The Liberty of the Ad Lib

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Did you see what I did there?

“Liberty”…

“Ad Lib”…

Get it?

OK. I have to admit. It is a bit of a stretch. At least from a literal standpoint. The “lib” of “ad lib” doesn’t stand for “liberty.” It’s actually the short form of the Latin phrase ad libitum.

Ad libitum literally translates to “at one’s pleasure.” There’s no “liberty” in it at all. Our word “liberty” derives from the Latin word liber. In Latin, liber and libitum mean two different, albeit not wholly unrelated, things.

The Latin liber means “free” or “unrestricted.” You can easily see how we get “liberty” from this word. Just to confuse you – as if all the different decinations aren’t enough, the Latin liber (from the genitive of libri), also means “book” or – get this – “the inner bark of a tree,” from which we get the word “library.” But we’ll skip this branch of the Latin tree.

The Latin libitum, (the perfect passive participle of libet, which means “it is pleasing”), on the other hand, translates to “pleased” or “one’s pleasure.”

I know what you’re thinking: “Won’t you derive pleasure from being free and unrestricted? So, aren’t liber and libitum really the same thing?”

Believe me, this is the kind of question that has vexed libertarians from before our country’s founding. Indeed, the libertarian philosophy seems to have two competing heads.

The first can be traced back to 17th century England and the writings of John Locke, who has been called the Father of Liberalism. Locke’s work (primarily his Natural Rights philosophy of “life, liberty, and property”) attracted the attention of America’s Founding Fathers. You may recognize Thomas Jefferson’s adulation of Locke in the phrasing he used within the body of the Declaration of Independence (“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”). (For Founding Father aficionados, Jefferson’s change of the third item represents an homage to Aristotle.) Let’s call this the liber part of libertarianism.

The second head of libertarianism – perhaps you might refer to it as “The Dark Side” – seems to have its roots in the French Revolution. (For those with a scorecard, Thomas Paine represents a key link between the American and French Revolutions.) Many cite Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s thoughts on the intersection of morality and freedom and the springboard to the part of libertarianism that speaks to anarchism. Let’s call this the libitum part of libertarianism.

But we don’t want to judge the word libitum too harshly. After all, it’s a critical part of the phrase ad libitum, which, in turn, gave us the term “ad lib.”

And “ad lib” is a good thing.

Ad lib gives us the personal freedom that defines liberty.

But that might represent too great a leap for the casual reader. Let’s start where many of us experience ad lib to our great delight: the arts.

If you like jazz (or the Grateful Dead), then you’ve experienced the joys of ad lib. These musical journeys often allow free ranging instrumentation. While at least a single band member is tasked with keeping the tempo, one or more of the musicians have the freedom to play at their pleasure. (There you go, again. A combination of liber and libitum.)

Still, with skilled players, the average concert-goer might not recognize when the music veers from the score. There’s another stage, however, where the audience knows for sure they’re experiencing a purely unscripted event: improv theatre.

Here, comedians will ask the audience to throw out a few random nouns and verbs. The troupe then makes a coherent (and hopefully humorous) story out of those words and phrases. In this case, the audience derives pleasure (libitum) from the comic’s unrestricted use of the elements presented them (liber).

The beauty of ad lib is often captured for all to see in major cinematic releases. This requires very talented actors who are well-versed in improvisational comedy. In fact, when you place several qualified actors like this in the same movie, you have the recipe for a comedy classic… or a complete dud.

You don’t remember the duds, but you do remember the classics. I had the pleasure (libitum)to attend “An Evening with Chevy Chase” at the Kodak Center last Friday. They brought the 75-year-old comedian on the stage for an hour of, well, an old Chevy Chase. There were snippets of his wit, but, when the audience had to finish his sentences for him, well, you know, you’re free (liber) to interpret that any way you’d like.

Except for one thing. Before ol’ Chevy sauntered onto the stage, attendees laughed through a full presentation of the uncut version of the movie Caddyshack.

The comedy, an acclaimed classic, started as a completely scripted coming-of-age movie. Most of that script, however, ended up on the cutting room floor. (After filming, the first edit of the movie clocked in at 4½ hours long.) When the editors finished, what was left was mostly a series of ad lib performances by Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Rodney Dangerfield. These were just too good to cut. Audiences agreed.

The final cut (a run time of only 98 minutes) features a story that was created in post-production. In a sense, these ad lib comedians represented such a powerful force that only an ad lib final edit could do it justice.

And it did.

But at a cost.

While Caddyshack boosted the careers of its well-known stars, it soured the career aspirations of its younger actors. Quite a few quit the business as a result of the anarchy that ruled the set. In fact, the movie was filmed in Florida just to avoid the watchful eyes of its Hollywood overseers. (It was pitched to the studio as Animal House on the golf course. Little did they know…)

The production set was less about making a movie and more about having a party – for some. When the set broke, half the crew didn’t want to leave while the other half couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

It’s been said freedom isn’t free. The actors who created such an iconic movie had the freedom to do so. Our cinematic canon is all the more valuable for their efforts. While not originally scripted, some of the lines have found their way into our language, etched into the culture of (at least) the generation that grew up with Caddyshack.

Yet, there was collateral damage. Most of us will never see it, and it does take a certain amount of energy to dig up evidence of this damage. And why should we? The trade-off we derive as a society for this masterpiece – how it has enriched our lives (it morphed from a coming of age story to a Marx Brothers morality tale) – makes it worthwhile.

After all, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Wow. That doesn’t sound very liberating at all. How about this:

After all, without the ad lib, you’d never be able to realize your own Cinderella Story.

Was This Written 50 Years Too Early or 50 Years Too Late?

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I‘ve always been puzzled by this thought: Was I born 50 years too early or 50 years too late? This thought resurfaced this week as I rode the train back and forth to Chicago while the rest of the world dazzled itself with remembering the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11.

It reminds me of a skit I once did as Cubmaster for Peter’s pack. We had our meetings in the cavernous Mendon Firehall. It was always filled to capacity. Filled with boys, their parents, and their siblings.

That night I donned a pair of Buzz Lightyear “wings” (actually they were my young nephew’s and I don’t know how I fit them over my shoulders without overstretching them). After strutting a few steps with those wings, I added a Woody hat on top of my head.

Maybe one of the Toy Story movies was out that year.

In either case, I asked the pack to guess who I was. Some of the boys says “Buzz” and some said “Woody.” I said “Nope” to each guess. Then I looked up to the parents in Pack 105 and said – in a distinct John Wayne kind of voice – “Well, pilgrim, some people call me a ‘The Space Cowboy.’”

And so it has been in my life. Teetering on the precipice of “born too early” while simultaneously straddling the ledge of “born too late.” Some might view this as a Continue Reading “Was This Written 50 Years Too Early or 50 Years Too Late?”

We’ll Always Have Paris… How The Business of Sequels Destroyed America’s Youth

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They say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. That may be true, but it is also the greatest impediment to progress.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a certain business sense to imitation – and I don’t mean outright theft of intellectual property. I’m referring to the “variation on a theme” that has become a successful marketing trope since well before Beethoven, Bach, and The Beatles.

Companies use the goodwill (and good publicity) generated by a top selling product, give it a tweak here and there, then come out with a “new” product that borrows heavily from the theme of the original. Rarely, however, does this sequel product ever reach the heights of its predecessor.

Here’s an example. Following the tremendous success of Continue Reading “We’ll Always Have Paris… How The Business of Sequels Destroyed America’s Youth”

The Fantastical (Real-Life) Time Machine

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I had the pleasure of being invited to perform for Living History Day at SUNY Fredonia a couple of weeks ago. The all-day event features dozens of “acts.” It’s offered to hundreds of 7th graders from throughout the Greater Western New York region. They’re bussed in early in the morning and attend live demonstrations of everything from Seneca Indian dances to artillery cannon fire.

These 12-year-olds watch as regiments from the Revolutionary War (both sides), the War of 1812 and the Civil War (both sides) conduct their drills. They see real-life colonial cooking, frontier gaming, and homespun crafts. The learn from medicine women, Suffragettes, and military historians. They discover 18th century artifacts, 19th century women’s fashions, and 20th century genealogical grave hunting.

All this is done in period dress. Not just generic period dress, but actors dress as actual historical characters. I walked in with Harriet Tubman. Later I saw her talking to Abraham Lincoln. I could have sworn I saw a British general drinking coffee with Susan B. Anthony.

And they were all in costume. Even the civilians wore clothing of the era they represented. You can see from the pictures from the event. Everyone donned the fashion of the time from which they spoke and lived.

All except me.Continue Reading “The Fantastical (Real-Life) Time Machine”

Should You Go Wide or Go Deep?

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Remember a couple months back when I said I discovered a way to add more hours to my day? (If you don’t, here it is: “That Time I Discovered ‘Idle Time’ Doesn’t Really Exist,” Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel, March 14, 2019). With all that rediscovered time I was able to explore a dusty section of unread books in my expansive library. (And by expansive, I mean… Wait. Forget it. It only gets Betsy mad.)

I began this new venture by perusing an entire series of books from the pens of the greatest copywriters. These books defined the advertising industry as it emerged from the 19th century into the 20th. They represent the primordial tracks from which Madison Avenue men evolved. They spawned a persuasive style that combined art and science into an effective (sometimes too effective) tool.

By “art” I refer to the words that effectively captivate and motivate the reader. But how do the words work as intended?

That’s where the “science” comes in. Today we call it “market research.” Claude C. Hopkins, acknowledged as perhaps the greatest copywriter, called it “scientific advertising.” His book by the same name (published in 1923) shows how an ad means nothing unless it stimulates its audience to act. He not only wrote the ads, he studied how Continue Reading “Should You Go Wide or Go Deep?”

One-Upping Warren: This is the Right Way to Forgive Student Loans

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It was one of those silly socialist ideas that normally come from the mouth of Bernie Sanders. No one took it very seriously in 2016 when the then 74-year-old Vermont Senator tried to win the (we now know rigged) Democrat nomination from Hillary Clinton. He proudly declared “free college for everyone!” The kids loved it. The adults giggled.

The Clinton establishment knew this kind of talk wouldn’t fly in fly-over country (hint: that’s us). It was too radical. Too impractical. Too communist. So they laughed at Bernie and encouraged him to say what he said.

Little did we know.

Andrew Cuomo, with a watchful eye on his own 2020 political ambitions, decided to see Continue Reading “One-Upping Warren: This is the Right Way to Forgive Student Loans”

Mechanical or Intuitive: Which Approach Works Best for You? – A Real-World Lesson (Part II)

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The Conclusion of: “Style or Substance? A Real-World Lesson – A Real-World Lesson (Part I)

“Yes, you may hit the right notes more often than Chris,” she began, “but your intuitive desire to physically search for the perfect note interferes with the broader tempo of the entire piece. Chris is mechanical. To him, keeping that tempo is more important than finding the perfect pitch. The concertmaster’s job is to lead the entire orchestra in maintaining this tempo.”

The answer shocked me. I never thought of myself as a mere machine. But there it was. The teacher had just said so. I was mechanical, not intuitive.

This didn’t sound right. How could a machine find the joy in playing the way I did? Wasn’t a machine dispassionate? Doesn’t a machine work precisely because it has Continue Reading “Mechanical or Intuitive: Which Approach Works Best for You? – A Real-World Lesson (Part II)”

Style or Substance? A Real-World Lesson (Part I)

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I never had someone so mad at me. And for no reason. We were both in tenth grade. Except for orchestra, we shared no other classes. We did share an Italian-American heritage. And she was mad in a way only an Italian-American can get mad. I’d seen it all before. In my extended family. In my neighborhood. In the dark alleys of the most obscure hallways within the school.

I just didn’t get it. I didn’t even know what a concertmaster was. Yet, there I was. Her, me, and the violin teacher.

But I get ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the beginning of the story…Continue Reading “Style or Substance? A Real-World Lesson (Part I)”

Confessions of a Numbers Guy

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Admit it. How many of you read the headline and immediately thought of running the rackets? Tsk, tsk. Too many late-night gangster movies watched on AMC for you!

No, this numbers guy has nothing to do with gambling. I’m not worried about some random fed chasing me down on some random RICO charge. These numbers deal with only one thing: math in its various (legal) applied forms.

My high school teachers knew me better than I knew myself. For four years I paraded from class to class singing the hosannas of science. In science class I asked the toughest questions (especially in physics). In social studies class I trumpeted the scientists during the Age of Enlightenment. In English class I rebelled – even to the point of denying any Continue Reading “Confessions of a Numbers Guy”

Classic vs. Timeless: Do You Know the Difference?

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Ten years ago, I wrote a play for The Monsignor Schnacky Players. It was called The Macaroni Kid. The melodrama told the heartwarming but comedic story of a young orphan trying to reunite with his long, lost mother. Kidnapped by gypsies as a baby, he doesn’t know her name, he doesn’t know where she lives, he doesn’t even know what she looks like. All he remembers is her voice and the beautiful songs she would sing to him.

Now a young man, he decides the only way to find his mother is to sing everywhere, every chance he has. Only then, maybe, if he is lucky, she will find him. (That’s the heartwarming part.)

The only trouble with his plan; he can’t sing. But everyone is so captivated by his story and his quest that they don’t have the heart to tell him. (That’s where the comedy comes in.)

This isn’t a new story. It’s a spin on the familiar “boy-loses-girl/boy-looks-for-girl/boy-finds-girl” three act drama well known among story-tellers, scriptwriters, and playwrights. Lest you think “mother” doesn’t qualify for “girl,” I suggest you reread that timeless Greek classic Oedipus Rex.

There. I just did it. I used “timeless” and “classic” in the same sentence.

Most people view “timeless” and “classic” as interchangeable adjectives. They’re not.

By definition, “timeless” mean “eternal” and “classic” means “highest quality.” That means Continue Reading “Classic vs. Timeless: Do You Know the Difference?”