Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!

I'll be leaving shortly for my first New Year's Eve party in six years. Usually I'm running a comedy show somewhere.

Typically for New Year's Eve parties, this one starts late, at 9 pm. The last time I was at a party that started that late, it was thrown by Uruguayans. (South Americans tend to eat and party late.)

Since I'm a well-brought-up boy, I'll be bringing something to the party: a case of Weyerbacher* "Blithering Idiot" Barleywine-style Beer. I always try to bring something a bit different to a party. There's no point in bringing the same thing that everyone else brings, is there? That's how Methodist covered-dish suppers end up with six Jell-O molds.

Have a safe and happy New Year, everyone!

* In a previous post I stated that "The pride of Easton, PA" was the Crayola Company. I forgot that the Weyerbacher Brewery was also in Easton. Is beer better than crayons? Which would you rather have on a desert island?

Monday, December 29, 2008

A Yuletide Walk

Yesterday, Sunday, I had supper with my parents. With my father, I watched the Eagles trounce the Cowboys. Then, rather than go home, I took a walk around the borough where they live, West Chester, Pennsylvania.

If you're looking for lively Christmas lights, don't go to West Chester. Only around a quarter of the houses sport any sort of decoration at all. There are two reasons for this:

  1. West Chester is a university town. The only town in Pennsylvania with more rentals is State College (home to Penn State). Most of the college students are home for the holidays, their rental properties dark for two weeks.
  2. West Chester is also the county seat, so we have a plethora of lawyers. These are people who don't usually lift anything heavier than a brief. They don't tend to decorate their offices or residences.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed myself as I wandered up and down West Miner Street. It's a good street to walk on: many row houses, but upscale ones, with architecture worth looking at. Most of them are well over a hundred years old. And it was a good night to walk: unseasonably warm.

Some things I noticed on my walk:

The first place I lived in West Chester was the Old Everhart Mansion on West Miner Street. Too large for a modern family (without live-in servants), it had been divided into six rental units. My parents rented half the second floor, and I have good memories of that home. I was glad to see that the current residents of that unit had put Christmas lights up. A few years back it was damaged in a fire; it has been renovated, but the serpentine stone columns have been covered with stucco.

The First Presbyterian Church was designed in 1832 by noted architect Thomas U. Walter (1804-1887), who became famous for designing the dome of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington. Despite this, the church building is fairly uninteresting, except for two massive Ionic columns out front. Some have praised its elegant simplicity; I think it's a giant white stucco box. Behind the columns is painted, in gilt letters, the word "PRESBYTERIAN." With a period. No one remembers why there's a period there. I suspect the sign painter was making an editorial comment of some sort.

Even the residences of Portico Row had few decorations. These are upscale row houses, so named because of their impressive porticoes. (I once dated a woman with an impressive portico, but that's a story for a different post.) For the first time, I noticed that many of the porches had dentil moulding. usually see dentiling under the cornice, at the top of a building. I can't recall seeing it before on a porch. But you notice different things at night.

Major General Smedley Darlington Butler (1881-1940), once the most decorated U.S. Marine in history, lived on West Miner. After his retirement, some plutocrats tried to intice Butler to lead a coup against President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Instead, Butler went public with what became known as The Business Plot. You can see a newsreel clip of Butler's statement to the nation on the documentary "The Corporation." Butler's home has been nicely restored, but there are piles of loose bricks stacked on the sidewalk. It's not a good idea to leave bricks about, where any drunk and pick one up and throw it. West Chester has many bars which produce many drunk college students.

Even though it was only around 7 pm, I saw few people. The houses on Miner Street are close enough to the curb that you can look in the windows. I saw many Christmas trees. Quite a few of the houses had floor-to-ceiling, built-in bookcases, all of them painted an unprepossessing white. Often, I saw the diseased blue glow of televisions. But I only saw one resident, an old man sitting in a lounge chair, reading. I was glad he wasn't watching television.

Tired of walking, I got back in my car and drove downhill. As in most towns, the poor people live in the areas with poor drainage. East Market Street is the heart of the African-American community in West Chester. I was hoping to see more Christmas lights here, but I was disappointed. The decorations were gaudier, but still few and far between.

Is the economy so bad that people aren't putting out Christmas decorations?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

My Thumbnails Are Sore; It Must Be a Holiday

Every holiday, for the family dinner, one of my jobs is to provide pomegranite seeds. I do it up right: I peel two pomegranites (more if one turns out to be bad), wash the seeds, let them dry, then serve them in a glass brandy snifter. The deep red seeds in a clear glass snifter look very festive.

But peeling pomegranites hurts! I've tried various techniques -- using paring knives and peeling them under water -- but eventually it comes down to prying seeds out of the pulp with your thumbnails.

And getting acidic pomegranite juice under your nails.

If it was just for me, I'd probably never peel another one. To my mind, it's like eating crawfish -- they're not worth the trouble it takes to peel them.

But it's for a holiday dinner, and there are members of my family who love pomegranite seeds.

So have a Merry Christmas. I'm going to go soak my thumbs.

NOTE: The above image is "Miley Cyrus Claus" by illustrator Daniel Adel, whose work has been published in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Esquire, and many others. He did covers for both Newsweek and Time, including the picture of the 2007 Time Man of the Year.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Good News for the Great Unwashed

Finally, my plumber replaced the clogged water line that fed my shower. Today I took my first "normal" shower at home in weeks!

Of course, I can shower because there is still electricity flowing to my water heater and pump. The recent ice storms have left thousands without power in the Midwest and New England. (And without power, they can't read my blog! I must be missing two, maybe three readers right now because their power is out.)

On a different topic, there's a nice article on lying and evolution in the Science Times section of today's New York Times. Basically, it seems that the more sophisticated the species, the more use they have for lying.

I'm not surprised. It's not like a slime mold has that much to lie about. ("Hey, babe! I've got the biggest spores in this entire hectare!"*)

It's been known for years that apes that are trained to communicate in sign language will lie, usually to escape disapproval. ("No, Buddy no poop on floor! Dr. Ebbeson pooped on floor. Bad Dr. Ebbeson!") But field researchers have discovered that even apes in the wild will lie to each other. The article gives the example of a young baboon about to be pounded by an angry, larger baboon. The youngster stopped fleeing, stood up, scanned the horizon, and gave the impression that he had spotted an intruder. The angry baboon--and the entire tribe--started preparing for the nonexistent intruder. (Suckers!)

Somehow, knowing that animals lie makes me feel better about being human. Or at least better about lying.

* Coincidentally, while in college, I once used this exact line to pick up a female biology major. And it worked. No lie.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Man Who Gets Right to the Point

Stand-up comic Nolan Gilbride left town today. He's returning to Nebraska.

I've been in the comedy business in one way or another since 1984. I've been a comic, a booking agent, a comedy writer, a comedy instructor, and a club manager. I've seen and advised a lot of comics over the years.

For 99% of comics, my main advice is "cut out at least 20% of the words." A successful stand-up comic gets to the punchline as quickly as possible. If you edit out some of the words, you get there quicker.

(Of course, the advice I try NOT to give is "be funnier." That's not particularly helpful, even though it's true for most new comics.)

Nolan Gilbride was among the 1% of comics who did NOT have to cut out words. He'd already learned that lesson. In fact, I advised him to ADD a few words, to provide a segue or two. I hoped he might be more successful if the audience had more time to digest his succinct, pithy jokes.

So Nolan was unique among local comics. He was trying for a particular type of absurdist comedy, unlike anyone else currently working in the Philadelphia area. It's the sort of comedy that Steven Wright does. And it's one of the hardest types of comedy to pull off.

In the two or three years Nolan was around, I'm not sure I ever gave him a paid gig. When I sent him to other comedy clubs, the managers usually gave him a mediocre report.

Still, at least he was trying something different. I wish I could have helped him be more successful.

He didn't have much in the way of credits. So, to have something to write about him on the Comedy Cabaret website, I named him "The Man Who Gets Right to the Point." (Grammatically, that should be "The Man Whom," but advertising should be colloquial.)

But now he's gone. And the Philadelphia comedy scene just got a little less interesting.

The Man Who Gets Right to the Point left town today. If he continues in comedy, I hope he finds success back in Nebraska.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Haiku Slam

The Brandywine Valley Writers Group has a holiday tradition: at our Christmas party, we hold a haiku slam.

Unfortunately, of the seven who showed up, I was the only one who had prepared a holiday haiku. Here it is:

Solstice a-comin’ --
Wiccan girlfriend will dance nude.
Me likee solstice.

Too bad that girlfriend was about 25 years ago. Solstice hasn't been the same since.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Drinker with a Writing Problem

Last night was the annual holiday party of the Brandywine Valley Writers Group, at the Four Dogs Tavern in Marshalton, PA. Our timing was bad -- it had been alternating rain and snow all day. Of our forty-some paid members, only seven braved the weather and showed up.

I had to go; I’m currently the president of the Brandywine Valley Writers Group.

For the party, we’d budgeted about $200 for appetizers (for liability reasons, attendees buy their own drinks). As it happened, the seven of us shared about $100 worth of appetizers. That’s a lot of food, but not a huge amount, since it was upscale, expensive stuff: goat cheese and prosciutto on flatbread, crabmeat tortillas with wasabi sauce, and so on. (I think there were also truffles garnished with larks’ vomit, but I didn’t try any.) To drink, the Four Dogs offers a selection of craft beers. I forget the name of what I quaffed, but it was something like Happytime Stinking-Bastard IPA.

The attendees enjoyed the venue so much that they asked why we were holding our monthly meetings at the West Chester Friends Meeting House. We pay the Friends $500 a year for the use of their facilities, but the Four Dogs will let us meet there on Tuesday nights for free (as long as we gorge ourselves).

That’s a question I’m going to propose to the group at our January meeting. There are drawbacks: Marshalton is not as centrally located as West Chester. And some of our members might be in recovery and unwilling to spend time in a bar.

But that $500 a year rent is our major expense, and it would be good to save it.

Another advantage of meeting at the Four Dogs is avoiding censorship (even if it’s self-censorship). We’re always careful of what we say inside a Quaker Meeting House.

This is also true at our other venue, The Chester County Book and Music Company, where we do our public readings. Unfortunately, the area set aside for authors to read is inside the children’s book section. Even though our readings at the bookstore start at 7 pm, it’s amazing how many kids are still around that late.

I recall one of our members, Scott Pruden, reading from his novel in the children’s section. Shortly after a line that went something like, “A white woman be serious when she show you her titty,” I heard a child’s voice behind a bookshelf going “Mommmm!”

So it would be good to have a place to meet and read our work without risk of offending anyone. But I will let the group discuss it, before I make a Presidential decision on our 2009 venue.

Oh, the title of this blog entry is from the Irish writer Brendan Behan (1923-1964), who sometimes described himself as “a drinker with a writing problem.” He also said he drank only on two occasions: when he was thirsty, and when he wasn’t.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Final Night of the Comedy Cabaret at the Clarion

I was in my room at the Clarion Hotel in Cherry Hill, NJ. I unwrapped a bar of soap in the bathroom, and tossed the wrapper into the trash can. The wrapper bounced off of the plastic bag lining the trash can, and skittered under the sink. Housekeeping hadn’t bothered to put the liner in properly; it was tight as a drum, sealing the trash can.

I sighed. One more thing I won’t miss about the Clarion Hotel. Then I shaved with hot water from the shower, because there wasn’t any hot water in the sink.

After a five and a half year run, the Cherry Hill Comedy Cabaret closed down on Saturday night. I managed it for its entire run, never missing a day.

The club was located in the Cherry Hill Clarion Hotel and Conference Center, which is up for sale. It is also in dire need of repair, so it was time. The Comedy Cabaret organization hopes to have a new club open in the area by January.

Our final show was about three-quarters full…which was good, because only about three-quarters of the room was habitable. One back corner had several leaks in the ceiling, and the carpet was sopping wet.

Still, it provided us with a serviceable venue for five and a half years. You have to miss anything that’s been part of your life that long.

Last week’s headliner, the remarkable Dena Blizzard (a former Miss New Jersey), asked me about the closing, “So, how are you handling it? You must be crying into your pillow every night!”

I said, “Yes, but I do that every night anyway.”

Friday, December 12, 2008

My Plumber, Yury Zhivago

For the past several weeks, the shower in my apartment has only delivered hot water. This is a problem because the water is scalding hot…much too hot to shower with.

I’ve handled the problem by running the water full blast until the hot water runs out. If I time it right, by the time I’ve shaved and soaped up, the hot water has almost run out. I will have about two minutes of lukewarm water to rinse myself off, before the water gets too cold to bear. It’s rather like a Navy shower-in-reverse: instead of conserving water, I’m using as much as possible.

My landlord finally got a plumber to stop by yesterday. I stayed home all day, waiting for him. The plumber got to work on my shower about 4 pm. He had to rip out a painted-over panel to access the pipes, covering my bedroom with drywall dust and paint chips. By 4:45 he had replaced a small plastic shunt that should have fixed the problem…but didn’t. He said he’s come back the next day if I’d be home.

Today I stayed home again, waiting. He got here earlier this time, around 3:30 pm, with a circular valve in hand. And hour later the valve was installed…and I still had no cold water.

Now he investigated the pipes themselves. He found that, in the basement, the galvanized cold water pipe leading to my shower was clogged up. So he will have to replace a length of pipe. But not today, because it was quitting time. In fact, he didn’t know when he’d get back.

Whenever I’m frustrated dealing with tradesmen, I remember my favorite passage from Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. If you’ve only seen the movie, you haven’t encountered this scene. Both the David Lean film and the recent BBC version basically end at the scene where Yury Zhivago sends his lover Lara away. Then they skip ahead to Yury’s death.

In the book, there is a long conclusion detailing Zhivago’s decline after he breaks with Lara. During this period, he takes a third ‘wife,’ Marina, the daughter of a porter. (You can see why this is always cut out of the film versions.) Zhivago isn’t allowed to practice medicine, so he works odd jobs. In one sequence:
One day Yury and Marina (Zhivago’s third wife), stepping carefully in their felt boots, so as not to dirty the carpet with sawdust, were carrying wood into the study of a tenant who remained insultingly engrossed in something he was reading and did not honor them with so much as a glance. It was his wife who gave the orders and who settled up with them.

‘What has the pig got his nose into?’ Yury wondered. The scholar was scribbling furiously in the margins of his book. As he passed him with a bundle of logs, Yury glanced over his shoulder. On the desk lay an early edition of one of the booklets which he had written….
Aside from the scene’s Chauvinism (why is it an insult to be paid by a woman?), I’ve always taken two lessons from this sequence.
First, even though I’ve co-written nine books, there’s no guarantee that I won’t end up doing menial work to support myself.

And second, you never know: the guy who can’t seem to fix your plumbing may have other admirable qualities.

But I still wish I could find someone who could get the cold water working in my shower.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Rose by Any Other Name...

Recently, the pride of Easton, PA, (that’s the Crayola Company*, not boxer Larry “The Easton Assassin” Holmes), changed the name of eight of its crayons.

The kids who suggested the new names did not feel constrained to pick descriptive colors. This may cause problems for adults. For example, if your 5 year-old asked you to pass the Happily Ever After crayon, would you be able to guess that describes the color formerly known as Turquoise Blue? Is blue even the right color for eternal happiness? Isn’t blue a sad color?

The color formerly known as Laser Lemon was renamed Super Happy. This makes me think these kids are watching either “Saturday Night Live” (the Super Happy Fun Ball sketch) or "Seinfeld" (the Japanese “Super Terrific Happy Show!” episode). Either way, these kids are staying up too late.

I’m old enough to remember a more significant Crayola name change. Back in 1962, someone at Crayola realized that not all the children using crayons were Caucasians. Which meant that it was inappropriate having a color named Flesh. They renamed it Peach…which is progress, of a sort.

If you’re curious, Crayola has a web page detailing the names and changes to its colors. However, it hasn’t been updated to include the latest name changes. Maybe they're still debating the wisdom of Happily Ever After. I know I am.

*Yes, I know Crayola is manufactured by a company called Binney & Smith. But its only famous products are Crayola and Silly-Putty, so the company renamed itself Crayola LLC last year.

Monday, December 8, 2008

White Christmas Shopping

I don’t usually think of architecture as pernicious*. But I may have been wrong.

I stopped by a new shopping mall today. It was another of those malls designed to look like a town. Most of the stores had fake windows on the second floors. It was just like an urban landscape: shops on the ground floor, residences on the upper floors.

Except, unlike a real town, there were no minorities visible. No homeless. No “undesirables.” It was an idealized shopping town for middle-and-upper-class white people.

If I were in charge, no malls would be permitted to build fake upper floors. If a store has second-floor windows, there would have to be rental apartments behind them. Places people could live, even those who can't afford to shop at those stores.

And every Wall-Mart would have a homeless shelter next to it.

But that’s just me.

*With the possible exception of Brutalism. If there was ever a style in need of re-branding, it’s Brutalism. I wonder if the wordsmith who turned the Estate Tax into the Death Tax is still available?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

10% of Everything...

Back in 1951, the late science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon came up with this axiom:
Ninety percent of everything is crap.
This eventually became known as Sturgeon’s Law.

I just spotted this reversal of Sturgeon’s Law on the blog BurnLab:
Ten percent of everything is extraordinary.

Now, I don’t know if the BurnLab poster, Michael Doyle, came up with that reversal. But it’s pretty good, and a lot more positive. Enough so that it’s my quote of the week.

By the way, the next time you hear someone pontificate that “There are only two types of people in the world,” you have my permission to step on their punch line and say, “Yes – those who separate people into two types and those who don’t.”

I’ll be back Monday.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Too Many Writers Groups?

Last night I was in Wilmington, DE, for the fourth meeting of a new writers group. I enjoy getting out to socialize with other writers. Writing is a solitary profession, and meeting others who do the same thing reminds you that you’re not a crazy person.

But I’m now in three different writers groups: one in my home town, one in Bucks County, PA, and one in Wilmington, DE. And I wonder if I’m spending too much time in (and commuting to) writers groups, and not enough time simply writing.

As long as these meetings serve as a self-imposed deadline for writing, I suppose they’re worthwhile for me. I wrote a short comedic essay for last night’s meeting, and I’m sure I would’ve put that off without a deadline.

I’m also told that I generally make useful comments at these groups. At last night’s meeting, I referenced Jane Austin, Donald Barthelme, the Brontë sisters (and their brother, Branwell), James Maberry, Petrarch, Darrell Schweitzer, and Shakespeare. I’m not sure if that’s profound or pretentious. Probably it’s both.

I usually write short, funny pieces for these groups. You never know for sure if something is funny until your audience laugh. When I read my new piece out loud last night, I got laughs in most of the right places…but not all. I also got a good suggestion on where to end it. Finding the right “button” to end a piece is always one of the hardest tasks.

So I expect I’ll be at the next meeting of the Wilmington Writers.

However, I’ll plug the writers group of which I’m currently the president: the Brandywine Valley Writers Group meets monthly in West Chester, PA. For information, go to or click here.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Wimping Out at 3:30 am

I spent Friday night at the Cherry Hill Comedy Cabaret in New Jersey. A friend, stand-up comic Vinnie Nardiello, was performing there, and he did a fine job. After the show, Vinnie and I caught up over some beers.

To my delight, another comic stopped by to join us: Jay Black. I don’t see Jay much any more. He’s headlining on the college circuit, often performing at several colleges a week. He was even voted “Readers Choice for 2008 College Comedian of the Year” in Campus Activities magazine.

It’s a pleasure to see a friend who is on his way to the top of his profession. In addition to being a superb stand-up, Jay is also staring to get work as a screenwriter. Of course, I don’t know which is more deadening to the artistic soul: performing at yet another community college in Iowa, or punching up jokes in someone else’s inane screenplay that shouldn’t be filmed at all.

Whether in Hollywood or Iowa, I know Jay would rather be back in New Jersey, playing with his infant son.

Jay, Vinnie and I talked late into the night. But I’m not a youthful 31-year-old like Jay and Vinnie, and I started falling asleep at 3:30 am. Vinnie told me that he and Jay kept on for another hour. Wish I still had that kind of stamina.

Jay Black has an excellent blog, which you can find here.

Am I the only one who, whenever someone mentions Iowa, wants to add:
And in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying, in the land where they let the children cry?
Can’t get Jack Kerouac out of my head.