Monday, December 31, 2012

"Another Way Of Making Yourself Miserable"

The doorbell rings.  I go downstairs and am met by a pretty UPS Delivery Woman.  She has a “screener” (complimentary DVD) for me, and I have to sign for it.

I recognize the UPS Delivery Woman, as she had also brought me (because I’m a member of the Writers’ Guild) the “screeners” prior to last year’s Awards Season.  You always had to sign for them; that’s how I knew the UPS Delivery Woman was pretty.  If you were not required to sign for them, I would never have seen her.

This story is not about the pretty UPS Delivery Woman.  Although in my fantasy…well, we’ll leave that alone.

A lonely old writer…

Stop it!  Imagine what they’ll think of you!

You’re right.  Sorry.

This story is, however, the most recent addition to my seemingly endless list of ways of making yourself miserable.  And it’s not even about me.  That’s how sensitive I am. 

I am so plugged in to the “making yourself miserable” process, I find myself attuned to ways for complete strangers to make themselves miserable…in situations where mentally healthy people would be feeling buoyantly happy. 

This is the elite form of for “making yourself miserable”:  a situation which, objectively, should fill you with exultation and delight but, instead, it does exactly the opposite.  Here’s how it works.

WARNING:  This should not be tried by amateurs.  You could easily put your eye out.

Okay, let’s start with this, (which for those of you scoring at home is the origin of this post.)  For the first time since “screeners” have been sent out, this year, I have received a number of them directly through the mail, mixed in with the catalogues, bills and solicitations for charitable donations to help cure diseases I am almost certain to someday come down with. 

Before this year, all the “screeners” were delivered via UPS, and – further signifying their importance – they all had to be signed for.

What my mind immediately gloms onto to is the fact that, for the first time, this year, we have a distinct hierarchy of “Screener Delivery Systems” – “screeners” a regular Postal Employee stuffs into your mailbox, and “screeners” brought directly to your door that you have to sign for.

This two-tiered arrangement sets the whole ball of grievance, bile and resentment rolling in my twisted little brain.  (In this case, second-hand grievance, bile and resentment, as, having fallen below the minimum requirement of Writing Award Season inclusion – that being, you have to have written something – I am feeling that grievance, bile and resentment, not for myself who will be nominated for nothing, but on behalf of others.)

To me, the newly instituted dual method of “screener” delivery suggests a delineable “pecking order”, wherein those of more elevated status (and/or perceived commercial value) receive demonstrably loftier treatment. 

This is hardly paranoia.  The evidence is staring you in the face.  You just have to be crazy enough to notice it.  Or care.

Top-Of-The-Line Treatment:  a DVD embedded in a graphically-designed cardboard case, accompanied by a script printed on high gloss paper and including multiple pages of colorful photography, delivered by hand and you have to sign for it. 

This is how I recently received Judd Apatow’s This Is Forty, Apatow, through his numerous box-office successes, ranking at the top of the moviemaker “A-List”, even if they didn’t go alphabetically.  (“Apatow”, get it?  God!  If you have to explain them…)

Big shots get the big shottiest treatment.  And it goes downhill from there:

Script and DVD.  But it came in the mail. 

Screenplay in the mail only.  (No DVD.) 

DVD in the mail only. (No screenplay.) 

DVD in the mail only, embedded not in graphically-designed cardboard case, but slipped into a flimsy paper envelope. (How very sad.)

And down we continue to go:

Paper Options – varying from scripts printed on expensive glossy paper to scripts duplicated on Xerox-paper to mini-scripts duplicated on only half sheets of Xerox-paper to scripts typed on recycled grocery bags.  Funky, but cheap.

Movie Options:

- A standard DVD. 

-  A “zip drive” version that you can slip in and watch on your computer. 

- A letter that comes in the mail informing you of a “link” where you can access the movie and watch it on your computer. 

- An announcement of a “link” where you can access the movie that arrives via e-mail, nestled between a sales pitch from Fandango and an “Urgent Message From the National Rifle Association.

And, arguably the lowest rung of all (excluding not sending out anything): 

A link to not the movie but the screenplay of the movie that you can read on your computer.  They did not even spring for paper.  Not even the “recycled grocery bag” kind.

I mean, just look at the disparity!  I defy anyone to absorb such transparent personal insults and still say, “How nice; they’re promoting my movie for an award.”  From DVD plus a screenplay printed on expensive glossy paper including multiple pages of color photography to a link you can click on to access a screenplay you can read on your computer.  (Or print up, if you are willing to expend a hundred-and-twenty or so sheets of your own paper.)

“It’s outrageous!”, I protest on behalf of others.

There are also screenings you can go where you can watch the movie in a theater.  Since I have rarely attended one, I cannot attest to the varying classiness of the venues. But if the preceding spread is any indication, there’ll be venues in Beverly Hills, escalating down to theaters in neighborhoods one would be loath to venture into without packing heat.

All of this has nothing to do with the quality of the film; the “sliding-scale” awards push is a reflection of how much faith the studio has in it commercially.  Though even more so, it reflects the requirement on the part of the studio to shell out some noticeable bucks to assuage the “auspices”, so they’ll be willing to work with them again. 

A studio sends Judd Apatow’s latest effort out on a “zip” drive encased in a single sheet of “Printer Paper” with the words “FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION” typed on it, or makes it available via a “link” you receive on your e-mail, nestled between a Navajo jewelry ad and an “Urgent Message From Barbara Boxer”…

And Old Judd A. is makin’ his hit movies somewhere else.

Friday, December 28, 2012

"A Glimpse Behind The Curtain"

I am thinking that, every so often, it might be instructive to provide would-be writers, or people who are simply interested in the process, a peek at what’s involved in my providing blog posts on a regular basis.  So that’s what we’re doing today. (There is also a selfish explanation, which will be revealed in due course.)

Okay, now.  Everybody hold hands and imagine it’s two days ago, December 26th, 2012.  This is how it felt to be me facing this task on that particular day, the day after Christmas, Christmas being a day on which I had not written a blog post.  (By the way, you do not have to hold hands.  I just thought it would be friendly.  So here we go.  Whoo-oo-oo-oo.  Wavy lines.  We go back two days.)

A writer’s best friend is routine.  Well not their best friend – that sounds a little sad – but their most reliable adjunct…is routine.  It is not that is impossible to engage in regular writing without a routine.  But it really seems to help.  And if a regular routine helps me... 

Venn Diagram:  A regular routine helps me.  I am a writer.  A regular routine helps all writers. 

Auhgah!  Auhgah!  Defective Venn Diagram! 

The foregoing Venn Diagram example went from the specific to the general.  Successful Venn Diagrams go in the other direction!  I mean, come on, now.  That was just sloppy!

Okay, I’m sorry.   I need a routine when I write.  And it is conceivable that other writers – though not all of them – need a routine when they write as well.  Okay?


Thank you.  Why is a routine helpful for a writer?  Because a routine is calming, a routine is stabilizing.  The things you do before you start writing are already done; the things you do after you've finished writing will be done when you finish writing.  What remains is a circumscribed block of time allocated to the specific activity you are about to undertake.

“And now…we write.”

No diversions.  No interruptions.  It’s “Writing Time.”

The people around me respect my routine, and they leave me alone, which is another way that a routine assists in the process.  A regular – for me, five-day-a-week – writing routine constructs an impenetrable wall between me and the outside world, as in “Don’t bother him; he’s writing.”  You can see how that would dramatically cut down on intrusions – except for emergencies – creating the opportunity for more focused, and thereby, hopefully superior writing to be done.  

The routine must remain inviolately “The Routine.”  Imagine if I only wrote intermittently – when I felt like it – rather than routinely five days a week.  It seems to me that in that case I would be constantly I interrupted, if only to find out whether this was one of my “writing days”, or whether it wasn’t.  The situation would be intolerable.

Here’s what happens when I deviate from my routine.

Yesterday, I did not write.  It was Christmas.  Even though, from a traditional and/or religious standpoint, Christmas is – how shall I put it – somebody else’s business, I still refrain from writing on Christmas because people are less likely to spend time at their computers – engaged as they are in Christmasy activities – meaning they would be less available to check out Just Thinking, resulting in me wasting a perfectly good blog post on a tiny readership of atheists and shut-ins.  With apologies to both groups, it is simply not worth it.

So I didn’t write on Christmas.  And by so doing – or, more accurately, by so not doing – I decimated my routine.  Now, it’s December 26th, I am back at work, and I am sensing that the one-day interruption in my routine has indisputably taken its toll. 

The ideas are not…flowing.  In fact, there is nothing along the lines of “Hey, that would make an interesting blog post” arising at all.  I wrote on Monday.  I did not write on Tuesday because Tuesday was Christmas, and here it is Wednesday, and I can feel myself indisputably paying the price.

If Christmas had landed on Monday, for me, it would simply have been a long, non-writing weekend.  Since not writing on the weekends is a consistent element of my regular routine, not writing on one extra day of the weekend has never caused a problem.  Come Tuesday on such occasions, I am back at the computer, fresh and a daisy and ready to rock.

This year’s, “Tuesday Christmas”, however, had put a dent in not just one day, but in the surrounding days as well.  My piano lesson is regularly on Friday.  But my teacher had to play a Christmas party on Friday, so my piano lesson was moved to Sunday.  I train at the gym on Tuesdays.  But Tuesday was Christmas, so we rescheduled the training for Wednesday.  Which then required me to move my traditional “Wednesday Walk” to Thursday. 

Do you see what’s happening here?  My reliable routine has been entirely discombobulated.  Friday is Sunday, Tuesday is Wednesday, and Wednesday is now Thursday. 

On top of that – this is going to sound weird – but I am also messed up due to the fact that, this holiday season, the routine interruption in my regular routine also did not occur.  The thing is, not only do you – or at least I and conceivably other writers as well – need a regular routine, you also need predictable interruptions in that routine, not just to recharge your batteries, but because, since those interruptions occur at the same time every year, you have long since factored them into your regular routine. 

Every “Christmas Week”, for pretty much the past thirty years, our family has embarked on a “Family Vacation”, primarily to Hawaii, but also to New York, and, one time, to London.  For multiple reasons, this “Christmas Week”, for the first time in decades, there was no “Family Vacation.”  

With the numerous disruptions and the one missing disruption in my routine going on, do you really expect me to sit down and write something?!?

I can’t do it!  Having deviated from my routine, my rhythm and concentration are entirely out of whack!  It’s impossible!

Unless I write about the difficulty of writing when my rhythm and concentration are entirely out of whack because I deviated from my routine.

Which is exactly what I have just done.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

"Too Big For My Bathing Suit - Part Two"

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

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

Okay, you’re caught up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had no idea!

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

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

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

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

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

What did I do instead? 


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

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

My only concern was getting those chairs.  

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

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

I had managed to do the impossible.  Turn a dream vacation into a Polynesian nightmare.  And why?  Because – God help me – I’d wanted more.
I took a final walk along the beach.  All around, I saw carefree families, frolicking in the sun. I made myself a promise. 

“Next time, I will do things differently.”

And then, very slowly, a nudging question started formulating in my mind.

“How do you get those cabanas?” 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

"Too Big For My Bathing Suit"

Due to a confluence of conditions, we are not vacationing in Hawaii this Christmas season.  But we're not entirely unhappy about that, the reason explained this (reprised) two-part post.  

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

And this one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

On this visit, things would be different.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was the etiquette in these matters?  Where were the guidelines?  Help me!  I’m lost!
My only hope was to seek out a mentor.  A Guru of beach-chair-bribing Graft. 

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

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