Thursday, July 31, 2008

"Getting Close"

Reading Uncle Grumpy’s post on “Belonging” (July 24) reminded me of a trip I once took to Israel, where, while visiting Haifa, I ventured to this magnificent Baha’i temple, which turns out not to have been a temple, or at least not primarily a temple, but a shrine honoring a Baha’i important person called “The Bab.”

I knew a little about the Baha’i faith, because a man named Alec, whom I’d worked with on Canadian radio, was Baha’i. Alec was the executive producer of a national morning radio show on which I occasionally appeared, doing everything from television criticism to growing something called cress in a cake pan and reporting on its progress. (It died during the second week of “the experiment.”)

(Alec once asked me if I’d be interested in hitchhiking across Canada during the winter and making daily phone calls to his radio show along the way. I told him that was the last thing I was interested in. I didn’t even like coming to the studio in the winter.)

What Alec told me about the Baha’i religion sounded very intriguing. I was impressed by its commitment to world peace, its respect for other faiths, and, especially, its fundamental belief in the equality of all people.

It was refreshing to find a religion that wouldn’t kill you if you didn’t join them. It quickly became my favorite belief system, except for Jewish.

I liked the Baha’i outlook and I liked Alec (notwithstanding his “Would you mind perishing in the snow so my radio show could have better ratings” idea). So when I traveled to Israel (I’ll tell you about it sometime, if I remember), I made sure to include a visit to the Baha’is’ special pilgrimage place.

The place was beautiful, and I immediately stole something – one of the smooth, white pebbles that blanketed the walking paths. It wasn’t stealing it for me. Alec and his wife were about to have a baby, and I wanted to present them with a stone from a special Baha’i pilgrimage place as a baby present. (It’s more original than baby clothes, don’t you think?”)

Baha’i was such a nice religion, I’m sure they’d have said it was okay. I figured I wouldn’t bother them about it, and slipped it into my pocket.

A man, knowledgeable in matters Baha’I, sat at the entranceway to the shrine, talking about the faith and answering questions. He highlighted many of the religion’s attributes I was already aware of and admired. I was really becoming a fan.

Baha’i says stuff I’d never heard any other religion say before. Baha’is not only respected other religions, they venerated their leaders, viewing them as an ongoing series of holy messengers. Baha’is didn’t say, “We’re the best, and you guys are doomed for eternity.” They simply viewed their religion as a next step in a collective, spiritual evolution.

The basic Baha’i message was inspiringly clear. The world was just people. All equal. All the same.

The knowledgeable man went on to tell us that the remains of “The Bab”, who’s like the Baha’i equivalent of John the Baptist, could be found in a room inside this shrine, which had been constructed in his honor. I immediately expressed an interest in visiting that room.

“Baha’is only,” the man explained.


“Only the Baha’i faithful are permitted in that room.”

“Wait. I thought we were all equal.”

“We are all equal.”

“Nobody’s better. Nobody’s worse.”

“That is correct.”

“Everybody’s treated the same.”


“Then I’d like to go in the room.”

“Baha’is only.”


I continued around this loop for about ten minutes, and then I went home (feeling considerably less guilty for having stolen a pebble).

Equal? Not quite. Members continue to have privileges, though Baha’is comes closer to equality than any religion I know. And they didn’t try and kill me, which is always a plus.

Still, I’d sure like to have visited that room.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"Free Movie Idea"

Would you like a free movie idea? I thought of it recently, and I don’t want to write it. This idea may not be that special – a lot of people may have thought of it at the same time I did – it may not be any good – though it sounded good when it came to me – more likely, it’s as good as the script is that’s based on it – I’ve gone “hyphen crazy” – anyway, I had this movie idea, I don’t want to write it, so I’m giving it away.

You don’t need to thank me. I’m not giving away anything that’s meaningful to me. It’s like the flowered shirt you buy in Hawaii ‘cause is looks “killer” in the store and you’re in a Polynesian mood. But when you get it to the mainland, you realize the shirt is not for you or, possibly, anyone.

Giving the shirt away is less a reflection of generosity than a de-cluttering of your closet. Consider this movie idea a de-cluttering of the closet of my mind. You’d be doing me a favor. Take it, and enjoy.

Here’s what I thought of. Try not to deride me mercilessly if it turns out that it’s stupid, or old-fashioned, or that I’m blithely prejudiced or embarrassingly out-of-touch. It’s just an idea.

And remember, it’s free.

Okay. So the California Supreme Court rules that it’s not their job to define “marriage”, opening the door for gay people to legally tie the knot. Being a writer – and a natural contrarian – my immediate response is, “What if they don’t want to?”

That’s what writers do. They look for the interesting in the blah. The blah is, “Okay, it’s legal.” I mean, this is historic, of course, I’m not an idiot. Gay marriage was “No” forever, and suddenly, in California, it’s “Yes.” That’s huge if you’re involved, or if you’re simply a fan of fairness, which I am. But, to a writer at least, the consequences are blah.

So they’re married. Blah.

Sure, there’s a story in, “We lived together for ages, but when the law allowed us to marry, things started to change.” That story, though totally legitimate, is inevitably dull. It’s like Canada being a British colony and then, in 1867, it becomes its own country. Congratulations. It’s still cold. Nothing fundamentally has changed.

But what if there’s this gay couple who’ve been together for years, always talking about that magical “someday” when their union can be legally sanctioned, and then, suddenly, “someday” happens. With impediment to their marrying has miraculously gone, one of the couple, who was gung ho for marriage when there was no chance of it actually happening, realizes he doesn’t want to go through with it.

That’s a story, isn’t it? I mean, it could happen? I’m not saying “across the board”, but there is a possibility. The heterosexual parallel would be, a guy finally leaves his wife to marry his mistress and the mistress goes, “Oh, my God!”

That’s a story. So maybe this is too. It feels like a story.

A guy (who happens to be gay) doesn’t want to get married, for not so unusual reasons. The spouse is not perfect. The guy fears a lifetime commitment. If he decides he wants to leave, it will be messier. “Mr. Right” may still be out there.

Maybe his objections are ideological – a protest against government intruding where it doesn’t belong. Maybe, for him, believing you need a state-approved sanction for your relationship is the marital equivalent of “acting white.” He could really believe this, or it could be a theoretical smokescreen for a monumental onslaught of “cold feet”?

All believable reasons.

The guy doesn’t feel lovable enough. There are a million of them.

I wrote about this before (“Beware of…Stories” – June 26). Stories themselves have no conscience. They’re just stories – schematic constructions, if you will. Stories have no responsibility to be fair, or sensitive, or compassionate or just.

It’s a story. It either works or it doesn’t. That’s it. That’s the only way to judge it.

And if you’re not comfortable with a certain story? You don’t have to write it. Ipso facto: I’m giving it away. Why aren’t I comfortable? Because I don’t know if it’s true or a merely creative fabrication. Does it matter? It does to me.

I’m not sure if the parallel to the situation I mentioned – the guy finally leaves his wife, and blah – is compatible with the gay…whatever happens there. Why am I not sure if it’s compatible? Because I’m ignorant. And a little confused.

With people who aren’t in the majority in some department, sometimes, respecting them requires you to think they’re no different from the majority. And sometimes respecting them requires you to see them as distinctively unique. This messes me up. I don’t know when to do what.

I’m not confident enough to know whether a gay person who didn’t want to get married would go to the extreme of secretly supporting the “anti gay marriage” initiative, so if it passes, things between him and his partner would remain exactly the way they are. No marriage.

Theoretically, the consequences of the initiative’s passage is exactly what he wants. It’s like, we don’t have a cat in the house, not because I don’t want one – which I don’t – but because Dr. M is allergic. It’s a “win-win” for me.

No cat. Her fault.

No marriage. The initiative’s fault.

Is that the same? I have no idea.

It might be ridiculous, for example, for the gay guy who’s surreptitiously working to pass the “anti gay marriage” initiative to contribute money, organizational skills and his prodigious creativity, so that the initiative will have a better chance of passing. It’s not ridiculous in a story sense – that’s exactly what the story would require him to do.

The question is, is it believable? In reality – the reality of the group in question – a story turn of this nature could be considered tasteless and exaggerated and homophobic and dumb. Is it? Again, I have no idea.

Does the guy attend “pro-initiative” planning meetings, trying to fit in? Or does he participate via some surrogate stooge, feeding this conservative dufus masterful suggestions for advancing “the cause”?

Does he quietly e-mail them plans for a brilliantly persuasive promotional campaign? Does he produce game-changing commercials for them? Does he organize spectacular “anti gay marriage” fundraising events?

Does he eventually lose his way? Does he cross the line? When fellow initiative supporters make blatantly anti-gay remarks, does he call them out, saying, “We’re not against them; we’re just against them getting married”? Or does he keep his mouth shut, protecting his identity in the service of his objective?

Is this behavior at all possible? Would a gay guy do any of this?

And what happens when he’s finally exposed? Does he experience an eye-opening, “What was I thinking?” moment, like Alec Guinness in Bridge on the River Kwai”? Is it “I never wanted this, but you didn’t give me a choice”? Does the gay guy only realize he wants to get married after his betrayal gets him thrown out of the house? And is there a tearful reconciliation?

Or does the movie end bittersweet (not if it’s a studio movie), with the gay guy walking sadly into the sunset? Or does he come to see that he’s pro marriage, just not with this partner?

Lucky writer. So many possibilities.

And so many ways of embarrassing yourself.

Assuming it holds water, could a gay guy write this story better? It’s reasonable to think so. They know it from the inside. And yet, I hate believing that kind of stuff. I remember reading that Spike Lee told Norman Jewison he couldn’t justice to a Malcolm X movie, because he wasn’t black, demanding that Jewison surrender the project to him.

I don’t remember Spike Lee’s Malcolm X movie being that wonderful. Who knows? Maybe Jewison’s version would have been worse. I just recall thinking, when I read about Spike Lee demanding that Jewison step away from the project, “This is really sad.”

You don’t have to be Dane to write Hamlet. Could a Dane have written Hamlet better? I don’t know. It’s pretty good as it is. Do Danes harrumph when they see Hamlet?

“That Shakespeare. He’s a good writer, I’ll give him that. But the way he portrays Danes, it’s just a joke.”

Maybe I could do research. Hang out in the community, steeping myself in the experience. I could read books. Ask questions. Walk a mile in their shoes.

But even if I did, would the end product still come out hollow, embarrassing, shallow and false? Like an American actor, faking a British accent?

“Hellew, owld chep…”

“Thank you.”

And then, there’s the audience, the people you’re doing it for. Do they care one way or another about any of this? Should they have to? When my stepdaughter, Rachel, was young, I pointed out the problem of a sitcom she was enjoying, to which she replied,

“It doesn’t have to be true. It’s funny.”

What if an audience enjoys the show, believable or not, leaving the carping and caviling to single-interest periodicals?

You’re misrepresenting a subculture, but you’re selling a truckload of tickets. Is that ultimately okay?

All these reservations. And I haven’t even mentioned that writing a screenplay takes effort, determination, a sustained commitment to the concept, and a thick skin when you expose it to the marketplace, attributes I used to have, to some degree, but I’m not sure I have anymore.

I just checked. I don’t.

You write it. And let me know how it turns out.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"Summer Times - Visitors' Day"

My strongest memory of Visitors’ Day occurred my first summer when a famous Canadian wrestler named “Whipper” Billy Watson, fronting for some charity, arrived at our camp and, before the eyes of an amazed gathering, twisted off a Coke bottle cap – in the days when it was impossible to do that – with his bare hands. Visitors’ Day was always exciting, but nothing ever topped that “Whipper” experience.

Visitors’ Day took place on the Sunday closest to the “half way” point of the camp season. Parents were discouraged from visiting any other time. Apart from letters and the occasional phone call – which was also not encouraged – this was the first major contact between parents and their kids. As well as between the parents and their kids’ counselors.

Counselors were the pivotal reason campers liked or disliked camp. They weren’t everything – especially if you’d pubertized to the “I think there’s ladies here” plateau – but they were very important. A competent, caring and funny counselor could make your summer. The opposite kind made it rain in the cabin.

Until Visitors’ Day, counselors communicated with the kids’ parents through a series of “progress report” letters. Is their kid okay? Are they making friends? Are they learning skills? Are they having fun? Like that. The counselors’ job was to keep the parents informed.

Only they were required to lie.

Okay, maybe not lie, but they were instructed to describe every situation in an upbeat and encouraging manner.

As a counselor, I was very bad at writing these letters. What can you say in an “upbeat and encouraging manner” about a kid who likes to throw frogs in the air and then swat them with a baseball bat? “His eye-hand co-ordination is considerably improved”?


If a kid was uncontrollable, you’d say he was spirited. If he was constantly getting lost, you’d praise his “sense of adventure.” A bad influence that others followed showed “leadership tendencies”, and a recluse displayed “a remarkable ability to entertain himself.” If the kid had temper tantrums you’d compliment his “ease in expressing his feelings” and if he tattled, he was “highly informative.” If a kid was consistently late, slow, sloppy or foul-mouthed, you’d commend him as a camper “whose behavior you can always count on.”

It was crazy. It wasn’t like the parents didn’t know what their kids were like. Their atrocious behavior was very likely the reason they sent them to camp in the first place.

They needed a break!

Nobody was fooled by these letters. And yet counselors were required to write them. Which was fine. You made stuff up, and you sent it away. Visitors’ Day was a different story. You had to lie directly to the parents’ faces. And they totally knew you were doing it!

Visitors’ Day was important. To the camp, it was “Showcase Day” – “Here’s what you’re paying for. And maybe you’d like to sign up for next year, or extend your child’s one month’s visit to two.” To the counselors, it meant tips, an amount which – if you’re a first year Junior Counselor – could exceed your entire salary.

(That wouldn’t take much. Junior counselors were paid twenty-five dollars for the summer. After the camp deducted for the t-shirt you bought, and the toothpaste, and the flashlight batteries, and the stamps, and the candy bars and the gum, and, maybe, a camp picture, well, after my Junior counselor summer, I received a salary check for exactly four cents.)

For campers, Visitors’ Day was an opportunity to show off to their parents. “Look at the bracelet I made in ‘Arts and Crafts.’” “Watch me on a horse.” “Look! I can jump out of a canoe while turning it upside-down, turn it over again and climb back in!”

Amazing stuff! Stuff that would prepare you for your future, if your future involved horses, bracelet-making or overturned canoes. For me, Visitors’ Day meant something different – the opportunity, through a resistance-breaking avalanche of whining and complaining, to get my mother to take me home.

The showpiece of Visitors’ Day was always the cabin. On the day before, we had a “Super Clean-up” to make it look as far from a breeding ground of infectious diseases as possible.

First, we changed the sheets, shook out the blankets, and made our beds at tightly as possible, instructing ourselves to “sleep neat” that night.

Slide in, slide out.

Then, we tidied up your shelves, making sure our clothes were carefully stacked, and properly folded, the folded side facing out. (Anything that disrupted the stack was hidden in our laundry bags.) Night tables were scoured and their contents meticulously arranged. It was like the army, and passing inspection meant a hot night in town. Only it was more important than the army. It was our parents.

Once all the beds were moved to one side of the cabin, you mopped the floor of the empty half with boiling water mixed with Spin ‘N Span. Then, you moved the beds to the other side, and mopped the other half.

After that, you swept, ridding the floor of those curly, swirly, dust-fluffy thingies. This was no regular sweeping. Visitor’s Day sweepings involved a preparatory spreading of some green granules called “Dust Bane”, some “scientific wonder” magnet for dust. The dust clung to the granules, then you swept up the granules up. This may sound dull and unimportant, but some day, your parents may be visiting your cabin and you’ll want it to look good.

Dust Bane.

Dinner before Visitors’ Day was always the same. Steaks. Chewy, fatty and gristly, but they were steaks. The choice seemed deliberate. The camp knew that the next day, this conversation between parent and camper was certain to ensue:

“How’s the food here?”


“Like, what do they serve?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, what did they serve last night?”


“Steaks. Not too shabby.”

That’s why they served steaks on the night before Visitors’ Day.

Visitors’ Day itself was electric with excitement, everyone decked out in white shorts and newly purchased Ogama t-shirts. A barber had recently visited. Don’t ask. Our hair was clipped so short, it reminded me of the Fred Allen line:

“The man was so bald, he had to carry his dandruff around in his hand.”

Parents started arriving around ten. (My mother was consistently the last to arrive. Once, she came driving into camp – last as usual – with a flat tire – “flub-dub, flub-dub.” Somehow, everyone seemed to instinctively know it was my mother.)

Eager children lined the road into camp. Cars they recognized came into view, and they’d run alongside them to the parking area – the playing field – home, for me, of embarrassments in baseball, football, field hockey and lacrosse. I thought, “Take that, ‘Field of Humiliating Sporting Endeavors’. Today, you’re a parking lot.”

When the visitors stepped out of their cars, I noticed that, often, campers spontaneously ran first to hug their housekeepers and, when they were brought along, their dogs. The parents came third. It seemed strange to me. It seems odd to me now that, even as a kid, I was a habitual noticer.

As the morning wore on, there were a diminishing number of kids lined up along the road. Most visitors had already arrived. But not all of them and, as usual, not mine. There was this camp rule, that if your family didn’t get there by noon, you had to report to the Mess Hall and eat with the kids from Venezuela.

Their parents weren’t coming. They were in Venezuela. They had to eat somewhere, so the camp made them lunch. It was actually quite good, the “Consolation Lunch” – roast beef. A special treat, so the Venezuelan kids wouldn’t feel bad. The rule required that, if your visitors hadn’t arrived by lunchtime, it was roast beef with the Venezuelans.

My brother avoided the “Consolation Lunch” by eating with the families of friends. It was a good trick, but to pull it off, you needed to have friends. I ate with Pepe and Carlos.

It was odd. They never turned the lights on during those lunches. It was like they didn’t want to draw any attention to the fact that, somewhere in camp, there was sadness on Visitors’ Day.

Invariably, the minute I finished eating, someone came to tell me my mother had arrived.

I hugged and kissed my mother, and my grandparents, who usually came along. I was happy to see them, even though there was this suspicion that, if the feeling were mutual, they would have arrived earlier. (My feelings are rarely without reservations.)

My mother was the best at knowing what I liked to eat. And she brought it all. Barbecued chicken. Cokes. Fresh rye bread with caraway seeds. Watermelon. Pretzels. Potato chips. Chocolate Chip Cookies. Gingerbread Boys from the Health Bakery. It was all there, spread across the tablecloth – a magnificent feast of everything I had dreamed about and hungered for for nearly a month.

The trouble was, I had already eaten.

I did my best to eat again. It was good. But I’d have been happier if my stomach wasn’t full of “Consolation” roast beef.

The afternoon went quickly. After I showed my mother my cabin (“Look at my shelves!” – “I wish you were this neat at home.”), I dragged her to the “Arts and Crafts” cabin, where I presented her with the glazed, clay ashtray I had made her. She seemed delighted.

Then, it was time to head to the beach, where my brother was engaged in a jousting exhibition. He’d balance himself on the gunwales (pronounced “gunnels”) at one end of a canoe and, wielding a long pole whose tip was wrapped in burlap, he would try and knock his opponent, balanced on another canoe, into the water. At occasions like those, it seemed incomprehensible that my brother and I had descended from the same parents.

Less fortunate, were the parents required to sacrifice waterfront breezes for the dusty mosquito-ridden stables, so they could watch their beloved children steer their horses around barrels. (Our riding instructor had been known to berate his riders by saying, “Treat those horses right. They’re only human.”)

On many Visitors’ Days, I’d be appearing in a play in a stifling Rec Hall, where a packed house of performers’ relatives would fan themselves and kvell (feel proud). Our plays always had a message, such as the one concerning the preservation of the Yiddish language, where I delivered the re-written My Fair Lady lyric, “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain” as:

“When you have a pain you say ‘Oy vey.’”

I did what I could with it. It turned out pretty well.

A late afternoon Visitors’ Day tradition involved my mother’s escorting me to her car, sitting me down, and cutting my toenails. This particular procedure has always been a problem. Because of vision problems, I find it a long way from my eyes to my toes, and assistance in this area has been known to be required. (For a while, my daughter, Anna, filled the bill, Dr M, being precluded by feminist considerations from engaging in such demeanments.)

Being alone with my mother for the first time all day allowed me the opportunity to make the case for, “I want to go home”, which, thinking back on it, was my entire argument. My mother, aware that her two-month payment was non-refundable, and with the practical understanding that there was nothing for me to do at home in the summer, rejected my demands, assuring me that I’d be home, wasting my life watching endless hours of television before I knew it.

My arguments had fallen on deaf ears. But my toenails looked spectacular.

There were tears when it was time for them to go. The one-day break from camp routine was coming to an end, and the car that I’d hoped would be returning me to the comforts of home, would be leaving without me. (As I write this, I feel debilitated by a feeling of retroactive despair.) There was likely one more “I want to go home”, but it was kind of half-hearted. It wasn’t going to happen.

And then they were gone.

Who knows? Maybe the second month would be better. Despite my terrible attitude, there’s this natural transition that takes place. Things inevitably get easier. You surrender to the requirements, become comfortable with the routine. Hey, I’d made it half way already. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.

A few days later, my cabin mates tried to hang me.

Monday, July 28, 2008

"I Knew If I Had My Chance..."

The song was written after the events of this story occurred, but the impulse behind both of them are the same.

The song is “American Pie.” It’s a long song, and large parts of it make no sense to me. But one part of it does. It’s the part at the beginning, where Don McLean sings,

“And I knew if I had my chance

I could make those people dance…”

That’s always been what I’ve wanted to do. With minor alterations. Replace “dance” with “laugh”, and, instead of “making them laugh”, I wanted to “create opportunities wherein people would want to laugh” I find the phrase “making people laugh” very unfriendly. “Making people laugh” sounds like there’s a gun to your head and somebody’s yelling, “Laugh!”

Of course, “making people laugh…” scans better than “creating opportunities wherein people would want to laugh”, so that’s what you say. But I still think it’s bizarre.

Generating laughs is what I wanted to do. No, that’s wrong. I didn’t want to do anything. Wanting implies a plan. I didn’t have a plan. I just knew that I got pleasure and satisfaction when I said something and people laughed. It felt really good. In some way, by the humorously original way I expressed myself, I was saying,

“I am here.”

And by their laughter, the people were saying – at least to my ears – “We like that you’re here.”

That’s as good as it gets.


For fifteen months during the Sixties, I lived in London. It was interesting; I’ll tell you about it sometime. Consider this a preview.

I rented a bed-sitting room in a townhouse in Hampstead, an upscale suburb, populated by professionals and “creatives” who’d made money. Hampstead’s most striking feature is a vast park-like area called Hampstead Heath, beautiful in its naturalness, not manicured in any way. It’s like the parks people said, “We’re not doing anything to this place; we’re leaving it the way it is.” It was exactly the right call.

People walk their dogs on Hampstead Heath. I’d go there to sit on the grass, eat wine gums (chewy, jujube kind of sweets that threatened to pull out your fillings) and read the paper. Once – one of my favorite memories ever – I witnessed a “medieval tournament” on the Heath, complete with jousting, ax throwing and archery contests. It was like blinking your eyes and going back eight hundred years.

The townhouse, at 10 Church Row, belonged to the Tompkins family. Five pounds a week (about fifty-five dollars a month), with kitchen privileges. Mrs. Tompkins, who was Scottish, often engaged in behaviors that reinforced the Scottish stereotype of cheapness. One example:

Whenever the Tompkins family went out, and before they went to bed, Mrs. Tompkins would lock the only available telephone in the kitchen broom closet. Phone calls cost money, and Mrs. Tompkins didn’t want her tenants (there were three of us) taking surreptitious advantage.

One night, when I returned home late, I found a note, saying, “Your mother called.” My mother, living in Toronto, wasn’t wealthy enough or in the habit of casually calling Europe. Something serious must have happened. Of course, I couldn’t call her back, because the telephone was sitting in the broom closet.

As a result, I was forced to race to a nearby restaurant, where I struggled to explain to the Greek restaurateur, who spoke almost no English, that I needed to use his phone to call Canada.

The restaurateur eventually got it – or maybe he just read the urgency in my eyes – and he let me call home. When I finally got through, dreading the bad news I was about to be told, what I heard was my mother complaining, “How come I haven’t heard from you in a while?”

It was an interesting blend of feelings: relief and rage.

Here’s where the story gets interesting, or, hopefully, more interesting. We had a “notable” living across the street. His name was Peter Cook. If you’re familiar with English comedy, you’ll recognize Peter Cook as a member of a comedy group who starred in a successful revue called Beyond the Fringe.

Cook partnered with fellow Fringer, Dudley Moore, most memorably in a sketch where an agency (run by Cook) is holding auditions for the title role in a Tarzan movie and an actor (Moore) comes to try out for the part. The problem is the actor only has one leg.

The auditioner reminds him that the part of Tarzan is traditionally played by a two-legged actor, a condition to which the actor is deficient, “to the tune of one.”

“I have nothing against your right leg,” the auditioner explains. “The trouble is, neither do you.”

I loved Beyond the Fringe. It was the smart-comedy bridge between The Goon Show (featuring Peter Sellers) and Monty Python. The Fringers and I were on a similar frequency. I instinctively got what they did.

Okay, so Peter Cook’s living across the street. Maybe I’d bump into him. Maybe he’ll show up at my “local”, the Hampstead pub I frequented called The Horse and Groom. I wasn’t going to go over and knock on his door. What would I say to him?

“Hi, I’m funny too. You wanna hang out?”

Peter Cook seemed at no loss for companionship. Every Sunday afternoon, I would look across the street from my second floor window as a succession of Rolls Royces and Bentleys dropped off parties of celebrities at Peter Cook’s front door.

I say “celebrities”, but with the eyes I’ve been given, I could identify none of them. I just saw elegant cars and fashionably dressed people, not necessarily fancy, but even the jeans looked like, well, for me, a year’s rent.

I was witnessing a Peter Cook tradition: The Sunday Soiree.

Since I couldn’t actually see who passed through Peter Cook’s magical front door, I imagined “A-List” movie stars, the greatest funnymen in England and the Beatles. Oh yeah, and not me.

Somewhere inside of me, there’s this unearned but deeply felt sense of entitlement. Or at least equality. (Maybe it’s my “colonial” upbringing.) I felt I was as good as any of them. It ate me up that I wasn’t over there, consorting with England’s smartest and funniest. Why did it eat me up? Because

I knew if I had my chance

I could make those people dance.

I had proof I could do it. They loved me at the pub. A range of regulars, from doctors to policemen, were genuinely tickled my observations. I wasn’t imagining things.

I could make English people laugh.

Across the street was another level. Professional funny people. But I “got” them, and I was certain they would “get” me. It’s embarrassing to admit, but it’s the thing I’ve wanted more than anything else:

Acceptance by my peers.

I told Mrs. Tompkins about the Sunday soirees and how I was dying to be over there. I don’t know why I told her. Maybe I secretly hoped that she’d communicate my desires to her neighbor. It was a long shot, I suppose. But it was all I had.

In the meantime, I would stand at the window, envying the passing parade.

Two weeks later, Mrs. Tompkins called me downstairs. I thought I was evicted. It’s that dour Scottish tone than causes these misunderstandings. Everything sounds like a death sentence.

When I got to the kitchen, Mrs. Tompkins was standing there, holding an envelope.

“This is for you,” she announced.

I took the envelope and immediately checked the return address.

Peter Cook. 11 Church Row.

Back in my room, I tore open the envelope. It was like a fairly tale. I had wished something, and it had actually come true.

The note was hand-written on elegant stationery. This is what it said:


It has come to my attention that you are in the habit of spying on us from your window while not fully clothed. If you do not desist from this practice immediately, we will be forced to notify the authorities.

Peter Cook.

I’m sorry. Did I mention that I wasn’t wearing pants?

Friday, July 25, 2008

"Give Death A Chance"

What do we really know about death?


Then why do we try so hard to avoid it?

It doesn’t look good.

What do you mean, “It doesn’t look good”? If we don’t know anything about it, how do we know how it looks?

It’s unfamiliar to us.

So what?

We don’t know what it’s like.

Rome was unfamiliar to me. I went there, and I loved it.

You’re saying…

Just because we don’t know someplace, doesn’t mean it isn’t great.

Death isn’t a vacation. You don’t come back with pictures and funny stories. “It was fantastic. And the leather goods are exceptional.” There are no brochures on death. No Rick Steves Visits Death on the Travel Channel. You can’t go to the travel section at Borders and pick up Death on Fifty Dollars a Day.



I was thinking about something else.

But it was funny.

A little funny.

What were you thinking about?

What if it turns out that death is way better than what we’ve got here?

You mean death is better than life?


Why is that funny?

Come on. Somebody commits a terrible crime – the worst thing you can imagine – and what do we give him as a punishment? Death!


So? A person does the worst thing you can imagine, and his punishment is being dispatched to a place that’s way better than the place he came from? You don’t find that funny?

Ironic, maybe. But not really funny.

His punishment is a reward. Are you kidding me? That’s hilarious!

Not to the victims.

Of course not. They were taken against their will. But if death is a better place, I don’t know, it’s like you’re in Hebrew School, and somebody kidnaps you and takes you to a ballgame.

That’s funny. Though it’s hardly the same

That’s what a lot of people call it, you know?

Call what?

Death. They call it “A better place.” You’ve heard that. “He went to a better place.”

Religious people say that.

That’s right.

They’re talking about Heaven.

Most people have very good feelings about Heaven. Mark Twain was an exception. He said if Heaven was 24/7 harp music, he’d rather not go. But generally, Heaven is well thought of.

And yet, the people who speak most enthusiastically about it don’t seem all that eager to get there.

I know. If something was great, you’d think people would want to get there as quickly as possible. It’s like “I hear Maui’s paradise.” “So you’re going there?” “No rush.”

When the guys who think it’s great are in no hurry to go….

It’s hardly a testimonial.


You know what I always found fascinating? Near death.

You mean “The White Light”?

That’s interesting, “The White Light.” But that could just be the back of your eye. I was thinking about the people who have bad heart attacks, doctors fix them up, and the people are transformed. Suddenly, former cowards are skiing down mountains and marrying women named Bambi.

I’ve noticed that.

You know what I’ve always wanted? That “heart attack” feeling without the actual heart attack. The intense realization that life is short without the excruciating chest pains. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. I realize life is short, but it doesn’t stop me from taking long afternoon naps. Why aren’t I out enjoying life?

Maybe you’re enjoying your naps.

I am. But you know what they say: “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” I’m sleeping now. It’s a waste, isn’t it?

For all we know, death could be very invigorating. You’ll be coming there refreshed, from all those naps.

That’s the problem. You can’t plan for death. If we only knew what it was like.

Unless it’s bad. Then I don’t want to know.

You know the real problem with death? Bad public relations.

What do you mean?

Here’s a condition nobody knows anything about and we automatically assume that it’s terrible.

It’s terrible for the people left behind.

That goes without saying.

Well, excuse me for saying it.

That’s fine.

I just thought it needed to be said.

Okay. No problem. I’m just thinking. You have a product that’s generically neutral. You know nothing about it, one way or the other. It’s not like a bad political candidate, where you have to make the smell go away. This is easier. You’re not starting in a hole.

Except for the image.

So we change the image. That’s what P.R.’s about – “re-branding.” We’ll put a new face on death.


First thing, you define the problem. When you think of death, what bothers you the most?

The Fear of the Unknown.


You just made a scary noise.

You can’t help it. A scary noise accompanies “The Fear of the Unknown.”


Sure. Watch. “The Fear…of the Unknown.”

Oooh. You’re right.

Our job is to separate the idea of death from the scary feeling. Which death doesn’t deserve because…

We don’t know if it’s scary or not.

Exactly. So here’s what we do. We hire a Pitch Man, a spokesperson for death.

Bruce Willis.

George Clooney.

Bruce Willis is earthier.

I like Clooney. He’s more upscale. Okay, we’ve got George Clooney…

…or Bruce Willis…

…standing in a woodland setting, wearing jeans and a sports shirt. Simple but stylish.

I like it.

It sets the tone. “Death is natural.”

What does he do?

He’s walking along, passing a rippling brook. He picks up a stone, and checks it out. Then, he looks at the camera and says,

“Life. It’s a pretty good deal. You hike the trails with your favorite lady, surrounded by the beauty of everything around you. Life gives us a lot to be grateful for. A lot to enjoy.”

He skips the stone across the water.



“Sure, life’s great. And I’m holdin’ onto it as long as I can. But who knows? Death could be great too. Hey, they were both invented by the same Guy.”



“So forget those gloomy predictions. It’s not like anyone really knows. It’s just death. The next thing to do. (AFTER A PAUSE) I’m kinda lookin’ forward to it.”




So what do you think?

That was good.

Thank you.

But you know what?


I’m still scared.


These musings were triggered by the passing of a guy named Jerry, whom I didn't know well, but whose intelligence, kindness and decency were top-of-the-line among human beings.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

"Uncle Grumpy - on Belonging"

I know you’ve missed him, so here he is: my highly opinionated, and not always wrong, Uncle Grumpy. Comments, as usual – directly to him.

Hit it, Unc.

I’ve never belonged to anything.

“That’s because nobody likes you.”

Shut up! I hate that wise-ass Inner Voice.

This has nothing to do with being liked. Like Barack said about Hillary, I’m likable enough. But that’s not the point. My not belonging is a choice. A choice I easily understand why others don’t make. The “not belonging” choice comes with a price. My mailman notices.

“Why don’t you get invitations to anything?”

“I don’t belong to anything.”

“How come? Doesn’t anyone like you?”

I hate a nosey mailman. No Christmas box of candy for that guy.

Yes, there’s a price for not belonging. As I once said to somebody, “I’m a recluse. But not by choice.”

I understand the appeal of belonging. Belonging accords membership. You go to meetings, you’re part of a group. You’re asked to perform essential tasks, like “Recording Secretary” or “Chairperson of the Soft Drinks Committee.” You consort with like-minded people, some with appealing physical attributes.

Characterized perfectly in my favorite TV drama, The West Wing, belonging means, “You get jackets.”

Empowering and bonding, belonging energizes your entire being. It’s reflected in your body language. As one delinquent assures another in West Side Story,

“We always walk tall. We’re Jets.”

Belonging makes you a Jet.
“So if belonging’s so great, how come you don’t belong to anything? It sounds suspiciously like nobody likes you.”

The only thing worse than a wise-ass Inner Voice is a repetitive wise-ass Inner Voice.

I don’t belong to anything because I believe that the price of belonging is far greater than the rewards.

An illustrative analogy.

“Can’t you just talk straight?”

I like analogies, okay? Shut up.

Up till the late Fifties, or early Sixties – which were merely an extension of the Fifties – decades rarely end on time – all men wore hats.

Homburgs, derbies, fedoras, Borsalinos, flat-topped skimmers – a covering of some type sat perched atop every male adult’s head. Male children wore miniature versions. Training hats.

Then – I heard this from a guy who sold hats – because new car designs opted for lower roofs, the hat became suddenly obsolete. Lower car roofs were squashing it out of existence.

Imagine the catastrophe. You’re in the hat business – manufacture or retail – and the roof is literally falling in on your business.

What a nightmare. The item that reliably put food on the table has suddenly become

“Old hat.”

This is serious, if you’re in the hat business, and even if you’re not. Who knows? This could be the beginning of a sartorial revolution. You know the story. “They came for the hats, but I wasn’t in hats, so I said nothing…”, the message being that you wear something, and sooner of later, they’ll be coming for that.

(You see what I’m doing here? An analogy within an analogy. You don’t see that in all the blogs. My nephew is lucky to have me.)

Okay. Hats are in serious danger of extinction. What do you do?

You organize.

You hold meetings, rallying crowds with fiery, pro-hat oratory. You form committees. You print pamphlets.

You plan strategies.

You lobby Congress for urgently needed hat-saving legislation. You dig up academics claiming, with scientific certainty, that hat wearing will prolong your life. You retain ad agencies to devise catchy slogans:

“Hang On To Your Hats!”

You build up your membership. With whom? Hat people first – their fat’s in the fire – but recruits could come from anywhere:

An aging “Lefty” mobilized by the hat-crushing strategies of Big Business.

A hatband heiress staring poverty in the face.

An angry grandchild, whose beloved grandpa, going “fashionably” hatless in a downpour, catching cold, and, later, dying.

A loner, searching for women, I mean, a cause.

A rag-tag assemblage, no doubt, but what’s wrong with rag-tag? Are they any different from the rebels who stared England in the eye in 1776?

Once they fought for freedom. Today, it’s hats.

Your join out of boredom, or curiosity, or both. They start you out stuffing envelopes, passing out flyers on the street. Surrounded by Believers, you eventually catch the “bug.” Suddenly, you’re badgering family and friends, you’re “cold calling” strangers, melting their apathy with Doomsday scenarios. (See: the Analogy within the Analogy.)

There are no moderates in a crusade. “I’m sort of a Red Sox fan”? It doesn’t happen. It’s total immersion. All or nothing.

You surrender to the Message. You eat, sleep and breath The Cause. And The Cause is


Your friends think you’re boring. “She used to be fun; now, it’s just “Hats, hats, hats.” Rejected by the outside world, you commit yourself even further, your affiliation single-minded and intense. It’s

“Hats or Death!”

One night, a huge fundraiser is arranged, a “Pass the Hat” extravaganza, headlined by caring celebrities. The atmosphere is giddy. It could happen, you start to think. The clock can be turned back.

The hat will live again!

And then, amidst the jubilation, an inquisitive outsider raises an independent voice:

“Doesn’t a person have the right not to wear a hat if they want to?”

There is stunned silence.


The stadium erupts.

It’s a madhouse. And you, a once-disinterested bystander, are in the middle of it, flushed with membership affiliation and battlefield frenzy. Opposition factions, fueled by Libertarian rhetoric and free booze, are throwing punches left and right. Non-violent supporters weigh into the melee, hitting people with their hats.

The police arrive. Heads are cracked. Arrests are made. You’re carted off to prison, shouting, “Save the hat!” in a feral roar and feeling more alive than you’ve ever felt before. But the look in your crazed and confused eyes tells a different story:

“What have I become?”

That – with artistic privileges – is the price of belonging.

(An important exception: Support groups. For two reasons. One: I have evidence that support groups work. And two: They’re not requiring me to wear a hat.)

In exchange for the comforting security of “You’re with us”, when it comes to the issue the organization supports, belonging requires a surrender of your inalienable right to independent thought.

You think I’m exaggerating? Ask Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The Justice belongs to formidable organization championing reproductive “choice”, but when she suggested a stronger legal argument than “privacy”, the membership jumped all over her.

“That’s not the right way to think!”

It happened. And she was on their side!

Look. Don’t expect me to organize a mobilizing crusade against belonging. That would be, you know, totally contradictory to what I just wrote. I’m not even saying, “Don’t belong.” I’m merely suggesting that, while attending whatever group you’re affiliated with, when there’s a break in the proliferation of one-sided blah-blah, that you go inside your head and make sure you have at least a few brain cells that retain the possibility of thinking:

"Is it possible they’re not totally right?”

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

"Summer Times - 'Liver'"

I wasn’t looking for trouble. I was sent to camp without knowing I was going? – I was dealing with that. I hadn’t the slightest aptitude for any of the camp’s activities, on land and in the water? – I was getting by, falling and coughing up lake water, but needing no medical attention. My cabin mates took every opportunity to body check me into the bushes on nice days and into puddles when it rained? – fine. I was doing okay, trying to get by till the buses came back.

And then they served liver.

I don’t know why my eating habits bothered people. I ate what I ate. The pounds were flying off, but I wasn’t fainting or dying or anything. Why couldn’t they leave me alone?

Nobody liked the food at camp. The weird thing was, I was the only one who didn’t eat it.

Sometimes, I’d get it wrong. Like one night, at dinner, they served fish. I didn’t eat fish. Something about the smell and the bones. Camp fish smelled particularly fishy. It was like they sent all the regular-smelling fish to restaurants and saved the fishiest smelling fish for our camp. And threw in extra bones.

(This “brackets” is to say I can’t justify picky eating, and when I try, it sounds stupid. It’s just how it is. By the way, I eat fish now.)

I hadn’t eaten much that day, except for bread and cold cereal (dry – the milk smelled sour. I’m starting to sound like Monk). I was pretty hungry.

But not for fish.

After dinner, I ran into my brother outside the Mess Hall. He asked me how I was doing. I told him I was hungry.

“You didn’t like the veal cutlets?” he asked.

This was an old story. My brother was always trying to fool me.

“It was fish,” I replied.

“It was veal cutlets,” he insisted.

“It was fish.”

Then, my brother said something that broke the deadlock.

“Did you see any milk on the table?”

(Jewish kosher laws allow you to eat milk with fish, but not with veal cutlets. There’d been no milk on the table.)

“You just missed veal cutlets.”

I was really angry with myself. I love veal cutlets. I had missed them, ‘cause I thought they were fish.

But that was a rarity. Normally, when it looked like something I didn’t eat, it was.

To wit:


Liver looks like liver. Not liver, the dish, liver, the internal organ. Liver is shiny. I won’t go into the smell, but liver smells…functional.

I know I’m not alone when I say I like my food to remind me as little of the entity it was made out of as possible. Imagine rabbit arriving at your table, in a presentation that includes a cute little bunny face and ears. Imagine veal with a birth certificate.

“I was six months old. And now, you’re eating me.”

Liver looks exactly like liver. There was no way I was eating it.

Maybe it was a matter of forcing me to conform, you know, like breaking a wild stallion. (Ooh, I like thinking of myself as a wild stallion. I got a little thrill there.) Or maybe my counselor saw it as a challenge to his authority. Or it questioned his ability to lead. (Years later, when I was a counselor, Joe, the camp director, knowing my background in this department, would deliberately hover by my table when liver was served, cackling heartily at my discomfort. I didn’t eat it then, either.)

My counselor had always encouraged me to eat – to little avail, but he tried. The liver situation seemed different. He seemed to treat my refusal as a personal insult.

This one mattered. It was a line in the sand.

My cabin mates threw off some not too clever anatomical references about the liver, then wolfed down everything on their plates. Some of them had tricks, like covering the liver in mashed potatoes, so managing to get it down. (And keep it down.)

My plate remained empty.

The dinner was over. The utensils were being passed to the front of the table for collection. It was called “stacking.” You took the plates you received, scraped your leavings on the top plate, slid your plate underneath, and passed the stack along. I was about to add my un-food-visited plate to the pile.

“No,” said the counselor solemnly.

He then jabbed his fork into the last remaining slice of liver, lifted it up, and, with a waggle of his wrist, released it onto my plate.


The table went quiet. This was a confrontation – one that I, in no way, had been looking for. Sadly, sometimes, trouble finds you.

It was him (he) and me (I). The Counselor and the Kid. “Eat!” versus, “Over my dead body.”

Why must there always be violence? Why can’t we all live together in peace? (Sorry. It’s my cowboy background. I can’t help it.)

After “Evening Announcements”, the Mess Hall was cleared. Everyone left. Except for us.

Wide Shot:

An empty Mess Hall, but for two figures, in tense tableau – a determined counselor at the head of the table, me on a bench along the side, a plate of liver sitting in front of me.

“One bite. That’s all I ask.”


It was a standoff.

Tick. Tock. Slow and painful, with no end in sight. The liver was cold, and looking shinier, and – sorry – smellier. If there was ever a chance I’d have eaten it before (and there wasn’t, I’m just saying), with the passage of time, that chance had long since disappeared.

That food was garbage. It just didn’t know it. Neither, apparently, did my counselor.

Like an expert cardsharp, my counselor’s face betrayed no emotion. I was nervous – a kid against an authority figure – always a mismatch. But what choice did I have? I’d been challenged. I had to respond.

Or eat the liver.

It was starting to get dark. The waiters announced they were going off duty. With the Mess Hall about to close, my counselor abruptly upped the ante.

“If you don’t eat your liver, you’re sleeping in the rafters tonight.”

What could I say? I had no choice.

“Fine with me.”

The word had been spread – probably by me: I was sleeping in the rafters. When we returned from the washhouse, it was all set up – a large steamer trunk, resting on two overhead rafters, a blanket and a pillow – my sleeping arrangements for the evening.

A napkin-draped plate of liver sat on the night table by the counselor’s bed. There was still a chance of a reprieve. But I didn’t want one. I was the center of attention, and, for once, not in a bad way.

“Are you going to eat the liver?”


“Then up you go.”

As my cabin mates watched in silence, I crawled from my upper bunk to a nearby rafter, and then to the trunk, maneuvering with a previously unrecognized agility (I have always come through in “Performance Mode.” I passed my Driver’s Test on national TV.)

Straining their necks, my cabin mates followed my every move. I don’t know if they were hoping I would fall, or what. I don’t think so. I was a kind of a hero that night.

I climbed onto the trunk and slid under the blanket.

“Good night,” I called cheerfully, dropping my head onto the pillow.

Lights out. It was time for bed.

The counselor couldn’t leave. He was responsible for a camper, sleeping in the rafters, ten feet above the ground. There had to be some scarifying thoughts crossing his turbled mind. What if I fell? Dismissal was a certainty, possibly a lawsuit, perhaps even prison. Still, there was the nagging issue of power.

“Remember this, You Guys. This is what happens when you don’t do what you’re told.”

The attempt was feeble. And so recognized.

Twenty minutes into my punishment, the counselor caved. It wasn’t a surrender on the issue. He was afraid of what might happen.

“Okay. You’ve learned your lesson. You can come down.”

My response, of course.

“I’m fine where I am.”

In a surprisingly short period, the counselor went from instructing me to come down, to asking me nicely to come down, to apologizing and begging me to come down. Finally, feeling sorry for the guy, and having nothing more to prove, the light was turned on, I crawled back along the rafters and returned to my bunk.

The liver was thrown out.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"Blind Spots"

This post in an announcement on behalf of people who appear to be extremely stupid.

The short version: We’re not.

We’re not stupid, though in certain situations, we unquestionably appear to be. The tip-off? A glazed-over look in our eyes, a perplexed expression, accompanying an endless barrage of inane questions. Put together, they say,


I remember years ago, this guy was trying to teach me how a computer works. It was early in computer history, and I had never seen one before. The guy, a successful writer, escorted me into his office and pointed to this machine sitting on his desk that wasn’t a typewriter, and he began to teach me how it worked.

The guy was patient, he was kind, he was generous with his time, and he was a very good teacher, explaining things in incremental steps, and answering all my questions along the way. But after forty-five minutes, I still had no idea what he was talking about, and I made him stop, telling him I was tired.

I pretended I “got it”, more for his sake than mine – what did I care about computers? – but he knew I was faking. You could tell by his expression, an embarrassing mixture of pity and contempt. I could almost read his mind:

“This guy’s not going to make it in the twenty-first century, which is good, because we have a limited food supply on this planet, and we can’t afford to waste any of it on people who haven’t got a clue.”

I didn’t want to confirm his impression of me by saying, “I’m sorry, I just don’t understand”, so I took the other option. I blamed him. I said,

“Learning computers from you is like taking piano lessons from a guy who plays by ear.”

It was his fault. He was a natural.

I should make it clear that my apparent stupidity extends beyond the terrain of technology, though, through a combination of my age and my natural incapacity, my technological limitations are particularly humbling. Last week, on the same day, our phones couldn’t take incoming calls, my cable remote wouldn’t turn on the television, I couldn’t connect with the Internet, and our fax machine blinked, “Paper Jam”, though I couldn’t find any paper jammed in it.

With four of my machines malfunctioning at the same time, I felt a powerful impulse to go out, search out some railroad tracks, and lie down on them. I didn’t have a prayer.

My “slow area” also comes into play when I’m required to handle cooking instructions. It happened just this morning. Dr. M was giving me cooking directions for completing a recipe she’d prepared before going to work, and I could feel my face freezing into the same clueless expression I had when the guy was demonstrating the computer. I could read the irritated response in her eyes:

“What kind of person did I marry, and why didn’t I know this about him ahead of time?”

Dr.M views my "brain freeze" as a subterfuge, believing that I’m acting dim, because I’m annoyed at the imposition of having to take part in the preparation of my own food. I endeavor to explain that it’s not true. Annoyance has nothing to do with it.

“You have to believe me. I really am dim!

Some things you get, and some things you don’t. It’s just the way things are. This concept was never better expressed than it was by a once-famous Iberian ventriloquist.

His name was Senor Wences. Senor Wences would smear lipstick on the top edge his thumb and the bottom edge of his forefinger, put a wig over his hand, place a doll’s body underneath it, and by so doing, he’d create a “person”, speaking for that person through the mouth-like opening between his lipstick-stained fingers.

At some point in his act, Senor Wences would light up a cigarette, take a long, relaxing drag, and then offer his dummy a puff. The dummy, whom Senor Wences called “Yanni”, would politely refuse.

“Why,” asked Senor Wences, referring to the cigarette. “It’s very nice.”

“I can’t,” “Yanni” would reply.

“You can’t smoke a cigarette?” Senor Wences would respond with incredulity. “It’s easy.”

At this point, “Yanni” came back with one of the most profound lines I have ever heard, a line I have used on numerous occasions in various contexts. To the response that it’s easy to smoke a cigarette, “Yanni”, the dummy, would truthfully reply,

“For you, easy; for me, difficult.”

Think about that. It’s reverberating. I’ll bet, pretty soon, you’ll be using it in conversation.

For a dummy, it literally was impossible to smoke a cigarette. But “Yanni” didn’t say “impossible”; he said “difficult.” Maybe that’s what made his answer funny – the deliberate understatement. But it also made it universal. For some people, in certain situations, something that is easy for others is, for them, not impossible, but extremely difficult.

I’ve given this condition a name. I call it “Intermittent Blocked Idea Syndrome.” Or IBIS, since diseases, apparently, need acronyms, or it’s harder to raise money for the cure.

As the name implies, IBIS is not pervasive. It only happens in certain situations. The painful thing is, you never know when this debilitating affliction will strike.

Everything’s going along beautifully, you’re making people laugh, you’re a buoyant asset to the party. Suddenly, you’re asked to extract a cork from a wine bottle, using the latest state-of-the-art contraption invented for performing such a task more efficiently than ever before. And there you are, your body frozen, staring at the thing, and doing nothing. It’s like the weather has changed. You’re no longer the life of the party. Suddenly, it’s

“What’s wrong with that guy?”

It’s not all bleak. Sometimes there’s a breakthrough. Despite my condition, and although there is no cure or even palliative “meds”, there are occasions, admittedly rare, when the darkness parts, the fog lifts, and I “get” something that’s been mystifying me for decades. I tell this story as a public service, to encourage IBIS sufferers out there, and to remind them that there’s hope.

It can happen. It happened to me not long ago.

For those of you for whom this insight I’m about to impart is “Duh” – “Everyone knows tha-at!” – try not to gloat, it’s not classy. IBIS is a disease. Our little victories need to be acknowledged for the achievements they are. We really don’t understand certain things. And when the light bulb finally goes on, it’s a cause for joyful celebration.


For years – and I mean from childhood till the recent past – I never understood why the line of cars moved ahead at a red light. It didn’t make sense. It was a red light. You stop at red lights. And yet, to my complete and utter perplexitude, I’d see cars at red lights continuing to move forward. My biggest confusion was that the longer the line of cars at the red light, the more they moved up.

“Where are they going? It’s a red light?”

People tried to explain it to me. They’d say something about the movements of the cars at the front of the line… it didn’t seem to explain things, at least, not to me. Eventually, they’d give up, abandoning me on the unhappy side of the divide – the side that didn’t understand.

Then, one day, it came to me – and that may be part of the lesson – you have to come to the understanding yourself. I’m aware that for non-IBIS sufferers, my revelation will sound ridiculous, but to me, the “Eureka! Moment” of finally “getting it” was as transforming as Helen Keller’s associating the word “water” with the wet stuff dripping onto her hand. Okay, that’s over the top, but it’s up there.

For the two or three of you out there who are bothered by the issue, here’s the answer to why cars move forward at red lights. (I’m still thrilled that I figured it out.)

The distance between cars when they’re driving is greater than the distance between cars when they’re standing still. Like at a red light. The cars’ moving up reflects the shortening of that distance between each of the cars, from driving distance to the acceptable distance when standing still. This also explains why the longer the line at the red light, the further cars move up. There are more cars shortening that distance.

I have tears in my eyes.

It’s so incredible. Not the explanation. When you think about it, it’s totally obvious. Duh. What’s incredible is, I finally got it!

I’m finally on the other side. The side that understands.

IBIS sufferers! Be patient. The answer will arrive in its own time. And if it doesn’t, if your time runs out and you "go out" never understanding how a can opener works, or how airplanes are able to remain in the sky, and you can’t for the life of you recall how much water to use when you’re steaming asparagus, or how to keep the fire in your fireplace from going out, remember always:

You’re not alone.

Monday, July 21, 2008

"'Show' and 'Business'"

Pixar makes a ton of money for Disney. So when the Pixar guys want to do a movie about a rodent with a talent for gourmet cooking, or an affable trash compacting machine in a movie with almost no decipherable words uttered during the first half of the picture, Disney says,

“Sounds cool!”

It’s nice to see. Gifted artists, given the freedom – and the backing of a large budget – to follow their creative impulses. I like the concept. The emphasis seems to be in the right place.

Imagine. Gifted individuals blending their prodigious abilities, conjuring up a whole greater than the sum of its breathtakingly original parts, and the outcome could be…


There’s no certainty, of course. No guarantee of success. And, since there’s no way to pull off such an undertaking alone – it isn’t Van Gogh, paintbrushes and some flowers – a process is required, some optimal arrangement, allowing them to collaborate at the top of their creative power, hopefully resulting in the timeless masterpiece that is


Imagine two options to achieve this excruciatingly difficult but highly desirable result:

1 – A team of inspired misfits, whose gifts are so amazing as to defy comparison with anything that ever has been witnessed before.


2 – A squadron of neatly dressed development executives overseeing the operation, even though they have never imagined, written or produced anything?

Throughout their existence, movie studios and television networks have leaned heavily towards ‘2.’”


Now, hold on there, Early P. Don’t knock those executives. They’re the reality check. They’re the grownups. They select the projects. They make the deals. They set the schedules. They structure the budgets. They do all kinds of things. (My ignorance prevents a longer list.)

No question, those contributions are essential. And if the executives confined themselves to those arenas, I wouldn’t be writing this. The problem is they don’t. By ignoring their creative limitations, and by dismissing the instincts of the professionals they hire…

Wait a second. I need to cool down.

Okay, I’m ready. No, wait. Okay, now.

A well-known manager of comedy talent was famously known to pronounce:

“It’s called show business, not show art.”

This proclamation was meant to “wake up” the “creatives” to the reality of the enterprise they were participating in, to open their eyes, and send them, illuminated and chastened, back to their cubbyholes, where they could stop complaining and gratefully create.

And Now, The Rebuttal:

First of all, without “show”, the “business” doesn’t exist. And all the managers would be toiling in less lucrative, and less glamorous, lines of work.

Second, elevating “business” at the expense of “art” – “art” equals “show” – doesn’t make business more important than “show”, as the manager’s pronouncement makes it sound. See: “First of all” above – it isn’t. We’re talking about a special line of work. There are a lot of businesses out there. But only one of them can make people laugh and cry and get scared and go “Awwww.”

What makes them do that?

The “show.”

Finally, let’s imagine, for argument’s sake, that the “business” is more important than the show. Let’s say “show” without “business” is children playing in the sand. “Show” without “business”, is a magnificent talent in front of her bedroom mirror, warbling soulfully into a hairbrush. “Show” without “business” is “the funniest guy you ever met” squandering his comic inspirations on the “candle lighting ceremony” at his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.

“Business” makes “show” a reality. “Business” fashions that raw material, modulates its development, points it in the right direction, negotiates its deals, and sends it on the road.

“Business” picks the series for the schedules. It “greenlights” the movies. It books the venues. It sells and promotes.

Unfortuantely, somewhere along the way, “business” loses its perspective. The priorities go topsy-turvy, in a manner inconsistent with the facts. There’s a reason “show” gets the attention and “business” needs P.R. professionals to remind people they’re there.

Nobody’s paying to see “business.”

Somewhere, deep inside “business”, that hurts.

This is a theory. Take it for what it’s worth. And remember, sour grapes is always a possibility.

Okay, here goes.

Inside every “business” person in the world of entertainment, there’s this painful awareness that they’re not The Guy. (And, of course, by “The Guy”, I also mean female “The Guy.”)

They may be the most powerful executive in the business. They may actually be responsible for The Guy’s success. But they’re not The Guy. The guy has something special. That’s why they’re The Guy.

Inevitably, the reality sinks in. “There’s ‘show’ and there’s ‘business.’ You’re ‘business.’”

Unhappy with this arrangement, “business” looks for a way to even the score, and maybe even end up ahead. And it finds the answer.

There’s always one joker up “business’s” sleeve, a decisive move that “business” can always make. Because of the enormous sums required to mount projects, “business” is always in the position to say


“I’d like to make this movie.”


“I’d like to develop this series.”


“I’ve got a great idea for an album.”


In the end, “business” always wins, decimating its opponent with “the Power of ‘No.’” Only they don’t say, “No”, they say, “Pass.” It’s less direct, I suppose, but, arguably, more punishing.

“I’m passing you by. I’m leaving you behind. So long, Mr. Big Talent. You’re through. And by the way? I’m going on forever.”

The losers are ultimately the winners. Don’t believe me? Call the real estate agents. Ask them who has the biggest houses?

So what am I saying? It’s Black and White? “Show’s” the exploited Good Guys, and “business” takes the money and gums up the works? It’s not that simple.

Nobody’s perfect. Unhindered by “business”, “show” can still get it wrong. Ishtar. Heaven’s Gate. Mike Myers channeling Peter Sellers. Jim Carrey straying from his strengths. “Show” can misstep. “Show” can overreach. Then, “business” is required to step in.

At its best, show business is a collaboration. (“Man! I read all this way for that?”) No, Bracket Man, there’s more. That collaboration has to be respectful.

In both directions.

“Business” Guy: You can’t do what the “show” guy can do. Accept it with grace. You’ve got a nice suit and a beautiful wife. It’s enough. You’re also in for the ride of your life. Courtesy of the “show” Guy. Do what you’re good at.

And let them do what you hired them to do.

“Show” Guy: I love you with all my heart. But, sometimes, that “Inner Voice” that tells you you’re right? It’s wrong. Take a breath. And when it’s right – even though it’s from “Them”, take a suggestion.

Finally, I want to talk to the actual business people. Not the executives, the shareholders who hire the executives.

Listen up! Respectfully.

If you’re truly in business, meaning you’re obligated to examine every aspect of your operation to determine whether it’s helping or hurting your efforts to maximize your profits, take a look at the process by which television shows and movies are developed and overseen, and if you determine that it’s hurting more than it’s helping, business people,

Do something different!

A rule of thumb worth remembering: In show business, the “show” always comes first.

(By the way, though I liked Wall-E okay, I didn’t love it, like I love Dumbo and Lady and the Tramp. Could be, there’s some insulated thinking going on. It may be time to find some “business” guy you can trust, and then, you know, when you’re not a hundred percent certain, hear them out. Just a suggestion, from a guy who used to do shows.)

Friday, July 18, 2008

"Summer Times - Part Three"

The water in the lake at Camp Ogama was brown.

As with many things, I am no expert at explaining the color of water in lakes. I know that bodies of water are generally blue. I’m looking at water right now out my window – the Pacific Ocean – it’s blue. We have a cabin in Indiana near Lake Michigan. That’s blue too. Toronto, my home town, sits on the banks of Lake Ontario. Blue. Hawaii? Turquoise blue, but still blue.

All the bodies of water I’m aware of are blue. Except for the one at our camp. I think the “blue” thing has something to do with a reflection of the sky on the water, which, like the water in a glass of water, is, itself, colorless. This does not explain the camp lake exception. The sky above our camp was not brown. So the lake must have been brown for another reason.

It may have had something to do with the lake bottom – comprised of brown, silty sand. To a person who’s never experienced quicksand, it could have been quicksand. There was no substance to it; it felt like you could sink right through it. (Except you didn’t.) The lake might have been brown, because of the soft sand getting stirred up and mixing with the water to turn the lake opaquely brown.

It’s like if you stirred a spoonful of Nestles’ Quik (do they still make that?) into a glass of water, the formerly clear water takes on a cloudy brown color. I’ve spent five paragraphs on a brown lake. I’m moving on.

Except to say…

Nobody likes swimming in a brown lke. Especially a freezing cold, brown lake. And especially even more, a freezing cold, brown lake with leaches in it.

The lake was known to contain leaches, I’m not making this up. This fact was acknowledged by the camp’s placing large blocks of salt under the docks, so the leaches, attracted to the salt, would adhere to the blocks and leave the campers alone. The strategy kept us protected, but it was hardly a boost to our swimming enjoyment. Looking at blocks of salt covered with leaches.

But, when it was real hot – or they forced you to – you went in, quicksand-feeling, frigid temperatures, leaches, leach-covered salt blocks, and all. And you tried not to drown.

When I was nine, I had not yet learned to swim. “Dog Paddle”, does that count? It’s not in the Olympics, so I’m not sure. The “Dog Paddle” was all I could do. Sputter around for thirty seconds, then, stand up, exhausted, as the silty sand slithered between my toes. That wasn’t swimming. Even the standing up part wasn’t fun.

After a first day swim test, where, I swam, I believe, nowhere, I was awarded a punctured red poker chip strung on a plastic lanyard to wear around my neck, the “Red Tag” indicating, “If he goes anywhere near water, watch him!”

Swim instruction classes were intended to upgrade our swimming abilities so that, eventually, I could exchange my “Red Tag” in for one that allowed you to venture into water that was higher than your knees. Every summer, we were taught the various swimming strokes – first, the backstroke, then, sidestroke, the crawl, and finally, the breaststroke.

The instruction was progressive. When you mastered one stroke, you moved on to the next. This is why, to this day, I can only do the backstroke. Every summer, by the time I was ready to move on to the sidestroke, camp was over. By the following summer, I had forgotten the backstroke and had to start again. It took the whole summer to relearn it, so time ran out before I could advance to the sidestroke or any of the other ones. They looked like fun, but I never got there.

The swim instructors varied in ability and patience. Let me say one thing on my behalf before I tell you about the guy who threw me in the lake. They wouldn’t let me take my glasses onto the dock. I had to leave them on the shore with my t-shirt and shoes. That meant not only was I afraid of the water – because, unlike land, you could lose your life in water – I also couldn’t see.

When I say, I couldn’t see, I mean I really. Couldn’t. See. When I was two, I had surgery on both eyes for cataracts. After the surgery, I could see, but only while wearing very thick bifocals. Those were the ones they’d instructed me to leave on shore with my t-shirt and shoes.

You know the phrase “blind fear”? My condition was “blind fear” squared. Blind, blind fear.

We were sitting at the edge of the dock, our legs dangling over the freezing brown water of Fox Lake, when our Swim Instructor, Ben, or Big Ben, or Big Ben swam for Canada in the Olympics, told us to jump in. Everyone jumped in. Except me. The conversation was brief.

“Jump in.”

“I don’t want to.”

That’s when he threw me in the lake. I went under, came up gagging, dog paddled for twenty seconds, and then said,

“Can I come out now?”


Not surprisingly, Big Ben taught me nothing. That may not have been partially my fault. I tend not to pay attention to people who have picked me up by my bathing suit and tossed me into a lake.

Years later, a kindlier and more patient swim instructor named Paul had a magnificent insight. Swimming on my front, at least the way I did it, depleted my energy in a matter of seconds. One day, Paul – whom I listened to because he hadn’t thrown me into a lake – says to me, “Turn over on your back.” I dutifully comply – belying the accusation that I’m “difficult” – and suddenly, I’m just floating along.

I took to swimming on my back immediately. There was nothing to it. You floated on the surface, and when you felt yourself sinking – a little arm action, a little “frog kick” – and you’re propelled ahead. Well, actually, backwards.

For the first time ever, I could actually swim. I couldn’t see where I was going, but at least, I was going somewhere. And there was a significant bonus. Unlike, swimming on my front, I didn’t have to put my face in the water. I hated that. I had this theory that because of my eye surgeries, if I stuck my face in, the water would seep into my head through my stitches and drown my brain. That’s possible, isn’t it?

In later summers, the maximum swimming requirement was sixteen “lengths”, a “length” being the distance from one dock in the swimming area to the one on the other side. Not only could sixteen lengths get you a “White Tag”, allowing you to swim anywhere, it also qualified you to go on canoe trips and to go water skiing.

Water skiing looked like fun, and I wanted to give it a shot. I passed my sixteen lengths – all backstroke – and, despite the fear of having my legs sheared off by the motor boat’s propeller, I tried water skiing.

And tried.

And tried and tried.

And tried.

And tried.

And tried.

And tried.

I fell forty-three times in a row. That wasn’t like me. Normally, if I fail at something more than twice, I immediately give up. Forty-three failures was unheard of for me. I was failing beyond my wildest imagination.

There are a lot of ways to fall in water skiing. You can bend your arms. You can straighten your legs. You can lose hold of the rope. You can lean too far back and fall backwards. You can lean too far forward and fall on your face. You can lose your balance trying to get up. Falling forty-three times, I had a chance to enjoy all these experiences. More than once each. Only one falling was not my fault. The rope broke when it was pulling me up.

Cue the Triumphant Fanfare. And don’t spare the trumpets.

It was a day like any other day. But this time, the outcome would be different.

I’m floating in the water behind the boat, sheathed in a waterlogged life preserver that weighed about ten pounds and was liberally caked with wet sand. I was in perfect “starting position” – holding the bar between my legs, my arms extended, my ski tips above the waterline, my knees bent almost to my chin.

I knew what I was doing. Except for the part where you ski.

“Looking good,” shouted the boat driver. I smiled appreciatively, but I wasn’t reassured. I had “looked good” the other forty-three times too.

My heart was pounding, as I felt a sharp tug on the rope. The rope stiffened, as the driver gunned the motor.

I felt myself being pulled out of the water. To that point, all systems were “Go!” My form was perfect. My balance was good. I was in exactly the right position. I just needed to stand up.

And I couldn’t do it.

My previous efforts to stand had always done me in. I could never “pull the trigger” without losing my balance and falling. This time, I was determined not to fall no matter what. So what did I do? I let the boat to pull me around the lake while in a seated position.

My form was perfect. I was simply skiing sitting down.

I could hear the driver shouting, “Get up!”, but I would have none of it. I had never gotten this far before. I was in heaven, as my butt skidded along the surface of the lake, the waves spraying, in big rooster combs, over my head.

The lake contained an island about a quarter of a mile from shore. The water skiing route traveled out to the island, around to the other side, and back to shore. I was almost at the island.

I had never been up so long, though, technically, you couldn’t say I was actually “up.” I didn’t care. I was seeing the back of the island for the first time.

Emerging from the other side of the island, I was still in the game. Loving the ride, and heading towards home.

And, to the people on shore’s way of thinking, certain death.

Being in the water, I wasn’t wearing my glasses. Which was fine when you were heading away from the land. But it was considerably less desirable when you were headed towards shore and it was time to let go. Having never gotten that far before, I had no idea what to do.

And on top of that, I couldn’t see.

As I raced towards “home”, sitting but happy, I could hear a roar coming from the beach. I thought they were cheering my success, but that wasn’t the case. Extending from the beach was a boathouse, and I was heading directly for it.

The crowd wasn’t yelling “Yay, Earl!” They were screaming, “Let go!”

I beamed at my supporters. (I thought they were yelling, “Yay, Earl!”) I reviewed my accomplishment in my mind. I may not have gotten up – okay, I hadn’t – but for the first time in forty-four attempts, I didn’t fall. I was a hero in my own eyes, and, I thought, in others’ as well. “Others”, it turned out, believed I was doomed.

The crowd’s yelling wasn’t working. My eyes would not be a factor. Something had to be done, or my triumph would conclude with me going “Splat!” against the side of the boathouse.

Aware of the problem, the boat driver suddenly cut the motor. Instead of making a wide arc terminating in a “Boathouse Facial”, my glorious ride ended gently, as I bobbed comfortably on the lake, just yards from disaster.

The next time I went water skiing, I sat down all the way to the island.

And then I got up.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

"Rock 'N Roll Junior"

Have you ever been in a stadium filled with eighteen thousand people, where you had the unquestionable certainty that you were by far the oldest person in the room? That was me, when I recently attended a Honda Center concert in Anaheim, starring the Jonas Brothers. Had the Honda Center been an elementary school playground, I might easily have been picked up for questioning for predatory behavior.

“What are you doing around all these little girls?”

What was I doing there? Am I a closet admirer of the spirited music of three energetic brothers, generally favored by females under the age of twelve? Yes, that’s me exactly. (Highlight the previous four words, and press Control: S for sarcasm.)

"I love those boys! Whoo-hoo!"

Here’s the real explanation. After working for two years in a fashionable boutique, desperate for anybody to walk in if only to get change for the parking meter, my brave and creative daughter, Anna, now an assistant to the Jonas Brothers’ wardrobe stylist, has traded the mind-numbing monotony of retail for a stadium packed to the rafters with screaming pre-teen (and older) girls.

Perhaps I need to stop and explain who the Jonas Brothers are. Things are different now. Everyone knew Elvis. Everyone knew the Beatles and the Stones. Everyone knew Dylan. But then something changed.

The audience became permanently fragmented. Now, every musical genre has its own panoply of superstars. And by “panoply”, I mean a bunch of them.

(When I was in High School, our English Grammar class included the study of a slim textbook entitled, Words Are Important. Every week, we’d be introduced to twenty less than familiar words, with the hope that they would seep into our everyday conversation. This may be the first time the word “panoply” has fit anything I was talking about.)

Who are the Jonas Brothers? They’re The Monkees. They're the Bay City Rollers. They’re The New Kids on the Block. They’re the Spice Girls. They’re the Backstreet Boys. They’re Hanson. They’re Hannah Montana, but boys.

They’re that.

And they’re huge.

The time had come for me to check them out in person. Anna wanted me to see them. (It was like “Parents’ Night” at school, and she wanted me to see her artwork, except instead of being thumb-tacked to a bulletin board, the Jonas Brothers were wearing it.)

I was excited to see them in action. I’d already experienced the TV movie Camp Rock, (which I’d enjoyed but, being me, I had thought of a couple of ways to make the story better). Anna had also guided me through the Special Edition of People magazine devoted exclusively to the Brothers, stopping at selected photographs to identify her contribution – a sports jacket piping suggestion here, a selection of vest material there.

Am I proud of the girl? She’s my daughter.

Dr. M was not available. Game and ready Rachel to the rescue. I’ve mentioned my driving limitations elsewhere. I’ll simply repeat that if I were inclined to bumper stickers, mine would, not inaccurately, read: “I Brake For Shadows.” Rachel drove. I passenged.

We got to Anaheim – an hour and a half’s drive – about an hour before the concert. We looked for someplace nearby to eat. The closest place was Hooters.

Dinner at Hooters with my stepdaughter and a rock concert for children. It would definitely be an evening of firsts.

Big smiles greet you at the door. “Welcome to Hooters!” You look around. Teams of attractive young women, serving food till they’re invited on a calendar, attired in a wardrobe no mother would let their daughter wear out of the house. The vibe was like (my impression of) one of those Nevada brothel places, only the only satisfaction you’ll be getting at Hooters is the satisfaction of surviving the limited selection of fried food on the menu.

Our waitress, Jodi, sat down at our table to take our order. I have a naturally playful demeanor with waitresses, and the outfits were making my silly.

“Will you be eating with us?” I inquired.

“What?” she replied, in a tone reflecting barely hidden irritation. Jody seemed annoyed by the entire operation. It was like, “They make me wear this, and I have to endure jokes from an aging idiot who thinks he’s got moves? NO!”

Enough of Hooters. Except to say that I’m not a big fan of “tease.” They get my money, and I end up with gas from the chicken wings.

We park at the Honda Center and head to “Will Call” for our tickets. I overhear fragments:

(AN OVERLY MADE-UP MOTHER WITH ELABORATE HAIR) “We’ll pick you up when it’s over.” Which I immediately translate into, “Enjoy the show. I’m going to have sex with my boyfriend at a nearby hotel.” (This was no fantasy on my part. The guy, standing nearby, was already drooling.)

At the “Will Call” window next to ours:

“My daughter won the ‘Meet and Greet.’” I check out the daughter’s face. It’s how my face would look if I had won a private dinner with “Magic” Johnson.

We get our tickets, and we go inside. We’re sitting in the sixth row. The tickets were free. My daughter has done well.

Fifteen minutes till show time and the din is beginning to build. Fortunately, Dr. M has supplied a bottle of earplugs. I offer some to nearby mothers. One accepts. One says no, with an explanation:

“I’m used to the noise. This is our fifth Jonas Brothers concert.” I immediately do the math. Seventy-five dollars a ticket. Five concerts. Mother and child. That’s seven hundred and fifty bucks. And the glow-in-the-dark wands are extra.

And then it started. Demi Lovato, a fifteen year-old with stage presence to burn, opened the concert. She’d been a star for about a month. The crowd was buying her, though you could sense some impatience. They were there to see the boys!

I have to report one disconcerting moment when Lovato turned to the audience and asked,

“How many of you out there have had your hearts broken?’

They’re ten!

But they didn’t act ten. There were looks of longing and excitement as they bounced and screamed. And those feelings exploded when the Jonas Brothers took the stage.

There are three things I’m not crazy about at concerts. Noise, jumping (those balconies may not have been tested for pre-teen hysteria) and fire. This concert had all three.

I won’t talk about the Jonas Brothers’ music; it wasn’t meant for me. The production was First Class, and what the brothers do, they execute with skillfulness, charm, precision and flare. Though I enjoyed the show, I spent the bulk of the concert watching the audience.

I wanted to plug in to their experience, but I fear my interlopings came very close to voyeurism. It was like reading somebody’s diary, an emotional trespassing I wasn’t sure I could justify.

“Research for my blog, Your Honor.”

“Yeah, well, now, you can research this prison sentence, you pervert!”

What did I notice? Little girls in love. Unguarded ardor on innocent faces. Not all of them, of course. Sitting beside me, I notice two slightly older girls acting too cool to care. I look back, and suddenly, they’re into it too, bouncing and screaming with all the rest. Later, they recover their composure and make fun of it all, including themselves. It was fascinating. Two girls, on both sides of the fence.

And it wasn’t just the kids who were into it. Self-conscious mothers, masking their mouths with their hands, are singing along too. The mothers know all the words! To a song that’s been out for three weeks.

“This is real, this is me,

I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be…”

“No more hiding who I want to be,

This is me!”

It’s a young girls’ (and nostalgic Moms’) anthem. Everyone’s singing. Together. But separately too. Eighteen thousand females, acting like they’re alone with the Jonas Brothers.

(Maybe Moms can handle seeing their daughters lost in ecstatic fervor. With Dads, it’s different. Once, when I took Anna to an outdoor concert, she said at the entrance, “You can’t come in with me, Dad.” (I’d promised her mother I would.) I felt so incredibly grateful. I went to a movie and met her after the show.)

Are you sensing any condescension in this report? That would hardly be appropriate. Not when, at a similar age, you’ve shut yourself in your room, put on a record, and with fervent intensity, belted out

“I’m the greatest star

I am by far

But no one knows it…”

then sat down and wrote a confessional fan letter (my only one ever) to Barbra Streisand (“From one gifted Jew to another.”)

I knew what was going on there. I just wasn’t sure I was meant to witness it.

Later, Anna joined us, bringing two much-appreciated bottles of water, and we watched the show together. Suddenly, she got teary-eyed. “I’m so happy you’re here.” I wanted to say, “Where else should I be?” I’m hoping my tears said it for me.

Still, I’m not sure I belonged there. As we left, I stopped at the Men’s Room before the long drive home. The place was empty, except for two other guys. I think that was the entire number of men in the audience.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

"Saddle Up! - Part Ten"

Actors who appeared in classic westerns recall their experiences. As imagined by me.



“First thing, I’m Italian. How did I get the part? I looked like an Indian. Producers took one look, they said, ‘That’s an Indian.’ Of course, I had my shirt off, and I was wearing a headdress. When you’re dressed like that, everyone looks like an Indian.”

“I couldn’t ride for beans. Bareback, you can forget about it. There’s this big bone, goes down the middle of the horse, gets you right in the Cachungas, if you know what I mean. They had to do the ‘blanket’ thing for me. You know, they put a blanket on the horse, but under the blanket there’s a saddle. It fooled no one. Even the horse had a smile on his lips. I know what he was thinking. ‘Italian Indian’.”

“I never played an Indian that existed, no Geronimo, no Sitting Bull. I played made-up Indians with made-up names: Yellow Horse, Tahakta. ‘Tahakta.’ It sounds Jewish. Which makes sense. We had Jewish screenwriters.”

“The best part of being chief? Your people listen to you. You say, ‘We go to war’, they go to war. You say, ‘We must return to the reservation’, no arguments, they go right back. The chief also gets the best-looking horse, and the prettiest squaw. She wasn’t Indian either. Puerto Rican.”

“One thing I never understood. They always had the Indians saying, ‘Me wantum this’, ‘Me wantum that.’ Who talks like that? I mean, okay, you’re an Indian, you don’t know the language. But you hang around the fort, you pick things up. What I want to know is who were they hanging around the fort with? Who told them, ‘This is English’?”

“My whole life, I’ve hated to lose. But the Indians, you know, except for the Custer thing, it was downhill all the way. ‘Course, no way it was a fair fight. Indians with bows and arrows, soldiers with repeating rifles? Gimme a break!

“I liked playing Indians, except for the losing. And the stuff they ate. Starting out, this old actor – always played Indians – gave me some wonderful advice. He said, ‘Never look in the pot.’”


“We got paid extra for ‘falls.’ We’d watch those pictures and laugh our heads off. One gunshot, and four Indians would go flyin’ off their horses.”

“Our ‘attacking strategy’ was a joke. What’s the point of riding in a circle? It’s like, ‘Shoot me as I come around.’ There’s this one picture, Stagecoach, where we’re chasing this stagecoach, and finally, we catch up to it. Some of us are even ahead of the stagecoach – you can see it in the picture. We're in front of the stage coach!

"So what do we do then? Do we surround the stagecoach? Do we grab hold of the horses? No. We just keep riding. It’s ridiculous! We spend all this time chasing this stagecoach. Wouldn’t you think we’d do something when we got there?”

“The way they had us fightin’ on foot was even stupider. Indians are famous for our ability to sneak up on people and take ‘em by surprise. So what do they want us to do? They want us to sneak up on someone, and just before we whack ‘em with our tomahawks, we’re supposed to let out a ‘bloodcurdling scream.’

“Is that the craziest thing you ever heard? Why would you let out a ‘bloodcurdling scream' if you’re tryin’ to take somebody by surprise? It doesn’t make any sense.”

“The actors playing all the big parts, you know, the chiefs, none of them were real Indians. They’d come to us for help, you know, askin’ us how to pronounce certain phrases that were in the script. We’d tell them if they really want to be accurate, they should say another thing instead. Then we’d teach them these phrases that were a little off-color.

“Now comes the big scene. The chief has called us together before the battle, and he’s supposed to be sayin’, ‘The White Man must be driven from our land!’ Only what we’ve got him sayin’ is, ‘The Medicine Man have a big, hairy butt!’ I’ll never forget it. The guy’s sittin’ there – this serious face, you know – and he’s sayin’ ‘The Medicine Man has a big, hairy butt!” We're all bitin’ our lips to keep from crackin’ up!”

“You know how to make a movie where the Indians win? You take any old western, and you run it backwards.”


“Did they use flaming arrows in the real West? I wouldn’t know, I’m Macedonian. I won the “Bronze” in archery at the Olympics, so they gave me the job.”

“The idea of flaming arrows always seemed strange to me. I understand if you’re shooting at something made of wood, like a fort or a cabin. You’re trying to burn it down. But shooting flaming arrows at a person, what’s the point? You’re killing the man and you’re burning him up. Isn’t one of those enough?

“The whole thing a question of timing. You had to move fast. You light the arrow, you string it in your bow, you aim and you let fly. If you move too slowly, the flame burns down the arrow, and before you know it, your bow is on fire.

“If you were really slow, you ended up burning yourself. It happened to me my first time. Very embarrassing. They had to put me out.”

“You had to be a decent shot with those flaming arrows. One fella missed the cabin and burned down the studio.”