My attempt at creating a viral topical meme. As you can see, I’m from the Emily Litella school of political satire.
WARNING: Authority Will Become Explosive When Challenged
There’s an article at Vox.com with the headline, “Colleges say campuses can reopen safely. Student and faculty aren’t convinced,” and it reminded of something I witnessed over thirty years ago. I used to manage a bookstore at a community college that didn’t have enough enrollment to fill all the classroom space available. Consequently, a portion of the college’s decaying lower campus was leased as classrooms to a local high school district that had the opposite problem of a student population overflowing beyond the capacity of its schools. In addition to a few hundred high school students, the college’s lower campus also hosted a day care center, an underused cafeteria, a few minor administrative offices, and the bookstore where I worked.
One Spring day, everyone from the lower campus – college employees, high school students, and daycare children and staff — were evacuated to the parking lot due to a bomb threat. To be honest, this wasn’t that serious a threat since it was finals week for the high school students (finals for the college came a few weeks later). Still, the fire department spent a couple hours searching the lower campus where the “bomb” was supposedly located before declaring it safe.
All of that is background and context. What stays in my mind is an incident I witnessed in the parking lot.
About half an hour into the evacuation, the building and playground for the day care center search was finished, and the fire department moved on to search other buildings and trailers. One of the college’s assistant VPs then told the head of the day care center to move the children from the parking lot back to the day care center which was located on the edge of the lower campus next to the parking lot.
She politely (and sensibly) declined to do so, and he would have hit the ceiling if he hadn’t been standing in an open air parking lot. His fragile administrative male ego was threatened by this woman’s commitment to the safety of the children in her care. He “directed” (“directed” being a key managerial verb when writing up an employee for insubordination) her to follow his order, and she bravely refused.
A couple things to keep in mind.
When Dr. Fragile Administrative Male Ego (Dr. FAME for short) gave this order, the fire department was still searching the building where the bookstore and other offices were located. This building stood snugly along the edge of the playground and had yet to receive the all clear. Think of the keen judgement in play that lead Dr. FAME to order employees and children back into an area right next to a building being searched for a bomb.
The other aspect of this incident worth noting was that at no time during this incident, did Dr. FAME suggest or show any willingness on his part to go with the children himself to the day care facilities. He was ordering this women to risk her life and the lives of the children and her employees while he safely stayed in the parking lot to… I don’t know, “supervise” or something.
The incident ended with Dr. FAME loudly threatening to write her up and stomping off to pout when she continued to refuse. No bomb was found, and we all returned to our workplaces a couple hours later.
I’d like to share a little background about Dr. Fame. The bulk of his administrative career had been spent at another community college in the district where his incompetence, stupidity, and conflicts with staff and faculty were so obvious and egregious, that the district leaders took swift and decisive action to… transfer him to my campus.
This was this was standard operating procedure for dealing with incompetent administrators in the district. Some mediocrities spent decades failing sideways to other campuses before safely retiring with a cushy pension, leaving a wide swath of poorly run campuses and bungled leadership in their wake. I consider the select class of college deans, assistant deans, vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, and presidents that belong to this sideways failure club — never fired and unassailable from consequences. I also think of the quality and nature of their leadership and decision-making skills.
And the fact that people like them are probably the ones insisting that their college or university will be safe to reopen.
Before e-mail, texting, and social distancing, there was one way to invite historical figures to dinner
Currently, Patience and Fortitude, the two marble lions guarding the steps to the front entrance of the New York Central Library wear face masks to encourage the public to continue wearing theirs for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic. I have a warm spot in my heart for those lions, even before they became icons for early adoption of social distancing.
I’ve not read it (yet), but a high school English teacher of mine absolutely adored the book, “Van Loon’s Lives,” a biographical fantasy in which Dutch historian Hendrik Willem van Loon invited historical figures to dinner for conversations and debate. (The full title was “Van Loon’s Lives: Being a true and faithful account of a number of highly interesting meetings with certain historical personages, from Confucius and Plato to Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson, about whom we had always felt a great deal of curiosity and who came to us as dinner guests in a bygone year.”)
I’m mentioning “Van Loon’s Lives” now because those two glorious marble lions are indelibly connected to the book in my mind. When she first described the book to me, Mrs. Nedoff explained that Van Loon invited the historical figures to dinner by sliding invitations underneath Patience’s and Fortitude’s marble paws. This captured my imagination so much that I’ve checked for invitations both times I’ve visited NYC.
Alas, there were no invitations to be found.
Imagine my disappointment years later when I read that Van Loon’s actual method of invitation in the book is to leave a list of names under stone lions in front of the town hall in Veere where Van Loom had a summer home. It’s an even greater disappointment that the one I have for Steve Allen apparently never acknowledging Van Loon’s Lives as the inspiration for his PBS tv series, “The Meeting of the Minds.”
A stray thought occurs to me. This was a book from Mrs. Nedoff’s childhood. I wonder if this book was first read to her by an adult. Perhaps he or she changed the location of the lions from Veere town hall to the New York Central Library to enhance the glamor of libraries for her young mind. That’s just a guess and will remain one because Mrs. Nedoff passed away a few years ago.
Masked or unmasked, Van Loon literary canon or not, I’m still going to check Patience and Fortitude for invitations the next time I’m in New York. I might even leave an invitation or two myself.
The lion photos on this page were taken by NYPL staff photographer. You can see more of his other photos at his website by clicking here.
PLEASE READ!!! YOUR HELP DESPERATELY NEEDED!!!
Dear admired friend,
I am a hobbit who recently traveled with a group of dwarf friends for the better part of a year. While my journey has been filled with many wonderous experiences (Meeting elves! Secret doors! Found jewelry!) and exciting adventures (Orcs! Barrel rides! Giant spiders!), lately I’ve been missing my cozy hobbit hole in The Shire. Sadly, thanks to the Coronavirus, I’m stuck at the Lonely Mountain until lockdown ends, so it’s going to be awhile before I can go BACK AGAIN.
I have some great news, though! It’s a long story (and I signed a NDA), but I’ve recently come into possession of a significant share of a dragon hoard (DON’T WORRY! I’M SAFE! THE DRAGON IS DEFINITELY DEAD!) I am now wealthy beyond my wildest imaginings! Sadly, this has created a BIG PROBLEM.
Thanks to to steeply progressive Dwarfish tax codes, I must move the funds from my dragon hoard to another principality before June 30th, or I will LOSE 90% of my newly gained fortune. The obvious solution would be to transfer the funds to a financial institution back home, but the banking system interface between Hobbiton and the Lonely Mountain is expensive, unreliable, and antiquated (Nothing’s been upgraded since the Second Age. Can you believe it?)
DON’T DESPAIR! ALL IS NOT LOST! A wizard pal of mine recently mentioned that the land where you dwell is legendary for its modern state-of-the-art financial systems and reasonably low wire transfer fees. Unfortunately, the paperwork for my opening a bank account in your land will take at least four weeks to process — long past my June 30th tax deadline.
Here’s where you can help. This same wizard pal (name begins with a “G”) also mentioned your name as an honest and reliable human who was not prejudiced against hobbits. Normally, I’m a cautious furry-footed fellow, but if G. vouches for you, you definitely can be trusted. So I have a proposal that would solve my tax problem and make you a VERY WEALTHY PERSON in return.
If you would allow me to transfer my dragon hoard funds to your banking account for the four weeks that it will take for my account to be set up, I will bestow upon you the gift of THE SUM OF TEN MILLION UNITED STATES DOLLARS for your assistance. (Classifying this as a gift means it’s TAX-FREE!) All you need to do is text, DM, or e-mail your bank account number and Middle Earth pathing number to me.
(And since we are partners, this also means we SPLIT THE PROFITS 50/50 when Peter Jackson makes a film trilogy about our financial adventure together. So start thinking about which Hollywood star will play you. I’m hoping for Tom Cruise, even though he’s shorter than I am.)
If you don’t want to become wealthy or Hollywood famous and choose to pass on this opportunity, I don’t judge. I was once timid like you.
However, if you want to pass on the deal, but my plight still touches your timid heart, please consider donating a small amount of $3, $5, $10 or even $20 to my agent’s PayPal account at paypal.me/MichaelDobkins. He’s securing funds to hire a convocation of giant eagles to physically transport giant sacks of dragon hoard to The Shire if this bank transfer proposal falls through.
I may owe Jane Austin an apology.
“Foremost among the many superlative qualities of the kumquat is that its own deeply rooted modesty actually prevents this fine fruit from perceiving all the wondrous virtues that it possesses. The typical kumquat believes herself and her sister kumquats merely to be adequate, or, as some like to put it, kumqua-dequate,” opined Mr. Darcy as he accepted a second bowl of this amazing fruit from a servant.
All the dinner guests were impressed by Mr. Darcy’s knowledge of fruits, but Elizabeth pitied whatever poor woman ended up married to Mr. Darcy because he was an exceptionally silly man. She then cut a small bite-sized piece from her tomato, blissfully unaware that it was not actually a vegetable, but a fruit.
The difference between D’Artagnan and Porthos
“What do you mean?” said D’Artagnan. “The day of rustic pleasures?”
“Yes, monsieur; we have so many pleasures to take in this delightful country, that we were encumbered by them; so much so, that we have been forced to regulate the distribution of them.”
“How easily do I recognize Porthos’s love of order in that! Now, that idea would never have occurred to me; but then I am not encumbered with pleasures.”
– Alexandre Dumas, The Vicomte de Bragelonne
It’s 1956, and my father is listening to The Johnny Otis Show in the dark.
When my father was a teenager growing up in Seal Beach, California, he would stay up late at night listening in the dark to The Johnny Otis Show being broadcast from KFOX, a Long Beach AM radio station. It’s hard at this late date to imagine what a subversive act it was for a white bread teenage square like Allan Dean Dobkins to be listening to that sort of devil music in that house with my strict and upright grandparents sleeping in the room next door. My pop kept the sound volume on his radio set at a barely perceptible level to avoid discovery and punishment.
I didn’t come into his life until a decade later when he started dating my mother. They married, set up house together, and co-mingled their belongings. A couple years later, Dean adopted me, making me a Dobkins and becoming officially my father.
It’s impossible to meet our parents before we are born, or, in my dad’s case, before he started dating my mother. Who they were remains a mystery that we can never fully crack, but young children are excellent observers like little mini-Jane Goodalls in the field, collecting clues, listening to stories, and noting details about these large looming giants that dominate our early lives so, our parents.
Somewhere in my explorations out in the field of the Dobkins co-mingled household, I came across an old 45 record of Little Richard. It was issued in 1956 with “Long Tall Sally” on side A and “Slippin’ and Slidin'” on the B side. I was just beginning to listen to pop music on my own initiative and this 45 record, no longer of use to its original owner in the age of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and Woodstock, became part of my growing collection of LPs and 45s. I inherited a lot of culture this stealthy fashion when I was just starting out.
It wasn’t until decades later when I mentioned in passing that I had been listening to Johnny Otis on KPFK, a left-wing and left of the dial FM station in the Los Angeles area, that I found out my dad’s naughty little secret about listening to forbidden music played low in the dark when he was a stealth teenage rebel in the fifties. I didn’t immediately make the connection, but at some point, I realized that the Little Richard 45 I now owned was a direct physical artifact from that era in my dad’s life.
So I’m not really writing about Little Richard in this piece. Other people, better versed in his autobiography and his musical significance will be doing that. What I am trying to set up and share is a scenario that I’ve conjured in my mind from the strands of youthful field research into my now deceased dad’s life. I can’t swear that it happened exactly this way, but it’s possible. Maybe even likely.
It’s 1956. My father’s sixteenth birthday is less than three months away. A cool night sea breeze laps at the lingering heat from summer day, and there’s a slight salty tang in the air from the waves breaking on the shore of the beach two blocks away. The only light in my dad’s bedroom is the faint glow of the radio’s tuner.
From a tinny little mono speaker, Little Richard’s voice swoops and dives and delivers all you will ever need to know about a gal named Sally while a sax wails and the drum and piano pound a joyous rhythm that makes you giddy to be alive. The track ends and Johnny Otis tells my father in a low volume whisper that he has just heard “Long Tally Sally,” a brand new 45 recorded by Little Richard. Right then and there, Dean Dobkins (he never really liked Alan part of his name) decides he has to possess this 45 record — even if it means a trek into Long Beach to find a record store selling this music.
It’s a moment I want to believe happened, when my dad was fifteen and Little Richard was only twenty-three, and their whole lives waited ahead of them.
Revisiting an obscure but beloved Christmas special from decades past.
SOCIAL MEDIA POST FROM DECEMBER 26, 2009
“One night in 1978, I stayed up with my pop and watched an animated anthology on PBS called “Simple Gifts – Six Episodes for Christmas,” and it became one of my few favorite Christmas specials. I have not seen the special in the 31 years since that night, but now a stranger has given me a simple gift by posting it on YouTube. If you have the time, watch it. I dare you not to be charmed.” – Michael Dobkins
“Prologue” by Maurice Sendak
A Memory of Christmas” from Moss Hart’s autobiography, “Act One.” Narrated by Jose Ferrer.
“Lost and Found” from Fontaine Fox’s classic comic strip, “Toonerville Folk.”
“The Great Frost” from Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando.” Narrated by Hermione Gingold.
“My Christmas, an entry in the diary of Teddy Roosevelt, age 11
“December 25th, 1914” from a letter from The Western Front by Captain Sir Edward Hulse.
“No Room at the Inn” from R.O. Blechman’s “Tutto Esaurito”
How to sell your creative efforts, Laurel and Hardy Style
This beautiful piece of comic timing is my Christmas Eve gift to all of you.