A live performance at the Brady Theater
Long Beach, CA
A live performance at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center
A live performance at the Saenger Theatre
A live performance at the Yavapai College Performing Arts Center
Buffalo, NY — with Robin & Linda Williams
A live performance with Robin & Linda Williams in Asbury Hall at Babeville
I’ve just done a sensible thing and boxed up a couple thousand good books that I’m never in this lifetime going to read and packed them off to my old high school library, mostly classics and histories and art books, an impressive sight on my shelves, but as an author, I don’t feel right about books as décor. So off they went, the unread essays of Emerson and Montaigne, Moby-Dick, Plato, the letters of Mark Twain, off to the library where I, at fourteen, was taken by Mencken and Dickens.
It’s good to have done something sensible. I haven’t done a lot lately for peace and justice and brotherly love, but I did give stuff I don’t need to people who will use it.
Get out of the car and walk: another sensible thing. I took a walk into a neighborhood I hadn’t walked in before and saw an old lady in a frilly white skirt and ratty old sweater, twirling around and singing, “Jesus, I sing your praises — Jesus, I’m glad you’re in my life,” and letting out little whoops, having a personal experience in public, and then she yelled at me, “What you looking at?”
I liked that. She was maybe messed up, but still she didn’t accept being an object of curiosity. She said, “Are you praising the Lord every day?” It was an authentic moment I wouldn’t have gotten if I’d been driving my car.
Another sensible thing: do your work. Make yourself useful. Less attitude, more competence. My line of work is writing, which is like carpentry except it’s 9/10ths demolition. I went to college, where I learned some mannerisms and where my best writing teacher was an old Marine named Bob Lindsay who believed that people learn by experiencing pain. He awarded an F to any written assignment that had so much as one spelling error in it. We elegant stylists were horrified, but we did learn to read our copy up close and when you do that, you see what you’ve actually written, and you cut out your mannerisms.
Competence is hard for a writer, hence the 9/10ths demolition, and as I get older, I admire competence more and more. I find it at the auto repair shop I go to, also at the clinic where they clean my teeth. The one time I called 911, I was privileged to observe an extremely high level of competence. I saw it in the wedding of Harry and Meghan and also among the cashiers at our supermarket, some of whom make me smile and others who don’t think that’s their job.
One competency that is available to everyone is the well-told joke. A good joke is a precise construction, like a paper glider, and either it flies or it doesn’t. I say to the cashier, “You heard about the trouble at the insane asylum,” and she shakes her head — “The inmates were out in the yard yelling, 21! 21! And the guard went to look through a hole in the fence and they poked him in the eye with a stick and yelled, 22! 22!”
She says, “Which mental hospital was this?” The joke failed to fly.
I say, “The one for Eskimo Christians.”
She squints at me. “Eskimo Christians??”
“Eskimo Christians and I’ll tell you no lies.” This joke flies.
Telling a joke is a knack, like hammering a nail straight. It’s useful in certain situations. You’re in a bar with your cousin and his friends, none of whom you know, and you haven’t said much and they’re giving you odd sideways looks, and finally you say, “I heard about a tavern — I think it was out east, maybe Connecticut — and the bartender heard someone say, Hey, and he turned and there was a sheepdog sitting on the barstool. The sheepdog said, You ever meet a talking dog before? I’ll bet you haven’t. How about a drink for a genuine talking dog? And the bartender says, Sure, the toilet’s right down the hall.” It’s not a lot but it’s something. You tell it with a solemn face, you tell it in order, no U-turns, you omit irrelevancies such as the bartender’s hairstyle and the gender of the dog and the tune playing on the jukebox. It’s an okay joke and they smile, knowing that you’re not a sociopath and probably won’t poke them in the eye with a sharp stick. You may be an outsider, possibly Eskimo, but you’re a Christian.