The Sure Cure for Writer’s Block

She takes her lattes extra skinny.
She drives a Cooper, it’s a Mini.
But when she takes pen in hand to put black on white,
the sad truth is—she can’t write.

His political opinions are properly aligned
towards the conventional wisdom, he’s inclined.
But as much as he tries to get his sentiments right,
His problem is—he can’t write.

They’ve taken the courses, responded to “prompts,”
you’d think that the scribbling part would be a romp.
But as much as they look like writerly types
They’re incapable of what’s known in the trade as “sitzfleisch”:

The ability to sit for hours on end,
to ignore dog, cat, internet, family and friends,
with your butt in your chair,
while your head’s in the air–

that’s what it takes if you want to give shape,
to airy nothingness, not a mouth all agape,
and an eye towards fashion and the au courant dance,
it’s the very opposite of ants in your pants.

Fake Your Way With Biz Cliches

If you want to get ahead in business, it is not enough to be intelligent, hard-working, and decisive.  The Great Plains of Commerce are littered with the corpses of men and women who possess these qualities, and who were nonetheless stung to death by a swarm of buzzwords.


“. . . at the end of the day, it’s the end of the day.”

 

My own shortcomings in this regard became apparent a few years ago when I made the mistake of saying in a meeting that a proposed course of action, while potentially sound, might be perceived as a bit too–I groped for le mot juste; aggressive? greedy? rapacious?  Everybody ignored me and we plowed ahead until a v.c.–that’s a venture capitalist, not a Viet Cong–who had arrived late stopped us in our tracks.  “I don’t like it,” he said.  “The optics aren’t right.”

Of course! everyone agreed.  How dense we’d all been! What were we thinking? How did we lose sight of long-term fundamentals?  It’s the optics, stupid!  Deep down, we’d been very shallow.


“. . . in order to interface our core competencies with our first-mover advantage . . .”

 

In the mad scramble to the top of the heap, it is thus important that you know just the right thing to say if you want to avoid claw marks on your back and inflict them on others.  Thankfully, the friendly folks at MSN CareerBuilder.com have compiled “12 Workplace Phrases You Probably Don’t Know . . . But Should,” so you can acquire a core competency in first-mover advantage while you bladda-bladda . . .


“Let’s all touch the screen on Bob’s laptop and leave greasy fingerprints!”

 

Wait a minute.  The first rule of business is–you don’t have time to read!  That’s what assistant vice presidents are for!  That’s why they put business books on tape, or edit them down to the length of a candy bar wrapper.

In the interest of saving your valuable time, I have distilled the top 12 workplace phrases currently in circulation down to the really top 4.  After all, you don’t want to be in the lower two-thirds of anything!

Let’s Not Boil the Monkey:  In order for a business phrase to achieve widespread usage, it is essential that it be both colorful and obscure.  Thus when Todd Breathmintsky from the Midwest regional office flies in to corporate headquarters to propose a consolidation of distribution centers to maximize supply-chain efficiencies (yawn), the only way to cut off his path to the promotion that is rightfully yours is to furrow your brow, purse your lips, put your fingers together in a little church-and-steeple and drop this stink bomb on him:  “That’s all well and good, Todd, but let’s not boil the monkey, okay?”


“Todd is such an idiot!”

 

What does it mean?  Who cares?  The all-knowing way in which you say it will cast doubt upon everything Todd has just said, and will ever say again in his miserable career.  In six months he’ll be sleeping under a bridge.

Who screwed the iguana?  A few years ago the phrase “screw the pooch” became popular, for reasons that remain obscure.  It meant “make a terrible mistake,” but this wasn’t always apparent from the context of the discussion, or the tone of the speaker’s voice.  As a result, those who didn’t “get it” would return to their offices and search for “screw the pooch” on their computers.  When they were directed to bestiality websites, the guys in the information technology department would report them to compliance, and security would usher them out of the building after giving them just enough time to remove family pictures from their desks.  Maybe that was the plan all along.


“Officer, I never met that pooch before in my life!”

 

A backlash resulted, and “screw the iguana” was eventually accepted as a conversational safe harbor because there are no pictures of anybody screwing an iguana on the internet–yet.  Even iguanas don’t like to screw iguanas.

Sparadigm.  Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” is a highly-readable work of philosophy, and for that reason alone we ought to cut him some slack.  But his term “paradigm shift” entered the business world and became an all-purpose chew toy, something to gnaw on when your jaws needed a workout.

As a result of overuse, there has been a paradigm shift away from “paradigm shift” towards “sparadigm,” which refers to a course of action that, while it may not be the best, is the only one your company can afford.

It’s not rocket surgery.  When sniveling, weak-kneed, limp-wristed eunuchs in the engineering department raise objections to your Five-Year Plan for Market Domination, saying it can’t be done without an investment of resources comparable to that which went into the Space Race, turn your most withering gaze upon them and say “It’s not rocket surgery, you nimmy-not!”


“No, really, it’s safe.  You go first!”

 

Like a sucker punch, this out-of-the-blue non sequitur will stun your critics, who will be left scratching their heads, while you torpedo their careers by whispering to the CEO “I think you’d better check those engineers for head lice–they seem to scratch a lot.”

 

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Take My Advice–I Wasn’t Using it Anyway.”

Let Us Now Praise Obscure Sidemen: Harold Land

Jazz musicians are by nature itinerants, and so the ties of family that bind those of us with humdrum jobs tend to lie looser on their frames.  Duke Ellington, for example, kept house with three successive women in New York over the course of nearly six decades, but he often used them less as sources of domestic bliss and more as foils to fend off the matrimonial hopes of women he’d meet in clubs and on the road.  Johnny Hodges, Ellington’s long-time alto player, spent so much time away from home he missed his daughter’s high school graduation and her wedding, a source of bitterness on her part.

So when you hear of a jazz musician who made a career-changing move because of family, it places the man in high relief against a drab background of one-night stands and endless road trips that is more typical of the profession.  Such as man was tenor saxophonist Harold Land, an interesting might-have-been whose music is hard to find but worth the search.

Land was born Harold De Vance Land in Houston in 1928, and was raised in San Diego from the age of five.  He became interested in music in high school, and acquired his first saxophone in 1945.  After graduating, Land joined the musician’s union with the aid of a bass player named Ralph Houston, with whom he played his first professional gigs.  From that launching pad he worked at San Diego’s Creole Palace with a small combo led by trumpeter Froebel Brigham.  As was typical of the time, the group played both floor shows and their native brand of jazz, a West Coast variation on the prevailing East Coast model.


Central Avenue, Los Angeles’ answer to Harlem.

Land then went on the road with the Liggins brothers, Jimmy, a guitarist, and Joe, a pianist and vocalist who had several big rhythm and blues hits, including “The Honey Dripper” and “Pink Champagne.”  Land would later recall his time playing what is sometimes referred to as the “chicken shack circuit” as an essential course in his musical education.

Land scuffled for awhile in Los Angeles, and then got the break that brought him to national attention; at a party at Eric Dolphy’s house, Land was heard jamming by trumpeter Clifford Brown and drummer Max Roach, who hired him to be part of what The New York Times called “the definitive bop group.”  The sides they recorded have never gone out of print, and several original compositions by Brown on which Land is heard (“Joy Spring” and “Daahoud”) have become part of the standard jazz repertoire.


Clifford Brown, Max Roach

 

On the verge of fame, or at least the small beer notoriety that is the best a jazz musician can hope for, Land quit the group and returned to Los Angeles to take care of a family member who had fallen ill.  Had he “continued to tour with name groups, there is little doubt that his reputation would have been established sooner and much more firmly,” wrote jazz critic Leonard Feather, but Land took the reversal in the tide of his affairs in stride.

“We were making progress in Los Angeles, even if nobody was aware of it,” he would say later.  “There wasn’t much money, but we were having a lot of beautiful musical moments.”

Among those with whom Land created those beautiful musical moments were the pianist Hampton Hawes; the two can be heard together on “For Real!” with bassist Scott La Faro, who would die in a car accident shortly after the album was finished.  Another was Dexter Gordon, who wrote “Landslide,” a thirty-two bar melody, as a tribute to a tenor he considered underrated.

Land continued to play close to his home until his death in 2001 at seventy-two, an age that makes him a Methuselah by jazz standards.  If long life is any measure of one’s success, what he gave up to go home was worth every second of life foregone on the road.

 

The Human Car Wash of Self-Esteem

It was one of those dinner parties where everyone had had a little too much to drink, and the conversation around the table had grown more . . . shall we say, spirited. Changes were being rung on the usual male-female antinomies–shopping, burping, etc.–when one of the wives went a little too far.


. . . and don’t get me started on his back hair!”

 

“Jeff doesn’t know which end of a hammer is up,” a woman named Sally said with a laugh, which the other women joined in. The men, however, did not. They knew that no matter how inept your husband may be at home repairs, the male ego is such that you don’t embarrass him in front of other men on this score.

A chilly silence descended upon the male half of the table, which the women–insensitive clods that they can be sometimes–eventually noticed. I considered my usual gambit for diverting conversation from an uncomfortable topic–”How ’bout those Red Sox?”–but it seemed too transparent. I considered bringing my philosophical training to bear on the subject–”Does a hammer really have an ‘up’ and a ‘down’ end, Sally?”–but decided it would only prolong the agony.


“Thanks for screwing in that light bulb–my husband could never do that!”

 

No, what was needed was “direct action,” as the Wobbly Party used to say. “Sally, I know you probably didn’t mean to, but I think you’ve hit Jeff where it hurts–bad.”

“Well,” she replied, a trifle defensively, “it’s true.”

“There are many true things that needn’t be said.” I could feel a breeze on my legs from my wife’s efforts to kick me, but she was sitting too far away to make contact. “If this matter isn’t put right, I’m afraid you two won’t have sex tonight, then Jeff will be grumpy next week, his productivity will fall off, his year-end bonus will be inadequate, you two will end up getting divorced, and your kids will drop out of school and end up collecting deposit bottles and sleeping on heating grates for the rest of their lives.”

“Gosh, I didn’t know it was that serious,” she said.

“It is, and drastic measures are called for.”

“Like what?” she asked.

“The Human Car Wash of Self-Esteem.”

Carwash2
The Human Car Wash of Self-Esteem (drawing by Sage Stossel)

 

I looked around the table and saw only blank stares. “I guess this means none of you read my first novel,” I said, and I had a hard time keeping the bitterness out of my voice.

“Uh, I didn’t,” Jeff said.

“Sally–I thought your book group was going to read it,” I said sharply.

“We . . . we have so many other books to read first.”

“Chick lit,” I spat out with contempt. “Let me guess: in this week’s selection, a husband cheats on his wife, or he dies.”

“Actually both,” she said. “We wanted something with a happy ending.”

“You know, if just one of you would buy a copy of A View of the Charles I might move into the coveted top 8 million books on amazon.com–but no.”

“But–you have so many unsold copies in your garage,” the guy to my left said. “It seems such a waste of natural resources to have your print-on-demand publisher crank out another one.”

“I’d like you to know,” I said defensively, that it’s now in a second edition, with a new cover, a new title–’Making Partner’–by a new publisher.”

“Why’s that?” Jeff asked.

“So it won’t be associated with the failure of the first edition,” my wife said unhelpfully.

I could feel my face reddening, but I couldn’t let my personal embarrassment get in the way of my mission; to save a marriage that was in trouble.

“C’mon everybody–into the living room for the Human Car Wash of Self-Esteem.”

“How do we do it?” my wife asked, finally joining in the fun against her better instincts.


The Stroll

 

“Do any of you remember ‘The Stroll’?”

“Remember, you’re the oldest one here,” my wife reminded me, so I had to explain.

“On American Bandstand, the guys and gals would form two lines, and dancers would take turns strolling down between them.”

“That’s it–a dance?” Sally asked.

“There’s more. As the people make their way through, they close their eyes and we touch them.”

“Like running the gauntlet?” Jeff asked, “the Native American form of torture in which an individual runs between a double file of men who strike him with clubs or other weapons?”

“Sort of, but no weapons, and gently, like the soft foam scrubbers in a car wash.”

“That wouldn’t do much for my self-esteem,” the guy to my left–who was now standing to my right–said.

“That’s not all we do. We also murmur . . .”

“Murmur?”

“Murmur . . . words of encouragement and support. In Jeff’s case, something like ‘You did a great job screwing in that light bulb last weekend sweetie,’ or ‘I can’t believe you know how to pump your own gas!’ Something like that.”

Everyone exchanged looks of bemusement that seemed to say “What have we got to lose?” and “Well, I guess I’d do it for Jeff and Sally,” also “This is stupid but what choice do I have?”

Our dinner guests formed themselves into two lines, and it was up to me as host to designate the first human car to be scrubbed. “I think Jeff’s entitled to go first, since he’s the one’s who’s hurting right now.”

“Okay,” he said, a bit chagrined to be put in a position of weakness, but still needing the help that only the Human Car Wash of Self-Esteem can provide.

“Go ahead, sweetie,” Sally said with an audible lump in her throat.


Go ahead–you’ll feel much better when you’re through.

 

“Okay,” he said, as he closed his eyes and began to make his way through the scrubbers of his friends’ arms.

“I’m sure you’re not as bad as Sally says,” the wife of the guy to my left said.

“You can’t be any worse than my husband,” another said.

As Jeff was softly stroked by his friends, you could see a smile come to his face. When he emerged into the drying zone and opened his eyes, he was a new man, no longer sullen and brooding over the uncalled-for insult to his manhood. “You’re right,” he said. “That was great!”

“Who’s next?” I said, beaming with pride over the one thing I’ve invented in my life.

“Me, me!” Sally said. She was like that, a real trouper, always ready to make a party truly special.

“Okay,” I said. “Any fears, insecurities or troublesome issues we need to address?”

“Well, Jeff did make a crack about my weight last weekend.”

You could almost feel a wave of female hormones about to crash on the beach of our living room, like the roar of a distant tsunami that is faintly heard from afar–not to wax too poetic.

“Jeff!” the wife of the guy on my left said.

“It’s not my fault–she asked me the trick question: Does this outfit make me look fat?”

There were nods of sympathy from the other two husbands. “It’s a no-win situation,” one of them said.

“All right, let’s put the past behind us,” I said. “Sally–start strolling!”

She closed her eyes and stepped forward gingerly, where she was met by the soothing caresses of her girlfriends.

“Don’t you listen to him when he answers a loaded question,” one of them said.

“You’re so beautiful–inside and outside,” another said.

It was my turn and I struggled for something to say that would comfort her and at the same time wouldn’t show up her husband.

“You know,” I began tentatively, “the top is the best part of the muffin.”

 

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Blurbs From the Burbs.”

 

Kansas City Jazz: A Little Evil Will Do You Good

In the film The Third Man, Orson Welles plays Harry Lime, a black marketeer in post-World War II Vienna.


Orson Welles as Harry Lime

When he is confronted by his friend Holly Martins, Lime excuses his misdeeds with a speech that Welles himself contributed to Graham Greene’s screenplay.  “In Italy,” Lime says, “for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance.  In Switzerland they had brotherly love–they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”


Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins

While the requirements of dramatic tension compelled Greene to make the results of Lime’s crimes as horrible as possible–children crippled by meningitis they contracted due to his diluted penicillin–the principle pronounced by Lime has a curious element of truth to it.  Consider not the Borgias’ Italy, but Kansas City, Missouri.


Tom Pendergast

From 1925 to 1939, Kansas City was ruled by “Boss Tom” Pendergast, a Democratic politician who allowed alcohol to flow freely despite Prohibition, and who averted his gaze (and no doubt profited) from illegal gambling.  Pendergast achieved Sadam Hussein-like victory margins by a combination of payoffs, fraud and intimidation.  Under his rule, the bars never closed and musicians jammed all night long and into the morning.  The neighborhood that fanned out from the intersection at 18th and Vine became known as a reincarnation of Storyville, New Orleans’ red light district where live music was the come-on to more intimate pleasures during the infancy of jazz.

There developed out of this ever-simmering heat–like a barbecue pit that never went out–a distinct Kansas City sound that changed the course of American music at the same time that it gave birth or schooling to jazz masters such as Lester Young and Ben Webster on tenor sax, and Charlie Parker on alto.


Bennie Moten, by R. Crumb

Claude Williams, a violinist who played with Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy, summed up the competitive nature of those all-night cutting sessions thusly:  “Kansas City was different from all other places because we’d be jamming all night.  And [if] you come up here . . . playing the wrong thing, we’d straighten you out.”  The story is told that the first time Charlie Parker got up at such a session to take his licks, his failing grade was communicated to him by drummer Jo Jones, who crashed a cymbal over on him to tell him to get off the stage.  A guild of musicians with the chops to tell Parker–the most protean improvisator of the bebop era–to come back when he’s ready is one tough union.


Charlie Parker

For the most part the Kansas City sound was a product of musicians born in the central or southern midwest; Bennie Moten, Parker and Webster (Kansas City Kansas or Missouri); Jay McShann (Oklahoma); Andy Kirk (Kentucky); Hot Lips Page (Texas); Lester Young (Mississippi); Walter Page (Missouri).  But it began to reach a greater share of the nation’s ears when a transplant from the east coast–Bill “Count” Basie–collected several personnel from Bennie Moten’s band following the latter’s death in 1935.  John Hammond, who would later discover Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen among others, heard a short-wave radio broadcast of the band from New York and went to Kansas City to check them out.  He described their 1936 sessions for him–the first on which Lester Young was ever heard–as “the only perfect, completely perfect recording session I’ve ever had anything to do with.”


Lester Young

The Kansas City sound moved at a loping gait–a 4/4 beat rather than the 2/4 time that had characterized jazz recordings up to then.  Kansas City bands often played according to so-called “head arrangements,” communal affairs composed and arranged collectively, changing every night on the fly, rather than sight-reading composed music.  Basie’s band began to go downhill musically once it was financially successful enough to purchase the services of outside arrangers.  Finally, Kansas City jazz was a counterpoint of “riffs,” with one section playing a repetitive, rhythmic line behind a vocalist to add energy, or two sections–sax vs. trumpets–alternating and competing with each other, driving the music without exhausting it.


Jay McShann, leader of the first band in which Charlie Parker played

Could Kansas City jazz have evolved without vice and corruption?  Perhaps, although it was a wide-open laissez-faire attitude towards man’s ineradicable taste for forbidden pleasures that brought it to a boil.  Where moral strictures are tight, art tends to wither.  You won’t find any jazz of consequence in Utah, for example, even though that’s the name of their pro basketball team.

I’ll bet it’s a great place to shop for cuckoo clocks.

This article appeared previously, in slightly different form, in Brilliant Corners

Flogging by Blogging

New guidelines released by the Federal Trade Commission say bloggers must disclose any money or freebies they receive in exchange for writing product reviews.

                                                                                       The Wall Street Journal


“Komodo dragon attack–I’m ON IT!”

It’s 7:35 a.m., time for me to start tapping out the fresh, insightful content that’s known the world over by readers of Gerbil News Network.  I turn on my Dell desktop–for personal computing to small, medium, large, extra-large or XXL businesses, Dell Solutions come fully stocked!

I’ve poured myself a cup of Starbucks new Ready Brew Instant Coffee, made with the highest-quality 100% arabica beans.  Bleh–it’s awful, but of course I can’t say that on my blog, not if I want to keep the product samples and Starbucks “Bearistas” stuffed animals coming.


Something’s missing on this Bearista–no nose ring!

I scan the pages of the morning papers, looking for some quirky, off-beat news items I can twist into a fictional extrapolation that will be misinterpreted by a literal-minded doofus in New Zealand or Bayonne, New Jersey.  Ah–just the thing!  The Federal Trade Commission, the government agency that never rests in its quest to find something–anything–to justify its existence, is going after bloggers who fail to disclose compensation they receive from their subjects.


Lizard of the Month:  Attends UCLA, majors in psychology.

I look around my office.  There’s the Lizard of the Month calendar I got from the Komodo Dragon Society of America.  Is the FTC going to begrudge me that little lagniappe?  I should hope not.

There’s this month’s Cat Fancy Magazine–the annual Kitten-Up-a-Tree Rescue Issue.  Let me tell you, it breaks your heart to see those little guys stuck high above the pavement, staring fearfully down as a ladder truck snatches them before they fall.  I can’t believe some junior bureaucrat at the FTC is going to go after my free subscription at a time when so many American industries have been reduced to an oligopolistic handful of predators.


Help!

There’s my Don King Chia Pet, a joint promotion of Joseph Enterprises and King’s Only in America Productions, which I received for blogging about the Halloween Thrilla “Fright Night” fight between Joseph “King Kong” Agbeko and No. 1-Ranked mandatory challenger Yohnny “El Colombiano” Perez.  You can hardly say that little trifle has affected my coverage of King, the greatest boxing promoter in the history of mankind and quite possibly the universe.  Did I mention that he’s a sharp dresser, too?  And the guy he pistol-whipped back in Cleveland–well, if you’re going to play the numbers, you’d better be ready to pay up when you lose.

I maintain a “bright line” between the reporting and the business sides of my blog.  When the monthly $1.05 check comes in from Google Adsense I have no way of knowing which ads readers have clicked through.  I write without fear or favor, and never hesitate to complain if the cover of a Mariah Carey CD fails to adequately disclose her, uh, endowment.


Carey:  If she were a Hawaiian apartment building, that deck would be called a “lanai”.

No, this time the government has gone too far.  They’ll take away my Kate Spade for Men Tote Bag, a handy carry-all that’s both stylish and convenient–when they pry my cold dead fingers off of its colorful red handle.

Enjoy free shipping when you order on-line through Gerbil News Network!

Tom Freeb, Antacid Rock Bass Player, Dead at 71

SEPULVEDA, California.  Thomas “Tom” Freeb, bass guitar player for My Unicorn’s Knightmare, an antacid rock band of the 60′s, died yesterday of complications from adenoid surgery.  He was 71.


Tom and Tim Freeb with guitars in their first  combo, The Castaways

 

With his brother Tim, Freeb is given credit for developing “Antacid Rock,” a sub-genre of sixties music played by and for those too scared to experiment with the hallucinogenic drugs that gave birth to so-called “psychedelic” music.

“We read the exposes of LSD and marijuana in Time and Life magazines,” Tim recalls with a look of relief on his face.  “We decided to experiment, but play it safe.  We didn’t want to get kicked off Student Council.”

There followed a period of artistic growth for the two brothers, who tried cigarettes dipped in paregoric, smoking oregano, and drinking rum Cokes with aspirins really fast through a straw to see if they could achieve enlightenment safely.


Non-psychedelic solo

 

The two changed their group’s name to “My Unicorn’s Knightmare” to symbolize  their conflicting desires to explore the mind-bending realm beyond the humdrum reality of their suburban lives, yet retain their innocence.  Derided by their  hard-rocking competitors as teeny-boppers, the Freebs had the last laugh when their non-psychedelic anthem “High on Life” hit #1 on Billboard Magazine’s  National Honor Society chart.  A follow-up song, “Tripping Through the Pet  Store,” which celebrated the joys of smoking catnip, a close relative of marijuana, reached #4, giving the Freebs a hit-making scorecard that surpassed Buffalo Springfield and even The Jefferson Airplane.


Mrs. Freeb’s casserole:  “I . . . I think I see the  face of the godhead in there.”

 

“Guys in other groups would brag about dropping Owsley acid,” Tim says to  this reporter as he fiddles anxiously with his aging love beads.  “We’d ask mom to put an extra can of cream of mushroom soup in her tuna noodle casserole.  I don’t think even Hendrix could have handled that dose.”

In an interview with Modern Maturity magazine in 2010, Freeb expressed no bitterness that in his later years My Unicorn’s Knightmare could find work only  in chain hotel lounges and other out-of-the-way venues.  “Look at The Doors,” he said at the time.  “They’re all dead now.”  When it was pointed out that three of the original Doors are still alive, Freeb became impatient.  “Dude,” he  snapped at the reporter, “those are hallucinations!


Not so far out!

 

Freeb is survived by his wife Patty, his cats Jimi and Janis, and a spider plant that he successfully repotted and moved with him on tour.  In lieu of  flowers, the family requests that donations in Freeb’s memory be made to the Home for Aging Bassists in Chico, California.

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Fauxbituaries.”