To encourage more effectively a life-long habit of pleasurable reading, many public and private elementary schools and even some middle schools in New York are now starting “reading workshops” which abandon the traditional teaching of previously-required texts like To Kill a Mockingbird or Huckleberry Finn, encouraging children instead to bring in books of their own choosing to read. Okay, so what if a precocious kid rummages through dad’s library and brings in Lady Chatterley’s Lover or The Happy Hooker?
Listen to Paul’s interview.
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players… One man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages. At first the infant, mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms. And then the whining school-boy… the lover, sighing… a soldier, full of strange oaths… the justice, in fair round belly… The sixth age shifts into… the pantaloon, with spectacles on nose and pouch on side… Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion: sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
Although I’m calling this website “a personal memoir in flux,” it is also my hope that the various sections will be of interest to people, whether they know me or not. “Out on a Lim” shares short observations on day-to-day life. “Limerances” chronicles longer remembrances of things past. “Limoscenes” presents descriptions of the plays I’ve written to date, with production photos. “Images in Limbo” shows pictures of the aging process, of me with family and friends. “Limpets” are the non-human dogs in my life, and “Limitations” are tributes to people who are no longer with us. So here I am, past imperfect, present progressive, future tense. Let me know what you think. — Paul
A feminist friend writes me the following about the enigmatic cover of the August 31 issue of The New Yorker: “We see, from the back, a white-haired man carrying a slender girl into the water, toward the moon, from a beach marked with a No Trespassing sign. Could this be a reference to Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne, and a message of some sort of redemption?” What do you think?
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 the scene misrepresents my 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.
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.
They say the Senator is dead. Republicans will probably refrain from dancing in the streets, but watch them all weep crocodile tears as the lion continues to roar for health care reform, even in death. He may have passed. Now let’s hope what he fought for his whole life will finally come to pass.
My family has known it for, like, forever, but most Americans are now just discovering that it’s a lot cheaper to go overseas for their medical procedures. Insurance companies are calling it “medical tourism.” According to the Deloitte Center for Health Solution, 1.6 million Americans are expected to embark on trips for overseas health care in 2010, which more than doubles the 750,000 Americans who traveled abroad in 2007 for similar purposes. Major destinations seem to be Third World countries in Asia, Central America, the Caribbean, etc.
What “cash for clunkers” did for the automobile industry, “medical tourism” can do for health-care reform in America. Even better, it will put a lot of people back to work in our ailing airline industry, to say nothing of advertising agencies. MAD MEN will truly rule! I can relive my own salad days as a copywriter when I finally retire from academia! Salad days. Hmmm. I like that. Green is good, when even the President’s wife is growing her own lettuce and tomatoes in the White House. But I digress. Let’s get back to the creative business of copywriting. Here are some possible advertising slogans:
“Can’t afford new dentures in Kansas, or new bridges to nowhere in Alaska? Yes you can…in Cancun!”
“Left your heart in San Francisco? We’ll give you a new one…in Santo Domingo!”
“Say bye-bye to all those eye-popping MRI bills…in Mumbai!”
“No Bull! We kid you not! Free kidneys with your dream vacation…in Istanbul!”
“Horrified by the high cost of health care in America? Then come to…Costa Rica!”
“In the U.S. they charge you an arm and a leg for limb surgery. But with US, you get your pick of perky prosties even as you wait for your prosthetics!”
You get the idea. As I said earlier, my family has known about “medical tourism” for years. Let me tell you about my youngest brother, a successful dentist in Orlando, married, with two kids. He owns an expensive boat and goes deep-sea fishing with his buddies, spending as little time as possible in the clinic inflicting pain on his patients. So it isn’t as though he couldn’t afford it, but in the mid-1990s, when he found out that I was planning a trip home to the Philippines to visit our mother, he asked if it would be okay if his youngest son tagged along with me. Louie was around thirteen years old at the time, too young to travel by himself on such a long journey. My brother thought it would be a good idea if the kid could explore his Chinese “roots” in Manila while I was there, so I could keep an eye on him while he did his exploring. Besides, my brother said, for some reason, Louie wants to be circumcised, and it’s cheaper to get the deed done in Manila. Kill two birds with one primitive stone implement, so to speak.
And so it came to pass. The day came when I accompanied Louie to the dingy office of the doctor who had been recommended for this delicate procedure. Louie was ushered through the limp curtain which separated “the operating room” from “the waiting room” where I waited. Where I could hear all the noises emanating from hell, the clatter of metallic objects falling on the floor, the cries and shrieks of my pubescent nephew who, in this unkindest cut of all, was in all likelihood losing his entire manhood, farewell to posterity and all that.
“Why don’t you sing a song?” I heard the doctor asking Louie.
“Anything at all. Something to take your mind off what I’m doing down here.”
And then–softly, feebly, plaintively–I heard my poor nephew singing: “Oh-oh…saaaay…can…you…seeeeeeee?”
I’ve never heard the National Anthem sung more freely, more bravely, more movingly. And I had to fly over seven thousand miles across the Pacific Ocean, all the way to the Philippines, to hear it. These are the ties that bind, indeed; even though, as of this writing, my youngest brother, who still lives in Orlando and who still goes deep-sea fishing with his buddies, also still has no grandchildren, at least none that we know of. Not that there’s anything wrong with Louie, to be sure. He emerged that day from “the operating room” a proud and erect member of The Cutting Edge. He just hasn’t found the right girl yet. Or maybe he thinks he can’t afford to get married yet. Maybe it’s time my brother sent him back to the Philippines.
“No money, no honey? Not when you’re…in Manila!”
So, what words do “hip” people use these days to say that something is “cool” or “uncool?” According to today’s Sunday New York Times, it’s “so (not) Obama” anymore to say that someone or something is “so Obama,” and I’ve never even heard the expression until I read the article. Just sayin,’ just sayin.’
Writing newspaper headlines is an art. Witness the front page story in yesterday’s Lawrence Journal-World about Bernadette Gray-LIttle, the exciting new chancellor at the University of Kansas. The headline? Gray-Little stresses worth of pursuing education. Hmmmm. Was this ever in doubt? So what’s the subtext here?
Faculty members at the University of Kansas who are fortunate enough to get a Kemper Teaching Fellowship (it comes with a $5000 cash award) are asked to each give a two-minute speech about their “teaching philosophy” at a convivial convention made even more convivial by the sumptious reception which follows the brief ceremony, at which event are served unimaginable delights like baked brie and grilled lambchops, items not regularly ingested in the spartan diet of poorly paid professors in Kansas. Hungry academia nuts on the guest list look forward to stuffing themselves like squirrels at this reception all year long, to store up some calories for the winter, so I imagine that’s why the honorees are asked to keep their speeches under two minutes.
Today is the first day of the fall semester at K.U. I just met the students in my Beginning Playwriting class, which is why I find myself thinking of the two-minute speech I delivered in 2002, when I was one of the fortunate recipients of a Kemper Teaching Fellowship. Here’s the speech I delivered to the crowd gathered that afternoon in Woodruff Auditorium at the Kansas Union, before everyone headed for the baked brie and the grilled lambchops.
I was fourteen years old in the Philippines when I first saw AUNTIE MAME, a movie about a wildly eccentric woman who decides to take over the education of her young nephew. Forty-four years later, in my mind’s eye, I can still see Rosalind Russell leading little Patrick up the grand staircase in her lavish New York apartment, her words echoing in my ears: “Child, I am going to open doors for you, doors you never even dreamed existed! What times we are going to have! What vistas we are going to explore together!”
When I started teaching English 101 and 102 as a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the English Department at K.U. back in 1972, I secretly thought of myself as a sort of Auntie Mame in Chinese drag, in charge of educating all my little wards straight out of their Kansas high schools. “Good morning, everyone. It is my hope that, in every class this semester, we are going to open books together, meet similes and metaphors we never even dreamed existed! What poems and short stories we are going to read! What novels and plays we are going to explore together!”
But then, in 1989, when I began to teach playwriting in the English Department, I quickly discovered the most wondrous of role reversals. I discovered that, in creative writing, it is NOT the teacher who is Auntie Mame. These days, in my classes, my students are the ones leading me up the grand staircase of their imagination, showing me the worlds they come from, the worlds they live in, sometimes the worlds they envision, brave new worlds I never even dreamed existed! And I find that, at age 58, I am young again, little Patrick meeting his Auntie Mame for the first time again, and for this I am most grateful.
Given the state of the economy in 2009, with severe budget cuts at K.U., there may well be no baked brie or grilled lambchops at the end of this year’s Kemper awards ceremony. We might have to settle for peanuts and melon balls. I can see the headlines now in The Lawrence Journal-World and The University Daily Kansan: “Hungry Hordes Succumb to Kemper Distemper!”
Although I’m calling this new website “a personal memoir in flux,” it is also my hope that the various sections will be of interest to people, whether they know me or not. “Out on a Lim” shares short observations on day-to-day life. “Limerances” chronicles longer remembrances of things past. “Limoscenes” presents descriptions of the plays I’ve written to date, with production photos. “Images in Limbo” shows pictures of the aging process, of me with family and friends. “Limpets” are the non-human dogs in my life, and “Limitations” are tributes to people who are no longer with us. So here I am, past imperfect, present progressive, future tense. Let me know what you think.