Improvising

I taught improvisational acting for a few years at our local community college. It’s simple to learn the basic concepts of improv, but much harder to actually master it. I’m certain I never did, but I could improvise well enough to be able to teach others how to do it.

The main rule of improv can be stated in two words: “Yes, and…“. This simple idea means that when your partner says something to you, the scene can only be moved ahead if your response is in the general form of “Yes, and…”. You don’t have to literally say, “yes, and…”, but you must agree with what your partner said and then add something that keeps the scene going. If you disagree, you’ve probably killed the scene.

It sounds simple, but in practice it’s quite difficult to do well. You have to overcome the urge to throw in a punch line, or take the scene over to move it to where you want it to go. Impatience is your enemy; you need to relax and trust that you’ll get an opportunity to use your great idea, if not in that scene, perhaps sometime later.

Improvising can be exhilarating, but it can also be terrifying. The risks of looking stupid in front of your peers (or even worse, a live audience) are real. Many actors never get comfortable with improv. They go through the motions in their classes when they’re required to, but never really dedicate themselves to it.

Most actors have traits that interfere with performing improv well. A big one is that we don’t listen well, or perhaps it’s better to say that we don’t listen completely. We’re used to jumping in with our idea as soon as we have it, rather than letting the person we’re talking to finish their thought first. So much context is lost in that kind of interrupted conversation.

Another common issue, which I mentioned earlier, is impatience. We want to get to the funny part (or the “big moment” if the scene is dramatic instead of comedic) right away. Selfishness is a problem, too; we often have a hard time letting someone else get the big moment or laugh. Improv also requires a lot of trust between scene partners, and that can take time to build, just as in other types of relationships.

Improv is helpful even when you’re doing something familiar, including acting in a scripted play. What happens when someone forgets a line, or a light or sound cue doesn’t happen, or another actor misses their entrance entirely? The ability to gracefully improvise in those situations has saved many a scene, sometimes so well that the audience is unaware that anything went wrong.

Most of us improvise every day. Nobody wakes up in the morning with a script lying next to their bed. Every interaction we have is unscripted, though certainly some situations are more common or familiar than others and end up playing the same way as dozens or hundreds that came before. Each of us has a level of tolerance for improvisation. Some prefer to only engage in situations that are predictable, while others relish the chance to experience something new.

The ability to improvise well can make the difference between a career that requires only repetitive tasks and one that allows you to be creative and effect change. How comfortable are you with improvisation?

Imaginary islands

When I travel to a new place or try a new restaurant, I like to find out details about it ahead of time. Fortunately, the internet makes that simple for me these days. I can get reviews, photos, street views, and detailed directions on a map.

Sometimes, though, when I get there, the place doesn’t seem like it was described. Maybe the reviewers had a higher (or lower) opinion of the restaurant. Perhaps the location looks different at the time of year I’m visiting. Occasionally, the place isn’t there any more; they closed or changed names, and what I was expecting to find no longer exists. Online sources like Google or Yelp depend on crowdsourcing of updated information, so if no one reports the change, the database doesn’t get corrected.

But those places allegedly did exist at some point. (Yes, someone might have made them up! But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

Long before we were all interconnected to everything, travelers depended on maps – the paper kind. So if something changed, it didn’t get corrected until the next version of the map was printed. Older travelers likely can tell stories about roads that were renumbered, upgraded, or even closed, requiring a last-minute detour to continue to the destination.

The fewer people that have been to a place, the higher the risk that errors creep in (and don’t get corrected!).

Here’s a map of Canada, which in 1744 included what is now the state of Michigan:

Carte des Lacs du Canada, by M. Bellin (1744). Source: Michigan State University Map Library

The map, drawn by N. Bellin, Ingenieur et Hydrographe de la Marine (engineer and marine hydrographer), was created from information contained in the writings of Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix, a French Jesuit priest, historian, and explorer who traveled extensively in the Great Lakes region in the early 1720s.

It’s a pretty good representation of the region, with all five Great Lakes and Lake St. Clair given their present-day names, along with a number of familiar rivers including the Grand (la Grande Rivière), the Huron (R. des Hurons), the Raisin (R. au Raisin, which means “Grape River” in French, not “Raisin River”), and closer to my home, the Belle (R. de Belle Chasse, or “Beautiful Hunting River”). I also appreciate the honesty of the notation in northern Ontario, “Ce Canton set entièrement inconnu,” which means “This region is entirely unknown.”

Apparently, most of Lake Superior was also inconnu, because if you look closely, you’ll notice there are five fairly large islands shown, Isle Royale, Isle Philippeaux (along with its alternate name, Isle Minong), Isle Maurepas, Isle Ponchartrain, and Isle Sainte Anne.

Lake Superior from 1744 map
Detail of Lake Superior from Carte des Lacs du Canada, by M. Bellin (1744). Source: Michigan State University Map Library

Isle Royale, of course, is the only one of the five that actually exists. The others were figments of Father Charlevoix’s imagination, likely intended to impress his patron, the Count of Maurepas, Jean-Frederic Phelypeaux. Here’s an accurate map of the Lake Superior watershed; none of the four imaginary islands appear.

Lake Superior watershed map
Lake Superior watershed map by Environment Canada (accessed from InfoSuperior.com)

Isle Phillippeaux (as named on the map) is named after the count, while Maurepas is named for the count’s home region, Pontchartrain for the count’s estate, and Ste. Anne after his patron saint. (While it’s possible that Maurepas is a renamed Michipicoten Island, considering the overall license Charlevoix took in apparently inventing the other islands, I’m not inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.)

This fabrication wouldn’t have been a big deal, except that the errors weren’t realized until after cartographer John Mitchell used Bellin’s map in constructing his 1755 map of North America. Mitchell’s map was considered to be so definitive that it was mentioned in the terms of the Treaty of Paris (1783) that set the border between British North America (Canada) and the new United States of America following the Revolutionary War.

… Thence along the middle of said Water Communication into the Lake Huron, thence through the middle of said Lake to the Water Communication between that Lake and Lake Superior; thence through Lake Superior Northward of the Isles Royal & Phelipeaux to the Long Lake; …

From Article 2 of the Treaty of Paris (1783)

Fortunately, the treaty didn’t put the boundary between Isle Royale and the imaginary Isle Phillipeaux, or worse, between it and the Keewenaw Peninsula (shown as “Pte. de Kiouéounan” on the Bellin map), which would have been even more difficult to define. The United Kingdom and the U.S. had numerous disputes over the border in the following years; a border defined by an imaginary island would have complicated things considerably.

In any case, Charlevoix’s invented Lake Superior islands were accepted as fact for several generations before enough people traveled to the region and began noticing that there was no land where their map said there should be. Eventually, the maps were corrected.

How many “maps” do we trust every day, putting our faith in the honesty and good intentions of the mapmakers? How willing are we to change our minds when the “map” turns out to be wrong?

Notes

Fr. Charlevoix is the namesake of several places in the U.S. and Canada, including Charlevoix County, its county seat of Charlevoix, and Lake Charlevoix in Michigan (both pronounced with the Anglicized “Shar’-le-voy”) and the municipalités régionales de comté Charlevoix and Charlevoix-Est (French pronunciation: “Sharl’-vwah”) in Québec.

Laws are not absolute, but the rule of law should be

I broke the law yesterday.

I went out to grab some lunch and on the way I found myself going 38 miles per hour. The posted speed limit was 35. According to Section 257.627(16) of the Michigan Vehicle Code (Act 300 of 1949, as amended):

A person who violates a speed limit established under this section is responsible for a civil infraction.

I probably exceeded the 35 mph limit on the way home, too. Obviously, I’m a habitual offender of this law. I’m sorry.

There were no police officers observing my deviant behavior to issue the required civil infraction. But it’s likely that even if they had, they wouldn’t have stopped me. I wasn’t racing; I wasn’t weaving through traffic like I was in a Fast and Furious sequel; I was in full control of my vehicle. I was just a bit over the posted limit, and (most of the time) the police have more critical things to do than pull a driver over for that.

(I have been pulled over for speeding. Once. I was going 34 in a 25 mph zone. I honestly thought the speed limit was 35, though that’s not an excuse. Since I had no points on my record, the officer let me off with a warning.)

Another example: I was a high school football official for several years, primarily as an umpire, who is normally stationed behind the defensive line and is responsible for watching for holding by the interior linemen during a play. You may have heard that it’s possible to call holding on every play. In my experience, that’s true. It takes an incredible amount of discipline not to grab onto an opponent, especially if you think he’s starting to get around you. So there’s often holding on plays.

But I didn’t throw a flag on every play, and there’s not a coach or player who wanted me to. The rule says offensive linemen can’t close their hands on an opponent’s jersey or wrap their arms around them to restrain them. If it affects the outcome of the play, by opening a hole for a runner or preventing a defender from reaching the quarterback and allowing them to complete a pass, it has to be called. If it’s blatantly obvious, like one of the guards full-on tackling the oncoming rusher, it has to be called (even if it was away from the point of attack). But a bit of grabbing on a straight-ahead block generally won’t get called; a lot of the time the umpire can’t even see it if it’s done between the shoulders of the defender’s body.

This doesn’t mean that the rules of football, like speed limits, should be ignored. The rules are there to draw a “line in the sand.” While a few miles per hour over the limit will generally be tolerated by the police, going 55 in a residential neighborhood should get you pulled over, and at the least get you a “civil infraction” per Section 257.627(16). A bit of clutch and grab is hard to detect, but a WWE-style takedown of a linebacker will get a flag every time.

So laws and rules can be flexible. Our commitment to them, and our consent to live by them, can’t be. If I decide that traffic laws don’t apply to me, I become a danger to myself and to my community. If I determine that football’s laws are just restrictions on my freedom to play the game any way I choose, I no longer belong on the field. Laws and rules make society tenable. They keep the game fair for everyone. Rejecting them leads to chaos.

There are a lot of people today who no longer think that the rule of law applies to them. Their pick-and-choose attitudes toward laws (very supportive of the Second Amendment, for example, but not so much on public health policies such as masks or vaccines) have been abetted by our leaders. Instead of enforcing existing laws, we spend time negotiating and appeasing those who have rejected the concept of the common good, which is what the rule of law represents.

The recent disturbances in downtown Ottawa are an excellent example. Here’s a photo from Google Street Maps of Wellington Street, just in front of the Parliament building:

Parliament Building, Ottawa, September 2021 (source: Google Maps)
Parliament Building, Ottawa, September 2021 (source: Google Maps)

See that “No Stopping” sign? I’m pretty sure if I drove to Ottawa and just stopped my pickup truck at the spot in the picture, the Ottawa police would rather quickly show up and suggest that I move along. If I brought a few dozen of my pickup and semi-tractor driving friends along, it might complicate the issue, but the law itself wouldn’t change… just the authorities’ response to the situation we’ve created.

There’s now a debate over the Canadian government’s invoking of the Emergencies Act to resolve the three week long standoff in Ottawa, but it seems to me that the whole thing might not have escalated as it did if they’d simply enforced the existing law.

(As an aside, isn’t it impressive that Canadians still have such open access to their seat of government? That may change due to the events of that past few weeks, which is a shame.)

Sometimes governments are concerned that enforcing the law will make them seem repressive. If the laws themselves are repressive, they should be changed, but respecting the rule of law by enforcing them is not repression.

If you’re not willing to follow the rules when circumstances demand it, then what are the rules good for?

Hey Siri, what’s the “Weather Report?”

On my way to work this morning, I asked Siri “what’s the weather report?” and instead of telling me “cloudy and 35 degrees” I got “Birdland” by the jazz-fusion group Weather Report.

I was not disappointed.

This is one of my favorite tracks of all time. As much as Steely Dan defined the sound of the late 70s and early 80s for me, Weather Report – and specifically “Birdland” – was right in that mix. There’s so much going on in the studio recording; it’s jazzy and funky and boppy one after the other. The chord runs are amazing.

I found this 1978 video recording of a Weather Report concert in Germany at the Stadthalle Offenbach and learned for the first time that the high-pitched notes at the beginning of the piece, which I always assumed was an electric guitar was bassist Jaco Pastorius plucking his electric bass close to the pickups while fingering it like… well, like an electric guitar. Pastorius also provides the high-pitched vocals, which I also never realized. Both he and drummer Alex Acuña go shirtless as well, which is pretty unusual for a jazz performance.

This live performance has more of a swing feel to it than the studio recording, but it’s still very cool:

Pastorius was quite a character. As he was recording his first solo album, he attended a Weather Report concert and afterwards introduced himself to the band with “I’m John Francis Pastorius the Third, and I’m the greatest bass player in the world.” When the bass spot opened up when Alphonso Johnson left, he became Weather Report’s second bass player just in time to record “Birdland,” which was written by keyboardist Joe Zawinul. Unfortunately, a combination of drug and alcohol abuse and the discovery that Pastorius was bipolar led to a series of bizarre events that ultimately resulted in his death in a bar fight in 1987 at the age of only 35.

Cardboard Tigers: T. Walker, G. Wilson, Wockenfuss

Seventeenth and last in an occasional series. Collect ’em all! I’m working through a stack of Tigers baseball cards from the late 1960s and early 1970s, with occasional newer cards.

Tom Walker – 1976 Topps #186

Tom Walker pitched in 36 games for the 1975 Tigers, starting 9 of them and finishing 17 others. He had a 3-8 record, a 4.45 ERA, and didn’t record a single save despite closing out those 17 contests. He came to Detroit in the deal that sent Woodie Fryman to Montréal that also brought Terry Humphrey to the Tigers. To be honest, though I followed the Tigers pretty closely in the mid-seventies, I don’t have any memory of Tom Walker with the team at all.

While this is Tom’s 1976 Topps card, by the time the spring training started that year he was with the Cardinals, who purchased his contract that February. He spent most of the season in Tulsa as a starter, but ended up saving three games for the big league team in only 19 2/3 innings. He split 1977 with Montreal again, then the California Angels, before briefly playing for the Columbus Clippers (then the Pirates’ AAA farm team) in 1978.

Tom’s career was fairly uneventful, other than the uniqueness of the final batter he faced in the big leagues, as Lyman Bostock lined into a triple play. He had a 18-23 lifetime record with a 3.87 ERA and struck out 262 batters.

In 1972, Walker was one of several major leaguers who helped Roberto Clemente load an airplane full of food and other supplies destined for Nicaragua after the Christmas earthquake that winter. Tom offered to go along to assist with the distribution, but Clemente told him to stay home and enjoy his New Year’s Eve celebration. When he returned home, Walker found out that Clemente’s plane had crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico.

Walker’s son, Neil, was a second baseman for the Pirates, Mets, Brewers, Yankees, Marlins, and Phillies over an eleven-year major league career.

Of more significance to Tigers’ fans is the fact that Tom’s daughter Carrie married former Tiger Don Kelly (currently the bench coach for the Pirates), making Tom his father-in-law and Neil his brother-in-law.

Glenn Wilson – 1984 Topps #563
Johnny Wockenfuss – 1984 Topps #119

Glenn Wilson and Johnny Wockenfuss finish out our Cardboard Tigers series due to the fact that their last names put them at the bottom of the deck. Coincidentally, they share a connection beyond having names near the end of the alphabet: They were traded together at the end of spring training in 1984 to the Phillies for first baseman Dave Bergman and closer Willie Hernandez. Bergman, of course, was a key utility component for the Tigers’ World Series championship team, playing first base and the corner outfield spots while hitting .273 in 121 at-bats, while all Hernandez did was win both the Cy Young Award and American League MVP while saving 32 games and posting an ERA of 1.92.

So again, as we’ve seen several times in this series, the cards for the 1984 Tigers feature a lot of guys who weren’t even on that team, including Wilson and Wockenfuss.

Wilson was coming off a good season for Detroit in 1983 where he hit .268 with 11 homers, playing 144 games in mostly right field with a few appearances in left and center. He went on to have a decent year in Philly in ’84 as well, but his best year was 1985, when he hit .275, knocked in 104 runs, made the National League All-Star team, and finished 23rd in the NL MVP voting. He played through 1990 with the Phillies, Mariners, Pirates, and Astros, and made a brief comeback in 1994 with Pittsburgh. For his career, he batted .265 with 98 home runs, and 521 RBI. He also pitched once: in 1987 he threw a 1-2-3 inning including a strikeout, giving him a lifetime 0.00 ERA.

After retiring from baseball, Wilson owned a gas station in Texas, managed independent league baseball in the Frontier League, and became an ordained minister.

Wockenfuss was tougher for me to deal with when he was traded to Philadelphia. He was one of my favorite Tigers, having been with the team since 1974, mostly as Bill Freehan’s (and later Lance Parrish’s) backup at catcher, and platooning for a couple of years with Milt May. He was versatile, making appearances in the outfield and at first base and serving as a capable designated hitter when needed as well. While he only averaged around 200 plate appearances per season (the exception was 1980, when he had 444 plate appearances while playing mostly first base – also his best season as he hit .274 with 16 homers and 65 RBI), he was always fun to watch, with his curly hair and mustache making him stand out on the field. As a catcher myself, Wockenfuss was they guy whose receiving style I copied. He also had a rather unusual batting stance, which I also copied (not that it did me any good). I was pretty upset when the Tigers traded him, especially right before the team headed north from Florida.

In the end, I got over it, considering the great start the 1984 team got off to and the contributions from both Bergman and Hernandez. Wockenfuss had a good year in Philadelphia, hitting .289 in 180 at-bats, playing mostly first base with some catcher and a couple of brief appearances at third base. He finished his major league career in 1985 with the Phillies at the age of 35. For his career, he hit .262 with 86 home runs, and 310 RBI.

In 1986, however, Wockenfuss decided he wasn’t done quite yet and paid his own way to Lakeland, hoping the Tigers would give him a shot. When they weren’t interested, he headed down the road to Winter Haven to see if the Red Sox would be willing, but they also said no. So he caught on with the Single-A Miami Marlins of the Florida State League, who in those days had no major league affiliation. He spent the whole season in south Florida, hitting .269 with 10 home runs and 80 RBI and was considered the “anchor of the Marlins’ team,” according to Miami sportswriter Tom Archdeacon.

After finally ending his playing career, he managed the Lakeland Tigers (A) in 1986 and 1987; the Glens Falls Tigers (AA) in 1988; and the Toledo Mud Hens (AAA) in 1989. He was fired early in the 1990 season after the Mud Hens got off to a 10-14 start, but later managed in the Pirates’ minor league system and with the independent Albany-Colonies Diamond Dogs in 1996-97.

Today, Wockenfuss, 72, suffers from dementia, believed to be a product of years of head contact as a football and baseball player, especially at the catcher position. His former teammate, Bill Freehan, also suffered from dementia for several years before his death this summer at the age of 79. He does remember much about his baseball career, though, including the disappointment he felt when the Tigers traded him in 1984. When his former team went on to win the World Series, Wockenfuss was frustrated with how close he’d come to winning a championship.

“I knew I was (close to) getting a (World Series) ring, you know, and that hurt, because I had been with them for so many years,” Wockenfuss said. “We were getting better and better and better and Sparky (manager Sparky Anderson) and I were good friends. I couldn’t believe it what he did to me. Because I was in the minors for a long time.”

From NNY360.com, November 18, 2019, article by Gregory Gay