemed like a safe move to bring in Smith. (Baseball fans will understand the strategy.) But the plan backfired. In the bottom of the eighth inning, the Cubs found themselves still in a scoreless tie, with the bases loaded, two outs, and their best relief pitcher coming to the plate. Relief pitchers rarely are called to hit. They are almost a certain out. And, indeed, Smith did strike out in that at bat. But not before Leon Durham stole home. Smith returned in the ninth to finish the game and earn the victory in a 1-0 game.

Last year I went through microfilmed records of old newspapers to find the description and account of that game. Most of it happened just the way I remember it. But Lee Smith was not the pitcher who came to bat with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning. The pitcher’s name was Warren Brusstar. And while Brusstar was a decent pitcher who won eight games and saved eight games in his three seasons with the Cubs, he was no Lee Smith.

Why would I remember Lee Smith coming to bat instead of Warren Brusstar? Because Smith was the star reliever for the Cubs that year; he was the kind of pitcher you would want to leave in the game to pitch the ninth inning. In fact, I have no idea why Smith did not pitch in that game. Maybe he was injured, or maybe he had pitched a lot the day before. But for many years, whenever I remembered that game, I had the wrong pitcher in mind.

My memory is not what it used to be.

Then again, it never was. J.

Happy birthday Barbara Eden

Today is the birthday of one of the most beautiful and charming actresses ever to appear on television. Barbara Eden is 87 years old today, and even at 87 she remains both beautiful and charming.

She is best remembered as the title character in I Dream of Jeannie. The show told the story of an astronaut (played by Larry Hagman) who was stranded on a beach after an unsuccessful mission. A finds a bottle and rubs the dirt off it, and a genii magically appears. A language barrier exists until he wishes that she could speak English. Afterward, she is able to draw rescuers to him. He sets her free, but she has already set her heart upon him. So she smuggles herself and her bottle into his equipment and travels with him to Florida.

All this is but the first part of the first episode. The rest of the five seasons depict the various ways in which she tries to serve him and protect him by her magical power. Generally her misunderstanding of American culture and technology cause trouble rather than service and protection. The scriptwriters struggled to find situations in which her power would be somehow limited or otherwise hindered. Larry Hagman was scornful of the show; he once claimed that they had only three scripts that they kept reusing with only the details changed. But the show had a huge following, which indicates the scripts could not have been that bad.

Barbara Eden starred in other shows, including Harper Valley PTA. Like most of her friends, though, I remember her best as Jeannie. I vividly remember one episode which I saw when I was very young. Jeannie and her bottle were trapped inside a safe, and the safe was in danger of being destroyed at a garbage dump. The show depicted the safe being carried down a conveyor toward certain destruction… and then of course they broke for a string of commercials.

I Dream of Jeannie aired during the same years as the Apollo space program. I was a fan of real astronauts as well as of those depicted on the show. The makers of the show cooperated with NASA to make the show as realistic as possible. There were, however, goofs. Real astronauts lived and trained in Houston, Texas—not Cocoa Beach, Florida. Both Houston and south Florida are very flat, but mountains were sometimes seen in the background of the neighborhood where Tony and Jeannie lived.

Most famously, Barbara Eden’s navel was not to be seen on network TV, although on two or three occasions her costume did slip, and her navel did appear briefly. But in more than one episode other women were seen in two-piece bathing suits, exposing their navels and much more flesh. That double standard did not make much sense.

Wherever she is and however she is celebrating, I hope that Barbara Eden has a very happy birthday. J.

Basil Fawlty and anxiety attacks

I once commented that at times it seems as though I have Mr. Spock on one side and Basil Fawlty on the other, each urging me to behave more like they behave. That passing remark prompted me to rummage through my DVD collection and watch again the classic British comedy Fawlty Towers.

For the uninitiated, Basil Fawlty is the owner and manager of a hotel in Torquay, Devon, England. He runs the hotel with the help of his wife Sybil and two employees, Polly (an aspiring artist) and Manuel (he’s from Barcelona). Basil Fawlty, portrayed by John Cleese of Monty Python fame, is arrogant, sarcastic, and short-tempered, fawning over customers who are rich or important but rudely insulting most of his customers as well as his wife and employees. Six episodes of the show were filmed in 1975, and six more were filmed in 1979. In spite of that short list of episodes, Fawlty Towers is very popular with fans of British comedy.

Now that I have become aware of my own symptoms revealing depression and anxiety, I wanted to see if Fawlty is wrestling with the same problems. I don’t believe that John Cleese intended to address mental health issues with this show, and I doubt that he is even aware of the internal struggles that might drive a man like Fawlty to act in the ways that Cleese portrayed. All the same, knowing that my occasional temper tantrums sometimes drive me to act like Fawlty (and I am tempted to “act out” like Fawlty more often than I like to admit). Irritability and fits of rage sometimes are signs, not of anger management problems, but of depression and anxiety. Even the physical expressions of Fawlty’s inner turmoil bring to mind the way overwhelming anxiety makes me want to act at times.

Fawlty has reasons to be depressed. He has chosen a line of work for which he clearly is ill-suited. He shows little love or affection for his wife, nor she for him. Guests frequently berate Fawlty or make unreasonable requests and demands of him. Fawlty wants to succeed as a hotelier, and the failure of his establishment and its workers leads him deeper and deeper into anxiety.

Of the twelve episodes, Fawlty’s struggles are clearest in “The Hotel Inspectors” (Season 1, episode 4). Facing guests who are clearly dissatisfied with their experience at his hotel, and hearing rumors that hotel inspectors are visiting Torquay, Fawlty wavers between his effort to be a good host to potential inspectors and his desire to treat his unpleasant customers as poorly as he thinks they deserve to be treated. As the episode progresses, Fawlty’s anxiety symptoms become increasingly strong until they overwhelm him.

Fawlty’s first defense against stressful situations is sarcasm. He insults his wife, his staff, and his guests with vicious humor, although often he hopes that they will not hear or comprehend his barbed remarks. He also seeks ways to blame others for the wrong things that are happening under his responsibility. As his level of stress increases, Fawlty begins to speak both louder and faster. He strikes out at inanimate objects or at the defenseless Manuel. As the attack deepens, Fawlty’s muscles begin to clench, starting with his hands but soon spreading to his arms and legs. His speaking voice becomes much higher and sometimes fails him entirely. In several episodes, Fawlty ends up lying on the floor in a somewhat fetal position, or he wraps himself in his own clothing as if to hide from the rest of the world.

I always laughed at Fawlty Towers, enjoying the witty dialogue and the slapstick humor. The show still amuses me, even though I now approach it from a different point of view. As Basil Fawlty, John Cleese openly portrays the way an anxiety attack feels. His methods of coping with anxiety and depression are not recommended, but the show can still be educational as well as entertaining.

J.

(originally published June 5, 2015)

One character in search of a plot

The painting that changed Carl’s life was not even an original piece of art. It was a reproduction or imitation of a certain artist’s work. This painting hung on the wall outside the hospital’s family waiting room. During the week that followed his grandfather’s stroke, Carl walked past the painting several times a day. Its eyes followed him, challenged him, and invited his curiosity. For the rest of his life, Carl never forgot that face.

The artist in question was born in Hungary. He learned to paint in France, but then lived and worked in Sweden. His favorite and most popular subject was a gypsy girl he had known in France. Her image adorned homes and businesses all over Sweden and northern Germany, as well as in Carl’s home state of Wisconsin. Wearing a peasant smock and a colorful skirt, the gypsy girl sat in front of a background of swirling colors. Her black hair cascaded over her shoulders; her gaze always addressed the viewer. Lutherans in Europe and in North America could not even hear the word “gypsy” without thinking of these paintings.

Her image undoubtedly influenced Hollywood’s several portrayals of Esmeralda in productions of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. People who have grown up seeing her portrait remember her while listening to Bizet’s opera Carmen. Even Stanley Kubrick knew her face: in A Clockwork Orange, when Alex—the main character—has been released from prison and returns to his parents’ apartment, several paintings resembling her appearance hang on the living room walls. [Edit: Those paintings are actually by J H Lynch, a slightly later artist who also painted young women with long dark hair. I suspect that Lynch was influenced by the earlier artist’s work, as the main difference between their paintings is that Lynch has natural backgrounds. The painting Carl saw at the hospital may or may not have been by Lynch.]

Influenced by this painting, Carl preferred Jacqueline Smith to Farrah Fawcett in the caste of Charlie’s Angels. When television stations showed movie musicals, Carl favored Natalie Wood’s Maria over Julie Andrews’ Maria or Judy Garland’s Dorothy. Years later, when the musical Les Miserables was made into a movie, Carl was puzzled by Marius’ pursuit of Cosette while he remained blind to the affection and the beauty of Eponine. Many of the cheerleaders and popular girls in his high school were blonde, but Carl’s eyes were always captured by the dark-haired girls. A case in point was the girl who sat in front of him in his algebra class. Too shy to ask for a date, Carl sent her a carnation on Valentine’s Day. He was crushed to learn of her disappointment that the flower came from him and not from the boy she secretly admired.

In college Carl summoned the courage to invite young women on dates. He dated more than a dozen students during those four years, but he was most drawn to the most exotic ladies on campus. One was from Venezuela, and the other was from Korea. Both of them were more interested in receiving an education than in romance. At graduation, Carl remained unattached.

Now it is time for Carl to meet the young lady who looks just like the gypsy in the painting. But what shall be the barrier between them? Will Carl’s shyness return? Will the difference in their ages be too great? Is she already married? Let’s bring this tale into the twenty-first century: is she married, but to another woman?

I am open to suggestions. J.

World Series memories, part one

Over the course of a month, the Chicago Cubs earned a championship by winning eleven games over three opponents—the San Francisco Giants, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Cleveland Indians. To achieve those eleven victories, they played seventeen games, and I was able to see parts of all seventeen on television—in most cases I saw the entire games from beginning to end. I missed the beginning of some games because of the classes that I teach, and I left one game early because the Cubs were playing poorly. For seventeen evenings I welcomed Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Joe Maddon and the rest into my home. I should spend more such quality time with my own family!

Along with the baseball players and their manager and coaches, I also brought a few more people into the house those evenings. One of them repeatedly bought a cell phone from an attractive sales clerk. When she said “Enjoy your phone” at the end of the sale, he responded, “You too,” and then enhanced his awkwardness by walking into a glass door, to her consternation. He did so Every. Single. Time.

Then there was the complacent man who drove a Mercury when he wasn’t busy gazing into his own eyes in the mirror or falling backward into a pool of water.

There was also a gentle man with a well-groomed beard who posed as a customer research specialist as he tricked groups of people (Real people! Not actors!) into saying nice things about Chevrolet vehicles.

There was an actor who was fond of reminding me that he used to do commercials for Verizon but was now representing Sprint. One of his frequently-aired spots was set in a barber shop. An elderly barber stood behind the main actor, stirring a pot of shaving cream with a brush through the entire commercial. What was that supposed to represent? Was their some subliminal message involving that barber that I kept missing?

A pair of commercials for an insurance company cleverly portrayed situations in which different people said the exact same words in different contexts. In one commercial, a girl is given a new car by her father while a man is discovering that his car has been stripped by thieves. In the other, a girl is showing off her new suede couch to her friend, and later two thieves are admiring the same couch before they carry it away.

There were repeated advertisements for Live Facebook, none of which depicted anything I would bother to watch on Facebook.

Another car commercial showed clever split screen scenes accompanied by Cat Stevens’ catchy song, “If you want to sing out.”

I also recall a talking llama, a talking gecko, and a talking hockey puck named Alexa.

All of these commercials were part of my play-off and World Series experiences this fall. Even Taco Bell almost managed to make their meals look appetizing, not to mention a monstrously unhealthy sandwich from Burger King that I saw over and over.

Had the Cubs lost at any stage of the play-offs, I would have passionately hated every one of these products and the people responsible for promoting them. Aside from the Mercury guy, I’m not hostile toward any of them, thanks to the Cubs’ victory. However, had the Cubs lost, I would have been annoyed even by the AT&T actress (who happens to be from Uzbekistan, by the way). Granted, I’m not running out to buy a new car or a cell phone, or to change insurance companies, or even to get a sandwich at Burger King. I appreciate the fact that these companies spent millions of dollars to broadcast these commercials along with the baseball game, and that those millions of dollars made the players’ salaries possible. And I’m not one of those people who starts watching a game an hour late so I can fast-forward through the commercials. The commercials are part of the pace of the game to me, and after seeing the same set of commercials dozens of times over a month, they too are almost like family. J.

The living room

When I was about eighteen months old my parents bought wall-to-wall carpeting for their dining room, living room, and hallway. One of my earliest memories–probably the earliest–is of that day. I was still being set on a table in my bedroom to be dressed. Having the furniture out of place throughout the house left an impression on my young mind.

When one stepped through the front door of my childhood house, one was practically in the dining room and living room. The two rooms were separated by a couch and by a china cabinet; there were no walls between them. A planter, about four feet high, was between the front door and the dining room; behind the open door was a coat closet, and the living room was to the right. The hallway was beyond the living room; from the hallway one could enter one large bedroom to the right, or either of two smaller bedrooms to the left. A closet was between the bedrooms. The bathroom was at the end of the hallway. Behind the dining room (as seen from the front door) was the kitchen. Next to the kitchen was a room we called the back entry: it had a small storage closet, a door to the back yard, a door to the basement across from the back door, and a sliding door that led into the nearer bedroom. The door between the kitchen and dining room was also a sliding door.

All three bedrooms had wooden floors, but the original floor in the rest of the house was brown tile with streaks of white and black. It looked something like a bowl of vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup after someone had stirred the ice cream and syrup together with a spoon. The carpet that replaced the tile floor was dark blue. It consisted of loops of different sizes, creating a textured flooring that did not show footprints. I loved the fact that the carpet was blue. At times, it was the ocean, and two or three small throw rugs were islands on which my toys lived.

The living room had a large picture window which faced the front yard. Across the room from the window was a fireplace in which my family burned logs during the winter. Between the fireplace and the china cabinet was a bookshelf built into the wall. The books included two encyclopedia sets, a set of books from Time-Life about science, and assorted novels and works of nonfiction. The couch (which was mustard-yellow with flecks of brown) was in two sections. One was turned with its back to the dining room; the other had its back to the window. A pole lamp lit the room from the corner where the couch sections met. A television set on a metal stand was against the wall farthest from the front door, with easy chairs on either side of the TV. The living room had three wooden tables–a coffee table in front of the couch, an end table with a drawer next to the couch in front of the picture window, and a matching table next to the easy chair in the corner of the room.

When I was little, I was told that Santa Claus brought the Christmas tree, along with the stockings and other presents, after I went to bed on Christmas Eve. Those years we always had a real tree, and we always kept it up for the twelve days of Christmas, after which Santa came to take away the decorations until next year and to throw the tree outside. The tree was centered in the picture window; the couch was moved into a V shape with the angle pointing into the dining room. Stockings filled with gifts were left for each of us in front of the fireplace, and gifts were left under the tree. I remember the frustration of hearing my mother vacuuming the living room late in the night on Christmas Eve. I knew that she wanted the house nice for Santa, but I also knew he couldn’t arrive until she and my father had gone to bed. The first sight of the tree Christmas morning was always spectacular, as it towered high above my head all the way to the ceiling. Today’s Christmas trees seem much smaller in comparison.

When I was little, my family had a dog and a cat. The dog was mixed-breed, but largely beagle. She liked to sneak outside and run through the neighborhood for hours; she had no sense of property lines and was difficult to capture. The cat was allowed outside during the daytime but slept in the house at night. The dog liked to sleep behind the couch, under the picture window. The dog was not allowed into the bedrooms. The cat liked to entice the dog by running through the living room, encouraging the dog to chase her, and then ducking into a bedroom. The dog liked to chase a small ball across the living room and then return it so it could be thrown again.

Needless to say, the carpet and furniture were replaced a time or two over the years, and a color TV eventually replaced the black-and-white set of my childhood. These early memories of the house, though, are the ones likely to stay with me the longest. J.