Monday, November 10, 2014

Writing worth reading: William Tenn and Jean Shepherd, and two examples of the humorous essay

There is an old saying: I can read writin’, but I can’t write readin’. That would be true if we did not let precedents be our guides. Reading is a good way to learn how to write, and if you are going to do that why not learn from the best?

William Tenn (1920-2010), whose real name was Philip Klass, was a writer who wrote humorous short science fiction stories. He also wrote this essay about his mother for the magazine, P.S., in 1966. Using the quirks of a late parent is fair game for a writer. Tenn’s story, “My Mother Was a Witch,” about the curses Yiddish women used to lay on others in the New York of the 1920s is very funny. Is it exactly true? I don’t know. But it is a great example of the humorous personal essay.

Copyright © 1966 William Tenn

I don’t think anyone believed Jean Shepherd’s stories of his childhood, his mother, brother, and his “old man,” were true. He wrote at least a couple dozen of them for Playboy in he 1960s. I read them when I was in the Army and passed them around to my friends. We looked forward to a Jean Shepherd story as much as the Playmate of the Month. Shepherd (1921-1999), a radio personality, was great at extemporaneous stories for his program, but he was also a genius at writing carefully crafted funny fiction. They were collected in books like In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories, and The Ferrari In the Bedroom. But what made Shepherd’s indelible and enduring mark on the world was his distinctive voice as narrator telling a tale of his childhood in a movie adapted from several of his Playboy stories, A Christmas Story.

Here he got away from his personal stories and did something any writer can do, collect humor from the daily newspaper. “Triviata Globus” is a collection of various news articles Shepherd took as the basis for his wry observations. It is from the same issue of P.S. as the piece by Tenn.

Copyright © 1966 Jean Shepherd

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

In the Internet Age, revenge goes viral

This tale of an employee resignation came to me via e-mail. I have no way of knowing whether it is true or not, but it is funny. If true, the unnamed young woman has been wronged by a boss and airs her grievances using a public forum. She uses today’s technology to spread her story.

I wonder if it was a YouTube video and someone made screen grabs to create this funnies-like sequence.

I almost feel sorry for Spencer, the former boss. In the not-so-distant past this would have been a private conversation within the company about sexual harassment and a hostile workplace environment, It has become a public scolding. I also wonder about the potential future employers of the young woman. Will they think they should pass her over because what she has done here could also happen to them?

She might have thought it out a bit more; she cannot call it back at this point. But had she squelched it after second thoughts we would not have had the pleasure of seeing this:

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Leon and the time traveler!

A picture from World War II. The man on the right in this photo is my late father, Leon, with a fellow platoon member. It was taken in 1944. They were stationed in New Guinea during their time in the U.S. Army Air Corps.

 I found the picture among my mother’s storage, scanned it and showed it to my brother. It is one of several photos neither of us had ever seen before. Besides getting a laugh over seeing him in a towel, these pictures are a reminder that like millions of other men Dad did his service during that time.

But something caught my eye...what is that his friend is holding in his hand? It looks like a...gasp...cell phone! 

Is my father standing next to a time traveler who dropped in from our modern era for a visit to a long ago time and faraway place in the Pacific during a time of war? Such is the way Internet rumors start, and not just any rumors, but rumors of fantastic proportions beyond the scope of reality.

A couple of months ago I featured photos from a television program that shows a still photo dated 1941. The picture is interpreted by some to be a time traveler from the future who dropped in to watch a bridge in Canada being dedicated. It would seem an odd choice for a time traveling destination, but it did not stop those with fertile imaginations from working overtime on the most outrageous explanation for the man’s “modern” appearance (according to them) or for holding what they interpret as a digital camera. You can see the post by clicking on the link to “Time travel that goes nowhere”.

It is in the nature of some people to extrapolate the most outrageous explanations for what are really everyday things. It is part of the tendency of some to see conspiracies and dark forces, or to use imagination rather than logic to explain what they cannot readily understand.

The cell phone-shaped object in the other man’s hand is not a device unknown in that era, but a much more common item: a kit holding a razor for shaving. Even if I did not know that already logic would tell me that based on one thing I have no evidence of, time travel, and the other I am sure of, that there were no cell phone towers in New Guinea in 1944.

But this was a surprise, a rare color photo of Dad and his buddies. I know color film was available for years before the war, but the norm was black and white. Dad is kneeling behind the man wearing glasses, and his “time traveling” friend is center front, with a straw hat on his knee.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Carrie Mathison goes for a piece of Pi

Carrie Mathison, the main character in the Showtime series Homeland, is a seriously troubled person. She has bipolar disorder, had an affair with a married man and bore his child. In Season 4 Carrie handed her baby over to her beleaguered sister and went back to her CIA posting in Pakistan. Carrie has big fish to fry in Islamabad. She is seeking out a terrorist who was supposed to have been killed in a drone strike in episode one.

The way to the terrorist is through his nephew, Aayan. Carrie pulls out all the stops with this young medical student. She seduces him. The end of the latest episode, “Iron in the Fire,” fades out as Carrie is about to introduce this virginal young man to the ways of sex. Her goals are quite different than his. He wants to get out of the country, go to medical school in England. Her idea is to distract him from her promise — actually a lie — of sending him to London.

The boy, Aayan Ibrahim, is played by Indian actor Suraj Sharma, who was the star of Life of Pi (holding his own against the incredible special effects Bengal tiger, Richard Parker).

I photographed these from my DVR, pausing the recorder so I could get the best picture. Sorry about the bar on the bottom.

The naïve dupe, Aayan, listens to Carrie talk, finding it hard to comprehend what her body language is saying, that by golly, she is making a move on him.

Move she does. Then she asks him, "Have you done this before?" His answer, "No."
Carrie gives him a sympathetic look. He has been through a lot. Her dark eyes are ablaze with “sympathy” — not only is Claire Danes an award-winning actor, but Carrie gives an Academy Award® performance of her own.
Could you resist the hypnotic stare of the bird of prey as it paralyzes its victim?
Neither can Aayan.
All of that foreplay aside, as Sally and I watched it my mind was clicking back to what had gone on in the episode. Aayan took money from Carrie to give to a nurse in a hospital, who was getting him drugs for his uncle. He slept outside the hospital all night waiting for the nurse’s shift to end. I told Sally, “I’ll bet he smells like a goat.”

My observations are ignored by the filmmakers, of course, because sex is about to happen. We cannot have Carrie say, "Oh, Aayan, how about hitting the shower before we crawl between these clean sheets?" It is because there is a fantasy about sex that ignores personal hygiene and the need for instant gratification. Gettin' it on is more important than stinky armpits, oily skin, smelly feet that have been in one pair of socks for five days, and teeth that have an eighth of an inch of encrustations from eating spicy foods and not brushing or gargling with Scope.