Archive | May, 2012

This is what Lenny Bruce was talking about.

31 May

Lenny Bruce, who knew both pain and comedy

This funny line comes from a Memorial Day conversation, where people where talking about their lives. The speaker is smart and intelligent but was not trying to be funny. He was speaking from the heart, but in doing so he mouthed a Woody Allen-quality quip.

Wasn’t it Lenny Bruce who said something like, “Comedy is pain plus time.”

Here is my friend’s line, which is full of both pain and time:

“While growing up, I was so bad that when I reached the legal drinking age, I quit.”

Sicily – Where A Single Onion was Lunch

26 May

Towns like these were left nearly empty by starving peasants who left for America.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

I’ve been paging through a 1992 book by Jerre Mongione and Ben Morreale called, “La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience.” In it, I learned something about blacks in the American South – mainly that Sicilians in Southern Italy may have had it worse.

By the year 1930, more than 4.5 million Italians had immigrated to the United States. When that many people leave a small country, the clear indication is that life there must be unbearable.

Still, there always are mixed feelings about leaving home.

During this era of the Great Departure, when there weren’t many people left in Sicily, village children would sing this in the streets:

Give me a hundred lire

And I’m off to America

Goddamn America

And the man who thought it up.

While America hasn’t always been the best place for some, there was never any measurable movement out. A huge migration occurred when industrialization in the North attracted blacks from the South, but the victims of segregation, discrimination and lynchings didn’t flee the country in vast numbers. Back to Africa movements never caught on.

In their prologue, Mangione and Morreale quote Booker T. Washington, an influential African-American leader from 1890 to 1915, who said this after visiting Italy:

The Negro is not the man farthest down. The condition of the coloured farmer in the most backward parts of the Southern States in America, even where he has the least education and the least encouragement, is incomparably better than the condition and opportunities of the agricultural population in Sicily.

It would seem that America, by comparison, is such a land of bounty that there is something even for those at the bottom. In Italy, the trickle down may have stopped way short of the bottom.

“La Storia” said that peasants who farmed other people’s land constantly battled starvation; that there just wasn’t enough food for them. After working hard in the fields, lunch, if there was lunch, often was a piece of bread and an onion. The book says that the new Italian immigrants in America took so well to cooking because food was something new and exciting for them.

I wish readers would share their thoughts on this one. Upon reading it, it was all new to me.

Coffee — When Something You Love Treats You Badly

25 May

I’d like to share this piece I wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer. It is about the great agony of not drinking coffee. Please let me know if you like it. It appeared May 25 on the op-ed page.

The NRA Votes … do you?

21 May

By Lanny Morgnanesi

The bumper sticker said something like, “I’m the NRA and I vote.”

It was similar to messages from an assortment of special interest groups on both the left and right. It could have been Planned Parenthood or the American Association of Retired People or the teachers unions.

No mater what the group, the intention is to express political power. What is obvious but unstated is this: People who get off the couch to vote have influence because most people don’t vote.

Democracy, after all these years, has never quite caught on. We’re happy it’s there, like an exercise machine in the basement, but don’t mind that it has gathered substantial dust.

Our country started out more as an aristocracy than a democracy. The leaders, including George Washington, were land speculators who owned hundreds of thousands of acres on the other side of the Allegheny Mountains. As long as the British controlled things, that land was essentially worthless.

So the aristocrats started filling the heads of artisans and common workers with ideas of democracy and revolution. They actually gave them guns and taught them to kill the British. After proving victorious, the artisans and common workers still had the guns and still had ideas of democracy – even though they remained obligated to tip their hats when passing a gentleman.

But throughout the land they formed Democratic Societies, which were looked upon by the elite like the American Communist party was looked upon in the 1950s.

The Democratic Societies, run by armed individuals, were frightening.

Historian John Ferling, in “A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic,” says James Madison reacted by designing the Constitution to preserve liberty while making it extremely difficult to bring about substantial change.

Ultimately, in the long run, the group once referred to by Washington as the “grazing multitudes” settled back and continued grazing (if you don’t count the Civil War).

Now, for the most part, they don’t even vote.

Requiring photo IDs to vote, as is done now in my home state of Pennsylvania, will mean even fewer voters.

At times, winning high office seems more about collecting money than votes. Had Madison put that in the Constitution, the Democratic Societies might have taken up arms again.

We don’t need anybody to take up arms today. But like the NRA and Planned Parenthood, the AARP and the teachers unions, we really should vote. Democracy must be preserved before it truly withers away, or, like the exercise machine, someone puts it out in the trash.

Where Will You Be Six Months from Now?

19 May


The late comedian Henny Youngman used to tell lots of jokes about doctors. A favorite is:

My doctor told me I had six months to live. I said, “Doctor, I can’t pay you.” He gave me another six months.”

Henny Youngman — he knew!

Comedians are very exacting when choosing their words, especially in short jokes. They much prefer funny words over unfunny words and will struggle to determine if, say, 66, is funnier than 85. So I find it interesting that Henny chose “six” for the number of months his doctor gave him.

I don’t think he did it because six is funny. I think he did it because when doctors tell you death is near, they almost always put it six months away.

Not to be funny, but have you every heard of a friend or relative who was given four months to live, or seven months to live, or 10 months? I never have.

All this comes to mind because someone I know was given six months to live. Sure enough, exactly six months later he was dead.

Did the doctor really know? Or was he just lucky?

In life, we all have to make quick judgments and guesses. In the field of finance there is a joke (funny only to people in finance) that goes:

Q. Why do economists use decimal points?

A. Because they have a sense of humor.

The point being that nobody really knows anything for sure, but all of us sure can fake it. Those who get it right probably get more credit than they deserve, like maybe Steve Jobs or some military strategists.

Lucky guess?

But we’ve all got to worship earthly gods and I imagine it is more appropriate to worship those who have guessed right than to worship those who have guessed wrong. So hats off to the doc who said “six months” to my friend.

I’ll leave you with this piece of advice:

If your doctor says you have just 10 minutes to live, do everything you can to assure him that his wife and you are just good friends.

Thanks, Henny.

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