Friday, December 2, 2016

"The Letter"

I wrote a nice letter once.

The significant elements of that sentence are “I”, “nice letter” and “once.”  Wait, not the personal pronoun, since this particular exercise is – definitionally which I have just learned is not a word – “I-mail.”  

Did I make that up?  I hope so.

The “nice letter” returns to mind after learning of the passing of legendary television executive Grant Tinker who died recently at the age of 90, which once seemed ancient but now, less so.

Grant Tinker formed the “boutique” TV production company MTM, flagshipped by his then wife, Mary Tyler Moore.  I wrote for many of the MTM comedies.  (Mary, Phyllis, The Bob Newhart Show, etc.)  Grant Tinker went on to become a network president, nurturing slow-starting series that evolved into classics, such as Cheers, St. Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues.

Grant Tinker looked terrific – GQ attractive, tennis-player trim, deeply tanned in a “Come To California” poster kind of a way, and impeccably groomed, his silver hair tended by a follicular Bonsai master, and sportily attired – pastel sweaters so soft and perennially shape-holding you imagined him wearing each of them once and then tossing them in the trash, or, more characteristically, donating them to charity, or more likely still, a charity auction.

UNGRATEFUL CHARITY RECIPIENT:  “Another Grant Tinker sweater.  Just what we needed.”

Every obituary will reveal that Grant Tinker was a decent, caring and magnanimous individual.  Not because he died but because it’s accurate.  You would never hear, “Donald Trump may be bad for the country but he’s great for CBS” as the president of CBS famously crowed.  And not because Tinker was president of NBC. 

“Truly decent” and “enormous show business success” are rarely included in the same biography.  That’s why – and it may be a surprise to decent people not in show business – Grant Tinker’s signature uniqueness made eulogistical headlines.

(One Discordant Recollection:  Grant Tinker had two odious “Business Affairs” Hatchet Men whose behavior I would like to attribute to personal disreputableness rather than Machiavellian “orders from above.” – “You cut them off at the knees, I’ll ask, ‘When’s the baby due?’”  But who knows?) 

Okay, the letter.

In 1994, Grant Tinker delivered a memoir entitled, Tinker in Television: From General Sarnoff to General Electric.  I immediately bought a copy, read it, and shortly thereafter, composed the following letter.

(Explanatory Note:  This is not a verbatim reproduction of the letter.  I don’t have it any more.  What am I saying, “I don’t have it anymore”?  I wrote it, and I sent it.  Why would it still be in my possession?  I mean, it’s not like I made copies, or anything.  Or contacted the guy afterwards and said, “Can I have that letter back?  I am thinking of including it when they invent blogs.”  I wrote a letter and that was the end of it.  Mark Twain had numerous volumes of his letters reprinted.  How exactly does that work?  Can you imagine he wrote every one of those letters twice, one to mail, the other to retain in his files, for future publication?  Oh, the unfathomable hubris!  The archivist could have arguably approached the “receivers” but how would they know Twain had written to them? There is probably an answer, but not in this paragraph.)


I wrote, more or less… this.

“Dear Grant,

I just read your book from beginning to end, though not necessarily in that order.  I first went to the “Index” to see if my name was included and when it was, I immediately read those sections first.  Thank you for the two ‘mentions.’

(Note:  There may, in fact, have been one mention, but that’s what happens with age.  The older you get, the more significant you were.  And now, back to the letter.)

“Aside from wanting to compliment you on your lively and informative memoir, I am also writing to register a complaint.  I hope you don’t mind.  Knowing your benevolent reputation, you probably won’t.

Okay, here’s my complaint.

I worked for you at the beginning of my career.  You were genuine, thoughtful, interested and kind.  Most of all, you consistently ran interference between us “creatives” and the network executives, insulating us from their intrusive meddling and allowing us to do our jobs unencumbered by their useless advice.  I can personally attest to this commendable behavior.  You hired the best people you could find and left them entirely alone. 

I have now worked in this business for twenty years.  And I can say without fear of contradiction that I was never treated that protectively again.  I now realize that my experience at MTM was the ‘the exception’, being in no way representative of the treatment I would subsequently receive, wherein bloated egos and unwanted interventions have been, invariably and inevitably, the ‘order the day.’

What I am telling you is, you tricked me.  I thought I would always be treated as respectfully and supportively and I was treated working for you.  During my subsequent career, however,

It never happened again.

I feel seriously misled by my early wonderful experience.  And it is entirely your fault. 

Mr. Tinker,

I want my twenty years back.

That’s all I wanted to say.”


Earl Pomerantz.”

I handed the letter to my assistant who had it  “messengered” immediately to Tinker’s office.

The next day, I get a personal phone call from Grant Tinker.  (Whom I had not crossed paths with for fifteen years.)  He told me he loved my letter, though seeming characteristically uncomfortable with the adulation.  You could feel the man, blushing over the telephone.

Grant shared with me the idea of publishing my letter as a full-page ad in Variety, promoting his recently released memoir.  This caught me off-guard.  I blubbered, “I wrote it for you.  You can do whatever you want with it.”  Sensing my trepidation about publicly contrasting his magnanimous treatment with the substandard behavior of my subsequent employers, Grant made the instant determination of retaining my personal letter “between us.”

And that’s the story.

We need more human decency in the world.

Grant Tinker’s departure has left us with less. 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

"I Need To Go Back For A Second"

An optional “read” unless you are interested in how even professional writers mess up.

I hate it, but sometimes it happens.

I come up with a blog post idea.  I write it.  And in the process, it turns out entirely different than I intended it to, not “different”, where you abandon your original concept for an unscheduled leap into the imaginative “unknown” but so different – and disreputable – you need to write a subsequent post explaining how you, unforgivably, went wrong.

Is that too dramatic?  Sorry.  It’s a tricky thing, modulating inner embarrassment and chagrin.   

I wrote a post recently entitled, “How Not To Be Helpful On Thanksgiving.”  A phrase I learned living in England seems to apply to the effort:  It was too clever by half. 

Possibly more than half.

Allow me to elucidate.

I began by establishing the premise of the post…

No.  I began with a sincere inspiration and almost immediately abandoned it.  Now back to fully delineating my mistake.

I began by establishing the premise of the post, comparing my recent experience with the experience of an acquaintance – my bodywork specialist – who once explained to me that way he learned to revive his patients’ ailing muscularity was by doing the exact opposite of his intention as a teenaged “gangbanger” where he attempted to cripple his adversaries and make them his “bitches.”  (Yikes!  Where did that come from?)

His explanation, though simplistic and/or disingenuous and/or totally apocryphal, seemed, to me, an informing – and colorful – template for a personal anecdote.

You pick a conceptual groove to write in, like choosing a particular lane to drive in.  If you don’t, it’s chaos, and in the second example, “bumper cars.”  I committed myself to this particular option, and away I went.

With my post’s premise analogically – wow, that is actually a word! – in place, I went on to provide an accumulated litany of ways not to be helpful on Thanksgiving, suggesting that since people who are unhelpful on Thanksgiving are unaware  they are unhelpful on Thanksgiving, faced with a tangible – and strangely resonant – list of “unhelpfulnesses”, they will acknowledge the error of their ways and resolve thenceforth to behave the opposite.   

Like my bodywork specialist, get it?  (Oh, the genius of it all!)

I soon realized that a lengthy litany of terrible behavior – with the lurking suspicion that I was speaking from experience – would reveal the writer in a less than laudatory manner.  Once again, however, my ubiquitous “cleverness” resuscitated the undertaking.  (I originally wrote, “saved the day” but I am way too clever for that hackneyed cliche.)  (What happened to my “accent egue”?)

My salvaging strategy was that along with every inclusion on the list of “How Not To Be Helpful On Thanksgiving”, I appended a rationalization – some might adjudge a ridiculous rationalization – for how that gesture of unhelpfulness was, in reality, a positive contribution.  Which, though undercutting my stated intention of providing a litany of “No-no’s”, in theory at least, elevated the fun.

For example, I wrote:

“When asked to slip out to the supermarket for some forgotten ingredient, always ask, ‘Do we really need that?’  They will thank you when your services are suddenly needed at home and you’re not off on some ridiculous wild goose chase.”

As the justifications emerged for every “unhelpfulness”, I was astonished by how frighteningly easily they came to mind.  Though I consider myself an honest and forthright human being, I am apparently a “natural” at laughable excuses.  

In the name of “elevating the fun”, I was simultaneously countering my literary premise.  Why would you do the opposite of a litany of unhelpful behaviors I now assert are – counter-intuitively – helpful? 

Here’s the thing.  A decent writer can make virtually anything at least minimally palatable.  A neat trick, you might say.  For the most part.  Unless in the course of making it “palatable” your original intention becomes a collateral casualty of the imperative to entertain.  I mean, nobody said you had to be interesting.  But is it really necessary to spell that out?

What I originally wanted to say was that I woke up Thanksgiving morning with an honest determination to be helpful – being proactive rather than awaiting instructions, a reliable upbeat, cheerful and enthusiastic “team player”. 

Most importantly, any impulse to criticize, complain, predict negative outcomes or offer better ideas, “better” only because they were mine – “Rule of Thumb” – welcome silence over passive-aggressive sabotage. 

Throughout the entire Thanksgiving celebration, I did that… I’d say, eighty-two percent of the time, an impressive achievement, considering my dubious track record.  The fact that nobody noticed was irrelevant.  I had turned over a new leaf.  And the consequences were liberating.

Lacking the storytelling ability to turn this private epiphany into “acceptable material”, I did not bother to try, opting instead for innocuous silliness.    

Okay.  Now it’s on record.

A man rejects “substance” in the name of “crowd-pleasing entertainment”…

The least they can do is come clean.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

"How Not To Be Helpful On Thanksgiving - A User's Manual"

Written the morning after Thanksgiving…

In the past, I have mentioned our bodywork specialist whom I call “The Horse Doctor” because he works three days a week on horses.  In his less reputable days, Dean, formerly an L.A. police officer who still teaches self-defense to LAPD “SWAT” teams, was an active gang member in whatever “mean streets” exist in New Jersey.

When I once asked him how, with no formal training whatsoever, he had learned his restorative bodywork techniques, Dean explained that his process is simply the opposite of the strategy he practiced during his gangbanging days.  Now it’s “How can I fix that?”  Then it was, “How can I cause that?”   

Thanksgiving morning during my meditation, I decided to be as helpful as I possibly could in preparation for the upcoming festivities.   Since, you know, nobody believes they are deliberately unhelpful – the way no one admits to deliberately evil –  

“Am I deliberately evil?  I would say ‘No.’  I am good, with inadvertently evil consequences.”

I thought I was always helpful at Thanksgiving.  I served as the genial host entertaining the company, while other people (primarily Dr. M and daughter Anna) did everything else.  It seemed like an equitable division of labor.  I am a really good host.

Just in case, however, I decided to do more.  And, in order to be helpful – which I believed I already was and had therefore no distinct understanding as to what to do differently – I decided, ala Dean, to deconstruct my previous behavior and do exactly the opposite. 

What results is a list entitled, “How Not To Be Helpful On Thanksgiving.”  Although I sincerely believe… never mind.  I am trying to be constructive.  (Along Those Lines:  This list was prepared to alert me to doing the opposite.  If you think, however, that you may have in the past been overly helpful on Thanksgiving, this list can be a useful directive, offering practical suggestions for doing less.  A list with two purposes – That’s quite a list.)
Okay, here we go.

How Not To Be Helpful On Thanksgiving:

When asked to assist with some preparatory chore, always respond in a tone suggesting that you would much rather watch football.  Cooperation, I believe, requires total honesty.  It is essential to know exactly who you’re working with.

Take your time before beginning that assignment, in hopes they will eventually forget they asked you and either do it themselves or find somebody else to do it, anyone, Lord knows, being more capable handling virtually kitchen-related activity than I am.  I say, if you want something done right, ask the best person available, not someone who just happens to be lying around, watching football.  Not being lazy.  It’s just simple, common sense.

When nosing around the “Command Center”, offer a superior alternative for accomplishing whatever task they are engaged in.  Then casually wander away, knowing you have saved precious time, upgrading their efficiency.

Express genuine concern about why everything’s taking so long.  And if you discover that a mistake has been made – like the cranberries had to be redone because the original batch was inedible – call them unmercifully on it, thus providing them the opportunity to purge themselves of their guilt, allowing them, their consciences now clear, to proceed unburdened to their other responsibilities.

Staving off subsequent embarrassment, wonder out loud if they have prepared enough food.  If they are particularly low on, say, stuffing, scoop up a big handful of it before heading away, thus requiring them, against their wishes, to prepare more.

Check out the carefully planned seating arrangement, enabling a salvaging “Heads Up” to an impending catastrophe.  (Wait.  How could anyone say that’s unhelpful?)

If numerous children are invited, bring up, as a cautionary reminder, that one of them is believed to have head lice.

When asked to slip out to the supermarket for some forgotten ingredient, always ask, “Do we really need that?”  They will thank you when your services are suddenly needed at home and you’re not off on some ridiculous wild goose chase.

Never be proactive in any way.  Resist the impulse to spontaneously jump in, for fear of throwing a monkey wrench into a highly functioning, well-oiled machine.

Monitor food smells emanating from the kitchen, averting the telltale inclusion of cumin, which a lot of people don’t like.

When you see somebody struggling with a gigantic pot of boiling water, go up and give that person a hug.  Do not be deterred by their resistance.  Some people are embarrassed by overt displays of public affection.

At the “Toast of Appreciation”, begin the acknowledgements by announcing that you yourself peeled two potatoes, adding facetiously that “Other people helped too.”  Your co-co-workers will love it, playing along with the hilarity by pretending they don’t.

During after-dinner “cleanup”, stay completely out of the way.  Even moderate alcohol consumption can be imperiling to delicate stemware.

If you turn out the lights in the kitchen while someone is still doing the dishes, explain that you neglected to see them them because your primary consideration was saving electricity.

Expect no thanks for your participation.  Though, to spare their embarrassment concerning that oversight – they’re exhausted and they forget things – casually remind them of your essential contribution.

And there you have it.  Now all that’s required is to take this “List of Unhelpfulness” and simply turn it on its head.  Try it.  Even if you believe you have been helpful all along.

I did.

… And nobody noticed.

But you know what?  That’s fine.

Next year,

I’m going to be helpful again.