"...it's like Will Rogers, Jean Shepherd and some grumpy Jewish man all rolled into one."

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Blue Genius

Well, they've just announced the 2015 MacArthur Fellows -- i.e., the "genius grants" -- and again my name is nowhere to be found on the list. I checked, twice. Honestly, I'm not sure how much longer I can sustain this level of brilliance without the appropriate recognition. Inspiration is fleeting.

This year's honorees each receive a stipend of $625,000, payable in quarterly installments over 5 years. While I'm not quite sure what a "stipend" is, my disappointment isn't all about the money. Yes, it's largely about the money but there's also the component of being acknowledged for what I've done creatively and what I could do in the future with $625K burning a hole in my pocket. The foundation website mentions the award permits recipients "the flexibility to pursue their own artistic, intellectual, and professional activities in the absence of specific obligations or reporting requirements." That is really a perfect set-up for me at the moment -- I've just been laid off from my job after 7+ years with the company and am completely without specific obligations. There are some reporting requirements, but those are at the behest of the Department of Unemployment Insurance. Once the grant payments start rolling in, I'll set aside being on the dole and can always reopen my claim once the stipend runs out.

"Stipend" -- it seems to be built around the word "spend", so maybe it has something to do with how I'm required to distribute the money to support the local economy? I'm just spit-balling here -- once I see the cash deposited in my account, I'll allocate some of my intellectual activity into further researching the meaning.

Again this year the recipients come from a wide variety of backgrounds -- scientists, community activists, artists. Well, they seem to cast a pretty broad net for "artists"; I see a tap dancer and a puppeteer among the winners. I bet right now the puppeteer is berating himself for not tap dancing while dangling his marionettes, thinking he could have doubled his award. Another of the winners is a playwright. Now, this inspires me: I'm going to write a play about my quest to be nominated for a MacArthur grant. If When I win, that'll be so meta.

Maybe "stipend" is another word for a wire transfer? Or cashier's check? I hope the money comes soon so I can start to really dig into this.

There is a poet in this year's group, and part of why she was honored was because, in her latest work, she "abandons all punctuation." That seems like a pretty low bar that I could easily meet if not exceed with minimal effort dedication to my craft and without working up much of a sweat its good to have an aspirational goal still within reach

Well, as Shakespeare (who never won a genius grant, and his grasp of punctuation was pretty shaky) wrote: "What's past is prologue." While I'm not sure what that means, either, cutting and pasting it here has led to a moment of even greater creative inspiration: tap-dancing marionettes performing The Tempest. I just need to stage it in a suitably gritty, contemporary setting while working the themes of climate change and displaced peoples into the production. Sounds like a sure-fire 2016 winner to me!

I'll need a little help getting this underway so one of the anonymous MacArthur people can see my brilliant creativity in person. If you'd like to stipend me (am I saying that correctly?) I promise to reimburse you right after I'm featured in next year's announcement, especially since with this approach I'm likely to at least triple, if not quadruple, the usual payout. Talk about genius...

Saturday, September 19, 2015


When I was in junior high I was in a band for about fifteen minutes. My friend Jim (who later became a very fine professional musician; owned his own recording studio and has put out CDs) played guitar; a big kid named Matty played bass, and our drummer's name escapes me but he looked a lot like Justin Bieber circa age twelve. We rehearsed in my living room twice, once without the drummer and once without Matty, in preparation for our first (and only) paying gig at a church youth group dance.

We had a repertoire of exactly four songs:

  1. Tuesday Afternoon
  2. Your Momma Don't Dance (And Your Daddy Don't Rock and Roll)
  3. Ohio
  4. After Midnight
Based on our set list, you can see we struck that delicate balance between being pop-oriented and socially conscious.

It took us about eighteen minutes to run through everything we knew how to play together, so we reprised Nos. 2 and 4 to stretch out our set to the contractually-obligated thirty minutes. For this, the four of us were paid $10. Not per person, but for the group. We'd agreed at one of our two band meetings that Jim's friend Chip, who was our manager (he landed us the church gig and then I believe was indicted for tax fraud, as all first managers end up being) and also our sound tech, would keep the $10 to use toward the awesome custom sound system he was going to build for us. I remember how adamant Chip was that it would be "double-mono" versus a stereo system. I guess that meant that we would sound equally bad emanating from both the left and right speaker columns. We never played another gig nor saw the ten-spot again (see earlier reference to "tax fraud").

I don't recall the band name we decided upon, or at least how we billed ourselves for that one illustrious evening. Among names under consideration were "Band of Gold" and "Cracker Jack and the Shasternasters" (that last one was my suggestion). We may have gone with "The Grateful Bread" that night, or perhaps "The Rolling Clones". As I reflect, I think it should have been "A-Band-Done".

Jim sang lead along with axe duties. Matty plunked his bass in a key and time signature that didn't necessarily sync up with what we were playing. When we threw to the drummer for his big solo, he hollered at us to all stop playing before he could get started. I played piano and it was enough for me to focus on setting the correct tempo as I played intros to each tune; although I was a decent singer as a youth I didn't contribute any vocals for this quartet outside of my part in "Ohio", where it was my responsibility to call out "Four!" and "How many more?"

Now, in the interest of full disclosure I should say I was part of -- but didn't actually play in -- another band some years later. My then-piano teacher Mr. Chambers formed the Chambers School of Music Rock and Roll Ensemble (we were not nearly as good as that name promised, and only slightly less pretentious). I was supposed to play organ in the line-up, but at that group's one and only gig my instrument shorted out as we took the stage and I ended up miming all of my parts. It proved to be quite liberating. Rather than having to focus on playing the right notes, I was able to adopt an unencumbered stage persona and bounce around with slick moves copped from Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. I jumped up onto my bench; I pounded the keyboard with my foot; I made wild, sweeping glissandos that were never off-key since I wasn't producing any sound at all. As a result of my "performance" I was, for the first and only time in my life and for all of five minutes, perceived as cool. Mr. Chambers had booked us as part of an assembly at a local Catholic girl's school -- no doubt his co-producer was Chip, who seemed to have an in for these kinds of gigs -- and I knew one girl at that school, named Christine. She came up to the stage afterwards with several of her alluring classmates in tow and seemed to take some pride in introducing me to them. This is why most guys play in bands, right? To meet girls. Catholic school girls. In uniforms! It was a true rock 'n' roll fantasy, and now it was becoming my reality. But as I just mentioned, my moment of cool ended quickly -- Christine and her posse quickly passed over the chubby, bespectacled and blushing keyboardist in favor of our two long-haired guitarists. Both guys were really ugly as sin -- but they: 1) played guitar and 2) had long hair, so game over for me. Plus I'm sure the undercurrent of the "sin" element had something to do with their allure in this particular environment.

Despite many years of piano lessons I never really mastered the instrument. On those rare occasions where I'm near a keyboard, I can still eke out most of "The Spinning Song". I suppose if I shook off the rust I could get into one of those older guy bands like you see playing at town fairs and grocery store openings. And if I could track down Chip, maybe we'd get booked at a local convent and once I whipped out my electrifying version of "The Spinning Song", I'd have to beat the nuns off with a stick. They wouldn't have to know I'm Jewish.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


"If you take care of your people your people will take care of your customers and your business will take care of itself."
  • That's why we're laying off all our back office staff.

"The remarkable thing is, we have a choice everyday regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day."
  • For the foreseeable future I'll choose to embrace a negative attitude.

"It's easier to do a job right than explain why you didn't."
  • But the lady at the unemployment office isn't really interested in your explanation.

"There's a way to do it better. Find it."
  • While you're doing that, I'll be sitting back and letting my business take care of itself.

"If everything was perfect, you would never learn and you would never grow."
  • Like, I just learned what the "subjunctive mood" is!

"Believe you can and you're halfway there."
  • Believe you can't and you can skip the trip altogether.

"Aim for the moon. If you miss, you may hit a star."
  • NASA vehemently disagrees.

"Don't watch the clock; do what it does. Keep going."
  • 3:30 already? Bye -- see you tomorrow!

"A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others."
  • I was motivated to beat others and HR said I had to attend an anger management seminar, which I have no desire to.

"Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground."
  • But maybe first move out from the middle of the sidewalk.

"It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation."
  • That's why, despite the publisher's urging, there was no Moby Dick 2: Ahab's Back!

"Success is walking from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm."
  • But it's better to start the stroll with a fat wallet, no?

"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."
  • For example, Trump's lead in the polls.

"Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone."
  • Guess I better put on another pot of coffee.

"A real entrepreneur is somebody who has no safety net underneath them."
  • Killer idea: personal safety nets!

"The number one reason people fail in life is because they listen to their friends, family, and neighbors."
  • Who does that leave to listen to, exactly? 

"You've got to get up every morning with determination if you're going to go to bed with satisfaction."
  • You've got to go to bed with Cialis if you've going to get it up every morning.

"Fortune sides with him who dares."
  • I dare whoever came alongside me and stole my fortune to give it back.