Wednesday, December 19, 2018

"Courage Under Commandments"


Regular readers may, on occasion, find themselves wondering, reading one of these offerings,

“Didn’t he write that already?”

There are times when I wonder exactly the same thing.

An idea comes to my mind, compelling me to give it a go, and I am excitedly off to the races.  Then it occurs to me, “I think I wrote this already.”  Surprisingly, that does not seem to matter to me that much.  Not in the context of “I have to write this”, which, in the case of the “reboots”, rivals the driving insistence of the “I have to write this-es” that are totally brand new.

It seems like, new story or old, when you have to write something, you unequivocally have to write it.  The only interesting part, for me, is “How come this came up again?”  Like some recollectional burp.  I think, “Why again?” and “Why now?”  And you know what?  

I cannot figure it out.

I am taking a walk, my mind freely open to whatever happens to appear.  And completely out of the blue – where Fate steps in and sees me through –  “The Arye Leibowitz Story” returns to my consciousness, demanding the attention it  previously received but adamantly insists on receiving again. 

Trust me.  This is not me, being lazy.  It is me, doing the bidding of “The Cosmic Distributor of Writable Ideas.”  Because you don’t mess with the magic, or else.  “Or else”, what?  I do not want to find out.

Okay, so the revised…

“Arye Leibowitz Story.”

Arye Leibowitz was my classmate at the Toronto Hebrew Day School, which taught English and Hebraic subject matter, half-a-day each.  Arye Leibowitz was not a close friend.  But in a class of seventeen students, I had definitely seen him around.

Arye Leibowitz was “Ultra Orthodox.”  Which, by his standards meant he was “Just doing what you were supposed to do.”  Though the school itself had an “Orthodox” orientation, the attending students’ families’ religiosity ranged from, “Men and women pray together” to “We eat pork, but just ‘out’”, to the totally unfathomable “We have an organ in our synagogue, and our services are short.” 

There was, however, a sizable contingent that, figuratively, knew God by His first name.  Which I didn’t, because I was not one of them.

Okay, so, jumping to birthday parties:

We are, like, around nine years old, celebrating (boys and girls separately) rotating birthday parties, everyone automatically attending everyone else’s.  You did not have to be “buddies.”  You only had to be in their class, and buy coveted presents at Topps’ Toy Town.  (With the juggling clowns on their signature wrapping paper.)

To avoid “Dietary Law” conflicts, the “Birthday menu” involved the acceptable “‘Egg’ or ‘Salmon’”, which was a problem for me because I enjoyed neither.  Sometimes, the “Birthday Mom” had been “Heads-Upped” and she’d say to me,

“Oh!  You’re the ‘special’ one!”

And she’d race into the kitchen, and bring me peanut-butter-and-jam.  Which I also disliked but forced down because the woman had gone to the effort.  (I like peanut butter alone.  Why you would put two sticky ingredients in one sandwich is beyond my culinary comprehension.)

When it came time for my birthday, however, my mother, well aware of my dietary proclivities, prepared her party “piece de resistance” – ground hamburger, spread on a thin slice of rye bread, and grilled in the oven. 

Yes, it was meat.  But my mother frequented a kosher butcher, so the meal appeared to pass ecclesiastical muster.  (Not “mustard”, an available condiment for the open-faced birthday treat.)

For some reason, I was in the kitchen when Arye Leibowitz came in, politely inquiring where the meat for the hamburgers had come from.  When my mother  assured him it was a kosher butcher shop, Arye asked if that kosher butcher shop had a “mashgiach.  (Defined as a Jewish supervisor, overseeing the strict “kashrut” (“Kosherness”) requirements in Orthodox butchering, involving assiduous slaughtering techniques, appropriate blessings, and receiving a tip.)   

My mother admitted that, although the butcher shop she went to was “Strictly Kosher”, it indeed lacked a resident “mashgiach.”

It was then that Arye Leibowitz took an unwavering position.

“I can’t eat that,” he quietly announced.

Leading to an unfortunate, Pomerantz “Birthday Meal” impasse.

Though my mother insisted the hamburger meat met the necessary specifications, Arye Leibowitz adamantly stuck to his guns, refusing to partake in what my mother – in her mind – had scrupulously provided.

I do not know why she did not give in, whipping up an edible alternative, but she didn’t, insisting the open-faced “Birthday Burgers” were “fine.”  I also pleaded that he relent, arguing the provided standard of hamburger was “Good enough.”

But Arye Leibowitz, following the rules laid down by his family and the Almighty, held firm.

To the point – touching my heart, then and forever – where Arye Leibowitz started to cry.

His reaction, painful to watch, was understandable.  The social pressure on the kid was enormous.  But what could he do?  “Going along.”  “Following the Law.”  For weeping Arye Leibowiz, there was only one choice.

And despite the intense external encouragement to do so, Arye Leibowitz never gave in.

You would hope, as you get older, you would develop a grounded, respectable maturity, marking the unshakable boundaries of your personal beliefs.

Not Arye Leibowitz.

Nine years old.

And he was already there.

I’ll tell ya.  I don’t know why this story suddenly came back to me.

But I am kind of happy it did.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

"A Nice Story I May Be Unable To Tell"


But I’ll try. 

If only to demonstrate why I can’t.

Not infrequently, when an anecdote falls flat, you hear the desperate disclaimer,

“You had to be there.”

This time… hm.  I was going to say that that disclaimer’s actually correct.  But then it occurred to me “You had to be there” is what everyone believes when their story falls flat. 

Although, in this case – you have to believe me – it’s true.  The situation “worked a treat”, as the English say, in “real time.”  The unique problem with this particular…

Will you just tell it, already!”

Okay.

But remember, that disclaimer?

Emmis!  It’s real.

I did a pilot for a show called Island Guy that never made it to series about a guy from a remote Polynesian island who pilots his outrigger canoe all the way to America, where, upon reaching L.A. harbor, he is run over by a giant yacht.  The guilty yachtser takes the injured “Island Guy” home , leading to a “culture conflict” sitcom, wherein unblinkered innocence experiences… us.

Continuing my commitment to keeping things – as much as possible – “real”, I borrowed some appropriate decorative artwork from my daughter Anna’s bedroom to hang in the “Young Kid’s” bedroom on the show.  The two were approximately the same age, so it fit.

On the pilot’s “Show Night”, being the show’s Executive Producer, it fell to me to select a “Warm-Up Man”, who would guide the assembled live studio audience through the extended process of filming.

I selected myself.

Okay, so during the show, there is this substantial “break” between scenes, involving alterations to the set, a change of wardrobe for the actors, and perhaps hair and make-up” touch-ups as well.  Since my  “Warm-Up Man” M.O. was to “wing it” – rather than delivering prepared material – I look around for something time-fillingly amiable to talk about.

Suddenly, I notice the pictures, hanging on the “Kid’s Bedroom” set wall. 

And away I go.

“Check out the wall in the kid’s bedroom set,” I begin, with no idea of where I am going.  “You see that painting of an apple… or, actually, three apples, hanging up there – one, a full apple, one, an apple with one bite out of it, and one a totally-consumed apple, with only the stem and core remaining?”

Anyone have any idea who painted that picture?”

A hand tentatively goes up.  It is a young girl, maybe ten or eleven.  I go over to her, ask her to rise from her seat, and, swiveling the microphone back-and-forth between us, we engage in the following conversation.

“You know who painted that picture?”

“Yes.”

“How old are you?’

“Ten.”

“And you’re sure you know the artist.”

“Yes.”

“Okay.  Before I ask you who it is… (SQUIRMING UNCOMFORTABLY)… you know there are, like, two hundred people here tonight.  You’re standing in front of all of these people, saying you know who painted that picture.”

“Yes.”

“What if you’re wrong?  That’s going to be kind of embarrassing, isn’t it?  Are you sure you know who painted that picture?”    

“Yes.”

Real sure.”

“Yes.”
“Because I’m kind of worried about you.  People can be, y’know, cruel about these things, and I don’t want you to have, like, this traumatic experience.  I mean, years later, you’re in therapy, going, ‘I raised my hand to answer the question and I was wrong and everyone laughed…’ and then you’re reaching for the Kleenex.  I’m offering you a chance to sit down and forget the whole thing.  Do you want to sit down?”

“No.”

“Boy, you must really know who painted that picture.” 

“Yes.”

“Okay.  (SIGHING DEEPLY, THEN FINALLY ASKING)  “Who painted that picture of the three apples down there?”

I did.”

I then introduce the young lady in the audience.

It is my daughter Anna.

Who had indeed painted the picture.  Which we later displayed in her bedroom.

Okay.  So how many people were ahead of me on that? 

That’s the problem, right there.  The most innocuous “set-up” can be a devastating “tip-off.”  But I had to say something, to explain to you how Anna’s picture got from her bedroom onto the bedroom wall on the set.

Or maybe not…it now suddenly occurs to me.  No, wait.  I did.  No, wait.  Or did I?  This thought is coming to me right now, and it is not sufficiently thought through.

Of course, when it happened in “real time” with the audience, I did not mention where the painting came from.  That would have spoiled the fun of the audience thinking they were in the company of a ten year-old painting savant.  At that time, I could not reveal her name, nor where the painting originally came from. 

But what about here?

Do you see how tricky this is?   (And why my rewrite nights lasted till three in the morning.  I am notoriously indecisive.)

To make the story work here, it has to be different from how I originally handled it with the audience. But how different?  If I reveal “up top” that it’s Anna, all that’s left is a story of me, stringing along a live studio audience.  But then if I say nothing “up front”, I have a lot of ‘splaining to do at the end.  Not just, she painted the picture, but that it had been moved from her bedroom to the set. 

None of which is much fun.

Though I am not sure this was either.

I just felt it worthwhile, showing the difficulty.  So that when you decide to tell a story, you will “pre-think” if they actually needed to be there. 

And if they did, don’t tell it.

Advice, it appears, I should have possibly heeded myself.

Monday, December 17, 2018

"Two Stories I Am Not Sure I Can Tell"


Not because I am embarrassed to tell them.  I’m just not sure I know how.  Someone recently asked me to tell one of them and I uncharacteristically said “No”, “uncharacteristically” because I like to tell all stories.  Even when nobody asks me to.  But with this one, I was afraid I just didn’t have the goods.  And I am a professional storyteller, so I am supposed to.

Demonstrating that, even for longtime professionals there can be challenging pitfalls, telling a story.  Amateurs are brave to even attempt to, facing the potential debacle of,

“A guy walks into a bar.  No, wait!  It was a supermarket.  No, wait!  It was an all-night convenience store.  That’s important to the story.”

When it comes to telling a story, generally speaking, it’s amateurs – “Beware!” – and seasoned professionals – “Be humble.“

For me with this one, it was “Tell that story about blah-blah.”

“I am not certain I can.”

I shall attempt that first story today, and probably tell the next story badly tomorrow.  No.  I’ll tell the next story, probably badly, tomorrow. 

See that?  I am primed and ready for telling stuff badly. 

Okay, here we go, telling a wonderful story I am not sure I can tell.  Not to embarrass myself.  But to reveal the attendant harrowing pitfalls.  Even when you supposedly know how.

We’re at the Tally Ho Inn, in the Muskoka area of Northern Ontario, close to my old camp and slightly further from Algonquin Park, where we went on canoe trips.  Five summers ago, I enjoyed a weekend “Nostalgia Tour” there, in the company of Dr. M, my brother Hart and his wife Nancy.

End of our visit, we are checking out at the Front Desk.  Awaiting credit card approval, the conversation turns to “Celebrities summering in the area”, including Goldie Hawn, Steven Spielberg, Justin Bieber and Tom Hanks.  It is then the Tally Ho Inn manager imparts this gem of a story. 

And imparts it impeccably.  Perhaps not for the first time, but still.  We are talking “Master Raconteur.”  Even if he saw it in Readers Digest and committed it to memory.  The man “committed it” perfectly.  And now… here goes my best shot at repeating it.

“Fade In” on the Canoe Lake General Store in Algonquin Park.  A man sends in his wife in to buy him an ice cream while he waits outside in the car.

Entering the store, the woman lines up behind a Tall Man customer currently being served, who looks very familiar to her.  Finishing his business, the Tall Man heads towards the nearby Men’s Room.  The woman steps to the counter, orders the ice cream, then, gesturing to the departing Tall Man, asks the server,

“Is that Tom Selleck?”

Moments later, the woman races excitedly out to the car, shouting,

“I think Tom Selleck’s in there.”

To which her husband responds,

“Where’s my ice cream?”

Exiting the Men’s Room, the Tall Man sees the frazzled woman asking the server what happened to the ice cream.  He then walks over to her and says,

“I have two things to tell you:  One, I am Tom Selleck.  And two, you put the ice cream in your purse.”

And that’s it.

In a way, it’s kind of a “bulletproof” story – an “out of context” celebrity and a punch line “ice cream in your purse.”  But telling it now, I detect gaps and confusions, not apparent when I originally heard it.

First, it is a preposterously delicately timed narrative.  The Tall Man has to have heard “Is that Tom Selleck?” and seen what happened to the ice cream before entering the Men’s Room and witnessed the woman’s frazzled confusion when he came out.

There is also an issue concerning the smoothness of the storytelling.  Did the server, when asked “Is that Tom Selleck?” reply, “I don’t know” or “Could be” or even “Who’s Tom Selleck?”  Or is there a natural “Jump Cut” between “Is that Tom Selleck?” and the woman racing out to the car?

And what happened when she came back?  Was the server unaware of her previous actions?  Or was his explanation “cut short” when the Tall Man abruptly interceded?  And is any of that truly necessary for the successful telling of that story?

Recounting it today, I am still wrestling with the content. 

For maximum impact, a well-told anecdote must be built “brick-by-brick”, no essential “brick” left out, no “brick” you don’t need.  Any extraneities, ambiguities or logical questions?  Your story falls as flat as a deflated balloon. 

Leaving the lame storyteller with “deflated balloon egg” on their faces.

That’s why I steadfastly demurred when asked to deliver that story.  It’s like the mythical White Buffalo. 

I have glimpsed it from a distance.

But I am unable to rein it in.

Tomorrow, another story I probably shouldn’t attempt.

That one, I have never successfully told right.

Maybe it’s not possible to do so.

But it is such a good story,

I can’t help giving it a try.