October, 1997.

Send comments to Paul.

10/31/97: Become a High-Flying Celeb (after your death).

On page 61 of this week's New Yorker (Nov. 3) there is a small item (reprinted from the Miami Herald) that could have easily been overlooked, except by folly observers such as us:

The cremated remains of the late fireworks
showman Vic VIckers, whom admirerers called
the Wizard of Aahs, was part of the colorful
Fourth of July fireworks display over Orlando's
Lake Eola.

Imagine the glory of having your ashes as part of the pyrotechnics. I immediately considered a service where one could order this kind of celestial sendoff "in advance of need" (as they say at Forest Lawn). You could even choose the holiday and the locale: e.g. Disneyland in June, or Paris in the fall. Of course, space would be limited, and the service would be pricey. However, you could offer group rates, since the ashes could sit around for months or years without harm.

It really sounds like a real business opportunity waiting to happen. I guess that it is really a logical extension of having one's ashes scattered to the winds at sea. (If you like reading about the comic implications of funerals and death, I recommend: Mail Order Caskets, Funerals, Zombies, and Mail Order Caskets, Again!.

Happy Halloween.

10/30/97: La Souris qui Sourit- In Praise of Small Things.

My title (literally "the mouse who smiles") arose from reflections on the 1959 Peter Sellers movie, The Mouse that Roared, a mordant comedy about the war declared on the US by the Duchy of Grand Fenwick in the hopes that it would lose and qualify for foreign aid. The plan fails when the medieval knights land in New York and steal the most powerful bomb in existence.

We are so impressed by big money, celebrities, sweeping reforms, and major crimes in the news that small stories, charged with humanity, go unappreciated and escape our attention. Who knows: these events could prove immeasurably significant in the long run. Five examples of headlines follow:

1)Cat in Tree Rescued. Victim of Clever Squirrels- This one really gets the blood going. You can just feel the tension in the air as brave firemen risk life and limb on high ladders.

2)Raritan Township to Host Bean Soup Cookoff- Senior citizens reach for the nitroglycerine tabs on reading this one. Once this Dionysian feast gets going, who knows when the air will clear.

3)Local Manville Man Feted for 50 Years of Perfect Attendance at Church Bingo- This is a classic paradigm of the persistence of human nature in the face of adversity.

4)Helmo Flato Celebrates 90th Birthday, Oldest Springlake Harmonette- With a voice like Godzilla this stalwart goes on croaking (an inspiration to us all). I am certainly ready with MY ticket for the next concert of the Harmonettes (which I am told will feature arrangements of tunes made famous by Dinah Shore and Little Richard).

5)Crowds at Church Picnic Turn Ugly in Wake of Pope's Visit- Shades of urban violence cast a grey pall over the typically peaceloving flock. What the hell did the Pope say (or do)?

So, the next time you read of Stock Market crashes, government overthrows, and the latest bomber-criminal on the front page of your daily newspaper, make a beeline for page 35 and the goodies that await you.

10/29/97: Television Truth.

Maybe, the placement of both those words together generates more than a little cynicism. We are so used to seeing commercials for giant hamburgers, mysterious foamy soaps that annihilate mildew, disgustingly ordinary sedans that appear to fly in space, while at the same time attracting beautiful women, and politician-felons denying any wrongdoing.

You start to ask if anything on television is remotely close to the truth. Probably the Marlins won the world series, and the stock market went bananas; but little else may be either true or relevant. Am I supposed to be shocked by lesbian characters in a sitcom or someone cooking up the world's largest bagel? I had the observation that reality was being ORDERED for me: I didn't have to think about what was bogus. I merely had to accept it all as part of a kind of training for product tunnel vision.

The entire goal is to get me to go on a date in my new car and eat that giant hamburger with the cheese, bacon, avocado and magic sauce on it. This paradigm may have taken the place of the religious promise of an idyllic afterlife. Your dreams (which we have provided for you) will come true today. As long as human nature feeds its weakness for instant gratification, the total prevarication that calls itself television will prevail. The perverse conclusion that I reach is that we want to be fooled.

10/28/97: Jiang Zemin's Fantasy.

On hearing that protesters would line the streets during the visit of Jiang Zemin, the Premier of China, the leader blustered confidently, "why, President Clinton should just put them down!" It was as though he were unaware that the very reason for the protest was confirmed by his remarks (the implication being that surely, the President could wave his hand imperiously like a king). Patent folly in Western terms, yet if we try to understand China from where we sit, it is like that recent review of a David Cronenberg movie by a tv critic: it was like the movie was directed by a person from another planet.

When I visited China, around fifteen years ago to give concerts, I definitely got the impression that here human nature had been redefined. At one country inn in Xian I awoke to discover a uniformed man swatting flies, collecting them on a dinner plate, and carefully counting them. The number was dutifully recorded in a fat ledger. In a country of full employment there were jobs that I could not imagine, even in my wildest fantasies. Walking out into the garden of that inn I noticed perfectly shaped but wizened Wisteria trees: the whole area was like an impeccably pruned bonsai collection with all the plants full size. I asked the gardener (a kind of Buddhist monk) about the garden: in a Charlie Chan voice, straight from central casting he intoned " oh, garden not old, just 800 years." The monks had been caring for this creation for a length of time four times as old as the United States. That means that the wisteria was planted before the birth of Dante.

Somebody has just made a bumper sticker that says: Peas on Earth. Maybe that's as close to accord as we can get.

Peace porridge hot,
Peace porridge cold,
Peace porridge in the pot
Nine days old.

10/27/97: The Country of Edible Money (a fable).

Once upon a time there was a country where all the money was edible. Far in the distant past the rulers had decided that the money would be designed so that it could be consumed as food. In fact, it was the temptingly best food to be had in the land. As a result, very few people had the willpower to save any money, and many became corpulent and sluggish from eating the delicious currency. Perverted establishments rose up to further tempt the people with exciting and mouth watering money recipes: they were exceedingly popular.

Since the money was so good to eat, everyone had a strong work ethic to be able to consume the wonderful stuff. Unfortunately nobody ever saved any money, and the country was in a constant state of economic chaos, with cycles of boom and bust. The king issued a call out to anyone who could solve the dilemma of the edible money (without making it inedible), but years passed before anyone came up with a solution to the problem.

Finally a smart wag came up with the idea of the edible credit card to replace the edible money. Since using it and eating it were mutually exclusive, the people with no self control could never go into debt. Since anything charged on the card would be paid off automatically from their salaries, those who ate the cards amassed huge bank accounts and became rich, and the willpower of those who used the cards eventually flagged. As a result the country became prosperous.

The moral: you are what you eat.

10/26/97: Halloween Masks.

As my favorite holiday approaches I keep thinking that to really scare people one would need a whole new category of mask, rather than the usual goblins, witches, and slimy movie monsters. Perhaps the masks could be tailored to the kind of party to be attended. For example, at a businessmen's party you would wear the Alan Greenspan mask and issue veiled threats of raising interest rates. At a gathering of politicos you could wear masks of Dan Quayle or Newt Gingrich and make obscene gestures as once and future presidential candidates; or, you could arrive as a pair and threaten to run on the same ticket.

Dictator masks, such as Fidel Castro, Pol Pot, or Moammar Qadaffi could certainly scare the crap out of diplomats at one of their halloween parties. For those politically correct parties with a religious flavor, wear the Louis Farrakhan or Ayatollah Khomeni masks. If the gathering is primarily artists and theatrical or literary types, wear masks of Harold Robbins, Neil Simon, or Andrew Lloyd Webber. These execrably putrid but wildly successful pseudo creative gasbags would scare any serious aspiring artist with principles.

I hope that this little introduction to a new concept of what it would be like to try to scare people where they live will encourage you all to dispense with the usual Batman and Elvira stuff and cook up meaningfully scary masks.

10/25/97: Newspapers: Obsolete?

A character in the almost generation old movie, Network proclaims that only three percent of us read the newspapers in an extended diatribe on the evils of tv. By the late nineties, that figure has probably shrunk even more. Every Cassandra is ready to blame some electronic medium, from radio to the internet, for the daily rag's decline; but, maybe we should take a good look what occupies the most space between the headlines and the classifieds.

An alien from another planet, opening the average daily would think that its main purpose was to report on the latest houseware bargains at Kmarttm or the 99-cent special at Burger Kingtm (you know, the giant bacon, cheese, green pepper, and pineapple Hula Burger or something like that). Shoehorned in between the countless ads for liposuction and automobiles is the occasional yellow journalist's crowning achievement: the disgusting crime with obligatory sensational trial (Crime and Punishment for the masses).

If the newspaper is croaking, maybe the fault lies in the people who produce it, not in the competition.

10/24/97: You are a Liar!.

Them's fightin' words. In the old west I would be out on the street, ready to draw my six gun. The only thing worse would be to say: "Yer a coward!" I started to think about the way we filter the truth in modern, polite society and realized that we lie at least half the time. " Dr. X is not available." (he's taking a crap); I left it in my other suit (dress) [you mean, that expired driver's license?]

How many times do we stretch things to get out of an embarrassing or compromising tight spot. " The dog (or perhaps other pet for the more creative prevaricator) ate my homework " is my favorite, along with the check is in the mail.

I began to readdress this topic, because I have recently had to confront the usual dangerous and uncharted swamp of university administrators. I realized that I would receive more than the safely allotted daily dose of snake oil. These guys are incapable of telling the truth, while simultaneously defending "official policies" (whatever that means). A request for a rubber band is the same as an application for a $1,000,000,000 grant to rid the world of belly button lint.

I will sit at my Unix workstation and pretend to be Ming the Merciless: there is an impenetrable truth in the omnipotence of totalitarianism. If you are a big enough prick, then everything you say is automatic truth (Stalin knew this). Why not put sexually compromising pictures of Anna Nicole Smith on the computer monitors of members of the Supreme Court? I will hack into the Florist Telegraph Delivery Website and send illegal and unpaid-for flowers to Richard Nixon's gravesite. God knows: he deserves them.

10/23/97: Spiders in the Audience.

After much procrastination I decided to clean my study and composing workspace; The area had become like Miss Havesham's room in the movie version of Great Expectations. Spiders had essentially taken over the area. I wondered why there would be so many around the piano and got a sudden flash of inspiration: they (the spiders) are real classical music lovers. I had been practicing a lot of Bach, and these arachnids were in obvious good taste, setting up their digs within earshot. In essence, they appear to have considerablly more cultural flexibility than the average American teenager, whose ear is invariably glued to the rap of Coolio et al.

Now, if I could only get the spiders to buy concert tickets. If Saint Anthony could preach to the fishes and Saint Francis could preach to the birds, why couldn't I play to the bugs?

10/22/97:The Things We Didn't Know We Needed.

Sauntering into a Thriftytm Drug Store I spyed a heavy set woman of advancing years, buying a pair of slippers in the shape of soft, multicolored, steam locomotives which tooted the Colonel Bogey March (you know, from The Bridge on the River Kwai) when feet were inserted into them. The whole combination of elements seemed odd in the extreme, particularly in a "drug" store. Then I started to cruise the place and found the extent to which modern life had really redefined our crying needs.

This old dinosaur was somehow playing out the American dream of blatant wanton consumerism for its own sake. The goods did not really matter: what was important was the prodigality of intent. For those of us thatcoveted Nehru jackets in the 60's or black ties with pink shirts in the 50's, the outrageous and unreachable objects of desire could assume almost any form. Do I really need flying saucer sunglasses, suntan lotion endorsed by Paul Newman, or a combination enema-douche kit in designer colors to match my bathroom towels? I started to wonder what percentage of the crap that is manufactured is really essential to life support, or even aesthetically uplifting in a more general sense than silicone breast supports.

The world may have become a place of junk entrepreneurship: the stuff is already junk before you get it home. It honored place in the saturday garage sale is already assured. There is a perfection in the perfect ecosystem of rampant, voracious consumerism. GIGO, brother.

10/21/97: Beethoven Wept.

A few years ago I attended a concert which featured some X-rated music by Wagner and a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The orchestra conductor would definitely fit into one of my eight categories of incompetence, with spells of eccentric behaviour on the podium. He seemed to get more and more involved in the score as the piece wore on until the Finale: it was as though he were suddenly afflicted with a kind of twitching palsy.

The Finale began with a terrible dissonant fanfare (made more dissonant because half the brass miscounted and came in half a beat early) and the introduction of the voices, first the baritone soloist, who became aphasiac and sounded like he was spitting out gravel. When I heard the words O freunde, nicht Dies Töne, Schiller's immortal text had gathered new significance. As the vocal forces entered, the conductor assumed an almost godlike countenance, almost as though he were creating these bodies from the clay of the earth. Although the musical result was pedestrian, to look at this conductor's face, you would think that you were witnessing miracles. As the emotional level of this rousing piece rose, the conductor's gestures became more erratic and extreme (you would almost think that he was frothing at the mouth). Finally, at the symphony's Coda, which was taken at a horrendous, frenetic pace, the conductor's head appeared to bob about as though it were not connected to the body: he was like one of those puppets of Charlie McCarthy. At the absolutely most insane moment he stopped, made some confused motions with his hands, and was seen to be receiving something from the first violist.

It turns out that in the conductor's excitement his false teeth had popped out into the viola section, and the section leader felt duty bound to return them to him. The orchestra went on as though nothing had happened and ended the piece on their own. The flustered conductor acted like his pants had fallen down, but he took a very careful bow anyway after recovering his composure. Beethoven would have wept (I was told later by the first clarinetist that in an earlier rehearsal this conductor's toupee had flown in the air during Strauss's Til Eulenspiegel).

10/20/97: Bad Conductors II.

Continuing our fractured lexicon of incompetent stick men (and women) of the podium, we come to the animals: 1) the Emperor Penguin, 2) the Howler Monkey, 3) the Grasshopper, and 4) the Polar Bear. The Emperor Penguin is the typical stiff time beater who always shows that classic instant relief once the piece is over. Penguins resemble store mannequins, except that don't conduct as well. The left hand is always glued to the left side, and the baton is gripped firmly (this technique once resulted in a self-stabbing by this kind of conductor). Emperor Penguins are extremely pompous.

The Howler Monkey dances all over the podium and is most likely to fall off of it in a heated moment. Unlike the Greaseball (of Bad Conductors), the Howler Monkey never sweats and, at least knows more than the first violin part. They also seem to enjoy conducting immensely and are best at bowing and acknowledging the concertmaster, solo winds, and anyone even remotely connected with the piece; unfortunately, they also tend to yell at the musicians in rehearsal over minor and trivial (and often non existent) deviations from the score.

The Grasshopper has a pseudo preciso manner, with tight, quick motions of the baton. Many cues are given, usually resulting in no new sounds. This is the most dangerous type of conductor, because there is a patina of real knowledge, a thin manhole cover over a sewer of insecurity. Grasshoppers try to instill fear in the hearts of the players but usually get the biggest laughs after rehearsal.

The Polar Bear has a lumbering, hulking manner, and this gracelessness translates into slow physical comedy. When the Polar Bear goes into a large circular beat, you know he is lost in the score and the players are on their own. I have seen many inexperienced composers who become polar bears on the podium. They NEVER smile.

This second installment provides the barest minimum for the well informed concertgoer to be able to identify what kind of bad conductor is on for the evening. Armed with this ancient and forbidden knowledge you can develop a true and deep enjoyment of the concert experience. Tomorrow, I will relate a specific comic gem from a classic bad conductor (you may supply the label).

10/19/97: Advanced Baseball

Every time I go by one of those upscale little league baseball fields and see legions of tiny uniformed players, looking for all the world like miniature professionals, I think of the one and only baseball game in which I participated as a child. It was the summer of 1954, and all my child prodigy friends and I were preparing our solo recitals at one of those music camps (this one was in North Carolina). One of the teachers got the idea to form a child-prodigy baseball team to play the team at Camp Onandaga (probably named after that famous premature ejaculator in the Bible). Some basball caps and gloves were handed out, and we began to prepare for the big game. Luckily there were some girls who had played baseball before; the biggest of them, Doris Lakin, became the pitcher. SInce I had never caught a baseball in my life, I was relegated to the outfield.

When the big day arrived, we took the bus to their stadium. There must have been a hundred kids in spotless, Onandaga Orioles uniforms all doing squat-jumps. Miniature pitchers were warming up in the bullpen, and a couple of monsters were swinging bats. With practically no prior training we hit the field in a miserable attempt to oppose these pint-sized professionals. In place of uniforms, we all had matching Scarlatti Tee shirts and bright green socks. It was decided that a 3 inning game would be played, but fate would intervene to call the game off. We were up first, and the expert hurler on the mound smoked us in nine easy pitches. At the bottom of the first we took to the field and the first Onandaga monster lumbered up to the plate. Doris's first pitch was hit deep into center field- a high, fly ball that seemed to hang in the air for an eternity. When it finally descended it landed squarely on top of the centerfielder's head, causing him to pass out. As two of the teachers were dispatched to the outfield for first aid, we waited; and, as the horrible moments passed we witnessed the solemn procession as our centerfielder was carried back to the dugout (it was like Captain Nemo being brought back to his submarine).

The rest of the game was cancelled, and most of us tyros breathed a sigh of relief. The ex-centerfielder was only sightly dazed and sustained a large, egg-like bump on top of his head. We went back to our camp, practiced our instruments, and never mentioned baseball again.

10/18/97: Bad Conductors

An occasional favorite topic of mine is the folly associated with the public personae of bad musicians (see Diva and Accompanying the bad Violinist); however, the richest resource of incompetence is in the area of conducting. In fact, so vast is this field, that I will have to concentrate on a few drôles de types at a time.

There are four main phonies that are easily identified: 1)the Greaseball, 2) the Vampire, 3) the Molester, and 4) the Semiconductor. The Greaseball is extremely popular with teenagers and old ladies because he (she) gesticulates wildly, sweats, and jumps in the air (while not ever doing anything even remotely related to the composer's score). Most of the concert preparation occurs at the tailors', getting the tuxedo to fit perfectly. The Vampire tends to assume the classic Dracula pose while raising the arms in the air. It seems that many composer-conductors have a natural gift for this style of stage presence. Vampires always seem obsessed with their work, and their tuxedos never seem to fit. They usually know the musical score, but are careful not to communicate any knowedge of it of the other musicians.

The Molester is most commonly found among choral conductors. This beast makes obscene gestures with the hands (often the same gesture mirrored in right and left) and seems to be on the verge of feeling the breasts of the closest altos. They are usually self-taught and have a kind of local, popular appeal with audiences. There is a special breed that favors choirs of young boys. The Semiconductor is just that: a grotesque, confused insect who never seems to know what planet he is on, much less what piece is being performed. If he (she) gives cues, the signals occur almost always after the musical passage has passed. Their greatest talent is usually giving an inane and fatuous speech before the concert, welcoming the audience. Sometimes miserable attempts are made to analyze the score or give irrelevant or apocrypohal details of the composer's life.

I have just scratched the surface of this rich resource. I guarantee a return to the wonderful world of conducting charlatans.

10/17/97: Where is the Magic?

The Aborigines had a strong belief that magic was an intrinsic part of the human condition. They believe that we had (once) a kind of second sense of time and place, and we have subsequently lost it in our pursuit of hamburgers, Microsoft Wordtm, and the American Dream. Verbally flatulent tv ministers from Billy Graham to Jerry Falwell talk about our "spirituality" as though it was the exclusive property of some effeminate, white and mincing Jesus (obviously not like the real one but more like Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Scorsese). Did it ever occur to them that the spirituality is within us and that we all partake of something large and wonderful, way out there in the cosmos, too complex and powerful to really take in with mere reason, and we certainly can't buy it by giving them our money. I say: put down your tv remotes, Big Macstm, and Diet Cokes. Try to search for the inner being that made a hasty retreat three milion years ago when the first caveman tried to market the first fast food.

The Aborigines are right; they are poor, look weird, but they are right. Ted Turner and Donald Trump are WRONG! The whole gigantic frozen pizza (now with the rising crust) and stuffed falafel-filled modern world will crumble into so much toxic waste, and ultimately fossil fuel for the beings of Century 25.

Try to get in touch with the you that feels good and right and forget about the opinions of Oprah, Leno, Rush, Dan Rather, and all the other inflated false poobahs with their million-dollar tinsel wardrobes. Pull the plug on the prevarication of the modern world; go outside and look at a real flower or a piece of real fruit. Sit down with a piece of chalk and create your own reality: it was definitely good enough for the first three million years.

10/16/97: The Old Blowoff.

Today's Misfit is dedicated to those young and idealistic souls who have good ideas and must pitch them to old fools who lie. I give the statement and the translation. Watching the passing parade of university administrators has given me ample experience in doublespeak:

1. You have my full support (watch your back: you may fall on my knife).
2. I am impressed by your candor (what kind of an insulting clown are you, anyway?).
3. I will take your suggestions under advisement (forget it; you're history).
4. I'll give the matter my immediate attention (bury it, if a document, then throw it away).
5. My assistant can help you (out of this office and out of the firm).
6. I was just thinking about this issue (I plan to steal your idea, you naive schmoo).
7. My associates and I have the matter under complete control (we're clueless and up to our necks in dog do).
8. I'll be sure to talk to your supervisor (and see that he sends you to our Devil's Island Office).
9. When you have been here as long as I.....(when you are suitably corrupted).
10. Good to see you again (Oh, Jesus: this jerk again).
11. Interesting suit (loud, in bad taste, and trying to outdress the boss).
12. I've had my eye on you for a long time (who the hell are you?).
13. You should normally go through channels (absolutely nothing will happen).
14. We have a long tradition of....(do it, or else!).
15. You know Ms. X? (you know I'm screwing her; don't even think about it).
16. I have thoroughly read your report (in the last 30 seconds), and I think that you have some revolutionary (destructive, self-aggrandizing, rock-the-boat) ideas. I'll do everything in my power (nothing) to see that you (soon to be an ex-employee) are rewarded (fired). Implementing (burying) this plan is crucial to the future of this firm (me and my phony-baloney job).

10/15/97: Irresistible Danger.

There seem to be a certain number of negative experiences that all of us are drawn to, even though we know beforehand that they will cause us great harm. The classic one is putting a finger into a lightbulb socket: why would any kid do this? Yet we have all yielded to the irresistible danger of this foolish act.

Out on the tree hangs green fruit, just waiting to sour our guts; yet, we march like lemmings to the grove and eat it (shades of Adam and Eve in that famous Garden). It seems that there would be two explanations to this apparently destuctive behaviour: 1) the dangerous experience is a misdirected curiosity or 2) all human beings have a self-destructive streak. Given the patent egomania of all children, the kind of foolhardy adventures pursued may simply confirm a deluded sense of invincibility. In adults the foray into certain destruction may just be a refined ramification of stupidity.

The next time you see a suburban homeowner cutting the lawn in bare feet or sandals, ask yourself if this image is more appropriate to the human condition. We are not really like that big statue of Lincoln in the memorial in Washington D.C. or the Statue of Liberty; we are more like Homer Simpson, losing patience with the ordinary and humdrum and braving certain obliteration for one moment of fleeting and ridiculous glory.

10/14/97: Good Ear.

In the past I have already addressed the outrageous event of the Tyson-Holyfield boxing match (see Inexperienced Vampire). How could anyone improve on the absurdity of this event? Well it turns out that a firm in North Hollywood, The Candy Factory, has been marketing chocolate representations of Evander Holyfield's ear, called "Earvander-Tyson Bites." I don't think I could make up stuff as mordent as this.

Act Three of this travesty has Holyfield's lawyer suing the company for unlawful use of the fighter's likeness. The company has stopped marketing the grotesque confection but has plans to sell chocolate false teeth, which it plans to call "Munchy Marvs," after the notorious events surrounding the Marv Albert sex crimes case.

Maybe the company hasn't gone far enough: why not render O.J. glove candy or Timothy McVeigh bomb candy. Obliterating good taste opens the floodgates for chocolate monuments to everything from President Clinton's nose to John Wayne Bobbit's severed penis. What kind of perverse fantasies are engendered by the purchaser of such candy when it is finally eaten?

10/13/97: Don't Take Any.

This was made in my home town and may have been a maiden aunt's life savings.

10/12/97: Laughing Gas.

Facing the grim prospect of a tooth extraction, I started to think about laughing gas (nitrous oxide, that stuff that makes commercial whipped cream fluffy and turns normal people into dipheads when inhaled). Far beyond its effects as a pain reliever, the gas could be imagined as the atmosphere of an entire planet. All the inhabitants would go around in a giddy frenzy, and no work would be accomplished. Imbued with the Calvinist ethic, we forget that for the first two and one-half million years, the caveman did not go to a job, but was on a kind of permanent camping trip (without the convenience or expense).

If the atmosphere of earth was suddenly comprised of laughing gas, we would revert to a kind of blissful euphoria. Everyone would be too occupied fooling around to conduct business, wage war, or destroy the planet. Earlier this month I referred to the gas planet where we are inundated by idle talk; well, the new "laughing gas planet" would be a place of fun and no work. If all work and no play would make us dull, then all play and no work would make us interesting in a nonproductive way.

The only trouble is that we would have to give up modern life: all the power generators, utilities, and services would stop, because everyone would be screwing off and nobody would care. Pollution would stop, and nature would right itself. We would probably revert to becoming jocose caveman in designer clothes. Needless to say, I am not about to propose this extreme solution to Greenpeace.

10/11/97: First Rehearsals.

The first rehearsal of a new piece of music can definitely make a composer suicidal. There is a famous scene in the movie, Amadeus where Mozart is in the early stages of rehearsing The Marriage of FIgaro, and all the singers are so unfamiliar with the music that the entrances and rhythms are continually wrong. The familiar opening of the opera takes on a grotesque and surreal sound, as though all the performers were drugged.

There is that strange time in the life of a piece where only the composer (we hope) knows what it sounds like, and everyone else has to struggle to figure out the score. The music invariably sounds like a horrible distortion with errors or judgment going off with the regularity of grenades in war. I have had first rehearsals where I could not even recognize my own piece. Every music graduate student has the experience of readings, where the pros sit down and try to play a new piece at sight. This initiation by fire has nipped many potentially gifted artists in the bud, they not being tough enough to survive this ordeal.

The damnable part is that for a generation, contemporary music WAS a horrible assemblage of incomprehensible burps and squeaks; so, nobody could tell the real stinkers from the badly played. There is a famous quote from Anton Webern at the rehearsal of one of his cantatas: "listen to that stuff! A note here, a note there, like the music of a madman!" It's also possible that Webern was right.

10/10/97: Old West, New West.

Referring to the old days of Silverton, Colorado, I have told stories of "Big Tillie" Fattor. It seems that the Old West was peppered with legendary characters. In addition to the usual cast of famous gunslingers we read of such notables as Jack Gilheany with his "Laundry," a combination of restaurant, dance hall, gambling palace and whorehouse. There were many stories of clients coming in a shooting up the place, causing riots and general mayhem. Reckless lifestyle was expected: witness "Dottie" Watson, who ran a famous bordello. The day she paid off all her debts, she was taken before a certain Judge McNutt and tried for insanity. Just the idea that she got out of debt got her into a lot of trouble (she was declared afflicted with a "softening of the brain" and taken to the insane asylum at Pueblo).

Comparing some of this crazy and violent stuff with today's headlines of gang violence, freaked out postal workers on killing sprees, bizarre bordello madams (remember Heidi Fleiss?), and colorful but corrupt politicians, maybe things have not changed so much in the New West. We appear to be incipient gunslingers, covetting our weapons and luxuriating in our booze and drug cocktails. I think this is what is referred to as "interesting city life." Let all the other clowns live in those boring small towns without the drive-by shootings and scandals. After all, there's always small town gossip. People in Plainfield, N.J., my home town, are still talking about the woman who carried on clandestine sexual affairs simultaneously with half the volunteer fire company.

10/9/97: Inventing the Wheel (A caveman dialogue).

Zork: Ugh. What this?

Grog: Me call it "wheel." Get idea from wife rolling down hill.

Zork: What it good for?

Grog: I dunno. Maybe make into coffee table or bar.

Zork: Want trade? Give three hen teeth, very scarce.

Grog: OK.

(Time passes).

Netno: Ugh. What this?

Zork: Grog call it "wheel". Get idea from wife rolling down hill.

Netno: What it good for?

Grog: I dunno. Want trade?

Netno: Naw. I already got coffee table.

Any relationship to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. This is a history moment, presented to you by those who gave you Captain Video and the Schmoo.

10/8/97: Potzers.

The term has its origins in the Scottish game of golf and may be describing an individual likely to delay the game (it does not relate to putz, the Yiddish expletive which has decidedly no reference to golf... except obliquely in the expression: "old golfers never die, they just lose their b..ls").

In addition to the implication that potzers delay the game of life by moving slowly, there is also the slight hint that they deceive, in that they are not quite what they are cracked up to be. Potzers are really bogus players who get in the way of real players.

In my pantheon of defective types: Are you a Schmoo?, Zombies Walk Among Us, and Stuffed, Talking toys, I would place potzers as the most innocuous, but least effective. They impede the flow of culture and prevent us from getting on with our lofty goals. Of course if we don't have lofty goals, then they impede our loafing and prevarication.

I remember an extended intellectual discussion that I had with my classmates at Columbia with regard to the idea that any action is better than no action at all. As veteran teenagers we ascertained that life was participation and forward motion: anything else was like death. In my present state of mind I am not so sure. The hibernating bear is merely preparing for grander things. He checks out for a while to evaluate his life, hangs back, and snoozes. He is the ideal potzer.

10/7/97: The Gas Planet.

Rush Limbaugh may just be "a big bag of gas" according to David Letterman, but he has plenty of company on the radio and tv airwaves. I am sure you are interested in five men who have married wives who weigh over 400 pounds; and, there's always the woman who wants to bring her ex boyfriend on her honeymoon. From the histrionics of Howard Stern to Oprah's flea-brain circus there appears to be no end of empty fantasy, disguised as "truth." We really believe those dog owners who gave their pets sex change operations and that old guy who has eaten nothing but spaghetti for the last 40 years.

Many people in the communications industry were surprised when so called news programming took the lion's share of listeners' and viewers' time in a recent poll. However, if the talk shows, shock jocks, and Access Hollywood type of junk gossip programs are included, then they are a worthy successor to the popular sitcoms of old, the previously reigning genre. The question which disturbs my consciousness involves the fascination with crap news and novelty scandals by the average person. Has modern life become so humdrum that peole expect to get wisdom from the 400 pound wives?

Maybe human curiosity has evolved to new heights of folly. How often have you been stuck in highway gridlock, only to find out that everyone in front of you has been stopping to watch some poor schlub getting a ticket by some cop.

10/6/97: New Pets.

I always enjoy a challenge.

10/5/97: Electrical Repairs.

Now legendary is the famous scene in How to Murder your Wife where the Jack Lemmon character tries to changes the light bulb in an overhead fixture and is literally blown off the ladder in a shower of sparks. We are convinced that his inveterate fear of electricity translates into monumental incompetence. As a public service and in the tradition of Repairing a Toilet and Plumbing, in General, the Misfit now offers general suggestions on home electrical repairs.

1. Turn off the power to the device or circuit. This suggestion may be far more difficult that you think: I remember helping a friend hook up an outdoor clock from a circuit that received mysterious power, even after the main switch was thrown. I suggested that he sell the house.
2. Have the proper tools and make sure that they have insulated handles. All that stuff that you have in the junk drawer- dull razor blade cutters, rounded and worn screwdrivers, pliers covered in peanut butter from an unsuccessful jar opening, and that deliberately flaky flashlight- is inadequate.
3. If you are assembling a new device throw away the directions. Chances are that among the nineteen languages represented, the English is incomprehensible, because it has been translated from the Korean by Buddhist monks, who themselves made a bad translation from Mediaeval German.
4. Don't do electrical repairs standing in water or in your bare feet. You never know when something is "live." I had a recent experience in which I found that all my metal bookshelves in one room were charged with 110 volts AC (anyone reaching for a book would definitely get a charge out of it).
5. All those different colored wires are there to confuse you. The colors bear no relationship to any known plan. I always think of the 1961 Hillman Minx convertible I bought for $100: when the electric automatic transmission went bad I tried to fix it and discovered 400 identical cream colored wires inside that were untraceable.
6. Light a candle in church before the moment of truth, that magical instant when you have to test your repair by plugging the unit in. After years of experience I have had the misfortune to see a $10,000 computer go up in smoke because of an incorrect part.
7. (Referring to no. 6): make sure you buy the proper fuses, bulbs, and other replacement parts, or you will turn your appliance, computer, television, or radio into a bomb.
8. (Referring to no. 7): that 50-cent fuse has a whole network of expensive and delicate parts to protect it.
9. If you need to use a voltmeter, it will fail thirty seconds after you try to use it; or, the array of jacks and knobs will defeat your ability to know if your readings mean anything.
10. If the device to be repaired has that "burned plastic bagel" smell, throw it out: you will never fix it. The thing has become either a modern day fossil or a work of sculpture.

10/4/97: Whois? III.

In the grand tradition of "Big Tilly" Fattor and William Crapo Durant, Samuel Woolley Taylor enters the pantheon of the unjustifiably obscure. "Wooley", known by his admirers as the Mormon Mark Twain, wrote such masterpieces as Flubber and The Absentminded Professor. Both ponderous tomes were turned into Disney potboilers and contributed to widespread scientific ignorance for two generations of kids.

If you look up his recent obituary, you find out that he died (last week) at the age of 90, also chronicled the life of his robust father, who had six wives, three dozen children, and who was dropped from the Mormon Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for being too horny. The latter days of his life were spent as a public relations officer for the US Air Force in London. He is certainly being mourned by his thirty-five brothers and sisters.

10/3/97: Big Brother is Watching.

I ran into this guy in Arizona. I wonder if he might be interested in the Big Telephone that I have?

10/2/97: Stars of the Bank Surveillance Camera.

I am sure that we all have seen those grisly and perverted looking pictures of wanted criminals in the post office. They always look like they came out of Central Casting, like those crude sketches of nameless thugs, lurking outside the door in those security lock ads. It seems that with the advent of the security tv camera anyone can be turned into the criminal type. Suddenly on screen our features become thicker and more menacing, our clothes magically wrinkle and age, and we appear to scowl on cue.

At least twice, after recently visiting the bank I have been apprehended by the police as a bank robbery suspect, because my house is just the right distance from two neighboring local banks, bank robbers invariably pick the parking place in front of it for the getaway car. On the first occasion I was greeted with the drone of helicopters and a porker behind a bullhorn: " Come out with you hands up!" I really felt like I was in my own movie, like some Edward G. Robinson punk on the lam. The effect was heightened by that fact that it was 1 AM, and I had been surreptitiously smoking a joint in the bathroom. Luckily, a neighbor opened the front door as I was being led away manacled in the blare of SWAT team headlights.

The second time I was emerging from my garage on a sunny afternoon on my bike. The minute I hit the street about twenty cops appeared with their weapons drawn. They were sure that I just robbed the Bank of America and was getting away on a stolen bicycle. This time no neighbor appeared to save me. Rather they lined the streets to witness my capture in awed silence. Only when the real bank robbers scurried by in the background was I released, muttering something about all pigs being morons.

My guess is that the cops are watching the same tv shows as the crooks. making it easy for them to recognize each other. Not being a fan of tv, I became a hapless victim through the injudicious choice of wardrobe and because of an inveterate scowling attitude. Now when I enter the bank I say to myself, " Smile, you're on bandit camera!"

10/1/97: The Pressure of Halloween.

Here it is, the first of October and mothers everywhere are starting to amass candy and plan for costumes. One can feel the tension in the air as goblin shops trot out their wares. I have always taken the holiday very seriously and often have made my own costume (see The Halloween Party). This year was the one in which I was going to have my own party, but as the fateful moment approaches, the pressure to exceed the past successes, like my home made octopus suit, may be too great.

If you look at the dizzying array of distribution candy that is available, plus all the caveats about packaging (we know that somewhere an evil and calculating fiend is injecting poison into O Henrys), the choices of sweets could precipitate a nervous breakdown. For many of us Halloween is the beginning of an endless succession of catalog selling (see The Oriental Trading Company). I am sure that you didn't know that there are companies specializing only in glow-in-the-dark witch hats or child homing devices that can be cleverly integrated into that Batmantm costume.

It may be a paradox that human beings in halloween costumes appear to be more approachable than in their daily attire. The holiday, true to its traditional purpose of flushing out all the bad stuff before All Saints' Day is a great leveler. I have always like the scene in Steven Spielberg's ET where through a fortuitous confluence with the spook holiday, the escaping alien is suddenly feels among friends as dozens of halloweeners pass in the street.