(Musical Interlude)

People who tell you that your health is the most important thing are full of shit in at least one respect (not that they’re wrong–on the contrary):  the earth and the world that surrounds it like a cheap suit have both gotten so sick that anyone who thinks he or she is truly healthy is either dreaming or nuts.  Of course, I’d also gladly trade places with such a person, being a parade of ailments myself.

My eyesight is deteriorating so much I have to put the monitor under a microscope to make out what I’m writing.  I have a bunion on my left foot that flares up every time I wear the new shoes my wife insisted on buying for me.  Finding a pair that’s wide enough is essentially a fool’s errand, unless I’m willing to wear wooden Dutch clogs, in which case I’d probably end up with splinters in my toes.  It’s hard to breathe these days without getting a sore throat, and right now mine is sore with a different kind of pain from the usual brand.  It feels a little as if Al Pacino punched me in the side of the throat for criticizing his performance in Scent of a Woman as overdone.  (He’s much better in Glengarry Glen Ross, in which he plays a toned-down version of the same role, even though he’s not meant to be blind in that film.)

The ear on the left side of my head, which I assume is also mine as much as anything else making up this jalopy of a body, is chronically clogged these days.  Sometimes I have to actually pull on the earlobe in order to hear what my students are saying.  If I can’t hear them, I can’t correct their mistakes.  Yesterday I joked that I had to trade in my body at the body shop, making an inadvertent product plug.

These days I’m teaching folks who work for a power company.  They’re nice, and generally bright as compact fluorescent light bulbs, but the group I’m responsible for are a little sluggardly in contrast with previous groups I taught for the same firm.  I don’t envy them; they have a tough grind, studying twelve hours a day with an hour break for lunch, and they have to write and present two speeches during the two-week intensive program.  This is my ninth week of the gig (the first three weeks had essentially the same format, although it took place in a different locale and involved a separate company) and I’ve about had my fill.  I’m not a morning person, and I have to get up at six-thirty in order to make the hour-long commute to the boonies, where it’s even colder these days than it is in downtown Seoul.  Depending on the day, I don’t get home till either around eight or ten pm.

Anyway, to mix things up a bit I decided to give the students a monotony-breaker instead of inundating them with more material from their pronunciation textbook.  I found the script of the Abbott and Costello “Who’s On First?” routine online, and let them read it in pairs before playing them a You Tube clip of A & C doing the bit for real.  I hadn’t seen it in about forty years, and it was actually still pretty funny, a nice piece of reductio ad absurdum.  I was going to follow up with something from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, say “The Crunchy Frog Sketch,” but then realized that one of the characters in that one is named “Constable Clitoris.”  If I were a female teacher I might have gotten away with it, but as a straight man (hello, Bud Abbott) in this touchy world, I’m sensitive to accusations of sexual harassment.  In fact, only yesterday while walking in the subway on my way home from work behind a beautiful young woman with long hair who appeared to be cradling a hand-phone against her head, I was faced with the dilemma of how to tell her how beautiful her ass was without arousing suspicion about my intentions toward her. (I assure you they were strictly honorable; I’m a somewhat happily married man whose sex life is at least as satisfying as the Dalai Lama’s, if not Mother Teresa’s.)  

Urgent as the matter was, I had to let it go at the last moment; I wouldn’t have wanted her to get the wrong idea.

In case you deem me an incorrigible pervert, consider this:  imagine you were a woman in today’s competitive world, constantly worried about your looks, fearing you’re not attractive anymore, wondering if you’re physically up to snuff, if your body’s hot enough to command a salute from relatively innocent male bystanders.  Wouldn’t you want to be acknowledged of your formidable feminine forces?  Wouldn’t you take pride in the power invested in your excellent flesh?  

Told ya.

I also played a couple of Tom Lehrer songs, one for each class, after introducing him with what may be his crowning achievement, “The Elements,” a song which doubles as a manic and long-winded chemistry lesson.  (Nice to see you again, Walter White.  Please tell Jesus I said hi.  There’s a place at the table for him, but warn him that he’s got to come back soon as his glass of milk is getting cold.  No–I mean his steak.  I forgot–the milk is supposed to be cold; i haven’t drunk the stuff myself in years.  Have you been able to get together with Hank?  Are you guys friends again?  Just remember what Elvis Presley once said–regards to him as well–“Understanding solves all problems, baby, that’s what I’m telling you.”)

For my class of stiffs I played the Lehrer song “So Long, Mom,” which was written around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis (happy belated anniversary of your assassination, JFK; I hope you were as great a president as everyone says you were; I’m sure it will help you get laid that much more often in heaven, assuming you didn’t get your fill while you were still alive; tell Martin his monument looks great, but that the president who pretends to have him as a role model appears to be following more closely in the footsteps of Charles Manson, who appears will be heading south fairly soon; Noam Chomsky will probably be joining you guys in the near future, if you believe his own report, as may Mick Jagger, assuming he’s not accidentally immortal).  

The song’s a nuclear tribute to World War III and is sung from the point of view of a U. S. atomic bomber-pilot.  It’s a jaunty tune, as are all of Lehrer’s works, and it ends on an upbeat note with wit worthy of his predecessor Groucho Marx:  “I’ll look for you when the war is over (pause) an hour and a half from now!”

The class refused to sing along, predictably.  But what can you expect?  Have you ever heard a slug sing?

For the next group I played Mr. Lehrer’s “Pollution” instead.  They’d just heard a report on The Great Pacific Garbage Patch a few hours before (humanity’s sole enduring contribution to the planet?), which according to discoverer Captain Charles Moore was already the size of Africa when he found it back in 2005, although it’s kept growing since then.  God only knows how big the thing is now, and God doesn’t know shit because he probably doesn’t even exist.  At least that’s one thing He and I have in common.

While distributing the lyric sheets I joked that in the future that children’s teachers would say things like, “Hey kids, pollution is fun!  You know what’s especially neato?  Extinction!  Uh-huh, that’s right.  It’s so cool, it will never go out of fashion.”

I can’t do justice to Tom Lehrer’s timeless expression of caustic venom by paraphrasing the song, so instead I’ll just provide you with my favorite lyric:

“Pollution, pollution, wear a gas mask and a veil./Then you can breathe, long as you don’t inhale.”

The students in my class of duds had to give their second speeches in the evening after dinner (the big speech contest and graduation ceremony will take place later today), and I peppered them with persnickety, nit-picking feedback after regaling each pupil with perfunctory praise.  They wanted to leave half an hour early, but I forced them to listen to some music a la You Tube, starting out with the live version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” recorded in 1970.  After that I played the live clip of Toto’s “Africa.” (I was nostalgic for the adolescent phase of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but I didn’t mean to plug the new brand of Korean cigarettes with that name–“Africa,” not the “G.P.G.P.”–it would be better if it were called the Great Old Pacific Garbagistically Outstanding Patch–that way it would be “GOP, GOP”; I’m not a smoker, but I spotted a pack of the new smokes at a convenience store; the box depicts a chimpanzee, and a promotional cardboard cut-out supporting the worthy cause of death by self-inflicted lung cancer shows a chimp dressed up as an anchorman with a jungly backdrop; I wondered how my Nigerian neighbors would feel about this enormously sensitive tribute to their continent.)

I’m not a big Toto fan but I like the way the singer of the refrain gets into his riff, closing his eyes and craning his neck to belt the tune out.  In fact, I was so inspired–or at least reminded to be inspired–that I would get up to sing a few songs myself after the students left twenty minutes later.  Meanwhile I mentioned how singing can be fun as it’s cathartic if you really let yourself go.  

For the largely indifferent students’ edification, I also played Nirvana’s live, MTV concert version of “All Apologies,” the song in which Kurt Cobain predicts his own demise with the line “Married. . . Buried.”  (Hey Kurt, I can relate, buddy.)  Following that came the studio recording of the Beatles’ “If I Fell” inefficiently lip-synched on stage by the grinning fab four in the film A Hard Day’s Night, and finally Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” accompanied by lyrics for those few students who were still interested.

After my weary charges shuffled out the door into the cold night to the refuge of their respective dorm rooms, I played Neil Young’s “Comes a Time” while filling out the daily report, along with “Four Strong Winds,” another song from the album Comes a Time.

Then I decided to go back to even earlier roots by playing the Jackson Browne song “Late for the Sky.”  A lot of people make fun of Jackson Browne–understandably, as he did have a tendency to be pathologically earnest and relentlessly sensitive–but I have to admit I was a huge fan back in the day, between the ages of twelve and thirteen.  Played loud on good speakers, “Late for the Sky” turned out to be an amazingly good song to sing along to, and I immersed myself in the experience by closing my eyes in order to concentrate more fully, trying to match Jackson’s voice exactly, budding tonsilitis notwithstanding.  I had so much fun doing it I even indulged in an encore, after singing along to the Kinks’ “A Face in the Crowd,” J. B.’s “Doctor, My Eyes,” and Radiohead’s “Karma Police.”

What can I say?  I’m white.  

Or, as George Carlin would put it, “You’re white, and you’re lame!”

Oh well, at least that means I get to park in the disabled person’s spot (shh!  please don’t tell anyone!), or, when taking the subway in Seoul, sit in one of the seats reserved for the “sick, weak, old pregnant woman.”

I anticipate the ample distribution of cigars for her baby’s eagerly awaited birth–and in case you think I’m being lascivious, remember what Freud said:  “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

But he was topped by Groucho Marx.  When the host of TV’s You Bet Your Life asked a married couple competing on the show how many children they had, the husband replied, “Six.  I love my wife very much.”

Groucho shot back:  “I love my cigar too, but I take it out once in awhile.”


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