Wednesday, August 31, 2011

"Countdown To A Wedding - The Pace Picks Up"

Owing to my responsibilities relative to the wedding, my blog writing will have to take a temporary back seat to whatever needs to be done. Consider these fragmentary "Bulletins From The Front." Libya, with wedding cake.

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Anna picks me up. We need to run a few errands. A “Maid of Honor” present for Rachel. A gift for “Mom”, for all her help. (She’s getting an I-something-that-Apple- makes, but I’m not sure what it is. Anna says it’s like an I-phone, but it doesn’t make calls. I’m not sure how useful that is, but Dr. M dropped a hint that she wanted one.

I come outside, and there’s Anna’s white Prius. I go to get in, when I notice there’s nobody in the car. I look in front of the white Prius, and there’s another white Prius. I had made the classic Santa Monica mistake – the wrong white Prius.

I go to get in, and there’s nobody in that car either. (This is a true story, I swear.) I look on the “street side” of the second empty white Prius, and there’s a now impatient Anna in yet another white Prius, waiting for me to get in.

Three white Priuses. Just in front of my house! You can drive all over Indiana (where we vacation), and not see a Prius of any color. It’s a geographical distortion.

“This must be the most popular car ever!”

It is. But only on our street.

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We drive to the Apple Store. The place is packed, like they haven’t heard the economy’s in the toilet. To me, visiting the Apple computer store is like a scene from Woody Allen’s Sleeper. I am cryogenically put to sleep, and when I wake up, I am confronted by machines I have never seen before and have no idea how they work. Even the people walking around in the store look different. They appear to have bigger heads.

I ask Anna, “If you’re young and you’re stupid, do you still know more about this stuff than I do, just because you’re young?” Anna immediately replies, “Yes.” It’s like a newly minted “gizmo” gene. If you’re old, you are entirely out of luck.

We play around with this “product.” When you tap the screen, an “on-screen” keyboard pops up, and you can text and e-mail with it. It turns out I didn’t even understand the things I understood. Anna says, “Type something, Dad”, and I can’t. The letters on the keyboard are in different places from the places I expected to find them, having studied typing in 9-C at Ledbury Park Junior High School. Somebody has moved the keys around, I believe, deliberately, to make me feel just a little more “out of it” than I already felt.

It is then explained to us that there’s a globey-looking icon, that, when you press it, offers you different keyboards for different languages. For some reason, the “demonstrator model” was set for “French”, which, apparently, doesn’t use “k” as much, so they “keyboarded” it in a more remote location.

One last Apple Store disorientation, as if my confidence hadn’t been shaken enough. When you sign on the little…glass rectangle screen that you sign after you pay with a credit card, they want you to sign it, not with one of those pens that aren’t really pens, they want you to sign with your finger. I haven’t given my autograph with my finger since I cursived “Earl” in a snow bank in the winter of ‘58. I was shamefully out of practice. You look at that signature and it’s like Michael J. Fox, without the medicine.

Anna needs gas, so we stop at a gas station. The cheapest gas in four seventy-nine a gallon. I’m not one of those people who’ll drive half way across town to save three cents a gallon on gas. But this was forty cents higher than any of the stations we passed later. Why did we go there? Anna was on “Empty.” But it was not the place for us. The car in front of us was a Bentley. That was perfect. They wouldn’t even notice the forty cents.

A guy gets out of the passenger side of the Bentley. Suddenly, Anna gets all excited. (Get ready for a “Gas Station Moment” that can only happen in Hollywood.) Anna shouts,

“I know that guy! He’s on ‘Celebrity Rehab’!”

We finish our errands, and Anna drops me off at home. I had the best time, just driving around with her. It occurs to me there is no reason to believe that will change after the wedding.

I am turning the corner. It is going to be okay.

Our first guests have arrived – my brother’s two daughter’s and their families. They have rented a condo near the beach, three blocks from our house. We walk over to welcome them.

Hugs and happiness. Anna says, “I am honored that you're here.”

“I am honored.” Not, “It’s so awesome that you’re here.” Not “I’m really happy you’re here.” Not “I can’t believe you guys are here!”

“I am honored that you’re here.”

I am a “word” person. I believe in the “right” word, the word that most accurately conveys the meaning, and the underlying feeling behind it.

I was enchanted by Anna’s selection.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

"Summer Times - The Last Day of Camp"

As distinguished from the last night, with its trio of rituals – the banquet, the counselor’s show and the traditional torchlight ceremony at the beach where they float lit candles on the lake as they read off each of our names and play a scratchy record of “For All We Know (We May Never Meet Again)”, which I’ve written about elsewhere, I address herein the last day, the day the buses were coming to take us back to the city, the countdown for which we recorded every morning, singing,

Four (or whatever it was that day) more days of vacation

Then we go to the station

Back to civiliza-tiooooon

The bus will carry us home.

There were signs everywhere that it was almost over, two of them signified by the deployment of horses. A few days before camp ended, trailers arrived to pick up the horses at the stables, to return them, hopefully, to barns, but, given the age and condition of some of the horses, possibly elsewhere. Riding was over for the summer.

At about the same time, sturdier horses – Clydesdale hairy and workhorse hunky – were brought down to beach, where they helped haul the dismantled sections of the H-shaped, wooden swimming dock onto dry land. That would be it for Swim Instruction. Which suited me just fine.

The final week was punctuated by a series of “lasts.” Last laundry pick-up. Last Saturday morning cinnamon buns. Last “tuck” – a twice-weekly snack distribution, whose sustaining Snack Bars and Crispy Crunches had kept me from becoming so thin, it would be necessary for me to hold up my pants with my hand. Each “last” fel like a funeral drumbeat, heralding the inevitable end.

The end of summer. And the end of camp.

Dark blue metal trunks with the brass trim, and oversized canvas duffel bags were lowered from rafters and storage spaces. It was time to pack for home. Maybe a week before the end, we began strategically counting backwards, to insure – since there were no further laundry pick-ups – that we’d have clean underwear and socks – or at least some underwear and socks – to go home in. Nobody wanted to greet their loved ones, sporting underwear they’d been wearing for three days.

We also rationed our clothing, so that our “going home” ensemble would be the most presentable outfit we had – which pretty much meant the clothes that been shrunken and dyed pink the least by the camp laundry.

Hidden clothing was invariably discovered behind the now-empty shelves, missing items many had been searching for the entire summer. Sometimes what was found were items the camp Clothing List included as “Optional”, but the mothers packed them anyway – like hankies. In those cases, no one would ever speak up to claim them, promoting the belief that they had been there for years. We would then just put them back where we found them. Let next year’s campers worry about the hankies.

Trunk packing followed a specific plan. The big stuff – pants, jackets, raincoats – on the bottom, shirts, sweaters, underwear and socks neatly stacked on top of them, piled tightly side-by-side, so as to avoid toppling. All shoes, rubber boots and – if you were wimpy enough to bring them – slippers – were inserted with the soles facing outward, away from the clothing, to prevent them from getting stained by camp path shmutz. That’s dirt, of a vaguely nasty variety.

After hours of meticulous maneuvering, you thought you were finished. Your trunk looked perfect. Trunk Packers Monthly could easily put it on their cover. Then someone would come in after completing their “Clean-Up” assignment of checking the clothesline holding up a forgotten, still-damp bathing suit that had fallen on the ground, and was now caked with patches of mud and assorted sticks and leaves. After two months together, everyone knew whose bathing suit was whose, so deniability in this case was futile.

It was now necessary for the forlorn owner to revisit a believed completed and breathtakingly perfect packing job, to figure out how to include this soiled and sodden bathing suit, the issue, beyond the frustration of rearrangement, being that, if you packed wet stuff with dry stuff, when you got home, your entire trunk would smell moldy, and the clothing therein would have no future as wearing apparel.

A plastic bag could be the answer, though, back then, there were not that many of those around. Second best was to wrap the bathing suit in a towel, which reassured no one, but had to do, being the best available alternative. Other than burying bathing suit in the ground.

Okay.

Sometimes, when you’re a kid – or even now if you’re me – you will do something that will reveal hidden feelings that you never knew you had. This happened to me on the last day of camp the first summer I went, when I was nine years old, the time, regular readers may recall, when I was sent to camp without knowing I was going.

I was not happy at camp. I suffered through a host of activities I was terrible at – from baseball to swimming to lacrosse (what am I, an Indian?) – and I enjoyed a turbulent relationship with my cabin-mates, which culminated in an effort on their part to string me up.

Yes, they had put me in the pageant, and given me a song to lead the camp in, which brought me some much needed positive attention, but it seemed as if – a view supported by my continual complaining – that nobody would be happier to be sprung from camp than I would.

So.

I am totally packed. The clothes in my trunk look beautiful. When my mother looks inside, they will smile up at her and say, “Hello. Look how neat your Sonny Boy packed”, and my proud-of-me mother will smile right back, and give me a cookie. It was an exquisite packing job. I was truly content.

We are sitting at our last lunch. “Scoops.” Meaning a platter, offering ice cream scoops-sized mounds of egg, salmon and tuna. I, of course, eat nothing. I hate “Scoops.” And I never eat before long bus rides, fearing the necessity of requiring the bus driver to stop, so I can throw up in a ditch.

Suddenly, my counselor, with whom I had had a generally positive relationship, informs me that he is unhappy with my clothing selection and that, before the buses arrive, I will have to go back to the cabin to change.

I immediately explode. This was extremely unusual for me. I have numerous inter-relationional bad habits, but losing my temper is not one of them. Nor is swearing. On this occasion, I did both, screaming at my counselor at the top of my lungs,

“I’m not changing my clothes, and I don’t give a damn what the hell you say!”

After which, I bolted from the Dining Hall.

Only in retrospect – and I mean decades later – did I realize what was happening.

Despite its liabilities and inconveniences, camp was Neverneverland. And they were shipping me back to school – which paid little attention to me – and the mind-numbing bludgeonation of television.

Wherefrom the tantrum?

I did not want to go home.

It’s embarrassing when you’re noisily proclaiming one thing, when you are actually feeling the opposite.

But sometimes, that’s just the way it is.

Monday, August 29, 2011

"Countdown To A Wedding - Tinkering'"

I am worried about the opening to my toast. Speaking publicly in the past, I have often gotten off to an uncertain start, and I am determined I will not do it again. Unfortunately, whatever I try so far, nothing seems quite right.

(I realize my anxiety is not about the toast. It’s about something more primal. However, since I am unable to confront those issues, I am dealing with what’s manageable. The toast commands my attention, because it’s the only thing I can control.)

It seems to be a question of “voice.” It’s funny, but sometimes, you can miss the “voice” even when you’re writing for yourself. You would think that was impossible. You speak in that voice all the time. You’d imagine you would know how it sounds.

The mistake results from trying to be funny. This is always an unfortunate, though understandable, idea. Your instincts instruct to “open strong.” That instruction can take you in the wrong direction. Especially if “strong” is not the natural “you.”

When you try to be funny, you automatically sound like a comedian. Venn diagram: Comedians are funny. I want to be funny. I will be like a comedian.

And not a gentle comedian. An “attack” comedian. Venn Diagram Number Two: “Attack” comedians sound strong. I want to sound strong. I will sound like an “attack” comedian.

Your adrenalin is also intensifying your delivery. (Just like it’s harder to pull off a really slow ballad, it’s excruciatingly difficult to take your time as a comedian. Your adrenalin in driving you in the other direction.)

Energized by an aggressive impulse, I begin with the standard “acknowledging people from out of town” opening:

“We’ve got people here from all over. My family flew in from Toronto. Are you out there?

(IN THE NOT UNLIKELY EXPECTATION OF A LOW-KEY RESPONSE FROM THE TORONTONIANS)

“That’s an example of Canadian exuberance. The Canadian motto is: “Keep it down, eh?”

“Attack comedy”, Ladies and Gentlemen. I am attacking my relatives. Why would I do that? They traveled three thousand miles to be here. They don’t deserve to be insulted. Even if it’s true.

“Colby’s (the groom’s) family’s here from Ohio. Where are you guys?”

(IN THE NOT UNLIKELY EXPECTATION OF A MORE ROUSING RESPONSE)

“There you go. It’s like a Buckeyes Pep Rally.”

What I’m doing there is taking another shot at Canadians – by comparison – while buttering up the Ohio guests who I don’t know, but I want them to like me.

My toast is suddenly about endearing myself to Midwestern strangers. (I had also thought of charming them with my awareness that Ohio has produced more American presidents than any other state, till I realized that had nothing to do with the wedding.)

I had a joke, “You know how they always acknowledge the people who traveled long distances to be here? Tonight, I’d like to pay special tribute to Morrie and Alicia Ruvinsky, who are visiting from four blocks away.”

No, Earl! You’re insulting the people who did travel long distances. Also, though possibly funny – or possibly not funny – it’s stupid.

I try something else. Start with the “real.” That usually works. The reception is in our backyard. So,

“We like celebrating special occasions in our backyard. The last one was Anna’s Bat Mitzvah. But that was different. There were nobody here from Ohio.”

I tinker with the wording of the punch line.

“There was nobody there from Ohio.”

“There was nobody from Ohio.”

“That time, there was nobody here from Ohio.” Or “there” from Ohio.

“But at the Bat Mitzvah, there was nobody there from Ohio.” Or “here” from Ohio.

Tinkering sometimes means fine-tuning. But it can also be a “Warning Signal.” The joke is not funny. Why? Maybe it’s a faulty concept. Maybe it’s unclear. There’s the possibility of a negative implication. Am I uncomfortable that there are people from Ohio here (or there) this time? What exactly am I trying to say?

I abandon that direction on the grounds of uncertainty. Uncertainty is death, because I know that, when the time comes to speak, my brain will be unsure as to which words to send out. They may send them all out, in which case, my tongue will inevitably get confused.

“Which ones am I supposed to say?”

You can take this to the bank: Uncertainty under pressure equals babbling incoherence.

I try another direction. This time, it’s the endearingly “rowdy” approach. I start once again with the “real” set-up. But now it’s…

“We like celebrating special occasions in our backyard. We can drink as much as we want, ‘cause we don’t have to drive home.”

What the heck am I talking about? We’re not big drinkers.

“You are for this joke.”

It doesn’t make any sense. For the purposes of one joke, I have turned myself and my wife into two “Good Ol’ Boys” from Hee Haw. The joke, by implication, also suggests possible alcoholic issues with the weddings guests.

What exactly am I trying to do!

It’s not like I think this is Earl Pomerantz at the Comedy Store. (And when I do, I remind myself it’s not.) I have stories coming up. About Anna and Colby. Funny stories. Touching stories. My toast is ninety per cent them, at least, “them” as I see them. I’m okay with what I’m going to say. I just have to get past the opening.

If only you could start in the middle.

I am now trying something else. My new approach is funny enough, and has the advantage of being safe, because it’s self-deprecating. This has always been my comedic “’fall back’ position.” When it doubt, make fun of Earl.

Finding alternate solutions is another lesson I believe is valuable to writers. Every time you think “I can’t think of anything else”, you can. It’s just a question of time. And really hating what you’ve already got.

I hope people making toasts and speeches can benefit from this post. If not, there is always the enjoyment of watching a deranged Jewish fellow, losing his mind.

Friday, August 26, 2011

"Inflationary Hearing"

This is one of those “know it all” posts, which you can skip, if you don’t care for that kind of thing, at the risk, of course, of missing out on some startlingly transformative insight. It’s up to you.

One of my all-time favorite comedians is Victor Borge. Borge emigrated from Denmark and, as he said in his act,

“There was a time, after I’d been in America for a while, when I’d forgotten all my Danish, but I hadn’t learned any English.”

For me, that sets the standard for surreal and breathtakingly original comedy.

Borge continually interrupted his intention to play the piano with humorous observations and “set piece” comedy bits, among them, a comedy routine he called, “Inflationary Language.”

The premise of “Inflationary Language” was that, as a result of inflation, the price of everything had gone up. Borge believed that our language had not kept pace with this reality, and as a result, the words we used required commensurate inflating.

He demonstrated how this would work with a rather dry reading, during which he reformulated words by “inflating” their numerical components. “Forehead” now became “five-head.” “Wonderful” became “two-derful.” And “Anyone for tennis” was inflated to “Any two five eleven-is.” (He actually said, “Any two for eleven-is”, sacrificing accuracy for clarity.)

Time now for my illuminating analogy.

I think about how the two sides of the political spectrum’s antipathy towards each other makes them entirely unable to work together. On anything. Some of their refusal to cooperate is clearly strategic. If you don’t help the ruling side, they will fail, get voted out, and the non-cooperators, being the only available alternative, will inevitably take power.

Conversely, if you exploit the most extreme pronouncements of the opposition, they will remain marginalized, and, by virtue of your comparative reasonableness, you will have a better chance of remaining in charge.

It’s simply politics. Though it’s politics that places “partisan victory” over everything else, most significantly, the best interests of the country.

But there’s also another thing going on that invalidates cooperation as a viable option. Taking a cue from Victor Borge, I call it “Inflationary Hearing.”

It almost seems natural. People representing one side of an issue hear their ideological opponents say something and instantly, something happens in their brains that causes them to “inflate” the threatening quality of what they’ve just been told. Not merely, as in “Inflationary Language”, upping the ante by a single digit – “before” becoming “be-five” – but taking some relatively mod├čest proposal and ratcheting it to “Code Red!”

A “Gun Control” advocate proposes, “We want to pass a law limiting the number of bullets in gun magazines to ten.” To the proverbial “reasonable person”, this is hardly an outrageous suggestion. Yet, to an NRA member, it is.

Why? Not because they’re inflexible, I suggest. It’s because the NRA member doesn’t hear, “We want to pass a law limiting the number of bullets in gun magazines to ten.” Engaging in “Inflationary Hearing”, what the NRA member hears is,

“We want to take away all your guns.”

The “Gun Control” advocate may, deep in their hearts, want to take away all the guns. But they realize that, in this country, with its Second Amendment to the Constitution – as least as it’s been interpreted by the current Supreme Court – this is entirely unrealistic. Instead, they, sincerely and in most people’s views, reasonably, suggest an idea that will make things marginally safer. And they immediately – you should pardon the expression – get shot down.

The “Gun Control” advocates’ response to the outright rejection of this reasonable proposal?

“Those ‘Gun Guys’ are crazy!”

They’re not crazy. They are merely victims of “Inflationary Hearing.”

It works both ways. Abortion opponents propose that if a minor wants to get an abortion, parental notification should be required. Enter “Inflationary Hearing”, and what do “Pro Choice” advocates hear?

“We want to outlaw all abortions.”

Despite passionate opposition, the reality is that abortion rights are legal, their legality having been decided by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade (1973), and subsequently affirmed in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). The question is, acknowledging the possibility of extreme situations where the parents are scary and/or dangerous, for which legal remedies could be devised, again, applying the ”reasonable person” standard, is “parental notification”, in itself, such an unreasonable proposition?

Absolutely. If you consider the “Inflated Hearing” version of the proposal.

Causing the anti-abortionists to complain,

“Those people are simply stubborn!” “And by the way, Godless!”

There is no question that people have good reason to be suspicious of “foot in the door” incrementalism, there being incontrovertible historical precedent for such concerns. An income tax was originally proposed specifically to defray the enormous expenses of the Civil War. Though the Civil War has been over for a hundred a forty-six years, we continue paying income taxes.

It happens.

Pinpointed legislation becomes a permanent arrangement. You do not have to be paranoid to be concerned.

Still…

“Hearing what has not been said” is not a healthy way to live. And it certainly doesn’t help get things done that, in one way or another, desperately need doing,

I don’t know. Maybe it’s just a matter of trust. In believing that the things people say are precisely what they mean, rather than succumbing to the feverish exaggerations our brains reflexively turn them into.

People believe different things. That’s troublesome enough to deal with. But tackling difficult issues becomes totally unworkable, when “Inflationary Hearing” interprets sensible suggestions as “all or nothing” demands, making compromise, or simply listening, feel like traitorous surrender.

(If I’m “over-the-top” there, chalk it up to “Inflationary Writing.”)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

"Powder"

When I went there, and most likely still, the University of Toronto was divided into several colleges, the one I attended being University College. That sounds redundant to me – university college. Though this is not totally unexpected in a city that has a street called Avenue Road.

Every year, University College staged their traditional revue, the “U.C. (University College) Follies.” My older brother was in it when he went there, and I wanted to be in it too. That seems to be the way that works. At least, in my family.

I don’t know what happened the first year, they may have skipped it for some reason, or I just didn’t notice. But during my second year, I decided to try out for the show. It was scary, but within my comfort zone, unlike trying out for the weightlifting team, which I took a pass on entirely. I had performed in shows at camp, and had always been well received. How different could this be? From a show standpoint, university was just camp without the lake.

I showed up for the audition. I knew nobody there. I learned that a pre-med student had written the songs. The sketches had been written by a Liberal Arts student. His name was Lorne Michaels. Well, actually it wasn’t. His name was Lorne Lipowitz. But trust me, it’s the same guy.

Unable to bring the written material to life, I ultimately failed the audition. I did, however, leave an indelible impression, tapping into my nervous energy to get big laughs from not getting any laughs at all. I was rejected for the show. But I was not forgotten.

The script was short, and Lorne was desperate for material. He called my brother, whom Lorne did not know beyond the fact that my brother had been a huge hit in an earlier edition of the “Follies”, and he asked him if he had any sketches that might be appropriate for the show.

As luck would have it, my brother had been collaborating with a man named Bernie Orenstein, who, at the time, managed the Seaway Hotel, but would later enjoy a successful writing and producing career in Hollywood. My brother told Lorne that he and Bernie had recently written a “blind date” sketch, and he would be happy to let Lorne use it. On one condition:

“You have to put my brother in the show.”

Remembering I was funny, just not with his material, Lorne readily agreed. And so, along with a self-written monologue, I performed the “blind date” sketch in “U.C. Follies – 1965.”

The response was…well, I did pretty good.

The “blind date” sketch involved a series of phone calls, chronicling a nerdy guy ‘s misguided efforts to procure himself a date. I no longer remember the details, but I recall one line, where the guy inadvertently calls up a nun, and before hanging up, he desperately inquires,

“Sister…do you have a sister?”

Another highlight of the routine involves the guy having received a prospective date’s phone number an indeterminately long time ago. Mustering the courage to call her, the guy takes out his wallet, extracts a small slip of paper from it, he unfolds the paper, stares at it moment, and then he blows on it, raising a huge cloud of what is presumably dust.

That’s the funny part, the dust indicating that the slip of paper has been in his wallet for quite some time.

To simulate dust, the prop people – who, for this assignment, were two girls – loaded the slip of paper with moundette of baby powder. I blew on it, the “dust” rose up from the paper – big laugh.

U.C. Follies ran for three nights. And every night before going on, I would double-check to make sure they’d remembered the powder. This is “Preparation 101”, a trapeze artist examining his ropes. This is important. You blow on a slip of paper with no powder on it – there is no “dust”, and no laugh. The powder has to be there.

On our third and last performance, the prop girls, told me that I did not check the baby powder. I, understandably, asked why. The girls assured me the powder was in place, there was no need for me to bother.

What followed was an extended interaction, wherein I insisted on seeing the baby powder for myself, and the prop girls insisted I didn’t need to. Why did I have to look, they complained. Didn’t I trust them? I assured the girls that I did, but I still needed to check. In the end, though not before things got pretty unpleasant, I prevailed.

When I unfolded the slip of paper, I discovered it contained about four times the appropriate amount of baby powder. It turned out, the prop girls had concocted a “surprise” for me. I would unfold the slip of paper onstage, blow on it, and I would immediately disappear inside a billowing obscuration of baby powder.

The prop girls were very upset. I had “ruined everything”, they complained. It was just a joke. And I was a really bad sport.

The prop girls had not intended to be malicious. I actually think they liked me, their practical joke, a secret show of genuine affection. I felt like an idiot. No wonder I couldn’t get a date. And not just in the sketch.

In retrospect, had I allowed the prank to proceed, I might have risen to occasion by spontaneously “playing the moment.” I might have exploited the “surprise”, with a frozen “take” directed straight to the audience, eventually raising my “pointer” fingers to my eyes, and employing them as windshield wipers for my powder-caked glasses.

Or I could have gone the “unruffled”, Oliver Hardy route, retaining my dignity as I slipped off my glasses, delicately removed the debris from the lenses, and then returned them to position, offering the image of a man sporting spotless glasses over a Kabuki-white face.

Things could have been done. But I went the other way.

Once, at camp, I overheard two girls who, with me, were a team, assigned to writing cheers for some special event, and I‘d snapped at them when they were kidding around.

“Why does he take this so seriously?” one girl angrily inquired.

“Because to him” the other girl explained, “it is.”

To me, it was always serious. If I’d felt differently about it, I’d most likely have had more fun. I might even have done a better job. But that wasn’t me. And it probably isn’t me today.

I still have to check the powder.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"Take Two"

When computers first began to appear, I was seriously taken by the “Undo” button. With this key function, you could, say, delete something, and by hitting the “Undo” button, the material would magically reappear, often with a look of smirking vindication saying,

“We knew you’d miss us.”

You couldn’t do that before. How many times had I lost some filed-away notes or some perfectly executed scene, and tried to duplicate the missing material, only to produce, at best, a broken teacup, glued back together, but nowhere close to the original. The “Undo” button offered freedom from such frustration. You got the original back, exactly as it was.

(And then, on occasion at least, you read it over, and you realized that it wasn’t, in fact, that great. Still, at least the “Undo” button’s returning it from oblivion gave you the opportunity to see that for yourself. And face some serious questions about your purported, but now proven not always reliable, impeccable judgment.)

I thought the “Undo” concept was wonderful. A legitimate second chance. If only you could do that with life.

How great it would be to be able to “Undo” some embarrassing behavior or slips of the tongue. Or get a “do-over” at a substandard performance, where you missed the “sweet spot” of the moment, grounding harmlessly to the pitcher.

First impressions that we’re told mean so much? You could have any number of them, continually “Undoing” till you get it just right. The pressure would be off. No more, “It’s now or never!” Maybe just knowing that would relieve the tension, the lowered heat letting you more easily “nail it” on the first try.

Or would it? (This is my mandatory “opposite argument” paragraph.) Maybe it’s the pressure born from the awareness that you only have one shot at it that triggers the adrenalin that maximizes your performance, with the additional benefit of an upgrade in confidence, resulting from the awareness that you came through in the clutch. With the “Undo” button, there is no “clutch.” Because there’s always another chance. (Thank you for your time. I will now return to the original argument, having paid my dues to intellectual scrupulosity.)

What it comes down to is percentages – how many times you wish you could have taken something back versus how many times you rose to the occasion. I don’t know about you, but, for me, it’s not even close. I fought a baboon in Africa, and that’s about it. The preponderance of my past experience leans heavily towards, “Man, if I only I could do that again.”

That’s why I thought – as I said when computers first came out – that the “Undo” button was such a powerful metaphor, something, as a result – metaphors being literary devices – I might employ specifically in my writing.

As it happened, I was at that time writing episodes for the first season of Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories (1985). Having delivered two episodes that had been highly praised, I received a phone call, inviting me to a gathering, where a flatteringly few number of writers would join Mr. Spielberg in a two-day “pitch session”, during which we would come up with all the story ideas for the following season.

I was very excited to be included. I mean, this was Steven Spielberg, and his almost equally “Midas Touch” stable of writers. It would be an honor to work with them. It was a thrill just to set foot in Spielberg’s compound on the Universal lot. It was designed to look like the Alamo. If the Alamo had Jaws money.

My mind immediately went to work. Not surprisingly, the first idea that popped up was The ‘Undo’ Button. A congenital bumbler discovers that his new “Word Processor” includes a button that not only “Undoes” the mistakes in his text, but also provides him with “second chance” opportunities with his boss, his domineering mother and, most significantly, a young lady for whom he desperately pines, though, sadly, their “one-on-one’s” have been less than memorable, unless by “memorable”, you mean disastrous. Now he can perfect his performances.

With this, and one other idea sketched out, I was ready for my meeting. In the meantime, however, I had contacted my agent, inquiring as to the appropriateness of participating in an arrangement, where produceable ideas are being generated, but in which nobody is being paid. I’m not talking “break the bank” amounts here. An acknowledging “Consulting Fee.” Something.

My agent agreed that the situation was unusual, but left the decision to me. Before deciding, I asked my agent to “float the idea” concerning the possibility of compensation.

The result of my agent’s contacting Spielberg’s company about my proposal was that my request for payment was rejected, and my invitation to the gathering was revoked. I was also not invited to write any of the second season’s episodes.

Leaving me thinking, then, and as I revisit the situation today, how differently things might have gone if there actually were an “Undo” button in life.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"Countdown To A Wedding - 'Second Position'"

It is possible to view my daughter’s upcoming wedding – now less than two weeks away – as a runaway train. But that would not be right. The wedding is not a runaway train. It’s a train coming straight at me.

I’m not talking about the logistics. That is a runaway train. I am talking about what the wedding actually means. And by that, I of course mean, to me.

There’s this situation in show business. You want this actor to be in your pilot, but they’re under contract to another pilot, or to a series that may or may not get picked up.

This actor is perfect for the role you are trying to cast. But the only way you even have a shot of getting them is if you sign them to a contract, in the hope that, if there’s a God in heaven, the other project will somehow fall through. This contract process is known as taking the actor in

“Second Position.”

This term came to mind because, we were at lunch with another couple recently, and the woman, a colleague of Dr. M’s, was describing what it means to a Dad when their daughter marries. She’s informing me, with what I detect as barely hidden glee, that, when their daughter gets married, suddenly, the Dad finds himself in

“Second Position”

I thought psychologists were supposed to be sensitive. Maybe that’s just when they’re on the clock.

This is not the first time I find myself in “Second Position.” For almost thirty-five years, I’ve been a Step-Dad to Dr. M’s daughter, Rachel. “Step-Dad”, especially when the Dad remains in the picture, is the “Poster Child” for “Second Position.”

Rachel is a joy, but “Second Position” is nobody’s “Position of Choice.” And in this case, it’s even more challenging. As the Step-Dad, you’re in “Second Position” from the get-go. Here, it is literally,

“Step aside.”

It’s not easy, giving up “First Position.” After a lifetime of memorable, her-and-me “bonding moments.”

Holding her when she was just born, and she’s crying her head off, and I didn’t know what to do.

“Potty Training.” Where I looked away for a second, and she toppled from the toilet, and landed on her head.

Taking a shortcut to the Santa Monica Pier and ending up having to walk across the freeway.

And many, many, many more.

I am no fan of change. That was never more obvious than when, on the morning we were dropping her off at college on the other side of the country, I stepped on an expensive pair of sunglasses, and I brushed my teeth with BENGAY.

Change is a coin toss, and I prefer not to gamble. I ate Spoon Sized Shredded Wheat for breakfast for thirty-five years. It was the perfect cereal. No sugar. Stayed crunchy in milk. Nutty flavor. I never varied. It was always Spoon Sized Shredded Wheat.

Then my acupuncturist, Dr. Tan, put me on a Gluten Free diet, and it was goodbye, Spoon Sized Shredded Wheat. Okay, it turned out that I really liked oatmeal, so the “changing cereal” thing worked out, but this is hardy the same.

Cereal doesn’t get a busy life and forget about you.

Cereal doesn’t move away for a job.

Cereal doesn’t have a kid. A kid. Perfect. Now I’m in “Third Position.”

It is going to get worse!

Hey, knock it off, will ya? You and Anna have a special relationship. If you mattered before, you’ll always matter. That’s just the way it is.

Sure. Just what I need right now. Reason!

This is a joyous occasion…

I know that. Please stop talking.

There’ll be no answers in this post. This is a work in progress. But I better work fast.

There’s a train on the horizon.

And it’s barreling my way.

Monday, August 22, 2011

"Uncle Irving"

Writing recently about my cousin Mosey ("A Nine Year-Old's Idea Of A Good Deed") brought to mind a considerably closer relative, my Dad’s youngest brother, my delightful, funny and pleasure-loving Uncle Irving. My memory of his remarkable passion for life reminds me of his recalling some particularly delicious Italian ice cream he’d once tasted, and watching his face explode with Epicurean rapture.

When my Dad died, it was my Uncle Irving who stepped into the surrogate male- parental breach. It was he who responded to my birthday present desires, even when, as a pre-teen, and a fan of a then current TV western, I requested a Bowie knife. Uncle Irving got me one. Though, I suppose for safety sake, it was a considerably smaller replica of the one Jim Bowie wielded so heroically on his show.

(Remember the “Jim Bowie” theme song, that began,

He roamed the wilderness, unafraid

From Natchez to Rio Grande

With all the might of his gleaming blade

He fought for the rights of man.

Jim Bowie, Jim Boweeeee…

If you’re under a hundred, this will probably mean nothing to you.)

My Uncle Irving was a playful pincher, and slightly naughty joke teller.

“You know what comes out of an elephant’s penis when he gets excited?”

“What?”

“The wrinkles.”

My Uncle Irving was also, apparently, prescient. For my Bar Mitzvah, he (and my marvelous Auntie Bea) presented me with a pale green Olivetti portable typewriter. When I left for Hollywood, that typewriter went with me, where I used it to tap out my first freelance script assignments. I did not replace it until, after a number of unpaid audience warm-up performances, I was awarded an IBM Selectric Two (with Correct-Tape). Though, to this day, I retain my Bar Mitzvah-present typewriter.

After my paternal grandmother (Uncle Irving’s mother) curtailed her mega-Seders, Uncle Irving presided over more intimate Passover gatherings, rewarding the male members of the family’s robust singing and participation with Tuero cigars, wrapped in paper-thin balsa wood, and sheathed in silver metal cylinders.

I never experienced Uncle Irving less than boisterously congenial. Except when, for reasons now forgotten, I visited him at his workplace, our family-owned dry goods store, which he took over after my father’s passing, and discovered a tense and surly man that I barely recognized. This eye-opening experience gave me a vision of what the burden of responsibility can do to you that I unfortunately assimilated all too well.

But primarily, Uncle Irving conjures joyous memories, my favorite being rare but exhilarating excursions to Toronto Maple Leaf hockey games on Saturday nights, a designation known far and white as “Hockey Night in Canada.”

What was it like? Fenway Park. Wrigley Field. Maple Leaf Gardens. Same idea. Same feeling. Chills. And not because it was winter.

One particularly outing leaps memorably to mind. My Uncle Irving took me to a game, accompanied by a friend and contemporary of his, named Victor. The night was shimmering perfection. Three guys at a hockey game. And one of them was me.

I was, maybe, ten.

The game’s going on. I am almost too excited to breathe. Finally, it’s time for food. I hear my eager little boy’s voice chirp, “I’ll get it!”

Uncle Irving and his friend Victor share a look. “Do you think he can handle it?” Finally, they relent. (It's most likely they were playing with me, but when you're a kid, or at least me as a kid, you don't know the difference.)

Uncle Irving entrusts me with a five-dollar bill, and they rattle of their orders. It is my job to commit them to memory. Who wants mustard, who wants relish, what kind of soft drinks they prefer, how many “peanuts”?

“Can your remember all that?”

“Sure.”

And off I go. My goal is to purchase and bring back the food, while missing as little of the game as possible.

I am very excited.

I’m in line at the Concession Stand, impatiently awaiting my turn. Finally, I’m at the counter, repeating my order exactly as I’d rehearsed it. Fifty or sixty times.

The refreshments are brought, I pay, and off I race, back to the seats, my mission impeccably accomplished.

Except for one thing.

I had forgotten the change.

More than two of the five dollars I had been given.

I immediately panic. What should I do? If I return to the Concession Stand and say, “I forgot the change”, would they believe me, or say, “Get outta here, kid!”

Could I handle a dispute with a grown-up? I knew, to my shame, I could not.

But there was also shame waiting for me back at the seats.

“I forgot the change.”

Shaking heads and heaving sighs of regret.

“What a baby.”

“We should never have let him do it.”

I did not relish that moment of reckoning. For a moment, I considered disappearing. Just “Poof!”

“And he was never seen again.”

It was magical thinking. Though the unreality did not exclude it from consideration.

I had no choice. I would return to Uncle Irving, and take my medicine.

I am at back at the seats. Uncle Irving relieves me of the refreshments, doling the appropriate portions to his friend. I see smiles and hear compliments.

“A perfect job,” I am told. They are about to learn otherwise. On the verge of confession, I hear my Uncle’s voice continue:

“And for doing so well, Nephew, you may keep...

The change.”

I remember nothing about that game. Who the Leafs played that night. Who won. I recall only one thing.

I had miraculously dodged a bullet.

And for that I was truly content.

I was in California when my Uncle Irving died, at the hideously young age of forty-seven. I did not get to say goodbye, or thank you.

In some small but, hopefully, meaningful way, I have tried to make up for that today.

-----------------------------------------------

An extra special shout-out today to my brother on his "big number" birthday.

My brother taught me many important lessons, perhaps the most important being, when you're crossing the street, you should always look the driver of the car headed in your direction straight in the eye, rather than ignoring them and counting on their doing the right thing. I have followed that advice, and, as yet, have not been run over.

Thank you for keeping me alive. And for numerous other favors as well.

Happy birthday.







Friday, August 19, 2011

"You Can't Go Back"

At a recent screening of City Slickers where he appeared, comedian Billy Crystal talked about the possibility of returning to the Oscars, which he had hosted eight times between 1990 and 2004. Crystal admitted that the enthusiastic reception he’d received for his cameo performance at the most recent Oscars had made him “itchy.”

The story reminded me of a moment I remember from camp. After a few years’ absence, a former swimming instructor named Paul returned to camp for an overnight visit. Paul had been extremely well liked.

In the morning, after breakfast, the traditional “Sing-song” was held, where we sang a bunch of songs before “Clean-up”, the scheduled time when campers went back to their cabins and cleaned them up. Everyone wanted “Sing-song” to last as long as possible, less because they liked “Sing-song” than because they hated “Clean-up.”

Now, a number of people – both campers and staff – had certain specific songs that were identified with them, and when those songs were included in that morning’s “Sing-song” repertoire, the person associated with that song would be enlisted to come up in front of the camp, and lead it.

Having your own song to lead was a special honor. Not everybody had one. I had a song. My brother had a song. Paul, the visiting swim instructor, also had a song. Paul’s song was “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.”

Oh, the buzzin’ of the bees in the cigarette trees, near the soda water fountain

At the lemonade springs where the bluebird sings

On the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

It’s a nice song. And when he was at camp, Paul used to lead it during “Sing-song”. The thing is, Paul hadn’t been at our camp for some time, and after he left, “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” kind of fell out of the playlist.

Now, since he was visiting – and since, I guess, one of the old-timers remembered – Paul was called upon to once again lead us in his song, and he graciously agreed. I remember watching him, as he got up from his seat, and excitedly headed to the front.

Paul had a girlfriend named Linda, whom he subsequently married. Linda was still working at camp, and she knew what was what. To this day, I can hear her anguished voice, as, calling after her boyfriend, she semi-cried,

“They don’t know it!”

She was right. We didn’t.

It was an uncomfortable moment in “Sing-song.”

Though he may feel “itchy”, Billy Crystal should not return to host the Oscars.

He had his “song” – call it his comedic sensibility – that people really liked.

But they don’t know it anymore.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

"Branded"

No, this is not about the 1965 western series starring Chuck Connors whose theme song began,

All but one man died

There at Bitter Creek

And they say he ran away

Branded!

Marked with a coward’s shame

What do you do when you’re branded?

Will you fight for your name?

Though it could be. I remember that show very well. (By the way, when I went to the website offering the Branded theme song video – to double-check the lyrics; I was letter perfect, by the way. Not bad for forty-six years – I learned that over three hundred and fifty thousand people had accessed that website before me.

Over three hundred and fifty thousand “hits! For a marginally successful – it ran for two seasons – cowboy show! And I still can’t get publishers to believe that a book about westerns can be popular. Grumble, grumble, grumble.)

All right. I am moving my vitriol in a different direction. I looked up “branded” in the dictionary, but I didn’t like any of the definitions, meaning, they didn’t fit what I’m talking about. They’re more about burning somebody’s skin with some identifying signifier. My concern does not involve skin mutilation. The branding is more of a subliminal nature.

A personal example:

About five years ago, I was hired by my friend, John Markus, to serve as the warm-up man for a barbecue contest, which was being shot in front of a live audience. My assignment was to fill in the gaps, keeping the folks in the bleachers entertained while the meat was cooking. It was no easy task.

“The pork shoulder will be finished in four-and-a half hours. So we have a little time to talk.”

A participant on one of the barbecue teams – they cooked in teams, though I could not tell you why; most of the activity seemed to involve standing around the cooker, waiting for the timer to go off. Anyway, a contestant who interested me – I had received printed “bios” on all the participants – was an amateur barbecuer, whose real job was being a tenured professor at Dartmouth, whose area of expertise was something called, “Public Policy.” I had no idea of the distinction?

“What’s ‘Private Policy’?”

“We are not permitted to say.”

I wanted to talk to the guy, learn something about “Public Policy”, and maybe share some of my political ideas, especially my long-time favorite:

“Every time a candidate disparages the other side, or exaggerates their own side’s virtues, they come off sounding like a typical politician, driving away not only the people who disagree with them, but also those vitally important independent voters, sensitive to the telltale signals of “business as usual.”

Hardly a wackadoodle concept, is it? I have wondered why no one in politics seemed to take that into consideration, and I was hoping, as a “Public Policy” expert, the Dartmouth professor might informatively weigh in on the matter. I imagined a stimulating and illuminating conversation with the man.

So, during a lull in the action – I believe they had temporarily run out of charcoal – I went over and introduced myself. The professor was neither cordial nor gruff. His mind was, understandably, on his barbecuing, but unlike other contestants – like “Bad Byron” Chism, who hawks “Bad Byron’s Butt Rub” on the Internet – he made minimal effort to be friendly.

After some preliminary “buttering up” – “I hear Dartmouth is a pretty good school.” “You must have to be pretty smart to teach there.” – I segued into my primary thesis about campaigning strategies that seem, to me, to drive potential voters away, rather than attracting them with a reasoned and respectful treatment of the issues.

Pretending to be busy, the professor totally blew my off, treating my words as if they were an annoying buzzing in his ears that he wished would, hopefully sooner than later, fly away and torture somebody else.

What was the reason for such treatment? Easy. The man was a distinguished professor at an Ivy League university, and I was a warm-up man at a barbecue contest. The professor had thus branded me:

“Not Worthy of his Valuable Time”,

Turning my considered opinions into an irritating hum.

Getting the neon-bright “Get away from me, Boy” signals, I cut short the conversation, and walked away. If I’d had a tail, it would definitely have been between my legs.

Twenty minutes later,

The professor bounds up to me. All smiles and excitement.

“I know who you are. I Googled your name. You’ve got quite a reputation.”

Everything had suddenly changed. I was no longer an easily dismissible Person of the Periphery. The professor’s research had led to my “re-branding.” I was now,

“Somebody Worth Talking To.”

Do you see what I’m gettin’ at here? Objectively, I was the same person. A person whose ideas merit consideration, or they don’t. But “Professor Barbecue” wasn’t working on that level. He was responding, on both occasions, to the branding, which, in my case, was

First,

“ A ‘nobody’.”

Then twenty minutes later,

“A ‘somebody’.”

Nothing had changed. Except for the brand.

You can’t do that. At least, not to me.

I tried to be polite. But "affable" and "generous with my time" were no longer on the menu.

Which is, perhaps, understandable, but ultimately just as stupid. I never got to talk to the guy. My opinions were never tested. I might easily have learned something. If only I’d have been able to see past his brand, at least the one I nailed him with:

“Intellectually Snobby Asshole!”

It’s been five years, and the incident still pisses me off.

I wonder what that brands me now.