Tuesday, September 19, 2017

"Boundaries"

This is a weird one.  Because I’m not exactly sure what it’s about, making me unclear on specifically how to write it.  (Note:  When writing in italics, I have to underline for emphasis because how do you italicize italics?)  Hopefully, I will figure things out along the way.  If not?  Sorry.  And, paraphrasing the ESPN sports guy who closes each broadcast waving a Canadian flag for reasons he never publicly reveals assures his audience, “I’ll try to do better the next time.”    

Okay, here we go.

I have always been inordinately comfortable with boundaries.  Right from the beginning…

BABY EARLO:  “I am in the playpen.  Good.  I can crawl to the bars, and that’s it.  No thinking, ‘I wonder what’s over yonder hill.’  I’m in a playpen; ‘yonder hill’ is of no consequence to me.  Yes, there are obvious boundaries to being in a playpen, mostly geographical in nature, though I am also unable to use the phone.  Being in this playpen, I know that I am comfortably protected, I have oodles of toys to play with, and there is no chance that the hot stove in the kitchen will ever melt off my fingerprints.  I feel contentedly onboard with the entire “Playpen Mentality.”  I am limited, but I’m safe.”

(What a precocious baby I was, not talking, but already thinking up a storm!)

Appreciating the insulating “up-side” of structural boundaries, was it any wonder I gravitated towards a career writing half-hour comedies?  In my day, the genre was constricted everywhere you looked – length of time, appropriate matter, acceptable language, modular storyline construction, an obligatory joke every ten seconds. 

Imagine a multi-dimensional “crayoning within the lines” – that’s half-hour comedy.  Now of course, especially with the various streaming services, half-hour comedies are “Everything Goes.”  A show can run thirty-two minutes and no one on the following series yells, “Hey!”  It’s Hellzapoppin’ wherever you look.

Am I imaginative?  I like to think I am.  In that way, I am unboundedly liberated inside my head.  Not that all my “inspirations” were enthusiastically embraced.  In my submitted drafts, I delivered the product of my free-floating hilarity.  The producers then took what fit their show’s sitcomical template and left the rest of my jokes out.  Sometimes first laughing, then determining, “Not for us.” 

Jerry Seinfeld may have picked his nose.  (Unless it was actually a scratch.)  Mary Tyler Moore never went anywhere near her nose.  (Unless she had a bad cold, in which case, she had a distinctly “Mary-ish” way of evacuating it.)

In my creative and remunerative heyday, we were encouraged to provide broadly based content that would offend nobody, which temperamentally fit me, if not perfectly, then perfectly enough to keep me protectively out of trouble.  Although, sometimes, you know, the minefield looks safe, and then “Boom!” 

There was this one occasion when I wrote a joke that crossed NBC’s unclarified “Line of Acceptability.”  (Because there was no actual “Book” on the matter.  Or if there was one, copies were never distributed to the ”talent.”  I guess you were automatically supposed to know.  If you were raised properly.  Which apparently in this case, I wasn’t.)     

It was on Al Franken’s show Lateline.  “Al Freundlich”, a Nightline-type correspondent, tells his coworkers his wife is chairing a fundraiser for a new “Pediatric Burn Unit” at the Jewish Hospital.  “It’s for kids,” he explains.  To which I immediately pitched, “And you don’t have to be Jewish.  Just burnt.”

Judge for yourselves; I thought it was funny.  The network didn’t, and they made a gigantic fuss about it.  Reflecting a combativeness I have yet to see demonstrated in the Senate, Franken fought ferociously for that joke.  I believe it stayed in.  But the show was precipitously cancelled, so you can decide who ultimately won out.

Through the 1980’s, like the frog unaware it was boiling, my cocooning “Wall of Protection” progressively disappeared, taking my prospering career future along with it.  As my agent explained to me – in a compassionate warning I inferred as a personal rebuke – inexorably – though he likely did not use that word; agents are rarely rewarded for their articulacy – TV comedy was getting “dumber and sexier.”

And since I wasn’t, “… Tick, tick, tick….” my time was inexorably running out.  (What can I tell you?  Big words are my business.)

Like the Berlin wall, only with belly laughs, the boundaries of content, at least comparatively, came down, and I inevitably went home.  When I became a blogger, fitting my personal specifications, the limiting walls I enjoy went buttressingly back up. 

There are no jarring surprises.  You do not see me suddenly writing in Swedish.  Or in humorous pictographs.  Or in the form of a crossword puzzle, with open “Across” and “Down” spaces for you to fill in.  Although that last one sounds intriguing – an individualized “Mad Libs”, challenging the reader to, “Write Like The Blogger.”

Although my options are unlimited, I write the same way every day, devising self-imposed strictures, and then sticking to them.  Assembling my own blogatorial playpen.

One last point.

I do not know if it is the same for other writers but it might be, but when I say, “I do not write like that” – which in the sitcom case meant, “dumber and sexier” – I am not maintaining a judgmental “I take the high road” insistence.  I just literally “do not write like that.”  As a result, I feel uncomfortable receiving credit for assiduously “not going there.”  It’s not a choice.  “Going there” is an unavailable color on my imaginatorial palette.  That – and not a sense of “moral superiority” – distinguishes  “them” – the people still working – from “me” – who once was but now isn’t.

I don’t know what it feels like to work completely without boundaries. 

Fortunately, I made enough money before having to find out.


Writer’s Note:  Almost none of this is what I intended to write about.  Maybe what I intended to write about was no good.  Or maybe it was insufficiently ready.  I don’t know.  I hope this was okay.  And I will bring you “the other thing” when I figure out what it is.)     

Monday, September 18, 2017

"Snippets"

(A trio of noticings, none substantially sufficient for solo attention but all of them (hopefully) meriting their abbreviated moment in the blogatorial sun.

(Rhyming Irrelevance:  A family friend’s factory in Canada produced a chocolate chip confection called Chippets.”)

(A Worrying Apprehension:  I am currently engaged in an “audiobook” entitled A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles in which every word is so meticulously selected that, if I am infected with that stylistic contagion –otherwise known as excellent writing – I fear I will never finish anything again.  I can’t tell you how long it took me to write that sentence, so… oh no!  It’s starting!)

Okay.

Eddie Izzard’s memoir, Believe Me, which I just finished listening to, includes his “Theory of the Universe” in which Izzard hypothesizes that the universe bends in on itself, returning inevitably to where it had previously begun.

I believe I have personal experiences, indicating that I and my immediate family members – if Izzard’s theory holds verifiable water – demonstrably resonate with the universe.

To wit,

Most recently, concerning daughter Anna and her mother – and get ready to find this shockingly remarkable –

Anna, who is currently pregnant, bought a house and is now supervising the thorough remodeling of it, almost literally from the ground up.

Anna’s mother, Dr. M, supervised the thorough remodeling of our house, almost literally from the ground up, when she herself was pregnant with Anna.

Two – Anna and me…

When I was twenty-one years old, I spent a year (16 months, actually) living in London.  When she was twenty-one years old, Anna – with no encouragement from myself – spent her “Junior” year of college, living in London.

Three – Me and me…(are you getting shivers yet?)

My first writing job was writing personal essays in the newspaper.  Bending back from the beginning, after a 35-year professional career, I am now finishing up writing personal essays on the Internet.
One example is easily dismissible, but three?  Amateur-student-of-the-Universe Eddie Izzard may be seriously on to something.  (End of “Izzardian” tidbit.)
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On my last visit to Groundwork Coffee Co for my weekly Venice Blend pour-over, I notice that the “coffista” behind the counter is two to three decades older than anyone else working in the emporium, which was fine except for the purplish-pink streaks in her hair, which to my taste is less so but that’s not what this is about.  As far as I am concerned, there is – and should be – no age barrier for mutilating your hair.

Okay.

I put in my order, I pay my four dollars, I slip a dollar into the “Tip Jar.”  So far, so yawn-worthy.

It is then I hear the (matronly by contrast) woman who took my Venice Blend pour-over order confide, in a recognizably whiny cadence,

“I don’t know how to do-oo-oo that.”

To which, I chime in,

“Why don’t you ask somebody to teach you?”

Which she apparently does.

Moments later, standing off to the side awaiting my order to be processed, in a shuffling gait totally consistent with her unwelcome whine, I notice the woman who took my order, meander slowly over to the coffee bean bins, trying to unlatch the door to the requested Venice Blend cabinet, and repeatedly failing to accomplish the tast.  Finally working it out, she then begins transferring the amount of beans consistent with preparing a single serving of Venice Blend pour-over into a paper bag, when she suddenly realizes,

(WHINING TO NO ONE IN PARTICULAR):  “There’s not enough beeeeans heeeeere.”

She then shuffles back to the counter where a co-worker rescuingly commandeers the assignment and quickly finishes the job.

I am not an habitual joiner of clubs.  The thing is, however, with the advancing years, you are lumped into the “No Longer Young” club whether you personally want to be, or not. 

I have to acknowledge, as I did then to myself though not entirely without guilt, that   I was not happy seeing a member of “my club” acting frighteningly ineffectually.  Her defeatist demeanor made all of us look bad.  I imagined myself in a similar predicament, vowing that, feeling anxiously challenged by unfamiliar responsibilities, for me and my senescing cohort, I would try really hard to do better.)
-------------------------------------------------
This one, I do not get.

While awaiting my coffee order to be completed, I take note of other Groundwork customers, paying with a credit card.

First…

It’s, like, four dollars.  Who doesn’t have four dollars in cash?

“I only carry three dollars in my wallet.  In case of a hold-up.”

“And that’s helpful, you think, to avoid hold-ups?”

“Oh yes.  It’s like, ‘Give me your money!”  ‘I only have three dollars.’  ‘Oh, then.  Forget it.’”

So there’s that.  Who knows?  Maybe they require “Proof of Purchase” for tax purposes, though I do not readily perceive “Coffee” as a “business expense.”  I hear radical “Tax Reform” is on the way, leaving the chance that that “deduction” may be subsequently included.  Possibly retroactively.  And then they’ve got the receipts!

Here’s the thing, though.

They take your order, they “ring up” your charges – betraying a revealing “cash register” reference – and then they flip the screen around, for your confirming signature.

It is then that I detect the most perplexing behavior.

People sign, not with their actual signatures, but with indecipherable squiggles.  A minimalist ”finger dance” across the computer screen.  And that’s it.

My question is, how does that indeterminate squiggle in any way indicate it’s them?

And, more curiously, how is their casual squiggle differentiated from anyone else’s?

I have to admit, there have been times, standing by someone, rendering the equivalent of an “EKG”-machine response that I could not keep from blurting,

“That’s my signature!”

And you know what?  To my embarrassment and discomfort, not to mention astonished surprise…

They never “get” it.
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Well, those are my snippets, which rhymes with “Chippets.”  See you next time with, hopefully, a fully-actualzied story.  (Unless I can’t think of one, and then it’s
“Scavenging for Chippets.”  Sorry, I mean, snippets.)

Friday, September 15, 2017

"Secret Trendsetters"

Make no mistake.

This is not about my unwillingness to change.

I can change, baby.

And you can take that to the bank. 

I am no flibbertigibbet, mind you  – “I think I’ll try this; no, I think I’ll try that.”  (Boy, did I spell flibbertigibbet wrong the first time.)  But I can change.

Boy, can I change.

Switching from “jockeys” to “boxers”? – Just like that.  (Imagine me snapping my fingers before “Just.”)  I mean, “Cold turkey.”  No, “Boxers Thursdays, and I’ll work my way up.”  I made the decision, and next thing you know, there is a stack of jockey shorts, waiting for “Helping Hands for the Blind.”

Sports socks?  Half way up the calf?  Gone.   (Actually, I still have them.  But I don’t wear them.)  Switched on a dime.  Now, it’s “anklets” only!

Oh, and the electric shaver.  Goodbye, blades.  (Minus the uncredited “touch-ups” in the difficult “neck” area.)  (By the way, I consulted the manual and the electric shaver works better now.  My shaves are virtually eighty percent as close as with blades.  And there’s no blood!)

I’m tellin’ ya, you bet on my predictability and you’ll lose your shirt!  Yesterday morning?  I put on my right sock.  And then you know what I did?  I put on my right shoe.  After putting on my right sock, I traditionally put on my left sock.  Not this time.  I put on my right shoe.

Viola!  And ipso facto!

Okay, I may have gone an example or two beyond, “Me thinks he doth protesteth too much.”  But I just wanted you to understand:  I am no enemy of change.

Except…

When that change flies in out of nowhere, directing a new “policy”, without my knowledge, understanding or personal approval…

That change…

I do not care for.

Typically, I am no conspiracy theorist.  I have no interest in “Area 51” or the “Truth” about the Kennedy assassination… although I wonder if maybe those aliens might have killed Kennedy. 

Just funnin’ with ya.

But I do suspect there is an element of forced coercion going on.  (Is there any other kind?  Unforced” coercion is, like… “Okay.”)

I have increasingly noticed that certain things seem to just happen out of the blue.  You’re doing things one way, and then suddenly, without “say so” or agreement on your part, you are forced, or at least seriously encouraged, to do them another way, the original way, becoming mustily suspect.

My oft-mentioned example in this regard:

Going up at the end of sentences.

Nobody ever did that.  Now, almost everyone does.  Smart people on television, experts in Quantum Physics and macroeconomics are going up at the end of their sentences.  Learned scholars.  Graduates of fine universities.  Everyone’s doing “The Rise.”

Sometimes, even I do it.  I don’t mean to.  I just get caught up in the contagion?

Someone must have initiated “going up at the end of sentences.”  It did not materialize by itself.  And now, with neither vote nor referendum,

It’s “The Law.”  (“Fuddy-duddies:  Ignore at your own peril.”)

And then there was this.  “This” being what suggested this post in the first place.  (He said, 521 words into his offering.)

I am buying a new suit for an upcoming wedding.  (I have a suit I bought fifteen or so years ago, but the wife thinks the pants legs are too “flappy.”)  I frequent a “high end” department store, because I believe a man has a right to be ripped off every fifteen or so years.)  (By the way,the store totally botched the alterations – “taking in” the pants they were instructed to “let out”, but that’s another story, that I mostly just gave away.)

I proceed to the “Menswear Department”, where I am confronted by racks of suits – primarily gray.  Also black, and the occasional dark blue.

Let me “set the stage” for you here.  Sartorially – not being inflexible, simply stating a preference –  in three words:

“I buy ‘Brown.’”

My “Color Spectrum of Choice” – the reliable “Earth Tones”, ranging from tan to tree bark.  (Though not birch bark, which is white with slivers of black, ribboning through it.) 

“Where are your brown suits?” I curiously inquire of the “high end” department store “Sales Representative.”

To which I am dutifully informed,

“They don’t make brown suits anymore.”

Now I realize this is only one outlet, and the next logical step is to move on.  But I didn’t.  I am standing in a recognized fancy department store, and if they say, “They don’t make brown suits anymore”, I concedingly accept that that is the case.

They question is,

“Why?’

I mean, is it possible that, arbitrarily and without notice, they have “disappeared” an entire color spectrum of suits?

“Bye, bye, ‘Brown’”?

What happened to “Free Will”, the customer’s right to select the suit of their choice, regardless of color, cuffs or country of origin?  Now, it’s like,

“Brown suit, please.”

“No!”

I wound up buying a gray suit.  I felt viscerally horrified.  My grandfather wore gray suits.  And now, incredibly…

me?

Not to trigger a panic, but I am sensing a secret cabal involved, powerful forces, meeting in darkened back rooms or mountaintop hideaways, issuing “The Word”, and “The Word” is:

“No ‘Brown’.”

That’s not “Personal Freedom.”  That’s Soviet Russia.

With fabrics.

My solution to this insidious tyranny?

My “usual.”

Nothing.

But I can clarionly say,

“Hey!”

And let the “doers” of the world take it from there.

And do something, they must.

For if they can ban “Brown” as a menswear alternative…

Are any of us truly safe?

Thursday, September 14, 2017

"The Unstoppable 'Sorting Machine'"

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times; but it was proportionally more the worst of times.”

Leslie Dickens, Charles’s less sensational though more journalistically accurate writer-brother.  (I almost wrote “younger brother”, thereby unconsciously giving away the store.)

Note:  This post is not about baseball.  Explanation:  To Come.  But first – the part about baseball.

At one point in this season, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ won-loss record was 91-36, meaning they had won 91 games and lost 36. 

That is a really, really good record.  The Dodgers held a twenty-game lead in their division, they had won fifteen more games than anyone else in baseball, they were projected to at least have a chance at winning more games in one season than any team in the history of the game, Sports Illustrated did a cover story on them, entitled, “Best Team Ever?”

Then, beginning in late August, the arguable “Best Team Ever” proceeded to lose 16 out of their next 17 games.  (They almost lost again last night (Note: This was written yesterday.) which would have made them 1-17, struggling to the “Finish Line” against a terrible Giants team who are 37 games behind them in the National League West standings.

Hence, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” 

The difference is that in Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities, it was both of them at the same time.  (Although agreeing with brother Leslie, I reject the false equivalency – one guy’s “It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done” versus the French Revolution, where heads were rolling all over the place.  I mean, talk about chutzpah!)  (Insolent self-centeredness)

In one season, consecutively, rather than in the “See: Above” example, the Dodgers were the best team in baseball and also the worst team in baseball.  That has never happened before.  If the Dodgers were looking for a record, they set one.  “Best record for four months worst record for two-and-a-half weeks in the same season” an achievement likely to stand the statistical test of time.

Inevitably, baseball experts – as well as interested observers – pored over the ashes of this debacle, looking for reasons for this torturous tailspin. 

“The Dodgers keep shuffling their line-up.” 

“The recently procured players have upset the team’s delicate chemistry.”
“The opposition has discovered the Dodgers preferred, previously successful, batting approach and are ordering pitches higher in the strike zone to defuse it.

(Like a startling number of others before them) “The Dodgers have succumbed to the Sports Illustrated cover jinx.”

Okay, that’s it for baseball.  Which I used as an example for the following:

Like the mystified baseball pundits, searching for an answer – “we”, meaning the human species – are generically incapable of having things happen without definitively determining the reason they did.  An experience takes place, and we get right down to business, searching for an acceptable explanation, refusing to quit until the troubling phenomenon is adequately explained – “Magic”, “Science”, “God’s mysterious ways” – something – putting the vexing confusion satisfyingly to rest.  Or else, we can’t.  Rest, that is.

“How do you handle that with your patients?” I asked a psychologist who happens to live in the house.  “Aren’t therapy patients always flailing to find reasons and explanations for their condition?”

It was related to me – by someone related to me – that sometimes patients are required to come to terms with the fact that some terrible occurrences “just happen.  “Emotionally distant parents”?  Luck of the draw.  To be accepted, and successfully lived with as best as you can.

An appended tidbit suggested the patient, at some point, might spark to the realization that they are perpetuating the same behavior, discovering that, like their parents, they too behave emotionally distant.

An hour or so later, it occurred to me that what began an as “acceptance” story had evolved into a “discovering the answer” story.  Meaning, as I originally believed,

It is always about the answers.

(In fact, should the effort be made, the answer for the hypothetical patient’s parents’ emotionally distance could also be discovered.  And so on, back through family history.)

It was later confirmed to me that, when it comes to searching for answers, the brain is a natural “Sorting Machine”, constantly testing out reasonable connections, never stopping till “That’s it!  Which I immediately interpreted as an essential “Survival Mechanism.”  (My answer to why the brain does that.  And possibly Darwin’s, as well.)

Thog ate the mushroom and he died.  The question is, did he die from eating the mushroom?  Or was he simply eating a mushroom when he died?”

“You know who that makes no difference to whatsoever?”

“Who?”

Thog.”

“Yes, but we need to find out which it was.  Was it a poison mushroom, or wasn’t it?”

“I steer clear of all mushrooms, for specifically that reason.”

“But then you miss out on wonderful mushrooms, including the delicate and delicious enoki.  Besides, do you not have an insatiable urge to find out what happened?”

“I do sense an unquieting curiosity.  What do we have to do?”

“We have to eat the mushroom that Thog was eating when he died.”

“I see.  And by “we”, do you happen to mean you?”

“I was thinking about you.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re not as curious as I am.  I eat the mushroom and die, there goes our people’s best chance at 'The Relentless Pursuit of the Answer.'  I must live, so that countless others won’t die."

“First of all, bullpoop.  Second of all, what’s wrong with, ‘We are just never going to know’?”

“We have to know.  For our basic survival, we must always struggle to understand.”

“Well then understand this.  I am not eating the mushroom.  Wow, you’re right.  I feel a lot better clearing that up.  Plus, I may live longer than today.”

Let’s leave it at that.  Historically, sooner or later, somebody, accidentally, eats the mushroom and somebody standing beside him says, “He seemed healthy before he ate it and was stone cold dead after the fact.  I think we have our explanation.”

Though “having the answer” is not everything – the troubling consequences do not miraculously disappear – the difficult burden is helpfully lightened by “a mystery resolved.”

As for the Dodgers?

I see their stunned faces in the dugout,


And know they still haven’t got a clue.