Friday, January 31, 2014

"The Street Of My Distress"


“The Avenue Of My Distress” – which seems to flow better.


“The Avenue of Broken Bones.”

That’s how you rewrite until it gets terrible. 

Or maybe it’s not terrible, maybe it’s eye-catchingly commercial, reminiscent of the “Bob Hope” story I related recently demonstrating the difficulty of distinguishing between “Over the top” and “Right on the money.”

Pick a title, and we’ll move on.

Once again, my writer friend Paul and I have a dinner engagement.  I will meet him outside his condo, just south and slightly west of where I live, and we will walk down to Hal’s, located on Abbot Kinney (Avenue, or something) in Venice.

It is early-sunset winter dark.  (Yes, it does get dark in Southern California.  We cannot avoid all natural occurrences.)  We meet up on schedule (actually, I am a little late; the blanketing darkness made me unable to read the address numbers and I walked right past his condominium.)

Also, Los Angeles – and Santa Monica is perhaps even a greater culprit in this regard – is less than generous in its public street illumination.  A paucity of light stanchions and insufficiently watted bulbs.)

(Do you sense someone laying the groundwork for an impending legal action?)

We start south on Second Street, engaging in what I have no doubt is scintillating Wilde-Bernard-Shaw-worthy badinage when…

I catch my foot on something, and fall instantly to the sidewalk.

Let me quickly assure you that, happily, no lasting damage was incurred, although I did receive substantial bruising to my right knee, both hands, my forehead and my face.

So I’m okay.  As a child might put it, I simply “fell down and went boom.”  (And got up again and continued on the Hal’s, impressing my friend Paul by my fortitude in the process.  Sometimes, I am uncharacteristically courageous.  Plus, I feared medical attention in case something was actually wrong.) 

Truth is, I am hardly a stranger to toppling to the ground.  I have tripped and fallen before – I mean not every day but annoyingly often – on sidewalks, on hiking trails, stepping from a clodded dirt area onto pavement – any place where there is an uneven surface, a protruding tree root or a unexpected rock, there is a good chance I will wind up horizontal and bleeding. 

Why does this happen? 

Because the world is not always accommodatingly flat and smooth and I am, and for as long as I can remember I always have been, a chronic and congenital “Foot Dragger.”

I would bet that the differences are temperamentally inspired, but whatever the explanation, people walk differently.  Some people step lively.  Some people strut.  Some people skip (occasionally “to my Lou”.)  Some people take confident strides like their Daddy owns the company.  Some people flex their knees up high like they’re in a marching band playing “Seventy-Six Trombones.”

Me?  I shuffle along like Jean Valjean in his eleventh year of incarceration.

Accompanying this fatalistic amble has been, until just recently, a distinctly bowed head, directed not energetically forward but dropped in perennial deference to my “betters”, who, my lowered-head positioning suggests, is everybody.  I have found a lot of abandoned coinage that way, but my earthbound trajectory also made me appear older.  Even as a teenager, I looked seventy.

Now nearing seventy, I have made prodigious efforts to elevate my south-facing head positioning through judicious regimens of muscle strengthening, bodywork and pilates.  Today, my alignment is considerably improved my appearance.  (I look barely out of my fifties.)  But it comes with a price.  Since my upgraded configuration, I have not found a nickel on the ground, and looking ahead ‘stead of straight at my feet, I fell, ignominiously, down in the street. 

A scannable couplet that came accompanied by a ferocious black eye.

Fast Forward – I am on my traditional Wednesday morning walk, wearing oversized sunglasses so as no to frighten impressionable children.  As I proceed, I remain scrupulously watchful, so as not to duplicate my recent bellyflop to the pavement.

The Fourth Street sidewalk is a disaster.  Barely a flat spot to be seen, some of the unevenness stemming from maintenancal neglect, some, the result of the outreaching roots of the street-lining trees, forcing cracks and inconsistencies in the concrete slabs. 

I make a left onto Rose (on my way to the Groundwork coffee emporium) and that street’s even worse.  Canines bred for mountain rescue are skittering all over the sidewalk.  The pedestrianality is seriously precarious.  It’s like walking on ice.  (Which I thought I had gotten away from forever.)

Increasingly furious, I compose in my head an irate letter to the Santa Monica “Powers That Be”, articulate and well argued, demanding in a nutshell,

You’re a prosperous city.  Fix the damn sidewalks!”

Heading back from getting coffee, I decide to bypass the Fourth Street return route and trek down to Second Street, to investigate the “scene of the crime” and amass incontrovertible evidence for my position.  

I turn right at the corner and make my way north on Second Street.

And almost immediately, I notice – because it is impossible not to –

That Second Street is indisputably flatter and smoother than either Fourth Street or Rose.

And I mean for blocks!

No uneven sidewalk.  No protruding tree roots.  I did see one troubling pothole, but to get tripped up by that, you’d have to stick your toe into it, and I am a habitually “heel-toe” kind of a walker.

I felt crazily confused.  It was like one of those mysteries where you bring the cops back later and the body’s missing and the murder scene has been cleaned up.

I am not suggesting “foul play” here.  (Or am I?)  It’s just… from the perceivable evidence…

There was nothing to trip over on Second Street.

Any yet I still fell.

Any amateur sleuths in the audience?

Help me out here, will ya?
Okay, this is embarrassing.  I once wrote, with an agitated discomfort, about owning eleven belts. This one is far worse.

Merely five weeks after enjoying a luxurious vacation in Hawaii, we are leaving tomorrow for a week at this spa that we go to in Mexico.  The visions of this egregious excessiveness, and how it appears to strangers, are overpowering to me.  I feel agonizingly ashamed.  I am not looking for vindication here. It is simply the way it is.

The reason for these dual extravagances being so proximitous is that next Tuesday is my 69th birthday, and my selected celebrational treat is a week of comfortable seclusion (which I greatly prefer to a party), massages and pampering.  I also harbor the, I'm sure, fruitless belief that if I secrete myself at a remote location on my birthday, God will not know where I am.  I know that sounds desperate, but I am getting really old.

Since I do not engage in any of the exercise classes down there, and the lounge has wifi, I am hoping to provide daily dispatches from where I am.  At least that is the plan. If it doesn't work out, just  hum to yourselves till I get back.  Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is always a good choice.  I figure if I cannot perform for your amusement, the least I can do is provide humming suggestions.

I promise you I will never take two trips this close together again.  It's's my birthday.  Not an excuse.  Simply a mitigating explanation.

I will see you around.  When I will be another year older.      

Thursday, January 30, 2014

"A Man Confesses To A Deep, Dark Secret"

(Note:  This post was written on December 19, 2013.)

It’s an annual tradition. 

Throughout the entire month of December, the members of the Writers Guild receive complimentary DVD’s of what somewhere has been determined to be that year’s awards-worthiest movies. 

I am not certain of the precise purpose of this generosity.  I believe it has something to do with the Writers Guild Awards influencing the winners’ chances in the later, more important Oscars competition.  I will not, in fact, be voting for the Writers Guild Awards, but what the heck.  You get free stuff – you take it.

I have written before about the differing status levels of the various DVD packages that are sent out.  The bigger you are in the business, the more your employer flatters you with extravagant marketing, the “Platinum Presentation” including a the DVD of the movie accompanied by the screenplay plus a glossy promotional brochure, the sub-basement level of pampering represented by a printed message on a quarter of a sheet of paper informing the recipient how they can download the film’s script from the Internet. 

Even the delivery systems exhibit gradations of ego-servicing.  Some of these DVD what they call “screeners” arrive directly in the mail.  Others come hand-delivered and slipped quietly into your mailbox.  In the “Rolls Royce” version, a FedEx representative rings your doorbell demanding an electronic signature before surrendering the “screener.”

For the past at least three years, my recurring FedEx representative has been an eye-catching “looker” with a dazzling, Pepsodent smile.  If you happened to pass my front door when the signing and handover was taking place, you could have witnessed a man making a tongue-tied fool of himself in front of a politely disinterested uniformed stranger.

So, okay, December’s almost over, and the “screeners” are piling up – we have, to date, received close to a dozen of them.  The “prestige” movies of 2013 – American Hustle, Nebraska, Captain Phillips, Inside Llewyn Davis, and a handful of others, all of them, significantly, recent releases.  Nothing from the summer.  No Wolverine.  No Iron Man 3. 

And they wonder why nobody watches the Oscars.

“It’s the host.”

It’s the movies!

Sitting in our front hallway is an attractive wooden bench with arms on it.  At this moment, our stack of free movies can be found perched on one of those arms.  If any of our kids wants to borrow one to watch – we are a “Lending Library” with strictly enforced regulations – you take one home, and when you bring it back, you can take home another one.

Do we watch these “screeners” ourselves?

No we do not.

And why would that be?

I just paused in my writing.  I am about to make a difficult confession, triggering, you will agree when you discover what it is (unless you’re ahead of me and you already know what it is) an understandable moment’s hesitation. 

Imagine you have a friend whom you think you know well.  But there’s one thing they’ve held back due to deep-seated feelings of embarrassment and shame.  What is their unrevealed secret?

They can’t read.

Imagine how that non-reader feels harboring that secret.  That’s exactly how I feel harboring this updated version of the “Stain of Illiteracy.”

We have three DVD players in our house.

And we cannot reliably work any of them.

There.  Finally.  It’s out.

I know it’s not hard.  You change the setting on the TV to “Video…something else”, you insert the DVD, and you press “Play.”

But somehow

We cannot pull it off.

We don’t always fail.  But our efforts have been frustratingly uneven.  Sometimes, we press “Play”, we hear a distinct “whirring” sound, and then in this little window of the DVD player it says,

“No disc.” 

“There is a disc.  I just put it in!”

We do it again – “No disc.”  Do it again – “No disc.”  Do it a third time – “No disc.”  Finally, we eject the disc they keep telling us is not there,

And we go to bed.

Sometimes it, unexpectedly, works.  In the beginning.  But then, you’re watching the movie and suddenly, without warning, the picture dissolves into tiny, little pixels.  And it freezes!  Leaving us with a broken-up picture that’s not moving!  And before it goes totally silent, a soundtrack reminiscent of a deflating balloon.

What’s going on?

Is it the disc?  Is it the DVD player?  Is it us?  

What difference does it make?  We press “Fast Forward”, we press “Reverse”, nothing happens, we give up,

And we go to bed.

It’s humiliating!  We’re smart people.  I have a B.A. from an accredited university.  My wife has a PhD.  We have been known to accomplish things, some of them indisputably remarkable.  But, for the life of us, we cannot master that machine. 

And now… I don’t know, it’s like those people from the “horse and buggy” era, they tried driving a car, they experienced some traumatizing mishap, and from then on, it just sat there in the garage.

Fast Forward – I am having dinner with my writer friend Paul, and he starts asking me – because he gets them too – which “screeners” I have watched so far.

And right away, to conceal my technological insufficiency, and protect myself from his unspoken but inevitable pity and distain, I reflexively start tap-dancing. 

“Did you see Dallas Buyers Club?”

“One of our kids borrowed it.”

“How about Saving Mr. Banks”?

“We’re reserving that for an outing in Hawaii.”  (We had not gone yet.)

“Did you watch August:  Osage County”?

“It’s on top of our DVD player.  We are watching it tonight.”

Like all prevarications, there’s some truth in my answers, except for August: Osage Country; it’s not on top of our DVD player, it’s in the hall with the rest of the movies we can’t watch because we can’t work the machine.  (Although it is unlikely I would watch August:  Osage County regardless.)

I concocted the lie on the spot to sound persuasively convincing.  But I’m a terrible liar.  And I have a gnawing feeling that Paul sees through my substandard subterfuge and he instinctively knows The Truth:

“I cain’t read!”

Hey, you know how they say when you admit to a fear, it loses its power over you and you immediately feel better?

Well so far, at least,

It’s not happening.
Today marks the sixth anniversary of "Just Thinking."  I don't know if anybody but me has been here since the beginning - let me know if you have, or how long you've been a reader - but I want to thank everyone who ever read this even once.

Wait, "once"?  Really?  Was I that terrible?

I can't believe this!  Who doesn't give somebody a second chance?  I mean, if you knew the time and attention I give to writing each and every one of these...

Wait!  Is this supposed to be a celebration?

Oh...yeah, I forgot.  Anyway, really, thank you.  And let's keep going until...whenever.  I hope it's not soon.  But you never about "wherever".  That's why they call it "whenever."


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"A Lesson Relearned"

When Best of the West debuted on TV, the pilot episode received a wide range of critical responses, from gratifyingly positive to deflatingly not great.  (My most memorable recollection of this occasion occurred the following morning.  After I had finished meditating in bed, Dr. M brought me the L.A. Times review of the broadcast, but only after she had taken a scissors and cut out all the negative words and phrases, thus presenting me with a newspaper review resembling a now entirely adulatory doily.)

I know it’s not math.  When it comes to critical reactions, there is no “right answer” –“Two and two equals four.”  However, it is baffling to me that the a single creative undertaking can generate an array of evaluatory responses that are all over the map, shells lobbing in from every imaginable – and unimaginable – direction – “Two and two equals five”, “Two and two equals twelve”, “Two and two equals a corned beef sandwich”, “Two and two equals a 'Bed-and-Breakfast' in Pacoima.” 

How can that realistically be the case?  So many disparate responses to the same piece of material?  This head-scratching observation led me to consider the possibility that professional reviewers, on some unconscious level, were, not reviewing…whatever it was they were reviewing,

They were, in fact, secretly, and unbeknownst to themselves, reviewing…


…is what I concluded.

And I left it at that.

Reviewing – and, arguably, observation in general – is a Rorschach Test.  Your “take-away” reaction is a direct consequence of what resonates with you.

Thank you, and goodnight.

No, wait.  That was actually just the setup.  The following is today’s nugget:

Recently, thoughts concerning this matter returned to me, after reading an article on the rash of unpleasant and unlikable lead characters dominating both the Big Screen (Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, Meryl Streep in August: Osage County) and the small screen (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, House of Cards.)

(I have long wanted to write about what our popular entertainment says about our culture, and, though I know it will  be interesting and provocative – which is easy to say when you haven’t written it yet, though perhaps such lofty expectations go some distance towards explaining why it hasn’t – so far, however, I have yet to find an appropriate and satisfying framework for such an offering.  A “Sneak Peek” on the subject: Today’s audience seems generically dissatisfied with the times we live in.) 

We now return to today’s story…

Particular critical and blogatory hostility has been accorded to the eponymous character in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis.  There seems to be a consensus dislike for this guy.  It’s like, if you were considering a Guest List of “Fictional Characters” to invite an actual party, a proposed “What about Llewyn Davis?” would evoke an instant and vociferous ”No-o-o-o-o-o!  I mean, come on, guys!  To paraphrase Roger Rabbit:

“He can’t help it.  He’s just written that way.”

Here’s where this gets interesting.  I am hoping.

I do not believe I am mischaracterizing the vast majority of reviewers I read when I characterize their views on Inside Llewyn Davis thusly: 

“A talented folksinger sabotages his chances of success because of his prickly and irascible personality.”

I look at the same movie, and what do I come out with?

“A folksinger develops a prickly and irascible personality because, deep down, he’s aware that he is not talented enough.”

My being diametrically out of sync with the general perception suggests that, on this occasion, the lesson I am relearning is not about the critics, but is a little, joltingly illuminatingly, closer to home.