Friday, August 29, 2008

"Headin' To The Woods"

It’s time for a much-needed vacation. Not for me, I don’t do anything. At least, nothing that’s overly stress inducing. Except for maybe practicing the piano, an activity fraught with frustration when you’ve been blessed with hands of stone. If I were a boxer, “Hands of Stone” would be helpful. But I’m trying to make music.

Dr. M, however, listens to the problems of troubled people all day, and though it’s a gratifying and rewarding enterprise, she occasionally needs a break.

I’ve written a number of posts ahead. Shticklach – small pieces – to tide you over and keep you around. I like it when you’re around. If you weren’t there, I’d be typing for nobody, an activity strongly indicating some long-term involvement with one of Dr. M’s associates.

“I’m writing for nobody.”

“Stop doing that.”

“I can’t.”

“How’s Tuesdays and Thursdays at eleven o’clock?”

One of you helped me the other day. You sent me a link, so I could order this audio book I’ve been looking for. I can’t say “Thanks” directly, because I don’t know where the e-mail disappeared to. And besides, it was a “NOREPLAY”, which, as a learned (“Noreplay” - Feb. 5), you can’t reply to, because it’s not “NOREPLAY”, it’s “No Reply.”

So whoever it was who helped me, I’m thanking you here. Thank you. I get a lot of helpful stuff from commenters. Links to places I couldn’t find myself in a million years. Like The Court Jester’s “Vessel With The Pestle” scene on youtube, or however you spell it.

It happens a lot. I mention something in a post, and there’s the appropriate link in the following day’s “NOREPLAY.” Assistance from a total stranger. Thank you. Everybody who’s done that.

I also appreciate your comments. Some of them elaborate more fully – and more articulately – on my ruminations. Some challenge them. Some supplement them with ideas of their own. They’re always interesting, often provocative, and never dumb. No dopes read this post. Not that I’m anti-dope. Dopes are welcome too. (That’s not me, being tolerant. It’s me, wanting as many readers as I can get. Okay, let’s say, no big dopes.)

When I come back, I’ll be doing more Story of a Writer posts. I’m not sure what’ll be in them – because I didn’t write them yet – but somehow, when I start remembering, stuff seems to come up. The feedback I receive tells me people enjoy Story of a Writer. I, frankly, enjoy everything I write.

In the future, I’m looking to make this blog more interactive. Two people have told me reading this blog is like sitting in a room with me, only they don’t get to talk. I want you to talk. If I haven’t adequately encouraged your talking in the past, that was a mistake.


Ask questions. About anything you want. (I mean, you know, don’t get crazy.) If the questions involve issues other readers might be interested in, I’ll take a break from my regular blah-blah and respond to them in a post. It could become a regular feature. I just need questions.

I guess I could make up my own questions.

“What do you mean, and pretend they’re from readers?”


“That’s not you.”

You’re right. Thanks, Italics Man. I lost my head. Wait. What if I did it funny?

“You can do it funny.”


“But it better be funny.”

I’m shutting you down now.

Sorry about that. Sometimes, I’m of two minds and they speak at the same time. Bottom line: Your questions are welcome.

So where are we going on vacation? Get ready to be jealous.


It’s not as exotic as it sounds. Michiana Shores is a cottage community about sixty-five miles from Dr. M’s hometown of Chicago. (It’s been called “The Hamptons of the Midwest”, though I think only by people from the Midwest.)

Dr. M’s parents purchased this place when Dr. M’s Mom was pregnant with Dr. M, and she required bed rest. It subsequently passed through the family, and now it’s ours.

The cabin’s a long way from our home, but we always love vacationing there. Why?

It’s in a forest.

A log cabin. Tiny but authentic. On Chickadee Trail. I love it. I live on a tiny bird street.

“A street named after a tiny bird, or a tiny street named after a bird?”


And it’s not even a street; it’s a trail. It says so right in the name. I live on a tiny bird trail.

In a forest!

The Forest Primeval. I don’t even know what that is. But I bet it looks like the forest surrounding Chickadee Trail. A lush, dense forest, with fifty foot trees that I’m sure have seen Indians.

It’s definitely Indian Country. The neighboring streets are named after tribes: “Comanche” “Kiowa”, “Choctaw”, “Chicagami” (that one sounds fishy, but you never know). Yeah, there’s also an “Oriole”, but that’s just so we wouldn’t be the only “bird” street.

Another point of interest:

Our cabin is in Indiana. But across the street – literally, across the street – it’s Michigan. (Hence the name: Michiana.)

It gets even more interesting. Indiana – at least the county our cabin’s in – is in the Central Time Zone. Michigan’s in the Eastern Time Zone.

That’s right. It’s an hour later across the street.

Is that not odd? I can barely wrap my head around that. It’s like it gets dark an hour later across the street. Or is it an hour earlier? You see? I can’t figure it out.

Michigan kids who get permission to play outside till eight o’clock, play across the street in Indiana, and when they come home at eight, it’s nine!

What happens? Do they get yelled at?

“We said eight. It’s nine!”

“Not where I was playing.”

We make eight o’clock dinner reservations, and forget the restaurant’s in Michigan. We show up – we’re an hour late. We go to breakfast at eleven – it’s really twelve – they’re not serving breakfast anymore.

We eat a lot of meals in the cabin. Frequently, after returning from reservations that we missed.

Sometimes, we get it right. There’s this hamburger place, in Michigan, called Redamak’s. Eating there is not a problem. There are no reservations, and they always seem to be open. Redamak’s serves the best non-gourmet (read: greasy) hamburger I’ve ever tasted. (Though L.A.’s The Apple Pan is neck and neck.)

Don’t ask for a salad at Redamak’s. I did that once. The waitress replied, “We don’t serve salads. But some of our hamburgers come with lettuce.”

It’s the Heartland. They grow vegetables there. But they don’t seem to eat them. Another hamburger restaurant opened across the street from Redamak’s, advertising in big letters: “We have lettuce and tomatoes.”

Nobody goes there.

Midwesterners seem unwilling to eat vegetables unless they’re deep-fried. People smoke. Many are alarmingly overweight. And yet, when they announce the names of people who lived to a hundred on The Today Show, they’re invariably from the Midwest. I don’t get it!

Entertainment in Michiana? The Dunes Summer Theater is walking distance from the cabin. Great shows, featuring local talent. Reading the theater program, along with their acting credits, you can also find out where they work. The Leading Man’s an optometrist, the ingĂ©nue’s an Assistant Manager at Denny’s.

Regular people, acting up a storm. And not an agent in sight. They do it because they like to. What a concept.

Movies? How about the theater in La Porte, Indiana, where you can see (at least, you could last summer) a “first run” movie for a dollar. A dollar-fifty, after six P.M. And you get free refills of popcorn and soda.

A dollar-fifty for a movie. It’s worth the trip to Indiana just for that!

Other entertainments? Horseback riding (along forest trails, keeping your eyes peeled for “owlhoots”), the Michigan City Zoo (featuring some of the most moth-eaten animals I’ve ever seen), The Lighthouse “Outlet Mall” (where, by September, even the “sale” items are on sale).

There are antique emporiums and weekly auctions, there’s miniature golf, there are batting cages, there’s the La Porte County Fair (where you can eat “Elephant’s Ears” and experience an almost immediate cramp bubble in your stomach).

You can drive around Indiana State Prison and “check the perimeter” for hitchhikers. Or you can take a walk and check out the seemingly endless variety of birds (Dr. M’s knows their names.)

For fifteen years, I was the part owner of the South Bend (thirty-five miles from the cabin) Silverhawks, an “A”-ball team in the Diamondbacks organization. Though I’m now a former owner, we still go to games, where John Baxter, the General Manager, and his wife, Rita, treat us royally. (Though they probably won’t let me throw out the first pitch again. Will they?)

What do we like doing best in Michiana? Taking in our favorite entertainment of them all.

The weather.

We don’t have weather in Los Angeles. My brother used to say, “In Los Angeles, every day is Tuesday.” He’s right. You wake up, you look outside, “Oh, yeah. It’s like yesterday.” Sure, we have earthquakes, but they spread those out. Generally, the weather is, “I saw that already.”

Michiana really gets weather.

The best seat for watching weather is on our screened-in porch. You sit out there with a book, and the weather passes, like it’s Disney on Parade.

It’s a pleasant day. Suddenly, the wind kicks up, rustling the branches in the trees. The skies begin to darken. There’s the roll of distant thunder.

Within minutes, there’s a deluging downpour. Sheets of rain, accompanied by startling streaks of lightning, and thunderclaps that’ll rattle your bones.

We watch it all, from the safety of our porch. Midwestern weather. It’s the greatest show there is.

Okay, so that’s it. I’ve left you stuff to read, and I’ll talk to you when I get back.

Have a good week. And think of some questions for me. You really don’t want me to make them up myself.

(Unless they’re funny.)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

"Summer Times - Till We Meet Again"

The countdown had begun.


“Four more days of starvation

Then we go to the station

Back to civilization

The bus will carry us home.”

This musical reminder erupted spontaneously in the Mess Hall during the dwindling days of our stay at camp. The song was delivered at various speeds, depending on how you felt about your inevitable departure. If you were sad, it was sung as a melancholy dirge. If you were excited to leave, it emerged as a stirring march, accompanied by the rhythmic banging of silverware on the heavily lacquered tables, the lacquer protecting the wood from just such abuses.

My version was particularly unique.

“Fifty-six more days of starvation

Then we go to the station…”

That’s right. I started singing it the day we arrived.

Was I eager to leave? Are you kidding? Home meant television, food I liked, privacy and freedom from a routine that took me from the indignity of coughing up half the lake learning how to dive to the embarrassment of racing in on a fly ball, only to see it soaring over my head in the opposite direction.

I’m the Jews in bondage, waiting for the Tenth Plague to end, so I could get my butt out of Egypt! I could not wait to go home.

So why did I feel so upset?

Down at the lake, they were pulling up the docks. Huge, hairy-legged horses, dating from the era when dinosaurs roamed the earth, were dragging sections of the dock towards the beach. The empty oil drums that had been supporting the docks, were collected onshore, finally dry, but with nothing to do.

The Swimming Area was no more; it was just the lake. I had few happy memories of the Swimming Area. But I felt a loss when it started to disappear.

Everywhere you went, they were taking inventory and storing things away. The Sports Office. The Arts and Crafts Center. The horses had left without saying goodbye. Piece by piece, hey were dismantling my summer.

The final week offered a reverberating series of “lasts.” The last corn roast. The final banquet. The last night’s Counselors’ show, where we gathered in the Rec Hall and watched authority figures letting down their guards, burly trippers cavorting in tutu’s, (the camp owner’s wife singing, “My Yiddishe Mama” for no reason other than she could), and, at the end of the show, the entire staff, standing onstage, in matching crisp, white camp t-shirts singing,


“ABCDEFGee, I never thought I’d miss a camp so much

12345678 weeks have flown away and now they’re gone…”

People around me are starting to snuffle.

The Rec Hall door is thrown open. Outside, are the three Unit Heads, each holding a flaming torch. The campers exit the Rec Hall by units, following their leaders to the beach, where we stand in our groups, facing the water.

The lake is virtually still, gentle waves, lapping against the shore. The sky is black, dotted with an uncountable number of stars. The wind is still. The beach is quiet. Scattered lights burn in nearby cottages, but, far more than less, the evening is ours.

Though the veterans know what’s coming, the “last night” ritual remains surprisingly effective. Campers, predominantly female, stand assembled, armed with anticipatory boxes of Kleenex.

Was the ceremony manipulative? I guess. Was it “over the top?” Close. But there was something about it that seemed honest. And necessary. We had weathered eight weeks of communal living. The experience needed to be wrapped up.

And wrapped up it was. By the camp director. Speaking over a P.A. system set up somewhere in the back. In slow and measured tones. And always playing in the background as Joe recounted the highlights of the summer that was over, was the scratchy recording of a tear-jerking anthem:

“For all we know, we may never meet again

Before we go, make this moment sweet again

We won’t say good-bye until the last minute

I’ll hold out my hand and my heart with be in it…”

Okay, that was “over the top.” But it came with the territory. An emotional underscoring, if you will. (Either that, or a tear-wringing strategy to get people to come back.)

And what message did, Joe wish to sear deeply into our departing memories? The message of personal growth. As a man trained as a social worker, Joe was determined that tonight, areas of individual advancement, both large and questionable, would be dutifully honored. If one thing was certain, it was this. We had all learned something.

“Maybe we learned to swim. Or maybe we learned to play baseball. Maybe we participated in a play. Or maybe we made a beautiful ashtray in Arts and Crafts. Maybe we learned to make our beds for the first time. Or maybe we learned…how to brush our own teeth. Even those really hard to reach ones way in the back.

“We made friends. Or we didn’t make friends, leaving us more time to appreciate ourselves. We could have made friends, but we chose not to, teaching us that everything, including making friends, is entirely up to us.

“The choices are ours. We can make friends, or we can not make friends. And after we’ve chosen not to make friends, we can change our minds, and make friends after all. We make those choices. But we can change those choices if we want to. And decide to make friends.”

It was something like that. I wasn’t really listening.

Next, came “The Candle Ceremony.”

There were two rowboats on the lake in front of us. The rowboats were filled with candles. They were really half candles. Actually, Jewish Sabbath candles cut into half candles, which were then set into small, ribbed paper cups, by inserting each candle into a bed of still-soft paraffin wax. When the wax hardened, the candle would stand up inside the cup. (You got that?)

As Joe read off the name of each camper, the wick was lit, and the “candle-in-the-cup” was floated onto the lake. Everyone waited for their name, and looked for their candle. The list of campers seemed interminable. Especially if you were “P.” Which isn’t terrible, I suppose – it’s better than “Zelman” – but it seemed like forever.

“Mark…Bornstein. Eleanor…Chitel.”

Then, there were family clusters:

“Wendy…Krangle. Robbie…Krangle. Ricky…Krangle.”

And a seemingly endless litany of the owner’s relatives:

“Sydney…Goldenberg. Sheldon…Goldenberg. Barry…Goldenberg. Leslie…Goldenberg. Randy…Goldenberg. Malka…Goldenberg….”

You chuckled, wondering if relatives paid full price. You also thought, “Enough, with the Goldenbergs! Get to my name!”

When the names were finally read, there was this ribbon of flickering candles spanning the breadth of the waterfront. And one of them was yours.

Finally, there was “The Burning.”

The trippers had cut down saplings, and wrapped them in burlap. And on an island, about a quarter of a mile from shore, the elements were assembled and planted vertically in the ground, ultimately creating a billboard-sized word. A carefully selected word, symbolizing that summer’s experience. On the signal, the encasing burlap would be doused with kerosene and set on fire.

And there it stood. Blazing in the darkness.



“TOMORROWLAND.” (commemorating an uncharacteristically non issue-oriented Disneyland program.)

Sometimes, there were fireworks. And the nearby cottagers called the police.

“For All We Know.” The Candle Ceremony.” “The Burning.” They made you remember. I hated camp. At least I thought I did. So why was I so moved?


One reason is that emotional button pushing works. But I think it goes deeper than that.

Reading along in this series, it’s easy to imagine that my experience at camp was a total nightmare. There were terrible interludes, no question. I mean, nobody wants to be nearly hanged. Or eat nothing but Wonder Bread for eight weeks. Laboratory mice die from doing that.

The thing is, that wasn’t the whole story. Embedded in the terribleness of that first summer, I had learned to climb unassisted into an upper bunk, made a friend, acted in a play, gone on a canoe trip, and been given a song to lead in front of the entire camp. Plus, my greatest achievement: I’d survived.

Not bad for my first time away from home. Unfortunately, I have this character tendency – I originally wrote “character flaw” but I changed it to “tendency” – which not only affected my camp experience, but my memory of my camp experience, and, as a consequence, this writing.

I’m a complainer. (You may have known that already.) I notice negative stuff and, maybe, dwell on it. This tendency has its “up-side.” (For one thing, it gives you something to write about.)

At camp, my complaining tendencies brought me some much-wished-for attention. It gave me a distinct persona, like the girl who wore the really short shorts, or the counselor who stuck cotton in his ears.

I was “The Camp Complainer.” Or, more accurately – and thankfully – “The Funny Camp Complainer.”

When you have a persona, you need to stick with it. And I did. Right to the end.

The buses had arrived. I was sitting in the Mess Hall, waiting for my name to be called. When it was, I got up, heaved an exaggerated “Thank God, I’m finally going home” sigh, and (literally) skipped happily out the door.

I see the buses. I think, “What does “The Camp Complainer” do when the buses finally arrive to take him home?” The answer? He races to the bus.

I race joyfully to the bus.

I trip, and fall flat on my face.

I’d been done in by my feelings. My legs had given me away.
Next summer, I’ll return with a new series of camp stories. Hopefully, they’ll be more balanced.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

"Things That Sound Like Numbers, But Aren't"

So here’s me, ready to impart my wisdom, stopping to consider if I have any actual wisdom to impart. I can’t wonder long, or I’ll get gagh-gagh-gahg…Writer’s Block. That’s a large part of what Writer’s Block is about – the paralyzing fear that you have nothing meaningful to say.

One trepidational thought is, “They know that already.” I’m offering insight, but delivering “Duh!” But there’s an even greater concern that can eat me up, if I let it.

“They know that already. And they don’t care.”

This one easily fits my M.O. I’m the one who, at camp, when everybody knew that the food was bad, was the only one who didn’t eat it. I was being consistent, you see. I had scruples. I had principles. What did everyone else have? Full stomachs. They knew the food stunk but they ate it anyway. The hypocrites!

I have to believe that this – “this” meaning, what I’m about to write – is at least slightly meaningful. I have to believe that you haven’t already thought of it yourselves, or not thought of it in exactly this way.

Alternatively, I have to believe that even if you have thought of it, and decided, “I don’t care”, that, after you’ve read this, you’ll think, “Huh.” Not “Huh?”, but “Huh”, as in “Hm”, meaning, “That wasn’t totally obvious, irrelevant or dumb.” I don’t ask for a lot.

That my work elicits a momentary pause for reflection? That would be heaven.

Thank you for that gratuitous introduction, Earl. Now, take your shot and take your chances.

Okay, Italics Man, I will.

It’s officially “Election Season” (in contrast to that two-year warm-up we recently endured). And during “Election Season”, they – “they”, meaning the people who address us during “Election Season” – like to throw words at us, the electorate, in an effort to control our brains and affect who we vote for.

They’re extremely skillful, these people. Last “Election Season”, they were able, through words and images, to make John Kerry, a decorated combat veteran, look like a traitor, and George W. Bush, whose National Service record was, at best, unclear, look like a patriot. They did that with straight faces. And it worked.

That’s skillful. It’s sick, but it’s skillful.

(Next stop? Making a former community worker look elitist, and a guy with a bunch of houses, a man of the people. Stay tuned.)

What professionals can do with word and symbol manipulation is astonishing. Maybe you think you’re “on” to all their tricks. Maybe you are, but, maybe, subconsciously and subtly, they work on you anyway.

You think you can drive on an icy highway. I don’t mean to insult you by reminding you to keep your eyes open. It’s just real slippery out there.

Okay. First

“The American People” is not a number. It sounds like a number. A really, big number. But it’s not. “The American People” is a manipulating symbol, masquerading as a number.

“The American People are sick of its government lying to them.”

“The American People do not want to live in a country where millions lack affordable health care.”

“The American People will never surrender to tyranny.”

“The American People like cheese.”

Nobody knows what the American people believe about anything. That’s a lot of people, “The American People.” It’s impossible to canvas them all. Some of them aren’t home. And yet, people speak for “The American People” as if they’ve consulted us all. And that we speak with one voice, which couldn’t be true, or we wouldn’t keep having such close elections.

Who are these people who are speaking in our name? Politicians, campaign operatives, TV pundits, people who, at most, has met a few thousand people in their lives. Yet they presume to speak for three hundred million.

Having lost their own credibility, these people are selling their agenda by coasting on ours:

“You probably know who I am and maybe you don’t trust me. You believe all politicians are liars, and I’m a politician, so blah.

“Fine. I get it. You don’t trust me. You think I’m scum, I’m manipulative, I’m a sellout, and I’m okay with that. But, hey, here’s someone you can trust, okay?

“‘The American People.’”

“‘The American People’ believe this – ‘this’ being what I’m about to say after I say ‘The American People’ a few more times. Sure, I happen to believe the same thing, but forget about that. What’s important is that ‘The American People’ believe it, and ‘The American People’ is a really. Enormous. Group of people.”

“Now you don’t have to listen to me. And a lot of you won’t. But can you really ignore the considered thoughts and the passionately held feelings of the ‘American People’? If the ‘American People’ believe this – I mean, come on, now – who are you to believe otherwise?”

Who am I to believe otherwise? I’m a person who believes otherwise. Which invalidates your whole setup, Jack! It’s not possible that all “The American People” believe what you say they believe, because I’m one of the American People, and I believe what you’re selling me is a load of crap!”

Awright, Italics Man!

Now, if the person who says “The American People” comes back and says, “You’re taking this too literally. I didn’t mean all the American people, I was speaking symbolically”, this is what you say in response:

First, you say, “I know you were just speaking symbolically.” Then you say, “Do you know how many people actually believe the thing you symbolically say ‘The American People’ believe?” If they say, “I’ll have to get back to you on that”, it means they have no idea, or they know how many, and it’s not that big a number, and basically, it’s over. The point has been made. And it’s very likely you’ll never see that person again.

“The American People” is the biggest fake number there is (except for “The Chinese People” and “The Indian People”). But there are other fake numbers, which, though making more reasonable claims, are equally uncountable. One of those fake numbers is “many.”

“Many people believe that the right privacy is asserted in the Constitution.”

“Many” people believe that, it is claimed. How many? They don’t say. Is it a lot? It’s quite a few. It’s “many.”

Yes, but how many. Is it “all?” No. Is it almost “all?” No. Is it most? “Most” is a more persuasive fake number than “many”, so if it were “most”, they’d have said “most.” But they didn’t. They said “many.”

Also, “most” means more than half. “More than half” is measurable. You can check if it’s “most.” You can’t check if it’s “many.” Since “Many’s” not a number, you can never know how many “many” is.

Making a considerably smaller claim, though equally as unverifiable, “many” is “The American People” without the arrogance.

One last drop down.

“Some people still believe in good manners.”

“Some” people. A truly modest claim. But it’s as unverifiable as the larger ones. “Some” people? What exactly are we talking about?

It’s more than “a couple” of people. That would be two. Is “some” people more than “a few” people? I don’t know. It sounds more, but not a lot more. “A few” plus, maybe, seven. In truth, “some” people and “a few” people could be the same number. You really can’t tell.

I’m thinking the era of fake numbers is coming to an end. I hear the words, “The American People” or “many” people, and it’s like a “Red Flag”, signaling that what’s about to follow is a partisan opinion I can easily ignore, and I immediately tune out. When a technique elicits the opposite of its desired effect, it’s a sign that its days as a “persuasion strategy” are over. That’s one person’s opinion.

And that’s a number you can count.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

"Saddle Up! - Part Eleven"

Actors who performed in classic westerns recount their experiences. As imagined by me.



“There’s just no question. I have to be gunned down. But when I’m standing on my front porch, telling the Bad Guy’s henchmen I’m not selling no matter what, I’m playing it like I’ve got a shot.

“‘You’re not getting me land!’”

“It’s strange in a way. What have I got, like four acres? It’s a huge country. There’s got to be four acres somewhere else. But it’s the principle. ‘You’re not getting my land!’

“When you think about it, though, it’s like I’m begging them, ‘Please, shoot me.’

“I’m certainly not thinking, ‘If I can convince them I’ve put my heart and soul into this land – clearing the wilderness, withstanding the elements, building my herd up from nothing – they’ll think, ‘I didn’t realize how hard you’ve worked’, and leave me alone. I’m a goner!

“I mean, if they don’t kill me, there’s no picture. ‘The Good Guy seeks vengeance for a rancher the Bad Guys intimidated but eventually let live?’ That’s not a story! I have to go! That’s all there is to it!

“But that doesn’t mean I have to go quietly. No, Sir. I give them a tongue-lashing they’ll never forget. You can see it in their eyes. They know they’re doing wrong.

“Then they cut me to pieces in a hail of bullets.”


“I don’t mind gettin’ bumped off, ‘cause I’d have my fun along the way. I’d get to do a funny dance when I struck it rich, I’d get to sing drunk, I’ve even get a chuck under the chin from a pretty little saloon girl. Not bad for an old coot with no teeth.

“My only quibble was with the way they’d knock me off. I mean, if I’m ridin’ to town to register my claim and I get bushwhacked, fair enough. If I’m gunned down at the claim site, that’s fine too – I’d fall in mud, but I wasn’t all that clean to begin with.

“The one I hated was, I’m kneelin’ by the river, I discover this big, shiny nugget, I’m just about to shout, “Yahoo!”, and Wham! – claim jumpers whack me with a shovel.

“A shovel!”

“They was no time to practice the moves. They were supposed to miss and I’d act like I got whacked. But more often than not, they’d just…CLANG! I’d go down like a ton of bricks!

“I never understood that. When they shoot you in a picture, you’re not really shot. They use blanks. But, somehow, when the script says they whack you with a shovel, they sure enough whack you with a shovel! They tried a rubber shovel, but it didn’t make the right sound.

“To this day, I can’t look at a shovel without flinchin’.”


“Please explain this to me: You’re holding the bugle in one hand, the reins in the other. You have no ‘third hand’ for a firearm or a saber. That’s it! You’re ‘handsed out!’

“You’re no threat to anyone. And what happens? Every single Indian is shooting at me!

“I promise you, if I were an Indian, I would never waste arrows on the bugler.”

“I was a Juilliard-trained musician. My classmates play in symphony orchestras. So I’m a bugler in cavalry pictures. I’m fine with that. My parents aren’t thrilled, but it’s honest work. It’s great.

“But then they tell me, ‘Not only do we want you to blow “The Charge”, we want you to fall off your horse when you’re killed.

“That’s where I drew the line.”

“I’m a musician. I don’t ‘do’ falls. Fortunately, the director, who, you know, we ran with the same crowd, made an accommodation. Whenever I’d be killed, the director would cut to a ‘long shot’, to cover that fact that it wasn’t I who was falling off the horse, it was somebody else. I guess it was sort of, ‘Who does he think he is?’ being the only ‘extra’ with his own ‘stunt double’, but I’m sorry. If they wanted me, that’s just how it had to be.”

“At ‘wrap’ parties, I’d play classical trumpet solos on the bugle. They’d always ask for encores. Their most popular request? ‘Taps.’”


Attention: The "Foyles" Guy. "Foyles" is a fabulous bookstore in London. A while back, I wrote about stealing plays from "Foyles" in the sixties, and the "Foyles" manager, or something, whose name was actually
Foyle, e-mailed me back. So I'm thinking the "Foyles" system is somehow alerted if I say "Foyles" enough times.

"Foyles" Guy. I need your help.

We have a bond here - the injured party-miscreant connection. That's up there as a unifier, second only to husband and wife. We have history. And I'm calling on that historical attachment to bail me out.

Here's the situation. My wife, Dr. M, is having a birthday soon. She loves "Master and Commander" books on tape. She has a ton of them. But she can't seem to find Volume Six, "Fortune of War."

I don't even know if "Foyles" carries books on tape, "Foyles" Guy. I hope you do. And I hope you can help me get the "Fortune of War" book on tape, so I can present it to Dr. M on her birthday and be a big hero. Which is what this is all about. Dr. M's being happy is a bonus. It's really about me. And how I'll look.

So, "Foyles" Guy, please do not hesitate to drop everything in your busy schedule (which I'm pronouncing "shed-ule") to take on this important challenge. I did contact your mail order sales department on your website, but I never heard back. They probably didn't know who I was - a shameless pilferer, albeit a repentent one. As a result, I was simply ignored.

Also, if anyone else out there knows how I can get "Master and Commander's" Volume Six "Fortune of War" book on tape, please,again, drop everything, and do something for me.

Thank you for your time. I hope I said "Foyles" enough times to draw your attention.

Thanks again, and good luck selling books.

Best wishes,

Earl Pomerantz
e-mail address: or

Monday, August 25, 2008

"Agism, Or Something Else?"

An article in the Business Section of the L.A. Times reported that some television writers had won a settlement from the ICM talent agency, concerning a lawsuit they had brought, charging that they’d been discriminated against on the basis of age.

I thought maybe I had something to say about that. Then, I decided not to bother, and I threw the newspaper in the trash. Then, I changed my mind, and I went outside to retrieve it. But I couldn’t find it. Okay, so that’s a message, I thought. I don’t need to write about this.

Then, I changed my mind again, and I went across the street to a convenience store and bought another copy of the newspaper, so I could re-read the article. Apparently, I needed to write about it after all.

And why not? I’m one of those guys – too old; no job. This wasn’t, “Grape Pickers Denied Bathroom Breaks.” They were writing about me.

So wherefrom my ambivalence towards weighing in? Well, first, it’s not my favorite thing to identify with a group of people who are doing badly.

“Yes, I’m one of those people nobody wants to hire.” It’s a bit of a “downer” as an icebreaker at parties.

But there was something pushing me the other way. As a stickler for precision – in language and in argument – I wasn’t certain the plaintiffs in this case were promoting a legitimate legal grievance. At the same time, I felt zero enthusiasm for bolstering the side that was keeping me at home.

The first step in confronting a problem is to define clearly what it is. “Clearly defining” requires a precision of language. That’s what I think. I could be wrong here, or, if not wrong, unproductively nitpicky. Maybe all you need to define this problem are eyes. You look at the writing staffs and nobody’s old. Hello, lawsuit.

The situation is painfully real. But I’m not persuaded that it’s against the law.

When you’re dealing in analogies, you have to be extremely careful. Just because two words end with ism, doesn’t automatically make them the same.

Racism is grounded in the belief by one race that another race is inferior, the consequences being that the “superior” race has no problem treating the “inferior” race abominably. “We’re better; they’re property.”

Agism involves discrimination against a group of people who are over a certain age.

In both cases, there’s provable discrimination. Does that mean the two situations are equivalent? The writers who’ve brought the twenty-three age discrimination lawsuits believe they are. And they’ve already gotten an agency settlement to back them up.

You can’t discriminate against race – You can’t discriminate against age. It’s the same thing. If the suing writers are correct. (The settlement did not require ICM to admit to any wrongdoing, so the definitive answer is still up for grabs.)

But are the two situations – racism and agism – really the same? Why are agencies and the studios and networks discriminating against older writers? Do they despise them? Are older writers perceived as being genetically inferior? That can’t be true. Their genes haven’t altered from when they were young writers, and fully employed.

What’s the reason older writers are discriminated against? Is it “Wrinkle Envy”? What?

Older writers are not hired because they are perceived as being unable to provide material that will deliver the younger audience advertisers require the networks to attract. Agencies are dropping them, because they can’t get them any work. In other words – an argument can be made – and probably has been – that that this has nothing to do with discrimination at all. It’s simply a matter of business.

It’s an argument that cannot be easily dismissed. Can you imagine a similar lawsuit being brought against Major League Baseball by a group of fifty year-old ballplayers?

“They won’t let us play. It’s agism.”

That’s not agism. They’re old.

“Writing isn’t sports, Earl.”

That’s true. You see that? I made an analogy mistake myself. An argument can be made – and I’ll make it right here – that I’m a better writer than I was when I was younger. I see the story problems sooner and can make adjustments more quickly. Though I’m not currently writing a script, I watch movies and I reflexively know how, with some minor adjustments, the storylines could have been made stronger, more consistent with the writer’s intentions.

But there’s more to writing than story structure, though, to me, that’s still the primary element, and, by the way, the element least influenced by changing times. A well-told story is a well-told story, whether it’s around a campfire in a cave or on “Must See” TV.

It must be acknowledged, however, that something in the marrow of half-hour comedy (my only area of expertise) has fundamentally changed. (It should also be acknowledged that network comedies today are less popular than they’ve ever been in the entire history of television.)

The essence of situation comedies – the structural rhythm, the sensibility of the content, the relationships and the language, the transition, primarily, from a four-camera shooting style to single camera – it’s significantly different. At least, some of that difference is the product of a subtle and, sometimes, not so subtle, generational…mutation.

In the article about the agism lawsuit, a writer named Larry Mintz was mentioned as one of the plaintiffs. Among his credits, it was reported, were Sanford and Son, The Nanny and Family Matters. These are estimable credits on successful sitcoms, but do those shows bear any resemblance to the half-hour comedies they’re making today? (This is no shot at Mr. Mintz. You can ask the same question using my credits.)

Can an older writer learn to write scripts consistent with contemporary tastes and standards? Some can, I imagine. I’m probably not be one of them. The structure’s not the problem – as I mentioned, a story’s a story – but the current sensibility, with its focus on the coarse, the blatantly sexual, the humiliating and the pain inducing…it’s not my natural terrain.

If any writer could deliver a writing sample that met the current standards for acceptable scriptwriting, the only difference being they were older, their rejection would be definitely attributable to agism. What else could it be? Perhaps the solution here could be script submissions without names on them. Maybe they could try that.

(I heard this “anonymity” system was instituted at an audition for a symphony orchestra. To combat gender discrimination, the musicians would try out playing behind a drawn curtain.)

An older writer can try to “write young”, though their efforts may prove imitative rather than generic. The option of older writers’ exploring their current experiences for the enjoyment of their contemporaries is unavailable, since advertisers aren’t interested in the older audience, making their stooges, the networks, unwilling to program for them.

This seems like a mistake, since the only audience still loyal to the network television brand is that very same older audience. Someday, perhaps, the business people will wise up and program for who’s watching – the older audience – instead of who they wish were watching – the otherwise engaged younger audience – in which case, the older writers are back in business.

On a smaller scale, a cable network targeted specifically to Boomers – who have more available cash to spend than anyone around – makes sense to me. And who better to provide that entertainment than the readily available age-appropriate writers? No forced mandates for older writer inclusion here. From a business standpoint, they’re simply the best people for the job.

It hurts to be sent home. And it’s obvious who’s being discriminated against. The question is the reason. Is it agism, or economics? If its agism, the answer’s in the courts. An economic explanation requires an economic solution.

The writer sitting at home might say it doesn’t make any difference. But if you’re looking for answers, rather than vindication, I think, maybe, it does.

Friday, August 22, 2008


"Big Brother"

You can’t do it justice on paper – or whatever this is – but I’ll do what I can.

I have seen my brother make people – me included – laugh until tears streamed down our faces, and we thought we were going to die. It wouldn’t have been bad.

I can’t explain it. Primal comedy, maybe. The kind that catches you totally off guard, shatters your defenses and makes you surrender – no, “surrender” implies giving up control – this is more like a tidal wave. You are simply swept away.

An uncle of ours described my brother as having a “quicksilver” mind – lightning fast, moving in unexpected directions. Hart views himself as an endangered rabbit, always one perilous step from disaster. And ingeniously fashioning an escape. It’s not a logical process. It’s something deeper, more primitive. The “Survival Instinct” at its purest level.

Think of Eli Manning, eluding the pass rush at the end of the Superbowl. Your eyes pop, like, “What?” “How did he do that?” That’s my brother. Only funny.

He was eating a steak at a restaurant and he didn’t like how it tasted. He was concerned that if he complained, the waiter would taste the steak himself and pronounce it delicious, so he decided to take another tack. He called the waiter over, and announced, in total seriousness,

“My steak is making noises.”

How do you respond to that? Do you lower your ear and try and hear something? No. You’d look ridiculous. Your only option is to take the steak back – without argument – and return with a quiet one.

Hand in hand with an original way of thinking is a willingness to say whatever comes to your mind. In retrospect, the good taste may be “gray area”, but in the moment, even the “target” is too convulsed with laughter to complain.

As I’ve mentioned, my brother was partners with Lorne Michaels. They wrote for variety shows in the States, such as the highly successful, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. They then returned to Canada where they wrote, produced and starred in comedy “specials” of their own, known as The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour.

My brother took pride in his name coming first. Once, during the taping, I heard the Studio Director “marking” the scene:

“Lorne and Hart. Take Twenty-Eight.”

My brother immediately jumped in:

“Hart and Lorne. Take Twenty-Nine.”

Years later, their partnership ended though they remained cordial, Lorne hosted a “pilot” for a late night talk show. I attended the taping. The show was excruciatingly dull. Until my brother, the evening’s final guest, joined the panel.

For reasons I can’t remember the conversation meandered onto the subject of the “kosher” rules, specifically the ritual slaughter of “kosher” animals. Nobody quite had a handle on what was involved.

“I know they try and kill them as painlessly as possible,” opined Lorne, “but I’m not sure exactly what they do.”

My brother shot out:

“They bring them on talk shows and bore them to death.”

One final story, at the risk of my brother’s complaining that I’ve hijacked three of his best jokes. Those who know him are already familiar with these anecdotes. To those he’ll never meet, I recount them as a sincere tribute to an original comic mind. I hope that’s a good enough excuse. Otherwise, I’m in trouble.

Family and friends are gathered at a synagogue luncheon, celebrating my nephew, Bill’s, Bar Mitzvah. My brother’s the Master of Ceremonies, and extremely funny. Finally, he calls up Cantor Soberman, to lead the guests in the singing of the Birkat Ha-Mazon, a blessing of thanks, chanted after the meal.

Cantor Soberman was a longstanding member of the synagogue team, not “First String”, but a reliable “back-up.” He had a very distinctive voice. Not operatic, like the headliner, Cantor Cooper, but rather a hoarse – though not unpleasant when you’re familiar with it – rasp.

As the cantor reaches the Head Table to lead the singing, my brother ad-libbed:

“You’ll have to forgive Cantor Soberman. He’s had a cold for the past twenty-five years.”

I wasn’t present for the atomic testing at Los Alamos, but the thunderclap of the detonation could not have been any louder than our family and friends’ reaction to that joke. The response was cataclysmic. You imagined a crack in the synagogue ceiling, the roof flying off, the walls collapsing, and the Torahs toppling to the ground and unscrolling themselves down the aisles.

My mother, abandoning all semblance of parental judgmentalism, sat doubled over with hysterics. I was coughing up brisket. And my brother’s wife, Nancy, seeking separation from the incident, appeared to be easing herself under the table.

To truly appreciate these stories, you needed to be present to experience their electrifying effect. Like the best of Mel Brooks and Jonathan Winters, my brother’s on-the-spot inspirations literally generate heat. A chronicling of events can’t come close to duplicating the excitement.

Aside from being a comedic force of Nature, my brother is also a lawyer, a writer of essays and aphorisms, a sculptor (specializing in busts of old, Jewish men), an accomplished photographer, and, judging by the way he taught my daughter, Anna, to play ping-pong, the most patient and effective teacher I’ve ever seen.

Hart and Nancy – they met as teenagers at Camp Ogama – are the parents of three warm and inviting children, who’ve gone on to produce some children of their own. I can’t imagine a more satisfying legacy.

Today’s Hart’s birthday.

And I wish him the best.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

"Summer Times - Camp-Wide Activities"

We sat in teams, the teams representing countries – four countries, four teams. Mine was Argentina. I wore a bath towel folded length-wise and draped over one shoulder as a serape. That was my costume. (And it kept sliding off.) I had no idea how real Argentineans wore those things. I had no idea if real Argentineans wore those things.

It was not that elaborate. The “China” team wore bathrobes. “Ireland” pinned shamrocks to their regular clothes. One “Irish” girl wore lederhosen. It sounds kind of Swiss, but I believe leprechauns wear them too.

The Mess Hall was festooned – I’ve never used that word before – with banners, signs and hand-drawn pictures, all honoring their respective teams. The decorations were clustered so closely together, you could barely see across the room. It got to be dangerous. A team member from “China” got up without looking, and lacerated his head on a cardboard gong.

Whatever the decibel level in the Mess Hall normally – and it was excruciating – it was three times that level during programs. Songs, cheers, disparaging inter-team national taunts – campers bellowed them at the top of their lungs, excited by the liberation from their regular routine, and a fierce commitment to their team, a team they’d been randomly assigned to the day before.

It was exhilarating.

(It also made you wonder, if you were that invested in a team you’d been affiliated with for one day, how much more powerfully would you be bonded to a nationality or ethnicity you were born into? Maybe stimulating that awareness what part of what the program was about. Maybe not. But it stimulated it just now.)

The meat and potatoes of the camp-wide program were the competitive games, on land, and in the water. I remember the water games better. Especially the one involving pajamas.

It was a relay. Four teams, lining up on the beach facing the First Area dock, the First Area being the swimming area closest to shore where even non-swimmers were allowed to go. You could drown in that too, but not as deep.

On the “Go!” whistle, those first in line pulled on a pair of pajamas – tops and bottoms – and raced into the water to the dock, maybe chest-level deep in water Of course, that totally depended on how tall you were. If you were short, it was higher.

The competitor touched the dock, then raced back to shore. There, they then pulled off the pajamas – not easy, because they were now soaking wet and clingy – and passed them to the next person in line. (You can see how you’d want to line up first in this relay. Those guys got the dry pajamas.)

As you continued in the relay, the pajamas got more water-logged, tightly-wrinkled and caked, both inside and out, with wet sand from having been dropped on the ground in the participants’ hasty efforts to remove them. The last person was faced with a pair of cold, sandy, wrinkly pajamas, and no option but to pull into them as quickly as possible. I remember this with a curled lip of revulsion.

Another race involved efforts to pick up a greased watermelon, bobbling in the water. I believe this to be impossible to pull off.

Competitions were accompanied by encouraging cheers from teammates, though, when the scores were announced, there was also a place for the cheerfully negative:


“We came in fourth

But we could have come in fifth

If there would have been

More teams in

The race.”

(A propos of cheers, I heard this story decades later at a camp reunion. A former female camper named Gerri told me that, during one camp-wide program, she had served on a committee with me, assigned to come up with some new team cheers. Apparently, some of the other committee members were not sufficiently focused on the task at hand, and I had spoken to them harshly. When one girl whispered to Gerri, “Why does he take it so seriously?” she replied, “Because, for him, it is.” This is a story I wish I’d been aware of at the time. Not only would it have demonstrated to me where my passions lay – I myself had no idea – it might also have made me a more capable leader down the line.)

The Land Games, I can’t really describe. By then, I was in my favorite “hiding place” from the running, the jumping, and the humiliating myself in public – rehearsing for the pageant. Generally, the pageant, performed on the last night of the program, involved a rehash of the atrocities of World War II. I recall one memorable line, uttered bitterly when this character was informed of the bombing of the two Japanese cities.

“Where are they going to get enough wood for eighty thousand crosses?”

I later learned that the Japanese were not Christians.

More about the pageant shortly.

A perennial event during camp-wide programs was “The Carnival.” The entire playing field was converted into a Midway, featuring skill competitions (dousing a candle flame with a squirt gun), gambling, feats of strength, weight guessing, a Wedding Tent where couples so inclined could be married by a real, fake rabbi, the works.

The carnival took an enormous, all-day effort to set up, and everyone pitched in. Once, as the preparations were just about complete, it started to rain. A monsoon-quality downpour.

Everything was ruined. Support poles toppled in the mud, painted signs, mutilated and smeared, the colors ran on the crepe paper decorations, our beautiful effort, sinking in deepening bog. It was total devastation. What could we do? We went in the Mess Hall and watched a movie.

Our camp had a policy of not showing movies. That wasn’t what we came for, they believed. But there was one exception. On occasions such as this, when bad weather curtailed a camp-wide activity, we got a movie. It was always the same one. The camp only had one movie. (There were no tapes of DVD’s back then.) The movie was Lily.

Lily, starring Leslie Caron, was about a girl who ran away to the circus. It was okay, a little sappy, but with a catchy title tune:

“A song of love is a sad song

Hi, Lily, hi Lily, hi lo…”

It was the only movie they had, and because of that, its title became a verb. When rain started falling during a program, we’d cry, “Oh, no! It’s ‘Lilying’!

When the movie ended, it was late afternoon. Streaks of sunlight streamed through the brightening sky. The Head Counselor addressed the camp. He was giving us a choice. We could forget about the carnival. Or we could go back out there and build it back up.

We built it back up. And it was spectacular. Not just the carnival. But the spirit behind its rebirth.

We had accomplished a miracle by working together. It was almost as if the camp had ordered the downpour to teach us a lesson.

Of course, the real lessons were in the pageant. If you could understand them. It was philosophy students writing for six year-olds about genocide. From a comprehension standpoint, one particular pageant offered a unique challenge of it own.

We were in a prison camp. (Where else?) A rescue had been planned, but time was running short. My brother, who was also in the pageant, had a leading role. He played a jumpy guy, always yammering, “Why aren’t they here yet?” or “When are they going to be here?”

He had a lot of lines that sounded extremely similar. And that was the problem. We were on Page Two of a twenty page script when my brother exclaimed, “Why aren’t they here yet?” when he should have said, “When are they going to be here?” and by so doing, managed to skip sixteen pages of the script. The next actor picked up my brother’s “cue” – delivered in the wrong place – and suddenly, we were on Page Eighteen. We proceeded on from there, and our forty-five minute pageant was over in six minutes.

The program ended where it had started, back on the beach. There was the scientist again, standing in his boat, telling us that the cooperation he had witnessed during the last three days had given him a glimmer of hope. Perhaps, if we continued to work together, with justice and brotherhood and a sincere caring for our fellow man, the world might justifiably be preserved. If not, he’d be back.

And with that, he sped away.

The problem with good intentions is they never seem to last. The next summer, there was another guy threatening to blow us up if we didn’t shape up. Apparently, we had lost the spirit.

And for that, we were condemned to another relay in sandy pajamas.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

"Summer Times - The Scientist"


It sounded like dynamite – a reverberating explosion that literally shook the earth beneath your feet. The blast emanated from the island about a quarter of a mile from shore, stopping campers in their tracks, sending forest animals scurrying and birds winging from the trees. There were some insects who didn’t know what to do either.

It wasn’t the first explosion. There’d been others, at various times of the day. When we were eating in the Mess Hall. After bedtime. During “Rest Hour”, while we rested in our bunks, writing home. Can you imagine those letters?

“I have to stop now. An explosion just knocked me onto the floor.”

The parents couldn’t have read those letters too carefully. There was no stream of cars coming to pick up their children and take them to safety.

I was certain these frightening claps of dynamitic thunder had no connection with the impending camp-wide program. I was on the Campers’ Council that year, and I knew that a program was imminent. I’d been in on the plans for it. None of them included blowing up the camp.

The rumors spread. Some scientist had leased the island to engage in some experiments. Yes, they were noisy and nerve-janglingly random, but there was no danger. He was merely tinkering with explosives.

One day, the whole camp was at the beach for what they called it a “Beach Day.” A “Beach Day” was a day when it was so hot, all land-based activities were curtailed and we were sent to the beach to frolic in water, or just lie on a towel.

“Doing nothing in the sun” could easily define my idea of Heaven. (This was before we learned the sun could kill you.) Relaxing under glorious blue skies, a gentle breeze wafting in off the lake, reading comics, and not playing field hockey, or any other activity that could generate a bone-crunching bruise or a lifelong emotional scar. I liked “Beach Days” a lot.

The Water Skiing Instructor was putting on a show. Balanced on one ski, he sliced through the water, doing an eye-catching series of elaborate tricks. Everybody stopped to watch.

The Ski Instructor was coming to his “Big Finish”, where he slipped the rope over his head and skied “No Hands”, the towrope pressing against the back of his neck.


The beach rocked with the explosion. Simultaneously, the Ski Instructor, caught in a precarious position, flipped into the air, somersaulted, and landed awkwardly in the water.

He didn’t move.

An ominous silence fell over the beach. A second boat raced to the accident. The unconscious Ski Instructor was lifted carefully from the water, and wrapped in a blanket. The Health Center nurse was dispatched for a stretcher.

A somber gathering stood by as the Ski Instructor was carried up the hill to the Health Center, his body wrapped in the stained “Is that blood?” blanket. We could only imagine what wreckage lay underneath.

We were sent back to our cabins. I can remember the heated discussion that ensued. “If he dies, will the scientist get the Death Penalty?” I think Canada had that back then. But even if we didn’t, there was still that debate.

I wondered if the camp-wide program should be called off. Was anyone really in the mood for relays?

The following morning, we ate breakfast in an uncharacteristically quiet Mess Hall. The normal din was a funereal mumble, when suddenly


I saw our burly Swim Instructor, his face reddened with rage, explode from his seat and march purposefully out of the Mess Hall. Everyone followed him down to the beach. We had no idea what was going to happen, but we wanted to be there when it did.

As the Swim Instructor prepared to ride out to confront the scientist, we heard a distant motorboat, revving up from the island. It was the scientist himself. (He was wearing a lab coat.) And he was headed our way.

When he reached shore, the scientist was very angry. Which seemed backwards. He had blown up our Ski Instructor! There were staff members were ready to tear his head off. People had to hold them back.

It was not long before the scientist’s purpose was revealed.

He told us he despaired for the condition of the world – the selfishness, the hatred, the intolerance – and he’d rented this remote island to develop weapons that would destroy an earth he had decided no longer deserved to exist. We at camp had already experienced mini-prototypes of his handiwork.

We nodded that we had. We shuddered at the thought that those ear-splitting explosions were only “mini.”

He informed us, however, that there was still hope. He might still change his mind…

“If, during the next three days, the teams you will be divided into can work together…”

The entire camp groaned in unison.

“It’s a program.”

If you were ahead of me on this, it’s because I didn’t tell it well enough. In the way it played out – the escalating explosions shaking us to our shoelaces – you have to believe me, the campers, boys and girls, aged six to sixteen, were completely caught off-guard.

Looking around, I saw staff members, including the Swim Instructor, all in on it from the start, cackling triumphantly at the success of their subterfuge. And there was our Ski Instructor, unharmed, waving goofily from the hill.

And then there was me, a veteran, and a member of the Campers’ Council, who knew there was a program in the works and still didn’t make the connection, looking totally humbled and utterly embarrassed. I thought they were trying to improve my self-worth.

It was the most spectacular program “break” I had every experienced. I still harbor some residual resentment for having been fooled.

Tomorrow (I promise): Greased watermelons and sandy pajamas.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

"Summer Times - Programs"

They always woke us up.

“We’ve got to get down to the beach!” There was always this urgency.

The counselors hurried us into bathrobes and slippers. If you were an inexperienced camper, you might have felt scared.

“What’s going on?”

Veteran campers knew from the first “wake up” shake.

“It’s a program.”

Programs were a welcome break in the camp routine. A two or three-day team competition, always with an underlying theme, invariably concerning world peace, which seemed to be a perennial concern. I wasn’t aware there was a war.

Some programs were unit-wide, meaning only one section of the camp took part. Others – the camp-wides – involved everyone. The following was a two-day program for the Senior Unit, boys and girls, aged thirteen to fifteen.

We dragged ourselves down to the waterfront. Being Seniors, we feigned boredom. But underneath, there was, if not excitement, at least curiosity. How would they “break” – meaning introduce – the program this time? The “breaks” were always unusual, each trying to out-flourish the “break” of the year before.

We’re assembled in the sand. We hear the drone of an approaching airplane. We look up. A small plane comes into view, slowly circling the lake. It turns and heads straight towards the beach. Were they going to bomb us? Not a great idea for camp recruitment.

“We bombed your children. Would you like to come back next summer?”

A terrible idea. But a spectacular program “break”!

The plane slows down about a quarter of a mile in front of us. A figure drops out of it. His chute opens, floating him gently to the water.

Immediately, the camp’s boat driver jumps into the boat and, gunning his motor, races out to retrieve the parachutist. The driver lifts him into the boat, and roars back to shore.

As they reach shore, the boat driver turns off the motor. The parachutist then stands up in the boat, and proclaims….


Apparently, he had forgotten his “announcement speech” in the plane. The parachute jump had clearly discombobulated his brain. You could see him straining to remember what he was supposed to say, but nothing was coming, just incoherent sputtering.

Finally, the boat driver mercifully jumped in.

“Has the Hungarian Revolution begun?” he prompted.

“Yes!” exclaimed the parachutist, invigorated with a renewed sense of purpose. “The Hungarian Revolution has begun!”

With this, the Senior Unit program was officially “broken.”

In a flash, we were swept into waiting buses, which immediately took off. Where were we speeding to? We had no idea.

Would they be flying us over to Hungary? I hoped not. Apparently, there was a revolution over there. A person could get hurt during something like that.

As it turned out, our destination was a field-like patch of land on the other side of the lake, two miles from camp by water, but longer if you drove around. I don’t know who owned that property, but apparently, it had been rented – or, for all I know, commandeered without permission – and, for the next two days, it would stand in for Hungary. At least the part of Hungary where the revolutionaries hung out.

When we arrived, we found a totally functioning campsite. It appears that, while we were sleeping, our counselors had taken our sleeping bags, some clothes, our tooth brushes and washing equipment – and it was all out there, waiting for us, inside a row of already pitched tents, to which our teams were subsequently assigned.

There was one exception to the tent arrangement. There was a dilapidated house on the property and my team – I believe we were the “Workers” – were assigned that house for our “Hungarian” home. I felt fortunate. The “Workers” would be sleeping indoors, while the “Students”, the “Farmers” and another team whose name I can’t remember but who were apparently equally unhappy about the ways things were going in Hungary, would be bunked out on the ground.

What you remember is what you remember. And what I remember most clearly, and unfortunately, is this:

I was standing by a window inside this creaky, old house. The window had no glass in it. It was that kind of house. No glass, just a cracked, paint-peeling windowpane.

How do I explain this? In actuality, there was nobody looking at me. However, I have this powerful feeling that, if I do something really funny, someone, or an audience of someone’s, will suddenly appear, they'll notice and they’ll laugh. Where does this feeling come from? I have no idea. But it feels real to me, like the Field of Dreams thing.

“If you do it, they will laugh.”

The joke would be, I would lower the pane of the window that had no glass in it, after which, in my best Oliver Hardy imitation, I would say, “Now, that’s better”, the funny part, as if I needed to explain, being that, since there was no window in the windowpane, it wasn’t better at all, it was exactly the same. Hilarious, circa 1932.

The problem was the windowpane was stuck, making it extremely hard to pull down. No problem, I decided. My struggle with the windowpane – a monumental effort in the accomplishment of nothing – would make “Now that’s better” even funnier. Don’t you think? I do.

The surprise came when, while wrestling with this operation, the windowpane came slamming down on my finger. This produced an entirely new ending to my joke. A stupid person, performing for no one, ends up lacerating the heck out of his finger.

I’m an idiot! An idiot in pain, but who’s simultaneously laughing hysterically at my own ridiculousness. I’ve been entertaining myself in this fashion my entire life.

The next day of the “Hungarian Revolution” program involved an ingenious variety of competitions – races and relays – which completely elude my memory, due to a hundred per cent lack on interest, matched by an almost equal deficit in ability. What I do remember was, in the heat of the hubbub, a motorboat arrived from camp, with the announcement that Dr. Posen was in camp. Dr. Posen was my orthodontist.

Singled out with three other campers – meaning I wasn’t technically singled out; I just don’t know what you call it when four people are singled out at the same time – we clambered into the boat and were driven back to camp. Dr. Posen tightened our braces, at which point we were boated back to “Hungary”, where we returned to the festivities with aching teeth and throbbing gums. (I also had the finger thing. It was a nightmare.)

The program ended, as our programs always did, with a pageant, dramatizing the message the program was constructed to convey. I always volunteered for the pageants, because rehearsing for the pageant allowed you to be excused from further participation in the “games.” Yay.

I played many parts in pageants, highlighted by my portrayal of Ghandi, a role I won less for my acting abilities than by the fact that I was the skinniest kid in camp, owing to my refusal to eat any of the food.

In this pageant, I played Imre Nagy, who was the Prime Minister of Hungary during this turbulent time, and was, in the pageant, though I imagine also in real life, executed by a firing squad. I recall very few of my lines, but I do remember practicing various methods of falling down dead.

I also remember “running” my lines with my friend, Shelly, who played the prosecuting attorney who won the verdict that got me executed. We’d rehearse while playing badminton, one of the few games I didn’t totally stink at.

The “birdie” flew back and forth, punctuating our dialogue.

“So, Nagy, we meet again.”


“Unfortunately, yes.”


The pageant’s message was the hope that, someday, all people could learn to live in peace.

A message that came too late for the Prime Minister of Hungary.

Tomorrow: Greased watermelons and sandy pajamas.

Monday, August 18, 2008

"More Uncle Manny"

Uncle Manny, my grandfather’s youngest brother, was the only member of our family who was in show business, if you don’t count my Uncle Milton, who played base fiddle in a string quartet, and fairly or unfairly, I don’t.

I wrote about my Uncle Manny earlier (“Commercial Success” – May 28). At the age of thirteen, Uncle Manny ran away from home and quickly became “Doctor Emmanuel Brown.” I don’t know about you, but I’d have to be really sick to go to a thirteen year-old doctor.

Fortunately, Uncle Manny was a "Doctor of Philosophy" – also rather suspect at thirteen. I believe Socrates was considerably older.

What Uncle Manny did was to come onstage during the showing of a silent movie, invariably involving an innocent farm girl who’d gone to the Big City and gotten into “trouble”. Armed with a mustache and a pointer, Uncle Manny would galvanize the movie-going audience with a cautionary discourse on “The Price of Shame”, the message of his declamation:


Uncle Manny was surprisingly effective, I was told, his fiery orations delivered with a wisdom and persuasiveness well beyond his thirteen actual years.

In later years, Uncle Manny toiled in the “Distribution” area of the movie business, first as a Paramount employee and later, when the studios were required to divest themselves of theater ownership, as a consultant, helping the inexperienced, new theater owners decide which movies to acquire.

As I mentioned earlier, Uncle Manny had a sure-fire formula for picking the hits. “You can never go wrong with ‘F and F’ pictures,” he’d proclaim. “F and F” pictures were those movies that included heavy doses of fighting and, as he delicately phrased it when ladies were in the vicinity, “Foolin’ around.”

Check your movie listings. Uncle Manny’s still “on the money.”

Just once, did Uncle Manny venture into production himself. In the early days of Hollywood, “cheapies” were shot in a couple of weeks, on very small budgets. It didn’t seem like you had to be an expert. Glove salesmen were running entire studios. How hard could it be to produce one movie?


Uncle Manny decided to make a “jungle” picture, with a “shoe-string” budget and a ten-day shooting schedule. After that, the money would be run out and the actors would move on to other projects. It was imperative that they finish on schedule.

Uncle Manny was banking on the movie’s central character – a puma. At the high point of the story, the “killer puma” would spring from an overhanging branch onto the Leading Man, and a “struggle to the death” would ensue, the Leading Man emerging triumphant. The movie’s fate hung on this climactic scene. This was the adrenaline jolt Uncle Manny needed for his picture to succeed.

The production proceeded smoothly – on budget and on schedule. There’s just one scene left to shoot, the “Man-Versus-Puma-Fight-To-The-Finish.” The camera’s ready, the actors on their “marks” – the Leading Man and Lady under the tree, the puma overhead, ready to pounce.

The director calls, “Action!”

The dialogue plays out. The couple has narrowly escaped the Magumbi tribe.

“Everything’s going to be all right from now on.”

This is the cue for the puma to jump.

The signal is given.

The puma doesn’t jump.

The signal’s given again. They can “tighten” the moment in editing. But there’s nothing to edit. The puma doesn’t move a muscle.

The signal’s repeated a third time. And a fourth. And a fifth. The puma continues lolling lazily on the branch. It appears to be dozing.

Concern evolves into panic. They need the puma to jump. And the puma doesn’t seem interested.

Every effort is made to get the puma to pounce – pushing, prodding, smearing meat on the Leading Man’s head. Nothing works. Panic turns to desperation. If the puma doesn’t jump soon, they’re finished.

Uncle Manny belatedly learns that the puma rented for the picture is in “heat.” And when pumas are in “heat”, they’re apparently not biologically programmed to pounce. This is not good news when that’s exactly what you need it to do!

Desperate, Uncle Manny fires the puma, and replaces it with a giant dog, disguising it with a hastily rigged “puma mask.” Unfortunately, the mask freaks the dog out, and he keeps pouncing at the wrong time.

The clock inevitably runs out. The production closes down, the actors move on, and Uncle Manny, his producing career cut tragically short, returns to “Distribution.”

All because of a puma who refused to jump.

Friday, August 15, 2008

"Why Canadian Football Is Better Than American Football"

Okay, writers, how do I frame this fiasco? Is it a provocation, like in Curb Your Enthusiasm, where Larry argues that, when a husband pays for his and Cheryl’s dinner, he shouldn’t also be required to thank the wife? Is this an “Asking for trouble?” situation?

Or is “one man, scorned and covered with scars” tilting at the windmills of misperception to “right the unrightable wrong”? (I kinda favor this one.)

Is it a misguided strategy to pull in readers by championing a ludicrous position? Or is it a subconscious effort to drive readers, even my most loyal readers, away?

It could be any of those things. Or maybe I honestly believe that Canadian football is better than American football. It’s possible.

I realize the subject matter here is admittedly narrow. There are likely few readers left, except for those who remember “Cookie” Gilchrist and “Prince Hal” Patterson. The readers who don’t just went, “Who?” and now, they’re gone.

First, a confession: Football is my least favorite of the major sports. Hockey’s my Number One. As my friend, Paul, says, “It’s in our blood.” Baseball comes a close second, partly due to the myriad “chess games” playing out on the field, and partly because baseball’s played in a season where Canadians can comfortably go outside.

My reservations about football are three in number. One, my city, Los Angeles, doesn’t have a team, so I have no one to root for. Since I don’t bet, I have no personal attachment to any team. Jaguars, Panthers, Falcons, Ravens. To me, they’re just fast animals and scary birds.

Two, I’m uncomfortable supporting an activity where a permanent neck injury is just a “clothesline” away. Though I’m constantly reminded by retired players that “football’s the greatest thing that even happened to me”, I feel queasy knowing that the veterans have sacrificed the ability to tie their own shoelaces for my Sunday entertainment.

Third, I’m not enthusiastic about a sport where the most high profile participants are the coaches. Football the most over-coached sport I can think of. As a lover of natural talent, I prefer to see the players just play.

Which brings me to Canadian football. Where the players just play.

I will not argue that the players in the Canadian Football League are equal in ability to their NFL counterparts. That, I’ll grant you, is not true. With certain exceptions. Before quarterbacking the Redskins, Joe Theismann played five years for the Toronto Argonauts. There was also Alex “The Horse” Webster, a fullback for both the New York Giants and the Montreal Alouettes. And let’s not forget Doug Flutie and Warren Moon. “Cookie” Gilchrist spent time with the Bills. The CFL was not without its standouts.

But there was also Argonaut receiver, Jerry Sternberg, who was a lawyer and before that, a water skiing instructor at Camp Ogama. The CFL, at least in my day, limited the number of American “imports” on a team to sixteen players, out of a total roster of thirty-two. The rest of the team was made up, generally, of graduates from Canadian universities, where there were no athletic scholarships and you played the game – check this out, Americans – for fun.

Brian Aston, a punt returner for the Argos taught Phys. Ed. at my High School. During the season. (That’s how well CFL punt returners were paid.) Monday mornings, we’d watch him, a white Band-Aid draped across his much-broken nose, limping painfully towards the gym.

My argument for the superiority of Canadian football centers exclusively on the rules. I assert herewith that the rules governing play in the Canadian Football League are better than the rules in the NFL. And I add, with confidence, considerably better.

I know the Americans out there aren’t going to agree with me. Americans are resistant to admitting that another country does anything better – HEALTH CARE – than they do. I’m just hoping that in the part of your brain that recognizes the truth when it sees it, when you consider my argument for Canadian’s football’s superiority – as concerns the rules – if you’re honest, you’ll agree that I’m right.

Let’s start with the field. A hundred and ten yards, and wider than an NFL field. Advantages? More room to maneuver. More wide-open play. More excitement. More fun.

That’s one for the CFL.

The end zone – twenty-five yards deep, instead of a dinky ten. Why is that better? Flexibility in the “Red Zone.” You can throw a pass using your entire arm. No “floaters.” No “dunkers.”

Also, with a deeper end zone, kickers can punt the ball as far as they can, no angling for the “coffin corners” or kicking the ball straight up. Deeper end zones puts the “foot” back in football.

That’s two. Unless you like dinky passes and hate kicking.

Speaking of punting, the CFL has no “Don’t hit me!” “fair catch” rule. The “special teams” have to give the punt returner five yards to catch the ball, but then, he’s fair game. (That’s why Brian Aston came to school with a limp.) Do you really love the “fair catch”, NFL fans? Doesn’t it feel just the slightest bit, I don’t know, not “football”?

Also – this one’s great – when you punt the ball into the end zone, the punt returner has to run the ball out. There’s no “let it go, and bring it out to the twenty”. If the punt returner gets tackled in the end zone, it’s a point for the other team.

Once again, there’s incentive for the kicker to kick the ball as far as he can. There’s nothing stupider than watching an NFL kick-off specialist really putting his foot to the ball, it goes through the end zone, and the kicker’s penalized for kicking the ball too far! Isn’t that what a kicker’s supposed to do?

There’s a bonus to “you have to run it out.” The single points minimize the possibility of a tie.

The “you have to run it out” rule also provides the most exciting play in Canadian football.

It’s the final play of the game. The score is tied. My heart’s pounding already. I know where this is going.

The team with the ball’s within punting distance of the end zone. The receiving team dispatches its own punter to receive. When the ball is punted into the end zone, the returner/punter gathers it up and, not wanting to be tackled in his end zone – costing his team a point and the game – he punts the ball back out!

Then – get this! – the first kicker retrieves the ball and punts it back into the end zone! And it goes on frantically from there – punt in, punt back out, punt back in, punt back out – I’ve seen this “punting duel” go half a dozen kicks. And once, the kick returner, instead of punting a third time, ran the ball back a hundred and twenty yards for a touchdown!

Are you getting excited? Are you changing your mind about Canadian football?

“Are you kiddin’ me? That kicking thing sounds stupid.”

Yeah. Till you see it.

Okay, so the all-around superiority of the kicking game – three.

Now here’s the clincher. The difference that, by itself, makes Canadian football better than American football.

Three “downs.”

No two-yard plunges into the line. No “flare” passes, gaining nothing. Everything’s downfield. Every play has to count. With only two plays to make ten yards, the players skills take center stage, their deep pass “hook-ups” and electrifying runs making the NFL, with their coaches’ “grind it out” mentality, look boringly “by the numbers.”

Three “downs.” That’s four.

Four indisputable reasons why Canadian football is better than American football. That and the incomparable Canadian Football League names.

Nobby Wirkowski. Sam Etcheverry. Garney Henley. Normie Kwong. Tom Dublinski. Bernie Faloney…

Who does the NFL have? Oh yeah.

Chad Pennington.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

"Who's On Top?"

My experience in the entertainment business, as well as a preceding interest that goes back to my buying Variety when I was twelve, suggests that there’s a distinct and rotating cycle of power (and accompanying energy) at the top of the show business heap.

To wit: (as lawyers say, though more often in the Eighteenth Century.)

Before the advent of television, movie studios ran the show. The stars were the stars, but they were hardly in charge. The real power lay in the hands of the Goldwyns, the Warner Brothers, the Thalbergs and the Mayers. The movie stars may have been famous, but the studio bosses pulled the strings.

In the years after World War II, popular actors weakened the studio’s dominance by negotiating a share in their movies’ profits. Some formed production companies, optioning material and making movies on their own.

Independent producers were also emerging in this period. Roger Corman, Sam Spiegel and Dino De Laurentiis. The studios’ dominance was over. But, as power abhors a vacuum, there was always another entity ready to step in.

When television started, it was dominated by advertising. Every program has its distinct commercial backer. There was The Kraft Music Hall, sponsored by cheese. The Voice of Firestone, highbrow entertainment bankrolled by tires. Texaco Star Theater – Milton Berle, brought to you by gas.

The sponsors oversaw every element of the show: the talent, the scripts, the budgets – everything. Then they cheated on game shows, fell prey to blacklisting pressure groups, and the programs became too expensive for one sponsor to afford. Like the studios, the sponsors’ supremacy had come to an end.

Who picked up the ball? The networks. Now, they had the final say. During every “Pilot Season”, nervous producers agonized over the opinion of whatever network president was in charge at the time.

It was always the same fevered question. The only thing that changed was the name.

“What did Harvey say?”

“What did Brandon say?”

“What did Freddie say?”

“What did Jamie say?”

“Jamie’s out.”

“Who’s in?”


“What did Stu say?”

Frightened people, their futures hanging on the unilateral decision of a single executive. That’s power.

But not total power. Up to the Nineties, shows were independently produced, the law prohibiting network ownership due to conflict of interest. That later went away. Not the conflict of interest. The law.

For a while, independent companies, reliably providing successful programming, arguably held more power than the networks. MTM, Norman Lear’s company, Aaron Spelling. You know they had power because, even though they didn’t appear on the air, regular people recognized their names.

When the law changed, the “indies” were out of business. The networks, now programmers and the shows’ owners, reigned supreme.

Somewhere in there, agents and managers, serving as “packagers” took their turn at the top of the heap. Think Mike Ovitz. Again, you recognize the name, he’s somebody.

Studios. Stars. Sponsors. Networks. Independent producers. Agents and managers. Networks again. And, in movies, stars again, until their movies flopped, and then, they hawked calcium supplements. It was like this Power Wheel that gets spun. Whenever the pointer stopped, that category of people, for a while at least, runs the show.

Recently, a new contingent has emerged. They were always around, but on the periphery, generally viewed as hapless and third rate, scapegoats you yelled at when things went awry.

Who were these sorry subhuman Sad Sacks of show business?

The Public Relations people.

I knew one of these guys at Universal. Genial, didn’t take himself seriously, cognizant of his position in the pecking order and realistically aware of what he could expect. I will quote him now, describing his situation. Please excuse his language.

“I’d consider it a good day if nobody told me to go fuck myself.”

P.R. – a job with frighteningly low expectations.

Not anymore.

Today, P.R. Rules!

How did that happen? I once heard that magazines, fed up with being jerked around by legitimate stars, decided to create stars of their own, drawing on a pool of newly minted celebrities from cable, reality shows, and pornographic Internet videos.

It was a P.R. bonanza. Think about it. If there’s this enormous mass of humanity, clamoring to be famous, what does it take to emerge from the pack? Not talent; they don’t have any. What then?

Packaging and promotion.

Say “hello” to Public Relations.

I’m reading a book called Netherland. In passing, the narrator observes that he happened to be watching “Entertainment News, rather than actual entertainment.” What’s the meat and potatoes of “Entertainment News”?

Public Relations.

Lest this post succumb to the same sorry trajectory as my post about gossip – I was energetically against it, but numerous commenters shot me down – lemme take a slight turn here and give today’s focus of my attention some weight.

With P.R. geniuses bringing nonentities enormous success, it is not surprising that political operative started knocking on their doors, hoping they could work some similar magic on their nonentity candidates.

Unfortunately, this transition is not without its difficulties.

P.R. in show business: Who cares? P.R. in politics: I care. (To be read solemnly: “And so should you.”)

I’ve mentioned before that I’m addicted to cable news shows such as Hardball and Countdown. I try not to watch them and I generally fail. That’s how I know I’m addicted.

Cable news programs are the Access Hollywood of politics. Gossip for the “too good for gossip” crowd, like me. The fundamental difference is – and I think it’s a serious one – show business doesn’t ultimately matter. Politics does.

Politics affects our lives, If you’re in the military – literally. The P.R. arsenal of packaging and fluff may cause a cable news show’s ratings to go up, but it does nothing to consider the country’s problems.

So what? It’s just a show? Fine, but don’t call it news. Too harsh? I don’t think so.

Like all entertainment, cable news shows are about distraction. How do cable news shows distract us? By focusing on “the horse race”, which is pretty much all they do. You’ll find very little substance on a cable news show, especially during Election Season, which has now become, always.

Instead of discussing substantive policy, it’s who’s ahead, and who’s losing ground, and who misspoke, and who can’t bowl, and who’s elitist and who’s too old?

(By the way, I can’t get the concept of an elitist black guy. The closest I can come is he’s a guy who looks down on places they won’t let him into.)

You got these P.R. guys – Mark Penn – you heard of his name, so he’s somebody – and their legitimizing cousins, the nerdy pollsters, floating back and forth between representing candidates and oil companies, and they’re using the same strategies in both arenas.

“Let’s play down our obscene profits, and focus on how we’re filling their tanks for family vacations.”

Here’s how cable news programming gets things backwards. Movie analogy: There’s the movie, and there’s the (P.R.) marketing campaign. By focusing almost exclusively on the “horse race”, cable news programs are putting the marketing campaign ahead of the movie. That’s backwards.

Despite its offering of “feel good” and pizzazz, the P.R. powerhouse will someday surrender its preeminence. How do I know? An old stockbroker was asked during the “go-go” Nineties if the stock market would ever go down.

“Of course,” he confidently replied.

“Why do you say that?”

“It always has.”

Let’s hope, on the next spin of the Power Wheel, the pointer lands on something more helpful.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

"Summer Times - Canoe Trips - Part Two"

For greater enjoyment, read yesterday’s “Canoe Trips” post first. Just a suggestion. You’re grownups. You can do what you want.

We were on our way. Four canoes, filled with “Indians”, as they labeled the campers who were heading off on a three-day canoe trip to Antler Island, about ten miles’ distance from our camp. The “Settlers”, who hadn’t passed the swimming requirements, remained behind, to till the soil, or play badminton, I’m not sure which, since I was an “Indian” and I went. Though I didn’t pass the swimming requirement. See yesterday’s story.

We paddled away from shore, turned left, then left again, making our way down a swampy, frog-filled river that bordered camp property. We had travelled barely ten minutes, when we hit land.

It was time to portage.

You know what that means? It means we hit land, and we couldn’t paddle anymore. What was now required was to get out of our canoes, empty them of their contents, and then carry everything across the land to a body of water on the other side, where we’d reload the canoes and paddle away, until we hit land again, at which point, another portage.

There are more popular blogs than this one. But how many of them explain portaging?

Okay, here we go. The packs were unloaded and strapped on campers’ backs. You bent your knees, slipped your arms through two leather straps, then straightened up, but not too much; otherwise you’d fall backwards from the weight of the pack.

There was another supporting strap that slipped over your head and pressed tightly onto your forehead. I’m not sure how that helped, but I guess it was supposed to transfer some of the pack’s weight away from your back and shoulders, and onto your neck. I may need clarification here.

“Mike the Blogger”, please? I know him. He’s a former tripper – meaning he guided canoe trips – and he occasionally writes in. In contrast to some others, Mike was a tripper you were certain wouldn’t do injury to you in your sleep.

Once you were set up with your pack, you trudged down a path to the other side, a distance, in this case, of about half a mile. I was not assigned a pack to carry.

The counselors and the tripper would each carry a canoe. In later years, I tried carrying a canoe. I got about fifty feet, then stopped, and leaned the top of the canoe against a tree, and took a breather, which lasted for the rest of my life.

I did not carry a canoe on that first canoe trip. No campers carried canoes, so this was not considered a negative distinction. The following task, which I did perform on my first canoe trip, was.

I carried the paddles.

Not just the paddles. I also carried the “Medicine Kit”, which was a metal fishing tackle box filled with First Aid supplies. So, paddles and the “Medicine Kit.” Both. Two things, I carried. More than two, because there were twelve paddles. So, twelve, plus the “Medicine Kit.” I carried thirteen things.

Have I managed to make this sound impressive?

It wasn’t easy. Kinda like handling an octopus with twelve legs. (The octopus, not me.) Of course, I didn’t make it easier by the technique I adopted for carrying the paddles. How would I describe that technique?


We’ve all seen clowns and ice skaters who act awkward to humorous effect. Those clowns and ice skaters are actually graceful performers pretending to be awkward. I, by contrast, am naturally awkward. With me, there is no pretending. Nor an alternative. Awkward is the only thing I can do.

You’ve also seen the classic comedy routine where a comedian, loaded down with packages, or whatever, reaches down to pick up another package, and drops two other packages in the process. Then they pick up the two fallen packages, and drop three. And it just gets worse after that? Delete “packages” from this description and replace it with paddles, and that’s me on the portage.

And I haven’t even mentioned the “Medicine Kit.”

With twelve paddles finally cradled in my arms, I hoisted the “Medicine Kit”, which weighed about five pounds, with my baby finger, and headed made my way painstakingly down the path.

It wasn’t just the physical challenge for the portage; sometimes, you needed to use your head. At those points where the path was too narrow for the width of the paddles, I resourcefully shifted my body ninety degrees and continued along the trail sideways. I was very proud of that maneuver. Remember, I’d never been on a canoe trip before.

I finally made it to the other end. The canoes were already in the water, the packs securely strapped in place. We were ready to go. In fact, they’d been ready to go for about half an hour, but, you know, they needed the paddles.

We were now traversing a, comparatively, big lake, Lake Vernon, our armada of four canoes, gliding over its gently wavy surface. It was time to irritate my companions in an entirely new manner. I broke into song, bellowing the theme song to every cowboy show on TV.

“Bat Masterson”, “Maverick”, “Rawhide”, “Wyatt Earp”, “Yancey Derringer”, “Jim Bowie, Jim Bowie, he was a bold, adventurin’ man…”, “Tombstone Territory.” I knew them all, and I sang them at the top of my lungs. The songs brought me comfort in the wilderness. They also covered the fact that I wasn’t paddling very hard. You’d have detected my unmuscular stroke, if I hadn’t obscured my “lily-dipping” with my rousing musical interlude.

Lake Vernon opened into Fairy Lake. Or was it Mary Lake, rhyming lake names generally confuse me. ("Mike the Blogger" informs me it was Fairy. But there is also a Mary.) Our tripper pointed to a tiny spec on the horizon. Antler Island.

We were there.

We pulled up our canoes and began to make camp. Campers were assigned to set up the tent. Others arranged our provisions on a rubber “ground sheet.” I was part of a contingent sent to gather wood for the fire. I returned in ten minutes, announcing that I couldn’t find any.

The direction: “No firewood, no food” sent me back to the forest. It’s amazing how much wood pops into view when you’re threatened with starvation. And you’re in a forest.

Dinner was grilled steaks, and creamed corn mixed with twigs. The twigs hadn’t come with the corn; they fell into it from overhanging trees. Somehow, probably due to our day’s exertions, it all tasted delicious. Today, creamed corn without twigs? Something always seems missing.

At night, we slipped into our tent, where our sleeping bags were already laid out. Our counselor sprayed the enclosure with noxious billows of mosquito repellent, which managed to repel no mosquitoes, though it did induce some serious coughing fits among the campers, especially the asthmatics.

The night’s excitement was provided by the arrival of a bear. What bears are doing on an island, I have no idea. It must have swum over from shore, lured by the enticing aroma of our three-foot salami.

Our tripper had hung the salami from a branch high off the ground, but any bear motivated enough to swim a lake for some kosher cured meat was hardly going to be deterred by a little climbing. The bear also broke into a paint-can sized peanut butter tin and a jam tin of equal enormity. As it enjoyed a midnight snack of peanut butter, jam and salami, we cowered in our tent, hoping the bear would be too full to eat us.

I have other canoe trip stories, but this next one comes accompanied by philosophical implications, which, for me, puts it at the head of the line.

During the night, before the bear showed up, our counselors planted some arrowheads in the ground, somewhere on Antler Island. The plan was that, the next day, we “Indians” would discover them, and be excited.

The “discovery party” lined up in single file, our objective, to uncover archeological artifacts of cultures past. I was second to last in line and behind me, was Jerry Wiseman, a good-natured fellow, who was not in my cabin. (It was a two-cabin canoe trip.) On the signal, we started down the path. We had barely departed the campsite when Jerry Wiseman got stung by a bee.

We returned to the campsite to treat Jerry’s bee sting. Everyone showed due concern, but Jerry was taking it very well. To me, it seemed strange that an entire line of people had walked past the same place, and it was the last one who got stung. I guess these things happen.

The counselor left it to Jerry to decide whether we would abandon the archeological “dig” or get back on the trail. Jerry opted to keep going. We lined up again, and headed out.

Jerry Wiseman got stung again.

This time there was crying. The natural question arose:

“Why me?”

My response came in two sections. The first one was laughter, which I successfully subdued. I can’t help it. When an outrageous thing happens, even if it’s painful, especially if it’s painful, my initial reaction is a manic hilarity.

What else can you do? Especially if the bad thing didn’t happen to me? Part of the laughter may be out of relief that it didn’t happen to me. The other part relates to the incomprehensibility of such an occurrence ever taking place.

This is the Job story, with bee stings. There were terrible people in my cabin. None of them got stung. This nice kid, Jerry Wiseman – everybody likes him – he gets stung twice. What the heck is going on?

Okay, maybe there’s a biological explanation, involving Jerry Wiseman’s…essence. Maybe he’s a bee magnet. I don’t know. “I don’t know” led to Part Two of my response to the incident:

Sadness and confusion.

I know I’m just nine. But after my inappropriate laughter response, these are the thoughts that, maybe not in this form, but these types of questions went racing through my mind:

Is there no order in the world? Is everything random? Could any of us be struck down at any time? And then, be struck down again?

What about justice? The evildoers are duly punished and the good remain safe? Is that just some fairy tale we tell ourselves so we’ll feel better about things, but the truth is there’s no connection and nobody’s safe?

Jerry Wiseman got stung twice! How do you possibly explain that? The space I’m allotting to this reflects the fact that I took what happened that day very seriously. I never truly felt safe again.

By the way, we found the arrowheads and were very excited. Jerry Wiseman was not along for the discovery.

Our reintroduction to camp the following day was designed as an “Indian raid.” Beaching our canoes, we crept stealthily up from the waterfront, taking the “Settlers” by surprise. A fierce battle ensued. During the melee, I noticed my “Settler” friend, Shelly, whom I promptly whacked on the back of the head with a hand crafted tomahawk the tripper had made me. Shelly immediately whirled around and socked me in the jaw. We were clearly happy to see each other.

Though the canoe trip had been an adventure, it was wonderful to sleep – and go to the bathroom – indoors again. It was also comforting to know that whatever adversity that would befall me, and there would be many to come, none of them would include a bear.