Archive for the tag 'University of Kansas'

Farewell, My Lovelies…

May 10th, 2011

On the afternoon of 9 May 2011, the English Department of the University of Kansas gave a festive “milestones celebration” in the North Gallery of the Spencer Research Library for three of its new retirees, presided by Chair Marta Caminero-Santangelo, and organized by Administrative Assistant Robert Elliott.  The retirees (Mike Johnson, Jim Hartman and I) were expected to say a few words. Here’s what I prepared for the occasion.

Many, if not most, of the people here know me as, until recently, the one and only person who has been teaching playwriting in the English Department since 1989, the same year I founded English Alternative Theatre to nurture, develop and produce the plays being written by my students.  But, my history with the department goes all the way back to spring of 1969, and not many people here know how I came to be at KU, so I thought I might share the story with everyone present.

These days, if I am filled with feelings I cannot begin to describe when I’m watching the hit television series MAD MEN, it’s because I lived through the same exciting period in the 1960s as an advertising copywriter for J. Walter Thompson in the Philippines.  Many of the ad campaigns that I worked on had won various industry awards, and my colleagues in Manila thought I was “good enough” to make it on Madison Avenue in New York.

Thus, travelling on just a tourist visa, I left for the United States with my hefty portfolio in June of 1968.  To my disappointment, after they looked at my portfolio, the people at J. Walter Thompson in New York said that, ironically, I had too much experience.  They were only interested in hiring cheaper, beginning copywriters.  They suggested I try my luck with employment agencies, which I did, and they in turn told me that I could lie about my experience and start at $18,000 a year, or else I could sit and wait for a $30,000 job to open up at one of the ad agencies in the city.  Not wanting to sell myself short, I chose to wait.

Day after day, I sat by the telephone, waiting.  Nothing.  Six months went by, and I began to worry, because my tourist visa was running out.  I had only two options.  I could be deported as an illegal alien, returning to Manila with that damned portfolio, my tail between my legs, or I could exchange my tourist visa for a student visa.  And then I remembered that, back in 1964, I had met a peripatetic historian from the University of Kansas, who had been in the Philippines first as a soldier during World War II, then as a Fulbright scholar, then as a frequent visitor in the course of his academic research.  Although I did not have any of my college transcripts from Manila with me, I turned to Grant Goodman to convince the registrar at KU to accept me as a foreign student.  And, believe it or not, that’s how I ended up in Lawrence, Kansas.

As a side note, two weeks before I left the East Coast for the Midwest, the telephone finally rang, not once, but twice, with lucrative job offers from The Wall Street Journal and from Alka-Seltzer, both of whom were starting their own in-house agencies, and they were interested in someone with my background and qualifications.

Too late.

I had dropped out of school after two years of college in Manila because I was bored with my teachers, but now I felt I was ready to reenter the groves of academe.  Had I gone to work for either The Wall Street Journal or Alka-Seltzer in New York, I would not have had the joy of studying with, among many others, Ed Wolfe, Ed Ruhe, Ed Grier, Paul Kendall, John Bush Jones, Jack Oruch, Max Sutton, Hal Orel, Beverly Boyd, George Worth and Jim Hartman.  I would not have formed lasting personal friendships with, among others, such wonderful colleagues in the department as Carolyn Doty, Bud Hirsch, Mary Davidson, Mary Catherine Davidson, Jim Carothers, David Bergeron, Geraldo Sousa, Amy Devitt, Dick Hardin, Bill Scott, Bob and Dorice Elliott, Marta Caminero-Santangelo, Brian Daldorph and Phil Wedge.

When Grant Goodman himself retired from the History Department 22 years ago, he let it be known that he did not want to be presented with an autographed 8 x 10 glossy of then-KU Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs Judith Ramaley, a position which, incidentally, no longer exists in Strong Hall.  I’ve never met our new Provost, so I don’t think there’s any danger of my receiving an autographed 8 x 10 glossy from him.  Truthfully, I am quite happy with all the pictures in my mind’s eye, of everyone I’ve named, of everyone here today, to say nothing of all the wonderful student playwrights, actors and designers I’ve been fortunate to work with through English Alternative Theatre, to remind me that the journey has been worthwhile.  Indeed, it has all been more than worthwhile.

These days, given the economy, I’m thankful I never got into the habit of reading The Wall Street Journal, so there is no reason for me to imbibe the “plop plop, fizz fizz” of an Alka-Seltzer.  Actually, I’ve never in my life ever had an Alka-Seltzer, not even the mornings after the nights of heavy drinking after some of our more memorable and sometimes even deplorable departmental meetings.  I hope I live long enough to tell all the steamy stories on my website at paulstephenlim.com.

Thank you for the memories, one and all, everyone.  A special thank you, too, to all my friends and colleagues who have given so generously to the KU Endowment Association for the annual Paul Stephen Lim Asian-American Playwriting Award which has been established by the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.

Miss Utah Made Me Do It!

April 8th, 2010

I was smoking up to sixty cigarettes a day when I finally quit in 1994.  And now, sixteen years later, when the nurse weighed me at the doctor’s office prior to my annual physical, there was no avoiding the fact that I’ve packed on sixty pounds since my last cigarette.  So how did this happen? Let me start at the beginning.  It all began with Miss Utah.

You may find this hard to believe but, back in the Philippines, when I was just sixteen years old, I was already hosting my own television show on Channel 10, the government-run station.  Our weekly hour-long  variety show was on the air for a couple of months in 1960.  It was called “Get Together” by our unimaginative producer because he claimed this was what the show was, a get together.  Needless to say, I rarely had any say about who the guests were.  I would show up every Saturday at the studio (which we called “the barn”) a couple of hours before taping the show, and that’s when I’d find out whom we were featuring at the “get together” that week.  Because it was a variety show, the guest list tended to lean more toward the entertainment industry, mostly movie stars, especially if they were Hollywood celebrities visiting Manila for one dubious reason or another.

Back then, a name we were all familiar with was Steve Parker, who was married to Shirley MacLaine but who, for some reason, did not live with her.  Alas, rumor had it that Steve preferred to sow his wild oats with a wide array of attractive Asian lasses.  Although the unconventional long-distance marriage between Shirley MacLaine and Steve Parker survived for several decades, they finally got divorced in 1982 and, to no one’s surprise, he immediately got hitched to a Japanese woman in Hawaii.  But, back to Miss Utah.

In 1960, besides being famous for being unfaithful to Shirley MacLaine, Steve Parker was also an enterprising entrepreneur.  One of his enterprises was a spectacular stage show which he produced annually, a lavish extravaganza featuring beauty queens from all the beauty pageants—Miss America, Miss Universe, Miss International, Miss Cosmos, Miss Galaxy—who were willing to tour Southeast Asia with him; parading in their swimsuits and evening gowns; showing off their unique musical, declamatory or baton-twirling talents; rousing and arousing the natives with their energetic high-kicking dance routines.

I have no idea how our producer managed to get Steve Parker to bring his bevy of buxom beauties to “the barn” but, there they were, bigger than life, that fateful Saturday afternoon in 1960, when I was expected to “Get Together” and chat intelligently with them.  What I didn’t expect was to be chatted up.

It happened during a short lull in the taping of the show, when the beauty queens were changing into their much-anticipated swim wear.  First one out of the  dressing room was the statuesque Miss Utah from the Miss America Beauty Pageant, wearing a blindingly white one-piece bathing suit with a red sash across her chest to match her flaming red hair, and white stiletto heels which made her seem even taller than the Tower of Babel, given how she reduced all the men in “the barn” to Jell-O and gibberish.

To this day, I have no idea why Miss Utah chose me, but I can still hear the clickety-clack of her stiletto heels on the linoleum floor as she headed in my direction. Once she had me cornered, she slipped her left arm into my right arm.  She didn’t seem to mind the fact that one of her breasts was resting firmly on the crook of my elbow.  “Can I have a cigarette?” she asked huskily, sounding like Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not, or maybe Julie London in those early Marlboro commercials which aired in moviehouses in Manila prior to the trailers and the main feature.

Probably no one else but me remembers this, but when Marlboro was first introduced, its target audience was women, not men.  Long before the world was introduced to the rugged Marlboro Man, we were all treated to a black-and-white commercial of sultry songstress Julie London having some kind of dalliance with a man in a dimly-lit restaurant.  Slowly, seductively, she pulls out a Marlboro, he lights it for her, and then she blows smoke in his eyes as she starts to sing “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” in that breathless, whispery, smoky voice of hers.  In my boyhood, Julie London was the insurmountable Marlboro Woman, the pulchritudinous personification of “filter…flavor…flip-top box!”

And now, standing in “the barn” in her stiletto heels next to me, Julie London had metamorphosed into Miss Utah.  “Can I have a cigarette?” she repeated pointedly.  All eyes in the room were suddenly on me.  You could have heard the proverbial pin drop, but it was my pen and clipboard. “I’m sorry,” I mumbled, “I just had my last one. I’m out.”

“Oh.”  She looked disappointed.  She let go of my blushing elbow and clickety-clacked across the room to one of the cameramen.  I saw him offering her a cigarette, and then she clickety-clacked back to me.  She didn’t take my arm this time, but spoke in the same life-altering baritone as before.  “Do you have a light?”

I could hear the technicians in the room starting to snicker because they all knew about my pristine respiratory organs, my virgin lungs.  “I lied earlier,” I blurted out the truth. “I don’t smoke.  I don’t have a light.  I’m sorry.”

“I see,” she smiled sympathetically.  “Well, when you’re old enough to smoke, be sure to look me up in Utah.”  And then she clickety-clacked away again, to the same cameraman, taking his arm and sticking his elbow into her ample endowments.  He completed the ritual by flicking his Ronson and lighting her fire.

Before the day was over, on the heels of my humiliation in the hands of Miss Utah, I rushed out and bought my first pack of Newport mentholated cigarettes.

Shortly after that, I worked as an advertising copywriter for J. Walter Thompson Co.  One of our clients was Liggett & Myers, makers of premium L&M, Lark and Chesterfield cigarettes, which were given free to JWT employees, so we all smoked like chimneys.  Later, when Marlboro dumped Julie London and created the Marlboro Man, in commercials which showed him herding all those wild mustangs to the thumping theme from The Magnificent Seven, I shifted to Marlboros.

Flash forward to 1994.  By then, I was teaching in the English Department at the University of Kansas. I was also running English Alternative Theatre, my own theatre company.  Two years earlier, I had bought a truck on installment, to haul furniture and set pieces for the theatre company.  As for my nasty nicotine habit, well…you know how theatre people are.  I was smoking two packs of Marlboros a day, three if I was in rehearsal with a play, which was just about all the time.

In the spring of 1994, a good friend asked me what I was doing that summer. He had rented a large house for two months in Lurs, a picturesque village which dates back to the 10th century, perched on a narrow butte overlooking the Durance valley, one of the best wine-growing regions in France.  He said the house itself was surrounded by magnificent olive groves.  Would I care to spend the summer in France with grapes and olives and people who don’t speak English?  There was only one catch.  He was allergic to cigarette smoke.  I would not be allowed to smoke in the house, and certainly not in his presence.

By then, I had been smoking for 32 years.  Unbeknownst to him, I had in fact been thinking about quitting—not because of all the dire warnings from the Surgeon General, not because my dog coughs every time I light up near him, but because the University of Kansas had recently banned smoking in all the buildings on campus.  I had just spent a miserable winter putting on my bulky jacket, cap, scarf and gloves every 15 minutes in order to commiserate outdoors with other victims of the ban. Oh, how we smoked and fumed at the injustice of it all!

Thinking my silence was a sign that I was about to turn down his kind invitation to spend the summer in France, my friend made me another offer. Because he really cared about my health, he said that, if I gave up cigarettes, he would be happy to pay off the rest of the payments on my red Toyota truck. Is it a deal?

There was no way I could quit cold turkey, so I proposed a compromise.  I would bring two cartons of Marlboros with me, and when that was gone, I’d be done for good.  To my surprise, he agreed.

We left for Lurs in early June, and I stuck to my plan.  I would cut back to two packs a day for the first week, then a pack a day for the second week, then ten cigarettes a day for the third week, then five, then three, then two, and then…finally…on the Fourth of July, I would have my last cigarette and declare my INDEPENDENCE from Marlboro Country!  This I did in 1994, and I haven’t had a cigarette since.

But, as I said earlier, I’ve also put on 60 pounds in the intervening years.  When I had my last physical, I told the doctor I didn’t feel any healthier for having given up cigarettes.  Did I just swap possible lung cancer for probable diabetes?  The doctor patted my arm, the same arm which had been intimate with Miss Utah four decades ago, and said:  “If you had the will power to quit smoking, you’ll have the will power to lose weight.”

And so I’m working on it.  I’m looking for pictures of Twiggy and Mahatma Gandhi to put on my refrigerator door.

While on the internet recently, just out of curiosity, I Googled some of the people I’ve mentioned in this “limerance.”  According to Wikipedia, Steve Parker, Shirley MacLaine’s ex, was in Honolulu on May 13, 2001 when he expired of lung cancer.  Julie London was in poor health because of her long-term cigarette habit until her death on October 18, 2000, in Encino, California, at age 74.  Wayne McLaren, the actor who portrayed the Marlboro Man in print and television cigarette advertising, succumbed to lung cancer at age 51 on July 22, 1992.

As for Miss Utah…whoever she is, wherever she is…I hope that she hasn’t kicked the bucket…that she’s kicked the habit…that she is now so fat she’s no longer able to bend down and slip on those stiletto heels to go clickety-clacking with impunity…but that somewhere in back of her closet she still has that  blindingly white one-piece bathing suit…that she takes it out occasionally to look at it…and perhaps remember how she once shamed a boy in Manila to “manhood.”

My Arthur Miller Story

March 31st, 2010

Since Kansas isn’t exactly a beehive of playwriting activity, beginning playwrights in this neck of the woods are almost always told that, if they write about what they know, and if they choose to chronicle their small-town roots,  they could be “the next William Inge,” the playwright from Independence, KS who couldn’t leave his birthplace fast enough but who, his entire life, gave voice in his plays to the people from Kansas in plays like Picnic, Bus Stop, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, and Come Back, Little Sheba—many of them people who, like himself, lived lives of quiet desperation.

In 1982, nine years after Inge committed suicide in his Hollywood home, and after his surviving relatives donated the bulk of his papers to Independence Community College in Independence, KS, the college did something wonderful by starting The William Inge Festival, celebrated every year in late April, when stars of stage and screen come to town for three or four days, to honor Inge and, more significantly, to pay tribute to the work of other living American playwrights. And so, every year in late April, Independence, KS is suddenly transformed into a mecca for playwrights, a lovefest for the written word because, truly,  “In the beginning was the Word…”

I remember attending the first Inge Festival, back in 1982, staying at the Lamplighter Inn, which had no dining facilities. For food, one had to go to Eggbert’s, within walking distance of the motel.  I remember the first time I had breakfast at Eggbert’s.  All conversation stopped when I entered the tiny diner, and everyone turned to stare at me.  Although the moment was awkward, it passed quickly, and conversation resumed. Truthfully, I think they would all have turned to stare at any stranger in their midst, not just because I looked like a foreigner, an alien, the yellow peril, the lavender mafia.  Back in his day, growing up in Independence, would a homosexual like William Inge have been comfortable at a place like Eggbert’s?

Originally, the mission of the Inge Festival was to pay tribute to American playwrights who were Inge’s contemporaries, those writers who were still living, who were ready, willing and able to spend three or four days in the heartland of America, which for Inge also turned out to be his “hurtland.”  I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve been told that, in the early days of the Inge Festival, scholars who submitted academic papers for presentation and discussion at the festival were told not to call undue attention to Inge’s suicide, his alcoholism and, above all, his homosexuality.

Arthur Miller (1915-2005) is one of my gods.  Death of a Salesman is the only play that makes me cry everytime I see it.  When it was announced that the Inge Festival in 1995 would be honoring Arthur Miller, I decided to bring nine of my playwriting students from the University of Kansas to meet the man.  Luckily, we managed to book rooms at the same motel where he would be staying—not the Lamplighter Inn, but the Apple Tree Inn, newer and nicer, which also offered complimentary morning coffee and doughnuts so guests didn’t have to trek to Eggbert’s.

Two incidents stand out in my mind about the 1995 Inge festival.

First, there was the Independence Community College production of Inge’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, a play which, among other things, deals with anti-Semitism among the country club set in small-town America.  The day after we saw the production, a fancy gala dinner was held at the country club. The president of the Chamber of Commerce in his welcoming remarks told everyone that this was the same country club Inge had written about in the play, but that times have changed.  He said the country club now had some Jewish members.

And then, the next night, back in the auditorium at Independence Community College, we were treated to reenactments of “scenes” from various plays by Arthur Miller, as the man himself and his wife, photographer Inge Morath, sat and watched in the audience. At the end of the evening, when he got up on the stage to accept his award, Miller seemed genuinely moved.  He was quiet for a while, and then he cleared his throat and spoke.  This is what he said: “I did not know William Inge well in life.  Our paths did not cross often. But, whenever I saw him, in New York or in Hollywood, he seemed to be a very sad man.  I wish this town could have honored him while he was still alive.”  And then he sat down.  The audience was stunned.  There was polite applause, and then people filed out of the auditorium, into the dark at the bottom of the stairs.

The next morning, unlike all the other mornings, there were no people hovering around Arthur Miller and Inge Morath as they sat quietly by themselves, in a corner of the lobby at the Apple Tree Inn, having their complimentary coffee and doughnuts.  I had been in awe of the man all week, indeed my entire life, had not dared to approach him, had been quite content just to be in his presence.  But, somehow, on this particular morning, I needed to say something when everyone else remained awkwardly silent.  I summoned up enough courage and went up to him.  I shook his hand and thanked him for his remarks the night before.  He was Arthur Miller, the same Arthur Miller who had remained courageously silent and had refused to name names during his testimony before Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, who now could not remain silent on other matters even if it should make him persona non grata, perhaps even a pariah.   Amidst all the hoopla of the Inge Festival in 1995, Arthur Miller had now said what needed to be said about William Inge and the town that rejected him in life but embraced him in death.

Of the 31 playwrights who have been honored thus far at the Inge Festival, one is a person of color (August Wilson); three are women (Betty Comden, Tina Howe, Wendy Wasserstein); and at least nine are homosexuals (Edward Albee, Fred Ebb, Christopher Durang, Arthur Laurents, Terrence McNally, John Patrick, Peter Shaffer, Stephen Sondheim, Lanford Wilson).  The honoree for 2010 is Paula Vogel, a playwright who also happens to be a lesbian.

I don’t know if there’s any special reason why the Inge Festival is always held in late April.  William Inge was born on May 3, 1913 and he died on June 10, 1973.  It would be wonderful if his life could be celebrated in June, the same month which saw the Stonewall Riots in New York in 1969, which gave birth to Pride Parades not just in America but indeed all over the world, perhaps even in Independence, KS.  If William Inge were alive today, he would be astonished, and proud, to see his old hometown embracing, even if only for three or four days each year, a gaggle of gays, a legion of lesbians, a pride of playwrights.

Sit On Me When I Am Dead!

September 15th, 2009

Although my brothers and I were born of Chinese parents in the Philippines, the three of us emigrated to the United States, separately and for totally different reasons, when we were all in our mid-twenties. It was in the United States where we all established our professional careers; where John and Peter met the wonderful women they married, had well-behaved children (two each) and saw them all graduate successfully from college; and where we will in all likelihood die and be buried—John and Vivian in New Jersey, Peter and Bing in Florida, and me in Kansas.

In life, we who teach and toil at the University of Kansas are paid only modestly, but one of our more attractive fringe benefits is that, when we finally drop dead, those of us who’ve put in time for at least fifteen years at the university, are entitled to be buried FOR FREE at Pioneer Cemetery, a grassy knoll owned and maintained by the university, situated between the five student dormitories on top of old Daisy Hill on Mount Oread, and the new development known as West Campus.  Let me tell you about the bridge which connects the two campuses.

There’s a rumor that foot traffic on the bridge is busiest at night, when students living in the five dorms find themselves sneaking over to the secluded cemetery to indulge, first in alcoholic beverages and other controlled substances, and then, if they’re not too inebriated or stoned, to dangle their participles and split their infinitives, maybe even learn new ways of conjugating not just their verbs but also their nouns.  That the life cycle gets reenacted nightly at Pioneer Cemetery, with the learned spirits of dead professors continuing to have a seminal effect on their young (dis)charges, is something which might give comfort to the aging faculty and staff at the university.  Who needs Cinemax or the Playboy Channel in the afterlife when the frisky students are providing live entertainment for free?   In truth, this is where many of my free-thinking friends and colleagues are buried—Ed Grier, Bud Hirsch—and this is where I too will be inurned, underneath a small rectangular slab of marble. In earlier, more promiscuous days, I thought my epitaph should read: “He finally sleeps alone.”  But, these days, I think the Bard will get to have the final say:  “The rest is silence.”

In the Philippines, the tradition among the Chinese is for entire generations of families to be buried together, if the clan can afford it, in elaborate mausoleums.  The ones at the old Chinese Cemetery are truly ostentatious, outdoing each other in sheer red-and-gold garishness.  The ones at the Manila Memorial Park are equally expansive and expensive, but in better taste, which means that you get more peace and tranquility by way of landscaping, and thus a lot less marble to house your loved ones. When my father died in December of 1969, eighteen months after I left Manila for the United States, my mother carefully studied the feng shui at the Manila Memorial Park before buying a double burial plot, one for my father, and the other for herself when her time comes.

I thought this was all settled until my brothers John and Peter decided otherwise. Since the three of us are now in the United States and will presumably be buried in the United States, they argued, shouldn’t our mother also be buried with us in America?  But where?  With John and Vivian in West Windsor?  With Peter and Bing in Orlando?  With me in Lawrence?  The University of Kansas extends burial privileges at Pioneer Cemetery only to its employees and their spouses, no other beloved family members, not even pets. 

Quite fortuitously, one year back in the mid-1990s, when my mother just happened to be visiting Peter and Bing in Orlando for Thanksgiving, John and Vivian and I all flew in to join them for the holiday weekend.  Peter had done his homework, but we were all a bit apprehensive about how my mother would react to yet another discussion involving her own mortality.  The Chinese are superstitious about these things.  Peter assured us he would broach the subject subtly, casually.  And so, while we were all out for a leisurely drive one afternoon, he said, “By the way, why don’t we all pop over to Woodlawn Memorial Park and Funeral Home?  I have a friend who works there whom I’d like you to meet.”

We all expected Mommie Dearest to crackle and explode, maybe even to spontaneously combust, as she is wont to do on such occasions, but she surprised us when she smiled approvingly and said to Peter, “You have a friend who works on Sunday afternoons?  What a hard-working boy!  His mother must be very proud of him.” 

Peter’s friend turned out to be a Latino who knew exactly how to flatter aging Chinese women.  YOU!  THE MOTHER OF THREE SONS?  IMPOSSIBLE!  SO YOUNG!  SO BEAUTIFUL!  SO RICH…IN BLESSINGS!  He could have sold my mother a swamp full of crocodiles but, wait a minute, only if the feng shui was right, with gentle winds blowing from here to here, and soothing waters flowing from there to there. After what seemed like hours, mother finally found a spot which met with her “good feng shui seal of approval.”  It was a corner lot on the corner of which was a scraggly weeping willow tree in desperate need of fertilizing.  But there was another, more serious problem.

This particular corner lot had room for only FOUR coffin spaces.  Mother said she would gather the bones of my father from his resting place at the Manila Memorial Park, and that these can be interred with her in one of the four spaces. My brother John and his wife Vivian said their particular branch of Protestantism forbids cremation, so they would need two of the four spaces.  My brother Peter and his wife Bing said their religion has no special burial restrictions, so the both of them can be cremated and placed within the same space, the fourth and last available space on that corner lot.

So what about me and my dogs? Where’s our resting place in this developing subplot?  The corner plot wasn’t cheap.  After adding up all the hidden costs, the three Lim brothers would be splitting the bill equally, roughly $6,000 each. So what do I get for my $6,000? Peter’s friend shook his head gravely. And then he had a voila! moment.  Sorry about mixing my metaphors, but I can’t think of what a voila! moment might sound like in Spanish.

Oye! of little faith,”  the man suddenly exclaimed. “Do you not see the beautiful weeping willow tree in the corner?  Imagine a marble bench in that corner, underneath the tree.  There can be as many as FOUR urns inside that bench!  You can have the ashes of all your dogs with you inside that bench!  Together, you will be guarding the final resting place of your loved ones! And all your friends and relatives can sit and rest on the bench as well, admiring the view, thinking only good thoughts of you and your family!”

“Gee, thanks,” I growled under my breath.  “All my life I’ve wanted people to sit on me, and now I get to have my wish when I am dead!”

“Don’t be petulant,” my mother said, although there is no such word as “petulant” in Fukienese, the Chinese dialect that we speak.  I was fighting a losing battle against her notions of feng shui. I could feel the wind blowing against my face, and it wasn’t fragrant.  I could feel the blood flowing through my veins, and it wasn’t thicker than water.  So what’s a dutiful Chinese son to do?  I acquiesced, and spent the next couple of years sending in the monthly payments for my $6,000 bench.

Ultimately, I don’t know if it really makes any difference, after I’m dead, whether I’m inurned at Pioneer Cemetery in Lawrence, or at Woodlawn Memorial Park in Orlando. In one scenario, future generations will be fucking on top of me.  In the other scenario, they will be sitting on me. In either case, purely for hygienic reasons, I hope they’re wearing clean underwear.  Ay, caramba!

Beauty and the Beast

September 4th, 2009

Some friends who’ve been journeying through time with me, after looking at the many pictures of ourselves which I’ve posted chronologically on my website, seem startled and dismayed by how we’ve all aged.  “My God,” one of them exclaimed the other day, “we were all so young and…”

He paused for a long time and, as he seemed unable to continue, in my mind I went through a list of words about what we might have been like all those years ago.  Idealistic?  Romantic?  Innocent?  Naive?  Stupid?  Unreasonable?  Unrealistic?  Untainted? Unblemished?  Unbearable?

“Beautiful,” he said finally. “We were all so young and…beautiful.” 

To be honest, this took me by surprise.  I have never been vain about my looks. When I started to gain weight after I gave up smoking in 1994, and to lose my hair shortly after that, it was of no great consequence, and I didn’t stay up nights worrying about it.  But now, thanks to the ugly rhetoric which keeps coming out of the mouths of people like Carrie Prejean, the ex-Miss California USA 2009 who won’t shut up or go away, I’ve been looking again at the pictures on my website, not of me but of everyone else, trying to determine who’s beautiful and who’s not, and by what standards.  In the Philippines, for example, given the country’s white colonial masters—first the Spaniards and then the Americans, which one witty Filipino writer said was akin to living three hundred years in a convent followed by fifty years in Hollywood—fair or unfair, guess whom the mirror says is the fairest of us all?

Among the many physically “beautiful people” I’ve known in America, there’s one I’d like to tell you about.  I no longer remember his name because this was sometime ago and I knew him only briefly, met with him only twice, spoke with him on the telephone only twice, but I”ll never forget him for what he was, a beautiful young man in his early twenties, a violinist who had been highly recommended by his professors in the School of Music at the University of Kansas. 

Back in those days, at least once every summer for many years, I would give these elaborate garden parties in my backyard for seventy or eighty people.  Lots to eat, even more to drink, and underneath the tall weeping willow tree, accomplished young musicians coaxing beautiful sounds out of their favored instruments, one year a guitar, another year a cello, and on this particular year a violin.  I remember many of the guests wandering over to the beautiful young man, listening to the way he seemed to be communing privately with Bach, Beethoven, Brahms.  There’s a picture of him on the website, resplendent in the late afternoon sunlight, as he played my one request, Massenet’s Meditation from Thais, surrounded by the weeping willows.  Sadly, the tree no longer exists.  It had been dying for years, attacked by termites, and finally I had to have it cut down and destroyed.  In its place I planted a flowering Judas Tree.

But, back to my beautiful violinist.  When the garden party was over, he came into the house and, as I was writing out a check to pay him for his work, he heard the lovebirds twittering in an upstairs bedroom.  “Do you have birds in the house?” he asked, his eyes filled with wonder.

“Yes.  Do you like birds?”

“I don’t know.  I’ve never had any.  Can I see them?”

“Yes, of course.”

I led him upstairs and showed him the original pair of lovebirds which I had started out with, and their first brood of six little ones, some bluish-green, some yellowish-orange.  The young man was transfixed.  Finally, he turned to me and said, “Can I have a couple of them? You have so many.”

“Well, I don’t know.”

“I’ll be happy to buy them from you.”

“I wasn’t planning to sell them.”

“Oh please. They are so beautiful.”  Beautiful creatures are drawn to each other, I thought approvingly.  Maybe they will make beautiful music together.

“If you’ve never had birds, you’ll need a cage to begin with, and the cage must be cleaned at least once weekly.  Then you must also buy special lovebird seeds and liquid vitamins to add to their water daily.   You’ll also need another cup containing a mixture of gravel and oyster shells to help them digest their food, sand paper for the perches to help trim their nails, cuttle bones to help trim their beaks, special treats like fruits and vegetables to supplement their diet, to say nothing of bird toys to keep them amused, and…”

“I’ll use the money you’re giving me today to buy all that.”  He flashed me a beautiful smile.  How could I resist?

He returned the next day for two of the baby birds, but he didn’t have a birdcage with him.  He said the one he bought was much too big to fit in the car after he had put it all together.  Instead, he brought a big empty rectangular aquarium.  He said he could transport the birds in this old aquarium, then transfer them to the new birdcage after he got back to his apartment.  He flashed me another smile.  How can anyone have teeth so white?  I really needed to give up smoking.

A couple of days later, I got a peculiar phone call from someone who said he was the beautiful young man’s roommate.  “About those birds that you gave him…”

“Yes?”

“Did you know that he has a pet boa constrictor which he keeps in an aquarium?”

“What?”

“He came home with those birds, and when the boa couldn’t catch them, he chopped their feet off.”

“What?”

“He just sat there, drinking his beer, watching those terrified birds bleeding to death as the boa started to eat them.”

“What?”

“He’s going to call you tomorrow, to ask you for more birds.  He says you have four more.  Please don’t give him any more.”

And, indeed, the young man did call, the very next day, asking if he could have two more.  He said his girlfriend had come over to his apartment, had seen the birds, had fallen in love with them, and that he had no choice but to give them to her.  So could he have two more?  In my mind’s eye, I could see him flashing his beautiful smile, yet again.  And then I thought of him feeding my birds to his “girlfriend.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, wondering why I was apologizing instead of screaming at him. “The papa bird and mama bird seem unhappy about the disappearance of two of their young ones.  I can’t give away any more of their babies.”

And that was that.  I never saw or heard from the young man again.  In this story, Beauty not only falls in love with the Beast, Beauty turns into the Beast.  Even today, as I retell and relive the story, I find myself near tears.  And I am reminded of a poem written by another friend in the Philippines, someone whom all the pretty girls in our group laughed at, when we were all so young, because they said he was so ugly.  Here are the final lines of his poem:  “Why am I Melancholy/before so much Beauty?”

The poet’s name was Jun Lansang and, like the weeping willow tree in my backyard, he too is now dead and gone.  But the young Judas Tree which replaced it and which I can see from my bedroom window flowered this spring, and will continue to do so for many years yet to come.

Nice Boys Don’t Implode!

August 28th, 2009

I’m directing a concert reading of THE DESIGNATED MOURNER, a dramatic discourse by Wallace Shawn, for English Alternative Theatre at the University of Kansas on Labor Day, so I’ve been thinking lately about why Shawn, who is such a fine and accomplished thinking-man’s playwright, is mostly known only for his work in the movies and on television.

First and foremost, there’s MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, the extraordinary 1981 film directed by Louis Malle, which Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory scripted together and then appeared in, as themselves, having a lesurely dinner at a fashionable restaurant near Lincoln Center, all the while conversing most engagingly and eruditely about their wondrous lives in the theatre.  It’s the sort of conversation I often imagine myself having, in my dreams, with Plato and Aristotle, and sometimes with Socrates, but I always manage to wake up just in time when the Greek waiters in the taverna start filling my cup with hemlock.

Sadly, after MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, Wallace Shawn appeared in a lot of absolutely awful movies, chief among them an execrable exercise in sheer dementia called NICE GIRLS DON’T EXPLODE. Believe it or not, I’m in this movie with him. I’m in it because it was shot in my own backyard (so to speak) in Lawrence, KS, and the local casting director was a friend who thought, back in 1987, that I might be “perfect” for one of the smaller speaking parts.

If you look up NICE GIRLS DON’T EXPLODE in The Internet Movie Database, a certain Jeremy Perkins from the UK who has actually seen this dreadful movie offers the following synopsis of the plot:  “April has a problem.  Whenever she gets anything like passionate with a guy, all sorts of things seem to spontaneously combust.  The only men she meets more than once are firefighters.  Actually, it’s Mom’s way of trying to keep her little girl to herself, but new boyfriend Andy is having none of such nonsense.  So the heat’s on.  Unfortunately, it’s Fluffy the cat who keeps getting caught in the middle.”

April is played by someone I’ve never heard of. Likewise her Boyfriend Andy. But Mom is Barbara Harris, fresh out of Robert Altman’s NASHVILLE; and Wallace Shawn is a weird guy whom Mom enlists to help her convince April that she’s a dangerous firestarter.  On IMDb, two respectable professors from the Theatre Department at the University of Kansas are also credited as having parts in the movie: William Kuhlke as “Dr. Stewart,” and Jack Wright as “Maitre’d.”

Scroll to the very bottom of the cast list and you’ll see that I too am in the movie. But the character I play has no name.  I am merely called “Chinese Dad.”  Which is better than Fluffy the Cat, I suppose, who gets billed as “Orange Cat #5,” although I did find out during the shoot that this cool cat from L.A. was actually Morris from those adorable Purina catchow TV commercials.  Correction: one of six Morrises who all look exactly alike, so they can double for each other in the commercials.  In any case, “Orange Cat #5” and “Chinese Dad” developed a special relationship during the shoot, but I’m getting ahead of the story.

Here’s how I became the most troublesome actor on the set of NICE GIRLS DON’T EXPLODE, although you would never know this from my performance if you should ever have the misfortune of seeing this abysmal movie.

To begin: Everyone in Lawrence, KS was excited about a movie (any movie) being shot in the same town where William Quantrill had shot and killed 167 men and teenage boys back in 1863. My friend, the local casting director, urged me to sign on for two short scenes, for which he said I would be paid (if I remember correctly) the princely sum of $850, not to be sneezed at even by today’s standards, 22 years later.  But it wasn’t really the money that convinced me to sign on; it was the chance to be in a movie with Wallace Shawn. Maybe Wally and I would become friends. He might write a feature-length movie for the two us to appear in, as ourselves.  It could be called MY DIM-SUM LUNCH WITH PAUL. Or, at the very least, if the movie turns out to be only a short subject, MY MERIENDA WITH PAUL.

But, back to reality: I was given a couple of pages of the script for the first of my two scenes in the movie.  In it, Boyfriend Andy, an avid pingpong player, fantasizes that he’s in China playing against the Chinese Champ in a public auditorium.  Sitting in the VIP section watching the match are Mom, April accompanied by Fluffy, and me dressed in a Mao jacket (with a spiffy red scarf around my neck) as a Chinese Dignitary. Fluffy is squatting on April’s lap on my immediate left. At one point during the game, I’m supposed to turn to the cat and say, with a thick Chinese accent, just three words, the first one of which is just a sound: “Oooooo…nice cat.”  And then the camera zooms in for a tight close-up of Fluffy, as the pingpong game continues.

The scene was shot in the gymnasium of Haskell Indian Nations University near downtown Lawrence.  I don’t know where they found all the Asians to fill that large venue, but there they were, my people, hordes of them, chattering away in all the incomprehensible dialects of our common mother tongue. Someone said that my people had been rounded up like cattle in Chinese restaurants all over Kansas and Missouri, and that they had been bussed in for the day’s coolie labor.  The whole scene took over ten hours to shoot, with a brief lunch break when we were all given small lunch boxes from Kentucky Fried Chicken to keep us calorically full and filled but not fulfilled.  So that’s how General Tso got licked by Colonel Sanders in Kansas!

Before we all left for the day, Chuck Martinez, the Hispanic-American director of the movie, said my work in the scene with Fluffy was “fine.”  They would be in touch “soon” about my second scene. The Lawrence Journal-World printed daily reports on the progress of the shoot, and I became somewhat concerned when I read in the paper that they were starting to “wrap up” the movie, and I still had not heard from them. Finally, late one afternoon, I got the telephone call. They gave me the address of an old house, again near downtown Lawrence. They told me to report for make-up and wardrobe at eight o’clock that night.

When I showed up, they introduced me to the Chinese wife and two Chinese children of a Chinese colleague at the University of Kansas.  They were supposed to be my wife and children in the scene we were shooting. There was also an ancient Chinese woman present who was supposed to be my mother or grandmother.  Where they found this old woman, I have no idea.  At wardrobe, they gave me a long Chinese gown to wear which made me look like Fu Manchu.  And then I was given the pages of the script for the second scene.

This time, there are no Caucasian actors around, just me and my traditional Chinese family, sitting eagerly around a dinner table on top of which is a burbling Mongolian hot pot.  It’s burbling because it’s filled with water, and a person in charge of props had just dropped some dry ice into it.  Again, for some reason, Fluffy is squatting on a cushion on the chair to my immediate left. And again I am supposed to turn to the cat, speaking with a heavy Chinese accent.  But this time I say more than three words.  This time I say:  “So glad you can join us for dinner, Honorable Cat.  We all love cat.” Snicker, snicker, snicker. Then I’m supposed to pick up the cat and hold it over the burbling hot pot as the camera zooms in for another tight close-up of the terrified creature.  The whole sequence, apparently, is Fluffy’s fantasy, provoked by the earlier pingpong scene, when I had leaned over in his direction and said, “Oooooo…nice cat.”

Needless to say, I was horrified for any number of reasons by this scene, so I raced out into the night in my garish Fu Manchu robes looking for Chuck Martinez, the director.

“Look,” I said, when I finally found him, “we Chinese eat a lot of things–shark’s fin, bear’s paws, monkey’s brains, snakes and puppies–but WE DO NOT EAT CATS!”

“So?”

“So the scene misrepresents my people.”

“Your people?”

“Yes.  How would you like it if I were to cast you in a movie as a greasy Mexican bandido who, when he’s not robbing and killing gringos, is always found sleeping slothfully underneath a gigantic sombrero?”

“That’s beside the point.  I’m the one making the movie, not  you.  You signed the contract, you cashed the check, and now you will do the scene exactly as it is written.”

“You can have your money back.”

“A contract is a contract.  You will do the scene exactly as it is written.  We have lawyers…”

“And I have friends in the Asian-American community in New York and Los Angeles who will protest and boycott your movie when you are foolish enough to release it.”  He knew I was referring to the furor created by David Henry Hwang and other Asian-Americans over the Broadway production of MISS SAIGON.

“That’s ridiculous.  A contract is a contract.  You will do the scene exactly as it is written.  We have lawyers…”

And so I returned to the shoot and did the scene exactly as it was written.  But, when it came time for me to pick up Fluffy and hold him over the burbling Mongolian hot pot, even though the cat had been sedated for the scene, “Orange Cat #5” went totally ballistic and started clawing wildly at my hands and arms.  I was starting to bleed from all the scratches.  No matter, I said to myself, be Zen-like, stoical. NICE GIRLS DON’T EXPLODE, and NICE BOYS DON’T IMPLODE.

“Pssssst!” the animal-trainer from L.A. hissed at beast.  “Pssssst!”

They covered up my wounds with make-up, and we tried shooting the scene again.

“Pssssst! Pssssst!”

It didn’t work.  “Orange Cat #5” continued to mangle and maul my hands and arms.  More make-up to cover up the wounds. After the third try, I turned to the director and smiled benignly, “My contract says nothing about my getting injured, and getting God knows what sorts of diseases from this cat.  I have lawyers…”

“It’s a wrap!” the director yelled suddenly, and we all went home, me to further nurse my wounds with Mercurochrome and rubbing alcohol, thinking all the while that, to add insult to injury, I had never actually met Wallace Shawn the whole time he was shooting his scenes in Lawrence.

When NICE GIRLS DON’T EXPLODE was released commercially and had its big premier in Lawrence, I refused to see it, but friends who did told me I was not actually in it, even though I was listed in the end credits as “Chinese Dad.”

Curiously enough, because of that damned contract which I signed, to this day I continue to get residual payments for my “work” in the movie, even though my two scenes never made it to the final cut.  Every time they sell the movie to some unsuspecting third-world country or two-bit airline, I get a check in the mail for some astonishing amount like $1.12 or less.  I have never cashed these checks.

But when the DVD was released on June 12, 2007, I finally gave in and bought a copy, hitting the pause button frequently during that whole pingpong episode. If you don’t blink, you  will catch a glimpse of me in my Mao Jacket and my spiffy red scarf, sitting beside April with Fluffy on her lap but, Confucius be praised, I don’t appear anywhere else in the movie. There are no “special features” on the DVD, no revelation of “deleted scenes.”  Big sigh of relief.  And I’ve just learned from Amazon.com that “this item has been discontinued by the manufacturer.” Hmmmm.  I wonder why.

On its website, IMDb lists no other movie credits for me, nor for Paul Harris, the man who wrote the screenplay for NICE GIRLS DON’T EXPLODE.  But for Chuck Martinez, IMDb lists two other directorial credits, a made-for-TV movie in 1988 called SUPERBOY, and a full-length commercial release called THE EFFECTS OF MAGIC in 1998, about a magician and his talking bunny.  Nothing after that.  I ought not to be glad because I now believe, underneath it all, just like “Orange Cat #5,” he is, we are, all of us, just helpless creatures frightened of all the burbling Mongolian hot pots in our lives.

To conclude:  I wonder if Wally is on FACEBOOK.  I could “poke” him, invite him to visit Lawrence again, ask him to attend the concert reading which I’m directing of his play THE DESIGNATED MOURNER on Labor Day.  Afterwards, we can go out for a drink or two (or three), chat till the wee hours of the morning, then go have a bite somewhere.  All this time, of course, he can be taking notes for his next film and/or dramatic discourse, MY PANCAKES WITH PAUL.

  • LIMERANCES
  • Comments Off on Nice Boys Don’t Implode!