Why the Long Face?

April 13, 2010

Humor is a very different animal from place to place, or so it would seem. Certain brands of comedic endeavor transcend geographical boundaries, to be sure: Monty Python, Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Inspector Clouseau, to name a few. Some other varieties don’t easily bridge the culture/language gap. Case in point: there is an old chestnut about a horse who walks into a bar. The bartender looks up and goes, “Hey baby, why the long face?” Of course this will be a funny joke only in places where “long face” is synonymous with sadness, thus giving it a double meaning appealing to fans of wordplay. Years later this joke was famously revisited featuring modern-day celebrities sporting long faces, such as John Kerry, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Celine Dion. John Kerry walks into a bar, and the bartender goes, “Hey buddy, why the long face?”

So several years ago I tried this joke out on my Japanese friend, Saki, and she looked at me like I was the beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt unfunniest person on earth. “It’s funny?” she asked, incredulous. The humor is lost if you have to explain it, but she requested that I try nonetheless, as she is eager to pick up American nuance to complement her already reasonably good English grammar skills. So I gave it my best shot (long face = sadness, John Kerry has a lo-o-o-ng face), but it still didn’t elicit even the faintest blip on the laugh-o-meter.

Anyway, a couple of Christmases back, she and I were invited to visit my brother Thane and his wife Carol for the holidays, and I came up with what I thought was a hilarious suggestion for their first in-person meeting. (But first I must make a tiny digression to offer a bit of necessary background: neither my brother nor I have ever been accused of missing a meal, and of all the ways we might meet our respective ends, malnourishment would not likely find a place on the list; this seeming non sequitur will make all sorts of sense shortly. Now, back to the thread of the story.) On the train to Narita Airport I mentioned to Saki that if she wanted to impress Thane with her growing English skills she should try telling him a joke, and the one I immediately thought of was a variant on “long face.” John Kerry and Celine Dion walk into a bar, and the bartender goes, “Hey you two, why the long faces?”

“I’m not going to tell that joke,” she said dismissively.

“Why not? It’s really cute, a little bit of a variation from the norm, and it will really show off your English skills,” I replied.

“It’s stupid, that’s all. It’s not funny.”

“Trust me, it is. If you tell that joke to Thane, it will absolutely crack him up.”

“It’s not going to happen.”

“Oh, come on,” I wheedled.

“I have an idea,” she said. “I will tell him a different joke, but kind of the same. It will be funnier.”

“That sounds good; let’s hear it.”

“Okay. Bruce and Thane walk into a bar, and the bartender says, “Hey you two, why the big bellies?”

Game, set, match.


Lin Chu Yun

April 8, 2010

Let me say at the outset that I am no fan of reality TV, but when someone like a Susan Boyle, a Paul Potts or a Connie Talbot turns up, I imagine I am as much a sucker for a good story (and a great performance) as the next guy. I would normally not devote a column to this, except that Lin Chu Yun started out in Taiwan, and Asian singers always make more of a splash in Asia than anywhere else, so there is a slight possibility that this is the first you will have heard of him. Think about it; when was the last time an Asian singer, from Asia, made even a ripple in the West? The only one I can remember is Japan’s Kyu Sakamoto, whose tune “Sukiyaki” topped the charts for three weeks back in 1963. 

Lin Chu Yun is a chubby-cheeked fellow of indeterminate age; I would guess somewhere in his late teens, but information on him is thin on the ground in Japan. He wears his hair in a bowl cut, and doesn’t radiate the image one might expect from an “Idol”. But the guy can sing, no doubt about it. He turned up a short time back on a Taiwanese version of American Idol, which, if the Japanese newspapers have it right, is called YouTube. He sang what is arguably one of the most difficult pop tunes to cover, as anyone who has ever attended a karaoke night can tell you: Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You”. If you close your eyes, you’ll swear it was Whitney (and if you open them, you will see her image over his shoulder, displayed prominently on the monitor behind him). But don’t just take my word for it. Check out the video:


As Whitney fans may notice, Lin Chu Yun sings the song in her key, matching her note for note even in the high register. Anyway, last night I was wandering around Japan’s YouTube site, and came across this mashup video, with Whitney Houston and Lin Chu Yun singing together, sort of. It is a little shaky at the beginning, but well worth listening to in its entirety:


A Teaser

April 7, 2010

In a weird confluence of circumstances, which I have to think could not have been planned, Lee Child and his brother Andrew Grant each have books being released next month, and I will be reviewing both in the Whodunit column of BookPage (www.bookpage.com). I finished the Child book, 61 Hours, earlier this week, and turned the final pages of the Grant, Die Twice, at suppertime this evening.

61 Hours, by my count the fourteenth novel featuring modern-day ronin (and former military policeman) Jack Reacher, finds our hero in South Dakota in the middle of the winter, scratch that, in the middle of a blizzard, an accidental and temporary conscript into the small town police force of Bolton. Bolton would just be a wide spot in the road but for the recent addition of a for-profit prison erected at the edge of town. Now the town is caught up in a drug-related series of killings connected in some strange way to a disused military installation in the South Dakota Badlands, and they need someone with Reacher’s qualifications to help them out. And as Lee Child’s loyal readers will attest, there is nobody with Reacher’s qualifications other than Reacher.

Andrew Grant, fourteen years his brother’s junior, is following in the familial footsteps, with his second novel featuring British secret agent David Trevellyan, Die Twice. Grant’s first novel, Even, met with critical acclaim (including a measure of same from this critic); I noted that the “disenfranchised spook” vein had been mined by others countless times, but rarely as well as by Grant in his debut outing. Trevellyan doesn’t have access to the cool toys of, say, James Bond (Bond gets an Aston Martin, Trevellyan gets a Chrysler station wagon, for example), but he makes do quite well with his instincts and well-honed skills.

The question that arises is, what happens if one of them should win the coveted Mystery of the Month Award (aka “TAFKATOTI”; The Award Formerly Known as Tip of the Icepick)? How will the other one cope? Stay tuned for the answer to this and other pressing mysteries in the next issue of BookPage.

100% Day In Tokyo

April 7, 2010

Okay, I promise, this will be my last post this year about cherry blossoms, largely because they have hit 100%, according to the TV news, and from here on out it is all downhill. Spring has been both cooler and rainier here than usual, and punctuated with winds strong enough to keep the deepest sleeper tossing and turning throughout the night. Somehow, against all odds, these factors seem to have had no deleterious effect on the cherry blossoms, which, for a fleeting moment, are strutting their stuff in backyards, parks, river walks and boulevard islands all over the capital.

The river close by my apartment


Riverside pathway under cherry blossom snow

Local fruit and vegetable stand

Fishing buddies

Greener pastures, sans competition

One of my favorite places in Tokyo is Koganei Park, a large recreational area in the western suburbs of the city. It is the site of an open air museum, a town reconstructed from Japan’s prewar Golden Years, with buildings ranging from traditional Japanese farmhouses to arts & crafts bungalows; there’s a bit of Bauhaus, a smattering of Victorian, all of which are buildings that had a real working life before being moved from their original sites and painstakingly rebuilt in the architectural enclave of Koganei Park. There is even an exquisitely restored old yellow trolley car on the main street, injecting a bright spot of primary color into the otherwise time-muted palette of beiges, greys and pastels.

But none of this is what brings scores of people to Koganei on a sunny springtime afternoon. Instead, the draw is the goldenrod, the lupins, the daffodils, the tulips, and most of all, the sakura, Japan’s ubiquitous cherry blossoms. It is an absolute inundation of cherry pink; there are tunnels among the trees where the blossoms are all around you, falling like snow into your hair (or in my case, just onto the bare skin on the top of my head) and the folds of your clothes, dropping to the previously grassy ground, where they form a soft pink carpet underfoot.

This may be a factoid that everyone already knows, but the cherry trees that grace Washington, DC were in fact a gift from the mayor of Tokyo, Yukio Ozaki, almost one hundred years ago. Three thousand trees were given to the people of America, who reciprocated three years later with a gift of flowering dogwoods to the people of Japan. It has been an ongoing collaboration: America received another 3800 trees in the Lyndon Johnson years, and donated cuttings from some of the older group to replace ancient cherry trees in Japan which were lost in a massive flood. Most recently, the US has been the recipient of cuttings from Japanese cherry trees that are reputedly over 1500 years old.

There are old people in wheelchairs, kids in strollers, dogs of every variety (every small variety, at least: Welsh Corgis, dachshunds, shih tzus, and terriers), teens cuddling in the grass, and (oddly) a group of South American musicians playing Andean flute music with an electronic rhythm box as backup. There may well be more cameras than attendees, as many folks heft several, and anyone who isn’t armed with a camera per se certainly has a cell phone with built-in camera to take up the slack. But perhaps my favorite thing, aside from the cherry trees of course, was the politeness of the Japanese kids, all of whom dutifully removed their shoes before sitting down on their plastic ground cover (note how the shoes are all lined up in a row, facing out):

Teach your children well; think of it is a favor to the next generation.