[I apologize for the month-long gap between posts.  Back on September 25th, while on vacation in Monterey, California, I’d written: 

“I started a great story about my wife and me going to a rock concert in Italy.  That post will appear soon.  But, as the cliché goes ‘shit happens.’”

Little did I realize just how much shit was about to happen so soon.  On the 26th, my wife (Robin) developed a fever of 102.4º, vomited all over our van and had a seizure.  So much for the vacation… I spent much of the next few weeks taking care of her and dealing with doctors, pharmacists and insurance companies.  I think you can understand why blogging became a low priority.

The dual infections that caused Robin’s fever (which, in turn, precipitated her seizure) finally have responded to the barrage of antibiotics.  So, here’s that promised story, which I dedicate to her.]

In the near future, I’ll be writing a series of posts describing my experiences back in November and December of 1965.  The highlight was attending my first rock concert – Bob Dylan at the Berkeley Community Theater.  Today, I’m going to tell a story about attending another Dylan concert – this one was on May 30th 2000 at the Palasport in Firenze (Florence), Italy. 

Robin, my wife, has multiple sclerosis.  It is a truly devastating disease and she has needed to use a wheelchair since 1997.  Despite that challenge, we took a 4-week trip to Italy during May and June of 2000.  It was a major production utilizing all my project management skills plus the knowledge and experience of Joan Diamond, a travel agent who specializes in travel arrangements for people with physical disabilities1.  It would have been great to have blogged during that trip, but
a) I’m not sure I really knew what a blog was back then and
b) I already had a lot “on my plate” – and not just pasta and porcini mushrooms.

Through Joan, we had rented a Renault panel truck adapted with a wheelchair lift. 

Italy_2000_Robin_and_Van0001

Unloading Robin from the panel truck to buy pastries in Torgiano

A French truck with a 4-speed stick shift was certainly an unusual (and sometimes cumbersome) vehicle for touring Tuscan and Umbrian hill towns, but it served our purposes. 

For roughly half the trip, my friend and fellow Banana Slug, Martha Wolf and her sister Susan traveled with us.  We met up in Venice and went to Modena and Lucca.  After spending a week at an agritourismo near Lake Trasimeno in Umbria, the 4 of us headed for Florence.  Driving in Florence is an absolute nightmare – even the Florentines avoid it.  At one point, I found myself on an increasingly narrow street and noticed a sign pointing in the opposite direction that I was headed. 

Senso_Unico

Several locals had to help me back up the panel truck for about 2 blocks – did I mention that it was a cumbersome vehicle?  I had a brief meltdown at that point, but I’ll never forget what “Senso Unico” means!  

Once we actually got to the Grand Hotel Cavour near the Duomo and let the doorman park the Renault, we had a great time in Florence – wandering the ancient streets, marveling at the art and architecture, and eating magnificent meals.  

Two days later, I was looking at a local newspaper and discovered that Bob Dylan would be performing in Florence the following night.  Martha and her sister weren’t interested but Robin was eager to go.  I talked with the concierge at the hotel about handicap accessibility at the venue.  The man did a fantastic job!  First, he called the Palasport and found out that I needed to make arrangements at the ticket office.  Then, he wrote out a note in Italian, explaining exactly what my situation was.

On the day of the concert we made a midday excursion to the Galleria dell’Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David.  Afterwards, we sat down at a café and discovered that we were having lunch next to Huey Lewis (sorry, we were trying not to act like paparazzi, so no picture of him).

That afternoon, while Robin took a nap, I headed off to the central box office near the Santa Maria Novella train station.  The vast majority of folks in line were buying tickets for the Dylan concert – it was a gallimaufry of college students and middle-aged fans from all over Europe – not many native English speakers but they all spoke some English.

After about half an hour, I got up to the counter and presented the note from the concierge.  The clerk read it, nodded and said “No problem.”  He showed me a seating chart and pointed at the far left seat in the 34th row on the floor.  Not great but it would do.  I nodded back.  He then sold me 1 ticket.

Italy_2000_Dylan_Ticket_Front0001

In May 2000, Italy was still on the lira.  A 50,000 lira ticket was basically $25. 

Italy_2000_Box_Office_Receipt0001

Note that even in Florence, the box office adds a service charge – but only about $2.50.

I was confused.  Why only 1 ticket?  That question wasn’t in my TravelTalk Italian Phrase Book.  “Perché solo un biglietto?” I improvised.  The clerk attempted to explain but neither his English nor my Italian were adequate.  He spoke to a woman in line.  She turned to me and said, “Your wife sit next to you.” 

That much I’d already figured out.  “Bene.”  I smiled.  Then I repeated “Perché solo un biglietto?” while raising my index finger in an attempt to emphasize my concern about the “un.”

The woman matter-of-factly replied, “Because your wife bring her own chair.”

I suddenly felt like I was in the middle of a Chico Marx routine.  I thanked everyone for their help but left the box office unconvinced that Robin was going to get into the concert.

When I got back to the hotel, I told Robin what had happened.  She laughed.  “I don’t need to buy a ticket because I’m bringing my own chair.  I love it!”

I suggested that Dylan’s management might not be as amused by that logic.

We decided to get to the concert early, in case there were complications.  After a light dinner, we had the doorman get us a hatchback taxi.  The driver stashed the wheelchair in the back and drove us out towards the venue.  As we got neared the arena, what a shock – there was a terrible traffic jam!  Eventually, the cab driver dropped us at the edge of the park where the Palasport is located.

I was pushing Robin’s chair when, as we approached the entrance to the arena, I was flagged down by a woman in a day-glo chartreuse jumpsuit.  This was not just another rock fan making a fashion statement – she was a member of a local organization called Miseracordia that apparently was responsible for safety and security at public events.  She escorted us to an accessible entrance and then lead us right to our seats – actual my seat and the adjoining aisle where Robin would park her chair.  She then showed us where the accessible restroom was and said she would come back and check on us after the show started.  I was a little puzzled by this last comment, but things had gone pretty smoothly, so I didn’t let it worry me.

I wheeled Robin to the accessible restroom and then walked over to the concession stand.  They were serving espresso in short, round paper containers – like what a portion of ketchup might come in.  I ordered 3 – hey, they seemed small.  The barrista lined them up on the counter and I knocked each of them back in one gulp.  I definitely wouldn’t be falling asleep during the show!

Robin and I returned to our seating area and watched the crowd file in.  By 9:15 the arena was packed.  The lights dimmed and Bob and his band came out – they were perfectly dressed for an appearance at the Grand Ole Opry.  Bob has written hundreds of songs but that night he started his set with an old folk tune, Duncan and Brady.2    The crowd went absolutely nuts.  I hadn’t seen such rowdy enthusiasm since a Patti Smith concert at the Santa Monica Civic back in May of 1978.  And, just like at that show, within seconds everyone was standing on their chairs.  Well, not quite everyone: Robin, unable to do that, struggled to find an angle where she could see the stage.

Dylan continued with The Times They Are A’Changin’, Visions of Johanna and To Ramona.  Just about the time he sang “Ramona come closer” the Miseracordia woman reappeared with a flashlight.  She gestured for us to follow her.  She lead us across the floor and down near the right side of the stage.  There was a ramp up to a raised platform.  6 or 7 other folks in wheelchairs were sitting there, totally digging the show.  We were very close but so far off to the right that we couldn’t see some of the band members.  Robin didn’t mind; Dylan’s distinctive profile was quite clear.

There was one song I especially wanted to hear that night: Tangled Up in Blue.  It’s a great song but I had a specific reason for wanting to hear Dylan sing it in Florence.  Our hotel was a just short walk from Dante’s house – or at least one house where he supposedly had lived.  I have the feeling that saying “Dante lived here” is the Italian equivalent of saying “George Washington slept here” on the East Coast of the US.  Nevertheless, 2 days earlier we’d gone to see Dante’s house and I recalled the fifth verse of Tangled Up in Blue:

“She lit a burner on the stove and offered me a pipe
‘I thought you’d never say hello,’ she said
‘You look like the silent type.’
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century.
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you…
Tangled up in blue.”3

The lit major in me loved that verse:  the song’s narrator was seeking his long-lost soul mate in much the same way that Dante had sought a glimpse of his beloved Beatrice.  Of course, there’s no record of Dante “workin’ for a while on a fishin’ boat right outside of Delacroix” or Beatrice “workin’ in a topless place.”

Anyway, I’d seen Dylan perform the song several times and heard bootlegs of other live performances and for some reason he tended to skip that verse.  But that night, in the city where Dante was born, the next song he played was Tangled Up in Blue and he sang that verse. 

Dylan did a total of 19 songs that night4, but TUIB (as Dylan fans refer to it when texting each other) was the highlight for me. 

The crowd stayed on their feet for the entire show (except in our section).  During It Ain’t Me, Babe I looked back and saw several thousand raised hands with pointing index fingers as they belted out “No, no, no!”  l laughed, remembering how I had pointed while trying to speak Italian to the ticket seller.  “No, no, no!” – the only Italian words sung all night.

After the show, we waved good-bye to the day-glo green lady and took a cab back to the hotel.  I lay awake, thinking about the concert – and wishing I hadn’t had that third espresso. 

So… what have we learned?

  • Who needs Esperanto?  Rock and roll is the universal language.
  • When the world gives them lemons, Italians make lemoncello.

It’s great to see and do all sorts of different things in foreign countries, but I also like doing some of the same things I normally do at home.  That way I get to see the subtle differences between here and there… like not having to buy a ticket when you go to a Dylan concert in a wheelchair. 

Later… 

  1. http://www.nautilustours.com/aboutus.html
  2. Here’s a sample of what he sounded like:
    http://www.bobdylan.com/#/songs/duncan-and-brady
  3. Copyright ©1974 Ram’s Horn Music
  4. http://www.boblinks.com/053000s.html

It’s 11:30 and I’m sitting in the Business Center of the Monterey Marriott, feeling guilty about not having posted anything since the 11th of September.

I started a great story about my wife and me going to a rock concert in Italy.  That post will appear soon.  But, as the cliché goes “shit happens.”

So, until I spin that yarn, here’s a video clip from You Tube to amuse you.

It comes from the movie “International House,” a strange comedy from 1933 with a cast that includes W.C. Fields, George Burns, Bela Lugosi and – for you buffs of real movie esoterica – Franklin Pangborn.  The plot, such as it is, revolves around a hotel in the Chinese town of Wu-Hu where a collection of wacky characters are bidding for the rights to new invention… television.

Here’s the best of the programs… sort of MTV from the Harlem Renaissance.  Enjoy!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D44pyeEvhcQ

So… what have we learned?

  • In the 30s, marijuana was seen as energizing.

Later…


I worked in corporate training departments on and off from 1978 to 1996.  During that period, I was laid-off 3 times (frankly, the term “downsizing” – which is how my employers described those traumatic events – strikes me as infantile… like saying “spit up” instead of “vomit” or “boo boo” instead of “shotgun blast to the chest”).  So, the cliché is “the third time’s charmed,” right? Well, I don’t know if “charmed” would be the first adjective I’d use.  But, since that last layoff, I’ve been able to support myself as a freelance writer/instructional designer/training project manager for over 12 years.  And, for the last 11 years, the people who’ve lined up most of that work for me have been Cindy and Pat, the two women who founded and own a consulting firm called CPS.

The company has a Yahoo Group to facilitate communication with and among its network of contractors.  Regular readers of this blog – and WordPress stats indicate that there are several score of you out there – will be amused to learn that, on August 27th, Cindy and Pat sent out the following message to the members of that Yahoo Group.

Thought we’d get some end-of-summer juices flowing by posting a question that received a lot of action on one of my LinkedIn groups…
What have you learned this year?

As a white male, I didn’t feel I could effectively deliver my ideal response to that question: “Oh no, you did-uhn’t!”

They had either “borrowed” my blog’s tagline… or hadn’t read it. 

Oh well, c’est la vie.  Having been asked this extremely familiar question, I decided to use it as an opportunity to reflect on my first three months as a blogger.  Because, one thing I’ve learned this year is I really enjoy blogging.

Let me explain how I started writing the dorn blog.  Very simply, I had no work.  I can imagine Cindy and Pat reading this and thinking, “That can be arranged again, Mike.”  However, it wasn’t their fault; it was the recession – lots of companies were putting training initiatives on hold.  Besides, they had a rather obvious incentive to keep me busy – when I’m working, they’re making money too! 

I’d been thinking about writing a blog for a while, but couldn’t figure out what to write about.  So, rather than deal with something important or difficult, like my blog’s purpose and content, I decided to come up with a name for it.  Somewhere I have a long list of puns on my last name.  My wife, Robin, being a huge Springsteen fan, was partial to Dorn in the USA.  Not bad, but I thought I might tire of it.  Ultimately, one of the very worst of the punning names – That Dorn Blog! – got tweaked to become the name I went with.  One thing I learned as an adolescent that continues to be just as true as I prepare to leave middle age: when in doubt, be vague.  I liked the dorn blog because it was vague enough that I could write about damned near anything.

Okay… the blog had a name.  Now what?  I started listing things I wanted to write about… it was all over the map:

  • Having the same name as someone slightly famous
  • Memories of high school and college
  • Stupid work experiences
  • Television commercials
  • My theory about sarcasm
  • Rock music

With the exception of the last subject, I figured I could lump them under the rubric “Humorous musings.”  Regarding rock music, I even had a story about my brief career as a record reviewer for Rolling Stone that would fit in that category.  Yet again, vagueness demonstrated its utility.

I got an account on WordPress at the end of May and started drafting my first post.  Even though I had a general idea of what I was going to say, the discipline of trying to coherently (and humorously) express that idea led to a kind of quantum leap of consciousness – things just popped into my head.  I remembered that feeling from decades back, when I wrote fiction – it’s called creativity.  Even though my blog is non-fiction, the concept still applies – how you tell the story or convey the idea requires imagination.

As I neared the end of the first post, I was looking for a way to wrap up the story.  I was writing about a comedy record that I loved in junior high: Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America.  Thinking about junior high reminded me of another humorist I enjoyed back then: James Thurber.  He had written a series of short pieces called Fables for Our Times1.  In these fables, he took seemingly innocent stories and injected a strong dose of cynicism into them.  Like most fables, each of Thurber’s ended with a moral – except that his were essentially the punch lines of the story. For example, here is his take on Little Red Riding Hood – The Little Girl and the Wolf:

One afternoon a big wolf waited in a dark forest for a little girl to come along carrying a basket of food to her grandmother.  Finally a little girl did come along and she was carrying a basket of food.  “Are you carrying that basket to your grandmother?” asked the wolf.  The little girl said yes, she was.  So the wolf asked her where her grandmother lived and the little girl told him and he disappeared into the wood.

When the little girl opened the door of her grandmother’s house she saw that there was somebody in bed with a nightcap and nightgown on.  She had approached no nearer than twenty-five feet from the bed when she saw that it was not her grandmother but the wolf, for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge.  So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead.

(Moral: It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.)2

For some reason, I liked the idea of a moral but didn’t want to use that term.  The phrase “Lessons Learned” crossed my mind, but sounded too corporate.  In the end, I went with:  So…what have we learned?

On the afternoon of Tuesday, June 2nd I hit “Publish” and joined the blogosphere.  Then, I had that David Byrne moment… from the Talking Heads song Once in a Lifetime:

“And you may ask yourself,
Am I right? …Am I wrong?
And you may tell yourself,
MY GOD! …WHAT HAVE I DONE?”

Every week a new post… like a beast I have to feed.  But I do it… and I like it.  Who cares?  Why bother?  Well, it’s pure self-motivation – I care.  It’s a form of self-discipline, like going to the gym… but it takes much longer to break a sweat.  And so here I am on week 15.

Oh yeah… the readers.  Since June, I’ve had over 3,900 separate views!  I’ve done a small amount of shameless self-promotion, but most of those readers found my blog on their own.  Roughly half of those views were for a single post – the one titled Not Quite “Almost Famous” – that story I mentioned earlier about my very brief career reviewing record albums for Rolling Stone magazine.

So… what have we learned?

  • If you want people to read (or at least look at) your blog, include celebrity nudity.  It’s true!  In my most viewed post, the example is not very titillating – and it is absolutely essential to the story (really!) – but WordPress statistics tell me that most people found it through a search that included the names “John Lennon and Yoko Ono” plus the word “nude.”  I’m shocked, shocked I say!
  • Clearly, Cindy and Pat have been so busy networking with potential clients that they haven’t had time to read my blog.

Okay, ladies, back to work!

Later…

P.S.  I will be introducing a second blog in about 6 weeks – one focused on rock music.  It will feature a “song of the week” – including streaming audio of the song plus a short anecdote about why I selected it.  Basically, it will allow me to play DJ once a week.  Stay tuned for details!

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Thurber
  2. http://www.amazon.com/Thurber-Carnival-Perennial-Classics/dp/0060932872#reader

The media dubbed it the “Summer of Love.”  Scott McKenzie (where is he now?) sang that “If you’re goin’ to San Francisco… be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” 

Well, I spent the summer of 1967 in Marin County, only a few miles north of that Mecca of Hippiedom.  I even went to San Francisco fairly often, but never wore flowers in my (relatively short) hair.  I did, however, spend a lot of that summer with flour in my hair… working for a well-known fast food chain whose front man was a southern gentleman and honorary military officer. 

And how did that happen?  Let’s see… my parents were active in a little theatre group called the Ross Valley Players.  They were friends with a fellow in the RVP who owned a couple of that chicken purveyor’s franchises.  He needed a part-time employee; I needed a part-time job between high school graduation and going off to college.  So, even 42 years ago – and just to get a dumb summer job – it was all about who you knew

“The store,” as the franchise owner called it, was on a stretch of Red Hill Avenue between San Anselmo and San Rafael, known locally as the “Miracle Mile.”  There didn’t appear to be anything the least bit miraculous about this place – no evidence of supernatural intervention that I ever saw – just the slightly surreal, life-sized plastic statue of the chain’s founder in the window. 

My first morning on the job, I walked in the back entrance and heard melodious, full-throated singing echoing from a storage room:

“Oh what a mis-ruh-ble mor-r-r-r ning. 
Oh what a mis-ruh-ble day.
I’ve got a mis-ruh-ble fee-e-e ling,
nothing is going my wa-a-ay.” 

It was at that moment I discovered that the owner was a profoundly unhappy man.  He possessed an superb voice, perfectly suited to Broadway musicals.  He could sing like Howard Keel or John Raitt, but he looked like… Jimmy Durante.  In short, he definitely was not leading man material.  The only role I ever saw him play with the RVP was Bogart in “Play It Again, Sam.”  He didn’t even get to sing. 

The owner handed me an apron and a cap made of paper.  He then walked me through what would become my work routine for the next 2½ months:

  • Move blocks of frozen chicken from the walk-in freezer to the walk-in refrigerator to defrost.
  • Take the defrosted chicken – which had been sitting overnight in a stinking puddle of chicken blood diluted with ice water – out of the walk-in refrigerator and rinse it off.
  • Whip up a wash of eggs, water and powdered milk.
  • Pour the pre-seasoned flour (containing those famous “11 secret herbs and spices”) into the prep table.
  • Dip the chicken pieces in the egg wash, then roll them in the flour and set them on a rack to let the coating set.
  • Melt huge bricks of lard in the pressure cookers.
  • Dump the chicken pieces into the pressure cooker full of hot lard, then put the lid on, turn, and lock it.
  • Place the regulator on top of the steam release valve, set the timer, and let the pressure cooker do its thing.
  • Turn off the heat when the timer rang and slowly release the steam from the pressure cooker.
  • Pluck the cooked chicken out of the grease with tongs and set it in the warmer, where my colleagues would put it in boxes or buckets. 

Nine hours later, “the store” closed and I couldn’t believe how exhausted I was.  I walked into the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror.  I was drenched in sweat and, absurdly, the dusting of flour on my face gave me a slight resemblance to a mime. 

Then I looked down at my feet… my taupe suede Hush Puppies were caked with chicken batter.  I attempted to clean them, but it was pointless.  The shoes were ruined.  I realized that any shoes I wore on this job would be ruined – I would have to wear this pair at work for the rest of the summer. 

Four days a week, I went to “the store.”  For minimum wage plus all the chicken I could eat (an offer that quickly lost any appeal it might once have had) I went through my ritual, while the owner belted out nihilistic parodies of show tunes.  Each evening I went home with another layer of batter coating my shoes.  They soon took on the dimensions of clown footwear, and I had to drive to and from work in my socks. 

Every week there would be a different mishap.  Once, while releasing a regulator valve, I scalded my hand with high-pressure steam.  Another time, I splashed my fingers with hot grease and, instictively, put them in my mouth to cool the burn – forever altering my interpretation of the company’s tag line “finger lickin’ good.”  

One day, I whipped up the egg wash and noticed it was much frothier than usual.  I thought nothing of it until that afternoon, when I had to make a new batch.  I broke the eggs, poured in the water and went to stick a scoop into the powdered milk… except that it wasn’t the powdered milk; it was the powdered soap for washing the pressure cookers.  Someone – not me – switched the two bags.  That certainly explained the frothiness of the morning’s egg wash!  Having not eaten lunch yet… I made sure to have chicken from the new batch.  That day and the next, I lived in dread, wondering what would happen to the people who had eaten the soapy chicken.  Amazingly, we didn’t get a single complaint!  Either nobody got sick or their projectile diarrhea was so severe, it prevented them from calling the store. 

As the summer passed and my departure for college approached, I devised a plan.  It was not for nothing that my shoes were called Hush Puppies.  Now caked in 9 weeks’ worth of batter, they were not unlike the southern food of the same name, except that they weren’t deep fried… yet.  On my last day of work, as a farewell gesture, I decided I would fry my shoes

My final work day arrived.  It passed without incident until just before closing.  I slipped off my battered shoes.  With my left hand, I lifted them above my head with a dramatic flourish; with my right, I fiddled with the knob on the timer. 

“So… how long do you think it’ll take to fry these?” I asked a colleague. 

I realized that he wasn’t looking at me.  The owner was standing at the back of the kitchen. 

“Oh, you think that’s funny, huh?” 

“Well, actually…” 

“You think you’re so goddamn smart… goin’ off to college.  Well, you don’t know shit from Shinola, kid.” 

Well, I knew neither was on this pair of shoes.  “Come on… what’s your problem?” 

“You’ve got a final paycheck coming, don’t ya, kid?” 

“Yeah.” 

“Cook those shoes and I’ll dock you for ruining a pot of lard.” 

I lowered the shoes to my side.  “It’s the end of the day… you’re just going to throw it out.” 

“You’d be destroying company property.” 

I couldn’t believe this.  “So?  How much could used lard cost?” 

“Whatever I say it costs, smart guy.” 

“That’s not fair.” 

“Fair?  Fair??” He turned to my colleagues in disbelief.  “Joe College here thinks it’s not fair.”  He turned back to me “You really don’t know shit from Shinola… LIFE’S NOT @#$%ing FAIR!” 

This certainly wasn’t going the way I’d imagined it.  I thought the humor of the situation was obvious… but I wasn’t looking at it from the point of view of a middle-aged man whose dreams had putrefied. 

I made one final argument.  “These shoes were ruined from working here… they’re worth at least as much as that lard.” 

“I’m calling your father.”

Ah, calling the parents… the nuclear option when dealing with a teenager.  Ironically, my father would have seen the humor.  It was my mother who, when talking to me, always pronounced the word “comedian” as she was describing a particularly vile child molester. 

Well, as any comedian knows – when a joke falls flat, you move on.  I picked up an empty cardboard bucket.  The stylized face of a white-haired coot with glasses, string tie and goatee grinned inanely at me.  I dumped my shoes in the bucket and headed to the parking lot.  

As I approached the back door, I heard cackling.  I looked over my shoulder and saw the owner making barnyard sound effects, culminating in a boisterous “chick-UHN!” 

I pondered this for a moment – the guy had told me not to do something and then, when I didn’t do it, he mocked me. 

“How soon can I pick up my check?” 

The owner crowed like a rooster at daybreak. 

“I’ll come by on Friday for it.” I said and walked out to my car, listening to a grown man clucking. 

It turned out, that was not quite the end of the story.  That Friday evening, I was hanging out with my friend Bill Anixter.  We were riding around in his Mustang convertible with the top down, and I realized I hadn’t gotten my check.  We headed down Red Hill and saw “the store” brightly illuminated in the late summer twilight.

Bill and I walked in the door and my former colleagues went nuts.  At first I thought it had to do with my confrontation with the owner.  Soon, however, I realized it was something far more bizarre.

“He was HERE!  He was HERE!” they chanted.  A Polaroid picture was produced.  At first I thought they were just crowded around the statue in the window – but the background was wrong.  And the old man was a real old man… although he was dressed exactly like his plastic likeness.  The man who had spawned this chain of greasy chicken stands was renowned for traveling the country, visiting each “store” to promote the franchise… for a fee.  And yesterday, he’d been on the “Miracle Mile.” 

“Shit!  If I’d just worked here one more day I could have fried my shoes for the Colonel himself!” 

“But ya didn’t!”  The owner had appeared and he handed me my check. 

“That’s true.”  I said, walking out the door, “… but you know what else is true?”

 “What, smart guy?”

 “I’m leaving here… and you’re not!”

 So… what can we learn from this? 

  • Timing is everything.
  • “Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.”  This line, from Virgil’s Aeneid, is – if not suitable for all occasions – certainly suitable for many of the situations I describe in this blog.  It is translated either “One day it will please us to remember even this” (which, believe it or not, is the title of a 2006 album by The New York Dolls!) or “Perhaps someday we will look back upon these things with joy.” 

Joy?  Not yet… I’m just glad it provided me with material. 

Later…


One of my all-time favorite films is Annie Hall.  I like many things about it – it’s a Romantic Comedy that, unlike most current examples of that genre, actually manages to be both romantic and funny.  Woody’s love interest is even age-appropriate.  But one thing that I really enjoy about it is Woody Allen’s use of classic old jokes to frame and explicate the story. 

The movie begins with Woody’s character, Alvy Singer, talking directly into the camera: 

“There’s an old joke – um… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’  The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know; and such small portions.’  Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.  The… the other important joke, for me, is one that’s usually attributed to Groucho Marx; but, I think it appears originally in Freud’s ‘Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious,’ and it goes like this – I’m paraphrasing – um, ‘I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.’  That’s the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women.1” 

In a perfect bookend, the film concludes with a voice-over by Alvy: 

“After that it got pretty late, and we both had to go, but it was great seeing Annie again.  I… I realized what a terrific person she was, and… and how much fun it was just knowing her; and I… I, I thought of that old joke, y’know, the, this… this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.’  And, uh, the doctor says, ‘Well, why don’t you turn him in?’  The guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’  Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and… but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us… need the eggs.2

I still think it’s a brilliant narrative device.  So much so, that today I’m going to “borrow” it for my blog. 

There’s a classic joke, attributed to Jack Benny (who built much of his comic persona around being a cheapskate), that goes something like this:

Jack Benny went to his doctor for a physical.  The doctor took x-rays and, after looking at them said, “Mr. Benny, you need an operation, and it is going to cost you $400.”  And Jack Benny responded by saying, “Doctor, for $25 can’t you just touch up the x-rays?” 

This joke applies in so many situations… how many times have we seen people avoid dealing with the underlying cause of a problem and opt instead to do something (pick your adjective: quick, easy, cheap…) that temporarily disguises it?  How often have we done it ourselves? 

I don’t want to get too political in this blog, but one obvious resonance of this joke is the current effort at healthcare reform.  I suspect that  any legislation we’re likely to get will only “touch up the x-rays.” 

Additionally, this joke illuminates far too many business situations. 

[Sidebar:  In my very first post I mocked the idea that I might discuss training in this blog.  Well, I promise that I won’t make a habit of it, honest!] 

I’ve been working in the training profession for 25+ years… I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people in positions of authority ask me, essentially, to “touch up the x-rays.”  In the corporate environment, when it comes to employee learning and development, you often are in situations where there isn’t enough money or resources or management support to actually address performance issues.  What management inevitably wants is for you to do something – specifically something cheap – that appears to make things better. 

Of course, spending any money on something you know is worthless doesn’t seem like much of a bargain to me.  Here’s an example of a situation where I declined to “touch up the x-rays”: 

In the early ‘90s, I was the senior instructional designer at a large Savings & Loan (remember those?).  As part of a big push to get tellers and new accounts staff to cross-sell3products to our customers, they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars developing a computer application called CSI (in this case the acronym stood for “Customer Sales Information”) that would show employees all the products a customer had.  It was launched with great fanfare (and a small training effort orchestrated by the Regional Operations Supervisors).  The  IT (Information Technology) folks tracked the application and found it wasn’t being used much at most branches.  My boss was contacted because IT wanted our department to “design a training program.”

I asked, “But, weren’t the branch employees already trained?”

IT replied, “Yes, but it must not have been enough.”  Immediately, my B.S. detector went off.  

I looked at the usage reports and found 1 local branch that was using CSI and 1 that wasn’t.  I called and scheduled visits.  As I suspected, the employees knew how to use the system.  What I learned was that CSI required a supervisor override for a teller or new accounts person to access it.  To top it off, the branch that wasusing CSI was, in fact, technically violating company policy, by having the supervisor enter the override for each teller and new accounts person before the branch opened.

I recommended that:
a)   IT should eliminate the supervisor override and
b)   I would develop a job aid (a.k.a. a “cheat sheet”) for quick reference by the branch employees. 

If you’d never actually worked in a corporate environment, you might think that management would have been happy with my plan.  Wrong!  I got a lot of pushback.  They wanted training damn it– how dare the training people tell them to change their application. 

Fortunately, my boss backed me up and in a couple of weeks the problem was solved – faster and cheaper than a training program that wouldn’t have worked (how’s that for an ironic twist on the cheapskate aspect of the joke).  CSI usage increased by over 250%, which lead to improved cross-selling ratios and retention of maturing CDs. 

For my efforts, the Senior VP of IT gave me a clock imbedded in a Lucite triangle emblazoned with the words “Excellence in Service.”   

I wonder what I would have gotten if I’d just developed the training like they asked. 

There’s a variation of the joke that goes: 

A guy thinks he’s broken his leg and goes to see a doctor.  The doctor takes x-rays and says, “Yes, your leg is broken, but don’t worry.  I can fix it for $1,000.”  The patient says, “But doc, I don’t have $1,000.”  To which the doctor replies, “Well, for $50 I can touch-up the x-rays.” 

In this version, the control point has shifted from the patient to the doctor.  The doctor is either:
a)   telling the patient what he wants to hear, even though it’s clearly idiotic or
b)   pointing out the absurdity of quibbling over the price of a necessary procedure.   

Going with the latter interpretation, now that I’m a training consultant – an outsider and not on staff – I like to tell this version of the joke when talking to clients.  It doesn’t always get them to make the right choices, but at least it forces them to examine what they’re doing.

And there’s actually another version – Henny Youngman did it, naturally, as a one-liner:

“I’ve got a great doctor.  If you can’t afford the operation, he touches up your X-rays.” 

Frankly, I prefer the longer versions.

So… what can we learn from this?

  • The doctor always gets paid… even when he does bubkes.
  • Medical procedures were much cheaper in the past.

Okay readers… now I want to hear your stories – either a situation when you had to “touch up the x-rays” or when you refused to do it.  Please respond via the “Comment” function, so we can all feel your pain and/or admire your principled stance. 

Later…

  1.  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075686/quotes
  2. Ibid.
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cross-selling

Believe it or not, back in the fall of 1966 the U.S. government thought that my going to college could help America win the Cold War.  Earlier that year, my parents and I had attended a meeting where federal employees spoke enthusiastically about the National Defense Education Act (passed in 1958, in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite the previous year).  They told us that the NDEA was designed to ensure the security of the Nation through the “fullest development of the mental resources and technical skills of its young men and women.1”  The legislation even included a student loan program. 

Those officials had wasted their time on me – for 2 reasons:

  1. When you read the fine print, NDEA loans were designed to “increase the flow of talent into science, mathematics and foreign language careers.2”  I had no interest in those fields.  I didn’t want to be a rocket scientist or a spy; I wanted to be a writer
  2. My parents had effectively brainwashed me to believe that going to college was my only post-high school option.  A different part of the U.S. government – the one waging war in Vietnam – was reinforcing that belief with its draft deferment for college students. 

As a college-bound senior at Redwood High School in Marin County, California, I had to take what was then known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).  I’d registered to take it in December, but about 10 days before the test date, I had oral surgery that, due to complications, took almost a month to heal.  I was flat on my back in bed, unable to do much of anything except wait for the bleeding to stop.  I was in pain, I was lonely, and I was bored out of my skull.  It was the crappiest birthday (December 19th) and Christmas vacation of my life. 

Due to these medical problems, I had to reschedule taking the SAT.  The new date was Saturday, January 14, 1967.  I was applying to the University of California, Santa Cruz – so, in addition to the SAT in the morning, I would have to take an English Achievement Test in the afternoon.  Passing that test would allow me to opt out of a remedial course known as “Bonehead English.” 

Many people I knew were anxious about these tests.  While it wasn’t my idea of fun, I wasn’t nervous.  It was just a lot of multiple choice questions – no big deal. 

When I returned to school in January, two things happened:

  1. The College Entrance Examination Board announced that it would be conducting an experiment – instead of just multiple choice questions, the January English Achievement Test would include an essay writing portion.
  2. An “underground” newspaper called the San Francisco Oracle announced “a Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In3” in Golden Gate Park on the afternoon of January 14th.  It would feature music, poetry and who knew what else.  The name Human Be-In was a pun on human being and the civil disobedience tactic called a “sit-in.” 

Regarding the essay – well, I wanted to be a writer.  I had already written an essay on my application to UC Santa Cruz – a funny one, as I recall.  What could be better than getting another chance to show how well I could write? 

As far as the Be-In, I was very conflicted.  I knew that, as a practical matter, I had no choice – I was going to take the @#$%ing test.  But, I’d been isolated for nearly a month during my recuperation and was eager to get out and do things.  Then, my girlfriend Carolyn told me that she was planning to go. 

[Sidebar: In my August 5th blog post – Hoist with a Canard… Not His Own but Whose? – I wrote that “the holy trinity of the 60s gestalt were sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” and described my participation in that gestalt from the perspective of my college years.  My high school years were quite different.

The Author -- Fall, 1966
The Author — Fall, 1966

 

  • Sex – Well, I had a girlfriend.  However, the phrase isn’t “making out, drugs and rock’n’roll.”
  • Drugs – Marijuana and LSD may as well have been on another planet, although I probably knew some people who had visited that planet.  Like so many things in high school, it was all about cliques – who you ate lunch with, etc.  I wasn’t in the druggie clique and didn’t particularly want to join.  Basically, drugs scared me – although they also seemed exotic and therefore, on some level, interesting. 
  • Rock’n’Roll – I’d always enjoyed listening to it, but after seeing Bob Dylan’s electric set at the Berkeley Community Theatre in December 1965 (I’ll be doing a future blog post about that concert) I was totally hooked on the live music experience.  By January 1967, I’d seen Buffalo Springfield at The Ark in Sausalito and been to the Avalon Ballroom to see San Francisco bands like Moby Grape and Country Joe and the Fish.  You could say that rock’n’roll was my “gateway drug.”] 

January 14th was a gorgeous winter day in the Bay Area.  My mom packed me a bag lunch and off I went to take the test.  All morning my number 2 pencil filled elliptical shapes on answer sheets. 

At noon, I went outside and ate my lunch, wondering what Carolyn was doing across the bay in Golden Gate Park.  

I found the room where the English Test was being administered.  The first half of the test period was more of the same multiple choice format.  Then, they called time.  I opened the test booklet and read the topic for our essay:

“The problem with being open-minded is that your brains might fall out.” 

In all honesty, I – a relatively well-read and otherwise well-educated 17-year old – had never encountered this bit of folk wisdom before.  For a moment, I sat there completely numb.  I read the sentence again.

“The problem with being open-minded is that your brains might fall out.4

I thought to myself, “This can’t be happening to me.  It’s just not possible!” 

Next, I thought to myself, “Why the @#$%ing Hell is this happening to me?  This is absolutely the dumbest @#$%ing statement I’ve ever read.  Certainly the dumbest @#$%ing one that I’ve been ever been asked to write an essay about.  What @#$%head came up with this goddamn question?” 

A moment later, I thought to myself, “I wonder if I can ask for a different topic.  Is there something I could do or someone I could talk to?  There must be some way out of this damned mess.” 

And then, I thought to myself, “I just don’t @#$%ing care anymore.  I’m screwed.  My life is ruined.  I’m totally @#$%ed because of this stupid damned essay topic.  The Hell with it!” 

In 1969, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross would publish her book On Death & Dying, in which she identified 5 stages that a dying patient experiences when informed of a terminal prognosis:  Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. 

To quote Maxwell Smart (Agent 86 in the Get Smart TV show from the era I’m discussing), “Missed it by… that much.” 

No folks, I never made it to Acceptance.  I looked out the clerestory windows of the room where I was taking the exam.  The sky was cloudless.  For a second I thought I could hear something very faint:

“Well ev’rybody’s dancin’ in a ring ‘round the sun.
Nobody’s finished, we ain’t even begun.
So take off your shoes, child, and take off your hat.
Try on your wings and find out where it’s at.”5

There might be parties coming every day for some, but not for me.  I picked up my pencil and wrote something to the effect of:

“This is a stupid waste of my time.  The mind is an intangible manifestation of the brain, which is a tangible object.  The brain is enclosed by the skull, which keeps it from falling out.  Being open-minded couldn’t cause your brain to fall out – only being open-skulled.  Who ever came up with this question must have a hole in his head.  @#$% you!”

The first part is a paraphrase, but I’m sure the last 2 words are quoted exactly – though I spelled 1 of them differently. 

At the Human Be-In, about 30,000 people showed up to hear Dr. Timothy Leary first publicly say, “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”  The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and other bands played.  Someone handed Carolyn a funny-smelling, hand-rolled cigarette. 

Several weeks later, an envelope arrived for me from the Educational Testing Service.  I don’t recall my exact SAT scores, but both Verbal and Math were in the 99th percentile.  On the English Achievement Test, I was in the 44th percentile. 

My parents were baffled… and I decided not to offer an explanation.  I took money from my savings account and paid to retake the test in April. 

Before then, a letter arrived from UC Santa Cruz – what we called “a thick letter.”  A thick letter had enrollment and registration forms – it meant you’d been accepted. 

I took the English Achievement Test again – no essay this time.  I scored in the 97th percentile and avoided “Bonehead English” (at least until Graduate School, when I got to tutor people who were failing it at SF State). 

The College Entrance Examination Board waited decades before having another essay portion in the English Achievement Test. 

So… what can we learn from this?

  • There was at least 1 time in Mike’s life when he was at a loss for words.
  • Lots of folks followed Timothy Leary’s suggestion.  For many, it opened their minds – expanding their thinking and creativity.  For others, including some I knew, their brains fell out. 

As I complete this post, I think I’ve almost gotten to Acceptance. 

Later… 

  1. http://www.ida.org/stpi/pages/D3306-FINAL.pdf [page ES-1]ibid
  2. Ibid.
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_Be-In
  4. Don’t get me started about who might have originated this piece of drollery – we know where that could lead.
  5. http://arts.ucsc.edu/GDEAD/AGDL/goldroad.html

Good News:  Mike is busy revising marketing training materials for a major Thousand Oaks-based bio-tech firm.

Bad News:  No blog post this week.

No News:  You figure it out (Hint: Don’t over-think it!).

Next week, I promise you the absurdly twisted tale of how an English test kept me from attending a seminal event in Hippie Culture (honest!).

Meanwhile, let me cast aside the mantle of jester for a moment (and only a moment, I promise) and mention 2 mitzvahs  that I suggest you consider:

  1. Ritchie Hayward, the incredible drummer in Little Feat, needs a liver transplant.*  Yeah, I know, your liver is otherwise occupied — that ain’t where I’m going with this.  Here’s some info about a fund raiser to help Richie with his overwhelming medical expenses.
    http://www.pacificdisturbance.com/fundraiser.html
  2. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has a category of inductees known as “sidemen.”  Incredibly, the late, and truly great, keyboard genius Nicky Hopkins has not yet been inducted.  For those of you who know who Nicky was, this must certainly be baffling.  For those of you who don’t  recognize the name Nicky Hopkins, let me give you a brief (and totally inadequate) summary of this man’s resume — I assure you, you know his work.  He played keyboard (generally piano) with the following groups:
  • The Kinks
  • The Who
  • The Beatles (piano break on Revolution)
  • The Rolling Stones (from We Love You through Angie — listen to his amazing piano part on the studio version of Sympathy for the Devil or watch him play it on The Rolling Stones Rock’n’Roll Circus DVD)
  • Jefferson Airplane (he played on the Volunteers album and with the band at Woodstock)
  • The Jeff Beck Group
  • Quicksilver Messenger Service

Please sign this on-line petition to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation:
http://www.petitiononline.com/1piano/petition-sign.html

Yeah, I know, there’s poverty, war, pollution, etc. — who gives a shit about some rock musicians?  Well, I do!  And, if you have been enjoying my blog, I suspect that you might too. 

So… what can we learn from this?

  • Mike needs to earn a living like the rest of you.
  • Keith Richards may be indestructible, but some rock musicians do get sick (poor Nicky Hopkins had Crohn’s disease his whole life… trust me, you don’t want to know).

Do what you can do.

Later…

* A shout out to Michelle (Basil) McFee, who alerted me to Ritchie Hayward’s situation.  Michelle, sadly no stranger to serious medical problems, is a great soul and will be appearing in a “60s Flashback” blog post later this year!