Friday, January 29, 2010

"At Least Show Us Some Respect"

Though I never like being fooled, there’s a certain variation of “being fooled” that makes “just being fooled” feel barely worth making a fuss about. I’m referring to the situation where the people trying to fool me do so in an insultingly transparent manner. Not only are they trying to fool me, they’re insulting me by putting shockingly little effort into pretending they’re not.

Two examples. One trivial, one important. I’ll let you decide which is which.

My cable television package includes a Westerns Channel. The channel broadcasts old western movies and TV series. You will not be surprised to hear that I watch the Westerns Channel a lot.

I confess I don’t restrict myself to watching the better westerns and TV shows. I watch them all. I can’t help it. I have always found myself soothed by the sight of horses appearing on the screen.

So I’m watching this B-level 1950’s western called Sitting Bull. In a scene setting up the climactic battle, an Indian lookout spots the U.S. Cavalry on the move. He immediately mounts his pony, to race off and warn his people that the “Blue Coats” are headed their way.

The lookout’s pony has a brightly colored blanket spread across its back. Indians traditionally ride bareback. No saddles.

However, when the Indian “lookout” mounts his pony, he puts his foot

Into a stirrup.

I have never seen a blanket with a stirrup. I’ve seen saddles with stirrups. In fact, that’s generally where you expect stirrups to be.

Well, I’m no dummy. What I’ve just witnessed immediately tips me off.

“I’ll bet there’s a saddle under that brightly colored blanket.”

It’s the logical thing to believe. A saddle under the blanket; hence, the stirrup.

But what about the illusion? Indians are supposed to ride bareback; hence, the blanket.

Reality Check.

What we’re obviously looking at here is an Indian, or rather an “Indian” – meaning a non-Indian actor playing an Indian – who, unable to ride bareback, is receiving a little “help”, in the form of a saddle hidden beneath the blanket. (I don’t mean to stereotype here. I imagine there are a few actual Indians who can’t ride bareback either. But this is unlikely the case here. In movies produced in the 50’s, one of the rarest elements in an “Indian picture” – even an Indian picture called Sitting Bull – was an actual Indian.)

Okay, we’re not children here, although some of us occasionally need to be accompanied to the doctor’s. I’m aware that actors playing Indians in 50’s westerns often required assistance when pretending to ride bareback. So fine. Slip a saddle under the blanket. No problem. There’s a big lump the middle of the blanket? I’m okay with that. I’m buying the illusion.

Until…

You show the guy putting his foot into a stirrup!

At that point, I’m out. The illusion has been irreparably shattered.

Could they not pretend “The guy’s riding bareback” a little better than that? Would it have been so hard to have the “Indian” vault onto his pony, as if he were riding bareback?

Or if the “Indian” actor lacked the ability to vault, could they not have had him begin to get on the pony, cut to a long shot, so that a stunt man could be inserted to vault onto his horse for him, then cut back to show “Indian” actor riding off to warn his people?

Some illusion-preserving effort. Is that asking too much?

I find a guy who’s supposed to be riding bareback putting his foot into a stirrup to be highly insulting. It’s like they’re telling the audience:

“We’re not even going to pretend to fool you. We don’t have to.”

It’s not just me, right? That’s really insulting.

The second example?

It happened the same day I was watching that western.

The Supreme Court announced its decision, allowing corporations to spend as much money backing political candidates as they want to.

With this five-to-four decision, and others like it – such as the Bush v. Gore decision which originally gave George W. Bush the presidency – the Supreme Court, voting entirely along party lines, exposed itself as, not a thoughtfully deliberative judicial body impartially weighing the evidence before them, but as partisan politicians in black robes.

The legal justification behind the majority’s decision – that in the area of campaign financing, a corporation should be accorded the same rights as a person – besides ignoring a century of normally binding precedent, sends its opponents an unequivocal, in-your-face message.

“We’re not even going to pretend our rationale has legal standing. We don’t have to.”

Judging by their tepid reactions, it appears that Americans don’t mind being insulted.

Or maybe they’re just used to it.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

"Changing Fashions"

I didn’t have a blog when I first noticed this. So I’m writing about it now. What “it” is, I’ll return to shortly.

Things change. “Fashion” is constantly on the move. Wide ties, narrow ties; short shirts, shorter skirts. This is nothing new. “Changing fashion” has been with us forever. (Men’s hats with buckles, men’s hats without buckles.)

Sometimes, the changes in fashion are behavioral. For example, for the majority of my lifetime, you held a closed fist up to your ear, and it meant, “I’ll call you.” The simulation mimicked using a landline telephone, where you hold the receiver to your ear.

Everyone understood what it meant – closed fist to the ear – “I’ll call you.” Not to say that the “miming technique” began with the telephone. I imagine, before phones, people rapidly jiggled their “pointer” finger, and it meant, “I’ll telegraph you.” And before that, people mimed using a feather, indicating, “I’ll write you.” And before that, it was the patented hammer and the chisel gesture - "I'll send you a tablet."

Of course, I don’t know for certain it was like that. I wasn’t there.

With the advent of cell phones, the “I’ll call you” signal inevitably changed. “I’ll call you” was now, hand to the ear, with the three middle fingers curled under, the “pinkie” finger pointing downward, and the thumb pointing up.

Since I rarely leave the house, I have little use for cell phones. As a result, I find myself still using the old “I’ll call you” signal. The problem is, when I use that signal, especially with younger people, they don’t know what I’m doing. To them, I’m a guy holding my fist to my ear.

Probably quite soon, with cell phones quickly being bumped into obsolescence by I-Phones, the “I’ll call you” signal will change again, the “thumb up-“pinkie” down gesture supplanted by an empty hand held to the ear in a claw-like configuration, approximating a five-tentacled octopus attacking the side of your face.

When this changeover takes place, I will officially be two “I’ll call you’s” behind.

I have a hard time pinpointing the precise moment that fashion changes occur. They seem to show up out of the blue, like the new Yellow Pages. Maybe some cultural icon gets the ball rolling, and it eventually filters down to the rest of us. I mean, it’s not like there’s an announcement in the paper, or some massive e-mailing:

“We’re doing ‘I’ll call you’ like this now. Pass it on.”

Of course, I get the reason for this fashion change. Change of technology, change of “I’ll call you.” There’s an understandable rationale behind it.

On the other hand, here’s a change that, at least to me, has no rationale whatsoever. (This is the thing I’d have written about if I’d had a blog when I first noticed it.)

Growing up, I watched a ton of cowboy movies and TV shows. I watched war movies. I watched gangster pictures and detective series. As a regular viewer of mayhem (though never the most violent versions), I witnessed hundreds, possibly thousands, of people firing guns. They always did it the same way. They pointed the gun at whomever they were trying to kill, and they pulled the trigger. This seemed to work pretty well.

For decades, centuries, if you’re talking about real life, people seemed entirely happy with this technique. You point the gun; you pull the trigger.

Then, one day, it all changed.

At some un-pindownable moment in time, shooters continued to pull the trigger. But before they did so, they turned their guns

Sideways.

It doesn’t make sense. As a result of my years playing with toy cowboy guns, combined with all my movie and TV watching, I am aware that at the end of most – maybe all – gun barrels, there’s this thing sticking up from the top of it called a “sight.” You use it for aiming. It helps you hit things.

If you flip your gun sideways, the “sight” goes sideways too. At which point, it becomes entirely useless.

Now, if shooting your gun from a sideways position makes aiming more difficult – and I have to believe it does – what exactly is the advantage of shooting your gun sideways?

I can’t believe this innovation originated in movies and television. I imagine that, just before the Big Shootout was about to be filmed, some “consultant”, hired to add authenticity to the proceedings, took the director aside and said,

“On ‘The Street’, they turn the guns sideways.”

And the director went, “Cool.”

After which he instructed his actors – at least the ones playing the criminals – to shoot their guns sideways.

This explanation, however, simply moves the question back a step. Why did they decide to shoot their guns sideways on “The Street”?

It’s possible the change resulted from the fact that, during some real-life gun battle, someone shooting sideways had a really good day. Maybe, in the heat of battle, some participant momentarily went crazy, they swiveled their gun-holding wrist ninety degrees to the left, and, more through luck than this altered position, they mowed down a substantial number of people.

The story inevitably got around, and “sideways” rapidly became the shooting method of choice. The fact that it rarely worked was irrelevant. When “fashion” takes hold, the negative consequences become secondary. (Think about six-inch heels.) You do it because it’s “the latest thing.”

And yet, at some point, you’d think there’d be a “Reality Check.” During the aftermath of their most recent gunfight, when they’re taking stock of how things went, you’d think somebody might observe, “We hardly killed anybody. Why are we shooting sideways?”

I’m really interested in how this gunfighting technique attained its cachet, and why, despite its ineffectiveness, it remains popular. You know I’m always grateful to hear from any of you. But today, I’m appealing specifically to my gangsta readers. Clue me in, gangsta readers,

Whassup with the “sideways?”

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"It Says It All"

My grandfather once enthused, “I like The Dean Martin Show. He only sings the old songs. A couple of years later, he complained, “I’m tired of The Dean Martin Show. He only sings the old songs.”

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"The Traveling Six-Gun"

Hanging in my office is an exquisitely hand-tooled leather holster. And nestled in that exquisitely hand-tooled leather holster is an actual sized, cowboy six-gun.

Replica.

Okay?

Replica.

I do not own a gun.

That works.

I do own a gun. That gun. But the bullets – yes, it has bullets – are replica bullets, and the chamber – I think that’s the word – does not spin around – because my actual-sized, cowboy six-gun…

Is not

Real.

I believe I’ve made myself clear on that point. I have a cowboy gun. It isn’t real.

But it isn’t a toy either.

I know toy cowboy guns. Growing up, I owned a ton of them. They were cap guns.

The caps came in various forms, depending on the requirements of the gun. The most common type were rolls, where you shot one cap at a time, and the next cap jumped up into position in front of the hammer.

Caps also came in flat discs of six caps per circle. You flipped out the chamber, pressed in the flat disk, then flipped the chamber back in. As you blasted away, the chamber rotated, allowing you to fire off six shots before reloading.

Then, there were the individual caps needed for the “Mother Of All Cap Guns” – the Stallion 45. Stallion 45’s are now collectibles. One selling for five ninety-five, they now sell for hundreds of dollars each on the Internet. And they’re worth it.

Pearl handled, made of polished…some metal that looks shiny, the Stallion 45 was the top-of-the-line fake firearm of its day, a toy The Lone Ranger might have given his children for Christmas.

The Stallion 45 was, by far, the most difficult to load.

STALLION 45 – LOADING INSTRUCTIONS

A single cap is tamped down into the shell casings of each of the six bullets. The bullets are then inserted, one at a time, into the gun’s revolving chamber, which, when fired, allowed you to squeeze off six shots, like an actual six-gun.

After the six shots have been fired, the bullets are then unloaded, the spent caps are scraped out off the bottoms of each shell casing, after which individual replacement caps are inserted, and the bullets are returned to the chamber.

Firing the Stallion 45 took less than ten seconds.

Reloading took twenty minutes.

I believe I have demonstrated my enthusiasm for cap guns. I was still playing with them when I was thirteen. I know that, because I remember asking for a two-gun holster for my Bar Mitzvah.

FLASH FORWARD

I am now in my mid-forties. Dr. M and I are visiting some spa-like resort in Tucson, Arizona. The trip allows me to reconnect with my friend, Dennis, a talented writer I’d worked with on Best of the West, now living in Tucson, so his wife can attend journalism classes at the local college.

During our visit, Dr. M and I took in one of Tucson’s most celebrated tourist attractions, Old Tucson Studios, a fabricated cowboy town, where over the years, many highly regarded westerns had been filmed, including Rio Bravo and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The place feels like the real thing.

What do I know about the real thing. It feels like the real, fake thing.

So I’m working my way down Old Tucson’s Main Street, checking out the General Store, the livery stable and the saloon, when a hand-painted sign abruptly catches my eye.

Gun Shop.

You gotta go in the Gun Shop. At least, I do. I’m a Gun Guy. (Fake guns. It’s an important distinction.)

I step into the Gun Shop. I look around.

I have wandered into heaven.

The room is filled with dozens of "prop" cowboy guns. Rifles, shotguns, pistols with gun barrels of varying lengths, from relatively short to laughably long “Buntline Specials.” I am told that these non-working replicas were issued to the “Extras.” “Extras’” guns didn’t need to work. They just needed to look authentic.

That’s what distinguished these Gun Shop facsimiles from cap guns. Everything about them said,

“Real gun.”

Their look. The metal they were made out of. Their full, actual size. And, most importantly, their actual, real gun

Weight.

Those fake guns were heavy. Except for their inability to shoot, they were in-every-detail duplicates of the real thing.

The Gun Shop guns were for sale. And I wanted one.

A family member talked me out of it. She reminded me how old I was. She explained that I might have wanted this firearm facsimile when I was younger – say, twelve – but my desire for one now was simply a tantalizing flashback.

The family member was right. I didn’t want the gun. I just thought I did.

So I didn’t buy one.

Story over?

Not hardly.

When I got home, I experienced severe “Non-Buyer’s Remorse”, and immediately called my friend Dennis in Tucson.

“I want that gun!”

The rest of the story belongs to Dennis, who related it to us later, when we were together Los Angeles.

After my phone call, Dennis drove to Old Tucson and picked up the gun I’d instructed him to buy. However, instead of shipping it to me immediately, Dennis decided to surprise me by ordering, at his own expense, an accompanying gift – an exquisitely hand-tooled leather holster.

Being an in-demand television writer at the time, Dennis regularly commuted to Los Angeles for high-level “pitch” meetings. His plan was that, on his first business trip to Los Angeles after the custom-made holster was finished, he would bring both it and my coveted way-better-than-a-cap-gun-authentic-looking-cowboy-six-shooter along with him.

Keep in mind that this story took place before September 11th, 2001. Though security was considerably looser back then, it was hardly non-existent.

I should also tell you that my friend, Dennis, is scrupulously honest. Though more likely, what did him in was the fact that the man tends to be, some might say, obsessively clear when he’s expressing himself, spelling things out - things that may or not be necessary for other people to know – in laborious detail. This tendency is probably what makes Dennis a good writer. It, unfortunately, proved his undoing as an airplane passenger.

Boarding the plane, Dennis immediately went up to the flight attendant and said:

“In the service of full disclosure – and of not wanting to be the cause of any ‘surprises’ down the line – I feel obligated to inform you, in all candor – and demonstrating that I clearly have nothing to hide – that, amongst my “Carry-on” items – all of which are of a purely personal nature, except for this one glaring exception – I have a gun. Not a real gun. A replica. Which I’m transporting to a friend in Los Angeles, along with an exquisitely hand-tooled leather holster. I just thought you should know.”

The flight attendant only heard “I have a gun.”

Dennis was immediately arrested. He missed his flight. He missed his meetings. He was held in isolation for hours. He was vigorously interrogated.

If this had happened today, Dennis would most likely be languishing in Guantanamo, undergoing whatever this administration perceives as not being torture. That was his one lucky break. He brought a gun on a plane before a time when you can be criminally charged for bringing on more than three ounces of hand lotion.

Sometimes, I feel terrible for the trouble I got Dennis into. But more often, when the mood hits me, I strap on my exquisitely hand-tooled leather holster, and practice my fast draw.

Monday, January 25, 2010

"Unsold Concepts"

Rummaging archeologically through the rubble of my career, I have unearthed three concepts for comedy series that never got past the “proposal” stage. Other such artifacts remain currently buried. I will share them with you when they surface.

Here we go.

Three Unsold Series Ideas

Idea Number One:

Old Guys

Two elderly strangers are forced by necessity to move in together and share an apartment.

It’s easy to see why this series didn’t go. It’s got “old” in its title. For networks, “old” equals “Thanks for coming.” There will be no sale today.

Even when television does “do old”, the M.O. is to target the extremes. Old people are portrayed as either oversexed motorcycle enthusiasts, or as mind-addled dodderers who eat prunes and fall asleep in their cereal. Comedy is attracted to “the extreme.” It’s the home of the easy laugh. Unfortunately, reliance on the extremes makes any realistic depiction, in this case, of aging, appear to be, less funny.

The “upside” of an Old Guys project is the opportunity to work with veteran actors, enriching the proceedings with proven talent and decades of experience. The “downside” is, being chronologically old, the actors can “go” at any minute, leaving a gaping hole in your carefully picked ensemble.

Had I been permitted to go forward with Old Guys, I would happily have taken that risk.


Idea Number Two:

The Studio

A “fly-by-night” movie studio, run “seat-of-his-pants”-style by a “never say die” studio boss, set in the “rags to riches” heyday of 1930’s Hollywood.

Enough clich├ęs in there for you? Well, gee whiz! That’s the point!

This series idea derived from a confluence of three significant inspirations. One, I worked at studios – Universal and Paramount – that, at the time, boasted a wide-ranging selection of standing outdoor sets – Depression-era New York tenements, cowboy streets, a castle with a moat, a charming neighborhood in Paris. My thought was, “Why not take advantage of these sets, using them as “locations” for some “low rent” studio’s cheesy knockoffs of classic movies?”

Inspiration Number Two: I watched a short-lived English series, called Flickers, which chronicled that country’s early efforts making silent movies. My affection for Flickers inspired me to transpose the idea to the “Gower Gulch”, which, during the 30’s, housed a substratum of studios that sprung up when movies could be made cheaply and “product” was desperately in demand.

And three, I’ve always been a fan of what I call “near miss” comedy. Maybe it’s because I’m from Canada, where nothing we do – except hockey – rivals its American counterpart. The “near miss” concept is capsulized by comedian Victor Borge’s joke about his hard-luck inventor brother, who came up with a soft drink failure called 6 Up. I wanted The Studio to reflect a 6 Up mentality.

I imagined a fast paced series, portraying the day-to-day saga of a studio teetering on the brink of extinction. Their “knock-off” efforts at popular genres, while working “on the cheap”, would invariably lead to chaos – a cowboy star who turns out to be afraid of horses, a gangster who flinches when the guns went off, a second-rate “Lassie” who gets irretrievably lost on her way home, a singing ice skater who can’t quite sing and can’t quite skate.

Imagining The Studio always made me laugh. Here’s why I think it didn’t sell.

The concept hung on the dreaded word, “period.” The show wasn’t about now, or even the “now” of thirty years ago. It was about “back then.” When I pitched The Studio, “period” comedies were hardly in great favor. Think of the hit comedies of the last forty years. How many were set in the 1930’s?

Also, The Studio, by its nature, was a single-camera comedy. (Many of its scenes would be shot on exterior sets, an essentially single-camera assignment.)

At the time I came up with The Studio, single-camera comedies were generally discouraged, primarily because of their expense. Networks (and producers who had to cover the financial deficits) preferred series produced on soundstages, recorded either on film or on even more economical videotape.

Lastly, since The Studio was different, network executives would be required to trust their own instincts as to the show’s potential for success. Network executives don’t like to do that.


Idea Number Three:

Seattle Stu

A highly respected, middle-aged movie critic, frustrated by the artistic emptiness of current cinema, struggles against being marginalized, both at work and home, where he’s transitioning to the life of the “recently divorced.”

Okay, it’s a little down. But I was intrigued by what the lead character was going through, and, from a work standpoint, at least, I identified with his struggle. Show business was transitioning before my eyes. The “Youth Market” focus, and its accompanying coarsening of entertainment, was threatening to knock me out of the game.

The lead character maintained an “open door” set-up with his ex-wife (an arrangement currently depicted on Old Christine and Gary Unmarried), and a thriving relationship with his delightful teenaged daughter (I had one at the time; not an ex-wife, a delightful teenaged daughter.)

Seattle Stu was premised on the idea that the “Youth Market” monopolizes the marketplace. It stood no chance of selling, because the “Youth Market” monopolizes the marketplace.

The common denominator the aforementioned projects is that all three of them would have been written by me.
It amazes me that that wasn’t enough to get them made.

Friday, January 22, 2010

"Holiday In Hawaii 2009 (And A Little 2010) - The Helicopter Ride"

I hope I didn’t do it for you.

I promised myself I'd quit before I'd do that. What’s “that”? Engaging in unusual activities, so I’d have something to write about. Contriving “adventures” is a common strategy for writers. In fact, it’s pretty much a genre of its own.

“I went to a ‘Nude Ranch.’ Not a ‘Dude Ranch’, a ‘Nude Ranch.’ Everyone there walked around nude. And I did what they did. You get what I’m saying here? I was nude too! And now I’m going to tell you about it!”

I hate that stuff. It’s like, “My life is…you don’t want to hear about it. I don’t even find it interesting. So, instead, I’m wresting alligators.”

A helicopter ride is a precarious undertaking. It is easy to imagine an unfortunate turn of events, whose coverage would inevitably include the words “malfunction”, “plunged” and “fiery inferno”, along with pictures of charred wreckage and bodies that could only be identified from dental records.

Yes, it’s dangerous. Or at least it can be imagined to be. As a result, only three of our party of five chose to participate. Rachel, Anna’s b.f., Colby, and myself.

And I didn’t do it for you. I’m almost certain.

I did it to see the volcanoes.

I have written elsewhere that I’d tried to see the volcanoes on an earlier visit to the Big Island of Hawaii (which houses five volcanoes, four of them active), but our helicopter tour was cut short, due to unfavorable weather conditions, unfavorable, I believe, though it was not specifically spelled out, to our survival. I was not at the time provided a “Rain Check” – “Come back when we can show you the volcanoes without the risk of killing you.” Our subsequent visit required an entirely new payment.

I didn’t care.

I wanted to see the volcanoes.

It does not bode well for a person about to go up in a helicopter to feel queasy during the “Pick-up van” ride to the helipad. The uphill road was extremely windy. If I had had a pre-helicopter-ride breakfast, I’m not sure it would have remained inside. Fortunately, we arrived at our destination without incident, thus sparing me the rest-of-my-life repetition of,

“Earl threw up before the helicopter ride!”

When we got to the helipad, we went through the standard ritual of the weigh-in, the “We’re not responsible for anything” release forms, and the buckling on of some yellow thing that was supposed to keep you afloat in water, if you know how to activate it, which maybe I did, and maybe I didn’t.

After a few minutes – which included a warning not to walk into the rotors – we were escorted to the helicopter, where I was assigned the front row seat beside the pilot. After securing my seat belt and shoulder harness, I leaned over to the pilot and said,

“I don’t want to hear the words, ‘I’m blacking out. Take The Stick.’”

The helicopter pilot responded blankly, either because he’d heard that a thousand times before, or because he hadn’t heard me at all, or because helicopter pilots have no sense of humor, or because what I’d said wasn’t funny. I’d like to think it was one of the first three.

We took off with the Star Wars theme reverberating in our headphones, followed by the words, “Apollo Eleven, we have liftoff.” I momentarily panicked, remembering that “Apollo Eleven” had had a tough time returning safely to earth. Fortunately, the ever-sensible Rachel reminded me that that was “Apollo Thirteen.” Of course, I thought in retrospect. It would be crazy introducing a sky adventure with a reference to a space mission that almost didn’t make it back

Unless the people were really sick.

Our helicopter’s wraparound Plexiglas window provided a panoramic view of the island. And a highly illuminating one as well. Without the sky-ride, I would never have known that the Big Island of Hawaii was more than a never-ending landscape of hardened lava.

There were cattle ranches. There were rainforest areas. There were acres of trees, planted so the wood could be used to repair damaged sailing ships, and for something else, I can’t remember, it could be a windbreak.

There was a city, Hilo, (population, 60,000) and a town, Kona, (population, 50,000), whose combined inhabitants made up a substantial chunk of the island’s 175,000 population. No wonder the place felt uninhabited to us. We never went where the people were.

There were a couple of disappointments on our tour. When we skimmed over the ocean, we didn’t see the whales the pilot suggested we might spot. But I was used to that. I never see whales.

Also, in this valley he pointed out, the pilot said that we might catch sight of a downed Japanese bomber, which had participated in the Pearl Harbor attack, but had crashed on the way home, when it ran out of fuel. We didn’t.

You’d think a pilot who conducted these tours several of times a day would be able to find some airplane wreckage that had been lying in the same spot since 1941 – I mean, it’s not like they move it around. I guess locating airplane wreckage is harder than it looks.

But I was in no mood for complaining, and for me, that takes a lot. What was the “lot”?

I had seen the volcanoes.

We flew pretty close, except for one that the law requires you to stay a mile and a half away from. Seeing volcanoes is different from in the movies. There were no sudden explosions, or molten lava flying in the air. I think that’s when they evacuate, and call CNN. The volcanoes I saw churned up endless clouds of billowing, gray smoke.

At one point, we flew right through it. Colby said he could smell the sulfur.

For those needing drama, some volcanoes presented what the pilot called “skylights”, narrow cracks in the craters, where you can look inside, and see rivers of orange flowing close to the surface.

Near the end of the tour, the pilot flew us right up to the side of a cliff, as if demonstrating how skillful he was, and, by so doing, enhancing his tip. This maneuver was followed by the only stomach-turning moment of the flight. Drawing away from the cliff, the pilot turned in the other direction, causing a valley to materialize suddenly beneath us.

My reaction reminded me of a ride at the Canadian National Exhibition called “The Rotor” (I only heard about this.) “The Rotor” spins around, its riders pressed centrifugally against its sides. The floor beneath them is then suddenly removed.

That’s how it felt on the first sight of the valley. You hear yourself go, “Whoh-ho!”, accompanied by a shocked, reflexive intake of breath.

After two hours, the pilot lowered the “chopper” to the helipad, and we got out. It was good to have gone. It was even better to have returned safely.

I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

My mother departed, bestowing one final generosity. She allowed us our entire Hawaiian vacation, passing away the day we were scheduled to leave. We then added another leg to our journey. A trip to Toronto to attend her funeral.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

"Holiday In Hawaii 2009 (And A Little 2010 - Part C"

Random memories…

Ever concerned for our skin safety, Dr. M brought along sunscreen labeled SPF – 70. This sunscreen takes back the tan you got last year.
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Twice daily, in the morning and afternoon, a beach attendant passed by handing out frozen treats. Mango Ice Pops. Orange Creamsicles. Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream sandwiches. And they’re free. You don’t have to pay for them. Okay, they’re included in the hotel charge. But they’re not asking you to pay for them again.

I tried to turn them down, but come on. How often are you offered a free-feeling Mango Ice Pop? And Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream is my favorite! I mean, it’s not like I wasn’t exercising.

Right. When the sun moved, you got up and re-positioned your beach chair.

No, really, Italics Man. Maintaining my post-surgery cardio program, I visited the hotel’s lavishly equipped “Fitness Center” every morning. I didn’t even take the shuttle there; I walked.

The “Fitness Center” was First Class all the way. The treadmills had a button that, when pressed, would activate your own personal fan, sending cooling breezes directly towards your face. This was a new experience for me. I’ve always had to share a fan.

Each treadmill also included an individualized television screen, offering a plethora of viewing alternatives. (Do you know what a “plethora” is? El Guapo pretended he knew, but he didn’t.)

Since I’d neglected to pick up headphones from the “Fitness Center’s” front desk, I was relegated to finding a program I could follow without the benefit of sound. I passed on the roundtable discussion on health care reform, choosing, instead, a movie almost entirely bereft of dialogue – a Steven Seagal picture.

Kung Fu. And shooting.

There was a female included on Seagal’s “Murder Squad”, demonstrating, through her actions, a fundamental feminist principle:

“We kill like men.”

You can learn a lot from television. Even without the sound.
--------------------------------
“Whales!” shouted a woman in the beach chair next to ours.

I immediately jumped to my feet.

“Where?” I inquired.

“There!” she pointed.

I looked where she’d pointed. I squinted real hard.

I did not see any whales.

I saw waves. I saw the ocean. (It’s hard to miss.) I saw sailboats passing by.

But no whales.

“There’s another one!” she cried.

I turned to her again, hoping for some help.

“Don’t look at me,” she rebuked. “Look at the water.”

I looked at the water.

I saw no whales.

“Oh, my God! There are four of them. You see their tails? And the water spouting from their blowholes?”

I saw nothing.

“This is so amazing.”

People don’t seem to grasp the idea of faulty eyesight, its fundamental consequence being that you can’t see that well. Instead, you are continually treated as if you can. This misapprehension would plague me for the entire trip.

“Eels!”

“Where?”

“There! You see them?”

No.

“Look at that bird! Have you ever seen anything so beautiful in your entire life!”

No. Not because I’d never seen anything so beautiful in my entire life. But because I didn’t see the damn bird!

Here’s a request. If I’m ever in your company and you spot something spectacular, do me a favor, and keep it to yourself.
--------------------------------
One thing I did see were turtles. Big ones, some, a couple of feet long. The turtles were everywhere. In the pond directly below our hotel room, swimming in the ocean, and most conspicuously, dozing on the lava rocks by the shore, soaking in the sun.

One sunbather seemed particularly old. And frighteningly placid. It never budged, even when I walked right up to it. I was afraid it was dead. Or soon would be. Whatever happened to survival instincts? You can’t let people walk right up to you. You wake up, and you’re soup.
---------------------------------
Lunching at a nearby hotel, we drove past a sign reading, “Tsunami Evacuation Area.” Maybe I’m just dense, but I was unclear on exactly what that meant. Is a “Tsunami Evacuation Area” the place you evacuate to when there’s a tsunami? Or is it a place you evacuate from?

This is an important distinction, don’t you think? People could easily get confused.

“Do we come here, or do we run away from here?”

“Did you notice we're right by the water?”

“I see. So it's away.”

On the same drive, we passed a sign reading, “Banana Quarantine Area.” I imagined that somewhere nearby, there was a barracks of segregated bananas, sitting there, missing their families.
---------------------------------
This happened to me twice. A waitress informed me there were people named Pomerantz who owned a sushi restaurant in a nearby town. And a hotel concierge inquired, “Do you live on the island? You look very familiar.” Two associations with the Big Island of Hawaii. My family must have hailed from the Polynesian section of Eastern Europe.
------------------------------
We ate a lot of delicious fish on our trip – Onaga, Mahi Mahi, Opakapaka. All freshly caught that day. Which is a little sad. Both of us were alive that morning. Now, one of us is on a plate, with fingerling potatoes.
----------------------------------
Our New Year’s Eve’s entertainment consisted of two fiercely made-up “Hawaiian warriors” walking around on stilts, and a couple who twirled fire. The most memorable moment was when the man set his pants ablaze, and between twirls, tried, surreptitiously, to pat out the flames.
----------------------------------
These, then, are some highlights from our vacation week on the Big Island of Hawaii. I have excluded one special adventure. Which I’ll tell you about tomorrow:

The Helicopter Ride.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"Holiday In Hawaii 2009 (And A Little 2010) - Part B"

Hawaii wears its natural beauty like a shrug.

“You mean every place isn’t like this?”

“Why do you think North Dakota’s in therapy?”


The Big Island of Hawaii, large enough geographically to contain all the other Hawaiian islands within its borders, seems to me – and I’m no expert – to be the Hawaiiest island of them all.

I once mentioned that, wherever I’ve traveled, no matter how beautiful the place appeared to me, I’d invariably run into an older traveler who’d opine, “It’s not like it was.” To my eye, excepting the scattered tourist-serving amenities, the Big Island of Hawaii remains very much “like it was.”

You walk five minutes from our hotel, and the area is totally uninhabited, the terrain blanketed by acres of lava. It’s amazing. Not the hot, orange, flowy stuff, but the cooled, coal-like residue you can walk on and touch, without needing to be rushed to the nearest Burn Unit.

You drive for miles, and it’s all lava, all the time. I don’t know what’s lava’s like when it stops being life-threatening, but what you see there now, it’s like some Hawaiian chain gang had been trucked out, issued pick axes, and ordered to reduce the hardened lava into manageable piles of rubble.

Nowadays, people come bringing white coral, assembling the fragments into printed messages, which stand out prominently over the crumbled black background. I would tell you what the messages said, but we were driving too fast for me to read them. I’d like to thing they were nice ones. And not “MAUI SUCKS!”

There were a few exceptions keeping the island from being entirely “Lavaland.” We noticed some green patches on our lengthy drives to restaurants – big island, bigger distances between places – grassy hillocks the volcanoes seemed to have liked, and instructed, “No lava there.” Either that, or the hillocks paid them off.

The golf courses you know are man-made. You can imagine the lava beds under the lush fairways crying, “Lemme out!” Who can blame them? One day, they’re baking lazily in the tropical sunshine. Next day, they’re suffocating under endless rolls of imported sod.

What are you going to do? You can’t play golf in lava. The scores would be astronomical.

The eyes see lava. And the ears hear birds. In the most exotic assortment of chirps and hues. Not to be outdone, the ocean and nearby lagoons offer a colorful array of amazing fish. The palm trees, their coconuts clustered near to top, seem like they naturally belong. Their ribbed trunks look like elephant’s legs. But more trim. Like the legs of elephants that work out.

As for weather – don’t read this, Canada – every day, eighty-three and sunny. It was automatic. Hawaiian weathermen would have no problem going in on Sunday and pre-taping their reports for the entire week. They would only have to change their brightly colored Hawaiian shirts.

Since the island was too big to explore – especially if you’re reluctant to get out of your beach chair – I settled for exploring the grounds of our hotel. And I didn’t even cover that. Part of this failure might well be a matter of age. On my earlier visit to that hotel, I easily walked to the nearby snorkeling beach. This time, it seemed, at least, to take considerably longer getting there. It appears that I’ve started to regress. Like a little child, I’ve begun taking smaller steps.

I did, however, make it to the pool. (On this trip, I left the ocean swimming to others. After my surgery, I was concerned that the salt water would be unfriendly to certain areas of my body. Though, having not actually put that theory to the test, this could be an excuse. Closer to the truth might be that ocean temperatures, even in Hawaii, do not reach the warmness levels I require for entering water.)

The pool temperature was just right. It was there I ran into a ten year-old girl, who was about to jump in, close to where I happened to be standing. My introductory words to her were:

“You’re not going to splash me, are you? Because if you do, I’m going to get out of the pool, jump in and splash you.”

The girl – her name was Allie – took my playful – though it could easily be interpreted as creepy – warning in stride. Allie came from Montgomery, Alabama, apparently the home of charming and self-possessed Southern females, as demonstrated by a remark, which she candidly introduced by saying,

“Here’s something you’ll find interesting about me.”

Allie then proceeded to tell me something that was truly interesting. When she was nine, her family moved to Malawi, on some kind of mission, and Allie returns there every summer for vacations. She even taught me a Malawian word: “Me-como.” I believe it means “Thank you”, though I’d check before trying it on some Malawian acquaintance.

There’s too much for one post, so I’ll tell you more tomorrow. I’ll just mention one final pleasure. The fan in our hotel room bathroom made the tail of the toilet paper roll flutter around like a kite.

There’s entertainment wherever you look on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"Holiday In Hawaii 2009 (And A Little 2010)"

We arrive at night. The concierge informs us that our rooms are designated “Deluxe Ocean View.” It sounds like their best rooms. I am very excited.

When the Bellman lets us in, I hear the waves crashing against whatever they crash against to make that sound. I step out on the balcony. I look at the ocean.

It’s over to the left.

I realize there are rooms facing directly towards the ocean. I wonder: If our room is designated “Deluxe Ocean View”, what do they call those rooms?

Moving on.

The following morning, we go the beach. Friends have done me the great favor of handling the beach chair arrangements before our arrival, relieving me of a job that is completely beyond my abilities. A successful beach chair arrangement involves “taking care” of people, and I’ve written about that. I can’t do it.

“Here’s a bribe. Treat me better.”

I can’t pull that off.

I settle in, and immediately notice that something’s not right. My beach chair is facing the ocean, but the sun is directly behind me, negating the possibility of my tanning and facing the ocean at the same time. I have two choices. I can do a “one-eighty” with my beach chair, so I can face the sun directly, or I can remain where I am, enjoying the ocean while the sun browns the back of my neck.

Let me stop here. You have to be a special kind of person to complain about Hawaii. I find myself up to the task. As usual, my complaints are legitimate. Our room had been mislabeled – it should have been called, “Deluxe Ocean View To Your Left ”, and the ocean – or the sun – or the hotel – one of them was in the wrong place.

Whiney? Annoying? Monumentally ungrateful? I plead “guilt” to all three. But “whiney”, “annoying” and “monumentally ungrateful”…

...with an explanation.

Over the past quarter century, our family has spent almost every Christmas Week vacationing at a hotel on the Hawaiian island of Oahu called the Kahala. (The place has gone through three ownerships, two of which were the Hilton and the Mandarin Oriental. The third and most recent acquisition was by an investment group called, I believe, "A Bunch Of Rich People Who Own A Hotel.")

We don’t go to the Kahala anymore. Primarily because of me. My family would go back in a second. They delight in the Kahala’s familiarity and comfort, the resident dolphins, and the fact that you can walk to the multiplex at the nearby Kahala Mall, and shop at the Ala Moana Shopping Center (though they already got everything for Chanukah.)

As a result of my insistence on vacationing elsewhere, whenever we try someplace new, the burden falls on me (at least I feel like it does) to provide my family with an experience that will make them forget the Kahala. The replacement hotel has to be perfect. Not being able to tan and face the ocean at the same time – that’s a deficiency. That’s a flaw.

So why do I mention it? Call it “Preemptive Complaining.” I do it first, so that they won’t be able to. There’ll be no “At the Kahala, the sun and the ocean are on the same side.” Point taken, and duly noted. Moving on.

By the way, it wasn't like we always got a “Deluxe Ocean View” room at the Kahala. (Those are reserved for reclusive movie stars and their "significant others" who never come out of their rooms.) Our rooms invariably face the golf course and the mountains. But the Kahala doesn’t lie about it. They call it a “Mountain View Room.” And the mountains are directly in front of you. You don’t have to pivot to your left to see them.

To be honest, I love the Kahala, and would gladly return annually. If it wasn’t for “The Thing.” “The Thing” being the reason I refuse to go back. What's “The Thing?” “The Thing” is an attitude.

Call it “Show Biz Entitlement.”

A lot of entertainment people stay to the Kahala. Studio executives, movie stars, hot-shot directors, television writers who wrote the “goldfish” episode on The Cosby Show. Owing to his cardiac episode, we know that Rush Limbaugh was a guest there this year. Limbaugh seemed an odd fit in terms of political tendencies – the Kahala clientele, I imagine, leans noticeably to his Left. But when it comes to entitlement, the "L-Man" fits right in.

I could relate many stories fueling my disenchantment with the Kahala. I once rented a floating rubber raft for the day, and a guy who used to be Helen Reddy’s manager tried to throw me off of it. That’s why you spend hundreds of dollars a day at a luxury hotel, isn’t it? To have some frothing at the mouth maniac screaming at you to get off your own raft?

But that wasn’t the deal breaker. This was.

I’m eating breakfast by myself. I’m almost finished. Suddenly, the “seater” – the person who seats people – comes up and says, “I’m sorry, Mr. Pomerantz, but a mistake has been made. This table has been booked by the Katzenberg family for their entire stay. I’m afraid you will have to move.”

Okay. First of all, I’m a fast eater. The wait would have been, maybe, five minutes. Shorter even, because I was almost finished. Then, there’s the Rudeness Factor. And finally, the request caught me off guard. I wasn’t aware you could book a table for your entire stay. I, apparently, couldn’t book one for an entire meal.

So what happened? Not much. I got up, carrying the remnants of my breakfast, and I moved to another table. Saying nothing. But thinking….

I will never come back to the Kahala again.

Which is why, last Christmas Week, we found ourselves on the Big Island of Hawaii (the Big Island is called Hawaii and the entire group of islands is called Hawaii; I don’t know how anyone gets their mail there), vacationing at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel (and Condominiums).

It wasn’t perfect – there was the aforementioned sun-ocean-placement problem – and it’s unlikely it made other family members forget the Kahala­. But as Larry David’s character, Larry David, would say, our Hawaiian holiday was pretty…pretty good.

Tomorrow – with the complaints now out of the way – I will tell you about it.

Friday, January 15, 2010

"Transplants"

Drive down any street in Los Angeles, and you’ll see leaves falling off of trees. Like everywhere else, L.A. has a season called “autumn”, extending from September 21st to December the 20th, but L.A. trees do not restrict themselves to losing their leaves during that season. Here, the leaves fall every day.

Why?

Because the trees don’t know what they’re doing.

Why?

Because they’re confused.

Why?

Because they’re from another place.

L.A.’s trees – not the trees that have needles or palm fronds, which are also not from here, I’m talking about the leafy trees – were transplanted here from places where seasons have actual meaning.

I’m no botanist, but I know that trees in cold places lose their leaves because…you know what? I’m not a hundred per cent sure why trees in cold places lose their leaves. (My guess would involve the trees going to sleep.) All I know – because I saw them do it – is that in places where they have winter, the leaves fall off in a season designated for that purpose.

They do not fall off all year round.

If trees in places where they have winter had computers, and they knew about this blog, (and they could read), those trees would be mystified by their transplanted brethren and sistrens’ inexplicable behavior.

“They lose their leaves all year round? That’s insane!”

“It’s an embarrassment to our species, or whatever. Someone should tell them they’re doing it wrong.”


I can’t explain why L.A. trees act in this curious manner. I just know they do. You step off a Los Angeles curb in May, and your shoes crush crunchy leaves. You come out of a restaurant in January and, if there’s a stiff breeze, dead leaves blow in your face. The leaves also fall in autumn, but that’s because they fall all the time. Why should autumn be an exception? That would just be perverse.

“Hey, leaves, why don’t you fall in autumn?”

(SNOTTILY) “We don’t want to.”


Can you explain it? In places that have winter, the leaves only fall off in the fall, whereas, here, the leaves from the same types of trees fall off all year round? What could possibly have gotten into them? It’s like Trees Gone Wild!

I imagine that when trees lose their leaves in the fall every year, they eventually get used to it. They develop a kind of tree Body Clock, and take the annual leaf molting in stride.

“They fall off in the fall; they come back in the spring. We are not concerned.”

Transplant those trees to Los Angeles, and all bets are off. The relocation jumbles their internal encoding. They may look like the same trees, but inside, their essential “who we are” is seriously altered, leading to disorientation, inexplicable behavior and head-scratching concern.

“My leaves are falling off.”

“Mine went last June.”

“What’s going on? Are we sick?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are we going to go bald? Will we have to wear hats?”

“You know, I have this nagging feeling our leaves are supposed to fall off.”

“Why?”

“I have no idea”

“Does your feeling mention hats?”

“It doesn’t cover headgear.”

A BEAT.

“It’s still good here, right?”

“Great.”


Great? Sure. But with transplants, you may not be able to put your finger on it, but things are never quite right.

Then (I’m switching from trees to people, but not entirely), a family crisis takes you back to where you came from, and unexpectedly – like you’re blindsided, but in a good way – you are overwhelmed by a soothing familiarity. Your surroundings relax you. You remember them in your bones. The people remind you of you. Individual differences, but the genetics are unmistakable.

Here, you instinctively know how to act. Absent for some time, you immediately fit in. Naturally. Effortlessly. Though burdened by grief, your spirits are energized. Simply by being there. This is definitely your place.

Can transplants be happy? Absolutely.

But they never feel home.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

"Drinking The Poison" (A Reprise)

(I am reprising this post in the spirit of remembering Gertrude Pomerantz at her optimal level of Gertrudeness. I have heard this is some people’s favorite post.)

Thinking back on my English pub experiences reminded me of a drinking story dating from the same era that involved my mother. I had not known my mother to be much of a drinker. In fact, I had never witnessed her drinking anything.

Then, one day, it all changed.

While living in London, I came home for a visit, landing in New York City on my way back to Toronto. My mother met me in New York, and immediately took me to buy clothes she could stomach seeing me wear. When the wardrobe shopping was over, we went out to a restaurant for lunch.

I’m twenty-two years old. I have reached the legal drinking age, plus I had partaken of “bitter” (room temperature English beer) every night at The Horse And Groom for months. My mother, however, has never seen me drink.

We order lunch. Along with my lunch, I bon vivantishly request a frosty glass of American beer. The waiter returns with an ice-cold lager in a tall, tapering glass, setting it down directly in front of me. Excited by the prospect of a beer that is actually cold, I pick up the glass, and I draw it to my lips.

I am hardly oblivious to the moment, or, more appropriately, “The Moment.” For the very first time, ever, Earl Raymond Pomerantz will be imbibing an alcoholic beverage in front of his mother.

As I’m about to enjoy my first sip, my mother, who since I’d ordered the drink had said nothing, suddenly breaks her silence.

“You know,” she says, with a studied nonchalance, “I haven’t tasted beer in maybe twenty-five years. Let me have a little sip.”

I hesitate, confused. My mother, whom I have never once seen drinking beer, suddenly wants a taste of my beer. Then I think, maybe this is her idea of how this “moment” is supposed to play out.

Rite of passage. Mother and sonny-boy. Sharing a beer.

Okay, then. “Milestone Moment.” Here we go.

I pass the beer to my mother. She takes the glass, raises it to her lips, and she starts to drink.

And drink.

And drink.

And drink.

And drink.

I’m looking at her. Watching this thing happen. My eyes are getting bigger. As I sit there, witnessing my Jewish mother, downing the beer in one long uninterrupted chug.

Until, finally…

She drains my glass of its very last drop.

She then places the now totally empty glass back in front of me, punctuating her actions with a nod, and a single reverberating word:

“Good.”

Only later did I realize the meaning of the event that had just occurred.

Gertrude Pomerantz had fulfilled her maternal obligation.
She has swallowed the poison for her son.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"A Little Memory"

(This grieving process seems to be taking its own sweet time. I want to tell you about our trip to Hawaii. But I’m apparently not quite ready. Instead, asking your indulgence, I offer a sliver of a memory.)

When I was growing up in Toronto, there was this widely known real estate company called Mann and Martell. Once, my mother and I were going to hear my grandfather speak at some event, raising money for Israel. We parked behind the building, and proceeded towards to entrance, passing a tree with a Mann and Martell “For Sale” sign nailed to it. As we went by, my mother quietly quipped,

“I didn’t know Mann and Martell sold trees.”

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"The Girl Can't Help It"

Though deeply upset by her “Nanny’s” passing, my daughter Anna, carrying the “funny” gene, retained her unique way of seeing things.

Part of the funeral ritual required me to pin a black, satin ribbon to my suit jacket lapel. “Dad,” she remarked, gesturing to the black ribbon I was wearing,

“It looks like you got 'Last Place' at the horse show.”

Monday, January 11, 2010

"Tribute"

The following were the words I spoke at my mother’s funeral. More or less. I say “more of less”, because I never write speeches. I don’t know how. Instead, I jot down fragments and they somehow, almost magically, grow together into a speech. The fragments were assembled as we traveled from Hawaii to Toronto. The results went something like this.

From the moment I got the word, this song started pounding in my head:

Some of these days

You’re gonna miss me, honey

Some of these days

You’re gonna feel so lonely

You’re gonna miss my huggin’

You’re gonna miss my kissin’

You’re gonna miss your mama

When she’s far away….

My mother loved that song. She sang it all the time. She adored Sophie Tucker, who made the song famous.

My mother loved talent. She used to tell me how she and my Dad would go see Lena Horne at the Cotton Club. She loved Cab Calloway. Count Basie. Louis Armstrong....

My mother loved musicals. When she came back from trips to New York, she’d bring me the Playbills, the programs – never crinkled or rolled up, always in perfect condition – of the greatest shows:

My Fair Lady. West Side Story. The Music Man.

I knew she loved shows. So when she came out to Los Angeles for (Dr. M’s) and my wedding, I arranged for us to see Sophisticated Ladies, starring Gregory Hines, who at one time was (Dr. M’s) neighbor in Venice, California.

We were invited backstage after the show. After a few minutes, Greg emerged from his dressing room, wearing a short, terrycloth robe. When he was introduced to my mother, he immediately stepped up and kissed her smack on the mouth.

I never saw my mother look so caught off guard. Her reaction was a mixture of shock, embarrassment, surprise

and not complete displeasure.

I wish my mother had had more happy times. But she didn’t have that many. For the most part, the theme of my mother’s life – if you can have one – was duty. Duty to her parents, as an only child. Dedication to Jewish organizations such as Hadassah, in which she was actively involved. And then there was her greatest, and most challenging duty of all…

Raising two young boys by herself.

We weren’t that easy.

I believe the term is “Vilde Khayas.” (Wild Animals)

When we were kids, my mother would take us to this restaurant called Goldenbergs, where we’d order our favorite food – lamb chops. I loved lamb chops, but I never liked eating near the bone, because the meat would get stuck in my teeth. My brother didn’t seem to mind. So when I’d eaten as much as I wanted, I would flip the not totally eaten lamb chop across the table. My brother would catch it in one hand – he was very athletic – and he’d finish it off.

My mother sat in the middle. So every so often, she’d see a lamb chop bone come flying across the table. She’d never move her head, or raise her voice – she didn’t want the other restaurant patrons to know she was raising hyenas – but very quietly – and emphatically – she would mutter under her breath

(AS A LAMB CHOP BONE GOES FLYING BY)

“Stop it!”

(AND THEN ANOTHER)

“Stop it!”

(AND YET ANOTHER)

“Stop it!!!”

Finally, she would grumble, through gritted teeth,

“I am never bringing you here again!

A couple of weeks later, we’d be back at the restaurant, flipping the bones across the table.

I don’t know whether it was her nature or her strategy for making her children feel more secure – it was probably both – but my mother always projected an aura of certainty. She believed she was right. About everything. This could be tricky when you had a different opinion. But that’s how she was. My mother believed that if she felt a certain way, everyone should. This led to her most famous pronouncement:

“Take off your sweater, I’m hot.”

I hope our mother was proud of us. And I hope she knew we were proud of her. And loved her. And were grateful to her for everything she had done on our behalf.

Some of these days

You’re gonna miss me, honey…

I started feeling that way when I heard she was gone.

So once again, Mom…

You were right.


Before I sit down, I would like to acknowledge the heroic efforts of my brother, who made sure my mother had the best possible care. I did what I could. But he was here. And he deserves the credit.


-------------------------
I want to thank the people who wrote in, offering kind thoughts and wishes. It seems I have two families – my real family, who were an enormous comfort, and a community of generous and supportive strangers.

I appreciate them both.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

"'Lateline' By-Product - Experiencing The Other Side"

Shuttling between L.A. and New York for my job on Lateline provided me with an unexpected insight into television executives, one I would, otherwise, have never experienced. For one moment in time, and, possibly, for the first time ever, I saw television executives as people.

I freely admit that I don’t understand television executives, both network and studio. What I mean, specifically, is I have no understanding as to what it was that propelled them into show business.

My reason for not understanding why television executives go into show business is that their skills – and they do have skills, I readily admit that – have, as far as I can tell, nothing to do with entertaining the public.

I have creative abilities; show business nurtures creative abilities; I go into show business. That makes sense. That I can understand.

Television executives have different abilities – they’re charming, they’re socially at ease, they dress beautifully, they are administratively skillful – these are commendable attributes. I don’t happen to have any of them, but others do, and good luck to them.

I just have no idea what they’re doing in show business.

I have a theory about the adversarial relationship between “creatives” and executives. Executives are envious of “creatives”, because they want to do what “creatives” do – have fun being creative – but they can’t, because they’re not creative.

“Creatives”, on the other hand, or a vast number of them, can’t do what executives do. But they’re not envious, because they don’t want to do what executives do. Who would? It seems like a terrible job.

The problem is, the executives are in charge. And part of their job is to pass judgment on the work of “creatives.” “Creatives” hate that. Why? Because, one, who wants to have other people pass judgment on your work? And two, look who it’s coming from?

People who aren’t creative.

Moving on.

I’m in Los Angeles, sitting in a tiny room at Paramount Studios, watching a closed circuit television monitor. I am in the company of two Paramount executives, the President of Paramount Television, and the executive assigned to the show.

What we see on the television monitor is the cast of Lateline, plus the production staff, gathered around a table at Astoria Studios in Queens, New York. The script for this week’s episode is about to be read. There’s a closed circuit camera in the room, so that the “table reading” in New York can be watched by the executives in Los Angeles. I’ve been invited to the viewing, because, though I’m currently in Los Angeles, I am the Consulting Executive Producer on the show.

So there we are. Me and two studio executives in a tiny room in Los Angeles, watching a Lateline “table reading”, taking place in New York.

The reading goes how it goes. There are good parts, and parts that need fixing. The reading ends; the room in New York empties. Lateline’s Executive Producers, Al Franken and John Markus, repair to the Writers’ Room. There they will receive a call from the Paramount executives in Los Angeles, during which the executives will delineate the “concerns” they wish to have addressed during the upcoming rewrite session.

The Paramount executives put Al and John on “speaker phone”, so everyone on our side can hear them. We, in turn, are on their “speaker phone” in New York. The Paramount executives begin with the obligatory, “Nice work, guys”, then start in with their litany of “concerns.”

From the moment the Paramount executives start talking, Al and John shoot down every comment, observation and suggestion they make. Their most frequent responses are, “No-o-o!!!, “That’s crazy!” and “What are you talking about!”

I know how Al and John are feeling. The main thing they’re feeling is exhausted. Throw in beleaguered and horribly overworked. And now, as a result of this phone call, you can also add creatively second-guessed and personally attacked.

Al and John’s battered feelings trigger impatience, belligerence, irritation and rudeness, as they continually interrupt, and talk very loud. I’ve been there. I’ve behaved the same way myself, or worse. Often. And I felt justified in doing so. Now, alone with the executives, I would see what the experience felt like from the other side.

The executives looked stricken and bewildered. It’s like they’d been hit by a truck. A truck driven by a member of their family. You could see the hurt in their faces. They didn’t understand it. They were trying to help, and people were yelling at them.

It was an uncomfortable sight to behold.

So, there. Now, nobody can say I’m never sympathetic towards executives. They can say I’m rarely sympathetic towards executives, but they can’t say “never.”

Because I just was.
----------------------------------
In response to the question concerning “The Traveling Six-Gun, yes, it was the same gun Dennis announced he was transporting in his “Carry on”, along with the exquisitely hand-tooled leather holster. But he had to check it.

Feel free to ask any questions you want. Sometimes, I'm not as clear as I think I am. Or as comprehensive. If you want me to elaborate on anything, just ask. I’m prickly, but I’m accommodating.

"My Yiddishe..."

My mother left us, aged 94.

Due to the appropriate Jewish grieving process, plus my usual technical ineptitude, I will not be available at this location until next week.

My mother once asked how long it took us to fly to Hawaii.

"It's about the same as flying to Toronto," I replied.

"Yeah," she came back wistfully, "but when you land, it's Hawaii."

The woman made me. And she made me laugh.

Monday, January 4, 2010

"A New Years Hope"

When I was twelve, David Freeman told a group of us how sex worked. I believed him, because his father was a doctor – well, he was a dermatologist – but I figured he knew.

The information was quite eye opening. But what I remember even more vividly was my response to the revelation of the male component in the procedure, what that crazy colonel in Dr. Strangelove called “our precious bodily fluids.” Upon hearing of the existence of these “precious bodily fluids”, the first thing that popped into my mind was,

“Can you run out of them?”

It was a strange reaction, one only I seemed concerned about. This was, maybe not the first, but a powerful additional piece of evidence, leading me to the conclusion that, “I think differently than everyone else.” While my friends’ minds went straight to how they could, as quickly as possible, get into the game, I alone worried about rationing.

Some people evolve. Anna’s b.f. once told me that, as a kid, he had a terrible temper. “What happened to it?” I inquired. “I grew out of it,” he explained, as if anger were freckles, and it was simply a matter of waiting them out.

I have no personal experience supporting this view. Though I am a number of decades older than Anna’s b.f., I have yet to grow out of anything.

Which explains why, from the day I started this blog, regaling strangers with stories from my past and, less often, my present, I have wondered on a near-daily basis,

“Will I run out of them?”

As you see, I don’t change that much. I am still troubled by the “running out” issue. And I also still do this:

Harboring anxieties about running out of stories, I adopt a strategy I firmly believe makes this eventuality less likely. Call it the “Immunization Strategy.” Here’s how it works. By simply asserting what I don’t want, I immunize myself against it happening, believing that “Whoever’s In Charge” will take pity on me, and generously bless me with the opposite of what I don’t want.

The “Immunization Strategy” and I go way back, “way back”, in this case, meaning before I can remember. This story was related to me by my older brother, because I was, like, four when it happened, and I have no memory of anything happening before I was six.

Our neighborhood was full of kids. This was a time when kids could play outside without adult supervision, as there was as yet no fear of abduction, or behavior towards children, the examples of which are offered daily on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.

My brother explained to me that, every week, the neighborhood kids would arrange a “Lucky Draw.” On Monday, all our names were placed in a shoebox, and on Friday, someone drew one out, the winner receiving a highly coveted box of cookies.

The “Lucky Cookie Draw” triggered five days of torturous waiting. How did I handle the agonizing suspense? By repeating, a hundred times a day,

“We’re never going to win. We’re never going to win.”

Well, one week, we won. Instantly, a “Major Lesson” was imprinted on my brain:

"If you really want something to happen, keep repeating that it won’t."

It’s probably unwise to base your life strategies on habits you developed when you were four. And frankly, the “Immunization Strategy” hardly ever pays off. Still, I continue using it. Why? Because it’s all I’ve got.

Despite its dubious track record, on some level, I seriously believe that by repeating, “I’m really afraid of running out of stories” again and again, I am immunizing myself against running out of stories.

The thing is, though acknowledging this as an atypical way of thinking, one hesitates to abandon the product of an original mind such as my own. Yes, I engage in thinking patterns that are odd, often counter-productive and arguably unhelpful. Yet, it must be remembered that the same mind that generated those thoughts played a pivotal role in a successful career. Do you really want to scoff at its beliefs? That mind got me a house.

On the other hand, a new decade is beginning. It may be time to give up the “Cookies” strategy, take a deep breath – writing that just made me take a deep breath – and face the world without the protection of the “Negative Switcheroo.”

You know what? I’m gonna do it.

A new attitude for the 10’s.

Okay. Here we go.

(IN A SERIOUS VOICE, WITH A DETERMINED LOOK IN MY EYES)

Some day, I’ll run out of stories. I’m just hoping it isn’t soon.

A realistic statement, with the risk of a hope. It may not make the Optimist’s Digest, but it’s the best I can do.