Archive for June, 2016

The Funny Men of My Youth

June 27, 2016
Jan Murray

Jan Murray

Sometimes I like to do the Grumpy Old Man routine with my students: “When I was your age, Sonny, I had to walk barefoot to school in the snow, and the long, arduous journey was uphill—both ways.”

None of this is true, of course. My parents always provided me with good shoes and it’s only snowed once in Claremont in the last fifty years. I stole that joke from one of my childhood heroes, Bill Cosby. I still love to tell that joke, but I no longer attribute it to Cosby.  Once the most avuncular man in America, Cosby is now, allegedly, nothing but a sick old creep.

Bill Cosby’s fall pains me; I spent so much time with his comedy LPs as a kid, and it really felt like I knew him. One of my favorite Cosby albums was called I Started Out as a Child. It took me over a decade to get the joke in the title. Another Cosby album title was also quite funny: To my brother Russell, Whom I Slept With (but I still haven’t completely worked out its implications).

The comedy albums of Cosby and The Smothers Brothers were a big part of my childhood.   (For you younger readers, albums, also called records, were large flat black petroleum-based disks that created marvelous sounds when played on something called a turntable.  Albums were very fragile, which may have accentuated the reverence we had for them).   In junior high school I discovered the more “mature” comedy records of George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Cheech and Chong.

When I was a kid, back in the dark ages before VCRs, HBO, and Comedy Central, in order to see the great comedians, you had to watch the three major talk show hosts: Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, and Johnny Carson. I would rush home to see Mike Douglas in the afternoons and Merv was on in the evening, but Carson, the King of Comedy, was on after my bedtime, so I would listen to The Tonight Show through the slats in the hall door while my parents thought I was asleep.  If I laughed too loud my mom would shout, “Go to bed.”

The old-timer comedians like Buddy Hackett, Jack Benny, and Henny Youngman that I loved to watch on tv when I was a kid frequently spoke about something called “working the Catskills.” Since there was no google back then, I asked my dad what the Catskills were. He said that they were mountains in upstate New York (hills really, by California standards) where people from New York City used to go on vacation.

Decades later I was watching a PBS documentary on the history of Jewish Comedy in America which went into great detail about the Catskills (also known as the Borsch Belt). One of the people featured in the documentary was Jan Murray. I thought, “Jan Murray is Jewish. Who knew?” Then it dawned on me–the overwhelming majority of the comedians I revered as a kid were Jewish. And as I think about it now, the non-Jewish comedians from my youth like Cosby, Bob Hope, George Carlin, Red Skelton, Flip Wilson, Danny Thomas, and Johnny Carson are really the exceptions.

by Richard W. Bray

not a sometimes thing

June 27, 2016


William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

I love you when you’re mean
I love you when you’re mad
I love you when you’re angry
I love you when you’re bad

Love is not a smorgasbord
For me to pick and choose
Always have to clean my plate
When I’m digesting you

I love you when you pout
I love you when you cry
I love you when you’re dirty
I’ll love you till I die

Love is not a sometimes thing
Love is not a switch
I love you as an angel
I love you as a bitch

by Richard W. Bray

Hell is the Hunger

June 19, 2016


Somebody finished
All the drink
Somebody puked
In the sink
And who trashed your apartment
And filled it up with stink?

Hell is the hunger
That’s taking you down
Hell is the hope
That cannot be found
Hell is waking up
On the dirty side of town

Cashed in your soul
For the lowest bid
Somebody ditched your wife
And abandoned your kids
Always had a reason
For everything you did

Hell is the hunger
That’s taking you down
Hell is the hope
That cannot be found
Hell is waking up
On the dirty side of town

Opportunity melts into
A big pile of sad
Don’t blame your mother
And don’t blame your dad
Somebody threw away
Every chance you ever had

Hell is the hunger
That’s taking you down
Hell is the hope
That cannot be found
Hell is waking up
On the dirty side of town

by Richard W. Bray

Women (and Men) in Love

June 19, 2016
Simone De Beauvoir

Simone De Beauvoir

What about romantic love?  Is it merely, as the scientists say,  a trick played upon us by the chemicals in our brains, an evolutionary mechanism that provides a bond that will last long enough to increase a human offspring’s chances for survival?  Yes, probably.  But so what?  Romantic love’s utilitarian origins don’t preclude it from being good and beautiful.

There are several indications that the experience of heterosexual romantic love is in many ways different for men and women?   (I should point out, however, that men and women have many more characteristics in common than we have differences. We are not two separate species. Furthermore, there are myriad variations within members of each gender. And both nature and nurture account for differences between men and women: men’s and women’s brains function somewhat differently and, across cultures, we tend to be socialized in very different ways.)

Several years ago, Johnny Carson asked cartoonist Kathy Guisewhite: “What’s the difference between men and women?”*

Guisewhite replied: “I really don’t think men sit around discussing women the way that women are constantly obsessing about men. You know, we’re constantly asking each other, ‘Why are they like that?’ or ‘Why do they do that?’”

Guisewhite has a point. Women certainly do spend more time talking about men than men spend talking about women. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. And for most of Western history women were legally and socially subservient to men, passed along as chattel from father to husband.  This is still their situation in many parts of the world.

When your very existence is dependent upon pleasing someone who is bigger and stronger than you are, someone who has the legal right to assault you at any time, knowing your oppressor becomes an essential survival skill.

In her book The Second Sex, French feminist icon Simone De Beauvoir describes “The Woman in Love”

Since she is anyway doomed to dependence, she will prefer to serve a god rather than obey tyrants—parents, husband, or protector.  She chooses to desire her enslavement so ardently that it will seem to her the expression of her liberty; she will try to rise above her situation as inessential object by fully accepting it; through her flesh, her feelings, her behavior, she will enthrone him as supreme value and reality: she will humble herself to nothingness before him. Love becomes for her a religion (The Second Sex 643).

De Beauvoir chooses an epigraph for “The Women in Love” by Lord Byron which declares that romantic love is “to a man’s life, a thing apart”, while it constitutes “woman’s whole existence.”  This is not entirely true, of course.  Most men do fall in love, and a few of us have even died from a broken heart.

But how many men do you suppose would go out and buy a book like Relationship Rescue by Dr. Phil?


*Carson and Guisewhite quotations are reconstructed from my fallible memory

by Richard W. Bray


I’ll tell you what’s wrong with your girlfriend

June 17, 2016


I’ll tell you what’s wrong with your girlfriend
I do it because I’m your friend
I’ll tell you what’s wrong with your girlfriend
I won’t stop till you comprehend

She’s snooty and snotty
And hurtful and mean
She’s hateful and haughty
And gross and obscene

She’s pompous pretentious
And full of manure
A definite menace
She smells like a sewer

I’ll tell you what’s wrong with your girlfriend
To help you is all I intend
I’ll tell you what’s wrong with your girlfriend
You’ll see that I’m right in the end

Her charm is a lie
She’s not all she seems
I look in her eyes
And I see all my dreams

She’s sexy and graceful
And lovely and free
Why’d she pick you when
She could’ve had me?

by Richard W. Bray

Walking Makes Humans What We Are

June 12, 2016


I have never hunted animals. And I used to wonder how hunters walking around lugging heavy guns could ever get close enough to their prey in order to shoot it. Most animals can easily smell/see/hear humans long before the hunters get into firing range and then they could simply run away. Meaty mammals tend to be much faster runners than humans. What I didn’t realize is that human beings are designed to walk and walk and walk until our prey is too exhausted to continue. Then we use our weapons to kill it. And then we cook it and eat it.

In Masters of the Planet, an excellent introduction to human evolution, Ian Tattersall describes how the ability to walk great distances was key to the hunting prowess of homo ergaster, “an extinct ancestral form on the evolutionary scale of the genus Homo” that “lived in eastern and southern Africa during the early Pleistocene, that is, between 1.8 million and 1.3 million years ago.” Tattersall explains that “although homo ergaster would hardly have been fast compared to four-legged predators, its newer slender hips and long legs would have made members of the species exemplary distance runners.”

This evolutionary innovation gives homo sapiens a huge advantage over our prey because, unlike humans, “most mammals do not have the capacity to shed the heat load acquired and generated during sustained activity in the tropic sun, except by pausing in the shade while it slowly dissipates, largely through panting.” That’s why hunters will eventually catch their prey.   “In the heat of the day, the human ability to simply keep going would have allowed these lucky bipeds to single out, say, an antelope, and to keep chasing it, until it fell from heat prostrations” Or we can just kill it with our weapons when we get close enough.

Our ancestors made the remarkable transition from prey to predator.  Human beings are designed to vanquish by walking and running after animals until we get close enough to kill them.  This evolutionary history remains a major component of our collective psyche whether we like it or not.  And we should never forget this, even in an age when, for most of us, meat comes from the back of the supermarket.

So, Aesop’s fable The Tortoise and the Hare, in addition to being a marvelous parable on the efficacy of slow and steady diligence, is also the true story of how Our Hunting Fathers survived. Human beings are designed to “simply keep going” and going and going.

And simply trudging along is how our species came to inhabit and dominate so much of the planet.

I’m really glad that I exist as a human being; I wouldn’t trade in this particular vehicle of consciousness for anything in the world.  But our evolutionary success has had ominous ramifications for many of our fellow inhabitants of planet Earth.

As novelist Kurt Vonnegut notes, the human tendency to simply keep on walking and consuming has a dark side:

humanity itself had become an unstoppable glacier made of hot meat, which ate up everything in sight and then made love, and then doubled in size again.

Soldiers drilling, refugees fleeing, shoppers shopping, children strolling to school. Walking. It’s what we do and it’s one of the most essential things that makes us who we are.

Final word to Fats Domino:

By Richard W. Bray





A Supple Heart

June 12, 2016


I say and do
Has a single

I long to know
The tender soul
That lurks below
The surface

Ramparts guard
A supple heart
Bruised to

Time to go
Cuz she says “No”
And gives no

What I adore
Is nothing more
Than my

by Richard W. Bray

my crooked crooked heart

June 9, 2016


I should never forgive myself
   for what I did to you
I should never forget
   what I put you through
I should never forget how I pulled
   your world apart
I should never forget I got
   a crooked crooked heart

What always happens
When the lovin ends?
Somebody loses
But nobody
Ever wins

Been on both sides
Of that barbed and
Jagged fence
I got and I gave
Misery intense

I bled and
I bludgeoned
Just for a kiss
That’s all I got left
In love’s reminisce


by Richard W. Bray


June 4, 2016


Suffering is not increased by numbers: one body can contain all the suffering the world can feel
Thomas Fowler

You can take an anvil
And drop it on my face
Feed me to the rodents
Till I’m gone without a trace

Tie me to an anthill
Drop me from the sky
Just don’t hurt the ones I love
Or make my baby cry

I know I can contain
The borders of my pain
A million shocks and aches
Won’t make me complain

Tie me to an anthill
Drop me from the sky
Just don’t hurt the ones I love
Or make my baby cry

Love gives it meaning
The hurt that we all feel
The pain we have for others
Makes existence real

Tie me to an anthill
Drop me from the sky
Just don’t hurt the ones I love
Or make my baby cry

by Richard W. Bray