Thursday, July 30, 2009

Wise Words from James Taylor

Once, we attended a James Taylor concert at the Universal Amphitheater. Finishing a song, Taylor was met with tumultuous applause. When the ovation receded, someone from the audience shouted,

“We love you!”

To which Taylor immediately shot back,

“That’s because you don’t know me.”

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Canadian Story In a Nutshell

You might not get this if you’re not Canadian. But if you are, it will instantly ring true.

I’m attending a gathering at L.A.’s Four Seasons Hotel, an event honoring Canadian accomplishments. Yes, there have been some.

Maybe the event was celebrating Canada Day – July the First, remember the date. All I know is the ballroom’s brimming with expatriates Canadians, five hundred of us, maybe more.

Drinks are served, people are socializing. Overhead, a huge screen offers a montage of recent achievements by celebrated Canadians. (I’m telling you, there’ve been some.) I’m standing in a group with three or four former Canucks, one of whom is Aubrey Tadman, a talented and sweet-natured variety show writer.

At one point, I glance up at the screen and I see this female figure skater, twirling around the ice, the clip chronicling her performance at the most recent Winter Olympics. Her name eluded me, but I was aware she had done well.

“I know her,” I exclaimed. “She came in second.”

To which Tadman immediately shot back,

“Who in this room didn’t?”

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The English Story In A Nutshell

At least, it was the “English Story” in the sixties. It may have changed.

Cricket is a game I only partially understand. But when I lived in London, I’d watch cricket matches on television. I’ll pretty much watch anything on television. Though, growing up in Canada, I drew the line at French Canadian bowling.

This is a cricket story. I’ll try and keep it simple. It won’t be easy.

Playing some other country, the English team was way behind, with the match rapidly nearing its end. It would take a monumental last-minute rally for the English squad to prevail

Now here’s the thing.

The traditional way of scoring runs in cricket is through safely played increments of one or two runs at a time. You could go for the “home run”, which, depending on where the ball was hit, could itself count for four or six runs. But, by hitting the ball in the air – home runs being uncatchable fly balls – you ran a greater risk of making an “out.”

Well, as I mentioned, England was seriously behind. An English batter comes up, and, instead of “dinking” the ball for a “one” or a “two”, the batter starts lofting these prodigious fly balls. The guy’s knockin’ ‘em out of the park, home run after home run – or at least the cricket equivalent of a home run – his “fours” and “sixes” cutting deeply into the other country’s lead.

England is catching up.

Before you know it, they’re ahead.

And in the end, they win!

The next day, the batter who’d spearheaded the miraculous English comeback is unceremoniously dropped from the team.


Because, the way he’d played the game…

It wasn’t “cricket.”

Monday, July 27, 2009

Foreign Models

Back in the seventies, my roommate was looking to buy a used car. He found one that suited his pocketbook, and arranged for the owner to bring it over, so my roommate could check it out.

The car turned out to have been manufactured in the owner’s country of origin, the former country of Czechoslovakia.

It was called a Skoda.

Since I have no aptitude in areas concerning how cars work, I set my mind to other issues. Issues that don’t matter. Like the car’s name.

“Over here,” I begin, “we often associate cars with speed and sleekness. We give them speedy animal names, like Mustang, Cougar, Jaguar. What does Skoda mean?”

Not entirely fluent in English, the Skoda owner explained by example.

“You know, when your friends’ boat sinks. Or his dog runs away. You say to your friend, ‘Skoda.’ You’re saying to him, ‘Too bad’, or ‘I’m sorry it happened.’”

“That’s what Skoda means? ‘I’m sorry it happened’?”

The owner nodded “yes.”

"And that's what they named the car?"

It was.

My roommate passes on the Skoda.

You may not need your car named after an animal that runs fast. But who needs a car named for an unfortunate turn of events?

Report From Hell- One of a Series

This time, it’s Bank of America.

They call them Versateller. Instant banking machines. I go to B of A to make a deposit. I occasionally get residual checks for reruns of shows I wrote a while back. I recently received one for sixteen cents. Some checks are for larger amounts.

B of A’s Santa Monica branch has four Instant Teller machines, two situated in the lobby at the front of the building, and two in the entranceway at the back. I go to the machines in the front.

The first machine says “Out of Service.” The second machine’s “deposit” bar is colored gray, indicating that that machine won’t take deposits either.

I exit the front of the building and walk to the back of the building, where the other two Instant Teller machines are located. The first machine accepts deposits, but it won’t process my checks. They sit there in the “deposit slot.” The machine won’t take them in.

The fourth machine works fine.

Two questions.

One: How does a bank allow three of its four Instant Teller machines not to function?

Two: Why is it always the last one that works?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

"Summer Home Surprises"

Two years ago, we arrived at our little log cabin in Indiana at about eleven o’clock at night. Our arrival followed a “no leg room” flight from Los Angeles, and a torturous drive from Chicago, where our plane comes in. The drive to the cabin can take less than an hour and a half, with luck and good traffic. On that trip, we had neither.

We’ve been going to this cabin for almost twenty years. You get there by taking the Indiana Toll Road. For as long as we’ve been taking it, the Indiana Toll Roll has been under construction. It’s never finished. Not once could you use all the lanes. At least one of them is always shut down. Usually more.

What exactly are they doing to that road? And why can’t they finish it? If we paid bigger tolls, would they finish it faster? If we stopped paying the tolls, would the construction workers go home and let us, for once, drive on the entire highway? You have time to ponder these things, when the Indiana Toll Road’s a parking lot, and your lane’s ending in a hundred yards.


The flight’s behind us. We’ve done our four hour drive from Chicago. It’s over. There’s the cabin.

We have arrived.

We pull onto the rutted, grassy area that serves as our driveway. We get out of the car, heading towards our beloved retreat. We’re tired but we’re happy.

She slides the key it the lock, and turns the key.

The door will not open.

She tries again, and again. Nothing. We sigh. It’s possible we curse.

We later learn that for the past two weeks, the Michigan City area had been deluged with record rains. The downpour swelled up our doorframe, causing the components of our lock to get out of alignment. That’s why the key didn’t work. Of course, we knew none of this at the time. What did we know?

We wait a whole year to come to this cabin.

And we can’t get in!

We get back in the car, and we drive off, looking for someplace that’s open at eleven at night, so we can use their phone. (Our cell phone has spotty service out there, and besides, we don’t know who to call. ) We see lights on at a gas station that’s also a convenience store. We drive onto the gravelly area in front, and park.

We ask if we can borrow their phone book. They immediately hand us one. I feel grateful for their hospitality, and consider buying some beef jerky as a “Thank you”, but I don’t. We scan the Yellow Pages, searching for a locksmith. It’s late, but we figure we’ll give it a try. If they won’t come, we’ll spend the night at “Judy’s Motor Lodge.”

(We’d been driving by “Judy’s” for years. I’d always wondered what it was like. And who stayed there. You can’t make a living from just people who are locked out of their cabins. Though judging by the paltry number of cars we’d see out front, it seemed like that’s all “Judy’s” ever got.)

The signs are encouraging. The locksmith ad in the Yellow Pages says “24-hour Service.”

(I may have told this one already. Steven Wright has this joke. “There’s a store near my house that says, ‘Open 24 Hours.’ I go down there, and the guy’s closing up. I say to him, ‘I thought you were open twenty-four hours.’ He says, ‘Not in a row.’”)

The “24-hour” locksmith says he’s in his pajamas. But he finally agrees to come out. We drive back to our cabin, and wait. The locksmith arrives. An hour and a half later. You can see his pajamas under his clothes.

The locksmith gets us in. We’ll be seeing a lot of him over the next few days, as he installs a new lock and does some carpentry work on the doorframe he destroyed. At that point, we don’t care about anything. Three hours after arriving, we are finally inside the cabin.

Dr. M’s nestled cozily in bed, reading a book. I sit down on the other side, and just as I’m about to swing my legs around, there’s this splintering “Crack!”, the bed’s nearest leg plunges directly through the floor. The bed’s downward angle causes me to fall out of it.

The plumber – who we call the next day – explains to us that, over the winter, the pipes from the nearby bathroom leaked, and the water had seeped under the bedroom floor, rotting the wood, such that when a person got into that side of the bed… they wound up on the floor.

That was two years ago. Last year’s visit offered no such difficulties. We just didn’t have hot water. As a result, Dr. M and I took turns pouring water, heated on the stove, over each other through a metal colander, the shower-ee sitting on a wooden stool in the middle of the shower stall.

One more, and I’m done. I bought an electric keyboard, so I could practice the piano while on vacation. The keyboard came packed in a long, cardboard box. I store the piano in it between visits. Recently, upon our arrival, I reached into the box to slide out the keyboard and

A mouse jumped out.

There was an audible “Eek!” From the mouse. Men don’t scream “Eek!” Well, we do, but we keep it inside our in heads.

Come on! It was a mouse!

Well, our next adventure starts tomorrow. Two weeks on Chickadee Trail.

Wish us luck.
As is my habit when I leave town, I have left some little stories, which I Yiddishize as shticklach, for your daily consumption. Since the blog’s “scheduling” function is still on the fritz, I have enlisted Anna to publish the stories manually. She may even contribute something herself. I hope so. The kid can write.

I’ll be back shortly.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"The 'Lovin' Spoonful' Play Hammond, Indiana"

I can feel our annual trip to Indiana coming on. Stories of earlier trips are rushing to my mind. They’re disasters, of course. But what other stories do I tell?

Every summer, or so, Dr. M and I, and sometimes our kids, leave the fantasy world of Hollywood and travel to a place where they grow corn. Our vacation home is a tiny log cabin on Chickadee Trail. Nearest municipality: Michigan City, Indiana, about sixty-five miles south and east of Chicago. Michigan City is the proud home of the Indiana State prison, where John Dillinger was a nine-year guest, and out of which three prisoners recently escaped. Our hope is that they’re recaptured before we arrive.

(Dr. M informs me that when she was a child – the cabin has been in her family her entire life – there was a sign outside Indiana State Prison that read: “Please do not pick up hitchhikers.”)

Tomorrow, I’ll regale you with a medley of “arrival surprises”, unexpected challenges that have greeted us over the years when we showed up. The cabin is unoccupied fifty weeks of the year (Vandals: Please Ignore), so we never know what condition we’ll find it in. In our experience, the least likely condition for us to find it in is perfect.

Maybe this time.

Oh, yeah.

Whenever we’re in Indiana, we like to scour the area’s newspapers for interesting things to do. (I also enjoy reading the local Crime Report column. Big headline: “Missing Ladder.”)

Sometimes there’s a county fair in the vicinity, where you can eat “elephant ears” and see miniature horses. (I have no idea why those things even exist. It’s like geneticists are just fooling around.) Sometimes, there’s a small circus playing, where a girl leaves the crowds breathless by twirling two-dozen Hula Hoops at the same time.

Sometimes, we run into an encampment of re-enactors. Last summer, we not only enjoyed Civil War re-enactors, we also met a guy impersonating obscure president, Benjamin Harrison, and another guy who not only dressed as, but who boastfully claimed, “I am Farragut!”

We’ve seen Tall Ships. Well, not really tall, but Medium Height Ships. We visited a “fur trappers’ encampment”, where men were decked out like Nineteenth Century courreurs du bois (runners of the woods). Indiana people, I don’t know, they seem to have time on their hands for some serious obsessions.

Anyway, on one trip, as we neared the end of our stay, we read this:

“'Lovin’ Spoonful' To Play At Hammond Fairgrounds”

That was big news! Not only are we fans of The Lovin’ Spoonful (“Daydream”, “Summer In The City”, “Do You Believe In Magic?”), but I once worked with the band’s original leader, John Sebastian. When I was casting the lead role for a sitcom I created called Family Man, Sebastian was one of the two finalists for the part. (The role ultimately went to Richard Libertini.)

I remember John Sebastian being friendly and easygoing and kind. (Even after I didn’t give him the job.) He’d frequently call me when he was in town, and we and our spouses would go out for dinner. It seemed as if like Sebastian, I don’t know, actually wanted to hang out. Rock ‘n roll icons don’t call me that often. So I’m a little goofy about writing about it.

Anyway, the guy’s in the neighborhood – Hammond, Indiana – which is something like, twenty miles from Chicago. It seemed like a fated arrangement. We were scheduled to drive into Chicago that night. We could stop off at Hammond and take in the show. Maybe go backstage and say hello. Have a late dinner together at one of Hammond’s finer eateries.

This was really exciting!

The Hammond Fairgrounds? We had no idea. It could be some vast open field, a gathering place for some massive outdoor concert. Who knows? We could be walking into another Woodstock.

We load up the car, lock up the cabin and we take to the road. It’s raining. But nothing can dampen our spirits. (Or at least mine.) We’re catchin’ The Lovin’ Spoonful in Hammond, Indiana. Maybe there’ll be commemorative t-shirts!

The drive to Hammond is about forty-five minutes. The rain’s coming down harder. We have considerable trouble finding the fairgrounds. Younger family members lobby for ditching the concert and going straight to Chicago. They are gently overruled. Finally, we spot an illuminated Ferris wheel in the storm-darkened sky.

Hammond Fairgrounds, here we come!

We park on the road across the street, and we get out of the car. By now, the rain’s pelting down in sheets. We’re soaked to the skin in thirty seconds. I find this hilarious. (Though no one else does.) I’m certain John Sebastian thinks it’s funny too.

A concert in a downpour. Rain-soaked memories. Maybe it would inspire another hit.

"I’m soaked to the skin

Singin’ to you

Raindrops drippin’ off my nose

And fallin’ on my shoe…

Okay, maybe not that, but adversity often spawns creativity. The downpour triggers talk of getting back in the car, but I say we have to stay. We owe it to John Sebastian. Hey, I didn’t hire him, and he was still nice to me. That’s worthy of some loyalty, isn’t it?

The fairgrounds are instantly disheartening. Cheesy games and rickety rides. And there’s nobody there. It all seems a little sad. Big star performing at a place like this. Hopefully, the concert venue would be more impressive.

We slosh through the monsoon, heading towards the mellow strains of, “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?”, with its steady rhythm and its signature harmonies. The recognized song rekindles my enthusiasm. This is gonna be fun.

We arrive at the concert area. I look around. Maybe five hundred seats. Less than twenty people in the audience. Sure, it’s raining, but this is pathetic.

The bleak turnout makes it even more vital to offer moral support. We wipe off the seats, and we sit down. We won’t stay long, I assure my rain-soaked family. We can barely see the stage through the deluge.

“…Make Up Your Mind” ends to scattered but, at least from me, enthusiastic applause. The lead singer steps up to introduce the next number, and as he’s speaking, I think I hear him say, “When I was the Lighting Director for The Lovin’ Spoonful…”

At which point, I immediately suspect that the band we are being entertained by is The Lovin’ Spoonful

in name only.

I pick up a waterlogged program off the ground. I start to read. Yup. It was just as I thought. Some of the players had connections to the original Lovin’ Spoonful, though not necessarily musical ones. Lighting Director. Back-up drummer. Ticket manager. Now they were the band.

There was not one original members of The Lovin’ Spoonful on that stage.

John Sebastian was nowhere in the vicinity.

The drive to Chicago was quiet that night. Silent recriminations, and a dripping from the hair.

A torrential rainfall. No John Sebastian. And a band of no-name replacements. You just have to laugh, I told my family.

But they weren’t in the mood.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

"It Seemed Like A Good Idea"

Recently, I got so many post ideas at bedtime, I started thinking I was a “Night Person” but I never knew it ‘cause I was always asleep.

When I get these ideas, I have to immediately write them down, because when I don’t, they disappear. You know how, on the computer, when you transfer a file from one place to another place, there’s this icon showing the file floating from Point A to Point B? It’s like that with these ideas.

They float in from the place they come from, flutter across my “radar screen”, and if I don’t capture them en route, they float out to the place where they go. Which, for all I know, is the same place. Although it does seem to be on the other side.

It appears to be a three-step process. The idea’s not there, then it’s there, and then it’s gone. Maddeningly often, forever.

Ideas are precious. They need to be preserved.

That’s why I bought The Pen.

I saw it in a stationery store next to our favorite restaurant, Pizzicotto. What is it? It’s a kind of sturdy silver, metal pen, at the top of which is this flexible bendy thing, (similar to the setup on a goose-necked lamp), and at the top of the flexible bendy thing, there’s a little light.

You see what they’re going for? A pen with a light on it, so you can write in the dark. How could you not buy that?


It’s bedtime. I’m about to fall asleep. Suddenly, a brilliant idea flutters into my consciousness. I mean, it’s a doozy. Original. Insightful. Impeccably worded. And funny as heck.

I sit up in bed. I grab The Pen, strategically positioned on my night table. I click on the little light. I adjust the flexible bendy thing over my notepad.


It’s totally useless.

No matter how I position the flexible bendy thing, the only thing the little light illuminates is the back of my hand. I adjust the flexible bendy thing in another position. It illuminates a different part of the back of my hand.

What it doesn’t illuminate is the notepad. Why? Because as a result of The Pen’s design, my hand always ends up between the light and the paper. I can’t see where I want to write. I can only see knuckles and veins.

There is the possibility, as Randy Newman sings, that “Maybe I’m doing it wrong.”


Somebody had this breakthrough idea as they were about to fall asleep, and they didn’t write it down. When they woke up the next morning, they forgot how to make it, but they were so stubborn, they went ahead with it anyway. And they ended up with this.

A pen that’s supposed to illuminate what you’re writing on but instead lights up the back of your hand.

A failure for recording nocturnal insights.
Helpful, I imagine, if you’re searching for warts.

Monday, July 20, 2009

"Summer Times - 'The Magnificent Blunder'"

After dinner, there was “Free Play”, during which campers could participate in any activity they wanted, (including my favorite activity – doing nothing). After “Free Play”, there was “Evening Activity.” There were three units in our camp – Junior, Intermediate and Senior – and every night, a separate unit-wide activity was arranged for each of them.

“Evening Activity” could be anything, from “Bingo” to watching a medical student mutilate a frog. “Evening Activity” could also mean outdoor games – quasi-military endeavors like “Capture The Flag”, as well as familiar “running-around-looking-for-things” games, such as Scavenger Hunts and Treasure Hunts.

“The Magnificent Blunder” involved a Treasure Hunt. I call it “The Magnificent Blunder”, because when it comes to Treasure Hunts, it would be impossible to mess one up more magnificently.

This was truly a disaster.

I imagine you know how Treasure Hunts work. Two teams, two sets of hidden clues, each clue directing you to the place where the next clue is hidden, until the last clue directs you to the “treasure”, and whoever gets there first, wins the Treasure Hunt.

It’s all pretty simple.

Among their other responsibilities, counselors, on a rotating basis, were responsible for arranging the evening activities. Arranging a Treasure Hunt is one of the easier assignments. You devise two sets of clues, and you hide them. And that’s it.

Every clue contains a “secret message” which, when “deciphered”, will direct the “Treasure Hunters” to the next hiding place. A typical clue would go something like this:

“Forget your racket, drop your saddle

Go to the place where they keep the paddles.”

That would be the Canoe Dock.

“A place for breakfast, this place ain’t

Your next clue’s hidden where there’s paste and paint.”

The Arts and Crafts Cabin. Are you getting the idea?

We’re not talking about a “Sherlock Holmes” level of deduction here. The clues were instantly decipherable. In truth, the real goal of the Treasure Hunt had nothing to do with finding the treasure. The actual objective was to run the kids ragged, exhausting them, so they’d fall asleep more easily when they got back to the cabin. That was pretty much the point of all camp activities:

To wear out the campers.

Okay, so, the counselor in charge of the Treasure Hunt devises two sets of clues, and he hides them. He’s done for the night.

Or so he thinks.

Minutes before the activity is to begin, the counselor in charge of the Treasure Hunt realizes he’s committed a horrible blunder. There is really only one mistake you can make in setting up a Treasure Hunt. And he has made it.

The mistake is this.

Instead of taking the clue directing the “Treasure Hunters” to go to, say, the Mess Hall, and hiding it at, say, the riding stables, the counselor in charge of the Treasure Hunt has taken the clue directing the “Treasure Hunters” to go to the Mess Hall and hidden it

at the Mess Hall.

That’s a problem. At the time the campers are reading the clue directing them to proceed to some designated location on the campgrounds

They are already there.

Hence, “The Magnificent Blunder.”

To wit: The counselor in charge of the Treasure Hunt has hidden each clue not at the location before the location the campers are meant to be directed to. He has hidden the clue at the location itself.

Advice to future Treasure Hunt planners:

Don’t do that. The counselor in charge of the Treasure Hunt did that. That was a mistake.

The problem is: You’ve made the mistake. What do you do now?

In a stroke of good fortune, the counselor in charge of the Treasure Hunt has prepared a “Master List” indicating the “hiding places” of all the clues. To salvage the evening – and to prevent the campers from returning to their cabins considerably less than worn out – he distributes a copy of the “Master List” to the counselors in charge of supervising each of the teams through the treasure hunting process. This is helpful, because now, those counselors have a list of the correct sequence of the hiding places.

The only trouble is, the clues don’t fit. Each clue is clearly telling the Treasure Hunters to go someplace specific. Unfortunately, that “someplace” is clearly the place where they’re already standing. The supervising counselor’s job is now to “reinterpret” the clue, so that it reasonably indicates the next hiding place. Even though it doesn’t.

It’s absurd, but at that point, it was the only thing they could do.

The campers find a clue:

“If you’re feeling sick or ill

Go to this place and they’ll give you a pill.”

“To the baseball diamond!” yells the supervising counselor.

And the campers race to the baseball diamond. Except for the confused ones.

“Why are we going to the baseball diamond?” they reasonably inquire.

“Because…a slang word for a baseball is “the pill.”

The supervising counselors are making this up on the fly, insisting that campers proceed to certain places, even though the clues are giving no such indication whatsoever.

“On hot days this place is really handy

The water’s wet and the sand is sandy.”

“To the archery court!”

“Isn’t that the beach?”

“It can’t be the beach. We’re at the beach.”

Somehow, the kids never caught on. Except for the smart ones, but who listens to them? One team reached the “treasure” first, they were pronounced the winners, everyone had snack, and they went back to their cabins.

Worn out.

Still, it was a Magnificent Blunder.

And the most glorious thing of all?

The “Magnificent Blunderer” wasn’t me.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

"I Threw A Better First Pitch Than The President of the United States"

Last week, President Obama threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the All-Star Game. It wasn’t a great pitch. It barely made it to home plate. His throwing motion seemed a little tight, an affliction usually generated by nerves. They call it “short-arming” the ball. It’s like “choking” in your armpit.

(By contrast, George W. Bush really had it. Whatever criticisms he may have earned elsewhere, fair people – and this could actually be a test of fairness – would have to acknowledge that “43” was a superior Ceremonial First Pitcher. His delivery was crisp, and his throw was on the money. The man may have missed his calling.)

Which brings us, as this blog inevitably does, to me.

For about fifteen or so years, I was the part owner of an “A” ball – the lowest level – baseball team in South Bend, Indiana. The team was originally called the South Bend White Sox. Later, the “parent” Chicago White Sox sold the team to the Arizona Diamondbacks, at which point the team became known as the South Bend Silverhawks – named after the Studebaker “Silverhawk”, a model of a car they used to manufacture in South Bend, but don’t anymore, though they still have an enjoyable Studebaker museum. I guess that’s what you do when your factory goes away. You put dust on the inventory and you call it a museum.

I don’t remember if I told you this already, so I’ll tell it fast. The first time, I attended a game at South Bend’s Coveleski Stadium (named for Hall of Famer, Stan Coveleski, one of the last “spit ball” pitchers in the Major Leagues), I was stopped as I was coming through the turnstiles. I’d be tabbed as “the three hundred thousandth fan”, or something, which entitled me to a basket full of “goodies”, including the free rotation of my tires at a South Bend auto shop, and a portrait of my family snapped by a South Bend photographer.

General Manager, John Baxter, had selected me, he later reported, because I looked like “a typical South Bend fan.” I urged him to pick someone else, urgently whispering, “I’m an owner!” But he ignored me and I ended up the winner a basket of stuff I couldn’t use, except for the team logoed seat cushion.

I loved being an owner. “Owner” meant I got an “Owner’s Discount” at the Souvenir Stand. “Owner” meant I received tickets redeemable at the “Food Court” for hot dogs and peanuts.

“Owner” meant I was permitted WALK ON THE FIELD!!!


I watched “batting practice” from directly behind the batting cage. I met actual players. (When a ball got loose, I would run it down, and actually toss it back to one.)

I chewed the fat with the various South Bend managers, one of whom was Terry Francona, who would later go on to win two World Series as the manager of the Boston Red Sox. Terry was the most affable baseball person I ever met. You could tell he had a promising future. During our conversation, he invited me to come down after the sixth inning and watch the rest of the game with him from the dugout. My response was highly characteristic:

“I’m not allowed to do that.”

Terry assured me it was okay. So, after the sixth inning, I left my seat – a great one, visiting “owners” always gets great seats – I went downstairs, made my way through the home team’s clubhouse, and stepped into the dugout. There was a chair waiting for me behind the dugout’s protective fence. Right beside the manager’s.

I watched the rest of the game from the dugout, sitting beside (possible, maybe even likely, future Hall of Famer) Terry Francona.

That was really good.

But best of all, was this.

Singer John Fogerty, who was scheduled to throw out the first pitch, had neglected to appear. So John Baxter’s wife, Rita – who does everything – asked me if I’d be willing to take his place. A “pinch pitcher”, as it were.

I, uncharacteristically, said yes.

I’m currently looking at three four-by-six photographs, framed and arranged vertically, immortalizing the historic event. In the top picture, I’m standing on the mound, dressed in jeans and a red sweatshirt with Major Dad emblazoned on it in military-stenciled yellow lettering. Behind me, you can see EARL POMERANTZ!! spelled out in lights on the Coveleski Stadium scoreboard.

Second Picture: I’m standing on the “rubber”, the spot where the real pitchers stand. Many “ceremonials” stand closer, so they won’t embarrass themselves with a pitch that doesn’t make it to the plate. I don’t give that a moment’s consideration. I don’t know why. (Probably a “man” thing.) This picture immortalizes “The Throw.” My form looks impressively professional.

The picture not taken – I believe, because they don’t make film that’s slow enough – was a shot of my “ceremonial first pitch” in flight. Let me say this. I wound up throwing a perfect strike. The catcher didn’t even have to move. On the “down” side, the ball took about twenty minutes to get there. Children were being born in mid-pitch.

The third picture shows the catcher is returning the ball. You know what he said to me?

“You t’rew a helluva pitch.”

And that man was a professional!

I’ll never be president. I wasn’t born here. So I’ll never get to measure my “ceremonial first pitch” prowess against Taft and Roosevelt and Truman and the rest of the gang. But that’s okay. I had the honor once, and in an only slightly less auspicious setting.

Was it the Opening Day? No. Was it an All-Star Game? No. Was it the World Series? No. But I threw out the first pitch at a regular season “A” ball game in South Bend, Indiana. Because John Fogerty didn’t show up.

The most exciting experiences of my life?

It’s definitely in the Top Five.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

"A Little Story That Says It All"

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Anna and I are enjoying our pool. Our family, generally, prefers to keep the water temperature at a friendly eighty-eight degrees. It is my view that an abrupt change in temperature can make your heart stop. And I’m against that.

Anna and I are engaged in conversation, standing chest deep in what most people would call bathwater. Suddenly – Ouch! – I feel this intense stinging sensation on my back.

It hurts. I’m unhappy. Though I detect no bee or anything similar in the vicinity, I have the unmistakable feeling of having been insectually attacked.

Anna springs into action. She splashes to my side, quickly discovering a black pointy thing sticking out of my back. You know what’s next.

The pointy thing has to come out.

Taking charge, Anna dispatches Dr. M for tweezers. I have a knee-jerk reaction to the word “tweezers.” A narrowing of the eyes, a quivering of the lips, sweaty palms, even in water. Catching the signals, Anna responds with these words:

“Dad. It’s me.”

I know what she’s saying. We have a history in this department. And she’s always come through before.

“Dad. It’s me.”

Three words, ringing with reassurance. They immediately settle me down.

Till Dr. M returns with the tweezers.

I am now displaying every quiver, twitch, moan and shudder in my Arsenal of Wimpiness.

It’s going to hurt.

And there’s nowhere to hide.

Anna takes hold of the tweezers. Before “going in”, she reminds me again.

“Remember. It’s me.”

The operation runs smoothly. A yank and a yelp, and the spiny intruder is successfully removed.

My ordeal is over.

I tell Anna, “Thanks.”

I sense a tear in the corner of my eye.

It wasn’t from the sting.
Late Bulletin: Anna says it didn’t happen that way. Dr. M took out the stinger. Somehow, I remember it differently.

Though I did have my back turned.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"The Monarchs"

As I write this, I am happily attired in a cream-colored Monarchs t-shirt, its signature red lettering outlined in black. Who were the Monarchs? The Kansas City Monarchs were a team that played in what they called the Negro Baseball Leagues, during a time when black ballplayers were prohibited from playing in what they called – and still call – the Major Leagues.

I’m interested in Negro League baseball. Every year, when solicited, I send money to support the Negro League museum (coincidentally housed in Kansas City). In return, I receive some kind of appreciative souvenir – a commemorative wooden ball, a miniature bat key chain, or the aforementioned team logoed Monarchs t-shirt.

Though Dr. M contributes to many charities, there are only two I contribute to directly: the Negro League museum, and the Jewish cemetery in Tombstone, Arizona. Although no Jews participated in Tombstone’s infamous “Gunfight At The O.K. Corral”, it is rumored that one of them may possibly have booked the venue.

Just funnin’.

I read a book once called In The Shadow Of The Senators, concerning a legendary Negro League team called the Homestead Grays. (The ball club relocated from Homestead, Pennsylvania to Washington D.C.)

The Grays played in the same stadium as the National League’s all white Washington Senators, scheduling their games when the Senators were out of town. It was not unusual for the Grays to regularly outdraw the Senators in attendance.

It’s not surprising. The Negro Leagues offered spectacular baseball, featuring all-time superstars like Leroy “Satchel” Paige, Josh Gibson and “Cool Papa” Bell. I wish I could have seen them in action. Though I have no idea whether white people ever attended Negro League games.

I also don’t know whether black fans frequented at Major League games. I am shamefully spotty on my racial history. I grew up in another country.

What I do know is that the “color line”, as they called it, was broken in 1948, when Jackie Robinson was promoted from their minor league affiliate in Montreal (a less volatile terrain for a black player to break in) and brought in to play for the “parent” team in the Majors, the Brooklyn Dodgers.

After that, more black ballplayers gradually made the move. Larry Doby was invited to play for the Indians. Ernie Banks joined the Cubs. The Yankees welcomed Elston Howard, though not until 1955.

As the integration of black players accelerated, Negro League baseball became increasingly marginalized. The institution was no longer necessary. At least not for original purpose.

The Negro leagues were created to showcase great ballplayers who were restricted from playing where their talent indicated they belonged. Then things changed. With the Major Leagues accepting black players, what was the rationale behind an alternate baseball league specifically created for a time when they didn’t?

The top black ballplayers made good money in segregated baseball, from their salaries as players, supplemented by side activities, such as special appearances and exhibition games. But they all coveted the stamp of approval bestowed by the mainstream culture, a stamp that could only be earned by crossing over into the Major Leagues.

The handwriting was on the wall. As black stars continued to defect to the Majors Leagues, Negro League baseball was unable sustain itself as a viable source of entertainment.


As the result of a good thing happening – America’s, albeit belated, moving forward on racial inclusion – a rich and once-vibrant institution inevitably had to disappear. I imagine there was a devoted fan base that had a passionate attachment to that institution. They must have hated to see it go.

Still, it’s important to remember: Negro League baseball was never the ideal option. The ideal option just wasn’t available.

And now it was.

My opinion? (Which, I’m aware, on racial matters, ranks somewhere between “Stay out of this” and “Who cares?”)

For what it’s worth…

There are these ultimate goals you’re shooting for. And when you finally attain them, that’s got to be a good thing. Allowing cherished but no longer needed institutions to fade away may be painful, but you’ve gotta make that deal, don’t you?

The era of Negro League Baseball inevitably had to end. But it needs to be remembered, for what it was, for why it was necessary, and, most importantly, for the magnificent entertainment those now-mostly-forgotten players delivered its the fans.

I am honored to play a small part in keeping that memory alive.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"Summer Times - 'Night Duty'"

Aside from taking care of campers – making sure they didn’t run away, write home “I hate camp” letters, or die – counselors had a plethora of other responsibilities as well. In fact, counseloring was pretty much a 24/7 undertaking. From a salary standpoint, our pay rate worked out to less than a nickel an hour.

This was especially true for the Junior, or first year, Counselors. In my day (young fella), Junior Counselors received a salary of twenty-five dollars for the entire summer. Except they didn’t. There were deductions for the purchases of toothpaste, soap, flashlight batteries, the occasional candy bar, stamps, a camp t-shirt, et cetera. After my first year as counselor, I was sent a check for eight weeks of sweat and toil in the amount of a dollar sixteen.

Among the counselor’s myriad responsibilities was “Night Duty.” Basically, it was babysitting. But that doesn’t really distinguish it, since the whole job was babysitting. “Night Duty”, as reflected by the name, was babysitting at night.

At Camp Ogama, each unit – Junior, Intermediate and Senior – consisted of three boys’ cabins a three girls’ cabins, which, except for the Juniors, were situated at opposite ends of the camp. “Night Duty” involved counselors taking turns, on a rotating basis, patrolling their respective areas after the campers had gone to bed.

During “Night Duty”, counselors would sit on nearby benches, reading by flashlight, battling mosquitoes and trying to keep warm (August nights were particularly bone-chilling). Every twenty minutes or so, “Night Duty” would get up and reconnoiter the terrain, making sure all was quiet and nothing was on fire.

After-dark troublemakers were given warnings, and if those didn’t work, they were invited outside to join the “Night Duty” person on the bench. “Trouble” generally involved talking, joking around, fake and/or actual farting, and generally goofing around after “lights out”, which was frowned upon, because it was supposed to be bedtime, and bedtime was for sleeping. So that’s what we made them do.

There were rumors of “Night Duty” atrocities for chronic misbehavers, talk of dragging the kid outside in his pajamas, and making them hold out two rubber boots filled with water at arm’s length for thirty minutes, or till they promised to behave, whichever came first. I can’t imagine that actually happening, at least not often. And if it did, who could last longer than twenty seconds? It’s hold out the boots, “I’ll be good!”, and you’re back in your bed. Any longer, and that kid’s going to have really sore arms. And they’re never coming back to that camp.

In contrast to the other units, the Junior Unit’s cabins of both genders were situated in one area, comprising a cozy, little persons’ community. As the result of this arrangement, the boys’ and girls’ “Night Duty” representatives would generally sit together, usually on one of the cabin’s bulb-lit porches, the porches and on-site bathrooms being amenities uniquely available to the Juniors’ cabins.

On particularly chilly nights, the boy-girl tandem might choose to fortify themselves under a blanket. However, at least in my experience, the mere glimmer in the mind of making any kind of a “move”, and the camp’s owner would suddenly materialize out of nowhere, strongly encouraging separate blankets.

Junior Unit “Night Duty” also involved a distinguishingly “extra.” One summer, the cabin I was in charge of consisted of eight six year-old boys. Three of them were listed, according to their application forms, as “frequent bedwetters.”

It might have been wiser if they’d gotten the bedwetting issue behind them before being shipped off to camp. But no sir, there they were. I guess the thinking was, why should they miss out just because… I don’t know. But it was problematic. Each bedwetter came supplied with an obligatory rubber sheet, to protect the camp’s mattresses from the consequences. The bedwetter’s sheets were entirely on their own.

Now here’s the thing. Bedwetting is a biological and, who knows, maybe a psychological concern. It’s inconvenient but manageable. To be teased as a bedwetter, however, is terminal. You may survive the incident, but the scars are everlasting. (Not speaking from personal experience, though I bear everlasting scars from other matters.)


For the entire summer, it was my job to keep my non-bedwetting campers from discovering that their cabin-mates included three players from the other team. I had to be prepared with a “cover story” at all times.

“How come Howie needs a rubber sheet?”

“He’s allergic to the mattress.”

A keen eye could ferret out the bedwetters with little difficulty. Other campers brought two sets of sheets to camp. Bedwetters brought six. When the inevitable “accidents” occurred, the telltale sheets would be spirited away for early laundering, or, if they were needed immediately, for “hosing.” Just another of the counselor’s countless duties.

What does all this have to do with “Night Duty”? Well, sir, the only known way of averting “accidents” was a procedure known as “lifting.” Each night, at exactly eleven o’clock – I’m not sure how this particular hour was selected, but that’s what we were instructed – “Night Duty” counselors would step into the cabin, wake up the bedwetters, and, preemptively, walk them to the bathroom, which, as mentioned, was located on the premises. You came out the cabin door, turned left on the porch, and there were the bathrooms.

Two stalls.

Unfortunately, I had three bedwetters.


What I neglected to mention earlier was that not only was it necessary to protect the bedwetters’ identities from the non-bedwetters, it was also necessary to protect their identities from each other. Maybe they wouldn’t do this today. Maybe they’d find an empowering value in “group identification.” You wouldn’t feel it was “just me.” But back then, the rule was crystal clear:

No one was to know that anyone else was a bedwetter.

Two stalls and three bedwetters not only created “privacy” concerns, it was a practical problem as well, because despite the two-stall limitation, all three bedwetters had to be “lifted” at the “magical hour” of eleven P.M. If you think I’m exaggerating the urgency, there were times when we’d “lifted” two campers, and when we came for the third kid, it was already too late. Apparently, they’d become conditioned to “letting go” at eleven. Wherever they happened to be.

Good thing the Junior Unit provided “Night Duty” teams, even though one of the duo was female. (Somehow, this was a “medical problem”, and that made things okay.) Two “lifters” was the minimum. There was no way one person could “lift” three bedwetters by themselves, and get everybody where they needed to go on time.

It almost felt choreographed. A sleepy-eyed “Camper One” is ushered out of the cabin, into “Stall One.”, and you close the door. “Camper Two” is then brought out, and directed into “Stall Two”, and you close the door. When he’s finished, “Camper One” is led out of “Stall One”, to be returned to his bed, though rarely without curious inquiries.

(Indicating “Stall Two”) “Who’s in there?”

“The other ‘Night Duty’.”

When “Camper One” is back in bed, you wait till he falls asleep. Then “Camper Two” is returned to his bed, and you wait for him to fall asleep. At which point you hurry over to “Camper Three”, praying to God that you’re not too late.

It was a frantic race against the clock. On a good night, two counselors capably executed the “Three-Campers-Two-Toilets” routine, returned them happily to their beds, and gone back to sit on the porch.

Under separate blankets, of course.
You’re right, writer-inners. I didn’t mention all the “period” comedies. I guess I was focusing on were shows set in earlier centuries, rather than earlier decades. In the earlier century-type shows, the settings and costumes proved, in my view, to be too great for the willing suspension of disbelief. Your televising something that took place before the invention of television. For many people, that’s more suspension than they can handle.

In response to another question, Major Dad was in its way a cowboy show, at least in the way I imagined the lead character. The Major embodied many of the values associated with a Garry Cooper cowboy. The funny part was to carry that embodiment into modern times.

Keep those questions coming. They challenge my views, and give me new things to think about. Sometimes I’m embarrass for having written incomplete posts, but as I’ve written elsewhere, “I embarrass; therefore I am. Embarrassment seems to be the only reliable proof of my continued existence.

Monday, July 13, 2009

"'Period' Comedy"

Recently fellow-blogger, Ken Levine (, asked me to contribute an answer to a question he’d received concerning what they call “period” comedies, which just means comedies that are set in another time. Since I created a comedy western series called Best of the West, Ken thought I might have some useful observations. This in an expansion on those thoughts.

They don’t make many “period” comedies, and, other than the Garry Marshall series, Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, set in the fifties – which is sort of “period”, even though nobody rode a horse – I can’t recall one “period” comedy, including my own, that was truly successful.

The question is “Why?”

Let me start by explaining why I decided to write a “period” comedy. Up till that time, I had provided scripts for contemporarily set series, such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show. My involvement in the Mary show occurred late in that show’s run, and by then, fresh and exciting story ideas were getting harder to come by.

It was pretty much down to “Mary Gets A Bad Haircut”, “Mary Breaks A Nail”, and “Mary Chips A Tooth.” (That was me exaggerating for effect. Mary never did any of those stories. Though I do remember a “bad haircut” story on Taxi.)

The truth is, I was tired of stories that, perhaps, had deep, psychological implications, but which were, to me at least, not all that interesting. Dating problems. Mary went through every imaginable variation. The date was too short. The date was too old. The date was poor. The date was bald.

I rather quickly grew weary of dating problems. I wanted a story about something I could care about, something that really mattered. (That’s why I came up with “Ted’s Change of Heart”, an episode where Mary regular, Ted Baxter, was stricken with a heart attack. This was a “reactive” suggestion. For once, I wanted someone on the show to have an actual problem.)

One day, a breakfast meeting was arranged between me and then ABC executive, Tom Werner (who would go on to make billions with The Cosby Show and Roseanne, and win two World Series as co-owner of the Red Sox). When Tom asked me what kind of TV show I really wanted to create, my response was immediate:


Why “cowboys”? I love cowboys. Old cowboy movies are still my favorite today. Years of watching them had trained me in understanding how westerns worked, and I felt confident (or at least as confident as I get) that I could do a funny version of one. But, arguably, the primary reason I wanted to do a western was because I was certain that the storylines in such a series would never, or at least rarely, deal with dating.

They’d deal with outlaws. They’d deal with Indians. They’d deal with stagecoach robberies, hostage taking, shootouts in the center of town. We’re talking about life and death issues here, not “I’m meeting my boyfriend’s parents for the first time and his Dad’s wig in on crooked.”

My enthusiasm carried the day. I got to make Best of the West, a creation that retains a special place in my heart. But despite my passion for westerns and my “take” on how to pull one off comedically, should anybody really have been betting on a “period” comedy?

Probably not.

(Regular readers are familiar with my negativity. I never believe anything’s going to work. But this time I actually have reasons. Well, I always have reasons, but this time I have good reasons.)

The way I sees it, all successful television series rely on audience identification. People identify with the characters, they identify with the situations, and through that identification, a bond is created, linking the audience with the program, insuring they’ll be back week after week.

So you’re flipping around the channels, and there’s Best of the West. What do you see? People wearing holsters and cowboy hats, living in dirt-floor cabins, and talking about a “passel of owlhoots fixin’ to ‘tree’ the town and tear the place six ways from Sunday.”

Your first question is:

“Why are they dressed like that?”

Your second question is:

“What are they talking about?”

And your third question is:

“What has this got to do with me?”

So much for audience identification.

Contrary to the successful formula, an absence of identification leads to distancing between the audience and the program, a distancing that is supplemented by the fact that Best of the West was filmed in front of a live studio audience, leading to Question Number Four:

“What’s a live studio audience doing in the West?”

The final nail in the coffin? If there’s no personal identification, an audience might still have connected with Best of the West if there had been other westerns on the air to give them some familiarity with what exactly we were going for. How many westerns were on TV when Best of the West premiered in 1981? I believe there were none.

But wait a minute. If Best of the West was such an obvious long shot, why did ABC agree to air it in the first place?

Because the pilot episode was extremely funny.

This was the show’s only hope, that is was so funny that everything else didn’t matter. All you needed was for the network to keep it on long enough for the “it’s strange but it’s funny” buzz on it to spread.

They didn’t.

Best of the West was cancelled after twenty-two episodes.

Was ABC behind Best of the West? You can gauge their support from their scheduling strategy. Best of the West was first scheduled against the Tom Selleck-starring Magnum, P.I., and when that show took off, ABC moved Best of the West, running it against the Number One series then on the air, Dallas. You don’t do that to a show you believe in.

“Period” comedies are always a difficult “sell.” (They do better in England. But England has a stronger attachment to history, and a greater tolerance for the silly and the bizarre.)

The good thing about “period” comedies is that they’re different. Writers like them, because they offer fresh avenues for comedic exploration. The bad thing about “period” comedies is that they’re different. You’re fighting the “What’s that?” factor.

A “period” comedy’s only hope is that the audience is more tickled by the
“different” than put off by it. And that the network gives it sufficient time to settle in.

Otherwise, the wardrobe goes back to the costume rental place, and it’s wall-to-wall modern dress.

And stories about dating.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

"Robert Goulet Punched Me In The Shoulder"

I was a performer on The Bobbie Gentry Happiness Hour, a CBS summer replacement series which hoped to be picked up for the regular season but wasn’t. We did four episodes. You know how you hear you can find anything on YouTube? You can’t find The Bobbie Gentry Happiness Hour. That fact may actually define “obscurity.”

Bobbie Gentry, a country singer who’d had a big hit with Ode To Billie Joe, was a pretty woman with a strong voice and a lot of wigs. Bobbie’s nightclub connections led to the show’s booking Vegas-style performers – Rich Little, Wayne Newton (who had a bodyguard who looked exactly like Wayne Newton), and musical comedy star (Camelot), turned Vegas headliner, Robert Goulet.

We were rehearsing a comedy sketch in which Goulet and myself would appear. It turns out Mr. Goulet had this kind of a quirk. Wherever he said something funny, or at least he thought was funny, Robert Goulet would punch me in the shoulder. It could be a line from the script, or it could be some quip that just came to mind, he’d deliver it, and wham! – he’d punch me in the shoulder.

I had a problem. Here I am, this new guy just down from Canada, and Robert Goulet, an internationally renowned entertainer, is punching me continually in the shoulder. The problem was

It hurt.

I’m looking around, and everyone, including the puncher himself, was laughing their heads off. It was pretty clear I was on my own.

Sometimes – for me, extremely rarely – you don’t think about what to do, you just do it. We’d been rehearsing for a couple of days. During a break, Goulet’s telling some anecdote of some kind, and after he delivers the payoff, he, once again, socks me in the shoulder. It turns out, this was my “Popeye Moment.”

“That’s all I can stands; I can’t stands no more.”

I punch Robert Goulet right back, accompanying my response with an angrily uttered, “Don’t punch me!”

It’s happened to me, maybe, four times in my life. I do, or say, something unexpected – and maybe unacceptable, I don’t know. It’s always spontaneous. I respond a certain way, and after it’s over, there’s always this thunderous silence, an enveloping Sound of Emptiness, a roaring “seashell to the ear” echo chamber filling the room.

It’s almost like the world blinks, or it hit the "Pause" button, confused, like it’s trying to piece together what it just saw. “Did he just do that?” "Did he just say that?" “To him?”

The action doesn’t seem to fit – a kid abruptly nailing their father. How do you follow that? What are you supposed to do?

In my experience – those four occasions – what happened next was always this:


A momentary glitch. A skip on time. “Temporary Difficulties – We now return you to our regularly scheduled programming.”

There was a temporary crack in the earth, the earth closed up, and people went back about their business, behaving as if the event itself had never occurred.

That’s what happened when I punched Robert Goulet. No comments. No follow-up whatsoever. We just went back to work, no difference between before the event and after.

Except that Robert Goulet never punched me again.
I kind of missed it.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

"Thoughts on a Birthday"

When I was growing up, they didn’t have Stepdads, so my experience in that department was zero. With my Dad passing on at an early age, I had little experience in the “just plain Dad” department. Plus, having a brother but no sister, I had no “in-house” experience of “girl.”

It is with these deficient qualifications that I was thrown into the role of “Step Guy” to a four year-old girl.

Tomorrow’s Rachel’s birthday. Not only is she magnificent in so many ways – bright, courageous (tomorrow, she leaves on a month-long trip to Africa) and boundlessly compassionate to humankind and small animals alike, but – now I’ll twist this around to be about me – considering my atrocious record with plants and pets that were left in my care – I am happiest to announce:

She’s still alive.

I was always worried about that. Though I once joked, “I had a stepdaughter before I had a biological daughter. Which is good. I got to practice on somebody’s else’s kid.” – that was comedy, and in no way reflected how it really felt. I never thought of Rachel as “practice.” She was always unquestionably “the real thing.”


When Dr. M (when she was just M) and I would go out, we would drop Rachel off at “babysitting co-op.” (Dr. M has a “progressive” streak.) Later that night, we’d pick her up, and, with Dr. M being the driver of our duo, it fell to me to sit in the passenger seat and hold the, usually, sleeping Rachel till we got home. I experienced my role as the most sacred, and serious, of duties.

There I sat, my arms around Rachel, making every effort to insulate her from sharp turns and sudden braking. Step-parental responsibility, and an awkward sitting position, knotted the muscles in my back. But physical discomfort would not impede me from fulfilling this vital assignment.

I had a job to do.

I struggled to find the appropriate amount of “holding pressure” – tight enough to keep Rachel from bouncing around, gentle enough for her to feel protected but not constricted. Such a delicately calibrated balance can only be determined through trial and error.

If she woke up? I was holding her too tightly.

If she fell on the floor? Not tightly enough.

The responsibility weighed heavily on my shoulders. If the Old Testament has ten Commandments, the Stepdad Testament has only one:

“Thou Shalt Not Kill the Kid.”

Mothers hate it when you kill the kid. It casts a pall on the entire relationship. You’re unlikely to overcome it.

“I promise I’ll do better with the next one”?

No. It’s over.

With “The One Commandment” as context, imagine this tableau: Dr. M shuttling us through the darkened streets of west L.A., and me, sitting beside her, my arms draped firmly but not too firmly around the sleeping Rachel, holding my breath the entire trip.

Was her head too close to the door handle? I shifted her gently to the left, avoiding door handle-brain contact that might trigger learning disabilities down the line, or a small indentation to the skull, harmless in its own right, but requiring imaginative hair styling to conceal the disfigurement from sight.

I’d stroke her head and improvise lullabies:

“Stay asleep, little Rachel

Don’t wake up, and don’t hit your head…”

I’d murmur them quietly, so as not to disturb the driver.

Finally, we were home. Dr. M parked, and came around, lifting my “sleeping bundle” into her enveloping arms.

My job was now completed. The precious cargo had arrived unharmed.

It’s not always easy to know the affect you have on somebody. Sometimes, you can see it; sometimes you can’t. But there’s one accomplishment I will always be certain of.

I got the kid home alive.

Happy Birthday, Wonderful Rachel.

And a memorable journey as well.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

"A Classic Strategy"

I was ten years old and getting ready for braces. But before that delightful experience, some unhappy preparation would be required. It was required for two reasons. One, I had a small jaw, and two, my baby teeth were refusing to fall out on schedule. As a consequence of these conditions, some pre-braces tooth extraction loomed ominously in my future.

Eight teeth would eventually be forcibly evicted from my mouth – four baby teeth and four of the adult variety. It was not a fortuitous introduction to the practice of dentistry.

One day after school, my mother informed me that I had a dentist’s appointment. From overhearing my orthodontist’s conversation with my mother, I was pre-warned as to what that dentist had in store for me. The old Yankeroo. Understandably, in my view, and I believe in any sane person’s, I was not enthusiastic about showing up. My mother said my concerns were unfounded. She assured me the appointment was “just for a cleaning.”

I was certain this was not the case. “He’s going to pull my teeth,” I insisted.

“That’s all in your head,” said my mother, sticking to her guns. “It’s just a cleaning.”

We went back and forth on the matter, me insisting the appointment involved the extraction of teeth, and my mother equally adamant that it was “just a cleaning.” In the midst of this contretemps, there were “Don’t be a baby”-type taunts hurled in my direction, manhood-challenging allegations that would propel me in therapy for decades to come.

I tenaciously held my ground. I would survive my mother’s assaults to my masculinity. I had no choice. Surrender meant a needle jabbed into my jaw, pliers clamped around my tooth, prodigious tugging and bleeding from the gums.

Playing on my mind, however, was the knowledge that I had always had a lively, and often terror-inducing imagination, plus the fact that, as far as I knew, my mother had never lied to me before. If she said it was “just a cleaning”, maybe it was “just a cleaning.” Acknowledging my uncertain “inner storyteller” and my mother’s record for veracity, I abandoned my resistance and went off to the dentist’s.

The dentist pulled two of my teeth.

I came how with gauze in my mouth.

“Ma!” I raged through tears and absorbent cotton. “You told me it was just a cleaning.”

My mother’s reply was as reasonable as it was unsatisfying.

“If I’d told you the truth, would you have gone?”

I was furious. (The fire, as you see, has not totally abated.) A respected authority figure had taken advantage of my trust. And, equally as shamefully, I had fallen for it. Fortunately, recent history has demonstrated that when it comes to succumbing to this insidious type of persuasion, I am not exactly alone.

The “It’s only a cleaning” strategy? It’s the same argument that got us into Iraq. This argument is accompanied by a familiar justification.

If they’d told us the truth, would anybody have gone?

Oh my God. My Mom could have made a bad president.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

"Proactive Debilitation"

That’s a “grabby” title, isn’t it? And you wonder why I’m not more commercial. Or maybe you don’t.

“Proactive Debilitation”, a concept I learned about years ago in a psychology class, came to mind yesterday when I was writing about summer camp. I was thinking about badminton and tennis. “Proactive Debilitation” explains why, because I learned to play badminton before I learned to play tennis, it was harder for me to learn to play tennis. (The fact that I wasn’t strong enough to hold up a tennis racket may have also had something to do with it.)

“Proactive Debilitation” basically means that mastering “Task A” first makes it more difficult to master “Task B”. Even though tennis and badminton appear to be similar – stringed rackets, a net and something you hit over it – in essential “mastering of them” ways, they’re not. Badminton involves wrist action; tennis involves the arm. Transferring your badminton-learned wristiness to tennis, it seriously inhibits your progress.

Isn’t that interesting?

What if it was about show business, would that make it any better? Let’s find out.

Consider this observation. Don’t tell me there are exceptions – there are always exceptions – but generally speaking, writers and directors who start out in television rarely have successful careers when they transition into movies.

I’ll stick to comedy, where I know something. I’ll start with directors. Why? Because directors should want to be in the movies. Movie directors are treated like gods. Writers are treated poorly everywhere, so the incentive’s not quite as obvious.

Directors of half-hour comedies – and I’m not talking about second-rate shleppers here, what they call the “traffic cops” – the greatest half-hour comedy directors of all time have had little to no success in movies. Or they’ve stayed away from them entirely.

Examples? Three of the best sitcom directors that ever was:
Jay Sandrich (Soap, The Mary Tyler Moor Show, The Cosby Show) directed hundreds of television episodes.

And two movies.

Jim Burrows (Taxi, Cheers, Friends and almost everything else) directed, according to, 764 episodes.

And one movie.

Andy Ackerman (Seinfeld) directed 362 television episodes.

And no movies.

How come?

Talent is talent, isn’t it? It should be easily transferable to another medium. And yet…

764 episodes, one movie.

The great sitcom directors claim the pace of movies is not to their liking. Compared with the speed of television production, the movie production process is glacial. (They’re referring to big-budget studio movies, not the low budget “indies”, whose pace, I imagine, is considerably more brisk.)

The “go-go” pace is generally the great sitcom directors’ standard reason for favoring TV work over movie work. I will now add some reasons of my own.

Regular Employment

Successful TV directors can work as often as they want to. With episodes and pilots, they can toil pretty much all year round, season after season. Successful movie directors, on the other hand, because of the pace of movie production, and because they don’t make as many of them, work considerably less often.


I guess, if you’re big, there’s money everywhere. But a successful TV director (say, like Andy Ackerman), if he shares in the profits from a series sold to syndication (say, like Seinfeld), we’re talking the Gross National Product of a mid-sized nation. So there’s that.


Sitcom directors work on a soundstage and are generally home for dinner. Movie directors spend months shooting in Namibia.
These are persuasive reasons why sitcom directors would prefer TV to the movies. There’s really only one argument on the other side.


Big budgets, big stars, seventy-foot screens. The movies is Casablanca and Gone With The Wind. It’s Rocky and E.T. Star Wars and The Matrix. People pay money to see them. You have to actually put on clothes and go out of the house. There’s a mystique about movies.

Did you ever hear of “Television Mystique”?

And yet, all these great directors favor TV. You can’t help wondering what’s really going on.

Let me drop the directors at this point, and switch to writers. (My argument applies equally to both.) I know a lot of excellent of television writers, with multiple awards, and credits on the most respected comedies ever broadcast. Still, as with directors, the number of television writers who’ve made the successful jump to movies is remarkably small.

Why should that be? It’s just a script, right? Movie scripts are longer, but so what? You use more paper. Otherwise, it’s the same, isn’t it?


Why not? They’re both writing.

They’re different kinds of writing.

What do you mean?

When TV directors talk about television’s faster pace compared to movies, they’re referring to the production process. But in my view it goes far deeper than that. The main difference between television and the movies is the rhythm and pace of the product itself.

The nature of that difference?

Television doesn’t have time to take its time. The episodes are (now) twenty-one minutes long. Every second counts. TV audiences are also clutching remotes. If the energy of what they’re watching flags, they’re gone.

When you’re sitting in a movie theater, your viewing options are considerably narrowed. There’s only one thing you can watch. (Although you can fall asleep, which I’ve done on numerous occasions.)

With control of the running time and a monopoly on the audience’s attention, movies can proceed at an appropriate – which generally means a more naturalistic – pace. You can take time for “character” moments. You can build a plot or a relationship more gradually. You can have totally, and meaningfully, quiet interludes.

I’m not saying movies can afford to be boring, no entertainment medium can. But they do have the luxury, not available in television, of simulating the recognizable rhythm of actual life.

Television’s not set up to do any of that. So when TV writers switch to the movies, they have to totally recalibrate their timing. In some ways, the more experienced they are, the more difficult that is. Many of them have great difficulty cracking the code.

In comedy, television’s insistent pace requires writers to construct scripts in manner consistent with the demands of the medium, resulting in juiced-up storytelling and a “three laughs per page” joke rhythm. Move this writing approach to the big screen, and the result seems stilted and embarrassingly out of place.

With the emergence of the more cinematic single-camera comedies (30 Rock, The Office, etc.) rather than the live-audience shows that I wrote, the transition of current writers and directors to the movies will likely be smoother, and as result, more common. But in my day, it almost never happened.

The reason in a nutshell?

Proactive Debilitation. *

* There is also Proactive Facilitation – Learning Task A improves your ability to perform Task B.

Retroactive Facilitation – Learning Task B improves your ability to perform Task A.

And Retroactive Debilitation – Learning Task B diminishes your ability to perform Task A.

Congratulations. You now own the entire set.

Monday, July 6, 2009

"Summer Times - Earl, the Counselor"

When I stopped being exclusively a writer and started being a show runner, I felt the same way I felt when I stopped being a camper and started being a counselor. If I could put a phrase to the feeling, that phrase would be, “There goes the neighborhood.”

I know I’m paraphrasing Groucho Marx but what kind of a camp is it that would have me as a counselor? My answer? A camp that was going seriously downhill.

As a parent, my brother refused to send his children to sleepover camp. He was concerned for their welfare, and, having gone to camp himself, he was cognizant of the qualification level of the counseloring staff. It was my level. No qualifications whatsoever.

Parents were entrusting me with their children. For two months. Apparently, they had no idea that I had no idea.

The camp tried to prepare us. The staff would arrive three days early for what they called pre-camp. Aside providing the staff a chance to get acquainted and to spruce up their areas of responsibility, pre-camp involved a series of orientation sessions to prepare counselors for the job ahead. I can’t remember one thing they told me at those sessions. Except for this:

“The boys’ side of camp is the boys’ side of camp; the girls’ side of camp is the girls’ side of camp. The boys will remain on the boys’ side of camp, and the girls’ will remain on the girls’ side of camp.”

That’s all I remember.

It’s not ‘cause I’m old that I don’t recall the content of those pseudo-psychological cram sessions. I didn’t remember the stuff when they were telling it to me. First off, the sessions were theoretical and boring. And secondly, I couldn’t focus on what they were saying, because I was in total “panic mode”, nervously counting the hours until helpless little children would arrive who would place their safety, happiness, health and wellbeing in my totally unqualified hands.

Were they out of their minds!? (And by “they” I mean the people who hired me, the parents and the children.)

As the older staff members shared their wisdom on promoting cabin-group harmony and dealing with homesickness, a mantra looped noisily in my brain, blaring a message that’s been with me pretty much my entire life:

“I don’t know how to do this.”

A more accurate representation?


Why did I agree to become a counselor? First, let me clear something up. Despite the impression I may have left in last year’s “Summer Times” posts (resulting from writing that failed to signal you to read between the lines), I didn’t hate camp. The stories I related focused on the bumpy parts of the road – like when the swim instructor threw me in the lake, and when my cabin-mates tried to hang me – but that’s what stories do. “I walked around and it was nice” is not a story. “I refused to eat liver, and my counselor made me sleep in the rafters.” That one, you want to hear about. (Or maybe they’re just easier to write.)

I can’t explain why I liked camp. My best shot at it is is that people seemed to notice me there. The thing was, after you turned seventeen, you were too old to be a camper. I became a counselor so I could keep going to camp. During my pre-camp jitters, however, this started to seem like not a good enough reason.

One thing I did learn during pre-camp is that panic is exhausting. As my energy depleted, my feelings of terror inevitably started to subside, replaced by…well, not hope, but something vaguely in that direction.

Who knows, I thought, when I started thinking less like a crazy person, I wasn’t any less qualified than the other first-time counselors. Nobody’d forced them to give me the job. Maybe I could handle this.

Maybe it would be okay.


It’s seven-fifteen, the first morning. The campers arrived yesterday. I’m the counselor of eleven year-old boys.

The wake-up siren rings. I slowly come awake, and tell the kids to get ready for breakfast.

I look around.

There is nobody else in the cabin.

The cabin door flies open. All my campers, fully dressed and, I’m told later, out for two hours, are filing back in!

Oh, yeah. I could handle this.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

"Goin' Out For A Beer"

I’m working on a Canadian television series called Music Machine as the humorous music critic. My routines include music-related jokes like this one:

Chicago used to be called The Chicago Transit Authority, but they changed their name, because people were buying tickets to their concerts and trying to use them on the bus.”


Through Music Machine, I met Anne Murray, at the time the most famous singer in Canada. She’d even made a splash in the States, most notably with the song, “Snowbird.” From a Canadian standpoint, Anne Murray was an enormous star.

I ran into Anne Murray in the Music Machine make-up room. She was getting make-up for the show, and I was doing sit-ups on the floor. This seems to be my way of doing things. When famous people are around, I find odd ways of attracting attention.

Sitting in her make-up chair, Anne Murray informs me that she’d once been a Phys. Ed. teacher. Suddenly, she’s out of her chair and down on the floor, instructing me on the proper form for doing sit-ups.

After the Music Machine taping is over, Anne and the show’s producer head across the street for a celebratory beer. I giddily tag along. I’m not sure I was formally invited, but it was something I was unwilling to miss:

Grabbin’ a beer with “The Canadian Songbird.”

The bar, located in a hotel, had rules, one of which was you needed a jacket to get in. I didn’t have a jacket, so the bar loaned me one they had handy for just such occasions.

The jacket was plaid. Red, green and black checks. Spruced up with gold-colored buttons. It was also four sizes too big.

I put it on.

I wanted to drink with Anne Murray.

You need to know this about me. I can only drink one beer. One beer – I’m relaxed, I’m congenial, I say things, I don’t know where they came from. I’m amazing with one beer. I go anywhere near a second beer, and all bets are off. Sometimes, I get grumpy. Sometimes I get morose. Sometimes I get sleepy. I always get something. And that something is never me at anywhere close to my best.


Other people were having more than one beer.

So, (somebody stop me)

So did I.

I won’t go into the specifics of my behavior in front of the biggest star in Canada not wearing skates. I don’t remember my behavior, although I vaguely recall being loud and unfunny. What I do remember, and remember crystal clearly, is this.

I’m sitting on the subway on my way home with this goofy smile on my face. I can see people staring at me, and I’m pretty sure what they’re staring at – a happy man who’d gone out for a beer with a beautiful and talented major star.

I’m riding the subway for twenty minutes before I discover what they’re really staring at.

I was still wearing the plaid jacket.