Sunday, February 22, 2009

Altered States

It was a four-state day today. Not the usual four-in-a-day states - confusion, frustration, mystification, and fatalistic acceptance - but real states: Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey. It was the return from a delightful extended weekend in Virginia, visiting friends and attending a conference of children's entertainers. (Yes, there are such things and yes, even with lecture and workshop sessions they're as nuts as you'd expect them to be. Woe to the non-conference folks who came to the hotel for a quiet, relaxing weekend.)

Before leaving Virginia around noon, I projected we'd be home at 8:30 pm. We pulled into the driveway at 8:22 pm. Yea me! (Ok, it was blind luck, but I'll take the credit wherever I can find it.) In between, lots of coffee, hot chocolate, diet coke (or was it diet Pepsi? I can't tell the difference between one drink that tastes like kerosene and another.) and a bunch of trips to men's rooms from the south to the north.) And about a million radio stations.

I was especially eager to share a photo of something I saw at the conference. The theme for this year's conference was "Back to the Future" and if you've ever wondered what happens when incredibly talented people have way too much time on their hands, check out the full-size DeLorean below (complete with flux capacitor and other movie-version accessories) and, for comparison, the photo of the lead twister's own DeLorean next to it. The balloon version took a team of five people a total of about 40 person-hours.

Unrelated Item 1: Going Downhill Fast

What is up with those people who come back from a ski trip and leave the ski lift tag on their coats for weeks afterward?

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Firefighters' Response

"To the IAFF and to the families of the 344 fire fighters who gave their lives so others might live, it is no joking matter."
(Harold Schaitberger, then-General President of the International Association of Firefighters)

Some follow-up on the Joan Rivers thing from the previous post, which seems to have sparked more than a little interest...

The remarks in question - which referred to the widows of firefighters killed in the 9-11 collapse of the World Trade Center - were from a tour Rivers was doing in England in early 2003, barely a year and a half after the attacks. I've looked for a transcription of Rivers' routine so readers could have it for reference but so far I've not found one. A few sources described portions - how disappointed the widows would have been if it turned out their husbands were alive and they had to give back the large checks Rivers (erroneously) said they received, how they were better off without having to deal with their husbands' shortcomings anymore, etc. - but nothing that described the routine in its entirety.

I never suggested, of course, that Ms. Rivers should be arrested, nor censored, simply shot at from an airplane. We live in America, and this is not the first reminder we've had that freedom of speech comes with a dark, unfortunate side that we must allow. I am aware that, for better or worse, publicly ridiculing innocent victims and going for easy shock-laughs at their expense, though reprehensible, is legal. It's done in school-yards by still-developing minds all the time.

As a professional clown, I'll also take difference with any suggestion I don't have a sense of humor, or that the one I have is too high-brow. Ask any rubber-chicken I own. They'll tell you.

I respect the point-of-view of readers who disagree with me as to the appropriateness of Rivers' remarks. (Remember, these are not simply jokes about death, which are often as useful as they are funny. These are jokes about people who died violent deaths because they ran into a burning building to save people after terrorists attacked. Call me crazy, but I think there's a difference.) In fact, the advent of the Internet even makes it possible for anyone who feels Rivers' remarks were not cruel and inappropriate to express that opinion directly to the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) at:

Before you do, though, you may want to consider what their then-General President, Mr. Harold Schaitberger, wrote shortly after Rivers' ridicule.


WASHINGTON - "Comedian Joan Rivers' attempts to find humor in the catastrophic loss that our members and their loved ones suffered on September 11 is a new low and cannot be tolerated.

"For those of you who may have missed the news reports, she has a bit in her current show in England that openly mocks the relatives of our brothers. Her new show, "Broke And Alone In London," makes light of the widows whose husbands were killed in the collapse of the World Trade Center. It's hard to understand, given that she lost 11 friends herself that day.

"Despite negative reaction in England, she is vowing to keep the sick joke in her act, and I'm sure she's just waiting for the backlash so she can jump-start her career. Well, here it is.

"First, let me be clear to Ms. Rivers that our widows would give anything to have their husbands back. The loss they suffered in an instant was total and profound, and no efforts by anyone can make that pain go away. But, as you have proven, it can be made more painful with a resentful remark or a caustic comment.

"Second, these courageous women have received very little in real terms in exchange for what they have lost. The financial burdens of losing a primary breadwinner, feeding, clothing and educating hundreds of fatherless children, and planning for decades of your own life without your loved one are overwhelming. Ms. Rivers should check her facts. The widows and families haven't received anything near $5 million, but even if they had, it would not equal what they have lost.

"Third, and last, Ms. Rivers has attacked the very symbols of this proud nation's response to terrorism. If she had been in the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, the New York fire fighters - my members - would have sacrificed anything to get her out alive. They would do the same for her now, even knowing how little she thinks of their devotion to her safety. This is a nation at war, and Ms. Rivers' comments strike at the heart of our unified front against the threats that face us. Maybe it doesn't feel as real in London, but I can tell you it feels real to my 250,000 members protecting North America.

"I am sorry that Ms. Rivers has chosen to find humor in our tragic and devastating loss. To the IAFF and to the families of the 344 fire fighters who gave their lives so others might live, it is no joking matter."

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Looking Out from the Spiderhole

As Lori reminds me, I haven't been around lately. Still alive and well, just navigating some unusually busy seas. Good things mostly - busy at work, a bunch of last minute preparation for the new course I'm starting to teach this week, etc. Hopefully things will let up enough so that I can take the Christmas tree down some time before I have to hang hearts on it and call it a Valentine's Day Fern.

A few thoughts and observations I've been wanting to commit to writing...

Taking a Dive
It amazes me that people think that photo really shows Michael Phelps dragging from a bong. He's an American hero, for goodness sake. He wouldn't do that. He was obviously attending a classical music event and was being shown how to blow into a bassoon. Yeah, yeah, that's the ticket.

Now that we've settled that, there's also a logical explanation for this A-Rod/steroid thing, and you'll read it here as soon as I come up with it.

Memo to Ashley Judd...
Readers here know I'm second to none in my lack of confidence in Sarah Palin to lead the contiguous 48. But fair is fair: when the problem at hand is that wolves are threatening the caribou and moose populations, even I can see the average New Yorker is probably not qualified to offer an opinion, including on whether or not aerial hunting is appropriate. Besides, we do something similar here. We just call them drive-by shootings.

Why I Wish Joan Rivers were a Wolf in Alaska
PBS has been airing a wonderful six-part series about the history of American comedy. A couple of weeks ago, during an otherwise hilarious and informative episode, I was floored - and not in a good way - by a clip from a Joan Rivers stand-up piece about how the 9/11 widows were better off having the financial settlement checks instead of having their husbands.

I read once a quote from Lou Jacobs, one of the greatest and most recognizable circus clowns of the 20th century. Someone asked in an interview how he knew whether something was funny. He answered, simply, that if people laughed it was funny. I understand what he was getting at, but I respectfully disagree with anyone who takes that too literally. To call everything that makes a portion of the population laugh comedy is something like calling every greasy, fatty, processed chemical-laden stuff people want to ingest food. It's bad enough when artless school-yard dog-piling on people who are gay, handicapped, or whatever the person trying to be funny is not passes as comedy. When someone uses 9/11 deaths as the object of jokes, a serious line has been crossed. It's doubtful Rivers would make the same statement, even as part of an act, to the face of a 9/11 widow who in reality would give that settlement check and another like it to have her loved one back. There's a difference - and it's a big one - between something being shocking because it's insightful and cutting edge, and something being shocking just because it's so cruel as to be inappropriate.

I don't care what Joan Rivers accomplished early in her career. And I don't give a damn how many people were shocked into laughing this time around. It's not comedy. Period.

In Ms. Rivers' case, her horrifying insensitivity is particularly surprising, even hypocritical. Her own husband Edgar, sitting in a Philadelphia hotel room in 1987 faced with a choice between staying married to her or swallowing a bottle of Valium, chose the latter. It's been 22 years, not the 7 the 9/11 widows have had, and I still haven't heard Ms. Rivers extolling the hilarity of that event in her own life. Maybe I just missed it.