Wednesday, December 31, 2008

"A Very Healthy Philosophy"

I imagine every decent-sized city has one of these streets. That major thoroughfare that stretches from one side of town to the other. The original main artery, the road people used before they put in the freeways.

Covering an enormous area, L.A. has a number of these streets. They call them “surface streets” here, in contrast to the freeways. One of the most prominent surface street is Olympic Boulevard. Olympic takes you all the way across Los Angeles, from the ocean to downtown.


Freeway traffic is at a standstill. It’s bumper to bumper. People are honking. Cutting in and out of lanes. Accidents and near misses, waiting to happen.

Nerves are jangling. Emotions are high. You’re sweating. You’re cursing. You’re ready to shoot somebody. Someone else, yourself, who cares? You just can’t stand it anymore. The traffic is driving you nuts!

The answer to this screaming insanity? Two words, capsulizing a very healthy philosophy:

“Take Olympic.”

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

"Pay Heed To The Doctor"

Jonathan Miller was a member of the legendary English comedy troupe, Beyond the Fringe. He also happens to be a doctor.

Once, Miller was asked by interviewer Dick Cavett if he jogged.

“No,” said Miller emphatically.

“You don’t?” replied Cavett, surprised. “I’ve heard that jogging adds two years to your life.”

“That’s true,” shot back Miller. “But you spend them jogging.”

Monday, December 29, 2008

"My Favorite Hollywood Moment"

Rocky was about to open in theaters but, to that point, it had garnered minimal attention. As a subscriber to the Writers Guild Film Society, with absolutely no awareness of what I was about to see, I drove to the Writers Guild Theater to check out this totally untouted new film.

With some conspicuous exceptions, writers are not particularly generous when it comes to praising the efforts of their competitors. (I’m writing this in the third person to avoid self-incrimination.) This generosity evaporates entirely when professional writers are confronted by the work of a writer who is also an actor, in the case of Rocky, the actual star of the movie.

“How dare an actor write,” is basically their position. “That’s our job.” Plus, actors are good looking and they get girls. Isn’t that enough for them?

I arrive at the Rocky screening. The theater is half full. Mostly men. It’s a boxing movie. The ladies have given the picture a “pass.”

The lights go down, the movie begins. The first thing you see is the giant word, Rocky, lumbering slowly across the screen, accompanied by a trumpeting fanfare, more appropriate for the entrance of a Roman emperor.

Groans from the audience. “Cheap and cheesy. We’re going to hate this. Our ladies will taunt us when we get home.”

I will spare you going through every beat of the movie. Suffice it to say, it completely wins them over. By the climactic fight scene, jaded writers are standing on their seats, screaming their lungs out for Rocky to go the distance, and even – dare we dream it – win!

The movie ends. The audience goes nuts! The word “pandemonium” would not be out of place. The chandeliers are shaking.

And not just applause. There is cheering in the room. You can hear the unmistakable word, “Hooray!”

An old-time “crowd pleaser” has captured these flinty writers’ hearts.

Here comes the “Hollywood Moment.”

The theater doors open. And as the still-excited writers head up the aisle, they see, standing in the lobby, dressed in black jeans and a white, cable knit turtleneck sweater…

Sylvester Stallone.

The “Italian Stallion” himself. Basking in what looks like a streaking aura of illuminating light. It was almost Celestial. Not to mention surreal.

It’s the guy! Right there in the lobby! Allowing virtually speechless writers to pump his hand, and nodding “Thank you”, with the unforced humility of the character we had just seen him portray.

It was “Goosebumps”, I tell ya.


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

"Getaway Day"

The ballplayers call it “Getaway Day.” The day they leave one town to move on to another. Today is “Getaway Day” for our family. We’re moving on to Hawaii. Not to our regular place. Someplace on Maui. I’ll tell you about it sometime. Maybe.

As disgusting as this sounds, especially during the “chilly season”, there are times when Californians become so…ungrateful, they start thinking of places that are nicer than California. Suddenly, California’s not good enough. We need someplace warmer and more tropical. (This inexplicable condition can befall anyone living here, but it’s most prevalent among people who were born in California. People who have never experienced winter.)

Immune to how ridiculous Californians sound to people who, for six months of the year (or more), are condemned to shovel mountains of snow off their driveways (with new snow falling while they’re doing it), Californians hunger for a spot with better weather, whiter beaches, greater natural beauty and a sparklier ocean.

Believe it or not, that place actually exists.

It’s called Hawaii.

What California is to the rest of America, Hawaii is to Californians. Hawaii is the one place Californians can go to where the rhythm of life is even more laid back.

You get the message the moment you land at the airport, and head down the open-sided corridor towards “Baggage Claim.” Your nose gets the word first, and it immediately spreads it to the rest of you. What’s the message?

You’re in a different place.

It’s the soft and scented breeze. It smells like flowers. Flowers that only grow in Hawaii.

America’s history with this tropical paradise is definitely…um, not our finest hour. I saw this documentary on PBS once, explaining how Hawaii became U.S. territory. One night, the United State navy landed on Oahu, ostensibly to protect the American citizens living there. The American citizens themselves were unaware of any danger.

The American military told the Hawaiian queen, Liliuokalani, they were there to protect her as well. After checking out the window, the queen turned to the military people and inquired, “If you’re here to protect me, why are all your guns pointed at my palace instead of away from it?”

This was clearly a rhetorical question, since there is no known recorded answer.

Because of these events, from our very first visit when they were young, I’ve instructed our children to say quietly to every Hawaiian they encounter, in a sincere and respectful tone:

“I’m sorry we took your island.”

I want Hawaiians to know we know. And that if it were up to us, it would never have happened.

(By the way, here’s what we did with the place. A few years ago, on a visit to Maui, an island of spectacular natural beauty, my daughter, Anna, broke her retainer. When Dr. M, who’d be driving her to the orthodontist’s office, asked for directions, she was told, “Turn left at the K-Mart and right at the Jack-in-the-Box.)

Hawaii offers fantastic aquatic opportunities, from windsurfing to snorkeling to riding the gnarliest waves on the planet. Our family enjoys none of these opportunities. Instead, every day, from nine in the morning to four in the afternoon, we relax on lounge chairs and do nothing. (See: The last two postings.)

When we get bored, we get up, walk to the edge of the ocean, and allow the tide to lap against our ankles. Then it’s back to our lounge chairs, and still more nothing.

Once, I went to the hotel bar, intending to order a Pina Colada, but mistakenly ordering a Mai Tai instead. Mai Tai’s are exponentially more potent than Pina Coladas. But since I’d already ordered the Mai Tai, and it cost seven-fifty, I drank it anyway. Why am I telling you this story? Because it’s the most exciting thing that ever happened to me in Hawaii.

I could go on and on about this tropical paradise, but when you write about Hawaii, you’re reminded of the easygoing, “hang loose” spirit and, well, you don’t feel like writing anymore. And then, you don’t feel like thinking anymore. And then…(BIG STRETCH, ACCOMPANIED BY A YAWN)…you know what?

I think I’ll go take a nap.

Mele Kalikimaka, everybody.

That’s “Merry Christmas” in Hawaiian.

And Haoli Makahiki Ho.

That’s Happy New Year. (Though is does sound a little Peewee Herman.)

Holiday Posting Schedule:

No Postings: Thursday, December 25th, and Friday December 26th (Boxing Day, for those who box.) Also, no postings Thursday, January 1st and Friday, January 2nd.

Really Good Postings: Monday, December 29th.

Tuesday, December 30th.

Wednesday, December 31th.

Back in the Saddle Full Time: Starting Monday January 5th.

I have left three postings for your enjoyment. I don’t know how to do this when I’m away. I call these postings shticklach (small pieces). They’re kind of like bookmarks, so there’ll be something for you to read. They won’t be about my trip, because I wrote them before I went. Although if I wrote about my trip before I went on it, that could be really interesting.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

"Too Big For My Bathing Suit - Part Two"

My family and I are at this luxury hotel in Hawaii. I notice people are getting better beach-chair treatment than us. I don’t know the secret handshake that will get us into the club. But I desperately wanted in.

An investigation reveals that some bribery is involved. But I’m lost on the specifics. (Not the same as lost in the Pacific.) I’m in need of an adviser to tell me how to handle things.

Okay, you’re caught up.

I needed to pick exactly the right person. Someone who won’t be offended when I walk up to them and say, “I know you bribe people. Can you teach me how to do it?” I wouldn’t use precisely those words, but there was still the possibility they’d take offense.

I decide I’ll approach the friendliest guy in the hotel. I knew he was the friendliest, because he even talked to me. Friendly Guy had been Christmasing at the Kahala for over forty years. It was clear he was experienced in the “taking care of” arrangement. His beach chairs were ready for him when he got off the plane.

Catching him lunching, I headed to his table and, too nervous for small-talk, I dove right in.

“If you want your beach chairs out there...what is it much. … what do you do?” Not too articulate, but I threw in some hand gestures and he got the idea.

Friendly Guy was very helpful. I was aware that a payment was required at the beginning of the trip, a payment, Friendly Guy revealed, he duplicated at the end of the trip. And what was the amount of the payment, I shakily inquired? Friendly Guy mentioned a figure, hefty but hardly “break the bank.” Having gotten the information I was looking for, I thanked Friendly Guy, and left him to his lunch. I was ready to take action.

But I didn’t. I had risked enough embarrassment for one day. I was tired.

It took a lot of energy to go up to a virtual stranger and solicit bribery advice. And now, I was expected to “do the thing”, money changing hands, accompanied by a “knowing look”? A look that said, “Okay, it’s on” and promising, “There’s more where that came from”? That was going to take a lot of … what I didn’t have a lot of. “Knowing looks” are not part of my regular repertoire.

There was also a timing problem. I’d now heard twice, once from Jane, The Queen of the Beach Attendants, and now, from Friendly Guy, that to get the ball rolling, you had to “take care of” the attendants at the beginning of your stay. It was already the third day of our stay.

You see the problem, right? How do you “take care of” people at the beginning of your stay when the beginning of your stay was two days ago? There was no more “beginning.” The beginning was long gone.

There was no mention of “taking care of” people in the early to middle part of your stay. Was a bribe-induced arrangement at this point still possible? And if it was, was I permitted to bribe a lesser amount, because we were starting things two days late?

I had no idea!

It was then that I made a strategic decision. Since it was too late to “take care of” the beach attendants at the beginning of our trip, I decided I would “take care of” them at the end of our trip. I would reward them with double, the beginning amount and the end amount at the same time, placed inside an envelope with the word Mahalo, Hawaiian for “Thank you” printed on the front. Maybe I’d draw a little palm tree on it too.

It felt like the perfect solution. I’d get the special treatment I coveted, and the beach attendants would be “taken care of.”

There was only one flaw in this arrangement. The only person who knew about it was me. This is hardly a minor flaw. While I’m imagining, “It’s all worked out”, the beach attendants are thinking, “What’s up with this guy? He’s expecting special treatment, but he didn’t “take care of” us at the beginning!” They don’t know I’m planning to “double up” at the end of the trip. They’re not mind readers. They’re beach attendants.

Of course, this problem could have been corrected if I’d only gone to Jane and said, “Now, look here. I want you to know I am fully cognizant of “the arrangement”, and I intend to fulfill it to the letter at the end of our stay.” Something like that, only less British.

I couldn’t do that. Why? Because it sounded like a scam. Big shot hotel guest promising hard-working beach attendants “I’ll take care of you before I leave”? Yeah, right. Requesting special treatment with the assurance of future consideration felt like the beach chair equivalent of, “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” I couldn’t do it with a straight face.

What did I do instead?


New Years was approaching. The hotel was filling up. Suddenly, there were more guests than beach chairs. It was “First-come, first-served.” Except for the guys with “the arrangement.” Which was not me.

There was only one thing I could do. To avoid being shut out on chairs, I had to get down to the beach as early as possible. Forget sleeping in. Forget a leisurely breakfast. Forget breakfast altogether.

My only concern was getting those chairs.

That was my job. As the man of the family. The man who had botched “the arrangement.” The last thing I wanted were my children sobbing, “Daddy, there’s no beach chairs!” and a wife thinking, “I could have done better.”

I’d show up at the “Attendants Counter” earlier and earlier. On our last day, I bolted from bed and raced to the beach, only to discover it was six-thirty in the morning. The attendants don’t show up until eight.

I had managed to do the impossible. Turn a dream vacation into a Polynesian nightmare. And why? Because – God help me – I’d wanted more.

I took a final walk along the beach. All around, I saw carefree families, frolicking in the sun. I made myself a promise.

“Next time, I’ll do things differently.”

And then, very slowly, an unexpected question started formulating in my mind.

“How do you get those cabanas?”

Postscript: The "taking care of" problem never got taken care of. At least, not by me. On future visits to the Kahala, the resp0nsibility for bribing the beach attendants was delegated to my capable and scrupulously honest stepdaughter, Rachel. It turns out, though eminently decent and fair a just, Rachel has a natural facility for paying people 0ff.

Monday, December 22, 2008

"Too Big For My Bathing Suit"

Hubris – a man over-steps. The throbbing center of many a classic story.

And this one.

Ever since Anna was six months old – she’s now twenty-five – my family and I have, with scattered exceptions, spent “Christmas Week” in Hawaii, primarily at the Kahala…something. They keep changing their name. (Over the years, the place has been bought and sold three times.)

A week to eight days at a very comfortable hotel. It’s a vacation we all look forward to. Lying on the beach and doing nothing.

Hawaii’s a great spot for baking in the sun and gazing at the ocen. You want to do things, go to New York. You know what? I’m lying. There are tons of things to do in Hawaii. But we did them all during our first ten visits. (Well, not all. There are other activities involving enormous waves, surfboards and concussions. We generally avoid those.)

Our vacation is committed to tanning and napping. With a little shopping for those so inclined. Some people get bored with sedentary activities. I can’t get enough of them.

Daily routine (and I mean every day): After breakfast, I head to the “Attendants’ Counter” to arrange for our beach chairs. (Actually, they’re not chairs, they’re chaises. But it’s too pretentious to say chaises, so I’ll say chairs, but you’ll know what I mean.)

A tanned and cheerful attendant wheels one chair per family member to the spot I’ve selected on the beach. He drapes towels over the mattresses and leaves with a tip. Such was the beach-chair procedure on all our previous visits to the hotel.

On this visit, things would be different.

For years, I’d sensed an unspoken hierarchy in the way hotel guests were being treated. Some basked in canopy-draped cabanas. Others had locks on the limited supply of inflatable rafts. I also noticed some guests had their beach chairs waiting for them when they arrived at the beach.

Very convenient. No losing time at the “Attendants’ Counter”, no waiting for the chairs to be dragged out, no wondering whether you’d get your favorite spot. The people just showed up and started tanning.

On previous visits, I’d never given this unequal treatment a moment’s thought. I was just happy to be there. (Hawaii in December? Compared to Toronto? Are you kidding me?) But this year, I found myself looking at those pre-set beach chairs, and thinking, “I wonder how that works?” Which is the passive-aggressive way of saying, “I want that!”

Suddenly, I was dissatisfied with my totally adequate level of luxury. I suppose, like an addict whose habit inevitably requires a bump in dosage, I had, after many visits to this service-driven hotel, developed an uncontrollable need for an upgrade in pampering.

Which explains why, on the second morning of our stay, I found myself talking to Jane, the Queen of the Beach Attendants, asking, “How does it work, that some people have their beach chairs already out?” I was surprised by the level of self-assurance in my voice. Considering the words, “Who do you think you are?” were pounding in my ears.

In a business-like manner belying her green shorts and Polo shirt, Jane explained that some guests elected to “take care of” the attendants at the beginning of their stay. By so doing, the beach-chair arrangement would be guaranteed. I nodded thoughtfully, and headed away. That was all I could handle for the moment. I had this overpowering desire to go somewhere else and breathe.

For me, dealings of this nature put me in Grown-up country, and although I’m officially middle-aged, I imagine myself, particularly in adult-type negotiations, as significantly younger. Most troubling in Jane’s explanation was the method of setting the beach-chair arrangement in motion. I had tipped people my whole life. But to that point, I had never “taken care of” anybody.

I’m not a stranger to the concept. “Taking care of” people, a maneuver popularized in the glitzy showrooms of Vegas, involves the handing over of unspecified sums of money in exchange for exceptional service, such as a ringside table at Nudes on Ice. Basically, it’s a bribe. A pre-service payoff of an uncertain amount.

I have to admit, not having been raised by mobsters, the whole idea of “taking care of” people makes me extremely uneasy. It’s not just the money, though that’s certainly a part of it. Okay, it’s a big part of it.

What really throws me is the disturbing lack of clarity in the transaction. We’re in this netherworld of quasi-contractualization. There’s nothing on paper. If they stiff you, you can’t run to the Better Business Bureau and complain, “You know, I bribed this person, and they didn’t come through.”

Rock stars live in this world. They pull out a wad of rock star money and get what they want; and if the deal goes sour, their bodyguards will “mess somebody up.” That isn’t my world. I don’t have bodyguards.

Even if I did want to party like a rock star, I had no idea how to do it. Starting with the particulars. For example, how much do you have to shell out to make someone feel fully “taken care of”? Knowing this is essential when considering the “Embarrassment Factor.”

What if my idea of a “taking care of” number turns out to be laughably insufficient? Or, even worse, embarrassingly over the top? A “C-note” for a book of matches.

What was the etiquette in these matters? Where were the guidelines? Help me! I’m lost!

My only hope was to seek out a mentor. A Guru of beach-chair-bribing Graft.

I wasn’t certain whom to ask about this. But I had some ideas.

Tomorrow: Our hero enters the sordid world of beach-chair corruption.

Friday, December 19, 2008

"London Times -Part Three B

Wrapping toys at Harrods – London’s preeminent department store – during Christmas season, 1967. A stopgap moneymaking measure, necessitated by my having lost my job as a substitute teacher. I didn’t take it personally. The British government fired all the substitute teachers in England. It was unlikely that was a subterfuge to get rid of me.

“We’ll fire them all. He’ll never know.”

As flattering as that is…I don’t think so.

A room was allocated on the same floor as the Toy Department, but off to the side, hidden from view. This was the Toy Wrapping Room. My place of employment for the next nine weeks. The Toy Wrapping Room was large, poorly lit, and dusty. There were no windows and questionable ventilation, issues which would later cause me to lead my fellow toy wrappers out on strike. More on that later.

Extending down the middle of the room, was a conveyor belt. The conveyor belt rolled supersized wire carrier baskets filled with toys from the Toy Department, through an opening in the wall, and into the Toy Wrapping Room. Each basket contained a separate order of purchased toys, some containing many toys, others, orders of a single item. The toy wrapper would move to the conveyor belt, carry the next basket in line to their workspace, and wrap the toys contained in that basket.

An accompanying receipt informed the toy wrapper whether the order was to be wrapped for local delivery (by Harrods trucks), or for shipping abroad. We packed the local deliveries in cardboard boxes, wrapped them in the signature “Harrods Green” wrapping paper, then fastened them with string. The packages going abroad were just boxed and tied. They were then sent downstairs to the Mail Room, where they were taken apart and rewrapped for shipping.

Two points I never understood. One: I was informed that many toys, for example, tricycles, arrived from the manufacturer in cardboard packing boxes. Did the toy wrappers wrap the tricycles in the packing boxes they arrived in? No. Why not? Because, when they arrived, the original packing boxes had been taken downstairs and thrown into the furnace to heat the store.

I found this hilarious. An upscale enterprise, using cardboard shipping boxes to heat their building. But I didn’t laugh. I didn’t laugh, because, since the original packing boxes had been burnt up, it fell to us toy wrappers to re-wrap the tricycles. Not in boxes – we didn’t have any large enough – but in the signature “Harrods Green” wrapping paper.

Do you have any idea how long it takes a long time to wrap a tricycle? Plus, it was complicated. You never knew where to start – the handlebars, the little step in the back, the bell…?

Point Two. I quote myself, from four paragraphs ago. “The orders going abroad…would then be sent downstairs to the Mail Room, where they were taken apart and rewrapped for shipping.”


Why didn’t they just send the “abroad” parcels directly to the Mail Room? What was the point of having the toy wrappers wrap them, only to have them sent down to the Mail Room and taken apart?

There were three problems which kept me from getting satisfying answers to my questions. One, I was a nobody. A temporary employee at the lowest rung. Two, I was barely adequate at my job. Manipulative dexterity is not my greatest gift. I can tie my laces, but no promises after that. Putting it kindly, I am not a “natural” as a toy wrapper.

Every toy wrapper’s workspace included a large nail embedded in a metal base. When we completed wrapping an order, we would “crucify” that order’s receipt, meaning, we’d pierce it on the nail, and pull it down to the bottom. Through the course of the day, the nail would get stacked up with receipts. This was an irrefutable indicator of our efforts. The more receipts on your nail, the faster you were working.

My nail held, consistently, the lowest number of receipts. I was very slow. I tried to build up my receipt tally by choosing the carrier baskets holding the fewest number of toys. Also, the orders that were the easiest to wrap. A board game, like Chutes and Ladders – regular-shaped, and already boxed. A deck of cards. No problem. Couple of minutes – I’m done.

A giant stuffed animal could take half a day. Especially if it had antlers.

Whatever my strategy, I remained “the slowpoke.” My boss, a beefy former policeman from Glasgow was continually on my case. This produced a critical problem. Not because of my imminent danger of being fired, but because of the guy’s accent.

I speak English. I’ve always been able to understand other people who speak English. But I could not at all understand a man who spoke English in the indecipherable dialect of a person from Glasgow.

My boss complained that the strings on my packages weren’t tied tightly enough, especially the ones that were going to the Mail Room. (Why should they be? I knew they were going to be taken apart!)

“Errrrrrrol,” he burred, “yew goo’a puhl yer strayngs tayter.”

This is not even close to the throat gagging I actually heard. The man was of a nightmare of glottal incomprehensibility. He’d go on criticizing my work, and I’d stare at him, pretending to understand what he was saying.

“Yew goo’a gate moore racayts on yer neel.”

No idea.

I worked at my pace, and I didn’t get fired. The highlights? Sometimes, I’d wrap presents for important people. Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth’s sister. King Olaf of Norway. There was an old TV show called, Mama. It told the story of a Norwegian immigrant family. I printed a little message on King Olaf’s parcel:

“Mama and family are fine. They really miss Norway.”

I don’t think he got it. It was one of those packages they rewrapped in the Mail Room.

As we got closer to Christmas, package delivery before the “Big Day” could no longer be guaranteed. The shoppers were therefore required to take their packages home themselves. This led to temporary reprieves from the dank and depressing Toy Wrapping Room. Now, after wrapping our packages, it became our job to walk them into the store to Harrods’ “Pick-Up Center.”

It was like being liberated from a dungeon. The comparative illumination made me shield my eyes.

I’m heading towards the “Pick-Up Center” when I pick up the bone-chilling sound of a female customer having a fit. Yelling. Complaining. Totally out of control. A flustered Harrods “Customer Service” official tries to calm her down, but nothing’s working. The woman is going nuts.

Without thinking, I walk up to her and say, “Lady, you’re giving me a headache.”

The woman turns and glares at me. There is a clear “Off with his head!” appearance to her daggers-staring eyes. For some reason, I wasn’t afraid.

“Tell me the problem, and I’ll see what I can do.”

She was young – maybe mid-twenties – luxuriously dressed (I believe there was a fur hat involved), impeccably groomed, and elegantly attractive. Other than “young”, I was none of those things.

It turned out the woman’s parcels had been mistakenly packaged for local delivery rather than for overseas travel. I told her I could help.

“Follow me,” I instructed.

I took her to the Toy Wrapping Room. I sat her down on a large roll of corrugated cardboard, where she remained as I rewrapped her presents. Then, I told her to get up and help me. As she held her finger on the knot, I fastened the strings. Tighter than I had ever fastened them before.

All the time, I talked to her. Nothing memorable. Verbal distractions. Anything to get her to relax. When the job was completed, I gathered her packages and walked her out.

We’re standing at the door leading to the street. The woman thanks me, and hands me a tip. Five pounds. (Close to fifteen bucks.) I’m taken by surprise. I thought we were equals. I didn’t want the money.

“Give it to your favorite charity,” she insists.

And then she was gone.

On my way back to the Toy Wrapping Room, I was suddenly accosted by a phalanx of high-level Harrods personnel, acting dithery and concerned. They wanted the whole story. So I told them. Leaving out the part about the tip.

The Harrods bigwigs shook their heads in baffled bewilderment.

“You took her to the Toy Wrapping Room?”

“She was making a fuss. I was just trying to help.”

I stood there, confused by the excitement. What’s the big deal? I helped a customer.

“Was she important?” I asked.

“She’s the princess of Luxembourg,” they replied. Or the “Duchess of Westphalia.” I can no longer recall. But it was definitely European royalty.

By the time our tour of duty was ending, every single toy wrapper was sick. It was “Cello-tape poisoning”, causing a permanent tickle in our lungs. As I mentioned, the room had questionable ventilation. Everyone was coughing up a storm.

We complained as a group, demanding healthier conditions. They fired us on the spot. It was December the twenty-third. Our jobs were scheduled to be over on the twenty-fourth. The insurrection cost us one day’s pay.

Decades later, on a trip to London, I made a point of visiting Harrods. I took the escalator to the Toy Department floor, told a salesperson my backstory, and asked if I could look in on the Toy Wrapping Room. She pointed the way. And off I went.

The Toy Wrapping Room was different. Smaller. And airier. The reason for the fresh air was immediately apparent. The room had an enormous window you could open.

A window in the Toy Wrapping Room. I'd like to believe I had something to do with that.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

"London Times - Part Three"

I’m jumping around in the story, because this one is Christmas-related. After this, I’ll go back in order. I promise.

October, 1967.

I’m a Substitute Teacher. (Further details: To come.) Playing “hardball” during a heated dispute with the Teachers’ Union, the British government fires all the substitute teachers in the country.

I am suddenly out of work.

Belinda Rokeby-Johnson is a compassionate, porcelain-pretty girl in my acting class. (Further details: To come. Less about Belinda than about the acting class. Sorry.)

Belinda Rokeby-Johnson informs me that every year, during the “Christmas Rush” when a supplemented workforce is required, many of her friends applied for work at Harrods, a world-famous, upscale London Department Store.

The reason for her friends’ employment choice, she explains, is so they could take advantage of their seventeen per cent Harrods Employees’ Discount when they purchased their chinchilla coats. Belinda Rokeby-Johnson and her friends were extremely wealthy.

Here’s how wealthy. Every day, these supplemental employees, who would earn (the equivalent of) fifty dollars a week, would be dropped off for work by chauffeurs, driving Rolls Royces and Bentleys. Although these “Christmas Rush” recruits were highly competent in the areas of quality and taste, they were totally incapable of making change. They had never seen any before.

Belinda Rokeby-Johnson suggests (though chinchilla coats were beyond my budget range, even with the discount) that I ride out the school labor dispute by applying for “Christmas Rush” employment at Harrods.

I apply. And I get the job.

I would not, however, be a part of the impeccable Harrods “Sales Force.” I didn’t qualify for those positions, sadly lacking in the appropriate wardrobe – black-striped gray pants and a cutaway jacket. (I was more flannel shirts and jeans.) Understandably, I was designated for a “backstage” assignment.

I’d be wrapping toys for Christmas.

Before I get into the exciting specifics of toy wrapping, some words about the Harrods protocol. Harrods employees – even the wealthy ones – were required to enter a building across the street from the store, where we would “queue up” and “clock in.” It was my first “Time Card.”

The Harrods employees would then descend to the basement, where we’d proceed via a tunnel under the road, emerging across the street, inside the store.

Harrods employees were forbidden from using the Street Entrances. Harrods Employees were “Tunnel People.” Barring emergencies, Harrods employees were also prohibited from using the building’s elevators and escalators. Elevators and escalators were for customers. Harrods employees used the stairs. Hopefully unobtrusively and unseen.

Except for the tunnel travel, I never followed any of the rules. I was a “colonial”, untutored in subservience. Though my country, Canada, never openly rebelled like the Americans did, the two-tiered, class system, “Upstairs-Downstairs” and all that, it just seemed ridiculous. So I ignored it.

I more than ignored it. I turned it on its head. There was this meeting place at Harrods called the Banking Halls. You know, like, “I’ll meet at the Banking Halls and we’ll head off for a spot of lunch.”

The Banking Halls were fitted with a battalion of couches, upholstered in signature “Harrods Green” leather, and fastened with shiny, brass rivets. Customers would relax on these couches, awaiting their rendezvous.

I never met anyone at the Banking Halls. Employees lunched at the subsidized “canteen” on the top floor of the building, where generous, three-course meals were served, costing (in Canadian money) forty-two cents. (My entire weekly salary was a shade over forty bucks. I would have gotten less, but being a non-citizen, I was mercifully exempt from “withholding.”)

What I did was this. On a fairly regular basis, I would chow down at the “canteen”. I’m a fast eater; it didn’t take long. I would then head over to the Harrods “Smoke Shop” where I’d purchase a really good cigar.

Finally, I’d proceed to the Banking Halls, where I’d plant myself on one of the couches, light up, and smoke my cigar. When I was done, if there was time left on my lunch break, I would avail myself of the couches for a short but satisfying nap.

I’m sure a broke a number of employees’ rules on those occasions, but nobody ever stopped me. I guess I looked like a customer.

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you more.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"A Frequently Asked Question"

Get ready for an unglamorous answer to a frequently asked question. The question being this:

“When did you know you were a writer?”

I’m working at Universal Studios, which means I’d been writing professionally for close to twenty years. For the last fifteen, I had worked consistently on some of the most highly regarded comedies on television, and I’d won some prizes.

I still felt uncomfortable calling myself a writer.

Yes, I’d been successful in the past. But what if I stunk things up the next time I wrote something? And every times after that? Would I still have the right to consider myself a writer?

Maybe I’d been lucky up till then. Maybe I’d caught some breaks and I’d fooled ‘em a couple of times. No way that made me a writer. A writer was, you know, a writer was…

I didn’t know what a writer was. I just wasn’t ready to say it was me.

I’m sitting behind my large, oak desk, in my enormous Universal Studios office. Universal decorated those offices very strangely. Desks and armoires, seemingly lifted from some nineteenth century English banking firm. And foxhunting pictures on the wall.

It felt like some bewigged British businessman might walk in at any moment and proclaim, “The Carpathia has sunk. We’re here for the insurance.”

I’m writing a letter. I don’t remember to whom, and I don’t remember about what. I just remember writing it. And I remember it being, owing to its nature, entirely absent of comedy.

Maybe it was a “Thank you.” Maybe it was a request. Maybe it was a complaint about something. I do not recall. All I remember was finishing it, and then reading it to myself.

I liked what I had written. It was simple and clear. No extra words, no unnecessary flourishes. It was just what it was: Exactly the letter I’d intended to write.

That’s when I thought to myself, I believe, for the very first time:

“I must be a writer.”

And so I was.


Thank you for your recent encouragement and support. Yes, the ratings made my crazy too.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"Farewell To A 'Follower'"

Consider this a momentary “pit stop” in the hurtling juggernaut that is this blog.

I don’t know how many people read this blog, and I don’t want to know. But every day, when I go through the procedure for publishing my latest post, I am confronted by this icon called “Followers.” I can’t avoid looking at it. It’s right there.

Looking at me.

The icon, maybe that’s the wrong word, maybe it’s an indicator, whatever it is, it’s presented in the form of a number of green silhouettes, each lined up behind and slightly to the left of the silhouette in front of it. No facial features. No individualization at all. Just a series of head and torso outlines. It’s kind of creepy, actually.

I’m still not exactly sure what “Followers” means. But once, after writing my post for the day, my curiosity overcame my reluctance to uncover anything that might damage my morale, and I clicked on it.

It took me to someone else’s blog. That was the extent of my curiosity. I didn’t read the “Follower’s” blog beyond the first sentence or two, because, one, I knew it would stay there, and I could read it any time I wanted, and two, to be totally honest, once I’m finished writing for the day, I’m pretty much worn out.

According to the indicator, I currently have three “Followers.”

Last week, I had four.

The math – in this case, subtraction – indicates that my blog recently experienced a drop-off in “Followers” to the tune of twenty-five per cent.

That’s big. Don’t you think?

I am reminded of the book I just read called, The Coldest Winter, about the Korean War. And I’m thinking, if there were four soldiers huddled in a foxhole, and one of them got picked off, that loss would represent a dangerous drop in manpower, and a worrying threat to the surviving foxhole personnel.

Four to three. True, it’s a drop of only one number. But you can’t help but notice.

There is no plan to this blog. Call it a pastiche. A little “Story of a Writer”, a little “Interview With a Giraffe”; yesterday, it was “The Evolution of Sociology.” That was cool. I mean, it’s no “Cross-over Porn Stars”, but why duplicate what other blogs do better?

There’s no overarching theme to this blog, no capsulizing, “This is what it’s about.” Other than, Just Thinking…, which I try to keep doing on a regular basis.

Describing my blog, to paraphrase the great philosopher, Popeye…

It is what it is, and that’s all what it is.

“Follower Number Four”, who once thought it was meaningful to be “Follower Number Four”, decided last week that it wasn’t.

Why? Who knows? Maybe they got bored. Maybe they got busy. Maybe they passed away, and a relative cancelled their membership, feeling it was too creepy for their loved one to continue being a “Follower” after they were dead.

There could be any number of reasons “Follower Number Four” stopped “Following.” I’m sad that they dropped out, but what can I do?

Please come back, “Follower Number Four.” I’ll be funnier. I’ll be more relevant to your life. I’ll…

Stop. Groveling!

Sorry. Momentary lapse.

I guess there’s nothing left to say. Except to recycle the words my Great-Uncle Benny said to me the last time I saw him before I moved away to California.

“Follower Number Four?” (wherever you are)

Here’s hoping you miss me.

Tomorrow, I go back to work.

Wait! I just looked. I'm back to four "Followers." Did they come back? Or is this a new one?

Who cares? I'm back to four!

Monday, December 15, 2008

"The Evolution of Sociology"

Sociology is the Social Science that proves to a certainty that rich people have more money than poor people.

Such was my less than respectful evaluation of Sociology when I majored in it years ago at the University of Toronto. Back then, Sociology was a muscle-flexing, growingly confident discipline. From an outsider’s perspective, they seemed a little smug.

Executing carefully crafted experiments, whose results were then submitted to rigorous statistical analysis, Sociology believed they had methods of drawing accurate conclusions about the questions those experiments were created to examine.

Sociology promised to crack the code in the area of “causation.” “Condition ‘A’”, to a statistical degree of certainty, can be demonstrated to have caused “Condition ‘B’.” Those things are always fun to know, and Sociology assured us they had the answers.

I remember being excited about putting Sociology’s methods to the test. I imagined crafting my own “causation study” on the possible relationship between “Crime and Height.” (Not really. That was just college-aged Earl, being irreverent.)

My respect for the emerging discipline was further challenged during our first semester of Sociology seminars. My immediate problem, hardly Sociology’s fault, was that our class took place in a cubicle-sized “Seminar Room”, where the first thing the professor did when it was time to start was to close the door.

A few postings back, I wrote, with emotion, about my fear of being trapped in an elevator. A tiny Seminar Room is no stopped elevator, but it is space-deprived and, with the door not open, enclosed. For some of us, that’s all it takes.

My first seminar in Sociology focused entirely on a single question. And the question was this:

“Can dogs lend things to each other?”

It was not just claustrophobia that had me thinking, “Let me out of here!”

The discussion proceeded like this. My fellow students would go on for hours on the subject of how smart and “almost human” their dogs were. They could fetch, they could bring the newspaper, they could answer the phone and take messages…

They were Superdogs. Every one of them.

Drawing on anecdotal experience, my fellow students concluded that, if their dogs could pull off such amazing – and many of them actually were – feats of accomplishment, it would in no way be beyond their canine capacities to hand something over to another dog with a reliable expectation of getting it back. (The definition of “lending.”)

My thoughts on the matter?

“What the heck are they talking about!!!???

They’re dogs!!!

When I was finally called upon, that was my position. “They’re dogs.” Not a popular position. Assuring them I meant no disrespect to the dog owners in the room (a room that was rapidly closing in on me), I asserted that I believed certain things were beyond even the smartest dog’s abilities. And lending things to each other, in my humble, and admittedly un-experimentally verified opinion, was one of them.

It turned out I was wrong. Ending weeks of discussion, the professor informed us that the official, Sociological answer to the question, “Can dogs lend things to each other?” was this:

“We just don’t know.”

Since reliable experiments could not be devised to resolve the issue to a certainly, the question of whether or not dogs can lend things to each other remains open.

“We just don’t know.”

Thank you. Can we leave now?

Flash Forward

It’s decades later. I’ve begun taking extension classes at UCLA, and, perusing my academic options, I decide to renew my acquaintance with Sociology. See how it’s doing. I choose a class called, “Sociology of a Scandal”, focusing on the “Watergate” scandal. You know, they broke into the place, the president knew about it, and blah.

It sounded perfect for me. I’d been a devoted follower of the “Watergate” hearings, I was familiar with the minutiae – the tapes, Tony Ulasewicz, the “hush money” in paper bags – the class was definitely up my alley.

On top of the subject matter, hey, it was Sociology, my college “major.” I knew Sociology’s “M.O.” I was eager to discover what reliably certain conclusions Sociology had drawn on this excruciating blot on our political history.

I was sorely disappointed.

Like a friend one had known in their prime, for whom the passing years had been particularly unkind, Sociology had unquestionably lost its mojo. The once robust discipline had deteriorated into an embarrassing shell of its former self. “What happened, Sociology?”, I wondered, a figurative tear glistening in my eye. “Where did you go?”

Where Sociology went – retreated might be a more accurate description – was to the disappointing world of theoretical fractionalization. Exposed as an interloper with a statistical veneer, “Sociological Reliability” had been laughed out of the “Fraternity of Real Science.” There would be no more swaggering pronouncements from this once burgeoning discipline. A giant in the “Certainty Business” had been unceremoniously toppled. (Well, maybe not a giant, but it was well over six-two.)

All that remained was a smorgasbord of competing theories. Marx. Weber. Durkheim. Parsons. Our entire class involved viewing “Watergate” through their differing ideological prisms. It’s the only thing Sociology now feels qualified to do. To the question, “What were the root causes of “Watergate?” Sociology, seriously humbled, can only respond with this:

“It depends on the theory.”

How the mighty had fallen. Sociology’s condition made me nostalgic for the spirited discussion of, “Can dogs lend things to each other?”

My disillusioning experience with what currently passes for Sociology has narrowed my options when it comes to extension classes. (Political Science let me down as well. Inconsequential experiments; not enough “something you can hold on to.”) This, by default, directs me to Philosophy, where I’ve already taken three classes.

Philosophy may not know what the truth is either, but at least they haven’t abandoned the search.

Friday, December 12, 2008

"The Art of the Review"

After Best of the West debuted on ABC, a review of the show appeared in the Los Angeles Times the following morning. Dr. M (though merely M at the time) brought me the “Entertainment Section” while I was still in bed. When I turned to the review of my show, I immediately noticed that the critique had gone through some substantial alterations.

What I was confronted with was a Best of the West review with all the, I imagined, negative elements cut out, leaving me with a "critical doily." Apparently, M had taken a scissors and eliminated all the descriptives she believed would upset me. There weren’t a lot of holes – the review was generally positive – but her gesture was memorable in its thoughtfulness, and its sensitivity to how I’d react.

I hate bad reviews. (This truism ranks with the remark of an actor I once knew who confessed, “I hate small parts.”) My response to negative bad mirrors the “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor” joke. I’ve had good reviews and I’ve had bad reviews. Good reviews are better.

Having received good reviews and less good reviews through the course of my career, the thing I’ve noticed – and it used to confuse me – is that I never received, concerning any of my various enterprises, a consistent review.

The reviews were all over the place, many expressing the exact opposite opinions. The element one reviewer would praise would be mentioned by another reviewer as precisely the thing they didn’t like. You could determine each reviewer’s overall response, positive or negative, but when you got to the supporting evidence, the same examples supported diametrically opposing points of view.

The inconsistency in reviewers’ responses left me scratching my head. Two reviewers, watching to same program, one goes, "I loved it", the other goes, “P.U.”? I realize reviewing is not math. There’s no “right answer” in the back of the book. But for one reviewer to single out for praise the exact same…joke, moment, casting choice, et cetera, that left another reviewer holding their nose…?

How could that be?


…and here I propose my deeply considered conclusion and the premise for this posting…

When delivering their critical responses, the reviewers are rarely reviewing the show.

The reviewers are – unconsciously – reviewing themselves.

This tendency is easy to succumb to. It’s like left-leaning journalists being unaware of their liberal bias. (This is not equally applicable to conservative journalists. Conservative journalists acknowledge their conservative bias, making them – confusingly – more prejudiced and more honest at the same time.)

I’ve done very little reviewing in this blog. Possibly none. This may be because the controversy generated by reviewing can lead to increased blogal popularity, which I’m conscientiously trying to avoid. Or, less facetiously, maybe I’m uncomfortable with controversy. Or – Explanation Number Three – though I’m qualified, as a longtime writer, to evaluate the professionalism of the writing, on the level of, “I liked it, I hated it”, my opinion is no more worthy, or less worthy, than your own.

Today, I’m making an exception. With a particular objective in mind. I’m not temporarily donning my “Reviewer’s Hat” for purposes of pontification (Does that mean acting like a pope?), but to demonstrate – using myself as the guinea pig – how reviewers fall into the possibly unavoidable habit of reviewing themselves.


30 Rock. NBC, Thursday at nine-thirty, eight-thirty Central Time, nine o’clock in Newfoundland.

30 Rock is one of the two network comedies I make an effort to watch regularly. (The other is The Big Bang Theory.)


I personally know two people ranking high on the 30 Rock food chain. We have "history", in one case, mixed, in the other, embarrassing. (I demonstrated some heavy-duty bad manners.) These connections are hardly unusual. It is not at all unlikely that, in the relatively circumscribed world of the entertainment business, a reviewer could have had, could currently have, or could desire to have, a relationship with one of the entities involved in the very enterprise they’re reviewing.

Are you telling me that the nature of the reviewer’s past, current or desired future relationship with those entities is not going to affect said reviewer’s enthusiasm for the show?

Moving on….

My career in half-hour comedy flourished during the era of the multi-camera film format, and ended with the rise to prominence of the single camera comedy. Someone asks me to review the single-camera comedy, 30 Rock. You think, maybe, my personal history might exert some vendettafying influence on my enjoyment of the show?


Owing to my conditioning on the shows I worked on, from Mary Tyler Moore to The Cosby Show, my favored form of comedy is the one where the writers have as their motivating impulse: To reflect the truth of the situation that they’re writing about.

Rather than portraying the day-to-day experiences on a late night comedy sketch show, 30 Rock, in my view, delivers the “nightmare version”, offering storylines concerning paranoid delusions and purported abduction by aliens. Responding to my “reflecting-the-truth-of-the-situation” proclivity, Earl, the reviewer, will not be giving 30 Rock a “smiley face” for verisimilitude (“For Shame” Alert: Reviewer Earl has judged 30 Rock by a standard that it apparently never aspired to meet. "For shame, for shame.")

And then there’s the jokes

Example. Earl, the reviewer, is not easily offended, but owning an adventuresome left eye that independently travels wherever it chooses, “wandering eye” references have never been his favorite laugh-inducing formula. Employing the reviewer’s area of sensitivity – whatever it is – as joke fodder, do you really think that’s not going to affect their perspective on the show?

Random examples of the problem. There are probably more.

So. What does Earl, the reviewer, think of 30 Rock? Every week, I tune in, wanting to like it, and every week – even weeks when they don’t have “wandering eye” jokes – I’m consistently disappointed.

Are you surprised?

My reaction to 30 Rock is, in my mind, an entirely truthful one. But having clarified – as an example of “The Reviewing Problem” – where it’s coming from…

What exactly is it worth?

(I should have thought about this when I was getting those negative reviews. It might have softened the blow.

Oh, who am I kidding?)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

"A Jew At Christmas"

I once sat on Santa Claus’s lap.

A Jew at Christmas. It’s a complicated time.

I’m seven years old, standing in line at Eaton’s Department Store, waiting to meet Santa, and tell him what I want. My mother, also a Jew, seems untroubled by these circumstances. There was this line of children at the Santa display, and my mother said, “Go.” I’m at the back of the line. And I’m moving up.

And all the time, I’m looking around, scanning the room searching for some Toronto Hebrew Day School teacher or student snitch, who could rat me out to Mrs. Snider, the school principal, after which I’d be severely punished. This was no paranoid delusion (though I’m hardly above those). Years later, I’d receive a month’s detention for eating a non-kosher hamburger from the nearby Carousel Restaurant.

A month’s “D” for a forbidden burger. How long would I be punished for consorting with the primary symbol of the “other” religion’s most important celebration? We’re talking in the vicinity of O.J.-level prison time.

Not only was I betraying my religion with my actions – I may not have my facts exactly correct, but I believe that during the Spanish Inquisition, Jewish children were threatened with the rack for refusing to sit on Santa’s lap, and they still wouldn’t do it – I was also not coming clean with the dominant religion of the land, by which, I mean Christianity.

I did not belong in that Santa line.

But in line I was, and suddenly at the front. I look at my mother. She says, “Go.” So I go. You could sense trepidation in my every move. Fortunately, it was misread by his “helpers” as Santa-facing stage fright.

I find myself being lifted onto the lap an oversized, jolly man, sporting a fluffy white beard and a fur-trimmed red suit. Santa asks me my name. I make sure to only tell him my first name. “Earl” sounds unquestionably Christian. That’s why they gave me that name. Camouflage for situations like this.

Santa then asks me what I want for Christmas? I immediately start to sweat, and it’s not ‘cause I’m wearing my snowsuit indoors. What am I gonna tell him, “I’m Jewish”? He’ll call a policeman.

“Arrest this boy for impersonating a Christian!”

It’s the quintessential Christmas dilemma: A boy on Santa’s lap, lying about his religion.

This is totally unacceptable. You know the line from the song:

“He knows if you’ve been good or bad…”

I’m certain lying to Santa Claus qualifies as being bad. And if there’s any truth to that song whatsoever, He knows!”

The situation is “lose-lose.” As a Jew, I’m not in line for Christmas presents from my family. And by lying to him, there’ll be no presents from Santa either. On top of all that, if my shenanigans get reported back to Snider…

Sweet Juniper! It’s “lose-lose-lose!”

In the end, I did get some “holiday” presents. But they were never anything I had asked for.

This year, Christmas and Chanukah run pretty much head to head, Chanukah arriving three days earlier. It’s not like you have to choose or anything, but in the spirit of blogospheric candor, I have to tell you: I’ve always liked Christmas better.

Ow. I just felt a betrayal in my soul.

Listen. Chanukah is an exceptional holiday, an upbeat change-of-pace from Jewish holidays involving groveling for forgiveness, or the destruction of the temple. I do feel less than virtuous celebrating a military victory, considering the carnage and such, but if there’s a choice, victory is considerably better than being driven into the Diaspora. Again.

During Chanukah’s eight days, we light candles, eat potato pancakes, sing Chanukah-related songs, play dreydl (top)-spinning games, every ritual signifying the miracle that is Chanukah. In case you’re not aware of what that miracle was, it concerns some lighting oil discovered in the holy temple, which appeared to be sufficient for only one day’s use, but the oil, miraculously, lasted for eight. I may be not totally accurate about the details, but one-turning-into-eight thing I’m pretty sure about.

These days, Chanukah has evolved into a major present-giving holiday, some parents giving their kids one present on each of the eight days. This ritual signifies, I believe, overkill. Our family doesn’t go the “eight presents” route, but we are into multiples. As our girls grew older, the presents got more expensive. When they were kids, it was,

“Look! Two presents! The toy, and the cardboard box it came in!

Now, it’s I-somethings and lap tops.

However it’s evolved, I enjoy Chanukah. It’s a wonderful holiday.

But it’s not Christmas.

I grew up knowing Christmas was this enormous party that wasn’t for me. Though sometimes, I did get to go as a tourist. When we were young, neighbors would invite my brother and me over to help decorate their tree. They gave us handfuls of tinsel and sugar cookies shaped like elves. We threw the tinsel and ate the cookies. Then we went home. It wasn’t our holiday, but we enjoyed the visit.

The Christmas Season invariably lightens my spirits. And I’m crazy about Christmas carols. (Man, I’m going to hell. Wait – Jews don’t have hell. Awright!)

I always liked Christmas carols. At Ledbury Park Junior High – where I majored in typing and singing – Christmas meant learning the alto part to Silent Night. (Later, at Bathurst Heights Collegiate, Fraulein Wiesener taught us to sing it in German.) Our annual Christmas assembly meant Neville Nuby’s stirring rendition of my favorite Christmas carol of all, Oh, Holy Night.

To this day, around Christmas season, I’m in the shower, with the really great acoustics, and suddenly out of nowhere, I’m booming out with full-throated emotion,

“Fall…on your knees…”

I know I shouldn’t be singing that. But what are you going to do? It’s a really good song. Especially in the shower. (Though I’ve been known to reprise my performance on the street, until some family member forces me to stop.)

Not that there aren’t problems for me around Christmas. I get way too many “Tree Ornaments” catalogues I can’t use. And I’m constantly required to intercept salespeople before they envelope my Chanukah presents in red and green wrapping paper. Plus, there’s nowhere to eat out on Christmas Eve. On the other hand, I have no problem getting into any movie I want.

I’ll finish with this.

If you do happen to be outside on Christmas Eve, stand still for a second, and just listen.

It’s really quiet out there.

Basking in the calm and comforting silence, you can feel the possibility of peace on earth, the reassuring sense that everything’s going to be okay.

That feeling, I think – I hope – is not reserved for one group of people.

It’s for everyone.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"The Alarm Button"

There are places in life where there are signals telling you that everything is unmistakably not okay.

Ambulances have sirens. I understand why. They’re trying to race through traffic. The sirens are signaling the other drivers to “Get out of the way!” The thing is, there’s a sick person in that ambulance, and they’re scared, because somebody called an ambulance for them, and that’s never a good sign.

That sick person is hearing the blaring siren. To them, that siren’s not signaling other drivers to, “Get out of the way!” The siren’s saying, “If you don’t get out of the way, this sick person’s going to die right here in the ambulance.”

In my view, the shrieking siren seriously amplifies the fear. From a health standpoint, that can’t be helpful. The amplified fear could hurry up the dying.

What am I suggesting? Outside the ambulance: A siren. Inside: Soundproof. With soothing music. Or, for sports fans, a ballgame.

“Alarm Buttons”, such as ambulance sirens, are everywhere. And despite the unquestionable service they provide, I dast question the entire concept.

You dast?


An Argument For The Deleterious Quality of “Alarm Buttons”

The “Alarm Button” on elevators is always red. Why? Red is the scariest color. It’s blood. It’s the hottest fire. It’s “Red Alert.” Red screams, “Trouble in the extreme.”

Why does the “Alarm Button” have to be red? Why can’t it be blue? Or a bright, sunny yellow? And why does it have to say “Alarm” on it? You’re already alarmed. You don’t need a reminder, printed on the button. Why can’t it say something more calming, like, “Assistance”?

The jarring thing about pressing the “Alarm Button” when you’re stuck in an elevator is the acknowledgment you’re making. The acknowledgment is this:

“I’m stuck in an elevator!”

Pressing the “Alarm Button” confirms this condition as a certainty. Nobody presses the “Alarm Button” when they’re you’re not stuck in an elevator. You just ride the elevator, staring at the “Floor Indicator.”

Until you actually press the “Alarm Button”, there is a chance, not a great chance, but a possibility still, that you may not be stuck in an elevator. If the elevator’s reached a floor, it could simply be slow in opening its doors. If the elevator’s between floors, it could be, I don’t know, resting, but soon to be back in action. You merely need to be patient.

Pressing the “Alarm Button” says, “We’ve given up hope. We’re stuck.” The “unspoken” in this admission, at least for people who have serious elevator concerns, are the words,

“And we’re going to die. Right here.”

(Yes. It’s the same message as in the ambulance.)

For “Elephobes” like myself, a stuck elevator is a vertical coffin. I know that sounds extreme to people for whom elevator riding is no big deal, but some of us are different. To us, being stuck in an elevator turns almost immediately into, “The end of the line.”

An elevator is a small, enclosed space. A crowded elevator is a small, enclosed space with a lot of people in it, making the space you occupy even smaller. It also means that you’re sharing the oxygen. Which you imagine – no, you’re certain – is in very limited supply.

You can’t move. Your oxygen is rapidly depleting. And you can’t get out, even if you want to. This is where they’re going to find you. The only question is the amount of freaking out and clawing at the walls and trying to pry the doors open and screaming, “I’ve got to get out of here!” you’ll do before you expire.

At some point, a passenger – not me, I’ll be hyperventilating and pulling at my suddenly suffocating clothing, as I beg in tearful desperation, “Don’t press it. We’ll be moving any minute!” – but some less panic-stricken passenger will do the sensible thing and press the “Alarm Button.”

Remember, the “Alarm Button’s” not like the “Alarm Button” the teller presses when the bank’s being robbed. That button flashes or rings in the Police Station, but you don’t hear it in the bank.

On a stuck elevator, you definitely hear the “Alarm Button.” It’s an alarming sound, which skyrockets the adrenalin coursing through the system of the claustrophobics entombed in the elevator to the level of, “Adrenalin Cubed.”

The elevator “Alarm Button” can be clearly helpful in the Big Picture – people are alerted that you’re in there and they send for help – but when you’re standing there, a prisoner in a suffocating vault, hearing that shrill, alarmy shriek? It can stop your heart.

Not helpful.

Best case scenario? A posthumous recovery.

“What happened?”

“He died.”


“The ‘Alarm Button.’”

You see, sometimes, it’s not the thing that gets you, it’s the thing that stands for the thing. In “Cowboy and Indian” pictures, there was an invariable truism:

“When the drums stop, they attack.”

The townspeople are huddled in the stable, surrounded by bloodthirsty Indians. And always, always, there’s the drums.

Boom-boom-boom-boom. Boom-boom-boom-boom. Boom-boom-boom-boom. Boom-boom-boom-boom.

Suddenly…they stop.

I’m in the movie theater. The drums have stopped. My breathing immediately turns shallow, and I’m sitting in a pool of sweat. My friends are confused by my behavior.

“They haven’t done anything yet.”

“They will,” I reply.

I’m getting this weird vibe from you today, Early P. Where are these disturbing thoughts coming from?

I’ll tell you, Italics Man. Tomorrow, I visit the doctor for the semi-annual “checking of the numbers.” That’s where the blood-test numbers tell me what I’ve got.

Here’s hoping none of them lead to the setting off of the “Alarm Button.”

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

"London Times - Part Two"

It started with the pay phone.

What’s “it”? The foreignness of the place I had just left the familiarity of Canada to move to.

London was different.

In Canada, people spoke with English accents. But not all of them. Now here they were – “Jabberin’ away, they was” – as if it was natural. It was very alienating. And for the first time in my life, the alien was me.

The plan was this: When I got to London, I would call my friend, Alan, with whom I’d be sharing a flat. Alan would then come down on the subway – which they call the Underground – pick me up, and escort me back to where I was going to live. I just had to call and tell him where I was.

The saga I am about to relate took place before cell phones. Back then, pay phones were the only way you could call people when you were out. They were simple to use. You picked up the receiver, you inserted a coin in the slot, you dialed the number, the person on the other end said, “Hello?” and off you went.

I’d been using pay phones all my life. No need to read the directions. How different can an English pay phone be?

You’d be surprised.

I pick up the receiver. I insert a coin in the slot. I dial the number Alan had given to me. The phone rings. I hear a guy who sounded like Alan saying, “Hello?” I say, “Alan?” Alan repeats, “Hello?”, as if he hadn’t heard me say, “Alan?” I say, “Alan?” again. Alan says, “Hello?” again. We go back and forth.

Then I hear a loud series of “beeps.” We’re disconnected, and the line goes dead.

Strike One.

Generally, when I’m involved in a “mess-up”, I reflexively blame myself. Something had gone wrong. It couldn’t have been the pay phone. I must have been me. That’s the way I am. (Therapists, back off.)

For people of my temperament, the next step is inevitable. You do exactly the same thing again.

I pick up the receiver. I insert a coin in the slot. I dial the number. It rings. Someone sounding like Alan says, “Hello?” I say, “Alan?” Alan, obviously not hearing me, says, “Hello?” again. I say “Alan?” again. And off we go. “Hello?” “Alan?” “Hello?” “Alan?”

And here come the beeps, and then we’re disconnected, and then the line’s dead.

Strike Two.

I immediately start to laugh. That’s what I do. When absurdity and failure’s involved, I laugh. What can I do? It’s ridiculous. The guy is my lifeline, and I can’t connect with him. Our entire communication was, “Hello?” “Alan?” “Hello?” “Alan?”

The next step? Involuntary shaking. There’s no hope for me. I don’t know where Alan is; Alan doesn’t know where I am. I’m done for. Totally doomed. I’m going to die exactly where I am – a Canadian skeleton standing at an English pay phone.

My fate is sealed. They’ll be flying me home in a box. A dead embarrassment.

“When did he die?”

“His first day in England.”

“How did it happen?”

“He couldn’t use the pay phone.”

Drawing on a microscopic sliver of genetic self-preservation, I pull myself together. I will not allow this to happen. Not without a fight.

I get some more change. From a “Sweets Kiosk.” It’s a candy stand. Why can’t they just call it that?

I return to the pay phone (which they call a “Phone Box.” These people! Although, truth be told, they are the older country. We were the ones who changed what you call everything.) I read the directions for the phone booth. I’m hopeless at following directions, but what can I do? I’m desperate.

Oh…I see. It’s different.

I pick up the receiver. I dial the number. It rings. Alan says, “Hello?” Only then – as the directions direct – do I insert the coin in the slot. (Why do they do it that way? I don’t frickin’ know!!!)

The problem is, I’m nervous. I know I have a limited time to insert the coin. I jab urgently at the slot. But the coin won’t insert. Hard as I try, I cannot seem to align the coin and the slot at same angle. I desperately keep jabbing.

And here come the beeps. And there’s the “disconnect” sound. The phone goes dead again.

Aaand…it’s over.

Hmph. That’s what I say when I don’t know what else to say. Even when I’m talking to myself.

I’m successful on the fifth try. Not my best work, but Alan and I are finally connected. I tell him I’m outside Victoria Station. Alan tells me to go inside Victoria Station, and wait on the northbound platform. He’ll be there in twenty minutes.

The instructions are simple; you can’t get them wrong. I lug my suitcase into Victoria Station, I buy a ticket, find the northbound platform, and stand there. The crisis is over. In twenty minutes, I’ll be united with the only person I know in England.

I wait on the platform for over an hour. No Alan. Ah, I think to myself. Like many of my predictions, I had once again been mistaken. I would not die at the pay phone, as I’d previously believed.

“I will die on this platform.”

Epitaph: "He Couldn't Follow The Simplest Instructions."

Finally, Alan shows up. With an explanation. Apparently, there are two stations at Victoria Station – a train station and an Underground station. Alan had been searching for me on the platforms of the train station, while I waited for him on the platform of the Underground station, totally unaware that a train station existed.

Lesson One of “Earl in Another Place”:

This new country thing?

It was not going to be easy.

Monday, December 8, 2008

"Uncle Grumpy - On 'Different'"

My erroneous statement that my daughter, Anna, was my first guest blogger sent a shock of consternation raging through my readership. I’m sorry for the confusion. I made a mistake. A mistake, leading some to question my dear old Uncle Grumpy’s existence. As Uncle Grumpy himself reminded me – in a tone suggesting his holiday gift to me may now be considerably less generous – the man is as real and I am.

Sometimes irritating but always provocative, here, once again, is the real – make no mistake about that – Uncle Grumpy. Sorry again, Unkie.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. The kid’s a mush brain, what can I tell you?

Okay. Now.

There are group of people out there called cultural relativists. No need to name names, you know who you are. Cultural relativists believe it is inappropriate to judge the behavior engaged in by members of other cultures. That’s us, being smug and superior. You can’t do that. The right way to think about the behavior of other cultures is this:

It’s not better.

It’s not worse.

It’s just different.

These people are not entirely around the bend. Some people are not at all tolerant of the behavior of people from other places. That’s where words like, “primitive” come from.

You’re in another country:

“The toilet paper here is so scratchy. How primitive.”

You’ve heard stuff like that, probably worse. It’s not very nice. Sure, sometimes it’s tough not to judge the behavior of people from other cultures – they eat monkeys or something – but cut them some slack. Some of us eat snails.

I’d say we’re getting better at being tolerant of the behavior of people from other cultures. But you know what we’re in no way tolerant of?

The behavior of people from other times.

There are people out there – often the same people who demand that we be tolerant of the behavior of the people from other cultures – who despise the behavior of people from other times. Totally dismissive. Explanations? Forget it.

“But here’s why they did that.”

“We don’t want to know.”

Six word summary: “The behavior in other times? Terrible.”

I say, not so fast.

Sure, some old time stuff was unforgivably disgusting. Slavery? Say no more.

But what about, say, women stuff? The inequality. Equally unforgivable? Well…

My view. You don’t have to agree. Just think about it. It won’t kill you.

Before 1900, a vast percentage of families, I read it was like ninety per cent, lived in rural communities, primarily on farms. Back then, the farm family was more than a family, it was an economic unit. Family members worked together, each member shouldering the tasks they were best suited for.

Now, we can’t be sure here. The people are all dead, so we can’t ask them what it was like. But just imagine.

Do you really think there were farm women, baking bread or doing the laundry, looking wistfully out the window toward the fields and thinking,

“Gee, I wish I could plow.”

Maybe a few women did. The really strong women. And it was unfair that they weren’t allowed to. But for most women, it wasn’t an issue. It isn’t like some farm jobs were better than others; they were all terrible. You just did what you did. And whatever that was contributed meaningfully to the economic betterment of the family.

Only men voted. From an equality standpoint, not so good. Quoting the great movie, The Muppets Take Manhattan:

“Pipples is pipples.”

Women are “pipples.” Women get to vote.

But give the “equality standpoint” a rest for a moment, and consider things from an economic standpoint. How many women, whose very existence depended on the success of the enterprise of which they were an integral component, would have voted against the interests of the family farm?

Do you think, maybe, none?

It was one vote per family unit. Was it fair that only men got to vote? No. But it’s extremely unlikely that any the woman’s vote have been any different from her mate’s. What else could they do?

“I voted against the farm.”


“I don’t know. I never voted before.”

Okay. Here’s the turnaround.

Everything changed with the move to the city.

Immigration to the city restructured the entire arrangement. Maybe the kids put in a couple of hours in the store after school, or they contributed to a family “pool” of money, but the family as a distinct economic unit completely disappeared. No more family members working together, each member shouldering the tasks they were best suited for.

With the old arrangement out the window, all bets were off.

Working outside the family unit, individuals in the city began to demand – and had every right to expect – individual rights. And justice required that the same rights be given to everyone. Equal rights under the law. Equal pay. Equal treatment in the workplace. And so it went.

There’s this movie, based on a book of the same name, which I can’t remember, where a character in it said,

“The past is another country. They do things different there.”

The farm system was another country.

They did things different there.

Not better.

Not worse.

Just different.

Friday, December 5, 2008

"Major Dad 'Mop-Up' - Part B"

It wasn’t always a nightmare.

Major Dad had a solid writing staff (featuring Janet, Lisa, and a consulting Miriam), and they consistently kept me afloat. The team had talent, energy, and most importantly – something I rarely displayed myself – a positive attitude.

If there’s one thing I’m sensitive (arguably too sensitive) to, it’s my limitations. I know when I’m done. During one rewrite session, laboring well past midnight, I suddenly announced, “Guys, I have three left”, meaning three jokes, or whatever. I was right on the money. In the ensuing ten minutes, I pitched three really funny lines. Then – as previously announced – I ran out of gas. The writing staff powered me through to the end.

We continually devised techniques for keeping things lively. Early in production, McRaney, who had asked us to call him “Mac” in the show, instructed us not to call him “Mac” in the show. I think it was because his wife called him “Mac” in real life, and she didn’t want him called “Mac” on TV. “Mac” was for home.

Well, we’d always forget. So, to reinforce the rule of not calling “Mac” “Mac” anymore, whenever a writer made a mistake, and referred to “Mac” as “Mac”, we would immediately shpritz the miscreant with water guns.

There were three reasons for that. The Writers Room was generously stocked with water guns. We were trying to teach the miscreant a lesson. And we were in a mood, especially late at night, where it seemed hilarious to us to make other people wet. Burdened with the murderous schedule of a TV series, vacations from sanity can be deliriously welcome.

You’d think I’d be good at working with writers, but, quite often, I wasn’t. The process could be very frustrating. The problem, simply put, was that I wanted my writers to write like me, and they stubbornly insisted on writing like themselves.

Many times, during rewrites, I would get three or four very funny and totally viable pitches, reflecting three or four different storytelling perspectives and, often, a equal number of comedic styles, none of which were like mine, and many unhelpfully incompatible with mine. This stopped me in my tracks. I was not articulate about what I wanted, and wasn’t sure it would change things if I were. I had no idea what to do.

Somehow, we plodded along. Major Dad had a first-year order of twenty-two episodes. That was the “Finish Line.” That’s what I was lurching towards. And it looked like I’d make it. I had already planned my reward – a week’s stay at this spa I go to in Mexico, beginning right after we filmed Episode Twenty-Two.

The network calls: “We’re ordering four additional episodes.”


You’re supposed to be happy when that happens. Ordering additional episodes is a vote of confidence, signifying an almost certain second-year pick-up of the show. And since hardly any series gets cancelled after two years, a pick-up for Season Two points to the show’s running for quite a while, possibly reaching “syndication level”, where the real money is. That call was a really good thing.

And yet I was crying. Why? Because they’d moved the “Finish Line!

There were a couple of characters on the show that weren’t working. They didn’t fit naturally into stories and their comedic value was only so-so. Our plan was to finish Season One with those characters, then drop them, and create new characters for Season Two. Extending Season One with characters we were getting rid of, didn’t make any sense. The reasonable move was to finish the order of twenty-two episodes, then re-tool the series for the following year.

I made my case to Universal’s head of Current Programming, a smart and caring man named Garry. Garry listened patiently to my argument, after which he said he agreed with me. It was stupid to do more episodes using characters we were going to replace. Then he told me to do them anyway.

The Episode Twenty-Three script was ready to go. I finalized the details, then went off, as planned, to the spa. I should never have done that. I should have cancelled the trip. But I didn’t. I was angry about the extended season. And I was exhausted. I really needed to go.

During my spa week, I checked in on the show. I learned from my second in command, another guy named Rick, that McRaney had written a different last scene from the one in the script and was insisting on performing his version of the scene on show night. (Time and trauma have erased any memory of further specifics.)

When I got back, the damage had been done. Actors, unilaterally writing their own material, that’s just not acceptable. McRaney, as the studio possibly racistly put it, had gone “off the reservation.” I announced to Garry that, if that’s the behavior I could expect in the future, I would not be returning for Season Two.

By Episode Twenty-Four, my body couldn’t take anymore. It removed me from the fray by detaching my left eye’s retina. I was out for the season.

A sigh of relief.

Except for the retina.

Getting wind of the fact that I was finished on Major Dad, not just for that season but for good, Rick and McRaney high-tailed it over to CBS and announced to the network’s president, a “Yaley” named Jeff, that the two of them would run the show (as they had wanted to all along). As soon as they left, Jeff called Kerry, the smart and decent president of Universal and said,

“Who’s Rick (last name)?”

When he heard Jeff’s story, Kerry called Rick into his office and fired him on the spot. That’s not the way you do things. You go through channels. The next season, and the two after that, Major Dad was run by my former second-in-command from Season One, the other Rick.

After co-writing Season Two’s first episode, where the two new characters were introduced, I was informed by Rick that my participation in the show would no longer be welcome. (During that period, I had very little luck around Ricks.)

Major Dad flourished during its second and third seasons, airing Monday nights, before Murphy Brown. Starting of its fourth season, the show was rescheduled to Fridays. The ratings immediately plummeted.

There were two reasons for that. Friday was a terrible comedy night for CBS. (Shortly thereafter, CBS’s Everybody Loves Raymond languished in its Friday time period, taking off only after it was transferred to Mondays.)

The second reason for Major Dad’s diminishing ratings was that on Friday nights, Major Dad’s core audience was out, attending High School football games. CBS’s president, “Yaley” Jeff, who had engineered the show's move, was clearly unfamiliar with the folkways of the Heartland.

By this time, Kerry had left Universal to become President of Television at Paramount. It fell to two Universal executives named Tom to negotiate Major Dad’s fifth-year pick-up. Facing dwindling ratings, and “hardball” negotiating tactics from the Toms, who were apparently tone deaf to the realities they were dealing with, CBS abruptly cancelled the show.

And that was that.

In all, three series have aired on major networks, created or extensively developed by me. Best of the West was my funniest series. Family Man was my truest. Major Dad was my most commercially successful. I figured, one day, I’d put all the elements together.

This now seems unlikely.
Postscript: Every year, I get a statement from Universal, informing me that Major Dad is still “in the red”, meaning there are no profits for me to participate in. I have no doubt this is the case. I can’t imagine a studio lying about its profits.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

"Major Dad 'Mop-Up'"

There was this guy named Bernie Slade. Bernard Slade. Also a Canadian. Bernard Slade’s primary claim to fame – or at least his most prestigious claim to fame – is that he wrote a successful play, which later became a movie, called, Same Time, Next Year. My interest was in Slade’s television work, where he created two popular series, The Flying Nun and The Partridge Family.

I always admired – make that envied – Bernie Slade. To me, Bernie Slade had the greatest job in television.

Bernie Slade created TV series. That was his whole job. He created the series, but – and herein lies the envy part – he was not required to work on them. He would do the pilot, and if it got picked up as a series, someone else was brought in to run the show. Bernie would then go back to work creating other series. (At least, this how it appeared from the credits: I’d see, Created By: Bernard Slade, but no writing or producing credits on the series.)

I ravenously coveted that job.

I never got it. (The job may actually have disappeared.) When a series I created got picked up, the network required me to run the show myself. This was unfortunate, all around. I had some aptitude for making up series ideas. I was considerably less effective at running shows.

In a way, it makes sense. You’re the chef who created the delectable menu for the opening of your restaurant, and the next day, you’re gone, and another guy is preparing the food. They’re following the recipes, but it’s not the original chef. When the networks buy a show, they require the original chef to stick around. Whether they’re good at sticking around or not.

You created the series, you ran the show. That’s how it worked. It wasn’t all bad. They paid you really well.

So I ran Major Dad, along with the aforementioned “Executive Producer”-coveting Rick, and a crusty but good-hearted codger named John Stephens. John had been the Executive Producer (along with Rick) on Gerald McRaney’s previous series, Simon and Simon, transitioning to Major Dad after Simon and Simon completed its run. John handled the show from a production standpoint, hiring the crew, scheduling, etc. He did pretty well, for someone who had no sitcom experience whatsoever.

(Point of Personal Privilege: John would tease McRaney by calling him "Sergeant Markoff", after an unlikable character from the Gary Cooper version of the movie, Beau Geste. I got a kick out of that.)

Take note. This is significant. In all my years working in television, Major Dad was the only series I ever worked on full-time for an entire season. You read that right. In my entire career in half-hour comedy, I worked on a full season of episodes only once. I don’t know how people do it. (And do it year after year.) It darn near broke me in half.

You read a script on Wednesday. You film it the following Tuesday. The next morning, you read another script, and do the whole process over again. You produce three, sometimes, four episodes in succession. Then you have a week’s break from production, called a hiatus, but it’s not a vacation.

You’re preparing new scripts. You’re editing episodes that were already shot. You’re casting roles for episodes down the line. You’re approving set designs. You’re mixing sound for the episode about to be aired. You’re polishing the script ready for the upcoming reading. You’re giving the staff writers notes on the drafts of scripts to be produced later. And you’re writing a script yourself.

And while you’re doing this, you’re putting out fires – dealing with the actors, plus the studio and network executives, who are totally indifferent to what you’re trying to accomplish (and the murderous time schedule you’re working under) and pressuring you to do things differently (invariably in a way the audience has seen before several million times.)

At first, Major Dad ran relatively smoothly. The actors were cooperative, the audiences were enjoying the show. (Just as a side note, my capable stepdaughter, Rachel, was given the assignment of naming the Major Dad children. I wasn’t being generous. She was way better at picking appropriate children’s names than I’d have been.)

The work was exhausting but it somehow got done. We were moving ahead.

Then, without warning, while we’re filming our seventh script, McRaney announces that he hates the eighth script, and he refuses to do it. Unsettling but fine. We send him the ninth script, which will now become the eighth script, and we’ll write new ninth script.

McRaney hates that one too.

Now, we’re in trouble. Why? Because we don’t have any more scripts.

Major Dad shuts down production for two weeks. Replacement scripts (based on replacement ideas we haven’t come up with yet) need to be written. Stomach churning and sleep disturbances ensue.

I meet with McRaney and his manager to discuss the problems McRaney’s having with the scripts. At some point in the discussion, McRaney’s manager, coincidentally a former Marine, says, “Now, putting on my ‘comedy hat’….”

I, internally, hit the roof, and bang my head against it a few hundred times. I’m not a Marine. I don’t claim, and never have claimed, to have a “Marine hat.” McRaney’s manager had never been involved in a comedy. Where the heck did he get a “comedy hat”!?

It appeared that McRaney simply wanted to be consulted on the scripts. Which was my fault. I had deliberately kept him out of the loop. The reason I had kept McRaney out of the loop was because he was generally irrational in his objections to the scripts. So my keeping him out of the loop was, arguably, his fault.

Nah. It was still my fault, for being incapable of handling the irrationality. Which when you think about it, made it the studio and network’s fault. I never wanted to run a show in the first place.

I wanted to be Bernie Slade!!!

Okay, I need to calm down. I’ll finish this tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

"London Times"

A long time ago today, when I was twenty-one, I went to London, and lived there for more than fifteen months. (But not sixteen.) It was a major turning point in my life.

My London experience played a transformative role in my ultimately coming to California. It was a three-stage process, "it" meaning the prying me out of my Canadian cocoon. First, I went to L.A. to attend the Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop. Then, I went to London. And finally, I moved to L.A., where I have remained ever since. Before these events, I had never gone anywhere on my own. Anywhere far, I mean.

As a rule, I wasn’t a person who went places. I stayed home and watched TV. Big picture: I went to school during the school year, and in the summer, I went to camp. Small picture: I was not big on leaving the house. Especially in the winter.

I had quit Law School after five weeks. On Orientation Day, the Dean of Law had welcomed us with the obligatory warning: “Look to the left of you, and look to the right of you. By…[I don’t remember the designated date]…one of you will not be here.” I had dozed through that speech at every level of my higher education. I was never the guy deleted from the proceedings.

This time I was.

After I quit, I walked across the street from the Law School to the college, and I found my friend, Alan, in the Hart House Theater, designing sets from some upcoming production.

“I just quit Law School,” I told him, a little trembly in the voice and the knees.

“Good,” he replied.

“I don’t know what to do.”

Alan told me about another Alan I knew, who was living in London. (At the time, I knew a considerable number of Alans, or Allans, or Allens. I could list half a dozen more of them for you, but they’re not really pertinent to this story.)

“Hart House Theater” Alan suggested I write “London” Alan and ask him if he was interested in sharing a flat, or a bedsittingroom, or something else that was English. I had never thought about London before. I had little interest in going there. I was a homebody. I didn’t want to go anywhere.

I didn’t tell Alan that London was a bad idea. Instead, I said it sounded like a good idea. Hearing myself say that scared me. It told me I was really desperate.

This was me, maybe it was you too. From the age of three onward, September rolled around, and I went to school. That’s what you did. You came home from camp and you went to school. I always went to school in September. What else were you supposed to go?

That’s why after I graduated from college, on the day before I flew to L.A. to attend the Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop, I signed up for Law School. I had no great interest in becoming a lawyer. I hadn’t even thought about it. I just wanted somewhere to go in September.

My brother had just become a lawyer. I had always gotten better grades than him. I figured, if he could be a lawyer, so could I.

I started Law School in September. I quit in November. And that was that.

This was a turning point. Up till then, my experience told me you always had a future. After Kindergarten, there was First Grade to look forward to. After, Elementary School, there’d be Junior High, after Junior High, High School, and after High School, college, and after college, there’d some professional school, like Law School, only I just quit Law School, so they way I saw it…

I had come to the end of my future.

I was done.

It’s hard to be done in your hometown. People look at you, in a strange and probing way. They drill you about your plans. They interrogate you about your future. I had no desire to be looked at. I had no plans. And my future, as I understood it, was behind me. It seemed wise to be somewhere else.

But London? London held no particular interest for me. It was an English place with fog. It had strange food and strange people. It didn’t have my room. On the other hand, London had an undeniable thing going for it.

It was somewhere else.

I had some money. There was this arrangement that, when I turned twenty-one, I’d receive a certain amount of cash from my father’s estate. It was a sad way to get money, but it got me out of town.

During my extended stay in London…

I would live in three different places, one of which offered no tub or shower, and I’d be required to partake of the Public Baths…

I’d be a substitute teacher (having no teaching training whatsoever) and, through the kindness of a headmaster, be presented with a classroom of my own…

I’d be hired during the Christmas season to wrap toys at Harrods Department Store, where I’d encounter a princess, and later, lead my fellow toy wrappers out on strike, and be fired as a troublemaker…

I would spend a year getting “method” acting training (in London, where their specialty was the opposite), and, during a “showcase” performance, receive “mention” in a major newspaper for delivering a single line...

I would learn to appreciate beer at room temperature, and almost learn how to roll a cigarette…

I would enjoy a weekend at an insane asylum in Yorkshire (as the guest of a staff member, not as an inmate)…

I’d be singled out by my local pub owner to “stick around after closing”, and be kidnapped by some friends to the Epsom Derby…

I’d see Paris and Amsterdam on five dollars a day…

I would accompany a guy on his honeymoon, after his wife of two weeks had dumped him and returned home…

On my birthday, I would just miss seeing Laurence Olivier in his final performance of Othello, and later, be involved in a pretty scary car accident…

I would steal plays from a world-famous English bookstore (and pay them back decades later by deliberately buying a book I didn’t want)...

I would come home on the Queen Elizabeth, where I’d order kosher food and have a shipboard romance.

Leaving for England, a long time ago today, I had no idea any of that would be happening.

I remember traveling to the airport with my mother, my brother and his wife, Nancy. I remember the goodbyes and, when my flight was called, I remember heading away by myself.

As I walked down the corridor from the Departure Lounge to a plane that would take me thousands of miles from my home, I heard myself say, out loud, to the strangers passing around me:

“Could somebody please tell me why I’m doing this?”

I had absolutely no idea.