Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Piper

It is here I find myself waiting for more hours than I want to count, to catch an airplane to my next destination.  It is a Bar/Restuaurant/Motel minutes away from the Anchorage Airport. It is called "The Piper". Based upon the proximity to the airport I assume the name refers to the ubiquitous Piper Cub Air Craft seen all over the area. They have a free shuttle to and from the Airport, so rather than sit at the terminal I can pretend I am here for other reasons than just to catch a plane. The men at the bar are joined by the female bartender watching a televised poker game like it was the Super Bowl.
"Go ahead... Do it... Do it" they yell to a woman on screen who is hesitant about going all in on a Texas Hold em' game. In my mind I have made the comparison of this scene to the television show Northern Exposure so many times it is no longer relevant. 
In a gender bending version of "Cheers" a lady walks in and everyone at the bar yells "Dawn". I am assuming that's her name but I am so bored, tired and fuzzy from travel it could be the time of day. Alaska is beautiful but still under the overcast blanket of winter, at least that is the weather today.  The conversation buzzes with the notion that things are changing. They talk about tourist season coming soon. That must be what they call clear weather up here. A man who seems to be in charge talks about opening the patio to "The Piper" in a couple of weeks.  I can see through fog coated windows there is an outside area to this establishment. I have a heavy sweater on and I am comfortable inside, but I am trying to imagine what it would be like dining here "al fresco". There are 15 video screens surrounding The Piper, and all are tuned to a different sports activity. 
At this point a native enters the bar. Indian, Eskimo, Inuit, Yupick I am not sure which is politically correct but she carries a display box  of jewelry for sale.  I ask her if this is her artwork and she says yes. 
"The Earings" she says, "I make when my kids are asleep at night." I ask her how many kids she has and she tells me, two boys.  I have two sons myself, I say. This turns into a story of her life.  It is a great story of wanting girls and having boys, but assured that it is ordained by the powers that control the universe and all in it.  She is blessed with two boys, but her sister had a boy and a girl. Some how that is a source of wonder for her as her sister only wanted boys.   I buy a pair of Earings from her as a royalty payment for someday using this beautiful story she has told.  She is gone and the bar begins to fill with locals.
I do not hear talk of politics.  The patrons of The Piper seem unaware that a primary has even taken place today.  No one is talking of the death of Prince or the settlement of his estate.  I hear conversations about the arrival of "Sherry", the "late shift" bartender who is very popular with the men at the bar.  There is talk of how a prize halibut was ruined when someone tried to prepare it Cajun style.  There are 35 people in the bar and I realize there must be an exponential number of stories involving these people to a multiple power.  I am a strange fish in a strange sea but simple passing through. The bar is beginning to get crowded with locals who fall into a pattern that I am not a part of. The longer I stay the more I realize that like Dorothy said, "I am not in Kansas anymore."
I ask for my check. I pay my bill and I swim back into the more familiar stream of the airport. 
My flight seems to be moving backward and time is creeping by. 
As you were,
Jay



Sunday, April 24, 2016

For the Betterment of the Order...

I think it was Buddy Hackett who said the only book he read was the dictionary, because it contained the words of all the other books. I don't know why that would come to me this morning, but like all comedy that statement is complex in its simplicity. Since I am in the middle of the ocean on a Sunday with no sense of time, day or location I have the luxury to ponder such riddles. So if you will indulge me for a paragraph or two I am going to explore that thought. Or in the words of Edward Albee, "I write to know what I am thinking about." 
Right now I am gawking at a keyboard full of square buttons in an electronic framework. These buttons have various symbols and letters to identify them.  Individually they don't represent much by themselves.  Together in this keyboard arrangement they don't spell any words or communicate anything other than an order that is not even alphabetical.  However, if I press these buttons in a specific pattern they spell words that communicate ideas.  This process is happening at this exact moment in my life. You are decoding this pattern of letters at this exact moment in your life. We have come together in the abstract moment of now.  Simple enough so far but... 
In college I had an English professor named Mr. Roundtree. He pointed out that writing was all about the order of things.  It started with the order of letters.  Take the letters T-A-S-R, the order you chose to place those letters creates a word. The word is determined by how you use these letters.  If the order is Rats it means a group of rodents.  If the order is Tars it communicates a gooey substance of black.  If the order is Star it is a celestial body in the universe.  His point was: the order of these simple letters is ultimately the difference between communication or confusion.  
That was only the beginning of his thesis. The next step is a sentence, which is nothing more than the arrangement of words in a specific order to communicate an idea.  The order in which these words appear in a sentence is just as important as the correct order of the letters in a word.  The incorrect order of words in a sentence can be the difference between a Rat and a Star
Next comes the order of the sentences in a paragraph. Again, the correct placement of sentences in the structure of the paragraph is imperative, as is the order of paragraphs in a chapter, and ultimately the order of the chapters to communicate the story you wish to tell. So writing, he said, was the creative arrangement of letters, these individual symbols that by themselves mean very little but in a specific group order, communicate infinite ideas.
The skillful way a writer arranges his or her letters becomes a style that is as recognizable as the brush strokes of a painter or the notes in a song and the difference between artist and craftsman. As interesting as I thought Mr. Roundtree's analogy was, since I had no intention of becoming a writer It was necessary to me only long enough to pass his class. But, of all the things I DON'T remember from my college experience, this is one idea that has stayed with me.  
Here on this cruise we have added an hour to the clock each night for the last week, and we crossed the international date line and repeated a Thursday. So time for us is a very fluid and ethereal series in the moments of NOW.  In fact I would say that's what life is, only a series of present moment unfettered by time. We eventually gather enough of these life moments to assemble a story that becomes His Story or Her story much like a novel we are writing about ourselves.  Perhaps like the individual letters in a book the order of these moments determine our history.  Order becomes as important in a successful life as it is in successful writing.  
There are times we can affect the order of our lives by the decisions we make, and there are times we can not.  But there is no doubt that each moment in that specific order, in relation to all the other moments, makes us who we are. To look back with regret and wish this moment would have happened before that moment, or wish a certain moment had never happened in our life, is fantasy.  The order in which things happen in your life makes you the person you are. To change even a letter in one sentence of one paragraph of your life would make your life story different. You would not be the same person looking back on this past but a different person looking back on a different past. Our star can be come rats with very slight changes.
Our life, like a novel, is all about the order of small things building to larger ideas. Unlike a novel, however, our life has no determined ending. The future is only a series of now moments yet to be experienced.  We do our best to arrange the things we can change, knowing there will be plot twists we don't see coming.  But as long as we have the highest concept of the kind of character we want to be in this life, all things build correctly to that outcome.  
Edward Albee is absolutely correct, but I obviously have more writing to do.
As you were,
Jay 


Saturday, April 23, 2016

They're All a Bunch of.....

As I waited in line for a flight from Tokyo to Sapporo, Japan it dawned on me there is a very different sense of personal space between my culture and the Asian culture.  I was standing in the midst of a group of Chinese tourist who were on holiday.  There was plenty of room to wait in the boarding area but they chose to bunch together like they were being packed for shipment. I was being pressed on all sides of my body, but was not claustrophobic.  The reason? At the average American height of 5'8" I was head and shoulders above the mass.  Like a human periscope I could see the entire mass of humans I was drowning in. I felt like a giant for the moment.
Wow, I thought, Asians are small people then wondered if that was a racist thought. If so, why? And if not why?  The fact that I am not considered a tall man in America yet towered above this group was fact not stereotype, yet it felt wrong to even think that way.
This is the blurry line of Political Correctness, I am just never sure how to react anymore to what I observe. I was raised by parents who demanded respect and politeness from their kids especially toward others. In fact I was taught that everyone else's rights should be considered before my own. This passive interpretation of the Jesus ethic is a swing too far in the opposite direction of egotism.  I have learned to my own understanding that we are all equal and to think that my equality waits on the wants of others is no more correct than thinking mine are superior. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is a statement of equality not deference to another.  
Political correctness is on my mind because of a conversation I had a few days back.  A lady began to talk to me and eventually it lead to the fact that I was one of the ship entertainers. We were having a lively exchange and I invited her to come and see my show in the theatre in a couple of nights. 
"Are you a comic?" She said with enthusiasm.
"Sort of," I replied, "I am a ventriloquist."
Her demeanor changed. "Oh, I have a problem with ventriloquists," she said.
I was prepared to open the discussion of ventrilo-phobia which I encounter a lot and am well rehearsed in answering, but I was not prepared for this "problem."
"Why?" I said.
"Because ventriloquists are racist." 
She went on to explain that she had seen a video of a ventriloquist who performed with a character that was offensive to Muslims, some sort of dead terrorist. Then once on a ship she saw a ventriloquist perform with a character that was offensive to Chinese named "Wing Tip Shoe". 
She would not be coming to see my show. 
I know both of these ventriloquists and told her so, but my opinion of their acts was not important to her.  I could not sway her belief. 
She seemed to have no more interest in continuing our conversation. My final statement was, "Well, we ventriloquist are like singers. We all sing different songs. Different people like different music. I hope you will come and listen to mine."  
"I doubt that I will." She said. 
I was upset by this exchange.  To be judged by any actions other than my own is frustrating and to be labeled a racist by occupation was in my opinion short sighted.  As I had time to think about the exchange it dawned on me... SHE was being racist. By assuming that all ventriloquist are the same  is stereotyping, which is the root of racism.  
I thought back to the Tokyo airport and had my answer. It's racism to say, "All Asians are short" and "Chinese have no sense of personal space".  That is certainly not true and is stereotyping.  The fact is: at the Tokyo Airport I was surrounded by a group of people pressing to get onto the plane and most everyone was shorter than me.  And the ship is not full of rich snobs who can't get the stick out of their asses to enjoy a comedy act, there is just one lady who assumed the self-righteous role of moral compass to group of lovely individuals. 
As you were,
Jay


Friday, April 22, 2016

Bistro Still Life....

I am currently sitting in the Bistro located on the Tiffinay deck, which is the closest thing to a Starbucks they have on board this ship.  It is here that coffee and snacks are consumed by the cargo net full until it is time to eat lunch or dinner again.  It is our 6th sea day in a row and no matter how many activities the ship programs to pass the time, everyone eventually ends up here.  I have chosen this place as my office with the intent of writing. It has not been as inspirational as I hoped it would be.  Every day at 11:30 a string quartet begins to play in the grand lobby below. Although beautiful and inspirational, it causes the "hard of hearing" passengers around me to talk even louder to be heard. I get lost in the conversations taking place around me and can't hear that internal voice from which I transcribe this blog. 
Most of the time I just give up writing and draw. Here is a drawing of the orchid in a square vase filled with coffee beans sitting on my "office" desk/table. Yeah, I could have just taken a picture of it to post, but there is never a rush to do anything quickly on a sea day.  Besides the more time it takes me to draw something, the more conversations around me I can eavesdrop on. Here are just a few of the things I've heard already. 

Earlier in the week there was a near mutiny when the espresso machine went down. An elderly lady says,  "Excuse me can I get an espresso"
"I'm so sorry the machine is down. We are trying to fix it." 
Her more mature husband says, "What?" 
"He said the espresso is not working?"
"NO espresso?"
"No espresso, honey."
The old man looks at the menu.
"Then I'll just have a Lait." 
Waiter, "So sorry, we can't make a Lait. As I said the machine is down."
Old man, "What"
Old lady, "No Lait, there's no espresso."
"No, Lait and no espresso either."
Waiter, "We are working on the machine."
The man looks at the menu for a second time.
"Then I'll have a Café Americano"
Waiter, "Unfortunately a Café Americano is made with espresso"
"What?"
Old lady, "There is no espresso, they can't make it."
"Good God, then what do you have?"
Waiter, "I can get you some coffee."
Totally frustrated the old man says, "That's all I wanted in the first place."

I talked to the Cruise Director who is a friend and loves his job. He said, however, that one of his duties is listening to complaints. He said, "I see the same people every two years who complain about the same things every time.  I think they pay $4000 a day out hear just because no one else will listen to them." You can see that idea at work here in the Bistro. Older people will engage young waiters in conversation about most anything out of sheer loneliness.  I heard a conversation between an octogenarian lady passenger and a twenty something Ukrainian waiter. It was obviously a conversation that was continuing from a former encounter.  

"So, what will you do when we get to San Francisco?"
Young waiter with a beautiful lilting accent, "I will go home, my contract is over."
"Will you come back on the sea?"
"I'm not sure."
"But it is so beautiful, peaceful and calm out here."
"Yes, but... I have to work," he said as he was took her used dishes to the galley.  

I learn a lot by listening as I draw here in the Bistro. By the time I do my show in a day or so I will know my audience very well. I won't know all their names, but... I will know them as: Espresso man, Lonely grandmother, Cougar lady, Weird hairdo woman, the old Grump and the Arguing couple. They will come to see me perform not knowing they have been doing a show for me all week.  
As you were, 
Jay


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

You First...

Busby Berkeley was a director choreographer in the early days of movies. He was responsible for some of the most extravagant dance spectacles in movie history.  He created over head camera shots with hundreds of dancers forming human mosaics of color and spinning sets that "out Follied" Ziegfield. He lived long enough to see young Turks, who had more money than experience, take over the movie industry.  
Late in Busby's career, in an meeting/job interview with a producer 40 years his junior the producer said, "So, Mr. (stumbling on his name) Berkeley... Tell me what you have done."  Berkeley paused for a moment and said, "You first." That story came back to me on a elevator yesterday.  

I joined the ship I chased for three days and headed to the cabin with my luggage.  I drug my tired ass and my luggage into the midship elevator.  A nice middle age couple looked at the luggage and said, "Are you one of the entertainers coming on board?" I said I was, indeed.  The man said, "Are you a magician?"  
"No" I said, "I am a ventriloquist."
It seemed to be the right answer, the man said, "We love ventriloquists. That guy who won America's Got Talent, uh.... " 
"Terry Fator." I said.
"Yes Terry Fator and the the guy who just won AGT this this year....uh.. "
"Paul Zerdon."
"Right. They're doing alright now aren't they?" The wife said.  I agreed but it was not the end of the elevator ride. 
The man continued, "I heard Terry say that,  before he won America's Got Talent he performed at a theater with one person in the audience."
"Yep... We've all been there", I said. 
Then I remembered a revue show I did just out of college and thought it was an appropriate story to tell.
"We were doing a late show in a supper club for one person once.  In the middle of the show he went to the restroom. Until he returned we were doing the show for an empty house."  
There was a pause and the lady  said, "Well things are getting better for you now, I hope." 
I chuckled and said, "Yeah, That was a long time ago."  But the elevator was still a couple of decks from my stop. With a bruised ego I decided to play the Soap Card.  
"Did you ever watch a show called SOAP?"  
"Yes." They said as I was hauling my luggage out the elevator door.  
"I played the part of Chuck and Bob, the ventriloquist on that show." It was my parting shot.  As the doors close they say.
"Wow... That was a VERY long time ago." Slam.
It was then that I thought of Busby Berkeley and how most of us show biz types out live our pop careers.  In my head I heard:
"So.. Mr. Johnson, tell me about your ventriloquism career?"
"You first!"

As you were,
Jay
  
 


Saturday, April 16, 2016

A very long Commute to work...

 
One might think that after an 11 hour flight to Tokyo, one hour standing in line to clear immigration and customs, a three hour layover, an hour and a half commuter flight to Saporro, then an hour and a half cab ride to the hotel in Otaru, I would have slept till noon. Not so. At 7:30 not quite 8 hours of sleep later I suddenly woke up. 
This was my commute to work yesterday.  Although technically it is two days ago with a change in the calendar day somewhere over the pacific. I know some people complain about the traffic in LA and their difficulty getting to work, but I will offer my schedule as an alternative.  I am an entertainer and my job for the next 10 days is to entertain an audience on the Crystal Serenity Cruise Ship. Right here in Otaru, Japan is where my job, that venue and that audience meet.  
It was dark when I arrived at the hotel and in broken English the clerk said my room had an ocean view, I didn't bother to open the curtains, just crashed on the bed. I was wasted to say the least. For what turns out to be two days worth of travel I have been chasing this ship. What seems like thousands of details have to come together just right for this to happen half way around the world. I tend not to be able to relax until I am on the ship with all my stuff, unpacking in my cabin.  Yes there have been times when I arrived without my clothes suitcase. Once I didn't have all my props. These are only two of the details that matter when you have such a commute. But this time I have all my stuff with me in good condition halfway around the world. The only challenge left was to get from the hotel to the ship at 12:00 today. I have an address of the dock but no clue how far away that is. It could be another hour by cab, I just won't know until I begin the last leg of the third day of my commute.  
I don't have to figure the logistics out until about 11:00 at the hotel, so I planned to sleep till at least 10:30.  But my body clock was not in agreement with that plan. I suddenly woke up at 7:30 in sort of a panic. My LA timing system said it was middle of the after noon the day before, and as I became conscious of my surroundings nothing seemed familiar.   I never get used to that feeling of not knowing where I am for a few seconds after I begin to wake.  It is an occupational hazard of the long commute, but it always arrives with a sudden sense of confusion. As I got my bearings earlier than I thought I would have to, I stumbled to the window. If I did not see the Eucalyptus tree in my back yard I would know that, in Dorothy's words, "I'm not in Kansas anymore."   
Rather than my tree I saw the Sea of Japan and a passenger ship slowly sailing into the harbor of Otaru.  There was not another ship in the water and as I focused more clearly it dawned on me that it must be the Serenity, my ship, the vessel I have been searching for.  It was at that moment I saw the flash of a camera from the upper deck midship. Some one took a picture of the skyline of Otaru and will never know that they microsopicaly photographed me in my underware staring out a13 floor window of the Grand Park Hotel.  I immediately returned the favor and photographed them as well. That is the picture at the top.  

Some how my consciousness knew the ship I had been searching for had arrived. I could see the end of my long journey quietly sailing into the bay. As I write this I can see the ship from the mirror in my room at the desk where I am sitting.  
I know not to celebrate too quickly.  I am still "this" far from unpacking my stuff in the cabin.  But I can see the ship and don't have to try and communicate the address to a taxi driver if I can just point to it. I would say that I am 95% calm.  The things that can go wrong from here on out are easier to deal with. I still love to entertain an audience no matter where they might be and it is that thrill that compels me to come this far just to do it.  But I have to say, this sort of commute is not the fun part.  I have graduated from the idea that travel is fun and exciting.  For me, now,  it is long and taxing.
And none of this addresses the fact that as I am flying to Japan they are experiencing several 6.0 to 7.0 earthquakes.  For a Southern California guy who knows all about earthquakes this does not fill me with excitement.  Fortunately for my anxiety I will be on a floating vessel in a matter of an hour or so. But wait, didn't I see the YouTube footage of the Tsumami that hit here not that long ago? AND...  Isn't that the plot of the Posieden Adventure movie.  Shit... Take that calm level back down to 75%
Ahoy and anchors a weigh.
As you were,
Jay




Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Amazing Mr. Marshall

Often one has to stop and take a big deep breath, otherwise you forget how great it is to be able to breath. Mostly breathing happens when we pay the least attention to it.  The same holds true with gratitude.  Sometimes one has to stop and take inventory of the things for which you are grateful lest you take them for granted.
At the top of my list of gratitude is friendship.  I hope my epitaph says, "He had wonderful Friends." I hope those friends know how blessed I am to be considered their friend. I don't have a ranking order of friends because they are all unique and all crowd the top because of their own special and wonderful qualities.  However...
Last night was a wonderful reminder of how blessed I am. It was an evening at the Paley Center for the Media honoring Peter Marshall.  It was also his 90th birthday.  The audience was filled with 300 or so invited guests, family and friends.  What struck me most about the crowd was the depth of performers from every field of entertainment.  There is no type of show business Peter Marshall has not excelled in. From first banana in a comedy duo, to  big band singer, to stage star, to movie and television actor, recording star, to pitch man, night club performer, game show host, variety show host and guru expert on the music of Big Band Swing, Peter has done it all, extremely well.  He is the happiest, nicest most engaging person who commands a steel trap mind and memory with twice the energy of people half his age.  His singing voice is as strong and beautiful as ever and he remembers every detail of every moment of his life.  Treasures like Peter defy what age is supposed to act like. 
Fred Willard and Peter Marshall

First came a 40 minute video tribute to Peter gathered and edited by Jim Pierson. It started with film clips of Peter singing from 1949 Television shows and included cherries picked from the best moments of his 16 years as host of Hollywood Squares. After that,  Peter Marshall himself took the stage. 
Leading Peter in an informal conversation about his life and career was his friend Fred Willard. Fred, one of the great comedy minds of all time and Peter one of the great comedy team straight men of all time, made for very easy listening.  It was not an interview nor even a chat.  It was like eaves dropping on two amazing minds having a dinner conversation. The Paley Center was filming the entire event, but to be there "live" as it was happening is a moment that can not be captured by any media. 
Jay Johnson - Jim Pierson - Peter Marshall
Photo by Steve Cox
I marveled at what a large brush this artist named Peter Marshall has used to paint his life.  The best game show hosts, the best game show producers, best actors, best comics, best writers, best dancers, singers and musicians (not to mention a ventriloquist) were there to honor the 90th anniversary of the birth of their friend Peter.  We have all been touched by the charm of his personality and the joy of his talents.   The very same can be said of Peter's beautiful wife Laurie who was the force behind the event. To meet Peter and Laurie is to love them.
Peter is my hero. At 90 years old his is not the guy who screams "kids get off my lawn",  he is the guy who says, "hey kids, come over to my lawn so we can play together." The world would be a better place if there were more humans like the Amazing Mr. Marshall.
As you were,
Jay