Don Fried — Playwright & Author

Archive for the ‘30 Years of Living Overseas’ Category

When I was still working for a living, I was on the road pretty much Monday through Friday, 40 or more weeks a year.  My job was selling large, multi-national Information Technology Services outsourcing deals,  usually in the $500 million and up value range, and sometimes in the multiple billions of dollars.

Deals like those are not high percentage wins; you win about one in 10, and you work on each deal for an average of  about 18 months.  Do the math.  10% hit rate; 18 months work on each.  Yeah, you’re getting the idea.  (Maybe others are better at it, but that was it for me.)  Because of the size of the deals — one of the deals I worked on that closed was worth $20 billion — the company could afford to keep me around and well paid in between wins.

But that didn’t mean that there was much job satisfaction in working my ass off and constantly getting my hopes up, and then losing one deal after another  Take my word for it, it wasn’t a lot of fun.  And even in the incredibly rare cases where I worked on deals that won, there was always someone else who would manage to make sure that I had moved onto another deal months before and would steal the credit.

Which brings us to today’s really sad story.

One evening when Rhonda, Eric, David and I were still living in England, the four of us sat down to the all-too-infrequent event of eating dinner together.  (I think it was some time around 1994.)  We had a dog at the time, and the dog was in the habit of doing in the back yard what  dogs do in back yards.

“Someone’s got to go out and clean up Sheba’s poop from the back yard,” I announced.dog-pooping1

“Ooh, I hate that job, I hate that job,” shouted David and Eric in chorus.  (Rhonda remained silent, since she was generally exempted from poop-cleaning duties.)

“Really?” I responded.  “I kind of like it.”

The three of them looked at me like I had two heads.  It got me to thinking.  Why would anybody like that job?

And I realized.  I would go out into the back yard with a shovel in one hand and a plastic bag in the other.  The plastic bag was empty and the yard was full.  15 minutes later, the yard was empty and the plastic bag was full.  I’d actually accomplished something! And nobody was going to steal the credit from me.

That was as close as I came to job satisfaction for 30 years.  And that was when it occurred to me that I really needed to get a life. It took me another 12 years to get it.

I told you it was a sad story.

I was listening to NPR on the car radio while I was driving to the theater tonight for my last performance as Darwin in the Lincoln/Darwin plays.  There was a piece about Hillary Clinton exchanging gifts with her Russian diplomatic counterpart.  It seems she tried to give him a “reset” button, as a tongue-in-cheek fillip for both countries to reset their relationship.  Except the State Department folks got the word wrong — Russian is one tough language — and instead of using the Russian word for “reset,” they used the word for “overcharge.”

It got me thinking of the classic marketing blunders that I collected during my years in international business.  Here are some of my favorites.

When Coca-Cola first came to China, there were hundreds of ways that the words “Coca-Cola” could be rendered in Chinese.  (Chinese is a tonal language, with five tone levels.  A four syllable word can be pronounced 5 to the 4th power ways.)  It turned out that the one that sounded best to the ears of the American boss, and the one which was used for the introduction of the product in China, meant either “bite the wax tadpole,” or “pregant horse.”  The Chinese employees were too polite to tell the boss what he had done, and sales of “Bite the Wax Tadpole Cola” were — well, let’s just say they were less than forecast.

Eventually, someone told him what was going on, and they changed the name to something that sounded identical to him, but meant “nectar of the gods, you will have a thousand sons.”  Sales skyrocketed, and the rest is history.

When Ford introduced the Pinto in Brazil, there were few sales to men.  It turns out that Pinto is Brazilian Portugese slang for “small penis.”

Another Brazilian marketing blunder was made by Waterman pens.  At the time, Waterman’s U.S. advertising slogan was, “It won’t leak and embarrass you.”  The translator wasn’t all that good in Portugese and used the word, “embarrazer.”  Sounds like “embarrass,” doesn’t it?  Wrong.  It means “to make pregnant.”  So until the advertising program was changed, Waterman pens in Brazil wouldn’t “leak and make you pregnant.”

Remember the old Coors advertising campaign, “Turn it loose.”  The translator for a South American ad campaign didn’t understand just what the benefits of the product were, and Coors was released with a campaign to help people move their bowels.

I’ve got hundreds more, but I’ve got to get to into my Darwin costume now and start practicing my phony British accent.

I’m busy working on my “Postville” play these days (I’m on page 50).  See “They’re Hijacking My Play.”  So I’ve been neglecting writing new posts.  In the meantime, here’s something you may find amusing.  It’s  based on something that really happened to me — in Madrid, not Milan, but I switched it to Italy because it’s more typical of Italy, and I can speak and write Italian.

You don’t need to speak Italian to enjoy it, but if you can’t stand not being able to understand every word, I’ve put a version with the English translation after the original.


Enjoy, Don

taxi-driver


THE AMBASSADOR

(Simon gets in taxi at airport.)

SIMON:

Make sure you reset the meter. My friend Steve told me that every time he got into a taxi in Italy the driver tried to get him to pay for somebody else’s ride.

TAXISTA:

Buon giorno anche a lei, signore. (Indicating meter.) E già tutto a posto.

SIMON:

It’s not at zero. It should be at zero, shouldn’t it?

TAXISTA:

E’ in aeroporto. Il tassametro deve partire da tre euro e trenta.

SIMON:

I don’t understand you. Don’t you speak English?

TAXISTA:

No, signore. Siamo a Milano. La maggior parte della gente qui parla italiano. Dove vuole andare?

SIMON:

Well then, I’m just going to take it out of your tip.

TAXISTA:

Come vuole. Dove vuole andare? (Simon doesn’t understand. Taxista indicates map.) Albergo? Stazione? Museo?

SIMON:

Oh, right. I’m going to the Grand Hotel.

TAXISTA:

Quale Grand Hotel. Ce ne sono due in città. (Taxista holds up two fingers. Simon looks at him blankly. Taxista indicates map again.) L’indirizzo.

SIMON:

The address? It’s the Grand Hotel. Five stars. There can’t be that many of those here, could there? Don’t you even know the major hotels of the city?

TAXISTA: (Pulls out and starts to drive.)

Sì signore, conosco la citta. Sono taxista qui da più di trent’anni.

SIMON:

Look at that meter spinning. It looks like a one-armed bandit. How much is this going to cost?

TAXISTA:

Al Grand Hotel? (Pulling his hands off the wheel and showing 10 fingers.) Dieci euro. Forse quattordici.

SIMON:

Would you keep your hands on the wheel for Chrissake? Can’t you Italians talk without waving your arms?

TAXISTA:

No. Non posso.

SIMON:

You Europeans are all alike. Everything costs an arm and a leg and nothing works. And from what I’ve seen so far, it looks like you Italians are the worst. You’re happy to take our money, but you don’t provide even the most basic services. Taxis are part of the tourist industry. Everybody in the tourist industry should speak English. (Silence for a moment, while they drive.) Hey, I saw that. What are you doing there?

TAXISTA:

Non faccio niente. Guido.

SIMON:

Guido, huh? Well I’m watching you, Guido.

TAXISTA:

Non è il mio nome, Guido. Guido la macchina.

SIMON:

Yeah, right. (Silence for a moment while they drive.) There, you did it again. I saw that. Every time you touch that button on the dashboard, the meter jumps five euros. You think that all of us Americans are like dumb chickens waiting to be plucked, don’t you. Well you chose the wrong one to mess with this time, Guido. Steve warned me about this scam, too. You know, I’ve changed my mind. I don’t think I want to go to the Grand Hotel.I think maybe I want to go to the police station. How’d you like that, Guido?Yes, let’s go to the police station.

TAXISTA: (Starting to look agitated and a bit frightened.)

No, signore. Non c’è bisogno di andare dalla polizia.

SIMON:

Not so smug now, are you, Guido. Yes, let’s go to the police station and tell them all about what you are doing to represent your city.

TAXISTA: (Really starting to sweat.)

La prego, signore. Se la polizia mi ferma ancora per questo, perderò la mia licenza.

SIMON:

License, huh. That word I understood. Well, it won’t be my fault if you lose your license. You should have thought of that before you tried to cheat me.

TAXISTA: (Pleading.)

Non lo faccia, signore. Ho moglie e due bambini piccoli. E mia mamma malata abita con noi. Vede, ecco. (Stops taxi and indicates outside.) Siamo già arrivati al suo albergo. La prego, signore.

SIMON:

What? Oh, we’re here already? Well, OK. But I’m not going to pay you what’s on the meter. It says sixty-five, and I’m sure it shouldn’t be half of that. So, to teach you a lesson, I’m only going to give you twenty. And you should consider yourself lucky.

TAXISTA: (Fawning.)

Sì, grazie signore. Molto gentile.  (Then under his breath as he drives away.) Asshole.

(Simon walks up to reception desk of hotel (played by same actor as Taxista.)

RECEPTIONIST:

Prego, signore.

SIMON:

(Simon does a double take, then …)

My name is Sempliss. Simon Sempliss. I have a reservation.

RECEPTIONIST:

Of course, Mr. Sempliss. One moment, please.

SIMON:

You know the taxi driver from the airport just tried to charge me sixty-five euros. But I knew he was trying to cheat me.

RECEPTIONIST:

Yes, sir, sixty-five is certainly far too much.

SIMON:

So I only gave him twenty. This is one Yank that managed not to get taken.

RECEPTIONIST:

Yes, sir. That’s very good sir.

SIMON:

How much should it be? Thirty? Thirty-five?

RECEPTIONIST: (Reluctantly.)

Well, actually, from the airport it’s usually about ten euros.

SIMON: (Simon looks shocked and upset.)

What???

RECEPTIONIST: (Trying to make him feel better.)

Sometimes twelve euros, if the traffic is bad. I’m afraid I can’t find your reservation. Do you have a confirmation number?

SIMON:

Of course. (Handing him a paper.) Here it is.

RECEPTIONIST:

Ah, I see the confusion. You see, there are two Grand Hotels in Milan.You’re reservation is at the Grand Hotel on Via De Gaspari in Certosa. This is the Grand Hotel on Viale Bonardi.

SIMON:

What???!!!

RECEPTIONIST:

Quite a few people make that mistake.

SIMON:

Two hotels with the same name? Isn’t that just typical? Well, how far is it to the other one?

RECEPTIONIST:

I’m afraid you came in the wrong direction from the airport. Via De Gaspari is about 45 minutes from here. Would you like me to get you a taxi?

SIMON:

You’d like that, wouldn’t you? You call a taxi that you have a deal with, he charges me twice the going rate, and you get a kickback. No thank you. I’ll find a taxi on the street.

RECEPTIONIST:

As you wish, Mr. Sempliss. But you see, here in Italy, to save fuel, the taxis don’t drive around looking for passengers. They wait at taxi stops. The closest one is about a kilometer from here. Turn right out of the hotel, go to the second traffic light, turn left, cross the park, . . .

THE AMBASSADOR

[with translations from Italian to English]

(Simon gets in taxi at airport.)

SIMON:

Make sure you reset the meter. My friend Steve told me that every time he got into a taxi in Italy the driver tried to get him to pay for somebody else’s ride.

TAXISTA:

Buon giorno anche a lei, signore. (Indicating meter.) E già tutto a posto.

[And good morning to you too sir. It’s already reset.]

SIMON:

It’s not at zero. It should be at zero, shouldn’t it?

TAXISTA:

E’ in aeroporto. Il tassametro deve partire da tre euro e trenta.

[You are in an airport. The meter is supposed to start here at three euros thirty.]

SIMON:

I don’t understand you. Don’t you speak English?

TAXISTA:

No, signore. Siamo a Milano. La maggior parte della gente qui parla italiano. Dove vuole andare?

[No sir. We’re in Milan. Most people here speak Italian. Where are you going?]

SIMON:

Well then, I’m just going to take it out of your tip.

TAXISTA:

Come vuole. Dove vuole andare? (Simon doesn’t understand. Taxista indicates map.) Albergo? Stazione? Museo?

[Do what you want. Where are you going? Hotel? Station? Museum?]

SIMON:

Oh, right. I’m going to the Grand Hotel.

TAXISTA:

Quale Grand Hotel. Ce ne sono due in città. (Taxista holds up two fingers. Simon looks at him blankly. Taxista indicates map again.) L’indirizzo.

[Which Grand Hotel? There are two in the city. The address?]

SIMON:

The address? It’s the Grand Hotel. Five stars. There can’t be that many of those here, could there? Don’t you even know the major hotels of the city?

TAXISTA: (Pulls out and starts to drive.)

Sì signore, conosco la citta. Sono taxista qui da più di trent’anni.

[Yes, I know the city. I’ve been a taxi driver here for more than thirty years.]

SIMON:

Look at that meter spinning. It looks like a one-armed bandit. How much is this going to cost?

TAXISTA:

Al Grand Hotel? (Pulling his hands off the wheel and showing 10 fingers.) Dieci euro. Forse quattordici.

[To the Grand Hotel? Twelve. Fourteen.]

SIMON:

Would you keep your hands on the wheel for Chrissake? Can’t you Italians talk without waving your arms?

TAXISTA:

No. Non posso.

[No. I can’t.]

SIMON:

You Europeans are all alike. Everything costs an arm and a leg and nothing works. And from what I’ve seen so far, it looks like you Italians are the worst. You’re happy to take our money, but you don’t provide even the most basic services. Taxis are part of the tourist industry. Everybody in the tourist industry should speak English. (Silence for a moment, while they drive.)

SIMON: (Continued)

Hey, I saw that. What are you doing there?

TAXISTA:

Non faccio niente. Guido.

[I’m not doing anything. I’m driving.]

SIMON:

Guido, huh? Well I’m watching you, Guido.

TAXISTA:

Non è il mio nome, Guido. Guido la macchina.

[Guido isn’t my name. I’m driving the car.]

SIMON:

Yeah, right. (Silence for a moment while they drive.) There, you did it again. I saw that. Every time you touch that button on the dashboard, the meter jumps five euros. You think that all of us Americans are like dumb chickens waiting to be plucked, don’t you. Well you chose the wrong one to mess with this time, Guido. Steve warned me about this scam, too. You know, I’ve changed my mind. I don’t think I want to go to the Grand Hotel.I think maybe I want to go to the police station. How’d you like that, Guido?Yes, let’s go to the police station.

TAXISTA: (Starting to look agitated and a bit frightened.)

No, signore. Non c’è bisogno di andare dalla polizia.

[No sir. You don’t have to go to the police.]

SIMON:

Not so smug now, are you, Guido. Yes, let’s go to the police station and tell them all about what you are doing to represent your city.

TAXISTA: (Really starting to sweat.)

La prego, signore. Se la polizia mi ferma ancora per questo, perderò la mia licenza.

[Please sir. If I’m caught by the police doing this again, I’ll lose my license.]

SIMON:

License, huh. That word I understood. Well, it won’t be my fault if you lose your license. You should have thought of that before you tried to cheat me.

TAXISTA: (Pleading.)

Non lo faccia, signore. Ho moglie e due bambini piccoli. E mia mamma malata abita con noi. Vede, ecco. (Stops taxi and indicates outside.) Siamo già arrivati al suo albergo. La prego, signore.

[Don’t do it sir. I have a wife and two small children. And my sick mother lives with us. Look. We’re already at the hotel. Please sir.]

SIMON:

What? Oh, we’re here already? Well, OK. But I’m not going to pay you what’s on the meter. It says sixty-five, and I’m sure it shouldn’t be half of that. So, to teach you a lesson, I’m only going to give you twenty. And you should consider yourself lucky.

TAXISTA: (Fawning.)

Sì, grazie signore. Lei è molto gentile. (Then under his breath as he drives away.)

[Yes, thank you sir. That’s very kind of you.]

Asshole.

(Simon walks up to reception desk of hotel.)

RECEPTIONIST:

Prego, signore.

[How can I help you sir?]

SIMON:

My name is Sempliss. Simon Sempliss. I have a reservation.

RECEPTIONIST:

Of course, Mr. Sempliss. One moment, please.

SIMON:

You know the taxi driver from the airport just tried to charge me sixty-five euros. But I knew he was trying to cheat me.

RECEPTIONIST:

Yes, sir, sixty-five is certainly far too much.

SIMON:

So I only gave him twenty. This is one Yank that managed not to get taken.

RECEPTIONIST:

Yes, sir. That’s very good sir.

SIMON:

How much should it be? Thirty? Thirty-five?

RECEPTIONIST: (Reluctantly.)

Well, actually, from the airport it’s usually about twelve euros.

SIMON: (Simon looks shocked and upset.)

What???

RECEPTIONIST: (Trying to make him feel better.)

Sometimes fourteen euros, if the traffic is bad. I’m afraid I can’t find your reservation. Do you have a confirmation number?

SIMON:

Of course. (Handing him a paper.) Here it is.

RECEPTIONIST:

Ah, I see the confusion. You see, there are two Grand Hotels in Milan.You’re reservation is at the Grand Hotel on Via De Gaspari in Certosa. This is the Grand Hotel on Viale Bonardi.

SIMON:

What???!!!

RECEPTIONIST:

Quite a few people make that mistake.

SIMON:

Two hotels with the same name? Isn’t that just typical? Well, how far is it to the other one?

RECEPTIONIST:

I’m afraid you came in the wrong direction from the airport. Via De Gaspari is about 45 minutes from here. Would you like me to get you a taxi?

SIMON:

You’d like that, wouldn’t you? You call a taxi that you have a deal with, he charges me twice the going rate, and you get a kickback. No thank you. I’ll find a taxi on the street.

RECEPTIONIST:

As you wish, Mr. Sempliss. But you see, here in Italy, to save fuel, the taxis don’t drive around looking for passengers. They wait at taxi stops. The closest one is about a kilometer from here. Turn right out of the hotel, go to the second traffic light, turn left, cross the park, . . .

puppet1For nearly all of my working life, I was seriously at the mercy of other people. And what wasn’t at the mercy of other people was, to an absurd degree, subject to luck (fate?).

Yes, I taught English as a Foreign Language for a couple of years, and in the classroom I had at least some control over the students. Not much, but some. But then I went into the business world, where any shred of control evaporated faster than the net worth of my retirement fund over the past six months.

Most of my career was spent in sales and sales support for large, multi-national computer services deals. We’re talking about contracts worth $100 million and up. The largest topped out in the billions. These types of deals often take two or more years to develop, and if it looks as though there is a chance that a deal will close, the lead members of the sales team will be dedicated full time.

But deals like this have an extremely low win rate. There are an infinite number of things that must all go right, and if any one of them goes wrong, two years of work go down the drain.

The Dutch shipping executive whom you’ve spent two years selling your deal to can’t convince his bosses? Pack your bags and fly to Zurich. Your client champion at the Swiss chocolate manufacturer just got fired? Lose a turn and move to Helsinki. The exchange rate of the Hungarian forint goes up against the Finnmark, and you’re bidding your Budapest solution center? Kiss your deal with the Finnish mobile phone manufacturer goodbye and fly to Turin. You were stupid enough to waste your time trying to sell to the Italian automobile manufacturer and you aren’t selling for IBM? Shame on you for being such a doofus. But there’s a deal in Germany that’s hot. You forgot to sell the deal to the janitor in the factory in Cologne? You’re not very good at this, are you? Maybe you should try opening up a Haagen Dasz franchise.

Every one of those things, and dozens of others like them, actually happened to me. OK, the one about the janitor I made up, but the principle is valid. There was always somebody or something that could kill my deal unexpectedly. Over 30 years, I figure that I closed about 10% of the deals I started. Of course, I didn’t spend two years on every deal. Lots of them went away much quicker. But even if the average was, say, a year, the math is still pretty discouraging. 30 year career, 10% hit rate, 1 year per – that’s 30 deals worked on, of which 27 disappeared into the ether. And that’s thousands of pages of great work done late at night that had to be fed into the shredder before I moved to the next opportunity. Discouraging? Hell, yes!

Why would companies employ me for 30 years with a win-rate like that? Because the profit on one successful billion dollar contract is enough to cover all the expenses for the lost deals and still pay for the corporate big shots’ fleet of private jets. That’s why.

The team working on the larger deals would be 200 people or more. I was reasonably high in the hierarchy, but there were still always lots of people above me. You know that expression about s*%$ rolling downhill? Just call me Mr. Brownface.

On one huge contract, I was responsible for writing the executive summary for the proposal. By the time that document was submitted, we were on Version 236d! The final days of writing that proposal were like the car-washing scene from “Cool Hand Luke.”

Boss 1: “Put a comma in here.”

Me: “Puttin’ it in here, Boss.”

Boss 2: “We don’t need this comma.”

Me: “Takin’ it out here, Boss.”

Boss 1: “I thought I told you to put a comma here.”

Me: “Puttin’ it back in, Boss.”

Boss 2: “What’s that comma doing in the Warden’s document?”

Me: “Takin’ it out here, Boss.”

Are you getting the point? I was definitely NOT IN CHARGE.

Finally, I decided to quit it all and start doing something where I am in

Deus Ex Machina

Don as a deity, controlling the scene

complete control. As a playwright, I’m like the deity who’s suspended from the contraption in the corner of the stage in a Greek play. I’ve got a character who’s a 90 years old man and he’s decided he’s going to become the heavyweight boxing champion of the world? But that doesn’t work for the play? Poof! He’s a 17 year old girl, and he (she) is pregnant. What a feeling of POWER!

So after all those years of being a flea on the great stallion of life, I am finally

Large And In Charge

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, you’ll have to excuse me. I’ve got to go mail off copies of my new book, Ups & Downs to a hundred reviewers. Maybe one of them will actually read it. Then, I’m going to send copies of my latest play, “Shakespeare Incorporated” to 75 theaters. My hit rate on those is about 1%.

One of the biggest cultural shocks in living overseas was the realization thatrembrandt-portrait I wouldn’t be required to live forever, and to be young and beautiful all that time.

Here in America, the prevailing impression is that everything is under your control.  If you just eat right, take the right vitamins and herbal supplements, exercise right, meditate right, go to the right massage therapist, the right psychiatrist, and the right plastic surgeon, shop at the right stores –you will never get sick or be unattractive or be unhappy or get wrinkled.  If you do, it is ALL YOUR FAULT!  Sounds ridiculous, of course, but think about it.  Deep down, don’t you believe that?  I know I did.

I moved overseas when I was 22 and was exposed to an entirely different philosophy.  Depending on where you are in Europe, you may be expected to have some degree of control or very little.  Germany tends to be close to the U.S. in this regard, while the Brits are generally of the impression that you are  going to get old and sick and ugly soon enough — if you aren’t already — so why bother.

Because I had spent my youth in the U.S. but left when I was young and moved from country to country, I ended up being schizophrenic.  Of course, I knew intellectually that time marches on and eventually destroys what genes hadn’t configured in the womb and bad luck doesn’t take care of in the interim.  But subconsciously, when I got my first grey hair and started needing glasses, I felt guilty.  I must have done something wrong.

But no matter.  I could fix it.  The same when my colesterol got a little high.  No drugs for me.  I’ll just go on a macrobiotic diet, run 30 miles a day and meditate, and everything will go back to where it was when I was 18 years old.  My British doctor’s response was, “Well, OK, if you want to.  But you’ll be exhausted and it probably won’t make much difference.

So eventually, I relaxed and started to go with the flow.  Yes, believe it or not, I have lots of grey hair, a few wrinkles, my feet and knees hurt after I’ve walked 10 miles, and my stomach — well, it isn’t the stomach of an 18 year old either.  What a relief.  Believe me, it’s a lot more relaxing than being responsible for eternal perfection.

But then I moved back to the U.S., to Boulder.   While Boulder doesn’t have the mania for artificially induced beauty and youth of much of the rest of the U.S. (yes, you occasionally encounter old, ugly people here), it is one of the world’s touchy-feely centers of endless happiness.  And, of course, I get ample exposure to the rest of the American ethos through the media.

So it’s back on the treadmill for me.  Age 25, here I come!

don-as-unaccompanied-minor

Don as a "grey-bearded, homeless, unaccompanied-minor" in one of the cartoons from "Ups & Downs"

I guess it’s natural to yearn for things you can’t have, and my yearning for a beard goes way back.

I was fairly late going through puberty, and even when it finally arrived I wasn’t all that good at it. So while my high-school and college friends were all displaying manly five-o’clock shadows and growing impressive full beards, I was cultivating 6 or 7 straggly hairs on my chin.  When those hairs got long enough that they curled up on each other several times, I could almost kid myself into thinking that what I had was a beard.  But then some young lady that I thought was attracted to me would make a disparaging remark about my “Sillygoat scruff,” and reality would set in with a bang.

Fortunately, moustaches can be made up of 6 or 7 really long, straggly hairs — or so I imagined — so by the time I was 23, I decided to abandon my beard attempts and try my luck with a moustache.  (By this time, Rhonda and I had left Iran and moved to Germany, where I was teaching English as a Foreign Language to American soldiers.  Yes, you read that right.  But that’s another story.)  Within a short time, however, it was evident that 6 or 7 really long, straggly hairs on my upper lip didn’t look much better than 6 or 7 really long, straggly hairs had on my chin.

Then I discovered moustache wax!  I bought a big pot of the stuff and a tiny brush, and devoted much of each day to dipping the brush into the pot and stroking my upper lip horizontally away from my nose in both directions.  And when I wasn’t dipping and brushing, I was pulling and twisting.  All day long — dip, stroke, pull, twist; dip, stroke, pull twist.  Very therapeutic, really.  It gives you something socially acceptable to do with your hands when you get nervous.

And it worked!  After 4 or 5 months, I had what appeared to be a respectable handle-bar moustache.  OK, it was mostly dark brown goo, but that wasn’t obvious to anyone who kept their hands off my face.  Boy, was I proud of that moustache.

One morning, though, I didn’t pay attention when I was shaving my lower lip and cheeks, and when I looked up, the tip of one side of my pride and joy was gone!  Nooooo!  I trimmed the other side to match it, but got it too short.  Back to the first side.  Back to the other.  Back.  Forth.  By the time I finished, I had a nice little Charlie Chaplin (Hitler!) moustache in the center of my lip.  That wasn’t exactly the thing for an American to have on his face in Germany in 1975, so off it came.

The next year, I started work for a computer company that had a rule against facial hair, and for the next 20 years, my urge to grow a beard was frustrated.  But unbeknownst to me, by the time I was in my early 40s, all those little hormones that had been so recalcitrant in my youth had finally decided to pay me a visit.  And when my company lifted the ban on facial hair, I went on a beard-growing orgy that lasted  — well, it’s still going on.

Rhonda has always hated beards, and generally refuses to get too close when I’ve got one.  So every year or so, I shave, get a fix of affection, and then grow the beard again.  Now that we live apart most of the year, it’s not so much of an issue.

don-beard-1

A tanned, bearded Don at the end of the trek through the Alps

Usually, I keep the whole affair reasonably neatly trimmed.  But a few weeks ago we started rehearsing a play that I wrote on Charles Darwin (see the Plays tab, and look for “The Debate”), and I’m playing Darwin!  In preparation, I’ve been letting the beard grow since my son David’s wedding in mid-September.  The play closes in early March, so that’ll be 6 months growth in all.  By that time, I’ll be a Rip Van Winkle lookalike.

In the meantime, though, my beard is as long as it’s ever been, and I’ve discovered a number of interesting things that it’s good for (in addition to the obvious one of keeping my face warm in a Colorado winter).  First, I’m a big fan of spare-ribs.  Now, by licking my moustache hairs, I get to continue tasting the barbecue sauce for hours after the meal is finished.  Yumm!  Second, after I wash my face or take a shower, my chin hairs become a water reservoir of considerable volume.  That will be very refreshing on warm days and could be a life saver the next time I trek through the desert.

Perhaps most important though, the beard is enabling me to go undercover while doing the research for my latest play, “Postville.”  The play has a number of characters who are Hasidic Jews.  You know, the ultra-orthodox guys with the black coats and hats and the long beards!  In doing my research, I’ve been spending time with the Lubavitch community in Boulder, and they’ve been very welcoming and helpful.  But it has been pretty clear to everyone that I am an outsider.  Now, with each passing week, I come closer and closer to disappearing into the crowd.

Over the next 3 months, I’m sure I’ll come up with lots of other fun things I can do with my beard.  I’ll keep you informed.

don-iranFollowing on from yesterday’s post, I should tell you that Rhonda and I were iran1in Teheran in 1974 teaching English to Iranian soldiers.  This was in the days of the Shah, and Iran was buying a fleet of attack helicopters from Bell Helicopter.  Rather than teaching the Bell instructors Farsi, it was decided to teach the Iranian soldiers English, and Bell contracted to set up several schools.  I was just finishing up a Masters in Linguistics with a specialization in Teaching English as a Foreign Language, and moving to Teheran to teach Iranian soldiers was my first venture outside of the U.S.

At the school, which was on an army base, there were forty teachers.  Most of them, like Rhonda and me, were idealistic, bright-eyed young Americans on their first teaching assignments.  About 400 soldiers, in training to be helicopter mechanics and pilots, would go through the school each year, and at the beginning of the year they were all given an entrance exam.  The students with the top 12 scores went into the first class, the next 12 scores went into the second class, and so on.  I got the last class — the lowest 12 out of 400!

These were not high-school grads from an industrialized country we are talking about here.  The large majority of the Iranian population at the time was rural, and most of my students had come straight from tiny, mud-hut villages in the desert.  Several of them were only semi-literate in Farsi, and I had 8 hours of teaching these same students 5 days a week for 12 weeks, to get them to be literate and fluent in English.  It was an exhausting, incredibly frustrating first venture into my new career.

Although we didn’t know it yet, 1974 was close to the end of the Shah’s regime, and if I had been looking for signs of the coming explosion, I would have seen them.  But I was far too busy being profoundly culture-shocked with life in Iran.  At the orientation session for the school instructors, we were told that the Iranian Secret Police, Savak, was everywhere, and we were never to refer to the Shah in public by title or name.  We were to choose a euphemism.  The one which nearly everybody used was “Clark Kent.”

We were also told that at least one of our students would be a ringer — a Savak agent there to watch us.  To avoid uncomfortable situations, we were to avoid teaching “controversial” words in our lessons.  Words like “democracy,” or “elections.”  (“Why don’t we have elections, teacher?”)  Fortunately, my 18 year old soldier-students were much too interested in trying to get me to teach them words referring to female anatomy to care much about political science.

The school was made up of two long buildings lined up end to end.  My class was at the end of one building, and the school office was at the nearest point in the next building.  A dozen times a day I went back and forth to the office, and while using the main entrances of the buildings would have meant a trip of nearly a quarter of a mile, there were secondary doors next to my class and the office, so the trip was less than 50 yards.

One morning I arrived to find the school abuzz.  In two days, the Empress would be visiting the school, and the army was doing it’s best to spruce-up the place, which included putting large potted plants at each of the entrances.  A few hours later, while I gave my class a break, I headed to the nearby door to take the shortcut between the two buildings.  It was locked.  I realized immediately that the base authorities had decided that if they were going to go through the trouble and expense of putting potted plants at the main entrances, everyone was damn well going to use those main entrances.  In frustration, I banged on the door and said, “Those bastards.”  Several of my students who had come out of the classroom observed my mini-tantrum.

Remember now, these were the bottom 12 students out of 400.  They never learned even the simplest word on less than 50 repetitions.  These words, though, they learned on the first repetition.  Within seconds, my entire class was running up and down the halls of the military language school, banging on doors and yelling, “Those bastards!  Those bastards!”

“No,” I said desperately, “I didn’t say that.  I didn’t mean it.  Oh, god!”

Later that day I found out which of the students in my class was my spy.  I should have known.  Corporal Khojasteh was far and away the best student in the class, so I frequently used him to run errands for me.  That afternoon I asked him to come with me to the office to help carry a projector.  Forgetting about what had happened in the morning, I led him to the nearby door and tried it.  It was still locked, and I muttered under my breath, “Damn, that’s stupid.”  He fixed me with an earnest stare and said, “The major did that.  Is the major stupid?”

“Let me rephrase that,” I babbled.

After that, I kept my eye on Corporal Khojasteh, and he did many things to confirm that he was, indeed, my personal informer.

If I told you that this was one of the high points of my career as a language teacher in Iran, perhaps you’ll understand just how difficult it was.  And how unprepared I was for it.