Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"Avoiding Chaos"

Sometimes I think reason is a game your mind plays, that has nothing to do with reality itself. An interesting DVD “extra.” But it’s not the movie.

I imagine the rational process being invented by a little guy trying to “reason” a bigger, stronger guy out of killing him.

“You’ll feel really bad about it later.”

“You’ll go to jail, and maybe lose your life.”

“If you’re religious, God will punish you. And if you’re not, and God exists, you’re getting punished anyway. Probably worse, for not believing.”

“I may appear to be harmless, but do you really know that for sure?”

Here’s the deal. The guy wants to kill you, he kills you. And reason has nothing to do with it.

“Why are you killing me?”

“Because I likes to.”

And that’s it. You’re bye-bye.

We exist in a condition that is fundamentally chaotic. We have no idea where the world, or the universe, or whatever, came from. We have no idea where we came from, why we’re here, or where we’re going after we’re done. The biggest questions, we have no idea. It’s all entirely up in the air.

That’s what you call chaos.

People don’t like chaos. I don’t. That’s why my office is so orderly. There are three pillows decorating a small bed in my office. The fabric has a cowboy design. (What else?) If one of those pillows has somehow gotten turned upside down, one cowboy standing on his head, then I can’t write. All three pillows have to be right-side-up, or, for me, it’s chaos, and I can’t function.

Okay, that’s extreme. Probably. But the chaos of the human condition, that bothers everyone. You can tell that because, throughout all of time, people have taken action to bring order to the chaos. They couldn’t live with it. They needed all three cowboys right-side-up.

Their solution was religion – you take the chaos and you explain it with a story. Not everyone believes that story – and every religion has its own – but there seems to always have been a human need to have one.

Now, it appears that I’ve jumped from reason to religion. I haven’t. Why? Because religion has a reasonable underpinning. Without religion – and the faith it engenders – people would be frightened. From a fear-relieving standpoint, religion is reasonable response.

But that doesn’t make it true. It could just be a convenient trick, to calm us in the face of the chaos. That’s why some people can’t believe – because it feels like a trick. But those same people believe in reason. Where is the evidence that that’s not also a trick?

Oops, I just made a mistake there. I’m asking for reason to be justified reasonably. I believe that’s cheating. Like proving God’s existence by reference to the Bible.

The thing is, if reason has no value,

We’re back to chaos.

I’m reminded of a show I was working on, which, because its earlier talk-variety format had failed, was revamping itself into a public affairs, interview show.

Early on, a meeting was arranged, where the writers would be introduced to the show’s new host, a middle-aged wannabe, looking to score big with “ripped from the headlines” muckrakery. This was in the seventies, before cable news. The man was like a precursor to the monstrosities we are living with today.

Anyway, Chuck – the host’s name was Chuck – assured us that the new show would be probing, hard-hitting and entirely honest. His first scheduled guest would be Jimmy Hoffa, a controversial labor leader who had recently beaten a wrap for jury tampering, wherein jurors had allegedly been offered money for their votes.

“The interview will be no-holds-barred. Everything on the table. What do you want me to ask him? I’ll hit him with it. Right on the air.”

I raise my hand. I am recognized with a nod.

“Ask him if he bribed the jury.”

I have told similar stories before. On a handful of occasions, I have made comments people didn’t know what to do with. The aftermath is always the same. Dead silence, followed by a continuation of the conversation, moving forward as if what I said had never taken place. Like the Nixon tapes during Watergate, my unmanageable suggestions are simply deleted out of existence.

In the story I just told, I’m the chaos. Reason requires the new show to appear hard-hitting, while not running chaotically off the rails, because the guest got up and left, as a result of a question that is actually hard-hitting.

My suggestion is ignored. Reason prevails. The chaos is subdued.


Reason creates order.

But that’s about it.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"Three Of The Many Useful Things I Learned At Camp"

Useful Tip Number One

When you’re looking for a stick to use for roasting a hotdog over a campfire, you need to go to a tree, and cut off a small branch. Doing so will insure that your hotdog stick is made from live wood, live wood being the type of wood found sprouting off of trees. (Unless it’s a dead tree, which you can easily determine by counting the number of leaves on it. If that number is or is very close to zero, it’s a dead tree.) By the way, if you already know this tip, you can skip to “Useful Tip Number Two.” I’ll see you down there.

For those who need explanations for these tips rather than just blindly following what I tell you, the reason you need live wood for your hotdog stick is because live wood doesn’t burn. It smokes. (Conversely, you use dead when you’re building a campfire. Unless you want to send “smoke signals”, in which case, it’s the opposite.)

I digressed there for a second. “Smoke signals” was probably an irrelevant side-trip, since we have I-Phones now. The thing to keep in mind is that, if you make the mistake of using dead wood, the flames from the campfire will speedily burn their way up your hotdog stick and not stop till they get to your shoulder.

There are other useful tips relating to hotdog sticks, specifically concerning hotdog stick preparation, but I don’t want to overload you with information. Just remember, “Use live wood for your hotdog stick” and you’ll be way ahead of the people who used dead wood and now have to go through life with the telltale, and easily identifiable “hotdog stick arm.”

Useful Tip Number Two

And welcome back to those who skipped “Useful Tip Number One.” “Useful Tip Number Two” is specifically for campers. (The “hotdog stick” tip is good for anyone eating over a campfire. If you know any hoboes, for example, you can pass it along.)

“Useful Tip Number Two” is a tip campers should start drumming into your parents’ heads even before they leave for camp. It concerns Visitors’ Day.

I cannot emphasize this too strongly. Urge your parents to not, under any circumstances, arrive late on Visitors’ Day. Why? Because if your parents aren’t there by lunchtime, you, the camper, will be herded into the Mess Hall, where you’ll be required to eat lunch with the kids from Venezuela.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with eating with kids from Venezuela. I single them out, because, on Visitors’ Day, there is nobody but them eating lunch in the Mess Hall, with the lights off, because the camp’s owners don’t want to waste a roomful of electricity on a couple of kids from Venezuela, although they’ll claim it’s because it’s daytime.

The reason the kids from Venezuela are the only ones eating in the Mess Hall is because all the other kids are eating with their parents, and they’re not, because their parents are in Venezuela. The only exception to this “Venezuelans Only” lunchfest are the kids whose parents have not yet arrived. Camp regulations clearly state that, if your parents don’t arrive by lunchtime, you’re in the Mess Hall, sharing salmon patties with two very nice brothers from Caracas.
The bigger problem here is, you finish this marginal “Consolation Lunch” that the camp provides, and as sure as Sunday, whatever that means, some counselor will come racing into the Mess Hall to tell you that your family has arrived, and is currently unloading a banquet of delicacies you specifically asked for but are now too full to eat!

You can tell I’m still steamed about that one.

Useful Tip Number Three

This one is really big. I mean, “Roadmap To World Peace” big. If you know anyone at the United Nations, I urge you to pass this along. If they use it, you could easily be in line for the Nobel Prize for “Forwarding.”

Notice I didn’t say, “If you use it and it works”, because that would be redundant. This thing is guaranteed to work. I don’t understand why they haven’t tried it already. It can’t be because they don’t know about it, because one of my counselors, Steven Lewis, was once the Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations, and I’m can’t believe he didn’t pass it along. I bet he did, but it got vetoed by Uganda.

This tip insures total fairness in territorial disputes. And it always works. Always.

It’s dinnertime The dessert in cupcakes. Everyone has had their fill, there’s one cupcake left on the platter, two campers want it. (Some people can’t get enough cupcakes.) How do you resolve this cupcake dispute in the fairest and most equitable manner?

Simple. You divide the cupcake in half. How do you make sure both cupcake halves are of a precisely equal size? They don’t have to be.

Then how is that fair?

Here’s how.

There are two campers, fighting over a single cupcake. (Or two countries fighting over a single piece of land.)

There are two campers, fighting over a single cupcake. (Or two countries fighting over a single piece of land.)

The Solution? A Two-Step process.

Step One: Let one camper cut the cupcake into two equal halves, or as close to equal as they can make them, and they will because of Step Two:

Let the other camper have the first pick.

Does that scream “World Peace” to you, or what?

I learned that at camp.

Monday, June 28, 2010

"Captives To The Concept"

I’m watching At The Movies, which I haven’t seen since Siskel died and Ebert went home sick. The format’s the same – two critics, debating the merits of three movies released that week. The problem was – and you could tell by the critics’ pained expressions and their struggling efforts to say something interesting – none of the movies was worth talking about. The critics’ highest recommendation – and it was for only one of the three movies discussed on the show – “Rent It.”

Moving on…

A cable channel focusing on Major League Baseball offers its “Top Ten Plays of the Day”, counting down from the tenth most exciting defensive play to the best. The problem was, on the night I was watching, maybe three of the ten plays were particularly special. The “Play of the Day” elicited an unenthusiastic “Eh.”

It was almost funny. The show’s host, forced by circumstances into hyping the ordinary, seemed to be effusing over these “spectacular web gems” while simultaneously biting his cheek.

What are you gonna do? You can’t fabricate great fielding plays, any more than you can invent quality movies. Your only choice is to go with what you’ve got. Why? Because there’s a show to do.

When they don’t have three movies worth talking about, the critics can’t just blow up the format and say, “We’re sorry, At The Movies audience. They didn’t release three movies worth talking about this week. So we’re going to talk about our children.”

Having no alternative, the critics are required to “mark on the curve”, relegating them to discussing the three recently released movies that most closely approximate movies that are worth talking about. It’s a show biz “Written in Stone”:

The show must go on.

Whether there’s anything worthwhile on it, or not.

It’s the same with the “Top Ten Plays.” Television can’t control the players’ performances. They can’t call the manager at a game still in progress, and say, “Look, in about twenty minutes, we’re going to be showing the “Top Ten Plays of the Day”, and we only have nine. Could you ask one of your players to do something spectacular in the field? It would really help us out.”

That night’s plays are that night’s plays. It’s up to somebody to edit what actually occurred into ten plays that come the closest to “Wow!” even though on some nights they’re all, “I’ve seen a lot better than that.”

So, okay. Some days you have a so-so show. It’s no big deal.

Except when it’s the news.

Like great plays in baseball, the news happens when it happens. There’s no Editor-In-The-Sky saying, “We have to spread the ‘Big Stuff’ out evenly; otherwise, one day, you’re going to have an oil spill, a stock market crash and a tornado and the next day, it’s a kid who flies off inside a balloon, except it turns out he didn’t.”

Important news events occur when they occur. And when they do, they obviously deserve to be covered. But when nothing of great consequence happens, instead of hyping a trivial event into a major catastrophe, why can’t the news people simply come on the air, be honest, and say exactly what’s going on?

“Good evening. There are no big news stories to report to you today. So good night.”

They can’t do that. Any more than they can say, “There are no movies worth talking about” or “The most exciting play was a ground ball that bounced funny.” Captives to the concept – the concept here being there’s a news show every day or in the case of CNN every second – news shows are obligated to pretend they have important news, even when they don’t. (Scaring the audience every day, even when there’s nothing to be afraid of.)

“Good evening. There was a report today of giant rats infesting our local sewer system. Upon further study, however, it was discovered that they were not giant rats after all, but were, instead, regular-sized rats found in every sewer system in the country, though one of the rats may have been slightly oversized. An investigation is currently under way to determine why the people who reported the “giant rat” infestation believed they were giant rats, when they were, in fact, ordinary, run-of-the-mill rats. The mayor has announced he will throw the full weight of his office behind the investigation, vowing he will not rest until the perpetrators of the “Rat Scare” are rooted out, a scare that could have thrown an entire city into a panic over giant rats, which were revealed to be normal-sized rats that were not at all special.”

“In other news…”

Friday, June 25, 2010

"The Difference Between Me And A Trained Psychoanalyst"

A big difference.

One element of which became abundantly – and unflatteringly – apparent during a program at the recent conference Dr. M and attended, billed as “Baseball and Psychoanalysis.”

The program, which included a tour of the recently formed Washington Nationals’ baseball stadium, tickets to the game, and a complimentary Natstown t-shirt, opened with a two-hour panel discussion, featuring prominent members of the psychoanalytic community – if I collected "Heroes of Psychoanalysis" trading cards, I would probably have known who they were, but I don’t – plus two representatives from the Nationals’ organization, the team’s president, and the team’s “Director of Motivation”, or something.

The “Director of Motivation” or something’s job was to assist the ballplayers with their “issues.” Which he told me, in a later conversation, is very hard to get them to open up about, because ballplayers are macho guys, and they're reluctant to admit that they have any “issues.”

At a similar program at an earlier conference, I’ve heard the service provided the “Director of Motivation” branded “Mental Training,” a considerably less shameful labeling than “I’m seeing a psychologist.” Athletes are comfortable with training. They train all the time. “Mental Training” would simply be a training of the mind. Nothing shameful there. Nobody wants a flabby mind.

We were told that “Mental Trainers” help players deal with off-the-field concerns, problems facing exquisitely fit young gentlemen in a glamorous profession earning substantial sums of money. Temptations of various sorts. This service can be rewarding in both directions. The players get advice on handling their temptational challenges. And the “Mental Training” professional gets to hear some incredibly juicy stories.

But there are also on-the-field situations, relating to maximizing the players’ performance in the game. If the “Mental Training” professional can bring about an upgrade in performance, it’s win-win, meaning for the player and for the team, or win-win-win, if you include the successful intervention by the “Mental Training” professional.

As a natural contrarian, however, my thoughts fly immediately in another direction. Example:

A player wakes up one day, and he’s suddenly afraid of the ball.

It’s not that crazy, as anyone who has ever been nailed by a baseball will readily attest. They don’t call them hardballs for nothing. Those babies can do some serious damage.

Contusions, bone fractures, and if you’re hit in the head, anything from a concussion to amnesia, including, in the most tragic cases, your forgetting how to be alive anymore.

A player who's suddenly afraid of the ball – that sounds like a psychological problem. In which case, a skilled professional might be able to “mentally train” the player out of it.

But what if the player refuses to consult them?

Irrational? Not really. The ballplayer is acutely aware that the “Mental Training” professional he might want to consult works for the people the player would most prefer weren’t aware that he’s afraid of the ball.

This quandary led to the question, which had long been fulminating in my mind, and which I was dying to ask the panel. The question being this:

“How do you get a ballplayer to trust you, when he knows that your paychecks are being signed by his bosses?”

“So there!” (Which would be understood, rather than spoken out loud.)

When we got to the “Question Period” of the program, I couldn’t wait to throw that in their faces. I was salivating to confront them with this egregious conflict of interest, and watch them squirm, making me an instant hero to the assembled shrinkoisie, who would nod their heads approvingly, thinking, “Zis is a courageous young fellow. He is not afraid to ask zee difficult questions.”

I had them in my clutches. I would get up, and make my way to the back of the line of questioners, waiting my turn, while mentally refining my blockbuster question into its most provocative formulation.

As the “Question Period” ended, I was still in my seat.

As it turns out, however, the last question, offered by a psychoanalyst from New York was precisely my question. Presented, however, in an illuminatingly different manner, the following being a pretty accurate recreation:

“First of all, I would like to thank the panel for bringing us what was not only an illuminating but a highly enjoyable presentation. You’ve done a wonderful job."

Applause from the assemblage.

“I guess what I’d like to ask is, I mean, I wholeheartedly applaud your efforts to consider the mental wellbeing of the ballplayers. And I understand the situation when the needs of both the player and the ball club coincide. What I’m wondering is, what happens when the needs of the player and the needs of the organization aren’t quite…in sync?”

Our contrasting questioning strategies? Only one difference between me and a trained psychoanalyst.

Another is my not adopting a manicured little beard, either out of hero worship, or to fool patients into thinking they’ve somehow gotten Freud as their therapist.

By the way, no matter how sensitively the question was asked, both the team president and its “Mental Training” professional sidestepped it completely.

They said the situation hardly ever comes up.

Hearing that, I could sense a room full of psychoanalysts thinking, “My goodness. What terrible secrets are these transparent deniers of reality trying to hide?”

But that could have just been my reaction, and I projected it onto them.

I’m not really sure.

Another difference between me and a trained psychoanalyst.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

"Were You Any Good?"

There’s a saying in baseball – and it could easily apply to all sports, and many other endeavors as well. The saying goes like this:

“The older I get, the better I was.”

As a natural contrarian, my perspective seems headed in the other direction:

“The older I get, the more how good I was needs to be qualified.”

Which is not as catchy, nor nearly as warming to the spirit.

Let me be clear here. This is no exercise in revisionist humility. I know what I did, and I’m aware of how it was viewed. I remember how, when I was writing for Taxi, a highly regarded show in its day and perhaps even more highly regarded today, there were writers at my studio doing Laverne and Shirley – a substantially bigger hit – who looked upon the Taxi writers with admiration bordering on awe.

Taxi writers were universally respected. In contrast to the Laverne and Shirley writers, who, as the studio scuttlebutt had it, regularly saw their scripts thrown against the wall by – I don’t want to unfairly malign a star here – either “Laverne” or “Shirley”, the actors refusing to perform what they ungenerously categorized as “this crap!”

That never happened on Taxi. Even Andy Kaufman, who I only later learned from his biographical movie, was unhappy with his sitcom internment, treated us with deference and respect. (Though he may have sublimated his hostility by going overboard with chocolate. Being assigned to the same table at a dinner party, I once watched Kaufman gorge himself on a giant slab of chocolate cake, two scoops of chocolate ice cream, all slathered in massive swirls of thick, chocolate sauce. Perhaps if he’d been more forthcoming about his writing concerns, he could have avoided the chocolate overkill. I mean, that can’t be good for you, can it?)

There were times back then I must have thought I was really something. And the evaluation wasn’t entirely illusory. When I broke in, writing scripts for the Mary Tyler Moore Company, then perched at the pinnacle of the sitcom hierarchy, the revered MTM show runners seemed genuinely grateful to have me around.

Later, after screening the presentation that would blossom into The Cosby Show, the show’s owner asked me, “What would you like to do on the show?” I said, “Run it”, and he said, “Great!” And he gave me the job.

Later still, when I was consulting one day a week on the HBO classic, The Larry Sanders Show, the show’s star, Garry Shandling, asked if I’d be willing to work a second day, and I said, “Sure.” I could sense he was happy about it. Or as happy as Garry Shandling can get.

I know view these as deliriously heady times. I was genuinely “in demand.”

And then… I mean, I had a considerable run, but there was definitely an “and then…”

I wasn’t.

How did that happen? Can a person, generally acknowledged to be good, be reassessed and reclassified as not good? Can the “good” you once were unexpectedly disappear? Are you a gas tank with only so much “good” in you, and you eventually run out? Are you a once fully stocked refrigerator, now holding only an ancient carton of baking soda?

And other equally evocative metaphors?

It’s different in sports. In sports, there was a time a player hitting eight home runs a year was considered a prodigious slugger. Then Babe Ruth came along, slammed sixty, and hitting eight was a joke. Then the “steroids era” came along, and sixty wasn’t that great.

But that’s about something else. In baseball, as in all sports, records are continually surpassed. There may be extenuating circumstances – there always are – but as time goes on, the athletes do, in fact, get better.

With writing, it’s not about “better.” It’s about different.

Changes in style – the once dominant “family show” giving way to the “family of the workplace.”

Changes in morality – a liberalized culture bringing with it, though always lagging behind, an expansion of you can say and do on television.

Technology changes. The less expensive digital format has led to the single-camera series' outnumbering the previously dominant multi-camera shows, altering the method of laying out a story, and inspiring a less joke-driven writing sensibility.

It is arguable that there’s been a change in the way the audience’s mind work – or at least the mind of the younger audience, most coveted by advertisers – evolving from a preference for linear storytelling into a more impulse-driven, scattershot approach – think Family Guy – reminiscent of a video game.

Change is good. In half-hours, it refreshed a virtually played-out model, renewing the possibilities for comedic surprise.

Venturing beyond longstanding boundaries, an expanded comedic landscape allows what might once have been considered not funny, or simply weird, a chance to test its merits in the marketplace.

Change opens the door for new writers.

But it closes the door for old ones.

You can check out my credits. I was good.

But with a necessary qualifier:

I was good for my time.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"My Favorite Kind of Movie Ending"

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it is my view that the majority of American movies follow the same storytelling trajectory:

Somebody wants something…

And they get it.

Not a lot of suspense there, but that’s what audiences like. And if moviemakers give audiences what they like, they can fulfill the trajectory of their story:

Moviemakers want money, and they get it.

Movies in the sixties were different. They were more like:

Somebody wants something,

And they get shot to pieces.

Those endings weren’t quite as upbeat. But, considering the times, where our leaders were being picked off like birds on a fence rail, they fit. On the other hand, if you don’t dwell on the “dead” part, the upbeat and downbeat endings were arguably the same. In what way?

Sixties heroes wanted martyrdom,

And they got it.

A downbeat, happy ending.

Around 1976, however, things started to change. The Viet Nam war was over. The sun peeked out from behind the clouds. The moviemakers noticed. And, wishing to continue fulfilling the trajectory of their stories, they changed the movies. Most noteworthily, they stopped mutilating the heroes. Once again, I could watch movies without covering my eyes.

There’s a philosopher who talks about the clash of thesis and antithesis finally morphing into…a third thing. That’s what happened in movies. They couldn’t go back to happy endings – that’s so 50’s. They couldn’t keep obliterating the heroes – that’s so 60’s. So they came up with a third, “in between” kind of an ending.

Which happens to be my favorite kind of movie ending.

It started with The Bad News Bears (1976). A disreputable coach takes a hideous assortment of no-talents and turns them into a competitive Little League baseball team which winds up playing for the championship. A throwback storyline. Biblically inspired. It’s David versus Goliath, and – “Spoiler Alert”, for those working their way through the Bible – David wins.

But there was one difference.

The Bad News Bears lost.

After years of enforced optimism, followed by a decade of Armageddon,

I can’t tell you how refreshing that felt.

The kids had fun, they got to spray each other with beer, they learned the value of effort, teamwork, believing in yourself. But you look on the scoreboard,

They lost.

I felt giddy watching it. It had never happened before. And The Bad News Bears was a hit. So it wasn’t just me.

In the same year, 1976 – so it appears something was definitely in the air – there was Rocky. No-name palooka, gets it together, and winds up fighting for the title.

And God bless him,

He loses.

Though it feels like a victory. Why? Because Rocky’s goal was to “go the distance” and he did. To prove that’s all he wanted, when his victorious opponent screams, “Ain’t gonna be no rematch!”, Rocky triumphantly croaks back, “I don’t want one!”

For me, that was the highpoint of an exhilarating movie. (And of the franchise. Holding Rocky at his word about rematches, I ignored all the sequels.) In Rocky, the natural way of things, not movie formula, determines the outcome. It was a million times more satisfying that if Rocky had won.

The eighties came, and happy endings were back.

Nothing lasts forever.

Though every so often, there’s a welcome reminder of the endings I love. It’s rarely in an American movie, but at least they show it in America.

Once (2007) is not a sports movie; it’s a romantic musical. But like Rocky and The Bad News Bears, it has my favorite kind of ending. If you haven’t seen Once, you should check it out. Unless you require classically happy endings. (Or you’re stuck in the sixties, and you’re not content unless the good guy’s in the morgue.)

Once involves a relationship between a Dublin street singer and a gifted immigrant musician, who find each other, collaborate on some songs, and then

They go their separate ways.

From a traditional romantic musical perspective,

It’s a loss.

They meet, they make music, they experience some not totally specified feelings, and they go on with their lives. A little movie, chronicling a memorable encounter. It was more than enough to send me home happy.
I like movies that aren’t obligatorily triumphant. I’d like to write one someday.

In the meantime, I’ll write here.

Like the movie endings I enjoy, it’s a natural fit.
It goes without saying, almost, that when I talk about the 60's, it only ends calendarially on the last day of 1969. The 60's probably didn't begin until at least 1963, when President Kennedy was shot, and didn't end till they started wearing bell bottoms.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"Myth Replacement"

Up till the sixties, movies were required to have happy endings. If they didn’t you, could get your money back. You’d just say,

“I’m going home sad.”

And they’d give you a refund.

That’s not true. Although movies acted like it was. Moviemakers knew it was in their best interest to satisfy the emotional requirements of its audience; otherwise they’d just sit home and wait for them to invent television. With this in mind, the studios kept feeding moviegoers what the box office grosses said they wanted to see.

In cowboy pictures, the good guy always won out in the end, the bad guy inevitably getting gunned down, or, in the tamer westerns, shot in the hand. That’s how it was. “Good triumphs over evil.” That’s what the audience demanded. And that’s what they got.

Then came the sixties.

During the sixties, it seemed like some national hero or other was getting assassinated every couple of weeks. You know the names: JFK, RFK, Martin Luther King. With America’s good guys dropping like flies, the public turned against the myth of “Everything turns out fine in the end”, and being in the habit of thinking in extremes, Americans traded one myth in for its opposite, that being:

Nothing turns out fine in the end.” Did you hear me? Nothing. I’ll say it again. Nothing!

Bummer, man.

The sixties are remembered as a mellow time, where blissed-out hippies slipped daisies into policemen’s gun barrels. But that’s not the whole story. The era also had its darker side. And the movie business, if it wanted to remain current, had no choice but to go along.

Now artists need to have a point of view. Without it, they’re a writer sitting in front of a computer screen going,

“Now what?”

The thing was, if you happened to be an artist in the sixties, and your point of view was,

“I really believe in happy endings.”

The entertainment business told you,

“Come back when it’s the fifties.”

The upbeat ending was no longer fashionable. It was wide ties in an era of no ties. In the sixties, the moviegoing audience would only patronize movies, where, in the end, the heroes – like their heroes in real life – lay lifeless and bleeding from various orifices.

Easy Rider – dead.

Bonnie and Clyde – dead.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller – dead.

Cool Hand Luke – dead.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – dead.

The Godfathereverybody’s dead except Al Pacino, and in Godfather III, they kill his daughter. Nice touch, for the end of an era.

Moviegoers raised in the fifties, used to their heroes being alive at the end of the picture, found this turnaround totally agonizing. The heroes were getting wiped out in every single picture. You knew it was coming. It was inevitable. You just sat there in the dark until the good guy stopped breathing. It was extremely upsetting.

Sixties Man: “But that’s how it is, man. The good guy always gets it in the end.”

Fifties Man: “But I’m used to the bad guys always getting it in the end.”

Sixties Man: “That isn’t real, man.”

Fifties Man: “Neither is this. It’s a movie.”

For all those years, the movies, for me, was an excruciating ordeal. With popcorn, but my God!, who could eat? Throughout the sixties, and spilling into the seventies, I sat captive in the theater, until the character I’d been identifying with for two or more hours was lifted into an ambulance with a sheet over his face.

But that was the fashion. That was the rule.

The good guy had to die




Did I complain when every movie used to end happily? Honestly, I did not. Firstly, I expected an upbeat ending, because that’s all I’d ever experienced. Also, being pessimistic by nature, I could always use a lift.

I don’t think movies should be required to end a certain way, depending on the decade. I also don’t believe there are only two types of endings – “And they lived happily ever after” and “Take him to the morgue.”

The most appropriate movie ending is the one that most naturally fits the story being told. Though I do have a personal favorite movie ending.

Which I’ll enlighten you about tomorrow.

Monday, June 21, 2010

"Lakers Win!"

Back in the Magic Johnson-era eighties, there would have been three or four more exclamation points at the end of “Lakers Win!” More whoop and more screaming till I’m hoarse. In 1982, I was actually at the deciding sixth game against Philadelphia, high-fiving strangers and singing “I Love L.A.” along with Randy Newman.

It’s not the same now. I’m older. And playoff tickets, I heard that “Floor Seats” were going for eighteen thousand dollars apiece. But it’s still quite a rush.

And way better than “Celtics Win!”

The Lakers-Celtics rivalry goes back to the late fifties, the Celtics invariably coming out on top. In fact, before this series, someone quipped that they shouldn’t call it a rivalry; they should call it the Celtics versus the team they beat in the finals.

Not this time.

In 2008, the Celtics did it again, clinching the title with a thirty-nine-point embarrassment that stunk up Laker fans’ memory banks for two years. Even though the Lakers won last year against Orlando, who cares, it was Orlando.

This year, it was the Celtics.

When Anna was little – maybe three or four – the Celtics’ most dominant player was Larry Bird, who would constantly break our hearts with his visceral competitiveness and his last-second heroics. Codifying our chagrin, Anna and I developed what became this ritualized exchange:

“Anna, who do we hate?”

“Larry Bird.”


“Because he’s too good.”

Then, in midseason, the Lakers got a new player. I immediately reported the news to my daughter.

“Anna, the Lakers got a new player!”

To which she excitedly replied,

“Larry Bird?”

It wasn’t Larry Bird. But such was the respect we had for our arch-nemesis that we both dearly wished that it were.

The current Lakers’ leader is Kobe Bryant, a prodigious talent, but not easy to warm to. Kobe’s intensity exposes flashes of petulance, and a selfish hogging of the ball. Michael Jordan hogged the ball too. I didn’t like him either.

In the deciding game, Kobe’s tightly-woundedness nearly cost the Lakers the championship. The cool thing is, now a savvier thirty-two, Bryant noticed what he was doing:

“I just wanted it so bad…and the more I tried to push, the more it kept getting away from me.”

Kobe’s self-awareness led him to change his approach. Sublimating his offence, he rebounded like a crazy man, and distributed the ball to his teammates.

Derek Fisher, berated all season on sports call-in shows as over the hill, drained a crucial three-pointer in the determining fourth quarter.

Free agent acquisition Ron Artest, arriving with a “loose cannon” reputation, (Also self-aware, Artest thanked his psychiatrist during a post-game interview), shone with his timely scoring and stone wall defence.

Seldom-used (but very attractive) Sacha Vujacic, who played all of four minutes, came in and sank two essential free throws in the final seconds of the game.

And Pal Gasol, “The Spaniard” as Kobe affectionately called him in the post-came Lovefest, a man who not entirely unfairly received the blame for the “Shame of ‘08” blowout, labeled “too soft” in his European finesse style of play, shredded the stereotype by battling for offensive rebounds, while also contributing 19 points and four valuable assists.

“Game Seven” wasn’t pretty. The referees let things get rough and at times it looked like it was turning into a hockey game. Both teams missed considerably more shots than they made, and in the first half, the Lakers, in particular, looked tight.

Sometimes, sports is about athleticism. Sometimes, it’s about delivering in the clutch. Sometimes, it’s about strategy. Sometimes – as it was this time – it’s about will. (One Laker correctly observed “We wanted it more.”) And sometimes, though it’s under-acknowledged, it’s about emotion.

But it’s always about something.

That’s why I watch.

And when your team wins, well, you get to float a little.

Until it all starts again, next year.

Friday, June 18, 2010

"The Blessing of a Fertile Imagination"

Variation on an old joke:

“All those who have never been told that they need to get a colonoscopy take one step forward…. Not so fast, Pomerantz.”

And so it begins.

So what begins?

I don’t know.

I can’t know.

But with the blessing of a fertile imagination,

We’re off to the races.
I realize I have now brought you two personal health stories in one week. I'm sorry. It's just the way they came out. Health issues are the natural focus of an aging blogger.

It's what we think about. When people my age get together, we can't go five minutes without discussing medications, illness or an injury. It would be funny, if it weren't not funny. It's probably funny anyway.

This dominating focus in understandable. At my age, any medical encounter can be "Lights out." Our only protection is our attitude. Unfortunately - See: Above - mine can race dangerously out of control.

I'll do my best to keep a lid on things. But I'm not making any promises. My body needs to cooperate.

Here's hoping it does.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

"The Missing Piece of the Puzzle"

It’s a magnificent Saturday afternoon, a beautiful day in my neighborhood. Blue sky bright. Temperature in the low seventies. A gentle breeze, ruffling through the trees.
The ocean sparkles. Sailboats gliding by.

It’s a perfect day for a walk or a swim. Or simply relaxing in the sun, luxuriating in a glorious late spring afternoon in Southern California.

Where am I?

I’m in the house. Watching hockey.

But not just any hockey. I’m watching a game from a series called Classic NHL on the official NHL hockey network.

And not just any game. It’s the deciding game of the 1967 Stanley Cup finals. You remember that one, don’t you? The Montreal Canadiens versus the Toronto Maple Leafs?

Toronto-Montreal is hockey’s marquis match-up. In basketball terms, that’s Celtics-Lakers. In baseball, it’s Yankees-Red Sox. For people uninterested in sports, it’s entirely meaningless. Though there must be some counterpart in your sports deprived universe. Otherwise, how do you live?

For me, the game I had chanced upon held even greater significance. In 1967, I was living in London. There was no televised hockey in England. We got televised cricket.

The most important sporting event of the year, and I was thousands of miles away.

I had never seen that game.

And now, there it was. I’d been glued to my television as the Leafs took consecutive Cups in 1962, ’63 and ’64. How could I not watch this? I know it’s a nice day. But it’s California. It’s nice every day.

The video was in black-and-white, though time had degraded the quality into gray-and-white. The game’s announcer was the capable, though hardly colorful Bill Hewitt, who’d inherited the announcing duties from his arguably less capable but indisputably more colorful father, Foster.

You could see the fans in the background, “Lucky Hot Dogs”, sitting in the Mecca of Hockey, Maple Leaf Gardens, all the men wearing jackets and ties. It was totally appropriate. The Gardens was on Church Street.

From my darkened bedroom, I heard the names of my hockey heroes of yesteryear come raining down – defenseman Tim Horton, immortalized after his death by a hugely successful chain of donut shops, tenacious Bob Pulford, scrappy Davey Keon, Leonard “Red” Kelly, who simultaneously served as a member of the Canadian parliament, slow-moving but reliable Allan Stanley, and, of course, the magnificent “Big M” himself, Frank Mahovlich.

The 1967 game was different from the hockey that’s played today. The players of old were more fundamentally sound, excelling at puck handling, vigorous defence and coordinated team play. Today’s players are bigger and faster. One of the speedier Montrealers, Yvan Cournoyer, was announced as being five-foot seven and weighing one hundred and sixty-five pounds. Those are not the proportions of a contemporary athlete. That’s what I am.

The first half of the game was scoreless. As it progressed, the tension increased. Despite the fact that I was aware of the outcome. (There was this building in London’s Trafalgar Square called “Canada House”, which I visited regularly for hockey updates from often week-old, Canadian newspapers.)

The Leafs broke through, first with one goal, and then another. I waited eagerly for the replays, then remembering that this technology had not yet been invented. I felt deprived to only be able to see the goal when it happened.

It was 2-0, Leafs. In those more defensive minded days, this was considered a nearly insurmountable lead. Refusing to surrender, however, Montreal’s Dick Duff, a former Leaf, cut the lead in half, flashily dipsy-doodling around Horton and wristing the puck into the net.

It was now 2 to1.

Facing the younger, faster Canadiens, the Leafs clung to their one-goal advantage with ferocious fore-checking and game-saving goaltending by the venerable Terry Sawchuck. The game clock snailed along, oblivious to the prayers of Toronto hopefuls.

Now there was one minute to go. We knew that, because the Gardens’ announcer sonorously intoned:

“Last minute of play in this period.”

A tie would mean sudden-death overtime, a disadvantage to the older, more leg weary Leaf players. It was do or die. The exhausted veterans would have to hold off the Canadiens onslaught, and win the game in regulation time.

Heading up ice, Montreal immediately pulled their goalie, exchanging him for a sixth attacker, in a last-ditch effort to tie the game. Shots whistled in from all directions. But the Leaf defense, and especially the grizzled Sawchuck, held firm.

With only seconds remaining, the Leafs captured the puck, feeding it, to George Armstrong, a full-blooded Indian and, for years, the Leaf captain, as he lumbered up the ice. Crossing into the Canadiens’ zone, “Army” flipped the puck into the undefended net.

Toronto 3; Montreal 1.

And that’s how it ended.

After scoring the series-clinching goal, George Armstrong retired. So did “Red” Kelly. In manner of speaking, so did the entire Leaf franchise. 1967 was the last time the Toronto Maple Leafs ever won the Stanley Cup.

And I finally got to see it.

Forty-three years later.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

"I Think Something Happened"

A recent check-up at the cardiologist’s resurrected the memory of an incident that occurred just hours after my heart surgery.

I probably need to start with a disclaimer. There’s a chance what I’m about to tell you never actually took place. Heart surgery traditionally involves a lot of anesthesia, owing to the fact that surgeons don’t like the patients squirming around or going, “Ow! That hurts!” while they’re operating on them. They prefer you to be asleep while they’re rummaging around in your chest cavity. As a former patient, I heartily concur in that decision.

The grogginess resulting from the anesthesia eventually transitions into a second grogginess, induced by a powerful battery of pain-relieving drugs. You move from one grogginess to another. It is these dual grogginesses that make me a less than reliable witness to the events which I am about to recount.


I’m lying in bed, semi-conscious, or a little less. Tubes…you don’t want to know about the tubes, but they’re everywhere. Recently out of surgery, I am unencumbered by any vision assisting eyewear. Both brain and eyes are equally in a fog.

I sense a nearby presence. a person, people, “Buddy”, the Hospitality Dog, I don’t know what. I look over, and see three lab-coated hospital employees, standing in the doorway. They are looking at me. And smiling. They are not the friendliest of smiles. There is something strange about them, something layered, more complicated.

“Who are you?” I inquire.

“We’re the nurses from the Recovery Room.”

The Recovery Room is where they bring patients immediately after their operations. You’re still asleep. You have even more tubes in you, including a Breathing Tube that goes down your throat. Way down. I’m gagging just writing this. Of all the things I imagined them doing to me, I dreaded the Breathing Tube the most. I’m a very easy gagger.

My follow-up question should have been, “What are you doing here?” But I didn’t ask it. Maybe I was too out of it to engage in reasonable conversation. Maybe, unconsciously, I didn’t want to know.

My visitors remained in the doorway for some time. Smiling. I momentarily looked away. I looked back…

And then they were gone.

Lacking a concrete explanation, I am left to determine for myself why three nurses from the Recovery Room had taken the time to drop by. It’s not like they knew me. It’s not like I was some celebrity, whose semi-comatose “phone-photo” they could whip over to TMZ for some easy money. When they met me, I was an unconscious slab. Did they visit all the unconscious slabs that pass through the Recovery Room? If they didn’t, why me?

As I see it, there are three possibilities.

Possibility Number One:

I was amazing in the Recovery Room, a miraculous recoverer, who, the moment my breathing tube was removed, jumped up and sang, “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” Another option: With my breathing tube still in place, I had cracked up the nursing staff with a non-stop performance of off-key gurgling.

It’s possible. It’s possible I sat up bolt upright and delivered “The Gettysburg Address.” But such possibilities fall into the “Unlikely” category. Because they are.

Possibility Number Two

Is the “50-50.” Nothing unusual happened. The standard Recovery Room experience – they rolled me in, I came out of the anesthesia, they rolled me out. No startling anomalies for the medical journals, no “Wait’ll you hear this!” stories for the Nurses’ Lounge. It was business as usual. “Thanks for coming. Next!”

Again, it’s possible. Though it seems curious that three overworked nurses would get together and say, “Let’s visit that guy whose ‘post-op’ experience was entirely normal.” You’d think they’d have better things to do.

And it wouldn’t explain the smiling.

Those smiles. Smiles that, looking back, seemed weighted with weariness and relief. These were “Crisis Situation” smiles, where the victim ultimately pulls through. The rescuer of a now-safe miner might flash that smile as he goes by that miner, wrapped in a blanket, sipping cocoa with his family. You run into a police officer, who once heroically used the “Jaws of Life” to pry you from a mangled car wreck – that cop might flash one of those smiles.

The smile speaks of desperate situations, situations characterized as “Touch and go”, where “It could have gone either way”, and “We almost lost you.” It’s a special smile, a smile strongly pointing to

Possibility Number Three

Something happened to me in that Recovery Room.

And I’ll never know what it was.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"Looking Back On A Washington Vacation"

I had worked as a television writer for maybe a year. I was still relatively new, and I didn’t know all of the ropes.

During “Pilot Season”, my bosses at MTM were producing a pilot for a new comedy series, starring a talented Broadway comedian named Jack Gilford. (You can check out the hilarious reprise of his stage performance as “Hysterium” in the movie A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.)

I had just returned from vacation – TV pilots are generally made during the interval after the series currently on the air go out of production and before they return to production for the following season. I wasn’t involved in any pilots that year, so I went on vacation; that time, it was Tahiti.

My bosses had invited me to the filming of the pilot. I was happy to attend. I had already read their script, and was looking forward to seeing it performed.

When I reached the soundstage where the pilot would be shot, I encountered a dauntingly long line of people, snaking their way around the building. This was the pilot’s studio audience, waiting to be let in. There was no guaranteed entry. It was first come, first served.

I went to the back of the line, and I waited. It looked like it would be a while. Aware of the number of seats in the bleachers, there was the distinct possibility I would not get in at all.

About ten minutes later, one of my bosses came out of the soundstage, maybe to check out the size of the audience, and whether they looked like good laughers. As he ambled down the line, he spotted me, way back, near the end. He came up to me and said,

“Come with me.”

I really didn't know. Apparently, being a member of MTM’s writing company made it unnecessary for me to wait with the others. Embarrassed, I followed my boss, as he led me past my former line-mates and directly into the soundstage.

He then personally escorted me into the bleachers and seated me four row up, and right in the middle – the best seat in the house. Twenty minutes later, the rest of the audience was ushered in. Filling the bleachers, they may have wondered who I was, and how I deserved such VIP treatment.

Now here comes the point.

Did I expect a similar type of treatment in Washington?

Why should I?

But that didn’t stop me from begrudging its absence.

It was a memorable vacation, filled with adventure, illumination and fun.

Clouded only by a misplaced sense of personal entitlement.

Monday, June 14, 2010

"Dispatches from the Capital - Random Fragments""

Sunday Morning

Strolling through the unhurried streets of Washington suggests that Sunday is the day chicanery takes the day off.

Turf Distinction

When my belt didn’t trigger the alarm entering the Senate Gallery, but it later triggered the alarm entering the House of Representatives Gallery, I said to the House Security Guard, “My belt made it in the Senate.” To which the Security Guard sonorously proclaimed, “Not over here!”

My Proudest Moment

A woman was telling her young companion, “No, Sotomayor’s not the Chief Justice”, then turned to me and asked, “Who’s the Chief Justice?” I immediately replied, “Roberts.” Which happens to be the correct answer. I felt very proud. Like when out-of-towners ask for directions, and you actually tell them the right way to go.

Car Crash Four

Heading to a restaurant for dinner, our cab driver drove like it was a video game.

A Dubious Honor

We learned at the Museum of American History that Madison’s picture is on the five thousand dollar bill. I took out my wallet to double-check, and found I had nothing bigger than a twenty.

They Made The Tours Run On Time

Whoever is responsible for the logistical brilliance of the Capitol tours should be immediately appointed to run the country. Their only questionable decision was a placard posted near the elevator reading, “Press Elevator Button."

Echoing Heartbreak

A quote prominently displayed at the Slave Exhibit at The Museum of American History: “I married my wife. And the next day, my master sold her.”

A Gustatory Boo Boo

The concierge at our hotel reccomended a good Chinese restaurant, neglecting to tell us it was on the Second Floor of the building. We ended up dining at the First Floor Chinese restaurant below it, which would not have been recommended by anyone who had ever eaten food.

A Matter Of Perspective

Visiting Georgetown, we took a ride on a canal boat which was powered by two mules tethered to the vessel by giant ropes. The Tour Guide explained that the mules had no problem performing this task. I wondered if you’d get a different answer if you asked the mules.

Ford’s Theater

We sat in the front row, gazing up at the box where the president was shot. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The solemnity of the site, however, did not stop me from leaning over to Dr. M and whispering, “You know what Lincoln’s last words to his wife were? ‘I told you we should have gone bowling.’”

Doctor’s Orders

Dr. M’s conference offered a program entitled “Baseball and Psychoanalysis.” What was repeatedly stressed were the therapeutic benefits of “play.” We learned that Hippocrates always instructed his depressed patients to “Take a walk.” If the patient returned, still depressed, he told them to take another walk.


The program also included attending a ballgame, hosted by the Washington Nationals. Aside from the game itself, there are two things I love about going to ballgames. You can throw hot dog wrappers, peanut shells and pretty much everything on the ground. And, at least before the game starts and before the bottom of the seventh inning, you can sing out loud in public. I don’t know which of those I like best. They are both enormously satisfying to me.

Incidentally, here’s a fact which, after I mention it, you will never forget.

When you remove the parentheticals, the song “The Star Spangled Banner” is constructed as a question followed by an answer. The question:

“Can you see the flag?”

The answer:

“It’s still there.”

Isn’t that cool?

I just thought you’d like to know.

Friday, June 11, 2010

"Dispatches from the Capital - An Architectural Digression""

Years ago, when I started wrtiting a weekly commentary in a Toronto newspaper, the editor asked me, “What name do you want to use?” This came as a surprise. I was not aware I needed any name other than my own. I immediately complied with what was apparently the expectation, and I made one up.

Early Washington seems to have been confronted with the same issue, only it was in the architectural arena. Judging by the way our nation’s capital looks, it would appear that some building contractor asked the city’s designer,

“How many columns do you want to use?"

This seems to have caught the city’s designer off guard. As with me and my nom de plume situation, the designer seemed unaware that he needed any columns at all. Like my newspaper editor, the building contractor quickly set him straight.

“All the great capitals have columns. London. Paris.”


“They were copying Rome, which was copying Greece. Greece is the cradle of democracy. The later capitals wanted to say, “We’re democracies too.”

“And they said it with columns?”

“It's the democratic structural support of choice. So, how many columns should I order?”

“I don’t know…ten?”

“For the whole city?”

“Not enough?”

“'Ten’ is one building.

“One building?”

“What am I saying? It’s one side of one building.”

“You need them on more than one side?”

“Think about it. Suppose some French diplomatic is taking a walk and he comes up to the “no columns” side of the building. He goes, ‘Sacre bleu! No colombes!’ What are going to say, ‘Go around, they’re on the other side’? It’s embarrassing. As a new nation, it’s important that we don’t look like hicks.”

“But it’s hardly an American style of architecture.”

“What’s the American style of architecture?"

“I don’t know. Log cabins.”

“You want a capital full of log cabins. ‘Excuse me. Where would I find your president?’ ‘In the log cabin with the presidential seal on it.’ Yeah, that will impress the great nations of the world. 'Have you seen the American capital? You can burn the whole place down with one match. No need to attack them with soldiers. Send in beavers.'”

“We really need columns.”

“Trust me. I’m giving you the 'emmis’ here. And it’s not because I make columns on the side. So, how many are we talking about? Think ‘Big Numbers.’”

Fearing humiliation before the great nations of the world, the designer of Washington orders, like, ten thousand columns. The rationale?

“We’re way more democratic than Greece. We’ll prove it. We’ll out-column them.”

And they stuck ‘em up them everywhere. In front of government buildings. In front of museums. In front of galleries. The train station – fifty columns. McDonalds has golden arches?

“Give ‘em some columns.”

A shoeshine stand?

“A couple of columns. What would it hurt?”

What you end up with is what we see today – an American capital, screaming the classic symptoms of chronic overcompensation, the Founding Fathers, masking serious self-worth issues by going overboard with the columns. An "Edifice Complex", if you will. Manifested by acute "Column Envy." (My observations here may be influenced by the fact that I’m a guest at a psychoanalysts’ convention.)

It’s like a short person parading around in a stovepipe hat. He thinks it makes him look taller. In reality, he simply looks ridiculous.

I can imagine what that old French diplomat would say, or a current French diplomat, for that matter. Actually, he probably wouldn’t say anything; being a diplomat, he is required to be diplomatic. But I can imagine what he’s thinking.

And I translate:

“Mon Dieu! Am I in Athens? No, wait, it’s Washington, D.C. Hoh-hoh-hoh-hoh-hoh-hoh.”

“Zose crazee Americains. Zey almost had me fooled.”

Thursday, June 10, 2010

"Dispatches from the Capital - Day Five"

Which was yesterday.

We went tot the Newseum, which is, as the name suggests, a museum delicated to the history of news gathering. We had been to the Newseum on an earlier visit, but, a couple of years ago, the place was relocated closer to the center of town. Somehow, however, the earlier version felt rawer and more energetic. The new incarnation seems more planned, more manicured. It feels a little slick.

My favorite exhibit in the old Newseum was a display showing a typewriter and a pair off glasses reputed to have belonged to a journalist who had covered Custer’s Last Stand at the Little Big Horn. I inagine he was killed along with everyone else, but the Indians, having little practical use for a typewriter and a pair of glasses, had left them behind at the battle site. Sadly, these artifacts were not a part of at the refurbished Newseum, replaced, instead, by an accurate recreation of Tim Russert’s office. I liked Tim Russert, and his office looks characteristically messy, but it’s no relics from Indian massacre. It’s just a famous guy’s office.

Still, there are memorable things to see. My favorite is the side-by-side selection of front pages of the original newspapers, each featuring a landmark headline, starting with Obama’s 2008 presidential victory, and moving back through the decades – “Scopes Is Found Guilty”, “Titanic Sinks”, “Jesse James Assassinated” – all the way down to the fourteen hundreds, when the printing press was invented, which the dissemination of the news a technological possibility.

I could easily imagine those headlines continuing down through the Ages, people picking up their morning paper and reading, “David Slays Goliath”, or, even earlier, “Jews Exit Egypt – Sea Believed To Have Parted.”

Also in the Newseum is a gallery of Pulitzer Prize Winning photographs, some, like that sports-shirted Viet Nam fellow being shot in the head, still agonizing to look at. You have to wonder what that photographer was thinking as he captured that historic shot. “What a picture!” or “Maybe I should do something.”

After lunch, I had planned to visit the Ford Theater, where Abraham Lincoln was shot. I had some reservations. In a way, Ford Theater is Gettysburg with one casualty – a historic location of a horrible misfortune.

And a major tourist attraction.

“Step into the box, where a murderous assassin shot the beloved president in the head.”


And yet, I still wanted to go.

The theater was walking distance from our hotel. It started raining. Then, it came down harder. I continued walking.

I really wanted to go.

I got lost, I asked directions. Totally drenched, I finally reached the theater.

And I couldn’t get in.

It turns out, you have to buy advance tickets on the day you want to go.

Rejected from entry, I could hear the martyred president talking to me.

He said,”Ha!”

I may go back tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

"Dispatches from the Capital - Day Four"

“Dispatches from the Capital – Part Four”

Which was yesterday.

We start at the Hart Senate Buillding. We’re at “Entrance Security.” The businessman in front of me seems nervous.

“I’ve never bribed anyone before!”

I check out the staffers in the lobby. I notice a “Hierarcy of Swagger.” Step Number One: Body language – relaxed, but straight spine. Step Two: Body language plus a look of utter certainty. Step Three: The first two, plus your right hand slipped casually in your pocket. “Step Threes” clearly adhere to the “Body Language Is Destiny” philosophy.

“It’s just a matter of time.”

We visit Senator Boxer’s office. She’s not there. But we acquire tickets to have lunch at the Senate Dining Room on Friday. When we eat there, I’ll tell you wha the “specials” were. When I asked the senator’s aide if he knew, he gave me the classic “Oh, a funny guy” look.

We visit Senator Al Franken’s office. He’s not there. We leave a note telling him we’re in town. I wished Al good luck in his job.

On our way out, we run into a well-dressed middle-aged woman who hits us with a high-wattage smiles and crows, “Hi!” It’s like she can’t take any chances. She was very likely a senator we didn’t recognize, and she also didn’t recognize us, we could very easily have been potential donors. Ergo: “Hi!”

We go to the Senate Gallery to take in the proceedings. The proceedings involve two senators on an otherwise abandoned Senate floor, a Republican senator saying the Health Care Reform bill sucks, and the Democratic senator replying, “It’s the law. Get over it.”

Defending his argument, the Republican senator used the words “It’s true” or “It’s the truth” seven times. Once he said, “It’s the truth, at least, as we see it.” This is coded language. Its meaning? “We’re partisans, and we’re lying our heads off.”

We depart the Senate gallery, and head over to the House of Representatives Gallery. It takes us ten minutes to get there. We stay fifteen seconds. There were two people on the Senate floor? On the House floor, there was nobody. There was literally nothing happening.

Our next stop is the nearby Supreme Court Building. The doors to the chambers are open. I catch sight of the nine elevated black seats where the Justices sit. I feel a tug in throat and a welling up in my eyes. I’m shocked. But I’m not surprised. That place means something to me. I wish it meant the same thing to the Justices. During the lecture, the speaker says, “The Supreme Court is not a political entity.” I immediately explode with laughter. Fortunately, the explosion remains inside my body.

After lunch, we visit the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery. I have trouble with portrait galleries. I mean, there’s a portrait of Tommy Lasorda in there, and it doesn’t look like Tommy Lasorda. I know that, because I know what Tommy Lasorda looks like. I do not know what President Martin Van Buren looks like. But if they can got Tommy Lasorda wrong, how can I trust them about the other guys? I could be walking through an entire gallery of, “Not even close.”

Our last stop is the NPR radio studio of “All Things Considered” where we enjoy watching them produce the live broadcast. I once did about half a dozen commentaries for that show. You can check them out in the archives. Just type in my name, or the words, “He did six great commentaries, and then they cut him off.” It’ll take you straight to my file.

(The above uncharacteristically bitter paragraph? At home, it would probably have been gone by the second of third rewrite. Here, I'm working under "battlefield conditions." I'm only getting one shot at things. Please assess accordingly.)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

"Dispatches from the Capital - Day Three"

Which was yesterday.

Rent a car. Drive to Gettysburg. Beautiful drive. Mapquest knows what it's doing. We get there on schedule. Lunch at "The Lincoln Diner", a place Lincoln might have eaten, id he'd made it to the fifties. It's across the street from the train station he arrived at to give his speech, and kitty-corner from the hotel where he spent all night agonizing, "'Four score and seven.' Is that too pretentious?"

We go to the Visitors Center, where we meet our guide, Jim. Jim'a great. If you go to Gettysburg, ask for Jim. He really knows his stuff. And he's particularly patient with stupid questions. That really matters, if you happen to be the kind of person who asks them.

We had perfect weather for the tour. Oh, before I go there, on the way there, we stopped at a designated "Scenic View." There was a sign there that said, "Closed at dusk." I wondered about that. Does the "scenic view" go home?

You see what I mean about stupid questions.

I'll set the picture for you. Gettysburg: tree-studded rolling hills under a cloud-clotted blueish sky. That's it for description. Just think "perfect for a battlefield tour" and you'll have it just right.

The battleground was beautifully maintained. Jim told us they had cut back the trees, so the terrain can look as close as possible to the landscape the soldiers would have encountered during the three-day battle in 1863. They wanted the place to look as much as possible like the place where the whole thing took place. I'm bucking for the Pulitzer for "Opaque Writing."

Okay, I'm stalling here. And for good reason. This is about, you thought you'd feel one way, and you wound up feeling another. And that other way was a little ashamed.

I was really excited about visiting Gettysburg. But when I got there, and I listened to Jim tell the story of what happened there, all its minutest and most devastating detail...


I started to think. And the thinking got heavier later, as I watched this cyclorama, a three hundred and fifty foot painting of the battlefield, illuminated by the sound of recored cannon explosions, accompanied by ear-splitting volleys of simulated ed rifle fire.

What I'm thinking is this:

We've read about battles, including Civil War battles, where fancy people came with picnic baskets, and sat on a hill, partying, as they took in the bloodletting below. What was the ongoing hostilities for them?



There I am, looking down at the exact place where "Pickett's Charge" took place, the precise open field where thousands of Confederate soldiers charged the Northern army, who held the strategically superior higher ground, and the Northerners cut them to pieces, and, though I'm asking these truly intelligent and insightful questions, underneath I'm asking myself, what am I doing there if it's not


Oh, sure, it's less disgusting when they're not actually dying in front of you, but is it really that different? I mean, how would I respond to a soldier who took part if he said, "We came here to fight. What's up with you?"

"I don't know, I just wanted to see where it happened."

"Well, I hope you enjoyed yourself. We sure didn't."

I stood there imagining the carnage. Then I went to the Gift Shop, and I bought a t-shirt.

"Hey, lighten up, Earlo. It was a learning experience."

What did I learn? That war is horrific? I knew that already. That slavery is bad? Please. There was nothing to learn, but some factual details. And that when the Civil War happened, it was better to be in Canada.

We've thought about visiting Normandy, and seeing where D-Day happened. I'm thinking now, maybe I've had enough.

I don't know if that lesson's worth fifty thousand Gettysburg casualties - yes, I do; it's not - but it's all I've got.

Do you think there's any chance of my getting this posting reprinted in the Gettysburg Memorial Battlefield Guidebook?

Probably not.
Here's a dark, "Early" kin of a thought. When I was walking through the cemetary, I thought if I succumbed, my daughter would be able to say, "My Dad died at Gettysburg."

Monday, June 7, 2010

"Dispatches from the Capital - Day Two"

Which was yesterday.

After breakfast, we go to the Museum of American History.

And stay there for four hours.

It's a really good museum.

The museum's exhibits' contents range from Dorothy's Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz to Abraham Lincoln's hat. (Plus, among tons of other things, Julia Child's kitchen, and the original lunch counter from the first civil rights sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina.

The Ruby Slippers are swell, but when you get down to it, they're, you know, a movie prop. But you show me Lincoln's hat and I'll stare at it for twenty minutes. And then make Dr. M take a picture of me kneeling beside it. I mean, come on! That'a Lincoln'a hat! Lincoln's head was in it. And that head made up the "Gettysburg Address!"

It's all a matter of individual differences. There was a huge exhibit on the evolution of the light bulb. Techno-folk would find that, dare I say, illuminating? But my eye went to a truck from the 1930's that could have transported the Joad family to California, right beside a substantial slab of the actual Route 66 that you could walk on. I'm a story guy. That truck and that hunk of highway was all I needed to rev up my imagination. The light bulb is nice, but I don't know how a clock works.

There was an exhibit on Jewish immigration, which was uplifting, right beside an exhibit on Slave Life, which made me queasy. I couldn't help thinking of the contrasting ways each group arrived at this country. Both of our ancestors traveled in steerage, but only one of them were in chains.

I draw the line at the exhibit of First Ladies' inauguration outfits. Waiting for Dr. M, I plant myself on a nearby bench, joining two other gentlemen who clearly feel exactly the same way.

And then we left.

After a short rest, we visited the Spy Museum. The Spy Museum is overflowing with ingenious gadgets (one, the Hollow Stick, used to hide secret messages, was developed by Canadians; I was so proud), informative films and interactive challenges, all relating to the wonderful world of subterfuge. Though interesting, the Spy Museum wasn't really wasn't for me. I don't like to be fooled. And that's all spies do. The museum's theme is: "All Is Not As It Seems." I already knew that. And it's not a reassuring thought.

Tomorrow: Gettysburg

Sunday, June 6, 2010

"Dispatch From The Capital - Day One

Day One was yesterday.

A car takes us to the airport, drops us off, then drives away. We go inside to check in.

Our flight has been cancelled. (They voice-mailed us at two the previous morning, but we somehow missed it.)

We are told the plane had been taken out of service. We're supposed to be grateful that they didn't leave the plane in service and it fell out of the sky with us screaming inside of it as we plummeted to the ground.

We're only a little grateful.

We arrange another flight. But this one isn't direct. Instead of L.A. - D.C., it's L.A. - St. Louis - D.C. It's scheduled to leave later. We check our bags, and we take a cab home. It's not that far. An hour an a half later, we take a cab back.

We fly to St. Louis. (My "airplane book" is "Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean.") We wait in St. Louis. I spot an "unattended bag." I report it. When we board twenty minutes later, the bag is still sitting there. On the plane, I see a man carrying the formerly unattended bag down the aisle. I'm not sure I'm relieved.

We land in Washington. Not at five, as we were scheduled to, but at ten-thirty P.M. We come out of the airport. It's eighty degrees. And really, really humid. I would not be surprised to see alligators come crawling up onto the sidewalk.

We ask our cab driver to take us to one of the most popular conference-hosting hotels in the city. He's never heard of it. He has to use a GPS.

We arrive at the hotel. It is not a D.C. landmark. (I know landmarks. We passed a bunch of them as we drove in.) It's for conventions. We' re here for a psychoanalytic conference. But you know yesterday, it was foot doctors.

We go to our room and we crash. We're old and we're beat.

Friday, June 4, 2010

"Three Head Scratchers"

I offer today three head scratchers, three stories which, after reading them, make the thoughtful person go…“What?”
Let’s see if there’s a consensus as to which of these three head scratching stories is the head scratchiest of them all?

Head Scratcher Number One

Eschewing prejudice and conjecture, white scientists decide to prove incontrovertibly which race is the best and the smartest. Relying on rigorous standards, they determine with scientific certainty that the best and smartest race is the race which includes amongst its members…

The white scientists.

Head Scratcher Number Two

A conservative Justice of the Supreme Court, claiming to be impartial, reaches decisions that are almost one hundred per cent consistent with the conservative philosophy. The Justice claims that his rulings reflect the original intention of the Constitution. Why they invariably turn out conservative has nothing to do with him.

Head Scratcher Number Three

In their annual school competition, nine year-old Becka Bloom was voted “The Most Adorable Girl In The Third Grade.” Becka’s father was one of the judges. Denying any bias in the decision, Mr. Bloom explained that he was only one of three judges in the contest. The other two were Becka’s mother and her grandmother, who is also named Becka.

Okay, ready to vote?

Can you determine which of the three head scratching stories is the head scratchiest?

I can’t.

Maybe I’m just being cynical, but they all sound fishy to me.
Next week, I’m trying something different. Dr. M is attending a conference in Washington, D.C., and I’m tagging along as, what they call in show business, the “non-pro.” The “something different” is, I’ll be taking a laptop with me – one I have never used before – and if I figure out how to work it, I’ll be publishing daily “Dispatches for the Capital.” (Or the Capitol, if I’m talking about that building.)

If I don’t master the workings of the laptop, readers will be entertained by an entire week of nothing. I’m excited to try this experiment, unless it doesn’t work out, in which case, I’ll be sad. Regular postings will return on Monday, June the 14th, when, if you don’t hear from me before that, I’ll begin by explaining what exactly went wrong. Either way, there’ll be stories.

I’m a little concerned about visiting Washington, since it was Canadians who burned the place down in 1812. I’m anticipating problems with Canadian profiling. Though who knows? They may have forgotten about it by now.

In any case, I’ll talk to you.


Thursday, June 3, 2010

"The Real Culprit"

I was watching Bill Maher recently, and, as usual, he was clobbering his favorite target –religion – yammering away about religion’s being responsible for war and the deaths of millions of people.

Somebody on his panel said, “What about Communist Russia?”

To which Maher shot back,

“Communism is just state sponsored religion.”

That’s when I jumped in. In my head. I imagined myself a panelist on Maher’s show. Though I’d been noticeably quiet to that point, I had suddenly found my voice.

“You know,” I tentatively began, “My cousin Herschel used to joke that “There are two kinds of bald people – those with hair and those without hair.”

The audience chuckles politely. Maher immediately steps into the void.

“What does that have to do with anything?”

To which I reply,

“You just said the same thing: “There are two kinds of religious people – those who believe in God and those who don’t.”

Maher had been careless in his computation. He had lumped godless Communists in with religious people, when Communists, and the millions of deaths they inflicted, rightfully belong on Maher’s side of the ledger, the side headed: “Murdering Atheists.”

I won’t trouble you with the subsequent “give-and-take.” Suffice it to say, Maher wiped the floor with me with his well practiced sarcasm and derision, making me look boring and ridiculous in the process.

But not wrong.

I may embarrass myself in my fantasies, but I always have a point.

My point, in this case, being this. Religion is indeed responsible for many wars, centuries of intolerance and countless deaths. If there’s an afterlife, I hope those champions of religion have to face a very angry Maker who stares them straight in the eye and says, “What the hell were you thinking?”


Religion is merely one, albeit a major one, of a subgroup of culprits, all of which reside under an overarching umbrella of hate-causing and destruction, which, in fact, is the primary culprit. That culprit is the seemingly universal concept of


Religion is simply one category that distinguishes the good, righteous and deserving “Us” from the disgusting, subhuman and undeserving not “Us”, which is “Them.”

There’s only one “Us” – the perfect, special people – but there’s a boatload of “Thems”, alternately known as “The Other.” Throughout human history, the “Uses” have made the “Thems” targets, scapegoats, receptacles of our darkest and most shameful impulses, which we can’t accept in ourselves – because we’re so wonderful – so we project them onto “Them.”

And then we kill them. Or treat them to a lifetime of discriminatory damage.

You know who “Them” are. I’m not going through the list. Generally, “Them” is anybody who isn’t you. Or people like you.

I once heard this psychoanalyst named Vamik Volkan speak at a psychoanalytic conference Dr. M was attending. Among other duties, Volkan serves as a mediator in international disputes. He participated in the Begin-Sadat get-together at Camp David during the seventies.

Volkan spoke about Cyprus, an island shared by the Greeks and the Turks, but they hate each other. Over the years, the two sides have developed a number of identifying distinctions. Each side loops their belts in a slightly different manner. And each side smokes a different brand of cigarette – I believe one side smokes Camels and the other, Lucky Strikes, though I can’t remember which group does which, which would be injurious to me if I lived there and I smoked.

Volkan believes that the idea of “Them” is inherent to our natures. We need “Them” to define what it means to be “Us.” If he’s right, this issue is not going to go away.

I didn’t need Volkan to introduce me to the concept of “Us” and “Them.” No, I am not going to regale you with the ways I’ve been discriminated against, which continue to today, with people remarking, not entirely benignly, that, at my age, a lot of my hair remains mysteriously brown.

I will talk, instead, about Danny. A kid I hated in Hebrew school. For no reason whatsoever.

It seemed like in our Toronto Hebrew Day School schoolyard, everybody hated somebody, and they took considerable time and pleasure in torturing that person mercilessly. I didn’t want to be left out. So I decided to hate Danny. ”Decided” isn’t the right word. It just seemed to happen.

Now we’re not talking about a maximum-security prison here; we’re talking about Hebrew school. Our school motto could easily have been “Where Harmless Children Study Hebrew.” Yet even that benign venue seemed to be a veritable hotbed of visceral hatred.

There was Danny. The nicest kid in the class. The model student. Never spoke without raising his hand. Never got “the ruler.”

Danny, the “Goody-goody.” Danny, the “Couldn’t do anything wrong if he wanted to.” Danny the “So damn perfect, he made the rest of us look bad and unworthy and deficient and depraved.”

I punched Danny, I believe, in the face. I only did it once. But I remember that punch to this very day.

If you’re reading this, I’m sorry, Danny.

Volkan says it’s natural. I needed a “You” to make me become “Me.” Not that it excuses anything, but I couldn’t have punched you very hard, because in the middle it, I could hear myself thinking, “What are you doing?” Besides, I didn’t have any muscles.

I know one thing, Danny. My violent act had nothing to do with religion. In fact, though it’s unlikely to make you feel better, when I nailed you in that schoolyard those many decades ago, I wasn’t really punching you.

I was punching Bill Maher.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

"There Is A Difference"

Here’s an assertion I have trouble backing up:

“I don’t write fiction.”

I’ve heard myself say this on numerous occasions. And when I said it, I believed it. The problem is, the facts of my career suggest otherwise. As do the quizzical expressions on the faces of the people I say, “I don’t write fiction” to. Which means, very likely, that I’m wrong.

That’s hard to believe. Not me being wrong – that happens disturbingly often – but me being wrong about me. It’s a little disconcerting. If I get “me” wrong, what can I possibly get right? And even if I were right about it, who would believe me?

THEM: We’re not buying it.

ME: But it’s true.

THEM: Where’s your credibility? You said you didn’t write fiction.

Okay. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I’m wrong. I do write fiction. Or at least I did when I was working in television, as opposed to my writing on this blog, which is factually true, except for the mistakes, the misrepresentations and the things I remember incorrectly.

“All half-hour comedies are fiction. I spent my career writing half-hour comedies. I spent my career writing fiction.”

It’s simple logic. And I know logic. I once won a hundred-and-fifty dollar prize in second-year college Philosophy, which was the logic year. Logic decrees that my assertion is incorrect. I did write fiction.

And yet…

I didn’t feel like I did.

And I can’t exactly explain why. Though not being able to explain why I didn’t feel like I wrote fiction doesn’t mean I didn’t write fiction. It just means I’m confused.

I have reasons for feeling that I didn’t write fiction. I’ll start with the stupidest reason, and get it out of the way. The stupidest reason is this. The characters I wrote did not simply exist in my imagination. When I came down to the stage for rehearsals,

There they were.

They’d say, “How’re ya doin’, Earl?” “How’s it goin’, Earl?” “Could you give me more lines, Earl?”

These were actual people. You could bump into them. You could smile at them, and they’d smile back. You could explain to them why they couldn’t have more lines, and watch them scurry off and call their agents. None of that happens with fictional characters.

Fictional characters don’t exist.

These characters did.

I know. I’m confusing the characters with the actors who played them. The actors exist; the characters don’t. “Sitcom characters are fiction. I wrote for sitcom characters. I wrote fiction.” And there I am, defeated again by pure logic.

I wrote for fictional characters. And yet – and you’ll just have to take my word for this – they felt real to me. But who knows? Real fiction writers could say the same thing.

“These characters feel real to me. They speak to me, and I simply write down what they say.”

Maybe so. But my characters were walking around.

“Where are you going?’

“To my dressing room.”

I heard them say that. Do fictional characters have dressing rooms? No. Do fictional characters get out of their costumes and put on their street clothes? Fictional characters don’t have street clothes. You see the distinction? I think I’m on to something here. I really do.

Okay, I’ll move on. A real difference between what I did and fiction writing is that, except for the barest of stage directions, I never wrote description. The scripts I wrote consisted almost entirely of dialogue.

Fiction writing is full of description. “The wind was howling, like (some scary thing that howls.)” “The (whatever kind of flowers) were in bloom as flocks of (whatever kind of birds) flew overhead.” “She pressed her heaving (whatever parts of her that heave) against his (whatever parts her heaving parts naturally came in contact with.”)

You can readily see why I don’t write description. And with my writing, I never had to.

Which made me feel like I didn’t write fiction. Do I need to do the logic? Okay.

“Fiction writing ( I know there are exceptions) has description. My writing has no description. My writing is not fiction writing.”

So there’s that.

The other thing you won’t find in my scripts was “inner dialogue”, the stuff the characters are thinking and feeling. (Which when you think about it is really “inner monologue”, it being, barring the multiple personality arrangement, very difficult to put two or more peoples’ inner thoughts and feelings into a single person’s head.)

Fiction’s brimming with “inner dialogue.” “What is she thinking?” “What is he thinking I’m thinking?” “What is she thinking I’m thinking she’s thinking?” I never did any of that. Conveying internal processes? That’s the actor’s job.

In fact, when writers would suggest the character’s inner goings-on (in bracketed stage directions preceding the dialogue), many actors would bristle vociferously, demonstrating their displeasure by obliterating our suggestions with thick black pencils. By demanding proprietorship over their character’s inner imaginings, these actors were drawing a distinction between themselves and their fictional counterparts (who, unless the writer says they do, don’t even own pencils).

The actors’ distinction? My distinction.

On an episode of The Larry Sanders Show, Larry’s sidekick, Hank Kingsley, converts to Judaism, and, at one point, he says to Larry,

You’re Jewish, aren’t you?”

To which Larry (who looks rather Jewish, and is played by a Jewish comedian) replies,

“I’m not. I’m something else.”

That’s how I feel about what I wrote. It may appear to be fiction, but it is, in fact, something else.

Of course, what made Larry’s response funny was that it was entirely unconvincing.
I can't believe it. Six hundred posts. And most of them don't stink. Congratulations, me. And you, for your essential participation.