Self-Help For Men: Watch a Pacino Movie

We all feel low from time to time. After all, you can’t ride that A-Train of happiness forever. Sometimes you wake up and think, “Where did all my self-confidence go? Why do all my friends give me weird looks when I talk? Where did I get such bad taste in music? Man, I suck.”

What do you do when you’re too down to get out of bed? Take Prozac? Recite affirmations? Read a how-to book?

I recommend an Al Pacino film.

Pacino is a self-esteem cure-all. Cancel next week’s therapy sessions. Toss Maxim and Men’s Health in the dumpster. Instead, swing by Blockbuster and stock up on a few Francis Ford Coppola flicks, because there’s a Pacino monologue out there to guide you through any situation.

The man has played basically the same character since the 1980s. He’s plagued by grotesque cheekbones and a habit of constantly licking his lips. His voice is phlegmy and his speech guttural. His face is like a cragged wasteland, broken up into savage rifts and trenches. But few actors in cinema pack more gumption, more power and more noise than the man who turned “Hu-ha!” into a quotable exclamation.

Suppose you were a nerdy, anti-social high school kid (like me at age 14). You have no close friends; the bullies like to flick your earlobes. The remedy? Just rent a copy of Carlito’s Way, and take notes (synopsis: Pacino is released from jail, finds his old drug dealer buddies, runs a club and wears really, really nice leather jackets, in summer).

No organizational skills? Do people take advantage of you? The Godfather: Part II shows a Pacino who can manage to run on a tight schedule. He ably demonstrates when to keep your cool—twenty-four hours a day, even in the face of blackmail—and when it’s healthy to get upset (like when your own family tries to gun you down in your bedroom).

Are you lost in the system? Is bureaucracy making you feel confused and alienated? By the third hour of The Insider, a pushy, red tape-slashing Pacino will make people think twice before cutting in front of you at the ATM.

Feeling uncultured? Looking for Richard is an excellent documentary on Shakespeare, in which Pacino gets to argue with famous actors, dress up like a hunchback psycho, and play the first Richard III with an East Harlem accent.

Maybe you’re feeling spiritually empty. You’ve lost your oneness with the universe, any trace of your moral foundations. Well, Pacino can’t help you there, but he plays one damn good Lucifer in The Devil’s Advocate.

And if all this stomping and yelling is making you feel too serious, Dick Tracy offers a goofy, colorful Pacino who sings Sondheim (well, tries to, anyway).

Why is Pacino such a motivator? I think it’s the intensity. After all, the point of watching Heat isn’t to see heavy-duty marital relationships unfold; it’s to see Pacino push around thugs in their own crib, or rip a television out of the living room wall.

The same goes for Any Given Sunday. Unlike any given sports movie, it’s Pacino who stands on the sidelines, hollering at the top of his lungs. Put Emilio Estevez in the same role and it’s not the same.

But unlike other tough guys (such as Clint Eastwood), Pacino plays savvy personalities. He dances through Scent of a Woman, vision or no vision, and bargains his way through a hopeless situation in Dog Day Afternoon. His leads are always dominating conversation, his rants are always flawless. No two-bit antagonist has messed with a Pacino character for decades, because he’s always gutsy enough to pull through.

Timing is essential for a Pacino copycat. For example, it’s best to blow up int he middle of a sentence, and punch the last word (e.g. “In my HOME!” Or: “Now you’re gonna DIE, BIGTIME!”).

You’ll never see a Pacino wearing jeans and a T-shirt. No matter who he’s playing—cop, mobster, television producer—he’s invariably sporting some expensive three-piece suit. So if you can’t muster the raw energy, you can at least take fashion tips.

And remember, just like every social situation, it’s all an act. Turn off the camera and Pacino could be anybody. So don’t feel bad if Pacino lessons don’t work for you. There’s always Jack Nicholson.

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The Clown Hall of Fame

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The following appeared in The Pitt News, August 2000.

This photograph was not taken at the Clown Hall of Fame,

but a month after the events chronicled here: The clown was Bob,

my South Oakland landlord, who appeared in our kitchen one day

to talk about cabinets. He was apparently a Shriner who dressed

as a clown to entertain children. For a full minute, I had literally

no idea who he was. Then we took this picture.

We were sitting in my living room when my friend Brad told me that there’s a Clown Hall of Fame in Milwaukee.

“Really?” I said. “You wanna go?”

“Hell, yeah!” Brad replied.

What, did we really need a reason? We had a car, a destination , six bottles of Pepsi and our buddy Fred—maybe even $250 combined. Plus we had a plan: drive down Friday afternoon, arrive Saturday morning, sleep till 9 a.m., and visit the Clown Hall of Fame. Sunday we’d drive back. Simple.

First order of business: pick up a waitress at Eat ‘n Park. This wasn’t in the original itinerary, but it seemed like a good idea to Fred and me at three in the morning on the Wednesday prior. Melanie (not her real name) was friendly, courteous, and bored with her job.

“I’m bored with my job,” she told us, pouring coffee.

When she returned from folding napkins, I said, “So this is the weirdest question you’ll get all year, I’m sure. My friend here is a film student and I’m a writer. We’re planning to visit the Clown Hall of Fame in Milwaukee. You wanna come?”

Melanie laughed hysterically. She said some snob had invited her to fly to Australia a week before, and she had turned him down. No go. We were heartbroken.

We picked up Brad at his office and burned rubber, storming down the Interstate at 85 mph. “CLOWN HALL OF FAME!” we screamed at passing rigs, at people on the small town sidewalks, at each other. We took photos of cloudbursts. We stretched in front of gas stations. We read Hunter S. Thompson travelogues aloud and got wacky ideas. We decided that youth rocks.

Fred discovered somewhere in Ohio that he wanted a cowboy hat and some quality cheese. Brad wanted a Milwaukee brew that matched Iron City (his regular). I wanted a red clown nose—to earn smiles and awe the grandkids and make them ask, Pops, where’d you get that? Then I could tell the story of my spontaneous beatnik odyssey—how Gary, Indiana, smells like manure, how we reveled in the Chicago skyline at midnight, how Brad got a room for one and Fred and I snuck in and snoozed on the floor.

Milwaukee is a damn fine city. Stands of trees and rows of bushes supplement every crystal-clear skyscraper and stone-framed canal. At the breakfast joint the old proprietress giggled and gave us directions for a half hour. She directed us to every tourist spot in Milwaukee, insisting that we visit the House of Rocks.

“Actually,” said Brad proudly, “we’re visiting the Clown Hall of Fame.”

“Where?” the woman asked, giggling.

Brad was so shocked that his mouth hung open. Where, indeed! Brad had performed standup at the FunnyBone Comedy Club. He’d studied Seinfeld and Carlin and made people laugh at amateur nights from Pittsburgh to San Francisco. Brad takes humor seriously. And clowns aren’t just wigs and big pants; they are Humor Incarnate, the pinnacle of fun-makers. Sure, Pennsylvanians hadn’t heard of the Hall of Fame, but this was Milwaukee! We imagined the Hall as a pearly palace, flanked by marble statues of Binky and Ronald. Didn’t everyone know about it?

The Hall, we discovered, is tucked into the corner of a big empty antechamber in the basement of a downtown shopping mall. The whole thing doesn’t cover half an acre. But the curators use the space economically: They house photos, prints, original paintings, mannequins donning clown get-up, the whole big-shoed shebang. And we were in heaven.

Our tour guide was informative. A tall woman with a thick Midwestern accent, she talked about the three types of clowns in mild detail. The white-faced clown represents the circus and plays with the kids. The plain-faced clown is all slapstick; white face always shafts plain face. The character clown (or hobo) usually wears rags and grainier makeup. Hobos are often tragic and sad-looking.

“But a clown’s purpose is always to bring laughter and happiness into the world,” our guide said.

Right on, I thought.

Then we watched a clown demonstration: Her name was Melody, and she was terrible. Her act was to play Fisher Price instruments badly and then apologize.

“No, I don’t think I can play the harmonica, doncha know it. Let’s try a drum…”

After bad notes and 26 galling alphabet jokes, Melody released us and we scurried over to the souvenir shop.

CLOSED.

The sign hit us like a circus elephant. After the demonstration, the Clown Hall of Fame was closed till Sunday at 2 p.m., when we were scheduled to be cruising past Columbus, back home.

After the clowns, nothing mattered. The silent shock outside the mall, the CD shop that only sold R&B, the Bastille Days street festival, shooting pool next to a window that overlooked the river—all of it paled before the half-enjoyed eminence of the Clown Hall of Fame.

Two stouts helped Fred and Brad cope with the clown tragedy. On our way back, Fred found a $5 cowboy hat at a truck stop in Indiana. It clashed brutally with his token Hawaiian T-shirt.

“You look like a clown,” we said, giving him a thumb’s up.

Alas, I never found my nose.

As we edged toward the Ohio border, we started talking about jobs. “Last summer, I applied at Toys ‘R’ Us,” Fred remarked. “They didn’t say I was hired till the semester started.”

“I haven’t been to a Toys ‘R’ Us in years,” I said.

“Whaaat?” Fred shrieked. “Well, we have to go. Right now. Let’s pull over at this Texaco and ask for direction.”

Two hours later we stepped through automatic doors and felt the cool air-conditioned breeze of a rural Toys ‘R’ Us. We flew through the aisles, past GI Joe dolls, video games, Star Wars figures, ranks of tricycles, drawing sets, plastic backpacks, the touchstones of our childhoods. We passed around a beach ball, compared X-Men rumors, played a 3-D Spiderman game until our thumbs felt sore, laughing hard.

Still laughing, as we stepped into the car. Still laughing, as pulled into Pittsburgh, just a few hours before dawn. Laughing that night, laughing still.

Climbing the Cathedral of Learning

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The following appeared in The Pitt News, 2000.

Photograph of the Cathedral of Learning,

taken on my very first roll of film in Pittsburgh.

Breathe in, breathe out.

First step, second, third, eighth and then I’m up the first flight. No problem. Breathe in—ascend the second flight, okay—then the third, breathe out.

No matter what route you take, the fourth flour is always trouble. You have to walk through corridors to find where the stairwell resumes, and now the stairs wrap around each other. But I’m doing well, just a moist forehead, breathing in and out. My legs feel good from thigh to calf, and I’m thinking, “I could do this for a couple weeks and I’ll be back in shape. I just need to lay off the croutons.”

Sixth floor already? Breathing harder, feeling beads of sweat, but six floors! I’m going to 36, determined, so I’m already one-sixth of the way there. I’ve passed the familiar English department—maybe I should have stopped. But no, can’t pause now, already got the blood flowing. Yeah, a solid week of this and I’ll start to feel the muscles growing.

Eighth floor, tenth, fourteenth—the German department, where I used to practice conjugations with my professor. That was two years ago, but now I”m 15 floors up. Sixteen, the theater department. I wonder when they’re holding auditions? Maybe I could stop. The information’s useful, after all. And 16 floors! That means I”m almost halfway there. I’m just two floors below half, why shouldn’t I take a brief…?

But 17 is just up there, and now I’m at eighteen. See, you schlep, don’t you feel better knowing you’ve climbed 50 percent of the way? And now 20 floors is, er, 54 percent of the way, or close to that anyway, and gee, I guess I should’ve brought a towel. I’m sweating like a dog. I wonder how fast a dog would climb 36 flights. I wonder if my dad got me a flight home for Thanksgiving. Great, now I’m hungry.

Twenty-five! Where did the last three stories go? I was thinking about dogs, and then—of course! That’s the way to do it. I need to divert my attention from—ow! Sweat in the eye! God, that’s disgusting. And now it’s on my glasses. Why am I wearing them, anyway? There’s nothing to see in a stairwell. But at 28 floors, what’s the use of cleaning them off? Man, I’m tired.

Twenty-nine floors. Okay, this is good. Just seven to go. One step, two steps, three. Halfway up 29. How come everything is so slow all of a sudden? It’s like gravity just got more intense, or someone turned up the thermostat, or—

Thirty floors! Just six more flights and I stop by the water fountain. Maybe they’ll have something to drink at the Honors College. That’s thirty-five, only five flights up, but one after that and I make thirty-six. Then I can walk back down. But why is 36 so important, anyway? It’s an arbitrary number. Thirty-five is just fine. I’ll stop at 35 and as punishment I won’t eat a single crouton at dinner.

But now that I think about it, are croutons necessarily bad? They’re just crushed bread, and bread is healthy. It’s full of fiber and… well, other stuff. And…

Thirty-one? I could’ve sworn I’d just climbed three flights. Somebody painted the wrong number on the door. I’ll bet there’s a prankster around here, some kid who likes to confuse people like me. I’ll bet he’s 12 years old and steals lunch money. Come to think of it, I didn’t eat lunch, did I? that was a bad idea. I should’ve eaten lunch, waited an hour, and then come here. In fact, I should eat lunch right now. Thirty-two floors are good enough. Hell, I was gonna stop at sixteen. Surely I’ve reconciled with 16 more.

What am I saying? I’m an Isenberg, for heaven’s sake! I’ve fenced epee in two Junior Olympics! Dad swims 20 laps every morning, and Mom teaches aerobics! Surely I can surmount a measly skyscraper! What are 36 floors to me? Has college made me so soft? Where is my pride, my spirit?

Thirty-three. I think I’m gonna die. I’m feeling faint. I’m not breathing. The world is spinning. What was I thinking? I’m not up to this! I’ve been an addict to all-you-can-eat-cafeteria food for months now! My arteries are made of cheese! My heart is palpitating! The stairwell is spinning around and around.

Thirty-four—Great-Grandma, is that you?

Thirty-five—one last, vainglorious effort! Up one step, two, three, and there it is! Thirty-six! Gotta make it, gotta make…

I stumble into the wall. I look out the window at the Pittsburgh skyline—at the people, ant-like, thirty-six floors below. The throbbing in my temples slows. Breathe in, breathe out.

I think I’ll take the elevator down.

Below, my video “Rapid Ascent,”

filmed in 2012. The tradition of climbing the Cathedral for exercise

continues to this day.

Mathematics is Wasted on the Incompetent

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The following appeared in The Pitt News, 2000.

Photograph of railroad ravine, North Oakland.

(When I showed this picture to an attractive girl

from out of town, hoping to impress her with my artiness,

her eyes widened. She exclaimed: “It jumped!”)

y = mx + b

This equation is my finest accomplishment in mathematics. Not only do I remember it years after I learned it, but I even know what it means. With this little baby, I can perform infinite Cartesian tricks, sending lines and curves flashing across the axes, making angles, squares, and—on a good day—a few undulating waves.

The equation also marks the farthest reaches of my mathematical understanding. After this, math is a monstrous question mark. My eighth grade algebra teacher strove courageously to teach me more—cosines and exponential notation; growth and decline; and those cursed alphas, thetas and epsilons—but it was all for naught. Day after day, he squeaked thick blue marks onto his plastic overheads, encouraging me as best he could: “Come on, it’s easy,” he’d say, or “Look, just plug it back into the equation,” or “Stop crying crying, kid, you’re embarrassing me.”

My efforts were tireless. In ninth grade, when I retook algebra, I spent two hours each sitting with the teacher. She would watch as I scribbled down the dreaded formulas, pointing out my mistakes by saying, “No, no, you can’t put a negative sign there. Remember what we learned last period?”

Of course, I hadn’t. Somehow, her lectures mashed together in my head, mixing into a dyslexic gibberish.

“Chi square the results… multiply through… first, outside, inside… find the derivative and divide by… Robert, are you with us?”

“Yes! What was the question?”

“How much will the stock be worth in 1988?”

“1988? But that was seven years ago!” Subtraction I could do blindfolded. But who had the resources to invest in stocks? I was only fifteen!

As soon as we stopped studying proofs, geometry was no longer interesting to me. Logic is nice and practical, but perfect spheres and parallelograms just don’t exist in reality. What’s the use of calculating the volume of my milk carton? I’d think. There has to be some more worthwhile purpose for all this.

Useful or not, math still eluded me from the onset of Algebra II. For the first time, I earned a B instead of C, but only because my 11th grade teacher was more easygoing. I had already mastered enough arithmetic to balance a checkbook, count the number of days till Christmas, and pick out flaws in basic statistics. What did I need all this other junk for?

Like every new college student, I took the math placement exam. Just for fun, I tried the German exam as well. The only German I had ever studied was from Living Language cassette courses. Much to my surprise, I placed into Intermediate German I (basically, German 3). But after three years of algebra, one year of geometry, and a semester studying scientific mathematics, I placed into algebra, again. I could have hibernated for the duration of my adolescent life and performed as well. I could have misspelled my name, dribbled saliva all over the exam, or scratched up the paper with crayons. It didn’t matter. I was doomed to suffer through another four months of the “FOIL” method.

Wasn’t it already obvious that I was an idiot? I sat in recitations and drew mean-spirited faces in the margins of my homework. My book didn’t retain those hip  high school photos of smiling mathematicians in exotic countries; now, there were only cold graphs and an eye-piercing typeface. The fantasy that this might be fun or even interesting had dissolved. My professor (for whom I’ll use the pseudonym “Dr. X”) was impressively unsympathetic. If he did trigonometric functions at the breakfast table, why couldn’t Neanderthals like me?

“I try to fail everybody,” Dr. X once sneered, “but somehow people keep passing.” Har, har.

Appreciating mathematics was never a problem—I give my blessing to Einstein, Hawking and all the engineers who ever lived. The people who build bridges, design toasters and develop ways to explore space have my envy. But those of us who can’t pass algebra will never discover how these numbers connect to the real world. The process of factoring is no more substantial than pulling a rabbit out of a hat—they are in turn mysterious, magical, and ultimately, forgettable.

Writing Poetry in the Computer Age

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The following appeared in The Pitt News, 2000.

Photograph taken in the North Side.

It aptly describes my mentality at age 20.

I’m writing a poem on Microsoft Word. I call it, “The Maple Tree.”

a grainy stalk with gnarled fingers

stretching wide like Rip Van Winkle

weeping crimson leaves

Without warning, squiggly green lines emerge underneath every verse. This is my Grammar Check springing into action. According to my word processor, my syntax is abominable. I’m an English major and my computer claims I can’t even write a complete sentence.

I click my mouse on the first verse: “a grainy stalk with gnarled fingers” is a fragment. But it’s not a fragment, I think, because I include the verb in the next line.

Yes it is, replies my computer. You pressed Enter, didn’t you?

Oh, yeah? I think. I click “Ignore Sentence.” Take that, Mr. Intel Inside.

The next line doesn’t have a subject. The verb “stretching” is doing so for its own sake. And “Rip” is conjugated incorrectly. But how can it? I’m using Rip as a name, not an action. And I mean “Van” as in the Dutch word for “from,” not the vehicle. Who ever heard of ripping a van? Doesn’t my computer know anything?

And Winkle is not misspelled. I rather resent the little red line underneath his last name. My computer is implying that I don’t know how to spell, when really it’s Microsoft Word that hasn’t brushed up on its early American literature.

“weeping crimson leaves,” says the might Word 97, suffers from verb confusion. It suggests that the “weeping crimsons leave.”

“But crimson isn’t a noun!” I say aloud.

“Oh, but it is!” rebuts my computer. “This is why you didn’t place out of General Writing.”

Annoyed, I continue my composition:

branches mingling over cloudy gray;

my dear sky caught in nets of charcoal bark—

i feel it rough against my gaze

For a second time, every word is underlined. My semicolon should be a period. My poetic license has been revoked.

As soon as I type “dear sky,” a little box appears at the bottom of the screen, and a cartoon paper clip addresses me.

“It looks like you’re writing a letter!” it exclaims. “Would you like some help?”

I click “cancel.” For a moment I think I should thank the paper clip for offering its assistance, only to remember that it’s not real. Even if it were a real paper clip, it wouldn’t be talking to me, and I wouldn’t be thanking it. And what kind of idiot is my computer to think that paper clips can be sentient but “bark” can’t be used as a noun? I know charcoal can’t bark!

My letter “i” has become “I.” I turned my back for an instant, and now it’s capitalized. My computer capitalized it for me, thinking it was being helpful, but I want it lowercase. I’m trying to cut down on the formality of the verses, which is why the whole freaking poem is lowercase. God.

Or at least it used to be. Now my “branches” have become “Branches,” my stretching has become “Stretching.” I had no choice. My computer is writing my poem for me, against me. This calls for drastic measures.

I click on “Tools” and find the “Spelling and Grammar” icon. Another little box appears and tells me my options. I can stop checking grammar as I type, a good sign. I can also stop the spell check—but spelling is one of my weak points, so maybe I shouldn’t turn it off quite yet. Then again, what good is a spell check if it doesn’t acknowledge a common name like Winkle? I click on the Dictionary icon: All that’s listed is the cryptic CUSTOM.DIC. Is that what I’m using? What customs does it represent? My kingdom for the Oxford English Dictionary!

I return to my poem. Every verse sits in a red or green line. The program has won.

I switch off my laptop (by clicking on the Start icon, ironically enough). I close it up and take a deep breath. I think about the tree.

Then I take out my parents’ old typewriter. I snap out the first line: “a grainy talk of gnarl—”

The ribbon snaps.

Is there such a thing as poetic injustice?

How to Privatize the Police Force

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The following appeared in The Pitt News in 1999.

Photograph of a wax facsimile of Wisconsin police officer,

downtown Milwaukee.

Contrary to expectations, my plan to privatize the American police force has received mixed reviews. Because I have won so little legislative support, I think it’s clear that my idea has been poorly explained, so let me clarity.

Public police departments just aren’t the answer to urban crime. You call 911 and the police save you from danger, but then there’s a ton of paperwork to fill out—lawyers are called and everything turns into a big, complicated mess. Plus the average American has to fund each precinct with money from his own pocket, money that’s wasted unless he himself gets attacked and has to call the police. Why should have to pay my hard-earned cash to save some screaming gunshot victim I don’t even know?

Privatized police departments are the key to a safe environment. Several investors could build the department, hire the best and brightest police officers, and appoint themselves honorary chiefs and sergeants. When a citizen is in trouble, he telephones his preferred department, and the cops are deployed. As soon as the situation is handled—e.g. the burglar is arrested, beaten or gunned down—the citizen pays the cops directly.

Several private police departments in a single neighborhood will naturally lead to healthy competition. Especially lucrative citizens could call a few departments at the same time, thus flooding a crime scene with top-notch, armed-to-the-teeth officers, every one of them eager to solve the problem before his rivals do.

Methods of payment could vary, but a credit card would be ideal. This way a department could mingle its interests with major banks and corporations, who are—as each will attest—consistent experts and guardians of the public’s best interests. This interactions between police chief/investors and civilian CEOs would encourage warm feelings and sustain the market flow in several sectors.

Microeconomic principles also apply: Aspiring managers/sergeants with limited assets could start smaller, Mom and Pop police departments. These officers, only slightly less trained, could wander the streets, waiting for someone to get mugged so they can rush in with a baton and save the day. Poorer neighborhoods could hire independent officers from the community, paying them a fixed income—or, in the lingo of the business, “protection money.”

Extraordinarily responsible citizens could also benefit from police privatization. Suppose Al suspects his neighbor of shifty black market activity. He could visit a department of his choice, and for a small fee be officially deputized, granting him temporary powers of arrest, search and seizure, and the license to carry a firearm. The whole family could get into the action—teenagers, for example, would serve as excellent narcs and undercover agents. This would naturally promote the safe handling of guns, whose extensive use is statistically proven to cut down on crime, pollution and the federal deficit.

Should this amendment work, and I see no economic reason why it shouldn’t, then I also propose restructuring the military in a like manner. Major conglomerates could purchase cohorts and appoint hand-picked corporate generals, so when the government decides to attack foreign nations, depose Third World dictators or train Turkish torturers in violation of International Law, the president could hire a private militia (e.g. the Microsoft Air Corps). We could even take the idea overseas, providing mine-laying and assassination services to “special interest” groups worldwide. Imagine the profits a shrewd investor could reap from just an occasional civil war. What are a few thousand human lives when billions of dollars can be made?

There is, of course, a price to every plan. Such reforms might lead to corruption, monopolization, and almost random incarceration and murder. But if we’re willing to privatize health plans—which keep people alive—and Social Security—which keeps them fed—why not take the extra step? Taking risks is good business, after all.