Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Sidekick Christmas

After my stellar performance on Public Radio this week, folks have been asking where they might hear A Sidekick Christmas in its entirety. So here it is, with the following Christmasy proviso, that it is under copyright © 2012 by Andrew Ward, and may not be reproduced, performed, or broadcast without my written permission. That being said, Happy Holidays, and here's the link: 

 A Sidekick Christmas (48 minutes)

A Note on the Recording
It took Andrew Ward a year and a trip to the local bijou to find the right actor to read A Sidekick Christmas. “It wasn’t until Tommy Lee Jones drove up to a shack toward the end of No Country for Old Men and introduced us to a wheelchair-bound ex-lawman named Ellis that I knew I’d found my man.”
That man was Barry Corbin, whose monologue about the harshness of life in the American West is the pivot on which No Country turns. “When he closed his account of a murdered lawman’s burial, and his voice trailed off into a kind of rasping sigh, I was completely transfixed, and entirely sold.”
Barry Corbin is one of America’s most distinguished character actors. Originally a Shakespearean actor, he has appeared in Urban Cowboy, War Games, Any Which Way You Can, among many other films. He has  been a fixture on such TV series as Northern Exposure, One Tree Hill, and The Closer. But perhaps his most touching portrayal was the hapless, ill-fated Deputy Roscoe Brown in Lonesome Dove. A Texan born and bred, he brings an eerie authenticity to his portrayals of the men of the Old West.
A quick perusal of his biography helps to explain this affinity. Born in Texas in 1940, Corbin always wanted to be an actor, but as a boy he realized he was not developing into matinee idol material. He might have given up on his ambition but for the sidekicks he used to follow in the old serials. They demonstrated that no matter a man’s physiognomy or diction or abdominous dimensions he could find his place on stage and screen. Besides, the actors who played sidekicks always seemed to him to have more fun than the leading men who played their honchos.
If Corbin owes his career to the example those character actors set, it is a debt he has amply repaid with his own portrayals, and now with his reading of A Sidekick Christmas.

Barry Corbin was recorded under contract with Andrew Ward on September 5, 2008 by Jeff Miller at Eye Ear Dallas in Arlington, Texas. The recording includes musical excerpts by John Doan; Michael Martin Murphey; Cody McCoury, Darrin Vincent, Rob Ickes, Scott Vestal & Stuart Duncan; Lewis  and Edward Ross, and Paul Martin.
Copyright © 2010 by Andrew Ward. All rights reserved. This recording is for demo purposes only, and may not be broadcast

A Note on the Book
Andrew Ward has written almost a dozen award winning novels and histories numbering thousands of pages: books that took him decades to research and write. But he is just as proud of A Sidekick Christmas, his brief but pungent encapsulation of his childhood fascination with the Old West. Ward’s previous short stories about Christmas – O Tannenbaum and A Moveable Feast -- have appeared in many a Yuletide collection. But A Sidekick Christmas comes closest to expressing his take on Christmas, friendship, manhood, heroism, and life.
            “I had recently turned sixty when I wrote it, and it seemed to come out of the blue. I’d been immersed in 19th century material for over a decade, researching books on the Civil War and slavery, and reading thousands of interviews with former slaves. I guess I must have internalized a lot of those voices, because suddenly I was writing in the voice of an aging sidekick from the Old West and spouting all sorts of beliefs I never knew I had. So the story is haunted by a lot of what I absorbed about the 19th century, and animated by the liberation of writing, for a change, in the voice of an imaginary but somehow familiar character.”
           As a boy, Ward wanted to be an artist, and he did ultimately study painting at the Rhode Island School of Design. “But a lot of good it did me. All of the artistic conventions were up for grabs, and no-one would teach me anything, only urge me to express myself.” In the end he gave up painting for photography, and, eventually, writing, at which he has excelled for forty years. But as he wrote A Sidekick Christmas, specific images kept coming to him, and he soon found himself picking up a marker and a pad and trying to set them down.
            “Before I knew it I had truly regressed, back through art school and all the way to my boyhood, when I used to listen to the Lone Ranger on the radio or watch Hopalong Cassidy on our tiny TV screen and draw picture after picture of roundups, showdowns, range wars, and holdups.
            Ward has sprinkled the charming results throughout the pages of A Sidekick Christmas. “I don’t know if I draw any better now than I did back then,” says Ward, “but I hope these images will help carry readers back, as they did me, to the Old West of my imagination.”

Friday, December 21, 2012

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Messing with Me

Sometimes I think foreigners are just messing with me. Although technically speaking, in the instance I am about to recount, I was the foreigner, not the other guy. 
     I was in the Zurich airport last night, waiting for the Allegra Hotel shuttle, when the Best Western shuttle driver engaged me in conversation. I was in no position to judge his grasp of the English language, as I have no grasp whatsoever of Switzerdeutsch. But there we were, standing in the Zone Three shuttle area, waiting for one thing or another, when he suddenly pipes up with something along the following lines:
     "Du mit die shuttledriver is mit die full moon! Ha, ha, ha! He says it is meaning the more money! [Here he hunched his shoulders and pointed skyward.] Back und forth, back und forth, den around und around  mit die moon, nein? Like in America? Got the candybars? Die Coca Cola? MTV? [He nodded sagely.] Shuttledriver got die seat belts. Zurich! Airport! On mit die cows!"
     He went on like that for about three minutes, which is a long time when you don't know what the hell somebody's talking about. 
     What did I do? The same thing I always do when I don't understand something; I did everything in my power to appear as though I did. I nodded. I chuckled. I sighed knowingly. I think I even murmured an occasional monosyllable. 
     It was of a piece with how I just barely got through high school: pretending to take pertinent notes, to contemplate the ingenuity of the theorem on the blackboard, to listen attentively to the teacher's exposition on the amphibian reproductive system. 
     Who knows what I was agreeing with him about. He might have just insulted my mother, for all I know. Then, with a final, "Shine mit die shoes!" delivered expectantly, like a Henny Youngman punchline, the driver finally climbed into his van and drove away. 
     I stood there for a moment trying to deconstruct his little disquisition. But it wouldn't parse. 
     Then I got to thinking. If I were a shuttle driver, ferrying people interminably back and forth across the same dreary landscape of exit ramps and flyovers, safety islands and roundabouts, what might I do to amuse myself? 
     And it occurred to me that one possible way would be to go up to foreigners and simply spout elaborate, extravagant nonsense in some broken version of their tongue and see if they, like me, were such fools as to stand and smile and nod and shrug and pretend they understood what I was saying. 

Monday, April 2, 2012


My niece Kelly and I have been working on a project called The Redundancy Watch, the result of our family's obsession with the English language. In collecting examples of redundancies in common and sometimes not-so-common use, I found this from Herbert Hoover:

“To you who are planning ahead programs of work for earnest groups of organized women, I strongly commend study of the new data, new ideas, and methods and plans envisaged by this most exhaustive conference on housing and homes. … In this depression as never before the American people have responded with a high sense of responsibility to safeguard and protect the children...”                                
Herbert Hoover
Radio Address to the Women's Conference on Current Problems
September 29, 1932

     In 1932, things were not going well for Herbert Hoover, nor for anyone else, for that matter. Harried to distraction (and inaction) by the Depression, by Franklin Roosevelt, by the rise of Nazi Germany and militarist Japan, by a world teetering on the brink, Herbert Hoover chose to talk about the family. 
     He would not be the last flailing politician to do so. Whenever actually addressing a national problem proves to be beyond a politician’s ability, ideology, or pay grade, he will bombilate in the most general terms about the American family, extolling it as the backbone of the nation, or deploring its decline. Since the family is none of his particular business, it follows that he must wheeze mightily on his bagpipes to flatter us or alarm us, as the case may be, and it is in such huffery and puffery that redundancies take over.
     In this example, planning ahead, housing and homes, and safeguard and protect are all very well, but we are especially taken by earnest groups of organized women, because God knows we have encountered some of those, and we admire the way our late president’s list of new data, new ideas, and methods, and plans hedges every bet.
     It is to politicians that we owe such redundancies as "our freedom and liberty," "our country and our nation," "justice and fairness," "avert and prevent" and on and on, but I suppose we must be grateful to those who employ them for thereby signaling to the rest of us that they don't know what the hell they're talking about.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Undescended Perplex

I know I'm going out on a limb here by bringing a dubious biological determinism to bear on what should be merely a political question. But has anyone else noticed something about many of the movers and shakers of right wing Republicanism: namely, that their testicles don't appear to have descended? 
     I am not questioning their masculinity, nor their sexual orientation. Many of them -- no, I venture to say all of them -- are sound family men.    
     But what I wonder about is the connection between delayed sexual development and a certain variety of right wing operative. Not the bullyboy opportunists who bombilate less out of conviction than an ambition to persuade the Koch brothers that they should have their own PAC, or land a show on Fox News. 
     I mean the fellows who really, really mean it. 
     Go down the list: Ralph Reed, Rush Limbaugh, Lindsey Graham, Newt Gingrich, Orrin Hatch, Bobby Jindal, Mitch McConnell, Antonin Scalia, Edwin Feulner, Rich Lowry, James Dobson, Tucker Carlson, Tony Perkins, or almost any of the leading lights who run the right-wing think tanks that dot the office parks of Falls Church, Virginia. None of them look their age. None of them look any age. By the time they enter their fifties, they seem as developmentally truncated as embalmed babies. Is it merely coincidental that they have that same pallid, barren, Dorian-Gray quality one usually associates with men of the cloth?
     What is the connection between a failure to entirely adolesce and the tendency to embrace one's parents' conservatism? Is there something about these piping, smooth-browed, apple-cheeked debate-club late-bloomers, that may account for their politics? From whence derives their fawning identification with the rich and powerful? 
     I'm only asking. But maybe by asking I've gone too far, and an apology is in order. Not to them, necessarily, but to you for broaching the subject of Newt Gingrich's testicles. 
     But I will say, in my defense, that at least I left Ann Coulter out of it.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Accents Foreign

My son was about five years old when we took him to his first foreign country: in this case, the French speaking island of Guadalupe. A few days before we were to depart, we were sitting around the kitchen table trying to explain to him the concept of a foreign language. 
     The French, we told him, had a different word for everything. Instead of "water," for instance, they say "l'eau," and instead of butter, "buerre." 
     "Got it," said Jake, and he held up the pepper grinder. "Instead of 'pepper' they say 'peh,' and instead of 'salt,' they say 'sah.'" 
     Like his mother, Jake turned out to have a knack for picking up languages, which requires an ironclad memory with a willingness to look at least temporarily foolish. But all I got was the accent. 
     I'm pretty good at accents: terrible at picking up actual languages, but good at accents. This means that though I remember very few words in, say, the French I studied in high school, I can pronounce them with admirable accuracy. One of my French teachers was so wowed by my accent that she forgave my entire lack of vocabulary. 
     The problem with my excellent pronunciation is that once I have said my little piece, the native speakers with whom I'm conversing conclude that I must know the language as well as I pronounce it, and reciprocate with an avalanche of French. 
     I recognize that a multiplicity of languages has made for a world of richness and complexity, and that there are things you can say in one language that you can't quite say in your own. But the existence of any other language but my own seems as gratuitous a barrier as a jealously guarded national boundary: a hinderance to international comity and literary give-and-take. 
      Study another language for years, and you will still sound, to a native speaker, like a not very bright child. Study it for a year, and you might rise to the level of a shy, socially awkward five year-old. This seems a poor bargain to strike: a year of hard work only to regress to near infancy. And for what? So I can mingle with a lot of foreigners? 
     I have an American friend who has lived in Italy for the past forty years or so, speaking nothing but Italian. Despite a vast vocabulary and a perfect willingness to play the fool, he nonetheless speaks the language in such a way that his Italian-born teenaged daughter must issue corrections and make excuses for him. He reports that he has gotten used to this humiliation, but sometimes it makes him feel lonely.  
      The British understood that speaking with a bad accent not only alerts native speakers to your faulty grasp of their language, it also keeps the ball in their court. By speaking, say, Urdu, with a British accent, mangling the consonants and braying the vowels, they reminded their imperial subjects that an Englishman was an Englishman no matter where he might alight, and it was up to the rest of the world to make sense of him, and not the other way around. And yet mangling subject peoples' language is a tool of colonialism that historians have entirely ignored.
      My daughter and her husband speak a lot of Spanish to their toddler daughter, whose paternal grandparents are Mexican-American. I had hoped I might learn Spanish at the same rate she learns it, but it's not as though she's going to add a word a day to her vocabulary, and teach them piecemeal to her grandfather. Day by day, she is internalizing the language, and one day she's simply going to start speaking Spanish and crush her grandfather -- this grandfather, anyway -- under a foreign tongue.  

All Natural Peanut Butter

I have a question to ask about organic peanut butter. Who thought this was a good idea? When you want peanut butter, you want it in a hurry. But open a jar of the natural stuff and what you get is a dilemma: a pool of slime on top and a lump below. 
     Because it has to be refrigerated, the congealed lump is like a rock, and so you have to run it through the microwave for a few seconds. Then you try to stir the stuff together with a table knife, but it won't mix, and the hot oil slops over your knuckles, and by the time your patience has worn out, all you've got, at best, is something akin to peanut butter paint that barely stays on your toast, or a chunk of the congealed stuff that tears the bread if you try to spread it. 
     It doesn't even smell or taste like peanut butter, either, or even peanut oil: more like a Peanut Butter Cup that's been hiding for a couple of decades in your grandmother's hamper. Only not that good. 
     Is this really what George Washington Carver had in mind? And didn't Peter Pan and his people take care of this fifty years ago? Isn't it called homogenization?
     A Thai chef was telling a cooking a class that the first step in making Thai peanut sauce was to buy a jar of peanut butter. 
     "You mean the organic kind?" someone asked earnestly. 
     "No, no, none of that shit," he snapped. "You go get Jiffy."