I’m sure I used to have a sense of humor. When the Dilbert strip started I thought it very funny. When I sat at work meetings—which unfortunately I did most days, for big chunks of the day—I often got distracted by the unintentional humor, often to my detriment: sooner or later someone would notice the smile on my face or ask for my opinion and I would be left to choose between allowing I had long lost track of what they were saying or having to make up some non-answer answer. To my shame I usually chose the latter.
As my company changed, not for the best, and I found myself inhabiting the Dilbert realm, I stopped thinking Dilbert was funny. Since I retired, it’s been funny again.
I can’t tell whether I still have a sense of humor. Recently we watched the first episode of a Netflix comedy, “Master of None.” Neither Ruth nor I thought anything even remotely funny took place during the half hour show. In fact, we thought it particularly unfunny. And yet, a column by Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker (11/23/2015) thought it was “strong, wide-ranging and genuinely funny.” She thought an incident was particularly funny: the main character, musing about having kids, thinks it could be an amazing experience though, what if he wants pasta and he couldn’t find a sitter?
“What? I’m not eating pasta? That would be horrible.”
That’s the punchline. Obviously I no longer know what is funny.
Maybe I’m old. (Actually, I am old) What I mean is that a sense of humor may deteriorate with age. Why not? So many other things do. Maybe. But I still crack up watching “The Court Jester” for the umpteenth time.
Last night we watched “Doll & Em,” an HBO comedy on its second season. I don’t know if Ruth likes it, its about two women friends. After watching the third half hour episode episode I tried the fourth and then I begged off, I could take no more.
Ruth asked me if we had watched the whole last season of “Episodes,” a Showtime series. Like “Doll & Em” it is based on English actors in America. All four seasons of “Episodes” are available on demand, so I replayed the last show. Ruth remembered it as soon as it started but we re-watched the whole show and we both laughed. It was funny when we first saw it and it is still funny.
Nussbaum’s article claimed “Master of None” cracks open, starting with the second episode, an ‘instant classic’ about second generation immigrants and their parents. Alas, I’m afraid I will miss it. I feel toward it the same way I feel about torture: the threat of it alone would be enough to make me confess. To anything. No way I’m watching that show again.
I’m not a “professional engineer.” I have a post-graduate engineering degree from the world’s foremost engineering school, I made my living as an engineer and yet, according to the authorities, I’m not a professional engineer. To become one I would have to pass a test. I would have to be certified as one to bid on government work .
I dare say that the same legislators who reasoned that the public requires the extra protection afforded by a test certifying a minimum level of competence, wouldn’t consider consulting a physician who hadn’t attended an accredited university and passed the required boards or a lawyer who hadn’t passed the bar.
And yet, it has never occurred to them—at least no law has been passed—that anyone aspiring to become a legislator or a governor or the president of the United States, should first be certified as competent to hold such a post. That anyone who wants to write our laws, influence our economic policy, even decide whether we should send our children to war, should have demonstrated a minimum level of knowledge or competence before becoming eligible to run for office. It seems they’d rather ascribe to the ‘everything is fair in politics’ dictum.
This helps explain why we have reasonably competent doctors, lawyers and engineers but the same can not be said for those holding political office.
Forty three years ago, Hal Krieger (2nd from the right) hosted the “Lab 54 Where Are You?” party at the house he shared with Maria and their German Shepherds in Germantown. Hal invited everyone who’d ever been involved with the lab. To my surprise, many who had not been involved for years, showed up. Hal threw the party to celebrate the dissolution of the laboratory, and for that matter the whole of Fibers Research. The party’s title was inspired by a then popular TV show about fumbling policemen titled “Car 54 Where Are You?”
The party, as expected, was extraordinary. And weird. When Ruth and I walked in we met Vic, a Peruvian technician who’d left the company before I joined. I’d met him briefly when I interviewed. Someone pointed out that Vic—who was manning one of the ill-fated Anim/8 lines—spoke Spanish and suggested we converse. That’s always awkward. What do you say in Spanish in those circumstances? I said hi and he said “don’t come work here.”
Minutes later Hunter arrived with his wife Judy. He came in and without hesitation, grabbed Vic by an arm and said “you are under arrest, fellow.” Hunter, a PhD chemical engineer who’d been hired after me and had never met or heard of Vic, was tall, Waspish and looked the part. Vic dropped to his knees, dissolved into pleas, swore he hadn’t done it and begged for a break.
There are so many stories about lab 54 and its characters that I could write a book, except no one would believe any of it, except those in Rohm & Haas, who’d accuse me of white washing the truth.
One such story involves a tech whose name escapes me. The day after being warned about his chronic lateness’ he arrived at the lab two hours late. Called on the carpet—we did invent an excellent soil hiding carpet yarn [which is yet another story] so the cliché should be allowed—he claimed he’d been on time but, when he got to the gate remembered he’d left a chicken cooking in the oven. And so, he explained, he had to return home to turn the oven off but, since the chicken was done, he sat at the table and ate it. Hence his late arrival. He wasn’t fired.
On my second day at work, sitting at Bernie Robbins old desk (yet another story, one that made national news) I received my first piece of official mail. I must confess that I was excited. Here I was, a real engineer, fresh out of school, at a real job. (That’s what I thought at the time, Peruvian Vic’s warnings notwithstanding.) The envelop contained literature for a ‘penis extender.’ Being the new kid I suspected I was being watched, and tested, I turned to Paul Cox, my office-mate, a middle-aged, short, rolly polly Southern gentleman with tremendous experience in the fibers business (he was out of place and quit a few months later) and suggested I’d gotten his mail by mistake.
Paul had a loud, high pitched hehehehehe laugh. This attracted others into our office—we had about five cubicles across the hallway from the main laboratory—and Paul, when he stopped laughing, told us about ‘bank walkers.’ When he was a kid and the boys went skinny dipping, they shed their clothing and ran into the river. Except those who were particularly well endowed, the ‘bank walkers.’ They took their time sauntering along the river bank before going into the water.
That first piece of mail had no doubt been sent by Mel, our janitor and porn purveyor. A large young man in army fatigues and a few days blond beard, Mel was an opera aficionado who had season tickets to the Met, where he surreptitiously taped the performances before copying them for sale in one of his high end reel-to-reel tape recorders. Mel knew operas by heart and sang arias all day. I suppose he also took time to study because years later, when I met him, he was a respected PhD psychologist hired to counsel some of our troubled employees. The stories about Mel would fill a book by themselves. In lab 54 he did most everything, except clean.
The four years I spent at the lab where the times Ruth thought I was most interesting. In close contact with managers, fellow engineers and technicians (plus one janitor) I knew everything that was going on. A few months after the lab’s dissolution I got promoted and, according to her, no longer knew anything.
In the picture are Pete Grant (far right), Hal and to my right, Courtland Gee. Courtland started in the lab at bit before I did, in 1968. He was seventeen and doesn’t look much different now. He must have a rotting portrait in some closet somewhere. The four of us got together for lunch yesterday. We may have exchanged a story or two because lunch stretched for four hours. Maybe one of us will put together another list of names and have another go at a “Lab 54 where are you?” party although, alas, many former lab 54ers are no longer with us.
I’m pretty sure that was Joe Louis at the far end of the platform. I don’t look for celebrities or get a thrill from spotting them, but I seem to notice my fair share. I may have a hard time recognizing my neighbors, but celebrities often make it easy.
This past Monday I flew to LA next to a ten year old boy and his mother. She quickly revealed they were on their way to meet with the kid’s agents and managers. I’m sure she used the plural. The kid sings, dances and acts. A very polite kid with lovely dreadlocks and a proud, nice mother. I’m sure he’ll be famous. Someday.
Which made me think back to another celebrity sighting, long ago, in the early eighties, in the Hilton hotel in Brussels—I can place it exactly because that first business trip to Europe included my first ever visit to Germany, which is a whole nother story. The elevator doors were closing when a young woman, accompanied by two other giddy young people, barged in.
She was a vaguely familiar, pretty little thing. What intrigued me most was the young woman’s jacket, an elaborately painted bombardier’s leather jacket.
I have such a jacket. It remains a favorite even though its old and its lining its shredded: I would never consider decorating it with paint. The blond girl looked away from her chatting companions to smile at me, before performing a graceful 180 degrees twirl. Three oversized letters painted on the jacket’s back spelled out P-I-A. She twirled back to face her friends but kept an eye on me.
Pia Zadora was a fleeting minor celebrity whose rich old husband was promoting her film career. The marriage was later lampooned in a “The Bonefire For The Vanities,” by Tom Wolfe.
I was considering a comment along the lines of, your mother made sure you wouldn’t be losing your jacket in summer camp, when the elevator reached my floor and we were spared the razor sharp edge of my wit.
But Joe Louis was no ordinary celebrity. He was Joe Louis. Thinking back on that day, I didn’t wonder what he was doing standing on the New York bound platform in the Trenton train station, but what was I doing there, heading to NY City, by myself, on a weekend afternoon?
Such are the thoughts that scamper across my mind while trapped for six hours in a metal cylinder flying to the West coast. (Seven and a half, if you count the delayed departure)
In the end I deduced it must have been one of the times I went to see and help translate for my cousin Manolo when he came from Venezuela to the Sloan Kettering for diagnosis and treatment. My cousin Manolo, for whom the phrase “the good die young” must have been coined, first came to the States for treatment around 1970.
But there he was, Joe Louis, the man who knocked out Max Schmeling and Hitler’s-Nazi-Aryan-superiority line of bull.
I’m never sure what to do in these cases. Being an iconoclast I tend to do nothing, but this time I nodded. Joe Louis was by himself. The few other people on the platform were at the other end. Mr. Louis smiled back.
I have been next to more “important” people—although I could have easily survived without seeing Fidel or Che in the flesh—but Joe Louis was a bit of a thrill. I remember going back upstairs for some reason, maybe to buy a ticket. When I came back down Joe Louis was gone.
I got into a conversation with a uniformed guard. When I mentioned seeing Joe Louis he became agitated. He hadn’t seen him. He said he normally looks for big people that may be of help in case of an altercation. He hadn’t noticed anyone resembling Joe Louis.
“Are you sure it was him?” he said.
It was him. No question. Joe Louis had a recognizable, innocent face. A nice man’s face. And even if it wasn’t him, by the guard’s own admission, he should have noticed a really big guy. And gray hair or not, sweet face or not, even in old age, I bet that Joe Louis could punch like a mule.
I suppose that I misunderstand idioms because English is my third language. Or why I mishear words. I just learned that the song “Killing me softly with insults” is actually “Killing Me Softly With His Song.”
I still think it makes more sense my way. Another phrase that makes no sense, an idiom, is “getting his just deserts.” To me it implies getting a deserved sweet reward, right?
Apparently not. Which took me back to the olden days, when I was a freshman chemical engineering student at Northeastern University. All engineers had to take drafting classes. Imagine that. I liked drafting but the homework took forever and, in general, I didn’t do homework. (I’m not proud of it)
One of our classmates was a weird kid, a loner who had trouble expressing himself. I’d heard Howie was a genius, or at least a near-genius. What was clear is that he had social and physical issues. He wrote in very large letters, much like a child, quickly filling notebook after notebook he stuffed into a full bag which, of course, he regularly dropped, creating a frantic scene when the notebooks spilled and he feared their loss.
I’m not sure how much of a genius Howie was, or how well he was doing, but drafting class was a no-go for him. Toward the end of the school year a bunch of us decided to help him—I had more reason to help than others, but that is another story—and tried to tutor him, enough to at least get him a passing grade.
In part we wanted to show the flunkies who teased Howie without mercy that he could pass a course they were likely to fail. Out of the 105 freshmen that started chemical engineering studies, only twenty five graduated on time.
But Howie could not draw a straight line. Literally. He held his pencil like Anthony Perkins held his knife in Psycho, which explained why, rather than drawing a straight line, Howie’s pencil ripped a jagged tear through the paper.
We couldn’t get him to relax his grip on the pencil. We made some progress, at least in explaining what he was supposed to do, even if he physically couldn’t, but when the time for finals came, we weren’t hopeful.
Proctoring that final we found a teaching assistant, a young woman we’d never seen before. Our drafting professor—a very elegant man in fitted suits who started each lecture by removing and exquisitely folding his jacket—had proctored every test till then. It shouldn’t have mattered.
Emo, one of the kids who’d worked the hardest with Howie, was a genuinely nice guy and a good student. He reminded me a bit of Perry Como, a mellow crooner with his own TV variety show. When he finished the test, Emo turned to Howie, who was sitting on the draft table behind him.
“How you doing, Howie? You doing good?” Emo asked in a natural voice. I was sitting a couple rows back. When I heard him, I looked up from my paper.
The TA, an athletic young woman wearing a tartan skirt, leaped from her chair and charged Emo, finger pointed, accusing him of copying from Howie.
The room broke out in laughter.
“No, no, I wasn’t cheating,” Emo said, offering the test. “See? I was done.”
“I saw you with my own eyes.”
“No, no,” Emo pleaded, “you don’t understand…”
Loud laughter isn’t the normal response to having a classmate caught “cheating.” Maybe that confused her. Maybe she felt we were questioning her authority. There weren’t many female engineering students in 1962; we had none in our class.
“Oh, I understand, I most certainly do,” she said, as she tore Emo’s test in half and threw it into the trash can. “This will teach you to cheat.”
That’s what I mean by ‘just deserts.’ You would think the phrase means something good, some well earned just reward. I suppose it doesn’t.
We recently bought a new trash can, when the pedal-operated can we used for recyclables broke. The new can featured a self opening lid: it seemed a convenience.
It scared me the first time I walked past it—maybe a bit too close—and it snapped open. The combination of sound and action startled me. It’s happened again but I’m getting used to it.
It reminded me of Woody Allen complaining that his appliances conspired against him. It was a funny bit. Woody used to be very funny, before he turned into Ingmar Bergman.
Not that I mind Bergman. His movies were good, not necessarily enjoyable, but very good. And I was young then. I even liked the ones in black and white. They are fine. Hey, even my printer is black and white. But sometimes you need color, like for a photo. Fortunately Ruth has two color printers.
I soon discovered the Epson is unequivocally broken. It says so in its little liquid crystal window, while advising you to call a technician. No ambiguity. Nothing I tried dissuaded it. Call a technician, it insisted.
The other printer is newer and should work. It did for a while, Ruth said. When I tried it, the printer claimed to have no paper, even though it did. It actually claims to have no paper even when it takes it in. How is that possible? It took the paper and now it claims it didn’t? I forced the issue and it rewarded me with a different message: it cannot handle paper so small. Small? It’s regular size, for Pete’s sake!
I unplugged the new printer, moved it to my study—next to the new computer—loaded drivers from its CD and powered up its wireless feature. It still didn’t see the paper.
The HP people on the blogosphere suggest to disconnect and reconnect. Okay. I had jut done that, but what the hell, I did it again.
No help. So HP says to place it on its right side. Meaning what? It needs to be burped? And how do you know which is the right side? Your right? Its right?
I tried the right, I tried the left. Neither worked. I tried front and back—for good luck—I examined the paper space with a flashlight, jiggled the paper, raised it, fed it one at the time: I tried every which way.
I sat back and stared at it for some time, trying to figure out if there was something else I could try. That’s when the paper lid snapped open. Which scared me. It wasn’t the flip or the sound or the surprise; it was the timing. Was the HP printer mimicking the trash can?
I pushed back on my chair. This had to be a coincidence. That’s when this loud, horrible roar rose from the corner. The shredder had come to life. By itself. No paper jammed, nothing on top. Nothing even near it. It just turned itself on. I got the message: the shredder has teeth.
I can’t tell who else is in the conspiracy but I’m not getting into the massage chair anytime soon.
Why do so many people want to be president? It does offer some unique perks, such as good housing and free transportation, not to mention excellent health and retirement plans but still, it has to be one of the worst jobs in the world.
Part of the reason we have an oversupply of candidates can be traced to the willful misapplication of our most basic laws; when selecting the president, we are following an unconstitutional system. Our Constitution specifies that the electoral college should decide who should be president. George Washington was not selected by popular vote. He didn’t go to New Hampshire to kiss babies. [There wasn’t even an Iowa] Presidential electors, all sixty nine of them, voted for him. That’s how he got the job.
Nowadays everyone thinks that the electoral college system is antiquated and should be eliminated. Nonsense. Although I would suggest a minor change.
I propose that the electoral college should continue to select the president, but not from those who proclaim their desire to be president (they are automatically eliminated), but from those who ought to be.
After the secret selection process, conducted in an undisclosed location, our future president should be approached, discretely, preferably on some public space. If the person accepts, calling it a great honor and thanking the electoral college, their parents, God, the great American people and the Academy, (not necessarily in that order), the messenger should apologize and say, “oops, sorry, we made a mistake. We thought you were someone else.”
But if the person says No! and runs away, we should give chase because that man or woman will be the next president of the United States of America.