Thursday, January 16, 2014

“If you haven’t got anything good to say . . .”

On the way home from a dinner gathering at a friend’s house that got a little loud and bawdy, I recalled my favorite dinner party story.

Winston Churchill
It was the famous incident between Winston Churchill and Lady Astor. The two sat side by side at a dinner party and throughout the evening Churchill was his usual self, telling off-color jokes and using foul language. Finally, an indignant Lady Astor spouted, “Sir, if you were my husband, I’d poison you.”  To which Churchill replied, “And Lady, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.”

I love Churchill.

Sometimes in life, we’re stuck beside both kinds of people at public affairs – sometimes the Lady Astors of the world, and sometimes the Churchills.

Years back, while channel surfing late at night, I stopped for a moment at the Howard Stern show. It amounted to a video feed of his radio show, which is absolute trash. I’d watch a minute or two before, much the way a rubber-necker ogles a car accident – you don’t really want to be a part of it, but a voyeuristic peek won’t hurt, right?

The premise is this: Stern invites a well-endowed young woman – model, actress, minor celebrity, whatever – to come on the show. He quizzes her about her love life – but not in an intelligent way, instead, the way a drunken frat boy on spring break might chat up a call girl on a street corner. The whole point is to get the guest to take her clothes off. In other words, the Howard Stern show is the intellectual equivalent of a teenage boy’s sex fantasy, with a good sound stage. I don’t know which is more pathetic, the aging host who still thinks this is the height of comedy, or the guest who thinks if she undresses it might further her acting/modeling career.

And just so you know, I wasn’t waiting for the payoff, because this was basic cable. All you see is a woman with scrambled pixels over her chest.

I recall once channel surfing from Stern and immediately finding myself in an alternate world of idiots: Pat Robertson’s 700 Club. I’d gone from a pompous egomaniac to a delusional egomaniac. Pat was blathering on, comparing liberals to Nazis and insisting that if Disney didn’t turn away from its gay-friendly policies, God would send a hurricane to destroy Orlando (I’m not making this shit up).

On the 700 Club Pat Robertson pretends to read the news while spinning each story in a way to canonize the Christian-conservative point of view while vilifying any point of view that might have been considered progressive at any point during the past century and a half.

Pat Robertson: I love this picture!
In short hand – guns are always good, homosexuals are always bad, reinstating mandatory prayer in school would solve most of America’s problems, poor women will keep having babies if you keep giving them welfare, and September 11th was proof that America is so sinful, God couldn’t be bothered to protect us.

For me, the involuntary vomiting reflex is triggered as quickly by Robertson as it is by Stern.

But, there was talk of dinner parties at the beginning of this ramble.

Let’s say you’re in purgatory - stuck at a dinner party - they’re seating people - Pat Robertson is on one end of the long banquet table and Howard Stern at the other. The seats in the middle are taken by the intelligent and reasonable people you would prefer to sit with. But, you must sit at one end or the other. Which end would you choose?

In truth, there’s a little of both men in me. I’ve offended my fair share of people with bawdy conversation and rude jokes and throwing conversational hand grenades. And there’s a childish side of me that likes to shock people (especially the Pat Robertson kind of people).

There’s also a part of me - the parent and former-teacher side that discouraged teenagers from pre-marital sex, alcohol and drugs. As a high school teacher I frowned at 16 years of potty and sex humor, not because it was my job, but because often it’s simply not funny, just childish. Howard Stern is proof that the dimmer the brain, the older you get before you stop laughing at that stuff.

But I have to admit, at the dinner party, I wanna sit next to Stern. That’s where the most interesting conversation is gonna take place. And there are plenty of other historical figures I’d choose. And if I could combine the wit with the crude, that’s my preference. If I could go back in time, I’d sit my ass right next to Alice Lee Roosevelt Longworth, the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt.

Longworth cared little for social convention and once said, “If you haven’t got anything good to say about anybody, come sit next to me.”
Alice Lee Roosevelt Longworth

In her late teens at the turn of the 20th Century, while her father was the U.S. president, she smoked cigarettes, went out unchaperoned with men, stayed out late partying, and kept a pet snake. She looked like a Gibson Girl, but didn’t act like one.

She had a rude wit, once saying of her attention-whore presidential father, "He wants to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral, and the baby at every christening."

Of a senator having an affair with a woman less than half his age, she snorted, "You can't make a soufflé rise twice."

When I’m led through the gates of hell, sit me next to Winston Churchill, Alice Lee Roosevelt Longworth, and if there’s no other seat, yes, I'll sit with Howard Stern. But if it’s truly hell, my little personal hell will probably be a private room with the disapproving Lady Astor and Pat Robertson.

My propensity to choose the rude over the prude rubbed off on my children. Once when telling the story of Winston Churchill and Lady Astor to my kids, my14 year old daughter, Sally, replied, “Did you say, ‘Lady Ass-turd?’”

I hung my head in despair a moment, and then laughed really, really hard.

And, oh yeah, at any dinner party, set me next to Sally.

My new book, The Salvage Man began going online for e-readers before Christmas. It's currently available at iTunes,, Fastpencil, and I'll be doing a public launch to tell the world in the weeks ahead - probably throw a party at my house with hardcover versions available. Here's an early look: