Who Else is Coming? The Apryl Raitt Phenomenon
Some people have a way about them. They set others at ease. They're fun to be with. They are the life of the party. If you want to throw a successful party, then it's best to invite at least one such person. For me, that person was Apryl Raitt.
Apryl was pleasant. She was fun. And she was sincere. Everybody enjoyed her company. When she left the room, everything became less sparkly. Other than that, she was pretty much an ordinary teenager.She could juggle. She could strum the guitar, and she could sing. But none of that was all that remarkable. It isn't why people came. They came, because she gave them hope.
I liked Apryl very much. But I liked what she did for my filksings even more. She made them possible.
Is it wrong to use another person to get what you want? Most people agree that it is. But where would any of us be if not what other people unwittingly contribute to our lives?
If Apryl could make people feel good, was it wrong that I benefited, too? She could juggle. She could sing. She could make people smile. Why not let her?
I was born without any of those abilities. When I took tennis in college, it turned out that I needed remedial lessons on how to bounce a ball, before I could proceed with the normal curriculum. Needless to say, I couldn't juggle. And I couldn't play guitar, and I couldn't sing. But worst of all, I had no small talk.
"Aya needs to learn how to make small talk," a friend once told my mother. "That is so important in life." However, in those days, there were no remedial courses in small talk, and people just figured that the problem would correct itself.
I went through periods when I was very eager to learn social skills. I even threw myself into challenging social situations in the hopes of developing better aptitude. During the late eighties, I had a working theory of politics, and I was engaged in a series of experiments that involved putting the theory into practice. I fancied myself a bit of a Machiavelli.
Juggling: An Ancient Pastime
In the theory of politics. there were diagrams of people and their relationships. There were arrows between the people, and the arrows had directionality. People with lots of arrows pointing at them, who looked a little like an egg cell surrounded by sperm cells, were popular people. People with lots of arrows from them to others, but none coming back, were unpopular people.
How many friends do you have? That depends. Are you counting the people you are friends with? Or the people who want to be friends with you? It makes a difference.
Now, what if you could induce people to want to be friends with you because of your friendship with someone else? Then you could be popular without actually being liked.
I have the social personality of Wile E. Coyote. I myself would never have come up with this observation, but the daughter of a friend of mine told me this when she was just a little girl. "You're just like Wile E. Coyote," she said. And she gave me a little plastic figurine of Wile E. Coyote as a present, just to show how much alike we really were.I was stunned. Thinking it over afterwards, I was struck with how apt the comparison was!
Wile E. Coyote
I didn't know how to get what I wanted directly. So I would devise really complicated plans, based on my formal understanding of how human relationships worked, in order to bring about the desired result. However, my plans usually backfired. It had something to do with the disparity between theory and practice!
It also had to do with the immense gap between my world and everybody else's.
Unbeknownst to everyone else, I was working toward a very important goal: I was going to unite the Trekkies, the Libertarians, the Anarchists, the Republicans and the filkers in an unholy alliance that would somehow save us all!
And that was even before I had heard of Blake's Seven....
Star Trek has gone to the masses
The first time I heard of Blake's Seven, I was in a very bad mood. I was angry and I was late and I was going to crash a science fiction convention. I don't know what exactly had happened that day. I no longer remember that. I just remember being very angry and bitter, and really, really needing a Coke. The Coke machine on the first floor would sell you a Coke for a dollar. On the second floor, Cokes were seventy-five cents. But somewhere on the third floor was the con suite, and there was a bathtub full of soda that you could drink for free.
I decided that I would go straight for the con suite. The only problem was, I didn't know exactly where it was. So I looked into the first open door on the third floor, and a woman in a slick one piece jump suit ushered me in.
"Is this the con suite?" I asked.
"Oh, it's better than the con suite," she purred. "Have a seat."
"Hmm. Can I have a Coke?"
"We have nachos!" she said brightly and proceeded to prepare me a plate. I don't really think they had Coke. I think maybe they had Pepsi. She probably thought it was better than Coke.
"My name is T'Pell," the woman in the jumpsuit announced. "And I want to show you a video."
The room was empty. There was nobody else there. T'Pell was obviously a Vulcan name, so I felt I could trust her. "Is it Star Trek?" I asked.
"It's better than Star Trek!" she cried and pushed play.
I had just met my first Blake's Seven recruiter.
The Blake's Seven Logo
The show that played on the screen was unimpressive. It's as if they had borrowed all sorts of elements from Star Trek, recast them, and then filmed the whole thing using a hand held camera. The production values were terrible. The Star Fleet Insignia was horizontal instead of vertical, but clearly derivative. I hated the theme music. The feel of the thing was cheesy. Or maybe that was the nachos I was eating. I began to feel a little bit queasy.
"Why do you think this is better than Star Trek?"
T'Pell tried to explain. "Look, Star Trek was good. But that's over now. Star Trek has gone to the masses. This is the new thing."
"Star Trek has gone to the masses!?" What did that mean? I would have pressed her for an answer, but there was suddenly a very urgent pain in my stomach, and I had to leave post haste. I spent the rest of the evening at home, being sick. Never accept nachos from a Blake's Seven recruiter!
Relics of the Austro-Hungarian Empire
I was a fan by night and lawyer by day. When I first entered the bar, I had believed that all I would have to do to keep my license would be to pay the annual fee. This was doable and did not seem unduly oppressive, considering that it gave me an unfair advantage over all the other people who might have practiced law, but couldn't, because the state wouldn't let them. As a libertarian, I am against licensing of professionals. I think that any one should be able to practice law or medicine or drive a car or fly a plane or carry a gun without a license.
But a few years into my practice, Mandatory Continuing Legal Education was instituted. I think it was at the behest of well-to-do lawyers, and here is how it worked. If you were able to, then you could take a trip to Hawaii or some resort and write the whole thing off as a business expense. But if you were a struggling lawyer, for whom every moment and every penny counted, then you had to pay extra money to keep your license and give up more of your time to hear other, more successful lawyers lecture to you about filing deadlines or the finer points of how to draft a will or whatever happened to be available at your price range. It didn't matter the subject of the seminar. All that mattered was that you were racking up MCLE hours.
I would shop around for the closest and cheapest available seminar, and I would sit there in the hall doodling on the margins of the handouts and occasionally taking note of an interesting surname that appeared in a case heading, so that maybe I could use it for a character in a future fictional work. I was like Rumplestiltskin, that way, a true connoisseur of unusual names.
One day, during a break at one of these seminars, I wandered across the street, because I thought I saw a book store there. But the bookstore was closed, and when I returned to the seminar, I was accosted by a strange tall, dark handsome man in a pinstriped suit with a red tie. "Aha!" he said. "You tried that bookstore, too! We are two of a kind. Of all the people at this seminar, we are the only ones who were looking for a bookstore." He had a Spanish accent.
I was a little confused at being addressed this way.
"They are all sheep," he said. "You and I are different."
That seemed a bit much. My eyes narrowed. Was he trying to come on to me? My suspicion proved to be wishful thinking. What he really wanted to do was discuss global politics. He handed me his card. His surname started with "von" but the last part was obviously Hungarian. Fleeing Nazi Germany for South America, his family had settled down in Venezuela, like many other ex-Nazis. He thought that the Nazi interlude was truly regrettable, and he longed for the return of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
"We are kindred spirits, you and I," he said.
I was not convinced. But I agreed to meet with him again. He showed me his family crest. I showed him my novel. He insisted on buying a copy, and he actually read it. A week later he announced that he thought The Few Who Count was very well written -- a splendid piece of propaganda! He had only one question: which secret government agency had paid me to write it?
The New Paderewski
That my Austro-Hungarian friend believed The Few Who Count was a work for hire commissioned by government agents intent on identifying potential malcontents and neutralizing them before they could cause any damage amused me no end. We have a saying in our family: "On the head of the thief, the hat is burning." People usually accuse us of doing something that they themselves are doing. My friend had no visible means of support. No job. No profession. He had been a lawyer in Venezuela, and he was unsuccessfully trying to pass the New York bar, while maintaining residence in Texas. I conjectured that he might be an agent of some third world country, and that spying was his true calling.
I kept him at arm's length, but decided not to include him in my plan to unite the Trekkies, the Libertarians, the Republicans, the filkers and the Blakies. For yes, by now, I had joined the ranks of the B7 fandom.
Despite the inauspicious introduction to Blake's Seven, I started watching the show when it began to air on PBS. What T'Pell had failed to bring to my attention when attempting to sell the show was this: it was about freedom, tyranny and the fight for liberty. Star Trek wasn't about that. Star Trek was pro-establishment. B7 was anti-.
Mind you, it was not altogether clear what sort of order Blake longed to establish once he had overthrown the Feds, but that's what made the show all the more intriguing. Good and evil were not portrayed as black and white absolutes. Blake's Seven explored the grey areas. I started writing B7 filks. They just poured out of me. And I joined ORAC, a local Blake's Seven appreciation society. And that's where I met Paderewski!
Paderewski was a music teacher who taught at one of the better schools in a North Dallas suburb. Her instrument was the cello, but I immediately recruited her as my keyboardist for the filksings I was organizing. She had grown up in Houston, but her father came from Poland, and she was cultured and educated in a way that few Americans are. She was funny and smart, and she made intellectual little jokes that that showed an understanding of world history unheard of in my small circle of friends. I was so happy to have made her acquaintance.
Of course, the fact that her last name was identical to that of the famous composer, pianist and one-time prime minister of Poland was a source of deep amusement for me, one that I did not openly express.
I started getting involved in the Republican party, and I became a delegate to the State Convention. Sometimes my involvement in politics interfered with my filking activities, and at times I had to send surrogates to represent me at science fiction conventions to sing my songs, while I tried to look really conservative to my fellow Republicans. It was all very cloak and dagger, or so I thought. Of course, some of my acquaintances who knew my true Libertarian leanings got upset with me and accused me of selling out.
Then one day, I got a phone call from my Austro-Hungarian friend. "You must tell me all about the Libertarians!" he implored. "How are they organized? Who are their leaders? How can I get in touch with them?"
"Oh, I don't know."
"What do you mean you don't know? You must know! I had never even heard of these people until you mentioned them," he insisted.
"Well, yes, but I'm not running them. Why don't you call the Libertarian Party of Tarrant County? A bunch of them get together someplace in Arlington," I said. "But they're really boring."
It was true. They never did anything interesting. Most of the time they argued about what percentage the national sales tax should be, once the IRS was done away with and there was no more income tax. They had the souls of accountants.
"Why are you suddenly so interested in the Libertarians?" I asked.
"Because... because a libertarian from Canada is running for president of Poland!"
"No, it's true!"
Wikipedia Article on Stanislaw Tyminski
I never read the papers or listened to the news, so the only way I ever found out about current events was when somebody brought them to my attention. My Austro-Hungarian friend, on the other hand, was very aware of everything that was going on internationally, but I often had trouble believing him, because he still acted as if he were living in a police state, and everything he said was colored by his worldview.
"There is going to be a European Union," he told me once. "All of Europe will use the same currency."
"That's not going to happen until one of the European countries conquers all the rest of them," I answered confidently. "After all, isn't that what the world wars were really all about?"
"Wait and see," he told me.
He knew a lot, but it was hard to trust him. So I called the Tarrant County Libertarians myself, and they confirmed it: Stanislaw Tyminski, a libertarian from Canada, was running against Lech Walesa for president of Poland. Would miracles never cease?
"Hey, why don't you come to our meetings?" my libertarian contact asked as we concluded our conversation.
"Yeah, maybe sometime," I answered vaguely. But of course I was too busy plotting to conquer the world!
Poland is wide open! I mused to myself. At this moment in history, anything could happen. Anything! I might as well run for president of Poland myself!
Of course, I knew that was not realistic. I had only the vaguest connection to Poland. I had never even set foot there. I wasn't by any stretch of the imagination Polish. But still! How it tugged at my heart strings to think that Poland might one day be free!
Polish National Anthem
Poland is not yet lost
I don't speak Polish. However, I know a few familiar phrases. Just things I heard around the house. No, nobody in my house actually spoke Polish, either. But every once in a while my father would remark "Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła" a propos of nothing in particular. That means "Poland is not yet lost." These are the first words of the Polish national anthem.
All my life, I had thought that my father was being ironic. Poland was lost. Lost and gone forever, like Clementine. Poland was always the first to lose. World War II had begun in Poland in 1939, when Germany and the Soviets invaded it. And when the war ended, guess who got it? The Soviets. They had conveniently ended up on the winning side, even though it wasn't the side they started on. They were given Poland, and they took it over, and starved it, and ran it. And in 1967, when a classmate of mine in second grade came from Poland, the only way her scientist parents were allowed to visit the US for a year was if they agreed to leave her two younger sisters in Poland as hostages for their prompt return. Poland had been lost for years and years now.
Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła.... What if it was true? What if Poland was not yet lost?
If Tyminiski didn't win, we should send in another candidate to replace him, I thought, come next election. I knew, of course, that I could not run. I could learn Polish. I was confident of that. But the real problem was my name. The name "Katz" simply would not do. Even my famous great uncle who had been quite successful in Polish politics could not operate using that name alone. He had had to add his sobriquet Suchy to his name, so that he could sound a little more Polish. And in the end even Katz-Suchy had succumbed to anti-semitic pressures and had been banished to Denmark to die in exile.
No, a Katz did not stand a chance. But if I had had a really good, solid Polish name -- like Paderewski -- now that would make a world of difference. And then it came to me. "I know somebody named Paderewski!"
The Real Paderewski
Ignacy Jan Paderewski
The Old Paderewski
In Poland, anything is possible. Poland is the only European country to have had an elective monarchy. Poland is the sort of country that would elect a famous pianist and composer as prime minister. My knowledge about Paderewski was vague, so I bought a children's book put out by the Catholic Church called The Lion of Poland at the local used book store. (In those days, there was no wikipedia, and I would pick up my information where I could get it.)
Ignacy Jan Paderewski had died of pneumonia in New York in 1941. I vaguely remembered that Paderewski had told me once that her father had arrived in the United States from Poland in 1941. Could there be any connection? I was dying to know.
At a small gathering in my home, I took Paderewski aside and asked her. I was pretty nervous about it, as if sensing that I was doing something wrong -- or at the very least something risky. With a tremulous voice and averted eyes, I asked her if there was any connection between the famous composer and her father. "No," she said. "But it's a good question." Only the way she said it made me feel that it had been about the worst possible thing I could ask.
She told me that her father had only bad memories of Poland. That the Poles were brutish anti-Semites and that her family had been forced to flee pogroms. She had no desire to have anything to do with Poland.
I had not realized that my friend Paderewski was a Jew. And I don't just mean that she was Jewish in ancestry, as was I. I mean, she identified Jewish. And as such there was no reason to even broach the possibility of her running for high office. Somebody who hates Poland cannot run for President of Poland. Even I knew that much.
We joined my other friends, and they all started telling jokes about spittoons. Paderewski joined in a spirited series of really vulgar exchanges all centering around spittoons. And that's the last time she came to my house.
At the next ORAC meeting she informed me that she would not be coming to the filksings anymore. She was polite and charming and very firm about it. I was devastated.
Wikipedia article about Paderewski
Statue of Paderwski in Warsaw
The Story I Tell Myself
Clearly I had made a very big faux pas. I regretted it deeply. But did I regret it for the right reason? I had lost a keyboardist for my filk sing. In due time I replaced her with another. The new keyboardist was a native Texan and a person who shared many of my beliefs. We are friends to this day, and it's quite possible that if I hadn't lost Paderewski, I would not have made this new friend. As a keyboardist and vocalist, my new friend was more than an adequate replacement. In some ways she was better. But there was no question that she could not replace Paderewski as a candidate for the Polish presidency. Possibly just as important, she didn't have the same broad outlook on world affairs that Paderewski, and all the children of refugees everywhere, share.
I recently read a hub about how we all make mistakes, but it's the story that we tell ourselves about our mistakes that is most important. For years now, I've been telling myself that the lesson to learn from this experience is to do more of a background check before assuming that you know someone. I promised myself that I would never again try to use another person to take over a foreign country based on that person's surname alone.
But Paderewski didn't even know I was planning that. I never got around to telling her. And I think I still don't know for sure what I did to offend her. Was it really that wrong to ask?
Who Else Is Coming?
Not long after I lost Paderewski, there was a B7 convention in Houston and many of us from the Dallas-Ft. Worth area decided to attend. I wanted to go there in the hopes of running into T'Pell. Houston was her home base. I kept thinking about what she had said about how Star Trek had gone to the masses.
Wasn't it good that Star Trek had gone to the masses? If we like something, shouldn't we want it to have broad appeal? Or is the value of a movement somehow diluted when too many people join? There are people who are Star Trek fans because they love Star Trek. And there are people who are fans because other people are fans. On the surface, it's hard to tell them apart, but deep down inside, it does matter.
This problem plagues every ideological movement. Many of the elders I knew in Israel had been Zionists. I thought of Zionists as being very idealistic. These people had left their homes, their families, their fortunes and had sacrificed everything in an attempt to bring something new to life. Yet when I looked at them now, I didn't see idealists. I saw conformists who were worried about what the neighbors would think. Had old age changed them that much? Or had some of these people never been idealists? Were they joiners who went because all their friends were going? Hard to tell.
Most Christians we meet today would not allow themselves to be eaten by lions in order to defend their faith. Most Americans would not rise up against the British if they had to do it over again. Is it because Christianity has gone to the masses and most Americans are just American by birth and not by choice?
I longed to discuss this with T'Pell, and so I went to Houston. But I didn't meet T'Pell in Houston. Instead, I met Apryl Raitt.
There she was in a shiny metallic costume, juggling bowling pins, and singing: "Torture, kill me, end it all, but first give me a Tylenol!" (The lyrics, I think, were by her friend Renae Ransdorf, but it was Apryl who made them memorable.)
Apryl's enthusiasm for life was contagious, and when it turned out later that she was moving to North Texas to attend school, I immediately recruited her for my filk sings. Her presence worked such a charm that people who would not normally tolerate filking or watch Blake's Seven began to come to my house, just to see her!
I would invite people, and they would ask: "Who else is coming?" When they heard that Apryl would be there, they decided that they wanted to come, too. This went on for many months, until one day Apryl got some bad news. Her student loan or her Pell grant or some other part of her financial aid package, hadn't come through. Without the financial aid, she couldn't go to college. So she quit school and went to live with her boyfriend in Florida. And that was the last we ever saw of her. It was also the beginning of the end for my filk sings.
When I heard that Apryl was leaving, I sat down on the floor and cried. It wasn't that I would miss her, although, of course, I would. But I was all too aware that without her, I had nothing to draw people in. They were not interested in filking. They were not really B7 fans. And they did not want to fight for liberty. They wanted to eat chips and drink Coke and flirt with Apryl.
It was about then that I realized that my plans to unite the Trekkies, the libertarians, the Republicans and the anarchists, the filkers and the Blakies were never going to amount to anything. So I took down my shingle, wound down my business and started the next chapter of my life.
Oh, and about T'Pell -- I did eventually correspond with her. I asked her what she meant about Star Trek going to the masses, and she replied that she didn't remember saying that, and if she did say that, she shouldn't have.
I still think there was something to it. I mean, wouldn't it be great if when you invited someone to a party -- or to join a political party-- they didn't immediately turn around and ask you who else will be there? Wouldn't it be nice if they said instead: I'll be there even if no one else comes!
(c) 2010 Aya Katz
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