Tuesday, December 31, 2013

"Temperamental Determinism"

And those catchy titles keep a-comin!

During a commercial break in the football game I am watching, I switch over to Bill Moyers’ Journal on the Public Broadcasting System – because that’s just the kind of a guy I am – and I come upon this guy being interviewed about the book he has written.  The guy sports a black suit, a dark gray shirt, a black tie with white squiggles on it, hunched-up shoulders and an unsmiling expression on his face.

The moment I catch sight of him, as easily as I can determine – with impressive accuracy – U.S. Congressmen’s political affiliations on the basis of their haircuts – it’s a little harder with the women, but “Rule of Thumb”:  If their hair doesn’t move, they’re Republicans – I can predict with a near certainty Bill Moyer’s guest’s ideological proclivities.

The guy is a pessimist.  

And, as a consequence – and I will argue inevitably – his ideological proclivities will be predictably negative.

Sure enough, the title of the author’s book flashes on the screen.   It’s called “Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism.

I will not go into specifics here.  I will only say that his book is less than an upbeat assessment of the current status of America affairs.  (Two of his main points involve “human disposability” and the “culture of cruelty.”)  According to the book’s author, Henry Giroux, this country is in really terrible trouble.  (Unless we form a Third Party – never going to happen – or organize massive local protests across the country – ditto.) 

Just looking at him, I knew instantly that Mr. Giroux would not be delivering good news.  

Conversely, having read a positive appraisal of it in the New York Times Book Review section, I ordered a book entitled Undivided Past – Humanity Beyond Our Differences.  This time, I worked backwards, from the book’s thesis to the temperamental leanings of its author, David Cannadine.

Cannadine argues that the idea that groups that are unlike each other will inevitably cross swords can be successfully challenged by substantial historical evidence to the contrary. 

Though I have no definitive proof on the matter, I am betting that Mr. Cannadine is an optimist.  (One of his listed books in Wikipedia is “The Pleasures of the Past.”  Really?  The past had pleasures?  Those halcyon days of surgery without anesthetic?  Perhaps the past did have pleasures.  But it takes a real optimist to find them.)

As a welcome break from possibly meaningless conjecture, I am pleased to reveal a scientifically verifiable fact favoring pessimism.  Studies indicate – I know “studies indicate” is a cheesy smokescreen, but I am holding what is generally regarded as a losing hand here – studies indicate that pessimists have a more accurate view of reality than optimists do.

What these studies tell us that pessimists are not to be dismissed as annoying naysayers, they are actually providing a clear-eyed perspective on the world.  Optimists, on the other hand, although arguably more fun to be around, will deliver a description of a world that, in fact, does not actually exist. 

According to me (and Popeye) however, people should not be stigmatized for either perspective, because the truth is we cannot, in fact, help ourselves.  We are what we are.  (Or as Popeye would put it, “We yams what we yams.”)

My entirely non-scientific view is that we are fundamentally wired “optimist” or “pessimist” from birth.  We can, it seems to me, investigate this hypothesis by asking mothers what their grown children were like when they were infants – fussy or easy-going? – and then compare that assessment with the way those children ultimately turned out.  My money – boy, I am throwing a lot of money around today – is on temperamental consistency.

Here’s the thing then, “the thing” being my point.  A man writes that America is going to hell in a handbasket.  Another asserts that it is not inevitable for Christians and Muslims to want to wipe each other off the face of the planet.

The question is,

Are their observations accurate? 

In which case, we should give them serious consideration.

Or are their observations merely a natural consequence of their orientation to reality?

In which case it is simply, “What else would you expect?”

I believe that it is difficult to know what we are told is true because we cannot know if the reports we are receiving are accurate or merely the inevitable results of the way the reporters are biologically programmed.

Although, coming from me….

What else would you expect?
Happy New Year and best wishes to all.  And thank you for sticking with me.  I shall endeavor not to disappoint in 2014.  


Monday, December 30, 2013

"Anatomy Of A Moment"

This may be about me.  Or it may be about another guy.  Or it may be about an event.  Or it may be, and probably is, about all three.  I just happen to be the one writing about it.  I’ll bet the other people involved don’t even remember it.

The recollection (and retelling of this story) makes me feel good about myself, though you can be the judge of whether I am correct or mistaken in that regard.  Will I abide by your judgment?  Not necessarily.  Although it is more likely if you agree with me. 

Okay, so here we go.

Back in 1998, I was working on a half-hour comedy called Lateline, a parody of Nightline created by (now Senator) Al Franken and John Markus.  (Background:  Al had originally asked me to co-create the series with him, but I respectfully passed.  He then turned to John, whom I had originally hired as a writer on The Cosby Show.  Unlike myself, who lasted ten weeks, John remained on The Cosby Show for six seasons.  One reason their working situation was likely to be better was that Al and John both lived in New York City, while I lived in Los Angeles.  End of “Background.”)

One of the many joys of working on Lateline (aside from being put up in a luxury hotel during my six-month-long, ten-days-per-month visits to consult on the production) was getting to meet – and write dialogue for – some of the biggest names (at the time) in American politics, among them, one-time House Majority Leader (and Democratic primary candidate for president) Richard Gephardt, (Senator and 2004 candidate for president) John Kerry, (chairman of the House Financial Services Committee) Barney Frank and former Clinton Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich.  (None of whose appearances raised the show’s dismally low ratings a single point.)

Throughout his career, Saturday Night Live alumnus Al Franken had specialized in political satire, ultimately writing a number of best-selling books in that genre, including “Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot” and “Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them.”  But there was an unusual quality about Al.  Though an undisguised liberal, Al Franken got a big kick out of hanging out with conservatives.

Al would often regale us with stories of attending the seriously right-wing Christian Coalition conventions.  He also immensely enjoyed hobnobbing with convicted Watergate co-conspirator G. Gordon Liddy (whom Al affectionately called “G.”) 

Al’s approach with his political opposites was endearingly non-confrontational.  As a result, he was always welcome at their official gatherings.

Because of Al’s style, it was not at all surprising when one day, we received an unexpected visit from a high-profile conservative pollster – “conservative” or “liberal” pollster always seems like a contradiction to me.  Pollsters, by definition, ask questions and tabulate the answers.  To me, being a partisan pollster is like being New York Yankees umpire. 

(By the way, cultivating “high profile” connections was also an integral part of Al Franken’s M.O.  Believing that no one was” too big” to call upon, Al seriously considered the possibility of getting {Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright} Neil Simon to write an episode of Lateline, and asking Jerry Seinfeld to do the warm-up.  In both cases, he ended up with me.)   

Our Republican pollster-guest was Frank Luntz, then a rising star on the political firmament, who today plies his trade at the highest echelons of his party’s strategists.  This could be wrong, but I have frequently heard it reported that it was Frank Luntz who, at the time of President Obama’s first inauguration, spearheaded a group who determined that it was in the Republican Party’s best interests to oppose every policy on the president’s agenda. 

An expert on words and their consequences, Luntz also promoted replacing the term “Inheritance Taxes” (which Republicans are against) with the term “Death Taxes”, which sounds worse, and more unfair, since, there is no way of getting around them. 

Okay, so Frank Luntz walks into this conference room where Al and John and I are working on a script, and Al greets him enthusiastically.  Luntz is then introduced to John and myself, and we do our “nice to meet ya’s” and shake hands.  We are told that Luntz is a Republican operative.

John, habitually midwesternly collegial, immediately breaks the ice.  “So what are you working on, Frank?”, he inquires.  To which Frank Luntz says this:

“I’m working on ways of exploiting the damage to the president (Clinton) of the “Monica Lewinsky Scandal.”

At which point, I spontaneously blurt out,

“How did you ever get to be so scummy?”

As I have reported elsewhere, my question was met with dead silence, followed by some more dead silence, followed by a resumption of the conversation by the other three, as if my words had been imagined and believed spoken, but in fact, they had never been uttered at all.


I realize that it is impolite for a person to insult a stranger only seconds after meeting them.  My mother, a stickler for good manners, would certainly never have approved.  To this day, I cannot muster any great momentum for defending myself.  My blurtation was neither nice nor appropriate. 

The man is simply doing his job.

The thing is, it is a horrible, terrible, contemptible, detestable, disgusting, abominable and monumentally disreputable kind of a job.

In my opinion.

A president makes a mistake, and your assignment – to gain partisan advantage – is to make him pay for that mistake as much as is humanly possible, in order to, at the very least, immobilize the legislative process, or, at most, to incite a groundswell of negative public opinion, in hopes of pressuring the president to resign, or, even better, of getting the first president of the United States ever summarily booted out of office.

That’s what he does for a living.  Every morning, Frank Luntz gets up and goes to his office, to figure out ways to make things miserable for the duly elected leader of his country.

I know there are numerous ways of handling the situation that I found myself in, ranging from remaining silent to my uncontrolled eruption.  I am not looking for absolution here.  Nor am I pandering for praise.

I am simply curious.

Tell me.  Seriously,

What would you have done?
I would like to to a moment to acknowledge my father who passed away on this day in 1951.
I am warmed and deeply appreciative to the readers who sent along their "Desert Island Disc" selections.  For me, music, even more so than words, is interpersonally communicative.  To those who passed along their favorite songs, I feel like I know you a little better.  I thank you for the connection. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

"'Radio Earlo' - Part Six"

This one may be my favorite selection of all.

When I lived in Canada, I knew this guy who worked on the radio named Danny Finkleman.  Because of his job, Danny would frequently receive complimentary record albums, often, for some reason, more than one copy of the same LP (long-playing record.)  I don’t know why that happened.  Maybe they forgot they already sent him one.

Anyway, it turned out that Danny Finkleman had received more than one copy of this album, so he generously gifted an extra copy to me.  I immediately went home and slipped it onto my record player. 

As not uncommon for me, a certain cut from the album conspicuously stood out.  In fact, the rendition of that particular number grabbed me so hard, that after the first hearing of it, I played it over and over, seeming unable to stop. 

There was something electric about that number.  It spoke directly to what I, possibly incorrectly, identify as my soul.  In some inspirational way – and hopefully this is not too evangelical for you – the song – more specifically the performance of that song – momentarily, at least,

Set me free.

And now, without further ado, from her album entitled Pearl, Miss Janis Joplin, singing “Me and Bobbie McGee.”

I’ll be back on Monday with a tan.

And hopefully some stories to tell.

In the meantime, allow the music to carry you away.

Note:  When you click on the arrow, it's going to say "Cluck on YouTube."  I don't know what to do about that.  So please click.  I believe it'll be worth it.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

"'Radio Earlo' - Part Five"

This time - an instrumental offering - the background music from Local Hero (Holy crap!  Was it really1983?), composed by Mark Knopfler.

Local Hero is one of my favorite movies, and Knopfler’s film score, and particularly the musical theme, are substantial contributors to my overall enjoyment, and memory of the experience.

For the first two minutes, which start ethereally dreamily, take a look at the pictures if you want to see an enchanted country – the Northern shores of uppermost Scotland.

Then as the theme slams into full gear, close your eyes, and let the music wash over you, an inspired composition for a magical locale.


And maybe munch on a little haggis.

(Note: It's going to say "Click on Youtube."  Click on "YouTube."  I don't know how to get it to you any other way.)