Goin’ South and Other Colloquial Expressions

It is 1997.

I am a technical instructor based in SoCal. I’m teaching in Hong Kong 75 days before Kiss, Bow, or Shake Handsthe British return it to China. I am told the students all speak English.

We have a book called ‘Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands’. The book explains issues that can affect business communications, whether they be cultural, behavioral, or linguistic. I learn, for example, that in China one presents one’s business card with both hands, by the edges. I also learn that, while the students and I may speak the same language, there will be another issue that will affect my training.

The Chinese have a sociological concept Westerners know as ‘face’, referring to one’s sense of dignity or prestige. I learn that students in China do not ask questions of their instructors. Questions imply the instructor has not done a good job of teaching.

There is a certification test given at the end of the course and none of my students have ever failed it. I am committed to making sure my Chinese students don’t either. I develop a rigorous system of daily reviews in which I grill them on each concept covered in the preceding days.

On Friday morning, we assemble in the classroom. Their manager joins us for what will be their final review before taking the test. By Friday the review takes 45 minutes. Every student answers every question posed correctly. I am thrilled. So is their manager, who stands in the back grinning.

It is 1999.

I am conducting the same training in The Great White North, Toronto, Canada. As I cover the section on database maintenance I explain that if the components of the system get out of synch the system would ‘Go South’.

I realize that this is a colloquial expression and remember what the book said about avoiding them when doing business abroad. I apologize to my students for using such an expression.

“‘Going South’ probably doesn’t mean the same thing here as it does where I come from,” I tell them.

They look at each other, then they look at me. They smile and nod.

“Yes, it does”.


Live, From L.A. It’s Saturday Night!

Big BandIt is 1978.

Vince Carroll, Chris Callard, Kim Long and I enter the Roxy Theater as Steve Allen’s Big Band plays. We are late because Vince was working at Vons and couldn’t get off early. He picked us up straight from work and is wearing an ensemble that – well, he doesn’t always look like this. And it’s not just the polka dotted tie/striped shirt combo. He has decorated his shirtfront with a good-sized purple ink stain from marking prices on canned goods.

The show has already started. We get the last table in the place. An usher brings us in between numbers. I knew Steve Allen as a comedian from television’s Golden Era. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew he had written a song or two but as the band goes through their set, I recognize every song. The man is wildly prolific and a damn fine songwriter.

During a break between songs, Allen addresses the audience.

“This is the part in the show where I’m supposed to introduce someone in the audience. Last night the stage manager handed me a card with the name Dr. Sydney Weinstein. I try to keep up with what’s going on in the world but wasn’t familiar with Dr. Weinstein’s work. And, as it turned out, someone was just having a joke on him.”

The audience laughs.

“But tonight, the name on the card is one I recognize. He is a man who has helped bring live television back and I am pleased to introduce Mr. Chevy Chase!”

The spotlight comes on and I am in it. I blink and applaud as I look around. A man at the next table stands and it is, in fact, Chevy Chase. He waves and nods. The band resumes their set.

Chris and Vince are aspiring stand-up comedians. At the end of the show, Vince makes a bee-line for Chase’s table.

“Mr. Chase!” he exclaims, grabbing the comedian’s hand and pumping it furiously. “I’d just like to thank you for making me laugh!”

Chevy Chase takes in the striped shirt and polka dot tie, and the purple Rorschach stain. He pumps Vince’s hand right back, grinning.

“And I’d like to thank YOU for making ME laugh.”

Forever 39

It is 1985.

My mother’s birthday is approaching. She will be 39. She has been 39 for at least ten Fire Cautionyears. She was 29 for ten years before that. She tells the story about being Den Mother of our Cub Scout den when one of the boys asked me her age and I replied without hesitation ‘29’.

She has been dating Len, an architect, for a several years. He really cares about her. But he is a widower. His wife died of cancer. He is reluctant to marry again. They date and have fun together, but I know she wants something more.

Len’s 60th birthday follows hers by a couple of days. They have a joint birthday party at Len’s condo. His daughters have arranged for a three-tiered cake covered in white fondant. Embedded in the fondant are 115 candles, representing their combined ages.

Go ahead. You do the math. She’s 39.

This is a good idea in theory. Two of Len’s daughters and I begin lighting the candles with long wooden matches. I realize two things: First, that unless we hurry, the first candles lit will be completely melted by the time we light the last one. Second, there are so many candles burning that we soon reach a point where it is hard to find a way to light the remaining candles without being burned.

But we manage to do it. I am certain that the heat is picked up by Soviet spy satellites and that for a few minutes their command and control system is trying to decide if it is the heat bloom of a missile launch.

Fortunately, Len’s living room has a vaulted ceiling so we don’t need to call the fire department.

We sing ‘Happy Birthday’ and everyone claps as they blow out what candles they can. The golden light bathes my mother’s face. Her blue eyes shine with happiness.

She has a crooked smile due to a partial bridge. She’s always been self-conscious of it. When I took her picture for her real estate collateral she only asked that I make her smile look good.

Her smile is beautiful.

This is the last time she will be 39 again.

Now she is forever 39.