Wednesday, August 23, 2017

"A Highly Questionable Call"

Although totally unplanned, it turns out to be “Creepy Occurrence Week” on “Just Thinking”, though this one’s not as terrible as what I wrote about yesterday – feel free to look back and remind yourself what that was; I just did.  That was the worst.  Still, did you ever have something “icky” happen to you – I mean, nothing got on you or anything – but you felt like you needed to take a shower after it was over?  That was the way I felt after the following.  So “Purell” your whole body as a precaution, and awau we go.

Being home a lot, I am faced with a continuing barrage of unsolicited phone calls.

Telemarketers.

Public opinion pollsters.

Automated “Robocalls.”

Automated “Robocalls” in Spanish.

But the call I got yesterday was, by far, the most unwelcome unsolicited phone call I have ever received.  It was so bad, I am considering not answering the telephone ever again, a device whose intrusion I admittedly resent at the best of times. 

Somebody once said – it was some time ago when people used “Pay Phones” and the phone calls cost less – “I abhor the idea that any fool with a nickel in his pocket can make a bell ring in my house.”  That’s me, upgrading the price of the phone call to whatever they charge for one today.  If you could find a “Pay Phone” that still works.

Okay.

The phone in my office rings; I answer it.  Why?  Because it could be important.  It rarely is, but it could be this time.  That’s how they “get” you – you do not want to miss an important phone call.  It just occurred to me, there should be a different “ring” for the important phone calls, to distinguish them from the “Don’t bothers.”  I wouldn’t be surprised if they tried to introduce such a measure in Congress but the powerful “Unsolicited Phone Calls” lobby used their immense influence to shoot it down.  I should Google that and see if it’s true.  Nah, why ruin a good anti-lobbyist anecdote?
Giving away the suspense, as I frequently do – demonstrating my utter disdain for the increased readership telling suspenseful stories might produce – imagine the guy who somehow gets a hold of your credit card and goes on a wild shopping spree at your unwitting expense.  If that felonious slimeball had a voice, that would be exactly the voice I heard when the phone rang in my office and I said,

“Hello?”

THE CALLER WITH THE “CREDIT CARD THEFT” VOICE:  “Hi, Grandpa.”

Okay.  Right away, I should have known something was fishy.  Nobody calls me “Grandpa.”  I’m “Pappy.”  Still I press ahead, ignoring the screaming telltale “giveaway.”

“Who’s calling?”

You know who this is.”

“No I don’t.”

“Guess.”

“I don’t want to do that.”

“Come on.  Guess.”

Here’s the thing… that keeps me polite and still listening.  This could be a legitimate person on the line, a relative calling from Toronto, unaware that I am “Pappy” and not “Grandpa.”  I can therefore not be rude to that person, “A”, because they could actually be someone I know even though I do not recognize their voice, and consequently, “B”, if I am rude to them they will tell everyone in Toronto I’m an idiot.  So, against all odds – and I mean all odds because it is, in fact, an anonymous sleazeball making this call – I take a guess at his name.

“Bob?’

And, wouldn’t you know it, he says,

Yes!  

To which I relaxingly reply,

“Hi, Bob.”

Now understand – as I unconsciously must have – there is a one-in-a-million chance it is actually my Canadian Cousin Bob, who has not called me once in my entire life.  Still, somehow, I feel good – meaning relieved, and vaguely excited – I got it “right.”

Play a game with me here.  As much as I can recall of it, I’m going to tell you what “Bob” said to me over the phone.  Pick the spot where you would have reasonably hung up on him, and see how close it is to when I did.  I would put big money on the fact that I listened to “Bob” longer than anyone sensible would have.  Why?  Not because I was curious to hear the scammer’s “spiel” imaginatively play itself out.  Not because I thought it would make an interesting blog post down the line.  Not because I had substantial time on my hands, having not worked in my chosen line of endeavor for thirteen-plus years.

I remained on the phone due to deeply rooted feelings of guilt, engendered by the possibility of hanging up on a person I should have actually been nice to.  Who wants the label “Snooty Hollywood Big Shot”?  One inadvertent snub, and that’s me – the guy who left who thinks he’s “better than us.”  Stuff like that gets around.  I arrive at Canadian “Customs” and they give me “that look.”

So I stayed on the line.  Listening to an extended narrative, which went very much like the following:

“Bob’s” best friend Marcus had died in a car accident far from home in Ohio, and knowing how much the two had meant to each other, Marcus’s parents had sent him the price of a plane ticket to Ohio, so he could come to the funeral.

Are you ready to hang up yet?  Not me.  So far, it’s an “It’s possible.”  (Although the fact that “Bob” continued the phone call should have been a resonating “Red Flag.”  If this were real, “Bob” would have learned from his single question, “So what are you up to?” and my response to it, “Just the usual – writing my blog and practicing the piano” – that he had accidentally called the wrong “Grandpa.”)

Moving on with the “Scam Story”…

Marcus’s brother Steve had picked him up at the airport, and while delivering him to the funeral, they had stopped to pick up a couple hitchhikers.

Are you hanging up now?  Not me.  It can happen, picking up a couple of hitchhikers on the way to a funeral.  Carrying on…

For reasons I no longer remember – possibly speeding on the way to the funeral – an Ohio police officer pulled them over.

Was that a “Click”?  Not from me.  I keep listening.  It’s an interesting story… even if it’s horse poop.

During a “Routine Check”, the cop discovered one of the hitchers had an outstanding warrant for their arrest.

I’m still listening.  Who wouldn’t be… except, perhaps, everyone?

During a subsequent search of the hitchhikers’ possessions, the police officer found a gun in the female hitchhiker’s purse…

Now?  Not quite, but I’m close.

And – preceded by “Bob’s” words, “…and if you can believe this “… a one-pound a bag of cocaine.”

Annnnd I’m out.  Belatedly, but I have finally heard enough.

“Listen, I am really swamped here.  I gotta go.”

“Are you sure?  It’s really important.”

I say, ”Goodbye”, and, possibly embarrassingly,

“Good luck.”

And I hang up the telephone.

It was weird.  But who knows?  Maybe it was a covert psychological experiment:

“How long will they stay on the line before they have heard enough and hang up?”

For which, my “Personal Sampling” skewed in the extreme direction of,

“Holy crap!  Is he gullible!

I am gullible, because, as “easy mark’s” are, I am congenitally guilty.  Although, in my marginal defense, I did call it quits before, “Who do I make this out to and where should I send it?” 

Still, after ending the phone call, I retained the residual anxiety that I may have actually hung up on Cousin Bob.


Spreading the word from an Ohio prison that I am an idiot.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

"And Then This Happened"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was that kind of a place. 

It was that kind of wedding.

And now, back to the “Crime Scene.”

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

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

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

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

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

Recalling personal memories, such as…

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

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

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

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

That’s the city I live in. 

Overwhelmingly for “better.”

But sometimes – too often for my liking,

For worse.

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

No.  I was concerned about something else.

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

I needed to find out if anything had changed.

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

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

Where just the evening before, it was

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

Best wishes, Big Brother.  

With lifelong appreciation from me.

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

Monday, August 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

Okay.  Enough flattering the readers.

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

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

I said, “This play is for me.”

Why?

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

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

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

That’s better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s Miss Saigon.”

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

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

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


And nailed pretty much dead center.

Friday, August 18, 2017

"Making Your Point (But Missing The Moment)"

Because I’m a pessimist. 

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

Pessimists are what optimists call realists. 

… is what I truly believe.

If pessimists were to label themselves, they would say,

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

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

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

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

A Meaningless Matter of Transitory Consequence:

The Los Angeles Dodgers

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

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

The Dodgers are undeniably red hot.

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

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

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

Which is exactly what I did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Score one for the “Gloomy Guys!”

Except that sometimes…

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

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

I check the paper this morning…

The Dodgers win, 5 to 4.

Demonstrating the “down-side of Pessimism”: 

Your prediction makes sense.

It just happens to be wrong.

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


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