Monday, May 31, 2010

Guest Blogger Jill Bernard: Why I Live in Minnesota

Jill Bernard is a world-renowned improvisor and teacher based in Minneapolis. She is a featured player and Director of Education at Comedy Sportz Twin Cities and a co-founder of HUGE Theater, a company dedicated to furthering the art of long-form improvisation in the Twin Cities. She is also a co-producer of the Twin Cities Improv Festival, held June 24-27 at the Brave New Workshop. If you're in the area, check her out at Comedy Sportz; I'd also highly recommend seeing her solo show, "Drum Machine," as well as her occasional collaboration with iO Chicago's Joe Bill in a two-man Harold show, "Scram." She is also the coach of my Six Ring Circus improv team, Tightrope, and my friend.
More info on her can be found at

First I would like to thank Max for inviting me to write this guest post. It is always nice to be a guest, especially an invited guest.

I was inspired by a one-question interview of Andy Sturdevant where he answers why he lives here, in Minneapolis. I've been asked this question a lot. Since Max just moved back here, it seems appropriate to ask, and answer.

Like Max and Andy, I am not from Minnesota. I was born in Richmond, VA where I spent two and a half blurry and colorful weeks before moving to Illinois with my brothers and mom and dad. I grew up first in Evanston, IL and then Downers Grove, IL, both Chicago suburbs, Downers Grove decidedly more suburban. Even though we were about an hour train ride from Chicago, I didn't spend much time there as a kid. It was a place for field trips and Christmas. My brother ventured there a lot. I just didn't think of it, I guess. After high school I went to Coe College in Cedar Rapids, IA. I chose it because it was small and near home and offered financial aid and liberal arts. I was there for two years and it started to feel too small. People knew your business before you knew it yourself. I stayed in the Midwest because it would've upset my mother too much if I left, but I chose the biggest school I could find, the University of Minnesota. At the time, my friend Pat Tischler was moving here, and I thought, well that will be nice. (Side note: Pat and I saw each other about twice after we got here, in the whole seventeen years. I've no idea how to find him.) I came up for one investigatory weekend, stayed with a friend's parents in Roseville, decided it would be okay, found an apartment through the campus office, and that was that. That was 1992.

I was still a theater major even though I'd already sort've lost interest in scripted theater. I didn't find about improv until a classmate at the U of M, Mikey Heinrich, told me about ComedySportz. I knew right away that improv was to be my life's work. It just felt like I'd been built for it. Sometimes it's like that. I wanted to know everything and study everything and do everything improv.

The logical places to go if improv is your passion are Chicago and New York. Someone said to me recently, "Everyone wants to be famous" and the truth is, I don't. Being famous seems really irritating. I want to be just famous enough to not be homeless or hungry, that is the level of fame I seek. If I had wanted to be famous I would've had to move to New York or Chicago or LA, these are requirements. There are exceptions but you're more likely to get pregnant using a condom than get famous staying in Minnesota. I am not like everyone else. I do not enjoy struggle. I do not enjoy clawing my way to the top. It is not how I best succeed. To be frank, I do my best if everyone just leaves me the fuck alone and lets me do whatever I want. Minneapolis is the perfect place for that. If I want to do an improv show, no one asks my pedigree, no one gives me attitude. I just ask the people I find talented, or maybe hold an audition, and we do a show.

I have a policy. If I walk into a store and no one's at the counter and no one offers to help me, I just leave. If you don't want my business, I won't bother you. I feel similarly about New York and Chicago and LA. There are plenty of improvisors there, they have it covered. I will stay here. People often tell me I'd be very successful one place or another, and I don't think they're lying. I would just rather stay here.

How is it working? Terribly. This is a terrible idea that I would not recommend to anyone. There is not a way to make a living as a professional improvisor in Minneapolis. That is not a thing that exists. You have to be a theater owner or a writer too, or something. I am doing a thing that is not possible. In Chicago you can get into the Second City or iO system and actually do pretty well. I stayed at Andy Eninger's beautiful apartment while he was out of town and thought, "Oh. I may have made a mistake." So what keeps me?

Minneapolis itself is part of what keeps me. I love it here, it's beautiful. I am the only person I know who is giddy from first snowflake to last. I can never have enough. Part of that is because I don't have a car - most of what people hate about snow involves the roads and the cars and the getting places. Mostly I just love the cold, and the pretty pretty snow. I don't know about North Minneapolis, people say there are violent unsafe parts, but in South Minneapolis the parts that people call "ghetto" are the furthest from Warsaw 1940 that you can imagine - they're called "ghetto" because poor people live there, but I'm poor so I don't care. Minneapolis strikes me as a safe, clean city, and it passes the smile test. I never want to live anywhere where strangers won't return your smile. That leaves Chicago right out, and excludes much of New York, maybe Queens or Brooklyn would be okay. People talk about "Minnesota Nice" like it's a bad thing. Look, I don't care if the civility is fake or not, I like politeness. Please and thank you and holding the door are a drug to me. I like kindness, a lot. Kindness takes space. My theory is the only reason New Yorkers are rude is because they're on top of each other, you have to shove somebody or you'll miss your subway stop. Minneapolis has space, space to be polite, space to do whatever I want to do artistically.

I feel like I'm supposed to say "the people" is what keeps me here, but that does a disservice to all the people I know and love in New York and LA and Chicago. I genuinely love and adore my Minneapolis friends, and I'm thrilled by the people I get to collaborate with at ComedySportz and HUGE and Six Ring, they're absolutely top drawer. But it's uninformed to think that everyone in New York is cynical or everyone in LA is plastic. You can never say "everyone" is anything. The minute you get to know more than two people that myth is dispelled. I enjoy Minneapolis improvisors because they are open-hearted and unpretentious and game for anything. There's a lot less bullshit among Minneapolis improvisors. There's no steamrolling blowhards, which is to say the Minnesota version of a steamrolling blowhard is the same as the Minnesota version of "spicy." No one's trying to use you to climb the ladder because there is no ladder. That saves a lot of time, but it's not insurmountable in other cities. I've worked on Chicago productions, most notably WNEP's "Defending Your Life," that had no bullshit. It can be done, the people are out there.

The reason why I'm here, then is a combo package - it's the people AND the weather AND the something else. The something else. The something else is it just feels right.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Athletics, Part 1

Many of my friends do not believe that there was a time in this humble blogger's life when, in fact, he was really into sports.

There was.

I would estimate that between the ages of 8 and 13 (that's right, a whole 5 years, almost 20% of my young life), I played sports pretty regularly. I didn't just play, I followed sports, almost religiously.

I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and so by way of childhood rearing, I was a fan of New York sports teams. Basketball was the Knicks. Baseball was the Yankees (sorry and fuck you.) Football was the Giants. Hockey, I guess, was the Rangers.

I didn't follow hockey at all, but I remember that the Rangers had a pretty sweet team in 1994 which featured, among others, Mark Messier, Brian Leech, Wayne Gretsky (wayyy past his prime), and goalie Mike Richter, whose dominant performances earned him the nickname "The Richter Scale."

The Giants were and are my football team. Of the New York Sports teams, I am probably most attached to the New York Football Giants, because it is easy to watch every game of a football season, and the team was always filled with likeable players. They are still affectionately known in the area as the Football Giants because they were to be distinguished in the 50's from the New York Baseball Giants of Willie Mays lore. In the late 1990's/early 2000's, some of my favorite players included running back Rodney Hampton, wide receiver Amani Toomer, linebacker Jesse Armstead, offensive lineman Mike Rosenthal (a Jew!), running back Tiki Barber, tight end-turned total douche Jeremy Shockey and, most recently, quarterback Eli Manning.

Before the recent successes of the last few years, a Giants fan was quite accustomed to heartbreak, since (as I've found is the case with many teams), they would come so close to winning that you could take out the proverbial champagne, uncork it, smell the bubbly refreshment...and then they would blow it and literally smash your heart into a thousand bits. I can recall one game in particular, perhaps the 2003 semi-final playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers, in which the Giants entered the 4th quarter up by 25 points (that's 3 touchdowns and a field goal, folks), and ended up losing due to a comeback led by dickhead Jeff Garcia, as well as a botched field goal which turned into a total clusterfuck led by, I believe, Brad Maynard.

The Giants started getting awesome after drafting Eli Manning in 2004, culminating in victory in the 2007 Super Bowl. This was one of the most memorable moments in my life. I capped off an entire day of drinking by watching the Giants win in 4th quarter comeback fashion, defeating the then-undefeated New England Patriots, led by cockwads Tom Brady and Randy Moss. The game featured what's come to be known as "The Play", generally considered the greatest play in Super Bowl history, in which Manning escaped certain sack and death and hurled a bomb to WR David Tyree, who preceded to catch the ball on his fucking helmet. Just watch it. Manning then threw the game winning catch to Plaxico Burress, who celebrated by pretending to shoot himself in the leg, in a bitterly ironic foreshadowing moment. J/K. At that moment I creamed the pants of my Giants fandom.

The New York Knicks are and always have been an exercise in failure. They had a pretty good team in the early 90's, featuring center Patrick Ewing, forwards Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason, guards John Starks and Derek Harper, and coach Pat Riley, whose coaching prowess was often drowned in a waterfall of hair gel. Patrick Ewing was my favorite player- a dominating 7-footer with a deathly accurate fadeaway jumper and shotblocking abilities.

The problem with the Knicks, however, was Ewing himself. Although honored as one of the 50 Greatest NBA Players of all-time, he never won a championship despite being hailed as savior when drafted in 1985, the year of my birth. He took the Knicks all the way to the Finals in '94, losing to Hakeem Olajuwon's Houston Rockets in 6 games. The Knicks also had the misfortune of sharing the Eastern Conference with the Chicago Bulls of the 1990's, whose best player also happened to be the greatest basketball player of all-time. But Ewing always choked in crunch time, missing the game-winning shot. The Knicks' offense during the Ewing years was also stalled by his presence, as they seemed to do nothing else besides dump the ball in to Patrick and have him do whatever he wanted. Now, the Knicks blow so much ass that Madison Square Garden has replaced its former moniker of "World's Greatest Arena" with "Surprisingly Effective Bidet." Isiah Thomas pretty much ruined the team by signing highly overpaid underachieving players, most notably MVDouche Stephon Marbury. They're painful to watch, and I do not believe they'll sign LeBron James this summer.

Finally, the New York Yankees. The team everybody loves to hate. The Evil Empire, so say the jealous ones. I have a few thoughts about being a Yankee fan. First and foremost, I am proud to be a Yankee fan. I could give two shits that people cringe and first dates are often ruined by my admission to loving the Bronx Bombers. This is because, and I can't stress this enough to people, THEY'RE MY FUCKING HOMETOWN TEAM. No matter how evil, how steroid-induced, how wealthy or unfairly successful a team is, it is fully acceptable and legitimate to root for a team that plays in the city you grew up in.

"But you could be a Mets fan!" retorts the asshole. Yes, I could. But I'm not. The simple fact is, you often don't choose the team you support. You just don't. It's an odd element of your upbringing that you end up just liking the team you like. For me, I liked the teams my Dad liked, and he was a Yankees fan despite growing up in Brooklyn and rooting for the Dodgers, who always lost to the Yanks in the World Series. The Dodgers moved to LA, my Dad moved to Manhattan, and we now root for the bad guys. Lick my balls, rest of the country.

The Yankees have won 27 World Series titles, the most successful franchise of any sport. This is awesome. This is not a reason for me to stop liking them, just because they're successful.

I'll admit that I don't like the fact that starting in the late 2000's, the Yanks started spending more money than all the other teams and were able to sign all the top free agents, thus "buying" their success. But this problem is a function of the MLB, not the Yankees. Unlike the other three major professional sports leagues, baseball does not have a salary cap. That means that teams are not limited in how much they spend on paying their players.

Thus, the teams in the bigger markets, which generate the most revenue, have an inherent advantage over teams in smaller markets. Note that the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, White Sox, Cardinals, and Giants all have perennial good teams. Unfortunately, the Kansas City Royals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Seattle Mariners, and Cincinatti Reds, perennially suck. There are exceptions, however, like the Twins. They have among others, Joe Mauer, who was cool enough to stay in his home state in the face of a 20 million dollar offer from the Yankees, settling for a meager, paycheck-to-paycheck rate of $18 million a year. What a hero.

So yes, I am and will probably always be a sports fan.


Sports are great. They are naturally dramatic and, what I love, totally improvised. Basketball, I think provides the best metaphor for improvisation. The point guard brings up the ball and declares by passing to another player. The offense starts, the scene begins. Players move and pass, yes and-ing eachother, trying to score two points of laughs. Some players are power-forwards, posting up and slamming home a dunk to thunderous applause. Others are point guards, specializing in passing to others, assisting them, setting them up for points. Still more are sharp-shooting three point shooters, who can score from anywhere on the court, somewhat unexpectedly. A great basketball team is in sync, group-minded. The metaphor is perfect.

I realize this has become a lengthy post. I will thus save my experiences as an athlete myself for a future entry.

Thanks for reading today!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Minnesota DMV: Let's Learn Passive Aggressive Road Rage!

Many of my friends have already heard this story, but it must be recorded on this blog.

With my recent scooter purchase and now committed stay in Minnesota, I decided to head over to the DMV with several goals in mind:

1. Attain a Minnesota Drivers License.
2. Attain a Minnesota Motorcycle Permit. (For reasons I will explain in a minute.)
3. Register and get plates for my car.

One of these goals were accomplished. I'll give you a hint: It wasn't the first two.

Minnesota is, to my knowledge, the only state in the Union that requires a separate written test in order to transfer a license from another state. That's right: Even if you've been cleared to drive by, say, New York State, you must first complete Minnesota's written test to get 10,000 lakes of driving approval. While this seems ridiculous and actually, according to my lawyer mother, unconstitutional, I figured I'd breeze through the exam since, you know, I've been driving for a good seven years now and feel I've gotten the hang of things. Oh. Ohhh, how wrong I was.

So this computerized, multiple choice written test was 30 questions long, and I was required to achieve a score of 80% correct in order to pass. First of all, 80%? Where I come from, that's a B-, not an F. But that's neither here nor there.

What is here and there, friends, is how stupid most of these questions were. When I say stupid, I mean filled with dumb specifics that were designed to make you fail if you hadn't studied the MN Driver's Manual which is filled with said specific information. Some of these questions included the following:

1. When approaching a school bus with its stop sign extended, how many feet behind the bus must you stop?
a. 20 feet b. 30 feet c. 50 feet d. 70 feet

Anybody got the answer to this off the top of their head? Didn't think so. Honestly, who even cares? Everyone knows what to do in this situation. You stop, and wait for the children to exit the bus and receive their Juicy Juice on the safety of the curb. So I know how to handle that situation. A better question would have been

When approaching a school bus with its stop sign extended, do you
a. Hit the children crossing the street
b. Stop and wait for the children to cross the street until the stop sign is retracted and the bus moves again.

I know the answer to that one.

Another question that almost made my brain explode with anger involved slow-moving vehicles carrying this sign:

The question, however, had nothing to do with my driving, at all:

Vehicles carrying this sign must be traveling
a. 10 MPH or less b. 20MPH or less c 40 MPH or less d. 50MPH or less

Bluhbluhbluh, what!? Seriously? Why do I need to know the speed of THAT VEHICLE? I should be concerned with my speed. I'm not taking the written test to drive THAT VEHICLE! So I got that one wrong too, you know, because I've been driving my car for the last seven years.

Finally, I'll share this one with you. I've now run this one by a number of my friends, and everyone seems to know the answer, except I didn't.

What does this sign mean?
a. Curves ahead b. Slippery conditions c. Slow for animals d. Fuck you, New Yorker!

OK, so I didn't choose b., the right answer, because I believed the sign to be quite similar to this one,

which, if you think about it, could mean this same thing. Think about it. The arrow moving in a curvy direction denotes a curvy road. But he car moving in a curvy direction could also mean that. And let's be real here: If conditions are slippery or icy, don't you think I know that already? Is that sign going to turn what otherwise would have been, in my mind, a dry sunny day, into an icy, slippery rainy day?

Alright. So I failed that test, because there were several other questions like that.

But, I mean, come on! Constitutional issues aside, a written test to ascertain whether or not you know how to drive already should not be difficult. It's not like I'm taking the test to get into the grad school of driving. Driving is pretty fucking common sense oriented. It's mostly a matter of, don't hit shit. That school bus over there? Don't hit it. Pedestrians? Other cars? Don't hit them. Go when the light is green and stop when it's red. Look at the speed limit and stay below 10 mph above it. Turn off the car after you park it. Shit like that. Minnesota doesn't believe I can do all of this.

I told the gentlemen at the DMV, who by the way, were really nice and sympathetic, that this test was bullshit. I explained to them that I spent my formative driving years maneuvering the streets of Manhattan. Do you have any idea how difficult is for a 17 year old with his permit to drive around New York City? Crazy Taxis going 90 on tight two way streets, fucking delivery bikers everywhere, no right on reds, changing lanes can always mean disaster, constant construction, etc. etc. After that, I think I can take on LaSalle at 4 in the afternoon and parallel park by a lake. Minnesota doesn't believe I can do all of this.

We now move to the motorcycle permit test.

As above noted, I do not own a motorcycle, I own a scooter. But my scooter is just powerful enough, engine-wise, to be technically classified as a motorcycle.

(50 cc's and below is considered moped, above that is considered motorcycle, for which you need a motorcycle license. I do not even know what "cc's" mean, but whatever. My scooter is 80 cc's.)

So I took this written test right after failing the drivers test. To be fair, I should have studied for this one. But I figured that since I'd ridden a scooter before, had been driving for a long time, and all of it is basically common sense, I'd be fine. Ah. Ha. Ha. Nope.

This test, as well, was riddled with specifics. Measurements of safety in feet, when to use front versus back breaks, and others.

But the more frustrating element of the motorcycle permit test was that HALF THE QUESTIONS pertained to MOTORCYCLE GANGS. Motorcycle gangs, folks.

How do you stagger riders in the gang?

Do you put more experienced riders in the front or the back of the pack?

How do you make turns?

When do you go into single file configuration?

I wanted to stop the test in the middle, stand up, and yell at the administrators, "What is this, an audition for "Easy Rider?" I don't have a motorcycle! I have a fucking scooter! I plan on using said scooter to go to the grocery store and back. I have no immediate plans to join a motorcycle gang, or even a scooter gang for that matter! If I do do that, I will continue to take this bullshit exam, but otherwise, first blow me then give me a fucking permit to drive my little scooter down your little fucking Minnesota streets!"

I didn't say this. I just failed the test. So now I have neither a MN Drivers' license nor can legally ride my scooter in Minnesota. Great. The good news is I can return and take the test once per day, if necessary. I guess I'll fucking study in a way that doesn't include, you know, actually driving, which I'll note again, I already have a license to do.

The final goal stated at the top I was able to accomplish quite easily and quickly, so thanks, DMV. Thanks for a whole lot of nothing that took a whole lot of energy and frustration.

The great, proud state of Minnesota.

Thanks for reading today.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Humor, lost: Chattin' you up

I've been in the mood lately of talking. To everyone I meet. Whenever I can. Sometimes this can get annoying, mostly to people who spend a few hours with me at a time. I am just in one of those phases where I want to chat with anyone and everyone I encounter, I feel curious, suspicious, gregarious.

It's a blast! Sure, some people just don't want to talk to me, or feel weird about a little redheaded Jew approaching them with kind words/ witty banter. An example of this is the four TSA officers I chatted up the other day while waiting in Arrivals at Humphrey Terminal. As per their way, the TSA guys were standing around, clutching their weapons, discussing what must have been the best ways to prevent the imminent terrorist attack on Bloomington. As I approached, I believe their first instinct was to reach for their holsters, but my backwards BNW cap, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt, black Chucks, I think, calmed their patriotic mama-bear instincts.

"What's up guys?" I beckoned.

"Huh?" They were puzzled.

"Just wanted to say hello," I replied.

They looked at me with a collective expression that spelled out sarcastically, "Well, this isn't weird at all!"

"Nice weather we're having, huh?" They seemed to budge just a half an inch.

"Sure kid."

From there, we went on to discuss, among other things, where I could buy one of their snazzy bright blue TSA uniforms second-hand (nowhere but Officer Bill's basement, so nowhere,) the kegstands I would be doing down at Carleton that weekend, and how many kegstands Officer Bill would be doing that night. These guys loved college.

Most people enjoy passing the time somehow. I think it's just a function of my feeling in a pretty good place right now, but this is a practice I'd really like to continue. Talking to people is fun. Keep in mind, folks, I come from a place (Manhattan), where this is not commonplace. Most New Yorkers walking on the street have one goal in mind: getting to where they're going. There's not a lot of, just, chillin' on the curb. Because if you stand around too long, who could get shot or mugged or pooped on by a dog or homeless man. In Minnesota, things move a little slower and I think people want to enjoy the moment a little more. Again, I'm glad I'm here.

Because why not just talk to people? What's the worst that could happen? I'll tell you: nothing. Someone will just walk away. Cool! I'll be okay, and so will they.

However, this whole chatting thing sometimes does lead to awkward encounters. This is not so much because I am an awkward person, because I really don't think I am. It's because I try to be a funny person, maybe a little too often. I figure if I'm offering my conversation, I may as well serve up a little funny as icing on that cake. For those not humor-inclined (a larger section of the population than I think anyone believes), this sometimes yields slightly uncomfortable, but for me, even funnier situations.

Take today. I had two of these. I was riding my awesome new Scooter from Loring Park to Ridgedale Center for Apple paperwork stuff, and of course got lost along the way because I take smaller, slower roads. I was somewhere near Plymouth, and stopped outside an Arby's to ask for directions. I approached a woman carrying a year-old child.

"Hi! Hello! Can you please tell me how I get to Ridgedale Center from here?"

"Hmmm," she thought aloud while the baby, let's call him Bob, cooed. "I, uh, well, if you go to 55, cut across to 394, you should get there. I think."

"Well, you see, ma'am," I politely retorted, "I'm trying to stay off the highways on this scooter here. Any ideas for smaller roads?"

"Aw geez," she Minnesota-ed. "I don't really know. I guess if you keep going along that road over there, you should hit it at some point." Good call. In essence, she was right. If I did keep going along that road, provided I didn't hit any oceans or volcanos, I probably could have kept going around the entire world, moving lightly south until I reached Ridgedale Center. I concluded this woman couldn't help me, but decided to throw her a little treat before I left. Keep in mind, folks, I was sitting on my scooter this entire time.

"You know, if you want, I could just let your kid hop on this thing and you could just give me a ride." There. Tossed that out there.


"No, no. I don't think so." She was right. That would certainly be unsafe. I thanked her and sped away.

After the Apple meeting I stopped at a Super Duper Target in Ridgedale to pick up a new softball glove, a tennis racket to give to my friend Gunther for our pending match, and some tennis balls. Quick side note: in the last month I have purchased a softball glove twice- once at K-Mart, once at Target. BOTH times have gone down the same way: I search the entire glove section for a lefty, cannot find it, seek help from a customer sales assistant, who proceeds to magically find one amidst the sea of righties. I kind of like the way that plays out, but next time I'll just go right to Joe in the red shirt.

Anyways, I arrived at the checkout counter with said three items: glove, racket, case of tennis balls. A DIFFERENT woman with a baby was ahead of me, just finishing paying for her large carload of baby food. I'm assuming there were several smaller babies inside her baby, since there's no way that kid could have possibly eaten all the baby food she was buying before he was, like 27. As she packed her baby food into her cart, I checked out. I looked at Ali, the quiet cashier, as he looked at my items. He didn't look puzzled, but I made sure he wasn't:

"Hey man, I know you're probably wondering, 'What sport are you gonna play today?' right? Well, first I'm gonna play tennis, then I have a softball game, Ok?"

Ali half smiled. I know he spoke English, because he asked what my preferred method of payment was, in those words. But I got nothing on the comment.

Except that the woman with the baby laughed her ass off. Where was she when I needed directions?

Ah, such is life. Minneapolitans not doing anything: watch out! I'm comin' to get ya with hands full of chat.

Thanks for reading today!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Found Histories: "Editorials" from Sophomore Year, Carleton College, Fall 2005


So I found two written pieces of note this week, while perusing a notebook from my sophomore year of college at Carleton. The first, which I will post facto title "On Small Groups," is an attack against the practice, popular amongst Carleton professors, of splitting students, mid-class, into groups of five or six to discuss the lesson being presented. I really, really hated this, for reasons I have included in the piece. I think that's all the intro I need, so enjoy (comments in parenthesis I have added later for some clarification):

To all Carleton Professors-
Please stop splitting us into small groups during class time. I suppose this practice is beneficial to you if you want to a) interrupt your lesson, b)lose the interest/drive of your students, c) turn groups of three to four students against each other, and d) completely waste 15 minutes of class time. Here's the deal: I (sic) pay $40,000/year to go to school here. I think that amount of money earns me the right to choose whom I learn from. So if my choice is between you, a PhD level academic and tenured professor, and Kenny from Duluth whom I saw last night drunkenly grinding all up on a Carleton Singing Knightengale (a capella singer) in the basement of Love House, I'm going to go with the one who didn't do five Irish carbombs in five minutes the evening prior, assuming that was the Prof. Don't get me wrong: I like Kenny. I enjoyed him in the famed "Man Dance" of Ebony (Carleton dancing event, highly gay) lore. He scored five runs at Rotblatt (Carleton's annual all-day drinking-softball game/tradition). He's got great pot. What I don't care about is Kenny's take on Thomas Moore's concept of social hierarchy in the Utopia- for that, I'm going to turn to your perspective, my dear professors.
Max Leibowitz,'08

This piece was not chosen for publication in the student newspaper. I'm not sure why. I know many students who shared my view on this issue.

My next piece was I will title "On Emoticons," and needs no introduction:

To Whom it May Concern-
Everyone using AOL or AIM needs to stop using Emoticons, immediately. I don't know who conceived of the notion of typographical facial expressions. But that person has a masters in Stupid Studies. Question: In real life social interaction, do you punctuate the end of a sentence by simultaneously sticking out your tongue and winking? If you do, go back and live on your Douche commune. Chances are, if you did do that, you'd look like an idiot. But guess what: the same is true of your online personality. I have a confession to make: I'm slightly more moved by the words "I'm sad" than a colon and an open parenthesis; in fact, your use of an emoticon in lieu of the written word serves to disqualify you from the benefits of my sympathy to your situation by a factor of 10. Thank you
Max Leibowitz, '08

This too, was not chosen for publication in The Carletonian. Again, I don't see why, since all of my points are completely legitimate and justified.

Thank you for reading today, and keep these sentiments in mind as you go through your day. I know, I know, I'm a dick.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


What are you afraid of?

From the dictionary:

1. a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined; the feeling or condition of being afraid.

2. a specific instance of or propensity for such a feeling: an abnormal fear of heights.

3. concern or anxiety; solicitude: a fear for someone's safety.

4. reverential awe, esp. toward god.

5. that which causes a feeling of being afraid; that of which a person is afraid: Cancer is a common fear.

What is it about fear? It's safe to say we all experience it, if not every day, then quite often as we walk through life. Fear is a really, really scary thing. It makes us hesitate, isolate, capitulate. Along with Anger, Love, Suffering, Joy, and Hummus, it’s one of our seminal emotions. It’s written into our DNA. I mean, from a biological perspective, fear makes a lot of sense.

When we were Neanderthal people, we HAD to be afraid. Fear literally saved our lives. We see the remnants of it today- we still fear spiders, snakes, bears, sharks, and Phil Spector. As primitive beings, in order not to be eaten alive or stung or maimed, we were afraid of those things capable of hurting us, we ran away. I mean, check out Lucy's husband up there, he's packin' serious cro-magnon heat. We're all scared of death, but I think that idea is something I'd rather discuss later. Anyways, since early times, the fear thing has kind of stuck, since we still instinctually fear ugly, nasty, fanged creatures today.

But most of the things we also fear today have nothing to do with scary animals. Indeed, we’re scared of scary people, like creepers in the back alley or people that yell really loud. It goes much further than that though. We fear concepts, like uncertainty and failure. We fear relationships, like break-ups or the threat of punishment from superiors. Some of our fears are totally illogical, like clowns or movie posters or the color yellow. And sometimes our greatest fears are within us- we’re scared of our own power, our ability, our potential.

What’s this all about? How have we come to this place in our anthropological history where we’ve taken a biological, emotional need and applied it to more complex psychological constructs? Part of it is that we have evolved as a species; our brains have gotten bigger, and we’ve created more rich and vivid elements of life. Yet the core genesis of fear, the need to avoid physically threatening situations, has been mostly eliminated by technology. We know how to kill or tame scary bugs and beasts. Some people carry weapons to make them feel safer. We have medicines that will even cure physical ailments from the natural world, like penicillin for disease and antidotes for venoms. In the physical world, there’s really nothing to be afraid of anymore. Yet fear is thriving- a much more powerful force probably than it was thousands of years ago.

As I like to do on this blog, I will tie this concept into improv. Improvisational theatre is a really, really scary thing. Even setting aside the notion of performing on stage under bright lights in front of people, getting up there without a script to guide us is something to be afraid of. Because, let’s face it, there’s a good chance what an improvisor will come up with will suck. Experienced improvisers have come to accept this. You can, and absolutely positively will, do a lot of terrible improv. You’ll do bad scenes, lots of them. Sure, you’ll do great ones, too. But no matter how much experience you have, how great your scene partner or team is, you’re going to do bad improv sometimes. That is a scary thought, I guess.

Is it though? Here’s the deal. Improv is risky. Like walking really close to a snake. But rather unlike with the snake, the risk of improv may also bring the reaping of a great reward. An experienced improvisor knows that the very thing that makes improv scary is also what makes it great, brilliant even. We don’t know what’s going to happen, so ANYTHING could happen. There’s a scary rabbit hole in every scene, and we’re taught to jump in it, and we don’t know where it’s going, but we don’t care, because it may very well lead to an awesome place. And we love that so, so much. So the improvisor has learned not to fear improv so much, just to accept its risks and cash in on the big payoff whenever it may come.

Can we take a page from this idea in life? I don’t know. I’ve done a lot of improv, and I think about this stuff a lot, and there are still things I’m really fucking scared of. It sucks, because I KNOW that fears are to be faced, then laughed at. But that stupid feeling is still there.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." He couldn't use his legs, so I'd imagine he'd know something about fear, since he couldn't run away from stuff and had to face his fears by default. Then again, maybe he's still full of shit. He did do the whole New Deal thing. Bazam! Topical.

I’d be interested to know what the five readers of this blog think about this. I believe we need fear, in some way, still. We need it to stay alive as we did at the dawn of our history. We may even want to fear.

Tell me what you think about fear. I’m actually afraid to ask.