The False Karass is Your Friend

Kurt Vonnegut’s concept of the false karass from his masterpiece Cat’s Cradle (1963), has assisted me to understand how things work, and don’t in social events.

Vonnegut’s definition of the false karass, (or granfalloon) is a group of people who imagine they have a connection that does not really exist. (A karass is a group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, even when superficial links are not evident.)

That Vonnegut, however cynically admits to a divine purpose in his book is remarkable in itself.

How this concept has played out in my life may best be illustrated by two small examples.

When visiting friends in Buenos Aires, Argentina an evening ‘out at the clubs’ was planned. My hosts determined that I should borrow some clothes so as not to look “too American” and thus avoid becoming a target of the pickpockets known to frequent train stations and other gathering places.

Suitably disguised (in a shirt and blue jeans), we set off for the evening. While standing on the platform awaiting a train, I assumed what I thought of as an ‘Argentinian stance’ to better blend with the crowd.

Out of nowhere, a ‘man on the street’ news reporter and camera crew approached me and abruptly thrust a microphone in my face. She urgently asked my opinion on who knows what? I was busted. All I could do was stammer that I didn’t speak Spanish in broken Spanish.

Our best efforts ended up signaling every pickpocket within fifty yards that an illiterate foreigner was primed for fleecing. However, we drew so much attention that anyone with malevolent plans steered clear of our party.


Shortly after moving to Los Angeles I was invited to a costume birthday party to be held for the American drummer of what was then a prominent English rock ‘n’ roll group. Jane, my date was high school friends with the drummer’s wife. It sounded like it might be fun. Jane always insisted that one of their hits was about her.

I was told the planned theme of the party was for everyone to dress as the ‘minister of a church’. There didn’t seem to be much to that requirement. Having lived in the South, I thought I could do a funny version of a huckster – Southern preacher/snake oil salesman.  I found a loud, plaid, polyester jacket to go with a straw hat, string tie, spats and some other details.

When we arrived at the party, I was chagrined to see everyone dressed in long black robes as ministers of the Church of England. One was dressed in drag as a nun. The theme was in the vein of what Monty Python might do.  It made perfect sense that an English band would play with that theme. I didn’t get the memo.

Of course, everyone ignored me. They didn’t know me and it was a party for a member of a close knit group. I had no standing. A non-entity, I felt as appropriate as a beach toy at a baptism.

Then came the big surprise. Jane’s ex-husband arrived carrying a cheap prop cross and dressed to look like Jesus Christ.

He didn’t dress according to the rules either, but being long-time friends with the group, he got a pass. It annoyed me since I was technically dressed as a minister – perhaps in the uniform of another team, but hey…

I always maintained a standard that if dressed in costume one should try to be ‘in character’. When the ex and I were introduced I mustered up my best Foghorn Leghorn, southern drawl and delivered a line that bordered on ironic genius.

“Ah’ve heard a lot about you but I don’t believe we’ve met.” If he was in character, his graceless portrayal was too subtle for me. I offered my hand to shake but his cross was apparently too cumbersome for him to reciprocate.

And not one seemed to notice the brilliance of my delivery.

The rest of the party has faded from memory. Like many parties, the most interesting moment is when you realize you have no reason to be there.


Nowadays I side-step any false karass that looms on the horizon. I have a strong sense of those with whom I am cosmically linked. The evidence is irrefutable.

Distinctive Differences

Hans was the eccentric old guy at the photo lab, where I worked. He was a technician and good at his job. He came across as a kindly old gentleman with a German accent. He minded his business and didn’t bother anyone.

It seemed like everyone in Minnesota had an accent, German, Scandinavian or the weirdest mix of all, Minnesotan.

One day, while on break, he told me about growing up in Germany before WWII. Then he told me about joining the German army and fighting for the Third Reich in Yugoslavia. Then he told me about how their leader, Adolf Hitler, was misunderstood by the world. Poor old Adolf “did a lot of good things,” he said. With great power comes great forgiveness, as Spiderman says. No, wait.

Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” had been released a few years before. My impression of Hans blended with the hilarious, Nazi playwright from that movie, waxing ecstatic over “what a wonderful dancer” Hitler was. Hans wasn’t so demonstrative but he did insist ‘der Fuhrer’ was misunderstood.

A few years later, on my first day of film school in Tampa, Florida, all the buzz was about one instructor, Karl who was a former Luftwaffe pilot in WWII. All the Jewish students were anxious about taking his classes.

Not to worry, Karl, though as severe in countenance as his reputation would suggest, never betrayed any prejudice against any group or individual. He treated everyone with the same superior disdain in keeping with his perfectionist temperament. Considering the styles of some of the other instructors, Karl was consistent, predictable and a purveyor of solid technical information.

Karl also had a dry sense of humor. At least that is how we chose to see it. A fellow student, Bill, once drew Karl into sharing some personal history with us. He was pressed into the German military service as a young teenager and trained to fly a reconnaissance plane, which were unarmed. He spoke tersely of getting captured when a British squadron of fighter planes came out of the clouds and forced him to land.

Bill asked, “But since your plane could fly higher and faster than theirs, couldn’t you have escaped?” Karl gave Bill a look that would unnerve a hawk and delivered a perfect Teutonic response. “You never retreat.” For years we would quote him with our best approximation of his German accent.

Karl came to the United States when he was released from the POW camp. He never looked back.

Years later, in Los Angeles, I worked for his niece, Karola. When I interviewed with her for the job, hearing her last name, her accent, and seeing those familiar features, I knew she could be no one else’s kin. It was an unusual application of my ‘old school tie’.

In the ‘80s, I edited a ‘sword and sorcery’ flick in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a popular genre then. Before going there, all I knew about Argentina was their ‘open door,’ non-extradition policy that welcomed Nazis escaping prosecution after WWII. Mad Magazine always poked fun at their pompous, latter day fascism.

While visiting the set one day, the studio photographer approached me and introduced himself as Juan Schultz, in a curious, German/Spanish accent. In conspiratorial tones, he told me proudly about his being Hitler’s staff photographer. He claimed he documented Hitler meeting Mussolini, and shaking hands with the Pope. He challenged my disbelief with insistent defensiveness. Alas, photographic proof was lost in his hasty exit from Germany.

He escaped to Argentina and changed his name after the war, like many others, to avoid prosecution. He was well on in years, and it could have been true. A shame about that proof.

I’ll never understand why anyone would brag about that, even if true. It is hardly the stuff one puts on their resume. Or, at least I wouldn’t. But in Buenos Aires, it seemed to open many doors.

People cannot keep dark secrets from the light. The same qualities of character that lead us into dark actions, are those which cause us to proudly broadcast them.

My co-worker Hans was an Al Bundy type, nostalgic for the glory days of that game winning touchdown. How could condemning something so glorious be anything but the result of a misunderstanding?

Karl was not nostalgic. He was no ideologue. As anyone would, he pursued opportunities to forge a new life in his adopted country. But he didn’t trade on his past.

Juan was the oddest one. While successfully escaping responsibility for his participation in infamy, he also made his fortune from those associations. And within the right context, he burnished his reputation from his sordid past.

These three men are familiar types. Not specific to one time or place, they are found throughout humanity. We each find ourselves carried by the currents of history. How we choose to respond to those forces is what is telling.



2015 Faves and Raves

I cannot believe I have been blogging for over a year now, averaging about three posts per month.

My purpose in blogging is to share examples of storytelling or sharing from my own life, by way of example, for those who might be interested in writing a memoir, or for seeing how they might re-capture old memories to share with interested parties.

Below is a short list of some popular posts you may have missed, and some of my favorites which you might find worth revisiting.

My video memoir company, Storyography: , is another way to share stories which captures individual performance as part of the storytelling experience and not merely the words shared.

The biggest hit, which surprised me some, was “Mandatory Moon Bathing in Minnesota”:

I’m not sure why that one grabbed so much attention over others. Maybe the title intrigued.

Another relative hit was “The Best Cab Driver in Buenos Aires”:  which describes some of my experiences while working in that charming city.

Some of my posts are more autobiographical than others. Other posts are more opinion oriented. My favorite of these which didn’t get the attention I thought it deserved was “Greenman Died for Your Niblets”:

Some of my posts amounted to musings about the human condition as viewed through a prism of my own experience. One example of this, which didn’t attract the attention I had hoped was “Swings”: ,

or “Taxi Driver Uber Alles”: which I thought deserved more attention.

The Territorial Imperative” was about my encounter with a very assertive spider: .

That was a companion piece to the popular “The Company You Keep”: in which I recounted my futile war with cockroaches while in college.

I also published a few practical posts exploring the value of writing a memoir “The Irreplaceable Memoir”:

or a distillation of what I presented weekly in a workshop for job seekers on how best to find gainful employment. “The Best Solution to the Problem” was my summary of the workshop: .


and “The Show Must Go On” : share memories of my career in motion pictures.

My favorites probably fell in my recounting episodes of my life that were fun to write and (I’m told), hilarious to read. “Bad Hair Day”: ,

A Knuckle Sandwich and a Side of Steroids Please”: ,

Sunny Sleepy San Raphael”:

and “What’s in a Name, Jack”: are my favorites in that genre.

Much attention has been paid of late, to concussions, due in part to the Will Smith movie of that name. My post “Isn’t this Fun?” deals with my personal experience with a concussion.

At risk of naming all of my posts, I will stop with this brief list of personal highlights. But feel free to revisit some of these and others. They all have something to offer and offer some amusement or a diversion from the tedium of the day.

Please feel free to comment or add to the conversation. I appreciate your input. Thank you for reading.

And you are welcome to visit my Storyography website at:

See you next year.


The Best Cab Driver in Buenos Aires

When I went to Buenos Aires, Argentina, I learned quickly that some things are best left to a professional. Thus, taxis were my preferred mode of transportation. I never drove in Buenos Aires.

My time in Buenos Aires was a magical journey to a culture unfettered by those twin gods of efficiency and sanity which rule in the United States. That such a beautiful city could exist when the spirit of anarchy simmered barely beneath the surface was amazing to me. Of course Buenos Aires was named prior to the invention of the automobile.

I was there on business for seven months in the early ‘80s, near the end of their long stifling dictatorship. The exuberance exhibited by the people was infectious. It seemed no one but me worked hard and everyone rarely slept. One only stopped eating to dance, to meet friends, to eat “parilla,” drink wine, sip a coffee. The mass transit system is world class; these trains ran on time, at least until the dictatorship ended.

The primary diet of the average Argentinean is “parilla,” their style of barbecued beef, the best in the world.  Coca cola, coffee and ‘American’ cigarettes follow closely in popularity. I once met a friend at a local café and, arriving on time, was surprised to find him sitting at a table with four empty coke bottles, a coffee and an ashtray filled with half a dozen cigarette butts. He said he was ten minutes early and just “passed the time.”

The Argentinean “waiter” is spectacularly indifferent. He waits to acknowledge you. He waits until you are really hungry to serve you. The restaurants don’t even open for dinner until 9pm. A fast food restaurant in Buenos Aires, is one where, by the time you get your food, you feel you’ve been on a fast. Restaurants in Argentina are designed on the DMV model. But the food is better.

In Argentina, if you haven’t eaten beef in the meal, you haven’t eaten. It truly is the best meat I’ve ever eaten. The hotel I stayed at served beef as its main course nightly for the seven months I stayed there. Everyone cheered that night the maître‘d stated that we were serving “Escallopes,” until we realized that the dish was scalloped beef, not seafood.  Even the “vegetarians” I knew there ate beef. It was okay because the cows ate grass.

Buenos Aires is said to have more psychologists per capita than anywhere in the world, even Vienna. But I’m told they are all starving because, for the price of a cup of coffee, literally, you can spend the day discussing your troubles at the local café or pub. That’s where all the psychologists hang out. Everyone is very sympathetic. If you ever need cheap advice, buy an Argentinean a coffee.

The traffic there is legendary. According to the American ex-patriots I knew, the freeways were so snarled because “they forgot to put arrows on the lane markers.”  Lane markers are only a suggestion and are never taken seriously. If a car can fit between two others, “Presto! A new lane!” To escape freeway gridlock I saw some drivers charge up the embankment, uprooting small trees to find a surface street unclogged by smoke spewing Citroens and Renaults. Left turn lanes are unknown. Three right turns are saner than attempting one left turn into oncoming traffic.

Jaywalking is an invitation to suicide. Running the bulls at Pamplona is safer.  In Buenos Aires the pedestrian never has the right of way. Even the sidewalks are not a safe haven.  A pedestrian hit by a “collectivo” while standing at the curb doesn’t evoke surprise. They should have known better. They should have seen the bus coming. The buses are painted ornately, each route having its own unique style. The sting of death is diminished considerably being run down by a circus wagon.

Residential streets are unpredictable. Often, in neighborhoods with palatial homes, the streets would be unpaved wallows that Americans would only brave with a four-wheel drive. Yet those stalwart Citroens carefully pick their way through the puddles and ruts. Those little cars made of corrugated tin look like miniature Quonset huts on wheels.

Stop signs are little understood relics. No driver worth his machismo would submit to a brightly colored sign. It isn’t his mother. “Non!” Rather, at each intersection a modern reenactment of the medieval joust plays out with armor on wheels and horsepower under the hood. The polite but impatient “rolling stop” known as the “California Roll” in Los Angeles, would be sneered at as effete in Buenos Aires.

The most an Argentinean driver expects or gives on approaching a stop sign is a slight tap on the brakes; the automotive equivalent of a slight nod. This ensures the brakes are still operative, should they actually be needed and is never interpreted as a genuine effort to slow down. Proof being, an aggressive gunning of the throttle always follows that brake tap lest anyone doubt their resolve. Any hesitation is rewarded with a flurry of horns from outraged drivers en route to a vital cup of coffee.

After the junta lost their grip on the country, even stopping at a red light, in some neighborhoods was an invitation to be robbed. Clean streets are one thing but free enterprise will out.

It was into this maelstrom that I made my daily commute. The cab drivers were… survivors. Eking a living from those streets for twelve or more hours per day takes steely nerves. Everyone drives aggressively and these drivers are pros at gaining ground and holding it; sometimes inches at a time. These men have the best reaction times in the world. They always drive faster, stop quicker and see opportunity better than anyone else on the road.

It was not enough to gain ground but also to keep anyone else from making better headway. The analogy of being a passenger on a bumper car ride is not a stretch. The drivers I rode with were excellent and we never got into an accident. The cab driver is the modern day gaucho and equivalent to the cowboy of the American West. Those squeals and impacts I heard were always behind us. But even with confidence in the driver, I always spent the ride watching every move, anticipating every maneuver.

The day I left Buenos Aires, en route to the airport I had the best ride ever.  This driver kept a moderate speed. He didn’t cut people off and always signaled his intentions.  He left several car lengths in front of him. It was a long ride to the airport and I actually dozed at times. I felt so confident of my security in this man’s car. I couldn’t believe my luck at getting this driver, a man who ensured my ease and comfort. Yes, it was all a myth that every driver in Buenos Aires was either crazy or incompetent. My driver was world-class and could drive anywhere with grace and professionalism. He didn’t pretend interest in light conversation. My driver was all business and watched the road intently. My driver was the best.

When we arrived at the airport he pulled up to the guard shack and gate. The car purred quietly. He spoke to the guard. The guard pressed a button and the gate arm rose, allowing entry. We sat there.

The guard spoke to my driver. My driver was waiting for the gate. The guard pointed to the gate arm, already up.

Then my eyes were opened. When my driver squinted and leaned forward attempting to see the gate, I realized he was nearly blind. The world seemed to stand still.

He thanked the guard and eased forward. We made it safely, the last hundred yards to the terminal. I paid him, tipped him well, and gratefully got out of that death trap. I almost kissed the ground.

That last hour, my driver, a blind man, had chauffeured me through Buenos Aires traffic. But safely! It was the most relaxing ride of my whole trip.

Years later, in one of those filler news items in the L.A. Times, I read of a taxi driver in Buenos Aires arrested for driving while blind. Arrested? They should give him a medal. His condition should be mandatory for cab drivers there.

Or is it?

I felt glad that the old man had made it that long. I salute him. Long may he ride.

The Evolution of the Rear View Mirror

I once worked at a place where, shall we say, the politics were byzantine. I would joke with friends that I had a rear view mirror on my computer so I could see who was coming up from behind to stab me in the back.

Flashback to 1983 when I was in Buenos Aires, Argentina on business and was invited to the estancia of a local celebrity for dinner. My companion and I were seated with about ten others at a long, antique, wooden table. It was obviously a very old table. Curiously, the wall side of the table was in poor condition being severely scarred by deep cuts in the table top. I found it odd that our distinguished host would display furniture so damaged as everything else was in elegant taste.

I asked about the history of this unusual table and our host told me it came from England and had been in his family for hundreds of years. He said it came from the castle of some nobleman of the time. The cuts in the table were due to the fact that in those days they didn’t eat from plates (there were no plates) but all cut their meat and ate directly off the table. Forks hadn’t been invented yet either. Think of the money they saved on dish soap!

This table was larger than would fit anywhere in most people’s homes, even today. Back then, to only use half of it must have been quite a luxury.

Anticipating my next question he explained that in those coarse days, hosts and guests always sat with their backs to the wall, not wanting to be vulnerable to assassins. Even in the best of houses one never knew what servant might have been bribed to dispose of an unwitting visitor. And the poor rube didn’t even have a shiny plate with which to view his approaching doom. The typical serf didn’t often have house guests but one never knew who might cross the threshold at the local nobleman’s manse. And I thought my office politics were brutal.

As he spoke with his back to the wall I realized I was listening with my back exposed to the room. I became keenly aware of a draft and reflexively turned to the serving woman to assess her willingness and ability to slip a shiv into my back. She seemed oblivious to the conversation. If she had such designs, they were not on me.

The conversation turned to lighter topics and the meal was delicious.

Then a few years later I was at a job fair and one of the give-a-ways from one vendor was a spherical mirror for the computer monitor so you could see who was coming up behind you…

Amazing! Not only was I not alone in these feelings but someone actually took the initiative to fill this curious niche and produced the very thing I joked about having. Innovation lives on! Of course I grabbed one even though I didn’t need it anymore.

Thankfully, modern humans have evolved beyond those dark, Hobbesian days of tooth and claw where those without a friend were dispatched via a shining blade. Now such matters are handled more adroitly with a sharp tongue, or a pink slip.

Rear view mirrors are now an amusing novelty with no practical purpose.

Or are they?

A Merry Christmas letter from my long lost Uncle Andrew Bankwhippe

In the spirit of a very merry Christmas I am going to re-create a commemorative annual Christmas letter from my imaginary Uncle Andrew from sunny El Dorado, Argentina, circa 1991.

Dear Everyone,

Every Xmas I love curling up before the fire with a warm snifter of twelve-year-old Dr. Pepper and writing to you.

There is a new fad for people with too much time on their hands. Out of body experiences are all the rage here. How can you buy a drink like that? Again, my son Charles is ahead of the pack.  He has out of mind experiences daily without even concentrating.

The twins, Gub and Bug had a birthday this year and Matilda redecorated the tyke’s room featuring her specially designed wall paper with our favorite Rorschack figures in pastel pink and blue. I couldn’t resist getting them a matching pair of rocking sphinxes from our Xmas catalogue (5% off).

There is still time to take advantage of my clearance on “WHO COULD REFUSE?” generic gifts. They are the perfect solution for the listless shopper. Perfect for those bland people cluttering up your life, these gifts are not offensive, expensive or personal. Stock up today! One price fits all!

All the pre-occ with saving time can have tragic results when taken to extremes. When daylight savings time (DLST) was started in El Dorado, a friend of mine went to absurd lengths. If you don’t think DLST is absurd try milking 130 cranky Holsteins an hour before they’ve had coffee. But I digress.

My friend Nick was so impressed with DLST that he began squirreling away a few extra minutes every day. On good days he would save as much as five minutes and then go back for seconds.

Nick kept this to himself of course. But co-workers noticed that he was timorous and always on a short fuse. The timbre of his voice was thin and he developed a nervous tic. He insisted that it was temporary, that he was having the time of his life. He would smile privately. No one could help him. Who had the time?

Then the inevitable happened. Nick accrued nearly a week of time and he planned to spend it as if there were no tomorrow. Now was his time to fly. You guessed it. While attempting to decipher a train time-table, his ticker quit.

Though Nick’s time never came, his heirs took all that  he had saved and split it six ways from Sunday.

We all know that times are hard for many people at year’s end. And we cannot forget that we can contribute greatly to those less fortunate than ourselves. I mean of course, the humorless. Next time a humorless person approaches you for help, give him a big smile and hearty hand shake. You could change a life. Help the humorless. Use the patented “Bankwhippe Hand Buzzer (TM)” at only $9.95 (US) exclusively from me. (Not found in stores! Do not accept substitutions! Buy Bankwhippe!)

Happy Holidays!

Uncle Andrew