Friday, March 5, 2010

Birthdays: Jack in the Box

Two birthdays come to mind, with no real relation between them except that funny way that odd allusions can fire random synapses.

First up, beloved UK canary Clodagh Rodgers, a performer whose moment in the spotlight as fourth-place finisher in the 1971 Eurovision Song Contest was forever overshadowed by the taking in vain of her name in one of the greatest of all Monty Python pieces, the extended "Cycling Tour" episode. I know it's hard to imagine if you haven't seen it, but "Ce n'est pas la belle Clodagh ... c'est Trotsky, le revolutionaire!" is one of the towering comedy moments of all time.

Here she is, though, at her moment of triumph, in all her be-hotpanted splendour, belting out her biggest hit; sadly, it's a song so idiotic that even here, when it was new and shiny and fun, even Clodagh doesn't look like she's having a very good time.

Also celebrating today, albeit in a completely Different Part of the Forest, is American broadcaster and writer Ray Suarez. His name, to me, will always conjure up a very specific time, one when his smooth, reasonable voice was, although I didn't know it then, something of an anchor for me.

In the early nineties, I was just coming off a spectacular, demanding, and really rather impossible job, one that had taken me around the world, allowed me to meet many of the people I most admired, and, when I left it, left me exhausted, adrift, and a little bit miserable. I was living in New York, I had contacts and friends and all sorts of potential opportunities, and I didn't want to do anything.

Which was a problem, since like most New Yorkers working in the arts, I was also quite thoroughly broke. Knew everyone, went everywhere, of course, but had a standing balance in the high two-figures down at the Chase Manhattan.

Fortunately, a friend came to my rescue; she needed someone to clean up tens of thousands of data records for a project on which she was engaged and decided I would do. Although I was a complete computer novice, she taught me the database program (Paradox in its pure DOS form, for those who care) and set me loose.

For the better part of a year I spent at least part of most days sitting in a tiny, windowless office off Times Square, completely alone, correcting spelling, making formatting consistent, and generally learning how data works (which is actually a lot more interesting than it sounds. Or at least I think so). At a time when I needed it, this seeming drudgery provided refuge, structure, and consistency. I would walk up from the Village, let myself in, turn on the radio, and sit down and try to figure out how to standardize international phone-number fields.

NPR was the background noise, and "Talk of the Nation" often the show; even today I can hear Ray Suarez's calm, reassuringly sensible voice. It brings back exactly that empty little room, the endless packets of Nabisco Vanilla Cremes I went through, the clanking sounds of pipes in the ancient, faded building.

Looking back, I suppose I was probably pretty depressed, and the undemanding routine of Paradox and radio just about the best therapy I could have had. As the project was ending, my friend - surprised, I think, that it had gone so well - asked me if I would teach other people, her clients, how to work with the product she was developing. Talk to people? It was a big step, but I gave it a shot, and it worked, and from there has turned into all sorts of other lines of work.

So here I sit today, on a nearly perfect morning on the far side of the world, with Mr. Muscato asleep upstairs, Koko curled up on the sofa, and the birds singing in the garden, and think gratefully of Ray Suarez, 53 today.

Were I a real writer, I'd probably try to find a way to link it all together - some kind of a pop-music epiphany/jack in the box/time in its flight kind of mashup, but instead all I can think of is Graham Chapman dressed as a French girl, shrieking "Oh, Maman! Ce n'est pas..." and so dissolve in giggles. Koko really must think me very odd.

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