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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

SIMPLE SIMON MEETS LARRY HART

I am the proud father of a six month old kitten named Simon. Okay, I’m not his real daddy, and I didn’t name him, but I am the human (along with my wife) responsible for feeding and caring for the small brain and great big eyes and constant energy that is our Simon. I take this responsibility seriously. It was I who taught Simon the invaluable lesson about open flames when both of his eyebrows were singed off (they grew back enormously long and oddly shaped). But thanks to my inattention Simon now knows to give the fireplace a wide berth. My wife spotted Simon chewing on an audio cassette of Stephen King’s “Dark Tower”, abandoned years ago on a dusty bookshelf, and pulled two feet of audio tape out of his little gullet. But the next morning it was I who pulled another 12 feet of poop covered tape out of his ass. Simon now knows to insist we examine every aspect of our lives in terms of what Simon might eat, poke, scratch, chew, shed on or chase. And part of that responsibility is teaching Simon that he has a name.
*
Years ago I worked with Harry Anderson, who was then staring in the TV show “Night Court”. Harry was in my living room every Thursday night, so of course I knew who he was. Still, when I first met him, Harry shook my hand and introduced himself. It was typical of Harry, who was a gentle, shy and polite man. But it made me think; having a name is a little odd, and it stems not from the recognition of “self”, but the recognition of “others”. You don’t require a name. It is others who don’t know who you are, and they require you have a label. And it is not until you realize this “other” factor that you achieve the “age of reason”.
*
Which raised the question; how do you teach a “dumb animal” that he has a name? Do they come when you call them? That may simply mean they associate the sound that we call a “name” with food or a reward. A name is a much more complicated concept than that. I chose the rhyme/song approach to teach that concept. Whenever I pick up Simon for a bonding moment, as I pet him, I repeat the nursery rhyme, “Simple Simon”. We all know it but did you ever hear all of the verses? The details vary, as they do with any oral tradition (that is why writing was invented), but basically this is how it goes;
*
Simple Simon met a pie man going to the fair.
Said Simple Simon to the pie man, “Let me taste your ware”.
Said the pie man to Simple Simon, “Let me see your penny.”
Said Simple Simon, to the pie man, “Sir, I have not any.”
*
Simple Simon went a-fishing, for to catch a whale.
All the water he had got was in his mother’s pail.
Simple Simon went to look, if plums grew on a thistle;
he pricked his fingers very much, which made poor Simon whistle.
*
He went to catch a dickey bird,
and thought he could not fail,
because be had a little salt to put upon its tail.
He went for water with a sieve,
but soon it all fell through,
and now poor Simple Simon bids you all “Adieu”.
*
Obviously the first stanza records the joint invention of capitalism and fast food, some time in the early middle ages, and a dickey bird is any small bird. But on a more fundamental level the poem records the creation of a Mother Goose stock character, the buffoon “Simple Simon”, who would eventually (1930) be the lead character in the Rogers & Hart musical, “Simon Says”, which produced the melancholy ballad, “Ten Cents A Dance”, containing a typical Lorenz "Larry" Hart internal rhyme; “Fighters and sailors and bowlegged tailors can pay for their ticket and rent me. Butchers and barbers and rats from the harbors are sweethearts my good luck has sent me…Sometimes I think I’ve found my hero, but it’s a queer romance. All you need is a ticket. Come on, big boy, ten cents a dance.”
*
And it occurs to me that Larry Hart, that diminutive and tragically flawed genius, could have written the original “Simple Simon” had he lived in 12th century Europe, rather than 20th century New York. Of course, when Larry was first presented with the idea of a musical based upon the American West, he complained, “I can’t write about cows.” And that is why it was Rogers and Hammerstein who wrote “Oklahoma”, and not Rogers and Hart. But, perhaps Larry would have chosen a different melue for Simon; rather than a story about a baker and an idiot, perhaps for the last 700 years children would have memorized the story of a baker and Sleepy Simon, or Sexy Simon, or Sneaky Simon. And that would have been a different world.
*
The point is that Simon the kitten has no idea who Simple Simon is, nor even the vaguest curiosity. Cats do not construct a narrative out of life. Life to them is not sad, it is not melancholy, and it does not require a punch line or stock characters. It is not a nursery rhyme nor a Broadway musical nor even a television mini-series. If life were any of those things we humans would not require the invention of those things. And what a tumultous world that would be. If you know anybody who is a drama queen or king, you know what I mean.
*
From a cat’s perspective, life is crushingly simple. Simon does not care if he has a name or not. He is indifferent. I am the one concerned with the name game, me and my wife and Harry Anderson and Larry Hart. And darn it, Simon is going to learn his name. Is it a waste of time? Well, as Einstien says, time is bent. And a story of the universe with a begining, a middle and an end is an illusion, a soap opera written to an outline prepared by a producer with an agenda that has almost nothing to do with the plot line. In other words, God may have all the answers but what the hell makes you think knowing the answers would do you any good? At least that's how it must look to Simon's little kitty cat eyes.
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