According to my mother, who I view as an authoritative (and trustworthy) source on most subjects, I began reading books very early. At least, I tried to. While still a toddler, I would apparently sit for long stretches of time with a book held open in my lap, turning the pages at regular intervals, all the while staring very seriously at the words as though attempting to work out what all this was about. I am sure many of you did this, too. Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. As children, we imitate the behavior of adults. To flatter them. After all, adults are the ones who know where the cookies are. And as children, we are all about earning those treats.
At least, I was. Also, I just liked the way books smelled. I still do. Paper! And ink! And...something else.
Hard to say.
My parents eventually took pity on me and taught me to read. As far as I can remember, this happened before I started school. Some of my earliest clear memories are sitting on my mom’s lap, working our way through a home phonetics book.
Later, in school, I was fortunate enough to have great elementary teachers who fostered my early love of reading. My first grade teacher ran something called the Idita-Read. This was a reading competition based on the famous Iditarod dog sled race. There was a large map of Alaska on the classroom wall, and we were all assigned a little laminated illustration of a dog sled with a number attached. For every night we read a chapter in a book, our illustration would be moved another space. Medals were awarded to those students who got all the way from Anchorage to Nome. We all probably got medals, but in my memory, only three of us did. In my mind, there was a third place, second place, and a third place medal. And I was one of the three.
Because I loved to read!
This week, I thought I might share a list of books I loved when I was younger. If you have a young person in your life, I highly recommend these books. They are great. Many are famous. Several have won awards. I have, incidentally, re-read all of these as an adult.
They hold up.
Most of them have even improved with age, as all truly great things do.
Next week, I will share a list of books I currently recommend to all. Books more targeted to adults. But for now, let us cast our minds back to simpler times.
Assuming anyone kept track of the old file card records at Brookston Prairie Township Library in Brookston, Indiana, my future biographers may (cough, cough - possibly) note that I set a record as having checked out The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien more times than any other elementary schooler ever. I am sure I must have, though memory, as we have already established, is a wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey thing.
I can still picture the cover of the 30th anniversary edition that the library had hidden on a musty shelf up on the second floor. It was oversized hardcover copy, well-worn, and emblazoned with a big, celebratory “30” in shimmery green and yellow printing, as grand and as glinting as the scales of the great dragon Smaug.
Even if you are intimidated by or (what is more likely) put off by the worshipful nerd herd that surrounds the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, I would still recommend The Hobbit. It is a much more accessible book than his masterwork, The Lord of the Rings. It is a straightforward tale of adventure. It has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Detractors would say it is a slighter work, a proto-story, an ocean-going amoeba later overshadowed by a much-loved leviathan. But I disagree. It captured my attention first, and I love it dearly. The Lord of the Rings, while admittedly masterful, is rambling and frequently strays from the main thread of the plot, however worthy and profound that plot may be.
Let us just say that the book The Hobbit is to the books The Lord of the Rings as the movie versions of The Lord of the Rings are to the movie versions of The Hobbit -- at least to me. I am not saying that is a flawless comparison, but I know which I would rather revisit. (You may fight me in the comments, fellow nerds.)
CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY
Another book that I re-read often in elementary school was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the famous book by Roald Dahl on which the later movie versions were based. I am still a huge fan of the man’s work. Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and The BFG were also fast favorites, but I constantly returned to the tale of Willy Wonka and his wondrous chocolate factory.
Perhaps tales of contests and the inevitable triumph of noble young children are irresistable when one is a young and (aspiringly) noble child. Perhaps the mad humor and eccentricity just struck a chord with young Philip, the future theatre/comedy nerd. It is a difficult knot to untangle.
All I know is, I loved the book. And I still do.
LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS
This admission is more embarrassing. The Little House on the Prairie series is not typically seen as a series for young boys, but I was lucky enough to have a teacher in third grade who took time each day to read to her class from the first book in this series, Little House in the Big Woods. My young mind was utterly captivated by this charming, straightforward account of everyday life for a family living in pioneer times, which is based on the actual life experiences of the author, Laura Ingalls Wilder.
I really cannot recommend the series highly enough. The whole thing is wonderfully well written, and it is all shot through with an experiential authenticity that can be imitated but not duplicated by other “historical fiction” works for children. I am certain it helped to instill in me an appreciation for and a curiosity about what life was like for other people in different times and places. Farmer Boy, the story of Laura’s husband’s childhood back East, is also one I would recommend.
And yes, the rumors are true. In fifth grade, I used to sneak a copy of The Happy Golden Years, the story of Laura and her husband Almanzo’s courtship, out of the Frontier Elementary School Library. And by that I mean, I checked the book out properly, because I was (an aspiringly) noble child, but I hid the book under other books when I snuck it up to the check out desk, for fear any other student might spy the cover.
It showed a chaste picture of Laura and Almanzo under a tree…holding hands.
Even as a fifth grader, I had to consider my manly reputation.
THE WESTING GAME
This book, by Ellen Raskin, won the Newbery Award in 1978, and if you haven’t read it, I really don’t want to tell you too much about it, because I don’t want to spoil the delicious twists and turns of its tightly coiled plot. It concerns the death of a famous business owner and the strange conditions of his will. It winds together the tales of his inheritors.
It is amazing. I read it again a few years back as an adult, and I still cried at the end.
Granted, I cry at lots of things, but it is a beautiful story. It is a murder mystery. And a game.
And a great book.
THE LONG PATROL
This is a book in the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, and, having read almost all of them, I am not sure if it is the best book to start with if you haven’t ever tried the series.
They are...specific books. They involve forest animals who walk the world as warriors in distinct tribes based on kind. There are mice who are noble monks. Some are warriors. There are tribes of river otters and marauding bands of evil rats and other wicked rodents.
This particular book tells the story of a young hare who runs away from home to join an elite force of hares - the titular Long Patrol - that guard an ancient stronghold under the watchful eye of a Badger Lord. Together they protect the coastline from piratical rats.
If that sounds like nonsense to you, I understand. But it is also magnificent fantasy, and it is a kind-hearted, old school series that values old school virtues like honesty and bravery and is not as silly as it sounds once you sink down into the mice-ridden mire.
The Long Patrol is simply my favorite book in the series, but I recommend the whole thing in its (absurdly) glorious, and weirdly unironic, entirety.
HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN
This whole series is so well-known that I will not waste many words in singing its praises. No doubt you have heard this tune already. But this, the third book, is my personal favorite.
I actually read this book first, skipping over the previous two. My parents, in case you didn’t know, were Protestant missionaries, and they had been told, by friends, that these books were about witches. Therefore, my siblings and I were told we not allowed to read them.
Naturally, this made me want to read them.
Many of the early Harry Potter books begin with Harry sitting up in bed, reading a spellbook at night by the light of a flashlight, so imagine my delight as I lay in bed late one night, reading by the glimmer of a similarly secret light. My parents eventually waived the silly rule, having realized that the stories contained nothing untoward, but the books remain a (minor) guilty pleasure.
Like pretty much everyone, I love this series. I am sure you do, too.
THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH
This book, published in 1961 by Norton Juster, is a complete and utter classic. It tells the tale of a bored young boy named Milo who travels into the mysterious Kingdom of Wisdom, accompanied by a watchdog named Tock. It is ridiculous, witty, and full of warmth and wordplay.
Too many things happen in it that I would never wish to ruin for you. If you have never read it, read it.
No matter how old you are.
THE THIRTEEN CLOCKS
Even as I compile this list, more books spring unbidden into my mind. I am a lover of books, and like many of you, I am more than capable of prattling on and on in the praise of both this and that and that other thing.
So let me dock this metaphorical ship in the safe harbor that is possibly the greatest of all books written with children in mind.
The Thirteen Clocks was published in 1950 by James Thurber. It is the fantastic tale of a quest. A prince rescues a princess from the clutches of an evil duke. I have just told you the plot, but I have told you nothing at all, because the magic of this book lies in its words.
Towards the end of his life, James Thurber started to go blind. A lifelong writer, he nevertheless continued to write, compulsively perfecting his books in his head before dictating them out to a secretary. Because of this, he grew obsessed with the way words sounded together, crafting sentences that danced with a perfection of cadence rarely countenanced by either the eye or the ear.
Do yourself a favor. Read The Thirteen Clocks.
Read it aloud.
See you next week.
As you may (possibly) know, I spent a number of years of my life acting. In a certain sense, this time of my life might be said to have been time wasted. I never managed to make the much vaunted leap from the stage to the screen, and fickle Dame Fortune never saw fit to sprinkle me with even the tiniest portion of either financial fortune or far-reaching fame. And yet, I do not count those years as a loss. Throughout that time of my life, when performing was my singular goal, I crafted a skill set that is proving useful today. I am blessed to work with a company that uses the tricks and trappings of theatre to help young minds learn and grow.
That said, I would be lying if I claimed the thought of acting again - in some capacity - did not now and then flit through my mind. It has now been two years since I last performed in a traditional theatre production, and the itch to act again is starting to irk anew.
I am certain this is so, because last Saturday I actually went to the trouble of printing out a headshot and resume and driving to a community theatre audition for a show that you have certainly never heard of. I was excited about the show simply because, having quickly scanned a list of audition dates, it seemed to be a comedy I could easily fit within my summer break.
Turns out I completely misread the audition date. The audition was on 5/16, and last Saturday, just in case you too are easily confused by numbers, was 5/19. I think you will agree those two dates look similar, but turns out they aren’t actually the same.
I mistook the date of this audition, but I take this misadventure as a tell-tale sign that I am ready to get out the door and do a show. This took some time, because, well, when your day job consists of speaking on a microphone for 5 straight hours each day, motivating students and helping teach them lessons about history in a fun, upbeat, interactive way 5 days each week, the last thing you want to do in your off hours is go audition.
You’re just sick of hearing yourself talk.
But, it would appear that my willingness to “ham it up” has returned. And so, in an effort to stoke the fires of my own enthusiasm, this week I thought it would be fun to make a simple list. What follows are five actors who influenced me greatly, and who I definitely steal stuff from whenever I act.
[It was my original intention to include fun video clips with these, but I have no desire to embed copyright infringing videos on my personal website, even if I am not the person who originally uploaded the content. You will have to seek clips out for yourselves. Better yet, go buy some stuff. Artists need your support.]
When people today look back at old-time silver screen comic teams, they seem most likely to remember the Three Stooges, a fact which I have never understood. The Three Stooges just never made me laugh. The Marx Brothers were precisely my speed, and they, more than anything else, shaped young Philip’s sense of humor. I was still in elementary school when I ran across their films. My siblings and I discovered them by chance while scouring the local library for VHS tapes. There was not much to do in Brookston, Indiana, where we lived at the time. It was (and probably still is) a town of roughly 2,000 souls, nestled between cornfields.
Groucho Marx was my favorite. Half the time, young Philip had no idea why his puns, jabs, and asides were funny, but I absorbed his rhythms and eternal mugging like a sponge. To me, he will always be the master.
The finest Marx Brothers movie is, in my opinion, A Night At The Opera. Check it out. It holds up. Not bad for a film from the 1930s.
You will probably recognize Rowan Atkinson as his most infamous character, Mr. Bean. That is where I first found his work, too. It is difficult to overstate the sheer talents of this man in the realms of physical comedy. He is almost unmatched in the world of funny looks and inherently amusing movements. Mr. Bean is, therefore, an almost silent character. He speaks rarely. (For those interested, but uninitiated, seek out the Mr. Bean tv show. The movies came later, and they aren’t as good. The character works better as a sketch.)
I was surprised to find, later in life, that Rowan Atkinson is almost funnier when he is given lines to say. His stage show, Rowan Atkinson LIVE is well worth tracking down. I highly recommend a dramatic monologue of his where he plays a very genteel devil named Toby. I have pillaged the man’s mannerisms for many a silly character.
I suppose any deep-voiced, dark-haired Caucasian actor with a somewhat dry delivery will draw comparisons to Mr. Warburton. It cannot be helped. But, I confess I steer deliberately into the comparison by shamelessly imitating his vocal inflections. They are striking, memorable, and undeniably enjoyable. Like many in my generation, to me he will always be Kronk. If you don’t know what I mean by that, feel free to question our friendship.
If you haven't seen it, check out the Netflix show A Series of Unfortunate Events. I am an enormous fan of the A Series of Unfortunate Events book series; I am a casual fan of the film versions. Mr. Warburton, though, objectively crushes as the narrator in the Netflix show.
Obviously, Dustin Hoffman is universally regarded as one of America’s finest actors. He is great in everything. Very often, he is truly remarkable. However, I feel, personally, that his best work was in an overlooked, much maligned film called Hook.
In it, he plays the titular Hook. I have it on good authority that if you were an adult when this film came out, the whole thing plays poorly. The film was not well-received at the time, and there is even a dark rumor circulating the internet that the director, the incomparable Steven Spielberg, now regrets making the film.
To anyone who was a child when the film came out, this is madness. The film is magical in the best way, thoroughly dated, and purely delightful. Dustin Hoffman destroys as Hook, capturing the very essence of what it means to be a comic villain. His portrayal is hilarious, weirdly grounded, scary when it needs to be, and perfectly timed.
I am constitutionally unable to play a British villain role without lifting some of his inflections, inauthentic though they may be, as Hoffman is himself in no way British.
You have probably seen Hook by now, but if you haven't...watch it.
Lastly, this list would be rank nonsense of the very worst kind if it did not include Gene Wilder. The man was, simply put, a comic genius - not a term I use lightly.
He, too, is magnificent in practically everything, but to me he will always be Willy Wonka, as that weird and wonderful film was where I saw him first. The eccentricity, danger, and hilarity he brings to that role is staggering.
To capture the whole thing, you would really have to watch the whole film, So I recommend you do that.
If you want to read a story about me trying to sing a song from the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and failing in the extreme, click HERE.
See you next week, my friends.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my living room on a lazy Saturday morning, watching something silly on my laptop when there was a knock on the door. My wife was gone for the weekend on a business trip, and I was not expecting anyone.
Confused, I answered the door.
It was a workman. He was very happy to find me home. I do not remember his exact words, but they expressed his relief. He explained that he had an appointment with the apartment on the opposite side of the building, the one whose kitchen wall is shared with mine. He had been hired to work on pipes in the wall between our two apartments, but, due to a scheduling mishap, here he was at 11 o’something AM, and the people in the other apartment would not be there to let him in until after 3 PM.
He asked if I would mind if he came in and fixed the pipes through my wall. This would save him hours of waiting around, he explained. He offered to let me call his boss to verify that this was all above board.
It is in moments like this that I feel I shall never really grow up. I am nearly thirty years old, but in that moment all I felt like doing was calling my parents to ask what to do in a situation like this. I had not noticed any problems with our sink in the kitchen. I had made no appointment with this man. Nothing in all the world compelled me to show this man a kindness and let him in to my home to do his work. The very fact that he had come to my door uninvited with a sad story and a request for a favor triggered deep suspicions in me. I wasn’t at all sure what this stranger stood to gain from being let into my home, but I still suspected him of something.
Did I tell him sorry, no, go wait, I just don’t trust you?
No. I asked to speak with his boss.
His boss - let’s call him Tony - explained that they had been hired to do work by the complex’s HOA, and that this was all free of charge so far as I was concerned.
So that was...good? However, I was still suspicious. These days, you can call anyone and they can claim to be anyone. What did the claims of this mysterious “Tony” really prove?
So, did I then tell him sorry, no, go wait, I still don’t trust you?
No. I let him in. He said it would take only an hour or two. He pulled out all the bottles and cans and cleaning supplies from under my sink, removed the pipes beneath the sink, cut a hole in the wall, replaced the pipes inside, replaced the pipes outside, put my bottles and cans and cleaning supplies back, and then gave me a number to call to schedule someone else to come in and fix the hole in my wall.
And so, huzzah. Now, out of the blue, it was on me to make another appointment with someone else to get a hole fixed, a hole that I had never asked for, nor needed.
And so, that Monday afternoon, I called the boss. Let’s still call him Tony. He told me his scheduler would contact me. To make an appointment.
Tony’s scheduler - let’s call him Sam - called me when I was at work and left a message.
I called Sam back, explaining my work hours and when I was home. He explained that, because workmen work during the day, when I work, it made it difficult to schedule something like this. Was I ever available during the workday, when I normally work?
As it happens, occasionally my job has half days. This is when I usually run errands and get things done. I had one coming up the next week, and so, with a sigh, I made an appointment on that day. Sure, this meant I couldn’t use that day for other things now, as I would need to be home while the workman worked, but at least I had the sweet consolation of knowing that I had asked for this entire situation in the first place.
That next Wednesday, I came home straight after my half day. I made lunch. I tidied up. I made tea. I got out a book I have been stubbornly trying to finish, and settled down to wait for the workman. I assumed he would be late.
Two hours and change later, I was still waiting. When my wife got home from work, I finally called the scheduler, “Sam” to you and I. He wasn’t in, so I left a message.
A short while later, Sam returned my call. There had been a mix-up. This new workman had, quite naturally, been sent to the apartment that had originally made the appointment to work on the pipes in the first place. This made sense on a certain level. It confirmed both that life is casually hilarious and that Sam’s office was not that well organized.
Sam asked to reschedule. I asked, in measured tones, that since I had made the time for them today, and they hadn’t shown up due to their own administrative failings, would it be possible for them to come at a time more convenient for me? Sam said they would be happy to. I made an appointment for that Friday as soon as I could get home.
The hole under my sink, you see, had been covered with paper and painter’s tape, but paper is flimsy and painter’s tape is temporary. My building is old, and there are roaches about. Occasionally, I see them outside. Thus far, however, there are no roaches in my apartment. I wished to keep it that way. I wanted that hole permanently plugged.
Friday dawned. The day rolled by. After work, I came straight home. Another workman sat on the grass in front of my apartment, leaning against scraps of drywall. This, I thought, is my man.
Did I invite him in?
No. I had learned my lesson. I entered my apartment. A few minutes later, he knocked
on the door. With a sigh, I allowed him in.
This new workman spoke very little English. He was younger than the previous workman. He seemed like precisely the sort of person you would send on after-hours assignments on the Friday before Easter weekend, which was just what this weekend was.
He made himself comfortable in the kitchen and got down to his business. I took up my place in the living room, once more tackling that book I keep meaning to finish. For the first few minutes, good progress was made by both of us. I made it through several pages in my book, and the sounds of meaningful drywall work drifted my way from the kitchen. There were sawing sounds, the sounds of equipment being laid out, the hardworking sound of a screw gun.
Suddenly, right in the middle of this screw gun sound, I became aware of a very different sort of sound from the kitchen. It was a rushing sound. A gushing sound. It sounded a lot like water pouring powerfully from a pipe.
That better not be water pouring into my kitchen, I thought.
Turns out it was.
The workman stood up, yelled, “The main!” and turned and looked at me. I looked at him, barely containing my complete lack of amusement. He rushed out, looking, no doubt, for the main. Thank God he found it. The geiser slowed to a trickle. Then it stopped.
I stood and surveyed the kitchen. Water puddled the floor. I got dirty towels from our hamper and tried to mop things up. The workman returned, mumbling apologies and saying the word “plumber” over and over. He had his phone out. He called someone and spoke rapidly in Spanish. He hung up.
“Plumber!” he said.
“Great.” I said.
“Sorry.” he said.
“Plumber?” I said.
“Plumber!” he said.
In order to keep the peace, I decided to let the conversation end there.
With that, my drywaller left the apartment. I don’t know where he went.
At this point, my wife arrived. In her presence, the great dam of my barely contained rage burst. I did not, let the record show, shout at her, at my delightful and lovely wife. But, when she asked what was going on, my explanation was colorful.
“Is a plumber coming?” she asked.
“Yes?” I replied.
I got on the phone. I called the only number I knew to call in this situation, that of the boss. Let’s keep calling him Tony.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
“Not great,” I began, and I tersely explained my situation.
“My drywaller drilled into a pipe?” Tony asked, aghast.
“I will fix this. Thank you for calling me.”
Tony hung up.
A few minutes later, our young drywaller returned, accompanied by someone carrying a toolbox. This newcomer smiled politely at my wife and I, and, with nary a word, began doing industrious plumbing type things in the kitchen.
A minute or so later, Tony texted me.
“My plumber is on his way,” read his text.
I glanced into the kitchen, where plumbing was already being actively plumbed.
“Someone who seems like a plumber is already here,” I responded, “But I don’t know if it’s your guy. Your drywaller has a friend here.”
The young drywaller and his mysterious companion continued their work in earnest, none of which involved drywalling. By this point, they had even made the original hole larger - you know, so they could really get at that pipe (that they had broken) in order to fix it. They brought in an industrial vacuum to deal with the remaining water on my floor. They brought in a blow torch. They lit something on fire. I waited, praying for the best, but feeling generally pessimistic.
Eventually, and still with nary a word to me, they arose and left the room, carrying their equipment.
It was at this point that the plumber Tony had sent chose to knock on my door.
“Hello?” I said.
“I am Hernando,” said the plumber, shaking my hand.
Hernando wanted to talk. No one up to now had wanted to talk with me at all, and it caught me by surprise. What he wanted to talk about mostly, though, was what the plumbing problem was exactly, which is not something I was all that clear on. I knew some bullet points. Drill. Sudden geiser. Probable hole in pipe. But I knew no details.
Smiling like a professional, Hernando strode into the kitchen and poked around under the sink, looking at the me intently and asking friendly, reasonable questions.
“Look, I just live here,” I finally said, “You’d have to talk to the guys outside.”
“Oh?” he said.
“Yeah, they were working on stuff. I think they are still out there.”
I peered out the window at the gathering of three trucks outside. The workmen conferred. Hernando got into his truck and left.
Eventually, the young drywaller returned.
“Today, Saturday, or Monday.” he said.
“Today, Saturday, or Monday.”
“Are you asking me when I want you to do the drywall?”
“You can do it today?” We both glanced at the clock. By now it was after 6 pm.
He sighed. “Yes. 3-4 hours.”
“If you can do it now, do it now.” I said. “I’m here.”
He sighed. He nodded.
He did it.
For the record, It only took him two hours and change.
“I will come Monday morning early to paint,” he said.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“I will come Monday morning, early, to paint this,” He repeated.
“I work then.” I said.
“Call my boss. Make an appointment.”
We’re still trying to find a time that works.