Friday, May 29, 2009

"It Happened Again"

When something happens once, it’s, like…so? But when the same thing happens again, something beyond the normal range of ordinary behavior, you have to stop and wonder,

“What’s going on?”

Building a case, as if one were needed, for Canadians’ consideration for others:

On my last trip to Toronto, I told the story of a smile-inducing exchange between myself and a thoughtful Canadian Customs Officer. I’m on the plane, reading some six hundred-page distraction, so I won’t look out the window and notice I’m in the sky. A flight attendant comes around, handing out Customs Forms for us to fill out and present to the authorities in when we arrive. I diligently complete my responsibilities, and as I notice the form says, “Do not bend”, I slip it between the pages of my book, to insure that the document will be perfectly flat.

We land in Toronto. I line up at Customs, my official form neatly nestled between pages 328 and 329 of my big book distraction. When my turn arrives, I find myself facing a well scrubbed, mid-twenties, female Canadian Customs Officer waiting to execute her duties.

I set my book down on the counter in front of her, my Customs Form secured between its pages. The officer reaches for my Customs Form, then abruptly stops, a look of concern playing across her face.

“Is that your bookmark?” she inquires, unwilling to remove the form until she had ascertained whether it also served another purpose.

(Contrast this – I can’t help myself – with the surly U.S. Customs Officer I once coughed in front of who gruffly barked, “Cover it!”)

Okay. Fast Forward:

My most recent visit to Toronto.

Anna and I share a room in the hotel. I wake up before her. To allow her to continue sleeping, rather than switching on the light, I take a pillow and my book, and sit on the floor by the window, so I can read by the streaming morning daylight. Anna eventually wakes up, I say, “Good morning”, and we start the day.

We return from our day’s activities, in the interim, the room has been cleaned up. My book in no longer by the window where I’d left it. I look around, finally discovering it, sitting on the night table beside my bed. I pick it up, and immediately notice that there, at the spot where I’d left off, in the form of a small square of paper torn from the hotel’s complimentary notepad, placed there by someone other than myself…

was a bookmark.

I’m telling you, these people are really nice.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

"Appropriate Compensation"

I bought a book for my recent trip to Toronto to read on the airplane. I have specific requirements in an “airplane book.” The book has to be absorbing enough to make me forget that I’m reading it forty thousand feet in the air, but not be so good that, should we happen to crash, I would feel badly that I didn’t get to finish it.

The book I chose was John Grisham’s The Appeal. Grisham’s novels easily meet my “airplane book” requirements. Our local bookstore carries an entire shelf them. While trying to decide which “Grisham” to buy, I noticed something very strange. Every Grishman book I looked at had a quote emblazoned across the cover announcing that it was “Grisham’s best book in years.” I wondered where they kept the less successful Grisham books that he’d written in between.

I chose The Appeal because it’s Grishman’s most recent outing. Plus the cover quoted The New York Times proclaiming, “John Grisham delivers his savviest book in years.”

I also liked the book’s cover. It showed three “judges”, dressed in robes, walking away from the camera. This led me to wonder about the auditions behind such an undertaking.

“Bring me three models the backs of whose heads look like judges.”

That sounds like a pretty tough assignment.

I won’t say much about the book, except that the writing felt like it was written not on a computer but by a computer, and after 482 pages, we find out that the bad guys win. Oops, I gave away the ending. Saw-wy. Consider it a rescue. Do you really want to read a book where despoilers of local groundwater systems wind up lighting victory cigars? It’s unlikely you’ll be seeing The Appeal on the big screen. Though I’m generally anti “obligatory upbeat ending”, on this occasion, I am enthusiastically “pro.” I mean, what was Grisham thinking? These people were poisoning children!

“Those things actually happen.”

This is fiction! You can have any ending you want!

(Here, as a sidelight, is why I don’t “get” fiction. Page 306. “He estimated the cost of the Lawsuit Victims for Truth mailing at $300,000 (actual cost: $320,000).” What is he talking about? There is no “actual cost.” The whole story is made up!)

I’m making a turn here. A better writer would handle this transition more artfully. I’m just saying I’m making a turn.

The Appeal, not unlike Erin Brockovitch, involves a trial and, duh, an appeal, where a small town’s families have been seriously damaged, and in some cases killed, by corporate polluters. Let me place this clearly on the record. When it comes to corporate polluters seriously damaging and in some cases killing small town families or families of any sized community, I am unequivocally against it. That is a terrible thing for them to do.


Here is my first concern.

If I made the laws, convicted corporate polluters who caused people to get sick and die, after paying the “actual damages” to the victims, should not pay any further, what they call, “punitive damages”, which they have ways of recovering, but should, instead, be thrown into jail, where fellow inmates, informed of their behavior, could sidle up to them in the yard and pummel them with lead pipes. Okay, maybe that’s too rough. My main point is: For punishment? Not “punitive damages.” Prison.

My second concern.

Where “punitive damages” go.

Right now, “punitive damages” are paid, along with “actual damages”, to the plaintiffs (and of course, to the plaintiffs’ lawyers, the standard split being, two thirds – to the plaintiff, one third – to the lawyers.) I understand the theory behind “punitive damages”. “Punitive damages” are an additional punishment meted out to evildoers over and above the “actual damages.” I agree with the theory of “punitive damages.” Evildoers should be additionally punished for their actions, although, as mentioned, I greatly prefer “punitive prison”, with or without the lead pipes.

What I don’t understand is why the “punitive damages” are given to the plaintiffs (and their lawyers). What is the reasoning behind their receiving the “punishment” money? Do policemen keep the money from the traffic tickets? No. That goes somewhere, maybe into some kind of a fund. Why can’t “punitive damages” go someplace too?

If people are truly outraged by the huge awards handed down by juries, instead of capping the amounts of those awards, why not pass a law requiring “actual damages” to go to the plaintiffs (and their lawyers) and have “punitive damages” go somewhere else? Like to help pay off the deficit, or to medical research, or to bankroll some other worthy enterprise. Unless there’s a persuasive explanation, I see no reason that “punitive damages” should go to the plaintiffs. (And their lawyers.) That side has already been compensated, hopefully fairly, by the “actual damages” award.

You can skip this next part if you’re not comfortable with dark humor. I’ll see you tomorrow.

I have never been able to understand the connection between not being alive anymore, due to negligent behavior, and a large sum of money being handed over to your family. I am baffled by the whole idea of “money for dead.” Leading to a computational industry, where experts assess precisely how much money the deceased person is worth. Does this enterprise really speak flatteringly of us as a people? What kind of culture puts a monetary determination on somebody’s value as a person?

In The Appeal I learned that dead children are worth less than working adults. The children weren’t earning any money, so there’s no “lost income” to factor into the payment. On the other hand, the experts seem to overlook the fact that children, being younger, have had a larger portion of their lives taken away from them. There’s no money being allotted for “curtailed lifespan.”

When you think about it, who can predict how much those children might have made? They could have grown up and become rock stars. Or one of those corporate CEO’s who ruined their company and was paid tens of millions to go away. You never know.

The rationales underlying compensation awards seem arbitrary and ridiculous. But say, somehow, it gets done. The amount is determined, the check goes out. Then what?

Your daughter dies from drinking poisoned water. Her parents get a million bucks. What are they going to do with it, buy a new daughter?

Dad always wanted a boat. He buys one with the award money. He proudly sails it around. People ask,

“What do you call her?”

He says,

“The Dead Daughter.”

He probably wouldn’t call her that. It might be too painful to name it after her at all. But whatever he does, he has to realize he’s sailing a dead daughter boat. What does that feel like?

“She’d want me to have it.”


The breadwinner dies, you need to have money. I get that. Someone’s permanently injured and requires lifetime medical care. Of course. But someone dies who was not contributing financially, and you get this huge pile of money. What exactly are you supposed to do with it? And what is its connection with the actual loss?

“We thought the money would make them feel better.”

“Are you kidding me?!”

“Well, what are you proposing instead?”

I don’t know. People need to be punished, and people need to be compensated. But the idea of assessing monetary value to a life, and that getting the payment somehow balances the books, and most importantly, that there’s any reasonable link between money and unimaginable emotional agony…
There’s something wrong there. It just doesn’t make sense.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

"The Israel Bonds Debacle"

Two things bring this story to mind. One was the less that sunny reaction to my post concerning the late nineteenth century Polish rabbis who visited the area that would someday be Israel and reported back, “The bride is beautiful, but she’s married to another man.” The other was my recent visit to Toronto, where I saw my Mom, who now, due to advanced dementia, is only someone you can sit with and sing to. The connection brought back memories of happier times.

My mother once worked at the Toronto branch of the Israel Bonds office, arranging fundraisers and typing up a storm. It was the perfect job for her. Unlike myself, my mother was extremely social. And whatever job she had, it always involved typing. The woman used all the fingers. She was really good.

One year, after my college term had ended but camp had yet to begin, my mother got me a job helping out in her office. I can’t recall the entire range of my responsibilities.

But I vividly remember this.

On the day in question, I was in charge of a major mailing. I was handed a number of boxes filled with (in total) five hundred sealed envelopes, envelopes containing letters of solicitation saying something like, “Buy Israel Bonds”, or “Come to a party and buy Israel Bonds”, “Stay home and buy Israel Bonds” or “If you’re too cheap to buy Israel Bonds, plant a tree.” I don’t actually know what the letter said. I didn’t read it. My job was to get the envelopes stamped and out to the donors.

The office included a heavy standing-on-the-floor electric stamping machine. The way it worked was, you stacked up a pile of envelopes at one end of the machine, you pressed a button, the envelopes, one at a time, would go away somewhere, and when they reappeared at the other end of the machine, there was a metered stamp on each of them. Not that complicated.

There were things you needed to watch for. You had to make sure the envelopes didn’t go into the machine backwards; otherwise, the stamp would be printed on the back of the envelope instead of the front. The envelope also had to go in right-side up, so the stamp would appear at the top-right of the envelope and not at on the bottom-left. My job was to insure that those things didn’t happen.

Five hundred envelopes. The procedure would take time, because you could only stack maybe ten envelopes at a time on the “Insertion Tray.” (That may not be the technical name for it. I may be making that up.)

I begin the process, stacking my first pile of letters on the “Insertion Tray.” I press the “Start” button. One by one, the envelopes are sucked in and slip through the machine. I stand there watching. There is nothing else to do.

Except for this.

As the stamped envelopes start accumulating on the “Catch Tray”, it is also my job to occasionally remove some of them, so the stack of letters won’t pile up too high and start falling on the floor. So you see it was a two-part job. Maybe even a two-person job, though I was handling it alone. I had to prepare letters going in, and skim off the accumulating pile at the other end. An easy job? Maybe. But it was no piece of cake.

I make my first visit to the tail end of the machine. I scoop up the stamped envelopes, and begin arranging them in the box I had brought them in. That’s when I noticed the problem.

And it was big.

(The next part happened faster than I’m writing it. Read fast to simulate the rhythm, and imagine an exciting movie score in the background.)

I’m remembering nine cents as the price for mailing each of these letters. It may have been less. Charity mailings have special low rates. Let’s say it was nine cents. As I stack the already metered letters in the box, I notice the price of the stamp the machine had metered onto the envelopes. It was not nine cents.

It was two hundred and sixty-two dollars and eighty-five cents.

As I look on in horror, two more letters have passed through the machine, metered with stamps which were considerably higher than nine cents. I’m in absolute shock. I had obviously squandered an enormous amount of money. But also, I mean, how would you feel donating to a charity where the letter you receive asking for money has a two hundred and sixty-two dollar and eighty-five cent stamp on it?

“I was going to send fifty dollars. That’s not even a fifth of the stamp.”

Thinking quickly, though I’m not certain I had the right to use that phrase, I switched off the stamping machine, halting the continuous flow of letters. By then, twelve envelopes had gone through, all stamped at two hundred and sixty-two dollars and eighty-five cents. An alert employee might have checked to see what price the stamp meter was currently set at before beginning the stamping process. I didn’t do that. I assumed it was set at nine cents. It wasn’t.

Somebody before me had obviously mailed out a really big parcel. You could do that with that machine. That was the other way it worked. Besides sending envelopes through automatically, you could print up a gummed label at whatever price you wanted, and stick it onto the parcel. That’s apparently what the mailer before me had done. I suppose they could have switched the stamp setting back to nine cents after they finished. But they didn’t.

And the next guy didn’t check.

And so, twelve letters later, letters that should have cost…twelve times nine, which is…nine two’s are eighteen, carry the one, nine one’s are nine, plus one is ten…a dollar eight, instead cost, twelve times one twenty-six eighty-five, which is…I gotta get a calculator, I’ll be back….


Three thousand one hundred and fifty-four dollars and twenty cents.

As Jon Lovitz exclaimed in A League Of Their Own: “That would be more, wouldn’t it?”

It could have been worse. If I’d let all five hundred of envelopes go through without noticing, I could have blown…

One hundred and thirty-one thousand four hundred and twenty-five dollars.

That's a considerable bite out of the Israeli defense budget.

I didn’t do that. My alertness had saved the Jewish Homeland one hundred and twenty-eight thousand two hundred and seventy dollars and eighty cents. Not bad. But, somehow, I still felt really stupid.

And ashamed.

The question now was, “What should I do?” Should I fess up and take my medicine? Or should I find some way of covering it up. Knowing what I’m made of, only one decision was possible.

I covered it up.

I went back to the machine and set the stamp meter for nine cents. I then printed up twelve nine-cent gummed labels, which I plastered on top of the transgressing two hundred and sixty-two eighty-five stamps, thus, literally, covering up my mistake. I put the other four hundred and eighty-eight letters through at nine cents.

And that was that.

For years, I have kept this story to myself. I suppose, visiting my mother, I could finally have confessed. But there’s this miraculous possibility she’ll start speaking again, and I couldn’t take the chance. I think she’d be really mad.

My visit seems to have compelled me to come clean. Now the secret’s between me and you.

I’m counting on your discretion.
It was a wonderful trip. Relatives and friends were welcoming and warm. Thanks for having us, you guys.

Till we meet again.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

"Telling Moments"

I’m ten years old. I’m sitting in Toronto’s minor league ballpark, Maple Leaf Stadium, at the bottom of Front Street. In those days, Toronto had a minor league baseball team with the same name as the city’s historic hockey team

The Leafs.

My friend as I have purchased front row Box Seats, directly over the (home team) third base dugout. A buck-fifty. A lot for a kid, but we splurged. It’s a special day.

The major league Milwaukee Braves have flown in for their annual exhibition game with their “Triple-A” affiliate, my beloved Maple Leafs. Such games are a longstanding tradition. Decades later, I would witness a similar exhibition between the “A”-ball South Bend Silver Hawks, of which I was then a part owner, and their parent organization, the recent World Champion Arizona Diamondbacks.

The games have a predictable progression. The big leaguers strut their stuff for a while. But by the fifth inning, the equipment manager is pitching, and the traveling secretary’s playing third base.

It was exciting watching the Diamondbacks playing the Silver Hawks. But not as exciting as when Milwaukee came to Toronto when I was ten.

We arrive early, uncrowned royalty, heading for our front row seats. The Braves are on the field, taking infield practice. Standing directly in front me the Milwaukee third baseman, the spectacular Eddie Matthews. During his career, Matthews would be a nine-time All-Star, hit 512 home runs, and upon retirement, be elected to Hall of Fame. The guy was a superstar. Up there with Mickey Mantle.

So what do I do? I immediately start razzin’ him. And his entire team. And I’m merciless. I mean, the things that came out of my ten-year-old mouth.

“You’re over the hill, Matthews. You can’t play anymore. Big shot major leaguers. Think you can beat up on us minor league nobodies. You’re in for a surprise, Big Boy. We’re gonna make you look silly. We’re gonna embarrass you bad.”

I had no idea where this is coming from. Am I that kid? With the mouth? I’m usually pretty quiet. But, you’re anonymous in a crowd, a few Cokes under your belt…swaggering Bigtimers facing minor leaguers playing in Canada. Though no one had asked me to, I felt my duty to take these visiting hotshots down a peg.

I keep at it for about twenty minutes, really rippin’ ‘em to shreds, especially Matthews.

And then it happens.

First baseman Joe Adcock, tosses an easy grounder to third. The ball goes through Matthews’ legs, continuing into foul territory, towards the third base dugout, stopping

Almost directly in front of me.

And there it sits.

An authentic, professional baseball. Totally unguarded. Maybe three feet away.

The next move is obvious. I jump over the wall, snatch up the baseball, and climb back into the stands, waving it aloft, like an enemy scalp.

I do not do that.

What do I do?


It’s a Moment for Truth. When you show what you’re made of. And I just sat there. Apparently, what I’m made of is Jell-o.

I don’t know, I was probably worried that if I ran onto the field, they’d throw me out. I’m a Good Boy. Good Boys don’t get ejected from ballparks. Good Boys stay in their seats. Even when the ball’s sitting there in front of them. Three feet away.

No. That wasn’t the reason I didn’t move. That’s just the cover-up reason. The real reason was I was scared. Scared of what? I’m not exactly sure. That people would boo me, that I’d pick up the ball and then not be able to climb back over the wall, I don’t know. I just knew this. Nothing bad would happen to me – aside from the lifelong shame and embarrassment – if I simply remained in my seat.

So that’s what I did.

Matthews lopes over to retrieve the ball. Passing me on his way back to his position, he looks me straight in the face and says, “What’s the matter?”

Oh, my God, it was a set-up! Eddie Matthews, enjoying my youthful taunting, had deliberately let Adcock’s practice toss go through his legs, allowing the ball to roll my way, so I could jump onto the field and pick it up. This wasn’t an accident. Matthews had done it for me.

And I just sat there.

There are times you wish you could do things over. This isn’t one of them. Why not? It would not cheer me to discover that if the situation were repeated

I’d do exactly the same thing.

Friday, May 22, 2009

"Some Early Wisdom"

Last year, I attended a UCLA Extension class on the origin of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I learned a lot in that class. But this story in particular stayed in my mind.

When the Zionist movement was first getting started at the end of the nineteenth century, two Polish rabbis were sent off, to check out the place they hoped would someday become the Jewish homeland. After investigating the land that Zionists longed for but had never seen, the rabbis returned home and delivered their report.

“The bride is beautiful,” the rabbis told them, “but she’s married to another man.”

This is hardly the last word on the subject. But those early words, I think, are worth remembering.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

"True, Whether You Like It Or Not"

Writers hate to believe this. But when something rings true, whether you like to believe it or not, it’s undeniable.

I’m working on Major Dad. Unlike other series I’d been involved in creating, this one looks like it’s going to run. I’m curious as to why that is. Which shows you the magical nature of success. If they’re honest about it, even those responsible are not fully certain as to how they pulled it off.

I put everything I had into Major Dad. Talent, time, enthusiasm and effort. But I do that with all my shows. I wondered, “What did I inadvertently do differently this time?” I really wanted to know. So I could do it on purpose the next time.

It turns out, it has nothing to do with that. Since, I’ve got a note to someday write a post on, “What Makes A Hit”, I’m reluctant to blow those dazzling insights right now. I’ll just make this one point, and then skedaddle.

Feeling uncharacteristically confident, I ventured musing about Major Dad’s success in front the show’s star, Gerald McRaney.

“Why do you think we’re doing so well?” I inquired. I wasn’t fishing for a compliment. I really wanted his opinion.

McRaney’s answer was simple and shatteringly on the money:

“They like the guy,” he replied.

A lesson in humility.

No matter how brilliant your script, no matter how skillfully you assemble the elements, if it’s a TV series, no matter how favorable the time period, it’s going no place

If they don’t like the guy.
"He's doing shticklach. He's out of town."

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"Duty Call"

I write my stories hoping people will identify. But sometimes they don’t. Case in point: My confession about not eating eggs (and how that might seriously threaten my aspirations as a actor.) I could sense from your polite but eyebrow-arched responses that, when it comes to that aversion at least, I am pretty much on my own.

Well, I’m taking another chance. Maybe you’ll be on board, maybe you won’t. There’s nothing I can do about it. These are the stories I tell. And I tell them for one reason. They’re the only stories I’ve got.

Today, another, for me, normal, but, I’m betting, soon to be exposed as bizarre, personal admission:

I’m uncomfortable talking to people on the phone.

Goodbye, if you’re leaving. For the bold ones amongst you, moving on.

Today, Anna and I are flying to Toronto to visit family and friends. One person we’re scheduled to meet up with is my Auntie Bea. Auntie Bea is a dream. I have no problem talking to her on the phone. Which I recently did, to arrange a time for us to get together. Making that call was hardly difficult at all. I only put it off for a week.

The call, however, reminded me of another call I was required to make. I was in my twenties, and about to travel somewhere I’d never visited before, Miami Beach, Florida. Not all that exciting, I suppose, but for some reason, probably laziness, I was resistant to trying to decipher a foreign language. So I remained on English-speaking terrain, choosing a city my (paternal) grandmother visited annually, but had never taken me. I wanted to see what I had missed.

We had a distant cousin living in Miami. Learning I had chosen that destination for my holiday, my mother insisted that I call her. Which brings up an area I really don’t understand.. Somehow, though we have the technology to call anyone, from anywhere, at any time, there seems to be some duty-binding obligation, when you’re in the city of even the most distant relative, to call that person on the phone. I have seen this issue dealt with on Curb Your Enthusiasm. This time, I agree with Larry. It makes no sense whatsoever.

“Cousin, Harriet? Earl Pomerantz. I’m in town. I don’t know you, and I don’t have time to see you. I just had to call you on your local telephone system.”


But my mother was unbending on the matter. “You can’t go all the way to Miami without calling her.”

That’s the rule. Going to Miami and not calling your cousin – forbidden. Absolutely “No Can Do.” Don’t think about coming home if you don’t make the call. Die in Miami, or disappear from the earth. Not calling is totally unacceptable. It’s unheard of. It’s impossible. You can’t do it. End of story.

Well, if you feel that strongly about it…

I’ll call.

S there you have it. I had a cousin in Miami, who I had never spoken in my life, who, though I was uncomfortable doing so, I was obligated to call her. I will now add some weight to the problem, one seriously compounding obstacle.

My cousin’s name was Boo Boo.

You heard me.

Boo Boo.

Now you’ve got it all. Somehow, I was expected to call the number my mother had given me, and when they picked up on the other end, I was expected to say



“Is Boo Boo there?”

“May I speak to Boo Boo?”

“Is that Boo Boo?”

“Have I reached the residence of Boo Boo?”

That was my challenge. Earl Pomerantz, a person, uncomfortable with telephones at the best of times, was expected to call up a stranger, and deliver some form of an introductory sentence that, before it was over, would include the word

Boo Boo.

I found that very difficult to do.

So I stalled. I went to the beach. I went to the dog track. I made a pilgrimage to the Cardoza Hotel, where my maternal grandparents used to stay. I ordered a steak dinner sent up and watched the hockey playoffs on television (much to the confusion of the Room Service waiter who delivered my food. “You come all the way to Miami to sit in your room and watch hockey?”)

I did a lot of things in Miami. But I didn’t call Boo Boo.

At least not yet.

It’s the last night of my vacation. I have a ticket to see the original Shirelles, one of my favorite singing groups from the sixties, who are performing in the lounge at my very own hotel. (It turned out the be a particularly small lounge. The room was small, the tables were small, the stage was small. The only thing large were The Shirelles, who, through the years, had expanded considerably in girth. This resulted – and the diminutive stage didn’t help – in the ladies’ continually bumping into each other while executing their patented Motown moves, choreographed for them when they were a totally different size.)

Okay, so I’m dressed up for the show. One “duty call”, and I’m off to my reward – a musical nostalgia trip with the sensational Shirelles.

I pick up the phone. My hands are sweating. I begin dialing the number my mother had written down…

I’m not sure how much time went by. I’m only sure of the next words I heard. And the next words I heard were these:

Soldier Boy

Oh my little Soldier Boy

I'll be true to you...

I was sitting in the lounge, watching The Shirelles.

The Road Not Taken is paved with decisions not made. How different my life might have been, what lofty heights I might boldly have scaled, what daunting challenges I might bravely have taken on, what achievements and successes I might gloriously have attained, if only I had gutted it out, confronted my demons…

and finished that call to Cousin Boo Boo.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


What’s “commercial”?

The new “Star Trek” movie? A hundred and forty-seven million in domestic receipts in its first two weeks.”

So “Commercial” means popular?

You betcha.

Have you ever done anything “commercial”?

Never came close.

Have you ever tried?

You mean because if I didn’t try, it wasn’t my fault?

I just wondered if you ever sat down and deliberately tried to write something ‘commercial’.”

It doesn’t work that way.

You can’t contrive to engineer a commercial success?

I don’t know, maybe you can look around at “what’s selling these days” and take a stab at your version of that. But there’s a good chance it will fail. Why? Because it’s coming from a calculated place rather than the place the real blockbusters come from.

Which is where?

I have no idea. And neither, by the way, does anyone else.

So trying’s not the answer.

Can you try to be beautiful? Can you try to be tall? Can you try to have a cute little button nose, rather than a big honker with a bump on the top of it?

Wait a minute. Are you saying that being “commercial” is genetic?

Your interests are you interests. And they’re there from virtually Day One. A parent says about their kid, “Since they were three years old, they’ve been taking apart vacuum cleaners and putting them back together.” They would have done it sooner, but before that, they weren’t allowed near vacuum cleaners.

Why did they do it? Because that’s them! It’s who they are. I’m not saying, the kid’s destined to become a vacuum cleaner repairperson. It could be washing machines. But they’re unlikely to become a chef.

So “commercial’s” not just about movies.

Hello? Cell phones? Are you kidding me? “Commercial”, in every area, means striking a nerve – and this is another essential element – at precisely the right moment in time. The thing is – and this is what makes commercial success so hard to predict – that precise moment in time never jumps up and says, “Now!” Why do hit movies seem like they’re accidents? Because, invariably, they are. The odds are overwhelmingly against their even getting made.

Boxing pictures were box office poison before “Rocky.” The movie struck a nerve, and went the distance. Mafia movies? Hardly any, rarely popular. “The Godfather” shows up – badda-boom badda-bing. Here’s an interesting one: “Star Trek” the original series? Marginally popular. Primarily for geeks. “Star Trek”, the movie? A hundred and forty-seven million in two weeks. “Wait a minute, it’s the same concept.” Yes, and it was always solid. The difference? Timing. (Perhaps there are more geeks today.)

With timing an essential component, it’s possible for even you to have a commercial success.

Me? Never.

But you said…

I said two things. Timing was the second one. The first, and more important, is to have an idea that strikes a nerve, by which I mean the viscero-cultural nerve of an enormous number of people. But that’s the outcome, that’s how it turns out. Where it starts is with the passion felt by the idea’s originator. I don’t think Steven Spielberg said, “Everyone loves dinosaurs; I’m making a dinosaur picture.” Spielberg appears to have a passion for dinosaurs, the way I have a passion for cowboys. Spielberg makes “Jurassic Park” and makes billions. I make “Best of the West” and get cancelled after the first season. How come? Spielberg’s passion mirrored the mass audience’s passion, and mine didn’t. Can I say to myself, “Earl, next time, be passionate about the right thing”? That’s ridiculous. Though I remember my agent saying something very much along those lines.

So if your passions are “genetically” uncommercial, you should just give up?

I’m always for giving up. If I knew the Latin words for it, I’d put them on a flag. (A white flag, of course.) But giving up is not mandatory. If you’re lucky – luck being the third Ace in this hand – you’ll find backers who’ll bankroll your passion, and have little to moderate successes. If you work in TV, you can ride the wave of someone else’s acheivement, and, as part of their writing staff, learn to simulate their moves. The movie equivalent of that would be to author a sequel. These options, however, call for realistic expectations and a substantial measure of humility, qualities that are arguably rarer than talent. Especially in show business.

May I ask you a personal question?

You can try.

Is it true that you’ve deleted this post three times, and then pressed the “Undo” button and brought it back?

That’s correct.

What’s the problem?

I’m wondering whether someone with my limited commercial success is the best person to speak on the subject.

And you decided it was worthwhile?

Only because of this. It seems important to tell writers who have not, or at least not yet, achieved any big-time success, and maybe never will, to give themselves a break. Your passions are you. Be kind to them. Even though there’s not a chance in hell they’ll ever be “commercial.”

I’m sure highly discouraging things were said to George Lucas when he pitched an unlikely little science fiction idea called “Star Wars”, or Judd Apatow when he said, “I’d like to have unattractive nobodies star in my pictures.”

In the end, there are two reasons for holding on:

Personal satisfaction.

And proving everybody wrong.

Including, maybe, yourself.

Monday, May 18, 2009

"Answering The Bell"

I don’t know about you, but no matter how old I get, the day after Labor Day, it feels like I should be going to school. I’ve been out of school – at least full-time school – for quite a while. But despite the ever-lengthening passage of time, I continue to experience this residual reflex. It’s like the old racehorse hearing the Starting Bell. Brrrrring, and you’re off. (Which can be embarrassing when you’ve stopped being a racehorse and started giving rides at birthday parties.)

“September” equals school. It seems automatic. Summer’s gone. It’s the natural place to be. And when you’re not there, because, you know, you graduated, at least for the first few years, it feels like you’re doing something wrong.

You’re playing hooky, and somebody’s going to come get you. In a certain way, at least for me, maybe because I did well in school, you kinda still want to go.

This week marks that “day after Labor Day” moment in the television business. It’s the week the networks announce their schedules for the coming season. The announcement is the official word on which shows are coming back, which have been cancelled and which new shows have been picked up.

The next day, you go to work.

When I was writing on a returning show (like the MTM series or Taxi), I’d go to the office, and we’d start meeting on new stories. When I ran the show (Best of the West, Major Dad), I’d begin working my way through the stack of agent-submitted scripts, trolling for a writing staff.

As a scriptwriter, I was rarely scared. I just had to write scripts; the final responsibility lay with others. Being a show runner was a different matter. When Best of the West was announced for ABC’s fall schedule, I remember feeling both exhilarated and cramps-inducingly terrified at the same time. I’d spent four months assembling the pilot. Now, I’d be turning out a new episode every week. That’s a lot faster.

Here’s the thing. At this “beginning of school”, Starting Bell moment, despite five years of being, as they say, invariably with a terminal solemnity, “out of the business”, I still wish I were doing it.

I imagine retired athletes feel the same way. Spring training, and you’re playing golf. Opening day of football camp, you’re on a cruise with your family. Not that you hate your family (unless you hate your family), it’s that there’s this nagging feeling that you ought to be somewhere else.

You trained for your profession pretty much your whole life. You knew how to do it. More than “you knew how to do it”, you excelled at it. You performed at the highest level, collaborating with the best people in the field. You played under pressure, you came through in the clutch, you took on daunting challenges and, year after year, you prevailed, surprisingly yourself constantly with dazzling efforts you never thought you were capable of.

A writer named Mark Harris wrote a wonderful baseball trilogy, the most famous of the books being Bang The Drum Slowly. The third book in the trilogy was called It Looked Like Forever. It involves star pitcher Henry Wiggins’ reaction to the end of his career. The title captures the feeling perfectly. When he was playing, with World Championship success, it was as if his baseball career would never end.

It Looked Like Forever.

It wasn’t.

This here is a Full Service blog. I’ve talked about the visceral excitement at the beginning of my career of, virtually if not literally, stepping through my television and finding myself on the other side of the screen. But if you’re seriously considering doing this as a job, it’s important to hear, and maybe file away, some old guy’s account of what it feels like stepping back out.

Friday, May 15, 2009

"Hunter Gatherers"

I’ve always felt sorry for the Gatherers.

(Which means I imagine that I would have been a Gatherer, being unable to visualize myself in any period of history as a Hunter.)

I’m thinking – without doing any research on the subject – that this wasn’t a hyphenate kind of arrangement – the Hunter-Gatherers. I’m guessing they were two distinct groups of people – the Hunters and the Gatherers. It makes sense that it was that way, the roles being so temperamentally different. Hunters would have a swagger – you’d need a swagger to go head-to-head with the substantially larger animals that Hunters forced to confront on a daily basis, with no more than a long, (often not long enough) pointy stick. Gatherers like to sing.

Hunters would find it beneath their dignity to gather. Gatherers wouldn’t hunt because – let’s put the best possible face on it – they found it barbaric. More likely, they just stunk at it. Not strong enough, faulty reflexes, there may have been vision problems – which once again relegates me to the “Gathering” contingent.

Experience tells us that as soon as two groups appear, almost immediately, there arises some form of hierarchical structuring. Who’s Number One? Who’s Number Two? This may be natural. Based on understood criteria, an order inevitably evolves – one group is first; the other is second, or, there being only two in this particular group, last.

It seems obvious, between the Hunters and the Gatherers, which group would be accorded the loftier status. You can tell just by the labeling. Have you ever heard the phrase, “Gatherer Hunters”? No. Hunters inevitably come first. Hunters are the heroes. Gatherers? You know. You can see them wearing aprons.

Need we explain the disparity in respect? One group risks their lives facing huge animals with tusks and sharp teeth. The other group spends their days picking stuff up off the ground.

I venture to say that the Gatherers represented the “Everybody’s A Winner” concept in the prehistoric era. It doesn’t matter what you do. Everybody gets a prize. This view comes accompanied by the age-old rationalization:

“We can’t all be Hunters. The world needs Gatherers too.”

Such reassurances are invariably delivered by the Gatherers’ mothers. Or, more stingingly, by the Hunters themselves, who, while saying it, were always trying to keep a straight face. These self-worth bromides fooled nobody. There was no comparison in the two roles. And everyone knew it.

Hunters died hunting. The worst that can befall a Gatherer is a chronic “stooping” injury. Once in a while, a Gatherer might mistakenly sample a bad berry and be laid up with a stomachache.

“Oo-ooh! A stomach ache! That’s really serious.”

This was standard “derision material” for Hunters, sporting stumps where limbs used to be but were bitten off by their preys while they were trying to kill them. No arms – tummy trouble. Gimme a break!

Gatherers’ children would come home from school, bullied and beaten by the progeny of Hunters.

“What happened?”

“They made fun of Pop’s job.”

“What did you do?”

“I gathered names for a petition demanding better supervision at recess.”

“That’s my boy.”

Teenage Gatherer boys took pains to conceal their shameful family identities.

“What does your father do?”

“My father? He’s a Ga…rage Mechanic.”

“What’s that?”

“I don’t know. But he’s not a Gatherer.”

Then they’d race home, begging their fathers to collude in the subterfuge.

“You told her I was a Garage Mechanic?”

“I panicked.”

“I don’t know what that is, Son.”

“Please, Dad. Couldn’t you just pretend to be a Garage Mechanic?”


“Will you at least wear the gloves?”

“If I have to.”

(The gloves would cover the “Gatherer’s Giveaway” - telltale berry-juice stains darkening their fingertips.)

“Thanks, Dad. You’re a peach.”

“A ‘peach’? I don’t know what that is. But how could I? I’m a Garage Mechanic.”

(This may be the sitcom version of Gatherer family life, but even sitcoms have a kernel of truth in them.)

Gatherer Dads understood the embarrassment their jobs heaped upon their families. “Gathering” was a second-tier profession. You only have to compare the cave drawings. Hunters’ cave walls were adorned with elaborate murals – the intrepid hunter facing the towering mammoth. Gatherers’ murals? A guy, a bush and a basket. Gatherers themselves were embarrassed by the depiction. Company came, they threw a sheet over it.

And when the Gatherers arrived at the Hunters’ houses for dinner?

“Oh, a pie. Thank you. All we have is freshly killed meat.”

Which brings us to the only “up” side in the Gatherers’ lot.

Less heart attacks.

That’s something, I suppose. But it hardly balances the books.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


Story One:

Garry Shandling joins me in a restaurant, to interview me for a job on The Larry Sanders Show. He is clearly low energy.

”Sorry I’m a little down,” he apologizes. “I broke up with my girlfriend.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I commiserate. “When did it happen?”

“Seven months ago,” Shandling replies.

Story Two:

We’re in the Writers’ Room, struggling with a script badly in need of repair. As is his habit, Garry pitches in with the writers, as always, probing, insightful and inspiring. He may not have all the answers, but his questions brilliantly illuminate the way.

We’ve been at it for hours, making progress, but it’s slow. Suddenly, Garry jumps up.

“I just remembered. There’s this woman coming to give me a massage. I have to go.”

Garry races to the door.

He stops.

“You know, the script is in trouble. I really should stay and help.”

Garry starts back to his seat.

He stops.

“Although… I mean, I made this appointment. It really wouldn’t be right to stand her up, would it?”

Garry starts back towards the door.

He stops.

“Wait a minute. I can’t leave you guys in the lurch. What the hell was I thinking?”

Garry turns back to his seat.

He stops.

“I don’t know. The woman drove all the way from Beverly Hills. She cancelled her afternoon appointments. I don’t think I can do this to her.”

Garry starts towards the door.

He stops.

“No! The script comes first!”

This is clearly not over. Garry hovers helplessly by the door, a good man wracked by an agonizing dilemma - to work, or to get a massage. In a quiet voice, weakened by a titanic inner struggle, Garry finally renders his decision.

“I’m going to go.”

You want to know about the genius of Garry Shandling, about his penetrating understanding of neurotic humanity, about the near invisible line between his everyday life and material for the show? I don’t need to write about that.

Everything’s there, in those two stories.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

"One Reason I Could Never Be An Actor"

I don’t eat eggs.

I realize billions of people have no problem with eggs. I have nothing to say about that. That’s funny. A chronic ovophobe deigning not to criticize the overwhelming majority. How generous of me.

By the way, I don’t know if ovophobe is a word. But I like it.

And it fits.

When I think of eggs, the words membrane and albumin rush to mind. I’d prefer not to eat those things. I will not rant on about eggs, because I know I’m vastly outnumbered in this matter, and I don’t want to sound nuttier than is necessary. It’s just that there’s nothing about eggs I like. Not the smell. Not the taste. Not the texture – the runny yellow stuff, the stringy white strands. Just the idea of eating an unfertilized chicken…okay, I’m done.

Write it down. I don’t like eggs.

How does my ovophobia relate to why I could never be an actor? First, let me acknowledge that I have always harbored some sporadically pursued desire to become an actor. Regular readers will recall my stints at the UCLA Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop and The Actors’ Workshop in London. Someday, I will write more specifically on why my being an actor would not have been a good idea, but not today. It’s too close to my having written about why being a comedian would not have been a good idea, and I don’t people thinking of me as being negative. It’s true. I just don’t want people thinking of me that way.

When it comes to being an actor, I imagine myself playing myself, but with better lines. I think I’d be good at that. A witty spark plug, peppering the movie with humorous truisms. I imagine myself throwing in a few lines of my own, being innately familiar with the character of me.

I never became that kind of actor, or any other kind. Though I am still hopeful. Who knows? Somebody may be looking for an old, new face, which is precisely the face I happen to possess. There, you see? I’m not totally negative.

My fantasy of being an actor brings a problem with it. (This is very telling. Even my wish-fulfilling fantasies include problems.) The problem arises when, in the course of playing a role, I am asked to do things that extend beyond the natural range of playing myself. What if the script calls for me to perform an action I am inherently unable to persuasively deliver?

Like eating eggs.

Eating eggs is not that uncommon of a script requirement. How often have you heard the lines,

“How do you like your eggs?”

“I fixed you some eggs.”

“People say I make a mean omelet.”

“‘Over Easy’ okay with you?”

I see this in movies all the time. Though it could be my ovophobic sensitivity.

I know I’m a limited actor. But even if I were great – but still me – I’m certain I could never convincingly pull off an “eggs” scene. I’d hear,

“How do you like you eggs?”

and hard as I’d try, I would not be able to stop myself from making a face.

And even if I miraculously made it past “The Question”, the consumption, putting the eggs in my mouth and actually swallowing them?

Not a chance.

Inevitably, my inappropriate “eggs reaction” could not help but confuse the audience.

“What just happened there? He doesn’t like the girl?”

“No, he doesn’t like eggs.”

“The character doesn’t like eggs?”

“The actor doesn’t like eggs.”

“How do you know that?”

“I read it on his blog.”

It doesn’t have to have be on my blog. Everything’s out now. And “out” has its consequences.

How bad would it be? Imagine the effect of some famously gay actor playing in a heterosexual love scene.

“I’m kissing Julia Roberts. But I’m thinking of Jeffrey.”

“We know.”

“Eggs” would be worse than that. A persuasive gay actor, an increasingly more tolerant audience, some “Whoh!”-like sexy moves on the screen – it’s over. Your disbelief is suspended. And you’re a little jealous of Jeffrey.

Imagine, on the other hand, a night of passion for Earlo’s character, followed by a romantic breakfast.






You see how that could ruin things?

There are food issues you can fake. An Orthodox Jewish actor required to eat ham, if he were high enough in the pecking order to receive special treatment, could request some counterfeit ham alternative, possibly molded brisket. That would never work in my case. You can’t fake eggs.

Maybe if I were big enough, I could have a quiet word with the director, or, even better, have it handled contractually (the non-negotiable “No Eggs” clause). Blink your eyes, and the eggs become pancakes. I like pancakes. I know pancakes have eggs in them, but you don’t actually see them. Which makes a difference. If you happen to be crazy.

Unfortunately, even in my fantasies, I am cognizant of my place in the show business hierarchy. I’m a character actor. The funny guy in the car pool. The best friend’s second best friend. Prominent enough to steal the picture. But don’t ask for anything special.

“You know that ‘brunch’ scene? Can we switch my order from Eggs Benedict to waffles?”

“Yeah, you’re fired.”

Could you actually get fired for asking for waffles? To a director who’s got a thousand things on his mind? – Oh, yeah. So there I am, having worked my butt off in ninety-nine seat theater, struggling in cheapie “independents” shot in Saskatchewan. I finally get my “break” in a meaningful production, and I’m canned for asking for waffles. Which I’ve requested, not on some temperamental whim, but because I know that what they want me to do will carry the picture in an unhappily unexpected direction. The word quickly gets around that I’m “difficult”, and I’m blackballed from the business, forced to work in cheesy infomercials, hawking cure-alls for embarrassing medical conditions on obscure cable stations at two in the morning? And all because I don’t eat eggs.

What do I need that for?

The choice was crystal clear:

Be a writer. And eat what you want.

Coming Soon: Another Reason I Could Never Be An Actor – Being Locked in the Trunk of a Car.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


I try not to belabor the points of my stories. I prefer the stories to speak for themselves. Sometimes, however, in allowing my stories to speak for themselves, they end up saying different things than I had in mind when I wrote them.

There are a number of possible explanations for this confusion. The reader may read things into the story that I never intended to be there. Or, I wrote the story insufficiently skillfully, and the message I had in mind didn’t come through. Or – and I truly believe this is often the case – those insidious stories, acting on their own, make the point they want to make, haughtily oblivious of the writer’s wishes.

(This usually involves a snooty French accent:

“Zis wra-ter has zumzing on ‘ees mahnd, but – hoh-hoh-hoh – we, zee ztor-ee, weel, how you say, sabo-tage ‘ees in-ten-cion.”

Call it the unconscious, with snails.)

I recently wrote about how I once had serious thoughts of becoming a comedian, and went on to enumerate – rather easily – fourteen reasons why that was, in retrospect, an illogical aspiration. You might wonder why I wrote that post. It may not have been such a great idea. Not all of them are.

I write a post because I’m excited when it materializes in my mind, and, having not written it yet, I’m intrigued to see how it’ll turn out. “I tried to become a comedian. It didn’t work out. Should I have known it wouldn’t work out? I believe I should have. Why? Well, here are fourteen reasons. Unfortunately, in making my decision, I neglected to consider any of them.”

This brings me to the “Public Service” reason for writing a post. It goes something like this:

“Perhaps my experience will resonate with decisions you are currently wrestling with, and, having learned from my mistake, you will put that decision to a more rigorous test.”

When I was in my twenties, giving the matter almost no thought whatsoever, I decided to move to New York and become a stand-up comedian, performing at comedy clubs like The Improv and The Village Gate. The experiment lasted five weeks.

I guess it was okay that I tried. It didn’t kill me. And there were some isolated high points. Once, I did really well. The audience responded enthusiastically, which surprised me, since, a) I was terrified, b) I didn’t know what I was doing, c) my material was of an inconsistent quality, and d) a roof-raising Harlem gospel choir, dressed in zebra-striped dashikis, drove the audience into a frenzy, making it quite a challenge for the next performer, a low-key comedian from Canada, to get their attention. But somehow I did.

There was a reason I succeeded that night. I had decided to abandon on my quest to become a comedian, and return home to Canada. This would be my final performance, and with nothing to lose, I relaxed and I “killed.” (It’s easier to deliver when it no longer matters.)

Being a comedian was the wrong fit for me. I’d have known that had I been alert to the signals. Being in show business, however, was the right fit. Once again, the signals were apparent. But this time, I noticed them.

A Canadian ad agency once hired me to write and perform some radio commercials for Shopsy’s, a Toronto deli, looking to expand its product line into supermarkets. In one commercial, I took on the voice of one of their featured entrees:

“Hi, I’m Salisbury Steak. I come with mushrooms, but they don’t talk.”

The agency liked what I’d done on the Shopsy’s account, and after I completed the commercials, they offered me a full-time writing job at their agency. This was my reply to them:

“I appreciate the offer, but I’d rather stay in show business.”

An honest response. Only one problem. At the time I said that,

I wasn’t in show business.

I don’t know where that came from. Somebody offered me a secure career opportunity, and I turned it down, using as my rationale a competing opportunity

That didn’t exist!

This was a signal.

I clearly wanted to be in show business.

Here’s another signal. Best of the West is in production. There’s a run-through on the stage. There are golf carts available to carry us there. As the other executive producers climb into the golf carts, I do something that is characteristically light years from my recognizable M.O.

I run to the stage.

That’s a signal. “I’m in the right place.” How do I know? No one, including myself, had ever seen me run anywhere before.

What’s the difference between the writing and the comedian situations? Is writing for television easier than being a stand-up? No, they’re both hard. The difference is that in one place, I belonged – as reflected by my spontaneous exuberance – and the in other place – as reflected by an alternating mixture of depression and “the shakes” – I didn’t.

If I’d spoken to one comedian, and asked him what it was like being him, I would quickly have realized that that line of endeavor was not for me. This blog concerns, among other matters, an all-encompassing recounting of what it’s like writing for television.

Maybe it’s for you. And maybe, once you’re more aware of what’s involved, you’ll decide that it isn’t. Or that it wasn’t, and you were (maybe instinctively) thoughtful enough to have realized it.

Monday, May 11, 2009

"Knowing For Sure"

I seemed to be interested in how we know things.

There’s a name for that inquiry – epistemology – which, according to my dictionary, is “a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge.” People have been curious about how we know things for some time, going at least as far back as Aristotle.

Pursuing this interest, I sign up for a philosophy class at UCLA Extension. Skepticism and Rationality. And you know what? It turns out that wasn’t exactly what I was interested in. The class offered varying theories on the mechanical process of how we know things, which while interesting to a point was not quite the itch that I was looking to scratch.

Taking that wrong turn, however, helped me discover what I was really interested in, which was not how we know things, but something slightly different. That being:

How do we know what we know is true?

We are told a lot of things in our lives. By our parents, our peers, some expert says, “Believe this!” But that’s just stuff. Stuff that comes at us and we take it in, and we store it away. The question is, how do we know for sure whether any of that stuff we took in and stored away, and started thinking of as the truth, and after a while it became the truth, out of habit if for no other reason, how do know if any of that stuff

Is actually true?

I remember precisely when my interest in this subject kicked into gear. I was sitting at home, perusing TV Guide, my reading matter of choice for, maybe, my life, till they went to the larger format, at which point it started looking too much like Us Weekly and I quit.

I was about thirty, and had just gotten contact lenses for the first time. Before that, I wore thick bifocals, the residue of some cataract surgery, which I’d undergone when I was two. (Imagine that. A two year-old exposed to the shocking brightness of an Operating Room. That’s probably why I flinch when they turn on the lights at ballgames.)

When you get contacts, you’re supposed to gradually build up the “wearing time.” For the first week or so, you keep them in a few hours, then you take them out and switch back to your glasses. One day, when I hit the “switching point”, I happened to be leafing through TV Guide, maybe wrestling with the Crossword Puzzle. Following instructions, I removed my contacts, put on my bifocals, and returned to my TV Guide.

That’s when I noticed it.

For me, it was an insight rivaling Archimedes’ discovery of displacement when he overflowed his bathtub, though it required a lot fewer towels to clean up.

What had jumped to my attention was this:

When I was reading TV Guide wearing my contacts, the letters printed in the magazine were one size. But when I switched to my bifocals and went back to the TV Guide, I immediately discovered that the letters in the magazine had become


And I mean all of them.

I remember thinking at that moment,

“What the heck is going on?”

The letters themselves couldn’t have changed.

“Let’s all get smaller!”

Letters can’t do that.

I’m pretty sure nobody’d sneaked into my apartment while I was in the bathroom taking out my contacts, and, as a prank, replaced my TV Guide with the exact same issue but with littler print.

My eyesight hadn’t gotten worse in the intervening thirty seconds.

So what exactly had transpired?

(I was also intrigued by what size the letters in that TV Guide actually were? And more interesting still, did everybody who looked at them see them a little bit differently?)

If you’re older than, say, eight, there is probably no mystery in my “epiphany.” The size of the print in my TV Guide appeared to be altered due to a small but noticeable discrepancy between my bifocal prescription (slightly less powerful) and the prescription for my contact lenses. I’m no dummy. I was pretty much on to that right away. Though I do admit to some momentary bafflement.

My experience shook me up, bringing into question, in every arena, from sensory information to strongly held beliefs, the uncertain issue of certainty.

I mean, hey,

How do I know what I know is true

When I personally

Just saw the same thing

Two different ways?

Friday, May 8, 2009

"The Curious Workings of the Mind"

There was a time when I had serious thoughts of becoming a comedian. I worshipped comedians. I thought they were smart and funny. I was kind of smart and funny. So, why not try being a comedian?


I am not comfortable around people.

I’m do not take rejection in stride.

I do not enjoy staying up late,

Or loud, smoky places where the customers drink.

I dislike the idea of repeating my material.

I am not willing to go where the biggest laughs are – sex jokes, mean-spiritedness and stupidity.

I am no fan of constant travel.

I am unenthusiastic about a steady diet of crappy food.

I would not do well with shady club owners.

I get wrenching stomachaches before going on.

I am not “punch line” funny.

I have no “comeback” for hecklers, other than running away, or bursting into tears.

I am daunted by the arrangement where the reward for giving a great performance is to having to go out the next time and do it again.

It would eat me up to “kill” one night and “die” the next, doing exactly the same act.

to name just fourteen of the stresses and indignities associated with the job of being a comedian.

Which inevitably leads to this question:

What exactly was I thinking?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

"Can You Top This?"

I’m living in a condo near the beach. It’s stiflingly hot. Santa Anas, they call them, a rare but excruciating weather pattern. Instead of a cooling breeze feathering in off the ocean, the situation is temporarily reversed, bringing searing winds from the desert, leaving anyone with an ocean-facing condo and no air conditioning, as we Jew people say, chalushing from the heat.

I’m chalushing from the heat. Which explains why I’m watching a ballgame on my living room couch, wearing – uncharacteristically – nothing. That’s how hot I am. I’m naked in my condo. It’s a heat thing. Read nothing more into it.

Suddenly, I hear feverish knocking on my glass-paned kitchen door, facing in the easterly (away from the ocean) direction. It’s the middle-aged couple who live three condos down. I know them to say hello, but that’s about it. I’m not sure I even know their names.

The couple can’t see me. My condo is constructed so that the living room is a few steps lower than the kitchen. Let me amend, “The couple can’t see me.” They can’t see I’m naked. But they can see my head. So they know I’m home.

The feverish knocking continues. Having no alternative, I quickly wrap a blanket, kept handy for couch naps, around my unclothed body, and I get up and answer the door.

It turns out, the wife has been involved with some serious but successful cancer treatment. The condition has, however, cost her an eye. As I quickly learn, the couple has just returned from the prosthetic eye store, or whatever you call them, and they’re absolutely thrilled with the outcome. This results in their “barely contain themselves” question to a fellow condo dweller, standing naked under loosely wrapped blanket, tightly tucked under his left armpit.

The question is this:

“Guess which eye is the real one?”

“Guess which eye is the real one?” This is not a question one is commonly asked. It may actually have been my first time. To be honest, I didn’t really want to look. But when I finally did,

I had absolutely no idea.

Which speaks highly of the work they’re doing in that area.

It seemed to me saying, “I really can’t tell” would make them ecstatically happy. Which, after an appropriate waiting period, is exactly what I said.

“You know, guys. I really can’t tell.”

I said that, not just to make them ecstatically happy. I really couldn’t tell which eye was the real one. More importantly, however, I said it because, standing at the door, naked under a loosely wrapped blanket,

I desperately wanted them to go away.

For some reason, however, they weren’t satisfied with “I really can’t tell.” They insisted that I guess. Refusing to leave until I did. What they wanted, I suppose, was for me to mistake the artificial eye for the real one, so they could scream,

“Wrong! Isn’t it wonderful!”

Hard as I tried, I just couldn’t tell the eyes apart.

The couple refused to let me off the hook.

I stood at that door

For twenty minutes

Naked under a loosely wrapped blanket

Unable to tell them

Which of this poor woman’s eyes

Was actually

The real eye.

Am I wrong, or is that not the most embarrassing story you’ve ever heard?

If you have an even more embarrassing story, bring it on.

I don’t need the title.

Top me.


You don’t have to use your real names.

If this weren’t my blog, I wouldn’t use my real name either.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


I worked at Universal Studios for eight years and four months. During that time I had three personal assistants.

The first assistant was Marti, an energetic pepperpot with spiky hair. When I arrived at my office the first day, Marti was sitting there. I didn’t have furniture yet. But I already had Marti.

She told me the job had been posted and, rather than waiting to be interviewed for it, she just walked in and sat down. The agreement was, “If you don’t like me, you can throw me out”, although, traditionally, agreements are arrangements that are mutually arrived at. Marti had worked this one out herself.

Marti remained my assistant for two years, after which she moved on to Disney, where they created a new dwarf specifically for her –


My last assistant was Beverly. Beverly was as capable as they come. She was especially skillful at proofreading, which was extremely valuable, since I frequemtly nake misnake4s.

Beverly’s other noteworthy attribute is that she and I were born on the same day. Not just we have the same birthday, we were born on exactly the same day. Years later, she reliably sends me a birthday card on our birthday. Usually with a dog on it. I send her one back. Usually with an Indian on it.

As mentioned, Marti and Beverly were my first and last assistants.

In the middle, there was Astrid.

Astrid would giggle provocatively at that statement.

“I don’t remember being in the middle of Marti and Beverly.”

If you’re just skimming, here’s the most important thing you need to know about Astrid. She always called me “My Prince.” (Astrid worked for my friend, Paul, before coming to me. When she did, she called Paul “My Prince.” It may not have been personal, but it was still really nice.)

Astrid was a diminutive English cream puff, with a lilting voice and white, wavy hair. You could easily imagine her as a conscientious street warden during “The Blitz”, reminding the citizenry to keep their “blackout” drapes shut, and that loose lips sink ships. Always firmly. But always with a twinkle.

Astrid was the last of the “secretaries.” She had been one for nearly thirty years, and showed no desire to be anything else. In keeping with the English tradition, she seemed comfortable with her “station in life”, choosing to excel at what she did, rather than using her position as strategic steppingstone in her master plan to take over the studio. It was extremely refreshing.

Besides being highly capable at her job (which she believed included bringing me a cup of tea and a biscuit every morning on a bone china cup and saucer), Astrid also had the characteristics of a bloodhound (or, more respectfully, a Scotland Yard detective.) Whenever I asked her to find some obscure person I needed to talk to for some reason, Astrid’s unswerving response was, “If he lives, I shall find him.” Minutes later, Astrid would “buzz” me, announcing that Mr. or Ms. Obscure Person was waiting on the line.

In the past, Astrid had, on occasion, been recruited for a specialized sideline activity. Because of her delicate hands and exquisite penmanship, producers would call for her services when filming the writing of love letters or suicide notes in movies and miniseries. While others, watching obscure “bit” players in classic movies, like to play “Name That Actor”, I find myself engaged in a more specific game called, “Are Those Astrid’s Hands?”

If fingers could wink, I would know for sure.

In a soap opera only life could create, there was this middle-aged English handyman at Universal who fit the widowed Astrid perfectly. But, alas, Larry was unavailable. The two settled for an “office marriage”, sipping tea on his daily visits, and connecting like a couple who’d been together for years.

When Astrid retired, she decided to return to England. She took her six cats with her, one of which lacked the traditional allotment of legs. Relocating in Northumberland, near the Scottish border, Astrid dutifully drove a substantial distance every day to visit her kitties in Edinburgh, where they remained in quarantine for six months.

We used to talk around Christmas and my birthday, but lately, the connection has faded. I’d like to say, “If she lives, I shall find her.” But that wasn’t me. It was her.

I hope she lives. And lives happily. In fact, I decree it.

I can do that, you know.

I’m a prince.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

"Toronto the Good, And Not So Good, And Then Good Again"

I’m proud of my home town. Maybe even a little gushy. It is not uncommon for me to brag about Toronto’s basic decency and homey hospitality.

“They’ll never run you over in Toronto,” observed a younger version of my daughter, Anna, as we jaywalked across a busy thoroughfare, the cars dutifully stopping, permitting us to proceed.

To me, Toronto is that kind of town. Decent. Safe. A place where you can let down your guard.


Not long ago, our family flew in for the wedding of my niece, Jennifer, and her husband-to-be, Erik. And the fun was just beginning. The following day, Dr. M and I were scheduled to fly to London for an extended vacation.


Sunday morning. A typical spring Toronto day. (The next day it would snow.) After eating breakfast, Dr. M and I decide to go for our type of hike, the not too grueling type. I know just the spot, a short drive from the hotel.

A hike and a wedding. Let the good times roll.

We drive to Wilket Creek, home to a spingilicious hiking trail. You can smell the season’s radiance through our rental car’s windows. And they’re closed.

We pull into the parking lot. We lock up the car. We set off on our hike.

It’s really muddy, but that’s okay. It’s Toronto mud. Our sneakers get heavier as we walk. We’re taking the hiking trail with us.

An hour or so later, we return to the parking lot, scrape the goo off mud-caked sneakers with some hiking trail twigs, and we head back to our rental car.

Something doesn’t seem right.

As we get closer, we notice that the driver’s side window has been smashed in. Could it be possible? Indeed it could. Our rental car has been broken into.

A nervous investigation reveals that Dr. M’s purse, which she’d secreted under her seat, has been stolen. Dr. M had thought of locking her purse in the trunk, but she didn’t. Why didn’t she?

It’s Toronto.

Where they may not run you over, but they apparently break into your car and take off with your purse.

There’s broken glass everywhere. “Security” arrives to clean up the debris. “Security” also instructs us to make a report to the head hiking trail guy. We do. The head hiking trail guy instructs us to make a report to the police. We later do that as well. It’s turning into a different kind of a day. A less good kind.

And then it gets worse.

Dr. M realizes that her missing purse contained an item essential for our immediate future.

Her passport.

As I mentioned, we were scheduled to leave for London on the following day. No passport – no leaving. A replacement temporary passport? Not possible. It’s Sunday. Everything’s closed. Postpone the trip till we get one? Sure, but that involves a delay, and exchanging our plane tickets. And exchanging our plane tickets involves substantial penalties.

It’s a full day of reporting. After filing our report at a nearby police station, and reporting the damages to the rental-car company, we return to our hotel, where we call up and report our lost credit cards. It tells you what kind of day you’re having when the best part of it is a muddy hike.

In a desperate effort, Dr. M ransacks the hotel room, hoping she was wrong about where she had stored her passport. She wasn’t. It was in her purse.

We were both upset, but determined to keep our perspective. We were there for a wedding. (To take place in the hotel we were staying in.) We had a problem, but we weren’t the story. Jen and Erik were the story. We’re just the people who lost a passport and can’t go to London.

We’re grownups. Our priorities are secure. But inside, our heads are spinning.

It’s an hour before the ceremony. Starting to get ready, Dr. M retreats to the bathroom to take a shower. I sit in a chair waiting my turn, wrestling with a flurry of emotions, none of them helpful. I’m shaken up by the violation. I’m confused by the criminal behavior perpetrated in a city consistently promoted (at least by me) for its safety. And I’m embarrassed by my inability as a problem solver, never a plus when there’s a problem.

The phone rings in our hotel room. An officer’s calling from the nearby police station. I identify myself, and am given the message:

They’ve recovered the passport.

“You can drop by the station and pick it up.”

I hang up, and immediately tell Dr. M. We both agree. It’s a frickin’ miracle!

What a town!

Toronto robbers! They’re the best! Sure, they keep the purse, the money and all the valuables. But, despite being criminals, they remain decent people, and they surrender the passport to the police.

Okay, maybe the robber didn’t surrender the passport to the police. That’s too much. Though it’s possible, you never know. What we do know is that somebody – some thoughtful Canadian stranger – discovered Dr. M’s passport and went out of their way to deliver it to the authorities.

The story borders on the incomprehensible. On the same day that the passport had disappeared,

We got the darn thing back!

Hey, I never said Toronto was perfect. But you gotta admit:

That’s pretty good, eh?

Monday, May 4, 2009

"A Cop Saves Me A Thousand Bucks"

This will be my first tribute to a member of the L.A. police force in more than three hundred and twenty posts. Sorry, officers, it won’t happen again. (This phrase seems to roll trippingly off my tongue. Is it experience, perhaps?)

I’m coming out of a therapy session, feeling better about myself, or at least more conscious of why I don’t. I walk to the street where I’m parked, and I immediately notice that….

Some idiot has slammed into my car.

There’s a note tucked under the driver’s side windshield wiper. I quickly alter my perception. Some thoughtful person has slammed into my car.

Turns out, the note is not from the offending driver. I revert to my original perception.

The note is from a witness. They describe what happened, giving a full description of the assailant’s car.

Not only that, but

They include the assailant’s license number.

Turns out it’s a handicapped license plate. I alter my perception once again. Some handicapped idiot slammed into my car.

And driven away without leaving a note!

So what, I’m thinking, I got the goods on them. I’ll contact my insurance company, they’ll track down the assailant, their insurance company will cover the damages, which will include my thousand-dollar deductible payment.

It’s going to be okay.

I call up my insurance agent, report the accident, passing along the pertinent information, most notably the assailant’s license number, which I hoped, emanating from the smaller handicapped classification, would be easier to trace. Sure, it would be a drag getting my car fixed – there was a mutilating gash in the driver’s side door – but at least, I wouldn’t have to pay for it.


A week later, my insurance agent reports back. They were unable to trace the license plate. This seemed bizarro to me. I mean, how many police shows have you seen: “Did you get the license plate number?” “No.” “Too bad. We coulda nailed the bastards.”

We had the license plate number. But we didn’t nail anybody.

Wha’ hoppin’?

I get this big song and dance from my insurance agent, who’d obviously attended a seminar where they’d been trained by specialists in the big song and dance. Seeing no hope in pursuing my claim, I do what I always do in these cases.

I give up.

For a while.

I’m still angry, because my insurance company dropped the ball on tracing the license plate. Though my insurance will cover the damages, I am now on the hook for the thousand-dollar deductible. (Not to mention the almost certain increase in my insurance rates.)

It’s maybe a month later. I get this idea. I emerge from my “Cone of Surrender”, and take decisive action. I can’t believe what I’m doing. Or that I’m doing anything.

I call the police station whose jurisdiction includes the street where the accident took place. A female police officer picks up, and I start to talk.

“I don’t know if you do this, but I’m kinda helpless here,” I begin, attempting to garner sympathy, which, when it comes to getting people to help me, is the only arrow in my entire quiver.

I tell her my story, ending with my insurance company’s inability to trace the license plate, and wondering if there was any way the police department could assist me.

The officer’s response is immediate.

“I’m sorry, sir. We are not permitted to do that.”

I then do something I almost always never do. Instead of mumbling, “That’s okay” and hanging up,

I persist.

“The thing is,” I forge on, surprising myself enormously, “if we can’t identify the driver, I’m going to be stuck with the thousand dollar deductible.” Adding redundantly, “That’s a lot of money.”

There’s a long pause. Then the policewoman does something entirely unexpected, and possibly illegal.

“Could you hold on a second?” she asks.

I hold on. Less than five minutes later, she returns with the information.

“That’s so great!” I effuse, quickly adding, “Can I send you something? Some flowers? A basket of muffins?” The woman has just saved me a thousand dollars. She’s more than entitled to a few muffins. And maybe some preserves. And a small jar of olives.

Not allowed, I was told. What could I do? I dug deep for a “thousand dollar ‘Thank you’”, and hung up, eternally grateful to an angel in blue.

I call my insurance company. They take it from there. My car is fixed. I don’t pay a thing.

What’s this story about. “Never give up”? “The policeperson is your friend”? “Handicapped people are not immune from vehicular malfeasance”? I don’t know. I just know I feel really good passing it along.

Friday, May 1, 2009

"Uncle Grumpy - 'Watch the Words'"

Uncle Grumpy’s back. I can’t say no to him. He bought me a Bowie knife for my twelfth birthday. I’ve owed him ever since.

Uncle Grump, the floor is yours.

What can I tell ya? The kid wanted a Bowie knife, his mother wouldn’t get him one.

Okay, here it is.

Words. Matter.

You choose one word instead of another word, it means something. What? It means you didn’t want to use the other word. Why? Because the word you chose more accurately suited your purposes.

For good. Or for evil.

Words can reveal. Words can conceal. Words can manipulate. Words can distort. People say, “It’s only words.” They’re wrong. And they’re trying to fool you. With words. While they’re trying to convince you they don’t matter.

There’s this guy named Frank Luntz, a political and corporate consultant, usually identified with conservative causes. Luntz wrote a book called Words That Work. The subtitle for that book could have read, “How To Use ‘Hot Button’ Words To Fool People Into Coming Over To Your Side.” But only if Luntz was trying to be honest, rather than trying to sell books.

In a culture with a diminishing concern for shame, there are a remarkably few unacceptable methods of making a living. Expert liars could promote their “How To Lie” books as “self help” aids, explaining, “If you’re going to lie anyway, why not learn how to be good at it?”

Luntz trains his clients to wrap their arguments in specific, focus-group-tested words and phrases, which, because of their connotations to the listeners, are helpful in gaining their support. Luntz was famous for re-branding the Inheritance Tax the “Death Tax.” People, formerly apathetic on the subject, were suddenly up in arms.

“Man! You can’t even die in this country without getting taxed!”

Luntz taught the opponents of “global warming” to defuse the concern by repackaging the issue as “Climate change.” “Climate change” doesn’t sound so earthshaking. You open a window. You put on a sweater. Good-bye, “Climate change”.

People aren’t crazy about oil drilling? Call it “Energy exploration.” Suddenly, it’s an adventure.

“Energy exploration! I want to do that!”

You’re not plundering the environment. You’re Magellan.

Here’s a popular Luntzism. At least it sounds like one. There’s a lot of talk these days about the previous administration’s behavior concerning the issue of torture. When they’re questioned about it, spokespeople for the previous administration, not one of them, but every one of them – as if they’d been carefully tutored to do so – will first make a sour face, and then they’ll say,

“I don’t think we should re-litigate the past.”

You see the word? “Re-litigate”?

This word was not casually selected. “Re-litigate” is a “lawyer word”. People don’t like lawyers. Especially when they’re litigating.

Using that word sends the message, “What they’re doing here is bad.” And it's not just litigating. It's re-litigating. They litigated already. And now, they’re litigating again! What the heck is going on!

This rampant litigating has got to stop!

Can anyone say “sideshow”? Suddenly, we’re talking about “litigating”, and nobody’s talking about torture.

Secondly, and more importantly,

Whenever someone complains, “I don’t think we should re-litigate the past”, what they’re actually saying, rather transparently, is, “Look, our side messed up in a shameful and embarrassing way in the past, and it would be a lot better for us if we didn’t talk about it anymore.”

Hence, the distracting “re-litigate.” They pooped in their pants. And they don’t want to talk about it.

Am I being unfair? I don’t know. People who won the Nobel Prize, or received an Oscar or the Congressional Medal of Honor, they seem to be to happy to talk about the past. Why is that?

Because they didn’t torture anybody.

Why does this get me so steamed up? Because a self-serving choice of words has replaced a serious discussion with a “smiley face” and a new coat of paint. After all the P.R., symbolic manipulation, the problem is still there.

And you can’t make that go “poof” with words.

Here’s what I don’t get. We know what they’re doing. They know we know.

So why do they keep doing it?