The Yancey Special

Today is the birthday of the American musical innovator Jimmy Yancey, who was a self-taught piano playing sensation. He arrived on the planet in Chicago near the end of the 19th century, and didn’t become known outside Chicago until he made some recordings in 1939.

Yancey is credited with developing a distinctive rolling boogie woogie bass figure for the left hand, and recording some notably gentle but intricate pieces.  No matter which key he started in, he always finished his tunes in E flat.

It’s important to know what you like.

It was Jimmy Yancey’s style of playing I had in mind when I set out to learn to play the piano in 1985.

Like many others, I felt the influence of that classic “They all Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano …” advertisement pictured at the top of this post. John Caples, the guy who wrote that ad sure knew what kind of story appeals to the common folk. Being mocked, belittled, sold short, and then dishing the humiliation back to your critics! I love this quote about his philosophy, taken from his NY Times obituary:

“He debunked humorous advertising copy, saying that ”only half the people in this country have a sense of humor, and clever ads seldom sell anything.” He also advised copywriters to ”use words you would expect to find in a fifth-grade reader” because ”the average American is approximately 13 years old mentally.'”

In fact I think I was 13 years old when I first saw that “They All Laughed …” ad.  I was going to have the same experience – all I needed was a piano, a party, and some talent.  But in spite of my best intentions and the not-nearly-enough-hours I spent at the keyboard, I never came close to what Yancey had done. My excuses – work, parenthood, life. Prime time TV and laziness had something to do with it too, but I never mention them, and consequently I never sit at the piano at parties.

Of course Jimmy Yancey also had a life to live outside music, and yet that didn’t prevent him from being great. For twenty six seasons he was a groundskeeper for the Chicago White Sox, working on the field at Comiskey Park through all the struggles and recording sessions and being eclipsed by other players or ignored all together even though he was a fine artist.

And yet during that same quarter century, the White Sox never had a first place finish and only managed seasons over .500 nine times. What a shame for the many thousands of fans who attended those games looking for greatness – they didn’t know the most genuine superstar on the field was the guy smoothing the dirt and trimming the grass.

What’s your best “They All Laughed When I …” moment?

O Crispiness!

Header photo by Cameron Strandberg from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, Canada

I like my potatoes crispy whether they are french fries, hash browns or chips.

But when they’re in the ground in places like California and Colorado, I’d like them to get a little water. That could become harder in the years ahead, especially since NASA researchers now say a “megadrought” may be ahead in the western and central plains states.

This is all connected to climate change and our unfortunate habits of consumption, which we (including me) can’t seem to shake.

Somehow it has me thinking about the poem Katherine Lee Bates wrote in the summer of 1893 after drawing inspiration from the view atop Pikes Peak in Colorado – one of the areas destined to suffer under the coming Great Dehumidification.

We know her words today as the lyrics to “America the Beautiful,” though by 2050 it might make more sense to change it up a bit.

O beautiful for cloudless skies,
for parched and scorching sands,
for burning mountain tragedies
for cracked and blistering hands!
America! America!
There’s no place dry as thee!
We’ve earned a good Sahara-hood
From L.A. to D.C.

The land at first was green and lush
Indians, thanks a lot!
But after shove had come to push
It started getting hot.
America! America!
We filled the air with gas.
And made the rate exacerbate.
De-moisturized! Alas!

O Mega-drought! The experts say
if we eschew our cars,
we might, calamity delay.
But that’s not who we are!
America! America!
We’d rather face the thirst,
than pay the toll through self-control
so prepare for the worst!

What’s your favorite anthem?

Apple Scrap

Today’s post comes from Dr. Larry Kyle, founder and produce manager at Genway – the supermarket for genetically engineered foods.

Friends,

When I started Genway more than 20 years ago, my goal was to use genetic engineering to open the door to new food worlds where we all could live happier, or at least more interesting, lives.

In the process, I’ve fought for my vision against the stubborn rule-following of investors, Congressional committees, scientific oversight panels, torch mobs, mothers, tree huggers and Luddite scolds.

DrKyle

Usually, I’ve won.

That’s how the world gained Screaming Pumpkins, Cobrananas, Living Toast and Lightning Bug Tomatoes! My creations are all special. They bring something to the food that was not there before – something taboo, something that feels a little bit crazy! That’s the true benefit of my primary scientific strategy – something I call the “Why Not Method.” It has led us to a bold new frontier where our food has the potential not only to grow, but to develop its own talents, add to its skills and abilities, and indulge its ambitions.

It’s a very American approach.

That’s why I’m so discouraged to see news like this – the United States has OK’d a Canadian grown, genetically modified apple that does not turn brown when you cut it open.

That’s it?
That’s it!

All that science, just to get a timid food that does NOT do something! I’m crushed!

It reminds me of a challenge I was once given by a church pastor from the Florida Everglades who wrote to say his congregation was praying for me because I am “messing with creation” to suit my own whims. He reasoned that I am selfish because nothing made by God can be improved.

That’s when I brought up Adam. As a fundamentally flawed apple-biter, Adam’s tendencies introduce a huge problem into the God-built system that has never been fixed.

He admitted that if I could use genetic engineering to “hack” the Garden of Eden story and alter the outcome, that would be a change that God would have to rubber stamp. He took it back to his congregation and suddenly they were full of bright ideas!

“Make apples ugly”, said one.
“Take away the crunch,” offered another.
“Shrink them to the size of raisins,” said a third.

Interestingly, nobody wanted to change Adam. All their attention was focused on the apple. OK, I guess, but these these ideas seemed rather passive to me because they only take things away. Where’s the action? The sizzle? The thrill of something new?

Instead, I went into the lab with some DNA taken from the Indian Gray Mongoose, and I gave them a nice Granny Smith that bites snakes! Not because it wants to, just because it can!

It also tastes a little gamy.

They still pray for me down there, but every year they also ask me to send a bushel of Genway Adams Apples to throw into the swamp that surrounds their church!

Like I’ve always said, genetically engineered foods can make the world better. Or at least different!

Yours in Unsupervised Experimentation,
Dr. Larry Kyle

What’s your favorite kind of apple?

Hair Scare

I don’t go hatless near playgrounds anymore because I don’t want to upset the children.

There’s this recurring nightmare where I do exactly that and a terrified boy spots me. He instinctively reaches up to touch the hair on the top of his head to reassure himself that it is still there. He’s relieved to find that it is, but his eyes continue to drill me, because in my style he sees the death of all his dreams.

Any modern boy would be perfectly justified in doing this because parents in Georgia are using my haircut to shame their sons.

There are at least five elements at play in this “trend”, if it can be called that.

  1. Children misbehave
  2. Acceptable methods of discipline are in short supply
  3. Many men, as they age, lose hair
  4. Men try to hang on to as much hair as possible
  5. No child wants to look like one of these men

The inevitable result is the haircut punishment – trimming a ten year old’s mane to make him look like Mr. Burns from The Simpsons, or me.
As someone who came by this hairstyle naturally, I’m alarmed that my “look” is considered so toxic and undesirable that free spirited children will curb their own of self-expression to avoid it. What does that say about me? That I have, in my later years, turned into a monster, of course. My fate is something to be avoided at all costs. For people in any age group, worry about “what will they think of me” is a powerful lever to change behavior. But at this point in my life I thought I could be a positive role model. Instead, I’m being used as a a bludgeon.

Behave, or it’s this!

A word of advice to the kids: If you think following the rules will guarantee you a full head of hair forever, you should reconsider. I behaved and wound up like this anyway, so you’re not completely out of the woods.

And to all the barbers out there – I know at one time barbers were also surgeons and there was a lot of blood involved. As you might imagine, that association made people hesitant to sit for a simple haircut. Now that those days are gone, do you really want to equate the barber shop with punishment? Sure, it may bering in some business today, but when those children grow up, they will have a built-in haircut/humiliation association.

Do you really want that?

Share your worst haircut experience.

Billionaire Limericks

Whatever bad thing might happen to you today, you will not know the sting of slipping down or falling completely off the billionaire’s list.

While there are more billionaires than ever before, some have lost ground to newcomers and upstarts, which serves as a reminder that everything is relative.

And it also reminds me that there are just not enough limericks about billionaires.

I.
A woman who’s worth a gazillion
met a man who had only three billion
“You’re too low for my taste,”
she said, “I’d be disgraced
to be seen with you at the cotillion.”

II.
Like the Buffets, the Lowells and the Cabots,
your investments have mated like rabbits.
While the money had fun
you’ve become overrun.
And you’re dwarfed by the vault it inhabits.

III.
You felt rich today when you awoke.
But you just lost a billion on Coke.
Now your status has lapsed
as your wealth has collapsed.
Just a millionaire. What a poor bloke!

On what list of amazing individuals should you be featured?

Speechless!

Today’s post comes from Congressman Loomis Beechly, representing Minnesota’s 9th District – all the water surface area in the state.

Greetings, Constituents!

I’m delighted to be your Congressman and I hope you still like me too, even though I’ve had no major announcements and nothing of importance to say for the past year or so.

We politicians can Tmake news with our strategic use of words, but sometimes I think it’s a sign of deep wisdom to say nothing at all.

That’s why I have to admire Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who is in London, England this week trying to limit the discussion of world events to a single topic – cheese.

To me, the Walker visit to Downton Abbey-land is a portrait in courage.  Not only do they have those accents that make you feel like a dummy, the British carry with them lots of intimidating history and literature that can make a guy from the American midwest feel inadequate.    

Plus, it’s not easy to be in politics here in the age of the internet and instant analysis. As soon as you finish speaking a word, it has already gone around the world twice and is coming up to bite you in the behind.

Silence is strategic. If anything, Governor Walker has already said too much by refusing to say whether or not he believes in evolution.

I’m beginning to think the ideal President for the United States would be a mime.

A mime couldn’t stir up political controversy by using the wrong words, and a mime’s gestures are all subject to interpretation and are eminently spinnable. In struggling to define what they think his shrug over the situation in the Ukraine really meant, analysts would do more damage to themselves than they would to the mime-in-chief.

And when the brickbats really start to fly, he could quickly situate himself behind an impervious pane of glass. Mimes have that power! Which is not to say President Marceau would be untouchable, because all presidents eventually lose their popularity.

The sad truth is that people already kind of hate mimes.  So for any of them, being President would be a promotion, reputation-wise.

I know 2016 is still a long way off, but I’m keeping my ear to the ground for the sound of a promising-but-soft footfall from someone who is willing to toss their beret (real or imagined) into the ring!

Quietly,
Your Congressman
Loomis Beechly

When is it best to say nothing at all?

In A Tale Spin

We are ALL Dr. Babooner

Dear Dr. Babooner,

I’m a professional storyteller with an unusual specialty for a tale-spinner. I built a career on the notion that every word I speak is absolutely true.

As a result I became very popular and trusted.

But then a funny thing happened – I discovered that a bit of exaggeration can turn a merely good story a really great one!

Like the yarn I used to tell about standing in the open door of a military helicopter while it was preparing to land. As the aircraft neared the ground, the wind grabbed my hat and blew it off my head. The hat was mercilessly chopped up by the helicopter’s rotors.

I was surprised and saddened by this because I loved that hat! But when I told this story at parties, people yawned. I realized that they did not find the fate of my hat very compelling.

So then I started to tell the story a little differently, saying that the wind picked up and I was blown out the door of the helicopter – all of me, not just my hat. Fortunately, we were only about 30 feet above the ground and I fell in a haystack and was unhurt. But for a little added color, I threw in the detail that my hat blew off and was chopped up by the rotors on the way down.

At least that part was still true.

People liked this version of the story a lot better! It was so much better, they actually stopped talking to each other and listened while I told it!

Dr. Babooner, you can understand why I used this version of the story at parties and gatherings of all sorts, right up to the day I told it at a county fair and a haberdasher and a farmer challenged me on it. The hat maker said any wind strong enough to blow a man out the door of a helicopter would have separated him from his headgear long before he took flight.

And the farmer simply pointed out that hay isn’t as soft as it looks.

Overnight my fortunes changed. Although I had been one of the most trusted people in the world the day before, I suddenly became just another liar.

Critics said I betrayed the people’s trust. But the way I look at it, “trust” is what you have when you believe someone in spite of evidence to the contrary. How could people “trust” me one day and not the next? It seems to me their “trust” doesn’t mean much if it can be totally reversed in so short a time. I may have enhanced the truth a tad to make it a better story, but does that make me worse than a fickle truster?  I don’t think so.

My lawyer advised me not to say any of this out loud or it would just make things worse. He’s a jerk and I don’t any faith in him, but my family says I should do as he says because he always wins.

But I think hay is pretty cushy no matter what some dumb farmer says. I’m betting everything I have on getting a soft landing now! Should I?

Sincerely,
Hatless in Manhattan

I told H.I.M. to put more faith in his family and his lawyer, and less in his questionable memory. Challenging the people who used to trust you but don’t any longer because you were caught in a lie is not a strategy to regain their confidence, it’s confirmation that they were wrong about you all along. The best course is to ask for forgiveness and devote yourself to fiction from this day forward, because people will never accept the truth from you now unless it is carefully hidden inside a lie.

But that’s just one opinion. What do YOU think, Dr. Babooner?

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