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119_withnail_originalYaldā:  the longest night of the year. On this night the Sun-God Mithra was born, he of the wide pastures, of the thousand ears, and of the myriad eyes. He emerged from the light from deep within the Alborz mountains and was equal to Ahura Mazda and Anahita. Our friend, Hamid, prepare a pot of fesenjan, serving it with crackling, saffroned tahdiq. We snack on green olives to protect against scorpions. A stainless-steel samovar puffs on the kitchen counter, offering water for bitter black tea. Hamid gives me an amber rock of sugar. Hold this in your cheek while you drink, he explains. It will sweeten the tea.  Our friend Jenn marvels at fresh quince. A pomegranate waits to be cracked open, the seeds as red as dawn. The last fruits of winter.

This year, Hamid’s boyfriend, Warren, invites friends with whom he used to live on a pagan commune on the outskirts of Philadelphia. They reminisce about midsummer bonfires and fertility rituals. Warren is now earning his Ph.D. in nursing; Scott and John are now a well-to-do gay power couple, an architect and schoolteacher, respectively. Everyone’s radical days seem far behind them; even the drugged and drunk Marwood, at the end of Withnail & I, cuts his hair and prepares to embark—seriously—on his career.

J___ proclaims himself the fire-tender for the evening. He has the build of a construction worker and keeps his hair pulled back into a ponytail, a spurt of plumage at the back of his head. Fueled by red wine, his voice grows larger as the evening wears on. What we need, J___ says, is a vertical fire. His big-hearted benevolence explodes. He stacks the logs into a pyramid teepee, and they’re soon blazing. The night is unseasonably warm—almost 50 degrees—and with the fire and the steam from the samovar and food, the room is a tub of embrocation.  How did the ancient Persians, gathering in the mountains to watch the miracle of dawn, vent their caves? J___ says, This reminds me of a sweat lodge, but I hope it isn’t the one in Arizona where three people died from heat stroke. The guru, James Arthur Ray, claimed that the dead “were having so much fun” in their out-of-body experiences that they didn’t want to return.

At the end of the evening, we gather in the living room. It’s a family tradition, Hamid explains, to make a wish for the new year and then to turn to a random poem by Hafez. The translations by Gertrude Bell—the woman who helped shape the borders of modern Iraq at the 1921 Cairo Conference—are prolix and convoluted, an remnant of Victorian imperialism; the translations by Daniel Ladinsky are cleaner and more sonorous. I throw pistachio shells onto the fire, where they spark and pop.

The subject tonight is love
And for tomorrow night too
As a matter of fact
I know of no better topic
For us to discuss
Until we all
Die!

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118_sull_originalWhen Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea enter the flophouse, they look around, dismayed. Sleeping vagrants litter the floor in a knot of rags, and when Lake and McCrea find a free spot, they curl into a protective cocoon, batting away strange, errant limbs. On the wall is a curious sign:  Have You Written Your Mother?  Those thick block letters have an oddly chiding tone, a schoolmarm’s fat finger waving at those unfortunates who have just endured a fiery sermon to sleep here.

No, I have not written to my mother. I call, though not as frequently as she would like. My father answers and pretends I’m a stranger: Who’s this? he asks, as if caller ID weren’t a built-in feature of their life.  My mother replaces Hello with Why haven’t you called? As she runs through her litany of concern (Have you gone to the dentist? Found a permanent job yet? Get your flu shot?), I feel like I’m eight, and I wait, irritably, until I finally become an adult, and she tells me what’s been going on at temple, with her friends, in the family.

She sends out emails too, though her use of diacritical marks depends on which computer she’s using. Behind the desk in the computer room (my old bedroom), my father has taped a sampler of the Vietnamese fonts he’s downloaded. With these, the accents are accessible via keystrokes. I imagine her sitting there, tapping out appropriate vowel tones. But if she’s in her own room, sitting up in her waterbed, tablet on her lap, I imagine that she most likely can’t be bothered.  It doesn’t matter, really, if the marks are there or not, since I’m barely literate in Vietnamese. I scan the email for words I immediately recognize— root canal, endodonist, dental insurance, osteoporosis—and infer the rest. The diacritical marks dot the screen like dust.

But my mother also writes letters, short communiqués on the free notepads charities send out when they try to guilt you into sending donations: Red Cross, World Wildlife Foundation, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. Her handwriting is crisp and spiky, insisting that it be absolutely understood. Just a few words on each note: I’m sending you this check, it says, because of ____, and I’m forced to sound out each word, to remember which tone goes with which mark. The hỏi asks a question, and the ngã breaks. Sắc is like the French accent aigu, while huyền is the French grave, and nặng is the heavy thud, a cannonball of a vowel. The diacritics sometimes double up on the same vowel. Depending on its marking, the word ‘ma’ can mean: mother, or ghost, or however, or horse, or grave, or rice seedling.

My mother asks if I can read her notes, and I always answer yes, even if I can’t. I put her notes, folded in half, in the back of my desk, where they remind me: communicate.

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When my sister was in high school, she went on an Urban Experience. As a lesson about homelessness, she and her classmates were challenged to spend the night in downtown Denver with only five dollars in their pockets. They would have to sleep on heat vents or in homeless shelters; they’d have to know what it’s like to be hungry; they’d emerge from it chastened and humbled and wiser for the experience.

It was fun, my sister told me.

I suppose this was the drawback: there was nothing at stake. They only had to make it for a few hours, and by morning, they’d be back in bed, well-fed and warm. In other words, it was an early opportunity for my sister to spend an entire night out. As it was, by the time I got to high school, I had already planned how I would have spent my night, but the program didn’t exist anymore.

Years of city living has inured me to the homeless. I mistrust the men—and it’s almost always men, Caucasian—who linger on the devil’s strip near busy stoplights, where the traffic can back up a block’s length. Their clothes are dirty and sufficiently worn, though still serviceable, and they bear stubble on their face as proof of hardship. They hold cardboard squares with their lives’ misery condensed in black Magic Marker: got laid-off, Vietnam vet, foreclosed home, hungry family, God bless. They rarely speak. But they strike me the way William Powell strikes me in My Man Godfrey: There’s no way he could be homeless.

I wasn’t always so cynical. One evening when I was still in college, I was with my friend C___ and his boyfriend J___, hanging out in the gay neighborhood of Baltimore, Mount Vernon. We were all too young to go to the bars and clubs, but we were there to steep in the general atmosphere, reveling, as we were, in the then-new excitement of our community. We were at the base of the hill the rises towards the George Washington Monument, outside of The Buttery, a diner that would have been more aptly named “The Greasery.”

An African-American woman came up to us. She spun out her story—she needed milk for her baby at home, stuck in the city without bus fare. C___ and I, both still new to Baltimore, looked at each other, unsure of what to do. We could deal with homelessness when it was huddled in a corner, but never had it come up to confront us. As college students, we hardly had any money ourselves, though we must have had a few bucks between the two of us. We sputtered out our excuses, but she pressed on. My baby’s hungry, she insisted.

J____, from nearby Ellicott City, was getting more upset at us for engaging with her than with her for coming to us.

Finally, fed up, he gave her a few dollars. “Here,” he said. “Take it.”

When she left, she seemed to skip, with what might have been glee. “She seems happy,” I said.

“Why wouldn’t she be?” J___ replied. “She got her money.”

ImageBig Deal on Wheeling Street

The scene:

July 1985. Morris Heights. The field at the end of the street is overgrown with beige scrub, with a small copse of trees at its center. The copse hides an abandoned mattress, an object of mystery and excitement to bored adolescents. Around it, bike paths have been carved out of the dry ground with teeth-chipping hills and gullies for intrepid bikers. Midsummer flattens everything, a heat that stretches across the neighborhood like mohair. The sun opens the mischief in our pores, and it’s too far to walk to Circle-K to shoplift candy.

The soundtrack:

Instead of Piero Umiliani: cicadas. Cars speeding up and down Baranmore Parkway. Duran Duran, Phil Collins, Paul Young and Whitney Houston on the radio. My father snoring on the couch as we wait to have dinner with my cousins.

The crew:

Me, as the semi-innocent Mario; my best friend Daddy from across the street as Peppe, the instigator; Floyd, the Native-American, the sad-sack Capannelle; Brent, whose glasses always seemed smeared, as can’t-catch-a-break Cosimo; and Rae, the chubby-faced moll, who lived two doors down from me.

The plan:

Three blocks away, I-225 connects the major interstates I-70 and I-25, cutting through our neighborhood like a pocketknife. The highway is the terminus of our world: anything past Xanadu St. seems as distant as the moon, and the kids there, aliens. Although there’s an underpass right along 30th, the 31st St. gang decides on a shortcut: a kid-sized opening in the chain-link fence walling off the highway. There must be a similar gap on the other side.

The job:

The cars don’t seem to be going that fast, even though they’re barreling along at 65 miles an hour, minimum. We wait until we spy a gap in traffic, then, one at a time, hop over the guardrail and run across the pavement to the grassy median. That’s just northbound; we still have southbound to contend with, though it’s pretty much the same. Floyd, with his short, spindly legs, can’t sprint as fast, and the rest of us watch as cars slow and swerve to avoid him. We also discover that there’s no gap on the other side of the highway.

The fallout:

After lying low for a bit and consulting, we decide to haul ass back across the highway, but not before we see police lights coming down to road. Most of the gang scampers across and down the hill, but Danny, who’s been ushering Floyd, gets nabbed. We know as soon as we see this that he’ll sell us down the river, and we scatter home to await the knock on our doors. But as it turns out, Dad has woken from his nap, and it’s time for dinner. As we drive up Baranmore Parkway, away from the crime scene, I see a cop car coming from the opposite direction, and as we pass, there’s Danny’s red hair in the back. For one of us, at least, a successful getaway.

112_box_348x490In one of the visual gags in Playtime, Tati puts the viewer in a voyeuristic role, framing the scene from the outside of an apartment building.  Inside, two families face each other, ostensibly watching a boxing match on the in-set televisions mounted on their respective side of the shared wall.  But from the outside, the families seemingly react as if they are observing each other.  For instance, as the father on one side begins to disrobe, the father on the other side shoos his daughter away, as if he does not want her to look upon the other man’s nakedness.

I visited Bác Thu Dang’s apartment once, with my parents.  We were on our way someplace else, I think, because I can’t think of any reason why I should have been there.  I was eight or nine at the time.  His apartment was a one-bedroom, and the whole place was cluttered, as if there was no way a whole life could have fit into that space.  We sat around a kitchen table, and, on the chair next to me, was a stack of newspapers that was almost as tall as I was,  The appliances were lumbering, 70s avocado-green beasts, covered in a thin, opaque film of grease.  My parents and Bác Thu Dang spoke in animated tones, but I couldn’t understand what they said.  Bored to distraction, I began looking through the stack:  newspapers in English, newspapers in Vietnamese, unopened mail.

But then, near the bottom, there it was.  A porno mag.  It wasn’t the first I’d ever seen, of course; I knew the location of every dirty magazine at home.  I had also become quite adept at sniffing them out at the houses of other relatives too:  underneath mattresses, at the back of closets, in child-accessible storage spaces.  It was as if, by discovering where others had hidden their sexual secrets, I could learn how to hide my own better.

But this magazine was different.  Up to then, everything I’d seen, despite promises of SHOCKING and UNCENSORED, was pretty much softcore.  What the couple (white man, Asian woman) did in this magazine, the others had only suggested.  I was enthralled, even as I tried to appear nonchalant.  The thrill of the forbidden, of discovery—but when I reached its end, I was confused.  All that white foamy stuff?  That’s a lot of spit, I thought, and it wasn’t until years later that I realized that I had seen my first cumshot.

I thought differently about Bác Thu Dang after that. Afterwards, whenever I encountered him, I thought I could detect, underneath his unflagging joviality, sadness, loneliness. As he moved, I thought I could see him carrying squalor and poverty and pornography around like a phantom limb. I didn’t suspect that these would one day be as much a part of my life as they were of his. The voyeur never considers his own position.  He presses his nose up against the glass of another person’s life. He pretends to know what’s going on inside. He pretends that what he sees is a joke. He never considers that he is also being watched.

111_box_348x490Bác Thu Dang was not a blood relative as far as I know. Vietnamese family trees are notoriously convoluted, with the farther branches of second uncles and cousins twisted and labyrinthine. But I suspect that his bác was an honorific, the way that some Vietnamese refer to Ho Chi Minh as Bác Hồ — Uncle Ho. (My parents refuse to speak Ho Chi Minh’s name in any incarnations — their version of the 614th mitzvah.)

I knew nothing of Bác Thu Dang’s life. My father told me, at one point, that he worked as a janitor. He spoke very little English, but in Vietnamese, he had a knack for puns: slight tonal shifts, switched consonants. When he came over for visits — once a week, it seemed – he and my parents played cắt tê for nickels and took sips of Remy Martin V.S.O.P. until they were red-faced from laughter and alcohol. My mother let me taste her drink (Remy and 7-Up) and sporadically explained what was so funny. I suspect that most of Bác Thu Dang’s jokes were dirty.

One Christmas, Bác Thu Dang gave me a bag of Hershey’s Kisses, and I ate them all, except for three — one of each color: green, red, silver. I had a habit of hording candy — in a Sucrets tin, one of each flavor out from a bag of Jelly Bellys kept in a Sucrets tin; in a lidded jar, the accumulated cherry pieces from a Halloween’s-worth of SweeTarts. A few years ago, when I was cleaning out my childhood desk, I found those three Kisses, still in their bag, crammed in the back of a drawer. They’d dissolved into dust by then, eaten by something larval, their foil pocked with holes. This was my last physical reminder with Bác Thu Dang, but still, I threw the bag away.

I’m struck by how M. Hulot reminds me of Bác Thu Dang: the tall frame, the long face, the air of calm bufuddlement. I don’t recall ever seeing Bác Thu Dang without a hat, most often a droopy fishing hat that sat low on his head, much like the one M. Hulot wears on his holiday. The similarities end there: Bác Thu Dang also wore large glasses, and his front two incisors were nicotine-stained and slightly twisted, giving him the appearance of an overbite. But he was a familiar sight in our house, a constant presence in our lives.

Until he wasn’t. At some point, the visits stopped, I’m not sure why. There hadn’t been a quarrel that I was aware of, and when my parents encountered him, they were still convivial. But the level of closeness wasn’t there anymore. Maybe the friendship had simply run its course. The young boy in Mon Oncle never questions why his uncle is suddenly no longer a part of his life; he instead forms a stronger bond with his father.

For me, I know there’s must be another secret stash of chocolate somewhere.

110_box_348x490For a number of years, Matthew and I had a New Year’s Eve tradition: we would go to bed early—well before midnight—and when the new year came, we’d rouse to the noisemakers and the fireworks, and turn to each other, and mumble ‘happy new year,’ and kiss, and then go back to sleep.

*

This year, we went to a friend’s house for an evening of board games. Foil hats, hors d’oeuvres, plastic leis. Ball drop, champagne toast, kiss, Auld Lang Syne. Then it was time to go.

The highways were empty. No tractor trailers, only a few other cars. Everyone, I suppose, was enjoying their night off, except for those bartenders, policemen, taxi drivers, and hospital workers who kept the world in working order for us to return to the next day. On the drive, Matthew said that he could see fireworks from between the buildings of Wilmington, but by the time I looked, they had dissipated.

Matthew went to bed soon after we got home. I watched M. Hulot’s Holiday. On New Year’s Day, Southerners eat black-eyed peas and collard greens to represent prosperity. The Irish eat ham and cabbage. Maybe watching M. Hulot’s Holiday signifies gentle humility. Or having gimlet humor towards the world. Or maybe I, myself, need a vacation on the Brittany coast. As I watched, the movie was punctuated, from outside, with occasional bursts. Fireworks—or perhaps gunfire, both wholly American traditions.

*

Towards the end of the film, M. Hulot accidentally sets off a shed full of fireworks. Some of them hit the pension where he’s staying in what director Terry Jones describes as an “artillery barrage.”

“It’s almost as if,” Jones says, “Tati was mounting a military assault against the stuffy old world of the past.”

The racket wakes the other vacationers, the lights in their rooms turning on one by one. And as they leave their rooms and gather downstairs, where raucous jazz plays, they begin—begrudgingly—to have fun.

*

New Year’s Eve, 1999. We weren’t afraid of the Y2K bug—not really. But, just in case, two hours before the catastrophe hit, Matthew drove me in his green Jetta (named Clio, for the muse of history) north from Denver. We had planned it so that when midnight struck, we’d be over the Wyoming border, but still far enough away from Cheyenne to miss the cataclysm. At midnight, we pulled into a scenic overlook on the side of the highway. We got out of the car—after all, it, too, had an internal computer and may have been susceptible to spontaneous combustion. It was cold, I remember, though there was no snow, and we huddled beneath the light overhanging the highway, the orange glow almost nuclear in its brightness. At midnight, to the north we could see fireworks, and to the south, another set of fireworks. The wind, with sharp teeth, brought the sound of distant explosions. And we stood there, holding each other, until we were sure that the world hadn’t ended after all, and then drove home.

In The Lady Eve, right before Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) realizes that her beloved thinks she’s a gold digger, she tells him, regarding women: “The best ones aren’t as good as you probably think they are, and the bad ones aren’t as bad. Not nearly as bad.” Her voice is jaunty as she speaks because she doesn’t know what’s coming next, and as he reveals what he knows, Stanwyck becomes crest-fallen. Her self-confidence is rattled, and her eyes water as she pleads with him to see past what he believes. To see past what the world believes of her.

Those tears may seem like easy sentimentality in this most sentimental of film genres (the romantic comedy or, more specific, the screwball comedy), but behind those tears, Stanwyck maintains a strong will. She spends the remainder of the film proving her assertion about women, and from then on, looks at Peter Fonda as if he’s more trouble than he’s worth, but worth the pursuit anyhow.

At that moment, I finally understood why my mother loves Barbara Stanwyck. We once watched an entire season of The Colbys because Stanwyck starred as the matriarch of the family, Constance Colby. I was only eleven and had endured 10 hours of Richard Chamberlain in The Thorn Birds for two hours of Stanwyck, but at least for The Colbys, I was already a fan of Dynasty. But when Constance was killed off after the first season (a plane crash in Asia), my mother and I stopped watching, because the show was actually pretty lame. The series finale involved an alien abduction, if I’m not mistaken.

Stanwyck had never struck me as someone who was glamorous—after all, I’d only ever seen her play fiercely protective mothers—but I could say the same about my mother. She had me when she was almost forty, so I never knew her as a young woman. A black-and-white photograph of my mother hangs on the wall outside the kitchen. In it, my mother appears softer than I’ve ever seen her, looking slightly over her shoulder, hair cupping her face, luminous. My father joked: “That was taken when Mom was a radio pop star.”

I can’t tell how old my mother is in that photograph, but apparently, my paternal grandmother once called her a ‘gold digger.’ My father was, at the time, an officer in the ARVN, educated in America, slender and handsome with a copstash standard moustache. In other words: quite a catch. And my mother? She was older than my father by three years. Quite the scandal.

According to Henry Cavill, screwball comedies aren’t comedies of marriage, but of how a couple separates and reunites. Of remarriage. How long did it take my mother to convince my grandmother that good girls weren’t as good as she think they were, and bad ones weren’t as bad? Because nowadays, as I watch my mother in the kitchen, peeling vegetables, making rice, stir-frying shrimp and braising fish, I can’t help but think that my father got the better end of the deal.

Pollywog Stew (1982)

I never knew the Beastie Boys did straight-up punk.

Licensed to Ill (1986)

“(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)” was impossible to avoid.  The video was on heavy MTV rotation, and I disliked the Beastie Boys for many reasons:  shouty lyrics, frat-boy antics, low-level homophobia.  Of all the things to fight for, I thought, why is partying first?  But the biggest reason was that hip-hop wasn’t on my radar; I was twelve, and only making the transition from Top 40 to Euro synth-pop.

Paul’s Boutique (1989)

At Barnes & Noble, I spread all the alternative music magazines I could find in front of me on the table so that everyone could see how alternative I was.  Even though Paul’s Boutique got plenty of positive press, my antipathy towards the Beastie Boys had evolved into indifference.  They were mainstream, I thought, and to hell with the mainstream!  I was too busy with the review of the latest Peter Murphy album and the up-and-coming Nine Inch Nails, who I suspected might get big.

Check Your Head (1992)

R___ had a poetry class with me.  He wore baseball caps backwards and was in a fraternity:  in other word, the type I associated with the Beastie Boys.  And, sure enough, when I delivered a copy of my workshop poem to his dorm, there, on the floor, was Check Your Head.  Mark Strand took a liking to R___’s work, much to my dismay.  Strand held up phrases of his for us to examine:  a crumb of soap.  Grandmother slurping soup.  I wondered, How was this possible?  Strand gave me a C, and I retreated to the Baltimore raves, where frat boys hadn’t yet infiltrated.

Ill Communication (1994)

In X-Force #43, Rictor (a mutant with the ability to create seismic waves) takes his teammate Shatterstar (a warrior from another dimension) to the Limelight to teach him about human feelings.  When Shatterstar hears “Sabotage,” he notes the atavism of the song, how the bass rattles his bones.  When a young girl tries to dance with him, he runs away, wondering what it would take to make him feel human.  Years later, he and Rictor become lovers.

Hello Nasty (1998)

Ad-Rock apologized for his past homophobia in a letter to Time Out New York.  “There are no excuses, but time has healed our stupidity,” he wrote.  “We have learned and sincerely changed since the 80s.”  He takes it a step further in “Alive” when he raps “Homophobics ain’t OK,” while wearing a fuzzy powder-blue jumpsuit.

Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 (2011)

Adam Yauch passed away from cancer about a month ago.  A friend in Brooklyn told me about passing a beauty salon that had a hand-written sign reading ‘R.I.P. MCA.’  I didn’t know what it meant, my friend said.  Neither did I.  Adam Yauch, to me, was not MCA but the founder of Oscilloscope Laboratories and vegan Buddhist.  But, rewatching the videos, I realized how Adam Yauch is inseparable from MCA, the way I’m inseparable from my 80s self for which I have yet to apologize.  There he is dressed like a scruffy 80s motorcycle rocker; then again with short-cropped gray hair.  There he is his delivering a gruff rap about beer; then again criticizing disrespect towards women.   There he is, still fighting.

Television Sets of the Dinh Household

1980-1985; living room

Saturday mornings, here’s where I worship.  I keep the volume low and move 10 inches from the screen so that I can hear what’s happening on The Mighty Orbots.  My parents have warned me not to sit so close, that I’ll ruin my eyesight, but if I’m very quiet and don’t wake them, who’s to know?  I realize that The Mighty Orbots are a variation of the “robots-that-are-something-else” genre, that most other kids at school prefer Transformers, and that I have thrown in my lot with the more numerous (and more affordable) Gobots, but there is so much to want, and if I can get closer to the screen, maybe I can have them all.

1985-present; my mother’s bedroom

Perched on the corner of my mother’s waterbed, I watched what my mother wanted to watch.  This mostly involved Dynasty, which we picked up right during the Moldavian Massacre.  With each subsequent season finale (hotel fire!  Alexis driving off a bridge!  Krystle missing!), my mother and I scoured issues of Star and the National Enquirer to figure out who survived and who didn’t.  We even tuned into The Colbys, the spin-off, right to the bitter end when Fallon was abducted by aliens.  At 10, we watched the nightly news, followed by re-runs of M*A*S*H* at 10:35.  Sometimes I stayed up the extra half-hour for Nightline, but usually by that time, my mother was already asleep.

1987-present; the basement

My father, because of his snorning, had been banished to the basement years before, and, there, he erected his home theater.  He bought a huge set for the time, speakers trailing silvery wires, and two VCRs for direct tape-to-tape duplication.  Everywhere we went offered rentals:  strip-mall storefronts; Blockbuster Videos; a Vietnamese shop specializing in Chinese serial melodramas.  Even our local King Soopers had a small cordoned-off section of videotapes.  My father laminated his membership cards, and once a week, he’d flip through them, deciding which to visit that evening.  “It’s best to see movies big,” he said, proud of his set-up.  True; but at the time all I wanted to see was The Mutilator.

2000-present; the kitchen

One character in Good Morning mentions how small talk is a social lubricant, how it keeps the wheels of society turning smoothly.  This may be true amongst strangers and neighbors, but what about with your spouse, to whom you may feel as though you’ve said everything?  Since their retirement, my mother monopolizes the phone line in her room, chatting with friends, and my father retreats to the basement where he mans a DVD duplication service for his friends.  But, in the afternoon, they convene before the small TV on the dining table to watch various afternoon judge shows, Wheel of Fortune during dinner, and Dancing with the Stars in the evening. They debate the merits of so-and-so’s pasodoble. They discuss whose judicial sensibilities the most admire (Judge Judy, yes; Judge Greg Brown, no).  And when they eat, instead of silence, they test their knowledge of American idioms, shouting out answers, trying to solve the puzzle before Vanna turns over the next letter.

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