Human-side economics: Fairness at play

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for capitalizing on a good idea. The person who invented Post-its -— NOT Romy or Michele from Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, although Lisa Kudrow‘s character makes a darn compelling case, below, that it could have been anyone — well, that person should profit from his genius and good business sense. (See previous post “Scotch Tape, Post-Its and the stickiest problem yet.”)

Where then does our capitalist system fail? It’s in this concept of one’s “fair share.”

Movies teach us a lot. Take the new all-American baseball biopic Moneyball; and if you haven’t yet seen it, you must.

Spoiler alert: You should probably run see it before finishing reading this post.

Moneyball shows us how Ivy League economics and a few scraps helped turn around a tanking baseball team. Formulas alone, though, wouldn’t work. Brad Pitt, as Billy Beane, had to factor in some human chemistry to help define his success. His decisions weren’t always “winning” ones, but they were the right ones. He rejected a $12.5 million salary, for instance, on the basis he already had what he needed — or he knew the salary wouldn’t help him achieve what he wanted.

As a cog in the news business, I recently earned a 2.49% raise, after a straight record of “superior” performance ratings and two (or was it three?) years of pay freezes, forced furloughs and rising health care costs. You think they could have squeezed out one more hundredth or a percentage for a round 2.5%. Musta been based on some cold calculation to not upset someone else’s chock-full apple cart. No doubt those in the company’s upper echelons still managed six-figure bonuses on top of plump salaries during these lean times.

Is this fair? Of course, the answer is “above my pay grade.”

I’m not complaining, as I am thankful to have a job. But it seems to me the problem with our system is we get saturated at the top, with very little trickle-down action.

I’m not saying the people at the top are all villains — they were human once, too, ha. And those “bean-counters” in the Oakland A’s front office with Billy Beane merely were saturated, stuck in their ways. They lacked the vision and drive he had. You gotta be a little hungry for that kinda magic.

I never set out this morning to write about this sticky wicket, or Scotch Tape or Post-its. I merely looked up the year 1925 doing other research and found what I thought was an interesting story about men with ideas — the human story behind economics.

Although I don’t advocate the Saudi way of doing things, it’s interesting how Saudi Arabia spreads its oil wealth among its citizens. Not unlike Alaska. If every businessman and -woman made decisions based on the human element, or at least evaluated things on the basis of what role his/her product and business plays in people’s lives, always remembering where s/he came from, and the legitimacy of those who work and those who COULD work for them, maybe more of us could benefit — not to the point of saturation, but at least on the cusp of fulfillment, with evenly distributed pangs of hunger driving our economy.

In other words, the perfect capitalist system would work better applied imperfectly, with some take-and-give.

Scotch Tape, Post-its and the stickiest problem yet

English: Antique Scotch Tape package. Exact er...

English: Antique Scotch Tape package. Exact era unknown. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Back in the early 1920s, 3M made only sandpaper. Yet a banjo-playing lab assistant, Richard Drew, trying to solve a problem for autobody workers who couldn’t apply paint in clean lines on refurbished cars, came up with an early version of masking tape.

When the adhesive didn’t stick well enough, a painter allegedly complained: “Take this tape back to those Scotch bosses of yours and tell them to put more adhesive on it!”

Thus, when Drew invented properly sticky waterproof tape in 1930, it was dubbed “Scotch” Tape. Had nothing to do with drinking himself into posterity.

A half-century later, 3M employee Arthur Fry borrowed a “low-tack” adhesive developed by colleague Spencer Silver and some spare, unpopularly bland yellow paper from a local printshop to mark his place in his hymnbook.

The resulting Post-it gave birth to a ubiquitous line of products that has made the leap from paper to digital, with “sticky notes” being a common feature in word-processing and blogging.

This kind of innovation seems truly American. Unfortunately, our top technological companies are renouncing their citizenship to avoid paying corporate taxes by express-shipping $1.2 trillion in corporate profits overseas, in such tax havens as Zug, Switzerland, and Dublin, where the corporate tax rate is about 16% and 12.5%, respectively, compared with the United States’ 35% rate.

Scotch bosses? Try Irish bosses.

Doing the math, it seems $1.2 trillion could help patch our debt problem. Recessed American innovation is being stifled by a dominant American trait: greed.

Note to 3M: You are due for another groundbreaking innovation.

If you didn’t see this 60 Minutes installment last March, you should. It sticks with you.

(A bitter pill: You must suffer through one 1-minute pharmaceutical ad to watch the whole thing.)

http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7360932n&tag=contentBody;storyMediaBox

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Fill my teacup list (A mini-bucket list for October)

Bens Chili Bowl, U St NW (15542832)

Visited by presidents and presidential hopefuls — never by me. Image via Wikipedia

In two weeks, I’ll mark the anniversary of two unspeakably sad deaths, two days apart. What better way to honor those lost than by living well?

In true metro-Washingtonian fashion, I rarely take advantage of the things this region has to offer. I have six days off — in a row — from the grueling job.

How should I spend them? I need ideas from the Potomacized peanut gallery. Should I do galleries and museums? Shamefully, I’ve never toured Holocaust, Native American, Spy or Madame Tussauds. There I could wax prophetic.

Should I cheat death and go on gastronomic adventures? Never sampled The Willard Room or Ben’s Chili Bowl or Georgia Brown’s. Wondering what else I’m missing.

Maybe a sail on the Potomac. Or an authentic Oktoberfest, with foaming beer and polka dancers, say, at Blob’s Park in Jessup, Md., “Home of America’s First Oktoberfest.” I do enough theater, but maybe I should catch a drag show at So Addictive in Herndon, Va. Or a comedy set at the only revolving bar/restaurant in the area, the Skydome Lounge in Arlington, Va.

Good thing there’s still a Washington Post weekend section as a jumping-off point. But, perhaps one of my readers has recently written a D.C. travel book that comes out next month — no names, Patty Kime — and can douse me in ideas?

I’ll wait for your gaggle of responses. Thanks in advance, and don’t waste any opportunities.

Oktoberfest actually sounds cool. Wondering whether it would be as festive as these guys.

What it’s really like to audition for ‘American Idol’

(A nostalgic look back at daughter Miki’s experience auditioning for Season 4 of “American Idol,” in Washington, D.C., August 2004)

Aspirants and antiperspirants

My daughter is THE next American Idol. (Photo by Terry Byrne, Copyright 2004_

Could my daughter be THE next American Idol? (Photo by Terry Byrne, Copyright 2004)

They come like immigrants, an estimated 21,000 dolled-up American Idol aspirants and their doleful escorts, to the cavernous Washington Convention Center, huddled masses yearning to breathe the same hot air as Simon Cowell. My 16-year-old daughter and I are two of them.

The air doesn’t smell so fresh after a 36-plus-hour, carnival-atmosphere slumber party, where b.o. and morning mouth mix with spoiled, spilled concessions and the vomit of those whose nerves get the best of them. Sensory relief is found in the unlikeliest place: the john, where hair product vapor hangs in the air like spa mist.

Tony Meadors, 24, is a solitary pilgrim from White Marsh, Md., “by way of Chicago,” who slipped away from his Bayou Cafe job to chase stardom. Equipped with only a backpack, bottled water and Bible — “all I need” — he’s directed to fill in as the horizontal grout between two rows of Eddie Bauer-outfitted campers. He sizes up this small plot of concrete as his last address before moving to Hollywood, and slips a staff worker $5 to rent an oval-backed, velour-upholstered dining chair from the storage closet, which he lies on its back to reserve more room, then trots to the Smithsonian for a carefree afternoon. Upon his return hours later, new vagrants have scrunched into his space, so he balls himself up on the floor, props his head on the chair seat, and attempts sleep.

Clockwise from left: My daughter Miki, Mark Hwang, Maria Dunckhorst andTony Meadors, all "Idol" hopefuls. (Photo by Terry Byrne Copyright 2004)

Clockwise from left: My daughter Miki, Mark Hwang, Maria Dunckhorst and Tony Meadors, all “Idol” hopefuls. (Photo by Terry Byrne Copyright 2004)

Lullabies aren’t cutting it

But sleep doesn’t come easily in this busy hive of bright lights and gospel peals. A jumbotron projects non-stop Fox broadcasts, and one wonders whether a stateside Abu Ghraib, where sleep deprivation followed by hours of standing, has been erected to weed out those who wouldn’t endure the stress of superstardom.

A true cattle call. Courtesy of MSNBC.com

Workers use bike-rack barricades and yellow police tape to extend the snaking line of sleeping bags, where sleep, like fame, is but another distant dream. They hawk “Idol” products — souvenir T-shirts, compact mirrors,  key chains and cardboard church-style fans advertising shows. They invite all to visit the karaoke station; no invitation necessary. Warehouse load lifters appear occasionally, atop which camera operators and producers rally the crowd, rock-concert style, to scream “I am the next American idol!” … “Again! I can’t hear you!” Perhaps it’s just another ploy to handicap the weaker voices.

Plenty of ‘Idol’ time

Clever Mark Hwang, 18, of Fairfax, Va., only mouths the words. Four years ago, when his name was Kun-Yeon, he moved here from Korea, not knowing a word of English. He still isn’t sure of all the lyrics to Lionel Richie’s Truly. But this detour on his way to college as a Virginia Tech freshman is just more education — sampling the American dream, as repackaged by Brits.

Co-executive producer Nigel Lythgoe grabs the mike to reassure show hopefuls: “All you have to do is be you. But be your best you. We don’t want you leaving here with any regrets.” And “What we’re looking for is someone who can sing like Pavarotti and dance like a gazelle.” I survey the bodies and, though I see many with the heft of Pavarotti (this cross-section of America mirrors the 30% of Americans who are obese), the only prancers are those mimicking Clay Aiken, post-makeover.

From “People” magazine, Aug. 18, 2004

We meet people from the Deep South, New England and as far away as Minnesota, but most seem to be “representin'” B’more and the nation’s capital. One local boasts he’s 30 but secured a fake ID to meet the 16- to 28-year-old criteria. A man with a yellow wristband — signifying he’s a cheerleader for a red-banded contestant — hauls two small mattresses, still dressed with bedding, off the freight elevator, which he has dragged from his apartment to make things cushy for his woman, who herds him from in front. He makes it only five steps at a time before resting.

Penned-in superstars draw a lot of media attention. (Photo by Terry Byrne, Copyright 2004)

Penned-in superstar wannabes draw a lot of media attention. (Photo by Terry Byrne, Copyright 2004)

A singer in sunglasses with a red-tipped cane feels his way to the bathroom. Two dwarfs vocalize. A red-headed wrestler shows off his medals and hoists a staff member onto his shoulders and spins for the cameras. Mary Katherine, in curlers and party hat, is celebrating her 21st birthday and lets everyone know with a hand-made sign.

Army enlistee A.J., whose deck of cards and blanket are “borrowed” by a neighboring pack, sleeps in his car with his girlfriend where at least it’s dark and not as cold as inside the hall. He doesn’t know what his audition song is called nor who it’s by, but “he sings it all the time,” complains his girlfriend. He guesses it’s Luther Vandross. I identify it as Ruben Studdard’s cover of Superstar, Season 2.

Egypt’s customized belt — the one she’s wearing, not her vocal technique — spells “Egypt” in rhinestones, offsetting her stiletto boots. She checks on her 2-year-old son, Jatawn, by cellphone between choruses of such oldies as Seasons Change by Exposé — which, I point out, was No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 the week my daughter was born. “Gosh, she’s just a baby!” she squawks. She’s my baby.

Survival instincts kick in

We break bread (a $2.50 giant cookie, using the last dough we have) and exchange Balance bars, Rice Krispie Treats and fruit rolls with strangers. We teach Mark to play Yahtzee and War. We loan Tony a sleeping bag and the pillow my sister crocheted, and I resolve to sleep in the folding chair. I borrow a pen from Jessica’s mom, Marva, from Suffolk, Va., to write this.

Miki and Mark try to catch some Zzzzzzzz's, but it is next to impossible here. (Photo by Terry Byrne Copyright 2004)

Miki and Mark hope to catch some Zzzzzzzz’s, but it is next to impossible here. (Photo by Terry Byrne Copyright 2004)

And we lose track of time. We’re told “quiet time” (but not lights out) starts at 10 p.m., when boomboxes and singers must be silenced. Yet babysitters have no authority here, and the white noise produced by 10,000 hyped vocal cords and even more rollover cellphone minutes is unlikely to ever be reproduced as one of Sharper Image’s soothing nature sounds.

The impossibly high-pitched refrain of Minnie Ripperton’s Lovin’ You is rehearsed to death. “Who’s from Massachusetts?” a man screams down every row. “I’m looking for anyone from Massachusetts!”

I adjust the blanket half-covering my daughter, who was only pretending to sleep, and she coos: “Thanks for coming, Mom. Thanks for doing this. My audition is dedicated to you.”

Miki, after just a few winks of skeep, ready for her big shot at the big time. (Photo by Terry Byrne Copyright 2004)

Miki, after just a few winks of sleep, is ready for her big shot at the big time. (Photo by Terry Byrne Copyright 2004)

At 3:48 a.m. on the big day, the P.A. system crackles awake and announces our wakeup call. A moot point, but thousands who have restlessly vocalized and moved out of sync for two days suddenly have a single-minded mission: to use the bathroom. Lines are hours long, and two girls in PJs decide to brush their teeth in the water fountains. As they walk away, an unsuspecting young man fills up his water bottle in their spittoon.

I give up on the bathrooms and hunt for breakfast, but the line is twice as long — plus they’ve run out of muffins and yogurt, and the fruit is past ripe. Our tight-knit group, now a dozen strong, must stretch three remaining Balance bars.

A fight breaks out among divas

It”s a diva smackdown!

As I walk down the back aisle searching for my new homies, I hear ugly words exchanged to my left. One young woman has insulted another, calling her ugly, fat and talentless. I hear, “Where is that bitch? Let me at that bitch!” A makeup case flies through the air and hits the aggressor in the head. Return fire: sleeping bag. I dodge a fold-up chair. In seconds, the entire back of the room thunders to the scene, cameras aloft, many murmuring, “This I gotta see!” I try to escape, but instead turn back and see the big girl getting pummeled by both women and men, red wristbands flailing.

I’m ashamed to be American.

The troublemakers are ejected, red wristbands snipped, and they’re barred from auditioning. An hour later, when Ryan Seacrest, surrounded by bodyguards, laps the hall, the crowd stampedes with equal enthusiasm. Mark snoozes, no longer so interested in American icons, only interested in sleep. Tony leaps like a gazelle across idle bodies to get within six degrees of Seacrest’s hair. “I just wanted to see what all the hype was about, if it’s for real,” he says.

At last … the moment of unreal

Mark heads off for his audition, after a sleepless night. (Photo by Terry Byrne Copyright 2004)

Mark takes in the cavernous convention center. (Photo by Terry Byrne Copyright 2004)

Not much is for real on Audition Day. The building goes into lockdown mode as producers spend hours staging outdoor scenes with Seacrest and hand-picked contestants. Then the grinding, winding hike toward the audition chambers begins.

We pick up our gear and trudge, some for 10 hours, through the debris of others, automotrons in a macabre Disney World line, many on empty stomachs, most on a few minutes’ sleep, inching toward daylight and freedom. Organizers warn people not to cut in line or face wristband-snipping.

Many grow snippy. Some threaten that even if they make it past this round, they won’t come back for Round Two. But my daughter’s droopy eyes still sparkle, and she squeezes my hand as we get close to the moment of separation, when contestants go one way and faithful fans another.

“The sweetest of all sounds is praise,” her T-shirt had read. I attempt to give her all the praise she deserves, easily all of it, secretly hoping her pursuit of the American dream won’t prove a nightmare.

Finally facing the panel, she sings three lines of a pop-ified The Nearness of You, and the British judge tells her “lovely.” It isn’t Simon, and she isn’t picked.

But neither of us leaves with regrets. There’s always Season 5.

Mark Hwang, Tony Meadors and Miki Byrne gave it their all. (Photo by Terry Byrne Copyright 2004)

Mark Hwang, Tony Meadors and Miki Byrne gave it their all. (Photo by Terry Byrne Copyright 2004)

Goodbye, Mr. Chipmunk: Pick the best rodent flick

King Chipmunk surveys all he owns — so far, not the indoors. Photo by Terry Byrne

I am an animal lover. Truly. But our home is under siege by chipmunks.

Oh, you think they’re cute? I’m so over that stage.

Check out the photo of one of the leaders, at left. That’s him, giving a speech, plotting their race’s next land grab.

Things went downhill with me and the rodents soon after eye surgery, when I could no longer distinguish the birdies visiting my squirrel-proof bird feeder.

There I was, two pairs of spectacles, opera glasses, camera zoom lens, trying to identify this new bird with the interesting stripe-pattern that would feast all day on premium crack seed. Finally I snapped a photo, analyzed it on the jumbo monitor: a bloody chipmunk!

NOT FOR YOU! Photo by Terry Byrne

Well, not bloody yet. Just let me at ‘im.

Kudos to the designers of these feeders — indeed, they are squirrel-proof — but NO ONE SAID A THING ABOUT CHIPMUNKS.

So I engineered a plan, endorsed by neighbor and friend Walt Wallmark (his actual name), to cover the rascal’s burrow with a brick. The chipmunk’s, not Walt’s. Within hours, our yard had been relandscaped like something out of Caddyshack, with multiple mounds and egresses.

Lately, I’ve been contemplating all manner of evil schemes — which I doubt even Walt would endorse — such as dropping poison pellets down their chutes. Buying a BB gun. Or donning camo and taking cues from this guy, a real-life Bill Murray-esque character:

Instead of resorting to such madness, though, I’ve decided to consider the rodent in context of the universe — even as art form. After all, according to the National Audubon Society Field Guide to Mammals, at least half of all species of mammals belong to the order Rodentia — rodents — including gopher, beaver, groundhog, chinchilla, lemming, gerbil, guinea pig, hamster, squirrel and chipmunk. They go way beyond mice and rats, and there’s just no escaping them.

And because I just discovered the “polling” feature in WordPress, and must test it, I am asking my readers to choose their favorite movie starring rodents. You can choose among Caddyshack or any of nine other timeless titles, thus directing my proper response to these pests. Feel free to add any great titles I have missed in the comments section.

(Poll moved to top of blog — vote for as many as you like. If you need a refresher, descriptions and clips follow.)

1. Caddyshack (1980). Already covered. It’s WAR.

2. Willard (1871) & Ben (1972). If you can’t beat them, join them. In these classic rat tales, a loner befriends an army of rats, harnessing their power.

3. Ice Age (2002). This prehistoric squirrel, a Scrat, technically, makes me almost appreciate a rodent’s drive to survive at all costs. What he doesn’t know: He’s doomed. Gotta love his vulnerability. (This is not a clip from the movie; instead it’s his own spinoff short.)

4. Groundhog Day (1993). A superstitious approach to human-rodent co-existence. My take: Beware to those mocking the forces of nature. (Déjà vu, hasn’t Bill Murray already been on this list?)

5. Ratatouille (2002). Eat them? No, actually, if you watch the movie, it’s more like hire them as your butler. This is on the list because my adult daughter Miki would cry if she couldn’t vote for it.

6. Rats: Night of Terror (1984). Oh, the horror. I must credit my work pal Jon Briggs for this contribution. He also wanted me to include Food of the Gods (1976), but that seemed redundant. After watching this trailer, my chipmunks really don’t look so bad.

7. The Princess Bride (1987). Remember Rodents Of Unusual Size? A sweet reimnder to persevere. If these beasts can be licked, my problem should be a piece of cake.

8. Stuart Little (1999). Sorry for going heavy on the kids’ fare, but, really — it’s insane how many movies meant for children are actually TEACHING them that mice and rats are cute and cuddly, from Mickey Mouse to The Rescuers. This movie encourages nurturing of pests. (Couldn’t resist sharing this clip, which features heartthrob Hugh Laurie of “House” singing and playing his heart and soul out with another heartthrob Geena Davis.)

9. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005). If you are confused why this title is on this list, let me say: Perhaps you have no business reading my blog. But, no! don’t stop now; you’re almost done!

10. G-Force (2009). Today’s guinea pig heroes are p.c. and can actually be purchased for use in the home (no pieces included in a Happy Meal, one hopes). This is the effect of marketing on children’s imaginations. I haven’t seen this movie, but the trailer looks halfway decent, for a formulaic kids’ movie, and I wanted some diversity on this list.

Notice that Alvin and the Chipmunksis missing. Spare me. I can’t deal. And when I went searching for “beaver” movies, I got undesirable – or desirable, depending on your view — results.


NOW, VOTE!

A telling ‘Souvenir’

True friends oughta tell you the bald-faced truth. Imagine you harbored delusions of grandeur — you’d rely on a friend to keep you from making a fool of yourself, right?

A dear friend of mine is co-starring in a production of Souvenir, a two-person play to benefit The Young Hearts. The non-profit was started by sisters of a 13-year-old boy who succumbed to leukemia in 1999. He remains the light of their lives, as they’ve since pumped fundraising dollars in the six-figure range to support leukemia and lymphoma research. A peppy circle of volunteers has widened to embrace hundreds of youths and adult mentors, and other worthy causes.

It’s no wonder, then, that my friend, a high school choral director and mentor to thousands of teens, would be lured like a moth to this noble calling, dust off his vocal cords and attack the piano chords with admirable vigor to play Cosmé McMoon, loyal accompanist to the 1930s-40s high-society diva Florence Foster Jenkins, whom some have called the “worst singer in the world” (or the grandmother of performance artists).

So how can I tell him what I think?

Foster Jenkins’ own friends could have been pulled from the pages of The Emperor’s New Clothes, letting her douse the public in sour sounds, drowning out the laughter. Take a listen to this authentic recording — as if someone had trained their parrot to mimic the minstrel:

Thankfully, the creative team behind Souvenir found an honest-to-good soprano, Harlie Sponaugle, to impersonate Foster Jenkins. Her tearfully funny portrayal of the diva’s ambition and artlessness catches you off-guard, forcing you to rethink the nature of entertainment and of The Entertainer’s Psyche.

But back to my friend. Honestly? Plaudits aren’t enough. This thing we do with our hands, smacking them together, standing and woot-woohing …? What is that? Not enough.

What might work: to lay back at his feet this unspeakable gift called music, which broadcasts rays of inspiration in all directions; to reflect one iota of the tenderness, dedication and finesse with which he tackles every role and lesson in his life.

They say some do, others teach? Uh-unh. He is that rare soul who teaches by doing.

Don’t miss a feelgood tale of friendship — and feel good about helping save and nurture young lives. Only two nights left: Thursday, Sept. 15, and Saturday, Sept. 17, at 7:30 p.m.

Woodson High School
Joan C. Bedinger Auditorium
9525 Main Street, Fairfax, Va.
Free and ample parking.

$10-$15 tickets are available at the door. Donations are divine.
To purchase online:

http://www.youngheartsltn.org/souvenir/purchasetickets.html

Signature Theatre’s ‘Boy Detective’ doesn’t fail and ‘The Hollow’ isn’t sleepy

Not since Harry, Hermione and Ron has there been as charming an evil-fighting trio as Billy Argo, Caroline and Fenton, in Signature Theatre‘s The Boy Detective FailsThe world premiere musical is a win-win-win for its whimsical story, score and set.

Photo by Scott Suchman, Playbill.com. From left, James Gardiner as Fenton, Stephen Gregory Smith as Billy Argo and Margo Seibert as his sister, Caroline.

Boyish Stephen Gregory Smith was born to play Billy — part Ralph from A Christmas Story and part Jack Salmon, the haunted dad of the murdered teen in The Lovely Bones. In the case of Billy Argo, he knows his beloved sister took her own life, but despite his crime-solving and truth-telling afflictions, the 30-year-old character is stuck — facing his biggest mystery of all: “Why?”

Smith interprets his character’s arrested development, somewhere between his ‘tweens and post-traumatic OCD, never as robotic or smart-alecky but with a bewitching mix of genius and goofiness. He extracted giddy tears from this audience member with a mere shrug.

The story is faithful to Joe Meno‘s 2006 achingly tender novel — no wonder, the Chicago author adapted it for stage. Our family was lucky to get clued in two summers ago while it was in workshop at the Tony-winning Arlington, Va., theater. So delighted to hear it would be mounted in repertory with The Hollow this season — with a superb ensemble ricocheting between shows —  we snapped up tickets, even flying in our party from Chicago and New Orleans during Hurricane Irene — a family dinner-date night topping $1,000.

Probably the best compliment to Meno, composer-lyricist Adam Gwon, and the players who presented it in 2009, unadorned with only cheat sheets on music stands, was we felt this debut was our second time fully seeing it. Brilliant scenic designer Derek McLane accessorized our imaginations with the trappings of funky dollhouses, a freakish funhouse and a gloomy cavern where you felt the chill and drips pinging off the psyche. Among my favorite moments in the score, besides its inventive and poetic songs, came in the carnivalesque accompaniment to Billy’s workplace and squeaky-swing sounds from the strings.

“Team Fails”: We had registered for the preview weekend “Boy Detective” scavenger hunt, which was blown by Hurricane Irene. We entered virtually … and, despite getting the answers right, lost on the draw.

James Gardiner, a Signature pillar and twin brother of Hollow director Matt Gardiner, proves a master of disguise as sidekick Fenton, contorting his rubber face to hilarious effect. Margo Seibert as the complicated Caroline is ethereal and elegant, with a voice to match. Anika Larsen is adorable, if a bit breathy, as Billy’s romantic foil, pickpocket Penny Maple — but she left my 23-year-old daughter, Miki, a singer-actress herself, breathless. Miki’s a HUGE fan of Zanna, Don’t! (show of hands?) and it turns out Larsen played Roberta, alongside Queer Eye‘s Jai Rodriguez, so she kept reminding us we were in the presence of musical-theater royalty.

But I bow to Thomas Adrian Simpson, king of villains as Professor von Golum (and creepy Charles Claassen in The Hollow). A standout vocally with his honey-rich baritone, he’s as wacky as Christopher Lloyd’s Emmett Brown on quaaludes. Shout-out also to textured character actor Harry A. Winter — best thing about writing parts for older actors is you can find the best of the best of the pros.

See production photos at Playbill.com

Walk-up coverage at Washington Post.com

Boy Detective‘s play-date mate, The Hollow, adapted by composer-lyricist Matt Conner and book writer Hunter Foster from Washington Irving‘s legendary Legend of Sleepy Hollow, takes more liberties with its source material.

As far as I’m concerned, this creative duo can take any liberties they like. Conner, a frolicking fixture in the Signature lobby where he “tickles the ivories,” famously doesn’t read music. His lush, lilting melodies are puzzled out and orchestrated by others.

The Hollow’s seamless, fluttering score, airier than other Conner works (including Nevermore, his ode to Edgar Allan Poe being restaged Oct. 7-30 at Artspace Falls Church) is relentlessly hypnotic — but in no way “sleepy.” The audience feels dunked into an undulating, raging river. And the galloping story in the hands of Foster — yes, Sutton’s brother, but I’m guessing the more aesthetic and well-read of the multitalented siblings — packs a wallop to match. Against its eerie backdrop of skeletal branches and leaf litter, with sound and lighting effects conjuring up demons, the show is confined to a single act — which seems almost an act of mercy. By that I mean I’m unsure the tension could be sustained much longer without something snapping.

The ensemble’s collective vocal chops — especially known-goddess Tracy Lynn Olivera and Whitney Bashor (as Katrina), whose riff on The Lord’s Prayer brought me nearly to my knees — surpass anything I’ve heard at Signature. (Except maybe Chess.)

Darin Ellis, a rising D.C.-area theater star who was taken from us too soon.

Sam Ludwig, as interloper Ichabod Crane, is refreshingly genteel, not the cartoonish buffoon of childhood memory. With his bottomless knapsack of books and perky wit, his is a sweet voice of reason — almost Jeffersonian — amid Tarrytown’s puritanical zombies.

I couldn’t help but see weird parallels to The Music Man: the deceptive outsider Harold Hill disturbing the peace among Iowa’s most stubborn, while channeling a fair, innocent boy to woo the most unattainable bachelorette in town. But that dream bubble burst with the shuddering realization that Crane REALLY GOT TROUBLE among radicals who burn books and are capable of worse than tarrin’- and-featherin’-and-ridin’-him-out-on-a-rail.

The only void in The Hollow is the notable absence of Darin Ellis, who originated the role of the village drunk, here brusquely shouldered by Russell Sunday. In a tribute to the promising Ellis, who died unexpectedly last summer at age 24, the character name has been changed to “Ellis” Buren. Bravo, class act, guys.

This year’s boy-wonder discovery, no doubt, is Noah Chiet, playing precocious Peter, or precociously playing Peter. And can’t overlook the workhorse of the cast, versatile Sherri Edelen — loved her in Joe Calarco’s Walter Cronkite Is Dead and, if I’m not mistaken, it was she who pinch-hitted as Penny in Signature’s Open House on July 23.

The twin whodunnits left some patrons scratching their heads — but charismatic chameleon Evan Casey (nailing Killer Kowalzavich in Boy Detective and Brom Van Brunt in The Hollow, among other roles) seems the likeliest suspect. Typecast, anyone?

We’d put Billy on the case of solving the murky endings, but on nights when he’s not center stage, he’s been spied tending bar.

Both shows run through Oct. 16. For tickets, visit: http://www.signature-theatre.org/tickets

Bonus feature for those reading to the end: Here is a Boy Detective fan’s interpretation of the novel’s set-up, which loosely translates into a nine-minute opening in the Joe Calarco-directed masterpiece.

And here is a Boy Detective song already making rounds as a cabaret scene — unfortunately not performed by Smith and Larsen. (Can’t wait for the original cast recording. Broadway, here comes the little show that can!)

Flash fiction in fewer than 140 characters

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To clarify … last weekend, I was alerted to a flash-lit-fiction slam to be held in Brighton, England, on Sept. 11, co-sponsored by ParagraphPlanet.com‘s Richard Hearn (DistractedDad on Twitter). Details at his PP site.

The challenge: Tweet a complete story in 133 characters (saving room for the required hashtag of #flf11, which steals seven, with the space, grrr).

At his urging, I submitted, but all five of mine suck (this is hard!), yet the deadline isn’t over. So when I call myself a flash-fiction virgin … well, not anymore, #TuesdayTales has spoiled me … but, see, I wasn’t counting these, which haven’t been judged yet, as the event unrolls Sunday, still time to play! Simply include the hashtag #flf11 in your tweets — open topics (which is why it doesn’t really count as flash fiction, in my mind, which en-tales [sic] prompting). 

Go ahead, Twitter peeps. Whet your appetite for lightning-round, minuscule manuscripting. You can beat this drivel:

Inspector No. 14, Otis, is having a bad day. Must reconnoiter. He slackens a smidge, loosens a screw. There. Another happy accident. #flf11

She could still change her mind. Priest, gawkers, the tux-clad brute await word. Tossing her posies too soon, a faint no-o escapes.#flf11

UPDATE: The following tweet made it to the final round!

The day’s dullsville for dogwalker Don ’til a drab-brown mound stirs. He lobs the sacrificial pug into the bear’s yawning doom. Yelp! #flf11

At 09:37, a commuter with top clearance spied a fireball, whiffed burnt flesh, verified reports, about-faced to the links. Tee time. #flf11

(That last one is inspired by a friend who did, actually, go golfing on 9/11 after glimpsing the Pentagon chaos. No names, you know who you are.)

A newfound flash-fiction addiction

By day, I make headlines. And by “by day,” I mean “by night.”

Recently I got bit by the flash-fiction bug — like writing a headline on deadline, only meatier. Most contests, though, had too-long lead times. Needed it quick and dirty.

Yesterday, I found my fix via #TuesdayTales on Twitter. (Its host is a fellow wordpress blogger, at glitterword.wordpress.com). The simple rules: Write 100 words. Incorporate “bellwether.” Take a cue from attached photo. GO! I had 20 minutes before my shift. Below is what burbled out.

What’s great about this exercise is you have no clue where it will take you until you’re done, like a sprinter against a stopwatch. This is better than Facebook SCRABBLE or iPhone’s Words With Friends, people. Prompts can be addictive. Just as I’m ever curious what kind of headline someone else might put on the same story I’m editing, this is an opportunity to see how other minds interpret the same stimuli.

And guess what? Somehow, I was judged a winner, but visit the site — many masterful entries. (I have tweaked it here slightly because, yeah, can’t help but edit.)

Entrants were given this prompt photo to accompany the piece.

Theirs was no balcony scene from Shakespeare.

Harold fired up the briquettes, pretending to host a summer soiree at the precise moment Ruby cleared her stop, bus doors squegeeing shut another grueling day at the diner, white wedgies sponging the sidewalk, leftovers leaking from foil inside her gripsack.

“You should join us, neighbor!” he bellowed, too eagerly.

She squinted upward. Crikes, who said that?

No bellwether of fashion in plaid plum smugglers, he swatted air in a grand wave, forgetting his grip on the lighter fluid. Sparks snaked into a fireball.

Later, at the shelter, ’twas a night to remember.

100 words
@terryism

The judge — author, award-winning screenwriter and writing coach Ami Hendrickson — gave this flattering review. I’m only repeating it here for the benefit of my 80-year-old mother, because she subscribes to my blog and wouldn’t know where to find it otherwise (Hi, Mom!).

”I loved reading these entries. There were so many good pieces that I ended up focusing on writing-craft things to narrow the field. I made myself get nitpicky about things like spelling, grammar, and word redundancy just to help whittle down the contenders. Sadly, this affected some of my first-glance favorites. But it helped me make my decision.” ~MuseInks

WINNER:

“I love the sights, sounds, and set-up here. This piece combines both pathos and humor in a memorable way.  It quickly places the reader in the thick of the action. The piece moves. It’s bold, active, and rife with robust, lively words. It also packs a punch at the end that makes the reader revisit the beginning and see it in a different light.

“Furthermore, this piece contains my favorite use of the Secret Word. “You’re no bellwether of fashion” may well become a catch phrase of mine.

“Well done!” ~Museinks the judgemaster has spoken!

@terryism

Mommy Byrne

Winner has received an edit & critique of the first chapter of their manuscript (up to 20 pages) and a critique of their synopsis.

Uh-oh, better get writing …

6 of the most inspirational books you’ve never heard of

Unlike my friend who just bought NINE MORE floor-to-ceiling IKEA bookcases in hopes that’ll do, I’ve been forced to downsize my book collection. But here are five obscure titles I refuse to part with:

(Warning: This is a literary lark, not some high-falutin’ critic’s snobby “essentials” list.)

1. A Void, translated into English by Gilbert Adair.  

I’ve never read it; it serves as shEEr inspiration. The marvel is that not a single letter “e” — the most common letter in the English language — was used in the making of this 1995 book, except that in the author’s name.

More amazingly, it is based on the original e-less 1969 French novel, La Disparition (“The Disappearance”), by Georges Perec. Again, he couldn’t buy an “e,” but for four in his name.

What’s more, according to Wikipedia, three other unpublished non-e-book English translations exist: A Vanishing by Ian Monk, Vanish’d! by John Lee and Omissions by Julian West. The 300-page novel, with alleged plot and all, has also been translated into German (by Eugen Helmlé as Anton Voyls Fortgang, 1986), Spanish (El secuestro, 1997 — instead of “e” it omits “a,” that language’s most common letter), Turkish (by Cemal Yardımcı as Kayboluş, 2006), Swedish (by Sture Pyk as Försvinna, 2000), Russian (by Valeriy Kislow as Исчезание [Ischezanie], 2005), Dutch (by Guido van de Wiel as ‘t Manco, 2009) and Romanian (Serban Foarta as Disparitia, 2010). Such a feat — no, that word isn’t allowable … nor is “accomplishment” … a “triumph,” then.

Whenever I suffer writer’s block, I gaze upon this book, and off I go; any linguistic assignment seems puny by comparison.

Photo by Terry Byrne, October 2009. Must be credited if shared.

2. Simon & Schuster’s Guide to Mushrooms.

Pennsylvania produces about 443 million pounds of mushrooms a year, its largest cash crop; it also produced me, but the coincidences don’t end there.

Admittedly, I fancy mushrooms, plain or fancy, and have great respect and reverence for fungi, having taken survival training in Michigan’s wintry wilderness and enjoyed a foray into the “magic” mushroom in the eclectic Eighties, my version of the psychedlic Sixties. I even went on a binge last year photographing ‘shrooms in the ‘hood (a favorite shot, above).

Including this book on this list goes beyond mushrooms, though — I own oodles of identification manuals, but, c’mon, this is the Bible of freakin’ mushrooms. I don’t know how many “begats” there are in King James’ version, but there are 420 types of mushrooms detailed in this guide, covering only the United States and Europe. Not in my wildest dreams could I identify that many fungi, but whenever I want to be reminded of the diversity of life, I contemplate the mushroom, lowlier even than the lily of the field.

A "weed" growing in my yard. (I don't know what it's called; even with a handy encyclopedia, it's hard to identify plants if you don't know their family name.) Photo by Terry Byrne.

Elevating the mystique is the inherent danger involved in distinguishing toxic vs. edible, mushrooms vs. toadstools. And wouldn’t the Garden of Eden have been, oh, such a cooler story if Eve had tempted Adam with a mushroom?

Speaking of the Garden of Eden, I’ll slip in another botanical gem, a massive one, which I keep on the arm of a couch where there is no end table. It serves as a coaster for my coffee or to level my laptop: The American Horticultural Society’s A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants. Pawing through its pages, I landscape the dream garden I’ll never tend. This whimsical book was purchased for $20 for me by a teenager I had known 15 years — we were at the bookstore one day, and I was eyeing it like a kid at the puppy palace, and she selflessly and surprisingly satisfied my craving with her first credit card. Treasures both, gift and giver.

3. 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

 Edited by Steven Jay Schneider.

(Yeah, a book about movies — warned you this lit list was lowbrow.)

File this tome under “The Poor Man’s Bucket List.” All you need is a Netflix subscription and lots and lots of idle time — or about four months, if you did nothing else but slept eight hours a day. If the doctor gave me only four months to live, though, I doubt I’d spend it watching movies. And good luck finding some of the titles, such as 1930’s Zemlya (“Earth”), from the Soviet, yes, Soviet, silent-film era, by Aleksandr Dovzhenko. 

This volume holds special sentimental value because it sparked our young family’s “movie night” tradition, in which we took turns picking the weekend rental; as the kids aged, we graduated into edgier ratings. They still won’t forgive me for choosing 1981’s Body Heat (page 677) — check one off!

Most people won’t remember that Mickey Rourke was the arsonist in this movie co-starring William Hurt and Kathleen Turner. Here is his scene:

I’ll keep this book on hand as a cheap life insurance policy because, at last count, I’d seen only 384 of the must-see 1,001. 

4. Why You Life Sucks (And What You Can Do About It)

By Alan H. Cohen

Stop kvetching, this book nags, speaking straight at ME, just like Avenue Q’s It Sucks to Be Me. With humor and hope, it provides anecdotes for all of life’s ill-perceived ills.

An example … discussing why people waste their talents: “People live unfulfilling lives because 1) They do not believe in themselves enough to express their talents; 2) They feel guilty about accepting money for their talents; and 3) They do not take action steps to build their livelihood around their talents. All of these situations are tragic. Such people end up doing things they don’t really care about, they struggle materially, and wither emotionally because their life does not embrace their passion.”

Another route to “Follow your bliss” — yet easier to digest, or suck it up, with a straw. I keep the book in my bedside drawer, as if it were Gideons Bible, for my darkest nights of despair

5. The New Astrology by Suzanne White.

Why not confess my guilty-pleasure shelf of funky astrology books. As a Halloween baby, I’ve always been open to such junk-science topics as hauntings and Tarot card-reading (not global warming; I mean, I’m open to it, I’m just not including it in any “junk-science” category, thank you). 

Gifted to me around the time I was contemplating marriage, this book bizarrely weds Western sun signs with the Chinese “year of the _____” animals. (It did always bother me how an entire grade of school peers supposedly shared personality traits in China.) The fruit of this “mind-boggling” research: 144 brand-new astrological combinations! What grand horrorscope!!!

Despite the “fact” astrological signs have been astro-illogically thrown off their axis lately (try The Beginning of Time), I also have a collection of zany books breaking down each sun sign into four phases of the moon, then cross-referencing every “week” for compatibility with every other week, in relationships from romance, work, friendship and parent-child. The paper and binding alone were worth the $50 apiece price (oh, right; these were also gifts). Imagine the fun, upon meeting someone, to cross-index all possible relationships! Fun, if you enjoy good fiction.

Honestly, I’ve tried to unload these books; I stuff them in a box for transport, then, at the last minute, they mysteriously levitate back to the shelf. Spooky.

6. Markings by Dag Hammerskjöld.

Finally, we all have books on our shelves that are inscribed (is there an app for that?), whether by authors or friends. When I was in junior high, the smartest boy in school gave me this soul-searching book by the Swedish secretary-general of the United Nations killed in a plane crash during his tenure — and check out the $4.95 for a first-print hardcover!

It may have meant nothing but a schoolboy crush or him showing off, but the gesture resonated with my budding intellect. The book’s yellowed pages smell as old as the wisdom it contains, passages like:

“We carry our nemesis within us: yesterday’s self-admiration is the legitimate father of today’s feeling of guilt.”
 

I feel guilty never haven given anything comparable to John. The simple inscription, “To Terry, Love, John, Norcross,” makes me feel even guiltier, as if the surname was an afterthought by someone who doubted he’d be remembered. Yet I’ve often wondered what became of Mr. John Norcross.

John, if you’re out there: Here’s a super poke!

Why we laugh at losers: Dissecting Louis C.K.

Louie (TV series)

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I’m a die-hard fan of Louis C.K. and Louie (Thursdays, 10:30 p.m. ET on FX Network, at the time of this posting). But C.K.’s seriocomedy isn’t offering much in the way of comic relief these days. The plot lines seem increasingly horrific. Maybe they’ve always been, and I’m just now noticing because I had to catch up on several episodes in one night.

Tickling with feathers

Let’s see: “Duckling” — an idea conceived by C.K.’s real-life 6-year-old daughter, Mary Louise Szekely — plopped the comic into the heart of the Afghanistan War, with all of its grim baggage. Still, it conquers with “heart” as his screen daughter, worried for her dad’s welfare, sneaks the classroom mascot into his duffel as an amulet. Scary war, with a warm-fuzzy touch.

The “Niece” episode explores child neglect and mental illness. “Eddie” is about suicide, while refreshingly non-judgmental. “Country Drive” riffs on racism and stars a corpse. (No disrespect to nonagenarian Eunice Anderson’s acting.)

Hats off to the comedian for gingerly handling sobering topics that have become his bread-and-butter: depression, divorce, meaninglessness, while always managing a twinkle in his eye, a glimmer of hope, like Tinker-Bell among marauding villains.

Revolutionary evolutionary comedy

Has modern comedy gotten too serious? Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s satirical news shows prompt side-splitting laughter, yet they’re merely telling it like it is. It’s actually hard to find any good escapist comedy these days. Louis C.K.’s genius offerings are so real and honest, they often make me wanna cry. Can’t remember the last time I LOL’ed watching it. My emotions puddle inside.

Licensed by CreativeCommons. “You’re rubber, I’m glue, whatever I say, bounces off of you and sticks on me?” Jim Carrey in Spain.

Laughing through tears is “soitenly” nothing new. As cutting-edge as Louis C.K. seems, his is a tried-and-true formula: stand-up from the down and downtrodden, laughing at the tears of a clown. From the woebegone Charlie Chaplin and Jack Benny, to Rodney “Don’t Get No Respect” Dangerfield and the nerdy slapshtick of Jerry Lewis … Jim Carrey’s “loo-HOO-seh-HER” springs to mind, an attack launched at others but landing on him … even the repressed/oppressed Woody Allen, “Hungarican” Freddie Prinze and countless other “subjugated” minority and female comedians — much of it stems from Schadenfreude, mirth at the misfortune of others. We’re glad we’re not that guy. Or maybe we are that guy, and that’s why we get the gag. Feeling ticklish, after all, is but the realization that an assault that could hurt us doesn’t — the momentary fear of an attack that proves non-life-threatening, so we laugh in relief and acceptance and trust-bonding, so they say. Here’s how the hilarious “Avenue Q” explains taking pleasure at another’s pain:

When at war, DUCK!! Or make “Duck Soup.” Licensed by CreativeCommons

Does that mean comedy is mean-spirited at its core? I don’t think so, but more and more it’s the absurdist view that sells, while the madcap-screwball variety seems passé. That must be a reflection of society, but someone smarter than I am can analyze it.

In terms of comic art, Louis C.K. is that rare practitioner who packs a lot of punch into his non-punch lines and running-on-emptiness perspective. The material he draws upon, his real-life fatherhood, is also what seems to inject the dark show with its bright spots. These innocents, his own duckling kids, ultimately make life worthwhile in spite of himself. The show is inconceivable without the drama of those little girls, just as it seems C.K. hit his stride only after their real-world arrival added charm and stark contrast to his act.

Kinda glad Louis C.K. didn’t dedicate all of his life to masturbation and squeezed in some procreation there.

As much as I enjoyed the heralded “Duckling” episode (based on C.K.’s own USO tour in 2008 to Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan), it seemed a bit predictable for Louie. For me, the Louie episode dubbed “Halloween/Ellie” — touching on random violence yet somehow skirting Halloween horrors — may prove C.K.’s most telling of the season. For all of the “loserdom” the show glorifies, the Louie character acts almost heroically  — granted, only after taking a cue from 5-year-old Jane.

The episode also seems to sum up C.K.’s approach to his art, when his character gets a golden chance to be golden boy to a Paramount Pictures exec, who sees promise in him and could help turn his life around. Of course, he blows it, with this movie pitch:

“You know how movies … there’s always a guy and, like, his life is always OK, and then something happens, there’s a conflict, and he gets to resolve it and then his life gets better? Well, I always wanted to make a movie where a guy’s life is really bad and then something happens and it makes it worse, but instead of resolving it, he just makes bad choices and then it goes from worse to really bad, and things just keep happening to him and he keeps doing dumb things, so his life just gets worse and worse and, like, darker and … he lives in a one-room apartment, he’s not a very good-looking guy, has no friends and he works in, like, a factory … a sewage disposal plant! and then he gets fired, so now he doesn’t even have his job at the shit factory anymore, and he’s going broke, and he takes a trip and it rains … just stuff, shit keeps .. horrible .. and then he meets a girl and she’s beautiful and he falls in love, so you think that’s gonna be the thing, the happy thing! but then she turns out to be a crook and she robs him, she takes his wallet and now he’s, like, stuck in the middle of nowhere and he’s got no wallet, no credit cards. Like, what do you do? how do you even get home …?”

I like to imagine that was close to the pitch C.K. made to get his Louie pilot off the ground two seasons ago. Don’t miss the season finale, “Airport / New Jersey,” this Thursday, Sept. 8, at 10:30 p.m. on FX.

Louie, Louie, Louie, Loo-whee!!

And here is, not a clip from “Duckling,” but part of his bit on “duck vaginas,” which he recasts in the Louie stand-up segment. Warning: This is not “Duck Soup.” Also, it’s striking how peppy Louis C.K. is compared with his dour doppelganger on Louie.