Friday, April 18, 2014

"Money! Money! Money!"


I was once invited to a baseball game with three other people, our host, the husband of my cousin who had inherited a substantial amount of money.  One member of our group, a senior employee at Goldman Sachs who assisted my cousin with her investments spent the better part of two crucial innings shopping for private jets on his iPhone.

Somehow, that annoyed me.  And not just because he was ignoring the ballgame he had purportedly come to see.  Although that insult to the game is part of it.  It’s like bringing a book to the opera. 

A bank book. 

The preceding anecdote reveals two conflicting truisms about me.  One is that I have serious unresolved issues concerning the super-wealthy.  And two, I sincerely like my cousin and her husband, and they are conceivably wealthier than the Goldman Sachs employee.

So go figure.  (A Thought:  It could have something to do with grace and style – the way people handle their blessed predicament.  Or I could simply be a conundrous stockpile of contradictions.  I prefer the former explanation.  It makes me appear marginally better.)

Full Disclosure:  I have always liked money.  In my youth, my by-far comic book hero was “Uncle Scrooge.”  (Scrooge McDuck had a swimming pool full of money, which he would ecstatically dive into, radiating a beatific countenance as he parabolized gracefully above it. 

I did not think about him landing in a swimming pool full of metallic coinage, my imagination carrying me only as far as his ability to fill the swimming pool up.  (In later years, the entire fantasy was obliterated by inflation, which required people to invest their assets, rather than diving gleefully into them.

I knew I liked money.  When, at the age of twenty-one, I received an inheritance check from my late father’s estate, before depositing it in the bank, I first composed a celebratory song about the amount:

“Eighteen thousand seven hundred five dollars
A-a-a-and forty cents…”

That was the entire lyric of the song, delivered in a multiplicity of melodic intonations.

I liked to count money.  I liked to look at money.  (Okay, the next one is bad.)  If it was freshly minted, I liked to smell money.  (I told you.)  My attachment to money extended far beyond what that money could purchase.  There was a psychological element to financial solvency. 

It made me feel taller.

All my life, I have been scrupulously careful with my money without being noticeably stingy.  I was never educated in these matters.  It appeared to be a natural proclivity.

Early in my career, if, through my various freelance writing activities, I had an annual income of six thousand dollars, at the end of the year, I would, without struggle or premeditation, have two thousand dollars left.  If I made eleven thousand, I retained six.  Even after buying a new car.  (Yes, cars were cheaper back then.  My first Mazda cost $3400.)

Money, however – as it should have been if I were sincerely single-minded about it – was never my preeminent priority.  (Though I never told anyone, including myself) I wanted to be in show business, where, admittedly, if you made it, you could acquire a lot of money, but there was no guarantee whatsoever that you would make it.  And if you didn’t, you’d have nothing.  And yet I went for it anyway.

Show business aside, however, in my view, the most straight-line route to enormous personal enrichment, if that was truly your objective, is not via the “bank shot” of producing a desirable product or providing some unique talent or service thereby receiving some multi-digitous remuneration, the “straight-line” route to money is to go directly into “money.”  Like the Goldman Sachs employee, pricing private airplanes at the ballgame.

Even more than banks, which bank robber Willie Sutton explained he robbed because “that’s where the money is”, the real money is, and always has been, in finance. 

Which I do not ever recall being interested in.  It turns out I liked something more than I liked money, and I made that my priority rather than the accumulation of uncountable riches.

I wonder what happened.

It could have something to do do with the disputable logic of the thing.  I used to wonder why people kept working after amassing more money than they could possibly spend in a hundred lifetimes, analogizing this illogicality with people who continued chopping firewood long after they had chopped enough for a hundred lifetimes of fires. 

Was it not considerably more reasonable to simply stop chopping when they had unequivocally chopped enough?

Later, however, after spending time with a handful of inordinately wealthy people, I realized that they kept working, not for the money, but because they were enthralled with – bordering on addicted to – “the game” they were involved in that made them that money.  (Belying the oft-heard assertion that if taxes were raised on the super-wealthy they would immediately stop working.) 

To these fortunate billionaires, money was in no way their primary concern.  (As it inevitably is to people who do not have enough of it.)  They enthusiastically did what they did, their jaw-dropping remunerations being a fortuitous by-product.  They may occasionally revel in their riches – peeking at their standing on the Fortune Five Hundred – but that’s merely a competitive afterthought.  (Pitcher Orel Hershiser once remarked that “Money {as in comparative salaries} is simply our way of keeping score.”)

Returning to the firewood analogy, the explanation for their accumulating more than they can possibly ever use is: 

They take a visceral pleasure in the actual chopping.

None of this satisfactorily explains my intense annoyance with the Lear Jet “comparison shopper” sitting two seats down from me at the ballgame.  Did I want to be him?  Not if it required doing what he did, and meant being unable to take pleasure in a Dodger game on a warm California night.  (When queried on the subject, my daughter Anna opined, “I’d like to be me with their money.”)

What it generally boils down to for me is my (arguably irrational) irritation with an unearned sense of entitlement.  Which if you will allow me, and I have not totally turned you off by my sourish perspective on a core American undertaking – the maximization of personal income –

I shall continue exploring the next time.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

"In The Presence Of A Professional"


Read this in Latin.  It’ll sound loftier, possibly worth chiseling on the side of a building.

“How wonderful it is to be in the hands of a professional.”

“Que maxima fortuna esse in…manos de pro…”  I can’t do it.  There was a burst of inspirational energy, then…flopperama.

Anyway, that’s how I felt attending a recent L.A. performance of Christopher Durang’s New York Critic Circle’s winner for Best Play of 2013, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.

Imagine a pilot coming on the intercom, and reassuring you into forgetting that you are in an airplane 38,000 feet off the ground and there is nothing holding the thing up.  That’s Christopher Durang in this theatrical counterpart. 

The guy really knows what he’s doing.  (And you can feel it.)

I can easily imagine the title Vanya and Sonia and Masha (and then the humorously incongruous) Spike being the title of a sitcom episode.  So I am already at home.  And I am just reading the program.

In a letter inviting him to read his new play and consider playing the lead role (which he eventually did), Mr. Durang explains to actor David Hyde Pierce that, concerning the ambience of the play, “I like to say the play takes Chekhovian characters and themes and puts them in a blender.”

And so he does.  Lifting names and moods from Chekhov plays and appropriating elements for his most rudimentary plot – which can be briefly summarized as “Someone decides to sell a house and then later decides not to.”  (Not really a “spoiler” because the plot’s not that important.  The First Act of Vanya, etc. is fifty pages long, and the announcement about selling the house does not arrive until Page 48.  So even the playwright apparently had better things to do with his time than wallow in the circuitous intricacies of a real estate transaction.)

And those “better things” are to thoroughly and delightfully entertain.  There is some peripheral message concerning “What really matters” and an extended rant about “The Good Old Days”, but the primary intention of the play is like…well, imagine it’s a blusteringly rainy day outside and an amusing friend comes to the house and distracts you from the inclemency by providing a hilariously excellent time. 

(The “deeper” incarnation of this effect is that good comedy, momentarily at least, helps us forget that we are all going to die.  You see what I did there?  I did the opposite, making an enjoyable moment sad.  Which may go some ways to explain my limited commercial success outside of free television.)

As I said, the plot is a trifle.  “Woe” and then “Whoa!” – they change their mind.  This rudimentary “plot-lite” allows more time for the playwright to have fun.

Durang’s type of fun – at least in this play, I am not familiar with his others – is to create – and this is my favorite style of comedy – a proclivity amongst the characters of uninhibited self-awareness. 

What do I mean by that?  A character does a joke, and it’s acknowledged as a joke.  A character takes a shot, and it’s responded to as a shot.  A character behaves mean, and they confess to being mean.  For me, this refreshing “Wonderful World of Candor” enhances rather than detracts from the hilarity.

I can’t tell you how many shows – even good shows – I wrote where the characters never acknowledged anything.  Characters were unrealistically dense, characters appeared immune to the insults hurled at them, and rarely on those shows did anyone laugh at anything any other character had just said. 

It was as if there was some unwritten “Sitcom Rule” decreeing that, “The only people who should know what the characters are saying and doing is funny is the audience.”   

This, to me, is not normal.  And, like the contrived joke constructions I have alluded to elsewhere, it contradicts the stated intention of making the show we were delivering feel “real.”

Examples of employing startlingly candid but responded-to exchanges in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike abound.  (It occurs to me that our current manner of communication has become so antiseptically offense–free that you can now get an enormous laugh simply by saying what you might naturally have said if you were not being congenitally polite.) 

Not that it’s Virginia Woolf.  Durang employs a style in which his characters take their shot, and then quickly assuage the sting by immediately “copping” to their ego-damaging lacerations.  (Having it deliciously both ways in the process.)

The three central characters are a sixty-ish conciliatory-to-a-fault “Vanya”, his terminally depressed, slightly younger stepsister Sonia, who both live out their drab and empty lives in a small country house paid for by their narcissistic, aging movie star sister/stepsister “Masha”, who has come for a surprise visit, accompanied by Masha’s lightweight, youthful and extremely handsome new boyfriend “Spike” (the only name not lifted from Chekhov, although admittedly no “Chekhov Expert”, I could possibly be wrong about that.)

Not to give away all the best lines – and I couldn’t if I wanted to because there are literally dozens of them – a sample offering:

VANYA:  I must say, I always admired you for doing your duty and taking care of our elderly parents, even though you were adopted.  You put Masha to shame, in my opinion.

SONIA:  Thank you.  I appreciate that.

VANYA:  Of course she had a successful acting career, and you basically didn’t have anything else to do.

SONIA:  Well, a moment ago you gave me a lovely compliment.  And now…oh let’s not talk.  I’ll keep my sadness to myself.
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Masha arrives, greeting her brother and her stepsister.

MASHA:  Sweetest Vanya, dearest Sonia.  How I’ve missed you.  You both look the same.  Older.  Sadder.  But the same.
------------------------------------------------
A sweet, young aspiring actress “Nina” is introduced to the proceedings.  Nina, although innocent, has also been gifted by the playwright with a knowing awareness.

SONIA:  Hello, Nina.  I have the feeling no one is going to introduce me, I’m kind of like furniture in the room rather than a person.  But I’m Sonia, Masha’s sister.  Although I’m adopted and don’t really belong here.  Or anywhere.  And this is my brother Vanya.

NINA:  How lovely to meet you.  And what a funny joke about the furniture.  

Later in the play, in an observation about the egotistical “Spike”:

NINA:  He’s so attractive.  Except for his personality, of course.
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Less funny, though stylistically consistent, is a moment when Masha reverses herself concerning denying Nina the right to attend a costume party on the grounds that her selected costume is embarrassingly unacceptable:

MASHA:  No, no, Nina.  I’m not saying you can’t go to the party.  I’m so sorry.  I’m really being a bully, but when you’re my age – whatever that age is – you get used to having your way.  I’m monstrous, but lovable monstrous, I hope.

After this apology, Masha goes on to require Nina to attend the party dressed in a humiliatingly oversized “Dopey” (of the Seven Dwarfs) costume.
--------------------------------------------------
My single quibble involves Vanya’s climactic rant concerning how things were better in the fifties – although he disclaimingly includes, “The fifties were idiotic but I miss parts of them.”  The thing is, Vanya’s cultural references – Howdy Doody, Ozzie and Harriet – are chronologically too young for the character’s age. 

Nobody seemed to care about that, including me when I was laughing, so my criticism may be less serious than the product of envy towards a guy who has written a hit show.  This does not invalidate my point, it simply explains my feeling the need to offer it.  (You see?  I’m just like the play.  I attack, and then explain why I did it.  No wonder I enjoyed it so much.)

Christopher Durang performs with the confident hand of a consummate professional.  And from where I sit, that’s exceedingly close to as good as it gets.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

"Announcement"

A baby was born today.  His name is Jack Francis.

I hope he likes me.

And I hope he likes life.

"I Told Him I Would Call"


It is certainly not a giant deal.  But as my time on this earth gets shorter, I am increasingly intolerant of having it unnecessarily wasted.

That’s not true.  I’d have hated this if I were twenty.

Tell me if my annoyance is justified.  Or at least come along for the ride and watch an underutilized curmudgeon flail helplessly away at an indifferent piƱata.  (Oh, look!  There’s a “thing” over the “n.”)

Okay.

It was not exactly a promise, but it was close enough to a promise that I would feel guilty if I didn’t keep it.  And I feel guilty enough already, what with those adorable puppies I have failed to adopt and those sad-eyed children I have neglected to send money to.  Echoing the context of what I’m about to relate, my proverbial “Guilt Mailbox” was overflowingly full.

Here’s exactly what happened. 

For the past couple of months, I have been suffering from a somewhat uncomfortable congestion in my ears.  Which I have not, as is my habit with medical ailments that are not life threatening, ignored.

My personal physician recommended Claritin and nose drops.  That didn’t work.  In fact, my condition got worse.  The doc then upped the ante, with some antibiotic eardrops.  They helped, but not nearly enough.  My ears remained noticeably congested. 

You want to feel normal.  And the congestion was making me feel not.

So I try a “Head and Neck Specialist.”  (These guys used to be called “Ear, Nose and Throat” doctors, but apparently, at some recent juncture and with no fanfare in the media, they had changed their names, for reasons I can no more explain than why Istanbul became Constantinople.  I guess it’s nobody’s business but the but the doctors’.

As I have written elsewhere the first “Head and Neck Specialist” I went to kept me waiting for almost an hour, which, as I also mentioned, was double the time I had once waited to see the Queen of England.  (Before I gave up and went home.)

So I tried a different “Head and Neck Specialist.”  And in the “waiting” regard, it worked well.  I was seen by the doctor in less than ten minutos. 

The second “Head and Neck Specialist” heard me out, and then prescribed a regimen of steroid pills, that I was instructed to take daily, six the first day and diminishing down to one.  I had never taken pills in that manner before.  It felt like an adventure. 

Before I left, the “Head and Neck Specialist” looked at me severely and he said, “In ten days, you will call me and tell me how you are doing.”

That’s where the pretty-close-to-a-promise comes in.

I told the “Head and Neck Specialist” that I would.

I take the medicine for six days, I wait five more days – the actual tenth day landed a Sunday – and, on Monday morning, I call the “Head and Neck Specialist”, ready to report.  My report being: 

“The medicine has substantially reduced the congestion in my ears.  But it is still, though to a considerably diminished degree, there.”

I call the “Head and Neck Specialist’s” office.  A Young Male Receptionist answers.  I inform him that the doctor had asked me to call in with an update on my condition.  The Young Male Receptionist tells me he can take care of that for me.

The Young Male Receptionist then sends me to “Voice Mail” where I am first, entertained by some “Top 40” vocals from the World War II era, and then told by an “Automated Voice” to leave a message after the “beep.” 

I hear the “beep”, but before I can deliver my message, the “Automated Voice” informs me that the “Message Mailbox” is full.

The “Automated Voice” then tells me that if I wish to exit “Voice Mail”, I should press “Star -1.”  I then dutifully press “Star-1” and I am summarily delivered…

To a void.

There is no sound whatsoever on the line – no 40’s “Hit Parade” music, no “Automatized Voice” instructions, not even a dial tone.  It was like I’d been redirected to Outer Space.

After thirty seconds of listening to nothing – I know that’s a long time, but I am congenitally indecisive – I finally hang up.  I take a number of calming breaths, and then I call back, explaining to the Young Male Receptionist exactly what had just occurred.  The Young Male Receptionist apologizes, saying he will try it again.

He does.

And the exactly same thing, in the exact same order, occurs – the “Big Band” music, the “Voice Mail” instruction, the announcement that the “Message Mailbox” was full, the instruction to exit “Voice Mail” by pressing “Star-1” and my ultimate return to the “Black Hole of Calcutta.”  

And I hang up again.

I am not certain what to do.  Other than scream.  I had told the doctor I would call in with my report, I had called in prepared to deliver my report and, paraphrasing what they used to say when your television reception went bad, due to circumstances beyond my control…

I had been unable to do so.

So I did something else, the “something else” being going back to my blog writing.

As the hours passed, my pseudo-promise to the “Head and Neck Specialist” nagged at me.  And besides that, I wanted to find out the next step in my medical treatment.  With little hope but a determination not to surrender,

I call the “Head and Neck Specialist’s” office…

A third time.

This time, my call is responded to be a cheerful Young Female Receptionist.  This immediately gives me hope.  I have escaped the hapless clutches of the Young Male Receptionist.  Plus, women are smarter.  Women are better.  Women are capable, competent, compassionate.  I am confident that, this time, the outcome will be different.  And, little to my surprise, it is.

The cheerful Young Female Receptionist asks me if she can put me on “Hold” for a moment, and I tell her she can.  The cheerful Young Female Receptionist then puts me on “Hold”…

And she never comes back.

My fourth call to the office returns me to the Young Male Receptionist who, this time, decides to write my message down personally.  So I tell him:

“The medicine has substantially reduced the congestion in my ears.  But it is still, though to a considerably diminished degree, there.”

He reads it back to me,

“The congestion is reduced but it’s still there.”

“‘Substantially’ reduced and is there to a ‘considerably diminished degree.’
   
The Young Male Receptionist had gotten the “bare bones” of the message, minus the nuance and specificity.  Which, in science, is pretty much the whole thing!

But at least now it’s done.  I have honorably kept my not-quite-a-promise.

A day later, I receive a call from the Young Male Receptionist informing that that the doctor had gotten my message, and that his return message was to wait a week, and if the congestion in my ears has not entirely gone away…

I should call the office again.

It is now five days later.  A single-digit percentage of the congestion remains.  I am hoping that the rest of it is gone in two days.  Partly because I want to be better.  But more importantly – and I am sure you will understand – 

I do not want to call that place anymore.
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Note to "Carlton":  Jim Holowachuk went to Bathurst Heights Collegiate and Vocational School with me in Toronto.  When he ran for Student Council, his campaign slogan was, "Don't be a duck, vote Holowachuck."  So I named a character after him.