Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Laughing Through the Horror

   One of the funniest American comics is Emo Philips, a Chicagoan whose unique shtick marries a childlike persona with humor that can be silly, biting and intellectual.

Emo starts his act with some variation of this this joke:

"When I was in high school I went to my prom. My mother said, 'You should wear your grandfather's tuxedo.' I said, 'That's a good idea,' so I grabbed a shovel…"

That's not the Emo joke that brings me back to this blog.

It's this one:

"My sister married a German man. When he came to visit I took him to a bagel shop. He said, "This is delicious. We can't get bagels like this in Germany,' and I said, 'Well who's fault is that?'"

I howled the first time I saw that joke on video and again when he told it at the Punch Line a few years back, which might seem an add reaction from the son of two Holocaust survivors.

I laughed because I knew my father would, even if he did spend three years in a variety of concentration camps, and I knew my father would laugh because it would not have been the first time.

Dad had thin, straight, dark hair. My sister and I used to comb part of it down his forehead, in a slant. One of us would hold the comb in a way that only a small part was visible and we'd hold it between his nose and mouth, like a mustache.

He seriously looked like Hitler, and on cue, he would launch into a loud German rant that sounded exactly like the f├╝hrer at one of his rallies. It was hilarious, and he enjoyed doing it to make us laugh -- a man, mind you, who lost most of his family in the camps and spent years wondering if he would live to see tomorrow.

Few camp survivors remain. Some are interviewed, and many say that humor was an important coping mechanics, which is unbelievable considering the horrors and losses they endured.

We've all seen photos of concentration-camp prisoners squeezed together on their "beds," nothing more than wooden bunks, as if they were sardines in a can. Sadly, we've also seen photos of these emaciated men and women upon their liberation.

I never asked my dad specifically if he and his cellmates found ways to laugh, but it's hard to imagine surviving so many months and years without siphoning what humor remained deep within their souls to stay sane.

Dad died in 2008, at 81. When my mom died in December, at 88, we had to empty her apartment. My sister Janie took all the photo albums and loose pictures, and she found a remarkable artifact, the earliest photo of Dad we had seen.

It was an ID picture affixed to a document from the United States government declaring that he was liberated from the camps, where he was held as a "political prisoner," and officially stateless. The paper allowed him entry into a displaced-person's camp in Germany, where he remained for a time before emigrating here.

It's a remarkable document, dated in September, 1945, mere months after his liberation from Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. He was 18. (The May 20, 1926 birthdate was wrong. He was born six months later.)

The document suggests he had a number tattooed on his arm, which is odd, because he didn't. In the photo he looks relatively healthy, doubtlessly benefiting from the food and medical care the Allies provided in the months after liberation.

When Janie saw the photo she made an astute observation: that pained look on my father's face that hardly masked the torture and pain that still must have welled within.

Ella and Ben Schulman, 2005

This was not the visage I remember from our decades together. Of course he exhibited anger, sadness and every other human emotion, but unless I missed it because I wasn't astute enough to seek it, I don't recall seeing the expression that he had, as Binem Schulman, in that black-and-white photo affixed to a wrinkled, tarnished document.

Human beings have a remarkable ability to overcome, or at least mask, the tragedies that befall them.

Dad seemed to succeed quite well until his final years, when his dementia brought him back to World War II.

Before that, he laughed a lot, and understanding the way Jewish people have used centuries of oppression as comedy material, it suddenly was not a stretch to imagine him and others like him turning to humor in the camps at times to dull the remaining senses.

I never asked if that was so. Now I wish I had.

Saturday, August 13, 2016


Dear readers, I wrote this for the Oakland Tribune in August, 1991, 25 years ago this month.
You are 9 years old and it is August, and you understand nothing about dog days and stretch drives and pennant fever. You only know that come Sunday, for the first time in your life, you will see baseball played in three dimensions, not behind a flat, black-and-white screen.
You ride shotgun in your father's '59 Chevy Bel Air, the one with the tail fins that look like Catwoman's eyes. The tickets sit in an envelope that won't leave your hands. Stuck there. As the signs for the ballpark appear, you crane your neck every which way to steal your first glance of a major-league baseball stadium
Your dad makes the final turn and it appears before your eyes in one bold stroke. Your brain can't process the image fast enough. They showed you pictures of the Taj Mahal in the third grade, but the Indian palace is nothing more than a Lego project compared to the ballpark, its perfectly rounded frame, the flags stationed beyond center field, the thousands of cars that surround it like moths around a porch light.
Once inside your senses are simply overpowered by grass as green as green should be, a diamond as perfect as anything your mother has shown you through a jewelry-store window, the smell of hotdogs being grilled, vendors tossing double bags of roasted peanuts to patrons 20 years away and the patrons chucking quarters back, the fat lady next to you scratching her pencil across a scorebook you don't understand while taking up both armrests, your first view of a real fly ball and how it seems to hang in the air eternally, the sound of 30,000 people cheering as one.
Your dad is sitting next to you. Your team loses 3-2, but it's hard to be disappointed. It's a day you'll never forget, your first major-league baseball game.
You celebrate August.
You are 14 years old and you do understand dog days and stretch drives and pennant fever. You are at the stadium with your dad, this time chauffeured in a 1970 Impala . . . no tail fins, just a lot of car. The stadium looks smaller but the hot dogs smell s juicy as ever. You think less about your father next to you and more about your little sister at home, and revel in the knowledge that you're here and she's not.
The final score means more because you know your team is fighting for a pennant. A win, and you feel good on the ride home; a loss, and you sulk. Later in the evening you and your father argue about whether you can have money for this or permission to do that, and you go to bed angry.
You are 23 years old and you love 400 miles from home. Baseball is more than a pastime, it's an obsession. You visit a different ballpark than the one from your youth and you go with friends. You use your own money and your own car. The stadium is just a building, the hot dogs just an expense. You don't think much about your father; you hardly talk to him. Your new team stinks, but you go every week because it is late summer and it is where you should be.
You celebrate August and you celebrate the game, because it is bigger than you or your father or your friends or your team.
You are 28 years old and you write about baseball for a living. You still live 400 miles from your youth, but you talk to your dad more. Old bad feelings are wisely forgotten as youth matures into adulthood. It is November and you are back home, and you use your connections to score two 50-yard-line seats to the NFL team that you watched with your father when the leaves turneded brown. Because of your job, you can't spend August afternoons together anymore.
You pull into the stadium in your car, a little Honda, two of which could have fit into your dad's Impala. You sit and watch the game, and the enjoyment on his face as he watched the game, knowing full well his spark is not drawn from the field, but from you, and the fact that your are there.
You are 31 years old and it is August. You are sitting in the baseball press box covering a game and the phone rungs. It's your father, from 400 miles away, and he's watching the game on cable. He wants to know about a certain play, why the umpire ruled the way he did. He wants to know why his favorite team, the one you watched together in days gone by, has started to stumble.
You are struck by a warm feeling that things are good, even if you are not close. You look out your press box window and see fathers and sons.
You see the game unfold before them, and you celebrate August.

Postscript: The father and the son had 40 more years together after that first ballgame before the father passed away, beloved, after a long and interesting life.

Ella, Henry and Ben Schulman, 2008. Two months later, Ben left us.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Giants make major cuts, pick their backup catcher

Andrew Susac, gone.
Hunter Strickland, gone.
Juan Perez, gone.
All three members of the Giants 2014 World Series team were optioned to Triple-A Sacramento on Sunday morning, as the front office all but set the 25-man roster.
Hector Sanchez appears to be the backup catcher, winning a job he wondered if he ever would do again after a series of concussions last year.
Nonroster invitee Justin Maxwell apparently will make the team as a backup outfielder, although neither he nor Sanchez has been told they are on the team.
Strickland's chances of making the team were dim from the beginning of spring training because there really was one bullpen job up for grabs, and two candidates, Jean Machi and George Kontos, are out of major-league options.
That decision remains, as well as a backup infield slot for either Ehire Adrianza or Matt Duffy. Duffy has minor-league options. Adrianza does not.
Susac clearly was caught off guard by the decision to start the year in Triple-A.
"It's bittersweet, I guess," he said. "It's frustrating. I"m not happy about it, but I'm not going to let it get me down. That's not my personality. I can see the reasons behind it. It will be nice to get consistent at-bats when I come up, if I come up."
Susac was an integral part of the World Series championship team. He hit .273 in 95 plate appearances as Buster Posey's backup and caught well, but the 25-year-old had less than 1,000 plate appearances in the minors and no doubt want him to get more game-calling experience.
Sanchez entered camp as a long shot. After concussions shut him down last season, he went to winter ball in Venezuela and was asked by the Giants not to catch, just hit. He admitted Sunday morning that when he got to camp he was fatigued just catching bullpen sessions.
But now, he said, his body feels good.
Asked if he thought he might not catch again after last year, he said, "Yes, absolutely. In my mind, I can't play anymore baseball. I was just trying to be focused  in the offseason, just to get ready an do what I have to do to be a catcher. I just want to do what I love."
The Giants made other moves that were expected.
They optioned Adam Duvall and Gary Brown to Sacrament. They also reassigned to minor-league camp nonroster catcher, infielder Guillermo Quiroz, infielder Brandon Hicks, and pitchers Juan Gutierrez and Brett Bochy.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

When it's bird versus cop, the feathers will fly

Yeah, the San Francisco Ball Scribe blog is back after a mere three-year hiatus. Sorry it took so long. I had a cold.

Actually, I had more than a cold. I had a lot of things happen in my life that made it hard for me to be funny. I lost my passion for a lot of things, including this little modest attempt at humor and insight into the life of a major-league beat writer.

I have felt a lot better lately and wondered how I could reintroduce this blog, which ended so abruptly. I was kind of stuck...until the pelican came into my life.

This pelican:

Or whatever the hell bird this is supposed to be.

First off, I apologize for the fuzziness of the picture. I was laughing my head off when I took it Sunday.

Here's the scene: I and my fellow scribes are inside the tunnel at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg waiting to be let into the clubhouse for our postgame chat with Bruce Bochy. Usually we wait about 10 minutes after the final out before we are let inside.

Later that day, a college baseball game was to be played in the stadium and this bird apparently is a mascot for one of the teams.

The Pelican and his "handler," the guy in the rainbow shirt, were just moseying inside the tunnel when this security guard intercepted them. The bird apparently failed to produce the proper credentials to be inside that tunnel.

I'm not exactly sure what that credential would look like, but I sure as hell would like to be there when they shoot the photo for it. I imagine the bird flapping its wings and running in circles and the photographer yelling, "Stand still, dammit."

The best part about this was the way the pelican was pacing back and forth with its arms folded as his handler got on the phone trying to reach the proper authorities, and I love the expression on the bird's face -- the perfect indignation for this entire episode.

I really wanted to walk over and say, "Hey, buddy, don't lay an egg!" But this wasn't my fight.

I also have to love the vigor and determination with which the security guard was doing her job. I seriously doubt she thought that this was the start of a great Al Qaeda plot, but she had rules to follow and no blob of feathers was going to sneak past her. The ever-increasing anger of Rainbow Guy the longer this went on made it even funnier.

So, we writers are watching all this and busting a gut. That's a problem, because the Giants lost a one-run game, and anytime the team you cover loses you are expected to show decorum when you walk into the manager's office for the postgame interview. We call it the "game face."

We didn't have our game faces on, and the longer this bird-versus-cop standoff went on the harder it became to make an effort of solemnity.

Finally, a woman who works for the Rays strode along the tunnel and told the security guard the bird and rainbow guy were OK. The guard protested about the lack of credential but finally gave in.

We thought we would have a few moments to gather ourselves, but this then this fellow below, completely unrelated to the Pelican, happened by, and now we writers are peeing our pants laughing.

The best part about the photo is the security guard at the clubhouse door, watching this scene as if he were a funeral director during a memorial service.

No smiles, no laughs, as if he sees this creature a hundred times a day.

I'm a pretty jolly fellow, and I have a tough time keeping a straight face when I get into a laughing fit. I really thought for a moment I'd have to stay outside before going into Bochy's office.

But I lucked out. General manager Brian Sabean was on the trip and he apparently went into Bochy's office after the loss for a talk with the manager. We were kept out of Bochy's office for a good 15 minutes, maybe more.

Usually we'd be angry about that. Not on this day. We were grateful.

Now, I'm just trying to imagine pelican going home after the game, sitting on the couch, pulling his head off (or leaving it on, if that's how he rolls), popping open a cold one and telling his significant other, "Man, you wouldn't believe this hard-ass security guard I had to deal with."

It's enough to make a good bird molt.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The best e-mail I've received in a long time

Some time ago, I blogged about buying my 78-year-old mother a device called the Mailbug, whose only purpose is to send and receive text-only e-mails. It's popular with seniors who don't have computers because it's easy to use.

She used it to send me an e-mail after tonight's games. a 6-3 Giants win over Arizona and the Padres' 2-1 victory against Los Angeles. I will share it in its entirety. You should know that she has never been to a professional baseball game, will not watch one on TV, and could not explain a single rule about the sport, which is what made this so precious.

Here it is:

To: Henry Schulman

From: Ella Schulman

Subject: Dodgers

"It looks like they can't hit a side of a barn from one foot away. It is up to the Giants to keep winning, like they are doing.


I should introduce her to Lasorda.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Celebrating life on the road not taken

My first real time away from home was my junior year at college. I went to Cal, where campus cops looked the other way at marijuana, dorm-room fridges were stocked with cheap beer and there was a 50-50 chance that any mushroom you consumed was not the kind you could procure at Berkeley Bowl.

So I had to laugh the following summer when I returned home to Los Angeles, my dad offered me a shot of whiskey and my mom said, "Ben, don't teach him to drink." Parents are the bomb, aren't they?

I think of that every time I visit my mom in Los Angeles, as I did this week. Though alone now, she still rattles around the same rent-controlled, three-bedroom apartment to which we moved during my senior year of high school. It's a nice place that I actually discovered because I was a fat little boy.

My folks were looking to move to a bigger place. One Sunday morning I grabbed the keys so I could drive five blocks (shaddup!) to Winchell's donuts, even though I needed to stuff more fried sugar cakes into my maw as much as people in Barrow, Alaska, need sunscreen. I had to turn right onto Havenhurst Drive, and being a good little motorist I looked to my left for traffic and saw the for-rent sign.

My folks were not drinkers. Both of their fathers were a little too enamored with the drop and neither wanted to follow the same path. So I found it funny that after I moved away for good my parents bought one of those standalone bars with two stools and storage shelves behind for all the bottles they received as gifts and never opened. They stuck it right in my old room. I'm pretty sure there used to be a "Dogs Playing Poker" painting behind the bar. Maybe my mom sent it to Sotheby's for appraisal.

Visiting my old room reminds me of how close I came to moving back home after college. I had a political science degree, which oddly enough opened few doors to $100,000-a-year jobs. I had no job lined up aside from the few dollars I earned covering Berkeley City Hall for the Daily Cal. Days before I was to load my worldly possessions into my orange Datsun B-210 for the drive down I-5, I got a tip that the Chronicle needed a Berkeley stringer. I phoned the editor in charge and he hired me over the phone. I'd get a $200 monthly retainer plus a few bucks for each story that got published, and let me tell you, when you get paid by the piece you become a real noodnik ("Hey, editor, two garbage cans near Wheeler Hall went up in flames. You want 500 words?"). Good thing there was no caller ID back then or he'd have blackballed my number.

So I stayed in Berkeley, renting a place with my buddies Steve and Gene above a Chinese restaurant on San Pablo Avenue. For half a year, I subsisted on Daily Cal and Chronicle stringer money and even managed to save a few bucks. I used those clips to get a sort of internship in Sacramento, which helped me land a job at a weekly paper in the Central Valley and so on and so on to my current gig covering the Giants at the Chronicle.

The decision I made that June day in 1981, to stay in Northern California despite the fear of being broke and no mom-and-dad cushion (and nobody to teach me to drink), proved to be an even bigger cornerstone in my life than I would have imagined. Because I managed to keep myself clothed and swimming in glazed donuts, I learned that it's OK to take risks.

How different my life would have been had I returned to Los Angeles. Dad would have turned me into a full-fledged alkie and the 'rents would have persuaded me to give up this ridiculous notion of writing for a living.

Being Jewish in Los Angeles is akin to being in the Mafia in New York. Whenever I needed something -- a suit, a bike -- my dad would say, "Don't go to the store. I know a guy..." I'm sure one of those "guys" would have employed me in a respectable trade. At this moment, I could be the top-selling wall-to-wall carpet salesman in the West San Fernando Valley territory.

Nothing wrong with that. You can't cut a mean rug on the dance floor without the rug. And I'll bet I'd be happy, too, because I'd be so close to family and not even realize how much of a dump Los Angeles really is.

The moral: Don't be afraid of the dark. Take a chance. Follow Robert Frost's advice and choose the road not taken.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go teach a couple of baseball writers to drink.