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549 Topics: Musicals – Porgy and Bess; Tupperware; finish versus objective versus destination; to tumble short of (one’s) dreams, to form a habit, and to leave (something alone); to call it a day/night

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 549.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 549. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

Visit our website at ESLPod.com. Become a member of ESL Podcast and download the Learning Guide for this episode, an eight- to ten-page guide we provide for all of our current episodes that gives you a complete transcript of everything we say. You can also take a look at our ESL Podcast Store for additional courses in business, daily, and cultural English, as well as our ESL Podcast Blog.

On this Café, we’re going to talk about one of the most famous American operas in the twentieth century, the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess. Even if you don’t like opera, I think you’ll find this one interesting. We’re also going to talk about a popular way of storing your food in the United States: Tupperware. And as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

A lot of people, when they hear the word “opera” (opera), think of the great operas of Wagner or Puccini or Mozart, with women and men singing in loud voices, often in ways that some people don’t find very pleasant. Well, today we’re going to talk about a different kind of opera – a modern American opera, the songs from which became very popular in the U.S. during the twentieth century, unlike most, what you might call, “classical operas.”

The opera we’re talking about today is Porgy and Bess. An “opera” is a dramatic story like a play, but is set to or includes music that is sung by highly trained singers. Porgy and Bess is an opera that tells the story of the group of blacks, of African Americans, living in the state of South Carolina – in Charleston, South Carolina – in 1930. South Carolina is located in the southern part of the U.S., the southeastern part of the U.S.

The opera was first performed in New York City in October of 1935. The main characters in the opera are, not surprisingly, a man named Porgy and a woman named Bess. Porgy is a poor man who is also disabled. “To be disabled” (disabled) means that you aren’t able to do something that one could normally do with one’s body. You might be unable to walk, or to see, or to hear.

Well, Porgy is a disabled man, and Bess is a young woman who is hiding from her last boyfriend as well as from a local drug dealer. Bess is afraid of her old boyfriend, as well as a “drug dealer” – a person who sells drugs, illegal drugs, to make money. The story, as is typical in many operas, is told in three parts, what we call three “acts” (acts). It’s about love, it’s about violence, and it’s about looking for or searching for a better life.

The opera Porgy and Bess is based on a book called Porgy, written by a man named Hayward. The original novel was published in 1925, and Hayward’s wife started working on a play version of the story a few years later. But even before that play was written, one of the great composers of the 1920s and ’30s, a man by the name of George Gershwin, got interested in the story and wanted to write an opera based on the story Porgy. The novel Porgy is actually about a real-life man who lived in Charleston during this period.

Gershwin talked to Hayward and his wife, and wanted to get permission to write a opera based on the book. Hayward was interested, and Gershwin and Hayward started working on the project, but it took them almost eight years. George’s brother Ira Gershwin also worked on the project, writing many of the words to the song. The three met often in Charleston, South Carolina, to write so that they could also experience the culture of the city.

Although the play as well as the original book are all about the culture of African Americans in the South – in Charleston, South Carolina, in particular – during this period, none of them was black. They were all white. But they were able to capture, many people say, the cultural elements of that city and express it in this opera, Porgy and Bess.

One of the things that George Gershwin wanted to do in this opera is use not just the traditional, classical kind of music that was often used in opera up to this point, but also the particularly American music expressed in jazz and in blues – both forms of music which came from the African American community in the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

By combining jazz and traditional opera forms, Gershwin was trying to do something that no one else had done before, and it’s one of the things that makes this opera so interesting and so different. He wasn’t sure, when he was writing it, that “audiences” – the people who would go and see the opera – would be ready for this, would be willing accept it.

There were people, of course, who listened to jazz music. Jazz was very popular in the 1920s, not just among African Americans, but among many different listeners. There were also people who would go to the opera and listen to the traditional classical forms of music, but he wasn’t sure if those two groups of people would come together in order to make this particular opera popular.

The opera also had, as its subject matter, African Americans, who were not commonly seen in the stories of opera during this period. Gershwin tried to get help to produce the opera. “To produce” here means to get money in order to actually have the performances of the opera. Everyone he talked to, however, didn’t like the idea of African Americans singing on stage, being part of the opera. They had suggested instead that he get white singers and actors to perform the parts and put black paint on their faces – what we call “blackface” (blackface).

This was, in fact, a common way for white actors to perform African American characters or parts in plays and musicals up to this period. But Gershwin refused. He said, “No. I want African American singers and actors being part of this opera.” Gershwin had to use his own money to produce the show because other people didn’t want to give him money to have African Americans as part of the production.

Unfortunately, the show wasn’t very successful when it was first performed. Gershwin did not make very much money on it. However, some of the songs from the opera were released separately on the radio as songs. And it was these songs that became popular and ultimately made the opera popular. The most famous song was called “Summertime,” and it’s still a popular song. You can find many recordings of it on YouTube. You’ve probably even heard the song before.

“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy.”

The great Ella Fitzgerald is most famous for recording a version of that song. Sadly, George Gershwin himself never lived long enough to see the opera Porgy and Bess become popular. He died only two years after the opera was first performed in New York City. He died at the age of 38 of a brain tumor – a large growth in his brain.

Nevertheless, by the 1950s and ’60s, Porgy and Bess was considered the first great American opera, one of the best operas written in the twentieth century in the United States. Gershwin himself always believed it was one of his great artistic accomplishments, and it was only later that the rest of the musical world came to believe the same thing.

Now let’s turn to a very different topic. We all know that technology can change our lives in significant ways. I’m going to talk about a kind of technology that changed the way Americans ate in the twentieth century – not the microwave oven, but something called “Tupperware.” “Tupperware” (Tupperware) was created in 1946 by a man named Earl Tupper.

Now, why do I say that this particular technology, this invention, changed the way Americans eat? Well, because it allowed them to be able to store and transport food easily, or more easily than they had before that. “Tupperware” refers to containers – things that you put food into – that are made of a very lightweight plastic. A “container” (container) is any object, such as a box, that can be used to put other things into it. “Plastic,” of course is a manmade material that is very difficult to break and can be shaped into many different forms.

Earl Tupper used plastic to create these containers that had tops on them, which we would call “lids” (lids). The word “lid” is another name for a top of a container. We also talk about “eye (eye) lids.” “Eyelids” are the things that cover your eyes. When you close your eyes, the eyelids cover your eyes. Well, Tupperware lids cover the box or container that holds the food.

One of the interesting things about Tupperware is that you could make the container “airtight,” meaning no air could get into the container after you put the lid on it. Since Tupperware containers are airtight, this means that they can be used to store food and keep food fresh for a longer time.

When Earl Tupper first invented Tupperware, when he first tried to sell it, he wasn’t very successful in getting people to buy it. The reason was that his invention was so different from the way people were used to storing and keeping their food fresh that people didn’t really understand it. They didn’t know how it worked. Specifically, they didn’t understand how to make the containers airtight and how to open them easily.

So Tupper decided to try something completely new in order to get people interested in buying his containers. Beginning in 1946, he and his small company began to organize what he called “Tupperware parties.” This was, in a way, a completely new way of selling things. Here’s what he did. He would get people who would be willing to have a party at their house, to which they would invite some of their friends. So, you would have a party and you would invite other people to your house just as you would for any other sort of party.

Now, the people would know that they were going to something called a “Tupperware party” and they were going to learn about this new product called “Tupperware” that would help make their life easier. Anyone who came to the party could look at it and try it, ask questions about it, and if he or she were interested in it, buy some at the party.

This sounds like a weird idea – people coming to your house to buy things from a Tupperware salesperson. But Earl Tupper tried it and it worked. It was the beginning, or at least one of the early attempts at what we would now call “direct sales,” where a company sells something directly to you, the customer, without a store – and of course back then, without any Internet.

By 1951, these Tupperware parties had become very successful. So successful that Tupperware stopped selling its products in stores. Now, you may wonder, “Well, why would they stop selling the products in stores?” The obvious answer is that they didn’t have to give any money to the stores to help them sell their product. They could keep that money by selling it directly to the consumer, to the person buying the product. In fact, the only way that you could buy Tupperware was through these Tupperware parties.

If you’re going to be selling to people at these parties, you’re going to need a lot of salespeople. In most American families, it was the woman who bought things for the kitchen, and logically the Tupperware company went out and found women who were interested in working as salespeople for them so that they could go to these Tupperware parties, which were typically hosted by or organized by women.

Women would invite their friends to these parties, and the saleswomen would go to the party from Tupperware and sell the Tupperware containers. It was a good job if you were a woman. It was one that gave you flexible hours. You didn’t have to go into an office and work a regular eight-hour day. You could arrange your schedule around your own family’s needs. So, the Tupperware company became a popular place for women seeking some extra money for their family to work.

The Tupperware company also understood the importance of motivating these saleswomen to make more sales, and so they created a number of incentives for them. An “incentive” (incentive) is something that encourages you to do something. It’s sort of like a prize that you get for doing something. The general manager of Tupperware created several popular incentives including winning a vacation to Europe or winning a free trip to the company’s annual or yearly party in Florida. If you sold so many of these containers, you would have a chance of getting a vacation or winning extra prizes.

The 600 salespeople who sold the most containers were invited to this party and were able to win even more prizes and awards. All of this created incentives for the saleswomen to go out and go to more of these parties to sell more of the company’s product. These Tupperware parties were popular when I was growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. I still remember my mother going to some of these Tupperware parties and coming home with products.

Other companies adopted, or took on, this same model of selling things – having parties where you would go to someone’s house and you would buy things from either that person or from a saleswoman from a company that was selling the particular products. It wasn’t just things for your kitchen, although that was the most popular type of thing that was sold in these kind of direct sales parties.

Tupperware parties are still going on today, although they became much less popular during the ’90s and in the last 15 years or so. Most people buy their kitchenware from a store, or nowadays from the Internet. So, it’s no longer necessary to go to a Tupperware party.

But, there are still Tupperware parties that take place, and other companies also still have these parties to sell their products directly to you. One of the advantages of them, of course, is you can actually go and look at what you are buying. The problem with buying things on the Internet, as some of us have discovered, is that you can see a picture of it, but you can’t really get an idea of whether you want it or not until you have it physically in front of you. So, there are perhaps still possibilities for this particular way of selling to continue, even in our age of Internet buying.

Now let’s answer some of the questions you have sent to us.

Our first question comes from Gunther (Gunther) in Germany. The question has to do with three words, “finish,” “objective,” and “destination.” Let’s start with the word “finish” (finish).

“To finish,” as a verb, means to end, to complete something. “Finish” as a noun refers to an ending or the final part of something. You could talk about “a good finish to your meal.” A piece of fruit or a nice dessert is a good “finish” – a good, final part of your dinner or your supper, although it can be used as a noun in that way. More typically, you will hear “finish” as a verb: “to finish your job,” “to finish your project.”

“Objective” (objective) is something you are trying to achieve. It is often used in a similar way as “goal” or “purpose.” “The objective of this exercise is to strengthen your muscles,” to make your muscles stronger. “The objective of this project is to make more money so that our company will sell more products.”

The word “objective” is sometimes also used to mean the opposite of “subjective” (subjective). Something that is “subjective” depends on your own feelings, your own opinions. Something that is “objective” would be something factual, something that doesn’t rely on or depend on someone’s feelings or opinions. If you have an “objective analysis” of a situation, you have a description of the situation that is based on the facts, not on your own opinions or your own likes and dislikes.

It’s sometimes rather difficult to try to separate opinions from facts, or feelings from reason and logic, so dividing “subjective” and “objective” isn’t all that easy in the real world. But that’s one possible use of “objective” – as the opposite of “subjective.” In business and in other areas of life, “objective” also has this meaning, as I mentioned previously, of “goal” or “purpose.”

The third word here is “destination” (destination). “Destination” is a place you are going. “My destination is San Francisco.” I get in my car. I drive up the coast of California and my “destination” – the place I am going to stop at – is San Francisco. That’s where I am going. We sometimes use “destination” metaphorically for describing a goal or objective, not a physical place where you are going. But the most common use of it is to describe a place that you are traveling to, that you are trying to reach.

When you get on an airplane in the United States and you fly to another city, the flight attendants – the men and women who work on the airplane – will sometimes use the term “final destination.” “Welcome to New York City. If this is your final destination” – that is, if this is the place where you are going to get off the airplane and stay. Many times you will be flying and you will stop in one airport and then continue on to another city, but if your “final destination” is that airport, you get off the plane and that’s where you’re going to stay for a certain amount of time.

“Finish,” “objective,” and “destination,” then, have some similarities in meaning, but they’re all used in different context. You would never use “objective” to talk about the place where you are driving to in your car, for example. And normally we don’t use “destination” to talk about the goal that you have for your project in a company or at school.

Our next question comes from Rodrigo (Rodrigo) here in the United States of America. Rodrigo is going to talk about some phrases, some sentences he saw in one of the great works of twentieth century American literature, The Great Gatsby, by my cousin F. Scott Fitzgerald. This is a book that is often read in American high schools or colleges, so perhaps Rodrigo is a student. The first phrase that Rodrigo wants to know of is “to tumble short of one’s dreams.”

“To tumble” (tumble) means to fall. If you are walking down the street and your foot hits a rock, you might “tumble.” You might fall down or fall over. Your “dreams” are the things that you want to happen in your life, the good things in the future. “To tumble short of your dreams” means to fail before you reach your dreams, before you are able to get what you want. “To tumble short of” something is to fall before you are able to reach whatever destination you are trying to get to. In this case, the destination isn’t a physical place, but it’s your dreams. It’s the things that you want to accomplish in your life.

“To form a habit” is another expression that Rodrigo wants to know about. A “habit” (habit) is something that you do every day or on a regular basis, frequently without even thinking about it typically, or at least without having to motivate yourself to do. For example, most of us have a habit of brushing our teeth every day. We get out a toothbrush. We put some toothpaste on. We put the toothbrush in our mouth and we brush our teeth. It’s a “habit” that we have. We almost don’t even think about it.

“To form a habit” means to create a new habit – to start doing something new so that it becomes a habit in the future for you. Another way of saying “to form a habit” is “to get into the habit.” That means the same thing. I want to get into the habit of exercising every morning – people talk about being “in the habit” or “out of the habit.” If you are “out of the habit,” you used to do something, but now you don’t anymore. It used to be a habit and now it isn’t.

Finally, Rodrigo wants to know about the expression “to let (let) something alone (alone).” “To let something alone” means to not use something or not get involved in something or perhaps even not discuss something. “To let a person alone” would mean to not bother the person, not interfere with the person.

There’s also another common expression “to leave (leave) someone alone.” “To leave someone alone” means to allow the person to be by himself – to leave the room or leave the area so that the person isn’t around anyone else. In more recent English – in the last 40, 50 years, I suppose – people have started using the expression “to leave someone alone” to mean the same as “to let someone alone,” meaning to not bother someone.

If someone says to “leave me alone,” the person could mean he wants to be by himself, or the person could mean that he doesn’t want you to bother him, to interfere with what he’s doing. It would depend on the context, the situation. But traditionally, “to let someone alone” would mean to not bother the person and “to leave someone alone” would mean to make sure the person is by himself without anyone else there with him.

Finally, Liza (Liza) in Russia, wants to know the meaning of two expressions, “Let’s call it a day” and “Let’s call it a night.” “Let’s call it a day” means “Let’s stop working,” and it is usually used at the end of the workday, say around five o’clock in the afternoon. “Let’s call it a day” means we’re going to stop working and go home.

“Let’s call it a night” is when you are out with someone, perhaps drinking or at a party, and you want to go home and go to sleep. You would say, “Well, let’s call it a night.” Let’s just go home and we’ll see each other sometime again soon – or not – but in any case, it means “I want to go home now.” I don’t want to be here anymore and I want to go to bed and, usually, to sleep.

Now, I suppose if you were working at night, you could say, “Let’s call it a night,” but I think we would more generally use the expression “Let’s call it a night” when you are out on some sort of social activity or with someone socially. “Let’s call it a day” would be used when you are working during the daytime, which is when people usually work, and you want to stop working.

I’m going to call it a day, but if you have any questions or comments, you can email us. Our email address is eslpod@eslpod.com.

From Los Angeles, California, I’m Jeff McQuillan. Thanks for listening. Come back and listen to us again right here on the English Café.

ESL Podcast’s English Café is written and produced by Dr. Jeff McQuillan and Dr. Lucy Tse. This podcast is copyright 2016 by the Center for Educational Development.

opera – a dramatic story that is set to powerful music sung by highly trained singers

* The aria in an opera is a solo piece performed by the lead female singer.

disabled – unable to do, or having limited ability to do, daily tasks such as walking, seeing, or hearing, because of an injury or illness

* The soldier was left disabled after his leg was badly injured in the war.

jazz – a type of American music that has very strong rhythms and is usually played on instruments such as the trumpet, saxophone, and piano

* Andres loved listening to jazz music, especially parts of a song that are clearly improvised.

to be ready for – to be willing to accept or to do something

* Matt is ready to start a family, but can’t seem to find the right woman to marry.

to produce – to provide money and management for a film, show, or performance

* George Lucas directed and produced the original Star Wars movies.

blackface – black-colored makeup that is put on a person’s face to make them appear to have black skin so that they can perform as an African American

* Blackface was once a common practice in American shows before African Americans were allowed to perform for white audiences.

container – an object such, as a box, that can hold other items

* Do you have a waterproof container to hold this leftover soup?

plastic – a man-made material that is very difficult to break and that can be easily shaped into different forms when heated

* Many things are made of plastic today, including water bottles, bicycle helmets, and many parts of a car.

airtight – allowing no air in or out; not allowing air to pass through

* Submarines must be airtight so that when they go beneath the surface of the water, no water gets in.

direct sales – the practice of a company selling a product directly to customers, rather than first selling to a store, which in turn sells it to customers

* In the 1950s, vacuum cleaners were sold through direct sales, with salespeople going from house to house to demonstrate the product and to take orders.

incentives – ways of encouraging people to so something, usually by offering rewards

* Many credit card companies offer incentives to get a card, including airline miles and money back.

finish – an end or ending; the final part, segment, or stage of something

* At the finish, Nick was so tired after the 20-mile race that he could barely stand.

objective – something one is trying to do or achieve; a goal or purpose

* The objective of this training is to make sure everyone knows how to use the new software.

destination – a place where someone is going; a location where something is being sent

* The tour guide’s job is to make sure everyone reaches their destination.

to fall short of (one’s) expectations – to not be able to meet or satisfy one’s requirements or be as good as what one hoped

* Alex thought the new video game would be the best game ever, but it fell short of his expectations.
to tumble – to fall suddenly forward; to move or rush forward in an uncontrolled way

* Be careful where you step! It’s easy to tumble down this hill.

to form a habit – to develop a behavior that one does often or regularly

* Yasmin formed a habit of reading the news each morning before going to work.

to leave (something) alone – to avoid touching, bothering, or communicating with someone or something

* Little boy, leave those kittens alone. You’re being too rough and you might hurt them.

to call it a day/night – to stop a particular activity for the rest of the day/night

* We’ve been trying to solve this problem for hours. Let’s call it a day and start again tomorrow morning.

What Insiders Know
Pyramid Schemes

A “pyramid scheme” is a “business model” (plan for making money) that promises participants that they will receive payment for some service, usually for “enrolling” (getting other people in a program) others in the same program.

At its most basic level, a pyramid scheme invites someone to join an organization or business by paying a “fee” (money paid for some particular purpose). Then that person receives a percentage of the fee paid by other people whom he or she can convince to join the organization. And when those people “recruit” (get someone to join) other individuals, the original person receives a portion of each of those payments, too. “Ultimately” (in the end), however, no additional people are available to join the scheme, and people cannot make a “profit” (earned money that one gets to keep). At that point, the pyramid “collapses” (falls down and is destroyed). Pyramid schemes are “unsustainable” (cannot continue forever) and often “illegal” (against the law).

A “Ponzi scheme” is similar to a pyramid scheme. In a Ponzi scheme, an individual gets “investors” (people who provide money for a business with the hope of making money) to give him or her “capital” (money to begin investing with) and pays those investors interest from the capital provided by new investors. “In the short term” (over short periods of time), everyone is happy because they receive “high returns” (a large percentage in profits), but the original investor requires more and more capital from new investors to make the Ponzi scheme continue to work. Eventually, it collapses.

The best-known Ponzi scheme was the Madoff investment scandal, which “came to light” (was discovered) in 2008. Bernard Madoff had built a wealth management business, but it was actually an “elaborate” (complex and detailed) Ponzi scheme. In 2009, he was found guilty of having committed “fraud” (illegal tricking of people for money) involving approximately $64.8 billion.