Thursday, 26 February 2009

One thing Jerry Seinfeld has taught me

I have a theory that Jerry Seinfeld did particularly well because of his personality, his character. I have an appreciation for the man, as well as his comedy material. Seinfeld trained himself from early on to be focused, keep at it, have few insecurities, and to have a balanced, broad view of his life (rookie-level Scientology helped him along, he revealed recently). Sure, he struck it lucky with the extraordinary success of his sitcom, but insiders always remind you he was already an A-list stand-up by then, and I believe he handled his success well.

I watched the documentary "Comedian" for the first time in August 2008. The film, released in 2002, was the first thing Jerry Seinfeld did after the sitcom series had ended. I was struck by the similarity of the stand-up comedian's experience and most people's lives.

"Comedian" is a documentary; it records his return to the stand-up circuit, around 2002, after he'd retired all his previous stand-up material and taken a long break "doing nothing" (he got married and had a child or four). We see him struggling to put together a new one-hour act.

"Comedian" involves the young, thrusting Orny Adams. The contrast between Adams and Seinfeld is clear: the latter is a big celebrity, audiences give him standing ovations, they cheer him even when he is floundering (Seinfeld was developing material, and comedians are not funny when they are developing material).

Adams, on the other hand, was yet another comedian on the New York circuit. He was established, but not quite "big" (he still isn't). As the documentary progressed, Adams made his first Montreal festival appearance, and got signed up by George Shapiro - although this seems a bit of intrigue by Shapiro (who is also Seinfeld's manager), to give his biggest client's documentary some 'story'.

Seinfeld is not pushy (his billion dollars are in the bank), he laughs at anything his stand-up colleagues say, and responds well to encouragement. Adams, on the other hand, is outspoken, jerky, and tense. To top it off, his material is just okay.

The most important scene for me was when the impatient Orny is having a chat with Jerry on how to speed up his career. This is the exchange:

Orny: How much longer do I have to wait?
Jerry: Is time running out? Are you out of time?
Orny: I'm gettin' older.
Jerry: Please.
Orny: I'm 29. I feel I have sacrificed so much of my life.
Jerry: Is there something else you would rather have been doing?
Orny: Um, not necessarily.
Jerry: Other appointments? Other places you gotta be?
Orny: No, not necessarily.
Jerry: "No, not necessarily."
Orny: I see my friends making a lot of money.
My friends are moving up. And I'm worried.
Jerry: Movin' up!
Orny: I'm worried.
Jerry: Are you out of your mind?
Orny: No, I'm not out of my mind.
Jerry: This has nothing to do with your friends! [laughing]
Orny: I've upset you.
Jerry: No, no, this is a special thing. This has nothing to do with ...
Orny: But Jerry did you ever stop to think 'I am 29.
My friends are all married. They have kids. They have houses.'
Jerry: Ugh!
Orny: What do you tell your parents?
Jerry: Your parents! [laughing] This is your ... [laughing]
Orny: Yes, your parents!
Jerry: Let me tell you a story ...
The story that Seinfeld tells Adams is (in brief): Two entertainers are in a strange town for a gig. They get lost. It is very cold, snow everywhere. They find a house with a chimney. They look through the windows: they see a fire on, a healthy father, a beautiful mother, and two lovely kids. The family is watching a scene from a classic movie. One entertainer turns to the other and says: "how do people live like this?"

At the beginning of this post, I drew a parallel between the stand-up comedian's experience and our own lives. It is this: there's a struggle, you must master some skills, you have to acquire some experience through repetition, and you must be able to manage yourself.

Self-management: this art of putting yourself through the paces of life, patiently navigating the ups and downs. The hardest part of any dream or ambition, is that self-management part. Because to master it, you have to have conviction. You have to brainwash yourself into believing that what you are doing is worthier and better than whatever else you could be doing. There is nothing else, no other place, you'd rather be. You tell yourself that what you do is a mission, it is a way of life, it's what you want, and it's worth it.

Part of interview with Enough Rope on Australian TV last year. Gets better towards the end.

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Wednesday, 25 February 2009

love letter to my parents

something has come between me and the world that I knew
what I thought would last is falling apart in the face of something new
how can I explain that I had no choice?

The Spice Of Life
Everything But The Girl
(Find song in the player on the right)

I am seized suddenly with an uptightness, a grave insecurity. I tense up, my face looks sterner, and I can't think easily anymore. I am not relaxed, I can hardly follow jokes, let alone make ones. My brain goes into some kind of analytic over-drive. It happens because I pick signals. Signals of rejection. These perceived signals do not come only from women, they come from men, friends, colleagues, acquaintances. I walk into a room, relaxed and looking forward to the activity, and then an acquaintance tells me something by way of making conversation and suddenly I feel I have been left out. I feel I am not part of the A-group. I am being side-lined. Alliances are forming and I am not being sought. It kills me. My brain goes into overdrive. I begin to hate the person who told me what he told me. I hate them all. I can't stand the company I am with anymore. In an ideal world, I would walk away right then and there. But I have committed to the activity and walking out would look dreadfully unprofessional. Besides, I would rather not give away the fact that I have been slighted. Something tells me that perhaps I was being deliberately slighted. That the acquaintance who shared the "news" was in fact trying to tell me, subtly, that I have been left out. I struggle to regain composure: in between my forced smiles and join-ins are grim expressions and long-range, blank stares. It takes me a full hour or more, to get out of it. Even when I do, it is temporary, and I dread walking out to the road on my own. I hate how I will deal with it, how I will rationalise it and justify it, how I will tell myself to chill and not take things so personally, how I will water it down and recast the whole thing as an over-reaction by me.

It strikes me that I would make a terrible husband. Easily slighted. Taking to deep turmoil and sulks. Difficult to make happy. Unpredictable. Uneven in mood. My good moods would not be trusted.

I rarely feel like that when I am around my parents. They give me wealth. When I am around them, everything else that happens in the world is external, it can't touch me. Whatever happens is either an added benefit, a bonus, or an unfortunate inconvenience, whatever it is, it falls on top of that comfortable base of personal security that they provide. When I am around them, only they can hurt me and get underneath that deep security blanket. When I sulk because of something external, my dad can brush it off my mind with one of his warm, sympathetic chats, my mother can set me free and rest my tired mind with "just do [this] for me, your mother, do you promise?" And I promise. And I do. And it's gone.

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Sunday, 22 February 2009

She is off men for six months

there's things i want
there's things i think i want
there's things i've had
there's things i wanna have

Just Looking - Stereophonics
(Find in music player on right hand side)

The pub was shutting. Most remaining people were pissed, staggering. Had she herself not been a little drunk, I wonder how long the story would have taken to unfold. It would have been filed under one of the hundreds of my "mystery unresolved" cases.

She told me. She said "No"; she didn't think exchanging numbers was going to happen. What I need to know, she said, is that she had come out of a seven year old relationship and then went and plunged into wrong relationship after wrong relationship for two and a half years, until she got dumped, again, last Monday. "By text, dumped by text, can you imagine" she said.

And this Saturday, she is here to support her girlfriend - "a wing girl, if you like". She is off men for six months. She is getting in touch with herself. "I am being very honest. It's the best policy. Normally, I am a lot more cheerful and up for it than this," she said.

I'll bet. Those two and half years sounded packed, rich with hopes and expectations. Only to be dashed by guys who strung her along. One guy had dumped her so hard, she had to leave her native Australia and come to London to escape the emotional turmoil.

Until she had said those words - words that tumbled out in under two minutes - I had not seen any signs of a woman destroyed, or lacking in knowledge of herself. She had been a little reserved, I will give her that, but she was smiley and very chatty. When I had introduced myself to her and her girlfriend about an hour before, she had affirmed they were single.

I tried to lessen the scale of what she admitted. "Surely, you already are in touch with yourself. You obviously know who you are and what your needs are, it's just that you made some bad decisions. I wouldn't blow it out of proportion," I said.

"Well, be that as it may, I have decided and I am not going to change my mind," she said, shutting the doubts out.

It was over.

"One would like to live in a world in which things like rejection or getting dumped don't affect one. Where self-confidence is stronger than such things. But of course it is an ideal world, that," I said. I was not even looking at her. I was giving an improvised philosophical muse. On the house.

"The thing is, women become impossible to satisfy as they grow older. And this is because of all these let-downs and their subsequent shutting off of themselves. They come out of this stage with a check-list and they start operating with tunnel vision," I said. My muse had now turned into lecture.

Then I got myself busy wrapping myself up. I said goodbye with an indifference even I felt was inappropriate. But I wanted to get out. In under a minute, I had threaded my way through Leicester Square crowds and was almost at Trafalgar Square. Every attractive woman I saw, I imagined a speech bubble popping out of with her "past stats". "I dumped 2. Was dumped by 4. Had 7 flings. Vacancy for The One - still seeking. Advertising in six months."

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Thursday, 12 February 2009

London speaks to me finally

We gathered in front of the McDonald's next to Charing Cross station and set off around 7. We were armed with brand new sleeping bags, brand new socks and gloves, and lots of sandwiches.

"How come the organiser isn't here!" I said to everyone. The organiser of the meet-up was herself absent, and there was a lot of initial confusion as to division of work and groups.

No one replied.

I went with John, who was more experienced than I in this sort of thing. "I like your curiosity, mate," John told me, as soon as we set off.

We stopped at a corner on The Strand (in front of the Zimbabwe embassy) where lots of homeless people congregated. As soon as it became apparent we were giving things away, they descended on us. John tried talking to some as he handed out sandwiches. I gave out all the gloves. Then all the socks. John motioned me to go.

"That's the trouble with East Europeans," he said. "They tend to circle you and take everything."

"A lot of people question the point of what we're doing. Say they're all a bunch of lay-abouts. It's a real dilemma, mate. I mean, I can't fucking work it out, do y'know w'I mean?" John said.

He said he wanted to stop off at Covent Garden. When we got to the market square area (normally considered a nice, pretty spot), he told me, "I fuckin' hate this place. I hate how they've commercialised it." We stopped in front of two homeless people, both 40+. A man and a woman. English.

"Afraid we've only got chicken sandwiches," John told them.

"Only chicken! Only chicken! Only!" the big man guffawed. "I'll have your chicken then," he told us.

They took lovely Pret a Manger chicken sandwiches. I offered some chocolate-covered cake-rolls, but the big guy said he has diabetes. We gave them the only pair of socks remaining. John rested alongside the big man and puffed on his roll.

"So, what do you think, how do you feel?" John said.

"I'll tell you what I feel. I feel my goverment has betrayed me. I tell you who I respect. The Christians. I am 57. 25 years on the streets. The Christians have been feeding me. They're the only real, kind people in this business," the big man said.

"It's a fucking business, that what's it is. The homeless business. It's big fucking money. They're making money off us," said the woman, who was clearly the big man's wife.

"That bloody Jacqui Smith [Home Secretary]. I'll tell you something about her. 770 grand, is what she made last year. I read that in the paper," the big man said.

"Yeah, I read that too. It's a disgrace innit," John said.

"The fucking bloody head of [some major homeless organisation], he drives a Mezarati. He walks around, he talks to a few people, drives fucking off in a Mezarati," he says.

"Country's going to the dogs," she says.

"It's not going, it's gone. This government, not just this one, the past bloody ten governments, for the last fifty years, what ave I got out of 'em? Nish. Nuffin," he says.

"They just bloody give it to the foreigners," she says.

"Yeah, I noticed a lot of Eastern Europeans up there on the Strand," John said. He was deeply engrossed, happily sucking away at roll after roll.

"They're all bloody Polish. I never set foot there. I stopped. I fucking go mad. They've taken over the streets. Our streets. And they bloody get everything. The government gives them everything. Our government asks them 'oh sweetheart, do you need a place to live do you?' and hands them out everything!" the man said.

"It's not our country any more," she said.

"I'm not racist," he says, "I am happy if foreign people come to my country. But me first. Not 'em. What have I got for my parents' hard work? My father worked for this country, he paid his taxes. So did my mum," he said.

"It's not right," I said.

"No, it ain't bloody right. They just want us to die. They're just waiting for us to die off, is what my government wants" he said.

"What's your trade?" said John.

"I used to be a builder. And a good one too. But I fell behind. Went off the mainstream. And that's it. It's like you're shunted off on to a side road, and you can't ever get back on to the main road. There's no exit. My exit is my death. I am just waiting to die. I am 57. Do you know what I mean?"

"Three more years, and they'll take you in. They have to," John said.

"We had Brian. Lived off the streets forty years. They took him in. He died two years later. He lived on the street forty years, as soon as they took him in, he went," the wife said.

"Wasn't used to the warmth, I'll bet," John said.

"No, it's not that. It's the hassle. The paperwork. The constant questioning. He lost his freedom," the man said.

"But if they give the foreigners flats, why can't you take one too?" I said.

"I tell you why. They give a Pole a bloody shithole, and he goes thank-you, sir, and he bloody lives in the shithole. You give me a shithole, I can't live in it. Give me a decent place, I make it better, I make it my shithole."

And it went on.

For almost half an hour the man and his wife regaled us with their version of the story: they had been done in by their government. Their own government had refused to help them. Instead, their government had helped people from outside. Their government had given them raw deals which they had to accept, but they're not like the foreigners and they won't accept any rubbish. They needed genuine taking care of, real assistance, not meagre hand-outs and a judgemental attitude. It's no wonder they've turned alcoholic, they say, they're so upset.

"I am not suicidal. Not at all. Just cos I'm saying this stuff, don't mean I wanna kill myself. I love life. I love life. Do you understand me? I am just unhappy, that's all. The British people they're only concerned with money. Got wonga? Yes sir. Got nish? Fuck off. And that ain't right," the man said.

"It's not going to get fixed either," the woman said.

"Not even two generations can fix it," the man said.

John had disappeared for a while, and after he returned he explained that a friend is on his way. Five minutes later, Luke appeared.

Luke was sucked in right away. He listened attentively and tried to query the man on some details.

John declared us ready to go.

We walked off in a big huff of "God bless you"s from the man and his wife.

Luke then asked John how things were.

John told him, "Been rolling too many. Fucking stoned out of my wits. Need a drink. Going to the pub. Right, Ahmed?"

I was dumbstruck. John had been stoned from the second I first saw him! That explained why he had seemed a little in his world, a little cool and collected, a little smiley.

On the way to the pub, I learnt that Luke - who is around 24 - is training to be a journalist. Later, I was to learn that he writes very powerful pieces about the homeless in small rags. John is 30ish. He freelances in IT. But talking to him about his work, I was a little confused how he manages to pass himself off as an expert.

Just before we got to the Old Vic Theatre, on our way to the pub, Luke - I suppose trying to bridge the gap between his age and mine - asked if I am married. I said I had been, but no longer. He was intrigued. I gave them a brief synopsis. "Where was she from?" they asked. I said America. Whereabouts, they asked. Arkansas originally, I said. They snickered. Then John told me he'd been married to an American too. A New Yorker from Brooklyn. Jewish. They used to get high all the time. She accused him of abuse, and he can't forgive her for lying. Now he's divorced.

"We've got something that bonds us, mate," he said, and fist-bumped me.

Everyone came to the pub. There was none of the usual meet-up bullshit: cliques and attitudes. We were trying to genuinely connect; I guess that's the attitude I went with.

The organiser - who had turned out to be doing a different route - is dusting off a PhD in sociology. She told me how, in the past, they'd invited some homeless people to the pub with them. "The amazing thing is, inside the pub, they're transformed to perfectly quote normal unquote people. A real pleasure to talk to. Then after we'd finished and we're going home, they stepped outside and sat on the floor. And that's when we realised ... Such an academic, intellectual point to make," she said apologetically.

I stood outside the pub with Luke and John (where, presumably, John was continuing his quest for altitude), and we reflected on what the 57 year old man had told us. Luke was of the opinion that attitude plays a crucial part; he emphasised the importance of thinking positively. The three of us agreed that the homeless had given in to their bitterness, had convinced themselves all was doomed.

I brought up the man's pronouncement: "I love life". He definitely did, I said. There was no mistaking it.

On the way back home, I realised that for the first time - possibly - I had met an Englishman who spoke from the heart, with that unmistakable inner poetry and fluency of mankind. Egypt is full of these people; but most English people are reserved, and they don't speak from the heart.

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Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Sipping Coffee Listening to Jazz in Snowy London

London covered in snow was beautifully complemented by Bill Evans's "Peace Piece".

I had never heard it before - amazing. Thank you, Starbucks.

Zoned out overlooking an unfamiliar landscape of snow-swept London streets, sheltering with warm drinks and Miles and Bill - what could I ask for more?

Next to me was a sweet, smiley young lady from Albuquerque reading her Bible.

A lovely English lady was speaking to everyone, as if sat in her own living room talking about the weather: and they said this and they said that and they said they were going to do that too.

Check the tracks on Radio Ahmed (right hand side of this page).

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